Author’s Note: Warning, this story contains violence and some dark concepts. Neither are part of the sex or romance, but paint the background which drives the heroism bringing the characters together. If violence is a specific turn off for you, this may not be the story for you.
Special thanks to livingforfun for editing and improving this story.
A bit of mystery, a drop of magic, a flurry of violence, and a breath of romance bring Emma and Sarah together to save the Bloodlands.
Emma twisted the piping bag slowly, letting the red dye seep ever so slightly into the surrounding frosting. The master had been very specific about how the tarts were to look and she didn’t have time to remake them. There were still ten different kinds of pie to make in addition to all of the pastries. She counted herself lucky though, none of her items had to reach the table hot.
The kitchen was abuzz with servants rushing to prepare for the gala, an event their master would do anything to make perfect. There was something special about this one. Emma wasn’t sure what and it definitely wasn’t her place to ask. Her place was here by the stoves, preparing the evening’s confectionaries and generally staying out of everyone else’s way.
Staying out of the way was something Emma was very good at. At just over five foot, she was skinny and small. She could fit into small spaces, blend in with a wall or piece of furniture, or simply scurry underfoot. That and her subservient, giving nature made her a good servant. Servitude had been her lot in life since she turned fourteen and left her parents’ farm to seek an income eight years ago. She had five younger siblings and the last thing the family needed was another mouth to feed. Instead, she sent money home every few months.
She’d just finished frosting the last tart when the master burst into the kitchen, eyes flaring behind a guise of stoic command. The tall, sophisticated man hardly ever graced the servants’ areas with his presence unless it was to deal punishment. The room fell silent in trepidation.
“Everything must be perfect tonight,” The master announced for what must have been the dozenth time. “Hors d’oeuvres at six. The food is to be on the tables hot two minutes before seven. By the time the doors open at exactly seven, there should not be a servant in sight. You will integrate the other servants into your routine as necessary to achieve efficiency and accuracy. At exactly eight, you are to switch the main courses for the desserts. The blast of the first firework will be your cue. By the time the last has burst, you are to be gone again, the tables changed and ready. Then you are to report to the kitchens, taking the other servants with you. No one is to leave or go anywhere else in the manor.” They’d heard this all before. It wasn’t until he reached the end of his speech that anything changed. Here, he locked eyes with each servant in the room for what was the first time for all of them in each of their tenures at the Belmont manor. “If any servant is found anywhere in the manor outside the kitchens and servant quarters after eight-ten, they will be dragged behind my carriage across the Bloodlands until dead. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, master.” The room said as one. They were silent a moment longer as the master gave a small threatening smile. His eyes dragged over them once more, slowly, like a rancher assessing his herd for the last time, before he turned and left.
“Something is happening tonight,” the butcher’s assistant breathed, breaking the stunned silence. “Something we need to know about.”
There was a general grunt of disapproval. It wasn’t just the master’s obsession. Having all of his guests bring their servants to assist had been confusing at best. The master could be a perfectionist on regular days, but the strict time table and continuous threats were more than concerning.
“What? You want to go ask him, boy?” The butcher challenged, turning back to his chopping block and picking up his cleaver.
“Ben’s right. Master Belmont has never acted like this before,” the scullery maid took a small step forward into the center of the kitchen to be heard better despite her tiny voice. “I’m scared.”
Emboldened, the assistant spoke again. “We need to know. No one threatens death unless what they are hiding is worth killing for.” The statement seemed fairly simple, but the room came to a complete halt to consider the idea.
“Is knowing worth dying for?” the bread baker asked, making it clear she had no interest in that trade.
“I think not knowing may be what kills us surely as finding out.” The head waiter was known for his quick wit and charming smile, but there was none of it in his expression.
“And how do you propose we find out?” It was the head cook who spoke this time. She was a portly older woman with wispy grey hair, pulled back in a tight bun. She ran a tight kitchen and Mersin Escort seemed to care for little besides efficiency, practicality, and butter.
“Someone could stay when we switch over the dinner to the desserts,” the maid suggested, purposefully not drawing attention to herself lest she imply she was volunteering.
“Hide under the table,” the assistant provided.
The butcher scoffed. “They would be found and killed. They will check every time we enter to make sure we have all left. If someone wants to be there, they will have to have been there from the beginning.”
“Right, and where would they hide? The grand hall may be large but it’s open. There’s nowhere to hide, no closets, no curtains. There’s not even a bloody tapestry.” The bread baker countered.
“A guest,” the scullery maid interjected drawing the group’s stares. “We disguise a servant as a guest. They will be coming from all across the Bloodlands. There are bound to be people no one knows. Wear the right clothes. Say the right things. No one will know.”
The kitchen servants didn’t stop staring. It was madness.
“I’m serious. Do you think they know our faces? I don’t know about you, but that’s the first time the master has ever looked me in the eyes. There are like a thousand people in the Bloodlands. We steal the right clothes and makeup. No one will pick our spy from the crowd.”
“You volunteering?” The butcher challenged again. Emma was sure he was a formidable poker player, though she avoided the Monday night games herself.
“No,” the maid sounded halfway between apologizing and defending herself. “We would need someone who blends and that certainly isn’t me.” Tall and gangly, the woman had wiry black hair and horrible teeth. It wasn’t self-deprecating or even an excuse, but simply the truth.
In one collective gasp, a single idea dawned on the room as a whole and every head turned slowly to stare at their confectioner. Emma didn’t think she’d ever had that many people looking at her at once in her life.
Emma felt as though she was being stared down by a pack of dogs, pinned against a wall with nowhere to run. They were all suddenly of one mind set, their target chosen, and somehow the proposition seemed less mad.
“She would fit in one of Jane’s dresses,” the cook’s assistants said, running her gaze over Emma’s thread-bare, dull green dress that had once been the color of her eyes.
“It would be easy to steal,” the scullery maid chimed in. Jane had been Master Belmont’s second daughter. She’d died of consumption nine years ago at the age of sixteen. Her room had been abandoned by the rest of the family, first for fear of contracting the disease and then because it was easier than trying to deal with their lost family member’s things. That was an advantage of a large manor. You could bury the things you never wanted to think about in any number of walk-in closets. “There would be makeup too.
“She’s pretty enough,” the butcher’s assistant added, giving her an appraising look that made Emma feel even more vulnerable under their collective gaze. The butcher and his assistant didn’t even look at meat like this. Like they had plans.
“I can’t.” Emma said, finally finding her voice, though there wasn’t much to it.
It was the head cook who stepped in. Waddling ever so slightly, she approached Emma and placed both large hands on Emma’s slim shoulders. “You have to.”
“They’ll recognize me. Someone will recognize me.” Emma pleaded.
“No one notices a servant. Least of all you.” The cook said sternly.
“I can’t,” Emma repeated, breathless.
“You will.” The cook replied. She didn’t take her eyes off Emma’s and the small woman found she had no ability to look away. They stood locked like that as the cook gave orders in her typical no-nonsense fashion. It was as if she were directing the preparation of a roast, not a pyre. “Gretchen, get the dress, shoes, and the makeup. Lily, clean Emma up, get her hair and makeup done. We’ll organize with my husband to arrange a carriage to circle back around with Emma after enough guests have arrived. Ben will cover Lily’s work and Rita will finish what Emma cannot on the pies and pastries. We had little time as it was. I expect everything you have and more. This must be perfect.” Her repeated words from the master were not lost on their audience and the group burst into frenzied action, working as the well-oiled machine they might just have to be to survive.
Emma could see the blur of motion in her peripheral vision, but her eyes were still locked with the cook’s. She wanted to beg. Get down on her knees if she had to, but there was an unbreakable determination in the brown eyes that stared at her. The cook spoke three words to Emma before releasing her, the words her eyes had been conveying, the words Emma knew she was helpless to defy. “We need you.”
“My…my pies,” was all Emma could think to say.
“Get as far Escort Mersin as you can. You have fifteen minutes.” The cook responded then moved into the rushing crowd of servants to play her essential role as the machine’s engine and engineer.
Emma had never worked with so much focus in her life. Her efforts put all previous definitions of multi-tasking to shame. It was the only thing that kept her mind from what exactly she had been recruited for. I’m going to die and all I can think about is having the perfect thickness of pie crust, Emma chastised herself in a singular moment of mental clarity as she rolled out the tenth crust to an even parchment thickness.
It was with robotic emotionlessness that Emma handed the unfinished pies over to Rita and followed Lily and Gretchen to be bathed, primmed and propered. It was nearly six when the trio finished their work and stepped back to observe their success.
“Wow,” Lily gave a small gasp.
“Damn girls,” Gretchen added with a satisfied smirk. “We are good.”
“What now?” Lily asked, still staring at their silent subject. Emma’s long brown hair hung around her shoulders in soft ringlets. Her green eyes sparkled under long dark lashes, accented by soft blue eyeshadow.
“We show Mabel and then get her to the stables. The first guests will be arriving in a few minutes.” Gretchen provided, grabbing Emma by the nail polished hand and pulling her back towards the kitchen.
The cook paused in her work long enough to look Emma over from head to foot approvingly, then dismissed them, “Good luck, Emma. Remember, no one notices a servant. Just blend in.”
Emma was quickly discovering that heels would be the bane of her existence if not the end of it. How was she supposed to look natural in these impractical things that sank into the ground with every step? She gripped the edges of the frilly blue dress stolen from the master’s dead daughter, hoping to keep the dirt from reaching it. She’d never been this clean in her life and she was expected to stay that way. The trip to the stables made that task almost impossible.
The small group worked their way along the edge of the tree line, trying to keep Emma and her bright blue dress from standing out as much as they obviously did. The fact that every available eye was focused on the front of the house and the main entry hall was the group’s only saving grace.
The stable master immediately refused to provide the requested services and for a moment Emma thought she might be saved. When Lily explained that his wife was the one giving the orders, the large statured man gave a growling sigh and several choice curses before ordering his underlings to quietly rig up one of the carriages. There was barely time to realize this was all really happening before Emma found herself shoved into the awaiting carriage and she was off.
The beating of the horse’s hoofs on the hard-packed dirt path matched Emma’s heart beat as it thudded in her ears. She stared out at the deep orange and pink sky and wondered why she’d never appreciated its beauty before. The trees along the side of the road seemed to be waving at her in the gentle evening breeze, a calm tranquility in stark contrast to her feeling of impending doom.
They all expected her to somehow pull this off. Blend in and then what? Learn some vital piece of information and report back? Her stomach did a barrel roll as she realized she had no escape plan. No way to call for help or to share what she learned. They’d worked so hard to get her here, with no thought of what would happen next.
As the carriage pulled up in front of the Belmont manor, Emma tried desperately to contain the panic that was threatening to overwhelm her. All she wanted to do was make a break for it. Throw these god damned shoes as far as she could chuck them and bolt into the trees. But then, the carriage door was being opened and a somewhat familiar head was tipped down, offering his hand to help her out without offending her by making eye contact. She took it for lack of anything else to do and slowly stepped out of the carriage onto the manor’s front entryway.
Emma’s mouth gaped open as she took in the scene before her. She wasn’t sure she’d ever even seen the front of the house before, let alone all strung up with lights. It was beautiful. Every inch of the front façade sparkled like the night sky. A perfectly manicured lawn spread out before her, flowers flanking on either side providing an aisle by which she would reach the front of the house and the dark double oak doors. The doors stood open and from them poured music, laughter, light, the smell of delicious food, and even from this distance a touch of warmth that fought off the evening chill. She wandered forward, drawn like a moth to the flame.
As she reached the door, the luxuries of a life she’d never had washing towards her, a familiar face turned towards her from his place at the door. Suddenly, Mersin Bayan Escort Emma was rooted to the spot, her breath caught in her throat. Master Belmont had turned his piercing gaze on her and he was smiling.
“Welcome,” her master said, extending his hand towards her. There was a charm to his voice that Emma had never heard before. “I don’t believe I’ve ever had the pleasure. I’m Ranald Belmont, mayor of the Bloodlands and your host.” When Emma didn’t react, he reached his extended hand down and took her hand in his, bringing it to his lips for a quick kiss. “And you are?” He prompted.
“Mary Jessip,” Emma tried not to stammer as she gave the name Gretchen and Lily had come up with. She’d thought their backstory efforts were ridiculous and fanciful, but now, standing in front of her master in his daughter’s clothes, the lengthy if flimsy tale of her life was her life raft.
“Jessip?” Emma’s master asked running the name and face through his mind slowly.
This is it. How did anyone think this would work? Emma thought, not sure if she was more disappointed in her colleagues or herself.
“I don’t think I’ve had your family as my honored guests before, Miss Jessip.” Her master provided, releasing her hand and giving a tiny bow.
Or not. “My father just bought land at the edge of the Bloodlands. My uncles inherited the family land in the Dales and my father felt his fortune would be of more use if he wasn’t under the shadow of his brothers.” Emma quoted Gretchen trying to add the accents and affectations the scullery maid had used. The frivolous novels Gretchen’s boyfriend, Ben, had poo pooed had come through in the end. Master Belmont smiled brightly at Emma’s story and ushered her through the door into the grand entry, accepting her apology for having no servants at the new manor to bring to the party.
Emma was escorted from one end of the room to the other and introduced to the masters of the families around the whole of the Bloodlands. Some faces were familiar while others she doubted she’d ever seen, but no matter how many times she had seen them, these people had apparently never seen her. No one notices a servant, Emma repeated to herself over and over again, watching as the guests’ servants retreated into the background to be completely ignored. It had become her mantra, her calming phrase with each reintroduction to a master she knew well already.
It was seven o’clock before Emma was finally released from her master’s eager attention. The hors d’oeuvres were all but devoured and the crowd was being led to the grand hall for the main course. Emma followed directions, moving with the stream as the buffet tables against the far wall were systematically swarmed. Guests with mounded plates milled through the half of the room by the buffet tables before finding seats around the large wooden tables with their red table cloths. The other half of the room stood empty. The scraping of chairs against the hardwood floor and the buzz of voices filled the large space, bouncing off the hard walls. The guests didn’t seem to mind the noise, only increasing their volume when their conversation partner was more than a seat away.
Emma filled a plate and took a seat. Blend in. She spoke when asked a direct question, but for the most part she simply listened to the idle gossip, the business updates, and the daily life complaints of the people around her. It all seemed so trivial to her. These were the heads of rich families that kept the money of the area flowing, yet nothing they said seemed to matter. They had the same trials and triumphs that she heard shared daily in the kitchen, just on a larger scale. Emma had been told to listen and report back, but what was there to report? That Edmund Gretten had caught the bugger stealing his chickens? That George Fischer was renting a room to his wife’s cousin’s son? That Rodney Coleson couldn’t get his plow to turn the soil which was hard and dry?
As the last of the guests finished their meals, the crowd was invited to abandon their plates for refreshments and dancing. A line of servants, the ones who had ushered in the guests at the front of the house, removed the covering from a long line of tables housing bottles of every kind of liquor and mixer Emma had ever seen. Interspersed with the bottles and punch bowls were several of her own confectioneries. The servants took the covering, then all of the plates and disappeared into the back of the manor. Clearly, they had been ordered from the party and to their quarters the same as the kitchen servants had been.
Once again, the crowd surged forward, though this time not all for the tables. The band, which had been playing light music throughout the dinner had picked up a loud and steady dance tune and partners were taking to the floor. Emma stood at the edge of the dance floor, blending in with the guests who stood watching the dancers. It was enthralling. The beat of the music exactly matching the beating of the dancers’ feet. The swirl of beautiful dresses as the women in them were spun in slow circles. The flow of partners in step with each other streaming around other partners like the dance of autumn leaves caught in a breeze.