Hi there! Please enjoy this excerpt from Book #2 of the Enchantment Retold series: Clever, Cursed, & Storied. This novel is a retelling of the classic fairy tale, Kate Crackernuts, which is Scottish in origin and so delightful, I’m sure it will become your new favorite. Expect some closed-door, grumpy-sunshine, fairy tale romance goodness set in the mountain kingdom of Nirurus Kalnai, a neighboring kingdom of Amadanri. While Clever, Cursed, & Storied is a standalone novel, readers familiar with my first fairy tale, Smoke, Steel, & Ivy, will recognize some common characters.
***Beginning of Excerpt***
“Married?” The woman Henry had run up the mountain to propose to was now married? The only woman he’d wanted to dance with this past fortnight? The same who had spoken of their future when last they’d met? She was now another man’s wife. “Ivy is married?”
“It happened just this morning.” Trina, one of Ivy’s many sisters, fussed with the button of her glove, avoiding his gaze.
She was lying. And Ivy had put her up to it. That’s what was happening. A final test to prove that Henry was her perfect match, her complete equal…
But then, why had the beach emptied so quickly of their friends?
The wind gusted, and Henry batted the hair out of his eyes, grateful to have any excuse to collect himself. “Who?”
“An officer in my father’s army.”
The soft slap of water against the sides of the remaining boats echoed in Henry’s ears. “A soldier?” The words stuck in his throat.
“They are very much in love.” Her sisterly joy was as obvious as Henry’s disappointment as she supplied more details. “Oh.” Trina’s eyes swelled with pity. “I’m sorry, Henry. I thought Ivy told you.”
No, Ivy had given him an ultimatum: We’ll dance one last time as friends. Henry had understood her perfectly. She’d meant it was time for him to make a choice, and he had. The next time they danced, she would be his betrothed.
Ivy had had a point. Monarchies needed their lines of succession settled. Henry was a good handful of years younger than Ivy, and already his father wouldn’t shut up about bloodlines and responsibilities to the future. Here was a woman who understood all that responsibility and could dance. Yes. Ivy was pretty, quick-witted, and, if her sisters were any indication, knew how to take charge of difficult situations. Even a prince could understand that many a difficult situation awaited his reign as king. Why not have a woman like Ivy at his side?
So Henry had donned his favorite lace and his best doublet, run up the mountain, rowed across the lake, and waited, all smug smiles, ready to propose and celebrate. But now…
Well. Now Trina looked at him the way young ladies looked at lost lambs who’d gone and gotten their heads stuck in paddock gates. “I didn’t know you cared so deeply—”
“No matter.” Were his heartache and shame so transparent in the moonlight? “I’ll find another partner.” He helped Trina into her boat and bid her a pleasant night.
It was some time before Henry returned to the old palace on the opposite shore. When he finally pushed his boat onto the pebbled beach and threw his oars inside, he didn’t feel like dancing. What would be the point without Ivy? She made every step, every movement exciting. Even standing beside her was a dynamic experience. Now she was another man’s wife, and Henry was certain he would never dance again.
He sat on the marble balustrade and wiped the sweat from his bare neck, his lace cravat having been dispatched into the lake on the row over. The old palace gleamed a soft white against the shale mountainside. The moonlight made its many cracks visible. Vines had grown through the windows and tangled themselves into the exposed buttresses. How enchanting it used to look. How neglected it now appeared.
Peacocks picked their way through the grounds, stopping to peck at unlucky crickets in the grassy mall. Henry sat with his head in his hands, listening as music pulsed through the open archways. His foot started to keep time with the music, but he could not bring himself to dance without Ivy.
As Henry contemplated the brittleness of his broken heart, a pair of women exited the palace. Their beauty had grown to include the graceful lines of age. Their dress was likewise costumed with age’s eccentricities.
“There he is!” the smaller woman, who had a life’s collection of jewels around her neck, said, turning to her companion. “Oh, Florence. Look at him.”
Florence nodded her head pertly, making the feathers tucked into her bun bob. “Poor fool.”
“You think he’d just seen his pony eaten by a pack of lions. Oh, we should help him!”
“We should leave him alone,” Florence said, fanning herself.
“Oh, let’s help him!”
Henry sighed deeply. He didn’t want help. He wanted to be alone until he puzzled out a way to bury his pain, and yet… Part of him wanted the entire world to stop and take notice of his hurt.
Sylvia set her mouth in a pout. “He needs us.”
Before Florence could object further, Sylvia was seated beside Henry. “Hello,” she said brightly.
Henry remained silent, but bowed his head in greeting.
“I’m Sylvia, and this is Florence,” Sylvia continued in a somewhat hushed tone. “We heard all about your…”
Henry’s foot stopped tapping. His mouth pressed into a hard line.
“Well, we heard all about it.” Sylvia nodded. “Yes… Haven’t we, Florence?” Sylvia nodded again and continued before her friend had a chance to say anything. “Just dreadful. You know, Florence and I have been hosting balls like these since…” She blew out a breath. “But never have we seen such dancing as we witnessed between you and Ivy.”
The muscles in Henry’s jaw tightened. “She is a beautiful dancer,” he said hoarsely.
“She is a competent dancer. You are the true artist,” Sylvia clarified.
Sylvia continued. “Your talent—”
“And passion,” Florence interjected. She had seated herself on the balustrade next to Henry too.
Sylvia nodded. “Yes, of course. Your talent and passion could make any one of these girls appear a rare talent.”
Henry rubbed his eyes. “No. I’m not… It’s not me.”
“Yes, it is,” Sylvia insisted.
Henry kicked the ground. “It hardly matters, as I no longer have a partner.”
“And we’ve come to it,” Florence mumbled.
Sylvia eyed her friend sharply. She smiled again at Henry. “You’ll get over her,” she told him.
“I don’t want to.”
“You’ll find someone else,” Sylvia offered.
“I will never find someone else.”
Sylvia’s smile didn’t fade. “Well, then she will find you.”
Florence hmphed. “The poor girl will have no choice.”
Henry was silent. He dug his toe into the pebbles and gripped the railing tighter.
“You know Ivy would have turned you down.” Sylvia examined an opulent andalusite ring on her weathered hand.
“Excuse me?” Henry said, turning to Sylvia.
Sylvia nodded. “Ivy would never have agreed to marry you.”
“How did you know—” Henry caught himself and continued in more measured tones. “You don’t know that.”
Sylvia shrugged and wiggled the bodice of her dress until it was straight. “Ivy never would have agreed to spend the rest of her life with you. She liked you well enough when you twirled her around and made everyone stop and stare. As a dance partner, you were indispensable. But even so… the night is only so long. Do you see?”
Henry was quiet for a moment. He sat staring at his hands. Perhaps it was true. Perhaps Ivy had seen him only as an excellent partner, a boy who was fun to dance with and had a knack for drawing everyone’s attention. Perhaps Henry had always known this. Still, it didn’t make his disappointment any easier to bear.
“There now.” Sylvia’s smile widened. “The light of reason is shining a little brighter. Now come inside and have a dance. The night is young, eh?”
Henry slowly shook his head. “To dance with anyone else would be a curse.”
“Oh, don’t say that! You are so young to waste such a gift. Now come inside. Lots of pretty young girls to meet. Who knows? One of them might even like that sour pout on your face.”
“No! Dancing would bring me nothing but pain now. It would fill me with despair and—” Henry stood. “And my body and soul would be united in the most absolute wretchedness. Every step, every movement would remind me of what I’ve lost. It would be torture!”
“All the more reason to find someone else now, make some new memories.” Sylvia’s worried eyes did not match the brightness of her words.
Henry swore an oath too unseemly to repeat. “There is no one for me inside! There is no one for me in this whole kingdom or in any of these mountains!”
“Henry, don’t be impertinent.” Sylvia stood. “Of course there is someone for you. Maybe not inside—”
Florence chuckled. “Definitely not inside. With a curse like that, he’d have to go all the way to the Coastlands to find her now.”
Sylvia continued. “But she will find you, and you will love her more than you even dared dream was possible. And when you dance with her—”
“No!” Henry shouted.
“When you dance with her”—Sylvia’s voice was straining now—“you will realize just how silly you’ve been. Now come inside!”
“I’d sooner eat a peacock,” Henry said bitterly.
Sylvia paused, and the little party sat motionless as they watched a peacock strut across the mall in front of them. It was a beautiful creature. Even in the pale moonlight, its many feathered eyes glowed a distinct indigo.
Sylvia shook her head. “I tried.” And turned back toward the palace.
Florence stood to follow, but paused before Henry. “Young man,” she said sternly, “we make our own magic in this world. Good and bad. You remember that.” And then she, too, followed her companion back into the revelry.
Henry, alone once more, sank to the gravel walk. The music swelled, and a beautiful mountain jig tumbled through the archways. It was one of Ivy’s favorite dances, merry and fast. Initially, Henry had thought the steps simplistic and childish, but with Ivy as a partner, it quickly had become his favorite too. He had spent the last weeks happily humming the tune morning and night, counting the days until he could dance with her again. Now… The sound of it was painful.
Henry shivered and felt the sweat-dried skin of his neck prickle. A dull ache spread in his legs with the memory of Ivy’s steps mirroring his own. He staggered to his stiff feet and ran away from the old palace by the mountain lake.
The smell of thyme and onion pressed against Kate as she stood shaking in the dim kitchen. Outside the kitchen walls, the waves at the shore crashed, while on the stove the bubbling chowder whispered its own despair. “How?”
“A spell from the north, by the look of it.” Cook’s rough hands trembled as she gathered a few tarts, some cheeses, and a loaf of bread. She took the dishcloth draped reliably over her shoulder and laid it in the center of the table.
Kate’s voice was tight between her sobs. “Can it be undone?” She watched Cook wrap the lunch in the soft linen.
“Bad magic can always be undone, Katy.” Cook’s fingers fumbled as she tied up the parcel. She pushed it into Kate’s hands, until Kate held the knotted meal against her own knotted stomach.
“How?” Kate begged.
“I don’t know,” Cook said, stooping to tie a loose rope around Annie’s woolly neck. The little lamb bleated miserably. “You’ll find a way, though. I’m sure of it. But now you need to run.” Cook grasped Kate by the shoulders. Tears pooled in her eyes, and the wrinkles on her face were drawn tighter and deeper than Kate had ever seen before. “You’re not safe here. You need to run now. Far away. Understand?”
The hot summer air swelled inside the kitchen and smothered Kate until she could not breathe.
Away. Far away from ocean breezes and white sand. Far away from her mother and stepfather. Far away from the warmth of Cook’s kitchen and the comfort of the court. And farther away still from her stepfather’s influence and friends. Away. Until the memories of home—and the stories—would be all that remained. Kate nodded.
Cook’s hands left wrinkles in the silk of Kate’s sleeves that could not be smoothed away. “I’ll find another lamb to serve for dinner. That should buy you a little time—”
Kate tugged Annie by the rope out the kitchen door. The salt of the surf lingered in the early morning air, and the pound of the waves hummed in her ears. “A very little time.”
Memories unraveled with use. And in the weeks that followed their flight from home, poor Kate had recalled those last moments with Cook until they were a threadbare story that haunted more than it consoled.
“I am sorry, Annie.” The white lamb stood with Kate in the mountain road, chewing on the hem of Kate’s cloak. “Our story is so thick sometimes…” Annie stared up at Kate with her obstinate, big, brown eyes. “I get lost in it.”
The lamb bucked at her rope and seemed to grunt an angry bleat.
Kate ran a hand through her tangled tresses, weaving them into a loose braid. “Yes, but normal lambs can’t be trusted to follow their people the way big sheep can.”
Annie flicked her tail and headed straight across the lawn toward the manor. Her hooves carefully picked out the driest tufts of grass.
“Now don’t be like that,” Kate told her. “We both have to be at our most persuasive for this to work.”
The little lamb was tired of travel. They both were. Coming across this manor had been a godsend. The quiet yet stately house tucked away in the last of the foothills, and safely outside the boundaries of the mountain kingdoms, was just what they needed. They could rest a few nights there before pushing on to the Easterlies.
Annie looked back at Kate and bleated. The rope was taut.
“Yes, I’m coming,” Kate said. She stood and shook the dust off her trousers and cloak.
The manor house, planted stoutly at the end of the lawn, would have been considered a castle if its builder had taken a little more architectural risk. A palace perhaps, if it had more finesse and subtlety. But the lines of the manor paralleled the plateau and hugged the safety this rare bit of flat land offered.
“Slow down, Annie.” Kate tugged on the lamb’s rope. “I need to catch my breath.”
Annie pawed at the ground haughtily.
“Well, I’m sorry, but I only have two legs. And I’m the one who has to do the talking.”
Kate stood in front of the manor for a moment. The morning light crested the mountains. Still, it would be some time before any sunshine fell on the house. In the cold, unwelcoming shadows, Kate’s skin pebbled.
“Bit of a missed opportunity. Don’t you think?” Kate asked Annie as they reached the gravel walk before the stone steps of the front door. Annie said nothing. “It’s just… If I were a big manor house in the foothills of the Shale Mountains, I’d be tall and grand, like the mountains.” Kate scraped her feet through the gravel, smiling at the crackle they made. “Soaring towers, steep roofs, natural stone. Not this crumbling old plaster. Still…” Kate shrugged. “It is out of the way.”
All summer, she’d been telling stories to whomever would listen in exchange for a meal, a bed for the night, a clean shirt, even a raspberry pastry. Every time, she had watched for signs, just as Jasper had taught her, of understanding. She hadn’t been looking for connection to characters or story themes, as was customary, but of magic itself. She had watched for a sympathetic bob of the head or whispers of forgotten lore whenever she’d mentioned magic, witchcraft, or sorcery in her stories. Each time, she had hoped to find a fey magician, an apothecary, anyone who knew of or worked in magic and might be able to help her and Annie. But they were too far south, and with the borders of the North Kingdoms closed, they’d have to journey to the Easterlies to find the magic Annie needed.
After a summer of travels, Annie also needed to rest and sleep on a full stomach. Yesterday’s rainstorm had made it abundantly clear that Annie was all wool and bones.
Here was a chance to catch their breath and practice on another smaller audience before continuing their journey. A week, maybe two if they were lucky, of trading stories for food and shelter, and they’d be ready to tackle the mountain pass to the Easterlies. Maybe luck would favor them, and they’d find some magic to help Annie in the meantime.
Kate lifted her hand to knock on the large oak doors but hesitated. She turned to the lamb. “Do you suppose I should use the back door?” She stared down at Annie’s woolly face and soft pink nose, half forgetting there would be no reply. “Mama said that noble guests arriving at the back door demonstrate great humility and respect for their host.”
Annie folded her front legs and lay down.
Kate continued. “She also said that messengers arriving at any entrance besides the main door belittle the importance of their work.” Kate pulled her hair tightly away from her face. “I’m not sure where that would leave a wandering storyteller.”
She stood in the morning shadows. The air was so different here, dry and tasteless. Not to mention thin. The air at home was salty and heavy with the responsibilities, trades, and errands of a busy port. Heavy with sounds, too—the surf, the ringing of ships’ bells in the harbor, the cries of the gulls. But all was distractingly silent here. She was used to noise. This manor house was set high above the sleepy village below. It rested at the foot of the mountains, like it was ready to climb them at a moment’s notice. Quiet with a quick getaway. Excellent.
Annie made an impatient little sound.
“Right. It’s just a door.” Kate took a few steps forward but hesitated again. She could not afford any mistakes, particularly with cold weather approaching. “Oh, for heaven’s sake.” She took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and knocked.
Kate knocked again. Footsteps. A latch moved. A lock turned. The door opened. A girl not much older than Kate, dressed in gray, curtsied and stepped aside. She kept her eyes down, but they widened as Kate tugged Annie inside behind her. The girl closed the door heavily.
“Hello.” Kate bowed with practiced flourish. “I am Kate, a storyteller, apprenticed to Hammond, the great storyteller—”
The girl gave a small gasp and ran off.
“—of the Midlands, who learned stories under the master storyteller Ashmund of King William’s summer court.” Kate sighed and bent down to stroke Annie’s soft head. “At least you heard my speech.” Annie bleated. Kate looked around the empty hall before she whispered, “Was I that bad?”
Kate started. With as much poise as she could feign, she straightened and turned. The girl had returned with a severe-looking woman dressed all in black.
“Hello,” the woman in black repeated. “Miss Kate, is it?”
“Yes.” Kate smiled and nodded. She hoped very much that this woman had not heard her speak to Annie.
The woman’s eyes narrowed. “Forgive me. Sarah says you are a storyteller.”
Kate could feel her knees shake. She swallowed and hoped that her voice would not falter when she spoke. “That’s right. Apprenticed to Hammond, the great storyteller—”
“Yes, yes. Wait here.” The woman in black and Sarah hurried away.
Once more, Annie and Kate were alone in the great hall. It was an immense room, but quite dim. Its few windows were covered in stiff, dusty curtains. Not open. Not flaunting the views to even the lowliest of guests. Kate shivered. The coolness of the night before was still trapped inside the hall. “Never to escape,” Kate murmured. It seemed to be the type of place that was perpetually cold and still.
Kate jumped. An impressive woman was standing in the center of the hall. She wore an elegant sapphire dress, much in the same style that Kate’s own mother wore. But there was an added air of restraint about this woman. Her features were delicate, and her olive skin was exquisite, marred only by fine lines around her eyes and finer lines still around her lips.
“You are the storyteller?” the woman asked.
“I am. Kate, the storyteller.” Kate bowed low but hesitated at midbow, wondering if a curtsy would have been more appropriate for this lady.
“You can’t possibly be done with your apprenticeship,” the lady said, her eyes narrowing.
Kate tried to smile. “Only just finished. To Hammond, the great storyteller of the Midlands…ma’am.” Kate bowed again, but the lady continued to stare. Kate cleared her throat. “Hammond learned stories himself under Master Ashmund, who was the greatest jewel of William the Wise’s summer court.” Kate fished out the apprenticeship contract from inside her doublet and handed it to the lady.
“And now you are seeking your fortune?” the lady said as she examined the document.
“We both are, my lamb and I, yes.”
Annie bleated and made delicate clacking noises with her hooves as she paced across the hard granite floor.
The lady pursed her lips. Her narrowed eyes widened as a smile spread across her face. She handed Kate back her contract. “I think there might be a place for you here, Kate.”
“Really? I mean—” Kate squared her shoulders. “Wonderful.”
The lady held up a slim hand. “Provided, of course, we approve. You have a fortnight to show your merit. After which time, if we agree that you are well suited to our court, we shall discuss your terms. Now, come with me.” The lady started down the long hall.
“I just have one question—”
“Sarah, take the sheep to the stable,” the lady called.
“Lamb,” Kate said. Sarah, the girl who had answered the door, curtsied and took Annie’s rope. “Her name is Annie,” Kate whispered. “She hasn’t yet had breakfast. She’s very fond of raspberry tarts.”
“Kate,” the lady called from the foot of the stairs.
“Goodbye, Annie. Be brave!” Kate kissed the top of the lamb’s soft woolly head.
“Kate!” the lady called again. She had nearly reached the middle landing of a large, twisting staircase. “Kate, while you are here, you are to wait on this family. Do you understand?”
“I was saying goodbye to—”
“Do you understand?” the lady repeated.
Kate tugged at the leather laces of her doublet. “Yes, ma’am. I understand.”
Kate froze. She hadn’t been called milady in weeks.
“Milady,” the woman repeated. “You may address me as Lady Teresa or milady. Ma’am is entirely inappropriate.”
“Yes, milady.” Relief finally steadied Kate’s shaking knees.
Kate followed Lady Teresa up the stairs to another grand hallway. After walking past several closed doors and large portraits of grumpy-looking men, Lady Teresa stopped at a heavy wooden door. She gently knocked twice and entered.
“Henry…” she cooed before Kate even entered the room. “I found you a storyteller.”
Kate walked into a room that was at once too hot and too bright. The fire in the hearth was enormous, and the wall opposite the door was a succession of framed leaded-glass windows—none of which was open. The sunlight, well clear of the mountains, streamed through each pane. Kate squinted and caught a glimpse of Lady Teresa bent over a figure in the dark four-poster bed against the wall opposite the fireplace. Kate flushed, remembering she was on the serving side of the manor. She bent her head and hoped not to give herself away as she continued to take in what she could with her eyes on the floor.
Several sheepskin rugs were scattered across the room. Kate felt faint thinking of dear Annie all alone. A pair of dark burgundy chairs faced the fire, and another, smaller armchair with a footstool sat next to the four-poster bed. A heavy red damask fabric covered the walls. The room was opulent and suffocating.
Kate looked up, startled. Lady Teresa stared at her expectantly. Kate realized then that she had been addressed, but not by the lady. No, this was a new voice—low and rough from disuse.
Kate couldn’t remember the appropriate etiquette for addressing a lord or…maybe the son of a lady, whatever that was. A baron, a duke? Kate curtsied and stared at the knots in the wood floor.
“Oh, Henry, you’ll have to excuse the poor girl.” Kate heard the years of indulgence pouring out of Lady Teresa’s voice. “She must be a great deal tired. She only just arrived.”
“Too tired to remember her own name?” The voice was quiet and quick. Venom coated every word.
Kate’s eyes flashed fiercely as she met the speaker’s gaze. “I’m called Kate.”
Henry was undoubtedly the lady’s son. He had his mother’s fine features. He couldn’t have been too many years Kate’s senior, but youth without health was almost unrecognizable. Illness had ravaged him. Lines were etched around his bloodshot eyes and dry, cracked mouth. His skin was thin and colorless, his hair a lank, greasy mass. Still, there were traces of beauty in his face—straight nose, strong jaw, large dark eyes. How handsome he must have been before illness confined him to a room that was blindingly bright and miserably hot.
“Kate,” Henry repeated. His accent differed from his mother’s. Kate was thinking she would like to hear more of it when Henry said, “Mother, I told you that I wanted someone pretty.”
Kate stopped breathing. She bit her tongue until the pain should have distracted.
“Don’t be impertinent, Henry. She has a very pretty face. You just can’t see it under all the dirt and”—Teresa pulled a small twig from Kate’s braid—“sticks.”
With great effort, Henry shifted in his bed. No doubt to better stare. Kate blushed. She couldn’t help it, and thinking what a fool she must appear to be with her reddened face only made her skin feel hotter.
“Kate, come here,” Henry commanded.
Kate came, still staring at the floor.
“For heaven’s sake, look at me.”
Kate did. She stared at Henry without the least thought about her station or new position. She continued staring, past the point of politeness.
Henry slid back into his clutch of pillows. “Now you’re unashamed?”
“There are more shameful ways of being unattractive.”
A smile flitted across Henry’s face. It was replaced with a grimace of pain. Lady Teresa rushed to his side, but Henry held her off with a gesture of his hand. “Kate, tell me a story.”
“Now?” Kate asked.
“Of course now,” Henry spat.
Lady Teresa chuckled. “Remember, Kate,” she said as she swept out of the room, “a fortnight.”
Kate’s mind raced. The courtly tradition of storytelling hardly made sense on this scale. So much of the craft would be lost with an audience of just one. Perhaps this was a test? She needed a story. Her best story, or else the cleverly forged patent of apprenticeship she still held in her hand would be wasted.
“Kate, did you not hear me?” Henry grimaced again before mumbling, “It’d be just my luck to at last land on a storyteller only to find she’s deaf.”
Kate tossed the parchment on Henry’s bureau. “Have you heard the tale of Bluebeard?”
“Does it matter?” His breathing was labored and deteriorated into a cough.
“Everything matters. What you ate for breakfast.” Kate eyed an untouched tray of marmalade toast, blackberries, and a mug of unassuming broth next to Henry’s bed. “If you sleep with one window open.” Kate took off her cloak and threw it down on the sheepskin rugs. “How you treat a stranger.” She sat in the chair opposite Henry’s bed. Her fingers tightly wrapped around the carved wooden arm. “It all matters.”
Henry glowered. He swallowed and rubbed his bare throat. “No. I have not heard the tale of Bluebeard.”
“Excellent.” Kate leaned closer to Henry’s bed, a smile curling across her lips. “Once upon a time, there was a widow who had a handful of exceptionally fine daughters. One beautiful daughter alone is quite the feat, but she had a gaggle of them. The entire country took notice. Suitors came from far and wide, and one day a man with a blue beard came to this woman—”
“A blue beard?” Henry rasped.
“Yes, a blue beard.”
Kate kicked the footstool away. “Have you never seen anyone with blue hair?”
Kate’s smile broadened. It was too easy. “You and this poor widow have something in common. She hadn’t either. And she was about to send this man away, but fear stole into her heart.
“‘What do you want sir?’ she asked with a tremulous voice.
“‘I want to marry one of your daughters,’ Bluebeard fairly growled. The widow laughed. Humor is a powerful deterrent of fear.
“‘So do half the men in this country,’ the widow said.
“Bluebeard didn’t smile. But his eyes glowed fiercely. ‘I am richer than all the men of this country.’
“The widow’s fear returned, for she knew the relationship between wealth and power. She feared what might become of her if she refused him. She prayed her daughters would be stronger. ‘Ask my girls then, if any will have you.’
“So Bluebeard asked the widow’s daughters. And they all rejected him.” Kate paused to examine Henry. His eyes were fixed on her, riveted to her words. She smiled with satisfaction.
“Well, all but one. The widow’s youngest daughter was a curious sort of girl, fascinated by danger and the taboo. When it came time for her to meet Bluebeard, she felt a strange attraction toward him. ‘Why did you come?’ she asked him.
“His beard was as a blue flame licking his chin. His large, dark eyes blazed with an otherworldly fire. ‘I mean to marry you.’
“‘What sort of man are you? Are you a good man?’ the girl asked.
“Bluebeard smiled. And the girl realized he was handsome in spite of his strange beard. ‘I am not.’
“‘A man of honor, perhaps?’
“‘A man of passions and of means,’ was his reply.
“‘And what sort of girl do you think I am? That I would consent to marry a man who was neither good nor honorable?’
“Bluebeard’s eyes burned brighter. ‘I hope to find out.’” Kate smiled. She always enjoyed that line. She looked at Henry to see if he enjoyed it too. But his face was clouded, and the lines etched in the hollows of his cheeks seemed deeper.
Kate’s smile slipped. “In spite of all common sense, the girl agreed to marry Bluebeard. And why not? He was wealthy and passionate, surprisingly handsome, exciting. She convinced herself that this was an adventurous choice. She told herself that she was being prudent, even, securing a good house and a life of future comfort. She readily dismissed the accusations of her older sisters that she was foolishly excited by this dangerous man, that she would desperately regret her decision.
“They were quickly married, and Bluebeard took his bride to his castle in the mountains. After three days, he came to his bride and told her he must leave at once.” Kate arched an eyebrow. “Urgent business. But how his new wife did pout.
“‘We’ve only just arrived,’ she said, throwing her hands around his neck.
“‘I will return,’ Bluebeard said.
“‘I shall be all alone,’ she said, laying her head on his chest.
“‘I will return,’ Bluebeard repeated.
“‘What will I do while you are away? I shall die of boredom.’ She gazed at him through her long dark lashes. Her fingers tangled into his shirt.
“Bluebeard’s eyes smoldered but never softened. ‘Here, my pet. Here are the keys to every room in this castle. Wonders lay behind every door. And you may explore all of them. Except for the room at the very end of the south hall.’
“‘What’s so special about that room?’ his bride asked.
“‘That is my secret.’ Bluebeard smiled. ‘Promise me that you will not enter.’
“Bluebeard’s wife thought a moment. Bluebeard took her face in his large hands. His voice rumbled in a low growl when he spoke. ‘I must have your promise.’
“‘Very well. I promise.’
“And he left. Bluebeard’s bride was true to her word. She carefully avoided the door at the very end of the south hall, until the afternoon of the third day when she found herself standing right in front of it.
“‘Surely no secret is too great for love to bear,’ she thought. She took the last key out and examined it. Small and slender. Intricately carved. Brightly polished. ‘Surely there is no harm in knowing what lies behind this door.’ Bluebeard’s bride felt a thrill inside. She felt curiosity pulsing through her. ‘I must know,’ she decided. She put the key in the lock—”
“No,” Henry said.
Kate nodded, pleased he was at last so obviously immersed in her story. “She did. She put the key in the lock and slowly turned—”
“Stop. Stop, Kate!”
Kate flinched. No storyteller of substance was ever asked to stop. Her gaze darted to her crumpled patent on the bureau. “Is something wrong?”
“The girl doesn’t unlock the door.”
Kate tugged at the laces of her doublet. It was still stiflingly hot. “I don’t understand—”
“I want to hear the version of the story where Bluebeard’s wife does what she promised and never unlocks the door. What happens then?”
Kate rubbed the bridge of her nose where a dull ache pressed. “I don’t know.”
“But you’re telling the story.”
“Then what happens?” Henry spoke each word slowly and carefully, as if Kate were too slow to understand their meaning any other way.
“But that’s not the story. That’s never been the story. Bluebeard’s bride always unlocks the room and finds out the awful truth.”
“Tell me the story where she never learns about her husband’s past. What then?”
“I suppose…” Kate began.
“Does she change him? Do they live ‘happily ever after’?”
“He’s still a monster.”
“Only if she looks in the room. If it stays locked—”
“The bodies of his previous wives would still be there even if she didn’t look,” Kate said, shuddering.
“But what if it was because of a curse or bad magic? What if it wasn’t his fault?”
“That doesn’t change things! And what’s more, it doesn’t matter because—”
“That’s not the story,” Henry repeated, rubbing his brow. He was silent for a moment and then sighed. “I suppose they never could be happy… And I have no time for anyone else’s unhappiness.”
Kate sat, stunned. Henry was a romantic. Maybe his heart was broken. She felt a twinge of jealousy as she thought about the woman who had accomplished the task. Not because she had silly ideas about wanting to hear more of his brogue accent. No, it was because slighting this young man who had rudely stopped her in the middle of her best tale sounded satisfying. And breaking his heart after the insult about how she wasn’t pretty… That sounded like a petty victory.
Kate’s eyes rested on Henry’s thin arms. They looked smaller than even her own. “But that’s hardly fair,” she mumbled.
“What did you say?” Henry asked sharply.
“Hmm?” Kate looked up. “You know, in this light, your beard has a slight cobalt cast. It’s uncanny.”
Henry’s eyes narrowed. “Kate, you are boring me.”
“I’m sorry.” Kate shrugged out of her doublet, though doing so provided very little relief from the heat.
“I’m sorry, sir. Where are your manners?”
Kate kicked off her boots and rolled up the sleeves of her linen blouse. “I must have left them at the door, sir.”
Henry chuckled, wheezed, and began coughing. He motioned toward the tray beside his bed. Kate brought him the mug of broth. He tasted it and pushed it away. “Vile.”
“Is it?” Kate took a sip from the mug. “Hmm. A little bland maybe.” She took another sip. “What is that? Guinea fowl?” She handed the mug back to him.
Henry shook his head. His eyes grew wide, maybe in amusement but more likely in disgust. “Pheasant.”
Kate nodded. “You should have more—”
“Yes, I know.”
“It should help with your—”
“My what?” Henry snapped.
He had her there. No one had told Kate anything about him or what he suffered. He looked like death itself, no question. Pale, thin, weak. He coughed, wheezed, gasped on occasion. He had no apparent appetite or strength. The man had barely moved all morning.
But was this just an unlucky soul trapped in a weak vessel, or was it really illness? And of what? Mind? Body?
Kate swallowed. She felt sweat drip down her back. “Your condition.”
“My condition! How delicately put, Kate. You are gifted with words. I’ll give you that.” He paused and rubbed his neck. “There is no broth in the world that can cure my condition.”
He looked so resigned to his sad fate that Kate’s pride was overcome. “Oh, I don’t know. There are some extraordinary cooks in this world.” She unbuttoned the collar of her blouse. “I’ve heard of one who is so gifted that she could save princesses from evil fates just by feeding them a hot breakfast in the morning.” She wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead. “This is ridiculous. I’m wilting.” She rose and opened one of the leaded windows. A soft breeze blew into the room and with it the smell of dry grass and pine. “You don’t mind, do you?”
“What kind of evil fates?” Henry settled back against his feather pillows.
Kate leaned against the windowsill, the breeze blowing against her back and catching the loose strands of her hair. “Severed heads, third eyes, ghastly warts, hapless suitors.”
Henry closed his eyes. “Go on.”
“Really? You aren’t going to stop me in the middle of the best part?”
Henry’s jaw tensed, and his mouth quirked. He held Kate’s gaze for a moment just shy of flirtatious before breaking off into a cough. “You must have learned something about how to handle a difficult audience in your apprenticeship.”
“True. I was told to make sport of the hecklers and use the audience’s laughter first and ire second to shut them up. Yet another reason why time spent with a single man is less than ideal.”
Henry snorted. “‘Yet another’? What else do you have against single men?”
“That’s not what I—”
“Tell me.” He ran a single finger down the length of the nearest brocade pillow. “I bet I could think of some things that may have escaped you.” His dark eyes darted back to hers.
Kate’s stomach lurched. From hunger, no doubt. She barreled on before Henry could say more. “Of course, a cook’s magic is different than that of a fey or witch. It’s not as powerful.” She rubbed the back of her neck, hoping the breeze would dry it. “For the magic to have any effect, it must be inside the stomach. The magic doesn’t last long, so a cook has to use her powers daily on those she loves. Breakfast, preferably, before there is any chance of mischief.”
Kate thought of sweet Annie alone in the barn. She thought of her promise to look after her always. She winced, thinking of how it was her fault that Annie was now alone in a strange place. “There is a story we tell back home of a cook who served in a large house.”
“Where is home?” Henry asked.
A palace by the sea, actually. But such details were too dangerous to share. So she said, “A cottage in the Midland prairies, far away from large houses and state roads. Shall I continue? Two girls lived in this house, one beautiful, with dark, amber eyes so soft and gentle. Her hair as bright as the sun and as soft as little lambs’ wool. Well, one day—”
“Hmm?” Kate rose and offered Henry more of the broth.
He took a sip. “The other girl? What was she like?”
“Oh, of course. The other girl.” Kate replaced the mug and returned to the open window. The Shale Mountains were so solemnly resolute. “Well, she was actually stepsister to the beauty and so looked very little like her. She had darker hair and light eyes.” Kate thought of home and her dear stepfather. She could not keep the smile from spreading across her face. “In fact, the lord of the house said her eyes sparkled like the sea at midday. She had a pleasant face, of course, but her looks paled to her stepsister’s. She was quite plain in comparison.
“This greatly troubled her mother, the second wife of the lord and stepmother to the beautiful lass. In fact, the beauty of her stepdaughter and the plainness of her own kin ate away at the stepmother’s soul until she was quite empty inside. Mad with jealousy for her own daughter, this woman sought out an evil witch. She plotted with the witch and devised a potion to change her stepdaughter’s beauty into hideousness. Thinking, naturally, that her daughter’s own looks would improve by comparison.”
“Naturally,” Henry said. “But the ugly stepsister had no hand in this?”
“She was not an ‘ugly stepsister’!” Kate dug her nails into the scrolled woodwork of the armchair. “Just because she was not beautiful does not mean she was ‘an ugly stepsister’!”
“But you said so yourself.”
“I said she was plain.” Kate stood and began to pace. “Everyone would look plain next to the king’s daughter. Her beauty radiated out of her. It came from the goodness of her soul. It shone out through her exquisite features, the balance of her frame. Everyone looked rough and incomplete in comparison.” Kate pulled her hair tightly away from her face. “Like they had been clumsily carved out of blocks of wood by children with garden trowels.”
She slumped into the chair beside Henry’s bed. “After staring at the beautiful stepsister’s face, it was painful to look at anyone else. She was that lovely.”
“And her stepsister wasn’t at all jealous?”
“No, and I should make you apologize for calling her ugly.”
“Why are you so offended?
Kate leaned forward in her chair. “Because ‘ugly stepsister’ is a trope, a tired trope, and shorthand for selfish, dim-witted, cruel, jealous, and every other unattractive quality.”
Henry was silent.
“If I told you this girl was fiercely loyal and loved her beautiful stepsister better than anyone, would it matter? What if I went on to explain that this plain girl had a quick tongue, a strong mind, and a healthy sense of humor, but her nose was too big, and her mouth was too small for her to be considered a beauty? If I told you that her hair was a dirty, unremarkable shade of brown, and her skin was too red to be called delicate, would you understand her any better?”
Henry shifted against his pillows.
“No! You wouldn’t. And these details slow the story down. You need to keep pace. One sister, the daughter of the lord, is a rare beauty, bright and bold. As good and kind as she is beautiful. The other is plain but quick of mind and devoted to her stepsister, her best friend.”
“Did the not-ugly stepsister have a name?”
Kate swallowed. She shouldn’t have started this story. She should beg off and start another, but doing so now would only draw more attention. “No.”
“Because…you are meant to see yourself in her role. By not naming her, I make her actions accessible to the entire audience. By not naming her, my audience, which at this point consists of you alone, has my permission to connect his experience to hers.”
Henry folded his arms across his chest. His eyes brightened. “I see.”
“Shall I continue? Or would you like me to stop here? Perhaps you’re intent on plundering my entire collection of stories before I’ve finished even one.”
Henry stifled a small chuckle that resulted in more coughing. “No. I like this one. Continue.”
He didn’t take the bait. Just as well. There was something cathartic about at last sharing these details. “The cook of the manor learned of the trouble from the stew bones—”
“Stew bones?” Henry scoffed.
“Like reading tea leaves,” Kate explained.
Henry arched his brows.
“It’s a story from the…from the Midlands. Their customs are different. Strange, even.”
“Fine.” He waved her on.
“Cook learned of the plot. She made sure that Anne—the beautiful daughter—had a bite of her delicious protection before she left the next morning. So when the wicked stepmother called her beautiful stepdaughter over to the druid’s house to look into a cursed stewpot, nothing happened. Cook’s magic worked.
“‘Anne, my dear, you’ve had some of Cook’s breakfast this morning?’ the stepmother asked.
“‘She wouldn’t let me leave without having at least one bite.’ Anne explained sweetly.
“‘Well, tomorrow morning, you come here first thing and have breakfast with us,’ the stepmother said.
“Anne agreed. And the next morning, she ran out the door without stopping to eat. Except Cook ran out to meet Anne with her favorite raspberry pastry. Anne couldn’t resist. She’d had nothing to eat since the night before and thought just a nibble wouldn’t spoil her appetite. When she met her stepmother, the druid asked her to lift the lid off her bubbling pot. She did, and nothing happened.
“‘Anne, you had something to eat this morning, didn’t you?’ Anne was as good as she was sweet and couldn’t lie to her stepmother, who she loved as her own. She told of Cook’s raspberry pastry.
“‘That’s fine, Anne. Tomorrow, you and I will walk together to breakfast.’ And so they did.”
“The cook didn’t try to stop them?” Henry asked.
“How could she? She couldn’t cross the lady of the manor. She’d be turned out before the morning tide came in. Not that she was afforded the opportunity. The stepmother woke Anne up early before everyone else. They walked in the stillness of daybreak. There at the druid’s house, Anne lifted the lid off of the pot. And a hideous sheep’s head bobbed up out of the boiling water. The sheep’s head opened its jaws wide and swallowed Anne whole.” Kate fell silent. How scared sweet Annie must have been at that moment.
“Anne died?” Henry asked.
Kate struggled to clear her throat. “No. Anne was far too gentle and kind to die. When the sheep’s head swallowed her, she turned into a sweet little lamb. But this wasn’t enough for the stepmother. She tied a rope around Anne’s neck and led her to Cook.
“‘Cook!’ she said. ‘We will have lamb chops for dinner. Nothing but this lamb will do.’ As Cook prepared the chowder appetizer, who should run into the kitchen but Anne’s stepsister—”
“The nameless one?” Henry asked.
Kate suppressed the urge to roll her eyes and nodded. “She looked into the lamb’s dark amber eyes, so soft and gentle, and knew at once a terrible fate had befallen her dear stepsister.
“‘Anne!’ she cried, and the little lamb bleated softly. ‘Anne, who has done this to you?’ But the stepsister knew all too well, and she knew it was her fault. Anne would never be safe, no matter her form, as long as her plain stepsister remained to disappoint her own mother.” Kate squeezed her eyes shut against the threat of tears. “She wished in that moment that she was as good and beautiful as her stepsister, not because she was vain, but because then Anne would be safe, and they could be happy.
“‘Annie, I am sorry,’ she said, and the two of them started to cry. Cook quickly told the stepsister all she knew of the truth. She handed her a cloak, a crook, and a satchel filled with raspberry tarts, cheeses, and pistachios. And she told them to run. So the sisters fled to the north. And were never heard from again.”
“That’s the end of the story?” Henry asked.
“Well, no. Cook slaughtered a lamb from the pasture and made lamb chops for dinner. And the wicked stepmother was so happy that her beautiful stepdaughter was dead and in her stomach, she didn’t care much that she lost her own daughter.”
“But what happened to the ugly sister?”
Kate clutched the scrolled wood arms of her chair, fixing Henry with a stare that she hoped conveyed the bristling fury she felt.
Henry raised his hands in surrender. “The not-ugly sister. Little Miss Plain. What happened to her? Did she make Anne human again?”
Kate drew her knees up to her chin. “Well, that’s a different story, and one I’ve never heard.”
“I am very sorry.”
“I am very sorry, sir. Come, come, Kate. I am a prince after all.” Henry’s voice became particularly bitter. “Heir apparent to all of Niurus Kalnai,” he mumbled.
Kate froze. Then her legs trembled. She grasped them tightly, hoping Henry would not notice.
Henry winced in pain. “Were you unaware?”
“Of course not, Your Highness.” Kate tried to sound casual, but her panic betrayed her in the tightness of her voice.
***END OF EXCERPT ***
Thanks for reading! You can find Kate and Henry’s entire story at the links below or request Clever, Cursed, & Storied from your local library.