“We did not given up Mam and Papa’s bodies to the grave-diggers,
when they came ‘round to Solstice Park.”
We did not give up Mam and Papa’s bodies to the grave-diggers, when they came ‘round to Solstice Park. The household knew it was a risk to bury them on the grounds. If the sickness was still stirring in their bodies, if the Plague still had influence at this house, anyone could contract it just by touching the dead with their pinky finger. But it was a risk we had to take. It was Mam’s dying wish, and it was Papa’s hope to save their reputation.
To the people of the Court, the Plague was almost non-existent. Yes, they knew it was there. Yes, they were cautious when walking the streets of London. But, because they were so well taken care of and weren’t wallowing in their own filth, they did not catch it.
But if the people of the Court found out that the sickness was indeed raging about in their own kind, they would surely panic. My family - what was left of it - would be shunned, even if they already were not very well liked, and I would be cast onto the streets, where I would surely catch it.
It seemed more… well, more important to save my reputation than to be cautious, at this moment. I could simply say that Mam and Papa - Duchess and Duke of Helmsworth, to the Court - had died of old age, and nothing more. If one of the servants even opened their mouth to say a thing about their death, then they would instantly be dismissed.
It wasn’t as though they had the confidence to tell anyone.
So, the very day Mam and Papa died, we announced their funeral.
My parent’s wake was more of a slightly depressing gathering of slightly tipsy friends and slightly sympathetic people of the Court. And when I say such things, I mean that it was not even considered a wake. More of a celebration.
See, Mam and Papa were never extremely popular at Court. Mam had eventually wriggled her way into groups of ladies, drawing them closer and closer until she found something to hold over their head. If they said one thing against her, then Mam would blackmail them into keeping quiet.
That in itself was horrid.
Papa was only of any use to anyone when it came to gambling. He was hopeless at cards, and so daft in the head or tipsy that he did not notice the other Dukes and Lords cheating him out of thousands of pounds. When he did finally found out, he challenged each of those men to a duel… and always won, robbing them of their dignity and their life.
To be short, everyone was cheered when they died. I had to say that I agreed with them; I, myself, had been nearly betrayed by my mother and when challenging my father’s command, I’d been slapped and then thrown into the cellar. Now, their funeral was being held in that very place. It had been furnished, since I was last locked in the room. My first order, as lady of the house, had been to move every furniture in my mother's boudoir into that very place.
Now, the hard, wooden cellar floor was covered in lush pink carpets, and on top of them, sat a fainting couch - previously used to calm my mother's fits of hysteria - and cushioned chairs that were out of date, even for my mother's style. Her furniture had clawed feet, huge nails that dug into the wood and left marks whenever someone moved it a centimeter. The room was painted an even lighter pink that the rugs, with paintings of religious figures. Bookcases upon bookcases sat against the walls. But the middle of the room was bare, perfect for dancing.
In my opinion, it was perfect for the funeral of my parents.
I had every reason to be happy at their wake, but to keep up images, I was forced into a black gown by my manners teacher, Selene, and had to look solemn in front of our guests.
That was quickly changed as soon as Lady Emmilyne Sarah was announced at the door, wearing an elaborate, bright pink dress and balancing a parasol on the tip of her pointer finger. A servant began to call out, “M'Lady Grey, M'Lady Eleanor, and Lord-”
“My Lady Grey!” she shrieked, tossing the parasol onto the ground, startling my servant, George, into silence. Emmilyne's mother, Eleanor Sarah, appeared behind her, escorted by her husband, Gage Sarah. Eleanor had a look of exasperation on her face, and reached forward to grab Emmilyne’s forearm.
“Please, dear, this is a wake,” she whispered in that quiet, fragile voice that I knew too well. “My Lady Grey does not need your-”
“Oh, come now, Mum!” Emmilyne ripped her arm away from Eleanor’s frail, powdery white hands.
I had known Emmilyne since I was nine, she ten. It had been my first time at Court, my Mam having kept my birth a secret from the Court due to the shame of my being a girl. Emmilyne had been living in that very castle since she was three, because her mother could not teach her the rules of etiquette, and was now relying on the Court to whip her daughter into shape.
She had boldly walked up to me, head held high, skirts in ruins, and her legs wide apart. A nursemaid had run after her, holding onto the little girl’s tiny waist while positioning her legs together, lowering the girl’s chin, and adjusting her skirts. “I do apologize, Lady Grey. I’m afraid she has a wild spirit,” the maid had whispered, tone matching Emmilyne’s mother’s.
I had nodded, my eyebrows raised. Her maid then introduced her as ‘Lady Emmilyne Aurora Sarah III’. As soon as her nursemaid had bustled off to take care of another child, Emmilyne’s brother, Emmilyne had resumed her pose. With hair that looked as though it’d been combed with a fork and her eyes blue with a tinge of gold, she said, “Don’t call me that.”
I had been confused. By that age, I had already heard the story of my birth many times, and I knew that my name really did make up who I was. My name represented my parent’s disappointment. I was the embodiment of their dashed hopes. I would have given anything to have Emmilyne’s name, and yet she wanted me to call her by something else.
“Why? It is your name. ‘Tis a name that makes up who you are,” I said.
“Yes, well. My name does not fit me. If my parents wanted something pretty, then they wouldn’t have named me something as petty and common as-” she swung her pointer finger around as she said each syllable and word of her name. “-Emmilyne Aurora Sarah!”
She looked at me mischievously. “I tried to debate upon changing it with my mum, but she didn’t agree. I am afraid that I got myself in a bout of trouble; I told her I wanted to be named Rump rather than Emmilyne!”
My eyes had widened as large as saucers, and I must have looked very stupid, because she giggled. “So now Mum runs ‘round giving me orders with that horrid name! It hardly compares to Emmilyne. I’d rather be named after a cow’s ass than have the same name as any other girl in the country.”
“Then… what must I call you?” I’d asked.
“My mum may call me what she will, but I have come up with a far better name!”
“And that ‘twad be?”
“Falcon! ‘Tis what the boys call me, and tis what you shall call me now, Grey!”
“If I must, Falcon, if I must.”
Emmilyne - excuse me, I mean, Falcon - had hardly changed in these past seven years. Her hair still looked as though she had just been carrying on with a man, she still had a tiny waist and did not even have to wear a corset, and though her eyes had slightly lost their golden tinge, she was the same.
A bit more proper, thank God.
She ran over to me, skirts held so high that it revealed her knee. A servant boy, holding a platter of small pastries, visibly blushed. She glared at him, swung her hair over her shoulder, and finally reached me.
“Hullo, Falcon!” I said, hugging her. She smiled at me, and poked my nose with her finger.
“I am so sorry for your loss,” she muttered solemnly, winking at me. Falcon herself had a bit of trouble with my parents, having been one of the girls my mother had nearly betrayed. Mam had found out that Falcon was secretly corresponding with her stepsister’s fiancee, and Falcon had had to promise not to speak of something my mother had done.
Knowing Falcon, she was probably thinking about all the letters she was going to send to Sir Wilhem Sorren now that Mary Howe - Mam - was gone.
I was thinking of the many things that I was going to spat out about my parents now. I would have been beaten if I’d said anything while they were alive, but now… I exhaled, feeling a weight lifting off my chest. Though Mam and Papa had not given me a reason to hope that they would live, they were still my benefactors. I was not in my father’s will, and I’d have nowhere to go if he did die. And Mam had been making a match for marriage with a man from across England, so I would be off their hands.
What if he broke it off because of my mother’s death?
Even though a lot of weight had been lifted off of my chest when they had died, more had been delivered as soon as we were ready to lay them in the ground.
Suddenly, I felt Falcon put a hand on my shoulder. “What are you thinking about?” I turned to her, studying her smirk and wild black hair. She raised her eyebrows, waiting for an answer. “I do know that look, my fair lady! It means that you’re either thinking about what a mess I am, or you’re worrying about something.”
“I’m thinking about marriage.” Falcon groaned, raising her hand to her forehead in an exasperated gesture. Falcon, though she was a man’s lady, hated the idea of marriage. Whenever it was brought up, she was known to pretend to faint or gag.
“You know my parents are having me wed to that weak, blundering idiot, that Peter-” I listened to her blather on about her Mam and Papa, waiting for her to be done. She took a deep breath, ending with a nasty curse word, before looking at me expectantly. “Go on.”
“I will have nowhere to go, now that they’re dead.”
“You can always stay with us,” Falcon said, nodding her head over to her parents, who were quietly mingling with the Duke of Lancaster. Everywhere I looked, furniture was clothed in black, people were shrouded in darkness, and a little girl was entertaining a group of ladies at the piano, playing a mournful tune. Yet everyone was speaking happily, shrieking in joy or screaming out their ‘consoling’ greetings to me whenever they passed.
They didn’t seem to notice that my life was in ruins. Maybe I should not be celebrating my parents’ deaths, but mourning them. Leave it to my Mam and Papa to tear my being apart, even if they are not on this Earth.
“I suppose I could.”
“They would agree with it.” Falcon waved at someone as they walked by us - a little boy, who was carrying a wooden hoop and a stick, while screeching, Johnny, get back here! I want a turn with the ball! - and then continued, “They think that it would do me good to have you around all the time, being that you are such a good influence.”
I smirked. “Ha.”
“Oh, to hell-” I glared at her. “I mean, to heel with it. They are right. If I am to marry that Peter Larkins, then I must act proper.”
I suddenly realized who she was to be marrying. Peter Larkins, a castle guard. He was quiet, educated, and always was extremely polite when speaking to the women. I’d once watched him give a little girl a rose when she walked through the gates. He was the perfect gentleman.
I could see why Falcon was upset about it.
While I was attracted to the educated, she was attracted to the violent.
“I fail to see why you must act proper. He seems happy enough to open the gate for you whenever you come ‘round to Court.” I fiddled with my black satin gown, running my fingers through my mousy hair, which had been braided down my shoulder. “Maybe he even fancies you.”
“Oh, please. His eye is on-”
“If I may interrupt.” I whirled around at the sound of another voice, to see a man, probably of the age of eighteen, with curly dark brown hair that was reigned in at the nape of his neck as a pig tail. His deep brown eyes were dim and solemn under his messy bangs, and his smile was radiant, not reaching his brown orbs. “I apologize, I know we have not been properly introduced. My name is Sebastien Colony.”
He took my hand to his lips, and kissed my knuckles. I hastily pulled away, slightly shocked, but not enough to let it show on my face. He reached out to take Falcon's hand, but, seeming to note her pressing eyes and ragged hair, he took his fingers back, and held them behind his back.
He watched me expectantly, as though waiting for me to recognize him, or to introduce myself. I shook my head, and said, “I’m sorry… am I supposed to-” I opened my mouth and closed it, likely making myself look like a salmon out of water.
He grinned again, and I was struck by how handsome he was. But the thing that really disoriented me was the words he spoke next. “I am your fiancee.”