YA Historical Fantasy
December 16th, 1818
I pressed my forehead to the cool glass of my bedroom window. Below me in the garden, the orchestra struck up a quadrille, and Mama and Daddy stepped to the center. The silver light of the waning moon shone in Mama’s eyes, on the pearl comb that held her blond curls in place, on the guests drinking up the dance.
Slowly, one couple at a time, more people joined in. My brother Christopher and sister-in-law Elizabeth. The mayor and his wife. The Augusta elite, their faces and jewels and dresses familiar to me from my years of watching alone.
I should have been down there. Coughs wracked my chest like claws in my lungs. I wrapped the quilt closer, my eyes stinging with tears. I should have been at the center of the quadrille, all eyes on me, radiant in silk and velvet. This was supposed to be my debut.
“Ms. Anna!” I whipped about, and my head spun. Deladis stood in the open door, her arms folded tight over her apron. “Can’t I take my eyes off you for one minute? You’re supposed to be in bed. Don’t make me get Mr. Bradforde.”
Between my weak lungs and chronic fits of ague, I’d spent the past eight years living from one bout of fever to the next. This one came on without notice. There hadn’t been time even to postpone the ball, not with the musicians already paid and the food bought. The lovely dress that Deladis’d worked on for over a month hung in my armoire. All this, wasted on me.
“Just a few minutes longer?”
Deladis gave an exaggerated huff, but the corners of her eyes crinkled. “One more dance, Ms. Anna, I mean it. I will get your daddy on you.”
The opening quadrille ended. I smiled at her and turned my attention back to the garden. Below, Mama stood up on her toes and pressed a kiss to Daddy’s cheek.
“I want to extend my thanks to everyone for joining us here tonight," Daddy said. "As you know, tonight was to be my little Anna’s debut. Unfortunately—” His words were interrupted by a smattering of applause.
He paused while the gentry quieted before proceeding with the excuse we’d prepared. None of Augusta society knew I was sick. We said I was studying in France with Uncle Oriel. No one needed to know he’d been dead for years.
“Unfortunately,” Daddy continued. “The journey back from Paris has taken longer than we accounted, and she could not be here tonight. However, we—”
The ballroom door burst open, and my brother Samuel dashed to Daddy’s side. The bleakness of his mourning attire set him apart among the glinting gems and stars. He laid a hand on Daddy’s shoulder, whispered something, and retreated. Daddy motioned for Christopher and Mama to follow.
“I’m very sorry,” Daddy said. Whispers welled around him. He raised a hand for silence. He still smiled, but it no longer reached his eyes. “I’m afraid there’s a family emergency. Please, enjoy the music and refreshments. We will rejoin you as soon as we’re able.”
“I have to go.” I swung my feet off the window seat, swayed, and Deladis steadied me.
“It’s all right, Ms. Anna,” she said, keeping a hand on my shoulder. “Let them handle it. You need rest.”
I shook my head. The room swam. “I need to be with my family. Something’s wrong.”
“But the guests’ll see you—”
I looked up into her dark brown eyes, and she gave me an indulgent shake of her head. “Take the back stairs.” She held my redingote for me, and I slipped it snug around my shoulders. “Do you need help?”
“No, I’ve managed on my own before.” I said it more steadily than I felt, but she still followed me out my bedroom door and along the corridor.
My feigned strength lasted until I reached the top of the stairs. Out of breath already, I looked down at the fifteen steps that stood between me and the hallway to the study. Damn my pride.
“Are you sure, Ms. Anna?” Deladis asked softly. “It’s nothing shameful, needing help.”
“No. I’ll manage it.”
I gripped the smooth wood railing with both hands and took the first step. I made sure of my footing on every hardwood stair before I moved, and, by the time I reached the bottom, my arms trembled from keeping myself upright. Still, I looked up the stairway and gave a shaky, triumphant laugh. True to my word, I’d done it alone.
I stumbled the length of the corridor to the downstairs study. I rapped lightly on the door, and the hushed talking within cut off. Over the music and chatter of our guests in the garden and the rasp of my breathing, I heard furniture scraping. The brass knob turned, and Daddy’s brown eyes peered out at me.
“Anna—you should be in bed!” He swung the door wider to admit me and then turned the lock behind us.
“I wanted to be here,” I assured him. “I want to work.”
He glanced over his shoulder at Mama, who waved for me to join her at the whitewashed table. Daddy guided me to my seat beside her. A spoon clinked softly in a cream-colored china teacup as Mama stirred the piping liquid.
She pushed the cup of tea to me, already prepared to my liking, but I hesitated before I picked it up. This was one of her favorite tricks when I was recovering: if my hands shook at all, she’d whisk me back to bed, and not a thing I could say would stop her.
“Thank you,” I said when I was sure I could manage. Commanding my hands to be still, I raised the fine china cup to my lips and sipped. The honey and lemon played over my tongue. I delicately set the cup back on its saucer. “Delicious.”
Her expectant gaze turned to frustration, but she didn’t press me. “I know what my daughter needs,” she said with the same practiced smile she’d taught me.
“Let's have the report,” Daddy said, nodding to the man on my other side. “Leave nothing out.”
Petersen, our best commander, spread a map over the table. Usually, I was glad to see him, but the set of his shoulders was wrong. Tight. His hair was grayer about the temples than it had been just a few months ago. I’d only ever seen him impeccably groomed, but he had dark rings under his eyes and splashes of mud up to his knees.
Petersen placed a marker a few miles from his station in Richmond. “We found a new warren here.” He met my gaze. “There were a dozen bodies, drained dry, and a heap of weapons to your hip.
“These aren't the vampires we're used to. They're careful. Old. We hit hard, but the bastards had already escaped. All slipped out but one.”
Mama set her teacup aside. “That’s disappointing, Commander,” she said coolly, a touch of her French accent curling around the words. “We expect better of you. Still, it's nothing that couldn’t wait for your month-end report. Why come at a gallop?”
“Because the one they left behind had this.” He reached into his coat pocket and flung a letter upon the table. The profile of moose-head was pressed into the wax seal. Petersen glanced at Daddy. “It’s addressed to you.”