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The Burning Castle

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“Well!” said Clorinda, reaching up to take the pins out of her hair, “that was certainly an evening one would not wish to repeat.”

“I cannot think of a more awkward one,” Sandy agreed. He glanced at the bed. “Speaking of awkwardness, however...”

“There’s plenty of space for both of us, and you need not fear that I have designs on your virtue,” said Clorinda. “Unless you are truly uncomfortable with the idea?”

“No, if you are not. I think it would be better to have clear evidence for the servants that we are sleeping together.”

“Quite so. Left or right?”

“Left, thank you.” He pointedly turned his back and began untying his cravat, and Clorinda turned hers and started her own much less complicated undressing.

When they were both in nightdress Clorinda turned the covers back—in her experience, professional and otherwise, the best way past embarrassment was to ignore the possibility that it might occur at all. “It’s as well I haven’t forgot how to do without a lady’s maid,” she said.

“And just as well that I’ve never had the opportunity to be used to a valet,” Sandy murmured. He lay down next to her. “Do you think,” he said, with the same instinct as her for getting over his evident nervousness, “that there is a place in a horrid tale for Mr. Lambert?”

“Lord, yes, I was nearly composing it in my head while he’d cornered me,” said Clorinda. “’Twould turn out, of course, that his flirtations with other women are merely so much smoke, to hide, hmm—”

“To hide his designs on his young ward,” Sandy suggested. “Has he a young ward?”

“Young and beautiful. His niece,” Clorinda decided. “Let’s see—I’m tired of young couples, so she shall be scandalously young for his plans, close friends with the groundskeeper’s daughter, and not in love with anyone.”

“Ah, the wild and free groundskeeper’s daughter, who suspects Mr Lambert of—murder?”

“Oh, of course murder. Of her mother, the former housekeeper, whom her grim, stoical father won’t speak of even after so long.”

“And does she come across her body? Her bones, rather.”

“In the cellar—or perhaps the forest surrounding the castle. It would have to be a castle, of course.”

“Not this modern house, no. Though I have thought before that one could achieve a good effect through contrast between seeming modern comforts and actual horrors. Sure your late The Hidden Door did something similar.”

“Though those were entirely modern horrors as well. Indeed ’tis something to consider. But Mr. Lambert should have a castle, with all his talk about his great ancestry. But I think that, though culpable, he is not the murderer himself.”

“No? Is he sheltering someone, then?”

“I am undecided as to whether it should be his illegitimate son or some other relation; for I feel that there is too much opprobrium heaped on bastards already.”

Sandy laughed suddenly. “Say rather it is his mad father, who is incapable of managing his affairs but not at all sickly, whose continued existence he conceals so that he may be thought master of the estate.”

Clorinda laughed as well, then covered a yawn. “And at the end, I think, he shall burn down the castle—not all of it, for it is stone, of course, and there must be an imposing ruin to remain towering over the forest, cursed and full of bats.”

Sandy blew out the candle he had left burning on his side of the bed. “As the two girls run away, and the groundskeeper, unless he was lost in the fire? Or before the fire.”

“Before it. When they discover that he is dead, and they have no protector, they flee to—” she yawned again “—some kind relative, and Mr. Lambert is making preparations to follow them when he is caught in the fire. Can you think why his father set the fire?”

Sandy yawned twice. “Excuse me. I think as revenge on his son for some crime—perhaps merely an imagined one. Or perhaps he has discovered his intentions for his ward, and decides the castle must be cleansed of—” He waved a hand, barely visible in the darkness. “Unchastity. By fire.”

“Blaming the girl as well,” said Clorinda. “Or blaming her entirely. And his last sight is of her and her friend, free and unharmed, on their way to safety.”

“And his son’s last sight is of a tapestry of his exalted ancestors’ coat of arms, burning, before an oaken beam falls on his head.”

“Excellent,” said Clorinda, around another yawn. “Good night, bello scozzese.”

“Good night, dear silly creature,” said Sandy.