Interlude – Repose
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Rosa woke up to the serene sight of sunlight streaming through the window above her bed, the gentle chill of the winter air permeating the linens and stirring her awake.

After blinking away the remnants of sleep—and doing a decent job at it, if she might say so herself—she sat up and looked outside. The snow-draped expanse of the Hartford estate lay beneath an almost crystalline blue sky, offering a stunning vista that practically screamed ‘good morning’.

Unfortunately, the sun’s high position in the sky screamed ‘noon’ instead.

Seems like she’d overslept.

A subtle smile played on Rosa’s lips. Lately, she had slept like a baby on more than one occasion.

Her smile waned as she realized she had missed the first morning meal with the others since returning to Freybrook. She had been looking forward to the chef’s mutton stew and walnut scones.

They were to die for.

It was surprising that no one had come to wake her. Was this some sort of divine punishment, perhaps? If so, it seemed unduly harsh, even for divinity.

She swung her legs over the side of the bed, her gaze momentarily dropping to the floorboards beneath her bare feet. For a fleeting moment, she half-expected shadows from under the bed clamoring at her ankles and muttering in a cacophony of tortured voices, but there was nothing of the sort.

She glanced around the room. It was tranquil. Calm. Normal.

Today promised to be a good day.

Lifting her arm, she brushed her fingers against the strange violet gem pulsating steadily near where her heart should be, concealed beneath her nightshirt. While it still felt weird to have the ‘Heartstone’, as Scarlett called it, be a part of her, it had become a peculiar source of comfort. Even if she had the choice to throw it away now without any consequences, she wasn’t sure she would.

Rising from the bed, she made her way to the wardrobe and selected a velvet tunic and a simple set of grey trousers, casually moving over to the dressing table and laying them over the back of the chair here. She refreshed herself with a damp cloth, then dressed.

With her preparations complete, she examined her reflection in the mirror. Her brown locks, disheveled from sleep, partially hid the faint freckles on her face. Picking up a comb, she quickly smoothed the tangles, restoring some semblance of order.

After that, she offered a smile at her reflection, and it responded in kind. Just as a mirror was supposed to do. Nothing more.

Would she ever get tired of that?

With a light bounce in her step, Rosa fetched the purple mantle Scarlett had given her—dubbed ‘Harmony’s Veil’ by the deceptively dramatic noblewoman—from a hook on the wall and wrapped it around her shoulders. It fit like a glove, seeming to encourage her to spark into song then and there.

Sure, it might look a tad extravagant for a casual mansion stroll, but that was all the more a reason to flaunt its splendor.

Turning on the spot, she headed to the door, pausing to look at the two wooden instruments leaning against the wall beside it. One, weathered and plain, had been her only constant companion for years. The other, fresh and adorned with intricate carvings along its sides, held an air of novelty. Each possessed its unique charm.

After a moment of contemplation, she picked up the new klert, placing it within the folds of her snazzy new mantle, where it promptly disappeared to Scarlett-knows-where.

Rosa then stepped outside, pace steady as she began moving through the mansion’s hallways. Through the windows, she saw a group of men in warm clothing who seemed in the process of tearing up parts of the stonework in the courtyard.

Right. She recalled Scarlett mentioning something a while back about courtyard renovations due to…well, various ‘dragon’ and ‘cat’-related incidents.

Rosa couldn’t help but chuckle at the absurdity of it all.

A sanguine echo of her own voice resounded in her mind. Take care not to let that mirth go to your head, Rosalina dearest, it warned. It would be a shame if this newfound ‘calm’ of yours were to abruptly end.

The sinister remark didn’t stop Rosa in her step as she continued her stroll. “Don’t you worry about little old me,” she said in response, her smile growing slightly more pointed. “Since I know you love it so when I smile, I’ll make sure to do it lots and lots for you to see. Just stay tight and snug in that comfortable hoosegow Red’s set up for you, and you’ll be more than golden.”

Before Anguish could reply, Rosa cut off the demon’s connection to the outside world with but a smirk and a flicker of mental effort. It had become a satisfying routine, asserting her dominance over the Vile like that.

She savored that feeling far too much, to be honest. It had even gotten to the point where she sometimes let Anguish come out, only so that she could rub this new power of hers in the demon’s face.

Was it bad? Perhaps. It sounded maybe a touch hubristic, reminiscent of the overconfident characters in the ballads she sang, those who eventually fell prey to the cunning wiles of some dark entity.

Now she understood what that was all about.

At this early stage, though, she could indulge in this small luxury, right? Probably. Most likely. What was the worst that could happen? Aside from another of her mistakes costing the lives of those around her, of course.

Her smile dimmed as her mind unintentionally drifted towards those decidedly more somber moments of her past.

Happy as she was with this new hierarchy between her and Anguish, the situation remained a bit of a mixed bag. In the end, she would have preferred if Anguish hadn’t remained within her at all, or at the very least wasn’t talking. But she couldn’t exactly complain about that. The responsibility for this situation was hers alone, and she’d already come to terms with much more than that back in the citadel.

Her reflections were interrupted by nearby voices. Seconds later, Allyssa and Shin rounded the corner ahead, spotting her.

“Oh, Rosa, so it was you,” Allyssa greeted with a smile.

Next to her, Shin nodded. “It’s a bit late, but good morning.”

“Why, to think I would stumble upon my most favoritest Shielders during my daily jaunt — what a blessed day indeed,” Rosa said. “Salutations, good mornings, and good days en masse to you as well.”

Allyssa leaned to the side, peering past Rosa as if expecting someone else, then looked back at her with a querying look. “Who were you speaking with earlier? I thought I heard your voice just now.”

Almost by reflex, Rosa offered the girl a disarming smile. “Oh, you know, just the odd ghost or two. Every old mansion has to meet its quota, and I’ve noted this one does that several times over. The bright side is that you never get lonely.”

Allyssa’s skepticism at her response showed, and after a brief exchange of glances with Shin, she nodded. “Alright…”

A touch of awkwardness found its way into Rosa’s smile as she realized what she’d done.

She studied the pair for a moment. They already knew, yet here she was, still coming up with excuses.

“Sorry,” she said, shaking her head with a soft sigh. “Force of habit. Truth is, I was exchanging a few choice words with the passenger I’ve got tucked away up here.” She tapped a finger to the side of her head.

“Oh.” Allyssa paused, sharing yet another look with Shin. “Does it… talk to you often?” she asked after a brief silence.

Seeing that, it was all but impossible for Rosa not to reveal a genuine smile.

She hadn’t spoken much about Anguish and all that since leaving Crowcairn, and Scarlett likely hadn’t filled the others in on all the details. They had to be curious—and probably worried—but despite that, they hadn’t badgered her about it.

They were good kids — kind yet a tad naive. How could she not like them?

Rosa shrugged, aiming to ease Allyssa’s concerns. “I like to bully it on occasion, but that’s all.”

The girl looked confused, a slight frown on her brow. “Bully? Isn’t it a…you know…” Her voice faded, her gaze moving around cautiously.

“Yes, it is,” Rosa replied with a crafty smirk. “That’s what makes it so fun.”

Allyssa appeared unsure how to respond to that.

“I think I get it,” Shin said.

Allyssa shot him a look of disbelief like he was a madman, and a peal of laughter escaped Rosa.

“So, I assume everybody’s already had their fill?” She asked, brushing away a nonexistent tear. “Looks like I missed out on our first little get-together after returning to Freybrook. How come no one bothered to wake me?”

“Scarlett thought it was best to let you rest,” Allyssa explained, a hint of concern remaining in her tone as she turned back to Rosa.

Both Rosa’s eyebrows rose. “Oh, really? You sure it wasn’t an impostor then? It sounds uncharacteristically considerate of her.”

Or devilish, depending on one’s viewpoint.

“She also mentioned regretting not appreciating the peace and quiet we had while you were away in Bridgespell.”

Rosa snorted. “Okay, that does sound like her.”

“I, for one, missed you while you were gone,” Allyssa said.

“That’s because you don’t have a heart encased in ice and woven out of barbed thorns. You’re all sweetness.” Rosa glanced down the hallway that the pair of Shielders had come from. “So, where are you two lovebirds off to?”

The shadow of concern immediately left Allyssa’s face as Rosa was met instead by a small glare, but Shin answered her question with an unflappable expression. “We’re heading down to the cellar. I lost a bet with Allyssa, so she’s going to use me as her test subject for a new potion she learned about while we were in Bridgespell.”

“Wha—” Allyssa punched him on the arm. “You’re not my test subject. It’s perfectly safe. I just have a hard time stomaching the taste, so I need you to confirm the effects.”

“That’s what is colloquially referred to as a ‘test subject’,” Shin pointed out.

“Shut up, you.”

Shin gave her a long look. “I think it says something about your alchemy that you can’t stomach the taste of your own brews while expecting others to do it for you.”

“Well, that’s all you’re good for,” Allyssa said with a huff, arms crossed.

“Ah, young love~” Rosa mused, watching their interaction.

“Oi, stop that.” Allyssa shot her another glare, though there was definitely a noticeable flush to her cheeks.

Rosa grinned, shifting her attention to Shin. “My sympathies for your upcoming ordeal, but at least your sacrifice will be for a great cause. Maybe. A middling cause, at worst, and people have died for less. Now, spill the veritable beans to your big sis Rosa here — what was this bet of yours about?”

Before he could answer, Allyssa quickly stepped in, clamping her hands over his mouth.

“Don’t you dare!” she warned.

Sensing an air of intrigue develop, Rosa narrowed her eyes.

Shin offered her a resigned look as Allyssa began pulling him away down the corridor. “We’re off. See you later. I think there should still be some leftover for you from earlier, so go check that out.”

Rosa waved them off with a playful salute, chuckling to herself. Her eyes followed them until they were out of sight.

Seemed like she might need to do a bit of digging later on. She couldn’t have the young ones keeping secrets from her, could she? As their elder, it was only right that she ensured they weren’t embroiled in anything too outlandish or getting caught in some duplicitous scheme. Obviously, her intentions were nothing but pure.

Whistling a little tune, she sauntered her way down the decidedly non-haunted hall, steering her nose towards the kitchen. Soon enough, she arrived at her destination, and true to Allyssa’s words, a more than delectable meal had been left for her.

Ten minutes later, after having relished in the stew and in the middle of savoring a delightful scone, she wandered through the mansion once more, exchanging pleasantries with the staff she hadn’t seen for a couple of weeks and pondering where to venture next.

Scarlett hadn’t said anything about any plans for the day, so Rosa assumed she was free to indulge in whatever whim struck her fancy.

Typically, that meant playing around with her klert and mingling with the mansion’s residents. The prospect of spending her day thus was rather appealing. Lately, she had discovered that even the most humdrum of activities carried an extra dose of enjoyment that hadn’t been there before, and she was more than excited to savor that fact.

Before diving into any of that, however, perhaps she’d make a quick detour to Scarlett’s lair. Just to double-check that there really wasn’t anything that the curmudgeonly old noblewoman wanted from her.

In no time, Rosa found herself standing before the dark mahogany door guarding Scarlett’s office. It looked utterly nondescript, normal, and yet special all the same.

She raised her hand to rap on the door.

“Who is it?” came the indifferent voice from within.

“I’m hurt,” Rosa replied. “Can’t you recognize me by the distinct melody of my fingers against the wood?”

There was a brief silence before an answer came. “You may enter.”

Pushing the door open, Rosa stepped into the most conventional office she would ever lay eyes upon, devoid of any haunting sights or blood-filled vistas. And at the end of the room, behind a desk strewn with documents, sat the most unconventional woman she would ever lay her eyes upon.

Scarlett looked up from her papers, her expression slightly furrowed. “Did you need something, Miss Hale?”

Rosa smirked. “Nope, just checking in to see if you missed me.”

The woman leveled a flat look at her that would have impressed even the most stoic of boulders. “Yes. Inconceivably so,” she said in a monotone voice.

“Of course you did! I can barely endure not catching my own reflection every waking moment myself. I can scarcely imagine the struggle for everyone else.” Rosa cleared her throat, taking on a more serious demeanour. “But have no fear, my dolorous Lady, for now I am here.” She winked. “I’m sure my rhymes will add a splash of sunshine to your day.”

Scarlett silently watched her for several seconds, then turned back to whatever documents she was reading. “I often question my sanity when I find myself entertaining your persiflage, Miss Hale. I am sure it is only a matter of time before I lose my mind, if I have not already. Now, state your business.”

“Oh, breaking out the fancy words, are we?” Rosa remarked. “My ‘persiflage’ is honored.”

“You are hardly one to speak,” Scarlett replied without looking up. “‘Dolorous’? Truly? If there is one thing about you that I will never comprehend, it is where you found the time to learn such vocabulary while living as a common traveling minstrel.”

“You’d be surprised what you pick up when you hang around enough taverns, Red.”

“I am sure. Now, you still have not answered my question. Was there a particular reason for your visit?”

“Would you believe me if I told you I really just wanted to check if you missed me?” Rosa asked.

Scarlett glanced up from her papers, taking a moment to appraise her before looking down again. “If so, your concern was unnecessary. I did not miss you.”

Rosa allowed herself a short laugh as she strolled over to the bookshelves along the walls, eyeing the titles with a touch of nostalgia. “Good to know. Ah, by the by, did you have any plans for us today, or am I a free woman?”

“There are matters I must address this afternoon and evening, so no, there is nothing of importance,” Scarlett informed her. “You are free to spend your time as you wish, provided it does not involve anything that might provoke me into throwing you out of a window. Tomorrow, however, we are likely heading to Freymeadow.”

“Oh…” Rosa stopped, her finger touching the spine of a book, and she turned to look at Scarlett. “…Alright.”

Returning to that place would probably feel…strange.

She turned back to the shelf, searching for something intriguing that she hadn’t already read. Since she didn’t have anything better to do, she might as well start the day by losing herself in some light reading.

“Mind if I stay around for a while?” she asked Scarlett, glancing over at the woman.

Scarlett gestured indifferently. “Help yourself. It would not be the first time.”

With a soft smile, Rosa soon found a book with a curious enough title and plucked it from the shelf, making her way to the corner of the room where a cozy chair and small table stood. She laid her new mantle over the armrest, settled down, and began reading.

Like that, the minutes ticked by, with both Rosa and Scarlett focusing on their own pursuits. Occasionally, Rosa would lift her eyes to watch Scarlett, whose expression remained unwavering in its seriousness, no matter what.

At times, she wondered if the woman’s most guarded secret wasn’t that she actually suffered from a serious case of facial paralysis. It would explain why she never laughed at Rosa’s jokes.

Eventually, at one of the moments when Rosa was studying her, Scarlett paused in her work and met Rosa’s gaze with a slightly raised eyebrow. “I am beginning to question if you are making any progress in that book, Miss Hale, given your frequent distractions.”

“Can you blame me?” Rosa asked, feeling no shame at all about being caught. “You’re simply too brooding and mysterious!”

“I can indeed blame you. In fact, that is precisely what I am doing at this very moment.”

Rosa pouted. “You grouch.”

“Perhaps,” Scarlett conceded. The noblewoman fell silent for a brief moment, regarding Rosa thoughtfully. “…Are you certain that there is nothing that you wish to discuss? To me, it would seem as if you expected more from this visit. If there is something on your mind, I can spare the time.”

Meeting her eyes, Rosa let her book rest gently on her lap. “I can’t speak for you, but I’m satisfied as is. Sometimes, it’s nice to have a moment where nothing much happens. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“There are plenty of times where very little happens at this mansion,” Scarlett said.

Rosa gave a slight click of her tongue. “You know what I mean.”

“I do not.”

“Okay, then you don’t know what I mean.”

“…That is what I said, yes.”

Rosa chuckled. “I’m glad we can agree, then.”

And with that, she picked up her book again and returned to reading it, taking comfort in having the final word.

Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw Scarlett watching her for several more seconds before finally resuming her paperwork.

“I am pleased to see that the day has finally come where you have the peace to smile while being honest with yourself, Rosa,” the woman’s voice echoed across the room.

The smile that had found its way back to Rosa’s face broadened slightly at the edges.

So was she.