Count Fenton is tall and whipcord-lean, with brown eyes, short dark hair, and a nose so straight you could use it for a ruler. At the moment, he’s dressed simply in a shirt and breeches; the only visible markers of his rank are the gold rings on his fingers and the way he draws the focus of every person in the room, whether they are looking at him or not. For my part, I have my eyes firmly fixed on the reflection the lantern-light is making on the toes of his highly polished boots. It seems indecent to look such a man in the eye when his eyes are full of tears.
“So...you see my position,” he says, slowly. I nod, and to my left, I see Eric do the same. “My wife is...quite upset. Understandably, as he was---as he is her firstborn and her only surviving child.”
My eyes are downcast and my face is blank, but inwardly, I’m dying to hit something, or someone. How could Jack put me up to this job? How did I let him talk me into it?
Okay, so I may have exaggerated when I called this a charity case---the Fentons are nobles, so they have some money. Only, what with the new government tax hikes, they’re essentially no richer than the peasants who work their land. We might get paid for this, but it’ll be a pittance compared to what we generally earn, and with the way the economy looks these days, I need to be getting a lot pickier about who I work for. I still have no idea why Eric signed on for this; knowing him, it seems bizarre that he’d just volunteer out of the goodness of his heart, but I can’t find another explanation. I’m doing it because Jack essentially bribed me with a promise of a steak dinner.
Steak dinner or no, however, I’m starting to feel like this is definitely not worth it.
“Your Excellency,” Eric says, “my partner and I would like to begin some preliminary investigating. We’d like to take a look at your son’s tent. Subsequently, we’d like to interview you, the countess, and anyone else who has entered or exited your family’s sleeping quarters in the past two days.”
The count nods curtly. “You are welcome to use this room for the interviews,” he says. “Give me fifteen minutes to assemble the people you need.” Relieved to have a clear course of action, he strides out of the room, and Eric and I sink onto the cushions provided for us.
“Tell you what,” he says quickly, “you interview the women, I’ll interview the men. Then we’ll compile a list of all the information we’ve gathered, and try to---”
“Waitwaitwait...wait a second,” I interrupt. “What is going on here? First of all, you are voluntarily giving up the chance to flirt with pretty women, which is totally unlike you. Secondly, you know we both need to examine everyone, so why bother divvying things up in the first place? Third---and most importantly---what is up with you today?”
There’s a moment of hesitation. “Up?” he says cautiously. “Nothing is ‘up’ with me.”
“You’re a terrible liar, Eric.”
“Hey, don’t close me out, okay kiddo?” I say, but for the second time that day, my patronizing tone seems to go unnoticed.
“I’m entitled to a bit of privacy every now and then, just as much as the ne...” Behind me, there’s a rustle of cloth as the tent flap is pushed aside, and Eric trails off, his eyes wide. I turn to look.
A woman is standing in the doorway. She’s probably in her late thirties, but is nevertheless quite attractive, in spite of the fact that her dark hair is messy and her grey eyes are red-rimmed. She is dressed in a plain blue dress, but her bearing doesn’t exactly match her clothing, so I immediately glance at her hands. Sure enough---with those rings, she can be no one but Countess Fenton.
I don’t know what to make of her expression, though. It hovers somewhere between shock and embarrassment, and I can’t help but feel that I must have done something terribly impolite without knowing it. Are we unwittingly intruding on a private chamber? The count did tell us to wait here, but maybe he hadn’t informed his wife yet....
For several long seconds, she stares at Eric and me, sitting here on our cushions, and I can’t figure out what on earth is the matter. Then I glance back at my partner and, seeing the soppy expression on his face, finally put two and two together.
Oh gods. Tell me this isn’t real. Tell me I’m dreaming. Tell me that my partner of two years does not have a romantic history with our newest client.
That steak dinner had better be good.