She sat. She always obeyed him, never defied him, never once expressed that anger he frequently saw in her eyes. It was as if he were constantly suppressing her, keeping her locked up in a small metal cage and slowly draining her of her personality. Where was the bright-eyed and youthful young woman he had welcomed into his manor as a co-habitant rather than a maid three years ago? Where was that bold, conversational child who had eagerly joined him for a friendly chat on the bank of the river Pèrie seven years ago?
She had changed. And Richard had a terrible feeling that he was the cause of this change.
“How are you, Corinne?” he asked quietly, pain welling up in him as if his skin had been sliced open with one smooth movement of a vicious blade.
“Well,” she replied, refusing to meet his gaze. Her tone made it evident that she was not well but Richard could not bring himself to ask her why in case his suspicions were confirmed and it was indeed him who had brought about her unending misery. He did not think he could bear to hear an answer such as that.
“Have the meals been to your taste?”
“Yes.” Her voice was toneless: empty.
Richard turned to the window, unsure if he could watch her any longer: watch such a beautiful face churn out words so devoid of emotion.
“Is my lord okay?” she inquired, her tone horrendously neutral. Richard was gratified by the kindness of at least the thought for his welfare, though he oughtn’t to be happy because emotionless was the closest Corinne ever came to being cold.
He turned to her and nodded, the gesture the communication of a lie.
“I am glad you are well, Corinne. I insist, however, that you refrain from referring to me as your lord. I am sure I have said it to you before: you need not be so formal in your own home.”
“This is your home,” she murmured, barely audible due to her consciousness of the boldness of her comment. As if he would punish her for expressing an opinion! Richard was filled with sudden rage.
“I am sorry to have failed in recreating the atmosphere of yours, then!” he exclaimed, venting his fury at the pain her comment brought him rather than scolding her negative attitude.
Corinne looked shocked. He wasn’t surprised. It was the first time he had ever shouted at her. And instantly he felt guilty, and instantly he was sorry, and instantly the sheer openness of her eyes reminded him of his firm belief that she had not in fact been conceived by man but fallen out of the sky: one pure, seraphic form.
“I am sorry,” he murmured, casting his eyes downwards in shame. “I don’t know what came over me.”
Perhaps it was a good thing he had become angry, though, because in the next instant, Corinne was saying more to him than she ever had in the past twenty odd months: as though he had destroyed whatever force had been restricting her speech and her emotions.
“Is that the truth?” she questioned, her eyes awakened and alight with the fires of desperation. “Because if you know how you are feeling, or indeed have any inkling as to what your reasons for such an exclamation may be, I would like to hear it. I would rather hear it than not know. Even if it were terrible.”
“My dear, why should it be terrible?” The words, so amazed yet tender, slipped out of Richard’s mouth before he had a chance to stop them.
He looked up and saw Corinne’s brow wrinkle in confusion.
“Your ... your dear? You have never called me that before... What does it mean?”
Richard spun on his heel and forced himself to look out of the window, annoyed at himself.
“You may go,” he announced.
“But you have not confirmed that you do not know your feelings!”
An inner war raged within Richard.
Encourage her defiance! Oh how he wanted to encourage her defiance! But to do that he would have to tell her about his feelings. And that he could not do. He knew she loved him and he was fairly certain she had received at least the impression that he loved her back. But he could not confess his fears, could not declare the reasons he never showed his affection nor tell her that he felt they should never further their relationship at all: could not unlock the door of his soul for her because it was too painful.
So. Experience the joy her defiance brought him or avoid the agony a full confession would cause him? It was an awful choice.
But it was one he had to make.
“You may go,” he repeated, his voice firm despite his quivering heart which threatened to shatter like a crystal chandelier.
He watched Corinne’s reflection as she rose up from the armchair and stormed out of the room. He buried his head in his hands and might have sunk to his knees had he not been trained to never show himself to be weak.
Show himself to be weak.
If only one could change what one felt.