Excerpt from A WINTERTIDE SPELL, Meankitty Publishing
Note: This title is a 7500 word stand-alone prequel to A SPELL FOR SUSANNAH
The last hair of the King’s tawny fur coat disappeared around the corner. Queen Geneva maneuvered herself out from behind the flower seller’s cart before she lost sight of the sneaky bastard who called himself her husband.
Maneuvering herself was no simple matter, all things considered.
The saleslady shot her a knowing look. She selected a bouquet of small purple blooms, a Kingdom Foresta specialty even in the cold, infertile season, and offered it to Geneva. “Might I interest you in a posy of heartsease?”
“Thank you, no. I’m in a rush.” Normally she would converse with her citizens, but right now she was both angry and incognito. Her lower back ached, and dirty road sludge weighed down her nondescript cloak and gown at the hem.
“I would be in a rush, too, were my babe due any day,” the seller observed. “Luck to you, madam.”
Geneva tugged her hood closer to her face and hurried past, her fury increasing with every cold, miserable, plodding step. Wind gusted down the streets of the capital city as if blown by giants, funneled by the tall buildings on either side. Wintertide was one day away, and the Wintereve Feast was tonight. By all rights she and her husband should be warm and cozy at the castle’s hearth, toasting one another with mulled cider, stringing cranberries and awaiting the birth of their third child.
Due any day, indeed!
She was far too pregnant and exhausted to be trailing Reginald as he skulked toward his latest assignation. Her feet had bloated over the tops of her sheepskin-lined boots. False contractions hardened her womb so frequently, it stole her breath. Yet here she was, lumbering along as quickly as she could, because there was no one else she could trust with such a delicate mission. Not even Nurse Binny, home with Princesses Susannah and Calypso. Instead of enlisting the older woman’s help, she’d told her she had to purchase last minute Wintertide gifts. Binny, bossy as an old fairy, had threatened to call the court healer to prevent Geneva from going.
But Geneva was Queen. She was the Queen of Foresta, the pregnant Queen of Foresta, the pregnant and cranky Queen of Foresta, and by the Dragon, her will would be done.
Her will would be done by everyone except her sneaking, cheating skunk of a husband.
Geneva reached the corner of Flower Street to see Reginald whip into the little alleyway where she’d nearly caught him the first time. Her heart lurched at the sight of him, and she resisted the urge to call out. To beg him to stop whatever he was doing, to renounce whoever he was seeing, and come home with her. Instead she waddled down the sidewalk, her huge abdomen earning her more space as men and women made room for the pregnant lady with the scowl.
At least Foresta was a polite kingdom. If anyone had given her trouble on one of her unhappy scouting missions, she might have had to retract the law currently in place that forbade putting criminals, or people who annoyed the King and Queen, to death.
Geneva walked faster, hoping to finish this. Yet once again, when she reached the alley, there was no sign of the man.
Damn and blast. Where could he be going? The narrow passage led straight to Sundry Street. No detours, no doors, no ladders, not even any garbage. The cleanest alley in all of Kingdom Foresta, and her husband managed to hide in it.
Next time, she would bring the magic sniffing pig, if she could coax the animal out into nasty weather like this. Not as inconspicuous, alas, but more effective than her human eyes.
Geneva squeezed between the buildings, the press of bricks on her body icy through her thick, woolen cloak. She inspected every brick and cobblestone, again, desperate for an explanation. She longed to put an end to the King’s deception, but she was not a woman to accuse without proof. Seeing him disappear in an alley wasn’t enough.
But she would find evidence. And once she had it, she would wield it like a rapier.
She was damned good with a rapier.
Disappointed and tired, she exited the other side of the alley and stared up and down Sundry Street, searching amidst all the last-minute shoppers for her husband’s glossy brown head and confident stride. His broad shoulders. His strong arms and manly chest. Most of all, his rascally smile—the one that had seduced her seven years ago, when she’d been a mere baron’s daughter and he’d been the most eligible bachelor in the kingdom.
So what if one of his birthing gifts was that he was destined to love thirteen women before his fiftieth year? They’d both been confident she would be his one and only, that the gift was somehow a trick.
She’d been a fool. Fairy birthing gifts always came true. Always.
Had Reginald grown tired of married life? Of her? Their marriage bed had been warm but celibate with her advanced pregnancy. From his secretive behavior, to the gold disappearing from the castle accounts, to the strange way he’d begun to treat her, the Queen was convinced Reginald had moved on to his next fated love.
Geneva’s only consolation was that whoever this woman was, she too would be left behind when Reginald met lady number three.
At least she, his Queen, would be his first love, his wife and the mother of his daughters. All daughters. Only daughters. For Malady’s curse, the Female Curse, meant no boy children would be born to any nobles in the Middle Kingdoms forever more.
And it was all Geneva’s fault.
Of course, none of this mattered at the moment. As she warmed herself in the Dandy Fairy Pawn Shop, considering the gift of magic flutes for her daughters and a knife in the dark for her husband, Geneva’s first real contraction hit her like a horse’s hoof. Wetness trickled hotly between her legs.
Early, but not unexpected.
“Exquisite choice, madam.” The proprietor approached her and tapped one of the flutes with a long finger. “Guaranteed to play at least one hundred melodies.”
“Give me three,” she said, gritting her teeth against the pain, “and then give me your fairy-fone.”
The man raised his eyebrows. “Excuse me? This is not a public fone booth. You can’t just walk in off the street and demand the use of my private device.”
This babe, number three, would not take as long as her others. To the Hinterlands with all this subterfuge.
Geneva dropped the hood of her cloak and gave the man an icy glare. “Your fairy-fone, citizen.”
He paled and bowed at the same time, nearly striking his forehead on the glass counter. “Your Highness, yes, your Highness, at once.”
Geneva, with the fone, used her status to obtain the fastest conveyance available. No time to get someone from the castle, but she did know a guy.
The driver, who arrived before Geneva had suffered through a third contraction, said nothing about the fact his Queen was unescorted in town. She’d earned a reputation for eccentricity since marrying their King. Unlike most ladies of the nobility, she dirtied her hands with castle tasks and planned to educate her daughters to do the same.
Of course, she didn’t tell the driver she was in labor right away, either, although the Dandy Fairy Proprietor might have guessed. That delightful fillip would be in all the broadsheets and gossip rags soon enough, and there was no need to panic him.
“Pay this man well,” she said to the steward when she alighted at the castle gates. “The babe comes, and he made sure I arrived home in good time.”
The steward and driver blanched in tandem. Her anxious staff exploded in a flurry of activity. Bells began to toll, and a flock of messengers were sent in search of the absent King, believed to be, like she’d claimed to be, shopping for last minute gifts in town.
She wished them better luck than she’d had.
When the guards insisted on carrying her to her chamber, Geneva didn’t argue. Her legs had grown numb and her skirts wet, yet not once did the nervous men flinch away.
She only wished her womb were numb, but instead it twisted and throbbed as the babe readied herself. A pain shot through the Queen’s lower back, sharper than the rest. Her throat tightened with woe. Would this babe ever know a happy family or had her husband doomed them all to dysfunction?
Damn Reginald, and damn the fairies with their dubious christening gifts! All the misfortunes of their family—of the Middle Kingdoms—could be tied to those devious creatures. At the same time, it would be hard to exist so comfortably without their aid, their enchantments and their healers.
When Geneva arrived, Binny jerked open the chamber door and immediately began scolding. “I told you not to go out in this weather. I told you you’d bought enough gifts. I told you the healer wouldn’t let you go.”
The nurse’s voice faded into a buzz of annoyance as the Queen’s watery gaze fell on her two young daughters, seated on the edge of a divan, their eyes wide with concern. The guards set her carefully on her feet and scurried off to tend to other duties.
“Hello, darlings,” she managed between pants. “Mama is going to have your baby sister tonight.”
“Papa says we’re to have a baby brother. I helped him break the Female Curse last week.” Susannah’s unruly, dark hair did not suit her serious nature. She had, however, already showed signs of one of her happier christening gifts—canniness. “I thought I should warn you, Mama, so you won’t give our brother a girl’s name.”
The Queen sighed. They’d tried to protect Susannah, but their eldest daughter had somehow concluded the Middle Kingdoms were in trouble, however indirectly, because of her. Probably learned it from her father, who loved to lecture his daughters. Five and three year olds couldn’t be expected to realize when their Papa was teasing, sadly mistaken—or straying from the bosom of his family.
“Your Papa,” Geneva told Susannah and Calypso, “tells a lot of fine tales.” Including the one about how he would love his wife, and only his wife, forever.
After Binny rang for the maids, the healers and everyone else she could think of, the Queen allowed the nurse to help her out of her clothing. The princesses clung to her, getting in the way yet welcome just the same. They would be separated from her for most of the birthing process, and she wanted to assure them everything would be all right.
“Are you excited to meet the baby?” she asked as they hovered. “I know I am. What color hair do you think she’ll have?”
Calypso’s hair was as red as her grandfather’s had been. She sniffled and threw herself at her mother. Binny caught her before she could latch onto the Queen’s wet, dirty skirts.
“Mama, Mama! Will you die when the baby comes out?” she wailed.
“Of course not. Women’s bodies are made to have babies.” The Queen finished shedding her skirts and held out her arms. Calypso ran into them for a hug, joined by Susannah. “Healer Naudo will be with me every moment.”
“Will Suze and I have babies?” Calypso asked.
“Only when you are much older. And married.” She kissed the children’s cheeks and smiled tightly as a purple-frocked maid burst through the chamber door. “Go with Evette. Mama needs to rest.”
Reassured, her daughters left with the maid, with the promise they could play “Who Shall Be Queen?” on the thrones in the receiving room.
“I told you not to go shopping,” Binny nagged her again as soon as they were alone. “You don’t have to do everything yourself anymore. You are the Queen. You have servants.”
“I like to do things myself.” She breathed deeply as another pain hit her. This babe was coming fast, and all the stalking she’d done today had doubtless accelerated matters.
Another ill to lay at her husband’s door, should he ever deign to walk through it.
“This is what happens when you do too much.” The nurse bagged the soiled garments and helped Geneva into soft, absorbent pantaloons, pantaloons she wished she’d worn today before haring off on her angry mission. “I hope you weren’t anywhere near a stables when your pains began. The babe will look like a horse.”
“I don’t believe in superstition,” Geneva gritted out.
Binny snorted. “It’s not superstition if it’s magic. Will it be a bath or the birthing chair?”
“Just the chair, I think. I may be too far gone for the bath.” In a clean pink nightrail, she paced to the window that overlooked the courtyard. She stared through grey skies toward the city, where her husband even now might be bedding his new lady. Frolicking, lovemaking, while his wife endured labor pangs with a side dish of heartbreak. “Ring and see if he has returned.”
“He hasn’t, or he’d be here.” Binny clutched Geneva’s hands as another pain nearly doubled her. “I’m sure he planned to be back before the feast.”
“That might be too late.” The feast wasn’t due to begin for several hours. “Have them send out location spells.”
“Are you sure?” Binny asked. “They don’t come cheap.”
“I know.” That, and privacy, were why she hadn’t been able to use them to track him in the first place. “Do it anyway.”
She could wring Reginald’s neck for putting her in this position. She didn’t want the staff to know there were problems with the royal couple. The kingdom was in enough of an uproar as the fall-out from the Female Curse trickled down. They owed it to their citizens to present a calm and competent face to the world. It was their job. Their duty. Just as it was her duty to endure, somehow, her husband’s christening gift and its consequences.
She’d known he was to love thirteen women when she married him. Was it his fault that he’d merely succumbed to his fate at last? Perhaps not. But he should fight it. He should have found a way. For her. For their children. For Foresta.
Why the fairies claimed the gifts were always for the best, she had no idea. That was why, when Malady placed a nasty christening curse on baby Susannah, Geneva had had enough. She’d pressured Reginald, who’d pressured the Emperor, to ban Malady from the human lands. To prevent her from yoking any more babes to horrid fates like adultery and sadness.
The other twelve kings had been eager to join in the ban, for Malady had long been a pestilence. In fact, shortly before Susannah had been born, Malady had treated the Emperor’s new son to body odor, of all things. It was ridiculous to claim body odor would ever help the poor boy in the future.
As with so many things related to the fairies, Malady had had the last laugh. She’d shown up uninvited for the ceremony and finished laying her Female Curse before the Emperor had ratified the ban. So far the nobility had experienced five years of female babies. Some had attempted trickery—fairy bribes, rituals, passing commoners’ boy children off as their own--but the Female Curse had held true.
Daughters were no burden, but a lack of sons to inherit would eventually cause such chaos, the Middle Kingdoms’ very existence would be in jeopardy.
Geneva rested her flushed cheek against the window. The double paned glass was the only thing between her and the snow that had begun to fall. The fine, powdery flakes sparkled when light hit them. Another contraction preceded another trickle of hot liquid between her legs. And she felt the urge to push begin to build inside her like rage.
Where was he? How could he leave her?
“Binny,” she said, her heart resigned, “the babe will wait no longer. She’s impatient.”
“And he’s not here.” The old nurse tsked and fretted. “He knew how close you were to your time. Had no business traipsing off like this, no more than you did, missy. Both of you, I swan. You’ve learned your lesson, I daresay, but I’ll shake a knot in that boy’s tail, I will.”
“He is your King, not your charge.” She grunted as a second pain struck her, and her belly hardened like iron.
“I nursed him when his dear mother passed. I changed his diapers and taught him to piddle in the potty. I stood beside him when he was crowned, and I helped him find the perfect Queen. Believe me when I say I can and will shake a knot in his tail.”
“Then a knot he shall have. I shan’t stop you.” Everything Binny said was true, but not even she could thwart a christening curse. Thirteen women would the King love. She supposed she should be thankful she’d had several years of devotion before his curse engulfed him.
But oh, how she loved him. His charm and his generosity and the care with which he treated his subjects. His strong arms and his twinkling eyes and the way he gazed at her as if she alone was all he needed to keep from straying. Her heart beat only for him, her children and her duty to her kingdom. He claimed to love her as well. Had claimed it first, in fact.
Until last month, she’d believed it.
Even though her life was in turmoil, even though labor pangs struck at her like curses, Geneva allowed herself the brief, vicious satisfaction that Malady had been banned. Fairies longed for human gold but couldn’t mine or work it themselves. Bargaining with humans was their only way to lay hands on the substance they craved.
Now Malady had none and no way to get more. No way to trade for it, no way to come into the human lands and get it. And she, Geneva of Foresta, the Queen of the smallest of all the Middle Kingdoms, had shaped this thing to punish the wickedest of fairies.
It was worth it. It had to be worth it. No matter what happened in the future, to her dear little Susannah with her own burdensome curse. Malady had finally been banished.
But then waves of serious labor crashed into her, and she could think of nothing but the hard road that lay ahead, the road she was to walk without her husband at her side.
© 2011 Jody Wallace
Back to the Book Page * Back to the Excerpts Page