Empty houses stood in a certain kind of silence. Even from the outside, they breathed reticence, so long quiet that they’d started to echo their own silence. The walls waited for sound, holding still to keep the sighing inside from gaining strength.
Stepping out of the carriage in front of her uncle’s house, Karleigh hesitated. The stillness wasn’t there, and it should have been.
“Take my things to the back please,” she told the driver. He looked surprised and pleased when she added an extra coin for his effort and started unfastening her trunks from the top of the carriage. Karleigh left him to it, slowly moving up the front steps.
Her uncle’s housekeeper opened the door when she knocked. “Miss Aelisand,” she said, and slipped into a curtsey.
Karleigh smiled. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here sooner,” she said.
The housekeeper nodded, but looked down as Karleigh stepped inside. Slowly, Karleigh slipped each button down the front of her coat.
The main hall had not altered much over time. Karleigh had not been there in over six years, but it was still draped in its simple white, cream, and gilded yellow. The stone floor was scrubbed clean, soaking up the slanting afternoon light without shine. The paintings on the wall had been changed out, but still hung in great carved frames, two huge masterpieces to break up the bare walls. One showed a ship, the canvas sails mirroring the orange and pink sunset around it. The other was striped with the straight, dark trees of the island forests, animals and sunlight painted between the trunks. On Karleigh’s left, the stairs swept up the wall to the second floor, while a line of doors ran down the wall on her right. At the end of the hall, the heavy double doors that led into the yard were shut up tight. Caddy corner to it, the smaller door to her uncle’s study was cracked open.
The housekeeper pressed the front door shut behind her.
“Mardy, right?” Karleigh asked, turning back to face the woman. She took off her coat and the housekeeper took it, nodding. “Thank you for staying on,” Karleigh said. “If there’s back pay needed, don’t be afraid to ask.”
“Thank you, miss,” Mardy said.
“Is anyone else here?” Karleigh asked.
Mardy paused. “Yes, miss. Your uncle’s cousin, Rabin has taken rooms upstairs.”
“He’s in the study?” Karleigh asked.
Another pause. “I wouldn’t disturb him, miss. He’ll come out for dinner in an hour.”
Karleigh gave her another low smile. “Thank you. I’ve sent my driver around back with my things. You’ll make sure that he finds my rooms?”
“Of course, miss,” Mardy said.
“Thank you,” Karleigh said. She turned smoothly and strode to her uncle’s office.
There were three men inside, two sitting in comfortable chairs with drinks in their hands, and the third sitting behind her uncle’s desk, leaned back and smiling. They stopped talking as soon as she entered, all three facing her with the quickness of someone caught.
The curtains on the windows were drawn, against the heat of the afternoon. The room was lit with a series of lamps fastened to the walls. It was a darker room than the hall, anyway, furnished in deep red wood, painted in warm browns that might have played well with the sunlight, but deepened shadows under these flickering flames.
It seemed very like her uncle, to enjoy turning the night into a mysterious place, and she liked the room as soon as she entered it. The only shadows that bothered her were the ones the men cast, with their legs stretched lazily into the room, and their drinks at the ready, half-raised to their mouths.
It wasn’t difficult to guess that the one behind the desk was Rabin. He had the same tall, square build of her uncle, the same blonde hair she shared. What he lacked was her uncle’s sharpness in the eyes, the jaw, or the clothes. He stood when he saw her. Not immediately, but after he’d taken a good look at her. It gave her the impression that he stood because of her, not because he had the habit when a lady entered a room. There was some flattery in that. And something to dislike.
“Hello,” he said, surprised.
Karleigh settled her hands in front of her. “Hello,” she said. “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Karleigh Aelisand.”
Rabin’s smile drifted immediately. He set his drink on the desk. “A pleasure to meet you,” he said. “I’m your cousin, Rabin.”
Karleigh nodded, holding it long enough to hint at a curtsey, finishing the introduction. “I don’t mean to interrupt,” she said. She turned toward the other men. They looked at each other uncomfortably, and didn’t offer a word.
“You’re not,” Rabin said. “We were finished a quarter-hour ago.”
“Business then?” Karleigh asked.
Rabin looked down.
“If it was a social call, we’d have been in the drawing room, I think,” one of the others said. There was a cutting edge under his tone. He took a drink after he finished the sentence, as if he needed something to help him stop speaking.
Karleigh looked him squarely in the eye. There were many responses she could have given. She didn’t see the need.
“And what business are you in?” she asked Rabin. “I’m afraid my uncle never told me. He only mentioned a great deal of gambling, and great deal of money earned and lost on dice with bad temperament.”
“I’m sorry?” Rabin looked confused.
“Forgive me. I don’t think there’s a polite way to discuss this,” Karleigh said. “But if there is, I would love to be taught.”
Both men shifted in their chairs, drinks finally lowered.
“Gambling?” Rabin asked, incredulous.
“And theft,” Karleigh said carefully.
Rabin stared at her.
“You’re not supposed to be here. My uncle told me about your fight a few years ago,” she explained, calmly. “Though, I can understand how it would be tempting. My uncle lost somewhere at sea, maybe coming back, maybe not. A house full of his things – fine things – which might never be missed if they were sold in a back market somewhere. How pleasant it must be, to be able to sleep a whole night in luxury, and rob in comfort at midday.”
“How dare you–” Rabin began.
“How dare I?” Karleigh asked. She smiled, watching him in amusement. “You forget where you are. If my uncle lives, you are robbing him. If he’s well and truly lost, you are robbing me.”
Rabin stared in silence again.
“I think your friends would be more comfortable elsewhere,” Karleigh continued smoothly.
Rabin jerked his head to them. They put their drinks down grudgingly, dragged their feet as they left. Karleigh turned her head to watch them go. She might have moved aside to give them more room, to keep her distance, but she didn’t bother.
Rabin walked slowly after them, maybe to show them out, maybe just to make an escape of his own. Stopping at Karleigh’s elbow, he glared at her.
“You’ve been here for half a breath,” he hissed. “You should mind what you say to me.”
She stopped him on his next step toward the door: “Am I wrong?”
“The forest painting in the hall. It’s too dark for that space,” Karleigh told him.
“So what?” he asked.
Karleigh smiled. “No doubt, it was cheaper than what was hanging there before.”
Rabin blinked. Another silent moment passed and Karleigh turned for the door herself.
“I expect you to take your leave before midnight,” she said as she passed him. “You don’t get another day in this house.”
My friend, Bek is a thief! She stole the opening line of this piece for a story on her blog. Be sure to stop by and read what she did with an empty house.