Five Years Later
“I didn’t call you a liar,” Amelie Fawe said flatly. “I said you were trying to cheat me. There’s a difference.”
Jareth, the village butcher, frowned at her while still holding two lamb chops in the air. They stood outside amidst the tables and booths of the morning market, with just a drizzle of rain coming down on their heads. But he was trying to overcharge her, and they both knew it.
Amelie sighed. It wasn’t that she blamed him—or that she was even given to haggling over a few cuts of meat. But she and her sister, Céline, were among the dwindling number of people in Shetâna who had coins to spend. Most of the other villagers had been offering Jareth turnips in exchange for soup bones. Amelie had a feeling he was full up on turnips.
She had no intention of threatening him, but out of habit, her hand settled on the hilt of the short sword at her left hip. In truth, she was much better with the dagger sheathed on her right, but the sword made a stronger impression—and occasionally, she needed one.
Her sister, Céline, was slender and pretty, and Céline brought in most of the household’s money. They were a fiercely independent team, and Amelie had long ago taken on the task of protecting them both. They needed no one but each other.
“All right,” Jareth said, not appearing the least bit intimidated by her hand dropping to the sword. “A halfpenny, then, but you’re robbing me blind.”
She smiled at him and handed him a coin. “Céline asked after that rheumatism in your shoulder. Should I bring more of the bay leaf oil?”
His expression softened, and he was about to answer when the sound of hoofbeats stopped him. Amelie followed his gaze to the main path leading into the village, and she saw four riders coming from the tree line.
Three of them wore black tabards over chain armor, soldiers of Sub–Prince Damek. With distaste, Amelie recognized the man in the lead, Captain Kochè, the prince’s chief bullyboy and tax collector.
“What do you suppose he wants?” Jareth said softly, putting the chops down and wiping his hands on his already bloody apron. “Taxes aren’t due for two months.”
All around them, villagers in threadbare clothing began slinking away as quickly as possible, but Amelie kept her eyes on the soldiers.
“Who’s that with them?” she asked, squinting.
A fourth person—much smaller—in a full cloak rode just behind Captain Kochè.
“I can’t tell,” Jareth answered.
Amelie waited for the riders to come all the way into the village; then her stomach tightened when they began to pull their horses up just outside the village perimeter at a small two–story building with a painted sign that read, LAVENDER AND THYME.
It was the apothecary shop that she owned with her sister.
It was also their home.
All four riders stopped directly in front of the shop, and Captain Kochè swung off onto the ground.
“Oh, seven hells,” Amelie gasped, forgetting about the lamb chops. “He’s going after Céline!”
The smaller cloaked figure dismounted as well.
Jareth grabbed a meat cleaver off the table. “You want me to come?”
But Amelie was already running down the muddy path. “No,” she called, “I’ve got it.”
She and Céline didn’t need anyone but each other.
Céline Fawe unfortunately had no appointments that day, so she’d planned to boil down some marshmallow leaves to make an astringent for insect bites and bee stings, as midspring had arrived, and there would soon be an abundance of insects. Humming, just a little off–key, she started the fire, hoping Amelie wouldn’t give Jareth too much trouble over the price of a few lamb chops. However, the two sisters didn’t have many extra pennies either . . . which was why she tended to send Amelie to the village market. It was cowardly and she knew it, but Amelie was much better at holding firm.
Céline also knew that even while just scraping by, she and Amelie lived better than almost anyone in Shetâna. But they also lived slightly apart from everyone else as well. Their little shop, with the bedroom upstairs, had been built just outside the village as if it didn’t quite belong with the other shops and dwellings. She and Amelie had always felt that way about themselves, too. Though their father had grown up in Shetâna, their mother, Eleanor, had come from someplace else, which she never spoke of. He’d been one of the village hunters, and apparently, after an extended hunt one year, he’d come back with a bride—and he’d promptly built her an apothecary’s shop and home for them to share. Eleanor could read and write, and she arrived with her own texts and scrolls on herb lore. She made certain both her girls were literate, although Céline had taken more willingly to scholarly pursuits.
As a result, both Céline and Amelie spoke differently than the villagers of Shetâna, saw the world a little differently, and sometimes used words no one else could understand. This set them apart.
Still, people came from nearby townships and villages just to see Céline, the seer, and have their futures read. Her reputation had spread as far north as the Vudrask River.
To count further blessings, their shop was warm, with a decent hearth, and although they had no front counter, the main room did boast several sturdy tables, and the walls were lined with shelves containing countless numbers of pots and jars.
Their little establishment looked the part.
The Lavender and Thyme apothecary shop was quite respectable—and Céline was proud of it.
Still humming, she was just about to head into the storage room for the marshmallow leaves when the sound of hoofbeats outside made her pause and half turn. The hoofbeats stopped, and then she heard booted feet landing with a squishing sound in the mud just in front of her shop. Who could that be?
Before she could wonder a moment longer, the door slammed open, and she froze in her tracks. Captain Kochè filled the open doorway with his wet tabard dripping water onto the floor. He looked at her, and his eyes moved up and down, just as they always did when he got within ten paces of her. He was revolting: tall but with a protruding belly, greasy hair, and a stringy mustache that stretched all the way down past his chin.
Céline, on the other hand, had learned from her mother that it was necessary for a successful seer to also look the part. She wore her mother’s red velvet gown a good deal of the time, and it fit her slight body snugly. Her mass of dark blond curls hung to the small of her back, and both she and Amelie had inherited their mother’s lavender eyes. Céline was well aware that in almost any circle, she’d be considered at least moderately pretty, but here in Shetâna, any girl with a halfway clean face and all of her teeth was viewed as a beauty.
It was rather tiresome.
The captain licked his lower lip, and Céline drew herself up to full height—which was still slightly shorter than the average woman.
“Can I help you?” she asked, pitching her tone to suggest she’d rather do anything than help him. She had no idea what he wanted. The shop’s taxes were paid in full, and Sub–Prince Damek never paid an ounce of attention to Shetâna unless someone owed him money or he’d decided to have someone punished for insolence. The state of the roads was criminal, but no one here complained to him anymore.
“No, my dear,” said a voice from behind the captain, “but you can assist me.”
Kochè stepped aside, and a bent figure hobbled inside past him. One gnarled hand came up to push back the hood of a cloak, revealing the wrinkled face of an ancient woman who smiled, exposing yellow teeth. She closed the door behind herself. “I am Madam Zelinka. You might know of me?”
Céline did. She’d heard the name from several of her more prominent patrons, but no one who paid for Céline’s services would ever be closely connected to Madam Zelinka. She was a marriage broker to the great noble houses, spinning a web of connections to increase wealth or bloodlines or to shore up weakening titles.
What could she possibly want here?
But Céline wasn’t about to insult her and bowed politely. “Yes, ma’am. I’m honored by your visit. May I bring you some hot tea?”
The old woman’s smile widened, chilling Céline to the bone. “What a dear girl you are,” Madam Zelinka said, moving to a chair and sitting down. “Tea would be most welcome.” She wore her white hair up in a simple bun on her head, and even through her wet cloak, she smelled like a dusty attic.
Captain Kochè remained standing to one side of the doorway, still dripping on the floor, with his gaze locked on Céline’s waist. She tried to ignore him as she moved toward the teapot.
But before anyone else could say a word, the door burst open again, and Amelie came running inside, panting, with one hand on the hilt of her dagger.
“Céline!” she cried and then calmed somewhat at the sight of her sister by the hearth.
A guard from outside appeared behind her, seeming surprised and looking to his captain for orders, but Kochè waved him away and the guard simply closed the door.
Turning to the captain, Amelie spat out, “What are you doing in here? ”
Céline winced inwardly. Amelie and Kochè hated each other, and neither bothered to hide it. In fact, if the shop hadn’t been the most lucrative tax source in Shetâna, Céline might have worried for her sister’s safety.
The thing was, Kochè was the type who liked his women to look and behave . . . well, like women. At seventeen, Amelie was even shorter than Céline. But where Céline was slight, Amelie’s build showed a hint of her strength and muscle. She insisted upon wearing breeches, a faded blue shirt, a short canvas jacket, and boots. She shared Céline’s lavender eyes and small nose, but she’d inherited their father’s straight black hair, which she’d cropped into a bob that hung just below her jaw.
When she and Céline had first been orphaned, they’d seemed easy targets for wandering soldiers, but Amelie had quickly proven that assumption wrong. She relied on speed and the element of surprise, and she could cut a man open in a matter of seconds with that dagger on her hip.
“He is doing nothing here,” Madam Zelinka answered, sounding a tad less friendly now. “My business is with your sister.”
Céline hurried over to stand between them. “Amelie, this is a marriage broker. She may have a task for me.”
Amelie looked quickly between Céline and the woman. Although Amelie was overprotective and hot–tempered, she was certainly no fool, and this visit smelled of money.
“She’d like some tea,” Céline went on. “Could you please get it for her?”
Their eyes locked, and then Amelie nodded once, heading for the hearth. Kochè was not making any threats. In fact, as yet, he hadn’t said a word.
When it came to business, Céline always took the lead. She moved to the table and sat across from Madam Zelinka. “How is it that I might help you?”
The old woman’s smile returned—along with her exposed yellow teeth—and she pulled three silver coins from inside the damp cloak. “Just a minor task, a trifle really.”
The size of the payment hardly suggested a trifle, but Céline remained silent, waiting politely. She’d learned a long time ago that people tended to share more if they were left in silence for a while. Amelie set a steaming mug of the tea on the table.
“You’ll have another visitor late this afternoon,” Madam Zelinka continued, “a young noblewoman . . . a minor noblewoman, who will ask you about a pending marriage. She’s heard of your reputation in these matters, and she will not consent to the betrothal until she’s spoken with you and you have read her future. All you need do is assure her that the marriage will be a happy one and that she may accept without reservations.”
“What is the girl’s name?” Céline asked. “Just so I know who to expect.”
“Rhiannon, eldest daughter of the Baron Driesè.”
Something about that name was familiar . . . something from years past, but Céline couldn’t remember what.
Zelinka pushed the silver coins across the table. “Can you manage this, my dear?”
The situation was blissfully clear to Céline. The old woman worked for the prospective groom’s father—or perhaps the groom himself—and she wanted assurances that the wedding would take place, thus ensuring her own fat fee.
But if Kochè was escorting Zelinka, it meant the situation was also somehow connected to Sub–Prince Damek, so even if she’d wanted to, Céline was in no position to refuse.
“Yes, I can manage easily,” she answered.
“Be sure you do,” Kochè said in a low tone, speaking for the first time. “Be sure the girl says yes.”
Céline blinked and glanced at Amelie. What interest could he have here? He was far from noble, so nothing that Madam Zelinka arranged could possibly be connected to him.
“Of course she will,” the old woman said, standing up and hobbling toward the door. She hadn’t touched her tea. “Good–bye, my dear. What a pleasant visit this has been.”
Captain Kochè opened the door for her, but he kept his eyes on Céline, moving his gaze from her waist to her breasts. Now that his hair had dried partially, it looked even greasier. She fought to hold back a shudder.
Then, without another word, both Kochè and the old woman left as quickly as they’d come.
Céline shook her head, wishing she knew even a little more. “What do you suppose this is all about?”
Amelie shrugged. “At least he’s gone.” She walked over and looked down at the silver coins. “And that is easy money.”
Yes, Céline had to agree. It was easy money.
Lieutenant Jaromir hid behind the tree line, peering toward the edge of the village. Though he’d grown up in the wet world of Droevinka, even he was becoming uncomfortable in the cold spring rain. His chain armor was dripping, and his tan tabard was soaked though.
“What are they doing in there?” he asked quietly. “They didn’t even go all the way into the village.”
He was about to say more, but when he looked at his companion, the words died on his lips. Sub–Prince Anton, his lord and closest friend, had gone pale.
“It’s an apothecary’s shop,” Anton whispered. “They’ve gone to the seer who lives there.”
“A seer?” Jaromir asked. “In that rat hole of a village? Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure. I’ve been inside the place.”
Jaromir peered through the trees again at the two–story shop, having a hard time picturing his prince inside such a dwelling. Two soldiers in black tabards waited outside the front door with the horses, while Captain Kochè and the old marriage broker went inside.
“Why would Damek send Zelinka here?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Anton answered. “The last I heard, my brother’s marriage was a sealed bargain.” He shivered.
At least he was wearing a cloak, but Jaromir didn’t like the thought of him being out for so long in this rain. At the age of twenty–three, Anton was already a good leader, but he was slight of build, and his health was not strong. His brown hair only made his skin look whiter, and the circles under his eyes didn’t help.
“You think Rhiannon’s having second thoughts about marrying your brother? ” Jaromir asked.
“I don’t know,” Anton said again.
Jaromir wanted to sigh. The problem here was that they didn’t know much at all, and the situation was growing dire. He’d never been terribly interested in the arena of politics, but he did care about the people of this country, and he cared even more about Anton. Great changes were coming, and if Jaromir had any say in the matter, Anton would not only survive but also come out on top.
Droevinka had no hereditary king. Instead, it was a land of many princes, each one heading his own noble house and overseeing multiple fiefdoms. But . . . they all served a single grand prince, and a new grand prince was elected every nine years by the gathered heads of the noble houses. This system had served the country well for more than a hundred years. At present, Prince Rodêk of the House of Äntes was in rule.
But within two years, a new grand prince would be voted in.
Anton and Damek were sons of the House of Pählen. Their father, Prince Lieven, controlled a large province in the western region. He’d given Damek, who was the elder brother, an aging castle and seven large fiefs to oversee. He’d given Anton a better castle but six smaller fiefs. These “assignments” were a chance for each young man to prove himself. However, Prince Lieven had been aging rapidly in recent days, and it was rumored he would soon be naming a successor as leader of the House of Pählen. It was his right to choose between his sons, and should a victor be chosen within the next two years, then he would have the right to place his successor’s name on the voting list for the position of grand prince.
As a result, Damek had been taxing his peasants near to death in order to increase the size of his military forces—which he viewed as a show of strength . . . but only because it was. Then two months ago, Anton had learned that Damek was negotiating to marry the daughter of a minor noble with an enormous dowry, large enough to dramatically shift the balance of power. This had come as a blow.
And yet, no wedding had taken place, nor had a date been announced.
So now Jaromir and Anton had been reduced to either depending upon spies or doing the spying themselves in order to learn the outcome, and they’d trailed Kochè and Damek’s crone of a marriage broker this morning.
“Poor Rhiannon,” Anton whispered. “Her father’s trying to trade her off again.”
Jaromir glanced at him in surprise. Why should Anton pity the daughter of a baron who controlled a ridiculous number of silver mines? Then again, Jaromir himself pitied anyone facing the prospect of marriage to Damek.
Anton looked up at the sky through the overhead ceiling of tree branches, as if trying to gauge the time. Then he turned to peer around the trunk of a tree behind him to see four of their own guards in tan tabards waiting with their horses a little deeper inside the forest.
“I should start back for Sèone,” he said. “Both of us shouldn’t be away from the castle for another night.”
Jaromir didn’t speak for a moment. They’d both been worried enough leaving their people for even one night, as in addition to Damek’s machinations they had another problem rearing an uncomfortably ugly head back home.
“You want me to stay here?” he asked.
“Yes. I’ll leave Corporal Pavel with you, but do what you can to find out what’s happening, and . . .” Anton paused as if uncertain what he wanted to say. “Don’t let anything happen to the seer. Keep her from harm if you can.”
“Yes, she’s . . . Just don’t let anything happen to her.”
This unexpected order left Jaromir in a state of confusion, but he nodded. “I won’t.
As Amelie had gone back out to finish her errands, Céline was alone that afternoon when a soft knock sounded on the door. She tensed, knowing that she was about to earn her silver coins. Going to the door, she opened it.
A small contingent of men on horseback waited a respectful distance away, and a lone young woman stood on the doorstep. She was lovely, with smooth red hair, wearing a dove gray cloak and matching gloves. Women such as her were seldom seen in Shetâna.
However, she appeared to be in her midtwenties, which surprised Céline. Noblemen tended to use their daughters like pawns on a chessboard, and that nearly always meant marrying them off by the age of sixteen.
“I . . . ,” she began. “I am the Lady Rhiannon. I was hoping you would see me. I can pay you well.
Céline then realized that the young woman had no idea that she’d already been tipped off about the visit, so she stood aside and held the door open. “Of course. Please come in.”
Rhiannon’s tense face melted into such relief that Céline couldn’t help asking her, “How did you learn of me?”
“A friend told me. Some years ago.” But as Rhiannon said this, her tone held an underlying hint of bitterness. She came inside the shop and took off her cloak. Beneath it, she wore a sky blue gown of brushed wool.
Céline had never seen anything so new or so fine.
“You wish me to read your future?” she asked.
The fire crackled, filling the shop with a faint scent of smoke, and Rhiannon looked around at all the pots and jars on the walls. “Yes,” she answered. “My father wishes me to marry.”
“And you do not?”
“No, it’s not . . .” Rhiannon trailed off and then said, “I have concerns. He is above my station.”
Above her station? An alarm bell sounded inside Céline’s mind before she managed to ask, “Who is the groom?”
Rhiannon turned and looked her straight in the face. “Sub–Prince Damek.”
“Prince Damek?” Céline couldn’t help gasping. A son of the House of Pählen would not marry the daughter of a minor baron. He would marry only the daughter of another great house.
But her open shock did not offend Rhiannon. Rather, the young woman stepped closer. “You see? I fear he only wants me for my dowry, and if that is the case . . . what will become of me once we are married? Will I be valued? Will I be happy?”
The first wave of guilt washed through Céline, but she remembered the hard look on Kochè’s face when he’d said, Be sure you do. Be sure the girl says yes.
Was she really about to tell some unfortunate young woman that she’d be happy in a loveless marriage to a tyrant? Céline was gifted at telling people what they needed to hear, and at the same time, she’d tried to convince herself that she gave good, sound advice.
Left to her own devices, she’d have told this Lady Rhiannon to run for the hills.
But . . . the repercussions of doing that were not something she wanted to face. Sub–Prince Damek had sent Kochè to make sure she understood that Rhiannon’s answer had better be yes.
“Please sit,” Céline said. “Did you bring something personal of his?”
Rhiannon seemed eager to begin and held out a leather glove. “He often wears these, and he loaned me one. Will it do?”
Both women sat at the table. Céline took the glove in one hand and gently grasped Rhiannon’s fingers with the other.
“Just sit for a moment and let me feel your spirit,” Céline said. “It will guide me to your future.”
“Thank you for doing this.”
With a fresh stab of guilt, Céline closed her eyes. She didn’t want to do this, so she prolonged her state of falling into a trance. Holding Rhiannon’s fingers, she felt a strong energy. Rhiannon was possessed of a resilient spirit. Céline could feel it, as she often felt the spirit of those who came to patronize her shop.
But within seconds, she knew she would need to begin to sway and to pretend small jolts were passing through her body, and then she would be forced to open her eyes and probably ruin the rest of a young woman’s life.
Then suddenly . . . without any warning at all, Céline felt a real jolt as if her body was being swept along a tunnel of mist, and she forgot everything but the sensation of speeding along through the mist all around her as it swirled in tones of gray and white.
The mist vanished and an image flashed before her. She saw a large bedroom with chipped stone walls.
A huge four–poster bed stood in the middle, and Rhiannon was sitting beside the bed in a chair, staring into space with a hollow look in her eyes. Just the sight of her filled Céline with alarm, as if Rhiannon had given in to despair.
The door creaked and opened, and Captain Kochè stood on the other side.
Rhiannon looked over at him absently. “Yes? Did you need something?” The tone of her voice suggested that whatever he needed didn’t matter.
But he came inside and closed the door, and she stood up in mild alarm. “Captain, you should not be in here. This is my private bedchamber.”
He crossed the room quickly and grasped the back of her neck, pulling her up against himself and pressing his mouth down onto hers. She tried to struggle but seemed halfway lost in shock.
Almost as if following a cue in a play, Sub–Prince Damek walked in with three of his own guards. His hair was long and dark. His skin was pale to the point of being white, and he wore a dark blue embroidered tunic.
He stopped cold at the sight of Kochè kissing Rhiannon, and then he said, “Harlot.”
Kochè let her go, and she gasped. “No . . . my lord. I did not—”
“I have eyes!” Damek shouted. “You are an adulteress. I’ve suspected for weeks now.” He moved closer. “The risk of placing a bastard as head of a noble house is treason.” He turned back to his guards. “She is guilty. Have her strangled. Now.”
As Céline watched this, she wanted to scream. She wanted to call for Amelie, but she had no voice. She was just an observer.
Rhiannon’s eyes widened, and she tried to dodge around Kochè and make a run for the door. But one of the guards grabbed her easily and forced her to her knees. Another one wrapped a piece of rope around her neck and jerked it tight with both hands. She choked and struggled with a wild expression on her face, but he twisted the rope tighter and cut off her breath.
Damek looked on with a pleased smile.
Céline finally cried out, “No!”
The stone room vanished, and Rhiannon was sitting across the table from her, staring. Céline pulled her hand away and dropped the glove.
“What?” Rhiannon asked in alarm. “What did you see?”
Céline was still so lost, so horrified by what she’d just experienced, that all her defenses were gone. “He has you strangled,” she blurted out. “He has you falsely accused of adultery and strangled right there in your bedroom. . . . I think it was only weeks into your marriage.”
Rhiannon stood up. “Strangled?”
The women looked at each other, and Céline tried to force herself into a calmer state. What had just happened? Had she just seen someone’s future, like her mother had done? It had all been so real.
But then the actual scene began to make sense. Damek wanted Rhiannon’s dowry—enough to marry her. Yet before having children, he’d want a bride from one of the great houses. For that, he’d need to be free.
“You cannot marry him,” Céline said.
Rhiannon closed her eyes briefly. “I will have failed my father again.”
Céline had no idea what that meant, but she didn’t care. Rhiannon had been worried about being trapped in a loveless marriage, and Céline had been fully prepared to send her there, but this was something else. “If you marry him, he’ll have you murdered.”
Rhiannon opened her eyes and nodded. “I will send my answer this afternoon. I will tell him no.” Digging into a pouch at her waist, she took out two coins. Feeling sick, Céline wanted to refuse them but knew that would appear strange.
“I suppose I should thank you,” Rhiannon said, her voice shaking. “But I have no idea what will become of me now.”
At least you’ll be alive, Céline thought.
Rhiannon put on her cloak and went to the door. With her back turned, she said, “I do thank you. I suppose I knew. I always knew, or I wouldn’t have come here.”
She slipped out the door, leaving Céline reeling with her own thoughts.
Two questions rushed around inside her mind. First, was it possible that she might be a true seer? And second, what would Sub–Prince Damek do when he received Rhiannon’s answer?