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Everything Bitter Is Sweet

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Oletus Manor is a sprawling country house, far enough out to be a retreat from the busy and hectic pace of modern city life, but close enough that one day’s travel dawn-to-dusk can get you there. No one knows who owns it, and no one cares to ask questions. The housekeeping staff always make purchases in the local village on the manor’s account, and the bills are always paid. The Lord of the Manor must be a good person, if a shy recluse. Wanting to know more is sticking your nose in where it doesn’t belong.

It isn’t any easier to make inquiries about the Lord of the Manor once they’re actually there. The servants barely speak to ask about laundry; talking behind the back of their employer simply doesn’t happen. Even so, the maid doesn’t deserve the dirty look that is being shot her way by Emily Dyer.

“He said that we could expect news after our last game. It has been three days.” Her chestnut hair shines under the electrified lights. “And what of Emma? We have not heard from her since the last game either.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, really, I am. I’ve given him your messages.”

“About Emma as well?” Emily folds her arms over her chest.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Stymied by the maid’s short answers, Emily turns back to the other occupants of the parlor, Aesop Carl and Vera Nair. Vera meets her eyes, a sympathetic expression showing under her veil. Aesop Carl, reading a book, turns the page.

“Will you at least tell me if he is coming to dinner?”

“I can’t speak for him, ma’am, but everyone can hear the bells being rung for dinner at night.”

“Maybe one of us could go fetch him,” Vera offers. Her French accent is just as plush as the velvet-upholstered sofa. “Make sure he gets a nice hot meal.”

The maid’s stony expression doesn’t change. “I would strongly advise against that, ma’am. He doesn’t like his private time disturbed, ma’am.”

“Right, right…” Vera says, waving her lace-gloved hand. “He’s busy in his laboratory.”

With a stubborn set to her jaw, Emily finally nods. “Very well. We will see if he comes to dinner.”

“Very good, ma’am.” The maid bobs a curtsey. “He had me arrange some gifts for you. You’ll find them in your rooms later.”

“Oh.” Emily blinks and looks at the other two for guidance. Finding none, she nods. “Thank you.”

The maid curtseys again and then lets herself out of the parlor, sliding the door shut behind her.

“What a pack of lies.”

“We mustn’t assume the worst, Vera.” Emily sits down on the sofa, but on the other end from Vera. “It may be that Emma won the game and has left the manor. Maybe she got what she was promised. And left,” Emily adds lamely.

“Without saying anything to you?” Vera gives Emily a small smile. “She is not the type to abandon someone, and you aren’t either.”

“It would be fine with me, as long as it made her happy.” Emily crisps her hands together in her lap. Vera recrosses her legs and leans away, against the other arm of the sofa.

Aesop Carl turns a page.

“You don’t have a lot to say about this situation, do you?” Emily looks up at Aesop, her brow creased.

Aesop pauses, one gloved finger between this page and the next. His silver hair seems out of place next to grey eyes that have no creases or laugh lines around them. The rest of his face is hidden behind a cloth surgical-style mask.

“Well?” Despite her melodious voice, Vera sounds impatient.

“No,” Aesop says, looking back down at his book. “I don’t.”

“What are you here for, anyway?” Vera leans back on the sofa. “You don’t seem the type to want or need anything from a powerful man.”

Aesop’s eyes flick up to Vera, and then he closes the book. But he doesn’t offer up any information about how he came to the manor, or what he was searching for.

Vera, nonplussed, keeps going. “Someone like you must have an ulterior motive, eh? To come all the way out here?”

“It’s the same as any of you.” Aesop Carl’s voice is deep and husky, and always dispassionate. “You are all here because you’ve been promised something.” He opens his book again. “Why should I be any different?”

Vera stands up and pads across the thick Persian carpets to the tall windows that look out on the formal gardens. The afternoon sun makes long shadows of symmetrical boxwood plantings, and red roads of the broad gravel paths raked smooth. Her rouged lips twist. “Everyone here stinks of fear. The cook, the maids, the butler. It is enough to make anyone sick to their stomach.” She sweeps her hand up the back of her coiffure, reassuring herself that every hair is in place.

“Now, Vera,” Emily starts.

“The four of us smell differently, don’t we?” Vera turns suddenly, leaning against the window casing. Her satin skirt puckers over her thighs. “Emma smelled of hope. I wish I could bottle such a fragrance. I certainly wouldn’t need to be here.” Vera gestures to Emily. “Somewhere under that antiseptic smell, you are anxious, no?”

Aesop gives a soft snort.

Glancing at him, Emily replies, “Of course I am. I came here to make sure that Emma would be alright.”

“A perfectly normal thing to do for the one who is special to us.” Vera stabs a finger at Aesop. “But this one only smells of steel and formaldehyde! And blood!”

Aesop gives up on reading and closes the book entirely, holding it in his gloved hands. “And what of it?”

“You don’t even dispute it!”

“Disputing facts is a waste of time.”

“What is it that you… do, Mr. Carl?” Emily gently cuts to the chase.

“I am an embalmer,” Aesop replies.

“You see, Vera? He’s an--”

“You’re not embalming anything right now, so why wear the mask?” Suspicion oozes from her French accent.

Aesop hesitates for just a moment, as if deciding how much to share. In the end, he closes his eyes briefly before opening them again. “I work at all times of the day and night to see the dead into the afterlife. The mask is comfortable for me.”

“It’s too creepy for a young man to be an embalmer,” Vera snaps.

“And yet, we must all start somewhere, Ms. Nair.” He blinked placidly at her. “My aptitude was evident from a young age.” Unexpectedly, steel flashes in his eyes. “You’re the same, aren’t you?”

“The same as you?” Vera scoffs, leaning up from the windowsill. “Nothing of the sort. We are leagues apart.”

Aesop watches as she walks across the parlor, but he doesn’t say anything more. Her hand is on the door when the heavy iron bell in the hall is struck by a mallet.

“Ah!” Emily sounds relieved. “Dinner.”

“He won’t be there,” Vera grouses.

There is an opulent dining room at the manor, but they never eat there. Instead, a long table has been arranged in the vacant ballroom, draped in heavy, coarse linen. The smell of dust clings to the curtains. The chandelier in the full-height part of the ballroom in front of the tall windows is still draped in sheets. Fine porcelain plates have been set out for them, but the cutlery is plain and dull. They each take a seat: Aesop at the end of the table, and the two women along the side.

Emily looks at Emma’s vacant seat. Looking at the other two, she forces an uncomfortable smile. “This is nice. Feels like a family dinner together, doesn’t it?”

Vera huffs a humorless laugh. “It’s not too far off.”

The butler comes in through the servants’ door with a cart, bringing in the first course. Aesop reaches up to take off his mask.

The grand doors of the ballroom open.

The buckles on his heels shine, and the bones of his ankles stand out in his low-denier hose. He floats across the ballroom floor, his embroidered coat swaying and giving off a faint smell of flowers. He doesn’t wear jewelry, but his long white hair is tied back in a luxurious silk ribbon. His long nails scrape over the linen-dressed edge of the table; in his other hand, a cane. He looks every inch the historical lord of the manor.

Resting the cane against the edge of the table, he flips his coat out of the way and sits down. He doesn’t speak a word.

“Good evening, Joseph,” Emily says.

He doesn’t reply. The butler sets a small plate in front of each of them, a medallion of veal with a pale sauce. Joseph, however, doesn’t eat.

Despite the small serving, everyone looks hungrily at their plates. A mind given to conspiracy might have thought the meals here were being kept deliberately small. Perhaps people who were not well-fed found it difficult to solve complex problems—or run from someone. Vera seizes a bite off her fork immediately and puts her utensils down to savor it.

Aesop pulls his mask off, revealing his youthful, but somber face. He is about to take his first bite when he pauses. Goosebumps are rising all over his skin, as if someone is watching him. He looks down the table.

Joseph’s eyes are an uninterrupted field of blue, without obvious pupils or irises. They are intense and pale, the color of cloudless summer skies. It’s impossible to tell where his attention is drawn, but he leans on the arm of his chair and rests his temple on the tip of his index finger. He blinks slowly, his platinum lashes resting for a moment against his wan cheeks like silver birds. And then he opens them, and once again it’s impossible to tell where he’s looking, or who he’s looking at.

Aesop puts the bite of veal in his mouth and chews slowly.

“The maid said you had gifts prepared for us,” Emily says after she has finished her course.

“I do.” Joseph’s voice is deep and gravelly, as if he has not used it in years. Like Vera, he has a trace of a French accent, though his is much more diluted.

“May I ask what they are?”

Joseph leans up off his hand, turning his head to Emily. “Tokens of appreciation,” he rasps. “For an excellent match.”

Emily actually looks relieved by this, a smile spreading across her face. “We did our best, but we’re still new to the idea…I’m sure I can speak for everyone here, right?” She gestures to Vera to her left and Aesop to her right. “If I say it was an enjoyable exercise.” She gives a tittering laugh, too high-pitched to sound relaxed.

“It’s not hard to figure out,” Vera says with a sniff. “The clues are all straightforward, even if the riddles must be solved in the middle of a swamp, without pencil or paper.”

“It was entertaining,” Aesop says quietly.

Joseph’s head turns back to Aesop, his regard like a brandished sword.

Aesop averts his eyes and leans back as the butler comes to clear away the plates.

It isn’t until the next course—a small custard with blackcurrant syrup—that Vera speaks up again. “So when do we get our reward?”

“What reward?”

“Do not play dumb with me, Monsieur.” Vera takes her spoon in hand and carves off a small piece of custard. “You promised me something if I came here to participate in this game.”

“Ah.” Joseph goes back to resting his head on his hand.

“Is it the gift that I’ll be receiving?”

“That is for you to decide,” Joseph replies in a clipped voice.

“What...does that mean?” Emily’s voice has a quaver in it. She hasn’t touched her custard.

“I am sure Mademoiselle Nair would not want her ‘reward’ discussed in open company.” His speech is slow and deliberate, the sound of a man who will not be rushed through anything.

Vera eats the last of her custard and licks blackcurrant syrup out of the corner of her mouth. “That depends on what it is.”

“‘Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit’,” Joseph quotes.

“‘But righteousness delivers from death.’” Aesop answers in a low voice. The hair on the back of his neck stands up under that blue stare, heating his cheeks like a summer afternoon.

One corner of Joseph’s mouth lifts in a smile so small it might be missed entirely.

“What is that from?” Emily asks, looking between the two of them.

“The Book of Proverbs.” Aesop rests his spoon on the custard dish to indicate he is finished.

She sounds genuinely interested. “I suppose you deal with a lot of Scripture in your line of work.”

“Yes.” Aesop looks down the table at Joseph. “‘One who is full loathes honey.’”

“‘But to one who is hungry, everything bitter is sweet.’” The ghost of a smile deepens into the real thing, but it doesn’t reach Joseph’s eyes, the color of acid pools.

Vera keeps her eyes on her custard dish.

The next course is fish, a sweet white gobbet of flesh in a wine sauce. Joseph rests back in his chair and watches them, seeming more at-ease now than at any point before.

Through the salad, the entree, and the soup course, he remains silent. When the dessert is placed before them—an ethereal cream of elderflower—Joseph stands suddenly. With a sweeping bow to the assembled, he takes his cane and walks out of the room. All three of them—Emily, Vera, and Aesop—stare at the door as it slowly closes behind him.

“Well…” Vera’s voice sounds as if she’s scandalized.

“He likely has some last-minute instructions about our gifts, Vera.” The hope in Emily’s voice, that Emma’s disappearance might be resolved, is unmistakable.

Aesop barely tastes the elderflower cream: it alights on his tongue and dissolves away into nothing. He stands up, already hooking his mask back in place over his ears as he turns to leave.

“Ah—”

“Don’t bother, Emily.”

Aesop stops, feeling the words flung at his back like a pebble from a slingshot. But guilt doesn’t have the same pull on him as the thought of the gift waiting for him upstairs. He leaves the two women to their dessert, taking the stairs two at a time.

Aesop’s room is decorated in a reserved blue-grey, with heavy wooden furniture and sober wood paneling. A man’s room, upright and distinguished. But when Aesop enters his room, he catches an unfamiliar scent: the fragrance of lavender.

On his bed there is a package wrapped in white paper. On his nightstand, a single yellow rose.