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Authors: Mercedes Lackey

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The armband waved from side to side.

“So you are disposing of it?” Bobbing. “To the poor of the city?” Waving. “Merely throwing it on the midden?” Bobbing. She tried not to show how appalled she was.

She took on a firmer tone of voice. “That sort of waste must stop. Don't worry. I am going to help you. I shall do what I have done at home—I shall write out menus for you, and you will follow them. Do not concern yourself with the Duke. He is a man, and in my experience, since I've fed my father's workers when he's given them a dinner as a thank-you, and when I have ordered dinners for my father's guests, as long as the food is as good as I know you can make it, and there is enough of it, he really will not care
what
it is. Now…could the lot of you please put on some sort of armband, as Verte has? And stick a sprig of herb into it so I can tell you apart.”

There was a general…flurry and scuttle, was the best way she could describe it; when everything settled out, it appeared that there were a dozen servants here. Rosemary, Basil, Thyme, Mint, Parsley, Sage, Bay, Mustard, Lavender, Fennel, Lovage and Rue.

“Which of you is the chief cook?” she asked. Thyme stepped forward. Well, drifted. “I should like you to come to my room every morning for the menus,” she told it. It bobbed. “And now I should like to see your stores.”

She emerged from the storerooms, the pantries and cupboards with her head reeling. There was enough food here to supply an army under siege for a month. She supposed there was some sort of magic preserving it, otherwise she could not imagine how it all kept from rotting away.

Why would they keep so much on hand? Was it that they were
still holding stores for the horde of human servants such a Manor would require? Or was it only that they were so isolated?

I suppose that they don't often get supplies,
she mused, a little dazed.
So they have to keep things stocked up. Still!

It appeared that virtually anything she wanted to order for menus, she could.

“What are you making now?” she asked Thyme, who displayed the lovely little dinner loaves she had smelled being taken out of the oven, and a finished meat pie of some sort. “I shall have a hot loaf, butter, a piece of that pie
so
big, asparagus, a watercress sallat, and cheese and fruit for dessert,” she told it. “I shall have wine with the meal and a cordial with dessert. I assume that when the Duke…is himself again, he is ravenous?”

Thyme bobbed.

“Very well, then, split the remainder of the pie between him and the Gamekeeper. Squash with butter, the bread, mashed turnips, a cheese course with the bread, a soup to start and cakes to finish. Plenty of wine or ale, whatever they usually drink.” Sebastian would probably not notice; she hadn't seen him drinking very much. But Eric was the sort of man who would think himself ill-done-by if he didn't have his drink. The very last thing she wanted to do was make him think she was being heavy-handed with him on that score. “I should like you to always keep a soup of some sort ready. Two, if possible—a thin, broth-based soup, and a thicker soup, pea or a soup with thick gravy. If either of them seems to be discontented with the amount of food served, add a second soup course, and if that does not serve, fry some fish and add a nice sauce.”

Thyme bobbed with enthusiasm, and there were little stirrings about the kitchen, as if her reforms were being greeted with pleasure rather than unhappiness. She tilted her head to the side. “You
are all discontented because so much food returns from the dining room uneaten, yes?”

Now the entire room was full of bobbing armbands.

So much for them being not very bright.

“That is simply because you were giving them more than they could ever possibly eat. We will change that. Platters will return mostly empty and you will know that you have done a very good job.” She smiled around the kitchen. “Now, if either the Duke or the Gamekeeper expresses a demand for something other than what I have ordered on the menu, make it for him. It will probably be beef or venison. A steak will be easy and fast to cook. Always obey the men about food, even if it contradicts my menu.” There was no point in making life difficult for the servants, and there was so
much
food here that such simple additions would not make much difference.

Again, the armbands bobbed. This was the most satisfying thing that had happened to her all day.

“I am going to have a hot bath, and I would like my dinner waiting when I am done. Thank you all very much.” She turned toward the door, which Verte took as the signal that they were to go back to her rooms. But before she had quite reached the door, there was a tugging at her skirt, and she turned to find an enormous bunch of lavender being held out for her—

When she took it, she saw that it was Thyme that had presented it.

Well! It seems I have struck a chord!
She held it to her nose and inhaled, smiling. “Thank you,” she repeated. “This is lovely! And one of my favorite flowers!”

Where on earth are they getting fresh lavender at this season?
she wondered as she made her way back to her rooms.
Ah, well. The same place the rose and the other flowers came from, I suppose.
If this was Sebastian's
doing, he was a much more powerful magician than he claimed to be. And if it was the Godmother's doing—it argued a level of interest in Sebastian and his welfare that was unusual, to say the least.

The bath was heavenly; her dinner was waiting, perfectly hot and ready, when she came out, clothed in a flannel nightdress and a warm dressing gown. Verte bandaged her foot again when she had finished eating, and she made a random selection of the books to take with her to bed.

That was when it all hit her, as she settled into the comfortable, soft bed with books she had selected—why had she proceeded to take over the ordering of the household as if she was in charge of it? As something more to distract her from a situation that was as horrible as a velvet-lined prison in which she was to await her sentence?

Because that was, long and short of it, what this was.

The bed might have been warmed, but there was a hard, cold lump inside her, a frozen ball of fear that nothing was going to thaw.

And she could try to distract herself all she liked with taking over and ordering this household as she did her own, with trying to make sense and allies out of the strange creatures that passed for servants, but that did not change the fact that in a month's time, she might well find herself locked in a cell beside Duke Sebastian—

As if to drive that thought home, a long, heartbroken howl throbbed through the corridors of Redbuck Manor.

Isabella Beauchamps burst into uncontrollable tears.

In the end, she stopped crying, not because she had run out of fear and grief, not because she was too tired and wept-out to continue, but because there was an insistent tugging at the coverlet she huddled beneath.

She turned over, and started to dry her eyes on her sleeve, when a lavender-scented handkerchief was thrust into her hand.

She took it, too tired to be angry that one of the invisibles had violated her privacy and seen her crying. “Verte?” she croaked.

The floating fabric was a ribbon, not a scarf, and blue, not green. “Oh. You will be Sapphire, then,” she said, and blinked her sore eyes in surprise when a child's slate and a bit of chalk floated into view.

“We R Veri sori,”
the chalk scratched onto the slate.

“It's not your fault,” she sniffed, dabbing at her eyes and blowing her nose. “If anything, it's my own stupid fault. I was the one who tried to go home through the woods after dark.”

The previous words were erased.
“Erk shud have warned U.”

“Well, yes, he should, instead of trying to bully me into indecencies,” she said, a rekindling of her anger burning away a little of the grief. “Especially since it was the full moon!”

“Erk sposed to guard wuds at ful moon.”

“As you can see, he didn't do a very good job of it.” She sighed, and her throat closed again. “I don't belong here. I don't want to be here. I want to go home!” The last came out in a little wail.

An invisible hand patted her knee through the coverlet.
“We like U. Not B sad, Godmuther fix.”

Privately she could not imagine
how.
If the Godmother had not been able to fix Sebastian's werewolfery after all these years, how could she expect the Godmother to help her? But instead of saying so, and descending into inconsolable crying again, she made an effort to put a good face on things. No amount of crying was going to change what had already happened. All she could do was fight to fix it, or find ways to cope if the worst came. “I hope so,” she replied.

“Godmuther fix evrthing.”

If only that were true.
She felt her eyes starting to burn again. No matter how hard she tried to make herself brave and practical—it didn't stop the fear.

Or the loneliness; there was no one to help her face this.

“I like you all, too, Sapphire,” she said instead.

“You wont be wuf.”
The words were written with such force that the chalk squeaked and shed powder.

She stared. That was…vehement. So emphatic that it came as something of a shock. “I hope you're right,” she said tentatively.

“We wont let you be wuf.”
The chalk actually broke in half.

She felt—not frozen, but suddenly stilled. There was something going on here, something that she couldn't quite grasp. The invisibles
must
know something, something important, about this situation. Something that Sebastian clearly did not know.

“How do you know that?” she whispered.

There was a very, very long pause. Then, finally, the words were erased and a few shaky letters appeared.

“Cant tell.”

Now her mind unstuck, as it had in the carriage, when she had realized what must have happened to her. The invisibles
did
know something, and were being prevented from revealing it. The shakiness of the letters told her that, as if the hand that wrote them was fighting against a terrible compulsion merely to say that the writer
could not
say what was going on.

“But you can protect me, help me—”

Again, frantic erasing and forceful strokes.
“Yes.”

It was as if a terrible weight had been partly taken from her. She was
not
facing this entirely alone. For some reason…heaven only knew why…these creatures were befriending her. Even if she couldn't see them, they wanted to help her.

And this one was assuring her that Godmother Elena, even more powerful than the King, was going to help her, too.

She sighed. “Then, I trust you, Sapphire. All of you. Thank you.”

“Dont cry.”

She managed a very shaky smile. “I'll try not to. But I am homesick and I miss my father terribly.”

“Godmuther fix.”

Another comforting pat of her knee through the coverlet, and the slate and chalk and blue ribbon floated away, leaving her alone, with far more questions than answers, and far more puzzles than her mind would hold right now.

Well, there was no point in trying to sleep now.

She opened one of the books at random and began to read it. At first, she found herself reading and rereading the same page, but eventually she got the sense of it. It wasn't the sort of thing she usually read; she liked history, not stories. But this seemed to be a more serious version of the silly romantic novels that the twins occasionally picked up, and she found herself following the story with some interest. It began, as these things tended to do, with a little orphaned girl begging in the streets, but rather than touching the heart of a crusty old miser, or being taken in by a poor but kindhearted couple with no children of their own, this little girl was taken up by a gang of young thieves.

Finally, she closed her eyes for just a little, because they were still sore and tired from crying, and when she opened them again it was morning.

6

SHE WOKE TO A WONDERFUL AROMA OF FLATCAKES
and honey; when she opened her eyes, she found that the bed curtains and window curtains had been pulled back, letting light stream in, and a tray was evidently floating in midair beside her bed, accompanied by the green scarf.

“Good morning, Verte,” she said, rubbing her eyes, then sitting up. “I didn't mean to sleep this long.”

The tray ended up on her lap without a mishap. The slate and chalk levitated up from the floor.

“Not late,”
the chalk wrote.

She smirked. She felt so much better this morning, it was amazing. And maybe it was false hope, but while she had it she was going to enjoy it. “Not late by the standards of a Duke, perhaps. Late for those of us who intend to get work done.” Then she sobered. “He didn't escape last night, did he?”

She thought she remembered howling, dimly, in her dreams. She couldn't tell where it had been coming from, though. The howling she had heard before she slept had certainly come from inside the Manor.

Was it even possible that the wolf had learned to manipulate the door mechanism? That was a startling—and unsettling—thought.

“No. Sleeps.”

It must have been a real accident, then, his escaping. Sebastian had certainly been terribly careful about the door last night before she had left him.

Now she was curious. How did it work? It was probably not very pleasant. In her mind's eye, she imagined the wolf clawing at the door, pacing all night long, wearing itself out against its prison. Poor Sebastian…no wonder he was asleep. She shouldn't have been so quick to judge. “I suppose turning into a wolf and then raging to get out all night does take it out of one,” she said aloud, and turned her attention to her breakfast before it got cold.

When she had finished, and Verte had taken the tray away and bandaged her ankle, she shooed the servant away so she could dress herself. It was very nice,
really
very nice, to have servants bringing breakfast in bed and fixing hot baths and all, but she was going to draw the line at being dressed like a giant doll.

When she limped into the sitting room, Verte, Sapphire and Thyme were all waiting there; green scarf, blue ribbon and strip of white cloth with a sprig of thyme tucked in the knot. She noticed then that Thyme's armband was a little higher than Verte's, and Verte's was a little higher than Sapphire's. If they were all knotted in about the same place, that meant that Sapphire was shorter than she was, and Thyme was about the height of the Duke. Interesting. Were there gender differences as well as height?

Or were these creatures androgynous? They didn't eat, or at least, they didn't eat the same thing that the humans here did. Did they sleep? Sebastian had said that they were a sort of spirit, and spirits didn't sleep… Were they even all the same kind of spirit? Would they mind if she asked them personal questions like that?

Or would they get angry? If they got angry, what would they do? They could just take off the armbands and she would never know if they were there or not. They could retaliate at any time, in any way they chose.

I can't believe that a creature that was as kind as Sapphire was last night would be that angry if I asked it a few things…

But they were magic, and magic creatures were known to do things that you wouldn't expect.

This is getting more complicated with every moment.
But Sebastian had summoned them, and he seemed to be a careful sort of magician. He would have made sure they were restricted from harming anyone.
Just go slowly and carefully…

“Good morning, Thyme, Sapphire,” she said, and sat down at the desk, pulling out paper and readying a pen. “Just a moment and I will have the menus for you.” As she did so, she thought about the supplies she had seen. Last night had been the pie—pigeon pie, as it turned out, and very tasty. So today for dinner, she should placate the men with a nice big chunk of venison or beef.
Venison,
she decided, and wrote out the rest of the courses. And as for supper, she had definitely seen duck cleaned and waiting. “Is the Duke likely to be on two feet after sundown?” she asked, looking up.

The slate was in Verte's “hands.”
“No,”
Verte wrote.

“Then make sure he gets supper before he changes,” she said. She thought about asking when Eric ate, and decided that she didn't care. In fact, she didn't care if she never saw him for the entire time she was here. “I will have one quarter of the duck—thigh and leg—and the men can split the rest,” she told the servants, and handed the menus to Thyme. “I assume that the Duke will want me to have dinner with him?”

“Yes,”
Verte wrote.

“And is there any reason why I can't explore the Manor?” she continued.

“No.”
Verte was a being of few words, it seemed.

“Thank you very much, then. You may go to whatever your duties are.”

Somewhere was a place where the Duke was getting fresh flowers and fresh vegetables. The only vegetables you could find at this time of year in the markets were dried or things that kept sound in a cool cellar. Beets and turnips, squashes and carrots, onions and garlic. If you could find a place where the water didn't freeze, you might find cress. You certainly didn't find asparagus.

It might be that he had a hothouse; she had heard of such things—the King had one—but she had never seen one, and she dearly wanted to.

Thyme and Verte drifted out the door. Sapphire stayed. Bella raised her eyebrow at the blue ribbon. “Don't you have other duties?” she asked. She couldn't imagine that the Duke had conjured or summoned a servant—or assigned one—just to be available to her day and night…could he?

Sapphire had got her hands on the slate again.
“Serv U,”
she wrote.

Evidently he had. And that was incredibly thoughtful. So his words last night were not just aristocratic fluff. He had meant them.

And with that, she had a much better idea of what to do with her time than wander around the Manor—although she still wanted to see that hothouse, if one existed.
I hope he's not creating vegetables out of thin air. I'm not sure I am very comfortable with eating magic food. What if it—does something—once it's eaten?
She went back to one of the fireside chairs and sat down. “In that case, you can serve me by telling me some more of what you know,” she said. “At least, tell me things that you
can
tell me. I would like to start with the Duke himself.”

Yes and no questions were easiest, but didn't give her much
detail. More detailed questions required a lot of time for Sapphire to scratch out the answers. While this examination had seemed like a good idea when she'd had it, it soon proved to be frustrating. All too often the answer was
“Don't no.”
She did manage to get a rough idea of how the household functioned, but that was the limit of it, and it wasn't very enlightening. The Duke studied, attempted to break the werewolf change, performed other magic. Sapphire really had no idea what it was he did with his magic, except when it involved her or the other servants. Eric was generally seen only at supper, and sometimes not then. He took a cart and horse to the city once every few weeks for supplies. He had his own entrance to the Manor, a suite of rooms in a kind of gatehouse—a suite that was larger than the Duke's!—and free access to everything. Presumably his duties as Gamekeeper kept him busy. Sapphire had no idea who kept the accounts, how the monies from the mines were paid and who was responsible for them. Certainly Sebastian seemed to have no head for such things, and Eric didn't seem the type to want to handle details of that sort. Perhaps they had a factor in the city.

After spending most of the morning attempting to get useful information from Sapphire, Bella's head hurt. It was time for a change, something else to do. Which brought her back to her original plan. “Is there a hothouse?” she asked, finally. “A place where the flowers and vegetables are grown?”

“Yes,”
Sapphire wrote.

“Take me to it, please,” she ordered. “I'd like to have some notion of what is in there.”

There was no evidence of confusion. The blue ribbon obediently led the way out the door.

More corridors—ordinary ones as well as murder-corridors. More rooms, most of them with the curtains closed and the hint of dust in the air. Then, finally, Sapphire flung open the door on what
seemed at first as if it was outdoors, so bright was the light streaming inside. Yet there was no burst of freezing air—in fact, the air that puffed out toward Bella was warm and moist as a spring day.

She stepped across the threshold and into summer.

At least it smelled like summer. Green and moist and warm—it was
really
warm here. And she had never seen so much glass in her life—the walls, the roof, were all made of it. The place was perhaps half the size of the Great Hall of the Wool Merchants Guild and it must have cost a fortune to create all the glass panes, bring them out here and put them together. There were plants in raised beds everywhere, with narrow walkways between them, and in the middle, trellises covered with vines that reached to the roof.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, she had been expecting something that looked like a garden. Well, it did look like a garden—a kitchen garden. There were a few beds of flowers, but most of the space was taken up with raised beds growing vegetables and herbs. Even the vines were peas and beans.

Once she got over her initial disappointment, however, she began to appreciate it. The beds of fresh herbs alone were a marvel, and the vegetables like asparagus and lettuces, the peas and beans in several stages of ripening trailing upward over trellises that one only saw in summer, here with a background of snow outside the glass—well, it really did seem as much like magic as Sapphire.

And it was so warm here, as warm as a hot summer day. “How is it kept so warm?” she asked Sapphire. Surely it wasn't just the sun—

“Hot spring,” said a laconic voice from behind them, electrifying her with a jolt of panic. She jumped and squeaked, turning at the same time, not sure whether she should look for a weapon or utter a greeting.

Eric von Teller lounged in the door frame, arms crossed over his chest. He was dressed in his Gamekeeper leathers, without the
cloak. Now that she knew what to look for, she could see a definite family resemblance. He and Sebastian had the same cheekbones, the same brow, the same nose; their hair was very different, though. And their eyes. Sebastian's were a gray; Eric's were dark, some color close to the slate of a storm cloud. He raised one black eyebrow as she relaxed marginally.

“Don't bother asking anything complicated of the menials,” he continued, with a little smirk. “It's rather like trying to teach a cow to fly. You get nowhere, and annoy the cow. They're obedient, they will do what you ask of them provided you phrase it the way you would phrase an order to a dog, but they are of no help whatsoever when it comes to anything even a child would understand.”

“I see,” she replied, in as neutral a tone of voice as she could manage, and gestured behind her back, hoping Sapphire would understand that she should hide the slate and chalk. “Well, since you can talk, and obviously know a bit about this place, what do you mean by ‘hot spring'?”

“There is a spring of hot water underneath this place. It's why it was built here in the first place,” Eric replied, not moving at all from his spot in the door frame—meaning that when she wanted to leave the hothouse, she would have to somehow get by him. “Originally, when this was just a hunting lodge, it was used for heat. Later, when the place was rebuilt, it was repurposed. It's not a very big one, and once the Manor expanded to its current size, it couldn't be used to heat the place as it once had. Now it supplies the hot water for bathing, and keeps this glasshouse warm.” He shrugged. “The glasshouse was a conceit of the late Duke's father. I think this is a waste of effort, really, but he liked to impress his guests with spring and summer vegetables in midwinter.”

“Was that so important to him?” she asked, curiously.

He grimaced a little. “The Duchy is a farm, a forest and a few
mines. The small size never troubled anyone up until that point, but I suppose Sebastian's grandfather felt differently. I will say that getting hot baths whenever you like is very welcome. And since Sebastian's slaves are the ones doing all the work here, it's not as if it was costing us anything to keep it up. It would be different if we needed to keep a staff of human servants to tend the plants.” He nodded at the ribbon around Sapphire's arm. “Clever idea. I'll order mine to wear armbands so I know when they're in my rooms. I don't like the feeling there might be something looking over my shoulder all the time.”

He seemed to be making an effort to be pleasant. She regarded him with as neutral an expression as she could manage. “It is unnerving,” she agreed. “More so for a woman, I think. I don't believe that men have our natural modesty.”

He raised an eyebrow, looking skeptical, but said nothing for a moment. Finally, he shrugged. “I'm not going to apologize for our meeting in the woods,” he said abruptly. “It's my job to be as unpleasant as possible, especially around the full moon, to keep people out of there after dark. Now you know why.”

She frowned a little. “If that is your job, you are doing it very well.”

“It's been Duke Sebastian's orders,” he pointed out. “I have to do so in such a way as to prevent people from getting too curious about why I'm running them off. I'm the Woodsman, so people expect me to act as if everyone I meet is a potential poacher, so that's what I do. It saves on explanations.”

Bella tilted her head to the side. “That—actually makes sense,” she agreed, with great reluctance.

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