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The rain woke him, startling him from a tangled bay of memories, drawing him up with the cool scent of the sea carried inland as a heavy pall sifted through the house around him. He could almost feel the weight of the darkness as he got up and made his way to the library, easing the wrinkles from his clothes as he went, and taste the dampness in his throat. And hear the silence beyond the faint, faraway humming in his head.

The library was in shadowed dark, with only remnants of grey daylight eking through the window curtains, but he went to the partially filled shelves without pausing, feeling with his fingertips the leatherbound edges, knowing the titles by each ragged spine and thinned gilt lettering: Milton, Franklin, Beechey, Pyne, Shakespeare, Cook, Machiavelli...no, not alphabetized, but that was his own fault, he had the tendency to put them away without looking while grabbing something else. He grabbed Thomas Gray at last, someone had tucked him in at the end of the shelf, and he pulled the book down and held it in both of his hands, letting the pages fall open where they would.

The pages flipped a bit and he pressed in his thumb when he saw Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard go by. And stood there, head bent in the darkness, reading. Mind idly remembering how his father used to stride through the library, his riding boots banging on the floorboards, chiding him for this habit, never listening to his son's faint response. And then the book drew him in, past the memories born so many winter snows and spring rainfalls ago that it was hard to track them exactly, drew him beyond the words themselves until the library faded away. A blissful silence grew, the humming still in his head but unable to push past the spell the book had cast upon him.

Until he heard the faint rumble of a truck's engine, and the kitchen door open and slam, and then the damp rose up and the present grabbed him and the sound in his head came back, an errant fly with nowhere else to alight.

He moved the book to his left hand, tucking his fingers between the pages, his irritation at the disturbance quickly replaced by the awareness that he should be preparing for Miss Winter's visit. That since it was almost sunset, she would be here soon. The hall was dark as he walked down it and then he opened the kitchen door, letting it ride silently on its hinges.

Willie, still wearing his jacket, was bending close to the stove and blowing across the bare coals that Barnabas could not catch even a trace of. Why was he bothering?

"What are you doing?" he asked. "Where is my package?"

Barnabas had not yet seen the gaming box that he'd sent Willie for, but the antique dealer's description of it had made it seem very fine indeed. Traces of his excitement from the previous evening when the letter about it had arrived swirled vaguely in his head. Right in front of the other, constant noise. As Willie straightened, Barnabas could see that his servant was dappled in mud, and that his hair was pushed everywhichway with rain, giving him the look of a rangy, mountain pony who has been too long from his stable in bad weather.

"Did I startle you?" he asked, noting Willie's pallor had gone a shade closer to white, though he knew Willie must have heard him coming.

"I didn't know you were up yet," Willie said. "I-I mean the sun isn't quite down."

There was a passage from a book he had read once, long ago, about how, during winter, the dark stretched long and took over the day. It came to him now, slipping upwards in his thoughts like something buoyant. "With the darkness of winter's end, the night seeps into the day and I am granted an extended furlough from my prison."

"What?"

The reference was apparently lost on Willie, who never read anything beyond his repair books, and who would certainly never think to broaden his mind with exposure to anything of higher value. Ben, at this point, would have recognized what he said as being important and perhaps have asked him what book it was from. A sharp pang twisted inside him at the thought of Ben, long since gone, and the way he would display his ignorance and be willing to listen to the things his master would teach him. Barnabas sighed inwardly and gripped his book a little tighter.

Willie's eyes, somehow alert to the smallest nuance, saw this and he answered, "Your package is there, Barnabas, on-on the table." With one road-begrimed hand, he pointed at the table, and it was then that Barnabas noted the mud tracked in an inch deep on the floor, bringing with it the earthy smell of rot and decay.

"Why are you covered in mud, and why have you tracked it across the floor like that?" Was it too much to ask that a package be simply picked up and delivered without making it look like disaster had struck?

Apparently it was, for instead of answering him, as anyone else would have done, Willie looked down at himself with all the care of a man discovering a new country. As if he had never seen his own clothes in such a condition, which Barnabas knew very well he had, and he felt the stirrings of irritation grow.

"Truck's stuck in the driveway," Willie said finally, not meeting his eyes.

"It's what?"

"I said," said Willie slowly, "the truck is stuck in the driveway." He emphasized some of the words as he said them, as if they held more meaning than the others.

"How did that happen?" Barnabas asked, hoping that this would lead to the real problem at hand.

"The driveway is a river of mud."

"A river of mud?" What on earth did that have to do with the truck?

"It's also on a slant," Willie continued, in that tone he used when explaining facts about modern-day living, "and in the heavy rains the road gets washed out." He motioned with his arm in a way that made what he was saying even less cohesive, and then dropped it, his eyes flicking to Barnabas'. "If you had blacktop laid in, or even a layer of gravel spread over it, it would still be passable. As it is, we're going to need a tow."

At last it made sense, at least part of it did, but how it related to him was still a mystery that Willie seemed to be prolonging for reasons yet unknown.

"Are you saying this is my fault?" he asked. "That it is my fault that the truck you were driving is stuck in the mud?"

Willie shrugged, an almost careless tilt to his head as he did so.

"Well, I told you last fall that this would happen, but you obviously didn't believe me. Don't know what they did in your day to keep those carriages from sinking in the mud, but in this day and age, we lay blacktop."

In my day, he wanted to say, in this type of weather we did not go out in carriages. We went by horseback or walked, if need be, to get where we were going, or we did as all sensible folk did and stayed home. But Willie, of course, did not know any of his, nor would he care to find out, even if the knowledge were interesting or unusual. Yet another way he was different from Ben, who though barely able to read or write, had always been interested in the things Master Barnabas could teach him. Not to mention the fact that if he and Willie had had a conversation of such specifics about the road, he would have remembered it.

"You shared with me no such knowledge," he said, titling his head back.

"Yes, I did," said Willie, contradicting him. Brazen, as if the two of them were equals. Barnabas clamped down on his temper, which had suddenly sent the humming in his head to a higher volume. "It was in October," Willie was saying now, "right after . . . well, it was in October, when the snow had started. An' I could tell by the look of things that no one had done anything to that road in a long time, an' I told you--"

This was perfect nonsense. "You told me no such thing."

"Yes, I did," Willie said again, his tone surly as he attempted to wipe the mud from his pants. "I asked you, blacktop or gravel, Barnabas, and you said you would think about it."

"If you are so sure of this," he replied, thinking that if they'd had such a conversation it was obvious that Willie had thought something should be done, "why did you simply not order the necessary materials and have the work done?"

With a snort, his servant looked at him, straight in the eyes.

"Me?" he asked. "Order all that, for a thousand dollars or more without your okay?" His words simmered with the insolence that always seemed to be lurking just below the surface. "You musta just forgot."

Barnabas moved quickly forward, stilling the inner memories of a life where neither Ben nor any of the servants in the house or on the estate would have dared to indicate that the master of the house was not attending to his duties as he should. It was a time, however, gone long past, and he forced himself to remember that this was man of a different century who, with some cunning developed in the streets, obviously had reasons for casting aspersion on his own master.

"You're lying," he said. "You've gotten the truck mired in the mud by your own ineptitude, and now you seek to lay blame elsewhere for forgetting the necessary task of road repair."

"I am not," said Willie, seemingly affronted by this reasonable accusation. He paused then, his hands moving in that restless way they had, the knuckles of one hand rubbing against the palm of the other as if by this motion he would make the words true. "I told you in October when we'd gotten our first blizzard. Remember? I had to sleep in the kitchen for a few days until I got the shutters up, it was that cold in my room. An' then I told you--"

"And I am telling you I remember no such conversation between us because there was none." Surely if there had been, he would remember it, because Willie would have told him in his modern and forward way, and he would have taken his servant to task about it. "The truck being stuck in the mud is entirely your fault."

Blue sparks flashed in Willie's eyes, shadowed almost instantly by the errant hair across his forehead, and Barnabas watched as the enmity his servant kept mostly hidden allowed itself to be seen. "You knew I was right about taking care of the road," said Willie, his voice low and rough-edged, "but you forgot."

The humming in Barnabas' head now rose to a high pitch, controllable, yes, but so far forward in his mind that it could now not be ignored.

"Are you calling me a liar?" He felt his eyes narrow and clamped his jaw tight to hold back the swamp of darkness that was rising up inside of him.

"Yes," said Willie, his human eyes narrowing as if in response.

Ready to strike, he stalked forward, Willie backing up as he came, stopping only when the wall stopped him. He shrank back against it, hands fists at his sides, face pale as he looked up.

And though his eyes were like two pieces of blue steel, Barnabas watched as a shiver ran through the boy's body. Clenched his own fists in response and remembered his father's injunction against striking servants or women out of anger. They should be kept in their place, certainly, father had said, but any punishment delivered should be done with respect to his own status as a gentleman.

A gentleman did not commit acts of violence against those in lower positions than himself; striking a servant out of anger was an act of violence.

"I will ask you again," he managed, gritting his teeth, "do you call me a liar?" And waited while his only servant actually considered the matter, chewing on his lower lip, his eyes now avoiding his masters' as if he were contemplating a response other than a negative one. A flare of impatience shot up inside him and he was about to demand an answer when he saw Willie take a breath.

"I told you, but maybe you didn't hear me, maybe you for--"

The unmitigated gall. To hell with what father said.

He swung, the back of his hand catching the side of Willie's head with a satisfying sound that cut through the humming in his head like a knife. Then Willie looked directly at him, eyes glinting blue stone, insolent, as if casting aspersion on his master's lack of gentlemanly behavior, and Barnabas felt himself clock his arm back again before he could stop it, passion a white fire behind his eyes, feeling his bare knuckles cut through flesh, smelling the tang of blood before he saw it brighten Willie's lip. He turned away, the humming now laced through with a deeper, more bone-heavy call, his fists like two rocks in front of him. Trying to hold on, knowing that he would answer the call, that he would go and sweep through the night, that he would find a well and draw on it, and then walk away. But that now, other duties pressed, and a reluctant, disobedient servant should only be a minor annoyance, and should be given the attention due it.

He had almost arrived at a point of calmness when Willie pushed past him, rough mud falling from his jacket as he did so. "It's not fair," Barnabas heard him clearly, "I did tell you."

Too much. It was simply too much. He reached out and grabbed Willie's arm, knowing that he had to quell this rebellion before it got out of hand, knowing that he would stem his own anger once the lesson on obedience was underway. He pushed Willie against the table, where Willie balked, dug his heels in, and pushed back.

This never would have happened in his father's day, and to Barnabas' knowledge it never had. His father never had to deal with anything like this, he was sure of it, otherwise, he would have given different advice. The few times he'd had to beat Ben for his misdeeds, Ben had taken his punishment meekly and had been sincerely contrite afterwards. In contrast, Willie stood there, his hands balled in fists, his chin jutting out, hair falling over eyes that were dark with anger. As if reveling in his own willfulness and daring his master to do anything about it.

Barnabas' own hands reached out and grabbed his servant by the lapels of his jacket, hands tight around the cloth, and pulled him close. He took a breath, and then Willie lurched sideways, pulling away, his wiry body jostling the table, and then there was a loud, hard crash as something hit the floor.

He turned his head. The bright and shining surfaces of Miss Winter's gift fell, tumbling in brown paper to the floor, the lid landing with a high-pitched smack, the delicate, hand-made pieces spilling to the filth. His hands let Willie go, and he stood there, feeling the freezing cold of disbelief race through him. This beautiful, hand made thing, retaining its perfection from the day it was made over a hundred years ago, until now, with the crass carelessness of a servant who didn't care about his master's aspirations and never would, it lay in ruins.

Willie fell to the floor on his knees, banging down hard enough to rock the metal castings on the stove, and began scrabbling with his dirt-lined fingernails, gathering the pieces together. He was going to spoil it with his haste, Barnabas knew that he would, and leave stains on the velvet lining with the oil from his hands. Reaching down, he grabbed Willie by both arms and flung him to one side. Knelt down himself and, with clean hands and much more care, began carefully gathering up the silver-white markers.

"I-I could fix it, Barnabas," he heard, Willie's voice shaking, "I could glue it if it's broken, I could--"

Whoever heard of such a thing? "Be quiet, you idiot, you don't glue an heirloom!"

From down the main hallway he could hear footsteps along the porch and then a three-patterned knock on the front door.

"That will be Miss Winters, she's early," he said, wondering how the simple desire to give someone a gift could be so completely destroyed in so little a time. He could not even stop his hands from shaking as he gathered up the parts of the gaming box. Why it was so important he did not really understand, only that for Miss Winters he wanted only the finest of perfection.

"Go and clean yourself up and answer the door, Willie," he said, holding his voice steady. "Make sure the candles are lit, and build a fire, and tell her I'll be there shortly." It was always necessary, it seemed, to give Willie complete instructions, something Ben would seldom have needed. He sorely missed the days when go and see to it, Ben, would have sufficed.

He could hear Willie taking off his jacket behind him, concentrating on setting the gaming box to rights, when he saw Willie's mud-darkened hand as his servant shoved it at him.

"Barnabas, here," Willie said. Taking the piece as quickly as he could, he heard another, louder, three-patterned knock.

"Hurry," he snarled.

The shriek of the pump set his teeth on edge, as did the laborious, slow sounds of water being sluiced up over and over again. He was about to say something when Willie finally exited the kitchen, and he heard his steps down the hall, and the front door being opened and closed.

Now, alone with his thoughts, he could draw a calming breath and slow his hands down. Ignore the slight sound that had begun again to grow behind his eyes, and concentrate on the task at hand. The pieces all went into their sections of the box, slipping through his fingers like glass. Next, he gathered the cards, packing them tightly together by tapping the stacked edges against the heel of his palm. The slender ribbons were harder to tie, but he managed it, though the bows refused to be anything but crooked.

Perhaps Miss Winters would find it charming to see them that way, perhaps she could ignore the slight smear that the dust from the floor had left on the pattern on the back of the cards. Perhaps he would find himself a new servant before morning.

Finally he was able to put the lid back on the box, and gathering up the large shards of brown paper, stood up and placed everything on the table. There was no time to do anything but make the rudest of repairs. He folded the paper around the box and pressed it tightly down, and it was only with a stroke of luck that the tape was sticky enough to reseal itself. Running his fingers over the seal, he marveled at the sharp edges that melted invisibly into the paper. Only a small shimmer remained to remind him that there was anything there at all, leaving the impression that the paper remained sealed because it wanted to do so. Barnabas blinked slowly, erasing this small fancy as he examined the present. One corner of it was irrevocably torn, jagged edges revealing the glow of painted wood, but as he reached out to touch it, it tore just a little further.

Leave it be. She won't notice.

And she wouldn't notice, or even if she did, she was too much of a lady to make any comment. His fury at Willie simmered anew as he gathered the present up and made his way out of the kitchen and down the hall. The scent of candle wax burning and smoke from a hastily lit fire greeted him, along with the ragged confusion of Willie's voice, as he heard his servant ask, "My lip is bleeding?" and Miss Winter's acid-laced reply, "Yes, how can you not notice?"

The blow he had delivered earlier must have gone deeper than he'd realized, and his first thought was that he would dismiss Willie for the evening right away. Then he realized that he needed to make it plain that there was nothing for Miss Winters to be concerned about. He turned into the room to see Willie on his knees in front of the fire, the back of one of his hands wiping most of the blood away, leaving a smear he appeared not to notice as he faced toward the flames, his face etched in sharp profile.

"He is so preoccupied with his duties that he sometimes fails to notice when he's done himself a damage," he said, announcing his presence.

"I see," said Miss Winters as she looked at him, her tone polite as always. But beneath the mink cape of her hair, Barnabas thought he detected a furrow of doubt along her forehead.

He walked fully into the room and placed the gift on the table, stopping only when he was behind Willie, shielding him from Miss Winter's curious gaze. He could see directly down as Willie's hands clenched and unclenched against his bent thighs, and caught the tremor that moved through his shoulders.

"Was it a door this time, Willie?" he asked, directing a smile at Miss Winters, her cheeks still pinked with the chill from her walk from the Great House. "Or did you manage it some new way, like that time you fell off from a ladder?"

"A-a door, I think," said Willie after a pause and an audible swallow.

"There, you see? No great mystery now, just Willie's clumsiness. Get up Willie," he added, when he realized that Willie had not yet moved from his spot. Didn't he know that he wasn't wanted? Ben would have known, would have made himself quite scarce the moment a lady entered the room.

"You should put something on that, Willie, to keep it from getting infected," said Miss Winters now, bending a little towards Willie. Barnabas saw her hand was ready to move out, as if in preparation to tilt Willie's head toward the light so she could better examine the cut.

"We're out," said Willie, sharp words cutting off even the thought of a kind gesture.

Worse and worse. It was as if the evening were collapsing into fragments with every passing moment, and as he watched Willie pull himself to his feet, he knew exactly whose fault that was.

"You must forgive the outer condition of my gift to you, Miss Winters," he began, springing to the hope that he could yet salvage some of his earlier anticipation, "but it's had quite a difficult journey in getting here, and I'm afraid Willie dropped it in the kitchen just now."

That wasn't exactly what had happened, of course, but it would go a long way to explaining his currently agitation, which he was sure was showing with every breath that he took. He sent a glare in Willie's direction, warning him what contradicting that particular statement would lead to. Willie, glaring back, appeared to take affront at this, though, to his credit, he managed not to say anything.

"It got dropped?" asked Miss Winters, distracting him from the unpleasant impudence of his servant. "Did it break?"

Gratefully, he focused his attention on her, allowing himself for the first time that evening to concentrate only on the lovely brown fall of her hair, the pearlescent glow of her skin, and the shining amber of her eyes. If she had any flaw, it was the bareness of her arms and legs, distracting him from the grace of her movements. Modern day clothes did her no justice, and he stemmed the longing to have her go upstairs and dig through the trunks and find something more suitable to wear. Maybe he should send Willie up, maybe he should--He stopped himself, realizing that such thoughts would only distract him from the moment at hand.

"No," he told her, shaking his head, feeling the smile grow from deep inside him. "It's very old, but very well made. I'm sure it will give you years of pleasure."

"Can I open it now?"

"I would be delighted."

It was even more satisfying actually watching her open the gift than it had been anticipating this moment. The sound in his brain dimmed to that of a faraway murmur as he took in the loveliness of her white hands, which would look even lovelier draped in lace, folding back the brown paper, and the final, glowing pleasure as she reached out to take off the lid.

"Oh, how beautiful!"

"It's very old," he told her now, feeling the odd warmth rush through him at the thought that he had pleased her. "It's a Victorian gaming box, made over 100 years ago."

"But it can't be," she protested, her voice a little sharp with disbelief as she drew her fingers through the mother-of-pearl pieces. "It's in perfect condition."

Then, in a voice that was quite distinct, Willie said, "It should be, for three-thousand dollars."

In the crystal silence, he turned to look at his servant, and the wild, hot rage that had earlier bedeviled him in the kitchen shifted to ice cold fury. But now, instead of arrogance, Willie had the same expression on his face that Ben had had the one time he'd taken live coals and dumped them in the ash barrel meant for soap making. The still burning embers, of course, had eaten through the barrel, and sent the much needed ash spilling into the mud and ruined them. Now, at least, Willie looked a little sorry, his eyes tilted down at the corners, lower lip trembling. In fact, his face was exactly the color of the ash that Ben had spilled, though his present contriteness was too late to save him.

"Willie."

"Is that true, Barnabas?" asked Miss Winters. Of course she would ask that, she was a lady, and ladies didn't-- "Of course not," he said, harsher than he meant to.

She was looking at him now, her eyes serious and dark, searching his face as if to find an answer there. He sensed Willie shifting on his feet as if he were readying himself to leave the room, something he should have thought of long since, when Miss Winters took a breath, focusing his attention on her.

"It is true, isn't it." This said clearly, a statement of fact. "I'm sorry, Barnabas, but I can't accept that kind of gift. It wouldn't be right."

"But Miss Winters, surely--"

"No, Barnabas, please don't ask me to take it, I cannot. It was one thing to accept that very old book, and then the antique lap desk, both were so lovely. But this--no, I cannot accept it. You know I can't."

He found his hands reaching out to her, almost as if they wanted to force her to take it, and he stopped them. Drew them back to his sides, feeling the sharp slice through his heart, wondering why it had to be this way, so difficult, when while he'd been courting his dear Josette, it had been--

Willie was looking at him, hands at his sides, his expression unreadable, his eyes glittering. Was he pleased that it was going so badly, was he enjoying the demise of his master's plans? He was definitely watching. And sneering. Well, he would not be watched. And that sneer would be removed. Later.

"Willie," he snapped, "go to your room."

Ducking his head, his servant moved as if to go, hair falling forward, masking the hard light in his eyes. But Miss Winters, with her tender heart, laid a hand on his arm to stop him. He allowed himself to be stopped, as he ought, she being a lady and he no more than the hired help, but he did not lift his head.

"Please Barnabas, don't be angry with him, he was only being honest."

What she called honesty was no more than thoughtless blundering, but she wouldn't see it that way.

"But his honesty means that you won't accept my gift." No, that was too bald a statement but there was no way he could take it back, no way to soften what he meant.

Her eyes were hard as her hand dropped from Willie's arm, and he seemed to jerk away from her as she did this, his head hanging forward as if he were about to slink out of the room.

"And would you have lied to make me accept it?" She, being a modern woman, would take his comment at face value, and respond in kind.

The mask with which he approached her each time he sought to seek her favor was a lie entire, as was the facade of a normal gentleman he hid behind. The lies began from his time in Martinique, when he strove to cover his tracks and dally with Angelique at the same time he pledged to Josette that he was faithful to her. From there they stretched out as if from horizon to horizon, following a pace behind, always, like a shadow at daybreak, so many lies that it was hard to fathom why someone, somewhere, did not discover the truth. Yes, he would have lied to make her accept it. But what was one lie among so many?

"Hey, Vicki, wait," began Willie, holding his hands out to the present in what was immediately obvious as an attempt to smooth things over. "You know, a gift, well, a gift is now how much a thing costs, it's more than that, and Barnabas, he--"

"Be quiet, Willie."

"Barnabas," said Vicki, "I asked you not to be angry with him. He was only trying to help."

"I believe you've done enough for one evening," he said, wishing, and not for the first time, that the need for pretence could be lifted at will.

"Now go."

Willie ran a shaking hand along the side of his head, fingers laced in his hair, keeping it there as if to shield himself while stepping back and away from the gaming box on the table. Watching with narrowed eyes, Barnabas felt the warmth of Willie's body as the boy passed by him, moving behind him as if he thought he would not be noticed there. Listened as he heard the steps on the stair, and turned to face the ice-hard glare of Miss Winters.

"I'm only asking him to go so that you and I might discuss this in private."

"It won't matter what you say, Barnabas," she said, her lips pressing together, "I won't accept it."

She reminded him more, at this moment, of Maggie Evans than of his dear Josette, cornered and snarling, teeth bared, not willing to give an inch. And he sensed that, like Maggie, the more cornered she felt, the less she would give in. It was time to change his tactics.

"I understand completely," he said, smoothing his voice out. "I could hardly expect you to take it, under the circumstances, though I do hope you'll reconsider. When I discovered it on my travels, it was so lovely and graceful that it reminded me of you and I knew that no other should own it but you." With a small smile, he tucked his hands together and lowered his head, almost as if he were attempting to look up at her.

It almost worked. For a moment, her eyes went to glaze and slightly unfocused, mouth opening as if she were thinking faraway thoughts. Then a pop of hot coal from the fireplace snapped in the air, and she blinked. Looked at him cool and clear and shook her head.

"I'm really very sorry," she said, "but I can't. I just hope you can understand that."

Half closing his eyes, he lowered his head and nodded. He would have to give in now and come up with another way later for her to take the gift. She had to have it, it had to be hers or he would break it to pieces with his own hands and toss it on the flames. With a start, he realized she was looking at him, her hard eyes appraising, head tilted as if she were studying him.

"May I--" he paused to cough. "May I offer you a small glass of sherry?" He gestured with his hand at the crystal decanters on the table by the fire. She shook her head again. "I'm sorry, I really should be going." She spoke as she often did, so frank that it was often disconcerting. At least she was honest, and it let him know exactly where he stood with her. And if now wasn't the right time to insist that she take the gift, well, there was always later.

When he helped her on with her coat, she refused him walking her home, though she looked somewhat uncomfortable at this, as if unsure of herself, even if only for a moment, as to where the boundaries of propriety lay. He nodded and patted her hand and made soothing noises to let her know it would be alright. Suggested that he might be over to the Great House later to call on his cousin, and that he hoped he would encounter her there. Watched her go through the slight, silver patter of rain until she disappeared through the trees.

Stepping out on the porch, it took him only a moment to snap off the slender end of a tree branch, shaking the rain from it as he peeled it. Normally, the circumstances would warrant Willie fetching his own switch from the yard, but that would take too long and he wanted to follow up on his visit to Miss Winters as soon as possible. A gust of wind brought a freshet of rain sideways to scatter itself along the porch, bringing with it the scent of undergrowth and pine, along with the slight, tangy odor of decay. He caught the brunt of this with his shoulders, turning his head away, concentrating on the branch in his hands.

Keeping a servant in line, father had always said, did not mean tearing one to pieces, though he'd been sorely tempted more than once since the time he'd taken Willie on. He would be sorely tempted again tonight, he was sure, but the branch should be smooth, so as not to tear skin, and flexible, so as to have enough bite to teach the right lesson.

The bark all removed, he held the switch in one hand and ran it slowly through the cup of his palm. Now it was like silk, except for one small knob on the far side, and this he flicked off with the nail of his thumb. Nodding silently at his own handiwork, he walked back inside, closing the door behind him. Felt the Old House settle around him in the dampness as he climbed the stairs, carrying the switch in his fist, the humming in his head increasing a little with each step he climbed. By the time he got to the landing, it had reached an unignorable pitch.

He opened the door to Willie's room, cast with a warm glow from the fire and the candles and the ever-present courting candle on the nightstand. Willie had already dressed for sleep, his bare feet hooked on the metal railings of his bed, head resting on his hands. He didn't rise when Barnabas came in, or give any sign of acknowledgement whatsoever.

Only after Barnabas closed the door behind him, sending the candleflames flickering in the small whirlwind, did Willie look up. Just for a second, through a shock of hair, and then away, as if his master's presence mattered to him not at all. Barnabas felt the feelings of irritation begin to break through his resolve to remain calm, even as the sound his head began to vibrate through his skull.

He walked closer, almost close enough to brush against the boy's knee. Not only had Willie almost destroyed the present he'd meant to give Miss Winters, he'd also severely curtailed any hope of her ever accepting it. He'd done it rudely, he'd not apologized, and now he was acting like nothing had happened.

Then Willie looked up again, and Barnabas looked down at him, at the washed whiteness of his face, and those eyes, blue like a summer's day over the shoreline, and he felt something break off inside of him. Now the fury came, as he knew it would, swamping through him like fire, and he raised the switch and brought it down across Willie's arm. Now the boy jerked away, clasping his hand over his arm, blood instantly seeping through his fingers. Now he cowered in fear, and Barnabas found that it fed something inside of him.

"On your knees," he growled. He would administer the punishment here, and be done with it.

But Willie hesitated, and it made no sense as to why, it was a simple enough command.

"I said, on your KNEES," he roared, reaching out to grab Willie's arm with his hand, fingers curling around the spot where he'd just struck with the switch.

It was satisfying only for a moment as he pulled Willie off the bed, and then he let go, watching as Willie huddled there, panting as if he'd run miles, head tucked between his shoulders. He grabbed the back of Willie's neck and hauled him up, throwing him forward, half across the bed. The hand that had been clasped around his arm now came free, smearing blood on the laundry-greyed sheet. Barnabas could not catch the scent of it, but his body reacted as if it had, and he stepped back, and lashed out with the switch. Watched as it sliced through white t-shirt, and Willie's body, as it tried to press itself into the mattress, a hard shiver running through him from head to toe.

"You realize, don't you," he began, "that Miss Winters left quite unhappy with me. And that she did not take with her the gift I offered."

Willie nodded, his hands clutching the blankets. This was more satisfying, though Ben would have been blubbering at this point, blubbering and begging for forgiveness.

"In effect, Willie, you have thwarted my courtship of Miss Winters. Why would you do that, I wonder."

No answer. The most supreme impudence, which Willie delivered seemingly without any effort at all. He raised the switch and brought it down across the boy's back. Heard the sharp gasp of exhaled air, and the shudder that shook the mattress. Could smell the salt as sweat broke out along Willie's skin.

"I believe I asked you a question. It was not rhetorical."

There was a slight pause before Willie answered, as if he were searching for breath. "I-I didn't," he said, gasping, "I w-wouldn't--"

"Then why did you reveal the cost of my gift to her?" he asked. "When you knew full and well that a lady of good standing would not permit herself to accept anything of such great expense from any of her suitors?"

Willie tucked his head down, as if wiping the sweat from his forehead on the sheets. Then Barnabas heard him gasp and swallow.

"I did-didn't know, it j-just--"

This was false, Willie was only trying to disassemble his way out of his punishment. And then there was the other matter.

"And you also called me a liar."

Again, no answer. It was as if a simple apology was too much for him, let alone bowing to his master's superior knowledge in the first place. He brought the switch down again, hearing the sharp, two-toned whine as it whistled through the air, and the snick as it bit through cloth and skin.

"Answer me!"

He would have his answer, even as Willie's body shivered on the bed, and he could hear the sounds of his dry, shallow breaths.

"You. Will. Answer. Me." He laid each of these blows in time with his words, punctuating them, hoping they would have some effect, that they would break through and make his point. He was the master of the house, and he would say when roads would be repaired and when they wouldn't be. He would be the one to give presents and entertain guests, and he would take down anyone who stood in his way, he would--

"I-I-I only meant that you--"

Of course Willie would begin by trying to explain himself instead of simply acquiescing to his master's demands. He struck Willie again, hard, hearing, at last, a cry of pain.

"A single utterance from you, Willie, has ruined all my plans," he said, feeling a calmness come over him. "This will not happen again."

He began the punishment in earnest, bringing the switch down with almost full force, cutting through cloth and skin, noting only absently the vivid lines of red that sprang up through the white of Willie's undershirt. If it took the switch to break his servant, then by God, he would use the switch, wanting this lesson to be driven home, even if he knew it would take days longer for Willie to recover. How dare Willie ruin his plans? How dare he speak his mind as if it were his right, how dare he utter the price of that gift to Miss Winters, let alone speak to her at all, how dare--

Willie's cries, muffled by the sheets, brought him up short, and the sight of his servant's back, crisscrossed with red lines, stark against the white of his torn garment, made him stop. The lesson was learned then, if the evidence of choked-off sobs were anything to go by, or the shuddery writhe of Willie's body against the mattress. He broke the switch in two and cast it into the fire, and caught the sharp scent of fresh blood as it spiraled upward in the suddenly overly warm air. Stark, biting through the warmth of the room with viper's teeth.

He snatched Willie up, throwing him against the wall, noting the wide eyes and the opened mouth only distantly as the humming in his brain turned into a scream, almost blocking out the submissive and contrite words falling from Willie's lips.

"N-n-n-no, no, Barnabas, please, no, don't, please--"

The smell of blood was like a hardlaced perfume, and he knelt on the bed, meaning to have it. Gathered Willie in his arms, meaning to take it. Felt the satisfying heat pressed against him, the boy's bent knees on either side of his thigh, and the dark, slow shudder of Willie's body as the resistance faded from him. Yes, it was better this way, when they were willing like this, and he licked his lips and cupped his hand around Willie's damp neck, and looked at Willie. Willie looked back at him, and for a moment they hung there together, and then Willie tipped his neck away. Turned his jaw, the muscles on his neck raising the tendons, the skin pulled thin over the veins.

The movement, a complete and total obeisance so foreign to Willie's usual behavior, paused him. This was not at all how he'd wanted the evening to go and it was contrary to his practices to use his servants in this manner. Willie's body quivered with hard, uneven shakes, tense as a divining rod before it strikes water as he drew back, loosening his fingers from around Willie's neck. He was about to let go when Willie took a hitched breath.

"For the love of God, Barnabas," he said, voice shaking.

Startled again into stillness, Barnabas glanced at the body he held with casual tightness against him, and, hearing the pitched sound of a wordless cry, understood at last what was happening. So much sensation had built up, even from the jarring touch of a newly peeled switch, that Willie could no longer contain it. His sex was hot against Barnabas' leg, hard and pulsing with blood, and Willie obviously remembered the release that came from a vampire's kiss. His body longed for it, demanded it, pressing up against him, even as Willie opened his eyes, the realization of what he'd just said dawning over them like a sunrise. And, for a moment, exactly the color of a summer's day in Maine, so blue that it was as if the sun had risen in this very room, in the pitch of night. As if a piece of sky had born itself in Willie's eyes.

As Willie shoved himself away, his eyes began to close, taking the daylight with them, and the extreme hunger that Barnabas had kept at bay since sunset took hold of him. As he knew it would, searing up to the surface, sharpened keens of hunger so willful and newly formed that they would take no less than what had been offered them. He grasped Willie to him, linking one hand around his waist, one hand cupped around his neck, and plunged sharp teeth into the skin pulled taut over muscle. Heard the slight, high sound of punctured vein, and drew out again, lowering his mouth to seal around the break as the blood from Willie's heart pulsed to the surface in thick, rapid surges. So hot, his skin was so hot at first, and the blood, like it had been boiled, that it was almost too much to bear.

He moved his tongue across the wound, sweeping the heat away, allowing it to cool before he swallowed it back, feeling the long, slow sigh of his body as it was absorbed. And more, sucking more as Willie's arms linked around his neck, and the realization that Willie was right up against him, the muscles in his ribs quivering, every line of him taut and shaking. Easing back, he loosened the pull of his mouth on Willie's neck till only his tongue teased the edges of fragile, broken skin, and the blood, warm and sweet now, slipped past his lips without effort. Suckled hard, just for an instant, and then stopped, letting his mouth remain firm and quiet, resting there, absorbing the warm liquid and the salt of Willie's flesh.

Tucked there in the curve of Willie's jaw, Barnabas felt the slight and constant tremors build from the bottom of the boy's spine, shooting up through him like a pack of arrows let loose, sending the hot body pushing against him as the tension-hard cock pulsed against Barnabas' hip. Willie's head fell back, his mouth opened in a silent moan, sandsilk hair dancing over Barnabas' fingers.

He drew away, arm still around the boy's waist, letting the body pulse with its pleasure, noting the damp splay across the front of Willie's garments and the sheen of tears on taut cheeks. Held him there while the boy's arms, dappled with sweat, fell away, waiting until the pleasure passed and the boy's head tipped forward and his whole body collapsed, limp, against Barnabas' chest.

He waited. Felt the unfamiliar weight of Willie's relaxed body as it rested against him, head tucked under his chin as a child would napping against its father's breast, chest moving in hard, almost uneven breaths as the pulse of the human heart slowed. Of course it was this way, it was always this way, though their minds might fight it before, and they raged afterwards. During, they were his. As Willie was now, hands rising to circle his forearms, but lightly, not to push away. Holding on until the reality of his world ceased rocking like a plundered ship, and the luminescent tide of pleasure moved back out to sea.

When Willie's body tightened and he felt the surge of human heartbeat, he let go and let his servant fall back on the bed. Stepped back, noting with part of his mind the sharp, salient tang of spent passion rising above that of burning wax, and hanging beyond like a lost note, the faint bloom of drying blood.

"Your disobedience has cost you, Willie," he said, "but it will cost you even more if I'm not able to convince Miss Winters to accept my gift to her." There was no answer to this, and he reached down to push Willie back against the mattress so that he could better attend to what his master was saying.

As Willie looked up, he could see the cast pallor of Willie's skin, grey against the pale sheets. His hair was stuck to his face as if he were burning hot, though his body shivered as if in the midst of a storm. And his eyes, the color of fog draining across a riverbank. His servant was obviously able to attend, but only barely.

"You courted this for your own gain," he said, feeling the tightness in his own voice, unable to speak of his taking of Willie's blood directly, "and it will not happen again." He slashed his hand down to emphasize this, watching Willie's eyes follow the movement, but half-unfocused, as if they could not quite comprehend what they were seeing. It was no use, he would not be getting through to his servant tonight. He opened the door to the hallway, and turned to watch as Willie's eyes rolled back in his head and the muscles in his neck became completely slack. He closed the door behind him, hoping that his imminent visit with Miss Winters would prove more fruitful than his discussion with his servant had been.

*

As Miss Winters approached him from across the foyer at Collinwood, he tightened his fingers around the edge of the gaming box. She saw that he held it, of course she did, but he wanted her to know how important it was, so he did not try to tuck it to one side or hide it in any way. Her shoes made soft click-click noises that echoed in the still air and he watched the skin beneath her eyes tighten as she came closer.

"Now, Barnabas," she began, "you know very well I can't accept your present, I don't know why you insisted on bringing it here."

He moved past her to place the gaming box on the hallway table. Letting his hands move over it as if caressing it, drawing her eyes there, on the loveliness of the lid, the gilded paint, the brilliant colors. "How perceptive you are, Miss Winters," he told her without looking at her, "for it is this very gaming box that I wish to discuss."

"I don't think that there's anything to discuss," she said, her voice firm. He watched out of the corner of his eyes as her gaze fell on the box. He pretended to adjust the lid and then let his hands fall away as if revealing a treasure.

"As much as I hate to disagree with you," he said, keeping his tone gentle, "I feel that we do need to talk about it. Communication is the very heart of friendship, wouldn't you agree? And I do so want us to remain good friends, as we have been."

"Regardless of whether we talk about it or not, you'll just have to carry it back to the Old House," she said, less sure now. As her hands hung at her sides, one of them twitched as if it wanted to reach up and touch the box.

"I should hardly think I will be able to do that," he said, turning to look at her a little, "because Willie insisted I bring it. He is very distraught, you know, that he ruined the surprise."

"He is?"

"Yes, very." He turned to look at her fully now, catching her eyes with his and keeping them there. "And as angry as I am with him, I could not help but sympathize with his desire to set things aright."

"Surely you're not still angry with him?"

"I am furious, to be honest," he said. "There is only so much leeway one can give a servant, a man like Willie, before one has to draw the line and drive home a point."

"What do you intend to do?"

"I have to teach him a lesson, otherwise he will never learn discretion," he said, with force.

Miss Winters was silent for a moment, her head tilted slightly as she looked at the box, and again one hand moved as if it wanted to touch it, this time rising to waist level before it dropped. "That seems so severe," she said, finally.

"If you would, Miss Winters," he said in the silence, not having thought to appeal to her inexplicable soft spot for Willie Loomis, "consider this. If Willie had not revealed the price of the gaming box, you would have accepted it, would you not?"

She nodded slowly.

"But if you do not accept it because of what you learned, then Willie has wronged us both and deserves to be punished."

Her eyes rose to meet his, and he could see the confusion pushing through like unwanted thoughts. "You already struck him out of anger, Barnabas," she said. "And that was wrong."

He bowed his head, still looking at her. "It was unintentional."

"But if you punish him for his mistake, that will be quite intentional and more wrong than anything else that has gone on tonight."

"If you accept my gift, as I had intended, Miss Winters," he said now, feeling like he'd shot a bolt home, "then I will see no need to punish Willie anymore this evening."

"Are you trying to make a bargain with me, Barnabas?"

"To be honest, yes. If you take this gaming box now, as my gift to you, then I will consider the matter ended."

He heard her sigh as she looked at the box, and knew that he had won. It was the sigh of a woman, not much changed since the days of his courtship of Josette, who catches in her sight an object she longs to have and who knows it is soon to be hers. Even the modern sensibilities of Miss Winters were not, apparently, so jaded that she would not want for something fine and elegant. With large, calm hands, he reached out to push the box towards her across the tabletop.

"Do we have a bargain, Miss Winters?" he asked. "This box for Willie's lack of culpability?"

With only a glance at him, her fair hands reached out to accept the box, pulling it to her and lifting the lid in one motion. Then she paused, holding the lid against her chest as she looked up. Her eyes were brown and serious. "But he has a cut on his lip, Barnabas, and nothing to keep it from getting infected. Part of my bargain is that I will give you something to put on it and you will take care of him. Is that agreed?"

It was such a small thing, really, and looking into her eyes sparkling like fine sherry, it became so insignificant that he nodded. "Certainly, my dear Miss Winters. It will be as you wish."

*

In rolled up shirt sleeves, Barnabas stood in front of the cast iron stove, arms across his chest, waiting for the water to come to a simmer. He'd managed to stoke the dead ashes into life, using the coal from the half-filled coal scuttle, yet another chore left undone during his servant's foray to Bangor.

In his pocket was a new tube of ointment that he'd promised to ensure that Willie used, and on the counter were two clean, folded cloths, and a basin. A canister of sea salt waited, its lid already opened. All at the readiness to comply with his end of the bargain. To perform a task he might have done anyway, seeing that he'd actually laid into his servant quite hard. Not that Willie hadn't deserved it, he most assuredly did, but father always said that a gentleman took care of his servants and livestock, even when they didn't behave as they ought. This part was true, but Barnabas was beginning to feel that father's advice had not, for the most part, stood the test of time. Even if it had, Joshua Collins never would have been able to deal with the likes of Willie Loomis. And Barnabas would not have struggled so hard to convince everyone that all was as it should be, that he was going to rehabilitate Willie, had he known how difficult it was going to be.

It had seemed so providential at first glance to take into his household the man who had released him from his coffin prison. After which would follow many more servants to take care of his needs at the Old House. Even as he realized how wrong he was, how unattainable the goal turned out to be, modern citizens being loath to take up a life of bonded servitude, it was nothing compared to the egregious error he discovered he had made with Willie.

He had picked the wrongest man in Collinsport to be his manservant, but it had taken several days after moving into the Old House to realize it. He incurred inconceivable roadblocks to his plans from Willie's modern upbringing and his insistence on speaking his mind. Those were things that, in time, could be broken, and, in the very beginning, had seemed to be his only problem. A firm hand, his father would have said, was what was needed, and so Barnabas applied it, though, when given orders, Willie still balked, and when told to remain silent, Willie continued to speak up, and not only to speak up, but to call his master to task about those activities which were none of his concern. And when being punished, he sometimes fought back. Something Ben never would have done. But that wasn't the worst of it. No, that wasn't the worst of it at all.

A low, thick steam was rising from the pot now, and Barnabas took a handful of salt from the canister and shook it over the water, letting the crystals fall and melt in the heat. Salt water was the best for cleaning out shallow wounds such as were left by the switch, probably even better than the ointment he carried in his pocket. But a bargain was a bargain, and he would not go back on his word.

Watching the salt melt, he remembered the day he realized what the worst of it truly was, the day Jason McGuire had cornered him up at the Great House and had queried him about his choice of servants. Jason had been puzzled, he'd said, about what a man like Barnabas Collins would want with a man like Willie Loomis, knowing that Willie had little empathy and no moral conscience. Knowing that like associated with like. Barnabas had realized, even early on, that Jason was a great disassembler and could mock sympathy or concern or confusion as easy as some people breathe.

He wasn't puzzled at all, no, on the contrary, he was using what he knew about Willie to jab at Barnabas. But Jason's questions were eventually asked by others, and the consensus was clear: Willie Loomis was a man of ill repute. A dastard in the worst way, a thief, con artist, a traveler shaking the dust off his heels from one town as he made his way to the next. Why on earth would a gentleman such as Barnabas Collins want to associate with a man like Willie Loomis?

And since Willie had such a bad reputation, whenever anything bad happened in town, most specifically the disappearance of Maggie Evans, all suspicions were focused on Willie, suspicions entirely too close for comfort. He'd had to ensure that the suspicions stayed on Willie without casting any shadows his own way, which had been fairly wearing to keep this up for weeks at a time. Had he known then what he knew now, he would have broken Willie's neck the first night and cast his body over the cliffs. It would have gone entirely unnoticed then, but now, now that he'd made such a story about feeling useful in giving Willie a chance for a new life, he was shackled to it. Any disappearance on Willie's part would come back directly to haunt him. And that was to be avoided at all cost.

The water was hot enough now and so he lifted the pot and poured the water into the basin. Then he put the pot down, threw the towels over his shoulder, and picked up the basin. Moving down the hall and up the stairs at a slow pace so that the liquid did not slop over the sides allowed the steam to float right into his face. There was the mineral smell of salt, and the smooth moistness of the cloud of fog as it wrapped around his skin, reminding him of the times he'd tended to Ben or one of the other servants, and for a moment, it seemed as if he were there. In the Old House when it was new, taking care of the tasks that father had delegated to him. But as he opened the door to Willie's room with one hand, the fanciful thoughts vanished.

Willie lay on his stomach, arms over his head, as if that would hide him from his master's eyes. Of course he wasn't asleep, though he pretended to be, lying quite still, almost frozen, as though he were holding his breath.

Barnabas placed the basin on the desk for a moment, and then gave the coals in the hearth a stir, and added several logs on top of that, waiting until the flames sprang to life. Then he arranged the chair by the bed and placed the basin on it, laying the clean cloths on the rung of the chair.

"Willie," he said, but there was no answer. Only silence, and a faint hum as air was drawn up the open chimney flue. The room had been almost ice cold when he'd entered, and Willie's body was only barely covered by a sheet and a single blanket. He could not possibly be asleep.

"Willie, look at me. I know you're awake."

He watched as Willie's ribs twitched under their thin covering of cotton.

"I said, look at me." It was a direct order, how difficult was that to obey? Obviously it caused a great deal of difficulty, as Willie did not move. Giving up with waiting, he reached down and pushed on Willie's shoulder, moving the stiff weight of his body until he was on his side. He looked at Barnabas for only a second, salt matting his lashes, lips ashen pale. Traces of tears streaked his cheeks, cutting through the blood on his lip and on his neck, the fragments of his garment quivering as he seemed to try and hold his breath. Then he looked away, as if searching the room for something besides his master to hold his attention, eyes falling on the chair and the basin.

For a moment his brow lowered as his mouth worked, and Barnabas could see the pulse of vein leaping in his neck, though he was still surprised when Willie spoke.

"Get out," said Willie, his voice catching in the middle.

"I beg your pardon?"

"G-get out and leave me alone. I can take care of myself."

Willie's gaze rose halfway up, as if he were about to look straight at Barnabas, something he had yet to do this evening. But they stopped, locked on some fixed point that never moved, though Barnabas could see the glittering lights in his eyes. He felt his hand clench itself into a fist. It was intolerable that Willie should speak to him this way, not after all that had gone on this evening. Not after all the trouble he'd taken, abiding by Miss Winter's wishes on his behalf. Not after he'd lit the fire in the kitchen with his own hands, not after--

"Go ahead and hit me," snapped Willie, still focused on the air between himself and his master. "It'll make you feel better, and I couldn't possibly feel any worse."

He was going to do that, he was on the verge of doing that; Willie certainly deserved to be put in his place for his irreverent remark, and he was about to raise his hand when Willie crumpled back down on the bed, silent tears rushing down his face. He watched as Willie tried to hide his face, pushing at the tears with the heel of his palm, and then pulling his hand down along his neck to cover the marks that his master had left there earlier. He shuddered then, curling down, as if his body pained him, but more than that, as if the thoughts in his head were driven like prisoners in a tumbrel toward certain execution.

Barnabas waited while the tenseness in Willie's body faded, while the fire sputtered behind him and the silence became still once again. The punishment earlier had been severe, yes, but not to this degree. He'd seen Willie take far more severe whippings, and the only evidence that anything had occurred was the stiffness and slowness with which he walked for a few days. Not this utter collapse. What, then, had caused it?

Willie's hand fell away from his neck for a moment, fingers trembling, the wound open as if he'd scratched it, and it came to Barnabas that the problem was not the weakness of body that was affecting Willie, but rather the state of his own heart. The independent heart that could resist the control of his master to the point where Barnabas had to often take him in hand, and even beyond to where a whipping would leave him in bed for days, could not, apparently, withstand its own flesh.

The moment of passion he had witnessed earlier had been something borne up from the dark, secret well of Willie's own desire, and what he was seeing now was the aftermath. Passion spent, the body's heat spun through looping whorls of pleasure, the delirious moment passed, and now Willie crawled through the fire of self-recrimination. Well, he had asked for it. And it was not his affair if Willie hated himself for what he could not resist.

Barnabas shifted, and then cleared his throat to attend to the more pressing matter of a bargain with a lady.

"Miss Winters surmised that I had struck you out of anger over the incident with the gaming box in the kitchen."

Willie did not move, though his entire body was still and listening.

"She then told me that if I punished you for your ill-spoken words earlier this evening, I would be wrong."

Now Willie stirred, turning his head as if to hear better, as if he could not believe what Barnabas was saying.

"She further bade me to bring you this, and to make sure that you used it."

He pressed the tube of ointment into Willie's hand, opening the clenched fingers to do this, and Willie took it, not lifting his head or even looking up. It was obvious to Barnabas then that he would have to be the one to apply the ointment, even if the salt water he had prepared would do a far better job on its own. He had, after all, given his word.

He began by lifting the blankets, and Willie jerked away as if he'd been stung. The boy's struggles increased as Barnabas attempted to remove the tags and tatters of his cotton undergarment. Willie shied away from his hands like a pony avoiding capture, and Barnabas knew he would have to put an end to that or not only would Willie do himself a damage but Barnabas would be unable to fulfill his end of the bargain.

"Be still, Willie," he said, making his tone low and strong, letting his breath ride softly behind it, feeling the calmness echo beneath his words. He waited, watching as Willie sank back down into the mattress, the muscles along his neck relaxing, eyes half closing. He slipped his hand underneath his servant's chest, lifting him half up as he slipped the remains of the torn garment away, and then setting him down again. Turning, he tossed the t-shirt into the fire, and then took one of the cloths and dipped it in the basin, wringing out most of the water before using it to wipe the traces of blood from Willie's neck and chin. And then from his back, using long unhurried strokes as he might when wisping down a fine horse after a long, hard ride. The salt in the water raised the welts a little, but the swelling would go down rapidly and any open skin would heal without festering.

When all the blood had come away and there was no more to be lifted, he dropped the stained cloth back in the basin and picked up the other clean, dry cloth, using this to remove all traces of moisture. Then, taking the tube from the bed where Willie had dropped it, he unscrewed the cap and reached out his hand to apply the ointment. But at the first touch of his fingertip, Willie jumped. And then again. Each time he bent to his task, Willie's skin moved away, the flesh along his spine twitching with each movement of his master's fingers against him. He was becoming so agitated that it was going to be difficult to finish the task at hand in a reasonable time.

There had been a horse like this on the estate once, ears always flagged up, nostrils flared, mane swirling with every twitch and sound as if a wind moved through it. Had this been father's horse? Or Jeremiah's? He could not remember exactly, but he knew he himself would never have owned an animal like that, one that was so much work simply standing still that it could never predictably carry anyone anywhere. Willie was like that now, turning his head to one side, hair falling over his eyes like a horse's forelock, shoulders tensing up as if one more touch would see him bolting for the hills. Barnabas did then what father always did, echoing as best he could that particular humming deep in the chest that seemed so effective at calming even the most fractious of animals.

Easy now, Willie.

Almost instantly, and with a small sound from somewhere inside of him, Willie's head sank back down to the pillow and his body became still, and his breath evened out. Calm, almost asleep, as that horse had been after father had talked to it for an hour and a half. He spread the rest of the ointment in a thin layer over each of the welts, and even over the skin that was only barely bruised. And then along Willie's arm, where regrettably he'd struck out in anger, as he should not have done but which, at the time, seemed the only way to break through Willie's rebellious attitude.

"Turn your head this way," he said now, and Willie did so, compliant until Barnabas touched the corner of his mouth. Then he jerked away, all unexpected, and the sense of calm that Barnabas had felt flowing through him came to a sudden, icy halt.

"Hold still, and let me finish," he said, feeling the snap in his voice.

Willie froze with instant and uncharacteristic obedience, and Barnabas finished up, tracing the curve of Willie's lip with the edge of his finger, leaving a smear of ointment behind.

Then he was done. He stood back, looking at the tube in his hands as he put the cap back on. "I marvel at modern science that they can contain all of the wisdom of the village doctor in one place."

Willie didn't say anything in response to this benign statement, only rolled back a little to look up at him, his hair curling moist against his forehead.

"Did-did she take it?"

He didn't need to question what Willie meant, but he was somewhat surprised that his servant would ask. Surely he didn't care?

"Yes," he said, finally, "in the end."

"H-how--"

"I made a bargain with her, an ungentlemanly thing to agree to with a lady, but I had no alternative."

And he didn't, not if he wanted to repair the damage that Willie had wrought, and bring closer to fruition the success of his plans. He shrugged, then looked at Willie. Beneath the hard line of his brow, Willie's eyes flickered, lacing the pewter blue with something dark and ragged. His hands were fists and he held himself taut, almost as if he meant to spring out of bed at any moment, some inner tension holding him there.

He could surmise that Willie might be castigating himself for some time to come, but this was so distant from him, with the chasm of night and the endless horror of time that never stopped standing between him and the concerns of his servant, that he could not bring himself to care. Instead, he bent to pull the sheet and blanket over Willie. Then he blew out all the candles in the room, leaving the courting candle burning, and gathered up the basin and cloths.

He opened the door.

"Rest now," he said. "You may return to work in the morning if you are able." Which was more consideration than servants in his day had received, though he doubted that Willie would appreciate that fact.

"Barnabas?" asked Willie suddenly.

"Yes?"

"W-what did you bargain with?"

Ben, for all the earnest hard work he had given his master, would never in his ordinary life have thought to ask a question like this. When one made a bargain, one made it with something, or for something, but this complicated wrangling had been beyond Ben. Not so Willie, who was intelligent enough, so much so that in another time, another life, would have been a man of good standing, perhaps even a man of letters. Yet by the grace or curse of God each man was only given one chance, and Willie was as he was, firmly planted in this life, yoked to the fate decreed at the beginning of time. And so as he walked this solitary path, Willie walked another, equally alone.

He tilted his head to one side as the air in the hallway carried away with it a current of heat from the fire in Willie's room. "You," he said, finally. Then he closed the door behind him.

*

The rain let up in the small hours of dawn, leaving only moisture to drip from the eaves and to soak into the floorboards as the clouds began to thin. The candle on the table in the sitting room burned low and he stared at it for a moment, watching as the slight turn of his head moved the air to twist the flame. He tucked the scrap of ribbon he was using as a bookmark between two chapters and placed the book down on the chair as he got up. Going to the fireplace, he banked the coals in the hearth and then wiped the grit from his hands.

The Old House, suffused with a supreme silence, seemed to be waiting, but whether it was for the breaking of the sun over the horizon or for the quarter moon to slip into darkness he did not now.

Only that in this silence that lay heavy and still in the air all around he was the only thing that moved. Or thought. Or wondered. Even Willie, as he lay in his bed on the second floor, was part of the silence. Going up the steps was not an afterthought, thought it felt like one as his feet began climbing the risers long after his thoughts reminded him that he should check on his manservant. As he opened the door to Willie's room, the air was cast with the dampness that comes from a fire long out in rainy weather. And from an occupant who has barely stirred. Willie's form was completely buried beneath a pile of woolen blankets. Only a shock of sandy hair splayed across one corner of the pillow and the tips of the fingers of one hand curled around the edge of the sheet gave any indication that he was there at all.

Barnabas walked over to stand beside the bed, looking down at his sleeping manservant. Like scattered thoughts, the creases in the pillow indicated where Willie's head must lie, and he pulled back the heft of the covers. The flesh of Willie's shoulder was white in contrast to the angry redness along his back, bare from waist to neck, welted but healing. His manservant stirred as the cold air reached him, and he twisted away, burrowing down, hands coming up to cover his face, pale now still, but with faint color pushing to the surface. He did not awaken, but his lashes stirred as if he were lost in a dream, some vast and twisted inner landscape, purple circles looping over the soft flesh below his eyes. Barnabas let the covers fall back, watching as Willie's form tucked itself low, felt the faint heat that stirred the air and allowed his eyes to fall on the courting candle on the nightstand.

It was guttering, not from any breath of air, but from burning low, the flame just soaking up the last of the wax in the shallow basin at the bottom. He found his fingers reaching on the shelf below the candle for the other stubs that Willie kept there. Replaced the burned out candle with a new one, and lit it with the old. Willie could not sleep without it, he knew, and there was some span of darkness to go before it would be truly light out; Willie needed his rest if he were to recover and return to work. The candle would help him do this.

The waxy feel of the stub coated his hand and he looked at it, the ever present scent of burning paraffin so familiar a memory that it often ceased to be of notice to him. Until there came a moment like this, and he was standing there, tending to his manservant with no other thoughts to occupy his mind. No other thought but that of another bedside, another candle, so long ago that the memory of that candle somehow melded with the memory of this, until the two were almost one. The first memory was of Sarah, somehow sure that the darkness would harm her, and he had taken to sitting with her, unable to cushion himself against her tears and crying in the night. He would put her to bed, and then read by the candle on her nightstand until he was sure sleep had taken her to the other side of her fears. It had always been peaceful sitting there, in the quiet of her breathing, like air whispering across a lake. No one came to disturb him, for the most part, as other members of the household were beyond caring about the insignificant worries of a small girl child. He'd gotten a lot of reading done.

At one point, many weeks into sitting at her bedside, he'd had to leave for a moment. To get a book or to tend to something father wanted, he couldn't quite recall which. When he'd left, Sarah had been awake, gazing at him through the glow of the candle. He'd told her he'd return directly, but it had taken him some time longer than he'd planned. When he came back to her side, to his surprise she'd fallen asleep, face still turned towards the light, lashes long shadows on her cheeks. From thence onward, a lit candle had seen her peacefully through the darkness to the dawn, though sometimes he sat with her anyway, book on his lap, reading. Sometimes in silence, sometimes aloud, the steady rumble of his voice sending her into sleep faster than any lullaby.

The second memory was that of Willie himself. He'd come up to Willie's room to ask him about some delivery that had not arrived that day and found Willie fast asleep with the candle still burning. Thinking it had been an oversight, for surely Willie knew in a wooden structure such as the Old House that an untended flame was a runaway catastrophe waiting to happen, he'd doused the flame between his thumb and forefinger and had departed, thinking to ask on the morrow about the delivery.

When he'd chanced by Willie's room in the hours before dawn, he'd seen the light from beneath Willie's door and went in, sure that he was now awake to ask him the question from before. Again, the candle was lit, and again, Willie was fast asleep, rolled over on his side, facing the candle, hands tucked beneath his pillow. For several nights running, he walked past, and always came the glow from beneath the closed door that spoke of at least one candle, if not several, burning.

At first Barnabas had thought he was mistaken, because a man of Willie's experience would not be, could not be, afraid of the dark. And he'd seen Willie walk from attic to cellar in pitch darkness with nary a pause. But it was the constant litter of candle stubs on the nightstand had decided him. That and the slight, wide-eyed start Willie would make when a candle would suddenly go out. Willie, it seemed, could be in darkness without a qualm, but he was incapable of going into the darkness of sleep without a light to guide him.

As Sarah had been.

It was his memory of her that kept him from bringing his servant to task over the issue. Dear, sweet Sarah had been a good child, and so the weakness of her fear became imbued with gentleness that had somehow transferred itself to Willie. He did not understand it exactly, but it was as if there were this tender spot inside of him that would allow this tolerance. Provide for it even. And never say a word.

The only consideration that saved him from having to acknowledge this was the fact that Willie himself never brought it up. Even when Barnabas had provided a courting candle of ambered and beveled glass to keep the night-guarding candle from going out in the drafts of the Old House, Willie had not said anything. Not even that first morning when he must have awoken with some surprise to find the stubs all swept away and the courting candle in its place.

It remained an unacknowledged point of truce between them. And he imagined that as long as he didn't point out Willie's fear of the dark and his need for the candle, Willie would never point out Barnabas' leniency about the matter. Which, if he were to be confronted about it, he was most likely to do, in his fierce, modern way, flinging a kindness into his master's face. And so the matter went unspoken.

The candle now lit and burning strongly, Barnabas turned away from the sleeping form and went to the window. With one hand tucked around his waist and the other propped on his arm to fold beneath his chin, he watched as the northern sky, still shrouded in grey clouds, began to glow, backlit from the sun, somewhere beyond the sea, pushing its inexorable way upward, breaking through waves and sky, ending another night of a life he would not have chosen.

*

It was the stars that awoke him, somehow it was as if he could hear them through the bare, night sky, now trimmed of clouds and bursting with the fabrication of distant lights. He pushed open the coffin lid and got out, noting that the pillar candles were lit, as they ought to be, and that Willie was nowhere in sight. That meant that there was no unusual news to be passed on, at least in Willie's mind, and that Barnabas could concentrate on his own plans for the evening. He walked up the flight of stairs, absently noting the lack of annoying humming in his head, pulling his cuffs into place as he went, hearing the faraway tap-tap-tap of a hammer as he arrived in the kitchen.

One glance told him how Willie had spent part of his day. The floor was as spotless as it ever got, the mud cleared away, and the pieces of brown paper as well. A small fire glowed from the belly of the cast iron stove, the bright color from between the grating indicating that the ashes had been cleared away beforehand. In the sink rested a pot and a spoon, and the tart smell indicated that Willie had eaten something of a highly spiced nature. The tap-tap-tap was a little louder now, and then came a bang as something fell, and the low, grinding sound of something being dragged, a ladder perhaps, or a large box. He would go out soon, but first--

His eyes caught the collection of papers on the kitchen table, and he went over to them and picked them up. Obviously they were for him, as Willie didn't have any papers and, if he did, he would know better than to leave them lying about.

On the top of the first sheet was a company logo that said Brewster's Quarry in solid blue type. Below that was a short paragraph about the excellent quality of work offered. The following sheets contained a printed invoice with descriptions of services and their prices. For a moment he clutched the papers tight, thinking that Willie had gone ahead and had the gravel laid on the road without permission, when his eye fell on the word written in big letters: estimate.

He stared at it for a moment, the paper between his fingers of a tissue quality that never could have been fabricated in his day, thinking that this was another way that Willie was unlike Ben. Ben would never have taken this initiative, would never have conducted this much business on his master's behalf without specific instructions. Once given, he would have followed them to the letter, and though this memory wove strains of pleasure through him, he realized that the benefit of having a servant of independent nature sometimes outweighed having one that was completely obedient. Sometimes.

The darkness outside the window had turned from blue to black, bringing closer the sounds of the sea. And from upstairs, an unholy series of crashes that had him down the hallway like a shot, and just starting up the stairs when he saw Willie at the top landing. In his arms were long strips of wood that looked chewed on around the edges and, along one side, long strips of white paint were curling away.

"What is that you have there?" he demanded, wondering if Willie had taken a task too far and destroyed something he should not have.

For a moment, Willie just stood there, the muscles in his arms curving around the weight of the wood.

"I-I--" began Willie in the way he had that indicated he either didn't understand the question or was stalling because he didn't have a ready answer.

Barnabas began walking up the stairs, one hand on the railing, the other clenched at his side. As he reached the top, Willie had backed up, or tried to as the strips of wood kept him from backing up far enough to get away. He reached out, and as he did so, Willie jerked back, wincing as his body apparently caught him off guard, and dropping the entire load of wood at Barnabas' feet. Dust rose in an explosive crash, swirling around them with flecks of paint and something shiny he could not identify.

"Well?" he asked, more patiently than was deserved, seeing as the load of wood had missed his feet by mere inches.

Willie was holding his arm where the wood had scraped it bright pink and looking up with his mouth open and the flesh around his eyes taut. "Th-there was this room," he began, then he stopped to swallow and try again. "A room at the end of the hall, all covered in this cheap plywood paneling, an' I knew, you see, that they never had no paneling like that, so I started taking it down, an' then--"

"And then?" he asked, feeling his eyebrows go up in expectation.

The boy looked down at this point as if trying to find the next part of his hard-told story on the floor.

"I asked you a question Willie, and I expect an answer."

Nodding, Willie tried to look up, though his eyes did not quite meet those of his master's, and Barnabas caught the stain on his cheeks. Willie's mouth was just opening as if he were about to speak, somehow lush as it trembled, and Barnabas pulled his mind away sharply. The problem with his servant was quite clear. The issue with the room, however, was still a mystery.

"Take me there," he said now, allowing Willie to turn away, still clutching his arm, and lead the way down the hall. He had to walk around the strips of wood, but he kept pace with Willie's hurried steps until his servant led him to a small room at the end of the hall. Half the white-painted paneling was down, as was a great bit of the plaster, now in a tumbled, white and grey flecked heap on the floor.

"Part of the wall came down," said Willie, looking hard at the pile.

"So I see."

"L-looks like bits of shell or somethin' in there," said Willie now, rubbing his arm, "it's all flaky."

"Horsehair and clamshell," Barnabas replied, his voice faint in the dusty air. A combination of ingredients for plaster meant to last for years, brought down by the pounding of an isolated hammer. But was Willie really to blame? The plaster was old, after all.

He looked around the room, at the parts of recently exposed wall that had not collapsed, and recognized the pale blue paint and the hand painted trim of yellow flowers and ivy. This small room at the end of the house had been his mother's private sitting room, where she'd often gone to do her sewing, or to write letters, or have small glasses of sherry on the sly. He'd forgotten about it, and had Willie not decided to start working on this room, it would have gone unnoticed for a long time.

"This was my mother's private sitting room," he said, moving forward, his hand reaching out to touch the curve of a tiny purple iris. Now from behind him he heard Willie's gasp of breath and the almost silent footsteps as his servant began backing out of the room. There was enough of a pattern still in existence that it could be repeated, and Willie was skilled enough that he could make a template. First he could replaster the walls with whatever passed for plaster in these times, and then paint them pale blue, and redo the trim--

"How did it come down?" he asked now, thinking that perhaps it had something to do with the noises he'd heard earlier.

"It, well, you see," began Willie faintly, "I was pulling away just a little bit and it came away okay, and so I got on the ladder there, and then tugged, and it just, well, it just--"

He whirled around just as Willie reached the threshold, and one look at the expression on his face must have told Willie that leaving was the worst thing he could do, as he froze as he was, one hand reaching back to find the doorjamb so that he wouldn't bump into it. One step forward and that hand was reaching out to him now, like a shield of flesh, the other across his heart, though Willie must know that if he wanted to grab him, he would, and barrier be damned.

"I--d-don't be mad, Barnabas," said Willie, his words tumbling over each other, "you see, I didn't know, an' I thought, I mean, an' I'll put it back, good as it was an'--"

Just then another section of the wall crashed to the floor behind him, sending up a cloud of white dust, revealing the criss-cross of lathes underneath, and leaving only one section of one wall with its blue paint and yellow and green trim intact. He looked at Willie, covered in dust and trembling, hair slipping over his forehead, blue eyes narrowed as if waiting for the blow to fall.

Ben--

Ben, had his servant from so long ago enough sense to tell good paneling from bad, would have been frothing over with apologies by now, begging Barnabas to understand. Groveling, really, in his simple, grateful way, wanting the approval of his master above all else.

But Willie--

Willie was not like that. Any number of thoughts could be flickering behind those watchful eyes, and any number of requested utterances could be ordered forth, I'm sorry chief among them. But he would not say anything, not at this point, not even to save his own hide. It was not as if he were without feeling, his agitated state, as evidenced by the fact that he was now chewing on his lower lip, told Barnabas that he did care. In his own way. If not about what his master thought, then about the house itself. Or maybe he only cared that once again he'd landed himself in a disastrous situation of his own making. If he'd taken more care with the wall, if he'd gone slower, if he'd--

Barnabas flicked his eyes away to rest again on the wall.

"Shore up the plaster before it comes entirely away, Willie, and then come downstairs to the kitchen."

"But, Barnabas--" began Willie, snapping his mouth shut only when Barnabas looked at him again, feeling the simmer of temper building.

"Just do as you are told, Willie. I will stand for no nonsense, not with my mother's private room in ruins."

Willie moved aside, but only barely, Barnabas walked quickly past, glad to be out of the haze of dust, glad to be walking away from the faded memory, that last daylight memory he had of his mother. There in the sitting room, sunlight whispering through the curtains, her skirts of dark plum silk spread about her chair, a slender book in her hands, the pages fanned out, and she looking at him as if she were talking. He couldn't for the life of him remember what she had been saying. Perhaps something about the upcoming wedding, or maybe, hopefully, something more mundane, like the sherry and biscuits she wanted him to fetch for her. Yes, let that be the memory. That one and no other. Nothing about Josette. Or Jeremiah. Or her.

By the time he reached the kitchen he realized he was shaking, fists clenched at his sides. He went to the fireplace and built a fire in the hearth. Laid the tinder down and built the logs above that, lighting the edges with a single match. It gave him something to do as he turned the logs with his bare hands, something to focus on while he waited for Willie. Waited for the memory of that last day to fade away. Then, when the flames were leaping about in a pleasantly distracting way, he picked up the estimate from the table and read through it again.

He could afford it, of course he could. The question was, would they be giving him the services due him as a Collins? He didn't want the road ruined by poor labor, nor the grounds run amok with villagers, insensible with their curiosity. Willie would have to be on extra guard to watch the place during the day, to make sure that no one got in.

The door to the kitchen opened slowly, and Willie appeared, looking around the edge of the door as if expecting, or perhaps hoping, that no one would be there. Seeing that Barnabas was indeed present, he opened the door all the way and stepped fully into the kitchen. He had wiped some of the plaster dust from himself, but only haphazardly, leaving darker streaks of white through his hair and across his apron. But beneath that, his skin was the color of ash, and from the jaggedness of his movements it looked like he was having trouble breathing. Certainly the pupils of his eyes were dilated so far as to obscure most of the color there, though again he could not quite meet his master's eyes.

Willie was looking at the white dust on the dark wool of Barnabas' suit jacket, that much was obvious as his eyes trailed over the damage. Then his eyes flicked away, body tensing as he stared at some far spot along the wall above the stove and waited.

"Come here, Willie," Barnabas said.

Hesitation. Never a reaction as simple as instant obedience. "I said, come here," he said now, fighting the rise of irritation that surged like black flies trapped in a bottle.

Small footsteps, as if Willie were creeping across the floor, brought his manservant close enough to converse in a normal fashion.

"And I suppose you can explain to me about this?" He held the paper out, low enough so that

Willie could see instantly what it was. A tiny nod of the head passed for affirmation.

"Well?"

"They--" he started, then his voice caught in his throat and he had to clear it before he could start again. "The tow truck guy, Wesley Dale?"

"What tow truck? And who is Wesley Dale?"

"Th-the tow truck that came and pulled the truck out of the mud, he--"

"So you had the truck towed out of the mud, is that it? And how much was the tow?"

Willie's mouth gaped open, lips dry. "He, that is, Roger--"

"Mister Collins."

"Mister Collins has an account with this c-company, 'swhy I called them. It's on account, and Roger, I mean, Mister Collins will pay at the end of the month."

"I pay my own debts, you know that, Willie."

"B-but this Wesley guy, he said he'd talked to R-Mister Collins, and everything was okay."

"Ah, I see." He nodded his head, making a mental note to go up to the Great House later to straighten this matter out. Obviously Roger had thought he was doing his cousin a favor, but he did not like being in debt to anyone, even a relative.

"Go on."

"Wesley has a brother-in-law, he owns Brewster Quarry, and Wesley said they could gravel the road, an' I told him to come out for an estimate, and so--"

Barnabas held up his hand and Willie stopped talking, voice breaking off, eyes on the hand, almost flinching, body jerking as if it wanted to step backward but didn't dare. Pausing, Barnabas considered the matter. The welts were still fresh across Willie's back, and the marks still new along the curve of his neck. And yet he'd been working. Hard at work, attempting repairs on the Old House, arranging for those improvements that were beyond his abilities. The damage to Naomi's sitting room might have been done out of haste, but it had not occurred out of inattentiveness. And certainly not from sloth.

"I would consider," he began slowly, "that the repair of the road would be an important asset to the improvements I plan for the grounds." He looked at Willie and waited for his words to sink in. Still looking at Barnabas' hand as he lowered it, Willie nodded. "Y-yes, it would be, an' easier for hauling things from town and all?" His voice rose in a question, exhibiting one of the few indications that he was asking for agreement, let alone approval. He was looking at Barnabas out of the corner of his eyes, dark in the flicker of firelight, shoulders hunched together, hands clasped tightly. Waiting.

"And as for my mother's sitting room--" Barnabas began. Willie's head jerked up, and at that moment, Willie looked at him fully for the first time that evening.

The boy was wide-eyed, teeth sunk into his lip, echoes of a quiver along his jaw. Hands clenching together, as if he were begging, though he didn't say a word. And looking at him, Barnabas saw the memory of the previous night's encounter shimmering in Willie's face, flashing red across his cheeks. And sparks of the memory, the bold heat of that body pressed against him, the sweet tang of blood pulsing from newly broken flesh, rose up in Barnabas' mind as well. He quelled it instantly, pulling himself up to his full height, looking down at Willie, feeling the dark anger string him taut as a bow.

Willie stepped back, casting his face to one side, a small, choked sound escaping him. But he didn't move away, still within arm's reach as if he knew that punishment was coming and that he deserved it. Another way he was different than Ben. He might not scream and bellow, but he did not shirk what was due him. Or at least mostly he didn't. He wasn't now, now that Naomi's room was a pile of lumps and chucks of plaster.

Barnabas watched as a tremor moved through Willie's body, though he obviously tried to contain it, like a wave, small patterns of shifting heat that brought the scent of salt and sweat through the air. Head still tucked down, hands clenching each other still, letting Barnabas know that even though Willie might not grovel and placate, he was entirely aware that his situation depended entirely upon his master's good graces. That alone he did know, even if the remainder of the details of his position sometimes seemed to escape him.

"You will repair the plaster in my mother's sitting room," he said, at last, watching the start of Willie's body as he began. "And then you will recreate the color of the walls and the pattern of flowers until they become as they were. Do you understand?"

A short pause, while Willie's throat worked and a small bead of sweat began its passage along the side of his forehead. Then he nodded, swallowing, his eyes wide and open now, focused on the floor.

"S-sure, Barnabas, I can do that, I'll start right away."

"Tomorrow," he said. "Tomorrow will be soon enough." Willie looked worn enough to drop where he stood, and he didn't want the remainder of the plaster ruined by careless hands.

He began by stepping away, considering the matter done with, but Willie stopped him by looking up.

"What is it, Willie?"

"An-an' the road? Should I tell them to go ahead?"

He looked at Willie, who only met his gaze out of the corner of his eyes. Somehow the issue of the road was important to his manservant, though it probably had to do more with convenience of travel rather than adding to the value of the property. Such were the small thoughts of those who served. He nodded.

"Yes," he replied, walking away. He stopped at the door as he opened it, and turned. "Make sure that you guard the house well while they are here. I will not have any unwanted visitors, do you hear? If there are any, I will hold you responsible."

"Okay, B-Barnabas, okay."

He walked through the doorway, shutting the door behind him, and made his way to the library. Where the air was clean and still, and the shelves of books glowed soft in the darkness, and the scent of the sea mixed with the scent of leather. The memories crowded in one after another as he reached up his hand to pull down a book. Any book, it didn't matter. Just one that would carry him beyond this moment, this place. This life.

~The End~