The Bonemender's Choice - Holly Bennett - E-Book

The Bonemender's Choice E-Book

Holly Bennett

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When Dominic's children are kidnapped by raiding pirates, Gabrielle and Feolan find themselves drawn into their most frightening adventure yet, a sea journey into unknown lands. The adventure takes a deadly turn when the Gray Veil, a plague that slowly chokes its victims, strikes the harbor town where the children have been taken. Gabrielle's healing powers are needed as never before, and in the end, it seems, she must choose: She can only save one, her husband or her niece.

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THEBONEMENDER’S CHOICE

HOLLY BENNETT

Copyright © 2007 Holly BennettAll rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproducedor transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, includingphotocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system nowknown or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher.Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in PublicationBennett, Holly, 1957-The bonemender’s choice / Holly Bennett.ISBN 978-1-55143-718-7I. Title.PS8603.E5595B653 2007 jC813’.6 C2007-902361-4Summary: In this third volume of the Bone mender series, Dominic’s children arekidnapped, but before they can be sold into slavery, a deadly plague strikes.First published in the United States 2007Library of Congress Control Number: 2007926215Orca Book Publishers gratefully acknowledges the support for its publishing programs pro-vided by the following agencies: the Government of Canada through the Book PublishingIndustry Development Program and the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Provinceof British Columbia through the BC Arts Council and the Book Publishing Tax Credit.Cover artwork, cover design, interior maps: Cathy MacleanTypesetting: Christine TollerAuthor photo: Wayne EardleyThe author is grateful for the support of the Canada Councilfor the Arts which enabled the research for this book.In Canada:PO Box 5626, Stn. BVictoria, BC CanadaV8R 6S4In the United States:PO Box 468Custer, WA USA98240-0468www.orcabook.comPrinted and bound in Canada.Printed on 100% PCW recycled paper.010  09  08  07   •   5   4   3   2   1   

For Kate and Wally, who have cheered me on this adventure frommy first hesitant steps, and provisioned me along the way witheverything from pirate books to my very own tiny Elvish muse.

Acknowledgments

With the kind permission of the great Canadian musician and songwriter Willie P. Bennett, I have given a couplet from his song “Brave Wings” to Féolan.

Note: These two maps are drawn to different scales.

CHAPTER ONE

GABRIELLE GAZED DOWN at the little village. It was just a handful of modest cabins, the farthest one a charred mess of caved-in blackened timbers. At least, she thought, the wind had been in their favor, and the fire had not spread to the other dwellings.

Jacques, Gabrielle’s guide, had already ridden ahead, eager to arrive with his help. She hoped she could help. Burns were not only terribly painful, they were among the most difficult injuries to recover from. If she could save the girls—and by the guide’s account, she was not certain she could—there was no telling what sort of life they would face.

As Cloud carried Gabrielle into the village, Jacques pointed her toward one of the little cabins. “Aline’s waiting,” he said. The door opened, and the woman ran to meet them, weepy with mingled hope and fear. Smudged still from the fire, hair mussed, she bore the hollow haunted look of new grief.

“Thank the gods you’re here. My poor girlies. My poor little girlies!”

She stopped in front of a small cabin—”My mother’s house,” she explained—and paused in the doorway.

“I hope I haven’t done wrong,” she burst out. “Old Anna, that’s my neighbor, she told me to coat ‘em up in butter—”

“Tell me you didn’t.” The words were out before Gabrielle could stop them, and she rued her own brusqueness. The popular folk remedy was harmless enough on superficial burns, but with the injuries these children must have, it would be disaster. The thought of trying to clean rancid goat-butter from open wounds filled her with despair. But the last thing this woman needed was a scolding.

“I didn’t,” Aline said. “I couldn’t bring meself to, on that raw terrible...” Again, sobs overtook her as she pushed open the door. “I just poured cool water over their little legs. It’s all I could manage.”

“You did exactly right!” said Gabrielle. “I couldn’t ask for better.” She laid a reassuring hand on the woman’s shoulder and felt it slump with relief, but she didn’t linger. With the opening of the door, her mind had veered mid-flight to the sounds coming from within. There was no screaming—not any longer—but rather a stream of hopeless gasping mews exhaled on every breath.

“They’re quieter now,” offered an older woman—Aline’s mother, no doubt—from within the single room of the house. “The pain must be easing.”

Gabrielle knew better. The pain would not be less—if anything, it would make itself felt more fiercely as the first shock wore off. The girls were simply exhausted, unable to summon more than this feeble expression of agony. She knelt beside the two small bodies that lay together, stomach-down, on a pallet in the middle of the house.

Gabrielle’s eyes traveled over their light brown braids, pale freckled faces turned to each other, thin stick arms. Their eyes, dull with pain, were a matching hazel brown. Identical twins, they were, not more than four or five years old. The burn searing across the backs of their legs was a mess of red flesh and black char, but she knew she must leave it for now. First things first. Shock, lung damage, infection—any one of these could kill children so young.

Their pulse ran faint and rapid, their breathing the same. The airways, though, seemed fairly clear—only an occasional cough or raspy breath. They’d kept low to the ground, had perhaps been spared the worst of the smoke. Gabrielle laid a hand first on one thin back, then on the other, as she closed her eyes and let the world fade away. In the deep quiet she created around herself, the healing light kindled in her hands, and she went with it, sinking her awareness deep inside her patients. Yes, their lungs were doing fine. But the children’s strength was nearly gone, seeping away with each panting breath. Deep in their chests, Gabrielle felt the twin hearts laboring too fast, too weak. The trauma, the pain, the terrible injury itself—it was too much for such small bodies to withstand. The girls wavered on the thin dividing line between life and death. Soon they would be beyond returning.

Gabrielle had been in that gray land herself. She knew it could be called a kindness to let the girls slip away, free of the pain and the fear. But she thought too of Aline’s stricken careworn face, of the girls’ father braving fire itself to save them. If she could bring them back, she would.

She sat up. “Aline? I need your help. Your mother’s too.”

The girls’ grandmother was at her side already. “Anything. And call me Colette.”

Gabrielle was checking the burn now. It was as deep and ugly as she had ever seen, eating in some places right through the skin into muscle tissue, but she saw cause for hope as well. The beam had fallen square across the girls’ thighs, managing against all likelihood to miss both knee and hip joints. That would be a blessing if they managed to pull through.

“You’ve done a good job at rinsing off the wound,” said Gabrielle, “but it needs to be cleaned more. You see here”—she pointed—”where a piece of nightgown has burned on, or here where the skin has made a blackened crust?” Her clear green eyes met Aline’s fearful brown ones, held them steady. “These need to be pulled away. It won’t be easy, and it will hurt your daughters. But if you can do this, then I can be working at the same time to strengthen them and help them to endure it, and they will have a better chance of living.

“I think,” she added quietly, “that this may be their only chance of living. Can you do it?”

Aline’s eyes flinched over the crusty surface of her daughters’ legs. As if in anticipation, one little girl gave a sudden cry and thrashed feebly.

Aline glanced at her mother, pulled her mouth into a determined line and nodded. The older woman spoke for both: “Whatever’s needed.” Gabrielle pulled out her tweezers and scalpels and showed them how she wanted it done. Then she rummaged in her bag once more for the two big jars she had brought along for this very purpose.

“What’s that, then?” asked Aline, a little suspiciously.

“This is honey,” replied Gabrielle. “A treatment I learned from the Elves. It fights infection and seals over the wound to protect it. Much, much better than butter. When you have cleaned things up as best you can—you won’t get everything, but try to clean away any charring bigger than, say, your fingernail—then I want you to drizzle the honey over the entire area. It will make a sticky mess, but I want every speck of that burn coated in honey.”

“All right but...” Aline took a deep breath. “No offense to you, Lady, but I thought this is what you came here for? Will you not treat their wounds?”

“I will be treating their wounds from the inside,” Gabrielle said. “I’m going to help their hearts to beat and their spirits to hold fast to the earth. It will look like I am asleep, but I will be working very hard to keep your girls alive. If you need me, call my name and I will awaken.”

She expected—and got—the white-eyed, half-frightened look of wonder that came over the two women’s faces. Until she had met the Elves, she was the only one she knew with this power to heal from within.

“What are your daughters’ names?” she asked gently. If she needed to call to a fading soul, a name might make all the difference.

It was the grandmother who answered. “This one here is Mira, the other Marie.”

Gabrielle had to smile. “All right then, we’ll start with...”

She looked at the two small faces, alike as two chicks. How could she choose? While I help one, the other could slip away, she thought, and that was beyond bearing. She slipped her fingers around each girl’s skinny wrist, counting first one heartbeat, then the other. The same.

In fact...She checked again. Yes, their heart rates were almost perfectly synchronized. She watched the girls’ backs rise and fall, matching each other breath for breath. She caught her own breath in sudden excitement.

They were twins. As close to one body as you could get in two people. She would work on them both as one. If they were going to live, they would live together.

Gabrielle sat herself by the girls’ heads and laid a hand on each neck.

“Give me time to strengthen them before you start—say a quarter-bell,” she told her helpers. “Then get started.” And she closed her eyes, summoned the light and allowed her mind to flow into two twin sisters named Mira and Marie.

CHAPTER TWO

EARS RINGING WITH the clash of his own hammer, sweat pouring down his bare chest from the fierce heat, Derkh was in a world to himself. He loved it when he got to make something that took real craftsmanship—something beyond the stirrups and horseshoes, plowshares and hoe ends that filled his days.

He had been working on this set of fine hunting knives—a short, back-curved skinning blade with a built-in gut hook and a long straight blade for killing and disjointing—for days now. Commissioned by a well-to-do sheep rancher for his son’s fourteenth birthday, it was a job that, done right, could bring in more. Derkh meant to do it right.

He plunged the skinning knife, still red with heat, into the bucket. Water hissed and steam billowed. It was a little drama he had reenacted countless times, one he always enjoyed.

Only when he pulled the blade out and squinted along its length did he notice the woman.

Not that she was easy to miss. He remembered her instantly— she had served him ale at a local inn, and he had marked how she held herself like a queen despite her load of mugs and the foam dribbling down her arms.

She stood now in the entranceway to the smithy, watching him coolly. Bronze hair, tawny skin, amber eyes—if a gold statue came to life, Derkh thought, it would have her coloring. Then she walked—no, prowled —across the yard toward him, and any resemblance to a statue vanished. She was like a great tawny cat, lithe and beautiful and dangerous.

“Help you?” Derkh armed sweat from his forehead and tried to look self-assured.

She smiled, showing perfect white teeth. “You are young one. Is good.”

“I’m sorry?” Her words were heavily accented, much stronger than his own telltale Greffaire overtones.

“Mistress say, deal with young one. Old smith is not much worth.”

Derkh winced. It was true his master’s work was becoming sloppy. His eyesight was not what it had been, nor his steadiness of hand. These days Derkh tried to steer Theo toward “minding the shop,” but he wasn’t always successful.

“What can I do for you?”

Again the smile. Gods, it was blinding.

“You can fix?” She held up a bridle, or rather a former bridle. Derkh took a look. Been left outside, by the looks of it. Half the bit and its hardware were rusted—that would have to be replaced. Couple of bridle rings too. The other side was fine though, and the leather just needed a good cleaning and oiling.

“Yes, of course,” he replied. “It won’t be that much cheaper than getting a whole new bridle though—I’ll need to replace about half the fittings.”

She shrugged. “They want to fix. Is not my say-so.”

“All right. I can have it done tomorrow afternoon.”

Business concluded, his self-consciousness returned. He felt naked, truth to tell, standing in front of this glory of a woman. It didn’t help that he was half-naked, stripped to the waist but for the leather apron and forearm cuffs that provided some protection from the sparks that showered from his hammer.

He risked a glance. She hadn’t moved.

“Is there something else?”

Those strange eyes pinned him. He had never seen eyes that color in all his life. They reminded him now of an eagle’s, fierce and golden. He felt, fleetingly, like a raptor’s prey before the strike.

“Your name.”

“What?”

“Your name,” she repeated impatiently. “What is name?”

“Oh, sorry. Derkh,” he mumbled. Eternal night, you sound like a half-wit, he scolded himself. Speak up.

“My name is Derkh,” he shouted. I am a half-wit, he despaired and gave up.

“I am Yolenka.” Yolenka flashed him another brilliant smile, a smile to bless the entire earth and send a flash of heat right down to his toes. “I am happy to be meeting you.”

YOLENKA RETURNED THE next afternoon to pick up the bridle, and later that week with a couple of saucepans needing new handles and again to pick them up. Each time she managed to arrive when Derkh was alone in the smithy, and each time she stayed longer than the time before. He began to get over his natural shyness and look forward to her visits. But it never occurred to him that she was actually interested in him until the night he found her waiting in front of the shop at the end of the day.

“You are finished with working?” she demanded.

“Yes,” he agreed, wishing he’d washed up more thoroughly. He always rinsed off and stuck his head under Theo’s pump before heading home, but only a proper bath could really wash away a day at the forge.

“I have night free also,” she announced, with a delighted flash of teeth. “You eat with me!”

“HELLO, MY BEAUTY.” Tristan’s extravagant kisses—one for Rosalie, one for the gentle swell of belly where their third baby was growing—would have fooled almost anyone. They didn’t fool her. His mind was somewhere else.

“What is it, Tris?”

Tristan, still wrapped about her middle, gave her a startled look and straightened. “Gods above, Rosie. I pray I never have some evil secret to keep from you. You are like a truth-sniffer from the old tales!”

Rosalie grinned, triumphant. “Well?”

“Well, I think I’d like to greet my wife and get all the way into my house before plunging into the news.”

He got a little way in—as far as the first salon—before the interrogation continued. This time he didn’t hide his concern.

“It’s these raiders, Rosie. There’s been another strike down the coast—that’s three in a month, after such a long time with next to none. And it wasn’t just a quick hit on the richest houses—they stripped Côte Noire village of every tool, coin and head of livestock to be found. I have a feeling we’re heading into another spate of trouble, like Dominic had a few years before the war.”

Tristan had fought in that brief war when Greffier, the country north of the Krylian Mountains, had invaded the Krylian Basin seven years before. That event had forever separated his life into “before the war” and “after the war.” Rosalie, though, had spent that year safely on the coast with her father. The war barely seemed real to her. Tarzine pirate raids, however, had been part of the backdrop of her childhood. Though the raiders had never been bold enough to raid the merchant warehouses at Blanchette, preferring the less rich but defenseless villages and towns nestled along the Verdeau coast, the threat of a pirate attack had been a favorite subject of conversation among the wealthy citizens who often sat at her father’s table.

At the time, her father’s assurances that the pirates would not harm her had been enough. Now Rosalie’s heart went out to the villagers who had endured the terror of the attack and who might have lost loved ones as well as their means of livelihood.

“There must be some way to defend against them, Tris,” she declared. “They cannot be allowed to waltz in here and help themselves whenever they wish!”

“My thoughts exactly, Rosie girl,” said Tristan.

Three times a mother, she thought fondly, and he still calls me his “girl.”

“We don’t have the troops to fortify the entire coastline,” he continued, “but there has to be some way...” His words were interrupted by the sound of small feet sprinting down the hallway, followed by a heavier tread and a reproving voice.

“Papa! I knew I heard you come home!” A small towheaded boy burst into the room and hurled himself into Tristan’s lap as though for protection. He was followed by a breathless nurse with a curly-haired toddler on her hip.

“Now, Romy, I told you to wait—I’m sorry m’Lord. He got away from me.”

“He’s good at that, isn’t he?” Tristan agreed with a grin. He ruffled the boy’s hair, and five-year-old Jerome—named after his paternal grandfather, killed in that same war—smiled fetchingly at his nurse, certain now of his refuge.

“That’s all right, Ginette. Leave the little monsters with us now.” Two-year-old Aurele had already squirmed and fidgeted half out of his nurse’s arms, and she set him down with relief.

“You shouldn’t do that, Tris,” Rosalie said, when the nurse had closed the door behind her.

“Do what?” Tristan raised innocent blue eyes to her, his leg never ceasing the violent mad-horse ride he was giving Romy, his voice pitched above the boy’s excited squeals.

“Undermine poor Ginette like that. She has her hands full enough as it is, without you countermanding her orders every time the children manage to escape her.”

CHAPTER THREE

ALINE TOOK A TENTATIVE hold of a black crust of nightgown with the tweezers and tugged. The charred cloth did not come free. She had to work at it as Gabrielle had shown her; and as the bonemender had predicted, water did not soften away the worst of the adhesions. The first time she used the knife was the worst. Mira’s sudden cry of pain, the weak writhing of her legs as she squirmed to get away, brought the tears stinging to Aline’s eyes. How could that woman have left her to do such a heartless job, and she a trained bonemender?

Her mother’s gnarly fingers grasped her arm. Blinking to clear her vision, Aline turned to her mother. Colette thrust her prominent chin toward Gabrielle. The beautiful young bonemender’s eyes were closed, her head bowed over the girls.

“She’s an odd one, daughter, and no mistake. But she’s the only bonemender we have, and the only chance we have. We have to trust her.”

“I know it. You don’t have to tell me.” Aline’s flare of anger brought her strength, and she made herself turn back to the grisly work. This time, she thought, the cutting brought a weaker reaction from her daughter, but whether because it pained her less or because her strength was on the wane she could not say.

Bit by bit, the larger pieces of crusted skin, cinder and cloth were freed, leaving behind weepy raw flesh. The next step— cleaning away the smaller crusts—would be a little easier, and without any word spoken the two women sat back on their heels with a sigh.

“I got the shakes,” Aline confessed, holding out a trembling hand. “I need a minute.” She got to her feet, dippered water from the iron kettle by the hearth, drank and splashed the remainder over her face.

When she returned, her mother pointed her chin once more at Gabrielle.

“Look at herself.”

The bonemender was...panting, almost. As if she’d been running, or...Aline didn’t know what.

“Is it a fit? What’s wrong with her?”

Her mother shook her head, turning down the corners of her heavy lips in an expression of bemused doubt.

“Blessed if I know. She’ll have to look after herself though. We need to finish up.”

Aline turned back to the hateful task. Like peeling a burnt potato, she thought, and was nearly sick as the image collided with that of the girls as babies, chubby and smiley and with hair like twin puffs of milkweed.

IT MUST BE because they were both outsiders, decided Derkh. That was why Yolenka had sought out his friendship.

And that was, indeed, part of it. Derkh would have been astonished to learn that Yolenka also found him attractive—his pale skin, coal-black hair and broad chest almost as exotic to her as her sinewy golden grace was to him. Besides, Derkh intrigued her. There was more to him, she sensed, than a shy hardworking blacksmith. As there was more to her than a barmaid.

Derkh had long ago given up feeling he needed to hide his Greffaire past, but he was not a big talker and once the bare bones of his story were told—how he was injured nearly to death during the invasion battle, how Gabrielle saved him and brought him home with her—Yolenka had to probe for every additional detail. One fact impressed her more than anything.

“You know Elves!” she all but accused. “In all my traveling, I never see these people. I must meet!”

She had none of the Maronnais caution about new people and experiences, Derkh noted. Nor did she suffer from his own tongue-tied awkwardness. Her story tumbled out in a long stream of talk, helped along by several glasses of a fiery liquid she called stitza.

“I am dancer,” she began. “Tarzine dancer from”—a grand wave, vaguely southward—”over the sea. I dance with great troupe, famous in my land. We come here, go to every country, kings’ courts and biggest market cities. Is good here. They never see such dancing. The gold and silver comes in, is easy travel, no warlords. Riko is very happy.”

“Riko?” Derkh ventured. Her man, he guessed gloomily.

“He is boss of our troupe. He run everything, say what we do.”

“What do you mean, warlords?”

Golden eyes glared at him. “Is my story. I tell it. After will be time for warlords.”

“Sorry.”

Yolenka continued. “Tour is big success. Then in city called Gaudette, king say, ‘You go up to mountains where soldier camp is. Poor soldiers is bored, need a change’.” She sniffed, offended still. “Like we are no more than a game of reneñas. Was insult. Still, Riko say we go—he wants king kept happy.”

She meant the sentry force at the mouth of the Skyway Pass, Derkh assumed. There was a permanent camp there now, maintained ever since the Greffaire invasion. But with each passing year, a new attack seemed less likely and the size of the force dwindled. He could well believe the men posted there in the empty lands bordering the mountains at the northern edge of La Maronne were bored.

“So. Off to soldier camp, and we dance on bare ground not even combed smooth. I am waiting by side for my last”—she paused, searching for the Krylaise words—”well, there is big jump at the end, and as I am leaving a soldier reaches out for my sleeve and I am off my middle.”

Balance, Derkh guessed she meant, but did not interrupt.

“And Gervil, my partner, is showing off to the woman he wants to take to his bed, and so when I am not just where I should be he is not noticing this, and he fails the catch and I fall.”

Golden eyes rested on Derkh’s face, eyes that knew bitterness but held not a shred of self-pity. Yolenka shrugged, a gesture that reminded Derkh of the flexing of great wings. A dancer. No wonder she was so...like she was.

“I know when I land I will not dance again,” she said simply. “My knee was...fftt.” The plosive wordless sound said it all. “I come here, to Loutre, to be mended. The troupe goes home to Tarzine lands. I stay.”

Derkh looked at Yolenka, confused. He had been drinking the stitza as slowly as he could, but the stuff went straight to his head, and he wondered if he had missed something. The story seemed to be suddenly finished, but he didn’t understand.

“But why did you stay? Why not go back home with your people? Your knee seems all right now.” He remembered the first time she walked into the yard, the lithe power in her stride.

The shoulders flexed again. “You have not seen our dance. Is not just—” She rippled her body, a movement both languid and derisive. “Is full of leaps and”—she rotated a finger to show a spin or twirl—”at full run. I cannot do. So what then? Riko owns my work. What use is to him, a dancer with no jumps? And I do not want to be washing costumes and cookpots for troupe. Me—I was first of dancers! So. If I cannot dance, I am better living here. I look at my gold, offer Riko half to be free from him. He is happy to take it.”

In the days that followed, Derkh and Yolenka learned more of each other’s homelands. Both were harsher lands than the Krylian Basin countries, but the resemblance ended there. To Derkh, raised under the absolute, strictly ordered rule of an all-powerful emperor, Yolenka’s portrait of a land where the king’s authority was secure only in a few densely populated and prosperous pockets, where lawless warlords fought over the outlying territories, was baffling.

But her description of the warlords reminded Derkh where he had heard the word “Tarzine” before.

“I thought the Tarzines were pirates,” he ventured. “At least I’ve heard of pirate raids on the coast here.”

Yolenka’s reaction was immediate and ferocious. “I know them. Turga’s men.” She spat, and not delicately. “Turga’s land is small—he is squeezed between two strong warlords. So he claim the sea as his territory. Is pirate of Tarzine lands as much as yours.”

GABRIELLE WAS BREATHING with the girls. Breath for breath, she matched their rhythm as her heart beat faster than any resting adult’s should. She had never done this before, but she knew it was working. She could not give them her air, but she could boost their faltering efforts with her own strength and steadiness.

She wished she could take on the pain for them too, give them even a brief respite. She felt the echoes of their anguish as she worked and sent what strength she could spare to help them endure the sharp tearing as the dead crusts were cut away. But she was already spread so thin, working on two at once. Keeping them alive was her first task, and after that only healing would bring true relief from pain.

She knew when the worst of the cleaning was over, as she knew when the honey oozed over the girls’ ravaged legs. She knew because she felt the changes in sensation as they gusted past her, but the knowledge registered in some deep part of her mind beyond words or thought. Her awareness was intent on keeping the tiny engines of the twins’ bodies running.

One bell, then two, passed. The small hearts beat more strongly, and Gabrielle eased away from them, letting her own heart and breath return to normal. She gulped deep delicious lungfuls of air, relieved to see the girls holding steady on their own. Now she could send all her energy into healing their wounds. Four small legs filled with healing light as her mind coaxed the healthy flesh bordering their wounds to grow faster than it ever had before.

CHAPTER FOUR

ELEVEN-YEAR-OLD MATTHIEU DesChênes sprinted along the narrow walkway that led from the mews to the scullery entrance of the castle and heaved open the oak door. Matthieu would have happily spent all day with the falconer had his tutor allowed it—there was a merlin in early moult, and a fierce new gyrfalcon being trained. But he had been given just a meagre dollop of free time at the end of the afternoon, and now he was late for dinner again and would be later still once he had cleaned up. Sneaking in the back way was only putting off the inevitable.

“Stars above, Master Matthieu, you look like something to be plucked and eaten, not a young lord heading to table.”

Too much to hope he might escape Corinne’s eye. He offered the head cook a sheepish grin, made a halfhearted effort to brush away some of the feathers and straw clinging to his jacket and dodged past her broad floury bulk through the scullery and into the servants’ hallway. From there it was a quick dash up the back stairs and through the hallway to his chamber.

Matthieu pitied his sister Madeleine, who had turned thirteen last fall. She was “a young lady now,” his mother said and had to eat with the adults at the royal table every evening. Matthieu was glad he still got to eat in the small dining room with his little brother Sylvain and their nurse. Even after his birthday, just a few weeks away, he’d have a whole year of freedom from formal dinners.

At least most nights he would. At every moon-change—new, half and full—the family dined together. It was “good training,” his mother said, and for those dinners he had to have clean clothes and proper manners.

Matthieu threw a fresh jacket over his questionable tunic—if it doesn’t show, it doesn’t count, he decided—and scrubbed his face and hands over the basin. A hasty rake-down of his brown hair and he was ready.

There were no guests, thank the gods. With a mumbled apology, Matthieu slipped into his seat, avoiding his mother’s disapproving stare. Grandma Solange had been speaking when he arrived—that meant his parents would have to let her continue instead of giving him a lecture. Another piece of good luck.

Solange smiled at Matthieu, giving no sign of irritation. “I’m glad you’re here, Matthieu. There is some news you will want to hear.”

Now her smile encompassed the entire family—her oldest son, Dominic, his wife Justine and their three children. “I have had a letter from Tristan and Rosalie. You know I have a rather big birthday coming up—my sixtieth—and while I am not so inclined to count birthdays anymore, Tristan insists it must be celebrated in style. They have invited us all to the coast for a visit and a birthday party. Gabrielle and Féolan too, if they can manage it.”

“Oh, they must come!” blurted out Madeleine, dropping all pretence of worldliness and jiggling in her seat with excitement along with her brothers. “Everybody must come!”

Queen Solange’s birthday was after FirstHarvest, Matthieu remembered. They would spend the best days of summer on the coast and have the biggest party ever. Well, except for Tristan’s wedding and his aunt Gabrielle’s. The double wedding party had become something of a family legend, but Matthieu had only been six at the time and had fallen asleep before it was over. This time, he vowed, he wouldn’t miss a single moment.

GABRIELLE WORKED THROUGH that first night until a faint gray light crept through the tiny window of the cabin. Only then, when she was sure that the girls would survive for a few hours without her, did she allow herself to return to the world. She felt blurry and disoriented, as always when she first came away from a long trance. Gazing around the dark room, she could just make out Aline, slumped under a blanket in a nearby chair. Sleep had claimed her, though she had sat awake as long as she could.