Benedict watched her, lips smiling effortlessly. She had always been able to coax a foolish grin.
No man could be luckier, he thought.
Finally, he pushed back his chair. Setting down his napkin on the brassy surface, he bowed foppishly.I thank you for allowing me to join you for breakfast, My Queen."
Henrietta laughed. "You're mistaken, my Lord Wickes."
As Benedict walked back to his study, leather boots clicking on the wooden floors, he smiled satirically to himself. Even unintentionally his Hettie was witty.
The twist of irony put Benedict in good spirits. Permitting himself to savor the moment, he paused at the brink of his office.
The study was dark, with broad beams of sunlight filtering dimly through the tinted glass. Antique furniture lined the walls. Littering the desk and shelves were mechanical oddities. Brass goggles and clocks, custom-designed pistols, and models of the various dirigibles and trains the Wickes family owned.
As Benedict moved to collect a stack of crisply-folded post, he heard an unmistakable thud, followed by a sharp crack.
He whirled around just in time to see a figure swinging down from the sky and plant their boots on the window again before it burst, tinted shards of glass flying.
The young lord was momentarily stunned by the blinding crash of light, but he clamped his hand down on a pistol. The intruder, a mere shadow to Benedict, stepped forward.
"Now, now, Mister Wickes. No need'n fer that." There was a smirk in the man's voice.
"There was no need for you to take out my window." Benedict said sternly. He could see the masked man now. "It will be rather a pain to replace."
The intruder fearlessly smacked the gun from Benedict's hand before he could react and pushed him into the desk.
"Small price," The man snarled, "For all you've taken from us that can never be repaid." The man drew a knife from his belt.
"You plan to kill me?" Benedict said mockingly. His heart hammered with fear, but showed the temperament of a statue.
A sarcastic statue.
Benedict saw a flash of pale green in the doorway.
Guard? He wondered. No... Henrietta!
In a flash of panic, he grabbed the hand with the knife, twisting it slightly. He clasped the blade carefully and yanked it in the direction of the man's thumb.
The knife was his.
The man swung his fist at the young lord. Benedict dropped on one knee.
For a split second he was reminded of proposing to Henrietta. Then he slashed the knife.
The serrated edge made a jagged gash in the man's inner thigh. Benedict stood calmly and handed the man the knife.
In the inner thigh is an artery. A rather vital one, actually. Benedict knew from medical studies, and the would-be assassin from his own work, that cutting this artery means bleeding to death. Far too quickly to get help.
The man looked grimly down at the knife then fell to the carpet with a dull thump.
The lord looked down at the dead assassin, then fell into his chair. Then his wife was running towards him, then sitting beside his chair, her head against his chest. She pulled away too soon for Benedict's liking and began to look him over.
"Are you alright?" She asked, voice strangely even.
Benedict was silent for a moment. He looked into her face. It was young. So... unexperienced. Yet any other Lord's wife would be in a hysterical tizzy. He reached down and touched her smooth cheek.
"I'm just... shaken." His voice felt hollow, like it was coming from the far side of the room.
"It's no wonder. You just killed... he is dead isn't he?" She touched Benedict's hand.
"Very." Benedict cupped her elbows in his hands and stood up, pulling her with him. Then he saw the mansion guards in the hallway behind the door. His jaw clenched. "Go upstairs, love."
She hesitated, then turned. He saw Henrietta flinch as she passed the body and stiffen as she passed the guards. So honest.
"Edward." Benedict's voice was no longer hollow. Rather, it was hard as steel, harsh as iron.
The guard stepped forward. "My lord?"
Benedict went around the side of the desk, bent over and plucked the knife from the assassin's still-warm hand.
"This knife nearly killed me. Due to your incompetence, it could have killed Henrietta." Benedict moved closer. Edward swallowed.
Benedict struck Edward across the face.
"You have failed your duty." Benedict's eyes glared at Edward's so intently he didn't see a flash of copper in the hall behind.
"It won't happen again." Said a guard behind Edward.
"'It' won't have the chance."
* * * * *
Henrietta gripped the poster of her bed, the covering shaking along with her.
She was so relieved Benedict was safe. But the dead man was... disturbing. Her eyes glanced down to the hem of her skirt, scarlet with blood.
Benedict's reactions scared her. He was never shaken. But he'd seemed stunned to silence. Then the way he talked to the guards once he thought she left...
Henrietta thought dismissal was harsh punishment at first, but when she considered it could have been Benedict lying were the assassin lay... it seemed any punishment at all.
Just when Henrietta thought she might cry and her nerves burst, Geneve burst into the room instead.
"Oh oh oh! Lady'n Henrietta! Oh ma word, yer alright!" Geneve's hands were fluttering and her eyes wide.
"Yes... perfectly fine, Geneve, dear." Henrietta murmured, trying to hide her own shaking hands behind her bodice. "Quite a fright, wasn't it?"
"Ack! Yer hem!" Geneve shrieked. She wavered on the spot.
If a smattering of blood on my skirt makes her feel faint, I hope she never sees the corpse, Henrietta thought.
"Well, let's'a get ya inta somethin'sa cleaner'n." Geneva said shrilly.
An hour later, Henrietta was clean and fresh as a flower. But she felt haunted. No one she loved was hurt, but death... she'd never seen it. Not like this. Her parent's death was a distant sorry, told to her rather than witnessed.
Benedict came into the sitting room Henrietta had retired to.
"Oh, Hettie." He said, softly. He opened his arms and she went into them. "I'm so, so sorry."
"I just... I don't know what to think." Henrietta said, voice breaking.
"Don't think a thing, love. Not a soldering thing."
* * * * *
Henrietta took to avoiding people. Except Geneva, who was unavoidable. And Benedict who she loved.
But she declined Great Aunt Cythna's offer of a visit. She feigned feeling ill to avoid a party. And had she been able to dismiss all the maids, butlers and cooks, she would have.
But they were needed, so she avoided them. Hiding in the library, a spare room, the attic. She'd explored more of the mansion in a week than in the two and half years she'd lived in it.
On one occasion, she was being chased by Mathilde, the head chef. Henrietta did not want to discuss cookies, think about sauces or contemplate soups. She wanted quiet, numbness.
Desperately, she threw open a door at random and marched inside.
When the stars dissipated and she could breathe again, Henrietta looked up. She'd fallen down a flight of stairs and was on a landing.
"We have a cellar?" She murmured.
Then she heard a clank.
Heart frozen in her throat, she realized there was light coming from below. Curiosity overwhelmed Henrietta, and she bravely went down another flight on the twisted staircase.
Each flight increased the light until she was looking at a fireplace. Cautiously, she stepped on the floor, looking around.
"H-h-he..." Henrietta started. Then she pushed back her shoulders. This was her house. "Hello?"
"No..." a groan came from her right. Picking up her skirts, she followed it.
"Now wha-" She stopped.
There was a man, naked to the waist, shackled to the cellar wall.
Henrietta clamped her mouth shut, trapping a scream. She looked at the man more closely.
"Edward?" She said in a voice far higher than hers, but steadier than she expected.
"My Lady..." He grimaced.
Henrietta turned her head. On the wall next to Edward was another man. He was straining, trying to reach the ground. She followed his gaze to see a silvery spark lying on the ground.
"Who- what?" She fumbled.
"Nocks is obsessed with getting that jewel of yours, lady. Wickes put it there just to taunt 'im, I think." Edward croaked. He bobbed his head with each word, wincing.
"Nocks." She echoed. Some old friend.
Hesitantly, she stooped to pick up the necklace. Nocks looked at her wildly.
"Don't give it to him!" He whispered hoarsely, frantically. "It's the key. The key! He can't use it..."
Henrietta clutched it to her chest.
Then she ran.