The trip was going rather well. The pair of American investors arrived in the sleepy mountain village about noon. Evan kept an air of professional detachment, but Cynthia couldn't help but marvel at it. It was the very picture of every story her grandfather ever told her about 'the old country.' But more than that, words like 'quaint,' picturesque' and 'rustic' chased each other through her head. Very profitable words for their luxury resort client. The site was certainly remote. They'd left Budapest on the first train and switched to smaller and smaller lines throughout the morning. As the city gave way to mountains, she felt like she was traveling through time as well as space. They eventually reached the end of the line and hired a local to drive them the rest of the way to the village. His truck looked like it had seen the glory days of the U.S.S.R, but i still ran well. The remoteness might be as an inconvenience, but she could spin it. The country was beautiful, and the very rich would pay top dollar for the kind of inconvenience that kept them away from crowds and paparazzi.
They were met by in the square the owner of the property's assistant, a slight, stooped man whose name she didn't catch. She let Evan do the talking. He was the senior agent, and it was his job to schmooze with he client and townspeople. She was just there to assess the property.
But there was something off about the way the weaselly assistant stared at her over lunch that set her on edge. It wasn't that he was leering at her, exactly. She was used to that, no matter what the company's touted sexual harassment policy stated. This was different. It was a cool, detached gaze. He was like an art dealer trying to determine exactly how much she was worth. Evan had warned her the seller and his people might be a bit odd, even for former aristocrats. The Soviets hadn't put much of a stamp here, and old ways of doing business still held. Perhaps he simply wasn't used to dealing with a woman. It wouldn't have been the first time she'd seen that, even in the States.
Old traditions persisted in a lot of other ways, too. Pale, suspicious faces peered out of windows as the whole town wanted to get a look at the two Americans, but nobody got too close. She saw talismans hanging from doorways and window frames, protections against the evil eye and other supernatural dangers. She knew it would be rude to snap a picture, and her phone was way out of its service area. Maybe on the way back she would be able to buy some to show the family back home.
After lunch, they spent the afternoon poring over contracts and deeds in the town's single solicitor's office, a dusty little building off the town square. It was the solicitor himself who fetched and carried the increasingly ancient documents. Again, the feeling of time travel was palpable as they charted the ownership of the castle and associated land through the centuries. She watched as they worked their way through Romania's integration into the EU, the 1989 uprising, the communist takeover and the establishment of the Romanian Monarchy. They went all the way back to the construction of the first keep on the site, nearly a thousand years. She was fascinated by the way computer gave way to typewriter, which had replaced printing press, and before that, actual scrolls still impressed with wax seals. The one thing she did find peculiar was the signature. Once, the pen replaced the signet ring, the owners' signatures were remarkably similar. She wondered if a style of writing could be an inherited trait. Was it a matter of hand shape or bone structure? Maybe living in isolation, with a line of tutors molded to teach a very specific view, had brought about an exactitude in the loops of the L, and the flourish on the D. Or maybe, she was just imagining it, her mind tricking her to give her something to do while the men talked business amongst themselves. Evan was the legal expert. She was here to examine the facilities.
By the time the legality of the holding was exhaustively established, the solicitor insisted they have a drink together, and cocktail hour gave way to dinner. Like the lunch, the food was simple but delicious. And it was all extremely local. Cynthia considered whether or not the town could provide for the clientele their venture was hoping to attract. So many castles on the continent were either ruins not suited to their needs, or public monuments. This one had taken months to establish as a possible site. She would hate to see it fall apart due to logistics at this point. But if the town could provide, and they hauled up a proper five-star chef, they'd really have something. A genuine farm-to-table experience in a genuine 11th century castle. It would be the ideal experience for the kind of Silicon Valley entrepreneur or East Coast heir that wanted to know what it was really like to live like a king. Or a Count, in this case.
Cynthia was obliged to wait until it was nearly dark while Evan, the Count's assistant, and a few other local dignitaries feasted like lords. She thought that he was perhaps drinking a bit too heavily, but she just nursed her wine and watched. They mostly ignored her, but was content to wait for now. The owner still had not made an appearance, which she commented to their host.
"Oh, the master doesn't venture into town, if he can help it," the weaselly little man said. The other conversations fell silent at the mention of the Landlord, and the townsmen stared at him with wide eyes. She almost expected them to cross themselves.
After dinner, they found an old-fashioned coach and horses waiting to take them up to the castle. The assistant explained that the roads were steep and unpaved. The carriage was the most reliable way up to the castle they had. Cynthia agreed that the roads were very bad, and something would have to be done about it, but she suspected the real reason was showmanship. She took careful note of the route and the conditions, snapping as many pictures as she could in the fading light. Evan sat up front and chatted with the assistant. She heard the sloshing and uncorking of a brandy flask repeatedly. She tried to shrug it off. They both had jobs to do, and ingratiating himself to the local was a big part of his. She'd just have to trust him to not be so sloppy he was stumbling once they reached the property.
The castle itself was beautiful. In need of some repairs, yes, but she expected that. It commanded an exceptional view of the valley and surrounding forrest. The terrain was rugged, but manageable. If they could pave the road and get construction equipment in, there would be no problems. The castle itself was larger than she expected, but there was still plenty of room for tennis courts, stables, and the other luxuries their guests would demand. It even had a functioning spring on-site.
They were met at gate by the owner himself. He was wearing a tuxedo of all things, impeccably tailored, but at least a decade out of fashion. She guessed his age at mid-fifties, but with a well-maintained physique and features that wore it well. He was less handsome than striking. She couldn't put her finger on it, but he had a presence. It was something she only thought of as existing in harlequin romances and BBC mini-series. He was alone, and carrying a lit candelabra. She hoped it was more artifice, but as they began the tour, she began to realize that the castle would need far more work than she guessed.
The Count led the tour in accented but fluent English. "The main keep was rebuilt several times over the centuries, always to the current lord's exact specifications. He paused, and turned to face them. "Our family has always valued tradition, and we have tried to preserve the house as much as possible."
"Is that why only part of the castle has electricity?" Cynthia asked. Evan shot her a look, like she had gone too far, but the Count nodded.
"Partially. It was also judged to be too great an expense. Personally, I personally prefer candlelight. I accept it is an eccentricity, but I hope you will indulge me."
"Not at all," she said. The Count, unlike the villagers, seemed pleased to see her, and made a point of including her. This seemed to irritate Evan, but she'd do her part to land the sale. Within reason, of course.
"As I was saying, it survived shelling in both World Wars, as well as fire damage and partial collapse in 1476, 1792, 1897, and ah, I know I'm forgetting one." His assistant, who was following at the rear with a second candlestick, chimed in.
"Right. Simon." They turned abruptly down a side passage, the Count's swift stride breaking into a hard stomp for just a moment before returning to normal. "These stained glass windows were installed in the thirteenth century, and the art is original. The view of the moonrise from this wing is spectacular. The castle comfortably sleeps one hundred, with outbuildings suitable for servants or business use. These could also be renovated into private suites. The grounds have athletic facilities, a library, a hot spring, and a functional fifteenth century clock-tower. I think you'll find it ideal for your resort."
"What about banquet facilities?" The Count paused and frowned. He stared at a tapestry that was too dark and faded for Cynthia to make much sense of.
"The keep has several dining rooms of various size, although the largest are somewhat disused. The kitchen facilities are also antiquated, but I am certain you can upgrade them," he admitted. "My servant can show you them later, if you would like."
"What exactly are the state of your utilities?" Cynthia asked, not liking the evasion.
"The castle pumps its own water, and some power is provided by the windmill. It powers the clock and outbuildings. The hot spring provides heat for the lower floors."
"Great," said Evan, suddenly looking very uncomfortable. Speaking of facilities, Where is your, uh, washroom?" Cynthia did some quick math about the amount of beer, wine, and brandy that Evan spent the day consuming, and tried not to chuckle. Now that she thought about it, she hadn't seen a single lavatory on the tour so far. The owner looked non-plussed.
"The hot spring is accessed through the lower floors of the castle. I used it myself daily. The water is quite hot, and the mineral content is high, but I hear that is popular."
The American smiled awkwardly. "No, your, uh, bathroom. The facilities? I may have had a few too many cups of coffee back in town." Right, Cynthia thought, and suppressed a smirk.
"Oh? What sort of facility do you require?" Perhaps his English wasn't as good as he let on, she thought. That would be something to remember when they drew up the contract. The little assistant coughed obsequiously and whispered something in the Count's ear.
"What?" He asked, possibly louder than he meant. The servant went on. "You mean that's what that is for? And they need to use it every day? You're kidding! I certainly don't have one of those in my castle! Do I?" The owner seemed to deflate a little. He no longer seemed quite so regal. He seemed much more like a middle aged man, in a faded suit, trying to hold on to something that he knew was gone. The assistant stepped in.
"You'll have to forgive the master of the house. It's another of his eccentricities. If you go through that door, down the staircase, oh and mind the railing. Cross the portrait gallery and it will be the third door on your left. Don't go into any unlit corridors. They're still, ahem, under renovation. We'd hate to see you trip and hurt yourself." Evan was frozen with indecision for a moment, then dashed off down the hall as fast as he could run. The rest of the party watched him go. The count frowned, then nodded to his servant.
"Perhaps I should go and make sure he doesn't get lost," he said, and followed. Cynthia found herself alone with the Count.
"Well, shall we continue with the tour?" He said, suddenly recovered to his former self.
"Shouldn't we wait for them? How will they find us again?"
"Oh, my man will guide your coworker back. We planned the route ahead of time, and I was hoping to show you the tower penthouse. The moon will be rising soon, and I guarantee the view is entrancing." The Count smiled. His teeth were perfectly straight, but slightly overgrown. "Would you like to see it, Miss Smith?"
Cynthia smiled at the former aristocrat's gallantry, although she wasn't quite taken in by it. That chivalrous smile was just a little too sharp. And her surname name was Smith, but she had been raised by her mother's side of the family.
Cynthia nodded and took his proffered elbow. The Count was quite the charming gentleman, but she couldn't help but notice he had contrived for them to be alone. With her free arm, she adjusted the purse on her shoulder. That way, If things got out of hand, she'd have easy access to her mace. And her grandfather's whip, coiled in the lining.