It was almost the tenth hour, but still dark. The fires had been stoked, the lanterns lit and even the great chandelier above the great hall had been lit to ward off the dark. Through the large Hollandian windows, the Count could see the people of Copenhagen going about their affairs.
Like every morning, he had his servants dress him in the latest fashions. His new Domain-style shoes with three-inch heels were a new acquisition. His wig was made of from the hair of ten ladies, his sleeves had more lace than the average Ostland cloth merchant had ever seen. The fine cravat at his throat covered an unsightly red blemish that went all around his neck. He did not cover it up for the sake of other people, rather the cravat made him forget about it, should he catch a reflection of himself in the mirrors of which there were many in this house.
He sat down in front of the small breakfast table which he only used when he ate alone. Today was one of those mornings, when he had sent his servants to chase away all callers because he had things to do and things on his mind. From a small cup he drank the finest Ottoman coffee, bought from the great markets of Smyrna. White bread, butter and honey was all he ate. Not because he was watching his figure – that had been quite unnecessary for the last 20 years – but of habit.
His last cup of coffee he took standing in front of the fire, again out of habit. He had not felt cold for a long time. He rung a bell and his servants arrived. He felt like putting off what he was going to do, but since it needed to be done, he might as well get on his way.
The carriage ride to the Qvellstjerne estate was not very comfortable. As always in November, the roads were terrible, muddy and uneven. The sights were not much better: late autumn fields, brown and empty. It had been a while since the harvest festivals took place. He saw a few serfs trundle along the roads, carrying bundles of wood. The cranes had flewn south too and the countryside felt dead. The Count was feeling uneasy about this whole thing. He had not brought along his household guard as he usually did when travelling and his only escort was a single footman who right now was sitting beside the driver of the carriage, silently. It wasn’t a time for idle conversation.
Three hours later, he arrived at the small estate. Surrounded by an amazing amount of fields and orchards, the rundown manor house stood in a garden full of weeds and thorny wild roses. The pale red, almost pink paint was flaking from the manor house walls, making the manor look as if no one had lived there for years. The Count let out a chuckle, the first one this morning. After all, it was true that no one lived there. He did know, as his carriage passed the old gatehouse of the estate, that he was being observed. It was not as if the old lady would not know of everything that was going on on her lands.
Taking a brief look at his driver and the footman, he said that they should wait outside. They seemed relieved.
Entering the old house, the Count took a brief moment to examine the surroundings. Everything he saw was extremely expensive, from the deep carpets to the tapestries and the paintings, but everything was moldy, dusty or otherwise wracked with the passing of time. No one had come to open the door for him or to announce a visitor, this he was familiar with. The lady of the house did not care for servants.
The Count found her in the library, as always. In a padded chair, there sat a dessicated corpse, clothed in a ragged and moldy dress. From lace-adorned sleeves, bony fingers covered by ragged skin protuded.
“Baroness Qvellstjerne, good day” said the Count. With a rather audible creak of old dry joints, the corpse opened her mouth, revealing a row of blackened teeth.
“Young Count Lüttichau, or should I call you Arch-Mage. You have come again.”
“Calling me Lüttichau is fine, Baroness. Count and Arch-Mage are just for those who fear me.”
“I expect that this is not a social call. My little friends have told that you have once again taken silver from the vaults of the Kinship of Cold and sent agents eastward. You are still looking for old Egil, are you not?”
“That is what I have been doing, Baroness. The Kinship of Cold needs the things he knows. The spells that we have lost. ”
“Now, do we?” the corpse-woman said, with a dry dusty giggle. In her terrible mummified face, her brilliant green eyes, as alive as the day she had died three hundred years ago, glittered with mirth. “Do sit down, Lüttichau. After all, I am merely an old relic of those old days and you are the self-declared chief of our School. No offense meant, Lüttichau, but you do know that your titles don’t mean much here.”
“None taken. There are precious few in our Kinship left who have been here since the days that the Kinship was outlawed. Since you are one of them, and there are no witnesses, you might as well say things as they are.” Lüttichau took a seat on a stool near the corpse-woman.
“I can see you looking at me. If I am not mistaken, I do disgust you. Not because I am dead, because you too are dead and you work with dead things – as I used to do – but of what I remind you of. The thing we will all become, once we stop pretending that we are still alive. ” Again, there was a bitter mirth in her voice.
“You speak the truth again, Baroness. I have been dead for twenty years, but I have managed to keep my appearances up. My wounds from my hanging never healed, but there is not any mark of decomposition on me. Which is why I can meet the Queen and all those high nobles at court and play the part of Arch-Mage of the Kinship of Cold.”
“Dear Lüttichau, you seem to indicate that I might want to be Arch-Mage in your stead. No. That is the one thing I never wanted. I died and Transformed so I could stay here until the world ends. Not to be a grand wizard. I merely wanted to stay here. Away from all living things.” She sat silent for a while. “But what of all those pretty young things that have now joined the Kinship? Killing themselves to gain power and status? Hah! You must not have told them what is the fate of a Necromancer: to eventually forget how you used to be a living being, and then one day realizing that you have decomposed over the last ten years and no longer are you young and pretty.”
Lüttichau sighed. “Yes. Most people don’t realize that. I did not. That is why I keep a strict regimen. Sleep, eat, drink, even though I do not have a desire for those things anymore. I will try to remain intact for as long as I can. Forever, if I can.”
“Nothing truly lasts forever, Lüttichau. Except death. You and old Egil are alike in that regard. You decided to become Necromancers for all the wrong reasons.” She turned towards Lüttichau, looking at him with her intensely green eyes. “I wanted to not live. That is why I still have my faculties. I am not you, who pretends to live. I am definitively not Egil, who has hidden himself after realizing he had become a monster. I have always been a monster.”