Chapter 1: Everything of Value
Peter Tyler was drunk. He was always drunk these days.
Drunkenness was his instinctive response to any and all of life’s bumps and gullies. When he’d lost at cards he drank his cares away, when he’d had a good day at the table it was an ale to celebrate, and another, and another. And so today, as Rose watched her father on what must have been the worst day of her life, she was unsurprised to see him bottle already in hand, his shoulders slumped in utter defeat.
The sharp cacophony of breaking dishes echoed through the stone farmhouse, drifting from the kitchen cellar, and chased by the muffled sound of Cook’s fury. It had been like that all day, chaos, and crashing, and cursing. The movers that Peter Tyler could still afford to pay valued efficiency, and a short workday over protecting the families few remaining assets.
The workers sent by his Lordship seemingly valued nothing.
Rose had known for a long time it had been coming to this. Their farm had been a prosperous one once, with good land and easy access to the river trade routes. When well managed it should have afforded a comfortable, if not wealthy, income for a small family with just a lone daughter to support. But Peter Tyler was a fool, and ever since his wife had passed away, a drunkard, and gambler to boot.
The late Jacqueline Tyler had handled the management of the farm shrewdly. Rose had done her best to take up the reigns since her Mother’s passing but the Lord of Pituitary Manor was cruel and the taxes had been staggering. It was even rumored that, smelling blood, he’d personally bankrolled some of Peter Tyler’s more unfortunate nights at cards.
The more lost things seemed, the more Peter drank, and the more he drank the more he gambled. Until finally the day came when Rose had needed to inform her father that the bills simply could not be paid. He’d headed out that night to beg his Lordship for mercy, a little time, just until they got their feet back under them. Still, Rose had had her misgivings even then. Would time really help? While liquor was still plentiful and men lined up to take advantage of a broken man? But what else could they do?
Her father had returned late that night, too late. The stench of tavern and tobacco clinging to his body, and the threadbare wool coat he tossed carelessly upon the floor. Even once he’d finally sobered up all he’d said when Rose asked him what had happened that night was that the debt must be paid. Their farm, the livestock, all their possessions, would be sold to cover what they owed, everything of value.
A thuggish and tanned hired hand pushed his way past Rose and her Father, carrying a large crate of ornaments that Rose recognized from her personal sitting room. Among them was a small intricately carved marquetry jewelry box. Its contents were of little value, ear bobbles and a necklace of gilded tin her father had gifted her upon her coming of age. But the box had belonged to her mother, an heirloom passed down from her maternal grandmother.
Rose shot a regretful parting glance at her father. He’d begun to work on his bottle, and beyond giving the occasional scornful sniff in the direction of the workingmen, looked utterly unlikely to be doing anything of use that day. Giving him up, for the time being, Rose chased after the crate. The men were working fast and she had to rush to catch up. By the time she’d reached him, the hired hand had already made his way through the front garden and placed the collection of things on a rough wooden cart by the lane. Beside him, a tall dark haired man in a rather well tailored coat, made tally of the load on a piece of parchment. Rose pushed the man aside, lunging to seize the box and clutch it to her chest just as the worker grabbed her from behind and whipped her away from the cart.
Spinning and off footed, Rose tumbled to her bottom in the dust and dirt of the yard. A load of caged chickens that had been set by the roadside cackled at the commotion. Rose glared at the man. She’d been called stubborn before, by her mother and Cook, perhaps it was time it did her some good.
“It’s mine,” Rose shouted.
The item had been given to her by her mother, not bought with borrowed money. Surely she should be able to keep it.
The workman towered over her, his heavy boots kicking the dust of the road up in her face. Rose could see from the look on his face he wouldn’t waste time to argue the matter. Rose’s heart raced as he raised the back of his hand.
“Stupid wench,” he spat
Rose clutched the small box closer as she instinctively squeezed her eyes shut.
“Foster, that’s enough!” the man beside him shouted.
Rose looked up to see the well-dressed man stepping between herself and the brute, his posture leaving little doubt as to his authority. Foster narrowed his eyes but fell back obediently.
“This wench thinks she can steal from his Lordship. I was only going to teach her a lesson,” he said.
The man who’d come between them gestured at his list.
“You have work to do Foster. Educating young maids is not amongst your duties. I suggest you get back to work.”
Foster narrowed his eyes, sizing up the man. His opponent was tall, with broad shoulders, but his frame - while neatly proportioned - was quite a bit slimmer than the heavyset laborer and Rose thought it would be little contest should the matter come to blows.
Authority won the day however and, without even another glance at where Rose was still tumbled in the dirt, Foster left. A group of men had begun to linger in the small garden courtyard and the man with the list shot them a stormy look.
“All of you get back to work before Lord Posterior hears of this.”
As the workers shuffled off Rose regarded the man. Beneath a rather disheveled mop of dark hair he wore an expression of immense distaste. It was clear in that moment he would rather be anywhere else than her humble farmstead. His clothing, while well-made and suited to his frame, was constructed of fabric that was less fine than it was simple and durable. All together his mode of dress, while refined, lacked the showy embellishments and lace, which was the fashion among the local nobility. The manor house men had obeyed him without question, therefore Rose surmised that the man was likely his Lordship’s solicitor or land manager.
Turning to Rose, the solicitor scrabbled to his knees beside her, stumbling awkwardly, but managing to grasp her, one hand in her‘s, and the other beneath her elbow, and help her to her feet.
“My apologies Miss, the men forget themselves.”
Rose nodded. She wished she had a free hand to tidy her hair and brush off her skirts, but she clutched the precious box in one hand, while the other was still trapped in the man’s grasp. The solicitor regarded her, a worn, weary look behind his level gaze, and Rose shifted her weight awkwardly. She was beginning to feel foolish. Was he testing her? Trying to puzzle something out? The man seemed stiff and formal, and rather too intense for her taste, but not, Rose thought, unkind.
Uncomfortable in the silence Rose dropped her gaze to where their hands were still entwined and, remembering himself, the solicitor dropped her hand.
“I’m afraid I can’t let you keep it.”
For a moment Rose couldn’t quite tell what he was talking about, but then she remembered the jewelry box still clutched to her chest.
“The case was on the list provided to me by his Lordship. It must be accounted for.” The solicitor’s voice was gentle but firm, and Rose felt her stomach turn. There’d be no arguing with him.
“But it’s hardly worth anything,” she pleaded.
“Even so it must be sold. The auction is tonight.”
Gently, the man stepped forward and worked the box from Rose’s fingers. Standing over her like that Rose could smell the scent of olive soap about him, so different from the worker’s sweat, or the sour stench of liquor on her father’s breath. Rose trembled. It was all too much, and she still had to go back and deal with her father. The man spoke low.
“Let it go Miss, and don’t let them see you beg. The men gossip and my… Lordship will be looking for tales of your father’s humiliation.”
Rose nodded, defeated. Stealing one last look she saw the solicitor place her keepsake in the cart beyond her reach before turning back to the unforgiving business of his list. As loathe as Rose was to admit it, the man had only spoken the cruel truth. Fight though she may, this was a battle she’d long since lost.
Behind her, Rose could hear Cook in an uproar, and so with a sigh she rushed back toward the house.
Widow Blanchard had been employed by the Tyler family for as far back as Rose could remember. Far more than just a cook, she had been their only indulgence in domestic help. She was a proud woman, one not prone to fits of sentimentality, but she seemed to have found a quiet dignity in her work, and over time had become a close confidant of Rose’s late mother. As the family’s fortunes had fallen Rose had watched Cook grow increasingly strict and stern, insisting that the humble farm house was kept in perfect order, that Rose never went out anything less than perfectly starched and combed, and leveling a stony silence on anyone who dared to bring up Peter’s indiscretions.
Rose had never seen Cook like this, running about red in the face and shouting. For a moment it was enough to shock Rose out of her own misery and she remembered; she was not the only one for whom the day had been trying. In the midst of her life’s work falling apart about her ears, Cook’s stately demeanor had been abandoned to her utter fury.
Rose’s heart stung with loyalty to the woman. They hadn’t been able to pay Cook her proper wages in months, and what income she’d lost now seemed unlikely to ever be recovered, yet here the good widow remained, huffing and gasping as she swore at movers twice her size.
A couple of burly tow-haired men, alike enough that they must have been twins, made their way across the courtyard carrying a large steamer trunk. They utterly disregarded Cook as she hollered at them.
“I’ll have your names for this, I will,” she shouted, swiping at the men with her apron. “It’s shameful! What right have you to a lady’s own things?”
Rose gasped and began to run as Cook faltered, collapsing in a dejected heap upon the stoop. There were tears running down the old woman’s face.
“It’s shameful. Shameful,” she protested, but the men had already disappeared.
As Rose approached Cook threw both hands out to her, grasping for Rose’s wrists and entreating her desperately.
“Oh, Miss Rose, it’s such a shameful fright. I tried to tell them, but they wouldn’t listen, all your things, your clothes, your undergarments, they’ve been packed up and taken to the manor house.”
Cook began to look sickly and Rose desperately wished for a glass of water to give the woman. She was too afraid to leave while Cook was in such a state, in order to fetch it. In any case the widow was still clutching her arm tightly in earnestness.
“I tried to tell Mr. Tyler, but he’s no use. What right have they? What right have they to a lady’s private things? It’s shameful, shameful.”
Careful, lest she upset her more, Rose helped the woman up and walked her back into the house, settling her on a low settee that had been deposited, for a time, just inside the small entryway of the house.
Rose tried to calm her, fighting to keep her voice level despite her own nerves.
“It’s alright Cook. I’m sure it’s all been a mistake. The things I have on will do for now. I’ll speak with Father and have this sorted.”
Of course it was a mistake. While Rose knew her Mother’s jewelry case would never fetch enough at auction to equal how much she herself prized it, the box at least was worth something. But her petticoats? Her drawers? Worn, and patched, and meticulously darned by Cook to extend their wear? They were beyond worthless. What use could his Lordship - could anyone - save herself have for such things?
Thinking back on the box Rose remembered what the solicitor had said. The auction was to be tonight. Perhaps… perhaps if they were very lucky some small thing could be done. Perhaps, Rose mused, patting the trembling hand of the fierce woman she’d known all her life, perhaps it would do Cook as much good to salvage something from this mess as it would herself.
Rose sat beside the woman, arranging her skirts modestly and furtively scanning the room to ensure none of his Lordship’s men were nearby.
“Cook,” Rose whispered, “there’s something I need you to do.”
Cook brightened a bit at the mention of being needed and nodded as Rose continued.
“When you get a chance, when no one will notice, follow me upstairs to Mother’s room.”
Cook squeezed Rose’s hand, and as discreetly as she could, Rose left her and made her way upstairs to the room that had once been her Mother’s. Ever since Mrs. Jacqueline’s death, it had sat empty, only seeing occupation during Rose’s brief visits, or when Cook came to chase dust from its corners. The room was frigid, Peter refusing to allow a fire to be stoked in his wife’s former quarters, and Rose was heartened to see it had, as yet remained untouched. Likely the movers preferred to address the more hospitable rooms first.
Rose shivered in both cold and anxiety as she gently shut the door behind her and made her way over to the small hearth beyond the bed. It would still be here. It had to be here.
As Peter Tyler’s drinking and gambling had begun to spiral out of control Rose had attempted to squirrel away what meager savings she could, hoping it would forestall catastrophe. The monies had never amounted to much, barely more than a handful of silvers, far short of what they would need to save the farm. But at the auction tonight, perhaps it could buy her the one thing that mattered most.
Holding her breath Rose reached up inside the sooty fireplace flue, running her fingers over the small ledge just there, and feeling for the small glass jar she had hidden. Retrieving it, Rose smiled for the first time that day as she heard the tinkling, jingling hope it contained.
There was a soft knock at the door and Rose heard Cook’s hushed voice whisper, “Rose, it’s me,” before the woman let herself in of her own accord.
Hastily, remembering the men outside, Rose unscrewed the glass jar and emptied it’s contents, crossing the room and pressing the money into Cook’s warm hand.
“Cook, I must beg of you a favor. Take this and go into town. My mother’s jewelry box, you know the one, with the mahogany inlay?” Cook nodded, it was likely she knew the late lady’s things even better than Rose herself did. “I need you to bid on it. I need you to buy it at the auction. Please Cook. It’s all I have left of her.”
For a silent second Widow Blanchard looked Rose in the eye, gripping Rose’s hand tightly where it pressed the money into her own. A moment of understanding passed between them; the young lady of the house, brought down in the world, ruined by circumstances outside of her control, and the elderly servant who had known her all her life. It occurred to Rose that this may well be among the last times she would ever be alone with the woman. It may very well be one of her last chances to say goodbye.
Faltering with the realization Rose opened her mouth. She didn’t know what to say, what the proper words were for a situation such as this. And like that the moment was gone. Brushing down her apron, Cook slipped the coins into her pocket, and straightened her back. She was once again the woman she’d always been, rigid, stately, no-nonsense. Cook patted the hair beneath her cap as she turned to go.
“As you wish, my Lady. But mind you see to it the men don’t ransack the place. And remember to speak to your Father about your things. I expect you’ll look a fright before the day is through.”
With the stern admonishment, and not a glance behind her, Cook was gone.
Rose dragged in a deep breath. A small weight had been lifted from her shoulders, but she knew the day’s trials were not yet over. Reluctantly, loathe to leave her Mother’s room and the small triumph she’d found there, Rose made her way back downstairs in search of her Father.
Rose found him alone in the empty dining room. A rolled up carpet in the corner and the lone wooden chair he was seated on, now all that was left of the overlarge furnishings that had once crowded the room. The whiskey bottle at his feet was three quarters empty and Rose watched its contents slosh around as he lifted it for another long pull. He reeked of the stuff. But his eyes lifted and gained focus as his daughter entered the room.
Did it count, Rose wondered, as disappointment if she’d honestly expected nothing more from him that day? She shook her head as she lifted the drink from his hands. It had been nearly full when she had left him earlier. Even knowing what a wreck the drink had made of her Father, for a moment, she was jealous of him. A part of her wished that she too could drown her sorrows, and fears, and lie there worthless on the floor, not lifting a finger to deal with any of this.
But she couldn’t. Life had to go on, even when all was lost. There was still the future to look to. Someone had to collect the meager belongings they had left and instruct the men to load them on their rented cart. Someone had to arrange their transport to the dingy hovel-of-a-tavern inn they would stay at that night. Someone had to ensure that, once there, Peter Tyler didn’t put himself further into debt with the barman than could be prevented. And someone, someone, had to figure out what came next. Because there was no plan in place, no safety for them, beyond the first few nights.
Perhaps, Rose thought, her mind already reeling, her Mother’s relations could be entreated upon to take them in. But they lived in the county westward and there would be the cost of transport to somehow figure out. She’d want to look presentable, proper despite impoverished, for Peter would surely look neither. Belatedly, Rose remembered she had little more than the clothes upon her back. She sighed, looking down at her Father. He would have to talk to his Lordship about that.
Peter Tyler groaned and lunged for the whiskey bottle, wheedling something unintelligible about his “poor, brave girl”. Rose dodged him easily, holding the drink outside of his grasp and shaking him by the shoulder with her free hand. He needed to sober up. It was nearly suppertime and it’d be a long walk to make it to the Manor and back before nightfall. They’d no money to rent a horse.
Seeing her deny him Peter grew surly, cursing under his breath, and swaying on his feet.
“Give me my drink, child! Or would you take from me what little I have left?”
Rose shook her head and backed away from him carefully, playing for time. She’d seen him like this before and knew it was useless to let him agitate her. Rose fought to keep her voice level, and clear, as she struggled to push some sense through Peter’s drunken muddle.
“Father, the drink can wait. There’s been a mistake and I need you to go to the Manor house and sort it with his Lordship.”
Peter staggered a bit on his feet and made as if to spit upon the floor.
“His Lordship?” he leered, voice icy behind it’s drunken slur. “I’d hang before I speak to his Lordship again. The cheat. Sittin’ up there in his big house, all high and mighty. Laughin’ at me, he is,” Peter snarled. “He made me grovel, Rose. Me! As if I wasn’t a man. As if I wasn’t a man every bit as good as him.”
Rose rubbed her temples, trying desperately to think of a way to get through to her Father. He’d reached the point of drunkenness where he felt nothing but contempt for a world out to get him. Yet if there was any hope for getting her things back Peter Tyler would have to grovel indeed. She knew Lord Posterior by reputation. He was a cruel man. If her father approached him like this his Lordship would deny him anything, no matter how worthless, for no reason other than to revel in her father’s humiliation.
Rose tried again, pleading silently for the drunkard to have some sense yet left.
“Father, please. You must go. There’s been a mistake. Cook said all my clothes were loaded onto the cart headed for the Manor. All my things,” Rose stressed, hoping that Peter could grasp the predicament. “I’ve nothing left but what I’m wearing.”
Peter’s shoulders drooped and his eyes focused blearily on the bottle in Rose’s hand, his righteous fury burnt out as quickly as it had come.
“’S not a mistake,” he mumbled, lunging once more for the drink. For a moment Rose barely understood him.
“Father, it’s not a mistake? What do you mean?”
With what seemed like the last heave he could possibly muster, Peter took advantage of Rose’s confusion and succeeded finally in retrieving his prize. He took a long, deep swill before answering her, his eyes carefully studying the floor.
“It’s not a mistake. It’s payment. For the debt.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Rose scoffed.
Her Father had gotten them into this mess, and as much as she may admonish herself later for her lack of patience, she was sick of his nonsense.
“What could his Lordship possibly want with my old dresses? How could they possibly pay of our debt?”
Peter Tyler’s entire body sagged and Rose could tell that whatever was on his mind, it shamed him enough even to penetrate the fog of drink he’d built up around himself throughout the day. Peter would not meet her eye. Instead he mumbled, half to himself, and half to the vaporous sympathy of his whiskey bottle.
“Everything of value his Lordship said,” Peter sniffed to himself, some secret bitter joke. “Well he’s getting that alright. The payment isn’t the dresses my girl. It’s you.”
On the edge of the stripped bed frame, in the room she’d slept in her whole life, Rose sat and contemplated the muddied tips of her shoes peeking out beneath the blue hem of her dress. The house had finally been emptied of anything that was worth anything, and outside she could hear the last of the workers trudging through the light rain that had begun to fall.
Outside her father would be mounting a cart with his whiskey bottle and few humble, personal, possessions to begin the trip into town. The cart with the auction items had left earlier that day, as had the stern dark-haired solicitor. All that would be left was the last cart, piled high with items of enough worth to be taken to his Lordship himself. The cart that would carry her away to a future she could not begin to conceive.
In the end Rose had railed and pleaded with her father, but it was no use. The papers had already been signed, the deal struck. In a month's time she was to wed Lord Posterior’s eldest son, Sir Oxytocin.
Rose had no illusions that this would be an elevation of her status. Oxytocin had been schooled abroad for much of her life, but she’d heard the rumors. Simple, they’d said. Bad blood. There’d been other rumors too, crueler ones, ones whispered when no one had thought a lady was listening.
And while it may have been easy to discount such gossip… there was little love lost between the foreign, ruling class of peptides and the local populace… Rose knew that even Lord Posterior himself did little to quash the stories. Lord Posterior, a man who’d once sent a father of four to the stocks for repeating a scandalous, and very true tale of his second son, Vasopressin’s indiscretions.
No, Lord Posterior had simply seen in her father an old, drunk, fool and sought to humiliate him to the greatest degree. He’d told her father he would take everything of value, and heartless man that his Lordship was, he’d done just that. Rose thought back to the solicitor’s advice earlier that day. Don’t beg. Had he known?
Rose thought back to the solicitor’s searching gaze, his hand in hers as he’d helped her up. He’d not smiled at her, his blue eyes had held little warmth, but she’d not seen cruelty there either.
No, Rose decided. Whether he’d known it or not, the solicitor had given her valuable advice. Lord Posterior would be looking for her shame, her humiliation. He’d taken her freedom, her future, and her choice away from her. But her pride? Her dignity? No. There were still some things of value that were her own.
Her decision made, Rose sat silently, trying to gather up about her what little bravery she had left. She’d need all of it for the rainy ride up to the manor house and the night that lay ahead. In time she heard a soft knock at the door, and at the sound of her call, Cook let herself in.
In truth Rose had quite forgotten about the woman, and the quest she’d entrusted to her. But a glance at the old woman’s haggard face told Rose to expect no success there. Cook removed a small purse and pressed it into Rose’s hand.
“I’m sorry Miss Rose, I offered all I had, but the bidding was too high.”
All I had, she’d said. Rose had little doubt that the stern, unsentimental widow had added to the bid what little money of her own she possessed. All that and the family still hadn’t paid her. Rose sighed and handed the bag of tinkling coins back to the woman.
“It’s alright Cook, we owe you wages. I should have offered this to you first anyway.”
Cook closed her fist around the coins. “No, miss. No you should’t have.”
Tears, hot and heavy, began to blur Rose’s vision, and there, in her old room, with the door closed and Cook before her, she allowed herself to let a few fall, before dashing them away with her palm.
“Did you know, Cook?”
Primly, properly, the old woman sat down beside Rose on the bed and offered her a handkerchief. It was an old-fashioned lacy thing and smelled of lavender and the memories Rose had cherished in her childhood days.
“Not before. I do now.”
And when Rose had dried her face, the Widow Blanchard clasped her hand and waited beside her for the men to come and take Rose away.
Chapter 2: The Appearance of Power
Rose must face the consequences of her father's misdeeds as she is taken to Pituitary Gland Manor for the first time.
A light rain had just begun as Oxytocin rounded the long, beech dc lined drive to Pituitary Gland Manor. Peering through the lace curtain of the coach, Oxy could see the twinkling of firelight through the leaded glass windows of the house in which he’d been born, and behind it, the grey menace of storm-clouds in the dusky sky.
For once he was glad his father had made him take the carriage. Typically he preferred to ride horseback. It had been years since he’d travelled the green hills of Fossa County and he longed to take his trusty steed, Axon, out and really let him stretch his legs… but not today.
Today he was well and truly ashamed. And even if the townspeople of Sella Turcica couldn’t read it on his face, even if they didn’t share his sense of reproach, or meet his gaze with dark recrimination in their eyes, Oxytocin was glad to duck into the coach and hide behind the pomp and ceremony his position afforded him.
It had been the custom since his grandfather’s time that the family was always to ride with a coachman when on official business. They were to dress the part, and in every way should display the authority and prestige of their position as landowners. It had been a scant hundred years since the Peptides’ had come into rule. It was a reign founded not through bloody conquer, but rather by the Peptides’ ruthless, natural, skill at regulation and processing. They’d brought order to the land, and with it wealth and prosperity.
But wealth and prosperity would never be evenly distributed, and there were those who would always begrudge the success and power of a foreign ruling class. Ever since he was a child Oxytocin had had it impressed upon him that there must not be a single crack in the appearance of the family’s utter control. As long as the military forces of the land remained tightly in the control of the Marrows and Thymuses, the family’s position was precarious. The appearance of power was just as vital as power itself.
Oxytocin knew his father wielded both brutally. Today had been proof enough of that.
Oxytocin slammed the carriage door behind him, thankful for his tall boots as he trudged through the kitchen gardens, to the Manor’s side entrance. He’d have to face his father tonight, but not just yet. The servants’ hall was deserted and the fires from the kitchen hearth kept it almost blisteringly hot compared to the wet night outside. Once over the threshold Oxytocin scraped his boots by the door and removed his heavy wool coat, shaking out the beaded raindrops that still clung to it. If only the events of the day, and his lingering sense of unease, could be shaken off just as easily.
As he skirted the Manor kitchen Oxytocin could hear the hushed babel of the scullery maids, punctuated by the hearty laugh of Mrs. Peabody as she went about her work. The spiced scent of her sticky buns seemed to perpetually linger in this part of the house, and Oxytocin remembered how, when he was sent away after the death of his mother, Mrs. Peabody had wrapped a dozen of them in a blue calico kerchief to feed him on his journey.
He’d only been six years old, and Oxytocin had savored those buns one by one, the last tastes of home, and the sheltered life he’d never see again.
Mrs. Peabody had always had a soft spot for him. Oxytocin remembered spending wet, dreary days of that long ago childhood in her kitchen, chasing about her voluminous skirts and helping with small chores. He’d returned from the continent a month ago, another dark and dreary day, and among the manor staff - lined up in formal welcome - he had caught sight of her round face as it split into a massive grin, her blue eyes moist with tears. He’d breezed past her then, mindful of the proper decorum befitting an eldest son and heir to his lordship. But later that night he’d snuck down to her small basement sitting room for a private greeting. She’d seemed to have hardly aged a day and her affection and constancy had been a grounding force through his difficult homecoming.
Today however, fearful that she’d see guilt written all over his face, Oxytocin avoided the woman’s presence. He was ashamed, for his complicity in the cruel misfortune that had befallen the farmer and his daughter, and for the further trials that the poor girl would have to face.
Oxytocin hurried past a footman carrying a crystal decanter, and up a back staircase to his private chambers. The rooms were the same ones he’d occupied as a boy, and yet they hardly seemed familiar. The childhood ornaments, which had been lovingly placed there by his mother, had long since disappeared, and what furnishings remained were stark and severe.
Oxytocin removed his coat and set it carefully across a wooden chair, before locking the door to his chamber behind him. He knew he’d have little time before he was expected downstairs, and he wanted no interruptions.
He needed to think.
With the manor house’s other occupants finally shut out of both his mind, and his chamber, Oxytocin loosened the cuffs of his linen shirt and strode over to the small wash closet to splash some water on his face. Resting his palms against the basin cabinet he let his mind replay the events of the day.
She hadn’t known, that much was certain. Hope of her consent had been a slim thing indeed, but the events of the day had destroyed it utterly. Oxytocin’s own consent was immaterial. He would inherit his father’s estate upon his passing, should certain provisions be met. But Oxytocin knew that, according to those same provisions, his father had the unquestionable authority to wed his heir to whatever choice of bride he deemed suitable. It was never fated to be a kind choice.
Oxytocin, unlike his younger half-brother, had never been an heir to suit his father’s taste. He was too soft, too like his mother. Having given up on him entirely, his lordship now seemed simply to delight in Oxytocin’s humiliation. In fact - Oxytocin mused, thinking back to his first glance of the girl he was fated to wed - it was likely that his father had never laid eyes on Rose Tyler.
She was… lovely.
Not just her hair, which had hung down her back in simple sun-bleached ringlets, or her eyes, or the other pleasing elements of her form. Oxytocin never relished in taking part in his Father’s cruel displays of power, but his lordship had insisted that he attend to the auction goods, and so Oxytocin had taken the opportunity to observe Rose Tyler throughout the day. The situation had been unthinkable. Even without his father’s cursed bargain the future was bleak for the girl, and yet, where others would have collapsed in despair, she’d been busy, useful, and had carried herself with a grace that Oxytocin had rarely seen.
Oxytocin smirked to himself, remembering the determined look upon the girl's face as she sat, skirts in the dirt, clutching her prize against a man twice her size.
Grace and fire that one. It gave Oxytocin hope.
Perhaps she could endure.
Once they were wed Oxytocin would be better able to shield her from Lord Posterior’s vulgarities. But the banns must yet be read, and arrangements would need to be made, for family pride would dictate that, even a marriage designed to humiliate both parties, must be attended to properly. The engagement would be a month, at least, and Oxytocin knew it was likely to be rough on his intended. He’d do what he could, of course. If needs be he could work what influence he had to free her from this infernal deal, if not himself. But what then? His Father would simply find another girl to throw his way, likely one weaker and even more wretched.
Oxytocin pushed away from the basin cabinet and ran his hands through his hair, feeling disgusted with his role in his father’s schemes. He spared a glance at his muddy boots and breeches. He should dress well. Soon enough it would be time for him to join his father downstairs and greet his future bride.
Rose gathered her cloak tight about herself as she stepped through the looming stone threshold of Pituitary Gland manor. The rough mule-drawn cart had taken over an hour to bump and creak up the dirt road that lead to the old estate, and that had been plenty of time for her fears and apprehensions to slowly take over what sense she had left. What would become of her? Rose hardly knew what to expect. And so, seated on her one steamer trunk, rain pouring down upon her, and chilled to the bone, her imagination had furnished more and more ghastly and horrific scenarios.
As they had passed the stacked-stone gate, marking the outer edge of the family’s land, what had begun as a light drizzle picked up fury, filling the darkness with a steady, unrelenting downpour. The driver had stopped to don a slicker and wide felt hat, but Rose had had no such provisions.
And so, as she was led through the foyer and the high main hall of the manor house, Rose trembled as much from cold as from the anticipation of what lay ahead. She tried to remember Cook’s familiar face, and remind herself of the strict lessons in deportment she had received from both her and her mother. But the memories only brought her closer to tears. What would her mother say now?
Dignity, Rose told herself. Her mother would insist she face her fate with dignity, and so she would. It was one thing, at least, that could not be bought, stolen, or bargained for. One thing they couldn’t touch. Still, as she followed a slim, smartly dressed footman through the main hall and past a wide, grand wood staircase, a small bitter voice within her rejoined that dignity was all well and good, but it did little to warm your bones when your petticoats were soaked through.
All about her, the manor spoke of wealth and opulence. Where the inner walls were the same grey stone she’d seen outside, they were covered with rich tapestries in warm hues, and framed in dark carved wood, worn smooth by age and countless hands.
The footman disappeared, into what appeared to be the door to a small sitting room, gesturing for Rose to stay outside. Intrigued, despite her terror, or perhaps as a distraction from it, Rose let her eyes wander over her surroundings as she waited. She knew a little of the history of the house, but she had never set foot in it before. It was quite old, that much she knew, predating by several hundred years the reign of it’s current occupants. Looking about, Rose could see where, over the years, as the estate had changed hands and as the county's fortunes had shifted, additions and improvements had been made, each to the personal style and taste of the reigning monarch. And so, while the overall effect was undeniably elegant, there was a sense that the house was comprised of distinct lobes, rather than a harmonious whole.
The light tittering peal of a woman’s laughter followed by a man’s deep chortle broke Rose out of her reverie, and presently the footman returned and beckoned her inside.
Lord Posterior. Though she’d never met him, Rose knew at once that this must be him. He was richly dressed in green velvet and lace, and his clothes were exquisitely tailored, giving his large frame a sense of unyielding power rather than gluttony. His face too belied the softness of his belly, all sharp features, and with a strong jaw that might have been handsome on a younger, kinder man.
From his seat on a low couch in the center of the room he gestured to her and Rose could feel her heart jumping ahead of her feet as she stepped forward. Beside him, perched on the arm of the couch, a small bird of a woman with tumbling dark hair, and a sweeping crimson gown giggled behind her fan. Her glittering bib of a gold and gemstone necklace was doing little to hide the ample décolletage exposed by her wide, low, neckline.
Rose felt scrutinized, awkward and tawdry under the force of the well-dressed couple’s gaze. Casting her gaze about her in desperation, she spied the solicitor standing to the far side of the room and gave him a nervous smile. He’d not been unkind to her earlier. But the man simply averted his eyes, burying his gaze in the flickering logs of the hearthfire, and Rose’s tentative smile faltered.
Lord Posterior beckoned Rose forward with a gleam of mocking mirth in his eye.
“Alright then, girl. Step into the light and let me see what my money bought.” He turned to the woman beside him and she in turn raised a slim, manicured eyebrow. “Well, Mina? What do you think?”
Rose curtseyed demurely, focusing on the manners that would be expected of her, and trying to keep her hand from shaking too much where it held her wet, muddy skirts. If only she’d had a little chance to neaten her appearance before she’d been brought before them! After the long day, and the bumpy wet ride in the cart, Rose knew she must cut a sorry figure. It would be expected of her. Of course it would. These people saw her as little more than drunk Tyler’s churlish daughter.
Used to a certain fastidiousness of dress, if not fine clothes, Rose felt naked beneath the scrutiny of such elevated people. She tried to hold her head high, ignoring the shame burning her cheeks, but she couldn’t help but feel trapped. Her mother had taught her to approach a troublesome situation rationally, break the thing down, attack each challenge in turn with diligence and good faith. It had gotten her through the hard months of managing the farm alone. Now Rose found her fate was wholly out of her control, and it made her want to turn and run. But where to? Rose had nowhere to go.
Peaking from beneath her lashes, Rose could see that the other woman seemed utterly bored.
“She does seem a drab, soggy thing Posi, but I expect she cleans up well. Who is she?”
For a moment Rose opened her mouth to introduce herself. Should she speak? Rose was unsure what was expected of her. Out of the corner of her eye she caught the solicitor give her a slight shake of the head. Perhaps not then. Rose caught her lip between her teeth and folded her hands politely in front of her, resisting the urge to fidget. The elegant pair, in anycase, didn’t seem to notice her distress, and carried on as if she wasn’t there. Or rather, Rose concluded wryly, as if she was little more than a bureau, or other inanimate ornament which had been acquired.
Lord Posterior chuckled as the woman sniffed at her fingernails.
“Now, don’t be coy dear, it doesn’t suit you. This is Tyler’s daughter, you remember? That old fool who was in here sniveling the other day.”
False, calculating, enlightenment spread across the woman’s face lighting her features with a sharp clever look. She’d known all along exactly who Rose was.
“That’s right, I remember.” She wrinkled her nose. “Smelly.”
Lord Posterior grabbed the woman about the waist, toppling her off her perch and onto his lap with a pinch. The woman gave a laughing chirp of protest.
“Yes well, I imagine we can find a basin for this one before we let her loose on any of the upstairs rooms.” he chortled.
Rose could feel her heart pounding in her breast. How dare they humiliate her like this? How dare they. Her father may have presented a pitiful sight when he’d last come to the manor house, but Rose was quite certain she herself had done nothing to deserve such behavior. Any other day she would have railed at them, not caring if her voice sounded ladylike in the face of their thinly veiled jabs. But here and now - in this lavish room, dressed in her old dress, worn and soaked through - all Rose wanted to do was to cry for the shame of it. She could see Cook so clearly, straightening and tidying her as they’d said goodbye for the last time. Ensuring, in her fastidious way, that Rose would look as neat as possible. Rose’s heart ached for the want of that lost life.
Amidst the cruel laughter from the pair on the couch Rose heard a heavy footfall and looked up in surprise as the solicitor stepped forward.
“That’s enough, Father.”
Rose jumped a bit as she caught sight of the man’s expression, his brow was furrowed and there was a dark pained look upon his face. He was furious. A second realization followed, quick on the heels of the first. Father, he’d said.
The woman in scarlet simply raised her eyebrows, fanning herself with her hand, and for all appearances enjoying the excitement of the scene in front of her. Lord Posterior seemed unperturbed his wide hands simply patting the waist of his pleasing lapful. In fact, as Rose caught sight of his sly, obliging grin, she wondered if his slings had hit their mark after all.
“Ah, how gallant.” Lord posterior turned a knowing glance towards his companion as she hid a smirk behind her glove. “Well child,” he waved his hand toward the young man in front of him, “come and meet your betrothed. My son, Oxytocin.”
Oxytocin took her hand in his own and bent smartly at the waist to press his lips feather soft against her knuckles. He had the impeccable, unreadable manners of a man well educated in the art of decorum. Rose could feel her hand trembling in his firm grip and gasped, as even the slight pressure of his fingers around hers pained her frigid hand.
Oxytocin noticed, a scowl ghosting across his face before he schooled it back into polite reserve.
"My Lady, you're freezing," he gave her an appraising look. "and likely soaked to the bone. You'll be wanting the use of your quarters. I'll have Mrs. Peabody bring you up something hot."
The lady in red pouted. "Will your intended not be joining us for supper then Oxy? What a pity, and she’s such a conversationalist too." Oxytocin shot her a scathing look and her smile faltered. "Well, I'm sure it's for the best. We all want you to be comfortable, my dear."
"Yes quite." Lord posterior rejoined, "I do believe there's a room by the scullery that should--"
Oxytocin cut him off. "I've had mother’s room made up for her."
“Well, that’s certainly convenient,” the lady scoffed.
Lord Posterior simply waved his hand in a lazy circle, as if the matter meant nothing to him either way.
With a parting look at the couple on the sofa Oxytocin placed his hand at the small of Rose’s back, and lead her out of the room.
Rose’s cheeks were flaming as she stepped off the lush carpet of the sitting room and out into the Manor corridor. Oxytocin rested a hand at the small of her back, to guide her towards the grand staircase, but she shrugged him off forcefully. Grudgingly she admitted to herself there was nothing improper about the gesture. Still, she didn’t want that man touching her!
“You!” she hissed, finding tongue to vent her outrage at last.
He’d deceived her, if not in word, than certainly by omission, and Rose felt a fool. She glared at him, wanting to shame him with a look, wanting to share some of the humiliation she had suffered, but for all she could tell his face remained composed.
“Indeed. I hope my lady, you are not disappointed?”
Disappointed? Rose had never felt so degraded in all her life. Her pride still stung at the memory of the Lord and Lady’s jibes, the way they’d leered at her as if she was a heifer at auction. What’s more, after nearly a year managing the farm’s business, of negotiating with traders and farm hands alike, Rose had thought herself more than capable of giving as good as she got when it came down to a battle of words; and yet she had just stood there, dumb and mute, shocked speechless in the face of such casual cruelty.
And him? He’d stood silent until the very end. Rose remembered the way he’d looked at her back at the farm, level and assessing. She’d thought for a moment he was, not a friend… but perhaps a sympathetic face. Now she knew better. He’d been taking advantage of the situation to… do what?
“It hardly matters what I feel. That much, at least, is clear. And what of you sir? When you came to assess your new property today, did you find me wanting? Pray tell, what marks did I received on your precious list?”
Oxytocin’s step faltered, and for the first time Rose caught him giving her a surprised glance, his mask of careful composure and breeding slipping just a little.
“I was not… It was not my purpose today to pass judgment on you.”
“No?” Rose snapped. “Then perhaps you simply delight in the ruining of a good man.”
Oxytocin reached the top of the stairs ahead of Rose, turning on his heel to face her, fists clenched. At the sight of his face Rose knew her words had hit the mark. Her shock worn off a bit and her spleen vented, Rose, for the first, time began to feel truly frightened. Who were these people whom she had fallen in with? Rose hesitated on the step below him, instinctively grasping the banister as Oxytocin seemed, for the first time, menacing in his own right as he loomed above her.
“It seems to me, Miss,” his voice was a low and dangerous thing, “that our situations are not so different. It is not only my father who bears responsibility for your misfortunes. And remember, my Lady, I too have been forced into this marriage.”
Rose hadn’t considered what his motivations had been in accepting the union. But if he’d had as little choice as she in the matter, why didn’t he simply leave? Surely it was within his power to do so. Rose wobbled a bit on the stair and clutched the banister tighter. Whatever the case, she would hardly be able to make heads or tails of it until she’d had a proper rest. She could feel exhaustion and the confusion of the day catching up to her. She wasn’t thinking straight.
Oxytocin flexed his hands visibly struggling to compose himself, and Rose found herself wondering how uncharacteristic such a drop in his careful manners was to him. He reached out to lead Rose up to the landing where he stood but as she flinched at his nearness, stopped short of taking her by the arm to help her up.
“But you’ve had a long day,” he continued, his voice now light, “I’ll not quarrel with you tonight. Your rooms are this way, let me show you to them.”
Nodding, Rose followed him in silence down a long corridor until they reached a dark wood door. She was happy to have reached a truce, if for no other reason than to allow her mind a rest from the verbal sparring. Oxytocin opened the door and led her into a small bedchamber, already comfortably lit and warmed by a flickering fire in the hearth. Rose could see her trunk on the far side of the room, and she longed to change out of her wet things and collapse into it.
“Rose,” She turned, surprised to find him still hovering in the doorway. “It was not my purpose today to judge you. The men are loutish and I thought…” he trailed off, and for what seemed like an eternity, lingered in awkward silence by the door.
He almost looked sad, Rose thought, before firmly reminding herself that whatever his regrets, they were certainly no concern of hers. In an instant it was gone, and with a deep breath he was once again collected, formal, and sincere.
“But to answer your question, I did not find you wanting. I thought you brave and quite resourceful.” Rose curtseyed in acknowledgement of the compliment, hoping he would take the hint and leave, but he hadn’t finished, “…and lovely. I found you quite lovely.”
The last words Oxytocin spoke in barely more than a whisper, as if he was simply reflecting aloud to himself, on some puzzling mystery. Rose would hardly have been able to hear him over the roar of the fire, if she hadn’t been standing so close. She stepped back, feeling as if she needed space in which to draw a breath and chanced a look to see if he’d been mocking her. Even then she was unsure which would be worse, his approval or disdain. She was left wondering, unable to fathom or examine her own emotions. Oxytocin had already left, the door to the chamber closing softly behind him.
Rose shivered, listening to his heavy footfall grow steadily distant and finally fade out of earshot, before taking appraisal of her surroundings. The room’s furnishings were old and worn, but Rose could tell some effort had been made towards comfort and modernization. The bed was wide and plush, with a dark wood headboard and clean, warm-looking linens. There was a small sitting area against the opposite wall, with a green mohair couch and two sturdy looking chairs arranged beside a low stone hearth, which was flanked by a pair of low rounded doors. The fire, which was blazing cheerily, cast the space in a rich orange glow, and despite herself, Rose felt charmed by the coziness of the space.
Resisting the lure of the fire, Rose made her way to the dark corner her trunk and been deposited into. Unsure of what to expect, or for how long she would be left to her own devices, Rose wanted to change and make herself presentable as quickly as possible. Opening the trunk she squinted at the jumbled contents inside. What a mess! At home Cook had insisted Rose keep all her things laid out neat and organized, but it was clear that whoever packed her things had taken so such care. Petticoats, and aprons, and various personal items from about her room had all been jammed in together, and it seemed, as she dug through the mess halfheartedly, that the things least useful to her present situation were all she could find.
Cold and frustrated Rose managed to locate a pair of clean knickers and a soft grey shawl out of the jumble, before giving up and retreating to huddle by the fireside in despair.
A soft knock interrupted her misery and Rose looked up to see a round, rather flushed face peeking into the room.
“Pardon me, ma'am,” the woman said, pushing the door open with her hip and carrying in a heavily laden tray as she saw that Rose made no objection to her presence. “The young Master wanted me to send up your supper. I thought I’d best bring it myself and see how you’re carrying on. Name’s Peabody.”
Setting the tray down on a small table by the sofa the woman took Rose in, tutting softly. Catching the rich scent of spiced lamb stew Rose felt her mouth begin to water and her stomach protest the long hours since her last meal. In spite of everything, she found herself longing for her solitude so she could make use of the rooms and tuck into the fine supper.
“I’d have thought you’d changed by now, Miss. You’ll catch a death if you stay in those wet things.”
Rose gestured to the trunk and the small pile of things she’d found in it. “It’s a mess. I can’t find anything I need.”
The plump old lady shook her head, hands on hips. “Well it’s lucky I’m good with a mess then.”
Carrying a lantern over to the trunk and sifting through it Mrs. Peabody retrieved one of Rose’s old nightgowns, roomy and soft with wear.
“This should suit for tonight. And if you don’t mind changing behind that screen there I can take your wet things and have them washed.”
“Oh,” Rose took the gown from Mrs. Peabody and watched her as the woman glanced about the room, nodding her head in satisfaction until her eyes finally rested on a small door to the side of the hearth. “Will I not be expected downstairs later then?”
“Oh no,” the woman shuffled around the room, gathering the knickers and shawl that Rose had retrieved and laying them over a painted chinoiserie screen in the far corner of the room. Rose followed her and ducked behind it, noticing as she did so that Mrs. Peabody - under the pretense of laying out Rose’s supper - had made her way back over to one of the small doors by the fireside, and giving it a gentle push as if to test its mettle, turned the lock with a quiet snick.
Noticing Rose’s gaze the woman smiled sheepishly and brushed her hands over her apron.
“It’s just a precaution, my lady, for propriety's sake.”
Rose frowned but found that for the moment at least, getting into clean, dry clothing took precedence over her curiosity.
Hastily she removed each of her sodden garments, letting them fall to the floor each with a wet smack. She could hear Mrs. Peabody humming cheerily as she busied herself about the room. The woman was kindly enough, expansive both in form and personality, with a warmth that seemed to emerge from somewhere deep in her character, rather than as a false affectation. But Rose, used to Cook’s terse manner, and pragmatic work ethic couldn’t help but find herself stifled by the sheer breadth of the woman’s personality. She hurried into her nightgown so as to have the room to herself again as soon as possible.
When Rose emerged she could see that the fire had been stoked with new wood and the bed turned down. Mrs. Peabody was waiting by the door so Rose gathered her wet clothes and hurried over to hand them to the woman.
“Thank you.” But as Mrs. Peabody turned to leave Rose couldn’t help but ask, “what did you mean earlier, about a precaution? Where does the door lead?”
The woman’s eyes drifted back over to the fireside, and for a moment Rose thought she looked almost sad behind her unwavering smile.
“Oh miss, you shouldn’t worry yourself about that. This room, twas his mother’s, and she had the door put in to better tend to him as a babe. But Lord Oxy’s a gentleman, you’ve naught to worry from the likes of him. Never you mind an old woman’s superstitions.”
“You mean it’s his room?”
“Aye, but like I said, you’ve naught to worry about.”
And with a pat to Rose’s shoulder the woman left. Rose sagged against the door as she shut it, turning the lock on it as well.
Chapter 3: Gossip
Rose slept fitfully. Despite the good bed and warm room, she woke up several times to peer about her in the darkness, and listen to the unfamiliar night sounds of the manor house. Late that evening she had heard the shuffling and scraping of furniture, as the occupant of the next room went about the business of retiring for the night. And in the early morning hours, her fears getting the best of her, she even got up to hurriedly double check the locks on her doors.
Still, despite her restless night, having gone to bed early and being used to the early morning routine of the farm, Rose was up and out of bed before the break of dawn. The fire had died down to coals and the room had grown cold in the night. Rose wrapped herself in her grey shawl before settling herself by the chamber’s one small window, to watch the sun rise over the hills, and into the flame painted sky.
Idleness sat uneasily amidst her other troubles. By this time, back home, she would have already been bustling her way through a seemingly endless list of morning chores. She’d have rushed out to the dairy to fetch the day’s milk for Cook, and then out to the fields to ensure the men were laboring as they aught. They’d employed a man, Darby, up until the very end to see to the hands. However, while the money they’d paid him had been enough to ensure his physical presence from day-to-day, Rose had found it was not quite enough to get him to perform his job without constant reminding.
It seemed to Rose now, that in the three years since her Mother’s passing she’d hardly had time to think, and the reflections that came rushing back now in the silence and solitude of her locked chamber left her feeling surly. It hadn’t always been like that. Rose remembered a time when the sight of a sunrise would have left her breathless, buoyed in the excitement of her future, her imagination building cloud castles in the air. Now it seemed as if her current circumstance separated her from those days as finally as the window’s frosted glass separated her from the riotous skies beyond it.
She remembered Lord Oxytocin’s words the night before - that it hadn’t been just his father who had reduced her to this situation - and she burned with the shame of it. Desperate for something to do, anything to get her mind off such dark thoughts, Rose walked back to where her trunk lay and began sorting through it; laying out what she needed for the day on the bed and organizing the rest into a large cabinet by the window. If only her father hadn’t gambled so much, hadn’t drank so much. If only he’d helped. Rose wished she could ride out now, to whatever hole he had found in town and shake him. He’d sold her! That’s what it amounted to when all niceties were laid aside. Sold her just as surely as he had a calf or autumn pig. What had he been thinking?
Rose looked down at the dress in her hands. it was her nicest; a green patterned lawn that had once been fine, but it was old now and frayed about the hem, dingy and dull compared to the finery she had seen the family wearing the night before. Rose sighed and mentally scolded herself, the pragmatic part of her mind telling her that her current mood would do little to improve her situation. What did it matter if her clothes were coarse? She was hardly here by choice. If his Lordship didn’t like the way she dressed he was more than welcome to send her home.
Setting the dress down, and smoothing the wrinkles out as best she could with her hand, Rose cast her eyes about in search of a washstand in which to tidy herself up. Seeing none, and realizing she had been unable to locate a pot under the bed either, Rose went to try the other small door to the left-hand side of the fireplace. She had heard of such things in fine houses, small closets set aside for washing and relieving oneself, but the room that Rose stepped into was huge, nearly the size of her entire bed chamber back on the farm. Built into the length of the far wall was a low wooden bench and in the center a lid, which Rose assumed must hold the chamber pot. To her right was a wide wooden bureau with a basin of fine porcelain sunken into it’s top, and to her left a wide zinc tub which - if it were ever possible to fill even partially - would have been large enough for her to bathe her whole body in at once.
The fear and unfamiliar circumstances had conspired the night before to prevent her from noticing her body’s demands, but the sight of such luxurious accommodations and the simple fact of the morning gave her a sudden need of the facilities. She rushed over to lift the lid from the bench, gasping as she did so. Below it, where she’d expected the chamber pot to rest, was simply an empty cavity, a few feet deep, down to the level of the floor. Below, rather than floorboards, she saw a stone channel filled with rushing water. Rose jumped back surprise and vertigo making her feel almost nauseous. She could feel a cool breeze floating off the churning water, ruffling stray hairs across her face.
She had heard rumors of the grand works of the Peptides’. That when the current Lord’s grandfather had built the aqueduct that supplied the town with clean drinking water, he’d routed it to supply the Manor house directly. But never had Rose imagined such a thing. A river as a chamber pot!
Gathering her nerves about her, Rose finished her business as quickly as she could and hastily jumped down and closed the lid, shutting away the roar of water that had been threatening to overtake her senses. Her heart was racing. Could a person possibly get used to something like that? She’d been terrified she’d fall in! Shaking her head, Rose went to wash her hands and face in the basin but was unable to find the pitcher before she was interrupted by the sound of the doorknob rattling, followed by a hesitant knock.
Rose rushed over to the door, but remembering she was still in her nightdress, she hesitated with her hand upon the latch. A young, slightly put out, sounding voice called from the other side of the door.
“Is everything alright, my lady?”
Feeling a bit embarrassed to have been caught out in her own fears, Rose unlocked the door and cracked it open to allow a young girl of about fourteen or fifteen through. Of course the servants would need access to her room as they went about their morning chores. Rose had never taken to locking her bedroom door back home, and could only have imagined how irritated Cook would have been had she found herself shut out.
The girl gave Rose a puzzled look up and down before seeming to give a mental shrug and hustling over to the fireplace with her bucket of coals. With little else to do Rose watched her as she busily stoked the fire and swept the grate. After her night tossing and turning her imagination was running wild with images of being intruded upon and accosted. And after the strange wonders of the bath chamber it was a relief to watch something so familiar. Just a girl like any other, going about her morning chores. She must have come from the village, although Rose didn’t recognize her. The girl could have easily been Rose’s younger sister, so alike were they. And yet here she was tending to the fire, while Rose slept in a fine bed.
“The family don’t usually lock their doors,” the girl observed cheerily. Whether it was just her nature to be talkative, or if she’d come to the conclusion that formality wasn’t necessary, Rose couldn’t tell. “Don’t usually wake this early either, except Lord Oxy. I thought you might be bathing.”
“Oh no,” Rose said, fighting the urge to assist the girl as she went about tidying the room; making the bed, and gathering last night’s supper things on the tray.
She’d always pitched in wherever she could, her Mother had expected it of her, as had Cook. But now she wasn’t sure what the expectations of her would be. Not a servant it seemed, not with a room such as this. She glanced at the locked door by the fireside and shivered, forcibly pushing some of the darker images from her mind. The girl didn’t seem to notice.
“I would never think to impose,” Rose continued. “It must take forever to haul up enough water to fill a tub that size.”
The girl turned at that, giggling at Rose, and covering her mouth with both hands.
“You really are one of us, aren’t you? I’d thought it was just old Enoch telling tales. Come with me,” she gestured, “you’re going to want to see this.”
Feeling foolish, although for what Rose wasn’t quite sure, she followed the girl into the bath chamber and watched wordlessly as the girl fiddled with a pair of round copper knobs built into the wall. At her touch water began to pour out of a small spout also built into the wall, tumbling down to collect in the tub, where it swirled and steamed. Stepping forward in awe Rose couldn’t help but reach out to let the water flow over her fingers, and to her surprise found it comfortably hot, as if it had been warmed on a stove just for this use.
“It’s amazing,” she gasped.
The girl nodded, grinning, her pleasure at Rose’s surprise and her own relative expertise showing all over her face.
“That’s what I said when I first started working here. You get used to it. I wish we had one like that in the kitchen though. Warm water’s just in the family’s chambers.”
“But how does it…” Rose began.
“Right is for cold, left is for hot. The pipes run down the chimneys.”
Rose felt transfixed. She couldn’t stop staring at the perfectly hot water flowing out of the wall. Who would even think of such a thing, let alone go to the trouble of realizing such a vision? The young woman took pity on her, chuckling as she reached across to turn off the flow once the tub had filled.
“I’ll leave you to it, Miss. There’s soap and cloths in the cabinet there, and if you need help dressing just ring the bell by the door. Breakfast should be laid out in the west hall by the time you’re done.” At Rose’s blank look she clarified, “downstairs, double door to the end of the left hand corridor.”
With a smile and a last shake of her head she gathered the tray of dishes and carried it out of the room, shutting the door firmly behind her.
When she’d left, and the door had been firmly locked behind her, Rose returned to the wash chamber, and the small cabinet the sink basin was sunk into. Upon opening it, Rose found a wide linen cloth, another small enough to wash herself with, and a bar of finely milled soap. It smelled faintly of gardenias and Rose weighed it in her hand. Cook would have given her weeks salary for such a thing, and forgetting her troubles for a moment, Rose smiled imagining what her reaction would be.
The warm bath was an indulgence Rose wasn’t used to, and went a long way towards washing away the tension from her sleepless night. She took care to clean her fingernails and face, and to wash, dry and plait her hair neatly. Her dress and underthings Rose could thankfully manage herself, having done so all her life. The young girl had been kind, but Rose didn’t much think she could take some other servant laughing at her while buttoning up her bodice.
Despite her bath, by the time Rose had finished dressing she could feel a cold perspiration gathering about her brow, and she swiped at it with a handkerchief, before catching her reflection in the mirror by the door to ensure she looked as put together as possible. Yesterday had been a mess. Today she wanted to do all she could to feel herself again. Taking a deep breath, she steeled her nerves, unlatched the door, and peered into the corridor beyond it.
It was empty. Stepping out into the hall Rose saw that the door to the room beyond her own, which had given her so much distress, was firmly shut as well. Rose wasn’t sure what more she could have expected; that the man would have spent his morning waiting outside her door, in order to pounce on her the minute she exited? When the night before he’d shown little interest in even touching her as he hovered about the threshold?
Still, Rose remembered his words… lovely. Did he desire her? Perhaps not her specifically, but he was a man after all, and a Peptide to boot. He must. Rose had heard rumors about the younger son of Pituitary Gland Manor, how he’d despoiled many a maiden foolish enough to fall for his charms. But what stories she’d heard about Lord Oxy had always made him seem… not able.
The slow, impotent, first born son and heir; Rose remembered him as he’d caught her eye in the sitting room the night previous, shaking his head for her to hold her tongue. There was a shrewdness to him, if nothing else. A certain light in his blue eyes, that spoke to a certain thoughtfulness of mind, and confidence in his conclusions once he’d come to them. Having met him Rose knew he could hardly be as simple as the stories made him out to be. But what of the other part? Could there be truth to it?
Rose had never paid much mind to gossip. She hadn’t the time for it. But suddenly this particular bit of prattle seemed very relevant to her.
Rose fought to maintain her composure as she made her way down the hall, and out to the grand staircase, but as she climbed down into the chill of the lofty vaulted entry hall she began to feel her shivers return. Locked away in her cozy room, with the fireplace built up, she’d felt almost... not safe, but fortified, maybe. Out in the rest of the manor house, the spaces all felt so vast, they sucked away every thought of warmth. It seemed as if they would swallow her whole.
Down the corridor the girl had indicated, Rose could hear the clink of dishes. So, skirting along the edges of the main hall like a barn mouse, she followed the sound and the smell of bacon to her destination. She didn’t have a chance to consider her entry. At her approach she heard the same saccharinely melodic voice from the night before call her name, and was greeted at the door by the woman she had last seen sneering at her from Lord Posterior’s lap.
“My dear, do come in. This must all be so overwhelming for you. Did you rest well?”
The woman draped an arm over her and ushered her inside, to a seat at a long table. Rose couldn’t have been more surprised at such an informal greeting had the woman procured a snake from about her person and deposited it upon her shoulders, but Rose remembered her Mother’s painstaking lessons and was determined to show her manners today.
“Indeed, the bed was quite fine. Thank you, my Lady.”
Sitting down left the woman towering over her. She was tall and slim, an elegant woman with a shining mess of dark curls piled atop her head. Dressed simpler this morning than the night before, she wore a crisp dress of white lace tied with a blue sash. Rose could feel herself being observed in turn and fidgeted with the sleeve of her own green dress.
“Dopamine.” Rose looked up, unsure quite what the woman meant. “It was quite naughty of Posi not to introduce us last night. You are Rose Tyler, of course, the farmer’s daughter, and I am Lady Dopamine, but you may call me Mina,” she beamed with generosity. “I’m sure we will become great friends. It must be so unsettling for you dear, to suddenly find yourself in such a fine house. You’ll need someone whom you can rely on.”
Wishing she could give a proper curtsy, but prevented by her seated position in the chair, Rose smiled politely, and as noncommittally as she dared.
“Thank you, Lady Mina. The house is very fine, are you the Lady here?”
Lady Mina turned to the buffet laid out behind the table, retrieving a pair of tongs and beginning to load a china plate with sausage and coddled eggs. It was an artful move, but Rose had caught the falter in her painted-on smile nonetheless.
“My late husband’s lands were to the north of here. Lord Posi and I have a special relationship. I’m his… partner.”
She was composed again by the time she turned around, and deposited the plate in front of Rose, seating herself beside her and pulling a half filled teacup and saucer over from across the table.
“Do eat, my dear. You look quite peaked, if you don’t mind me saying.”
Rose turned to the food on her plate. It was all quite fine, of good quality and prepared with evident skill, but it made her stomach turn nonetheless. How did one eat in the morning when they’d yet to do any work with which to build up an appetite, Rose wondered. Selecting a fork and knife from the array of cutlery before her, Rose sliced a small end of sausage and lifted it to her mouth with the back of her fork. It was the butcher’s best, savory, with sage and spices, and of a quality they hadn’t been able to afford on the farm for a very long time. It would have broke her heart to waste it.
Lady Mina observed Rose as she ate, from time to time sipping daintily from her china cup. Seeing a tea service set upon the table, Rose helped herself, topping off her companion’s cup before filling her own. The woman nodded her thanks.
“My, my, but aren’t you a charming thing. However did you learn such manners out there with the pigs and chickens?”
“My mother taught me that polite behavior is at home anywhere,” Rose replied, thinking to herself that surely the opposite could be said about poor manners. She was growing sick of the woman’s false concern and thinly veiled barbs.
“Well, she must have been a very smart woman,” the Lady conceded, “and married to your father too? Imagine that.”
Rose stung at the mention of her father, still furious at him herself, but loyally not wishing it to show. Not to this woman. She fixed her eyes upon her plate lest she lose her composure. Would she never live her father down?
“You must forgive my father,” Rose said carefully, “for his lack of refinement. He’s not been the same since my mother’s passing.”
“Ahh. A love match then? A dangerous thing.” Chancing a glance at the woman, Rose saw Lady Mina nodding thoughtfully and was surprised to find that the look of concern she wore seemed genuine. “Love like that can kill a man. I find it’s best to focus on pleasure. There’s plenty of that to be found here, if you know where to look.”
Having finished as much as she could eat, Rose pushed her plate aside gently and turned to Lady Dopamine as she began to prattle, brightening considerably at the mention of pleasure.
“Ah, but you’ve a wedding to plan too. What fun! It’ll be extravagant, I warn you,” she said sternly. “Posi will tolerate nothing less. I don’t suppose you’ve a trousseau?”
Mina simply waved her hand as Rose attempted an answer, “No of course you haven’t, just look at what you're wearing. Don’t worry dear, I know all the best dressmakers, I’ll see to it that Oxy dresses you properly. Honestly,” she continued, feigning an intimate type of scandal, “if we left it to the menfolk we’d be walking around in rags, wouldn’t we my dear? They like us to look beautiful well enough, yet they never seem to value the things they enjoy so thoroughly. But I should watch my tongue, here comes your betrothed now.”
Rose had been so lost in the woman’s chatter that she hadn’t heard his steps in the hall. Rising from her chair and curtseying deeply, Rose found that Lord Oxytocin had already entered the room, and was serving himself a cup of coffee from a silver samovar beside the buffet. Setting down the cup he bowed in return before settling his strange, intense gaze upon her once more.
He had just come in from the out of doors, that much was evident. There was mud on the tops of his high boots, and he still wore a fine calfskin riding jacket. She could picture it so easily, him riding out in the early dawn, the air fresh and crisp. Rose found herself envious of the freedom. To escape the manor house and it’s oppressive reminder of her fate, even for a moment, would be wonderful. She wondered if he would allow it, or if he feared, as Rose did, that she would simply keep going and never come back. What if she did?
Lady Mina called over Rose’s shoulder. “Oxy dear, what luck, we were just talking about you. And look at your hair! You look a fright. Don’t the two of you make a pair?” The lady laughed heartily before continuing. “Now Oxy, Rose and I have been speaking, and you simply must get her a new wardrobe. And don’t play coy with me,” she brandished scolding finger at him in it’s white lace glove, “I know you have money of your own squirreled away somewhere.”
“Oh no,” Rose cut in, horrified that, on top of everything else, they seemed intent on dressing her up like some sort of doll. “Please you needn’t. I would never imagine such an imposition.”
Lord Oxy scrutinized her dress, seeming surprised for the first time at having to notice she wore anything at all. He held up a hand to cut off her pleas.
“Lady Mina is right, I would never think to contradict her wisdom. If you are to be family, than you must look the part. I trust I can leave the details to you ladies?”
It was all too much, Rose could feel her face burning and she was almost faint with the shame of it. Not seeming to notice Rose’s distress, or not caring, Lady Mina came up beside her, catching her about the elbow, and twining their arms together as if they’d been schoolgirl friends.
“Why of course, Oxy, leave it to Rose and I. See, my dear,” she whispered to Rose, loud enough to be sure that Lord Oxytocin heard, “you just follow my lead, I know how to handle these Peptide men.”
Handle them? Rose wanted nothing to do with them.
Chapter 4: The Guilded Cage
Sorry for the long delay on this chapter. Hopefully I can start knocking them out with a bit more regularity for at least the foreseeable future.
I don't usually do this, but just because I'm pouring everything I've got into this fic, and because it's so ridiculously niche, if you've enjoyed what you've read thus far I would be so grateful if you could help spread the word. It's hard to put so much work into something that gets so few hits, even though I totally understand why that is.
In any case, thank you all so much for your continued readership and patience. I have lots more torture planned for our two reluctant love birds.
Rose lingered in the small breakfast room, even after she’d finished her meal, listening with half an ear to the conversation between Lord Oxytocin and Lady Mina, and politely sipping her tea as it slowly went cold. She had no thirst for their company, but the awkwardness of lingering; unwanted and unheeded, paled in comparison to her fear of running into Lord Posterior while wandering about the manor on her own.
They were a well matched pair, Lord Oxy and Lady Mina. Both with the dark locks, and hawkish, aristocratic features - common to those with Peptide blood. The conversation flowed easily between them and soon they were embroiled in a lively debate over a recent uprising of Phlegmish bandits. The Redcoats, under the command of General Marrow, had beaten them back. But it’d been a costly victory. Lord Oxy feared it an opportunity for the Bloods to petition the King for even greater funds, thus necessitating either a new tax or a decrease in the general allowance to the county militias. Lady Mina doubted they’d be so bold. As one of the few remaining old clans, the Blood’s standing with the King was already precarious.
Rose couldn’t help but agree with Lord Oxy. The Blood family seemed to have little shame. However, despite herself, Rose found herself surprised at the older woman’s depth of knowledge and insight as she made her case. She was even more surprised to find, as the conversation progressed, that Lord Oxy’s manner displayed a true warmth of companionship and depth of respect for the awful woman. He responded to her quick wit carefully, considering her points, and many times Rose fancied they exchanged some unspoken communication in their looks. She hadn’t thought, from what little she’d seen of lord Oxy - his stern, serious manner - that a woman such as Lady Mina would appeal to him. Rose couldn’t imagine why that should bother her, but it did.
Several times during their conversation Rose caught Oxytocin glancing her way, with his peculiar gaze. Each time she contrived fidgeting with her tea cup, or pushing some long abandoned crust about her plate, in order to avoid meeting his glance. She longed for a book or some other occupation, to make it seem as if she wasn’t dawdling, or worse yet, purposely seeking out his companionship. Not that it mattered really. She had as much reason to be in the small breakfast room as she did any other part of the manor. There were no chores waiting for her to attend to, no occupation for her to take up. All she had was her idleness, and the awkward feeling of being the goose among a flock of swans.
Still, Rose found Lord Oxytocin’s frank interest unnerving and would have relished any task which would have made her seem less idle. Why did he keep looking at her like that? It was beyond her comprehension. He could hardly be looking for her to join in the conversation. Yet she almost fancied that, as he made a particularly well reasoned point, he glanced her way - as if to gauge her reaction. Perhaps he thought her foolish. Of such a menial upbringing that she could hardly comprehend such conversation. Well, her pride answered, she certainly could have held her own, had she wanted to. She’d been educated well enough. Even her father, in happier times, had enjoyed a lively political debate. Where her mother had favored dignified and well reasoned logic, Peter Tyler had possessed a passion and fire, and a keen sensitivity to the ways which abstract public policy trickled down to common man. Many childhood nights Rose had spent listening to them as they matched wits beside the fire. Yes, Rose concluded, if she wished, she could hold her own in a conversation such as this, and perhaps enlighten them in turn as well.
Although, having satisfied herself on that point of pride, Rose once again began to question her assessment of Lord Oxy all together. Perhaps there was nothing more to his interest than natural curiosity for the woman his father had chosen him to marry.
Tuning out the conversation, that in any case hardly could be relevant to her, Rose indulged herself in a moment to indulge her own curiosity toward this strange man. And to observe him furtively behind her eyelashes. He was quite unlike any other man she’d ever met, with sharp high-browed features, and startling blue eyes. He was tall, almost lanky, were his frame not balanced out by the broad span of his chest, and the wiry musculature just evident beneath his dark riding coat. He stood quite apart from the fresh-faced, fair-haired lads of the village. When she was younger - before her mother’s passing and current troubles - boys like that had caught her eye. Charmed by their ruddy faced sincerity she’d even stepped out with a few of them. One boy in particular, Jonathan, a mason’s son from the next town over, well… she’d fancied herself quite in love with him. They’d even planned, once she turned eighteen and he’d finished his apprenticeship, of getting married. But that was before things got really bad with her Father, and she’d learned how foolish it was to trust in easy promises.
Now she was to be wed to this man. The sensations she felt, when confronted with Lord Oxytocin, certainly felt nothing like that dreamy, bubbly, joy of her youth. He alarmed her with his intensity. And whenever her mind invariably turned to his manner, or the confrontation they’d had the night before, she felt a small unnameable spark within her that seemed to want to spur her into action. To run, possibly, or simply grasp him by the shoulders and shake him out of his careful, deliberate courtesies. She honestly couldn’t say whether it was hate, fear, or irritation - that feeling he stirred in her. But it was uncomfortable. And utterly unlike anything she had ever felt before. And she was supposed to become this man’s wife! To be subservient and obedient to him. It was completely impossible.
“She hates me.”
Oxytocin watched Rose’s slim figure as she retreated back down the hallway, towards the corridor that lead to her room. Lady Mina followed his gaze, calmly taking a sip of her tea before setting it down with a soft clink.
“I don’t see why she should, considering her situation I should think the girl is rather lucky to have fallen in with a family such as yours. Perhaps, as you said, she is simply overwhelmed by her good fortune to live in such a fine household.”
“That’s not what I…” Oxytocin scowled in exasperation.
Last night he’d taken Mina aside and tried to explain to her how frightened and intimidated Rose must feel; being suddenly uprooted from her home into such a grand and hostile environment. He’d hoped to play on whatever maternal, womanly, sympathy still existed in the woman, so that she might show Rose a little kindness. It had worked to a degree. As usual the woman only heard her own version of things. Still, in a situation such as this, even Lady Dopamine could only be so blind.
“She’s being wed against her will. She’ll hardly thank me for that.”
Mina considered, tapping one perfectly manicured nail against the wide oak table as she stared off into the empty corridor Rose had just gone down.
“Perhaps it’s for the best. Your father intends to make an example of you Oxy. Such a polite dainty little thing… she’s already not what he’d expected. Too much affection would be unwise.”
Oxytocin snorted, almost laughed. “Affection? There’s hardly any risk of that.”
“Perhaps,” Lady Mina conceded, sizing Oxy up with a calculating eye. “Although, why that matters so much to you, I can hardly guess.”
It was past noon when Rose returned to her room, closing the door behind her in relief. Sunlight streamed through the small window, but her thoughts were as dark as the shadows it cast. Looking around her she saw intricately carved mahogany and silk pillows. Is that what they wanted? To dress her up like a doll and trap her here, like some clockwork songbird in a gilded cage? Well they could hang that!
Stubbornly, Rose made her way across the room to her trunk, opening and digging through it until she found what she was looking for; a small sewing kit she’d seen there earlier. There was nothing wrong with her dress that a bit of mending could not fix. She searched the dark room for a place to settle herself, but simply felt too stifled and ill at ease to sit. She needed some fresh air! No. More than that. She needed a plan. Some way to get herself out of this mess. She could make a run for it, but then what? Going back to Father was hardly an option, he’d sold her into this mess to begin with. And Cook was still a tenant on his Lordship’s lands. After all the woman had done for her, Rose hardly wanted to bring trouble like this down on her door. She needed money, or something of enough value to exchange for it. Something that could pay for quick transport out of Fossa county before his Lordship and Lord Oxytocin could track her down. Lady Mina had mentioned a gift of a trousseau... but a few lady’s dresses, no matter how fine, would hardly cover the expense of such a trip.
Rose peered out the window at the wide green fields of his Lordship’s land. Far in the distance lay the cobbled main road that, if she only dared to take it, could lead her to freedom. Lord Oxy had been riding those very fields this morning... perhaps the solution to her problem was nearer than she thought.
What if she could get into the stables unseen? If she could steal a horse she’d have her transport sorted, and on top of that, something to sell for funds to live off once she’d escaped. It was risky. Horse theft was a capital offence, and if Lord Posterior had pursued her Father so viciously for something as small as a gambling debt, Rose could only imagine he would be equally ruthless when it came to theft of his own property. But then, to try such a case, she’d have to be brought before the king. Rose knew his ties were close with the family, but she’d heard it told that King Catecholamine was a fair man. Surely a forced union, such as this, was unlawful. Even if she was caught, it could be an opportunity to state her case. If only she dared.
One thing was certain. She could not stay trapped in this dark little room, pining for the single ray of sunlight it afforded her. So, her mind churning over her secret schemes, Rose plucked up her courage and made her way unnoticed through the Manor house, and onto the estate grounds outside.
Exiting the cool of the stables, with his steed Axon in tow, Lord Oxytocin savored the sensation of fresh air in his lungs, and the scent of earth warmed by the sun after a nights rain. He would ride to town today. He’d a purchase to pick up, and after his long absence from the county, he relished any chance to interact among the local commoners. They treated him with scorn and derision for the most part. But given the rumors, and his family's position and reputation in the land, that could hardly be helped. One day they would know him better. And when it came - his time to serve as master, Lord Oxy hoped he would earn their love and respect. But first he must make himself known among them.
Making his way towards a small copse of elm at the edge of the Manor’s wide manicured gardens, he spied a familiar form beneath the wide branches. Despite himself, Lord Oxytocin smiled.
She was kneeling on the grass beneath the trees, bent over, some stitching in her hands and seeming in her simple green dress; a more natural part of the landscape than he’d ever felt. How he longed to know more about her. How he wished circumstances were different. That they were different and he could spend the afternoon with her, under that tree, asking her questions and listening to her tell him all about her life and her secret hopes and dreams. How different must those dreams be, from the reality she found herself in now.
Rose looked up and, realizing that she must have seen him watching her, Oxytocin made his way over, stopping just short of where she sat before bowing respectfully. As he raised his head he caught better sight of her occupation, and realized the fabric she sat mending were the skirts of her own dress. She had gathered them up in her lap, to where she could bend over the hem with a needle and darning egg. Beneath the exposed nest of starched white petticoats Oxytocin could see a slim, stocking-covered ankle.
Tearing his eyes away, for she’d hardly want him to gape at her, Oxytocin was startled to notice her keen attention to his horse. Her eyes shone, and for the first time since she’d come to the Manor, Oxytocin saw a smile tug at the corners of Rose’s mouth.
Was she a horsewoman then? Perhaps, when they were wed, he could get her a steed. It could be a wedding present even. When life at the manor became too much they could ride out together. It would be something, a shared pleasure, and Oxy hoped that maybe, in a small way it could help bridge the chasm of resentment between them— that it might even draw them closer.
He gestured to Axon, feeling a lightness in his heart, and hoping that his voice remained steady.
“I ride to the village my Lady, is there anything I can fetch you? Some thread, perhaps?” he said, indicating the bundle of skirts in her lap.
The smile dropped from Rose’s face and her eyes fell back to her work.
“It’s not thread. It’s darning floss,” she corrected him. “Have you never mended a thing in your life?”
“Not many skirts.” He laughed, undeterred, reminding himself that it would take time and patience if he was to show her he was not an enemy. “But I’ll have you know I’m quite a hand in the kitchens.”
Rose didn’t reply to that, her eyes remained fixed steadily in her lap. But he could tell from the way she bit her lip that he’d captured her interest, so he continued.
“Aye, you’ve only to ask Mrs. Peabody and you’ll find it’s true. She swears her work cleaning up is halved anytime I’m down there!”
And with that, relishing one last look at the expression of surprise on Rose’s face, Oxytocin hoisted himself up and clicked his teeth at Axon to begin the journey into town. It would take time, but he would show Rose that he could be a... friend... to her yet.
The sheer size and the array of cutlery daunted her. And perhaps it was that, or perhaps the dinner wine was stronger than she was used to, because Rose’s aching head made it difficult to think properly. Cook and her mother had done their best to provide her with lessons in deportment and manners, but there was only so much time and opportunity that could be afforded such a thing on a working farm. Rose found that she now knew enough to be unable to eat in blissful ignorance of her bad manners, but not quite enough to offer her any comfort. Consequently she ate very little, most of which was a thin soup, for which the spoon— one of only two— was wide and quite obvious. At one point in the meal a blonde footman, in removing an untouched plate of lamb and replacing it with a white fish in butter sauce, discreetly nudged a small curved fork and Rose gave him a relieved smile.
Distractedly, Rose listened as Lady Mina prattled through the meal about wedding dresses and floral arrangements. One would have thought, had they known nothing of the situation, that it was her own wedding she was planning. No detail seemed unworthy of the woman’s interest. While Rose, for her part, barely cared enough to listen. What did it matter? If it lay at all in her power the wedding would never take place. But when Lord Posterior’s deep tenor joined in, Rose’s heart jumped. For all his faults he was a man who commanded attention.
“Looking forward to the big day, are you Rose?” he asked. The sarcastic lilt of his voice making it perfectly clear he was simply reveling in her discomfort. “Well you need not fear there. Lady Mina will spare no extravagance. Planning parties is among her prodigious talents.”
Lady Mina simply nodded, pushing a bone to the side of her plate with her fork and seemingly content to allow the Lord to continue.
“Now the wedding night my dear, I fear I must warn you, may be a different story.”
Rose was shocked. Such talk in front of Lord Oxy, and the servants too. Lord Posterior had even raised his voice, as if to be sure everyone heard.
“Now, were it my youngest son, Rose, you’d have none such problem. He know’s how to satisfy a woman. But this one?” Lord Posterior gestured over to Oxy, who’s carefully schooled face was focusing fixedly on his plate. “This one doesn’t fancy fillies... doesn’t fancy stallions either for that matter! At least that would explain the thing.” His Lordship guffawed, waving the sharp bone-handled table knife, which he’d been using to slice his beefsteak, in the general direction of his son. “No, this one’s a gelding. Content to lope about the fields like a dullard, pleasing no one at all. Least of all his father.” Lord Posterior muttered this last part, turning to his meat and slicing at it with gusto, until the red juices pooled upon his plate.
But Rose’s attention was focused on Lord Oxytocin. She could not reconcile the person she saw before her, with the light hearted, quick witted man who had teased her in the field earlier that day. Why did he say nothing? How could he hear such things from his own father and simply sit there, chewing his potatoes as if he was dumb and mute? For the first time since she’d known him Rose found she could see where the rumors of Lord Oxytocin’s simplicity had come from. For up until then she had thought them farthest from the truth.
Not getting a rise out of Oxytocin Lord Posterior turned to Lady Mina for affirmation. “Isn’t that right, my Lady?”
The Lady in question grinned wickedly through perfectly white teeth and crimson lips.
“Well, I don’t know Posi,” she rejoined in her flawless teasing manner. “I can’t say I’ve experience personally of either of your sons. But you did get one thing wrong.”
“Oh, My dear?” Lord Posterior asked lazily, “what’s that?”
“A woman,” she said, with a wink to Rose, “can never be satisfied. It’s simply not in our nature. The best you men can hope for is that we laugh at your jokes and encourage your best efforts. And I’m sure with a little practice, Oxy’s quiet little country mouse will become quite adept at performing those tricks… they aren’t hard.”
Lord Posterior nodded to his Lady, seemingly content to be bested for once. Encouraged, she continued.
“No, I say, they make a charming couple. Very well matched.”
And with that she raised her long stemmed flute in a toast, casting a meaningful, fathomless look at Lord Oxy who had finally raised his eyes from his plate to nod in acknowledgement.
“To the betrothed,” she laughed gaily as Lord Posterior smiled and took a sip from his own Claret.
Red in the ears and feeling bodily ill, Rose finished her meal in silence, with as much haste as was politely possible. And when the last plate had been finally cleared she rose from her seat so quickly that it’s feet made a harsh scraping sound against the parquet floors of the grand dining hall. Lady Mina peaked an eyebrow at that, but thankfully said nothing, and so Rose was able to make her excuses with a bowed head and escape the room and it’s awful company, as quickly as possible.
She’d only made it halfway down the hall before she’d heard heavy footfall behind her, and turning, she discovered Lord Oxytocin had followed her. Too embarrassed to yet trust herself with words she watched him in utter disbelief. There was no sense of anger or shame to him. He was as infuriatingly calm as ever.
“May I escort you to your room, Lady Rose,” he asked as he stepped toward her, extending his arm as if to take her elbow. Rose ducked away from him.
“How dare you? You permit him to speak like that about you, where anyone can hear, and yet you call yourself a gentleman?” Rose asked, but she was too puzzled by the man to put any fury behind her words.
Lord Oxytocin simply snorted. A wry, scornful look passed over his face, and for the first time Rose fancied he truly resembled Lord Posterior. She’d seen the same look of superiority on him.
“Permit him?” Oxytocin shook his head, “I assure you nothing I say will make a damn bit of difference. Let him slander me and feel satisfied. I’d rather he not have you in his sights when he gets a thirst for humiliation” Lord Oxytocin’s voice softened as he dropped his hand to fidget with his jacket pocket. “Once we’re wed I can protect you better.”
Unsure what to make of that Rose allowed Lord Oxy to lead her down the hall in silence, somehow, despite the humiliation she’d just suffered. Lord Oxy had managed, convincingly, to make it seem as if he’d just done her a favor. She needed time, and a clearer head to muddle out the truth of that. He was shrewd though, that at least was clear.
He’d said slander. The implications of that word Rose could hardly contemplate. If it wasn’t true that he was impotent, as the rumors, and his Lordship made it seem, then surely if they wed she would be expected to perform her wifely duty… Rose glanced apprehensively sideways at Lord Oxy, hoping her thoughts didn’t show on her face. He lacked the languid ease of their conversation earlier in the field. She could just make out the rigid set of his broad shoulders under his dinner jacket, and his firm jaw seemed clenched in purpose. Feeling suddenly warm, and very dizzy, Rose quickened her pace hoping only to reach her room, where she could collapse in her bed and he would leave her. But when they reached her chamber, like the night before, Oxytocin simply lingered about the threshold of her door, not entering, but seemingly reluctant to leave. Rose could not face him, and so she rushed across the room and stood facing the fire.
“Thank you, Sir Oxy, for your escort.You may leave now.” It was as rude as she had dared speak to him thus far, and for a moment he was so silent Rose believed he must have truly gone. But then she heard his heavy footfall behind her, entering the room far enough that his steps were softened by the thick foreign rug beneath her bed. She shivered.
“There is something I wished to... “ Oxytocin’s voice was soft and unsure, utterly unlike the scornful way he’d sounded mere minutes ago. “I know, Rose, how awful this has all been for you; how shamefully it’s been handled. But I want you to know that as my wife you will be honored, as a woman of your quality should.”
A woman of her quality? Rose would have thought it another veiled barb, but for the utter sincerity in his voice.
Oxytocin continued, “I went into town today because I wanted you to have something. A proper engagement ring. It once belonged to my mother and she--”
Rose cut him off with a hand cast behind her. The room was spinning and she just needed him to leave.
“Please, just leave it on the table. I’m very tired and I need to be alone.”
She heard the soft knock of a small solid object being deposited behind her, followed by his retreating footsteps.
“As you wish, my Lady.”
Rose turned just in time to see her chamber door shutting behind him.
There, on the small table by the sofa, lay an object that made Rose gasp aloud. A small, familiar, marquetry jewelry box. And in it, a gold ring set with the bluest sapphire she had ever seen.
Chapter 5: Escape
Sweat trickled down Rose’s brow as she silently slipped through the window of her manor house room, and scaled down the crumbling stones and mortar of it’s west facing wall. A bright, blue star lit the night sky with an unearthly glow, and as soon as her bare feet made contact with the grass below, she took off running towards it. Behind her she heard the creak of a gate, and men’s voices shouting, and as she entered the woods that bordered the estate, the pounding of hoofbeats too. Lord Posterior had found her out!
Rose ran and ran, until the shadowy pines that arced like teeth against the night sky were little more than a blur, until her heart seemed ready to burst from her chest and her lungs screamed for oxygen. And yet Lord Posterior’s stead grew ever closer, the stark moonlight catching his form and casting it’s shadow over Rose like a net. The star gleamed in front of her, ever out of reach, and Rose stumbled, skinning her knees and tearing her gown in the rocks and mud.
And once down Rose found she could not get up. Her muscles simply refused to obey her, and she lay rooted to the spot as the menacing rider dismounted and approached, his face hidden in shadow, but his hulking form unmistakable. Lord Posterior. Rose tried to scream, but her throat tightened, and no sound escaped.
Then, just as Lord Posterior began to reach out to her, the mists of Rose’s dream shifted, it’s fantasy world turning on end. Where it had been night, a soft dawn light shone. Where she had been frozen to the bone, a warm glow soothed her. And she looked up to find, the approaching figure was not Lord Posterior at all, but Lord Oxy. He grasped her hand gently urging her to “Run!, Run!”, and together they took off for the shining star.
Rose’ woke with a start, her sheets drenched and her heart still racing. a shrill voice ringing in her ears. “Up, up! Bloody hell!”, Rose rubbed at her eyes willing them into focus, and groaned in recognition. She knew that voice, and with her head pounding the way it was she had no desire for Lady Mina’s verbal sparring. Rose’s throat felt parched and her body achy. Her stomach churned remembering the wine she’d had with dinner the night before. It hadn’t seemed like so much at the time. But she’d barely eaten, and in occupying herself with the glass, she’d found a handy excuse to avoid conversation.
Now, with the unforgiving clarity of the morning after, she could see it had been a stupid, careless mistake. Headache aside she should have known to keep her wits about her.
For her part, Lady Mina seemed to possess the contained fury of a swarm of bees, snatching open the curtains and buzzing across the room to yank the coverlet off the bed. Clad only in her nightgown Rose had to scramble to catch the sheet, and cover herself. “Stop!” she protested, collapsing back on her pillows and squeezing her eyes shut again. “Why do you people hound me so? Don’t you have anything better to do.” She surprised herself with how petulant she sounded. But then why shouldn’t she be petulant, when everyone in this family seemed to treat her like a naughty child?
Lady Mina only clucked her tongue at Rose’s outburst, and she just knew that if she looked up at her now, she’d have the same smug grin on her face that the Lady’d had the night they met.
Rose took a deep breath and forced herself to sit up and face the woman, who, having removed the bedcovers had perched herself with the familiarity of an old school chum at the foot of Rose’s mattress. Rose squinted at her. Trying to process the light streaming through the window.
“What time is it?” she asked, trying her best to sound composed, even if she was sitting in her nightgown, on a strange bed, with an even stranger woman grinning at her like a vulture.
“Half eleven.” Lady Mina proclaimed, enunciating each syllable, and if it hadn’t been for the triumph on her face and the harsh light of the room Rose would have thought her a liar. “Honestly girl, no wonder your farm went under! I thought peasants were supposed to be up with the chickens or what-not!”
Rose could hardly believe it. Half eleven? She’d never slept so late in her life. In her stunned silence, she could do little more than stare at Lady Mina in disbelief.
The Lady continued on chattily, seemingly unperturbed that her barb had failed to elicit a reaction— or for that matter, that her companion was decidedly green around the gills. She gestured to a large tray which took up the better part of the fireside table. “Shall I fetch your tea?” she offered without moving to do so, “You look a fright if you don’t mind me saying, best drink up.” Rose, sighed and lowered her feet to the floor, relinquishing her grasp of the bedsheet. She did need something to settle her stomach, and as Lady Mina seemed unlikely to leave her in peace, she could hardly justify staying in bed much later.
To her surprise, Rose found the tea was quite fine— floral, and bracingly strong. It was laid out in a simple service of blue and gold gilt, and beside it sat a large plate with a shining silver dome.
“I brought you breakfast too, since you missed it.” Lady Mina called from seat on the bed, barely looking at Rose as she said it. Instead she seemed to be casting her eyes about the room with a disinterest that seemed far too studied, and, catching Rose watching her she smiled sheepishly. “Just remembering his Mother dear,” she said, and after a moment’s hesitation gestured about with her fingertips and added, “the room’s changed.”
Before Rose had even had a chance to recognize it for what it was, the wistfulness that had crept into Lady Mina’s face dropped entirely, and her eyes regained their laughing venom. Wondering about what the relationship between the two women must have been for Lady Mina’s studied facade to crack so only made Rose’s head pound. And so she simply didn’t. What could these people, or their history possibly matter to her anyway?
The lady gestured again to the plate, breaking the silence “Eat up.”
Choosing to comply, as much to give herself time to gather her thoughts as to satisfy her hunger, Rose lifted the domed lid to find a number of plump sausages, coddled eggs, and thick buttered toast. All things she had enjoyed the morning before but far, far, too many for her to stomach now. The rich scent of spice and fat from the sausages which had been so appealing yesterday, now seemed overwhelmingly cloying. Still she’d need her strength if she meant to face the day ahead of her, so Rose determinedly set at the eggs despite her lack of appetite.
Leaving her bedside seat, and setting herself upon the arm of the overstuffed chair opposite Rose, Lady Mina plucked a piece of toast off Rose’s plate and watched her eat while thoughtfully chewing tiny, birdlike bites. Her scrutiny left Rose feeling self conscious, and she found herself swiping at her face with the napkin far more than was necessary.
“You know Rosie,” the Lady said at last, “you really should have seen his little doe eyes when he realized you weren’t coming down for breakfast. Utterly bereft!” She leaned in with a conspiratorial mock whisper and continued, “I can’t fathom how you did it. And in such short time too! You must share all your secrets.”
There was little confusion as to the particular him Lady Mina referred to. Lord Oxytocin had been… kind to her? Polite? In truth Rose hardly knew what to make of his stiff courtesies. They didn’t speak to affection, though, that much was certain. Misconstruing Rose’s incredulous look the Lady hastily amended “Some other time perhaps? We’ll be such friends.”
It was neither a question, nor a command, but was proclaimed with the utter surety of a woman rarely disappointed. Rose tried to imagine what a true friend to such a woman might look like, and found her imagination not up to the task. Had Lord Oxytocin's mother been a friend? She’d been married to Lord Posterior after all. Rose tried to imagine two such elegant nasty women, forever sparring, and found that the idea made her stomach turn.
Whatever traits a friend of Lady Mina required Rose felt quite certain in her own mind the she did not fit the bill. The lady’s two-faced attempts at friendliness only left Rose feeling sullen and resentful, and that in turn alarmed her. Rose was quite certain that life at the manor house would require a clear-head and her wits about her. It would not do to be so ruled by her emotions.
Even now, noticing that Rose had stalled in her eating Lady Mina poked at her with a long slender finger.
“You aren’t fasting for the wedding dress, are you dear? I’d hate to have the seamstress end up with the wrong measurements after all. And besides,” she concluded after a moment’s thought, “I do think a certain amount of rosy-cheeked, plumpness is expected of a country bride, don’t you?”
Indignant, and shocked Rose dropped her fork to the plate with a clatter. She could feel her face grow hot, and had to bite her cheek to stop herself from saying something unwise. How did this woman manage to get under her skin so easily?
Rose felt suddenly very conscious that she was sitting in her old nightgown, her hair, tousled and inelegant from a poor night’s sleep, and that Lady Mina sat a foot taller than her, in her pristine silks and satins.
“I’m not plump!” Rose denied, her voice over-loud in indignation. And she wasn’t. The task of managing the farm and the house had left her well muscled, and rather more tan than her mother would have approved of. But the economy they’d been forced into had left her with little enough of the kind of food that one would grow plump off of.
“Of course not dear,” Lady Mina soothed, patting Rose condescendingly on the shoulder and gesturing to the plate in front of her. “So tuck in, you’ll need your strength for the day ahead of us.”
“My strength?” Rose eyed the woman warily, trying to imagine what fresh humiliation the family could possibly have in store for her. “What are you talking about?”
“Why shopping of course.” the Lady exclaimed, gesturing widely as she rose from her seat. “Or did you think I would let you sulk in here forever in your dingy, milkmaid frock?” Lady Mina surveyed Rose up and down, for the first time seeming to notice Rose’s relative state of undress.
“Nightgown, whatever.” Lady Mina waved her hand as she made her way to the oaken wardrobe, as if the matter was inconsequential. “Of course you’ll have to have something to wear to do the shopping in the first place so let’s see what we’re working with, shall we?”
Poking through the cupboard, Lady Mina pulled out a bright yellow dress and examined it appraisingly. Rose had last worn the frock to a school chums wedding, but that had been years ago, and since taking over the management of the farm, it’s cheap lace and flounces had seemed rather too girlish for her taste. Besides, she knew for a fact that the hem would need to be let out at least an inch were it to look anything but ridiculous on her. Lady Mina seemed to have reached the same conclusion, shaking her head and returning the dress to the cupboard with a furrowed brow.
Rose nearly caught her foot on the hem of her gown, stumbling to rush over to where Lady Mina was poking through her meagre possessions. She had no interest in hearing the Lady’s opinion of her wardrobe, and even less desire to spend the day with the woman, being picked apart like carrion for the crows. Caught in the act of poking through a basket of Rose’s smalls, Rose noted with satisfaction how the Lady jumped noticeably as Rose slammed one half door of the double hung cupboard closed in her face.
“I”m not going shopping with you”
Lady Mina turned to face Rose, straightening her skirts and gathering herself up to her full height.
“Whyever not? It will be such fun!” she pouted.
“And besides, you need new things. You can’t keep wearing… heavens are those your stockings?” She held up a thick woolen pair she had fished out from a pile of Rose’s undergarments on a low shelf, pinched between thumb and forefinger and held at arm’s length. Rose rushed to snatch them from her.
“Give me those!” She nearly shouted. “How dare you? You Peptides think you can bring me here and treat me like some little plaything in your disgusting games. You think we townspeople are dirt— less than dirt. Well, you sicken me. I’m not going to pretend I’m here by choice, or that I’m some blushing bride, and you can’t buy me off with baubles and fancy dresses. I’m not your doll to toy with and dress up as you see fit, and I’m not your friend.”
Lady Mina’s lips narrowed and her eyes flashed, but she maintained her composure in the face of Rose’s outburst. “Is that so?” she asked, not waiting for Rose’s reply. “Not so pretty after all are we now? Am I finally to be treated to those delightful barnyard manners I’ve heard so much about?”
“If you find my manners objectionable,” Rose rejoined, “You’re more than welcome to return me to the barnyard you took me from. I’m not here by choice.”
“I took you from?” Lady Mina, pressed her hand against her heart in a gesture of false affront. “Forgive me for saying girl, but I had nothing to do with the foolishness that landed you here. I pay my debts.”
Rose swallowed, any witty retort that she may have thought of choked in her throat by her sheer fury.
“Now see here Rosie,” Lady Mina continued, icily, “I don’t think you realize how fortunate you are. His Lordship may think it a laugh to have you traipsing about his manor dressed in rags, but I know him, and there’s no way he’ll let you humiliate the family out in public.”
“So what you want to ask yourself is this: which do you find more distasteful, being friends with me,” she thrust a thumb inelegantly at her chest, “or letting his Lordship dress you instead.”
Rose stumbled back, grabbing for the bedpost to steady herself. It was a thought that she hadn’t considered. That his Lordship himself might intervene. Lady Mina smiled in smug satisfaction as the realization hit Rose.
She really had no choice.
Lady Mina stepped towards Rose as if she were about to grab her wrist, or perhaps give her another condescending pat upon the shoulder, bot stopped when she saw Rose back away, instead folding her hands across her lap daintily.
The lady’s voice was softer now, but still sharp as a razor blade. “You’re young,” she said, “and I’m sure there are all sorts of foolish ideas about love, and romance in that pretty little head of your’s, but, since I’m just about tired of everyone around here moping around like it’s a funeral, let me give you a bit of advice. Love— “ she hissed the word as if she’d named a personal nemesis, “is dangerous. And if you can’t figure out how to make the best of the situation you’ve gotten yourself into then you’re a stupider little thing than I gave you credit for.”
Rose felt her mouth drop open in shock, both at the harshness of the Lady’s tone, and at the idea that love could be anywhere near her thoughts at a time like this.
Lady Mina took a deep breath before continuing and Rose could practically see her gathering her wits about her, becoming once more cool, and statuesque. “ As your friend,” she emphasised, “I’ll spell it out for you— Lord Oxy has money of his own, and what’s more, he stands to inherit the estate and it’s title. He’s not half the fool his father makes him out to be. There’s pleasure to be found in a match like that if you play your cards right. I think you’ll find that money, a husband who won’t savage you in your sleep, and the promise of pleasure are far more reliable than some silly romantic notion.”
Rose simply gawked, the fire of her anger faltering in the face of the woman’s brazen surety, and mercenary bluntness. Seeing Rose speechless, Lady Mina, turned and offered her final words.
“I’m going to get some money from your doting fiance so that, like or not, you can replace your precious rags, and while I’m gone you think about what I’ve told you. And when those thoughts have finished working their way through that thick little skull of yours, you’ll put on that dress and those hideous stockings and we’ll go shopping— as friends.”
Finishing her tirade with the smug grin of a woman confident that her orders would be followed, Lady Mina flounced out without giving Rose time to respond, slamming the door behind her hard enough that the fire beneath the mantle flickered in sympathy.
Alone at last, her fists clenched so tight that her fingers felt stiff, Rose felt the flood wall of her emotions finally break and collapsed back into the armchair, in a fit of ugly rasping sobs. It had only been two days, how was she supposed to endure the long weeks of her engagement, and the lifetime of humiliation after that?
For all that Lady Mina played at being oblivious, she’d sized up Rose’s situation with an exacting, ruthlessness. Where Rose only felt lost and overwhelmed, the lady had spoken of the situation like it were some ruthless game, one which Rose could turn to her advantage if she only wished it. Rose couldn’t imagine how bitter and jaded she would yet have to become to see the world in such a mercenary light.
Without her realizing it, Rose’s fingers found her Mother’s beloved jewelry box, still laid on the table beside her where Lord Oxy had left it. She lifted the treasure gently into her lap as if it contained all that remained of her Mother’s quiet patient love. Rose remembered how, as a girl, her mother’s arms had seemed to chase every fear from her heart. They were gone now. As was her Father’s sense, and any friend who might help her. She was alone.
She had to escape. That was the only thing for it.
With tears of desperation in her eyes, Rose unlocked the case and retrieved the ring. It’s weight lay heavy in her palm, the band, a fine gold filigree and the central stone flanked with small seed pearls. But the sapphire itself was huge, easily three times the size of any gemstone she’d seen before, and of a startlingly blue hue. She clutched it hard in her fist, letting it’s prongs and facets cut deep into her palm as the sobs overtook her.
She would sell it. She had to. She would go into town with Lady Mina, and find some way to steal away from the lady. Surely any merchant would give her a hefty sum for such a jewel, and the price of a ring so fine would surely pay her way to freedom. She would flee.
That such salvation had fallen into her lap when she most needed it, even in her despair, Rose could hardly believe. That it had arrived in her Mother’s box made it almost seem as if her strength and protection had reached out from beyond the grave. Eyes bleary from tears, Rose inspected the gem in her hand. It gleamed, the stone the brightest, clearest blue Rose had ever seen.
But no, she realized with a pang of guilt, Rose had seen that shade before. She’d seen it glinting at her in mirth on the manor lawn, and turned down in shame at dinner, and gazing at her with absolute, unwavering sincerity the night before. The stone, she realized with surprise, and a flash of guilt was the exact shade of Lord Oxy’s eyes.
Crossing the room on shaky feet, Rose fetched her green dress from the day before and slipped the ring into the pocket. If she had to learn to be ruthless to play this game, better now than later. She would get dressed, and go into town she told herself firmly. And guilt or no, she would sell Lord Oxy’s ring, and use the money to escape him.
Lord Oxytocin felt as if every muscle in his body was clenched tight, as if something wild were fluttering about in his chest which might escape if he relaxed even for a second. And he knew he could not— even if he’d a knife to his throat— name what that thing was. She was crying. He could hear her soft, heart-broken sobs muffled through the door that adjoined their rooms.
He’d been hopeful last night, though he hadn’t admitted it to himself. He’d thought he could balance the horror of the situation like he did his ledger sheets. He’d thought he could protect her, honor her, show her that though choice was beyond both of them, she was not wedding a son as cruel as his father. A joke.
He scowled down at the desk before him, with its jumble of papers and maps, facts and figures. The truth, however prettily he might disguise it, was that he was using the poor girl just as ruthlessly as his father was. To inherit, he must marry, and his father must choose the bride. And the worst of it, the ugliest truth he hardly dared to admit to himself was, that he couldn’t even bring himself to regret his father’s choice.
He liked the girl— Gods he was such a fool. He liked her simple strength, and her quiet graceful ways, and he very much liked having it here amongst the strained ceremony, and casual cruelty of his Father’s manor. It was as if a window somewhere had become unstuck and a spring breeze had blown into a stuffy room.
But what good was any of that, Lord Oxy warned himself firmly, what use were his plans, or his inheritance, or his delight of her company if the cost was the breaking of this poor girl?
Oxy tossed the silver fountain pen he’d been clutching down upon his desk, noticing with satisfaction the ugly black stain it made upon the crisp linen papers he kept there. Her crying had grown soft now, as if she’d spent herself, and Oxy found himself stalking toward the door, only to turn at the last minute and stare darkly into the mirror upon his mantle.
His own face glared back at him, lined and careworn. He’d known he was never a handsome man, it had never bothered him before. The bloom of youth too was behind him, although just. His nose was too large, his ears, even tucked as they were beneath his dark hair were too prominent. Where the Peptide’s natural aquiline features had graced his father and brother with a sharp, haughty appeal, all he saw writ upon his own face was vulnerability and far, far too much care for a man of thirty-seven years.
No wonder the girl wept.
He was a fool, an utter fool to have believed such a situation might come right. Even the noblest of intentions couldn’t excuse such a betrayal.
He remembered seeing her yesterday on the manor grounds. She’d been so fresh and lovely, engaged in her simple useful task. He’d felt charmed, and wished in that moment he could simply pretend he were someone else. Another man, who could have sat beside her in the sun, and spoken to her plainly. A man courting her by choice and not blackmail.
Here, now, in his manor-house bedroom with it’s heavy draperies and polished marble, Oxytocin morbidly wondered what sort of a man would fit into such a fantasy? A younger man surely, Rose couldn’t be a day over 25, she’d want someone her own age. Someone handsome and kind. What sort of lover would make Rose blush and smile? What soft words would that man have spoken to make her brown eyes laugh up at him in the dappled sunlight? Oxytocin’s imagination failed him.
He’d been away too long. Spent too many year at school and afterwards in the capital running from this. He would become Lord when his Father passed away, but his Father choose the heir’s bride. His time at Sacre Coeur had filled his mind with lofty ideals and somehow he’d tricked himself into thinking with nobility and integrity he could make this right. He’d forgotten the cruel reality of how his father ruled.
The dull sobs of the girl next door… Rose… who’d been so brave thus far… brought stark reality crashing back.
He’d made a fool of himself last night. Presenting her with his Mother’s ring. He’d been playing the lover, when all she’d wanted was for him to leave her be, that much she’d made clear. And no wonder. He sneered in disgust at his own face in the mirror.
No wonder she loathed him. He loathed himself.
There was a harsh rap at the chamber door and Lady Mina let herself in. He’d heard her earlier in Rose’s room but hadn’t quite been able to make out what they’d discussed. Likely it was just as well.
He hardly felt in the mood for the woman’s teasing banter, and blessedly she seemed in as foul mood as he, simply requesting the money he’d promised her for Rose in clipped terse tones. He retrieved a small pouch of gold from a lock box beside his bed and, handing it to her, tried his best to feel it wasn’t a payoff. Tried to feel as if he wasn’t every bit his father’s son.