Bury Me In Burgundy
Chapter 1: Arrivals to Dragon's Edge
“I have said it before and will say it again,” his companion declared for the second time in half an hour, as she stormed into Hiccup’s room, “I do not understand why those Thorston’s are given such free reign of the house.”
“It would be impolite to turn them away.” Hiccup answered, not looking up from his book. He knew that she understood perfectly well why the twins, Ruff and Tuff, were allowed to stomp around the manor so unrestrained. “If they’re upsetting you so deeply, Astrid, then go for a walk.”
Astrid gave an unladylike scoff.
As if to punctuate the noise, there were a series of stomping footsteps and sharp laughs from further down the hall.
“So sure they are of themselves and their mischief.”
Astrid strode further into the room to sit at the edge of his bed. Her skirt was rumpled. "They claim to have news."
Hiccup glanced over the top of the page. "Do they really?"
"I've no idea. They're waiting for Gobber," she said.
"It must be somewhat important then."
"Doubtful." Astrid rolled her eyes and moved further onto Hiccup's bed, letting her shoulders sink into the pillows. If he did not know her predilections already, he would have been alarmed at her brazen intimacy towards his space.
She gave him a small grin. "I'm sure it’s just another opportunity for trouble."
Just then the door opened, and a large, nervous looking young man hurried into the room. The laughter from down the hall was clear and ringing for a moment before the door was shut again.
"Fisk, are you alright?" Astrid asked, but did not sit up.
The young man, Fisk Ingerman, was completely distraught. "How could you leave me alone with them!?" His large, round face was mottled and red. "You know how they are!"
Astrid waved a dismissive hand. "I only left for a moment."
"A moment was too long by far!"
Hiccup watched the argument unfold. His book was forgotten for the moment, resting on his lap. His legs tucked beneath him on the sofa were beginning to cramp slightly. Fisk's affected nature and Astrid's cavalier attitude rubbed up against each other, and if Hiccup didn't pay attention then he knew he’d have to hear about the argument eventually.
The stomping footfalls and voices approached the door and Fisk hurried over to the sofa to sit timidly beside Hiccup.
The door opened a third time with a shuddering clang.
Astrid sighed, and in the doorway appeared three figures: the twins, with their long and pointed faces, both sharing wide grins; and the short and stocky figure of Hiccup's cousin, Snotlout.
Snotlout exuded a smug, mocking air. He surveyed the room and finally his eyes fell on Hiccup, his target.
"Get out of my room." Hiccup said, cutting Snotlout off before he could finish opening his mouth to speak.
"No." He said and elbowed his way past the twins.
"I'm serious." Hiccup said firmly, sitting up. "You three aren't allowed in here."
"This isn't your house, you can't tell me what to do!" He strutted into the room, for he strutted everywhere, and made to sit beside Astrid on Hiccup's bed. She did not give him the opportunity, as the moment he tried to sit down she swung her leg out across the bedding so that her pointed slipper struck Snotlout right in the rear.
"Whoops! No room here." Astrid said, her lips were in a twitching smile.
Snotlout spun around in time to see Hiccup and Fisk extend their legs so that there was no feasibly comfortable way for a third to join them.
Ruff gave a peel of laughter and pushed past her brother. The twins tripped over one another before diving towards the small but lush rug in the center of the room. They spread themselves out, like everyone else, to take up as much space as possible.
"You're all horrible!" Snotlout cried.
"Sit on the hardwood like a pauper!" Tuff shouted back at him. His clothes were rumpled and oddly fitting. Hiccup knew neither of them wanted for money or connection, yet they both carried themselves with such disregard and carelessness that it puzzled him. He could even see a few inches of dried mud in the hem of Ruff's dress.
"Haha! A pauper with bad knees!" Ruff joined in.
"Stop saying pauper!" Snotlout's ears had gone pink. "And my knees are just fine."
"I don't know, Snot," Astrid said. "I think I heard some creaking as you walked by."
Hiccup heard a soft chuckle from Fisk beside him.
Snotlout waved her off and attempted a masculine looking lean against the corner post of the bed. "Never mind all that."
He spoke with the austere conviction of one who held many answers to questions not yet thought to be asked. He turned his nose up and his eyes seemed to say, Yes, you horrid people, I will weather this disrespect and it will be for your own benefit that you might thank me for it later.
Hiccup could feel a preemptive pain beginning to bloom behind his temples. Ruff buried her face in her hands and let out another muffled laugh.
"I've been told the most interesting bit of news." Snotlout's voice had taken on a formal affectation that usually only came about when he spoke to women. "Perhaps if you all were to apologize I could be convinced to share."
He was met with silence, save for the twin's snickering.
"Come now!" His face was pink again. "It is very good news! You should all want to hear it!"
He glanced around at them all, clearly expecting his words to tug even the slightest bit of interest from his companions.
Fisk was the first to relent. "What kind of news?"
Snotlout's mouth thinned into a barely held together smile of superiority. "Apologize for your rudeness to me earlier, Fishlegs, and I will be delighted to tell you."
Hiccup met Astrid's eyes from across the room as Fisk scowled at the teasing name the twins had given him. Her look mirrored his own.
"It's obvious what it is, Snotlout." Hiccup said, resigning himself to the inevitable excitement that would occur around him for the rest of the day.
"Oh?" Snotlout questioned.
"Yes. Surely there will be some bachelor or bachelorette, likely of obscene wealth, who's coming to pay calls to Ol' Gobber."
Fury lit within Snotlout's eyes, confirming Hiccup's words.
Ol’ Gobber was the unofficial master of the house. Either through wealth, status, or personal connection, he seemed to be acquainted with everyone worth knowing in the vast social circles of their region. If one had a favor that needed doing, a status elevated, or a match that needed making, Gobber was the first name in everyone's minds.
It was the latter that was the reason for their stay in the Edge's oldest and grandest estate. For various reasons the four had been sent by their families to Gobber's home in the hopes that he would be able to parade them before society for the great and terrible ordeal of finding a spouse.
Astrid's eyes narrowed just slightly at Snotlout's back before sitting up to look at the twins laid out across the rug. "What do you two know of them, hm?"
Tuff opened his mouth to speak, but his sister clapped her hand over his mouth.
"Papa said we can only tell Gobber." She said, her smile was all teeth and made her eyes very narrow.
"At least tell me, Ruff, are they a man or a woman?" Astrid implored, her voice was beginning to grow a bit eager.
Ruff and Tuff shook their heads, taking delight in their duty if only because it annoyed others.
"Would it be so bad to tell us?" Fisk said, shaking and clearly not wanting the twin's attention back on him, but unable to help with his question. "Are they one or many?"
"Wouldn't you like to know, Fishlegs?" Tuff sneered. Fisk scowled.
"Ruff," Astrid peered down at the young woman, "I'll let you borrow my blue scarf for the whole weekend if you tell me whether or not she's pretty."
Ruff's whole face lit up. Tuff tackled her.
"Not good enough!"
"We'll all be told by Gobber soon regardless." Hiccup said, but he was drowned out by an offer of red boots. Astrid and Fisk continued to bargain, not even bothering with Snotlout, which seemed the correct route as even his cousin began to toss in his own incentives here and there.
Hiccup watched his companions with an air of detachment. Their excitement felt far away and unreachable to him. The news of another eligible bachelor arriving in town did not light in him any fire of perusal or competition.
Instead he felt, looking at the other unmarried youths with their eyes shining bright, that somber and deep resignation that had grown so familiar to him in the months since his father had sent him off to Dragon's Edge.
A servant came to the door to inform the twins that Gobber had finished his private tea with Lady Gothi, and was waiting for them in the parlor. The two leapt from the floor and sped back down the hall. Snotlout, Astrid, and Fisk all exchanged glances before hurrying after them.
Only Astrid paused at the door. "Are you coming?"
"No." He said, stretching his legs back over the side of the sofa Fisk had vacated. "No, I shall stay."
She paused, giving him a look he couldn't understand, before gently shutting the door and rushing down the hall.
Am I strange for not caring as they do? Hiccup thought, a few minutes after the others had gone. Worse yet, am I wrong for it?
Six months ago, his father had set a firm but gentle hand on his shoulder and told him he was to be sent to Gobber.
"It's about time you were settled." His voice carried the undercurrent of paternal awkwardness that had always shown itself in such times. "I will consent to whoever you choose."
An unspoken order had hung between them all the way up until Hiccup departed.
Choose someone rich.
Hiccup set down his forgotten book, and stared listlessly out the window. It was easier said than done.
Half an hour passed before the servant returned to say that Gobber requested his presence. By that point, Hiccup had worked himself up into a dreary mood. When he entered the spacious parlor, with its polished floors and grand fireplace, he was met with many eager faces.
The only look out of place was Snotlout's sour expression.
"Hiccup, lad, come here! Come here!" Gobber beckoned him over.
Gobber was a bent man, weighed down by all his years. He had a hobbling gait that forced him to walk with a cane, and his hand curled strangely. But his face, despite its strong underbite, had a friendly and amiable way that made you want to sit and talk for hours.
He reached for Hiccup's hand as he approached, patting it gently.
"I've received good news!"
"Tell us already, Gobber!" That was Astrid, sitting on an ottoman beside the empty fireplace.
Snotlout mumbled something to himself. Hiccup could only pick out his own name.
"Do you know the old Ashvalte estate? By the Attenborough Opera House?" Gobber asked. His large hands eclipsed Hiccup's own in their grasp. "The one with the black, iron gate?"
"I know it." Truthfully, Hiccup had only seen it twice at most, and was not sure if Gobber was referring to the estate on the north or west side of the opera house. But better for them all to nod than to distract Gobber with such a detail.
"Well it's been sold just yesterday." Gobber straightened slightly. "To Count Osvald's children."
Hiccup smiled placatingly, not letting his disinterest show on his face. "Will they be coming to visit us?"
"Of course, their letter should come in the next few days. There's more though," Gobber gave his hand a squeeze. "They're also bringing two travelling companions. A man and a woman."
"How many of the Count's children are there?" Astrid asked, leaning forward on the ottoman.
"Just two, a brother and sister."
Gobber stepped back to eye them all critically. "The Thorston's will be hosting them while they wait for their furnishings to arrive. They'll be here in about two days time at which point we will courteously extend an invitation to dinner." So be on your best behavior, his expression said to them all.
The dam broke, and the others began levelling questions at Gobber and the twins. What were they like? Were the men handsome and charming? The women, amiable and pretty? And what of their fortunes and titles? Did they enjoy cards, or do they prefer dancing?
Hiccup sat in the middle of it all, waiting to excuse himself back to his room.
"What is the Countess like? She's not stupid is she?" Astrid knelt beside Ruff on the carpet. The two women's dresses were tucked under their knees.
Astrid had once, in the span of two weeks, become infatuated with a young woman in town. It had all seemed to be going well for her, at least Hiccup had thought, before she’d burst into his room in the middle of the afternoon to declare the young woman to be "entirely stupid and beyond help or affection." Hiccup never did find out exactly what the woman had done to upset Astrid so much, and was frankly too afraid to ask. Afterwards, Astrid began to inquire on a woman's "stupidity" as a standard question.
"I don't know," Ruff admitted. "But she's the one who wrote the letter to us and it used a lot of big words, so…" She trailed off with a shrug.
Astrid's brow pinched, deep in thought.
Hiccup leaned forward to mutter to her, "I've met her once. She was very well spoken."
Astrid turned to him with wide and excited eyes. She looked like she wanted to ask further, but restrained herself at the last moment. "When did you meet her?"
"About five years ago? Maybe six?" Hiccup couldn't remember. The meeting was so brief and truncated it may as well hadn't even occurred. "Count Osvald's estate is only a day and a half out from my own."
"And you've only met her once?"
"Well, a day and a half is still a day and a half." Hiccup mumbled. Sitting back, he said, "I didn't even know the Countess had a brother."
"I heard he took a long trip." Ruff gave a leering smile. "Y'know… To the alps."
"What do you mean?" Astrid said.
Ruff giggled, pointed a finger at her own forehead and twirled it.
Just then, Gobber was at Hiccup's side and began avidly discussing what Hiccup would wear to meet their guests.
The next two days saw the manor in a flurry of motion and a vibrato of excitement. Outfits were chosen, a grand meal was planned, and the tiled stone path leading up from the gate had been thoroughly swept.
It was not the first social gathering they'd hosted since Hiccup arrived. There had been others. Some had come to pay calls to Gobber and Lady Gothi, and others to show off either themselves or their relatives to the young guests of the house. Each one that had arrived for the latter had looked at Hiccup only once before he was quickly dismissed in their eyes.
It was all a very disheartening affair. But stepping outside of the situation, Hiccup could understand. He was not very handsome. His nose was too big and too low on his face. His teeth were crooked. His ears stuck out. His voice was nasally and Hiccup was forced to admit that when he spoke he was often too dry and affected towards others.
I'm not fit for marriage, he'd decided one evening as he'd watched a man fruitlessly attempt to draw Astrid's gaze to him. Why must I change just to appease someone who would not do the same for me?
And why must he apologize for his face or his voice? Or work to somehow overcome that which was entirely natural to him?
No, he thought, no I do not think I shall ever be married.
Gobber had different plans, however.
Yes, this had not been their first guest in the past six months. But at every glance from Gobber, every hurried whisper among the servants, and every footfall in the manor seemed to scream out that this visit would be different in some way.
Gobber certainly thought so because he tailed Hiccup everywhere. Heaping upon the young man strict commands for the looming evening and advice that Hiccup hadn't asked for.
"When you take your bow while greeting the young ladies, be sure to only open your eyes after you straighten your back." He said, stabbing his cane in the air. "I've been told it's very charming."
"Who has told you such things, ol' man?" Hiccup was curled up on the sofa in his room once again, his legs folded under him. "It all sounds so silly. What if they think I'm afraid to look at them?"
It was the morning of the dreaded day. Beyond the bedroom door, the sounds of the manor coming to life in earnest were beginning to morph into a steady hum of movement and voices.
"I hear plenty of things from plenty of people." Gobber said. "You should try it, lad, you might learn something."
Hiccup cracked a smile at the old man. "I hear enough."
"Oh? And what have you heard now?" Gobber asked.
"I have heard the countess is pretty.” Hiccup said. “I’ve heard that the count has been away to the alps.”
Gobber frowned at him but said nothing. So Hiccup continued,
“I also hear that the woman travelling with them is a distant cousin of Polish royalty.”
Gobber rolled his eyes with a scoff. "And you should refrain from your humor at dinner as well."
He went on for a while more, scrutinizing Hiccup's behavior and insisting on his strengths.
"Gobber," Hiccup interrupted eventually, "What has you so bothered? You weren't this wound up a month ago when Sven's family came to visit."
Gobber stabbed at the air above Hiccup's head with his cane again. "Why aren't you getting all wound up, hm?”
“What good would that accomplish?” Hiccup just wanted all of this to be over with.
“Do you know of the Grimborns?" Gobber asked suddenly. Hiccup shook his head.
"A pair of brothers have been causing a stir in the north buying up most of the land outside Aeroglen.” Gobber’s voice had dropped low and serious. “I've heard their estimated wealth is going to be as high as a hundred thousand a year."
Hiccup stared at him dumbly. One hundred thousand!? That was more money than anyone should have!
His shock must have been evident in his face as Gobber said, "Aye, that was my reaction! And one of those brothers will be coming here tonight!" He planted his cane firmly on the hardwood with a loud thud.
Hiccup blinked, startled by the sound. The numbers swam in his head. It was an obscene amount of wealth. He couldn’t even fully fathom the amount, and what did one do with all that money?
Hiccup gave a slight shake of his head, as if trying to dislodge the befuddlement from his ears.
"I'm sure you've ordered the good china to be set out." He said.
The group gathered in the parlor. Snotlout was pacing back and forth in front of the fireplace. Sat on the sofa was Fisk, looking pale, and meticulously picking imaginary lint from his dark green dinner jacket.
Beside him sat Astrid, her hair pinned and curled and framing her handsome face so well. Her overdress was deep blue and fell low beneath her collarbone. Apparently it was in the latest fashion.
Hiccup stood a short way off from the rest. His jacket felt too tight in the shoulders, and he could feel a headache coming on from the overly clean smell that had pervaded the manor since morning.
He looked past Snotlout and into the fireplace. How badly he wished to escape.
I’ll take ill around the second course, he thought to himself. Yes, then I shall be free before dessert is served.
“Oh!” Astrid’s voice cut through the tension in the room like a hot knife.
Hiccup glanced at her. She turned to look over the back of the sofa towards the window. Outside he could see the sky had gone dark and grey. Fat snowflakes were falling slowly and beginning to gather at the bottom of the window frame.
Astrid gathered up the skirt of her gown and walked hurriedly to the window. Fisk followed, and so did Snotlout. The three pressed to the tall window peeking over each other at the snow.
Snotlout let out a guffaw.
“Look at them go!” He gave another laugh.
When Hiccup arrived at the window he stood on tiptoe to peer over their heads. Outside were three men, bundled in bulky brown coats and wrapped in scarves. They were each frantically sweeping the walkway up to the front door. But the snow was coming faster now. The earth beneath them had been chilled all winter and was ideal for the snow to stick to. So as each man swept one section clear, he would turn to find another with a fresh blanket.
Snotlout at least had the decency to cover his mouth when he laughed a third time.
Hiccup turned and walked to the door. Outside was a footman, waiting to fulfill any request from the young guests. He snapped to attention when Hiccup cracked open the door.
“Yes, sir?” He asked, ready.
“Could you have some hot mulled wine brought to the men on the front walk? It looks like their having a time of it.”
The footman nodded. “Anything else for you, my sir?”
“Get a samovar heated for them by the time they come in. I can feel the temperature dropping from here.”
He gave a short bow and turned to hurry down the hall.
The four of them were huddled near the cold window. Two more logs had been added to the fire place and the room was warm at their backs.
It had been twenty minutes and the men had finally seemed to have the situation under control. It helped that the snowfall had slowed considerably.
They took took turns between sweeping and sipping at the steaming mugs of wine.
The clock behind them on the wall began to chime. Astrid turned to look at it and as she did, Hiccup caught a fresh whiff of the powdery smelling perfume she wore.
“They’re late.” Her voice was taught, annoyance creeping in.
“Maybe they were held up by the snow?” Fisk offered, still staring out the window.
Astrid shook her head.
“I’m hungry.” Snotlout said, unhelpfully.
“Mm.” Was all Hiccup said.
This continued for another minute before—
“I’m bored!” Snotlout cried out, throwing his hands up and jostling the whole group.
Astrid let out a tense sigh and Hiccup looked at her pityingly.
Snotlout extracted himself out of the shoulder to shoulder lean they’d all been sharing and walked back into the warm center of the room.
“Someone come play cards with me.” He demanded without looking back at them.
Astrid stood there a few moments longer, Hiccup could see her eyes flick back and forth across the street at the end of the walk. Then she straightened from between Hiccup and Fisk and turned to join Snotlout.
“I’ll play.” She said and began helping Snotlout move chairs around the card table.
Hiccup closed the gap between himself and Fisk. The larger boy’s arm was warm even through the layers.
“I hope they’re nice.” Fisk whispered suddenly. His breath painted a light fog on the glass. Fisk had experienced just as much trouble with suitors as Hiccup. Possibly more so, as Gobber didn't throw him front and center the way he did with Hiccup. As such, Fisk was often left forgotten.
“I’m sure they’ll be perfectly pleasant.” Hiccup said trying to be diplomatic. He had no real grand hopes for the evening but he didn't want to add any more anxiety to Fisk’s situation.
“It’ll work out.” Hiccup nudged Fisk with his elbow.
But Fisk didn't smile. He just continued to stare worriedly out the window.
“You two get over here!” Snotlout’s voice was impetuous and demanding. “Astrid and I wanna play Boston.”
Hiccup pulled back and gave Fisk a friendly squeeze to his shoulder before they both stood to join their companions.
They finished two rounds of Boston, both won by Astrid, before a servant knocked politely on the door. They all looked up as he entered.
“Countess Osvaldottir and her entourage have arrived.”
They glanced at one another.
“They are currently making introductions in drawing room and will join you all here in about ten minutes time.” Then he bowed courteously and left.
Silence followed his departure.
Astrid looked at their table.
Then the room was in a flurry of motion, cards were tossed down haphazardly, and the sound of their chairs scraping the floor rang out. Snotlout, who would normally kick up a fuss about finishing the game, was hurriedly gathering the cards back into the deck.
Hiccup and Astrid lifted the chairs, one in each hand. Fisk grabbed his side of the table and said, “Snotlout help me move this back!”
“Hold on, hold on!” Snotlout said, trying to stuff the cards back into their box.
Astrid set the chairs back against the wall neatly before ruffling the skirt of her gown. As Hiccup set his own chairs down beside hers, she began adjusting her gloves.
“Are my ribbons alright?” She said, doing a quick turn in front of him.
“They’re coming loose a bit. Stand still.” He stepped forward, taking the lace fringed ribbons in hand. Hiccup gave a slight tug to test them. They loosened further after a second. He would have to retie them from scratch.
Standing so close to her, Hiccup could feel the warmth of her back and the soft sound of her breathing. “I have to retie this, can you hold it in place up front?”
“Okay.” She tilted her head down slightly. Her hands came up to press the ribbon flat beneath her bosom.
Hiccup gave another tug before beginning to tie the ribbons off at the center of Astrid’s back. She was tense beneath his hands.
“It’ll be fine.” Hiccup whispered.
“They’re over an hour late.” Her tone was terse. A strand of her hair tickled his forehead.
“I’m sure they have a good reason.”
“Hmph.” Was all she said.
Hiccup finished tying the ribbons, letting them fall straight to mingle in with the rest of her skirt. He stared at her for a moment, simply admiring her.
“Alright, now you’re perfect.”
Astrid turned and gave him a grateful smile.
They rejoined Snotlout and Fisk, who were both brushing imaginary dust from their fronts and arguing about nothing.
There was another polite knock on the door.
Then the door opened wide and a hush fell over the group. In came Gobber, passing the footman without a glance. Behind him was Lady Gothi, small and hunched, wearing her old fashioned clothes in a deep maroon. There was a calm and simple smile on her soft, wrinkled face.
“Here they are!” Gobber said in his kind way.
Stepping into the parlor were two women and a man. One of the women, who Hiccup recognized as the Countess Osvaldottir, wore a silver gown that shimmered as she walked. She looked mostly like Hiccup remembered her, though she was far prettier than when he’d last seen her. Her dark hair was bound loosely on top of her head. She was the picture of a coquettish youth.
Beside her was the Polish woman, exuding pure elegance. Her golden hair was pinned tight to her head, the strands curling slightly behind her ears. She was dressed more conservatively than the Countess. The midnight blue fabric looked heavy and expensive though there was minimal embroidery.
Finally, behind them, was a reasonably handsome man. His dark hair was cropped short, and the beard on his soft face was trimmed neatly. His clothes were dark and in the latest fashion, though not overly opulent. But the most striking part of him was his sunken eyes. He looked naturally miserable and exhausted. He glanced over them all with a dry look.
The Thorston twins pulled up the rear. Ruff raised a hand and waved at them from behind the others.
“Now then introductions, of course,” Gobber’s voice was just slightly too loud as he extended a hand to beckon Hiccup and the others over.
He took Hiccup’s arm in hand and tugged him forward. Hiccup tried to make his smile look natural and pleasant.
“This is my godson, Hícca Haddock,” Gobber’s thumb pressed to Hiccup’s elbow, “He’s come all the way from Berk.”
Hiccup bowed low, letting his eyes fall shut. When he straightened, he opened his eyes and was met with a warm smile from the Countess. Her almond shaped eyes crinkled at the corners. The downward slope of her nose served only to make her prettier.
She was looking at him like he was an old and dear friend.
“It is good to see you again.” The Countess’s voice was low and carried good humor.
“You as well.”
She looked at him a moment longer before lifting her head, as if she’d suddenly remembered something. “Oh you must meet my dear friend, Mala.”
She took Hiccup’s hand gently to pull him closer to the other guests, and just like that she had wrested the reins of the evening from Gobber’s tight grip.
In short order he was introduced to Mala Stasky, who gave him a smile and her hand to kiss, and Viggo Grimborn, who Gobber had told him about just that morning. When Grimborn stepped forward to be introduced he stood with a languid and confident posture as if he owned all he surveyed.
“Charmed,” Was all he said in reply to Hiccup’s greeting, with only the thinnest veneer of politeness shielding the room from insult. He did not meet Hiccup’s eyes a single time.
“This is my cousin, Sno—” Hiccup bit his tongue, “Sigmar Jorgenson.”
Snotlout stepped forward with a flourish and bowed. He then said something unintelligible that Hiccup thought was meant to be French and come off as endearing but only sent an arrow of second hand embarrassment through his stomach.
Trying to distract from his cousin’s blunder he gestured toward Astrid, who was busy fixing the little Countess with an intense look.
“This is Astrid Hofferson and Fisk Ingerman.” He said in a hurry.
“It’s good to finally meet you, Countess Osvaldottir.” Astrid intoned, drawing out the word “finally” with deliberation. Hiccup could feel the embers of anxiety that began with Snotlout starting to burn a hole through the rest of his gut.
Mala and the little Countess both curtsied. The Countess did so with a girlish bounce that suited her well, and Mala with a slow and graceful movement that made all who saw her feel humbled.
“Oh please, dear Astrid, you must call me Heather.” Her bright smile gave her face a faint glow that begged for goodwill from everyone. “Do forgive our lateness, there was a misunderstanding regarding our new estate.”
Heather’s gaze moved between Astrid and Fisk, and over to Snotlout and Hiccup. It seemed she was trying to look at them all in the eye as much as possible. “And then the snow started and we had difficulties with the carriage on the road— My brother stayed back to deal with the estate, but he shouldn’t take long, I hope.”
She smiled at all of them. Her watery eyes sparkled like emeralds, and her cheeks had a pleasant flush, and all of her seemed to emanate a desire for the simple pleasure of their company.
And in the wake of her smile all the trespasses were forgiven as Astrid returned the gesture.
She took Heather’s hand and began leading her to the sofa, “Come and tell me of your travels, my dear.”
Tea had been served with rum, and a bottle of wine had been brought up from the cellar early at the request of Grimborn.
They had all broken off into four distinct groups. Fisk, Heather, and Astrid were seated on the sofa closest to the fireplace, huddled together and speaking in low but congenial tones.
Opposite to them the twins were lounging on the love seat, their focus directed at Snotlout and Mala, the latter of the two seeming to take control of the conversation with patience and amusement.
Hiccup kept one eye and ear focused on them at all times, ready to leap in and prevent his cousin from humiliating himself at a moment’s notice. Though Mala was taking the twin’s antics and Snotlout’s arrogance in stride, Hiccup knew he was willing to rise to the challenge of making a fool of himself regardless.
To Hiccup’s right, in her favorite plush armchair, sat Lady Gothi. The small old woman sat hunched and curled in her seat, staring at nothing and no one in particular. At times her eyes would meet Hiccup’s own, and her gaze would seem to say “Well what else were you expecting?”
To his left was Grimborn. He stood, though there was an available seat beside Hiccup. The man looked around the room with his sunken eyes, giving the entire affair a dismissive look of contemptuous boredom. He held his wine glass close, but sipped from it rarely and spoke even less.
Finally there was Gobber who hurried between the groups. With a deft, practiced hand, he steered each conversation into agreeable topics and away from anything too heavy.
While preventing Tuff from giving the intimate details of a recent bout of stomach illness, Gobber gave Hiccup a stern look over his shoulder.
Suppressing a sigh, he turned to Grimborn.
“Have you visited the Edge before, Mr. Grimborn?” Hiccup made himself smile.
“Yes.” Grimborn took a sip of his wine.
Hiccup waited for him to elaborate, but he didn't.
“And how do you like it here?” Hiccup asked, feeling his headache condense into a pin behind his left eye.
“I don’t.” Another sip.
Hiccup turned back to the rest of the room, frustrated.
A laugh escaped the group on the sofa and he looked at them longingly. Jealousy panged in his chest. Astrid and Heather were hiding their smiles behind their hands, muffling their laughter from a joke Fisk had just told. He looked very pleased.
So pleased in fact, Hiccup felt it would be wrong to interrupt them. He leaned back in his seat.
“I don’t like it much either.” Hiccup said.
“The street layout is a travesty.” He continued, wishing to speak even if no one cared to listen. “If you want to get anywhere at a reasonable time you’re forced to take several side streets and they’re never cleaned.”
He heard Grimborn shift from one foot to the other.
A stubborn man, Hiccup thought, just sit.
“And there’s far too many opera houses.”
“Too many?” Ah, he speaks.
Hiccup crossed his arms without looking at him. “Yes, an absolute surplus.”
“One would normally consider that a point of pride on the part of the city.” Grimborn’s voice lifted slightly, coloring with… amusement?
“Normally one would.”
“The quality of the work has suffered. Everyone with a modicum of talent is spread too far between the different troupes.”
“Competition inspires advancement.” Grimborn said.
“To a point.” Hiccup responded. “These new operas— or rather, what they’re calling operas— I do not understand them.”
“And what would you suggest, Mr. Haddock?”
Hiccup thought for a moment.
“Consolidate.” He said. “And then diversify.”
Grimborn let out a low sound and Hiccup was shocked to realize it was a laugh.
Finally, Hiccup looked up at the man and flushed at the intense look he was met with. For the first time that evening, Grimborn was looking at him directly. Hiccup could feel his eyes running all across his face and neck.
He gave a wry smile and sat beside him.
“Come, share this wine with me.” And without waiting for an answer Grimborn began pouring a second glass for Hiccup.
“No, no,” Grimborn laughed again, and pressed the glass into Hiccup’s hand. “Please call me Viggo, I insist.”
“Viggo…” Hiccup breathed. He could not remember what he’d meant to say. He sipped the wine, trying to steady himself with a familiar bitter taste.
“I’d like to adjust an earlier statement of mine.” Viggo placed the wine bottle back down, but it was well within arm’s reach.
“Yes, when you asked how I like the Edge.” Viggo stared him in the eyes. “I was being truthful when I said I didn’t care for the city. However, a city can only be as good as the company you keep there, yes?”
Hiccup didn't answer. Viggo’s eyes roamed over him again.
“If that is the case I’m sure my opinion of the city is already improved.”
Hiccup opened his mouth, closed it again, and looked frantically around the room. He was waiting for the other boot to drop, for the laughter. For someone to point at him and say, “What are you doing, you foolish man, daring to think such things.”
But no one was paying them any mind. Even Lady Gothi was looking elsewhere.
He is mocking me, Hiccup thought, He must be. What he’s saying… Well it can’t be the truth, or… or it cannot be how I think it is.
He steeled his nerves. When I look back at him and all that I’ve imagined will be gone from his face.
But when he looked at Viggo again he was met with the same intense look.
“Tell me, Hícca, you’re from Berk?” Viggo asked, the use of Hiccup’s given name sent a jolt through him, though he didn’t remember giving Viggo permission to use it. “How is the countryside at this time of year?”
Hiccup hurriedly took another sip of wine before responding, “Spring would have already come to Berk, I’m sure.”
Hiccup began describing his home, with it’s rolling hills and jagged cliffs. He spoke of the forest surrounding his estate and the rivers that ran through it. Of the town and its shops and their wide open buildings so different from the crampedness of the city.
He spoke because it was easier to think of home and all he longed for than to look at Viggo and admit to himself that he wasn’t imagining the hunger in the man’s expression.
Hiccup was on his second glass of wine when there was a commotion near the door.
He did not notice at first, so busy describing the dreadful performance he’d seen the previous month where the lead actor had fallen on stage and no one could tell if it was part of the act or not. But when Heather’s excited voice cut through the murmur of conversation he looked up.
He looked away just as quickly, and a hot wash of shame rushed over him.
He knew it was rude. He hoped no one had noticed.
The Count had arrived. He’d been standing in front of his sister, speaking to her quietly. Gobber had been making his way over to the siblings when Hiccup glanced up.
“Startled you, didn’t he?” Viggo asked, and without looking at him, Hiccup could hear the leering smile in his voice.
Hiccup felt hot from head to toe, from wine and embarrassment.
“Oh don’t be shy now, dear Hícca, he startles everyone.” Viggo was practically whispering to him.
Then, without warning, he raised his hand and made a beckoning motion at the Count.
“Mon ami, viens voir quelle bonne compagnie j'ai trouvé!” Viggo called in French, and all eyes in the room turned to look at them. “My friend, come see what good company I found!”
Hiccup stared into his glass, swirling the wine. One of the twins and Snotlout snickered.
The Count walked towards them and Hiccup wished to be anywhere else.
When Count Osvaldson finally stood in front of them, his shoes and the hem of his coat the only part of him Hiccup could look at, he said: “And who is this you’ve found?”
Bracing himself, for he refused to repeat his earlier blunder, Hiccup looked up at the Count.
A scar like cracked glass dominated the right half of his face. It travelled all the way from his jaw to near his hairline, slicing over his eye along the way. His fiery hair was unkempt. It looked like no one had even attempted to comb it and it stuck up at strange angles.
Worse still for the Count, and noticing this transformed Hiccup’s nervousness into pity for the man, all the traits he shared with his sister suited him poorly. While Heather’s curved nose only served to make her prettier, on the Count it further ingrained the crooked unpleasantness of his face.
He was looking down at Hiccup with a tired expression. Hiccup suddenly felt compelled to give the man his wine.
Instead he stood and gave a slight bow.
“My name is Hícca Haddock, Your Excellency.” He could see slight recognition in the Count’s eyes. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
The Count did not bow or smile. “Call me Dagur.”
He did not say it with the lilt of flirtation as Viggo had, nor the amiable kindness of Heather. It was simply an order.
Desperate not to falter, Hiccup nodded.
“Dagur,” he repeated. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”