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Authors: Jane Fletcher

Wolfsbane Winter (8 page)

BOOK: Wolfsbane Winter
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The air in the Quintanilla herb garden was thick with the scent of pollen, herbs, and wet soil. Nodding heads of gold, red, and white stood out against the vibrant green and soft purple foliage. Bees hummed between the flowers. Birds trilled from branches overhead. The garden was a riot of colors and sensations. Alana could not help comparing it with the contrived spectacle of the Midsummer parade, two days before. She should never have gone.

The herb garden was one of her mother’s better ideas, even if making a place of refuge for Alana had not been the goal. Lady Kyra’s intention had been to provide Alana with a flimsy charade of talent. There was nothing magical about herbalism, but it felt as if there should be. Medicine and poison, life and death, adorned with the trappings of ancient knowledge. Lady Kyra had worked hard to blur the boundary between mysticism and magic, for the sake of her family’s reputation.

The crunch of footsteps made Alana look up. Reyna was strolling along the gravel path.

“Hi there. Where’s Cari?”

“Her mother’s taken her visiting. Said she doesn’t need me.”

Alana smiled as she stood. The chance to spend an afternoon together was a rare luxury. She brushed the dirt off her hands and wrapped Reyna in a hug.

“So, I’ve got to put up with having you around.”

“Afraid so.” Reyna grinned. “Sorry about that.”

“Let’s go sit in the—”

A footman was hastening toward them. Alana sighed. She should have known it was too good to be true, but was more than five seconds alone with her lover really too much to ask of life?

She disentangled herself from Reyna’s arms. “Yes?”

“My lady.” The footman bowed. “Your mother and father request your presence in the main hall.”

“Do you know what it’s about?”

Alana’s question was a trifle disingenuous. Undoubtedly, the servant would know the reason behind the summons. Servants always did. Their grapevine was frightening in its scope and effectiveness. The real question was whether he would admit to whatever information he had.

“No, my lady, but High Counselor Orrin is also there, awaiting you.”

A hint was better than nothing. “Thank you. Tell them I’ll be along as soon as I’ve changed my clothes.”

The footman hurried away. Alana scowled at his retreating back, although she knew it was unfair to hold him responsible.

“Shall I come too?” Reyna asked.

“Yes. I want you there.” Alana wanted all the backup she could get.

“How about what I’m wearing?”

“You’ll be fine. You don’t have mud on you.”

No matter how keen her mother might be to promote Alana’s image as a herbalist, it would not do to meet the king’s high counselor looking as if she had been anywhere near a real, living garden.

The servants’ grapevine was obviously working impeccably. A jug of hot water was waiting for Alana by the washbasin in her room and someone had laid a selection of her best clothes out for inspection.

“Pick something suitable. You’re better at knowing what to wear than I am.” Alana threw the request over her shoulder as she scrubbed dirt from under her fingernails.

“Hey. This is nice. Is it new? I haven’t seen it before.” Reyna held up the long green robe.

“It’s one of Flor’s cast-offs.”

“Shame it’s a little too frivolous for an afternoon meeting.”

Who knew? There were time-dependent flippancy quotas for clothing. As far as Alana was concerned, if clothes fit her body contours, kept her temperature within a comfortable range, and hid everything that should be covered up in public, then they had fulfilled all the requirements made of them.

“I couldn’t wear it anyway. It needs adjusting before it will fit me.” Alana was both shorter and heavier boned than her older sister. She went back to cleaning her nails.

“What do you think Orrin wants with you?”

“I can’t imagine. You’ve got more experience of making up kiddies’ stories than I have.”

“Stories?”

Alana sighed and reached for the towel. “All the stuff about the royal family being descended from someone possessed by Lucifer. He’s made it all up.”

“Didn’t he read it in that book the traders found, from the Age of Wonders?”

“What I’ve heard is that all he’s got is a couple of half-pages and a load of dust that used to be a book.”

“He claims he’s been able to read bits of it.”

“Exactly. Bits.”

“But doesn’t it say Lucifer was a demon whose name means
light-bringer
? We know the demons were fighting each other. Good versus evil. Light versus dark. What else would demons fight over?”

“Maybe they just liked fighting, and maybe they weren’t really fighting at all. It might have been their equivalent of a football game.”

“They wouldn’t have destroyed the world for a game.”

“Why not?”

“Countless millions of people died.”

“I know. But the records from the Age of Chaos are pretty much agreed that dead humans didn’t bother the demons in the slightest.” Alana picked up the outfit Reyna had selected for her, a thigh-length blue tunic and loose black pants.

“But that would be so evil.” Reyna lent a hand, tightening up the lacing on the sleeves. “Doesn’t it stand to reason that we’re descended from the avatars of good demons? I don’t feel evil.”

“You aren’t.”

“So if a good demon like Lucifer was our ancestor, it would make sense.”

“I don’t think anything about the demons has to make sense.”

Reyna frowned in thought. “Okay. But even if it’s not totally true, if Orrin can convince the ordinary people it was the evil demons who caused all the harm, and our ancestors were on the side of good, and that they beat the evil demons and forced them to leave Earth, wouldn’t that make the commoners accept us more?”

“Queen Jacaranda didn’t need the commoners to accept her. All she needed was for her family to grow big enough so that she had the power to incinerate anybody who tried to stop her taking over in Ellaye. Once all the other demon-spawn had come out of hiding and joined her, whether or not commoners felt inclined to accept her was even more irrelevant than it had been before.”

“Wouldn’t you prefer it if the ordinary people liked us?”

Alana planted a kiss on Reyna’s cheek and then bent to pull on her soft indoor ankle boots. “You’re sweet.”

“I was being serious.”

“It’s not about liking. I don’t think Orrin worries about being liked by the commoners, any more than Queen Jacaranda did. It’s about getting more power over people.”

“Power? Why does he want more power over the commoners?”

Reyna really was so naive it was adorable. “Not over the commoners, silly. Over the rest of the nobility. You notice it’s only King Alvarro who gets Lucifer as his ancestor. The rest of us might have a demon of darkness or two in our family trees. Don’t you see how much more powerful it makes the monarchy? Instead of simply being the leader of a family of demon-spawn with enough firepower to take control of the region, the king becomes divinely sanctioned, and any attempt to disagree with him is”—Alana hunted for the concept she wanted—“sacrilege.”

“But Orrin won’t benefit from it, will he? He’s doing it for the king, not himself.”

“He’s in the process of wrapping the king around his little finger. Take my word for it, Orrin is going to end up rather more powerful, and considerably less well liked.”

Reyna looked confused. “You want people to like you, don’t you? That’s what I noticed about you. You’re kind.” She stepped closer, sliding her arms around Alana’s waist. “It’s what makes you different from the others in your family.”

Alana rested her forehead on Reyna’s shoulder. How to say that what really made her different was that she had no magical talent, and was never going to be chief marshal, or high counselor, or anyone of note? The whole game looked very different when sitting on the sidelines. And Reyna was such a gentle, loving soul, how could anyone not be kind to her? Just being in Reyna’s presence made Alana feel better disposed to all around her.

“Come on. Let’s go see what new fairy stories Orrin has been making up.”

The Quintanilla mansion had been built using material salvaged from the ruins of ancient Ellaye. The walls and floor of the main hall were faced with slabs of pale marble. An embossed line of small arches, like a row of stylized M’s, ran the length of the hall at waist height. Strange relics in primary red and yellow hung from the walls.

Alana’s parents stood on the raised dais at the top of the hall. Orrin was talking to them. He turned at Alana’s approach, and studied her thoughtfully. His smile, what could be seen through his beard, held more of satisfaction than welcome.

“Alana, I’ve been talking to your parents, and I think I might have some very good news for you.”

What was the definition of
good
, Alana wondered, and for whom. She glanced at her parents. They looked happy but mystified, so presumably Orrin had not yet shared the details with them. He beckoned her closer. Alana forced her legs to obey, although she felt the sudden urge to flee. Something about his manner seemed so predatory. All her self-control was needed not to flinch when he held his hand out to her face, stopping a few inches short of cupping her cheek.

“Alana. Have you ever wondered why the daughter of two such notable mages should be without talent? Hmm?”

Alana gave a vaguely acquiescent shrug. Certainly her parents had wondered enough to make up for any lack of curiosity on her part.

“The answer, my dear, is simple. I have felt the stirrings of talent in you. It seethes below the surface of your mind. And yet it is trapped within you, held back and repressed.”

“She has a talent? What?” Lady Kyra’s voice crackled with excitement.

“Ahhhhhh.” Orrin drew out the sound, as if to torment everyone by delaying the pronouncement. “Now that’s the question, isn’t it?” He raised his other hand, also holding it a few inches from the side of Alana’s face, moving slowly, as if her head were a fire and he was warming his hands around it.

After a minute or more, his arms dropped. “I believe she has the same talent as myself. That is what I read in her, a kindred soul.”

No kindred of yours.
Alana stamped on the thought before it could show in her expression, and then wondered why she felt such immediate need to reject the idea.

Her father clearly did not share her aversion, but still needed convincing. “Why doesn’t she show any sign of it?”

“Maybe in part because she’s unaware that what her talent tells her is more than a simple, normal emotional reaction to the people she meets. But I think mainly it’s because she’s somehow blocking the full exercise of her own magic.”

“Alana?” Lady Kyra’s tone demanded an answer.

“I’m not. I’d know if I was.”

Orrin shook his head, making his beard waggle. “Not necessarily. If you’ve been doing it since you were a baby, by now it may be a subconscious response in you. Something you give no more thought to than you do to breathing.”

“Can you stop her doing it?”

Once more, Orrin raised his hand to Alana’s head, looking thoughtful. “I think so. The barriers are strong, but they can be broken down and swept away.”

“I don’t think I—” Alana got no chance to raise any objections.

For the first time Orrin touched her, laying a finger on her lips. “I know it must seem strange, even frightening to you, but great times are ahead for all Galvonia, and the talent you and I share will be called on. Traitors must be found and weeded out. Doubters must be given faith. Protestors must be convinced.”

With a tremor of shock, Alana realized that Orrin’s lips were not moving. His words were forming directly in her head, unheard by the others in the room.

Orrin nodded slowly, and then again started speaking aloud. “Yes. These barriers must be stripped away.” He removed his finger from Alana’s lips and gave a small regal bow to Lady Kyra. “I’ll leave now and make my preparations. They will not take long, three days at most. I’ll summon your daughter once all is ready.”

Alana wanted to make her own escape from the hall immediately after Orrin had left. Unfortunately, her parents had other ideas. They seemed to be under the delusion that if they asked the same questions fifteen times, Alana would spontaneously acquire more information to give them, whereas the only clear thought in her head was that she had three days to think of a way out of it.

At last she was allowed to go. With the door of her room finally closed, Alana rested her back against it and closed her eyes. Her relief turned out to be short-lived.

“Can you read minds?”

“Oh please, Reyna, not you too.”

“I’m sorry.”

Alana felt Reyna’s hand on her arm and the calming balm of her presence.

“I’m not a mind-mage.”

But even as Alana said it, doubts assailed her. She realized that she truly did feel Reyna’s presence, a sensation every bit as precise as touch. Was that normal? Surely everyone drew strength and comfort from having their lover nearby. She was aware that Reyna was teetering between hope and bewilderment, but was any magical ability needed to know this?

BOOK: Wolfsbane Winter
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