“Thank you. And I do believe you’ll look after them. I pity anyone who would come up against you,” I vowed.
He gave me a quick nod of his head. And then they were off, slowly riding out of my world. I briefly wondered what kind of life I would have at all if they weren’t with me.
I watched them until they were at the end of our drive, and once they turned, I stayed outside until the coach disappeared over the crest of the low hill. And then I stood a little bit longer because I could not walk into that huge house all by myself.
It must have been quite a while, because when the steward came up beside me, I noticed my cheeks felt a little burned from the sun.
“It’s Eastoffe,” I corrected him.
“Yes, very sorry, mistress. Old habits, you see. We need to know which trunks to load?” I took a deep breath and went inside. But I couldn’t make it past the foyer.
There may as well have been a wall between me and the rest of the manor for how hard it felt to walk inside. My breathing was a little shallow, and I could tell that if I didn’t get ahold of it, I might faint. I clutched the big circular table and inhaled deeply.
“I . . . There are two trunks by my bed. Anything I’ve forgotten I’m sure will be provided at the castle,” I instructed, and that was enough to buy me more time.
He bowed and went upstairs to fetch my bags. I took a seat on the bench near the window, intending to watch the world outside Varinger Hall until it was time to leave. A funny sensation tickled at my chest, and I scratched at it, trying to get it to leave me alone. Then a cascade of feelings washed over me. I was frightened to move forward but knew I couldn’t stay still. I was uncertain of the company I was about to keep but knew I couldn’t stay alone. I never quite got to the end of one thought before a new one rushed over it, sending me down another stream of questions I wasn’t prepared to ask myself.
The slant of the sun in the sky shifted as time passed, and I felt that funny tickle in my chest again. But no. It wasn’t an itch or a tickle or anything of the sort. It was like . . . like a string tugging on my heart.
My breath sped up as I focused on the sensation, wanting to make absolutely sure. Yes. Yes, it was the same. And, whatever might befall me, I had to follow it.
I looked out at the sun just as it began to rest on the tips of the distant trees. I didn’t have much time.
I ran up to my room, grabbing leather bags from my armoire; Madge wouldn’t be able to carry any trunks. I folded up three of my simpler dresses and fit them in a bag with a brush and some perfume. In another, I went over to the trunk Jameson had sent me and started shoveling in coins.
“Hester!” I called. “Hester, I need paper!”
I switched out my shoes for riding boots, shoving the little ones in my other bag. It wasn’t much, but it would have to do.
Hester hobbled in, hands holding out paper and ink.
“Thank you.” I snatched it. “Listen, Hester. I know everyone is already planning to tend the house, but I’m not sure how long I’ll be gone now. I’ll write as soon as I’m able.”
“And this box?” I said, pushing it over to her. “Hide it. I need it safe.”
I wrote frantically.
By the time you read this, I will be in Isolte. I pray you will forgive me for once again not being there for you when I said I would. I’m hoping from the depths of my heart to be able to come and bless your marriage to any woman you choose one day. But I cannot come to the castle yet. Like many things in my life, it’s harder than I was prepared for.
I wish you to be the happiest of any king on all of the continent, and I hope my path will bring me to you again sometime. Until then, I remain your most humble servant.
I folded it up hastily and placed it in Hester’s waiting hand. “To the castle. As quickly as you can, please.”
“Yes, mistress. And please,” she added kindly, “please stay safe.”
I nodded, grabbing my cloak and heading for the stables.
I checked stall after stall until I found Madge. “There you are, girl!”
I strapped on a saddle as quickly as I could, realizing just how fast the daylight was burning. Once I’d finished, I flung the bags across her back and hoisted myself atop her.
She was my girl through and through, sensing my urgency and moving at top speed. I had an idea of the general direction they were heading, but I didn’t know the roads that led to Isolte. I blew a kiss when I passed near Silas’s grave and prayed that if I stayed on this course, I’d find them.
The roads were very empty today, and painfully dry. I could feel the dirt coating my skin as I barreled down the countryside, hunting for a carriage.
“Come on, girl!” I encouraged her, coaxing Madge into chasing the sun toward the west.
I was starting to think I’d gotten myself in too deep this time. I didn’t know my way, night was coming, and I was all alone. Eyes squinting, I searched the horizon at every turn, hoping I’d find . . . a blue coach and a tall, thin rider moving beside it!
“Wait!” I yelled, riding maniacally toward the coach in the distance. “Wait, I’m coming, too!”
They didn’t hear, so I kept calling out. It was Etan who noticed me first, motioning to the driver to stop. Scarlet popped her tired head out of the window to see what the fuss was about, and her mother followed shortly after.
“What in the world are you doing here?” Lady Eastoffe demanded. “You look a state. Are you all right?”
“No. I am not.” I exhaustedly dismounted and walked over to them, my muscles screaming in pain. “I am not all right with any of this. I cannot go back to that life, and I cannot let you leave without me.”
Lady Eastoffe tilted her head. “We’ve been over this.”
“No. You’ve been over it, but I will not be left without a hand in making the choices of my own life. I am now the mistress of Varinger Hall, and I am your daughter. . . . You must let me speak my piece.”
She opened the door, climbing down to stand beside me.
I took deep gulps of air, dirty and exhausted and not really sure how to say what I wanted to.
“I’m an Eastoffe. And I still wear his ring, and yours. You are my family,” I said simply. “As such, I refuse to leave you. If you are heading into danger, then . . . then I can’t let you go without me.”
“This is nonsense,” Etan protested.
“Oh, go back to ignoring me!”
“Can’t you go back to hating us?” he shot back.
“I don’t hate you,” I said, staring into Lady Eastoffe’s eyes. “Well, maybe you,” I offered to Etan. “But not all that much.”
“Oh. Thank you so much for that.”
“Etan,” Lady Eastoffe said firmly, rolling her eyes. It was enough to silence him, and she turned her attentions to me. “Do you really want to leave your people? Your home?” she asked quietly. “We’ve done it ourselves, and I assure you, it’s much harder than you think.”
“I want to honor you. To honor Silas. To live a life, long or short, that is more than the pettiness of court or the isolation of my home.” I wrung my hands, pleading, trying not to cry. “I don’t want to harm King Quinten, if you can believe that. Too much blood has been spilled, and I don’t want to cause any more. But I want answers. I want to find a way to make it undeniable. I want that man to look into my eyes and own that he killed my husband, to tell me why.”