Morssen received word from his wife that an important figure was coming to visit, so he rushed home and made it just in time. He checked the grandfather clock in the dining-living room as he stormed into the house and there was still half an hour until the time he'd been told the visitor would arrive. He towelled himself down, washed and dried his hair, and changed into his best clothes.
Nobody said anything when he left his office early. Few people were senior enough to complain anyway, but he had the right to take a few early days to meet important guests or visitors, especially if they were nobility or visiting officials. He hadn't known how august his visitor would be, but he was a prudent man; he didn't take any chances. The fact that the visitor had the gall to turn up on such short notice also told him that, whomever they were, they were not someone he should make wait for him, so he stormed out of the town hall and raced the public carriage he so often borrowed home.
Despite his haste, he still made sure to return every greeting he received, and answer, even if only in passing, every inquiry after his health or family. He'd done this for years, and it had paid off by making him one of the most well-known and beloved figures from the municipality. Important visitor or not, he was not going to break from tradition today.
He found himself standing just inside his front door impatiently a few minutes before the time of his mysterious visitor's arrival, and forced himself to head back to the bedroom and check his hair again. He dozed off for a minute or two, but was woken again by a considerable ruckus outside. He opened the front door to find a crowd outside. He followed their gazes down the wall to his son. The boy had turned into a butcher and was carving up a large boar. The first one or two rows of the crowd, if rows could be identified in that mass, were shouting out portions they wanted to purchase and waving money pouches about.
Claude was sweating. He couldn't use Magus' Hands in front of so many people, so he had to rely on his clumsier flesh-and-bone appendages to do the work. He found it difficult to concentrate with so many people shouting instruction at him, and ended up cutting the boar's skin on several occasions. Boar skins weren't worth that much, but they were still worth a couple of coins, and nobody was happy to see him mutilate it. He was on the brink of shouting at them to shut up or come do it themselves but he fought back the urge.
"Did you hunt it?" he heard his father's voice ask.
He lift his gaze from the butchery in front of him for a moment to see his father standing next to him, his neat clothes in a mess from pushing through an unwilling crowd.
"You have a fox's luck; it's huge!" his father exclaimed, "You mother told me we have a visitor? Is it this guy here?" he asked, pointing at the mutilated corpse.
Thank god his mother was taking care of Maria and Rodan, and the coachman had excused himself to get away from the blood. If any of them had heard what his father had just said his career would be over. Not even Sir Fux could afford to offend her.
Claude didn't answer his father, instead he jabbed his knife in the coach's direction. Morssen was well-versed in the insignia of local nobles, and paled. He took several deep breaths, bringing his emotions back under control and some colour back to his face, then turned his gaze back to his son. The boy was already butchering again, so he pushed his way back through the crowd and into the house.
Claude had seen Maria's crest on the coach when he'd calmed the horse, but he hadn't recognised it as such. He merely thought it was a decoration. His father knew better, of course. The kingdom had countless crests, but they were all divided into two categories based on a single motif. The countless honorary nobles were all also entitled to crests, but there was one motif they were forbidden from having in their crests: rose-thorns. Only hereditary nobles were allowed, and were in fact required to incorporate, that theme. Lady Maria's crest had it.
Maria and Rodan were being kept company by Claude's mother in Morssen's study while they waited for him. Angelina was playing maid, as usual. Bloweyk was uncharacteristically well-behaved. He sat in one corner, half-hidden behind his mother and the snowhound.
Morssen knocked on the wall beside the open door politely, then stepped into his study. He stopped half a step in, however, and stared at the baroness. Half of it was the realisation that his house, his study, had been graced by a proper noble, a lady at that, and the other half was by that lady herself. The baroness was a born and bred noble, one who'd spent the majority of her life in the capital, not some backwater half-noble like Baron Robert, and her demeanour and speech showed it.
"Nice to meet you, Mister Ferd," the baroness greeted as she levitated off the chair and gave him a curtsy, "I am Baroness Maria Fen Normanley. Apologies for my abrupt visit."
Fen Normanley... Morssen rolled the surname on his tongue, then realisation dawned on him.
His heart raced even more, half of it due to excitement, and the other half due to absolute terror. He immediately bowed, dropping his head as low as his hips in the stiffest, most formal bow his body could muster, and he kept his head lowered almost to his chest even after returning upright.
"Lady Baroness, it is our honour to receive you. May I know the purpose of your visit, My Lady?"
No noble would visit his little shack if they did not have a good reason to, Morssen knew better than most, so he cut right to the chase. The fact that the baroness had come to see him at his home, not at his office in the town hall, meant it must be a personal matter, which both puzzled and frightened him even more.
The baroness smiled at him for a long moment, then answered with that same, almost heavenly grace.
"I came because of your son--"
"Arbeit?" Morssen asked, not hearing any of the rest of what she'd tried to say, "You truly have a discerning eye, My Lady. My eldest graduated first of his year in middle school. He currently serves under Sir Fux's as his personal secretary. He praises my son often. Have you come to hire him as one of your servants?"
The baroness glanced at her butler for a moment, who returned the gesture. For all his enthusiasm, Claude's father had just committed one of the worst faux pas possible: he'd interrupted a noble while she was speaking. The baroness was a generous and forgiving lady, however, and she knew she could hardly expect a small rural official to know the etiquette of high society, so she forgave him. She was not, however, happy that he'd immediately assumed she was talking about a different son.
Rodan took his queue from his mistress and stepped forward.
"Mister Ferd, we are here today with regards to your second son, Claude Ferd. He saved my mistress when her coach's horse was panicking and threatening to run off the road with the coach and her in tow. He is also helping to solve our boar infestation. We are here to express our gratitude to his parents for raising such an excellent young man."
Morssen's face was molten. The baroness had come to express her gratitude with regards to his son, but he assumed she was here to recruit a son, and the wrong one at that!
The baroness saved him with a forgiving smile and a change of subject.
"I didn't expect Mister Ferd had yet more talented children. I expect to hear much about the Ferds in the capital soon, if that is indeed so. Good parents raise good children. You have done well Mister Ferd, Mrs Ferd."
"It's nothing, My Lady. You are too kind. I only teach them to study and act with firm resolve. I am most fortunate that both my sons have met my expectations. Claude is a rougher sort than his brother, and has less inclination to the scholarly, but excels at the physical. More importantly at home though, he is an excellent older brother to Angelina and Bloweyk. I do worry for him at times though. He has an inordinate fascination with hunting. I bought him a musket some months back with which to practice, but I now sometimes wonder if it was the correct decision."
The baroness replied with another of her forgiving smiles.
"They are quite the complementary pair, Mister Ferd. One excels at academics, and does well in the government, while the other is excellent in the physical, and would no doubt do well in the military."
Morssen nodded, but he could only wish the two made a good pair. They were as much a pair as the hero and the villain in a story were. None of his younger children respected his eldest son. Thank goodness the boy had finally realised he had best not mess with Claude and was now finally behaving properly where he was concerned.
If only he could fix their relationship, but he didn't have the foggiest clue where to even begin tackling the problem. They said they'd try to get along every time he confronted them, but it usually only lasted a week before they were in each other's hair again.
The warm smile faded from the baroness' face, replaced instead by a serious, down-to-business expression.
"Mister Ferd, I am here today not for pleasantries alone, as you no doubt know. I come with a request."
"Please, My Lady," Morssen answered in equal seriousness, "If it is something I can do, I would not dare turn you down."
He was both relieved and stressed by her seriousness. Relieved because he finally had his chance to build a good relationship with the baroness, and stressed because this was also a chance to fail and ruin not only his potential relationship with her, but his entire career in all likelihood.
"You know, of course, of my manor in the countryside, and of my wood."
"I am here for the next fortnight to do several experiments in my laboratory before returning to the capital. My wood and the small farmland has been plagued by wild boar as of late, however, and I am looking for a solution. My butler suggests I hire hunters to deal with them, or a guard to keep watch. I was actually on my way into town to do just that when my horse panicked and your son saved me. I took your son back to my manor to thank him, but when he heard about my trouble with the boars he offered to help me out, and that's what he's done. He has a far better upbringing than any hunter, and I feel I can trust him not to damage the materials I grow on my farm or in my wood, so I wish to hire him to be my manor's guard instead. He is still a minor, if not for much longer, and so I have come to speak with you about this."
Morssen's head nearly split in half from his smile.
"It would be an absolute honour to have my son serve you, My Lady, and I know my son would feel the same. I shall have him report to your manor first thing tomorrow morning."
"Is he not still attending school, Mister Ferd?" the baroness asked cautiously.
"That will not be a problem, My Lady. His grades are good and he is more than prepared for the final exam. He will not be affected by missing these last few weeks of school, as long as he can still go to write the exam, of course."
Maria was half stunned that Claude's father appeared so eager to give his son away.