39. Milk-Concealing Kitten

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They were all assembled around the table: Linhart, Sir Waldar, Sir Rudolfus and Burchard. What a bunch of misfits!

Reuben examined their faces one after the other. Linhart and Burchard were the only ones who returned his gaze. Sir Waldar was too busy staring despondently into his empty tankard, and Sir Rudolfus turned beet red and looked away as soon as Reuben looked at him. If it had been anybody else, this would have made Reuben suspicious as hell—he’d have had them in a chokehold, trying to force a confession out of them that they were the traitor he was looking for. But Sir Rudolfus always avoided everybody's eyes, and could be made to blush by an ant, if it looked at him funny.

Burchard did most definitely not avoid Reuben’s eyes. On the contrary, he returned Reuben's gaze with full force, and with a bit of suspicion on top. Although the old steward wore no sword and was no fighter, he seemed to think that he had inherited the job of protecting Lady Ayla from Sir Isenbard.

He was wrong, of course.

“Do you know what she wants?” Sir Waldar grunted to Captain Linhart, when, after ten minutes, they were still waiting for their mistress to arrive.

The Captain shook his head. “No. I have no idea why Lady Ayla has ordered us to assemble here.”

Sir Waldar's questioning gaze went from Linhart to Sir Rudolfus, and from Rudolfus to Burchard. They all shook their heads. Finally, it landed on Reuben.

“You!” Sir Waldar nodded to Reuben. “Do you know where she is?”

Reuben nodded, curtly.

“Well, where is she, then?”

Reuben shook his head.

Sir Waldar didn’t seem to think that was a satisfactory answer to his question. “What’s that supposed to mean? And who the hell are you, anyway? I know every man jack in this blasted castle, but I've never heard your name before!”

Reuben didn’t even glance at the man, let alone turn towards him. He sat remained sitting just as he was, staring at the empty chair at the other end. Ayla’s chair. “My name is Reuben.”

“Just Reuben? You’re wearing a knight's armor.”

“Yes, I am.”

He could already see the next question forming on Waldar's lips—a question that he might not be ready or able to answer. But then, suddenly, they all froze. Light footsteps sounded from outside. Somebody pushed against the door, and it swung open.

*~*~**~*~*

Cautiously Ayla opened the door to her father's tower chamber. The village woman was sitting on the other side, her eyes red, her hands busy stitching a soldier's pair of trousers that had been ripped in fight on the castle wall.

“Is he...” Ayla began in a low voice, but was interrupted.

“I'm awake daughter,” the count's brittle, but amiable voice came from behind the door. “You can come in.”

Inwardly, Ayla sighed with relief. She had prayed that he was awake, and her prayers had been heard. She needed this now, needed to talk to him, to the only person in the castle who did not yet know about the terrible fortunes which had befallen them, and about those which were yet to come and were hovering on the horizon like black storm clouds.

Entering the room, she smiled timidly at the middle-aged woman and asked: “Could you please wait outside for a few minutes? I want to have a little talk with my father.”

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