Half a Step Away from Love - Part Three. Chapter Twelve
“Lady Inessa!” Cameron Estley opens the top button of his shirt, leans with both hands on the tabletop, and angrily glares at me. “If you firmly intend to drive me up a wall, you definitely have a chance. But you won’t be able to achieve anything more than that. This is the main school of the capital, moreover the primary school of the Duchy — if not the entire country! Its director will be the person the Duke has chosen for this role!”
“Lord Estley,” I respond, copying his tone: “I by no means want to drive you up a wall. How could you think so badly of me? It’s just that we’re talking about the main school of the Duchy, and for this reason its director will be the person Lady Mireya chooses!”
“Why on earth would that be, allow me to inquire?” asks Estley, not bothering to hide his sarcasm.
“Because Lady Mireya has assumed responsibility for the development of culture and art in our duchy. She aids the theater, organizes literary readings, patronizes musicians, artists and actors.”
“Lady Mireya patronizes half the male population of the Duchy,” snorts Lord Cameron.
“Such a statement is unworthy of an aristocrat,” I retort.
“Are we going to discuss my morality or focus on the school?”
“Let’s get back to the school.” I am being generous. “The director will be the person who has been chosen by Lady Mireya.”
“Lady Mireya’s candidate does not have the necessary professional qualities,” Estley says in a tone that brooks no argument.
“Lord Almikonte’s candidate does not have the necessary moral qualities,” I retort in the same tone.
“What do moral qualities have to do with anything?!”
“They have to do, Lord Cameron, with the fact that this is a school. The Director shall serve as a personal example for his students. Lord Conrad’s protégé is a real womanizer and philanderer. Also, there were married women among his mistresses. No, I understand you are completely unaware that this is wrong,” I grin. “But we do not want the pupils of the school to develop the same moral qualities that you have, do we, Lord Cameron?”
“Lady Inessa, you are unbearable.” These words sound like a compliment. It seems that a little more, and he would have kissed my hand. “Fortunately, I have taken some measures. The fact is that Lady Audrey works for me and promptly informs me about your plans. You bribed a member of the Education Commission, which makes the final decision on the candidacy of the director. I for my part saw to it that this man was expelled from the Commission.”
“Poor Ansilen,” I sigh. “He suffered for absolutely no reason. You see, Lord Estley, from the beginning I knew very well that you recruited Lady Audrey. All the while I have made sure that through her you receive only the information that benefits my purposes. Thus, you have miscalculated. We really did bribe one of the Commission members, but not the one you had thought.”
“Lady Inessa,” Estley cocks his head. “From the beginning I knew that you knew that I recruited Lady Audrey. Accordingly, I treated the information which I obtained through her with a grain of salt. So when she told me the name of the bribed member of the commission, I realized that there were two options. Either you bribed someone else, or you bribed this particular one, but you expect that since I am aware of your game, I would decide that it is not he but someone else, but that I would still keep up my game as if I do not know, and ultimately …”
“Stop!” I beg, shaking my head. “You know, I am completely lost now.”
I look up at Estley plaintively.
“You know, I think: me too,” he says, flopping into a chair.
“So what should we do?” I frown.
“Let’s have a drink?”
“Let’s!” This offer suddenly strikes a chord. I squint slyly. “Only, you drink Reston red, and I will stick to “Verso Rose”!
“Actually, I was just going to suggest we do exactly the opposite,” Estley laughs. “But since you are already ahead of me, I propose an alternative — we both drink the same.”
“Reston red or Verso Rose?” I ask suspiciously.
“Your choice,” he replies nonchalantly.
We end up agreeing on the Reston red. Estley calls a servant who fetches us a bottle and glasses. He uncorks the bottle, pours the first batch of wine, and then leaves the room.
“So, what do we tell our employers?” I ask after we take the first couple of sips.
“What does it matter?” Cameron shrugs dismissively. «Let’s say that we had a long argument, but nothing came of it. You tell Lady Mireya that you almost scratched my eyes out, and I will tell Lord Conrad that I barely resisted the urge to spank you.”
I reach out again to clink our glasses and sip a little more this time. The wine warms me from the inside and gently lifts my spirits.
“Lord Cameron, may I ask you a question?” I glance at him, wondering how unseemly of me it would be to pull my feet up into the chair. I decide that it would be not exceedingly unseemly, and settle in comfortably. “How did you know I was in the office of the Duke? Then, with a portrait?”
“Oh, that!” he chuckles. “You missed some things, but then I do not think you had a choice — you had to act very fast.”
“So what were they?”
I lean forward with interest.
“First, the painting hung unevenly. It immediately caught my eye.” I bit my lip in annoyance at the words. “It became clear that someone was interested in the safe, and there was only one thing kept there. Then, the window. When the Duke and I left the office it was almost closed. And then — wide open.”
“Damn it, I should have thought of that!”
I angrily slap my thigh.
“Finally, the curtains were swaying.”
“They did sway after all!” I almost groan.
“Perhaps, in other circumstances, considering the open window, I would not have attached any importance to this. But the whole thing fit together. The office had been firmly locked; therefore, no one could have entered through the door. Climbing through the window from the garden was also unlikely. But climbing along the ledge from a nearby window was, however risky, still a possible feat. I know only one girl who could find out about the portrait, and then would be able to use this information to her advantage. Besides being sufficiently crazy to crawl along the ledge in the middle of the night.”
“The moon was full!” I try to explain myself.
Judging by the look Estley gives me, these words only serve to amuse him.
“Do you seriously believe that this clarification makes your behavior seem more normal?”
“Okay, okay,” I shrug, not wanting to quarrel, although I still see nothing crazy in crawling along the ledge. “Then why didn’t you immediately draw back the curtain? Why didn’t you turn me over to the Duke?”
Estley pauses, looking as if he expects something from me. I respond by arching my eyebrow in surprise, as if to say: I’m the one who has asked him a question, and not vice versa. He raises his glass, holding it by its stem, studies it and looks at the liquid that sways like the sea in a storm.
“How could I pass up the chance to make such a spectacular appearance in your bedroom?” he chuckles.
“Yes, it was a spectacular appearance, that’s for sure,” I admit after taking another sip. “But — I point at him — no more than my appearance in yours.”
“It’s difficult to argue with that,” Cameron readily confirms. “Your appearance created a furor, especially in Robert’s eyes. Also, how could I possibly turn you over to the Duke? If he were to kick you out of the palace, life here would become incredibly boring.”
“Then pour us more wine.” Without waiting for an answer, I brazenly hand him the empty glass. “We need to drink to the health of your poor Robert.”
I have to hand it to Estley; he voices no complaints about my forcefulness. He rises from his chair, takes my glass and fills it to the required two-thirds. At the same time he refills his own. Then he sits down again, moving his chair closer to mine.
“Since we started such a personal, heartfelt conversation,” Earl says a little later, looking into my eyes questioningly, “can you answer one question for me?”
“What is the question?” I ask curiously.
I cannot guarantee that I will respond without knowing the question, of course, but overall the wine makes me more willing to cooperate.
“Why were you trying to commit suicide, and especially in such a peculiar way?”
I bite my lip. Should I tell him or not? Then again, why not? After all, this is, as they say, ancient history. Well, maybe not ancient, but it’s still history.
“You will not start a fight?”
I shrink nervously in my chair.
Cameron’s eyes widen from such a promising foreword.
“I’ll try to restrain myself,” he says.
“Well, keep in mind, you promised.”
Then I tell him about our plan of staging suicide, about the calculation of the optimal length of rope and about how the noose, by a freak accident, almost tightened around my neck.
While telling the story, I closely follow Cameron’s reaction, in case I have to quickly jump out of the chair and run to the door. But this turns out to be unnecessary. When my story is completed, my companion throws back his head and laughs heartily.
“All this time I racked my brain, trying to figure out what came over you, and whether I, gods forbid, had somehow contributed to it by my actions.” He smiles again, shaking his head. “I even assigned Lady Audrey to you in case you decided to try again.”
“What?!” From this confession, I almost fell out of the chair. And not because I was touched.” While I racked my brain as to why you sent her to spy on me and which one of my secrets you had set out to uncover! I went over all the options — even the most improbable ones!”
I throw up my hands and sigh loudly.
“I even allowed you to beat me in the case of this stupid wedding, just so you would calm down a little!”
Estley seems determined to prove that he was more affected than I by the prevailing confusion.
“What? Not at all!” I am indignant. How dare he attribute to himself my achievements? “You didn’t let me do anything. I got rid of Dorion myself.”
“Did I ever!” responds Cameron. “It’s no laughing matter: right before the wedding I took the Duke away from the palace for more than a day.”
I blink on hearing this revelation.
“So what?” I finally come up with a retort. “It wasn’t you who found a way to send the Marquis packing, was it?”
It was extremely frustrating to realize suddenly that I did not win by myself, but only because the enemy happily yielded to me.
“Well, if in such a long time you did not find the means to get rid of him, it would be entirely your fault,” shrugs Cameron.
“That’s not fair,” I pout.
“Don’t worry,” he laughs. “You should treat losses and victories philosophically. Besides, I can reassure you: in the case of Lady Mireya’s dowry you beat me to the punch masterfully.”
I look down modestly. However, I quickly tire of modesty, so I look up, raising my glass.
“To cooperation?” With a sly squint, I suggest.
“To cooperation!” The Count seconds my toast.
We clink our glasses and drink up the rest of the wine. And then I find Cameron’s lips very close to my own.
“Hey, what are you doing?!”
I hurry to move away as far as possible in my chair. Too fresh is the memory of our last kiss, which Cameron used in order to undermine my plans to take the Marquis out of the game. Say whatever you like, but he knows how to manipulate people almost professionally. Besides, who knows, with this manipulator, what dirty trick he has up his sleeve this time?
“Sorry.” Cameron pulls away completely, leaving me to my personal space. “Force of habit.” He smiles disarmingly. “I’m drinking wine with a lady, which leads to a certain pattern of behavior.”
“Keep your habits to yourself,” I suggest with a scowl.
“I will try.”
We don’t revisit this subject. But we have a wonderful time.
By the time I leave, I am quite shaky on my feet. Nevertheless, I am able to pass through the corridor relatively steadily, without disgracing myself in front of the people I encounter along the way. But when I see a translucent hand stick out from a dark room and beckon me inside, I nearly walk past, chalking up the vision to the amount of wine I had consumed.
“Maya?” At the last moment, I realize that I have caught a glimpse of a ghost, and enter the room. It takes me longer than usual to light a candle with not very stable hands. “What are you doing here?”
“I am waiting for you” the girl replies bluntly. “I need to talk to you.”
I don’t bother asking her why she is waiting for me here, counting on catching me on my way, and not directly in my bedroom. I am well aware that there is a sort of blocking system built into the castle, which prevents ghosts from entering courtiers’ private quarters. Once upon a time, people who knew a thing or two about this issue had considered it necessary to make sure their personal space was protected. The majority of the courtiers cannot see ghosts, but still just the thought that an intelligent creature who is completely unfamiliar to you can watch you while you’re sleeping or, for example, making love, is quite unpleasant.
“I’m listening,” I nod graciously, plopping into a chair with a sweep. I almost miss, but still manage to stop myself from sliding down to the floor, and settle back, gripping the armrests in case the chair becomes unruly. “Just keep in mind that I’m a little drunk.”
“The best condition for a conversation with a ghost,” Maya assures me. Then she frowns and asks: “Whom were you drinking with?”
“You just have to know everything, don’t you,” I say grimly. Her words hit too close to home. “Cameron Estley.”
“O la la!” says the girl. “That’s new!”
“There is nothing new about that,” I snap. “Just tell me what happened.”
The ghost’s face immediately turns serious, and I realize that the topic of conversation is nothing to laugh about.
“I want to talk to you on behalf of a friend of mine,” says Maya. “She is also one of us but, unlike me, she can’t talk to people, so she can’t speak to you directly. ”
“Did something happen to her?” I frown. So far I fail to see how I can help her ghost friend. Yes, I am able to see ghosts and talk to them, but that is the limit of my abilities concerning their world.
“Rather, her good friend,” said Maya. “His name is Baron Grondezh.”
“Is he a ghost as well?” I clarify.
“Yes. But they knew each other when they were alive. The Baron died as recently as six weeks ago. My friend is not able to communicate with him, because each of us is tied to their own house. My friend lives here in the palace, and the baron lives in his mansion. But we’ve heard rather strange rumors about him.”
From a living person’s point of view any rumor concerning ghosts falls into the category of “strange”. I am curious as to what kind of rumors may be deemed strange by the ghosts themselves.
“You see,” Maya winces, “rumor has it that the Baron terrorizes the inhabitants of his mansion. Mainly his relatives. He was survived by an adult son and a daughter, Alexander and Yolanda. The daughter is four years older, and she was the one to inherit the house. Well, you know, the eldest child of the baron inherits the estate, regardless of the sex. So, every night, she hears howling, moaning, creaking floorboards — despite the fact that the house is made of stone – in short, the usual set. The only sounds that people who do not have a gift allowing them to communicate with ghosts can hear. She is very frightened, and once all this nearly ended very badly. From fear, she ran out of the room, and after another shrill sound almost fell down the stairs. Hardly managed to hold on to the railing.”
“But even after that the Baron would not calm down?” I am surprised.
Pranks aside, very few people would like to actually cause their daughter’s death.
“No,” Maya shakes her head. “Everything is still continuing; moreover, it has intensified. In addition, the Baron has begun to frighten his son. And his grandson too.”
“Yes, Alexander has a son of his own. He is only eighteen months old. Alexander is raising the boy himself, having never been married. Anyhow, the groans and howls are heard at night even in the nursery.”
Things are going from bad to worse. After all, can’t the Baron spare his grandson’s nervous system? What did the baby ever do to him?
“Is the boy very frightened?” I ask glumly.
“No, the boy sleeps soundly and does not hear anything. But his nanny has been scared so badly that part of her hair turned gray.”
“Looks like your buddy’s deceased friend is quite a jolly ghost,” I grimly summarize. “It is possible of course that his family harassed him during his lifetime. Maybe they even conspired to send him into the next life. But it seems quite unlikely to me that a year and a half old child would be part of such a conspiracy.”
“The fact is that the Baron was not jolly at all in life,” Maia explains. “These jokes are absolutely not his style. He was a serious man, solid and responsible. An old school aristocrat — held his family’s honor very dear. Also, he loved his children, although, again, because of his nature, he didn’t show it openly. Moreover, he doted on his grandchild. Therefore, my friend finds his behavior extremely surprising. Surprising and disturbing. In particular, given the fact that the consequences of these “pranks” can be very serious. That’s why she wants to ask you for help.”
“But what kind of help?”
I still have no idea how I could help.
“You are one of the few who can communicate with ghosts. The only one in this palace. We would like to ask you to visit the house and talk to the baron. It is not far from here — just one day’s journey.”
I frown skeptically.
“You really think I could call to order the Baron who has suddenly turned unruly? Frankly, I very much doubt it. Why would he listen to me?”
“It’s not that. My friend believes that the Baron must have a reason for such atrocious behavior. We just ask that you find out what it is. And then we can think about how to solve the problem later.”
I still do not think that any good could come out of this ploy. On the other hand, Maya has never asked me for help before. But she helped me with the portrait, breaking the unspoken rules prohibiting ghosts from interfering in the affairs of the living. It would only be fair to return the favor. Especially since the trip is really not that long, and the task looks quite simple.
“Wait a minute: can the Baron even talk to people?” I ask.
“He can,” Maya nods. “As far as we know, after death he has acquired this ability.”
“Oh well. In that case, I’ll try to talk to him.”
Who knows? Maybe if I had drunk a little less wine that evening, I would have made a different decision. However, it is unlikely. Anyway, two days later I arrange with Mireya to take a short vacation, and set out for the Baron’s mansion, Torenhall.
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