The Corden house greeted quiet as a stranger. With three daughters, it was a rarity that the rafters weren't ringing with sound; may it be terrible music lessons, the shrieks over a toy between the younger two, or loud girlish laughter-- they welcomed sound as a friend. Silence, weighing heavy and thick on her ears and nerves, was a rarity, which is why it seemed so foreign to Clara. It shouldn't be quiet. Not even her younger sisters, Harriet and Amelia, broke the silence with their usual chatter that echoed through the house. Young though they were, her sisters knew the importance of the situation. Their mother lay dying. She was also in labor with what was soon to be their youngest sibling, but it was the dying that caused the silence.
Clara stared into the rain from her seat in her father's study. The study was empty of the man himself, as he sat at his wife's bedside, but the welcoming smell of parchment and ink and her father's favorite tea-- simple varya leaf tea-- surrounded her. Her sisters never dared step foot here. She and her father shared the study and she'd read her novels as he read his state papers or one of the many history and philosophy books on his warped and bowed shelves. On a normal day, he'd be there with her, both stopping every so often to discuss what they read.
Her father learned far more about romance novels for young women than he probably ought to know, and Clara got to hear about politics and the state of Ecrivenia and everything and anything. Her father never kept anything from her. He insisted that she must know all that he did. He'd told her when he knew that the pregnancy might kill her mother mere hours after he found out himself and Clara cried into his shoulder for hours, the ache too much to bear.
Clara suffered from a lasting chill in her chest ever since. Now, not even the warmth from the fireplace, the hearth crackling from the fire their housekeeper lit that morning, could keep Clara's cold away. She felt sick and broken, as if a part of her broke piece by piece, with each second tearing her more and more apart at an agonizing and subtle pace. She frayed, her nerves a weak lace, as her mother labored.
In the light coming from the rainy afternoon, blues bathed the room, the usual red-hued cushions looking as drawn as Clara did. A long cold cup of tea sat beside her with a novel that hadn't been opened that day. From her place in the study's window seat, Clara looked on as a man in a long black overcoat, slick with water, crossed the wet courtyard. The world outside paid him no mind-- the farm animals of the country didn't bother with a man like him.
He stopped outside of the Corden's front door, his brimmed hat just visible between their two topiaries from Clara's perch. His knock resonated through the hush and she heard the din of the yard outside as one of their maids let him in. The doctor. Clara's chest constricted and her pale fingers tightened. Clara remembered the brief births of her two sisters. The doctor never once showed up. A midwife had always been more than enough.
From somewhere deep inside the house there was a moan of pain. Did the home itself feel pain as her mother did? Clara got to her feet, her movement toppling the novel to the floor. She paid it no mind. She couldn't take it anymore. She knew she wasn't supposed to, but she had to go to her mother. Rushing from her safe haven, Clara hurried past the closed door of her sisters' room, heading straight for the door to her parents'. The footsteps of the doctor were quick on the stairs, their pace muffled by the soft carpet, but Clara didn't wait for him. She pushed open the door, reeling from the instantaneous waft of putrid stench. The four-poster bed stood in the middle with her father on the other side, the afternoon dim failed to light the room and candles flickered in their sconces.
"Miss Clara?" Mrs. Landon, their housekeeper, called from off to the side by the dressing table and washbasin. "Dear, you really can't be here. You could catch your death."
Clara didn't heed her words, moving to the bed where her mother lay. Lady Katherine Corden lay, lily-white and weak, her husband bedraggled and gaunt beside her. Her mother's eyes were half-shuttered, her eyelids covered in a yellow sheen and her brown eyes distant.
"Mother, what's wrong?"
"She can't hear you," Clara's father whispered. He held her mother's hand tight in a white-knuckled grip. Clara looked at him wide-eyed. She couldn't hear her? The doctor came into the room, disrupting Clara's startled pause. He sneered at her father.
"She shouldn't be in here. You need to leave," he said the last to Clara. It was an order, but Clara stayed rooted to the spot. Her father turned to glare at the doctor.
"Clara will stay." The doctor raised an eyebrow.
"She could be in danger of-"
"She won't be. She's been around her mother for the entire pregnancy and long after her mother became ill. She will stay." The doctor's mouth twitched in annoyance, but he refrained from arguing. Clara's father was a lord after all, and in charge of an entire province within Ecrivenia. And the province that the summer palace presided in, no less. The doctor was also being paid, Clara assumed. Money had a way of stopping people's tongues— for a short while, anyway.
The doctor moved to Clara's mother's side. He took her mother's hand in his with careful reverence, feeling her pulse with his fingers while she groaned. Clara's father stepped back but lingered close by. Clara moved next to him, staying out of the doctor's way but also within seeing distance of the blue and cream four-poster bed.
"Father, why can't she hear me?"
"I'm not sure. I think the fever has taken most of her senses." While her father said all of this calmly, Clara could see the way his hands shook at his sides-- the way he watched his wife with utter hopelessness. His eyes were bloodshot and black and blue circles surrounded them, his worry and fatigue palpable even in the edges and and lines of his face.
"Lord Corden, would you like me to get you anything?" Mrs. Landon interjected quietly, placing a wrinkled hand on her employer's arm. He shook his head.
"No, just tend to Katherine. I'm fine."
Mrs. Landon looked like she wanted to argue, and to some extent, Clara did too, but she understood her father. If Mrs. Landon could somehow help her mother or her mother could find comfort in Mrs. Landon's careful attention, she'd much rather the housekeeper wasn't off getting them tea that they wouldn't touch. Clara's father wiped his hands on his waistcoat, the fabric already damp with sweat. Ignoring this, Clara grabbed his hand, squeezing it tightly.
"She'll be fine. She has to be." Her father nodded, but she could tell he didn't believe it. It was in the way he refused to look her in the eye, eyes drifting instead to somewhere above her shoulder.
"How is she?"
The doctor didn't turn from his work, rifling through his bag and pulling out glass bottles filled with different colored liquids. Most were a deep brown, but a handful sparkled in the light from the candles, casting an emerald, sapphire, and ruby glow on the room for mere seconds.
"She's not well, sir. She'll be lucky to last the night, let alone the birth." Clara's throat felt raw and her eyes itched. She fought the feeling, pushing away the urge to cry. At least for now.
"And if she does?"
The doctor frowned, his hands at last stilling as he looked at Clara and her father over the top of his spectacles. He had striking green eyes and Clara couldn't help but notice their glistening sheen.
"She'll never be the same. She's most certainly deaf and the fever is likely to have been too much for her mind and body. " Clara's father mulled this over, his face grim, while the words rang in Clara's ears. Her world swayed and tipped, her mind a tiny boat ready to capsize on a wave too large. What kind of life would her mother live if she survived? Would she just live a half-life, a shadow of herself, deaf and numb? A terrible thought came to Clara's mind, one that froze her blood in her veins. Would it be better if her mother died?
She couldn't imagine a world where that was true, but yet the facts remained. Her mother lay, thin and worn with the exception of the bump of her swollen stomach. Her veins stood out in her face, blue amongst the white, almost matching the linen of her stained nightgown.
The last time her mother left her bed had been a month and a half ago. The last time she'd eaten anything more than a few spoonfuls of soup was five days ago. Clara's mother wasted away in front of their eyes, and there was nothing that could be done. That much they already knew. That's what made the doctor's words even more pressing. They'd long suspected that something like this would happen. When her mother first fell ill, Clara's father went to every doctor he could, every midwife, every wise woman. They'd all been mystified.
Her mother was dying for seemingly no reason at all. She just was. The bigger her stomach grew, the more she deteriorated. It was as if the baby took the life right from her, although Clara rejected the idea entirely. She loved her siblings. She loved being an older sister. The baby couldn't have caused this. It had to be something else.
Her mother groaned, pulling Clara's focus back to the present. The imprint of a small foot was clear through the skin of her stomach under her nightgown. Clara's father made to walk forwards, but the doctor waved him away.
"Sir, I'm afraid she won't be able to give birth the natural way and I fear that if the baby stays in her much longer, neither will make it. Do I have your permission to--"
"Whatever is necessary, do it." The doctor nodded, but his eyes once again strayed to Clara.
"Sir, she really shouldn't be here for this. This is not something to be witnessed by a young girl. If she faints--" Her father raised a hand, stopping the doctor from speaking. Clara, though grateful for the interjection, felt uneasy. What was necessary?
Being that she was thirteen, she didn't know very much about birth. Oh, she knew the expected amount, but only of the natural way. She'd heard of strange maneuvers, some involving wise women from the forest of Lupine, but this doctor was no wise woman. He was a city man, probably, so very different from the country sort from around their home in Emberlen that Clara was used to. He held knowledge that the country folk never could, and Clara could tell he disapproved greatly of her being there. He went about his tasks with perfunctory grace, pulling a crystal decanter from his bag. An oily liquid swirled inside, fragments of white looking like small stars amongst the purplish-black.
Clara's dread sickened and she exchanged a glance with her father.
"Clara, sit by your mother's head and don't look away." It was the closest thing to an order her father had ever given her. She did what she was told.
Seating herself on the bed at her mother's head, she focused on her mother's face. With shaking fingers, she took a cloth offered from Mrs. Landon, wiping the sweat from her mother's brow and smoothing her damp red hair from her forehead. Her mother opened her eyes at the movement and they locked on Clara. Clara tried to smile, but it faltered. The fear overwhelmed her.
Her mother couldn't die. She was the heart of their home. She mended arguments and smoothed feathers and soothed nightmares. She brought music and laughter and so much love. Clara wanted to be just like her.
She would trade places with her in an instant if she could. She held her mother's gaze, hoping she could show her how much she loved her just in a wordless look.
If the world ran on love alone, maybe it would be enough. But Clara had already seen enough of fate to know that wasn't how things worked. With her hand not holding the cloth, she grasped her mother's hand, and even as her mother opened her mouth in a soundless cry as the doctor began his work, she held it tight. Clara didn't turn away. Not once.
Her mother kept her eyes on Clara the whole time, even when the cry of a baby split the heavy silence in two. With a hushed voice, the doctor proclaimed it a boy. Clara didn't look at her new brother, instead watching as her mother's eyelids drooped. She didn't let go of her mother's hand until long after it went limp.
A little over five years later.
The bright sunshine seared the back of Clara's neck, causing beads of sweat to soak her hairline, but all the same, she didn't put her sun hat back on. It didn't matter, at least not to her, that she got pink-skinned from the light. Feeling the sun on her skin was one of the best parts of gardening; even if whenever she came back inside from gardening for hours Mrs. Landon would tut disapprovingly. Nowadays, it seemed more and more frequent that Clara was unable to live up to the housekeeper's expectations.
Her stitches could never be straight enough, she spent too much time outside with her siblings and not enough time fussing over her appearance, she slouched too much, her voice was too loud, and, of course, she didn't have any friends her own age. Clara wasn't blind, she knew that ladies of almost eighteen were supposed to be worrying about future marriage prospects. She knew that she was supposed to be "bettering" herself for said prospects. However, Clara didn't do any of that, at least not that she shared with her housekeeper or her family. Instead, she taught Amelia the finer parts of gardening, embroidery, and reading, tried (and failed) to get Harriet to wear more dresses, and she worked to help five-year-old James grow his vocabulary.
Why should she be worrying about how to keep a future husband happy when she still needed to help her siblings turn into grown people? Sure, she wanted love as much as the next girl, but her family would always come first.
"Clary, am I doing this right?" Clara turned her attention to her eight-year-old sister who was currently clutching weeds and what was once the first shoots of the tulips. Clara paused but didn't admonish her sister.
"Yes, thank you so much. I was hoping to plant something other than tulips this year. I had entirely forgotten I had planted them last autumn! I was dreading having to uproot them." Amelia beamed, proud of her work and glad to be of help, even if she did have dirt all through her silky red hair.
"What are we planting instead?" Clara leaned back on her heels, running through a mental catalog of the seeds and bulbs her father had gotten for her last time he went to the market. She wanted to grow some rose bushes out in the back of the house near the white stone steps, but she'd never tended to roses before. She just knew that well-grown roses would look stunning next to the grey stonework of the sides of their three-story home. It would be like something out of a fairytale. The beautiful rose bushes would go well with the castle that Amelia and James were fond of pretending their house looked like. Not that they were entirely wrong in their games. The stonework, white marble steps, and the large windows made the Corden family home look rather like the home of royalty, even if Clara's father was only a Lord.
"I'll have to talk to Father. I have a few different ideas but I might need his help on procuring some books on the subject." At that Amelia's smile turned into a frown and Clara hid her own smile behind the blonde wisps of hair coming out from her plait.
"Relax, Ames, it's not like she's going to make you read them," Harriet shouted as she streaked past Clara and Amelia in a blur of fiery reds and dirt. Amelia stuck her tongue out at Harriet as she continued to play with James in the green spring grass. Clara turned a blind eye to Amelia's act of defiance, instead watching Harriet chase a giggling and dirt-stained James around the forest enclosed lawn. They were playing pirates and knights. James, was, of course, the pirate, leaving his twelve-year-old sister to be the knight.
"For the crown! I've got you, you pirate! To the dungeons with you!"
Clara went back to hiding her smile in her loose hair as Harriet captured her "prisoner." Mrs. Landon may have been pressing Clara to convince Harriet to wear gowns more often, but Clara couldn't do it.
How could she force her little brother to lose his enthusiastic playmate? Or rather, how could she make her sister wear something she loathed? Yes, gowns were the proper clothing for young women, but Harriet was happier in trousers. Harriet wore dresses when she needed to, although she complained endlessly about them, and so there was no need for her to wear dresses when it was just family at home.
"Lady Corden, what are you doing kneeling in the dirt?"
Clara's head snapped upwards to look her housekeeper in the eye. That was the other thing that Mrs. Landon had been doing lately. Instead of Clara or Miss Clara, it was always Lady Corden now. Clara hated it, but mostly because it confused James. He couldn't understand how she could be both "Lady" and "Clara."
"Mrs. Landon! We're planting flowers so they can bloom!" The white-haired housekeeper pursed her lips but didn't say anything. It was too hard to say something negative in the face of Amelia's enthusiasm. Clara eyed Mrs. Landon, taking in the appearance of the woman's mouth set in a line and her wrinkled hands clenched at her sides. Whatever the reason was for Mrs. Landon to come out on to the back lawn, the woman wasn't happy.
"Is there something you require, Mrs. Landon?" Clara dared to ask, setting down her gardening tools and placing her soil-covered hands in her lap where they could twist in the somewhat scratchy fabric of her dress.
"Your father is asking for you. It would perhaps be best if you went to see him immediately." Clara glanced down at her sister, biting the inside of her bottom lip to keep herself from talking back. She didn't mind going to see her father, she did love him dearly after all, but she knew that her father normally meant his inquiries as suggestions, not orders.
"Very well. I'll talk to him shortly," Clara responded, picking her light-weight spade back up. Mrs. Landon cleared her throat, looking down her hawkish nose at Clara.
"It would not do to dally, Lady Corden. Your father is an important man and he-"
"Has plenty to do, to look after, and to focus on. Yes, Mrs. Landon, I am fully aware of his duties." Clara turned her head away from Mrs. Landon's disgruntled expression, looking down at her sister. "Amelia, why don't you continue pulling weeds? I'll be back to help you soon, I promise." Amelia nodded, her freckled cheeks pink from being outside, and Clara got to her feet, brushing off the skirts of her pale yellow dress. Well, pale yellow and dirt-smudged dress. Clara ignored Mrs. Landon's pointed gaze at her apparel. The housekeeper couldn't expect her to wear one of her better gowns while gardening.
"Harriet, look after James carefully please," Clara called to her curly-haired sister, earning a nod in answer. She could trust Harriet to take good care of James for a short while. After all, Harriet adored having a like-minded individual around to play with.
"Is he in his study?" Clara asked Mrs. Landon.
"Yes, Lady Corden."
"Very well. Thank you. I'll be right back, Amelia."
With that, Clara moved away from the flowerbeds, stepping towards the marble back steps. She could feel the cold stone through her thin-soled shoes, but she kept moving even when her eyes were slow to adjust to the much darker main hallway of the house.
Moving farther into the dimly lit house, Clara reached the inner staircase, taking each step carefully due to the slippery surface of the gleaming wood. Reaching the upstairs hallway, she made her way towards her father's study, pausing only briefly outside of the door to knock.
A murmured voice carried through the thick wooden door, and Clara took that as her cue to let herself in. Her father's study remained one of the cozier rooms of the house and sunlight streamed through the large windows, lighting her father's hair in a glow.
"Father, Mrs. Landon said you were asking for me?" Her father looked up from his book, his reading glasses perched low on his nose. For a moment he seemed confused, but then his face lit up. Clara's lips quirked up at the sides.
"Yes, yes, my dear. Would you like some tea? Mrs. Landon just carried some up. . ." He paused. "Ten minutes ago? To be honest, I'm not certain when she brought it up, but it's still warm so it must've been only a little while ago."
"I would love some tea."
"Good, then do sit down, my dear. I'll pour." Clara followed his instructions, taking a seat in the blue-cushioned seat across from his mahogany desk. The sounds of a spoon on chinaware filled the room as he fixed her tea just the way she liked it. Black, one sugar. She took a sip, finding it cold, but hid her smile.
"I've been teaching Amelia to garden today."
"You have?" He handed her the cup of tea before taking a sip of his own. "And how is that going?"
"Well enough. She accidentally pulled up the tulips, but that's alright." Her father chuckled into his teacup, his grey eyes shining behind his spectacles.
"Ah, then you must be in want of some new seeds. Am I correct?"
"Yes. I was hoping to plant some rose bushes, it would go so well-"
"With the stonework of the house," her father finished for her, his smile becoming softer as he placed his teacup back in its saucer with a trembling hand. "Yes, your mother always said the same thing."
"I know, I remember. She never could decide between red and pink roses, could she?" Clara tried to keep her tone light. Both she and her father had gotten better at speaking about her mother, but even now there was a strange pricking near her eyes and a dry scratchiness to her throat.
"No, she never could. I always told her to just use both, but she said that would be silly, a waste of my money when tulips were just as good."
Clara took a sip of her own tea, thinking of how typical that kind of statement would've been from her mother. Her mother, Katherine, had grown up in a lower-class family who'd had barely enough money to buy food for their children. Her mother had never gotten used to the idea of having extra money to spend, even once she'd married Samuel Corden, the Lord of the province of Emberlen and Clara's father.
"Which color would you like? Red or pink?" Her father asked, looking towards Clara. She thought about it for a moment before a grin made its way onto her face.
"Red and pink would be perfect." Her father let out a laugh, all the while nodding. Clara and her father exchanged a smile before they both went back to their tea.
"So what did you need, Father? Mrs. Landon made it sound like you needed to talk to me urgently."
"She wasn't entirely wrong. What do you remember of the Dushane family?" Clara sat back in her seat, racking her brain for any sort of memory related to the name. It took her a moment before it came to her.
"Do you mean Lieutenant Charles Dushane and his family? He is the lieutenant in charge of the Persephone, is he not?" The Persephone was perhaps the best ship in Ecrivenia's Royal Navy and Lt. Dushane often did business with Clara's father, seeing as Emberlen was a coastal province that the ship often docked in. In fact, Clara recalled a time several years ago when the lieutenant had come to have dinner with the Corden family rather frequently.
"Yes, unfortunately, I do refer to Charles. He passed on eight months ago. I believe it was pneumonia that took him. He was too weak from lack of sleep to fight it off properly." Her father's voice softened to a hair above a whisper as he spoke and Clara placed her hand over his.
"Oh, Father, I'm so sorry. I know the two of you were good friends. He had a family, didn't he? How are they? Have you heard from them?" Clara had never met the rest of the lieutenant's family, but she remembered hearing many a mention of the lieutenant's wife. She and Clara's father had been close growing up, though only in a friendly way.
"In fact, I have." Her father paused, looking out the window to his right towards the coast. "Clara, I love your mother, and I always will, just as Linette Dushane will always love her husband. However, I cannot bear to think of her doing all of this alone. They only had one daughter and I know Linette has other responsibilities, responsibilities that would make grieving properly terribly difficult."
"Then why don't you help her? It can't be that difficult to give her a hand." Her father turned to look back at her, meeting her eyes.
"Oh my dear, that is not how the world works. If I am to help her in the way she needs I must marry her. Otherwise, I will not be able to lift a finger to give her any sort of support. It would not be proper and it would do her more harm than good." Clara stilled in her seat, leaning back against the cushion. So that's what this was all about.
"She was your best friend at one time, wasn't she?" Her father nodded. "Then marry her. Neither of you will be going into the marriage expecting romantic love and I'm sure she would appreciate having her best friend by her side, even if she can't have the husband she once loved."
"I- Are you sure?"
"Of course. I can't imagine what it must be like for her daughter, either. When Mother passed I had Harriet, Amelia, and James to keep me busy. Miss Dushane will have nothing of the sort to keep her mind off of matters."
"What would I do without you, my dear?" Her father asked, squeezing her much smaller hand in two of his own large ones. "Actually, don't answer that. I don't even want to think of it. You do know that you must come with me, don't you? I couldn't make such a decision alone." Clara was struck speechless. That would mean leaving Emberlen! She'd never left the province before.
"Are you quite sure, Father? I wouldn't want to intrude."
"Don't be silly. You won't be intruding. I'm sure Linette and her daughter would love to meet you. Not to mention, it is not set in stone yet. I will need your help to make the final decision; after all, who better to help with the decision than you? She will be your stepmother, you know, and I trust you to tell me if you think she wouldn't fair well with our little lady, pirate, and knight, especially since they will not be coming along." Towards the end of his response, Clara's father had begun to grin, his laughter lines becoming more prominent.
Clara couldn't argue with him. She knew her siblings better than anyone else. However, the trouble would be telling said lady, pirate, and knight that they could not come too.
"But when will we be leaving, Father?"
"In two days' time. I had planned to leave to go to the Salven Province anyway due to business, so it is no trouble really. Now, off you go. I'm sure you have plenty to do to get ready. And plus, think of it this way. When we are in Salven we can get the most wonderful rose seeds." With that, Clara found herself being ushered out of her father's study and into the upstairs hallway. While he was correct on a number of things, from the convenience of buying rose seeds to how she was the perfect person to judge Linette Dushane fairly, Clara was wary. She wouldn't just be leaving Emberlen for the first time; this would also be the first time her siblings would be left at home without their father or older sister since their mother's death. But, it had been five years...
Clara thought on this when she reached the top of the stairs, however she was wrenched from her thoughts when Harriet dashed up the staircase, covered from head to toe in mud, grass sticking out of her hair at odd angles.
"Harriet, what are you doing?" Clara asked, placing a steadying hand on her sister's arm only for it to be thrown off a moment later.
"Shh! Move, Clara! I need to hide." Harriet left Clara at the top of the stairs. She watched with bewilderment as Harriet rushed towards the attic door and slammed it shut behind her, leaving muddy footprints on the green rug.
"Lady Corden, have you seen your sister?" Looking down at the first-floor landing, Clara tried not to meet the eyes of her huffing and fly-away haired housekeeper. Clara opened her mouth to respond to Mrs. Landon but thought better of it. Instead, she shook her head.
On second thought, maybe leaving her siblings with Mrs. Landon was a good idea.
"I don't know why you're worrying, Clara! Everything will be fine." Clara shot the curly-haired redhead a look. Harriet sat slumped on top of Clara's bed, failing to stop Clara's worries, all while Clara paced the floor of her blue-walled room. Clara had been packed and ready to go since the day before, however, having nothing to do didn't stop her from worrying about how her siblings would fare without her or their father around. Harriet didn't seem as worried. In fact, she seemed excited. After she got over the initial disappointment of not being able to go, the eldest of Clara's two sisters had been ready for Clara to leave. Clara had even caught Harriet humming while sketching what had looked like a detailed plan of some sort of architecture. Her sister was up to something, but for the life of her, Clara had no idea what that something was. Needless to say, Harriet's actions only made Clara keener to stay.
"You must promise me that you will not get into any trouble, or pester Mrs. Landon, or-"
"Practice my sword fighting with sticks. Got it. You've already told me all of this about a hundred times now." Clara frowned at the twelve-year-old but said nothing. She didn't know what it was, but something told her that Harriet would get into trouble one way or another. Harriet let out an exasperated sigh and flipped onto her stomach, her blue trouser-clad legs kicking in the air above her while her tanned and pointed chin rested in the palm of her hand. Clara frowned. A long-fingered hand with very dirty fingernails. Was it too late to force Harriet to scrub her nails before she left?
"Relax. It's not like I go looking for trouble. I go looking for adventures," Harriet said, walking towards the door, her bare feet slapping against the wooden floor. She paused outside the door to the upstairs hallway, looking to Clara with a cheeky grin. "Trouble just finds me along the way." Before Clara could respond, Harriet rushed out of the room, her laughter echoing through the upstairs as she ran, no doubt attempting to slide down the banister once she got to the stairs. Clara a pale hand to her forehead, letting out a sigh of her own. What was she going to do with that girl?
Worry endlessly, probably.
Clara flopped back onto her bed, taking the spot her sister had been lying in. She thanked the heavens that the conversation about why she and her father were leaving to meet Mrs. Dushane had gone well. None of her siblings fussed or complained, and the only thing they'd seemed upset about was that they couldn't come too. Thankfully, Clara solved that problem by promising to not just tell them all about Salven once they returned, but also to possibly bring something back for them. Although, if all went to plan, that wouldn't be all her siblings would get to hear about. They'd get to meet their new stepmother as well.
Clara looked forward to meeting Mrs. Linette Dushane. From how her father described her, she seemed like a wonderful lady. Her father said she had a mind of her own and a wish to make her own way in the world. Linette, while loving dresses and other feminine fineries, always resented having to rely on her husband or her family in order to live, at least that's what Clara's father had said. She had to keep on reminding herself that Linette wasn't the same thirteen-year-old girl her father had been best friends with. Well, she was. But time had a tendency to change people and that was what worried Clara even more. Linette Dushane, though Clara had never met her, seemed to have been through a lot. Thirty-nine years old, long without family, and widowed Linette Dushane had the potential to be far different from what Clara's father remembered.
Clara didn't want her father's heart to break even more than it already had. If Linette was a different person, it could be the final straw in her father's already fragile disposition. The only thing that could be worse would be if something happened to Clara or her siblings. Shaking that thought from her head, Clara sat up, resting her corseted back against the plush pillows. She couldn't think of that or else she would be anxious the whole time she was away from home. She didn't want to be anxious. She wanted to be excited. At this point, even Harriet with her dirty fingernails and cheerful humming was more excited for Clara to leave than she was. After all, Clara was leaving Emberlen for the first time.
Clara knew Salven differed from Emberlen. Emberlen was one of the coastal provinces of the country of Ecrivenia. It was home to the Summer Palace and while the coast and the city surrounding the palace tended to be crowded, the farther reaches of the area were only sparsely occupied with people. Salven, on the other hand, held the largest city in Ecrivenia. Overflowing with people from all stations of life, the city housed the Winter Palace, the home of the Royal Family during the colder months. The Grand City would be far different from the moderately relaxed atmosphere of Emberlen and Clara was both excited and wary. What if she didn't fit in there? What if they could all tell she was from the country and not a city like everyone else? Biting her lip, Clara tried to clear her mind, but it didn't work. At least it didn't until she heard a knock on her bedroom door. Immediately, she raised her head to look towards it.
"Who is it?"
"It's Mrs. Landon."
Clara paused for a moment but responded. "Come in." She had a second to fix her posture before her door swung open and Mrs. Landon bustled in, carrying a heap of colorful shawls in her grey-clothed arms. The gray made the shawls stand out. Clara tightened her mouth. It wouldn't do to smile at the thought of her youngest sister's dress-up choices.
"Lady Corden, I have some shawls with me. They were with Miss Amelia's clothes for some reason, but I figured you may want them for your journey. It may be springtime but it still gets chilly." Mrs. Landon laid the shawls on the lavender bedspread next to where Clara sat. Clara nodded, her stomach dancing with nerves and her posture stiff. She braced herself for any disparaging comments or a critique on her slightly rumpled appearance, but none came. Instead, Mrs. Landon looked at Clara, her mouth set in a firm line and her watery brown-eyed gaze unwavering.
"May I speak plainly, Lady Corden?" Clara almost bit through her tongue at her housekeeper's words. Plainly? About what? Did she not speak plainly already? Her stony expression must've told Mrs. Landon her thoughts because she soon began to speak.
"Lady Corden, I have met Mrs. Dushane on many occasions and while she is a proper woman who has her head on straight-" Mrs. Landon paused, her lips whitening to the point of being colorless. Clara wondered what Mrs. Dushane had done to earn such an opinion from Mrs. Landon, but a second later her question was at least partially answered. "Forgive me for speaking bluntly, but be on your guard. It is likely that she is not the woman your father remembers her to be."
"I know, I've been thinking about it too. Nanny Landon-" Clara responded, worry in her tone, before she could stop herself. Her fingers burrowed in her dress as she realized her mistake in the old nickname. She'd forgotten to keep her overly familiar thoughts in her mind. The woman had once been a second mother to Clara. Not that she wasn't any longer. Mrs. Landon just expected more from her, thus causing the apparent drafty rift that hung between them in every conversation and interaction. In gaining a person in her life who cared a great deal about her future, a person who made her act in a way befitting to her station, Clara had lost her closest confidant. Meeting Mrs. Landon's eyes, Clara saw an expression matching her own.
"Thank you for telling me your thoughts. I have found myself thinking along the same lines the past few days. May I ask you a question? How well do you know Mrs. Dushane? Did you know her when she was younger?" Mrs. Landon twisted her hands in her white but stained apron as if debating over what to say. Clara waited for her to answer, crossing her ankles and folding her hands tighter in her lap. If there was one thing that hadn't changed, it was that Mrs. Landon never dodged a question if she didn't have to.
"As you know, I've been working for your family for nearing twenty-one years now. In that time, I have seen many a person come through this house." Mrs. Landon stopped, instead taking the time to glance towards the open door of Clara's bedroom. Clara watched as the woman crossed her room and shut the door. Mrs. Landon turned back around to face Clara, her lips pursed and arms folded. The sun that streamed in through Clara's cream curtains disappeared behind a cloud, darkening the room and causing harsh shadows to appear on the housekeeper's face.
"I knew Mrs. Dushane when she was merely Miss Linette Rittolis, the sixteen-year-old great-niece of a Lord who lived nearby. She had been friends with your father for nearly five years at that point. She had a sharp wit and an even sharper tongue, and she changed her mind in the way she'd change the fashion of her hat. Which is to say, often. Your father was not in love with her, and neither was she infatuated with him, but she used him all the same."
"How did she use him?" Clara couldn't hold back her question, instantly regretting it as Mrs. Landon frowned. But even with the frown, Mrs. Landon still responded.
"I cannot say. I just know that there is a reason she hasn't visited the house since she was nineteen. Do not misunderstand me. Miss Linette was a kind girl with great ambitions, but she was only kind to those she felt deserved her kindness or that could help her get what she wanted."
"But it's been years. She could've changed by now." Clara couldn't believe that her father would be friends with someone who would use him. There must've been something that Mrs. Landon wasn't aware of. That was the only answer. Her father was a wonderful man, and he wasn't oblivious or stupid. He was an excellent judge of character.
"A ladybug can't change its spots." Clara's own frown deepened at that. She didn't believe that for one second. People could always change.
"A ladybug can't, but people can. From what my father tells me, she's been through many struggles in the past few months. If there's anything that can cause a person to change, it's an emotional upheaval." Mrs. Landon shook her head, starting to move towards the door. "People can change, but it takes more than a few months." The room rang with a deafening silence. Through the dark, wooden floorboards and the structures of the house, Clara could hear the shouts of her siblings, but they were all muffled to her ears in the face of her housekeeper. "I wish you good health and luck on your travels, Lady Corden."
Mrs. Landon opened the door and left, her walk reminiscent of a soldier's, leaving Clara to stare after her.
She did not fault Mrs. Landon for speaking her mind, but Clara couldn't help but hope her housekeeper was wrong. There had to be some larger picture, something Mrs. Landon didn't know about.
Her father wouldn't open his doors to someone who had hurt him. However, that thought gave Clara pause. Before her mother died, he wouldn't have but-- She hated to think of it, but she was not blind. Her father had changed since the death of her mother. His moods darkened, his face grew deeper lines, and he lost weight. His grief caused him to wilt and during those first few dismal months that grew into years in the wake of her mother's passing, Clara wondered if his frailty and solemn attitudes would last forever. Thankfully, Clara's siblings provided a buffer for his grief, stopping the worst of and providing what some might consider to be comic relief. Clara dreaded to think what would've happened if her siblings weren't as cheerful or exuberant. She never would've been able to help him on her own.
Clara sighed. She couldn't do anything thing about it now, but she would be on the lookout while they traveled to and stayed in Salven. She'd do her best to notice anything that didn't seem right. Well, that and try to make her father smile more. Maybe if he had more reasons to smile, or if she made more of an effort to make him happier, he wouldn't be so worn, so weathered. That in itself would be difficult to pull off. She wasn't a jokester like Harriet or sweet and innocent like Amelia and James. Her responsibilities tripled with the death of her mother. Despite Mrs. Landon's best efforts, Clara took on household chores on top of instructing her siblings. The Corden children had all been taught by their mother prior to her death, and so once Katherine was gone, Clara took up the reins of teaching her siblings the ways of the world.
Getting to her feet, Clara smoothed her light pink dress the best she could, adjusting the lace on the bodice so it lay flat. The carriage ride to Salven would take several hours, but she did want to make a good first impression. She'd had her clothes picked out for the journey since the day before. She wore one of her best dresses and she planned to wear a nice lace-trimmed bonnet and her best shawl. Although, until Mrs. Landon brought it in, she almost had to settle for her second-best one. Mrs. Landon might not have known why her shawls were in Amelia's room, but Clara did. Her sister loved dressing up in Clara's clothes, pretending to be a princess, and Clara didn't mind. They were clothes. They could be replaced and they made her sister happy.
As Mrs. Landon's son, Thomas, had long since packed her trunk on the back of the family carriage, all she had to grab was her shawl and a bonnet. Reaching for the bonnet she had set out earlier, Clara grabbed hold of her shawl and the bonnet, settling the latter over her pinned hair.
"Clara, are you nearly ready, dear?" Clara jumped at the sound of her father's voice as he hollered up the stairs.
"Yes, Father!" Clara hurried from her room, giving it one last glance before shutting the door behind her. This was it! Despite all of her worries and suspicions about the mysterious Mrs. Dushane, Clara began to feel a bit excited. She was leaving Emberlen. She was going to the city! She could hardly believe it! She tried to walk down the hallway in a stately manner but failed when her two sisters came up to her side just before she reached the stairs.
"Will you write to me? Please, oh please, Clary!" Amelia said, tugging on Clara's arm. "I want to hear about the big city and the Winter Palace and everything! Do you think you'll meet the Prince?"
"Ames, you don't even like reading. Why would you want her to write to you? Clara, you do need to write to me though. You have to tell me all about the palace guard, the training regimen they use, and if you see any women among them," Harriet demanded.
Clara looked down at both of her sisters, smiling as she hugged them both, first Amelia then Harriet. "I'll do my best to write, but don't expect anything too exciting. Remember, the royal family is in Emberlen now at the Summer Palace. So I won't be seeing any princes." Amelia looked disappointed, her bottom lip sticking out into a pout, but Harriet once again got Clara's attention by speaking up and grabbing hold of her arm.
"You could still look into the guards for me," Harriet said pointedly. Clara had to bite back a sigh.
"I will do my best, but I cannot promise anything. Now, come on. I can't leave if you're both attached to my arms." However, as both her sisters began to pull her towards the stairs, Clara was proved very wrong. In fact, she moved even faster with them attached to her arms. Soon enough, Clara found herself being deposited in front of the carriage where James was clutching onto their father and pointing at the horses.
"There you are! I was just about to call off the journey until tomorrow just so that way you'd have time to make it down the stairs." Clara blushed at her father's words. It wasn't as if she had taken so much time on purpose. She was just slower getting ready when she had things on her mind.
"Well, no need to now. I'm here."
"Yes, I can see that. And looking so lovely, too." Her father smiled at her before handing James to her. The young boy instantly put his arms around Clara's neck, his connected hands situated against the back of her bonnet.
"I'll see you when I get back, James."
"Can you bring me back a pony?" His little voice said next to her ear. Clara laughed. That was James. The lover of animals and pirates who had all of the subtlety of a rock. But then again, he was barely five.
"How about I bring you back something else? A surprise?" James leaned back from her enough so Clara could see his face. His blonde eyebrows were drawn together, and his mouth was set into a small frown of concentration.
"Well, then that's what I will do." Clara kissed him on the cheek and set him back on the ground where Harriet took his hand, tugging him towards the house before he could get closer to the stomping hooves of the horses.
"Now, I want you all to be very good for Mrs. Landon. She'll be writing to me frequently." Here her father made a point to look at Harriet. "I will hear about any trouble you get into." However, the ten-year-old wasn't fazed at all. As Clara got into the wooden carriage she had to hold back a laugh at her sister's response.
"You mean the trouble she finds out about." There was a second of silence before their father answered.
"At least until I'm back. Then you can tell me all about the trouble she didn't find out about. I expect a very interesting tale, young lady. Don't disappoint me." Clara looked out the carriage window once she was settled just in time to see her sister do a mock salute.
"And you, my fair lady," her father said, leaning down to kiss Amelia on the head. "Don't go kissing any more frogs until I come back. I don't want to return to find a handsome prince has carried you away." Amelia blushed to the color of her hair. Clara raised an eyebrow. She hadn't heard about anything to do with Amelia kissing frogs. "We'll be back before you know it!" Her father said, getting into the carriage and sitting down across from Clara. As soon as the door shut, the carriage began to move, causing Clara to jerk forwards at the motion.
"Goodbye, everyone!" Clara called, waving a hand at her siblings before sitting back against the cushioned interior of the carriage. Her father waved as well before he too settled into his seat. "Amelia was kissing frogs?" Clara asked, earning a laugh from her father.
"Mrs. Landon's son, Thomas, convinced Amelia that kissing frogs would turn them into princes. Apparently she'd kissed three before she had come to me to ask what she was doing wrong." Clara let out a laugh of her own.
Oh yes, her siblings would no doubt get into trouble when they were gone. Her hope was that the trouble was only as dangerous as kissing woodland creatures.
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