Meeting with foreign dignitaries was a common occurrence for Anna when she worked in high finance. It was always supposed to be a high stakes, high stress affair, but she’d never found the encounters to be particularly challenging or worrisome. Whether they were senior management from a multinational conglomerate or high level government ministers, the wealthy and powerful were still as predictably human as a deli shop manager or a town hall clerk.
Part of her wished she could explain that to her compatriots. Both Tam and Val were trying to appear relaxed but were holding themselves with a subtle rigidity that spoke of a deep seated nervousness. Neither the magically adept stage magician nor the physically superb fighter were in their comfort zone when it came to dealing with diplomatic maneuverings and political deal making.
Fortunately, they both knew they could look to her for guidance and support. It was how they operated, each handling the matters they were best suited for dealing with and trusting that the others wouldn’t cover them for the rest.
Generally the presence of the rest of their team was all the comfort that any of them needed but in this circumstance Anna didn’t fault the other two women for their nerves. The briefing given to them for the case had been sparse to the point of mystery. All Charlene or James had been able to tell them was that a letter had arrived carried in the talons of a pitch black owl.
The letter had requested “the aid of delegates from the Second Chance Club in conducting delicate political negotiations with powers and interests which have been for an extended time estranged from the common avenues of political discourse”.
Even to Anna’s ears that had sounded overblown, more like something she’d expect to find in a Regency era romance novel than a modern political communique.
Subsequent paragraphs revealed that the Second Chance Club had been recommended to the High King and Celestial Queen of the Sunset Isles, and they were the “powers and interests” who were primarily looking to renew ties with the rest of the world.
Val had been the first to question where “the Sunset Isles” were, but Anna had guessed the answer even before James supplied it. There was no kingdom on Earth named “the Sunset Isles”. That didn’t come as a surprise mostly because Anna was also certain that there were no countries on Earth which relied on magical owls to deliver their correspondence.
James had promised to begin researching the Sunset Isles, with a view to lands of myth and legend, but had warned that the search was likely to turn up too many many potential candidates where the Earth held too few.
Wherever their country lay, and however real their claim on royalty was, after many years of isolation “Their Majesties” were intent on establishing fresh relations in “the New World” (which suggested a European origin, or more likely the affectation of a outdated view of the American continents).
“So this is probably a bunch of people who are pretending to be ‘Ye Olde Fashion Nobles’ from Camelot or something right?” Val had asked. “Should we really be encouraging them?”
“They might be pretending to be nobles, but that owl was as real as it gets,” Tam had pointed out.
And that had been the point which had moved Charlene to send them on the mission to meet with the Duke of Wellbagun and the Duchess of Luq, the two emissaries of the crown who had experience in dealing with the world outside the Sunset Isles.
The Duke and Duchess had a residence to the north of Vancouver. One which had no telephone or internet connection. When Tam looked for it, the closest she was able to find a small farm off the Sea-to-Sky highway that was a neighbor of the Duke and Duchess’s estate.
One plane flight, a small side diversion for Kelly Mashawalaran’s sake, and a car ride in a limousine Jimmy B procured and drove for them, brought the Second Chance team to an odd sight.
The address of the Sunset Isle’s embassy was down a long dirt road, which to all appearance ended at a horse farm.
“Is horse farming common up here?” Tam asked as they got out of the car.
“Not that I was aware of,” Anna said, furrowing her brow in confusion.
“Could our royal friends just be trying to get away from it all?” Val asked, looking at the wilderness around them.
“I do not think so,” Anna said, smelling the familiar farm scents that lay heavy on the air.
“Some rich people like to live far from civilization though right?” Tam asked. “Bill Gates bought an island for himself if I remember correctly.”
“It is not uncommon for the rich and powerful to seek solitude and seclusion,” Anna said. “Especially for homes which are meant to be a sanctuary from the world. The road which leads here though is out of place for one used by a wealthy land holder.”
“Maybe they fly in and out?” Val asked. “This is far enough north that depending on the roads might be a bad idea in the winter.”
“That’s not as much of a problem here,” Tam said. “Vancouver doesn’t get much snow at all. It has the third lowest snowfall of the major cities in Canada.”
“It is not the snow which troubles me about the roads,” Anna said. “As you suggest, it would not be uncommon for someone of sufficient wealth to use private air service, but if that were the case, they would have given us the address of their helicopter’s launching point.”
“Yeah, that would be a more impressive introduction to their place than coming to it like this,” Tam said, gesturing to the farm.
It wasn’t run down or poorly setup, but there was a problem of scale.
Most farms cover sprawling tracts of land, “The Royal Acres Horse Farm” however was a relatively small patch of land which had been carved out of the surrounding forest. There was a decently sized coral and a pair of large barns with a two story house behind them. The house drew their attention as an elderly woman exited just as Tam finished speaking.
“Two questions,” Val said. “First, what’s the chance that someone was playing a prank on us when they brought us here?”
“Very low,” Anna said. “Charlene would not have sent us if it wasn’t a serious matter in some sense. What is your second question?”
“What’s the chance that this is trap?” Val said, shifting her weight just enough for Anna to see how ready she was for trouble to break out at any instant.
“Unknown,” Anna said, watching the old woman approach.
Anna didn’t consider herself an old woman, but she did consider herself dangerous, and she had no intention of losing that trait as she aged. As a result she wasn’t inclined to assume that the old woman approaching them was anything like harmless.
“Welcome friends!” the old woman said. “I’m Teri Royal. How can I help you?”
“Hello,” Anna said, showing a warm smile and a friendly face to match the old woman’s greeting. She felt neither warm, nor friendly, not yet at least, but very little was ever gained from open displays of suspicion or hostility.
People generally showed strangers distrustful expressions out of fear and a desire to have the strangers prove their good intentions. Anna had learned to form her own judgements on people’s intentions and knew that one’s fear could easily become a weapon in an enemies hands.
“We are trying to find the Sunset Isle estates,” she said, switching to a midwestern American accent. Foreign, but also so commonly heard in movies and TV that it was unlikely to arouse concern.
“The Sunset Isle estates? Is that a new development project? I heard we might be getting some condominiums put in this year,” Teri said, looking from one visitor to the next.
“It’s supposed to be a house owned by some foreign dignitaries,” Tam said, and passed Teri a copy of the address they’d been given. Rather than a standard postal code, it had the estate name and a land lot number.
“Well now isn’t that interesting,” Teri said. “We don’t have any place called the Sunset Isle estates around here, but that lot number is real enough.”
“You recognize it?” Val asked.
“I certainly do,” Teri said. “That’s the land back over there.”
She gestured towards the trees at the edge of the Royal Acres clearing.
“I’ve been trying to buy that land for years now, to expand the farm,” Teri said. “The owners have never been willing to sell though. Good market, bad market, doesn’t matter to them. They don’t even do anything with it. No lumbering, no building, I don’t think they even use it for hunting or hiking.”
“How much land do they own?” Anna asked.
“I don’t know,” Teri said. “Quite a lot I guess. I’ve only been interested in the parcel that abuts our land but I think they must be a big land owner or something.”
“Why’s that?” Val asked.
“I’ve never been able to talk to them,” Teri said. “All I ever get are these really fancy notes.”
All three woman just barely managed to stop themselves from asking how the notes were delivered. It was too odd a question to pose, and while the Sunset Isle royalty may have chosen the extravagance of a magic owl for delivery to the Second Chance Club, there was no reason to think they wouldn’t have used the regular mail to deliver more mundane correspondence.
“Do you still have any of those letters?” Tam asked. “I’m just curious if it’s the same kind of stationary we received.”
“Sure, come on into the house and I’ll hunt them up,” Teri said. “I hung on to all of them because they’re so pretty.”
Val looked at Tam and Anna who each exchanged nods.
“Thank you!” Tam said, and Val fell into step beside her.
“I’ll wait out here,” Anna said. “I could use some fresh air after spending all that time cooped up in a plane.”
Fresh farm air wasn’t particularly to Anna’s liking but something was tickling at the back of her head. Something was off about the farm and she knew she needed at least a few moments of observation to work out what it was.
The layout of the farm was reasonably standard, at least as far as Anna’s limited experience with farms went. The fencing around the coral was made of stout wooden posts and beams, some of which showed traces of age but were still in good shape. The bails of hay were similar to what Anna would have expected to see.
And then there were the horses.
The ones who were staring directly at her.
And walking directly towards her with a slow and purposeful gait.
Anna was ready for them to charge the fence. She was conscious that they could also jump it if they were sufficiently motivated. What she did not see coming however was that they would speak to her.
“Hello,” the dark brown horse said. “You must be from the Second Chance Club?”
“We’ve been expecting you,” the light tan horse said. “Thank you for accepting our invitation.”
A million possibilities ran through Anna’s mind, from the horses being extremely clever animatronics to their “voices” being a trick engineered with hidden speaks. In the end however, none of that mattered. Someone was speaking to her, and it would have been both rude and counterproductive not to respond.
“Greetings,” she said. “I am Anna Ilyina. To whom do I have pleasure of speaking?”
If Anna were a younger woman, she might have been thrown off her stride, but with her years came a certain awareness of self. If talking royal horses wished to negotiate with her, then they would find Anna either as gracious or as fierce as their intentions warranted. Rich or poor, human or not, Anna believed there was an equality which all thinking beings shared and she intended to cleave to that belief no matter how peculiar the person she was speaking with appeared to be.