Elinge was interested to note that Rikard's rooms were kept locked. Once again she reminded herself and Mr. Insel that they had been given permission to examine all of the house except for the Countess's chambers.
The room was disheveled, with articles of clothing and various papers lying about as if they'd been tossed around at random. There were plates and bowls with sticky – even moldy – bits of food clinging to them. There were a number of empty wine and liquor bottles tossed into the mix. In short, Rikard appeared to live like a pig.
"Eugh. How do men live like this, Mr. Insel?"
"Not all men do, Miss," the big man replied. "Mostly those as have no female companionship, I expect."
"It's disgusting. I'm surprised the countess allows such filth in her house. Then again, it's unlikely she's visited these rooms in years. If ever."
"I'd say likely not."
There was a large window in the room, but the drapes were pulled over it, so very little light came in. Elinge walked over and pulled the drapes apart. The shutters outside the window were closed, as well.
"Get a light on, would you, Mr. Insel?"
"Surely." He went to a dressing table where a lamp stood. He pulled the chimney off and began striking a light.
Meanwhile Elinge examined the room as best she could in the darkness. She pulled a small wooden blackjack from a hidden pocket beneath her belt and began pushing the odd bits of laundry, playing cards and dishes about.
"I don't think he'll notice much if we disturb things just a bit."
"You're probably right, Miss Froske." Insel lifted the lit lamp, allowing them to see. A few flies buzzed around the room now.
Elinge got down on her knees and looked under Rikard's unmade bed. Insel began opening drawers and tapping them looking for false bottoms.
"You think he's that secretive, Mr. Insel?"
"One never knows, Miss. People don't generally lock their doors excepting they have something to protect – or hide."
Under a pile of clothing at the foot of the bed Elinge uncovered a small trunk with an iron padlock.
"He may not be so sneaky as all that, you know. He might just put too much faith in locks." She set about picking the padlock and after a few seconds had the chest open. Inside were several books which, upon examination, proved to be account logs detailing supplies purchased for the manor. Knowing she might not have much time, Elinge only gave them a cursory look, but she found nothing out of the ordinary. "Just a registry of supplies – items bought and sold: food, tools, cloth. Nothing unusual here."
"Did you tap the bottom, Miss?"
"Not yet." She did so. There was a dull sound sound of metal pieces jingling. "Sounds like coins." She placed the books on the floor and pulled the bottom out of the chest to reveal a leather sack full of gold and silver coins.
"Looks like he's been saving his wages, would you say, Miss Froske?"
"Perhaps," she replied thoughtfully. "Or perhaps he's making some money on the side. The countess seems to think he drinks most of his wages away, and considering the condition of this room, I'm inclined to agree with her."
"So you think these coins have a different source."
"Likely. There must be hundreds of marks here ... no: thousands."
"It's no wonder he keeps the room locked then."
"Indeed." She replaced the sack and false bottom, as well as the ledger books. "I wonder, though ... is that all he's hiding? Or might there be a clue to the source of all this wealth?"
"You know, Miss Froske, I just had a thought."
"And what thought is that, Mr. Insel?"
"Do you remember that thief in Uhl?"
"I could hardly forget. He nearly sent me into The Dream when he tried to drive that wagon team over me. As I recall, it was your quick action that saved me. But I expect you have another reason bring it up other than to remind me of one of the several times you've saved me from danger."
"I do at that, Miss." The big man grinned widely. "Though I do like to remind you from time to time that you tend to take unnecessary risks."
"Yes, yes. But the point, Mr. Insel. Please get to it."
"Well, you may recall that the fellow would keep a false hiding place that he would allow to be discovered –"
"So anyone searching for evidence on him would stop once the place was revealed."
"And would keep a greater amount of treasure in an even more secure place, yes."
"Why, Mr. Insel, you really do think Rikard is a devious one, don't you?"
"As I said: One never knows." He stepped over to the chest and pushed it out of the way. Where it had sat they discovered a pair of loose floorboards. Once lifted, the floorboards revealed a small wooden jewelry box.
"Your suspicions appear to be confirmed, Mr. Insel. Remind me never to try hiding anything from you, sir."
"You'll never have need, Miss." The big man grinned again.
The box contained numerous letters. The first one she examined was signed "Your Loving Servant, Livinia" and addressed to Viktor.
"I'll want time to look these over. I doubt Rikard will notice them missing if we return them soon." She stuffed the letters in her pouch and put the box back in the space under the floor.
They replaced the floorboards and pushed the chest back in place. Elinge covered the chest with the dirty laundry that had previously covered it. Insel put the lamp out and they stepped out of the room. Elinge looked it over quickly to see that all was in order - or, rather out of order in the same way as when they'd first entered. She then re-locked the door with her picks and they returned to Elinge's room in the other wing of the manor.
Once there, Mr. Insel stood with his back to the door as Elinge sat on the bed and spread the letters out before her. She began sorting through them and reading them quietly.
My Darling Viktor,
How I long to once again be in your arms. Every moment we spend
apart is agony. Only your touch can heal this longing pain inside me.
When can you get away to town again?
Your Loving Servant,
"Many of them go on like this. Simple love notes between a couple who are hiding their passion from others."
"I expect that's at least part of the pleasure in a relationship like that."
"You expect so, Mr. Insel? I believe in many cases such as this the forbidden nature is the source of nearly all of the excitement. People can be strange that way."
"As you say, Miss."
"If not, why risk writing notes such as this? Surely they'd have had opportunities to speak privately. These notes simply heighten the thrill – they increase the risk of being caught."
"I suppose you're right at that."
"Very few of these are dated, and the ones that are omit the year.
"You think they might be forgeries?"
"It's always a possibility, though I doubt it. Oh look here's one addressed to Rikard."
My Dear Rikard,
I am sorry to have to be away from you these long weeks. As long as the
Countess insists on traveling, I must attend to her. I suspect she has been
taking these trips just to keep your father and me apart. She cannot stand
the love that Viktor and I share, and it shames her even more that our
love has spawned a beautiful boy such as you. She feels her own
daughter is threatened by your very existence.
You must remember that even though Elinora is your sister, and you
must look after her, you can not let her know this. For now we must
protect your birthright. If that means keeping quiet about our true family
until the old crone is dead, then that is what we shall do. I hope it will not
come to that point, though. Viktor has promised me that as soon as his
commission comes from the king he will be fully invested in his portion
of the Astra estates and that he can then safely come out into the open
about or love and your paternity.
I'll see to it that you inherit the LaDuce name and titles. And then we can
be a real family, the old countess be damned.
Until then, be patient, my son. And remember that your father and I both
love you very much, even though he is forbidden from expressing it for
now. He will make it up to you some day. You have our promise on that.
Your Loving Mother,
"You know, Miss Froske," said Mr. Insel, "I think the wording of that letter is almost too convenient."
"Yes, Mr. Insel. I agree. Either the woman was mad, or this is a forgery."
"It's a shame we don't know exactly when it was written."
"That's the oddest thing of all. If I were going to forge such a document, I would be sure a complete date was on it."
"The Palonian Post has been dating envelopes for at least the last hundred years."
"Yet there are no envelopes for these letters. I expect the love notes were merely handed off, but this one from Livinia to Rikard would have to have been posted."
"Perhaps we can ask the countess about her travels between, oh, about 764 and 768?"
"I doubt it, Mr. Insel. You saw how little she cared for any questions that touched on Rikard or Livinia's ages. I doubt she'd answer any such questions."
"But Miss, she must have known we would suspect Rikard was the count's son."
"The bloody portrait over the fireplace all but gives it away on its own."
"So that leaves another question, Miss Froske."
"Yes, Mr. Insel. Why would she invite us here to investigate her home and not do more to hide Rikard's paternity? Why wouldn't she simply send him away, or, at the very least, have the portrait moved?"
"Do you expect she's brought us here for some other purpose than the one she's told us?"
"No, I think not. The dream must be real, else why would she go to the trouble of burning the whole of the Willow Wood? That must mean something to her."
"I don't expect she goes riding in the woods, Miss. And I don't see how any willow or ash could do her any harm at this point in any case."
"No, Mr. Insel. And somehow I doubt the dream was intended to warn her about the crystals we found."
"About those, Miss. What should we do about them?"
"I don't know. I am loath to call on the Temple for help. Perhaps it's time we bring our other companions in and share what we've discovered. Perhaps they might shed some light on the situation."
"That sounds like a good plan."