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"I told you already, dear. I don't take spirits. But I shall call upon you tomorrow night, if you choose."
"Oh yes, certainly. Most certainly. I shall—"
"I said, 'if you choose,' my dear. So consider your choice carefully before tomorrow evening." And with that, she was out the door. Nerissa shook her head. This quarry was going to take more cajoling than she had thought if she was to be persuaded to help the family. The woman seemed an open book, but Nerissa expected there was much yet to learn.
Standing on the front steps, watching the carriage depart, Nerissa realized how cold it had suddenly become. A bitter, damp chill seemed to cut through her, although the evening had been temperate not an hour ago. And that fog again—it appeared to well up from the ground like a living thing, drawing itself together for some malevolent purpose.
She turned back eagerly to the warmth and light of the house—and perhaps a cup of wine—when her thoughts were interrupted by a heavy, grunting shuffle, quite different from the soft creaking of Carlotta's carriage receding into the distance. Nerissa strained her eyes to make out details among the shifting and swirling tendrils of fog.
She cocked her head in annoyance as a large cart slowly coalesced out of the mist and lumbered its way into the courtyard, a driver hunched over like a troglodyte in the seat. What tradesman would be making a delivery at this time of night? And calling at the front door, no less. Did he think that because she had fallen on hard times, simple rules of propriety could be dispensed with?
"Madam Natoli, if it please you?" The heavyset commoner climbed down from the cart, pulling a folded parchment from his belt.
"Yes, I am Madam Natoli. What exactly are you bringing to my house at this hour?"
"Well, I'm afraid it's your husband, ma'am."
Nerissa felt her knees buckle as she made out the rude wooden casket in the back of the cart. Maurice rushed to her side, and she leaned upon him, her breath suddenly caught in her throat.
"Ashton? Is... dead?"
The man looked up at her, concern and pity on his hardy face. "Oh, by the fates, you didn't know? I'm awful sorry, then, ma'am. I wouldn'ta wanted to let you know like this. T'ain't right, it isn't."
He handed the parchment to Nerissa, who took it in numbed fingers. She searched for something to say, anything to break the breathless agony in her chest. "What—what of his possessions? Where are they?"
He scuffed his boots on the steps and shook his head. "Well, then, he's got everything he owns with him, doesn't he? 'All his wealth, a burial shroud,' as the saying goes."
Nerissa felt the color drain from her face, and the man looked about anxiously. "I'll just bring him around back, then, shall I?" He turned to climb into his seat. Nerissa nodded her silent assent and watched the cart wheel out of the courtyard toward the back of the manor. She realized she was still holding the parchment. She unfolded it and tried to make it out through the tears stinging her eyes.
The crabbed writing was difficult to read, but Nerissa could tell well enough what it was: a delivery bill.
Elizabeth, for once in her life, was inconsolable. Perhaps some sense of the depths of their misfortune had finally come home to her with the news of her brother-in-law's death. She had been a favorite of Ashton's, who recognized a kindred spirit in her gaiety and childlike embrace of life. Now, she sobbed so relentlessly that Nerissa was forced to rise from the morass of her own grief and tend to her. She brushed away the tears and thought of what might cheer Elizabeth. "Don't forget the Lancasters' revel, my sweet. You must still finish your costume. Why don't you find Maurice and have him help you cut some more leaves?"
Elizabeth had nodded and trotted off, leaving Nerissa to her brooding thoughts. She knew too much of demons and witchcraft to write this all off as a mere coincidence, but she was at a loss to explain it in any way that made sense. She felt a fool for imagining such things, but then, such things had certainly been reported in Westmarch recently. For an instant, panic rose deep inside her—this witch, this crone, had killed her husband. And now she was bringing poor Elizabeth into the bargain. What wretched fate could she—?
She shook her head fiercely. What mattered was that the old woman would be returning tonight, and Nerissa needed to have her wits about her if she was to arrive upon the fortune she knew could be hers.
"Madam? Madam? A guest..." Maurice was clearly unprepared for Carlotta to simply stride through the door when he opened it, and he trailed after her like a confused puppy, wringing his hands and calling out in the loudest voice he could bring himself to muster when addressing his mistress.
Nerissa roused herself from the bench where she had been contemplating Carlotta's arrival, and strode out to the balustrade overlooking the entryway and the grand staircase. Maurice still followed Carlotta, who mounted the stairs with far more vigor than her tiny frame suggested, her ebony walking stick striking sharply on each marble step. "Show her up, please, Maurice," Nerissa replied reassuringly, knowing with certainty that Carlotta needed no showing. In fact, the old footman would be doing well to catch up with her by the time she reached the chamber. But that was the type of polite fiction upon which gentle society was built.
After the briefest of pleasantries, Carlotta gripped the head of her walking stick in both hands and leaned forward in her chair. "And so, my child. The stakes..."
She let the word trail off like an indecorous proposal, and Nerissa steeled herself. She had given great thought to tonight's stakes. She stiffened her spine, laid her hands carefully in her lap, and spoke slowly and precisely, like a prudent schoolchild reciting a lesson. "Again, I wager anything of mine which you would have."
"That which has always been at your inmost core and is yours alone to give away?"
Nerissa simply nodded her assent. "For my part, I wish a dowry for Elizabeth. One sufficient that any gentleman in Westmarch might marry her."
Nerissa was taken aback by the sharpness of Carlotta's voice. And that gleam in her eyes... Was "hungry" the right word? No, but it did seem that the old woman's rosy-cheeked vigor had declined into something more like a crabbed determination. It did not suit her well, and Nerissa found herself disturbed by the extent to which Carlotta's demeanor had changed.
Carlotta silently reached out and, with one hand, cut the cards with an efficient grace. She glanced up at Nerissa, and the bright, almost feverish light shining in her eyes—nestled so incongruously in that wrinkled, doughy face—brought a surge of panic to Nerissa's chest. She looked away and bit down hard on her tongue to distract herself. Carlotta drew a card from the top of the deck.
Nerissa took her card and placed it before her. Carlotta did the same, and then each woman repeated the act until they had both drawn three cards. The silence hung heavy in the room. Carlotta finally reached out and overturned the eleven of lions, then looked up at Nerissa expectantly. Nerissa had a momentary urge to sweep the cards from the table, but she forced it down. Praying that her hand would not tremble, she chose a card at random and revealed the archangel of crowns.
"Oh, my goodness. What a lucky draw." Carlotta smiled and clucked her tongue in mock annoyance, but Nerissa was certain she heard genuine and vigorous displeasure in her voice. Nerissa was nearly sure to win now, and she relaxed. The only question was how to negotiate the exact size of the dowry once the card game was over.
Carlotta overturned the nine of crowns, and Nerissa answered immediately with the three of serpents. Carlotta hesitated for the first time that Nerissa could remember, her hand hovering over her last card.
"We could call it a draw," she suggested, her eyebrow arched, her voice honeyed. "What with the stakes so high, it would only be fair to give you one last chance to back out."
Nerissa was certain now that the woman was daft. With the second-highest card in the deck showing, Nerissa could virtually not fail to win. Why would she call it a draw? And who backed out of a card game before the turn of the final card? Horror seized her, and she wondered if the old woman was reneging on the stakes altogether. Perhaps she was in as much debt as Nerissa. Perhaps she never had a coin to bestow on the family, and this was all a mad game of hers. Perhaps...
But perhaps not. Nerissa would see this farce out to the very end if it promised even the slightest hope of marrying Elizabeth off. She returned Carlotta's smile of benevolent politeness and waved the idea away with one hand. "And deprive you of the chance to win? Never. You might have the archangel of stars there as we speak."
Carlotta looked down at the card as if she was considering the possibility that the deck's archangel of stars was truly beneath her fingers, then snapped the card over with such force that Nerissa jumped.
The two of lions.
Both women laughed, a well-practiced titter that trivialized awkward moments and reassured those present that decorum had not been irreparably breached. But Nerissa could feel tension drain from her body like a vile liquid, and Carlotta's free hand clamped around the head of her walking stick with a fierce grip. Her shrunken fingers hovered over the card, as if there were a way she could flip it again to produce a different result.
"Oh, my dear Carlotta. I'm afraid you gave me a bit of a start..." Nerissa began, but once again, the woman stood up briskly and made her way out of the room without a backward glance. Nerissa followed her, unsure exactly how to broach the subject of the payment of the dowry. She finally decided that if Carlotta meant to welch on the bet, there was nothing to lose, and if she meant to honor it, Nerissa was obviously going to have to bring up the topic before Carlotta made it out the front door.
"Yes, well, then, Carlotta. We should discuss—"