Home > Lenobia's Vow (House of Night Novellas #2)

Lenobia's Vow (House of Night Novellas #2)
Author: P. C. Cast


 

CHAPTER ONE

 

February 1788, France

 

“Elle est morte!”

Lenobia’s world exploded with the sound of a scream and three small words.

“She is dead?” Jeanne, the scullery maid working beside her, paused in her kneading of the plump, fragrant bread dough.

“Oui, may the Holy Mother have mercy on Cecile’s soul.”

Lenobia looked up to see her mother standing in the arched doorway to the kitchen. Her pretty face was unusually pale and her hand clutched the worn rosary beads that were always looped around her neck.

Lenobia shook her head in disbelief. “But just days ago she was laughing and singing. I heard her. I saw her!”

“She was beautiful, but never strong, that poor girl,” Jeanne said, shaking her head sadly. “Always so pale. Half of the château caught that same ague, my sister and brother included. They recovered easily.”

“Death, he strikes quickly and terribly,” Lenobia’s mother said. “Lord or servant, he eventually comes for each of us.”

Forever after, the yeasty scent of fresh bread would remind Lenobia of death and sicken her stomach.

Jeanne shuddered and crossed herself with a flour-whitened hand, leaving a crescent-shaped spot in the middle of her forehead. “May the Mother protect us.”

Automatically, Lenobia genuflected, though her eyes never left her mother’s face.

“Come with me, Lenobia. I need your help more than Jeanne does.”

Lenobia would never forget the feeling of dread that engulfed her with her mother’s words.

“But there will be guests—mourners—we must have bread,” Lenobia stammered. Her mother’s gray eyes, so like her own, turned to storm clouds. “That was not a request,” she said, switching smoothly from French to English.

“When your mère speaks in the barbaric English, you know she must be obeyed.” Jeanne shrugged her round shoulders and got back to her dough kneading.

Lenobia wiped her hands on a linen towel and forced herself to hurry to her mother. Elizabeth Whitehall nodded at her daughter and then turned, motioning for Lenobia to follow her.

They made their way quickly through the wide, graceful halls of the Château de Navarre. There were nobles who had more money than the Baron of Bouillon—he was not one of King Louis’s confidants or courtiers, but he did have a family that could be traced back hundreds of years, and a country estate that was the envy of many lords who were richer, though not as well-bred.

Today the château’s halls were hushed and the curved, mullioned windows that usually allowed plentiful sunlight to spill against the clean marble floors were already being draped with heavy black velvet by a legion of silent servant girls. Lenobia thought that the house itself seemed muffled with grief and shock.

Then Lenobia realized they were hurrying away from the central part of the manor and toward one of the rear exits that would empty out near the stables.

“Maman, où allons-nous?”

“In English! You know I loathe the sound of French,” her mother snapped.

Lenobia suppressed a sigh of irritation and switched to her mother’s birth language. “Where are you going?”

Her mother glanced around them, then grabbed her daughter’s hand and, in a low, tight voice said, “You must trust me and do exactly as I say.”

“Of-of course I trust you, Mother,” Lenobia said, frightened by the wild look in her mother’s eyes.

Elizabeth’s expression softened and she touched her daughter’s cheek. “You are a good girl. You always have been. Your circumstances are my fault, my sin alone.”

Lenobia began to shake her head. “No, it wasn’t your sin! The Baron takes whomever he wants as a mistress. You were too beautiful not to catch his eye. That was not your fault.”

Elizabeth smiled, which allowed some of her past loveliness to surface. “Ah, but I was not beautiful enough to keep his eye, and because I was only the daughter of an English farmer, the Baron cast me aside, though I suppose I must eternally be grateful he found a place for me, and for you, in his household.”

Lenobia felt the old bitterness burn within her. “He took you from England—stole you from your family. And I am his daughter. He should find a place for me, and for my mother.”

“You are his bastard daughter,” Elizabeth corrected her. “And only one of many—though by far the prettiest. As pretty even as his legitimate daughter, the poor, dead Cecile.”

Lenobia looked away from her mother. It was an uncomfortable truth that she and her half sister did look very much alike, enough alike to have caused rumors and whispers as both girls began to bloom into young women. Over the past two years Lenobia had learned it was best to avoid her sister and the rest of the Baron’s family, who all seemed to detest the very sight of her. She had found it easier to escape to the stables—somewhere Cecile, the Baroness, and her three brothers rarely went. The thought crossed her mind that her life would either be much easier now that the sister who looked so much like her—but who would not acknowledge her—was dead, or the dark looks and the sharp words from the Baroness and her boys would get even worse.

“I am sorry Cecile is dead,” Lenobia said aloud, trying to reason through the jumble of her thoughts.

“I would not wish ill on the child, but if she was fated to die, I am grateful that it happened now, at this moment.” Elizabeth took her daughter’s chin and forced her to meet her gaze. “Cecile’s death will mean life for you.”

“Life? For me? But I already have a life.”

“Yes, the life of a bastard servant in a household that despises the fact that their lord scatters his seed aimlessly and then enjoys flaunting the fruits of his transgressions as if that proves his manhood over and over again. That is not the life I wish for my only child.”

“But, I do not under—”

“Come, and you will understand,” her mother interrupted, taking her hand again and pulling her along the hallway until they came to a small room near one of the rear doors of the château. Elizabeth opened the door and led Lenobia into the poorly lit room. She moved purposefully to a large basket like those used to carry the linens to wash. There was, indeed, a sheet draped over the top of it. Her mother pulled it away to expose a gown that shimmered with blue and ivory and gray, even in the dim light.

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