A/N: Thank you for the CC and comments. Though I've fixed a grammatical error in the prologue, I haven't had the chance to revise the previous chapters. I just wanted you all to know that I'm not disregarding your criticism. Thanks!
Chapter 2: A Fortunate Misunderstanding of Unfortunate Consequence
I found myself a widow. And while the title of widow was not to be respected, the title of Lady was one to be adored. So as I was both, I chose to follow a more optimist nature and reclaim my thought: I found myself a liberated Lady.
A weight, quite a heavy weight, had been lifted from my stony heart. The feeling of sudden freedom assaulted me to such a degree that I was overtaken with the need to sit. So I took to my chair at the foot of the collapsed tabled and stared at the mountainous backside currently pointing out the heavens. It was a somewhat disgusting sight only because the stew was so greasy a puddle at his face and his erect posterior was dampened by his excretions. Frustrated by the sight and smell of the room, I cocked my head to one side to think of a solution to my current problem. When this movement caused my hair to jingle quite uneasily, I began to remove the weighty decorations, depositing them to the floor.
"Peasleby?" I asked, because it was only polite. I sighed when there was no response. This would not do. A corpse is not something one can simply leave in the dining room. Especially if said dining room is in full view of the sitting room. "I'm afraid that I won't fair well in moving you, my Lord."
An outside sound stole my thoughts, and when I listened, I realized it was only the dogs I'd stabled for the day, barking for their night meal. When I was a child, I'd been under the assumption that lords and ladies kept their dogs inside at the table to carry away the remains of the meal. However, with my Lord, there was never any scrap for our skinny mutts, and Peasleby had said on many occasions that an animal under the table intimidated his hunger.
What a great beast an ill-fed dog must be to succeed at such a thing.
"Perhaps I could tie the dogs to you with a bit of rope and let them lead you away. I have half a quail in the kitchen to lure them." I stopped, running my hands through my fingers to shake free my hair. "Do you think that would work, my Lord? Is it worth a try?"
I huffed, standing to full height. "You are quite useless in conversation," I noted, "but I suppose I should do you the courtesy of cleaning you up a bit."
Knowing that the courtesy would be quite a messy one, I reached around to undo my outer dress. Several minutes later after much wriggling, I found myself out of one stiff layer and left in my common underdress. It was not immodest, an important factor because immodesty in front of the dead is quite unnerving, but I could move about quite a bit easier and the beige skirts wouldn't mind a bit of squash and quail grease.
A strange knocking sound echoed from the foyer. My wrinkled brow was evidence of the rarity of such a sound. When I at last recognized it, my limbs froze in place and my eyes widened. No—this simply couldn't be. We'd never had a guest at the manor, never. Lord Peasleby was very strict in his secrecy and every villager knew it. So I was certain that guilt had caused such a noise to exist.
Though, if this were the case, my guilt was awfully loud.
And gruffly voiced.
"My Lord, we bring word from Duke Leodin!"
The open foyer lay between the sitting room and the dining area. My husband lay between myself and the knock, and I knew at once that he would not answer his own door.
"Oh dear," I breathed. "They don't seem to be leaving, Peasleby."
Patting the wild hair on my head in an attempt to put it in place, I stepped to my husband, thinking at the last second to bend down and retrieve my spoon. I stored my little treasure in the front of my dress with my respectively larger treasures and proceeded to the main door.
Wide, dark eyes greeted me. It was a rather rude welcome, but I recognized at once that these men had been travelling hard and were obviously too tired to show proper respect. I felt an uncomfortable twist in my stomach when I realized that reminded me of the kind of men that came to my father's inn. They were soldiers of sorts, though not the kind who trained from youth to serve. Judging from their tangled knots of hair and scarred faces, their title was a gift of the colors they presently wore. They were mercenaries, I was almost certain of it.
They were most definitely not candidates for my true love, and I thought at once they would also not promise adventure. My ideals were quickly turning sour by the second.
"Are you a servant of the Lord Peasleby?" asked the first, a man whose nose had more twists than a river.
Though his voice was soft and kind, his eyes were narrow with suspicion. It occurred to me then that he perhaps knew of my husband's strange habits and his lack of servants.
I glanced past these two to see another pair of men patting their frothy horses and walking out to the stable.
"No," I repeated, swallowing down nervousness. From the heat radiating over my lips, I knew my face was flushed. I always blushed at the most inconvenient times. Like after murdering my husband, for example. "I am the Lady Peasleby."
"Are you well, Lady?" asked the other man, Dog. For a dog was what he smelled of, and he was as furred as a bird hunter. "You look to be in some distress."
My mouth opened and closed several times, and I wrapped one arm around my chest, feeling the cool touch of silver against my skin. It was then that I realized what I must look like in my simple dress and with my hair all about. With a firm frown, I took a step back into my home and threw a wide wave at the dining room, preferring to not speak a word.
Dog, catching the scent, bowed slightly before diving into the foyer and looking into the other room. What a sight he saw. He pulled a short dagger loose, circling the room with a quick eye. Nose followed suit, and I stood back, a foot in the parlor.
"The Duke feared something like this might happen," Dog growled, bending to check the Lord's open mouth for the breath of life. He stood again with a shake of the head.
"Watch your tongue, Doykes," Nose snapped.
It was, at this point, not hard to pretend confusion.
"Lady, where did they go?"
I sputtered without speaking, until my hand finally had a better idea. One finger gestured towards the hallway leading to the back of the manor. Nose shouted to Dog, or Doykes, as it were, and disappeared in a swish of cloak down the hallway.
"Do not fear, Lady, you will be protected," Doykes said, and then he too left out the way he'd come, calling out to the stables for the other men.
A moment of silence passed, and I was able to gather myself and look into my dining room again. My dead husband still lay where I left him over a destroyed table and shattered dishes. My hair jewels scattered on the floor where I'd thrown them, my outer gown crumpled on the floor like a collapsed drunkard.
"Oh," I said, raising a brow. "That worked out rather well, Peasleby."
The spoon tingled between my breasts, and I put a hand over my face to hide the smile it gave me. A good thing, I believe, because Nose ran back in through the back of the manor a moment later, a look of boiling fury on his face. His expression softened when he looked at my strained face.
"They are gone," he announced, his voice laced with frustration. "I found no trail to follow. But you are safe now, Lady."
He looked over his shoulder, seeing the large corpse in the room.
"Lord Peasleby was a kind man. The Duke will deeply regret the loss of such a valiant servant," Nose continued. "I fear the whole region will be at a loss without him."
"Valiant," I muttered. Sure, that was a word.
Doykes the Dog returned before Nose could continue his struggle to console me. The men looked at one another, exchanging forlorn glances. Obviously they had not found the bandits who'd attempted to ravage me and killed my husband. How unexpected.
Doykes went to investigate the dining room once more, tracking a good deal of mud into the room. As if excrement and grease were not enough of a mess. I sighed and Nose dared to touch my hand with a gentle pat of reassurance.
"They didn't take your finery, my Lady?" Doykes asked, looking down at the hair decorations I'd left behind.
"Obviously not," I answered.
"Then their motive?" Nose inquired.
Oh dear. I feared my moment was lost. After all, who would believe bandits would attack and kill without taking their prize. Before I could determine which exit would be best for my grand escape, Doykes spoke again.
"As the duke said. They came only for his cousin's skill, and, it looks, his life. We were simply too late." Doykes turned his attention to me. "And for that, I am greatly sorry, my Lady," he said.
Nose cocked his head a moment before shaking it with sudden doubt. "No. Why would they kill him before finding. . . unless." He touched my arm, drawing my attention to his urgency. "Did Lord Peasleby speak of any oddities before the attack? Any missing goods or broken latches on your doors?"
"The cheese," I answered.
Nose's eyes widened. "The cheese! What of it, Lady? Please, speak."
"It's missing, all of it."
Doykes released a hiss between his teeth that made me check my skirts for a snake. "It is lost!" he cried.
"Quiet," Nose snapped. He steepled his fingers, resting his lips against their gloved tips. Worry lined his face. He glared up at me with sudden excitement. "They did not kill you, Lady."
"Yes, I noticed, sir."
"Why?" he asked.
"I am at a loss?" I managed.
"What do you mean by this, Knox?" Doykes asked, looking as confused as I.
"Do you not see?" he asked his companion. "They killed Peasleby because there was another to decipher the code—a being a fair bit easier to take back with them."
"You mean the Lady?" Doykes said. "Why of course!"
"My Lady, then you know the code?" Nose asked. He took a step closer, and I found myself bouncing off of the door to avoid him. He noted my retreated and bit his lip, moving away. "My apologies. But we must know."
"I'm afraid I don't," I answered. It was odd, telling the truth suddenly, but I had a certain fear that I would be tested on the subject. It would not do to lie.
Nose's face fell, but Doykes quickly jumped forward, an eager expression on his face. So eager that I again named him Dog in my mind. Unfortunately, it looked as if I were the current bone.
"The labels, Lady, upon the cheese, could you read them?" He looked to Nose before I could answer, explaining himself. "Do you not see, Knox. The Duke prized the code as a grand secret, and Lord Peasleby knew as much. The Lord would never have told his Lady of its existence, but he may have taught it to her without her knowing, to insure that there was another to take his place."
"By the gods, Doykes, you make sense for once," Nose laughed. He sobered himself before he glared at me again with that anxious, black look. "The labels, lady, could you read them?"
"You mean the ones inside the wax?" I asked.
It was not but a few years earlier that Peasleby had taught me to read and write in the common tongue, but over the past few seasons, since his last return with supplies, he'd been teaching me another tongue. He called it the trader's language, but, at the time, he'd said that the lessons would help me to sort his cheeses.
Those damned cheeses.
The men seemed to hold their breath, awaiting an answer.
"Yes," I slowly answered.
Nose gave me a curt nod, patting Doykes on the back victoriously. "Then we may still have something to return to our Duke."
Nose slipped outside, whistling for his other men as he moved.
"Lady, you do your Duke a great service," Doykes said. His eyes shifted from the door to me again, and he cleared his throat. "We must prepare to leave by morning. Will you need help in packing?"
"Leave?" I asked.
"To see the Duke, of course, in Lestowin."
"Ah," I replied. And I turned to walk up the stairs to my quarters.
After all, adventure waits for no cleaning of squash or corpses. Perhaps if I had known then of my fate, I might have taken the back door instead of the stair. But who would have thought that cheese wax could lead to such a large mess? Why, perhaps, the Duke.
End Notes: So, if you're confused as to where the Duke and a code come into play, well, then good on you, because you should be :) Suffice to say, Peasleby was far more secretive than she ever knew.