Sunlight spilled warmly over polished wooden floors, making the unfurnished rooms of the little house glow golden. Wilhelmina Benedict walked quickly through each room, making one last check before the servants from SaDiablo Hall started arriving with the furniture.
It had been kind of the High Lord to loan her the help she needed to settle here in Scelt. She thought - hoped - he understood why she hadn't been willing to stay in the house Jaenelle had used in this Territory. Soaked as it was with dark power and traces of psychic scent from Jaenelle and Daemon, just standing outside the building made her feel overwhelmed and very, very small. She'd had enough of that to last her a lifetime.
So she'd traded the luxury of Jaenelle's old home for this small house - a two-story cottage with a single bedroom, one guest room, and a little garret of a library that she'd fallen in love with on the spot. There was a fallow vegetable garden below, comfortably surrounded by a low stone wall, forest near enough to see treetops out of the bedroom window, and the sound of the sea at night, if she was quiet enough to hear it. She didn't know if she could be happy here, but she could be peaceful, and that was more than good enough for her.
She passed through kitchen, sitting room and parlor with a quick glance around each, then stopped with a curious tilt to her head as an unfamiliar scent reached her. Lemon and honey, with a faint, soapy undertone...She followed her nose upstairs to the empty library, and found a young hearthwitch scrubbing the floor on hands and knees. She was eight or ten years younger than Wilhelmina, with brilliant red hair cut into a short, haphazard brush. At Wilhelmina's approach, she sat back comfortably on her heels, the Yellow-Jeweled bracelet on her wrist glittering as she raised one hand to shade her eyes.
"Almost done up here," she said cheerfully. "I'll have it finished by the time they get in here with your books."
"It looked perfectly good when I first looked the house over. Though I do appreciate the effort," she added hastily.
"Oh, that." The girl shrugged, dunked her scrubbrush in the soapy bucket, and turned to survey her work with an air of proprietary satisfaction. "The landlord asked me to spruce it up a bit, you being the Lady's sister and all."
"Thank you," she said neutrally, biting back the sharp words that wanted to escape. Good or bad, here in the Shadow Realm she was always Jaenelle's sister before anything else; she would never even have neared the Dark Court if Lucivar hadn't feared she'd be used against Jaenelle. But that wasn't the hearthwitch's fault, so she kept a tight rein on her temper. "You've done an excellent job - but, well, don't you know spells for this sort of thing?"
"Lots." The girl's engaging grin hadn't the slightest trace of modesty. "But good oak like this takes a little more work; the wood knows whether or not you're paying attention to it."
Looking around, she had to agree; the polished floor glowed like a horse after a good rubdown. The little hearthwitch all but glowed herself, in quiet pride at Craft well done. "I gave the house a last going-over this morning, but no one's touched the gardens since the last witch who lived here. It's pretty much gone to weeds - I can help you pull them up if you need me to - but most witches are touchier about what they grow and how they grow it than they are about where they live, so I didn't want to touch anything until you got here."
Wilhelmina stifled a chuckle. Most of the witches she'd known before coming to Kaeleer were "touchy" to the point of obsession about where they lived - the larger and gaudier the better - and left growing things to the servants. "It's been a while since I gardened, but I'd like to start again. Can you spare an afternoon this week to show me what I should and shouldn't pull up? I'm not very familiar with the plants in this Territory."
"Of course." She frowned, ticked off days and appointments on her fingers, and settled on an afternoon three days later. "It'll be such a relief to have someone in this house again. We could use a sensible witch back here."
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, nothing so much. The last Lady who lived here was a strong witch, but she was old and - well, we lost her when the fighting spread to Maghre. We've missed her pretty badly, but it'll be good to have this house lived in again. Just keep an eye out for the storekeeper down the road - he has three sons, so you'll likely want a raincloak just to keep off the drool-" And Wilhelmina was whisked off on a verbal tour of the village, in which she finally learned the name of the young witch - Mairin - her hearthwitch mother Morwen, and her bevy of sisters - "all carrot-tops like me" - and accurate, frequently scathing descriptions of most of the Blood in Maghre. What remained of them; Maghre had been briefly occupied by Terreillean forces during the worst of the fighting, and the village was still recovering. Mairin didn't discuss the occupation in detail, but skittered around the subject like a kitten avoiding a large sleeping dog. She was more than willing to discuss anything else that crossed her mind, however; by the time the servants hauled in the last furnishings, Wilhelmina knew more about Maghre than anyone not native-born could hope to learn. She'd also set up a contract with Mairin for her to help with cleaning and cooking - after several years spent apart from her family in Chaillot, Wilhelmina was competent enough at taking care of herself, but she didn't have the talent for domesticity that a hearthwitch did. And she'd enjoy the company.
In small doses, at least. Adolescence under siege from Robert Benedict had left its mark on her, and she was quick to protect any privacy she had. No Queen with a devoted court could have been happier when Mairin left with a cheerful goodbye, and Wilhelmina spent a luxurious hour going through the house alone. She locked the doors and shuttered the windows, holding firelight and witchlight in against the outside, and climbed the stairs to the tiny library. She indulged in one gleeful little-girl pirouette between the empty shelves, then laughed at her own foolishness and settled down to sorting and shelving books. There weren't many - most of them she'd bought since coming to Kaeleer - but they were hers, and more forgiving teachers than Graff had ever been.
She worked until the twilight outside had deepened well into night, then stretched, ran a proprietary hand over the shelves of books, and retired to the bedroom just down the hall. As she got ready for bed, she stretched a fragile network of psychic tendrils out through the house and the land around it - an old habit that she'd picked up when Bobby first became a threat. The tendrils were too delicate for anyone to notices, but they gave her advance warning if there was danger nearby. But there was nothing tonight. Distant minds in the village, the background hum of animal thought, occasional bright sparks of Kindred in the house and the woods...and none of the female distress and masculine rage that had filled the Dark Court in the months before Jaenelle's purge. Nothing but summer-night calm, as far as her psychic senses could reach.
Wilhelmina fell asleep smiling.