Broadly speaking, misfortune makes itself known to us in two modes: the first, as a sudden, unexpected impact, where the misfortune reveals itself without warning, striking in the hour you least expect. The second mode is more subtle, more gradual. It is misfortune that creeps up on you, inching closer and closer, making itself known bit by bit, revealing aspects of itself, teasing its imminence, such that when it finally arrives, it seems inevitable, unavoidable, and in its seeming inevitability, it is all the more dreadful.
In my limited experience, sudden misfortune is more common. It is not unusual to have some plan of action completely upended by a single stroke of bad luck. Sudden misfortune hits fast, hits hard, but once you weather its assault, you can pick up the pieces and rebuild. Not so with the less common, creeping misfortune. The chill along your spine, the small misfortunes, in themselves so inconsequential yet altogether so damning – being subject to such a misfortune is like seeing your plans and dreams being peeled apart, slowly and painfully falling to pieces. Bearing witness to that, who can muster the strength to pick up the pieces? Who can avoid falling into numbing despair?
In the case of the misfortune that upturned the peaceful routine I shared with Rosalind, it was certainly one of the creeping variety.
The first signs came in the form of the whispers from our patrons.
It was a night just a little over a year from the day I had started working for Rosalind. Everything went as per normal, we had opened the store and the customers were coming in at alternate times – the men entering when it was Rosalind’s turn to entertain, the women flooding in when it was mine. By that point I had accepted that, for whatever reason, the women of the town were as charmed by me as the men were by Rosalind. I had a theory that it might be because there were few men in town who carried the air of refinement which I played up while acting as a butler, and thus they grew enamoured with the figure of myself, who acted the part of the refined manservant – though I was a woman. Whatever the reason, I had grown to simply accept the phenomenon – it was bringing in more business, and that was always a good thing. Often the women would talk to me about their husbands, or about each other – only when the concerned party was absent, naturally. It became a sort of routine for me to listen to their stories about their children, or their complaints about their home lives, or their baseless condemnations of the government – it was frivolous talk, but I knew the importance of having an outlet to vent, and so I took it upon myself to be the best possible such outlet.
As a result, I felt a distinct sense of unease on that night, when many of them came in with worried faces. I had the first shift for the night, so the tavern was largely devoid of men. I figured that my customers perhaps had troubles with the families – though the likelihood of such occurring to all of them was rather low. Therefore, I put on my best service smile and courteously offered them a seat, taking their orders and preparing myself to hear their complaints about their spouses or children. Accordingly, I was taken by surprise when they all voiced their shared concern about the health of the local Lord.
This country, the Mercynth Empire, followed a feudal system, where the land was split into twenty parts. Aside from the capital, which was directly controlled by the Emperor, the remaining 19 tracts of land were distributed among the 19 noble houses of the country, all of which answer directly to the Emperor. Each of these 19 houses paid a tax to the Emperor every year, with the lords of the noble houses levying taxes from those living on their lands. The amount of tax levied from the lords was fixed, but each lord could decide how much they wished to take from their subjects, and how much they were willing to furnish from their own coffers. As Ruth had once mentioned, the lord who presided over our land – Lord Erick – was a kind lord who took most of the burden of the new Emperor’s harsher taxation policies. Furthermore, he was said to be of gentle disposition and modest in manner. As a result, he earned considerable goodwill from the people living on his land. In the thirty years he had presided over this land, there had not been a single uprising. Meanwhile, the people often gave him a large portion of the fruit of their harvest when the time came, as a show of gratitude. I had never met the Lord, myself, but I could tell from the stories that he was an astute politician – there were few easier ways to control the masses than to be generous with one’s coffers.
However, based on what my patrons of that day told me, I came to know that this same Lord Erick had fallen seriously ill. Our town was on the edge of the territory, so the news took some time to get here, but apparently the Lord had been bedridden from sickness for a little over a week. The gossip from the ladies informed me that it was apparently an incurable illness which had surfaced suddenly and unexpectedly. Some of them even suspected it was poison – it was unlikely, given how much the people liked him, but hearing the circumstances of his sickness, it was hardly impossible. Naturally, taking the fact that I was relying on the gossip of housewives for information, my source could hardly be considered reliable, but that was when I first started to feel the gentle nudging of impending misfortune. Hearing the ladies expressing their worries and praying for the recovery of the Lord Erick, I started to feel uneasy. No matter how loved the man was as a ruler, it was hard to believe that the women in a small, isolated town on the border of the territory, who had never even seen his face, could feel such concern for his health. Thinking upon it further while continuing to listen to the ladies, I came upon the answer.
Lord Erick was loved as a kind and benevolent ruler, but his son Rishard was not. Rishard had a notorious reputation, even out here in this isolated town, as a man who was frivolous with his money and haughty in disposition. He spent his days gambling and buying whores, ignoring his studies, uncaring of his position. One famous story was that he once drew his sword and killed a barkeep for not carrying his favorite brand of liquor. Lord Erick had later profusely apologised to the barkeep’s family and offered generous compensation, and out of respect for Lord Erick, the family let the matter drop, despite Rishard’s unrepentent attitude. From what was known, Rishard was given a weak reprimand, and nothing further. Lord Erick was a virtuous man, but his weakness was his tendency to spoil his only son. If Lord Erick were to pass away as a result of this current bout of illness, Rishard would undoubtedly succeed him as the Lord of this land – and just that possibility was enough to make any honest citizen feel uneasy.
For the rest of the night, every group that entered the tavern wore that same expression of concern, to the point where the tavern was saturated with an atmosphere of anxiety and gloominess for the whole night. Rosalind was, of course, pleased with the fact that many of her patrons were drinking far more than usual, but she was uncomfortable with the heavy atmosphere. She tried her best to keep her patrons in high spirits, but apart from several appreciative smiles, her efforts were largely unheeded. Rosalind would later complain about it at length to me, who was forced to listen.
After that day, the misfortune began to reveal more of itself, inching closer and closer, until when the misfortune finally struck, it felt inevitable – we could do nothing but await its arrival, knowing all the while it was coming.
A week after the news of Lord Erick’s illness, a messenger rode through the town proclaiming that the Lord had died from sickness.
Three days later, at the funeral, it was announced that Rishard would be recognised as the new Lord of the region.
One week later, another messenger was dispatched to our town, informing us that Lord Rishard intended to implement what he dubbed “economic reforms”.
That same week, the number of patrons who arrived at our tavern started to decrease.
Two weeks after that, a month after Lord Erick’s death, the tax collectors came knocking.