Into the GardenJoelle Charbonneau
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Books by Joelle Charbonneau
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“Lady Betrice,” Seer Zachar called. “Come in, please.”
Betrice hesitated outside the door to the head seer’s dwelling.
Lady. Betrice’s heart clenched. She hadn’t been referred to as Lady Betrice since her first steps into the Village of Night.
Almost two years ago she was escorted through the winding paths that snaked throughout the village and the enormous hillside to this very building, which had looked to her like little more than a wooden shack. It was not the kind of place anyone of importance lived in—or so she was taught. Yet, the Seer charged with supervising the training of every potential oracle who stepped through the boundaries of the village lived exactly here. In the small, square cabin no bigger than any others scattered around the base of the hill.
Everything about this place had turned out to be different from Betrice’s home in Grace City where the buildings were made of stone and her uncle’s windmills made water run and lights glow for all who resided in town. Everyone in her uncle’s part of the kingdom in the district to the north focused on gold and influence. In this part of Eden, they were focused on the stars.
Here no one schemed over money and power. They knew their fortunes were already written.
And here no one forced her against the wall of her room with a hand over her mouth, daring her to scream. Here, she was blissfully alone.
“Seer Zachar.” She took a halting step from the dwindling light of the day into the sparse space. A scroll of a star chart was unfurled on the wooden table nearest the hearth. A fire crackled despite the early summer warmth. Considering what tomorrow was, she could only think of two possible reasons for her to be standing here. One of them left her too cold for any fire to warm.
She bowed her head for the customary show of respect, then forced herself to look directly into his dark eyes as she would have never dared do with her High Lord uncle. To the seers, everyone in the Village of Night were equals because all, no matter talent or age or influence, were seekers of truth. More than anything she wanted to be equal and have the control of her own life that equality would bring.
“You wished to speak with me?”
“A runner from Derio arrived today.” He sighed. “He brought a missive from High Lord Xavier.”
Her legs trembled under the flowing white she wore. Her uncle hadn’t forgotten the approach of her sixteenth birthday—and that tomorrow she would be considered a true woman. Her time in the Village of Night was up. He was calling her home as he had sworn to do. And when he saw her again . . .
“I request the Artis root test,” she blurted out. “I believe my place is here.”
This was the home she wanted. She could be a seer if they just gave her more time. The recurring nightmare that had brought her here had to mean something more than sleepless nights.
“High Lord Xavier said he was sending an escort and that you should expect them tomorrow. You are to return to Derio when they arrive.” Seer Zachar held out the scroll that was clenched in his brown, wrinkled hand.
She backed away from it like it was a snake preparing to strike. “But, if I take the test and pass . . .”
“You will not pass,” Seer Zachar said gently, but she felt the slap as surely as if he had struck her. “Lady Betrice, we both know you do not have the talent to be seer.”
“But my dreams—”
“Are not signs of second sight or skill with the elements.” He turned and shuffled toward the fire. “They are just terrible dreams, albeit more vivid than most. I believe they are echoes of a vision you were born with. Perhaps the talent runs in your bloodline. That may be why you were given this one repeating vision that haunts your sleep. But you have worked with our guides and sat under the stars for almost two years. Your mind has not opened.”
“But please, I have to try.” She rushed forward, her hands clasped in front of her. “Some students of the stars take years before they unlock their talent. I just need more time.”
Her mentor didn’t understand. She had to stay. She needed to stay. She would rather take the Artis Root test and fail than to once again be under her uncle’s control.
Her hands shook. Her heart beat faster and faster as Seer Zachar fiddled with the small scroll—her uncle’s seal embossed on it in red and gold wax. “Please,” she begged.
“My dear, if I thought time was the key to unlocking your ability to calling the winds and read our reflection in the lights above, I would keep you here as long as necessary. My authority is such that the High Lord could not compel you to leave my tutelage and protection. But I cannot willfully deceive the High Lord. And he is calling you home.”
Grace City was not her home. It would never be her home.
Betrice clenched the scroll tight. She tried to breathe deep to find the calm seers taught her. But the churning inside grew stronger. Her throat tightened, making it impossible to speak. She was powerless in all things—as she always was. She had no talent. No power. She was nothing.
Seer Zachar placed a gentle hand on her arm and waited until she lifted her eyes to meet his once again. “When you first arrived, Seeress Neri said you would not stay. She was right as she so often is.
“Betrice, if you were to remain here, your future would be no more than an echo—a sound whose source had long disappeared. You are not meant to be one who quietly listens to sounds of the past. You are meant to leave the Village of Night and find your true voice.”
She had none.
She was a High Lord’s ward. At his disposal. His thing to use and throw away.
She shuddered. If her dreams hadn’t scared him so badly, he wouldn’t have let her go in the first place. And he had warned her what to expect when she returned.
“Please,” she whispered. Tears fell. She tasted the salt in them and sobbed as she placed her hand over his and squeezed with desperation. “Let me take the test. Let the Gods decide my fate. Whatever they choose is what I want. Whatever their choice, it is better than . . . what would be.”
She’d seen three aspiring seers take the Artis Test under the glow of the stars. Each time an aspirant drank the tea in view of the entire village. All three collapsed in the center of the Star Wheel. Only the first and the third rose again, and passed the test.
The second had claimed everyone passed the test no matter their skill and demanded his right to prove his belief. He paid the price. The man never took another breath again. Betrice had helped bury him on the other side of the great hill.
“Lady Betrice, you have never officially been one of our society,” he said, taking his leathery hand out of her grasp. “You have been allowed to participate in training without pledging yourself to our order as a favor to the High Lord of Derio. It is not your right to request the Artis Test. As of now, you are no longer required to wear the white of our order. The clothes you brought with you have been returned to your dwelling. If I remember correctly, they were quite lovely.”
She started to plead again, but before the words passed her lips Seer Zachar turned his back and moved toward the fire.
“Lady Betrice,” he quietly said, “I look forward to seeing you one last time in the circle tonight at the calling of the stars. Perhaps the lights in the sky will have something to say to you before you leave the Village of Night.”
Betrice recognized the orders as surely as if it was a command given by her uncle
or the king. No matter how the seers said that everyone here was equal, the lie was clear. Seer Zachar wielded power over her life much as her uncle did. She was simply a pawn. The smallest piece on the chessboard and the one that everyone used to their advantage. The one sacrificed without a thought should a better opportunity come along.
Without another word, she walked out the door.
A breeze tugged at the hair she had tied at the nape of her neck. Was it a natural draft, or was someone calling the wind right now?
Betrice glanced around, looking for Haymin. He spent almost all his waking time atop the hill, preparing for his test. All the seers said he would pass. He was important.
Haymin would get to stay here in the village, as would all the others. Day after day they would walk the paths through the grass and flowers that snaked around the enormous hill of the Seers and stare at the sky searching for signs of danger without ever looking at the ground with concern for their own safety. Why would they? Guards from the seven districts patrolled the Village of Night to keep the Seers of Eden safe.
The seers and their skills were worth protecting.
A mere girl was not.
Lifting her flowing white skirts, she hurried down the paths that led to the cabin she shared with three other students of the stars. Seer Zachar said the escort from her uncle would arrive tomorrow. If she did not wish to go with him, she would have to leave today.
Soon it would be dark. She would have to work fast. The calling of the stars would commence once night had fallen. Seer Zachar had already informed her that he would notice her absence. Betrice would have to make her preparations now and slip away after the daily ceremony ended, when the seers and aspirants moved off to their own favorite locations to gaze at the heavens until the sun rose again.
None of the girls she shared her dwelling with were inside when she arrived. All three were likely finishing their studies. The belongings Betrice had brought with her from Charity Keep were, as promised, lying on the narrow cot she had been assigned on her first day.
Holding up one of the gowns with its elaborately decorated corseted bodices, she realized how much taller she had gotten. And the necklines would most certainly fit a bit differently now than they had then. But she didn’t want to put them on. The gold and silver beading and rich fabrics would immediately mark her as a member of Eden’s nobility. A noble woman traveling alone would be memorable and an easy mark for anyone untrustworthy. In attempting to escape one terrible path, the last thing she wanted was to stumble onto another.
She folded the finery carefully before stowing each piece in the travel bag someone had placed at the foot of her cot. She would have no money of any kind when she fled the Village of Night. The gowns would have value if she could locate a buyer for them.
Beneath the clothes she found it. The signet ring suspended from the gold chain.
Betrice picked up the heavy iron ring that had once graced her father’s callused hand. Two swords crossed above a bird standing in the middle of fire. When she was little, her father told her the phoenix was part of his coat of arms because their family always rose from the flames.
No matter how desperate she became, this she would never sell.
With shaking hands, she slipped the thick chain over her head. The weight settled on her chest, and she blinked back tears, wishing more than anything her father hadn’t died delivering a message to the king. Had he lived . . .
No. Thinking that way wouldn’t help her. She had to keep moving.
It took almost no time at all to pack her things. Her drinking cup. The silver brush set that had belonged to her mother. The gowns from her days as a lady as well as two of flowing white that she had grown accustomed to wearing here. A thin gray blanket. The blue and silver beaded slippers were too small, but they, too, might be able to fetch a price if—
The door opened and Kiara, the most recent addition to the dwelling’s inhabitants, skipped in. Her red curls bounced and her smile was bright when she spotted Betrice.
“What did Seer Zachar want?” Kiara asked as her eyes went to the bag on Betrice’s cot. Her smile disappeared. “Is he sending you away? Are you going away like Jichard?”
The tremble in Kiara’s small voice made Betrice want to sink to her knees and weep. “No one is sending me away,” she lied. “And this isn’t like Jichard.” The boy had shown great talent, but one day was simply gone. Whatever he had seen in the stars had caused him to flee. The seers looked for him for days. Betrice would have no one from the village looking for her. “My family has summoned me home. Since I don’t have the same kind of talent you do, there is no reason for me to stay.”
“But we’re your family, too.” Kiara sniffled.
“That’s why I’ll never forget you.” Betrice turned her back on the girl’s glistening eyes, picked up the slippers, and began to shove them into the leather travel bag.
“What are those?”
“These are the shoes I wore the day my carriage came through the gate. I didn’t get to wear them after that. Could you imagine me trying to walk up and down the hill in them?”
“No,” Kiara giggled. “But they’re pretty.”
Yes, they were.
Betrice looked down at the shoes and made a decision. “Help me pull the curtains.” She lit several candles from the one that was burning on the table near the hearth, then hurried to the window closest to her and pulled the cord so the heavy covering dropped to obscure the light. Across the small cabin, Kiara did the same.
Kiara then turned back toward Betrice with expectation shining on her face.
With night falling, no one would question the darkening of the windows. Everyone was required to pull their curtains before the calling of the stars so no light other than that provided by nature could obscure the view. And now no one would chance to see when Betrice held out the slippers to her small friend and smiled. “I’d like you to have them.”
Kiara reached out, then frowned. “But they’re yours.” The girl carefully put her hands behind her back. As if the temptation to touch would be too great if she didn’t.
Betrice shook her head. “They are too small for my feet now. I’d like you to have them. They’ll help you remember me even if you won’t be able to wear them.” She held out the slippers again.
“I can wear them when I sleep.” Kiara giggled and reached out for the glistening shoes. Betrice’s fingers brushed the girl’s, and Kiara’s eyes went wide before going blank. Kiara’s face drained of color. She was completely still. Then she blinked, and the color returned as she looked up at Betrice.
“You had a vision?” After two years in the Village of Night, Betrice knew what a seer’s trance looked like.
She wasn’t supposed to ask. It wasn’t her place. But Betrice had to know. “What did you see?”
Kiara bit her lip and scrunched her nose. “I don’t know. I’m not good at this yet. It all went so fast and I haven’t learned how to remember it all. But I saw you.”
“Me.” Betrice’s breath caught. “What about me?”
Kiara shook her head and clutched the shoes to her chest. “I don’t know. There were children and a bad storm. Wind and betrayal. There was also death and a gold throne and darkness and love.”
Kiara nodded. “I saw a flame. One that will burn hotter than the sun and change the Kingdom of Eden forever.”
They both jumped as bells sounded. Kiara dropped the slippers and scrambled to grab them back up again.
“I have to go. I’m supposed to help carry the food for the calling.” Kiara jammed the shoes under her pillow. She flashed Betrice a smile before hurrying out the door.
Hope flared in Betrice’s chest. Kiara was gifted. Everyone spoke of her great talent and her lack of ability to control it. Love. Could it be? But there was no way that vision could come true if Betrice went to live in her uncle’s Keep. Maybe the vision meant that her plan would succeed.
That this time, she would truly get away.
All doubts about striking out on her own fled as Betrice grabbed her saddlebag. She would hide it behind some rocks on the hill. Going back down the path to the village early during the calling of the stars might draw someone’s notice, which she could ill afford. But no one would question her going to her favorite secluded place on the hill to meditate. She’d collect her bag then and slip off into the night.
The sky was smoky gray. Figures dressed in white were trekking up the path to the top of the hillside, toward a stone arch that led to the circle. Betrice clutched her bag and veered to the west side of the hill, looking for the group of stones she had so often sat on when she needed to think.
There. She quickened her steps as the gray of the night quickly turned to black. The bell would ring again soon. She had to hurry.
Betrice dropped the bag behind the largest of the rocks. Then she turned on her heel and raced back toward the path lined with Foxfire mushrooms. Now that it was dark, the fungus glowed a pale, ghostly green. The light wasn’t bright, but it was enough to guide the way for Betrice and the others hurrying to join the evening ceremony.
She put her hands on her sides and worked to catch her breath as she walked through the archway into the stone circle. Foxfire glowed here in the circle, too. The moon shone brighter still as Betrice found a place to stand and waited with her heart pounding off the seconds. Each moment that passed was one closer to her leaving this place of safety to set off for . . . where?
Her mother had grown up in the district of Orgo. Her father always said her mother was a perfect example of the humility that was nurtured and flourished there. But while there might be someone who fondly remembered her mother’s family, Orgo was the northeastern most district in the kingdom. Getting there on foot—alone—seemed impossible. Even in summer when the Xhelozi were hibernating in the mountains. Irae and Bisog were closer, but Adderton was nearer still. King Adham had begun to talk to Adderton ambassadors recently. Tensions were easing between the two kingdoms if one was to believe the reports of visitors who came to the Village of Night. A girl from Eden might be more welcome in the neighboring kingdom now than when Adderton first sheltered the remainders of the Bastian family.