by Ruth Davis Hays 2016 (a short story from the fantasy world of Jorthus series)
Miles away from the monastery where ‘Khiall suffered, his step-sister and ladylove Lauralei was in an isolated misery of her own….
Lauralei ran. Clutching the front of her nightgown in great wads at her stomach to keep her feet from catching the hem, she ran. Breathless, she turned one corner after the next in the blind night of the Monteforte manor. Her heart deafening in her ears.
Down the narrow stairwell, flight after flight, her feet kept moving despite the jarring step of each landing. No servants were aware yet. Evidently, Yoseah had not found his way to the bed yet, or else, he was not going to raise the alarm… for her sake.
Her months in the Monteforte household had been cumbersome at first. Being the Contes was tedious in its monotony and uselessness. She was allowed no real power. The only influence came when she could maneuver the Conte into making changes in order to please her. And, even doing that had to be handled in such a delicate and passive manner that it made her physically ill to hear the tone and words coming out of her own mouth. She hated playing the pouting, simmering wife. She hated cajoling him to make the least bit of effort in improving his house or city. Yet, she felt she must do it.
She had learned the art by watching her mother, Sarrah, and ‘Khiall’s mother, the faerlin Ammarron work on her father. They had controlled him in little ways for years. In Ammarron’s case, perhaps for decades. The subtle craft of making husbands think that everything is their idea.
Though Lauralei despised herself for doing it, it had made a difference as of late. Not just in her life at the manor house, but for the people of Jeullion unda Revota. The conte had instituted several new sanctions against cruel treatment of children in the factories; he had ordered the building of new apartments for those that had been put out on the streets for failure to work because of injury; he had allowed orchards to be grown on the outskirts of the city to feed those without means; he had ordered old textile factories to reopen to accommodate the manufacture of new clothes. He had done all these things to please his bored new wife. He had made the changes to the stagnant, economically beleaguered town so that she would have nice things, so that she would stop whining. Yes, he had done all that.
The conte remained dubious about her charms in the fact that she had yet to produce any sign of an heir for him. She knew that with each request made, her value to him was being weighed in his dusty, web-filled mind. Was she worth it?
Lauralei had been counting the days, marking them off in her little desk journal, and waiting for the morning when she would hear that the conte no longer felt his investment in her was fruitful and he must find another.
It was like living under a death sentence. She had been able to alleviate his doubts once or twice with false pregnancies, but that trick would not last forever. The conte had not visited her bedchamber for weeks. She had been glad, until she realized that his absence was a prelude to a household change. Her station was in the balance and the evidence was not stacked in her favor. Her time as Contes was nearing an end.
That was until tonight.
In one last effort to make her bear, the conte had his chair wheeled into her room and his dry, crooked body, already hard from Apthia Water, lifted on top of hers as she was lying on the bed, waiting. The only witness standing in the corner was Yoseah, his eyes forever closed, his ears forever listening.
The conte was in a frenzy of grinding and huffing, the stink of his breathe falling down upon her throat when his face changed. His body paused and trembled as he gasped. A short succession of grunts issued from him, yet she knew that he was not finishing. He tumbled to the side, his gnarled fingers clutching his chest. Lauralei shifted to escape him, his other hand flailing for her as if to drag her with him into his dark abyss.
She knew what was happening, but did not scream, did not call for help. Her eyes flew to Yoseah, who did not seem to hear anything out of the ordinary. Horrified, she slid off the bed and snatched up her nightgown from the chair nearby.
Help, she thought. She must get help. But, the cloying thought that followed was: Help would only delay the inevitable and extend her misery, or help would save him just to do away with her.
She stood by the bed, watching the old conte flop. His spotted chest barely issuing enough noise for a death rattle. Turning, she went swiftly to the door, her hands tossing a few pillows over the floor to confuse and slow Yoseah’s steps.
“I must get someone,” she panted to the young blind man as she passed him. She must appear to be the concerned wife, mustn’t she? “I think the conte is sick. Wait here.”
As her steps slowed on the lowest stair landing, Lauralei thought back a few moments. Had she seen a slight smile on Yoseah’s lips when she left the room? She wasn’t sure. She would never be sure.
Yet, as she heard the muffled call from far above and her hand finally rapped upon the door of Edgar, the house butler, she was sure of one thing. She would be the Contes from this night forward. The only days that she would count off now in her journal would be the wait between her trips to the royal court. She would take advantage of every invitation, every opportunity, and every advantage. She would present herself to the King, Queen, and prince.
And, she would dance.
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