The seaside manor looms like a weathered headstone on the hillside, gray, battered, and etched with sorrow. As Ferdinand climbs from the carriage, the wind whispers through the beach grass with a threat of rain. “So much for a sunny holiday,” he mutters to himself, as the carriage driver slams his bags down beside him.
“Sunshine. A good one. Not in these marches.” The carriage driver spits into the grass, glances up at the manor, and then makes the sign of the saints as he backs away. “Best of luck to you, my lord.”
“Wait.” Ferdinand turns toward him, but he’s already climbing back onto his bench. “You are not going to help me with—”
The man cracks the reins, and the carriage lurches away.
Ferdinand swears under his breath, then gathers up his bags, one by one. So many changes of attire he brought, and from the look of things, he’ll have a chance to use exactly none of them. Far from the merry oceanview estate he’d expected when his father sent him here to survey their newly acquired lands, this seems a desolate, storm-swept jagged edge of the empire, heavy with darkness and a damp he can’t seem to shake ever since he stepped off the train. He’d hoped to be able to quickly sort through the manor, put everything in proper order, perhaps host a dinner or two to ingratiate himself with the villagers, and then return to the capital in short order. But it would seem he has his work cut out for him here.
With a sigh, Ferdinand starts up the winding slope to the manor’s entryway.
After heaving his baggage onto the wraparound porch of the steeply gabled manor, he readies himself to dig around for the key his father had handed him—but on a whim, decides to check the front door, and finds it unlocked. It groans weightily as it opens. Rusted from the salty air, no doubt—another thing he’ll have to fix.
But then that concern pales next to the pitiful showing before him as he steps into the grand foyer.
Dust hugs every imaginable surface; the wood floors and staircase are rotting and salt-stained. A heavy stink of mildew fills the air along with the stench of rotting flowers, though Ferdinand can spy no source for that. And through the lead-paned windows along the staircase only the most stubborn of dull light can escape to illuminate thick swirls of motes.
And somewhere, in the distance, he hears a scrape.
“Hello?” Ferdinand calls, taking a hesitant step deeper into the foyer. “Is someone there?”
Only a gust of wind answers him, wailing through wood and marble, before it slams the door closed behind him.
Ferdinand jolts forward. Even though it’s just the wind—it’s damned unsettling. He scowls at the door, then steps in further to assess the staircase. It looks sturdier than he’d first feared—perfectly capable of holding his weight, despite the sad peeling varnish and state of decay.
“You poor thing.” Ferdinand clucks his tongue. “I’m sorry you’ve been so neglected. But we’ll get you cleaned up in short order.”
Somehow. He will figure it out as he goes.
Ferdinand turns to the left, where an archway leads into a dustcover-strewn parlor. Strange shapes lurk beneath the sheets: chairs, clocks, a piano maybe, and the vaguest hint of something antlered, like a hunting trophy. He hopes. But the faint scent of mildew in the air warns him that dust is far from the only enemy in this climate, and once he strips away those sheets, he might find something more rotted and destroyed than he can possibly hope to salvage.
Floorboards groan behind him, and Ferdinand whips around—hand going to his side, an old habit from his schooldays, when he wore an ornamental sword at all times. But of course there’s nothing for him to grab.
“Hello?” Ferdinand calls out. He scans the floor back in the main entryway for evidence—a person, a scurrying rodent, anything that could have made that noise. But there is nothing. Not even the mournful keen of wind, for once. Only a silence, so dense and leaden it feels like he might suffocate in it.
Ferdinand frowns, scolding himself for being so jumpy, and continues his tour of the main floor.
The parlor wraps around toward the manor’s back into a conservatory, with table settings, sofas, and other vignettes dotting the pathways of a rotted garden. Grimy windows that arch into a ceiling overhead must once have offered a beautiful view of the sea beyond, but for now, there is only dirt-streaked gray. He winds his way down the pathway toward the wall of windows and squints, trying to glimpse the sea beyond . . .
But instead he can see only a dark blur reflecting in the glass, just over his shoulder.
Ferdinand jumps, and turns again—gooseflesh prickling his arms and neck. The dark shape looked almost human. He could have sworn it. And in that feeble glimpse, he had been so certain it had moved . . .
“Goddess, you’re being ridiculous,” Ferdinand scolds himself. “It’s just a sad, old house.”
But as he moves from the conservatory toward the formal dining hall, he can’t help but recall an old ghost story some of his father’s tenants used to tell, when he would visit them as a child; one they’d only share when they were sure the Duke was nowhere nearby. Tales of a curse that could be cast upon one’s demise, of lonely souls trapped between life and death, bound to a place to seek their vengeance. As if such superstitious thoughts are at all a comfort, or helpful to him like this—but this feels like the kind of lonely, bitter home that would spark such absurd tales.
He wraps around the back of the manor to a study and library, and his heart aches to see all the water-warped books, bulging and moldy on the shelves.
“I don’t suppose there’s much hope of salvaging any of you,” Ferdinand mutters as he scans the spines. Tears of Nabatea. The Wastrel’s Wish. Sir Frederick and the Dark Lord. A Chronicle of the Reign of Ionius VI. Foreboding Shadow. Genealogy of House Vestra, Vol. 3. There seems to be no rhyme nor reason to the collection nor its organization that he can discern. Some titles he recognizes well, which should be easy to replace, but some he's never heard of. Some tomes even look handwritten. So many histories, lost to the ravages of the briny air.
“Sorry, old friends,” Ferdinand says. “I should have liked to read you all.”
“It’s only nonsense, anyway,” a bitter voice replies.
Ferdinand jumps nearly out of his boots at the voice, which, despite its low tone, seems to boom inside his skull. He peers around the shelf to find a young man leaning against the doorway that leads back to the grand foyer. Dressed in dark colors, and with black hair that bears the pearlescent sheen of a raven’s feather, he cuts an imposing figure, a heavy streak of ink against the washed-out gloom. He is tall, taller than Ferdinand, even, though he is hunched over and folded on himself as if trying to shrink away. Beneath a dark sheaf of bangs, bright green eyes burn like venomous embers in a shockingly pale face.
And yet despite it all, he is . . . handsome. Sharp angles, sharper gaze, a fine nose and cut-glass cheekbones and a surprising soft curve to fine lips that bear the slightest pinkish hue. He is Ferdinand’s age, or close to it; but there is something old and weary in his posture that Ferdinand’s nurturing instincts wants to soothe.
Also, he is standing uninvited in the middle of the seaside manor Ferdinand has been sent to salvage, a fact Ferdinand has conveniently forgotten in his assessment until just now.
“Who the devil are you?” Ferdinand asks, puffing up his chest. “You have no business here.”
The man smiles—a wicked, curving thing, like an ornamental blade—and lets his hands fall to his sides. “On the contrary. I live here. You are the intruder.”
“I am Ferdinand von Aegir, and I am the rightful owner of this manor, as granted to my father, Duke Aegir, by the order of His Majesty.” Ferdinand takes a step toward him. He’s not used to being intimidating, but bombast, he can manage. “So unless you have orders that supersede His Majesty himself, you are trespassing—”
“I am Hubert. The caretaker of this place. For whatever that’s still worth.” He winces, pale eyes lidding, and some of the light seems to leave the room until they open once more. “I suppose if you’re the new owner, it’s your business if you want to evict me, but . . .”
“Well, if you’re the caretaker, you’ve done a piss-poor job of it.” Ferdinand gestures to the soggy books. “This whole place is a disaster. It’s liable to crumble into the sea at any moment.”
Hubert glances away, that smug twist on his lips fading into something Ferdinand can’t quite recognize. “I have not been given much to work with. But . . . I do what I can.”
Ferdinand shrinks back at that. The indignant spike of his pulse still thuds heavy in his ears, but he can’t help but feel a thread of pity for this boy. They have both been set to impossible tasks in this desolate corner of the Empire, ravaged and ruined by a malevolent sea.
“Well. I am sorry to hear that.” Ferdinand’s shoulders fall. “But my father has given me leave to do whatever is necessary to restore this place to its former glory, and I—I cannot fail him.” He swallows. “So perhaps we might be able to work together?”
Hubert studies him; he pushes off of the archway with long, slender legs and takes a step toward Ferdinand. A draft settles around Ferdinand at the man’s sudden nearness, probably from a broken window or damaged joist; the chill seems to radiate, prickling with tendrils of frost, as Hubert pauses before him, face to face.
“I suppose we’ll see about that.”
When Hubert turns away, Ferdinand slumps like a marionette whose strings have been cut.
“Carry on with your tour. I will not get in your way.” Hubert starts through the archway, then glances over his shoulder. “I can prepare supper, if you like.”
“That would be splendid,” Ferdinand admits, though more than anything he could use a hot cup of tea—or maybe even red wine—to warm him.
Hubert nods, as if confirming something to himself. “I’ll see you then.”
And then he vanishes into the manor’s depths.
Ferdinand combs through the manor’s upper level, and chooses the least-damaged bedroom for himself. Hubert is nowhere to be found as Ferdinand hauls his heavy baggage up the stairs, thudding every step of the way. At least he thought to pack some bedding. No part of the manor has been fully spared the ravages of the environment, it seems, and Ferdinand spends some time wrestling with the warped wooden drawers of his room’s dresser as he pries them out, one by one, to let them air.
Outside, the woolly gray sky darkens into something rust-colored and putrid, and Ferdinand’s stomach rumbles. He hasn’t eaten since departing Enbarr this morning, though out here, he might as well be on another world entirely. Hubert had at least offered to prepare them both a meal, so if nothing else, he hopes the moody caretaker will be good on his word there.
As he makes his way downstairs, he is pleasantly surprised to be greeted by the rich, juicy scent of roasting fowl.
“That smells delicious,” Ferdinand calls out, poking his head into the kitchens. Hubert is but a soot speck in the oversized room, meant for preparing feasts for an entire manor’s worth of nobles and servants, but he’s lit the room brightly, and the produce and game spread out on the countertops is plump and ripe in a way Ferdinand hadn’t dared to hope for in the storm-soaked marches.
“It isn’t as if there’s much else to do around here.” Hubert wags a wooden spoon in his direction. “Go. Sit down. You’ll only be in my way in here.”
Ferdinand highly doubts that, but does as asked, or nearly. He stops in one of the pantries to fetch a bottle of piquant Vestra red, and sets himself to task uncorking it and pouring two glasses, then carries them into the dining room.
The long banquet table is clean enough, but the once-blue walls and white wainscoting are a dingy gray in the poor light that emits from shattered chandeliers. Strands of crystal dangle like the legs of beached jellyfish from them—another thing for Ferdinand to repair. He climbs up onto one chair to tie the worst offenders back into place and wipe the dust from the teardrop crystals with a rag, brightening the room considerably as they scatter golden candlelight.
Hubert emerges from the kitchens with two plates of roasted quail and herbed pilaf, and sets one of them down for Ferdinand at the head of the long table before taking the seat to his right for himself. He eyes the wine suspiciously, then looks at Ferdinand again.
“You are familiar with our regional blend?”
“I’ve had it once or twice,” Ferdinand says, and sits down. “You do not like it?”
Hubert sits as well. “I like it just fine.” He takes a gulp before Ferdinand even has a chance to offer a toast.
Ferdinand scowls, but helps himself to the roasted quail—a shockingly delicious and succulent treat, far beyond what he was expecting, either from this manor or from its cantankerous caretaker. “You are an excellent cook.”
Hubert shrugs. “It isn’t as if I have anything better here to do.”
Ferdinand stares. “But the manor is in such disrepair.”
“It can hardly be helped. The crown’s men did a number on the place and the best I can hope for is to keep it from worsening further.”
“The crown’s men—” Ferdinand stops and reclines in his seat, wineglass at hand. “What happened here, precisely?”
“Try your pilaf,” Hubert scolds him instead.
“I’m getting to it. I want to enjoy the quail first.”
Hubert, who has barely done more than push the pilaf around on his plate, pushes his plate away and leans back as well, a sarcastic mirror. “You mean you don’t know what happened?”
“All I know is these lands were reclaimed by the emperor, and granted to my father as reward for some service or another. He deliberately keeps me in the dark of politics in the capital, despite my wishes to the contrary.” Ferdinand takes another bite of quail and chews thoughtfully. “I was hoping that maybe, if I could restore this manor and perhaps tend to the tenants’ needs, I might prove myself worthy to accompany him into parliament, but . . .” He sighs. “I see I have my work cut out for me.”
“Indeed. So you do not know about the Vestra scandal?”
“I know the Marquis no longer has a seat in the parliament. No one will say anything more about it.”
Hubert snorts, his mouth puckering with disdain. “Surprising. I’d have thought your father would barely be able to contain his bragging.”
Ferdinand winces; that does sound like his father. “How do you mean?”
“Duke Aegir uncovered a plot against the crown, headed by none other than the Marquis Vestra.” His fine lips press into a grim scowl. “Naturally, such treason cannot stand. So the Vestras were executed for their treachery.”
Ferdinand’s stomach turns; he sets down his fork. “The entire family?”
“Of course.” Hubert’s scowl deepens. “Clearly their whole bloodline was poisoned. And we should all be grateful to your father for his diligence in catching them at their wicked ways.”
Ferdinand can understand the emperor’s wish to conceal such a plot. But something in Hubert’s explanation isn’t lining up right. His father is many things, but even Ferdinand is hesitant to ascribe ‘brave’ to him. How would he even go about uncovering such a scheme? And would the treachery of the marquis really warrant the deaths of his entire family? It seems impossibly cruel.
But it is not for him to question the emperor’s actions, he supposes. Though the man has been ailing for some time. His daughter, the imperial princess, is expected to take the crown someday, but it is the emperor’s right to pass it to another member of the nobility should he deem them worthy. Ferdinand would not be surprised if his father was angling for just such an appointment.
“You are troubled by this?” Hubert asks, that scowl now turning vicious. For a moment, he looks more like a cornered animal than the handsome young man he is; as if he might lash out at any moment, heedless of the damage it might do to himself.
“It is a harsh punishment,” Ferdinand says carefully. He feels safe saying at least this much, given Hubert’s naked disdain. “I would like to think our empire is beyond the need for such cruelty.”
Hubert snorts. “This empire was founded on cruelty and carves cruelty across the land with every fresh conquest. What do you expect?”
Dimly, Ferdinand knows he should be stunned by Hubert’s words—every bit as treasonous, likely, as the Marquis Vestra himself. But instead it is only a dull ache, a bruise he himself has long since tried to ignore.
“That is no reason,” Ferdinand says, “for us not to demand better. Better treatment of our peers, and of those we serve.”
Hubert stares at him, that harsh countenance softening for a moment. Ferdinand had thought him the same age as himself, but in this moment, they look much the same; Hubert looks softened and youthful in a way he hasn’t before. He is not just handsome, but lovely; his thin eyebrows twist upward to reveal a quiet, reverential look of surprise, softening even those deadly cheekbones of his.
It is a good look, Ferdinand catches himself thinking. He should like to see him look this way more.
Then the portcullis of Hubert’s defenses slam down again. “Well. Aren’t you a soft-hearted one,” Hubert spits. “I can see why your father thinks you have no place in court.”
Ferdinand sits upright, chest burning. “How dare you—”
But Hubert stands with a noisy creak of his chair, and snatches up both his plate and Ferdinand’s. “You haven’t eaten your pilaf yet?” he asks.
“No! I told you—I was finishing the quail first, but I—”
“Don’t bother. It came out poorly.”
And then he storms away with both of their suppers, leaving only an icy chill in the air.
The unpleasant caretaker thankfully makes himself scarce after supper, and so, left to his own devices, Ferdinand peruses the library once again. Something in Hubert’s tale is still nagging at him, something that won’t add up. He doesn’t know what kind of answers he might possibly hope to find, but he needs something to settle his head.
He returns to one of the books he’d found earlier, the slender tome marked A Genealogy of House Vestra, Vol. 3. Ferdinand can’t recall if he’s even met any members of the Vestra house, save the Marquis himself, and that must have been many years ago, when he ventured to court. They always seemed very private and secretive. But maybe he’s mistaken, and the records will jog his memory—
But when he opens the waterlogged book, it’s completely ruined. Damaged beyond all repair. Ink swirls across the pages like spilled blood, and the pages split and tear into soggy clumps as Ferdinand tries to turn them. The back cover rips from the spine as he carefully closes it once more. Hopeless. It’s as if someone dipped the damn thing straight into the ocean, then crammed it back onto the shelf, with no chance for it ever to dry in this climate.
Ferdinand retires to bed with his lungs full of damp and his head throbbing with too many conflicting thoughts.
He awakens to a vengeful storm raging around the manor.
Wind rakes across the windows as rain batters the roof. Somewhere nearby is a steady drip, drip. Just what he needs—a leak in his bedroom. Ferdinand tries to sit up—
But it’s as though the stormclouds are all weighing down on his chest, pinning him in place. An immense pressure he can’t see. It thickens throughout the bedroom, swallowing up the faintest flicker of the kerosene lamp he’d kept burning low at his bedside. The blackness is devouring. Swelling. He can hear it, a rush like a gathered breath—
And underlying it all is the steady drip, drip.
Moving closer, now.
The darkness thickens into a figure at the foot of his bed; black, sinuous, lanky, a single green eye glowing where its head should be. Ferdinand tries to shout, but his jaw is clamped shut. He reaches for the heavy book at his bedside, but his arms won’t obey.
The figure’s mouth stretches open to reveal jagged, white teeth as seawater drips from overlong arms. The figure laughs silently as Ferdinand sits trapped. One immense clawed hand coils around one of the posters at the foot of the bed, and then the other, pulling itself inside, pressing down on his feet, then his legs. The closer it draws, the more he can discern features—a sharp nose, fine lips, dark bangs that conceal one eye, all of them cold and damp with the sea. And clutched in one hand—a bloody knife.
Please, Ferdinand whispers—or tries to, his lips refusing to obey. Whatever you want—
“You must pay,” the spectre growls, climbing over him now until that clammy, jagged face is right in Ferdinand’s own. It levels the knife at Ferdinand’s throat, a cold prick of steel threatening to push deeper.
Why? Ferdinand tries to ask, the words lodged like seaweed in his throat. What can I do?
“It’s too late for you.” This close, the dark shapes coalesce into something almost human, almost familiar. A sneer like scar tissue and eyes that burn in defense. It looks almost like the surly caretaker, bony yet substantial, dark yet burning with hidden brightness, both vicious and wounded at once—
“Hubert?” Ferdinand whispers.
The monster that looks like Hubert widens its eyes as if slapped.
Ferdinand braces himself, expecting the monster to lash out even worse now—to slit his throat, or gut him with those horrid claws. Instead, though, the knife in the spectre’s hand falters, and suddenly he sits back, shrinking away from Ferdinand. He brings one clawed hand to his face with a howl. The knife tumbles from his hand, and he grips his face, cursing to himself, blackness swirling around him like a screaming gale.
“You’ll pay,” the apparition screams. “I’ll make you pay—”
But then it tears apart like smoke, and Ferdinand is drifting, off, off, into a dreamless sleep.