A Murder of Crows

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A Short Respite

After Rosalia made sure that Keeper Bertram’s little quarters wasn’t too cold, she left with Guiscard.

Guiscard was quite glad to be back in the library and out from the cold. He was quick to start up a fire in the hearth near his corner.

He looked at her as she frowned at the shelves.

“So why the library, my lady?” he asked, picking up the book that he was still reading in his corner.

Rosalia looked round at the shelves, running a finger over the heavy spines of the books. The musty smell of the books filled her nose, a warm comforting scent, despite the cold outside.

She coughed a little.

“I never really spent any time in her before,” she said, “I may have been in here a handful of times as a child, mostly when I was playing hiding games with my brothers and friends… and yet- you spend every moment possible inside here, reading,” she commented, “So, I thought it must have far more to offer than good hiding places.”

“I should certainly think so, your ladyship,” he said, offering her his usual comfortable seat, “Your archives hold some of the rarest books I have ever seen. Some I’ve only ever been able to hear of.”

Rosalia sat down, still looking at the books.

It was very quiet and peaceful in the library.

Guiscard sat down at the less comfortable window seat.

He couldn’t help it, itching to know more as he said, “You and the Crow Keeper seem incredibly close.”

“We are,” Rosalia replied simply.

“And you are still looking for a husband.”

She twitched, annoyed that he had brought it up, “Yes,” she muttered, looking at the books that Guiscard had stacked next to his chair.

“So why not marry the Crow Keeper?” he asked, trying to keep the jealous derisive tone from his voice.

What was wrong with him?

He had never behaved this way before in the past.

Rosalia meanwhile, wrinkled her nose, “Because he is family,” she replied, looking at him as though he was mad.

Marriage between first cousins were not unheard of and were quite common among the royal family but judging from her reaction, that was probably not how it was done in Galadier.

He tried to read his book but with her ladyship present, it was impossible to focus, “Then I take it the hunt for a husband is still on?”

“What is this obsession everyone has about me finding a husband,” Rosalia snapped suddenly, throwing the book she was holding.

Guiscard threw himself onto the ground just to catch it.

He got up and dusted himself off and tried to fix his hair, “My lady,” he said, “As much as I’d like to encourage your emotional expressions, I must ask you not to take it out on the books.”

Rosalia wasn’t listening as she got up angrily, “Asking me to wed and have a family is like painting a giant red target on people, begging for my enemies to pick them off!”

Guiscard looked at her, placing the book back on one of the stack he had created.

“So, that’s it then?” he asked, “You’re afraid. You’re afraid that what happened to your family will happen again.”

“Oh well done, how many years of studying did it take for you to find that out, Scholar?” she demanded, the pain in her chest worsening as she coughed.

She didn’t want to go see Healer Emwik.

Not unless she absolutely had to.

“Now, now, no need to be sarcastic,” Guiscard said calmly.

“Just leave it alone. I have had enough of all the suitor talk. I have to listen to it every day from Raven and Alexis and my council and advisors,” she said, “Why do you care anyway?”

Guiscard looked at her, “I’ve grown very fond of you, my lady,” he said softly, his usual cocky demeanour gone, “It’s only natural that I concern myself with you. Especially when there is so much to be concerned about.”

He spoke with a gentle tone.

One she didn’t want to hear.

One that she normally hated.

She stared at him for a moment.

But for the first time, she didn’t really mind it.

“I would speak more of it,” Guiscard said, “But mayhap in a place where your guards aren’t spying on us.”

Rosalia glanced round and spotted Raven and Alexis hiding behind the bookshelves at the other end of the library.

She sighed but her shoulders were still tense.

“You need to relax more often, my lady,” Guiscard told her as she folded her arms over her chest to look at the books on the shelves.

“I don’t have time to relax.”

“I find it hard to believe the tales from the servants of how you were as a child,” Guiscard commented.

There were a great many stories.

Like the time Rosalia set all the pigs in the pen free and went riding on one while Raven and Alexis ran after her to try and keep her safe.

Or the time she tried to attach crow wings to her arms and jump off the highest tower.

But her grandfather had managed to put a quick stop to it.

“I was a child,” Rosalia said quietly, running a finger over a fading gold and leather spine of a book, “With my family gone, it meant I had to grow up and take over the Crawford name.”

Guiscard looked at her, “So what did you do? Simply kill of parts of yourself when you killed that assassin?” he wanted to know, “All you’re doing is running like a coward, avoiding who you are and what you want, my lady.”

Rosalia’s closed her fist, over the worn books, “There’s no room for selfishness,” she said softly.

“It’s alright to be a little selfish at times,” Guiscard said, moving to block the view of her from the guards with his broad back.

Her reached out to touch her cheek.

And to his immense surprise, she did not command him to stop touching her or draw her sword.

She just let him.

So he dared to spread his palm over her warm skin.

“I…” he breathed.

“Yes?” she asked, looking up at him.

No blush touched her fair cheeks. Her expression remained as it always did, calm and watchful. The only difference was the mild confusion, knotting her brows together.

It was not the first time he was at a loss of words with his beloved Lady Rosalia Crawford.

Somehow, he realised if he were to simply and clumsily blurt out how he felt now, so callously, he would be impaled to the wall with her lovely sword within a heartbeat.

Slowly.

Patiently.

Until she actually notices what was going on.

He’d settle for any amount of affection, even if it were the tiniest measure of how much he adored her.

That would suffice.

“Maybe one day then,” he said aloud, reluctantly dropping his hand and stepping away from her.

“One day?’ she repeated, “What do you mean? What’s happening one day?”

“Nothing, my lady,” he said with a smile, “Now please excuse me. I’m just going to see to something for a short moment.”

Rosalia nodded and went to look at more books. She noticed a book with a pretty flower drawn on its dark red, leather cover and picked it up, flipping through it. It was surprisingly heavy.

As she flipped through it, she saw a familiar pale purple bloom labelled, “Dream Blossom.” The text around the illustrations went on to explain the properties of the rare flower that could apparently, with the right method, put anyone to sleep with its perfume.

Alexis’ father had mentioned it to her before- that was what the assassins had used in the incense that made it impossible for her family to wake when they were killed in their beds.

The thought of it made her furious as she put the book down again and turned resolutely away from it to fight the urge to throw the book into the fire.

She shook her head and wandered to another aisle, still trying to forget the memory.

She picked a book from a shelf at random. It took awhile for her to realise what she was looking at.

It was one of the newer books in the library, probably bought to start filling the shelves again since there was someone actively using the facility again.

There was a drawing over the cover of a beautiful swooning redheaded woman in a very strange quite, revealing dress, wrapped in the arms of a handsome man with long hair and a ripped shirt that bared his muscular chest. They were both looking up to the moon whilst standing on a rock in the middle of the ocean.

She frowned at the book.

Books were supposed to teach.

What on earth was this book supposed to teach?

*

“Where is he?” Alexis hissed, frowning as he peered round the shelf again and watching Rosalia heading over to the chair again.

“Calm down, he’s probably looking for more books,” Raven said, rolling his eyes as he browsed the shelves with a bored expression.

“He’s supposed to be watching her!”

“And I was,” Guiscard interrupted.

They both jumped a foot in the air.

“Did you put magic on your feet to make you so curst quiet!?” Alexis demanded, his sword already drawn.

“Yes, it’s a simple spell really. It’s incredibly helpful when you’re wandering through the library and not wanting to disturb the other readers,” he explained, glancing down at his nice boots that he had been keeping well polished, “Now, what are you two doing here? I thought you were leaving her ladyship in my charge for today.”

“Well, we just wanted to be sure her ladyship would be alright,” Alexis said with a scowl.

“She’s going to be perfectly fine. Now didn’t she say you two could take the day off? Go and relax and let her do the same. You’re just being mother hens,” Guiscard told them both, crossing his arms over his chest.

“He’s right,” Raven said, grabbing Alexis by his elbow and dragging him away, “We will be seeing her ladyship at lunch.”

Guiscard shook his head and picked at an imaginary piece of dust on his sleeve before straightening his tunic. Deciding he was in a more presentable state, he returned to her ladyship who was coughing a little.

“Are you alright?” he asked worriedly.

“It’s just the dust that’s irritating me, that’s all,” she told him, flipping the page of her book.

“I see, well then- what on earth are you reading, my lady?” he asked, suddenly noticing the cover of her book.

Rosalia looked at him and then back at the book, “I don’t know. I found it on one of the shelves over there. It opens with a very wordy, illustrious way to describe a flower,” she explained.

“That’s because it’s a book on romance and love, my lady,” he told her, “The words are meant to ignite the sense of allure in your soul.”

She blinked at him.

“I don’t understand.”

“That’s because you, your ladyship, are the Iron Lady through and through,” he told her with a smile.

She looked at him for a moment before leaning back in the chair again to continue reading.

Guiscard watched her for a moment.

She seemed so fascinated by it.

It looked sweet.

“You like it then?” he asked, sitting at the window seat again.

“I don’t know. I’m still on the first few pages,” she replied, “But I’ve never looked at the world through eyes like this before. It’s interesting. Do other people do so? Do you?”

“Well, I only do so with certain people, my lady. And I can think of a few people like that back at home as well,” he said fairly.

Rosalia looked at him as though he just explained to her how the stars changed every night.

Considering the kind of people Rosalia surrounded herself with, he wasn’t surprised that this was new to her.

She turned back to her book again.

Guiscard tried leaning back in the window seat only to jump when his back touched the cold glass.

“By the way, if I may ask, my lady,” he said.

“Yes?”

“Why were you looking for me last night, my lady?”

“Oh, that,” she said, flipping the page, already engrossed in the book, “I was simply thinking of that offer you made.”

Guiscard nearly dropped the book he was trying to pretend to read.

“You- you did my lady?” he asked, “And did you come to a conclusion?”

“I considered it,” she said, “But I had not realised you were involved with someone. So it seemed inappropriate to accept the offer.”

“What? I assure you, my lady; I am not involved with anyone at all,” Guiscard told her.

Rosalia looked surprised, “Alexis said you were with another woman when he went to speak to you last night.”

“Oh, that,” he said before clearing his throat and putting the book away before he ended up dropping it, “That was just the two of us working out some of our frustration, my lady. It was a one night arrangement, nothing more,” he told her, realising that Rosalia may not understand the concept of casual relationships.

“I see- like the one you offered me?”

“Yes- I mean no- I mean, not quite, my lady. There was no offspring involved in this, I made sure of it,” he explained.

At this, Rosalia looked up, truly confused.

“How does one make sure of it?”

“I- well… oh gods above, have you never had this conversation with any of your guardians? Or a healer?” he asked.

Rosalia looked at him, confused by his sudden flustered expression.

“No,” she said.

“Right, well I suggest you speak to them- quite urgently. It is incredibly important that you as a woman know these things, lest you be taken advantage of. You may not have interest in such activities, but it is still worth knowing,” Guiscard told her.

He cleared his throat, wishing to pursue the original topic.

“Anyway, my lady- are you still considering the matter then?” he asked.

Her attention was on the book again, “Well, I thought you were involved with someone and therefore stopped thinking of it. I will think your offer over again at some other time when it’s more appropriate,” she told him.

“I understand. Excuse me for a moment, my lady whilst I go look for another book.”

Rosalia looked around her, confused.

“But there are so many here already.”

“Yes, but they aren’t the right ones, my lady.”

He walked off to the other end of the library on his own.

Hidden at the very end of an empty, quiet aisle, Guiscard stopped and started wringing his fists in frustration.

One of his tutors had taken to remind him incessantly that patience was a virtue he needed to spend more time practicing. And had he remembered to practice it the night before, he would have spent the night his beloved rather than another woman.

Though there was nothing wrong with Angela, gods bless her she certainly knew what she was doing with herself.

But still- if he had only waited a little longer, he could have been with Lady Rosalia instead.

He sighed deeply, trying to compose himself.

There was still a chance.

Rosalia was certainly still going to think of it.

And she was really growing comfortable with his presence and speaking to him.

There was no point in him rushing this.

He wanted her to love him the same way he loved her.

Still, he hated how he was behaving.

Besides, maybe it was better that the foolish offer he had made did not work out.

Especially for Rosalia.

She had more weight on her decisions than he.

Not that he was going to remind her seeing how she was already on a constant verge of a breakdown as it was.

Guiscard grimaced and straightened up. He got out his little comb again to neaten his hair before smoothing out his clothes.

In a more presentable condition, he returned to Lady Rosalia’s side.

When he got there, she was completely engrossed in her book, her brows furrowing in concentration.

Guiscard smiled at the sight of her.

Well, if anything, he has at least introduced her to the joys of reading for leisure.

He picked up his own book and continued reading.

*

“My lady, please- no books at the table,” Raven said during tea as the maids started setting the food down.

“In a moment,” Rosalia said absently, still reading.

“What even is that book?” Alexis asked with a frown, looking at the front cover.

“It’s a romance story,” Guiscard said, “Don’t look at me that way, Guardsman Alexis. Her ladyship picked out that book on her own. If you have an issue with it then speak to whoever it is stocking the library.”

“It’s the first time I’ve seen sex written in such detail,” Rosalia commented, still reading.

“My lady!” Raven said, both shocked and amused.

“Please take that book away from her ladyship,” Alexis said at once, “And find out who bought that for the library.”

“No, it’s my library. This is my book,” Rosalia said, dodging Alexis’ hand as she tried to protect it, still reading.

“My lady please- you’re a priestess of the Goddess Noctis. You aren’t supposed to be reading these scandalous things,” Alexis told her.

“Who would even write such a thing?” Raven wanted to know, still amused.

Guiscard looked at it, “Galene Evaristus. Ah- an Anthean,” he said, “That would explain it. They do write as they live. I’m just surprised there’s only sex between a man and a woman in there.”

“No, these are two women,” Rosalia said, still trying to avoid Alexis.

“Ah well, that’s still not entirely out of character for an Anthean,” Guiscard said, having met several of them in his lifetime.

Alexis turned crimson red, “My lady, please! It scandalous!”

“My lady- look, red bean cakes.”

Rosalia put the book down at once and looked at the plate.

These did not look like the buns. They looked a lot more delicate, wrapped in some kind of pale pink steamed rice dough. He could see the red bean paste through the dough.

“Hm, this is the first time I’ve seen something quite like this in Crawburgh so far,” he commented.

“Mistress Tamelan found the recipe this morning and thought to give it a try,” Raven said, “My lady Rosalia used to enjoy them as a child.”

“I only ever get them for my birthday,” Rosalia said quietly, taking one, “I didn’t think anyone remembered how to make them.”

“Cook said that my lady probably deserved a treat since you seemed a little tense during the ball last night,” Raven said.

Rosalia didn’t say anything, already taking a bite.

Guiscard noticed that despite how much she clearly enjoyed the treat, Rosalia had only taken one, leaving the other four on the plate still.

“Why don’t you take one more, my lady?” Guiscard asked, taking a dried fig from the bowl.

“I will once everyone else has one,” Rosalia said, licking a bit of the hot bean paste off her thumb before helping herself to a seed bun, “Alex, you enjoy them as well, don’t you?”

“I do, my lady,” he replied, taking one for himself.

“So is everything in order today?” Rosalia asked, “Did the bailiff submit his report regarding the-“

“My lady, you’re supposed to be resting,” Raven said, “It means no work. If there is anything that will need your immediate attention, we will bring it to you.”

Rosalia looked annoyed but said nothing more, returning to her food. She picked up meat bun.

“Why not go visit the family tomb, my lady? It has been awhile since you’ve gone hasn’t it?” Alexis said, “You have only been going there to perform your duties as of late.”

Rosalia nodded, “I wish to train after,” she said.

“My lady. You are resting.”

“With the preparations for the Midwinter Festival I haven’t had a chance to train in so long,” she complained, “Once the snow melts-“

“We are aware, my lady- but one more day of rest will be for the best for you, my lady,” Raven said gently.

Rosalia nodded but still looked annoyed.

“As long as my lady keeps busy, it’ll keep her from reading this filth,” Alexis said, picking up the offending book.

“Alexis- drop that book now,” Rosalia ordered.

He obeyed at once.

“I like the book. It’s interesting. I never knew there were people like this,” she said.

“My lady needs to broaden her horizon,” Guiscard pointed out, taking a piece of the cake and biting into it.

It was quite nice, sweet on the inside and the outer cover was chewy.

Sweet, little cakes were abundant back home but none quite like this. He assumed it was a Yunang recipe.

It certainly seemed like one.

Guiscard loved the finer things in life. When he first left his home, his main concern had been on just how he would survive without his great comforts. But now in Crawford, what he lacked in terms of wine, clothes and food- he now had made up with it with the vast endless library, none of the dangerous politics, and of course- being near Rosalia.

After tea, Alexis successfully confiscated Rosalia’s book and she went to the family tomb with Guiscard.

“I have seen the cemetery from a distance,” Guiscard said as Pegleg joined them, “But it’s mayhap not the ideal place I would like to spend time in. I’m more interested in taking a nice walk through the garden or a horse ride through the fields,” he said.

“You need not come with me,” Rosalia said, stroking Pegleg’s back, “You can return to the library if you wish.”

The crow croaked and mouthed her finger, making her smile.

“Stop that you- you already had your meal. I’m not giving you more food,” she told it.

The snow muffled the noise about them and seeing how Rosalia was the only one who frequented the family tombs, the snow about them was fairly untouched, glistening in the weak daylight.

There was a patch of disturbed snow where Guiscard assumed a few crows had been playing or fighting.

There were crows in the naked trees above them, watching.

Guiscard would have once found the sight to be more than a little terrifying, but somehow the crows now seemed more silly and mischievous than creepy omens of death and nightmares.

“No, it’s fine,” Guiscard said, looking at her, “I would like to pay my respects to you family.”

She glanced at him and nodded.

They headed to the newest stone vault that had crows roosting on its roof.

It was quiet and cold inside and Guiscard noticed that even Pegleg stopped making noise and fell silent.

“So, may I have introductions, my lady?” Guiscard asked softly.

He jumped when a crow landed on his shoulder.

“Hush Inky,” Rosalia told the crow on Guiscard’s shoulder, reaching over to tickle its breast. She handed Pegleg over to him as well before going over to the marble coffins.

“This is my father, Lord Devin Crawford. And this is my mother, Lady Melanie Crawford,” she said.

Guiscard bowed respectfully to both of them, his free hand over his breast and the other holding Pegleg gingerly.

“I have four older brothers here as well,” Rosalia said, “This is Siavash, Nigel, Ciar and Lonán.”

“That is quite a large family, my lady.”

“Yes, apparently multiple births ran in my mother’s bloodline,” Rosalia said with a small smile, “Siavash, Nigel and Ciar were triplets.”

Guiscard smiled, watching her, “That must have been fairly chaotic,” he commented.

“It was at times,” she told him, smiling as she reminisced, ”Lonán was the one I spent the most time with. When the other three started causing me grief, he was the one who would help me get back at them.”

“It must have been nice,” Guiscard commented.

“Did you have siblings, Scholar Guiscard?”

“Oh they tried after they discovered I was a mage,” Guiscard said, “Well, my father did at least. My mother was quite dead by that time. Apparently, birthing a mage can be quite dangerous you if you aren’t from a magical bloodline yourself. Fascinating, isn’t it?”

Rosalia frowned, “So it probably isn’t wise to allow you to father my children,” she said.

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about it, my lady,” he said at once, “After all, you are from a magical bloodline yourself. Or at least Lady Melanie seems to have been,” he told her.

“Mother didn’t have magic.”

“She carried the bloodline, my lady” he corrected, “It’s entirely possible. It may have been what happened to me,” he went on to explain, “My father may have had the magical bloodline dormant within him. And it just chose to awaken in me. Of course, the gods decided that I was far too blessed with my looks and physique and wit and charm-“

“Do you want me to commit murder before my family’s graves?” she asked him.

“Please forgive me.”

Rosalia shook her head at him.

“I’m going to pray now. Would you care to join me?” Rosalia asked after removing the old flowers from the coffins.

“No, I’m not a religious man, my lady. I think the goddess would be offended if I attempt it merely to impress you,” he said.

“You’re right, she probably would be,” Rosalia said, taking Pegleg back from him.

She sat down cross legged on a cushion and letting Pegleg nestle on her lap. The crow fluffed itself up for a moment before settling down again, putting its head under its wing as though to sleep.

Guiscard stood by her, watching.

He had experiences with priests and priestesses before.

People always seemed to be under the impression that mages and priests went hand in hand.

They were sorely wrong of course.

He wasn’t one who was loyal to the gods.

Oh, he knew they were there.

But he never saw any point of enslaving himself to them and he was fairly surprised how devoted someone like Rosalia was to the deities.

He sat down on a cushion in the corner, letting Inky hop down to his knee instead.

He petted the crow absent mindedly and looked up at the status of the Goddess Noctis.

Her face was hidden by the cowl of her cloak, her robes flowing down to the ground where two marble crows stood. Her arms were opened, welcoming him to her realm.

Despite himself, he bowed his head to the statue and closed his eyes.

He wasn’t entirely sure how long it was going to take for Lady Rosalia to pray. Back at home, they had all sort of fancy pompous rituals with people burning so much incense he’d choke. There was also a lot of really loud chanting and hitting of drums and bells.

But Rosalia, a representative of the Goddess Noctis, just sat there on her own quietly, her hands crossed over her chest and her eyes closed.

As much as he missed his old affluent life, he supposed this one wasn’t going to be so bad after all.

He looked at his beautiful Iron Lady and smiled as Inky nestled comfortably on his knee.

*

“Here you go, Guardsman Raven,” Healer Emwik said, handing him the packet of medication.

“Thank you, healer.”

“How has her ladyship been? Any recurring symptoms?” he asked, “If my memory still serves me well; it gets difficult for her during winter.”

Raven shook his head, “Nothing new that I’ve noticed. Her ladyship has been coughing. And her breathing gets a bit harsh sometimes during the night. But those have been about for quite some time now,” he said.

“Is she still working?” the healer asked with a disapproving tone in his voice, “She’s been quite busy with the midwinter preparations for the past few weeks.”

“As well as preparations for next year’s budget,” Raven said shaking his head, “But no, she’s out with Scholar Guiscard.”

The healer looked surprised, “Well, that’s something at least. I never thought I’d hear the day when she would take a day’s rest,” he said, “Anyway, tell her to come see me if she’s in any pain.”

Raven gave him a wry smile. “I will try,” he said.

“Goddess be with you on that one,” Healer Emwik told him, “Now, I must return to my work. Remember, her ladyship is to drink that once a day. And I know she doesn’t like how bitter it is.”

“Understood, healer.”

“Oh, and Raven- regarding your own condition…”

Raven looked round hopefully, “Have you- Have you found a…?”

Healer Emwik shook his head, “I’ve spoken to a contact of mine in Anthea who studies these things. He said there’s no way to change it. There are possible procedures but they aren’t sure of the long-term implications. And as her ladyship’s guard, we cannot risk it,” he told him.

Raven’s shoulders slumped again.

“I don’t see why it’s an issue. Her ladyship pays no mind to your particular condition,” Healer Emwik pointed out, returning to his logs.

“I know,” Raven replied, “I’ll leave you to your work, healer.”

He left the room where Alexis was waiting outside.

“Did you get her ladyship’s medication?” he asked, “What’s wrong?”

Raven shook his head, “Nothing’s wrong. Her ladyship’s medication is right here,” he said, trying to change the topic, “I need to put this away in her sitting room.”

“Do you want me to hold onto it?” Alexis asked still watching Raven with a worried expression, “You seem a tad distracted.”

“I’m perfectly fine, Alex,” Raven said, patting him on the back, “Anyway, shall we go to the training yard after?”

“Raven- for goodness sake- talk to me. You get this look on you whenever you talk to Healer Emwik. If he’s giving you grief over your-“ Alexis said, starting to grow angry again.

“Oh Goddess’ grant me mercy,” Raven said, smiling again, “Must you always assume the worst? Healer Emwik has been doing his best to help me in this matter. You worry far too much.”

“Well, it’s simply because of how people… behave when they find out,” he told him, scowling at the memory.

Raven shook his head but glanced at Alexis, smiling.

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