From the mind of Megan Arkenberg

September 3, 2011

The Countess

Posted by Megan Arkenberg with No comments
First published in Long Story Short, July 2007. Full story behind the cut.

* * *

It is growing late, but the Countess is still awake. She paces the length of her study with funeral march rhythm, each step sending a low tremor though the floorboards. I stand at her door with one hand poised to knock and the other balancing a stack of papers that demand Odette’s attention. As long as we are both awake, I reason, we may as well work on something. It is better to be busy together than to be left alone with our thoughts.
But I doubt the Countess would agree. That is why I have been standing in this hallway for nearly a quarter hour, ready to knock but not knocking, thinking about work but not working, listening to Odette’s rhythmic pacing: back and forth, back and forth, like a pendulum marking the last hours of a condemned man’s life.
The footsteps stop for a moment, replaced by another, softer sound. Not sobbing--the Countess would never be reduced to something so vulgar. Heavy sighs, then, that rack the walls the same way her pacing shook the floors. Whatever it is, the sound chills me.

Eager to put an end to it, my hand raises and lowers the door knocker of its own accord.

At the sound, all other noises stop. The sighing from behind the door, the creaking of the walls, even the winter wind is muted as it rattles the window glass.

The only answer is low and unintelligible.
“Countess Odette?” I hope my voice sounds stronger to her than it does to me. “Are you within?”

Of course she is within. It was a stupid question to ask, and when she opens the door, the look on her face seems to tell me so.
All her life, people have told Odette that she is beautiful, but she isn’t. Though she is powerful, her face does not have the sculpted perfection of a powerful woman. Though she is young, her eyes lack youthful glow. She is a slender ghost of a girl: neither short nor tall, but somewhere in between: with white skin like paper from which each mark has been erased, leaving only pale shadows to show that it was ever written on in the first place. Her eyes are a fogged, stagnant green, her hair brown and limp like fallen twigs. A tight corset forces a woman’s figure out of her stubborn girlish body.

“Odette,” I say again, bowing from the waist. “I heard you walking.”

She says nothing, only returns my bow and steps back from the doorway. I take this as permission to enter, closing the door behind me and laying the pile of letters on the desk.

“What do you have for me now?” she asks softly, leaning back against the wall.

“A few things for you to read,” I answer. “Letters, mostly, and a few reports for the King. They need only your signature.”

For some reason, the Countess seems to find this funny. She laughs loudly, gracelessly, then claps her hands once and stares into my face. “No death sentences tonight, are there?” she says.

I bite my lip in silence. So that is what keeps her awake tonight: I do not wonder, for it haunts my dreams as well.
Odette takes a few steps away from the wall and laughs again. Now I realize that there is no humor in the sound, only helpless rage. “You are going to the execution tomorrow morning, aren’t you? Of course you are,” she says, not waiting for an answer. “You and the rest of these idiots I surround myself with. Tell me, do they know it was you who gave me his death sentence to sign?”

“They do.”

She stands at the desk beside me now. Her eyes are wide, her thin lips trembling--an expression more of longing than anger. I wonder if she looked at Evond that way.
“Do they all hate him as much as you do?”

“Yes,” I say, but it is a lie. No one hates him, not even me, and I am the one who has sentenced him to death.

When he first came here over a year ago, Evond was a tall young man of seventeen, with the smooth white skin of a gentleman and the unruly black hair of a peasant, and clear brown eyes that gleamed with cold intelligence. His voice was soft but tilted, as though her was always on the verge of saying something clever. When he preformed the lordly courtesy of kissing Odette’s hand, the face of every lady in the hall went taunt with jealousy.
“Yes,” I say again, forcing myself not to imagine the disdainful stare of those eyes. “We hate anyone who would impose on your hospitality, while seeking only to spy on you and betray you to your enemies--”

“Hypocrites,” she spat. “There isn’t a single one of you who wouldn’t do the same thing, given half the chance. Is that why you hate him? Because he is exactly what you would turn into, if you had the courage?”

“Odette,” I say quietly, soothingly. She can‘t be thinking these things: I came here tonight to insure that she wouldn‘t. “What’s done is done,” I say, pulling a sheet of paper off the pile. “Come, here is a letter from Lord Lyel. Why don’t you read--”

“I don’t want to hear about Lord Lyel!” The Countess swings her fist at the stack of papers, sending them flying across the room like a spread of snow. “You’re the only one who seems to know anything about Evond. Damn it, say something!”
“He was spying on you, Odette!” I cry, catching her hand in mine as she reaches for another collection of letters. “He was going to kill you! Please, just calm down and listen to me for a moment. No one blames you for how you felt about him. Gods, we understand it perfectly! He was young, handsome, a clever speaker...everything any woman of taste could want. But it was too good, Odette! No one is that perfect.”

“He was,” she says, pulling her hand from mine. “He is! He hasn’t died yet, so why are we speaking of him like he has?”
“He may as well have.” A horrible image is forming in my mind, of the scaffold newly erected in the town square, and the macabre scene that will unfold there tomorrow at dawn. I shake my head to clear it and gently lay a hand on Odette’s shoulder. “Just listen to me for a moment,” I say. “Just listen to reason.”

“No!” The Countess’s cold fifteen-year-old face, still clinging to the last traces of childhood, is livid white. “You think you understand everything, but you don’t. You don’t know anything!”
“What don’t I know?”
“You don’t know what I feel like, for one.” She presses a clenched fist to her chest. “You can’t know how safe I felt when I was with him, how together--you have no idea how lonely I am without him, do you? How unbearably alone I feel, how hollow. That’s why I was willing to let him live, don’t you see?” Her voice is full of pleading, but her eyes are not. “I’d rather die by his hand than live another day without him.”


“No!” She holds up her hands in front of her like a shield, willing me to stop. “I am not going to ‘listen to reason’. I don’t want to understand! It may be my signature on his death sentence, but you’re the one who’s killed him. Damn it!” She pounds her fists into the wall on her way to the door. “Damn it, I loved him! I love him!”
The door slams shut behind her, and the manor is silent.
A few minutes later, she emerges from the door beneath her study window, stumbling out into the night. Snow falls down around her head to join the thick blanket already smothering the garden paths.
As she walks, the Countess leaves a deep trail of footprints in the whiteness. I wonder if the falling snow will swallow them up by morning.


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