Father brought home his third wife in the spring. They drove up the long driveway–the great front lawn an explosion of flowers, the canopy of those huge oaks dappling the silver-grey of the car in green light–and parked in front of the stone steps. When Father opened the door and got out, he wouldn’t even look in my direction as I waited at the door with Conor. Conor, yes; me, no.
I was eighteen that spring, and Conor, sixteen.
He had gone to the capital six months ago to look for a new rich wife. He had squandered the money Grandfather left him and what money he had from marrying Mother, although Father said she really didn’t have so much. The old families had history and legend, not much cash. He had squandered Conor’s mother’s money as well on his foolish hunts, his parties, his card games, his other women.
The messenger dove had come to me, a beautiful blue-grey bird; I had raised her from her hatching, and only reluctantly let Father take her to the capital. Now she sat on my shoulder as I followed Conor down the steps to wait. We had had the exclusive royal charter to raise doves for the Royal Mail. Father had sold the charter, too. Now I had just the last of the family flock for my pets.
The new wife got out of the car first, then her daughter, Elena. I heard the sharp intake of breath from the butler, the smothered gasp of the housekeeper. I heard even Conor whispering how beautiful they both were. Mary Grace, the house greenwitch, looked at Father looking at Conor; then she looked at me. She knew what he was planning. I knew, too, what Father would say to me, after dinner, when the port was served: Beautiful, eh, Calum? Not that you would know what to do with a beautiful woman if you had her, eh?
When Father goes on about women, I always say nothing. I will never tell him that he is right about one thing: I love men. I just tell him Grandfather would never serve port to women. I let him think I’m weak. He doesn’t know I’m becoming a powerful witch. Like Mother, my blood glows silver in the moonlight.
This time, at the welcoming banquet, and the dance, was different: Father didn’t wait for the meal to end, nor did he wait for the port to be served. He didn’t whisper it to me; he said it out loud.
I just stared at him in the sudden silence. The first salvo, I knew, to making Conor his heir and not me.
Father always underestimated me.
So did Elena. She came to see me a few weeks after that banquet. I was with my pets in the dovecotes out near the stables. She came, she said, looking for Conor, and to apologize to me for all the noise and all the changes since she and her mother had come to Colomendy. I had doves perched on my shoulders, sitting on my head.
“I can tell this all upsets you so, Calum, and I want us to be friends. We are stepbrother and stepsister, after all. These are your pets, yes? These birds, they are so beautiful, the color of soft silver. That deep cooing.”
I stared at her. She was beautiful: golden hair, deep blue eyes, flawless skin, and only sixteen. She would only become more beautiful. And she felt sorry for the weak older brother, who wasn’t really a man, and wasn’t attractive, not like his golden brother. The older brother who was a runt, who had tainted blood.
Elena said she wanted to be my friend.
“You want to make the ugly orange-haired brother feel better? Ease your conscience for being the favored one? You feel sorry for me?”
“Calum. I didn’t mean it that way—I only meant—I mean—I’m sorry.”
She never tried to be friendly to me again. Father slapped me for my rudeness at the dinner table that night, of course, in front of everyone. Conor tried to stop him but that only earned Conor a verbal slap. I just stared at him, the print of his hand on my face a bright red. Elena said nothing; her mother just looked smug.
The plague came to Colomendy two weeks later.
It was the night of the midsummer ball and Father, or so I had heard, was going to announce Conor’s engagement to Elena. And—according to what my footman bedfellow whispered to me—I was to be denounced as illegitimate because Mother had used her magic to seduce him and the marriage was null and void. A horse, a bag of gold, a cage of his doves, and the bastard would be sent on his way to start a new story somewhere else.
Father would wait, of course, to send me off. The engagement party was not to be spoiled. I was ready, thanks to Mary Grace. One drop from the vial in my pocket into the after-dinner tea and they would all die in a lot of pain, writhing, screaming, their bodies contorting as their skin turned black. Neither Elena nor her mother would be so beautiful then.
But a messenger from the king arrived—a human one. That meant the message was of extreme importance. The man was shown in before the engagement announcement was made, as the beautiful couple spun around the inlaid star in the center of the ballroom with Father smiling. I stood by the long white-lace-covered table, decked out with all kinds of desserts and sweets.
Father, compelled by law to immediately read a sovereign’s message, waved his hand for silence. Plague. The first cases, already in the capital. The greenwitches and temple wizards were desperately seeking a cure. We were to stay calm, to carry on. The engagement announcement was postponed. I closed my fist around my vial and said nothing.
A week later a scullery maid took sick. She died gasping for breath. Colomendy lost fully half of the house servants, and a third of the estate staff. Then, Conor got sick. Elena. Her mother. Father.
Her mother died first. By then, Mary Grace was working day and night to come up with anything that would help and I was beseeching all the gods for Conor. I loved him and I knew if he died that I’d lose one of the few people who loved me back. Mary Grace called me to her herbarium the day after Elena’s mother died to hand me another vial, with one dose of a long-sought-for cure.
I told myself I would have given Father a dose if there had been enough. I knew that wasn’t true. So did Father, who called me to his room the next day. I could barely hear him speak.
“So, the ugly queer bastard wins. You will be Lord Culver, ninth Baron of Colomendy.”
“I’m not a bastard, Father. You just wanted to make me one.”
“You killed her,” he gasped and with what energy he had left, he pushed back against the headboard, and lifted his right hand to scrawl a warding sign in the air.
“You should be afraid of me,” I hissed, and he was gone. I was the new Baron. I was eighteen-going-on-nineteen.
Mary Grace was among the last to die. She had raised me. She had shown me my silver blood; she had helped me learn how powerful I could be. She had taught me magic, despite the magic control laws.
I still grieve for her.
Conor and Elena were both sick for a long, long time. Conor, thanks to Mary Grace’s potion, recovered first. Elena apparently had a much stronger constitution than anyone guessed. She lingered, in and out of delirium, nursed by her maid who adored her, until finally, her fever broke and she was able to breath without a steam bath. Elena wasn’t so beautiful then, skin and bones, the sparkle gone from her sunken eyes, her golden hair hacked off. When she was strong enough, I put her to work. I told her everybody at Colomendy has to work now, with so many servants lying in the estate graveyards. She started in the kitchen, light work at first—I am not unreasonable—cutting vegetables, peeling potatoes, coring apples. Her maid objected. I sacked her.
When Conor was well enough, he complained to me as well, loudly and vehemently. He came to see me in what had been Father’s office as I was trying to figure out just how much money Father had actually left us.
“Calum, what the hell are you doing? She’s our stepsister.”
I looked up from the fat ledger spread out on the old oak desk that Great-Grandfather had made by hand. I told him she had conspired with Father to have me disinherited and cast out, and I would not let my brother marry such a creature. “You will marry a true lady, Conor. We will find you a proper wife when the time comes,” I said softly, watching my once-beautiful brother. Once he gained back the weight surely he would be beautiful again. “Now I need your help. There’s so much to do, to fix. So many things were let go during the epidemic. Father wasn’t the best steward of our resources.”
Elena stayed down in the kitchen. She slept in the women’s dormitory in the servants’ wing. I left her there with her hair tied back and those fair hands rough and red. Occasionally she walked, in her drab uniform, in the orchard, by the river, in the village. People told me she talked with this person or that one, a little old lady by the river. I didn’t care.
I kept Conor busy. At sixteen, almost seventeen, as he regained his strength, he was ready to do a man’s work. I placed him over the garden and the stables and the barn.
We worked. As I said, Father had been a poor steward.
I kept studying magic, first with the books Mary Grace left to me. Then I paid the temple wizards for lessons, the other greenwitches, until finally the last one, an old, old woman, told me to go elsewhere.
“Lord Culver—I know a few cantrips, some odd potions, and the like. I’ve taught you those, but what you are asking for now is beyond me. You want to learn what a shadow witch knows. And that is dangerous and highly illegal. The law only permits magic used to better human health and well-being—medicine, crops, godparenting. I don’t want a temple enforcer coming after me,” she said, looking hard at me across her kitchen table. A tea kettle was heating on her stove. The fragrance of early summer apple trees wafted through the window.
“Tell me where to find a shadow witch,” I said, getting up to take the now-singing kettle off the burner.
“You won’t let this go, will you?”
I shook my head. She sighed.
“You didn’t hear this from me. Near the foot hills, at the beginning of the Far West, on the King’s Road, as it comes out and up from the valley where your mother’s family lived, there is an inn, before the road goes into the hills, The Green Man; a shadow witch is said to dwell there.”
After that, I traveled every two months or so to The Green Man, a half-day’s journey by coach. The roads weren’t good enough for Father’s long silver car and gas was too expensive. I told myself that was why I didn’t stop to find my mother’s family. I had never known them; Father had seen to that. He told me little about them, except that my uncle was a weakling and a lover of men, and my grandmother was given to melancholy. Seeing them would only encourage my own weakness. So be it. The shadow witch, a man, did know what I wanted to know. He recognized the magic in my blood; it sang to him, he said.
The invitation to the marriage ball came just after my nineteenth birthday, in the fall, as the maples were beginning to catch fire, some six months after the last plague death in the kingdom. The king sent a human messenger again, carrying heavy tea-with-milk colored envelopes. He came in the morning, just after the silver breakfast dishes had been set on the sideboard. Our fields and orchards were producing as they had before the plague. From the look on the messenger’s face as he sat down at the table after handing me the invitation, there was still a food shortage in the capital, even in the palace. I had put my powers to good use.
I read the invitation as I drank my second cup of tea: Their Majesties, in celebration of the majority of the Prince, request the presence of Calum Lord Culver, Baron of Colomendy, and Lord Conor and Lady Elena, to a party and a three-night ball. . .
I sniffed. Conor and I would be there; Elena would not. I knew what this ball was for. It was a marriage market. With so many dead and the train and coach service only half-restored, and gasoline still rationed and priced more than fine silver, it was simply hard for many to find a marriageable partner. And the dynasty needed an heir. Every child knew the civil wars, fought between rival claimants, had destroyed the Old Empire. Of course, I accepted.
Elena came to see me in my office later that morning.
“What are you doing here?” I said sharply, looking up from the crop inventories which I had found greatly pleasing.
“I was invited to the Prince’s Birthday Party. I want to go.”
“Conor told you?”
She shook her head. I knew he hadn’t. He had believed me and had not spoken to her since I had sent her down to the kitchen. The servants’ gossip vine had spread the news of the invitation to every corner of Colomendy, house and village; of that, I had no doubt.
“You’re not gentry; you are a landless orphan here by sufferance and my mercy. What would you wear, anyway? A maid’s uniform just wouldn’t do,” I sneered.
“Lands and moneys your father stole from my mother and that you have denied me—”
I held up my hand. This was getting boring. “Your mother knew what the marital property laws are in this country. I have treated you as your station and your actions deserved. Go.”
She stared at me, livid with fury and almost choking from whatever insults had just boiled out of her gut. Then she stalked out. I debated, for a moment or two, whether to fire her. No, where would she go? To her mother’s family who didn’t want her? To her older half-brother, the earl, who had also made it clear she was unwanted?
No. Elena, with the soot smears on her face from cleaning out the kitchen hearths, was stuck here at Colomendy. She could amuse herself walking in the village or having tea with her old lady friend on her Sundays off. The sounds of the doves’ cooing eased my anger. I would take a breeding pair to the Prince.
I saw Prince Aidan across the room at afternoon tea the day before the ball. The Prince was perhaps the most beautiful man I had ever seen, golden-bronze skin, those dark, dark eyes and night-black hair. He was choosing between cherry scones or hot potato scones, strawberry preserves or butter, and endless little cakes and sandwiches.
I made myself look away before anyone saw me staring, and then busied myself watching Conor and the young daughter of a nobleman from a northern province. They were laughing, their heads together. I sipped tea and prayed to whatever gods might be listening that this lord’s daughter would love him as much as I did.
“Beautiful, eh?” a voice said at my elbow. I jerked around to see Prince Aidan smiling at me. He nodded his head in the direction of Conor and the northern nobleman’s daughter.
“Yes, she is, and yes, I think my brother is a comely lad, Your Highness,” I said carefully, eying him over my tea cup.
“Your brother, eh? Then we should encourage this match, eh? Excuse me, my duties as host,” he said and shook my hand before drifting off into the crowd. Had he held my hand a little too long? And even if he had, I knew I wasn’t beautiful or comely—just short and carrot-haired. No, I had imagined the touch.
We met again at breakfast the next morning, as I spooned eggs onto my plate from one of the many serving tables scattered about the ballroom-turned-dining hall. We were dining en famille that morning. The formalities would be reserved for the evening, the first night of the ball.
“Good morning, Calum, isn’t it? Lord Culver, Baron of Colomendy? You sent me the doves?” Prince Aidan said as he speared two fat sausages for his own plate, to go with an omelet oozing cheese. “Come, this way,” he added in a whisper, after glancing around the room. He gestured toward a far corner.
I quickly scanned the room. Yes, there was Conor, and the northern nobleman’s daughter. Katrina was her name I had found out. Good. “Of course, Your Highness. My pleasure.” Somewhat puzzled and yet feeling a small fire of excitement, I followed him not to a table in the dining hall, but behind a column and curtains to a small side room.
“I should be mingling, meeting yet another man’s daughter, but it does get tiring, eh?”
I was surprised; this three-day marriage market ball and birthday celebration was to find him a wife, was it not? But I didn’t care. I liked the Prince, and he was beautiful. I knew he would find some woman to marry, but for this morning, he was talking and laughing with me. We talked doves, and Colomendy and taking the train and steam buses and would there be steam cars next.
“I wish I could stay longer,” the Prince said, as he sat down his tea cup, emptied for the third time. “But there is a walk in the gardens in half-an-hour. Seven possible brides, then luncheon, and this afternoon, I am to be in the library, where people are to just drop by, then the banquet, then the ball. Perhaps we can talk later, yes?” He stood, laying down his napkin, embroidered with the royal family’s coat of arms, on his plate.
“Of course, Your Highness. My brother and I shall be here all three days.”
He brushed against my arm when he left.
The ball began that night promptly at the stroke of eight, with a flurry of trumpets and horns, and the Prince and the King and Queen entered to the strumming of harps. Wall sconces blazed into light. I took a position in a shadowed corner of the room, near where the Prince and I had eaten—and already that seemed more than just hours ago. I scanned the room: Conor was where he was supposed to be, with Katrina; I had checked out her family in the royal library that afternoon. It would be a good match. I had no trouble, then, seeing her arrive half-an-hour later, the masked woman in the dress of gold and the golden shoes and golden hair, stunned silence rippling out around her like waves from a rock tossed into a pond.
She was beautiful. When she and the Prince danced, people stopped and stared at the sight. As I watched them, I felt my little fantasy breaking and shattering like glass. I hated her, this masked woman, and I hated myself for even having a fantasy, a fantasy I hadn’t even known I had until that moment.
She left a half-hour before midnight and the ball died in her golden wake. I found Conor amongst the others trickling out and I sent him to his room, after he had murmured he was meeting Katrina again for breakfast tomorrow, and what did I think, did I like her? Yes, yes, yes.
The Prince caught my arm at the foot of the stairs.
“If I were to have hot chocolate and sugar cookies served in my room as a late-night snack, might you come?” he whispered, his face so close to mine I could feel his breath on my skin. All around us people lingered, chatting, laughing, and drinking. Guards stood nearby at a discreet distance.
A guard knocked on my door in half-an-hour. He helped me put on a shadow-cloak, and I followed him down dark corridors as he motioned directions with his hands. Deaf and dumb, for the most private of royal audiences.
Neither of us minded lukewarm chocolate.
The second night she wore a glowing silvery white gown and silver shoes. Silver and white ribbons had been woven into her golden hair. As before, silence, then whispers pooled around her as she stood in the doorway, waiting, waiting, until Aidan saw her and swept her out on to the dance floor. Like before, she left a half-hour before midnight, leaving behind more whispers: a great gold-and-orange coach, yes, and magnificent white horses and a tall masked driver and footmen …
I stared after her, wondering what it was about her that seemed familiar. Conor found me shaking my head not far from the stairs and told me he thought he was falling in love, and asked if I would approve if he proposed. Yes, yes.
Aidan, with the slightest of touches, stopped me, again like before, at the foot of the stairs. I thanked the gods we ranked high enough to have palace guest rooms. The less fortunate had filled the inns in the capital.
Hot spiced wine? Yes. Neither of us minded lukewarm wine.
The third night she wore a sky-blue gown and a cloak as light as the clouds and crystal glass shoes that caught the light. Blue ribbons were braided in her golden hair. At quarter till midnight the orchestra struck up a light, fast waltz, and she and the prince kept dancing. More whispers scurried around the room, like mice running from a cat: is this it? She takes off the mask? He asks for her hand?
At three minutes shy of midnight she abruptly stopped dancing, gave a sharp cry and ran. The prince shouted for her to stop, please, stop, wait; but she kept running, stumbling, tripping over her gown. She ran past me like a frightened deer, stumbled, fell, stared hard at me, got up, and was out the door as the palace clocks struck midnight.
I picked up the crystal shoe she had left behind and stared after her. It can’t be. I left her at home, in the kitchen …
I jerked around. When he said my name the second time he took my hand, and pulled me close so he could whisper. For a moment I could hear nothing and no one but him. I shook my head; I left her at home. “Aidan—Your Highness—I thought I knew her but that would be impossible. The girl I knew—never mind—she’s at Colomendy. Here, she left her shoe.”
“If only you did know her; it would make finding her the easier.”
I stared at him, realizing as I did that I had let myself do something very stupid. “Find her?”
“Yes. I asked her to marry me. Now I have to publicly vow to hunt from one end of the kingdom to the other for the girl who can wear this shoe and who has its mate.”
Prince Aidan turned and nodded to the orchestra and after a burst from the trumpets he told everyone there what had happened. He had proposed, she had run, but he would find her. He would search the kingdom for the woman who could wear this shoe, this crystal glass slipper, and who kept its mate.
The crowd roared its applause; the cheers rang to the chandeliers. I slipped up the stairs and didn’t look back, cursing myself silently for being so unbelievably stupid as to not only to have fallen in love, but to have fallen in love with someone so unattainable. But when I closed the door to the palace guest room of which I was so proud, I didn’t lock the door, and I hated myself for it. I broke down, crying. I hated myself for that, too.
I took the noon train home, after putting Conor and Katrina on a train north. He had proposed; she had accepted; now he had to meet the rest of her family. Then she would come to Colomendy with her mother to negotiate the dowry and the marriage contract. I sat by a window, not seeing the countryside.
Three weeks later Prince Aidan came to Colomendy with the crystal glass slipper, in a red touring car, and an entourage of guards and servants in two green palace vans. It was dusk when I met them at the foot of the front steps. I met them alone; Conor and Katrina and her mother were to arrive next week. I had selected servants assembled in a half-circle. A goodly number were tall men, some fair and some dark, all handsome. The blue-grey dove sat on my shoulder.
That night, after the banquet and when everyone had been taken to various beds, and the morning test of the shoe arranged, a knock came at my door. I answered grumpily. I was tired and angry, and every ounce of baronial civility and obligation that I had, I had exhausted at dinner. I opened the door to the deaf-and-dumb servant from the palace. Behind him stood another man, his face hidden under the hood of a shadow-cloak. At a nod the servant disappeared, and I stepped back, and the man slipped inside, closing the door and locking it behind him.
He pushed back his hood. “Calum, please. We can work this out. There are ways …”
It was stupid. I was stupid. I knew I would hate myself for being so weak and so foolish.
Later, we did talk.
“Aidan, so how can we work this out?” I asked. I wanted him to remember that at least here, in this bed, we were Aidan and Cal.
He talked. Royalty were not free to do as they pleased; there were obligations to the kingdom. Without an uncontested heir, the civil wars could start again. The nearest relative, a third cousin, was weak and foolish; the next, an infant. He was the Crown Prince, the only child; he had to do this. He had to marry and produce a child, preferably two: an heir and a spare. But, kings often had queens and mistresses.
“You want me to be your mistress?” I said, and pulled a little away, uncertain as to whether I should be offended or not. Aidan stopped me from retreating further, catching me with his hand to pull me back.
“Well, lover, I guess,” he whispered smiling and leaned closer to smooth my hair. “I can’t marry you and make you Prince Consort when I’m King, no matter how much I want to. But this way we can make something of a life together, despite all the laws. Cal, you are the first man I’ve ever said such things to, wanted such things with. I’ve never come to another man’s bed before.”
Aidan was offering me half a loaf. I knew that it was either that or no loaf, no Aidan. I knew this was stupid and foolish. Love couldn’t be trusted.
But half a loaf is better than no loaf.
After breakfast the Colomendy female staff assembled in a line outside the library. Why Aidan thought the masked woman would be hiding here among my servants was a mystery to me—but then maybe, I thought, he had come to see me.
The third woman worked in the laundry, and reeked of soap. She had a slight limp and I was just about to tell her to go see the new greenwitch when the crystal slipper slipped on her stockinged foot. Everyone gasped and stared.
“My Lord,” my tall and fair stable manager whispered. “Look. She’s bleeding.”
She had cut off her toe to make her foot fit. I sacked her on the spot.
Three women later, the shoe fit again. I ordered her to take her stocking off. She had cut off her heel. I sacked her, too.
“Well. Lord Culver, are we done? Are there no more women to try on the shoe?” Aidan asked as he stood from where he had sat all morning, next to my grandfather’s great tome of a dictionary.
I was about to say no when my stable manager interrupted. “There’s one more: Elena. She’s in the kitchen, washing dishes. I saw her there when I came up.”
Before I could protest Aidan ordered her brought to the library.
When Elena came in, her hair braided and pulled back to keep it out of the sink, I knew, with a sudden certainty, who had stared at me before running away. She had to have had magical help. She glanced at me before sitting down in the chair facing Aidan and his shoe. A quick flash of triumph.
I hated her.
Of course the crystal slipper fit. Of course she had its mate in her apron pocket.
“I have found her—my wife-to-be,” Aidan said as he stood, taking Elena’s hand, and gesturing to the room. Every woman still in line, all the male staff around me, my stable manager, the prince’s entourage, burst into applause. I clapped, too, even though I felt like I was going to throw up.
So much for my half-loaf.
An hour before they left for the capital, after a dove was sent ahead with the news, Aidan took me aside, taking me back to the library. Holding my hand, he sat me down in an overstuffed chair in a reading alcove that overlooked the orchards.
“Cal. It’s going to be all right. I have to marry her, and get her with child, but you are my true love; you’ll be my mistress—my lover. Cal?”
“Aidan, that might have worked with any other woman but not Elena. She hates me, and—I’ve not been nice to her. She won’t share.”
There was a knock at the door, and the soft voice of one of his guards: “Your Highness. The Lady Elena has bathed and dressed. Her companion is ready as well. Your car is ready; another dove was sent to the King telling him you and the Lady are due to arrive soon.”
“I will meet everyone at the car in ten minutes,” Aidan shouted back through the door. Then he turned to me. “She’ll share; she’ll have her place and you’ll have yours. Here, in my heart, no one closer. Walk with me to the car.”
I so wanted to believe him, and I did until we walked down the steps. I recognized the companion, who waited by the prince’s car, the little old lady who lived by the river, her old maid. And I smelled her: first folk, a pureblood, a true silver. I clenched my teeth. That old hag had done the magic for Elena. I learned later the old bitch had been with Elena since her birth and with the earl’s family for at least three generations. She had been biding her time in that little house by the river. Now she stared at me, with a triumphant smirk. I sniffed again: she was very powerful and she wasn’t afraid of me.
I jerked around to face Elena. She was beautiful, as she had been when she came to Colomendy years ago. She glanced back quickly to find Aidan, who was at the door, conferring with his head guard and chauffeur, then turned back to me, getting as close as she could without touching.
“You monster. You lose,” she hissed, her breath warmth on my face.
“It’s not over; he’s mine. He wants me, not you,” I hissed back.
“He wants you?” She stared at me, incredulous, then glanced again at Aidan who was still talking to his servants. She laughed. “All the better then, eh?”
Then, in a flurry of commands and good-byes and thank yous (and one furtive squeeze of my hand) they were gone.
A month and a half later, on New Year’s Day, they were married.
I had to go the wedding. It was a huge affair, and not just for Prince Aidan and the Lady Elena. The King proclaimed the day of the wedding to be a double national holiday, New Year’s Day and a day of renewal for the country, a celebration of recovery from the plague. All the couples who had met at the birthday ball were invited to wed on the same day, including Katrina and Conor. They were happy for her and her incredible luck, and that she was a good person, after all.
We came three days early and had rooms in the palace. All the Yule decorations had been left up, the bright-colored streamers, the wreaths, the bejeweled trees, the yellow sun-return candles.
Someone knocked on my door the first night.
Aidan left before dawn the next morning, wrapped inside his shadow cloak. I closed the door softly behind him and tying my robe, went to the window, pulled back the curtains and stared out into the palace gardens, now just brown and grey from the winter.
I wanted to believe what Aidan had told me as we lay in bed, watching the darkness fade. It was going to be all right. Once she was pregnant, he wouldn’t have to share a bed with her. And if I gave Colomendy to Conor and Katrina, I could come live at the palace, as, as …
“What? As what, Aidan?”
“We’ll figure out a job—royal magic advisor, something … dove master—yes, that position has been vacant for years. I’ll send for you once she’s pregnant.”
I couldn’t convince him that golden, sweet, beautiful Elena and her companion little old lady meant me only harm, and could not be trusted, that the little old lady was more than she appeared to be. I watched as snow began falling, obscuring the dawn. The sky turned white, and the snow started falling faster, the flakes bigger. No. I would not let that spiteful, vengeful bitch have him.
But. I had promised Aidan I would be patient. No longer than three months, Cal. Once she’s pregnant, I won’t have to touch her again. I’ll have an apartment set up here for you …”
I endured the wedding for Conor and Katrina’s sake. I danced with no one except my new sister-in-law. When Aidan danced with Elena, to the applause of all assembled, she made sure to flash me a triumphant smile.
That she was going to touch him in all the places where I had …
Four weeks later: Imbolc. Feeling foolish, I prayed to the goddess, I lit her white candles at the shrine.
Aidan sent me a dove seven days after Imbolc: Elena is pregnant. Come to the palace. Be my dove master. I love you. I stared at the unrolled note, hand-written on vellum. I stroked the words and re-read them over and over, savoring the last three. Their sounds were warm jewels in my mouth.
That afternoon I sat in my study and wrote Conor a letter. I was too afraid to tell him face to face I was resigning the barony and leaving Colomendy all for the love of the prince. I barely looked up as I wrote, when the servant brought in the tea service and placed the cups and saucers, the cream pitcher, the sugar bowl, just so on the cherry wood table. I recognized the china pattern: pale red spider lilies. This had belonged to Conor’s mother. I poured the tea and then two sugars and cream and tried to find the right words to tell him what I was going to do, words that I was afraid would make him hate me. This was the one person who had always loved me. Didn’t I owe him the truth?
Yes, just not face to face.
So in my letter I told him—but not everything. I didn’t tell him I had silver blood. Nor did I tell him I had learned magic, from Mary Grace and from my shadow witch, and that I had power, that I occasionally practiced magic not for good but ill. I only told him I loved men; I loved Aidan.
I left the letter in their bedroom, his and Katrina’s, a smooth, cream-colored envelope on their pillow. They were out, paying yet one more overnight post-wedding visit.
I took a horse cab to the village, and the night train to the capital. I arrived late and after a cold and lonely walk from the train station, took a room at an inn near the palace. I asked to be awakened at first light.
I had never dressed so carefully as the next morning. Breakfast at the inn, and then to the palace and at last—at last—a life that would be worth living for me, not for Colomendy, not for my brother, or anyone, but for me.
I am nice when I am with him.
After the table was cleared, I asked for one last cup. A different waiter brought out the pot to freshen my tea, the cup I wanted to relish before walking to the palace.
Elena was the waiter. I stared at her as she carefully filled my cup and then stepped back to return my stare.
“What are you doing here?” I finally blurted out, feeling a sudden twist in my stomach.
“The innkeeper could not turn down the crown princess and future queen when she asked for a favor,” she said, gesturing with her hand toward the kitchen. “I knew you would come right away once you got that letter.”
I had stopped at the village temple before I had left for the capital. I had gone to the shrine of the god of love. I had left the requisite offerings of sweet bread and honey and bright stones. I placed the necessary coins in the urn.
What a fool I had been.
“What do you want?” I asked slowly, choosing my words with care. “You have the title; you carry his child. I’ll be in the shadows.”
She sat down at the table and smoothed out the dark red cloth and then looked at me. “I have him and you won’t, not even in the shadows. You have your magic; I have mine. The spells my fairy godmother has woven have wrapped themselves around him, each word, each sound, binding itself to him and him to me. The tighter the spells wrap, the more he forgets who you are and what you are to him, and the more he believes he loves me. Go back to your birds, Calum,” she said with a very self-satisfied smile.
“He loves me. He doesn’t love you,” I said even more slowly, afraid that if I spoke even a little faster I would somehow set fire to my anger and fear and that I would kill her, right then and there.
She shrugged. “Maybe so. But he’s mine, and I won’t share him and this magic is such that if you try, he’ll be torn apart. You’ve lost. Go home, Calum.”
She left me there, stopping once to look back with a pitying look, at the poor befuddled man who had lost everything, the man she had defeated. She stopped a second time and came back to the table and leaned down to whisper: “By the way, she’s the twelfth fairy, the curse-breaker.”
Elena told me the rest of the story then. Twelve fairies had been invited to the christening of the earl’s first-born daughter. Eleven gave her their blessing when the thirteenth uninvited fairy showed up to leave a curse. The twelfth—Elena’s godmother—waited and then did what she could to minimize the black magic.
“You were the curse, Calum.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
She laughed. “You never could’ve won. You hurt me, but it made me stronger and my godmother is so much stronger than you. Oh, yes, one more thing: that tea is going to make you so sick.”
Two days later, after throwing up, diarrhea and hot and cold sweats, I got to work. It took me the whole day to gather what I needed for an antidote to the spell on Aidan. I had to go to three apothecary shops, the last one a shady place on a narrow and dark street. The little old woman who ran the place was a witch; I could smell it on her.
“Tincture of dandelion, good sir, good for what ails you. Five golden sovereigns,” she said in her thin, reedy voice as she hand me the last bottle. Our fingertips brushed and she jumped back, almost dropping the tincture. “You have power, and a good deal of it. Who are you?”
I handed her the money, and left. I didn’t need her telling me, as my shadow witch had, that tincture of dandelion, when combined with certain other herbs, was lethal. The next morning, after spending half the night preparing the antidote, I left the inn, making sure I said several times and loudly that I was going home on the 9 o’clock train. I knew Elena had the place watched. I even got on the train, again loudly declaiming I was going home to Colomendy.
An hour later I was boarding a coach for the capital. The man who bought the ticket didn’t look like the man who had boarded the train. He had dark brown hair, not carrot-orange. His clothes were shabbier and older; he had a slight limp; he used a carved cane. When he got off the coach in the capital, he stayed at a different inn.
The next morning, a black-haired gardener reported for work at the back entrance of the palace gardens and orchards, near the dovecotes. I was working in the vegetable garden, turning over the soil for the early spring planting, when the Prince came down the rear stairs and over the bridge for his after-breakfast walk.
“You look familiar,” he said, looking at me with a quizzical expression on his face, as if he was trying to figure how he could possibly know a new gardener.
“Your Highness,” I whispered and stood and bowed. Just a step or two closer. Love god, you owe me this.
Aidan took three steps closer and I threw the cold dark liquid into his face. For a moment, he was so shocked he couldn’t speak and I grabbed him then, and covered his mouth before he could scream. I dragged him, struggling, back into the darkness behind the cooing of the birds, their sounds another shield between us and everything else. I kissed him, the last magic of my own spell to use. He froze then, his mouth open, and I watched as his anger dissipated, and her spell finally broke. The glowing vine, finally visible, began falling in bright chunks that hissed and faded into the grass. I watched as he remembered me, us, the nights, our bodies, and I kissed him again and held him until he stopped shaking.
“Cal, oh, Cal, I’m so sorry. What happened?”
“She had the old hag cast a spell on you to forget me, to forget us,” I said quickly as I slipped a pentacle on a silver chain over his head. “That’s to protect you, a ward against more spells. Never take it off.” I knew I had only a few minutes before the breaking of the spell would set off alarms and bring Elena and the little old lady and the palace guards. I had no doubt she would call the temple enforcers as well. I couldn’t fight her; I couldn’t fight them all. “Aidan, she won’t let us be together. Come away with me, before it’s too late,” I whispered and stroked his face, as I held him against me. I could feel his arousal against my own.
“Cal, I’ll be King. It’s my duty.”
“To be King is worth more than having your whole self, having real and lasting love?” I whispered, knowing that only now had I come to actually believe in love.
“Where we would go? What we would do?”
“The Far West, into the mountains. We’ll figure out what to do. Let her rule for her baby. Or this,” and I pulled another small vial out of my pocket and held it up. The dandelion-colored elixir inside sparked in the morning sun.
The first alarm sounded, as if somewhere a gong had been struck.
“What is it?” Aidan asked.
I knew at that moment, as I held the elixir, its golden darkness so beautiful in my hand that I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t kill his baby. I poured the elixir in the grass. It hissed and the grass died instantly. “Never mind, forget it. Come with me. People go through all their lives and miss having someone to love them, someone to love. We have that. Aidan. I love you. I know you love me.”
The gong sounded a second time. They would be here in minutes. “Aidan, I have to go. They’ll kill me.” I was crying.
For a long moment, he couldn’t speak, as if the words had somehow locked together in his throat, one sound on top of another. “Cal, I can’t just leave—how can we do this? I want to; I do so very much.”
“Like your father did,” I said quickly, glad I had rehearsed what I had to say. “After the plague broke, he toured the country, no retinue, no guards, just him. You could do the same—to meet your people. You just won’t come back. I can disguise us so that no one will follow us when we disappear.
Aidan nodded. “All right. Give me ten days. I’ll follow you—I’ll meet you—where?”
I told him: The Green Man, near the foot hills, on the King’s Road, as it comes out and up from the valley, before the road goes into the hills. Take the coach, they run all day long. Then, I ran, pausing only to knock the doors off the dovecotes, setting them all free in a rush of wings and feathers. Through the trees, to the wall and over, the shouts getting louder behind me, then gunshots. But when I hit the streets behind the palace, the black-haired gardener was gone; the brown-haired limping coach passenger was tapping his cane on the cobblestones.
That was ten days ago.
It’s late in the afternoon and I am sitting at a small table in the back of the common room in The Green Man. My shadow witch has gone; he had business in the hills. Sunlight, filtered through the old curtains, dapples the room in flecks of yellow and white. I am drinking tea. A fire burns in the hearth against the February cold.
I am on my third cup.
At least I had the coins to pay for the pot. The innkeeper brought it to me, not the waiter. No more tea, no more scones, no more anything. I had to be out that night. The bank draft I had given him: no funds. I had stared at him in shock.
She did it; I know she did. Conor wouldn’t cut me off, wouldn’t disgrace me—would he? I keep telling myself she did it but my heart hurts.
The last coach from the capital is due in a few minutes. I focus on that, not my heartache. I have been waiting here before dawn; the first coach from the capital arrived at 6 a.m. I waited for it, and every other coach scheduled to stop at The Green Man, at 8, and 10, and noon. 2 and 4, and now, 6 p.m. I’ve been listening all day: for the horses, their chuffing, the creak of leather and wood, the driver calling out the name of the inn. Each time I have gone to the door and watched as the various passengers got off, collected their trunks, their bags, and others boarded for the trip back.
No Aidan. No message, no dove, except the one perched on my shoulder.
But he said ten days.
I drain my cup. This time, he will be on it. This time I will have my happily ever after. I will see him step off and down, see his face when he sees me. I will help him gather his things, I will take him upstairs. I will kiss him, slowly at first, and he will kiss me back, and then, hard and quick, as we fall onto the bed.
The coach, I hear it coming.
I’m too terrified to get up. I hear the horses, the driver announcing The Green Man. I see those passengers who are going to the capital gathering their things. I see the innkeeper open the door and call for his waiters, now luggage handlers, to be quick. They rush out and in the grey twilight, I see them, gathering luggage, tossing it down for those arriving, up for those going. The horses snort.
I finally make myself stand. When I get to the door, I hear Aidan’s voice. I step out onto the packed earth of the courtyard, and I see him: that dark, dark hair, that golden-bronze skin. I watch him, afraid to speak.
He sees me. Oh, my gods, he sees me.