Captain Fletcher sighed. "Nice to get fair warning. Listen to this:
Dear Captain Fletcher,
I write to inform you of the impending arrival of my son Roland, and to apologise.
Roland is my eldest son, but I have come to the conclusion that he would make a disastrous husband and father, not to mention baron. I have therefore urged him into your service. He is looking forward to a career of magic and adventures in the out-zones. He does understand that the transformation is permanent.
"Thank heaven for that," Sanders remarked, "if true."
"Yes, very depressing, trying to console an idiot wailing about his new shape. Insulting, too, if you think about it too long."
"Right! What's wrong with this shape, I'd like to know? Lots of artists have rendered it."
"Like Linda Whatshername?"
"Northwick. She sent me a print."
"She edited down your handlebar mustache."
It is unfair to inflict my son on the Dedicated Cavalry. You and your brothers in arms have done great work in our Age of Exploration. I acknowledge, too, the hard work and self-sacrifice of your cavalry. You do not need a recruit like Roland, but I need to remove him from the succession. I write relying on your discretion, of which I have heard from Lady Modeste Ilbert, Lord Albert Hardouin, and Sir Aubert Geary.
"Lady Ilbert owes her succession to talking her older brother into joining, doesn't she?" Sanders asked.
"Yes. He's hardly more than a beast of burden, but he's a deal happier as he is than being a figurehead. Pleasant enough oaf."
"His son showed up steaming mad and snarled at me as I shot him. Then sulked through most of training until he acquired a new interest: running smuggled goods through the expeditions, or so the rumor goes. I suppose he was blackmailed into joining by his family. Vanished three years ago after his expedition arrived in Gevurah-Set. Not that anyone's gone looking for him."
In recognition of the value of your service—
"The value of our disposal service."
"It's more civilized than assassination."
"But why pick us? Why not shove him into a monastery?" grumbled Sanders.
"Because you can announce you were mistaken about your calling and walk out of a monastery, unless you're being blackmailed. And you can still sire embarrassing grandchildren."
"Is this one of those?"
—of your service, I am setting up an annuity to reduce prices at the base shop.
"That's about the eighth one. Is it a bribe when you would have to do the favor anyway?" Sanders asked.
"Call it a sweetener. Whatever, he didn't have to do it, as you note. If he's doing it so we'll be nice to Roland, it's a measurable sign of actual affection. Maybe."
At present, my son Roland is nineteen, of no more than average intelligence, and impulsive. He is a wastrel with money, not through extravagance, but because he cannot be bothered to keep track of it. He is not a drunkard, but if you keep handing him drinks, he will keep drinking.
"He's not going to like the rule about wine," Fletcher observed.
"He sounds quite capable of getting drunk enough on whiskey or beer," said Sanders.
His besetting sin, however, is lust. He has a failing common in my class, though I do not myself subscribe to it, of believing that codes of sexual conduct are for other people.
"I call that a suspiciously specific denial," said Sanders.
"Maybe Da learned a lesson that Roland refuses to."
There have been, to my knowledge, five liaisons threatening scandal on the family, two with Grand Norman girls, three with foreigners. One of the foreigners was of the monde-minor but, thanks to my son's insistent attentions, is now Sundered. Fortunately, all were too sensible to let him sire a child, but I cannot count on such luck holding.
Fletcher paused. "Details!" he growled. "I need details! Does he get physical, or just make a pest of himself, or flash around money to draw in the cupidinous, or what?"
"What are the odds he knows the word 'cupidinous'?"
It may seem strange, therefore, that I have directed him into your service (I mean no offense, but you know your own reputation problems, even as you know they are undeserved), but in your theatre he can be prevented from the disastrous marriages and affairs that would certainly ensue should he remain human, visiting tragedy on himself, his children, and the young woman who thought herself clever or charitable in marrying him.
"'Charitable,'" Sanders echoed. "Wife as nursemaid. That suggests he might not be malicious. That would be something."
"Yes, we can hope. Give me a sweet-tempered simpleton every time. But 'nursemaid' gives me an idea. We'll get one for Roland. Maybe some of the other pips will be willing to keep an eye on him in return for some privileges."
"Eowick likes hot bourbon-and-cream," Sanders remarked. Eowick was the stable brownie.
"An idea, certainly."
You should also know that Roland's younger brother Richard is in some anxiety over his brother's safety in his impending military career. He has enlisted in the Standard Cavalry (though I do not think keeping an eye on his brother was his principal motive). As I write, he has been in training at the Ufham base for two months. Unlike his brother, he is sensible, self-controlled, and reasonably intelligent. Rather than risk two sons in the work of exploration, I would have forbidden this, but he is seventeen, so I could not. I admit that, fourteen years from now, all going well, he will likely be a young man very well suited to inherit the barony. Perhaps his elder brother will also have reached some kind of maturity, starting with your tutelage. Please do not hesitate to call on Richard if you need help with Roland.
"Know anything about this Richard Vimont?" Fletcher asked.
"No, let's pull his record." Sanders addressed himself to his computer. "Standard gets school records and such," he muttered. "Poor old Dedicated just gets told they're crown subjects, competent to volunteer, and not actually in gaol at the moment."
"Beggars can't be choosers. And we get those royal preferments."
"They leave it to Blackholt," Sanders groused on, "to verify that they're actually male and, you know, initially human. Here we are. 'Reasonably intelligent' amounts to an okay-ish performance at a monde-minor boarding school. 'Sensible' leaves room for a couple of traffic violations in London, suitably charged to his cover ID and paid for. Doing okay in his current training. No disciplinary actions. Lacklustre, I'd say."
"Enough to make Da prefer him to Roland. I wonder why he was keen enough on Standard to buck his father's wishes."
"Ask him. When you interview him for the post of his brother's keeper. There's your nursemaid."
"Mm. Means dabbling in Standard's affairs. They'd call it interference. But perhaps."
"Ask Laurel Fairforth on the liaison team. She's pretty accommodating. To you."
Fletcher grinned. "One makes oneself agreeable. And she likes a good gallop. Nice way to get one's exercise. I'm careful to wheeze at the end, so she gives me a hug. Comforting the poor old plug."
"And you old enough to be her father."
"Grandfather. Makes her feel safe."
"If she only knew."
At his own expense (funded by an annuity from his mother's side of the family, over which I have no control), Roland is boarding his mare Zelda at a local stable. Quite what he expects to do with Zelda once he cannot ride her, I do not know. I do not think he has given the issue any thought. Please keep on the watch for any change in his feelings toward her, and act on your best judgment. (I am aware of, and thoroughly endorse, your service's policy of mandatory vasectomies to obviate scandal, but I understand they must be repeated yearly, and slip-ups can happen, especially around Roland. Should he present me with a "grandfoal," please know I will do what I can to make sure it has a happy, if celibate, life.)
Fletcher sighed. "I don't know. Letting him concentrate on Zelda could simplify things. I mean, her father won't come 'round with an army pistol."
"Unless he's a retired cavalryman rather than a horse," Sanders mused.
Fletcher shuddered. "That sort is (one) not delicate about his daughter's honor, and (two) blessedly rare. Oh, and (three) usually in hiding."
I would not have you think my son a complete loss. He is cheerful, friendly, genuinely brave, and faithful to his friends. He is also a good marksman, which ought to be a useful skill in your service, though I am happy to learn that actual military encounters on your expeditions are rare. In fact, he is a keen hunter, and I hope will prove useful in catching game for the pot when you are afield.
"Damning with faint praise," Sanders remarked.
"Mm. But it does sound like the picture of an outdoorsy twit without malice. Yes, a nursemaid who can tactfully intervene between him and the local girls may be the ticket. Hope he isn't good-looking."
"Look him up," Sanders recommended. "Bound to be a picture of him somewhere on the Nor'Net. No, here, I'll do it." He began tapping at his computer.
It seems a pity that he cannot be turned into a horse completely.
"Martin's spurs!" Sanders looked up from the computer. "That's blunt enough."
Fletcher cocked his head and looked dreamy. "I think he wrote the first draft of this letter some time back, when he first suspected Roland would eventually have to be plonked down on horseshoes, for the good of the family. He edited it often. He used it for venting. That's a bit of venting he forgot to delete. Word processing meets Dr. Freud."
"What stuff to waste your Receptance on."
"I don't get to choose."
Also, I would not have you think me completely devoid of paternal feeling. I will attend on his transformation day, along with my wife, our two daughters, and Richard. I feel it that honour demands that I witness what I am sending my son into, and of course I hope that I shall see him happy at the beginning of his new life.
"Oh, please, my lord, do not put yourself out!" Fletcher exclaimed. "Oh, well, best to size up the situation, I suppose. But he'll apologise all over again."
"Surely not out loud and in front of everybody."
Hoping to meet you then and reiterate my apologies in person—
—I sign myself
Mattias, Baron Vimont
"Yet another succession adjustment," Sanders concluded. "Scrubbing the gentry's gene pool: our specialty. Wasn't Hardouin the one with the orientation issues?"
"Yes. Queer for men, straight for mares. We earned our pay that year."
"Here's Roland's picture."
"Good," said Fletcher, glancing at the screen. "Nothing special. A vacuity of expression that ought to warn off any sensible woman."
"You'd think. Vimont sounds like he wrote this just after receiving the Last Straw. I wonder what it was. Expect we'll find out."
"Probably girl number five," said Fletcher.
"He's unloading to you very freely."
"He relies on my discretion. He says so."
"Does he know you're showing this letter to me?"
"I'm relying on your discretion."
"My landlady is very discreet too. I'm sure this would amuse her..."
"Now that her daughter is safely married, yes."
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