Author's Note: Hear ye, hear ye! Rae D. Magdon presents her very first full-length novel for your enjoyment (hopefully). I am very excited and nervous about sharing this with all of you, and I hope you have a great read. This story is part of a trilogy, and I have already made a huge dent in the second book.
Dedication/Thanks: First, to my girlfriend, future wife, Mistress, other-half, the love of my life, and the bravest, most handsome knight I know. (They are all the same person, by the way. I'm not a ho...) Second, to all of the bards who cut open their chests and put their still-beating hearts up on the internet for lurkers to see. You inspired me, even though you didn't know it.
Disclaimer: I wonder how many people actually read these? I created Ellie and Belladonna before I even heard of XWP, but when I first discovered them, I was like, “WOAH, DÉJÀ VU!” and made some adjustments accordingly to make them even more like everyone's favorite gals. I suppose you could consider this both an Uber and Original fiction at the same time. XWP = not mine. In fact, it's not even mentioned in the story...
Warning: Contains graphic scenes of one-on-one, consensual lovemaking between two soul mates, mild-to-moderate references to BDSM practices between said soul mates, and lots of kisses. If this bothers you, I feel sorry for you. If you're under 18, just don't let your Mom catch you like I did, because she will be PISSED and take you to your local priest or something equally horrible. It's not fun. Either don't do it, or be smart and delete your browser history. *Coughcough* Also contains a rape scene, not too graphically described, and the rapist gets what's coming... trust me.
Feedback: Please, please, please e-mail praise, feedback, or criticism to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. I never gave feedback to the bards I worshipped from afar, and I still regret it... I would love to hear from you...
As recorded by Lady Eleanor of Baxstresse
I peered out of the rain-streaked windows as the carriage jolted over slick cobblestones, searching for green. Sandleford had been filled with it. The rich smell of wet earth and fresh leaves would have blanketed the entire town after a spring rainstorm like this, but Sandleford Manor's gardens and forests were miles away. I would never see them again.
There was no green at Baxstresse. There were no ancient oak trees, no flowering orchards, and hardly any bushes. This was farm country, near the heart of the kingdom of Seria, and everything was flat. Fields with churned-up clods of mud stretched out in every direction. The gray of the skyline blurred into the landscape, and I could scarcely tell where one stopped and the other began.
“Ye can see the manor ahead now, Miss,” the carriage driver, Matthew, called back. His voice was pleasant, but I was too busy feeling sorry for myself to appreciate his attitude. I pressed my cheek against the cool window-glass and looked down the road, where Baxstresse Manor was waiting for me. The manor towered over everything else, the only break in the monotonous view. There were no trees or hills or mountains to detract from its height. Blurred by rain, I could still make out the dark points of its roof.
The manor's high walls were built from gray stone. Since there was no quarry nearby, I wondered if the builders had paid mages to move the stone blocks. My father had told me that the inside of the manor was grand, but the outside only seemed cold and lonely. Baxstresse was far too barren to compare with Sandleford. I would never be able to call this place home.
After my father's marriage to Lady Kingsclere, he had insisted on moving to Baxstresse, claiming that it would be a relief to escape my mother's ghost. Memories of her saturated our old home, but I enjoyed them. Sandleford's white roses reminded me of how my mother used to weave blossoms into my hair, and the old wardrobe in her room brought back long afternoons of hide-and-seek. My father had left my mother's spirit at Sandleford, and a piece of my heart had stayed behind with her.
My mother was not the only person that I had left behind. I missed the laughing village children, the dogs that I had raised from pups, the horses, and old Father Matthias, the local priest. The familiar faces were already fading in my memory, and I was frightened. What if I began to forget my mother's face?
A closer view of Baxstresse only made me feel more alone. The carriage rolled to a stop at the end of a long gravel drive. The high double doors loomed above us, dissected by heavy iron bars set in the shape of a cross. Instantly, a pair of servants rushed out to meet me, throwing a warm cloak about my shoulders as I stepped out of the carriage and hurrying me inside before the rain could damage my traveling dress. It was a wasted effort. Mud stains already dotted several inches of the hem, and the material was bunched and wrinkled from hours of sitting still. It would need a thorough washing before I could wear it again.
We scurried into the entrance hall like a group of mice running into a bolt-hole, tucking our arms close to our bodies to keep warm. One of the servants, an overly-dressed dandy with thinning hair, walked over to the door and held it partially open so that the shivering Matthew could carry in my trunks, his thin brown face dripping at the nose and chin. The dandy almost closed the door on his heels. His coat was stylish, but it had far too many buttons, and he took great care to keep it dry as we passed him.
“Af'ernoon, Jamison,” Matthew said politely.
The man – Jamison – stepped back, his mouth twisting into something I that I did not recognize as a smile for several moments. As his curled, puckered lips showed, he was unaccustomed to the act. I decided that I did not like him. “Both trunks need to be taken to the far room,” he said.
Matthew's thick eyebrows lifted several inches on his forehead. “Well then, you'd best get a boy to take ‘em, aye? Got to see to the horses.” I was secretly pleased that Matthew had refused to let Jamison order him around. Jamison gulped like a fish at Matthew's retreating back, but shook himself and hurried off, not wanting to stay in an embarrassing position. I watched him go until a voice interrupted me.
“You'll be young Mistress Eleanor, then?” said the other servant, who had remained beside me. She was a plump woman with an ample chest and big rosy cheeks, stout and broad-shouldered. Her hands were large and calloused, swollen at the joints. A servant's hands. “I'm Mam, Lady's chief cook, and I'm to get for you whatever you might be wanting while Jamison collects your things.”
“Thank you,” I said. My mother had always been polite to the servants, and my father was away too often to protest. I wanted to follow her example.
“You're most welcome,” said Mam, putting a hand on my arm. She guided me towards a great stone staircase that curved up towards the second floor. “I'll be taking you to Lady now, and afterwards, I'm to show you to your room.”
I gazed up at the high ceiling in wonder, scarcely hearing her. An enormous chandelier arched above me, hundreds of candles reflecting their light onto its soft golden body. The room was enormous. Although the manor was built of stone, the windows were stained glass, and the walls were hung with fine tapestries. My father had been right, it was grand, but the rich decorations did not please me, they only stunned me. I knew that I would tire of them quickly.
I remembered how large the manor had looked from outside and wondered fearfully whether I would lose my way after Mam left me. “Aye, Baxstresse is a large enough place,” Mam said as she shepherded me up the staircase, reading my mind. “Don't you be fretting about losing yourself here, though. I'll make sure you get your bearings, and if you turn yourself around in the halls, ask a servant to set you right. They'll like you, what with you being polite and well-mannered.” Her Amendyri grammar was very down to earth, and quite charming. Although her hair was silver instead of red, her nose and chin had something of the western country in them. Her sentence structure certainly did.
“How did you know that I was worried about getting lost?” I asked, lifting the skirt of my traveling dress so that it did not trail on the stairs behind me.
“It's what everyone is thinking when they see the entrance hall. Come now, Mistress Eleanor, Lady Kingsclere will be wanting to see you.” Mam's conversation was comforting. She spoke enough to steady my nerves without chattering to fill the silence.
At the top of the stairs, Mam took me past a grand row of stained-glass windows, pointing as we passed a large set of double doors. “That's the library. Mistress Belladonna spends most of her time in there, reading. She's quite a poet herself, and a musician. Both of Lady's daughters are.”
I had met Luciana and Belladonna only once before, at my father's wedding. Belladonna was a few months older than me, we were both eighteen, and Luciana was nineteen, ready to marry. Both were painfully beautiful, with clear, pale skin and thick hair that curled down their backs, although Belladonna's was much darker. Both of them were tall, thin, and covered in sleek sheets of muscle. There was something primitive about them, something attractive. The pair unsettled me, but I had not been able to figure out why.
Again, the perceptive Mam sensed my thoughts. “As to Lady's daughters, I have a small piece of advice, if you won't mind my giving it.”
“Yes, of course,” I mumbled, still wrapped up in memories of my stepsisters and what had disturbed me about them.
“Keep your pretty head low.” It was several weeks before I realized what Mam's warning had meant.
Lady Kingsclere's suite of rooms included a study. Both of us heard voices floating from that room, and so we approached the door together. Mam paused, her hand raised to knock, listening for a break in the conversation. The voices speaking inside were low and harsh, far too soft for me to distinguish individual words, but the meaning behind them was clear. At least one of the Kingsclere sisters was being scolded.
When the voices quieted, Mam rapped sharply on the dark wood of the door. “Come in,” someone called from inside, and Mam turned the knob. She was clever, I thought as I entered the study. A good servant knew when to keep out of the way. As soon as I had slipped into the study, Mam bowed herself out, leaving me alone with my new stepmother and my two stepsisters.
Lady Kingsclere was seated at her desk with a daughter at each shoulder, her hand resting on a piece of stationary. Her hair, just as lustrous and thick as her daughters', was swept up fashionably on top of her head, and the streaks of gray running through it only added to the impressive sight she made. She was still beautiful, and I could see, in a detached sort of way, why my father had wanted to marry her.
To her right, Belladonna was studying me. Her right hand rested lightly on the arm of her mother's chair, her long, white fingers curling around the polished wood. She was wearing a fine dress of green brocade that tapered at the waist just above the slight flare of her hips, but her neck and wrists were bare. Her hair washed about her shoulders in loose curls, and her expression was unreadable.
Luciana was just as well dressed as her sister in a gown of dark velvet, but unlike Belladonna, her face was all too easy to read. Her lips were drawn up in an insolent, satisfied smile, and I knew which of her daughters Lady Kingsclere had sided with this time. Her hair had been combed back, and like Belladonna's, it was thick and wavy with curls. The sight of the smart pair made my cheeks flush. I gazed down at my feet, hoping that they would not notice the mud stains on the hem of my traveling dress.
“Ah, Eleanor, welcome to Baxstresse,” Lady Kingsclere said, giving me a genuine smile. Although I had only met her daughters once, Lady Kingsclere had visited Sandleford several times, and we were on friendly terms. I had no reason to dislike my stepmother. Rather, it was my father I disapproved of for taking another wife. She did not try to stand in as a substitute for the mother I had lost, and she struck me as a regal, fair woman that was used to handling things herself.
However, I had overheard a great deal of gossip about her from the servants. After the death of her first husband, Lord Alastair, she had become a recluse, hiding away in her rooms for five years. She allowed no one to see her but her daughters. Finally, she had gathered her wits enough to make public appearances, and that was when my father had met her. They said that he reminded her of her late husband, and that he had given her back her sanity. If such rumors were true, I thought, I was seeing my stepmother as she had been before her illness, intelligent and capable.
I curtsied slightly, lowering my eyes. “Thank you, Lady Kingsclere,” I said politely.
“You may call me mother, but only if you wish,” she said, and there was kindness in her voice, a tentativeness that took any hurt out of the words. She knew before I answered that I would not call her mother. I took the offer for what it was, a welcoming gesture instead of a threat.
“Thank you, but I would prefer Lady Kingsclere…” I lifted my gaze to my stepmother's face, but I saw no disappointment or anger there, and a silent understanding passed between us.
“Of course, Eleanor. You have my permission to change your mind, if you feel comfortable. Has Mam shown you around the manor?”
“She helped give me an idea of the place,” I said. Something warm brushed against my leg, and I looked down. A plump cat with a beautifully patterned black, brown, and cream coat was rubbing her chin just below my knee. I smiled for the first time in several days and bent to scoop up the cat.
“You're lucky,” said the cat, narrowing her eyes at me and lashing her tail as she settled against my chest. “I could have scratched you.” My experience with cats told me she was bluffing, and that she was just as interested in me as I was in her.
Lady Kingsclere's head lifted up, her eyes widening with surprise. “Well, Jessith seems to fancy you, Eleanor. She's usually not very sociable with strangers.”
“Animals are friendly with me,” I explained. My strange affinity with animals had been noticed when I lived at Sandleford, but the reason behind it was kept secret. Speaking with animals was not unheard of in Seria, but it would be foolish to advertise such a gift. Although magic flourished in Seria's capital city, particularly at the Ronin College of Magic and Sorcery, it was viewed with suspicion throughout the rest of the kingdom, especially in the upper classes.
Serians with magical aptitude often changed the weather, healed the sick, or grew food, but such favors were quickly forgotten. As soon as the latest catastrophe had been averted, we were back to being Ariada – witches. The word was taken from Amendyri, the language that had been spoken here before the Serian settlers inhabited the continent. The native Amendyri still lived in the west, across the Rengast Mountains, but their kingdom was only half of its previous size. In Amendyr, Ariada was not a curse.
“She is a very beautiful cat,” I said, scratching Jessith along her jawbone. She yawned, displaying the pink ridges that lined the inside of her throat. I decided that Jessith, like most cats, was probably very full of herself.
“Jessith is one of our Baxstresse Tortoiseshells,” Lady Kingsclere said proudly. “Our family breeds them. See the unmarked white chest?” Jessith graciously moved her paws so that I could see the puffed white fur around her breastbone. Maybe, I thought, it was not completely Jessith's fault that she was conceited, even if she was a cat.
“It's cold in here,” Jessith said, nudging my hand with her chin when I stopped scratching. “I didn't tell you to stop, but take me somewhere warmer.”
Thankfully, Lady Kingsclere understood that I was tired after my journey, and returned me to Mam, who had been waiting a respectful distance from the door. I tried to remember the halls that she led me through, but I was so tired that I was hardly aware of myself when I collapsed onto my new bed with Jessith cuddled against my chest.
It was raining when I woke up the next morning, and I suspected that yesterday's gray downpour had continued through the night. It was a relief to find myself relaxing in a mountain of soft covers after several days of traveling, but the manor's cold and unwelcoming stones were still unsettling. I found fresh undergarments resting at the foot of my bed, and I knew that one of the servants had left them for me to change into. A shy knock came from the other side of the door just as I finished putting them on. “Come in, please,” I called out.
The door opened part way, and a thin girl with red-gold hair slipped inside, her eyes on her shoes. Her flaming hair and freckles had me wondering if she was Amendyri. “Good morning, Miss Eleanor,” she said, her soft lips mouthing the words more than speaking them. Obviously, if she was from Amendyr, she had grown up in Seria, or was a very good mimic. Unlike Mam, I could detect no accent in her speech. “My name is Cate, and I'm to help you to dress and get you anything you'd like before breakfast.” The proud Jessith, who had decided to bless us with her company, opened one eye and rubbed her jaw against the covers.
“If you would help me with my corset, please,” I said politely. “I am not sure where...” But Cate was already hurrying over to the wardrobe in one corner and pulling it open. After I chose a corset, underlayers, and dress, Cate began helping me put them on. I tried to ask her about the manor as she did up the hooks and eyelets, but her answers, when she gave them, were soft, short, and uncomfortable, though always polite.
“You won't have much luck getting talk out of that one,” Jessith said throatily, uncurling from her sleeping position and stretching across most of my bed. She lifted her head to watch Cate adjust my skirts. “Don't look so disappointed! She's like this with everyone, even the other servants. You're getting more out of her than most people would.” I decided to ignore the irritable cat and continued trying to engage Cate in conversation until she was finished brushing my hair.
Although Jessith elected to stay behind in the bedroom and sleep, Cate led me down the grand staircase, which impressed me even less the second time I saw it. She seemed cautious as she showed me the way to breakfast, though not flighty, and I noticed her glance over her shoulder several times and peer around corners before she turned them. I suspected it was a habit. I gave Cate a kind smile when she left me in the company of my stepmother and stepsisters, and she smiled back, a little surprised. I watched her as she left on silent feet, reminded of a frightened dog that was used to dodging kicks.
Still thinking about Cate, I sat down and began a quiet, rather unpleasant breakfast with my new family. Apparently, last night's wounds were still fresh, and Belladonna and Luciana spoke as little as possible, giving each other cutting looks when Lady Kingsclere's attention was occupied. I wondered what they had fought about, but knew there was no polite way of asking. Then, as I was biting into a piece of sausage, Jamison, the steward, bowed himself into the room.
“Lady, your husband, Lord Roland, is here,” he announced importantly, tugging at one of his shiny buttons. And then my father walked in, fresh from his latest journey.
He stood there, a stranger even to me in his long black traveling cloak, his thick shoulders hanging limp with weariness. He looked older each time I saw him. The lines cut into his face were deeper. He stumbled forward and kissed my forehead with his cold lips, and I lowered my eyes to his fine black boots, the ones with the bright buckles. Somehow, he had managed to keep most of the mud off of them, even though it was raining, or perhaps he had asked a servant to clean them before he came in. His pride would never have permitted him to ruin his precious new castle with muddy boot prints.
“Welcome home, Father.” I felt my lips move, but I was not consciously aware of speaking. The greeting was automatic, like most of our interactions.
“Thank you, Eleanor. I trust that you have settled in comfortably.” But he had already gone over to Lady Kingsclere before I could answer, kissing her chastely on her small mouth. I hoped, achingly, that he loved her, but knew that he did not. He had not loved my mother, either. Perhaps he had liked her, maybe he had even been fond of her, but his real love had always been money, and there is not enough room in a person's heart for more than one true lover. My mother had been rich when my father married her, and he had made her richer, but now, his new wife had given him something even better - a title to go with his wealth. Having ‘Lord' added to his name, I suspected, was a large part of the reason that he had married again.
My mother had loved him, though. She had not complained about the long trips he made, she had ignored his cold, dispassionate personality, and had put aside his obsession with money. I did not know if my father stayed faithful during their marriage, but I suspected that he had. He was far too concerned about his money to pay attention to such trivial things as women. My mother had admired him because he was a hard-working gentleman, a refreshing change from her other suitors. Boys that were given everything they asked for did not interest her. Perhaps she married my father expecting him to change, and was too in love with the dream she had of him to let go as the years passed.
I could tell that Lady Kingsclere was still in love with Lord Alastair, her first husband. For her, this second marriage was bittersweet. My father reminded her of the love she had lost, and that comforted her, but then she would remember that they were not the same person, and the ache would return doubled. After she pulled away from the kiss, I saw that her face was a tapestry of smiles and worry lines and unshed tears. I noticed Belladonna's alert blue eyes fixed on Lady Kingsclere's face, too, and I knew that she understood.
I tore my gaze away from Belladonna at the very moment that my father addressed me again. “-only staying for two days, I'm afraid. I have to travel to Ronin and meet with another dealer...”
“Two days, father?” I asked quietly. “I thought that you wanted to see more of Baxstresse before you leave?” I hoped this would gain me an extra day, at least. If anything could keep my father behind, it was his beautiful new house. But he shook his head, and I lowered my eyes to my plate, dejected. Though I was used to this, a small part of me was always sad when my father left. I wished that he would realize how much I loved him and wanted him to be near me, despite his faults.
“I have no choice,” he said, sounding neither displeased nor eager about his next trip. “Amendyr's closing off has upset all of Seria's trade. I have to sort out another mess in Ronin.” Amendyr had caused quite a stir when their queen had halted all trade for the first time in centuries. Diplomats had been traveling back and forth between the two countries for months, but even the aristocracy had no idea what was happening. Information was also having a hard time crossing the Rengast at our western border.
“But I promise to make it up to all of you,” my father said cheerfully
He cast Lady Kingsclere, her daughters, and me a friendly smile. I was familiar with this game. He often used presents to buy our affections and soothe his own guilt. I wished I had the strength to tell him that he did not need to. His company would have been a far better gift. “I will bring back a beautiful present for each of you, if you tell me what you would like. What about you, Luciana?”
Luciana lifted one shoulder becomingly so that the sunlight bounced off of her light brown hair. She was uncomfortably pretty, even in her high-necked morning dress. I crossed my legs underneath the table and squeezed them together, hard. Something felt unnatural about her smile, and it made my stomach twitch. “I would like a new evening dress, please, father, in red if you can find a suitable match.”
My face tightened as I heard her say ‘father'. No one else seemed to notice what she had called him, they were distracted by the rest of her request. “Red, Luciana?” Lady Kingsclere asked, raising her eyebrows disapprovingly. “Really, you are only nineteen.”
“Perhaps something in pink,” Belladonna suggested, almost mockingly. Luciana did not even look at her, but I sensed the scowl that lurked behind her smile. “Yes, I think you would look adorable in pink.” I almost laughed then, it was the closest I had come in weeks, but I could not manage it. It would have been rude anyway.
“I would really prefer red,” Luciana said, too pleasantly.
“If I can find something appropriate,” my father said, ending the discussion. Merchants, I had learned, were very good at turning conversations away from dangerous subjects. “What would you like, Belladonna?”
“A necklace, I think,” she said carefully. Belladonna, though just as charming as her sister, did not try to win my father's affection with smiles. I was strangely pleased. “Linked gold, with a pendant, perhaps. Something that can be worn with many different kinds of gowns. I would be very thankful.”
This time, Luciana did look sharply at her sister, and even Lady Kingsclere noticed. I did not understand why their faces were so drawn as they looked at Belladonna, but I knew that there was something between them, something I could not quite grab at. Belladonna's chosen present had a deeper meaning than I realized.
“That should be easy enough to arrange,” my father said, still oblivious. “And you, Ellie? What about you? Would you like a dress or a necklace, too?”
I forced a smile. He should have known me better than that. “If you can manage, I would like you to bring me a hazel sapling.” Everyone at the table looked at me, obviously confused. But if my father had thought about it, he would have understood. Sandleford and its trees and flowers had always been a part of my life – of my mother's life. Since I was to stay at Baxstresse against my will, I might as well plant at least one tree to help me remember. I had brought some of Sandleford's white roses to plant this spring as well. I worried, though, that planting a tree would do to me what marrying again had done to Lady Kingsclere – it would soothe me for a while, but then the ache would grow.
“I suppose,” said my father, “that I can find you one... but such an odd request!” One last piece of sausage was left alone on the edge of my plate, and I frowned at it.
Luciana's eyes settled on me for the first time, and I felt my blood beating in my ears. My pulse jerked in my neck and my heartbeat quickened. She was not just looking at me, she was almost staring through me, and her eyes seemed bright enough to burn my skin away. Something about the look she gave me felt horribly wrong, and I buried my hands in my skirts to keep them from shaking. You should never show fear in front of strangers.
While Luciana was staring at me, Belladonna was staring at her. There was hatred in the thin set of her lips and the stiff way she tilted her jaw. Lady Kingsclere and my father were focused on each other, and they seemed totally unaware of what was going on. But how could they not see? Again, I felt the strange sense of unease filling my chest and cutting off my breath. Later, I told myself. Later, I would look into the relationship between Belladonna and Luciana and find out why they seemed to hate each other so much. Meanwhile, I would have to tread carefully around my two new stepsisters. Perhaps they could be dangerous.
The arrival of the final course broke the spell that hung over the table, leaving me with only a lingering sense of discomfort. With a great deal of effort, I forced it from my mind by staring at my knees. The rest of the meal was finished in a silence that seemed uneasy only to me and my two new sisters.
True to his word, my father brought me a small hazel sapling when he returned home. Luciana received a stunning red dress that she exclaimed over beautifully, and Belladonna got her necklace. As she held it for the first time, I saw her white hands trembling. There was obviously a reason that she had asked for it, but I was not about to ask her what it was. We were not very friendly with each other, although she was not rude to me either.
Although no one questioned my own choice out loud, I started getting strange glances from my new family and the servants. I wondered if Lady Kingsclere and her daughters thought I was touched for asking my father to bring me the sapling, but I forced myself not to care.
The afternoon that the tree arrived in a clay pot filled with soil, I took it out to a small mound of grass just before the fields started. Fortunately, the rain had stopped for a few hours and the sun was showering the soggy fields with pale light. At my request, Cate brought me a shovel and watched from several yards away as I started digging a hole for my tree. Despite the offers of help from the field workers, I finished the hole myself. I made sure that my father was taking his afternoon nap while I dug so that he would not stop me. My mother had done most of her own gardening, and I wanted to be just like her. I would remember her every time I came to visit my hazel sapling.
As soon as the tree was planted, I patted the earth back into place around it and studied my present. It was small and weak looking, but I knew that it would grow. Hazel trees needed a lot of moisture, but since Baxstresse always seemed to be raining, I was not worried. Afterwards, Cate helped me clean myself up and change my clothes so that I would be presentable for dinner. My new family had no idea that I had planted the tree by myself.
After I planted my hazel sapling, I turned myself to the problem of understanding my stepsisters. To make sure that I did not put them on their guard, I only questioned the most discreet informants. At Sandleford, the animals had kept me as well-informed as the most talkative servant. I knew that the animals of Baxstresse would never be able to repeat our conversations to anyone else, and I learned a good deal about my new family from them.
Jessith's keen sense of observation made her an excellent choice for questioning, but the tidbits she chose to drop at my feet did not always fit together completely. Even though she pretended not to care about the goings-on at Baxstresse, her instinctive feline curiosity made her a natural gossip. If you know how to talk to a cat the right way, they will tell you almost anything, even if they refuse to explain themselves afterwards.
"I am sure you have noticed," I asked her carefully one afternoon as I sat beside my new sapling, "how false Luciana seems, especially around her mother."
The grass around my little tree had not been disturbed by the spring planting, and so Jessith stretched out on it without worrying about dirtying her fine tortoiseshell coat. Her eyes were closed, and she was trying to soak in as much of the weak sunlight as she could before the gray rain came back. It always seemed to be raining at Baxstresse, and even if it was clear for a few moments, you knew that it would start again soon, and the thought kept you from enjoying yourself. "Clever girl, aren't you, to have noticed that?" Jessith said, not very sincerely.
I ignored her barb – I was used to cats – and kept talking. "I wonder why Lady Kingsclere has not noticed. She seems so sensible..."
Jessith blinked her eyes open. "You're underestimating that woman's cunning," she said. She rarely called Luciana by her name, and usually referred to her as 'that woman', and sometimes just 'her'.
"Cunning?" I asked, my forehead tightening. I pressed my hand against the wet bark of my new tree, my palm remembering the familiar texture.
"Yes, cunning, and hungry for power. The Kingscleres seem to have more than their fair share of greed, don't they?" Jessith arched her back, extending her claws and stretching sleepily into a more comfortable position. "Yourself not included, of course," she added at the last second.
"I am not really a Kingsclere," I said, surprised at the hurt in my voice. I had not meant to put it there. "Besides, even though Luciana is obviously a fake and Belladonna is bad-tempered... Well, Lady Kingsclere seems remarkably well-adjusted.”
"When I said greedy, I meant self-indulgent. They take what they want, even when it is bad for them. Watch yourself around Luciana, Ellie. She hates competition."
"Why would she think of me as competition? I would never try to take her mother-”
"Don't be foolish. Not her mother, her money! She wants as much inheritance as she can get, and that includes your share." Perhaps that news astonished me more than it should have. I had rarely given my inheritance any thought at all. When my mother died, my father had become the sole owner of everything at Sandleford, with the exception of a few dresses and jewelry that had been passed down to me directly. Aside from that, inheritance and what it meant had hardly entered my mind.
"If Luciana wants Baxstresse, she can have it. I certainly have no claim..."
"But you do. Your father and mother own everything here jointly, and as your father's only heir, you are legally entitled to a third of the estate."
"Luciana does not seem to like sharing," I muttered. "I have no desire to live here any longer than I have to. I would expect some of my father's money, of course, but only so I could move away and live somewhere else, somewhere that at least has a garden." My shoulders sank as I stared at my little tree again. Its branches were short and brittle against the colorless sky, and its tiny leaves seemed fragile enough to blow off in the lightest breeze. "Do you really think that Luciana feels threatened by me?" I asked, softer than before.
"It's obvious. Her sister is, too, unless I miss my guess, but for different reasons. I can smell her when she looks at you...” I decided not to ask Jessith what this meant. “You should avoid both of them. Let them battle each other and try not to get involved."
"So that is why they hate each other," I said, understanding. "All that, just for money?"
"Not just for money. They have made it personal. Both of them are always looking for opportunities to put the other out of favor." I nodded, remembering the night that I had overheard them arguing from outside Lady Kingsclere's study.
"Belladonna seems introverted, but at least she is sincere. Luciana's fake smiles make my blood freeze, and no one else seems to notice them."
Jessith looked up from bathing her side and twitched one ear. "So you haven't figured that part out yet, then?"
"What are you talking about?" But a passing robin distracted Jessith before she could answer, and she flipped onto her paws and her spine settled between her shoulder blades, her hindquarters twitching. I knew she was refusing to answer me on purpose, of course, but I what else could I expect from a cat?
My other primary informant was just as reliable as Jessith, and he was certainly much easier to talk to. I met him at the beginning of my third week at Baxstresse, when the weather finally cleared enough for me to go riding. Baxstresse's horses were even more famous than their tortoiseshells, and the thought of riding one of them lifted me out of my steady depression.
On a surprisingly clear day, as early as it was proper, I asked Cate very politely if she would mind showing me to the stables. After she helped me out of my morning dress and into my riding habit, she led me out across a short stretch of field. I noticed that all of the stiffness left her body as soon as we were outside, although she remained quiet. She even gave me a half smile as the sun hit the side of her face, and I decided to ask her to accompany me to the stables more often.
Cate helped me pick my way over the wet mud, and she held my weight easily when I stumbled, even though she was hardly taller than me. I heard her breath catch as she caught my elbow, and she almost shrank back as I steadied myself, her face turning as though she was expecting a blow. “Sorry, Miss Elea-”
“Ellie, please,” I said. “Only my father calls me Eleanor .” And my new stepmother, I thought. “There is no reason to apologize. It was my fault.”
Cate blushed prettily, biting nervously at one corner of her mouth. “Very well, Miss Ellie.” She was quiet for a moment, and then added, “I would apologize for apologizing, but you probably wouldn't like it.” Then I saw her retreat back into herself, questioning what she had just said.
I laughed. “No, I wouldn't.” Cate brushed her hair back over one shoulder, and my eyes lingered on a set of ugly, purple-yellow stripes puffing out from the pale curve of her neck. I tried not to stare at them, continuing towards the stables at a brisk walk.
“Ellie, wait,” she called after me, holding her skirts in one hand as she hurried across the uneven ground to catch up.
“Someone out there?” a hoarse voice shouted from inside one of the stalls.
“Yes. Where are you?” I asked, and we waited. After a few moments, a familiar tall man with a thin, tanned face came out of the stables, pulling his straw hat down over his brow as he walked into the pale sunlight. His wide smile carved deep lines in his nut-brown skin, and he offered me a short, polite bow. “Hello again, Matthew,” I told him, returning his smile.
“And a good morning to ye,” said Matthew. His thick, rustic accent made my smile bigger. “Yer here t'see the horses, then?”
“Yes, please.” The happiness on my face must have been obvious, because Matthew laughed under the brim of his hat.
“Right, Miss. We got plenty of those, so we'll be picking you one and you can be on yer way.”
I turned towards Cate, brushing my hair out of my face so I could see her clearly. “You are more than welcome to come with me, Cate, but if you would rather go back to the manor, I am sure that Matthew can watch me if I stay nearby,” I said in my gentlest voice.
“I have chores to finish, Miss Ellie, but thank you,” she mumbled, giving a short curtsey before scurrying back towards the dark shape of the manor, her red-gold hair whipping against her shoulders in her hurry. I watched her until Matthew cleared his throat and I remembered to turn around. I had already decided that while I was questioning the animals about the Kingsclere sisters, I would ask after Cate. Someone was obviously beating her, and badly, if the bruises on her neck had been any indication. I was determined to put a stop to it.
“We got here some of the finest horses in Seria,” Matthew said proudly as he led me into the stables. They were well kept, and the smell was hardly as overpowering as some I had been in. “We've raced ‘em at the Palace fer o'er a hundred years, and win more of'en than not.”
A beautiful white mare on my left stuck her gray nose out over the stall door and nuzzled my shoulder as I passed her. I smiled and stroked her face, petting the velvety tip of her nose as she snuffled around my fingers. “That's Corynne d'Reixa,” Matthew told me. “She's a fine girl, Cor. Sweetest horse I got, but fast as a falcon af'er a sparrow. She's won us the Ronin Cup six times, not countin' the race a few weeks ago when she worked up ‘er hind leg. She'll be racin' again next spring, mayhap.”
“What does it mean in Amendyri?” I asked. All great racing horses were named in Amendyri, a smooth, low language with lots of open vowels. Serian was much harsher-sounding, and the Amendyri always complained that there were far too many duplicate words and spelling changes.
“Queen o' the Wind,” said Matthew. Corynne nosed at my wrist, perhaps hoping for a hidden lump of sugar, but I had nothing to offer her.
“Sorry, Cor,” I said, giving her snout another pat. “Nothing to eat.”
“Matthew has some carrots in his pocket,” she said. “You could ask him.”
“Are you supposed to have them?” I asked suspiciously. Corynne tossed her head, but like most animals, she was not surprised that I could understand her. They always seemed to know that I was different as soon as they saw me. The Ariada in me could not be hidden from them.
“No...” she admitted. I got the feeling that Corynne was not a very good liar.
“Well then, you will have to ask Matthew later.” Corynne sighed, but continued being friendly while I patted her until I looked over at the next horse. “Who is this handsome one?” The horse housed beside Corynne was thick-chested and tall, obviously not a racing horse.
“That's Sir Thom. He's my own horse, helps me with my work.” Sir Thom snorted when I reached out to touch him, not as trusting of strangers as Corynne had been, but he allowed me to pat him anyway. Matthew raised his eyebrows. “Well, then, look a'that! Thom don't take to jus' anyone.”
“He will take to me. Most animals do.”
“Corynne likes carrots too much,” said Sir Thom. “She don't understand she has to work for ‘em.”
I laughed and moved on to the next horse. The hide over his shoulders rippled as he sniffed at my hand, but he moved in to my caress without fear. “That's Brahmsian Synng. He's Corynne's younger brother, and we'll prob'ly race him next spring, too. Corynne's still got one more year left in her if her injury don't flare up again, but we're hopin' Brahms'll take the Cup a fair number of times when she's done.”
Brahms' ears twitched at the compliment, and then he refocused his attention on me. “I am just as fast as Cor is. I could beat her.” His nostrils flared. Corynne tossed her mane a few stalls away, indulgent of her sibling's comment. “Do you want to ride me?”
“Yes, please,” I said politely, and then I turned to Matthew. “He seems like a fine horse. May I ride him?”
“A'course, Miss. I've heard tell yer a fair rider. Spring weather's been nasty, an' he hasn't been getting out as much as he likes. Don't push him too hard, though. We got to have him in good condition when we train him fer this fall.”
Matthew saddled Brahms for me and helped me up onto his strong back. The feeling of a powerful horse between my legs again made me smile wider than I had in weeks. Brahms shifted slightly, his hooves scraping the ground, obviously eager to be off. With a light slap on his rump, Matthew sent him running as I gripped the reigns.
Although I had been riding since I was a little girl, I had never been on a galloping racehorse until I met Brahms. The difference between him and the Sandleford horses was obvious as soon as he started off across the fields. He rolled across the ground like a strong wind over the land, and it was easy to see how his sister had been named if she was anything like him. “What does your name mean?” I panted.
“Meadow Song,” he huffed as he pounded across the dirt.
I rode Brahms until lunch, and by the time I dismounted, I had made a loyal new friend.
Blue patches of shadow tucked themselves in the wet, muddy grass as I visited my tree, unwilling to surrender to the morning light. Baxstresse stood, isolated, above everything else, watching the small black shapes that scuttled in its wide fields, but not interfering. Occasionally, a farmer would gaze up at the turrets and rub at his damp brow, tired even at the beginning of the day.
Birds fluttered over the uneven dirt, tugging at worms and pulling seeds free with their beaks. The air was wet and heavy as it settled into the gutted field, drying and thinning as the sun crawled over the horizon. Spring at Baxstresse was melancholy. Damp grays and browns dominated the landscape. No trees, no mountains, flat as a rough-grained board.
I was picturing the flowers that my sapling would wear in winter when Belladonna came to me. I had been at Baxstresse for a little over a month now, and though my sapling had grown taller, its leaves were still hard green buds dangling on their arched stalks. I rested one hand against the whitish-red bark and waited as she came awkwardly over the mud clods. It was one of the rare moments when she did not move gracefully, like a tall cat.
A single branch from the sapling scratched my cheek, pointing straight at my stepsister like a dousing rod. I pushed it away, but it sprang back into position. A sharp wind blew through my skirts and bent the sapling forward. It almost looked as though it was bowing to my new stepsister in greeting, welcoming her.
“You never told me why you asked for a hazel sapling,” she said, studying my tree. It was one of the only times I had heard her speak plainly, perhaps even kindly, to me. Generally, we gave each other meaningless polite comments. “Your father did not expect it.”
“My mother,” I said, and she smiled as though she understood. Perhaps, I thought, she did understand about mothers. “She loved gardens and trees.”
“Your mother was lucky, then.” The fresh wind returned, tossing Belladonna's dark curls.
“She died young,” I said without bitterness. My tears had scoured most of that away months ago, and visiting the hazel tree to remember her was slowly helping me to heal.
“She was lucky even for that, though,” Belladonna insisted, “lucky that she had something to love. My mother doesn't love anything anymore. You can see the kind of emptiness that leaves you with.”
“Doesn't she love you?” Our conversation was casual, without the usual formalities of speech that my father insisted upon. Somehow, it was deeply intimate all the same.
Belladonna's eyebrows lifted. They were bold and dark, but thin and highly expressive. “She thinks she does, but I have too much of my father in me, and Luciana has too much trickery in her.”
I lifted my chin against the wind from the north, gazing curiously at Belladonna's china face. She looked like a beautiful antique doll, the kind you never allow children to play with, and she seemed just as forbidden. She was far taller than I was, and even beneath her dress, I could sense that she was well-muscled. The perfection was almost offsetting, and I felt my freckles burn even in the spring cold. I wondered if it was ever warm at Baxstresse, and decided that the answer was probably no. Wet, certainly, but never warm.
“And what do you love, Ellie?” she asked, studying my face as carefully as I was studying hers. A few strands of straw hair blew between my lips, and I pulled them away.
“Everything I left behind at Sandleford,” I answered her. “My mother, the animals, old Father Matthias, my friends. And you? Do you love something?”
“Yes, I think I do.”
“You think?” The wind died suddenly, and my arms tingled as the blood blossomed under the surface of my skin again. There was a slight flush along Belladonna's collarbone, the only imperfection on her clear skin. It crept up one side of her neck, and I could not force my eyes away from it. I could even see her pulse beating next to the chord of her throat, above the hollow where her neck met her shoulder.
“I think,” she repeated. She gave me a fluid smile, her eyelashes brushing her cheeks as she blinked heavily, and turned away, pulling her blue shawl tighter about her shoulders against the biting air. Immediately, the breeze returned, though not as strong as before, as if it knew it was supposed to start up again.
“You never told me why you came.” Belladonna took two steps back towards the manor. She turned and looked over her shoulder, her lips parted.
“I didn't, did I?” she said lightly, and her face told me that she was not going to.
Afterwards, when I thought about it, the conversation seemed so surreal that I wondered if I had dreamt it.
Belladonna, who spent most of her evenings reading in the library, began to visit in the early afternoon after our strange conversation. Since that was the time I usually did my own reading, we began seeing each other more often. Before, my only companion had been Trugel, an old tortoiseshell cat who enjoyed napping by the fireplace. We did not speak much at first, but she never picked a chair too far from mine. I told myself that both of us wanted to be near the fire, but secretly, I wondered.
I learned a great deal about my stepsister by catching glimpses of the titles that she read. She enjoyed poetry the most, and I often found her with her nose buried in dusty collections older than her great-grandparents. Her tastes were varied, however, and I watched her devour: ‘A History of Seria', ‘The Breeding and Training of Racehorses', and even ‘Serian Fairy-Stories'. She was also particularly fond of the scandalous romantic poet, Erato.
After a few days of reading silently together, Belladonna and I began sharing small, absentminded exchanges. “Do you really think manticores existed?” she asked one afternoon as she perused ‘A Bestiary of Magickal and Non-Magickal Beings'.
“No earthly,” I said, looking up from my own book. “The last reported sighting was supposedly hundreds of years ago, wasn't it?”
“Archaeologists have no solid proof, though,” Belladonna muttered, flipping her page. She looked up again to ask me something about unicorn tears later, and had another conversation about astronomy the next day. My stepsister's interests seemed to be completely unrelated. She was fascinated by everything and anything, and she read any book she could get her hands on.
Perhaps our strangest conversation occurred when I caught her curled up with ‘Queen Toreau's Lover'. I put down my own book of poetry, one that Belladonna had recommended, and stared at the title, quite surprised. I probably should have expected it. Belladonna did, after all, read anything that had words on it, even if it was not particularly appropriate literature for a lady. I wondered vaguely where she had gotten it, and decided it did not matter.
Belladonna looked up, blinking the glassiness from her eyes as they focused on me. I felt a hot blush creep up one side of my neck and flower across my cheeks. I ducked my head to continue reading my poetry. Belladonna laughed. “I knew it,” she said, still grinning. My blush was so fierce that it was almost a deep scarlet.
“Knew what?” I asked defensively.
“That you were a maid.”
I knew that my burning face had already confirmed her guess, and I did not bother responding. Then again, I was supposed to be, I told myself much later as I paced in my room. I was marrying age, and no intelligent girl would risk her chances of finding a good match for one night. Honestly, marriage and the physical aspects of love had never interested me. I did not gush about them like other girls my age. I was naïve and sheltered, but I knew it, and I did not care.
Belladonna was obviously much worldlier than I was, at least in knowledge if not in deed. There was no way for me to know the extent of her experiences, and her teasing might have even been hypocritical. I did notice that she watched my face more after that day. “Your face colors prettily when you are embarrassed,” was all she said when I asked her why.
While I was learning as much as I could about Belladonna, I was also making inquiries about Cate. The horrible marks that I had seen on her arms and throat made me feel ill. Sometimes they called themselves up again in my mind, and the memory of what I had seen when she moved her hair off of her neck made my stomach clench with disgust and fear. I was determined to find out what was happening to her.
I thought hard about why someone might want to hurt Cate, but I could not come up with any reasons. She was always polite, quiet, and hardworking, and so I assumed that the marks had nothing to do with an unsatisfactory performance. The culprit was just mean-spirited, then, and had singled out Cate because she was too shy to defend herself. At first I suspected Jamison, the proud steward, but he did not seem like a very physical person. He was all pomp and pride, and getting his hands dirty just to beat a maid did not seem to fit his personality.
There were male servants, of course, but none of them seemed to have the authority or the desire to give Cate the awful bruises that I had seen. Even the groomsmen, as lecherous as gossip made some of them out to be, did not seem to treat her any differently than the other women. Finally, I questioned Mam as cautiously as I could. I trusted her, but you never knew who might be listening.
“Mam, do you know if Cate has a lover?” I asked, trying to sound spontaneous. She would suspect me if I acted too casual.
“Why?” Mam asked, instantly narrowing her eyes at me. I was surprised that I had made her suspicious so quickly, and I tried to recover as fast as I could.
“She is so pretty, but I have never seen her with anyone...” I adopted a look of genuine concern, although not for the reasons she thought. “She seems so shy. I thought maybe a sweetheart would cheer her up.” Or a jealous one would beat her , I thought.
Mam relaxed visibly. “Aye, Cate's a quiet one at that,” she said. As always, her hands were busy. This time she was peeling potatoes and piling the skins beside her. I had taken to visiting Mam in the kitchens when I could, even if it was not really proper behavior. My mother had done the same thing, even though my father had tried to stop her.
“She always looks miserable. I just wish I could do something to make her happier.”
“I think you already have. She likes the horses, and walking with you to the stables gets a smile out of her if little else does.”
“But she never rides with me. I have asked her several times.”
“She's afeared of riding. Had an uncle what died falling off a horse and cracking his head. She likes to look at them, though, and Matthew's pleasant enough.”
I felt embarrassed for asking Cate to ride with me after I heard that. “Oh, how horrible! I never should have asked her. I honestly had no idea. She should have told me...”
“How many words has she said to you since you came, then?” Mam teased, picking up another potato and cutting away at its skin. “Enough to be telling you her entire life's story?”
“Hardly enough to fit in a few lines of print. I will stop asking her to ride with me, but she should still walk with me if it cheers her up. So,” I continued, trying to turn the conversation back to my original topic, “no one has an interest in her?”
Mam's face tightened, but I thought little of it. She often gave me strange, worried glances. “None I can think of,” Mam said, and I could tell that talking more about Cate would be useless for a little while.
Later that evening, I directed my inquiries to Sarah, another servant who had helped me to dress on a few occasions. She was of an age with me and Cate, and I knew that they spent time together in the evenings.
“Not that I've heard, Miss,” Sarah said, looking nervously to her left and tucking a lock of brown hair over her ear. She was quite pretty, and had a pleasant smile. “But maybe you should ask her.”
I looked at her curiously. “Ask Cate? She hardly says a word to me... is she always like that.”
“Yes,” Sarah admitted. She leaned forward, eager for gossip. “It drives me batty, really, but she's – begging your pardon, Miss, I really shouldn't be chatting with a Lady of the house. Please, forget I said anything...?” It took me several minutes to reassure Sarah that she had not acted inappropriately. I decided to question her further on another occasion.
Jessith and Brahms were not helpful either. Brahms tried to be, but he was not familiar with Cate. He only knew her because she accompanied me to the stables. The other cats that lived in the house were no help at all. There were six of them, including Jessith, and most of them, while polite in their own, distant way, redirected me to her. Apparently, she had decided that I was her human, and they did not want to interfere.
I was not hopeful when I tried to question Trugel, but she was the oldest cat in residence at Baxstresse and, with luck, might know something useful. When I tried to wake her up, she looked at me with glazed, confused eyes, as if she did not know who I was. Slowly, she raised her head from her favorite rug, purring scratchily as I rubbed her chin. She yawned, and I noticed that most of her teeth were missing. Then, she went back to her nap beside the fireplace. I felt sorry for her and decided to leave her alone.
Rucifee, a fat ginger male that spent most of his time in Lady Kingsclere's room, was slightly more alert. When he finally ventured out for his dinner, leisurely descending the stairs, I walked beside him. “Good evening, Rucifee,” I said, trying to be polite.
“They should bring my dinner to the second floor,” Rucifee complained, not bothering to say hello. “Really, did they have to add so many stairs?” Honestly, I agreed with him, but I did not say so. I would have offered to carry him, but cats usually spurned offers of help unless it was their idea.
“Rucifee, do you know Cate?”
“Of course I know Cate. I have been going up and down these bloody stairs for ten years, haven't I? Pick me up and carry me.”
Now that he had demanded my assistance, I scooped him up and carried him the rest of the way down the staircase. “Do you know if Cate has a lover?” I persisted, bending to put Rucifee down.
“No, don't put me down! You might as well carry me the rest of the way to the kitchen. And how should I know if she has a lover or not?”
“I thought you had been here for ten years and knew everything,” I said, a little annoyed.
“Go ask Jessith. I can't be bothered about servants while I'm still waiting for my dinner.” Only slightly irritated, I took Rucifee the rest of the way to the kitchen, and went in search of Jessith.
When I found her chasing a beam of sunlight in one of the upstairs rooms, she was willing to talk to me, but her answers were too cryptic to be of much practical use. “It takes a wicked person to leave wicked bruises, doesn't it?” she purred when I asked if Cate had a lover among the groomsmen or servants.
“How did you know what I was really trying to find out?” I asked. “Was I too obvious?”
“No. Everyone else is just stupid.” Jessith yawned, her eyes following a fly as it wove about drunkenly outside my bedroom window.
“Mam put her guard up when I asked about Cate. Something feels wrong about this.”
“I suggest,” Jessith said, ignoring my comment about Mam, “that you broaden your search and keep your eyes open.”
“I have been watching for anything suspicious,” I said, a little defensively.
“Humans can never watch closely enough. They miss more than they think.”
“Rucifee had no idea what was going on. He told me to ask you, since you notice everything that happens in Baxstresse.”
“Don't try and flatter me, silly girl. Rucifee hates me almost as much as I hate him. His Highness would rather die than give me a compliment.” I tried to pull more information out of her, but Jessith was content to sit on my lap and bask in adoration as I scratched her chin and fluffed the fur of her white chest. Soon, she was asleep, and I was no closer to finding answers than when I had started.
One night, as I sat looking into the sky beneath my young tree, Belladonna joined me. "The stars are higher here,” I whispered as she spread her skirts next to me and rested her head on the dark grass, staring up. “And the ones on the horizon are new to me.”
"You are not in the southwest anymore. That group of them just touching the land is Feradith, the dragon," Belladonna told me. I squinted my eyes, trying to make out the shape of a wing or tail. Belladonna lifted her hand and drew an outline so that I could see the dragon's head and three horns. "There is a story about her from Amendyr,” she said quietly, asking without asking.
“Please.” I turned my head, resting my cheek on my hair. “Tell me.”
“Once, a long time ago, there was a horrible drought in Amendyr. Nothing would grow, and no one could figure out why. Finally, the king's seer discovered that the drought was being caused by a dragon."
"Is it true that magic is feared less in Amendyr?” I asked her. I had heard as much, but I was sure that the well-read Belladonna would be able to answer more of my questions about the place. Amendyr had always interested me. Her white cheeks lifted in a soft smile.
"Yes. In Amendyr, magic is even respected. Ariada is an honored title, not a term of hate.” I shuddered at the word, even though it was not being used hurtfully. I had thought it to myself, perhaps to take the sting out of it, but hearing it on another person's lips instinctively made me uncomfortable. “Their capital, Kalmarin, is more magical than Ronin twice over. At least, it was...” Belladonna's smile disappeared back into her smooth face, and her eyes fluttered against a small breeze. “Now that Amendyr has stopped trading news and goods with Seria, no one really knows what is happening across the Rengast.”
We lost ourselves in thought for a moment, remembering frightened whispers and concerned faces leaning across tables. For over a year, the dark rumors about what was happening in Amendyr had been trickling in to Seria, and no one knew how many were true.
After a short silence, Belladonna continued her story. “The dragons usually kept themselves apart from men in those days, before all of them disappeared.” Dragons, like Manticores, had not been seen in centuries, but there was no doubt that they had once existed. There were very detailed writings on them, and they played a major role in Amendyri and Serian history. “This particular dragon, Feradith, had a grievance. The King's mages had killed her hatchling. Feradith did not know how it had died, she just... felt its magic go out." Belladonna turned away from me and looked at the stars that made up Feradith's body.
"Why did the King's sorcerers kill the hatchling?"
"To drain its magic. When they tried, some of the mages died... there was too much power for all of them to hold."
I was amazed. I had read of draining magic from people in history accounts, but never from something as powerful and dangerous as a dragon. Dragons did not just control the bright energy of magic like humans did, they were made of it. Using the energy made us weak, and each of us had our own special ways of channeling it, but a dragon's very essence was said to be magical, and without it, they would not exist at all. "What would they need that much power for?" I asked, the idea of stealing dragon magic still settling in my mind.
"I have no idea. Maybe they were greedy."
We were quiet for a few minutes, listening to the night sounds around us. "Are you going to tell me the rest of the story?" I asked after a moment.
"The king's son, Alharin, heard about what the mages had done, and he went to offer his life to the dragon. Alharin told Feradith what had happened to her hatchling, and in gratitude, she refused to take his life as forfeit and lifted the drought."
"So Feradith just stopped the drought?" I interrupted, surprised that the dragon's mighty anger had just vanished.
"Not quite," Belladonna said. "Feradith did not forgive... she just redirected her rage. Instead of punishing the entire kingdom, she ate the mages. She took little joy in punishing innocents. At least she was fair.”
The story over, Belladonna and I stayed stretched out on the dry grass, content with silence. My next memory was of waking up, startled, because I could not recall falling asleep. Belladonna was gone.
As Belle and I spent more time together, I began to notice strange things about her sister. Luciana seemed to have some sort of hold over large groups that I could not understand. Only Belladonna, the servants, and I seemed unaffected. Occasionally, a noble would come visiting, perhaps to court her, perhaps to do business with Lady Kingsclere or my father. Whenever Baxstresse had guests, all of them were enthralled.
Sometimes Luciana would wear her red dress at dinner, which looked bewitching and frightening in low light. She would smile and laugh, and her skin would almost glow with health. Her eyes held a strange light that I could not understand. This same light became a dazzling beacon whenever Lady Kingsclere or my father paid attention to her. Luciana's mother adored her, showering her with affection and praise that contrasted completely with her personality. Her affection towards Belladonna was more serious, although I could tell that it was still strong.
Once, while I was exploring one of the many unlearned hallways at Baxstresse, I found Luciana staring out of a window. The room was open and airy, mostly decorative, and it was not used often. I stood just outside of the door, looking in at her from a distance so that she would not notice me watching. She turned a little and I saw a flash of metal in her hand as the sunlight caught it. She stared down at her palm, rich brown hair breaking across her shoulders as her chin dipped to kiss her chest. She whispered something, but I could only see her lips move.
I moved my head forward, trying to snatch a look at the thing she held in her hand. I just managed to make out a few links of gold before she turned back fully to the window, watching the darkening sky. She was holding some kind of chain. Silently, I backed away from the door and hurried down the hall, hoping that Luciana would stay in the room until I turned a corner. Once I was on the main floor, I relaxed. Catching Luciana in an unguarded moment had been strange. Her light was gone, and the familiar unease had not been present. There had only been the tightness of my stomach as I watched, hoping that I would not be caught.
I was settled peacefully in a library armchair with Jessith on my knees when I heard the scream. It was a grating, broken sound, the sound of a woman's sanity snapping. My entire body jerked upright and my nails dug into the loose skin on the back of Jessith's neck. She leapt off of my lap, hissing and arching her back. “That hurt,” she yowled, glaring at me. “If you had been anyone else, I would have bitten you.”
“Sorry... it was an accident, Jess,” I mumbled, raising my chin to listen. All I could hear was the sound of my own loud breathing. Once I realized that no other screams were coming from downstairs, I looked back down at the unsettled cat on my lap. “Did you hear that? Did I imagine it?”
“Of course I heard it. Stop asking stupid questions and get up to see what is going on.” I ignored Jessith's bad mood and scooped her into my arms, tucking her against my chest as I dodged between bookshelves, trying to remember which direction the scream had come from. In my hurry, I nearly stumbled over poor old Trugel, who was sleeping in her usual spot by the fireplace. She hardly stirred, only opening her eyes long enough to glare after me as I ran from the room.
Jessith, who knew Baxstresse far better than I did, directed me, putting aside her anger for the moment to satisfy her curiosity. “Quick, left here. There's a door on this side. No! That's your right, you silly girl. I said left! Here, down this hall…”
With Jessith to guide me, I stumbled my way to second floor's main hallway, which was lined with stained glass windows. “It came from the entrance hall,” Jessith said, the usual dry, bored sarcasm gone from her voice. I couldn't remember her being this interested in anything since I had arrived at Baxstresse. Still clutching Jessith, I catapulted down the large stone steps three at a time in a very unladylike way, rushing to join the crowd that was gathering in the great entrance hall.
One of my father's men was standing in the center of the hall, surrounded by curious onlookers. Cate and Sarah were among them, helping to support his weight. His fine coat and breeches were torn and soaked through with rain, and there was blood streaked across his forehead. Lady Kingsclere lay crumpled at his feet, her fine skirts spreading about her limp body. The pallor of her face was a sickly yellow-green that glowed eerily under the light from the chandelier.
Belladonna knelt beside my stepmother, clasping her hand and whispering something in her ear. I noticed that her entire body was trembling. Lady Kingsclere did not respond. She remained completely still, all of the spirit drained from her body. Luciana imitated her sister and bent down at her other side. Someone rested a steadying hand on my shoulder, and I turned to see Mam staring down at me. “Come away, child,” she said, gently urging me back up the stairs. “You shouldn't be about now.”
“Hush,” Mam said firmly.
“Put me down if you are going,” Jessith said, wriggling to free herself from my arms. “I want to stay.” I let Jessith drop to the floor and allowed Mam to pull me back up the stairs by the wrist, tripping along behind her like a limp rag doll. Only my shock prevented me from protesting. The sight of Lady Kingsclere and her daughters on the floor lingered in my mind as Mam dragged me past the library and Belladonna's room. We stopped at my room, and Mam sat me down on the bed.
“How long were you down there, Miss Ellie?” Mam asked, the sternness gone from her voice.
“Only a few moments,” I said breathlessly. I reached out absentmindedly to stroke Jessith, remembering that she was still downstairs when my hand touched the bedsheets. I wished that she had come back upstairs with me. Something awful had happened, and I wanted her nearby. “Was that one of my father's men downstairs? What happened to Lady Kingsclere? Should someone-”
“Hush. Jamison and her daughters will be seeing to her.”
“Will she be all right?”
The lines in Mam's tired face seemed to grow deeper, and she raised her eyes to the ceiling. “Lord only knows, I'm hoping so…” I shifted uncomfortably on the quilts, thinking about the rumors that I had heard. People still gossiped about how Lady Kingsclere had been mad for five years after the death of her first husband… the death of her husband… my father... the man bleeding downstairs… The thoughts collided in my head.
“Mam, where is my father?”
I read the answer in Mam's silence. She put her hand on my arm, but I shook it off. When my mother died, people were always touching me, whispering to me, trying to make me feel better. I did not want anyone's pity, even Mam's.
“Why should I care if he's dead?” I said bitterly, pressing my lips together. “I knew he would die one of these days, wandering off after his horrid treasures… he forgot about the thieves on the road, he forgot that he was leaving me and mother behind. His own greed killed him. It was his fault.”
I looked up at Mam again, anticipating an expression of pity, shock, or anger on her face. Instead, fear was written there. But what did Mam have to be afraid of? “Miss Ellie...”
“How did he die?” The question stuck in my throat. “Tell me.”
“Servants know everything, goes on in a house like this... The buyer in Ronin, he didn't want witnesses, I was hearing your father say the other day, or records. Had the stagecoach set upon and lit up in flames. That man downstairs only just got away with his life.” She glanced towards the door once, checking to make sure that it was closed, and leaned in, holding both of my shoulders. “But he...”
“But he wanted the money. He knew there might be danger, but he could never resist the money.” My eyes stung and I threw my arms into the air and pointed around the room. “He has all this, and he went anyway. He has a title, a manor, a wife, daughters... why did he go? He is one of the wealthiest men in the kingdom, and he always wants more!” I almost dissolved into tears then, but I held them back with the last of my strength. Only my bitter pride dammed them up.
“If you're going to cry for your father, do it now. You won't be having much time to grieve, if I'm right about this household.”
“I will not cry,” I said, still feeling hurt and rebellious.
“Then don't cry,” Mam said sharply, “but you'll be dropping that tone before anyone else hears it, if you want to avoid trouble.” Something in her voice caught at me, but I brushed the feelings of fear and apprehension aside.
“I would like to be alone, please,” I said, carefully removing the quaver from my voice.
Mam picked her heavy body up and walked towards the door, turning back to look at me over her shoulder. “If anything else happens,” she told me, “come down to the kitchens and find me. I'll take care of you.” I did not speak, and Mam slipped out of the room, holding the door open long enough to let Jessith in. The cat leapt onto the bed, making soft paw-dents in the quilt as she padded over to me. I fell back onto the bed and Jessith curled up on my chest, purring loudly as I scratched her ears. She didn't say anything. Cats know that a warm body is more comforting than a thousand condolences.
I fell asleep to the sound of Jessith's light, steady breathing, my hand still resting on her head.
The first thing I knew the next morning was cold. Someone I could not see had ripped open my warm cocoon of covers, and I threw my arms around myself, squinting up through the dark. The person above me dragged me from the mattress, and my small feet burned as they slapped against cold stone.
I tried to scream, but fingers covered my mouth. They did not pull away when I bit down, but I could hear my attacker spit a muffled curse. “Let her scream,” said a voice that I recognized from several feet away. “No one will interfere with you.”
“No one would dare.” Luciana removed her hand and I gasped for air, choked up with fear. “I should have you beaten for this,” she whispered, her perfect lips pulling back in a feral grin as she held up her red hand. I had not broken skin, but there were purple indents in her fingers.
“You would like that too much,” said Belladonna, the other voice from farther away. “Will you let yourself be controlled so easily?” I did not understand what Belladonna meant then, but it became clear later why Luciana tossed me to the floor, bruising my knees and skinning my elbows.
The thought that I needed to do something crossed my mind more than once, but Luciana's actions had struck me dumb. I had never suffered physical abuse before, and I had no idea what to do. It was not that I was cowardly or foolish, even back then, but shock and inexperience deadened my tongue. I would learn how to protect myself later, after many painful lessons from my stepsister.
“Your father is dead, and our mother is-”
“Not well,” Belladonna sliced in cleanly.
Luciana tossed her a piercing glare and turned back to me. There was an unholy flush across her pale cheeks. My heart pounded against my ribs. “And now our problem becomes how to rid ourselves of you.”
That was too much for me to bear, bewildered as I was. “What?” was the only word I managed to force through my dry lips.
“Perhaps I should toss you out the window,” Luciana purred, caressing the hand that I had bitten down on. “It would be so easy to make it look like a suicide. Poor Eleanor of Sandleford, who threw herself out of her window when she heard that her father had been murdered... that would cause quite a stir. Picture their faces when they find your broken body on the ground, with your pretty neck snapped.” She reached out and trailed her fingers along the column of my throat, and I jerked away.
“Predictable little Luci,” Belladonna said, her voice heavy with disgust. “No imagination at all. You can do better than that, surely.”
I turned to my younger stepsister, the woman that I had begun to trust, and grasped at my last hope of salvation. “But – but... you hate each other... you...” She did not respond. Her handsome face remained still as stone. Even though she had betrayed me, I could not forget how striking her figure was, how commanding her voice sounded.
“Belle and I have formed a temporary alliance,” Luciana explained. “We will go right back to fighting over our inheritance as soon as you are out of the way.”
“You... you seriously think that you will get away with throwing me out of a window? You must be touched.” But I knew that they probably could. Even if any of the servants suspected that my death had not been a suicide, they would not be in a position to help me. A servant's word against a noble's was worth less than nothing, and Lady Kingsclere was obviously too out of her wits to save me. My stepsisters had complete control over Baxstresse, and over me.
Belladonna shook her head at Luciana's heated face. “Disgustingly unoriginal. There are better ways of putting the princess in her place. Changing her identity, possibly.”
Luciana's eyes fired at that suggestion. She did not need much prompting from her sister to latch on to the idea. “That has possibilities. Stripping her of her new title would be a useful lesson in humility. What a pity, after her father worked so hard to get it for her.”
I never wanted a title , I tried to say, but the words jarred themselves against my teeth and did not come out. My father was one that had clung to the idea of nobility. Sandleford had not been enough for him. His longing for power had gotten me into this horrid mess.
“No better than a common slut, really,” Luciana continued, “grasping at things you have no right to.”
“Your mother is the one who married into our family in the first place," I shot back. Luciana could not hold in her anger. She slapped me across the cheek and sent me reeling. My legs trembled as I touched my face, and something warm and wet ran down my neck. Her nails had broken one side of my mouth and the skin of my cheek. Bright colors swam around my head, and I stumbled back against the bed.
“Luciana,” Belladonna's voice cracked sharply, refocusing Luciana's attention. The lighter-haired Kingsclere gave her younger, taller sister a surprised look, and Belladonna's face quickly relaxed into her usual expression of superiority and disgust. “I was right, Luci, you are too weak to let her go.” My breath caught at the thought of freedom, but Belladonna's eyes told me that freedom was not what she had in mind. “You want to hurt her so much... tear her... I can see it. Your body is trembling.” Luciana flinched. “Oh, you do want her badly... Is torture and sex all you ever think about? You never could resist the pretty ones. Pathetic.”
“ You are calling me pathetic?” Luciana snarled. “You could never throw her out of that window, even if you wanted to.”
“And you could never keep yourself from using her and breaking her, like the rest of your toys.”
The argument was quickly becoming too confusing for me to follow, but I could sense that some kind of bargain was about to be struck. I knew that tone of voice all too well from my father.
“I will wager the necklace on it.”
For the second time, Belladonna's carefully painted expression cracked. “I will find something to match you with. We have a bet. You will never be able to keep from indulging.”“We can put her in the servant's quarters to keep her close,” Luciana said. “Get someone to spread the news that Eleanor of Sandleford has taken ill upon hearing the news of her father's death, and can see no one.” That part of the conversation, at least, I understood. What I had no way of understanding was how much hurt their bet would cause. At the time, I was grateful that they had decided not to throw me out of the
window, but later, I almost took my thanks back.
I stumbled down to the kitchens in a silent stupor, my mind completely detached from my body. My legs moved, but I was not the one doing the walking. That was some other Eleanor, a little blonde idiot that had been unable to defend herself from her own stepsisters. It could not be Ellie – she would never let anyone strike her, even Luciana.
I worked some moisture into my dry lips, tasting blood on my tongue. I prodded at the broken side of my mouth, and sticky red warmth coated my fingertips as my mind slammed back into my body. I went from dazed to hysterical in a matter of seconds. The sting reminded me that I had let Luciana slap me, and I was ashamed.
Somehow, I found myself in the kitchen seconds or hours later. Perhaps my shattered self had remembered Mam's offer of protection, even though I had been out of my head. Steaming heat rose around me and colored my cheeks as I stood there, bare-footed and brokenhearted. Mam turned around after taking a hot loaf of bread from the oven and saw me. Her eyes glinted like dark wet stones as she looked at me. The lines etched into her face seemed deeper, stretched and cut with worry. My gut lurched and I slumped forwards, falling into her arms.
“They want me to be a servant,” I gushed, the words spilling through my lips in a stream. “How can she make me? She wanted to kill me... she wanted to kill me! She could have... She tried to throw me out the window! I want to go home...”
Mam pressed two fingertips to my lips, covering my small hands with her rough ones. “Hush, child,” she urged, but I was angry at her calmness. She should have been shocked, horrified at what Luciana had done to me. It did not matter that I had not explained my story yet, Mam was supposed to take care of me.
“She wanted to throw me out the window!” I screamed again, stamping my bare foot on the floor with a painful slap. What a sight I must have looked then, in my half-torn nightgown with a bloody lip and a bruised cheek. “Why didn't you stop her? Why didn't you-”
“Tell me exactly what happened,” Mam ordered, and I obeyed. I told her in breaking sobs, my voice catching when I explained how Luciana had hit me, and how she had tried to have me killed. By the end of my story, fresh tears were burning trails on my cheeks. “Dry your face now, Ellie,” she said. “You have friends here, mayhap more than you know.”
I gave her a blank look. Mam touched my cheek, brushing away a clinging tear. “You're kind and polite, even to the servants, when you aren't out of your head. For that, we'll be helping you.”
“Can she really turn me into a servant?”
“Until we find a way to help you, aye. Luciana's a bad enemy for anyone to be having. A servant couldn't speak against her. But you're safe for now.”
“Safe?” I said, the pitch of my voice rising, “how can I possibly be safe? Luciana threatened to kill me, or have you forgotten that?”
“She made a bargain with Miss Belladonna, Ellie. Luciana's pride is more important to her than hurting you.”
“She could kill me anyway.”
Mam bit into her bottom lip thoughtfully and stepped a few paces back, turning to the bread that she had left on the counter. She held her hand just over it to see if the loaf was cool enough, and then took a knife to begin slicing. “Miss Luciana likes to win. She'd cut off her arm rather than admit to Miss Belladonna that she was right.”
“Why did she do it?” I asked, speaking of Belladonna. “She was kind to me at first... we read together in the library. Money never seemed to have that strong a hold on her.”
“Only Miss Belladonna could answer that for you, child. But don't you be looking on her too harshly, now. She saved your life, and she was the only one able.”
“Saved my life and sentenced me to the kitchens.”
“A servant's lot isn't as bad as you think,” said Mam. I blushed guiltily.
“Sorry... I just... I'm not...”
“You're upset. I'll be forgetting all of your screaming after it's over.”
I lowered my eyes to my feet. “I suppose I have no choice,” I whispered, my anger seeping out of my shoulders and leaving my body limp. “If I ran away or went for help, all bargains would be off and I would be dead before I was saved.”
“That you would.” Mam took a rag from next to her hand and wetted it before handing it to me. “Clean that pretty face, then,” she said, and I began to wipe the tears and dried blood from my cheeks, careful not to press hard where Luciana's hand had bruised me. “It's still morning, and I've got a full day of work. I'll take you to Cate and Sarah, and they'll be showing you how to get started after we get you some clothes.”
And did Cate ever show me how to get started. I saw a different side of Cate that morning, and I gained a new appreciation for the timid girl that I had pitied so deeply. This time, Cate was the strong one, and I was the one that needed shelter and comfort. The thin redhead was a hard worker, thorough in every task she performed, and she found it easy to instruct me.
We started with cleaning. Usually, Cate spent her mornings in the kitchen helping with breakfast, but Mam had declared that she did not want me anywhere near a stove yet, lest I set fire to something – probably myself. And so Cate and I went to the library with lye soap, water, and several rags to clean the bookshelves and the floor.
At first I just stared at my palms, pretending to ignore Cate as she scoured the floor, her hair moving back and forth over her shoulders as she worked. Would my hands be hard and calloused from work soon? After a few seconds, watching while Cate worked proved to be too awkward to bear. I lowered myself to my knees beside her, reaching for the spare rag draped over the rim of the bucket. The coarse material of the working dress that I had borrowed rubbed against my skin without the protection of a corset or petticoat. These new clothes were nothing like the gowns I was used to.
Minutes crept by as we worked together to clean the seemingly endless stretch of library floor. The scent of lye tingled painfully in my nose, and my hands were a stinging, scraped pink, especially at the heel. If I worked much harder, I thought, I would bleed all over the nice clean floor that I had spent absolutely ages scrubbing, and I would have to wash it all over again.
Cate, perceptive of my mood, rested gentle fingers on my arm. “I'm sorry, Ellie,” she said softly. “Mam's only doing this for your own good. If Miss Luciana finds out that you haven't been worked hard, she'll hurt you.” It struck me then that she had used my name for the first time instead of my title, and I smiled a little.
“You should stop calling her Miss Luciana, Cate. She is a horrible snake.”
“You shouldn't cross her,” Cate warned me. I saw a flicker of hurt in Cate's eyes, and I felt a sob break in my chest. Luciana obviously enjoyed tormenting Cate and the rest of the servants, and I was sure I would be no exception. In fact, she would probably single me out for extra unpleasant surprises.
“You know,” I said, “this is the most that you have ever said to me at one time, I think.” I thought I saw Cate's face brighten for a moment, but I could not be sure.
“It won't be so bad, Ellie, you'll see. We'll think of something.”
I wanted to believe her so badly, but I was unsure. I went back to scrubbing the floor, and Cate did the same. After that task had been finished, we dusted the bookshelves and tried to replace the books that had been left out. The library was cluttered and disorganized, so putting the books away was more difficult than it should have been.
Finally, we went downstairs to the kitchens. I had missed breakfast. The servants had already eaten theirs early in the morning, and I assumed that Luciana did not want me to take any more meals with her. There were some leftovers from lunch waiting for us when we arrived, however, and I ate until my stomach was stretched. I blinked my eyes lazily, wishing that I could take a nap.
I looked at my raw, pink hands and frowned. My entire body already ached, and the afternoon had only just started. I was not sure I would survive another week of this torture, or even another day. The food helped, but the tiredness lingered as we cleaned the dishes left over from the afternoon meal. Though they had already been scraped down to a fresh layer of slick skin, my hands still wrinkled as they slopped about in the water. Mercifully, Cate allowed me to rinse and dry so that I would not have to touch most of the soap, but whenever any of it coated my palms, the stinging made my eyes water.
Soon, Mam returned to the kitchen and began setting out ingredients for dinner. She gave me a sympathetic smile, but I was relieved when she did not speak. Talking seemed useless after the hours I had spent working alongside Cate.
Luciana began her game with the lentils on the fourth day of my slavery. I had not spoken with her since the morning she threatened to throw me out of the window, but I had seen her watching me. She observed, slightly amused and certainly frustrated, as I carried water, cleaned, straightened, and mended. I was slow and clumsy compared to Cate and Sarah and the other servants, but quick enough to recover from most of my mistakes with their help. Luciana watched as I struggled with my chores, sometimes for a moment, sometimes for several minutes, hungry-eyed and vicious.
Jessith, who had learned the entire story by the second day without even asking me directly, helped me to avoid her. She kept lookout while I worked, and when she had to leave, one of the other cats always seemed to be nearby. Even Rucifee gave my hand a friendly nudge when I fed him his dinner.
Perhaps I should have expected Luciana's visit to the kitchens. It was only a matter of time before her sick humor lured her there. Mam was preparing dinner as I watched her, cleaning. It would be another week or so, Mam said, before she would let me help, but she promised to teach me how to cook. Imagining several more weeks of my new life nauseated me, but I steadied my stomach and scrubbed my stack of dirty dishes. Sarah, who had not snubbed me or badgered me for gossip as I had expected, was at the other end of the room, eating a hunk of bread.
As I reached to set aside the plate that I had cleaned, the kitchen door swung open. She stood there with her lovely brown hair, wickedly beautiful, and I glared at her with fresh hate. Her eyes were dark, sharp as needle-points, as she followed the side of a long table. She looked everywhere, too casual, but always returned her gaze to me. Her smile clawed at my belly, and my face throbbed as my skin remembered the bruise that she had left on my cheek.
She stopped four feet away, resting her arm against a pot of lentils Mam had taken out for her soup. She studied the fireplace, her fingers curling over the edge of the table. Her other hand toyed with a pendant hanging about her throat. It was a golden circle inside a silver circle inside another golden circle. Three rings. She twirled it with her fingers, and I had to tear my eyes away from the flashing metal.
I set the clean plate to my left and reached for a bowl, but did not bother to scour it. Across the kitchen, Mam had started chopping vegetables. Though she did not say a word, I knew that she was watching us. Sarah was much less subtle. She stared openly, her jaw hanging loose, at Luciana, then at me. She looked horrified. “Oh-” she gasped, and then clapped a hand over her mouth.
Luciana watched me. I held still. Suddenly, her hand, which had been twirling the pendant, shot out and sent the pot of lentils spinning from the table. The sound of metal crashing onto the floor made the kitchen ring. Sarah and Mam flinched. Lentils scattered into the ashes, tiny brown bumps poking out of the gray-white powder. Some were lost from sight at once, others settled on top of each other, and a few missed the fireplace completely.
"An accident," she said, not bothering to sound sincere. "Be a dear, Ellie, and gather them up?" It was a ridiculous task – the pot had been full to the brim. It would be nearly impossible for me to pick all of them out from the ashes. The sly Luciana I was used to had never been so openly cruel, except for when she had hit me. All of her cunning subterfuge was gone. Lady Kingsclere was sick, and she knew she did not need to be discreet any longer. She could show her wickedness openly.
I had no choice. I set the pot upright, got on my knees, and picked a lentil from the ashes. I dropped it in and listened as it hit the bottom with a sharp ping. Sarah shot me a sympathetic glance as I reached for another one, and hurried from the room. I did not blame her. What could she do?
Soon, soot and ash coated my face and hands. My hair was tied behind my head, but it was dirty, too. Luciana smiled down at my blackened cheeks and laughed with her eyes. “Look at the princess now,” she whispered so that Mam, who had remained in the kitchen, could not hear her. “Dirt to dirt, that is the way of the world.”
It took Luciana an hour before she grew bored of her game and left me. Mam had finished dinner and was helping Sarah to serve it, since I was occupied with the lentils. I had seen her cast me pitying glances, but she had not been able to do anything with Luciana watching. I was left alone in the kitchen, still scraping through the soot and ashes for the lentils. The bottom of the pot had hardly been covered.
I spent half the night finishing my task. Luciana repeated the cruel joke the next day, and the day after that, laughing with her eyes as I bent to pick through the soot at her feet.
It was the fifth time that Luciana had spilled lentils in the fireplace for me to gather up. Cate and Sarah, who was turning out to be a very sweet girl despite her talkative nature, helped me pick through the soot when they could, but both of them had their own work to do, and could not stay for long. None of us wanted to see what Luciana would do if she came to watch and caught them helping me. Night came and I was left alone, my arms blackened to the elbow, my back shaking with pain and fatigue. I rubbed my eyes and stared up at the window, wincing as I stretched my neck.
I wept then, my tears cutting salty lines in the grime on my cheeks. My chest ached, heavy with shame. My humiliation was complete. Luciana had stripped me of my dignity as easily as she had cheated me out of my inheritance. Before, she had dressed me in rags, but I had stayed a lady. I carried myself like one even as I worked. But now, hunched over in the soot, dirty, tired, weeping, I was something less than human, certainly not nobility.
I had never considered myself prideful before, but this new disgrace shattered whatever vanity I had possessed. Part of me screamed that I should not obey her, but I was afraid. If I resisted, she would kill me and say that I had died in my sickbed. The rest of the kingdom, who could not have missed Lady Kingsclere's scandalous wedding to my father (still a commoner in their eyes, despite his wealth), assumed that I was on the brink of death, and Luciana made sure I was out of sight when we had visitors. If I ran, she would find me. She needed to keep me close so she could win her disgusting bet, and to make sure I didn't try to reclaim what she had taken from me.
A loud thump against the tiny window above the sink stopped my tears, and I looked up. The dark shadow of a bird was silhouetted against the glass, frantically trying to claw its way into the kitchen. I stood up and climbed onto the counter, pushing the window open. The creature tumbled inside and fell onto the floor, its feathered chest heaving as its large black eyes rolled around the room. After I had closed the window, I saw another shadow swoop low past the glass.
“Was it an owl?” I asked the bird in its own language. I could converse with Jessith, Brahms, and other household animals in plain Serian, since they had been raised around humans, but wild animals were different. My magical abilities translated the words for me automatically, so speaking with the bird was not difficult.
It lifted its head, surprised that it could understand me. “Ca-roo car-ee, car-oo car-ee. Nightflyer starves, this bird is free!”
I remembered how awkward it was to talk with songbirds. They always spoke in rhyme, and most of them enjoyed the sound of their own voice too much. Unfortunately, their rhymes were often poor. I pitied the creature, though, and did not regret saving its life. It was a robin, shaking under its coat of ruffled feathers as it huddled against my ankle. I dropped to my knees beside it. “You should stay inside awhile,” I said. “The owl might not be gone.”
“You should ask it to help you,” said Jessith, who could move so silently in the shadows that an eagle's eye would not catch sight of her. I started, and Jessith lashed her tail. “A bird's beak would be perfect for pecking through the ashes and finding those lentils.” The robin flapped into my lap, fear glazing his bright eyes again. “Oh, tell the silly thing I won't eat it. If I wanted to, I would have already.”
“Turn and peep, turn and peep, hide until the cat's asleep!”
Jessith flicked her ears and gave the bird a wicked hunter's smile. “Horrid creature... I won't eat you if you promise to help this girl. In fact, I'll extend the bargain to every bird at the manor.”
The bird looked interested. It hopped forward onto my knee, peering cautiously at Jessith's face. It did not look at her eyes. It knew that a cat's eyes could cast a spell and freeze it until the death-bite was delivered. “A bargain, cat, you wish to make? No more bird-lives will you take?”
“No,” said Jessith. “I won't eat any more birds if you pick all of the lentils out of the fireplace whenever my friend calls you. But you have to stop rhyming.”
I understood the brilliance of Jessith's plan and smiled until my cheeks smarted. A bird would be the perfect creature to help me complete my task. A whole flock of them could get it done in minutes. Luciana would never be able to torment me with the lentil trick again. Soon, Jessith had the robin pecking through the ashes, picking up the lentils with its tiny beak and dropping them into the pot. With its help, the task was done within the hour.
Enlisting the birds as my helpers worked better than I could have hoped. I even grew used to their singing after a few days – one of them invented the rhyme: “The good into the pot, the bad into the crop,” and the rest of them picked up on it. Their voices were actually pleasant to listen to if you ignored the bad rhymes and nonsense syllables. Whenever Luciana played one of her nasty tricks – spilling lentils, ordering me to undo long row of stitches in the dark, working dirt into a carpet – the birds helped me. Their tiny beaks and sharp eyes were perfect for all sorts of things. Luciana grew angry that my tasks no longer seemed as much of a burden, but there was nothing she could do. She could not spend the entire day watching to make sure I completed them without help.
I snuck Jessith some raw fish, of course, to thank her for her idea. She gloated over her meal and carried herself smugly for several days afterwards, basking in her own brilliance. Cats are haughty by nature, and so I did not mind. True to her word, she refrained from eating any of the small songbirds that swarmed around Baxstresse. Birds are clannish creatures, and many of them came to help me with my work, knowing that I would reward them with some grain or breadcrumbs afterwards. They had little to fear now, since Rucifee was too fat and dignified to chase sparrows, and Trugel hardly ever ventured outside of the library. If they avoided the two tomcats that lived in the barn, they were quite safe.
The strange swell of birds that arrived at Baxstresse did not go unnoticed. “Must be the spring air,” Mam commented one morning after a chorus of loud birdcalls had awakened us before dawn. “Gets the birdies up and about, it does. Good for the harvest. They keep down the bugs.”
A servant at Baxstresse, I learned, survived by always watching. Watching for Luciana, watching for Jamison. While Luciana tortured for pleasure, Jamison punished for pride. He was our better, and his bright-buttoned waistcoat proved it. If either of them caught us taking a moment's rest, we would be punished.
The hurt he caused was never physical. Too much of a gentleman for blows, Jamison disciplined us with work. He always found the most unbearable tasks to doll out, the worst of which was waiting on Luciana. Jamison chose a girl, usually Cate, to help Luciana with her clothes every morning and evening. If we did something to annoy him, or if he thought we were not working hard enough, one of us would come out of Luciana's room in tears the next day. I had begun thinking of the servants and I as ‘us'. I was one of them now, forced to complete the same work. I was never chosen to assist Luciana, though. I assumed that she considered me a temptation, and did not want to lose her bet.
My opinion of Jamison, already low, dropped like a stone after the affair with the waistcoat. Mam had allowed me to take some carrots to Brahms after lunch. I had not ridden since my enslavement, and she knew that I missed the horses. She was always doing kind things like that, trying her best to make my dreary days a little brighter.
Brahms was relieved to see me. “Where have you been, Ellie?” he asked, banging one of his hooves against the door of his stall. “We haven't been running in ages! Can we go now?”
My throat tightened as I held out my hand, offering my friend a carrot. “No, not today.” I forced a smile as Brahms' wet lips tickled my palm.
“You're sad,” Brahms said perceptively, talking around a mouthful of carrot.
“Yes.” How could I explain to a horse that Luciana had cheated me out of my birthright and forced me to do a servant's work? Most animals are not familiar with the concept of nobility and rank, unless they are part of a pack. Brahms had not been raised in a herd, and had always been doted on. “I have to work in the kitchens now. I am not sure when we will be able to go riding again.” I stroked Brahms' soft pink nose, and he huffed appreciatively. I could see myself reflected in his eyes, and I knew that he would miss our rides as much as I did.
“Can you work in the stables instead of the kitchens?” he asked me.
“No. Luciana is trying to hurt me so she can take my father's money.” And because she enjoys it, I added silently. Luciana could never resist the temptation to harm whoever was closest. It was obvious now where Cate got the ugly bruises that colored her arms and throat, even though she had not admitted it to me yet. Jessith had been right – my search for Cate's tormentor had not been broad enough. Luciana had never even entered my mind as a suspect.
“Luciana hurts a lot of people. Corynne doesn't like her. She hits too hard when she rides.”
I gave the horse a thin smile. “Well, horses are excellent judges of character.”
“They were talking about her, you know,” Brahms said thoughtfully, tilting his head as he focused more closely on the memory that was obviously replaying itself in his mind. “There were two of them that came by here a few minutes ago. One was the girl that used to come with you before our rides. The other had a long brown mane and a round face.”
I removed my hand from Brahms' warm nose. “You mean Sarah?” I asked, thinking of a pretty, quiet girl that cleaned on the second floor. “What did they say?”
“The girl with the brown mane – Sarah? – said that Jamison should be cooked alive for making the girl with the red mane go to Luciana twice. Then Sarah touched the other girl's face, and she started crying.”
“Was something wrong with her face?”
“It wasn't shaped right, and it was the wrong color.”
I exhaled and closed my eyes, knowing what I would find when I went after Cate, but hoping I was wrong. “Brahms, I should go after Cate. I think something happened to her...” Brahms sniffled understandingly and tossed his mane, the bands of muscles across his sides rippling as he backed up a few paces.
“Of course. Will you come visit me again? I've missed you.”
I gave him a tight smile, the best I could manage. “Of course. I missed you, too. I'll bring you some more carrots, or maybe an apple if I can steal one.” Brahms flicked an ear, obviously pleased with that thought, and I hurried out of the stables, wondering where Cate had gone.
It did not take me long to find her. She was out in the open, sitting underneath the hazel tree I had planted for my mother, her beautiful red-gold hair caked with blood next to her cheek. Her lip was split, and half of her face was swollen. There was an ugly gash next to one eye, and horrible yellow bruises fingered around her throat. Sarah was sitting beside her, trying to comfort her. “Oh, Cate,” I said, sinking to my knees in front of her and cupping her chin in my hands, “what happened this time?”
“Jamison,” Sarah explained. I saw that both of them had been crying. Sarah's brown skin had patches of red across it, and her eyes were bloodshot. Still, she did not look nearly as frightful as Cate. “He made Cate go to Miss Luciana this morning, even though she already went last night. She was in a rage on account of something Miss Belladonna said.”
I kissed Cate's forehead and held her as she cried, shedding a few tears of my own into her hair. Sarah held on to her arm, offering more support. “I wish he would send me instead. Luciana won't touch me because of the bet.”
“She might anyway,” Cate whispered, her voice so soft that I could hardly make it out. It was the first time she had spoken. “She... there's something in her face right before she... she's not in her right mind. Someday, she'll forget her bargain, and you'll end up worse than me. She might even kill you.”
“I should get back to the kitchens,” Sarah excused herself quietly, getting to her feet and brushing her hair into place as she smoothed out her dress. “You'll look after Cate, won't you, Ellie?” I nodded, and Sarah left for the manor. She was very perceptive, and knew that Cate needed some time. I had grown very close with Cate through the weeks, closer than anyone else had managed to get.
I knew that the real blame for Cate's hurts lay with Luciana, but Cate and I knew that there was nothing we could do about her. And so, desperate for an outlet, I focused the force of my rage on Jamison once Sarah was out of sight. “What did you do to make Jamison so angry?”
Cate bit the unbroken side of her mouth, stroking her bruised cheek with feather-light fingertips. “His coat,” she mouthed, barely breathing out the words. “I dirtied it.”
“He had Luciana beat you for that ?”
“Luciana would beat me without any reason. Jamison just gave her an excuse.”
Cate's eyes were dim, hopeless, but mine were bright and fresh with rage. “He knew how badly she would hurt you. He helped cause this,” I looked at her face, not daring to touch it, “he is as guilty as she is.”
We studied each other, reading each other's faces. “It's sweet of you, but I don't want you to defend me,” Cate whispered.
I frowned deeply. “Cate, I am your friend... Let me.” Cate's eyes fluttered shut, her face tight and strained. Her skin, stretched thin and white across her cheeks, lost what little color it had.
“You'll be hurt, Ellie...” Her voice nearly broke then, and I saw tears swell behind her eyes again. I kissed her hair again, holding her steady as she shook. After a few long moments, I took her hand and helped her to her feet, steering her towards the kitchens so that I could wash the blood from her face. She went without protest.
“I promise not to try anything with Luciana,” I said, too moved by the pain in her wet eyes to protest. “But if I promise to be careful, will you let me take Jamison's pride down a few pegs?”
For just a moment, her gaze flared. The corner of her mouth twitched. “Only if we do it together. I want to get some of my own back.”
As my servant's education continued, I learned to walk Baxstresse's halls unnoticed, clinging to the walls like a strand of creeper. I kept a close eye on Cate, afraid that Jamison would turn her over to Luciana again. Through the long weeks of my humiliation, Cate's friendship had been my salvation. Although the other servants had been suspicious of me at first, Cate's support and friendship had swayed their opinions. Mam and Sarah had also stood beside me.
I memorized the schedules that everyone in the house kept, and knew when to make myself scarce. This information would be valuable for plotting against Jamison. I also learned everything I could from the servants. I was one of them now, and they included me in all of the manor gossip, most of which revolved around the activities of the Kingsclere sisters. I discovered more about my adoptive “family” after a week with the servants than in all the months I had spent in their company.
I learned that my stepmother was far worse off than I had believed. Luciana and Belladonna attended to most of the manor business themselves. The rivalry between them ran deeper than I could have possibly imagined. Both seemed determined to make the other fall into disfavor with their ill mother, and they quarreled fiercely behind her back. My earlier assumption, that no one but myself could see the hatred between them, was proved false. It seemed that only Lady Kingsclere – and my father, while he had been alive – had been deceived.
Not surprisingly, Belladonna was the general favorite, and most of the servants wanted her to inherit Baxstresse. She was considered to be less cruel than Luciana, and she treated everyone (except her sister) with a degree of cold politeness. They preferred a frosty mistress to a wrathful one, and I did not blame them.
However, Baxstresse had one secret that I was purposely excluded from. The others refused to speak of it with me until I discovered it for myself. Later, I found out that Mam had asked them not to, attempting to keep me shielded from the ugly truth as long as possible. Mam acted as mother, teacher, and friend to me as I adjusted to my new life, like a protective hen hovering over her chick.
There were several clues. None of the servants dared to enter either sister's room at night unless Jamison forced them. Certain parts of the house were avoided at specific times. When one of the younger members of the staff went missing for a few hours, no one bothered to ask where they were. There were Cate's fresh bruises, too. But I failed to piece everything together until one afternoon in early summer.
A week had passed since Jamison's act of cruelty. Cate and I were washing dishes and stacking them while Mam chopped vegetables on the other side of the kitchen. I pulled my hands out of the stinging soap water and dried them on a rag. “We're almost done,” I called over my shoulder to Mam, blowing my hair out of my eyes. Some of my formal tone had slipped away as I spent more time with the servants. If the well-paid governess that my father had hired when I was five could only see and hear me now, I thought with a small smile.
“Then you can be about collecting the trays from the serving room to wash, too,” Mam ordered, not bothering to turn away from her vegetables. She always seemed to be cutting something with her knives! Cate and I both groaned, looking at the neat stacks of dishes that we had already cleaned. The task had taken all morning, and the thought of washing one more plate almost had me in tears. Baxstresse was starting to grow warm, and the heat from the stove made the kitchen unbearably hot. Summers at Baxstresse, I learned, were as parched as the springs were damp. It was not a pleasant change.
“Ah, stop your carrying on. If one of you goes to get the dishes and brings them down to me, I'll be finishing the washing myself,” Mam offered, pretending to sound irritated as she turned around to face the sink.
“Are you sure?” I asked, looking down at Mam's hands. They were leathery and cracked, swollen at the knuckles from years of cutting and washing and mending. Mam's hands looked at least ten years older than she was.
“I wash faster than you. You might as well be going to help with the cleaning after you bring down the trays. Don't handle the stairs s'well anymore.”
“Cate and I will-” I stopped mid-sentence as I turned and realized that Cate had slipped away from the kitchens while I had been distracted. “Well, I'll go and get them myself. Where has she gotten to?”
“Never mind yourself about Cate,” Mam said sharply, but her face softened as she caught the hurt expression on my face. “Off with you, Ellie, and use the back halls.”
“Yes, Mam,” I said, and scurried out of the room, relieved to be free of the kitchen's heat for a few minutes.
The back halls were the quickest way to get to the second floor serving room, but I was in no rush. I decided to take the longer route, up the grand staircase in the front entrance hall and past the library. The cold of the stone steps crept through the thin soles of my shoes as I made my way up to the second floor. The drafty halls were a welcome relief from the boiling heat of the kitchens. I felt my skin tingle as the thin layer of sweat along the back of my neck dried in the cool air.
At the top of the stairs, I listened for the severe click of Luciana's heels or the soft tapping of Jamison's fine boots, not wanting to become a target. When I was sure that it was safe, I slipped down the wide hallway that led to the upper dining hall.
Pale sunlight filtered through the stained glass windows, casting red and blue patterns across the floorstones. I stopped to admire one window in particular – Saint Eugiers of Maveria was fighting with a great black dragon, his golden sword glinting as he swung it towards the beast's writhing coils. Inaccurate as the sword was, since gold is a soft metal and completely unsuitable for a weapon, the picture was still striking.
I was about to continue on when a soft sound came from across the hall. I started, fearing that Jamison had caught me, but only the great double doors of the library stood before me as I turned. The sound had come from inside. It came again, a sort of gasp or whimper of pain, and I inched the library door open and peered inside.
At first I only made out the shadows of the high-backed wooden chairs, but a slight movement drew my eyes to one corner of the room. An arching, smooth-muscled back shifted against a wooden shelf. Naked except for the delicate silver chain about her neck, her soft white skin had been rubbed red by the discarded tight corset. The hair was thick and honey-colored, unmistakably Luciana's, but she was not alone. Pressed between her lean body and the stacks of books was Cate, shuddering and trembling.
At first, the scene was strikingly raw and intimate, until I saw the glassy tears tumbling over Cate's white cheeks. Suddenly, the flash of beauty was gone. I saw blood smeared across Cate's thigh and the tightness of her throat as she choked back sobs. This was not a happy coupling. I stared for an eternity until nausea struck, tugging at my stomach and pounding across my forehead. It was dizzying, numbing, and I bolted away from the library, staggering and zig-zagging through the cramped servant's hallways. Luciana was hurting Cate... the blood...
Baxstresse's oddities suddenly made sense. Cate's extra bruises and disappearances were clearly explained. But what could I do? Who could save her? Not Lady Kingsclere, who was out of her senses, but perhaps Belladonna. Would she even believe me if I told her? I had once considered her a friend, but would she side with Luciana as before? Mam was the only other person I could think of that held some sway with Luciana. I turned in the middle of the hallway and ran for the kitchens.
She was there in her faded apron as I ran past the stove, waiting. I half collapsed in front of her and she gathered me in her arms, wiping away tears that I did not remember crying. “You never listen, child,” she fretted, smoothing back my hair.
“I-I… but Cate…”
“Cate can take care of herself,” said Mam. “She's a strong girl, that one.”
“You knew?” I screamed, my voice grating, “you knew, and you let it happen?” The nausea was gone, dissolving into a furious energy. I was sure my grip would leave bruises on Mam's tired arms, but I did not care. How could she let something so ugly happen right above us?
Mam did not pull away. “You'd rather Cate was dead, then? Because that's what she'll be if anyone tries to stop it, her and whichever fool got in the way.”
She let me cry myself out, not even leaving me to stir her precious vegetables or check the bread in the stove. Pain clawed at my chest and throat, and my eyes stung when I finally pulled away from her, my face and neck covered with bright red blotches. I could not hate Mam. Luciana was the one I hated. I thought I had hated her before, when she had forced me to become a servant, when she had spilled the lentils, when she had beaten Cate, but that hatred was nothing compared to the rage and disgust I felt now.
“Cate was crying...” I said in a soft, barely controlled voice. “I never learned... about things like that...” Mam's rough hands made soothing circles on my back as she helped me into a chair. I was silent again for several moments, but finally had to ask, “is it... always so horrible?”
Mam kept a firm hand on my shoulder, her touch drawing out all of my emotions like a worry stone and leaving me empty and exhausted. “No, Ellie, it's not always horrible. If you're in love, it can be one of the most beautiful things in the world.”
But I could not imagine it. I only saw Cate crying, the tight, slick skin of Luciana's back, the blood. I tasted the pain. “If she ever touches me like that, I'll kill her. And then I'll kill myself.”
“You won't. You'll find you've got more to live for than you think.” Mam lifted her hand and hurried over to a wooden corner-drawer that I had never seen her open before. Her large, bent back hid what she removed until she turned and placed the familiar large healing basket on the table in front of me. “Cate will be needing a friend soon,” she said. “Now that you know, you might as well help me take care of her bruises. You'll do a better job of it than any of us. She'll take comfort from you.”
“I-I can't bear it...” I sobbed, pushing the basket away. “Not me...”
“If Cate can bear Miss Luciana's pain, you can certainly bear to take it away,” Mam said, although her words were not without sympathy. I was silent for a long time, staring at the woven basket. My anger was drowned in a wave of helplessness. I could not protect Cate. I could not even protect myself. That stupid bet was the only reason that I had escaped the same fate.
“I'll help her,” I said.
“She won't be down for a while more,” Mam said. And then, “go and see to the bread. Careful not to burn yourself,” to give my hands something to do. They fidgeted anyway as I fetched the bread and set it on the counter to cool. I imagined I could hear screams, but didn't waste the energy to start at them.
The seconds stretched until Cate shuffled in through the door, tugging at her skirts uncomfortablywith her left hand, her face and neck freshly marked. When she saw I was still in the kitchen, her eyes took on their familiar dead glaze. Now I knew why she had needed to learn it. I walked over to the basket and pulled out bandages while Mam went to boil water. None of us spoke.
After Cate had been bandaged and kissed, washed and soothed back to us, Mam left, sensing that we needed time. I knew that Cate, who was never fond of speaking, would be too frightened to start. “You should have told me. I thought we were friends...” I had not, until that moment, realized how betrayed I felt. We had only known each other for a short time, but Cate was dear to me.
“I never told anyone,” said Cate, her voice steady, empty. “The others just knew.”
My eyes itched again, blurring at the corners. “I would have helped you. I could have found a way-”
“There isn't a way.” Cate's expression was vacant, but her words were bitter and cold. It was the first time I had seen her angry, and I was so surprised that I nearly knocked five of the extra bandage strips from the kitchen table. “She first took me when I was fourteen, and she'll have me again and again until she gets bored or she kills me.”
I opened my mouth, trying to speak, but no words came. “If I run away, she'll hunt me. If I hide, she'll find me. If I fight... Luciana has killed before. I'd rather live in pain than not live at all. Maybe a miracle will happen and she'll die or leave Baxstresse. Perhaps when she marries.”
I knew that Luciana would never leave Baxstresse for any suitor less than Seria's Prince. Cate understood, but neither of us could bear to consider the alternative. “Ellie,” she whispered, all anger gone, “you... do you think any less of me? For... what you saw?”
“Of course not. Why would I?”
“Because I'm not...” And then I understood. I forgave her a little for keeping her secret. Of course she would feel ashamed to talk about it with me. I was glaringly naïve, a sweet maiden. Belladonna had picked up on it immediately, and I supposed that everyone else had done the same. Perfect virgin, innocent lamb. Of course.
“The only person I think less of is Luciana.” Cate's lips curved quietly, a soft smile. My right hand reached out, stroking Cate's left cheek. “You have done nothing wrong. Will you remember?” My five fingers combed through her tangled red hair, shining copper-bright as we gazed out of the window instead of at each other.
“I will remember.”
They say that giants fall from great heights, and Jamison's ego hovered somewhere near the stars. We were eager to bring the purple-faced dandy crashing back down to earth. All the hatred Cate and I felt for Luciana, all the pain we had suffered, all of our helplessness and frustration, was poured into our revenge. Neither of us had much experience with hatred. We hoped that, by doing this one bad deed, we could purge most of our black feelings. Neither of us wanted to let them fester and become like Luciana.
Several times, Cate tried to put a stop to our plans. I pushed on for her sake. Cate needed to do this if she was ever going to heal. She had to understand that her honor was worth defending, and that Luciana and Jamison were not untouchable. I needed this victory as well, to prove that I was not a silly, helpless fool.
It was easy to see what we needed to do. Jamison's formal waistcoat with the large, bright brass buttons had to go. Coming up with a way to ruin the waistcoat was more difficult. If one of us stained the waistcoat, we would surely be turned over to Luciana, but if Jamison stained it himself, perhaps with wine, we would not be punished.
“Maybe one of us could make a loud noise while Jamison drinks his evening wine in the dining hall,” I suggested. Jamison always took his wine in Baxstresse's formal dining hall. It was no secret why. He enjoyed pretending that he was the Lord of the manor.
“It might work,” Cate admitted, but her expression was doubtful. “But what if the spill doesn't catch his coat?”
“It's worth a try, anyway.” The more time I spent with Cate, Sarah, and Mam, the more my speech relaxed. If my father had caught me saying ‘it's' instead of ‘it is', he would have cuffed me. Nobles sounded stuffy when they spoke, anyway. “The library's right next door. One of us could push something over, and if the cup was filled to the brim...”
I pushed until Cate stopped complaining and agreed to fill the glass. Without discussing it, we both understood that I would be the one to make the loud crash. We hoped that Jamison would exclaim over his coat instead of chasing after the noise, but if he did catch me, I would take the punishment. The bet would protect me from the worst of Luciana's abuse. Cate's poor body was in no condition to take any more punishment.
I waited in the library as Cate brought Jamison his wine that night. I waited for the large grandfather clock to strike seven as I examined the long rows of bookshelves. Most of the shelves were too heavy to push over, but there were smaller, half-sized shelves at the ends of each row that I could just move. Positioning myself behind one of them, kicking aside the feather duster I had brought as my excuse, I rested my hands against the sides of the shelf.
We needed to time it perfectly. I had to push the shelf before Jamison drained his glass too low, but if I pushed too soon, Cate would still be holding the wine. We had decided that Cate would hand him his wine at exactly seven o' clock, and that I would push the shelf over three seconds later. Luckily, Jamison was always aware of the time, and liked to keep to a schedule. He would ask for his wine just before seven, like always.
My eyes rested on the smaller clock pushed in to one corner of the library, its beautiful face hardly aged at all behind its shining glass mask. It would be perfectly aligned with the one in the dining room. As I watched, the tall hand pointed to the twelve, and the old clock chimed the hour through the quiet room, its voice strangely muffled by the chairs and shelves crammed together. The echo of the larger, booming grandfather clock in the dining room rang in time with its smaller brother. I counted to three, and shoved.
The bookshelf tipped, landing with the echoing crack of wood on stone. I had left the large library doors open, and I was sure that the noise could be heard from several rooms away. I bent over to pick up my duster, not wanting to leave any evidence, and tried to hurry deeper into the library, but I tripped over a pile of scattered books and fell to my knees.
Grudgingly, I stumbled back onto my feet, not bothering to run. It was too late to escape anyway, too many precious seconds had been wasted. Instead, I picked up one of the books that had fallen in front of me, scanning for a title so that I could reshelf it. At least I would look busy if Jamison did decide to investigate the noise. To my surprise, the book's spine was blank, and there was no title on the first page.
I ran my fingertips over the soft leather cover. The book was obviously well-loved. The pages were creased, not yellow with age, but smooth with frequent use. The handwriting was varied – usually neat, but occasionally larger, smudged and frantic, as though it had been written in a moment of desperation.
It was obviously a diary of some kind and, not wanting to intrude on someone's personal thoughts, I started to close the book when a few words caught my attention. My name was written several times on one of the open pages. Setting my morals aside, I started to read. Although the page was littered with ink stains and the lines spilled out of their orderly rows, the words were clear enough.
... so beautiful, my sweet obsession. She has no idea how much I want her. I wonder how the liquid satin of her would feel around my fingers, or against my mouth.
In her innocence, she stirs me more than any other woman I have ever taken. She is a complete virgin in both body and mind. She blushes so prettily, my beautiful Ellie. I can hardly stop myself from drawing her into my arms and never letting go.
Such a tender heart should be cherished and protected and loved. I only wish I could be the lover she needs. I need her to need me. I want to be everything for her – a lover, a friend, a guardian. I desire her because she is beautiful, but I love her because she is kind and good. I have seen how protective she is of Cate, and how gently she treats the horses.
I love you, my infatuation, my Ellie. I will never have you, but the softness of your mouth is tempting, and I wonder at its taste. I have given my heart to you already. The guilty whole of it is yours.
Before I could read further, Cate hurried into the library, worry lines tightening her forehead. “Oh, Ellie, I heard the crash! Are you all right? Why aren't you hiding?”
I searched for my voice, but was unable to form words. The mystery writer had wiped everything else from my mind. I stood there, flushed and frightened and overjoyed all at once for reasons I could not understand, trying to remember what Cate had said to me.
“It was brilliant, though!” she said, the worry lines easing a little. “Jamison's precious coat is ruined. I was so afraid for you... you never came out after you knocked the shelf over...” Cate looked at the book in my hand curiously, but I snapped it shut. I pressed my lips together, swallowing to loosen my throat. I had no choice – I needed to lie.
“Oh... I was... reading something. Poetry.”
“Poetry, at a time like this? It must have been good poetry,” she joked. I was too distracted to take pleasure in her unusually good mood. Jamison's defeat had lifted her spirits considerably. “If it's really that distracting, you'll have to read some to me later,” she said, still interested in the diary.
“Not from this one. It's handwritten, and I can barely make it out,” I said, giving her a quick flash of my admirer's messy handwriting. “I was going to see if there was anything in it worth copying over before I threw it away. Mam has been after us to organize this place anyway.”
The lie was surprisingly easy to tell. Afterwards, I realized just how strange that moment had been. It was as if I knew I had to keep the diary safe, even from Cate. It was one of the only successful lies I ever told, and perhaps that was why Cate believed me so easily.
I opened the book again as soon as I had smuggled it away. Whoever had written the diary was clever. Hiding a book in a library, among hundreds of others, was a brilliant idea. Curious, I flipped the pages, looking for a name. Soon, my eyes settled on a page that caught my attention. It told me quite plainly who had poured their heart into the journal.
My heart was torn in two today. I betrayed my Ellie. It was hard, so unbelievably hard, to talk Luciana into keeping her on as a servant. I saved her life, but for what? From now on, she will be treated little better than a slave. I bargained with my sister to keep her from using Ellie like the rest of her toys. It is not nearly enough, but her life, at least, is safe. I can do nothing for her heart.
I know what I did was right, but the ache in my chest remains. Luciana would have beaten her, stolen her innocence, and thrown her out of the window, unless she devised another cruel death-sentence to use instead. Thankfully, Ellie is unhurt, chaste, and, most importantly, alive.
Strangely, the thought of Luciana breaking her body hurts me more than the thought of her death. My Ellie deserves to be taken willingly, worshipfully, lovingly. Any woman does. I am sure that thoughts of Luciana's sick perversions sting the worst only because I cannot imagine Ellie dead. My heart will not accept the idea of losing her. If Luciana had killed her, I am sure the numbness would be permanent.
My chest is heavy with guilt. I have not eaten all day. She looked at me while Luciana tormented her, asking why I had hurt her with her eyes. I had no answer to give her. I still have no answer. All I wanted to do was tell her that I loved her, let her know that I would keep her safe. Someday, perhaps, she will understand that I had to do what I did. I only wish that I could have spared her the pain. I gladly would have taken it myself.
My throat tightened as I realized who had written such powerful declarations of love for me. “Heavens,” I whispered to myself, dropping the book onto my lap. My hands trembled as I shut the leather cover. I had never seriously thought of taking a lover before in my life, especially not another woman. Especially not my stepsister.
After finding the diary, my mind was not my own. I could barely stomach food, and I spent my nights awake, except for the dreams. I must have looked a sight, because Mam, Cate, Matthew, Jessith, and even the disagreeable Rucifee asked if I was ill. Working as a servant and bearing Luciana's hatred could not fade the intensity of this sickness, whatever it was. And I had a guess, although I was afraid to consider the word at first. The closest I could safely come to approaching it was infatuation.
The morning after Cate and I played our trick on Jamison, I carefully returned the diary to the scattered pile of books on the floor. When I checked the library that afternoon, the shelf had been straightened and the diary was still there. Only Trugel, the ancient library cat, watched me as I took it from the shelf, enjoying the weight of it in my hand. I just knew that Belladonna had put it back herself to keep her secret safe. She must have decided that the shelf had fallen by accident, and that no one had noticed the diary. Since she was not suspicious, I started to steal it whenever I could.
I was always cautious when I took the diary to read. I counted the books on either side to make sure I put it back exactly where I had found it, in between ‘Mountaineering: An Explorer's Handbook' and ‘A Serian's Guide to Sailing'. Since the nearest mountains and oceans were a week's distance away, it seemed like a good hiding place. The rest of the titles on the shelf were equally useless, most of them travel guides and maps that did not discuss the areas around Baxstresse.
Belladonna was careful in other ways, too. She added entries in the early afternoon while her sister and mother napped and the servants were cleaning the table after lunch. I took the diary at night, after most of the household had gone to bed. I could never let Belladonna know that I had learned her secret, at least not yet. As much as I wanted to confront her, something gripped at me. Perhaps fear and uncertainly, but it was probably guilt. I was afraid that Belladonna would hate me for reading her personal thoughts. Until I was certain that she would forgive me, I decided, I would keep quiet.
Thoughts of my stepsister and what she had written ghosted me even when the book was safe on its shelf. The seeds were rooted deep in my mind. Could this be love? I wondered fearfully as I scrubbed the dinner dishes, numb to the sting of lye against my hands. It was not the romantic warmth I had expected. Instead, it ate at me, a sweet torment, bands of it clutching tighter about my chest with every moment. For the first time, I was consumed with the idea of taking a lover, something I had never wasted my time pondering before. High society's disapproval of such things (especially between two women; being related by marriage only made it worse) hardly registered in my mind.
The more I read of Belle's thoughts, the more certain I became: I was falling in love. Her heart was layered and complex, and her words were always colorful. On my first night at Baxstresse, Mam had told me that Belladonna was a poet. She was that, and so much more. A poet, a storyteller, a dreamer, a lover in the classical sense. It was impossible to see Belle's deepest self and not grow attached. If I let her, I knew that she would go to the ends of the earth for me.
I was aware of my body as I had never been before. The slightest brush of fingers on my arm made my muscles seize and shiver. Whenever I thought about Belladonna – nearly always – the space below my stomach would tighten with hurt, and an emptiness deep inside me ached hollowly.
I accepted my fate more swiftly than I would have believed possible. It took me a week and a half to admit that I was lost to her, spoiled for anyone else.
“People have been taking bets on who your mystery lover is, Ellie,” Sarah teased me one evening as we sat next to the kitchen's fire, trying to warm ourselves before we went to sleep. “You're so distracted!” Cate was with us, staring into the flames as Sarah and I tried to coax her into conversation. So far, we had been unsuccessful, and Cate was still keeping to herself.
My cheeks blazed, and I knew from the curl of Sarah's lips that I was blushing furiously. Thoughts of Belle and I together flooded my brain, crowding out everything else and heating me to my toes. “Not a word of it is true,” I mumbled, following Cate's example and watching the logs burn.
“You fancy someone,” Sarah insisted. She reached into her apron, holding her fist closed around something as she pulled it out. “Shall we find out how they feel about you, then?”
I could guess what was in her hand. I did not believe in forest magic. The only real magic was done by mages, usually at the Ronin College of Sorcery. “Do you actually believe in that rubbish, Sarah?” I said disapprovingly.
Sarah opened her fist and waved a hazelnut – I had guessed correctly – in front of my face, grinning madly. "A Hazelnut I throw in the flame, and to this nut I give my sweetheart's name… Now, what name is that?”
“Did you get that from my tree?” I asked her, even though I knew the answer. The tree I had planted for my mother was the only hazel tree nearby that I knew of.
“If blazes the nut, so may thy passion grow, for t'was my nut that did so brightly glow." Sarah and I looked at Cate, surprised into silence. It was the first time she had spoken, except to greet us.
I took the nut from Sarah's hand and gave it to Cate. “Throw it in for me, Cate,” I told her. She took it from me and tossed it into the fire. The nut cracked, sparked, and then started to glow brightly.
“Aha!” Sarah crowed, leaning back in her chair as she watched the nut burn.
“She loves you, Ellie.” Cate's voice was so quiet that Sarah and I could barely understand her. We watched her face as she turned away from the warm red fire and looked at us with far-away, glassy eyes. “She loves you deeply. And that love will have to be enough when you break the chain.”
Sarah's expression instantly transformed, all of the joy leaving it. “Ellie,” she hissed, grabbing my hand and pulling me to my feet, “come.” I tried to sit back down so that I could ask Cate about what she'd said, but Sarah was larger than I was, and she easily forced me out of the room. “You can't say anything to Cate about what just happened,” she said once we had left the kitchen.
I hugged my arms to my chest, missing the warmth of the fire. “Why not? And why did you drag me out into the cold hallway?”
Sarah just shook her head, clasping my wrist tighter. “You can't... Cate... perhaps you don't believe magic is all that useful, but Cate comes from a long line of seers and fortunetellers. Denari, or something... She's Amendyri, you know.”
Cate's complexion had given her Amendyri heritage away already, but the information that Sarah had told me about her family history was intriguing. “Do you mean Dan'tari?” I asked. The name was familiar.
“Yes, that's it. But how did you know?”
I blushed. “I like to read.”
“Never mind,” Sarah said, dismissing her surprise with a shake of her head. “Not many people know about it. Please, don't think any differently about her. She sees things, and sometimes doesn't even remember afterwards... but if she does, she usually becomes ill... if she looks at any of us like that, we don't talk about it.”
The look that Sarah gave me was threatening and protective, and immediately sobered me. “No, of course not. I would never think differently of Cate. I promise to keep it a secret. She is very dear to me...” I understood why Cate had kept her gift hidden from me. After all, I was doing the same thing. However, I was secretly relieved that I was not the only Ariada at Baxstresse.
I smiled at Sarah, and she smiled back. “Cate should be all right now,” she said, turning to go back into the kitchen. “Let's see her to bed.”
The dream again, always the same. I was sitting by the fire in the library, my eyes resting shut. I often dozed off in the library, next to the red glow of the dying fire, but this time, there was someone else in the room with me. I did not need to open my eyes to know who it was. Her presence was familiar to me. She came nearer, and my breath grew in my chest, not willing to release. I was not surprised when a hand caressed my cheek. A finger trailed down to catch under my chin, tilting it up.
Soft lips stroked my forehead, moving down to my eyelids, kissing them. They fluttered open, leaving my gaze unfocused as a dizzying face drew close to mine. Finally, mouths met, lip seeking lip. Hard, white heat sparked along soft skin, burning flushed patches over my neck and shoulders. I saw her face. Her wet, full eyes. “Beautiful,” she said, “so beautiful.”
Time passed too quickly then, as though several minutes had been snipped out of the dream's fabric and the two edges had been stitched together again. I did not know where we were. Maybe a bed, maybe still in the library. I only knew her. She was above me, against me, in me. That last was the most distracting. I was full, stretched tight with her. Wonderful. She breathed nonsense words against my ear, and I had to shut my eyes against tears. They came anyway, and she kissed them away.
“Open your eyes, sweet girl,” she whispered. I clutched her shoulders tighter. “Your eyes, Ellie. Let me see your eyes.” I opened them, only for a moment, threading our gazes together as she touched a small star of heat between my legs that made me sob and shake in her arms. “Let go, lover. Let go. Let me catch you when you fall.”
But when I opened my eyes, I was in Cate's arms, not Belladonna's. She was stroking my hair, whispering different words than my dream-lover. I could not bury the disappointment I felt when I realized that it had all been a dream. I had not really been with Belladonna... I forgot my sadness for a moment when I saw the concern in Cate's face. “Ellie, are you all right? You were screaming and crying... did you have a nightmare?”
“Yes,” I panted, relieved that she had made up my excuse for me, “a nightmare.”
“You kept screaming Miss Belladonna's name.” Cate asked, her forehead tightening. My lips shook as I tried to speak, but no words came. Cate was sympathetic, gently questioning me while rubbing between my shoulders. “Was she hurting you in the dream?”
“No. Luciana was hurting me,” I blurted out, grasping for a plausible excuse. “Belle was trying to stop her. I was screaming for help.” This was the second lie that I had told my dear friend, and I regretted it. I hated to deceive Cate, but one lie always turns into two, and two into a thousand. I was getting better at it, though, I realized sadly.
To my surprise, Cate looked relieved. Her eyes flicked downward to the sheets tangled about my damp body. “She tries to hide us when she can. Belladonna, I mean. I'm glad you don't think she's... like her sister.”
Though it had taken several weeks of service at Baxstresse to teach me how to lie, I had always been good at reading people. I knew that Cate was hiding something. She clutched my wrist with her thin fingers, her mouth set in a stiff line, her brown eyes unfocused, panicked.
“What else, Cate?” Without realizing, our roles had reversed themselves. For the first time, I wondered why Cate had not stayed asleep. Maybe I had screamed loud enough to wake her, but perhaps she had been struggling with her own nightmares when she heard me.
“Sometimes she... what Luciana does, but gentler,” she said in a rush, not even able to put a name to the act. “She doesn't hurt you.”
I knew I should have been surprised, but mostly, I was jealous. My Belle had been sleeping with the servants, but was afraid of asking me to her bed? There had been references to it in her diary, vague though they were, but I had chosen not to believe them. It was too painful to imagine Belle in someone else's arms. “With you?” was all I got out.
“No...” Cate looked slightly embarrassed at that admission, almost pained. “She knows... she knows I don't want anyone to touch me. I can't...” I was not surprised. In Cate's limited experience, physical love only meant pain. I desperately hoped that I would not share her fate if Luciana decided to give up on her bet. Although Mam disagreed with me, I was still convinced that I would kill myself.
I patted Cate's arm, prying her fingers away from my wrist to let the blood flow back into my white hand. “Gently, Cate... I know...”
“But Sarah, and some of the others,” she continued, ignoring me completely, “they're infatuated with her... they say she's a dazzling lover. I've thought about it, really thought about it, but I just can't...”
This confession had been pressing down on Cate's chest for a long time, and I forgot my jealousy to comfort her. She hadn't been with Belladonna after all. She wasn't a threat, and I scolded myself for thinking badly of her. Cate was my friend. Even if she had shared herself with Belle, I thought, could I begrudge her that small happiness? But I was secretly glad that she hadn't found the courage.
“Do you feel like you have to?” I asked.
“Maybe. Most of them do. I feel... strange. Maybe something is wrong with me because I don't want to?”
“Everyone is different, Cate. Some of them might want to forget with Belladonna, but that does not mean that you have to. Maybe after Luciana is gone, you will want to take a lover again. Nothing is wrong with you.” There were several things wrong with Cate, but I would never tell her that until she was ready to hear it. Not wanting to take a lover after years of abuse was nothing strange.
Cate fell into my arms and gave me a tight hug. I could feel her warmth through our thin nightgowns, and I flinched. The sweet stabs of pain below my stomach doubled. I tried to put the dream in the back of my mind. “Will you sleep next to me?” I asked, threading my fingers with Cate's. “Both of us seem to be upset.” Having a solid, warm body next to mine would be a trial, but I could feel Cate shaking against me, and I knew that she could use the comfort.
“All right,” Cate agreed. Both of us settled next to each other, and soon Cate slipped into an easy slumber, her breathing even and slow. Sharing her fears with me had calmed her down, but my muscles were stretched tight enough to bring tears.
Why did it have to be Belle? I thought. Why not Cate, who was right next to me? But as beautiful as Cate was, I did not burn for her. No one could replace Belle in my thoughts. When I closed my eyes and started to fade, I forgot that it was Cate pressed against me and dreamed that I was with Belle.
Talking with Sarah was probably unwise, but I needed to know how Belladonna felt about her. Worry bled my heart dry. I had to talk to someone before I shriveled away. Belladonna had not mentioned taking lovers in her diary except in the briefest way, and I hoped that she had no real love for them. Still, I had to be sure.
The next evening, while we were polishing the great banister along the main staircase, I spoke with her. Softly but eagerly, I asked her, resting fingertips on her arm just beneath the sleeve. Her hand stilled, holding the rag she was using to make the wood shine. “Do you love each other, Sarah?” I did not need to name her. The words would not be swallowed back.
She said simply, “so you know. It might be hard for you to understand, but no... I suppose you want to believe we're going to live happily ever after.” Oh, how she had misread me. She would have been shocked to know what dear, sweet Ellie really thought of her answer. “All I want is someone kind,” Sarah confessed when I gave no answer. “I know my real lover is somewhere waiting for me, but Belladonna keeps me satisfied for now.”
Bands of tense muscle loosened along my shoulders. Instantly, a heavy weight was lifted. “She doesn't- you don't-” My voice cracked. I dared to hope, but I clung to Sarah's wrist, hardly feeling her skin against my palm.
“Belladonna's heart belongs to someone else. We have an understanding...” She smiled, but grief tightened her eyes. “I don't want to be Cate, flinching like a kicked dog at the thought of a kiss. When I find love, I want to be open to it. Belle helps remind me that there is still kindness and decency in the world until then.”
“I think I understand,” I said, but my head was filled with other words. “Belladonna's heart belongs to someone else,” Sarah had told me. That someone was me. I knew it. The last of my heart's doubts disappeared.
“You do?” Sarah looked surprised.
“Yes, I do.” My smile filled out my face. Any jealousy I might have felt was drowned in love. Belle loved me . Any relationship she might have had with Sarah seemed trivial. And I would put a stop to that, no doubt.
“I always thought you had the kind of heart that felt too much,” Sarah said, almost to herself. “I admire that in you.” Our hands touched, our friendship solidified.
“Cate was having nightmares last night.” I turned the conversation, our intimate connection broken but not forgotten. “I had to hold her until she fell asleep, and she was shaking.”
Sarah's shoulders dropped as she let out a heavy breath of air. Her hands were clutched tightly in her skirts. “I've seen it, too,” she said, frustrated. “She's not sleeping, not eating… by the way, Ellie, you've lost weight.” She fussed for a moment, brushing hair from my forehead as Mam would have done. I smiled and shut my eyes, thinking of my sickness. Even seeing her in my imagination sent lines of gooseflesh rising along my arms.
“Just distracted from worrying about Cate,” I said, dismissing the unspoken question.
“I've asked Mam about giving her some sleep medicine. I thought it might help with the nightmares.”
“Good idea,” I agreed. “Maybe I could take her outside to see the horses tomorrow. She is so pale…”
“You would be, too, if you weren't so freckle-faced,” Sarah teased me. “I think you're just as sick as she is. You aren't in love, are you?”
I knew it was a joke, but I felt my cheeks flare. I willed my face to cool and gave her a weak smile, taking the forgotten rag from Sarah's limp hand and starting to polish. “I wish that was why I seem distracted. I would much rather be in love than afraid of Luciana and worried about Cate.” The lie worked, perhaps because there was a kernel of truth in it, and Sarah and I talked of other things until we finished our work.
To Be Continued in Part 2
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