“Have you heard about Earl Riagain's nurse?” Contessa whispered behind her fan to Baroness Elizabeth, who perked up at the question. She had been enjoying the night's festivities at Aileen-Nessa Riagain's debutante ball. While many of the guests danced, the Baroness chose to stay seated, as she had become weary in her old age.
Distracted, Elizabeth watched as a rich red skirt arched passed her. The owner of the skirt giggling at some flattery whispered into her ear by her dance partner.
“Well,” the word was drawn out so as the grab the Baroness' attention once more. “I heard that this whole thing is just because Aileen-Nessa wanted it. And far be it for the Earl to deny his daughter.” The gossip fanned her face, most likely to stave off the stifling heat of the room, Elizabeth noted, unfolding her own fan.
“Anyway, the nurse ran away!”
“How would you know?” Elizabeth queried, interested now in the gossip.
“It's all over town. The word is the Earl has arranged for his daughter to be wed to the Duke of Melvaar's son.”
“Ever in search of power,” Elizabeth murmured behind strokes of her fan.
“Indeed. Now, I heard that the nurse was pining after him.”
“What? Oh I have a hard time believing this, dear.”
“That's what I heard. Why else would she run away?”
Contessa leaned away, seeming to be finished with regaling Elizabeth with that story. No doubt she would come up with yet another bit of gossip to slip her way before the night's end. Elizabeth thought of this news though. She knew the Earl, how heavy-handed he could be. If the nurse of his manor truly ran away, it wouldn't have been because of some unfruitful love.
Now remembering some meetings with the Earl's daughter, Elizabeth remembered the young nurse. When Aileen-Nessa was only seven, the Earl had called for a new nurse for her, having hanged the last one.
Now, what had she done wrong again? Elizabeth thought. She had been roughly eighteen if she remembered right. Perhaps it was because she had gotten pregnant. Hmm, yes, that was it, Elizabeth thought. Oh, the Earl was a terrible man indeed. How he had ever risen to the power he had could only be explained by his great ability to cover up the murders of his servants. To the public's eye, he simply practiced isolationism.
Sighing, Baroness Elizabeth stood, gathering her skirts. Immediately, her First Footman was at her side, his arm offered for her to take.
“I wish to take a walk in the gardens,” she said, bowing her head to Contessa who nodded back.
Her First Footman, a very handsome man with a thin face and a large mustache, lead her out to the gardens and into the cooler air of the night. Rorqshire was nothing like her Wintercaste, but it was nice to be away from all those bodies which generated such heat.
“What have you heard, Quinnton,” she asked after a time. The tiny pebbles of the man-made path crunched beneath her booted feet.
“Lady Aileen-Nessa is indeed betrothed to Duke Hemingway’s son,” he said, not looking away from the path in front of them.
Baroness Elizabeth scoffed, “He would. I wonder what it is he is after exactly. Mayhaps he wants to take the Emperor's seat itself.”
“Now, now, my lady.” He pat her on the hand that clung to the inside of his elbow.
They continued down the path which wound its way through the garden. Rose bushes and assorted flowers lined the pebble path, their fragrance strong in the air.
“Have you been enjoying yourself, Quinnton?” she asked after a time of quietly walking.
“I have, my Lady,” he dipped his head in a nod. “It is good not to be stuffed in the house all day.”
Elizabeth swatted at him with her fan, playfully, “Indignation! I shall have you fired as soon as we return!”
He let out a hearty laugh at the joke, “I'll get right to firing myself when we return.”
Letting out a small chuckle, Elizabeth shook her head, “Now tell me about this run-away nurse of Siothrun's.”
“Ah, I saw you sitting with Contessa and thought you might like to hear about that,” they turned onto another path which lead into the woods of the estate. “Eirwin, I believe her name is. Do you know how exactly she was acquired?”
“I don't trouble myself with such things. Servants come and go. Should I be curious?”
“Quite. One of the provinces in the western kingdom, one of the smaller ones I believe-”
“No, no, part of the main land. Apparently, the Earl took the girl when she had just turned eight years of age.”
“Why would he buy a nurse for his child of the same age?”
“Listen, my Lady. She was acquired from a fisherman who owed the Earl a great dept.”
“He sold his child?” Elizabeth breathed. “The Earl is a cruel man but-”
“My Lady,” Quinnton chided, becoming a bit impatient with all the interruptions. “The child was meant to be a mage. The Earl probably meant to use the child to his advantage.”
Elizabeth nodded, quieting her questions so that he could finish the story.
“He had taken the child to settle the debt. I cannot say what that debt was, I wouldn't know.”
“So, how did she become the nurse of a child of the same age?”
“She didn't. No, Aileen-Nessa was only two-years-old when Eirwin came to the manor. When they learned she was no mage, they put her to work until Aileen-Nessa's last nurse was hanged. Then Eirwin was employed as her nurse.”
“I see.” Elizabeth nodded. Vaguely, she wondered at how he had come across all this information, but then she remembered just why he was in her employment. She heaved a dramatic sigh and said, “Oh, Quinnton, but you are the most resourceful one I have ever seen.”
He made a noise of acknowledgment and turned so that they could return to the party.
“You still have yet to answer my original question,” she said. They emerged from the woods to see other people making rounds on the paths of the gardens.
“Ah, yes. My apologies, my Lady. One of the parlor maids, who she said was a friend of Eirwin's, said that she had to leave. The Earl had grown tired of her and with Aileen-Nessa's betrothal, she was no longer needed. I suppose the Earl was still cross about Eirwin not being a mage.”
That did sound like him, Elizabeth thought.
Elsewhere in the manor, while muffled music filtered through the halls, Siothrun sat in his study, a hand on his chin in thought. That wretched girl had somehow escaped his clutches and ran off. He had sent a hunter after her to make sure she was silenced. He had yet to hear word from the hunter.
A small messenger golem entered the room of his study, its face in the usual grin. The little creatures annoyed him with their open mouthed grins, tiny bodies and gem eyes. He wasn't sure where they had originally come from, but he did know that nothing could harm them. They couldn't be broken, nor could he remove the valuable gems from their eyes.
After a moment of the creature staring at him, it spit up the message intended for him. Picking it up from the floor, Siothrun broke the wax seal. He pulled the letter from the envelope and read over the words.
Rage began to boil through him. He tore the letter into pieces and immediately wished he hadn't. The golem still stared at him as it stood on his desk.
Sighing heavily, he said, “There will be no response, you may leave. You dumb pile of stone,” he added under his breath. The golem then trotted off, going back to whatever hole it had crawled out of.
Siothrun sat back, rubbing at his temple. Some lowlife who thought he could play noblemen had taken down one of his caravans. The man was young, and thought he could play games with Earl Siothrun Riagain of Roqshire. What was the name again? Siothrun picked through the scraps of paper to try to find the signature.
It proved to be hopeless when all he found was a scrap that held three letters.
That wouldn't help at all.
“My Lord,” a voice from the doorway brought Siothrun's attention away from the bits of paper.
“Speak,” Siothrun said impatiently.
“Uh, yes,” the footman dipped his head a little and gestured nervously. “Hunter Hawken has returned.”
“Yes, yes, show him in.” Siothrun waved a hand in invitation.
They boy bowed again, too nervous for Siothrun's tastes. He would be put down and replaced.
The man that stepped into Siothrun's office was outlandishly tall and built like a carriage. “My Lord. I regret to inform you that I have lost track of Eirwin.”
Again, rage began to bubble inside of Siothrun. This time, however, he let a moment pass before reaching for his pistol. “Then why have you returned?”
The solitary word barely left his mouth before the bullet went through his thick skull.
“Am I surrounded by incompetence?” Rising from his chair, he moved slowly to the door of his office and kicked the heel of the dead man. He scoffed and looked at the trembling boy in the hallway.
“Well?” Siothrun asked, lifting his hands in question.
“M-m-my Lord... I-I-I-I,” he sputtered, shaking from head to foot.
Siothrun lost his patience and pointed the pistol at the boy. It clicked and the boy looked to have jumped out of his skin and soiled himself. The smell began to reach Siothrun before he boomed, “GO GET THE MAIDS!”
The boy fell over his own feet before righting himself and running off, excrement and urine staining his trousers and leaving puddles behind him as he ran.
“Oh, Father,” the voice of his daughter calmed his nerves. He slumped against the jam of the door and watched her approach. She was wearing gold with accents of blue and pearls. Thick stripes of the colors ran down her large skirts and a floral pattern decorated her bodice. The pearls lined the square cut of the bodice and the cuffs of the puffed sleeves. Peacock feathers accented her hat, a fox skin draped her shoulders and her elbow length gloves were blue. He had spent a small fortune on the outfit, but it was worth it.
Siothrun let out a sigh, “Daughter, that dress looks so lovely on you.”
She gave him a curtsy, bowing her head. With her skirts still gathered in her hand, she offered one to her father so she could step over the brute on the floor, bleeding from the gaping hole in the back of his skull.
“Thank you, Father,” she said. “Why did you shoot him?”
Heaving another sigh and rubbing at the throbbing in his temple, he moved slowly back to his desk so that he may sit. “Because I am surrounded by fools. Incompetent, lazy, complacent fools,” he said, slamming the pistol back down in its drawer.
Aileen-Nessa stared at the body of the hunter on the floor. Drawing a quick breath, she said, “It really is a bad habit of yours, Father.”
“What is that, dear,” Siothrun said absently, poking through documents on his desk.
“You're going to end up staining the rugs.”
He laughed softly, “You have your mother's wit.”
She gave him a bright smile, her deep blue eyes becoming heavy lidded just as her mother's used to.
“How are you liking your ball, my dearest?”
“Oh, it is fair enough. The guests seem to be enjoying themselves.”
“But what about you, dear?” He looked up from the papers, worried he had failed her.
“It truly is fine, Father. Don't you worry.” She smiled at him again and that made him sigh in relief.
“I am going to miss you, Aileen-Nessa, light of my life,” he stood, side stepping around the desk to brush a curl aside. Her blond hair was up in a twist atop her head, curls framing her round face. “You look just like your mother.”
“Oh, stop, Father, you'll make me cry.”
“We can't have that,” he said, dropping his hand to her shoulder.
Now the maids had arrived to take care of the body and the mess. Siothrun shook his head in annoyance as a pair began to drag the body away as a third dropped to her knees and started scrubbing.
“What took so long?” he quipped.
“I apologize, my Lord, staff seems to be low tonight.”
He heaved a sigh then looked up as a footman entered the room, stepping over the maid scrubbing away. Siothrun barely gave him a glance before looking back at his daughter and giving her cheek a little caress and going back to his seat.
“My Lord, the hunter had this on his person.” The bean pole of a man handed Siothrun a small scroll with the same wax seal of the letter he had received.
He snatched it away quickly and tore it open. He glared at the parchment.
“Was this all that was on him?” he said.
“We haven't yet looked closer, but for now, yes,” the footman said.
“Search him thoroughly.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“What is it, Father?” Aileen-Nessa asked after a moment, leaning in to read the note.
Another One Down.
“What does it mean?” she asked, her eyes searching his face.
“It means we may need to prepare for a landwar.”
A tall, fair haired man let his gaze wonder the crowded ball room of Roqshire Manor. Beautiful women, handsome men and only the noblest of guests all cluttered the room. Tiny dirigibles floated around the wide room, little powered fans at their bases blowing bubbles around the air. A quartet played in the center of one wall, a cello, violin and viola whining away to the beat of a drum. Servers patrolled the room with platters of hors d'oeuvres, tiny cucumber sandwiches and small goblets of punch hovering in their hands. Tables were set for guests to sit and enjoy tea when the dancing became too much for them. Chatter was nothing more than a hum barely heard over the amplified music of the quartet. And all of this was for one spoiled brat.
The man had, of course, come to see the most highly regarded daughter of the country be debuted. But he had also come to see her father. Not many at all knew what went on in this manor, not even the people of the estate. How servants never really left the service of the Earl.
No, he believed the Earl had something to hide. And he would find out just what that was.
“Sire,” a man ghosted his way next to the nobleman. Keeping his eyes on the crowd, he leaned just a little closer to the servant.
“What have you found?” he said behind his glass of punch.
“The huntsman has been shot.”
Surprising, the nobleman thought. “Did he get the message?”
“I gave it to him personally.”
Eyebrows perking, the nobleman smiled. “Daring.”
“Thank you, Sire.”
The nobleman nodded and the servant disappeared into the crowd once more. Breathing deep, he began to search for Aileen-Nessa herself. Where had she gone? It was her night. How very unlike a debutante to disappear at her own ball. He set his glass down and went to the gardens, the ballroom becoming too stuffy for him to think. Young women giggled behind their fans and gave him wanting looks.
He could have brought Sophia with him. But then again, she was a whore. And he just couldn't bring a whore to a debutante ball. It was unheard of. And he didn't want unnecessary attention drawn to him.
A woman did catch his eye, however, distracting him from his thoughts. She wore a low cut bodice, near scandalous. He grinned and looked at her turquoise eyes. She slowly fanned her light skinned face which was dusted with freckles.
“Care for some company, my Lord?” the words were drawn out, seductive.
“Well, if you insist,” he said, offering his arm to her.