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Authors: Cate Tiernan

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BOOK: Immortal Beloved
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A
reveal spell. Well, that clarified nothing. My first instinct was to step right out of the circle and run. Or simply say no and cross my arms over my chest. And I was about to—

“Okay, sit down, facing me.â€

 

 

 

W
hen you’ve spent most of your life being a chameleon, changing everything about yourself over and over again, it’s shocking, again and again, to see the original you in a mirror. Through the years I’d had every color of hair from white to black, including blue, green, and purple, and every length from crew cut to down past my waist. I’d been rail-thin, pleasantly plump, big and pregnant, starving and skeletal. I’d had the white skin of a northerner, where we went for months without seeing the sun, and I’d been as dark as a walnut, burnished
bronze by an equatorial sun that had soaked through my skin to my very bones.

Now I looked like the me that the child me had grown up into. It was freakish, disturbing, and I felt horribly exposed and vulnerable. In the morning I layered several sweaters, wrapped a fuzzy scarf around my neck, and tied a kerchief over my hair, which, ironically, only made me look more like how I used to. Peasant wear. Finally I went reluctantly downstairs. I was on table-setting duty for breakfast.

In the kitchen I muttered a fast hello to Daisuke and Charles, who were making breakfast. I noticed that, typically, the kitchen was neat and tidy, though they were cooking for thirteen people. They were both spare, elegant people who always seemed to be operating from some deep sense of calmness. Brynne made huge messes in the kitchen, and so did Lorenz—and they were both flamboyant, wildly attractive people. Reyn was tidy. Nell was messy. Jess and I were both disorganized, and I’m sure that surprised everyone.

Anyway, I quickly grabbed the flatware tray and escaped into the big dining room, which was still in predawn darkness. Inside I felt jangly, anxious, wound up in a way that I hadn’t been in… weeks. As soon as I went to work this morning, I planned to disappear into the employees’ restroom with a box of hair dye. Auburn, this time, I thought.

The door to the kitchen swung open and Solis came in, carrying an armful of cut twigs. I nodded at him, not meeting his eyes. He set a tall vase in the middle of the table
and arranged the long twigs in it, making an arrangement maybe three feet high.

“Forcing blooms,â€

 

 

 

H
mm.â€

 

 

 

T
hat day seemed to mark a new chapter in my career at River’s Edge. Because of the teachers’ reactions and concern, it made me slow down and do everything with more awareness, trying to pay attention to any malevolent feelings around me.

I watched both Nell and Reyn at mealtimes or when we were working near each other. Reyn was literally trying not to look at me and acted as if I were invisible. He no longer gave me rides to town, and we were never assigned to work together. Nell seemed to have gotten a grip on her
hostility and had resumed being pleasant and friendly in a fake, vacuous way.

I picked up on nothing, and no one found any evidence of more dark spells anywhere else. We were all on guard, but it started to seem as if it could have been a one-time thing—like a warning shot across a bow, without much intent to follow through.

That’s what I was telling myself, anyway.

A couple of days later, Old Mac told me that the store would be closed for five days. Apparently, once or twice a year he went off with his man friends and fished. I pictured a bunch of grumpy old men, griping at each other, standing glumly in icy water, flicking their rods. But maybe for him it was therapy, a reprieve.

It sure was for me. At first I was thrilled—five days off!—and then panic set in: What would I do with myself? Right now, every moment of every day was occupied, and even when it was a two-hour stretch of something heinous and soul-crushing, I was still focused on trying to be aware of who and what was around me.

With five days off, I pictured myself getting bored and thinking of dumb-ass things to do to entertain myself. Like messing with the locals, showing up in a flashy car, taking up smoking, leaving.

Was this when I would start to go downhill, when any gains I’d made would be stripped away from me in a couple
of singularly bad choices? I knew it was coming. I always,
always
ruined a good thing.

As it turned out, this time, at least, my fears were ungrounded. I should have known the power-hungry slave drivers at River’s Edge would see my five days of freedom only as a challenge to be filled.

“Yule is coming,â€

 

 

 

I
could feel Solis’s barely concealed impatience.

Which only made it worse, of course.

I tried again. Releasing a breath all the way out. Trying to calm my mind, to empty it of thoughts. To achieve a perfect, centered stillness—which was about as foreign to my life as growing wings and flying. When I felt ready, I looked once again into the large, flat bowl of water. Breathe in, breathe out.

“What is water?â€

 

 

 

S
omehow I kept on with the daily rhythm of my new life. My chores gave me purpose and structure—I knew where I had to be and what I had to be doing at any given time. I could perform all my duties without much thought: sweeping leaves off the porches, cleaning the stove, gathering firewood, sowing winter rye in the kitchen garden. I moved mechanically, and people seemed extra kind to me, except Nell and Reyn, who both avoided me.

“My mother had been sold three times before my father bought her,â€

 

 

 

A
storm broke loose inside me. If I weren’t so ignorant of magick, I would have skinned
him
alive with a word, flaying him to make him as bare and raw as my emotions. As it was, I had to rely on launching myself at him, taking him by surprise. My body hit his, hard, and we both went over the side of the hayloft, falling twelve feet below and landing heavily with an
oof
on the broken hay bales he’d tossed down.

I was flailing at him, shrieking and swearing at him in Old Icelandic, trying to claw him, punch him, smack his head. After a few moments of trying to catch his breath,
Reyn easily clamped his hands around my wrists like iron vises, and then he flipped us both over, his weight pinning me to the ground.

He was murmuring things in Icelandic, the words reaching my ears being “Sefa, calm down, stop, don’t hurt yourself, shah,â€

 

 

 

B
ack at home, River, Asher, Solis, and Anne treated me incredibly normally. It was weird. I was expected to do chores. My name was on the board. Apparently all four teachers knew the whole sordid story, but none of the students seemed to treat or look at me any differently.

I saw Reyn for the first time at dinner.

He came through the kitchen door, holding a heavy tureen. My senses were exquisitely tuned to him and I examined him closely, trying to see him with long hair matted with blood, with a painted face. He saw me and
his jaw tightened. My imagination pictured him standing, shocked and terrified, as a tower of lightning consumed his family and soldiers.

He and I both looked very solemn, and we deliberately didn’t meet eyes again. Interestingly, when I glanced over to get some bread, I looked up and saw Nell’s eyes locked on me like blue lasers. I ignored her. Reyn sat where I couldn’t see him easily, and didn’t say a word during dinner.

After dinner Anne stood and said, “I’d like to work with some of you, exploring gems and crystals. Rachel?â€

 

 

 

T
he next day I was on breakfast duty. I burned two pounds of bacon. One minute I was totally on top of it, turning strips like a pro, then I stopped to grab a pan of English muffins out of the oven, and when I turned back, the entire griddle was covered with blackened strips of pork. I stared at them in disbelief, and then out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of light brown hair bobbing under the kitchen window. I raced to the door, yanked it open, and ran out onto the kitchen steps. There was no one there. But I was sure it had been Nell, and that she had done something to the bacon. She
was really starting to rattle my cage. I wanted to grab her and tell her she could have her very own berserker, that I didn’t want him—but I didn’t. River hadn’t asked either of us to keep our histories to ourselves, but as far as I could tell Reyn hadn’t told anyone I was heir to the House of Úlfur, and I hadn’t told anyone he was the Butcher of Winter.

For the first time, I arrived at work at MacIntyre’s Drugs five minutes late. I’d gotten a ride with Rachel, who was going to continue on to Boston. The streets were clogged with last night’s snow, and the small amount of town traffic was slower than usual.

“Oh, now she strolls in!â€

 

 

 

T
he next day was Saturday. I had to groom two horses. I’d been assigned to Sorrel and Titus. Sorrel was a trim, neat quarterhorse that was used only for riding; Titus was an Irish Draught horse that occasionally got hooked up to wagons or carts or whatever. They were both nice animals, in that they were patient and calm, unlike, say, the chicken from hell.

I put Sorrel in the crossties and started in with the rubber currycomb. She
whuff
ed into my hair as I went over her coat, loosening up dirt and hair.

Horses. I don’t even want to talk about horses. It’s
impossible to overstate how crucial horses have always been to people, until literally the last hundred years. For
thousands
of years, horses and cows are what kept people alive, enabled people to travel, to cart heavy things, to farm enough land to support a family. I’d always been around them. One of the times I’d lived in England, like in the mid-eighteen hundreds or so, I’d been horse crazy, rode every day, owned horses, had custom saddles. But they were like everything else: They died eventually.

Anyway, I’d gotten over them. Now I mostly avoided them. Their knowing eyes, their sensitive natures—they can see through bullshit, just like dogs, cats, and little kids. I tried to avoid all of those. Plus, as soon as I smelled a horse, it brought back so many memories, so strongly—the way scents do. Sometimes I can be in the exact same building or airport or see the exact same view from a bridge and not even remember it, though I know I’ve been there. But if that memory is coupled with a smell, it all floods back with excruciating detail. The smell of roasting peanuts in Manhattan. The smell of the Mediterranean Sea in Menton. Newly mown hay in Kansas. Snow in Iceland. Crushed grapes in Italy. Fried beignets and coffee in New Orleans.

And horses.

Sorrel stamped her left foreleg gently while I tried hard not to think about the hayloft just twelve feet above me. For a couple of minutes, I had been happy up there.

First the currycomb, then the dandy brush, then the body brush, then the towel. Sorrel looked like a postcard when I’d finished with her coat. I got the hoof pick and cleaned under her shoes and I was done. As I unclipped her crossties, she nuzzled my hair, her breath warm and hay-scented.

“Okay, horsie,â€

 

 

 

J
ust another smidgen…

I took another slow bite, looking down at my plate, but focusing all my attention on Nell’s dinner roll. I breathed in and out very slowly, concentrating on moving her roll just slightly out of reach, again and again.

Once, twice, three times I saw her reach for it as she chatted with an unresponsive Reyn and a more animated Lorenz, who threw his head back and laughed. Each time Nell’s hand went automatically for where she had left her roll, and each time her fingers closed on air. Frowning, she would take it, break off a piece, then set it closer to her plate.

Then I would edge it out of the way, very, very slowly. Using just my super-duper immortal brain waves. It was an incredible triumph.

I had come in earlier and worked the necessary spells of limitation so that not
everyone’s
rolls would move, and Nell would have
only
her roll move, and not her fork or her glass. I had pored over spellcrafting books in the library, and practiced individual bits of the spell for the last two days in my room. I was making white magick: Nothing near me was dying, nothing having its life sucked out. This was me, now, Tähti, utilizing my heritage of incredible magickal power. Of course, I was using it to do something kind of mean. Did that make it not white magick? Did
intent
matter as much as method? There was probably a class about that in my future.

I was practically aglow with suppressed excitement, and the effort to restrain a cackling laugh was making my stomach hurt. But I was doing it. And Nell was getting a little flustered, a little bit confused. It was such a minor thing, to have one’s roll not where one thinks it is, and yet it’s
such
a minor thing that an inability to do it becomes very puzzling.

I took another slow spoonful of soup, controlling my breathing, keeping my face still and neutral. Two seats away, Nell’s lovely manicured fingers clicked down on empty table, again. This time she actually stared at her roll, and went through a quick motion of where it should be.

BOOK: Immortal Beloved
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