In the Land of Ever After

In the Land of Ever After

Table of Contents

Chapter 7 - Negotiation

Cogsworth said they had some leftover ruffians still hanging about the area. He wasn’t wrong.


By the end of the week, Adam was comfortable enough on a horse to not resist the idea of riding one down the mountain to go see about fixing the tax problem with John. He and John each had a new jacket to wear, and John had worked very hard to complete all of the paperwork required for the deal they were about to attempt to make with Master Beauchard. He also had the gold for the first installment, because as he’d told Adam – and Cogsworth, who’d been quite concerned about them carrying so much – a person would be more likely to agree during a negotiation if the money involved was where they could see it. “I don’t want to call it greed, but it’s something like that,” he’d explained. “I’m sure you’ve done it yourself, Cogsworth – held the money where someone could see it to stop them dragging out the bargaining.”

“I’ve seen Lumiere do it,” Cogsworth agreed. “But that is considerably more than one gold piece, John – and we’ve still some ruffians around the area, they hang about at the old tavern.”

Adam rolled his eyes. “You can just call it ‘Gaston’s Tavern’, Cogsworth,” he admonished. “It’s not like I was trying to kill him.”

“It’s not like we even know if you did kill him, since they’ve never found his body,” Cogsworth admonished right back. “And it’s not his tavern anymore, Your Highness; one of the ruffians he left behind tried to take it over, but that didn’t last and the place is a collapsing ruin right now as the village refused to stand for it anymore.”

In truth, the main reason the village had stopped standing for it was the tied-up troop of ruffians Lumiere and Cogsworth had dragged down the mountain after the curse had ended and all but thrown at the town’s lackadaisical magistrate. Who still hadn’t wanted to do anything with them – ‘boys will be boys’, he’d tried to call it, in spite of the fact that all of them were long past boyhood – until Lumiere had very smoothly offered to kill them all if they were not locked up. He’d made enough noise coming into the village about exactly what kind of drunken ruffians they were and what they’d tried to do in the castle that half the residents had followed them to the magistrate’s office, and nobody had been sympathetic to said magistrate’s opinion that such violence had been in any way justified.

They had a new sometime magistrate now who didn’t frequent such places or favor those who did, and as such the village had gone back to being quiet and friendly. Of course, having the curse – or at least part of it – broken may have also had something to do with that. If the old magistrate had still been in charge, there was no way Cogsworth would have dared to let the prince ride into the village with only young John to look out for him – the old one had wanted him hauled in and jailed for murdering Gaston, who according to him had ‘just been attempting to defend a young woman from a vicious monster’.

Cogsworth pointing out in a very loud voice that said young woman had been terrified of Gaston as he’d been trying to force her into marriage with him very much against her will and had assaulted her father and caused him to be unfairly locked up – by that selfsame magistrate – had stood that accusation on its head. Especially as the ruffians were still just drunk enough to be willing to blab about beasts and talking furniture and how Gaston had told them to destroy everything moving within the castle and then they’d be allowed to pillage it before he took over and became ‘the king he was meant to be’. That hadn’t gone over all too well either.

 

Cogsworth’s horse, Marron – or at least, it was the horse Cogsworth usually rode – knew the road down to the village quite well, so Adam found himself in the pleasant position of not having to do much other than look around as he and John made their way down to the valley below the castle. And the village was a surprise to him. “It’s pretty!”

“Yes, quite, Your Highness,” John agreed placidly. “It’s a beautiful little village, and a beautiful valley as well – rather like a jewel fallen at the foot of the mountains.”

“Well that was poetry.”

John snorted. “Hardly. I’m a practical man, Your Highness.”

Adam didn’t argue with that, because it was true, but he still thought the description had been poetic. He’d started to notice that John had a romantic streak in him which he seemed to be at some pains to hold back in his everyday interactions with everyone but Princess Elsa – and, lately, with Adam himself.

They went through the village without stopping, and quickly enough that no one had a chance to waylay them, but Adam still got a good look. It was a beautiful little village, with its pretty whitewashed buildings and clean cobblestones and neat, busy people. He nodded to a few people who stopped what they were doing to stare at him, thankful that nobody was trying to speak to him because he wasn’t sure what he would have said, and he resumed talking to John once they’d passed the last thatch-roofed house to continue down into the wide bowl of a valley below. “I don’t suppose you know what I’m supposed to do if someone speaks to me, do you?”

John smiled. “What would you do if I spoke to you, Your Highness?”

“That’s not the same thing.”

“Yes, it is,” John assured him. “If someone speaks to you, answer in kind – the same way you’d answer someone who spoke to you at the castle. And there’s no one with rank here except yourself and Lady Belle and the princess, according to Cogsworth, so that simplifies things considerably.”

Adam considered that. “What if they ask about the Beast?”

“They won’t. It would be terribly rude and impertinent of them to ask something like that, and I do believe most of them are unsure enough of how you might react – or how the rest of us might – that they’ll mind their manners when they speak to you or fear the consequences.”

“Are there consequences?”

“That depends on who says what and how,” John said. “If someone got too far out of line I’d need to intervene – if I were a bigger man that could be a more physical correction, but as I’m not a strong rebuke would have to do.” He smiled. “Unfortunately, it just wouldn’t do to bring Lumiere along for something like this.”

That made the prince laugh. “No, I don’t suppose it would be.”

 

They rode up to the gates of Master Beauchard’s farm and then dismounted, and when John saw the farmer come out he waved and the man squinted at them and then waved back and met them halfway across the yard, blunderbuss held loosely in his off hand so that he could shake John’s hand with the other. “Mr. Kepperson! Pleasure to see you again.” He looked ever so slightly embarrassed. “I certainly hope my wife’s prattling didn’t cause you trouble; that new coat isn’t her fault, is it?”

John laughed. “I did need a new one for official business and simply hadn’t thought of it, so it was a timely intervention.” He straightened. “Master Beauchard, I don’t believe you’ve formally met Prince Adam. Your Highness, Master Beauchard, the owner of this lovely farm – and unfortunately of half the rest of the valley besides.”

The farmer almost dropped his gun. Adam bowed. “Master Beauchard, my apologies for the confusion with the tax. If you’ve time to spare, we may have a solution to the problem the curse saw to saddling your family with.”

Beauchard remembered himself and bowed back. “Your Highness, of course. I’m sorry, I didn’t recognize you.”

Adam smiled. “Well, it’s not like I’ve left the castle all that much so people could see me, so I don’t blame you for that.”

“I’m afraid it was my idea to come without giving warning first,” John admitted. “As the business we have to discuss is of a somewhat personal nature, and His Highness was going to join us, I thought it would be better to just come down quietly and without a lot of fanfare.”

“Thank you for thinking of that, then – although I warn you now, my wife won’t be likely to forgive either of us for the surprise of having our prince in for a visit with no warning.” He bowed again. “Your Highness, if you’d like to come into the house, we can get down to business. I was more than relieved that Mr. Kepperson here not only knew what he was about but had hopes that he could fix the problem.”

“I was very upset when I realized that I’d actually made it worse,” Adam told him frankly. “I do apologize for that. From what I understand your family has kept this kingdom together for the past twelve years. We owe you a great deal.”

“My father thought it our duty,” Beauchard disclaimed. “And I tend to agree with him. If you’re rooted in a place, it’s your responsibility to help look out for it.”

He ushered them into the house and to the same table he and John had sat at before. Madame Beauchard came bustling out before they had fully sat down, and both men immediately returned to their feet to bow to her. “Madame Beauchard,” John greeted her politely. “So sorry to intrude on you without warning this way, but I felt it would be safer and more private for all concerned if nobody knew the prince and I were coming today.”

“The prince?!” Adam smiled, inclining his head in a polite nod, and she clapped a hand to her mouth to contain her squeal, flushing red and then dropping a hasty curtsey. “Oh, Your Highness!”

“My lady,” he returned politely. “I trust our surprise visit won’t cause you too much inconvenience?”

“Of course not, Your Highness. I’m so sorry, I haven’t anything to offer you but tea and cake…”

Adam smiled again. “That would be more than acceptable, madame. And I was rather hoping there would be cake, as Mr. Kepperson had quite a lot to say about how good yours was when he was here a week ago.”

Madame Beauchard was nearly overcome by this, and dropped another curtsey by way of response before hurrying back into the kitchen. Her husband sat back down as soon as Adam had, not quite rolling his eyes. “Well, that will put the fox into the henhouse around here once she starts sharing it – the local wives are somewhat competitive when it comes to their baking, but luckily my Maribelle can hold her own in that area.”

John smiled. “I thought she probably could – it was very good cake.” He pulled the smaller bundle of papers out of his satchel and laid them out on the table. “I’ll get right to business, if you don’t mind, Master Beauchard – we don’t want to keep you from your work, or your wife from hers either. I went over the list you gave me and added up the amounts owed on each involved property in the valley, and I also recalculated the tax for each of them just to see where it was going to end up.” He pushed over a sheet of paper. “That’s the comparison between your income from the rents and the tax, and you were more than right about the tax outstripping the rents in short order. Next year wouldn’t be too much of a loss, but the year after that would have you in a truly ugly situation. We’re not letting that happen if at all possible, it simply wouldn’t be right. But I believe you can see by the total owed to you at the bottom of the page that we couldn’t simply buy the properties out from you without draining the treasury down to the bare stone. So, a compromise.” He handed over a second sheet of paper. “What we’re proposing is this: The kingdom will agree to give you the remainder of what’s owed to your family on these properties in four installments, one payment now and one payment each year for the next three years. The property owners will go back to paying their own taxes, along with a small set sum toward the amount they owe on their deed, and we’ll be changing the tax payment schedule to quarterly to make it easier on everyone.”

The farmer was nodding, running his finger down the list of amounts. “The interest?”

“There won’t be any.” That was from Adam. “The kingdom can afford to do without it, something an individual wouldn’t be able to do without losing more money than would be reasonable on the transaction. John showed me your end of the numbers without the interest, they were even uglier than the first set. We’d not ask you to do that, it wouldn’t be fair.”

Master Beauchard seemed rather struck by this statement, but he nodded and then applied himself to reading down the paper again. “So if they don’t pay…”

“The deed remains with the Crown,” John told him. He pulled out a much larger stack of papers, this one tied with a ribbon, and extracted the one on the top. “I wrote it into the new deeds, in fact. Four missed payments – a year of default – results in the deed to the property reverting to the kingdom. Meaning they’d have to pay rent if they wanted to stay, and that rent would come at a much steeper price than what they’ve become used to paying. It would have to cover the amount lost in tax as well as usage and depreciation, after all.”

Adam was somewhat alarmed by the expression on the farmer’s face, wondering if perhaps that had been a step too far, but when the man looked at him as though to ask if he was in agreement with that he nodded gravely. “John has explained to me at some length how this is supposed to work,” he said. “I believe it’s as fair an arrangement for all concerned as we’re going to be able to come up with at present. The decision of whether to accept our offer, however, lies entirely with you. You must make the decision you believe will best benefit yourself and your family.”

Master Beauchard stared at him. “You’re not…your pardon, Your Highness, but I’m not sure I understand. You’re offering me the choice to refuse?”

“Well of course we are.” Adam was confused by the question and it showed. “Why wouldn’t we?”

The older man looked him in the eye, a very direct, searching look which was more than a little bold for a man to apply to the ruler of his kingdom, and then shook his head as though to clear it and stood up. “If I might have a moment, I need to include my wife in this decision.”

“Certainly.” Adam frowned as the farmer hurried into the kitchen, then turned to John and asked in a low voice, “What was that all about?”

John offered him a reassuring smile. “You just proved to him that I wasn’t lying the last time I was here – I’ll explain later. It’s a good thing, though, a very good thing.”

“I’ll take your word for that.” After a moment they heard a shriek from the farmer’s wife, and a moment later Master Beauchard came back out with her. Adam and John both stood up again “My lady, is everything quite all right?” She nodded, clutching her husband’s arm and seemingly unable to speak, and Adam decided that maybe he should treat her the way he’d treat Mrs. Potts in a similar situation. He pulled out one of the table’s chairs and put her in it, then sat down again himself and took her plump, work-roughened hand in his, patting the back of it. “Should we get you some tea? Would that help?”

She blinked at him. “We’re…we’re really to be free of it? Forever free of it?”

Adam was confused again, but he nodded. “Yes, if you and your husband wish it.”

Master Beauchard put his hand on his wife’s shoulder. “We do wish it, Your Highness. It’s been a millstone around our family’s neck, having our friends and neighbors indebted to us this way. We simply didn’t…begging your pardon, but we simply never expected such fair terms as you’ve offered.”

Adam looked the question at John, who shook his head. “In some places the Crown claims ultimate ownership of all the lands in the kingdom, Your Highness,” he explained. “I’ve found no indication that your kingdom has ever done things that way, but the records from the past few decades are somewhat incomplete. Mr. Cogsworth was able to tell me that there was never an official change in that area of policy, though.”

“Thank goodness for that,” Adam said, and meant it. “I’d feel like a tyrant, trying to run things that way.”

Master Beauchard covered a rather singular little cough with his hand. “Your pardon again, Your Highness…but I don’t think you’ve got it in you to be a tyrant.” He sat down again, looking extremely relieved. “So, I’m guessing you’ve things for me to sign?”

“Yes,” John told him, and provided a very nicely drawn-up sheet with the agreement spelled out on it, and also a corked ink bottle and a pen. The farmer signed, and John took that sheet and blew on it, then set it aside most carefully to dry and pulled over the ribbon-bound stack. “I do apologize for this part, but I couldn’t see a way to make sure nobody could contest the transfer of the deeds other than having you sign each one. I wouldn’t think anyone should have an objection, but it’s usually best to anticipate a problem rather than being surprised by one.”

“I quite agree, yes.” The farmer got to work signing, passing each sheet back to John as he finished with it, but one he hesitated over. “Oh bother, I’d forgotten about this.” He held it up. “Mr. Dufour, the baker – he married my sister-in-law last spring, so we’d rather written that one off. Should I keep it as it is?”

John took the deed back and looked at it, frowning. “Hmm, I’d not like to do that, because then you’d still be responsible for paying his tax. If you wanted to pay his deed off, however?” Master Beauchard nodded. “Yes, that would work better all the way around, I think. Go ahead and sign it, and we’ll set that one aside to deal with when we’re done with the rest.”

It took a good amount of time to finish the signing, and then John carefully re-stacked the deeds with sheets of blotting paper between them and set them to one side. He then got into his bag again and pulled out a small iron-banded box with a sturdy lock on it, which he placed in the center of the table. “Your Highness, if you’d care to open it…”

Adam produced the key and did so, opening the box to reveal the neat stacks of coins within. “The first installment,” he said. “We didn’t want you to have to come to the castle to get it, that might not have been safe.”

“We’ll lock the signed deeds in the box for safekeeping,” John added. “I’m sorry I couldn’t bring a second box for that, but we didn’t want it to be obvious what we were carrying.”

“A good thought, that might not have been safe,” the farmer managed. He stood up. “I’ve got a strongbox, just let me go get it.” He hurried out, and came back a few moments later with a larger version of the iron-banded box, looking a little surprised when he saw that John had been counting the coins out into stacks for him so the amount could be verified – he wouldn’t have dared to count them otherwise – and then signed the receipt he was presented with acknowledging that the amount he was accepting was the same as the amount owed. And then he was putting the coins into the strongbox along with a second receipt and his own copy of the agreement. “Now, shall I pay out my brother-in-law’s deed from this?”

“No,” John told him, and handed that deed over, indicating that it was to be put in the strongbox as well. “Bring it when you come to pay the quarterly tax and take care of it publicly then, or have your brother-in-law do it. That way no one can start malicious gossip about favoritism or secret deals or what have you. And as I’m sure the magistrate and you personally make arrangements for the security of everyone’s gold at tax-time, it should be safer to pay it then as well.”

“A good thought – both of them,” Master Beauchard agreed. He placed the baker’s deed into the strongbox on top of the gold and locked it, watching as John did the same with the other deeds in the box he’d brought and then tucked that away in his bag again. “We should celebrate this with something finer than tea,” he declared. “Maribelle, bring us a bottle of the year before last’s? I think the prince and Mr. Kepperson would appreciate that one. And it goes very well with cake, too.”

 

Adam and John accepted the grateful farmer’s hospitality with pleasure, and after about an hour of very good wine and equally good cake they took their leave and started making their way back to the castle. “That went very well,” Adam said. “Didn’t it?”

“It did,” John assured him. “We may need to do some more digging in the records, though. Master Beauchard and his wife were a bit too surprised at the terms we were offering for my comfort, and I’d like to know who’d been doing things the unofficial tyrant way and why.”

“I suspect it had to have been my father,” Adam admitted. “As to the why, though, I’d like to know that myself. Especially since Cogsworth told you it was never officially done that way in our kingdom. We’ve more than enough mysteries here now, it would be nice to clear some of them up. Speaking of which, your coat?” John blushed. “John, were you lying to Master Beauchard about his wife getting you into trouble? I’m shocked.”

“I…didn’t want to cause problems between them for an oversight that was my fault,” John returned, going even redder. “I simply didn’t think about appearances when I came down the first time, so it was a timely reminder.”

Adam nodded thoughtfully. “I see. And you didn’t think to mention that Master Beauchard goes about his farm armed with a gun the size of my leg…”

John swallowed. “My assumption is he carries that to ward off either wildlife or robbers, possibly both. I’d not have brought you with me if I’d thought for one minute you’d be in any danger, Your Highness.”

“I know you wouldn’t have.” And he did; Adam had no doubts on that score at all. “Should I make a guess as to the other reason you might not have wanted word to get around the castle about him greeting you the first time with the business end of his extremely large gun?”

John glanced sideways at him. “I think you already know, Your Highness.”

“Yes, I suppose I do.” Princess Elsa was in John’s office at least once a day, after all, telling him everything she’d learned from Belle and peppering him with questions about things she didn’t understand. She’d not have taken kindly to the idea of someone threatening him. Adam thought Cogsworth probably wouldn’t have either, or Mrs. Potts – although he didn’t think John knew that – and the resulting vitriolic return-gossip from the castle’s staff most likely would have destroyed any chance they might have had to fix the tax problem.

Adam was startled out of his thoughts by the sight of someone appearing out of the bushes and stepping into the road, a short roundish man with a face full of dirty stubble and dirty, somewhat ragged clothes. Another man appeared right behind him, taller and equally unkempt…but this one had a blunderbuss in his hands which was quite a bit like the one the farmer carried. “John…”

“Rein in your horse, drop back, stay behind me,” John hissed at him. “And if I say run, flick the reins, kick his sides with your heels and don’t stop until you’ve reached the village.” He nudged Sven in front of Marron and drew himself up very straight in the saddle, frowning down at the strangers and absolutely radiating contempt. “Really, gentlemen? It’s broad daylight and everyone knows we’re out here, you must be either desperate or stupid. So which is it, hmm?” The two men looked at each other, obviously unsure of how to answer, and John took advantage of their distraction to make Sven step forward again, which had the effect of making them step back instinctively – and putting them farther away from Adam at the same time. “Well? I’m waiting.”

The taller one shook his head. “We don’t want you, we want him!” He tried to point at Adam but couldn’t due to his position and his companion slapped his hand down. He tried again. “We want the monster!”

John raised an eyebrow. “Monster?”

“The Beast!” The eyebrow stayed up. “He don’t know, Adel.”

“He’s from some foreign place, remember? He wasn’t here then.” Adel grabbed the barrel of his companion’s gun and raised it, pointing it at John. “Just ride away, we’ve got to pay him back for killin’ Gaston.”

“Ah, you mean the ruffian who tried to take the castle and force Lady Belle into marriage with him against her will,” John replied. “Him I know about. And I’m told we’ve no idea if he’s actually dead or not, since they never found a body. So you’re some of his men?”

“We are!” the taller man proclaimed proudly. “We’re goin’ to avenge him, and take your horses and get your gold!” John shook his head at that, and the man scowled and raised the gun a bit more. “You’re sayin’ no?”

John snorted. “I’m saying we don’t actually have any gold with us, is what I’m saying. I have a few pennies in my purse if you absolutely must have something, but why would the prince carry money with him?”

The two men looked at each other again. “Um…because he’s rich?” John shook his head again. “He’s not rich?”

“The money in the treasury doesn’t belong to him, it belongs to the kingdom,” John explained, sounding as though he wasn’t sure why they didn’t already know it. “Gentlemen, you’re wasting my time; I have work to do at the castle, work I must get done if I want to be paid. And as the prince is the one who pays me, obviously I can’t let you have him. Now, was there anything else?”

The taller man gave his companion a helpless look. “This ain’t like you said it was goin’ to be, Adel. You said we’d kill the monster and take the horses and the gold.”

Adel considered this. “Well, we could kill them both and take the horses.”

“But there ain’t no gold! We need a new plan.”

“You can think of one from the gaol,” a new voice said, and a much better-kept man stepped out of the bushes behind them. He also had a gun, and the three men who silently appeared with him had wicked-looking farm implements in their hands. “Your Highness, Mr. Kepperson. Master Beauchard sent us to follow you just in case these idiots were out and about – fancy themselves highwaymen, they do, although luckily for all concerned they aren’t very good at it.”

“No, they don’t seem to be, do they.” John was still between his prince and everyone else. “I take it they’ve been causing problems in the area? I’d suspected something of the sort – either that or wolves, perhaps – when I noticed that Master Beauchard doesn’t go anywhere without his gun.”

“We do have wolves,” one of the other men confirmed. “Good of you to notice that, sir; he was a bit worried you wouldn’t understand. You’ve got wolves in your country?”

“And bears,” John told him. “Although as I understand it you have to be a really good shot to take down a charging bear.”

“You do,” the man with the gun agreed. His gun abruptly targeted Adel, who had made a movement toward his companion’s gun. “I wouldn’t,” he warned. “I’m one who can take down a bear, Adel Roundelette, and you’re quite a bit less than one of those.”

“It was Jaçon’s idea!”

The taller man was immediately offended. “It was not, you liar! You said we’d kill the monster and take the horses and the gold, Adel, you said it!” He appealed to John. “You heard, it was his idea!”

John nodded. “I did hear that, yes. And it’s quite rude of him to try to place the blame on you. You need better friends.”

“I do?” Jaçon looked down at Adel, and his eyes narrowed. “You’re right, I do. A friend shouldn’t lie about ideas that weren’t yours. I need to find one who won’t do that.” He looked around at the farmer’s men with fresh interest. “Maybe one of you?”

One of the men sighed and held out his hand for the gun. “You have to talk to the magistrate first, Jaçon. Now hand it over, you know I can’t let you keep it – Adel’s already tried to take it out of your hands.”

The gun was immediately handed over, and Adel exploded. “You idiot! You don’t do what he says, you’re supposed to do what I say! Why are you so stupid?!”

He lifted his hand, but before he could hit the bigger man – who was already cringing in anticipation – a commanding voice rang out and froze him in mid-blow. “Don’t you dare!”

Adel froze, staring up at his prince. Adam had moved his horse even with John’s again; he was quite obviously furious and looked quite regal and imposing as a result. He gestured to Jaçon, who was also openmouthed and staring. “Move away from him before he tries to hurt you again,” he ordered, and the tall man shuffled back to stand beside the man who’d taken his gun, wide-eyed. “If you’ll promise to walk beside these other men, and not try to get away or cause problems, you won’t need to be tied. Will you promise?”

Jaçon swallowed. “You’d believe me?” Adam indicated that he would, and the man nodded quickly. “I promise, cross my heart and hope to die, Your Highness. I’ll be good.”

“Very well. You though,” he turned a glare on Adel, “you I don’t think I’d believe. Do one of you men have a piece of rope to bind his hands? I believe he’ll try to hurt someone if he’s not secured – he seems to be quite violent.”

“He’d like to be,” the man with the gun agreed, and two of the other men stepped up and roughly tied Adel’s hands together, leaving a piece of rope trailing from the front to pull him along with. “We’ll just take these two into the village, Your Highness…”

“We’ll ride along with you,” Adam told him. “There might be other ‘highwaymen’ about.”

Adel was visibly about to declare that there were quite a lot of them, but Jaçon shook his head. “There’s just us, Your Highness, sir, Adel and me. There was a few others, but they left last month and didn’t come back.”

“They probably couldn’t find their way back,” Adam told him. “There’s still a curse on the kingdom, you know – we can’t put a name to it, so people have a very difficult time finding their way back to it if they leave.” He cocked his head. “I can’t think being a highwayman is a very good job in a kingdom that hasn’t that many travelers passing through. Can’t you do anything else?” The big man shook his head. “Is there anything else you’d like to do?”

That appeared to be a new thought for Jaçon, and he kept thinking about it all the way up the road into the village. Adel was becoming more and more surly, tugging at the rope which led him and casting evil looks at his oblivious companion. Adam didn’t much like that, so by the time they re-entered the village he looked grim enough that the magistrate who came running out paled noticeably. “Your Highness?!”

“Apparently our kingdom has a single highwayman remaining, and he’s attempting to create a new gang to replace the ruffians who left,” Adam told him, indicating Adel. “What would normally be done with him?”

The magistrate swallowed. “We usually lock him up for a few days, Your Highness. Or a bit longer, depending on how upset everyone is.”

“And then they turn him loose again,” the man with the gun added, and shook his head sharply when the magistrate indicated that he should be silent. “Gervais, we’re tired of him, the whole village is tired of him – and this time he not only threatened to kill the prince, he was trying to blame the whole thing on Jaçon.”

“Well what do you expect me to do about it?” the magistrate, Gervais, snapped back. “Hang him? We haven’t sentenced anyone to hang in generations, Claude, and we’re not going to start making grotesque public spectacles of the law again under my watch. And it’s not like I can keep him locked up until he knows right from wrong, because he’d be living in the jail forever. I don’t know what you expect me to do!”

“I may have a solution,” Adam said, and swung down from his horse; John quickly dismounted as well and grabbed Marron’s reins. Adam was just about average height, but he still towered over Adel and between that and the anger radiating off of him the would-be highwayman actually cringed away. “You’re making a nuisance of yourself in my kingdom, and you’re threatening the safety and well-being of my subjects. I won’t have it. We’ve all suffered enough thanks to the bad fairy and her beastly curses, we don’t need this. And I fully agree with our magistrate that turning the public square into a killing ground isn’t something we want here.” He drew himself up to his full height. “Adel Roundelette, I hereby exile you from this kingdom. You’re to be taken to the farthest border of our land and sent on your way.”

A gasp went through the crowd which had formed, and Adel went white. “But…but you said no one can find their way back once they’ve left!”

Adam nodded. “That is what ‘exile’ is all about, yes – it means you don’t ever get to return. If the remaining curse helps us to accomplish that, so be it.”

“What about Jaçon, Your Highness?” another of the farmer’s men asked. The big man was clinging to his arm and nearly in tears. “What’s to happen to him?”

“It’s usually a few days in the gaol for pretending to be a highwayman?” Adam asked the magistrate, who nodded. “I’d say for Jaçon that seems sufficient. It was quite obvious to me that he wasn’t the one who came up with the idea, and he kept his word and walked beside us the whole way here without causing any problems. He did tell Mr. Kepperson he didn’t know how to do anything else, though. Do you have any ideas what should be done about that?”

The magistrate quite obviously didn’t, and there was a lot of head-shaking going around in the crowd of villagers. “Your Highness, I know you can tell he’s simple,” Claude said quietly. “It’s been tried before, but he’s not been able to learn any but the simplest tasks and he requires supervision to do even those.”

“Hmm.” Adam considered that, then looked to John. “Do you have any ideas?”

“I may, yes.” John straightened, smoothing down his jacket. “Jaçon, you’re quite strong, right? You can lift heavy things with ease?” The big man nodded, and puffed up a bit, and he smiled. “You know, Your Highness, the ice house could use him. They’re rather overwhelmed right now, and the ice blocks have had to be made somewhat smaller than is entirely practical. But I think this man could lift a larger one all by himself. It’s honest work, and it shouldn’t be too difficult because the man who runs the ice house would always be there to provide direction where it was needed.”

That was a good idea – and the gathered crowd seemed to think so too, if the amount of nodding was any indication. “Jaçon, do you think that would suit you, working at the ice house?”

“I can do that?”

“Once you’ve done your time in the gaol then yes, I believe you can do that,” Adam told him. “I expect you to be a model citizen of our kingdom from now on, however – no more playing at being a highwayman, understood?”

Jaçon nodded quickly. “I won’t do that anymore, Your Highness, cross my heart and hope to die.”

Adam nodded back. “Very well, then, go with the magistrate now. I’ll expect to hear good things about you in the future.”

“You will?” Adam’s nod actually put tears in the big man’s eyes, and he bowed so low he almost toppled over. “Thank you, Your Highness.”

“You’re quite welcome, Jaçon.” The magistrate bowed as well and led Jaçon away, and Adam turned his attention to Master Beauchard’s men. “I hate to impose upon you gentlemen further, but would you be willing to help us escort this man to the kingdom’s border? Mr. Kepperson and I will ride with you, of course. I’m not sure how close you have to get for the nameless curse we’re under to start affecting your sense of direction, but I’m relatively certain it can’t make me forget the way back to the castle.”

That wasn’t entirely the truth – the one Adam didn’t think could get lost was actually John, seeing as how he’d found his way into the kingdom from outside it once already – but he didn’t want to say that and possibly cause people to think the bookkeeper had some kind of curse-defeating magic about him. Luckily the men didn’t question it, and Claude nodded and bowed. “It would be our pleasure, Your Highness. We’re that sick of Adel and his nonsense, we’ll not mind the walk if it means being rid of him for good.”

“I think it might be a bit far to walk,” John commented. “Perhaps someone would be willing to lend a horse…”

Several people were willing, even eager, and within a few minutes Claude and the man who had stood up for Jaçon had mounts and Adele, hands still tied, was placed on the back of one as well so that his exile might not be delayed by slow walking. Of the farmer’s remaining two men, one was dispatched to the castle to let Cogsworth know why his prince would be late getting back, and the other went to give Master Beauchard the same information about his own men. Once everything had been arranged, Adam got back on his horse, extremely thankful now that John had made him practice mounting so many times, and they headed off down the road. “Does this man have a home?” he asked Claude. “I’m willing to let him collect his possessions to travel with.”

“He lives in the back of the old tavern, or so I’ve heard,” Claude told him. “We’ll pass it on the way out, but Brice or I will get his things for him – his ‘friends’ probably took most everything when they left, but I’d not put it past him to have something squirreled away to cause trouble with.”

“He does seem the type, yes.” It didn’t take them long to reach the old tavern which had once been owned by Gaston, and in comparison to the rest of the neat, clean little village its appearance was shocking, with its roof falling in on one side and its chimney starting to lean away from the road at a precarious angle. The door was missing and there were holes where the windows had once been, and on the inside could be glimpsed decaying animal trophies on the walls and a huge, throne-like chair. Adam took it all in with a sort of horrified fascination. The man called Brice went inside and came back out in short order with a dirty bag in his hand and a ferocious scowl on his face. “Been thieving nights since they left, have you?” he accused the sullen outlaw, brandishing the bag as though he wanted to throw it. “Your clothes are all you’re keeping of that, we’ll set the magistrate to sort the rest out later. And then we should probably have the old place knocked down,” he told Adam, much more respectfully. “The floor was near to give way under my boots in places, Your Highness, and I could see a few spots where it was probably Jaçon’s foot that went through it already.”

“We can do that once the magistrate’s done with it,” Adam agreed. “Do you know if anyone else has a claim to the property?”

The men looked at each other, and Brice shrugged. “There’s Florette, one of the…well, she frequented the tavern, let’s put it that way. She swears that boy of hers is the son of Gaston.”

“Gaston never claimed him.”

That made Brice laugh as he got back on his horse. “He never claimed any of them, Claude. He just said it was the job of the strongest and fittest to spread his seed widely, like a lion strengthening the pride with his progeny. He’s probably got bastards all over the valley.”

“Florette is the only one who’s ever kept claiming it, though,” was Claude’s response. “And the only one who he tried to make shut up about it besides. Remember, Brice? The rumor was that he’d told her she’d either stop talking about it or he’d make her stop talking altogether.”

“He sounds a lovely fellow,” John observed. “Is the lady in question still here?”

“She is,” Claude said. “She’s no lady, though, Mr. Kepperson, don’t make any mistake about that. Florette would still be plying her trade if she could find another place to do it in.”

Adam was puzzled and it showed. “Her trade?”

The other two men couldn’t conceal their embarrassment, and even John went a little pink around the ears. “A prostitute, Your Highness,” he explained. “Someone who sells…carnal favors for money.”

The prince was completely gobsmacked by this. “That’s a trade?”

“Not an official one,” John corrected quickly. “Nor one that either the practice or the patronage of is considered acceptable…but there are definitely those who do both, and I’m given to understand that in some areas it’s quite prevalent. Large seaports, for example.”

“Arendelle?”

“Wasn’t large enough for that. I’d heard we had a few…practitioners around the area of the docks, but nothing on the scale of say, one of the very large and busy Danish ports where they apparently have whole houses dedicated to that business.”

“It was only done here when Gaston ran the tavern,” Claude hastened to add. “It was a wild, loud place then, and frequented by the kind of ruffians who demand that sort of entertainment. The rest of the village doesn’t hold with those sort of goings-on.”

“I should think not.” Adam was still horrified. “So what does this woman Florette do now?”

“She takes in mending, Your Highness.”

“Better than what she was doing before,” John observed. “I suppose she wanted the child’s father to marry her?”

“Of course.” Claude snorted. “He wouldn’t have liked that idea much. He was always ready to use the service, if you know what I mean, but he thought too much of himself to have married one who provided it.”

Adel spoke up for the first time. “Tell the truth, you wouldn’t either.”

Claude shook his head. “You don’t plant seed in ground you’re not prepared to buy if it takes root – that’s what my old grandfather told me, anyway, and it’s what I’ll tell my sons someday as well.” He raised an eyebrow at the outlaw. “I thought Cosette was pledged to you, Adel. Where did she get to?”

The smaller man scowled, and Brice cleared his throat. “Left with the others, did she?”

“They lied to her, tricked her…!”

“More like they told her the pickings were better outside the kingdom, and offered her gold and pretty baubles if she threw in with them,” Brice observed. “Well, you can track her down now, she may be happy to see you.”

Adel snorted. “Only if I’ve a tavern for her. She wanted a place of her own.”

“So get a tavern and then find her,” Adam said, which seemed to startle the outlaw considerably. “What? The idea of building something rather than taking it is that strange to you?”

The outlaw sneered. “You’re one to talk.” Claude leaned over and smacked him sharply. “Hey!”

“Keep that ignorant tongue respectful or carry it away in your pocket.”

“I don’t have to!”

“You don’t have to ride, either,” John pointed out, and Adam noticed with surprise that his bookkeeper was looking more than a little angry, which made him look a bit imposing himself. “Would you prefer to be dragged behind the horses?” Adel’s answer to that was to slump and drop his head, visibly sulking, and John sniffed. “I didn’t think so.”

Adam held back the smile that wanted to come out; that had been Cogsworth’s sniff. “You didn’t answer my question,” he said, deciding the best thing to do was to just act like the outburst hadn’t happened at all. “If the woman wants someone who will give her a place of her own, then why not get one and give it to her?”

“It isn’t that easy.”

Adam rolled his eyes. “Well of course it isn’t. But if you want her, isn’t she worth it being difficult?”

The outlaw went still. He turned a penetrating dark gaze up to Adam, a look that was questioning, probing…and then abruptly looked away again, frowning down at his bound hands, and did not speak again until they reached their destination. Claude and Brice took him off the horse and untied him then, handing him the small bag of his possessions. Adam and John had also dismounted, and Adel turned to his prince and looked him in the eye. “Florette’s boy is the son of Gaston. He’d admitted as much, more than once.”

Adam nodded slowly. “Then the land is hers, in trust for the boy.”

“As it should be.” Adele hitched his bag up over his shoulder, turned, and walked away from them down the road. When he reached the bend where the road curved around a small hill to the west he hesitated a step, and they saw him shake his head, putting a hand to his temple in a way that looked all too familiar to Adam and John…but he kept walking and soon was out of view.

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