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Euphoria adjusted her black bonnet somberly and took one last look at the mansion she had grown up in, clutching a crisp white letter in both hands. It had been only been six months since her poor mother and father had died of pneumonia, but that wasn’t what had her so sober as she stepped into the waiting carriage.
It was the letter pressed against her chest.
Frederick Bossam had always been a constant in her life; often sending correspondence, and, quite recently, lengthy letters about something she had inherited in wake of her parents’ deaths.
But he had never sent for her to visit.
On their own accord, her fingers dug inside the envelope to withdraw the letter smudged with ink. It was hurried and simple, unlike previous letters Frederick had sent; Euphoria Jane Jones, Come visit us in Montana. Frederick.
Euphoria rubbed her head as she studied the simple words. She had pondered over them for a month before finally requesting a carriage and throwing together her things. She would have to leave Colblithe Manor, and, if her aunt and uncle implored her to stay, find a way to sell it. Already she had to dismiss the staff and sell her mother’s fine silk dresses and her father’s hunting rifles to make ends meet.
She had never been so hungry in her life.
“Ready, Miss?” The footman, one of the few remaining servants Euphoria had been able to keep, smiled in at her.
She nodded, withdrawing a few coins for him, “Perhaps I’ll see you again, Joseph?”
His smile widened, showing the crinkles of happiness in the corners of his eyes, “I should hope so, Miss!”
Euphoria handed him the coins and then tapped on the top of the carriage with her parasol to signal to the driver that she was ready to go. But was she? Her stomach knotted as the horses, Splack and Cricket, trotted forward. The white marble that made up her home soon faded out of sight and she sat back against the seat, fingering a hole in her left glove. She was wearing her funeral dress, the best she had, and an old bonnet that hardly fit her head, it was so small.
Maybe Aunt will buy me a few things? Or at least give me some of her old dresses! Euphoria had to laugh at that notion. She, of course, hadn’t informed her cousin of her dwindling fortune. Withdrawing it all from the bank before leaving had turned heads left and right, and she didn’t need anyone else looking at her as though she was less than.
How disappointed her father would be.
Euphoria let out a gentle sigh and pushed aside a dark red curl that had come loose from her tight bun. It would be a long drive.
A few weary days later, Euphoria, fidgeting with her white parasol nervously, stepped outside of her dingy carriage with the help of a waiting footman.
No stops for food had been made, and she, and her driver, had lived off the two loaves of bread that she had made beforehand. She was starved and so was her poor driver, Fenrice, but when she implored him to come inside, he declined.
“They don’t want the likes of us mingling with the likes of them,” he said, eyeing the mansion of stone warily.
Euphoria didn’t miss the way he said us. She supposed she was nearly as poor as a servant. “Please, Fenrice!” She pleaded, voice timid.
He smiled wanly, “I’ll ask the servants for a morsel, aye.”
She nodded, satisfied, and kissed him lightly on the cheek.
“Watch yourself, lass, that boy might have been right.”
Euphoria nodded again, taking his words very much to heart. On their way to Montana, a boy in rags had jumped onto the carriage and poked his head inside. With a cheeky grin, he had said; “Welcome to the city of death!”
Euphoria had never been so afraid and intended to guard herself carefully.
“Euphoria!” A voice chimed, and she jumped, turning to see her aunt, Petunia Jones. Petunia bustled towards her in a dress cinched tightly around her boisterous waist, face painted heavily with red and green. “My dear, sweet niece!”
Euphoria inclined her head politely and took her aunt’s outstretched hand when it was offered, “You look quite well, Aunt Petunia.”
“Please,” her aunt trilled, “call me Pet! Everyone does.”
Euphoria smiled tightly, “Of course, Aunt.”
“Oh, you impertinent thing!” Her aunt swatted her with her hand, laughing loudly, “we’ll have to whip you into shape!”
“Already trying to correct her manners, Dear?” A spindly man in a well-tailored suit followed after her aunt Petunia, a black handlebar mustache looking very much like a sleeping caterpillar above his thin lips.
“Uncle Sawyer,” Euphoria took his hand next and nodded at him, “how are you?”
He smiled, “As well as can be considering…” He trailed off, voice cracking.
“How are Paddy and French?” Euphoria asked, squeezing his hand to comfort him, “Last time I saw them they were toddling!”
“Making nuisances of themselves, naturally,” he remarked. “Do come in?”
Euphoria timidly followed her aunt and uncle, ducking her head at the stares of the servants milling around in the entryway. Several chandeliers were laid out on the marble floor to be dusted, and dozens of tables were being set up in the wide room.
“Excuse the mess,” Petunia said brightly, “Paddy’s introduction to society is days away!”
Euphoria frowned, “I thought Paddy was only thirteen?”
“She is!” Petunia took Euphoria’s arm and squeezed her against her side, “but she’s so mature and such a darling! I couldn’t wait any longer!”
“Where is Paddy?” She asked, “I brought her a little something.”
“Oh! What a dear you are, Euphoria!” She turned to a servant nearby and told her to “collect the little darlings.” “He’s been rather eager to see the face behind so many love letters!”
Euphoria colored a deep red, “Oh, no,” she said meekly. “They aren’t love letters.”
Petunia scoffed, “I would adore if he had an understanding with you, Dear.”
“Petunia,” Sawyer scolded, steering the small party into the completely green parlour. “Forget your silly notions and let’s have our tea. I’m sure you’re hungry, Euphoria?”
She nodded, her stomach growling as she caught sight of the petite tea cakes laid out on a silver platter, “Very.” She responded, letting a maid take her cloak, bonnet, and parasol.
“Don’t be shy,” her aunt coaxed, sitting her down on a green chaise embroidered with birds, “eat what you want!”
Euphoria timidly took up a cake and bit into it. The icing melted on her tongue, and she fought to keep from shoving the other dozen into her mouth. A few moments later, after Euphoria had sipped most of her tea and the cakes were dwindling, a pretty girl and a small boy entered on the feet of a nursemaid.
“Ma’am,” the nursemaid bowed her head and left the children to their mother, who showered the youngest with kisses.
“Look, French! Cousin Euphoria has come to visit!” Petunia turned the small boy and gave him a gentle push towards his cousin.
French, a bonny lad with green eyes, olive skin, and curling brown hair regarded Euphoria timidly, “Hullo.”
Euphoria grinned, “What a handsome boy you are, French!” She took him in her arms and kissed both cheeks before he managed to squirm away and hide behind his mother’s skirts.
“Euphoria,” Paddy nodded her head primly, looking and sounding much older than she was. “You look well.” She stooped and planted two gentle kisses on each of her cousin’s cheeks.
“How grown up you are, Paddy.”
“Thank you, Miss.”
“I hear you’re entering society soon?”
“Enough of this nonsense!” Sawyer said, waving the children to sit, “where is Frederick, Pell?”
A younger boy, no more than nineteen, stepped out of the shadows. He seemed to be a footman or maybe some sort of glorified butler, for he wore gold and red with brass buttons on the lapel.
“He’s gone calling on the Greys, Sir.” Pell responded, shooting Euphoria a look.
“Eyes to yourself, Pell,” but Petunia was giggling.
Pell reddened and looked away quickly, “My apologies, Ma’am.”
“Send for him,” Sawyer said dismissively, “he was rather eager to see you, Euphoria.”
Euphoria sat down her saucer and fidgeted with her glove, “I must confess, I’m eager to understand why he asked to see me too.”
Petunia tucked her son’s hair behind his ears, eyes gentle as they took in Euphoria’s sorry state, “Frederick has a good heart.” She paused, “and, he’s been earnestly searching for a wife.”
This again? Euphoria’s fidgeting worsened, “I, uh, I doubt my cousin would trap me into marrying him.”
Sawyer scoffed and shook his head, “You don’t know him very well, Dear.”
“Freddy can be mean!” French cried, eyes big as he realized that he was yelling at a stranger.
“French,” Paddy, sitting with her chin high and her hands folded in front of her, gave her brother a sharp look. “Don’t raise your voice.”
French hid his face in his mother’s bulky white dress once again.
“What do you mean?” Euphoria asked, “the last time I saw him he was very kind.”
Petunia was about to respond when Pell, who had left to fetch Frederick, stepped inside, a tall young man with brown curls and brown eyes falling eagerly after him.
“I caught him on his way in, Ma’am,” Pell bowed his head, and then was gone.
Euphoria stood, and the newcomer made a beeline straight for her.
“Cousin Euphoria!” He kissed her heartily on the cheek, grinning, “what a pleasure! You’re early aren’t you?”
“I had never specified the date I was visiting,” Euphoria answered, slipping off her gloves and wringing them in both hands. “What is⎯?”
“Not here, Cousin,” he stooped so his words were only heard by her, “I have your inheritance downstairs.”
“Yes, that’s what I⎯”
“You must be exhausted, Euphoria!” He interrupted, already pulling her out of the parlour, “I’ll show you your room.”
Euphoria looked back at her aunt, uncle, and small cousins longingly, “But I⎯”
“Hush,” Frederick said, and Euphoria fell silent as he led her through the house and down a set of stone stairs. The walls were dirt, and the air smelled musty and damp; Euphoria was suddenly frightened as he continued to pull her down the steps.
“Where are we going?”
Her cousin was silent, and soon they had stopped at the bottom of the stairs. A red door sat at the bottom rather forebodingly. Frederick removed a set of keys from his waistcoat and unlocked the door before ushering her inside. Everything was dark, even with the candelabras lit up with orange flames, and there was no furniture except a chest far in the back of the room.
“Frederick?” Euphoria pulled herself from his grasp and regarded him warily, “what’s going on?”
He grinned, “Euphoria, I didn’t mean to scare you. I just want you to be able to enjoy your inheritance without any fingers getting in the way.”
She frowned, “I thought Aunt and Uncle knew about the inheritance? What is it anyway?” Her curiosity overrode her fear, and she drew closer to him, imploring.
His brown eyes twinkled, “I can show you.”
He took her arm again and pulled her towards the chest in the back. A thrumming started up in Euphoria’s veins as they drew closer, and she pursed her lips. Once they reached it, Frederick pushed back the lid and pulled out a small, wooden box with a cross painted in red on it.
“Here,” he set the surprisingly heavy box in Euphoria’s waiting hands and she stared at it. “Go on,” Frederick prompted, nudging her.
Euphoria placed her shaking fingers against the latch and lifted it; inside was a vial filled with something red. Her heart fell. It wasn’t money.
“What is this? Some sort of joke?” She glared at him accusingly, picking up the vial and holding it against her chest.
Frederick’s eyes twinkled, “No.”
“What am I to do with this… liquid?”
“Drink it?” Euphoria scowled rather unbecomingly, “I don’t have any idea what it is!”
“But you want to find out.”
Euphoria held the vial up to the light, seeing the slight purple to the sloshing concoction. Maybe it was some sort of rare wine? Maybe she could sell it. But Frederick wouldn’t let her leave without drinking it, that much was certain, and she was tired and still somewhat hungry. She didn’t want to fight with him and risk him sending her away.
She uncorked the vial and tipped it back into her mouth, wincing at the foul taste. Wine had never tasted good to her, but that one was particularly disgusting.
Frederick grinned, “You can go, Euphoria.”
As she turned away, eager to escape her strange cousin, she thought the wine tasted strangely like something coppery.
Euphoria had made it halfway up the cellar stairs when she realized the odd taste was blood.