Only when the sun nearly reached the horizon, Katherine departed with her entourage. A while later, Pete murmured: "I didn't know you were this good at lying. You can't really do anything to the leg, right?"
The lady's eyes glittered with a faint guilt. "Nope. But they don't know that."
Not noticing her awkwardness, Jack let out one of his roaring laughs. "Well done, well done!"
Slowly, Pete nodded. "He is right. If they believe it or not, they won't dare to try it out as long as you don't get too overbearing. But your conditions are well within their possibilities for now."
"That is because I want it to be a long-time cooperation. If I don't give them any benefits, they would try to back out of it. Maybe not now, but in the future.", Katherine explained when they reached the inn.
"Milady", Hazel suddenly said. She hadn't said much for a while now, so Katherine had been worried already.
Hazel had her hands folded on her chest, over her heart. It was one of the few times she looked her age. Although she was serious, there was a smile on her lips. "Thank you. Thank you for believing in me. I will do my best as a contact person to the merchants. They are all nice people."
So that's what occupied her, Katherine thought relieved. She reached out to touch the taller girls head. "Don't worry, you will do great. Just don't forget: what are you supposed to call me?"
Hazel blushed. She forgot they were still in their costumes. "Respected leader."
"That's better.", Katherine giggled. "I'll go change now, then you can call me 'milady' as much as you want!"
The cold of the night was already crawling under their clothes when they passed the gate of the mansion. If not for the extra-warmth of Hazel in her back, Katherine would most likely shiver by now. In the distance, there was a light. It was a torch on the stable's front, lit by some mindful servants. Still so far away, it looked like a Firefly leading their steps to home.
Was it really home?, Katherine thought. No. Not to her. Although the mansion was bigger than her old home and the gardens beautiful, she couldn't feel comfortable at all. There was always this oppressive feeling of existential fear. She knew she wasn't here because of benevolence, but because of her usefulness. Which meant that she could be thrown out whenever the earl decided he didn't need her anymore. A depressing thought.
Bell neighed softly, as if she felt her owners sorrow and told her to cheer up. With a wry smile, Katherine patted the horse's mane. Yes, Bell would accompany her. Even if she had to go, she was hers and would come with her. That thought made it even more difficult for Katherine to say goodbye when they reached the stable.
Pete helped her and Hazel to get down from the high back, before stepping to the side.
"Good girl!", Katherine softly praised Bell. "You're a real blessing, you know? Carrying Hazel and me for half a day without getting impatient. Even though you have only seen me once before today."
Bell rubbed her head on Katherine's shoulder, softer than last time, as if she didn't want to fling her away again. Katherine grinned. "Does that mean, you also loved me at first glance?"
Another push followed. "Well, that's good then. Sadly, it's late already. I need to go sleep. And you, too." With a last pet of the white mane, she reluctantly gave the reign to a servant.
"See you soon, my dear!", she promised Bell, and gave the servant a thankful smile and a nod.
Jack yawned, thinking of his warm bed. Gladly, the night shift was not their business. There were other guards responsible, most likely waiting for the lady in front of her room. As soon as the lady reached there, Jack could go to bed.
Quite relaxed, the four of them stepped into the entrance hall and made for the stairs when a cold voice stopped them. It raised out of the darkness like the call of a demon, everywhere and no-where.
"Was it fun?"
Katherine shivered. Although the question seemed harmless, under the surface hid a frightening amount of coldness, sharpened into an icy dagger. She knew instantly, who that voice belonged to.
Turning around, she searched for a pair of red eyes in the hall, but the candles on the walls only gave a dim light, leaving more corners hidden then uncovered. Where is he?, she wondered.
Jack and Pete stood to both sides of her. Although they, too, recognized the voice, it didn't ease their tension. Their lord didn't seem to be happy. And why was he down here anyways?
Still searching the hall for a sign of Nathaniel, Katherine tried to gather her courage, but the uncertainty made it difficult. She slowly said: "Well... Yes, I think?"
The air got even colder. Should she have lied? But why did it bother him anyways? He obviously didn't want her to be happy about it, so did he want her to be miserable or what? But why?!
"Guards, maid", the dark voice called out of the shadows. "leave us alone."
With a look of pity to Katherine, Jack and Pete heeded the command. Pete thought it was no use tying to talk to the earl in the state he was in, so he would just report his findings to the trusted butler of the earl. Besides, the old man was way from the scariness of their lord.
Instead of the tough guards, it was Hazel who didn't react in any way besides shivering badly.
"Mi... lady?", she asked tenaciously. Katherine was very surprised that it was exactly the normally whimpering maid who somehow had the guts to question the earl's authority over her. However, as much as Katherine didn't want to be alone, she couldn't pull this innocent girl into her troubles. Especially when she looked like she was prepared to fight a dragon for her case. "Go ahead."
Hearing that, Hazel's gaze grew at the same time relieved and apologetic.
"I'll wait in your chambers, milady." Like the frightened little mouse she was, she scurried away in a hurry.
Katherine exhaled slowly. Now alone, the shadows seemed even darker, manifesting into a swirling living being, only leaving small spots of light where the candles stood. Were they crawling in her direction?
Goosebumps formed on her arms, but she endured and took a large step forward instead. I'm not a kid! I won't be scared this easily!, she encouraged herself, and called out into the darkness: "Show yourself if you want to talk with me!"
At first, there was no reaction. The shadows kept shifting lightly. She let her gaze wander, until finally, she saw a pair of red eyes, glowing in the darkness. Like a predator, like a demon lord, they were staring right at her. Danger!, her whole system cried out to her. Run as fast as you can!
But she stayed still, only balling her fists in resistance. He was no demon, no ghost or slaughter god!, she reminded herself. A mere human! Stop playing with me! Anger slowly washed her fear away until she there was only rage and determination left. "Come out, I said!"
"You dare command me, little girl?" The voice of the earl got even colder.
Although Katherine didn't know what caused his dissatisfaction originally, his reaction now was a bit over the top. Little girl? She was seventeen already, damn it! Getting eighteen in just a month to boot!
She tried to hold in her anger. Hadn't she already confirmed that arguing with the earl didn't get her anywhere? But she just so much wanted to yell at him!
Wait, what if his reaction wasn't even caused by her? Mind me, she didn't do anything wrong today. She'd even asked him before going out. Just because she was a little late it wouldn't disturb the earl, right? So maybe... something bad happened?
Reasoning struggled with anger. If she kept on fighting him for everything, she would never get on a green leaf. Maybe... just this once... she should try another method?
Her shoulders relaxed, the fists opened. Right, fighting wasn't the way to get along with him. And wasn't this a chance? If something really happened, would he talk about it? She so badly needed to know more about him.
Her lips quivered. Giving up on her rage made her vulnerable. But she wanted to try it. Just this once.
"Nathaniel...", she called out softly. The body of the earl, hidden in the darkness, shuddered. "Nathaniel... what happened?"