Authors: Gene Doucette
“What did you say to him?”
“I said, ‘your tea, sir’. Just like that.”
“Oh shut up. At least I spoke to him, that’s more than most can say. I think he’s lonely. I don’t know why you lot aren’t supposed to speak to him, but I wonder if he even knows it. I bet he sits there every day wondering why you and Mr. Corrigan and Miss Joanne don’t go and talk to him. I bet it makes him sad.”
“Did he say anything back?”
“He did, he said ‘thank you’. And then he looked at me and saw I wasn’t Bethany, and he said, ‘you are new.’ And I said, ‘she’s sick’, and then I left.”
“That was all?”
“I didn’t want to get in trouble!”
“No, I guess not.”
“He has a funny accent. I don’t think he speaks much English.”
I was down to my drawers and the suit was back on hangers. I sat on the edge of the bed. “German, probably. Or Hungarian.”
“I don’t know, I never heard it before. Why do you think they don’t want anyone speaking to him?”
“I’ve learned not to wonder overly much about things like that,” I said. “My assumption is it’s either for his protection or for ours.”
“That’s very wise.” She sat up and crawled to the foot of the bed, not at all concerned that the sheets had slipped away and fully revealed her. “Can I help you out of those drawers, sir?”
“Yes, that would be very kind of you.”
* * *
The mansion had three distinct dining areas, not counting the kitchen tables where the staff ate. With the exception of the basket lunch, my meals had mostly been taken on the veranda, where they were brought to me and no socializing was expected, but like the kitchen tables, the veranda also didn’t count as a dining space.
The sitting room from which the veranda sprang was one, as it was also called the tearoom. Then there was the dining room, an informal space where regular guests and family ate or were expected to. I dined there once or twice a week and otherwise begged off.
The third space was the banquet hall. This was an enormous room directly off the main hall—where the stairs and the front entrance were—that took up about half of the right wing of the mansion. A vast rectangular table occupied the center of the room that could seat anywhere between twenty and forty people depending on how many partitions were added to it and how many chairs were on-hand. This was where the evening’s festivities were to take place.
For this party, in addition to myself, John Corrigan and the guest of honor—whose exact name we never did learn—several of Margritte’s local neighbors were also in attendance. With Joanne and her mother, this brought the head count up to fifteen, not counting the nearly equal number of servants ringing the wall near the hidden door to the kitchen. The table, though, was set for almost twice that many.
“The extra chairs are for papa,” Joanne said, sliding her gloved hand under my arm. She was wearing the kind of elegant dress nobody has any more, which is sort of a shame. In hindsight, corsets seem inhumane, but at the time I was pretty pleased with what they did to the female form. Taking them
the female form was a real pain, I’ll admit. “He’s bringing guests as well. And our foreign friend’s companions, when they arrive, will also join us. I don’t know how many of them will be coming, but we’re expecting at least four.”
“I was hoping this would be over with early,” I said, specifically commenting on the fact that we were not eating yet, which meant there was no telling how far away I was from escaping the evening. “How long before they arrive?”
“Oh, relax. When we’re married you will have to do this all the time.”
“That’s another excellent reason to avoid marriage.”
She shot me a look, but it was more mischievous than unhappy. “All right, no parties then. But we get to share Miranda.”
On the other side of the room, John had just entered. Between him and us was a clogged floor full of guests who knew enough not to take their seats at the table as yet, which meant standing and drinking wine and noshing on food brought around by the staff, and most of all,
I hated mingling when I was sane. Insane I found it intolerable. But I didn’t have it nearly as bad as my friend. With his condition, a crowd of people was nearly as nightmarish for John as combat.
It was fascinating, then, watching him navigate the crowded room. While his expression was that of a man whose head was on the verge of bursting, he moved with astonishing grace. Because of his constant future-sight he could pre-react to events, which put him at a distinct advantage in a crowd where he had no interest in holding a conversation. People would turn to greet him and find he wasn’t there, or he was but another person had come between them. Incidental contact—which often triggered at least a nominal exchange of niceties—was avoided at the last second. He moved like a dancer, but a dancer whose feet were causing him agony.
Joanne noticed too. “He is an odd one, your Mr. Corrigan. I still can’t put my finger on how, but there is something.
know what it is, don’t you?”
“I do, but I don’t know if I could put it in a way you would accept.”
cryptic. Hello, John, you look dashing this evening.”
“Miss Joanne,” he greeted, having just reached us. “You look lovely.”
“Charmed,” she smiled, curtsying with only the slightest exaggeration. “Shall we socialize?”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” I said.
“Yes, really, I’m perfectly all right over here,” John agreed.
was near one of the front-facing, floor-to-ceiling windows that made up an entire wall of the banquet room. Specifically, we were in the far corner of the room and not at all close to the main thrust of the party. Margritte was in the middle of that thrust, playing hostess, and if she looked displeased by the decision her two madmen had made to remain out of the crowd, it didn’t show.
Joanne was not at all okay with it, though. “You two! This is our
night to actually speak to the man and you’d rather hide in the dark. Oh, there he is! Come on, then.”
I looked at John, who appeared genuinely panicked at the notion of diving back into the center of that many people. I knew if I went he would have to follow.
“We’ll need a moment or two,” I said.
“Ahh, you.” Joanne pulled her hand out from under my arm. “All right, if you won’t go to him, I will bring him to you.”
She disappeared into the social morass, braver than either of us for doing so.
“I’m surprised you came, John,” I said. “I’m sure Margritte would have accepted your regrets.”
“I considered it. But no, I had to come.”
to? She insisted?”
“No, she didn’t at all. I fear I accepted before she formally invited me, which must have been alarming. Yes I had to come. Tonight is important because… oh.” He stopped himself, which he did sometimes when realizing he’d gone too far ahead. I said what I was supposed to say next. It was less complicated that way.
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Tonight is when he tells us he is a duke, of course.”
“Of course. You know, John, I never did tell you how old I was, and yet you act as if we had that conversation. You didn’t need to be here to learn his title. I take it something else is going to happen tonight?”
“Yes, something else is going happen tonight.” His answer ran over my question. If anyone had been listening it would have sounded like we were running through a rehearsed script. “I want you to promise me something, Reggie.”
“What shall I promise?”
“If I tell you to do something, do it immediately, without question. Do you trust me enough to do that?”
“I think I do, yes. But I’d like to know what you mean.”
I couldn’t imagine a dinner party circumstance in which it might be vitally important to accept the instructions of a future-seeing lunatic. Perhaps, I thought, I was at risk of being scalded by tea later.
But then Joanne had returned with the foreign guest on her arm, and I never got an answer. “Gentlemen!” she said. “It turns out our esteemed guest is a
John and I feigned surprise, greeted him, and introduced ourselves.
As Miranda observed, the duke was very young, much younger than I’d taken him for from a distance. Younger than twenty, surely. A prominent nose and long black hair, he was not a terrifically attractive young man, but handsome enough for a person with royal lineage to get by okay. That is to say, money makes everyone a little bit more handsome.
I didn’t know why he was being hidden away in Cornelius’s estate—I never really
learn—but I knew enough about hereditary monarchies to imagine ten or twelve plausible reasons. Most of those reasons had to do with valid or invalid claims to a throne somewhere, an unsavory by-product of a system that inevitably put the lives of very young people in grave danger entirely because of their blood.
But then, every political system has its flaws.
I also knew enough not to ask him for details. Even if he knew why, I had no reason to expect him to tell me.
“It is… a pleasure to make… to meet you both,” he said in halting English.
“It’s our pleasure as well,” I greeted back, shaking his hand. Then, perhaps foolishly, I tried out some German. “
We are all sorry to see you go.
His face registered genuine alarm. He understood the language I was using, clearly, but for some reason it wasn’t okay that I knew how to speak it.
I am sorry, I don’t understand,
” he said back, but in Hungarian rather than German.
I nodded. “My mistake, sir.”
John stepped between us. “I feel as if we are old friends, my lord, even though this is our first conversation.”
The duke smiled and shook John’s hand while Joanne pulled me away. “What did you just
“I greeted him, that’s all. I know a little German.”
“No wonder you’re hiding in the corner, you are
at this. Why German?”
She sighed. “
didn’t say Saxon duke, did I? It was your friend Mr. Corrigan who told us that, and Lord even knows where he got that. Honestly, Mr. Bates. I may have to break off this fake engagement if you don’t develop some tact.”
“I can apologize again.”
“No, don’t bother. Let me deal with this.”
She reinserted herself into what had to have been an excruciating conversation between a man who can barely hold one and a man who can barely speak the language.
“Has anyone ever told you the history of this mansion, sir?” she asked the duke, taking his arm.
The intent was to lead him away from us and, presumably, to the host-friendly arms of her mother, and I’m sure that’s what would have happened if the team of riders hadn’t arrived at the front door at just that moment. Everyone in the hall was aware of this because the main carriageway was what the windows overlooked, and because there were enough riders to make a substantial amount of noise.
“Is that Cornelius?” I asked. The curtains where sheer white, but it was difficult to make out much of what was going on outside because we were in a lit room and the front was largely unlit.
“Too many horses,” Joanne said. “And father sounds a horn when he crosses the gates. We’d have heard of his coming minutes ago. This must be our duke’s retinue, yes?”
“I think it must be. Except that was a lot more than the four men you were expecting.”
A moment later, the doorman was walking two of the horse riders into the room. They weren’t dressed in the finery one typically associated with an event such as this, wearing riding leathers and looking like the kind of dirty and sweaty one gets when pushing a mount hard through the countryside.
“Excuse me, misses and misters,” the first man said, somewhat loudly. His accent was unmistakably not English, and also not the one our duke was using. I was nearly positive it was French. “I must apologize, both for my late arrival and for my enormous rudeness, but I am afraid your guest of honor must leave immediately. It is… an emergency. Utterly unforeseen.”
Both men had swords on their belts, and they weren’t the decorative kind. The second man had his hand on his hilt. When I saw this, my heart rate went up. It could have been another panic attack, but I didn’t think so. I thought I was reacting entirely correctly to the start of a bad situation.
“Just so I’m clear,” I said to Joanne. “There
two men with swords standing in the vestibule, is that correct?”
“Yes. Do you think you’re imagining this?”
“I wanted to check. I failed to do that at the last party I attended.”
Margritte, ever the hostess, wasn’t picking up on the nuances of the situation the way I was. Neither was Joanne or anyone else there, all except for John. And when the guy who can see the future is reacting the same way you are to something, it’s a good bet your instinct is on the nose. Considering how bad my instinct had been of late, it was almost gratifying to see him as concerned as I was.