in which the messenger at the door bears bad news
Marcus O’Connell brimmed with questions. He secreted them as easily as sweat, and tested and spit out the answers he was given as if he were at a wine tasting – desiring only the flavor of an idea, but unable to swallow any he was given. Every day was the Philosopher’s Club for Marcus, whose revolutionary intuition searched for challenges even where challenges were not present.
“The world is bigger than you think, Mr. Longfellow,” declared Marcus one December evening as the three of them ate a private dessert on the veranda of Westbridge. The blue shadow of sundown lowered over them as they spoke.
“How can you presume to know what I think?” said Rhema. Within her limited assortment of acquaintances, Rhema had never met another person like Marcus. She found him amusing at first, and a welcome change from the high-class bores who usually kept her company. But Marcus took the Philosopher’s Club more seriously than she liked. This bothered her because, to her remembrance, the club had been entirely of her own invention. Before it had been hardly more than a study group. Jonathan’s book knowledge and Becky’s worldly wisdom weighed together perfectly in Rhema’s comprehension. Their ideas were puzzle pieces, and she was the puzzle master.
This was a whole new puzzle, and she no longer wielded the pieces. That these two very well-educated men tolerated her presence in the conversation at all was a wonderment. As they would go on tangents about an old philosopher that they liked or a new politician that they abhorred, her mind would slip away. She heard their words like notes of music, taking in their tone but not their lyrics. She began to watch them as one watches with fascination an animal in a zoo. Marcus moved his wide mouth around when he was speaking or listening, sometimes even pushing on his lips with his fingers as if that is how he extracted sound from them. Bastion, though, spoke with his hands, and sometimes his feet, moving them back and forth as if on an invisible wire that manipulated an invisible puppet show of his increasingly animated stories.
“I don’t have to presume though, now do I?” Marcus said, tapping a finger over his mouth and looking at Rhema. She struggled to bring her focus back around to the conversation. She resented Marcus a little for the way he dragged her into his debates because she realized that he was using her like she had used Becky, allowing her naivety to be the sounding board for his own intellectual gain. “Because what I say is a plain fact. You are not a fool, and you are not vain, so far as I can reckon. I’m sure that you have heard or read about all the terrible things in the world and believe it all true. But there is a difference, my little princess, between knowing and knowing.”
Bastion chewed his parfait with a reverence as he watched Rhema. She tightened her scarf over her shoulders, wishing he would step in and save her from Marcus’s questions.
“Don’t be ashamed, lass. You do not know it, but your kind is rare. I haven’t met the likes of you since.... actually, I can’t recall.”
“What kind would that be, Mr. Blake?” Rhema finally pulled words out of her mouth.
“Yes, what kind would that be?” echoed Bastion.
“Innocent,” said Marcus. “So innocent it makes you strange.”
“I think it is a great virtue,” said Bastion quietly.
“Indeed, strangeness is. We are all a little strange here,” said Marcus.
“That is not what I meant.”
“Your Highness especially,” said Marcus.
Bastion laughed. “Perhaps. What is your point?”
Marcus leaned over the table toward Rhema. “You live in a doll house, my girl. That may be well enough for a princess, living in her posh little palace, but if it is a queen you plan on being one day, a dab of reality may just do you some good.”
Rhema desperately hoped Bastion would say something, anything, to relieve her from the necessity of being in this conversation. He looked at the table when she tried to catch his eye. You brute! You brought this person here to test me. I am not playing your game.
“I do not make plans, sir,” said Rhema. “I merely do my duty.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that one before,” said Marcus, looking at Bastion. Dissatisfied with sitting, he stood up and leaned against the veranda railing, drumming his long fingers against the metal as he spoke. “Speaking of plans, by the by, in which slot do you store your metals?”
“Excuse me!” said Rhema.
“She hasn’t heard that one, Marcus,” said Bastion, almost in a growl.
“See, what I mean is, doesn’t matter what country you go to, seems like there’s always going to be a war going on between those who want things as they were and those who want things as they will be.”
“What about those who want things as they are?” said Rhema.
“Oh! Bast, don’t tell me she’s one of those! Those are the worst of all!” Marcus exaggerated a leap away from her.
“I did not say—“ Rhema started, but Bastion shook his head and put a hand on her arm.
“Pay him no mind. He always does this.”
“Says the monarchist prick who couldn’t wipe his bottom without the help of two valets and a dumb waiter.”
“Dare I ask what the dumb waiter is for?” said Bastion with a smirk.
“You don’t want to know,” said Marcus. He winked at Rhema. She had to cover her mouth to hold down her laughter.
A knock broke the mood of the table.
“Who goes there?” said Bastion.
“A private message for His Highness,” said the messenger at the door.
“I will take it.”
Bastion rose. Rhema rose with him, as was the custom, but Bastion cajoled her to sit.
“You do not have to do that. I will be right back.” As he passed Marcus, he said, “Be nice. If you continue to be rude, I will hear of it.”
“At his volume, you will probably hear it,” said Rhema. She shared a smile with Bastion, and he followed the messenger inside.
Marcus turned full around and listened until Bastion’s footsteps were gone. Then he looked at Rhema, immediately became bored with her, and started stretching.
After a minute of this, he suddenly said, as if continuing a conversation he had begun in his head, “He fancies you, you know.”
“I know nothing of the sort.” A sick feeling filled Rhema’s stomach.
“He’s not the sort to say it plain, but it should be said.”
“How could you know a thing like that?”
“How could I not? Back in England, he was always going on and on about this baroness of his. Didn’t talk about the wee princess, God rest her soul, half as much as I caught him mumbling over your letters.”
A part of Rhema had suspected long ago what Marcus was telling her, but she was unwilling to believe. It was ridiculous. The Irishman toyed with her. She was not the sort of girl princes fell in love with. If it were not for her title, the prince would never, could never, notice her.
Marcus, easily bored by silence, spoke again, “So I suppose the question is, what exactly is your interest in our man Bast?”
Rhema thought of the prince. She thought of his wide smile and kind eyes. But those weren’t things that mattered. Why should those things be first in her thoughts? Marcus grinned his thin grin and waited for her reply--
She had never been so relieved to hear Bastion’s footsteps heralding his return. He stood at the doorway. A grimness had come upon him – and not the solemn grimness of a philosopher.
“What happened?” said Rhema.
“Freesian rebels have been ransacking towns in Sever.” He said it as if it were his own house that had been attacked.
“That stretch o’ dirt we passed through on our way here, you mean?” Marcus said. Bastion nodded.
“But there is nothing but farmland out there. Why would anybody attack Sever?” said Rhema.
Fear and sadness bled out of Bastion and into her.
He answered, “Because it is there, and we are not.”