“Alice!” Mother ran to hug me as we entered our house. Mother wasn’t the type to hide her affection, but usually she didn’t make much of a fuss when we returned from a trip. Why is today the exception?
I knew something was up. My brothers left me and mother alone and tried to blend with the wall, away from us. I glared at them over my mother’s shoulder. They avoided looking at me. At least, Aaron’s obsession with the Princess had lessened in the carriage.
It hadn’t disappeared though. That was what worried me. “Did something happen?” I asked as I politely pried myself away from mother’s embrace.
Mother hadn’t missed the fact that my brothers had tentatively stepped to the side, trying to get away from her. She gave us each a bone-crushing hug before talking.
“Oh… the news hasn’t reached you yet!”
“What news?” asked Alex.
“Countess of Ward is dead,” mother said somberly.
My brothers glanced at each other and then at me. I looked at them, clueless.
“Countess of Ward!” mother emphasized.
We looked at each other as though the answer was written on our faces. “Don’t you three know anything?! There were rumors about her, for heaven’s sake!”
“I still don’t know who she is,” I said since both of my brothers seemed to have lost the gift of speech.
Mother looked shocked as if we had just told her that we didn’t know who the king was. She dragged us to the drawing room where father was having tea with… guards?
“They are bodyguards,” mother said. “They will escort you wherever you go henceforth.”
“Bodyguards?” asked Alex, looking at mother.
Mother just nodded. “Do you know how dangerous Schway has become? We will leave for Wishburn with the guards. Alright? All of us.”
“Wishburn?! I can’t! The Princess…,” exclaimed Aaron and stopped as he saw mother narrow her eyes.
“Her Highness?” mother inquired.
“Ah… he means how can we the nobles leave when the royal family is here. What’s the matter actually?” asked Alex, intervening and saving Aaron from disgrace.
Aaron directed a grateful look towards Alex and looked up at mother again.
“I see that the news hasn’t traveled to Glouster estate,” mother said. “The Countess of Ward is dead!”
Ugh, mother. You already said that! Please continue!
My brothers and I looked at our mother with the same lost expressions. She sighed and gestured for us to sit down. She instructed the maid to bring in some tea and snacks. She also nagged our father to pay a little bit of attention to us, who had returned safely, from a long journey.
Only after the maid had placed a cup of tea each, in front of us, did she continue.
“Countess of Ward was murdered!” she said again. Alex and I exchanged a glance. Was it finally happening? Has the killer moved to the aristocratic neighborhood from the Underground District? If that was true, there might be even more victims than the ones the Grand Duke had recorded!
“I don’t remember who the Countess of Ward was,” said Alex, cautiously. We all looked to our mother for answers.
She gasped. Mother can be dramatic when she wanted to. “You don’t remember her? What about the Count?”
We glanced at each other again. This was getting repetitious. Mother let out a long, weary sigh. “How is it that none of you ever pay attention to the recent gossip? You should have some idea about who’s who and who’s done what in the noble society! The story about the countess was mentioned in One Week in Schway too!”
“Well, we don’t really read that thing frequently. Besides, we visit Schway very rarely, only on special occasions,” said Alex.
Mother ignored his remark. “Countess of Ward was known for her… flighty behavior. She was the most fashionable among the young aristocrats and was remarkably beautiful. She didn’t have an heir yet so she… spent a reasonable time with different men. At least five of her lovers were mentioned in One Week in Schway! Well, not being able to bear an heir was hardly her fault. The Count of Ward is over fifty years old. I don’t think he can… perform anymore.”
Couples with such a huge age difference weren’t uncommon. For every old nobleman, there was always a young, beautiful wife to be found. I almost barfed at the thought. These old men thought their children would be beautiful if they found a young wife.
When it comes to maturity, fifteen and sixteen wasn’t considered very young in this world. But a man deciding to hold off intimacy with his young wife for the sake of her age and her health was… considerate. Especially if the man was… big. God! Get a hold of yourself! I chastised myself. I couldn’t be found thinking about these things in front of my parents!