The morning sun wasn't half up, yet the trampling of foots and clinking of arms awoke Katherine from her sleep. Startled, she called for Hazel, who rushed in from the room next door. "Milady, there seems to be a disorder in the mansion. They have sealed off the whole building. Should I inquire about the circ.u.mstances?"
"Please do." Katherine, meanwhile, washed herself and dressed in a simple green grown. Hazel was there in time again to lace her corsage. She should request for an extra maid soon to help her out. "So?"
"The whole mansion is in chaos. Someone seemed to have poisoned the food. Fortunately, the earl wasn't affected, but two maids, the gardener, the cook, and three servants have lost consciousness. They are searching for the culprit now."
"Lost consciousness?", Katherine repeated. "Are there other symptoms? What is the earl doing to help?"
"The earl ordered the captain of the guards to investigate and his personal doctor to tend to the affected. They have sent to town for a doctor, too, but unfortunately it will take hours to reach here and some of the patients may die until then. Also, the earls personal doctor complained that he doesn't know this poison. They are sweating profusely, and black veins are spreading under their skin." Hazel fell silent. It really seemed to be a dire situation.
Katherine paced up and down in the room. She wasn't familiar with poison, but the mentioning of black veins made it appear very serve. Would she be of help there? She didn't know. The healing was only for the body itself, not to work against outer influences. Anyway, she should at least try, lest they died without her doing anything.
"Come on, Hazel, lets visit them." Determined she opened the door, only to be confronted with two guards blocking her way. They had weathered faces with bushy beards. One of them was missing an eye. Though a bit older than regular guards, they had muscles all over and a powerful presence. All in all, they looked quite scary.
As Katherine stumbled backwards, the one-eyed smiled mockingly. "I'm sorry, milady, we can't let you out." The words and the black tooth in his smile were more befitting for a bandit than a guard. He didn't even name a reason. His eyes said 'I don't respect you. What can you do?'
Guards under her window, guards in front of her chambers. The earl was treating her like a prisoner, Katherine thought, as fury ignited in her. She was a goddamn lady, but even the guards were daring enough to look down on her!
Getting courage from her anger, she stepped forward again, going nose to nose with the one-eyed, who was grinning even more. Using his overconfidence, she grabbed for the dagger on his waist and retreated swiftly, holding the blade to her throat. "Don't move!"
Surprise flashed in the guards' eyes, followed by anger and annoyance. He ignored the warning and approached her. "You don't have the guts to kill yourself, milady." The title sounded like an insult coming from his mouth.
Retreating, Katherine changed the position of the dagger. "Maybe not. But I surely have the guts to make a slash to my face and tell the earl it was you guys. I don't think he would like that." It wouldn't be a big deal for her, because she could heal it anyway. Just the pain was kind of troublesome. She didn't want to do it, but she would for the slightest chance of healing the poisoned people.
Hazel behind her inhaled sharply. "Milady, what are you doing?!"
Katherine ignored her, the eyes fixed on the guard, who had stopped and furrowed his brows. "The earl wouldn't believe you."
Katherine lifted her chin, trying to stare down at him, although he was taller. "You think so? I am such a weak little girl. I don't have a weapon for myself. You are so much stronger and more proficient. How then would your dagger fall into my hands? You must have given it to me to shift the blame for cutting my face, right?"
The one-eyed burned with fury. The implied truth in Katherine's words hurt even more. If he hadn't underestimated her, she wouldn't have the dagger now. A total rookie-mistake. Yet, how could he let this little girl best him! He wanted to pounce on her and get that damn dagger back, but a heavy hand landed on his shoulder. "Stop it, Jack. The lady can't be harmed."
The other guard had made his move, finally. He was half a head taller than the one-eyed Jack, but appeared more approachable, although not quite friendly. Gripping Jacks shoulder tightly, he directed his next words to Katherine. "All of us would be in trouble, if you got hurt, milady, so could you please put that dagger down?"
What a shrewd fellow, Katherine thought. He had calculated his words to let her feel dumb for making such a big turmoil. If she lowered the dagger just a bit, he was sure to bounce forward and grab it. She gritted her teeth. She hated shrewd people. The duke, the earl, the guard, all of them were trying to bring her down. "No. It's still better to be hurt than imprisoned. I'm going to visit the victims now, because I might be able to help them. Don't get in my way!"
As the guards stared at her frustrated, not sure if they should try stopping her again or simply follow her command, the sound of hasty footsteps neared. Eventually realizing that they had entered the chambers of a lady without permission the guards became fl.u.s.tered. After sending Katherine a last glare, they retreated. Instantly Hazel rushed over to Katherine. "Are you hurt, milady?" Katherine shook her head, annoyed. Finally, she could have reached her aim, but now there was a new problem. Whoever was in the corridor, he was surely sent by the earl.
Katherine didn't want to lose the weapon she had gained with so much afford, so she let Hazel close her eyes and slid the dagger under Fosetis cushion, careful not to wake the rabbit. She didn't want to mistrust her maid, but just like the guards she was paid by the earl at the end of the day. Her cousin's betrayal let her trust in the ability to judgement sway.
Seconds later the butler stopped just outside the anteroom. His old face was stoic and a little sweaty by his fast pace. Although in a hurry, he didn't forget bowing. At last a person with manners, Katherine thought again, remembering the scene in the foyer the other day. "Milady, there is an emergency. The earl requires your assistance."
Katherine wanted to answer that she was just on her way to the victims, as she remembered her promise to make the earl pay. Hesitantly, she decided to follow it up. Now, what could she request as reward? Maybe a part of her freedom. Switching to the image of a pouting little girl, she folded her arms. "Does he? Well, I'm not in the mood. I wanted to go out and inspect the mansion in the morning. Unfortunately, there were really unpleasant people in front of my room, who shoved me back in like I was some kind of prisoner."
The guards outside nearly spat blood as they heard her change the facts. Maybe they wanted to shove her back in, but how had it ended? They were beaten in their own game and would have needed to step down if the butler hadn't come in this fortunate moment! This girl was vicious!
Sam was surprised, too. He hadn't expected her to outright refuse the earl. "Milady, it is a matter of life and death. I will personally reprimand the guards later. So, could you think this over?"
"No, thank you. Whoever dies, they aren't my people and I don't get anything by saving them. Besides, the problem with the guards isn't only their behavior but their resolution to not let me out. Isn't it a bit too overbearing of the earl to first lock me in, and then expect me to help without compensation?" It must be a command of the earl to keep her inside. Why else would they go as far as hesitating while she had a knife on her throat.
"I am not authorized to make this decision, milady.", the butler said apologetically.
"Then go and talk to the earl." Looking annoyed, Katherine shooed him away. "Tell him, I want my freedom. And a horse while he's at it." With that she strode out of the anteroom and into her bedroom, closing the door. Out of sight the cold air dissipated and she flopped down on the bed. What if he refuses, she thought anxiously. She would heal the people of course. But with that she would give away her last opportunity of self-determination. If she got back on her word, she could go back twice, trice uncounted times. She would never get anything in return.
The horse, of course, was an exaggerated request. With just her freedom she would be contend already, but she had the feeling that she needed to request something that didn't naturally belong to her as payment if she wanted him to believe that she wasn't to be trifled with. Besides, it wasn't really a payment if it belonged to her in the first place.
It didn't take long for the butler to come back. "Milady, the earl is gifting you a horse if you can fulfill his request but reminds milady that the guards are for your own protection. Therefore, he won't be retrieving them."
Katherine wanted to stomp her foot in anger. What protection? They were obviously imprisoning her! Just in time, she remembered that she had an image to preserve, so she hissed instead: "Fine! Take me to the victims then!" Although she loved riding, she now regretted bitterly that she asked for a horse.