Wilhelmina clambered onto a chair and stood on tiptoes, peering at the food laid out on the counter. Daddy had guests over tonight, lots of men with big voices, so Cook and Butler and both maids had all been busy cleaning and cooking and making the house all shimmery-fancy until Wilhelmina almost couldn't believe it was the same place she lived every day. Then Alicia (the newest maid, who was all soft and pillowy when she carried Wilhelmina even if her hands were scratchy) had scrubbed Wilhelmina until her skin was almost red, tied her into a new dress, made her practice curtseying all through dinnertime, and then led her downstairs to say hello to Daddy's guests before she was packed off into the kitchen, still without dinner.
She knew better than to get underfoot, but taking something from the edge of a dish wouldn't be very bad, right? And she was so hungry...
Carefully, Wilhelmina leaned forward and fumbled a round, brownish thing off a plate. She raised it to her face and sniffed, just to be sure it was food -- sometimes Cook put icky things on plates just to make them pretty, even if Wilhelmina thought most of them didn't look very pretty -- but it smelled sweet and it crumbled in her fingers a little like muffins, only pricklier somehow.
She took a bite.
Then she grimaced and stuck out her tongue, spitting the brown crumbly mess onto the floor. Yuck.
"Wilhelmina Benedict, what have I told you about stealing food?" Cook said from behind her.
Wilhelmina squeaked and spun on the chair, wobbling in her stiff new shoes. She flung out her hands, but her foot slipped halfway over the edge of the seat and she started to fall.
Cook caught her by the waist and lifted her up, settling Wilhelmina against her shoulder. "Whoops! There you go, dumpling, all safe. Simon, you handle the serving tonight," she added, turning toward the door where Butler was waiting. "I'd rather not send the maids to face that pack of louts if we don't need to. There's an extra plate of nutcakes for you to split among yourselves when you're done."
"I'll water the wine as much as I can and suggest a Red Moon house if the conversation turns that way," Butler said. "Be good, Miss Wilhelmina, and be quiet." He waved his hand toward the gleaming silver and china dishes with their heavy loads of food. They vanished, leaving nothing but a few gravy stains and a plate of the icky brown things, and he closed the door behind himself as he left the kitchen.
"Now then, why don't you hand the rest of that poor nutcake to me and we'll get you some real dinner to keep your hands out of mischief?" Cook said, turning her face back to Wilhelmina.
Wilhelmina nodded shyly and watched as Cook popped the rest of the nutcake into her mouth, chewing and swallowing like she enjoyed it -- even the strange, not-quite-meaty taste under the sugar and spice, and the slippery-squeaky-crunchy way it felt between the teeth. Wilhelmina wrinkled her nose and stuck out her tongue again, trying to scrape off the bits she hadn't managed to spit out.
Cook called in a large cloth napkin before Wilhelmina could wipe her hand on her new dress.
"It's icky," Wilhelmina told her. "You shouldn't eat it."
Cook smiled. "People like different things, dumpling. The world would be a very boring place if we were all the same. Some people like chicken more than fish, some people like fruit better plain and some people like it made into pies or preserves, and you know what? When it comes to food, none of them are wrong. Even if it is a little strange not to enjoy nutcakes," she added, trailing one finger down Wilhelmina's nose.
Wilhelmina ducked her head and tried to hide in the napkin.
Cook tugged one corner of the cloth aside and winked at her. "Strange isn't wrong, little lady. And it's not such a surprise, now that I think of it. Your mama never liked nutcakes much either."
Wilhelmina wasn't sure what a mama was -- she'd never had one, after all -- but she liked when Cook told stories about her. She thought maybe a mama was like a maid who wouldn't leave when Daddy got mad, or like Cook if Cook didn't have to go home at night. "Really really?" Wilhelmina said.
"Cross my heart," said Cook. "Why, I remember one day not long after she hired me -- this was before you were born, dumpling, while she was still spinning your body together from the Darkness like mamas do -- she came stomping into my kitchen, like this" -- and Cook took three big, loud, heavy steps, tossing Wilhelmina a little into the air with each one -- "and glared so hard at my oven the fire went out! Frosted over, just like that."
"Ooooh," said Wilhelmina, coming a bit more out of the napkin and glancing sideways toward the massive oven, radiating heat from the long trough of witchfire that burned underneath.
"Ooooh indeed. I tell you, I thought winter had come early," Cook continued. "And then your mama opened the oven door, pulled out both sheets of nutcakes, dumped them into the sink, and poured lobster bisque -- that's lobster soup, dumpling, that I'd been making for dinner -- poured the soup all over the nutcakes. A whole afternoon's work ruined, just like that!"
Wilhelmina hid herself in the napkin again. "Mama was bad," she whispered.
"If you ever do anything like that, you will be in for a world of trouble, little lady," Cook agreed, "but it's different for witches when they're making children. I stopped baking nutcakes until you were born, but even after that I never saw your mama eating one. In fact, here's a little secret just between you and me." She tugged the dirty napkin out of Wilhelmina's hands, vanished it, and met Wilhelmina's eyes, very solemn and serious. "Can you keep a secret, dumpling?"
Cook smiled. Then she leaned forward and whispered into Wilhelmina's ear, "Sometimes when your father told me to make nutcakes, they would disappear between the kitchen and the dining room. Poof! Just like that. He thought it was the maids or the footmen stealing bites and he stomped around yelling like thunder, but I saw your mama down at the kennels one evening as I was heading home, with your father's dogs in a circle all around her. And do you know what she was doing?"
Wilhelmina shook her head, eyes wide. She didn't like going to the kennels, too scared of the way the dogs barked and jumped, and the way the dog boys laughed at her and said she was the size of a baby deer, just right to teach the dogs to chase and bite. Daddy never picked her up to keep her safe. He just laughed along with the dog boys.
"I don't like dogs," she said.
"I don't like those particular ones much myself," Cook said, her breath warm and tickly against the rim of Wilhelmina's ear. "But they loved your mama, because -- and this is the secret, little lady -- she used to feed them stolen nutcakes."
"There you are, that's what a child should sound like," Cook said, tossing Wilhelmina into the air before she caught her and set her down on the chair by the counter. "Now let's get you some proper dinner, and get you safe to bed before your father's guests start wondering if they can sneak into my kitchen and steal someone else's nutcakes."
Lady Leland knelt in front of Wilhelmina, her frothy pastel skirts spreading like a squashed layer cake. Her Rose Jewel nestled at the base of her neck in a golden setting, glimmering like sunrise and flowers. She held out her gloved hands, palms up. "Hello there," she said in a voice as sweet and frothy as her dress.
Wilhelmina put her hands onto Lady Leland's, palms down, and let the witch close her fingers to hold them in a gentle grip. "Hello, Lady Leland," she said, and dropped her best curtsey. "It is an honor to meet you." She made sure to say each word carefully, setting them off with lots of empty space just like Cook had done when she taught her the phrase.
Lady Leland squeezed her hands. "It's an honor to meet you, Lady Wilhelmina. We'll be seeing a lot of each other now that your father and I are getting married and you'll be joining me, my mother, and your Uncle Philip at the Angelline estate. I hope we can get along."
Wilhelmina nodded and tried very hard not to wiggle her fingers, even though Lady Leland was holding them a little too tight.
Lady Leland squeezed her hands one more time, then let go and stood up, her frothy skirts swishing around her ankles. Daddy wrapped an arm around her waist, grabbed her free hand, and led her away to the parlor, leaving Wilhelmina standing alone in the entrance of the house. She waited for a minute in case Daddy called for her, but the parlor door shut and the house was silent.
Wilhelmina slipped through the kitchen and out the back door into the garden. Cook said it wasn't a very big garden since the house was in the city, which meant there were lots and lots of houses all close together, like the ones Wilhelmina could see over the garden walls. But there was enough space between the house and the stone building that held the stables and the kennel for a plot of vegetables and herbs and a second plot that was all hedges and statues. Somebody had planted a few rosebushes around a fountain at the middle of the hedge garden, but they were scraggly and mostly thorns.
Wilhelmina dragged over a little statue of a rabbit and used it to climb onto the broad marble rim of the fountain. She laid on her back and watched tiny rainbows dance in the spray for a while. Then she rolled over and hung her head and arms over the edge and poked at the rose stems, which were just starting to grow leaves. The bottoms of the bushes were thick and stiff, but the tops were green and bendy, almost like ribbons.
She wondered if she could braid them, like Cook had started braiding Wilhelmina's hair now that it was long enough to reach her back. She tugged the plait over her shoulder and craned her neck, trying to see how the trick worked. Then she bit and pulled at the ribbon until it came loose and she could undo the braid and see how it was put together.
By the time Cook opened the door and called her in for dinner, Wilhelmina's hands were scratched and stained with dried blood and sap, but she didn't care. She dragged a chair over to the sink in the mud room and scrambled up to wash between her fingers and under her nails like Cook always told her to do.
She hurried through the kitchen while Cook's back was turned and peeked into the dining room. Lady Leland was already sitting at the table next to Daddy's big chair. Wilhelmina's chair was set on Daddy's other side so she would face Lady Leland across the table. Daddy wasn't there. Neither was Butler or any of the maids. (Wilhelmina had stopped trying to learn their names since they came and went so quickly and Cook wouldn't tell her why Daddy made them leave.)
Wilhelmina stopped beside her chair and bit her lip. Would it be bad to climb into the seat? She'd never been allowed to eat dinner with Daddy's guests before. But Cook and Butler weren't here to pick her up. She tugged the chair out from the table and put her hands on the seat. She set one foot on the rung, pushed up, grabbed onto the edge of the table, and pulled herself up so she was kneeling on the chair.
Lady Leland made a startled noise. "Your hands!"
Wilhelmina looked at her fingers. Oh. One of them was still bleeding. She took her hands off the table so she wouldn't get blood on the cloth. Daddy would yell.
"I washed!" she said.
Lady Leland clicked her tongue the way Cook did sometimes to tell Wilhelmina she was being silly. "Washing won't make the bleeding stop. You need a bandage," she said, rising from her chair and walking around the table in a swish of frothy skirts. She called in a tiny lace handkerchief and handed it to Wilhelmina. "Press that against the cut and hold it until your father comes downstairs."
Wilhelmina looked nervously at the handkerchief. It was fancy and scratchy and the kind of thing Daddy yelled at her for touching. "But--"
Lady Leland clicked her tongue again. "Hush, child, don't argue with me." Then she picked Wilhelmina up, swung her feet off the edge of the chair, and set her down so she was sitting on her bottom instead of her knees.
"What were you doing to get so cut up?" Lady Leland asked as she pushed the chair back toward the table. "Playing with your father's dogs, perhaps? Goodness, look at your hair. Let's fix that before your father sees." She called in a little ivory comb and started running it through Wilhelmina's hair, working out the tangles with gentle fingers.
"Don't like dogs. I braided the roses," Wilhelmina said, looking down at the little lace handkerchief wrapped around her finger. "They bit me."
Lady Leland's laugh was frothy and sweet, like her voice and clothes and hair. "I'm sure the roses feel very pretty now," she said, one hand rising to caress her Jewel.
Wilhelmina slid down in her chair and wished she had a Jewel of her own so she could do Craft and vanish through the floor.
"Oh, don't be upset. There's nothing wrong with loving the land. The Blood are meant to be caretakers, after all, even if giving our own blood is a step further than we need to go," Lady Leland said. "I'm sure your mother would be glad that you're taking care of her roses."
Wilhelmina glanced up through the curtain of her hair. "Mama's roses?"
Lady Leland nodded. "Adria's roses, yes. She said Robert's garden was too cold and heartless, so she planted them the week she moved in. It surprised all of our friends since she'd never cared much about flowers before-- well, before she grew up. She wasn't much of a gardener and she never did seem to find a knack for tending to the plants without ruining her hands, but she seemed to like them."
"Oh," Wilhelmina said.
"I always wondered why she chose roses, since the thorns hurt her so, but maybe that was the point," Lady Leland said, the sugary froth fading from her voice as her eyes went distant and sad. "If she'd had more thorns and fewer petals..." She trailed off.
Wilhelmina fidgeted in her chair, confused.
Then a maid fluttered in through the door to say that Daddy and Butler were coming down, and Lady Leland was all froth and sunrise again.
"I knew your mother when she was a girl," Lady Angelline said, glancing down at Wilhelmina for a second. "Her mother and I were distant cousins and studied together when we were young, so we thought of ourselves as aunts to each other's children."
Wilhelmina hurried to keep up with Lady Angelline as they walked through the gardens. These were a lot bigger than the gardens at her old house, and she was afraid of getting lost. Uncle Philip was supposed to be walking with them, but he kept looking toward the big house and falling behind.
Leland was inside getting ready to give Wilhelmina a little sister or brother. Wilhelmina wanted to watch, but Lady Angelline said she was too little and took her outside instead. It was cold out here, wind and clouds brewing up a cruel autumn storm. Uncle Philip had called in a coat for Wilhelmina when she'd started shivering, but Lady Angelline said the fresh air was healthy and they shouldn't bother Leland and the Healer.
"Adria Delacoeur was a brilliant witch but too headstrong for her own good, always disobeying her parents and running off in search of so-called adventures. And look what that recklessness bought her -- nothing but sorrow and an early death," Lady Angelline said. "Learn from her example, Wilhelmina. Be a good girl and listen to your elders. We only want what is best for you."
Wilhelmina looked back at Uncle Philip, who shrugged.
"Yes, Lady Angelline," she said, and ran to catch up again.
"--believe she agreed to the marriage, after what happened to his first wife," one of the witches said to her friend in a stage whisper.
Wilhelmina pressed herself further back into the alcove, wondering why she'd snuck downstairs to the Winsol party. Yes, it was hard to sleep when Jaenelle was crying in the nursery -- she didn't know how everyone else managed to ignore the unhappiness her little sister poured out like psychic waves -- but if anyone saw her she'd be in such trouble. Daddy would yell, Lady Alexandra would forbid her from going outside for days, and Leland and Uncle Philip would just shake their heads and be disappointed.
"Oh? And what do you mean by that?" the second witch asked.
The first witch, a tall lady wearing a White Jewel on a chain woven into her hair, glanced out at the crowded ballroom. "Well, not to cast aspersions, but don't you think it's a trifle convenient for Lord Benedict that his wife died just after she'd inherited her family money? Especially since there was no way she could give him a male heir, being broken and all."
"Ooooh," the second witch said, covering her painted mouth with heavily ringed fingers. "And she couldn't win him any political connections, either, could she? Not with her particular talents."
"Certainly not like Leland Angelline has," the first witch agreed. "But she wove a pretty tangle for all that. I've heard she put the money in a trust for her daughter, and now neither Lord Benedict nor Lady Angelline can touch a single coin until the girl makes the Offering, legal guardians or not!"
The second witch laughed in cruel amusement. "Oh, I can just picture his face when he found the papers. All red and fat like a sausage about to burst."
"Speaking of sausages..." the first witch said, with a sly smile, but Wilhelmina had heard more than enough. She slipped out of the alcove and ran for the servants' door, ducking into the back corridors of the manor.
When Cook (who had come to the estate with them because Daddy said so) ventured yawning into the kitchen at sunrise, she found Wilhelmina curled up at the base of the oven, dried tear tracks sticky on her face. She asked nothing, just offered a clean napkin to help Wilhelmina clean her face. Then she fed her blueberry muffins, breakfast sausage, and an apple.
Wilhelmina picked at the last muffin with nervous fingers. She was still hungry, but food sat oddly in her stomach. The witches' words tumbled around and around in her head, poking at her thoughts like stones in a shoe. She didn't dare ask anyone about what she'd head. They'd get angry, and then she'd have to explain how she'd overhead the witches, and then she'd be in trouble twice over, just like Jaenelle when she asked questions Alexandra and Daddy didn't like.
But Cook had known her mama. And Cook wouldn't care that Wilhelmina had snuck out. Maybe...
Wilhelmina looked out the window over the sink, watching the winter wind blow through the dark line of evergreens that marked the edge of the kitchen garden. The night had left a light dusting of snow on the ground, and the piles of compost protecting the herbs and vegetable roots looked like drifts deep enough to roll in or build a snow fort. It shone pure and clean under the rising sun.
"Cook?" she said.
"Yes, dumpling?" Cook said, measuring oil into a cup and then pouring it into a mixing bowl.
"How did Mama die?"
Cook clicked her tongue. "Mother Night, what kind of question is that for a beautiful morning like this! What nonsense have people been telling you? Your mother's health was never the best, not since... well, as long as I'd known her, at any rate. She caught a fever. Sometimes they take a person so hard and fast even the best Healer in the realm can't do a thing to hold back death."
"Oh," Wilhelmina said. "So Daddy didn't... and the money..."
Wilhelmina looked sideways at Cook, who had gone still and cold and was gripping her mixing bowl with white-knuckled hands.
"Who said that?" Cook demanded.
"Nobody," Wilhelmina whispered.
"Listen to me, Wilhelmina Benedict. If anyone speaks rumors like that where you can hear, you close your ears and pay no mind. Your mother was a good woman and never deserved to have carrion-crows pick over her life for their little games. She died of a fever. That's all."
"And the money?"
"Any inheritance was hers through her mother's line and therefore yours, not your father's. He got what would have been her brother's portion, if she'd had a brother. Simple as that." Cook set down the mixing bowl and ran her hands through Wilhelmina's hair, untangling the worst of the night's snarls. "We've moved up in the world, little lady, and everything has a price. Don't let nasty words bring you down."
"I'll try," Wilhelmina said, and leaned forward to let Cook weave her hair into a loose plait while she finished her muffin.
Then she went upstairs to wake Jaenelle, who was nearly two years old now and said the strangest things sometimes. Wilhelmina didn't always understand her little sister, but that was okay. She spent the morning teaching Jaenelle how to make snowballs and then convincing her to throw their ammunition at the trees instead of at their family. Jaenelle's silvery laughter rang over the gardens as bright as the sparkle of sunlight through frost.
Right now, that was enough.
Daddy was busy with work for the male council, Alexandra was busy with her court, and Leland was taking Jaenelle to a place called Briarwood to see if the Healers there could make her be less strange, so Uncle Philip escorted Wilhelmina to her Birthright Ceremony alone. He helped her up into the carriage the same way he offered his hand to Leland or Alexandra, and pointed out various landmarks in the city as they drove along the gray, cobbled streets. Wilhelmina kept her hands tucked into the pockets of her new wool coat and nodded at everything he said, even though she didn't like visiting Beldon Mor. The city felt sick and unbalanced, like a wounded animal Daddy's dogs had dragged back without finishing the kill.
She wished there were more parks and fewer buildings.
The Sanctuary stood at the far side of Beldon Mor, in the center of a grove of oak trees that felt old beyond old, like they'd been standing since the Realms were made. Their naked branches stretched against the late winter sky, casting sharp, dark webs of shadow over the leaf-strewn ground.
They were the only two people there that day. No other children had come to receive their Jewels and confirm their paternity.
The Priestess was waiting at the open door of the Sanctuary when they arrived, a shawl wrapped loosely around her shoulders in concession to the chill. She looked at Wilhelmina without crouching or bending her head, as if they were equals. There was a great, dark weight somewhere behind the Priestess's eyes, as if the Darkness she served was watching Wilhelmina through the mask of human flesh, weighing and judging.
"Do you choose this male to stand as your witness?" the Priestess asked.
"Yes," Wilhelmina said.
She would rather have had Cook, but Cook was a servant, not family, and Alexandra had only laughed when Wilhelmina had asked if she could come. "A domestic is no substitute for a mother," she'd said. "You need to let go of your attachment to that woman."
Wilhelmina had swallowed her protest and let Leland lead her away to select a pretty dress for her special day.
Now the Priestess nodded in recognition of Wilhelmina's choice-that-wasn't. "Follow me," she said, and led the way through the Sanctuary toward the altar. The building was old but solid, its stone walls carved with delicate spiral patterns and the roof held up by graceful vaulted arches. The glass in the windows was black, casting the rooms into artificial twilight.
The altar was a bare slab of dark, fine-grained stone set in a room with an unpaved floor and a circular hole in the center of its domed roof. The dirt at the altar's edge was worn away in the shape of footprints, as deep as a pair of shoes. Wilhelmina slipped her feet into the ruts and held her hand out over the altar, cupped as if to catch a stream of falling water.
"Close your eyes and reach down inside yourself until the Darkness reaches back," the Priestess said.
Wilhelmina closed her eyes and tiptoed to the edge of the abyss that was both inside her and somewhere else at the same time. Then she jumped. Her body stayed still, earth holding her flesh, sky swirling through her hair, but the part of her that lived under that skin fell down and down the way Cook and Leland and Uncle Philip had warned her never to try because she was too young.
Colors flashed in the corners of her eyes -- White and Yellow gone by so fast she almost though she hadn't seen them. Then Tiger Eye, lingering for a second or two. Then Rose, slow enough she thought she could see lines in the blur. Then Summer-Sky, and she realized she was falling past webs of light -- or floating, almost flying, as she slowed. The Darkness pressed around her, buoying her up from beneath. Finally she stopped, her feet resting lightly on a web of Purple Dusk, the Darkness caressing her like a second skin. Wilhelmina bent down to touch, and the light puddled in her hands like water.
She clenched her fingers around cold stone and opened her body's eyes.
Purple Dusk. Uncut.
They didn't confirm paternity. No one was left to grant it and Daddy wasn't here to receive his rights anyway. But Uncle Philip bowed gravely and called her Lady Benedict, which was almost as good as the proper second part of the ceremony.
She still wished her mama could have been here.
As they rode back to the Angelline estate, Uncle Philip pull a handkerchief from his coat pocket and handed it to Wilhelmina to wrap her Jewel. "Keep it safe until you're old enough to know how you want to cut it," he said.
"I will," Wilhelmina said. She looked down at her new Jewel, feeling how it sang to her. How it caught the power she couldn't hold and drank it down, like a cistern she could drink from when she was thirsty. How it was her, the same as the flesh of her body.
It was a darker Jewel than either Daddy or Leland wore, and only one step lighter than Alexandra's. She might wear Green or even Sapphire when she was a grown witch and made the Offering. That meant she was strong.
She didn't feel strong.
"What Jewel did my mama wear?" she asked, the words slipping past her tongue and teeth before she could catch and smother them.
"She never made the Offering," Uncle Philip said. "But before she was-- when she was a child, she wore Purple Dusk. Like you."
Wilhelmina turned her Jewel around and around. It swallowed light, like all Jewels, and it felt chill and heavy in her hands, not warming with her body heat like an ordinary stone.
Something bad had happened to her mama, before she'd married Daddy. Nobody wanted to talk about it. They all talked around it so the secret grew and grew until Wilhelmina thought she might trip and fall into a pit of silence and nightmares as deep as the abyss. Secrets had claws and fangs.
She didn't want to know the secret. But maybe not knowing it was worse.
Wilhelmina clenched her hands around her Jewel and looked up at Uncle Philip. "I'm not a baby anymore. I have a Jewel. I'm a witch."
"A strong witch," Uncle Philip agreed.
"Tell me what happened to my mama."
"There are two ways a witch can lose her power," Lady Graff said, pressing a sharp hand down onto Wilhelmina's shoulder, pinning her in her seat. "The first is a traditional punishment and works on any member of the Blood, female or male. When a Queen or a Priestess so orders, a witch who wears a darker Jewel takes the offender deep into the abyss, past the level of the weaker witch's Jewel, shielding her from the weight of the Darkness. Then the stronger witch removes her protection and the Darkness floods in, snapping the offender's connection to her inner web and her Jewels."
Wilhelmina's hand twitched toward her Jewel, still uncut and wrapped in a net of silver wire as an over-large pendant.
Graff's fingers dug into her shoulder. A warning.
"The other way is for a witch to misjudge herself around a male before her Virgin Night. The shock of being speared -- of another's flesh invading her flesh -- can drive her to flee into the abyss. Pain accelerates her fall, and if the male wears a darker Jewel he can actively push her down. She falls through her inner web, the Darkness floods in, and she breaks."
Wilhelmina sat straight and still. Graff's fingers tightened further, hard enough to bruise.
"That's how your mother was broken. She thought her caste and her Jewel would let her do whatever she wished, but everything has a price. If you moon about like a fool, or disobey your family and rush into danger like your sister, your mother's fate is the least of what will come down on your head."
Wilhelmina's eyes burned, but they burned dry. Tears and temper were Jaenelle's territory, her pale, inadequate weapons to lash back against the box Alexandra and Daddy wanted to keep them in, the same box that Leland and Uncle Philip didn't seem to notice even as they bent themselves to stay inside its bars. Tears and temper never won, and Wilhelmina wasn't brave enough to keep fighting in the face of inevitable defeat. She never, never, never wanted to know what happened to Jaenelle in Briarwood.
After a long moment, Graff lifted her hand from Wilhelmina's shoulder.
"Good girl," she said.
Wilhelmina hated those words.
Jaenelle was walking on air.
Wilhelmina teetered at the edge of the iron bench, her arm stretched painfully in its socket to keep hold of her little sister's hand, and stared.
Jaenelle stopped, turned neatly on her heels as if emptiness were a ballroom floor, and frowned. "Why didn't you keep walking? Can't you feel the bench?"
"I thought you were playing games," Wilhelmina said, letting go since her sister obviously didn't need anyone to slow a fall that wasn't happening. "Imagining things. Like unicorns. I didn't know you meant it."
Jaenelle's blue eyes darkened and she shot a venomous glare toward the manor. "I don't imagine unicorns. They're real. They are."
Jaenelle could walk on air. Maybe the rest of her stories were also true. "I'd like to see a unicorn," Wilhelmina admitted. "Do you think you could bring one to visit?"
Jaenelle shook her head, gold hair flying about her face. Her sundress swirled around her knees, too thin to protect her against the chill of the early spring breeze, but she didn't seem to notice the goosebumps on her bare skin. "No. Not here. Not ever here. They don't leave their Territory anyway. I can teach you to air-walk, though!" she added, when Wilhelmina's face fell.
"Really?" Wilhelmina asked. She looked down at the grass, slowly flushing green again after the long winter. The bench wasn't too high off the ground. It wouldn't hurt too much if she fell. And if she didn't have to set her feet on creaking floors or muddy paths, all kinds of options might spread open.
"Yes, really!" Jaenelle said, stepping back toward the bench and grabbing both of Wilhelmina's hands in her own. "Here, let me show you!"
Something rushed into Wilhelmina's mind, sudden and shockingly intimate: Jaenelle's heart beating in her own chest, her breath matching the rhythm of air that flooded in and out of Jaenelle's lungs, fingers, arms, and legs two different lengths at the same time, hair just brushing her shoulders and hair falling in a heavy braid down her back, and all around the press of power, power, power, like the Darkness itself: deep and heavy beyond imagining, waiting to flood in and break her.
The way her mother was broken.
Wilhelmina flinched and slammed her mind shut, curling her self around her core as her body mimicked the motion in the flesh.
Jaenelle dropped her hands and stumbled back, pain and horror painted over her too-thin face. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" she cried. "I didn't mean to! I didn't know I'd scare you!"
Wilhelmina sat heavily on the bench and pulled her shawl tight around her shoulders, trying to catch her breath. She shivered, cold from more than just the biting breeze.
"I'm sorry," Jaenelle repeated, dropping from the air. Her feet squelched in the mud like anyone else's would, as if she were normal, but she wasn't normal. She never had been. She never would be.
"It's not your fault," Wilhelmina said, voice shaking as she fought to suppress her shivers. "I'm just-- I can't-- I don't want anyone to touch me inside. Not ever."
"I wouldn't hurt you," Jaenelle said, but she tucked her hands behind her back instead of lunging forward for a hug, the way she'd still done until her latest trip to Briarwood.
"Tell me a story instead?" Wilhelmina offered. "If you've been to visit unicorns, you must have been to all kinds of interesting places."
Jaenelle lit up, though less than before, and thumped down onto the bench beside Wilhelmina. "Of course! Where do you want to hear about? Who do you want to hear about? Because I think I met your--"
"Someplace warm," Wilhelmina said. "Warm and pretty, where nobody gets hurt."
"Oh," Jaenelle said, and a strange shadow seemed to pass behind her face. Then she smiled, her eyes lightening from sapphire to summer-sky, and began to tell Wilhelmina about an island called Scelt and the talking dogs who lived there.
"My mother was a Black Widow, wasn't she?" Wilhelmina said quietly to Uncle Philip one summer morning, as Alexandra and her father fenced with barbed politeness. Leland fluttered between them, turning from one to the other like a flower attempting to face two suns and breaking its stem in the effort.
Uncle Philip finished spreading gooseberry preserves on his toast with careful motions. Then he set down his knife, glanced over at the interminable argument -- about politics today, since Jaenelle wasn't around to introduce a different topic. He sighed. "Yes, she was. Why?"
Wilhelmina licked her lips nervously and shifted her chair an inch closer to Uncle Philip. The wooden feet scraped against the floorboards, but the noise was lost under the sound of raised and irritated voices. She licked her lips again and forced herself to speak. "Because... because daughters of Black Widows are often... and it's dangerous... and..."
"You're not born to that caste," Uncle Philip said.
Wilhelmina's shoulders tried to tense and relax at the same time. Her back ached.
"Are you sure?" she asked.
"Not when you were younger, but the psychic scent becomes apparent when a witch reaches puberty," Uncle Philip said. "A natural Black Widow also develops what is called a snake tooth under one of the nails on her right hand. You're thirteen now. You would have noticed that change starting if it were ever going to happen."
"Ah," Wilhelmina said.
"Did you want to be a Black Widow?" Uncle Philip asked as he picked up his toast.
Wilhelmina's shoulders knotted again. She looked down at her hands, her interlaced fingers clenched white and bloodless in her lap. "No? It's dangerous -- Lady Graff says Black Widows poison themselves and die a lot of the time, and even if they live they... they get ideas and go strange, and the rest of the Blood can never trust them, or live with them in peace. But my mother..."
"Adria was no stranger than any other female," Uncle Philip said, sending a dark look across the breakfast table toward Daddy. "She was strong-minded, but if a male can't live in peace with a strong female, he has no business being Blood. Your mother would most likely have joined Alexandra's First or Second Circle when she made the Offering. Chaillot lost a strong defender when she was broken."
"Oh," Wilhelmina said.
The argument grew louder -- her father's face had gone red with anger and Alexandra had drawn herself up in her chair, the chips of Opal Jewel that adorned her hairpins glittering dangerously with her rising temper. Even Leland was nearly shouting now, her efforts to cajole her husband and mother into calling truce going unheeded.
Uncle Philip sighed. "Make yourself scarce until your lessons," he said as he rose from his chair and strode around the table as if stepping into a war.
Wilhelmina shut the door, trapping four raised voices in the pretty prison of Alexandra's house, and fled into the muggy summer heat of the gardens.
"Do you know what's wrong with Prince Sadi?" Wilhelmina asked Jaenelle as they walked in the gardens alone. Autumn had begun to kiss the trees with gold and fire, and the kitchen gardens were heavy with ripe vegetables, vines and gourds spilling onto the paths as they passed.
Jaenelle slanted a sharp look at her from under golden brows. "Wrong?"
Wilhelmina swatted amiably at her little sister, who ducked with easy grace. "He missed breakfast in the kitchen, he looked awful when I passed him in the garden yesterday afternoon, he wasn't at dinner--"
"You weren't at dinner," Jaenelle pointed out.
"I check," Wilhelmina said flatly. "Always."
Jaenelle reached up and patted Wilhelmina's shoulder with grave sympathy.
"Anyway, he wasn't at dinner and he wasn't at breakfast today either. That's strange," Wilhelmina said. "And since Leland's been asking him to her rooms at night, everyone has been... tense."
"Why do you think I'd know anything?" Jaenelle asked.
"You always know," Wilhelmina said. "And he likes you. He sees you, like I do, like Cook and Andrew and everyone except our family, but he isn't-- he isn't scared. He's brave. And I'm not. So you like him, and when you like people you take care of them."
Jaenelle hummed, a quiet, noncommittal sound that Wilhelmina thought she'd picked up from Leland. It was one of the only signs that her sister was part of their family by blood instead of a changeling child of the Darkness itself.
"Did you know that Black Widows can poison themselves?" Jaenelle asked after a long silence.
"Yes," Wilhelmina said. "Graff told me. Because of my mother."
Jaenelle patted Wilhelmina's shoulder again. "You shouldn't listen to Graff. She doesn't know anything about anything except breaking people's wills. But she's right that Black Widows can poison themselves. It happens if they don't milk the venom from the snake tooth under their right ring finger before it curdles and turns solid. They get a fever and die from the hand up. It's fast and hard, and once the venom is corrupted, the only way to stop the fever is to cut off the finger, or even the whole hand."
Wilhelmina thought about that for a minute as they walked. She wasn't actually surprised to learn that Prince Sadi was a Black Widow, even though only females were meant to be part of that caste. He wore a Black Jewel, like no other male except the High Lord of Hell had ever done. He understood Jaenelle. Of course he was special in other ways.
Instead, she thought about her mother. Adria Delacoeur was a Black Widow. She'd died of a fever, fast and hard. People thought Wilhelmina's father might have killed her so he would inherit her wealth (which he hadn't, since it officially belonged to Wilhelmina) or so he would be free to make a more politically useful marriage (which he had, and Jaenelle was the result).
"Daemon is fine now," Jaenelle said, patting Wilhelmina's shoulder a third time, as if she thought Wilhelmina was still worried about him.
"That's nice," Wilhelmina murmured. She paused, turning back to stare at the manor. It rose graceful and strong from the surrounding gardens and parkland, giving no sign of the anger and bitterness trapped within its walls.
"You might as well leave now," she told her sister. "There's no need to come back inside with me before you go wherever you have your lessons."
Jaenelle's eyes darkened, the temperature dropping unnaturally around her. "Something's wrong with you," she said. "Prince Sadi isn't the only person I take care of."
"This isn't a problem you can heal," Wilhelmina said. "Go on. Go visit your teacher. I won't break while you're gone."
Jaenelle blinked, and for a moment Wilhelmina thought her eyes might have sparkled with tears. But none fell. Instead Jaenelle lunged forward and hugged Wilhelmina, the contact strange and awkward after a year and more of Jaenelle holding herself so stringently apart.
Wilhelmina returned the embrace, equally awkward. "I won't break," she repeated.
"I know," Jaenelle said. The words fell like stones into a bottomless abyss, more sure and weighted than Wilhelmina's assertion deserved. Then she stepped backward and disappeared.
Wilhelmina walked slowly back toward the manor.
She needed to ask Cook how her mother had died. This time she wanted the whole story.
Jaenelle was gone and Wilhelmina had nothing but another witch's Jewel as a memorial for her sister. Except it wasn't a memorial. Jaenelle wasn't dead. She knew that the same way she knew that she was alive herself. And sometimes the borrowed Sapphire Jewel flashed in angry defense the way Jaenelle's temper had flared at injustice to others, and sometimes it whispered Kaeleer when Wilhelmina felt lost and scared, alone in the bitter swirl of the Angelline manor's pretty poison trap.
She had been alone for a year now. Every day she wished she had the courage to leave, like Jaenelle and Prince Sadi had done.
Every day she stayed, too afraid to take the risk of change.
Graff was gone, broken in the storm Prince Sadi had unleashed when he broke his Ring of Obedience. Her father hadn't hired anyone as a replacement Craft tutor and Alexandra was uninterested in Wilhelmina's education, so she spent her days in the library, trying to teach herself.
That was where her father found her in the early dark of an afternoon near the start of Winsol, curled up in an armchair near the window at the front of the library with a book of Healing Craft open on her lap.
"So this is where you hide," he said, his voice thick and hoarse with the pain of the unknown disease that had struck down a swathe of men all across Chaillot.
Wilhelmina looked up, her hand flying nervously to the borrowed Sapphire Jewel she wore around her neck in the silver wire cage she had once used for her own Purple Dusk Jewel. (That one was now cut into smaller pieces and set into jewelry or kept in a pouch she had vanished the moment the jeweler placed it in her hands. She never wanted anyone else to touch the stones that were both her power and her inner self.)
"Don't you bluff me, girl," her father said with a sickly leer. "I've figured out your little secret. That's not your Jewel. It's not a real Jewel at all, just a stone you've put a little spell on to make a pretty fake, like your bitch sister tried to do after her Birthright Ceremony. She didn't fool me then and you don't fool me now."
Wilhelmina sat frozen as her father limped across the open front of the library. She knew her Jewel was darker than his -- even if she couldn't use the Sapphire, Purple Dusk far outranked Yellow -- but he was her father, the authority she'd feared and tried to please all her life.
Robert Benedict laid a heavy, swollen hand on his daughter's shoulder, pressing her into the chair. The deep, soft cushions suddenly seemed a trap instead of a comfort.
"You look exactly like your mother," he said. "Exactly like. Not a single trace of me at all. She did that, I know. I broke her but she still spun her damned webs, still cheated me of everything I should have won. Even after she died she cheated me, stole my chance at a son and gave me your bitch sister instead."
"The only thing that whore was good for was breaking," her father said, his free hand reaching down to lift the borrowed Sapphire Jewel from between her breasts. He twisted the chain and pulled it tight, drawing Wilhelmina toward him if she wanted to continue breathing. "You know what they say about dogs, don't you? Like bitch, like whelp. And I need to bury this pain, this curse your bitch sister and Prince Sadi left behind."
He yanked Wilhelmina out of the chair, laughing as she stumbled on unsteady feet.
"On your knees, girl. Like a good bitch."
Wilhelmina collapsed, only the chain of her necklace keeping her from falling flat on the floor. Her skirt pooled around her thighs, leaving her lower legs bare. The carpet ground into her knees.
Her father began to unlace his trousers.
"You never liked nutcakes or most other sweets, I remember that. Unnatural, just like your mother. But you'll like this one if you want to live. It's a special lollipop, girl. It gets bigger the longer you lick it."
He shoved his penis toward Wilhelmina's face.
"Go on, whore. Do it right or I'll kill you like I took care of your mother."
"No," Wilhelmina whispered.
Her father -- no, not her father! She couldn't bear to think of him as her father. Fathers didn't try to break their daughters. Not like this. Not like-- like what Robert Benedict had done to Jaenelle. He must have. She could see that now.
Bobby pulled up hard on the silver chain around Wilhelmina's neck, forcing her to inch forward on her knees until his penis bobbed against her cheek. "You don't get a choice, bitch. Suck me and I might let you live after I break you. You want to live. I know you do, just like your mother. You'll beg like she begged me before we're done. Now open your mouth, Wilhelmina. Be a good girl."
Wilhelmina's eyes snapped upward. Bobby sneered down, his own eyes cruel and hot with lust for her anticipated pain.
"Be a good girl," he repeated.
Something deep inside Wilhelmina snapped.
She felt the silver chain frost over, burning her neck and Bobby's hand with sudden cold. The borrowed Sapphire Jewel sang with echoed rage as she plunged down and down toward her inner web -- but under her own will, not driven or fleeing or falling out of control. She brushed against the net of purple light and spun, driving upward toward the outer world.
As she passed the Yellow, Bobby's eyes widened. His fingers spasmed, trying to release the chain, but the frost had stilled his joints and his hand remained clenched, locking him in place. Pinning him within Wilhelmina's reach.
She didn't care about Craft. She didn't care about family. She didn't care about trying to be good, about trying to keep anybody happy.
The chain exploded, dagger-edged fragments of metal flying outward in all directions, burrowing into Bobby's hand and gut and groin. Some flew toward Wilhelmina, then ricocheted off the expanding ring of power and followed the others into Bobby's flesh.
He screamed. He fell.
Then the power hit the rest of the room and the ceiling fell in, burying him under a foot of plaster and a wardrobe from the servant's bedroom that had been overhead.
This time there was nothing left to scream.
Wilhelmina sat untouched in the middle of a slowly growing ring of chaos -- the ceiling continued to crumble, its support eaten away, and more and more furniture crashed down through the expanding hole. After a minute, plaster dust began to settle on her head and shoulders. Some drifted into her eyes. She blinked, and lifted a shaking hand to wipe her face.
The ceiling groaned.
Wilhelmina looked up, looked around, and then scrambled for the door.
She ran through the corridors toward her bedroom. She couldn't stay here anymore. Not after Bobby-- and not when Alexandra must have known-- and Uncle Philip and Leland never tried to stop-- and none of them had seen Jaenelle, or listened to Wilhelmina, or cared about anything beyond themselves.
Wilhelmina vanished her oldest clothes, all her jewelry, and the few books of Craft and Protocol she had lying on the table beside her bed. Then she took a deep breath and stared at the floor. Her room was over the kitchen. She'd seen Jaenelle pass through solid walls time after time, and she knew the theory. She didn't have time to get downstairs the normal way, where someone might see and try to stop her.
Wilhelmina closed her eyes and let herself fall through the floor.
She landed halfway between the small breakfast table and the oven, tucking and rolling to keep from twisting her ankles. Cook shrieked in surprise and something clattered to the floor with a metallic ring.
"What in the name of the Darkness do you think you're doing, Wilhelmina Benedict!" Cook shouted. "Just because your poor sister used to pull tricks like that is no reason for you to imitate her. And what in the world happened to your neck?"
"I'm leaving," Wilhelmina said. Her voice sounded almost steady. Strange. She'd never been more scared in her life, and yet something inside felt like it had snapped into place after years of being dislocated. "I can't-- Daddy tried--" She stopped and shook her head, trying to shake her thoughts into order.
"Robert Benedict tried to rape and break me," she said. "He said he'd done the same to my mother. I think I killed him. So now I'm leaving. I'm going to find Jaenelle, wherever she went." Wilhelmina looked around the kitchen, then strode to the breadbox and began vanishing loaves.
"Mother Night," Cook said weakly. "Mother Night and the Darkness have mercy. Are you sure?"
"I'm sure," Wilhelmina said. "I can't stay here. Nobody should stay here. This place is poison and we all should have left long ago." She looked over her shoulder. Cook was leaning against the sink, one hand pressed to her throat and a dazed expression on her face.
"Come with me," Wilhelmina offered. "My mother gave you a job, but a job's no use if it ruins your life. You did your best to take care of me. Now let me take care of you."
Cook straightened, dropping her hand to her side and dusting it on her apron. "You're too young to be so old," she said, a faraway look in her eyes. "Just like your mother was. But she was the strongest witch I ever knew, except maybe your poor sister, and she never led me wrong."
"Will you come?" Wilhelmina asked again. "We have to hurry before someone calls Alexandra or Uncle Philip."
Slowly, Cook took her hand.
Wilhelmina closed her eyes.
Then she pulled them both through the wall to freedom.