The small boy looked on the point of arguing, but wisely snapped his mouth shut. With an exaggerated sigh, he climbed off the chair and scampered out of the room.
Torina blotted her lips with a napkin and dropped it on the table. "You're too strict with him sometimes, and others too lenient." Her nose wrinkled. "Children are such a bothersome trial. I can not understand why you and my brother insist on having them, one after another."
Jesslynn's face went hard. "I imagine you would feel that way as you have no prospects for a husband or a home of your own with which to birth a child in."
Torina's eyes flamed, but her voice was honey, "You have misheard, dear sister. The trouble is that the prospects are too numerous. But that is bound to happen to a woman who has been blessed with the beauty and temperament to attract men." She looked suddenly sorrowful. "Oh! I must apologize. Of course you would know nothing about the trials and tribulations of beauty and warmth. I imagine that's why you accepted the first hand that was offered to you."
Jesslynn ground her teeth. "Better to take the first than to grow old a spinster."
Torina batted her eyes. "Perhaps that was a concern for you. However, it's something I doubt I need to fear." She swept up from the table in a swish of long skirts. "When Oren returns, tell him I'd like to speak with him about some important matters." Then she disappeared from the room.
Jesslynn glared after her. When Oren returned, Torina would be the last person he'd see!
Only he didn't return. Not that night, or the next morning. The day dragged past, cold and grey, and still there was no sign of him. As the sun set, Jesslynn's uneasiness turned to fear, and she sent a rider to fetch her brother.
She met him at the door. Fabian shook the snow from his boots and studied her. "What is so urgent that I must be called away from my dinner?"
"It's Oren." She laid a hand to his elbow and steered him towards the parlor. "Come, I'll tell you everything."
They stood in front of the fireplace and the story tumbled out in hushed tones. When it was over, Fabian sulked. "You believe that Jorick Smit is an agent of the devil, and yet you expect me to go to his house, alone, and seek out your husband? If he caught Jorick in some unholy ritual then no doubt he is dead."
The word was one she'd imagined before; heavy and dark it dropped like lead through her thoughts. She tried to ignore it. "Do you expect me to go? A woman, traveling alone in the dark?"
"You could send a slave?"
"And have them learn the secret?" She grabbed his hands. "Do this for me, Fabian, and if he has been successful I will share with you! Think of it, to never grow sick or frail!"
Fabian whined, "What if Jorick has killed him? Would you lose a husband and a brother both?"
She narrowed her eyes at him. "Then be smarter than Oren. Be quicker and quieter! Go and look, only. If you do not see him, return to me and we will discover some plan together."
Fabian argued for half an hour more, then gave in. Jesslynn watched him go, and paced the floor while he was gone. When he returned, she ran to the door, to find him alone.
Fabian pulled off his winter gear, scowling. "The slaves said that Oren and Mr. Smit left just after dark and have not yet returned. They say that your husband was alive and well when last they saw him, though Jorick was unusually grim and severe."
Jesslynn clutched his arm. "Perhaps he has taken him to see the source of his secret?"
"Perhaps." Fabian shook her off. "And now that I have run your errand I'm hungry. You took me from my meal, so I expect you to provide me with another one."
"Yes, yes," she gestured him towards the kitchen, her thoughts elsewhere.
Despite the word of the slaves, Oren did not return. Fabian ate and drank. At midnight he helped himself to the guest bedroom. It was three days later when he finally went home, and Oren was still missing. Jesslynn sent messengers with questions. The slaves said the same thing: Jorick and Oren had gone but not returned.
She feared the worst.
After one week she forced her brother to accompany her. After sunset, they ventured to the Smit plantation. The dark young woman who answered the door tried to keep them out. Jesslynn barged past her. With Fabian at her heels, she swept from room to room, but found only shadows. The beds were untouched, and the drawing room was cold.
The slave woman followed their inspection, wringing her hands and begging them to hurry and go. "If the master comes back he won't be pleased!"
They were in the master bedroom when Jesslynn spun on her heel to face her, "When will he be back? Tonight?"
The fear in the young woman's eyes doubled and she looked away. "I don't rightly know, Ma'am. Maybe tonight, maybe a month. The Master is often away on errands."
The slave woman took a step back, her hands twisting in her apron. Different fears warred on her face, and her voice dropped low, "He ain't right, Mistress. He ain't he ain't right. You best to go for he comes back. He has an awful mean temper. He don't like no one to peer into his business, Ma'am."
"I do not fear him." She swept her eyes around the room; from the heavy wardrobe to the four poster bed hung in garish, red curtains. "What errands does he leave on?"
"I don't know, Ma'am. He gets a letter, then most times he orders the horse to be made ready and he and the messenger go. No warnin'."
"What do these letters say?"
The woman's eyes got bigger. "I don't rightly know, Ma'am. I can't read, and even if I could he burns them."
Jesslynn grunted in dissatisfaction. "And did he receive such a letter this time?"
"No, ma'am. Not this time. Like I told the Master there," she nodded to Fabian. "Master Cotterill came and they spent the night locked away. The next night they left as soon as it was dark and they ain't been back since." Her voice turned pleading. "Please, Ma'am. Please go home quick. Go home and forget what I told you."
"I told you," Fabian said peevishly. "This was a wasted trip."