Tempest and Temptation
"Sir Reynolds.” She smiled, teeth pearly and white. Her spine was straight and erected, her head angled upright and stiff. “Welcome to the Sutherton manor.”
“Lady Sutherton.” He returned the scripted politeness, bowing his head. “It is an honor.”
“Yes.” She clasped her hands together, positioning them precisely an inch from her pelvis and an inch from her rib cage. “Thank you. I trust the journey was smooth?” She spoke cordial and prim.
“Great.” Her voice was trained in pitch and character. “Now, let us not waste the day. This way.” She turned her head, the glow of early morning sunlight glazing her flaccid smile.
They walked directly into the surrounding scenery that sparkled with luster and opulence. The fluorescent green manicured flatlands were decorated with towering trees, shaped evergreen hedges, and blooming flower bushes. Romanesque buildings varying from gigantic to modest, sprouted from the ground, and deliberately placed around them were marble statues, fountains, and ponds with gazebos in the distance. In the presence of all the glory, they were mere specks compared to the manor's portrait of idyllic countryside beauty.
“What a lovely estate your husband owns,” he said, his round bulbous head craning around to take it all in. “It is truly fitting of the Sutherton name.” His deep baritone voice gleefully rose, the wrinkles on his skin intensifying. "Such perfection rivals impossibility, I must say." Civil laughter sprung out from his belly as they walked.
She looked back at him with a formulated smile. "I appreciate your kind words, Sir Reynolds."
“Of course, my grace.”
Briefly, there was silence as they continued pacing gradually along a pristine white stone pathway. They passed along a constructed pond bridge, their figures reflecting on the clear water's surface.
He cleared his throat. “I am blessed to be in your presence, but may I ask why Lord Sutherton’s attendance is missed?”
Unresponsive to him, she watched her reflection sway in the water; her bark-colored hair was pulled into a strict bun covered with a pearled mesh hair snood. The long, brown, corseted dress wrapped rigidly around her, and her diamond jewelry hung heavy. Pigments of her makeup dyed her light honey skin and hints of deeper wrinkles were beginning.
"Lord Sutherton was quite busy with other matters. He will be sure to attend to you later." A loose tight curl of brown hair escaped, brushing past her cheeks.
“I see. Lord Sutherton is indeed a busy man. At least I am honored with the Magnificent One’s wealth to have your presence as the wife of Lord Sutherton.”
Her reflection was leaving as she dragged her feet away from the pond waters.
"You flatter me." There was a lack of enthusiasm in her voice. "But speaking on my husband, I would like to assure you that Lord Sutherton did want you to know that we shall make your stay here at our estate conducive to your work. We vow to it, and a Sutherton never breaks their vow."
"Most certainly, my grace." He eagerly bobbed his head and wagged the tail of his uniform like a dog wags its tail. "Just as you are true to your word, I will be true to my duty and ensure not a single thing is improper during your departure to the Great Independence celebration so that you, your husband, and your daughter will find comfort in my services."
They neared their destination, the manor main entrance, but she paused suddenly and abruptly.
"My daughter, you say?"
"Yes. The Honorable---." A small chortle and a disbelieving stare from Lady Sutherton interrupted him. "---Lady Erina Sutherton..." He finished speaking with a puzzled look. "Is something the matter, Lady Sutherton?"
"No." She hurriedly shook her head. "Everything is fine. Erina---my daughter," she said, emphasizing without delight. "She's away right now. We had an incident a little while ago, so she won't be returning until after we come back from the Tricitadel."
"I wasn't aware your daughter was away. I must correct myself, for how silly of me to improperly speak on the matter. The Sutherton family deserves proper respect---."
"---It's fine. Really." She held up her hand to stop him from speaking. "In fact, it's better she's not here because…." She trailed to a stop, blankly staring.
She cut her eyes to his shoes. "Foot."
She looked from his feet to his rounded face. "Yes. Pardon me, but your foot."
"Move your foot!" she raised her voice.
Puzzled, he looked down at his black oxford clogs that were rooted on the stone walkway. "Is there something the matter, Lady Sutherton?"
"Yes." She stepped towards him. "You need to move your foot."
Mystified, he took a brief step away to the side as she approached. He watched as she crouched and plucked out a microscopic weed wedged between a crack in the stone pathway. It was a little slight weed, a detail he wouldn't have noticed even if he tried.
"Lady Sutherton, are you quite alright?"
She remained hunched for a few moments, peering at the crack in white stone. It was small and insignificant but she continued staring at the thin black fissures cut in the stone.
Slowly her head rose, glancing up at him and then back to the ground.
“Lady Sutherton? Is something the matter?”
Exhaling, she stood, straightening her dress. "No. No. It was just a weed."
"I see." Confusion muddled his face.
"Yes. Weed." She brushed at her hair with her hands and cleared her throat. "Let us continue.”
He nodded, following once more behind her as servants opened the main doors and allowed them inside.
She moved swiftly through its brightly lit and ornate regal interior, showing him even more of the manor’s beauty. In every room they entered the walls were sparkling, and the floors were cleaned and polished. Everywhere they went, it smelled of fresh crisp linens and sweet-smelling fragrances. Housemaids and other staff were hard at work in cheery happy demeanor and disposition as they passed them by.
Everything was orderly, secure, and perfect. Just the way she preferred it.
“Is this the portrait hall?” Sir Reynolds asked as they continued with their tour. He stopped peeking into an open large room filled only with portraits and paintings.
“The portrait hall?” She stiffened, sluggishly facing the room.
“Do you mind if we take a quick look?” One of his feet was already rooted past the doorframe.
She looked around then muttered, “Briefly.”
They both stepped inside, Sir Reynolds glancing around the room in wonder as he did with every room they had entered.
“How lovely!” he said, walking around and viewing the wall portraits that were giants in height and size.
“Isn’t it?” She lingered by the doors, watching him move like an exploring boy scout. “Generations of Suthertons portraits in here.” Her eyes momentarily passed over both familiar and unfamiliar faces of her in-laws and relatives. As she met eyes with the stern and staunch men and women of the past, her mouth started to grow dry.
“My, what splendor to view!” He went up and down the room until eventually, he settled his gaze on Lady and Lord Sutherton’s portrait.
In it, Lord Sutherton stood by a seated Lady Sutherton. He was dressed regally in a formal blue suit attire. In his right hand, he held his family crest’s banner, and his other hand rested on the shoulder of Lady Sutherton. He was unsmiling, but his features were boyish and soft, and his large black eyes firm yet tender. She matched his attire and his unsmiling face, yet she didn’t appear unhappy, rather, there was life in her eyes.
“Lady Sutherton, you almost haven’t aged a day since this was painted!” He glanced back at her, matching her painted features with her actual physical features.
“No,” she said curtly, peering at the painting from a distance. “I was much young then.”
“Ah.” He nodded, unwilling to contradict her. “Still lovely to view.”
“Yes.” She remained close to the exit, her eyes glancing back to the halls. “Have you seen enough?”
“I suppose I am don---.” He stopped, his gaze landing on another portrait. “---The Royal Princess Kaelixson-Nier Sabina?” His eyes stumbled upon the portrait of a woman who instantly captured his attention. “This is her portrait?”
Suddenly her jaw clenched, her eyes fluttering rapidly. “…Yes. That is Sabina, my sister-in-law.” Her tongue was starting to feel felt heavy.
“By the grace of all great things. She is incredibly, well, she’s….” He was breathless. He didn’t have the words to finish as he admired the woman.
“Yes, she is,” she whispered, tugging her eyes down. He did not need to finish for her to know exactly what he meant to say.
He glanced at Lady Sutherton only to glue his eyes back to the painted woman. “I apologize for my reaction. I’ve only heard about the descriptions of her beauty. And to see her this way?” He took a deep labored breath. He seemed almost ready to fall to his knees and pray to it. “It is almost like she is standing here before us,” he lowly said, looking deep into the woman’s eyes, waiting for her to peer into his soul.
“Before us?” Lady Sutherton swallowed, the veins in her neck visible as they hardened under her skin. Her eyes reluctantly traveled to where Reynolds stared.
To Reynolds, those eyes were soft and delicate, but to Lady Sutherton they were different.
They were suffocating.
“By the King’s blessings, there is no beauty alive in this century quite like her. It is no wonder that she stole the heart of our glorious First Prince Kaelixson-Nier.”
Lady Sutherton fell quiet, her heart pulsating. A nauseating feeling was starting to grow from the pit of her stomach. Her trembling hands were rocking back and forth. Her heart was starting to skip a few beats and her face was starting to drain.
“I must admit, I’ve always been fascinated by the nature of the true love between our glorious Princess-Nier Sabina and Prince Kaelixson-Nier,” he said, growing increasingly captivated. “I’ve heard stories that their love was so powerful it happened at first sight.”
Unresponsive, Lady Sutherton measured her uneven breaths, a cold chill tickling her neck.
It was as if the room was dropping in temperature, seized by some unseen unspeakable sudden force.
“True love at first sight.” He smiled with raised cheeks. “Truly, I did not think it existed. I don’t think anyone of us believed it, until them.”
Her lips trembled as he continued to joyfully speak.
“Their love for each other is inspiring. Surely there will be songs and tales talked about them for ages. I know I would tell my children in the future about it. There is so much that ought to be honored for the beauty of it and….”
His words were starting to fall on dead ears. Lady Sutherton was not listening. She could not process his words. Nor could not process any sound. The only thing she could do was feel the thunder of her beating heart and dryness in her unblinking staring eyes.
She was losing herself. Gradually, she was sucked into the painting.
The woman was a face she knew well. A beautiful woman, a princess, whose last image she could only remember with anxiety.
‘Anya.’ There was a weak voice speaking in her thoughts.
Lady Sutherton tried to refuse the flashes of her memory, but it fought back too strong.
‘Anya.’ There was a pain in those beautiful eyes, as she walked in sporadic yet choppy movements.
For a moment, she remembered feeling the otherworldly hold of watching the beauty approach like a creature resurrected from a grave. The bloodied footsteps. The dirtied dragging gown. Her crazed stare. And the blood. There was so much of it, that she had to wonder; was it Sabina who was hurt, or was it the opposite? Did she hurt someone?
Fear kept her steady in place as she recalled the suspense.
She remembered the impending doom as the bleeding specter approached her; open arms and unforgettable words.
‘Anya, you know, don’t you? You…you know that Vaanya, she, she came and spoke to me. She…she said, I had to---.’
“--Lady Sutherton?” At the sound of Reynold’s voice, Lady Sutherton jumped.
“Lady Sutherton are you quite alright? You are appearing unwell,” he said, puzzled why the blankly staring woman was so unresponsive.
“Unwell?” she whispered, her composure sinking. She was pale. Shriveling and pale.
“Yes. You were not replying and seemed to stare off distant,” he said, examining her uneasy look.
Quiet, Lady Sutherton strode across the room, nearly running as she made her way to the painting. Rather aggressively, she pulled down the painting’s protective curtain covering.
As soon as the portrait was covered, she stood there in place, unwilling to let go of the fistful of the curtain in her grip.
She glanced back at him, suddenly recognizing how strange her actions appeared. She released the painting’s curtain and stepped back with a swallow.
“I am fine, Sir Reynolds.” She forced a smile. “Just fine.” She blinked, glancing once at the concealed painting before walking to the doors. “We’ve seen enough of this room. Let us go about our way.” She gestured Reynolds out and shut the door with a slam.