The three buildings of the Pantelli estate combined weren't as large as the gigantic manse they had just come from, but could still be considered large in their own right. The central building was the main house, where Augustus and Marielle would be staying. It was the largest and connected to the other two by two enclosed breezeways. The two smaller buildings were for housing servants, and even though Augustus hadn’t toured his new home yet, he presumed that the attic of the main house also had servant quarters. The garden was almost completely surrounded by the buildings and breezeways, making it an enclosed courtyard except for an opening leading to a lightly wooded area with a path running through. The garden was plain and untended. If a priest of Ophelia saw this, Augustus thought to himself, his reputation would be seriously damaged.
When they entered the long-empty home, Augustus could almost hear his coin bag emptying. There was furniture; desks, chairs, tables, bed frames, shelving cabinets, and drawers for clothes. But the shelves were empty; the kitchen bare of cutlery, only a few dishes, no food; and the beds lacked mattresses. The windows were boarded up and the fireplace chimney was sealed. Augustus knew he would need to get his finances sorted quickly or else he could quickly go broke. He and his wife would need to have a long discussion to inform her of the state of their finances before she could start spending the money he didn't have.
Castor began directing the other attendants in unloading the wagons. As he did, Augustus and Marielle went for a tour of the estate that started in the garden.
"We will need to do a lot of work here. Since the temple of Ophelia is so big here, your reputation can depend on the beauty of your garden." Augustus pointed out.
"I’ve had many gardening lessons in Jorland before Cressa showed up. It'll be nice to get back into the hobby, " said Marielle, as she inspected the soil.
Augustus let out a sigh of relief. "Do you think you can make the garden presentable on your own? Or do you think you'll need the help of a professional gardener."
"I think so. Or rather I can at least get started on my own for now." Marielle continued walking, starting on the path that led to the wooded area that would be their backyard.
Augustus decided then would be the best time to talk about money. “That will be a relief. I know your family probably told you about how wealthy my family is. And to be clear that isn’t wrong, we own a very large and influential business. But currently, my personal finances are going to be strained in the coming days. Almost all of my personal wealth is invested in the Maysian Ocean expedition.”
“But you have the dowry, right? That fifteen gilden is a fortune itself.”
“It will disappear faster than you think. We need to buy so much for our home. We need to pay and feed our servants and the wedding will be quite expensive requiring a hefty donation."
Marielle started staring around at the trees as they followed the path. Was she angry? Augustus could only guess what was on her mind. Maybe she was thinking that they tricked her family into the marriage, if so she was probably furious. Yet after walking for a bit, she just turned and said, "We should head back. I don't understand the situation we are in right now that well, but from what I do understand it wouldn't be a good idea for us to get too far from our bodyguards."
They started heading back. But Augustus pushed onward on the subject. "You will be in charge of buying the things we need for the house, while I will work on selling the goods from the expedition. When you are making your purchases you will need to understand our finances. I will have to have Castor explain things to you in detail."
"I would like to know exactly what was going on during the meeting with your mother." Said Marielle as they stepped into the main house, and started up the stairs to the side of the entryway. "It seems you thought your mother would try to poison us."
"I didn't think she would poison us. I just wasn't sure that she wouldn't. Mother has never done anything to directly oppose me or to directly support Giovannus, I don't know where her loyalties lie, or even if she has a preference at all. The reason we have to be so careful is that we have so little information. The board has been set, and a game has been playing for weeks before we arrived at the port. On top of fixing our finances, planning the wedding, preparing our estate the biggest task we have ahead of us is finding out what's going on. Who can we trust? Who are our enemies and what do they want? We are completely in the dark."
They were now in the attic. Like he thought it was set up as a dormitory for lower status attendants, or house slaves. In theory, Sara could live up here, but since the intention of buying her was to have her as Marielle’s confidant, it would be better to keep her room close to Marielle’s. And since he had no plans of adding to their staff currently, with the tight constraints on their finances, this area would be sitting empty for a while.
Among the bed frames, nightstands, and drawers the room was being used for storage. There were a bunch of framed paintings. Marielle held one up, “These paintings are horrible.”
Augustus went over to take a look himself, and Marielle held the painting in a way that he could get a good view. “You’re right, these are terrible.” By terrible though, he didn’t mean frightful, or grotesque. Instead, it was simply obvious they were made by unskilled hands. Like someone had just decided that day to pick up a paintbrush, and just try their hand, using expensive paints and expensive canvases at something they were just terrible at. He picked up painting after painting, and the quality just never improved. “These must be my grandfather’s paintings.”
“Oh, I apologize for so carelessly insulting your dear grandfather’s works,” Marielle said with a worried stare.
“You don’t need to apologize. You simply stated the truth. He wasn’t a dear grandfather to me, in any case. Before I was even born he lived here, that’s why it’s called the Pantelli estate, he was Pantellus DeCastellian. Once his mind went, and the family noticed, he was voted out as head of the family in favour of my father.” Augustus said, putting down the painting that was in his hands. He started heading to the stairs, to go back down and Marielle began following.
“Did you meet your grandfather?”
“Yes, a couple of times, but I don’t remember the meetings that well. He died when I was seven years old. All I remember is that he never really knew who I was, or what was going on. Thinking of it now, I would say he was like a body that had no soul. I guess he passed his time painting.”
They reached the bottom of the stairs, then went into the reception room. All the attendants were there and had finished bringing in everything from the wagons. "The crew of the Scarlet Wind who drove the wagons were kind enough to help us. They have already left," Castor said, but he and Augustus knew kindness wasn't at the heart of that act. The bonus pay was still at stake so they needed to stay on their good side. "Now, the matter of food. I saw that the kitchen was bare, now we do have some leftover oats from the voyage in our belongings, but ---"
"Then we will have oats. The food markets are mostly closed now, and there isn't much time in the day to waste on shopping. Oats will be fine until tomorrow, and we will need a hefty amount since we all missed lunch." Said Augustus pointing at Sara and Cressa. They immediately went to get the water from the well in the garden.
Castor was shooting an annoyed stare Augustus' way, it was enough to communicate his disapproval of the coin-pinching he was witnessing. Augustus knew what he would say if he were of high enough status to be allowed to say it; that Augustus should have sent someone to an eatery to get food, that oats weren't an appropriate dinner for Marielle, and especially since it was the first meal after being on a ship for so long that it would be good to celebrate with something special.
"Let's all have a seat while we wait for it to be prepared," Augustus said, brushing aside the concerns while settling himself at the formerly abandoned chair and table set. Everyone else there followed to sit with him.
"We have much to do. Things would have been a lot easier if we just stayed at the DeCastellian manse until the wedding." Castor said. "I don't understand why we couldn't just stay there. At least for tonight."
"Because my father is dead," said Augustus bluntly. A look of shock appeared on Heratio's face.
"Giovanni is dead? When did it happen?" Heratio's mouth was agape. He looked to Castor and even reacted to Castor's lack of reaction. It was clear Castor already knew.
"He died two months ago," Castor replied. "But, that's all the more reason to stay in the manse. I'm sure seeing you around would provide comfort to your mother." Castor was always too trusting of others, Augustus thought to himself.
"We don't have enough information to stay there. I hold my mother in the highest esteem, but what if one of her attendants had acted against my father? They could have poisoned him, or revealed his movements to his enemies," Augustus lied. It's true, an attendant could have betrayed his father, but it easily could have been his mother for all he knew.
"Do you suspect foul play?" Castor asked, rubbing his chin in thought. "I didn't learn the circumstances of his death. Were they suspicious?"
"Not particularly," Augustus responded. "He collapsed while visiting an eatery when he was meeting with a mistress."
"I've only been with your family for a few years, still even I knew of your father's habits. I'm sure your mother has known for a long time. Some women don't care about that stuff, " said Heratio.
"Obviously my mother is not so stupid to have not noticed my father's habits. But still, I was just stating a matter of fact. Those were the circumstances and the possibility of foul play exists. Not to mention the timing, so quickly after we left. It's too convenient for my brother, so neatly to his advantage." Augustus held back his anger just enough so that it wouldn't appear on his face. But the tempo and cadence of his voice betrayed his stoicism.
"I know that you and your brother are not fond of each other and that your father favoured you to succeed as head of the family. But to think your brother would poison your father is unimaginable, " said Castor.
"Then your imagination needs some work," replied Heratio. Augustus nodded in agreement. Castor's kind heart, although admirable, could leave him vulnerable to very real threats.
"Yes, even Heratio knows. Giovannus would kill me the second he thinks he can get away with it. If it turns out Giovannus didn't kill father, to me that would only mean someone else or the natural order of the world got to him first. There is no doubt in my mind, that if presented with the resources and opportunity to kill father he would have taken it." Augustus looked at his two bodyguards. "I want one of you two awake during the night. I'm not sure what Giovannus has planned, but I am sure as soon he became head of the family he started concocting something to get rid of me once I got back."
"Gillivan volunteers! He would be happy to stay up all night," said Heratio while slapping Gillivan on the back.
"I'm starting to regret signing up with you guys. First, as I look around I can see the room and board part of my payment is leaving a lot to be desired," Gillivan said. "Then I'm given the night shift. I take it all I'll have to eat overnight is oats too?"
"The oats are just until tomorrow,” said Augustus. “Marielle will go to the market tomorrow morning and get some better food. And we can work out a pay increase for the night shift. Tonight though, I just ask you to soldier through."
The oats were ready, and Sara and Cressa came out with the oats. Since they didn’t have utensils they placed it in some edible wild lettuce leaves they found in the garden and had cleaned. Resulting in lettuce-wrapped packages of cooked oats. Augustus picked two lettuce wraps at random for the two cooks to eat in front of him. They sat down and began eating and so everyone else could begin eating too. It tasted horrible, but Augustus endured to set an example. He finished one wrap but dared not go for a second round of that horrid taste.
“Marielle, you will also need to buy utensils tomorrow,” said Augustus. “I will leave things to you, Cressa, Sara, and Castor.”
“Of course,” replied Marielle.
“I will be taking Heratio with me to the docks to work on the sale of the goods from the expedition.” Augustus looked over to Heratio who nodded.
“There’s something I would like to know,” said Marielle.
“And what is that?” asked Augustus.
“What did Giovannus do?” Marielle managed to get right to the point. Perhaps Castor would do well to know as well, Augustus pondered. “This matter so intimately matters to all of us. You make it seem like anyone here could die if we just happen to be standing between you and Giovannus at the time he decides you need to die.”
“When I was twelve, my father sent us, all of his children, out to the country. To a cottage that sits on the Typers river some distance upstream from the city. There our lessons paused and our tutors were held back in the city. There we mostly had slave attendants and a few nannies. To pass the time we would play in the forest behind the cottage.
“Something you must understand is that in Venocia, education among the elites is of paramount importance. For all my childhood up until then, I had spent almost every day studying. We learned separately, but we would compete in our studies. We knew who was better at math, or writing, we knew who knew more about history or politics. That was the main framing we had for knowing each other, as rivals. Playing stixis or cards could turn fierce.
"So, when we got the chance to play outside at that cottage we played competitively. Not knowing many outdoor games, we decided to play something simple. We would play tag, out in the woods. Most of the day of the incident is a blur. We were by the river, my little sister Corinna had been tagged. She was little, but she was fast and was cleverly hiding in bushes. I too was hidden, up in a tree ready to jump if I had to.
"Giovannus came strolling through and Corinna jumped out and got him. But then Giovannus just grabbed her. He looked around, and I guess to him it looked like no one was watching, but I was watching. So he hit her until she was unconscious and then dumped her in the river. It was so shocking that against my own restraint I moved. The swaying branch alerted him, and our gazes met.
"I jumped and ran. But he didn't even chase me. When I got back to the cottage he was already there. I understood from a glance that trying to tell people what I saw would end badly for me, so I stayed quiet. That night he snuck into my room and when I awoke my mouth was covered and he just started choking me. I remember that fear as that animal instinct caused me to convulse. Luckily my flailing was loud because of the banging of the bed frame against the wall. The door opened and Giovannus released his grasps and he changed his face in an instant to that of some innocent.
"I just gasped for air as Giovannus left. He knew with Corinna missing and now a witness of him in my room that my death would be too suspicious. He never snuck into my room again and I made sure I was never alone with him again. They found Corinna's body a couple of days later, she was floating in the river downstream. Now, most people think she must've slipped, hit her head, and drowned."
The audience had listened to the long tale intently. Castor was particularly dismayed, his eyes averted, staring at some empty spot on the table.
"I'm glad you told us," said Marielle.
Castor looked up at the other attendants and said, "I know this goes without saying, but do not speak of this with anyone else. In fact, do not speak of this again with each other. This is both an order and advice. If word got to Giovannus that someone was spreading rumours about him, he would surely have that person killed." Augustus was glad that even the often trusting Castor now understood the danger they were in. "Gillivan, since you have to stay up at night, why don't you go have a nap. There are no mattresses, but we have plenty of linens that should provide enough cushioning to be comfortable."
Gillivan got up with a somewhat annoyed look on his face. "Yeah, I'll go get to bed then. I'll be in the side building over there." He pointed indicating where he’d be and grabbed one of the crates that were filled with bedsheets.
"I'll wake you when I'm about to go to bed," said Heratio while giving Gillivan an exaggerated salute.
Augustus waited until he was gone before saying, "I think we have some wine in our belongings."
Heratio swiftly jumped from his chair and went straight to the crate holding the leftover wine from the voyage opening it up with gusto. Glasses were quickly poured for all except Sara, who refrained.
"I guess this is a celebratory drink for our new home," said Augustus before taking a drink from his overfilled cup. The group proceeded to drink and talk of lighter affairs. The first to retire was Marielle, her smaller body becoming tipsy from just a glass. Sara helped her to the master bedroom and Cressa was soon to follow.
Once the women left the men became more liberal in their drinking. They laughed at small things that happened on their voyage and once the wine had vanished, the three retired for the night. Heratio was still sober enough, not for a lack of trying. He remembered where Gillivan slept and went to wake him for his shift, dragging the thoroughly drunk Castor with him. He wasn't about to let Castor stumble home in the dark since now there was a clear threat to their lives.
Augustus stumbled himself into the master bedroom where he saw Marielle sleeping on layers of linen on the floor, with space next to her ready for him. But first, he noticed a painting on the wall, a terrible ineptly made painting of a ship at sea. He stared at it intensely and felt a wave of emotion, a sadness that wouldn't relent. Under his breath, he muttered to himself, "Why did you have to die? How could you die and leave me to this mess?"