Saurimonde jerked the cloak back into place after it had slipped over one shoulder. Her dress was disintegrating before her eyes and Elazki's frock she had borrowed barely fell below her knees. Ahead of her was the garden full of hollyhocks and she could hear the thrum of the bees as the day began to warm. She skirted the edge as she didn't want to look too closely. This was something else she would have to sort out and there were so many messes and mistakes, she didn't know where to begin. She prayed no one would see her arriving back to the manor house. She must look like a beggar woman and prying eyes and wagging tongues were the last thing she needed right now.
There had been no way to cover her feet so she had to pick her path carefully. It was slow going, but the stables were within shouting distance. She knew this place so well. This had been her home. It still was her home, but it felt unfamiliar, like it was part of a life lived long ago.
She tiptoed quietly into the stables and listened carefully. All she heard was the restless shuffling of the horses waiting for their morning feed. Good, she thought, luck was with her. The stables were cool and damp and she could barely see in the tack room as she fumbled slightly, but she knew where Gilles' saddle and bridle were as they sat in perfect condition. He'd always insisted on the best and he'd always gotten his way. Well, almost always. She wasn't sorry she'd killed Gilles, as far as he was concerned she felt nothing at all, except the overwhelming need to erase all trace of his existence. It wasn't rational, she knew this, it was reaction to all the events which had befallen her. All because of Gilles and his need to destroy everything around him. At least he couldn't hurt anyone any more.
Still cursing about her lack of footwear, she saddled up Gilles' black gelding. The poor beast had been so beaten into submission, he barely moved a muscle as she tightened the girth. Hopefully his next owner would be kinder. She led him out the back, tied the reins in a loose knot and hooked them through one of the buckles in the front of the saddle so he couldn't get tangled in them. Then she let him go. He stood still for a moment unsure what to do so she grabbed the nearest whip and gave him a harsh whack across the hocks. It was all the motivation he needed as he took off for the trees. She felt a little bad about it, but desperate measures called for desperate means. If her luck continued then someone would find the horse sans rider in a few hours. Then there would be a search party to go look for their master, thinking he had fallen off. After they didn't find him the rumors would start about the men in the forest who had been attacking people for money. Maybe they had been stupid enough to abduct Gilles. Maybe they'd gotten in a lucky punch or stab wound. Maybe Gilles was dead... It could all work so perfectly, she thought. She froze as she heard someone whistling a tune not so far away. Damn, and double damn, she inwardly swore.
She backtracked a little to give herself some time and to make it look like she was coming in from a morning stroll. She smoothed down her hair and put on her most regal air. And then she strode forward to face the inevitable full of false confidence.
A boy of about ten with carrot colored hair and a smattering of freckles across his nose was putting together the meat for the pack of mastiffs Gilles had bred and raised as his hunting dogs. She didn't recognize the child and at closer inspection with the red hair she wondered if he was Gilles' offspring as well. The man had certainly been busy populating the countryside. Thank the goddess he had never gotten her pregnant. It wasn't that she didn't love children, but her skin crawled at the thought of it. Then she noticed Lucifer, her late husband's pride and joy, lying sulkily in a corner away from the rest of his pack who were busy making a racket as they waited impatiently for their breakfast. His sullen, golden eyes caught hers as if conveying some hidden message. An older man walked up to the boy and grabbed the haunches of fresh kill from him. His pinched face was redder than his hair and his hands shook a little. She knew who he was, one of Gilles' lackeys, and by the look of it, more than a little hungover. She decided to make the first move to catch him off guard.
“Why is Lucifer separated from the other dogs?” Her voice rang out sharp as a blade. Even she was taken aback by the harshness of it.
The man jumped as if he'd seen a ghost. “Madame...” He stuttered, “No one told me you were back. How...?”
“I came back early this morning,” she answered in a haughty manner. “You haven't answered my question. Why is Lucifer separated from the others?” She could see him sizing up her unkempt attire so she stared him straight in the eye, until his gaze hit the ground.
“The master told me to... I...”
She didn't let him finish. “Put him back.”
“But the master... The dog savaged him – and he...” He stopped.
“Gilles is not here. I saw him this morning as I was arriving.” She continued to lie smoothly. “He went to fetch his niece. Seems she's run away and gotten herself into some trouble. I don't have to tell you that Gilles would want you to keep this quiet.” She arched an eyebrow.
“No surprise there, madame. A bit of a wildcat she is. You don't have to worry about us.” He pointed to his son who was busy taunting an insect with a stick. “We won't say nothing to no one.”
Yeah, right, she thought as she gave him a tight smile. “Good. Then do as I say and put Lucifer back. I'll deal with Gilles.” She gave a little imperial wave towards the pens as she started up the drive towards the house.
“Yes, madame...” he called out after her.
She walked as calmly as possible, but inside she was quaking. What was wrong with her? She'd never taken that kind of tone with the servants before. She had spent most of her life here trying to be invisible. All of the hired help were Gilles bought and sold. But Gilles was gone and he was never coming back. For a moment she felt like skipping. She felt like a warm wind after the rain. She felt... That would never do. First she had to play distraught wife and then, hopefully, grieving widow. She giggled softly to herself. It was quite mad, but things were going to be very different.
She made it up the backstairs and to her room unseen by any of the house staff. She desperately needed a bath, but that would mean asking one of the servants and she wanted to delay the inevitable a little longer. Her sanctuary looked untouched as she basked in its heavy wood and jewel tones, but something was missing. She looked around as she tried to figure out what. Her carved, oval mirror was missing. Why that of all things? She wondered. It was not exactly an easy piece to move. Maybe Gilles smashed it, she thought, as she poked into one of the upright cabinets finding nothing. Some of her clothes were gone, but she had expected that.
As she looked around, she noticed the door on the far side was slightly ajar. Possibly someone had put her mirror in the other room? But that room was never used for anything other than the guests they'd never had. She opened the door cautiously and sucked in her breath - every shade of pink imaginable was vomited all over. It was a sickly monstrosity mixed with the definite odor of dog shit. She felt faintly nauseous as she took it in. This must have been Mariel's room, she thought as somewhere at the back of her mind the briefest flash of a salmon colored dress appeared. Why had Gilles let her do such a thing? Tentatively, she walked across the carpet spotting her mirror propped up by the bed. Had Gilles given it to his niece? she wondered. It certainly didn't fit in this confectioner's nightmare. Then she noticed the piles of frilly expensive lingerie sitting on the bed. Had Gilles given her those as well? It seemed so tacky. The girl could not have been barely more than a child. Spying a slip of paper that was sticking out of the wall, she walked across to take a closer look. She tugged at it and noticed the perfect round peep hole. Her late husband had been a man of many devious appetites and peeping was high on the list of them. She shouldn't be surprised, but Mariel was his niece – a close blood relative. She peered at the slip of paper. It was a receipt for the lingerie and the amount paid was staggering. Gilles had indeed signed for it. Pervert, she thought as she threw it down in disgust.
She stared at the mirror, hands on hips. It would be heavy to move, but she had to take it back. Lifting it up, she grimaced as she heard what was left of her frayed dress rip down the side. That was definitely the end of it. The mirror was heavier than she had guessed as she awkwardly rolled it across the carpet and maneuvered it through the door. It was louder too. Great. No doubt one of the servants would be up soon to investigate, she thought. Her dress ripped further with every effort until there was much left covering her. Breathing heavily, she managed to lift and edge the mirror back into place just over the low-seated vanity. She stared at her reflection. She was a mess. How long had it been since she sat there examining the bruises Gilles had left around her throat? she asked herself. The memory had faded like all bad memories did with her and she wanted to hold onto that one. She wanted to remember that day clearly, and exactly how beaten down and afraid she had felt. Picking up the golden comb she struggled with the tangled mess of her hair until it shone like the sun and fell smoothly down her back in waves. She was still covered with grit, but it was a start. She smiled at her reflection. One step at a time and things would get better. She would deal with the servants. Then, she would deal with Sordel. And after that she couldn't plan any further. But first, she sat on the edge of her bed and peeled off the remnants of her frock. She was going to close her eyes for a few minutes to gather back her strength. She grabbed the pillow nearest to her, pulling it close and hugging it like as person as she snuggled into the blankets. Then, blessed nothingness.