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The single word trailed behind the departing woman like a foul vapor, and Nerissa gasped. Carlotta wheeled on her as she reached the door.
"No, we should not discuss. You—you, Madam Natoli, must consider the stakes. And if you wish me to return tomorrow, I shall. But we shall not discuss."
And with that she was gone.
Nerissa watched the carriage clatter away into the night with a heavy heart. Had it all been in vain? Was this the last she would see of Carlotta, and had her fortune just been a cruel delusion? Nerissa clenched her fists. A dowry for Elizabeth. That was all she wanted. If everything else was taken from her, she could still show her face, knowing she had secured a life of comfort and beauty for her sister, who really had little to recommend her but her beauty, and no preparation for a life of anything but comfort.
She stared out into the darkness, half expecting a dowry to visit itself upon her like some miraculous apparition, and she shook her head and chided herself for such foolish fantasies. Carlotta was gone; Ashton was gone; the game was over; and Elizabeth would be forced to marry a vulgar commoner, if she could find even that. Nerissa mulled over her options and decided that another round of letters to the various creditors, begging their patience, could do no harm, and besides, she could think of nothing else to do at this point. She gave a last look out into the gloom, then turned back into the house and closed the door behind her.
"Maurice?" she called out, and the elderly footman appeared from around a corner.
"Fetch a lamp to my study. I have letters to write." She heard the bite in her voice and regretted it. Maurice was loyal to the end, and she should not let her disappointment turn into bitterness toward him. "Thank you, Maurice," she added, and he acknowledged this rare familiarity with a gracious nod as he shuffled away down the hallway.
Nerissa stood a moment in the entryway of the house, loath to actually sit down to the task of begging creditors for yet another extension, and decided there was no rush; she wouldn't be able to write until Maurice arrived with the lamp anyway. She felt curdled, tightened, and cornered, like an animal held at bay by hounds. She wondered if she just remained motionless, if she just didn't move, whether she could somehow put off the inevitable.
The knock at the door was so soft that Nerissa thought she'd imagined it at first. Then it came again, louder, more insistent. Her heart leapt, and she forced herself into composure. There was no reason to suspect that this had anything to do with her childish fantasy of a magical dowry, and no reason to believe it would turn out any better than had Ashton's return. She moved to the door as the knocking sounded again and, dispensing with protocol, decided to open it herself.
The boy at the door hardly looked capable of making such a racket, but he tipped his hat to Nerissa and ducked his head when he saw her, and produced a sealed letter from his pouch.
"As it please you, ma'am, a letter for you." She took the proffered letter and noticed the elaborate seal pressed into the wax that, along with a length of black silk ribbon, held the folded note shut. She offered a coin to the boy, but he fairly recoiled. "Beggin' your pardon, ma'am, but I'm not to take payment. Been paid already, haven't I?"
Nerissa smiled at his earnestness and held out the coin again. The boy raised his hands as if to ward it off, and Nerissa's smile faded. "No, ma'am, please. I have me orders." The boy was clearly in fear, and he backed away, keeping his eye on the coin as if Nerissa might somehow thrust it upon him against his will. Who had sent the child with such dire imprecations? What an odd thing to do. She tried to laugh it off, but her voice caught in her throat and would not come out.
Closing the door behind her, she examined the seal. It was a coat of arms, but one she was not familiar with. Someone from beyond Westmarch? Who could possibly have business with her...?
Dread climbed up from the pit of her stomach as she realized that she had no idea where Ashton had been these many months, and no way of knowing whom he might have borrowed money from. There could be yet more creditors, ones with family names behind them. Ones willing to send a letter a great distance to claim what was owed them...
Frustrated with her overactive imagination, Nerissa broke the seal and untied the ribbon. She opened the letter and read it, first with apprehension, then with curiosity, and then with trembling hands and a lighter heart than she'd felt in months.
A dowry. The impossible had happened. A dowry for Elizabeth. Nerissa blessed Carlotta and whatever angel in the High Heavens had sent her, and called out her sister's name.
"Elizabeth! Come here at once!"
Her voice sounded foreign, indecorously loud, almost startling in the quiet house. She read the letter over again, and there could be no doubt. This was the promised miracle. She had wagered everything and won the only thing she truly cared for.
"Nerissa, dearest, whatever is it?" Elizabeth came trotting down the staircase, clad in her ridiculous autumnal gown, leaves flapping and trailing behind her. Nerissa noticed that some even fluttered in her wake, dislodged by her haste, and giggled at the thought of Elizabeth losing her leaves like a fading autumn tree. She caught herself, disturbed by the idea somehow, and bestowed her most gracious and benevolent smile upon her worried sister.
"Elizabeth, we have had some very good news. Apparently, the viscount"—she looked again at the letter to be certain of the name—"the viscount Delfinus is a distant relation of ours. He has unfortunately passed away." She tried to make her face grave, but it was hardly worth the effort. "But before he died, he set aside funds for his youngest unmarried relations."
She paused to let Elizabeth peal with joy, but the girl merely stared at her, waiting for her to explain.
"A dowry, Elizabeth. You have been provided with a dowry. And a generous one at that."
Elizabeth squealed and clapped her hands like a delighted child, bouncing up and down in her glee. For once Nerissa did not see fit to try to constrain her sister's outburst. Her months of scraping, saving, and begging had finally paid off. Elizabeth was to be married, and all of Westmarch society would see Nerissa Natoli hold her head high once again.
"A dowry! I shall be married properly, to a gentleman." Elizabeth pirouetted, her leaves rustling madly. Nerissa restrained the urge to chide the girl—this was, after all, a moment of triumph. Let the child bounce and flit about if she had to.
"Maurice!" Elizabeth fairly shrieked. Nerissa winced at the volume of her sister's call, but before she could say anything, the girl had grasped her hands and was chattering at her, joy shining from her face.
"Shall he be a soldier as well? Captain Donne is said to be looking for a wife, and he is quite a handsome gentleman. Or a courtier, perhaps? Raymond Haston danced with me half the night at Madam Whittington's last season, and I think he fancies me. And Celeste says that there are several gentlemen from Entsteig coming across the gulf for Madam Lancaster's revel, and there's sure to be a suitable one among them..."
Nerissa nodded vaguely at the girl's chatter. There would be time for choosing a husband soon enough, and she smiled over Elizabeth's shoulder at Maurice, who hobbled as quickly as he could toward them, concern on his face, carrying the lamp in one hand.
"Oh, I must tell Maurice at once! I must—Maurice!" Elizabeth spun away from Nerissa with such force that she nearly collided with the old servant, who reached out a hand to steady the girl. Elizabeth stumbled away, her foot caught in the raveled hem of her gown, and grabbed desperately for the man's arm. She seized it, pulling him off balance, and the lamp crashed to the stone floor, flaming oil pooling between them.
Nerissa screamed and then caught herself. Elizabeth and Maurice stepped carefully away from the fiery puddle and looked to her like startled children. She tried to think, but for a long instant, the dancing flames mesmerized her. Then she snapped at Maurice, "A broom. Fetch a broom and beat the fire out." The old man hobbled off and Nerissa glanced around to see if anything flammable was near the blazing oil. She returned her gaze to Elizabeth, who fairly shuddered with excitement and fear, and Nerissa forced a smile onto her face. "It's all right, Elizabeth. Everything's going to be..."
She trailed off as her eyes followed the curl of smoke downward to the hem of Elizabeth's costume. One of the parchment leaves was smoldering, and as Nerissa watched, it burst into a tiny, bright, writhing flame. The fire raced across the parchment leaf and leapt to another, and before Nerissa could break the trance, a half-dozen were ablaze. She screamed in earnest now and hurried around the flaming pool just as Elizabeth looked down and saw the blaze for herself. Before Nerissa could reach her, the girl howled in pure terror and bolted away from the burning oil, fanning the flames into a conflagration that covered half the dress. Nerissa chased after her, but Elizabeth was in full panic, dashing down the hall ahead of her sister, screaming wildly. Nerissa caught her finally and held her, the heat beating against her face, Elizabeth thrashing violently to get free. Nerissa slapped at the fire with her hands, but it only grew, sparks swirling up around her. Elizabeth cried in pain as the flames blossomed in her hair, and wrenched herself away from Nerissa, who seized the dress and pulled with all her might. The old seams came apart, and the dress peeled off of Elizabeth, who collapsed on the floor. Nerissa leapt to her, beating out the flames in her hair, sick to her stomach from the smell of burnt flesh.
Nerissa had immediately sent Maurice for the healers, and to her eternal gratitude, they had not only come, but come quickly. They had labored over Elizabeth for hours, and they had saved her life, but not her beauty. Her face was marred by sticky red welts, which the healers told her would eventually resolve into scars. Her hair had been shorn, the scalp half covered in wet, gaping sores and charred flesh. One eye had been ruined, the brow dipping grotesquely over the empty socket. What was left of her lips twisted into an anguished, mocking sneer.
Nerissa had sat by the bedside until dawn, when the ointments and medicinal draughts had finally allowed Elizabeth to pass into a fitful slumber, and she had thought about her mistake. She had taken the old woman too lightly—that much was obvious—but more than that, Carlotta had undone everything Nerissa had tried to achieve. The dowry had been as much for her as for Elizabeth, she realized, and she ground her teeth in frustration. If it were only her, she would never see that horrid woman again. She would retreat into gentile poverty and lick her wounds, but she could not bear what had happened to Elizabeth. Carlotta had used her desires against her, and Elizabeth had suffered terribly for it—and would suffer the rest of her hideous life unless Nerissa could somehow undo what had been done.
Twice she had gambled for the wealth she desperately craved, and twice something terrible had befallen those close to her. The old witch was not going to trick her a third time. A cold and bitter certainty came over her, and she knew what she had to do. Tonight, Nerissa would be ready for her. Tonight, she would raise the stakes. And yet tonight, it would not matter if she won or lost.
Maurice peeked out through the chamber's heavy drapes and gazed at the street below like an elderly hawk. He blamed himself for what had happened to Elizabeth, and while Nerissa had done her best to reassure him, she could not tell him the truth behind the horrible accident. So he took up his new post like a soldier in the field, and he watched the street for the carriage they both expected. If he found it strange that Nerissa was entertaining guests and playing cards on the heels of two tragedies, he did not say so.
Nerissa forced herself not to pour another cup of wine and considered, once again, Carlotta's impending arrival. The thought had come to her that she did not have to play another game with the old creature. She could turn her away from her door. But that, of course, would not be necessary; she knew that Carlotta would only arrive if Nerissa wished her to. And she knew that Carlotta would arrive without fail if that was what Nerissa wished.
She listened to a distant clock toll the hour out over the town and shuddered. She wondered what decrepit warren the woman had crawled out of, and it occurred to her that what had happened when she won at cards would likely seem mild compared to what would happen if she lost. Whispered tales of bloody hearts ripped still beating from victims' chests came to her, but she pushed the grisly images aside; Carlotta would soon be here, and Nerissa needed her wits about her. The old woman was like some sort of demon who could be called up by the mere utterance of her name. Nerissa silently mouthed the syllables, imagining that she was summoning a loathsome, foul spirit from a festering pit.
"Madam," Maurice croaked, "there she is."