Authors: Heather Rose Jones
* * *
Margerit’s evening was claimed by a small dinner party. Uncle Mauriz’s business associates had the attraction of a son several years older than her and a daughter also newly out in society. There would be no dancing, but the promise of music and cards made an excuse to lure other young people. Margerit had known most of the guests since girlhood and had yet to find a one with whom she could enter into any serious sympathy. Yet one of these men would shape her future.
It was just a light informal supper—nothing elaborate—but the protocols of seating still ruled, so Margerit found herself between Maistir Palmir, an elderly bachelor, on her left and Cheristien, the son of her hosts, on her right. The older man had no conversation when it came to debutantes. He offered a remark on the weather then turned to more serious matters on his other side.
Cheristien had never previously considered her worthy of notice, for which she forgave him. A man just at the start of making his own name needed to distance himself from the company of mere children. And it was amusing to see him pretend to have suddenly noticed her maturity—as if she were now years older than when they’d last crossed paths. He asked whether she’d enjoyed her coming-out ball, whether she’d been invited to many parties yet and what she’d found to amuse herself lately, given that the weather was still so dreary.
In a spirit of mischief, Margerit answered, “I had the most entertaining conversation today at my godfather’s house, about the distinction Fortunatus makes between intrinsic and extrinsic miraculous visions.”
He stared at her blankly for a moment then burst into such loud laughter that heads turned half the table away. “Oh, but that’s droll! Have you been rehearsing that line all day in hopes of a chance to use it? Who told you to say that?” He gestured across the table to his sister. “Helen, I think I must forbid you to go out walking with Maisetra Sovitre or she’ll teach you to talk like a bluestocking or an eccentric and you’ll scare away all your suitors!”
Margerit stared down at her plate, torn between embarrassment and anger. Yes, she’d said it to provoke him, but how dare he treat scholarship as a party trick? Or rather, treat a woman’s scholarship as such.
“Now, now,” he said more kindly. “You’ve had your fun and I’ve had mine. No offense taken or intended.”
But for the rest of the meal she answered his conversation in monosyllables until he grew tired of it and confined himself to his other dinner partner. And though the company was pleasant, as such things go, she was hard put to pretend enjoyment. When the evening had run its course and they were private in the carriage going home, there was a long scold to endure from both aunts and an even more terrible stony silence from her uncle. And the worst part of it was that they meant it kindly. They were right that it was no way to attract a husband. And that was the bargain after all.
* * *
Aunt Bertrut would have returned to the baron’s house the next day but Margerit protested that, despite what he had said, he should be allowed a rest before being pestered by company again. Her aunt hadn’t seen how frail he looked. They compromised on sending a footman to inquire discreetly and he returned with the information that his excellency was unwell and could not see visitors.
“But surely that isn’t meant for you, Margerit,” Bertrut said.
“Aunt, have pity. He’s ill and may be dying.”
“Then all the more reason to fix his interest in you while you still can,” she said.
Margerit was appalled but held her tongue.
She means well,
She didn’t intend it to sound so selfish. Perhaps in a few days when he’s stronger.
* * *
He never was stronger. A carefully accidental pass by Fonten Street a few days later discovered that straw had been laid down in the street to quiet the wheels of passing carriages so as not to disturb the invalid. And the next morning the cook hurried back from the morning marketing with the news that the old baron had died.
“And they say he’s to be buried here at Saint Andire’s and not back in Rotenek or at Saveze,” came the gossip from the kitchen. “It should be quite the spectacle.”
The cook was mistaken. The funeral was a quick and quiet affair. Rumor said it was attended only by his household—that even his nephew had been left in ignorance until he was in the grave. So for the desired spectacle the gossips of Chalanz were forced to wait for the reading of the will. If he had been half as wealthy as common report had it, the simple listing of his bequests could provide speculation for a year. And even more than the funeral, it was curious that he had specified that the reading was to be held here in town and not in the capital.
Margerit wasn’t surprised to receive an invitation to the reading. Bertrut was eager to know if she would receive more than a token bequest but Uncle Mauriz squashed expectations. “He’s hardly taken notice of you before. Pray he leaves you something of value and not a useless memento.”
For her own part, Margerit’s thoughts turned to Barbara. Did she mourn the old man? Would she return to Rotenek? Would they ever have another chance to discuss Fortunatus or what poets they both admired beyond Pertulif? She looked for the duelist when walking in Axian Park, but if she still rode out it was not at the hours for fashionable exercise.
LeFevre had hired a room at the civic hall for the reading of the baron’s will. Barbara couldn’t help but recall the last time she had entered it, at the baron’s side and watching the signs of his final failing. Her eyes followed each set of arrivals. That instinct would long survive the baron. Ponivin and Charsintek and a handful of the other upper servants had come to represent the staff and were enjoying the novelty of being served rather than serving. Barbara watched out the window to see the arrival of a scattering of local notables who had received invitations indicating that they were remembered in some way. They wouldn’t expect anything substantial—a token to ensure their presence so they could bear witness in any ensuing disputes. The prince’s magistrate was in attendance for the same reason, although the token left to the crown was traditionally more substantial. It served the purpose of ensuring enforcement of the will’s provisions, as it would be forfeit if they were broken. Of course there were other recipients who could not attend due to the distance. A whole scattering of connections and relations back in Rotenek. Of those, only Estefen could be expected to show.
There was Margerit, dressed in a deeper mourning than was properly called for. Perhaps the gown had been made for a different loss and was being reused. She was surrounded by a cloud of relatives. Barbara recognized the uncle from the ball, his mouth pursed as if in perpetual distaste, arm in arm with the delicate woman from the riverside park. At his other side, a girl who—from the resemblance to the woman—must be a daughter and so Margerit’s cousin. And there was the other aunt—the cheerful-looking woman who had accompanied Margerit’s visits. LeFevre greeted them enthusiastically as they entered, showing them to seats near the front of the room. No one was ready to settle yet, with the reading scheduled for noon. The newly-arrived party dispersed among their neighbors, sharing greetings and the news of the day.
Barbara had turned back to the window, watching for one particular arrival. LeFevre had sought her out that morning with an unexpected request. “I fear that Estefen will be trouble,” he’d said. Barbara expected the same—not knowing the details of what form his disappointment would take, but of course LeFevre wasn’t free to elaborate yet. “You would do me a favor if you would…stand prepared for any unpleasantness.”
Barbara had raised an eyebrow at that. “Are you asking me to come armed? I had license to bear a sword in the baron’s name. Legally, I suppose I’m still in his service, but—”
LeFevre had assured her that he would stand surety for her. “But in any case, it shouldn’t cause comment. And I hope I’m being over-cautious. He’s unlikely to make serious trouble at such a solemn event and with the magistrate in attendance.”
Barbara was less sure on that last point. And here it felt odd to stand ready, her senses keyed to action, without that axis around which her duty had always revolved. A step behind her made her turn sharply.
Margerit flinched back, saying, “I’m sorry I startled you.”
Barbara bowed silently in apology.
“I’ve been looking for you, to tell you how sorry I am for your loss.”
Barbara felt awkward in answering. “There was no need, Maisetra. My loss is no greater than yours.” She retreated into a verse from Tanfrit. “
All come at last to serve and solve the final mystery.
“But surely you—” Margerit hesitated, as if uncertain of her ground.
Barbara didn’t offer any guidance. There was genuine sorrow in the girl’s brown eyes, but her own wound was too raw and too deep and she had no intention of displaying it to the crowd of strangers here.
“What will you do now?”
The question was so sincerely concerned that she bent a little. “Whatever I choose, now that I’ll be free to do so. I’ll have some time to decide. I have reason to believe that the baron will have remembered me sufficiently to give me some choices. He always said he meant to do that.”
“I’m glad for you. What a thing it must be to see all manner of roads stretching before you and only need to choose!” Her voice turned from wistful to tired. “I’m not even sure why I’m here. Uncle Fulpi would have taken care of all the details, but Maistir LeFevre insisted that I come.”
“I believe,” Barbara said carefully, “that the baron meant to leave you a sum to increase your dowry. I wasn’t in his confidence, of course, but—” She looked past Margerit and stiffened. While she had been turned away from the window to speak to the girl she’d missed Estefen’s arrival. Now here he was, striding into the room as if he were the awaited guest of honor. He took a seat directly facing LeFevre’s desk.
“What is it?” Margerit whispered.
“I think things will be starting soon,” Barbara said. “You should find your seat.” She moved away to position herself in a place where she could watch carefully…and move if necessary. Estefen threw her one sharp glance and then studiously ignored her.
LeFevre, sensing his audience’s mood, moved to take his place behind the desk and unlocked a document case with a small brass key. The rest took that cue to finish their conversations and find places: chairs for the greater, a place to stand around the back of the room for the lesser. He spread the sheaf of papers before him and cleared his throat. Someone unacquainted with his mannerisms might have thought him nervous. “Please understand that this will is in Baron Saveze’s own voice and words. And as you know, he was a man of firm opinions.”
“Get to it, man,” Estefen interrupted impatiently.
LeFevre shrugged and bent his head to the papers. “I, Marziel Lumbeirt, Baron Saveze,” the legal formulas that LeFevre himself must have insisted on rolled on for several lines. “Being of sound mind and having consulted deeply on the law—” An odd phrase, Barbara thought, but she had only once before heard the reading of a will. “—set forth my will concerning the disposition of my worldly wealth.” LeFevre’s voice took on some of the cadence and tone of his late employer. “As my nephew Estefen Chazillen is doubtless anxious to come into his inheritance, I shall break with custom and begin by easing his mind.”
Estefen snorted at that but stirred in his chair uneasily. Normally the will would begin with the litany of small bequests and token gifts and work slowly toward the more substantial transactions.
“From my family, I inherited the estate of Saveze and with it the title of Baron. Thanks to the profligacy of my forebears, in particular my brother Mihail, the estate was greatly encumbered.”
LeFevre cleared his throat again and his voice dropped back to its normal tone. “Pray have patience. I told him there was no need to include ancient history in the will, but he insisted.”
He rustled the papers and took on the baron’s tone again. “Through my own efforts, I not only lifted the debts on my ancestral lands but amassed a considerable fortune and added several other properties to my holdings. And though my relations have been disdainful of the industry that made this possible, they have lived in the expectation of benefiting from the profits. My nephew Estefen—the heir-default to the title and estate of Saveze—has in particular been living for years on the expectations of his inheritance. It is now time for him to reap his just reward.”
Estefen frowned at the word “just.”
“Estefen Chazillen, the eldest son of my sister Iosifin, will receive—with the grace and permission of Prince Aukust, should he choose to grant it—the ancestral lands of Saveze, with all their rents, revenues, incomes and debts, and I wish him the joy of the title of baron.”
It would be startling indeed, Barbara thought, should the title not be confirmed, but the common formula bowed to the prince’s right.
“He will find,” LeFevre continued, “when he reviews the accounts of his property, that every penny he has begged, wheedled and extorted from me over the years has derived from the revenues of that property that is now his. If he had lived a careful and frugal life, he would now be a wealthy man. However as his financial demands have frequently exceeded the income of the estate, he will find that it once again bears mortgages, though not nearly as heavy as when I first received it. May he enjoy the fruits of his labors both past and present.”
Barbara saw LeFevre raise his eyes to meet Estefen’s, not in challenge but with confidence. “The baron consulted the best doctors of law concerning inheritance of titular land. The legacy is sound. If you contest it, you will spend your own substance to no return.”
Estefen pushed up from his chair. “I have friends higher than your doctors of law. I will have what is due me. And you—”
When Estefen stepped toward LeFevre, Barbara shifted her stance. There was no motion toward her sword, just enough movement to catch his eye and remind him of her presence. His mouth curled in a snarl. “You will be sorry you stood by him in this charade!”