Chapter 6- Consequences

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The drive from the shop in the boonies back to town had been completely silent. Berrick leaned against the passenger door, watching the country go by, cursing himself for not being more vigilant. Sue-Ellen drove, tapping her hands on the wheel and occasionally glancing at Berrick.

When the vehicle crunched up the long drive to the Cortanis estate, Sue-Ellen gave a little gasp. Berrick lifted his eyes from the rose-lined walk to the house.

The count's house was decked in black.

"I'll send someone to retrieve your car from the city. Don't you worry none," Sue-Ellen said. The car came to a halt. She laid a hand on his arm and gave a reassuring squeeze.

"Thank you Sue." Berrick climbed out and waited until the sound of gravel under tires faded away to approach the house.

For a moment before he knocked, he imagined that the black flag on the door bore no relation to his adventure with Henri. After a few days off the grid stranded in the country, anything could have happened. It may have nothing to do with Marim.

The fabric flapped heavily in the wind, each flup, flup, sounded like an accusation. The huge oak door swung open, exposing a dark entryway and behind that the cavernous black of unlit halls. With the steward's sad, sallow face, hope dissipated. Halis and Silvia kept him in their control as surely as if they'd tied him up until he did their bidding.

"Mr. Trehar, come in." The steward bowed and stepped aside. Berrick grabbed his arm and stared into the house past his head. No answers leaped out from the dim entryway.

"What happened?"

"The young master was attacked." The steward looked away. "Go in and talk to the count, Sir."

As uninviting as the house was, Marim was inside. Berrick strode in and focused his gaze, determined to get to the count as quickly as possible. He didn't want to talk to his friend. Getting to Marim mattered exclusively. By the gods, if they had hurt her... his wife's bloodless face in her coffin swam in his vision. Marim looked like Polly had in her teen years. Berrick wanted to see Marim's face immediately, to ensure that she was filled with life and health.

He couldn't and wouldn't lose her, but the count must come first no matter what the instincts of a father told him. Any planet but Yahal and formalities might have been dispensed with, but not here. That was why he chose to move his family here in the first place. No good would come from questioning those choices now.

The first person who met him was the countess, her face swollen and red from crying. She clutched a handkerchief in her hand. The tight line of her mouth and too-wide set of her eyes formed an expression Berrick knew. That look of grief had lived at his house over the past years. Berrick turned away.

"He'll never walk again. My little boy, my angel. I never should have let them attend that party. Why should he have gone? He didn't want to go. He went to keep your daughter happy."

You're the reason, her voice accused him, you're the reason my son is hurt.

Why did you let them go? Had she not guessed that he'd put a guard on Marim for a reason.

Then the count entered, and Berrick tried to look anywhere but at his friend's tear-stained face. The count ran his hand through his hair, a nervous gesture he'd had since they were in college together. "What have you been told?"

"Nothing."

"The kids wandered off at the party, and..." Count Cortanis' voice trailed off. "Darith took Marim to the ball, and when they got there, they took a walk in the gardens with two unknown guests. Marim came back with the man. There wasn't a scratch on her. No one suspected anything was awry until Marim left and the guard unit wasn't there. Both guards were found dead in the bushes...they were still searching for Darith. They thought he was...they found Darith in the morning." Again his voice choked to silence, he lifted a half filled glass of whiskey to his lips.

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