The Vine Witch: Book Review

The Vine Witch (Vine Witch #1) by Luanne G. Smith

The Vine Witch is best served with a large glass of wine (your choice of vintage). The perfect Guilty pleasure for those cozy October nights.

The Vine Witch

Written by Luanne G. Smith

Published 2019 by 47North

Downloaded on Kindle through Amazon’s FirstReads Program

Fantasy/Paranormal Fiction

Elena is a vine witch, more than a connoisseur of good wine, she has the ability to cultivate, in every magical sense of the word, the grapes of a vineyard to grow, harvest, and ferment the best wines the Chanceaux Valley has ever seen. Unfortunately, the wine business in 19th century (albeit an alternate universe) France has many rivals and Elena finds herself the victim of a curse, living as a frog for seven years before finally reversing the curse and returning home to find her beloved vineyard on the brink of ruin AND bought out by a lawyer of all people named Jean-Paul Martel, a man who values science over magic.

Smith does an excellent job inviting us into her new world of vine witches. I got serious Neil Gaiman vibes a la Stardust. The magical world is woven into the Industrial Revolution of Europe during the 19th century during the rise of modern science and technology’s popularity.

Besides creating a dynamic new world, Smith gives us a rollicking adventure, a delightful bit of mystery with a very satisfying twist, and a bit of romance to warm these chilly fall evenings.

I am very interested to see what subsequent books in this world will be like as it appears to be the first in a series. Fans of Stardust, Harry Potter, and alternate universe historical fiction like steampunk will enjoy this debut.

My Rating

4/5 Stars

Echo North: Book Review

Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer

Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer.

A Good Faith Effort for Echo North

Echo North looked like an appealing retelling of the Norse tale and one of my favorite fairy tales, East of the Sun, West of the Moon. I quickly added it to my Amazon cart, anticipating a quick, enjoyable read during my maternity leave. The book did not disappoint on being a quick read.

The retelling was done fairly well, just enough originality threaded in to keep it from feeling like every other retelling. It is no East by Edith Pattou but the author made a good effort as an homage. There were some great elements to this story, but the author fell short of fully realizing her story’s potential. Some characters were memorable, but the important ones often felt flat and gray.

[Spoilers Below]

Fairy Tale Retelling

Echo North reimagines the fairy tale, East of the Sun, West of the Moon, with influences from Beauty and the Beast and Tam Lin. I love a good fairy tale retelling, I’m a huge Robin McKinley fan. In some important ways, Echo North was respectful of the genre of YA retellings. However, the YA fairy tale retellings market peaked several years ago and the burden fell on the author to justify this book’s existence so far past the height of the genre’s relevance. While the book was moderately enjoyable, it was also disappointing.

Echo North Highs

What made the book stand out the most was what felt like an underdeveloped plot twist the author just realized at the end of writing the book (and didn’t bother returning to the beginning and middle to fully capitalize on). Although there is something to be said of subtly and surprise twists, this was so out of the blue it was nearly laughable. As such, the dual timelines could have made the book so special had the author taken more time to develop it.

Another high was the main character’s appearance. I like how her angst about her appearance, and the superstition her appearance ignited in those around her, drove the story.

Echo North Lows

Hal, the love interest, is probably the dullest romantic character I’ve ever read. I felt no chemistry between him and Echo and wasn’t necessarily rooting for his rescue by the end of the novel. So Echo could have saved herself 10 years and gone straight home for all the affection they showed each other. There were no heart pounding moments and no knuckle biting romantic scenes that justified Echo’s feelings or actions towards Hal.

Mokosh is perhaps the most underserved character the author introduced. She was interesting, mysterious with a depth I envied for the love interest. Unfortunately the author let this beautiful character’s story fizzle out with no real resolution.

My Rating

3/5 Stars

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Novel Ambitions 2: Another #FlashFictionFriday Sneak Peek at My Current WIP

Viviane awoke to a shout from Rose, who’d sat up so quickly from her sleep that she’d forgotten the height of the bunk and banged her head on the wood. Cursing, Rose rubbed her head vigorously and glanced at Viviane before falling back to the bed in relief.

The vision, Viviane remembered. She’d seen her in some trouble on deck at night. Viviane had tossed and turned, sweating in the stale cabin air, stomach heaving with the contents of the small chunks of bread she’d eaten for dinner. She’s wanted fresh air so badly, could taste the salt air that leaked in so excruciatingly slightly from the small porthole above their heads. She could imagine the relief she’d feel gulping air, driving away the stink of the old wood boards, the damp wool blanket, and her own bile that seemed to sit at the back of her throat.

But she’d stayed. Even when she wanted to unbolt the door and jump into the sea from the misery of it. The fear she’d seen in Rose’s eyes only rivaled the fear she’d seen in them when she described her visions to the Shepherdess. It wasn’t a suggestion. Rose knew it to be her fate if she crossed that threshold in the dark of the night. Viviane wanted to prove that her visions weren’t set in stone, that she had free will and she would save herself by heeding the warning. Nothing would drag Viviane outside, no matter how ill she felt. At least not until the sun rose and she could find relief safely.

They made themselves as presentable as possible, no mirror available in the small space. Viviane dressed Rose’s hair and refused Rose’s offer to do that same for her. She opted to braid her hair in a long braid that she kept draped over her shoulder, partially obscuring the mask that was sure to draw attention and superstitious interest.

Smoothing their ruffled gowns, they unlocked the door and stepped out. The hallway was dim. A ladder led them up into the bright sunshine on the deck. They squinted into the light, covering their eyes with their hands as they sought out Christian among the men scurrying over the ship’s deck, engaged with predetermined chores. One short man with a frazzled beard streaked with gray-barked at them to move as he stomped past with a thick rope slung over his shoulder. He ran towards the mast, jumping up and clinging to it before scurrying up as deftly as a squirrel.

“Wow,” Rose breathed. “I did not think a creature like that could move in such a way.” Viviane covered her mouth, stifling a giggle. They moved to the railing and Viviane raised her head to the wind, breathing in deeply and exhaling all the stale air from below deck from her lungs. It felt like magic, the effect of the crisp, damp breeze blowing over her face and filling her chest.

The sea, a slim channel of water compared to the stories of seemingly unending water of the oceans, seemed like it could stretch on to eternity. It was dark blue in the bright light of day, capped with white waves that made the ship vibrate when they collided. But watching the static horizon in the distance, Viviane did not feel sick at the jolting movements. She felt a little like she was flying, standing there with only the wood banister pressed into her stomach, no obstructions in her line of sight. They crested a wave, and the ship sailed up and then dipped, and she allowed herself a laugh at the thrill it gave her.

Rose, by contrast, had turned a little green at the sight and clung to the rail. She obviously would prefer to return to their cabin below, safe in the hollows of their bunks. But Viviane could not imagine returning to the interior of the ship with the view spread before her.

Viviane thought, if she could never return home, perhaps she could turn pirate and explore the sea, maybe even take to the open ocean. Pirates were allowed eye patches and such, so maybe her mask wouldn’t seem so out of place among them.

Remembering the thin wooden shell belatedly, she grasped it, ensuring it was firmly tied in place despite the gusting winds and jolting deck. As she felt it, she noticed the attention they were getting. The sailors moved slower as they passed, sizing the girls up. Their cloudy red eyes lingered on Viviane though, on the mask and they frowned. Some made signs to ward against evil. Viviane felt her joy dissipate and her shoulders curled in again, trying to make herself smaller.

“Good morning, Mademoiselles!” Christian greeted them cheerfully as he raced to meet them on deck. He was panting, covered in a sheen of sweat already from the morning’s labors. But he was grinning broadly and seemed unperturbed by his promised assistance.

Viviane thought it was odd, that a nobleman’s son would so willingly commit to physical labor. He had trained with the King and his soldiers, she knew. But that was different. That was considered honorable by others in their circle, almost a sport. This kind of labor was backbreaking and grueling and humbling. The established hierarchy placing him firmly at the bottom, a grunt to be bossed around by men who couldn’t even read.

But he seemed so alive in spite of it. Happy even, to be working with the sailors. For the sailors. Viviane corrected as one barked an order at him and he scurried away to complete the task, throwing a grin and promise to meet them for breakfast back over his shoulder.

“It isn’t normal, no,” Rose answered her unspoken question. “Eden would never allow sailors to boss him so. But he is a little more petted it would seem. That’s probably my fault, and Father’s.” Rose laughed.

Viviane laughed too. She couldn’t picture Eden in the same situation, sleeves rolled up and sweat dripping from his temples. He was a royal, half-child as he was. He was a full-blooded dandy.

“I miss him,” Rose continued. “I wonder if he made it back to the castle safely. And if anyone noticed his disappearance so close to ours.”

“I wonder what they will do when they notice ours,” Viviane added. Would they question her mother? No doubt they would. And the miller, perhaps. Others knew of the escape route, they would know where it led. Could he deceive them into thinking he knew nothing of them?

Perhaps not. Viviane sent up a prayer that the miller would avoid imprisonment and punishment for their flight. The Princess didn’t need another’s fate lying heavy on her conscious.

“Hopefully we will hear something when we reach land and find asylum,” Rose answered. If Eden was able to return unnoticed. If he could get a letter out. If that letter found its way to wherever they were headed.

There were so many ifs. Viviane felt a little hopeless as the questions and conditions piled up.

Christian returned, noting their concerned expressions. He reached for their hands, taking one of their in each of his. “We will make it,” he promised, his face set with determination. “We will change this vision, save your family,” he nodded at Rose. “And you will return home to your mother,” he nodded at Viviane, squeezing her fingers gently, allowing his thumb to stroke her palm in secret.

Viviane flushed but met his gaze. She nodded back, gulping to keep the tears from escaping.

Christian, Viviane, and Rose ate breakfast with Captain Ashe who, despite his grizzled appearance, was educated and soft-spoken. He could tell they were not telling the truth of their identities, could see the excellent breeding in Rose and Christian, their expensive educations, their health that marked a lifetime of always having enough to eat and a warm bed.

He noted Viviane’s mask with the same suspicious glances as the sailors but said nothing, directing most of his conversation to Rose and Christian who were trained diplomats in any case, Viviane was relieved by his inattention and ate her breakfast heartily, empty from the scant dinner and her nighttime seasickness. Breakfast consisted of thick porridge and cured ham. Viviane was not complaining as she gulped down the steaming spoonful, feeling her belly fill pleasantly. The meat was precious, in short supply for the servants of their castle and usually disguised with gravy in stews that could be stretched to accommodate them for more extended periods of time.

It was well-preserved and flavorful. Viviane savored the salty taste on her tongue, before swallowing. She was enjoying the food so much she did not hear herself addressed until Rose nudged her foot beneath the table.

“Captain Ashe wanted to know if you were enjoying your breakfast?” Rose repeated, smothering a laugh with a cloth napkin.

Viviane flushed and nodded vigorously trying not to choke as she swallowed the mouthful she’d been appreciating.

“I can see you get a pretty simple fare where you are from as well,” he said to her directly. His tone was not accusing, and she relaxed as she swallowed finally and could speak.

“Yes, our chef does his best but the winter seasons are always a little difficult,” Viviane replied.

“The Lady has a chef?” The captain asked, eyebrows raised at Rose. She’d explained their positions in no great detail to the captain while Viviane had been devouring her meal.

“My family does, yes.” She replied.

“But you choose to travel quite simply.” He pressed, gesturing to the cargo ship’s hold. Even the captain’s quarters where they ate was a plain room, the wood rough-hewn and pieced together without thought for ornamentation or polish. “Your family could not afford to place you on one of the passenger ships?” His eyes jumped to Christian who had worked out the details of their passage, fully aware of his bargain to pay their way through his own labor.

“Honestly,” Rose began.

Viviane felt her spine tingle, and her blood ran cold. Would she tell him the truth so quickly?

“My family doesn’t approve of my journey.” Rose lied, but not quite lied, smoothly. “They would prefer I stayed home but told me if I could find some way to procure my own passage I would travel to the continent. I seek training from a master, you see.”

“What sort of master?” The captain asked, his tone switching from wary to conversational.

“A master of magic,” Rose replied.

Viviane started at that. That was the truth. And a dangerous fact.

The captain only stared at her, swirling a glass of brandy in one hand. The liquid was thick and clung to the sides of the glass.

“Magic,” he did not sound surprised. Or confused. Captain Ashe merely studied her, tasting the word on his lips.

“Why do you seek a Master of Magic?” he asked finally.

Rose grinned back at him, charming and pretty. Poised as a Queen and very nearly one.

“To learn it.” She admitted.

Still, the captain was not shocked. He did stand though, moving slowly, almost lazy.

He closed the door to his cabin which had been left open to catch the fresh ocean air, barking an order at an errant sailor before closing it slowly. Intentionally.

He turned to face the small band, studying them. They were young and inexperienced travelers. It was apparent how vulnerable they were, especially shut in Captain Ashe’s quarters, surrounded by men loyal to him, surrounded beyond that by miles of sea.

Viviane gripped Rose’s hand under the table. She squeezed her fingers back, in reassurance or realization of their predicament, Viviane could not tell.

“I knew you were one of us,” he said, sitting back down in his chair and scooting forward to rest his elbows on the table before him. Again, he was casual, unhurried.

“What?” Viviane was the one stunned.

Captain Ashe turned striking purple eyes on her. “A witch,” he clarified. “Or wizard in my case,” he chuckled, waving away the issue of semantics.

Christian and Viviane were dumbstruck, sitting silently and wondering how they had ended up here, face to face with a ship captain wizard.

Rose leaned forward too, propping her elbows on the table and placing her chin in her hand, observing him coolly. She seemed unfazed by his revelation.

“I know you knew. I felt the same. I felt that you possessed magic. Strong magic, from the scent of it.” Rose’s nose twitched as she noticeably sniffed the air around them. Viviane flushed, trying to surreptitiously sniff the air as well. All she could smell was the ham, the grease all that remained in a golden-brown smear on her plate.

“You can smell it?” Christian asked in amazement.

“Kind of,” Rose said to him. “I can smell something, and I only now realized what it was, thanks to a vision.”

“You had another vision?” Viviane asked. She hadn’t even noticed. It had been nothing like her unusual behavior the night before, the panic, the undiluted fear of what she’d seen.

Rose nodded. “Of Captain Ashe, his powers, and how people with magic identify each other.” With a knowing look at Viviane, she added, “And how he should sleep with a dagger under his pillow tonight to avoid an attempt at mutiny.”

A Court of Wings and Ruin: Book Review

A Court of Wings and Ruin Book Cover and Link to Amazon Affiliate PageA Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas

I don’t know where to begin with this review. Sarah J. Maas is everything I aspire to be as a writer. I fell in love with this series when the first book was released in 2015. A Court of Wings and Ruin is an excellent culmination of all the emotions and switchbacks this series has thrust upon me. Not to say the 3rd book wraps up all the storylines neatly, it does not (hence Book #4 or 3.1 according to Goodreads, A Court of Frost and Starlight which I hope will address the fates of a few more of our beloved characters).

Also, the film rights to this book series have been purchased so look for this already incredibly popular series to explode on the mainstream very soon.

A Court of Wings and Ruin Review (And Much Spoiling)

I read Book #2, A Court of Mist and Fury when it was first released in 2016, so there were a couple of years between the last time I entered the Court of Thorns and Roses world. A Court of Wings and Ruin picks up where A Court of Mist and Fury ended. Feyre is spirited back to the Spring Court. Tamlin believes she has been bewitched by Rhysand, that she still loves him, and that he can heal what he considers to be broken within her.

However, unbeknownst to him, Feyre is tricking him and his Court. She bides her time, hides her power, waiting to unleash her revenge for ripping her away from what we know to be her mate. And for betraying her sisters to Hybern.

Feyre revenge is succinct and timely, but Lucien becomes entangled just as she unleashes it. Forced to take him along, they flee through the courts, their magic dampened by faebane. They sneak through Lucien’s own home, the Autumn Court and by his murderous family. They must travel on foot until they can reach a place where their magic is restored enough to winnow home.

This part is full of harrowing near misses, including their discovery by Lucien’s older brothers including Eris, who we know to be the Morrigan’s former betrothed.

After a battle on the ice in the Winter Court, Cassian and Azriel swoop in to save the day as per their usual. Feyre’s power as High Lady and her status as a Made creation of the High Lords in which she absorbed their gifts is revealed.

Home At Last

Feyre and Rhys’ reunion is as satisfying as we all hoped it would be, full of lovemaking and tenderness. This part reaffirms their mating bond. They belong together, and this scene leaves no doubt. Especially in such stark contrast to the violence Feyre experiences at Tamlin’s court from the disgruntled High Lord of Spring.

Her reunion with her friends is as satisfying. We are reintroduced to Mor and Amren, and the group’s dynamic is as entertaining as always. New to the Court of Dreams brood are newly Made Nesta and Elain, and the journey roughened Lucien who Cassian and Azriel also rescued.

Though Nesta’s spirit remains unwaveringly defiant, Elain suffers as a Fae. Though her bond with Lucien was revealed in ACOMAF, she still loves her human fiance. The book’s treatment of Elain is the only thing that borders on slightly tedious. The author does give us a few thrilling moments with this character that makes the set up worth the wait.

A Sleeping Evil Awakened

The majority of the book focuses on their plans to stop Hybern from destroying the wall that divides Fae from humans. The High Lords make another appearance after the Summer Court is attacked by Hybern’s forces, his intent towards their destruction becoming evident.

Unfortunately, that means convening the High Lords of Autumn and Spring as well. Beron, Lucien’s sociopathic father, and Tamlin are the most reluctant High Lords to join an alliance against Hybern. Beron, out of self-interest and spite. Tamlin, for more obvious reasons. His armies are still unrecovered from Feyre’s sabotage.

The alliance discussions go as well as you’d expect from so many strong personalities. Throughout we glimpse more of Nesta’s power. She is connected to the Cauldron, having taken some of its power when she was Made. During the discussions, the Wall is destroyed by Hybern, and the alliance is tenuously agreed upon by the majority of the High Lords. Tamlin is non-responsive. Unbeknownst to Beron, Eris has made a deal with Rhys, Feyre, and Keir of the Court of Nightmares to ensure Beron’s compliance in exchange for their assistance in overthrowing his father to take his throne.

We are also handed some delightful sexual tension between Cassian and Nesta, who stubbornly refuses to acknowledge his interest for most of the book. Of course, that makes me ship them even harder.

At this point, Lucien has departed for the continent in an attempt to find the human queen, Vassa, who is cursed but commands a large army to try to gain her support in the war. Elain still mourns the loss of her fiance and the life she envisioned with him as humans.

The Wars Waged

A Court of Wings and Ruin continues with Rhys, Feyre, Cassian, Azriel, Mor, and Amren trying to find a way to defeat Hybern. In addition to pledging the support of the other HIgh Lords and their armies, they want to use Nesta’s power to wield the Cauldron against Hybern.

Nesta’s training and lessons from Amren on the Cauldron are tedious and not promising as Hybern continually moves forward, attacking and confusing the High Lords’ forces. The battles are bloody and detailed. Maas, who I am assuming has never been on a battlefield, describes them very well. What she captures even better is the fear in Feyre as she awaits the end, feeling for Rhys to make sure he is alive. As a military spouse, I appreciated that particular recognition of potential loss with each battle.

The final battle begins in the human realm at the coast. Hybern’s forces are enormous, and the High Lords are outnumbered. Even with Feyre and Rhys’ recruitment of the Others, the Weaver, the Bone Carver, and Bryaxis, they lose ground. Hybern pushes into them, and for a very long time, they seem poised to lose it all.

That Ending Though

At the final (nearly) moment, the fabled Drakon and Miryam arrive with their army of Seraphim. Also in tow, Queen Vassa’s human army. Elain’s former fiance, Beron, and Tamlin arrived with their armies earlier to aid the Court of Dreams. Even then they seem outmatched.

As I mentioned before, Elain’s general damsel-in-distress act was wearing a little thin, but she more than makes up for that in the end. Hybern locates Nesta who tries to use the Cauldron’s power as a distraction to draw him away. It works, a little too well.

While Feyre and Amren try to disable Hybern’s hold on the Cauldron’s power, Nesta battles the man himself. But Hybern has their father, the human who led an armada of others, to fight against him. She has little control and quickly loses ground, especially when Hybern breaks their father’s neck, killing him instantly. She finally throws herself atop Cassian in the last resort to either save them both or die together (again, shipping so hard).

At the moment before their death Elain comes alive and strikes the first, debilitating blow against King Hybern, taking him down. Nesta finishes the job, delivering the killing strike that she promised him after being Made.

That still isn’t the end though.

*Deep breath*

RHYS IS DEAD?!

Feyre, our main heroine, is the one who has to end this story. Amren had tricked her into grasping the Cauldron alone. She wants her to release her from the Fae body to which she had been bound. In order to save everyone. Feyre does and Amren makes a neat job of wiping Hybern’s now autonomous forces off the battlefield.

The act of releasing her destroys the Cauldron, splitting it into three pieces and leaving its power uncontained. The Cauldron is poised to consume the world they’d just saved.

Rhys arrives and together, they use their power to remake the Cauldron. But Rhys, already drained from fighting, dies from the effort.

So, at this point, I am sobbing. Feyre is sobbing. I am thinking of how cruel Maas is to make us fall in love with Rhys so much, to reunite Feyre with him only to rip him away. But lucky for us, especially me, this author seems to be a sucker for happy endings.

In the same way Feyre was revived and Made, the High Lords give a piece of their power to bring Rhys back. Tamlin is the final one, in his act of redemption. I can, almost, forgive him for everything to this point. Rhys stutters back to life, dragging Amren back with him. Though she is now pure Fae with no Other, she is still the same salty Amren we know and love.

Final Thoughts

I love this series and the world Maas created. My hope is that she returns to it beyond A Court of Frost and Starlight. I would like to read a prequel about Juriel, Drakon, and Miryam’s origins.

The writing was on point as always, though I’ve seen other reviews that criticized the writing as rushed and in need of further editing. I did not notice that. The book was polished, well-structured, and the characters felt genuine to previous books. I felt like this was an excellent ending to the main storyline, to Hybern’s reign of terror, Feyre’s rift with her siblings and father. The whole love triangle that was actually a love line with a dot outside was wrapped up nicely as well. Tamlin found some redemption and Feyre was able to release any guilt she may have had about leaving him for Rhysand.

5/5 Stars

Check out my other book reviews!

Heartless by Marissa Meyer

The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon

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TBR Additions: April

New month, new books! Well, most of them are new books. A couple of these additions just came under my radar though they have been published for a while.

Tags: language > writing, nonfiction

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Novel Ambitions: A #FlashFictionFriday Sneak Peek at My Current WIP

Changeling

Brief Synopsis (ATM): A princess, born with a large facial birthmark at the height of the persecution of witches in Europe, is switched with a servant child born the same night. The servant-turned-princess and princess-in-hiding grow up oblivious to the truth of their lineages.

Chapter 7

Viviane

Viviane brushed her hair, grimacing at the amount of straw collecting on her bedroom floor. The evening finally came, and she returned to her rooms for the night. Her mother was nowhere to be seen, no doubt the Queen had her sewing away in her chambers. Viviane diverted the princess but could never stand up to the Queen in the same way without facing retribution.
As more straw fell, Viviane allowed herself to feel mortified for the first time since fleeing the stables. Lord Christian found her sleeping in a horse’s stable, her hair tousled from sleep and not in the flattering way of Lord Christian’s.
More than that, she had not thought to hide her face, her mark, the evidence of some shortcoming within her soul. Her mask lay beside her in the stable, and she realized with a start she left it in her haste to escape his curious gaze.
She stared at herself in the slightly warped looking glass she and her mother inherited from a deceased castle servant in their small room. She plucked more straw from her long dark hair and gently ran a hand over her cheek in the low light of the evening. She did not often look at her reflection, she knew from the whispering and the way everyone avoided her that her looks fell far short of desirable. She was near a monster to many. She kept half the skin of her face masked, a carved wooden plaque worn smooth inside from the oil of her skin. It clung to her face using an earpiece and a strap wrapped around her skull under her hair. It became second nature to her to wear it, as much a part of her body as her arms and legs.
Viviane had been 12 and just begun her training as a servant in the castle when the mask was presented to her from Dianthe. Ever the intuitive one, though it had been far from subtle, she saw the glances, heard the gossip, noticed the sudden discomfort of the girl who lived in relative isolation and shelter by the other servants who sympathized with the girl, a visible representation of their own lack of freedom. She carved the mask from a fallen ash tree.
Ida frowned as Dianthe showed Viviane how to place the mask correctly over her face but said nothing. Viviane held back tears of gratitude, sadness, and relief as she saw her face for the first-time sans the mark, the wood becoming a blank, light brown plane on her face.
Viviane wore it continuously around the castle, easing the minds of the royal family who no longer noticed her under the mask. The only person who maintained suspicion was Friar Heinrich, a tight-lipped, white-haired priest left over from the Roman Inquisition to direct and dictate the religious lives of the royal family and their subjects. He watched her still, steadily, his eyes narrow slits as they followed her around whatever room she entered that he was in. He kept his cross clutched between him and more than once she had seen him muttering in Latin to himself, a prayer, she thought.
She would have to wait until darkness fell to retrieve it. For now, she was confined to her rooms, her chores for the evening delayed. No doubt she would receive a thrashing from the Mistress of Rooms for dodging her duties though the tenants of the castle would be unlikely to notice with the return of Lord Eden and his dashing friend, Lord Christian. The King demanded a ball for his son’s return, as though he needed an excuse to eat, drink, and make merry. The King’s well-known philandering was a thorn in the Queen’s side and the reason no doubt for the smell of whiskey that hung around her gowns Ida brought back to their rooms to repair.
Viviane fell back on the bed she shared with her mother and glanced out the window at the fading light. It was near dusk, perhaps going on seven. Her mother should surely return soon. Her ill health was well noted and the Queen, though demanding, did take care to not wholly exhaust her, allowing her a manservant to carry the garments she packed back and forth and to sit while making certain repairs or projects.
Everard brought by a tray of a venison stew, the soup richly thick and yellow and crumbling pieces of potato emerging from the liquid-like craggy rocks. No steam rose from the bowl so the soup was not fresh and the crusted ring edging the liquid meant it had remained untouched.
Viviane worried her lip, questioning whether she could leave the sanctum of her room, sans mask, to fetch her mother. She absently pulled her braid around from her back, so her hair hung over the marked cheek. She looked in the mirror, her vision obscured on one side, but the mark was hidden. If she kept her face down and avoided eye contact, she could probably pass unnoticed.
A cold sweat erupted on her forehead when the door eased open quietly, and the wisp of her mother’s figure slipped through the crack like smoke. Viviane sighed loudly in relief, and her mother jumped, panicked eyes catching her daughter’s.
“Oh, Viv, my love.” She placed her hand over her heart and sat down lightly on the bed beside her. “You startled me.”
Viviane looked her mother over worriedly. She had dark circles under her eyes, the lines deepened by fatigue, and she was pale. “Everard brought stew.” Viviane gestured to the tray on the table.
Ida visibly blanched before she schooled her features. “I had some toast with my evening tea.” She replied coolly. Viviane was not convinced.
“Please, Mother.” She whispered. Ida sighed and moved to the table, picking up the heavy silver spoon and bringing it filled to her lips. She sipped slowly, then took the bigger bits of stew into her mouth, chewing even slower. It was painful to watch. Viviane’s own stomach rumbled with her own healthy appetite’s demands, and she wished she could reverse her stomach with her mother. Ida ate two more spoons full before laying her spoon aside and leaning back wearily in the chair, her eyes on Viviane apologetic.

Chapter 8

Rose

The party for Eden’s return carried on deep into the night with no sign of ending as the sunset and the moon rose to take its place, full, bright, and high in the sky. Her father was well renowned for his events, the wine flowed freely like blood was a freshly slaughtered deer, and Everard’s delectable treats were scattered on large trays throughout the ballroom, mysteriously replenished whenever a plate was emptied.
Rose was weary. Her visions often exhausted her, and the one earlier had been particularly vivid. And terrifying. She drummed her fingers against the oak arm of the plush upholstered chair she occupied for most of the evening. She declined to dance with the myriad number of suitors who approached her, each going away disappointed and annoyed.
She had no patience for their frivolous desires tonight. Rose felt Eden’s eyes on her from across the room. Unlike her he constantly danced, flitting from maiden to maiden, no end to his flirtatious smiles. He did not see the red of his blood spilling from his lips, his eyes, his chest. He would not be haunted in his sleep with the knowledge that everyone he loved most was in danger. But he watched her, the worry always under the playful exterior. She knew she had to tell him about the vision. She needed his help to escape the castle, to reach the Sherpardess. It would be her only chance to learn perhaps, of the unseen threat that hung over her family like a storm heavy on the horizon, the static of the lightening prickling the air.
Rose sighed loudly. She looked towards the window, the moon visible in the high arch of the glass pane. It must be nearing midnight. She could escape the party without notice. The party attendees were heavy-lidded with drink and food and lust. King Alessandre was tucked away in one of the curtained cubbies with a young serving maid whose buxom figure was barely concealed under the gray grab all servants wore. Rose saw him slip away several hours ago and did not care to know what was happening beyond that. Queen Ursula had emerged briefly and retired to her rooms shortly after the King’s own disappearance, her face pinched with disapproval, without a single word of goodnight to her daughter.
Briefly Rose wondered if perhaps her family deserved the grisly end her visions portended.
“Ready to retire, sister?” Eden materialized at her side, offering his large palm to her. Rose smiled at him gratefully.
“More than ready.” She replied, taking his hand and rising stiffly to her feet. She was tall, nearly Eden’s height, or as near as any woman could be to his towering frame. He inherited that from his father, the King, another sign of his lineage that could not be denied as the boy grew.
Despite her father’s height, Rose always questioned her own inheritance of that trait. Her mother was slight, the shortest woman she knew, her hair dark. Rose’s curling, blonde locks were often a topic of speculation among the gentry and nobility and needed little incentive to gossip. Ursula wrote it off as a fluke of inheritance from a great, great grandmother who’d been fair-haired. Indeed, a portrait hung in the gallery of an ancient matron of her mother’s line with painted blonde locks, though it was stick straight and a slight dingy hue was washed into it. Rose’s blonde hair was nearly white in streaks and seemed to glow in certain light, especially the light of a full moon.
When pressed on this, Ursula snapped at Rose.
“If you are so undesirous of your place as my daughter and the Crown Princess, please feel free to find a serving girl to trade in your place.”
Rose had not questioned her mother since.
“So, what did you see?” Eden brought Rose back into her body and the chilled night air of the hall they entered from the ballroom.
“What else?” she replied. “I see death. Always.” Her voice was grim, her eyes sparkling with suppressed tears as the vision returned to her. “It must mean something. I have to try to prevent this.”
Eden glanced over his shoulder at the light spilling from the ballroom and the raucous noise with it.
“It must be tonight.” He said. “Under cover of the celebrations, nobody will notice.”
Rose nodded. Of course, it must be tonight. If she waited much longer the visions may cease to be an omen and become a reality. And the party was the perfect distraction for the guards who slipped some wine and maidens from the room and retired to their barracks where the noise rivaled the ballroom’s echoing screams and laughter.
Rose donned a dark roughly woven wool cloak Eden spirited from some unsuspecting servant’s quarters along with the traditional servants’ garb. She raised her eyebrow at him over the fabric, and he shrugged.
“The girl will not mind as long as it is returned by dawn.” He said.
Rose wondered which of his conquests he targeted for the theft. Like his father, he possessed the ability to merely glance at a maiden to capture her heart. Rose hoped this particular similarity to their father would phase out over time.
Dressed in the gown, the cloak over her shoulders, the hood raised to cover her white gold locks Rose could almost believe she was a servant. Almost. She stared at her reflection. She could do nothing about her bearing, the years of etiquette lessons, good food, and medical attention. She slouched her shoulders slightly and thought it would have to do.
Eden wanted to accompany her, but he could not be made to look like a servant, no matter how poorly dressed they could manage to make him. He was too tall, taller than Rose, with glossy black hair too similar to the King’s to mistake otherwise. He would be a target no matter the disguise. Rose would have to go alone. And if she did not return by dawn Eden would raise the alarm and follow. It was the best they could do.
The village lay five miles away, a small collection of stone cottages with thatched roofs, a skimpy market, a smoking blacksmith, and other small services. Many of the servants had family in the village and frequently were seen traveling back and forth to visit. Rose could be one more servant girl going to visit her parents, her sister or brother.
She would need a horse to make the journey and be back before dawn. Promising to be cautious, she left Eden in her rooms, a deterrent to anyone who may check on her in the night, claiming she was ill and would receive no visitors, and made her way quietly to the stable yard. The castle was indeed nearly empty of roaming individuals. The crisp night air bit at her cheeks and bare fingers and she almost reconsidered the journey based on the temperature alone. She was royal and soft, unused to the cold. Or discomfort. But the vision returned to her in full force of the slaughter of her family, and she pressed her lips together in determination. She had to do this, it would be a small price to pay to save them.
Eden told her to take Mariner, the gray-blue stallion favored by her father. He was the fastest and a war horse. He could protect her if threatened. Rose agreed but confronted with his size in person, and the prospect of climbing up that mountain of a back, lest of all having to guide his bulk was daunting. She wished she could saddle her quiet mare, a chestnut named Heather after her favorite flowers to nibble on lazy summer rides. But Heather was not built for speed or protection.
Rose reached out a hand to stroke the muzzle of the sleeping Mariner. His nose twitched at her touch, and he snorted himself awake, moving his feet nervously on the ground at being disturbed so.
“Easy, boy.” Rose coaxed. She patted his nose awkwardly, reaching for the harness hung on his stall door with her other hand. “We are just going to go for a quick trip.”
He whinnied loudly as her hand closed on the metal bit and she jumped back, wildly looking around for anyone who may have heard his cries.
“What are you doing?” A sharp voice cut through the cold night, and Rose squinted into the darkness.
“Who is there?” she replied. A slight figure, shorter than Rose and thinner dressed in the same servant’s dress she wore in disguise stepped forward, not realizing who she addressed, believing her to be another servant in the castle.
“I might ask the same thing.” The girl said, stepping into the low burning torchlight of the sconces. It was the seamstress’ daughter. The girl with the mark. Rose shrunk back, sure she would recognize her. “What are you doing with the King’s horse?” she repeated, her voice cautious but firm.
Rose desperately searched for an excuse to make the girl go away, but she could not explain what she needed Mariner for, why a servant girl would be in the stables past midnight at all. Except…
“I agreed to meet a beau here,” she blurted. She had not grasped the bridle. The girl need not know she intended to take the horse. “I merely was calming the beast who was startled by my presence. Perhaps her maidenhood would be enough to drive the girl away for fear of her own reputation.
The girl raised an eyebrow, glancing from her to the horse who was still snorting in agitation. “A beau?” she repeated cynically. She glanced behind her noting the empty stable doorway.
“Yes, a beau,” Rose replied defensively. She crossed her arms in defiance. Who was this girl to challenge her? She was a servant, same as Rose was pretending to be. Except Rose was not a servant. She was the Crown Princess, and all the authority of her birth was hers to command even in disguise. She stood to her full height and raised her chin.
“Should you not return to your mother? Why are you roaming the stables at midnight? Certainly not to meet a man yourself.” Rose said. It was cruel, and she knew it, regretted it, but needed the girl to leave so she could be on her way.
The girl, Viviane, she thought her name was, cringed visibly. She seemed to shrink smaller, and she tipped her head forward, so her hair fell more in her face to hide the deformity. “I lost something here earlier.” She said, her voice subdued. I only meant to fetch it and return to my quarters.”
The girl fell silent, her eyes on her feet. Rose felt her heart thudding in her chest in impatience. “Well, get it and be gone. I don’t want you here when my…lover arrives.” She almost choked on the word, images of the servant girl her father disappeared with flitting through her mind.
Viviane glanced up, her eyes darting to Mariner’s stall. “I left it in there, madam.” She replied addressing her as an elder though Rose believed they were the same age.
“In his stall?” Curiosity crept into Rose’s mind, and she squinted at the girl.
“Yes, I often spend time with him in my free time. The stables are usually warmer than the servants’ quarters as you know.” Viviane replied, moving forward slowly to slip by Rose and enter Mariner’s stall. Rose noted how he did not react to her presence as he had to Rose, turning to sniff her hair and clothing. Viviane pulled a carrot from her cloak and fed it to him before bending to sort through the hay on the ground.
“Of course, I know,” Rose replied. “That is why I decided to have my liaison here.” She started to tap her foot, watching the girl sift the straws slowly, searching in the low light.
Finally, she stood, a flat piece of wood clutched triumphantly in hand. She put it to her face, under the curtain of hair that shielded her, looping a leather strap around her ear and over her hairline. She turned back to Rose, the mask in place and smiled shyly, sadly.
“My apologies.” She bowed her head and exited the stall, stroking the gray hair on the horse’s flank as she left. He sniffled after her, attempting to follow but stopped but the stall door closing back on him. He shook his head and cried again, his voice shrill and panicked.
Rose jumped back again, annoyed, impatient, and scared.
Viviane looked back, noting Rose’s agitation with the stallion.
“Perhaps you should pick another location in the future. Mariner can be particular in who he trusts.” Viviane offered before bowing her head again and scurrying from the stables.
Rose frowned at her, the horse still whinnying shrilly in her ear.
“Please, beast.” She pleaded after Viviane’s shadowy figure disappeared down the corridor in the stable yard. “I need your help.”
Rose reached a hand out to his nose and attempted to calm him again, stroking the length of his nose. The girl gave him a carrot. Rose glanced around the stable and saw a bag of dried apple slices propped against a post. She picked up the bag and shook it at him, quieting the horse’s noises with the promise of more midnight snacking.
Rose smirked and grabbed the bridle, sneaking an apple slice into his mouth before looping the leather straps over his mouth and ears, forcing the cold metal bit into his mouth. He shook his head and rearranged his jaws to chew his treat over the bar, laying his ears back irritably. Rose worried that the horse would allow her to ride him past the castle gate, least of all ten miles to the village and back.
She managed to saddle him with bribes of apple slices and led him from the stable to the yard, leading him by yanking on his bridle and waving an apple in front of his nose interchangeably. In the yard, she turned a bucket over and took a deep breath.
“Alright, Rose.” She said to herself. “You can do this.” She looked up at the towering horse, crunching quietly on his final treat and then towards the dark farmlands surrounding the castle. The Sherpardess waited for her out there, an answer, perhaps the end to her disturbing visions waited for her. Having no other options, she blew out her breath and climbed on the bucket to hoist herself over the giant horse’s back, settling into the saddle and knocking her heels on his flanks as they took off on a trot into the darkness.

TBR Additions: March

I feel like I have very little time in my day for recreational reading but as my previous post stated, self-care is essential. Reading is one of my favorite forms of accomplishing self-care. So, I want to not only read more day to day but also expand my TBR pile and give myself the incentive to read those TBR titles.
What better way than public pressure and shame?
J/K, I am not looking to take away the enjoyment I get from reading when I am able to do so or put pressure on myself with more deadlines, but I thought I might share the titles that pique my interest enough for me to pursue the time to read them.
Here are my March additions to my TBR. All tags are from Goodreads.

Tags: fantasy, young adult, fiction

Tags: nonfiction, biography, biography-memoir, mystery>crime, European literature>British literature, mystery, adult, biography>autobiography

Tags: young adult, science fiction, science fiction>dystopia, romance, space, fiction, young adult>teen, young adult>young adult science fiction, fantasy, science fiction fantasy

Tags: young adult, magical realism, contemporary, fiction

Tags: fantasy, young adult, mythology>mermaids, retellings, fantasy>mythology, romance, young adult>young adult fantasy, adventure>pirates, fantasy>fairy tales, fiction

Tags: fiction, cultural>india, literary fiction, contemporary, adult, feminism, cultural, adult fiction, novels, literature>Asian literature

Tags, fiction, contemporary, literary fiction

Tags: fiction, fantasy, contemporary

What are your March TBR additions? Give me your book recs in the comments!
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