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Authors: Mercedes Lackey

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BOOK: Beauty and the Werewolf
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She had to laugh at that, and did. “Well, I suppose that this comes under that heading of ‘out of the mouths of fools and babes'—I didn't know, so I didn't assume anything. I was talking to them, and two of them found a way to talk back to me.”

He laughed with her, though it sounded rueful. “I hate to ask you this, but—would you find out what they can do? Obviously they aren't as simple as I thought they were.”

“Of course, what else have I to do?” she replied. “How many are there?”

“Only about a hundred and twenty,” he said.

“A—hundred and twenty?” That was—that was a truly insane number. Why would he need so many? She could only gape at him.

“More or less. I'm not exactly sure, really. You see, when things needed doing and weren't getting done, I just rested up for a few days and summoned some more.” He pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, then pushed his glasses back up again with one finger. “It wasn't all at once. I started doing it just after my father died because the servants kept leaving. Didn't like Eric being in charge, you see.”

Oh, hold back my surprise.
That was uncharitable, and she knew it, but she couldn't help it.

He shrugged, clearly unable to understand why he had been deserted. And there was some hurt there; she got the feeling he felt betrayed. “I suppose all they knew was that he
had
been a servant, and now he'd got above himself. They couldn't imagine why a fellow servant suddenly got put in charge of everything.”

I rather doubt that. You can't hide anything from the servants. Even if
no one outside the Manor knew he was your kin, it was certainly old news to them.
Still, what he said could have some truth to it. It was entirely possible that the rest of the servants had resented Eric all along. Elevating him to Steward in fact if not in name could have just brought all that to a head.

Unexpectedly, she found herself pitying the man. No wonder he had an attitude…if he'd been hidden by the Old Duke rather than acknowledged, and was snubbed by those who thought he was only a servant, but resented by those who were below him, well…

I can't say my temper would be sweet.

“Anyway, I'd learned and mastered the spell to summon these creatures. The Godmother approved of my doing so, and supervised me the first six months, so I just started replacing the servants who left. Then the servants that remained got unsettled by the invisible ones, and started leaving, too.” He looked as if his head was paining him, and she could certainly sympathize there. “I can't really blame them for being unsettled, but I would have thought they would at least give it a trial. It's not that hard to get used to them, and they can't hurt you. Well, look at you! You've not gotten all upset about being around them! Not even two days here, and you're already
talking
with them!”

She choked down what she was thinking—that he had to be particularly dense when it came to human nature to think that
she
was going to have a typical reaction to being surrounded by floating objects borne by things unseen. If such a thing had happened in her household, the servants would have left without collecting their possessions. And
they
were loyal to her!

“Anyway, I just kept summoning until there seemed to be enough of them to get everything done. So will you talk to them for me?” he repeated, looking at her with big, pleading eyes over the rim of his spectacles. “Please?”

She sighed. How could she possibly say no?

Besides, what else have I to do?

“All right,” she agreed.

Within an hour, she realized that she had taken on something far more time-consuming than she had thought, as she settled down with Verte and Sapphire to figure out what, exactly, she could do.

This is going to be a great deal more complicated than I thought possible. In fact…I am beginning to wish Eric was right.

Just to begin with, Sebastian had underestimated the number of creatures he had summoned.

Either that, or they are breeding. Or bringing friends and relations.

There were well over two hundred just associated with the house and grounds. She was ready to pull out every hair on her head in frustration. “
How
many, exactly?” she asked Verte, aghast.

“216”
came the prompt reply. A headache immediately started just behind her eyes. How would she ever come up with
names
for all of them? Not to mention organizing—

But no—she was making work for herself that she didn't need to.

Wait, they are already organized. Sebastian said he just conjured up one when things needed doing. And since the household is running smoothly with minor problems like making too much food, then they must have organized themselves.

That meant that there might only be a fraction that were more than Sebastian thought them to be. “How many of them are as clever as you and Sapphire and Thyme, Verte?” she asked.

“43. Most very stupid.”

The headache started to fade, as she heard that number. That was more manageable. “So, most of you are just what Sebastian thought—very simple creatures that just do a single job. Like, oh, the animated broom in the tale of ‘The Sorcerer's Lazy Apprentice.'”

Verte was smart enough to realize that was a question framed as a statement.
“Yes.”
Or rather
“Y,”
for Verte had also mastered abbreviations. Their own communication was getting easier with every passing hour.

“So the smart ones supervise the stupid ones?” she asked. That made sense; presumably they could see each other, and communicate, too.

“Yes.”

The headache faded to almost nothing. This was looking more promising. “I would imagine that all of the kitchen staff are smart ones,” she said, thinking out loud, but was pleased with Verte's confirmation of that. “And most of the household staff. All of Sebastian's, of course. What about Eric's staff?”

“All stupid but one. Smart one hides.”

Aha. “You mean, ‘hides,' as in keeps Eric from knowing it is smart?” she asked, thinking that if she were a smart invisible, that was what she would do. If he knew that they were intelligent, he'd begin ordering them to do a lot more.

“Yes.”

“So you need one smart one to keep Eric from interfering or complaining to Sebastian.” She nodded. “How many of you can write?”

“Five. Sapphire, Thyme, Verte, two more.”

Probably just as well. That was already a higher rate of literacy than among the Beauchampses' household, of whom only Housekeeper and Cook were able to read and write with any fluency. Another reason why Mathew wasn't going to become Butler anytime soon.

“Which one of you is the Steward?” she asked, which was the next logical question. In a household the size of her own, generally the Housekeeper was in charge, unless there was a Butler. But in
the enormous households of the nobility it was a loftier fellow, the Steward.

“?”

“Who is in charge of all of you?” she said, rephrasing her question.

“Eric.”

“And in charge of taking money and bringing things back?”

“Eric.”

And Eric was the only physical contact between Sebastian and the outside world. And now she began to think through the question she had raised with herself this morning:
Who is managing all of this?
There had to be someone who was making sure the estate was properly cared for—and at need the King's own Chancellor of the Exchequer would see to it, if for no other reason than to make sure the Kingdom got the taxes. You didn't get taxes out of a poorly managed estate.

Under normal cases, where there had been a Steward, the Steward would have dealt with the mines and the income from them, unless there was a separate factotum in the city that handled the commerce and merely kept the Ducal coffers filled, small as they were.

But Eric did not strike her as having that sort of education nor temperament.

So it made sense that there was someone, perhaps appointed by the King, that was in charge of those portions of the Ducal estate. That would be logical, actually, since income from the mines would be subject to a tax, and this way the King could be sure he got all of it. The only thing that the Steward would need to tend to, then, would be the household and the Home Farm. So Eric was functionally the Steward—which, after all, had more or less been what he was ever since the Old Duke died. She sucked on her lower lip for a bit. No real point in changing that. He couldn't
hurt
these invisible creatures. The stupid ones wouldn't respond to bullying, and the smart ones knew to avoid him.

“Is there a Home Farm?” she asked, realizing she had not asked that before.

“Yes.”

That explained where most of the food was from. Eric would oversee that, too, of course. “And are there more of you there?”

“No.”

Aha, so probably no one on the Home Farm knows or cares that the Duke is a werewolf. Probably just as well.
“Does Eric spend much time there?”

“No.”

If farming wasn't Eric's expertise—and from everything she knew about him, she was pretty sure that
she
knew more about farming than he did—then the job was probably in the hands of the farmer who lived there.

Hmm. Eric spends a great deal of time in the city. At least in the evenings…

“Does Eric spend his nights away from here?” she asked.

“Often.”

Well, she couldn't blame him. Being out here, so isolated, would be very difficult on someone who wasn't as introspective as Sebastian. The city was so close that he could ride out and back again in the morning with no harm done. Except on the nights of the full moon, he wasn't
needed
here. It wasn't as if Sebastian needed a minder.

The more she thought about it, the more she began to feel some sympathy for Eric. It was bad enough to be a noble bastard; the most you could hope for was the sort of “Gamekeeper” position that he'd gotten. Well, unless you were in the household of someone who had his own private army or the like, then you could manage to become something like a Seneschal or Warlord.

I suspect Warlord would have suited Eric a great deal better.

But then to have ended up with what was essentially the job of
legal Guardian and Steward without actually having the title and full authority?

It would grate on me. I don't know about Eric, but it would have turned me sour.
Probably the one thing that had kept Eric relatively civil was that Sebastian was so—likable.

Not that she was going to approve of how Eric had been bullying people, and trying to take advantage of any girl that looked vulnerable. But he had probably been brought up by some pretty rough people here—maybe the Duke's Huntsmen, or his Head Groom, or a Bodyguard if he'd had one. Men like that were not generally known for their manners.

A child learns what he lives with.

She resolved to try to be a little nicer to the man, and see what happened.
I can certainly use an ally with access to the city.

About then, her supper arrived in the invisible hands of Sapphire. She looked at the ribbon when the tray was set down. “I'd like you to hunt through the nursery and schoolroom and find some more slates and chalk,” she said. “I'd like the five of you who can write to each have your own.”

Since Sapphire didn't have the slate at the moment, the ribbon merely bobbed in place before heading out the door.

“All right, then,” she said, thinking aloud as she took her first bite. “I don't actually need to change anything in the way you are organized, obviously.”

“Good”
came the unprompted answer, which made her smile. So, Verte had some spirit and a mind of his—her—its own!

“I really don't need to know anything about any of you except for the intelligent ones.” She took another bite, and tried not to be distracted. Really, Thyme could do simply amazing things with food! “So, aside from the kitchen staff, you and Sapphire, and the one in charge of Eric's quarters, what do the rest of the smart ones do?”

“Stable: 7. Chickens, rabbits, pigeons: 2. Gardens: 10. Sebastian: 5.”

“And the rest?”

“Fix things.”

Aha. That made sense. They wouldn't be doing the same job all the time; things that needed mending could be anything from roof slates to a pipe.

“What Sebastian asked me to find out was whether any of you can play musical instruments,” she told Verte, finally. “But when you told me how many of you there were, I got rather distracted. So let me try the direct approach. How many of you are musicians?”

She really expected an answer like Sapphire's frequent
“Dont no,”
but to her delight, she got an answer.

“Nine. Seven good. Three very good.”

Well, that was more than enough! And with that slight problem solved, she could tackle the larger one.

“When can I talk to the rest of you?” There was a fundamental problem here. Why was Sebastian even a werewolf in the first place? She didn't want to approach Eric about this, so that left only one other source of information. Sebastian's servants.

One way or another she was going to get some answers.

7

SEBASTIAN HOWLED ALL NIGHT
.

The moment that the moon came up, she knew that it was above the horizon even though she couldn't see it, for the first howl echoed through the halls.

She nearly jumped out of her skin at the sound, and it woke a deep and primitive fear in her. It was all she could do not to run to the door and not only make sure it was locked, but to pile furniture in front of it. She shook so with fear that her teeth rattled, and it was nearly an hour before she could calm herself down.

And it kept going on and on—not like the previous night, where he had only howled once or twice. Was this how he usually was?

Now she knew why Eric preferred the gatehouse.

It was horrible, actually, not because he sounded as if he was ravening to get at her, but because once she calmed down a little, he sounded as if his heart was breaking. If a wolf could be said to have such a thing as a broken heart. It was so mournful that she found herself sinking into despair again; Sapphire's assertions to the contrary, she couldn't think how the invisible servant could
possibly
be
so sure that she wasn't going to be changed and join Sebastian in this prison forever.

So as the sobbing howls echoed up from below, she found herself crying with fear and loneliness, and this time actually wept herself into exhaustion, and from there, into sleep. The poor invisible tried to comfort her, but Bella was beyond comfort. It wasn't that Sebastian was
bad
company; it was that she simply could not bear the thought of spending the rest of her life out here, never seeing anyone but him, Eric and perhaps Granny—

Living a life of fear; fear that one day she might break loose and kill some innocent person, perhaps someone she loved. Fear that someone besides the Godmother and the King would find out about the little colony of werewolves and decide to take matters into his own hands.

She could see that happening, all too easily. After all, it was possible to overlook Sebastian; he was protected by the King, he was of noble blood, he had not harmed anyone until he bit her, and he was carefully watched and guarded. But she was not protected by the King, she was not protected by noble birth, and although she was incarcerated in the same Manor and under the same circumstances—well—

Eventually someone would find out. It could not be kept secret forever. A male werewolf and a female werewolf? Together? That all but shouted that there would likely be a family of the creatures before too long. No matter what their intentions were when human, when they changed, all that would change, too. And what sane person would want a breeding pair of monsters living within hunting distance of where he lived?

They would both be hunted down and killed. She knew it.

She dropped from weeping into nightmare, predictably an end
less series of nightmares in which she was being pursued by a hunting party led by Eric, crying out for her blood.

Nightmares in which she knew she had killed
someone;
she just didn't know who.

And nightmares in which she awoke out of a red haze of madness to find her father's dead eyes staring up at her, his throat torn out. That was the worst of them. Those were the ones from which she woke up weeping until she could scarcely breathe.

When the morning finally came, she felt exhausted, limp and disinterested in anything, even food, although she wrote out the menus for Thyme. The breakfast she forced herself to eat tasted like straw, and with an aching head, eventually she went back to bed, simply unable to face the day. Sapphire brought her snow packs to cool the ache in her head and soothe her sore eyes, and put hot bricks into the bed to keep the rest of her comfortable; she finally drifted into a dreamless sleep for a little.

Sapphire woke her again at noon, and although she was still filled with melancholy, the invisible managed to coax her out of bed, into clothing and down to dinner. It was a dress she would not have chosen for herself; a silvery lavender, loaded with lace, it was entirely impractical for working in. It actually did take Sapphire to get her into it, for it had several petticoats, a whisper-soft undergown embroidered with little lavender sprigs and the lavender overgown that was gathered in complicated fashion to show the undergown. This was the sort of thing that the twins would have killed to own and she normally could not be bothered about. But Sapphire picked it for her and laid it out, and she couldn't manage the effort to go to the closet and find something else.

Sebastian was already there at the table, although he had not yet begun eating. So, to her surprise, was Eric. They both looked up as she entered, and Sebastian frowned.

“You look terrible,” he said bluntly. “Are you all right?”

She wanted to snap at him, to point out that she was
still
a prisoner,
still
didn't know if she was going to turn into a raging beast, and on top of that, he had howled the entire night, keeping her up, giving her endless nightmares, and making her cry—

But she didn't. Partly because she was too tired, partly because it really would not do any good.
He
couldn't control what he did as the wolf, and pointing out what he had done would only make him feel needlessly bad. One person at this table was already in such despair she wasn't fit company. She didn't need to make it two.

“You need to get outside,” the Duke continued when she didn't respond. “I always feel better when I can get outside for a while. I'm sure you have clothing fit for being in the snow, and a good walk in the garden will perk you right up.”

He didn't look particularly well this morning, either. The wolf clearly hadn't slept at all, and the man was the worse for it. “I just didn't sleep well, is all,” she replied, and she knew that she sounded sullen even when she was saying the words.

Neither of the men commented on her tone, which was just as well; they just waited for the invisible attendant to serve them. It wore a yellow armband, which meant, according to her division of labor, that it was a household spirit rather than a kitchen spirit. Colors for household staff, herbs for kitchen. The leaves of trees for stable and other tenders of animals, food plants for gardeners. Not that the latter mattered at the moment, since she wasn't likely to encounter either. She just hoped that everything would be all right, and she would never have to become familiar with them.

Eric ate rapidly, but not noisily, and had better table manners than she had expected. “Well, now that the moon's turned and I don't need to patrol the forest, I'm off to get that riding mule,” Eric said abruptly, between enormous bites. “I'll be back in a day, three at
the most, depending on how fast I can find a decent one. Then I'll take you for some good, challenging rides. You'll be so tired you won't have a choice but to sleep. Since you don't like my way of frightening people out of the woods, maybe you can come up with something better and give me a hand with that.”

“That's a brilliant idea, Eric!” Sebastian beamed. “I know Isabella will feel better for getting out. Perhaps I can even join you.” His face took on a good bit more animation. “You know, maybe we can convince people that we're evil sorcerers, or ghosts, or something. That would frighten them… I might be able to make just our heads disappear! We could be headless horsemen!”

“Whatever, so long as they stay out.” Eric just shrugged, finished his dinner and pushed away from the table. “I'm off,” he announced. “I'll be back when I'm back,” and left with what Bella was beginning to wonder was characteristic abruptness.

Well, there was some improvement in that he didn't seem compelled to make her feel as if she was going to owe him some sexual favor for the acquisition of the mule.

“Here, this might cheer you up,” Sebastian said when he was gone, shoving a silk-wrapped square across the table to her. She opened it and frowned at the contents. Her own face was reflected up at her—and she did look horrible, pale, with dark patches under her eyes, and a crease of pain between her eyebrows. Even her hair looked lank. The lavender of her gown hid some of that, but not all. Even her blond hair looked colorless this morning. “A mirror?” she said. “I have plenty of mirrors—”

“This one is from Godmother Elena,” Sebastian said quickly, interrupting her, as if he feared she would toss the object into a dustbin otherwise. “This is what I promised you. She wants you to be able to be sure that the people you love are all right. It will show you your family. All you have to do is think of them.”

She stifled a gasp when she realized what he had just given her. A magic mirror? The Godmothers simply did not allow those out of their possession very often. This was very powerful magic indeed, even if it was only one-way. Quickly, she rewrapped it in the silk and held on to it possessively. “Thank you,” she said, and meant it.

“Thank the Godmother, not me,” he replied, and flushed a little. “Ah, what have you found out about the summoned servants? I see they are all wearing armbands now—which is an improvement over not knowing where they were, or even how many were in the room with you. Eric was actually pretty pleased, I can tell you. I think it really made him angry sometimes that there was no way for him to know where they were. He doesn't like it when he thinks he's being watched. He's been that way for as long as I've known him.”

“Who was watching him?” she asked curiously.

“I have no idea,” Sebastian told her, shrugging helplessly. “I just remember him shouting at the regular servants, when we had human ones, and even me when I was a boy.”

Well, that was curious.

She explained to him what she had found out; he nodded thoughtfully several times, but didn't interrupt her. “I honestly have no explanation for why there are more of them than I thought,” he said. “I thought I was being very specific…and I can't imagine where the sheer power to bring that many came from. I've been very careful to use only the power that
I
can raise in my spells and not steal it from anything else. I shouldn't have been able to do that.”

“Perhaps they brought themselves,” she suggested. “Or do they breed? Or could they bring more of their own kind?”

“I don't
think
so. Nothing like that is in any of my books.” He looked extremely puzzled, though in a way that suggested to her that he was eager to find out the truth of the matter.

“Your books said they were all quite mindless, too,” she pointed out.

“True.” He glanced at the yellow band floating nearby. “You aren't one of the smart ones, are you?” he asked it.

There was no response. “Well, at least I didn't insult it,” he chuckled. “I'll have to borrow your Verte and start asking it questions. The thing is, Isabella, you just can't bring those creatures across from the spirit realms without a lot of power, and that sort of thing leaves signs about. I'm rather good at seeing those signs, and I haven't seen any indication that there is a magician around here but me.”

“So what you are saying is they couldn't bring themselves, and they couldn't just invite others?”

“More or less.” He nodded, and adjusted his spectacles. “Although in magic, intent is very powerful. I got so annoyed that I had to keep summoning more and more of them to replace the human servants that kept leaving that it might have been that intent that gave my spells the power to call up more of the spirits than I would ordinarily have been able to bring. I do know that at one point, I was so angry I could hardly speak—I distinctly remember thinking, ‘For heaven's sake, let this finally be enough to get the job done!' That was right after the stable hands gave me notice, and there I was with a stable full of animals and no one but Eric who knew how to tend a horse.”

Her hands caressed the silk around the mirror. She was dying to take it to her room and see if it worked, but it would scarcely be polite to run off like a little child with a new toy. “I'm afraid I wouldn't know,” she replied, apologetically. “The only magic person I know is Granny, and she never did any in front of me. I mean, I
know
there is a lot of magic in the city. Every shop I go to has charms to bring customers and curses against thieves on it, but…I've never really seen anything at work, much less seen anyone doing it.”

He nodded. “And you won't generally. Really powerful magicians are rare, which means that most magicians have to be very clever and careful, learn how to do the most that they can with the least power. For that matter, the only magicians who are profligate with power are the bad ones, because they just steal it from people.”

“Why doesn't everyone?” she asked, curiously. “I mean, if no one is using the power—”

“Because it generally kills the people you take it from, or makes them sick,” he told her bluntly. “Besides that, the best magic is unobtrusive. It just makes life go a little smoother. There still are thieves and they still will take things, and they have curse-counters to keep from getting hit by the curses that the shops have. But mostly, they get caught. Or the shop gets a reputation for paying for such good curses that it would be foolish to steal from it. And life goes on.” He sighed, with a glance at the floating armband. “If I had my way, there would not be a single spirit here. It would all be ordinary servants, getting ordinary wages. But things didn't work out that way, and I've created something—well, let's not mince words here—unnatural.”

“Your servants aren't unhappy,” she ventured. “They seem to enjoy serving you, in fact.”

He smiled wryly, and a shadow crossed over his face as he pushed his spectacles up on his nose. “Yes, but did they have a choice in that?” he countered.

She shook her head. “I don't know what that means.”

“Did they ever have a choice in whether or not they enjoy serving me?” he repeated. “I tried to make my spell noncoercive so that it wouldn't
force
any of them here, but did it force them to enjoy their servitude once they were summoned?” He shrugged. “I don't know. I can't tell, and they can't tell me. If they even know. That
is the problem with magic—it often merely pretends to be doing what you want it to, when in fact it is doing what
it
wants to.”

BOOK: Beauty and the Werewolf
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