Authors: Heather Rose Jones
Barbara noticed that the subject of her clothing had become unimportant.
As she opened the door to the hallway, she nearly collided with Margerit, hovering indecisively by the door.
“Is…is there a problem?” Margerit asked anxiously.
Barbara closed the door behind her. “No, I think we’ve come to an understanding for the moment. But Maisetra, I need to speak with you. There are,” she waved her hand vaguely, “matters to arrange.”
Margerit nodded vigorously. “Come to me in my room. I’ll send for you after I’ve spoken to my uncle.”
Dinner had, as always, been calm, dignified and formal. It gave her no reassurance that her defiance of the afternoon had been forgiven. Hiding in her room could only provide a temporary respite and she had long ago discovered that it was better to face her uncle immediately and take the consequences. Aunt Honurat could never steel herself to do so and would spend a month in slowly grinding anxiety rather than face ten minutes of her husband’s direct disapproval. Aunt Bertrut was free of any direct obligation to him and on those occasions when she found it unpleasant to live under his roof, she was quite content to visit friends about the countryside until the growing disorder in the household forced him to send his wife as an unacknowledged ambassadress to beg her return.
But Margerit had no such haven nor was her happiness essential to the smooth operation of her uncle’s house. And so she slipped into the room and made a vague and general apology for the events of the afternoon that she hoped would cover all possible transgressions.
He received it with a mild frown but said merely, “I would expect a girl of your age to know how to control servants properly. Maisetra Fulpi seems to have been remiss in that part of your education. You will be mistress of your own household soon enough and then you will learn what lax standards can lead to.” He shifted back in his chair and put on a more friendly expression. “I’m glad you came to speak with me. I imagine you’re feeling quite dizzy with today’s change of fortune.”
A change indeed if it absolved her of her sins! But she was grateful for the respite. “I had no idea. I didn’t think—that is, when he spoke to me at the ball, it seemed as if he’d almost forgotten me. And when I visited, there was no hint.” She hesitated, recalling the curious stare from LeFevre. He must have known. No doubt that was what they’d spent the morning arranging.
“Well, it seems that you must have impressed him favorably in that last week.” He tented his hands together and spoke with the fatherly tone that had always unsettled her for its rarity. “This will mean a great many changes in your life, naturally. It’s fortunate that you haven’t been out long enough to have formed any attachment yet. You’ll be able to look much higher for a husband than you might have dreamed. I wouldn’t recommend that you be in any hurry to encourage the particular attentions of any man.”
“Don’t worry, Uncle,” she assured him in a rush. “I’m in no hurry to be married yet. In fact—” She bit her tongue. No need to confess that she had never been in any hurry to be married.
“Well, that’s settled then.”
What was settled?
She felt as if she’d missed some essential question.
“I was thinking that it might be a good idea to spend a part of the fall season in Rotenek. The best prospects are unlikely to come to you here. It would be too awkward to expect anything to come of it this year, but you would have a chance to meet the right people, make the right connections. And then the year after…why, who can say what might happen.”
When the prize mare wins a race, you don’t sell her at the local village market. But to go to Rotenek! That was something they could agree on. The suggestion had planted a seed that she hardly dared to contemplate. “That would be very nice,” she said.
Now her uncle’s face pulled sideways in distaste. “There are a few less pleasant things to consider now. I don’t want to be indelicate—I leave that for your Aunt Sovitre—but you will find that a great many unsavory people may come buzzing about you. I don’t speak of the ordinary run of social climbers—”
Like you, Uncle?
she thought. But no, that was unfair. He was ambitious, but he had rather old-fashioned notions of keeping to one’s place. It was only that her place had now changed in his eyes.
“—I mean fortune hunters intent on fixing your interest. You must become very circumspect and behave with the greatest propriety to avoid gossip. The matches we can contemplate will expect an unsullied reputation. Don’t take to conversing with dashing army officers or fashionable do-nothings. Be seen with no one to whom you haven’t been properly introduced.”
At this Margerit was hard put not to laugh out loud. “But Uncle, when have I ever shown any interest in men in bright uniforms or garish waistcoats? And I’ve already been introduced to anyone I’ll be meeting about town.”
“This isn’t a frivolous matter, Margerit! With great fortune come dangers that you couldn’t possibly imagine—for which I’m grateful. That woman Barbara has opened my eyes to things I wouldn’t care to have you subject to. Since fate has given you the services of an armin, for the moment I would prefer that you be in her company whenever you leave the house. Promise me that, Margerit.”
With relief, she promised what he asked. And to think she had been in agonies that he would find some way around the will and would send Barbara away! As for those unspoken dangers she couldn’t imagine, she had some idea who could enlighten her on that end.
* * *
Barbara was waiting for her upstairs, standing somewhat uneasily beside the narrow window that looked out over the square by daylight. Maitelen had brought her and stayed to lay out her nightclothes and see that the fire was set for the night. It was more attention than she was usually paid unasked. Margerit recalled her uncle’s caution about flatterers. Did it start this close to home?
“Maitelen, that will do very well for now.”
The maid bobbed a curtsy. “Will you want me to help you undress?”
That confirmed it. Well, why not? No doubt she could afford her own lady’s maid now and Maitelen was a familiar face. It occurred to her that she knew very little of what lay between “I can afford it” and the reality of hiring away her uncle’s servants under his own roof. “Come back in,” she considered the hour she had last heard struck on the case clock in the hall, “half an hour?”
When they were alone, Margerit sat on the edge of her bed as she had earlier that afternoon. Someone had smoothed away the traces of disorder in the coverlet.
“Please sit,” she told Barbara. There was a single chair in the room, tucked into the window-nook, but the other woman settled herself gingerly on the foot of the bed. She had changed out of the strict mourning that had begun the day, trading it for the informality of a plain linen shirt and fawn breeches. The only reminder was a simple black ribbon tied around her arm. Her hair hung loose in an unruly wave as if she had been interrupted in the act of braiding it for the night. Uncertainty lurked in her pale eyes.
“May I sp—”
They both stopped, then Barbara dropped her eyes and made a gesture of surrender.
“Why did he do it?” Margerit finished. “Why did he leave…all that to me?”
Barbara hesitated so long in answering that Margerit thought she hadn’t quite understood. But at last she said, “Why you? I don’t know. I wasn’t in his confidence. Obviously,” she added bitterly. “But why leave it to someone? To spite Estefen, his nephew. You heard what he thought of him. Estefen spent his entire life in expectation of being the baron’s sole heir. He traded on it. He borrowed against it. The baron didn’t just want to disappoint him, he wanted to torment him. You will need to beware of Estefen. But I think that’s why he didn’t simply leave the whole to the church. That could have been explained away. But to leave it to someone like you—with only the faintest connection—that would be an unmistakable slap to his family.”
Margerit swallowed heavily, trying to fight back tears. “Just like my governess.”
“What?” Barbara asked in confusion but Margerit found herself unable to explain. “I know he felt some affection for you,” Barbara continued. “He didn’t choose randomly.”
“But it wasn’t for
. He didn’t give me all this because he had plans for
“Maybe it’s better that way,” Barbara said softly.
“What?” Now it was she who was confused.
“If he didn’t have any grand plan in making you his heir, then you’re free to do with it what you like.”
Margerit tried the idea on for size. It wasn’t at all as simple as doing what she liked, of course. But maybe there was something in the idea. Because she had fallen in love with learning, she had clung fiercely to the notion that the baron wanted her to be a scholar. Did it matter, now, that it had been based on a lie? Her uncle wanted her to go to Rotenek; it was almost a sign. Dare she follow that road simply because
Barbara broke into her reverie. “May I speak?”
The question grated on her but it was clearly a habit that would take some time to break. She nodded.
Barbara leaned forward and spoke briskly. “If I’m to accompany you when you go out, it will help if I know what your habits are—what you normally do with your days.”
Margerit thought a moment. “In the late morning or afternoon I might go walking in the park if the weather is nice. In the afternoons I might have errands or go visiting with one of my aunts or I might be needed for something at home. It’s hard to say. And then of course there are dinners in the evenings sometimes and after Easter there will be balls again—oh, will you accompany me to those as well? That could be strange.”
Barbara shrugged. “In Rotenek it raises no comment to have armins at a ball. They hang out in the galleries, leaning against the pillars where they can watch everyone and scowl at each other. At dinners…the baron always had me attend him at table when he dined out but he was an eccentric and did it to shock. I think you’re too young to be an eccentric.”
“It’s a pity,” Margerit sighed. “If I were, I could do what I pleased, like old Maisetra Rivier.”
Barbara turned serious again. “What do you plan for tomorrow?” She explained hurriedly, “I only ask because there are matters I need to take care of—arrangements to make. And if you didn’t need me, I thought…”
The answer came to her in sudden resolution. “Tomorrow morning I should like to speak with Maistir LeFevre. No doubt my uncle will be seeing him, but I should like to know for myself just what has come to me and how my business stands.” Her voice faltered. “But I suppose I would need an appointment. And I don’t even know where to go.”
Barbara grinned. “That’s the simplest part—he’s staying at Fonten House. And as for an appointment, I think you needn’t stand on ceremony. In one sense, he works for you now, just as he worked for your godfather.”
“Then I’d like to go in the morning. After breakfast, perhaps ten o’clock?” She saw Barbara waiting expectantly and made it a statement. “Ten o’clock. And…if anyone asks, we’re going for a walk.” It wasn’t in her nature to be deceitful, but she had learned that there were better and worse ways to avoid her uncle’s scrutiny.
Barbara looked affronted. “Maisetra, it isn’t my place to discuss your affairs with anyone else.”
It was an odd feeling, Margerit thought later when Barbara had left and Maitelen had come and gone and her private prayers were complete. An odd feeling that there was even one person in the world whose first loyalty was to her, Margerit, and who professed herself bound to follow her orders above any others. She shivered a little with the intoxication. It wasn’t with cold. For once, this evening, her fire was well-set for the night with no skimping on fuel. That too was an odd feeling. Not that she had ever lacked for anything she truly needed. But no one had thought her worth exerting effort to please before—not the servants and certainly not her relatives. Already today things had shifted and she expected little would be the same again.
Barbara had wondered how difficult it might be for Margerit to slip all other chaperonage but the under stairs gossip was that Maisetra Sovitre was closeted with a sick headache. That left Maisetra Fulpi to manage the household tasks alone—which evidently strained the limits of her abilities. And with the excuse of a walk there was no need to worry about a coachman carrying tales; the distance to Fonten Street was no further than Axian Park along the river would have been. They set a brisk pace and for several blocks a companionable quiet lay between them until she ventured, “May I—I’m sorry, you asked me not to do that, but I don’t know how else to begin.”
“You could begin with ‘Margerit’,” came the teasing answer.
For only a moment Barbara envisioned a world in which that would be possible. But only a moment. “No, Maisetra. That wouldn’t be right.” A higher wall stood between them now than had existed when they were near-strangers.
“Then if you must, Maisetra Sovitre,” she said. “Everyone here still treats me as a child with ‘Maisetra Margerit’ all the time. If I’m to be a grand lady now, I think I should be Maisetra Sovitre.”
Barbara responded to the earlier teasing tone by pausing in mid-stride to sketch an overblown bow and say grandly, “Maisetra Sovitre.”
She took it in good part with a laugh. “But it does seem unfair, if you’re going to ‘Maisetra’ me, for me to use only your Christian name.”
Barbara shrugged. “You know how things stand.”
“But even the scullery maid is Mefro Lutild on Sundays.”
Barbara stiffened. She tried to hide the response but Margerit asked, “I’m sorry. How did I offend you?”
In a low but even voice she said, “Whoever he may have been, my father was no common M’froi Iannik.” And then more warmly, seeing Margerit’s chagrin, “I’m content to be called only by the one name I know I have a right to.” They continued on for another block until Barbara broke the silence that had fallen. “Maisetra, we can’t be friends. You can’t make it work. It would be too easy for me to forget myself. Let me do my duty to you and let it be enough.”