Authors: Linda Winstead Jones
Tags: #Fantasy, #New York Times Bestselling Author
Bride by Midnight
Linda Winstead Jones
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Copyright 2013 by Linda Winstead Jones.
Published by Linda Winstead Jones
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.
Cover design by Elizabeth Wallace
EBook Design by A Thirsty Mind
Columbyana, the eighth year of the reign of Emperor Nechtyn Jahn Calcus Sadwyn Beckyt
“You must be a wife well and true, a wife in all ways before your twenty-third birthday, or you will live your life alone.”
Standing on the side of the narrow road that snaked through the forest Lyssa stared, wide-eyed, at the crone who delivered the ominous message in a voice that cracked ever so slightly. Alone? Her? Impossible! She had just recently celebrated her fifteenth birthday, and already her father had received offers for her hand. Some of the offers were unsuitable, as the men in question were either too old or too poor or too ugly—not that she was unreasonably demanding—but there were a few intriguing possibilities. And if those who had already expressed an interest in taking her as a wife did not suit after further inspection, there would be others in the years to come. She would certainly be a wife long before she reached the age of twenty-three. As for “well and true?” “In all ways?” What did that mean, exactly? One was a wife or else one was not.
Lyssa smiled tightly, determined to be polite even though the woman who had delivered the portent was not well-acquainted with personal hygiene or acceptable manners. She glanced down and brushed a nonexistent speck of dirt from the sleeve of her linen blouse, just so she would have a respite from looking into the old woman’s intense eyes. When Lyssa and her father had met the poor soul on the road early on the previous evening, she’d seemed to be helpless and lost, and desperately in need of food. She looked as if she’d been broken in half and repaired improperly, canting to one side and walking as if she might tip over at any moment. She’d said her name was Vellance, and she had gratefully accepted food and water, and a ride in the wagon. Last night she’d settled down to sleep a respectable distance from Lyssa and her father, and she
slept. Lyssa knew because the woman had rattled the leaves of the trees around them with her snoring.
The witch’s clothing—yes, surely the hag was a witch, why else would she be shooting daggers with her narrowed eyes and speaking of Lyssa’s future as if she knew what was to come?—was black and loose and dirty, ripped and ill-repaired in several places. The filthy hem dragged the ground occasionally, but not always, hiding her bare feet and disturbingly gnarled toenails. The old woman’s hair was a tangled gray and brown-streaked mess, and a number of teeth were missing. Now and then the hag’s words whistled through the unfortunate gaps.
Many travelers would have passed her by without a second glance, but Cyrus Tempest, Lyssa’s father, was an extraordinarily kind man who was always willing to help a person in need. Even one who looked like she might have stepped out of a child’s nightmare.
He hadn’t known the old woman would scare the breath out of his only child.
“You don’t believe me,” Vellance said in a lowered voice.
Lyssa smoothed a slight wrinkle from her rose colored skirt and then glanced toward the stream, where her father was collecting water for the three of them. The forest thinned a bit along this part of the road; the shadows were less worrisome; the sunlight broke through and shone down here and there. Spring was Lyssa’s favorite season. The air was neither hot nor cold, and flowers bloomed all around. Butterflies flitted about in abundance, white and yellow and blue. Vellance’s presence was ruining what should have been a perfectly lovely day!
It would be unkind to spurn the old woman who was so obviously in need, but at that moment Lyssa would have given almost anything to see the witch far, far away. She should have stayed home with her stepmother instead of insisting on making the trip to the seaside market with her father. The war with the Isen Demon was eight years behind them, and despite the occasional uproar and hysteria over the existence of an unknown number of the demon’s children—daughters all, children still—the roads were safe. Well, as safe as they could be. One heard the infrequent tale of robbery, and on rare occasion there might be a mysterious disappearance, but those tales were rare, and she did know better than to believe
If Lyssa did believe everything she heard, she might be more worried about half-demon little girls of seven and eight years old who might or might not possess unnatural powers inherited from their sire. There were whispers about different sorts of demon daughters and the magic they wielded. Fire-starters; those whose wishes came true; shape shifters; children who could touch the minds of others. Did they use their powers for good or for evil? To kill or to save? Truth be told, there were more stories of demon spawn who were perfectly ordinary little girls than... otherwise. And until she saw
for herself, she wasn’t going to worry.
Not when there were real problems to worry about. Like Vellance.
Maybe she should have stayed home, but she so loved the sea. She loved the smell, the sight of the endless waves, and the way the ships moved upon those waves. Traveling with her father had seemed an appropriate and relatively small risk when compared to the reward of reaching the seaside.
This unpleasant experience would teach her to listen to her stepmother, who had tried to convince Lyssa to stay at home. Adventures were not meant for everyone. They certainly were not to Lyssa Tempest’s tastes. Her plans, her dreams, were ordinary. She knew what she wanted: a kind husband; a simple home of her own. Babies. And all of it long before she reached the ripe old age of twenty-three.
“It’s not that I don’t believe you.” Lyssa once again worked up the nerve to look Vellance in the eye, which was more difficult than she liked. Still, she tried to keep her tone sweet, because she had been taught to be respectful of her elders. God knows, Vellance was about as
as one got. “It’s just that I plan to be married no later than the age of eighteen. There have already been offers, and though I would like to wait a couple of years and study all my options carefully before I choose a husband, I certainly won’t wait until I’m so old as twenty-three.”
The witch smiled. Lyssa suppressed a shudder. “Plans have a way of going awry, child. I’m proof of that fact. Once I was pretty, like you, and I had opportunities such as yours. Men begged for my affections. Women were jealous of my lustrous hair and flawless skin. When your beauty fades—and it
fade, I assure you—what will become of your grand plans?”
“My plans are not grand at all,” Lyssa argued without heat, trying—and failing—to picture the witch before her as an attractive young woman. “I’ll marry a nice man, have children, and keep a home as my stepmother does. As I always wished for brothers and sisters, I would like to have a large family. I suppose we will live in Arthes, so I can be close to my father, but if my husband’s livelihood takes us elsewhere, then I will endure the separation, as many wives must. All in all, I intend to live a perfectly ordinary life.”
“Whether you marry or not, your life will not be ordinary. You have magic in your blood, girl. It sleeps, but it will not sleep forever,” the witch said in a voice that was simultaneously confident and gloomy—and annoyingly smug. Vellance turned her dark eyes toward the creek, where Lyssa’s father was finishing up his task and stretching tired bones.
Lyssa stood tall—not an easy feat, given that she was far from it—and brushed back a wayward strand of hair. Anxious, she rocked up onto her toes and back down again. What if the witch really did possess some power that offered a glimpse of the future? Lyssa was quite sure no magic slept within her. After all, magic was an inherited trait, and her parents were perfectly normal people. Her father was a shop keeper, and her mother had been the daughter of a farmer. Though Lyssa did not remember the woman who’d given birth to her, her father’s stories of the wife he’d lost long ago were sweet and melancholy and ordinary. There had been no mention of magic.
Lyssa didn’t think for a moment that she would have any trouble finding a husband when the time came. Though she wasn’t a great beauty, she was hardly a troll. Her hair wasn’t a brilliant gold, as she’d been told her mother’s had been, but was instead her father’s more ordinary brown. At least there was plenty of it, and it waved nicely when she wore it down. Her eyes were an odd shade of green, not her mother’s blue or her father’s brown, but they were nicely shaped. Maybe her chin was a little too pointed, but as her father had said time and again, that sharpness gave her face character.
Vellance must be wrong. Still... Lyssa found herself growing more and more curious. Her insatiable curiosity was a trait her father had bemoaned for as long as she could remember. Who wouldn’t wonder if there might not be a touch of truth in the words of an old witch who seemed so certain that she knew details of the years ahead? Just a touch, though. At that moment Lyssa decided that there was no reason why she could not
which portents to accept and which ones to dismiss.
“If you know so much about the future,
future, why don’t you just tell me who I’m supposed to marry, and when?” If there was knowledge to be had, why shouldn’t she take advantage of it? “The knowing will save me a lot of trouble. I rather like Atman Rybar. He’s very handsome and will likely continue his father’s fabric trade, which would keep us in Arthes, but sometimes he seems vain and distracted and, well, not particularly bright.” She sighed. Besides, it could be argued that he was prettier than she was. “Tanni Onund is much smarter than Atman, but he’s also rather dull.” Her words were tumbling over one another, but she didn’t want to give the witch a chance to speak again unless she was going to offer accurate and
information. “Not that I’m looking for excitement in a husband, mind you.” But there was a lot of room between
. “Then there’s—”
“It doesn’t work that way,” the witch said sharply. She was apparently unwilling to wait for Lyssa to finish before she had her say. “Your life is not laid before me like a map of the Southern Province, with well marked roads that lead to your destination and clearly marked cliffs to avoid. No, your life lies off the road, off the map. You must choose the way.” Her eyes narrowed. “Choose wisely and your life will be blessed. Choose poorly and you will spend all your long years alone. Perhaps you will wander through this very forest, as I wander, hoping for strangers to offer sustenance and companionship.” Her eyes seemed to spark, as if lightning struck there. “Trust me when I tell you, you do not want to live your life as I do.”
Those words had more impact than anything else the witch had said since she’d begun traveling with Lyssa and her father. To be alone, to have no one to turn to in good times or in bad... To perhaps end up wandering the road in her old age, crooked and mostly toothless, scaring young women with ridiculous portents...
Suddenly she could actually see herself doing exactly that, the scene forming so sharply in her mind it was as if the world around her had changed. Everything in her recoiled, and reality snapped back into place.
Lyssa shook off the dark sensations that had so briefly whipped through her. She was young, passably pretty, kind, and sought after. While she was far from being a fine lady, her father was a well-respected and successful merchant. She would not be alone, not ever. She would have her father and a caring stepmother until she married, and when the time came to choose a husband, she would have several from whom to pick. By the time she was twenty-three she would have a loving husband who would dote upon her the way her father doted on Sinmora, and they would have at least two or three children.