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The track made a faint but distinguishable double ribbon up the valley’s curve, threading spare thickets of the persistent native conifers they called pine and spruce, and at this season passing great patches of native spring flowers. Rashpetal, gold as legendary daffodils, fingersting, delicately purple as mythic violets. The clear, vivid fuchsia of stranglebud, and the tall vermillion spires of touch-me-not. High on either side, native timber furred the valley sides, and behind the farm rose the Savoy peaks, crystal and azure and perilously close, their steep faces threatening imminent avalanche. Mont Isére, Mont Bourbon, and the faceted pyramid of Mont Nouveau Blanc.
Beneath that immensity the solitary rider looked insignificant as any other. But Jean had been right. He was quite alone.
Amadeus swore under his breath. An adventurer, a total stranger, a wandering idiot? Who else, up here, would ride alone?
Nevertheless, a guest was a guest. Suzanne looked out clean sheets, Modestine hurried for more salted meat. Amadeus put his tools away. Washed his face at the pump, safely inside the palisade, found a clean shirt and sat on the front bench to indulge his one luxury: New Ceres tobacco, the only native plant most ordinary folk could tolerate, in a long clay pipe brought all the way from Prosperine.
By the first pinch of the final climb, the mount was clearly a horse. A very good horse, Amadeus estimated, a dark liver-chestnut, at least half thoroughbred, with excellent shoulder and solid bone. Not a wandering idiot, then. An adventurer?
“Pierre,” he said quietly into the house-door. “Load my musket. And stand at the window-slit.”
Then the track turned to reveal the saddlecloth. The Millefleur blazon of the triple fleur-de-lys.
Suzanne was suddenly beside him, voicing his own thought. “Millefleur sent this?”
The horse pricked its ears and tossed its head as the cannies broke into voice. It almost shied, but then came on steadily toward the gate. As would an expected — an official — visitor.
Suzanne’s hand brushed Amadeus’ shoulder. She whistled sharply to the cannies and took them to be tied up.
Amadeus himself stood up, reluctantly, to unbar the gate. The horse halted just beyond. Amadeus looked up, the rider looked down. A young face, under a broad-brimmed hat that was new and well-shaped and maybe offworld felt, but not an aristo’s tricorne. Clear blue eyes, a smatter of freckles across the nose, hinting youth refuted by the crowsfeet at the eye-corners, the firm jaw. The clothes were plain too, far plainer than the horse. No waistcoat, no buckskin breeches, no calf-high boots. And no sword. Just an ordinary man’s homespun trousers and riding boots, a weather-coat strapped over a pair of saddlebags. And the gun scabbard by the rider’s right leg.
Amadeus stared. The lock above the horse’s wither was as ornately chased as one of St. Vierge’s own hunting pieces, but the barrel was twice the length of a New Ceres musket’s, let alone a rapid-blaster. It ended almost at the horse’s knee. No time to gape. The rider was already summing him up in turn. Certainly, with that blazon on his saddlecloth, expecting a salute.
Amadeus touched the quiff of curls that passed for his forelock and mumbled, “Amadeus Lebrun at your service, m’sieu.”
The rider bowed briefly over the saddle bow. “Anne-Hilarion,” he said. “At your service, m’sieu.”
Amadeus knew the aristo habit of giving men women’s names, not to mention two names rolled into one. He had offered to hold the stirrup, as a vassal should, before the omission sank in. But it would be as risky as discourteous to insist: Pardon me, sir, and your second name?
The rider had already given a quick headshake and swung off unassisted. On the offside of the horse, right hand reaching as by instinct for the stock of the gun.
He came round the horse’s head with the weapon at port, as easily as a great dame would wield her parasol, and Amadeus could not take his eyes off it. Not merely the unfamiliar length, but the crescent-shaped butt-plate, the hammer like a rearing dragon that grasped the flint in its jaws, the elegantly slender stock with its acanthus-leaf decoration, a glitter of polished metal and polished wood.
“The Comte de Beligny tells me,” Anne-Hilarion’s French was offworld, just a little too precise and slow, “that you have a small problem here?”
Among his peers Amadeus would have guffawed. Given his will he would have snorted, Small? But the habit of ridiculous understatement was also bone-deep aristo. He bowed briefly. Yes.
Anne-Hilarion’s eyes rose to his. Rose almost six inches, Amadeus judged, and though he looked light and whippy, it was hardly an imposing build. Then the eyes flicked and the gun barrel twitched and Amadeus forgot height and weight together. “M’sieu, that is only my wife! My wife Suzanne!”
She had come to the gate behind him, as the housewife should. He knew the faint scent of hops and yeast and the sound of her skirts. He forced himself not to leap between them with arms outheld.
But Anne-Hilarion had already lowered the gun, and despite plain boots and riding trousers, was making a creditable leg. He did not remove his hat, since his hands were already occupied. His voice was, again, quite courteous.
Suzanne curtsyed sweepingly. She had been a houseservant before they married, and knew court manners secondhand. “M’sieu.”
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