Chapter One: Taking Possession
Lady Elizabeth von Sarmas fingered her prayer beads and wondered if any room existed on the former Windthorst Estate for a cannon foundry. According to the map draped over the small table in her chamber, the estate sat in the perfect location for a foundry. A river deep enough for small barges flowed through the property, trees in plenty would make building relatively easy, the estate sat well back from the dangerous border lands to the east and west of the Eastern Empire, and she could set up a test ground far enough away from the settlements that no one would be endangered when something went wrong; because things always went wrong.
Someone tapped on the door and she looked up. “Yes?”
A servant curtsied. “My lady, his grace Aquila von Starland is here.”
“Thank you,” Elizabeth stood up from the table. “Have tea and liqueur ready in the solar, please.” Not that she used the room as a fine lady’s solar, for taking tea and doing needlework—instead, Elizabeth had set it up with a proper map table, much to the dismay of the late Count Eric Windthorst’s staff. I need to replace them with my own people, she reminded herself. But you could not hire twenty good servants on three weeks’ notice.
Elizabeth brushed off her split skirt and walked down the curving wooden staircase to greet her mentor. The bare stone and plaster walls irritated her, but the tapestries that had hung there until five days ago had bothered her even more. She wrinkled her nose, thinking Ugh. How could something like that not have been noticed? They had escaped notice because until she moved into Windthorst House, no postulant sister, or any other clergy of Godown, ever caught a glimpse of the hangings. The weavers had concealed the iconography well and the workmanship impressed her greatly, but she refused to stay under the same roof with anything even vaguely related to the worship of Selkow. They made quite a bonfire, and the ashes should help the garden.
She rounded the final curve in the stairs just as his grace Duke Aquila von Starland walked into the hall. “Your Grace,” she smiled, curtsying. Just seeing the older man, dark hair greying at the temples, his prominent beak of a nose sniffing around for trouble, made her day brighter.
An answering smile appeared on his weathered, scarred face. “Lady Elizabeth.” He glanced around at the unadorned walls and floors. “Are you making room for the killer mule?”
She laughed. “No, your grace, although Snowy would move in and take over if I let him. No, he has a box stall with access to the courtyard.” She caught sight of the dark-haired woman standing behind Aquila and curtsied again. “Your pardon, Lady Ann.”
Aquila’s younger sister shook her head. “No offense taken, Lady Elizabeth.” She studied the room. “Have you decided what to do in here?”
“Yes, but first, please, follow me your grace, my lady.” The visitors followed her through quiet halls, empty of almost all decoration. “The cursed objects have been destroyed, and the remaining valuables are going on the auction block next week, at least those that the crown did not claim or that are set aside as blood payment.”
“That bad?” Aquila’s steps echoed from the stone floors and bare stone and plaster walls. Elizabeth opened the door to the solar and he stopped. “Oh, Marie would love one of these.”
“Would she, your grace? She is welcome to come and look at it, to see how it is constructed. There are wooden panels that fit over the windows in summer and during storms,” and Elizabeth pointed to the tracks visible through the glass.
“She would indeed, Lady Elizabeth,” Ann gushed. “And all these plants!”
Elizabeth relaxed. She’d hoped Aquila would be pleased. The three sat around the worktable, hastily cleared of its markers, maps, inkwells, and paper. Aquila got back up and inspected the portable bookcase near the table. “How does . . . oh, I see.” He returned to his seat and accepted tea. “Who made that?”
“One of the footmen, who is wasted as serving staff, your grace. He’s currently working on a full set of shelves like that one, but in redwood with cedar trim, to keep vermin away from my books.” She poured for Lady Ann, who added a dollop of cherry liqueur to her cup. After all had been served with drinks and the covers removed from plates of small meat buns and sweet cookies, Elizabeth asked, “How can I be of service, your grace?”
“When do you intend on going to Windthorst?”
“Next week. I had to wait until I’d cleared the last trace of the apostate out of this building,” and she shivered. Just that morning a priest from St. Gerald’s cathedral had blessed the entire house, the staff, and the stables. Maybe now she’d stop having nightmares. “But I don’t want to delay much longer, because of harvest and winter, your grace.”
Ann nodded, then absently reached up and pushed a hair-stick back into place. Elizabeth made herself focus on her teacup until the surge of envy passed. Ann shared her brother’s dark hair and light tan skin, and looked lovely in the dark red jacket and brown skirt she’d worn. If Elizabeth tried those colors, people would mistake her for an especially ill-favored ghost. As Elizabeth scolded herself for envy, Ann inquired, “Have the soldiers found anything at Windthorst proper?”
“If so, they have not reported it to me, my lady, but I have a bad feeling that they will, or have. Lazlo’s last letter said that most of the people are still too scared to speak more than four words at a time.” She looked away, adding, “The creature allowed sworn acolytes to cross his land with impunity, or so it seems.”
Aquila’s black eyebrows rose and he rubbed a finger along his beak of a nose. “You’ve heard from Lazlo Destefani already?”
“Yes, your grace. Given the dire situation, his majesty graciously allowed us to send messages via the imperial couriers and heliograph system until I reach Windthorst myself.”
“And his relatives?”
“He sprang out of the ground full grown, your grace, or so you’d think. He never married although Prince Alois has turned up at least four families who spoke with him about arranging matches with their daughters.” She laughed a little. “The one cousin I found swears she knows nothing. I believe her.”
“Well, that does make some things easier.” Aquila sounded unsurprised as he changed the topic. “How is the mule project going?”
Elizabeth, eyes wide with mock-fear, shook her head so hard that her wig almost shifted. “Shhhh, his grace the archduke might hear you! I’ve been looking at what is necessary for a cannon foundry, you grace. Mules, well, your grace, mules are easier to make than cannons.”
Aquila leaned back in his chair and brayed with laughter. “So he refuses to give up, does he?”
“Yes, your grace, and there’s nothing I can do to stop him.” The lands did belong to the crown, after all, at least until she turned twenty-one. It will be a very long four years if you don’t humor him. And you need strong mules and horses to pull big cannons.
“So you plan on going west in a few weeks, then,” Aquila stated. Elizabeth nodded and he turned to his sister. “Is that too soon?”
“Not at all, Quill. Despite what you insist on thinking, I do not have that much to pack.” She shook her finger at him. “And you might ask Lady Elizabeth what she wants to do.”
For the first time she’d ever seen, Aquila ducked and flushed a little. “Ah, yes. Well, you see, Elizabeth, um . . .” She stared as he hemmed and hawed. “That is, there’s a minor matter I need your assistance with.”
Ann rolled her eyes. “What my dear brother is trying to say is that Lady Marie has taken over all domestic duties. Which leaves me at loose ends, so to speak. And you need a chatelaine, unless you had planned on running everything?”
St. Sabrina be praised. St. Amelia, thank you for answering my prayers! “No, and I’ve been scrambling. I know nothing about running a household, my lady.” Elizabeth counted off on her fingers, “I can make sweets, distill some common medicines, do some basic cleaning, and of course I know needlework and simple dress-making. And I can pray. But, well, after the last year I know far more about organizing a military campaign than I do about keeping my pantry stocked. I also need to be recruiting my own staff, not that the former owner,” and she waved her hand, taking in all of Windthorst’s property, “had only bad people working for him. Except for two, and they are answering to a much higher authority than a chatelaine’s.”
“So that story was true,” Aquila observed, pouring himself more tea and a healthy splash of anisette.
She gritted her teeth. “Yes, it was, your grace. Prince Alois and the rector of St. Gerald’s handled the matter with the utmost discretion, thanks be.” That was when she’d decided to replace the entire staff. She refused to sleep in armor.
“So I can take it that you have no objection to Ann going with you as your chatelaine? Because, well, Lady Marie . . .” Aquila spread his hands, helpless. Elizabeth understood all too well. His marriage to Marie had been arranged for political and dynastic reasons. They did not love each other, although he respected and cared for Marie. As best Elizabeth could tell, despite bearing him two sons and several daughters and doing an excellent job of managing Starland in his absence, Marie still lacked confidence in her ability to please Aquila, making her jealous and unhappy.
“No, I have no objection to Lady Ann coming with me and running things, at least in part,” she added when Ann started to protest. “I’ll have to deal with the military and economic aspects of the estate. Reading between the lines in Lazlo Destefani’s last letter, the estate also owes back taxes as well as military service.” The next time someone tries to honor me with a gift of property, I’m going to politely refuse and then run away.
“I forget that you were sheltered,” Ann admitted.
“Yes, well, Sister Amalthea and Lady Orrosco’s ideas of a proper up-bringing have large numbers of holes in them.” Elizabeth poured more tea and crunched on a verbena cookie.
Aquila swallowed the rest of his tea in one gulp. “Good. I’ll send your dower portion with you, Ann, in case the unimaginable happens and you find a suitable husband.” He missed both women’s angry glares as he continued, “And all your personal possessions.”
“Don’t worry about pack animals, your grace,” Elizabeth sighed, feeling morose. “The archduke is providing plenty.”
Aquila and Ann both laughed.
(C) Alma T.C. Boykin 2014. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in part or in whole is prohibited without express permission of the author.