“Whenever a man does a thoroughly stupid thing, it is always from the noblest motives.”
The fact that this morning I rise early is not surprising. I do have a natural tendency to have the lifestyle of a lark. My mother in her time rather disapproved of this inclination, noting that such a schedule befits farmers, not noblewomen. In a way she was right. Most of the palace inhabitants tend to wake up late, often getting out of bed closer to eleven. Of course, I do not mean the servants. But do not judge my fellow courtiers too strictly. It is important to remember that their day also ends quite late. Ordinary people wake up and go to sleep with the sun. Life in the palace is not dependent on the cycle dictated by nature. It's not customary to economize on candles. And if the Duke arranges a ball, no one goes to sleep until morning.
You may wonder how I manage to stay on my feet that late, given my habit of waking up early. In fact, it is not difficult. It takes only an hour and a half of sleep during the day. I have an opportunity to do this most days. After a rest in the afternoon in bed or on a lounger specially designed for this purpose, I am again cheerful, energetic and ready for action. Fortunately, there is always activity taking place in the castle, because of its busy atmosphere.
Once again, the morning is the opposite of boring. By around nine o'clock I am fully dressed, washed, my hair and my makeup done; as usual, that does not take me a lot of time, and I am soon walking through the corridors of the palace. One could say that I have come by the Duke's chambers by accident or by some gift of clairvoyance.
However, in reality there is a much simpler explanation. After yesterday's conversation with Mireya, my mind has been preoccupied with thoughts of the question of her dowry and possible solutions to this problem. It is therefore unsurprising that my legs unconsciously have led me to the Duke — the person responsible for the whole situation.
Obviously, the fact that I see Cameron Estley at the entrance to the Duke's office doesn't surprise me. Something else shocks me. The Count is speaking to some servant, whom he apparently has run into just before reaching the door. And out of the room, through the open crack Emma looks at me pleadingly.
I mentally curse, using expressions that Ilona would approve of. In fact, it takes me only a few seconds to understand what is going on. Everything is clear as day. Mireya was never going to give up her daring, or, rather, insane plan. After Ilona and I did not support her in this endeavor, she just found herself another helper — Emma, of course, agreed to everything. She did not even think of somehow evaluating Mireya's intentions. She just did what her mistress asked of her. More precisely, she tried to.
Here's the catch. Apparently, she was able to sneak into the office of the Duke. It is likely that she was also able to find the seal. I wouldn't be surprised if at the moment the maid has it hidden in one her pockets. The problem is Lord Estley's sudden arrival. It is quite likely that the office was his goal at first. I gather this from his posture, half-turned to the door. One time he even reaches for the handle, but the servant's words make him linger. However, in a short while this conversation will be over. The servant isn't a courtier; hence they aren't going to move into another room to continue their conversation. They'll discuss everything, Estley will finish giving orders and they will each go their own way. Then the Count is obviously going to enter the office.
I tensely purse my lips. In a minute — two at most ‒Estley will catch Emma in the act. What should I do?
No — for the maid, I would not lift a finger. She has only her own stupidity to blame. Dedication is one thing, but a person should still have a head on her shoulders — it's actually quite useful. After all, I'm sure Mireya didn't force her to assist her — Emma is acting of her own free will. Devotion to a person does not mean strictly abiding by her every whim. In my opinion, sometimes it is just the opposite. For example in the case at hand. If Emma fails and is caught, it will hurt Mireya too. That is what causes me to intervene.
Oh, I do not want to have anything to do with the theft of seal and the diamond! But it seems that fate itself will not allow me to stay away.
The footman bows in obeisance and then heads down the hall, hurrying to execute the Count's orders. Estley steps closer to the door; Emma's terrified face disappears from the slot as she quickly withdraws more deeply into the room.
I rush towards him. Estley stops expectantly, slightly surprised by my haste. Without giving the Count a chance to come to his senses, I grab both his hands and excitedly look into his eyes, while simultaneously, as if by chance, turning his back to the door.
"Lord Cameron, you were absolutely right!" I exclaim emotionally.
Estley frowns, slightly bewildered by my charge. However, his answer sounds very confident.
"Of course, I was right," he confirms without a shadow of a doubt. "About what exactly?"
What a cocky jerk! But out loud I say something quite different:
"You were right about me! Then, at the ball. When you said that I don't have lovers, because there is one man whom I've desired with a burning passion for a long time, secretly."
The words pour out of my mouth more and more quickly. Out of the corner of my eye I see Emma once again approaching the gap and eagerly watching our conversation, ready to use the first opportunity to escape. The trouble is that, because of their current positions Estley might still notice her in his peripheral vision, if she emerges into the corridor. So I grab the Count's arm even more strongly, and imperceptibly turn him a bit more.
"I did not dare tell anyone who it is," I go on chattering, carefully distracting Estley. "In fact, I did not even dare to admit those feeling to myself. But I can no longer remain silent. This person is you."
And before the completely stunned Lord Cameron can somehow respond to this confession, I stand up on tiptoe and kiss him on the lips.
Perhaps "kiss" is not even the right word. I grab his head with my hands and literally dig into his mouth with mine, trying to crush it so the pressure would not allow him to break from the embrace and focus on anything else. However, he doesn't seem so keen on escaping. At first he just freezes, not responding to my actions. Then his hands wrap around my back and shoulders, and his lips start to move no less passionately than my own. Well, it would have been foolish of him to not take advantage of the situation.
Cameron Estley sure knows how to kiss. He is better than all of my former lovers; however, it has been so long, I might have just forgotten. But he certainly uses his lips skillfully, hot and soft at the same time. He smells pleasantly of some expensive perfume, of the kind that does not give a sharp smell, but so to speak surreptitiously envelops you, forcing women close by to experience the slightest dizziness. At first I feel goose bumps spreading through my body, and then I, on the contrary, feel feverish. My fingers clutch Cameron's hair eagerly, to the point of risking tearing out a clump, and my lips move more aggressively. My hands begin to gradually sink lower and lower, slip to the back of his neck and down to his hips. At the same time, I feel his long fingers caress my own back.
Out of the corner of my eye I catch a slight movement to his left. Emma finally decides to slip out of the office, tiptoe a few steps, and then walk down the hall as if nothing had happened. As if she were just going upstairs, she walks past us.
I could now stop the kiss — the only problem being, I don’t really want to. Hey, Nessa, pull yourself together! The play is over; it is time for the actress to retire before her deceived audience decides to throw rotten tomatoes at her! Nevertheless, I cannot resist and my palms eagerly explore his hips, while I simultaneously kiss him as though I want to swallow him.
Then, I abruptly pull away. I let him go, lower my eyes, and clasp my hands in front of me.
"Please forgive me! I'm sorry; I do not know what came over me!" I exclaim. My cheeks blaze with a blush quite suitable for the role. "I beg you, forget what just happened!"
With these words, I run away. Fortunately, Cameron doesn't try to either catch up with me or call me back.
For some time now, loud female laughter has been ringing out under the high ceiling of the Duchess' boudoir. Mireya has reached the stage when she just sobs, one hand resting on the back of the chair on which she sits sideways, and the other wiping tears from her eyes. Ilona also laughs, although my story shows that I ignored her advice about Lord Cameron. That doesn't stop her from giggling, her head in her hands. I, too, am smiling, but with a little more restraint: after all, for me, unlike the others present, the recent incident is associated with some awkwardness.
"Poor Lord Estley!" Mireya barely squeezes out through her laughter, rubbing the tears from her face. "How will he live? What did you say to him? 'Forget everything that happened?'"
"Something like that," I say.
"Right — as if he could just forget such an incident!" Ilona shows skepticism.
"Come on, he'll be fine," I shrug her of.
One thing I am sure of is that Estley won't suffer. That he could, with no difficulty, find a girl who would not demand any forgetfulness at all from him.
"Well?" Meanwhile, Mireya asks. I look at her, puzzled. "Tell me!" she insists.
I look blankly at Ilona, just to be sure: my friend Ilona too, is awaiting something from me. It makes me tense up and sit up straight. Until now, I have been half-lying, at ease on the banquette, as befits the woman of the hour.
"But I have already told you everything," I express my bewilderment. "Do you think one such incident is not enough for one morning? Personally, my nerves have been shaken more than enough!"
"You do not understand," Mireya shakes her head. "Your story is quite enough, but you have missed something."
"What?" I bat my eyelashes in confusion.
Mireya leans forward, her eyes flashing with avid curiosity.
"How was it?" she asks.
"How was what?" I, on the contrary, draw slightly back.
"How was it? What do you not understand?" Mireya asks, fondly exasperated. "Is Lord Cameron a good kisser?"
I purse my lips and look at my companions from under my brows. I have no desire to delve into such details. No. The facts themselves I am ready to recount as many times as necessary. But to expatiate upon my feeling — no, thank you. Especially considering that I liked the kiss a lot more than I had expected. It would be a different matter if I had kissed a decent person — then I wouldn't be ashamed to admit that I enjoyed the process. But when it comes to this self-confident scoundrel! By the way, I wonder: did he like it? Judging by his reaction, it seems he did ... Goddamn it, what am I thinking?!!
"I don't know," I say aloud, dryly. «It’s been a while since I've kissed someone. It's hard for me to compare. He's probably okay."
Mireya capriciously purses her lips, unsatisfied with my answer.
"Anyway, what does it matter?" For some reason this subject begins to annoy me. "What difference does it make how he kisses?"
"What do you mean 'what difference?!'" More than ever Mireya livens up. "Kissing is an important part of a relationship with a person."
"Very important!" Ilona backs her up.
"Lady Mireya, you're worrying me!" I plead. "What personal relationship? With whom? Cameron Estley?"
"What's wrong with that?" the lady feigns surprise. "He is a prominent suitor, by the way."
I clutch my head and groan loudly. Fortunately, in the absence of witnesses I can afford to behave relatively unceremoniously with Mireya. Ilona doesn't count — she is one of us.
"Very prominent," the latter says gravely.
Again I put my head in my hands.
"Ilona," my voice is full of sarcasm "didn't you recently tell me some spiel about how dangerous Cameron Estley is? Now, you're proposing I have an affair with him?"
"Oh, Nessa, Nessa," reproachfully sighs my friend." Do you still not understand that dangerous people make the best lovers?"
Mireya chuckles approvingly.
"And why do you suppose that we are just talking about a simple affair?" She adds. "Perhaps we are referring to a pure and true love? We could arrange you to be wed. I would personally organize the wedding."
"A-are you making fun of me?" I stammer hopefully.
"Well, of course, we are!" laughingly Mireya admits. "More precisely, pulling your leg. There, there, do not be offended!" She sits down beside me on the banquette and puts her arm around my shoulders. "Of course, I would never place you at the mercy of such a man as Estley. I am extremely grateful to you for what you did today!" She stands up from the banquette, takes a few steps and turns back with a mischievous smile on her face. "However, I wasn't kidding about this: if you decide to marry, I will arrange everything in the best possible way."
"Thank you!" I laugh. "I think you won't have to worry about that for a long time. I will marry only if I find an optimal candidate. You could say a perfect candidate. That is quite unlikely."
"What, in your opinion, would be an ideal candidate?" With keen interest Ilona asks. "What kind of a man is the ideal husband?"
Mireya awaits an answer with no less interest. I gather my thoughts, my head thrown back. It is not an easy question to answer, especially clearly.
"An ideal husband — he... he is..." I pause, snapping my fingers. A blissful, romantic smile blossoms on my face. "He is, you know..." The right words finally come to mind. "Someone who does not get in the way."
I say this with languid eyes. Then I stare resentfully at the laughing girls. I would just like to know what is so strange about my feelings?
The door swings open, and Emma bursts into the room, not even bothering to knock. The laughter ceases instantly; we all look at the maid. She stops at the door, panting, leaning on the door handle.
The thing is, Emma was able to steal the seal out of the Duke's office. When I helped her escape, she rushed straight to Mireya. The forged letter, needed to enter the treasury and carry out the gem, has been prepared beforehand. The maid took it and immediately headed there. She has only now returned.
Judging by the rapidness of Emma's breathing, her flushed cheeks, and upset, guilty expression, the trip to the treasury did not go well. The maid clutches in her fist the letter, which has become crumpled from such treatment — the letter which sports the Duke's personal seal.
"Well, how did it go?" Mireya is already on her feet. "What happened?"
"Forgive me, Madam," Emma murmurs, bowing her head apologetically." I did not succeed."
We all wait for an explanation, but none follows: the maid just stands there in a fit of self-deprecation, her head bowed and her hands, which continue to crease the letter, clasped in front of her.
"What happened?" Mireya demands, as she takes the maid's hand in order to bring her out of her stupor.
Emma sighs and lifts up her eyes to her mistress, and speaks:
"I was not allowed to enter. They said that without a special order they cannot do anything."
"And what about the letter? Did you show them the letter with the stamp?"
"I did. But they did not even bother to read it. Just skimmed it."
"But they did see my brother's seal?"
"They did," in the same apologetic tone Emma says. "But they said it did not matter. They have received a new decree, according to which only the Duke, his valet, and Lord Estley are allowed to enter the treasury. Anyone else can only enter accompanied by one of these people. I tried to insist, but they threatened that they would call the security chief ... so I left."
Emma lowers her head again.
"Did they tell you when this decree was issued?" I speak up.
The maid's shoulders quiver as if she considers herself guilty for that too.
"Just a few minutes before my arrival, Madam," she whispers.
Mireya grits her teeth, barely restraining herself from cursing.
"Relax, Emma," she says. "Drink some water and calm down. It is not your fault that all this happened. You have served me well."
The maid, a little comforted by such kind words, but still worried, goes into the next room. I sit back, leaning against the foot of the bed, which is close to the banquette I am resting upon. My lips stretch into wide smile, in which admiration mingles with anger.
"He figured it all out," I state. "And so fast! How did he manage that? All the same, he's an incredibly smart bastard."
"Whom are you talking about?" Mireya abruptly asks.
"About Cameron Estley, of course," I confidently respond. "No one else could have calculated all our moves in advance, and so quickly."
My words almost immediately receive unexpected confirmation. We hear knocking, and a footman accompanied by a maid enters the room.
"Lady Almikonte." He bows in a manner befitting the occasion. "I am authorized to deliver a letter from Lord Cameron Estley, addressed to Lady Inessa Antego."
I look at Mireya for instructions. After receiving a nod from her, I put out my hand. The footman hands me the envelope.
"I told him to give me the letter, but he refused" complains Mireya's maid, justifying allowing a stranger into mistress' private chambers.
"I was ordered to give you the letter in person."
The footman speaks humbly, as if apologizing, but his face simultaneously expresses self-confidence. Well, he is right in a way: orders are orders. Especially when a man like Estley gives them.
"Come on, read it!" impatiently Mireya urges me, as soon as the door has closed behind the servants, when once again it is just the three of us.
I open the envelope and unfold a square sheet of pale yellow paper. On it a few sentences are written in beautiful cursive handwriting. I begin to read. As I skim the lines of text, I become more and more angry. I literally feel my rage physically entangling my body and soul. My hands tremble, my eyes darken.
I painfully grit my teeth. I feel that had the writer of the letter been in this room, I would lunge at him and strangle him with my own two hands.
As I finish, I crumple the letter in my hand, taking out my anger at the author. Then, in a fit I toss the piece of paper aside. Unfortunately, it does not fall far: the paper is too light.
"How dare he!" I hiss, surprising myself.
Frankly, my strong reaction to the letter frightens me a little. I could not remember ever being so angry at someone. To the point of gritting my teeth, and the world turning red and black in front of me. It seems at this point that any additional small thing would be enough to push me over the edge and make me lose control.
Meanwhile Ilona picks up the letter which I have cast aside so cruelly. She smoothes out the paper and, without asking my permission, starts to read. I don't really mind. I care very little about what is happening around me at the moment, because I am so focused on my overwhelming fury.
"Who does he think he is?!" I continue to rage.
At first I do not notice the way my friend's lips stretch into a smile as she reads. I notice her reaction only when Ilona, once she reaches the end, bursts into laughter.
"Does something strike you as funny?!" I am indignant, transferring part of my wrath onto the lady in waiting.
She puts her hand to her chest, apparently deliberating whether to explain something to me, but was unable to utter a word because of her laughter. I gasp indignantly, unable to say anything in response to such blatant disregard of my feelings.
Mireya decisively snatches the letter from Ilona's hands. She sits down in an armchair, her whole appearance broadcasting calm and steadiness — qualities her maids currently lack — and begins to read aloud at a measured pace. After the first couple of lines she stops and looks up in amazement, but then forces herself to continue. The letter reads:
"Dear Lady Inessa!
I hope you enjoyed the short-term possession of the Duke's seal as much as I enjoyed the short-term proximity of your body. I hasten to inform that your chosen payment method entirely suits me. The passionate kiss of a young woman descended from a count’s family is worthy of the price of borrowing the seal. If you wish to pay in a similar manner for other services, please contact me without hesitation.
P.S. Be so kind as to return the seal to its rightful owner as soon as possible. To pay to possess it on a regular basis, you would have to not leave my bed for at least two months."
"Oh, my..." Mireya says, speechless.
"I'm going to kill him," I hiss. "Tear his head off. And then I'll strangle him. Or vice versa. I don't care if they do execute me for it."
"Well, well, stop with this nonsense," Mireya gently asks. «We’ll find another way to make him regret writing it in the first place."
"And you!" I point at Ilona with a trembling forefinger. "From you I did not expect something like that!"
"I'm sorry, Nessa, really," begs my friend, trying to look serious again. "But don't you see? This letter — it's almost an admission of defeat! I know I said that it's better not to mess with people like Estley, but I still cannot help but admire your success."
"What success?" I frown, ready to take offense seriously, if it turns out that Ilona is mocking me.
Personally, Cameron's letter doesn't seem a sign of success to me, but rather the greatest humiliation of my life. He has openly hinted at the fact that I acted like a courtesan. Most disgusting of all was that this presents the situation in such a way that I myself am almost ready to agree with him.
"What?" Ilona repeats, as if the answer is obvious. "Nessa, do not you see how furious he was when he wrote this letter? He was livid!"
"You really think so?" I dubiously drawl. Being able to interpret the letter in such a manner would be nice; in any case, it would help me to come to terms with its contents. However, I don't really believe Ilona's speculation is correct. "I don't see it. He is just making fun of me. He is smugly making it clear that he will always outwit me — spewing insults — obviously enjoying himself."
"Just making fun? Enjoying himself?" Ilona asks, shaking her head in disbelief. "Nessa, but he rages and fumes! I bet this perfectly honed letter is at least the tenth version, while the first nine are lying crumpled in the trash. At first, he worked on the wording and then threw out the drafts because of how shaky his handwriting was from anger. He probably paced from corner to corner, clenched his fists in anger and, perhaps, even punched something a couple of times."
"You have a very vivid imagination," I say glumly. "In my opinion, it was not so. He was just sitting quietly, lounging in a chair, slowly sipping wine and grinning mischievously while inventing some other disgusting accusation."
"Oh, my friend, you still don't understand men!" Ilona reproaches me. "You should paint the town red as soon as possible, or at least drag someone into your bed. The fact of the matter is that Estley offends you in almost every sentence" she explains to me, patronizingly, as if I were a small child. "If he were, as you say, calm and relaxed, he would have done it exactly once in the entire letter. But no, he was so furious that he knew no measure. It is, incidentally, not at all like him. Apparently, you have managed to hurt him very much."
I look askance at my friend, still not knowing whether or not to agree with her reasoning. At least, Ilona herself seems totally convinced that she is right. Okay, I'll have time to think about it later, with a clear head. More specifically, when I regain the ability to think logically. This clearly is not about to happen for at least the next couple of hours.
At this moment Emma enters the room. I spin around and walk slowly toward her, like a snake gliding towards a tasty mouse.
"Emma," I coo softly." I assume you still have the seal?"
The maid nods nervously, guessing from the look in my eyes, that she is in for a scolding.
"Well," I say in the same soft, gentle voice. "Now you must make sure the seal returns to its usual place. How you do it I do not care. You understand that?" I wait until the maid cautiously nods. "Otherwise," I sharply raise my voice, almost shout: "I'll sell you to Lord Estley as a sex slave! Do I make myself clear?"
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