AN: So, this is my first try at writing fanfiction though I have been reading GG fanfiction for quite a while now. Thus, I'd very much appreciate constructive criticism :). I can ensure everyone that this will be a C/B story although the first two chapters will only feature Blair. But I hope you'll bear with me (and Blair).
Much love to my beta Robin for her encouragement and for pointing out that "grey" is apparently my favorite adjective.
Disclaimer: I don't own GG or the title of this story (which I borrowed from a translation of a Pedro Salinas poem)
I. White Darkness
May 1799, Northern England
Blair awoke with a jolt from a light slumber. A sharp pain shot through the fairly fresh scar on her stomach, causing her to curse the terrible road conditions under her breath. Although the surgery, or butchering, as Blair liked to think of it, had been only two weeks ago, and even though Blair was in no condition for traveling, she had been most eager to leave. The fog of sleepy disorientation cleared when she took in her surroundings and remembered where she was. The swaying movements, which had lulled her to sleep not too long ago, belonged to a slowly rotting post carriage. Usually, Blair would have tried to avoid them at all costs for fear of meeting commoners or runaway couples. In fact, one of these forlorn couples was sitting across from her, probably on their way to Scotland to elope. She pitied and envied them at the same time. Most of all, she pitied their naivety. They would soon realize that love would not feed them or buy clothing for their future litter of children. If the girl survived the ordeal of childbearing at all, she would before long resent her husband for making her life miserable. Still, Blair couldn't help but envy their obvious affection for each other. How the man offered his coat to his beloved because she was shivering, and how the girl took her beau's hand ever so tenderly. Blair felt bile rising in her throat at the scene and decided that the landscape outside was far more pleasurable to look at despite its grim harshness.
Although Blair was grateful to Lily for finding her a suitable governess position so quickly and discreetly, she would have preferred the soothing nature and atmosphere of the South. Up here, everything seemed to be less colorful. Even the sun appeared to be drained of its warmth. This bleakness seemed to increase with every mile the carriage drew closer to the city. Blair had heard that Oldham was on its way to becoming the cotton metropolis of the world; and, indeed, every single person on this bumpy, potholed road seemed to be eager to reach the black, smoky pit of chimneys and concrete, looming on the horizon.
Blair suspected that Lily had secured a position for her in this Moloch because she might have heard from her private detective that Serena was here. Neither Blair nor Lily had heard from her ever since she ran away from her parents' estate two month ago in the dark of the night after a disagreement with her mother. At first Blair had been devastated and disappointed that her friend hadn't confided in her, but deep in her heart she knew that Serena would be much happier living in sin than being chained to an old, haggard leech in marriage. But despite what they both may have believed then, Blair knew now that even a consensual union could end in disaster and that a trusted person could fail you. Now, Blair could only try and make the best of a future that had once looked so promising but was now no brighter than a coal mine.
As the carriage reached its destination in front of a shabby looking inn, Blair was suddenly overcome with fear of her new life. Not only did she not know whether her new employers were respectable, she also did not know how to teach bratty, spoiled children. She had been such a child herself and thus knew that this position would be a living hell for her. Lily had only been able to secure her this employment because of her good breeding and broad education, and not due to her vast experience with teaching. Nevertheless, Blair prided herself in possessing all the accomplishments of a proper young genteel miss. Her mother and father had ensured that she received the best education and tutors available, thus making her more desirable for future suitors and their fastidious mothers. At the thought of her parents and their role in her current predicament, heavy tears rose to her eyes. Blair blinked heavily, willing herself not to cry in front of the lovesick couple in the seat across from her. She doubted that they even noticed her, but she did not want to be a weak, little girl. Besides, it would not do to appear red-eyed and blotchy in front of a new employer on the first day of work.
Getting out of the carriage, fresh pain surged through her wound. She shouldn't have worn a corset yet, as per doctor's order, but Blair did not see how she could look decent without it. Her mother had made her wear her first corset at age ten and now was certainly not the time to break with tradition. Blair knew that Serena would not have hesitated to wear one of those fashionable French corset-less gowns, but Blair wasn't Serena, and she didn't think that her new employers would appreciate a progressive governess. Despite living in the North, where the genteel and traditional life of the South was frowned upon, she knew that the family lived off the property that the father had inherited from a distinct uncle in the South. She shuddered at the thought that most of the wealthy men in the area were tradesmen, running cotton mills.
While the coachman unloaded Blair's luggage, she let her gaze sweep over the filthy and grim square. She could not help but compare the worn-down houses and muddy streets to the blooming and lush town plazas of the South. Again, tears sprung up in her eyes, but she forced herself to stay calm. She noticed a group of drunken, vile men in front of the inn. One of them leered at her unabashedly. Despite feeling exposed and uncomfortable, Blair stared back at him until he averted his gaze. Triumphantly, she smiled to herself while searching the streets for any sign of a lavish carriage. However, she saw nothing of the like, not even a waiting maid. Blair sighed angrily, marching over to the party of inebriated men to inquire after a carriage that she could hire.
"Excuse me, Sir", Blair addressed one with a disgusted look. The man turned to grin at her with porous, yellow teeth. "Do you happen to know where I can find a carriage to take me to Twelve Oaks Manor?"
"Just inquire inside The Lion, lass," he said, pointing to the door behind him.
"Thank you, Sir," Blair replied with a fake smile. "Would you be so kind as to watch my luggage while I'm inside? I'll pay you for it."
"No need, Miss. I'll do it for free." He gave her another crooked smile.
Blair nodded and opened the door to the inn. An uncomfortable sense of foreboding overcame her and she turned around to the man hesitatingly. He returned her gaze and continued to grin while taking another sip from his foul-smelling bottle. For a moment Blair considered carrying her luggage inside, but knew that it was impossible due to her condition. The doctor had strictly forbidden her to lift heavy things for fear of ripping open her wound, and Blair was sure that a doctor in this part of the country was as rare as soap.
Taking a final look at her trunks, Blair stepped into the inn. She was hit with an odor that smelled even worse than the men outside the door. Blair retrieved an embroidered handkerchief from her money purse to cover her nose, but it couldn't mask the thick stench of alcohol, sweat and vomit. The few patrons sitting at the bar didn't seem to mind the stink or that a young lady hat just entered the establishment. However, the bartender took notice of her and stared at her expectantly. Blair thought he must have lived and worked his whole life in this godforsaken place, considering the deep wrinkles that marred his leathery and greyish-tinged skin.
"Excuse me, Sir, I'm in need of a carriage to take me to Twelve Oaks Manor. Can you help me find one?" Blair asked with a determined voice.
The old man behind the counter regarded her silently for a couple of minutes, and Blair grew impatient. Just as she wanted to start over again, thinking that he might not have heard her, he answered with a heavy Manchester accent, "Twelve Oaks Manor, ey? What business do you have there?"
"Not that it is any of your concern, Sir," Blair said indignantly, "but I am the new governess."
"The new governess?" He started laughing warmly. "Well, child, I hope you'll last longer than the others."
"The others?" Blair asked, forcing herself to ignore the insult of being called a child.
"Oh yes, you aren't the first governess up there, you know. My wife says that the lady of the house is a real dragon. And there has been talk of inappropriate relationships with the Master," he chuckled.
Blair pulled herself up to her full height. "I can assure you that I have no intention of romancing the Master."
The old man chuckled again and let his gaze linger on her dainty form. "You are very beautiful, if you don't mind me sayin', Miss, and the old hag will be jealous of you just for that. I think you'll be back down here in no time," he said with a hint of pity in his voice.
"Do you have a carriage for me or not, Sir?" Blair huffed.
The bartender gave her an appreciative smile and whistled once. Immediately, a small and sickly-looking boy, no older than fourteen, appeared from a side door that Blair hadn't noticed before.
"Thomas, get the horses ready, and take this young miss up to the Twelve Oaks Manor before it gets dark," the old man said.
Thomas looked at Blair and blushed. Quickly, he averted his gaze and nodded shyly, leaving the room in a hurry.
"Don't mind him, Miss. He is a good boy, though a little slow," the bartender told Blair apologetically. "He will wait for you at the front door."
"Thank you most kindly, Sir," Blair said while preparing to leave.
Blair turned to face the bartender again, tapping her foot impatiently.
"If you don't like it up there, I'd be happy to give you a job here. My wife would be very happy to get such a pretty girl as you. You could make a lot of money, I'm tellin' you. We got a lot of rich men visitin'," he said secretively, pointing to a door to his left labeled with "Gentlemen only."
Blair looked at him questioningly, until it dawned on her that she had walked right into a whore house. Her eyes widened and she shook her head emphatically. Quickly, she turned to leave but was struck with an idea.
"Sir, does a Serena van der Woodsen work here? She is tall, blonde, and gorgeous," Blair said, trying to indicate the height with her hands.
"Sorry, lass, but I can't tell you about the girls working here. We gave them our word," he said almost proudly.
Blair smiled at him sadly. "It was worth a try. Thank you, Sir."
As Blair finally stepped out of the small inn, it had already grown much darker, the dusty smoke aiding the process considerably. She noticed that the dirty men from before had disappeared and the streets were deadly empty and silent.
With a sudden shock, Blair registered that her whole luggage had disappeared as well. She closed her eyes as tears gathered behind her lids for the third time that day. She scolded herself for being so naïve as to trust drunken men in an unknown town. Blair took a deep breath to soothe her nerves before being able to reopen her eyes and face the prospect of arriving at her new employer's house without a stitch to wear. She had some money to buy a few new dresses, of course, but she would never be able to replace the rich silk gowns that she had rescued from her old home.
In that moment, Thomas drove up with a small cart and looked at her with concern. "Is everything all right, Miss?"
"My luggage was stolen," Blair stated without emotion.
"I'm sorry, Miss," Thomas said emphatically. "You need to be careful around here. I'll tell Arthur about it. Maybe he can find it for you," he rambled on, clearly not knowing what to do with a distressed female.
"Arthur?" Blair asked while climbing onto the cart.
"Yes, he owns The Lion. You just talked to him inside, Miss. He knows a great many people."
Blair didn't answer. She just stared ahead at the filthy road as Thomas drove the cart outside of the foggy town. Blair was jolted from her thoughts when the wheels hit a large stone and another wave of stinging pain rolled through her. Blair clutched her belly tightly and bit on her bottom lip to keep from crying out. After a few agonizing moments had passed, Blair let out a small breath, glad that Thomas hadn't noticed her discomfort due to the semidarkness enveloping them. However, she realized that the cart was climbing a steep hill, causing the horse to wheeze loudly.
"We are almost there, Miss," Thomas said, nodding towards a giant shadow in the distance. As they drew nearer, Blair could see that the house had been newly built from white stones, making it look as if covered in snow and ice. However, despite its poetic name, no oaks were to be seen on the grounds.
"Thomas, tell me, is the entire house built from marble?" Blair asked in awe.
"Aye, Miss. The Mistress only wanted the best and after they came into money, they could easily afford it. But no one down in the town likes it. Up here in the north, Miss, people don't care about all that fancy things; they care about having enough food for their children."
Blair wondered what Thomas would think of her if he knew that, just a month ago, she had been almost as rich and ostentatious.
The cart came to a halt in front of the lavish entrance and Blair stared at it with reverence. The marble pillars adorning the terrace reflected the moonlight with an icy glow. Even the light from the few lanterns at the door was sucked into this abyss of snowy cold perfection. All the curtains were drawn, emitting not the slightest sliver of light from the inside. Blair began to fear that everyone had already retired to bed when the front door opened and a tall man stepped out unto the white terrace.
"This must be Miss Waldorf," the main said in a gruff but pleasant voice, now advancing towards her.
As he came closer, Blair could make out his boyish handsome features. She was sure that he was no older than thirty, and the slight wrinkles around his eyes spoke of a man who was no stranger to joviality. In the black gloominess, Blair couldn't make out the shade of his eyes or hair, but noticed that his eyes glimmered playfully as he took her in. Still, since he was dressed smartly and fashionably, she decided that he would be likeable enough as a Master. She was pleased that he offered his hand to assist her descent from the cart and Blair accepted his help gratefully.
"Thank you …. Lord Baizen?" Blair addressed him hesitantly, not knowing if he was indeed the Master of the house.
"Please call me Mr. Baizen, Miss Waldorf. Or if you are so inclined, call me Carter," he said with a small laugh. "Only my wife prefers to be addressed by our new title. She is very proud that way."
"Well, I'm very pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Baizen," Blair said with a curtsey.
"So am I," he said, a beaming smile stretching his lips. "I insisted on waiting up for you, to receive you properly. But you must excuse my wife not being here, Miss Waldorf. She has a delicate constitution and will meet with you first thing in the morning."
"Of course," Blair replied understandingly. If she was honest, she was more than relieved that she had the chance to gather her strength before coming face to face with the 'dragon.'
"You will also meet our two girls tomorrow," he added. "They are very excited to meet their new governess."
Mr. Baizen finally looked towards the cart, but raised his eyebrows in question when he found nothing there but Thomas. "I would applaud you for traveling light, Miss Waldorf, but no luggage at all seems a little odd for a young, beautiful miss, such as yourself."
Blair chose to ignore the obvious compliment. "It was stolen in town while I was searching for a carriage to take me up here," she tried to reply without sounding bitter.
"Those scoundrels!" he exclaimed exasperatedly, anger flashing in his eyes. "I apologize that your first encounter with the North should have been this unfortunate, Miss Waldorf. As you will learn soon, most people up here are still heathens without an inch of good breeding or civility!"
Blair was embarrassed that Thomas, who had been nothing but kind to her, was within earshot to hear Mr. Baizen's rant. Her gaze swept to him sitting on the cart, his face stony, betraying no emotions.
"Mr. Baizen," she said soothingly, putting her hand on his arm, "I'm sure some of my clothes can be recovered; Thomas here has already offered his help. And I can always buy some new dresses, if necessary."
Blair saw from the corner of her eyes that Thomas's face had relaxed considerably; however, Mr. Baizen's expression seemed to have grown more enraged and for a moment Blair felt a flash of fear pulse through her. Yet, when his gaze settled back on her, the twinkle had returned and his features softened.
"Come now, Miss Waldorf, I will show you inside. I'm sure you must be tired from your journey," he said calmly.
Blair turned to the cart, reaching into her money purse to pay Thomas, but he just shook his head. "No, Miss, no money among friends." He smiled at her timidly and drove off into the night, leaving her with a feeling of loneliness once more.
Suddenly, she felt Mr. Baizen's hand at the small of her back, guiding her towards the front entrance of the mansion. Although inappropriate, Blair tried to shrug his gesture off as mere amicability. She had heard that the rules of propriety were not as strict in the North, and she didn't want to cause a scene because of a misunderstanding.
As she crossed the threshold to the house, Blair realized that there was no turning back. She was a servant now that had to abide to her employers' wishes, even if it pained her to admit it.
"Welcome to our humble home," Mr. Baizen said, gesturing towards the entrance hall. It was built from white marble, just as the outer façade, glittering menacingly even in the light of the few candles that lined the grand staircase. Blair noticed with irritation that her arrival clearly hadn't been important enough to light the grand crystal chandelier gleaming below the high ceiling.
"You can look at everything tomorrow, but I'll show you to your room now. Since I sent the servants to bed earlier, you will have to make do with me," he said, winking at her as if they shared a dirty secret.
"That is quite all right, Mr. Baizen. Lead the way," Blair said politely, trying to put some distance between them. Mr. Baizen, however, didn't move his hand from her back and nudged her towards the staircase. Blair hesitantly ascended the stone stairs, listening to the clicking of her heeled shoes reverberating through the silent hall.
Arriving on the landing of the top floor, Blair felt Mr. Baizen guide her into a long, carpeted hallway, illuminated by a single candle flickering on a small side-table. Finally, they reached a wooden double wing door at the end of the hallway. Mr. Baizen smiled down at her and pushed down the brass handle to open the door. He gestured for her to step in first. Blair took a cautious step inside and was momentarily rendered breathless. Even in her old house, she never had had a beautiful room such as this. The walls were decorated with lavish silken tapestry in an exotic red hue. At the wall to her right, a grand blaze was crackling in a glorious black marble fireplace; and another door led to, as Blair surmised, a private dressing room. The spacious mahogany four poster bed, large enough to hold three people, was covered with lush green silk bedding and more pillows than Blair could count. The crème carpet seemed soft as feathers and almost as comfortable to lie on as the bed. A plate with ripe, burgundy red grapes twinkled at her from an elegant dresser. The four wall-to-ceiling windows were draped with red luxurious velvet curtains that Blair itched to touch. She was sure that in the morning she would have a great view of the garden from these windows. It was almost as if she was back home in Hampshire, and the last year had never happened.
Blair turned to her companion and gave him a radiant smile. "I believe this will do very well, Mr. Baizen."
He laughed and without warning took one of Blair's hands in his and brought it to his mouth to kiss it. Blair wanted to draw back, but he held her fingers with an iron grip, refusing to let go.
"Miss Waldorf, I'm sure you will find much pleasure here," he said with a smirk. "If you need anything, don't hesitate to knock on my door. My private rooms are right across the hall."
He finally released her hand and Blair smiled tightly. "I'm very tired, Mr. Baizen. I bid you Goodnight," she said with a steely voice.
His face fell momentarily, but to Blair's relief he took a few steps back. "Don't fret, Miss Waldorf, I am sure we can fix your dire need for clothing." To emphasize his point, he let his gaze glide over her body leisurely.
Blair crossed her arms protectively over her bosom and gave him a withering glare. "I said, Goodnight, Mr. Baizen."
He chuckled again and closed the door behind him. Blair let out a deep breath and moved to lock the door. She realized with horror that the key was missing. Quickly, she looked around the room to find something to bolt the door with. Unfortunately, all the wardrobes were made of heavy mahogany wood and thus too heavy for her to move alone. At last, she spotted a wooden chair next to the bed, which she wedged under the door's brass handle.
Blair studied her construction and immediately felt stupid. Maybe Mr. Baizen was just teasing her after all, and she was behaving like a prudish, little school girl. After all, he was nothing more than a rich gentleman, trying to charm her into his bed. Still, she decided to leave the chair in its place for tonight and ask Mrs. Baizen for the key tomorrow.
Blair sighed and started to remove her straw bonnet, heavy traveling cloak and dress. It was the last silk dress she still owned and it was not the most sensible one. She fidgeted with the strings of her corset, groaning in frustration. She was still not entirely used to undressing and dressing herself, but she knew she could not expect to have a maid attend to her here. Wincing as she undid her corset, she suddenly felt fresh pain pinch her stomach. Dressed only in her white cotton chemise and knickers, she entered the door to the adjoining dressing room. Thankfully, several candles had been lit, so that she could wash her wound. As she removed her shift, she noticed that it was inflamed and some blood had seeped out, leaving a brownish crust along the still visible stitches. With a towel and some water she tried to clean herself and alleviate the sharp stinging sensation. She attempted to touch her sore stomach gently, but drew her hand back as if burned, afraid of the agony. Dizziness overcame her, causing her to sit down on the cold, glittering floor. She stared at her marred and bruised body, not knowing if the hurt would ever subside or if she would ever be beautiful again.
After a few fortifying breaths, she found the strength to stand up again, comb out her curls, and redress in her chemise. Carefully, she walked back to bedroom, throwing a cautious glance towards the door. Before climbing under the feathery soft covers, which had as Blair suspected surely been imported from France, she drew back the heavy drapes from the window, hoping to catch a peek at the moonlit garden. However, all she saw were the ominous remnants of a brick building, looming in the night like an ancient stone cross. She stared at it for several minutes, trying to make out the structure. Yet, her tired eyes refused to see more than blurry shapes. Finally, she squeezed her eyes close and let the velvet curtain fall from her hands, covering the gloomy scene until the next morning.
As soon as Blair had climbed into her new bed, she fell into an uneasy slumber. She awoke several times, hearing the wind blow through the cracks in the windows. At one time she even imagined hearing something scraping the door, but when she opened her eyes she was relieved to see the chair in its old place, still guarding the entry to her bedroom.