Original Chapter One
I always loved the look you get into Serena’s life in this chapter. The cruelty of her dad right off is good to know, but with the new chapter you still get an idea of it. Some feedback said the violence at the start was jarring. Plus, I felt we needed to get to everything sooner. Hence it was cut. The saddest part for me was losing the little bit of interaction between Bethany and Serena. Feels so important for the series, but alas not important enough to stay in.
My blood will entice warlocks to ask for my hand in marriage, so of course Father wants it spilled. The sooner he can have the magic within it measured, the sooner he can be rid of me. Despite knowing this my whole life, I’m still unprepared for the demand. I’m not ready to enter the marriage pool. However many warlocks desire my hand, he won’t think them enough to make up for my being the eldest of fourteen girls instead of being a boy.
Is there any way to say that without a fist flying my way? Or a hex? Father hasn’t blasted me with one of those in a few days. I hazard a glance at him.
The predawn rays aren’t enough to brighten his face as he sits at his desk next to me, just enough to cast a faint glow. I’m not worth using an electric lamp for, nor a candle. It makes it harder for him to read my expressions, at least. Easier to mask my words than my face. Yet it masks him as well. I can’t tell if he’s in a forgiving mood or not, but I can’t stay silent. What if this is my only chance to get out of the marriage pool?
“Not all girls get tested at seventeen,” I say.
“You will enter the marriage pool.” Father stands.
His fist knocks my face so hard I plummet off my chair onto the wooden floor. “You’re more stubborn than the Envadi. We are going.”
He marches from the study. At least it wasn’t a hex.
My cheek aches. After brushing my fingers across it and deeming it not broken, I scoot over to the picture window and curl up next to it. Goosebumps skitter across my skin, but the chill is worth it. It’s the best window in the house for sunrise and I’m rarely able to use it. I press my cheek against it and let the chill ease the throb.
The sunrise is probably majestic as ever, but I can’t focus on anything other than the ache of my face. I always say too much. But if I have to leave, how will my sisters survive?
The shuffling of mother entering the room sounds and continues until she reaches me. She bends over her expansive baby bulge. The morning sun adds an extra glow to her lined face as she brushes my hair off my cheek. The marriage ink swirled on her neck borders her simple four point star engagement tattoo, just above her collarbone. Her face paint is heavier than usual. White face. Lips and cheeks bright red, thick charcoal around her eyes. Though I use as little as I can get away with, my own face paint itches after looking at her.
“If you would’ve apologized, we could’ve gotten him to fix your face before we left, Serena.” The skin around her brown eyes crinkles with exasperation I see too often. “No matter. The warlocks at the testing center don’t care if you’re disobedient, but you’d better be more careful when the marriage contracts come in. If we lose an important warlock because of your mouth, Father will be the least of your worries.”
Only because Father will punish her for it after she has the baby, like she is constantly reminding me. “I was only trying to-”
“A woman never makes excuses. Get up. Father’s finished breakfast.”
All my wishes should be for her next babe to be a son, but right now I can’t rally a single one. She gives me an apple and departs. I should hurry after her so I can be in the carriage before Father is ready to go. I press my cheek against the window for the last time before I rise. If I don’t follow her, she’ll be sent back and we’ll both be punished. Again.
The apple is smooth. Possibly sweet as well, but eating before the ride will only make my carriage sickness worse. Mother never seems to remember that, though I should be just grateful she is trying to keep me from starving. After setting the apple on the desk, I follow her. The halls are dark so I don’t see Bethany until I put my hand on the door handle.
She steps closer. “He’s making you go?”
“You’ll be fine.”
There’s a burning at the back of my eyes, but I blink it away. “Keep the girls away when we get back, if the news is bad…”
“It won’t be. But I’ll make sure they’re out of sight.” Her face is so serious, she looks older than her fifteen years. It’s just as well. No matter what happens, she and Cynthia are going to have to start taking on more of the burden. But can they handle it? I don’t know.
She opens the door for me, staying out of sight behind it, and I dart out. I hope none of the neighbors are watching. I hate when they gossip about my life. The gravel crunches beneath my feet, but there’s enough noise from the servants, it doesn’t catch anyone’s attention.
With the aid of servants and a stool, Father pulls his bulk onto a sturdy black stallion. His chin length white hair is tied back with a black ribbon, matching his outfit. His dark eyes peer at me over his bulbous nose.
Despite abhorring the carriage, I scramble inside the coach after mother. No reprimand. One thing to be grateful for this morning. The door swings shut, plunging us into musty darkness. I swallow, fighting the unease that clings to me, and sag against the seat. How long is the ride going to be? Not for the first time, I wish there was a window for watching the scenery to help pass the time. We soon pull out. The seat is rough beneath me as I try to find a comfortable spot.
“Stop fidgeting,” mother says.
I hold still. Using gentle fingers, I probe my new bruise. It’s tender. At least it’s not worse, though I’m sure it’s hideous. I would blemish myself more if I thought it would prevent any marriage contracts, but pedigree and magic alone matter. My picture and name won’t even be listed in the marriage pool records, though girls at class say some warlocks can still obtain the information if they truly desire it.
No one cares enough to search me out. They haven’t had a chance to get to know me well enough for that to happen. The most interaction I’ve had with men since I was ten are mandatory classes about warlocks and the weekly observations interacting with them. Plus, the ball every unmarried woman has to attend after they turn sixteen. That interaction was too much to bear. None of the men were much different from Father. I sigh.
“Don’t start,” mother says, “your dislike for carriages is nothing compared to riding in one while thick with child.”
“Sorry.” Except I’m not.
I wish the carriage would turn around and go back to my sisters. Better yet, go back to life before I was eligible for the marriage pool. At least then I would have more time with them. And maybe it’d be enough time to find a way out of Father wanting to marry me off right away. I wish I’d found a way to stay with them longer. The girls that used to be in my class before they got married waited between six months to a year from the time they got a new owner until marriage. I’m hoping for a year or longer.
We ride in silence for what is about fifteen minutes. When the carriage comes to a full stop, I give silent gratitude. Mother groans. Being with a babe leaves her moody. At least the carriage sickness didn’t take hold of me enough to make me nauseous. That would have made things even worse.
The door opens. I blink against the glare while she exits. The carriage seems more inviting than it ever has before. Better stuck in this dismal thing than in there where I’ll take the first step to leave my sisters forever.
It won’t do me any good to dally over the way things are. I climb out before I can be admonished and take a deep breath. The breeze is pungent with lilacs from the bushes nearby. The stone building before me is smaller than I thought it would be. Father is already entering, mother right behind. With a final glimpse at the carriage, I hurry to catch up.
Original Chapter Two
This was cut because a lot of feedback said the story needed to move quicker. It was good feedback and the story didn’t need to have these details. BUT… this was the hardest thing to cut.
In this chapter Serena has to sit through the debate over who her new owner will be without being able to do a thing. That, and the interactions between her, her mother and sisters all getting the boot made me so sad. Plus having to cut learning more about the tournament and getting the first insight into the barbaric Envadi. *sigh* Some things just aren’t meant to be. But it’s here now so you can all get in on the details. Enjoy!
The floor of the study is scattered with contracts Father deems unsuitable. He’s inspecting three on his desk that haven’t been dismissed. I don’t even know who they belong to. I can’t decide if I’m curious to know who my new master will be, or if I want to avoid any aspect of the whole process. One owner can’t be any different than another, except my new owner will take me away from my sisters.
The room doesn’t distract me from the problem like I wish it would. Wish I had this problem when he called me here to inform me of the test. Being in the corner as far from the window as possible takes away the only thing worth being here for. Usually I’m here for punishment, though this feels the same. After hours of standing next to the bookshelves, with few details about my impending ownership, I can’t wait any longer.
I edge closer. My legs don’t respond well after being immobile for so long. They’re numb and weak. My feet drag across a discarded contract. I stare down at it. Such a little thing to cause me to waver.
Mother holds up her hand to halt my progress. With a scowl, I turn toward the book case. If I could just read one of them, any of them, it would break the tedium. Something besides the Woman’s Canon. The book titles make it seem like they could be about horseback riding, gardening, or law, but it’s hard to imagine one having something other than rules. I wish they did and I was allowed to read them. Anything would be better than this. Mother clears her throat. I drag my gaze away from the forbidden.
Once I’ve resumed my submissive pose, she leans over Father’s shoulder to survey the remaining candidates. Some of her nut brown hair escapes the tight bun. Her hand grips the back of Father’s chair. After a moment, he shifts back and she whips her hand beneath her belly.
“Just think if all your daughters are like this, Stephen.”
Despite mother’s words, I don’t wish for my sisters to have to stay for hours unable to see any news of their future husbands, and hear little more. The parchment beneath my foot belongs to a Henry. At least I know it won’t be him, whoever he is. If the fire was going, I would be tempted to throw them all in. I’m tempted anyway. A smile teases my mouth at the idea.
Father’s lips curls upward. His bulk leans toward mother and he rubs her belly. I’m almost unafraid of him as he smiles at her. His face is so light. Smooth, strong, and fresh. It’s glowing, though perhaps it’s just the afternoon sun streaming in the window. Still, his face is missing something of its usual strain. His mood has been growing more and more jovial as the requests keep coming. If he starts acting like this all the time, I won’t know how I am to behave around him.
“Indeed,” he says to her. “Perhaps you’re not such a failure after all.”
Abolish that thought. No matter which veneer he uses, I mustn’t forget who he really is. Mother gleams with pleasure at him, clearly not thinking the same. Then I realize what his words mean. He’s regarded me as a failure my whole seventeen years.
My chest tightens at the thought. I’m the first in the mass of daughters who should have been sons. The sole boy she had was stillborn. I ruined her womb and continue to curse their lives.
Until now. I have a chance to redeem myself. Redeem mother. Father beats her after every girl born. I’m certain that is why she’s just as eager to dole me out as he is. Surely, her girls will be better at producing warlocks than she was. Maybe she hopes I’ll marry before the latest babe is born. He’ll be so distracted by my new ownership, she’ll be spared his wrath if it’s another girl. If not, at least I’ll be spared the usual beating for cursing her the first time around. By then, I’ll have a new owner. Unless I produce nothing but daughters myself once married and follow the fate of my mother. I pinch my lips together.
I stare at Father and mother, not really seeing them. They continue debating the merits of those remaining, or rather, Father talking over the choices and mother giving the appropriate response. Besides trying to get her to bear him a son, I think her unwavering support of him is the only reason he keeps her around so much.
The collar on my dress is choking. Not necessarily the distraction I want. I don’t know why mother insisted I get a dress with one. The rest of the dark purple dress isn’t bad, just a little heavy for the warming spring. That combined with the stress, I’m sweating. If I had a say, I’d get a dress within the rules, dark, at least as high as my collar bone and past my ankles, with buttons lining the back and gloves to my elbows. Nothing more. Especially not choking collars.
My body aches. A sinking heaviness fills me. I need to sit, but can’t. I’m not allowed to use any chairs in the study today. Father said standing would help me pay attention. The floor looks inviting, even with all the parchment on it, but is unacceptable. I stay on my feet, trying to pretend I’m not limp.
“Who will you pick for her?” mother asks.
Father rubs his chin. “Ethan and Thomas both have good pedigree and power. I can’t see Martin being up to their level.” He throws another man’s hope for my use as a breeder off the desk. “Ethan has a better pedigree, but Thomas has more money. He’s the most likely candidate to fill an open council seat and Ethan after him. They’re both better matches than I expected Serena to gain me.”
I look down, cheeks burning.
Father’s words turn to mutterings. “Yes, they’ll both be on the council some day.”
He mumbles on, and I wonder if I’ve ever met either of the two. Though it seems rather improbable that I have, I try to recall if I did at the ball. I remember few names to go with faces, but neither of theirs are familiar. Would one be better than the other? Unlikely.
“Thomas does have more power. And he’s able to sway even me at times. He’s more apt to be a Chancellor or even the Grand Chancellor.” He throws a parchment on the floor. “Send word, Agatha. Thomas it is. I’ve no qualms about any of his requirements. We can get this sealed and move ahead with the engagement ceremony and wedding as he wishes.”
“Councilman Stephen, the engagement ceremony is in six weeks,” mother says. “The baby will come around then and I’d like to be there for the ceremony.”
Maroon light blasts from Father’s hands. I reach forward hoping to do something, but know it will be too late. She’s too far away. The spell surges straight for her, but at the last moment, he forces it to the ground. A few parchments burst into flames.
Father shoots an aqua-colored spell, the light washing over the flames, putting them out. “Wenchit! No one cares if you’re there, woman. Just bear me a son.”
Mother pales. Her chest heaves. I realize I’m shaking. Taking a chance, I sway against the bookshelf next to me. If father hadn’t stopped himself at the last moment, he could have harmed the baby. An unpardonable sin. A death sentence. But he stopped himself. Is that good or bad? Bad. It was bad. If he hadn’t- No. Can’t contemplate such things.
“Of course,” mother says. “Forgive me for being so thoughtless. The babe comes first.”
Father leans back in his chair. I heave myself away from the shelves before he notices. He pulls the remaining parchment closer to him. “Stop thinking so much, Agatha, and get a note to Thomas about his acceptance. Send a note to the rest of the candidates with a polite refusal and a reminder we have another daughter turning seventeen in eleven months.”
My stomach churns at the thought of Cynthia going through this. She can’t understand my reluctance. When she heard news of my testing and saw the suitors requesting for my hand, she tried sneaking in Father’s study to see all the requests.
When she got caught, Father was livid, going into one of his rampages. Despite her poor choice, she doesn’t deserve punishment for curiosity. Wanting to know her fate. At least I don’t think she does. I insisted she was there on my behalf. My body still aches from the hexes he threw at me. But at least she wasn’t hurt.
After I missed dinner that night, she snuck me a roll and chided me for taking the blame like always. Perhaps when I’m gone she’ll understand why I do. Father’s fury is never easy, but seeing my sisters hurt is worse. Regardless of Father, she’ll find a way to get the parchments when mother finishes contacting the warlocks. The fireplace would be better for them.
Mother listens while Father dictates instructions. I rub my head. Perhaps I’m the mistaken one. I should be more like Cynthia, instead of wishing we didn’t have to go through it. She would be the one to make an excellent Grand Chancellor’s wife. She could probably charm the barbaric ways out of the Envadi. I would make them worse.
“You’re dismissed, Serena,” Father says.
After shifting back and forth a few times, I at last work up courage. “May I know more about my future husband?”
“It doesn’t concern you. Go make sure you sisters are staying out of trouble.”
I can’t move. “Why am I here then?”
“Because you need to appreciate all the bother I’m going through. I do all this and you didn’t want to enter the marriage pool. Next you’ll tell me you don’t want to marry, even though I’ve found the best. Get out, wench.”
“I just thought that-” His fingers spark. I know better than to continue crossing a warlock and take a step back. “Yes, Father.”
I rush from the room. Bethany is leaning against the wall several feet away, her gaze meeting mine.
“Did he decide?”
I glance toward his study. “I suppose so.”
“It’s all been planned,” mother says. “We’ll have to get a dress, of course, but everything else is ready.”
If my hands weren’t in a sticky ball of dough, I think I would excuse myself for the water closet. I work the dough harder, my arms aching with the effort. Flour covers the counter and the boards beneath my feet. I blow a strand of mahogany hair from my face.
“Thomas responded earlier this morning,” mother continues. “His note sounded rather anxious for the ceremony, though you’re already his. Six weeks and you will have your engagement ceremony. Just think of it.”
Bethany looks at me, eyes shining with unshed tears. I try to give her a reassuring smile, but it feels more like a grimace. We should just be grateful it’s not three weeks, the standard wait time between the contract and engagement. Nearby, on the rug next to mother’s sofa, Cynthia’s playing dolls with the youngest girls. Little Molly crawls around, babbling softly.
My face scrunches as I try to hold back tears. How can I leave them? Not that I have a choice, but who will protect them from Father when I’m gone? I punch the bread and resume kneading. The yeasty smell is soothing.
“Thomas has invited us all to come and stay with him for the tournament. Did you know he’s going to be dueling in it?”
“No, mother,” Cynthia hides her face behind a doll then peeks out. The girls laugh. “Do you think he’ll do well?”
“Father says he’s one of the most powerful warlocks in Chardonia. We know he’ll do better than those coming from other countries, but Father thinks he’ll do well against other Chardonians despite being so young.”
Father would know. He competed in tournaments until he won this house and many of our possessions when I was eight.
“What do you think of him, mother?” Bethany asks.
“I haven’t met him myself yet, but he seems such a kind man. So thoughtful of us women, inviting us to come along. Wouldn’t expect it of one who lost his parents at an early age, but he’s managed well. Father doesn’t want me at the tournament with the babe, though. Afraid some outsider will hex me or some nonsense.” She lounges across the couch and rubs her belly. “The younger girls will stay here with me, of course. But Cynthia will go in my stead.”
“Really? Just think of the new things I’ll see.” Cynthia grins.
“Might I go as well, mother?” Bethany asks.
“Of course not. Barely fifteen. You haven’t the stomach for a tournament. None of us women do, really, but I’m sure your sisters will manage to avoid paying too close of attention to the tournament itself. The younger girls will need you, anyway. But Serena, for you and Cynthia there will be entertainment and dining, gossip of all sorts. How I wish I could attend.” She sniffs.
“Perhaps you shouldn’t have gotten with child, then.” The words escape my mouth before I can stop them.
The chatter halts. Mother’s hand covers her mouth. Even the little girls stare at me with round eyes. My fingers twist in the dough.
“I believe she meant it would have been good if you had gotten with child after the tournament. Then you would have been able to attend,” Bethany says.
“Y-yes. That’s what I meant. I would like for you to be there.” I can’t look at mother. I didn’t mean it. Not really. It’s just that having mother attend me would be of more aid than my sister. Cynthia has never done any of this before. How will she help me through it?
“Sorry, mother,” I whisper. “I didn’t mean it.”
She sags into the sofa, the face paint around her lips smeared. “You are forgiven, child. I know you want me there, I’ll do what I can.”
“I’m sure the thought will help,” Bethany says when I stay silent.
If thoughts could help me, I would have gotten myself away from the situation with musings of my own.
Sally bursts in the back door, her shoes clomping as she runs to me. “Here’s the eggs.”
“Not so loud,” I whisper. Mother doesn’t seem to mind the noise yet, but she could change her mind and who knows where Father is. If he hears her, there’ll be trouble. “Remember to keep your voice down and walk, don’t run.”
I take the eggs from her. “I know, dear one. You can play with the others now if you like”
She rushes over to the other girls and flops down on the floor with them.
Mother grabs her knitting. “Well, in any case, the tournament will be a great diversion for you. Thomas may even be crowned Champion. I wonder how many participants from other countries will attend. Some of their food is so delicious. Chryos is sure to send many participants. They always do. For your sakes, I pray Envadi doesn’t send any this year, but they’re bound to.”
“What were the Envadi like that you met, mother?” Cynthia asks.
I’m curious to know, as well. The little I know comes from bits of stories and rumors of their barbaric treatment of women and children. Blood thirsty animals with little regard for Chardonian ways.
“I never met any personally of course, but they’re all giants. And none of them went to the feast on the last night. It’s like they don’t know how to have any fun. You girls beware of them.”
“I’m confident I won’t have any dealings with them, should they attend,” I say.
“Of course it won’t come to that. Father wouldn’t allow such a thing. I was more worried for you being in their presence at all. They always cause the most deaths, you know. Five years ago, I saw them murder seven warlocks. Seven! There were only fifteen killed all together. Those beasts. They can’t seem to keep their barbaric ways from showing.
“Don’t you worry too much, though. There have been fewer deaths in recent years. I’ll send the soothing tea with you in case you witness any.”
I cringe. So far, she’s never made any of my sisters take it, only me. Apparently, I need more calming down than my sisters.
Mother continues, “Your box is right next to the Grand Chancellor’s, so of course you will see the very best of everything. Perhaps you will even meet him.” She puts down her blanket long enough to pop a grape in her mouth. “How I wish I was going.”
I meet Bethany’s gaze. She shakes her head. No sneering comments, then.
I say, “I’ll be sure to tell you all about him, if we should meet.”
Mother claps her hands together. “That would be lovely, dear. He might pronounce a blessing on your marriage. Think what that would do for our family. But mind you don’t mouth off to Father. We can’t have you sent to your engagement ceremony battered, now can we? Heaven help us if Thomas finds out how willful you are and turns you into a tarnished before you wed. Can you imagine what that would do to me?”
An image of those with dark tattoos covering their faces comes to mind. My hands shake as I place the ball of dough in a bowl. “No, mother. I’ll endeavor to behave.”
“More than endeavor. Do.”
Mother prattles on, but I no longer pay attention. Becoming a tarnished scares me more than the thought of Father or marriage. It hadn’t crossed my mind that it could happen to me now that I’m betrothed.
Yet, my new owner can do with me as he wills, even if it means making me barren and unmarriageable, doomed to a life of work alongside the other tarnished. Men who have no magic. Women whose magic levels are of little use breeding or have misbehaved so terribly, they’ve been permanently shunned. All spelled to be barren, bald and inked. All forced to work. Worth less than the shadows they cast.
Bethany sets out some pans. I put the dough in them to rise and pump water until there is enough to wash my hands. After they are free of dough, I slice an apple and give a piece to each of the young girls. Cynthia smiles as she helps Molly gum the fruit. The younger girls are usually spared from Father’s wrath. Will it stay that way when I’m gone?
After Zade and Serena go for a walk in the park and run into Councilman Barkely, they return to Katherine’s shop before returning home.
Charlotte in this scene is Katherine. One of the last big changes I made to the book was to rename Charlotte Katherine because her name was too close to Cynthia’s. The funny thing is, as soon as I did that, Katherine’s personality shone out like it never had before.
When we return, the girls are still chatting away like we never left.
Waverly looks at Zade. “Is everything okay?”
The others stop talking and look over at us, mouths tight.
“Fine,” he says, forcing a smile. The other’s relax, except Waverly. She bites her lower lip as he continues. “Are you ready for lunch? I’m starved.”
Cynthia, Bethany, and Waverly all start chatting at once about how hungry they are and get up to get their cloaks. Charlotte puts the glasses and plates back on the tray.
“You should come with us,” I say.
“I don’t think that-”
“Please come,” Bethany says. “We’d be delighted to have your company and if any one questions your presence, we’ll call it a business lunch.”
Where did she get that idea? They must have gotten along well while I was away. Bethany is pulling out manners mother taught her for respect, usually reserved for Father’s guest.
Charlotte hesitates before moving to the door way of a connecting room. “I’m going to lunch, Mavis. Would you mind the shop?”
The rest of us head outside.
“Do we need to squish in the carriage?” Cynthia asks.
“I didn’t have a place in mind,” Zade says. “Do you know a place nearby we could walk to, Miss Charlotte?”
“There is a little one, but-”
“Great. Would you show it to us, please?”
“I guess I could.”
We follow her to a restaurant a short distance away. It’s clean and full of people. Tarnished people. The one other time I ate a restaurant, the only Tarnished were the servers. Here they are both the patrons and the servers. I feel out of place.
Charlotte leads us to a large table in the back. Once we’re all settle, Zade sitting next to me, a server comes over and looks directly at Charlotte. She’s perhaps my height, with similar curves hiding behind her dark purple skirt and maroon blouse. But her nose is thin, made sharper with the ink on her cheeks.
“Why’d you bring their kind in for?” Her voice is deep for a woman’s.
My awkward feeling deepens. My fingers twist in the folds of my cloak.
“They’re fine, Helen. I’ll be responsible for them.”
The server eyes all of us again, stopping on Zade. “Are you certain?”
“Yes, I am.”
“You’d better be.” She flips the glasses on our table right-side up and pours water in them. “Special’s roast boar. What do you want?”
Is there a choice? There must be, because she’s asking. Everyone orders the boar. Unsure what else to do, I follow suit. Helen hustles away.
“Sorry if we are causing trouble,” I whisper to Charlotte who’s on the other side of me.
“It’s no trouble.” I give her a look. “Well, it’s different, but it’s really fine.”
The gathered Tarnished around begin chatting again. It doesn’t take long for them to grow louder, a happy, lightly roaring sound. Though it’s more noise than I’m used to, something about it comforts me.
The men and woman are more discernible than I thought. Though I can’t place individual voices with a person, there’s something about them that gives it away. Broader through the shoulders and jaw. Soft lips parted in a smile. These people are more than just shadows.
A few minutes later, Helen bustles back laden with plates. She tosses the plates in front of us. “Quietest bunch we’ve ever had. What that why you vouched for them, Charlotte? They’re mute?”
Charlotte laughed. “Hardly. I think you just scared them off with your charming personality.”
“We’ll see if you can fix them, it’s not natural.” Another patron calls for her and she hastens over.
After a moment of silence, Cynthia asks, “Is it really fine for us to speak?”
“Of course it is,” Charlotte says.
Bethany plays with her silverware. “Are you sure?”
“How were you planning on using business as an excuse if you weren’t planning on talking?”
“The food is for between doing our business. We have to eat.” Cynthia takes a bite. “This is amazing.”
“The cook’s good.” Charlotte begins eating her own meal. “Talking really is fine. Eat something, too. Don’t let Cynthia and I finish before everyone else.”
Everyone tastes their food and then eats enthusiastically. Save for me. I pick at it. “Did you get much done while we were away?”
“We did,” Cynthia says. “You’re going to love what Charlotte wants to do with your gown.”
“But it’s going to be a surprise.” She gives Cynthia a stern look.
“You’ll love it,” Waverly says to me. “It’s going to have enough Envado influence to be different, but not so much people will be uncomfortable. We’ll have Zade spell the rest of our dresses to change colors. Maybe sparkle a bit. Do you mind, Zade?”
Even though he’s asked me to call him Zade often enough, to hear it coming so casually from her is odd. I twist the napkin in my lap and try to ignore it.
He smiles at her and I twist the napkin harder. “That’s fine. They’re simple enough spells, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
“What do you think of the idea, Serena?” Cynthia asks.
It’s hard to follow the conversation. After a moment, I remember what they’re talking about. “It sounds lovely.”
“I had another idea, but it would also require you’re help, Chancellor.” Bethany’s voice is so quiet, it’s hard to hear her above the din.
Zade leans forward. “And what idea is that?”
“I was thinking you could create some spells that sparkle, but instead of a decoration, we could make a show out of it. Have it be sort of a grand finale to the ball. If it’s possible for you to make giant ones in the sky, I think they’d look really good. And we could serve some spelled refreshments while the guests watch.”
We all stare at her. I can’t believe she said so much in front of him.
“You don’t have to,” she says, her cheeks reddening. “It was just an idea.”
It’s a good idea. Similar to what they did at the tournament, but sounds even better. But will Zade like it? I wait for his reply.
“Forgive me,” he says. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anything done quite like that before. It sounds amazing. I’m going to have to go home and test it out tonight to see how well it works. There’s enough things like it out there, I think I could make it work. Great idea, Bethany.”
Her blush deepens.
“And if it does work, we could do it at midnight,” I say.
She smiles. “That’s what I was thinking, as well.”
Helen appears and refills half empty glasses. When she gets to me, she stops and points at me. “Something wrong with your food?”
Heat rises to my face. “I’m sure it’s good.”
“Don’t mind her,” Cynthia says. “The food is delicious, she just doesn’t like boar.”
“Well, why’d you order it then?” Helen’s accusing gaze slams into me.
The room seems to grow around me. “I don’t know.”
“It’s only her second time at a restaurant,” Cynthia says.
“Why didn’t you say so? What do you want to eat besides boar?”
“What can I have?” I ask.
“Almost anything you want. Cook’s real good at the boar, but since you don’t like that, the chicken is also good. We’ve also got venison, duck, trout, bison and meat pie.”
There’s so many choices, where do I start? I glance at my barely touched food. There’s no sense in ordering more when there’s food in front of me. “I can just eat this, it’s fine.”
Zade shakes his head and grabs my plate. “I’ll eat it. You order something you like. How about the meat pie or chicken, I know you like them.”
Having two choices seems easier than having none. I smile at him and then turn to Helen. “The meat pie, may I have one of those?”
“Course you can. Next time you stop by, you feel free to ask me if you have any questions.”
“Does that mean we can come again even if Charlotte isn’t with us?”
“I reckon a woman that doesn’t know how to order food at a restaurant ought to come a lot more often. And if she brings a man that will eat two helpings, she’d be even more welcome.” She winks at Zade, her inked skin wrinkling and smoothing with the action.
“Anytime.” She leaves, presumably to go find me a meat pie.
“Are the rest of you all right with the boar? I’m sure we could get something else if you’d like,” Charlotte asks.
“It’s fine,” Cynthia says. “Serena’s always been picky. Can’t tell you how many times she went hungry cause of it.”
It’s true I’m pickier than I should be, but sometimes I pretended my finickiness was the reason I didn’t want to eat and didn’t tell her it was because of being so severely punished, I no longer felt like eating.
While the others continue eating, Zade says just to me, “This is really your second time at a restaurant?”
I nod, not wanting to expound and have to relive the experience.
“I wish I would have known sooner. I would have taken you out some where. You and your sisters.”
“What about Waverly? Has she been before?”
“Yes. She always enjoys eating out. We can bring her too, next time.”
“What do you think Serena?” Cynthia’s voices pulls me back into their conversation.
“About what?” All I’m thinking of right now, is Zade wanting Waverly around more and more.
“About trying a dessert. Charlotte says they have a great berry pie and chocolate mousse.”
“The berry pie sounds tasty, but since I haven’t eaten my dinner, I don’t know if I’ll still be hungry.”
Right then, Helen sets a meat pie in front of me. “I’ll bring you some anyway. Who else wants dessert?”
Several orders go out for the mousse, but Bethany also orders the pie.
The meat pie is one of the best I’ve ever had. The berry pie is the best I’ve ever had. While eating it, I keep glancing back and forth between Waverly and Zade. Discreetly. They seem to have something going on. It’s probably just that their both from Envado. Still…
When the meal is finally complete, Helen urges us to come back again. After Zade pays, her urges become insisting. He promises to bring us all back next week. She beams. Her previous misgivings about us must be gone. We exist the establishment and head back to Charlotte’s.
The rest of the afternoon we spend measuring the girls for their . Charlotte also measures Zade for a new suit, even thought he claims it isn’t needed. Waverly and Bethany spend a lot of time talking about different ideas and if they are plausible to see through.
When it’s time to go, Charlotte see us off to the carriage. When the other girls are settled in it, I say, “If you need any help or even someone to talk with, I’ll be here.”
The forced smile leaves her face. “I don’t think talking about this will help.” She looks at me. “But thank you.”
On impulse, I give her a hug. “No, thank you.” It’s a strange feeling to offer comfort like this, but a good one.