Chapter Five

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Three days later, the rain that had started the night they kissed still wouldn't stop. Wind rattled the shutters on and off, cold drafts seeped into every chink of the old manor, and the air was so waterlogged, even inside the house, that the draperies in the library felt moist to the touch. With the weather so miserable, Rebecca loudly opposed all Alex's half-hearted attempts to leave for London. He didn't try very hard, although she suspected the reason for his reticence was not her forceful objections but rather his leg bothering him. He didn't seem like a man easily swayed by anyone's opinion, not if he had a set course of action to follow. She didn't care. As long as he stayed home and healed, she was happy.

Well, not entirely. Every evening, she spent hours in the library, hoping he would come again, kiss her again, but he didn't. He seemed to avoid meeting her alone, although he willingly spent time with her sisters. On the second day, when Rebecca went upstairs to check on the girls' lessons, she found Alex there, with the book of Charles Perrault's fairy tales open in front of him. Neither he nor the girls noticed her, watching them through the partially open door.

"I'm telling you, Em, I was there. That must've been the Sleeping Beauty's castle," Alex was saying with a straight face.

"Did it have brambles all around?" Emily demanded.

"No, but lots of weeds and shrubbery grown so thick we had to chop it down with axes. They had a beautiful wrought-iron fence around the property, all rusted and broken in places, and nobody took care of that garden for at least a century. Only cats behaved like they owned the place. Maybe they did. An entire tribe of marmalade tabbies lived there, all very well fed. Maybe they bred mice for food, or maybe they were under some sort of enchantment, you know, an honored guard to fend off villains. The house itself was haunted for sure. In the end, we decided not to make our base there. We bivouacked in the tents outside. I had to threaten my men with flogging even to enter the manor to check for hidden enemies. Haunted, I'm telling you."

Emily devoured Alex's words, her eyes huge. "Did you see the princess?"

"Nay. I think she was hidden from us by the same magic as the cats. The magic made the roof of the house seem broken, and it rained inside the walls in some places, but I'm sure it was only an enchantment. One night, a soldier spent the night inside, on a dare with his friends. He came out in the morning without his boots, and with his head and face covered with goose feathers. He spouted some nonsense about ghosts and could hardly see through the feathers; they clung to his skin like they grew there, like he was turning into a giant goose. It took us a while to get the feathers off him to stave off the spell. After that, I ordered everyone to stay away from the house."

"Wow!" Emily said faintly. "Real magic."

Alex nodded with a grave face.

Mary beside him refrained from smiling with difficulty. "And of course, you can tell exactly where this place is," she said, her voice quivering with suppressed laughter.

"In fact, I can draw you a map," Alex replied. "Can you read maps?"

Mary shook her head.

"Fine." Alex placed the book of tales in front of Emily. "You read the next tale, pumpkin, and then you'll tell me about it. Mary, get me some paper and pen and turn your chair so you're sitting beside me. I'll show you how to draw maps and how to read them."

Rebecca didn't stay to listen further but withdrew quietly and tiptoed down the stairs, smiling all the way. In the evening, while she was putting the girls to bed—their long-established nightly ritual—Emily was full of Alex's stories. Even Mary seemed impressed.

"Did you know he visited Florence and Rome, went to all the galleries?" Mary said, her distant gaze full of artistic marvels. "I wish I could travel and see it all: the paintings, the palaces, the sculptures." She grinned as she focused on Rebecca. "One of his soldiers fell into a river, and they fished him out with a fisherman's net. Alex said he was all covered with fish scales."

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