Vol.1, Ch.5, P.2
“Maria,” I began carefully, my ears yet reeling from her most unexpected words. “What’s this, so asudden?”
Her answer came neither immediately nor matched to any rhythm of conversation. Rather, she sat there, shrunk and shivering in silence, her shaded regard distantly drifting down to the featureless table.
‘She must not be made to marry the young lord of Albeck.’
Her words of moments before. It was unthinkable for a servant to air even a whisper of dissent against her mistress’ betrothal. But to say outright that the arrangement must not come to pass?
This was grave.
Certainly no small degree of bravery was needed on Maria’s part to show her heart so. Thus did I refrain from forcing the matter, according her all the time she needed to continue.
“…Eight winters past…” she said, almost in a whisper, to which I nodded. “…I lived here in Norden. My parents passed asudden, and so I was given to my uncle’s care.”
“He partook of the bottle from the light of one morrow to the next, and dallied in debt-making wherever he went.” Pity left me quiet. Maria resumed. “Till one day… visitors were come to our home—frightful ones. And there, they soon came to quarrel with Uncle.”
“Visitors of the vicious sort, I take it?” I asked.
“Indeed. The moneyers’ men, to be precise… ‘We’ll take her as payment,’ they said. And then… th-they… they bagged me up… but not before… k… k-killing Uncle…”
Now did her quivering begin to infect her words. It was painfully apparent to me by then that it was not the table that her downcast eyes saw, but a scene—sore and sorrowful, a memory never meant to be treasured.
“…They kept me locked in some dark place. Besides myself, there… there were two others. One, of about thirty years of age. And the other, twenty, thereabouts. Both were women…”
Her voice now tearfully ebbed. I had a mind to stay her from recounting the hurtful memory any further, but chose to stay myself instead. This was Maria’s resolve. Long was the journey her words took to reach my ears. There was naught to do but listen.
“I… I could not tell the manner of the day… All the walls were windowless… But ‘twas perhaps three days… And in all that time, I was trapped there. At the end, we had visitors, both well-attired… A man in his thirties, and… and a boy, not much older than I was.”
“T… to us, they looked… a-and said…”
‘Well now, what a winsome waist this one has. The eldest bint of the bunch, hm? Ah, yes, truly… alluring, I must say.’
‘What of these other two, daddy? Can I have them?’
‘No no, my boy. The little one is mine.’
‘Mmm, fine then. Little ones last too short a while, anyway.’
‘Try not to kill your share so soon this time, will you?’
‘But I can’t help it, daddy. Slicing ‘em up’s such fun…’
‘The slicing’s best left for their last days; how many times must I remind you, my boy? Savour them softly now, and they may yet keep for a good year.’
…was Maria’s harrowingly meticulous account.
No memory so deeply engraved by the chisel of fear could be so easily worn away by the plane of time. What now echoed in Maria’s ears was undoubtedly the vulgar glee of the man and his son.
“…They shackled us to each other… and had us boarded up on a canvased carriage,” Maria went on. “…I… I was tr… trembling… all the way…”
Her youthful face wrinkled heartwrenchingly. I looked on, silenced by her emotion.
“W… we wended our way up a mountain pass… There, a pack of droll-hounds waylaid us. In their fright, the men… they threw me down from the carriage… ‘A bait for the beasts,’ they said. And then… and then they left.”
It was my dearest intention to listen as calmly as I could. But before I knew it, I found my hands clenched white, nails digging into my palms.
“I watched the carriage drive away… thinking this was my end, to be eaten up by the beasts… But ‘twas not to be. A bullboar happened asudden upon the pack and attacked them. The hounds darted away, and the bullboar gave chase… And then… I was alone.”
The solitude—haunting, even now.
“I had no one left… no place to go… and so I wandered the road… till I crossed paths with a passing caravan. The merchants there helped me… kind they were,” Maria’s face softened. “A search was sent out later on for the man and his son, as well as the other women… but ‘twas all for naught.”
Naught—on account of a cold trail? Or was the probe barred by the powers that be?
A hateful reality that it was likely the latter, I suspected, for ‘well-attired’ was Maria’s assessment of the wretched duo. Likely again was their aristocratic status, a caste of customers fain for the cruel trade.
“…Thereafter, I was given to the orphans’ workhouses, and put through a program for us lost children, where we might find some humble employ in the estates of high society. ‘Twas by that path that I was made a maidservant to House Mernesse.”
“I see… so that is your story.”
“Ever and always has the Lady Emilie treated me preciously, low-born though I may be. In my heart, she is a dear sister to me…” Maria faintly smiled, but the mirth quickly faded away. “…And ‘twas why I could scarce draw breath when not a few days ago, we were visited by m’lady’s betrothed and his father, the viscount of Albeck.”
The dots aligned.
“Father and son… It was them, I take it?” I asked quietly, yet firmly. “You’re certain of this, Maria?”
“Yes, m’lord. My eyes knew their faces at once. The man and the boy; no doubt they were the Viscount Albeck and his eldest son, the young Kenneth—m’lady’s betrothed.”
What nightmare is this?
Nay. To Maria, this was a crushing reality, one that was upheaving her world right as we spoke. A word as flimsy as “nightmare” could not hope to preface her poor fate.
“Have you spoken of this to anyone else?” I asked again. “What of the baron? Is he apprised?”
“Nay, m’lord. You are the first to hear of this,” Maria answered clearly. “Master Mernesse—he can ill-endure so dire a blow as another annulled engagement for his dear daughter. Given his fraught circumstance, I fear he’ll lend not an ear to my accusation, grounded as it is in a memory of eight winters past.”
“And one from a child not more than six years of age at the time, no less. Indeed, there’s not a viscount in this realm that would suffer such a slight…”
“Yes. My fears exactly,” said Maria, before nervously wending her eyes back up to meet mine. “But… would you… would you trust in my words, Lord Rolf? ‘Tis of faint substance, I know, bu—”
“I would, Maria.”
My immediate answer had earned an honest surprise from her tear-shaded face. An expression of childlike innocence, the first she has shown me all day.
“M’lord… I am ever grateful.”
“Listen well now, Maria. I’m the only soul you’ve sought to tell of this; let it stay that way. This means leaving Emilie out of this affair. I’ll handle the rest,” I whispered strongly, leaning in. “I should apologise. For now, you’ll just have to bear with keeping a secret from your dear mistress.”
“Not at all, m’lord,” she shook her head. “I’ll put my fullest trust in you, just as you’ve put yours in me.”
How warm a word. One I was most glad to receive.
My days as a disdained ungraced had long dulled me to the goodwill of others. But through Maria was I reminded of how immeasurably precious it was to be so trusted by another.
A flicker in the heart.
My resolve was set.
Maria’s trust—I would not betray it.
Into the 5th’s library the both of us went, and through its collection of almanacks we combed. An annual on the affairs of the aristocracy—within it, we discovered the particulars of the Viscount Albeck.
Many times was he wed. And of the wives, not less than five were deceased.
“Death by accident”.
Each parted spouse, unceremoniously written off by those three words. No doubt the fangs of foul play were at work here—fangs now bared to Emilie herself, unbeknownst.
Perhaps for this occasion, they would file off their hedonist fangs for good? But even then, allowing Emilie to enter the den of such a fell family did not sit well. Not with me.
Something had to be done.
Only, Emilie must not be apprised of this foul affair. At least, not till this gameboard had run its course. She was the queen piece, but to move her would prove an immediate blunder. Most certainly, she would endeavour to dissolve the engagement were she wise to the nature of her betrothed, but therein laid the rub: we had no proof.
Breaking off the betrothal on unsubstantiated grounds would backfire upon House Mernesse with irresistible force, and the wound would prove fatal: Emilie and her family, forever as pariahs in the aristocratic sphere.
And that’s to say nothing of the blood, sweat, and tears Emilie had shed to faithfully carry out the office of mareschal, that House Mernesse might endure. Were she to be shunned by the nobility, all of it would be as nothing.
“Yes…” agreed Maria, after I sorted aloud the potential situation. “That seems most reasonable to me, as well.”
The gameboard was set, then. We now knew our play.
Find palpable proof. Report it to the authorities. Bring forth an indictment. There was no other way. But House Mernesse must not be made to involve itself in the indictment. This was the catch, and to play along with it, I would have to act alone and in the shadows.
The days till the wedding ceremony were numbered. Against the trickling hourglass, I steeled my resolve all at once.
“Dear Maria,” I kneeled before the young maidservant. “The way is set; I make for the viscounty of Albeck at eventide.”
“Yes, m’lord,” she nodded. “For my part, I’ll be staying here through the night, and on the morrow make my return to the Mernesse residence.”
“Right.” I rose back to my feet, and urged her thusly. “And just so we’re clear: not a word is to reach Emilie’s ears. Promise me this, Maria!”
“I do promise,” she answered with a bow, after which I began my brisk way out of the library, but not before hearing from behind me Maria’s voice one last time. “Pray, do be safe, Lord Rolf.”