In the previous episode we learned that a vile curse had caused all the other he tinkers to turn violent against their own kind, forcing the she tinkers to kill them in order to protect themselves. Mike, having shown no sign of being affected by the curse, has been invited to dine with the Queen of the Keep.
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The tunnel-like passageway bent and twisted its way through the roots of the great willow tree as Mike followed Izsel. As they turned a corner the tunnel opened into a spacious room. Blue, white, and green tinted light streamed in through two lines of bottle glass windows that ran along both sides of the room. Four long tables laden with platters of food stretched across the room, each seating at least thirty she tinkers who were all laughing and talking, filling the room with sound.
A ample bosomed tinker with a thick brown braid shrieked in surprise when she saw him, causing the whole room to turn and fall silent. Every eye in the room watched as he stepped forward, some with fear, some with anger, and a few with eager curiosity. At the end of the room was a shorter table set on a raised platform. In the center sat the queen wearing a deep green dress and a simple crown that she hadn’t been wearing when they first met outside the tree. Three women sat at the table alongside her, including Nessa who had come to his room earlier, leaving two empty chairs. Mike’s stomach sank when he realized that they were for himself and Izsel.
Mike crossed the room to take his seat and a wave of whispers followed behind him.
Queen Caliee rapped a small gavel, bringing the room back to silence. “Ladies, as you have all noticed we have a guest here tonight. This is Mike Finnegan a fellow tinker. Mistress Nessa has determined that he is safe from the curse and therefore free to go about his business while here at Willow keep.” A volcano of excited voices erupted at the news, filling the room. A tinker wearing orange with hair that reminded Mike of copper pennies openly stared at him with a wistful smile. It had obviously been too long since any of them had seen a man. Then again, it had been a very long time since he had seen a women of his kind either.
The queen turned her attention to Mike. “I suppose some introductions are in order, you’ve already met Mistress Izsel, commander of our soldiers, and Mistress Nessa, head of our order of healers. Also, here is Mistress Maybelle, our head engineer, and there at the end of the table Mistress Annette, our head historian.” They each nodded in turn as they were introduced. “I never did ask you what your business was in coming here, forgive me. Precautions had to be taken first, you must understand.”
“No apology necessary, I’ll admit I was a bit angry about being stuck in that room. But now I know why I can see the wisdom in it.” He spooned a pile of roasted beets on his plate, inhaling the heavenly aroma. “Besides with food like this no tinker can stay mad for long.”
“So, why are you here?”
Mike felt strangely self-conscious blurting out that he was looking for a woman, especially now he was surrounded by so many. He knew he would have to answer her question, it would be rude not to. He took a bite from his plate and chewed it with care to buy himself more time. “Delicious. I could die happy right now.” Judging by the queen’s gaze, and the impatient looks from the other four ladies at the table he decided he better just answer the question. “Oh, yes, why I’m here. You see, I’ve been a house tinker for several decades on my own and lately I’ve thought how nice it would be to have someone else there with me.”
“Are you trying to say you’ve come looking for a woman to court?”
“Well…” He scooped up another bite, and immediately thought better of it. “Yes, that’s exactly what I’m trying to say. You see when I left my comfy home I didn’t know how much everything had changed here in the park, I had hoped to find a few she tinkers in the gardens tending the flowers with their cozy tinker homes like it used to be. I never imagined finding all the she tinkers hiding away inside a fortress. You can’t imagine what I had to go through to find you.”
Izsel took a sip from her cup and cleared her throat. “When you have enemies like we do, being well hidden is the best first defense. I’m surprised you found us at all. This park is a dangerous place.”
Maybelle, a sensible looking tinker with thin pencil tucked behind her ear, leaned forward. “Now that you’ve found us, how to you intend on going about deciding which woman you will court?”
“I’m not sure. I’d hate to hurt any feelings. I suppose I’ll have to spend time getting to know everyone.”
The historian at the end of the table set down her fork and adjusted her glasses. “Since there is only one of you and many of us it might be wise to come up with some sort of plan to make it fair for everyone, perhaps a series of tasks that the ladies who are interested in being courted can complete and Mike can judge.”
The queen gave a nearly imperceptible sigh and Mike thought he caught her rolling her eyes. “Do you mean to turn this into a contest? Don’t be absurd.”
“Do you remember the story of Cassandra and her twelve suitors, and how her actions ended up dividing a whole kingdom against itself? If that could cause years of feuding and war, who’s to say what might happen here?” She tapped her fork against the plate as she spoke, emphasizing key words.
“I agree that whatever we do must be fair, although I don’t think we risk the division of Willow Keep over one man. What do you think Mike?” the queen asked.
“I’m just a humble house tinker looking for the right lady, she doesn’t have to be the best at anything, just the best fit for me. Everyone should have a chance who wants to. I’d hate to hurt feelings.”
“That settles it, starting tomorrow morning we will organize a series of meetings where you’ll have the chance to meet the ladies of the keep. Should you find a few you’d like to get to know better we will arrange more personal visits.”
Mike glanced over to Maybelle who was busy sketching something between bites, and wondered if she had been the brain behind the intricate locking systems that he had seen. He hoped he would find a chance to talk to her about it and maybe even be allowed to see her workshop and tools. “Will everyone be coming to these meetings?”
“Only those who are interested in being courted, naturally.” the queen answered.
“Of course.” Mike replied and secretly hoped that she would be there.
To be continued…
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