CHAPTER III: THE LAST DUCHESS

A SANTHARIAN NARRATION

 
Darkling Abroad   
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Introduction. After finding a friend with Fillona, the apprentice cook, Rose learns more about late duchess of the castle and the peculiarities marking her death, and the death of her parents.

 

ose awoke suddenly to the sound of footsteps walking impatiently through her room and the sound of ruffling curtains leading to brilliant strains of sunlight singing into her room. She shifted slightly and yawned, then heard the cold and impatient sound of Ferka’s voice. “It is time for you to get up. Breakfast will be served in the morning room in an hour. Would you like my assistance dressing?”

Rose weakly opened her eyes. How strange Ferka seemed out in daylight. The chill of her voice, the rigidity of her demeanour, made her seem more fitted to the shadows. It felt almost ironic to have her stand amidst the sunlight, in the morning, and gave Rose the distinct feeling that she might still be dreaming. “No, no. It’s all right. I can do it myself.”

“As you wish. The ceremony will be later this morning, and a bath will be drawn so that you may bathe before.” Ferka left, leaving Rose alone in her room. The young girl took in a deep breath and wandered to the window, her soft white nightclothes surrounding her, the locks of her chestnut hair falling all about her shoulders in disarray. Outside the window, she saw the stables, and a nearby field where the horses stood grazing on the yellow alth’ho. The gardeners swept the leaves fallen from the trees, and Rose sighed to herself, missing home.

With some difficulty, Rose dressed herself. She had picked a light-hued and rather simple dress that might be easier to put on by herself. How her fingers struggled over the lacing, though! She brushed out her hair, then pinned it up. How difficult it was to do it herself! And yet, she much preferred it this way than having Ferka do it for her.
 

She left her room and descended into the main hall. Despite the lustre of the morning, the main hall was as dark and shadowy as ever, with all the windows covered. It felt like dusk in the castle, like a continuous night, and even small things, like the echo of her footsteps, made her nervous. She was glad to finally get to the morning room, opening it to find light streaming in across the bookshelves, desk and chair. She took a seat at the desk and rung the bell there.

Within moments, Fillona walked in with a breakfast and set it down in front of her, on the large desk. Rose admired the look of the food: the delicately rolled meats and fresh fruits that gave the plate a soft colour. Fillona set the plate in front of her quietly, laying out utensils, a napkin, and a glass of juice. Rose watched her nimble fingers work quickly and neatly. Then, as quietly as she had entered, she bowed and began to leave. Rose, without really thinking, asked, “Your name is Fillona, right?”

The girl seemed a little surprised, but smiled as though glad to talk to her for the first time. “Yes, Ma’am.”

“Please - I am not much older than you - call me Rose. I - um… Thank you. This meal looks delicious. So much food! Perhaps you might help me finish it?”
“I have already eaten, but I will gladly accompany you.” Fillona pulled up a chair to the side of her desk.

Rose smiled. “How old are you?”

“I’m 19, but I’ll turn 20 in a couple months.” Rose didn’t fail to note how close Fillona’s age was to her younger sister’s. “You’re 22, right?”

“Yes. How did you know?” Rose took a bite of a faberige and some toasted bread.

“I found out from some of the others here at the castle. I’m pretty curious. I like to know what’s going on, who’s coming in, who’s going out. I was pretty excited when I heard you were coming. There aren’t a lot of people as young as you and me around here, and most everyone else is really solemn.” Rose was struck by how honest and open the girl was! How completely different she was from all the rest of the people in the castle - more like the Duke and herself than Ferka or even Hurington, Fillona’s master.

“In a place like this where the windows are always closed and rooms are dark, who wouldn’t be?” replied Rose. “Why do they never let any light into this place?”

Fillona shrugged a bit, pushing back one of the dark stands of her hair. “Yeah. It’s been that way ever since the last Duchess died. That was before I came here.”

Suddenly Rose became eager. The mystery of the last Duchess intrigued her greatly, and her voice showed it. “What do you know of her? I have been too afraid to ask anyone.”

“They said she died in a boating accident,” Fillona replied, looking at her. “But most people doubt that. They say she was extremely intelligent, and she knew how to sail very well. Most suspect that she was murdered.”

“Murdered!” Rose felt her stomach sink.

“Yeah. Murdered. They think it was done by someone here in the castle, too, but no one knows for sure. It’s hard to say, because apparently everyone loved her, especially Ferka and the Duke. Her room is still neatly kept up in the west wing, upstairs. I heard the Duke never wanted to believe that someone from his own castle would kill the Duchess, and so he never delved too deeply into it. It’s been 5 years since she died.”

Rose listened eagerly as she ate. Murdered! How awful. No wonder the Duke always seemed so sad! “How much do you know about her? The last Duchess?”

“Everyone says she was beautiful and charming and witty. She was said to have had dark hair, darker than mine, that fell down her back in straight, dark strands. Her eyes were also dark - black like nor’sidian. I think her mother might have been Shendar or something. I don’t really remember. A lot of people thought maybe she might be part elf because she was so extremely beautiful.” Rose resisted the urge to glance at her plain chestnut hair, and how simply she was dressed. “She was very strong, and yet very coy and charming as well. Extremely sociable. She used to throw parties all the time and invite the most wealthy and noble families. But, it’s kind of strange…”

“What is?” Rose asked eagerly.

“Well, from what I’ve heard, she really wasn’t strong and charming until she married the Duke. Or rather, right before she married the Duke. From what I heard from some of the older members of the castle, like Durgen, she was a very quiet kid. As a girl, she was very shy and not very strong at all. A lot of people attribute it to her growing up, though. And maybe to the tragedy in her family” Fillona shrugged.

“Tragedy? What tragedy?”

Fillona tilted her head in surprise. “Why, you must have heard. Her parents were murdered the day after her wedding.”

Rose was shocked. She set down her fork and stared at Fillona. “They were murdered, too?”

“Most attribute it as being done by a political radical, someone who didn’t like the way the duchy was being ruled. They were poisoned, I think. Either poisoned or stabbed; I can’t remember. In any case, a lot of people admired Lady Chrystine for assuming the position the way she did. That was her name, Chrystine, though I wouldn’t recommend saying it to anyone else.”

Rose made a small thinking utterance as she stared off a little biting into a piece of cool meat, then her mind returned to the manners of the late Duchess and she looked to Fillona again. “And she was intelligent, too?”

“Oh yes. Very. She knew how to ride a horse in all sorts of different manner, and how to shoot a bow, and how to sail. They say she was an expert dancer, well-versed in forms from around Santharia. I think most people admired her for her political savvy, how charming and persuasive she was. They say she had just as much power as the Duke, if not more.”

“And she... -” Rose was cut off by the sound of the door opening, And Ferka came in, stopping short a little ways as though disgusted to see Fillona, a mere servant girl, talking to the Duchess-to-be, and yet in some ways thought it appropriate. Rose wondered if Ferka made Fillona as nervous as she did her.

Her cold eyes remained emotionless and she took in a breath. “Your bath is drawn. The ceremony will be in one and a half hours. Your dress is on your bed. Do you need my assistance for anything?”

“No, Ferka. Thank you.”
Ferka nodded and left the room, and the two girls stood and tiptoed to the door, listening until the footsteps disappeared. Rose turned to Fillona. “That woman gives me chills!”

“Yeah. Ferka probably doesn’t like you at all - even more than she dislikes me. She worshipped the last Duchess like crazy - she was always at her side, always ready to help her, and she admired her over anyone else in the world. I think she doesn’t want you to take the last Duchess’s place.”

Rose walked back into the room and picked up the last piece of toasted bread and set it in her mouth, swallowing it down. “Can I ask you a favour?”

Fillona gladly accepted Rose’s request to help her bathe and get into her wedding dress, and Rose was certainly glad to have her. The two girls talked together fervently, even when the topic of the last Duchess melted away. Fillona was the fourth child in a family of six who had come here three years ago from a nearby town, hoping to learn how to cook and become the Head Chef at the castle when Hurington passed away, or else finding some young nobleman to marry and ascend into a wealthy position.

Fillona helped Rose into her dress, lacing up the back. Although Fillona had never been taught how to be a maid, she was able to put up Rose’s hair into an elegant and neat design that both of them thought made her look very sophisticated. When Fillona had to leave to return to the kitchen to help prepare the food for the wedding, the two girls promised to see each other later that night.

Rose fixed herself up alone in her room, putting on her jewelry and making sure she looked neat. She would have been terribly nervous about the wedding if not for all the things she had just heard. Could the murderer of Chrystine and her parents still live in the castle somewhere? It gave her chills to think about. Her thoughts were interrupted when Ferka came in to take her out to the gardens where she was to be married and become the next Duchess of Chrynna Dabney.
 


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