2855-chapter-15

Chapter 15

* * *

By the time Belviana ducked into the west wing, a considerable amount of time had already passed. Through the half-open doorway she could hear someone coughing, the sound of changing clothes, and the clinking of silverware carelessly. She moved quickly through the crowded hallway, her pace quick and steady.

She felt strangely cold and tired, even though she had slept soundly all night. Perhaps it was the cold wind she’d picked up on her way back from the road less traveled. Maybe it was the first time she’d ever been open, a common occurrence, not even gossiped about, and she’d told Aiden out loud that she had no regrets. The memory of the night would come back to her with inexplicable chills. The hot, molten sensations, the sweet sounds of his breath.

She quickened her steps, trying not to think of them; after all, if she didn’t hurry, someone might notice that she hadn’t been in her room all night. Belviana wrapped her shawl tightly around her shoulders and hurried up the stairs. She rounded the corner, down a long hallway, and stood in front of my doorway, ornately embossed with damask roses. The white wooden door swung open without warning.

“My lady!”

Belviana’s lips parted in surprise. Before she could scream, a white hand shot out of the darkened room, quickly clamping over her mouth and pulling her inside. As she was dragged into the lightless room, Belviana quickly regained her composure. The wooden door slammed shut behind her back, either by force or because the hand belonged to a familiar woman. The woman whispered harshly.

“Shhh, I’m going to let you go now, but you can’t make a sound.”

Belviana nodded slowly. The woman let go of her, took two steps back, and lit the lantern. Belviana blinked slowly to adjust to the sudden brightness.

“……Lena, is that you?”

“Yes. Miss. It’s me. My God, you’re so cold, where the hell have you been, and my God, your clothes, what’s all this…….”

Lena dragged Belviana to the fireplace and examined her in disbelief. It wasn’t see-through, but it was ragged and torn at the seams where it had been ripped open in the night, and ribbons had been untied and re-tied. It was no longer the demure, elegant attire of the night before. Belviana crossed her arms in front of her chest, hiding the garment from Lena’s gaze, and spoke quickly.

“There was an accident.”

“An accident?”

“You wouldn’t understand if I explained. More than that, why are you here?”

“I can’t believe you’ve forgotten, but I’m the one guarding your bedroom.”

Belviana realized at that moment why it was Lena who Aiden had called as a witness. The stern guardian of the bride’s chastity. She had forgotten, but Aiden hadn’t. It was as if he’d gone over in his mind all the things she might say in her drunkenness…….

Which, come to think of it, was always the case. Aiden was strangely good at winning hearts and minds and manipulating situations. Getting the key to a hidden garden, sneaking into a forbidden library, or borrowing someone’s most prized possession was easier than breathing for him. And he did it in secret, without making a single sound. It was a talent that had given her chills even as a child, and as an adult, it was hard to imagine the extent to which it had reached. Belviana forced herself to smile.

“……Yes, that’s right. I had completely forgotten.”

“Lady, you can’t possibly…….”

“…….”

“No way, you’ve been with Aiden all this time?”

Belviana blanched and clutched her shawl tighter. Lena’s words were as close to a rude accusation as one could spit at a lady in her service, and as sharp as a knife. Her breath came out in ragged gasps as if her lungs had been injured in the shoveling. Her voice trembled badly without the benefit of composure.

“What, what….. who did you hear that from?”

She couldn’t bring herself to say anything that would deny last night’s affair, let alone delay it. The next words that came out of her mouth were a complete affirmation. Lena went white and gripped Belviana’s arm tightly. It was a strong grip, like she was barely holding on to keep from falling to the floor. Lena stuttered and opened her mouth.

“F, forgive my rudeness. I just lost control of my legs without realizing it…….”

“What’s wrong, what happened?”

“I certainly didn’t do it for money; what Aiden wanted from me was a very small thing, compared to how good he has been to me, but if I had thought it would harm you, I would have refused, believe me.”

Now it was Belviana’s turn to calm Lena down. Belviana took Lena’s hand and led her to the table. Once seated in the round chair, Lena began to cry. Belviana poured a full cup of water from the kettle and held it out to Lena.

“Calm down and talk slowly.”

“To get to the bottom of it, last night you were supposed to have fallen asleep in your room, under my watch.”

“What?”

Belviana could only repeat in disbelief. Lena cleared her throat.

“All Aiden asked me to do was to go upstairs and tidy up because you’d had too much to drink and needed to be taken to your bedroom. When I got back to your room, it was a mess, as if it been burglarized: the window was open, two of the vases I’d put on display were broken, and the bed and carpet were drenched. So I rushed to get new bedding, wash the carpet, and ask the kitchen to make some sleeping tea, because that’s what you used to have at the end of every banquet. I lost track of time while I was cleaning up, and when I went down to the kitchen at eleven o’clock to get the tea, everyone thought you’d been sleeping in your room since nine. I haven’t seen anyone since then. God, how could I have told them the truth…….”

Before the words were out of her mouth, it wasn’t hard for Belviana to figure out what was going on. Lester’s daughter had disappeared from that banquet. Unbeknownst to the maid who had watched her closely all day. No maid could have taken on such a responsibility and come out unscathed. No family would hire such a maid.

Realizing her situation, Lena must have been desperate. Her elderly mother and younger siblings all depended on her salary.

People with more to protect are easier to take advantage of. It’s something Aiden has been saying since he was a kid. At the age of nine, he wasn’t as cunning as he is now, so he was quick to point out to Belviana certain lines that were only visible to him. Lines that could be crossed with favors, lines that could be crossed without favors, lines that could be crossed with secrets that could never be crossed. Belviana could see it. This was a trap, a trap that had been meticulously engineered, every step of the way.

“Does anyone else know about this besides you?”

“No, no one does, at least not that I know of. When you had a visitor last night, I said you were already fast asleep.”

“Wait. Someone came in the middle of the night?”

“Lady Liliette. She said you had promised to play cards after the banquet, and even if you were so deeply asleep that you wouldn’t wake up, she asked me to see you for a few minutes and let her go……. I refused, though.”

“…….”

“Please forgive me, young lady. I really didn’t expect things to blow up like this. I was going to find you on my own, but I was afraid someone might notice…….”

“I know, and then it would have been said that you didn’t keep my bedroom properly guarded, which I wouldn’t dare do, but it would have been embarrassing if someone had tried to check to see if I was really in the room.”

“I’ll keep this secret, please, young lady……. Don’t kick me out.”

Kick her out. Lena’s words were overly naive. Belviana was a woman who was the subject of dozens of gossipy rumors if she happened to show the slightest sign of discomfort. The only daughter of one of the richest and most honorable families in the South. Despite her plans to disappear forever, there were eyes everywhere watching her with interest, which was why she had to be extra careful and appear to be the perfect Lester daughter without a blemish. At least until the very moment she boards the train to Millton herself.

Unfortunately for Lena, the circumstances could not have been more perfect. The poor maid will have no idea what a conspirator she has become. Belviana calmly helped the maid to her feet.

“Don’t worry, I won’t kick you out. And don’t cry, or your eyes will swell up.”

“Thank you, miss, thank you so much…….”

error: Content is protected !!