For Disclaimers see Part 1
As recorded by Lady Eleanor of Baxstresse
Winter was coming fast, and soon the fields would be covered in a blanket of snow. But for the moment, there was only a light dusting of frost over the grass. With the cold wind from the north, the dreams came again. Plans for the ball and worries about Luciana had pushed it to the back of my mind, where it lingered like the last gray snow. But the sorcerer's chain and the eye were never forgotten.
At least six times, I saw the eye. Twice in my dreams, sometimes in waking-dreams that fell upon me while I was working. Once, I nearly fell down the stairs. Only Cate's quick grab at my arm saved me from a nasty fall. It was golden and silver, glinting wickedly in a pulsing light.
How could an eye be awake? Why was it watching me? I did not think that these were visions, like the ones Cate had. They were a warning. I often felt the strange hum of magic in my skin and blood after seeing the eye. Perhaps it – or someone using it – really could see me? Maybe the eye wanted me to see it? Something was watching me, and I was terrified.
I told Belladonna about the dreams. I did not tell her how frightened they made me, but she could tell. My lover knew me better than I knew myself. Even Cate noticed that something was wrong, and when she asked, I could not lie to her.
“Maybe if there is a sorcerer's chain, your magic is reacting to it. You said that it burned your skin. Could your magic have made the burn stronger?” Cate theorized.
“We are the only two magical people I know of at Baxstresse. You would have to touch it to find out,” I said, “and I want you as far away from Luciana as you can get.”
“There is something behind the chain. It is not some left-over relic from the ancient past. If the magic in it is strong enough to burn your skin and give you nightmares, then there is some powerful force chanelling through it.”
When I told Belle about my conversation with Cate, she did not respond for several minutes. She stroked my hair, a thoughtful expression on her face. I was patient with her, and she finally said, “I wish there was a way to research its history. Maybe we can asked Cieran or Cassandra at the ball.”
It was a good idea. “You should discuss it with them, then,” I said. “I give you full permission. Of course, you would probably mention it anyway.”
Belle smiled. “I would have talked to you about it first. I really hope that they know about the history of the chain, or can find out. I know how hard it is to get magical books in Seria, but I really thought there would be more information on sorcerer's chains in the library.”
I patted her shoulder, offering comfort. “It's a wonderful library, Belle. Magical books are rare on this side of the border. We can always look for more later.”
“Something else to ask Cieran and Cassandra about,” Belle muttered.
Of course, after that, I decided to give her a kiss to brighten both of our moods. And one kiss turned into two kisses, and we completely forgot what we had been talking about. My sleep that night, thank the Saints, was blissfully empty of all dreams.
Sarah spent several hours each evening tailoring the borrowed dress to fit me. She used her eyes to estimate most of the measurements, since I was too busy to stand for fittings more than a few minutes long. As the dress took shape, feelings of excitement rose in me. The dress was a link to my old world, the one Luciana had stolen from me, and I hoped to return to it – and Belle – wiser, kinder, and more humble.
I was also excited about modeling the dress for Belle. Her dashing good looks and fine clothes intimidated me, even though our relationship was not built on such trivial things. I wanted to remind her that I was a lady, more to improve my own self-image than to change Belle's perception of me.
Underthings were borrowed from Loren's never-ending piles of laundry, and Sarah's quick fingers stole several pieces of costume jewelry for me to wear. I could have asked Belle, but Sarah still did not know that we were lovers. The only thing that I could not find was a pair of shoes. My feet were smaller than Luciana's, Belle's, or even Lady Kingsclere's.
I was considering the problem as I cleaned a spare bedroom. Jessith, who was sunning herself on the bedspread that I had just changed, stretched one paw and batted at my working dress, her claws catching the fabric. I felt the tug and looked down at her. “Ellie? Are you listening to me? I just said that I have a message for you from Belladonna.”
“Oh… how long have you and Belladonna been having discussions?” I asked. I had not been able to focus all day. I was too embarrassed to admit that I had been worrying about shoes.
“Since you told her that you could talk to me. I usually pretend that I am not paying attention. She mostly rambles about you. Human love softens the sharpest minds. Thank goodness I am a cat.”
“Jessith,” I said, “do you have a point?”
But Jessith was a cat, and cats are used to taking their time. Licking her right forepaw was too important an activity to interrupt. “Belladonna told me she wanted you to meet her this afternoon. She has a surprise for you.”
Knowing my lover as I did, I immediately interpreted the message as a physical invitation. “I just bet she does,” I purred, and Jessith rolled across the bed to reach her back leg. “No, stop that. I just made that bed and washed those sheets, and you are going to get fur all over them.”
Jessith glared at me. “Humans leave hair everywhere, too,” she pointed out.
“And I have to clean up that hair as well as yours, so stop making my job harder.”
“What job? You haven't done any work all day.” I could not argue with that observation. I had been especially lazy today. Thankfully, Cate and Sarah had understood.
“So,” I said, changing the subject, “when is Belladonna going to give me this surprise, or did she not say?”
“I told you, this afternoon.” Animals experience time differently than people. There are four times of day for them: morning, afternoon, evening, and night. However, their bodies are very sensitive to the earth's physical changes, and they are able to follow their own peculiar schedules almost to the minute without trying.
“Right now,” said a rich voice that made my skin prickle. Jessith and I turned to watch Belladonna, who had been leaning casually against the doorframe, step towards us. Held over one of her arms was something I recognized. My hands flew to my mouth.
“Oh, by the Saints... That was mine!” I said disbelievingly. “It was my mother's dress. How did you find it?” The dress was one I recognized. It was a subtle red, not bright enough to make me appear wanton, but deep enough to bring out the color in my cheeks. It looked more beautiful than I remembered.
Belle smiled, looking almost like Jessith when she had caught a mouse or a spider and was bringing it to show me. “I managed to steal a few things before Luciana got rid of them. Nothing else as big as a dress, but I did find some other surprises for you.”
I thought my smile would split my face in two, until Belle set the dress carefully on the bed beside Jessith and kissed me until I thought I would float from the floor. Even Jessith seemed impressed by Belle's actions, and did not make any snide comments.
“Thank you, but why did you keep it a secret?” I asked her.
“I like seeing you smile,” she said in the dreamy way that we both spoke after kissing. “I have another present for you, too.”
“Oh? Something else? Was it my mother's, too?”
Belle lowered her eyebrows mysteriously. “Well, I will just have to show you. Close your eyes.” I closed my eyes tight and clasped my hands behind my back, like a child waiting for a treat. Belle pressed her lips to my forehead, and then I listened as she moved back out of the room. It did not take her long to return, less than a minute, so I guessed that she had left my surprise just outside the door.
I nearly jumped when I felt soft hands lifting my ankle and removing the worn brown working shoes that I wore when Luciana did not force me to put on the wooden ones. My feet only had one or two small cuts on them, and they were healing, so her touch did not hurt. Then, something cool was slipped onto my foot. I opened my eyes and looked down.
“Do you like them?” she asked, looking up at me with a hopeful expression.
I was so warm with happiness and love that I might have been glowing. “Belle... thank you, thank you...” Instead of the dirty brown working shoes, delicate silver slippers were resting on my feet. They had also belonged to my mother, and they were a perfect fit. Belle pressed her face against my belly, breathing against the fabric of my dress.
“I would do anything for you. I am sorry I waited so long to give these to you. I planned on doing it before, but then we fought, and I was distracted...”
I curled my hands through the soft, dark strands of her hair. “I am distracting?” Belle lifted my ankle and dropped a kiss on the soft skin. “What other things did you take?”
“You.” I gasped, heat rushing up to my cheeks and down to pool between my legs. Belle's warm hands explored the skin behind my knee and slid up my thigh. My eyes darted to the door, relaxing when I saw that it was closed. “Oh,” Belle said casually, “you meant your mother's things. I stole some jewelry, some books, some flower bulbs, a beautiful red shawl...”
I let out a cry of delight just as Belle's lips caught my knee. “That shawl belonged to my mother, and those seeds are some of Sandleford's white roses. I wanted to plant some here...”
This was too much for Jessith, who leapt off of the bed and stalked out of the room, slightly reproachful that we were not paying attention to her any longer. She was, however, polite enough not to disturb our moment, which I was grateful for.
Belle's teasing was becoming more serious as she lifted the skirts of my dress and ducked her head underneath. I giggled as her breath tickled the sensitive skin of my inner thigh, then groaned as her sharp teeth nipped me. “My rose,” she said, her words muffled by the fabric of my dress.
Belle's lips and hands and tongue proceeded to drive all thoughts of my mother's things out of my head. Her clever fingers made quick work of my under-things, and I was grateful that I no longer wore layers of petticoats.
She spared no time, possessing me with one smooth stroke of her fingers, and I almost collapsed on top of her with surprise. She held still inside of me, unwilling to leave my warmth. My hands clutched my skirts to my hips. I needed to watch Belle as she had me.
Toying with the curls under her hand, Belle pressed her face against the fluttering muscles of my stomach. I cradled her head against my belly, still holding up my skirts with one fist. “My Ellie... you need me...” she breathed, her voice controlling me even while she was on her knees in front of me. Her fingers moved, leaving me empty and aching, until she filled me again, grasping my waist with her other hand to hold me just so.
We fell into an easy rhythm, moving together as one. The pleasant burn I felt as two of Belle's fingers stretched me caused my head to fall back and my eyes to squeeze shut. Gravity pulled me down hard onto her hand with every thrust, allowing Belle to touch me deeper than she ever had before.
“I feel... more...” I gasped, my hips jerking unevenly as the texture of Belle's exploring tongue tasted me. With her mouth occupied, Belle could only groan against me, and I could feel the vibrations in her throat.
My hands flexed, releasing the material of my skirt as Belle took the hardened tip of me into her mouth at last, holding me tenderly between her teeth and teasing me with her tongue. My only regret before colors burst behind my eyes and empty sound roared in my ears was that I could not look into Belladonna's eyes as I gave all of myself to her.
“Ellie, you look beautiful!” Sarah cried, clasping her hands with delight.
I could see Sarah's smiling reflection in the mirror, but I did not need to look to hear it in her voice. My own reflection smiled back. I hardly recognized myself. The thin, pale girl that I had seen in warped metal pans for the past months looked nothing like this soft, golden creature I had become. I felt a surge of confidence – I was going to make Belladonna proud tonight, even if I could not walk into the ball on her arm. I was wearing the finished blue dress, which really did suit my complexion well.
“Yes, you do,” Cate agreed. I could not see her reflection, because she was still brushing my hair. She had already stroked it to gleaming with the fine bristles, but was not ready to stop. Around my neck was a piece of costume jewelry that Belle had found for me. I did not explain its presence, perhaps Sarah assumed that I had taken it with the dress from Lady Kingsclere, but Cate gave me a knowing look as I fastened the catch.
The smell of lilacs still surrounded me from my bath. I had been plucked, rubbed with oil, prodded, and laced into a corset for the first time in months. But I forgot the discomfort now that I was staring at myself in the mirror. I liked what I saw. No one at the ball would ever guess that I had been picking lentils from the ashes and cleaning garbage for the past few months. Only my rough hands would give me away. I would need to wear gloves.
“I'm ready,” I said, and Cate helped me gather the layers of my gown as I stood up, tossing one last glance over my shoulder at my reflection. Yes, you will do just fine, I thought.
The pleasure that I took in my appearance helped me dismiss, for the moment, the fear that still clung to me. I had no idea what Luciana planned to do, and could not prepare in advance. Belle and I would leap on Luciana and physically restrain her if we needed to, although we would probably look foolish tackling her to the ground.
I examined the skirt of my dress, enjoying the movement of the soft underlayers against my legs as I walked down the stairs. “You really did a beautiful job with the waist, Sarah,” I told her.
Cate jumped on the compliment, eager to praise Sarah. “You could work professionally at dressmaking or sewing if you wanted,” she said with a cheerfulness that was only a little forced. She meant it, though.
“You did at least a third of the dress, Cate,” Sarah said, blushing prettily. She turned to me and added, “and I'm sure that you will attract quite a bit of attention at Prince Brendan's ball, Ellie. I hope that your secret lover is not the jealous type.”
I shared a quick glance with Cate. Belle was an extremely possessive lover. I was glad that she, if all went well, would be tailing Luciana instead of watching me near the Prince. Even if he showed no interest in me, I could stay near him. It would not look too suspicious, since many other young women would be trailing after him, vying for his attention.
“I know who I love,” I said firmly. “I know who I belong to. I have no interest in Prince Brendan.”
Sarah smiled dreamily, and sighed, “he's handsome all the same.”
“You can have him. One lover is enough for this lifetime.” And for all eternity, I thought. Of course, The Church discouraged thoughts of reincarnation, but if I did have more lives to live, I would spend them looking for her. If I was only granted this one life, I would follow Belladonna to heaven, hell, or whatever came after death.
As if she could read my mind, Cate stared at me with such a naked longing that I nearly gasped. Here, I thought, was a heart aching, calling to its other half. She did not want Belle or me specifically, but she craved what we shared. Cate had transformed since I first got to know her. She had become braver, friendlier, more talkative, and more confident. If she was not ready to seek her other half yet, she would be soon.
“I would come with you if I could, Ellie,” Cate said. Though her voice was soft, it did not lack support. I tucked a lock of her red curls behind one ear, leaving my hand on her shoulder. “I know,” I grinned. “And thank you again for the dress.”
“I would, too,” said Sarah.
Both of them really meant it. My heart floated. A girl could not ask for truer friends than these.
The palace was white and gleaming, a miracle of magic and craftsmanship, its crisp outline standing proudly against the dark night sky behind it. I stared at its painted turrets, watching the waving sword and plumes flutter weakly, and then fall still. Two crossed quill plumes for knowledge, and a sword pointing down between them for strength.
The carriage (the second-best one, since Belladonna and Luciana had used the finest) jolted to a stop in front of a white set of stairs. Since Belladonna knew that Matthew would be driving me, she had arranged for one of the stablehands – a young, handsome one that Luciana would not object to – to drive their own carriage. Luciana had not seemed to notice, or care, that Matthew was not in the box.
Since Belle and Luciana had taken the matching pair of carriage horses, I had to enlist the services of Brahms and Corynne, even though they were not exactly built for pulling a carriage. Matthew took them slow, which infuriated them, because he did not want to strain the delicate horses with work they were not used to. They lifted their hooves, their flanks twitching as they tossed their thick, chorded necks, eager to keep moving.
The main roadways, which had been magicked to allow us faster travel, had them excited. The bewitchment was another example of how hypocritical Serians were – magic was evil, except when it was convenient. However, even I appreciated the shorter journey, which had taken about four hours instead of five days. It would have been impractical to house all of the courtiers and visiting nobles in the capitol for three days and nights.
“The castle, lady,” said Matthew, bounding down from the driver's box and opening the door for me. I blushed in spite of myself. It was the first time I had been treated like nobility since my forced servitude, and I found returning to my status unsettling, almost unpleasant.
“Thank you,” I said with my eyes. There were other fine coaches around mine, and the elegant ladies and gentlemen stepping out of them might have heard and found it strange that I was showing gratitude towards a servant. Matthew smiled, and I knew that he understood. I gave Brahms and Corynne a silent thank you as well, and turned to face the palace. Trying to draw attention to myself so that I would not be noticed, I ascended the wide steps in a practiced glide. To blend in, I needed to look like I was trying to stand out. I would surely be picked out if I acted shy or afraid.
Everyone inside was preening and puffing themselves up, the women gathering in groups like colorful flocks of birds in their ruffled gowns as their men eyed each other in silent challenges for dominance. To my surprise, the grand entrance hall's beauty had little effect on me. My eyes darted from one side of the room to the other, skipping over the rare decorations that were worth my father's fortune many times over and the impressive spread of food, searching for a head of thick, lustrous black curls.
Not seeing Belladonna, I waded my way into the tide of people, hoping to spot either of my stepsisters. I knew that if I found one, I would find the other. Luciana wouldn't dare let Belle too far out of her sight.
And then I caught a glint of honey-gold among the beautiful ball gowns. There was Luciana, her slender arms curving at her sides, brightening the faces of everyone around her with a false light. As I drew closer to the crowd that shielded her, I felt magic hum in the hollow of my chest. Luciana was bewitching in folds of blood red silk, and for a moment, I felt desire cut quick below my stomach. But then I remembered that she was casting a spell, and I swallowed my guilt. The silver-gold eye of the pendant winked at me, and I looked away.
I had no solid plan, no obvious road to take. I only had a task, and a whole kingdom of people to complete it for. If I had to grab the necklace from her hands and tear the gold apart, I would do so gladly, subtlety be damned. A sorcerer's chain had one weakness: it was easy to break.
For the moment, I chose to wait and watch. I knew that Luciana probably would not do anything tonight. Like me, she was observing, waiting for her chance. She would not rush and waste it with a whole kingdom at stake. And there was my lover, only a few feet away. My heart ached as I watched Belladonna walk beside her sister. Would Luciana have been more like her, given another chance at life? I grieved silently for the person Luciana might have become, and for the wretched thing she was now. It was the first time I had ever felt any pity for her.
Setting my face, I lifted my fine-slippered foot to creep closer to Belle and Luciana, when fingertips touched my wrist. I held still, turning to look over my shoulder at the person who had tapped me. It was a woman, with long dark hair that reminded me of Belle's, and a thin, attractive face. She was much smaller than my lover, but her entire body was surrounded by magical energy. I felt my head starting to spin. Between her and Luciana, I had never experienced so much magic before in my life, except when I had accidentally touched Luciana's chain.
“Lady Eleanor of Sandleford,” she said. It was a statement, not a question. She offered her hand, and I took it, surprised at the firmness of her grip. “I believe your lover sent me a note.” My mouth hung open, leaving me incapable of speech. The woman paused for a beat, and then laughed. “Oh, I apologize. My husband's visions, you see – sometimes I forget that no one else knows that I know what I know.”
I had the impression that this woman was used to talking, and being listened to. She spoke with great enthusiasm, even though she was careful to keep the volume of her voice low, adding a great many hand movements to emphasize her point. “I am Cassandra, of course... High Wizard Cieran's wife. I think my husband cornering Belladonna as we speak.”
Still trying to process the fact that Cassandra knew about Belle and I, my voice finally returned. “Well, I... Heaven help me, I can hardly find a suitable reply for all that.” I gave myself a mental shake, blinked my eyes, and concentrated. “What are you doing to protect the Prince against Luciana?” I saw no reason to hide her identity now. She was positively reeking of magic. Even a poor, half-talent fortune-teller would have been able to sense her.
“I am less concerned about the Prince being bewitched. The real danger lies in Luciana physically harming him. She is untrained, filled with stolen raw power from the sorcerer's chain.”
I looked at her curiously. “Stolen magic?”
“Yes. My husband and I need to do some more research, of course, but we believe your stepsister has in her possession a very old, very powerful talisman that was once owned by the sorcerer Umbra. Where he got the talisman is a mystery, but there are records of it before his time as well. It is ancient, and its magical fingerprint is unique.” So, Cate had been right. The sorcerer's chain did have an ancient history.
“I have no idea where she got it, either,” I admitted. “A friend of mine with some magical aptitude suggested that something might be using the sorcerer's chain to direct its power.”
“It is possible. Umbra has been dead for over a century, so it could not be him. Even a necromancer cannot return a wizard's magic to him once he has died. But perhaps someone else has found a way to break the familiarity spell, if there was one, and use it. Cieran and I will try and trace the sorcerer's chain and its origins after the ball. For now, our priority is to keep Prince Brendan from getting hurt.”
“So you do not think that Luciana can enchant him?”
Cassandra shook her head. To my surprise, she was smiling. I wondered if that smile ever left her face at all. “No, my dear. In all likelihood, any spell she casts will fade a few hours after she leaves the immediate area. She does not have the magical stamina or skill to create a lasting spell. With the protective signs we have drawn on the Prince, he should be mostly unaffected. However, that talisman is packed full of highly dangerous magic. If she were to use it as a weapon and throw the Prince off of the palace roof, for example, I doubt Cieran or I could save him in time.”
A thought occurred to me. “Now that you sense the magic surrounding her, could you ask the king to take her away to the dungeon? Something?”
Cassandra shook her head, tossing her raven hair. “No. We have no proof that Luciana is doing anything but trying to attract the Prince's attention. Annoying, of course, but hardly a crime punishable by imprisonment. All we can do is watch and try to head her off before she does anything dangerous. And now, I think someone else wants to make your acquaintance...” And as suddenly as she had appeared, she was gone.
I looked around for several moments, trying to see her, but there was no one near me except for a young man approaching me from my right. I ignored him, trying to spot where Cassandra had gone. Finally, the sound of a clearing throat drew my attention. Standing at my left side was one of the most beautiful men I had ever seen. His rich brown hair was tied back with a leather chord, his chin was strong, and his bright eyes and smile made the air charge.
I appreciated his beauty, but looking at him left me cold, partly because men could not hold my attention, but mostly because his face was not the one seared onto my heart. His lips spread in a smile, and his face looked even more pleasant. “Good evening, Lady,” he said, taking my hand. He searched my face, looking for any sign of discomfort, and I knew that he would leave me alone if I asked. “May I ask your name?
I returned his smile, deciding that a version of the truth would do no harm. “Lady Eleanor of Sandleford,” I said. It was the first time I had used that name in ages, and it felt uncomfortable as it came from between my lips.
I allowed him to place a chaste kiss on the back of my hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Lady Eleanor,” he said. “I had heard that you were ill...” I was not surprised that he knew. My father's marriage to Lady Kingsclere had caused a lot of gossip amongst the nobility, and my name had been attached to it. My father's death and Luciana's announcement of my poor health had only added to the scandal.
“I am finally recovering, but neither of my sisters wanted me to attend the ball...” I glanced over at the last place I had seen Luciana and Belle, but they had moved to another part of the room. “They do not exactly know I am here. I would be grateful if you did not tell them.”
He laughed. “I have had experience dodging people at formal occasions, although I usually want to sneak out of balls instead of in to them. My name is Brendan.”
“Prince Brendan?” I asked, trying not to look too impressed as I dipped into a curtsy. I could not bring myself to swoon like some of the other ladies of the court. I decided to try and stay in his company for as long as I could, knowing it would make keeping him away from Luciana easier. He looked different than the child I had glimpsed briefly the few times my family was at court. We were not courtiers, although we had more money than some of the old families did, and so we had never been formally presented or introduced.
He gave me a broad smile, tugging lightly at the cuff of his sleeve. His nervousness was charming. I knew that he would ask me to dance. It would be simple to keep him far from my stepsister if we were on the dance floor. I would feel the hot magic spilling from her from yards away, and we could lose ourselves in the crowd.
“Lady Eleanor... would you honor me with a dance?”
I returned his smile. “I would enjoy that, sir Prince, as long as we stay far away from my stepsisters. If they catch me, they will send me straight home to bed like a sick child.” Once again, learning how to lie had proved useful.
“Of course,” he agreed as he took my hand and led me onto the dance floor. The string orchestra began to play a waltz, and the Prince put his hand cautiously on my shoulder. He looked so hopeful that I almost pitied him. The spark he obviously felt did not light in me. "Thank you for dancing with me," he said as we moved across the floor in time with the music.
"Thank you for asking me, Sire," I said. "I think that I will enjoy myself."
I did enjoy dancing with the Prince. He was a good partner, although it was difficult for me to remember the steps to some of the newer dances while sneaking looks at his face and watching for Luciana out of the corner of my eye at the same time. I could not help studying Prince Brendan while we danced. I had never seen a royal up close before, and I certainly had never touched one. Luciana came close to us a few times, but I was able to add a flourish or twist to whatever dance we were doing and change our direction enough to avoid her.
Conversation with the Prince was pleasant. We mostly talked about the upcoming Prince's Cup, and which horses from Baxstresse we expected to race. "Do you really think Brahmsian Synng is that promising, then?" Prince Brendan asked, continuing our conversation.
"Yes," I answered him, silently reminding myself to return to the horses soon, "I have ridden him myself. He is surprisingly sturdy for a racehorse, not as delicate as Corynne. I will be placing a bet on him next year, after he has gotten some experience and his sister is retired." The ball was almost over, and she had not even approached the Prince yet, although I sensed her eyes on us several times throughout the night. Although Prince Brendan had taken a few other dancing partners, to my surprise, I seemed to be his favorite. I was slightly embarrassed by that realization, and resolved to put it out of my mind.
"Well then, I will have to keep an eye on him in this year's Cup. If he does well, I will consider betting on him myself next year."
I heard the deep tolling of a clock just as our dance ended, and decided to excuse myself quickly, before Luciana had a chance to spot me. "Sire, I have had a lovely time dancing with you," I said politely, giving the Prince a sincere smile, "but I..." My voice trailed off as I felt hot magic crawling over my skin, and I glanced over my shoulder to see Luciana coming towards us purposefully. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Belladonna move to intercept her.
I turned my face away from them so that Luciana would have a harder time recognizing me, and bolted for the door, leaving the bewildered Prince staring after me. Thankfully, he did not shout my name, which would have revealed my identity to Luciana. He started to run after me, but I was already down the white steps and climbing up into my carriage before he could figure out which way I had gone.
"Hurry, Matthew," I said as I slammed the carriage door shut, pulling off the tight golden slippers that the birds had found for me. "The Prince is after me."
"And you want to run away?" Matthew laughed, urging Brahms and Corynne forward. "Is he that bad looking?"
"Luciana almost caught me," I panted, trying to explain. "She is a vulture, circling him and waiting for her chance."
"Aye, that'd be her," Matthew said darkly. Lost in our own thoughts, Matthew and I were silent for the rest of the journey home.
The next morning, Belle made love to me as though it was our last day on earth. Every touch of her hands and lips against my skin burned, every sound that passed from between her lips made my heart stutter.
“I love you,” she whispered over and over again, in my ear, in my hair, against my neck.
I kissed her furiously, forcing her to remember that I was warm and solid and alive in her arms, and that I would never leave her. Belle's large, powerful hands trembled as she palmed my breasts, rubbing the beaded tips with her thumbs while she suckled a sensitive spot on my neck. I cried out as her sharp teeth sank into my shoulder, holding the skin, but not really hurting me.
Roughly, she reached between my legs, but I closed my thighs, trapping her hand instead of opening for her. “What is it?” she asked, her voice a low growl.
I swallowed, trying to work moisture into my dry, nervous mouth. My hands gripped either side of Belle's hips, urging her up along my body. “I want to taste you,” I begged. Belle tried to turn us over, reversing our positions, but I added, in a voice so soft and shy that I could scarcely hear it myself, “No. I want you... over me.”
Belle's smile was fierce, almost predatory, as she stalked up my torso, positioning herself above my mouth. I stared at her in wonder. Her soft pink lips were swollen open, glistening with her wetness, red at the edges. I had never observed her this closely before. She was beautiful. Her fine muscles twitched as I traced her outline with the tip of one finger, parting her for me.
After an eternity, Belle lowered herself onto my waiting mouth, and I clutched at her hips, pulling her tight against me. I sighed against Belle's warmth, content, but also unbelievably excited and desperate for more.
Her taste burst on my tongue, salty, sweet, and almost overpowering. It made my head spin as Belle moved above me, taking her pleasure. At first, the strokes of her hips were long and even. I lost myself in the feel, the taste, the smell of her. All Belle. This had to be the most glorious feeling in the world.
Gradually, her movements became short and jerking. I sucked the point of her pleasure between my lips, kissing the tip, trying to push her over the edge. I would not hold her on the precipice for an eternity, not tonight. “Yes,” Belle hissed, trembling over me, her muscles clenched tight under my clinging hands. “You feel... so good... my Ellie. Mine.”
Her possession of me, that ownership, drove me wild, and I captured her lightly with my teeth and tugged. Belle screamed, collapsing on top of me, releasing violently as I continued to pleasure her. I did not let her go until she had exploded a second time, and the feeling of her release against my mouth sent me over the edge as well with three quick strokes of my own hand.
Wearing my mother's silver dress on the second night gave me even more confidence than Lady Kingsclere's dress had on the first. This time, Belle was the one who helped me get ready. “You know,” she said as she drew a brush through my loose hair, “running away from the Prince worked perfectly. He spent the rest of the night looking for you, and Luciana did not have a chance to dance with him.” I blushed. Belle knew that my sudden departure had not been planned. It was only luck that the Prince kept searching for me instead of dancing with his guests.
“It could have turned out badly,” I said, embarrassed. “If I had stopped to think…”
“It does not matter,” Belle interrupted me. She dropped a kiss on the top of my head, holding her face against my hair and breathing deeply. “Mmm. You smell wonderful, sweet girl. Why you did it is not important. It worked. Two nights to go.”
“What will we do after the ball?” I asked. It seemed to me that Luciana would have other visits to court in her life. She could easily attempt her plan during them.
“I had not thought about it. I suppose... I suppose that we need to trust Cieran and Cassandra.” Belle did not sound pleased with this idea. She was an active person, who felt insecure leaving problem solving to others. “If we keep her away from Brendan long enough, maybe she will lose her temper and try something desperate... then Cieran and Cassandra can throw her in the dungeon to rot.” That mental image seemed to cheer her up considerably.
“Luciana does lose her temper quickly,” I agreed.
I turned to look over my shoulder. Belle pressed another kiss to my forehead and straightened my head with her hands. “Hold still. I need to finish your hair.”
I smiled into the mirror. “It has been finished for fifteen minutes. I just like having you brush it.”
“A beautiful girl deserves beautiful hair to go with her beautiful dress.” My belly twisted itself into knots. How did Belle's voice have that effect on me? I was not sure, but I hoped that my lover's words and touch never lost their magic for me. We spent another silent minute together, with Belle brushing my hair as I watched our reflection. Belle and I were both talkative personalities, but we did not always need words between us. So much could be shared by just being together.
After a while, Belle offered me her hand to help me out of my chair, and I rose to step into her arms. She embraced me and then, to my surprise, pulled me against her chest and spun me around in a circle. Both of us laughed. Only Belle could have made me so happy with such a serious task facing us.
“May I have this dance?” she asked as she set me on my feet. I curtsied, and she wrapped a strong arm around my waist, stroking a possessive hand along the curve of my hip. With Belle leading, we danced in the middle of the bedroom, not caring that there was no music. As I had expected, my lover was a fine dancer, incredibly easy to follow. Belle's smile made me wonder if my slippers had grown wings and lifted me into the air.
“I have never had a better partner,” I told Belle as we moved together. It was the truth. Her eyes lit up and her cheeks flushed to match mine. The compliment had touched her. It was the truth. I knew that Belle had wanted to dance with me at the Ball, in front of everyone, and that she was jealous of my dances with the Prince. I needed her to understand that the best dancer in the world – and Brendan was a good dancer – would never compare with her.
The second night of the Ball began much like the first. The women swept by in their colorful dresses, leaving traces of perfume and scented oils where they walked. The men danced with them and stood around the food, talking and exchanging greetings. I weaved through the crowd, smiling and nodding as I passed by, looking for Prince Brendan and, secretly, Belle. My lover's absence was a gripping ache in my chest. I would only dance with Belle tonight in my mind.
As I was searching for Prince Brendan, he was also looking for me. It took him only a few minutes to catch sight of me and walk over. “Good evening, Ellie,” he said as we approached each other. I curtsied, and he bowed. He was wearing his army dress uniform of red and gold, and he cut a dashing figure. Many girls would have thought him a dream, but not me. My dream had already come true.
“Would you like to dance with me again? If you are not going to run away from me, of course,” he offered, taking my gloved right hand and raising it to his lips. He was not forward enough to remove it, and I was glad. I did not want him to notice my rough hands.
“Of course. I ran last night to avoid my sister, and could not find you afterwards. If she found me here, she would send me straight back to bed, and I am having too much fun to go home.” As the orchestra struck a Pavane, I silently thanked my father for insisting on dancing lessons. He had claimed that I would have to dance at my wedding. Secretly, I wished that Belle and I could share that special dance. I remembered what Belle had told me the morning after we had made love for the first time. “You asked me to be your wife...” That helped to fill the small, unsatisfied corner of my heart.
A strange heat on my face told me that several pairs of eyes had found us. My smile faded as I noticed the unhappy expressions that surrounded us. Several young women were staring holes through my back, wanting their turn in the Prince's arms. I hoped that they did not draw any more attention to me. Luciana could not study me too closely and figure out who I was.
“You look lovely tonight,” Prince Brendan complimented, his hand pressing lightly on my waist to guide my steps. I forgot the jealous women, but I could not forget my thoughts of Belle.
“And you look very handsome.” The Prince and I smiled at each other. “This dress belonged to my mother,” I told him. “That makes it one of my favorites.”
“I am glad that you have something to remember her by.” I was pleased that he did not apologize for my loss or fish awkwardly for a reply. Prince Brendan really was charming.
“You understand,” I said pleasantly.
“I carry my father's sword on patrol. He gave it to me when I was twelve. There were not many opportunities for him to use it anyway. It makes me feel connected to him.”
“I heard that you were stationed at the Amendyri border, along the Forest Pass.”
The Prince looked surprised at my interest in the subject. We paused as the orchestra changed to a waltz, and then began to dance again. “A lady, interested in a soldier's life? How shocking,” he teased.
“You are not just any soldier,” I reminded him. “And Amendyr itself interests me. I have never been afraid of magic.”
“I wish I knew more about it,” the Prince admitted. “That is Cass and Cieran's job. But I never understood why some of the nobles are so afraid of it. Magic can be very useful.”
Although I was delighted that Prince Brendan seemed to have more progressive views about magic than his father, I saw an opening in the conversation and dove for it. “It can also be dangerous. Has anyone ever threatened you with magic?”
Prince Brendan looked thoughtful. “Not that I am aware of. I suppose Cass or Cieran would head it off before I heard about it, unless it was serious. Why?”
“You are the Prince,” I said, nearly stumbling as we moved across the floor. My slippers were beginning to pinch my feet. “I expect you are dealing with one assassination or another constantly.”
Brendan laughed. “Not at all. Why, Ellie, you certainly have conversations about the strangest topics! In fact, it is rather endearing.” My stomach twisted unpleasantly at the affectionate comment. I knew it was necessary, but I could not dismiss the guilt I felt for lying to the Prince.
The hours passed quickly, with Prince Brendan and I conversing easily. Occasionally, he gave a dance to one girl or another, but he always returned to me. Throughout the night, I kept a careful watch for Luciana. I saw her out of the corner of my eye twice, watching Brendan and I dance, but the crowd always moved between us before she could recognize me from such a distance. I did not see Belle, and her absence left me lonely and sad beneath fake cheerfulness.
The third time I saw Luciana, she approached us in the middle of a Quadrille, her face set and her hands clenched. I lowered my chin, tucked my shoulders, and flew out of the Prince's arms without a goodbye, running awkwardly in my tight slippers. “Ah, I wondered if you would run again...” Brendan called after me, pushing aside several startled bodies as he chased me.
Clutching my skirts, I ran for the front door, ducking and weaving through the partygoers faster than Brendan, who could not squeeze his larger figure by as easily. The cool night air shocked my skin as I shouldered my way through the door, ignoring the curious stares that followed me. Matthew was waiting for me, and the horses lifted their heads as I ran for the carriage. However, as I hurried down the stairs, I felt resistance as I lifted my feet. I stopped and looked down, cringing as I noticed the black pitch that had been smeared over the bottom steps. The bad smell filled my mouth and nose, and I wondered why I had not noticed it before. I tried to move, but one of my slippers was caught in the sticky pitch. I finally pulled myself free and began hobbling to the carriage, both of my slippers covered in black goo.
As I threw myself in and slammed the door, still covering my nose and mouth with my hand, I saw Prince Brendan waving after the carriage. Matthew ignored him, clicked his tongue, and urged the horses into a run. I watched out of the back window as Brendan, realizing that the carriage was gone, stopped waving after me and turned back to the palace.
Matthew was helping me out of the carriage when I saw a large shadow flying up the road. It took me a few moments to make out the shape of a coach pulled by a team of white horses. Prince Brendan had followed me all the way from the palace! At first I was relieved, because it meant that he and Luciana were miles apart. Then I remembered all of the bad things that would happen if Prince Brendan found me. No sensible lady would want to be caught after running away from the Prince.
And so I ran for the first hiding place I could think of: the chicken coop. Matthew or Cate usually fed the irritable birds in the morning, so I had never examined the small wooden box except in passing. As I crouched behind the damp-smelling boards, straining the muscles of my back, the chickens inside stirred. “Clu-cah, clu-cah, nightstalker hides. Tuck beaks in wings, danger outside!”
“Shhh!” I hissed, as loudly as I dared. “Be quiet! I'm not a fox, I'm a person.”
The chickens grew louder, encouraged that I was speaking a language they understood. “Are you a friend? Come in! Come in!”
I groaned, covering my eyes with my hand. “That was a horrible rhyme,” I said without moving my lips. “I will not come in. Just please be quiet. Er... a nightstalker is coming!”
That closed their beaks for a solid ten seconds, but then I heard a frantic scrabbling inside the coop interspersed with cries of “Nightstalker! Nightstalker!” I regretted saying anything at all to the stupid creatures.
Silently, I lamented my position. Here I was, crouching behind a chicken coop in the middle of a night, hiding from a Prince because my stepsister wanted to take over the kingdom, and trying to convince a bunch of excitable birds to be quiet. And on top of all that, my slippers were still covered in pitch, and they smelled terrible. I was tempted to leave them behind when I made a run for the Manor. ‘Oh, mother, if you could see what kind of trouble your daughter has gotten herself in to now...' I thought glumly.
My head rose sharply as a twig snapped several yards away, and I stopped breathing. The chickens were still babbling amongst themselves. I heard a deep voice say, “oh no, I woke them-” and then cry out as something heavy hit the ground. From the groans of pain that followed, I guessed that whoever it was had fallen. Seizing my chance, I darted from the chicken coop to the back of the stables, clutching my skirts to keep them out of the way.
“Oi, stop!” a familiar voice called, and I halted mid-step, nearly falling into the mud.
“Matthew!” I said in a loud whisper, running back to the chicken coop where the groomsman was laying on the ground, clutching his knee. “What happened?”
“Saw you run back ‘ere, girlie. Tried to find ya, tripped over a branch...” I helped the dusty-looking stablemaster to his feet, helping to brush off his coat.
“Oh, Matthew, your shirt is ruined...” His white shirt was covered in dirt, but the black overcoat seemed fine, at least in the dark.
“That dress ain't in great shape neither,” he said, eyeing me. I must have looked a state with mussed hair, pitch on my shoes, and my mother's beautiful silver dress covered with mud. “His Highness a-went inside after he took a peek in the carriage. Your lady drove up seconds af'er he did. She saw the Prince and headed him off, sayin' you were took sick and couldn't be seen.”
“Belle is here? But what about Luciana?” I was shocked that Matthew had also figured out my secret, but decided not to say anything. My lady indeed.
“She were alone when I saw her.”
That meant that Luciana was stewing at the ball while the Prince, Belle, and I were hours away at Baxstresse. If I had not been cold, dirty, and tired after my misadventures, I might have laughed. Someone would probably lend her a carriage, or she could hire one, but the mess would take a few hours to sort out, especially since most of the people in the palace would be searching for the absent Prince Brendan. I still could not believe that he had left his own birthday ball to follow me. I was slightly flattered.
Matthew gestured with one hand, about to continue his explanation, when both of us heard voices. I grabbed his arm and helped him limp behind the chicken coop, where we crouched down shoulder to shoulder.
“Are you sure that you would rather leave?” Belle asked, her voice floating up through the darkness.
“No... Honestly, I want to sneak back home before my parents throw themselves off of a rampart.”
“I promise that she will be at the ball tomorrow, Your Highness.” I heard a slightly sour note in Belladonna's voice, but only a lover would have noticed it. She was obviously still jealous of Prince Brendan's interested in me.
“As long as I have your assurance that she is all right...” the Prince's voice trailed off.
“Of course,” Belladonna hastened to reassure him. “My sister has been strange since her recovery... She meant no disrespect by running off.” I frowned in the shadow of the coop. Belle was not near enough to see, so I glared at the ground instead. We were going to have a serious talk after Prince Brendan left, I thought.
“Of course. Now, if I – ah, here it comes...” The sound of carriage wheels crunching on a gravel drive was audible from our hiding place. There were a few more inaudible words exchanged between Belladonna and the Prince. Less than a minute later, Matthew and I listened as the carriage drove off down the manor drive.
Once the Prince's carriage was a safe distance away, Matthew and I crawled out from behind the chicken coop. The chickens had worn themselves out running around and squawking, and gave us no parting comments. Belle, who caught sight of us picking our way around mud-clods in the dark, hurried over to grip Matthew's arm and help him to the manor.
After Matthew's ankle was wrapped and elevated, and I gave myself a sorely needed wash, Belle and I met in her room. I rested on the bed, watching as my lover undressed herself. I had already stripped, and my greedy eyes sucked in every detail of her body as careful hands undid her bracelets, necklace, and earrings and placed them in her jewelry box.
“So, I have been strange since my recovery?” I scolded as she closed the wooden lid, only sounding a little put out. Mostly, I was glad that Belle, the Prince, and I had survived another night without injury.
“You were strange from the moment you were born, but I was too polite to tell the Prince.” Belle sniffed, pretending to sound offended. She had succeeded in peeling off her outer dress without assistance, but was struggling with her corset. My gaze fell on the lovely pair of breasts that stood out from her torso as she arched her back, fumbling with the laces.
“You are not polite at all. In fact, you're very rude. Here, let me help you.” I got out of bed, hardly noticing the cold floor under my bare feet, too distracted by the sight of Belle in her corset and underskirts. I kissed the back of her neck as my fingers undid the hooks and eyelets, sighing into her warm skin. Belle took a large breath as the corset fell open, stretching her shoulders to enjoy the freedom of movement. I rested my head on her chest, and she wrapped a possessive arm around my waist, pulling me tighter against her side.
“Are you going to help me with the rest of this?” she asked, tugging at her white underthings.
I smiled. It was one of the rare times when my lover and I were both in an excellent mood. Despite the problems with my wardrobe and my hurried departure from the ball, the night had ended on a positive note. “Maybe,” I said, lifting my chin so that our lips were a breath apart, “but you have to apologize for implying that I was touched.”
Belle laughed. “You are touched. I'm touching you right now.” Her fingers walked along the curve of my naked hip and crept around to pinch the vulnerable swell of my bottom.
I swallowed a soft cry as her warm hand tried to steal between my legs. “I think that both of us have already had enough excitement for one night,” I said, half-heartedly trying to leave her embrace.
Still smiling, she kissed my golden hair, trying to coax my legs apart. “You can never have enough excitement. Open for me?”
I closed my eyes as she began a soft line of kisses from my ear to the corner of my mouth. “We're not in bed yet,” I protested, my last defense.
“Why do we need a bed?” Half-dressed and wild looking with her corset unlaced and her underskirts bunched together, Belle backed me up until I was pinned between her and the wall. “I want to have you right here.” I recognized and accepted the look in Belladonna's eyes, the one that said she needed to reassert her claim to me. Privately, I was amused that someone so bold, so strong, so confident, constantly needed to reassure herself that I really did belong to her. It was rather endearing.
Too far gone to ask for permission, my lover's eyes rolled back into her head as she cupped me – soft, wet, and vulnerable – with her hand. She joined our lips in a deep, probing kiss that stole my breath and set my head spinning almost as much as the fingers that slid effortlessly inside of me. We were motionless for one long, shared heartbeat.
“Mine,” she growled, leaving two well-placed nips on the curve of my throat. “Tell me...”
“I'm yours, Belle,” I whispered before our mouths sealed in another kiss.
And then her hand drew away, leaving me empty, aching. ‘No,' my lips formed the word, but nothing came from my mouth. I lifted my hips, seeking purchase on something, any part of her, but Belle was tearing at her skirts, trying to push them down to her ankles. I pulled at her unlaced corset until, by some miracle, I tugged it over her head and threw it aside.
Finally, with twin sighs, we pressed together, all warm, naked skin and frantic heartbeats, nothing between us. My head rolled back against the wall as she took me again. Her thrusts were long and deep enough to lift me onto my toes. I was helpless to do anything but wrap my arms around her neck and cling to her while she had me.
Our cheeks brushed together as she pressed her forehead against the cold stone wall, panting heavily. With her lips beside my ear, I could hear every gasp, every shuddering cry. I fluttered wildly around her hand, wet against her fingers, my hips jerking with the first waves of release. Spots danced before my eyes and all of my bones dissolved. Belle had to support me by pressing me against the wall until I stopped trembling in her arms.
“I love you, Ellie-mine,” she said softly as I strained to catch my breath, and then, “what are you doing?” when I moved away from the wall and sank to my knees.
Instead of answering, I placed a kiss over the curve of her knee, and gazed along the line of her legs, past her stomach and breasts, to smile up at her. I wrapped my arms around her hips, resting my cheek against her thigh as she eased her fingers into my hair. “Make me,” I said, blushing furiously and unable to meet her eyes.
“Make me,” I repeated, murmuring against her skin.
With a sharp breath, she pulled me tight against her. I groaned as the thick, coppery taste of my lover spread over my tongue. There was no gentleness as she rolled her hips against my mouth, covering my cheeks and nose with her wetness. I let her guide me as I drank of her, giving my lover complete control. She arched towards me as I caught her sensitive bundle between my teeth and held, her scream echoing in the empty room. I felt her fingers clenching and relaxing in my hair, and grabbed one of her hands with mine, squeezing tight as she exploded for me in a surge of shuddering warmth.
After a moment of stillness, I kissed her soft belly, which was still twitching with the memory of her pleasure, and she helped pull me to my feet. Somehow, we managed to stumble towards the bed and collapsed on top of the covers, still clinging to each other and placing soft kisses on a tempting shoulder or cheek. I fell asleep, as I so often did, with my head tucked against her chest, listening to her steady heartbeat.
On the morning of the third ball, I walked across the grass in my bare feet to visit Brahms. To my surprise, there was no frost on the ground, and it felt like spring instead of almost winter. The strange weather was so nice that I felt comfortable enough to kick my shoes off by the door. The dew was cold, but my feet were grateful to be free of my shoes.
I was going to ask Brahms him a favor – I needed a way to avoid the Prince tonight, because he would surely follow me home this time. After all, he knew where I lived. My nose wrinkled as I recalled the pitch on the stairs. Tonight, I would exit the castle through a back door.
“You need a third dress,” said a voice at my knee.
I was so startled that I nearly tripped over Jessith as she wound between my ankles, unusually affectionate. I narrowed my eyes at her. “There is no time to get a third dress. I will wear the same one that I wore on the first night.” It would be a little embarrassing to have only two fine dresses, while many of the other noblewomen had wardrobes full, but there was nothing else to be done. I did not mention that the hemline of my mother's dress was still stained with the foul-smelling pitch.
Jessith's yellow eyes were illuminated with glossed-over white in the soft morning sunlight. “If I could find you a dress, would you take it?”
Now I was very suspicious. “Why are you being so nice to me? And how would a cat find a dress?”
Jessith began grooming her tortoiseshell fur, looking unconcerned. Her eyes released me. “I asked you first.”
“Yes, I would take it,” I said, kneeling down to pick up Jessith. She squirmed in my arms as I rose to my feet, going so far as to nip at my shoulder, although it did not hurt. “Do you want to get dew all over your paws?” I asked her.
“I already walked out here, didn't I? Take me to the hazel tree.”
Since so many birds enjoyed perching in my mother's hazel tree, I assumed that Jessith wanted to watch them. She had taken to hunting spiders and rats, since her bargain with the local birds prevented her from killing them, but she still enjoyed observing them. I did not understand why she tempted herself.
Feeling indulgent, I headed in the direction of the hazel tree with my arms full of cat. “You could have said please,” I scolded her. Jessith's whiskers tickled my shoulder.
Being outside calmed me. The grass felt cool and wet against my feet, and I had to squint my eyes against the morning sun's glare. I felt Jessith's muscles twitch as she turned her head to look at the tree. Even though this particular day was oddly hot, the hazel tree believed that it was winter, and was in full bloom. As a cloud passed over the sun, casting a warm brown shadow over us, I saw two white birds dip towards us. Beneath them were several smaller birds, and in their claws, they were carrying...
“Jessith, did you do this?” I nearly shouted, staring at the dress that had been dropped at my feet. I hurried to pick it up before the dew soaked into the fabric, setting Jessith down beside me. The dress was golden satin, with embroidery on the waist and neck. The material felt wonderfully soft in my hands. “Oh, thank you! It's beautiful!”
Jessith pawed at my foot. “I thought so.”
“How did you get it?” I asked, delighted.
I did not receive an answer, and I wondered if I truly wanted to know. Perhaps it, too, was stolen. The birds that had brought the dress to me hovered around my head. A particularly brave fellow began to pluck at my hair, and I lightly brushed him aside. With five strands in his beak, he flew out of reach, carrying his prize to the top of the hazel tree. I rubbed my scalp, keeping hold of the dress.
“If you come in with me, Jessith, maybe I can find you some cream,” I offered. If Jessith had not been a cat, she would have smiled.
“I think that cream would be appropriate.” It was as close as she would come to a conventional ‘you're welcome'.
The rest of my morning was much less pleasant. After I visited Brahms and hid my surprise gift, Cate, Sarah, and I begin sorting and airing out the upstairs storage rooms. It was an annual chore, but this was the first time that I had participated. My concentration waned after a few minutes of digging through boxes, although we did laugh together over a ridiculous stuffed vulture perched on a feather hat.
It was not until we split up to work faster that I felt a presence behind me, in the darkest, gloomiest room in the upper corridor. A body, warm, pressed against me from behind. For a moment, I thought it was my lover, and I leaned into her, but the shape felt wrong, and I jerked away. Nails clutched my arm, leaving red half-moon crescents, and I realized that it was Luciana.
“What do you want.” It was a flat statement, not a timid question.
Luciana, gripping my shoulder, turned me to face her. “Have you wondered what the ball is like, staying here by yourself? Did you know that you were invited?” My heart stopped beating. Had she seen me the night before? Was she taunting me? But she continued, “did you want to dance with your precious Belle? Wear a beautiful dress and impress everyone?”
I realized that she was angry, but not at me. She was angry because she had not yet ensnared the Prince, and she needed release. For a moment, I was grateful that she had not chosen Cate to cast her fury upon. My punishment would be painful and degrading, but she would not force herself on me, if only because she wanted to prove herself capable of restraint.
“Well, you will dance with me now.” Gripping my waist with one hand and clutching her stone fingers tighter around my arm, she threw me into a painful dance. Luciana was an excellent dancer. I had seen her dance at my father's wedding. I had even seen her dance at the Prince's ball. She had never danced like this. I felt like a doll being jerked on its strings, painfully twisted. She let go of my arm, which throbbed with relief, but grabbed onto my hair, which was covered by a kerchief to protect it from dust, and pulled. I cried out, and she pulled harder.
Luciana's body weight forced me down, twisting my ankle as I collapsed to my knees. I felt it bend unnaturally, the blood cut off and the muscles screaming. She heard my gasp of pain and trembled like a hunting dog. Her face leaned over me, an ugly smile spreading her cheeks. Her mouth was a breath away from mine, as though she was about to kiss me, but she did not.
I thought about resisting, pulling out of her strong grip and running as fast as I could on my ankle, which throbbed and twitched with crippling bolts of pain. But the sorcerer's chain was around her neck, and she stank of magic. The pendant was twirling, watching me. If I ran, she would catch me. And maybe she would forget her promise to Belladonna.
My breath came in short, heavy gasps. “I will scream,” I warned her. Fear and desperation gave me the courage to defy her, even though she could probably kill me.
“Scream then. She will not hear. Where is you guard dog now, you greedy little beggar?” she whispered fiercely in my ear, her hand squeezing my neck, cutting off my breath. “Is she here to protect you?”
But it was not Belladonna who saved me, not this time. It was Cate who stood in the doorway with high shoulders, and said, “No!”
One word, with only two letters. But coming from Cate's lips, it was monumental. Both of us nearly fell backwards with surprise. Shocked into silence, Luciana dropped me to the wooden floorboards. I stayed down, ready to grab Luciana's ankles if she lunged for Cate. But she did not step forward or raise her hand. For the first time, I noticed that Sarah was standing beside her.
I saw the conflicting emotions pass through Luciana's body. Surprise, as she dealt with the fact that Cate, her compliant little pet, had turned on her. Aggression, as all her muscles coiled and her lips pulled back in an animal snarl. Finally, wariness, as she realized that there were three of us, and only one of her. Even with magic, stopping all of us would be difficult. “Not tonight, not tonight,” she said low under her breath. I realized that if she had not been planning such important things for that evening, all three of us might have been killed.
She made her decision and swept out of the room, leaving behind only the ghost-pressure of her fingers on my throat. In a complete reversal of roles, I collapsed in to Cate's arms, my chest heaving with dry sobs, relieved to let her support me this once instead of supporting her.
“Ellie, did she-?” Sarah and Cate said together, all in a rush. I shook my head, trying to catch my breath. Curiously, my cheeks were dry, but my chest shuddered terribly.
“My ankle, it hurts,” I said, the words scraping in my throat. Cate peeled back the hem of my dress as Sarah patted my shoulder. My ankle was twisted and starting to turn and ugly purple color.
“I can get some cold meat to put on it,” Sarah offered. “Stay here, you shouldn't move yet.” She hurried, not walking, but not quite running out of the door and down the hallway.
“Cate,” I said, looking up into her concerned face. Her forehead was puckered, and her hands flitted from one shoulder to the other, touching my hair, not sure where to rest. “You told Luciana no.”
Cate's eyes were surprised. “Did I?”
“You did.” Cate was having more trouble believing this than I was, even though she had said the words herself.
“I did,” she said, more confidently. “You know, she has... hurt me less. Luciana. The past few weeks. That is, she beat me. But there was less. Less of the other thing.”
“Maybe she is distracted,” I suggested. “Cate... is it wrong to hope Luciana does attack the Prince?
Cate considered that for a moment, her eyes losing focus as she thought deeply. She stared at her lap, where she had finally folded her busy hands. Her red hair hung around her face like drawn afternoon curtains. “No. It is not wrong to hope that she is caught. It would be wrong if you wanted the Prince hurt.”
“I've got it!” Sarah panted as she rushed into the room with her prize and knelt beside me. “Here, put this on. We'll give it a chance to rest a bit and then see how to get you downstairs.” I sighed with relief as I felt the numbness grow. But Cate was still lost in thought. I wondered what she was thinking about, but decided not to ask.
They ended up holding my upper arms to help support my weight as I navigated the treacherous stairs, and Mam gave me some cream to help with the swelling. I smiled. That woman had her own remedy for everything.
I sat in one of the kitchen chairs, my foot propped on an unsteady stool supported by three uneven blocks of wood. The outside of my foot was warm to the touch, even through the bandaging, but my entire lower leg felt cold. Cate and Sarah were still hovering around me when Belle came into the kitchen with fury in her eyes. “What did she do to you?” she snarled, trembling with unreleased energy and anger.
Cate gripped Sarah's wrist and dragged her from the room, even as she protested. But Sarah had a nose for gossip, and I was glad that my friends had removed themselves. When we were alone, I considered Belle. “I am perfectly fine,” I lied. “Please calm down.”
“Do not lie to me. Why is there a bandage on your foot?”
“I fell.” Belle gave me a look. “Luciana pushed me and I fell,” I corrected, omitting as many details as possible. I did not want Belle to fly into a rage, not now, when the situation was so delicate already.
“There are bruises on your arms,” Belle said, wincing as she took in the sight of them. I stared at my hands, which were folded in my lap. “She marked you.”
“No,” I protested weakly, but Belle took two steps forward. She put a heavy hand on my arm and pulled up my sleeves to examine the bruising. I went limp and allowed her to search every inch of my body, running her hands over my belly, back, breasts, and even cupping gently between my legs, to reaffirm ownership. There was a quiet desperation in her face as she examined me. There was no sexual current between us, as there usually was when she touched me. She pressed little kisses over my face, trying to reassure herself that I was all right, that I did not hate her for being unable to save me.
“Cate was there,” I whispered as her two soft hands stroked my arms. She rested her head on my chest, listening to the slow thump of my heart.
“I am your wife,” she said, sounding disgusted with herself. “I should have been there. Not Cate.”
A river of tears streamed from her eyes to my working dress. I did not care. It was the second time that I had ever seen Belle cry. The first time was after she had taken my innocence. I wove my fingers through her raven hair. “You are here now. That is all I need to know you love me.”
My magic had never given me the Sight before, but on the third night, I felt something that seemed like it: a constant twisting in my belly, a doubled pulse that could not be slowed, and a strange tightness in my breath. It probably was not magic, but the premonition weighed heavily on me anyway, a stone-woven net about my shoulders. This was Luciana's final chance to snare Prince Brendan after two nights of careful observation.
I arrived at the castle minutes after Belle and Luciana. My lips pulled into a tight line as I lifted my light golden dress and hurried up the stairs, the skirts rustling about my knees. I remembered the pitch that Prince Brendan had smeared over them the night before. This time, I would escape some back way. Matthew had been instructed to unhitch Brahms and tie him several yards away from my carriage. While the Prince ran to the empty carriage, I would run for the horse.
Corynne and Brahms were both very flattered by the idea when I had presented it to them that morning. Corynne assured me brightly that she could outrun the Prince's team, and Brahms was pleased that he had been given the important task of carrying me home. I was the most worried about Corynne. Racehorses were not meant to do the work of draft horses, but I needed their speed.
I stood in the doorway of the entrance hall. In my fine golden dress, I was invisible in the bright, colorful crowd. My shoes were much more sensible this time, a pair of comfortable cloth slippers that were large enough to accommodate my swollen ankle. My dress was long enough to cover most of them, and so my odd choice of footwear did not attract any attention. I was fortunate and caught sight of Luciana right away. Belle was not with her, and I wondered where she was, but returned my attention to Luciana in time to watch her slip through a doorway near the entrance to the ballroom. I hurried after her, not wanting to let her out of my sight.
After several mumbled apologies and a few near dodges, I was at the door that Luciana had entered. I had not caught sight of Prince Brendan, and hoped that he was somewhere in the ballroom, far away from Luciana and the chain. Glancing over my shoulder, I made sure that no one was watching me before opening the door and entering a dimly lit hallway. I closed the door behind me quietly, waiting a moment so that my eyes could grow accustomed to the dark.
There were several doors along both sides of the hallway, and I had no idea whether Luciana had entered one of them, or continued further into the darkness. I decided to listen for movement at all of the doors, too cautious to open them and alert Luciana to my presence. Passing a muddy portrait of a courtier with a particularly large nose, I crept towards the first door and put my ear against it. Nothing. I walked to the next door and repeated the process.
As I was listening at the fourth door, one of the doors further down the hall clicked open, making my spine stiffen. Luciana re-entered the hallway. Her hands were unclasped and relaxed at her sides, and her forehead was smooth. Around her neck was the golden and silver sorcerer's chain, glowing with warmth that was not hot enough to burn Luciana's skin. The only sign of anger was her blazing eyes as they tightened on my face, but her control was not shaken. She would not lose herself to rage this time, not when things were so desperate, but I saw it gathering in her chest.
“You! I should have killed you when I had the chance,” she said with a cold fury that was somehow more fearsome than the familiar hot madness. A truth, not a threat. I knew that this was a woman who had been pushed too far. “I will not make the same mistake again.”
She did not waste her time playing with me or insulting. Instead, she gripped the glowing chain around her neck with white fingers and spoke words that I did not recognize, letting them hang in the air between us. Suddenly, pain exploded along my skin, eating away at flesh like a magical acid. I screamed, looking down at my arms. The skin seemed untouched, but the pain did not end. I fell to my knees, aware only of the crawling, burning magic coating my skin, and Luciana's high laughter.
Suddenly, the pain was gone. I breathed in once through my dry lips, still tingling all over with the residue of Luciana's nasty spell. I was lying on the floor, half of my body pressed into cold stone, the other half sprawled on the edge of a rug. I heard a shout and the sound of something heavy crashing to the ground, and used the little bit of strength that I had gathered to look up. Two blurred figures were grappling with each other, fingers tangled in hair and clutching at dresses. My vision cleared slightly, and I screamed. Somehow, Belle had found me and come to my rescue just when I needed her. I felt my strength returning and lifted myself up onto my knees. Luciana did not notice, too busy trying to keep Belle's hands away from her neck, where the golden chain still rested between the 'v' of her collarbone. The eye seemed to grow larger and larger, pulsing and bobbing in the firelight.
I am awake. I see you.
I watched helplessly as Belle's fingers grabbed hold of the chain, which was blindingly bright and shaking, leaving red burn-lines on Luciana's white neck. She screamed as she tore it from Luciana's throat, twitching and writhing as magic overpowered her body. She took my place on the floor as I pushed myself to my feet, hurrying over to where she lay motionless on the floor stones. I do not know how long I spent by her side, helpless to do anything but cry against her too-warm skin. Occasionally, her body spasmed with cruel magical shocks, and I held her until they passed, powerless to stop them.
When I finally looked up, Luciana and the chain were gone. I did not remember seeing it break, only that it had left Luciana's neck. Strangely, I did not care. Hardly sparing them a thought, I pressed a kiss against Belladonna's hot forehead. "Stay here. I'll be back, I promise. I'm just going to get help..." With one last glance at Belle's limp body on the ground, I hurried back down the hallway, hoping that I could find someone to help me get her into the carriage.
I slipped back into the ballroom as carefully as I could, not wanting anyone to notice my entrance. I eased the door back into place behind me, holding my skirts with one hand as I glanced frantically from side to side, trying to decide what to do. I needed someone to help me return Belle to her carriage. Luciana was still somewhere nearby. I looked through the crowd purposefully this time, trying to keep my breath even and resisting the temptation to cradle my swimming head in my hands. All I could think about was Belle, lying there, her face and skin burning while I did nothing… nothing...
“Are you all right?”
Prince Brendan's voice startled me, forcing my lover's tortured image out of my mind. Standing beside him was a man that I did not recognize, but I sensed the magical energy coming from him. I felt tears roll down my cheeks, but I was too afraid to be embarrassed. “My sister – Belle – back there…. The hallway... she has taken ill. I need to get her to her carriage...”
“Ellie, steady there… you look like you are about to fall over. What do you mean your sister has taken ill?”
“She – some kind of fever. I have to get her–”
Prince Brendan put a strong, square hand on my shoulder. My blood pumped furiously along the curve of my neck, and my breathing was still fast and shallow. “If she has a fever, perhaps one of the palace physicians can take a look at her.”
“No! I mean...” I could not let Luciana anywhere near Belle again, especially in her weakened state. “Just – please, help me get her home. I have to get her to Baxstresse right away!”
“A physician cannot help her,” said the strange man with Prince Brendan. “There is magic in her blood, and her body needs time to purge it. Taking her home is the best solution.” I had been too frantic to study him earlier, but now I recognized him as Cieran, the King's magical advisor. A small corner of my gnawing agony eased.
Prince Brendan looked thoughtful, but after realizing how frantic I was, he nodded his head once in agreement. “I could call a servant... No, I will carry her myself. It is not too far... and if she needs to get home as quickly as possible... Show me where she is.”
I led Prince Brendan back down the hallway, anxious to return to my lover's side and make sure that she was still breathing. When I saw her stretched out on the floor, just as I'd left her, I nearly collapsed. More tears flooded from my eyes and smeared down my chin, and I wiped at them with my hand. “She does look very ill,” Brendan said, leaning down to feel Belladonna's forehead. “Are you sure you would not like me to fetch someone here?”
“Just get her home... get her home and she will be all right... she has to be all right...” The thought of losing Belle was too terrible to consider.Belle was tall for a woman, and well-muscled, but Prince Brendan was larger, and between him and Cieran, they managed to lift her without too much trouble. My sleek, powerful Belle looked so pale and vulnerable, like a sleeping child, as they carried her
from the room. The muscles of Prince Brenda's back stretched with the effort of supporting her weight. I thought of Belle scooping me in her arms, calling me her sweet girl, cradling me, making love to me until I wept. My heart twisted as I hurried to follow the Prince.
Our journey through several more corridors and outside into the cool night was unmemorable. I was completely focused on Belle, wondering what she was feeling, hoping that I could get her home in time. “Which carriage is yours, Ellie?” Prince Brendan asked, but Corynne spotted me and trotted over before I could answer his question. Matthew was waiting faithfully on the box, and as soon as he saw Belle's limp body in the Prince's arms, he hurried over to help Brendan and Cieran settle her across the carriage seat. “Saints above, Miss Ellie, what happened!” he asked as Corynne lipped at my hair nervously. I patted her nose, but pushed her away firmly.
“Fever,” I lied. There was no time to explain. “She has to go home right away…” I turned to Corynne. “Cor,” I whispered under my breath, “please... get Belle to Mam as fast as you can. She is... everything.” Corynne looked at me with large brown eyes, understanding more than Prince Brendan. She knew instinctively that Belle was my mate, not just my adopted sister.
“I promise, Ellie,” she said, shifting her hooves urgently in the dust of the road. “I love her, too.” I thanked her with my eyes, focusing my attention back on Matthew.
“Please... bring her to Baxstresse. I will ride Brahms behind you. There's no time...”
Prince Brendan started to protest, but before any words passed his lips, a hot wave of bone-humming magic rattled through me. I almost lost my footing, but Prince Brendan and Matthew grabbed my arms to steady me. “Luciana!” I screamed, not caring who else might be nearby. At the sound of her name, Matthew jumped back on the box and Corynne was instantly running down the road, her precious cargo rolling behind her.
I whirled my head around, looking for Luciana. She was several yards away, running directly at me with unnatural speed. She did not slow as she neared me, reaching out her arms and spreading her fingers like cruel talons. Not bothering to use magic, she leapt on me, tearing at my hair and face with her fingers, trying to claw at my eyes. I must have screamed, but a strange white noise filled my head, and all I could feel was the vibration of boiling magic.
The eye hovered over my nose as her chain fell towards my face. My eyes were drawn to it like a pendulum. It was shaking, glowing with a magical light.
I see you. You will die.
Suddenly, the eye seemed to fly backwards. It took me several precious seconds to realize that Prince Brendan was pulling her off of me. Luciana lifted her hand, palm forward, and barked a word in a language that made my throat scream with the heat of it. Prince Brendan collapsed to the ground... but his hand was clutched around the chain that clung to Luciana's neck. I watched, horrified, as he fell to the ground, much like Belladonna had, but this time, the chain snapped. Cieran immediately said another word, and a glowing, oily coating appeared over the Prince's skin. Sweat beaded on his forehead and ran in rivulets down his square cheeks as he knelt beside the Prince, still keeping one hand raised in Luciana's direction.
To my surprise, and Luciana's, Prince Brendan shook his head, looking around him as if he were in a strange kingdom, completely unharmed. He touched his forehead, and I saw that his hands were covered with a pair of fine velvet gloves. A wave of relief nearly made me lose my footing. The magic had dazed him, but had not gotten into his skin. Cieran must have done something to save him. Luciana fell to her knees, ignoring Brendan and I, clasping at the pieces of the chain. I turned and ran for the tree where I knew Brahms was waiting for me, not even stopping when one of my painfully tight slippers snapped at the heel and tugged from my uninjured foot.
Thankfully, Brahms and I left the Palace without attracting attention. Brahms moved faster than a storm over the hills when I told him that Belle was in danger. I felt guilty for leaving Prince Brendan behind with Luciana, but I knew that she could not truly harm him without her magical chain. If it came to a battle of physical strength, he would surely be able to overpower her. I needed to be with my lover. Nothing else – the Prince, the chain, the Kingdom – was as important to me at that moment as Belle.
Baxstresse was surprisingly peaceful when I arrived in the gray of early morning. Frost had returned to the fields, and Brahms and I breathed puffs of smoke-white air in the early cold. None of the servants were up but Matthew, who met me as I rode in to take Brahms back to the stables. “She's in a side room off th' kitchens,” he told me as I dismounted, patting Brahms heaving sides in gratitude. “Mam's trying to get her to take water now. Go see her.” I left without another word, desperate for proof that my lover was, at least, still alive and breathing.
I hovered at Belle's bedside for hours, stroking the soft underside of her wrist and brushing away the strands of hair that clung to her slick, fevered forehead. Mam and I had done everything in our power to help her, but the hot magic that beat thickly in her blood had to run its course. Belladonna's endurance would determine her survival.
“You can't leave me, Belle,” I whispered over her limp form, tugging the covers off of her shoulders. “I need you too much.” Belle's lips parted as she took in another shuddering breath, but she did not answer. I stayed at her side, not even leaving to change out of my dress. The fabric was mud-spattered and torn, and my one remaining slipper had been kicked into a corner. My arms ached and my sight was unsteady, but I did not dare rest while my lover stumbled along the precipice of death.
Instead, I remembered. I remembered how her arms felt around me, how the love in her eyes warmed my face, how her lean body felt against me, inside of me. I remembered, and the memories were a lovely and painful jumble of rawness. I knew I would never take another lover. Belle had left her brand on me, and I could never escape her.
My sorrowful thoughts numbed slightly as the small servant's door opened and Mam crept in. The worry lines above her bright eyes were deep enough to coax me out of my chair. “You have to hide, Ellie,” she whispered, “Luciana is coming.”
“Nothing can make me leave,” I said, bending over to look at her. Her head fell sideways onto the pillow, her tangled mane of dark hair tumbling about her shoulders.
“She'll be after killing you both.”
“I don't care. My life is nothing without her in it.”
Mam shook her head, sucking on her teeth. “You're a fool, then, child,” she said, mournful rather than angry. “Mistress Belladonna wouldn't be wanting you dead. I...” Both of our heads jerked towards the door as the scraping of heels on the hallway floorstones filtered into the room. It would only be a matter of moments.
Mam scurried back through the servant's door, reaching her hand out to me for a brief moment. I did not take it. She left me gripping Belladonna's white hand, waiting for Luciana. The wait was short. Luciana flung the doors open less than a minute after Mam had crept out of the room, her wet hair clinging to her bare shoulders. Her face was drained of its usual sadistic, toying arrogance, but she was beautiful even in her fury. I noticed the chain around her neck again, shocked that she had been able to repair it so quickly. Inwardly, I cursed myself. If I had thought to grab the chain instead of rushing for Belle... but Luciana would have overpowered me and taken it back, and I might not have been able to help Belle. I knew that I would make the same choice again.
Luciana saw my eyes on the chain. “Yes, I fixed it. Your precious lover is lying there for nothing, and your precious Prince is unable to remember a thing that happened last night,” she spat through clenched teeth. “I should have pushed you out of the window when I had the chance. You would have been much less bother if an accidental fall had snapped your pretty neck.”
I knew that Luciana was going to kill me. Belladonna was not there to shield me from her wrath this time, but even as she dangled between life and death, she gave me strength. “She will recover,” I said with a certainty I did not feel.
“I doubt it. Love affairs – and people – so often find themselves dead before their time.” Luciana lunged at me and wrapped her fingers around my throat, squeezing with inhuman strength. Magic, I thought as my muscles jerked, trying to free themselves from Luciana's chokehold. Blots of color exploded behind my eyes.
And then I was on the ground, air exploding into my lungs as Luciana charged towards the doors and threw them back open. There was Mam, braced in the entrance to the room, her shoulders back. “The Prince is here.” Luciana instantly forgot about killing me, distracted by the opportunity to fix her failed plan. She bolted from the room without another word, too focused on ensnaring the Prince to remember her revenge. If I had not thought so before, now I was convinced that she was mad. Mam helped me to my feet, steadying my balance and leaning me against a wall.
“We have to stop her,” I gasped, my throat lighting with pain around my words.
I heaved myself away from the wall and rushed to the door. “No idea. But we have to do something.”
I sprinted into the entrance hall. Luciana was making her curtsy, her best smile painted on her face. “-to have you at Baxstresse,” she said, the tail-end of her greeting drifting to the back of the hall where I stood listening. I ducked behind a stone doorframe, hiding myself just as Luciana tossed a glance in my direction.
My heel dug into something soft, and I winced as bone-needle teeth bit the skin of my ankle. “Watch where you're hiding,” Jessith yowled, “I'm trying to see!”
“Sorry,” I said, peering back into the crowded hall.
A large group of servants had gathered at the borders of the entrance hall, eagerly watching Prince Brendan and his attendants. Cate was among them, but she quickly moved out of sight, and I saw Sarah gripping her loose skirts with small hands and gazing at the Prince with a mixture of fear and wonder. Jamison was at the front, tugging importantly at his brass buttons. Prince Brendan did not seem to notice any of them.
“Lady Luciana,” he said quickly, “is Ellie here? Is she all right?”
To her credit, Luciana held her calm expression. “Ellie? Of course... where else would she be?”
“I was helping your sisters into their carriage last night, but I must have fallen, because I forget...” His face tightened as he searched for a memory. “When I awoke, I found Ellie's – Lady Eleanor's – slipper beside me... but she was gone. Could I see her? I want to make sure that she and Lady Belladonna are all right... there was an attack...” He did not seem to notice that he was using my short-name instead of my title. However, all of the servants glanced at each other excitedly.
“Her health has been in such a fragile state since her illness, Your Grace. I really must insist that she not be disturbed.” I had to admit that it took courage to deny the Prince a request. Of course, Luciana was probably insane.
As Luciana shifted to one side, I caught a glint of brilliant silver-gold, and I strained forward to see. Settled on a purple cushion was the slipper that I had lost. I realized what I needed to do. “Jessith,” I hissed, “go to Belladonna's room and get my other slipper.”
“Playing fetch like a common dog,” Jessith muttered, but did not bother arguing. She slipped into the patchwork shadows at the edges of the hallway as I turned back to watch Prince Brendan.
The Prince looked thoughtful, running a large, nervous hand through his hair. “I know that Lady Eleanor is ill, but I must insist on seeing her.”
Instead of protesting as I expected, Luciana nodded her head in ascent. “I understand. I will tell her to come down, if you will wait here. We have not burned her sheets yet, the sickness may still be on them.”
Luciana turned and walked up the tall, curling staircase, leaving the Prince, the servants, and me, waiting. A minute passed, perhaps two. I do not remember anything but counting my breaths and listening for the sound of Jessith's return. I did not dare move. I had no idea when Luciana would return. Finally, I heard the soft scrape of something being dropped at my feet. “I hope you appreciate this. I had to carry it in my mouth. Disgusting,” said Jessith.
I bent down to pick up the slipper, my mouth half-open to call for Prince Brendan, when I looked up just in time to watch myself descend the curved stairway, my hand outstretched. I touched the wall, making sure that I was still hidden behind the stone doorframe. “Jessith! If I am hiding here, then who in all of Seria is that?”
“It's Luciana, you twit. I can smell magic all over her.”
“Luciana?” I whispered. My thoughts were frozen, numb with shock. How could I be in two places at the same time? Where was Luciana? “But – Oh!”
“Be quiet and watch!” Jessith hissed, flexing her claws against the vulnerable skin of my calf as a warning. “You are SO slow sometimes.” I gripped the slipper in my hand and stood, studying myself – no, Luciana – as she reached the bottom of the stairs. She drew closer to Prince Brendan and curtsied weakly, and I realized that we were not a perfect match. This version of me was thinner, paler, with yellowish skin, as though I had not eaten in days. Or as though I had been sick for several months...
“Your Highness.” Luciana-as-me curtsied. “I apologize for wearing my nightgown,” I said. It was incredibly eerie hearing my own voice, but not forming the words.
“Ellie, you look terrible!” Prince Brendan hurried forward, offering my imitator his arm, ignoring the nightclothes that the image of me was dressed in. “Where is Lady Luciana?”
“With Belladonna.” I noticed that Luciana could not take all of the bitterness out of my voice as it spoke Belladonna's name. I had whispered Belle's name in daydreams, rolled it in an invitation, offered it as a joyful greeting, sobbed it into her shoulder as she made love to me, but I had never used it so venomously. In fact, Luciana's name was the one that my voice hated.
The Prince studied Luciana's magical face. “You look much thinner and paler than last night,” he said, his brow lowering. “Maybe you should go back to bed after all...” I smiled coldly. Luciana had done her job too well. The Prince had seen me fresh and healthy for three nights in a row, even though my face had been contorted with grief the last time that he had looked.
“I am feeling much better now,” Luciana said with my voice, still holding onto Prince Brendan's arm. “I see that you have my slipper. I was afraid that I had lost it.” The Prince knelt, reaching for her left foot. It was bare, and he slid the slipper onto it easily. Even the feet looked like mine – or, at least, like they had been before the scars and swelling. The slippers had pinched my feet terribly the night before, but the left shoe was slightly loose on Luciana.
Giving him a charming smile that I never would have imagined on my own face, she thanked him. Jessith pawed urgently at my ankle. “Ellie! Do something!”
I gripped the right slipper so tightly that the blood drained from my hand. “Like what?” I snapped, barely remembering to whisper. Before Jessith could reply, two things happened that sent the hall into chaos.
The double front doors swung open, and I saw Cate nearly fall over as a swarm of songbirds flew into the entrance hall, all of them heading straight for Luciana. She screamed as a hundred tiny beaks tore at her skin, her hair, and the fabric of her clothes. At the same time, Lady Kingsclere appeared at the top of the stairs, wearing one of her nicest blue dresses and looking perfectly sane. She clutched the banister and stopped, her mouth falling open as she stared, horror-struck, at Luciana. The servants were in a similar state of mute terror. Half of them had noticed Lady Kingsclere, and tore their eyes away from the birds every few seconds to study her.
I stared down at Jessith, who was watching the entire scene and looking very pleased with herself. “You didn't!” I accused her.
“I most certainly did. I'm glad Cate let them in. Otherwise, they might have flown down the chimneys...”
Jessith's voice was drowned out as all of the birds began to sing in verse. “Turn and peep! Turn and peep! There's blood within the shoe. The shoe, it is too small for her, the true bride waits for you!” Confused, I looked at the slipper on Luciana's left foot. Rivulets of blood were streaming out of the shoe, and she was screaming. It took a second look for me to realize that she was changing before my eyes, shedding her magical disguise and returning to her natural shape. The edges of the shoe had cut through the flesh of her foot as it grew to its normal size.
“ENOUGH!” I screamed, brandishing the right slipper like a weapon as I stormed out from behind the stone doorway.
At the sight of me, the birds stopped attacking Luciana and flocked to me, singing excitedly as they flew over my outstretched hand. One of them, a fat sparrow, dropped something silver into the slipper. I recognized it immediately: the sorcerer's chain. It had been broken again by dozens of sharp beaks. I picked it up, fingering the eye. It felt cold and dead, but I did not want it to be repaired. I took the thin metal discs in between my fingers and snapped them in half.
Suddenly, a great wind rushed up from the floor, and there was a high-pitched scream. A sharp cracking sound, and the two halves of the pendant disintegrated, leaving my hands filled with a fine white powder.
After the wind was gone, the birds continued singing and circling the shoe, flying into one another and scattering feathers everywhere. “Turn and peep! Turn and peep! No blood is in the shoe! The shoe is not too small for her, the true brid-”
“No! Stop singing!”
The birds stopped.
“Prince Brendan, arrest my sister for treason.”
To his credit, Prince Brendan began to regain his composure. He approached Luciana, who had fallen to the floor in the middle of her skirts. She was wearing her dress again instead of the nightgown, and her body was her own. Kneeling beside her, he gripped her shoulder firmly with one hand, and her arm with the other. Luciana hung limply in his grip, and as she turned towards me, I saw why she did not fight him. Both of her eyes, the cold eyes that I hated so well, had been pecked and scratched out. Horrible, bloody chunks of flesh were all that remained.
Prince Brendan noticed her face at the same time I did. He paled and nearly fell over, but did not let go. “Ellie! How are you... there? Never mind... Heavens, get someone here... No one should be left with their eyes hanging out!”
“It would serve her right.” All of us turned to Lady Kingsclere, who had reached the bottom of the stairs. “The little viper has kept me in agony for months. Let her bleed.”
“No.” As a unit, all of us turned back in the other direction, where Cate was standing proudly despite her tousled red curls and the feather caught near her ear. “No,” she repeated, walking forward. Luciana twitched, life returning to her body as she writhed in Prince Brendan's grip. He held her steady. “That death is too kind for her. Let her live. And I hope that it is the most wretched life she can possibly imagine.”
“If anyone deserves to decide, it's you,” I said. “Brendan.” He lowered his eyes to me. “As a personal favor, let my friend Cate choose Luciana's punishment.”
“Of course. But will you explain this whole mess to me first?”
“Yes, I will. And thank you.”
I looked at Cate, expecting to see anger, joy, or triumph on her face. Instead, her expression was frighteningly blank. She leaned close, so only Prince Brendan and I heard what she whispered in Luciana's ear. “The last word you utter on this earth will be my name. I will be listening to you scream it when the wolf kills you.”
Cate turned to me, and I watched her dilated eyes snap shut as she, too, collapsed to the stone floor.
After the birds were sent away (only the threat of brooms convinced them to leave, and I believe that they were rather put out), and Cate was tucked into a bed, I entertained Brendan in the kitchen. It did not take long to explain the details. With Seria's Prince as a witness against her, there was no question of Luciana's guilt. At least something had gone right in this affair.
“I wish that the situation had not escalated this far,” Brendan told me, looking sympathetic. I was rather proud of the fact that the Prince was sitting in my kitchen. I thought of the kitchen as mine – ours, to include Mam, Cate, and Sarah – after all the work that we had done in it.
“So do I. But what could we tell you? We did warn Cieran, but accusing Luciana outright without proof would have been useless.”
Brendan gave a tired laugh. “I feel a little like bait,” he admitted, lifting his hands, palms up.
“You were bait,” I teased him. I should have been relieved that Luciana was no longer a threat, but my thoughts were still with Belle in her upstairs room, unconscious, hovering in the twilight world between life and death.
Brendan must have seen my distracted eyes. He placed his hand over mine. “I think that I already know your answer, after what I last night, but I am going to ask anyway. Ellie, I am quite taken with you, and your handling of this affair has proved your worth to me. Would you permit me to court you? I know you have no parents to ask...”
My heart sank to my shoes and settled somewhere below my sore ankle. “I am honored by your interest, Brendan, but... I already belong to someone.” I would belong to Belle for the rest of my life, and after, even if she did not wake from her magical-induced sleep.
He gave slightly disappointed but understanding nod of his head, and removed his large hand from mine. In many ways, he did remind me of Belle. They were both tall, strong, kind, and full of energy. “I thought so. Go to her, Ellie. That is where you should be right now. I will get statements from the rest of the household and give you some time...”
For a moment, my chest felt heavy and thick with fear. Prince Brendan knew! How had he figured it out? But his smile was reassuring, if slightly forced, and I knew that he would not do anything to separate me from Belle. With a lighter heart, I gave Prince Brendan a quick, grateful hug. He returned it, holding on for a moment, and then let me go. “Thank you,” I called over my shoulder as I hurried to the place where my heart was waiting for me.
My throat hardened, my chest ached, as I quietly opened the door to Belle's room. The sleek, strong creature that had been my lover was weak as a kitten, shivering even though she was buried deep beneath her covers. Only her thin, yellow face remained visible.
I touched her forehead, remembering how my mother had rested her cool hands on my face whenever I was ill as a child. This time, I needed to be caretaker. “Belle,” I said, keeping my voice a low whisper, “I'm here. I will always be here.”
“Belle.” I said her name again. She did not magically recover. Her eyes were still fastened shut. I kissed her forehead, the gray shadows beneath the sharp cheekbones, her dry lips. I wanted to collapse onto the bed, next to Belle, and sob myself empty. But Belle had always been my strength. This time, I needed to be the strong one.
A noise at the door startled me, and I raised my head. Lady Kingsclere stood at the door, her hair tucked into a neat bun. “How is she?” she whispered, joining me beside the bed. As I had done moments before, she rested her hand on Belladonna's forehead. She looked like she had just come out of the sickbed herself, but her tight, tired shoulders were still held proudly.
“The magic has to drain away,” I said, stroking Belladonna's cheek with my own hand. Both of us were silent for a long stretch of time, joined by our fear and longing.
“Prince Brendan told me everything. I knew that Luciana wanted her inheritance, but... I never imagined... and now my daughter...” She gazed sadly, but not helplessly, at Belladonna. Lady Kingsclere was coming back in to herself.
Belladonna's breathing seemed easier with both her mother and her lover watching over her, and most of her shivering had stopped. “I'm not ready to let her go.” My voice sounded small and terrified to my own ears. “Not after I just found her.”
Lady Kingsclere took five steps to the window. She pulled aside the dark drapes, allowing pale sunlight into the room. “I doubt that she is ready to let you go, either,” she said, staring out of the window and across the yellow fields.
I knew, then, that Lady Kingsclere knew. And I was not afraid. “I love her more than life. Where she goes, I will follow.” Even beyond the gates of death.
“You, daughter... are a stronger woman than I am.” Lady Kingsclere turned to me, looking much older, much wiser, than I felt. “If you lose her, wait. You will find her. When I lost my husband... I lost myself. But I am not ready for death yet. I am content to wait, and enjoy living for both of us. Besides,” she gave me a sly look from the corner of her eye. “Baxstresse needs an heir, and I need grandchildren from you two.”
I blushed. If Belle tried hard enough, I thought, who knew what the result would be? “I love children,” I cautiously admitted to Lady Kingsclere. “But if you expect me, or Belle, to share each other with some man, than I will toss you out the window.” I kept my voice playful, but both of us recognized the serious threat underneath.
“Of course not,” said our mother. I could think of her as my mother now. Not a stepmother, but a mother-in-law; not a replacement, but an addition. It was a much more comfortable relationship.
Five slow days passed. I remained sluggish, unmoved by constant appeals to leave Belladonna. I would not be forced from the room. Sarah, Cate, Mam, and even Lady Kingsclere tried to tempt me with food, but I ate two or three mouthfuls and pushed the plates away. I washed my arms and face at the small basin in the corner, but that was my only concession.
Jessith remained in the room with me, only rarely slipping through the partially open doorway to check on the rest of the house. She spent most of the time sleeping, but her warm weight on my lap grounded me when I thought I would spiral out of control. Occasionally, she would curl around Belladonna's feet, or press her cold nose to one of the limp, pale hands.
“She won't die,” Jessith told me.
“How do you know?” I asked her brokenly, desperate for any kind of reassurance.
“She does not smell like death. She does not look like death. But she is very sick.”
I disagreed. I could smell death in the room, that old, hard smell that burned my eyes. It hid in the dark, almost black wood of the grandfather clock that called out the hour, waiting through the seconds. And Belladonna certainly looked like death, with her yellow skin and the sharp planes of her face and shoulders jutting out like spikes. I felt the urge to cover a mirror with black cloth, but could not bring myself to do it. That would be admitting Belle's condition was worsening.
However, Jessith was not prone to lying, although she was not above omission, either. Animals often saw things that humans did not. I accepted her opinion, and tried to believe in it. My faith in the world, and in goodness, had been shaken. Not my mother's death, not my father's death, not Luciana's torture, had prepared me for this emptiness, this hopelessness, this despair. Surely, no light could exist in the world if Belladonna's candle burnt itself out.
Night was the worst. The cold, pale starlight from the window cast ghoulish yellow faces on the walls, mouths stretched open into black gaping holes. My loose hair made shadow-paintings over the tossed covers as I hung my head over the bed, listening for the slow, shallow breaths that meant my lover had not crossed into death. Her face and forehead were warm under my hands, but her fingers were ice cold when I held them.
I tried to give her water, but she would not take it. I whispered to her that she needed to come back to me, that I was waiting for her, that Luciana was gone. Her imprisonment and sentence were meaningless now.
At seven in the morning by the ticking clock, Belle opened her eyes. Their jewel blue was pale, faded and washed out, but it was alive. She could not see for the first minute, but I held her hand so tightly that she whispered my name. “Ellie...”
I pressed dry, frightened kisses over her face, making small sounds between them. “Belle, Belle...” The yellow-paper skin flushed with red warmth under my lips. I kissed the life back into her. “Please, please...”
She only stayed awake for a few moments, long enough to accept the cup that I pressed against her lips and remind me that she loved me. Her eyes blinked twice, and lowered. When sleep reclaimed her, it was no longer a death-sleep, but a healing rest. Her breathing was easy and deep. Now that the stiff layer of frost constricting my chest had begun to melt, so was mine.
Belle regained consciousness a second time later that evening. This time, she was much more alert, and her robin's egg eyes had regained some of their brightness. “Darling,” she greeted me, lifting her hand since she could not pull me into her arms. I pulled her into mine instead, kissing her hair. “How long has it been?”
“Six days,” I admitted, drawing comfort from the warm, but not burning, heat that came from her body. She felt so good in my arms that I wanted to cry. “Luciana is in prison. We are all safe.” Belle tried to lift herself up and prop her weight on a pillow, but I eased her back down. “I promise to tell you about it later. For now, everything is all right.” And now that Belle was awake, looking at me, speaking to me, everything really was all right.
After a few more soft questions – is mother all right? Have you eaten? – Belle allowed me to wash her with a cold cloth and change her nightgown. She only submitted to the care because I was her lover. Now that the constant fear of death had faded, my attraction to her could come forward again. Lying naked before me, Belle was the most magnificent creature in the world. She was thin as a branch, and she had lost color, but her wiry muscle had not disappeared. To me, she was just as lovely as ever.
Thankfully, I was too tired to do anything more than to enjoy looking, because Belle was in no condition for physical activity. Instead, I washed her and helped comb her hair, thanking God, Fate, or whatever had spared my lover with each stroke. “That feels good,” Belle murmured, sounding like a purring Jessith.
With pink in her skin, and looking considerably more comfortable, Belle returned to her bed, and I joined her, curling up beside her and leaving the covers off so that we could enjoy the warm spring air.
Of course, news of Luciana's arrest, my recovery, Belle's illness, and the Prince's involvement spread like a pox through the upper classes. Baxstresse became a madhouse. Everybody and their cousins had to come see what had happened, offer insincere condolences and strongly worded opinions, and generally be a nuisance.
Thankfully, Lady Kingsclere's health had improved rapidly with Luciana in prison, and she was more than well enough to entertain guests. I learned a great deal by watching her gently deflect inquiries and politely dismiss the busybodies. I found myself playing lady of the house again instead of helping Mam, Sarah, and Cate in the kitchens. To my great satisfaction, one of Lady Kingsclere's first acts after returning to her station was to reimburse the pay discrepancy for all of the Baxstresse servants. I also convinced her to begin looking at blueprints for extending the servant's quarters.
Although my evenings were spent at hastily thrown together dinners with the nobles, my mornings were spent hard at work. Cooking and cleaning, I had discovered, became habits, and they were not easily dismissed, although I certainly appreciated the lighter workload.
My nights were spent in Belle's room. Everyone knew, but no one thought anything of it. I acted the doting sister, not wanting to leave Belle alone at night in case she took ill again. Although she and I had shared several pleasant kisses and soft touches, I was hesitant to make love with her while she was still recovering, especially since we had so many guests.
On one of these nights, around a week and a half into Belle's recovery, I stood outside the bedroom, preparing to greet my lover. However, reaching for the knob, I heard two voices float underneath the crack in the door.
“... crawling back now that Luciana's gone, but another part of me remembers how, when I was small, you held my hand and walked me outside to see the horses...” My lover's voice sounded tight, unnatural, as though she held tears in her throat. Absorbed in the conversation, I held my left hand suspended over the doorknob.
A deep sigh, and the sound of the mattress shifting. “I remember.” It was Lady Kingsclere. Her voice sounded similar to Belle's, but there was a tired maturity in the words that could not belong to my lover.
There was a long pause, and I considered backing away from the door, or even knocking, but my feet were frozen to the floor. “You could have done something.” Belle again, angrier this time. “Sent her away, threatened her, punished her, something! But you just watched...”
My chest seemed to shrink, and I almost stopped breathing. My mouth hung open as I stared dumbly at the closed door. Belle had never said anything to me about her relationship with Lady Kingsclere. Now that I thought about it, her behavior struck me as strange. Belle was loyal to her last breath. Why hadn't this loyalty extended to her own mother? She had not seemed as concerned about her mother's weak, mentally vulnerable condition as I would have expected.
“I was selfish,” Lady Kingsclere admitted in a low voice. I could picture her face, eyes lowered, hands clasped in the folds of her skirts, chin bent, but not tucked in shame. Lady Kingsclere was not pretentious, but she was proud. “I wanted what was best for my daughter. Both of my daughters.”
“That thing is not your daughter.” I almost staggered backwards, as if struck by the venom in Belle's words. “I hardly consider her human at all. She is a murderous, sadistic, power-hungry snake. That is the daughter you defended.”
“No, she is not. Not any more.” There was another pause. “I was wrong... I should have been with you. I was too consumed with a wife's grief to remember that I was a mother. I was not strong enough. Maybe if I had not let you feel so alone... or her... Maybe none of this would have...”
More rustling, and the sound of a choked sob through the door. I could hardly believe it. Crying was so unlike Belle, especially in front of someone else. It was the third time, I realized. “Do you know what it is like? To lose both of your parents at the same time? Oh, you were still breathing, but you were not alive. And to have your sister, who should have been your comfort, following you, telling you that you were worthless, that you would never get the money... I didn't care about the money!” The words were frantic, desperate, and I wanted to open the door, but could not find the strength.
“Killing animals in front of you, raping servants... and I could do nothing. I was fourteen! Who would listen to me? It made me sick. But I survived. She didn't kill me. She enjoyed watching my conscience do the tormenting for her. I hated myself for letting her... It grew to be a habit, doing nothing. I had nothing left to care about. I doubted human goodness. And then...”
And then there was me. The thought came to me so suddenly that I was sure it did not belong in my mind, but in Belle's. And then there was me. I suddenly realized why Belle had found me so fascinating, had fallen in love with me. What I had considered to be my naïve foolishness, my embarrassing innocence, had been Belle's salvation. Talking about books. Doting on Jessith. Smiling at the servants. How long had Belle spent wandering the manor halls like a wraith, without seeing a single spark of happiness?
I was far from a perfect person, I knew, but I was untouched, a small piece of the regular world that had not been swallowed by Luciana's shadow. And when Luciana had tried to consume me... I had survived. Suddenly, I felt less like a shy, silly girl, and much more like a woman.
I opened the door.
Belle and Lady Kingsclere started. Both were sitting on the bed. The image fastened itself in my mind; a smaller, brown-haired woman with wisps of gray about her cheeks reaching for her daughter, pale-skinned and trembling. Both of them were crying. I walked between them, placing a hand on both shoulders. I imagined the gaping, soul-sucking emptiness that I would have felt without Belle, and could not hate Lady Kingsclere for abandoning her daughter. After all, she was trying to find her way back.
“Sometimes,” I said, “you have to cry before you can smile again.” Not as prose-like as some of Belle's secret poetry, but I thought it was appropriate enough. Belle stared up at me with helpless, glassy blue eyes, and I wanted to weep, too. “Belle, she is your mother, and she loves you.” That set off another round of hot tears. They spilled onto my hands as I cradled her chin. Even noble warriors needed to cry sometimes, I thought, stroking her face.
And then, in what I consider to be no less than a minor miracle, I let Belle go, and she turned her crying face to our mother. She opened her arms, and Belle collapsed into them, her lean body falling slack like a puppet with broken strings. I kept a steadying hand on her back, and let them cry together.
It was a wonderful, strange dream. Belladonna and I were lying on a blanket, watching white-streaked clouds blow past on the high wind. The lonely call of a bird and the whispering of leaves were the only sounds in our ears. Short, trellised walls with climbing ivy surrounded us on all four sides. The sun, a gleaming golden coin, shone warm upon our faces, and we smiled at each other. The breeze was at our backs, tossing my light hair and strands of Belle's thick, dark curls.
In Belladonna's clasped hands were two roses, one red, and one completely white. She offered the white rose to me, and as I took it with my left hand, a forgotten thorn pricked my finger, the fourth one from my thumb. One drop of blood rolled off of my fingertip and fell onto the rose, staining one of the white petals, a bead of red clinging to the flower's pale curve.
I put the rose in my right hand, careful of thorns this time, and held out my pricked finger. Belle pressed her lips to the small purple mark, and I felt new skin grow over it. She kissed the center of my hand, and the pulse in my wrist. Her soft lips found mine, and the sweet ache in my chest swelled until I had to kiss her back.
Her dress came undone at the back under my quick fingers, and soft white skin poured out and into my hands as I tried to fill myself with all of her. Her purple-black hair was plastered to her neck and shoulders, soft ropes of it spilling over onto me, warm under the sunlight. We pressed close, two lovers with one skin, her lips mapping the freckles scattered across my cheeks and the bridge of my nose as my hands roamed over her chorded back.
And then it was a dream no longer, and Belle's comfortable weight settled over me in our bed as she kissed me and kissed me and kissed me. And of course, I kissed her back. So, this was what had inspired my dream... Her thumbs stroked my neck, the undersides of my wrists, finding the softest places. I trembled, and she cradled my face in her hands. Those blue eyes begged me to let her take, claim, possess.
A strange urge tugged at my heartstrings, and I shifted underneath my lover, turning onto my side, and then my belly. I tossed Belle a close-lipped smile over my shoulder, the tips of my cheeks burning with twin spots of pink. Belle's forehead lifted as surprise, and then pleasure, shone in her handsome face. Her hands stroked my hips and bottom as her teeth caught and held my neck. “Aah...” she said in a low purr, in between bites and kisses to my vulnerable throat, “who would believe me if I told them my sweet, innocent Ellie let me have her from behind? But I would never tell... you belong to me.”
She drew my thighs apart a little too quickly, claimed me a little too roughly. Still quivering and stretched tight around her fingers, I felt her hips push against mine, using them to aid the thrusts of her hand. A soft gasp, a delighted cry, and I buried my face in the pillow as my lover took me, our warmth running together over her hand and my thighs. The hardened tips of my breasts dragged over the mattress as Belle and I rocked together, and I felt hers pressed tight against my shoulder blades.
“Mm, smooth – so warm... Ellie, you're all soft velvet around me...” she whispered, coaxing me to raise my hips higher, holding me just so. With a sigh, she pressed her warmth into the high swell of my bottom.
Belle flicked lazily over my pearl, which was straining at its hood, a hard little point against her thumbpad. Knowing that she felt every pulse of the tiny bundle, every flutter of my soft insides, embarrassed and excited me. Held under her thumb, with her other fingers stretching me, I was shy and vulnerable. She knew all of my secrets.
Belle paused for a moment, hovering over me, leaving me empty, with a deep ache. She wanted me to beg for her. “Please... love, please – touch me...”
“Oh, you mean... here, little one?” Her firm strokes had me arching my back until the muscles screamed. I collapsed forward onto the bed, my strength sapped, mewling and whimpering and weak as a kitten. It only took seconds for the waves to swell and break inside me, but my crest seemed to last for an eternity, until I had nothing left to give. I felt Belle tremble against me as I sobbed her name, and knew that she had found her release with me. We held still, breathing heavily, both of us overcome.
I could hardly look at her as she tenderly reclaimed her fingers. My muscles clung to them greedily, unwilling to let her go, but with a few whispered words and a soft kiss to each eyelid, I relaxed for her. Sensing my shyness quickly, as only a lover can, she tilted my chin and gazed into my eyes, her hand still covered in my wetness. “Shy, dear heart?” she asked, kissing my nose.
Hiding my embarrassment, I dipped my head and began cleaning her hand with my tongue. With my head bent, I could not see Belladonna's face, but I knew that she was smiling. “Not too shy,” she said, sounding more than a little smug. It did not bother me. She deserved to be smug.
When I determined that her hand (and lips) were clean, I told her about my dream. She looked thoughtful as I described the roses, and the trellis, and the golden sun. “It was wonderful... I almost wish I could go back. But since you gave me something even better than my dream, I'll forgive you.”
“I suppose you'll want an outdoor wedding, then. I thought so before, but I never remembered to ask...”
I was mute and still as a stone. When I finally found my voice, all I could think to say was, “Belle?”
Belle looked at me strangely, only just noticing my expression of surprise. “I said that I suppose you'll want an outdoor wedding...”
“An outdoor wedding,” I parroted. A wedding? For me and Belle? I could hardly imagine it. Well, I had wanted to imagine it, but could not bear to dwell on an event that I had dreamed of since childhood, but would never experience. Belle had called me her wife, but I had assumed it was a private endearment between us.
“Yes, and- ... you thought I wouldn't marry you?” Belle looked almost hurt, and I hurried to kiss her frown away.
“No! I want to marry you! But you said that we could never let the world know that we were married...”
Belle rolled her eyes. “I wasn't planning on putting out an announcement. I just thought it would be nice to invite some of the people that already know and have some sort of... I don't know... small ceremony... even if it isn't legal.”
The idea instantly appealed to me. “I want to have an outdoor wedding, and I want it to be by my mother's hazel tree. Cate and Sarah can be my bridesmaids, and...”
“Ellie,” Belle interrupted, “I love you, adore you, and want to marry you so that I can spend the rest of my life with you, but if you start planning the wedding now, I will go mad from lack of sleep and exhaustion.”
“You are exhausted?” I said, feigning disappointment as my hand crept down her smooth belly and stole between her legs. “Too exhausted for this...?”
“Yes, too exhausted,” Belle said in a strained voice. But of course she was pretending, and I got to show her my enthusiasm for her idea after all.
Cate had a roundabout way of letting me know that we needed to talk. She could not come right out and say it. She had a habit of pausing in her work, and staring at me with her wide brown doe-eyes and pale cheeks. She would not say anything, and I would not say anything, until one of us shook our head and looked away, hunching the line of our shoulders.
We were in our room dressing for bed the third time this happened. Cate was the one who had turned away first this time. I was growing frustrated with her games. “Are you going to tell me?” I asked, not caring if I was pushing.
I saw Cate's throat bob nervously, and she took a loud breath of preparation. “I'm leaving Baxstresse,” she said, still turned to face the opposite wall.
I turned the single, three-legged stool that I was sitting on and rose to my feet. “Leaving.” It was a statement, but there were a thousand unspoken questions straining behind it, bursting in my mouth.
“I have to leave,” said Cate. It was a firm, unwavering answer, but selfishly, I chose not to enjoy my friend's strength. Ever perceptive, Cate added, “I am not leaving you, Ellie. I'm just leaving Baxstresse.” She leaned against the wall, facing another, trapping herself in a corner.
“There's a difference?” Cate's back flinched visibly at my sharp tone, and I felt like I had aimed a kick at a small dog. It was a curious sensation, experiencing jealousy and guilt at the same moment. “I'm sorry,” I apologized.
I asked the question that was tormenting me. “Why? How can I make you stay?”
Cate pushed herself off of the wall, which she had been almost clutching at. She glanced over her shoulder out at the rest of the room, gazing past the firey line of hair against her cheek. Her face was set firmly, but not harshly.
“Ellie, I came to Baxstresse as a child to pay a family debt. When I started to become a woman, Luciana noticed me. I was never happy here until I met you. There are too many ghosts in this manor. I need to find my own place, my own way.”
“You can't leave,” I interrupted, my hands physically aching to reach out and grab her. I clutched my skirts instead. “You have to stand with me at my wedding.”
The flush on Cate's face might have been from anger, surprised pleasure, or even a little of both. “Ellie, I would be honored to stand with you at your wedding. But I'm still leaving.” I heard the finality in those words. Arguing would be pointless.
“Will you come back?” I said in a small voice, sounding like a sulking child. As proud as I was of Cate's newfound confidence, I was afraid for her, and hurt that I would lose her.
“Yes. And I'm not going to leave this very moment...”
“I can't keep you here, can I?” I asked softly.
Cate turned toward me fully and took me in her arms, giving me a fierce hug. “No, sweetling, you can't. You are my dearest friend, but not my Mistress.” And neither, I realized, was Luciana. That thought made me so happy that losing Cate did not seem so horrible.
Another thought struck me, and I asked, quite suddenly, “Cate, did... did you have a vision telling you to go...?” Although a seer's visions were not written in stone, the seer usually sensed how likely the occurance was. They were rarely wrong.
There was a moment of silence, and I wondered if Cate would answer my question at all. “Yes, I did. I saw a dark wolf running through the high trees...” Her voice took on a strange, deeper timbre, and she sounded much older than her nineteen years. “I need to leave. I need to find... something.”
I knew that she was holding something back from me, but I did not press her this time. “I know that you will find it, Cate. And I will do whatever I can to help you, as long as you come back to me. If you forget, I will go out looking for you.” I gave her a genuine smile.
“Oh, Ellie, how could I ever forget?” she said, smiling back. And then I kissed her cheek, and let her go.
Once again, I found myself looking for a dress. “I wonder why clothes seem to take up so much of my time,” I complained to Belle, crossing my arms over my breasts. “First the three-night ball, and now a wedding dress...”
Belle rolled her eyes and turned the page of her book. “Wear one of those three, then,” she said, not looking up.
“Belle, you should know better! Those are party dresses, not wedding dresses,” I said, horribly disappointed.
“Why do you care? We are only inviting a few people, and none of them will care if you are not wearing a proper wedding dress.” I frowned, and Belle must have sensed my growing irritation, because she closed the book. “I meant,” she said, “that I think you will look beautiful in anything you wear,” she said, and she sounded so sincere that I could not stay mad at her, even though I knew she was trying to get out of trouble.
“I just want our wedding to be perfect...”
“It will be, because you are the one I sm marrying.”
“That was a little too much flattery, dear heart,” I said, but I was secretly pleased, and forgot how sore I was about the dress. “I would have worn my mother's wedding dress, if...” I let my voice trail off. By mutual consent, Belle and I did not mention Luciana's name if we could avoid it. Not because we were afraid of her, but because it was unpleasant to think about her or talk about her.
“Stop worrying about the dress, little one,” Belle said, patting my hand and opening her book to the page she had saved. “I will figure something out for you.”
The next day, Lady Kingsclere asked me up to her room after lunch. Curious, but not particularly worried, I made my way up the stairs to her suite of rooms, taking the servant's hallway out of habit. When I opened the door to her study, Lady Kingsclere was sitting at her desk, catching up on correspondences. “Just a moment, dear,” she said, finishing her letter and signing it with a flourish.
I waited, my weight shifted to one hip in a very un-ladylike fashion, hands clasped behind my back. Lady Kingsclere gave me a slightly disapproving look, and I straightened, but it was followed by a smile. Strangely, it reminded me of something my mother would have done. “Belle tells me that you need to borrow a wedding dress,” she said, standing up and pushing the chair behind her desk back in place.
My forehead wrinkled. Lady Kingsclere and I were the same size, but I really did not want to wear the dress that she had used at my father's wedding. There were too many convoluted emotions attached to that memory. Lady Kingsclere, like Belle, was very perceptive to my facial expressions. “Not that dress,” she said quickly, “come, I will show you.”
Realizing for the first time how much mother and daughter had in common, I followed Lady Kingsclere into her bedroom, and to the large wooden wardrobe where I had found the blue dress. Feeling slightly guilty, even though Lady Kingsclere had been made aware of the “borrowing” I had done and had not objected, I watched as she pulled a white box from the back of the wardrobe. “Here,” she said, handing it to me. I opened it.
Inside of the box was the most beautiful wedding dress that I had ever seen. It was light blue silk, with a flipped v of white from waist to hemline. The same white color covered the neck and shoulders. The blue section of the dress was embroidered with silver thread, and the white with gold. It was obviously not just a wedding dress, but a noble heirloom that had been passed down through several generations.
“Did you wear this at your first wedding?” I gasped, still admiring the dress. “It's beautiful!”
Lady Kingsclere smiled, and though I knew she was remembering, she did not look crushed or despondent. Instead, she appeared almost nostalgic, even happy. “Yes, I did. That was one of the happiest days of my life. I want your wedding to be just as happy.”
With a wave of joy and affection, I gave Lady Kingsclere a light hug, not wanting to crush the dress box. She returned the embrace, still smiling. She seemed to understand all that I could not say. I finally managed, “thank you! Thank you so much...”
“There is only one stipulation,” she said, lowering her eyebrows seriously.
“You must pass the dress on to my granddaughter or granddaughter-in-law, provided it fits.” I had the decency to blush.
Our wedding was not at all like my childhood fantasies. It was infinitely better. Having been a guest at several weddings, including my father's second marriage, I had expected my own to take place in a large cathedral, with several-hundred onlookers. I was titled, even if I had not been born into it, and I was a curiosity, if nothing else.
Instead, the small ceremony took place outside, in the open air. A steady, gentle wind blew from the north. We gathered beneath my mother's hazel tree, and I knew that she could see how happy her daughter was. There was color everywhere, the blue of the sky and the green of the leaves, and the sun was strong and warm on our smiling faces.
Cate and Sarah stood with me. Belle, after many sleepless nights of soul-searching, had asked her mother to stand with her, and I could not have been prouder of her choice. Mam, Matthew, and even Brahms, Corynne, Jessith, and the rest of the cats were invited (although Trugel slept through most of the ceremony). Because it was such a tiny gathering, no one thought it strange that I wanted two horses and several cats to attend my wedding, or that wild birds attempted to perch on my shoulders as I said my vows, wanting to be included.
The Honorable Father Matthias, a very sweet but slightly forgetful old man, presided. He had known me when I was a child growing up at Sandleford, and when I discreetly inquired his opinion about a “non-traditional” ceremony, he revealed that he had performed such a service before! I was surprised, and a little relieved, to hear that Belle and I were not the only nobility joined in a secret marriage. Of course, dear old Father Matthias did not give me the names of the people in question, and I was too polite to ask, even though I was dreadfully curious.
I wore Lady Kingsclere's beautiful dress, and a traditional crown of orange blossoms, but at the very front, just above my forehead, I had tucked a white rose, one of the same blooms that grew at Sandleford. The beautiful roses were thriving in Baxstresse's new garden, which Belle was helping me to plant. A gold-linked necklace with white jasper rested around my throat, another gift from Lady Kingsclere. My golden hair hung loose around my shoulders, and I felt beautiful because Belle loved me enough to marry me.
Years later, I cannot remember exactly what we said as we recited, in Old Serian, our vows of faithfulness, love, and honor. What I do remember is the loving way Belle smiled at me, the softness and warmth of her large hand as it held mine, and her sure, steady breaths as she stood beside me. I remember the tears in Cate's eyes that she tried to blink away, and Sarah's secret wink. I remember Lady Kingsclere looking at Belle, her daughter, and me, her daughter's wife, with a youthful happiness that transcended time and memory. I was sure that she was thinking of Alastair, but not with feelings of loss or regret.
And so when I said those two words that bound my lover and I forever, “I do,” and she kissed me, I knew that we would live happily ever after.
I would have picked you daffodils,
But with a smile, you took my hand.
You kissed me where the river ran
And called me lady fair.
Instead I picked you bluebells, dear,
And with a smile, you led me through
The ivy-trellised garden gate,
A white rose in my hair.
The Marriage-poem of Lady Eleanor Kingsclere
To her wife, Lady Belladonna Kingsclere.
Here ends the First diary of Eleanor of Sandleford, wife of Lady Belladonna Kingsclere. Preserved in the Royal Library by Prince Richard of Seria, grandson of King Brendan and his wife, Queen Sarah.
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