“Darling, you are my dearest friend. You’re very well read on stabbing and poisoning but little else.”
Author’s Note: I’m not exactly thrilled with this chapter, but it lays the groundwork for the climax of the story. How’s that for selling the sizzle? I’ve made notes about what I don’t like and will work on it in revision. You should see my notebook full of things I don’t like and need to fix. Ugh.
Charlotte’s character is evolving into something interesting. At first, she was a rather generic amiable person with no personality or point other than to round Solenne out as a person. Charlotte’s rather bookish now, determined to catch a husband, and I want to see where she goes. Of course, this means that earlier scenes with her will have to be revised by that’s Future Nancey’s problem.
And Solenne and Charlotte mention a dance that you haven’t read yet. Well, er, sorry about that. It was originally part of the outline, then I cut it when the plot changed, then I realized it needed to happen but it happened earlier in the book, somewhere between chapters 9 and 10. So I’m just going to pretend it happened and write it eventually. What happened at this dance that never was? Alek was possessive and jealous but still didn’t do anything. His acting like an ass, though, scared off Chambers. And Charlotte was snubbed by Jase for someone with more money, so we don’t like him now and good thing he broke his leg. The dick.
That’s a lot of commentary on a chapter I said was lackluster, huh?
Three days to Founding.
An eternity to return to Solenne.
Alek hated Founding. The crowded city perpetually stank of stagnant water and smoke. No matter how many times he scrubbed his skin, the odor never seemed to disperse. At least, he wanted to believe the malaise that hung in the air was stagnant water and not something more foul.
The original settlers planned the city in a grid pattern, and they had constructed the earliest buildings from the very ships that brought the settlers to the new land. Over the next two centuries since humans spilled out of their ships, those buildings rusted in only a handful of years and eventually covered over in brick.
The city outgrew the original grid, newer sections a free for all and the older quarters carved into smaller and smaller parcels. The end result was a twisty maze of streets that never went where a person intended, and there were people everywhere. Too many people. Alek could not breathe for the foul air and the people in his territory.
With only the hastily drawn map Chambers gave him, Alex made his way through the city. The horse more used to the crowded streets than Alex, seemed unperturbed by the noise and commotion. He, however, growled and snapped when the crowds drifted too close.
It took too long to find Doctor Sheldon, and then the sister, a Mrs. Parkell. He tried to wait patiently for the sister to cease weeping. Her capacity for this, he learned, was endless, and then to wait for the sister to pack. Despite his urging to leave now and have someone send her a trunk, she insisted. As a result, Alek spent an entire day in Founding.
By the time their party left in the early hours of the following morning, he wanted to claw off his skin, convinced he’d never be free of the filthy smog of the city.
The carriage made decent enough progress on the paved roads, but as they travelled farther from Founding, the roads transitioned into uneven stone, then crushed gravel, and finally dirt. Progressed ground to a halt each time as the carriage got stuck on the muddy, treacherous roads. Mrs Parkell’s wailing that each delay kept her from her precious baby made everything worse. At least he could ignore her while he helped the coachman free the carriage.
“Do you intend to weep the entire journey?” Alex retrieved his coat from the nearby shrubbery, where he hung it to avoid sweat and mud.
“Oh, sir, how can you be so cruel? Why would my good brother send such a man?” Her hands fluttered, waving a heavily perfumed handkerchief.
“I believe he aimed to punish us both,” Alek muttered.
“Back in the carriage. We can make Fallkirk by evening,” the coachman said.
Fallkirk. Alek recognized the name. He had been attacked by two beasts near there, but he had only defeated one. The other still prowled the territory.
When they arrived at the tavern on Fallkirk, the sun had slipped behind the trees. Alek scrubbed off the dirt and the mud, and sent his clothes out to be laundered, despite knowing they would be just as filthy in a day. He requested to eat in his room. Alone. Music and laughter drifted up from the tavern through the floor, but it was better than listening to Mrs. Parkell recite her numerous complaints to Doctor Sheldon.
A knock sounded at the door, and a young woman appeared with a tray. The aroma of roast, potatoes drowning in gravy, and warm bread instantly set his mouth watering. She set the tray down on the small side table by the window.
“You’re that hunter you came through two months ago,” she said.
She lifted her chin, as if unimpressed. “You only did half the job. It’s not safe outside after dark.”
“It was unsafe during the day before I reduced the beast population.” A thought occurred to him. Fellkirk was near Boxon but not part of the area the Marechals guarded. “Where are you hunters?”
“All dead, three years ago, then that thing moved in.”
“Why have you not requested Founding to fill the post?”
The woman gave him a look that suggested he was simple. “Oh, excellent idea. Why didn’t we think of it? But we’re only simple country folk—”
“I did not mean to imply—”
“You did,” she said curtly. “The mayor and council wrote and do you know what those stuffed shirts in Founding told us?” She continued without pause, not looking for an answer. “Offer a bounty. They would not send troops to a backwater on the edge of nowhere, and the Mayor can’t find anyone to take the job. Don’t suppose you’re interested in finishing what you started. That thing helped itself to my ma’s chickens, and what are we supposed to do now? The ones that’s left are too scared to lay eggs.”
“Have chicken for supper, I imagine,” he said, which earned him a frown and a slammed door.
As he ate, he pondered what the woman told him. The hunters were killed before the elder beast moved in, so what killed them? The beast itself? A pack that moved out of the territory? When he had still hunted for bounties, Alek encountered many villages on the fringes of the civilized world with the same story. The local hunter families had died out, either through bad luck, ill health, or acts of monster. Drifters like himself filled in the gaps until local officials found replacements. Only, it sounded like no one wanted the job.
He couldn’t blame them. Hunting was all danger, little to no pay, and every resident blaming you for chickens too scared to lay eggs.
The likelihood of two older beats, a day apart from each other, worried him. He did not like such a threat so near his territory, his home and his mate.
Huh. He guessed Godwin had been right about the territorial nature of the beasts. He hadn’t felt it before, but he had nothing he wanted to guard. Now he had everything.
And like called to like.
Alek mopped up the gravy with the last of the bread and decided.
Early the next morning…
“You can’t leave us unprotected,” Mrs. Parkell wailed. She did not take too kindly to Alek’s change of plans. “I can’t imagine what my brother was thinking, sending you as his errand boy.”
Alek wondered about that himself.
“I’ve encountered this beast before. It will follow me. You’re safer without me. Doctor Sheldon was a military man. He’ll keep you safe,” he said.
Doctor Sheldon nodded. “I know my way around a pistol. Never fear, Mrs. Parkell. We’ll be in Boxon by mid-afternoon.”
Alek did not linger while Mrs. Parkell’s considerable luggage was packed into the coach. He saddled up the horse borrowed from Chambers and took off on a smaller, less traveled road that went through the heart of the forest.
He’d use himself as bait and lure the beast back to Boxon. With any luck, the two beasts would tear each other apart.
Charlotte barely left Jase’s bedside, despite him giving her the cold shoulder at the dance for Miss Eugenia Neave.
Solenne felt for her friend, who was kind, clever, bookish, and forever being passed over for ladies who came with a fortune. Charlotte was too kind and forgiving. Jase did not deserve the care Charlotte gave when his leg became infected and she sat by his bedside with cool water and cloth.
“Father is making noise about sending me to Aunt Tessie in Founding for the winter. He thinks I’ll have a better chance of catching a husband there,” Charlotte said as she carefully poured out the tea.
They sat in the garden behind the Wodehouse’s home, tucked into a shaded corner nearly hidden by large, flowering bushes heavy with vivid blossoms. The arrival of Colonel Chamber’s sister prompted Charlotte to give up her bedside vigil and limited herself to daily visits. What Miss Neave thought of the situation, Solenne did not know.
“You’ll have more variety and parties to attend,” Solenne said.
Charlotte pulled a face. “I’ll spend my day in the library, you know, and Aunt Tessie will despair that reading will give me lines around my eyes.”
Solenne did not bother to hide her smile or her titter of laughter. “Oh, the tragedy.”
“Frankly, I’m too eccentric,” she said, looking over Solenne’s shoulder to some point in the distance. “I don’t have a large enough fortune for those eccentricities to be overlooked, and I’m too plump and not pretty enough to compensate for the lack of a fortune.”
“I disagree on all those points,” Solenne said in defense of her friend. Charlotte was more plump than fashionable, but they lived in a village on the fringe of nowhere. Who cared about fashion? And she’d stab anyone who claimed Charlotte’s sunshine gold curls and open smile were not attractive, but not stab. Heaven’s no. Just a gentle poke, enough to draw a little blood and make a point about being rude.
“It will be a waste of time but if Father insists, would you come with me?”
“To catch a husband?”
Charlotte raised a brow. “Unless you believe you have better prospects here.”
Rather than answer, Solenne busied herself by refilling her cup and measuring out a spoonful of sugar. “No, there’s no one.”
“Really? Because I saw how protective Aleksandar was of you at the dance.”
“No. You misunderstood.” Solenne thought back to the night of the dance and the perpetual glare on Alek’s face.
“Now you’re going to spout some nonsense about duty and how you’ll learn to find satisfaction in that, rather than the man you love, and I won’t tolerate it. You deserve to have who your heart desires. And if it’s money, well,” Charlotte waved a hand as she spoke, “I imagine your situation won’t improve but it will not deteriorate.”
The cup rattled on the saucer. “I would not say any such thing,” Solenne weakly protested. “And I’d rather not discuss Alek.”
A satisfied grin spread across Charlotte’s face. “Very well, but only because you don’t deny that you love him.”
“What would be the point? My feelings for him have not changed since I was sixteen.” As much as she wished they would.
“So you never felt an attachment to another?”
Solenne shook her head. “Only friendship.”
“Not even Colonel Chambers?” Her eyes gleamed with curiosity.
“No. My father seemed more enthusiastic about a match than either one of us.” Solenne relayed the events the night of the dance.
“I had wondered. He used to lavish attention on you and then, suddenly, he was distant.”
“I wouldn’t say lavish—”
“But he was not cruel about it? He does not seem the sort.”
“No. The conversation was very business like and straightforward,” Solenne said.
“Perhaps I can walk with you when you return home? Colonel Chambers wanted to borrow some of Father’s books, and I thought of delivering them.”
“You don’t mind? If I deliver books to Colonel Chambers?”
Solenne paused before answering, wondering what her friend was trying to ask. “You didn’t volunteer to nurse Jase because you still felt affection for him, did you?”
A pretty blush spread across Charlotte’s face. Rather than answer straight away, she stuffed a cookie in her mouth. “The star berries are very sweet this year, don’t think?”
“Colonel Chambers is interesting.” Solenne opened her mouth to protest, but Charlotte continued. “He is. He’s travelled and seen much of the world. He’s interested in pre-colonial and early colonial history.”
“Is he?” That surprised Solenne.
“He’s generous and rather handsome, I think. You should have seen how concerned he was for Jase! Hardly slept or ate. I had to convince him to rest. A man who’d wear himself ragged for his nephew has to have a good heart, don’t you think?”
“Yes. I rather think so.” Solenne had been so focused on the things she did not like about Chambers—namely, not being Alek—that she did not see his better qualities. “He reads the most scandalous fiction, full of secrets, passionate embraces and the best part?”
Charlotte leaned forward.
“When he’s finished the book, he gives them to me,” Solenne said.
The smile on her friend’s face was radiant.
“I’m pleased for you. I only hope he has the good sense to return your regard.”
“As do I, when I won’t need to go to Founding or stuffy Aunt Tessie.” Charlotte made a pleased noise and then helped herself to another cookie.
“Speaking of your father’s books, I was hoping to rummage through his collection. I can’t find the information I need.”
“Certainly. What are you searching for?”
“I’m not sure. Reasons a cursed beast would have control over their transformation? Be able to retain their mind and hide their affliction?”
“Oh, that’s simple. They have a mate bond,” Charlotte said.
Solenne’s cup rattled in the saucer again. “What? No, there’s no such thing.”
“Yes, there is. Come along.” Charlotte stood, carrying her tea into the house. Solenne had no choice but to follow. “It’s odd. Colonel Chambers asked the same question. I have the books already pulled. There are some early colonist accounts and a local history.”
“But people with that affliction don’t take mates or have a mate bond. I’d have read that.”
“Darling, you are my dearest friend, but you’re very well read on stabbing and poisoning and little else,” Charlotte said as they entered the study. Mr. Wodehouse’s collection sat tidy and organized on floor to ceiling shelves that lined every wall. The collection did not compare in size to the library in the Marechal house, but it contained several obscure titles.
“Not true, I just read a brilliant novel with the most ingenious method of poisoning… Oh. I see your point.”
“If I want something dead, you are my first call,” Charlotte said, amusement bubbling in her voice. She flipped through a book, searching for a passage. “Here we are. The mate bond acts as an anchor, keeping the afflicted partner grounded and negating the worst symptoms of mutation.” She snapped the book shut. “There you are. To tame a beast, you must anchor it.”
“But how?” And how was Alek tamed, for lack of a better word?
“The details are fuzzy.” Charlotte pulled down a slender volume from the shelves. The book was little more than a cloth bound pamphlet. “It seems to involve a romantic partnership, so one must assume there is an emotional component and perhaps a fluid exchange. Beauty soothes the beast.”
“Like a kiss, blood or—” She thought back to the kiss she shared with Alek and how he said she was in his blood.
“I’m uncertain,” Charlotte said, then plonked the pamphlet into Solenne’s hands. “This is a firsthand account of an original colonist. Reprinted, obviously. You may take it home to read. Father won’t mind.”
“Oh, thank you. Is it rare? I wouldn’t trust myself with something irreplaceable.” The book felt unreasonably fragile in her hands. She’d make pains not to damage it.
“Not particularly. The account is rather scandalous and, um, graphic, so it’s popular.”
“A dirty book? I never.”
“It’s history, blemishes and all,” Charlotte said, a haughty tone in her voice. “One can not censure the human experience.”
Solenne flipped through the pages, searching for the naughty bits. “Oh. Oh my. Miss Wodehouse—”
They burst into laughter.