For those of you who read yesterday’s Mid Week Tease and wanted to know how the rest of that scene turned out, I live to serve. Enjoy!
“That’s not nearly as helpful as you think it is,” Amelie muttered, getting the last bit of sticky juice out of her hair. She slid under the water in the tub to rinse, shaking her head from side to side to sluice out the suds, then resurfaced. “You should have seen their faces.”
Her maid made a noncommittal noise. “But the apples ripened.”
“Yes, the apples ripened, which means the Harvest Festival is officially underway. Hopefully that will keep Maman satisfied.” Amelie stood up, accepting a bath sheet and wrapping it around herself. “And I can get back to my real work.”
Jeanette helped her out of the tub and shooed her over to the vanity table. “Excuse me for being blunt, milady, but these will be your duties someday. You can’t stay in your office forever.”
Amelie wished she was still young enough to stamp a foot, absurdly petulant as that would be. Instead she dropped onto the padded chair, allowing the maid to work on her hair with a drying cloth. “Perhaps Maman should have made Sibeal her heir after all. She could have blown up the entire square and everyone would have congratulated her.”
“Mayhap, but Lady Sibeal isn’t a Terra magistra,” Jeanette said mildly, pulling out a comb and running it through Amelie’s damp locks. “You are. And frankly you have the better mind for governing a province.”
“So you say. Maman says I’m too cold and analytical.”
The maid sighed. “Her ladyship has a different view from yours on what makes a good countess. It doesn’t meant that hers is the only correct way.”
“Oh, isn’t it?”
Both of them started, turning guiltily towards the tall woman standing at the bedroom door. With her titian hair coiled into an elegant updo, hazel eyes that changed color depending on what she wore, and a form-fitting maroon gown that highlighted both a heavy strand of emeralds and creamy décolletage over the square cut neckline, Henriette le Clerq looked like the harvest personified. “Do go on, Jeanette,” she suggested.
Blushing, Jeanette dropped into a deep curtsey. “I’m sorry, my lady. I didn’t mean—”
“Of course you did.” Henriette swept closer, holding a piece of rolled-up paper in her slender hands. “And you’re quite right. My daughter’s views are different from my own. When she becomes the Lady, she may rule Lierdhe as she sees fit. In the meantime, however, I am still the Lady of Lierdhe and must do as I deem best for my province and my people, even if that runs counter to my daughter’s views.”
Jeanette bowed her head. “Of course, my lady. I apologize.”
“Mm. You may go.”
The maid bobbed another curtsey and left. “I wish you wouldn’t scold Jeanette, Maman,” Amelie said wearily. “She did nothing to deserve it.”
“Oh, my dear, that wasn’t a scolding,” Henriette said, waving the roll of paper. “That was merely a reminder.” She pursed her lips. “I heard about the little contretemps at the ceremony today. Apple juice everywhere, the mayor said.”
Leave it to her mother to bring that up. Controlling her temper, Amelie picked up the comb Jeanette had dropped and went back to work on her hair. “I was distracted by one of the children. It won’t happen again.”
“Oh, I’m sure,” Henriette said idly. “Practice makes perfect and all that, and it’s not as if I can step down until I know the family line will continue.” Before Amelie could come up with an appropriate reply she continued, “Speaking of that, however, I just received the most wonderful news from your sister.”
“What does Sibeal have to say?”
A beaming smile crossed her mother’s face. “She’s with child. She writes that she should give birth in the spring, and we’re to come to Wolf’s Lair to see the baby.”
For someone who had resisted the match so severely, Amelie thought, her mother certainly seemed happy with it now. It was ironic, considering the chill that had dropped over their own relationship ever since the King of Ypres had ridden to Lierdhe at Amelie’s request to stop the forced wedding of her younger sister Sibeal to Clement Reynard. The wedding had been Henriette’s way of dealing with rising debts from her drought-stricken province; she’d made an arrangement with Gregor Reynard, the Earl of Leuven, for a loan of two million gold soleils to cover seed costs in exchange for one of her daughters marrying the Earl’s heir Clement. When Amelie had broken off the engagement due to Clement’s boorish behavior, the countess had thrust Sibeal into her place, locking Amelie in a mage-warded cell to keep her “out of trouble.”
But King Matthias had put a stop to all that. Now Sibeal was happily married to Duke Tomas Villiers, the man who had ridden at the king’s side to her rescue, and Lierdhe was safe thanks to the earl forgiving half his loan (at sword point, admittedly) and a generous wedding gift of one million soleils from Villiers, the crown, and Prince Marcus of Illium.
Amelie ignored the sharp pang at the thought of Marcus. He’s gone, and that’s all there is to it. “How wonderful. I’ll write to Sibeal tonight.”
“I’ll have the seamstress start on a layette immediately,” Henriette said, pacing now as she tapped the rolled letter against her chin. “White and green, I think, with our sigil worked in silver thread. And some new gowns for Sibeal, of course. And we must have a purse for the child.”
Amelie thought of the ledgers in her office. “Don’t make it too extravagant. This year’s harvest was much better than the last two, but it was hardly a bumper crop.”
Henriette stopped in mid-stride, the doting grandmother-to-be replaced by the shrewd countess. “How bad?”
“Not bad, but the farmers say it won’t be up to the amount we’re used to, either. They estimate we’ve had an eight percent decrease in yield.”
“Drat.” The duchess resumed her pacing, but this time her smile was gone. “I thought the spring rains had taken care of the drought.”
“They eased it, yes, but it will take more than one wet spring to fully heal the land.” Amelie toyed with her comb. “You might want to reconsider my proposal that we send a request to the Aeris chapter house. If we can have a team of their mages generate a steady amount of rain through the winter—”
Henriette shook her head, two delicate curls bouncing with the movement. “The Aeris don’t believe in interfering with natural weather patterns. And even if I could talk them into it, it doesn’t sound as if we have enough money to pay their infernal fees.” Her hazel eyes narrowed in thought. “Besides, we don’t need Aeris help with this. We can install an irrigation system fed directly from the Lier. And our farm workers can create the irrigation channels, with help from us as required.”
Creating a ditch via magic was certainly one of the easier tasks a Terra mage such as her mother or herself could perform. “That would certainly be practical,” Amelie allowed. “But how would we go about planning such a thing, much less installing it?”
“I’ve already contacted the Earl of Bertrix. He’s willing to lend us some engineers for the project.”
Amelie felt her mouth drop open and closed it quickly. “You must be joking. You loathe Stefan Vandenberghe. I’ve heard you call him a dirt-grubbing troglodyte to his face.”
Henriette flicked long fingers. “That was only because he called me a high-handed harridan. But I’ll admit the blasted man is clever when it comes to earthworks. He’s already agreed to help us plan and install an irrigation system for a share in our harvests over the next five years.”
Amelie ran the figures in her head. Much depended on what the earl considered a share, but if Lierdhe’s fields had access to guaranteed water then their house could afford to give up a certain percent of each harvest. And the earl, ruler of a dry and rocky province on the border of Ypres near Munoz, was known for his brilliant aqueducts and other strategies to transfer water across his lands. If anyone could design a functioning irrigation system for the rolling fields of Lierdhe, it was the Earl of Bertrix. “Does that include this harvest as well?”
“No, not until the system has been installed and is working properly. I’ve invited the earl and his entourage to come to the Harvest Ball so that we can discuss terms. You’ll have a full report on this year’s harvest by then, of course.”
The Harvest Ball. Amelie wanted to groan in dismay. In previous years her mother had used the ball to trot potential suitors in front of her like some fairy tale come to stiff, uncomfortable life. She’d been allowed to skip it last year due to her doomed betrothal to Clement, but clearly her mother had the matrimonial bit in her teeth again.
The only boon about that was that Henriette had been forbidden from having any say in Amelie’s future consort, by both royal and magical decree. Lette Melliers, the Terra Grand Magistra of Ypres, was an old friend of her mother’s but hadn’t been happy about Henriette’s actions in the spring. Both King Matthias and Lette had laid down the law; Amelie’s husband would be her choice, and her choice only.
Which meant she would be expected to make an appearance at the ball and view whatever potential suitors could be scrounged up, as well as sit in on the negotiations with Vandenberghe and provide facts and figures as needed. Her head started to hurt at the thought. “I take it we’re lodging Vandenberghe’s people at Ardenhaal?”
Henriette sighed. “Unfortunately. I’ve also asked the king to send that lawyer of his to assist us with the negotiations.”
That came as a surprise. Counselor Alain LaPorte was the lawyer who had advised King Matthias on the unlawfulness of Sibeal’s betrothal agreement. Amelie wondered if her mother was going for some kind of record in personal shocks. “I thought you called him a duplicitous snake.”
“He is. But if I’m to deal with Vandenberghe, I’d prefer to have a duplicitous snake working on my side.” Henriette pointed the rolled-up letter at her. “As you take on more of my duties, you’ll learn that ruling a province isn’t all pretty dresses and balls. You’ll often be called upon to do things that go against your personal preferences.”
Such as marry a rich boor. “Forgive me for not being able to stomach Clement Reynard, Mother,” Amelie said through her teeth. “But if you had gone to the king as I’d begged you—”
Henriette held up a hand. “We don’t need to rehash this, Amelie. The de Clerqs still rule in Lierdhe and Sibeal is happily married with a baby on the way. Things have turned out for the best, which is all I can ask for.”
Which was completely false. Her mother could, and would, ask for the sun and moon on a silver chain if the mood struck her. “If you want me to have the latest figures for the negotiations, I’d best get back to work tomorrow. Was there anything else you wanted to tell me?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Henriette said, attention straying back to the letter in her hand. “I’ll let you get ready for bed. Good night, my dear.”
So much for that. She tried for a polite smile, but her mouth wouldn’t cooperate. “Good night, Maman.”
The countess swept out of the room. After a moment, Jeanette came back in, one hand behind her back. “Is the coast clear?”
Amelie slumped on her chair. “As clear as it’ll ever be. I’m sorry about her scolding.”
The maid shook her head. “It was my own fault, milady. My mother always said my tongue will get me into trouble one of these days. Now, shall I help you get ready for bed?”
After the disasters of the day, all she wanted was to be left alone. “No. I think I can do that much for myself. But thank you.”
With a surprising hesitancy, Jeanette approached the vanity, bringing out what she had hidden behind her back. “Then I’ll give you this, milady.”
She put down a small plate that held an iced almond cake. Amelie stared at the pastry, her throat tightening. Someone had remembered, after all.
“I—thank you,” she stammered. “That was very kind of you, Jeanette.”
“I know it’s not much, but everyone should have a cake on their birthday.” The maid gave her a sympathetic smile. “Many happy returns, milady, and good night.”
With a quick curtsey she was gone. Blinking back tears, Amelie reached out and broke off a bit of the cake, wondering if its sweetness could offset the sour thing that had become her life.
Happy twentieth birthday to me.