The ladies dined out that evening, as Wrenna wanted to begin showing off the sights in her birthplace and the surrounding area. Upon their return Semple’s daughter said that she and her companion were tired from traveling, and that they wished to retire. Having seen the pair to his bedroom Semple left it with pajamas in hand. He went to the upstairs hallway’s linen closet for sheets and a spare pillow. Turning to go downstairs he encountered the housekeeper.
“Ah, Miss H-V. I’m afraid I didn’t hear your approach.” Did you appear out of thin air? “While Wrenna and her friend are visiting I will sleep in the parlour.”
“How long will the strangers be here? Am I expected to cook for and clean up after them?”
“My daughter and her friend—for that matter, any guests I have—are not to be characterized as ‘strangers.’ It is only logical that a housekeeper sees to the needs of people invited to my home. I expect you to understand that!”
As Miss H-V retreated to her room her face betrayed something beyond annoyance at her employer’s testiness. Recalling Algeberta’s reaction at their meeting, for a moment Semple wondered whether the women had a connection. He dismissed the thought as absurd but something about it was odd. Perhaps he would ask Wrenna about it.
In the bathroom he changed into pajamas then brushed and flossed. The parlour’s still air and made sleep elude Semple on his makeshift bed, and when he managed it, rest was fitful. Finally giving up he flung off the single sheet and went to the kitchen. He poured a glass of cold water from the tap, noticing that the clock read 4:47.
Standing before the sink he drained then refilled the glass. It was then he figured out the reason for his sleeplessness. It wasn’t the temperature or having to lye somewhere other than the mattress his body had known for years. No: the problem was that, in a little over twelve hours, Tacy Bronwell would arrive for dinner. And he had forgotten to remind Miss H-V about it.
Though she was an early riser it would be a while before Miss H-V came down to prepare Semple’s breakfast. The thought of knocking on her door felt odd. Still, he had to do something. He wrote a note, folded and slipped it under the door. Creeping back to the parlor Semple reclined on the settee and was snoring within minutes.
* * *
Lady Allith grunted as M’Blaine helped her negotiate the neck opening of the knee-length coat of mail weighing on her shoulders. The silvery wave of protective metal links was eye-catching but she found its weight daunting. The ruler of Castle Askerton was also skeptical that the mail would be impervious to swords, battle-axes or pikes. Nonetheless, Allith knew her people expected her to be a warrior, one who stood ready to defend them against Lord Creswel’s increasingly vocal threats.
Lady Allith acknowledged M’Blaine’s reminder that the time of her public appearance was fast approaching. Dismissing the protector she crossed the room to an ornate wooden cabinet. Unlocking it with the key on a rawhide string tied to her wrist, Allith removed the book to which she found herself strangely drawn. She had come across it one day while searching in the cabinet for something else.
The volume fit so neatly in her palm that one might think it was intended for her alone. For all that, the book didn’t look like something that a noblewoman would find attractive. Pages of an inferior grade of vellum that boasted no colorful, eye-pleasing illuminations were sewn into the cracked leather binding. The faded brown ink in which the text was written looked as though it was concocted from crushed nut hulls.
Anyone else would haven’t given a second thought to casting the artifact onto a midden heap but it was precious to Lady Allith. The reason why became apparent when she leafed through the book’s pages. No one else would comprehend the tale spun there, but it gave the Castle Askerton hope.
Hearing the approach of footsteps Allith returned the book to its hiding place. She just had time to lock the cabinet when the door opened to admit M’Blaine.
“My lady, your people await you.”