Cerestine’s kitchen was too large for just her. Standing in front of one of the long work tables, she rolled dough into a thin sheet, flour spread in a wide circle around her while three feet of table on either end were still shining clean. Her brown hair was swept back and knotted elegantly at the back of her head. The streaks of silver at her temples ornamented either side of her head and threaded through the twists like ribbons. Her apron covered her dark, embroidered skirt, while she left her bleached white shirt bare. The fine flour didn’t even show against it, though it coated her hands from fingertip to wrist and halfway up her arms. The oven behind her spread heat down the length of the room, the pit large enough to house a dozen large loaves, but she worked alone, rolling only one.
The whole house was too large for her. Fifty rooms spread through three floors, and her every step echoed inside them, alone.
Loris wavered on the doorstep, unsure if the older woman knew she was there, or how she should properly announce herself if she didn’t. Cerestine was cutting her flattened dough into strips, still connected at one end. Her head was bent, and when she was finished with the knife, she threw it carelessly to one side, and didn’t look up as she began to braid the pieces together.
“My lady?” Loris began, hesitantly, sure that Cerestine would look up in shock no matter how gently she spoke.
Cerestine didn’t look up. Her hands kept moving the lines of dough, quick, and practiced. “You should have come in a few hours,” she said. “This won’t be ready until then.”
Loris paused again. She had been about to come closer, so she didn’t hear so much echo in Cerestine’s voice, but she stopped. “Were you expecting me?”
Then, Cerestine did look up, eyebrows high, her hands stilled for the moment. “I don’t expect anyone anymore,” she said. Then turned back to her work. Two more twists, and she pressed the ends of the strips back together, forcing them to forget she’d cut them. Gathering flour off the table on the flat of her hands, she patted it over the top, and shifted the loaf to a wooden board. One more pass with the flour, and she took the ten long steps to the oven. She gave the loaf a quick slip inside, pulled back hard on the wooden board, and turned back to Loris. She held the board in front of her in both hands, and met her eye carefully. Her mouth was titled in a shallow smile.
“You must have a reason for being here, if you thought I might know you were coming,” Cerestine said. She tilted her head, just to one side, inviting Loris to fill her curiosity.
“I came to offer you my services as your guard,” Loris told her.
“As my…” Cerestine paused, and her smile flicked up then down, then pulled her lips tight against her teeth. “I don’t know if you noticed, Loris, but those dozen men and women around the outside of the house already hold that job. And I would dismiss them, and hire you, but they don’t answer to me at all.” She paused, to subdue her smile again, though she didn’t accomplish much. “Why would you come to me? When did you join the Palace Guard?”
Loris looked down. “I didn’t, my lady,” she said.
Taking a slow step forward, Cerestine set the wooden board on the nearest table. Her heavy skirts sighed against the stone floor and she folded her hands in front of her. “I’m not a Clan Lady anymore,” she told Loris. “And I’ve known you since you were a baby. There’s no reason you shouldn’t use my name.”
Loris let out of a long breath. Lifting her head, she met Cerestine’s eye gently. “I’m offering to be your bodyguard.”
“Why?” Cerestine asked immediately. “You have better things to do, Loris. I know you’re not set to inherit, but you can’t tell me that your sister doesn’t have work for you. Or that you don’t have work you want to do yourself.” Cerestine tilted her head again.
“Things have changed,” Loris said.
Cerestine didn’t move, and the stillness that held her for a breath made the better response.
“Those of us who are not heirs take it as an honor to stand guard,” Loris told her.
Cerestine nodded. “I know about Damion’s new fashion.”
“It’s not a fashion,” Loris replied. She tried not to speak too quickly, watching the older woman’s smile fade and her eyes slowly lose their friendly light. “Lord Damion holds six, and three of them have already earned commendations for saving his life. Lady Aymee employs two. They just recently settled on a guard to watch the twins. It is an honor, to hold such trust.”
“And I’m sure that Damion appreciates the sign of your family’s loyalty,” Cerestine said. Her mouth had fallen into a narrow line. She looked at Loris, and blinked for a long moment, as if she really didn’t care to be looking at her anymore, even as she held her gaze more sharply. “That they would give up one of their own to follow one of his around, day and night.”
“Lord Damion has nothing to fear from us,” Loris murmured.
Cerestine’s smile cracked back into place, too sharp, too fast, too hard. “Did he send you?” she asked quietly. “Has he stopped believing that I’ll stay between the four walls he set me between without someone to walk behind me every moment and keep me there?”
“That’s not what this is about,” Loris promised. She whispered the words, just to stay beneath the edge of Cerestine’s low tone.
“Then what?” Cerestine demanded. “Does he think I can bring back my daughter’s ghost to return to her back what he stole? I suppose that should frighten him, since I’m a ghost too, now, inside this house.”
Loris traced the back of her teeth with her tongue, carefully keeping quiet.
“We’re alone here,” Cerestine said. “We can speak truths about what he is and what he’s doing. No one is listening. What does Clan Lord Damion demand of me?” She spat his title, spilled it off her tongue, and pushed it out of her mouth before she could taste it.
Meeting her eye, Loris seemed to push her back a little, stand her up a little straighter over her feet, and force her shoulders down. Loris took a shallow breath and didn’t look away. “Lord Damion didn’t send me,” she told Cerestine. “Your daughter, Lady Aymee did. I believe she’s frightened for you.”
Cerestine blinked, then again, slower. “Thank her for me,” she whispered. She started to rub at the flour on her skin, loosening the leftover dough and salt. She watched it fall off her fingers “Then tell her that I don’t think I want bodyguards here in my home.” Looking up again, she met Loris’ eye. “I don’t need to fear the things she does.”