Sarah Ettritch - The Salbine Sisters.epub

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She gave up everything to become a Salbine Sister, member of a religious order of powerful female mages. But when Maddy nearly dies while trying to draw forth elemental fire, she learns that Salbine has withdrawn from her the gifts every sister works to master. Feeling trapped in an order to which she no longer has any right to belong and believing herself unworthy of the
love of Lillian, one of the most powerful mages in the sisterhood, Maddy begs the abbess to let her travel to another monastery to research her condition.
On her journey, Maddy's faith in both herself and Salbine are tested to their limits. When she attempts to draw fire and fails horribly, frightened townsfolk throw Maddy into prison. Fearing that the abbess will never learn her fate and rescue her, Maddy resigns herself to a short and brutal life.
The only bright spot in Maddy's existence is Emmey, the pickpocket with whom she shares a cell. Through her and the steadfast love of Lillian, Maddy learns that Salbine's purpose is not always the same for everyone, and that love and compassion are more valuable than magic.If you like any of these book, support the author by buying it.SampleChapter One
Maddy ran her hand up Lillian’s arm, her fingertips skimming along the pale, damp skin. “I can’t wait for our next lesson.” She gently pressed her lips against Lillian’s shoulder and then her ear.
Lillian rolled onto her back and threw her arm over her head, her chest still heaving. “I’m supposed to be teaching you how to draw and control fire,” she said breathlessly.
Maddy laughed. “If the point was to generate heat, I’d say you succeeded.” She quickly smoothed her expression when Lillian glared at her.
“Your examination is next month and you can barely light a bloody candle!”
“I guess extra lessons are in order.” Somehow she managed to say that with a straight face. All her lessons except the first had followed a similar route: first the training room, then Maddy’s chambers.
A gust of wind blew one of the shutters against the wall with a thwack that drowned out Lillian’s words, but her bulging eyes and pinched mouth clearly conveyed her response. Maddy could understand why one stern look from Lillian always sent the other initiates into a bobbing fit. She might have become immune to Lillian’s powers of intimidation, but she didn’t want to disappoint her. “I’ll try harder,” she murmured as she leaned over and traced one of the lines near the corner of Lillian’s eye. “I know I can do it.”
“I’m sure you can.” Lillian’s face softened. “But you have to focus. We both have to focus.”
Suddenly feeling like the inexperienced initiate she was, Maddy snuggled into Lillian and buried her face in the other woman’s shoulder. Not for the first time, she wondered what they were doing and where it would lead. An initiate and a mistress? And not just any mistress—Mistress Lillian.
The wind carried a chill and the fire had long-since died. Shivering, Maddy reached for the blanket heaped at their feet and pulled it to their shoulders. They lay quietly for a while, the only sounds their quiet breathing and the echoing footsteps of the defenders patrolling the courtyard below.
Maddy almost asked if Lillian would care to take tea together one day. But Lillian had never approached her outside of their scheduled lessons, had never asked her to go for a walk or to share a meal. Maybe Lillian’s interest didn’t extend beyond Maddy’s bedchamber. Maddy would only ruin it if she asked for more, and she must remember her place. Even so, curiosity pushed her to pry. “What do you usually do after early morning prayers?”
“Nothing important,” Lillian said.
“Oh.” She searched for something else to say, then jumped when Lillian threw the blanket aside, doused the kerosene lamp sitting on the table near the bed, and stood. “Where are you going?” Maddy asked, hoping her curiosity hadn’t driven Lillian to return to her own chambers.
“Nowhere.” The moonlight silhouetted her as she pulled the window shut. When she closed the shutters she disappeared in enveloping darkness. The bed creaked. Maddy pressed her body against Lillian’s, to warm her.
“What—what will you be doing tomorrow?” Lillian asked.
“I have a history lesson, and my embroidery time,” Maddy said, thrilled by Lillian’s interest. “Oh, and my lute lesson.” Though she planned to give that up; her ears agreed too often with Sister Edith’s pained expression.
“It’s been a long time since I sat through a lesson. Can’t say I miss them.” Lillian rolled away. “Anyway, I have to be up for early morning prayers.”
Disappointed, Maddy closed her eyes when Lillian’s lips brushed her cheek, then smiled when Lillian’s hand bumped into hers. “Good night,” Lillian murmured, holding Maddy’s hand.
“Good night, Lillian.”
It didn’t take her long to drift off.
*****
Her eyes flew open; she shot upright, ears attuned to the foreign voice. A man, in the Initiates Tower! She blinked and wondered why the shutters were open, then saw Lillian, already in her shift, stepping into her rough leather shoes. The muffled male voice came again, followed by a shriek. Maddy swung her legs off the bed, adrenaline coursing through her.
Lillian pulled on her robe and quickly buttoned it. “Stay here.”
Maddy nodded. Lillian unbolted the door and grasped its iron ring to pull it open. The moment she stepped over the threshold, Maddy slipped into her shift, wrapped herself in the blanket, and padded after her.
Now that the door was open, she could make out the man’s words: “Come on, darlin’. Give us a kiss.”
Maddy stayed in the shadows just inside her chambers. In the early morning light, she recognized Conrad, the Duke of Merrin, pawing at Gwendolyn.
“Get off her!” Abigail shouted, pulling on his elbow.
“Let her go!” Lillian snapped. When Merrin turned toward Lillian, Gwendolyn seized the opportunity to duck away from him. “Go back to your chambers,” Lillian said, her eyes still on Merrin.
Gwendolyn darted into an open door across the hall and quickly swung it shut. Abigail scampered away. A moment later, Maddy heard the thud of another door closing. Where was Nora? Her chambers were also across from Maddy’s. Surely she wouldn’t be sleeping through this racket. Maddy was tempted to step across to check Nora’s door, but she didn’t want Lillian to see her.
Merrin squinted bleary eyes at Lillian. “Now, who have we here?” He staggered toward her. Maddy’s nose wrinkled—the man reeked of ale. “I prefer lamb, love, but I suppose a bit of mutton wouldn’t hurt.” He leered at Lillian.
The hairs on the back of Maddy’s neck warned her. She stepped back.
“Come to me, darlin’,” Merrin slurred, reaching for Lillian.
Lillian thrust out her right hand. Merrin flew back and slammed against the wall, narrowly missing Gwendolyn’s door. He slid to the floor, his mouth hanging open. Then he clamped it shut and his eyes cleared. “You bitch!” he spat, leaping to his feet. “You f—” His eyes bulged. He sank to his knees.
“I don’t like it when people are rude,” Lillian murmured, her taut hands and the veins prominent near her temples the only visible signs that she was drawing an element.
Merrin’s mouth moved, but only a squeak came out. He clawed at his throat, tears streaming down his red face.
Maddy was more interested in how Lillian was preventing air from reaching Merrin’s lungs than in his discomfort. Forgetting herself, she moved into the hall, closer to Lillian. The duke wasn’t turning blue—Lillian wasn’t completely starving him of air.
A voice cracked out: “Lillian!” Abbess Sophia and her consort, Mistress Elizabeth, emerged from the stairwell with Barnabus and Nora on their heels. “Enough!”
Annoyance flashed across Lillian’s face, but she relaxed and turned away from the duke. Still on his knees, Merrin supported himself with one hand while his other clutched his throat. He gulped in air as if he were hyperventilating.
Mistress Elizabeth raised the lamp that had illuminated the stairwell, casting more light on the situation. Barnabus stepped to Lillian’s side, the glowing lamplight flickering along his polished gold breastplate. The clink of armour announced the imminent arrival of more defenders. The two newcomers stopped next to the abbess and her consort.
“I told you,” Nora said to the abbess.
“Yes, thank you, Sister.” Abbess Sophia adjusted the position of her spectacles and peered at Merrin.
“Apparently he’s mistaken us for tavern whores,” Lillian said as Merrin struggled to his feet and stood swaying. He managed to keep his balance—barely.
The abbess looked to the heavens and shook her head. “You’re not supposed to be here, Your Grace. The defenders will escort you out.”
He pointed at Lillian. “I want her punished,” he said hoarsely.
Lillian’s eyes widened. “Me, punished? You’re the one trespassing. You’re the one who tried to force yourself on sisters when the whores didn’t want you.”
Merrin lunged at Lillian, then raised his hands and backed away, three swords at his throat.
“Get him out of here,” the abbess murmured.
The three defenders slid their swords back into their scabbards. Two of them grasped Merrin by the arms and half led, half supported him into the stairwell. Barnabus dropped to one knee in front of the abbess and bowed his head. “Forgive me.”
“You’ll have my forgiveness when you find out how he got through the gates,” the abbess said. “And how did he make it up the hill in his state? Where are his men?”
“I’ll find the answers you seek, Abbess.”
“And have Stephen tell him to stick to the whores next time,” Mistress Elizabeth added. “All that ale must be addling his brain.”
“Yes, do,” the abbess agreed, nodding. “The fool!”
“As you wish, Abbess.” Barnabus rose and nodded, then marched away.
“Sister Nora, Sister Maddy, return to your chambers,” the abbess said.
Maddy bobbed a curtsey along with Nora, then winced when Lillian turned to her in surprise. She should have ducked back inside before Lillian noticed her.
“Lillian, my study, half an hour,” the abbess barked as Maddy pushed her door shut. Did the abbess want to discuss Lillian’s handling of Merrin, or her presence in the Initiates Tower at this hour? Maddy leaned against the door in dismay. If the abbess ended her lessons with Lillian, what followed them would likely end too, dashing Maddy’s hope for more.
*****
“Merrin is a vacuous, useless, self-absorbed, lazy pig!” Lillian spat. “Did you expect me to just stand there and watch him paw at the initiates?”
Sophia lifted the teapot from the silver tray and raised her eyebrows at Lillian, who shook her head. “No, I didn’t expect you to just stand there,” she said, holding the teapot’s lid in place with one hand as she poured tea into a flowered teacup. “But he is the duke.”
“Everyone knows Stephen runs the county.”
“Well, we all wish Stephen had been born two minutes earlier.” Sophia set the teapot on the tray. She lifted the cup to her lips and took a sip, then blew on its contents and returned it to its saucer. “But he wasn’t. And as much as I loathe Merrin, we have to be careful not to antagonize him. He comes up with enough reasons to resent us on his own. Did you have to suffocate him?”
“I didn’t suffocate him. I made sure he could breathe.”
“Barely.”
Lillian folded her arms. “I’m not apologizing, to you or to him. He got exactly what he deserved.”
“And now I’ll have to soothe any hurt feelings,” Sophia said, shaking her head at the bother. “He might insist I punish you.”
“And will you?”
“No. But only because he had no business being in the Initiates Tower, or on monastery grounds, for that matter. I hope Barnabus gets to the bottom of it.” Sophia pointed a warning forefinger at Lillian. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not upset with you. If you need to, um, deal with him again, show some restraint—for me.”
“Very well,” Lillian muttered, feeling a smidgen of regret that Sophia would have to make a grand show of smoothing Merrin’s wounded ego. Better Sophia than her; there was a reason she’d never coveted Sophia’s position. “Is that it, then? Can I go now?”
“Not just yet,” Sophia murmured. She took another sip of her tea.
Annoyed, Lillian shifted in her chair and stifled a sigh. Would Sophia please get on with it! She wanted to check an experiment before early morning prayers.
Sophia set her cup down. “I was just wondering when you’re planning to let everyone in on the amazing discovery you’ve made.”
“What amazing discovery?” Lillian snapped, wondering exactly what was in Sophia’s tea.
“Why, the ability to teleport, of course,” Sophia said lightly. “It didn’t take long for me and Elizabeth to rouse ourselves when Nora banged on our door. She waited for us in the hall, and a minute later, we were on our way to the Initiates Tower. The door to your chambers is in full view of mine, yet Nora didn’t mention anything about you leaving your chambers. Barnabus met us when we were halfway down the east steps, and he didn’t mention seeing you either. Yet there you were, fully robed, when we arrived.” Her brow furrowed. “I guess you must have developed psychic abilities too, since you knew exactly where Merrin was without anyone telling you.”
This time she didn’t bother to stifle a sigh. “If you want to ask me something, ask! Why must you always drag everything out instead of saying what you want to say?”
“If that’s what you want. Who were you with, Lillian?”
“I don’t think that’s any of your affair.”
“It is my affair if there’s going to be drama in the Initiates Tower,” Sophia said harshly. “Now, there are only four chambers on that floor, so if I have to summon four sisters here, I will. Though I presume I can eliminate Nora, because you wouldn’t have sent her for me. So who is it?”
Lillian blew out some air and studied her fingernails. The last thing she wanted was Sophia questioning everyone about her bed partners. “Maddy.”
“Maddy?”
Lillian snapped her head up. “Yes, Maddy! Can I go now?”
“Maddy is, what, twenty-four?” Sophia said, ignoring Lillian’s question. “And you are . . .” She stared at Lillian.
“Forty-one. And a half.” Sophia continued to stare at her. “Three-quarters?” Sophia’s eyes narrowed. “All right, forty-two next month.” Much to Lillian’s dismay, her face had grown hot. “And before you tell me I’m making a fool of myself, I know she probably has a different sister in her bed every night.”
“Would it bother you if she did?”
Terribly. She’d admitted as much to herself last week, when she’d had trouble working out a potion formula because thoughts of Maddy had continually broken her concentration. But admitting that to Sophia . . .
Her silence answered for her. Sophia’s forehead creased. “Oh, Lillian,” she said softly. “I’ve hoped you might find a reason to emerge from that claustrophobic old laboratory of yours every once in a while, but I thought perhaps another mistress might catch your eye. Dorothy shares your love of alchemy.”
Well, good for Dorothy.
“She’s been alone since Winifred went to Salbine last year.”
“Sophia, I’m perfectly happy on my own, all right?”
“You were perfectly happy.” Sophia peered at Lillian through her spectacles. “Why Maddy?”
She’d asked herself the same question many times. “I don’t know.”
“And you don’t seem bothered that you can’t explain it. Oh dear.”
“What’s wrong with Maddy?”
“Nothing. It’s just that Maddy’s . . . not like you. She doesn’t question, she simply believes.”
“Are you going to forbid me from seeing her?” Lillian asked, wanting to end a conversation that had quickly become uncomfortable.
“Of course not. You’re both of age. But where do you see it going? I hope . . .” She swallowed. “I hope she’s not another Caroline.”
Rage forced Lillian to her feet. “She isn’t!” she shouted. Needing to move, she crossed to a window and stood with her shaking hands shoved into her robe’s pockets.
A chair scraped across stone; a moment later, Lillian felt Sophia’s hand on her back. “I’m sorry, but I had to say it,” Sophia murmured. “I don’t want to see you hurt like that again.”
And it had hurt, and still
						
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