"I believe someone means to murder me," said the Countess.
At this statement, Elinge raised an eyebrow. "What ever would make you believe that?"
"I received a warning message." She drew a small paper from the folds of her dress. "This arrived for me two days after I had my dream. It was marked by the Post in Ayrst, so it must have been written before the dream, yet the note seems to have anticipated the dream."
"How so? May I have a look?" Amelia handed the brief to Elinge.
"Please, read it aloud. The others may as well hear it."
They are not to be trusted. They will send you to The Dream.
Your only hope is in your Count's blood. Do not forsake the blood.
Beware the Willow and the Ash. They will be your End.
"To whom have you spoken of your dream?" asked Elinge, furrowing her brows.
"Before tonight, only to Nansi. Though in this house, I suppose Rikard or the twins may have overheard. One can never be sure one is alone in LaDuce Manor. The place is riddled with secrets, passages and spider-holes. There's really no telling what the children may have uncovered."
"So you've brought us here to investigate, and to protect you."
"Precisely. And I've already arranged for your fees to be paid two weeks in advance."
"What if I don't want the job?" asked Mr. Insel.
"Nonsense. You'll take the job. It's clear that Ms. Froske is intrigued, and I know where she goes, you'll follow."
Mr. Insel pursed his lips. Elinge put a hand on his shoulder and whispered something in his ear, after which he sighed and crossed his muscular arms. "All right. We're here. We may as well see what we can find. But what about those two?" He nodded towards the hunter and the Dreamer.
Amelia smiled. "Owerst Nandliss will help out of a sense of duty, as much as adventure. I suspect Master Trammer would remain for the sake of learning of the nature of my dreams. It's only you and Mistress Froske that I expect I would have to pay. However, I will pay you all the same. I think the four of you will do as well or better than any four people could."
"If I'm to investigate," began Elinge, "I'll need full run of the house and grounds. And I'll need to be able to question anyone and expect truthful answers without reservation."
"You will have all of those, with one exception. I need my rest. You are welcome into my personal chambers, should you need access, but you will make arrangements beforehand."
"You do realize, Amelia, that such a condition immediately puts you in a suspicious light."
"Of course I do, but you surely don't expect me to plan my own murder, do you? Besides, I am the Mistress of this Estate, and when I wish to rest, I simply will not be disturbed."
"Then I don't suppose you'd mind if I examined your chambers now, as you're clearly not using them for rest at the present moment."
"Please feel free." Amelia waved a dismissive hand. "We can all adjourn to my chambers now, if you wish." She began to rise, before Elinge stopped her.
"That won't be necessary, Amelia. But I want you to know that once you've engaged my services, I won't be called off, no matter what I find."
"That is why I chose you, Ms. Froske."
"Well, that's settled then. We're in. And please, Amelia. If we're to be friends as you say, call me Elli."
Owerst Nandliss rose and bowed to the Countess. "I am humbly at your service, Madam Countess. I consider it an honor to assist you."
"Thank you, Owerst."
He took his seat again.
"And you, Merrik Trammer ... will you assist me, as well?"
"Of course I will." The dreamer bowed his head where he sat.
"Very well. Now, I expect you'll have some questions for me. I'll answer what I can tonight, and you can begin your investigations properly in the morning."
Merrik Trammer began by stating that he hoped to find his first answers in sleep. Aerik Nandliss claimed that his answers would be found in examining the grounds by the light of day. Mr. Insel, as was his way, kept quiet. Only Elinge felt the need to ask questions immediately.
"Tell me, Amelia, do you travel the grounds very much any more? Or, more to the point, when was the last time you went outside?"
"Well, no, I don't really travel the grounds much. I doubt I could sit a horse for more than fifteen or twenty minutes without paying dearly for it later. I do spend evenings on the back terrace when the weather allows it. In fact, I spent an evening out there just last week. I'd like to get a few more evenings out there before the weather turns. I sometimes walk the gardens, though slowly. Other than that, I do not see the grounds, except at a distance or through a window."
"Who else do you have working here, aside from Nansi and Rikard?"
"No one, in the ordinary course of things. Many of the rooms are now shut up, as I have no use for them. The twins have the run of the place, except for the servants' quarters. We have some workers currently staying out at the garden house, but they're here only for as long as it takes to clear the wood, and they don't come up to the manor house."
"Who hired them?"
"I had Rikard do the hiring. He deals with the grounds. And Nansi takes care of the cooking and cleaning. The children help her when she can catch them."
"I notice you refer to the twins as children. They are small, I admit, but I understand they're in their twenties."
"Yes, well at my age you almost seem a child, Elli!" The old woman laughed. "But you are right. I suppose they are adults now. I've raised them as my own, however, and see them almost as my own children – especially since Elinora's Passing."
"What about Rikard?"
"What about him?"
"He was of an age with your daughter. And you say his mother Passed into The Dream near the same time as she did. Do you not see him as your own, as well?"
"No, I do not. He knew his true mother, if not his father. What has any of this to do with anything?"
"Probably nothing, Amelia. But I like to get to know an environment very well – most especially the people in it and their relationships to one another – before I begin an investigation."
"Yes, well Rikard has served me well enough since he's grown, I suppose, but as I said earlier, he needs minding, or he'd probably only lie about and get drunk every day."
"And what about Nansi? How long has she been in your service?"
"She's been here for … oh, I suppose seventeen or eighteen years. She was here during the Uprising, I remember that."
"How old is she?"
"So she's older than Rikard by, what? Six years?"
"Yes, that's about right. She would have been about sixteen when she came to work here … Rikard would have been ten and Elinora nine."
"So Nansi would have known Rikard's mother … what did you say her name was?"
"Livinia. And yes, they would have worked together for about four years before Livinia Passed."
"And what was the cause of Livinia's passing?"
"The Doctor said it was failure of her heart."
"And she was how old?"
Amelia sighed with exasperation. "She was thirty-eight, I believe. What does it matter? Must you continue with these pointless questions?"
"Please pardon me Countess, but I must reiterate that if I'm to conduct this investigation I must be able to expect answers – honest answers, mind you – to any questions I care to pose, no matter how irrelevant they may seem."
"Fine then. How many more will there be?"
"Many, many more. But, I'm nearly done for tonight. Just a few more, if you'd be so kind?"
"Go on, then!"
"And when Livinia had passed, how long had it been since the Count had Passed into The Dream?"
"So she was thirty-two then. Rikard was eight. And the Count … what? Thirty-six?"
"Yes. You are correct on all their ages. And Elinora was seven, as I'm sure you'll ask that next. Jens and Jessa would have been about four or five, though, as I said, we're somewhat uncertain of their age."
"And you, Countess. How old were you when your Count Passed?"
"I was forty-eight. I was twelve years his senior. I'm now sixty-seven. Now is there or is there not a point to these incessant questions?"
"Just background, Countess. It's all just background."
"Well, I hope it helps, because it's quite tiresome, if you ask me."
"My apologies, Amelia. One last question about Livinia, if you would be so kind … you made mention of her practice of visiting the village. Do you believe she had a specific gentleman she called on there? Or do you think her dalliances were of a more … diverse nature?"
"I wouldn't know, I'm sure. I never asked her about what she did in her own time. I just know that it wasn't too long after she started visiting there that she discovered she was with child – and less than a year from then that he was born."
"I see. Well, thank you for your patience, Amelia. I'm sorry to have burdened you. I assure you I wouldn't have done so if it weren't necessary."
"I wouldn't go so far as to call it a burden, Elinge. I just don't understand the point. If you're quite finished?"
"Yes well, for tonight, at least."
"Of course. What about the rest of you? Do any of you feel like pestering a tired old woman with questions about her painful past?"
The others all looked sullen. Elinge sat back in her chair, lost in thought.
"Very well, then. If you don't mind, I wish to retire. You can all see yourselves to your rooms, I trust?"
With that she rose and left her guests in the dining hall.
With that she rose and left her guests in the dining hall.