The weeks following my discussion with Ballard passed more or less uneventfully. As promised, he began to look into my abduction, although after waiting so long the trail had grown hopelessly cold. At first I worried, more than I cared to admit, about him defying Roslyn's orders against investigating. When I voiced my concerns to him, however, he reassured me that he was being discreet.
"Besides, my lady," he added one day as we returned from a visit with Madge, "I've been assigned to act as your guard and servant. If you make a request of me, it is hardly within my rights to refuse." He smirked a little and I realized he was teasing me. I had accepted the necessity of a guard, and I felt quite safe with Ballard as my constant companion. But he had figured out that I did not like to think of him as a servant, and he often took the opportunity to remind me of his "place." I was glad that he had grown comfortable enough with me to be able to tease, but I did wish he would choose a different subject with which to do so. Still, what was good for the goose...
"Well, that is alright then, I suppose," I told him, leaning across the carriage to pat him on the cheek. "If she does find out, then I will be able to take the blame and she can vent her wrath at me. Carry on then." I sat back, fighting a smug smile, while the grin slipped instantly from Ballard's own face. He was so fiercely protective of me. After a moment, he realized I was teasing him as well and he smiled again, tentatively this time.
Not that there was much to carry on with, truth be told. Ballard's contacts had turned up recollections of a man called Jonah, often in company of another named Walon, frequenting a tavern near the warehouse during the two moons before the party from which I was taken. The warehouse, I learned, had been very close to the border between the Quarters of Industry and of Citizens. But no one seemed to know anything about the two men. They had appeared suddenly and disappeared in much the same manner. No one had seen them since the night before the party.
The warehouse itself was equally a dead end. At the same time Jonah and Walon had shown up in the Quarter of Citizens, the warehouse had been purchased from its previous owner. The buyer had claimed to be a milliner from Denara looking to escape the city-state's political upheaval. He had made a very hefty down payment on the building and for two moons had paid the rest of the building's price in installments on time as negotiated. The first payment due after my abduction, however, had not come, and when the bank sent a collector to the warehouse, he found it abandoned and the bank had retaken the property.
”All of the payments were made by some underling of the milliner," Ballard told me one day after he had made a discreet visit to the bank in question. "From the description they gave, I would bet it was Jonah. None of the bankers ever actually met the milliner in person." Ballard shook his head in disbelief here. I could tell he was taken aback that such a large transaction could be so easily conducted by proxy without raising any questions.
"If he sent Jonah with enough cash," I commented, "and cleaned up enough to appear presentable, it is no wonder they were so eager to do business. I am sure that there were many vacant properties at that time due to the troubles in Denara." I thought back to the problems the upheaval had caused for my own family. Surely if no more goods were being shipped that also meant that warehouses were being left empty as well.
"Perhaps," Ballard conceded. "But it only means that's one more dead end in our search."
He was right enough about that. The bank had sent an investigator to Denara, but he had returned with the information that the purchaser had likely used a false name. No one in Denara had ever heard of the milliner, and they weren't really in the mood to be overly helpful to a foreign investigator. The bank ended up writing off the loss and within another two moons, the warehouse had already been scoured and resold. There was no longer any chance of finding whatever clues my abductors might have left behind at the scene of the crime.
As frustrating as the lack of information was for both Ballard and myself, I was quite glad to at least know that the effort had been made. The information that had been turned up seemed to confirm Jonah's implication that they had been watching me for some time, waiting for the first opportunity to take me. It also led us both to conclude that the man calling the shots must be very wealthy and connected to have been able to procure that warehouse and keep it ready for my eventual captivity. I still couldn't imagine who he had been trying to demonstrate his power to by taking me, but at the moment it seemed incidental. Ballard certainly didn't seem to feel the same way though. If anything, he began to grow concerned that the threat against me had not disappeared at all. But he was at a loss for how to proceed any further, and so he agreed to let the matter drop for the time. Although he did constantly comment that he should increase my security again, worried that he might miss something and I could be taken again despite his presence.
I couldn't bring myself to agree with the suggestion, however. A selfish part of me did not want to give up my time spent alone with him. Already I had grown to think of him as one of my dearest friends, and perhaps something more than that. Circumstances what they were, it was not as if I could spend time with him outside of the course of his normal capacity as my guard. A more practical part of me argued that such thoughts were actually a very good reason to agree to increased security measures, but I more or less managed to ignore that part of myself. I couldn't help but notice that every time Ballard brought the subject up himself, the suggestion was only half-hearted, and once I had declined he always let the matter drop swiftly enough.
As the days grew colder, I knew the time approached when I would have to give up my days in the woods. I found myself more frequently arranging to visit the Quarter of Trade with Madge or Beryl, accepting invitations to teas and parties and social circles that I normally would have declined, visiting with my father and even my mother at the House of Jade and so on. All so that I could ride in the carriage and secure more time alone with Ballard. I realized that I was traveling a slippery slope, but I couldn't convince myself to stop. When I dreamt at night, it was more often than not of his kind voice and intense gold-green eyes, of soft brown hair cropped close to the head in the soldiers' fashion. I dreamt of tracing my fingers along that broad sharp chin and those high cheekbones, of caressing his mouth from its usual serious line into a secret smile meant just for me. Every time I woke from those dreams I was very thankful that he wasn't the type to be tempted by my foolishness.
One evening I was curled up in a chair I had moved in front of my fireplace when Liam burst through the door to my sitting room. Startled out of my reverie, the knitting in my hand fell to the floor as I looked up. I had been attempting to make a pair of gloves out of a thick wool I had picked up on my last trip to the market. They would be quite helpful, I thought, in allowing me to continue spending many of my days in the woods despite the changing season.
"My lord?" I asked Liam with some curiosity once I had overcome the shock of his sudden entrance. His eyes flicked down to the tangle of wool on the floor and then back to my face. He looked as if he was trying to find the right way to tell me whatever he had come to say. A sense of dread began to slowly creep over me. "Liam, what is it?" That caught his attention. I had not addressed him by name in moons.
"It's your father, my la--Laren. I'm afraid he, well, he's dead." My entire body went numb. I closed my eyes against the tears that I felt welling up. It shouldn't have been unexpected, he was hardly a young man, and his health had been flagging of late. Still...
"When?" I whispered.
"Not long ago," he answered quietly, stepping up and placing a hand gently on my shoulder. Somewhere in my haze I registered his kindness and was surprised. "His heart failed him, according to the note that Garrus sent." I nodded. Thank you, Garrus, I thought to myself. He would want to make sure I was told before the news spread throughout Pelos. "I've ordered a carriage readied for you," Liam went on, squeezing my shoulder. "I thought you would want to return to Jade to be with your family."
"Thank you, Liam." Again I was surprised by the kindness he showed me. I knew that he was not a cruel man, just a cold one. But I had grown so used to the frost that I had forgotten that there was warmth underneath for those he allowed to see it. I remembered belatedly that this was a sorrow he knew well, having already lost his own father. I almost asked him to come with me, but I stopped myself. Husband or no, Liam was not family. He would not be comfortable as an observer to our grief, and I could not count on the warmth to continue. "I will pack a bag," I said, standing up and moving toward my bedroom.
"Do you want me to send a maid to help you?" I paused in the doorway, looking back. He seemed uncertain, somehow. It was strange to see him so.
"No, thank you. I will not need to take much." The tears were starting to flow freely now, I quickly turned my face away.
"Very well, then. The carriage will be waiting for you in the courtyard when you are ready. Please give my condolences to your family." He hesitated, then added, "I am sorry for your loss, Laren, truly." The words were genuine. I bowed my head to him and entered the bedroom, heading straight for my armoire. After a few moments I heard the outer door to my rooms open and then shut as Liam left much more quietly than he had arrived.
It did not take me long to gather what I needed. I put my room to rights and then made my way to the courtyard. Before I got halfway through the manor Ballard was walking by my side, his face somber though he said nothing. He carried a small bag as well, I noted. I did not feel the urge to hide my tears from him. He helped me into the carriage and then climbed up behind me. I stared out the window in silence as we rode from the manor. Once we were out of sight of the House of the Stag, Ballard moved to sit beside me. I turned to him in surprise but he just took my hand in his, giving it a small encouraging squeeze. I nodded in thanks and scooted closer to him, taking comfort in the heat of his body. I laced our fingers together, leaning my head on his shoulder, and returned to staring out the window.
Despite the late hour, the House of Jade was well lit when we arrived. I had expected everything to be dark and quiet, but the manor was abustle. Staff were hurrying to and fro, cleaning furiously from the look of things. I frowned at them for a moment, but I realized it likely that Mother had ordered them to make the building sparkle from top to bottom in preparation for Father's memorial service, to give mourners and well-wishers the best final impression of Garvin of Jade. Ballard and I were led to Mother's solar as soon as we arrived. When I entered the room she rose from her window seat and strode quickly to me, greeting me with a fierce hug. She held on for several moments before pulling back. I could only look at her in shock. She had not hugged me like that since I had been six cycles old.
"Oh Laren," she said sadly, "he's gone. How can he be gone?"
"It is a great loss, Mother," I replied, hugging her back. I had known she would take his death hard, but this sudden affection toward me was unnerving. Perhaps she just saw me as the last piece of him that remained to her. "What can I do to help, Mother?" I asked after a moment. She inhaled deeply and let go of me, stepping back and wiping the tears from her eyes before returning to the window.
"The arrangements for the memorial service are being made," Garrus said softly, stepping up beside me. He had been sitting in the chair that had been mine once upon a time when attending Mother in this room. Garrus offered me a sad smile and a quick hug. "We will hold it the morning after tomorrow, and the pyre will be that evening on the grounds." I nodded blankly. It sounded like the standard funereal ritual for a member of the nobility. I wondered if Mother would be able to bring herself to put the torch to the pyre as tradition demanded.
Garrus and I stood beside each other for some time, watching Mother, who had resumed her perch in the window seat and was gazing out over her darkened gardens. I did not think she really saw them. The room had fallen into silence and I wondered if I should go to Mother and try to comfort her, but she was lost in her own thoughts and I had no desire to bring her back to the present place and time unless it was absolutely necessary. Ballard stood unobtrusively in a corner by the doorway and his solid presence was greatly comforting to me.
"It is good that you came so quickly, Laren," Mother said after some time. "You don't know what it means to me. Garvin would have appreciated it as well, I know."
"Mother, I--" I started towards her, but she turned to face me and held up a hand. I stopped, surprised once more by the smile on her face. It was a smile I had not seen in cycles, not since I had been a very small child. A flood of memories washed over me in that moment and it was all I could do not to break down sobbing in the middle of the solar.
"I am glad you are here, my child," she said again, "you will be a great help to Garrus in the coming days. But not tonight. Get some rest, dear. There will be much to be done tomorrow." She walked to me and placed a gentle kiss on my forehead, then turned me around and gave me a gentle push in the direction of the door. Tears were flowing freely down my face. I barely saw Ballard as he reached for my arm, leading me out of the room. In the doorway I stopped and turned back, blinking furiously so that I could see her clearly.
"Good night, Mother." It came out in barely a whisper but she nodded as if she had heard, that smile still on her face.
"Come, my lady," Ballard said gently, leading me down the corridor, heading for the guest quarters. We made it up two flights of stairs before I broke down completely, finally fully realizing that my father was really gone. "My lady!" Ballard exclaimed as I sank to my knees in the middle of the hall, sobs wracking my body uncontrollably. I could fight them off no longer. When it was evident that I would not be moving of my own accord any time soon, Ballard scooped me up and carried me the rest of the way to the guest quarters.
When we arrived to the room that had been assigned to me for extended visits after my marriage, he pushed the door open and looked around for a moment before carrying me over to the bed. I tightened my grip around his neck reflexively, not wanting to be let go. He sat down on the bed and cradled me in his arms as I buried my face in his chest, crying until I had no tears left in me. Once I began to subside, he reached up tentatively and began to stroke my hair, as he had that morning so many moons ago. The lateness of the hour and the heaviness of my grief began to take their toll and I found myself drowsing. When my arms began to go limp, loosening my hold on Ballard, he stood up and turned to pull back the covers, placing me in the bed and tucking me in. I was almost completely unconscious and just barely registered the light trace of his fingers down my face before he left and I succumbed to sleep completely.
I awoke the next morning to someone pounding frantically on my door. Before I could even sit up the door to the adjoining servants' room burst open and Ballard flew into my room, half dressed, a small pistol in his hand. The sight completely distracted me from the noise outside. My breath caught as my eyes wandered over his well muscled chest and arms. A wave of heat flashed through me, quite making me forget about the rest of the world. It didn't last, however, as Ballard looked around the room quickly, assessing possible threats. His eyes met mine and I blushed frightfully, which in turn brought a sheepish look from him as he realized his state. I marshaled my thoughts and cocked an eyebrow at him.
"Why don't I see who is trying to break down the door while you go finish getting dressed, Ballard?" Even in my addled state of mind, I knew it would do no good to let him answer the door like that. He hesitated for a moment and I forced out an exasperated sigh. "I highly doubt that anyone meaning me harm would have somehow managed to sneak through the entire household and then decide to announce his presence by hammering on my door."
I slid out of bed and he nodded, returning to his own sleeping chamber and pulling the door shut behind him. I was still fully dressed and my clothes were wrinkled, my hair who knew what kind of mess, but it could probably be excused by the reason for my visit. I opened the door to find one of the pages out of breath and just raising his arm to start pounding again. He glanced at me in surprise and lowed his arm.
"My lady! I am so sorry to wake you, but you are needed." Before I could ask what all of the noise was about he continued, "It's your Mother, my lady, please, my lord Garrus said to bring you to her rooms immediately." What little levity I had felt drained from me in an instant, replaced by a sense of dread.
"Of--of course." I answered shakily. I walked to the servants' door and knocked quietly. Ballard opened it immediately, now fully attired, his face still alert for any sign of a threat. "Garrus has need of me in my mother's rooms," I said quietly. Concern flashed across his face but he only nodded and slipped through the door. He followed me out into the corridor and walked beside me as the page led us to the other side of the manor. The dread grew to certainty as we walked, curling up in the pit of my stomach like a ball of lead. I knew what we would find when we arrived.
I would not have thought it possible for Garrus to look more sorrowful than he had the night before, but somehow he managed it. I waited for the tears to fall as I surveyed my mother's body, but they did not come. All I felt was empty. Ballard uttered a low curse and looked away when we entered the room, but I forced myself to see. She could have been asleep, if one was unobservant enough. It seemed she had prepared herself for bed, settled down in the middle of it, pulled up the covers, and then simply sliced open her wrists. I wondered if she had just drifted to sleep as the blood ran from her body, happy to know she would never again wake up. The pools of blood around her wrists were almost invisible against the crimson bedcovers until one looked closely. A delicate knife glittered next to her right hand.
"She left this," Garrus said, handing me a scrap of parchment that bore Mother's neat script. I looked at it unseeing for a few moments before I was able to focus and read her parting words.
He was everything. A double memorial service should not alter the existing arrangements considerably. The pyre may need to be made a little wider, however, but not by much. Laren dear, make sure they dress me in something suitable. Long sleeves would be best, I think, to hide the gashes.
That was it. No goodbye. It was not signed. I turned it over, wondering if maybe there was something more on the other side, but it was blank. I began to feel something then, but it was anger, rather than sadness, that welled up in me. How could she just give up like that? For the briefest of moments last night I had held out hope that in the wake of this tragedy we might get back something of what we had lost so long ago. Why would she give me that hope only to do this?
"Laren?" Garrus asked, concern evident on his face. He reached out and took my hand. I realized I had clenched my fist, crumpling the note. He eased it from me, smoothing it out. I was shaking with rage. Was this her final revenge on me? To rip away my family in one fell blow and leave me all alone in this world? Ballard stepped silently forward and placed a comforting hand on my shoulder. No, not alone, I reminded myself, never that. I took a few deep breaths, calming myself. The rage dissolved, the emptiness returning. Garrus was watching me warily, I saw. And not without family, either, I suppose. There is that. The tears finally came. I would not have as many to give for her as for my father I knew, but I was relieved to find them there, nonetheless.
"Perhaps you should return to your rooms," Garrus spoke up, gently grasping my elbow and beginning to turn me away from Mother's body. "I can handle the arrangements. She...the note...well, it really won't add much to what needs to be done."
"No." I said quietly, refusing to be turned. Garrus started to object but I held up a hand. "Let me at least carry out her last request before I go, and then I will get out of your way." He looked relieved, and stepped back when I walked past him to Mother's armoire. I opened it and studied its contents for some time before finding something I felt she would have approved of. "This one," I told Garrus, who was now hovering nervously next to the bed. "Dress her in this for the service and the pyre." He nodded and motioned to a maid, who quickly came and took the dress from me. I made to leave the room but stopped on the threshold. "I will go make myself presentable," I said, turning back, "I assume we are greeting sympathizers in the grand sitting room?" Garrus looked as if he wanted to object but stopped himself, nodding instead. "Very well, I will be there shortly. People will need to be told that it will be a double funeral. Please let me know if there is anything else you need me to do."
He nodded again and I left, heading back to my room. Ballard was watching me carefully, a curious expression on his face. I knew he had questions, but they could wait until we were alone once more. On the way back, I pulled a maid aside and requested a bath be drawn up, ordering breakfast as well. I had no doubt that Garrus was about to be overwhelmed by the full burden of his new responsibilities as Head of the House of Jade. I would do my part to ease the transition for him.
"My lady, are you alright?" Ballard barely waited for the door to close behind him before asking. "Perhaps you would do better to spend the day resting--"
"In seclusion, Ballard? I asked, interrupting him. I managed a wan smile and stepped up to him, placing my hand along his cheek. "Haven't I done enough of that?" His eyes widened a bit but he did not say anything. "No, Garrus and Adelyn are about to become very busy. At any rate it will be expected of me to represent my parents to those who wish to visit and give their condolences. Besides, it will do me well, I think, to speak with these people and remember what good my father accomplished while he lived."
"You knew your mother would do that, didn't you?" The question was very quiet, had I not been standing so close I would not have heard it.
"No, I didn't, but I should have. I was certainly not surprised. She...sometimes I think he was the only thing in this world she ever really truly loved." He opened his mouth, perhaps to reply, but closed it again without saying anything.
I turned to the armoire, meaning to gather up fresh clothing before heading to the bathing chamber down the corridor. I was stopped short when Ballard grasped my hand firmly as I pulled it from his face. His eyes said volumes, though he did not actually speak. I could guess at what he wanted to say though, and it took all of my resolve to pull my hand from his. Now was not the time for such confessions. They would come soon however. This time when I smiled at him, it was genuine.
"There should be a bath ready for you as well, Ballard," I told him instead of what I wanted to say. "Best if we are both as presentable as possible."
"As you say, my lady," he replied after giving me a hard look.
"You know, Ballard," I tapped my chin, frowning, "you really shouldn't be sleeping in the servant's chamber. It is highly inappropriate, after all. That chamber was intended for maid, not a guard." His eyes widened in surprise. "It is not as though I am in any danger here in my father's house. If that page has a chance to actually think about what he saw this morning, he might talk."
"Do you want--are you saying you would prefer I sleep elsewhere, my lady? The hurt in his eyes was hard to ignore.
"No," I answered after a long moment. "I really would not." I did not miss his sigh of relief. "I suppose there is enough going on that our sleeping arrangements can hardly be of any interest at the moment anyway. Even if idle gossip did somehow make its way back to Roslyn, she can hardly complain about you staying close, since she was the one who assigned you to guard me in the first place."
"I will try not to give anyone fodder for their gossip, my lady," he said in a strained voice. I sighed and squeezed his arm.
"It is not necessarily you I am worried about, Ballard." With that I gathered up my fresh clothing and left a rather bewildered looking Ballard staring after me.
The day passed by in a blur, but I somehow managed to hold myself together through it all. Garrus joined me in the grand sitting room, although he was frequently called away to attend to the matters of the memorial service. As I had thought, it was well that I was there to greet visitors. Most people dropped by with a hug or a handshake and kind words about Garvin of Jade. My heart was warmed at how many of my own friends stopped by as well. Sara came by briefly with her newest babe in tow. Beryl surprised me with a brief visit, and of course the House of Blades was well represented. Nathaniel, Madge, and Sebastian arrived late in the day. Sebastian nearly crushed me with his hug of commiseration. None of them stayed very long, of course, they could see I had a duty to fulfill and they let me get on with it. Just knowing that they were thinking of me, and that they would still be there for me once all of the other mourners had returned to their lives was a great boon in helping me to get through the day.
Many visitors were shocked to learn of my mother's death as well, though those who knew my parents the best seemed largely unsurprised. It saddened me that she truly felt she had nothing else to live for once she was gone. Occasionally I found myself wondering if I would have been the same had Liam and I come to love each other. Somehow, I could not imagine that ever being the case. I thought of poor Leana of the Eagle, who had loved Liam enough to end her life when she knew she could no longer be with him. Would Kara of Stars ever be in such a position? Unbidden, my thoughts drifted to how I would react to losing Ballard and my stomach clenched in fear at the mere idea. Still...he worked so hard to protect my life. No matter what there was between us, I could never imagine doing him the disservice of simply throwing it away.
The memorial service was very well done. I thanked Garrus for keeping it respectful without overplaying the sadness of the event. As Father would have wanted, his life (and Mother's) was honored by the service, rather than its loss being dwelled upon. Roslyn and Liam attended, though I had little chance to speak with either. Prime Vinnis himself was there, and he spoke briefly on my parents' behalf.
"Garvin and Carren of Jade have left this world to join the ranks of the Ancestors," he intoned in a respectful voice, just the right amount of sorrow coming though. "The deeds of their lives will be remembered by all of Pelos and the future generations of the House of Jade shall be proud to hold themselves to the standard set by the pair. They leave Jade in capable hands and I have no doubts their legacy will be a strong one indeed."
I was surprised at his participation and it dawned on me that with Jade's alliance to the Stag, Prime Vinnis had deemed my family to be one on the rise within Pelos. He was even dressed in the same deep--almost black--grey, traditional for the first week of a mourning period. It showed a great sign of respect for him to take on the mourning shade, generally only adopted by very close family and friends. Over the course of a moon, the grey of our mourning clothes would lighten week by week to a pale pearl grey to represent the lessening of the loss. Sometimes those left behind would choose to remain in mourning for an extended period, lengthening each shade of grey to a moon, occasionally even longer. I had no intentions of extending my mourning period. Father had lived a long and mostly happy life, I would not mourn him one moment longer than I was required. He would not have wanted it. As for Mother, well, she made her decision, and I would do her no honor by grieving that choice. I suspected Prime Vinnis only wore the funereal grey for the day, but I appreciated the gesture. It told those assembled that he viewed my father as a very important person to himself and to Pelos. Political maneuvering, certainly, but to the benefit of my family.
After a day of remembrance, my parents' bodies were carried out of the manor to the waiting structure on the grounds. A raised wooden platform had been constructed and doused in sweet-smelling oils so that it would burn hot and long (and mask the stench of cooking flesh at least a little). I followed the bodies with Garrus and Adelyn and the rest of the crowd came behind us, assembling in a loose semicircle around my parents. With Mother gone, it fell to me to put the torch to the pyre. I slowly walked around the structure, lighting each corner as scholars chanted the songs of the Ancestors, beseeching the crowd to commit my parents' good deeds to memory and to allow them to live on in that way for all of time to come.
The tears flowed freely down my face yet again, though they dried quickly in the heat of the fire. I stood as close as I could bear, holding my vigil all night, until the fire had burned down to nothing but ashes. As the night wore on the crowd slowly dispersed in ones and twos and threes. I vaguely remember Roslyn hugging me gently and telling me to take as much time as I needed as she left. Liam patted me on the shoulder and once more said he was sorry for my loss. In the end the only ones who remained were myself and Garrus. And Ballard of course. After the pyre I returned to my borrowed room and slept for two days, dimly aware of Ballard keeping his own vigil over me.