Monday, July 21, 2014

Chapter Twenty-Four



I didn't get a wink of sleep.  I must have stood simply staring at what I had found for long minutes as I finally had to lower the lantern because my hand was going to sleep.  Then I stood for long minutes more trying to decide what to do.  Did I turn, lock the door, and go to the Chanellor?  The Sheriff?  Did I wait until The Linder returned and report it directly to him?  Staying silent crossed my mind but I knew I couldn't do it, the guilt would drive me mad.

I checked the time and found it was well beyond midnight and decided that if it had waited this long to be discovered it could wait a few more hours.  I circled the room several times before finding what I was looking for.  It appeared to be an oddly placed decoration which was why it stood out.  Someone had tried to hide it behind a shelf but I had been looking and recognized it for what it was.  I turned the decoration and behind it was a key hole. I was sure the key could not be far away ... but I was wrong.  I ultimately found it in Ceena's make up table drawer carelessly tossed into a container of loose earrings.  Finding it there was nearly as shocking as finding it at all, considering what it was.

Back down to the cellar I went and put the key in the lock and turned.  The door was so craftily concealed that it could not be seen until it was opened.  I propped the door open and taking my lantern - and a fresh candle in my pocket - I followed the passageway until it reached a point where it branched in several other directions.  Having been told of this spot though never having been here before I knew where I was.  The junction of tunnels led to a series of conduits that emptied out into Linderhall at various levels and into different rooms.  My head swam with possibilities.

I returned to the cellar, locked the passage, and secured the cellar.  Turning the key over in my hand I finally admitted that what I held was the Master Key and would open all of the locks on all of the secret passages and rooms in the Hall.  A dangerous item indeed were it to fall into the wrong hands.  And one that should never have been off the Guardian's key ring.  The fact that it was here could mean many things but my head ached too bad to name them all.

I made a list of the few items that I had seen and could put a name to.  Several were Linder family heirlooms.  A few of them were museum artifacts from before the Days of Destruction; things called cameras and data devices and the like are on display in the Linder family's private museum, there's even some highly prized maps and mechanical pictures that escaped The Burning.

I didn't touch any of the items on the shelves but I did note that there was a chest that looked very like the one that the lawyer had taken my circles out of before handing them to me in a rice paper envelope.  There were a couple of cases that could have held jewelry or something similar but I can't be sure.  I have a tight rein on my curiosity as I have no wish for suspicion to turn my way.

After making the list I just sat.  I know that sounds asinine but it is what I did.  I could have used my time more constructively - and frankly should have - but I didn't so there.  Instead I watched the window and at the first sign of lightning of the sky I threw on my cloak and headed to the Hall.

I was stopped twice on my way there and was nearly taken for questioning by a Regional Guard who didn't believe who I was if I hadn't mention Ronald Nealy.

A few moments later an irritated voice from behind me said, "So you'll mention my cousin's name but not mine?"

I looked at the Sheriff and he at me.  Rather than respond to his crankiness which even Guard Nealy - who had walked up with him - was caught by surprise by his tone I said slowly and carefully, "I need to speak with the Chancellor."

After a brief moment he nodded, took my arm, and we walked in silence to the Hall.  But rather than go through the staff entrance as I had planned he took me through another side entrance occasionally used by the family.  He pulled me into a dark, unused room and asked, "What is wrong?"

I sighed.  "You will take this as I do not trust you and that is not the case but ... oh, botheration."  I was so tired and out of sorts my hands were balled into fists.

"Sit."

"I cannot.  If I do I will likely fall over and ..."  I gathered my shredded nerves together and repeated, "I need to speak to the Chancellor."

"Can I be there?"

I shrugged.  It wasn't my place to tell him where he could be and where he couldn't be.  "It should be in his office and not in his personal quarters."

"Very well."

Eventually both men stood before me and I scowled, unsure how to begin.

"Widow ... Leeda," the Sheriff asked beginning to show great concern.  "What has you this overset?  I've never seen you at a loss for words."

"That is because this time words ... oh for heaven’s sake, if I hang then I hang.  I wish The Linder was here, this would be so much easier."

"Then it is a good thing that I am."

I jumped and had to cover my mouth with my hand to keep my scream was seeking to escape.

"Sorry Widow."

I cleared my throat and said, "Don't speak falsehoods, I don't need them.  More than likely you were going to eavesdrop since I was acting so suspiciously.  And don't tell me, I'm not sure I want to know how you got here from the Vanburen's so quickly ... or ... or did you ever leave?  Never mind, it's none of my business.  Let us get this other done first."

All three men looked at me expectantly.  I took the master key from my pocket and handed to The Linder.

"What's this?"

"I beg your pardon?" I asked having expected furious anger and got instead mild curiosity.

"This key.  What is it?"

I nearly fainted.  I found myself sitting on a poof with my head between my knees.

"Widow?  Leeda?"

I glanced up and looked at the Sheriff and whispered, "May God above protect you lot until someone imparts some sense into your skulls.  Have you no idea at all what that is?!"

The Linder was turning the key over in his hand and said, "Obviously not."

"May angels watch over you.  Guardian ... that is the Master Key.  There isn't a secret passage or room that I know of that that will not open."

Now I had their attention.  "And do you know where I found it?  In Ceena's earring box ... and not her good earrings either by the look of them."  Outrage began to pour through me in response to all the worried I had gone through during the night.  "And do you know why I went looking for a key?!"

"Easy Widow," the Chancellor cautioned.  "Your voice is getting a bit loud."

I closed my eyes and tried to calm down but was only mildly successful.  I stood up and began to pace.  Finally in a quieter and more respectful tone I said, "I could not sleep after the ... the two back to back incidences.  I tried a little unpacking and that didn't work so I thought I would look over the Dower House to see what work I needed to do.  I started at the top and worked my way down."

"And does that have bearing?"

"In a sense because it explains why it was so late and why I did not try and contact the Chancellor sooner.  I was concerned about creating a noticeable situation and this is going to require tact ... probably more than I am capable of generating."

The Sheriff took me by the arm and guided me to a sofa.  "Sit Leeda," he said in a quiet command.  "We aren't going to bite your head off."

"Hah!  Don't tell me what a Linder is going to do.  I know all too well what you are capable of.  And after everything that has been happening and ... argh."

I sat all in a flounce.  "If you're going to hang me at least make sure the hangman is an expert and I don't have to suffer."

"That is nothing to joke about," the Chancellor snapped.

"I'm not joking," I told him quietly.

The Linder looked at me and for the first time I realized here might be a good Guardian after all.  "Tell your tale."

I nodded.  "The house ... frankly by the time I was getting around to the cellar I was more than slightly irritated at some unusual aspects of what I had found but they don't bear directly on what I found but yet may have some interest and I'll tell the Sheriff later if he wants to hear them.  It is once I got to the cellar ... I was fatigued but determined so when I found it padlocked I was just ... frankly I was just cranky enough that I refused to let such a thing stop me.  And I didn't because I had found the house keys the night before.  I opened the padlock, which now that I think about it is in much better condition than several of the other locks on and in the house which may be important.  First thing I noticed upon entering was how well stocked the wine cellar was but that is typical of the sisters.  They could drink like horses but only the most expensive of brands.  The thing I noticed was that not all of the labels were from the Linder Vineyard.  And several bottles are very old and like nothing I've ever seen."

The three men looked at each other but I only thought at the time that they were getting irritated at how long it was taking me to get to the point.

"It is when I stepped into the rest of the cellar that ... good Heavens ... there are things there that should not be there.  The Chancellor mentioned ... well not specifically but ..."  I rubbed my eyes trying to calm the headache beating behind them.

"Should I smack your hands for doing something so ill advised?"

I looked at the Sheriff and tried to return his friendly grin.  "Perhaps you should."

I took my hands away and continued.  "I know you don't understand exactly what I am saying yet but ... botheration ... it would be easier to show you but if I do ..."

The Linder kneeled down into my line of sight.  "I do not have it in me to punish someone for knowing something I do not when they can't help it."

I looked at him.  "This ... this is not a personal matter for the Linder family.  This ... could very well involve an issue of Guardianship and ... and the breaking of a treaty.  I don't know how far this goes and knowing this ... my personally knowing this ... and the secrets and politics involved ..."  I stopped feeling like I was on a precipice.

"Where do your loyalties lie?"

I looked at The Linder and didn't understand his question.  "Ex ... excuse me?"

"Do your loyalties lie with us?"

I realized the question was a trick.  I looked at him in some anger.  "You are pulling politics are you not?  No matter what I say it can be twisted for your own purposes.  So, let me say this.  My loyalties, whatever they may be, are mine to give or withhold.  But whether I withhold them or not I do not seek to use that against anyone regardless of their status in this life.  If you insist on a specific answer then I will tell you that I am loyal to my cousin, my only living relative who I do not remember being anything other than a guiding force for good in my life regardless of the circumstance. And ... and the Sheriff, because he has been as honest with me as his Linder blood has allowed.  Mizz Marta is another as is Sister Evelyn who you do not know.  Many in the below stairs area have my loyalty."

He stood straight and arrogant, "I am the Guardian."

"You are.  But that is politics.  I respect the position but I do not know the man.  The same as when you are called The Linder.  I have already suffered under one so titled, I have no desire to find myself in that position again."

I heard the Chancellor clear his throat and the Sheriff grabbed my arm.  I turned and told him, "Stop that.  I won't speak my mind and then run away like a coward.  I came to try and help this family even risking my own neck ... and you don't even know how much I am willing to risk.  Instead of getting answers you get to a level of frustration and start talking politics as if that will get to the truth of the matter.  Bah!  Let us be done with this so I can hang or not ..."  I turned and made a small bow to The Linder.  "At the Guardian's pleasure of course."

Ignoring the looks on the men's faces I stood up and headed for the door and after that a staircase that would lead me to a place I'd only been twice ... and dreaded going again.

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