I’d sure hate to break down here, nothing up ahead or in the rear view mirror. Out in the middle of nowhere knowing, I’m in trouble if these wheels stop rolling. God help me keep me moving somehow. Don’t let me start wishing I was with him now. I’ve made it this far without crying a single tear I’d sure hate to break down here.
Seryl 14th, 1513 – Carico Estate, River Sulis, Lothianshire, Albion
The new maid, Mrs. Hearst’s niece, ducked her head and looked to the side, she was taller than Elizabet–who wasn’t?–but between the ducked head and the hunched shoulders and slouched posture she didn’t seem it. “No, m’lady. I haven’t seen Lord Joshua.” Her tone was deferential and–almost scared. Like I’d blame her for the fact that I seem to have misplaced my brother. Maybe Fern thought that Elizabet would. She didn’t think her father was that unreasonable and he was by far the most unreasonable person in the entire household from pot boy straight on up.
“That’s just like brothers. They’re always around when you don’t want them and not around when you do.” She shook her head. Fern raised her head slightly, a small smile poking at the corner of her lips. “You have brothers, right? Isn’t that just like them?”
“Aye, m’lady.” Fern said.
“How many?” Elizabet asked, curiously. Fern blinked at her. “How many brothers do you have?”
“Oh, I have three, m’lady.” Fern said. When Elizabet nodded encouragingly, she continued. “All younger.”
“Miss them?” Elizabet pressed. Fern nodded again.
“Oscar an’ Ham a lot. Hamilton, it’s a family name, m’lady.” She added in a hurry. “Parnell not so much.”
“Ah, one of those brothers that the best part of knowing him is missing him when he’s gone, eh?” Fern giggled behind her hand. “I have some extended family like that.” Fern looked down the long hall toward the green door the separated “upstairs” from “downstairs” and Elizabet realized that she was probably keeping the other girl from something. Niece or no niece, the housekeeper would come down hard on the girl for any perceived slacking.
“I should probably go find my brother.” She told Fern.
“‘m Sorry I couldn’t be more help, m’lady.” Fern told her, though she ducked her head and shoulders a little, at least she wasn’t looking like a whipped dog as she had when Elizabet had first stopped her.
“Salright.” Elizabet told her with a smile. “It’s not your fault that my brother is good at disappearing.” That would be my father’s fault. She thought as the girl curtsied and hurried off down the hall. Though if Fern hadn’t seen him, there was one place he might be. Mrs. Hearst wouldn’t have sent anyone into that room to light the lamps, normally there wouldn’t be anyone in it. She quickly turned the corner to the smaller, but no less opulent door set there.
A brazier was lit here, wouldn’t do for the family to stub their toes getting to the lamp, after all. But that was about all the stock that Elizabet took of the room. She wanted to get in and out of it as quickly as possible. It was like all the time that Cox spent in the room had somehow permeated it with something it couldn’t be too healthy to expose yourself to.
Up the spiral marble stair, her soft slippers seeming to call to the empty walls by the way they echoed as she climbed. The furniture in the antechamber was opulent, if a touch dated, she’d been told it was a holdover from when her grandfather had been baron of River Sulis. It was the same furniture that resided in Madame Cox’s parlor. Except of course it seemed welcome and right in place in Madame Cox’s parlor, here it seemed rather like one of the aged courtiers who played chess in the gardens at Camelot, old, tired, still good for stiff formality, but not so good for much else.
And of course there was a painting of some relative stuck on the wall to watch disapprovingly. Like there was practically anywhere in the house. Every room had to have some solemn portrait staring at every move you made, unblinking in their disapproval.
Whomever had come up with the idea that decorating with portraits was a wonderful plan was obviously a sadist.
She didn’t linger, lest the portrait of great aunt somebody-or-other get the idea that she was being idle. Sure, it was silly and superstitious, but a little silliness never hurt anyone. Elizabet pushed open the door to her father’s office to be greeted by warm light and the glint of her brother’s hair as he stared at a set of papers in front of him. Fingers curled about his chin, a slight slouch of shoulders and a haunted expression that she’d lay a year’s pocket money had nothing to do with those papers.
He looked up and smiled at her, an honest smile, true and a little sweet, though it flickered a little at the edges.
“What are you doing in here.” Elizabet asked. She hated this room most of all. It was like most rooms decorated by someone of Orkney descent, dark wood, fabric that looked like it had been dyed using blood, carvings and all the trappings of opulence abounding. But that wasn’t why she hated it. It was her father’s room. More than his bedchamber, which she wasn’t even sure what looked like, she never went in there, this was where her father held court.
Where edicts and demands were handed down. If it would have changed anything, Elizabet would have burned the entire room. But it wouldn’t, nothing would change until Jayson was gone from all their lives.
Normally Josh felt the same way about this room and avoided it with the same passion Elizabet did. It was strange to see Josh at the desk that her father normally sat at. Though there was no doubt that Josh was their father’s son, the wide upswept eyes and line of the jaw were identical, there was no mistaking Josh for Jayson.
And it was the one prayer that Elizabet voiced often, that her brother would continue to be exactly as he was and never develop the aura of “this man is crazy” that their father exuded with every breath.
“Father said that I should tend to dispatches and such in here.” Josh shrugged, his broad shoulders rising and falling in almost furtive movement.
“What father doesn’t know won’t hurt him.” Elizabet pointed out.
“Not worried about it hurting him, Bet.” Josh said, pinning her in place with slate eyes. “I will be baron some day, I’ll have to get used to this office sometime.”
“No, you won’t.” Elizabet told him.
“This room has served as the office for the baron since the estate was built, it was specifically designed to be the office of the Baron.”
“Oh, sure, physically, these four walls will be here when you’re baron. But this office won’t. I know you, Josh, and would be heartfully disappointed in you if you didn’t gut everything out of this office when you inherit it.”
“Except the jar on the console.” He jerked his head behind him. “I couldn’t get rid of Great Uncle Victor.” Elizabet looked past Josh then back at her brother’s face.
“I don’t really think that’s Great Uncle Victor.” She said. Though she wasn’t convinced. She couldn’t put it past her father to use the ashes of some dead relative as a bookend.
Josh also looked over his shoulder at the jar. “Well, there is the ashes of someone in that jar. And what if it is Great-Uncle Victor? You can’t just give away a relative. No matter how creepy it is…” Josh shuddered.
“We’ll put the jar down in the crypt and if it is him, he and Grandfather can battle it out in the afterlife, and if it’s just fireplace ashes that Jayson uses to scare people, he can explain why there’s a dead tree interred in the family crypt.” Elizabet told him. Josh almost smiled.
“So, that’s why I’m here. Why are you here?” Josh asked.
“Looking for you. What’s got you worried?” Elizabet asked as Josh’s eyes flickered down to the papers in front of him. There was a chance it was a stall tactic, but there was also a chance that there really was something there too.
“You ever heard of a Madame Bones?” Josh asked.
“No.” Elizabet peered over the top of the page. “Who is that–other than a person descended from someone with a really poor taste in surnames–or someone crazy?”
“I don’t know either. Though what I do know about her, I’d lean more toward the latter. I think it might be an assumed name. She’s apparently a gypsy witch. I’ve got a report on her from Guardsman Rose. She’s ostensibly a bookseller, though there’s more than a few rumors that’s not all she sells. She’s got a shop down in Dead Man’s Alley.”
“Cheery place, that.” It was Elizabet’s turn to shudder. She’d been there only once and had had nightmares for months. She still sometimes had nightmares about it. There was something wrong there. You could feel it in the very ground. Josh nodded. “Well–I’ve never heard of her, but I know someone you might ask.”
“Oh?” Josh asked, finger sliding over the wood of the table.
“Darin.” Something like pain briefly surfaced in Josh’s eyes. “He’s down not far from there, and you know him, people talk and he listens.”
“Aye.” Josh stared at his hands. Yep. That’s just what I thought, Elizabet thought to herself. “He might know.”
“Although he hasn’t been around so much recently. Still comes for tutoring, but not so much beyond that.” Elizabet pressed. The problem with trying to talk about anything involving her brother and how he might feel was that you had to come at it more than a bit circumspectly. You had to trap him into admitting he felt it before you could even talk about it.
“Aye, I know.” Josh was meeting her eyes, but the way they twitched away told her more than words ever could’ve.
“What in Wright’s name made you convince yourself you needed a poetry tutor in the first place?” Elizabet asked him after a moment. “Josh, you love books and poetry almost as much as Marianne does.”
“It was a reason to get Darin to come around more, alright? I–like him… I mean, I realized that he was someone who would be a good friend.”
“I know.” Elizabet said and watched her brother sigh. “But I think it’s more than that.”
“It can’t be more than that, Bet! I can’t–I can’t.”
“C’mon, Josh, stop doing the old Lord of the Manor bit, so if you like him in a you wanna–”
“Bet!” Josh was blushed so hard his face looked slightly purpled. “I can’t like him like that, and it has nothing to do with Remi’s it’s a mortal sin to want to–to make love to another man sort of way. Darin doesn’t have parents that Jayson won’t want to piss off. He’s not safe. He can’t protect himself from–from our father.”
“And with anyone else, I might agree. But I honestly think that Darin would spit in the eye of the Grim for someone he cares about. And despite all his protests I think he cares about you.” Elizabet told him. “And if the Grim doesn’t scare him, I highly doubt our father would even make him blink.”
“He doesn’t like me like that.”
“And you know this because you’ve talked about it?” Elizabet asked blandly. And if they have talked about it, I’ll eat my riding boots–after I’ve walked through the corrals.
“No–but I am pretty sure that he likes girls, Bet. And in case you haven’t noticed, I’m not one.”
“I dunno, you’re a little muscular, but plenty pretty enough.” Elizabet batted her lashes at her brother. Unfortunately instead of making him laugh, he surged up out of the chair and walked over to the fireplace staring for a long moment into the mirror above it.
“Would you want to tell Vivi or Marianne that you liked them?” He muttered at the mantle.
“If I liked them, it’d be better to tell them than live forever knowing I didn’t have the courage to do it.”
“Yeah, well, Darin’s not the only one who would spit in the eye of the Grim. I’m not like you, Bet. I can’t be fearless. I don’t know how.” Josh said, wrenching Elizabet’s heart in her chest. She wished he could. Her father shouldn’t be able to keep Josh on the ground. He didn’t deserve that victory.
“Josh, if you want to suffer in noble silence, I’ll think you’re an idiot, but I will accept that. If I have to. But you cannot do what you normally do when you don’t know what to do.” Elizabet paused for a moment wondering if that made sense and shrugged before continuing.
“Have you looked at Darin, I mean really looked? He is looking so much better than when we first met at the Guardstation. His skin doesn’t look two sizes too small, you can no longer shave with his cheekbones, he looks like he slept sometime this year, you know why that is?”
“I know.” Josh murmured. “And I thought of that.”
“So what are you going to do?” Elizabet asked. Josh shrugged.
“…Suffer in noble silence–but keep being a friend.” Josh said after a long moment.
“That’s my big brother.” Elizabet said, giving him a quick hug. Jayson can’t have your heart, Josh, he can’t break your spirit. It’s what makes you who you are. It’s what’ll make River Sulis a better place when you’re baron. And I will personally cut his heart out if he tries. She thought to herself as they both turned to leave the study. He might have won a few battles, but damn it, I am winning the Wright be damned war.