“It all started in childhood, you see.” Gaston sipped his wine.
We were back in the Ocean Dining Room at the same table in the same seats, with the addition of Cookie, who was treated to his own serving of the “delicious duck.” His posse was settling in their rooms and would come to dine later. Like all Merchants, Cookie loved gossip, and Arbitrator gossip was simply too delicious to ignore.
“All of us come from the world where the division between nobility and commoners is very stark. George and Jack are brothers born into a commoner family. They lost their parents when they were young, and they were raised by their older sister, Rose. The three of them tasted true poverty, the kind when you know the exact balance in your bank account down to a dollar and can tell exactly how much change is in your pocket without checking.”
That was not something I experienced. My parents’ inn was prosperous, and while Gertrude Hunt and I had seen some lean times, we were never truly poor.
“Rose eventually married a man from a noble family, handsome, rich, and very stable, and the two brothers acquired a new and illustrious last name, Camarine. George and Jack received an education appropriate to someone of their new status. Their personalities are very different, but as brothers they share certain traits and being a chameleon is one of them. They adjusted to their new roles perfectly. Unless you knew their history, you would never suspect that those two are anything but noble princes, one elegant and beautiful, and the other fashionably jaded and rebellious. This is important.”
Cookie blinked. “Fascinating.”
He was clearly committing every drop of information to memory.
“Sophie is actually nobility. Her grandfather was a noble of a rival country who was exiled to the Mire, this horrible swamp, which I love.”
Sean frowned. “You love the swamp?”
“It’s home. You should see it when the moon slips from the clouds on a quiet night. The night flowers glow, the poisonous worms fluoresce in every color, and the giant alligator-like reptiles sing to the sky. It is peaceful.”
“You are a strange man,” Sean told him.
“I’m only ¾ man,” Gaston corrected. “But I digress. Sophie is actually my cousin, once removed. Her aunt is my grandmother, which doesn’t seem right since I’m older than Sophie, but it is true.”
“That’s nothing,” Cookie said. “I’m my uncle’s thrice-removed cousin’s seventh son.”
Gaston nodded in appreciation. “Family ties are important. We come from a very large family, land-rich, money-poor. The Mire is not a nice place. There was an incident when Sophie was young. She was kidnapped by slavers and put in a hole for a week. In Sophie’s head, a little girl went into the hole and a monster came out.”
I had no idea. When we met, I could sense there was something there, something dark and painful, but I didn’t imagine that.
“The thing is, Sophie’s grandfather did his best to raise her and her sister as nobles. They had the education, and they knew the legacy of their family, yet they also understood that they would be stuck rotting in the Mire forever. It had all the makings of one of those potent tragedies. But!”
Gaston waved his glass with a flourish.
“There was a matter of international intrigue. People were murdered, disasters occurred, righteous punishments were delivered through feats of personal heroism. The end result of all this complicated mess was our entire family relocating out of the Mire. Sophie’s sister married Declan’s best friend, and Sophie and George were introduced.”
“The swamp monstress and the elegant prince,” Cookie said.
Gaston grinned. “Indeed. Not falling in love would’ve violated a fundamental law of existence. Cue decades of angst.”
He raised his hand to his forehead in an obviously feminine gesture. “Oh no, I am a damaged killer with trust issues. I do not deserve happiness.”
He slapped his hand over his left eye, his expression dark and tortured. “Oh no, I am a necromancer who must manipulate everyone to keep them safe due to childhood trauma and the woman I love, whom I most want to keep safe, will not permit me to take care of her.”
“Incredibly frustrating for everyone involved,” Gaston said. “George refused to make the first move in consideration of Sophie’s feelings. He wanted it to be her decision. And she, in turn, wanted him to throw himself at her feet and walk away from his professional obligations of playing chess with real rulers and empires as his pawns. They got nowhere.”
This was like some cheesy romance novel, except I knew the people involved.
“I had given up on them,” Gaston confessed. “And then George became an arbitrator and dragged the lot of us with him. I have read this wonderful book, called Three Musketeers. It was just like that, except we were missing our D’Artagnan. I believe you were there when George enticed her to return to the pack.”
“I was,” I confirmed. “It was something. He gave a very passionate speech.”
Gaston smiled. “He’s excellent at that. I don’t know what he said but it worked. However, once Sophie joined us, she realized that nothing had changed. George was still assuming responsibility for everyone and everything, still working himself to the bone, and still manipulating people and beings, except now, he was doing it on a galactic scale. Our little band of misfits had graduated to the big leagues. Sophie left us. Again.”
“She did?” I had no idea.
Gaston nodded. “Crushed George’s heart. I didn’t think he would recover but somehow, he did and threw himself into his work, the way he always does. The story would have ended right there if it wasn’t for Ruk Minoody.”
“I thought somebody killed him,” Sean said.
“Don’t ruin the story.” Gaston refilled his glass. “Ruk Minoody ruled over a prosperous planet in the central bulge of the galaxy. The planet’s citizens place great value on martial prowess, especially when it comes to settling personal conflicts.”
“The planet of swordsmen!” Cookie exclaimed. “I know about them. Uncle once did business with them.”
I knew about them too. Their planet was called Harriblex, and they were not all swordsmen, although all of them were martial artists of some discipline. They were excruciatingly polite when they stayed at the inns until someone mortally offended them by stepping on their shadow or some such nonsense and then nothing would stop them from demanding satisfaction.
“The Office of Arbitrators had offended Ruk Minoody,” Gaston said.
“Let me guess, he demanded satisfaction?” I asked.
“Exactly. They tried to reason with him. They failed. He sent hit squads to hunt down individual arbitrators and managed to kill a couple. The Office declared that whoever satisfied Ruk Minoody would be entitled to a single boon.”
“Oooh.” Cookie opened his eyes wide and put his ears back.
“Exactly,” Gaston said. “The line to satisfy Ruk Minoody was long enough to wrap around a planet, figurately speaking, of course. He loved it. While he kept killing them one by one, Sophie infiltrated his knights, got herself promoted to his personal guard, and challenged him for the throne in front of his entire court.”
Gaston paused and sipped his wine slowly, milking the moment for all of its drama.
Cookie bounced up and down in his seat. “And then what?”
“She won. They made her their queen.”
I had a feeling I knew where this was going and, judging by the grin on Sean’s face, he did too.
“The Office owed her a favor and she claimed it. They asked her what she wanted, and she said she wanted George.”
Gaston’s eyes sparkled. “Sophie finally decided to stop trying to live up to other people’s expectations. She knew where her happiness lay so she reached out and grabbed it. She had asked George’s consent before demanding this arrangement.”
“And he consented?” Sean asked.
“Enthusiastically. The Office didn’t want to give George up. He is brilliant and he’s a born workaholic. They bargained back and forth for a month. Threats were made. Things such as ‘You offended Ruk Minoody, here’s his head, honor the bargain, or I will get offended’ were said. Finally, they came to an agreement. George is allowed to work four months out of the year.”
“Consecutive months?” Cookie asked.
“Not necessarily. He can do it in chunks, but the total duration cannot exceed four months. The rest of the time he has to attend to his duties as the royal consort. Sophie must approve every job he takes as an Arbitrator, or he can’t take it.”
“Oh, sweet Cosmos,” I murmured. “And he’s okay with it?”
“He loves it,” Gaston said. “She conquered a planet to marry him. It was the proof he always hoped for, and now he can be with her all the time. George is his own worst enemy. The man doesn’t know the meaning of work/life balance. Now he is devoting all his energy to the person he loves most, and he is taking his consort duties seriously, the way he takes everything. Before I left, Sophie was presiding over a court case. George was reading a book on child rearing next to her. The defendant, one of their better fighters, challenged him. George put down the book, killed this veteran in two seconds, and went right back to reading. He is an excellent duelist, you know.”
Sean shook his head. I knew what he was thinking. That kind of arrangement would never work for us. But we were not George and Sophie.
“They were married in a ridiculously lavish ceremony about six months ago,” Gaston continued. “They’ve dealt with the initial unrest, and now they’re trying to nudge the planet toward democracy, which the planet is fiercely resisting. It will have to be a slow, gradual change, and they will be busy for years. Most importantly, they are happy. They love each other, but for them love alone is not enough. There must be clearly defined boundaries and mutual respect for them. George is a smart man. He knows this is his only chance at happiness and he will do nothing to jeopardize it. And now you understand why George cannot be here. The last job he did ended a few days ago and he barely squeaked in under Sophie’s deadline.”
Now the booster made perfect sense. George had been trying to finish things before his time ran out and he had to go back to his wife.
“Where does that put you and Jack?” Sean asked.
“Jack is on Harriblex somewhere,” Gaston answered. “He told me that for the first time in years he doesn’t have to worry about George or Sophie. I asked him what he wanted to do with his downtime, and he told me he would get a house in the woods and not see anyone for a couple of years. He claimed it would be the best vacation he could get and that he more than earned it.”
“And you?” I asked.
“As they say, somebody must make the doughnuts. I’ve been a spy, a gentleman of adventure, and occasional assassin, and now I am a free agent. George is paying me a hefty sum to help you with this affair. Once that’s done with, who knows? Perhaps I’ll open a shop at Baha-char next to that old werewolf we all are trying to save.”
“So you’re not here in an official capacity?” I asked.
Gaston put his palm on the table. “Dina, I’m here to assist in any way I can. Your goals are my goals. Your enemies are my enemies. Tell me how I can help, and I will do my best.”
He rose and bowed with an elegant flair, his hand sweeping the air. “My dear friends, I am at your service.”