The man inhaled deeply from his pipe, the smell of tobacco warring with the delicate scent of honeysuckle that decorated the air of the small parlor room. His free hand grasped an inside edge of the red brocade waistcoat that stretched across him impressive girth.
He was staring out of a window, his face taut and grim. In the reflection of the glass he saw his daughter standing close behind him. Her eyes were red from tears.
He pulled away from the window and sank heavily into an overstuffed chair, pulled the monocle from his eye to polish it before carefully putting it back into place, then looked up to face her. She looked back at him, still silent, but almost defiant in her gaze. Her lip began to tremble and she absently pulled her shawl tighter around her slim shoulders.
It was almost more than he could bear and he looked away.
Her voice was a whisper. “Are things really so bad?”
The burly man idly stroked his greying beard, continued for long moments to put pipe to lip, puffing and brooding. Smoke rings drifted through the room, slowly adding to the thin glaze of grime that was building up on exposed surfaces. It had been weeks since the room had seen a proper cleaning. He heard a muffled cough and from the corner of his eye he saw his daughter‘s lips tighten into a small frown: she did not approve of his smoking in the house. Drawing a gloved finger across a nearby table and noting the collection of dust collected, Joyce made a mental note to herself to have the remaining servants devote a little extra time to bringing this particular room back up to acceptable conditions.
With a scowl the man extinguished the pipe and set it down.
Then he spoke and his voice was grave.
“Look there,” he said, pointing to a silver tray on a small stand near the door that held the daily delivery of mail.
His daughter blinked at him, then turned to walk over to the stack of letters, her heels echoing on the hardwood floor; the rug that normally lay there had recently been sold. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the letters as far as she could tell. She reached down to sort through the pile.
Her father gestured. “The one with the blue-and-gold-embossed seal.”
Blue and gold. That meant Stormwind. Something official.
She saw it then, plucked the letter out from the pile. Addressed, like all the others, to the Honorable Galen H.Chesterhill.
Looking to her father for permission, she saw him nod. Delicate fingers quickly pulled out the parchment inside and she began to read. He saw her eyes scan the document, one line to the next. Then they widened as her hands flew to her mouth.
The letter fluttered lazily to the floor.
“You see, then,” said her father, and his voice was a low rumble, his face ashen. “The Bank of Stormwind is calling in the bulk of our loans. With the properties we’ve lost to the war, I’ve been unable to keep up with payments. We’ve reined in operating expenses and spending as best we can, as you know – we’re practically on a shoestring budget as it is – but…” He looked up at her, facing her now, his gaze haunted but unflinching. It was the least he could do, to be honest with her, to lay it all out.
“But it’s not enough,” she finished for him. It was almost a question.
His mouth, opened to speak those same words, snapped shut. At length, he spoke again, confirming her fears. “No, Joyce. It’s not enough.” He let the words sink into the silence.
“What about Markus?” she asked with a note of desperation. She knew how precarious their situation was, and she knew where this was leading. And it scared her.
“He cares for me, I know he does, and his family is well off – “
“Joyce, we’ve been over this!” Her father waved her off with a curt chop of his hand in the air. “There simply is no other way! Our fortunes continue to collapse in the midst of this gods-forsaken war; every day the blasted Horde destroy more of our property as they rampage unchecked.”
“Sometimes I think we should never have moved down here…”
“‘Down here’ is where I was able to make our fortune, daughter,” he said, his tone gently chiding. “Believe me, I miss Gilneas more then even you do.” Joyce detected a note of frustration in his voice.
“But this man – Herman – by all accounts he’s nothing but a brute,” she argued.
“He served with distinction in the wars against the trolls of Lordaeron,” her father countered. “Decorated, even, as I recall.”
“It’s also said that he’s killed men in the fighting rings. And that he’s a drunkard,” she continued sullenly. Her voice was tinged with distaste.
Joyce was about to say more when her father rose suddenly from his chair and strode forward to grasp her by the shoulders. He stood over her and she flinched in spite of herself, braced for the storm of arguments that was sure to follow.
Then his shoulders sagged as something seemed to collapse in him. He suddenly looked well older than his years. Then he pulled her close into an awkward but tender hug.
Startled, Joyce did not know what to say. So she was silent as she waited with a sense of dread for his next words.
“Listen, Joyce,” he said with a quiet, tender fierceness as he held her. “I’ve tried everything – everything – to repair our fortunes. Nothing has worked. It’s about survival now. Survival of the family.”
Tears began to form in the corners of his eyes, though Joyce could not see them.
“I’m sorry, so sorry,” he said. “I’ve failed your brothers and sisters. I’ve failed the family. But most of all, I’ve failed you….” He was silent for long moments, so that his next words almost echoed about the room even as his voice fell to a hush. “My father would be so ashamed of me, Light rest his soul.”
Joyce, still held in her father’s embrace, didn’t know what to say. She had never seen her father like this. He was always so in control, so confident, so proud.
He drew back, looking away from his daughter so she might not the shame burning on his face. “That it’s come to this, to selling off my own child” he whispered. Though the words were said aloud, they were clearly meant for him alone.
Then slowly, very slowly, he collapsed to his knees as his strength deserted him.
“I hope someday that you will be able to forgive me, Joyce…,” he said, though she could barely hear him.
“… my little Jelly Bean.”
Joyce stiffened in surprise: she hadn’t heard that name since she was a little girl, but the mention of it cast her back in time into her deepest memories. And she remembered all that her father had done for her and the family over the years, all of the sacrifices and struggles to get to where they had been.
This was, in the end, the only way to save all that.
A part of her had never really understood, or wanted to understand, truly, the stakes involved, did not realize how absolutely severe the situation had become until now. Everything she had in life, everything her family had, was because of him. He had sacrificed so much.
Could she do any less?
It went beyond personal choice and personal desires. The time had finally come for her to step up and take her place in providing a future for her family, including the father that had given her everything. She didn’t have to like it, but neither could she shirk her duty.
Joyce kneeled down in front of him, put her forehead against his, and grasped his strong hands in her delicate ones. Eyes closed, she reined in the emotions threatening to swallow her up, mastered them. The tick-tock of a clock echoed through quiet of the parlor.
Finally Joyce pulled away and squeezed her father hands before letting them go.
“All right,” she said. “I’ll marry him. I’ll marry Herman.”
The weeks that followed were full of activity, anxiety, and doubt.
Joyce’s father began to have second thoughts about everything and it was now left to Joyce to convince him that they were doing the right thing – the only thing, in fact, that they could do, given the circumstances that fate had thrust on them. He seemed to have aged years as the weight of his decisions came crashing to full reality.
When Galen had first began negotiations with Herman for Joyce’s hand, it seemed like just one of many hard sacrifices he had had to make over his lifetime. He had convinced himself that the family was lucky that Herman entertained an interest in her, not because she was in any way plain or unbecoming for she certainly was not that, but because Herman was unaware, or perhaps uncaring, of the Gilnean tradition of dowry. So in the end, he had, to Galen’s surprise, been able to negotiate a bride-price for her, even though the very idea shamed him.
Thus a marriage of opportunity was planned. Herman would have a wife to attend to him and his needs, and Joyce and her family would be kept from insolvency. Further, their businesses would be joined together in a mutually advantageous situation, for Joyce’s family was of the esteemed Chesterhill line of Gilneas, a family of merchants that supplied meat and produce to their homeland. As Gilneas began to shut itself off from the rest of the Eastern Kingdoms in the face of increasing orc excursions they became ever more reliant on the efforts of families like the Chesterhills. But too many of the Chesterhill properties had fallen prey to those same orc rampages and been lost, their supply chains shattered almost beyond repair. By aligning their fortunes and family with Herman, they would be able to take advantage of the properties he owned, which were numerous now and growing, to keep the cogs of their business running.
Joyce herself, for all her bravado and projected acceptance, still had serious worries of her own. She knew the implications of being a “good wife” and all that it entailed. “You have to make and keep him happy,” her mother had said to her even though to hear the words made the bile rise in her throat. But Joyce did her best to throw such thoughts aside and concentrate on the immediate task of helping plan the wedding.
It was to be a small, quick, and quiet affair, for the Chesterhills had no desire to draw undue attention to the fact that a bride-price had been paid for Joyce’s hand. If that should ever become known, the family might never recover from the ensuing scandal. For that reason especially, it was decided that the wedding would be held at Herman’s farm in Oakmere Village. Joyce herself would travel there several weeks in advance to coordinate the last-minute details, and as the date for her departure drew near, she threw herself into the preparations in order to take her mind off of the life-altering change that was almost upon her.
Joyce paused at the top of the stairs. The family carriage would arrive in just an hour, and the bags that had all been packed the previous week now lay in front of the heavy doors that were the main entrance to the manor proper.
The sight, the finality of it all, abruptly struck her, and she had to will her feet into motion down the stairs. She moved down them lightly, with slow and deliberate steps, savoring the memories that came unbidden to her as she descended the curving staircase. Her right hand clutched the smooth oaken bannister, feeling the peculiarities of the grain as her nose took in the aromas of breakfast that still lingered in the air. She hadn’t been very hungry, but she ate just the same to make her mother and father happy. Or at least not worry as much as they had been recently.
The sound of her leather boots were muffled by the faded and slightly frayed stair runners, each footfall measured out precisely as if from a metronome.
Thirty steps to the bottom. Like always, she thought, the makings of a tentative grin breaking through her resolute exterior in spite of herself.
Counting the stairs had always been a habit of hers over the years, a way of reassuring herself that the world could only change so much, and that some things never changed.
It was mid-morning, but the house was nearly empty. Most of the servants had been let go months ago and her immediate family was off taking care of other things. They would be back to see her off though.
In the meantime, Joyce walked through the rooms of the house that had been her home for so many years. She wanted to remember all she could, wanted to pack up her happy memories just as she had her travel bags.
Because she did not know if she would ever be back.
She had just circled back around to the foyer where her bags were stacked when she heard the clop-clop of shod hooves. Faraway at first, but as the coach neared she could begin to hear the snorting of the horses, the creak of wheels, and the sound of the harnesses as wood and rope danced under the direction of the driver.
The carriage had arrived.
Her breath caught briefly in her throat and her face flushed as her pulse began to race. Then she steeled herself, fought down her rising anxiety, and strode with purpose to the large doors. She paused for just a moment, eyes closed, before flinging them open, letting in the cool autumn air. She found it refreshing against her warm face.
She could do this, she told herself.
She would meet this challenge and overcome.
For the family.