a strange, unreadable expression

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She heard Lord Enrico, at his most unctuous, say, "My dear Lady Fidelina, you must let me take you to Castilsur for First Snow. You'll find the weather there much more to your liking, I am sure."

Clara pushed away from the stone. She ignored Duncan's hand reaching for her sleeve, his murmured, pleading, "Clara..."

"No," she hissed. "I will know what is going on. Stay here, out of sight."

Then she stalked toward the front of the holding. None spied her until she was near the gate, then she heard a shocked Vallebrion man: "Mistress Clara...? Where have you sprung from?"

"Let me in," she snapped. "I demand to see my father."

The men exchanged looks and opened the heavy doors into the keep. Clara stomped through vestibule and hallway, down to the great hall. She pushed through the heavy doors and into the shocked silence beyond.

Lord Alan reacted first. "Clara," he said, pushing his chair back. "By Aelas, Inne and Thandi, girl, where have you been? Come here right now."

"So you can have Enrico flog me again?" said Clara. "No, thank you. Where's mother? Is she all right?"

Lady Fidelina stood up too. "Maitea is fine," she said. "She is resting in her room. The fall damaged her mind, but I am glad to say she is recovering."

"The fall," Clara echoed. "That man pushed her." She pointed at Enrico. "What is he still doing here?"

Enrico had a strange, unreadable expression on his face. He looked between Fidelina and Clara.

"I'm going to go and see mother," said Clara.

She ran upstairs and down the hall, and pushed her way into Maitea's room.

The room was dark and heavy with medicinal incense. Clara crossed the room to the bed and looked down at her mother's face. Maitea looked much as she had when Clara had left: still and bruised, breathing shallowly.

But then she opened her eyes and made a noise. "C-c-c..."

Clara felt tears welling in her eyes. Maitea's hand twitched and flopped, and Clara picked it up and brought it to her own cheek. "Yes, it's me," she said, feeling the tears fall. "I'm so glad you're alive."

Maitea smiled and blinked slowly. Then her gaze went to something behind Clara. Still clinging to her mother's hand, Clara spun around.

Fidelina was silhouetted in the doorway.

"Where have you been, Clara?" she said. "We've been frantic. Imagine how your mother felt, waking up to discover you'd vanished."

"I went to High Rock," said Clara, putting her chin up, "to convince the Prince that I had nothing to do with Fearghill's treason. I did it for Vallebrion."

Maitea's hand clenched in hers. Clara looked down at her, and tried to say with her eyes, I'll explain later. Another slow blink in response.

"And anyway, what have you been up to, Aunt?" said Clara.

"A message from a Vallebrion guardsman alerted me to your mother's condition and left me in some fear as to her safety. I arrived and discovered that the man had exaggerated the situation, but stayed to care for my sister."

"Not to care for Lord Enrico?" Clara demanded. "He seemed quite taken with you."

Fidelina sniffed. "Jealousy, Clara? From what I hear, you've made your distaste for that match quite clear. You'll be glad to know Enrico has relinquished his claim to you."

"He never had a claim to me," Clara snapped, then the words penetrated. "What do you mean?"

"Since my dear husband died, I've been feeling the lack of a companion," said Fidelina. "My children are grown, and I need a man to help run the estate."

Clara nearly choked on her tongue. "So Lord Enrico...? And you? He's half your age."

"Don't be vulgar, dear," said Fidelina. "It's an arrangement that suits us both."

Clara turned away, feeling ill. "It certainly suits him," she muttered.

"I'll leave you to rediscover your manners," Fidelina said stiffly, shutting the door behind her.

Clara watched the door for a moment, until she realised that Maitea was trying to say something.

"G-g-g," she said.

Clara nodded. "Yes?" she said.

The sentence emerged slowly, every syllable shaped and pushed forward. "Ggglad t-to... hhhhhave you... b-b-back."

Clara kissed her mother on the cheek. "I'm glad to have you back too, mother," she said quietly.

* * *

It had been hours since Clara had gone into the house. Duncan had heard her spectacular arrival and departure from the Great Hall, and the commotion it caused.

Fidelina had said, "Let me go and talk to her."

"Whatever you think is best," said Enrico, in a voice that made Duncan's skin crawl.

Lord Alan had muttered a prayer to the Prophets to save him from disobedient young women, and called for more ale.

A short while later, Enrico had excused himself.

Since then the bell signalling the turn of night had been rung, and Lord Alan had taken himself up to bed. Servants had doused the candles and banked the fires, and Duncan had sat in the darkness on the cool grass by himself.

Then he heard a woman's scream. Clara.

Instinctively, he reached for his knack, and found it alive and waiting for him, like an old, beloved cloak. A little torn and frayed, weak in some places, but comfortable and familiar.

He pulled a familiar seeming around himself. The Vallebrion guardsman. Then he pushed away from the stone wall and strode around to the front of the holding.

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