Authors: Mercedes Lackey
“You must be Isabella Beauchamps,” the young man continued,
turning toward her. “You have a reputation for being very intelligent, so I suppose you have already figured out why you were taken away and brought here.”
“Taken away, yes,” she replied, and shivered despite the warmth of the room. “I was attacked and bitten last night by what must have been a werewolf. I am being isolated until it is determined whether or not I was infected. Though why I was brought hereâI don't know. I don't even know where âhere' is.”
“Well, that's easy to tell,” the young man told her, looking as if it was anything but easy to
His expression was profoundly unhappy. “This is Redbuck Manor, I'm Duke Sebastian, and you are here because I am afraid that I am the werewolf that bit you.”
BELLA STARED AT HIM, AT FIRST SUSPECTING HIM OF A
very bad joke. He, in his turn, watched her with a wary expression in his grayish-green eyes. His dark hair was a trifle long, but he carried himself well. After a moment, it was clear that this was not a joke, that he was entirely serious. And he seemed entirely sane.
Indignation bubbled up inside her.
He stands in front of me and tells me that he is the one who bit me. Of all the nerve!
Her ankle throbbed as she stood there and stared at him, waiting for him to say something else, because she was completely unable to speak right now. More than anything at this moment, her mind was a welter of emotions.
Her initial impulse was to seize something and beat him senseless. Fury was her first emotion, fury at him for attacking her in the first place, fury that he was still free to run about his woods when the King obviously
what he was and that he was a danger to others, fury at the King for sending her hereâ
âfury at the situation itself.
I will not lose my temper,
she told herself, clenching both hands at
her sides until her nails bit into her palms.
It won't do any good.
Bella had had plenty of practice in keeping her temper, given that Genevieve was incapable of controlling her own, and she employed every bit of that willpower now.
“Erm,” the young man said, diffidently, “I'm horribly, horribly sorry. This should never have happened. I'm supposed to be locked up over the full moon, and I've never gotten out before. I don't know what went wrong. Eric has strict instructionsâ¦ I was in the special chamber long before sunset, and I remember hearing the bars drop into place. And then the moon came up, and the change started as it always does, and well, the next thing
knew, I was waking up, lying in the kennels, outside, where I wasn't supposed to be.” He pushed his spectacles up on his nose, nervously. “I don't know if you believe all this, but I swear it's all true. And I didn't know I had bitten anyone until the King's messenger arrived an hour ago to say you were being brought here and to tell me what to expect.”
Bella took a deep, deep breath. “My ankle hurts where you bit me,” she replied forcefully and resentfully. “I was abducted from my bedroom by the King's men. I haven't even had a glass of water, much less breakfast, I am hungry and thirsty andâ”
your pardon!” the young man said, looking even more hangdog. “That last, at least, I can do something about. Please, follow me. I'll try to explain more when you are feeling comfortable.”
When she hesitated, looking at the trunks, he added, “The servants will take care of those. Please, if you have gone this long without food or drinkâ¦” His voice trailed off, as if he had no good idea of what to say next. They stared at one another for a long and uncomfortable time.
A more charitableâor perhaps impartialâpart of her noted that he didn't look much like her mental image of a Duke. His hair, a sort of streaky brown, was a bit shaggy and unkempt. She really never
together. Spectacles were something scholars wore. His brown tunic, shirt and trousers, while certainly quite good, were not anything specialâno gold, no braid, not even any trimming. He was someone she would have taken for a scholar, actually.
His features were even, but not especially handsome, and in this Kingdom at least, most of the nobles were dazzlingly good-looking. There was none of the unconscious arrogance in his expression that she was accustomed to see in the few nobles she had met. All of the girls that the twins associated with, for instanceâone and all, they carried with them an air that said,
If I choose to order you, you will obey.
This young man's expression said,
Please don't stab me with a fork, especially a silver one.
“Iâ¦I can't help but hope that if I ply you with the pleasures of my table, you will feel a little more kindly toward me. Or at least, if you don't hate me too much right from the start, you will be more willing to listen to me. I do apologize very well. Lots of practice.”
She considered this. The situation was not going to change, no matter what happened in the next few hours. And without knowing
involved here, there was no way that she
And her ankle hurt, and she was, frankly, starving. She raised her chin. “I doubt very much that the so-called pleasures of your table will sway me in any way, Duke Sebastian, but if someone doesn't tell me exactly what is going on here in the next half hour, I will see to it that your scale model of a duchy becomes annexed by His Majesty and given to my father as a garden.” Just how she was supposed to accomplish this, when she was being held far from
she hadn't a clue, but he looked as if he believed her.
“Fair enough,” he said. “Please follow me.”
He led her through the doors he had just entered the room by,
which led to a very long passageway. More fortifications; this was plain, heavy stone with no other entrance than the one they had used, nor exit but the one at the end of it. There were slits in the walls and holes in the ceilingâanother murder-hole, in which invaders could be trapped while the defenders shot at them through the slits and poured boiling liquid or molten lead on them through the ceiling. It was lit by torches in hand-shaped sconces. Rather unnerving.
He led her through the door at the end, and once again, it was as if these rooms belonged to an entirely different building.
To the rightâwell, she didn't get a chance to look at it, because it was the room to the left that caught her attention immediately.
The two rooms must have stretched on either side of the murderous passageway. The room to the left was a sumptuous dining room, hung with tapestries of hunting scenes, and beautifully lit with more lamps. But that was not what caught her attention; it was the delicious smells wafting from the many dishes waiting on one end of a very long banquet table.
There were just two chairs there, neither one placed at the head. She limped toward the nearest; he hurried his own steps so that he could pull the seat out for her before taking his own.
If she had been asked to name every single food she liked most at breakfast, she would have found them here. Her stomach didn't growl, but it did remind her forcefully that she hadn't eaten since last night.
Since there didn't seem to be any servantsâwhich was odd, but perhaps understandable, given that the master of this place was on occasion a slavering beast that might turn them into bloody shredsâshe helped herself. Perhaps the servants scuttled in at meals, left everything on the table and scuttled out again, locking themselves safely in their own quarters.
He sat opposite her, and served himself, as well. So he was used to it. She waited with her fork poised over her plate.
“You promised me an explanation,” she said, a little severely. He flushed.
“I am not sure where to begin,” he said, toying with his food.
“Well, you weren't
a werewolf, or I assume people would have noticed,” she pointed out tartly, then did her best not to show how heavenly the bit of ham she had just eaten had tasted.
“No, and that is the peculiar thing.” His brows knitted in a frown. “I wasn't bitten, not even by so much as a mouse. And Godmother Elena was unable to find any evidence of werewolfery being in my family lineâ”
“Wait just a moment!” she exclaimed, interrupting him. “You mean the Godmother knows about this?”
He blinked at her from behind his glasses, mildly confused. “Of course,” he told her. “Why wouldn't she? Just as the King knows. Anyway, even though I am a wizardâ”
“You're a wizard?”
This was getting far more complicated than she had ever thought it could be.
“I suppose people don't know,” he mused. “It's not as if I ever do anything with itâpublicly, that is.” He pushed more food around his plate. “Besides, wizards aren't all that powerful without a lot of practice andâwell, never mind that now. It's a very small duchy and it's not as if I wanted people to know I did wizardry. They might assume I either needed hiring or conquering. Anyway I could faithfully promise Elena that I hadn't tried any wolf-transforming spells, because I hadn't tried
transforming spell, so everyone was pretty baffled the first timeâitâhappened. I had just turned nineteen.” He sighed. “It's a very good thing that you don't make the change and come out of it the first time in fine fettle. It hurtsâit hurts every time, actuallyâand after the first change you are weak and
confused. I was really lucky that I was here rather than at the town house, and Eric was there the first time it happened, and he had the presence of mind to throw the wolf in one of the old prison cells in the cellar and bar the door. Then he called the Sheriff and the Sheriff told the King and the King called Godmother Elena. So I didn't just end up shot.”
“Or forked. Very fortunate,” she said, dryly.
He didn't appear to notice the faint sarcasm.
“They all decided that since I hadn't hurt anyone, that Redbuck Manor was about as isolated as you could ask for, and that the old cells were more than strong enough to hold me, there was no reason why I couldn't justâ¦stay here. But of course, if I ever got loose and did bite someoneâ¦” He coughed.
“Well, lucky for you, you're not some poor peasant they could just
when you finally got loose,” she snapped angrily.
He flushed painfully. “I'm really sorry,” he mumbled. “I can't tell you how sorry I am.”
Well, as nobles wentâ¦apologetic wasn't a bad reaction. Especially sincere apology. “So now what?” she asked. “I am stuck here with you for the rest of my life?”
“Oh, no!” He finally looked up at her, meeting her gaze again. “No, just for three months, until we're certain I didn'tâyou know.” He gulped. “The Godmother says that because they don't know for certain why I have thisâtraitâthey don't know if I even
change someone with a bite the way another can. Soâ¦not forever, not unless youâ¦”
Once again, his gaze dropped to the plate full of uneaten food.
In silence, she applied herself to her breakfast. Now, perhaps a girl of more so-called “sensibility” would have been so upset by all this that she would have been unable to eat. She wasn't that sensitive, she supposed. At any rate, she was hungry, the food was deli
cious and whatever would or would not happen to her was not going to be changed by going without breakfast.
Perhaps Duke Sebastian had already eaten. Or perhaps his appetite had been suppressed by guilt. Vindictively, she hoped for the latter. She paused for just a moment. “Let me make this perfectly clear. Whether you are on two legs or four, your actions have altered the direction of my life without my permission. It is your responsibility to make it up to me. I did not intend to be here this morning. I had things to do. I
have things to do which are not going to get done because I am being held here, quite against my wishes.”
Finally, when her hunger was satisfied, she turned her attention back to him. “I assume that the Godmother has been apprised of this situation?” she asked.
He started; her voice in the silence had taken him by surprise. “I suppose so,” he replied, uncertainly. “I mean, I really don't knowâ¦ Somehow they always seem to know these thingsâ¦”
“Well, then. Find out. And if she hasn't been told everything, do so.” She sighed with some exasperation. Really, this was like having to handle the twins! “I'll want to speak to your Housekeeper, your Butler, too, I supposeâ”
“Ahâ¦” He fidgeted. “That won't exactly be possible.”
She frowned at him. “And why not?”
He fidgeted some more. “Because I don't exactly have human servants.” It really
like handling the twins, with every tiny bit of information being pulled out of them as if she was extracting teeth! “Well, what
do you have?” she asked, trying to keep her tone even.
“Erm,” he replied. If she hadn't been so irked at him at the moment, his diffidence and politeness would quite have charmed her.
He was nothing like the nobles she'd met so far. But she was far too angry to be charmed. “I told you that I am a wizardâ¦ They'reâ¦magic servants. The Godmother said it would be safer. No one would be in danger from me.”
Now it was her turn to blink. “Magic servants? Likeâwhat, precisely? Brownies? Animated statues? Animals?”
“Brownies and animals would be in danger. Animated statues are too difficult to create. No, these are sort of like spirits, except they can affect physical objects and they aren't exactly intelligent. And they're kind of invisible.”
“So I wouldn't know when they were about.” She considered that, and was not entirely certain she liked the notion. “And even if I ordered them not to hang about unless I summoned them, I
wouldn't know if they were about.”
“It takes less magic that way.”
She sighed. Evidently menâor this man, anywayâdidn't mind the fact that invisible servants could be gawking at them at any time.
“It's not as if they have a gender,” he added helpfully, perhaps reading her discomfort in her expression.
“I see. But surely you have
ordinary servants? Your Gamekeeper, for instance?” Although she dearly wanted to, this did not seem to be the time to bring up Eric von Teller's many faults.
“Eric isn'tâ¦exactlyâ¦a servant.” From the way he was squirming now, a person would have been forgiven for assuming there was a fire under his chair.