The Second Sister
By: Rae D. Magdon
For Disclaimers see Part 1
As recorded by Lady Eleanor of Baxstresse
As autumn passed, my days and nights were haunted by thoughts of Belladonna. In the mornings, preparing breakfast, I imagined how soft her hands would feel against my skin. I stared into empty space picturing her eyes while the others helped Loren, the crooked-toothed old washerwoman, with her piles of clothes. On my way to visit Brahms in the stables, my skin burned hot even in the cool evening breeze.
Thankfully, I did not have to wait on either of the Kingsclere sisters. Helping Belladonna with her clothes probably would have made my body erupt in flames. I imagined Sarah helping Belladonna out of her nightgown, tying the laces of her corset, seeing her unclothed. Those thoughts drove me wild and I did my best to bury them. Belladonna's diary said that she was in love with me and I took comfort in those words.
I was constantly distracted, consumed by dreams that I had not considered myself capable of having. At night, after everyone else had fallen asleep, I went to the library to read passages from Belladonna's diary. It was the best part of my day. No amount of work could put thoughts of Belladonna aside.
There were other bright spots in my life as well. I was beginning to get used to hard labor and sometimes I even took pride in my work. When I first made a soup on my own, when I cleaned an entire bedroom without supervision and Jamison could find nothing wrong with it, and when I learned how to mend my own clothes, I was filled with a strange sense of accomplishment that I would have believed impossible only a few months ago.
For the first time, I had true friends. Growing up, I had been rich, but not titled. I was isolated from other noble children at Sandleford and the servants' children never really accepted me as one of them. Cate, Sarah, and I had become closer than sisters (although Luciana and Belladonna were horrible examples of sisterhood, as Sarah often reminded us). Mam stepped into the role of mother and guardian, protecting us from Luciana whenever she could, doing little things to make life more pleasant.
Jessith was also an invaluable friend, checking hallways and rooms to make sure that Luciana and Jamison were not hiding nearby. Sometimes, she joined Cate, Sarah, and I while we worked, and her sarcastic commentary made me laugh at the most embarrassing moments. Luckily, Cate and Sarah took it in stride, only pestering me about my strange habits once in a while.
Despite these joys in my new life, Luciana hovered over us like a distant storm about to break, seeking me out to play her nasty tricks and hurting Cate. She directed her cruelty towards me less frequently - she usually limited her games to once a week - but she was no less devious. One morning, she came in to the kitchen while I was preparing breakfast, holding something wooden in her hand. When she came closer, I realized that it was a pair of shoes.
I did not speak as she approached. Talking would only make my punishment worse. She was toying with that pendant again, the three-circled one of silver and gold. It winked at me as she spun it on its chain. Smiling snakishly, she stared down at my feet, holding the skirt of her morning dress above the kitchen floor with her free hand. "Well, your shoes look nearly worn through," she said sweetly, gesturing towards my feet. It was true. The brown working shoes I had on were almost ready to fall apart. I needed to ask for new ones in a few days. I studied the wooden shoes. Surely, Luciana did not expect me to...
I glanced over my shoulder, hoping Mam was somewhere nearby, but she was in the hallway, carrying the first of the trays up to the breakfast room. Luciana had cornered me alone. "I was kind enough to have some new ones made for you. Here." She dropped the wooden shoes onto the floor in front of me with a loud crack. One turned onto its side; a light, sand colored patch against the dark stone floor. "Put them on," she ordered.
The shoes were poorly made, and far too large for my small feet. The grain was rough on the soles, with several splinters sticking out, and I knew they would be high enough to make me trip and twist my ankles. They were completely impractical for walking in, let alone working in. But I had no choice. Swearing that I would find some way to get even with Luciana, I kicked off my old shoes and stepped gingerly into the new pair. I felt a piece of wood slice into the sole of my foot and tried not to look uncomfortable. Signs of weakness only encouraged her.
"You know," she said, reaching out to stroke my cheek, "good girls are supposed to say thank you for a gift." Her touch made my skin burn unpleasantly and I jerked my face away.
"Thank you," I said as pleasantly as I could, trying to kill her with my eyes.
She checked in on me throughout the day. When she was not there, Jamison was always lurking nearby to make sure that I kept the shoes on. The birds that had picked lentils out of the fireplace for me could not help me bear this punishment. My poor feet were swollen, blistered, and bleeding by the time I retired for the evening. Mam, Sarah, and Cate stayed up late to pick the splinters from my feet and bandage them properly.
"Heavens," Cate said as she tugged out a particularly long sliver of wood, "this is about the size of a spear. How did Luciana get these, anyway?" She had become much more talkative lately and I was pleased with her progress. Standing up to Jamison had strengthened her spirit more than I had hoped.
"Probably had someone in the stables cobble them together," Sarah muttered darkly, digging in Mam's healing basket for fresh bandages while Mam heated water over the stove. "There's plenty of unsanded wood in there."
Even Rucifee, who was eating a late midnight snack, decided to be sympathetic, padding over to butt his head against my hand. I smiled and scratched under his chin. "Your feet are swollen to the size of bread plates." His long ginger tail lashed as he looked at them. "You know, I'm sure I could arrange to leave a dead present on Luciana's bed if you wanted me to."
I bit my lip to stop myself from laughing. Fortunately, Cate chose that moment to remove another splinter and she assumed that I was whimpering with pain. "I'm sorry, but these have to come out... That's the last one on this foot." She gave my wrist a friendly squeeze and lifted my other foot into her hand.
"Thank you," I said, directing my comment at both her and Rucifee.
Cate smiled. "You're welcome." She stood up to help Mam carry over the metal basin of water. When she was out of earshot, I looked down at Rucifee, who was still lying next to my knee.
"How is Lady Kingsclere?" Rucifee spent most of his time in her rooms. He was very attached to her, as sick as she was.
"Not well," he said. "She drifts in and out of memories, mostly, calling for Alastair or one of her daughters. Some days are better than others." I had not gone to visit my stepmother, afraid that Luciana would catch me, but I worried about her.
"Here, soak your feet in this," Sarah interrupted as she and Cate set the basin in front of my three legged stool. Cautiously, I submerged my toes in the water, hissing as the heat crawled over my open cuts.
"Did you have to make it so hot?" I complained, trying to ease my heels farther in.
"It has already been cooling for a quarter of an hour. Heat first, then ice for the swelling," Mam clucked, reaching for the lye soap that she kept next to the sink. I shuddered, knowing that it would sting dreadfully against the bottoms of my feet. Luciana did not bother with the shoes the next day, knowing that my feet would be wrapped, but as soon as the bandages came off, she made me wear them again, repeating the process every time my feet began to heal.
One morning, about two weeks later, I rose early, my heart crashing against my bones and my skin flooded with heat. My dreams had been filled with Belladonna. Her voice, her touch, her lips. Cate slept beside me, dead to the world. I hoped that her dreams were less torturous than mine had been. The small room we shared felt warm and cramped, and so I decided to go outside and visit my mother's tree. Quietly, I moved through the still hallways and out into the fields.
The grass was wet and cold beneath my bare feet, which had started to scar from Luciana's wooden shoes. For the moment, they were not hurting. The sky was still dark and the sun had not broken the blue line of the horizon. It was strangely quiet without the shouts of the workers and the chatter of summer birds and insects. I felt like the only person in existence.
As I sat by my mother's tree, my mind turned to Belladonna's diary and a problem that I had been working on for days. Belladonna had already written several marriage-poems for me in her journal, although most of them had been scratched out. I wanted to think of one for her. Although villagers rarely bothered with marriage-poems, they were required for any proper aristocratic engagement. Marriage-poems were incredibly complex, filled with symbolism and allusions, and Belladonna's were far more sophisticated than anything I had read before.
She used swans often - lasting commitment - and coupled it with water, which I did not remember the meaning for. I suspected that grass had something to do with new life, but I was not sure. The number nine was also fashionable and dealt with the metaphysical. Since I did not understand half of what she had written, although her words were beautifully phrased, I had no idea how to write one of my own. I did not want to copy what she had written for me, I wanted to show her my own ideas. Maybe a poem would impress her. Of course, even if I did write a poem for Belladonna, I would probably be too afraid to show her...
A plump mourning dove settled in the tree's branches, shaking his wings free of dew and bobbing his head to look for predators. "Maybe I should ask him for a poem," I whispered sarcastically. Of course, that was exactly what I needed. Bad verse from a bird.
"Ask who for a poem?"
I looked up, startled to see Cate's silhouette approaching me, backlit by the morning sun. I squinted my eyes and raised a hand to my face. "Oh, the bird," I said casually.
"You think that she could give you a poem?" Cate lowered herself to her knees and I turned to one side so that I could see her face without staring directly into the sun.
"The bird is a he," I corrected automatically.
Cate raised her eyebrows. "Really? How can you tell?"
"I - er... I mean... It just looks like a he, I guess."
"Fine, the dove can be a he if you want him to be."
I was grateful that birds did not grasp all of the human language. The mourning dove seemed to have no idea that we were talking about him. Only more intelligent animals, domestic cats like Jessith and horses like Brahms, could understand human conversations on deeper levels. Wild animals that rarely came into contact with humans knew no Serian at all. Since Jessith was a spoiled cat with too much time on her hands, I wondered if knew more than one human language. Belladonna probably spoke several...
"Ellie - Ellie, where did you go?"
I blinked. "Oh, sorry. I -"
"Ah, your mystery lover." Cate gave me a small smile. My blush gave me away immediately. "Is she who you want that marriage-poem for?"
"She? Why would you think it's a she?" Cate had referred to my secret love as 'she' once before, when she had thrown my hazelnut into the fireplace, but Sarah had assured me that Cate rarely remembered her strange visions, or the events leading up to them.
Brushing aside her hair, Cate shrugged. "How do you know that the dove is a he?"
"Do you know what doves mean in a marriage-poem? I've seen them in a few, but have no a clue what they represent."
"Something about innocence, maybe," Cate said.
"I thought it might represent death or the soul."
"The death of innocence." My friend could not hide the shadow that crossed her face. She picked a blade of grass between her thumb and forefinger, ripping it into tiny pieces and letting them flutter back to the earth.
"Well, at least our dove is very much alive," I said cheerfully. I felt foolish, but knew that the best way to keep Cate from brooding was to keep talking. "You aren't going to start bothering me, too, are you?" I asked. "Sarah does more than enough pestering by herself."
"Sarah pesters everyone." Somehow, that simple statement had both of us laughing ourselves to tears. Cate's head fell back, her laughter floating up into the blinding morning sky. The dove, deciding that we were too noisy, opened his wings and left the tree. This moment was all the proof I needed that Cate was starting to rebuild. For the first time in a long time, she seemed happy. My stomach ached from laughing along with her.
As careful as I tried to be when I stole my stepsister's diary, I knew that Belle would discover what I had been doing eventually. I imagined it often - the angry, hurt expression she would have as she came towards me with her high shoulders - but I had no idea what she would say.
One night, after the harvest started, I decided to read by the fireplace. Trugel rested at my feet and the fire kept the autumn chill to the corners of the room. As I reached to turn my page, the library doors crashed apart and I nearly dropped my book on poor Trugel's head. Both of us started, looking up. She stood there, motionless, a storm of dark curls tossed about her shoulders. Her eyes were glassy, frosted marbles of blue, strangely empty. She reached forward helplessly, not seeing me, but the diary spread open on my lap. She took in a sharp breath, stepping back.
She held her muscles rigid, her white skin as drained of color as a snowy field. Her lips parted, but she could not speak. Carefully, I stood and walked towards her, clutching the diary to my chest. Before I could form words to explain, Belladonna pulled it from my hands.
"Belle..." My voice broke as I reached for the diary, but she was a head taller than I was and she lifted it out of reach. I followed her as she went to the fireplace, reaching up as she held it over the darting tongues of flame. "Please, don't burn it..." I begged.
Her face was white marble as she lowered the pages to the fire. "Give me one reason to keep something that could ruin me."
"Because the thoughts in it are too beautiful to destroy..." She pulled the diary back, surprised. Whatever answer she had been expecting, it was not the one I had given her. Light caught her hair, pulling half of her face back into warm brown shadows. An idea struck me, and none of the warning voices in my head could dislodge it. Trembling, I lowered myself to my knees, lifting my chin to look into her eyes. I took her hand in mine and she let me hold it. "Forgive me." She said nothing. "Please, my love."
"My love?" she asked me. Then, softly, to herself: "love..." She was remembering, I knew, just how many entries she had written about loving me, how many nights she had spent thinking of us together.
"If you will have me."
My lips shook as I pressed them to the center of her palm, asking my bold question in the proper way. She looked down at me, shocked by what I had done. I knew that she could not truly marry me, but I would ask her just the same, the way our ancestors had done for centuries. I trusted this hand to protect me, guide me, comfort me, work alongside me, and... love me.
She trembled above me, letting me kiss each of her fingertips, each knuckle. I had only meant to kiss her palm, as I was supposed to, but now that I had tasted the skin of her hand, I could not stop. A burst of red heat covered my cheeks. She looked at me, amazed, gently pulling her hand away from my lips. At first, I was sure she was rejecting me, and I cursed myself for being so foolish. How could I have expected her to forgive me for reading her private thoughts? But then she took my hand in hers and pulled me back to my feet.
In one graceful, fluid motion, Belladonna hooked an arm around my waist and drew me to my feet, pressing her lips over mine. It was a burning kiss that rolled over my skin like warm water, dulling and heightening my senses at the same time. I cried out softly against her mouth, closing my eyes and losing myself in the smoothness of her lips. Belle's kiss was the perfect mix of soft and hard. There was a sense of power behind it that left me with no doubt that I belonged to her, but there was tenderness and consideration as well. She was claiming me.
I broke away from her, panting lightly, my eyes unfocused. "You accept me?" I asked her, suddenly shy.
"Of course. I have loved and wanted you ever since I talked with you by your hazel tree… maybe since I first saw you at mother's wedding." Her bright smile made my head spin with joy. "Heavens, this is happening so fast... you were an untouchable dream for me until a few moments ago and now..."
"It hasn't happened fast," I argued, "we waited for months and months, only we were both too frightened to admit it. I have been stealing your diary and dreaming about you for ages!"
She leaned in towards my face and kissed me again. Gently, her tongue teased my lips apart, the unhurried firmness of her request sending a shiver through my body. I parted my lips for her and she wasted no time caressing the inside of my mouth. She took the time to explore me thoroughly, cupping one hand at the small of my back and pulling me tight against her warm, lean body as she moved her mouth against mine. Timidly, I captured the tip of her tongue between my lips and suckled, hoping to return to her some of the feelings that she was giving me. This soft, teasing acceptance seemed to drive her wild with desire and she shoved me backwards against a chair.
"No, Belle..." I said, breaking our kiss and glancing over my shoulder at the closed double doors.
"Why not?" she asked hazily, trying to kiss me again. "Ellie, I'll wait if you are afraid of this, but now that I know how you feel..."
"It's not that. Someone could come in..." I glanced guiltily at Trugel, who had covered her head with her paws and turned her face away.
Belle jerked away from me like a hand from a warm stovetop, jumping back several feet and stumbling over herself. "Curse me for an idiot," she said, fixing her wrinkled skirts where my hands had been gripping them. "We have to be more careful..."
"Enough talking," I said, fixing my own dress and half-running towards the double doors. "Your room has a bolt?" The heat in Belladonna's dark eyes pulsed to life again as she hurried after me. I showed her the fastest way, through the servant's corridors, not worrying about the noise that our feet made.
We stumbled into Belladonna's rooms, the brushing of our bodies making my heart drum harder. My soon-to-be lover slammed the bolt across her bedroom door. I hardly noticed the large, canopied bed that she backed me towards as she stripped off her outer dress. I fell on it willingly, welcoming her weight on top of me. She kissed across the planes of my face and I leaned against the headboard, hardly managing to whimper. Belladonna sank her teeth into my shoulder, holding me steady as I hissed and arched off of the bed. "Mine…" she cooed, kissing and licking the place that she had marked.
"Yours," I agreed breathlessly as I buried my face in her hair.
"I need to feel you, Ellie, please... undress me."
My fingers fumbled over the laces of her corset and she had to direct my trembling hands to the right places before I could loosen them. At last, the ties gave, and my new lover's torso swelled with air. She tore the corset away and threw it aside, revealing white breasts and the bare expanse of her back. I slid my fingertips over the slick flesh, exploring the angry red patches where the corset had rubbed against her.
"Touch me," Belladonna encouraged softly, leaning into my arms. "My body is yours to explore." I gave her my sweetest smile. Even though Belle's earlier displays of ownership had been exciting, I was relieved to know that she belonged to me just as much as I belonged to her. However, I wanted to be reminded of the longing, possessive entries from her diary that had excited me.
It was easy to draw out the part of Belle that I wanted. "I - I don't know how," I stammered, letting all of my embarrassment and inexperience show in my face. I saw her eyes widen and darken and I knew that I had her. My innocence attracted her.
"Would you like me to show you?" she asked, breathing the words beside my ear as she tugged herself out of her underskirts. I nodded and Belladonna touched her hands to my flushed cheeks, cradling my face. She was completely naked against me as she started to lift my dress. "I was going to let you control things, since this is new to you. Oh, Ellie... I'm so honored that you chose me for this..."
"I read your diary," I reminded her as her warm mouth slid over my neck. Reluctantly, I pulled myself out of Belladonna's embrace and stood in front of her on the cold stone floor. Gripping the hem of my dress with shaking hands, I pulled it up and over my head, letting it fall to the floor beside me. I stood before her, naked and trembling, while she watched from the bed, my body and soul bared. My timidity was genuine now. Part of me realized that making love to Belle would always have this element of shyness and power in it, even after we had repeated it a thousand times. I would always feel like a virgin with her.
I lowered my chin and held out my hands to her. "Take me. I'm giving my innocence to you. I could never give myself to anyone else."
The last of the doubts weighing on Belladonna's conscience fell away and I saw something dangerous rise in her. She pulled me to join her on the bed, biting my chin before she caught my mouth in a bruising kiss. Lips still joined, she pinned my wrists above my head as our bodies touched for the first time. Feeling her stretched on top of me, skin to skin, made my chest ache with sweetness.
"Hmm, what am I going to do with you, little one?" she asked as I panted against her neck. A warm hand crept up my stomach, gently cupping one of my naked breasts. I gasped, shaking, trying to push myself into her palm. My fingers found themselves woven into her hair as she kissed down my neck, tasting an offered shoulder. My eyes closed as she took the rigid peak of my breast into her hot mouth, both of us sighing as one with pleasure. I was too overwhelmed with new feelings to be afraid.
Wanting her to feel this with me, I reached a shy hand between our bodies, feeling the smoothness of a hip, the point of a hipbone. My fingers wandered around her waist, moving lower and squeezed her bottom with both hands. She groaned around the bud she was worrying with her tongue, looking up at me with dazed blue eyes. Releasing her lips with a slight pop, she stroked my cheek with her fingers, pressing the tips to my mouth. I bit at them gently and she smiled.
"Waiting for eighteen years makes you impatient," I explained, smiling back.
"I imagine it might. But you will only get what you want when I say so, is that clear?" Sparks shot through my belly, and I nodded my head. Her control was firmly established as she reached a hand between my legs and caressed my inner thigh, not moving upwards even when I pleaded with her. I tossed my head against a pillow as she took my breast back into her mouth, her hands charting my legs and hips, but refusing to explore further.
I was almost in tears when she finally moved her hand up, cupping me and squeezing possessively. A flood of wetness greeted her touch. I blushed and Belle kissed my warm cheeks. "Oh, Ellie... you fit inside my hand perfectly..." Belle whispered as her fingertips pressed between my lips. Above me, her bright eyes glistened with tears. "I'm so in love with you…" she said helplessly, kissing a purple mark that she had left on my neck. "Knowing I'm the first to touch you is making my heart burst…"
I slid the palm of my hand down her slick back, rubbing soothing circles over her warm skin. "You'll be the only one to touch me."
Belladonna caught my chin with her lips, sliding her mouth up to meet mine in our gentlest kiss yet. "You're ready?" she whispered into my mouth.
"I'm not afraid." And now that I was used to feeling her body against mine, I wasn't. I trusted Belladonna with all my heart and trusting her with my body came easily.
At last, she let one of her fingers press inside of me and her thumb grazed over a spot that made my hips jerk upwards. "Oh," I gasped, surprised by my body's sudden response. "More… I want more of you, Belle… please…" I opened my eyes and leaned up to kiss her tight forehead. The look of amazement and love on her face put all thoughts of pain out of my mind as she slipped a second finger inside of me and pushed forwards, taking my innocence and filling me completely. We held still, savoring our joining.
My body offered no resistance as she began to move inside of me, curling her fingers. The place where she had touched me before, the star of heat, began to swell and ache. I reached down to try and redirect her hand, but she used her free arm to lift my hands back above my head so that I remained stretched out before her, helpless. "Oh, Ellie, you're so soft and warm… feeling you is driving me mad," she said, her voice low and thick beside my ear.
Suddenly, Belladonna removed her hand and shifted her weight. Before I could gather my thoughts and tell her not to stop, I felt a wonderful, white-hot burn where her fingers had been moments before, and my throat ached as I screamed. Forcing my eyes open, I looked down and realized that it was Belladonna's mouth.
"I... Belle!" I stammered. She looked up and we locked eyes as her mouth covered me. I could not look away. The picture she made, her tongue scraping against me, my pink folds petaled around her fingers, her dark hair running down her back like wet ink, shattered me. I felt as though I was swelling out of my skin. Tears squeezed from the corners of my eyes as I shuddered and released all of myself to my lover.
Belladonna's voice was somewhere nearby, comforting me with nonsense words as I drifted back to her. "Shh, that's it... I have you, my heart, I have you." She was holding me in her arms, pressing kisses to every inch of skin she could reach. The place where her mouth had been shook and trembled with the memory of what I had experienced. "Are you all right, Ellie? Do you need to rest?"
I shook my head, pushing away strands of wet hair plastered to my neck and cheeks. "Only for a moment. Then, you are going to teach me how to do that to you."
Belladonna smiled. "Anything you wish, my Ellie."
I woke with Belladonna's arm curved around my hip, her warm breath playing over the soft layer of skin behind my ear. Her breasts were pressed into my back, just above my shoulder blades, and for a moment, I felt the most profound peace I had ever experienced. Then, the fear came. It rushed in as soon as the stone wall of Belladonna's bedroom came into focus, tugging wretchedly at my insides. What if Belle left me, now that I had given her what she wanted? What if she decided that I was a horrible lover and didn't want to bother with me anymore? What if the diary was some sort of elaborate seduction?
The thought of rejection frightened me. I needed the dizzying possessiveness and control of her kisses, the warmth of her hands against my skin, and the wonderful, stretched fullness of her inside of me. Now that I knew what it was like to love another woman, I wasn't sure I could live without it, without Belladonna. No one else would satisfy me. But what would happen now? Would she continue her rendezvous with Sarah and the others now that we had admitted our feelings to each other?
My thoughts were interrupted when Belle stirred beside me, angling herself on her elbow and lifting her body to face me. I turned in her arms. Her fingers trailed along the small of my back, unwilling to lose contact with my skin. She looked at me, her sleep-swept hair sticking to one cheek. She must have seen my fear and self-doubt in my expression, because she said, "do you regret what happened?" The words fell heavily from her lips.
"No," I said, my voice cracking with sleep. "I... I was worried that you would have regrets."
"Of course not," she said, lowering her body back onto the mattress and pressing her forehead against mine. She gently fingered the bruises that ran down the column of my throat, circling a red bite on my collarbone. Even the memory of the marks she'd left, breaking the fresh landscape of skin, sent shivers of fearful lust along the ridge of my spine.
Belladonna felt me tremble and held me tight against her chest. "Oh, darling..." she breathed, wrapping her fingers around my naked wrist, gripping it gently, "I'm so sorry. Are you in any pain? What about here?" Her hand moved from my throat to cradle me between my legs, trying to heal anything she might have torn with her soft fingers.
"No, I'm not hurting. I feel… stretched. And the rest of me feels wonderful, even where you... marked me."
Belladonna's eyes widened, and I felt her breath hitch in her chest. There was a faint flicker of hope, and perhaps desire, buried deep in her irises. "I didn't hurt you too badly? I didn't..."
I pressed the pad of my thumb against her cheekbone. "No."
"I've never... taken a lover like that before..." Belladonna admitted haltingly. "I wanted to, but I was afraid of becoming just like her. She likes to leave bruises and bites all over the skin of her toys. With you, though... it felt so right…"
I covered Belladonna's words with kisses, trying to show her that everything was all right. "You weren't like Luciana at all," I said reassuringly. I pressed my lips together, laughing inwardly at our different perceptions. "You didn't hurt me, Belle. I like it when you... mark me." I closed my eyes, breathing in deeply through my nose. "Will I be your only lover now?" I blurted out, unable to swallow the question any longer.
Belle's bottom lip dropped, her mouth hanging open awkwardly. She looked shocked. "Why on earth would I take another lover? I thought I made that clear last night." Rolling on top of me, she captured my lips in a slow, deep kiss that had my heart drumming inside my chest. "We might not be able to have a large, extravagant wedding or share our marriage with the world, but when you kissed my palm, you asked me to be your wife, and I accepted. It was a little sudden... but I consider that oath binding."
At those words, I was sure that my heart would explode through my ribs. It was lucky that I was already lying down, because if I had been standing, I might have fallen over. I was dizzy, happy, immensely relieved. I rolled on top of Belladonna and gave her the most passionate kiss I could, wanting to share my joy with her. Her lips met mine eagerly and we shared the kiss for several long moments, until we both broke apart to breathe.
Belladonna smiled, her mouth still breaths away from mine. "Well, I'll certainly do my best to keep you happy if kisses like that are going to be my reward."
Briefly, I thought about Cate, Sarah, and Mam. If they hadn't noticed my absence last night, they would surely be missing me by now. But suddenly, the rounds of questioning I would have to endure when I went back to the servants' quarters seemed unimportant. The only important thing was this woman with me, my new lover, my whole world. I gave Belle another kiss, softer this time, just a brushing of lips.
"Make love again?" Belladonna finished my question for me. Her next kiss served as her answer.
They all noticed the marks that littered my neck and shoulders, of course. I saw Sarah first and she spent most of the morning teasing me about my rendezvous. "So, our innocent Ellie isn't quite so innocent anymore," she said loudly as we straightened the library. Of course, we would be cleaning the library after the kisses I had shared with Belle there the night before, I thought to myself. I was more than a little distracted by the fresh memories and very embarrassed.
"Sarah, lower your voice!" I pleaded, dropping a book that I had been trying to reshelf. Sarah watched me as I bent to pick it up. I gave her a sharp look over my shoulder as I grabbed the book's spine and returned it to its proper place.
"Oh, stop jumping around like a frightened cat," she said, rolling her brown eyes to the ceiling.
Jessith, who was curled up on one of the armchairs by the fire, opened one slitted eye and yawned. "I take offense to that remark," she said throatily. "Humans are so dense sometimes. I can't believe she doesn't know that you were with Belladonna. I can smell her all over you." Even Trugel, who had risen from her nap when Cate, Sarah, Jessith, and I had entered her domain, blinked in agreement. I scowled at both of them.
My cheeks flared, but luckily, my conversation with Sarah was embarrassing enough to warrant a blush. "What are these, then?" she said, prodding at a bite mark along my collarbone. I didn't answer her, pulling away from her finger and reaching for another book. She grabbed it from my hands, holding it against her chest. "So, you're not going to kiss and tell?"
"No, I'm not," I said, trying to take the book back. Unfortunately, Sarah held it above her head, keeping her arm locked straight. That is one of the annoyances of being small - people are forever holding things too high up for you to reach. Having played this miserable game many times as a child, I knew that I could not win and picked up a third book. Sarah immediately dropped the one she had been holding and I picked it up, too, re-shelving them both.
"Oh, Ellie, don't you be angry with me," she said, trailing after me.
"It's too late, I already am. You're supposed to be helping instead of badgering me about who I might or might not have seen last night."
"I'm just curious. After all, you've always been so... modest before. One mention of love and you turn bright red. Now you go missing for a night and show up with bruises and marks all over you. Not to mention you're walking about a foot off of the ground, and you haven't stopped smiling all morning until I started pestering you."
Although I was more than a little embarrassed, I wasn't really angry with Sarah. I had hoped that snapping at her would put her off, but she was determined. I had stayed in bed with Belladonna for a few extra minutes after we had explored each other's bodies that morning, unwilling to leave her. We had discussed what I would and wouldn't tell my friends when they asked questions. Since Sarah wasn't going to leave me alone until I told her something, I decided to take a different approach.
"I have to be very careful, Sarah," I said, looking over my shoulder to make sure that we were alone. "I'll admit that I'm... meeting with someone. But I really can't talk about it and neither can you. If Luciana hears anything... She can't touch me because of her bet with Belladonna, but she could hurt my lover."
"Perhaps we need to get you a pregnancy charm from the village," Sarah teased, completely missing the importance of what I had just said. I was slightly amused by the fact that Sarah, who I knew had taken at least one female lover to her bed, assumed that I was seeing a man. Still, I did not let any of these thoughts show on my face. I also did not correct her. Revealing that a woman had stolen my heart might have given me away, and also, Sarah might mention it to someone else. Many Serians, especially the aristocracy, frowned upon choosing a lover of your own sex.
"I don't need a pregnancy charm," I told her, settling for a half-truth.
"Oh, don't you? Haven't let him have his way yet completely, I suppose. A wise choice. Wait until there's a bracelet on your wrist before you give him what he wants."
This time, I was the one who rolled my eyes up to the ceiling, adding a sigh to the gesture. "Sarah! This is incredibly serious. We can't talk about it at all. Luciana would find a way of getting the information and using it. It's not that I don't trust you, but you never know who might be listening in the hallways or what she might do to you to get answers to her questions..."
I saw a hint of concern in Sarah's face and I knew that she would accept my excuse. Imagining what Luciana would do to her if she wanted information seemed to put out her curiosity for the moment. I could tell that she was disappointed that I hadn't shared my secret with her, though, so I decided to toss her something and ease her appetite for gossip. "I can't give you details, but... since we're alone... I will say that I had a wonderful time," I said with a small smile.
Sarah seemed satisfied with that information, at least for the moment, and we were able to clean the library without any further problems. She did try and catch my eye more often than usual, though.
Cate was much easier to deal with than Sarah. She was much more talkative than she had been a few months before, but she was still shy and not as hungry for secrets. She noticed the marks while we were clearing the plates from the dining room after lunch, but wasn't quite brave enough to approach me about them. I noticed her glancing at my arms, checking for bruises and wondering if Luciana had finally decided to break her promise to Belle.
I felt sorry for her. Unlike Sarah, who had immediately assumed that the marks on my body were the signs of a new lover, Cate was all too aware of another explanation for them. Her fears made perfect sense, considering what she had endured. When she nearly dropped a plate as I passed her on the stairs, I decided to speak to her.
"Everything's fine, Cate, no one hurt me," I said once we had set our loaded trays next to the sink in the kitchen.
Cate's relief was visible in her entire body, which nearly collapsed as all the tightness left it. "Thank heaven," she said, wrapping me in a soft hug. I felt her tremble and I was surprised to see just how worried she had been. "I don't know what I would have done, if she... if you..." Her face was buried against my shoulder and her words were muffled.
"No, I'm fine... Luciana did not touch me."
With her worries and fears released, I sensed Cate's brain searching for the next likely explanation. "So, you... with someone else" She looked at me with flushed cheeks and such an embarrassed expression on her face that I was reminded of how I must have looked earlier in the library. Cate was certainly a contrast from Sarah.
Of course, the next obvious question was, "who?"
"I can't tell you," I explained. "Luciana might hurt you to try and get information."
"You don't trust me?" Cate asked, the muscles around her eyes pulled tight. "I'm used to pain from Luciana. I would never betray you..."
"Of course I trust you!" I said, pulling away and looking her straight in the eye. "I trust you more than anyone, Cate. You're my best friend here... I just don't want to give her any reason to hurt you more than she already does. You shouldn't have to bear any pain on my account."
"I'm truly your best friend?" Cate asked softly.
"Yes," I answered her, "you are."
"You're my best friend, too, Ellie. I'm glad Luciana isn't..." her voice trailed off. This time, I was the one who trembled at the thought of what my first experience might have been like at Luciana's mercy. The idea still made me violently sick, but I had hardened myself to it.
"I'm glad, too." Cate smiled, pulling away from my arms and picking up a stack of plates from the table. I followed her towards the servant's entrance and down the stairs with another stack, careful not to trip as we went down. Someday, I thought, I would make sure Cate found someone to show her the wonderful things I had learned and erase her memories of Luciana.
"We need to find a way to stop Luciana from tormenting you, Ellie," Belle said that night as we rested on her large canopied bed. Cate was fast asleep in the room we shared and Sarah had not said anything as I passed through the kitchen, only watching me from her place by the fire with a knowing smile. Thankfully, the darkness hid my blush as I exited through the far door.
When I had slipped into Belladonna's rooms, I had found her waiting for me without any clothes. After staring at her with a mixture of shock and desire for several long moments, I took off my own dress and joined her on the bed, hoping that we would repeat the wonderful things we had shared the night before and earlier that morning. But, it seemed that Belle wanted to talk...
"You've already done that, dear heart," I said distractedly, far more interested in the way that Belle's dark hair spilled over her white shoulders, the ends just brushing the tips of her breasts. "You made that bet."
Belle ignored my eyes on her body, unwilling to leave the conversation. "No, I haven't," she insisted, her fingers stroking the underside of my arm. My skin seared under her touch, and I tried to turn closer to her. "Luciana still makes you wear those horrible wooden shoes and she gives you the hardest tasks to do... whoever heard of picking out ten yards of embroidery in one night? I have no idea how you did it."
"I had help," I said dismissively, resting my head on Belle's shoulder and dropping open-mouthed kisses on her exposed neck.
"We have to talk about this," Belle said, moving out of my arms.
I had been watching Belle's red mouth move in a daze, when a dim question at the back of my mind grew brighter. "Speaking of the bet," I asked, "what did Luciana mean when she said, 'I'll wager the necklace on it'? The day she tried to throw me out the window, I mean."
The slow burn of desire on Belle's handsome face cooled for a moment. Instead, I saw something shifting there, something almost frightening. "My mother had a necklace, once," she explained. "She never wore it, but said that her grandmother - my great grandmother - had given it to her. She used to say... it gave her an odd feeling."
"Then why does Luciana have it?"
Now, Belladonna's face was sharp and angry. "She stole it. She tried to play with it as a child once. Mother wouldn't let her have it. She must have gone through mother's jewelry box and found it again, because I saw her wearing it one day. Mother mentioned that it had been missing later that night."
"She stole it?"
"Probably. It wouldn't have mattered. The three of us share jewelry sometimes. Except that she lied about it. When Mother asked if Luciana had seen it, she said no. I told her that I had seen Luciana wearing it. Luciana denied it and said that I had probably seen her with another necklace. We almost came to blows over it. In fact, it was the night you arrived here." Suddenly, Belladonna's anger dissolved, leaving her face clear and bright again. Her blue eyes were sad as she finished, "I suppose that's rather foolish. All that trouble over a silly necklace."
I shook my head against the bedsheets, making them rustle. "No, not foolish. Belle, what did the necklace look like?"
She thought for a moment. "It was a silver one, with a queer sort of pendant. A big golden circle, with a smaller silver one inside, and a golden dot inside that. Like three different sized coins melted together."
"I've seen her wear it," I said. "She likes to spin it with one finger. But why do you want it back?"
"I wanted to show it to our Mother, to prove that Luciana was lying. Luci knew it. She knew I would love a chance to catch her. Mother never believed me over her... not even when we were children. She always believed Luci." Belle looked older, and at the same time, younger than her almost twenty years. There were serious lines in her face, but her eyes were soft.
"You give me the courage to confront Luciana again... I should have done something long ago, but... If I tried anything, she took it out of Cate's flesh. She can see how much it hurts my conscience. And now, I'm afraid of risking you. She will hurt you, promise or not, if she thinks that it will give her leverage over me."
"I love you. I am not afraid."
"Go to sleep, Ellie," Belladonna whispered, pressing soft kisses into my hair. My last memory of that night was how wonderful it felt to fall asleep in her arms.
I woke before Belle did the next morning, so used to rising early that even my new lover's warm body could not lull me to sleep. Belle shifted beside me in the comfortable bed, rolling onto her back and sighing deeply as her dark hair spread itself over the white pillows. She had tossed off her blankets some time during the night and her pale skin took on a little color in the sunlight that filtered through the bedroom windows. The sight of her body in the light captured me and I was seized by the desire to learn every inch of it.
I remembered vividly how Belle and I had made love two nights before, recalling how she had guided my small hand with her own, shuddering with release under our twined fingers. I had wanted to stay inside her forever, relishing the feel of hot velvet muscle wrapped around me, but she had turned her attention on me without pausing for breath, not giving me a chance to explore her body further before I was wrapped in my own world of pleasure for a second time.
Studying Belladonna's lovely form proved to be too much for me to bear. I decided to take a chance, reaching out to test the skin of Belle's stomach with light fingers. I waited breathlessly for her to move or open her eyes, but she did not stir. After a few moments of careful waiting, I let my hand creep upward, stopping just under her breast. My mouth spread in a smile as I felt the steady thump of her heartbeat against my palm.
The tips of Belladonna's breasts were a dusty reddish-brown color and the skin around them looked baby soft, with a network of blue and purple veins running beneath. Boldly, I allowed myself to touch one, my eyes widening with excitement as the skin folded and crinkled, the tip extending and turning a deeper shade of red. Without conscious thought, my other hand began to explore the soft landscape of bare flesh open to me.
Shifting until I was hovering over her body, I spent precious moments learning my lover, tracing the line of a leg, teasing the peak of a breast to hardness, reaching under her to feel the strong muscles of her back. Remembering how wonderful it had felt when Belle used her mouth on my body, I carefully lowered my head to her chest. She stirred slightly as I took her into my mouth, but did not wake up. I was curious to see how far I could go before Belle opened her eyes and, coming to a decision, I reached under what was left of the sheets, gently parting Belle's legs. She made a soft noise in her throat, but her breathing stayed steady and deep.
I held still for a full minute, wanting to discover as much of my lover as I could while she was in such a vulnerable, unguarded state. My lips were still occupied with Belle's stunning upper body, dropping light kisses over her breasts and shoulders as my hand stroked her inner thigh. The muscles in Belle's face were pulled tight, but her eyes stayed shut. Turning her head on the pillow, she let out a low moan and settled back to sleep.
Deciding that feeling all of Belle was worth ending my game, I let my hand go higher, thrilled with the wetness that coated my fingers and proud that I was the cause of it. "So ready for me," I mumbled against her skin as I slipped inside of her, my thumb sliding into place over the hard pearl that rested above.
This time, Belladonna moved, and her clear blue eyes captured me. "Ellie, what -?" she started to ask, but I nipped at a sensitive spot along her collarbone, silencing her as my fingers probed and traced the slick folds between her legs.
"Shhh... let me love you," I whispered, the pad of my thumb flicking over the special spot that she had shown me how to touch. She gave in, going limp underneath me as I took her. I was so enthralled with what I was doing that I forgot to worry about my inexperience. Knowing that I could give my gorgeous Belle pleasure made my heart swell with love and pride.
Carrying my lover higher and higher and holding her as she fell was indescribably wonderful. My eyes stayed locked with hers as I felt her soft inner muscles tighten and flutter around my fingers. She did not cry out or scream as I had done, but I could feel the intensity of her release as though I had experienced it myself. Instead, her mouth fell open and she took in a sharp breath before letting her whole body relax back onto the mattress, her breasts heaving as she tried to take in more air.
"No one has… ever made… me feel like - like that, dear heart -" she managed to gasp, still catching her breath. I pressed a kiss over her open mouth, and her eyes closed in response, smiling into my lips.
"I just tried to copy what you showed me... I had no idea what I was doing," I said, moving my lips to her cheek and whispering the words into her ear.
"Your body knew. Nothing else has even come close to the pleasure you just gave me. I - I can't explain…"
"I think I understand. Our hearts know each other."
Any insecurity I felt about the other women Belladonna had been with left me that morning. On the rare occasions that those feelings returned, all I needed to do was remember that moment, the first time I had really touched Belladonna, and they would vanish completely. The bond of trust and love between us was more powerful than any emotion I had felt before. Sharing our bodies only seemed to make it stronger.
Unfortunately, the rest of that day did not play out as wonderfully as my morning had. Luciana, deciding that simply wearing the wooden shoes was not painful enough for me, came up with a way to make my work even more miserable.
She found me dusting in a hallway early that afternoon. I was wearing the wooden shoes, which she had taken to leaving next to my sleeping pallet if she expected me to put them on. She liked to check on me throughout the day to make sure I was wearing them, never coming in at regular intervals so that I could plan for her. Fortunately, my skin had grown used to the rough treatment and as long as I removed the splinters and cleaned my puncture wounds and scrapes, they healed quickly.
"Gather your cleaning supplies and follow me," she ordered. Picking up my bucket, I walked behind her down the main staircase until we were standing on the bottom step, looking at the front door. "You will clean the main entrance hall today," she said, gesturing at the expansive area. I did not let my displeasure show on my face, refusing to give Luciana any satisfaction. "After that, you will dust the chandelier."
I lowered my head, not meeting her eyes, but keeping them high enough to watch her throat. She was wearing the necklace. My question answered, I bent down to pick up the bucket of soap and water resting beside my feet. Before I could rise again, Luciana held out a hand. "Stop. Don't start yet. Take off the shoes."
I stared openly at Luciana's face, my confusion written clearly in my expression. I was immediately suspicious of Luciana's motives. Surely she was not having me remove the wooden shoes to be kind. There must be some other reason. Silently, I kicked off the shoes, not bothering to pick them up and hand them to her. She could bend down herself if she wanted them. Pleased with that small act of defiance, I picked up my bucket and carried it into the entrance hall.
It did not take me long to realize why Luciana had ordered me to take off the shoes. Salt had been spread all over the stone floor, and every step I took with my injured feet sent searing pain shooting up my legs. Tears welled up in my eyes, and soon I had no choice but to let them fall as I worked to scrub the salt from the floor. Luciana was silent as she watched me, but the look of smug pleasure on her face only made me cry harder. It had been a long time since she had succeeded in bringing me to tears, but I could not stop.
The job, and the pain, lasted for hours. I realized that the lye soap cleaned my feet, but stung almost as badly as the salt. There was no blood on the floor from my wounds, since the salt dried all of it up, and for that small blessing, I was grateful. Luciana left me when dinner was served, and I continued my task alone. Mam, Cate, and Sarah would be wondering where I was. Brahms would be missing his apple and his visit. Jessith, no doubt, knew where I was (she always knew where everyone in the house was) and had chosen to avoid me because of her dislike for Luciana. And Belle was probably looking for me around the house, wandering corridors and hoping to catch me alone.
My thoughts were interrupted when I realized that I had finished cleaning the floor. I let out a relieved sob, leaving my soap and bucket on the ground and pushing my hair out of my eyes. Since I had no shoes anywhere nearby, I improvised and tied two of the cleaning rags around my feet after shaking them free of salt. I got to my feet and limped out of the front door. Normally, it was not appropriate for servants to use the front door, but since everyone else was eating dinner or serving it, I knew that I could get away with sneaking through. I still had to clean the chandelier, and the only ladder I knew of that was tall enough to reach it was in the stables.
I found Matthew feeding his horses supper as well. He watched me tread carefully over the ground, stopping to adjust one of the rags on my feet. He looked at them curiously, but did not ask questions. "A-hay, Ellie, no dinner tonight?"
"Not until I clean the chandelier in the entrance hall. Will you help me get the barn ladder into the manor?"
"A'course, d'be glad to," he said. "I'll go fetch it down."
"Hello, Ellie," said Brahms from inside of his stall as I watched Matthew's retreating back. I walked over to him and let him lip my hair, running my hand over his thick neck.
"Hello. I'm sorry I don't have a carrot for you right now. I was working inside."
Brahms snuffled good-naturedly, ready to forgive me for not bringing him a treat. "You're hurting," he said, his large dark eyes studying my face as he shook a fly from his haunches. Animals, I had learned, were more perceptive than humans by far.
"She put salt on the floor and I had to walk on it with sore feet." Brahms, as a horse, was very sympathetic towards anyone with injured feet. A horse's hooves are their livelihood, and if they can no longer walk, they die. He stepped backwards nervously, muscle rippling across his sides and back. Before he could respond, Matthew returned with the long ladder dragging behind him.
"Need ye to help me lift t'other end there, girlie," he said, and I limped to the end of the ladder that was still on the ground, bending over to pick it up. Suddenly, Brahms nickered, kicking at his stall door with his hooves, his eyes rolling wildly in his head. Dropping the ladder, Matthew hurried over to see to him, whispering soothing words that I could not make out.
"No, don't use that! It smells like her... she's all over it."
"Smells like who?" I asked as Brahms continued to kick and snort.
"Brown mane… Luciana… touched it..."
"Ellie?" Matthew said, looking at me in confusion. "What's gotten in t'ye? You an' the horse makin' strange noises…"
"Hold on, Matthew… I need to look at something." Bending down next to the ladder, I examined each rung carefully. Luciana had no cause to use the ladder. In fact, she hardly spent any time in the barn at all. If it smelled like her, and I trusted Brahms' senses, than she had probably... Near the other end of the ladder, at what would have been the top, I found several rungs at different intervals chipped at and loosened on the edges. If I had tried to use this ladder, I would have been in for a nasty fall.
After showing Matthew the vandalized part of the ladder, I headed back for the entrance hall, wanting to get the chandelier cleaned before Luciana finished dinner. Now that the ladder was out of the question, I needed a different plan. Seeing several songbirds scattered about the fields searching for their evening meal, I came up with an idea. I was not sure how they would hold the rags, but a few robins and sparrows could certainly fly to the top of the chandelier and get the dust off. I was willing to put up with their rhyming if they would help me get my task done without using the ladder.
I called out to them. "Excuse me, friends, could I talk with you for a moment?" Birds appreciated politeness, which was just one of the many reasons why they hated cats. Ten or eleven of them stopped pecking at the ground and swarmed around me, all chattering at once. Because I could talk to them and fed them occasionally, most of the birds around Baxstresse were familiar with me, always willing to help when I asked.
"Ta-whit Ta-whit, if you should call, you have the service of us all," said a particularly fat sparrow whose head barely popped above his swollen belly. I couldn't help wondering if I was partially to blame for his large size, since I did feed the birds whenever I needed them. Besides, with their mouths full of grain or breadcrumbs, they could not rhyme any longer, which was a relief.
"Yes, please," I said, glancing over my shoulder to make sure that no one was watching me. They might have found the sight of girl with birds flying around her head strange enough to report. "I need to dust the chandelier in the entrance hall and since you all are so good at flying and reaching high places, I thought you might be able to help me." The fat sparrow puffed his stomach out even larger with pride, pleased with himself for doing something that a human couldn't.
The other birds agreed to help, chattering excitedly as I led them through the front door, urging them to be quiet and hoping that no one would see them working. The cleaning rags I had were much too large for them to carry, even with two working together, and so I tore them into very small strips so that the birds could grip them in their small feet and lift them into the air. Somehow, by brushing the cloths through the cobwebs that had gathered on the chandelier (and sending them spinning down onto the floor that I had just cleaned), the birds managed to get the job finished. I made sure to feed them and then picked up a broom to sweep up the dust that had fallen from the chandelier's long golden arms.
The harvest started and everyone was busy. The fields became deep, golden brown oceans that moved under the cold autumn breeze. The birds were restless, flying in blocks of beating wings, swirling in circles above the ground and settling back down. They would leave for winter soon. I missed the changing of the leaves that I had watched every year at Sandleford, but Baxstresse changed for autumn in its own way. It was not entirely unpleasant.
All of these changes, especially Belle, made my life much brighter, but I was not content. Luciana's nasty trick with the salt and her attempt to injure me with the ladder put me on edge. After four months as a servant, I was no closer to freeing myself.
Belle was just as restless. Her temper was on the edge. When I told her what Luciana had done, her face turned an angry red color and she stormed from her room to look for her sister. I had to throw myself into her arms and plead for her to stop. Luciana would not hesitate to hurt Belle, with or without a confrontation. I usually checked Belle's food before it was served to her, just in case Luciana decided that poison would suit her needs.
Belle's mood was terrible the next few days, far worse than mine, and she often made sharp comments, criticizing herself for being so powerless against Luciana. I reminded her that she was not powerless, only concerned for my safety, but I worried that my words did not penetrate her mind. Her conscience was driving her mad.
"I have thought about giving up my inheritance," she informed me during one of our stolen whisper-kissing conversations in an empty room. Seeing her had lightened my spirits, but I could tell how horrible she felt.
"You mean you want to leave?" I asked, afraid of losing her even though I knew she would not abandon me. I leaned on one of the walls to take some weight off of my sore feet. Luciana had asked me to wear the wooden shoes the day before, and Belle cleaned and massage my feet that night. Of course, that gentle, healing touch had escalated into something far more intimate. I flushed at the memory, trying to ignore the heat flooding over my skin.
"I would take you with me," she said quickly. I breathed deeply, relieved. "I just thought that Luciana might leave us alone if I left her the Baxtresse fortune... The money would make finding you seem less important."
"It wouldn't matter," I said softly, knowing how frustrated Belle was with my treatment. "She would assume you were plotting against her if you left and she would spare no expense to find us both."
"Not if we hid."
I sighed, recalling how many times I had thought of the same argument myself. "Do you want to spend the rest of our lives looking over our shoulders for her? That's hardly a life at all."
Belle moved her hand to her slick forehead, pushing back her hair. The thick summer heat still lingered around Baxstresse, even though it was well into the middle of autumn. It permeated even the inside of the stone manor, and we were all dehydrated and tired. The two of us were quiet for a long time and we both listened to make sure that we were alone, each with our own thoughts.
"I would rather live peacefully in poverty with you than in luxury with Luciana hovering over us," she said after a time, taking my hand. She placed a gentle kiss on my knuckles and I glanced towards the door, afraid that someone would see us. "It's all right, sweet girl, no one saw us." Still holding my hand in hers, she glanced down at my feet, which were wrapped underneath the protection of my shoes. "How are you feeling?"
I could not help smiling at Belle, touched by her concern. "Better. My feet are mostly calloused now. I have gotten used to the pain. I am worried she will try something worse next time."
It was the wrong thing to say. Belle's eyes clouded, and I felt her hand grip my fingers tight enough to drain the blood from them. "I promise to protect you from her…" Looking at Belle's face, the twisted set of her mouth and the moistness of her eyes, I had to take her in my arms, not caring who saw us.
"I love you," I said, stroking Belle's white face with my knuckles, our bodies pressed close.
"I have let her hurt the woman I love for too long. You could have been killed falling off that ladder, Ellie… I will never let anything like that happen to you." I knew that my lover was lost in herself and I did not try to bring her back. I just held her for the few moments I was allowed, wishing desperately that things were different, but overjoyed that I had Belle.
I saw even less of Luciana during the following week, and my world seemed brighter. She did not come to the kitchen to torment me or abuse Cate. None of us saw her except at mealtimes, and even then, she looked strangely pale. Some of the magical glow about her had disappeared.
When I finally saw her alone, the circumstances were so strange that I thought I had imagined them until I saw the proof of the encounter on my hand. I noticed her walking into the kitchen just as I was going out, having washed the last of the plates and silverware. I froze in the doorway, almost knocking into her, knowing that Luciana only visited the kitchen to play her sick games. I looked into her hands, expecting to see the wooden shoes. One was held loose at her side, but the other was clasping an object I could not see.
Keeping my expression guarded, I looked at her face, lips parted in surprise. Luciana looked back at me in a daze, her eyes wide and filmed over. Her skin was a strange purple color, enflamed and bruised looking. I could feel heat coming off of her body from several feet away. Clear beads of sweat clung to her forehead, streaming down her neck and into the collar of her dress.
I stepped closer to her, and burning energy slid over my skin like water, making me take in a sharp breath. I suddenly realized what was causing the intense heat: magic. I had never felt so much magic! It was thousands of times more powerful than the pleasant flush of warmth I felt when I talked to Jessith or the horses. This magical energy was uncontrollable, leaking out of Luciana and on to me.
Suddenly, Luciana lurched forwards, letting out a hoarse cry as she nearly fell on top of me. I managed to push her weight away, letting her collapse onto the floor. Something bright spilled out of her hand, skittering a few feet away from her side. The heat coming from Luciana vanished and she lay twitching on the floor stones, shocks rolling through her body.
I bent down to see what she had dropped and caught a glimpse of a silver chain. The three-ringed pendant was familiar. I reached out a hand to pick it up, but the links burned my fingers as soon as I touched it and I dropped the chain again. I stared at my palm, which was starting to turn an angry red color, completely shocked. Like a thousand tiny sparks searing holes through my skin, the magic burrowed into the flesh of my hand, humming in my bones. Using the material of my dress to cover the fingers of my other hand, I reached for the chain again, but Luciana was faster. She managed to roll over and grabbed the chain before I could grasp it.
"Mine!" she said throatily, clutching the burning metal to her chest, seemingly immune to the heat. "You will not have it! Will not - have it -" she threw herself to her feet and ran off like the hounds of hell were on her heels, leaving me alone to pour cool water over my blistered hand, trying to make sense out of what I had just witnessed.
"She did what?"
"Ran out of the room and left me standing there," I repeated. Belladonna's expression was disbelieving. This time, she had been the one expecting to make love, but I had started talking before she could confuse me with kisses. It had been hard to resist the sight of her stripping out of her dressing gown. The obvious longing in her eyes when she saw me made my heart pound in my head, but the frightening scene with Luciana in the kitchen was still fresh in my mind and my fear overpowered my arousal. My impression of Luciana had changed completely - she was not just cruel, she was insane.
"Let me see your hand again," Belle said, her voice concerned. I wanted to reach out and smooth the worried wrinkle between her eyebrows with my thumb, but I let her take my hand in both of hers and turn it over. I shivered, gritting my teeth as she peeled the dressing away from the raw skin of my palm. "You say the chain did this?" she asked softly. "The chain that Luciana took from our Mother?"
"Yes," I told her. Repeating my story did not make me angry. I could scarcely believe it myself, and I could not expect poor Belle to take it all in right away. "What I don't understand is - where was the magic coming from? Luciana, or the chain? Luciana felt fevered, but her skin did not burn like the chain when she fell on me."
"I have never heard of an ordinary object burning someone or creating its own inherent magic. Usually, someone has to channel power through it, like a magic mirror."
"Well, this object was far from ordinary," I mumbled. I tried to pull my hand out of Belladonna's grip, but she brought it to her lips and brushed an impossibly light kiss over the skin. It should have hurt, but strangely, the pain seemed to ease.
"How do you know that what you felt was magic?" Belle asked, staring at me curiously. "It's not like you have any experience with it... neither of us are Ariada..." Somehow, coming from between Belle's lips, the word did not seem dirty. I blushed fiercely, not knowing how to explain my secret, but feeling compelled to share it with her. I had already shared my heart and body with Belladonna and it seemed wrong to keep things back from her.
Surprisingly, Belle guessed before I could tell her. "You are Ariada, aren't you?" she asked, tension gripping her shoulders. I felt my breath leave my chest. I had never expected Belle to be so afraid and hateful of magic… Tears flooded my eyes and I blinked to keep them back.
"Would you hate me if I was?" I asked sharply, immediately becoming defensive. "Would you reject me?"
"No," Belle said, interrupting me. "You - you think I care that you are Ariada? I could never reject you! But why did you keep it a secret?"
I pressed my lips together, unsure about how to answer. "I did not want you to stop loving me..." I said, thinking aloud.
"You didn't trust me." Belle's voice, flat and devoid of emotion, made my heart tear. She was right, I admitted to myself guiltily. I had not trusted her. Suddenly, her pained expression made sense.
I stepped forwards, taking Belle's wrist in my uninjured hand. She stiffened at the touch, still hurt. "I know it's a little late, Belle, but… I want to tell you. I am Ariada. I can talk to animals. That is my gift."
She smiled at me weakly, the fresh pain between us beginning to recede. "You can talk to animals," she asked, testing the idea. There was no fear or disgust in her face or her voice, only left over sadness and perhaps a spark of curiosity.
"Some of them have very interesting things to say. Jessith in particular is always…" I paused, trying to searching for an adjective worthy of my friend. Finally, I settled on, "opinionated."
Belle raised her dark eyebrows, letting her tight posture relax. "I should think a cat would be. Is Rucifee entertaining as well?"
I groaned. "You have no idea."
Belle, satisfied with my apology, took me into her arms again. "Of course, now that I know that you can talk to animals, I will pester you and ask what they are saying every time we see one."
Strangely, the idea appealed to me. It would be a pleasant change to share my gift instead of being secretive about it. "Well, right now, Ellie says that she would very much like to kiss you." My eyes lingered on Belladonna's lips as I spoke.
Tipping my chin up with two fingers, Belle pressed gentle kisses to the freckles on my cheeks and the corners of my lips before finding my mouth. Several moments later, while both of us breathed heavily, she said, "Belle says that was a good idea."
Relieved that Belle and I were back on good terms, I hurried to show her how appreciated her acceptance was. Thoughts of Luciana were put aside for the rest of the night.
Afterwards, my sleep was not peaceful. I was trapped in a dream, the kind where you know that you are dreaming, but cannot escape. I was standing before Luciana, but she was frozen in time, her shoulders as stiff and lifeless as her face. I touched her skin and it was cold. My eyes were drawn to the chain that hung around her throat. The pendant was on it.
The three circles began to pulse and ripple, growing larger until they were the size of my fist, my head, my entire body. Soon, the gigantic pendant dwarfed me, leaving me to stare up at it helplessly. Luciana had disappeared behind it. If she was still there, I could not see her. The flat surfaces of the pendant's metal rings grew dull until they were almost black, and I saw - or thought I saw - movement inside them.
With horror and disgust, I realized what the pendant looked like. It was a huge, bulbous eye, staring ghoulishly at me through the thin metal. I stumbled back, wanting to run far away from this horrible thing. A strange voice, so old that its layers sounded like many voices tied together, spoke through the eye. It said six words: I am awake. I see you.
When I stopped screaming, Belle was holding onto me. Both of us were crouched down on the cold floorstones and the sheets were tangled about our legs. Somehow, I had fallen off of the bed. "Ellie?" she whispered frantically, stroking my hair and rocking me like a child, "Ellie, what is it?"
It was a long time before I gathered enough courage to tell her about the dream and an even longer time before either of us fell back asleep. When we did, my sleep was dreamless.
"You know, if you have a question, the most sensible place to look for an answer is in the library." Belle and I had stolen a few moments together on the second floor, next to the tapestry of King Faron of Amendyr on a wild boar hunt. Running with him were several wild-looking creatures, each more fantastical in appearance than the last. "Sometimes, I wonder if you love that library more than me," I complained good-naturedly. The only thing larger than the Baxstresse library was Belle's admiration for it. So much of my relationship with Belle had been formed there - the companionable hours we had spent reading together by the fire; the secret moments I had stolen with Belle's diary; the first kiss we had shared, which had led to so many more firsts. Occasionally, I found Belle's fascination with the place wearisome, but I could not help being enamored with it, too.
"Only a little. You have to admit that it knows more than we will in ten lifetimes."
"And does nothing with that knowledge but collect dust, which I am usually the one cleaning. Do you know how often Sarah and I are in there keeping things in order?" I asked her. Truly, I did not mind cleaning the library, although I did have a tendency to blush when I passed the fireplace. Sarah had even asked me if the heat was making me feel unwell a few times.
"Still, it's worth looking, don't you think? There must be a book about magic and burning chains on one of those shelves." I turned away from Belle, whose flushed face was capturing a little too much of my attention, and glanced sideways at the tapestry. One woman - at least, she had the face, shoulders, and breasts of a woman - was piercing the side of the boar with her spear. However, where her ribcage ended, a huge, bulbous black body was set over eight semi-humanoid legs.
If they truly existed, the Liarre lived on the other side of the continent next to the sea. Since Amendyr rested between Seria and their kingdom, no one I knew had ever seen them. Many Serians claimed that they were not real. I never had cause to think about them for longer than a passing moment and I did not know if they actually existed. I was certain that Belle would know. There were supposed to be many tribes of them - spiders, wild dogs and cats, horses, and even giant lizards.
" - can find it, I am sure…"
I blinked twice, drawn from my thoughts by Belle's comment. "The place is hopelessly scrambled for the most part. If you want to dig through all of those books to find what you want, feel free. No one ever said that I needed to categorize the books. Dusting them takes long enough."
Belle's forehead lifted and she looked almost reproachful as she stared down the line of her nose at me. "I know where everything is in that library. It's perfectly easy to find what I'm looking for."
I almost choked on the laughter that spilled from my mouth. "What? No! Be serious… the place is a shambles. Admit it."
"Fine. Go and look for our mysterious burning chain then, and show me when you find it."
"Fine, I will. And when I do, you'll owe me a kiss."
Of course, I should have known better than to issue Belle a challenge. Three and a half hours later she was shoving a very thick book with the title Elementary Majicks under my nose, somehow managing to wave the heavy thing in my face. "There! Right there, the second paragraph…"
This is what I read:
One of the most difficult objects of power to create, a focus object, more commonly known as a sorcerer's chain, was once considered a standard magical tool for Ariada in the Kingdom of Amendyr, less than half a century before the Serian explorers put an end to most magical development in the eastern half of the continent. A focus object allowed magic to be infused with the object of the caster's choice - usually a thick chain, orb, or ring. This magic could then be recalled instantly at a later time, usually during a duel, without directly draining the magician's energy.
The amount of magic within a focus object depends upon the endurance and experience of the Ariada that has created it. Theoretically, a focus object can be used by anyone with magical ability, although they might easily lose control of someone else's magical energy, particularly if they are inexperienced. However, in reality, almost all focus objects were enchanted with a familiarity spell, allowing them to recognize the original caster and rendering them useless to anyone else. Upon touching a focus object, any living being is able to sense the magical energy, often feeling a strange vibration or slight warmth caused by the agitated state of the contained magic. If unused for a long period of time, perhaps over the span of several years, the magic will gradually leave the focus object and return to the earth, leaving the chosen item in its former state.
Chains remained the most popular form for focus objects until the High Ariada fell after the death of Kamen Thyr, because of their light weight and concealable size, while rings fell out of fashion, as they were easier to misplace and harder to properly fit to the magician's specific finger size…
"Slight warmth?" I said, my voice cracking as I looked up from the book. "My hand is still blistered from touching that thing. Whatever Luciana's got her claws around must have the magic of ten Ariada in it!"
Belle's expression turned thoughtful as she examined the page that I had read. "Maybe whoever it belonged to was a very powerful witch?"
I shook my head, dismissing the notion immediately. "No human could be that powerful. Besides, this book is talking about sorcerer's chains, or focus objects, or whatever they are, in the past tense. I've read about the High Ariada before, but didn't they exist centuries ago?"
"About half a century before the Serians came. Amendyr was left weak without them. That is why Seria gobbled up half the continent so easily before the Amendyri Ariada that were left held them at the Forest Pass."
"What about the eye I saw? It must be a part of the chain. Was it just a dream, or was it magic?" Belle looked slightly overwhelmed by all of my questions, but I continued anyway. "Why has this chain suddenly appeared now? If it is so old, why hasn't the magic gone out of it? Why is it so strong? And how did the vile thing get into your great grandmother's hands?"
Belle took the book from my hands, closing it and tucking it under her arm. "I don't know, Ellie. Maybe this book will tell me more. It refers to other texts in many of the chapters, and I might spend some time reading those as well… I want to find out as much as possible about this chain before Luciana finds a way to use it against us."
Two nights after reading about sorcerer's chains in Elementary Majicks, another book was waved under my nose as its holder yelled at me. This time, it was Sarah. She was holding a familiar leather-bound journal in her hand. "Oh my God, Ellie, it can't be true," she nearly sobbed, almost slamming the cover of the journal into my face. "Please tell me that nothing in this is true!"
"Where did you get that?" I snapped, trying to grab the journal from her. She was too quick for me, holding it above my head where I could not reach it. We had played this game before and I knew that jumping was useless. "Give it back!"
"All this time, your mystery lover was -"
"Don't say the name! Just give me the book back..."
Sarah was nearly crying at that point, still holding the journal over my outstretched hands. "Ellie, I won't let you elope! It's the most foolish thing I've ever heard of in my entire life. If you try, I'll stop you."
"I don't suppose you read the last entry in that diary, did you?" I asked, lowering my hand and keeping my voice neutral.
Sarah rolled her eyes. "I couldn't get through the rubbish without wanting to vomit. Of course I didn't read the last entry," she said, sounding like an insulted courtier, conveniently forgetting that she had gone through my things and taken the book without my permission.
"Well, since you've already stolen it from me, you might was well read it now."
Sarah looked down her nose at me, studying my face, considering my suggestion. Tilting her head up so that she could see the pages without lowering the book, she flipped to the last entry, a scowl pulling over her lips. Then, her mouth dropped open. She forgot about holding the book up and let her arm drop to chest level. I took the diary from her and she did not protest. First, she stared at me, loose-jawed and wide eyed. Then, she started to laugh. "You almost killed me, Ellie! I can't believe..."
"Exactly," I interrupted, keeping a tight hold on the journal now that I had it back. I could not have anyone else reading it, just in case they... misinterpreted. "Cate and I thought that you needed a friendly warning before you got all of us into trouble."
It started because Sarah's teasing about my mystery lover had been driving me to distraction. Despite my warnings about Luciana's taste for blackmail and torture, particularly rape, Sarah's curious nature subdued any caution that she might have possessed. As dearly as I loved my friend, she was one of the most indiscreet, gossip-hungry people I knew. Letting her discover my relationship with Belladonna would have been disastrous. Cate was sensible about the whole thing and so I enlisted her to help me teach Sarah a lesson.
The joke was rather simple. Since Sarah was so eager for information, I decided, I would give her the most lurid gossip of her life. Belle's own journal had given me the idea. Instead of letting Sarah get her hands on that private book, which Belladonna still wrote entries in and which I still read - with her permission, of course - Cate and I had composed our own. My favorite scene was a particularly lustful encounter with Jamison on the stairs.
"I can't believe you, Ellie Sandleford. You had me thinking that you were going to elope with that odious Jamison and have ten children with him in Briaridge!"
"On the other hand, I have no trouble believing that one of my best friends would go looking through my things just to satisfy her curiosity." Sarah had the decency to blush guiltily. I smiled and put a hand on her shoulder. "It's all right, I'm not angry with you - much. But I'm certainly not helping you clean up tonight, if you catch my meaning."
"I suppose I deserve it," Sarah said, blowing her loose bangs out of her eyes. "I never should have fallen for that rot you put in there. Jamison? You couldn't have picked someone else?"
I grinned wickedly. "Of course not! I wanted to pick the most horrifying, vile person imaginable. Besides Luciana, Jamison was the obvious choice." Offering my hand for Sarah, I added, "all right, if you promise to stop going through my things to learn details about my private life, I promise not to elope with Jamison and have ten children. I'll even keep being your friend. How does that sound?"
"Sounds wonderful to me," Sarah said, looking relieved. I had a feeling that keeping her nose out of my business was going to be more difficult for her than she realized, but I knew that Sarah was a well-meaning girl very deep down. This scare would probably keep her out of trouble for a week or two, at any rate.
While Belle was reading book after book on magical objects and sorcerer's chains, I had an idea of my own. The troubling dream did not return to haunt my sleep, but it was with me during the day. When I passed into a shadow, when my mind wandered from Belle for just a moment, when everything suddenly paused and went quiet, and the entire Manor stopped to listen to a sound that was not there, I saw the large burning-black eye in my mind. It made my stomach squeeze and my heart curl in my throat.
I decided to ask Cate about the pendant. Sarah had revealed that she was from an ancient Amendyri family. Perhaps she had lived there as a child. She might know something about dream-telling, especially since she could See. Better yet, she might know of a way to get rid of frightening dreams and visions.
I spent many hours at night thinking of what to say to her, but in the end, I just blurted it out: "I know you can See."
When I asked her, Cate was not surprised. "I knew that you would find out," she told me, setting down the load of fresh laundry that she had carried in to our room. We actually needed to take the bedding upstairs, but we had decided to stop for a few moments to catch our breath. "Sarah can never keep her mouth shut."
"I don't think any differently of you," I told her. She looked relieved, and now that she had lowered her arms and the bundle of bedding, I could see that her lips were pressed tight. She was calm, but still alert. "Actually, I - "
"I know, sister," Cate said slowly.
My eyes grew large. "Do you know everything that I want to say before I say it?"
Cate gave a small, flickering smile. For a moment, her freckles stood out on her milk-pale skin. "No," she said. "But I get strong feelings from you. Also, I've heard you talking to the cats. Rucifee was pestering you the other night."
I scowled, remembering. I had stepped on the fat ginger nuisance's tail. Although I had apologized very politely, he had taken a swipe at my leg with his claws. I shook my head and focused on Cate. "Cate, I had a dream. Have you noticed that Luciana wears a pendant around her neck on a silver chain?"
Cate thought about it, squinting her eyes as she concentrated. It did not look like she was performing any magical actions and I did not feel the pleasant, warm buzz that I had grown to associate with my own magic. A dark look crossed her face and she nodded. "She never takes it off. Even when... she never takes it off." There was a long pause. "Sometimes she makes me undress her. I tried to unhook it once. She knocked me over a table."
I gasped and reached out a hand, but Cate shied away from my touch. "Don't. Don't touch me right now. I'm all right."
"I'm so sorry, Cate... I didn't mean to make you think about..."
"I'm all right," she repeated. "Tell me about your dream."
And so I told her about my dream. She listened intently, with a serious expression on her face, but she no longer looked pained or frightened. She was focusing. She shivered slightly at the part about the giant eye and my bones twitched in response. There was something primal and evil about what I had seen. "Your dream sounds real. My mother told me that everyone has a little bit of the Sight in them. Before we came to Seria..." She closed her eyes, remembering a time long ago. "When we lived in the Forest at Grandmother's house. That was before the bad time."
"The bad time?" I asked.
"Mother was sick. Grandmother sent me away to relatives across the border. When they grew too old, I ended up here. I still miss the Forest."
I was surprised that Cate was talking about her childhood so freely. As soon as the thought rose in my head, Cate decided that she was tired of talking and watched me for a long, tense second. I gave her a smile and she smiled back, slowly and carefully, wondering if she had revealed too much. "Everyone has a little bit of the Sight in them," she said again. "Listen to your dreams."
"I will," I told her. As we picked up the forgotten bedding and walked up the stairs together, most of our discomfort faded and I was left with more questions that I could not answer.
Sharing Belladonna's bed could only go unnoticed for so long. We knew, of course, that we were taking a risk by being together, but we continued meeting all the same. They say that love is blind, but I know better - lovers see, but choose to look away. The tears of joy that stained our cheeks at night never blurred our sight completely. Perhaps we stole a kiss more than was wise in one of Baxstresse's many empty rooms. Still, the day came when one of our rendezvous was rudely interrupted.
Belle was busy blazing a trail of dusky purple marks along the column of my throat, bruising white skin with heated lips and tongue, strands of her black mane tickling my bare shoulders. "Mmm... you taste good..." she breathed across my collarbone, peppering kisses over the bite-marks. I had already stolen an hour in her arms, but I still wanted more. If I had been standing, her kisses would have made my knees weak.
"You shouldn't," I whispered, tugging weakly at her wrist, "someone will see them."
"Then let them see that you are mine. You belong to me." At last, she left my neck and moved her face over mine, our mouths brushing together without meeting.
"I've been gone too long already..."
"I don't care. I need you again, my beautiful girl," she said, desperation coloring her voice. "I have to have more of you. Don't you want me?"
"Yes," I hissed, my eyes fluttering shut as heat blossomed in my chest, beating out to my fingertips. "Belle, I love-" I started, but my declaration was cut short as the doors flew open, causing my heart to skip as they slammed into the wall. I crossed my arms over my breasts, lips parting in surprise as Luciana walked casually into the room, the corners of her mouth flickering up with satisfaction.
"Good evening, sister," she drawled, her cold voice cutting off my breath. Her gaze dug into every inch of my bare flesh and my skin prickled with fear. I clutched the sheets at my throat, huddling into a ball to hide from her wicked black eyes. Belle did not even bother covering herself. She placed a hand over mine, where it was clutching nervously at a rounded hipbone, and removed it, pulling away from the safety of my touch and standing up. All the warmth inside me left with her.
"Luciana," Belle said, challenging her sister with her eyes, confronting her in all of her naked glory.
Luciana rested a hand on her waist, tilting her head back like a proud bird. "You know, I hardly believed it when I first heard," she said, finally tearing her eyes away from me and turning to Belladonna, "taking your own sister to your bed. How shameful." She shook her light hair off of her shoulders, her thin smirk broadening.
"Not nearly as shameful as raping kitchen maids and beating your lovers to near-death." Belladonna pressed her lips together, looking at Luciana's arrogant posture with disgust. "Ellie gives herself to me freely. I would never take her against her will."
For the first time since she entered the room, Luciana looked surprised. She glanced at me, bafflement breaking through the haughty mask of her face. Was it really so unbelievable that I would make love to Belle willingly? She recovered quickly, returning her attention to Belladonna. "I'm sure you would feel uncomfortable explaining all of this to our mother," she suggested.
"Blackmail," Belle whispered to herself, glancing at the floor stones for a brief moment. "All right, Luci, Mother's favorite," she said bitterly, making her voice loud again. "What do you want from me?"
Luciana's lashes lowered wickedly. "Your complete obedience and... friendship." Her eyes rose again to take in Belle's breasts and stomach, her smooth legs. I was disgusted.
"Friendship? That's what you call it, then?"
"Friendship," Luciana answered, enjoying the word on her tongue. "And, of course, the friendship of your little blonde lover. I am sure that Ellie will enjoy herself with me."
The expression of horror on Belladonna's face mirrored the fear collecting at the bottom of my stomach. "Ellie is mine," she said, low and cold. "You will not touch her. You will never touch her."
I wanted to go to her, embrace her, thank her for the flood of shielding warmth that her words enveloped me in, but I could not move. I reached out my hand after several still moments in silent thanks. She took it, brushing her thumb over the tops of my knuckles.
"Who will believe you, Luciana?" Belle said, powerful and intimidating even in her nakedness. I shrank behind her, biting at my bottom lip. "Surely no one would accept such an allegation, even from you."
Luciana was unfazed. "Perhaps they wouldn't... if I had no proof." She pulled her white hand from the folds of her skirt and held up a familiar leather-bound journal. My heart jerked out of rhythm for an instant.
Belle's firm, stoic expression faltered. "My diary..."
"Written in your own hand," Luciana reminded her.
Belle was silent again, clearly shaken. Even so, she did not retreat. "Ellie is mine and as long as I have strength to protect her, I will. You won't lay a hand on her until my death."
Luciana did not take the threat well. The back of her neck straightened and she lifted her chin, revealing the three-circled pendant at the base of her throat. It bobbed wickedly as she breathed, seeming almost alive itself. I could not tear my eyes from it. All I could see was the eye, watching us...
I am awake. I see you.
"I think not, sister," Luciana said through gritted teeth. I shot back into the present moment. Red sparks of light crackled and danced around her clenched fist, although the hand holding the book remained dormant.
My eyes widened as the sparks jumped around Luciana's wrist, rushing to her fingertips as she extended them towards Belle. My lover held her ground, but I caught the flash of nervousness in her eyes.
"No," I said hoarsely, my throat tight with unshed tears, "don't hurt her..." I moved to the side, away from Belladonna's protection, still near enough to clasp her hand. "I-I... I will do whatever you want, but don't hurt her."
Luciana smiled. "Good girl," she purred, tucking Belladonna's diary back into her skirts and silencing the sparks along her slender fingers. The words made my eyes sting with tears. The thought of what I had said to Mam all those months ago came back to me - "If she ever touches me like that, I will kill her. And then I will kill myself." But could I go through with it now that I had Belle?
"I will not le-" Belle started, but we were interrupted by a knock on the door. "I am not dressed," she called out, staring at the door.
"'Course you're not," Mam said. I could feel her roll her eyes even from outside of the room. Only Mam would dare to sass Belladonna. "Is Ellie in there with you?"
"Yes," I called out, my voice shaking.
"Good. You'll be after helping Miss Belladonna into one of her evening gowns, then. A messenger with a fine red coat is waiting at the door, and if he don't look a sight! I'm thinking he's from the Palace."
Relieved that I had something to do, I bent down properly at the waist and picked up Belle's chemise. Luciana watched as Belle lifted her arms over her head let the simple white garment settle about her shoulders. I could see the lust in her eyes and it made my skin tighten. I did not want to know what she was imagining. I bent down again to lift Belle's corset. My hands shook terribly, fumbling over the hooks and eyelets as Luciana stared at us.
"She will try to find me next," Luciana said, not looking away. "Neither of you will say a word about this to anyone, unless you want this," she held up the diary, "to be made public." And then, as suddenly as she had entered, she was gone.
I fell into Belle's arms, sobbing against her bare shoulder, leaving her corset half-tied. I felt something wet against my forehead and realized that she was crying, too. "What are we going to do?" Belle whispered, tracing my lips with her fingertip, "but I will never let her touch you. You are mine... only mine... Oh, Ellie..." She kissed me, and her lips were rough, needy.
"But she will ruin you. She can take away everything with this..."
"Then we will run away. We can go to a place where no one knows who we are."
I chuckled bitterly, but Mam entered before I could answer her. "Ellie, finish helping Miss Belladonna." Silently, I finished tying Belle's corset and helped her with her dress. "Now, away with you," Mam ordered, pointing imperiously at the door, and Belle obeyed without protest. Only Mam was indispensable enough to give orders to the ladies of the manor. Baxstresse would collapse in on itself without her steady management.
Daringly, Belladonna gave me a soft, open-mouthed kiss before she left, giving both of us strength. Then, she left me alone with Mam. We stared at each other silently for a long moment. "You don't have anything to say to me?" I asked, my voice shaking. I could not meet Mam's eyes as she lowered her full body and picked up my dress from where it lay crumpled against a wall.
"Better be putting this on," she said, offering me the bundle. I uncrossed my arms from where they had been shielding my modesty and worked my hands into the sleeves. The rough material scraped my skin as it settled across my shoulders. Once, I had refused to consider myself spoiled at all, but I had learned that being a little spoiled is better than suffering poverty. I missed the luxury of comfortable dresses, although the corsets were something I did not miss at all.
I felt better once I was covered, and was almost able to look Mam in the eye as I said, "Luciana knows. She wants Belle's inheritance out of this." I could not speak of that other horrible thing she wanted, could not even think of it. "She can prove what Belle and I have done. She found a diary."
Mam let her eyes fall shut, lowering her chin and pressing her lips tight. "Oh, Ellie..." Her mouth moved, but there was nothing left to be said. I held my wrist with one hand and feared what love had brought me.
A little less than an hour later, Belle found me scrubbing dishes in the kitchens. The chores of Baxstresse waited for no one. She walked up behind me so quietly that my breath caught when she finally spoke. "Put that down, Ellie. I need to speak with you."
I obeyed and put down the plate, still holding the limp drying cloth in my hand. "Is there anything to speak about?" I said softly, afraid that Belle would confirm what I had already been thinking - there was no way to stop Luciana.
"The messenger was from the palace. We have been invited to a ball."
"You mean you and… her." Like Jessith, I disliked speaking Luciana's name. It made my mouth feel sour.
"No, all three of us. Everyone outside of Baxstresse only thinks you are sick. The invitation was sent out of politeness."
"What does an invitation to a ball have to do with protecting ourselves?" I asked, irritated with Belle for wandering from the topic I wanted to discuss. How could she think of anything but the disgusting way Luciana had looked at us?
"This is not an ordinary ball. It is Prince Brendan's twenty-first birthday ball. His parents are tired of him gallivanting about the Forest Pass and slaying monsters along the Amendyri border. They want him to pick a girl to marry. Luciana wants to be that girl."
My heart stopped in my chest. Luciana wanted to be queen? Prince Brendan could not make a worse choice. Having a sadistic, power-hungry demon on the throne would tear the kingdom apart. I did not dare think about what Luciana would do if her plan succeeded. "How do you know?"
"She told me. The snake wants me to watch her at the ball, powerless to stop her, while she seduces him. She thinks I am too much of a coward to interfere." Belle's thin eyebrows furrowed, her lips almost peeling back in a snarl as she glared at her hands. "But she is wrong. I will not stand by and let her evil go unpunished, not this time. It has to be that chain, the one you felt burning. I am sure it is a Sorcerer's chain. We have to find a way to break it."
In the days that followed, Belladonna spent most of her time reading magical texts in the library. I discussed Luciana's plan with Cate, Mam, Matthew, and even Sarah. Of course, I left out the parts about the burning chain and Luciana's threat to blackmail my lover and I into sharing her bed. Instead, I told them that Luciana wanted to drag a marriage proposal out of Prince Brendan. The possibility that Luciana might become Queen of Seria horrified them and they were more than willing to help.
"I will ask Miss Belladonna if I can go to the ball with her," I told Cate and Sarah as we were discussing ways of stopping Luciana. "I was invited, after all."
"Do you honestly think that Miss Belladonna will say yes? I mean, maybe I should ask her," Sarah suggested. "I know her better than you do."
I swallowed to free the tightness in my throat, staring down at my lap. I did not want to be reminded of how well Sarah had known my lover. "I will do the asking. Belladonna does not want Luciana to be Queen. We are friendly enough." More than friendly, but how could Sarah know? "I could follow in a carriage behind them. I can't let Luciana know that I am going. Matthew will lend me a horse."
"One of you should distract Prince Brendan and the other can try and keep Luciana away from him." I jerked my head up in surprise at Cate's simple idea.
"Of course. Luciana will think I am at Baxstresse, so that leaves me to watch the Prince while Belle watches her." My eyes popped open and I hoped that no one noticed the accidental endearment. Sarah was too distracted to care and if Cate thought anything of it, she was too shy to say. She did give me a contemplative look, however.
Sarah nearly swooned at the mention of the Prince, her face turning bright red and her brown eyes shining with moisture. She looked positively ridiculous, but I probably looked just as silly when I was thinking about Belle. "Oh, I would love to dance with Prince Brendan for a night! I saw him once, you know, when I was about ten years old. He was so handsome!"
"If it was when you were ten, than he was only twelve. He could not have been that handsome," I pointed out.
"He was!" Sarah insisted. "He had wavy brown hair and the clearest blue eyes I have ever seen." I thought about another pair of blue eyes, more beautiful than Brendan's, and my face felt hot.
"I don't care what his eyes look like, as long as he doesn't marry Luciana. Any other idiot would be fine, just not her."
"There can't possibly be anyone worse," Cate agreed.
"I would be a wonderful Queen," Sarah said, waving her hand regally in the air. I rolled my eyes, but Cate smiled, distracting me from my sour mood.
"What would be your first royal decree?" I asked, playing along.
"I…" Sarah paused dramatically, "would order Luciana to be thrown in the dungeon."
"Or executed," I suggested.
"Or thrown in the dungeon, tortured, and then executed." Both of us stared at Cate, surprised at the venom behind her words. We knew how much she hated Luciana - she had more cause than any of us to despise her - but we had not expected our shy friend to speak so viciously. "It would serve her right."
Without speaking, Sarah and I both put a hand on one of Cate's shoulders in silent comfort. Even though I had not endured as much pain as Cate, I understood her a little better now. Luciana's threat to take me to bed had shaken me. Belle and I did not want to think about the possibility, but both of us were afraid.
The conversation drifted after that. All of us were too stunned by Cate's words to plot any more, and I could tell that Cate had surprised even herself. I saw it as a good sign. Perhaps Cate's inner strength was beginning to return.
That evening, I went to Belladonna's rooms, unable to fall asleep beside Cate. We had not made love since Luciana's interruption, although I had spent two nights sleeping in her bed. Both of us were awkward with each other, consumed by our worries and afraid of intimacy. Part of me longed to know my lover's body again, but Belle had shown no interest in being with me and I was too afraid of upsetting her to be the aggressor.
Belle's door was unlocked, as I knew it would be. I did not bother knocking, letting myself in as quietly as I could in case my lover was asleep. She was reading a thick, yellowed volume, shadows bobbing over the skin of her bare upper body. Her legs and hips were wrapped in the bed sheets. I could not help staring at her breasts, longing to stroke the hard tips with my thumbs. Instead, I stripped, folding my dress and leaving it at the bottom of the bed.
Belle shut her book, not allowing me to catch a glimpse of the title before she set it on her wooden nightstand. She held out a long hand to me and I took it, climbing next to her on the bed and wrapping my arms around her warm body. "I love you," she said suddenly, pulling me closer against her side.
"I love you, too," I told her, encouraged by her words. "And I will love you until the stars fall into the sea." I blushed, surprised by my sudden burst of inspired poetry, and more than a little embarrassed. Belle only smiled, resting a cool hand against the side of my neck. I knew that she could feel my heartbeat pounding beneath my skin.
"That was very prettily phrased, Ellie. Have you ever thought of trying your hand at poetry?" I looked at Belladonna uneasily, unsure whether she was joking with me.
"Oh, no, I really don't think-"
"Why not?" she asked. It was a serious question. "If you think you would enjoy it, of course."
"I'm not sure..." I confessed, blushing bright red to the roots of my hair. "You're a real poet, Belle. I don't understand why someone with such a gift wouldn't share -"
Belle interrupted me. "But I have. I'm sure that you have read, or at least heard of, Lord Erato's poetry? Probably only heard of... You don't strike me as worldly enough to indulge in such vile, disgusting literature."
"Well, yes, I have heard of him, but his poems are all about… oh. Of course they are about loving women."
"Not all of his poetry is that base, of course. He has written - I have written - about heroes, betrayal… loss... Stuffy society ladies just seem to draw attention to the ones about lovemaking. It's not my fault that they are dirty old hags. You and I are the only old ladies I want to imagine in any kind of intimate situation."
The mental image that my lover had given me made me smile. The thought of growing old with Belle made me feel comfortable and happy. "I like picturing us together when we are old. I will still think that you are the most handsome creature I have ever seen."
This time, Belle smiled back at me. Although I could still see the exhaustion and worry behind her eyes, her brief expression of happiness was genuine. "And I will still think you are the prettiest woman in the world, sweet girl."
I gave Belle's form an appreciative glance, although my body was so entwined with hers that it was difficult to see all of her. I was unwilling to let her go. "If you end up looking nearly as good as your mother does, you have nothing to worry about."
A brief look of sadness darkened Belle's eyes. "You have been looking at my mother? That is disgusting," Belle said. Her teasing sounded forced and I pulled myself tighter against her, gazing into her eyes.
"Why are you sad, lover? Is Lady Kingsclere worse?"
"About the same," Belle confessed. "At first, I thought it was shock... but now... Now, I'm sure she's tied up in whatever Luciana is doing. On good days, she recognizes me. She tells me about the past, stories I have already heard. I don't think she realizes what time she's in or that my father is dead. On her bad days... she won't talk at all… or she screams and tears at her hair, telling something to leave her alone, to stop hurting her."
I could not think of any words to say, so I wrapped my arms around Belle and held her tight, hoping that the comfort I wanted to give would pass through me and into her. Somehow, my embrace turned into a caress and our lips found each other in the half-darkness. I let Belle lead m and her mouth moved to stroke my eyelids, my cheeks, my chin. She kissed along the line of my jaw and I felt her teeth nip at the soft skin behind my ear.
I lifted my eyes, wanting to see my lover's face. The naked expression of need staring back at me made my heart stutter. Roughly, Belle grabbed my wrists and pinned them above my head, settling her body on top of mine, her thigh pushing between my legs and rubbing against me. I was overwhelmed by Belle's tall, sleek figure, feeling small and vulnerable, but also undeniably safe. My skin flushed and I felt tears rise in my eyes. Making love with Belle touched some deep part of my soul that often made me cry with joy.
The places where Belle's naked skin touched mine burned. She kissed my breath away until I was sure that I would drown in her. I lifted one of my hands, weaving the fingers through Belle's dark hair. She recoiled, flinching away from my hand like a nervous animal. "Don't, Ellie… stop."
I could see the brightness in her eyes, the blood rushing beneath her skin. Her entire body trembled with energy, need, and - fear? I could not imagine this powerful, elemental woman being afraid of anything. Belle's aura radiated strength and control... I knew that she needed me. Why was she frightened?
"Belle," I whispered, reaching for her hair again, "please. I want to feel you." She held her shoulders stiff, body trembling, fists tight. She allowed me to take her in my arms and I pressed my face into her shoulder, feeling her heart pound along the curve of her throat. Wanting to calm her, I smoothed my hands over the bunched, chorded muscles of her back. Sometimes, Belle made me feel like I was holding a tiger in my arms instead of a woman. She was all tensed, smooth muscle and barely contained energy. But she was also my protector and I trusted her with everything.
In the safe darkness that was Belle, I found words. "Please. Don't you want to be inside me? Feeling me in your hand, full and swollen and warm?"
She lifted my face from her shoulder, tipping my chin so that I was looking into her eyes. A glassy texture clouded them and I blushed, hardly believing what had passed between my lips.
"I was - going to take you…" she admitted haltingly, her face a strange picture of desire and panic. "I wanted to just… slide inside of you, hard. Fill all of you. Make you stop breathing from feeling so much at once... I didn't even ask. I could have hurt you. Just like-"
I cut her off. "You are not your sister. My body is yours, lover. You never have to ask to touch me. I belong to you. You won't hurt me."
Belle hesitated. "But-"
I took her trembling hand and shyly placed it between my legs, holding it against me. "You won't hurt me," I repeated. Her breath shook as she finally joined with me, scattering open-mouthed kisses across my chest. Her touch was not gentle, but I craved this overpowering connection as much as she did. I whispered words of pleasure in her ear, reminding her that I loved her, that I loved this, to ease her conscience. I could not bear to let my lover feel ashamed of something so sacred.
I tried to reach down once, to give her the same pleasure that she was giving me, but she bit the vulnerable skin of my neck hard enough to leave a large purple bruise. I kept my hands where they were, leaving myself helpless and exposed for her. We completed each other, joining our two souls - a miracle older than we could imagine, but that seemed new and wonderful to us.
My release surprised me and I threw my head to the side, screaming into the bed itself, my entire body humming with power and energy. Even though I had not touched her, Belladonna followed me over the edge seconds later, claiming my lips in a brutal kiss that made me flood her hand as I lost control a second time.
"I told you... I was yours..." I whispered in between the kisses that I pressed to her forehead.
"Mine," Belle growled, curling her fingers inside of me and making me shiver. We were silent for several minutes. Before we fell asleep, still joined together, I heard Belle whisper something in my ear. "There isn't enough paper in the world to write all the poems you inspire in me."
"You are going to need a dress."
I turned away from the fire where I was warming my hands and watched Sarah from over my shoulder. It was evening and we were sitting in the kitchen after dinner, waiting for Cate. She had been gone for almost an hour and I was worried that Luciana had caught her in some dark corner. "A dress?" I asked. "What for?"
Her face was thoughtful in the bobbing shadows. "For the ball," she explained. "You can't go to Prince Brendan's ball without a dress and jewels."
I felt foolish. A dress and jewels? I had not even considered that. Of course I could not make an appearance at the palace unless I was dressed to out-dazzle the stars. That was what all of the other noblewomen would be doing. Even if I did not look or feel like a lady, I was one of them.
"How am I supposed to get them?" I snapped. I was irritated that I had forgotten about the dress. Most of my time had been spent thinking up ways to explain my presence at the ball to Belladonna.
Sarah frowned at me. "You don't need to get angry. We just have to find a way to steal them."
"From who? Luciana and Belladonna are too large. Their dresses would never fit me." Sarah's thin smile was positively devious and I shivered. She could be nosy and talk too much, but behind all that, she was sharp.
"Who else is your size, Ellie?" she hinted.
"You are enjoying this too much. Stop it."
"Lady Kingsclere!" Sarah crowed, unable to hold it in. "She's much smaller than Miss Belladonna and Miss Luciana. Still bigger than you, but I should be able to alter one of her dresses. I know she will have something suitable. We just have to steal it."
One of my stool's three legs almost tipped out from under me as I shifted on the seat. I was too surprised to care. "Steal a dress from Lady Kingsclere? You've gone mad."
"Do you have a better idea? The ball is in six days. I need time to alter her dress if you want to go. It won't be that hard! All we have to do is go take her lunch up instead of Nancy. We can drug her wine. The woman's crazy anyway. She won't notice if one of her dresses is missing."
"I am not going to drug my stepmother! What if we give her an overdose and kill her? What if Nancy catches us? So many things could go wrong."
"Fine," Sarah pouted, clearly miffed that I did not appreciate her brilliant plan. "Go to the ball stark naked for all I care. I was just trying to help."
"Trying to help send me to the madhouse," I muttered.
"Send who to the madhouse?" a voice called from behind us. Sarah and I stopped fighting and turned as Cate entered the kitchen. I gave her a quick up-and-down to check for bruises, but she did not seem to be in pain and had no visible injuries. Luciana had not been the reason for her late arrival.
"Sarah," I said, as Sarah answered, "Ellie."
"Should I send both of you there? It would be about time." Cate's smile convinced me that she really was all right. Impulsively, I stood and gave her a tight hug. She returned it, and then Sarah wrapped her arms around both of us. When the embrace broke, I gave Sarah a shove and sat back down on my stool.
"Sarah wants to steal one of Lady Kingsclere's dresses. She says I need something to wear to the ball."
Cate did not look surprised. "I knew she would suggest that. She's the only one close to your size. You really don't have any other choice, Ellie. Buying something so late would be impractical."
"All of the seamstresses are probably up to their necks in orders for the ball. You need something in less than a week," Sarah added, encouraged by Cate's support.
"Besides, where would we get the money?"
I scowled. "And so I am supposed to drug my stepmother's drink without getting caught by guard-dog Nancy, steal one of her dresses so that I can go to the ball, and stop my wicked stepsister from taking over the kingdom?" Not to mention confronting my lover about my plan, I added privately.
Cate and Sarah did not say anything for several seconds. Finally, Sarah blinked. "Well, yes."
"Do you have any idea how crazy this is?"
"It's not crazy if it works," Sarah insisted, "we have to try. If you don't go to the ball, no one will stop Luciana. We can't just let someone like her become Queen. We're as good as dead!"
I closed my eyes, knowing that I was beaten.
Sarah, who enjoyed subterfuge more than I felt was healthy, came up with an elaborate plan to sneak some powdered walnuts out of Mam's medicine basket. She was put out when I simply asked Mam for the sedative, claiming insomnia.
I proved less capable when the time came to put the powder in Lady Kingsclere's drink. It was Cate who measured out a pinch of the stuff and sprinkled it into the bottle, re-corking it and fetching a glass from the cupboard. I took them both to Nancy, pretending to smile helpfully. I had become a very capable liar in a short period of time, I thought to myself.
She met me on my way up from the kitchen, nearly running in to me as I turned a corner. She looked at me disapprovingly - Nancy was always looking at people disapprovingly - and took the tray from my hands. "Thank you," she said coolly, studying me in a way that suggested I might drop the tray if I held on to it.
"Of course. We finished lunch early, so I thought I would bring you the wine and save you a trip downstairs," I explained, keeping my nervous eyes on the bottle.
Nancy grasped the neck of the wine bottle. "This the right one?" she asked, shoving the tray and glass back into my hands so that she could hold the bottle with two hands. I watched with horror as she un-corked the bottle, lifted it to her lips, and took a long sip. She lowered the bottle, wiping her lips with the back of her hand.
I grabbed for the wine just as Nancy's knees buckled and she crumpled to the carpet. I looked around frantically, making sure that no one else had seen the accident. Assured that we were alone, I dropped to my knees to check on the unconscious upstairs maid. I sighed with relief when I felt her strong heartbeat under my fingers. Then, still carrying the open wine bottle in one hand, I ran back to the kitchen to find Cate and Sarah.
They looked at me with identical expressions of surprise as I burst through the swinging wooden door.
"Both of you, come with me," I panted, making sure that they were following me before hurrying back to Nancy.
"What happened?" Sarah's breathless question came from behind me.
"Nancy... the wine... she fainted dead away!"
"She drank it?" Cate squeaked.
"Right from the bottle," I said just as we approached Nancy's curled figure, which was still resting on the floor.
All of us stood silently for several moments, with Nancy's limp form sprawled at our feet. "Well," said Sarah, her voice loud in the quiet air, "what do we do now?"
"I will take the wine up to Lady Kingsclere. There won't be another chance after this..."
"You're absolutely insane," Cate muttered, but she did not disagree with me.
"She's got to." Sarah picked up the tray and glass, which I had dropped on the floor when I grabbed for the wine. Their fall had been cushioned by the soft carpet, and they were unbroken. "Here, Ellie. Take these." I took them with trembling hands as Sarah prodded Nancy with her foot. "She's well and truly gone, then," she said, sounding slightly guilty.
"Go, Ellie," Cate put a steadying hand on my shoulder. "You need that dress." And so I went, still shocked that we had accidentally drugged Nancy. Oh well, I thought, at least we would not have to worry about Nancy walking in on me during the theft.
Lady Kingsclere's bedroom was cold, a chill that ate into your bones and settled there. There was no fire in the fireplace and the curtains were drawn, leaving the room dark. I could barely see the outline of Lady Kingsclere's body underneath the dark yellow bedsheets.
"Milady?" I called out hesitantly, keeping my hands tight around the edges of the tray. There was no answer from the bed. "Milady, your wine," I said, louder this time.
As I stepped forward to set the tray on the small table beside the bed, the form under the covers moved and a thin, bony face peered out at me suspiciously like a bird from its nest.
If I studied her closely, I could see traces of the proud woman that I remembered my stepmother to be. But with her skin pulled tight over her cheekbones and her once-beautiful hair let loose and wild around the crown of her head, she was almost unrecognizable.
"Alastair?" she asked, her voice almost lost in the sheets. "Is that you?"
"No... I have your wine..." I tried to tell her, but I could not find my voice. As I searched for my words, she tossed aside the covers and stared at me with peering eyes. My heart pumped furiously against my ribs.
"Oh, Luciana," she said flatly. I could not stifle a gasp of surprise. First she thought that I was her long-dead first husband. Now Luciana? Lady Kingsclere was worse off than I had anticipated.
My stepmother was beginning to frighten me. I blinked back tears as I poured the wine into the glass that I had brought. My hands shook. Oh, Lady, I thought, what has Luciana reduced you to?
"Why do you hate me, Luciana?" she asked in a dry whisper. "I always loved you. I tried to love you."
"Luciana hates everyone, Mother," I told her, lifting the full glass to her cracked lips. She sipped like an obedient child. I put a gentle hand on her shoulder, tears streaming down my face. I felt a wave of affection for this woman and a wave of hatred for Luciana. My throat stung and my lips were pressed tight together.
"I suppose she does," Lady Kingsclere said, her voice surprisingly steady. Her eyes appeared clearer for a moment and she looked directly into my face before her head fell back onto the pillow.
Setting the half-empty glass of wine on the tray, I walked shakily over to the wardrobe, my mind awhirl with the things I had seen. First Nancy, now Lady Kingsclere. What was I doing?
The dress that I selected was quite lovely, with cheerful blue fabric in ruffles that complimented my skin well, but I scarcely studied it as I grabbed the neck and hurried from the room. I could not have told anyone what color it was until later. I took three steps through the door before I remembered to return for the wine and tray. No one could know what Cate, Sarah, and I had done and I did not want to get caught because I was too flustered to hide the evidence. Nancy's fainting spell would be difficult enough to explain on its own.
I did not stop to breathe or think until the wine had been emptied outside, the glass and tray had been washed, and the dress was tucked away safely in Belladonna's wardrobe. I assumed that it would not arouse suspicion hidden among other dresses.
The sound of footsteps behind me made my breath catch and I clasped a hand to my chest in surprise as I whirled around to see Cate walking towards me. "You're all right?" she asked, concerned.
I nodded. "Yes, I survived. The dress is hidden in Belle's wardrobe."
Cate looked at me curiously. "Belle's wardrobe?" she said slowly, as if she could taste the words. My bright blush gave away my secret and the ever-perceptive Cate's face lifted in understanding. "Belladonna?" I could discern nothing from her voice.
"Yes," I whispered.
Then, Cate burst out laughing. I watched her, dumb as a rock, as she shut her eyes and howled. "Belladonna is your lover and you didn't think to ask her to get a dress for you?"
I nearly imitated Nancy and fell to the floor. Heavens, was I really that much of an idiot? Helplessly, I joined Cate and laughed, too, until Mam came in to see what we were up to and scolded us for wasting time in her kitchen.
It was five days before the ball and Belle and I were involved in a newly discovered shared interest: chess. She was a more experienced player, but I was familiar enough with the game to present her with a challenge and I was enthusiastic about improving.
"Watch your knight," said Belladonna, observing the board from underneath her lashes. We were sitting at a table in the library, a crowded chessboard in between us. Belle tapped her finger on the ears of the piece in question.
I studied the congested center of the battlefield, noting where her pieces of power were positioned. Then, I looked up at her. Thick locks of her glossy raven hair wrapped around the pale landscape of her neck. This was, perhaps, my greatest strategical weakness. Belle was always able to distract me while I tried to play.
"Ellie," Belle's voice intruded on my thoughts. "Ellie. Your move."
"Oh." I shoved a pawn forwards distractedly. Within two turns, Belle had taken my knight.
"Maybe if you started looking at the chessboard instead of me, you would win more often," Belle teased, covering my hand with hers and rubbing her thumb over my knuckles. I smiled, purposely lowering my eyes and letting them wander over every inch of her upper body. Who could concentrate on chess with such a beautiful sight right above the board?
"You are more interesting to look at," I admitted. I turned my hand over, letting her trace patterns over the sensitive skin of my palm.
She laughed. "I am surprised you win at all, then."
"Are you implying that I am a poor chess player, Belladonna Kingsclere?"
"I am implying that you are more interested in what is underneath my corset than in winning a game of chess. At least, right now you are." The relaxed, almost coy expression on her face was unexpected, but certainly not unwelcome. I felt guilty, knowing that I had to ruin her good mood.
Belle leaned forward to kiss me, and I pressed my fingers to Belle's chin, holding her head back. "No," I said firmly, knowing that one kiss from her lips would make me forget everything that I had to say.
"No?" Belle lowered her eyebrows, looking wounded.
Perhaps she saw a flash of nervousness in my eyes, because she said, "something bad?"
I dipped my head. "If you allow it to be." My voice sounded quiet, even to my own ears. Belle pulled closer to me. Her hand covered mine. "I am coming with you to the ball," I said.
The fingers over mine squeezed the blood from my wrist. Belle stared at me, setting her jaw. "No."
I stared back. "You need me. Have you even thought about what you are going to do once you get there to stop Luciana?"
"Of course I have."
"And did you come up with any ideas?" She gave no answer. "I thought so."
Belle's shoulders lifted, making her look like a hissing cat. Her lips pulled back from her teeth and she continued to squeeze my hand, which had gone numb. A few moments ago, Belle had been playful, even flirtatious. Now, with her body locked in a tense, defensive posture, she looked ready to fight away demons.
"How can I make a plan when I have no idea what Luciana is going to do?" she said, forcing the words through her tight mouth.
"That is exactly why I need to be there. Two people working together have a better chance-"
"I don't care about our chances!" she roared, releasing my hand and sweeping her arm across the table in a violent arc, scattering chess pieces over the carpet. She stood, her hands clenched at her sides, panting over her chair, which had fallen over.
A painful throbbing started in my wrist and I saw a clear set of finger marks where Belle had gripped my hand. Belle noticed where I was looking and took a faltering step backwards. "Ellie... I'm sorry..." she stumbled, "I hurt you… I will not watch you go!"
Badly frightened, but still furious, angry tears streamed from Belladonna's blue eyes. I knew her so well. It was so easy to read what she was thinking. If I had any doubts, her next words proved me right. "I hurt you... Luciana will hurt you... you are NOT going!"
I opened my arms, reaching for her, but she pulled away violently, squeezing her eyes shut and storming from the room. I was left alone with the toppled chair, the scattered chess pieces, and my own tears.
I searched for Belle the next day, hoping that a night apart had cooled her temper. I found her in the library, a book on her lap. She rose from the red-brown armchair as if she had been waiting for me, but did not reach out in greeting.
I took two tentative steps forward, watching her face for any sign of fright or anger. To my surprised, she looked defeated, almost cold. I lowered my eyes, unable to stare at that dead expression for another moment.
Belle stepped forward, too, until we were a foot apart. It felt as though there were miles stretching between us. One of us had to cross that empty space. I reached for Belle's hand at the exact moment that she reached for mine. I gave her a hesitant smile.
"I already snuck a dress away from your mother," I admitted sheepishly.
"Really? Why? I could have taken one for you."
Belle watched me, puzzled, as I clutched her shoulders and laughed until my stomach hurt. Of course, I had to explain the conversation that Cate and I had shared, and soon, Belle was laughing, too. We did not need to discuss the subject of my attendance at the ball. It had already been decided without words. Belle knew that I would go no matter what she did, because I loved her. Just as I knew that she did not want me to go because she loved me.
Our hands gripped each other loosely; both of us enjoyed the physical contact after our separation. "Would you really have taken a dress for me?" I asked.
Belle nodded. My face broken in a brilliant smile, and I squeezed her hand. Never again would I wonder if Belle respected my ability to make decisions. Perhaps we were not always equals when we made love, but Belle did not see me as a pet or a child, totally dependent on her, completely submissive to her authority.
I threw myself into her arms and held on tight. "Thank you," I said, the words cracking as they scraped through my dry throat. Belle kissed my hair. I felt her heart pumping slowly through the fabric of her morning dress.
"You are most welcome, dear heart." She dropped a second kiss onto the crown of my head. "You promise to be careful?" Belle could not disguise the naked fear in her voice. Her heart thumped faster.
"Of course," I said, tracing soothing circles over her back with my hands. "I have everything to stay safe for. By the way, I had an idea about the ball."
"Really? What is it?" Belle asked, interested. She had not been very successful in her research on Sorcerer's Chains.
"We should write a letter to High Wizard Cieran and his wife, Cassandra. They will be at the ball anyway. They would want any magical threats against Prince Brendan to be reported."
Belle smiled. "I already did. Oh, lover, don't give me that look..." She stroked my cheek, trying to smooth my frown away. "I was going to tell you, but we started fighting..."
I could not blame Belle. After all, I had been keeping my own secrets from her. "What did you tell them? Did you get a reply? What did it say?"
Belle's hand moved to cover my lips. "Shhh, Ellie. I wrote to them and explained that a sorcerer's chain was going to be used to cast a love spell on the Prince. I left Luciana's name out of it, but I did put my signature at the bottom. I wanted them to know that the warning was coming from a reputable source. They would never believe me if I accused my own sister outright. They might assume I wanted her inheritance. I received a reply this morning from Lady Cassandra - apparently, she handles her husband's correspondences - saying that they were grateful for the warning and that I should try and speak with them near the beginning of the first ball."
I was relieved that someone with proper magical training had the situation well in hand. Belle hesitated for a moment and then asked, almost nervously, "will you be dancing with the Prince?"
Seeing the frustration behind her strong face, I kissed her gently on the lips. "If he is agreeable, yes. But in my heart, I will never dance with anyone but you. There is no reason for you to worry about me eloping with Prince Brendan or anyone else."
Belle smiled again, and I smiled back. "I know. I just wanted to hear it."
We held hands, leaning against each other. "And I will say it over and over again until you believe me."
Belle and I were much friendlier towards each other after our reconciliation. However, sometimes, as she watched me working, or as we rested in bed together before dawn, or read together in the library, I caught her looking at me with a curious expression on her face. Her lips would part, slowly, as if she wanted to speak, but she never did. She only stared at me with tortured blue eyes until I kissed her, spoke, or looked away.
I told my worries to Cate one morning as we cleared the breakfast dishes. I had forgiven Sarah for reading my fake diary entries concerning Jamison, but I still did not trust her with my secrets. Cate, I knew, would listen and comfort me much better than Sarah could.
"She refuses to talk with me," I told her, setting my stack of plates down on the kitchen counter. "I think she is afraid of getting angry again." When we had made love the night before, Belle had been exceedingly cautious with me, kissing my wrists over and over again, wanting to heal the bruises her fingers had left. I had enjoyed myself, but I wanted my barely restrained tiger back, the powerful woman who would lose herself in her passion and consume me.
I could not explain this part to Cate. I did not want to frighten her by discussing the subject of physical love. Her broken heart probably could not handle the conversation.
"Perhaps," Cate suggested, "this is a problem that Belladonna needs to solve on her own. She is afraid. I think being afraid of something is a new experience for her."
"What should I do to help?" I asked. I was sure that Cate had gotten it right. Belle was not the kind of woman who admitted that she was afraid of anything. Maybe she did not want me to think that she was weak. She already felt weak and guilty for not taking a stand against Luciana earlier.
Cate covered my hand with hers for a moment. Because my friend did not usually initiate physical contact, I was surprised by the touch. I managed to hide my reaction, not wanting to startle Cate. "Just remind her that you love her. Tell her you will always be there. She needs to hear that."
"You are probably right," I admitted. "If I confront her directly, she will only get defensive."
Cate nodded. "I can picture that. Ellie..." Cate reclaimed her hand, twisting it nervously into the fabric of her dress. I leaned against the counter, dishes forgotten. "Thank you for talking to me. For trusting me. I have never... I mean... you are the first real friend I have ever had..."
I placed an affectionate kiss on Cate's soft cheek and her face flushed a fiery red. I laughed. "Thank you, Cate. I am glad that you are my friend, too. I have never really had any friends before, either."
We both smiled at each other and returned to the dishes that were waiting for us.