It was one of those nights, Rafe reflected, during which everyone in the room was tense and everyone was pretending not to notice. He had spent the day staying close to Harrison, which had been easy given the situation. After Edmund’s triumph that morning they had spent the day hunting, which in this case really meant getting away from the house for as long as possible while the women did… whatever they did all day. Conversation over dinner had been dominated by Sir Thomas and Edmund, and even Rafe had a limit to how much discussion of weaponry he could stomach.
Now he was playing faro with his brothers in the larger of the downstairs parlors while Stian and Casmin sat nearby, all of them trying to look bored. Hart sat with the older members of the party, while Veronica and Willamina sat in the back corner. Stephen had just dealt a hand when the younger Thomas came in, looking flushed and nervous. Rafe watched from behind his cards as he went to where the girls were sitting, spoke to his own sister, and then led Willamina outside onto the terrace.
“And he’s off,” Rafe said quietly.
Edmund looked up quickly, raising an eyebrow. “Doesn’t waste any time, does he.”
Stephen looked from one brother to the other, frowning. “What do you mean?”
“Thomas spoke to Edmund this morning, and is outside speaking to Willamina right now.”
Stian silently rose and left the room.
Stephen looked at Edmund, disbelieving. “Does Mother know?”
Edmund gave him a raised eyebrow. “I didn’t want to say anything yet, no.”
Stephen put his head down on one hand. “Oh no. What have you done? Did you warn her?”
“Warn her? Stephen, it’s not as if…” Edmund broke off as the outer door slammed open and Willamina rushed through the room and out into the hallway, her hand pressed over her mouth.
Rafe suppressed a smirk. “Not the reaction he was hoping for, I imagine.”
Willamina ran through the house to the front door, desperately hoping to get outside before her tears won out over her self-control. Stian saw her as he came down the stairs, his coat over his arm, having had much the same intention.
“Miss Greyson, what…”
For the harried girl it was the proverbial straw. She broke into sobs, and tried to turn to the wall.
In an instant, he was at her side, his hand on her shoulder. “Willa, what is it?”
She shook her hands, trying to gain control of her voice. “I just… I have… I have to get out of here.”
“You can’t go outside, not tonight. It… it isn’t safe.”
She looked up at him, pleading silently.
He met her gaze, wavering for only a moment before taking her hand and leading her back down the hallway. “I think I know just the place,” he said. She looked at him, puzzled, when they reached the door to a small servant’s chamber. He just smiled at her, and Opened it.
“Should one of us go after her?” Edmund asked.
Rafe said, “If by one of us you mean Stephen or me, then yes, probably.”
Stephen was already shrugging back into his coat when Casmin said, “I wouldn’t bother. She’s gone out.” Faced with three very alarmed brothers he hastily added, “She’s with Stian.”
“Why am I not comforted?” Edmund growled.
“I told you she could do better,” Rafe muttered.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Edmund said, then lowered his volume again, looking around the room. “You know that’s utterly impossible.”
“Before you two start bickering,” Stephen said very quietly, “I think we have more immediate concerns.” Sir Thomas had gone out to the terrace to speak to his son, and Rebecca and Lady Hughes were in close conversation. Harrison, it appeared, was taking advantage of the distraction in order to slip away unnoticed. A few seconds after he left, Rafe threw down his cards.
“This conversation isn’t over,” he said, rising and folding his jacket over his arm.
“You know the rules?” Casmin asked.
Rafe nodded. “Stay close, learn what I can, get back in a non-dead state, got it.”
“Just remember, if he changes…”
“I’m not exactly new at this.” Rafe said. His movements were quick and precise, and his cheeks were flushed.
“Rafe,” Edmund called out to him as he left.
“Be careful.” Rafe stared at his brother, then nodded.
Stian, despite appearances, made few impetuous decisions. Quick, instinctual, yes. But impetuosity was something his father had trained out of him at a very early age. And now, in spite of that training, one set of tear-filled hazel eyes had him reacting like he had no sense. But really, what else could he do?
And since he had already committed to a complete and utter failure of wisdom, he decided he might as well show off. If nothing else, it had shocked her out of her tears. When they had stepped through the door and into the night air, Willamina looked around herself, wide eyed.
“What is this place?” she asked.
“The Night Garden,” he answered.
It was a large enclosed yard, walled with limestone and yew hedges and lush with greenery. Where they had entered was, from this side, a wooden door in a stone wall at the end of a long corridor that terminated, at the far side, in a small fountain. It was warm here, and a soft breeze blew. The air was heavily scented by night-blooming jasmine, and the rest of the stone wall was draped in white and indigo moonflower.
“My mother always had difficulty sleeping,” he continued. “Even more so when she was pregnant with my sister.”
Willamina paused. “I didn’t know you had a sister,” she said.
One corner of his mouth quirked, as if he were trying to take the edge away from the words even before he spoke them. “I don’t,” he said. Before she could express sympathy, he went on, “My father built this place for her. It only blooms at night.” He took her hand, tucking it into the crook of his arm as he led her down the path.
“But… where are we? It’s almost Christmas…”
“That’s a more complicated question than you’d think, but Peru, more or less.” He frowned suddenly. “Willa, very few people know I can do this. It… should stay that way.” She nodded.
They turned a corner to find a small gazebo twined with angel’s trumpets. “No one will trouble you here. I will leave you; you can rest for a while.”
She sat, and drew a shuddering breath. The shock was wearing off, and she felt raw and exhausted. “Thank you,” she whispered, closing her eyes.
“I won’t be far.”
Willamina didn’t realize she had fallen asleep until she was waking back up. And as the world came slowly back into her awareness, she heard voices nearby. She couldn’t yet open her eyes, and between physical and nervous exhaustion she still felt like a limp rag doll, sprawled out on the swing. The voices felt nearby, but were so small and quiet that she thought at first they were the last remnants of a dream following her into waking.
“Pretty thing,” one voice said, sweet and crooning. “Little lost lamb…”
“Here all alone…” said a second voice, with a kind of creak to it that raised the hair on her arms.
“So sweet,” said the first.
“Maybe we should help her find her way,” said the second voice.
“Maybe we should make a feast,” said the first.
“Maybe you should be grateful I am the one who found you here,” said a third voice, and this one was a man’s, low and lilting and heavily accented, “and not the Magus. You know this place if off limits.”
The first voice turned from sweet to whining now. “But she…”
And then there was a yelp, and her eyes flew open to see a blur in the air above her. She sat up, and the only one there was a young man. He was not much older than her, with light skin that had been tanned by sun and wind. He was dark haired and not tall, but powerfully built. He wore a wine-red tunic that left him bare armed, and his muscles stood out, sharply defined under his skin. His features were somehow familiar, and so attractive as to be called pretty.
He cocked his head and looked at her with open curiosity, and even in the dim light of the garden she could see that his eyes were light golden amber. He blinked and pursed his lips, and wagged a finger at her. “You should not be here, djevochka. You’ll end up in quite the wrong kind of fairy tale.”
Willamina tucked her feet up under her. “I was brought here.”
“And who are you?” he asked.
She lifted her chin. “I am a guest here. Who are you?”
He barked out a laugh. “I like you,” he said, shaking his finger at her again. “I am Yevgeny. Now come with me before anything else notices you are here.”
He led her down curving paths to another clearing near the garden’s entrance. The duke was sitting on a bench with a large mahogany lap desk. He was looking over a stack of papers while listening to a man she hadn’t seen before. He looked to be about sixty-five, with light skin, gray hair, and a tidy beard. He was of average height, and looked as if he had been slender in his youth but thickened with age. He was looking over a small bound notebook while he spoke, and exuded an air of competence.
“We’ve had a few similar reports in Munich, Florence, and Prague,” he was saying. “But nothing on a scale of what you’ve seen in Britain.”
Stian nodded. “I have a feeling this is something of an experiment: the advance guard, as it were. If something goes wrong there, it can be contained far more easily than on the continent. We have a lead on one of the Alphas, and he’s being tracked as we speak. I’ll know more by tomorrow. What else?”
“Mariana left this morning. She should arrive by next Wednesday at the latest.”
“Excellent. I’ll be able to fully brief her before I head home.”
“Are you going to tell me why you’re reassigning her?”
“Just a favor for a new friend. What else?”
The man considered Stian for a minute before beginning, “House Trehar has asked if you have reconsidered their offer.”
Stian didn’t even look up. “Absolutely not. What else?”
“I think you should,” the man said with a voice that made clear he didn’t expect to be taken seriously and was already peevish about it.
“And I think I’ve made my position perfectly clear. What else?” ”
“Nothing that can’t wait until you’re back.” The man looked up, suddenly noticing Willamina’s presence. “Is there something you forgot to mention, Stigandr?”
Stian looked up, and, seeing Willamina, smiled. “No, I didn’t forget. Uncle, this is Willamina Greyson. Miss Greyson, this is Josef Karol. Josef is, among other things, my mother’s brother.”
Josef gave her a slight bow. “An honor to make your acquaintance.”
Stian looked at Yevgeny behind her. “And I see you’ve met another of my uncles.”
Willamina looked behind her. “Uncle?” she asked.
“My father was a prodigious man,” said Yevgeny.
“Yes, that is one word for it,” said Stian.
Josef cleared his throat. “If there is nothing else you need of me?”
“No, thank you,” Stian said, folding up the writing desk and setting it aside. Josef gave another half bow and left through the door in the wall.
Once the older man was gone Yevgeny said, “Are you going to introduce me?”
“No,” said Stian.
“Are you going to tell me where you’re sending Mariana?” Yevgeny asked.
“No,” said Stian.
“Are you ever going to get that enormous stick removed from your…”
“Get out, Yevgeny,” Stian said.
After he had stalked away, Stian said, “How are you feeling?”
“Embarrassed,” she said, grimacing. “I didn’t handle that well at all.”
“You were,” he paused, choosing his words, “not expecting his proposal?”
Her eyes grew wide. “Lord, no.I’ve known Thomas my whole life. He’s like another brother to me. And his sister is going to be furious. She has a right to be; I did have to refuse him, but he didn’t deserve… that.”
Stian struggled to keep his face neutral. “I am certain he’ll recover. Now,” he said, “we should get back, if you are up to it.”
“If we must.”
He took her hand again. “I’m afraid so. But here.” He plucked a sprig of jasmine and handed it to her. “The scent will help you sleep.”
Storm and Ash updates every Tuesday and Friday! If you’re enjoying your read, consider supporting Storm and Ash via our Patreon.