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lily of the valley

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"How dare you lift your blade against the goddess?"

"The goddess? Ha! No, I only struck against a witch."

"Do not mock me. To attack Lady Seiros is to attack the goddess herself. You, Sir Maurice...who I trusted as one of my own..."

"I do not fear you."

"Oh, but well you should. You know what it is to incur the wrath of a witch."

"I care not what is done to me. All I care...is that you burn."

"You will suffer greatly for your sins, cur. You, your children, and your children's children, and all who come after, will feel this curse within their very blood."

"Am I supposed to be frightened?"

"My lady! Is this truly wise?"

"Silence, Cichol. What this man has done is unforgivable."

"This is true, but to pass the punishment along to innocents…"

"I am not wholly merciless, my brother. There will be a way to break the curse. Now...it is done. Gaze upon your face, now foul enough to reflect the darkness within."

"I - I - "

"Yes. When did you last see your eldest son, Maurice? I suggest you pay him a visit...though he may not look as you remember him."

"You - you monster! You BEAST!"

"No, Maurice. You are the beast now. And so you and your descendants will be, until one of you has enough goodness in their heart to love and to be loved truly in return. But we both know that day will never come...

"...for who could ever learn to love a beast?"

***

Hilda Valentine Goneril is bored.

Painfully, excruciatingly bored.

Thanks to that war with Almyra, everything's expensive and hard to get, and her parents are all worried all the time, and her brother's always talking about defending Goneril from all the dangerous Almyran soldiers that are definitely interested in a measly old village a kazillion miles away from Riegan or anywhere that's actually fun. And because all the roads are plagued by Dangerous Rebels, Hilda isn't even allowed to leave the village anymore. No parties, no dances, hell, no evening walks! No fun. Every day's the same.

Hilda isn't made for this! She's made for adventure! Thrills! Delicious pastries and fancy dresses! But the family coffers are dwindling lower and lower. They had to let all the servants go, so Hilda has to do chores like some kind of person who actually cares about chores. The only thing she has to break up the monotony is training with Holst, but even throwing axes gets boring after awhile, especially since her brother freaks out every time Hilda gets so much as a bruise. Never mind shopping sprees or sightseeing. Nowadays Hilda's lucky if they can even buy her a new dress once a year. The highlight of the last six months was when her mother found an old can of peach preserves in the corner of the cellar and made a very flat, sugarless cobbler out of it. Yeah, that's the kind of life she's living now.

It didn't used to be like this. Hilda had a life! She traveled! She did things other than sitting in the parlor with her parents, or axe practice, or chores. But then the precious little prince of Almyra had to go and disappear while visiting his grandfather, who just happened to be Duke Riegan, leader of Leicester...the stupid spoiled kid probably just ran off, Hilda suspects. Sure, she's kind of a stupid spoiled kid herself, but at least she's not starting wars over it.

Stupid or not, with the war raging on for five years and no end in sight, Hilda doesn't see an end to this boring, boring, boring life any time soon.

Still, she's desperate for any kind of change in routine at this point, and that's why Hilda agrees to go shopping with her brother for the month's supplies, printed out on a list in her mother's neat, cramped handwriting. Nothing exciting, because they have no money. But meager or no, the groceries are heavy, and Hilda's back complains as she drags the sack through the town square.

"Seriously, Holst, you can't carry some of this for your precious little sister?" Hilda wheedles, worried that her legs are actually going to snap in two. 

Holst doesn't answer, his brow furrowed as he looks down at the list in his free hand. "Do you think Father would mind if we didn't bring back any fabric? I know he wanted to mend some of his shirts, but even wool has gotten so terribly expensive...I just don't think we can make it work."

Hilda feels a surge of guilt, clamping her mouth shut.

"Did you need something, Hilda?"

"Er, nothing," Hilda blurts. "Nothing at all."

Holst gives a long sigh as he pockets the list and turns to look longingly at a blacksmith's stall. There's not much for sale, and what there is costs more money than Hilda's seen in five years. The square is almost deserted, the early summer air balmy and suffocating. Everything in Goneril looks exactly the same as it always does. Boring, boring, boring.

"Do you see that, Hilda?" Holst asks, breaking her reverie.

"Hm?" Hilda turns to face the town notice board. "That old poster?"

"Not old, brand-new," says Holst, leaning across her to get a better look. "Don't you ever check the notice board, Hilda?"

"Um, no, I don't. Why would I?"

Holst sighs as he smooths out the poster, squinting at it, and then his eyes suddenly widen. "By the Goddess - "

"What? What is it? Someone selling a cow?"

"No," says her brother, the joke going over his head, as always. "It's from Margrave Edmund!"

"What - that old eccentric?" Hilda peers over her brother's shoulder. "I didn't even know he was still alive!"

"Nobody did," says Holst in a hushed tone. "He rarely leaves his house - look!"

To the good people of Leicester

Seeking a lifelong companion for a lovely young lady

Offering room and board at Maurice Manor and 80,000 G (willing to negotiate)

Inquire at Edmund Estate

- Margrave Edmund

"Lifelong companion for a lovely young lady…" Holst muses.

"A dowry, I suppose," says Hilda. "Though a very generous one. This daughter of his must be a real piece of work."

"Margrave Edmund has no children." Holst's brow is deeply furrowed. This is the hardest Hilda's seen him think in years. "Hmm…"

"Well, anyway, are you gonna help me drag all this stuff home?" Hilda huffs impatiently. Holst appears to take no notice. "Brother!"

"What?"

"Going home? Heavy bags? Your poor, sweet, struggling sister?"

"Oh, yes. Very well." Holst tugs the scrap of paper from the board and stuffs it into his pocket before effortlessly hauling a bag over each burly shoulder. "Let's head back, Hilda."

"Yep. Home sweet home..." Hilda looks across the square, and her stomach drops. "Oh, shit."

"Language, Hilda - "

"No, no, forget my language - hide me! Quick!" Hilda darts behind Holst's expansive bulk. "Pretend I'm not here!"

"Hilda, whatever is the matter? Oh, Lord Acheron!" Holst's voice booms out between the buildings. "How lovely it is to see you!"

Hilda moans, covering her face with her hands.

There's something else about Hilda's life she detests. Other than the boredom and the horrible, heavy cloud it casts over her life, well…

There's something even worse.

"Ah, young Duke Holst!" The short blond man sweeps across the square, coming to a stop in front of Holst and bowing with a flourish. "And lovely lady Hilda!" He simpers. "What good fortune brings you here today?"

"Merely some errands." Holst shifts some of the bags across his arms. "Hilda, whatever has gotten into you? Say hello."

Mentally vowing to make Holst pay the next time they have a training session, Hilda does the shallowest curtsy she can manage. "Lord Acheron."

Acheron takes Hilda's hand, sending chills crawling down her spine. "You are as beautiful as ever, my dear. And so kind, to help your brother with his errands."

"Er, yes." Hilda casts Holst a desperate look, but the big doofus doesn't notice, of course. "Kind and helpful. That's me."

"When we're married, of course, you'll have no need to dirty your lovely hands with such things," Acheron continues, twirling his immaculately hideous mustache. "The servants will be able to take care of anything you could possibly need."

Hilda nods mutely.

"I'm afraid I really must be on my way - I'm to take tea with Duke Gloucester, you see." Acheron bows again. "I will see you again soon, my sweet. Duke Goneril." He nods once more and then bustles off to where his carriage is parked.

"What a kind man," says Holst brightly.

Hilda doesn't answer, and remains silent for the rest of the walk home. She'd been able to largely put the engagement to Acheron out of her mind. It's fairly new, after all, and there's still a lot to plan before the papers are signed and they're officially wed. But it's still a reality, one that Hilda can't avoid.

Normally, Hilda would have shut this whole thing down. Thrown a temper tantrum, run away, made herself thoroughly undesirable. She certainly did when she got suitors as a teenager, after all. But now Hilda's twenty-three, and she's wise enough to realize the truth.

Acheron's disgusting, slimy, and two-faced. He's way older than Hilda, and all he wants is her title (and beauty, if Hilda says so herself.) But he has money. And the family needs money, more than ever. After all, House Goneril is dying, and the village with it. And while Acheron has no real noble standing, his family fortune is still easily enough to save them.

Hilda resents her parents for doing this to her. But she can't leave them to destitution.

Holst is quiet too, clearly deep in thought. It's an unusual sight for the meathead (which Hilda thinks as lovingly as possible) but she figures he's lost in his own troubles. It hasn't been an easy year for anyone, after all.

Goneril Manor still looks small with no guards, a dried-up garden, and only one old carriage horse in the stables. Much of the furniture has been stripped down or sold, and they're only living out of the barest handful of rooms now. Hilda unlocks the front door and helps Holst bring in the bags of supplies.

"Let's go speak with Father and Mother," says Holst, setting down the bags. "We'll put this all away later."

"Really?" Hilda blinks in surprise. Holst's not really a "do it later" person. "Okay."

Their parents are in the sitting room, of course. They were talking in low voices, but quickly cut off when they see their children enter, twisting around and looking as if they were just caught with their hands in the metaphorical biscuit jar.

"How was the shopping, dears?" Lady Goneril's smile doesn't quite reach her eyes.

"It went well enough." Holst bows. "Though I'm afraid we weren't quite able to afford the fabric."

"Oh, that's no trouble." Lord Goneril twists his hands together. The lines across his forehead are far deeper than they were five years ago. "I'm glad you two are here. There is some news I must deliver. Sit down, please."

Hilda and Holst sit down side by side on the sofa, facing their parents. 

"You see…" Lord Goneril glances at his wife, then back at his children. "I am afraid that while you two were gone...well, I have met with some people, and...suffice to say, we must advance your wedding, Hilda."

"Wait." Hilda stares at him. "What? Why?"

"Lord Acheron is growing...impatient, and…" Lord Goneril sighs heavily. "I am afraid that we have almost entirely depleted our savings. If we do not do something within the fortnight, then...then we will lose the manor altogether. And we cannot afford to purchase a new home. There is no other option. I am sorry, Hilda. I know you wished to keep enjoying your youth..."

"That's why Acheron was in the square," says Hilda slowly. "He was coming back from meeting with you!"

"Yes."

Hilda wishes she could protest. Normally, she would. Normally she'd be making a speech about how this was her life and her decision and she was not going to marry some old creep just to bail them out!

But her parents are too old, and she and Holst can't find work because there's no work because there's no money, and Hilda's protests all die in her throat.

They're idiots, but she can't let her parents and Holst starve.

"I am sorry, Hilda." Her father's voice is gentle. "But this is for Goneril."

"Besides, darling," her mother adds, "it won't be a difficult life as Lady Acheron. You'll have servants to do all your work for you. You'll be able to devote all your time to making those little trinkets of yours. Won't that be nice?"

Hilda doesn't answer. She's scared if she opens her mouth, she'll cry, and that would be super embarrassing. Hilda doesn't cry, unless she's faking it to get her way. She hasn't cried for real in years.

"Then this makes my decision clear," Holst murmurs.

"Holst?"

Holst takes a deep breath and sits up straight. "Father, while we were in town, Hilda and I found this." He pulls out what Hilda recognizes as the notice board poster and slides it across the coffee table. "It is a dowry appeal...from Margrave Edmund."

"From Edmund?" Lord Goneril's eyebrows nearly lift off his forehead as he reads the poster. "Good gracious."

"See for yourself what he is offering," says Holst. "Money like that could solve all of our troubles in one fell swoop."

"I suppose that is true," says Lady Goneril slowly. "But where are you going with this?"

"I…" Holst takes a deep breath and puts his shoulders back. "I have decided. I will take Margrave Edmund up on his offer, and wed this young lady he so desires to marry off."

Silence falls in the bare sitting room.

"That will never do," her father says at last, leaning back in his seat. "Holst, without you - what will become of House Goneril?"

Hilda can't help a stab of indignation at that. Hey, you've got another kid.

"We've little choice, Father," says Holst, clasping a hand to his breast. "Besides, Hilda - "

Thank you.

" -'s children will be able to carry on the name."

Never mind.

"I simply cannot fathom our family surviving without you," Lord Goneril frets, twisting his hands together.

"It is this, or our family does not survive at all," says Holst. "We cannot even afford a proper dowry for poor Hilda."

Hilda glares sideways at him.

"Besides, Hilda does not wish to wed, and I hate the thought of passing this burden onto her." Holst lowers his eyes. "It is shameful of me to allow my little sister to suffer for the sake of my own freedom."

Hilda takes back the glare.

"But, Holst…" Lady Goneril trails off.

"It won't be so bad." Holst looks back, his smile tremulous. "Old Maurice Manor's deep in Blutgang Woods, isn't it? They say those woods are haunted by monsters. I'm sure there's all manner of adventure to be had there."

Adventure?

"I admit, the prospect rather frightens me, but…" Holst gives a shaky laugh. "A mysterious young lady with a sprawling estate, deep in the woods? There are worse places to go, I suppose."

Actually, Hilda thinks, that sounds pretty neat. Better than Goneril by a long shot.

"So I will go and visit this Margrave Edmund," Holst concludes. "If he deems me suitable, then I will wed this woman. And you, Mother, and Hilda will be able to live in comfort. I would be lying if I said it was the life I wished for, but...well, so it is."

"Holst…" Hilda manages, but she can't seem to finish the sentence.

"Well, that is that, then." Holst gets suddenly to his feet. "I suppose I will retire. I will see you all for supper later." He rushes out of the room.

"That poor boy," Lady Goneril murmurs. "He would give you the world, Hilda."

"Yeah," Hilda mutters, looking down at the crumpled poster on the coffee table. "Yeah, he would…"

***

By the time Hilda is halfway to the Edmund estate, her mind is almost completely made up.

A mysterious abandoned house with a mysterious young lady nobody's ever heard of. No real job other than being friendly with said mysterious young lady. And if Margrave Edmund can offer that kind of dowry money, he and this girl must be super rich. No chores, no nagging, no rations - kind of like her mother said, Hilda would just be able to devote her time to making her little "trinkets," and she wouldn't be married to Acheron. Really, the more Hilda thinks about it, this deal seems pretty sweet. 

Besides, her options are A) marry Lord Acheron (barf, no) B) let Holst marry this girl even though he clearly doesn't want to (and Hilda would feel awful and guilty about it for ages, that jerk) or C) split the difference and take Margrave Edmund's offer herself. 

C is looking more and more tempting. And if Hilda's honest about it, it's not really for Holst's sake, or her parents'.

It's because this will be an adventure. It'll be doing something. It will be new and different and maybe even fun. And she won't be under the thumb of either her family or Acheron for the first time in her life.

Edmund's estate is pretty cozy, Hilda thinks as she dismounts and gives her horse's nose an absentminded pet. It's similar in size to Goneril Manor, but it doesn't have that run-down look Hilda's home has started to develop in the last few years. The lawns are immaculate, and the lamps inside are lit even though it's still mid-afternoon.

Yep, Hilda thinks happily to herself, jackpot.

Hilda raps smartly on the door and folds her arms behind her back, adapting her Precocious Little Lady expression that never fails to work on Holst. It's time to turn on the charm.

The door is opened almost at once by an old-ish man with dark green hair, who looks down his nose at Hilda like he's never seen the like of her before. "May I help you?"

"My name's Hilda," Hilda says, dipping a quick curtsy. "I wanted to answer Margrave Edmund's ad. In the town square?"

"Hm." The man looks her up and down. Hilda gets the sensation he's looking right through her, and tries to look as dutiful and sweet as she can. "Very well. Come inside."

Hilda follows the man into an elegantly decorated sitting room. The man gestures to a high-backed armchair. "Please take a seat. I will fetch the lord."

Hilda nods and sits down primly, laying her hands flat on her knees, trying to look innocent, poised, and oh-so-slightly curious. The man doesn't spare her a second glance as he sweeps back out of the sitting room.

The interior of Edmund's estate is as posh as the exterior, Hilda thinks as she casts a sideways glance around the room. Everything's neat and polished, and there's plenty of knickknacks and ornaments. Goneril pawned off most of theirs ages ago. This is looking better and better.

The door opens once more. Margrave Edmund is a sallow-faced man with pale blue hair, but his eyes are sharp and intelligent as he looks Hilda over. "So you answered my advertisement?"

"Yes, sir." Hilda bows her head. "My name is Hilda Valentine Goneril, the younger sister of Duke Goneril. I'm twenty-three, in good health, and I'm interested in your, er, offer."

Edmund looks her up and down, and Hilda tenses slightly under his scrutiny - it's even worse than that of the first man, who is standing near the door once again. "My offer, you say?"

"Er, you said that you were looking for a...companion. For a young lady."

"Yes, for my niece. She is...ill. She has been since she was very young, and due to the nature of her...illness, is unable to leave her home."

"I'm very sorry, sir."

"Seteth here has been the one caring for her," Edmund gestures to the green-haired man, who gives another stiff bow, "and he says that what my poor niece truly needs is a companion. A friend her own age, someone from the outside world...someone kind, compassionate, who gives of themselves…"

"Yes," says Hilda quickly, twirling the end of her ponytail around one finger and trying to make her eyes as large and sympathetic as possible. "Yes, that's me."

"You are a very selfless young lady," says Margrave Edmund. "I have placed ads all over Leicester, but none have ever answered me, I'm afraid. They were, er, frightened by the prospect."

"Er..." Hilda swallows. "The illness isn't contagious, is it, sir?"

"What? Oh, no, certainly not."

"So this…" Hilda decides there has been quite enough beating around the bush. "Is this a...dowry, sir?"

"No, no." Margrave Edmund shakes his head. "There is no need for you to wed my niece - only to provide her with companionship. Simply be a friend to her. That is all that I ask."

"Oh," says Hilda, slightly relieved. "Yeah, of course. I can do that. No problem."

"Should you take my offer, you will take up residence in my niece's home, the one her parents left to her before they disappeared - Maurice Manor. It is set deep in Blutgang Woods."

"I heard, sir."

"You will be free to leave the estate whenever you so wish - though of course, if you leave for an extended period of time with no sign of returning, then I will have to reclaim the price I offered. But the deed to the estate and the fortune will be yours so long as you spend time with my niece."

"Seems easy enough," says Hilda. "I'm pretty friendly."

"Very good, then." Margrave Edmund shakes Hilda's hand. "We depart on the morrow. Well, I say 'we' - Seteth will be the one driving you. I myself spend little time at the manor." 

No wonder your niece is lonely, then.

"If that is all." Edmund bows his head. "Thank you, my lady Hilda. I greatly appreciate this. You've no idea - well, I appreciate it. That is all I shall say."

"Yes, sir." Hilda gets to her feet. "I'll see you tomorrow, then?"

"Correct. Seteth, show her the way out." Edmund disappears back down the hall. 

As Hilda leaves Edmund's estate, it's only then she starts to wonder what she's gotten herself into. This whole thing feels weird, and fishy. Why is Edmund so desperate just to get his niece a friend?

Still, she's excited. This is new, and different, and weird - and at least she'll be out of the dismal halls of her family home. Anything's better than marrying Lord Acheron and living out a life of endless boredom, right?

***

"Absolutely not," Lord Goneril rests his face in his hands as he leans on the dining table. "Hilda, what were you thinking?"

"I was thinking that if Holst is so important to the family line, then he should stay here to look after things," Hilda snaps back. She wasn't expecting this much backlash from her choice, and embarrassment is making her cheeks redder and her tongue sharper.

"And what of Lord Acheron?" Lady Goneril twists her hands together. "What of your engagement?"

"Perhaps Holst can marry him," Hilda suggests brightly.

"Don't be ridiculous, Hilda."

"Hilda, you don't have to do this." Holst's large, earnest face is creased with worry, and Hilda tries not to look directly at him. "I don't mind."

"You do, though," says Hilda. "Listen, you don't have to be so self-sacrificing all the time. I'm fine with doing this. In fact, I'm actually looking forward to it."

"You can't merely go and live in the woods with this young lady," says Lady Goneril. "People will talk."

Hilda shrugs. "People talk all the time. I don't care."

"Perhaps there's no need for any of this," Lord Goneril murmurs. "We must simply hold out a little while longer. The war will end, and we'll all - "

"Almyra and Leicester have been at a standoff for years," says Hilda. "Unless that royal brat comes running home, this war's not ending anytime soon."

Silence falls at the dinner table.

"Look, I've made my decision," says Hilda at last. "I'm an adult. This will take care of our debts, and Holst will be able to stay home as the duke, and I won't have to marry Lord Acheron. It's a win-win-win, right?"

"But…but anything could happen to you out there!" Holst argues. "You could be eaten by monsters, even!"

"Um, you've been teaching me to fight for practically my whole life," Hilda retorts. "Besides, who says there's really monsters? Nobody goes in those woods. People take the long way round to get to Riegan."

"Yes," Holst massages his brow, "because of the monsters!"

Hilda sighs. "Look, I've already made up my mind, and you guys don't get a say. Take the money or don't. But I think that Margrave Edmund's offer is the best shot this family has of actually making it to the end of this war."

The room grows quiet again. Hilda holds her breath.

"...Fine," her father says at last. "I can see there is no swaying you."

Hilda resists the urge to pump her fist. "Thank you, Father."

"Though I've no idea what I'll tell Lord Acheron…" Lord Goneril sighs.

That's Father's problem, though, Hilda thinks brightly as she jumps to her feet. "I'll go pack!"