"You wanted to see me?" Maria asked.
Raven looked up from her work absently. It took her a moment to realize who had just walked into the room. In a moment she was on her feet.
"Good afternoon, Lady Maria," she greeted the baroness.
"Good grief, not you too," Maria said with a groan. She sank into a chair. "I was hoping you would lay off all the formalities since you're not from around here."
"I'm not sure I understand," Raven said. "When I am a guest, I make it a point to be particularly polite."
"Because you never know which barons and baronesses have sticks shoved up their..." Maria caught herself. "Shoved up their spines, I guess."
"I guess that's the case," Raven said uncertainly. "Where exactly is this going, ma'am?"
"Nowhere," Maria answered. "I'm not the type of person who will order your head off for not using my title. Sit down, stop calling me ma'am, and treat me like a person, for goodness sake."
"Yes ma'am," Raven said and returned to her seat. Even now she couldn't quite relax. Her posture was ramrod straight and her hands rested idly on her knees, what she considered to be the picture of a woman sitting "properly."
"My name's Maria, please use it," the baroness said. "People call me baroness, ma'am, and my lady so much, I hardly remember what my name is."
"Alright," Raven said slowly. "Is it alright if I..."
"Slouch?" Maria cut in. "Heck, I don't care if you prop your feet up on the table, just act like a person, please."
"Well in that case..." Raven's voice trailed off as she propped one foot on the table in front of her and rocked her chair back on two legs.
"I'd do the same thing, but I'm not sure my dress would allow for it," Maria said.
"Well, you'd have to hike it up some for sure," Raven commented. "But then, that wouldn't be very lady-like, would it?"
"You're mocking me now," Maria said with a laugh.
"Just treating you like a person," Raven said. "No one is spared my mocking, not even my friends."
"You consider me a friend?" Maria asked. There was surprise and a little bit of shock in her voice.
"Well, I don't really know you at all, so I can't make that call," Raven confessed. "But Midas seems to like you, and any friend of his is a friend of mine."
"Speaking of Midas, what exactly is your relationship with him?" Maria asked. "How do you know him?"
"I'm his friend," Raven answered. "We work together. He's a really nice guy; treats me like family. He'll probably take to calling me his sibling just like he did with Leo."
"You mean they're not related? So that's why they're so..." Maria trailed off.
"Different?" Raven offered. "Not at all alike? Yes, that would be why."
"How did you all meet?" Maria asked.
"Well, we're all orphans as near as I can figure, so there's the commonality," Raven said. "Leo and Midas were together before I met them. Leo's smart and Midas is strong, so together they make the perfect team."
"You said that you work together," Maria commented. "If Leo and Midas are the perfect team, what do you do?"
"I'm usually the one to find us work, though Midas took care of that this time," Raven answered.
"So you three just go around protecting poor baronesses' castles?" Maria asked.
"Yes, though most of our jobs are considerably less glamorous than this one," Raven said. "This is pretty high profile compared to the work we usually do."
"You're in charge, aren't you?" Maria asked. "At first I thought Midas was the leader, but now I get the feeling that's your job besides finding work."
"I wouldn't say that any one of us is 'in charge' as you put it," Raven said. "We just all do our jobs and everything works out."
"You said that Leopold was the smart one and you found work," Maria said. "What exactly does Midas do?"
"He's the strong one," Raven said as if that explained everything. The look on Maria's face said it did not. "Leo and I can certainly hold our own in a fight, but Midas is the best at that. Put any weapon in his hands and he can make it seem like the best weapon in the world. If we need a full-frontal assault, or to 'strong arm' our way through a situation, he's our man. He'll go head-to-head with anyone."
"So basically he's the muscle," Maria said. "I don't think you're giving him enough credit."
"He's just the muscle only as much as I'm just an advertisement," Raven said with a laugh. "Besides, what do you care? Wait a moment, you like him, don't you?"
Maria didn't respond, but her face did turn a light shade of red.
"It's true, you fancy him!" Raven exclaimed.
"I'm pretty sure you didn't want an audience with me to talk about boys," Maria changed the subject, though Raven noted she specifically didn't deny the accusation. "Why did you want to see me?"
"Right," Raven said, gathering her thoughts. Time to get back to business. "What is the relationship between you and the baron?"
"The baron staying here at the moment?" Maria asked and Raven nodded. "His name is Baron Jasven, and that's an interesting question. Why do you ask?"
"I'm following up a lead to keep you and the castle safe," Raven said vaguely. "I have a suspicion that everything isn't what it seems. I think something bad is about to happen, but I might be able to stop it."
"Well, in a nutshell, I was engaged to him about five years ago," Maria said.
"Engaged to him?" Raven interjected. "But he's got to be at least twenty years older than you!"
"Twenty-five," Maria corrected. "I was fifteen and he was forty."
"You're obviously not married to him now, so what happened?" Raven asked.
"My parents died," Maria said shortly.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Raven apologized. "I didn't know."
"Don't be sorry," Maria said. "I was sad to see my mother go, but my father was a pig. He was the one who wanted to marry me off. Apparently it would have improved relations with Jasven; apparently all I was to him was a political bargaining chip. Anyway, my parents died, so I inherited control of their land and, more importantly, myself. I called off the wedding and Baron Jasven was quite angry."
"What about your parents' deaths?" Raven asked. "Were there any unusual circumstances there or did it seem natural?"
"The whole thing was premature and unnatural," Maria said. "I've often thought that Baron Jasven had something to do with it, but if that were the case, why would he have killed them before he was married to me? That part just doesn't seem to add up."
"So Jasven was so close to having control over your lands and then lost them," Raven said. "Has he made any trouble for you since?"
"Indeed," Maria said. "Over the past five years he has made half a dozen claims to various parts of my fiefdom."
"And what of allies?" Raven asked.
"A baroness ruling is frowned upon in general," Maria explained. "The other barons think it sets a bad precedent. Needless to say, most of them back Baron Jasven. Only one of our neighbors sides with me, and that is because he is my cousin."
"If he has all the support, why hasn't he gone to war with you yet?" Raven asked.
"He needs a legitimate reason to attack or his allies will not help," Maria explained. "If he goes to war alone, he will lose. As I have mentioned, I have an ally of my own. Without an excuse to attack, it would be two against one."
"One last question," Raven said. "If his horse was killed in your stables..." She let the question hang in the air.
"That would be just the excuse he's looking for," Maria said. "It's a dumb reason, but his allies would rally behind him."
"And if that happened, what would be your chances of winning the war?" Raven asked.
"Zero," Maria said. "I have one ally, and he has at least a dozen barons on his side. Why, do you think someone's going to try to kill the horse?"
"Not if I have a say," Raven answered. "Don't worry, Maria. You've got two allies now."
"No offense, Raven, but you don't have an army," Maria said.
"I told you Midas was good," Raven shot back. The comment lightened the mood a little. "Well, I need to get back to my 'saving the world' stuff"
"Thank you, Raven," Maria said. "I can't tell you how much what you're doing means to me."
"Don't mention it," Raven said. "It's just what friends do for each other."
"Don't mention it," Raven said. "It's just what friends do for each other."