Here’s a link to part 1, and summary in case you need a refresher/don’t feel like reading it.
Bella’s story begins as usual–her mother dies, her father remarries, and her stepmother and two stepsisters make her life miserable. And then her father dies mysteriously, and the stepmother poisons Bella and has her daughters bury Bella in the woods. But Bella could communicate with the dead, and comes back as a powerful necromancer. She uses her powers, with the guidance of her mother’s ghost, to mess with her killers and sneak into the ball to meet the prince.
The prince shifted from where he stood at the edge of the dance floor, jaw clamping as he smothered a yawn, and surveyed the door.
I stepped into sight, meeting his eyes before I glanced demurely down. I’d be approaching him later, if I couldn’t get him to come to me.
But first, my stepmother and stepsisters. They hadn’t spread the story of my ‘running away,’ but when they did, the damage to my reputation would be difficult to repair. So I spoke to several women, who I used thin pretexts to claim we knew each other.
I told them that I’d been kept from society by a boarding school that had trained my unexpected magical ability. Having graduated, I’d returned early to surprise my guardian.
Much of the court were avid gossips, and their eyes gleamed with avarice at my story. Of course they promised to keep my surprise a secret. It wouldn’t last, but I needed just long enough.
When I judged enough people had heard my lie, I targeted the monsters that had made my life a misery.
I stepped forward to greet them, smile bright. “Surprise! I’ve returned early!” I paused, not long enough for them to recover, and giggled, hiding my mouth with my fan.
“Oh, your faces! I mentioned nothing in my last letter, I know—I was not sure the headmistress would allow it! But my studies went well. I hope I’ve made you proud.”
I lowered my gaze demurely, as the strains of music started. “Oh! I promised the first dance, and I’m sure you have also. We’ll speak more later!”
Then I whisked away to find my partner—the son of one of the gossips. My card was quite full already, and more men approached for introductions and a dance when I took a break.
Finally, I caught the prince’s eye, and he approached me with one of the gossips to introduce us. She babbled the story I’d told, slightly warped, and I curtseyed deeply.
We danced, and it took all my focus to be graceful, and smile, and make small talk, and above all, not show the effort all of this took, that I didn’t enjoy myself at all.
I hinted at a secret, in that small talk, and soon he led me into a smaller room, with only a few people chatting there. A significant stare from the prince, and they drifted off to one side, giving us as much privacy as was proper.
Quickly, I spilled out my tale, letting tears shine my eyes and quaver in my voice, as I recounted my mother’s death, father’s remarriage, then his death, and my mistreatment.
Just as I was about to speak of the poisoning, a courtier interrupted, greeting the prince and offering a few veiled words that clearly had some significance.
When the prince turned back to me, I could tell my woes hadn’t made much of an impression. I smiled warmly, hoping I could do better with the rest. If I couldn’t get him on my side, my plan failed.
“You’re different from the others here, aren’t you?” he asked.
“I suppose I am.” I glanced out the door to the glittering crowd, seeing the masks of gaiety, and the maneuvering as some partners were avoided and others pursued.
“You’re a beautiful woman. I would like to see you again,” the prince said.
“Yes, of course, as you wish, your highness. But I have to tell you—”
“Now isn’t the time, we can talk later, I—” The prince interrupted, but was interrupted in turn.
“Your highness!” A guard gasped, hurrying up. “Terrible news! The envoy has died! There’ll surely be war!”
I clasped the prince’s arm. “Take me to him, please. I can help.”
His handsome face twisted in puzzlement, but he did as I asked. Soon I was standing over the envoy’s dead body, and then he was rising, face slack and gray. Bit by bit, color and animation crept into the envoy’s face, until he seemed alive again.
“What happened?” he patted himself, confused.
“You were very ill,” I told him gravely, “The royal healers treated you, but you crept away from your bed, and succumbed to sleep here. Be gentle with yourself, you are still recovering.”
He nodded, and let himself be fussed over, as I slid away to the prince’s side.
“He doesn’t know he is dead—he’ll have lost some memory—but he’ll realize it eventually. His body will heal from a mortal injury, and he will not age. If his death here will start a war, I respectfully recommend you arrange for him to be gone.”
“But then he will learn the truth, in time. What profits that?” the prince asked.
I shook my head. “My apologies, I wasn’t clear. What I give, I can take back. And I can control him, which won’t reveal the truth, if it’s the last thing he does. Perhaps a stumble into a river? I’m uncertain what would serve, but I’m sure better minds can plot an accident.”
“An accident,” he repeated.
“I’ve taken no lives, and only raised a second life,” I said, “But I imagine that is not true of all your advisors.”
As if I’d summoned them, an advisor joined us, and then another, until we stood in a half-circle of serious-eyed nobles. One of them, a woman with silver barely visible among her pale blonde hair, asked me what had happened, and with a few questions got the whole story from me.
The rest listened in silence.
“And how do we know we can trust you?” A man with a scar on his chin asked.
“I am loyal. I could have far more easily kept silent, after all.” I met his eyes until he nodded. Then I turned to the prince. “But, your highness, if you do choose to reward me for my small part, you could rescue me.”
Picking up my interrupted tale, I explained how I’d had to offer a story to cover the truth—the later, worse years of imprisonment and abuse. “If you would send a lawyer, and when he sees how she mistreated me, have her evicted from my home, and forbidden from returning, on pain of losing her allowance. Then I will be safe, and owe that safety to you.”
“It isn’t enough,” the advisor began, but the prince shook his head.
“No, twice now she’s offered aid without asking for reward. A little trust in return is a reasonable price. See to her situation.”
The advisor bowed, and left, his stiff stride the only sign of his irritation.
“You are lucky they didn’t try more permanent ills,” he said.
“They did, but I didn’t eat much of my dinner,” I lied. “I was sick, before I fell asleep, and sick again, when I woke in the woods that night.”
“Ah,” he fell silent, thinking. “You can’t return there. You will stay with one of the queen’s ladies tonight. On the morrow, guards will roust the murderess.”
“But I wasn’t….” I lied again.
“Only luck. I’m sure she measured a killing dose.” He shook his head, grim. “You asked to be kept safe. Let me do so.”
I bowed my head. My hopes were progressing nicely.
My stepmother and stepsisters were cast out, and she lost her stipend for her neglect of me. I sent mice and birds to their meager new home, to trouble and bedevil them in small ways. What larger revenge they deserved, I could not decide.
The prince had me appointed to the queen’s ladies, another reward, and, I knew, to keep an eye on me. I raised a favorite of the prince’s hunting dogs after an accident, and arranged the envoy to go overboard on a ship, one stormy night.
My winged and four-legged companions allowed me to find the prince when he was alone. Not too often, lest he get suspicious, or sick of the sight of me. I made myself agreeable, and waited for the opportunity to be useful.
When we heard word of a group of spies, I modestly offered a pack of wolves I had built over these months, to track the spies down. I led the guards right to the intruders, and ringed by thirteen eerily silent wolves, they surrendered.
“You keep appearing at a crisis, why is that?” the prince asked.
I blushed. “I must admit, I thought perhaps, if I could prove myself, I might become one of your mages.”
Any royal worth his salt employed a mage or three—the king had one with healing magic, and another who could control the weather. The prince had a weak plant mage, who could encourage crops and draw out the properties of medicinal herbs.
“You could easily work for a king.”
“Forgive me, your highness, for my frankness, but not all those in power keep their word. I know you value yours, even to someone as poor as I.”
As I’d proved myself at least partly trustworthy, I was given several books on necromancy, which were helpful, though my mother’s ghost, who I could now call to me, was as helpful as the dusty tomes.
I learned, and waited for an opportunity to win the prince over completely.