Chapter Nine: The New Arrival

After witnessing Fortuno’s dressing down of the ‘overly-enthusiastic’ guest, Miranda Warwick ensured that Lord Weaver was made aware of the situation. Mr. Evans was swiftly thrown out on his ear, so as not to disturb the happy day.
It was only once she returned to her duties that Miranda noticed a stranger standing on the threshold of the manor, smiling at her. Behind him was a tall, muscular, dark-skinned man dressed in anthracite grey, presumably his manservant.
‘I hope I’m not too late for the ball.’
‘No sir, but I’m afraid you must have an invitation to be admitted.’
The man’s smile did not flicker. For the first time Miranda looked him directly in the eyes, there was a great depth to them, they almost seemed to draw you in, so that once you looked, you found yourself unable to tear away.
‘Maurice, show this delightful young lady my invitation.’
The manservant, Maurice, removed a slip of paper from his lapel and showed it to Miranda.
‘Lord Savernake at your service.’
He gallantly took her hand and kissed it. Miranda was forced to turn her face slightly to conceal blush that had appeared on her cheeks.
‘My apologies for doubting you sir. His Lordship is in the gardens, if you’d like me to take you to him.’
‘That won’t be necessary, but thank you.’ Savernake strode off into the garden, the manservant, sticking to him like a shadow. He seemed more like a bodyguard than a serving man, and Miranda was sure that she caught the glint of a dagger underneath his coat.

Miranda left this encounter somewhat puzzled; something had seemed strange about the man, and she was almost certain it was not his name on the invitation she had read. But it was not her place to ask questions. Keep your head down and your lips sealed was what her mother had always said. A lot of good it did her in the end. Life had treated Erica Warwick brusquely towards the end, and eventually illness had taken her when Miranda was still in her early teens, and it was only because of Lord Weaver’s kindness that she was here today. But her mother had always taken a wry view of life, she taught her daughter to grin and bear things, and to make the most of a bad situation. Miranda had a benevolent master in Lord Weaver, and a loyal friend in Rosemary. The mistress of the house (ever since Persephone Weaver had succumbed to smallpox) had been like a sister to her from an early age, and Lord Weaver like a father, despite the snide remarks of his peers that he shouldn’t be mixing with the common servants. His behaviour had been such that certain of the gentry even suspected that Miranda was his own illegitimate offspring.

Walking along the corridor, Miranda managed to surpress a sigh of despair as Jonathan Negan approached her.
‘Miss Warwick. It’s good to see you again.’
‘Is there something I can do for you Mr. Negan?’
‘You don’t have to play the servile routine with me.’ He paused. ‘I thought it was about time I apologised for the way I behaved towards you before.’
‘There’s no need to apologise Jonathan. I’m not letting you ease your conscience by settling accounts with me so you can feel free to chase after Rosemary.’ She moved closely into his face and whispered. ‘Rosemary is a sweet young woman, and sometimes she lets the wrong people too close to her heart. If you hurt her, then I shall damage a lot more than your pride.’ Miranda smiled sweetly and walked off, leaving Negan quite taken back. She hadn’t slapped him like last time, but she might as well have done.

While she savoured her little victory over Captain Negan, Miranda Warwick was troubled. She could see the stranger talking to Lord Weaver and Dr. Emerson in the garden, and while nothing seemed amiss, she could not shake off a feeling of dread from her mind. She was almost silent as she returned to help Rosemary to prepare for the ball that evening.
‘Penny for your thoughts Miranda?’
‘Oh nothing much…’ To hell with it, Miranda thought, if she couldn’t tell Rosemary, who could she tell? ‘A strange man arrived today in a red coat…a Northerner I think… he had an invitation, but something about him seemed wrong. Do you know him?’
‘Well, it’s no good asking me. I haven’t even heard of half the people on this guest list. They’re all either friends of Dad, who are sucking up to him, or influential and fashionable people that he’s sucking up to.’ The two women laughed.
‘As long as they keep bringing you gifts, I suppose you don’t mind.’
Rosemary pretended to be hurt.
‘You must think me so shallow.’
‘Not for a moment.’

Miranda continued in silence. Despite herself, she began to think about the Queen’s man, Mr. Fortuno. She had to admit that he was handsome, if a little rough around the edges, and he wasn’t nearly as brusque as most of the men who visited the Weaver household, but there was definitely an air of oddness about him, Miranda could have sworn that she had seen him earlier talking to a small cat on the edge of the gardens. While she had sometimes been described as quirky, Miranda thought it might be wise to draw the line between affably odd and just plain strange. Even if he did share her dry outlook on life, and was rather dashing in a nervous way… Miranda closed her eyes and willed herself to stop thinking about it. You’re a grown woman, not a love-struck adolescent. She fingered the silver heart necklace around her neck her mother had given her and soon recovered her composure.

‘There we are.’
She paused to reflect on the completion of her work. Rosemary now had her thick blonde hair tied back, and around her neck she wore a necklace of white gold with a single sapphire stone set in the centre.
‘The belle of the ball.’ Said Miranda, standing back to admire her friend.
‘You don’t look so bad yourself Miranda. The Queen’s man will be all over you.’
Miranda didn’t brush the comment away as she had done that morning. In fact, for some reason, she almost accepted it.

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Chapter Eight: Happy Birthday

The following morning, Alexander woke early, washed, dressed and waited for Miguel. Today was Rosemary Weaver’s birthday, and the two sorcerers had to maintain their pretence for their stay at Weaver Manor by bestowing a birthday gift upon her.

At half past nine, Alexander and Miguel strolled briskly to the dressing room adjourning the young woman’s chamber, which was already filled with several people, including Lord Weaver, and Dr. Emerson, the Earl of Leicester, several other guests and servants. Rosemary herself was sitting on a chaises longue in the centre of the room, delighting at the numerous gifts that were paraded before her. She looked up when she saw Miguel and Fortuno approaching, with a gift that the two men had been provided with by the Council.

‘Happy birthday milady.’

They bowed low and Miguel gave her an innocent embrace, before shaking hands warmly with Lord Weaver, who was the very picture of jollity, his cheeks a bright red and an enormous smile of fatherly pride stretching across his face. Fortuno handed Rosemary the package and she opened it with haste, smiling at the beautiful dress that lay within.

‘Oh it’s beautiful. Thank you.’

Fortuno smiled. This woman had clearly made quite an impact on Miguel, which was unusual, considering his philandering nature. He wondered if Miguel was considering taking this relationship seriously for once. In sorcerous circles, to cement a serious relationship with a mortal, a sorcerer or sorceress had to ask permission of an Elder before bestowing their mortal partner with ‘The Gift’, which would grant them immortality in exchange for a portion of the sorcerer’s power. Due to the reduction of power this act required, it was not to be taken lightly, and was one of the many reasons why the sorcerous elite chose to marry fellow immortals.

‘Anyway, we’d best leave you to the rest of your gifts.’ Miguel stated politely, leading Fortuno away and snapping him out of his thoughts. ‘Again, a very happy birthday to you.’

‘We’ll see you tonight at dinner Miss.’ Fortuno added. After all the gifts had been given out, Lord Weaver hurried the remaining guests out of the room to allow his daughter to get dressed and ready for the ceremony later on. Eventually, only the lady of the house and her young maid remained in the room.

Once the two of them were certain no one else was around, they lapsed from their mistress-servant routine, and, with little attempt to stifle their girlish giggling, began to examine the gifts, with several comments about each that would have shocked Lord Weaver had he been in earshot. Trinkets were cast aside and piles of expensive jewellery were left to drop casually onto the floor alongside bolts of rich fabric, boxes of chocolate and sweet meats.

Eventually, the two calmed down, and began to prepare for the party that evening.

‘So, which dress are you going to choose? Clothing seems to be a popular present this year.’ Said Miranda, glancing at the garments scattered about the room.

‘I think I’ll wear this one.’ Rosemary picked up the flame red dress that had been presented to her by Fortuno and Miguel. It was woven with golden thread and studded with tiny jewels across the breast.

‘Very good choice.’

Rosemary got off the couch, removed her gown and stood quite still as Miranda dressed her.

‘This must have cost our friend a pretty penny.’

‘Yes, I’m sure it did.’ Rosemary said, although her tone seemed distant.

‘Something troubling you Miss?’

‘Oh no, I’m fine. That Mr. Carrera, he’s unlike any man I’ve ever met.’

‘Well…’ smirked Miranda. ‘He’s clearly got his eye on you Miss.’

Rosemary blushed, although this may have had something to do with the corset that was being tightened around her chest.

‘Oh yes, well what about you and Mr. Fortuno? It seems he’s got a thing for you as well.’

Now it was Miranda’s turn to blush as she pulled tightly on the ribbons at her mistress’ back.

‘Yes, well, he seems nice, but he’s an aristocrat. You know I can’t stand them.’

Rosemary smiled at her friend and servant.

‘Yes, our friend in the Royal Marines with his collection of scars and bruises can vouch for that.’ Rosemary grinned. ‘You know he’s here for the party don’t you?’

‘Yes, I think he’s also rather entranced by you. You’ve got them falling all over you, Rosie.’

‘Scrambling over each other for my dowry more like.’ Miranda posted and responded with a frighteningly accurate impersonation of Lord Weaver.

‘Now now, such cynicism is most unbecoming in a young lady.’

Rosemary laughed. Miranda was only two years older than her, but sometimes she acted as if it was more like a ten year age difference. Rosemary had a care-free, kindly nature, she lived to helped others. Miranda was more withdrawn, almost haughty, but once you penetrated her outer layer, she was a free spirit.

Despite these differences of personality, the two were inseparable. When Miranda was young, she had been a playmate of Rosemary, who had no brothers or sisters to keep her company. When Erica Warwick passed away peacefully one winter, the twelve year old servant girl was taken into Weaver’s own household and treated like a daughter, until she was eighteen, when she became Rosemary’s maidservant, as payment, she had, for Lord Weaver’s generosity. She never learnt of her true father’s identity, with both Lord Weaver and her own mother changing the subject whenever his name came up. She grew up, happily ignorant of the violent man, and had ceased to wonder about him.

‘You know Rosie; sometimes I wish I could be more like you.’

Rosemary sighed and looked up at her best friend.

‘Why ever would you say that?’

‘You’re always so happy, you can pick and choose your husband… sometimes I think Captain Negan was right when he called me frigid.’

Rosemary smiled at her friend and reassuringly placed a hand on her arm.

‘Oh now don’t be silly. So I get all the gaping idiots chasing after me, but they’re only interest in my money, or my looks. You don’t have every man you meet boring you to tears talking about industry while keeping both eyes fixed on your décolletage.’

‘I suppose not.’

‘Playing them off against each other keeps me happy, but I hope that one day, an intelligent, considerate man will come along. And handsome too, preferably.’ She suddenly became conspiratorial. ‘And maybe this Alexander Fortuno could be that man for you. From what I hear, beneath that noble exterior he’s a terrible cynic, he’d suit you just fine.’

They both laughed, and things were back to normal again.

‘Well, we’ll see both of them tonight. This could prove to be quite entertaining.’

Miguel and Alexander went back to search the forest later that day, but found no further clues. Checking to see that no mortal eyes were watching, they swiftly began to return the forest to normal, using their sorcery to clear away any signs of the impact, although they could do nothing to restore the growth that had been incinerated by the explosion. Their familiars sat a short distance away, laughing at their masters as they worked, occasionally showing signs of their true animal nature by pouncing on passing woodland creatures.

‘Well, that’s all we can do for now. But I’m still worried… tonight’s a better night than any for an attack.’

‘Oh stop fussing.’ Miguel replied, absentmindedly swatting a persistent fly. ‘All you can do is be on your guard. Now, can we please go and get ready for the Party?’

Fortuno raised an eyebrow at him.

‘Miguel, the party’s not for three hours.’

‘You know him; he has his ‘routine’ to sort out.’ Stated Eduardo smugly, smirking at Sam. Miguel shot him a glance.

‘I swear you two have been spending too much time together.’

‘Well, at least they’re getting on. Come, there’s nothing else to be done here.’

They walked back to the mansion quietly, brooding over the situation in the forest and the continued lack of leads. Looking to break the silence, Fortuno turned to Miguel, who had a playful look in his eye.

‘What?’

‘What what?’

‘That look. I’ve seen that look before and it usually means trouble.’

‘I was just wondering if you’d spoken to Miss Miranda at all.’

Fortuno went red.

‘No, our paths haven’t crossed since dinner.’

They continued on in silence, before Miguel decided to resume the conversation, to Alexander’s dismay.

‘From what I’ve heard, she’s something of a ward to Lord Weaver, but she’s acting as Rosemary’s chambermaid because she feels indebted to them.’

‘From what you’ve heard? The Mistress of the House chewing your ear?’

The tables had turned, but Miguel’s natural confidence kept him from blushing as Fortuno had done.

‘We’ve had several quite charming conversations. She plays a very good game of chess I’ll have you know.’

‘And you let her win of course.’ Alexander looked at him, smirking.

‘Of course.’ Miguel nodded gallantly. By now, they had reached the mansion, where Roland, ever on guard, held open the door for them.

‘Just don’t do anything rash.’ cautioned Fortuno with more than a trace of irony in his voice.

‘With my reputation? Alexander, I shall be a very paragon of restraint.’ He began to ascend the staircase, chuckling to himself. Alexander went to follow him, but caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of his eye.

‘You go on ahead; I’ll just be a moment.’

As Miguel walked on up to his room to begin his long preparations for the evening, Alexander quietly made his way to the end of the hall, where he noticed one of the guests rather improperly harassing a young serving maid. With his left arm he was leaning against the wall, but his right hand was wandering down the maid’s back, to her clear discomfort.

‘Come on, It’ll be fun…’

‘No! It’s not right Mr. Evans.’

‘Damn that! Come here…’

‘Excuse me.’ Fortuno cleared his throat. ‘I believe the lady said no.’

The man turned around and laid his hand on a pistol in his belt. The expression in his eyes and the way he held himself made it obvious he had been drinking.

‘Oh yes… and what’s it got to do with…’ He was unable to finish, for in a flash Fortuno raised a knee to the man’s groin, disarmed him and knocked him out cold with the pistol, before handing it to the young servant.

‘Madam.’

He turned on his heel and walked off, once again unaware that he was being observed. This time, the watcher was not a crow, but the pale servant girl who had turned his head the previous morning, a wry smile on her face.