4. The Stableman
The prince became a patron of our house over the following weeks. He held parties for his courtiers and cronies. He ate, drank and slept beneath our roof. He filled our coffers with his largesse. The nobles who followed him replaced my sisters’ paste gems with real ones. They showered gifts on my sisters and tried in vain to bribe the prince’s new favorites to whisper recommendations in his ear.
Minette hired more servants and bought back our carriage. The prince sent her a quartet of matched blooded mares to pull it, and a team of trainers, tigers and stablehands to mind the mares. Overnight, it seemed, our house was full of strangers.
I made a nest of blankets and old featherbeds in the cookshed, and slaughtered a witch’s dozen chickens to paint the outside walls and door with an aversion spell. I felt like an exile, huddling in the cookshed night after night, and hiding behind the Cinder Girl’s false face each day. Not even my sisters knew me, though they took pains to see me comfortable because they thought the Cinder Girl was a sister witch who had done Ember a service.
I was comfortable and well fed but lonely, though all who met me were kind. I began to loathe the Cinder Girl, her sweet eyes and golden hair. I hated how kindly the neighbors treated her and the way the new footmen flirted with her without reservation. The Cinder Girl showed me the world I’d missed. It wasn’t until I donned her face that I truly understood what my magic had cost me.
The first night of the full moon fell two weeks after the prince first came to our door. He didn’t come to our house that night, but stayed at the palace, locked behind three sets of doors. I’d always laughed that he was so frightened to show his true face, but after donning the guise of the Cinder Girl, I understood his precautions.
Not candlelight nor firelight nor any spell known to man or beast can preserve an illusion on the nights of the full moon. Any who saw me from dusk to dawn would see my true face—my red hair and freckles and cold black eyes. My twisted foot and missing finger. They would know me for a witch. And worse, they would know I was the girl for whom the prince’s servants searched.
When his geas on Dulcie failed to bring me to him, the prince employed a far more powerful tack than mere magic. He had sent his guards around the neighborhood with velvet purses stuffed with silver coins. If I had not covered my tracks so carefully by twisting and blurring my neighbors’ memories of me, their greed and their desire to please the prince would have overwhelmed any fears they had of my retribution. I would have been lost.
But after two weeks of the neighbors’ confusing stammers, vague recollections, and adamant assertions that the late Drayman’s daughter was not a redheaded witch, but a sweet Cinder Girl with golden curls, the prince’s search had slowed. His guards still asked after me, but they did not seem confident of my existence, much less the eventual success of their search. I overheard a guard confide to one of the housemaids that he feared his master had gone a little mad.
The guards’ doubt and confusion worked in my favor, for they did not look too closely at me or any of the other servants. If they had, they might have noticed the dragging, twisted print my right foot left as I trod across the rain-soaked mud of the rear yard from the cookshed to the kitchen door. They might have noticed stray red hairs dusted in ash that sometimes clung to the hood of my cloak when I hung it up to dry on the wall beside the kitchen hearth. The might have noticed that I left the print of only three fingers and a thumb upon anything I grasped with my left hand.
Perhaps I became careless in those weeks the prince’s men scoured our neighborhood and failed to find me. Perhaps I grew over-confident in the protection my illusion provided. Or perhaps I was merely foolish. Whatever the reason, the mistake I made on the very first night of the full moon could easily have cost me my freedom, had any of the prince’s guards been present to see it.
Around midnight, I heard a commotion in our small stables. I called a lick of flame into my hand and went out to investigate. When I opened the door, I saw a man in the prince’s livery struggling to quiet a panicking horse. The mare broke free of him and charged toward the now-open stable door. Straight for me.
I closed my fist around my witch’s flame. It disappeared with a swirl of smoke and the faint scent of singed skin.
“Close the door, you idiot!”
I jumped inside and pulled the door shut after me. The mare reared when she saw me, her great dark eyes showing white around the edges. She struck with her hooves and clipped the side of my head. I staggered and tried to keep my balance lest I fall beneath the horse’s feet.
A firm hand pushed me out of harm’s way. I fell against a stall door and onto my knees. My vision flickered with stars.
The stableman stepped in front of the frightened horse and grasped her bridle. He pulled her back onto all four feet and then put his face close to hers. He whispered and soothed the beast as he blew his breath into her flared nostrils. “Shhh, girl. All is well. All is well.”
His low voice was so gentle I almost wished he were talking to me. After a while, the mare quieted and the stableman led her back to her stall.
He seemed calm until he turned to face me. “Don’t you know anything about horses? You could have been killed!” His voice never rose above the level of conversation, but I could hear the anger in his words.
I rubbed the bruise on my brow. My sight faded in and out. “I heard a commotion and thought I could help.”
“Help? You come into my stable stinking of ashes and dried blood and dash beneath the hooves of a panicked horse. Are you mad?”
Belatedly, I remembered the moon. I looked down at my hands. They were drawn all over with the ink I’d made of blood and charcoal. I wasn’t the Cinder Girl, I was a mad witch caught out on the night of the full moon.
I tried to stand, to flee the stable, but a wave of dizziness punished me for my sudden movement. My vision faded again, and when it returned, I was laying in a bed of straw with my head in the stableman’s lap while he wiped the ash from my face and hands. He paused a moment when he encountered my missing finger, but he didn’t seem upset by it. He continued his task with gentle determination.
“Little idiot,” he muttered as he worked, unaware I’d waked. “You should have known better than to come around a panicked horse. I would have taught you better if you were mine.” His voice was terse, and I detected the strain of worry in it. His hands were gentle on mine.
He smelled of straw, saddle leather and horses. It wasn’t an unpleasant scent. And the feel of his hands holding my hand was even less unpleasant. Indeed, it felt lovely.
I sighed. I sighed like a stupid virgin dreaming of her ideal man. Even now, I still cannot believe I did such a thing. I could sink into the ground from shame.
He leaned over my face and met my gaze. He wasn’t handsome or particularly well groomed, but I liked the look of him. He’d a narrow face with a crooked nose that had probably been even more garishly prominent before it’d been broken. His skin was swarthy, not golden or sun kissed, but olive by nature and darkened by hours in the sun. His eyes were large and black and kind, but set so deep as to make him look imposing unless you were standing very close to him.
His hair was black, wavy and too long, except where it was too short. The front section looked like he’d cut it with a knife to keep it from falling in his eyes. He could have done with a shave, too. His cheeks were dark with two days growth of beard.
“Mistress, are you well?”
“Well enough,” I said, struggling to rise. My body made a liar of me: I wobbled on my feet.
He urged me back down to the straw and sat beside me. “You aren’t well. You may have a broken skull. I should fetch a surgeon.”
“No.” I tried to shake my head, but the motion made me dizzy. “Let me go lie down. I’ll fix it tomorrow.”
“Fix? A broken skull is more than a bandage and a folk remedy will fix.”
I thought of the surgeon and his steel knives, and struggled harder. “No surgeon!”
“Easy,” his voice was soft and very like the voice he’d used to calm the panicked mare. “Very well. I’ll spare you the surgeon, but you can’t go to sleep tonight. Head injuries are tricky. You mightn’t wake.”
He took my left hand between his. If he thought anything of my missing finger, he kept it to himself. “Talk to me. Tell me something of yourself.”
“Your voice will slur if your brain starts swelling. The quality of your words will warn me if you’re too badly injured.”
“Very well.” I tried to sound annoyed, but he’d taken my hand between his and I liked the feel of him. “What shall I talk about?”
“Start with your name.”
“Ember.” I cursed myself as soon as I heard my voice. I should have told him something else, but I’d no other name at the ready. I’d never given the Cinder Girl a name. When the people spoke to her, they called her “mistress” and when they spoke of her, they called her ella. I’ve heard the word is a name in other lands, but in our tongue it means simply “she” or “her.”
Fortunately, my name seemed to mean nothing to him. “Good evening, Ember. I’m Rian.”
Rian. It was a common nickname forAdrian. Most mothers in Ciú Dellos Reyes named at least one of their sons after the prince, and every third Adrian Juste called himself “Ian” or “Rian” in a futile effort to distinguish himself from all the others.
“Hullo, Rian. Do you have a second name?”
“Nothing distinctive.” Ah. He was Adrian Juste the Stableman. How common. Not that I’d room to brag. I’d been Ember the Drayman’s Daughter, and now I was Ember the Witch. When it comes to names, we commoners are an unimaginative lot.
“So you’re a stable hand for the prince, are you?”
“I tame and train horses and hounds at the palace—” He cut himself short. His lips tilted up. “You’re asking me to speak when you should be speaking. If you don’t want to talk about yourself, then tell me a story.”
His thumb rubbed along my hand, and I gave in almost immediately. I told him a story I’d heard from an herb witch who lives out in the country. It concerned a novice witch who’d bespelled her hidden forest cottage with an illusion to make it look and feel like the dream home of any who beheld it.
The witch was quite pleased with her Work until two greedy children stumbled into her clearing. Having already made paupers of their parents through their unrivaled gluttony, the children wandered the forest in search of small animals and large insects with which to feed their endless appetites.
When the little gluttons beheld the witch’s house, they perceived a structure made of candies and cakes, for they could think of nothing besides food. The witch returned from her herb gathering to find the two little monsters gnawing on her shutters like a pair of rabid squirrels. She pulled them off her house and showed them the truth behind the illusion.
She offered to cure them of their unnatural hungers, but they ran into the woods to escape exactly that fate. They fled the witch, but returned on the night of the full moon when the moonlight would protect them from her magic. They cut her to pieces, cooked her in her own oven and ate her.
Rian laughed. “I think I’ve heard another version of the tale. One with a different villain and a happier ending.”
“Oh, this one has a happy ending, too,” I answered, smiling despite the ache in my head.
“Yes. The greedy children were later eaten by bears.”
He wiped his brow. “What a relief.”
“You’re laughing at me.”
“Not in the least. I like your perspective.”
Perhaps I was lonelier than I’d realized, for I found myself watching Rian’s smiling lips as he spoke, and wondering what they felt like. I knew I was a fool, to be going soft over the first man to treat me kindly in a long time, but I couldn’t help it. Perhaps my injury was worse than I’d thought?
A sharp pinch against my wrist recalled me to the present. “Ow! Why’d you do that?”
“You were falling asleep.”
“I wasn’t. I was just thinking.”
I blushed. Plague take it—I blushed! I haven’t blushed since I was a child, but I blushed at the thought of admitting my attraction to him. And well I should have blushed. I was filthy, contused and clad in bloody, ash-covered remnants of the spell I’d used to craft the Cinder Girl. He was the first attractive man to pay me any attention in many months, but I’d given him no cause to be attracted to me. He thought he was saving my life.
He met my eyes and smiled. I liked how his smiles came so easily. He raised my hand to his lips and slowly kissed my palm. He kept his lips against my skin so long, I could not doubt his meaning or explain the kiss away as simple kindness. I closed my eyes and savored the warmth of his lips.
“Ow!” I jerked my hand away and glared at the white mark his teeth had left in my palm. “You bit me!”
“You were falling asleep, Ember.”
“I wasn’t. You kissed my hand. I was enjoying the sensation.”
I stuck out my chin. “I was.”
“Even though I’m a rude, wicked man to take advantage of a girl who might have a broken skull?”
I laughed. “Because you’re a rude, wicked man. Charm and goodness are overrated.”
“In that case…” He kissed me. He did not kiss me softly as he should have, considering my injury. He kissed me hard and I adored it.
When he moved to lift his lips from mine I opened my mouth and lured him back to a deeper kiss. The bruise on my head pounded in an aching echo of my racing pulse. I didn’t care.
My eyelids fluttered closed as he deepened the kiss.
“Ow!” He’d bitten my lip. I glared up at him and he tried to keep a straight face as he said, “You closed your eyes again.”
“You’re supposed to close your eyes when you kiss.”
“I prefer to keep mine open.”
I shook my head in disgust. “Did you enjoy your up-close view of my freckles?”
“I like them. They’re all over your face and neck. I wonder how far down they go.”
I unknotted the ties to my bodice. “I could show you.”
He stilled my hand with his. “You’d be all over bite marks by morning. You look like the type of woman who closes her eyes when she comes.”
He covered my lips with his fingers. “Don’t tell me if I’m right or wrong. I’ll be awake all night thinking of your answer.”
“I thought we were supposed to stay awake all night.”
“Not like this.” He pulled my hand against the front of his breeches. His cock was hard as a steel rod, and hot despite the fabric between my palm and his skin. I traced the thick shape of it down to his balls, and up again to its rounded tip.
I whistled. “The stallions must hang their heads in shame when you walk through the stable yard.”
“You flatter me.”
“Not by much. You’re lucky I like a challenge.”
He groaned. “Have you no mercy?”
“I’m not known for it.”
“What about patience?”
“Then please be patient until you’re healed. I wouldn’t forgive myself if I hurt you. I’ll come back another night and…”
“And you can examine all my freckles as closely as you like.”
“You’re cruel. A week. Your head should be healed enough in a week.”
“I’m a witch, Rian. My head will be healed an hour after sunrise, even if I have to bleed out every chicken in the henhouse to do it.
My new suitor looked uneasy. Few people like to be reminded we witches deal in power borne of spilled blood and severed flesh, though it is nothing less than the truth.
I met his eyes. “If small mention of my witchery worries you, your worries shall only grow worse as you know me. I’ll speak plainly, and if you do not like my words, you shouldn’t return tomorrow.”
“No.” He shook his head violently, as though the mere thought of not returning angered him. “Nothing will keep me from you.”
“Wise Women may work their wonders with the power of a pure soul and noble intentions, but we witches are not so kind. I steal power, Rian. I steal life. Every insect I crush beneath my heel, every chicken I slaughter for the dinner table, every life I take becomes fuel for the fire that serves me. For the fire I serve.”
“Do you kill anything bigger than a chicken for your power?”
“The occasional goat or pig.” And once, a noisy dog, but I didn’t mention it. Rian had said he trained hounds as well as horses. I did not want him to think ill of me.
“As long as you don’t kill people, I don’t care where your power comes from, or what you do with it. I only care about seeing you tomorrow night.”
I let go the breath I’d been holding. “After moonrise,” I suggested, not wanting him to see me in the guise of the Cinder Girl.
“As you command.”
Rian bade me farewell before sunrise. He was hours late returning to the palace stables.
“Will they beat you?” I asked as I watched him saddle the mare that had kicked me. She was calm beneath his hand, for there was something soothing in his presence.
He laughed. “Me?” He made his face seem serious. “Even if they did beat me, I’d count the pain of the lash a worthy payment for the pleasure of your company.”
“And if the lash left marks, it would be nothing you didn’t deserve.” Smiling, I thrust out my arm to display the little bruises from where he’d pinched me to keep me awake. “Look what you did to me.”
Perhaps he tried to look ashamed of himself, but all he managed was a quivering smile. “You will have to think of me today. Every time you look at your hand or your arm, you’ll think of me. And when the other servants see you, they’ll see the marks I left on your neck and know you have a lover.”
Before I could answer, he jumped up on his horse and rode to the back gate. “Tonight.” he called.
“Tonight,” I whispered.
Even had the day passed in the blink of an eye, nightfall would not have come soon enough to suit me. It was a struggle to be patient through the day. When at last the sun set, I heated a tub of water for my bath. I washed every grain of ash from my hair and brushed it until it shined almost as bright as fire. I scrubbed every flake of bloodink from my hands and arms and cut my ragged nails.
I felt like a love-struck girl when I found myself donning my favorite dress for Rian, but I didn’t change my clothes. The dress wasn’t fine or fancy as the ladylike dresses my father had wanted me to wear. It was a simple dress of fine, rose-colored wool that fell almost to the ground and hid my twisted foot from sight. The shift I wore beneath it was edged in silk ribbons of the same color. Sylvie had once told me the color softened me. It made freckles seem less garish and made my dark eyes seem less cold.
I considered powdering my cheeks to hide my freckles or dosing my eyes with belladonna, as my sisters sometimes did, to make them look loving and limpid. What a foolish picture I would have made: the awkward redheaded cripple in her best wool dress, her face pasty with powder, her eyes as wide as a cretin’s. I left my face bare and my eyes honest.
I met Rian in the stable when I heard his horse ride into the yard. I didn’t feel so bad about my preparations when I saw him in the moonlight. He’d shaved his stubble and combed his hair. He still looked scruffy at the edges, but I liked him that way.
He did not greet me with the studied politeness and nervous reserve which often mark the first few outings of a courting couple, but instead cupped my cheek and kissed my lips as though we were lovers, reunited. I sighed and leaned against him, my body and will as malleable as warm wax. He could have had me then, without a word spoken between us, but he broke the kiss and looked into my eyes instead.
“You’re beautiful.” He sounded so earnest, I almost believed him.
I shook my head to disagree with him, but he put his hands on my waist and lifted me onto his horse. He mounted a moment later and settled his body behind mine, bracketing me with his arms as he reached forward to grasp the reins. All the words in my head scattered like hens fleeing a hawk, and I hadn’t the wit to gather them up again. I could think of nothing but the feel of his hard thighs behind mine and the heat of his muscled chest against my back.
He took me to a tavern in the city which hosted players, musicians and dancing in its courtyard on nights when the moon was full. We laughed and jeered at the folktale the players enacted. It was the tale of the stuck-up princess who so despised common work that she died of spite after pricking her finger on a spinning wheel when her affianced Prince took her to his peasants’ summer Fair. The tale ended happily, though, for the lazy princess had a bastard sister who’d been working as a maid for seven brothers in the woods. She had the beauty of her royal sister, but not the princess’s haughty ways. The prince married the bastard sister, and everyone lived happily until they died.
When we left the tavern, we lied and said the wine made us cling to each other as we staggered back to Avenida Delpalacio leading Rian’s annoyed horse behind us. I said it was the wine gone to my head that made me pull Rian into the pile of straw outside his horse’s stall instead of taking him back to my bed. But the truth was, I couldn’t wait. The pleasant diversions of the evening had been frustrating delays. All I’d wanted since he’d kissed me was to feel his naked skin beneath my hands.
Soon enough, I got my wish. I lay naked on a blanket of our discarded clothing, and he stood naked above me. His body was long, tough and lean. Every inch of him spoke of his work. His thighs and calves were thick with muscle from riding; his arms were strong from hauling tack. His stomach was flat and lean from holding himself upright in the saddle. His hands were rough and strong from gripping rope and rein.
He smiled as he watched me look at him. His eyes twinkled, and his mouth held a hint of mischief.
“I have a confession,” he whispered as he moved his body to cover mine.
I tried to keep my face neutral, but the phrase “I have a confession” is not one you want to hear from a man you are about to fuck. “Tell me.”
He put his lips close to my ear and whispered, “It’s not the wine.”
“I didn’t have a drink of wine all night. I’m drunk on you.”
“You flatter me,” I chided.
“No, I speak the truth.”
He kissed me and I forgot about conversation. He kissed my cheeks and my lips, my neck and my eyes. He kissed the crooks of my elbows and the backs of my knees, and every other secret part of my anatomy.
I do not want to be indelicate as I relate this, for there is a limit to the details you should tell even your closest friends. If you tell too little, you may appear as a prude, but if you tell too much, your friends will forever regard you as a person of peculiar tastes. Truly. Dulcie once told me the intimate details of an evening she spent with the Grand Duke. I haven’t been able to eat carrots, since. And I used to adore carrots.
I must hasten to assert, Rian and I did nothing that would put you off your favorite fruits or vegetables. My hesitance stems from concern you might think me a braggart if I told all. So, with your pardon, I’ll take the high road and describe my nights with Rian in as delicate a manner as I’m able.
How about this: I’ve heard the republics on the coasts of theMidlandsSeaworship in their pantheon a goddess whose dominion is the act of physical love. Women and men lie with the priests and priestesses, and in so doing, they touch the divine. Lovemaking is their holy communion wherein they worship with both soul and flesh. In pleasing their partner, they please their goddess.
This is how it was with Rian. He worshipped me; he blessed me. He took my body both with reverence and with hunger. I prostrated myself before him; he gave himself to me, entirely. Together we touched the divine.
No? Too vague and airy? Very well, I shall be blunt. He licked and sucked me until I screamed his name. He fucked me until I couldn’t see straight. He rode me hard and made me love him for it.
I did not think what I felt for him was love, not at first, for we spent only a few nights of each month together. Everyone knows servants have little free time for themselves. The palace staff was no exception.
The prince was particular about his stables and his horses, and Rian’s days at the palace were long. The only nights he could get away were the nights of the full moon when the prince locked himself in his rooms at the palace in order to hide his true face from the world.
“The prince should not force his servants to work so hard.” I complained one night as we lay together in my bed.
“He doesn’t force them.” Rian’s reply sounded faintly defensive.
“No, his curse does it for him. He asks you to work from dawn to dusk, and you are happy to comply because his curse makes you love him above all others—including yourself!”
“You’re wrong.” Rian rolled atop me and pinned my shoulders to the bed. The fire of anger in his eyes might have cowed a weaker woman, but I met his gaze and waited for him to explain himself. That, alone, seemed to calm him.
“I hate the prince.” He whispered. “I hate the way all people love him, though none know him. I hate the fields of false smiles that blossom in his wake. I hate the courtiers and flunkies who trail after him, desperate to ingratiate themselves no matter how coldly he treats them.”
The anger in Rian’s eyes faded and his gaze grew unfocussed as his thoughts wandered. “It isn’t right that one man should command so much unearned adoration, but he never asked for it. His curse does not affect animals. The stables and the kennels are his escape.”
I felt my mouth drag into a frown. “Oh, the poor, poor prince. How terrible it must be to be beloved by everyone and to always get what he wants.”
“You’re cruel. Don’t you think it must be a peculiar sort of hell to live surrounded by sycophants? Like living in a dollhouse. No matter how perfect your playmates, they are cold porcelain. Soon enough, you would long for the heat, the softness, and the imperfections of living flesh. You would long to hear words and wishes other than your own.”
He quieted and looked into my eyes as though waiting for a response. As though he expected me to agree with him. Had I answered him, I would have noted how he’d gone from hating the prince to defending him between one breath and the next. I would have complained that he seemed to care far too much what I thought of the prince.
I wondered what Rian would do if the prince were to find and claim me. I wanted to think he would fight for me, but my cynical heart knew he would give me up as easily as he’d surrendered his time and his sympathies. No one could resist the prince’s curse. No one but me.
And I was not certain how long my resistance would hold.
“Ember?” Rian’s voice broke through my brooding thoughts. His hand traced a gentle path along my cheek. “Your expression is dark. What worries you?”
I did not reveal my thoughts to Rian, but kissed him instead. I snaked my hand around his neck and pressed his head closer to mine. We spoke no more that night, and I never again complained that he spent too much time at the palace.
By the time the moon had waned and waxed again, I’d decided it was as well that we only met when the moon was full and the prince was locked in his rooms at the palace. I did not know how I would explain my disguise, or the reasons for it, to Rian. And the more I came to care for him, the more I came to fear what he would make of the Cinder Girl.
I did not fear he would reject me for wearing a false face, or for deceiving all who saw me by day—no, my worries were far pettier than that. The Cinder Girl was beautiful where I was not. She had golden hair and pleasant features. She had all of her fingers and two straight feet. I do not often dwell upon my looks, but I cannot deny I was afraid my lover might like the Cinder Girl’s face and form better than he liked mine.
And so I engaged in another deceit. I kept my longing for Rian to myself and pretended I was content to see him only a few nights a month. His work and my petty worries made both of us grudgingly happy with the scant time we had together.
Besides, who can say whether our time together was not sweeter for its brevity? We had almost six blissful months of stolen nights before I ruined it all.