Duke Everlue squinted as he inspected the tip of his finger industrially. He pursed his lips and rubbed his index finger and thumb together, then turned to the two maids who were standing obediently by, waiting for the verdict of his inspection.
"Acceptable," Everlue decreed, looking around the spotless ballroom. Virgo and Lucy had worked even harder these last two days, trying to get Daybreak Castle in top shape for the King and Queen's arrival. Every square inch of the castle, even Everlue's office - although Virgo had been the one to clean it - was polished until it shone. The best ingredients were purchased for the banquet. Withering summer flora was replaced with hardier autumn flowers, chrysanthemums and tulips and daffodils, plants that could withstand frost on the ground and chill in the air. Thick, bold bunches of magnolia blossoms were shipped in from an orchard in honor of the royal couple, placed in vases around the castle. Everything was pristine.
Fried and Mirajane were scheduled to arrive within the next two days. Duke Everlue was departing that afternoon for standard tax collecting around the town, and would be back tomorrow.
"I want everything to remain perfect until my return," he told his maids. "The royal couple must be impressed. I want to be in favor of them, especially the queen if you know what I mean."
Virgo nodded. These orders, except the detail about Queen Mirajane, were quite standard. Tax collecting was every three months in Shirotsume. Those who couldn't pay gave up some possession of their duke's choosing: a priceless family heirloom, a wagon, a horse. Occasionally even their home. If there was nothing left to give, then they were arrested and placed in prison to work. At least in prison they got work, although they were paid only in meals. It was more than the citizens on the streets were privileged.
Beside her, Miss Lucy's fists were clenched in her dress. No matter what she said or how she acted, Virgo got the feeling that Lucille Dragneel did not particularly care for her master, that she had an ulterior motive for doing this job. Master Everlue had confided in her that he suspected the same, and ordered her to keep a close eye on the new recruit. "If she's anything like her mother, she's trouble. Lucille," he had scoffed, "is that the best she can come up with?"
Virgo wasn't certain what he'd been talking about, but it was not her place to ask. Had he known Miss Lucy's mother? Perhaps that was why he had taken her under his roof. If this was so, and he had not trusted Miss Lucy's mother, then why allow her work? It was above Virgo's understanding.
"Lucille, you're dismissed," Everlue said, shooing the blonde away. "I have no more work for you to do."
Lucy bowed politely and clicked away. Virgo stood in attention, waiting for her next orders. She could sense that Lucy was still present, hovering behind a pillar, eavesdropping. She supposed that she should alert Master Everlue, but didn't see the point. She already knew what Master Everlue was going to say to her.
He dug around in his pocket, pulled out a keyring overloaded with keys - big ones, small ones, brass ones, silver ones, even a golden one - and handed it to her. "You know the drill," he said. "Keep this little beauty safe at all costs, don't open the closet in my office."
"Yes, master," Virgo uttered. She grabbed his suitcases and followed him out to the indigo carriage, pulled by a white stallion and embellished in gold with the Daybreak insignia. She hoisted his luggage into the back and nodded politely at the coachmen, who winked and tipped his hat at her.
Everlue wiggled his way into the carriage, plopping down on the expensive velvet-upholstered seat with a comfortable sigh. "I'll be back tomorrow. Be a good little maiden and don't get into any trouble, you hear?"
"Alright, man, what's the hold up? Let's get a move on, I got taxes to collect!"
The coachman stiffly snapped the reigns and the stallion took off down the street at a gallop. Virgo closed the delicate wrought iron gate and turned on her heel in her customary manner, clicking down the walk way. Lucy was waiting for her in the parlor, wringing her hands anxiously.
"So it's just the two of us, huh, Virgo?" the blonde said cordially, flashing Virgo a disarming smile.
"It is just the two of us until Master Everlue returns on the morrow," Virgo replied. She knew she was supposed to like Lucy, since the other maid had said they were friends. Virgo didn't think she'd ever had a friend, unless it was before her accident. Master Everlue certainly wasn't her friend. She didn't like Master Everlue, although she couldn't bring herself to dislike him either.
But was Miss Lucy her friend? She was a good deal kinder than Master Everlue, but that could have been an act. Miss Lucy was deceiving her, lying to her about something, or so Master Everlue implied. Friends, as far as Virgo knew, weren't deceptive to one another.
However, there was something about Lucille Dragneel that was almost comforting, something that Virgo couldn't quite comprehend. Something...familiar? Maybe. It could have just been all in her head.
"What do you want to do?" Lucy asked.
"What I usually do, I suppose," said Virgo. "Go to sleep."
Lucy raised her eyebrows. "Sleep? It's not even dark outside yet. Why don't we go do something fun, just the two of us?"
"Fun? We cannot abandon the castle; it is our duty to guard it."
"Fine, then we'll have fun in the castle. Have you ever gone exploring, Virgo?"
Virgo frowned. "Exploring? We clean the castle from top to bottom every day. I do not think that we will find any new treasure through exploring. You have only been here for a few days and you've seen nearly every square inch."
"Not quite," Lucy corrected. "I haven't seen Master Everlue's office."
"Yes, you have," Virgo insisted. "You bring him dinner. Besides, there is nothing utterly remarkable about Master Everlue's office. And it is his private area. We are not permitted to go there without his prior approval."
"Come on, Virgo, we're having fun, remember?"
Virgo noted the mischievous glint in Lucy's eye. It was her opinion that the other maid had more than just naïve, innocent fun in mind. "Miss Lucy, you were eavesdropping on my conversation with Master Everlue."
"What can I say?" Lucy shrugged. It would be foolish to deny it, since it was true, and Virgo's statement was just that: a statement, not a question. It was clear by her tone that she knew it to be fact. "I'm a curious soul."
"I am not."
"Come on, you can't tell me that you're not at least a little bit curious to see what Everlue's hiding from us?" Lucy said enticingly. "What he's hiding from you? He's never shown you what's in that closet, has he?"
"No," Virgo admitted.
"And you want to know what's in there, don't you?"
Virgo couldn't lie. "Yes."
"Well, you have the key! He doesn't have to know that we peaked," Lucy pointed out. She looped her arm through Virgo's and attempted to drag her down the corridor to Everlue's office, but Virgo remained rooted to the spot. Lucy frowned. "Virgo, it's no big deal. I'm sure it can't be too bad if he willingly gave you the key."
"He gives me the keys to all the rooms in the castle when he is away."
"See? It can't be any different from any other room. Tell you what, if we get caught you can just pin the blame on me."
"I though you said we wouldn't get caught?"
"I'm just speaking hypothetically," Lucy sighed.
"No, Miss Lucy, I am afraid I cannot disobey my master," Virgo said with a note of finality. Lucy wilted but relented as Virgo clicked to her room.
However, the seed of doubt began to root in Virgo's mind when she stepped into her room and suddenly realized that she hardly ever slept there.
She sat on her bed, and it was unfamiliar. She fingered the layer of the dust on her nightstand, knew that she would never allow it to become this filthy if she slept here. Realized that she had little to no memory outside of arriving for breakfast in the kitchens at dawn, outside of stepping into this room before sleep, no life but her chores around the castle. Virgo could not even recall getting out of her bed this morning.
It was a terrifying prospect.
Was it lingering amnesia? Virgo didn't think so, although logic told her that was the most reasonable explanation. Despite the fact, her mind was rejecting it, dismissing it and rapidly looking for other solutions. There was a mental block on everything; she could remember nothing, nothing except this badgering notion about Lucy.
Slowly, her hand crept to the key ring. The key, the small brass one that she hardly dared look at. Could it be that the reason Lucy's presence was so unsettling is that it made Virgo question Master Everlue's motives? That she was suddenly...curious?
Virgo shook her head and dropped the key. This was preposterous! She had served Master Everlue for nearly two years, and he had never given her reason to be suspicious of him.
Or...had he? He had never given her a reason to trust him; she had just blindly done so. He had never shown her any kindness or much respect, or ever tried to befriend her. And how often had Virgo been forced to turn beggars away, people who desperately needed the wealth that Everlue accumulated from them? Master Everlue certainly was in little need of it. How did he get all this money, anyway? Why did he go on so many "business trips"? And what about the Titania's investigation just a few months back, or the King and Queen's spontaneous visit?
The idea leaked slowly through the cracks the seed's roots had made in the foundation of denial Virgo had paved in her mind. What if Duke Everlue was not telling her the truth?
Virgo's fingers again brushed the brass key. All the answers could be in that secret, forbidden closet. And he would never even have to know she visited it. No one would be there as a witness.
Every fiber of Virgo's being revolted against the idea of disobeying the duke, but she stood and walked out of her room. She treaded down the hallway, into Everlue's office.
It was just as he left it. Neat and orderly, with half of his affairs laid out plainly on the desktop, half tucked away in various safes, drawers, books on the shelf with their middles cut out. Virgo froze in the threshold, eyeing the nearly invisible closet door. It was a hairline cut-out in the wall behind the desk, about four feet wide and six feet tall. Virgo had never questioned its existence before, not like she did now.
She shook her head and backed out. No, no, this was wrong! It was not her place as a maid to question the authority of her master!
But what if there was something important behind that door? It must have been awfully important, for Everlue not to trust even Virgo with its contents. Perhaps it was best if she did look at it. It wasn't like she was going to tell anyone. She would never betray the duke's trust.
Slowly, Virgo took a step forward. Then another. Then another. After ten steps, she was in front of the door. She pulled back the latch, revealed the keyhole. Lifted the key. Placed it inside. Turned. Click.
Virgo took a deep breath. She pushed the door open.
No words could adequately describe the horror of what she found in that closet. It was a room without lights or windows, but enough light shot forth from the doorway to see. There were seven skeletons lined up in handcuffs on the wall. The floor was covered in puddles of dried blood, brownish stains that smelled awful. Virgo reeled backward and stifled a scream with her fist. Even someone as apathetic as she was couldn't believe what she was seeing.
The worst part?
On each and every one of the skeletons draped a ragged maid's outfit.
Virgo felt like throwing up. Of course. These were her predecessors, the ones who had mysteriously disappeared. Everlue had chained them in the room, tormented them, let them die, kept their bodies as trophies. He was not just a scheming, corrupt duke. He was a murderer.
What would Everlue do to her if he knew she'd discovered this?
Oh, oh no. He could never know. If Virgo was to stay alive, he could never know she was here. Slowly she forced herself into composure, steeled herself as she turned to face the bodies. The key. Where was the key? She needed to lock this door and never open it again.
Virgo had dropped the key in her fright. It had fallen in a stain. She pinched it between her fingers, carefully avoiding the dried blood on the floor. Then she turned from the room, closed the door, locked it behind her.
Taking one more steadying breath, Virgo strode from the room and didn't look back. The only evidence of anything having occurred was the memory that would forever haunt her, and the small brown fleck stuck to the surface of the tiny brass key.