Take a Peek Beneath My Covers: A Preview of The Camelot Shadow
If only so you can confirm that you want to avoid it like flesh-eating bacteria, colonoscopies, and circus peanuts, I thought I’d post the first few chapters of The Camelot Shadow.
I’m in the business of giving people what they don’t want. (If you're insane, it's available through all reputable ebook purveyors, and some disreputable ones, too.)
THE CAMELOT SHADOW
He grimaced as he watched the last of the men flee into the cave, threadbare tunics flapping over woad-streaked bodies. It was a trap, of course, and a poorly disguised one, but he was not concerned—though they outnumbered him five to one, the men, little more than tangled thickets of hair draped atop emaciated limbs, posed as little risk to him as a fly alighting on its back might threaten a highland cow.
Still, he knew that she was involved. Nimue. The cowards huddled in the cave would offer scant resistance, true, but the same could not be said of her. He should have killed her decades before, but he had chosen to be merciful; he would not make the same mistake again.
The man rubbed a hand across his jaw, dirty fingertips leaving dark smudges that stood in stark contrast to the light brown stubble they covered, as he stepped out from behind the hedge where he had concealed himself. They would expect him to enter boldly, and so he would.
As he crossed the threshold of the cave, he detected a faint flutter, like a shadow glimpsed from the corner of sleep-encrusted eyes, but he had no time to consider the sensation, for the men—“druids,” he thought with a sneer—attacked instantly, chanting and gesticulating wildly. Before their energies could coalesce, however, he raised his right hand, barked an arcane syllable, and sent crackling blue light bursting from his extended fingertips to strike the nearest man before it arced to the second, creating a chain lightning that quickly consumed all five and left them nothing more than withered husks.
The man shook his head with contempt, the smell of charred flesh a satisfying testament to his foes’ weakness. His attention did not linger long on their corpses, however, for he sensed that the woman was near, and he would need all of his remaining strength to face her.
He turned warily, eyes darting from side to side as he prepared to exit the cave. He did not see her, but he knew she was there. Balling his fists at his side, he stepped forward.
Everything shattered. His body collapsed as his mind splintered into tiny fragments, each one embedding itself into the cave’s jagged walls. He screamed, a raw, primal howl, as his nerves caught fire. He whimpered as his power, the very fiber of his being, fled from the cave, beyond the desperate grasp of the last conscious bits of his essence.
As he drifted into darkness, a dreamless slumber he knew could last for decades, perhaps centuries, he took grim satisfaction in knowing that he had prepared himself even for this unlikely outcome. He could recover what he had lost—he would simply need to find it. When he awoke…
As companions went, they were quieter than most, but their silence did little to diminish the pleasure he took in their company. To the contrary, their tranquility, interrupted occasionally by a satisfying crackle or whispered hint of friction, enhanced their appeal, as they never offered advice unsolicited, yet never failed to provide information. The ancient tome that currently rested in his lap was among the most prized in his vast collection, and as he carefully turned a vellum page, he marveled once again at its smooth feel, like the leaf of an orchid, and at the elegant script that covered its surface.
Lord Alfred Fitzwilliam had spent countless hours amidst the towering bookshelves and sliding ladders of his library, which housed one of the most impressive private collections in all of Queen Victoria’s England, his mind ranging far afield while his body remained ensconced in the worn leather chair in which he now sat, its creased surface conforming to fit the contours of his body with the familiar touch of an intimate companion. It was with the certainty that he would spend much of his life in this very room that he had first cultivated his well-manicured beard, hoping that it would give him the distinguished look of an academic. A sheepish smile crossed his lips as he recalled the youthful notion that a man’s appearance was indicative of wisdom, though the beard—now snowy white, save for a few persistent brown rivulets—remained.
He raised his eyes to the window to watch as snowflakes fell from the sky with a nonchalance that seemed defiantly at odds with their short lifespans. The blowing wind made him grateful for the warm glow that emanated from the library’s fireplace, an antique structure surrounded by a bronze relief that depicted a parade of ancient gods. In the evening, the fire would cast shadows across the wall, presenting a fierce struggle worthy of those same gods, one that raged until the blaze had burned itself out. Despite his failing eyesight, Alfred often read by the light of the fire alone, as he found the combination of ancient knowledge and flickering flames even more intoxicating than the Scotch—the Macallan, always—that fueled his late-night reading vigils.
Tonight, however, rather than reading, he would instead embark on a cold carriage ride to a dreadfully dull dinner party at the estate of another of the county’s most prominent families. Though bored to the verge of catatonia by such proceedings himself, his wife, Ellen, was fond of such galas, and it was in deference to her wishes that he continued to attend them, despite the fact that she was no longer well enough to accompany him.
Alfred rose and stretched. He heard a crack and felt a discomfiting pop, prompting a symphony of groans. Years had passed since he could rise without pain in one extremity or another, though, on the whole, he remained remarkably fit, his slender figure devoid of the extra carriage so common to his contemporaries. The pallor in his cheeks, however, indicated too many hours spent in the library. Earnest, blue-gray eyes peered out through pince-nez spectacles, and his neatly trimmed beard conveyed a stately elegance that his frequently arched eyebrow quickly dispelled. His voice, a deep baritone only just beginning to roughen from the rigors of long discussions, was warmly authoritative, and it was not uncommon even for people he had only just met to defer to his judgment.
Alfred moved toward the fireplace, picked up a poker, and prodded the logs, shifting them to smother the flames. Unlike his neighbors, he did not retain a retinue of full-time servants, relying instead on the many talents of his manservant, Stephen, and his house-maid, Sally. Sally did her best to keep the house, far too large for her alone to tend, free from cobwebs, though she had given up on the rooms her master and mistress no longer frequented, brokering an uneasy truce with the dust mites that had taken up residence within them in exchange for their tacit agreement to refrain from inhabiting the rooms they did use.
With the fire extinguished, Alfred walked to the window and gazed out over the grounds of his estate. Though scarcely mid-afternoon, daylight had already begun to fade. He watched as a stiff breeze gave the snowflakes free reign to flutter about before they alighted on the ground atop their predecessors. They reminded Alfred of the people with whom he would dine this evening—at a glance, they appeared identical, their clothes and mannerisms muted echoes with a shared origin, but a closer examination revealed the idiosyncrasies each possessed. A wry smile touched his lips as he considered the fact that “flake” served as such an apt descriptor for those same individuals.
After casting a last glance over his shoulder at the shelves where his bound companions rested, Alfred slowly descended the spiral staircase that led to his bedroom. Though dinner invitations came less frequently of late, social functions still took place far too often for his liking, and each time he received a summons, he gave serious consideration to ignoring it and taking up the hermit-like existence his peers predicted for him after Ellen inevitably succumbed to her illness. Doing so, however, would only further distance him from the last vestiges of the life they had enjoyed together, and there was always the hope that this evening would prove different.
Alfred shook his head ruefully and smiled as he reached the bottom of the stairs. His father had once upbraided him for being too much of an idealist, but Alfred had never quite given up on believing in something beyond the practical, though he tended to ignore such feelings. With his father long since gone, however, Alfred supposed that, at least for a night, he could allow his more quixotic side a temporary victory. Perhaps this evening would be different.
Alfred stepped down from the coach and pulled his long coat tightly around his body. The snow had ceased, and the calm of the winter landscape was broken only by the squeaking arrival of other carriages. Judging by the steady stream of people spilling out from those that had already arrived, the inclement weather would have little effect on attendance.
“I would prefer not to make it a late evening,” said Alfred, turning to face his servant. “Would you return in, say, three hours?”
“Yes, sir,” replied Stephen, snapping the reins and turning the coach back toward home.
Alfred glanced over his shoulder, savoring the majesty of the tableau before him. The moon hung low in the cloudless sky, and the stars flickered like the flames of the fire he had so recently snuffed. Despite the temperature, he would almost have preferred to remain outside.
Shaking his head and exhaling, he turned and walked to the front of the house, a stately manor well suited to one of the nation’s more prominent families. That its current occupants included the recently deceased Duke of Welshire’s widow and her frivolous brood brought a grimace to Alfred’s face, an expression he nimbly turned to a smile as the door opened in response to his soft knock. “Good evening, Lord Fitzwilliam,” said the Duchess’s butler, a thin man dressed immaculately in livery, as he took Alfred’s coat, hat, and muffler.
“Evening, Geoffrey. You are in for a long night, I fear.” Alfred inclined his head back over his left shoulder, indicating the arrival of yet another carriage.
The butler’s expression remained impassive. “So it would seem, my lord. The guests who have already arrived have availed themselves quite freely of the Duchess’s sherry, and if she continues to allow it to flow so liberally, I’m afraid many of our dinner guests will also be joining us for breakfast.”
Alfred chuckled. “Were it my party, I might suggest—purely as a hypothetical, mind you—that you water down the drinks halfway through dinner. By then, most of the guests will be past the point of noticing, and perhaps they will be more amenable to the prospect of departure if the water serves the dual purpose of sobering them up.”
The butler allowed himself a brief smile. “An excellent suggestion, my lord, but one I will have to give you full credit for if we’re forced to implement it and the Duchess finds out.”
“I shall happily take responsibility—if she blames me, perhaps I will be fortunate enough to be omitted from the guest list in the future.” Alfred patted the man lightly on the shoulder and moved past him into the hallway.
Nearly a score of people occupied the drawing room when Alfred entered, and voices from the adjacent room told him that more were present. He spotted the Duchess on the far side and began to make his way over to pay his regards, eager to discharge the onerous task. Before he could reach her, however, a bulky man blocked his path.
“Waltzing by without even a nod, old man?” The statement was accompanied by a wink and an outstretched hand.
Though the speaker appeared older, he was, in fact, two years Alfred’s junior. The man’s ample midsection, red cheeks, and gleaming pate contributed to his prematurely aged appearance, and a slight stoop only added to the perception that he was well into his dotage rather than just beginning it. His smile was warm, however, and the woman standing next to him, a wispy and wrinkled matron with a shock of gray hair that hung limply to one side, beamed when she saw Alfred.
“Benjamin! Lucille!” exclaimed Alfred as he grasped the man’s hand. “I thought your affairs would keep you away until next week.” He sketched a small bow to the woman, who laughed and extended her own hand, palm down, to Alfred, who kissed it lightly.
“I managed to complete a few deals early, and the weather was simply dreadful, so we decided to return home,” replied Benjamin. He offered a wry grin. “And, of course, Lucy wouldn’t have missed the Duchess’s dinner for all the tea in China, though I did my best to purchase it in place of actually having to attend.”
Alfred laughed. “A transaction from which you would have no doubt prospered.” He had never met anyone as shrewd as Benjamin Bradshaw, a man whose business empire, begun with a fruit cart when he was six years old, was built on the foundation of his ruthlessness in procuring the best deal. Alfred’s father had invested in some of a much-younger Benjamin’s more adventurous schemes, most of which, despite their seemingly scant chances for success, resulted in a healthy return for their investors. Over the past decade, Alfred had granted Benjamin the right to manage his own fortune, a decision he had no cause to regret.
“I am glad you are here,” said Alfred, looking around the room and shaking his head, “though I suspect that the truest of the bluebloods do not share my sentiment.”
“There will come a day when new money will simply be money, but until then, I will take great pleasure in offending with my presence.” Benjamin smiled as Lucille patted him gently on the arm. Though she had never possessed great beauty, a charming blend of common sense and a nurturing nature had won over her pragmatic husband who, with his philandering days long past, appreciated her more every day.
“At least we seem to have timed our arrival well,” noted Alfred as the guests began to make their way to the dining hall.
“True—if nothing else, the Duchess sets a fine table. And, she spares no expense when it comes to purchasing the finest brandy,” said Benjamin.
Alfred arched an eyebrow. “I suppose she procures it from you?”
Benjamin winked. “If I’m going to have to tolerate these people, the least I can do is ensure that I have something worthwhile to drink.”
After paying Duchess O’Malley the necessary compliments, the trio took their seats in the dining room. Servants poured libations with such efficiency that glasses rarely dipped below half full, despite the high rate of consumption. Alfred was seated across from Benjamin and Lucy, who sat at the end of the table, as far away from the Duchess as possible.
To Alfred’s right sat a man he had never seen before. The man was clearly younger than Alfred, but how much younger he could not say, for though the man’s clean-shaven face lacked age lines, wary brown eyes made him appear older. His closely cropped black hair complemented attire that was so fashionable as to make the man appear out of place at a gathering that consisted primarily of wizened matrons, curmudgeonly widowers, and overfed, elderly couples.
Though seated, Alfred could tell that the man stood several inches taller than he, and the cut of his suit hinted at an impressively broad-shouldered physique. Despite the din of conversation around him, the man stared silently down at the table, idly swirling the dregs of a glass of wine and apparently oblivious to Alfred’s examination. Lucy sought to draw the man from his solitude, but he responded only with small nods or in a monosyllabic monotone, though Alfred thought he detected an Irish accent. The only truly useful information he divulged was his name, Brendan Quinn, and the manner in which he distinctly pronounced the two syllables of his first name and rolled his r’s at least confirmed Alfred’s speculation as to his nationality.
Dinner proved unexpectedly enjoyable. The couple seated to Alfred’s left, a stodgy old pair whose contempt for egalitarianism so far exceeded the bounds of decorum that it was charming, provided ample entertainment. Benjamin took great pleasure in goading the couple into increasingly vehement exclamations as he went deeper into his cups. It was shortly after the old man had banged his fist on the table and shouted, “Those born without money do not deserve money!” that Alfred began to notice that Brendan Quinn was watching him.
At first, he thought that the man was looking past him to the couple on his left, either entertained, or appalled, by the conversation; as dinner progressed, however, Alfred realized that Quinn focused on him alone. Lucy continued her efforts to engage the stranger, but each time she tried, he deflected her attempts. After a while, she gave up and turned her attention to the conversation taking place between her husband and the old couple, leaving Quinn to continue his observations uninterrupted.
Alfred began to strategically place objects, such as a napkin or fork, in positions that allowed him to use reaching for them as a pretext to turn toward Quinn, but each time he did so, the man contrived to be looking away, or down at his plate. Though he felt his eyes on him all night, not once did Alfred successfully catch Quinn in the act of staring at him.
At the meal’s conclusion, the guests separated, the women to the parlor to gossip and the men to the drawing room to smoke pipes and “talk business,” a euphemism for their own unsavory brand of gossip. Benjamin yawned theatrically and announced that he was rather fatigued from their travels and ready to depart immediately. A grateful Lucy smiled at her husband before turning toward Alfred. “Will you remain, dear?”
Though Stephen would arrive soon with the carriage, Alfred had observed Brendan Quinn heading into the drawing room with the other men, and the stranger’s odd behavior had piqued his curiosity. “I will undoubtedly regret this decision, but I believe I shall.” He kissed Lucy’s hand once again, earning him a smile in response before she wandered off in search of the Duchess to say goodbye, leaving Benjamin and Alfred alone.
“Wonderful, isn’t she?” said Benjamin, beaming as he watched his wife disappear.
Alfred shook his head, a gesture his friend missed. Benjamin’s unabashed tenderness toward his wife stood in such stark contrast to the coldness of his professional demeanor—not to mention the wandering eyes and hands that had plagued him in his younger years—that it never failed to surprise him. “You are a most fortunate man, Mr. Bradshaw.”
Benjamin placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I wish Ellen were here too, old chap. No change in her condition, then?”
“None for the better; none for the worse. For the latter, I suppose I should be thankful.”
“While I was away, I obtained the names of a few more doctors—don’t give up hope.”
“I appreciate your efforts, my friend.” Alfred appeared as though he wanted to say something more, but no words followed.
Benjamin smiled sadly. “You’ll join us for supper Tuesday as usual, I hope?”
Alfred managed a nod. “Of course.” They shook hands, and Benjamin turned to depart. Alfred grabbed his arm before he managed to take more than a step. “Before you go…what do you make of this Brendan Quinn?”
“It’s unlike a stranger to show up to one of these dinners unaccompanied, or at least without some bloody toff trying to introduce him to everyone.”
“I could not rid myself of the notion that he was staring at me throughout dinner.”
“I know you’re lonely these days, old man, but don’t flatter yourself—he’s too young for you. And, terribly sorry to say, considerably more attractive.”
“He is hardly my type. Obviously, I prefer men with money.” Alfred leered, and both men laughed.
“You will…” began Benjamin.
“…let you know what I discover, yes,” replied Alfred, his eyes bright.
Alfred nodded to familiar faces as he entered the drawing room, his nose wrinkling as he caught the pungent scent of a particularly strong—and cheap—cigar. Under normal circumstances, he would make a quick circuit of the room to exchange pleasantries and then depart. Tonight, however, he was determined not to leave until he had satisfied his curiosity, and to do that, he would need to draw Brendan Quinn into conversation.
He spotted the man by the fireplace, one arm resting on the mantle, his face expressionless as Alfred approached. “Mr. Quinn.”
Quinn seemed not to have heard, as his eyes remained fixed on some unknown object across the room. After a moment, however, he glanced furtively from side to side, as if seeking to ensure that no one was listening. At last, he responded, his voice both stern and lilting. “Perhaps you would do me the favor of joining me on balcony for a brief conversation?”
Alfred’s eyebrow shot up. “You do realize that it is the middle of winter, and hardly a pleasant evening. Men of my age find that their aches and pains, even if momentarily dulled by the cold, tend to worsen with prolonged exposure to it.”
“I’ve no wish to cause you discomfort, but it would be better if our discussion took place in private. I ask only for a moment, my lord—it is of the utmost importance.”
Curiosity warred with caution and, after Alfred stared at Quinn for a moment, the former won out. He nodded his assent and followed Quinn.
Alfred marveled as Quinn made his way across the room. The man moved with fluid grace, each foot lightly skimming the floor’s surface as he walked. He navigated a meandering path through the maze of brandy snifters and pipe smoke so subtly that their exit went unnoticed. Emerging onto the balcony, Quinn led them to a spot that offered no clear lines of sight from either the parlor or the drawing room, and together they stood gazing out over the darkened grounds. Alfred’s breath clouded before him, and he savored the crisp chill in the air. The bitter cold of the afternoon had diminished, replaced by a mild night draped in a velvet-black sky punctured by gleaming star bits.
Alfred did his best to force the rapidly forming questions from his mind, focusing instead on the majestic landscape before him. At last, Quinn spoke. “I understand you are a highly regarded scholar.”
“I suppose you might say that I know quite a lot about very little of consequence,” replied Alfred, confused. “I think ‘highly regarded’ does me more credit than I deserve.” Alfred crossed his arms as the cold seeped into his bones. “I confess, however, that I am puzzled as to why this discussion could not have taken place indoors. My scholarly efforts are hardly a topic worthy of secrecy.” Something in Quinn’s voice put Alfred on edge, and he could not be sure if the chill he suddenly felt so keenly could be attributed solely to the temperature.
Quinn paused, seeming to choose his words carefully. “Your particular area of expertise involves our Roman and Anglo-Saxon roots, with a particular emphasis on the so-called ‘dark ages,’ correct?”
Alfred rubbed his forehead with his right hand, perplexed. “In my youth, I had the privilege of studying under Professor Eric Aubrey, one of the finest Anglo-Saxon scholars that ever lived, at Cambridge, and his tutelage sparked a life-long interest that—”
“And your expertise extends to the subject of King Arthur?” interrupted Quinn, leaning in close, his voice low.
Alfred was taken aback at the man’s sudden intensity. “I have published a few trifling monographs on the subject.” Alfred had amassed an impressive collection of Arthurian lore in his library, including some exceedingly rare and coveted tomes. He began to worry that Quinn had somehow learned of his collection and was, perhaps, a book hunter in search of his fortune. Now on guard, Alfred glanced toward the house, hoping an inebriated guest might stumble out onto the balcony, but no such aid arrived.
“Your country, and your Queen, have need of that knowledge,” said Quinn, interrupting Alfred’s thoughts. “Do you consider yourself a patriotic man, Lord Fitzwilliam?”
“I take pride in Britain’s rich cultural heritage, and in her tremendous achievements in the arts and sciences. As for the Queen, she is a benevolent ruler.” He was not especially enamored of the Crown’s rampant colonization efforts and attempts to “civilize” indigenous “savages,” but, under the circumstances, Alfred felt that withholding that particular opinion might prove a wiser course of action.
“A suitably cautious answer.” Quinn looked over his shoulder to make sure they were alone. “I seek your assistance in a matter that I’m sure is close to your heart.” He paused. “Your wife…she is ill?” The pause sounded rehearsed, as though the man needed to practice sounding sympathetic.
Alfred’s face hardened. “You refer to a matter I do not wish to discuss.”
“My intent is not to bring you discomfort, Lord Fitzwilliam,” said Quinn, “but instead to offer you a chance to help prevent others from experiencing your pain.”
Alfred turned away, placed his palms down on the balcony, and leaned forward. He breathed deeply and exhaled slowly, his breath forming a misty cloud. “I am not in the habit, sir, of assisting those who would use my grief as a means of coercion.”
“I’m not a diplomat, my lord—I’m a soldier,” replied Quinn, sounding almost contrite. “As it stands, however, the member of my organization who wishes to speak with you was unable to come himself, and so he sent me instead.”
“Who is it who wishes to speak with me, then, Mr. Quinn?”
“This will explain all.” Quinn reached inside his jacket and produced a sealed envelope. There was no writing on the outside, nor was there anything remarkable about the seal itself. He held it out to Alfred.
Alfred stared hard at Quinn as he accepted the envelope. Alfred opened the letter, turning back toward the balcony to make better use of the moonlight.
The letter was dated three days previously.
My Dear Lord Fitzwilliam,
Please accept my most sincere apologies for sending this missive in lieu of calling upon you in person. I am afraid that I am confined to my quarters, and Tuesdays are such irritable days anyway—I have yet to experience one that was not, for one reason or another, particularly unsociable. Generally speaking, they are terrible days for travel.
In my stead, I have sent Mr. Brendan Quinn, a man of great intelligence and even greater accomplishment, particularly on the field of battle. He is a loyal servant of Her Majesty, but he is not, I fear, the most cordial of men. Mr. Quinn possesses a rather unique ability to transform mundane interactions into confrontational exchanges, for such are of the type with which he is most familiar.
This would, perhaps, be an ideal moment to introduce myself. My name is Henry Milner, and I belong to an organization that, though secret, falls directly under the Queen and her cabinet’s purview. Our group has existed for nearly 300 years and, God willing, will survive long after we are gone. Our raison d’être is simply stated: protect the British government and expand its power, influence, and magnificence. The endeavors we undertake, however, are often far more complex.
I shall not go on at length about the history of our organization, though I strongly suspect that you would find it fascinating. In fact, I refrain from sharing not from any reticence on my part or any potential lack of interest on your part, but simply because I am not allowed. Perhaps, if you are kind enough to acquiesce to the proposal outlined below, I may be able to reveal a few tidbits of interest at some point in the near future.
While our initiatives vary widely, and I confess that some are distasteful to men of honor (one of the reasons, perhaps, that men like Mr. Quinn are in our employ, though perhaps I treat him unfairly), there are times when I have the privilege of undertaking a task that has the potential to provide such benefit to the Empire, and the world at large, that I sink to my knees and give thanks to my Creator for allowing me the opportunity to be a part of this organization, one that has the resources and wherewithal to achieve the impossible. I am currently engaged in such an undertaking, one that it is my greatest hope you will be willing to assist us with.
When God calls upon men to make sacrifices for the greater good, we cannot help but heed the call, no matter how much pain we must endure. Were it within my power to make this request without bringing you sorrow, I would do so. Alas, however, it is only by reminding you of the horrible pain you now endure that I can convey to you the sanctity of our mission.
Consumption and other wasting diseases plague our nation. Each year, thousands of individuals, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, lose their lives while our most brilliant physicians wring their hands helplessly. I understand that your wife has been suffering for some time; I myself lost a cousin just last year.
There is hope, however. Our organization may have the means to stem the tide of consumption, and we may be able to prevent the spread of other illnesses as well, ensuring that no one ever need suffer the tragic and premature loss of a loved one again.
These claims undoubtedly sound outlandish, and I do not doubt that you will regard them—rightly, I might add—with skepticism. I, too, had doubts, but I now believe it not only possible, but, in fact, most probable that we can achieve this goal. In order to do so, however, we must recover a long-lost artifact, and it is for this reason that I seek your assistance.
Like you, I was fortunate enough to study under Professor Aubrey, though my tutelage occurred several years after yours; he always spoke most highly of you. When I read your recent monograph speculating on the final resting place of our legendary King Arthur, I knew at once that you were the right man to assist us in our endeavor.
I understand that this must be quite perplexing, and I can practically hear you wondering aloud what your knowledge of Anglo-Saxon England has to do with curing disease. I assure you that the two are inextricably linked, and that, with your aid, we may very well be able to accomplish the unthinkable and make miracles an everyday occurrence.
I pray that I do not ask too much of you by seeking an audience, a chance to convince you of the veracity of our claims and to ascertain whether you have the knowledge to assist us in our search. On the back of this letter, you will find an address. If it pleases you, I would be honored to host you at that address at the hour of 4:00 PM on Friday, 17 January. Fridays are very agreeable days, perhaps owing to their position in the week. Whatever the reason, I find them very accommodating, days that one can depend upon to provide succor no matter what ignominious events Tuesdays and those dastardly Thursdays have wrought.
You needn’t respond with any indication as to whether you have chosen to come; your appearance, or lack thereof, at the appointed hour will provide sufficient response. While I feel that are many compelling reasons for you to come, I certainly have no wish to coerce you.
Regardless of whether we meet next week (a meeting, incidentally, that I would look forward to greatly, as it is always pleasurable to converse with a man of such scholarly reputation, particularly one who is as esteemed a peer of the realm as you, my lord), I pass along my kindest regards and admiration for your academic accomplishments.
Alfred turned back toward the house as he finished reading, but was not surprised to find himself alone on the balcony.