"Do you know anything about the earl's family?", Katherine asked nonetheless.
Hazel raised her nearly invisible red brows in a surprised way, while the new guards where shifting uncomfortably. Did the earl allow for the lady to know his history? Wouldn't he have told her himself then?
"The earl's family?", Hazel repeated, her face changing into a pensive expression. "No, I... don't think so."
"They haven't visited him? Send gifts, letters, anything?"
" ... Nothing I know of."
"Wait, no, there was one gift box! I didn't remember it, because they didn't say from whom it was. And it wasn't something a family would sent, actually.", Hazel memorized, first exited but later getting dispirited again for it wasn't what the lady asked for. Katherine gestured her to continue nevertheless. Any information was better than nothing, actually. "The cook told me that story for it was really weird and a little - "
Katherine's stomach grumbled, disrupting the recount. Instantly, both girls were fl.u.s.tered, but strangely the maid more than the lady. "I'm so sorry, milady! I should've bought you something to eat! Let me - "
But Katherine waved her off. "I didn't even realize getting hungry while reading. It's not your fault, so stop apologizing, please. Let's just go get lunch."
Hazel nodded heavily. "Yes, yes!" On the inside she thought: I need to pay more attention next time. After all, the lady's well-being was her responsibility.
As Katherine's horse arrived just after lunch, the original topic only came up again in the evening.
"What did you say again about the gift box?", Katherine asked while sitting on a table, noting down a list of things she needed for their next date. "It was... weird or something?"
"Yes!" A rare proud grin surfaced on Hazel's face. She was always happy when she could help her lady. "Really weird! And quite creepy, too, actually... So there was this gift box, as big as a loaf of bread - that is how the cook described it. It reached here shortly after Christmas with a note saying: 'my husband forced me to send something. Enjoy'. No signature or anything."
Hazel was gesticulating with her hands while recounting the story as if she herself had been there. "The earl didn't open it but said to disposed of it. However, the maid he send - the one who got into the snowstorm later on - was too curious. It was really expensively packed, you know? A golden silk box with fine silver ribbons. Maybe she thought she'd get a treasure for herself if the earl didn't want it. So, she took it away and unpacked it. Guess, what she found?"
"After the long introduction most likely nothing so plain as jewels or gold.", Katherine shrugged. "Tell me."
Hazel nodded, showing disgust on her face. "It was a rat's nest with four fat rats in it. All dead."
"What?!", Katherine shuddered. "Who sends something like that for Christmas?!" And, most importantly, how did the earl know he shouldn't open it? Like he expected it...
Was it from one of his enemies? The hatred one must feel to send a pack of dead rats for a Christmas present surely reached the I-wish-you-a-gruesome-death-level. Maybe she should send Ethan some dead rats, too... no, poor rats. You don't deserve this.
"You're right. It isn't something a family would normally send. I think it's possibly one of his enemies.", Katherine deliberated. "And it says 'my husband', so the sender is a woman. A rich one, as it was a silk package. Did the earl ever have a sweetheart?"
If it was a woman he broke up with, the hatred would make sense. Well, not really sense, as the gift was still something reaching a nearly insane level of hatred but it would be ... understandable. Somehow.
Hazel shrugged. "Should I go ask Olivia?" Olivia was the name of her friend, the cook. Out of Hazel's descriptions Katherine concluded that the old woman had to look just like a friendly, wizened olive, so the name matched quite well.
"Please do. And while you're at it, can you bring me these items?" The lady asked, handing her the list she'd written.
Hazel lifted the paper and stared at it for a while, her brows knitting further and further together, looking troubled.
Astonished, Katherine imitated her gesture unknowingly. The things she asked for weren't that hard to get. The mansion probably had all of them in store. "What is it? Is there something wrong with the items?"
The lips of the maid quivered, as she tried to decipher the words but in the end she looked up helplessly. "I... milady..."
She gulped and her voice softened out of fear, while the green eyes reddened with uncried tears. Pursing her lips a little, she whispered: "Milady I... I can't read that."
Embarrassment flashed in Katherine's eyes as she scratched her head. "Ah!? Is my handwriting that bad?"
"No, no, no!", Hazel instantly intercepted, waving her hands in a hurry. "It's really nice! It's just I - ah... I can't really.... read... that good."
With every word, Hazel's voice grew softer until it was nearly inaudible.
"Hah?!" An astonished cry slipped out of Katherine's mouth. "That is... I'm so sorry, Hazel! I should've thought of this! Let me recite it to you."
She snatched the paper back and read it out aloud before the other girl could stop her. Then she put it down. "You know Hazel, I could teach you. If you want to, that is."
Hazel blushed, embarrassed. "You - you don't need to, milady. I'm just a maid, I don't deserve -"
By taking her hand, Katherine stopped her rambling. "No, you're not just a maid. You are my maid. The person I spend most of my time with. My friend, hopefully. You know why I told you to change yourself that night? It wasn't because I hate your pure self. I don't. Instead, it was to stop you from being too naive. So that you won't get hurt."
The green eyes widened and Hazel's mouth parted slightly. Her lady worried about her?!
Looking up to Hazel's with a smile, Katherine concluded: "Teaching you how to write is a sincere offer. Think about it. It would make things easier for both of us."
As Katherine wanted to take her hands back, she felt Hazel's grip tighten suddenly. Confused, she looked up and saw her maid's lips purse in an attempt to hold back the tears glistening in her eyes. She could just hold them for a few seconds though, then they rolled down her cheeks like stars falling from the firmament. "Thank you, milady! Thank you!"
Her muffled words reached Katherine's heart, and she hastily stood up to hug Hazel tightly. "Oh my! There is nothing to thank me for! Sweetie, don't worry, you'll be a great reader in no time."
Her head buried on Katherine's shoulder, Hazel cried her eyes out. Only she knew that learning how to write was only part of the reason.
There was never before someone, who selflessly wanted to help her. Someone who said: I don't want you to get hurt. She thought, she didn't deserve it but her lady said otherwise. She would do all she could to not betray the trust the lady put in her.
Sniffing she said: "I will try my best! I will learn really hard!"
Katherine chuckled. "Sure you will. Did you think I would spare you otherwise? I can be a really strict teacher, you'll see!"
A laughter made its way to Hazel's mouth. Her lady was such a good person, how could she bear to be hard on her maid? "It's okay, milady! Please do your worst!"
It took Hazel only a few days to realize her misjudgment. Unexpectedly, her lady was a demon of a teacher, letting her stay up till the morning hours and yelling at her for the tiniest mistakes. Still, Hazel was glad deep inside because she knew this was the lady's way to show her that she cared. So, Hazel held back her tears and started to work hard.