123: Edmund Takes Initiative

One day, Edmund heard shouting through the walls.

Peering through a peep-hole, he could see Tunansia and Wislydale arguing. Wislydale was wavering about, his arms cutting through the air, while Tunansia was standing perfectly still, her mouth pursed into a fine point.

“Of course not!” Wislydale shouted. “I doubt you could keep a cracker secret, my dear Tunansia. You haven’t kept a single secret in your life. Why on earth should I trust you to keep this one?”

“I’ve kept just as many secrets as you,” Tunansia spat. “And it wouldn’t matter, even if I didn’t keep this one. That’s why it works. Even if they knew about Whilkins, they couldn’t stop it.”

“Tricknee could,” Wislydale grumbled, swigging a clear liquid from is omnipresent glass. “The old fool could bring the attention of–”

“And would Tricknee trust anything from me?”

Wislydale paused in his wobbling to sway gently for a moment as his eyes began to unfocus. a small smirk popped out from under his lips.

“Well…well now…is our little Tunansia growing up?” Tunansia’s eyes narrowed while Wislydale snickered. “That old goat won’t trust a word you say, anymore, will he?” Wislydale took another swig. “Did you just now come up with this little scheme? Or were you planning this all the way back when you were purporting to be his ally?”

“That’s a secret,” Tunansia said. Wislydale gave an unbalanced nod.

“Well then,” he said, “let’s talk.”

Edmund was about to run off to Matron, when he stopped himself. Why? They had as much as told him what to do. Closing the peep-hole quietly, Edmund moved off to find Tricknee.

 

When he returned, Wislydale and Tunansia were still talking. Edmund pressed the listening tube to his ear again as he peered through the peephole.

“Kolb won’t like it at all,” Wislydale said, stroking his chin.

“And?” Tunansia smirked. “You wouldn’t love the chance to see that puffed up popinjay get what’s coming to him?”

“Oh, of course, old thing,” Wislydale said through his drink, “only I was planning on talking with him tomorrow…make things a bit harder, you understand.”

“It won’t matter,” Tunansia shook her head. “By tomorrow the letters will have been sent.”

The door to the room opened and slammed against the wall. Tunansia and Wislydale jumped and turned to see Tricknee standing in the doorway, his eyes aflame.

“How dare you!” He shrieked.

“Steady on, old boy,” Wislydale smiled weakly. “We haven’t–”

“She’s my family!” Tricknee walked into the room, leaning heavily on his cane as he raged. “The only family I have, and you’d dare to use her like this?”

“Like what?” Tunansia asked sweetly.

“Don’t think me a fool!” Tricknee’s cane came up and pointed like a sword to Tunansia and then to Wislydale in turn. “The East Lighton line and the Raggleman Engine company! You’d have the whole east of Brackenburg locked up, wouldn’t you? All you’d need is the Whilkin’s Corp, and I won’t let you get it!”

“I say,” Wislydale blinked hard. “I don’t quite know what you’re–”

“I’m sending a letter to Victor today,” Tricknee spat. “Today. They’ll petition the Mayor to lock you out before the week is out.” He leaned closer. “Don’t you ever bring my granddaughter into this again!”

Tricknee left, fuming, leaving a defeated Tunansia, a deflated Wislydale, and behind the walls, a somewhat confused yet still delighted Edmund.

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119: Wislydale’s Offer

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That evening, Edmund was having his dinner of thick chunky soup that was almost a stew, alone in the large dining room, feeling discouraged. Kolb had simply taken the letter and vanished into his room. He felt like something had happened that he had missed out on.

He was almost finished with his meal when the door opened and Wislydale shakily strode into the room with a tall glass of wine at his hand.

“Master Edmund,” he called, jovially, as he moved to a nearby chair. “Sit down, old chap! We have a lot to discuss!”

Edmund remained seated and poked at his soup while Wislydale carefully sat down, grinned, and began to wave his glass about his head like a baton. Edmund could tell he had drunk quite a bit more than he usually had by dinner.

“I’ve been impressed with you, my lad,” he said, his eyes half closed. “You’re made of stern stuff, to stick it out here, what? Swimming with sharks, as they say. Quite capital work my boy.” Edmund nodded politely. He wasn’t entirely sure he agreed. “I wanted to make sure you knew that,” Wislydale continued, “because I’m sure you don’t hear it very often from anyone else. Yes,” Wislydale nodded without waiting for a reply. “The Mouldes aren’t really made for compliments, what? Not enough room in the heart for other folks, really. It’s too bad. I can’t imagine it’s a fun life you lead… full of jumping up and down to Matron’s whip, carrying her letters, dodging barbed tongues and sharp smiles…” He trailed off, staring deeply into his last few swallows of wine. Careful not to disturb him, Edmund took another spoonful of almost a stew.

“I say!” Wislydale’s eyes shot sideways to lock with Edmund’s. “I’ve just had a smashing idea! I bet you’d like to get away from all this, wouldn’t you? Of course you would! Why, what is there for a young boy in Moulde Hall that isn’t out there, and presented with a far more pleasant atmosphere, what? You’re only adopted, after all, you’re not a Moulde by blood…” Wislydale grinned lopsidedly, and let his glass drop as he stood up and leaned over the table towards Edmund. “Why don’t you leave?”

“Leave?” Edmund wasn’t sure he had heard correctly. Wislydale nodded, pulling a small bank-note out from his pocket.

“Think about it,” he whispered, the small slip of paper fluttering in his unsteady hands. “You won’t have to be a Moulde any more! You could go to bed whenever you want, and only eat foods that you want to eat! No one to tell you what you’re doing is wrong, or embarrassing… It’s a great life, what?” he set the check down on the place mat, tapping it with his fingertips. “You just write down on this slip the amount of money you think you’d need to make it on your own, and I’ll sign it. Think about it!”

98: Tunansia’s Revelation

“I can’t say I would find working with any of you easy,” Kolb shrugged. “If I wasn’t positive it would never happen, I would suggest us all working together. We’d be formidable as a functioning family.”

“And an army of cats could rule the world,” Pinsnip sighed. “Please, Kolb, stay…um…sane.”

“Yes, Kolb,” Wislydale snorted, his glass of thick liquor almost sloshing over the side. “If a mewling plea from our pathetic cousin will finally break through that eccentric skull of yours–”

“I believe this meeting is over,” Junapa’s voice sliced through the room like a dagger, silencing the verbal brawl. She swept to the door, glancing over the rest of the family as she passed. “For the moment, Wislydale, you have given us a lot to think about, but it doesn’t seem there’s much more to be discussed. I think we can all agree that this has been a very informative meeting, but no more fruitful than any other we’ve had. If no one else has any other business to discuss, I would like to adjourn to my room.”

Finishing his drink in a single swallow, Wislydale poured another one before following her along with Kolb, Tricknee, and Pinsnip, leaving Edmund alone with Tunansia. For a moment, neither of them moved. Edmund stared at her while she stared straight ahead at the opposite wall. Somewhere in Moulde Hall, doors began to slam.

“Enjoy that?” She asked, causing Edmund to jump. She locking eyes with him as he felt his skin start to crawl along his back. “If you really want to be involved with any of our little meetings, you won’t be  able to survive on coughs and politeness. Then again, I don’t think you’re going to survive at all.”

A twisting wrenching sensation hit Edmund in the gut. “You heard me?” he asked. Tunansia sneered as she fingered her necklace.

“Of course I did. I saw you too. Junapa and Wislydale probably did too, and I know Kolb did. If you were trying to hide, you were doing a damn poor job of it, sitting out in the open like that.”

“People usually don’t notice me,” Edmund explained, lamely, as the twisting sensation grew stronger. A distant thunderclap rippled through the room. There was a storm brewing.

“I’m not surprised,” Tunansia laughed cruelly. “But we’re Mouldes. We notice everything people want to hide. Every little detail that can be used to bribe or blackmail. Every scrap that anyone could possibly be ashamed of. Of course we noticed you. And once we’ve noticed something we decide exactly how useful or significant that little scrap is, and if it’s not significant at all… we ignore it.”

Tunansia gave one final smirk, picked herself up out of the chair, and walked calmly out of the room. Edmund’s head sank to his chest as the room was lit up by lightning.

They had heard him, and seen him, and hadn’t cared.

97: Edmund Intervenes

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“I wouldn’t be so confident about that,” Kolb mused, stroking his rough chin. “I’ve been surprised before.”

“Quite often, I’d imagine,” Tunansia grumbled. “If you want to waste your time with that worm, than be my guest. I’ll keep my focus on Matron.”

Edmund sat up a little straighter in his chair. A worm, was he? Now might be a good time to show them that he still had a few tricks up his sleeve; maybe then they’d treat him a little kinder.

Taking a deep breath, Edmund coughed in a disapproving manner. He had heard Mrs. Mapleberry use the exact same cough multiple times before; it was quite effective at quelling any fights that were brewing among the children.

“So that’s that. Well done, Wislydale,” Tricknee sneered. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more elaborate way of doing nothing in my life.”

“Not me,” Tunansia smirked. “Though I’ve spent more time with Pinsnip than you have.”

Edmund tried coughing again. Maybe they just hadn’t heard him over the storm that was still raging outside?

“If we’re discussing doing nothing,” Pinsnip said, his eyes narrow, “Then I have to ask how well you are faring at Grimm’s, Tunansia. I’ve heard tell that you’re not much for impressing the teachers, are you?”

“They don’t know anything!” Tunansia snapped. “And I didn’t go there to impress anyone.”

“A wise move, darling,” Kolb smiled. “Best to set reasonable goals for ones self.”

“Excuse me,” Edmund said, foregoing the cough entirely. Surely they had heard that, but they kept arguing, sniping back and forth like angry crows, pecking and snapping at each other.

“Don’t make me laugh,” Pinsnip interjected. “I’ve never seen you set a reasonable goal in your life. You just bumble around making mistakes.”

“Don’t bring me into this, you petulant pup!” Kolb’s voice boomed. “Or need I bring up the trouble we had last year, hiding your little mishap? I can only imagine the scandal if one of us decided to send an anonymous letter to the police.”

“Bringing up scandals, Kolb? We’ll be here for hours recounting yours,” Tricknee rolled his eyes back in his head as he leaned back in his chair.

“At least Kolb is productive,” Tunansia muttered. “All you care about is your damned laboratory.”

“Defending me against my decrepit daddy? Now there’s an alliance I never thought I’d see,” Kolb grinned, stepping through the room. “Tricknee and Tunansia, teaming up to topple the terrible tyrant of Moulde Hall. Tremendously tantalizing.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Tunansia snapped her mouth shut, crossing her arms. “I wouldn’t ally myself with Tricknee if my life depended on it.”

“Come now, dear,” Junapa rolled her head gently around her neck to look incredulously at her younger cousin. “You’re fifteen now, you’re old enough to know your own tells. The only time I’ve ever heard you defend anyone in this family is if you’re trying to ally with the offender. It’s clumsy double-bluffs like that that make working with you so difficult.”

“Among other things,” Tricknee grumbled, glaring at Tunansia. She sneered, tossing her hair as she pointedly turned away from him.

Edmund licked his lips. Something was wrong. He took a large lungful of air, and coughed as loudly as he could. There was no avoiding it…they had to have heard him.

96: The Plan Falls Apart

“And terribly bad form,” Wislydale drawled. “Please curtail your instincts, Pinsnip; we mustn’t invite a scandal, no matter how simple it might make things. And as for you, Kolb old chap, I quite agree,” he turned to face his cousin. “This paper won’t stop her; she’ll think of something, but it will keep her tied up for a year at least, and the estate will transfer to her legal guardian while she’s away. And that would be her closest living relative who, thanks to her preemptive action, is…?” He paused suggestively like a schoolmaster, the question hanging in the air for someone to answer.

“Someone much easier to manipulate,” Kolb smiled. “You think we should simply shift our attentions to a somewhat simpler target?” Junapa nodded slowly, while Tunansia remained still and silent. Edmund leaned an inch closer. Were they talking about him?

“He would be far easier to deal with than Matron, that is without question,” Junapa said, cocking her head to one side.

“I don’t like the idea of having to butter up that brat,” Tunansia muttered darkly, fingering her locket.

“Than you needn’t bother,” shrugged Wislydale. “Go back to Grimms empty-handed. I’m sure the rest of us will be more than willing to deal with the situation without your interference.”

“No, it won’t work,” Pinsnip suddenly groaned, sitting down heavily on a nearby chair. “The estate won’t fall to him…because…well…legally…he’s not of age yet. Any contract he takes part in becomes…his guardian’s. Control of the estate would fall to… his legal parent…”

“That’s absurd,” Wislydale sputtered, waving the paper in the air like a flag. “She’s mentally unfit!”

“I’m sure your well paid lawyer would love to lever open that legal whip-lashing of the law,” Kolb chuckled. “But it seems things are not quite as clear cut as you’d hoped, dear cousin. I hope you haven’t sent a copy of that letter to anyone else? The newspapers, perhaps?”

“Certainly not!” said Wislydale, looking offended. “It’s none of their business!”

“So at the moment, we’re right back where we started from,” Junapa said, walking slowly across the room, sipping at her drink.

“Well… not quite,” Wislydale rallied. “If nothing else, I believe Pinsnip gave a very reasonable suggestion earlier. I’m lead to believe that adopted children tend to run away or vanish all the time. There’s hardly any scandal in that, now is there?”

“You can try and explain that to the other families if you’d like,” Kolb shrugged. “I’m sure Matron would have a few things to say… and now that you’ve mentioned it in front of all of us, I assume we all would too, if anyone asked.”

“I’m afraid there’s not much else to be done,” Pinsnip shrugged. “Unless you think we should start flattering two people, now, instead of just one.”

“Why bother?” Tricknee snorted. “He won’t last long anyway.”

95: Bickering and Squabbling

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“If we let her?” Kolb clapped his hands, striking a pose that made it look like he was ushering a customer into a circus tent. “My dear, I doubt very much there is anything we could do to stop her! But for a few lucky breaks of late, she has managed to befuddle our individual efforts at every turn. She’s a wily crafty old stoat, and I doubt we’ll be able to stop her doing anything she wishes. It’s why I’ve been trying to get on her good side for so long!”

“Flattery won’t get you anything, Kolb,” Junapa smiled brittlely. “You’re asking for too much.”

“A fresh start for the man who so loved her daughter is hardly too much, even for a shriveled heart like Matron’s,” Kolb muttered, running his hand through his hair. “Besides, I agreed to let her keep the rest of the money, and the house, didn’t I?”

“With your name on the deed,” Tunansia grinned evilly. “You can’t expect her to agree to that, no matter how much you flatter her!”

“It is a much better deal than you’re giving her,” Kolb shot back. “Just the title? What use is that?”

“It’s more use than her hoarded fortune and this run-down old mansion. And besides, everyone in this room is offering more than anyone else in this family is! And then she goes and gets an heir?” Tunansia hissed, her composure leaking away as she furiously fingered the locket at her neck. “How could she have gotten the idea? She was never so…fashionable. We’re Mouldes; we don’t adopt!“

“I promise you, my fine delectable kettle of stew,” Kolb leaned his head back, “as far as Matron is concerned, none of us are Mouldes. If it wasn’t for the scandal of it, I’m sure she would find a way to have all of us arrested–or at least removed from the family and thrown out of the house.”

“She likes most of us better than the others,” Junapa waved a hand dismissively. Edmund wondered what others she was talking about–how many other relatives could there be who wanted the estate?

“That doesn’t mean much, what?” Wislydale murmured into his glass. “I doubt she likes anyone or anything.”

“No matter!” Junapa snapped back. “If she likes us better, that means we have a better chance of getting what we want!”

“Matron’s no fool,” Kolb’s chunky finger stabbed the air at Junapa as she leveled an icy gaze at him. “She may like us better, but that doesn’t mean we’ll see a dime. If anyone else manages to weasel their way into the will, or lever some legal loophole, we haven’t a chance. And even if they don’t, she won’t sacrifice the estate for sentimentality.”

“I still don’t understand why we don’t… that is… a knife is quicker…” Pinsnip mumbled. There was an uncomfortable pause.

94: Wislydale’s Paper

Edmund struggled not to lean forward in his chair. Right now, as far as they were concerned, he was just part of the scenery. He tried to breathe quieter, almost holding his breath. Thunder rolled from somewhere over Brackenburg.

“I consider it quite bad form to keep us in such suspense, Wislydale,” Junapa sighed. “Get on with it.”

Wislydale smiled and reached into his pocket, pulling out a small piece of paper. He unfolded it and held it out like a preacher’s bible, gripping his drink to his chest like a crucifix. A glint crept into his eye as the languid and slow drifting drawl faded from his voice.

“I have here a signed affidavit from a noted solicitor, from a reputable family, which clearly states that Mander Moulde, Matron of Moulde Hall, head of the Moulde Family and possessor of the estates and titles pertaining thereto, due to an appropriate amount of actionable evidence that was provided by Burnabum Wislydale Bonne, First cousin-in-law once removed from the aforementioned Matron Mander Moulde, is now hereby, immediately, and unconditionally declared mentally unfit and unable to make the decisions and choices necessary for the continued management of the aforementioned estate and all of its holdings.”

There was a pause, then Kolb gave a small cough.

“I beg your pardon?” he asked, leaning forward over the back of a chair. “You’ve declared yourself mentally unwell?”

Wislydale’s smile faltered, and he cleared his throat loudly, taking another quick gulp from his drink. “That is,” he rallied, “Matron is now legally unfit to own the estate. As such, as of this moment, control of the whole bally estate now falls to her legal guardian.”

The room held its breath. Slowly, Tunansia stood up and walked to the drinks cabinet, reaching out for a glass. Kolb let out his breath on a low whistle.

“By Jupiter’s boils,” he whispered. “So now what?”

“Now what?” Tricknee shot back, his voice sharp and biting. “What on earth do you mean ‘now what’? If the estate is under the thumb of her legal guardian, then we’re no better off than before.”

“Well, now,” Wislydale chortled, finishing his drink and walking to the drinking cabinet. “I don’t think so. I think we suddenly have a lot more room to maneuver, what?”

“Do we?” Kolb asked, taking the stage at the edge of the fireplace. “What will our malodorous Matron throw our way if we make her mentally maladjusted?”

“You think there’s anything she can do?” Pinsnip asked, his mustache twitching like a mouse’s whiskers. “I mean… if she’s mentally unfit… I mean legally, then…”

“She can always do something,” Junapa muttered, crossing her arms. “The founding families have never abided by the common courts–I warrant she’ll do something quite vicious if we let her.”

93: The Family Meeting

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Image: Empty Armchair, by Yves Lecoq

The mansion had just begun to strike eleven when Edmund slipped back into the large sitting room in the east wing of Moulde Hall.

It was a simple plan. People never paid attention to him when he was sitting quietly, and there were plenty of places to sit. Eventually, his cousins would arrive and have their meeting, and Edmund would hear all of it without any of them being the wiser.

He selected a large plush chair in the corner of the room–the most unobtrusive spot he could find–and waited.

He barely had time to settle when the door was pushed open with the sudden arrival of his cousins. They didn’t even glance in his direction as they filed in, settling in various chairs and settees around the large fireplace while Wislydale headed straight for the large drinks cabinet next to the door. Pinsnip joined him, grabbing a small glass as he faced his relative.

“There now, we’re here,” he said as Wislydale reached for the large bottle of brandy on the shelf. “We’re having one of the first family meetings we’ve had at Moulde Hall in a very long time indeed. Now why don’t you tell us why you’ve called it?”

“My dear chap, you should be a bit more patient, what?” Wislydale beamed at him, making Pinsnip’s mustache twitch. “There’s plenty of time.”

“To do what?” Tunansia asked from her settee, not even bothering to turn around. “I’d rather be doing anything than having a ‘friendly’ chat with you lot–what is there to wait for? Why not get it over with?”

“I’m inclined to agree,” Kolb groaned theatrically, posing his hand on his forehead. “Tell us what you have tripping about your tongue, Wislydale.”

“It’s simple, really,” Wislydale slowly began to walk towards the fireplace, his shoes squeaking as they crossed the thin carpet. “Our ultimate problem isn’t that our dear Matron now suddenly has an heir, what? Our problem is the same that it has always been. Matron controls the estate.”

“Well of course she does! It passed to her from Patron Killgore,” Junapa stood from her chair, and walked to stand behind where Tunansia was sitting. “The estate belongs to the Mouldes, and as far as Matron’s highly paid lawyers are concerned, none of us are technically Mouldes.”

“If she’d only died before she’d adopted an heir!” Pinsnip whined, gulping at his brandy. “We’d have been able to get her estate transferred to one of us. I’m sure there was something about that in the original deed.”

“Don’t bet on it,” Tricknee grumbled, stroking his chin. “That rotting crow had to have put something in the will. I’d be shocked if the old bag hadn’t done something tricky like that.”

“It wouldn’t stand with the other families,” Pinsnip waved a hand dismissively. “The deed would have to take precedence, since it was signed by her great-great-great-”

“A moot point,” Wislydale coughed, speaking a bit louder than before. “I dare say I have a plan that will render Matron’s hold over our estate completely… impotent.”

87: A Family’s Hate

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“A right nasty bunch of fiends, all of us, what?” Wislydale grinned. “Matron doesn’t like any of us, and we don’t like any of us either. You’ve been thrown into the lion’s den, Edmund, and no mistake.” He held Edmund’s gaze for a few moments, and then turned back to his drink.

“Why do you all hate each other?” Edmund asked when his throat finally opened up again. A ripple of exasperated laughter shivered around the room.

“Hate?” Pinsnip snickered. “That’s not the right word, is it?”

“Loathe, perhaps,” Kolb coughed, downing his water in a single gulp. “Despise, detest, degrade and deplore. We have quite a few words for how our family feels about each other. Better to ask why wolves eat sheep, or cats hate dogs.”

“I’m sure some of us don’t even remember why we all hate each other,” Junapa smiled. “It’s become sort of a family tradition.”

“So do I have to hate you?” Edmund asked.

Again, the room fell silent. Edmund looked at each of them in turn and a chill ran down his back as he suddenly realized how they were looking back at him. They were scrutinizing him like he had been trying to do to them, exploring thoughts and reactions like butchers might study a cow that was ready for the chopping block. His chest tightened as he realized how much better at it they were.

“You’d be smart if you did,” Tunansia said, bluntly.

With a bang that made everyone jump, the door thudded open as Tricknee staggered in, glaring about him like an angry hawk. There was a stunned pause as everyone breathed heavily and resettled themselves into their seats.

“Tricknee!” Junapa stood from her chair and walked over to him, sounding quite relieved. “We were just wondering if we would see you this evening. How marvelous you could make it! We’re all really quite delighted.”

“Don’t be,” muttered Tricknee, his one open eye locked onto Edmund. “I didn’t come for you all, now did I? I came to size up the enemy.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” Junapa said icily, taking Tricknee’s arm to usher him to a chair. He jerked away from her grasp and threw himself with a loud crack into the nearest seat.

“I ain’t invalid yet, you hag!” He snapped angrily. “I’ll sit here! Now bugger off, and let me eat! I’m hungry” His eyes spun back Edmund. “So, you think you can stop us, boy?”

“No,” Edmund shook his head. He didn’t even know what half of them were planning, much less how to stop them–or even if he should. Tricknee nodded slowly.

“Good,” he muttered, crossing his arms as Ung slowly poured Tricknee his cream of green soup. “You can’t. You just sit there, and let the building fall to bits around you. Show the sense Matron hasn’t got, and give up.”

For minutes, the only sound was Tricknee sucking loudly at his teeth, making a sound like a sick whale.

“So much for our pleasant family evening, what?” Wislydale shrugged, sipping at his drink.

86: The Moulde Family Name

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“Why doesn’t Matron want you to get her money?” Edmund asked. Kolb laughed loudly, tossing his spoon back into his bowl, splashing cream of green on the tablecloth.

“She doesn’t want anyone to get it!” Pinsnip interjected, cutting off Kolb’s reply by thumping the table with his fist. “Least of all us. She’d rather…burn the mansion down then let us get one splinter, even after all the… kindness we’ve shown her!”

“I beg your pardon?” Kolb asked, his eyebrows high on his forehead.

“Well… of a sort,” Pinsnip shrugged. “We’re here, aren’t we? It’s more kindness than anyone else in the family is showing. And in spite of it all, she’d rather see us all… starve in the streets than give us a single pound. No, her estate is hers, and she hates all of us because we want it.”

“And you’re all her cousins?” Edmund asked, trying to count the last names, and how many aunts and uncles Matron must have had.

“Not quite,” Wislydale said, swirling his drink in his hand. “Bit of a natty little ball of twine, what? Matron and old Tricknee are quite distant cousins, and I’m his son. Tunansia is the daughter of Matron’s half-cousin twice removed, Kolb is Matron’s son-in-law, and Junapa is her second cousin once removed from her grandmother’s side. Pinsnip there is a bit further off–he has a relative in Matron’s great-grandmother’s cousin-in-law.”

“None of you are actually just cousins, then,” Edmund said, thinking through the family terms he knew, and what they meant. “What does that make you?”

“Family,” Junapa smiled smoothly. The others around the table all began to slowly nod their agreement as they leered at Edmund, their faces looking far more hungry and frightening then they had a few moments ago. Edmund swallowed–he suddenly felt like the entire meal had simply been to fatten him up for slaughter by hungry beasts.

“But you’re not Mouldes,” Edmund said, “so how are you family?”

“My dear child,” Kolb grinned, “Moulde is so much more than simply a surname. It’s a title! A badge of honor borne proudly when strolling among the teeming masses to set oneself apart from the multitudes. One need not be borne a Moulde to become a Moulde, much as being born a Moulde does not make you one.”

“Though if any of us had…had the name,” Pinsnip interjected, “that would make it…easier. As it stands, without an Heir–”

There was a sharp throat-clearing from Kolb.

“–present company excepted–The estate will go…in whole or in part…to the cleverest of us.”

“Or quickest,” Kolb interjected.

“Or best equipped to do something with it,” Wislydale said.

“Property, titles, influence, even the decorations; it’s all part of the estate,” Junapa smiled. “And every piece we can get makes us that much stronger in the eyes of our peers.”