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Chapter Eight - sorry for the delay.
rowan tree
Chapter Eight

The tour had started with the first floor, and quickly led to the kitchens, which had been a logical stop. Jura talked nonstop through the meal – about the household staff, the rotations of the county's guardsmen, the regularities of the household, the changes during the social season – while Tress and Mavignel sat on stools at the counter and ate like wild beasts. Tress, she knew now, had an excuse – he was still recovering from the weakness of the plague – but she wrinkled her nose at Mavignel, and Jura caught the expression and giggled.

Lunch, though good, was simple – cuts of cold chicken, large arranged trays of brightly colored vegetables, rich bread and butter. Jura reassured her that it was because the cook was so preoccupied with arrangements for the feast, but she didn't mind one way or another. She made her food into a sandwich, and Jura followed suit, her bright eyes carefully fixed on Cori, who soon gathered that the two of them were the only girls in the house. The housekeeper, a married woman with a son of her own, clearly didn't count.

"Ushtina went to the priesthood," the girl said, swallowing an overlarge bite of chicken and bread, "and Alasevra to the Royal Guards, but she was old, so I didn't know her. Ushtina I remember though, so even though I was little and she didn't pay me much attention, it made it hard when she left, being the only girl. I was thinking we could go to the library next," she announced, her tone hardly needing to change for the boys to hear. She set down the remainder of her sandwich and turned around in her seat to tilt her head thoughtfully at the boys, appraising their reactions. "It's big, by the courtyard, and it's on all three floors."

"That seems like a bit of a waste," Mavignel put in bluntly. "Why not keep it all together, in one of the wings?"

"It is all together," the girl said, unperturbed. "Each level has ladders to get the high books, and they reach up to the next floor."

"Oooh," Corialuna said appreciatively. Tress was trying to catch her eyes, and as she met them it was not difficult to remember why this announcement caused a mild apprehension: Lord Inarios was in the libraries, and it was clear that neither she nor Tress had a pressing desire to see the boy again. But they would have to see the library at some time, she consoled herself, and if the library was central then it did make sense for a starting point, and furthermore, there was no use in avoiding the Countess' son altogether. After all, his abilities – or lack thereof, as Mavignel seemed to think – might tell them something about why they'd been adopted in the first place.

The first floor of the library was a narrow ring of high shelves, the only break in them pointing towards the open space in the center of Crossheart Hall, which held the gardens. Out the windows it was evident at a glance that the grounds were beautiful and immaculately maintained even with the layer of snow that swept across them. Jura pointed out different sections, intent on filling up the quiet, and Cori quickly climbed up the book ladders to examine the higher shelves, but after a while Tress and Mavignel seemed to be anxious to get up above and she rolled the ladder to where one of the spaces opened in the ceiling. She clambered up and stepped over the protective lip out onto the second floor, helping Jura up after her.

This level was a broader circle than the first, off-center, stretching further away from the gardens. They waited for the boys, and then their dutiful tour guide chattered on. "Lord Marshal Valexius, when he's home, has Lord Inarios here for his lessons," she said, indicating an empty space partitioned off to the side. "There's a study space like this on each floor." She looked embarrassed. "I didn't show you the one downstairs."

"Oh, was Lord Inarios at his studies there?" Tress asked, clearly relieved.

"No, not today," Jura said. "It was empty, I didn't think of it."

"He must be on the third floor, then," Tress said slowly. "I'm sure we don't need to bother him. What else do we have up here?"

She showed them an empty cupboard cleverly hidden behind a shelf of mapbooks, a set of dusty primers for young noble children – "Different books for commoners like me," she said breezily – and an extra trapdoor up to the third floor that faded invisible into the ceiling if you didn't know it was there, which Cori took careful note of in case some day she was wandering when she oughtn't be and needed a quick escape. Then again, she thought, if the ten-year-old knows about it, I'm sure everyone else in the house does, too.

She was the last one up the ladder to the third floor, and Tress waited by the hole to offer her a hand out if she needed it, which she wouldn't have if the ladders didn't have little wiggling wheels on the bottom. The third floor was, again, bigger than the second, and the third study room was also empty. "Didn't he say he'd be in the library?" Tress asked under his breath. "It hasn't been that long. He couldn't have finished studying already."

"He'll be in later, if you want to see him at work," Jura said over her shoulder.

"No thank you," Tress muttered so that only Cori could hear. She felt the smirk on her lips and heard him snort under his breath.

The boys were bored of the library, so Jura kept the details down and then apologized for the rest of the manor's third floor, which she said was boring. There were storage rooms, a few unused guest bedrooms, and several locked doors. The third floor was just the center, no wings, and so before long they were heading back down to the second floor.

"We'll see the suites last, is what Lord Marshal Valexius said," the girl nodded definitively. "That way the footmen will The Lord Marshal rooms on the east, over here, but most of the rest of the wing doesn't house anyone this season." She grinned. "Lots of nooks and crannies and hidden doors between the rooms."

"Excellent," said Corialuna, firmly and with enthusiasm. Mavignel looked as if he might not be sure of that assessment, but they all trooped in room after room. Cori's favorite was a window seat whose front panel popped open onto a hollow space and a stairway, so tiny and narrow she wasn't sure she would even fit. Jura didn't remember where it led, but reassured her it wasn't anywhere tremendously exciting.

They had reached the end of the long hallway, and the door at the end opened onto a large room with several wide windows. It looked like a lounge, a space where guests might be entertained over tea. It was slightly colder than the others they had entered – perhaps because of all the windows – and the large sofas were soft and green with grey trim. Jura seemed about to pass it by, rounding the corner to the next stretch of corridor, but to Cori the couches looked too inviting to pass up. It had been a long few days. She darted in through the door, and, looking bemused, the boys followed.

"This is the quietest part of the house," Jura whispered in the stillness, following them in and closing the door behind her to demonstrate. "The Lord Marshal is out travelling so often – not that he's noisy when he's here – and he's the only one with regular quarters on this wing. Sometimes I come here just for the quiet." And the room seemed to affect her: she didn't look sad, precisely, but her body stilled, her otherwise-bouncing feet flat on the floor, her face smooth.

Corialuna sank onto one of the couches and closed her eyes. Jura was right: there was only the peaceful sound of four sets of breath, the steady inhale and exhale almost synchronized. One of the breaths shuddered slightly. She opened her eyes. The light sound had come from Tresselion, who was standing against the window, his forehead pressed to the cold glass. Mavignel looked almost asleep, sprawled on one of the wide seats, and Jura was sitting very still with her hands in her lap.

Cori kept her eyes on Tress, who didn't seem to notice the attention, staring out the window at the trees and the snow. She knew, quite suddenly, what he must be feeling – the strangeness, the newness, in such sudden wake of the loss of his parents – and stood to move towards him. He looked up at her as she took the first step, though, and his eyes held a bit of wildness in them, not grief but something else – frustration, perhaps?

"Is there a dance hall?" Cori asked, breaking the stillness. Jura looked around at her, blinking. "Some sort of room for entertainment?" The girl's face fell a little, but she kept brave, and Corialuna realized how it must have sounded to her. "This room is lovely, and I'm sure I'll come back to it often, but I'm just wondering about what it's like when there are guests here."

"Oh," Jura said, looked relieved. "There's a hall like that – I s'pose it could be a dance hall – on the other side of the house. In the west wing."

"Let's check it out then," Mavignel said, standing, the first sign of interest he had shown since the food was brought out. Jura nodded once and moved to the door, taking the handle and making to pull it open. It didn't move, and she looked back at them, confused.

"Did we lock it or something?" she asked, her face wrinkled.

"I don't think so," Cori answered. "Why, is it not opening?"

"Naw," Jura said. "Maybe it's too heavy for me...?" She looked doubtful, but Mavignel came forwards and grasped the handle confidently, pulling it towards him.

The door didn't budge.

"Huh," Tresselion said. "It sure seems locked."

"But it's not," Mavignel said, turning the latch-handle back and forth and continuing to yank at the door. "Here, maybe the latch is broken..."

"Let me have a look," Tress suggested, striding forward and touching his fingers to the door over the lock. There was a brief look of concentration, and the muscles in his hand spasmed once. His forehead moved into a deep frown. "No," he said finally. "The lock is where it should be; there's nothing I can feel getting in the way."

"An enchantment?" Cori suggested.

"Why would there be an enchantment?" Jura asked, her voice moving towards a whine. "Do you mean we can't get out?"

"We'll find a way," Cori reassured her quickly. Tresselion looked every bit as distraught as Jura, and so she smiled at him, trying to look confident. Of course they’d get out – if nothing else, they could bang on the walls and call for help, and she’d be mortified forever.

"Can you break down the enchantment?" Mavignel asked, his voice sour and flat.

"We don't even know there is one," Tress objected, and then relented at the boy's silver-eyed glare, "Yes, yes! Stars and ships, if there's an enchantment I can get it off. But it might take some time."

"Who would do that to us?" Jura asked, her voice small and wavering. The older children exchanged significant looks, but finally Tress, who was nearest the girl, shrugged and lay a hand on her shoulder.

"Don't worry, Jura," he said. "I'll get us out of here." He grinned. "I don't suppose you know any secret passages?"

"None in here," Jura said miserably. "Two in the next room. I'm sorry! Your tour's all ruined and it's my fault!"

"Not at all," Corialuna said as firmly as she could manage while keeping her voice calm and gentle. "We'll get out and keep on with the tour, no harm done." The girl's lower lip trembled, but she nodded. "Now, Tress – do you need any help with breaking the enchantment? If that's what it is?"

"No, I've got it," the boy said. "Take a minute and rest up some more. I'll let you know when I'm finished. This sort of thing can take a while."

She sat next to Jura this time, and let her eyes blink back closed. The quiet which had seemed so peaceful was now ominous. There was no one to hear them. She reassured herself that Lord Marshal Valexius and Countess Shadowcross would search the house for them if they didn't show up for dinner, but that was still hours away...

She opened her eyes again. The room was stiller and dimmer than before, and she realized she must have drifted off. Jura was curled up asleep next to her, and Mavignel on the couch across from them. She turned to her left, away from Jura, and realized what must have woken her: Tress had just sat down beside her.

"I tried everything I know how to do," he said quietly. "No good. I don't think it's an enchantment."

"Then what is it?" she demanded in a hiss. Jura stirred beside her, and Mavignel's eyes snapped open.

"Enough is enough," he said in a growl. "I don't know what's going on here, but I don't like it. We're getting out of here, even if that means –"

"They'll come looking for us if we don't come to dinner," Cori said, uncertain what the boy was planning.

"I am not missing dinner for this," Mav said. He stood from the couch and brushed past Tresselion to stand several feet from the door.

His hands curled into fists, held in front of him and to the sides, and he lifted them and slammed them back into place. Cori had hardly realized what he'd done when his body slammed against the wood with incredible speed and force. The huge crash that resulted jolted Jura awake with a small cry of alarm, but the reproach Corialuna felt melted in the disappointment. Mavignel had strengthened his body with magic, and he'd clearly thought it would be enough to splinter the door. He let out a roar – pain or frustration, she didn't know, although it was probably a mingling of the two – and slammed against it again, and then again. Three times was enough: chest heaving, face red, he stepped back and lifted up his hands palms-up, surrendering the strength back into the flow of his magic.

"Do you suppose someone will have heard that?" Tresselion asked hopefully. "Lord Marshal Valexius, perhaps?"

"I think it's too far," Jura said, her eyes still wide from the display. The room was growing dark, and it was certainly colder – the girl was beginning to shiver. Tress fished around in one of the small cabinets and came out with a blanket, which he folded in half and draped over the child's frame.

"Jura, I'm sorry we got you into this," he said quietly. "It must be us. Someone wanted to get to us. Someone who doesn't want us here."

"That's ridiculous," the girl scoffed. "Everyone was so excited for you to come!"

"Not everyone," Mavignel muttered, still slightly breathless, shooting a dark look out the window. Their eyes moved to him, but he didn't meet their gazes, and he didn't say anymore. Jura looked curious – about to protest, perhaps – but Cori and Tress didn't have to think twice to wonder what he meant.

She wanted to say, "You think Inarios did this." She could hear how she would say it – the flatness in her voice, the distinctiveness – not a question. But she didn't want to talk about it in front of the younger girl. There would be time later tonight, or tomorrow – if they ever got out of this room. And besides, then he would have asked what she thought – scornfully, no doubt, but a question she wasn't sure she knew how to answer no matter what tone it was asked in.

"If it's not locked," she said instead, "and it's not enchanted, then what's the matter with it?"

"I don't know," Tress answered, his face very serious in the blue shadows that were beginning to fill the room. Cori felt her teeth bite her lip and worry it anxiously, a very bad habit she’d thought she’d broken, and then steadied herself, trying not to glower. She was aware of Tress watching her, waiting for something – another question, maybe – and wished she had something to give him.

"Let's get a light," Tress said at last, firmly. Cori blinked and cupped her hand as if she was holding something in it, then flung it out, stopping after just a few inches, letting the invisible thing go. If it had been a stone, it would have shattered the glass of the nearest light – she could see the trajectory it would have taken – and sure enough, a light flew up in the lantern a split-second after her hand stopped. Tress grinned, looking impressed.

"Do you think there's something barricading it?"

"That would be a little too obvious, I think," she said, rolling her eyes. "Lord Marshal Valexius might notice that."

"But what if – maybe it wasn't on purpose," Tress muttered, looking away. "Maybe someone just put something in front of the door and didn't know there was anyone in here."

"That's the most ridiculous thing I've heard all day, and you know it," Mavignel snapped. He was still standing near the door, slumping defeatedly against the wall, but his head had darted up at hearing this quiet pronouncement, and there was fire in every line of his body.

The grandfather clock in the corner rang six times, its voice deep and slow.

"All right, both of you," Corialuna said, feeling the resolve take root in her. This was too much. It was time for dinner, and Mavignel was right, as little as she hated to admit it – Jura had talked so much about the night's feast, and they were not going to miss it for some prank. She had an idea, a stupid one, but being stuck in here was stupid too, and she was fed up enough to ignore her sense and try it. She stood from the sofa, feeling Jura's eyes on her, and took in a deep breath. "I'm going to get us out of here."

"How, freeze it?" Mavignel challenged, stepping away from the wall to stand between her and the door.

She kept her face calm and level. "Let me through," she said quietly, and he stepped out of the way, surprised, she thought, at the steel in her voice. She put the palms of her hands to the door and felt the wood. Felt the way it was held together, the way it clung to itself, the tiny pieces that made it up. She felt the wideness of it – the way it clung heavy to its frame – felt out further –

She was breathing through her nose, and she knew that her breaths were coming fast – she could feel the magic and the air pulling through her, and she held onto it as it escalated, pushed her fingers deep into the wood, and let it go. Her hand felt hot, then cold, then hot again, and she was intensely aware of her own pulse vibrating through it and then out – of all the forces seen and unseen in and around them, and how easy it was to pick out the end of a pattern and unravel it, just... so.

There was a moment during which she was not aware of anything but that deep magic. Then she felt Tresselion's hand on her shoulder, and heard the bouncing of Jura's feet, and the warmth which had come over her, and the fresh smell of the air. When she opened her eyes, Mavignel was in the bright space before her, standing just beyond the pile of ashes which had been the door, staring back at her with deep, unchecked surprise.

"Well done, Corialuna!" Tress was whispering near her ear. "Are you all right?" Her hands were still in front of her, lowered somewhat, and shaking. She smiled and stilled them, swallowing back the shiver she felt, closing her eyes for only a moment at how empty and unstable she felt.

"Yes," she said. "Jura?"

"'M okay," the girl said. "Lady Corialuna, that was – amazing, it was –" She seemed unable to grasp the right words, but Cori thought any manner of impressive adjectives would have fit. She had power, and she knew it.

She swept out of the room and into the warmly lit hallway, Tress and Jura behind her. She glanced back regretfully at the messy ashes – as a learned habit, she hated to leave a mess for someone else to clean up, not to mention how hard this would be to explain to Lord Valexius or Lady Shadowcross – and before she'd turned back to face forwards, ran straight into Mavignel.

"Hey!" she complained, but he turned towards her just enough so she could see the intensity in his eyes. Hardly moving, he indicated forwards with a small jerk of his head. At the very end of the long hallway, a dark-haired woman in a grey dress stood. Her head was turned, and she was staring straight at them.

Jura was chattering away behind her, the cheer and enthusiasm already fully restored. "– probably already served, I can show you to the dining hall, it's not far from where –" She finally caught their collected attentions, as she craned her neck to look around them. "What is it?"

By the time the girl figured out where they were looking, the figure had swept away.

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