"You wished to see me, Countess?" Abdael gave the full formal bow appropriate for a tradesman or scholar meeting a countess. Despite the fact that he'd spoken informally with the Countess Flurilis at various points on the journey from Splendorhaven to the manor of Duchess Morwen, this meeting had come as the result of a formal summons, so there was nothing for it but to observe the forms until she indicated otherwise.
Countess Evrinel Flurilis had strands of silver running through her black hair, but she moved with a sort of lithe, athletic grace that made Abdael wonder if she hadn't been at least as active in her youth as her daughter was now. Her dress was black and silver, with emerald jewelry carefully placed to accent it: necklace, earrings, brooch, wristband, rings. Her eyes were dark in her fine-featured face, and the look she turned on Abdael was... measuring. "I did," she said. "It is, of course, about my daughter."
Abdael nodded. "Of course, Countess." He waited without speaking further, and after a moment a small smile bent her lips.
"I do not pretend to understand what sort of relationship has sprung up between you and Tatherine," she said then, "but my youngest daughter seems quite taken with you... and happier, I think, than she's been in some time."
What is she after? Abdael wondered. Was she about to forbid him to see Tath? Encourage him to keep her happy? Was she merely curious? Or was it something else entirely? Cautiously, he said: "I would not swear that I understand it any better than you do, Countess, but it gladdens me that it makes her happy." Unsure of what else to say, he fell back on silence again.
The countess regarded him for a long moment, then sighed. "My daughter is a full twenty years old," she said, "but she is still a very young twenty years old."
Abdael tilted his head, aware that his expression was giving away his disagreement. Still, he didn't say anything; telling a countess that if she truly believed that then she didn't know her daughter all that well... seemed impolitic.
Well, so much for waiting her out. The Countess could read his expression as well as anybody. "I am the only child of my parents, Countess," he said slowly, "but I am told that it is often hard for parents to recognize that their youngest children are as old as they truly are -- just as it is often hard for them to recognize that their oldest children are still as young as they may truly be."
For a moment, the Countess' face went absolutely smooth and cold. Then something in her relaxed, and she settled back in her chair. "...There is some truth in that," she admitted. Abruptly, she slapped the table beside her. "Cairwen! Some mulled wine from the kitchen, and two cups!"
A door at the back of the room edged shut, and Abdael thought he caught the sound of retreating footsteps.
"Come and sit," said the Countess. "Call me Evrinel, and tell me what you want from my daughter."
Abdael took a step towards the long wooden table. This room was made for receiving rather than dining, but the central table and the arrangement of high-backed wooden chairs was still designed for the careful management of politics and personalities. He considered leaving a chair between them, but... no. That would be awkward. He took the chair beside her and seated himself cautiously. He had just opened his mouth to speak when the servant's door at the back of the room opened again, and a young woman entered with a silver tray, carrying a pitcher and two matching mugs which she set on the table between them.
"Pour for us," said the Countess, and continued her study of Abdael as Cairwen did.
"Would you believe me if I said that I don't want anything from your daughter, but I do want some things for your daughter?" Abdael watched as Cairwen retreated, then returned his attention to Evrinel and added: "It's true."
She blinked once. "Yes," she said slowly. "Yes, I'd believe you. You're not looking to improve your station, then."
Abdael felt a cynical chuckle rising in his chest and let it out without hesitation. "Countess -- Evrinel -- I barely know what my station is. My parents are scholars, researchers. I am, of necessity, an adventurer -- because being a warlock leaves little room for anything else. Apparently I'm famous enough to be summoned by the Lords' Alliance, but I'm also well aware that our great achievement in rediscovering the lost mine was more luck than virtue -- and it was done by working as a team. As for Tath..."
He stopped and leaned back, trying to organize his thoughts. Evrinel grasped the base of her goblet and raised it to her lips; Abdael did likewise, to buy more time to think. The wine was light, neither sweet nor bitter, and flavored with gentle spices. It was also warm enough to prevent him from doing anything more than sipping at it. "I admire Tath," he said simply. "She knows what she wants, and she's working to achieve it -- even within the constraints of her station. I feel like she needs someone to support her, to take her seriously and really see what she's doing."
"You don't think I take her seriously?" asked Evrinel.
Abdael took a long pull at his wine, swallowing enough to burn the back of his throat. "I think you take her seriously," he said slowly. "She's your daughter, you have to."
Evrinel didn't answer, and Abdael recognized with some amusement that she'd just turned his own trick of staying silent back on him -- and that it had worked.
"Countess," he said, "you deal with a lot of high-level political interactions: balances of power, lines of communication, carefully-cultivated goodwill. I firmly believe that you take your daughter seriously, but I also believe that you don't take her seriously for the things that she excels at and really wants to do. Or not as seriously as you should, anyway." He took a smaller sip of the wine, then added: "Gods. She identified me at a bookstore without ever hearing my name, handled my parents beautifully while presenting a summons that could have been very unwelcome, and rushed into danger to defend someone she thought needed help. She's not ever going to be a high-ranking diplomat handling the most delicate of treaties, so you can't meet her there. Set aside a morning and ride with her, spar with her, talk to her about what she loves."
"That--" Evrinel stopped, then took a slow sip from her cup. "Continue."
Abdael shook his head and shrugged. He'd said most of what he felt, but... "I know you take your daughter seriously," he repeated. "I just feel like you're too focused on the things that are important to you to take her seriously for the things that are important to her." He looked away, then turned back. "I don't know. I've only known her for a couple of weeks, and your world is very different from mine. I could be wildly off-target. But... well... you asked."
This time Evrinel looked away. "I did. I did indeed." She loosened her shoulders. "When our time here is finished, will you be returning to Neverwinter with your companions?"
Abdael nodded slowly. He hadn't really considered that he might do otherwise. "Yes. Much as I like spending time with Tatherine, she needs some time to come into her own. And even if it were possible, I'm not at all ready to... form an alliance... with anyone. Not until I understand my power better." Not until I know for certain that it's not a danger.
"Very well," said the Countess. "All other things aside, if at some future time your journey carries you our way, you may visit the Flurilis estate with the assurance that you will be welcomed as a friend there."