Slowly, Katherine lowered her spoon. She didn't think her question would touch such a sore spot in Hazel. To be exact, she thought nothing about it while asking. It was just curiosity. Now, however... Had the mistreating Hazel experienced something to do with s.e.x.u.a.l harassing? Rightful outrage filled Katherine's soul. Whoever dared to bully her maid, she would squash them. But before that...
"Relax, Hazel. I won't force you to talk about it. But if you need help with something or someone to talk to, tell me. I hope you can see me as a friend some day."
Surprised but still wary, Hazel blinked up to her. "... Thank you, milady."
"You're welcome." Katherine started eating again. "Can you answer the other questions then? About friends and what you like to do in your free time. Are there any nice spots around here?"
Relieved, Hazel nodded. "You could say I'm friends with the cook. However, all servants other than me are past their fifties, so real friendship is difficult."
"All past their fifties...", Kathrine contemplated. "Is there a reason?"
Hazel shrugged. "I don't know. I never asked."
"Well, maybe you should."
"I will, milady." She paused to think. "About nice spots... I really love the garden. It has a huge flower field, a labyrinth, at least six fountains and some other areas I haven't explored yet. It's beautiful."
"Sounds like it." Katherine smiled. "Did you ever go to town?"
"Oh yes. It's just a small village. The people, mostly farmers, are nice, but they don't really like strangers. With some exceptions, they aren't exactly wealthy, too."
After one or two more questions, Katherine was ready to go. To make sure the guards would let her do what she wanted, she took out the dagger.
Hazel opened the door for her. The guards were the same as last time.
"I will explore the mansion now. If you dare to stop me, you know what I'll do.", Katherine said and lifted the dagger.
Oddly, Jack started laughing. "Sure. We know, little Lady. Just go ahead. We'll be right behind you."
Something was wrong, Katherine thought. Why did they stop protesting? Were they planning to follow her and later take her by surprise to get the dagger back? These guards sure were cunning. "No, thank you. I'll go alone."
Jacks eye flickered. "No, you can't do that. We'll lose our job if you go out alone. At least if we follow you, we can still protect you. Maybe the earl won't punish us that hard then."
Feeling guilty, Katherine lowered the dagger. She didn't think about how her willfulness could destroy the guards' lives. Because of his work she didn't get to see her dad often, but once he told her, how aristocrats had to be mindful of the consequences of their doing. Not only for themselves, but for every human being in their vicinity, especially those with inferior status. One wrong word out of an aristocrats mouth could make them live or die.
But it wasn't that servants were worth nothing in her fathers eyes. Instead, their friendship was a resource worth investing into: "If you have loyal servants, they will do their all to help you in desperate times. Some may even give their lives for you. In short, being nice to your servants will let you live longer."
Of course there were limits. But Katherine thought that she wouldn't loose too much in this bargain. "You can follow me. However, tell no one about this."
"Yes, milady.", they answered. The instant she turned her back to them, Jack grinned and showed the other guard a victory-sign. In return the guard rolled his eyes at him.
Both of them got the notice, that the Lady is allowed to leave her chambers now. Instead of simply telling her, they tried to use it for their own good. Well, maybe they would have told her, if she didn't embarrass them last time. Furthermore, they knew now, how stubborn the Lady was, and decided that they needed to bargain with everything they got, if they wanted to fulfill their chore and keep her away from the dungeon and the outside.
Ignorant of these little tricks, Katherine began to inspect the mansion, which was even bigger than she expected.
"Was that the last one?"
"They didn't have anything new then."
"Isn't the secret army building in the Renat kingdom new?", Sam asked incredulously. Several spies positioned in the kingdoms of Renat, Dragsa and Falumor had sent reports in the last few days.
"Not really. It was overdue.", the earl declared disinterested, while digging though a pile of papers on his desk.
"As if Dragsa wasn't enough...", Sam said tiredly. "At least we have enough personnel by their side to disrupt their plans. Do you plan to deal with them both in this way?"
The earl stilled. "Deal with them?"
"Don't say, you want to let them be?", Sam asked, furrowing his grey eyebrows. "They will attack the Iceland soon. If we don't act now, there may be many victims on the civilian side."
"So I should sacrifice my best chess pieces for the man, who crossed me out of the family line?"
Anger surfaced in the old mans' blue eyes. "Do you want to let innocent die because of your family twist? That isn't the boy I know."
An ice-cold wind seemed to brush through the room, although the window was closed. With unblinking red eyes the earl rebutted: "Don't judge be before knowing it all. I won't let them be slaughtered."
Sam held his gaze for a while, then he slowly relaxed. "I'm sorry. I overreacted and overstepped the boundary."
The earl nodded.
"So, what are your plans?"
"I will let them be.", the earl said simply.
"You just said you won't, tough.", Sam knitted his brows, irritated.
"I said, I won't let them hurt the civilians. Not that I will stop them from attacking this country."
"How can you divide that?", Sam asked, more curious than unbelieving. If the earl said he would, then he most likely could.
"Evacuate them. This earldom is the weak spot of our kingdom, because it lies in between the Renat and Dragsa kingdom. We need to verify it of course, but my guess is, they will attack here. Especially when there isn't any army stationed here."
His face all green of nausea, Sam asked: "And that is... a good thing?"
"Well, yes. If we win, it will be the perfect show of strength. To my farther and our enemies simultaneously."
"How do we..." The butler stopped and the green face turned to white as insight hit him. "You... are prepared to use that?" Obviously, 'that' was something terrible enough to make the butler, who lived a long life in the circle of the cruel upper class, fear it.
"I've wasted enough time while trying to find a cure. I don't have the luxury to spent any more. So, yes. I will use it." Unnoticed, the earls hand clenched into a fist under the table. Maybe this decision wasn't that simple to him after all.
Remembering a past conversation, the butler asked: "Is it because of what the youngest prince said? That your father is getting negligent?"
The earl admitted it. "It was good, as long as he was strong, but if his power is dwindling now... it won't take long before the twins try to make their move. I don't want my brother to be caught up in this."
"So that's how it is.", the butler mumbled. "Your aim didn't change over the years."
"It was my birthright after all. And it will be mine again." There was a kind of reckless determination in the earls' eyes. A spirit, which would dye the world in blood-red to reach his goal. He was sitting upright like a sharp sword, and the slim, cruel smile slowly forming on his lips still had an elegant touch, like the civilized sheath for the wild beast behind it. "Were you never curious, how far this damn curse could reach?"
Sam shook his head helplessly. "You will be even more of a monster in the public eye."
The earls smile didn't sway. "Better feared than forgotten."