A proper lady has no secrets. She offers smiles to potential suitors, moves with effortless grace through crowded ballrooms and theaters, and charms all with her words. She conceals nothing society might find troubling, nothing the world might examine and condemn.
What I kept concealed meant I’d never qualify as a proper lady, but I’d always believed Aunt Caris to be the epitome of a gentlewoman—until the fateful morning the letter from Milburn arrived, hinting she held secrets of her own.
A quarter hour earlier, Ada and Ainslie had departed to pay a call on Aunt Melisina, and in the absence of my sisters, a hush settled over the house. In the blissful quiet, I sorted through one of the thick notebooks containing my sketches and records on various herbs, in hopes of finding the perfect addition to the salve I was attempting to formulate for Ainslie. She’d asked me to concoct a solution to remove the peculiar silvery-gray scar etched across her upper arm, one which had resisted all efforts to erase its existence so far. I enjoyed the puzzle of combining and recombining plants with various healing properties to find the ones best suited, despite the fact that something in the unusual symmetry of her scar appeared to me more appealing than distasteful.
Ainslie had claimed it was a small matter, “scarce worth a mention—only, do you think you might have something on hand to treat it?” Yet when she’d spoken, her lively features had stilled, and her usual smile had faded. No matter my opinion, the scar clearly troubled her, and that provided reason enough for its removal.
Sunlight poured through the wide windows of the morning room, refracting light from the fountain across the pages of my book and blurring the inked images. Never mind that no one had seen nisi this far from a Crossing in years; every home that could manage it still kept a fountain somewhere to appease the household fae, who preferred running water for their ablutions—or at least, so tradition held. If one could avoid enmity from the Otherkind, so much the better for one’s health.
I shifted positions and rifled through several more pages before landing on an entry for briony, its tiny white flowers and dark leaves common enough in the hedges and byways, its root valued for cleansing the skin. Perhaps this would complement the others I planned to include in the salve, which held more soothing properties. I tapped the image, considering. This endeavor would be best accomplished in the gardens, where instinct could partner with analysis, but Aunt Caris preferred to stay in company, even if we exchanged no conversation, and I couldn’t disappoint her.
Across from me, she penned the final lines of an invitation to the small dinner party she intended to hold in a fortnight. Her face creased in a smile as she stacked the completed invitation atop its companions. Even at rest, she looked radiant as a sunbloom, her coppery hair as striking as its richly-hued petals, her full figure sharing its soft curves.
She capped the bottle of ink and returned it to her small round worktable. “There, that’s done. Unless you wished to invite anyone to the dinner, Jessa?”
I’d rather flee to the safety of Father’s study for the evening than join the party, let alone add to its number. But I could never confess that to Aunt Caris. I placed a ribbon to mark my entry on briony and set the book aside. “No thank you, Aunt Caris. I’m certain you’ve already planned the guest list to perfection.”
Though she didn’t permit herself a full smile, her eyes crinkled at the corners as if she perceived that which I’d left unspoken. Whatever exhortation she might have offered, our butler Holden interrupted, arriving with the post. I welcomed the delivery since I hoped the morning post would bring an answer from Milton and Sons, the publisher I believed might be a good fit for my herbalism guide. Despite how often my expectations had been dashed, anticipation blossomed as constant and sweet as a carpet of violets in spring.
After Holden left, I sorted the letters—a lengthy missive from a fellow herbalist for me; two notes for Ada and three for Ainslie, more than likely from lovelorn suitors; and a letter for Aunt Caris, along with a large stack of invitations which would delight Ada and Ainslie alike.
But even a second, more thorough search failed to reveal a message from Milton and Sons. My spirits sank at the delay. Would they be one of many to decry my guide as too costly an undertaking, never mind the need it filled?
Aunt Caris glanced up, her green eyes bright. “Anything for me, my dear?”
“There are a number of invitations, but only one letter.” I offered her a small envelope with her name scrawled across the front. Its paper was the pale brown of a withered beech leaf—which was unusual, given that most ladies favored crisp, white pages for their correspondence, often perfumed and written in flourishing script.
Aunt Caris opened her letter and skimmed the contents. Then she crumpled it into the pocket of her gown and stood abruptly, her ever-blooming cheeks pale.
Unease pricked along my spine. “Did you receive bad news?”
“What?” She started and then clutched at her pocket as if it contained a burning ember. “No . . . of course not, dear, it’s just a headache.”
Aunt Caris did not possess the art of dissembling, and though she rubbed her temples, I distrusted her words.
“I believe I’ll go rest for a bit,” she said.
I rose as well, her disquiet wakening my own. “Shall I prepare some lavender tea? If I add willow bark, it might ease the pain.”
“Yes, dear. That would be lovely, but there’s no hurry.” Despite her expression of gratitude, her voice remained abstracted, and she wandered from the morning room like one in a dream.
I watched her go, a knot forming in my stomach. Since Mother’s passing fourteen years ago, Aunt Caris had provided continual love and care for us, looking after Ada, Ainslie, and me as if we were her blood daughters. She always overflowed with kindness, lively goodwill, and sometimes a propensity toward overmanagement of our affairs—but she’d certainly never succumbed to the vapors or indulged in unnecessary theatrics, no matter how trying the circumstances.
If something troubled her, it must be a situation worthy of concern, not a frivolous matter. The knot in my stomach tightened. I wanted to run after her and demand answers, but she clearly desired peace and privacy. Perhaps after an interval of solitude, she’d be more amenable to discussion. So instead I made my way to the glasshouse, which sheltered my more delicate plants from the chill that still crept into our early spring days.
As I wove through the garden, the plants pressed upon my awareness, like the pricking of a thorn into tender flesh. Their voices called to me—the bright, chirpy notes of the yellow-and-white hellebore bobbing along the path, the shy, whispered tones of the delicate lily of the valley, and the sap-sticky sweep of maple limbs bowing in the breeze.
No, I shouldn’t listen, shouldn’t hear such things. Normal people didn’t, so neither would I. If Father found out these aberrations had returned, and indeed strengthened, he would be crushed. When I first experienced the whispers after Mother’s passing, he’d done an admirable job of constructing an argument that they’d come as a result of her death. He believed they were my unconscious attempt to stay close to her by connecting with the stories of the Otherworld that she loved to share, an influence heightened in times of emotional stress. An influence that was essential to shut down lest word escape and scandal ensue—or worse, lead to accusations of fae-touch that would bring down the wrath of the Vigil and land me in an Institution. Since I was small, he had warned me to seek calm and lock untidy emotions away, to prevent this fault from overcoming me—which meant I couldn’t allow the upset experienced by Aunt Caris to become my own. She would not wish it, not after all she and Father had done for me.
I entered the glasshouse, and the pressure increased as each living thing vied for my attention. A throbbing ache built at the nape of my neck.
Blight and rot, this would never do.
With a long-practiced motion, I gathered the strands of emotion and sensation and locked them deep inside, in a cage of thorned vines I wove within my mind. Aunt Caris would be well—and if she were not, I would help make her so. I drew in one deep breath, then another. I wouldn’t surrender to these aberrations, not today, not as long as I kept the strength to resist. At last, my efforts brought silence, and the glasshouse became a refuge once more. I inhaled slowly, absorbing the familiar fragrances. Surely there was nothing objectionable in smelling the flowers.
The bitter acrimony of wormwood, ready to bite and purge, the soft perfume of lavender, ever-inclined to comfort and soothe, and the fresh, grassy scent of chamomile—all these and more wafted around me as I pulled a small pair of shears from their peg on the wall and made my way toward the table, which housed several varieties of lavender. I snipped a handful of buds, careful to remove only a little from each plant, in a manner that would encourage further growth.
And then a faint rustle broke through my enforced silence. I was so determined to shut out any possible aberration and give my attention only to gathering lavender, I almost ignored it. Until it came again, unmistakable, and followed by a slight moan.
In the shadowed corner on the north wall, where the glasshouse nestled against our townhome, something stirred. My pulse picked up. I grabbed a shovel and crept forward.
Slowly, my sight adjusted to the relative dim. A large cat lurked beneath one of my plant shelves, in piteous condition. Bedraggled inky fur cloaked a body rent with wounds, and a tremendous thick tail matted with blood wrapped close round its bulky frame. What a dreadful scrap it must have endured.
A pale patch like a starflower spread across its chest, and from the torn face, jade eyes glared at me.
I cast the shovel aside and extended my hand.
It drew back with a hiss.
How on earth had the creature come to shelter here unseen? No matter; it needed aid. I spoke in a soothing undertone. “You’re safe here. And if you let me closer, I can help.”
I kept up a patter of reassurances as I fetched my leather gardening gloves—protection should the cat lash out. When I reached for it once more, it bared threatening fangs. I rocked back on my heels. “If you let me take you to the house, I’ll see you well-tended. You must be hungry. I’m sure we have some fine scraps for you to enjoy . . . and maybe a bit of milk also?”
The stream of chatter appeared to calm it, so I continued. “It’s clear you’ve fought well and come off with your life, and perhaps even the victory. But if I’m to help you now, you must allow me close.”
The cat surveyed me, black pupils narrowing. And then, as if it understood, it dropped its stance of war and let its body slump.
I tucked the basket with the lavender buds in the crook of my elbow. Then I lifted the cat and cradled it to my chest. Even with both my arms wrapped securely around it, it spilled over, its head resting on my shoulder and its legs down low around my waist, its bulk unbalancing me at first. Not for the first time, I wished for a sturdier frame, but one must make the best of the resources given.
In this proximity to the cat, the earth-iron tang of old blood choked me, but I continued to murmur softly as I staggered into the house. In the washroom, I laid it down on a clean towel.
“Stay here—I’ll be back.”
I hurried down the stairs to the lowest level, which housed the kitchen. The honeyed fragrance of baking pastries wafted out to greet me. Our cook, Estine—thin as a reed despite her frequent sampling of her own wares—had a deft touch with all manner of baked goods and prided herself on turning them out fresh to accompany every meal. She’d served our family since Mother and Father wed, and after Mother’s death she’d sought to comfort all three of us girls by inviting us into the warm bustle of her kitchen.
When I crossed the threshold, she turned with a welcoming smile that faded the moment she saw me. “Mercies, Miss Jessa. Are you hurt?”
I glanced down at my front. Blood streaked the pale muslin of my gown, likely creating indelible stains. Small wonder I had startled her. “It’s not my blood. I found an injured cat in the glasshouse.”
“And you just had to wrangle it, did you?” She examined me more closely, a frown creasing her face. “You’re certain it didn’t scratch you? It might well carry all sorts of disease.”
“It’s not ill, only injured. And I couldn’t leave it there to die.”
She brushed flour from her hands. “Mebbe not, but Ives could have fetched the creature for you, I’m sure. No need for you to muss yourself, Miss Jessa, none at all.”
“It was simple enough for me to handle the situation without the aid of a footman.” I placed the basket of lavender on the long table in the center of the room. “I’ve only come for hot water and some rags. Once I’ve tended the cat, I’ll return to make some tea for Aunt Caris, if you don’t mind setting out the tray.”
Muttering under her breath about the fate of those ladies inclined toward independence and wild risks—as if the simple matter of attending an injured animal was the equivalent of venturing into the heart of a Crossing—she filled a pitcher and passed it to me, along with a basin and a few worn linens.
Then I went to the stillroom where I stored my dried herbs and fetched some valerian root. Armed for possible battle, I returned to the washroom.
The cat still rested on the towel, but it inclined its head toward me when I entered, a surprisingly regal gesture given its condition. I offered the valerian, my best hope of calming it enough to tend its wounds. It pricked its ears toward the pungent-smelling root and nibbled the herb, its body gradually easing into a state of relaxation. The shift in position revealed that despite her size, the cat was female. If she was willing to stay, she’d need a name, but that could come later.
Though she wouldn’t be able to understand, I quietly presented the facts, assuring her I intended only to help, though the process might be painful. She batted my arm with her paw, and then returned to her rest. After I drew in a breath to steady myself, I cleansed the cuts on her face, working slowly toward the worst of the wounds—a long rent down her side, clotted in places, seeping in others.
Though the cat gave a low moan as I tended her injuries, she didn’t strike out. For whatever reason, she’d decided to trust me, or at least not fight my attempts to render aid. At last, with the deepest gash bandaged and slathered with a thick unguent and the lesser cuts and scrapes anointed with a lighter salve, I bundled the cat, towel and all, into my arms and climbed the numerous stairs to my bedchamber, located on the third floor of our town house. Slightly out of breath, I placed the cat on a cushioned chair.
Now for Aunt Caris.
* * *
After I scrubbed up and changed my gown, I went back to the kitchen, where the basket of lavender awaited. As I steeped the buds and willow bark together, my mind drifted to Aunt Caris’s peculiar reaction. How could I convince her to share whatever concerned her and allow me to help shoulder the load? Given her voluble nature, I’d never had to pry information from her before. I’d simply have to venture forward one step at a time.
I only hoped my delay hadn’t added to her worries. I swiftly placed the pot of tea on the tray Estine had prepared and climbed the stairs once more.
I eased open the door to Aunt Caris’s bedchamber. If by chance she was sleeping, I’d leave the herbal infusion at her bedside table and return later. I had no reason to fear rousing her since she slept so deeply even a dragon incursion wouldn’t cause her to stir, let alone my presence in her bedchamber.
But she was not even abed, much less asleep. The heavy drapes, in the greens and florals she favored, were pulled back to allow the sun to pour in, and she stood by the exposed window, motionless, staring into the bustling street below. The first calling hours had reached their zenith, and carriages rattled over cobblestones in ceaseless procession before the long rows of townhomes.
I walked to her side. “Aunt Caris, I’ve brought the infusion for your headache.”
“Thank you, dear.” She half-turned toward me.
Were those tearstains on her cheeks? I tightened my grip on the tea tray.
“If it’s not too much trouble, will you ask Ives to bring my trunk from the attic?” she asked. “I’ll be leaving in the morning for Milburn, and I want to prepare as soon as possible.”
I set down the tray with a clink on the bedside table. “Milburn? I don’t believe I’ve heard the name before. Is it far from here?”
“I’ve never been there, but I suppose it will be a bit of an expedition . . .” Aunt Caris paused a moment, and in the distance a multitude of oratory bells sounded the hour. “It’s near the Morven Crossing.”
Given the location, her reluctance to confess was unsurprising. No true Crossing towns remained in the kingdom of Byren. After several had vanished or been destroyed by Otherkind centuries ago, the rest had been abandoned, by edict of the king. Edgetowns skirted the nebulous border around each Crossing, a fifteen-mile radius recommended by the Vigilists for reasons unexplained to us ordinary mortals. Though edgetowns offered the reward of rich resources, the potential for Otherkind incursions meant they also held great risk. Such invasions had become rare—the Vigilists posited that we experienced relative peace due to some unknown Otherworld cycle—but still, one must embrace the prospect of danger to settle there, and indeed, their citizens not infrequently vanished or suffered inexplicable calamity. Mother’d had no qualms about the risks surrounding Crossings, else she would not have purchased Thornhaven shortly after she’d wed Father, but he decidedly disagreed.
I poured the tea and handed her a steaming cup. “Why Milburn . . . and with such urgency?”
“A friend has found herself in a great difficulty and written to request my assistance.” She accepted the mug, and it quavered in her unsteady grasp, nearly spilling tea over the edge.
Her distress indicated something troubled her beyond just a friend in need. What did she conceal?
“So you plan to travel to an edgetown alone?” Viewed by society as a spinster, she required no chaperone. But to undertake a journey beyond the comforts of the more settled regions, particularly without accompaniment, was unlike her. Not to mention that she would endure a longer, more arduous trip by carriage since steam trains kept a great distance from any Crossing to protect their investments from possible damage.
“I’ll take Ives. Between him and the coachman, I’ll be safe enough.” The fine lines around her eyes deepened, hinting at inward strain. “And since Melisina is relying on you and your sisters for aid in planning her annual spring fete, I thought it best to make the journey on my own rather than disrupt her plans.”
Of course Aunt Caris would put her own comfort aside rather than face Aunt Melisina’s wrath. Few dared disturb the arrangements Aunt Melisina made. I studied her. “Ada and Ainslie may be essential to her fete, but I’d only planned to aid with the flower arrangements, which she can easily hire out. She won’t miss me, at least not sufficiently to protest.”
Once more I blessed the fact that the entrance of my sisters into society—and their determination not to accept the proposals that had come their way thus far—allowed the delay of my own formal appearance. I couldn’t push it off forever, but for now, my presence was not required.
“But I couldn’t possibly ask you to—”
“You’re not asking, I’m offering.” If Aunt Caris thought I intended to make any sort of sacrifice on her behalf, she’d turn me down flat. So I forced eagerness into my tone, despite my concerns about the trip. “I’ve always wanted to travel in the Dythe Mountain territory, and if Milburn is near the Morven Crossing, it must at least have mountain views. I imagine they’ll also have some uncommon flowers and shrubs. It would be delightful to add some new sketches to my collection, and perhaps I could even bring a few plants home for our gardens.”
Never mind that the garden of our townhome in Avons brimmed with life, every corner and crevice overflowing with flowers, herbs, and trees in exuberant array. If I was creative enough, I might fit in a few more.
A shadow passed over her face. “The trip may be tiring.”
“All the more reason for me to accompany you. The journey will be much less arduous with a companion.” I offered a bright smile.
“I’m afraid . . . the letter . . .” She stared into her teacup as if it held solutions to whatever plagued her. “My friend seems deeply disturbed. She may not be as amiable as usual. How can I bring you into what could be a difficult situation?”
She shook her head.
“Aunt Caris, please let me come.”
“What will your father say?”
“He can spare me for a fortnight, surely.”
“It may be longer than that. But perhaps . . . if he agrees . . .” She sipped at the infusion, and a bit of the tension eased from her shoulders.
“I’m certain he will.” Father might miss my assistance in keeping up with his correspondence and organizing his work, but otherwise, he’d be unlikely to rouse himself from his studies long enough to object. I breathed in the aroma of lavender drifting up from the teapot, but it failed to bring a sense of calm. “I’ll ask Ives to fetch our trunks and then speak with Father.”
She gripped my hand with her free one. “Thank you, dear.”
I pressed a kiss to her temple and fled the room, chased by the question: what awaited us in Milburn?