“Ma’am?” Syndrian looked torn. “I won’t leave Pali. If she is in trouble, then I offer myself to accept the consequences in her stead.”
He squared his shoulders and waited.
“Cutler, you can drop all this.” My mother waved her hand again, the orange flames flaring red, casting a dark column of smoke into the chimney. She turned to me. “We’ll discuss this at home. What you need to know now is that I was in love with Emeric Otleich. I kept his secrets. I knew his heart.” My mother sucked her lower lip into her mouth and fluttered her eyes shut momentarily. “When your father needed a wife to run his estate and provide a legitimate heir to cover up the nasty little affair he’d had, guess who stepped in?”
She laughed, a cold, empty sound.
“The Otleiches gave me to your father. And now your father intends to give you to them. Specifically, to Emeric.” She spat the words bitterly. “Your father plans to marry you off to the boy I once loved.”
I jolted. “He’s decided? When?” My mind whirled. “And wouldn’t Emeric be…”
“More than twenty years your senior,” Syndrian supplied, clenching his jaw muscles.
Lady Lombard looked at me, a hint of maternal warmth on her face. “You want out of your arranged marriage, my dear daughter, and I want out of mine.” She motioned to Syndrian. “Please, cutler, go now. You’ll see my daughter again. This cabin isn’t the only thing I plan to burn to the ground.”
Syndrian nodded at me, his eyes bright. “You’ll be all right?” he asked. “Just say the word and I will stay.”
My mother sighed and waved her hand. “Release him, Palmeria, please. You’re my own flesh and blood. I’m here to help you out of this mess.” She lifted a brow at Syndrian. “And maybe help you both get what you desire.”
I didn’t know what my mother intended, but I swallowed hard and addressed Syndrian. “I will be all right,” I vowed. “You should leave us.”
He glared at my mother, as if he did not wish to abandon me to her trust, which made my heart swell and my lips quirk into a smile. He nodded at me, pulled open the door, and with a guarded look back at us, slipped out into the night.
“Come, Daughter,” Lady Lombard said, offering me her elbow. “I feel like playing with fire.”
If my mother’s discovery of the death mask, of me in my father’s cottage, or even of me in Syndrian’s arms seemed like the prelude to a warm mother-daughter bonding moment… Well, I had no expectation of such a thing. And Lady Lombard did not disappoint.
We rode home in silence, my mother leading the way on her mare. I followed on Poet, my chin low, lost to my worries. I couldn’t shake my curiosity over whether the cabin was ablaze back in the village. If the neighboring cabins would be compromised or worse. I couldn’t imagine my mother burning down one structure and ruining the homes, and even the lives, of countless others as a consequence. Finally, unable to bear the silence and the stiffness of my mother’s back any longer, I blurted out a question.
“Mother, should we have stayed? To make sure no other cabins were—”
Lady Lombard drew her horse to a halt and threw a disdainful look over her shoulder. Gracefully holding a torch in one hand, she nudged her mare to turn and face me. We were alone on the path to the Lombard estate, but she peered behind me and around us before speaking. “I am not a murderer.” Her words were quiet, deliberate. “While deadly outcomes are often necessary in our family’s line of work, I do not take innocent lives for sport.”
She urged her horse close so the mare’s muzzle bumped Poet’s. “I contained the destruction to only one cabin. Your conscience may remain clear.” The dark glare on her perfect features bored into my heart as she added, “Of burning your father’s cottage, at least.”
Then she prodded her horse to canter, forcing me to keep pace on Poet. I’d not packed a torch, so unless I relished being left under the night sky, an enticing snack for the vengersax, I would follow her.
My mother remained rigid and quiet as we rode the horses to the stable. Letti extinguished our traveling torch and accepted the cloak I handed her, but my mother raised a hand to intervene.
“Did I not tell you to have that garment cleaned, Palmeria?”
“Yes, you did, Mother.” I met the girl’s eyes and pressed my lips into what I hoped she could see was a wordless apology. She handed me back the cloak, and I nodded.
Mother and I walked back to the manor, where we were immediately met by Norwin.
“Good evening, Lady Lombard, Miss Lombard. Shall I have dinner served? Tea, perhaps?”
“Norwin, have this cleaned and returned to the stable hand.” My mother didn’t look at me as she spoke. At her instruction, I handed Norwin the cloak.
He looked at it as though it were crawling with maggots but accepted the garment without comment.
“My daughter will take dinner in her room,” my mother instructed, and then she set a foot on the stone stairs.
“And yourself, milady?” Norwin groused. “Shall I bring a meal?”
My mother did not respond, just held up a hand as if to silence him and continued her walk upstairs. I waited, avoiding Norwin’s curious looks, until my mother was fully out of sight. Then I shrugged at the butler and headed up to my room. The torches that lit the staircase flickered ominously, and for the first time, I wondered if they were responding to my mother as she passed them…and not just the movements of her dress. My mind began racing, and I hurried off to my quarters.