Chapter Twenty Five
In Which Claudette And A Perturbed Prince Julian Make Life Quite Miserable For Lucia
The next morning, after very little sleep, Lucia was awakened by a loud and persistent knocking at her door. Groggily, she picked her head up and looked towards the door, which concealed the source of the noise. She muttered a response incoherent to even herself, which garnered another loud series of raps at the door. At long last, a gruff voice barked out at her the late hour.
Lucia pulled herself up to a sitting position and rubbed the back of her neck. She was in a great deal of pain and found her movement quite restricted. In addition to which, she had a terrible headache that stung like lightning through her temples, and it was only worsened by Claudette's ranting from outside in the corridor.
"I'll be there in just a moment!" Called Lucia.
"You'll be there now!" Was Claudette's sharp response. Lucia groaned. The previous night ran through her mind backwards; the tearless panic in the early morning hours, her frightful return from Julian's secret room, the rendezvous turned sour, her anticipation for an evening that would turn out to be a dreadful mess for reasons she still did not quite grasp.
Sluggishly, she pulled on her maid's uniform and stumbled across the room. She felt as though she were walking against some great current, wading through a river of uncried tears. In truth, she knew, there would be no point in subjecting herself to Claudette's tyranny that day. Or was there?
Poor Margaret would still be too unwell to do any of the household tasks, meaning that her responsibilities would temporarily fall upon Lucia and John. And Lucia had to repeat this to herself, over and over and over again. She would go out there, despite her pain, and give that day her all. Not for Claudette, and certainly not for the unnecessary upkeep of the Drake mansion, but for John. He too had gone through some terrible pain in the day before. Lucia imagined it was quite a lot worse to worry for a loved one than to decide a perfectly healthy person was not a loved one anymore. At least she had no complicated emotions, no wistful ties to fear for. No. Not at all. For in that morning's light, Lucia's mind was distilled to a perfect clarity. She did not care for Julian in the least. She did not care for Julian's moodiness, nor his temper, nor his refusal to communicate like a normal human being as if he had some sort of special permission, granted to him by God, to be allowed to treat anyone he desired as another one of his toys. He was far too attached to that piano, but if that was all he really cared about, then so be it. Lucia could not even remember what had attracted her to him in the first place.
So what if he was incredibly good looking? That would fade. Besides, there were plenty of other good looking men in the world, and Lucia decided that in the years to come, she would meet many of them. And what else did Julian have going for him? His charms? His charms that came and went like the changing of the tides? What would there be to look to when that tide was low? He lacked a certain basic kindness that Lucia previously believed ought to exist in every human being. Well, he had certainly showed her. Perhaps that was all he was good for; a lesson, a lesson not to trust a person before really getting to know them. Of course, when it came to Prince Julian Drake, there was really nothing to know. He was a prince of shadows, a man of illusions, a weaver of an alluring style but absolutely no substance. And what was he really, at his core? His artistic talents. Pah! He could play the piano beautifully; there was no doubt in that. However, that talent is the basis for a concert performance, not a relationship, and Lucia was more than ready to draw that curtain closed. He could play and play and ignore her and all other people forever, for all she cared. She ruefully hoped that he and his piano would be quite happy together.
The day was slow to start indeed. She had missed breakfast, which was something of a mixed blessing. Having had escaped any sort of food preparation or delivery to the odd recluses of this house, she had also ultimately missed her chance at getting anything to eat for herself. It was nothing she would regret right away, but she knew she would become quite hungry and tired soon enough. That made for yet another burden on her mind, yet it could be none so great as what John and Margaret must have been going through.
Margaret had not yet returned to her duties; she was still bedridden and had, according to John, gotten much worse. Lucia did not even need to ask. Judging by John's condition – his sunken eyes, his weary expression, his reluctance to say very much of anything at all – it was quite clear to Lucia that he had been awake all night. He had almost certainly been taking care of Margaret all night, and what little sleep he might have gotten had been sacrificed to helpless worry. As Claudette went about marching back and forth in front of them like some sort of general attempting to command a very small army, calling out orders and describing attack strategies, Lucia looked at John with eyes full of sympathy. He was staring straight ahead and did not notice, but when she subtly patted him along the arm, he showed her a knowing and appreciative smile. His eyes were full of sorrow, but he showed her a smile regardless – at least, until Claudette rapped loudly on some object or other, causing them both to instinctively snap to attention.
Lucia was very near to questioning Claudette why there was any point in doing chores that day at all. Princess Evangeline and that wretched Prince Julian would certainly not leave their bedchambers, no company was expected, and dear Prince Bryant would not be due back for still some time. Now that the garden had fallen dormant for another year, there would not be much to do at all save for tending to the horses and perhaps bringing in a few small items from town. Lucia estimated that if she were to take care of the horses while John went into town to fetch the handful of articles and get more medicine for Margaret, there would still be about eight or maybe even nine hours left free that day. Why any of them should be awake at all was yet another mystery, and Lucia was growing quite tired of mysteries. Indeed, the only one who seemed to care about housework at all was Claudette, and even then, the only purpose behind her motivations seemed to be the opportunity for her to exercise her own limited power.
But, still, the day wore on. John was assigned many difficult responsibilities. Included amongst these was the arduous task of dusting out the rafters in the many rooms of the mansion that bore high ceilings. Even though this job was rarely given to anyone but him, it was never grouped in with such a long list of other tasks, including cleaning the still-unused Great Hall. By contrast, Lucia merely had a lot of sweeping to do. In her mind, Lucia felt as though she were being given the easier set of chores, although her own fatigue made it difficult to embrace this as any sort of blessing. What's more, her suspicion that their drudgery had always originated from Claudette's officiousness and nothing more was quickly fading. Seemingly, Prince Julian was indeed quite fond of controlling others, the more ridiculous the ways, the better. Lucia frowned again every time she thought of it. How could someone who appeared to have such a sensitive heart have such a deep-running streak of cruelty? And worse, how could Lucia have excused it for so long? She clenched her fists around the broomstick and felt yet another knot tightening in her stomach.
The horses, she thought. Next on her list was taking care of the horses, which was her least hated of all the responsibilities she might be given. Not only did she love horses, to tend to them seemed to be the most necessary of all tasks. They were living creatures and therefore could not be neglected. In addition to which, their being living creatures made the job a great deal more fulfilling, for they could display gratitude to Lucia for her efforts. As it happened, they often did not show any gratitude whatsoever, but Lucia took comfort in the fact that one day they might. Horses, she felt, had a certain honesty and innocence that people would always, to some degree, lack.
She looked around the front entryway and, deciding that it was clean enough, stopped sweeping. Her feet brought her path swinging around by the servants' cloakroom, and she spitefully dragged the broom down the centre of the room once or twice, just to say that she did. If Claudette were to examine the room for herself, Lucia would be prepared to stand through any fit of temper that the old witch could throw. As she wandered down the hall toward the tiny room where the brooms were stored, she could not help but think of the secret passage that lay in the room next to it. The secret panel with the image of the two-headed raven beckoned to her. For one thing, it would be a quicker shortcut and so she could avoid making her tired feet walk all the way around the outside of the house to get to the stables.
On the way, however, she found herself making quite a detour. Rather than walking the five or six paces from one room to the next, she found herself wandering all the way to the servants' quarters. The chilly hallway was silent save for her quiet footfalls. She found Margaret's room and gingerly knocked on the door.
"Hello?" She asked in a soft voice. There came no reply. She pushed the door open and peeked inside. Poor Margaret was lying on the bed, blankets twisted around her fragile body. She looked even worse than she did the day before. Her skin was as pale as ever. Not only that, but it was beginning to take on a frightening grey tone. Her eyes were shut in such a way that compelled Lucia to check to make sure that she was breathing. When she was certain that her dear friend was only sleeping, she decided to leave it at that. John had mentioned, she remembered, that sleep was the best thing for her. Sleep and the medicine. This notion put two interesting thoughts into Lucia's head.
Firstly, she decided that it would be best if she left Margaret alone to sleep. She backed out into the hallway, softly shutting the door behind her, and said a heartfelt prayer asking the angels to cure Margaret as quickly as possible. Then, she set off for her room.
Perhaps there was more to the king's death than one might think at first, she thought eagerly as she climbed the stairs. That, and perhaps she had more of a clue as to what was really going on than she originally thought.
"Just a little longer," she told herself. "And soon all will be set right."
But even the promise of a nearby end to all this deadly confusion was to be compromised once more. As she rounded the corner to begin the second flight of stairs, she passed by Claudette, who stopped her on the landing. Perhaps, Lucia thought, her newfound attitude of defiance was serving her quite well, for Claudette did not seem interested in picking a fight this time. The old woman looked weary, and nothing more.
"If you aren't busy," Claudette said. "I have a favour to ask of you." Her tone contained no sarcasm nor mockery, and yet it still left no option of declining the request. After all, Claudette was still Claudette.
"What is it?"
"Go and see Prince Julian."
Lucia's jaw dropped. She quickly shut her mouth again but found herself biting her lip out of sheer nervousness. It was hard for her to imagine someone she wanted to see less in that moment. However, for her to insist on dealing with other matters first, well, that would only serve to draw the wrong sort of attention to what was supposed to be a clandestine process.
"I, er, suppose I could…"
"He rung the bell some time ago, but I'm afraid I am having trouble keeping up with my own work." Under the limited light of the stairwell, the haggard old woman looked somewhat pathetic. Lucia began to feel bad for her, even.
"Prince Julian, though…"
"Oh, just do it!"
Lucia startled, but knew she probably should have been expecting it. Once again, Claudette was still – and always would be – Claudette. Cursing her own heart, Lucia scurried up the stairs. She arrived at the third floor and traced the unfortunately now familiar path down the short corridor to Julian's bedroom. The journey was a little bit easier for her, she found, if she kept on continually reminding herself that it was Claudette he had summoned specifically. True, the system of bells might have called any of the servants, but it was normally only Claudette who was so keen about the job to answer Julian. Of course, as the head servant, Claudette was at liberty to delegate any task. Unfortunately for Lucia, this is precisely what had just happened.
Begrudgingly, Lucia appeared at the wretched Julian's door and knocked loudly upon it. Seeing as it was Julian's door, Lucia was expecting some period of silence, some waiting game to test her patience. Therefore, she had a scowl all ready for when Julian swung the door open not two and a half seconds later. He, of course, was wearing a disapproving scowl to match.
This expression was not specially intended for Lucia; it could not have been, as he had already been making such a face when he answered the door expecting Claudette. At the very least, he'd had the decency to dress himself. All in black, Lucia noticed, a perfect match to his attitude. Upon thinking this, she herself felt a little bit of guilty awkwardness, because she knew she bore just the same air of uncaring, unsmiling, unfounded confidence.
As though Julian could read those shame-filled thoughts as they passed through Lucia's mind, he drew himself up a little straighter and smirked. It was as though he was amused by his own private joke; a game he was playing with all the rest of the world unaware.
"You summoned one of us, sir?" Lucia said, attempting to keep her tone void of emotion.
"Indeed," he said. "In fact, I hoped it would be you that Claudette sent to answer me."
"What if it was not me?"
"Then I would have sent the other servant back and told them to fetch you."
"Lovely," Lucia said flatly. "So what is it that you want?"
Julian's smirk faded. Instead, he raised his head and looked down at her from behind that shifting wall of glass that was fast becoming all too familiar.
"First," he said smugly, "I would like you to collect up all the hay we have for our horses and move it down to the cellar. Then, you will bring it back and arrange it into four perfectly even stacks. Once that is done, you will - "
"Oh, stop it. Er, sir. You highness. Julian."
"What's the matter, Lucia? Can't figure it out?"
"I don't think you want to be figured out!" She snapped back. "I hope you are happy in your eternal misery!"
At that remark, Julian's entire body stiffened with rage. He glared at her with the same fiery eyes as he had the night before, and Lucia felt all the same fear.
"You think I chose this life?!" He shouted. "You think I asked for this… this torture?!"
He started off sharply in one direction, then whirled around and flew furiously in the other. Then, just as quickly, he stopped on the spot once again. He cast a quick glance over his shoulder, likely to consider retreating into his room. And then, he turned again to face Lucia.
"So you really think any soul might want to be faced with a fate such as mine? Night after night after night, the darkness is my only solace. It is not the world I want for myself, but it is the only world that – you could never understand."
Lucia raised an eyebrow.
"Not if you don't say it. Sir. Julian. Prince Julian, sir."
Inside, she did indeed feel afraid at this display of raw emotion, but she knew that reacting accordingly might only make it worse.
"So you might as well come out and tell me," she added.
"By day!" He shouted, then – perhaps realizing that there was no need to shout – he quieted his voice. "By day, I must endure terrible pain of the mind. My dear sibling… the case is nothing but a tragedy, but at least in the night, there is a reprieve."
Both Lucia and the prince fell silent for some time. Somewhere outside the window, a bird fluttered by.
"The headband," Lucia said softly.
"What about it?"
"Does it belong to Princess Evangeline?"
Julian answered by scowling at the floor. There was nothing more to be said. Nor was there anything more to be said by Claudette over the course of the day. Nor was there anything to be said at the end of the day by John, whose sheer exhausted silence spoke volumes. That night, Lucia went to bed early, taking time only to say a prayer for all their souls.
That night, no music played.