The under-steward’s office was unnaturally tidy. Even the rubbish bin’s contents were neatly folded and torn precisely in half before being placed in a careful pile within the basket.
Mellisande made use of the writing materials on the otherwise empty desk to reply to Lady Aurelia and tucked the note into the letter box for immediate transmission.
She turned her attention to the two men making a systematic search of the room around her. Every drawer was opened, the contents checked, occasionally cross-checked by the other, and all items carefully replaced before they moved on to the next drawer or cupboard. They were about halfway through the bank of shelves and filing drawers on the back wall when her father appeared at the office door, followed by the steward and the commander with Rosalind hovering anxiously behind.
Mellisande took pity on the maid, who hated drama, and always looked for ways to calm the waters and suggested she fetch the group wine and ale from the kitchen.
The girl gladly departed and Lord Humphrey eyed his daughter, “Why are you finding it necessary to dismantle this office my dear?”
“This would be why I think My Lord,” Alec looked up from a sheet of paper his assistant had handed him from a ground-level drawer.
He handed the sheet on to Lady Mellisande who turned slightly green, handed it on in turn and put out her hand for the remaining contents of the drawer.
Her father read through the letter, increasingly confused, then looked in horror at the items the two guards were placing on the desk. In addition to several more letters, an opened pouch displayed a necklace, a second, simpler necklace holding a locket, a book and a small hinged frame containing a painting of what looked to be a family group and on the opposite side, a coat of arms. The steward moaned when he recognised the last, the personal standard of the Duke of Northhaven.
“It appears that your assistant, Master Romsey, has taken it upon himself to object to my marriage and use his position to actively interfere in it.”
Mellisande’s composure was admirable.
At a questioning look, Alec repeated Jase’s report, corroborated by the remaining guard and all three men turned grim. Almost as if his name had summoned him, Jase appeared at the door, somewhat out of breath.
“The toad’s on his way up here. Someone mentioned to him that they’d seen Her Ladyship in the area and he just about jumped down their throat. Nathan’s slowing him down but I’m not sure how long we’ve got.”
He then registered the other occupants of the room and came to attention fast enough for whiplash.
“Good work soldier,” the castle’s commander looked around the room.
“Your Ladyship if you could stay where you are, we’ll just stand along the back here, where he can’t see us as he comes in the door.”
“Do you need Jase here? I just don’t want Rosalind accidentally interrupting when she comes back from the kitchens.”
Jase raced from the room at the commander’s nod and the remaining men cautiously squeezed themselves along the wall each side of the door Alec carefully pushed mostly closed.
Mere seconds after Jase’s departure, hurried steps were heard outside and the door flung open, its weight the only thing stopping it from slamming into Lord Humphrey’s face.
“Your Ladyship, I can explain everything!”
Alec closed the door, “Please do.”
The man went rigid. A quiet word to the remaining guard had him covering the door as Alec moved to stand at Mellisande’s shoulder. It would not do to leave her isolated and unprotected.
She could have been cut from ice, although one hand, hidden from most by the desk, clenched and worried at her skirts.
“He’s trying to buy you, buy your affection, so you’ll agree to the union. You need to be free from such underhanded tactics so you can choose from the heart.”
Alec tensed, that was not a normal thought process, which meant this man was not predicable.
Mellisande was thankfully unaware and remained apparently cool, “There’s no choice to be made. It’s not a betrothal. I’m married to the Duke, the contract was witnessed and signed by the King. Commander, your advice. Since this, person, has seen fit to interfere with a contract ordered and ratified by His Majesty, would his activities fit under theft and sabotage, or treason?”
“There certainly could be a case for treason Your Ladyship. I’ll have the criminal interred while we examine the exact charges and their consequences.”
“No! My Lady, I was protecting you. You cannot be traded to the highest bidder like cattle at auction.”
“Oh but I can and I have. That is the purpose of my existence as the daughter of a noble house.”
Lord Humphrey winced.
“But you’re supposed to marry me!”
The entire room froze in astonishment, quickly morphing to outrage.
“YOU. Why on earth would I want to marry a sneaky, snivelling little worm, who steals, lies and spies and brings nothing but shame to an alliance I was raised to create? Commander I believe he’s insane. He needs to be committed immediately or someone will be hurt.”
“But you love me! We where childhood sweethearts.”
“You are a piece of furniture in my father’s castle. It’s not even worth my time to remember your name. Have him removed.”
As the guard moved forward to take him, Bartholemew lunged across the desk at Mellisande, a knife catching the light as be moved.
“You are MINE. No one else can have you!”
Alec lifted Mellisande out of the chair and spun her behind him, catching the knife on his bracer as the guard seized the deranged man from behind and pulled him back.
Desperation had given him strength but he was no match for a trained soldier bigger, stronger and fitter than he’d ever be.
The Commander and Lord Humphrey barrelled in, furious, “Never mind theft or treason, that was attempted murder. You’ll never see the light of day again.”
After checking on Mellisande and finding her shaken but outwardly calm, Alec joined the group and took custody of the now raving Bartholemew, wrestling his arms back and securing them with the belt from his robe.
“I’ll take him to the cells, sir, and put a couple of guards on watch.”
“My people will come. They’ll come and free me and I’ll rule over all.”
Lord Humphrey frowned, “I know it’s irrational, but I’d like my daughter’s protection increased, at least until we know who this lunatic might be talking about.”
The Commander nodded, opening the door. Nathan and Jase were immediately outside. A quick review of events had the Commander assign the prisoner to Nathan and the thoroughly unimpressed guard now holding Bartholemew in a headlock, while Jase and Alec moved to accompany Lady Mellisande to her chambers and provide initial protection detail.
“In the light of recent events, I believe I’ll take dinner in my rooms.”
Mellisande moved to the door, pausing in query when Alec moved to check her.
“Your Ladyship, what would you like done with your stolen possessions?”
She glanced back at the table, “Have them brought to me, along with any correspondence deemed to have accompanied them.”
He handed her the letter box, nodded and moved aside to accompany her upstairs.
The deeply distressed steward bowed and hurried to the cabinets.
Lady Mellisande paused again and gently patted his arm in passing, “You weren’t to know Master Romsey, he was a very good assistant to you.”
He gave her a weak, watery smile and breathed a little more deeply, “He was such a good boy growing up. I can’t help but feel that school he went to for training changed him somehow, he was altered on his return, I just didn’t realise how much and how badly.”
Alec frowned, “If you have time tomorrow Master Steward, I would be grateful for a conversation. This school of yours may warrant further examination.”
The Commander glanced sharply, but nodded and moved to help the steward.
Mellisande finally left the room and made her way upstairs, Alec and Jase staying close.
“I feel like a prisoner myself.”
“Understandable Your Ladyship and I apologise for the inconvenience.”
“What, no scrambling denials or assurances of my complete safety?”
“I’m not an idiot Your Ladyship, nor am I particularly interested in diving into a fight with you.”
Thankfully they reached her chambers before Mellisande was able to formulate a suitably crushing response and Alec again checked her progress while Jase entered first, startling Roaslind.
“Really Captain, you feel the need to invade my own chambers?”
“Can you think of a better place to snatch or hurt someone unawares?”
Mellisande subsided and informed her wide-eyed maid of her change in dinner plans.
A much-needed distraction came in the form of a reply in the letter box. Her Ladyship settled by the fire and absorbed herself in the note, several times over, while the guards completed a sweep of her rooms.
A knock heralded the arrival of Mellisande’s erstwhile bride gifts and letters, providing further justification for avoiding interaction with her uninvited tenants. It took a while to match letters to gifts and by the time she had everything laid out in what appeared to be the correct order, dinner had arrived.
“The whole castle’s talking of how Master Bart went mad and tried to attack Your Ladyship. People are most indignant and cook apologises for not having your favourite pudding on hand, but has promised pancakes for breakfast.”
Alec and Jase’s replacements arrived shortly after, and they left Her Ladyship to her letters.