Chapter 7: A Mother’s Love
“He-… They still have not returned?” The priestess asked two mornings later, her frown furrowing her brow as she followed Baritold, Lady Emeria’s majordomo, through the great expanse of the mansion beyond her suite.
The blood elf paused in the middle of the opulent hall, under the unfeeling gaze of a life-sized statue of some ancestor of the Duskfall line. He sniffed, looking down his nose at her, both literally and figuratively, not fooled at all by her attempt to correct herself. “It is not your place to slink after Master Leothir like a cat in heat. When he wishes to see you, he will inform you. When he wants you in his bed, you will comply. Until then, you are required to do nothing more than decorate the young master’s quarters and await his whim.”
His bluntness and crude attitude stung as always, pinkening her cheeks as effectively as if he had hauled back and slapped her. Though it was nothing new for the manservant, Rhoelyn had simply never managed to armor herself. There was no defense against such blatant debasement, such calculated denial of her most basic rights as an elf. No amount of carefully cultivated numbness could fail to feel it. And to the sensitive young night elf, it was vitriolic enough to turn her stomach every time they spoke.
Rhoelyn swallowed and lowered her gaze, stepping into place behind him as he turned back around and strode off. “Yes. Of course,” she managed past a dry throat. “I only worry for him.”
“Then you are a fool who does not understand her place here. I can only hope her Ladyship can educate you,” he scoffed, turning yet another corner, his long strides forcing her into something nearer a jog than a walk. Still recovering her energy, she found it overly draining just to keep up.
Emeria. The priestess paled at mention of the haughty and harsh mistress of the household, suddenly understanding why the majordomo himself had come to fetch her. Emeria was angry about something. Again. She clutched a shaking hand around the chain threaded through her demure gown. Leothir’s mother would be yet more furious when she found that Leothir had been true to his word and dispelled the pain-inducing enchantment. He had no idea that she dared to use it on occasion, despite the extreme presumption in doing so without his permission. Thus, he had no idea that she would notice it missing.
Rhoelyn winced. She couldn’t have told him to leave it without giving away his mother’s rude behaviour, but now… Could she act well enough to pretend hurt when there was none? Was Emeria sensitive enough to feel the lack of response in the flesh-warmed gold? Would it be better not to attempt the lie for fear of being caught out? Or could she simply pretend and be convincing?
She shuddered quietly, hiding her expression from Baritold. Truth was her way; the little night elf was terrible at lying, even when the lies stood to protect Leothir from his mother’s tongue-lashings and her from… something worse. Truth or silence were her only options, so she whispered a prayer to Elune under her breath, asking that somehow the goddess grant that the Exalted Lady Emeria not force her to choose.
Baritold shot her a glare from beneath his ruddy brows for muttering in Darnassian before he threw open the wide double-doors to the Lady’s solar and announced her in a clipped, rolling voice.
“Esteemed Lady, I brought the slave as you requested. Rhoelyn, chattel consort of House Duskfall.”
The priestess slid a serene mask into place, ignoring the demeaning title just as she ignored the disgust on the beautiful blood elven lady’s face as Emeria looked over from where she stood before the tall window overlooking the veranda and the main gardens. Far to the right, nearly around the corner of this wing of the manse, Rhoelyn’s own corner of the expansive grounds showed in a riot of color.
“Thank you. That will do, Baritold. You may resume your duties,” Emeria said in her cultured alto, her words precise and given a cold inflection. Imperious.
The assortment of rings on the hand she waved to dismiss him sparkled in the sunlight, the inferno rubies, chemerine and diamonds carefully chosen to coordinate perfectly with her scarlet regalia: a stunningly detailed gown with onyx needlework, golden piping, cream sashes and a high, stiff neck; a pair of onyx dragonhide slippers that peeked out from her hem; and a housecloak of scarlet silk adorned with golden chain and pristine, cream-colored feathers.
Whatever else she might feel for her unacknowledged bondmother, Rhoelyn was most definitely always in awe of her dress. Emeria never looked anything short of stunning. The woman had gowns and frocks by the dozens, each more intricate than the last, elegant to a fault. She was always fully adorned, golden hair styled to perfection, and jewelry flawlessly coordinated. Her wardrobe was more than capable of driving envy into the priestess’ fashion-loving breast, and Rhoelyn’s fingers itched to feel the fine weaves of the fabrics, to slide through the furs and along the feathers.
Not that Rhoe would ever tell Leothir or his mother of her admiration. Emeria would scoff, and Leothir… Rhoelyn cringed at the thought: Her oblivious mate would buy her everything she admired, no doubt, though it rival his own mother’s. He would be pleased with himself, think her stunning in the opulent fashions, and his mother would be furious behind a bland smile. Rhoelyn (and probably every other night elf in the manor) would suffer her temper for months. Yes, the priestess held her tongue firmly on the topic. The Exalted Lady hated her quite enough already; the last thing she needed was for Leo to unwittingly put her in the middle of a war of beauty with Emeria.
That was a war she would never be allowed to win.
Rhoelyn tried not to let her thoughts show on her face as Baritold straightened with a click of his heels and backed from the room.
The night elf stood by the doors long after he’d closed them behind him, her hands folded serenely, her eyes the blue of a clear pond and filled with the same stillness. Emeria let her wait. And wait some more. It was their game: the one where the esteemed lady reminded her son’s property of her place with all the small tricks at her disposal, reminded herself of her own power over the kal’dorei. Where she tried to crack the little priestess’ serene mask at every opportunity.
At length, the blood elf spoke, her gaze on the gardens in the distance. Her words surprised Rhoelyn for their relative kindness. “You show some potential with your flowers, girl. It is possible that, after you have provided a few half-blooded children to Leothir’s legacy, you might be useful as a gardener for the country manor.
“I trust that would suit you?” Emeria turned, her brows raised.
Rhoelyn lowered her eyes just a fraction. She had, over the months, become quite familiar with the lady’s aquiline nose. “Gardening is a passion of mine, Lady Emeria,” she said, evading a direct answer.
“Hm,” the woman purred, pressing her lips together as she looked back out. Her displeasure was due to the priestess’ calm, to her lack of reaction to the rest of what she’d said. After a moment, she stepped away, beckoning to the little night elf. “Walk with me.”
It was an order, not a request, and the lady didn’t even consider refusal a possibility. She led the way to the veranda doors, pulling them open and letting in the soft spring breeze and the scent of daylilies as she glided through. Rhoelyn followed obediently, schooling her features despite the small pleasure to be had in a walk outside. The sun shone and birds sang as they made their silent way to the garden until the cobbled paths crunched beneath their soft slippers.
“Are you with child?” Rhoelyn jerked with surprise when the lady spoke, her idle thoughts shattered. She wasn’t able to keep the blush from darkening her cheeks, but she did keep her expression neutral.
“No, I am not,” she said softly.
“You are certain?” The blood elf peered at her from the corner of her eye.
Rhoelyn nodded wordlessly.
“Explain to me why not.” The woman sniffed, looking back out at the gardens. “You are a priestess of Elune, are you not? Your magic is powerful, Leothir tells me, and it is my understanding that your moon goddess is supposed to be a deity of life, fertility, and etcetera. I am told you share Leothir’s bed loudly and often.”
Rhoelyn’s blush deepened drastically at that, but she held her tongue as the woman continued, “Do you defy your purpose, girl?”
The night elf watched a bird flitting overhead, her sigh silent. “No, Lady Emeria. I know well my purpose in this world. Unfortunately, you have the wrong idea of m-”
“Wrong?!” Emeria interrupted with a dangerous tone, her eyes narrowing as she shot a glance at the woman walking beside her.
The little priestess lowered her head, appearing to look contrite while her thoughts were anything but. “Apologies, Lady Emeria. That is to say that I fear someone has misinformed you of the nature of the goddess who blesses me. Elune is a champion of life, not a granter of it in the sense you are considering. My personal… fertility is not somehow increased by the power she gives me to heal others.”
The exalted lady frowned, turning her green gaze back to the garden around them. “That is disappointing.”
“These things happen – or do not – in their own time and according to Elune’s design,” Rhoelyn ventured gently into the silence that followed, daring. “If my lady so desires it, Leothir and I will have children in the fullness of t-”
The blood elf lifted a hand to interrupt her, her lip curling as rage darkened her face. “The only ‘lady’ you have is me, and I do so desire it. The sooner you are bred and present my son with the whelps necessary to secure the bloodline, the sooner I can see him matched with a worthy sin’dorei wife and settled into his proper place. The sooner I can hope he will be one of those fortunate enough to bring full-blooded children into this world with that wife.
“You are but a means to an end, no matter what foolishness my son might be thinking at the moment. You would do well to remember it.”
Trying for a placating answer, the priestess simply said, “Yes, Lady,” her faith in Leothir’s regard unshaken.
It was not done with enough brainless acceptance, enough humble admiration, apparently. Emeria’s response was a lip curled in unbecoming disgust. “As ever,” she complained through gritted teeth, “you do not know your place, Rhoelyn.”
“Apologies, Lady Emeria.” It was the only correct response to the ridiculous admonishment, and it neatly left the other woman with nowhere to vent her irritation.
They strolled in sullen silence for a while before Emeria spoke again. “Tell me about your accident. Relare informs me that you were attacked. Leothir seems… more confused on the topic.”
Rhoelyn’s eyes widened as she ducked her head, cursing Relare’s perception. Though Emeria reach in and pull her still-beating heart out through her throat, there was no chance she could let the esteemed lady catch whiff of the truth of the matter. Ryni would be gone before they had even had a chance to talk, before Rhoelyn could understand or forgive or, Elune willing, help the poor girl.
“I f-fear there is little to tell, exalted lady,” the priestess said softly, thinking quickly. “I… I suffered a moment of weakness, and the result was as you have no doubt heard. Faeroh assures me that the dining room in our suite was thoroughly cleaned and proved unstained.”
Emeria frowned, her brows drawing together as she paused once more and turned to examine the slave. “You think yourself so clever, little mutt. Yes, I am relieved to hear that you did not permanently sully the decor with your unworthy blood, but I am not simple-minded. I will not be distracted. Tell me what happened. Did you harm yourself?”
Rhoelyn flushed, looking down. “I-I… yes, Lady Emeria. I despaired, and in doing so, I chose to harm myself. Having seen the pain I caused my m-… Leothir, I regret my choice, now. It will not happen again.”
The blood elven woman scoured her with her cold, green gaze, like emeralds under ice. Her nose wrinkled as she sneered, “Well, at least one sentence there was truth. Relare was correct. When pressed into a direct lie, you are abysmal at it.” Her hand leapt out, once more gripping the chain linking Rhoelyn’s collar to her bodice. “You will not lie to me again, slave.”
The priestess winced when the lady’s eyes flared with power, lifting a hand to press it over Emeria’s fist. She saw disaster approaching like a runaway saber, and nothing save a convincing lie – a near-impossibility for her – seemed able to save the moment. A convincing lie… or true pain.
Gulping, she closed her eyes and fisted her free hand, dragging Light like fire through her body, white and hot and too much. It burned along her nerves almost like the chain’s enchantment, causing her to stiffen and gasp, her blue eyes watering. It was a supreme struggle to hold the painful magic until the power in Emeria’s eyes returned to normal, and when it faded, she sagged in sobbing relief for more than one reason.
The blood elven lady looked supremely satisfied, snapping, “Now. The truth.”
Rhoelyn sniffled, dragging a sleeve across her moist eyes. “L-lady Emeria, I have t-” The crack of the woman’s hand across her cheek silenced her, and her head whipped to the side. She tasted blood where her teeth had cut the inside of her lip and felt the hot reaction in her darkened skin.
“I said you would not lie to me again, girl.” The blood elf’s magic flared once more, and Rhoelyn pulled on her own to match, her back arching and her eyes fixed on the sky. Emeria held it long enough that spots danced at the corners of the priestess’ vision and the blood inside her mouth dripped out the corner by the time she stopped, and the night elf stumbled to her knees, much to the lady’s disgust.
“What is this?” She complained, releasing her grip on the chain rather than leaning over. “Are you playing dead with me, mutt? I have barely begun to hurt you.”
The priestess gasped for breath, exhausted already. It stung keenly that she should have to apologize for not being able to take more abuse, but she was desperate to end it, uncertain how much longer she could keep up the farce and legitimately fading quickly. “I … b-beg forgiveness, Lady Emeria. I am still weakened by… blood loss. Exhaustion dogs me.”
Emeria ‘tsk’d and shoved her shoulder, unbalancing Rhoelyn so that she fell from her knees to her behind in the dirty stones. “You have recovered for days, girl. I am made keenly aware of that fact by how absent Leothir has been from his real duties while you’ve convalesced indulgently.” She sneered. “I thought your kind, for all your flaws, were at least supposed to be made sturdy.”
The priestess could do nothing save to murmur a defeated and tired, “Apologies, Lady Emeria,” her eyes on the ground.
“Get up, girl.” The blood elf snapped, gesturing. “I will not speak to you while you grovel on the ground like a bile worm, and – make no mistake – we are not done speaking.”
Rhoelyn nodded and struggled to her feet, finding her legs surprisingly weak and shaky beneath her. The dual drain of enflamed magic and pain was unsustainable, so she hoped she could make it through the rest of the conversation with no more need for the farce around the chain’s enchantment.
As Lady Emeria turned to resume her stroll without a word, the worn night elf hurried to follow, settling with some effort back into pace by her side.
“I will grant you mercy this once, mutt, and let the matter of the truth drop. Whomever attacked you, whomever you are protecting, will be caught out in the end. Or they will murder you successfully. Either way, I believe I will be satisfied.” Emeria’s smile was nothing short of vicious, and it didn’t touch her eyes one whit.
“Yes, lady.” Her mutter was barely audible, the glib discussion of her death disturbing as much for its content as for the certainty that settled in Rhoelyn’s heart that her love’s mother meant precisely what she said.
Her brow furrowed, and somehow the words rushed past her lips before she could stop them. “Does it not, as his mother, give you pause to contemplate my murder knowing the depth of pain Leothir would feel? Didn’t you see the evidence of that in his reaction to my… to… to the recent incident?”
“Cur!” Rhoelyn was shocked by how fast the woman stopped, spun, and slapped her once more, sending her staggering to the side. “‘As his mother’?!” Emeria stood before her as she recovered, her hand pressing to her stinging cheek and her practical head regretting the impulsive words. The woman bristled with indignation… and something more – a sort of rage-shrouded fear that flitted about in her eyes.
“As his mother, I ensure that my son is safe. That he is proud and strong and ready to take his place as the head of this family, as the heir to the Duskfall lineage.” The blood elf’s voice was nothing more than a snarl, her teeth bared in an expression that was every bit as feral as a wolf’s. “As his mother, I must protect him from temptations like you, with your placid gaze and comely face. You are bad for him, a seductive siren that got your claws in him while he was away from me and now fools him into thinking that you might be his wife instead of his chattel consort, that you might be more than a vessel for his exalted blood. I will cut you from his life like a boil when I am done using you for my ends, kal’dorei dog, and I will soothe him through the pain of your loss though I hurt with him. But I will do it because that pain will fade in time, and his life will – without a doubt – be better without you in it! You and your filthy little collection of mutts.”
The priestess staggered back as if struck once more, her eyes wide and her hands trembling. Before she could do or say anything, the exalted lady shrieked, “Guards!”
To Rhoelyn, it seemed as if they appeared nearly instantly, and she watched with numbed icy fear flowing through her as Emeria’s finely manicured finger was pointed at her unsteady breast.
“Take this … creature to the post and have her caned until she loses consciousness. No fewer than twenty lashes! Then you will see that she is healed and locked in Leothir’s bedchamber until I say otherwise.” The woman’s flashing, rage-filled eyes speared the stalwart guards until they looked almost as cowed as Rhoelyn did. “She will have nothing and no one to disturb her, there. Nothing. Do you understand me?” she hissed.
“Yes, my lady,” the female answered in a humble voice, bowing her head as her partner snagged the night elf by the upper arm. She stumbled the first few steps as he started to drag her back along the garden paths toward the pillory, numb and weak and struggling to process the damage she had done.
When Rhoelyn dared to glance back a couple of moments later, Emeria still watched her go, back unyieldingly straight and hatred in her eyes.