“William, darling, come here.”
The Lady’s crooning voice echoed in the cavernous room and reached her son as he passed by in the adjoining corridor. She sat in her dressing room almost constantly now"it was the one room her husband had never entered. The windows were always closed and curtains shut, and she passed days at a time almost without getting up for anything other than meals and to use the facilities. She wouldn’t even step foot past the doors to get the attention of a servant; a bell system installed years ago was finally being put to use. Thinking that his mother merely wanted something fetched, William backtracked into the room and stood attentively by the entrance. He hadn’t forgotten the Lady’s bouts of instability in the few months that had passed since his last attempt to cheer her.
The Lady made a brisk noise of disapproval. “I am your mother, William, not your instructor. But come closer, dear one, I have something to tell you.” She had been facing him in the mirror, watching him reflected, but now she turned and gestured for him to sit in the chair drawn up next to her own. A tiny smile appeared on her face and William couldn’t decide if it was friendly or not. To him, it seemed like she had forgotten what a true smile looked like and was trying her best to seem warm and inviting. It was not reassuring.
He sat down beside her regardless of his growing apprehension, habitually playing with his fingers as he waited for her to speak. She was studying him with eyes he used to love, examining his hair and clothing and, he was sure, his mind. It was a long moment before she gently cleared her throat and patted him on the knee with a trembling hand; detachedly, William noticed it was bonier and paler than he’d seen it before.
“You will be a military man one day, William, so I have sent for a weapons tutor, someone to come to us and show you how to use a sword. Won’t that be fun?” Her smile was stretched now and it was clear even to the boy that she was losing some kind of battle to maintain a front of charm.
William thought for a second, truly undecided if he wanted to learn swordsmanship. He had never thought about it, despite the plethora of other lessons he was taking. “I suppose,” he said at length, looking at his lap, “but I don’t wish to join the military. I want to…I want to stay here and make sure Claire is okay.” He tried to keep his voice from trembling but it came out unsteady; there was too much emotion in that statement for him to hold it all back. In his mind, the only thing between his sister’s safety and happiness, and their mother, was him. No one else would go against the Lady’s wishes, not even if she ordered that Claire was to sleep in the stables and be fed with the horses. He just knew it. No family came to visit anymore, not that they had frequented the Wandesford Estate much to begin with; friends and associates ceased to stop by or send invites for balls and dinners. Even their political allies only sent letters now. The French Lady had never been much liked by her English husband’s social circle, had made only a few friends of her own, and the bonds were not strong. It was as though Lord Wandesford’s death and his Lady’s withdrawal into herself was all the excuse their relations needed to cease interaction.
No, they were very much alone now. He was very much alone.
The Lady tilted her head in question. “Make sure Claire is okay?” A little laugh bubbled out of her throat, seemingly unbidden, and she leaned forward until she was only a few inches away from William’s face. “Make sure she is okay…why would you…she is just fine, chere. Why would she not be?”
William, nervous, was silent until he realized the Lady actually wished him to answer. He had nothing ready to say however, other than the truth, and without second thought, the boy spoke. “Because you are not…you are not healthy, ma mere. She misses you.”
“She misses me?” The words were almost a whisper, and certainly she spoke them with surprise. Curiosity mixed with something William couldn’t quite place"contempt, perhaps"passed over the woman’s face in quick succession and she looked lost. “But I am right here, I haven’t gone anywhere. If anyone, she should be missing you, your father…only the men ever leave. You will leave me, too. I will have just…just little luckless. Just her.” Her sentence trailed off into mumbling and the Lady shook her head after a minute, expression changed from childlike to angry, hurt.
“You need to go for her.” The words dropped from her lips like heavy stones into a shallow pool. “If you do not go, we will all be in ruins. I cannot teach you anything of war, of killing or what it means to want to cause your enemy pain. No…that…your father would have done that. But he can’t. He’s dead, William! Dead!” The Lady rounded on her son who now sat as though trapped in his chair.
“He is gone and I see him in your face every day and I cannot keep you for myself. They cannot take you yet and I cannot teach you how to kill. No, no we can’t tarnish the name, it’s the one promise I made him, so you have to go about it the way normal men do. You have to go to war,” she said, voice bubbling into unstable laughter, punctuated by hiccups as she shook her head. William eyed her apprehensively, prepared to dash for the door if the need arose. He could never gauge how she would act when speaking of Jonathan. But she calmed"it was nice, those moments where she seemed almost sane again"and took a deep breath.
“In joining the military, ma chere,” she said slowly, looking William in the eyes, “you will ensure that life goes on. You will leave your eighteenth year and you will not come back until they have found you and deemed you worthy. Prepared. Handsome, proficient…whatever their criteria is.” The Lady closed her eyes and shook her head again, almost spasmodically, sniffed sharply and batted at the air as though waving away whispers around her head.
Her voice came out an insistent whisper as blue eyes shot open. “This wasn’t supposed to be yours. We kept trying for another, so he didn’t tell you things. Secrets. You were small. But you have to go now. Can’t you see?” Her expression practically begged him to understand her broken bits of information. “You will go, and I will watch her, keep her safe. You will go. Go….go!”
It was a command, that much William understood, and without looking back he hurried out the door.