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Sorry for the Late, dear Questionably-Existent Readers
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Crossheart Hall
by Matt and Teresa Doyle

Chapter Ten

Corialuna's mind was still awhirl when she left the dining room, enough so that she almost forgot Valexius' bemused instructions on where she could find Jura. The servants' quarters were several adjacent suits of rooms where the south wing joined the center of the house, convenient both to the entrance hall and the kitchens, in between which lay all the busiest parts of the Hall. Tucked into the corners as they were, with only one or two side-branching corridors joining the major arteries of the house, they were efficient but unobtrusive.

The suite she was looking for was on the first floor, a right turn out of the central corridor, then an immediate left, then the second door on the right. As she navigated, Cori let her fingers drift over the smooth-grained wood of the walls. Even here inside the house, nearly every surface was still paneled in the same dark-stained wood that made up the outer walls, the doors, the rafters in the celing... it made the house seem like a living thing, to give it a more consistent sense of place and personality than she was used to. It breathed with delightful mystery, and now she knew that the Countess encouraged it to be so. She was all too willing to take that as an example, to take it to heart, and to really begin things properly, that meant that she would need Jura's help in picking out her room.

The second door on the right. She reached up and rapped on it, tentatively, and started in surprise when it was a deep male voice that answered from the other side of the door.

“Aye, come in.” For a moment her mind froze with the embarassment of having gotten lost, knocked on the wrong door and disturbing... whoever it might be. She considered, briefly, turning and fleeing back down the corridor rather than admitting her misstep, but then shook her head sternly, screwed up her courage, and stepped into the room.

It was a small, cozy chamber, floor covered over in a patchwork carpet of thick furs, with several large trunks in the room's corners, a great many cluttered shelves on the walls, broken only by two more doors. Across the room from her was a stone wall with one of the house's few chimneys set into it, and a quiet fire in the hearth. The only pieces of furniture were beside it: a rough wooden rocking-chair and two unevenly upholstered footstools. There was a middle-aged man lounging between them all- while he reclined in the chair, he had one foot stretched and rested on eitehr stool, and that made it easier for her to see just how large he truly was. If he'd stood, she thought, he would have topped six and a half feet easily, with his shock of brown hair, stiff and upright as the bristles of a horsehair brush, making him seem even taller. He wore a mustache and goatee that, like the hair on top of his head, seemed to explode off of his face. He was all awkward, rangy angles and corners, with knobbly knees, huge broad hands, and sunken cheeks between his pointed chin and sharp cheekbones. He looked up at her with an alarming lift of shaggy eyebrows, though otherwise his face showed only the mildest of interest.

“You must be the young Her Ladyship then,” he said, sounding as though he approved of the notion. “How may I serve, Lady?”

“I was looking for Jura,” she said, and before she could begin her apology he nodded and inclined his head towards the door on her right.

“She's sleeping, just now,” he said. “She was very excited to have gotten to show you around the house all afternoon, and to have another girl in the Hall, now. I expect you'll be glad of it too- meaning no presumption, Milady.” Without rising, he bent at the middle in a half-hearted bow. “I'm her father. Rolic Crossheart, groundskeeper of the estate.”

“Crossheart?” she asked in surprise, before she could bite her tongue. Commoners' surnames were usually based either on traditional family occupations, or named the town their family was from.

Rolic nodded affably. “Fifth generation to serve the family,” he said. “And Jura will make six, if she still loves this place half as much when she's grown. You made quite the good impression on her, curious as you were about everything. Not that she's ever stopped talking about the passages and exploring the house, but I don't think she once shut her mouth during dinner. I'm surprised half the food didn't end outside her mouth.” He cast a look towards the door he'd indicated, and the expression in his eyes was so soft that for a moment the wildness of his appearance was neutralized.

“She's a very smart girl,” Cori said quietly. “You're right – I'm glad to have her here. A better guide I can't imagine.”

“And you did enjoy the house?” he prompted, leaning forwards ever so slightly, his eyes sharpening. “And the Countess, you must have spoken to her at dinner – what did you make of her?”

She bit her lip a moment, not missing the change in tone, and formed her next words very carefully, again having to filter the sudden influx of responses and questions and reactions that filled her.

“The house is perfect,” she said. “Like nothing I've ever seen – I always dreamed of living somewhere like this. I'm a little jealous of Jura, getting to grow up here. All the history and the secrets of a place like this...”

“Oh, aye,” Rolic said softly. “Plenty of those.” He nodded and waited for her to go on, and she was struck by what a strange servant he made – asking questions of her, so casual in her presence, being deferential only as an after thought... but then, that made some sense, too, if he'd grown up here, coming from such a long line of family retainers. And she found she wanted to answer his questions, because the answers interested her just as much.

“I think the Countess is like the house,” she said. “Surprising and mysterious and.... very strongly herself.” She lost her train of thought for a moment, thinking back to the end of dinner.

“Why us?” she'd blurted, horrifyingly blunt and rude, startling Inarios enough that he choked on his blackberries a moment, while she felt her cheeks turn a brilliant shade of pink. “I... I'm sorry, Your Illustriousness, I mean, I'm so very grateful, and everything is wonderful here... but even with the plague starting to die out, there are dozens and dozens of children you could have taken in, a lot of them probably closer, or related to you, or...” she trailed off, mostly under the wide-eyed incredulous gaze that all of them were giving her – the boys, Inarios, Valexius, everyone but the Countess, who was studying her, fingers brushing her lips and obscuring whatever expression they were helping to shape.

“That's a complicated question,” the Countess said finally. “And as I've already said, my dear, your lessons don't begin until tomorrow. Think on it, if you like, and in time perhaps you can tell me.” She had pushed back her chair then and stood, nodding to all of them. “If you'll excuse me,” she'd said, her tone making it clear that they would, and left the room without another word. Inarios had followed suit moments later, leaving the room hanging under a pall of uncomfortable silence, in which she was aware that all the attention in the room was still fixed on her. That was when she'd asked Valexius where she might find Jura, and fled as soon as she had the answer.

Rolic's eyes were still fixed on her, waiting to see if she would continue, but the excitement that the mystery continued to leave in the hollow of her ribcage needed somewhere to settle, and anything further escaped her.

“That's an interesting way of putting it,” he said slowly. “Well. I don't mean to detain you, Milady. I'm sure Jura would be more than happy to see you tomorrow. Was there anything you'd like me to tell her?”

“Oh,” she answered, feeling silly. “I'm not sure. It's just that I hadn't picked out my room yet, and I was going to ask her for advice – I was hoping for a chamber with bookshelves, and with hidden passages or secrets like that, ones that she hadn't showed me yet, so I could find them for myself.”

Rolic grinned, a wide and alarming that practically split his face in two, it seemed to her. “Well, if that's the case, I know just the room that would have met with her approval,” he said. “Shall I give you directions, Milady, or would you like me to show you there?”

“Oh!” she said, reddening for what seemed like the hundredth time. “I – I think directions would do.” But with her mind working in such strange bursts, he'd hardly begun to speak when she realized she wasn't going to be able to retain what he told her. He saw the look on her face, and nodded.

“I'll take you there,” he said. “No trouble.” He stood “And we'd best get young Mister Crier to bring your luggage, if he can manage it all.”

She tried not to imagine what hue her face must be right now. “It's ... it's just one bag,” she said, and he blinked at her in surprise.

“Well,” he said. “No need to bother the boy, then. I know where everything was deposited. I'll just bring it up myself once I see you there.” He moved past her to the door with an easy stride, not nearly as gawky in motion as he was at rest.

As they moved through the halls, Cori realized reluctantly that she didn't know where the boys had settled. She was sure, given the look they had exchanged while splitting up, that Mavignel, at least, intended to adventure tonight, and now they wouldn't know where to meet. Perhaps she'd just go to the library and wait to see if they showed up. Or the room without a door... she grimaced a little at the thought. She was so intent on reimagining the parts of the house she'd seen today as they would appear in the dark, the way she was sure Tress would jump at the deliciously long shivering shadows, that she didn't notice that Rolic had stopped in front of a door until she nearly ran into him. They were on the third floor, and half the lamps had already been extinguished for the night. She wondered if the rest would stay on.

“Tired?” he asked.

“Yes,” she lied smoothly, rubbing the back of her hand across her eyes.

“Well, here it is, and I'll be back with your bag in five minutes.” He pushed the door open and then, without even lighting the lamp, retreated. She stepped in, squinting for the lantern, and found one just beside the blurred shape of the bed. She flung a shoot of magic at it, and the little burst of fire blossomed cheerfully.

The bed was a four-poster, its bedding a grey so dark it was almost black, and a half-open wardrobe beside it revealed a dark red quilt. She meandered towards it, trying to pay attention to making the bed, but before she'd fully unfolded the heavy coverlet, she had flopped back onto the bed, her breath recklessly speeding through her.

Bookshelves lined two of the walls. A window seat looked wide and plush enough for late-night reading, and the walls were panelled in such a way that she imagined each and every one of them could pop open onto a secret passage. The bed was relatively near the door, and the closer the room got to the window, the steeper the angle of the ceiling became, sloping downwards. She crossed to kneel on the window seat, holding a hand back to dim the lantern so that its reflection didn't inhibit her view.

She could see parts of the courtyard – the beautiful bare trees, the way the ice and snow spindled on branches. Two long icicles hung low outside the window, and in the lower corner she could see a frost-detailed spiderweb, perfectly preserved despite the obvious absence of its weaver. Her eyes closed – not in weariness, but in appreciation of the so-long-absent feeling that was building in her throat.

It was so, so very good to be home.

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Crossheart Hall by Matt and Teresa Doyle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

We're still looking for questions to stick in the FAQ!

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We're going to go through a full rotation of perspective characters first - Tress will be back by Chapter 16 or 17.


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