Book excerpt

Stormbringer

A Weather Witch Novel

Weather Witch

Shannon Delany

St. Martin's Press

Chapter One
 
 
Being human signifies, for each one of us, belonging to a class, a society, a country, a continent and a civilization …
—CLAUDE LEVI-STRAUSS
Aboard the Tempest
Rowen Burchette stood in the belly of the airship Tempest, his hands pressed flat to the glass of a window as cables hissed and zipped free of the bulbous boat, falling slack against Holgate’s Western Tower and slapping as loud as cannon fire. The airship drifted slowly up and away from its place at the docks, carrying Rowen farther from his goal of rescuing Jordan Astraea.
He balled his hands into fists and slammed them against the window’s wooden framing. It did him no good and it definitely smarted, so, thinking better of the action, he stopped.
He needed a strategy to get from this ship to the other. He needed a strategy to get to Jordan (whom he most certainly was not in love with, no matter what people suggested). He had a mission: he would rescue her and set things right in Philadelphia for both their families.
He needed a strategy that would give them all their happily ever afters.
But strategy was not his strong suit. His brother Sebastian was far superior in all things strategic. Sebastian could have outwitted the chess-playing automaton the Turk itself if he’d had the opportunity to play it! Rowen would have more likely sat across the chessboard from the mechanical man wondering who his tailor was.
Rowen’s fists opened and closed again and he leaned forward, resting his forehead on one. He needed a plan. But planning was also Sebastian’s strength.
Blood pounded in his ears.
He needed … to gather his thoughts.
He needed an achievable goal.
His focus at the window changed and he caught a glimpse of himself in the reflection. He backed up, swatting at his beard, trying to lessen the unkempt way it taunted him. No use, it still stuck out from his face like his jaw was covered in the ends of frayed ropes. He tugged a hand through his hair and got most of the blond mess to go in the general direction he hoped.
Most of it.
Dammit. The things he was known most for—his dashing good looks and ability to dress for any occasion—were also beyond his grasp.
How did one dress for abduction via pirate ship, anyhow?
He’d been forced into the hold of the Tempest by a group of large (and powerfully-smelling) men. Not that he couldn’t have taken at least a few of them down in a brawl, but he submitted when watchmen appeared on the Western Tower’s dock.
The watchmen had been, after all, looking for him.
So he let himself be jostled inside the rocking airship, because sometimes what seemed like losing was only a quiet way to win.
The men searched him without even a “by your leave, good sir,” found little of interest upon him (having neatly disarmed him in the dark room beyond the Tower’s base), and then they disappeared, locking him inside.
Piles of wooden boxes, crates, and trunks, most of them rough-hewn and similar in dimension, nearly surrounded him. The ceiling here was not much beyond Rowen’s own height and the interior was spartan with only wood beams, floors, and walls held together by metal strips and broad flat-headed nails. Copper pipes ran overhead, snaking across the ceiling, crawling down the walls to the floor, and disappearing into each.
This was not a place one kept people, but things. Here the only noises were the creaks, groans, burbles, and hisses of a ship rising slowly into the atmosphere.
He peered out the window again, marking well the name of the opposing ship. The Artemesia.
It was a liner—larger than the ship he rode within, and far more fashionable with its sleek finishes and elegant trim. A generously endowed figurehead embraced part of its balloon, her wooden arms permanently thrown back as if against an oncoming wind, her skirt and hair flowing out and around the front of the balloon, its shape looking to him a bit like an egg tipped on its side. His stomach growled at the thought of food but he focused to scrutinize the Artemesia, wanting to be able to identify her easily again. Behind the figurehead’s wooden shoulders hinged the great ship’s folded wings, and in their current upright position he noticed wings painted onto the balloon’s fabric as well—a stunning blend of technology and art. Cabins were integrated into the design of her long skirt, their windows flashing in the waning light.
At the Artemesia’s back sat her rudder and at the balloon’s very top … Rowen squinted.
A door whined open and someone snapped, “You!”
Rowen whipped around, giving the approaching redheaded woman a wary look as he spread his feet and crossed his arms to better appear imposing.
It did nothing to slow her progress.
He doubted much could.
But she suddenly paused, saying, “Ugh. I cannot stand the parading about of supposedly modern women dressed in these—these…” She grabbed the wide flounces of her skirts and pulled at them as if making war with her outfit. “—skirts so broad, so cumbersome…” She reached for the belt buckle that bit into her clothes just above her hips and Rowen stepped back as she gave the buckle a twist and with a pop her skirts fell in a puddle of fabric about her feet.
Beneath the skirting she wore tight leather leggings—indecently tight for a woman—and a pair of tall black boots. She wiggled the belt down across the broadest bit of her hips, declaring, “That is a great relief!” Kicking the skirts to the side, she stared at the newest addition to her crew.
Rowen swallowed.
The woman, a few years older than him if the lines edging her eyes and curving by her upper lip were any measure, pulled an etched flask free of her belt and took a long swallow of its contents. Her eyes lost focus a moment and the ship bucked slightly upward. She reattached the flask to her hip, licked her lips, and her eyes, a startling green, snared him again, brighter and fiercer.
She wore a strange necklace of slender rope that wove in and out making a knotted pendant with three loops. Removing an old-fashioned tricorne leather hat, its sides pinned up with gadgetry, she leaned over at her waist, shaking out the longest mane of coppery hair Rowen had ever seen. Sighing, she swept it back up with her hands and knotted it at the nape of her neck, its ends fanning out at one side like a golden pheasant’s feather caught in the knot.
Straightening, she donned the hat once more, and loosened the front of something that was at once as form-fitting as a corset and as masculine as a waistcoat. Again she sighed.
Unsettled by her unseemly display, Rowen (with his vast quantities of time running wild with the lads and his adventures into Philadelphia’s Below to explore a world beneath his rank) slapped a hand over his eyes, knowing there were things one did not get involved with.
Certainly not when sober.
He groaned. This had been a disaster from the start. The loss of Jordan, the trouble with Catrina, the drunken argument that led to the duel in which he surprised himself (and many others) by not being the participant lying dead on the field.
He slid his hands back down to his sides, keeping his eyes closed. Perhaps the biggest disaster had been letting his family servant and dear friend, Jonathan, be his second at the duel. They were both made criminals the moment Rowen had fired his gun.
But Jonathan believed Rowen had the stuff of heroes—the stuff of legends—hidden somewhere within him. He believed Rowen’s true worth would be shown, but only when tested.
Jonathan had never been wrong before.
Evidently it only took being wrong once to wind up dead alongside some anonymous river, the victim of a Merrow attack.
Rowen knew little beyond what was expected of him. He never bothered with anything other than meeting everyone’s expectations: use your strengths (he was handsome), marry up if possible (he had Jordan as a viable option until recently), be loyal to your rank and enter military service (his enlistment date approached too soon for his liking). But that was all.
Meeting the basic expectations meant one born of a good household prospered.
The irony was being born Sixth of the Nine, a military rank, he knew he was no hero, no fighter, no leader of men. He’d heard it said by men who were all those amazing things. He could keep the troops laughing, they claimed, but he’d never lead them.
He was as good as cannon fodder.
The woman tapped her foot and, opening his eyes, he saw her lips twitch in his direction, pointing up into a smile. “Elizabeth,” she said by way of introduction. “And, you, what was it?”
“My name matters not one whit, as I shall not be staying aboard.”
The smile fell from her face and her lips tightened. “You will stay aboard until I see fit to release you. This is my world, my kingdom, my realm, and you—”
“—are your serf?” he asked with a snort.
Changing the sound of only one letter, and only slightly, she replied with a smirk, “You may certainly serve me.”
Rowen snorted and scratched at his beard.
“Give up your name, lad, or I’ll have the naming of you myself,” she warned. “And you might be a pretty thing beneath that mangled mess of facial hair, but if I name you something less than flattering, I guarantee it will stick whilst you’re aboard the Tempest. Perhaps even after you leave. Ask Wee Willy Winky if you doubt me.”
She touched the tip of her index finger to her lips and rolled her eyes up, beginning the process of assigning him a new name.
Wee Willy Winky? Well, at least that name was taken … But she seemed the inventive type and he did not like that at all.
He groaned, admitting, “Rowen.”
“Aye, Rowen…” A grin split her face. “See there, lad, how difficult is it to go along rather than be headstrong? There is a time stubbornness serves, that I guarantee. But stubbornness best serves man—and by man, I mean mankind, which of course includes the fairer sex,” she added as disclaimer, “but, as I was saying: stubbornness best serves man in matters of either love or war.”
Rowen grunted.
“Now be a dear, will you? I need all of these crates—” She strode across the narrow space not occupied by the boxes filling the bay, and rested a hand on a substantial stack of them. “—moved over to…” She paced a few feet and tapped her foot. “… here.” She widened her stance and tapped her right foot definitively. “Not here,” then slid it back, tapping once more, “but here. And the sooner the better, of course.”
He looked at her blankly, rubbed his ragged mess of a beard, blinked once, and turned back to the window.
She tapped her foot again, resting one fist on an outthrust hip. “Darling,” she cooed, “you appear absolutely stunned!”
“It isn’t every day I get kidnapped by a crazy bitch to work on a pirate ship.”
“Such language,” she said, scowling. “You will certainly need to mind us better than that. I shall not suffer to hear any aboard referred to by that term.” She shook her head. “We are most certainly not a pirate ship, nor a pirate vessel … nor a brigand’s boat … none of those things. We are a trading vessel,” she specified. “We are traders (the latter sound being a ‘d,’ not a ‘t,’ mind the distinction well). We are purveyors of fine goods and the occasional provider of unique services.” She paused, fanning out her fingers to examine her nails. “We operate under strict guidelines and within the boundaries of important legal codes and laws. Just not all of the legal codes and laws the government might like us to observe…”
He blinked at her again. “I did not fathom pirate being the most offensive term in my sentence.”
She shrugged. “What is it I’ve heard said: when I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck…?”
Rowen pawed at one ear, and, raising his chin, tried once more. “It is even less often, I daresay, that I find myself kidnapped by traders.
“More appropriately, you were shanghaied by traders. Or crimped by a captain. Or impressed.”
Rowen snorted, “And yet I am not impressed by being impressed.”
Elizabeth clucked her tongue and said, “Darling, you must go adventuring more frequently.”
His brow lowered, combining with his already prominent jaw in what he hoped was an intimidating mix.
She winked at him and sprang forward, grabbing his arm to tow him away from the window. He stood still as granite. “Whatever is wrong with you?” she laughed. “I saved you from the Holgate watchmen—”
“—you kidnapped me,” he reminded her.
“Technically, we call it something else … Remember? Shanghaied.
“And you expect what—gratitude?”
“Perhaps rather than gratitude you should simply give me less attitude than the watchmen hunting you deserved, eh?” She cocked her head, eyes sharp as flint. “Exactly what were they hunting you for? They seemed quite determined pounding on that door.” She pursed her lips, watching him. “What is your crime, Rowen?”
He turned away to watch Jordan’s ship slip into a haze that grew, thickening on the other side of the window.
“There are crimes not even I will tolerate aboard ship…” She dropped his arm. “Have you hurt a child?” she asked, her voice thin. “I’ll gut a man for that.” Her hand dropped to a spot on her belt behind the flask.
Rowen Albertus Burchette, unarmed, recognized the threat as it went from words to potential action.
“Tell it true, lad,” she said, squinting. “I’ll know in my heart if you’re lying.”
“No,” he replied. “I would never hurt a child.”
Her eyes roved over each feature of his face, making his heart hammer beneath her scrutiny. Her hand fell back to her side, her shoulders dropped, and her lips slid back into something just shy of a smile. “Good. Not that at least.” She nodded, urging, “Come, come. This,” she waved at the crates, “can all wait a bit longer.”
“That was the only crime you wanted to ask about? What about stealing, cheating at cards…” He swallowed, avoiding the one crime that damned him.
Murder.
“No,” she said. “Little else matters. But harming a child is like cutting off a rose’s bloom before a bud’s yet sprouted. Other crimes are too frequently understandable. We all run from something whether we’re in the air or one of the Grounded population.” She shrugged. “Besides, the truth will out. Now come. I would not be a proper hostess if I did not show you more of the ship on your first day.”
“So you are a hostess. On a fine trading vessel.” He rolled his eyes, taking in the room. His tone proved him to be less than impressed.
“I’ve brought you aboard the most talked-about ship in our fleet and I am ready to make you privy to many of her secrets out of courtesy—and the fact I could gut you in a heartbeat should you prove less than amiable.” The smile never left her lips even as she threatened him. “And yet…”
He shook his head.
“You care not—”
“—not one whit,” he agreed. “I was supposed to be on that ship.” He jabbed a finger in the direction the Artemesia had disappeared in.
“No, you were not,” she returned, her tone flat. “You are precisely where you are supposed to be at this moment in time. Everything happens for a reason, and for some reason you were not fated to be aboard that ship—at least not now.” She crossed her arms and stared at him with a fierce focus.
He twitched, looking away.
“I thought as much. For some reason Fate is keeping you from that ship right now. You must allow Fate to do its work.”
“Wait. You’re a pirate but…”
Trader.” She said it more slowly, rolling out the r at its end as if instructing a child in the word’s pronunciation for the first time. “A liberally aligned trader. What? We—”
“—liberally aligned traders—” he inserted for her.
She mock-curtsied, turning up her fingers at her sides and bending her knees. “We cannot believe in predestination? You suppose our kind to be the guiding light and standard for all free will and liberty, is that it?” She snorted. “You probably think I’m some Robin Hood and my crew’s my merry men. Well, I’m no one’s hero,” she corrected, arching her eyebrows. “I take from the rich—so I might someday be rich. And my crew?” She looked toward the door in the ceiling at the bay’s far end and the stairs disappearing into it. “They are mostly surly. They are only merry when they are quite drunk. And then only before the vomiting ensues. So. Buck up,” she demanded, a true smile coloring her tone. “Life is short, choices are made for us, and the best we can do is roll with the punches. Perhaps avoid a few punches landing on our face if Fate feels kind.”
He heaved out a groan, glancing away. Wisps of white edged around the window, transforming the haze into a gently rolling fog.
The captain … hostess … Elizabeth, he finally decided, pulled out her flask again and took a few quick gulps of whatever liquid resided within.
It was bound to be sturdy stuff to satisfy such a woman’s thirst. She recapped it, shoved it back into its carrier on her low-slung belt, and reached for his arm once more.
Outside the window the fog boiled up into dense clouds, drawing tight against the Tempest’s body.
The Artemesia was gone, enveloped in the weather its own Conductor cast, and camouflaged against the late-afternoon sky.
Feeling her hand warm on his arm, Rowen did not twist away; he no longer protested. Perhaps she was right. Perhaps Fate or Destiny dragged him from Jordan even though he had come so close. Perhaps his life as a ranking gentleman on the way to military service and a future of security—a future that included Jordan—was already over. He had, after all, seen his best friend murdered and killed a man and several of the Wildkin’s Merrow on the way to this very moment.
Jordan most likely hated him. He had failed her by not mounting a timely (or successful) rescue. Why would she want him now?
Things could never go back to what they had been before with the money and the parties and so much promise ahead of him. There was no returning to life as he’d known it when he was simply another cog fitting comfortably in the wheel of Philadelphia’s wealthiest society, the social ranks living high on the Hill.
Holgate
Hearing a knock at his door, Councilman Stevenson set down his teacup. He took his time rising from the comfort of his sofa, having decided to take his supper in his personal apartments again, though his gut warned him he should be eating with the other men involved in Weather Working. He should be seated at the high table in the main hall watching the Wardens, Wraiths, and Testers interact, and more importantly, listening to the rumors.
He should be playing this most dangerous of social games.
But he wanted none of the drama, none of the posturing and positioning. He wanted to go home to Philadelphia, to be more involved in the Council. But going home meant returning to his new and young wife, so he stayed in Holgate and frequently dined alone. He opened the door to glare at the watchman disrupting his solitude.
The large man looked down to meet Stevenson’s eyes, a ragged scar marking his face in the space between hairline and beard. He shuffled his feet and cleared his throat.
“Well,” the Councilman demanded. “Why are you interrupting me?”
“I bring news, my lord. News from Philadelphia.”
Stevenson’s right eyebrow quirked. “Good or bad news?”
The watchman’s jaw went slack, his mouth a vacant space between both beard and mustache. “I—”
“Good God,” Stevenson muttered. “It’s subjective, one supposes.” He growled and the larger man stepped back. “Tell it true. What is this news from Philadelphia?”
“Your stallion?”
Stevenson blinked.
“King’s Ransom?”
“Yesss.” Stevenson drew the word out. “My stallion, King’s Ransom, who is in the care of the military stables under the control of Gregor Burchette, is…” He tilted his head and leaned in, trying to draw the information out of him.
“… gone.”
“Gone?”
“He has been stolen.” The watchman stepped back.
“What?!” Stevenson hopped back as well, his fingers darting into his hair as he tried to keep his brain from bursting out of his skull. “King’s Ransom has been stolen?”
“Yes, my lord. Along with one other horse.”
Stevenson released his hair and rubbed his forehead instead. “I care nothing for any other horse. King’s Ransom is … was…”
King’s Ransom was the only reason he married his new wife. King’s Ransom was the best bit of her dowry. King’s Ransom was the reason he tolerated her simpering existence and returned to Philadelphia as often as he did.
“King’s Ransom has been stolen,” the watchman repeated.
“How could things get any worse?” Stevenson rubbed his forehead. “And what precisely is Gregor Burchette doing to find the horse thief?”
“Lord Burchette has given his assurance that all his men are watching out for the thief and that you will surely receive the justice you deserve.”
“Good enough! We all eventually get our just deserts.” Closing the door, he muttered once more, “How could things get any worse?”
Aboard the Artemesia
Shuffled aboard the Artemesia, Bran had kept a careful eye on his daughter Meggie as well as on Marion Kruse, the only escaped Weather Witch, whose hand wrapped tightly around Meggie’s upper arm. Bran and his lover, Maude, followed with quiet caution, knowing the man who controlled the little girl’s fate controlled them all.
It seemed to take so little for a Witch to brew a storm: concentration, passion, moisture in the air connecting with the moisture in their body—and it took so much less for a Made Weather Witch, like Marion, to call one element of the weather and cast it.
Anywhere.
Any Weather Witch in living memory Bran Made was quite a commodity.
And quite a liability.
There were reasons Witches were kept under tight government control.
Could they call a storm to dampen rebellious spirits? A simple task used in the May Nativist riots! Bring the rain on only certain days, at certain times, and for preset durations to optimize crop production? Of course. Feed the power of the weather itself into double-terminated quartz storm crystals to act as batteries for everything from lights to hot running water? Yes!
Toss lightning into a government building in protest?
Destroy crops by withholding rain from a region?
Drown an entire town?
Yes.
There were a multitude of reasons to maintain Witches, and even more reasons to maintain control over Witches.
Marion Kruse had a more subtle ability than gathering thundering storm clouds. He had a keen understanding of cold. Bran bet the Philadelphia newspapers had nicknamed him the Frost Giant—a man who killed prize-winning roses and most recently a tree near the Council’s gallows—killed with a cold that grew from the inside out.
Bran’s gaze remained pinned on his kidnapper’s hand. Marion could summon a cold so powerful it would freeze the child’s heart in her chest. So Bran and Maude kept their heads down and their voices silent. There was no way to win against your abductor if winning meant losing your recently discovered daughter.
Nearby, a masked man, his face hidden beneath the finely wrought carved and painted leather face of a gazelle, horns sweeping out behind him, paused. He brought with him a large and well-adorned trunk on wheels, a carpetbag and two boxes strapped between atop it. At his feet a fox the black of a starless night stopped, her tail curling around his legs.
Even as the crowd pushed their way through the Artemesia’s hold toward the grand staircase and their cabins beyond, the masked man was noticeable.
An authoritative voice said, “Come now.” Everyone in the liner’s bottom level turned toward the speaker, who fell silent and forced a smile when he realized he had been noticed. By a row of windows facing another docked ship the captain stood, his hand on Jordan Astraea’s arm much the same way Marion Kruse’s hand kept hold of Meggie.
The bag at Bran’s side quivered, and, licking lips gone suddenly dry, he slipped a hand into the bag, past his journals, and rested his palm on its curved contents. Sybil’s skull remained cool beneath his touch but Meggie jerked up straighter, pale blond curls quivering.
She turned and looked at him. “Papá?” she asked.
He leaned over, whispering into the crown of her head, “What is it, little dove?”
“Someone called my name.”
“No,” he whispered, blinking. “I heard nothing.”
Her eyebrows drew tight together and he chilled when her gaze dropped to his hand hidden in the bag. “Are you certain?”
“Yes, love,” he said, choking the words out. “Most certain.”
Marion pulled Meggie around, moving from their planned path up the stairs and to their cabin beyond. Instead, he guided Meggie toward the captain and the beleaguered young woman.
Bran closed his eyes a moment, wishing for stillness, for silence, for peace. Did Marion sense what Jordan was? Had they met before? It didn’t matter as Bran followed obediently, chin dipped down, eyes on the hem of Meggie’s dress and the dangling feet of the stuffed dolly she’d dubbed Somebunny, which she kept wrapped in her free arm. Avoiding all eye contact, the last thing Bran Marshall of House Dregard wanted was to be recognized by the captain he had presented a Conductor-in-training to only a brief while ago.
To have any chance as someone other than the Maker, Bran needed to leave Holgate unnoticed—whether at the hands of an abductor or otherwise. The Maker never traveled, that was known by all. If discovered, he would be forced back into Councilman Stevenson’s control. But if he shook free of his grim past and survived his association with Marion Kruse long enough to truly know freedom …
Marion made his way directly to the captain and Bran drew in on himself, becoming as small, as inconspicuous, as an adult could. Moving forward, quiet and unobtrusive, once one of the most powerful men in the New World, Bran focused on being disinteresting and utterly obedient. Still he noticed they were not the only ones weaving their way through the crowd to reach the captain and the Witch.
The masked man and his sable pet fox also pushed in that direction, arriving at nearly the same time.
Marion, coldhearted and hotheaded, spoke first. “Captain? And who might this disheveled young woman be?” he asked, thrusting his chin toward Jordan, who stood with her back to them all, staring out the window. “Surely not our Conductor…”
Bran turned away, hiding his face, and listening.
“Surely not,” the captain said with a laugh. “But she is the apprentice for Conductor.”
“She looks a bit rough.” Bran imagined the new voice belonged to the masked man. It was a strong, smooth voice with the quality one expected from an orator or performer—a voice crowds traveled miles to hear.
A pause—perhaps the captain cocked his head, looking the man over. “Do I have a well-reputed illusionist aboard my liner?”
“Is there such a thing as a well-reputed illusionist?” the other returned. Bran heard a smile lighten his words.
The captain chuckled. “Has Fortune graced me with the Wandering Wallace?”
“Yet another question that only time may tell,” the other teased. “Has Fortune graced you with my presence? We shall see how graced you feel when we eventually part ways. Am I the Wandering Wallace? Most definitely I am!”
Someone clapped their hands together, approving the announcement.
“But this Conductor-to-be,” the Wandering Wallace continued, “she seems quite … unraveled.”
The captain sucked a breath back through his teeth. “She ate something disagreeable and should be feeling better soon. She was provided by the Maker himself. And we all know that the Maker Makes marvelous things.”
“Hear, hear,” Marion responded, his tone dark.
“She will complete her training here? Aboard the very ship I ride?” the Wandering Wallace asked.
“Yes, and quickly, I hope,” the captain said.
“I have never seen how such a thing transpires,” the Wandering Wallace said. “I have heard rumors, but…”
“Rumors are simply that—rumors.”
“Would it be too much to ask…”
“That you come to watch part of the process? Why, it would be my honor!”
“I would also be fascinated to witness the process,” Marion said.
The resulting pause was measured in the rapid throbbing of Bran’s heart. He heard and felt nothing else.
The captain’s tone changed, stiffened. “Certainly. You and your companions shall join me for supper Topside, so long as the Wandering Wallace promises to entertain us,” he added. Another pause. Bran remained entranced by the carpet running the length of the Artemesia’s hold. “Good! Then find your cabins, settle your belongings, and have a staff member bring you up. Training a Weather Witch to be a Conductor is quite a thing to see!”
“Of that, I am certain,” Marion replied.
The captain led Jordan from the window and Bran’s group wound their way to cabin number 145 with little issue and far fewer words. Having few possessions to settle in with (as a good kidnapping seldom allowed one to pack much) they waited for Marion to take them to supper, Bran’s bags and their tragic contents never slipping from his shoulder.
Philadelphia
Catrina Hollindale sat with her knees and ankles pressed as tightly together as well-proportioned petticoats allowed in the parlor of her former best friend’s home. Her left hand rested neatly in her lap while her right kept her fan twitching to and fro to better properly punctuate the emotion of her words. “And you have heard nothing from Jordan? Nothing at all?”
Lady Astraea sat across the small table from her, a teapot (certainly not Revere’s work and, sadly, not even silver) steaming out a blend of floral and herbal scents between them. “No, nary a word,” Lady Astraea confirmed. “Oh. Dear me. I do believe I have allowed it to steep too long…” she murmured, squinting at the teapot. Her mouth tightened and she reached for the pot’s handle, carefully pouring tea into cups for them both.
Cups of lesser-quality china, not even good ironstone, Catrina noted with disdain. It seemed everything about the Astraea household had depreciated since their fall from high society—everything except the extravagant strands of crystals sparkling all over Lady Astraea in a garish display. It seemed more people wore similar jewels of late—far more than last year or the year prior.
Lady Astraea continued her apology, “Chloe used to…” She fell quiet and a crease dug into the narrow space between her eyebrows. “Well. I guess I must learn to manage with less. I must learn greater independence as the result of having fewer servants.”
“Yes,” Catrina agreed, looking around the parlor—empty now of everything but a fallen woman with doubtful taste in jewelry, the remnants of elegant decor going dusty from disinterest, and herself. At least her presence brought a sense of class to the place.
The estate once bustled with servants. Before, the household seemed to belong more to the staff than the Astraea family, considering their sheer numbers and the way the servants were treated—nearly like out-of-town cousins come for a visit!
Now there was hardly a maid to be found.
But, if Jesus Christ could sit among prostitutes and tax collectors then Catrina Hollindale, ranked Fourth of the Nine, could pass a little time with the devastated Lady Astraea.
“I am certain Jordan will become a fine Conductor and live out an adventurous life in the skies high above us. Had you not Harbored her, things might be quite different now. Surely you knew … Why not turn her over to the authorities?”
Through her sniffling, Lady Astraea straightened. “She is no Witch, Catrina. That much you must know, as close as you both were. And … Even if she had been—the idea of giving up one’s child … What sort of a parent would do such a monstrous thing?”
Catrina swallowed and glanced away. “I could not believe it myself,” she assured her. “Though, what is it they say? The best liars maintain the deepest secrets?”
“She was—is—neither liar nor Witch. We did not Harbor. Things would be far different if they had not falsely accused her. We expected Rowen to ask for her promise that night.”
The tea went bitter in Catrina’s mouth. She swallowed. “Oh. One cannot be sure of the intentions of a boy like that,” she warned. “Your Jordan may be much better off where she is. You do know Rowen is wanted by the law?”
“No! I have heard so little true news since the party. You, dear girl, are one of very few who still call upon us. Me,” she corrected. “You are one of very few who still call upon me. And I am so very grateful for your company.”
Catrina inclined her head and forced a smile before she continued. “I should tell you: Rowen Burchette is wanted for murder. Dueling, to be precise.”
“Why, whatever would have sparked such a passionate response within Rowen? What could he possibly argue over to get entangled in a duel?”
Catrina flicked her fan open wide, proclaiming, “I have absolutely no idea. So you have not seen him either? Have received no word of him?” She leaned closer, her fan causing the steam to swirl and dance out from the broad teapot’s spout.
Lady Astraea shook her head. “I have not seen Rowen since the night Jordan was dragged away. I do hope he is faring well, no matter where he is.”
Catrina’s golden curls bobbed as she nodded. “I as well.”
“May both Jordan and Rowen fare well.”
Catrina nodded again.
“And may Fate bring them together once more.”
Catrina blinked, regarding her teacup in silence.
“And your parents?” Lady Astraea asked. “How are your parents? They’ve been gone so very long, it seems.”
Catrina immediately brightened. “Oh, they are keeping quite well.”
Lady Astraea smiled.
 
 
Copyright © 2013 by Shannon Delany
Since she was a child SHANNON DELANY has written stories, beginning writing in earnest when her grandmother fell unexpectedly ill. Previously a teacher and now a farmer raising heritage livestock, Delany lives and writes in Upstate New York and enjoys traveling to talk to people about most anything. She is the author of the 13 to Life and Weather Witch series.