Kiery bursts through my front door in a panic, her eyes wide and wild.
“Who knows?” I ask. “What?” But deep down, I already know the answer.
“Is your husband home?” Keiry asks.
“He is,” I answer with a scowl. “But he’s passed out as usual and the man sleeps like the dead, so you can speak freely. Actually, you can speak freely anyway. This is my house too.”
“Maybe not in this case…” she says.
“I overheard a conversation between Ivaine and the Witch Queen. The door to her counsel room was open, but she didn’t know I was outside.”
“I’d hate to think what she’d do to you if she did know,” I tell her.
“Me too,” Kiery says. “But I’m even gladder she didn’t discover me because then I wouldn’t have heard what I did…”
“Who am I to suffer this betrayal?”
“Patience, my dear. Patience…”
“He wouldn’t even want her if she didn’t have that damned pretty face!”
“I know, darling. But these things must be handled delicately. They take time.”
“And what if I don’t want to wait?”
“Who else could they have been talking about?” Keiry cries.
“You don’t know that for sure,” I say weakly. “It could have been about anybody.” But I know I’m trying to convince myself of this more than Keiry.
But what if she is right? I had assumed up to this point that if Ivaine knew, I would know too, because she would have done something to me already.
Kill, torture, maim, imprison… As queen, she certainly has the power to do any of those things.
And so does Galaea.
Now that I’m living outside the witches’ camp, I don’t have much standing with Sisterhood. I doubt Galaea would find much reason to spare me from Ivaine’s wrath, unless my being Donya’s mother counts as a reason.
If I were wise, I would take my daughters and run. I cannot count the times I’ve thought about leaving Markius with his house and his debts, and travelling the world the way that the blind seer predicted I would. There must be so much to see and learn outside Veradel, free of wifedom and free of the witches at last.
But there is one problem with this plan.
Lothar is to me what drink is to Markius.
Lately, he and I have been seeing each other more than ever. His messenger comes to my potion stand almost daily with instructions for when to meet Lothar and where. He has promised me that he never reads the messages; he only delivers them. According to him, the king’s affairs are none of his business.
We typically meet at inns to act upon our clandestine love. We both know it’s too dangerous for me to go to the castle.
“You’re playing with fire, Corryne,” Keiry warns.
The witches are having their biggest celebration in years.
Ivaine has given birth to a girl, the princess Viletti.
They all seem to think she will be the great queen Saleri prophesied. Have they forgotten about Dracarus, Lothar’s firstborn son and true heir? Boys may mean nothing to the Sisterhood, but things are different out in the world. It is as if they are deliberately ignoring that inconvenient fact.
Galaea has declared there will be an even greater celebration to honor the birth of Princess Viletti, and that all of the witches in the Sisterhood are required to attend. To add flavor, Ivaine has decided the celebration should be a masquerade ball at the castle.
At my potion stand, I discover another message. Lothar requests for me to meet him in secret at the ball.
I do not fail to see the danger in this, but in a strange way, it excites me. Especially since everyone will be wearing disguises. It reminds me of the time he and I planned to meet at the Mating Ceremony. Only this time, the witches will not be able to stop us.
So I go to the dressmaker and, with some of the earnings I’ve managed to squirrel away, I buy a gown for the occasion.
It is the night of the ball, and I get myself ready. I want everything to be perfect tonight. I gaze into the mirror of my vanity and daydream of seeing my Lothar… but my fantasies are soon dashed by the sound of Donya screaming.
Surprisingly, Markius storms into the room carrying her. I’ve rarely ever seen him hold our daughter. “This kid’s burning up with fever,” Markius informs me. “And she won’t stop crying. You're her mother! You need to stay home and take care of her. It’s selfish of you to leave her here like this.”
“The ball is mandatory,” I argue. “I have to be there. I don’t have a choice!”
“Since when do you do what the witches tell you?” he snarls.
“Listen,” I try to speak calmly. “There is a potion for fevers in the cupboard. You can give that to her and if it does not work quickly enough, give her a bath. I’ve dealt with many fevers before. It won’t kill you to take care of her for one night.”
Before he can argue with me anymore about it, I call out, “I have to go!” and leave quickly.
If only I still had my gatekey! That would make my trip to the castle so much easier.
I hope I can make it to the ball in good time without ruining my dress before I even get there.
As though Fate has heard and answered my distress, a horse-drawn carriage stops on the road before me. “Good evening, m’lady,” the driver greets me. “Are you in need of a ride?”
“Oh, that would be wonderful!” I exclaim. “But… I am afraid I have not brought any money to pay you.”
“Nonsense!” the driver declares. “Beautiful women ride for free. Where are you headed off to?”
“The castle,” I tell him.
“It must be quite the occasion for you to be dressed like that.”
“It’s a ball,” I tell him after I have climbed aboard his carriage.
“I see,” he says. “And do you have anyone special waiting for you at this ball?”
“Yes,” I answer with a sigh. “The love of my life.”
He chuckles. “You’re a lucky girl.”
I might be the last person in the world anyone would call lucky.
But then again, perhaps my luck is about to change.