The fire crackled in its merry way as if the children were all in their beds. Though the old man knew it was all a lie, he let himself believe and remembered a time when young lovers frolicked through these halls and met in secret places to conduct their forbidden acts. As he moved through the manor, the old memories resonated through him. The balcony where he had first fallen for her ... the study where there was once a desk where they first made love ... the nursery which was furnished yet unpopulated ... the observatory where they would indulge their passions and then gaze towards the heavens in wonder. So many places ... so many old dreams. But there was still once more place he had yet to go, and he knew that he would find her there.
"Valarie," he said softly as he stood at the edge of the library, "it is time for us to talk."
"There is nothing to discuss, Harold," the countess said in the imperial tone he had helped her develop. "You made certain Richard was knighted as a Templar and sent off to France where he could do the most good. Then King Philip rounded them all up and burned them at the stake. What is left to discuss?"
"The devils will not give you what you want," the priest cautioned her, and a great silence fell between them. "You might be granted power ... and you might find more suitors to batter down your gate, but you will not find happiness."
"I believe you are mistaken," the countess countered, once she found her air. "If the crusades taught us anything it is that we can do what we want and we can succeed ... even here. All I must do is to pay The Devil his due."
"How can you say such a thing?" the old man said, surprised by his own outrage.
"You forget yourself, Father," the countess warned, but a slight tremble had entered her voice. "What have I to lose? They are all gone! There is nothing left!"
"No, Valarie!" the enraged priest shouted. "It is you who have forgotten! You have forgotten the life of your daughter! You have forgotten the feel of her heartbeat when she was within your womb! You have forgotten the sounds of her cries and the way she called for her mommy! You have forgotten all of this, in return for such a petty thing!"
"You think the return of my youth is petty?" Countess Cunningham fumed as her noble training frayed at the seams. "I can try again ... marry upwards ... have more children-"
"Which will all be tainted by your unholy womb!" the priest interrupted. His chest heaved with rage and the countess's eyes bulged as they studied his features, but then her face lost its expression, and Father Harold braced for the words which would summon her guards.
"It is not me whom you fear for," she said with an almost slithering quality. "You care for the girl."
"Of course I care for her, Valarie ... she's ours." The words were spoken, and he could not take them back. For the longest time he stared at the cracking mask which she hid all of her true feelings behind. With a deep sigh she let the anger drain out of her, and he was finally allowed to view the frightened girl he once knew.
"How long have you known?" the countess asked as her exhausted eyes gazed up at him.
"I recognized some of my features on her when I first stood dripping in your living room," he told her.
"Lana wandered toward a guest?" the bewildered mother asked.
"Yes ... and she tried to hide ... but I have an eye for young women." For the first time in his life, he felt ashamed for this talent. The skill which fueled his weakness ... the weakness which drew him into sins of lust so terrible that he often considered himself to be of two worlds with two souls. "I suspected something like this had happened when you rushed to the alter with Edward. I always figured our affair would end when you finally won over Geoffrey, so when you settled out early-"
"It was my father's doing," Valarie interrupted, the strain in her voice told him that she was struggling with tears. "I would have been the Duchess Grandshire had Edward's father not bent my father toward his way of seeing things. I would have fought the arrangement ... but then ..."
"Lana," Harold finished for her.
"Lana," Valarie repeated.
"Did you love any of them?" the priest asked.
"I loved Richard," she admitted.
"But not the others?" he asked.
"Lana reminded me too much of you," Valarie said as she struggled to keep the tears from falling. "The wide jaw of her father and a lust for life to match. There was never any hope of her becoming a lady. Though she would have made a wonderful as a man in court with her sunny disposition and that ridiculous laugh which you gave her." She shuttered and sniffed.
"I have yet to hear that laugh," the old man lamented.
"Just think back to the last time you laughed loudly," the mother said with an impish smile.
"Oh dear," the proud father said with a chuckle.
"Is there any way we can save her?" asked the priest.
"The deal is yet to be made," the countess said with a shake of her luscious curls. "I have yet to receive my gifts."
"If you make this deal, there will be Hell to pay," the old priest said, and for a moment, the countess almost smiled at his joke.
"Will you come with me?" she asked, and for the first time in twenty years, she was once again, his Valarie.
"To the end if I must," he promised.