A New Tutor

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Image: steampunk tree
by Silverleopard

It was almost past lunchtime when they finally stopped, and Edmund had lost every game. The game was deceptively simple, but already he was figuring out the strategy to it. He was learning to see the whole board at once and plan several steps ahead. He knew the rules and the game was beginning to make sense to him. He was also starting to find the pleasure in small victories. He was feeling a little proud that he had captured several of Junapa’s men in the last game, and even kinged two of his own. He had almost forgotten about his plans to learn all about Moulde Hall.

But at last, Junapa jumped Edmund’s final piece, and stood up, her face like marble.

“That’s enough for today, I think. Next time I believe I will feel like playing chess. I generally come to the library to read on Wednesdays, in the morning. I trust you can be unobtrusive, both inside and outside of the library?”

Edmund nodded, and she left without another word, beginning the long walk back up the ramps, stairs, and balconies to the fifth floor. Edmund listened to the fading footsteps until the slam of the dragon-tree door echoed through the room. He let out a breath that he didn’t realize he’d been holding, and walked back to the second floor and the pile of books he had thrown there.

There they sat, a pile of potential, ready to be absorbed into Edmund’s mind… but somehow, Edmund couldn’t bring himself to open them. He looked around, scanning the cylindrical library. It didn’t look the same anymore, now that he knew it wasn’t just his. Everything had shifted somehow, like the room had been rotated several degrees to the left. Edmund picked up the books, and began to climb the floors to the fifth. He still had a bit more of Moulde Hall to explore, and there were sitting rooms all over Moulde Hall; he would find one he could call his own.

Besides, he patted his pocket where the metal tool was still tucked away, there were a lot more doors that were open to him now.

As he entered the dining hall to eat his lunch, he found Mrs. Kippling waiting for him, a tray balanced in one hand.

“Ah, there you are!” she exclaimed, her face filling with color as she held out a small folded piece of paper with the other. “Mr. Kolb has asked to meet with you at lunch…It’s-not-my-place, but will you be joining him, young master?”

Edmund blinked, surprised at the sudden invitation. He took the note and read it, smiling at the bizarre handwriting and strange words.

“I don’t think so,” he said, “but I can take the tray to him, if you’d like.”

“Begging-your-pardon,” she said, her face draining of color again, “but I wouldn’t dream of–”

“I want to,” Edmund said firmly, remembering how he was supposed to talk to servants. “Give me the tray.”

“Of course, Master Edmund,” Mrs. Kippling said, smiling.

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144: An Unexpected Tutor

http://maido.deviantart.com/art/Dark-Chess-Game-17619172

Image: Dark Chess Game by maido

Junapa stopped, and turned around, sitting at a strange circular table in a dark corner of the library. She gestured at the other thick chair, bidding Edmund to sit. He did, and saw the table had on it a large dusty cloth, designed with a checkerboard pattern. Junapa picked up the cloth, held it over the edge of the table, and shook it, hard. Dust flew everywhere, obscuring the dim sunlight that shone through the stacks. Replacing the cloth, she reached under the table and produced a small box filled with circular disks. They had strange symbols on them, some in red, others in blue. All of them were black on one side, and white on the other. she dumped them out onto the cloth, and began to arrange them.

“Have you ever played checkers before?” she asked, her voice suddenly stern, like Mrs. Mapleberry’s during lessons. Edmund shook his head. He had seen children playing it at the orphanage, but he had never bothered to learn. “The game is very simple, and a good place to start. You may only move one piece forward, diagonally, one space at a time. Your goal is to remove all of my pieces, and you remove them by jumping over them–again, diagonally–and you may jump as many times in one turn as you can. We will not use the whole cloth for this game, only the squares inside this large red one. You may also ignore the designs on the pieces, they are used for different games. Do you understand?”

“Why are you teaching me checkers?” Edmund asked, fingering one of the small wooden disks she had placed in front of him.

“I am not teaching you checkers,” she said, quickly, her dark eyes boring into Edmund’s. “If anyone asks, I am not teaching you anything at all. And that is not a lie. But, if you pay attention very carefully, you may be able to learn something far more useful than the rules of a simple game.”

Edmund stared at the board as Junapa extended a long thin finger and pushed one of her pieces forward, and to her left. Already Edmund could see the basic structure of the game. It seemed overly simple, but he could tell there was more to this than just checkers.

“Why are you letting me learn from you?” he asked, rephrasing the question. Junapa almost smiled.

“Because I am going to save the estate. What does it matter which body wins the war? Now enough stalling; it’s your move.”

143: Junapa Explains Strategy

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Image: Love’s Shadow, by Anthony Frederick Sandys

“She seems pretty intelligent to me,” Edmund said. “Why don’t you let her keep running the estate if it has done well for so long?” Junapa looked up, her smile twisting slightly.

“Surviving is not the same as… doing well, as you so crudely put it. The estate has been corroding steadily for the past seven generations, and while I do credit her for arresting it’s collapse, she’s old. She will die soon and if she doesn’t give the estate to me, it will go either to you or one of my idiot cousins, and any gains she may have made will be lost. Even if she doesn’t die for another twenty years, it’s time for her to abdicate. It’s a whole new world outside of those doors, and not one of you know what’s out there; what’s lying in wait for a sick and weak family to stagger away from the pack. We must remain strong to keep the predators at bay…” Junapa gestured aimlessly at Edmund, “and Matron is fighting a war against riflemen with a blunt wooden stick and some wet string.”

“So you want to save the family?” Edmund asked. Junapa laughed again, more easily than before.

“My dear Master Edmund,” her black eyes glittered. “The family can go rot. I want to save the Moulde estate–and remember, an estate that I have saved will look very different than an estate that someone else has saved…”

For a moment, Junapa paused, looking at Edmund with a curiously calculating look that reminded him uncomfortably of Matron. Then, with a subtle shake of her head, she slipped her book into a hidden pocket in her dress, stood up, and walked deeper into the library. Not knowing what to do, Edmund followed her.

“Do you know anything about strategy, Master Edmund?” she asked as she walked, her long strides carrying her deeper into to the stacks. “Have you ever read any of the war histories of ancient Greece, or Asia?”

Edmund shook his head. Just as he realized she couldn’t see him, she spoke again.

“Thousands of years ago, wars were fought with hundreds of warriors, on wide open deserts at the behest of kings, queens, or even meager and minor lords long since forgotten to history. The best ones–the very best–told their tales and explained their actions so other great men and women who lived long after they were dead could make use of their knowledge. It was a form of continuing their conquests after their death, I presume. What does it matter which body commands the army, if the war was won with the same mind?”

142: Edmund Talks with Junapa

“What on earth for?” Junapa set down her book in her lap.

“I’d like to know you better?” Edmund said, tentatively. It was only a half-lie, really. Junapa stared at him, searching his face for something, and then gave a small nod. With a circular movement, like crashing waves, she flicked a red ribbon into her book, closed it, and set it aside.

“Very well then, what would you like to know about me?” She asked, her faint and somewhat ethereal smile already starting to fade. Edmund tried to speak but found his mouth had gone dry. He swallowed quickly, trying to get some fluid into his throat before he managed to croak out:

“What are you doing here?” Immediately he felt stupid.

“Reading,” she said, quickly. “What else do you want to know?”

“You’re Matron’s cousin once removed, right?” Edmund desperately tried to redeem himself. “From her mother’s side?”

“Correct,” she gave a short nod. “Anything else?”

Edmund wanted to say no, there was nothing else, run back to his books, and behave as if there was nothing odd about finding another person in his private space. Then, unbidden, a question popped into his mind and forced its way out of his mouth before he could think about it.

“Why did everyone introduce themselves like that? Why did they say how they were related?”

Junapa’s head cocked slightly. She took a deep breath, and flicked her tongue over her teeth.

“It saves time,” she said, leaning her head upon her hand. “There are so many alliances and feuds in the family, it’s easier to simply say how you’re related to whomever you’re meeting, rather then work out whether you’re supposed to like or hate someone just from their name.” She thought for a moment. “Of course, most everyone hates everyone else, so I suppose it’s mostly a way of keeping score.”

“Score of what?” Edmund asked. Junapa’s smile grew a bit wider.

“Oh, my poor boy, you really are going to be devoured alive, aren’t you?”

“No,” Edmund stuck out his chin, desperately trying to suppress the fury at the implication that he was inept. “I’m going to be Patron.”

Junapa’s sudden laugh was quiet and musical, flitting about the massive library like a butterfly. She shook her head, and reached for her book again.

“I doubt that, master Edmund.” she gave him a mockingly sympathetic look. “I doubt very much there will be much of an estate left for you to inherit.”

“Why?” Edmund persisted, not willing to let Junapa vanish back into her book until he had gotten some kind of answer.

“Because I am going to take it out from under you, of course,” she smiled kindly. “Or if I don’t, through some miracle someone else will. It’s true, Matron is smart and crafty as a fox. She has quite a bag of tricks rattling around in that head of hers, and she’s kept a corroding house standing for fifty years, but crafty as she is, there are six of us and only one of her. She can’t fight us all off, even with your… help… and if she were intelligent, she wouldn’t want to; she’d hand the estate over to me and I would save it from dissolution.”

141: Edmund Interlopes Some More

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Image: Uncredited, thatswhatsheread.com

Edmund blushed, feeling foolish. He stepped out from behind the shelves, and walked over to Junapa, his hands clasped behind him. When he stopped a few feet away from her, she looked up at him, and Edmund saw a pale-blue sweet sizzling in her eyes.

“Mrs. Knittle,” Edmund said, greeting her as politely as he knew how. Her eyebrow jutted upwards in surprise.

“It’s been a long time since anyone in this family called me Mrs. Knittle,” she said, slowly. “Mrs. Junapa is appropriate for family.”

“Okay, Mrs. Junapa,” Edmund nodded. “What is that you are reading?”

Junapa closed her eyes briefly, as if pained, and then opened them, returning to her book.

“It is a book unfit for young children,” she said, turning a page. “I must say, I am not a little surprised to see you. I might almost say impressed. I knew I had locked the door when last I left, and I thought I was the only one who knew about the entrance to the Library.”

“I thought I was,” Edmund admitted. Junapa held up her hand.

“Don’t interrupt,” she said, firmly, as her hand lowered. “I can only assume you have been exploring Moulde Hall quite thoroughly; and effectively too, if you can open locks.”

“I was,” Edmund said, after a pause to make sure he wasn’t interrupting. “Then I found… I found the library, and got distracted.” He didn’t mention the Thing in the Tower, and decided now was not the time to explain how anything else he found in the Mansion simply wouldn’t be able to compare to the wonder of this massive room. Junapa nodded slowly, and turned another page in her book.

“And I presume you have told no one about this room?”

Another nod.

“I value my privacy greatly. It would displease me if anyone else learned about the library. Do you understand?”

Nod.

“Very good,” she said, her faint smile returning to her face. “I should go back to your books, then. There is much here that can distract you.” Edmund didn’t move. After a few moments, Junapa looked up at him, her faint smile still plain though her eyes were cold. “Did you hear me?”

“Yes,” Edmund said, quietly. He felt clumsy, looking at her. Every movement was smooth and graceful with her. Her smile was simple, and polite, while her gaze was distant, and calculating. It was all a dreadful contrast to her sunken face and pale skin that made her look so ghostly.

Edmund shifted his weight, scratching at the back of his leg with his foot. He realized that he was a complete novice playing a game with a practiced master–he couldn’t hope to compete… but he’d come this far, and if Junapa could read his every intention on his face, than there was no point in not proceeding. He took a deep breath, and said:

“I wanted to talk with you.”

140: Interloper

On the first Wednesday after he found it, Edmund discovered he was not the only person who knew about the Library.

On that day, he ran back to the library after his solitary breakfast, to continue reading about an interesting tincture invented in the last decade. He had no sooner reached the elevator, however, when a sharp clearing of the throat from behind him made him pause.

“Were we planning on skipping our our meeting this morning, young master Edmund?” Mr. Shobbinton was staring at him through his monocle, a frown on his face as he gripped his briefcase tightly. Edmund drew himself up as best he could–he had a name to live up to, after all.

“I’m feeling quite tired,” he said, using a phrase he had heard Mrs. Mapleberry use quite often. “I’m afraid I might be ill. I was going to convey my apologies for the day to Matron, and then go to bed. I’m sorry if that causes any trouble.”

“No,” Mr. Shobbinton admitted, after a long pause, “I still have much to survey, and time is running out… I suppose an morning off is not unacceptable. I would caution you though; you may have Matron’s name, but you have no need for her habits. Locking yourself in your room may be…comforting, but it will not help you in the long run.”

Edmund nodded, and hopped into the elevator as soon as he was gone.

When he arrived in the library, he set himself down at the same reading-table he had left his books on yesterday, when a small sound met his ears, like a mouse scratching at a wooden door. He froze, listening carefully, wondering if the Thing in the Tower had left its room and come to see how Edmund was getting along.

The sound came again, and he could easily tell now what it was–the simple brushing of paper on paper, as someone turned a page of a book. It sounded to Edmund like it was coming from first floor.

Carefully, walking on tip-toe, he crept down the stairs, trying to move as silently as possible. He moved through the stacks until he peaked around a large shelf and saw Junapa sitting in front of the giant tree statue, a small book in her hands.

Junapa knew about the library.

Edmund’s heart sank. It was heartbreaking to realize that the library was not the sanctuary he had hoped. His secret haven was not so secret after all.

Hot on the heels of his initial disappointment was confusion–how did Junapa know about the library? How long had she known about this place? Perhaps she had just found it now, and had decided to stay and read.

But Edmund knew this was a foolish thought; everything about Junapa exuded confidence. This was a woman who was sitting in a second home, not someone who had just found a new and wonderful place. His heart sank a little more at the idea that he might very well be the interloper, rather than she.

“I know you’re here,” Junapa suddenly said, without looking up. “I heard the door open. Why don’t you finally come out and say hello? It is polite, after all.”

124: The Mayor

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Image: Uncredited, nationalpost.com

It was a cool morning, unseasonably so for Summer, when Edmund heard the sound of Carron’s horse clopping up the front drive.

Edmund set aside his notebook and looked out window. Sure enough, the large black carriage was pulling to a halt in front of Moulde Hall. Edmund craned his neck to look and saw that neither Ung nor Mrs. Kippling were standing there, but instead the tall slim figure of Junapa was waiting by the massive front doors.

The carriage pulled to a halt as Carron’s long limbs stretched out from the driver’s seat and opened the carriage door. A portly man hopped out, brushing off a brown bowler hat and adjusting his coat. He had no sooner adjusted the hat on his head before Junapa was beside him, holding out one hand while the other fanned herself demurely.

Edmund watched with curiosity as the man took her hand and kissed it. Junapa’s fan moved slightly and they both walked into Moulde Hall.

Edmund darted between the walls as quickly as he could, heading to the main Foyer and listening for the sound of either Junapa’s voice or that of the stranger’s.

Finally, he heard Junapa’s quiet laughter from nearby. Changing direction, Edmund crept quietly behind the walls of the nearby sitting rooms, listening carefully. When he was certain he had found the right room, he moved to the nearest peep-hole and hearing-tube to spy on them. They were both seated across from each other and sipping dark red liquid from their glasses.

“Well,” came the unfamiliar male voice of the portly gentleman. “I cannot say I was expecting your offer, my dear.”

“But why ever not?” was Junapa’s reply. Her smooth surprise felt like honey in Edmund’s ears. “The Moulde Family has always been very generous to Brackenburg…much as the city has always been kind to us.”

“Listen, my dear,” the man fluffed himself up like a pigeon, “I am more than willing to discuss this, but I’m afraid I will need some assurances. After all, rumors of the Moulde Family’s current financial troubles have reached even my desk.”

“You shouldn’t trouble yourself over rumors, Mayor,” Junapa soothed.

Mayor? This was the Mayor? Edmund reflexively pushed himself closer to the wall, staring at the little man.

He wasn’t too tall, or too short. His upper lip was covered with a thick white mustache, while his sideburns reached down to his jaw. His brown suit was nice enough, but it wasn’t particularly fine. He exuded the same air as Mr. Shobbinton; a man who felt taller than he actually was. He didn’t look like a particularly great and wonderful man at all… he just looked like a man.

“These rumors are false, then? The Moulde Family is not struggling?”

“I promise you, Mayor, the Moulde Family isn’t going anywhere.” Junapa’s fan snapped closed, a clear full-stop. The Mayor smiled, and clinked his glass to Junapa’s.

“Excellent news to hear. Please continue.”

Edmund was considering running to Matron, but something in the air made him stop. He pulled the rubber tube out of his ear, and listened.

There was a shuffling sound in the walls.

And it was coming nearer.

122: Foiling the Cousin’s Plans

Edmund indignation quickly turned into elation. Whatever had been in that note Matron had written to Kolb, it was enough to get his cousins interested in him, even if only to get rid of him. He licked his lips as he thought. Why now? What did South Dunkin have to do with Edmund?

Nothing, of course. It wasn’t South Dunkin that got them interested in him. He was the one who told Matron. He was the one who handed the letter to Kolb.

Edmund smiled to himself. Perhaps he would pay more attention to his cousins in the near future. He would have to make sure he attended those family meetings now, and tell Matron if he heard anything interesting.

No time like the present, Edmund decided after he had left the dining room. Turning sharply, he ducked into a small alcove and twisted the ear of a small statue that was set into the wall. A secret door popped open and Edmund ducked inside.

He looked over the whole mansion for his cousins, but they were all on their own, writing, reading, or locked in their rooms.

It took almost a week before Edmund overheard another interesting exchange.

“No,” Pinsnip was saying as he tried to get away from Kolb. “I’m…I’m not interested.”

“Come now, my reluctant relative,” Kolb grinned as he kept pace with Pinsnip all along the hallway. “A little regal recalcitrance is all that is required. And if we manage to succeed…well… I do not need to tell you what we will receive.”

“A…dagger in the dark, Kolb,” Pinsnip spat.

“Ah, yes, well…” Kolb shrugged. “I suppose that is your…area of expertise, old chap. We’ll say no more about it.”

 

“Area of expertise?” Matron’s eyes narrowed. “You’re sure he said expertise?”

“Yes,” Edmund nodded. “He paused too. ‘that is your…area of expertise.’ Like that.”

Matron closed her eyes for a second.

“Do you know what a reluctant relative is?” she asked.

“No,” Edmund shook his head. Matron’s lunch was getting heavy.

“Go and ask Junapa,” Matron said, pointing at her table for Edmund to set down the tray. “And make sure you are honest.”

 

“Of course,” Junapa smiled blandly. “It means a relative who doesn’t want to do something.”

“Thank you,” said Edmund, as he turned to leave the small sitting room.

“I am so glad you came to me with that question,” Junapa said, her voice pleasant.

“Tell me, did you perhaps hear any other…alliterative words that I could help you understand?”

Edmund knew what alliterative meant from his poetry books.

“Regal…re-calc-a-trance?” Edmund said, trying to remember how Kolb had pronounced it.

“Ah…” Junapa smiled a bit wider. “And who was Kolb talking to?”

“Pinsnip,” Edmund said honestly.

The next day, Edmund saw Ung deliver a letter to Pinsnip. His face screwed up like a prune, and he seemed to avoid Kolb for the rest of the month. That day, Junapa had a small smile on her face that lasted until dinner time.

118: Edmund Carries A Letter

Thankfully, he didn’t have to wait long for his chance to learn.

At least once a week, Ung would appear out of nowhere and tell him that his presence was requested by one of his cousins in one of the sitting rooms, or sometimes the game room. He soon learned that his cousins were only inviting him out of some strange familial obligation; they didn’t really expect him to come, and didn’t care much when he did.

There would be idle chatter, mild boasting, and seemingly pointless discussions or arguments about politics or money. Periodically Junapa or Kolb might ask Edmund a question, but they never bothered to listen to his answer. He tried to pay attention even though none of it made much sense, and he usually left early or at least when the arguments and threats started.

Sadly, though perhaps not surprisingly, when he tried using the peepholes in the walls to spy in on the meetings there was little ascertainable difference.

Then, one day towards the end of the month, after Edmund set down Matron’s tray and she shot off a strange question that made him pause.

“Have you heard anything of South Dunkin?” she asked, her cold eyes boring into his. Edmund was about to shake his head no, as usual, when a flicker of memory lit in his mind.

“Yes,” he said, slowly, careful not to scare the memory away. “I overheard Junapa saying something about South Dunkin…” he decided not to mention he was hidden in the walls at the time. “She said she had the situation under control.”

“Did she?” Matron muttered, after a pause. “And I suppose Kolb responded?”

“No,” Edmund shook his head. The memory was quite clear now. “It was Pinsnip. He said she was being too overconfident.”

“Really?” Matron’s eyebrow shot upwards. For a moment, Edmund thought she might hit him with her umbrella, but she merely stood up and crossed with surprising alacrity to her small desk. Whipping out a piece of paper, she pulled apart a pen, carefully filled it with a glass eyedropper, and scrawled something on the paper before folding it in half and pointing it towards Edmund.

“Take this to Kolb,” she said, sharply. “And slip it under his door… no, better yet, make sure he takes it from your hand. Let him see your face.”

“Is this some adult thing?” Edmund asked, staring dismally at the paper in his hand. Kolb’s name was written on it in a large and spidery hand. Matron gave a sharp crackling laugh.

“Not at all, boy. It’s very childish indeed. Now get a move on–I have to write a letter to an old friend in South Dunkin.”

Edmund took the note away as the door slammed behind him. His heart beat loudly in his chest. He knew he would probably never know what this note or South Dunkin was all about, but it did seem clear that something important was happening.

And this time he seemed to be in the middle of 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.