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Nerissa Natoli trudged through the rain-slick streets of Westmarch, the drizzle making the lights glow eerily in the evening's deepening gloom. Her apprehension was less about the creatures sighted of late in the city than about the unseasonably cold weather, the fog that thickened into rain just long enough to make the streets slippery and treacherous. Her rich wool cloak kept her warm, but the indignity of walking through the rain filled her with bitter resentment.
Just a year ago, she would have ridden in the carriage, attended by servants. Of course, a year ago, the creditors had not yet begun arriving at her doorstep with debts and unpaid bills, all in her husband's name. Ashton was a good man, deep down, she told herself. But gambling and drinking had laid many greater men low, and now he had vanished to fate only knew where, taking the last of the family's treasure with him. She could not find it within herself to hold his weakness against him, but when she stepped in an icy puddle, the sour pit in her stomach churned.
She headed down a residential street lined with ancient trees and elegant manor houses, and thought of the many costumed revels she had taken Elizabeth to on this very avenue—back when there was still money for new gowns. The street had seemed stately then, viewed from the window of a carriage. But the carriage had gone soon after the gowns, and now the trees looked black and malevolent, their old limbs writhing through the mist.
She had kept the horses as long as she could. They were a conspicuous sign of her family's station, and when she sold them, she could no longer make even a pretense of propriety. Walking through the wet streets like a commoner, she silently cursed her fate and wished once again that Ashton would return, his wealth intact, his weakness conquered. She was not one for indulging in fantasy, but she had little else to comfort her. She would find a way, she told herself. She would not have her sister die an impoverished spinster. The thought was enough to steel her resolve. Come what might, no matter the price, she would find a way.
Turning onto a side street, she saw her destination looming before her like a bleak and rocky cliff. It was, in fact, merely the comparatively modest house of one Vincent Dastin, a prosperous—if vulgar—merchant and moneylender, but in her imagination it towered above her, obdurate and forbidding. She eyed the front door with apprehension. A year ago, she would have sent a footman with her message while she sipped a fine Kehjistani wine in the carriage. Tonight, however, she walked the long steps to the door, dreading the shame of asking—no, begging—for the man's patience.
Nerissa reached the entrance and raised her hand to the knocker. She gripped the cold metal with as much resolve as she could muster, and let it fall against the oaken door, which swung open almost immediately on well-oiled hinges.
"Yes?" asked the plump footman who answered. Nerissa thought his cocked eyebrow a little insolent, but she checked her ire—she was, after all, here to beg for her house, and she suspected that her desperation was evident even to the servants. When she'd learned that Ashton had borrowed money against the family manor, she'd felt that her world had turned upside down. Nerissa had never before known what it meant to be in debt to another, never understood the sickening insecurity of bills that could not be paid, obligations that could not be met. But the house—the house was something altogether different. To lose the house would be to lose their refuge, their last hope of returning to Westmarch society. Her last hope of one day pulling herself out of the pit that Ashton had dug. Her last hope of ever finding a match for Elizabeth.
Summoning her dignity, she politely but firmly informed the man, "I would speak with Master Dastin." Almost as an afterthought, she remembered that she had not been preceded by an introduction, and added, "I am Nerissa Natoli."
The footman paused just an instant longer than Nerissa thought acceptable and then, to her shock, said quickly, "I shall see if the master is in," and closed the door.
This was really too much. To be left standing on the doorstep like a peddler or a common tradesman was an insult that Nerissa did not know how to bear. She resolved to have words with Dastin about the rudeness of his servants.
In the meantime, she thought back to how she had set out that evening, how Elizabeth had pleaded with her to stay and play at cards, and she smiled ruefully. That girl could be in a burning house and would only have a mind for dancing and gaiety. But in a manner of speaking, the House Natoli was indeed burning around her, and Elizabeth would suffer most of all: she was young and beautiful but absolutely without hope of a marriage unless her dowry could somehow be restored. Nerissa forced herself not to imagine the brothels and gambling dens in which her sister's birthright had been lost, but she could feel herself harden inside. Ashton was a good man, deep down, she reminded herself.
The door swung open again, and as Nerissa prepared to enter, the footman intoned with what could not be mistaken for deference, "The master is not receiving."
Nerissa paused, her foot poised to step over the threshold. Had she heard right? Was this upstart merchant refusing her an audience? Her blood rose to her cheeks, and she knew she must control herself. Making a scene now would only add to her humiliation. Her mother had often said that a gentlewoman could be told by the way she bore a slight, and Nerissa was not going to give this insolent servant—or his ill-mannered master—the satisfaction of behaving in anything but the most gracious of ways. She composed herself, said simply, "Very well," and turned gracefully on her heel.
The cobblestone streets were awash as Nerissa walked homeward, the rain falling in earnest now, the reflections of candlelight and lanterns dancing erratically in the puddles that she tried to avoid. As her anger began to wane, fear and desperation grew in its place. In the shock of the slight from Dastin, she had lost sight of what the affront meant. She had been denied even the chance to discuss a further delay on the debt. A chance to beg for her and Elizabeth's home. As dire as her situation had been on the way there, she realized now it was far more desperate.
Lost in her thoughts, she was startled by a sudden whinny. She looked up, the cold rain pelting her face, and realized she did not recognize the street she was on. Narrow, dark, and twisted, it felt like a damp forest, with unseen creatures lurking just out of sight. Nerissa knew the best avenues and boulevards of Westmarch quite well, but this crooked alleyway was menacing in its unfamiliarity.
She turned, trying to find the source of the noise, and heard it again, along with the rattle of carriage wheels. Cursing the fog, Nerissa looked about her, not sure if she was more unnerved by the unseen carriage or the dingy street. With a jolt, a coal-black horse reared before her, the reins jerked sharply back. Nerissa nearly fell to her knees, but suddenly the beast was calm, and the handler gazed down on her as if nothing had happened.
She wasn't familiar with the handler's livery, but the cut of it was out of fashion by a generation at least. She ducked her head again, the shame of her position burning all the hotter in the face of old, respected gentility, but she turned abruptly when she heard her name.
The voice was elderly, soft, and gentle, but completely unfamiliar. Nerissa approached the carriage's open window, the wooden panel drawn back by a delicate, arthritic hand, and she tried to make out a face in the gloom.
"Don't just stand there, my dear girl. Get out of the rain. You must be soaked. Nathaniel, open the door."
The handler leapt down with deferential grace, and the door swung silently open to her. Nerissa thanked him with a superior nod and stepped into the carriage, too puzzled to feel her shame, and frankly quite thankful to be out of the rain.
As she eased herself onto the wooden bench, her eyes began to adjust to the gloom, and she made out a plump, wrinkled face, an abundance of white curls, and a body shrunk by age to almost child-size. She racked her brain for the woman's name, but could produce nothing. Not the slightest glimmer of recognition for this woman who obviously knew her and who, unlike increasingly significant portions of Westmarch society, was willing to extend a hand of kindness to her.
"I'm dreadfully sorry," she finally stammered as the woman gazed upon her with benevolence, "but you seem to have me at a disadvantage. I cannot for the life of me remember where we've met."
The woman smiled indulgently and patted Nerissa's chilled arm with a hand that felt like dried parchment. "Not to worry, dear. We haven't met, so I'm not surprised you don't remember it." She smiled more broadly as Nerissa's bafflement spread across her face, and continued. "I'm a very old friend of your family, and I've been keeping a bit of an eye on you."
Did she wink? Nerissa couldn't be sure. But her breath caught in her chest as she suddenly imagined the woman to be a long-lost dowager aunt with a small fortune to lavish on Nerissa and Elizabeth. She was instantly appalled at such a thought, but with disaster looming so near, anyone who looked remotely like a savior was someone to be handled with the utmost care.
"Keeping an eye on me? Then—then you know..." Nerissa trailed off with a tactful wave of her hand, indicating her family's spiral toward penury, best left unspoken in polite company. The old woman gave the barest of nods.
"Yes, dear. I'm afraid I do. And as odd as it may seem..." Here, she gazed out the window at the driving rain and paused before she finished with an oddly disconcerting fixity in her eyes. "I may have a solution to your, shall we say, situation."
Nerissa struggled to keep her face a polite blank, but her heart leapt in anticipation. She was still baffled by the old woman's identity, but now the prospect of her being a savior was both real and immediate. She chose her words carefully.
"A possible solution, dear. That is, well... Do you play cards?"
Nerissa thought this a rather inopportune non sequitur, but nodded in the affirmative. In fact, she was well known across Westmarch as one of the sharpest hands in the city. She had never succumbed to the gambling fever as Ashton had, but she had emptied the purses of more than one social rival in a "friendly" game of Destiny or Wild Geese. Did the old woman know that? Was she challenging her to a game? Nerissa hardly knew what to think. Ashton had wagered against the family property and lost; could she win it back in the same way? She felt almost giddy with the possibility, but merely smiled and said, "Yes. Yes, I do play cards."
Stepping from the carriage at her own gate, Nerissa noted thankfully that the rain had ceased. In fact, the clouds had scudded from the sky, and thousands of stars shone down upon the night-clad city. She turned back suddenly, catching the door before it closed.
"I'm dreadfully sorry, but I still don't know your name."
"Oh, how foolish of me. I never did tell you. My name is Carlotta."
"Very well, then, Carlotta. I shall expect you tomorrow evening. Are you certain you won't dine with us before we play?"
"Very certain, my child. I prefer to dine alone." And with that, she closed the door, slid the wooden panel shut, and the carriage lurched away into the street.
Her head spinning, Nerissa climbed the steps to her front door. The old woman was probably sitting upon a small fortune and just looking for an excuse to share it with Nerissa and Elizabeth. Of course, the game was just a polite fiction, a social nicety to avoid the appearance of charity. Or perhaps Carlotta was in earnest, and was more interested in a high-stakes game of cards than in Nerissa's well-being. So be it, then. She had certainly heard of—and seen—more eccentric behavior among the old and wealthy of Westmarch. If Carlotta wanted a game, Nerissa was more than willing to provide it.
The next evening, as the gloom of twilight gathered about the house, Nerissa hovered anxiously in her private chamber. What if Carlotta was as daft as she seemed, and completely forgot about the appointment? What if it was all a cruel joke of some sort? What if...?