I threw myself into a chair in a manner my mother would have described as petulant. And in that moment, I wished she were here to tell me so. What sum of money might I have paid to have my mother scold me one more time? I pushed the thought away and looked over at Lady Eastoffe. “I suppose you’re right. You usually are.”
She chuckled and left to go finish her letter.
“If you’ll excuse me, there’s something I need to take care of.”
“You needn’t ask me,” she said, looking up from the table. “You’re the lady of the house.”
Oh. That’s right. I raised my chin. “Well, in that case, I have something to do, and I’m going no matter what you say.”
“That’s more like it.”
I moved down the entryway stairs and out to the stables, where the horses were in the middle of being groomed.
“Good day, mistress,” the groomer said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were coming.”
“Nothing to be sorry for,” I insisted, touching his shoulder. “I need to borrow Madge for a short ride.”
He looked me over. “But you’re not in riding clothes, my lady,” he noted. “Perhaps I could get the carriage?”
“No. I’m not worried about my clothes. I just . . . I need to think.”
An understanding passed over his eyes, and he brought out my beautiful, dark horse.
“If anyone asks, you haven’t seen me.”
He gave me a wink, and I pulled on the reins as Madge went into a gallop. We rode fast, but I had no fear that she would bolt or buck me off. She, like I, was singularly focused.
Like I had over the last few days, I took Madge through the deep woods, heading west. She knew the terrain and handled it expertly, protecting us both from trees and roots as we made our way to my home away from home. Abicrest Manor.
The mounds of dirt beneath the large willow tree were a strikingly bright shade of brown, and they remained several inches higher than the ground surrounding them, though years would erode that to nothing.
I didn’t know if it was custom or just a measure of kindness the Eastoffes chose to extend, but the servants were buried alongside their masters, making nearly two dozen graves lined up in neat rows on the outskirts of the property. This didn’t include others, like my parents, who had a tomb in the mausoleum beside the great temple, or those unfortunate neighbors who had resting places of their own.
We had very little to bury in the end. We found two of those sacred silver rings among the ashes. I guessed at which one was my father’s, not sure if I was right, and buried them both with their owners.
I felt guilty as often as I felt sad. It was all a matter of timing. If we’d walked back a few minutes sooner, I’d be gone as well. If Lady Eastoffe had chosen to involve her son with the giving of this ring, he’d still be here. If, if, if. If was a question that gave no answers.
I tied up Madge on a low-hanging branch, scratching behind her ear before I walked down to the temporary stone that marked where what little remained of Silas was laid.
“I’ve tried to talk her out of leaving. I’ve tried twenty different times with as many excuses as I can think of. . . . I don’t think it’s going to work.”
The wind blew through the leaves.
“Well, no, I haven’t tried begging, but it wouldn’t become me. I’m meant to be the mistress of Varinger Hall now. She keeps saying things that remind me of my place. But the thing is . . .” I bit back the tears. “All I wanted to be was the mistress of your home. And now you’re gone, and the house is hardly standing, and I have so much, but it feels like I have nothing.”
The branches rustled.
“I am grateful. I know that living through a situation where I surely ought to have died is a gift, but I cannot think of why in the world the gods would spare me. What use could they possibly have for me?”
There was no sound.
“Jameson has invited me to court. I can’t believe he found the will to forgive me. My guess is it must be rooted in pity.” I shook my head, staring at the horizon. “I will offend the king if I do not go, and I have already given him enough reason to hate me. My only fear is, I think . . . I think I will be forced to let you go.”
I started crying, wiping the tears with the sleeve of my gown. “I used to feel like there was something pulling me to you. I didn’t know what it was, but ever since I first saw you, it felt like there was a string around my heart, tugging me to wherever you were.” I shook my head. “I don’t feel it anymore. But I long to.”
I wished so badly he could answer, that he could just give me one of those quick whispers of truth that he always seemed to have on hand. But he couldn’t. He never would.
I couldn’t feel him.
“I just needed you to know that, even though I don’t feel you, I’m going to remember you. And if I one day find the will to love again, I will only know if it’s love . . . because you taught me what that was. Before you, every glimpse I’d seen of it was a lie. And I didn’t know that until you came into that room, holding a golden sword, silent and proud.
“You took me without a single word. I don’t know if I ever told you. I was yours from the very start. From the second our eyes met, I was lost for you. And you promised to love me without condition, and you did. Thank you so much, Silas. Thank you.”
I looked around. I would have to lock this season into a corner of my heart, and it would have to keep beating.
“I love you. Thank you.” I kissed the tips of my fingers and touched them to the stone. Madge lifted her head as I climbed up into the saddle, and this time when I rode away, I didn’t look back.
I WAS STRUGGLING TO FIND enthusiasm for most things these days, including things I enjoyed. Eating was hard; dressing was hard. Everything was hard. So it was impossible to will myself to be cheery for the likes of Etan Northcott to visit my house, especially considering he was only coming to take away what remained of my family
Still, willing or not, he rode up the drive on a horse alongside a stately carriage that was a shade or two darker than the blue I typically associated with Isolte. I stood at the front steps, waiting to greet him as propriety dictated. His face was as somber as it was when I first met him, which left me wondering how anyone ever knew his true mood. He dismounted and walked up to me, and I extended my right hand in greeting.
“Sir Northcott. Welcome to Varinger Hall.”
He reached out to take my hand in greeting, but froze in his movements.
“What’s the matter?”
He kept his eyes on my hand. “You’re wearing the ring. That doesn’t belong to you.”
I showed him my left hand. “According to this ring, it does. Please come in. Your aunt and cousin are expecting you.”
I moved into the house, the click of his boots echoing behind me. This house needed people in it to dampen the noise. I kept my voice low, hating that I needed to tell him anything, but knowing I must.
“I feel I should warn you. Lady Eastoffe is holding up well, all things considered. She’s thrown herself into planning and caregiving. I don’t know if her grief will come to the surface soon, but be on the watch for that.”