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The second novel in Mercedes Lackey's magical Elemental Masters series reimagines the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty in a richly-detailed alternate Victorian England
For seventeen years, Marina Roeswood had lived in an old, rambling farmhouse in rural Cornwall in the care of close friends of her wealthy, aristocratic parents. As the ward of bohemian artists in Victorian England, she had grown to be a free thinker in an environment of fertile creativity and cultural sophistication. But the real core of her education was far outside societal norms. For she and her foster parents were Elemental Masters of magic, and learning to control her growing powers was Marina’s primary focus.
But though Marina’s life seemed idyllic, her existence was riddled with mysteries. Why, for example, had she never seen her parents, or been to Oakhurst, her family’s ancestral manor? And why hadn’t her real parents, also Elemental Masters, trained her themselves? That there was a secret about all this she had known from the time she had begun to question the world around her. Yet try as she might, she could get no clues out of her guardians.
But Marina would have answers to her questions all too soon. For with the sudden death of her birth parents, Marina met her new guardian—her father’s eldest sister Arachne. Aunt Arachne exuded a dark magical aura unlike anything Marina had encountered, a stifling evil that seemed to threaten Marina’s very spirit.
Slowly Marina realized that her aunt was the embodiment of the danger her parents had been hiding her from in the backwoods of Cornwall. But could Marina unravel the secrets of her life in time to save herself from the evil that had been seeking her for nearly eighteen years?
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Mercedes Lackey is a full-time writer and has published numerous novels and works of short fiction, including the best-selling Heralds of Valdemar series. She is also a professional lyricist and a licensed wild bird rehabilitator. She lives in Oklahoma with her husband, artist Larry Dixon, and their flock of parrots. She can be found at mercedeslackey.com or on Twitter at @mercedeslackey.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
BIRDS twittered in the rose bushes outside the old-fashioned diamond-paned windows. The windows, swung open on their ancient iron hinges, let in sunshine, a floating dandelion seed and a breath of mown grass, even if Marina wasn't in position to see the view into the farmyard. The sunshine gilded an oblong on the worn wooden floor. Behind her, somewhere out in the yard, chickens clucked and muttered, and two of Aunt Margherita's cats had a half-minute spat. Marina's arm was starting to go numb.
The unenlightened might think that posing as an artist's model was easy, because "all" one had to do was sit, stand, or recline in one position. The unenlightened ought to try it some time, she thought. It took the same sort of simultaneous concentration and relaxation that magic did—concentration, to make sure that there wasn't a bit of movement, and relaxation, to ensure that muscles didn't lock up. If the pose was a standing one, then it wasn't long before feet and legs were aching; if sitting or reclining, it was a certainty that some part of the body would fall asleep, with the resulting pins-and-needles agony when the model was allowed to move.
Then there was the boredom—well, perhaps boredom wasn't quite the right word. The model had to have something to occupy her mind while her body was frozen in one position; it was rare that Marina ever got to take a pose that allowed her to either read or nap. She generally used the time to go over the basic exercises of magic that Uncle Thomas taught her, or to go over some more mundane lesson or other.
Oh, modeling was work, all right. She understood that artists who didn't have complacent relatives paid well for models to pose, and in her opinion, every penny was earned.
She'd been here all morning posing, because Uncle had got a mania about the early light; enough was enough. She was hungry, it was time for luncheon, and it wasn't fair to make her work from dawn to dark. How could anyone waste such a beautiful autumn day inside the stone walls of this farmhouse? "Uncle Sebastian," she called. "The model's arm is falling off."
A whiff of oil paints came to her as Sebastian looked up from his canvas. "It isn't, I assure you," he retorted.
She didn't pout; it wasn't in her nature to pout. But she did protest. "Well, it feels as though it's falling off!"
Sebastian heaved a theatrical sigh. "The modern generation has no stamina," he complained, disordering his graying chestnut locks with the same hand that held his brush, and leaving streaks of gold all through it. "Why, when your aunt was your age, she could hold a pose for six and seven hours at a time, and never a complaint out of her."
Taking that as permission to break her pose, Marina leaned the oriflamme, the battle banner of medieval France, against the wall, and put her sword down on the floor. "When my aunt was my age, you posed her as a reclining odalisque, or fainting on the couch, or leaning languidly in a window," she retorted. "You never once posed her as Joan of Arc. Or Britannia, in a heavy helmet and breastplate. Or Morgan Le Fay, with a snake and a dagger."
"Trivial details," Sebastian said with a dismissive gesture. "Inconsequential."
"Not to my arm." Marina shook both of her arms vigorously, grateful that Sebastian had not inflicted the heavy breastplate and helmet on her. Of course, that would have made the current painting look rather more like that one of Britannia that he had recently finished than Sebastian would have preferred.
And since the Britannia painting was owned by a business rival of the gentleman who had commissioned this one, it wouldn't do to make one a copy of the other.
This one, which was to be significantly larger than "Britannia Awakes" as well as significantly different, was going to be very profitable for Uncle Sebastian. And since the rival who had commissioned "Saint Jeanne" was a profound Francophobe. . . .
Men, Marina had long since concluded, could be remarkably silly. On the other hand, when the first man caught wind of this there might be another commission for a new painting, perhaps a companion to "Britannia Awakes," which would be very nice for the household indeed. And then—another commission from the second gentleman? This could be amusing as well as profitable!
The second gentleman, however, had made some interesting assumptions, perhaps based upon the considerable amount of arm and shoulder, ankle and calf that Britannia had displayed. He had made it quite clear to Uncle Sebastian that he wanted the same model for his painting, but he had also thrown out plenty of hints that he wanted the model as well, perhaps presuming that his rival had also included that as part of the commission.
Marina wasn't supposed to know that. Uncle Sebastian hadn't known she was anywhere near the house when the client came to call. In fact, she'd been gathering eggs and had heard voices in Uncle Sebastian's studio, and the Sylphs had told her that one was a stranger. It had been quite funny—she was listening from outside the window—until Uncle Sebastian, with a cold remark that the gentleman couldn't possibly be referring to his dear niece, had interrupted the train of increasingly less subtle hints about Sebastian's "lovely model." Fortunately, Sebastian hadn't lost his temper. Uncle Sebastian in a temper was apt to damage things.
Marina reached for the ribbon holding her hair in a tail behind her back and pulled it loose, shaking out her heavy sable mane. Saint Joan was not noted for her luxuriant locks, so Uncle had scraped all of her hair back tightly so that he could see the shape of her skull. Tightly enough that the roots of her hair hurt, in fact, though she wasn't apt to complain. When he got to the hair for the painting, he'd construct a boyish bob over the skull shape. In that respect, the pose for Britannia had been a little more comfortable; at least she hadn't had to pull her hair back so tightly that her scalp ached. "When are you going to get a commission that doesn't involve me holding something out at the end of my arm?" she asked.
Her uncle busied himself with cleaning his palette, scraping it bare, wiping it with linseed oil. Clearly, he had been quite ready to stop as well, but he would never admit that. "Would you rather another painting of dancing Muses?" he asked.
Recalling the painting that her uncle had done for an exhibition last spring that involved nine contorted poses for her, and had driven them both to quarrels and tantrums, she shook her head. "Not unless someone offers you ten thousand pounds for it—in advance." She turned pleading eyes on him. "But don't you think that just once you might manage a painting of—oh—Juliet in the tomb of the Capulets? Surely that's fashionably morbid enough for you!"
He snatched up a cushion and flung it at her; she caught it deftly, laughing at him.
"Minx!" he said, mockingly. "Lazy, too! Very well, failing any other commissions, the next painting will be Shakespearian, and I'll have you as Kate the Shrew!"
"So long as it's Kate the Shrew sitting down and reading, I've no objection," she retorted, dropped the cushion on the window seat, and skipped out the door. This was an old-fashioned place where, at least on the ground floor, one room led into the next; she passed through her aunt's workroom, then the room that held Margherita's tapestry loom, then the library, then the dining room, before reaching the stairs.
Her own room was at the top of the farmhouse, above the kitchen and under the attics, with a splendid view of the apple orchard beyond the farmyard wall. There was a handsome little rooster atop the wall—an English bantam; Aunt Margherita was very fond of bantams and thought highly of their intelligence. They didn't actually have a farm as such, for the land belonging to the house was farmed by a neighbor. When they'd taken the place, Uncle had pointed out that as artists they made very poor farmers; it would be better for them to do what they were good at and let the owner rent the land to someone else. But they did have the pond, the barn, a little pasturage, the orchard and some farm animals—bantam chickens, some geese and ducks, a couple of sheep to keep the grass around the farmhouse tidy. They had two ponies and two carts, because Uncle Sebastian was always taking one off on a painting expedition just when Aunt Margherita wanted it for shopping, or Uncle Thomas for his business. They also had an old, old horse, a once-famous jumper who probably didn't have many more years in him, that they kept in gentle retirement for the local master of the hunt. Marina rode him now and again, but never at more than an amble. He would look at fences with a peculiar and penetrating gaze, as if meditating on the follies of his youth—then snort, and amble further along in search of a gate that Marina could open for him.
There were wild swans on the pond as well, who would claim their share of bread and grain with the usual imperiousness of such creatures. And Uncle Thomas raised doves; he had done so since he was a boy. They weren't the brightest of birds, but they were beautiful creatures, sweet and gentle fantails that came to anyone's hands, tame and placid, for feeding. The same couldn't be said of the swans, which regarded Aunt Margherita as a king would regard the lowliest serf, and the grain and bread she scattered for them as no less than their just tribute. Only for Marina did they unbend, their natures partaking of equal parts of air and water and so amenable to her touch, if not to that of an Earth Master.
She changed out of her fustian tunic with the painted fleur-de-lys and knitted coif, the heavy knitted jumper whose drape was meant to suggest chain mail for Uncle Sebastian's benefit. Off came the knitted hose and the suede boots. She pulled on a petticoat and a loose gown of Aunt Margherita's design and make, shoved her feet into her old slippers, and ran back down the tiny staircase, which ended at the entryway dividing the kitchen from the dining room and parlor. The door into the yard stood invitingly open, a single hen peering inside with interest, and she gave the sun-drenched expanse outside a long look of regret before joining her aunt in the kitchen.
Floored with slate, with white plastered walls and black beams, the kitchen was the most modern room of the house. The huge fireplace remained largely unused, except on winter nights when the family gathered here instead of in the parlor. Iron pot-hooks and a Tudor spit were entirely ornamental now, but Aunt Margherita would not have them taken out; she said they were part of the soul of the house.
The huge, modern iron range that Margherita had insisted on having—much admired by all the local farmers' wives—didn't even use the old chimney. It stood in splendid isolation on the external wall opposite the hearth, which made the kitchen wonderfully warm on those cold days when there was a fire in both. Beneath the window that overlooked the yard was Margherita's other improvement, a fine sink with its own well and pump, so that no one had to go out into the yard to bring in water. For the rest, a huge table dominated the room, with a couple of tall stools and two long benches beneath it. Three comfortable chairs stood beside the cold hearth, a dresser that was surely Georgian displayed copper pots and china, and various cupboards and other kitchen furniture were ranged along the walls.
Margherita was working culinary magic at that huge, scarred table. Quite literally.
The gentle ambers and golds of Earth Magic energies glowed everywhere that Marina looked—on the bread dough in a bowl in a warm corner was a cantrip to ensure its proper rising, another was on the pot of soup at the back of the cast-iron range to keep it from burning. A pest-banishing spell turned flying insects away from the open windows and doors, and prevented crawling ones from setting foot on wall, floor, or ceiling. Another kept the mice and rats at bay, and was not visible except where it ran across the threshold.
Tiny cantrips kept the milk and cream, in covered pitchers standing in basins of cold water, from souring; more kept the cheese in the pantry from molding, weevils out of the flour, the eggs sound and sweet. They weren't strong magics, and if (for instance) Margherita were to be so careless as to leave the milk for too very long beyond a day or so, it would sour anyway. Common sense was a major component of Margherita's magic.
On the back of the range stood the basin of what would be clotted cream by teatime, simmering beside the soup pot. Clotted cream required careful tending, and the only magic involved was something to remind her aunt to keep a careful eye on the basin.
Occasionally there was another Element at work in the kitchen; when a very steady temperature was required—such as beneath that basin of cream—Uncle Sebastian persuaded a Salamander to take charge of the fires in the stove. Uncle Sebastian was passionately fond of his food, and to his mind it was a small enough contribution on his part for so great a gain. The meals that their cook and general housekeeper Sarah made were good; solid cottager fare. But the contributions that Margherita concocted transformed cooking to another art form. Earth Masters were like that, according to what Uncle Thomas said; they often practiced as much magic in the kitchen as out of it.
Of all of the wonderful food that his spouse produced, Uncle Sebastian most adored the uniquely Devon cream tea—scones, clotted cream, and jam. Margherita made her very own clotted cream, which not all Devon or Cornish ladies did—a great many relied on the dairies to make it for them. The shallow pan of heavy cream simmering in its water-bath would certainly make Uncle Sebastian happy when he saw it.
"Shall I make the scones, Aunt?" Marina asked after a stir of the soup pot and a peek at the cream. Her aunt smiled seraphically over her shoulder. She was a beautiful woman, the brown of her hair still as rich as it had been when she was Marina's age, her figure only a little plumper (if her husband's paintings from that time were any guide), her large brown eyes serene. The only reason her husband wasn't using her as his model instead of Marina was that she had her own artistic work, and wasn't minded to give it over just to pose for her spouse, however beloved he was. Posing was Marina's contribution to the family welfare, since she was nowhere near the kind of artist that her aunt and uncles were.
"That would be a great help, dearest," Margherita replied, continuing to slice bread for luncheon. "Would you prefer cress or cucumber?"
"Cress, please. And deviled ham, if there is any."
"Why a Water-child should have such an appetite for a Fire food, I cannot fathom," Margherita replied, with a laugh. "I have deviled ham, of course; Sebastian would drive me out of the house if I didn't."
Margherita did not do all of the cooking, not even with Marina's help; she did luncheon most days, and tea, and often made special suppe...
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