WODEHOUSE lay in the bed, his breaths ragged and raspy, multiple blankets stacked atop him to stave off the chill in his bones, which lingered even through the heat of the Autumn's night.
Standing above him, Paisley stood vigil as she had for the past three nights when she had first heard heard his wracked coughing coming from his chambers.
Wodehouse had not complained of any discomfort-- nor would he. A gentleman born and bred in an age where the "Stiff upper lip" was everything, speaking of personal pain simply was not done. Most certainly he had researched his condition privately, and come to the same conclusion she had-- it was a fatal pulmonary infection.
Similarly, Paisley's expression was neutral, betraying no emotion. She might be several generations removed from the old man, but she was the Lady of Peinforte Manor, and there were still expectations placed upon her. Expectations she knew Wodehouse would want her to fulfill, even at his deathbed.
Privately, she had spent hours crying in her study, doing her best to keep the sound down in the hopes he would not hear. More than likely, he did, but as a gentleman, he was politely discreet enough not to acknowledge it in any way, as with most of her other un-ladylike activities.
Still, the pressure weighed upon her. It was clear from his pallor and his laboured breathing that there was precious little time left. Soon, he would die.
No more Wodehouse.
Paisley could scarcely contemplate the notion. He had served her family before she had even been born. When she was five, he had been the one to tell her when her parents had died on the Alps. He had raised her from that moment on as his own, yet still with the deference and respect owed to a young Mistress. Life without him would be so incredibly empty. True, he was in his eighties, but still, she had not ever really thought this day would come.
"Lady Peinforte..." Wodehouse groaned, uncharacteristically reaching up for her hand, using what must have been almost all his remaining strength.
Paisley started, shocked out of her reflection by the sound of his voice. It had always been so strong, but now it sounded weak and frail, like a whisper in the wind.
How long has he sounded like this? she reflected. It wasn't just the illness... he had been declining for the last five years or so. But to her, he had always seemed strong, and able. Have I just turned a blind eye to it? she pondered. Did I not want to face the inevitability of this moment?
She reached down and took his hand, grasping it firmly. His hand was cold and his hold weak, but somehow he managed to firm it up as he looked her in the eyes with the most serious expression she'd ever seen.
"Wodehouse?" she enquired, trying to keep her voice from cracking. She knew-- she just knew-- this would be one of the last things he would ever say to her in this life.
"Lady Peinforte..." he wheezed, shaking his head slightly and forcing himself to break a lifetime of habit. "Paisley", he continued, being daringly familiar.
Paisley gulped, understanding just how much that took and how important he must feel his words to be if he was going to broach that unspoken distance that, honestly, was merely a façade the duo had adopted to preserve their inborn senses of social propriety. "Yes?" she replied, trying for all the world not to sound like the scared little girl she was inside at this moment.
"I'm sorry, my Lady..." Wodehouse began slowly, trailing off a bit. She had never seen him so weak. So accepting of defeat.
"Sorry?" Paisley echoed, uncomprehendingly. "Sorry for what, Wodehouse?"
Wodehouse looked up at her with a strange, sad look, finally forcing out the words. "For not... doing what I should have."
Paisley blinked, confused. "Pardon?" She could not recall any time Wodehouse had ever been anything less than exemplary in performing his duties.
Wodehouse sighed, running a finger over one of the faint tattoos on Paisley's wrist. "For not putting my foot down." He smacked his lips a few times, mouth dry. Paisley leaned over and gave him some water.
"In regard to what?" Paisley quietly pressed, not understanding where this conversation was heading.
"All this," Wodehouse replied, tapping her tattoo. "Allowing you to indulge your fantasies," he continued, voice getting a bit stronger as his feelings lent him strength. "After your parents died, I should have kept you on an even keel, forced you to stay in Oxford, to mingle with your peers, but I allowed you to sink further into this delusional lifestyle...."
Paisley tilted her head but said nothing for a long moment. "Go on," she replied tonelessly.
"All this talk of 'magic' and 'time travel' and heroism..." Wodehouse continued. "You were a young woman, and to be honest I had no experience raising young ladies... I didn't know how to push you in the right direction... instead I allowed you to get more and more immersed in this daydream, cut off from the world, until now it governs you, and I..."
He broke into a heavy coughing fit, finally forcing himself to conclude, "And now I have no more time left."
Paisley just stared at him for a long moment, the silence leaden and uncomfortable in the room.
"You should have had a young man by now..." Wodehouse finally ventured, the imminence of his death making him a bit braver. "A life beyond these walls..."
"I have one," Paisley replied, greatly restraining herself. "A rich life, with many friends. As for a man, that'll come in time."
She snickered slightly. "And you need to get with the times, Wodehouse, these days it could be a young woman."
Wodehouse frowned, unamused. "I allowed you to indulge your fantasy of being some sort of sorceress because I didn't know how to help you back from that abyss of losing your parents." He stopped again, coughing fiercely. "But It's destroyed your future." He looked up at her pleadingly. "I beg you... my lady..."
Paisley looked at him askance, shocked at what she was hearing. "Yes?"
"It' s not too late," Wodehouse insisted, pushing himself to get the words out even has he felt the life starting to ebb from his body. "Put away the fantasy, and find a life.... please." He coughed again, blood-flecked spittle staining the white linien sheets upon which he rested. "I wish..." he groaned. "I wish I had more time..."
Paisley stood rooted to the spot, mind wheeling. Wodehouse... what he had just said....
"Peter Graves Wodehouse," Paisley suddenly snapped, sounding every bit the authoritative head of Peinforte Manor she was. "You really want more time to help me?"
Wodehouse nodded weakly, but it was too late. He knew he had very little time left.
"Someone in this room is deluded, indeed, my dear Wodehouse," Paisley continued rapidly, suddenly feeling energized, "but it's not me." She stared right at him. "I happen to be an extremely strong telepath."
Wodehouse frowned, it was hopeless--she was too far gone.
Paisley grinned. "To the point where I can make you see exactly what I want you to see. And I've been doing that since I was sixteen." She snapped her fingers, and suddenly, the faint tattoos on her skin appeared bright and vivid, etched darkly into her flesh, shifting and changing with every moment. Her blazer and skirt vanished, replaced by a long, flowing red robe adorned with golden ornaments that looked timelessly ancient.
Wodehouse's mouth opened slightly. He couldn't understand what he was seeing.
"Oh, you may have heard bits and pieces, Wodehouse," Paisley continued, her grin widening, "but I kept the whole picture hidden from you. No one-- not even my friends-- really knows what I look like, or what I can do." She thrust her hand into the folds of her robes as if looking for something.
"Then it wasn't..." Wodehouse began, the sentence cutting short as his life suddenly left him.
Paisley shivered, her heart leaping into her throat for a moment. Her premonition had been correct. Those had been his last words to her. She bit her lower lip and pressed on. This was the end... but the moment had been prepared for.
"Three breaths," she quickly said to herself, remembering some ancient lore. "The soul has three breaths' time before it leaves..."
Quickly, she took the small bottle she had been looking for out of her robes, and decanted it over Wodehouse's mouth, letting one single drop of liquid spill down onto his tongue.