“And when you are done with that, Betsy, stay a moment,” said Morgause from the comfort of her dark throne. “I have other tasks for you.”
It was not that Morgause did not see how Betsy stiffened and could only with difficulty restrain herself from shivering; she did see that. It was that Morgause suffered from a vice peculiar to dark witches: practicality. As an author of children’s books (among other things) in a far-away universe had said, “They [dark witches] are not interested in things or people unless they can use them; they are terribly practical.” Morgause at that moment had no conceivable use for Betsy’s unease; ergo, she did not give it the least thought.
After the bed was straightened, the curtains brushed, and the rug given the housekeeper’s critical once-over, Betsy crept to her mistress. Morgause had to blink at the excessive servility. And then she smiled. She did train her human servants well.
“What — what is it that ye need, m’lady?”
“I shall not be in this evening,” Morgause replied. “Pray inform my son of that, should he ask.”
Betsy flinched and Morgause smirked. Mordred was a good boy, but he was dreadfully old-fashioned in some respects. There was simply no getting out of his head that after dark women belonged within doors, at home, unless they were being escorted to some entertainment or other by a responsible male. As a rule, Morgause had no problem with this notion, so long as there was no misunderstanding that it applied to her. Mordred, however, could not appreciate that subtlety.
“If m’lord asks where ye are, m’lady, what should I say?”
“You will tell him that I am out.” Betsy flinched again and Morgause’s smirk deepened. Let Mordred take out his frustrations on the ignorant servant. By the time she returned, he would be calm, his temper spent.
“Is — is there anythin’ else that I should tell m’lord?”
“No, but I have other tasks for you. I shall need some sort of … refreshment for when I am out. A light one, mind.” Morgause did not bother to add any nonsense about watching her figure; she had magic to keep her curves within acceptable limits. “It will need to be carried by broomstick.”
Betsy did not do anything as openly as shudder — she was too used to her mistress’s preferred form of clandestine transportation by now — but her unfashionably brown skin did inch lighten a bit nearer to a more acceptable paleness. “Ah. Is there anything ye would prefer, m’lady?”
“As I said — a light repast. You can work out the details.” Morgause waved her hand.
“An’ — an’ ter drink, m’lady?” Before Morgause could do more than narrow her eyes, Betsy stammered, “Ye know — that is — there are times, m’lady, when ye can’t have no stronger than small beer, an’ others …”
“Ah. I see. Wine will do quite well. You grow better and better at your duties every year, Betsy.”
Morgause smirked. It was, after all, much more to her taste to be thanked than to do the thanking, no matter how much Betsy might deserve the thanks.
“Is there anything else, m’lady?”
“Yes. I need to … gather my strength for this evening. You will keep the menservants and maidservants quiet.”
“Of course, m’lady.”
“And I will not be disturbed here for …” Morgause hesitated. “Anything less than an emergency. I trust to your discretion as to what will constitute an ’emergency,’ Betsy.”
“I shall be warding the door after you go out, so if you have any more questions of a housekeeping nature, I suggest you ask them now.”
Did Betsy catch her lower lip between her teeth as if she would ask something? But after a moment she shook her head. “No, m’lady.”
“Good. You may go.” Morgause waved her hand, truthfully paying more attention to what looked like a broken nail than to her servant.
However, as Betsy’s footsteps receded into the distance, another thought struck Morgause, and she called, “Stay a moment, Betsy; I have just thought of something.”
“I will admit,” said Morgause in the gracious tone of a lady admitting to a fault, yet at the same time somewhat shocked that she had a fault at all, “that I have been somewhat … remiss in domestic matters these past few days. Specifically, my daughter-in-law.”
Betsy did not move.
“Do you know why it is that she went to stay with her parents, taking my grandchildren with her?”
“I — m’lady, it isn’t me place ter pry, or axe questions.”
“But you are a servant, and whether it is their place or not, servants know everything.” Morgause continued to examine her nails. “Her stated reason was that my dear Lot’s death has been very hard on her, and she and the children are all in need of a rest.”
“I — I had heard as much, m’lady.”
“That is a lie,” Morgause continued. “If that were all it was, she would have waited a week, a fortnight, to prepare before going. She would not have announced her intention to leave in the evening and been gone at first light. She is too … deliberate for such haste. Therefore, I wish to know why she has left. By this time tomorrow, Betsy, you will have the answer for me.”
“I –er — m’lady –”
Betsy sighed. “Yes, m’lady.”
“And if I find out that she has not been treating my son as she ought …” Morgause laughed. “Then she will find that hell hath no fury, not as a woman scorned, but as a mother protecting her son.”
Betsy cast one quick glance over her shoulder, as a rabbit might look behind itself to catch sight of a snake. What she saw awakened her prey’s instinct to freeze and stare straight ahead.
Morgause managed one last chuckle before she forced herself to clear her throat. “You have my permission to go,” she said with a languid wave of her hand, though the effect was completely wasted. Betsy scuttled rabbit-like out of the room without so much as turning her head. And even her normally impeccable manners failed her in this instance, for when the door closed, it made a sound suspiciously like a slam.
Morgause paid it no mind. She leaned back, head against the crimson cushions of her throne, and closed her eyes.
She did not sleep; what she did was far too complex to be sullied with the name of sleep. But perhaps in some ways it was very like sleep. She sent her spirit elsewhere to gather energy and contentment for her needy body. If a churchman had seen her in that moment, he would have been sure that she was taking this energy and power from demons. But churchmen were fools. Only idiots took power from demons, or whatever other supernatural creatures flitted along the ragged edges of this world and offered power like it was candy. Such power always came with a price far greater than its value.
When Morgause opened her eyes, three things had happened. Her body was crackling with energy, and her power was full to repletion. More than that, though, the sun sent in red rays through the window. It filled the room with a stain like the blood of a hundred maidens. Morgause threw back her head and laughed to see it.
Then, stroking the silky ebony of her throne one final time, Morgause rose and grabbed her cloak. She paused only to go down to the entry hall and retrieve her repast. Betsy was good — so very good — and Morgause found some bread and cheese, cold chicken, and two flasks neatly wrapped and tied in blue checkered cloth. It was easy enough to slip that onto her broom before she took to the air.
By the time she reached her destination — the “magic” school those fools, Merlin and Naomi Emrys, had started — full darkness had descended onto the kingdom.
Morgause was not the best creator of wards in the kingdom, but she was quite good at detecting them. It was her good detection of wards that had kept her away from Garnet’s dwelling, which was so thickly protected that Morgause was astonished her daughter could breathe. The school was warded almost as thickly, and Morgause placed herself, tauntingly, just outside the reach of those wards. For good measure she added a spell of not quite invisibility, but the next best thing to it: the inability to be noticed. For someone with her good looks, tried-and-true allure, and disinclination to be merely the observer and not the observed, she was astonishingly good at such spells.
The first thing she did after she landed was reach into the blue checkered cloth. She let the flasks be for now; it did not do to drink and fly, and flying she would be, shortly. The cold chicken, however, would do nicely. She made short work of it and tossed the bones onto the soft grass behind her.
Then, there was nothing else to do but wait and congratulate herself for her cleverness.
Did Garnet really think that her messages were not being watched? Foolish chit of a girl! Every letter that came from her pen went first to Morgause. Any dark witch who could not break a seal and then reproduce it without a flaw was not worthy of the name. As for the spells Garnet had placed on the letter to keep prying eyes out, they were just as clumsy and inept as her girlish attempts to hold onto Lamorak.
There were only two things that could have made Morgause happier than the ease with which she spied upon Garnet’s communication: the communication itself, and who it was addressed to. In both cases, Morgause hit what the peasants would call “the jackpot.”
The first was what Garnet had to say. Oh, she tried to be cryptic, the poor, silly girl. She tried to be circumspect. Maybe she even failed to let her partner know exactly what was going on. But to anyone who knew the truth of the matter, the letter was as plain as day. Garnet had the wretched boy’s body, and she needed to get rid of it.
As for to whom it was addressed, that almost made Morgause cackle into the listening night: Ravenna.
Ravenna! The child of her greatest enemy! Ravenna, half peasant and half lady, an abomination who should have never existed! Ravenna, who was only fourteen, and surely not yet mistress of half her magical powers, such as they might be. Ravenna, who was young and foolish enough to suggest a midnight meeting during which to hand over the “package” so that it could be brought to her mother.
Morgan would never see that “package”; of that Morgause was sure. As for whether she would see her daughter again … well, time would tell. But Morgause doubted it.
And her own daughter? Time would tell there, too. Morgause was certain, however, that after this Garnet would never defy her again.
She scarcely had time to grin like a canary-stuffed cat over this before a faint flicker of light, and then a flicker of shadow, alerted her to the fact that her prey was on the move. Morgause froze and watched.
What a foolish girl, to dress in such unrelieved black! Not only did her white hands stand out like beacons, but any fool knew that dark gray was a far better color for sneaking around in the night. Morgause herself had adopted dark gray many a time before she had mastered her don’t-notice-me spells.
Still, though, she waited and watched the walker. It was a female, she could tell that even at this distance. And … yes, it had to be Ravenna. The walk was young and sprightly, not creeping and hunched as Naomi Emrys’s would have been. Morgause had also observed Ravenna at every opportunity with the full venom and attention of hatred. Ravenna walked very much like her mother, a resemblance that was too ingrained to be explained by the obvious fact that Ravenna would have no desire to walk like her shambling, half-decayed father. No, there was something in the set of the shoulders, the relentless stride forward, that screamed Morgan when the girl set so much as one foot forward. Really, Morgause was doing the world a service by going after this girl before she could grow up into another Morgan.
Still, though, Morgause stayed still and silent as a church-mouse as the girl half-walked, half-ran to the front of the walk. She had need to keep Ravenna alive and well.
It would be Ravenna who would lead her to Garnet.
Morgause watched as Ravenna called her broom and sat down upon it with the insecurity of a witch still new at the whole “broomstick” thing. She kept still and silent even when she took to the air. It would not do to alert the girl to her presence too soon. To provoke her into a fight now would do her no good at all. At best, Morgause would lose her chance to find Garnet. At worst, she would have to tangle with those blasted Emryses. They might be fools, but they were no mean magicians, particularly not on their own turf.
Still, though, as soon as Ravenna took to the air, Morgause sprinted across the road, whipped out her broom and followed her.
Silent as a bat she flew behind Ravenna. The girl’s black cloak, stark and unrelieved against the blue and purple and specks of white starlight in the sky, made her pitifully easy to follow. The wind whipped cold and fresh against Morgause’s cheeks as she flew. Her cloak billowed out behind her like the tail of a blazing comet.
They flew a long time, long enough that Morgause began to think with longing of the flasks in the blue checkered cloth. But not yet — not yet. Not until they landed. Then … then anything was fair game.
Finally, though, and not nearly soon enough, Ravenna’s broom began to lose altitude. Morgause swore as she saw where the girl was landing: a particularly thick part of the Avilion woods, near the Snowden Hills that comprised the border between Albion and Glasonland. Damn and damn and damn. How was she to land and keep Ravenna in her sights without touching down practically on the bristles of the girl’s broomstick?
Ah, but the girl was a fool! She landed on the road, a wide path open to the sky! It was almost too easy. Morgause had to look over her shoulder when she herself landed, just in case this was some sort of trap.
It was not. Of course. There was no one there but herself, Ravenna, and hopefully Garnet. Morgause hurried after the girl.
Wright! What was this girl thinking? Morgause thought, panting, as she followed the girl up the steep hill. Couldn’t she have flown? Perhaps there was reason for this, though. Morgause could not imagine what it was, but there had to be. Surely no one who could fly would choose to walk up such a steep incline. She was half-inclined herself to take out her broom and skim along behind the girl.
Then, halfway up the hill, panting and struggling in her tight skirts, stitch in her side and soreness creeping into her feet, she saw her reward: a patch of bright golden light. Garnet must have arrived.
Even though the way would be twice as hard, Morgause ducked into the woods by the side of the road. She could not be seen now. Not now, when she was so close! Only a little bit farther, and she would have them both.
The blasted girl, seeing her cousin and friend, picked up her pace. Between the leaves that fell into her face, the branches that bent under weight only to snap back with the force of a whip, and the roots that seemed to push themselves up on purpose to trip her, it was a wonder Morgause was able to move at all. Her cloak seemed to to entangle itself on every forked bit of bark; her skirts flared up to expose her delicate ankles to every thorn. She would need to soak her poor feet for days to rid them of the pain from this crossing. The only things that kept her going were the pulls she took from the first flask, until in time she emptied it entirely.
Yet she was rewarded soon, for she reached the crest of the hill, where Ravenna was talking to the girl she had come to meet. It had to be Garnet; Morgause would know that cloak anywhere.
But where was the boy’s body?
Morgause squinted among the bushes and leaves, but she could see nothing that put her mind of the body of a four-year-old boy. Where could Garnet have hidden it?
Was it even here?
No, that was impossible. This meeting place was too near to Apple Keep, Morgan’s home, for Garnet to have not brought the body with her. But then where could it be?
Bah, enough of this! Morgause stepped out of the trees. There were easier ways to find something than to look for it, after all.
“Hello, girls,” she crooned, and had the pleasure of seeing both girls freeze. “If you are very good, and do exactly as I say … well, you might leave here in very nearly the same state as you came.”
Neither girl moved.
Morgause waited. She waited for one of them to speak. She waited for the fear to start to show. She waited for Ravenna to turn around, at the very least.
Nothing. Maybe they were just being docile in the hopes of leaving here alive. Morgause could always dream.
She shook out her wand. “All right, girls. Now, tell me where the … the ‘package’ is.”
Garnet turned to look at her. And then Morgause realized that the moon shone far too brightly on her daughter’s skin …
Ravenna turned around, and Morgause realized that there no unsightly freckles marring the girl’s hands.
Both girls shook off their cloaks. For once in her life, Morgause was shocked into silence.
“Hello, Morgause,” said a voice all too familiar. “If you’re very good, and do exactly as we say, you might leave here in very nearly the same state as you came.”
In that moment, there was nothing in the universe that Morgause so hated as Morgan’s smirk.