Sleep nipped at her heels, turning her eyelids to lead and slowing her steps as she wandered through the thinning crowd, searching vainly for a way back to the city. Brushing past the painted mummers and swaying contortionists, their eyes bright with excitement, beckoning to incorrigible drunks like the fancy whores they were, Delilah barely glanced at the empty, dark tents on the outskirts of the troupe. Nowhere did she see her retinue, forgotten and misplaced somewhere back in the twilight hours, when the crowds were fuller, tamer, more easily awed.
“Pardon,” she murmured docilely, stepping quickly past yet another bear of a man too far into his cups to find proper use of his legs. How she hated them, the self-entitled nobility and greasy, whining peasants alike. All men were so very similar, as though they drew their thoughts and vices from the same well every morning, thinking first with their cocks and then with their muscle, never once stopping to ponder the consequences of their actions, the women they left behind.
Sawtrey’s Troupe had been great fun when first they arrived, the request to settle sent respectfully to the Earl a day in advance. Delilah had pleaded with her husband, begging for a chance to see them, to enjoy the spectacle so many others experienced, others without a hint of her blood or breeding. Of course, those hadn’t mattered in the slightest after she had ducked into an abandoned tent, letting her assigned guardians rush past in a desperate search for a single young woman in a roaring crowd.
What great fun, she groused to her herself now as she strode through the press of strangers, twisting away from eager hands. Perhaps, had she been of a better temperament, the young Lady Beaufort would have been impressed by the feats of amazing skill she passed on her weary way, but their fire-breathing and knife-juggling was lost on her. Instead she noticed only the smells: smoke, singeing her delicate nostrils as she wandered hastily by, stale vomit near a cheap ale-tent, and piss leaking from the decidedly horrifying latrines hastily constructed by an outfit more interested in speed than reliability.
Delilah Beaufort felt as though she had walked for hours, her feet sore and blistered from shoes not made for trudging. Her feet were trained for a ballroom, for the swaying and quick stepping expected of the nobility. Sometimes it seemed her entire life was simply designed to shape her into the perfect wife, as though she were nothing more than a trophy, a gift bestowed upon a man she could never love. But then, why shouldn’t it have been? Marriage, as Henry had told her many times, was the only real use for her.
Well, she would show him. Even if he was elder by two years, the young Earl was more a child than she had ever been, his life spent in search of new maids to force himself upon. Had he spent even a fraction of that passion learning his duty, Delilah had no doubt he would soon be the greatest man Somerset had ever seen. Yet instead, as with all men, he wasted himself in drink and women.
Why had God felt it so necessary to punish her with womanhood? Could she not have been a man, have gone off to fight in the war, dying in service of something she loved? Why was she traded thus, forced upon a child-Earl, while her brothers perished? Her life had not spared them death, but rather ruined them all.
As she thought of her fate, Delilah continued down the path, weaving through constantly rowdier gatherings, clumps of drunks congested about points of interest. Finally glancing upward, she realized that she was in an area she had seen before, though back then the trails had been deserted, the whole area dark and abandoned. Now the moon shone down, practically invisible as she walked through a miniature town of canvas, every gaping entrance and window like the open maw of a dragon, glowing as though an inferno were just barely contained.
Every opening save one. From the rest, the sounds of laughter and drunken glee poured, shrieks and catcalls and the choking, gasping breaths of the heavily intoxicated. But there, as far from the marked path as possible, a single tent sat dark, abandoned, still. Silence crept through the spaces about it, hushing even the most raucous of the spectators.
Delilah was struck by its oddity, by how incredibly out of place it seemed. Almost, she realized, as out of place in its surroundings as she was. Her interest finally piqued, she wondered if perhaps it hadn’t been placed there for her, if perhaps this weren’t the whole reason she had come in the first place. What adventures awaited behind that canvas? What monsters or magic rested in that dark enclosure?
Glancing furtively about – as though anyone nearby was clear headed enough to notice her movements – she crept closer, pushing away the gnawing exhaustion in favor of the slow burn of excitement.
Fate was kind to Lady Beaufort that night, lending her steps silence and her breaths caution, giving her shadows through which to slip and shelter in which to hide. Ever a cruel mistress, she took pity on the child, turning away the steps of the search parties, of the armored knights and furtive thieves.
Of course, even Fate herself could work no true miracles. Delilah paused at the entrance, hidden in its dark embrace, as she felt the first faint brushes of the heat within, as sweat began to bead on her skin and she wondered if perhaps she shouldn’t turn back after all. But she had come too far, had given too much effort into her quest. There was no turning back.
Sighing softly, steeling herself to whatever she should find, Delilah Beaufort brushed aside the tent flaps, the rough canvas scraping along her palms, drying them partially – a small mercy, to be sure. The heat truly hit her then, pounding from the depths like hell itself lay before her, as though the inferno waited just beyond this point.
Had she known how right she was, Delilah may have never taken that step. She would have turned, the spell broken, and run back the way she came. Run back to the safety of her breeding, the ease of her name and the gluttony of her fortune.
But, of course, she stepped into the darkness.