Robespierre had just rejoined them, and Richard was sharply reminded of how much he disliked the diminutive Frenchman when he limped his way up from the kitchens, into the grand entrance. He clutched the heavy shawl around his shoulders. He also wore a pair of heavily tinted glasses. He looks the part of a beggar, Richard thought. Robespierre hair had also been shaved down to the scalp and it appeared to grow like a wild hedge.
“Cold,” he rasped. Richard had heard that something happened to his throat, reducing his voice to whisper.
“Yes, it is rather. Here,” Russo pushed a cup of tea over to him. “You’ll warm up.”
Richard rolled his eyes. Across from him Bonaparte had stood up to sit down next to Robespierre, who looked up at him. Bonaparte bent toward him, whispering something that Richard couldn’t hear but made Robespierre suddenly smile widely, stretching the scars over his face.
“Aw, that’s sweet,” Aspen Strong said. She was seated next to Richard, also watching as Bonaparte and Robespierre bonded over something.
Richard snorted and Strong nudged him playfully. “Come on. He was such a soggy plum after we got him back. Frankly this is way better.”
Richard shrugged. “As you say.” He took a sip of his own drink, something that Jones had convinced him to try, a drinking chocolate. It was sweet, but not overly so and pleasingly thick, like a stout beer. Richard liked it very much.
They were waiting for Kami and Harmony Suski to arrive, back from their leave. After that Jones had someone new to introduce them to. Richard looked around the great hall and the motley assortment that now inhabited it. Jones was anxiously watching the clock. Leonardo had an omnipresent tablet and was absently flipping his finger over it. The Frenchmen had their head together. In comparison Richard felt very natural sitting next to Strong, who was cleaning her fingernails with a knife.
Strong stopped when something on her armlet beeped and she glanced at it with a smile.
“Punctual as always,” she muttered then look up at Jones. “Robin’s here. I’m just going to help him with his stuff.”
Jones nodded and Strong slipped out the doors.
“Who is Robin?” Richard asked with a sigh. He was beginning to get used to being ignored in his own castle.
“A friend of Aspen’s. A priest,” Jones said. Richard straightened up in his seat.
Jones nodded and stopped their pacing when the door opened again. Richard stood up from his chair.
“Welcome to Middleham, Father Varma.” Strong waved an older man through the door.
Richard starred. He was not the only one. Bonaparte and Robespierre had stopped their chatter and Leonardo was riveted as their newest occupant stepped into the castle.
“Hello, everyone. I am Robin Varma,” the man said. He had a deep voice that resonated from his rounded chest and belly. He was also tall, about as tall as Strong, by Richard’s reckoning. But it was neither his weight nor stature that stopped Richard from bowing.
The reverend’s face and hands, the only parts Richard could see, were colored both brown and white. His palms and fingertips were pale, but the tops tanned. His eyes and lips were like a mask of linen, the rest dark skinned. This extended to his hair too, Richard realized. His black and grey hair was shot with white at the temples.
Richard stopped his gaping when Strong, still holding the Reverend’s bags, brought him over to Richard.
“Robin, I want you to meet Richard the Third,” she said, shifting back and forth. “I told you about him,” she muttered in an undertone to him and Richard, having gotten over his shock, frowned. What was that supposed to mean?
Varma shook his hand. “I’m pleased to meet you Richard. I’m told this is your castle we’re residing in,” he said, mouth twitching.
Richard bowed. “Honored Reverend Father. I’m glad we could host you.” He rose in time to see Varma glance over at Jones. He patted Richard’s hand before releasing it.
“Please, Richard. Just call me Robin,” he said with a smile. “I look forward to seeing Middleham’s chapel.”
Richard nodded his head. “I will more than happy to show it to you, Father Robin.”
“Close enough,” he heard the man mutter, before circling the table to shake Jones hand.
They bent close to Robin for a moment, whispering. Robin gave a single nod then smiled. He was confronted by Leonardo next, who was peering at him intensely.
“Are you the Leonardo I have heard so much about?” Robin asked.
“Si,” Leonardo said, distraction in every line of him. “I’m pleased to meet you, Robin.” He fidgeted when Robin turned away and Richard saw him withdraw a small notebook out of his pocket, opening it and beginning to sketch madly.
Russo and Robin made their introductions and for a moment both dropped into Italian then laughed.
“How’s Rome these days?” Richard heard Russo ask.
“The Town is as it ever was,” Robin answered, holding his hands before him.
Russo tossed her head. “I’ll just bet,” she said with a snort. Robin let out a small chuckle at this before turning his attention to the remaining Frenchmen.
Bonaparte gave the man a quick bow before shaking his hand. “Father,” he greeted quickly, releasing his hand.
“I have heard a lot about you, Napoleon,” Robin remarked. He peered at the shorter man and let out a little hum. “I look forward to talking to you,” was all he said before looking at Robespierre.
Robespierre had struggled to his feet, standing stiffly although even Richard could see how he trembled.
“You are Maximilien Robespierre then?” Robin asked holding out his hand. “I’ve heard a lot about you too.”
Robespierre paused before taking his hand. He nodded once before letting go and sinking back down to his chair, as if those simple actions had drained him. Robin seemed to look him over for a moment before turning to Jones.
“I’d like to see my rooms, please. Then perhaps we can discuss- “
“Yes. In my office. Aspen can show you where you’re staying,” Jones hurried cut him off. “In the rooms over the chapel.” They added, “It’s more comfortable than the ones out in the inner walls.”
Robin nodded and set off into the castle with Strong.
Their footsteps had scarcely quieted when Bonaparte whipped around to Jones and blurted out, “What was wrong with him?”
Jones frowned. “Nothing. Reverend Varma has vitiligo.”
“What does that mean?” Leonardo asked. He had taken Bonaparte’s seat and didn’t look up from his sketching. Richard crossed around to his back and saw that he was drawing Robin’s hands in painstaking detail.
He really is a rather remarkable artist.
“His skin and hair lose their pigment. That’s why he has the patches of white skin,” Jones said.
Bonaparte, rather than looking reassured, blanched himself. “Is it contagious?”
Jones, for the first time since they had arrived, sighed loudly and with clear frustration. Richard had noticed they had begun to look rather worn and wondered if the situation was causing them to lose their nerve. If they decided that harboring them wasn’t worth the trouble, Jones could easily turn them in.
Richard realized that Leonardo and Robespierre must have been thinking along similar lines since Leonardo stopped sketching and turned to Bonaparte.
“I would assume not, Napoleon, since Robin touched all of us easily, and without fear. He’s clearly a healthy man. It is just a physical difference, clearly.” Leonardo’s tone was easy and gentle. If Bonaparte noticed that he was being calmed like a child, he didn’t remark on it, instead looking to Jones for conformation.
“Leonardo is right. Vitiligo is just like a birthmark. It’s not stigmatized or dangerous,” Russo said, tone firm. ‘If you have more questions about it, I’m sure that Robin wouldn’t mind talking about it.”
Jones then checked their wrist, flicking their fingers over it to bring up the time from the holographic display projected from their bracelet they wore.
“Kami and Harm are late. Their transport was delayed by a solar flair.” They looked up at Russo. “I’m going go to my office to talk with Robin.”
The doctor nodded and gestured to Robespierre. “We going to go back to the infirmary soon. This is just about enough excitement for one day, don’t you agree, Max?’
The Frenchman startled and mouthed a single syllable. Leonardo appeared to be biting back a grin as he helped Robespierre back to his feet.
Richard caught Bonaparte before he left, holding him around the elbow.
“You are not to insult Reverend Varma while he is here,” he said lowly. Bonaparte started and sneered slightly. He moved to brush Richard off, but he tightened his grip. “Do not make remarks on his appearance. He is a godly man and you will respect his station.”
“You aren’t a king any longer. I don’t need to listen to you.” Bonaparte made another attempt to escape Richard.
In one decisive move, Richard spun them both and firmly pinned Bonaparte to the wall, his skull bouncing off it. Bonaparte may have been taller than Richard, but only just and Richard had the benefit of the strength in his arms and shoulders. I knew al that training with a mace would come in handy.
“If you offer them insult, antagonize them, then Jones will need no excuses to turn us out of Middleham. I may not be master of this keep any longer, but I have no intention of being removed from my own home. Endanger that and see us thrown out” Richard slammed him against the wall again. “And there will be nothing stopping me from slitting your throat.”
He let Bonaparte go. They stared at one another for a moment, both breathing hard. Bonaparte, gathering his dignity, brushed one hand over his hair and then turned on his heel to escape up the stairs.
Richard snorted and turned around.
“Was that wise?” Leonardo was sitting back at the table. He was looking over his sketches.
Richard straightened up. “If he continues to antagonize Jones and the rest, then yes, warning him was the best course of action.”
Leonardo watched him approach with careful eyes. “Warning him, or threatening him? We don’t have the luxury of infighting, here. There will be more of us soon.”
“You saw what they’ve done to Robespierre. I have no love for him, but I do not want to find out what they did to damage him so. Miller is likely still out there, looking for us. This,” he gestured around himself to the castle and it’s comforting stone walls, “is our best chance.”
Kami and Harmony arrived a few hours later, snow sticking to their hair and clothes. Richard noticed they did seem a good deal more cheerful. Harmony embraced Aspen and whispered something in her ear that made her laugh. Kami shook hands with Doctor Russo and then with Robin.
“We’re doing pizza tonight,” Strong said. “Would you believe that Leonardo has never had pizza? How is that legal?” She shook her head, braids swaying.
“I told you, pizza wasn’t invented yet,” Jones said and kissed Kami on each cheek. “How is Cherri? How was Mars?”
Richard listened silently while the Susuki’s recounted their trip and regaled them with tales of their daughter, away at boarding school in South Africa.
“I took a video of Harm on his skies, look,” Kami said, leaning over the table to show them. Richard watched as the man waved then propelled himself down a glacier with a pair of wooden planks stuck to his feet.
“It’s for recreation?” He asked Kami. She nodded.
“Yeah, skiing is fun. They did the winter Olympics for the first time up there last year and because Mars’s gravity isn’t the same there were skiers breaking records left, right and center.”
Richard watched Harm fly down the glacier, seemingly hardly touching the snow. “Can you ski in England he asked, curious.
Jones shook their head. “I’m afraid not. No real mountains. We would have to go up to Iceland or Norway.”
Leonardo was picked apart the bread part of his pizza. “Could we?” He asked. The table went quiet as everyone glanced at one another. Leonardo let out a little sigh and smiled sadly. “I suppose not.”
“We just don’t know how much attention Haruka is paying attention to us right now. Once it becomes safer…” Jones trailed off. Leonardo lifted one shoulder and shook his head. He’d taken to pulling his brown hair back into tail on the back of his head and it was becoming long enough to sway with his movements.
“I was only wondering, Magpie. It wasn’t a complaint,” he said gently and took a bite of the pizza.
The table all glanced at one another again.
“We’re having a staff meeting tomorrow. Maybe tonight, if you could, make a list of suggestions to make your stay here more comfortable?” Robin Varma said. “We,” he gestured to Jones, the Susuki’s and Strong, “have our own ideas about that, but it would be helpful to know what you might want.”
“Horses,” Richard said without thinking. “Falcons for hunting.”
“Larger accommodations. Warmer too,” Bonaparte said promptly. He was bundled in two different coats.
“Could we rebuild some of the houses that used to stand in the keep? Perhaps the blacksmith as well?” Leonardo asked.
“Write it down tonight and tomorrow we’ll see what can be done,” Jones said.
Richard remarked as he and Leonardo took the stairs up to the rooms on the topmost floor, “It would be nice to practice with a sword again as well.”
“I’d rather have the horses,” Leonardo remarked. He smiled his half smile. “Nearly makes one miss Rainbow’s dogs.”