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The chamber lay hidden beneath the old part of the house, far from prying eyes. During Roman times, when a fortress had stood on the island, the room had been part of a catacomb of prisons, a dark place where frightened souls had been imprisoned awaiting torture and death. But that had been centuries ago.
The chains and manacles were long gone, the stone walls now lined with jars of herbs, dust-covered bottles, and books preserving knowledge forgotten by the rest of the world. The grim place had been completely transformed by feminine hands into a repository of ancient learning and a keeper of secrets. There was enough evidence stacked upon these shelves to get a woman condemned for witchcraft seven times over.
No one could have looked less like a witch than the young woman stirring the hearth’s bubbling cauldron. Ariane Cheney was tall and thin, her slender form clad in a russet brown gown protected by the apron knotted round her waist.
The orange-red light of the torches imbedded in the walls flickered over her grave features; her thick chestnut hair was demurely bundled beneath a kerchief. Ariane had an unusually solemn face for a woman barely one and twenty, her pensive gray eyes seldom given to laughter, her lips rarely transformed by a smile.
She had little to smile about these days since her mother’s death. With her father still missing, that left only Ariane to protect and care for her two younger sisters. Speculation grew daily that the Chevalier Louis Cheney’s grand voyage of exploration had come to disaster, that the Chevalier was either lost at sea or killed by natives on some hostile foreign shore.
Ariane gave the contents of the cauldron one final stir, then carefully ladled some of the clear liquid into a thick clay flagon. She carried it over to the long wooden worktable. The powder she had ground rested in the bottom of the iron mortar, a concoction partly gleaned from her books, partly from her own ingenuity.
Setting the flagon down, Ariane scooped out a spoonful of the powder. She hardly knew how much to use. It was a matter of guesswork. Ariane closed her eyes and sent up a silent prayer.
“Oh, please, please let this work.” Opening her eyes, she carefully ladled the powder into the flagon. She watched anxiously, preparing to give the potion a stir, but she never got the chance.
The reaction was immediate and violent. The liquid began to smoke and hiss, bubble and foam. As the potion roiled over the sides of the flagon, Ariane emitted a cry of dismay. She grabbed for a cloth to check the mess, but the spitting flagon forced her to retreat.
She backed away, flinging up one arm just in time as the vessel shattered, spraying the chamber with flecks of red foam and broken pottery. An acrid haze hung over the room, a sharp stench that caused Ariane to choke and her eyes to sting with tears. She flapped her cloth to clear the air and then mopped her eyes to survey the damage.
She was not hurt, but her potion had left a scorch mark on the table and burned tiny holes in her apron. Ariane had failed.
If only Maman was here to help me, Ariane thought, The familiar ache of loss tugging at her heart. It was a wish she made a dozen times every day.
Evangeline Cheney had been a true descendent of the Daughters of the Earth, as learned in the old ways as any woman who had ever lived. She had been known as a leader among wise women, the Lady of Faire Isle, a title that had passed to Ariane, but she had never felt equal to slipping into her mother’s shoes.
It had been over two years since Ariane had watched the life ebb away from the once indomitable Evangeline. Still, not a day went by that she did not miss her mother’s gentle strength, the wisdom of her counsel.
Oh, Maman, Ariane thought, to be able to hear your voice again. She wondered, would it really be so dreadful, to summon her mother’s spirit, just this once? She knew well what her mother’s answer to that question would have been. Evangeline Cheney had taught her three daughters many marvelous things, but she had solemnly adjured them against any meddling with dark magic.
Ariane forced her attention back to the mess she had made of her workshop. She had most of the broken pottery picked up when she realized that someone was shifting the trap door that concealed the way down to the hidden chamber.
Gabrielle’s voice floated down to her from the regions above. Ariane had just enough time to dump the shards of pottery into the ash bin before her sister came down the twisting stone stair with all the air of a grand duchess about to make her curtsy at the royal court.
The girl had been cutting and refitting one of her old gowns again in an effort to appear more fashionable. What had once been a sweet and simple frock had been dyed carnelian and trimmed in a rich pattern of gold embroidery. The full skirts flared out over a farthingale and opened in the front to reveal a cream-colored underskirt frothing with lace. But it was the bodice Ariane eyed with misgiving, cut too low and displaying far too much of Gabrielle’s generous bosom.
As she descended the stairs, Gabrielle lifted her skirts, managing to keep the gown clear of any stray dust with one elegant twitch of her hand. Her hair was of fairest gold, her face noted for its alabaster complexion, full red lips, and jewel-blue eyes.
She was so perfectly lovely that it often made Ariane’s heart ache to look at her. Perhaps because she missed the days when Gabrielle had not been quite so concerned about her appearance, when her little sister had torn about Faire Isle barefoot, her curls in a flyaway tangle, a smudge of paint on her cheek, as she had demanded a fresh canvas to work upon. Her hands had been callused, her nails broken from her latest effort at sculpting.
Now Gabrielle’s hands were soft, her nails perfectly manicured. It was her eyes that seemed in danger of turning hard and brittle.
“Ah, there you are. I have been looking for you everywhere,” she complained. Gabrielle rarely visited the hidden workshop and Ariane was disturbed to realize that she had not made any effort to close the concealing door above them.
“Gabrielle, I do trust that you remember this is supposed to be a secret room.”
“It is not as if all our servants don’t know that the room is here and that we are witches.”
When Ariane frowned at her, Gabrielle rolled her eyes and amended, “Oh, pardon me, I forgot. Witches is a bad word. I should have said wise women.”
“And what about any chance visitor?” Ariane demanded.
“There is no one here. Not unless you count your noble suitor.”
“What! Renard is here?” Ever since Ariane had awakened that morning to discover the mist burned off the island, she had feared his return.
“Just teasing,” Gabrielle grinned.
Ariane recovered her breath. “Blast you, Gabrielle. It is nothing to jest about. You know I have been dreading the comte’s return.”
“Ah, well, if you will persist in rescuing these stray men—”
“He was lost in the woods. All I did was point him to the right path,” Ariane retorted. The first time she had met Renard was on the mainland and he hadn’t seemed frightening or intimidating, only a man who had lost his way in the woods. The Deauville forest covered many acres and could be a treacherous place, full of wild boar and the occasional wolf. Ariane had simply led him back to safety.
She had fully expected that to be the end of the matter, never dreaming that the next time she saw Renard, he would coolly inform her that he had selected her to be his comtesse and he was arranging their wedding. Ariane had puzzled over Renard’s actions so much, it threatened to bring a permanent crease between her eyes.
Gabrielle noticed the familiar frown gathering on Ariane’s brow. “Oh, do stop worrying, Ariane. After the wedding gift we sent Monsieur le Comte—”
“The gift you sent,” Ariane corrected. “You should not have done it, Gabrielle. I don’t think it was wise to insult the comte.”
“Pooh! Insults are the only way to be rid of a man as overbearing as Renard. I doubt he’ll trouble you again.”
Gabrielle’s prank of the straw bride might have temporarily forestalled the comte, but Ariane feared that Renard, like the Deauvilles before him, was not a man to be easily defied.
Ariane turned to clean up the rest of the potion spattered across the table. As it cooled, it turned darker, assuming the appearance of spilled blood.
Gabrielle sashayed around Ariane, glancing down at the mess and wrinkling her nose. “What in the name of all the saints have you been doing down here?”
“Nothing of any success. I was trying to develop a potion to add to the soil and hopefully double our grain crop this year.”
“I thought Maman said we should never attempt to perform black magic.”
“This is science,” Ariane lifted the sopping rag and tossed it into the dustbin. Gabrielle peered at the scorch mark on the table.
“It looks to me like the kind of science that destroys crops instead of growing them.”
“I don’t seem able to get the formula right, but I have to do something to generate more funds.”
Funds that were badly needed to pay off the debts their father had left and insure that her sisters had dowries if Papa did not return. But that was not something that ever concerned Gabrielle.
She shrugged. “Why don’t you try turning lead into gold instead of attempting to burn the house down?”
Ariane glared. Repenting of her teasing, Gabrielle sidled closer to wrap her arm around Ariane’s shoulders and give her a light hug.
“Your fretting is going to give you permanent wrinkles. I have told you before, a woman’s fortune is in her face. You would be better off trying to develop some new skin creams. I could certainly use a new perfume.”
“Another perfume is the last thing you need, Gabrielle. I remember a time when you were far more interested in concocting new shades of color for your palette.”