The women’s parlor was a seldom used room in the manor. It was an over-sized room with heavy furniture and curtains embroidered with flowers. The room’s size dwarfed the two occupants. Mademoiselle Renee was a rail of a woman with heavily rouged cheeks and a perpetual frown. She clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. The sound echoed through the chamber.
“I will see you next week, Lady Du Bois.” Mademoiselle Renee said.
Myla rubbed her sore back as she stumbled out of the woman’s parlor. She hadn’t realized that she didn’t know the first thing about walking straight or eating dinner.
Gian greeted her at the doorway with a deep bow. He wore his usual calm smile.
“Would you like me to escort you to your chambers for a short rest before the tutor arrives?” Gian said as he glided at her side.
“Yes, Madam. His Lordship has employed a tutor to begin your formal education. The tutor has been advised to begin with the basics of the French and Latin languages.”
“Why would I need to know all of that?”
“For entertaining guests, of course. A woman must know how to recite poetry during dinner parties.”
“Maximilien hosts parties?”
“But of course.”
Myla’s footsteps slowed to a stop as she raised her eyebrow at Gian. It seemed too unlikely that her husband ever had any guests in his home. She realized that she was one of the only people able to see Gian and the other ghosts, but how could there be people comfortable enough to want to spend time in the haunted manor?
Gian laughed. It was a strange sound. It was like the sound of branches tapping glass. He shook his head, “So this is what you are truly like. Fascinating. Cheeky girl.”
He tilted his head and turned to a set of large double doors. Gian motioned to the door, “Yes, this home often has guests. Such as the people gathered here to attend Lord Du Bois’ court.”
Myla looked at the doors before taking a step towards the door. Voices poured out through the heavy wooden doors. She gave the handle a twist and slipped into the room. Gian placed his hand on Myla’s shoulder. He leaned in close to her ear to whisper, “People from all over Bois-le-Duc come to plead their cases to Lord Du Bois as well as to socialize.”
She took in the stark differences between the people gathered in the room. Wealthy merchants and townsfolk that worked for Du Bois some how or other huddled in little groups. Laughter came quickly and easily from their lips. Women in cinched corsets and men in trousers of rich blues and purples lifted goblets of wine to their lips. Peasants and lower class people clung to the walls. Their heads bowed low in humility as they waited their turns to speak to Maximilien. They had no laughter or wine to enjoy.
“Why?” Myla whispered to Gian.
“Because our Lordship is the sole acting Governor in Bois-le-Duc. He works to arbitrate disputes, judge criminals, and if necessary he will dispense punishment to guilty parties.”
“Indeed. Now we should get you back to your quarters. This isn’t anything you should worry about, my Dear. The Lord has been doing this a long time and he knows what’s best for his lands.”
“Hmm? Well I can’t say-” Gian’s words were cut off as he saw Myla slip deeper into the room. “Where are you going?” He said as he glided to catch up with her.
The room dwarfed any of the other rooms in the manor. The vaulted ceilings were decorated by friezes adorned with ormolu leaves and cherubs. The gold covered bronze infant angels peered down from their lofty homes. Their plump cheeks looking plumper with their brilliant smiles. Mirrors taller than any man hung from the walls and made the large room seem otherworldly. Each one gilded and sparkling. The room seemed to never end when Myla looked into one.
Maximilien sat in an over-sized chair in the center of a dais. He was alone on the dais. Myla could feel his presence expanding outward. Tendrils of his power slid and wrapped itself at the feet of anyone within a few feet of the dais. He looked regal. Myla could just make out the way his lips curled up into a smile from under the shadows of his hood. His hands curled as he gripped the chair’s armrests. He lifted his hand and dismissed a merchant from his presence with a flick of his wrist.
A farmer’s family took the merchant’s place. The ragged father clutched his wife’s hand as she carried their small son. Myla recognized them at once. They had been struck with a string of bad luck. The son had been born sick and only grown sicker as the years passed. The father had grown ill after a farm accident had left him with an infected wound. Myla had overheard her parent’s discuss the fact it was only a matter of time the infection struck the man down. The man bowed in respect to Lord Du Bois.
Maximilien nodded his head, “You may plead your case.”
The farmer coughed and bowed again at a feverish pace. Maximilien gestured with an index finger for the man to stand. The man cleared his throat and began his explanation, “Thank you, your Lordship. I know we couldn’t give you the normal share of this year’s harvest, but that’s only cause we weren’t able to plant a full field. The accident caught me at the beginning of growing season. I was only able to plant half the usual crop.”
“What of your woman? Couldn’t she have tended the fields?”
“She was busy with the little one. He’s sick and needs constant care.”
“Hmmm, I see. What solution do you have then for this situation?”
“I… I’ll be better next year, your Grace. I’ll give you two shares of the crop. Mark my words!”
Maximilien stood. The farmer and his family flinched. Their bodies arching backwards away from the hooded nobleman. Myla could see the smoky gray tendrils of Maximilien’s power envelop the family. His stone brown eyes closed and he drew in a long breath. The entire room seemed to draw in a breath with him. Silence filled the room as they awaited the Lord to speak once more.
Myla felt a tug on her arm. Gian struggled to pull her out of the room. She bared her teeth and stood her ground. The specter was using every ounce of supernatural force he could muster, but it wasn’t enough to budge Myla.
“You shouldn’t see this, Mistress.” Gian said as he tried to tug one last time.
Myla ignored him and kept her attention on the scene unfolding in front of her.
Maximilien opened his eyes. His face was expressionless. His hood cast shadows that only made his blank expression more prominent. A porcelain mask that didn’t betray any hint to whatever conclusion he had reached.
“No. Your offer is worthless.” Maximilien said.
“No your Grace! I swear it! I’ll work-” the farmer said near tears.
“You will be dead long before the next harvest is ready to be sown. Your child will die by first winter’s frost.” Maximilien said without emotion. He turned and returned to his chair.
Myla’s jaw was the first to drop. Every person in the room followed suit. The hush that fell upon the room was broken by the sound of the child’s wheezing breath. Some part deep in Myla’s soul knew that Maximilien was correct in his judgment call. She could feel the truth in her heart and she shuddered as she could picture the fingers of death grip the shoulders of the poor family. She didn’t have to ask how Maximilien knew. The tendrils of darkness that licked at the family’s heels answered everything she couldn’t ask.
The farmer’s wife broke down into sobs. The farmer with his back bent in dejection wrapped his arms around his family. Her sobs became wails. There were no tears in the farmer’s eyes. Just a look of grim determination. “There has to be something I can do for my family. Please have mercy on us.” The farmer said as he turned back to Maximilien.
Maximilien nodded. He regarded the family with a thoughtful look and finally spoke after a minute of tense silence, “Would you give your life for your son’s?”
The farmer’s wife stopped mid sob to gasp. Her eyes went wide as she tried to take in Maximilien’s proposition. She shook her head in a flurry of dingy brown strands of hair. The farmer stroked her cheek and then ran his hand through his ailing son’s hair. He lifted his eyes to look in Maximilien’s. There was no fear.
“If it means he’ll get better. Be able to grow up healthy. Live a good life.” He said.
“You have my word. Your spirit is still strong. The infection is killing your body, but your soul is still healthy. It is enough to save the child.” Maximilien said as he rose from his chair. His movements were slow and purposeful, like a cat that had just awaken from a long nap.
“I want my wife cared for too though. I won’t be around to provide for them.”
Maximilien strolled closer and closer to the farmer. A cat drawing closer to the mouse. “Of course. There is nothing wrong with your wife. She’s a strong woman and not unpleasing to the eye. She will be given work as household staff.”
“I don’t know-”
“Does your trust in your Lord waver?”
“Then do you accept my offer?”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“Excellent.” Maximilien said as he raised his hand.
The light of the room was snuffed out at once. A murmur of confusion and panic raced through the audience, but Myla could see through the darkness as easily as if the room were bathed in sunlight. The darkness wasn’t from the candles going out, but instead from Maximilien’s dark aura reaching out and covering the whole room. The sounds of the worried audience members died away one by one. The black tendrils snaked out and coiled to form thick vines that coated every inch of the room. Vines speared through members of the audience and jutted out their chests in a macabre fashion. Their heads lulled in a sort of slumber as the energy pierced them.
Myla’s eyes caught movement and she turned her direction back to Maximilien. His long thin fingers reached out and tapped the farmer on his chest. A glittering blue energy flowed out from the man’s chest and pooled around Maximilien’s fingers. Maximilien closed his eyes as a look of pleasure crossed his features. The energy became an orb centimeters above his fingers. The farmer collapsed to the ground.
Maximilien’s eyes gazed into the glowing blue orb before lifting to focus on Myla. He didn’t seem surprised to see his wife standing in the still chamber. His startling brown eyes regarded her as he sought to determine her reaction from the situation.
Myla was as motionless as a statue. Gian’s hand had released its grip on her and rested on her shoulder in an act of comfort. Myla forced herself to keep a look of placid blankness on her face, but inside her heart was racing. Maximilien’s tendrils of power slid up her legs and slithered across her open palms. They left a cold, empty, tingling sensation where ever they touched as if she had played too long in the snow. She pretended the touch didn’t bother her and ran a finger across the thorny spectral vine.
Her husband let his eyes droop closed and he turned his head towards the child slumbering in his still mother’s arms. Maximilien opened his eyes and brought the glowing orb to the child’s lips. He pressed the ball into the child’s mouth and it vanished as the child swallowed it. Color flushed across the child’s cheeks and he began to cough. Maximilien studied the child for a moment with vague curiosity, then turned around. The darkness shrank away and gave way to the glow of candlelight as Maximilien’s footfalls reached his chair. The room was fully illuminated as he took a seat.
Noise started once more. The crowd of people began to mumble in confusion as if they realized they had been asleep. The child’s coughs subsided and the farmer’s wife gasped.
She looked down at the lifeless corpse of her husband and then onto the rosy face of her son. The child looked radiant and full of life. The boy tilted his head, “What’s wrong, Mama?”
“Nothing baby. Nothing is wrong.” She said as tears streamed down her cheeks.
There was no flicker of emotion from Maximilien’s face in response to the exchange between mother and son. He lifted his hand and gave a short flick of the wrist, “You are dismissed. You’ll find employment with Bronson. Their family seeks a new maid.”
The woman fell into a string of thanks that was all but coherent, but her eyes never left the corpse of her dead husband.
Gian tugged at Myla’s shoulder once more, “It is time you leave, Madam. I’m afraid there is no time for a nap before your tutoring session.”