Idira woke to voices shouting. For a heartbeat she didn't know where she was. She looked around the shadowed room, disoriented, her eyes drawn to the huge window and the distant sea, black dark, shifting and uneasy under a low moon, waiting for the sun to breach the horizon.
The shouts came again, muted by distance. Idira pushed back the warm quilts and slipped from the bed. Sometime in the night, Blackie had left her hiding place to curl up by the bed's footboard. Idira stopped to pet her, listening to the voices coming from far below. Clad only in her nightdress, she opened her door and peered into the hall. The flickering light of a lamp on the landing below kept the worst of the shadows at bay. She crept down the stairs and leaned over the banister. The voices had lowered. Idira could only make out one word. Benny.
Alarmed, she broached the next flight of stairs, careful not to make the polished boards creak. At the bottom, she paused to make sure no one was around before padding across the thick carpets of the vast entrance hall to the front reception room. The grand room's glazed doors stood slightly ajar. She peeked in. Papa was already dressed for the day in his black leather armour. He stood with his back to the big marble fireplace, his arms crossed over his chest.
Close by, Myra perched on one of the pretty pieces of furniture, a little upholstered sofa done in luxurious green material. Her sister clutched her ruined dress closed over her breasts. All the little flowers in her hair were gone and her blonde tresses hung loose, tangled and messy.
'Papa, please. I love Benny.'
Papa glared at Myra, who quailed under his severe, hateful look. He jerked his head in the direction of the big house.
'Did he hurt ye?'
'No . . . but—'
'There is no 'but'. It's time ye learned about life. Powerful men like VanCleef allus gets what they want and ye better get yer head around acceptin' it. Benny'll accept it, ye can count on it.'
Myra lunged to her feet, bristling, outraged. 'That man slept with me, witout so much as a by yer leave! He took what belongs ta Benny, and ye say Benny'll jus' accept it?' She stood there, trembling, tears burning in her eyes, and spat, 'If ye won't defend me, Benny will. He'll kill 'im.'
Papa laughed, a short, harsh sound. 'Wimmen, and ye're wild expectations, ye're a copper a dozen till us. If VanCleef wants ye, Benny'll give ye up ta him afore ye can say Westfall.'
Myra blinked, taken aback. She sank onto the sofa, and shook her head. 'No. I don' believe ye. Ever since Mama died, ye've changed. Ye wouldna' say such things if Mama was still here.'
Papa clenched his jaw at the mention of Mama. He let out deep breath, like he was trying to find patience. 'Times change Myra. VanCleef asked me about ye, awhile back. Benny, the fool, had been braggin' he had the best lookin' girl in Westfall. I tried ta divert VanCleef but ye'll find he's not the kind ye can divert.' He eyed her dishevelled hair and torn gown. 'Ye're his now Myra, best ye get yer head round it, sooner rather than later, fer all our sakes.'
'And what's that supposed ta mean?' Myra snapped, wounded.
Papa knelt in front of Myra and took hold of her chin, she fought him, but he held her firm, jerking her face back to his. He looked at her with his hard eyes. 'It means Benny's been sent ta the borders o' Elwynn ta patrol. He's been told what's what. Ye're VanCleef's now. Best ye get ta likin' it. So long as I'm Enforcer, ye ain't never goin' ta see Benny again.'
Myra cried out. Tears burst from her eyes. Papa let her go and stood up, straightening his tunic, looking at her with eyes as cold as a fish.
'I'm leavin' fer a fortnight to gather forces in Redridge, but ye mark me words, VanCleef's men'll be keepin' an eye on ye, so don't ye be trying anything funny. If VanCleef sends for ye, ye'll go ta him, looking as pretty as a princess, ye hear me?'
Myra didn't answer. He raised his leather clad hand high and hit her hard across the face. She flinched and bit back a cry.
'Ye hear me wench?' he bellowed.
She nodded, squirming to get away from him.
He turned and strode towards the glass doors his booted feet loud on the wooden floorboards. Idira had just enough time to scurry away and hide behind a potted plant. She peered at him from between the plant's leaves as he went out the big front door. He yanked on the handle and the door slammed shut behind him, making the framed portraits on the walls rattle.
She crept back to the front room. Myra had lain down face first on the sofa, her shoulders shaking as she sobbed, deep, heart wrenching cries. Idira went to get her sister a cup of water. It took a long time to find the kitchens, then a cup, and finally a jug of water, but she managed. She came back and found her sister sitting up, staring at nothing, her rent dress hanging open, her full breasts exposed. A massive bruise purpled the side of her face. Idira held up the cup.
'Want some water?'
Her sister nodded. Idira brought it to her and waited while she drank. Myra wiped the back of her hand across her mouth, flinching when she touched her injury. Idira sat down and took her sister's hand.
'I'll help you,' she said.
Myra scoffed but didn't pull her hand away. 'How?'
Idira shrugged. 'I don't know. If Benny comes ta town I can take a message ta him for ye.'
Myra turned and looked at Idira for what felt like the first time in Idira's life. Idira bit her lip and waited. Myra's face softened. 'Ye're allus so good. Even when I'm bad to ye, ye don' do bad back. Why?'
Idira shrugged again. 'Ye're all I have. Like a Mama. Anyway Papa gives ye enough trouble as it is.'
Myra's face crumpled and she started to cry again. 'Mama would hate me fer how I've treated ye. Afore she died, I used ta be nice, Papa used ta be nice, too. Well, nicer'n now anyway. Everything went bad when . . . ' She shook her head and looked in the direction of VanCleef's house. She sniffed. 'Maybe I'm gettin' what I deserve, fer all my badness.'
Idira thought about the black haired man in his fancy armour and how deadly he looked as he used his two swords. He had looked at Myra like he was going to eat her with his eyes.
'Are ye going ta marry that man instead of Benny?'
A fat tear rolled down Myra's face and splashed onto the top of her breast. She laughed, brittle. 'I don't think he's the marryin' type. Especially not ta someone like me.'
Myra shook her head. 'Ach ye should see that house, and the way people act around him. He's rich, smart, and powerful. I'm jus' a poor farm girl who happened ta take his fancy.'
Idira nestled closer, savouring the sudden intimacy of her sister's company.
'What's he like, really?' she asked, curious.
Myra lifted an eyebrow. 'Well, apart from ripping me dress open and carrying me off ta his bed without the askin' o' it, he wasn't so bad, as men go I suppose. He said some new things would be delivered today, ta make up fer my ruined dress.' She plucked at the torn material, shy. 'He knew what he was doin', better than Benny. I won't lie, some of it was quite nice. Not all o' it, mind, but some.'
Idira didn't say anything. A couple of months before she had seen Benny and Myra on the beach behind some rocks, with Benny on top of Myra moving up and down, his mouth hanging open and making a stupid looking face. Idira had laughed all the way back to the house. So that was what they did when they went 'walking'. Being a grown up was strange, saying one thing and doing something else. Walking was walking, not that whatever that was. She tried to imagine the elegant man from yesterday looking like that, she couldn't.
'Did he make a funny face?' Idira demonstrated.
'How d'ye know about that?' Myra asked.
'I saw ye and Benny once down at the beach. He looked like that.'
Myra blushed a little under her bruise. 'VanCleef's a man full grown, near twice me age. He's had more time'n Benny ta practice. No faces.' A fresh tear slipped free.
Idira leaned her head against Myra's shoulder and regarded the opulent curtains framing the floor-to-ceiling windows. In the window arches above the closed shutters, Idira watched as a new day dawned, the sky's hues shifting from a colourless grey-blue to a deep pink. Within the house, the sound of servants cleaning out fireplaces, opening shutters, and scrubbing the floors drifted into the room. A maid came in. Her eyes widened at the sight of Myra before she bowed and backed away, pulling the doors closed behind her, quiet.
'He tol' me he loved me,' Myra murmured.
Idira kept looking at the sky, watching the colours change. This was her favourite part of the day. 'Benny did?'
Myra didn't answer.
'VanCleef?' Idira asked without thinking. She regretted it immediately and braced herself for a smack.
'Yes,' her sister whispered.
Idira looked at Myra, surprised. 'Has Benny never—even after,' she made the face again, 'that?'
Myra shook her head, stricken, her eyes bright with tears once more. 'I allus wanted him to. He used ta laugh an say real men don' say things like that.'
Idira kept her mouth shut, she knew what her sister was thinking. VanCleef was a real man and he had said it, which meant if Benny didn't say it, maybe he never loved her sister after all. She took her sister's hand and just held it while her sister cried until she couldn't cry any more.