THE COLLECTOR WITCH

 Book Two of Heart of the Staff

 

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Chapter 1

 

The glorious spring day was perfect for Rose’s sixteenth birthday, but she certainly did not see it that way. Her arranged marriage was to be announced, and in a fortnight herhappiness would be publicly sacrificed.

Things seemed so unreal to her as she dressed. Perhaps this was a dream. But when she stepped into the grand ballroom in time to hear old white haired Jerome announce her first guest, she knew it was happening.

“Princess Myrtlebell,” she said to the guest with a curtsy and the required smile. “So nice of you to come.”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” said Myrtlebell. “My. Real emeralds for your birthday, I see.”

“How very nice of you to notice.”

“You really must excuse me,” said Myrtlebell as she swept away. “I need to freshen up a bit after that dusty old coach ride. Powder up in the same old place, dear?”

“Only if you still have it exposed,” said Rose under her breath.

Before long, the vestibule and hall spilt over with the burgeoning din of those arriving, and Rose had no time for anything but shaking hands for a good long while. “Oh, Violet!” she said with a gush of relief at the sight of her with her escort from Ellsmore.

When at last she could break away from greeting guests, she made her way through the crowd in search of Violet. A tug on her sleeve stopped her. “Where’s your lucky prince?” “You can tell Myrtlebell that James isn’t here yet, Erlene,” said Rose. “But I don’t see the point. He’d never make it all the way in here without her noticing…”

“Here come his couriers this minute,” said Erlene.

Rose looked up to see a courier with his entourage in smart green uniforms coming straight for them through the parting crowd. “Princess Rose?” he said as he came to a halt.

“Yes?”

“Your prince bids me deliver this letter to you…”

“Prince? No prince has a claim on me,” she said, yanking open the letter to fling it’s seal skittering in pieces across the polished floor.

“But you are Tywysoges Rose, aren’t you?”

“I am she, but that’s a right antiquated form of address. Well. You’ve delivered your lord’s missive. Good day.”

“Uh…” he said, shifting from foot to foot.

“Have a good day. You may leave.”

“Please forgive me Your Highness, but I’ve been instructed to wait for your reply.”

“Oh I’m sorry,” she said, glancing at Erlene. “I do indeed have arrangements with your lord. I’m only sixteen, and I’m just being pushed faster than I find comfortable.”

Erlene stayed right where she was.

“I quite understand,” said the courier, looking relieved.

“But I can’t imagine needing to reply to anything he might…” she said as her eyes darted over the letter. “Mercy! His mother. I hardly have a bottle of ink out here on the ballroom floor. Would it do if I merely told you that I quite understand and that I certainly forgive his absence, and of course wish his mother Fatespeed for her recovery?”

“That would do, I’m sure, Your Highness,” he said. “I shall give Prince James your exact words. I’m certain he will take comfort in them.”

Rose turned to Erlene as the courier marched out. “You can tell Myrtlebell that James won’t be here because his mother is ill and not expected to live,” she said, picking up her skirts and vanishing into the crowd.

“Well?” said Myrtlebell, appearing beside Erlene. “What about James?”

“Not here.”

“We knew that,” said Myrtlebell. “When’s he expected?”

“He’s not. That was his retainer. His mother might be dying.”

 

“What?” she gasped over her goblet. “Poor thing! We saw dear Queen Ruella just days ago at their spring ball and she was the life of the party. Would you reckon James is having second thoughts about marrying the little tart?”

“You dream,” said Erlene. “I was just at Ruth’s wedding and James stood right at the punch bowl telling how anxious he was for his wedding to Rose. James might dance with you any old time, but you may as well forget him.”

“Me forget James? You don’t get it Erlene. James is going to forget Rosie the fraud. Rosie the little witch, really…”

“Myrtlebell! What’s the matter with you? Someone could hear.”

“You’re in the dark like Edmond and Ruella. Rose has less lineage than her mother. She’s adopted.”

“No.”

“Big secret.”

“Who is she?”

“All right. If you must,” said Myrtlebell, hiding her grin with a sip. “Sixteen years ago, Queen Minuet had a stillborn girl. Poor thing was just inconsolable and Hebraun went ’round and ’round, trying to get her to face giving birth to a dead baby.”

“You’re mean.”

“Oh go on. If it’s born dead, what’s there to lose?”

“Nine months of prayer and mother’s love.”

“You want to hear this or not?”

“Certainly.”

“Very well. While she was not yet coping, there was an uproar in the kingdom about sukere, of all things, and about a knight who was killed by a dragon. I don’t know all the details, but the knight’s death was linked to the queen’s sister. He was a hero of some kind and the citizens of Niarg were so angry over her connection with his death that they sent up a great hue and cry for her execution. Well, Hebraun had to think of something, with Minuet’s sister a disreputable sorceress in the first place and now accused of murder.”

“So what did he do?”

“He put her in the dungeon, that’s what. And to complicate matters, she was great with child. Meanwhile, the citizens had had enough of her, and they wanted to see her hang. So the Crown found an easy way out by banishing her to the Chokewoods for the rest of her days. So there you have it.”

“Have what? What does this have to do with Rose being adopted?”

“Hush!” said Myrtlebell. “Do you want everyone to hear this?”

“Why no…”

Myrtlebell radiantly steered her away from the gathering listeners before resuming, loud as ever: “I’ll spell it out, dear. The witch sister’s baby was born the very first night after she was locked up, and Hebraun and Minuet took it for their own.”

 

“That’s quite a story all right,” said Erlene. “You make such sport of taking me for a fool.”

“Yes, I realize there’s no sport in that dear, but I have proof in this case.”

 

“Oh?”

“Absolutely. In Niarg’s Royal Cemetery there’s a little grave next to where King Hebraun’s father is buried. Its headstone says: ‘Rose, Firstborn Infant Daughter of King Hebraun and Queen Minuet.’ Go read it yourself.”

Myrtlebell watched as her story spread through the gathering. She knew the stone was actually there, if any of them bothered to go see for themselves. Amongst the eavesdroppers was Spitemorta, who had slipped in unnoticed. “Well, I haven’t had so much fun at a party in years,” she thought. “Those imbeciles will destroy Prince James with that tale. But what about sweet little Rosie? Can’t have her staying in the dark. Preposterous as Myrtlebell’s story is, it has boundless potential for amusement.” She went to find her at once.

She found Rose with Violet and her escort. “Excuse me,” she said. “I’m afraid I’ve some information which you should hear before certain parties can spread it.”

“I’m not interested in petty tales from this lot,” said Rose.

“Quite understandable, but you do need to hear this. I’d think that this little rumor could be awkward.”

“Why are you worried about my feelings all at once?”

“Oh I care less about your feelings than about exposing some fools in here.”

“Tell me then.”

“As you wish,” she said, plunging into the entire tale as she watched Rose change from aloof to being hurt and angry. Violet looked every bit as upset as Rose. Suddenly Rose was half-way across the ballroom, on her way out the door.

“How dare you ruin Rose’s birthday!” cried Violet. “You’ve always been foul hearted, but this just rotten! If I were you, I’d get out of here before King Hebraun and Queen Minuet hear.”

“Oh I tremble,” gasped Spitemorta. “They might tell my parents about my behavior. I am on my way out, though, because I can’t imagine the rest of this party being even remotely as amusing as this was.”

Violet went wide eyed.

 “Ta-ta,” said Spitemorta as she turned away.

***

Once outside the Grand Ballroom, Rose picked up her skirts and ran. The next thing she knew, she had knocked down someone. When she tried to see who, she realized that she was crying.

“Hey!” shouted her brother as he got to his feet rubbing his backside. “Why on earth don’t you watch where you’re going!”

“Sorry Lukus,” she mumbled as she began walking away.

“Hey, wait Rose. You aren’t at your big, dumb party. How come?”

“Shut up! It’s over. I don’t care.”

“What’s wrong, Rose? Did you hurt something when you ran over me?”

“No, I’m fine, really,” she said, picking up her pace. “Now please excuse me. I have a great lot I need to think about.”

“Sure Rose. No problem. I’ll just drop by the throne room and see if Mother and Father know what has you so worked up, if you don’t have the time to tell me.”

“Don’t you dare!” she rasped, stopping him in his tracks.

“Well if you just tell me what your problem is, maybe, just maybe, I can actually help you a bit.”

“There’s no way you can help, Lukus,” she said. “I don’t know if anyone can.”

“You sure make it sound serious,” he said, searching her face. “Maybe you’re right and I can’t help, but doesn’t just talking about a problem make it easier to deal with?”

“Not this time. It’s ‘way too complicated. What I really need for you to do, if you really want to help me, is to just leave me alone and let me think. And Fates forbid, Lukus.

Don’t you dare run to Mother and Father, telling them I’m upset.”

“If that’s what you really want, Rose.”

“You’d better believe it! Just drop it. You’ll find out soon enough.” And with that, she ran up the stairs to her apartment.

“I’ll declare,” he said with a stroke of his chin. “Something big and getting bigger.

***

“I’m a-finding out,” he said with a backward dive onto his bed. He studied the beams of his ceiling. “I might’ve agreed not to go to Mother and Father, but that doesn’t stop me from keeping an eye on her. And say. Surely a few passing questions would be all right. That’s not running to them.” With a nod of resolve, he sprang to his feet and hurried off to see if they might not give him a clue, only to be lectured about respecting Rose’s important time in her life.

At last they let him go. “I wonder if Rose will talk to me yet?” he said, dashing up the stairs. When he raised his hand to knock, he stopped short at the sound of her voice on the other side of her door. He held his breath and listened.

Rose was on the floor petting her owl-eyed cat. “I’m sorry, Jamali.” she said, rattling a sniffle. “I have to find out the truth and I can’t take you with me.”

“Wow!” he said, turning away from the door. He walked slowly back to his rooms.By the time he got there, he had resolved to wait for her to make her move and then follow  her. Inside his quarters, he began at once to pack.

 

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