|Conan personally saw FirstSearch properly stabled while the stableboy
kept a running patter alternately praising FirstSearch's lines and commenting
on all the other guests' horses. The boy was most impressed with the twenty
matched Belgian draft horses that brought the delegation from the west,
and by the even larger contingent of black Frisian war horses from the
east. Conan recognized the devices on the blankets--the gold key, the elegant
initials. In the far end of the stable were a motley collection of ill-tempered
mountain ponies whose hammer insignia he did not recognize.
The Chamberlain met him at the stable door with a servant who took Conan's
bags. Conan kept the pouch containing the three AACR2s. As they walked
toward the guest quarters, the Chamberlain gave him a name tag and inundated
him with information, beginning with the official program for the Royal
Conference on Valuable Information. The ceremonial return of the AACR2
was to take place that evening at the opening banquet. To Conan's disappointment
he learned that the royal representative would be the Crown Prince Albert
(though he was not surprised to learn it was he who had obtained the royal
support for the Conference.) King William, frustrated with battling the
Assembly of Lords--especially its acerbic leader Lord Newton of Gangrene--had
led a crusade to the Holy Land, and Queen Hilary--also fatigued by the
battles of court life--had secluded herself. It surprised him to realize
how much he had been hoping to meet her.
When the Chamberlain left him at his quarters, his clothes had already
been unpacked and the laundress was sorting them. She was short and slightly
plump with a motherly smile. With deft fingers and a sharp eye she made
a thorough inspection of his banquet tunic, making notes to herself of
spots to mend.
"I suppose you have much extra work with all the guests in the castle,"
"Oh, my yes," she smiled, "mind you we're used to guests and banquets
here, but this will be the largest of the season, I dare say. And the most
remarkable guest list. Now I'm not one to spread gossip, of course, but
we in laundry can tell things about a person. And Sir Vancealot and his
retainers. Oh my, such fine things they have, and they're all so polite
and considerate of the help, you know."
"What about the others?"
"Well Lord Elsevier and Lord Reed brought their own servants. Don't
mix much with the local help, but," she lowered her voice, "they're foreigners,
you know. There's more foreigners, too. Most seem to know each other, but
there's more of 'em than such as me can keep straight." She folded the
tunic and carefully placed in on the basket. "As for the rest, 'specially
those that wear the hammer...I just don't know." She shook her head. "Some
of them are fine gentlemen, too, but most are quite common and with not
much more in their packs than your own poor self. Begging your pardon,
sir." She flushed in embarrassment and gathered her basket. "I must be
getting along with my work now."
Conan nodded and she and hurried out. Too excited to rest, he decided
to take a walk. His room was near the end of the guest wing. Out in the
hallway, a high window cut in the white stone wall allowed natural light
to fall on the curved stairway. As Conan reached the bottom and turned
toward the door to the outside, a hand reached out from the intersecting
hallway and pulled him into the doorway of the first room.
© 1995, by Hadley V. Baxendale