When seers Céline and Amelie Fawe fled Shetâna under threat of death, they vowed never to return. Yet, less than a year later, they are summoned back—to aid the man who once tried to kill them.…
The cruel prince Damek is on the verge of closing marriage negotiations with the powerful family of a young noblewoman when his intended’s sister is murdered. To keep the engagement from falling through, Damek must expose the killer quickly—and he needs the seers’ powers to do so. Though the Fawes’ patron, Prince Anton, fears that bringing Céline and Amelie to Shetâna places them in grave danger, he is honor-bound to help his brother Damek.
Only none of them is prepared for the peril that awaits them at Castle Kimovesk—for someone in the court is determined to prevent the marriage from happening, no matter how deadly the cost.…
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PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS OF THE MIST-TORN WITCHES
By Barb Hendee
Castle Kimovesk: Western Droevinka
I was in the dining hall when Carlotta died.
Although I had done everything possible to bring about her death, my success still surprised me. Until that moment, I’d not been entirely certain my efforts would work.
There were seven people sitting around the long, solid oak table, including Prince Damek—who sat at the head with an almost civilized expression on his normally feral face. The meal was a celebration of his own impending wedding . . . with the bride’s entire family in attendance.
His bride-to-be, the pretty Rochelle, sat with her eyes downcast, for all practical purposes looking the part of the sacrificial lamb.
Her mother, the Lady Helena, and her uncle, Lord Hamish, sat one on each side of her, and her elder sister, Carlotta, had been seated as far from Damek as possible. This came as no surprise—as Carlotta lacked both beauty and charm. Her coarse hair was pulled into a bun at the nape of her neck, and her tight, angry mouth always appeared pursed as if she existed in a state of perpetual judgment over everyone else.
I had no pity for her. She was the main orchestrator behind this impending wedding, and she had to die.
So far, no food had been served, only dark red wine.
Almost as if on cue, Carlotta took a sip from her goblet. I’d been hoping she would do that. Then she tried to swallow.
My eyes locked on to her in a kind of fascination.
“Is the wine to your taste?” Prince Damek asked Rochelle, as if he cared for her feelings.
I paid no mind to Rochelle’s politely murmured answer and kept my attention on Carlotta’s face . . . waiting.
She attempted to swallow again, and her eyes began to widen as she struggled to breathe. Triumph flooded through me.
“Are you well, my dear?” Lady Helena asked, looking more embarrassed than concerned.
Then Carlotta turned red and half stood, with one large sinewy hand grasping her throat and the other gripping the table. In all my life, I’d never felt such satisfaction, such power. I hoped she would not die too quickly. I wanted her to feel fear, to feel pain.
Her eyes bulged as several people around the table finally realized she was in genuine distress, and they jumped to their feet, moving to help her.
It would do no good.
“Is she choking?” Lord Hamish asked.
“No!” Rochelle cried. “None of us have eaten anything. She only took a sip of her wine.” Her hand reached out toward her sister. “Carlotta!”
Ugly sounds came from Carlotta as her face twisted and she fell backward. Lord Hamish caught her, and Lady Helena gasped.
Prince Damek strode toward them, and the sight of his alarm brought waves of pleasure flowing through me. He didn’t care two bits of straw for the life of Carlotta, but it certainly wouldn’t look well for him to have his impending bride’s sister die at the dinner table.
Carlotta made one final struggle to breathe, and then she went rigid in her uncle’s arms—with her eyes still bulging.
“She’s dead,” Lord Hamish said in stunned disbelief. He raised his gaze to Damek and then lowered it to Carlotta’s wine goblet.
I fought not to smile.
Village Surrounding Castle Sèone, Southwest Droevinka
Three days later
Céline Fawe almost couldn’t believe it when old Master Colby half limped through the front door of her apothecary shop, the Betony and Beech . . . again.
He’d come here every other day for the past three weeks.
“Master Colby,” she said, trying to hide her mild exasperation, “I thought I told you to give the juniper elixir more time to work.”
He glanced around and seemed pleased. “Your sister isn’t here?”
That was obvious, but Master Colby did not care for Céline’s younger sister, Amelie.
“No, she’s at the market buying bread. She should be back by now. How can I help you?”
“The pain is terrible,” he answered, and then lowered his voice. “And it’s . . . moved.” He placed his hand on his left side.
Really, he was a harmless aging man with too much money and no family. He was short and walked with a pronounced stoop that made him appear even shorter. His hair was thick and gray, and his nose was reddened from an overfondness of strong spirits. Most of all, he was lonely for company other than his own.
At the moment, however, Céline stood behind her work counter, and she was wrist deep in goose fat—working on a salve for burns made from purple opine flowers. Her large orange cat, Oliver, sat on top of the counter, stealing a paw full of goose grease now and then when he thought she wasn’t watching.
Céline was busy.
She was well aware that the front room of the shop was a welcoming and cheery place and that people did like to visit. There was the sturdy counter running half the length of the room, and the walls were lined with shelves of clay pots and jars. The wooden table was covered in a variety of accoutrements such as a pestle and mortar, brass scales, small wooden bowls, and an open box of tinder and flint. A large hearth composed the center of the south wall. A set of swinging doors in the east wall led through to a storage area and bedroom.
Master Colby gazed across the front room and over the top of the counter with a kind of pathetic hope.
“Let me wipe my hands. I’ll come and look,” Céline said, summoning some pity.
Gratitude washed over his face. His eyes focused on her hair, and she suppressed a sigh. She knew most men found her pretty, but in addition to working as an apothecary, she also made some of her living as a “seer,” and it was necessary to look the part.
She was small and slender. She wore a red velvet gown, which fit her body snuggly, a good deal of the time. Her overly abundant mass of dark blond hair hung in waves to the small of her back, and both she and her sister, Amelie, had inherited their mother’s lavender eyes.
Until last spring, Céline and Amelie had been living in a grubby little village, running a much smaller shop, often taking skinny chickens and turnips as payment. But fate and mixed fortune had landed them in the prosperous village of Sèone, living in this fine shop, with the protection and patronage of Prince Anton of the house of Pählen.
All in all, their lives were much improved.
And yet . . . there had been a few surprises, such as patrons like Master Colby. Céline couldn’t help expressing kindness for those who suffered, and more than a few people in Sèone had money to spare.
Unfortunately, a few of them had absolutely nothing better to do than visit her several times a week, to tell her about their pains and aches and troubles with various foods and difficulties sleeping. She could always be found here and had become somewhat of a target. These customers paid her well, but in several cases, she was beginning to feel as if she was being paid for her company rather than her skills as an apothecary, and she wasn’t quite sure what to do about it.
Perhaps she needed to be a little less sympathetic and a little more businesslike? The prospect seemed unkind.
Master Colby shuffled closer. “And my bowels are loose,” he whispered in conspiratorial tones.
Céline steeled herself. This could not continue.
Though she was now close enough to touch him, she did not.
“Did you eat cheese and drink spirits with your dinner last night?” she asked.
He blinked in surprise. Although she had counseled him on various things not to eat or drink, she’d never approached the subject so bluntly before.
“Well . . . ,” he stammered, thrown off balance by her lack of pity.
On the inside, she felt awful for doing this, but it was necessary if anything was going to change. Summer was over, autumn was upon them, and Céline would need to spend a good deal of time harvesting herbs and rose petals to prepare medicinal supplies for the village for the coming winter. Soon, she’d be tending people with coughs and fevers.
Before Master Colby could continue, she said, “Your bowels can no long properly digest cheese, rich butter, and strong spirits. If you stick to vegetables, bread, and baked meat or fish, I promise you will feel better soon. If you must drink something besides water or tea, take a little wine with meals . . . perhaps just half a goblet. Continue with a few spoonfuls of the juniper oil I sent home with you—to protect your stomach.”
He blinked again. “But the pain is fierce, right here.” He lifted the left side of his shirt.
“Master Colby,” she said, not looking down at his exposed side. “I have given you the best counsel possible. It is up to you to follow my advice. Try my suggestions for at least four days, and if you are not feeling better, come back to see me.” She stepped away. “Now, if you will excuse me, I do need to finish making this ointment.”
Her tone was final, and he now looked at her as if she’d somehow betrayed him. “I don’t pay for advice on what I should eat,” he snapped.
“Of course not. Good day.” She walked to the door and opened it.
Angry—and possibly hurt—he turned and shuffled out of the shop.
Céline sighed, still feeling regretful over having treated him so coldly, but without hesitation, she closed the door and went back to work on the ointment. People tended to burn themselves far more often in the winter than in the summer—from building more fires—and she needed to be prepared.
* * *
Amelie Fawe had been returning from the market, carrying fresh bread and a sack of autumn pears. She’d almost reached her home, the Betony and Beech apothecary shop, when she saw who was entering the front door—old Master Colby—and she froze.
“Not again,” she muttered, looking around for a place to hide.
She wasn’t going in there until he left. Why Céline put up with some of these people was a mystery. Well . . . a few of them paid well, but it wasn’t as if the sisters needed the money that badly.
Instead of hiding, Amelie decided to continue on down the street, sauntering as if she’d never paused. She would walk around a little while and then go back. In truth, she liked being outdoors in the colorful streets of Sèone.
But she did wish Céline would learn to be a bit more firm with some of the people who took advantage of her kindness. It seemed that no matter what, Céline could always at least pretend to be sympathetic.
How did she do it?
Amelie and Céline had depended upon each other almost entirely since they were orphaned when Céline was fifteen and Amelie was twelve. But they were nothing alike in either temperament or appearance.
They both had their mother’s lavender eyes, but that was all.
Having recently observed her eighteenth birthday, Amelie was even shorter than Céline. But where Céline was slight, Amelie’s build showed a hint of strength and muscle. She despised dresses and always wore breeches, a man’s shirt, a canvas jacket, and boots. She’d inherited their father’s straight black hair, which she’d cropped into a bob that hung almost to her shoulders. She wore a sheathed dagger on her left hip—which she knew how to use—and she kept a short sword back at the shop, but she normally didn’t wear it out in the village, as there was no need.
Most people found her a bit peculiar, but she didn’t care.
Last spring, she and Céline had come to live here when they proved themselves useful to Prince Anton—who ruled Castle Sèone and its six surrounding fifes. Both sisters possessed a unique “gift.” Céline could read a person’s future—just by touching him—and Amelie could read a person’s past.
More than once, Prince Anton had leaned upon these abilities in order to search out murderers or anyone who might be a threat to his people.
However . . . late summer and early autumn had been rather quiet, offering the sisters a reprieve, and after their last adventure for Prince Anton, Amelie was glad for Céline to have a little peace. Most of the things they were asked to solve involved blood and death and madness.
Céline often needed time to recover afterward.
Swinging the bag of pears, Amelie came back around the corner and peered down the street toward the shop.
To her relief, Céline opened the front door and held it as Master Colby shuffled out.
He didn’t look happy.
Still, Amelie waited until he was well out of sight before walking to the shop and heading through the front door herself. Inside, Céline was back behind her work counter with her hands in goose grease and purple opine. Oliver watched the pail of goose grease with great interest. He would do better to go and catch mice. Wasn’t that his job here?
“Bought some pears,” Amelie said, lifting the sack.
“Mmm?” Céline answered absently. She seemed troubled.
“Nothing . . . I . . . Master Colby was just here again, and I had to . . .” She trailed off and shook her head. “Nothing.”
Amelie frowned slightly, wondering what had happened. Maybe Céline had taken a firmer hand with the old boy after all. It was about time.
“I’ll make tea. Do we still have butter?” Amelie asked. “I forgot to check before I left.”
She didn’t care for bread without butter.
Céline looked up from her work, but before she could answer, the front door burst open so hard that it slammed against the wall.
“And I’m telling you!” a female voice bellowed. “I never touched your hammer!”
“Then who did?” a deep voice bellowed back. “It didn’t just walk off by itself!”
Amelie whirled, her mouth falling partway open at the sight of Bernard, Sèone’s massive blacksmith, and his diminutive wife, Abigail, both striding into the shop. Amelie had never seen either of them so angry, and both were well-known for their tempers.
To make matters worse, their daughter, Erin, was a good friend of Céline’s—and had even given her Oliver as a gift—so Amelie felt she could not comment on what she considered Bernard and Abigail’s very poor manners.
Céline, however, came around the side of the counter, wiping her hands on cloth. “What in the world is wrong?” she asked. “Abigail, if that door just damaged the wall, you’re paying to have it fixed.”
Amelie was surprised by her tone. Céline was indeed in a strange mood today.
“What?” Abigail nearly shouted at Céline, and then she seemed to come back to herself and glanced at the still-open door. “Oh, I’m sorry, my dear,” she apologized, “but I’m in such a state.” She motioned toward Bernard with one hand. “This . . . this madman is accusing me of taking his good hammer and hiding it! As if I have nothing better to do than sneak into his smithy and hide his tools just to vex him.”
“She did!” Bernard cut in. His long, dark hair and beard swung as he turned to Céline. “I was out playing cards last night, and I lost a bit . . . just a bit, mind you, of coin, and she didn’t want me to go in the first place. She hid my good hammer so I’d be forced to use my old one and take twice as much time for the same work. She’s punishing me.”
Abigail threw both hands in the air. “Do you hear him? As if I’d be so petty.”
Actually . . . from what Amelie had seen of Abigail, it seemed more than possible that she could be so petty, but Amelie didn’t say this.
Céline stepped closer. “Why exactly did you come to us?”
“So you can tell him I didn’t take it,” Abigail said, crossing her arms. “Do a reading and tell him where it is.”
Céline shook her head. “Abigail . . . my gift doesn’t work that way. I cannot see Bernard’s hammer by looking into his future and—”
“No, not you,” Bernard interrupted. “Amelie. She can read this she-devil’s past and tell me where my hammer’s been hidden!”
Céline’s expression was growing more flummoxed by the moment—and Amelie could certainly see why. Indeed, there had never been such a scene inside the shop.
“Two silver pennies,” Amelie said from where she stood near the hearth.
The room fell silent, and all three other occupants turned to look at her.
“Oh, Amelie,” Céline said in some embarrassment. “I don’t think we should charge Abigail and Bernard for our services,”
This was another of Céline’s weakness: hesitance at taking money from those she considered friends. But Amelie didn’t do readings for free—or at least not for anyone but Prince Anton, who’d given them this shop.
“Of course you should be paid,” Abigail said, reaching into the pocket of her apron. “I’d pay double to see this great oaf proven wrong.”
“And I’d pay triple to see this harpy admit her guilt!” Bernard shouted.
“Please,” Céline said, her expression shifting from flummoxed to flustered. “Lower your voices. People can hear you in the street.”
Amelie had no objections to a good dispute and had been known on occasion to raise her own voice, so she stood with her left hand out as Abigail dropped the two silver pennies into her palm.
“Who should I read?” Amelie asked.
“Her,” Bernard answered instantly, “and tell me where my hammer is.”
Abigail went red in the face. “Fine.”
Amelie reached out and grasped Abigail’s small, roughened hand and closed her eyes. She focused her thoughts first on the spark of Abigail’s spirit, and then she pictured Bernard’s hammer—which she had seen at the forge more than once—in her mind, holding the image firm. If Abigail had anything to show her, Amelie would soon be caught up in the mists and see a clear image of the past.
After a moment, she said, “Bernard, I’m not seeing anything.”
“Then you’re not looking hard enough,” the blacksmith answered.
“Read him,” Abigail challenged. “See if he has anything to show you.”
With a shrug, Amelie walked over to Bernard and grasped one of his enormous fingers. He didn’t object, but he frowned. Amelie closed her eyes and focused on the spark of his spirit and then on an image of the hammer.
The first jolt hit her almost instantly, and she braced herself.
When the second jolt hit, she experienced a now familiar sensation, as if her body were being swept along a tunnel of mist. For a moment she forgot everything but speeding backward through the mists all around her as they swirled in tones of grays and whites.
The mists vanished and an image flashed before her. She found herself standing inside a small house. Bernard was there, along with young Hugh, one of Sèone’s thatchers. Amelie knew him slightly. Inside the memory, they would not see her. She was only an observer. Her body was still back in the shop.
“Oh, Bernard, those are quite fine,” Hugh said. “Thank you.”
Outside the window, the sun was setting as evening approached.
“Let me just make sure they’re the right size,” Bernard answered. He stood in front of an open doorway, lacking an actual door, and he held up a new hinged iron bracket where the back of a door would be hung. In his left hand . . . was his good hammer. “Yes, these will do nicely. Do you want me to attach them for you?”
“No, I can do that myself. But come have an ale for your trouble.”
Looking pleased, Bernard leaned his hammer against the wall and went to the table to join Hugh. A moment later, both men were chatting and enjoying large cups of ale.
The room vanished, and Amelie was once again sailing through the mists, this time moving forward.
Opening her eyes, she found herself back in the apothecary shop looking up at Bernard. “Um . . . did you visit Hugh the Thatcher yesterday before you went to play cards?”
Bernard stared at her for the span of a few breaths, and then he went pale.
“I think you’ll find your hammer is still at Hugh’s,” Amelie finished.
“Ha!” Abigail said. “I told you I didn’t take it. Don’t you ever go accusing me of sneaking into your smith and hiding your tools again.” Her hands were firmly on her hips. “And you owe me an apology.”
Bernard’s face was still pale, but he managed to draw himself up to his full height and resume some semblance of dignity. “Well . . . I was mistaken this time.”
“Mistaken indeed.” Abigail swept past him toward the front door, glancing back over her shoulder at Amelie. “Thank you, my dear. Money well spent.”
Bernard opened his mouth to say something, closed it again, and followed his wife outside.
Once the sisters were alone, Céline leaned back against the counter. “That was awkward.”
“Really?” Amelie tossed the two coins in the air. “I rather enjoyed it.”
* * *
Lieutenant Kirell Jaromir sat at a table in his private office inside the barracks for the guards of Castle Sèone. Corporal Luka Pavel sat directly across from him, and the two men were busy discussing possible changes in the rotation of the watch. They both wore wool shirts, chain armor, and the tan tabards of Prince Anton of the house of Pählen.
“You’ve had Guardsman Rurik on night duty for too long,” Pavel said. “I’d change him out for Voulter.”
Jaromir nodded, glad that he and Pavel had reached a stage of easy camaraderie again. Over the summer, there had been some . . . unpleasantness between them, but they’d managed to put it in the past. While Jaromir believed in unwavering discipline, he didn’t care for tension on a personal level and much preferred what he thought of as “smooth sailing.” It was in his nature.
For most of his life, something about him had put other people at ease.
In his early thirties, he knew he wasn’t exactly handsome, but he wore a small goatee around his mouth and kept his light brown hair tied back at the nape of his neck. From his weathered skin to the scars on his hands, most elements of his appearance gave him away as a hardened soldier, but he could live with that. After all, he was a hardened soldier. He liked to view himself as tough but fair, and he was comfortable inside his own skin.
He also held almost absolute power over the law in Sèone, second only to Prince Anton himself.
“All right,” he answered Pavel. “Rotate Voulter with Rurik. And we should probably pull Sergeant Bazin off the front gate and give him another assignment. He’s been down there too long as well.”
Pavel had a long stick of charcoal in his right hand and a piece of paper on the table in front of him. He made a note. “Anyone else?”
“No, I think that’s it.” Jaromir studied the young corporal briefly.
Pavel was a younger man with cropped dark hair and a long, lanky build. He was good in a fight, able to take on two or three men at the same time, and he was steady and dependable . . . with one exception.
His behavior toward Céline Fawe.
For reasons Jaromir didn’t fully understand, Corporal Pavel had become obsessed with Céline to the point of using physical strength to keep her from walking away from him, and he’d once pinned her against a tree to try to force her to speak to him.
Jaromir had put a stop to that.
He was not only fond of Céline as a friend; he had great respect for her abilities as a healer and a seer, and it was his job to protect her. Pavel had resented his interference last summer, but he seemed to have gotten over it and had stayed away from Céline.
Hopefully, the problem was gone.
Jaromir stood. His sheathed long sword was leaning against the table. He picked it up and strapped it on. Then he reached out for a set of crutches, also leaning against the table, and passed them over to Pavel.
That was another unfortunate occurrence over the summer. Pavel’s horse had fallen while crossing a river. When the horse jumped back up, Pavel’s foot had been in the stirrup, and his shin had snapped. Thankfully, Céline had been able to set the bone and splint the leg quickly. It was nearly healed now. The splints were off, but he still needed crutches.
Céline had assured Jaromir that within another moon or so, Pavel would be running again.
Jaromir was grateful for this even though Pavel had been managing his duties in the castle and village quite well on crutches.
“I’m going to head for the main hall and see if supper is laid out yet,” Pavel said. “I’m starving.”
Jaromir hid a smile. “I’ll come with you.”
Pavel was always starving. Where did he put all the food he ate?
Just as Pavel had both crutches positioned under his arms, the sound of trotting footsteps echoed from the passage outside, followed by a quick knock on the door.
“Sir?” someone called.
“Come,” Jaromir called back.
The door opened, and Guardsman Rimoux peered in, panting and appearing somewhat unsettled.
“What’s wrong?” Jaromir asked.
After a short hesitation, Rimoux answered, “Sir, there’s a messenger down at the outer gate.”
Puzzled, possibly annoyed, Jaromir frowned. “Well, let him in and bring him up.”
Rimoux shifted his weight between his feet. “I . . . he’s wearing a black tabard.”
In this part of Droevinka, solid black tabards were worn only by soldiers who served Prince Damek, who was Prince Anton’s older brother . . . and his enemy.
* * *
Not long past dusk, Céline and Amelie found themselves hurrying through the streets of the village, making their way up to the castle.
They had been summoned—via a delivered message at the shop.
“Anton’s never called us this late before,” Amelie said, sounding worried. “Maybe someone is ill, and he needs your skills?”
“Then why didn’t he say so in his message? If that was the case, he’d have asked me to bring my box of medicines.”
Amelie didn’t answer her.
Céline had a bad feeling their peaceful reprieve had come to an end and that Anton was about to make another . . . request.
The two sisters pressed onward and upward through the people and the shops and the dwellings of the village as the castle loomed large above them. Finally, they reached a short bridge leading across a gap to a huge doorway at the front of the castle. Céline glanced at the pulley system on the other side that would allow the bridge to be raised, thus cutting off access to the castle—if ever necessary.
They crossed the bridge and entered the great walled courtyard. Inside, soldiers and horses came into view, and a few men nodded a greeting at the sisters, who were well-known here, as they walked past.
After crossing the courtyard, Céline and Amelie passed through a large entryway inside the castle itself. They walked down a stone passage and emerged into the great common hall. An enormous, burning hearth had been built in the wall directly across from the arched entrance. Servants and more soldiers in tan tabards were milling around. The hall seemed alive with dogs as well, spaniels, bloodhounds, and wolfhounds.
Céline looked around for either Jaromir or Prince Anton, but saw neither.
As she scanned the hall, her gaze stopped and her stomach tightened when she spotted Corporal Pavel standing near a table, leaning on his crutches, staring at her.
Immediately, she looked away.
I am safe here, she told herself.
To the right of her was a closed door—which led to a small side chamber. Céline was familiar with the interior of that chamber, as Anton often used it for private discussions, so she wasn’t surprised when the door opened and Lieutenant Jaromir stepped out.
He paused in his tracks at the sight of Céline and Amelie and then motioned with his hand. They went to him.
“Good, you’re here,” he said, stating the obvious. His expression was tense, and Céline’s trepidation began to grow.
As the delivered message had sounded urgent, simply saying, “Come at once,” neither sister had bothered to change or even check her personal appearance before leaving the shop and hurrying up to the castle. Amelie’s hair was uncombed, her pants were dusty, and her face was smudged with goose grease, as she’d been helping to fill small jars with the burn ointment. Normally, had she appeared for a castle audience in such a state, Jaromir would have teased her without mercy.
Céline knew the relationship between Jaromir and Amelie was . . . complicated, and he often compensated by making jokes at her expense until she grew angry and shot back a retort. This seemed to relieve a little tension for them both.
But now he didn’t even notice the smears of goose grease.
“Come in,” he said, stepping back inside the room. Perhaps he had only come out to see if they’d arrived.
Again, Céline was not surprised to see Prince Anton waiting inside. His brown eyes moved to her face, and, as always, she felt unsettled but not uncomfortable in his presence.
Approaching his mid-twenties, Anton was of medium height with a slender build. When she first came to Sèone, he’d been ill, but he was now fully recovered and his frame had filled out with tight muscles that showed through the sleeves of his shirt. His face was pale with narrow, even features, and he kept his straight brown hair tucked behind his ears.
From behind, Céline heard Jaromir close the door.
The room was small, with a single table, two chairs, and no window. Several candles glowed from the table. No one sat down.
“Something has happened?” she asked Anton.
His gaze moved from her to Amelie and back to her again, lingering on her red velvet dress. She realized he hadn’t seen it in quite some time, as she always dressed carefully before coming up to the castle, normally in silk or dyed wool.
Anton was a difficult—almost impossible—person to know, but whenever he looked at her, his expression wavered between overly guarded and lonely.
“I disturbed you at work,” he said.
Goodness. She and Amelie both must look a sight for Anton to make such a comment.
“Yes, we came as soon as your message arrived.”
“What’s wrong?” Amelie asked him, sounding worried and impatient.
Jaromir stepped over beside Anton, but neither man spoke for a moment, and Céline’s trepidation turned to anxiety.
“My lord,” she said, looking at Anton, “please say something or I will imagine the worst. Has your father died without naming an heir? Is the village somehow at risk?”
Her words startled him, and a flash of guilt crossed his face. “No . . . forgive me. It’s nothing like that.” There was a sheet of paper on the table, and he picked it up. “I’ve had a letter . . . from my brother.”
“Damek?” Amelie asked in alarm. “Why would he be writing to you?”
Jaromir cast a look of warning her way—as he often felt that she didn’t show Anton proper respect.
However, Anton didn’t appear to notice Amelie’s lack of manners, and he walked closer, holding out the letter. “It seems our father has arranged a marriage for Damek to a young noblewoman from the line of Quillette on her father’s side, but whose mother is sister to Prince Rodêk’s mother.”
Céline went still at this news.
Droevinka had no hereditary king. Instead, it was a land of many princes, each one heading his own noble house and overseeing multiple fiefdoms. But . . . they all served a single grand prince, and a new grand prince was elected every nine years by the gathered heads of the noble houses. At present, Prince Rodêk of the house of Äntes was in rule.
“A marriage for Damek?” Céline repeated. “To a first cousin of Prince Rodêk.”
Her mind raced over the ramifications of this. Within two years, a new grand prince would be voted in.
Anton and Damek were sons of the house of Pählen. Their father, Prince Lieven, controlled a large province in the western region. He’d given Damek, who was the elder brother, a castle and seven large fiefs to oversee. He’d given Anton a better castle but six smaller fiefs. These assignments were a chance for each young man to prove himself. But Prince Lieven had been aging rapidly in recent days, and it was rumored he would soon be naming a successor as leader of the house of Pählen. It was his right to choose between his sons, and should a victor be chosen within the next two years, then he would have the right to place his name on the voting list for the position of grand prince.
Both brothers wanted this honor.
The ugly result was that it pitted them against each other—and Damek had proven himself not above attempted assassination.
“What does this mean?” Amelie broke in. “That your father is preferring Damek to you?”
“I don’t know,” Anton responded. “I think it’s more likely that my father is trying to shore up our family’s funds and connections. Though Prince Rodêk’s mother comes from a noble family, it’s not a royal one . . . but they are very wealthy. Via her marriage, she’s been part of the royal family for many years, and so this new bride, her niece, brings both royal connections and money.”
“And you’re worried?” Amelie asked, less alarmed now, but clearly puzzled.
“No, I have no interest in whomever Damek marries.” He held out the letter. “But something . . . unfortunate has happened, and Damek has asked for my help.”
“Your help?” Amelie asked, incredulous.
Indeed, Céline could hardly believe she’d heard correctly herself, and Jaromir’s expression darkened until her anxiety began to grow again.
“Yes,” Anton continued, with his eyes focused on the wall now. “The bride’s name is Rochelle Quillette. Damek invited her and her entire family to Castle Kimovesk for an extended visit . . . I’m still not certain why. It’s possible they requested it before approving the marriage. Several nights ago, at a small banquet in the dining hall, Rochelle’s elder sister, Carlotta, took a sip of wine at the table and then died, apparently murdered by something in her goblet.”
“Murdered?” Céline gasped.
“Of course Rochelle’s family immediately began packing to leave,” he continued. “Damek stopped them by promising he would root out whoever was responsible and see the killer executed. For now, he’s convinced them to stay, but the betrothal is in jeopardy.” Anton paused. “Damek knows something of you and Amelie, or at least that I have two seers at my court who have been solving such difficulties for me. He requests your assistance.”
“Us . . . go to Castle Kimovesk?” Céline tried to absorb this. “My lord, you can’t mean it.”
She and Amelie had grown up in the village of Shetâna under Damek’s rule. They both knew the extent of his savagery.
Anton’s eyes flew to her face. “I would never ask you to go to that place on your own. I will take you myself.”
“It’s a trap,” Amelie stated. “He’s just trying to lure you out of here.”
“Possibly,” Anton agreed, “but I can’t refuse.”
Moving even closer to Céline, he showed her the letter and pointed to the last line.
Our father is anxious that this marriage should take place.
Céline fought not to wince as she read those words. Once again, the wishes of Anton’s father would rule the outcome of a dilemma. Anton couldn’t refuse to assist in anything his father requested, even if it meant placing himself under the power of his brother.
She looked at Amelie. “We have to go.”
Amelie breathed out through her nose and paced across the room. “At least we know it could be a trap.” She glanced at Jaromir. “And there’s no one better at security than you. I assume you’ve already begun to choose a contingent from your men?”
The open compliment surprised Céline. Amelie might think well of Jaromir—very well—but she never said it.
The lieutenant nodded. “Yes, of course, and I was thinking I might take—”
“Jaromir?” Anton said, shaking his head. “No, you’re not coming with us. You’re staying to guard the castle and the village.”
Whirling on one foot, Jaromir stared at Anton.
* * *
Amelie froze at Jaromir’s expression as she tried to take in what Anton saying.
“My lord!” Jaromir exploded. “You cannot walk into Castle Kimovesk alone!”
Céline dropped her gaze. Jaromir never openly disagreed with Anton. Never.
Amelie, however, did not drop her gaze, and instead, she watched Anton’s face tighten in anger. He was a good prince, a fair one, but he ruled here, and he was accustomed to being obeyed.
Jaromir suddenly remembered himself and put one hand to his forehead in agitation. “Forgive me,” he breathed. “But you know I’m right. My place is at your side.”
Anton’s face softened. “As we have all agreed that this could be a trap set for me, it could just as easily be a ploy to lure us both away from Sèone. I would put nothing past my brother.” He motioned to the sword strapped to Jaromir’s side. “And you often forget that I am nearly as skilled with a blade as you. I can protect Céline and Amelie.”
“And who will protect you?” Céline asked. “If Jaromir is not to go, then who will lead your contingent and act as bodyguard?”
Everyone fell silent for a moment, as if this was a difficult question—which it was. Most princes of the noble houses had captains and lieutenants to spare. Because of the odd history of the creation of Castle Sèone’s current forces, Jaromir, as a lieutenant, was the highest-ranking officer, and for reasons he would not explain to Amelie, he refused to let Anton promote him to captain. This did not mean he was viewed as weak. The princes of the other houses respected—even feared—Jaromir, but it did make the state of affairs unusual.
“Who is your most trusted second?” Anton asked Jaromir.
“Corporal Pavel.” Jaromir glanced at Céline, who had gone still, and he rushed to add, “But he’s recovering from a broken leg and cannot yet ride.”
Amelie felt a rush of gratitude toward Jaromir. Injured leg or not, Pavel could not be chosen to lead their contingent.
“What about Guardsman Rurik?” Céline suggested. “I found him most reliable on our last journey.”
“Guardsman?” Jaromir echoed. “Guardsman Rurik?”
“You object to the man’s low rank?” Anton asked.
“Of course I do,” Jaromir sputtered.
“He is both even-tempered and brave,” Céline went on. “Up in Ryazan, when we faced those wolf-beasts, he rushed one of them with nothing but a spear and impaled it.”
“Truly?” Anton said, and then turned to Jaromir. “Promote him, and then you handpick the rest of our contingent. This is a family visit, so I don’t want a large show of force. Choose twenty men.” He turned back to Céline. “We leave tomorrow. I want you and Amelie to sleep in a room here at the castle tonight. We have preparations to make. If you need anything from home, give Jaromir a list, and he’ll have it brought up.”
He did not bother to address Amelie, but she didn’t care. She cast a quick look at Jaromir, who almost appeared to be in pain. He met her gaze, and she’d never seen him so exposed, so helpless. He hated this.
Still, Prince Anton had spoken.
Jaromir would remain behind, while Céline and Amelie and the prince would ride into Kimovesk . . . to solve another murder.
Not long after, Céline and Amelie followed a familiar route into the stairwell of the north tower of the castle. At the third landing, they stepped off and made their way down a passage to the room they always shared when staying here—which was not often.
Upon opening the door, Céline looked in to see the room readied and pristine as if they’d been expected.
The four-poster mahogany bed had been made up and covered in a sunflower yellow quilt. Interior shutters over the long window were open, letting misty light filter inside.
A full-length mirror with a pewter frame stood in one corner and a mahogany wardrobe stood in the other. Dainty damask-covered chairs had been placed in front of a dressing table that sported a porcelain washbasin. A three-tiered dressing screen offered privacy for changing clothes. Best of all, the room contained its own small hearth.
Céline went to the window and looked down. They were on the inner side of the tower and had a view of the courtyard below.
She turned back to watch Amelie enter and close the door. The sisters were alone.
Amelie’s face was as tense as Céline felt inside, but Céline had no idea what to say.
“I know . . . ,” Amelie began slowly. “I know we owe Anton our lives and our livelihood. I know we agreed to use our abilities whenever he called us, but this is different.”
Céline couldn’t argue.
Last spring, Anton had saved their lives. The problem was that he’d saved them from Prince Damek. The sisters had never actually met Damek, but he ruled over Shetâna Village, and they had gone against his wishes once, and he ordered their shop to be burned and for them to be put to death.
Anton had given them refuge.
“I don’t see how we can refuse,” Céline said.
“So no matter what he asks, we’re obligated to do it? I’m grateful for everything he’s done, but shouldn’t there be a limit on gratitude? I think him asking us to walk into Prince Damek’s castle crosses a line.” Amelie glanced away. “The price for safety and comfort here might be growing too high.”
In part, Céline agreed, but this situation was not of Anton’s making. Kimovesk was the last place he’d wish to go as well. And more . . . Céline liked her life here. She had no desire to live anywhere else. For her, the price for remaining in Sèone might never be too high.
She didn’t say this aloud.
Instead, she sat down at the dressing table and opened a drawer that she knew contained paper, ink, and a quill. She wrote two notes, and just as she finished the second one, the bedroom door banged open and another familiar face came in, belonging to old Helga. She carried an armload of wool gowns, white cotton shifts, and fine cloaks.
“Good gods,” she exclaimed, shifting the burdens in her arms. “His Lord Majesty Lieutenant is in a mood! Nearly chewed my ear off, he did.”
Céline stood up. “Oh, I am sorry. I’d have sent you a warning if I could.”
“Can’t blame him, I can’t,” Helga babbled on as if Céline hadn’t spoken. “Don’t know what that fool of a prince thinks he’s doing, hauling you girls off on his own.”
Even Amelie appeared shocked at the old woman’s use of “fool” in reference to Anton, but Helga was . . . unusual.
Though quick on her feet, she was at least in her seventies, with thick white hair up in a bun that was partially covered by an orange kerchief—nearly always askew. Her wrinkled face had a dusky tone, and she wore a faded homespun dress that might once have been purple.
Though she was officially a servant here in the castle, Céline had long suspected she was more. For one, everyone else treated Jaromir with deference and respect—even fear on occasion—but Helga often referred to him sarcastically as “His Lord Majesty Lieutenant” and had a tendency to boss him around . . . and for some reason, he let her.
Even more, Helga had been responsible for helping Céline and Amelie understand at least the roots of who they were and where their mother had come from: the Móndyalítko or “the world’s little children,” traveling gypsies.
Before arriving in Sèone, Céline and Amelie had known little of their origins.
Their father had been a village hunter for Shetâna, and one year, he’d been off on a long-distance hunt, traveling for days. He’d come back with their mother and married her. Then the couple had built an apothecary shop in Shetâna and started a small family. Once Céline and Amelie were old enough, their mother taught them to read. She taught Céline herb lore and the ways of healing—while saying nothing of her own past.
Neither of the sisters had ever heard the term “Mist-Torn,” before Helga explained it to them, that they were not only born of a Móndyalítko mother, but were of a special line called the Mist-Torn, who each possessed a natural power. As sisters, Céline and Amelie were two sides of the same coin, one able to read the future and one able to read the past.
The full comprehension of this knowledge had changed their lives.
At the moment, however, Amelie was looking warily at the gowns in Helga’s arms.
“What are those for?” she asked.
“For you, girlie,” Helga grunted, dropping her entire armload on the bed. “Prince’s orders . . . through His Lord Majesty Lieutenant. If you’re going to Prince Damek’s castle to meet some hoity-toity noble family, you’ve got to play at being women of court again. I’ve got brushed wool dresses here for the journey and at least eight dinner gowns packed.”
Céline closed her eyes briefly, opened them again, and tried not to groan at what was coming. On their last mission for Anton, for their own safety, they’d had to pretend to be highborn ladies . . . which meant Amelie had to forgo her pants and wear dresses the entire time.
Beforehand, she’d put up quite a fight.
“Oh, I am not!” Amelie squared off with Helga. “Not again.”
Céline was well aware that Amelie was fast approaching her breaking point, first being asked to put herself in close reach of Damek, and now being told she’d have to wear skirts again.
“Amelie,” Céline began, “as before, I’m sure Anton is only doing this for our safety. Damek’s soldiers would never abuse women of Anton’s court, and . . . if we’re to investigate Rochelle’s family, we must be seen as near equals.”
“I don’t care!” Amelie exploded. “And I can protect us better as myself. If I was dressed as myself, I could wear my sword and my dagger openly. Didn’t I always protect us in Shetâna?” She paused and drew a deep breath. “It won’t work anyway. Captain Kochè knows us too well. He’ll recognize us on sight and give us away.”
Excerpted from "Witches with the Enemy"
Copyright © 2015 Barb Hendee.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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