Richard von Edmund is editing a speech he means to give at the Roundtable two days hence when his world changes. Of course, at the time, it seems a mere delivery of mail.
It is his secretary who makes the fatal discovery. She has already neatly broken the seals on the latest routine reports from around the margraviate and further around the Alliance; now she works her way through them, jotting a précis of each for his attention. The scratching of her quill stops. “Ah…my lord,” she says.
Richard prizes efficiency in service, and so he notes at once that something is severely wrong. Wilfreda Lewin does not waste time with diffidence; he would not have hired her, or kept her on, had she been hesitant. She is brisk and factual, but she is neither now. It had best not be a crisis in the margraviate that has her so off-balance. She is a valuable part of his life, and he would dislike finding fault with her.
All that passes in the length of time it takes to see that the report she holds is a very slim one. He asks, “What is it?”
“Your cousin Gregor and his wife are missing, presumed to be dead,” Wilfreda says, still softly.
Embarrassingly, it takes Richard a moment to place Gregor. His mother had been Kaltrina von Edmund, cousin to Richard’s grandmother, but she had been far enough removed from the House that her husband had been unable to marry into it; she had chosen to marry into his family instead, and thence Gregor. Gregor’s wife is, or was, named Sarah, also of no House; Richard cannot at the moment recall which of them had married into the other’s family. “What do you mean, missing?” he asks. It is a very imprecise word.
“They left for a shopping trip in Derdriu and never returned.” Wilfreda’s voice strengthens as she reads; this is the secretary Richard is used to. “Your northern factor investigated further, knowing the family connection, before he sent the report on. There was a severe storm in the area that day, and it’s all but certain they went over the sea cliff—they were last spotted at an inn along the cliffside road.”
“Hm. Unfortunate,” Richard says. “Get me the direction of whomever I ought send a letter of condolence to, and I shall draft it once I’ve finished revising this speech.”
Wilfreda says, “Ah.” Just that; nothing else.
“What now?” Richard asks, putting his quill down in irritation. Given Riegan’s pleasure-driven waffling and the Almyran threat distracting Goneril, it is only that insufferable blowhard Gloucester who is likely to cause him any difficulties over this proposal to alter the Alliance’s infrastructure budget, but Gloucester is not a stupid man, and he has a way with people. Richard cannot afford to be complacent, or distracted.
“There is…there is only their daughter, my lord.”
Yes, Richard remembers a daughter now. Marie…Miriam…Marianne, that was it. He had ordered a gift sent at her birth, some fourteen or so years ago. Too young to marry, but if the girl had not been raised to a trade—as he doubts she was—then too old to be apprenticed by a reputable master. “There are no other relations?”
Wilfreda shakes her head. “Her grandparents are dead, and neither of her parents had siblings living.”
“Has she been placed in a charity orphanage yet?” Richard asks. He shall, if need be, make a donation to a private orphanage. Marianne hardly deserves to be cast on the doubtful mercies of the world after suffering this loss.
“Your factor says no orphanage will take her,” Wilfreda says. “Perhaps you could…persuade them, my lord.” This time, at least, it is not hesitation, merely a pause for suggestion.
It is also stark nonsense. “The purpose of an orphanage is to take in orphans. The girl is an orphan. Why should I have need to persuade them of anything?”
Wilfreda looks down at the report again. Her fingers twist restlessly against the edge of the paper.
“Answer me, Wilfreda.” Richard makes no effort to soften his voice. They are wasting daylight.
“She has the Crest of the Beast, my lord,” Wilfreda says in a rush.
Ah. That is a situation indeed. Richard had dared to hope that the taint of Maurice’s legacy was long gone from the Edmund bloodline, but of course there is nothing that can prevent them from having descended from him. To remove Maurice would be to remove House Edmund.
It is nevertheless deeply inconvenient. Ordelia is easy enough to work around, and Goneril unlikely to trouble himself with internal affairs unless they are forced upon him, but Riegan will be horrified from the depths of his sentimental heart, and Gloucester will be—and loudly pronounce himself—revolted. It takes considerable doing to get Gloucester and Riegan to agree with each other in opposition; Richard had thought he could easily avoid it, and had certainly never dreamed he would stumble into it by pure ill luck. They will have to keep her Crest an absolute secret.
“Coordinate with my factor and arrange for her to be transported here, then,” Richard says, taking up a blank sheet of paper and dipping his quill again. Petition for Adoption and Recognition as Heir, he writes across the top of the page. “See that anyone aware of both her Crest and her family connections is bribed or threatened, as necessary, to keep silence on the matter.”
For a moment, the scratching of the quill is the only sound in the room.
Insofar as my kinsman Gregor—he leaves a blank space for Gregor’s surname—has deceased or disappeared along with his wife, leaving a minor daughter Marianne; it seems obvious as well as right that the safest and most beneficial place for the aforesaid minor daughter is within my own household, to enjoy the protection and the resources of the Margraviate of Edmund. She will certainly need both protection and resources. Additionally, insofar as I am an unmarried man without natural children; adopting the said Marianne, daughter of the said deceased or disappeared Gregor—
He realizes Wilfreda has said nothing. He looks up. “Well?”
“My lord—here?” Wilfreda asks. Her eyes are wide.
“Of course,” Richard says. “Do you propose I should leave her on the streets?”
Wilfreda hastily shakes her head. “No, my lord, I only—I was surprised, that’s all. Even if you don’t believe what they say about the Crest of the Beast, my lord, Duke Riegan does.”
“And Count Gloucester must pray daily for any of us to make a misstep of this enormity. I am aware.” Richard bares his teeth in a smile. “We will do what we can to keep her secret.”
“Of course, my lord,” Wilfreda says with a bow. She takes out quill and paper of her own.
Richard returns to his notes. Adopting the said Marianne, daughter of the said deceased or disappeared Gregor, will be a boon to me and to the future stability of the Margraviate of Edmund, and thus to the Leicester Alliance as a whole. It is hardly how he had planned to gain an heir, but adopting Marianne and then searching for another child would raise a great many questions he cannot afford to have raised. She shall have to do.
He looks up as a thought strikes him. “Wilfreda. Have one of the suites of rooms opening into the Star Courtyard cleaned and arranged for her. New tapestries, carpets, linens, toiletries, and anything else that needs to be replaced. Furniture as well, if necessary.”
Wilfreda makes a note. “Do you have any preference as to appearance or budget, my lord?”
“As you think best.” Richard pays a great number of highly competent people so he need not concern himself with such things as decorating a newly-orphaned fourteen-year-old girl’s chambers. “I will be petitioning to adopt her; make it suitable.”
“My lord,” Wilfreda says. She sounds surprised, but she refrains from putting it into words, and Richard will not judge her for that, this time.
“Establish lines of credit for anything else she needs, as well,” Richard says. “Suitable clothes. Books for her studies, if she needs something more remedial than the Edmund library can provide. A horse if she rides; perhaps a hound.” He had had a hound as a boy, a warm silky-eared creature. It might be some comfort to Marianne to have such a companion.
Wilfreda says, “My lord,” again.
Richard finishes his paragraph and sets his quill down. “Do you object to anything I’ve said?” The effects of Crests are still not completely known. It would be regrettable if he came into conflict with a secretary as efficient as Wilfreda over the question of Marianne’s.
“No, my lord,” Wilfreda says. “It’s just…I’m not used to you making such sudden decisions, if I may say so, or ones that seem so…sentimental.” He had not hired her for her tact, but she seems to have chosen to display it all the same.
“Foolish, you mean.” Richard sands the petition to dry any lingering pools of ink. “She is alone, through no fault of her own, and will face a good deal of hostility for an innate quality of hers which she did not ask for and cannot change. I should have a natural sympathy for any fellow being in that situation, but consider also that she is family. Edmund lands were all Maurice’s once. Who am I to shun the child who bears his Crest?”