Elm flowers

The tiny, shriveled blooms collecting in my swimming pool tell me change is on the way.

Although the sun still sends a trickle of sweat down my cheek, twilight approaches sooner every day. I still wear shorts. The air conditioner still rumbles. But there is a promise of cooler days to come.

If I were back in the state I was born, leaves would turn yellow, red, and brown before swirling to the ground. The wind would have a cool bite. But here in California, the elms in the front yard shed their leaves, but the citrus trees hold theirs green. Nights will be slighter cooler, though not enough to get a jacket out of the closet.  

But no one can escape change, not even Californians.  

Hope and dread war in my heart. How reassuring would it be if everything stayed the same. As I look around, change never stops. Majestic mountains are brought down, rock by rock. Rivers carry garbage to the ocean. Forests are devastated by raging fires, and farmlands drown in floods. Natural wonders are shadows of their original untouched beauty.

As the years pass, I also cannot escape the ticking clock of time. New wrinkles, grey hair, dental work, aching joints. They remind me that my body has an expiration date. And I can’t renew my extended warranty.

But as the Californian rock band, Switchfoot, wrote, “this skin and bones is a rental.” When my travels on Earth are over, I will move to a more beautiful place. A place not touched by viruses or pain. A place where beauty cannot be corrupted.

So I mourn not for what is lost. Instead, I smile to see piles of elm flowers crumbled in the street. They are my promise that change is coming, and someday I will be home.

The tiny, shriveled blooms collecting in my swimming pool tell me change is on the way.

Although the sun still sends a trickle of sweat down my cheek, twilight approaches sooner every day. I still wear shorts. The air conditioner still rumbles. But there is a promise of cooler days to come.

If I were back in the state I was born, leaves would turn yellow, red, and brown before swirling to the ground. The wind would have a cool bite. But here in California, the elms in the front yard shed their leaves, but the citrus trees hold theirs green. Nights will be slighter cooler, though not enough to get a jacket out of the closet.  

But no one can escape change, not even Californians.  

Hope and dread war in my heart. How reassuring would it be if everything stayed the same. As I look around, change never stops. Majestic mountains are brought down, rock by rock. Rivers carry garbage to the ocean. Forests are devastated by raging fires, and farmlands drown in floods. Natural wonders are shadows of their original untouched beauty.

As the years pass, I also cannot escape the ticking clock of time. New wrinkles, grey hair, dental work, aching joints. They remind me that my body has an expiration date. And I can’t renew my extended warranty.

But as the Californian rock band, Switchfoot, wrote, “this skin and bones is a rental.” When my travels on Earth are over, I will move to a more beautiful place. A place not touched by viruses or pain. A place where beauty cannot be corrupted.

So I mourn not for what is lost. Instead, I smile to see piles of elm flowers crumbled in the street. They are my promise that change is coming, and someday I will be home.

College of the Crones- Chp.3 Part Three

mask

The prince calmed himself as he composed his reply. Everything inside him wanted to scream in this insignificant worm’s face. He called upon his magic to quiet the storm, difficult as it was to do so in this iron-filled land. His face relaxed, and he released his grip on the arms of his chair. The silence was as weighty as the pause before a judge’s verdict.

“I…understand… your… concern,” replied the prince. He took a deep breath, letting it out completely before he continued. “I know that the men of Beautiful work hard for the glory of my land. I sincerely wish that I could give my beauty tonic freely to all who ask.” He chuckled a bit under his breath, its sound causing the dancers near him to stop in mid twirl. “But its ingredients are rare and growing more scarce by the year. And my men already travel long distances through dangerous lands to obtain what is needed. As the risk to my men increases, so must the price of the tonic.” He paused, the corners of his mouth twitching.  “If men don’t wish to pay the price, they can simply choose not to buy it.” His jewel-like eyes glittered behind his feathered mask. The eavesdropping dancers hurried away to another part of the hall.

“Of course, Your Highness,” the scarecrow said. His face turned paler than his makeup as he considered the possible future with men married to ugly crones. No man would choose that. He shuddered at the thought. “Your generosity is well known in Beautiful. I am certain you are doing everything you can. I will disturb you no longer. Good evening, my prince.” He made a hasty bow and darted back into the noisy crowd. The guards and ladies nearest to him relaxed as the tension dissipated.

The prince exhaled and drained his cup with a shaking hand.  How ungrateful these humans are! I give them perfect beauty to gaze upon for their entire lives, and they grumble about a little labor. Subjects. How they tried his patience! How they interrupted his pleasures! If he didn’t do something, they might become difficult to control. Back in Faerie, a mere gesture alone would accomplish his desires. But his power was weakened here, away from his magical homeland. If not for my potion-making talents, I might have had to actually work for a living.

Shaking his head free of unwanted thoughts, the prince beckoned to the guard nearby. The masked soldier hastened to his master’s side. The prince whispered into his ear, “Make sure that the mayor has a fatal carriage accident on his way home.” The soldier nodded his understanding and left the hall. With a contented sigh, the prince turned back to the festivities. Learning to delegate is not so difficult after all.

College of the Crones- Chp.3 Part Two

mask

“Of course, I would be pleased to have a word with the mayor,” the prince answered instead.  He had to continue the charade if he was going to achieve his goals. Still, maybe he could appoint a royal advisor to address these trivial matters in the future. This interacting with the local simpletons is a waste of my abilities.

At the wave of the mouse, a tall scarecrow approached the prince’s table. His face was covered with white paint, his lips and eyes traced in black. He was wearing a rough burlap shirt, well-worn and patched pants, and a large straw hat. Straw was falling out of his hat, sleeves, and neckline. In spite of the playful disguise, his eyes looked worried. As he bowed low before the prince, a pile of straw formed on the floor.

“You may address me,” the prince said without enthusiasm.

“Your Highness,” he began as he stood up. “You look splendid this evening. May you live forever! Your masquerade is breathtaking. My wife and I are having a marvelous time.” The scarecrow took a breath. He seemed to consider his words. “However, there is a small matter that prevents my complete enjoyment. Earlier this week, some of the other mayors visited me, and we have discovered a common concern. I urgently bring that concern to Your Highness.” The scarecrow paused, waiting for his ruler’s acknowledgement. The prince graced him with a thin smile and nodded.

“The tonic price has gone up three times already this year, and your representatives have informed us that it will go up again before Yuletide. The price is already quite high. The men are working diligently from dawn to sunset every day. They can barely afford to buy bread. How much more can they work before they collapse? Of course, the potion is worth the price, but if the men’s strength fails, who will tend the fields and sell goods? Your Highness knows the crones and wives can’t do it.” The scarecrow reddened, shocked at frankness of the words that rushed out of his mouth. He waited tensely for the prince’s answer.

 

 

College of the Crones- Chp 3 Part One

mask

Interruption

As he descended the spiral staircase into the great hall, the prince was pleased to see his servants, dressed as mice, standing quietly at their posts, ready to receive guests. Masked musicians had begun to play, filling the hall with feet-stirring melodies. Long linen draped tables ran the length of the far wall, piled high with every delicacy a royal or commoner could imagine. Roasted ducks, pheasants, and chickens were kept warm under silver covers. A large tree made of pears, apples, and plums decorated one of the tables as if in bloom. Huge bowls of potatoes, puddings, gravies, and stuffing sat hot and overflowing on some tables, while cakes, pies, and pastries were stacked sweet and high on others. Servants stood by with goblets of wine and beer, their jobs to ensure no one could walk a straight line home at the end of the night. The prince surveyed it with satisfaction. No lord in all the lands provided a feast this grand.

Guests began pouring through the main entrance, and the dance floor quickly filled up. A kaleidoscope of brilliant costumes, feathered masks, dramatic capes, and silk sashes spun in obedience to magical music. The prince sat down at his head table surrounded by his court ladies, who dressed as rabbits, complete with long fur ears. They filled his goblet, loaded his plate, and competed for his glance. He would smile at one lady, admire the face of another, and then turn back to survey the dancers. Those he addressed sighed with pleasure, under the glare of the slighted. When their attentions failed to distract the prince from studying the other party goers, they turned their attention there also, watching from their luxurious perch.

The prince entertained himself by evaluating the swirling women as they passed him. I certainly don’t want that swan woman with all the droopy feathers.  She’s excessively tall, and her neck is too short. A red and yellow clown caught his eye. Maybe that one. I love fair hair, and hers is like spun gold. There is always room for another beautiful face in my court.

“Your Highness,” squeaked one of the prince’s mice. “If it pleases you, Sire, the Mayor of Oakbottom would like to have a word with you.” The twitchy mouse awaited his reply. Now what? The prince barely muffled a yawn. Not another problem with wolves? It took so much of his energy to feign compassion for any extended length of time. He needed to enjoy this ball. Didn’t these rude villagers realize it was after official business hours? I should have this annoyance thrown into the dungeon.

 

 

College of the Crones-Chp 2 pt 2

 

mask

As the days grew shorter and the nights longer, the prince could not help but brood on his once perfect life. Being immortal gave him endless years to think on what he had lost. This world was a desolate wasteland, cold and dry in comparison to Faery. No one, man or faerie, could leave that perfect place behind and be satisfied elsewhere. That undoubtedly was the reason he had been exiled rather than destroyed. The King knew this would provide long years of punishment.

But I’ve done the best I could to adapt to this barren land.  His smile in the mirror looked convincing enough. He set himself up as a ruler, after disposing of the prior occupants of the castle, and began winning the countrymen’s favor. To those with no conscience, he offered positions as his personal guards. Their obedience could be guaranteed with gold.  He also hired soldiers to keep the peace, and administrators to keep order in the outlying villages. After the wild abandon of Faery, he needed structure around him. It made him feel like he still maintained some measure of control over his life.

Most landowners and peasants were won over easily when they learned of the astounding powers of the prince’s tonic. His potion making prowess had afforded him the perfect weapon. Once the people learned what the tonic could do, his position as their leader was secured.

Of course, I am perfectly suited to be their prince. His charm was legendary. Everyone loved him. Why wouldn’t they? He gave men beautiful wives, and women beautiful parties. That they gave up certain things for these pleasures seemed a logical and fair trade to him.

A quiet knock roused him from his daydreaming. “Your Highness, carriages have been spotted on the road. Your guests are arriving,” a small voice called through the door.

The interruption flashed his anger, and the prince took his heavy silver goblet in hand, ready to pitch it at the messenger as he came in. But the servant waited outside for his reply, accustomed to his master’s moods.

“I’ll come down when I’m ready, not a moment before,” the prince replied. He smoothed his features and sighed.

Slowly he untangled himself from the layers of silk and woolen blankets that trapped him into the red velvet arm chair. He picked up his feather-covered mask and put it on. He admired himself in his golden full length mirror on his wardrobe door. Two bright green eyes twinkled at him from behind black feathers and an orange beak nose. He was clothed completely head to toe in black leather. Who could resist me? He pulled himself up straight, set his shoulders, and lifted his chin in his most dashing gentleman pose. Then he buttoned on his feather cape and the costume was complete. Tonight he would reprise his role as the Raven.

 

The College of the Crones Chp 2

mask

Chapter Two Part One- Masquerade Ball

Although there were nightly parties at the prince’s castle, everyone’s favorite event was the harvest festival masquerade ball.  All the landowners and townspeople came dressed in elaborate and often ridiculous costumes.  The prince savored a sip of Eldertown’s best red wine, as he pictured the party guests. For most of my subjects the foolish apparel is an improvement. Except for the ladies, of course. At least the ladies, thanks to his beauty potion, did not offend his sensibilities. He downed the rest of his goblet.

All the preparations were complete for the masquerade ball. But of course all is ready. I will not tolerate anything less than perfect. Hours of labor had produced a glossy shine on the tile floors. The entire castle had been decked with garlands of ivy and blood red roses. From the kitchen came a whirlwind of noise and aromas, escalating as the hour of the guests’ arrival approached. The band was tuning their instruments. Court ladies reclined in their dressing rooms, allowing their servants and handmaidens to add last minute details to their costumes. All the lanterns and chandeliers had been lit. The castle glistened like a giant star upon the hill. Since it was the end of the harvest season and winter was approaching, it was already quite dark and crispy cool. It was the perfect night for a ball.

Away from the clatter of preparation, the prince relaxed in his sitting room, his chair facing a crackling fire in a massive stone fireplace. The fireplaces were always roaring in his private rooms. All the changing seasons in this world are quite unsettling. He was always layered in fine wool and furs after the leaves began to turn fiery orange and red. His shivering wouldn’t cease until springtime warmed his face once more.

The gold trimmed mirror over the mantle was tipped to catch his reflection. He couldn’t help noticing the way his wavy black hair caught the glint of the firelight, and how his neatly trimmed beard accented his piercing green eyes and prominent nose. No man in this world can captivate hearts the way I can.

            Still, he was too thin, despite his feasting, and not as tall as he would have liked. His narrow pointed ears he kept hidden under his hair. He didn’t need to draw attention to the few differences between mortals and faeries. His people thought his never-ending youth was due to another potion that he kept for himself. If they discovered I was a faerie, they wouldn’t be so eager to trust me.

College of the Crones- cont.

tonic

Chapter One- The Funeral Part 4

But now it was time for her decision. She couldn’t put it off much longer. All week long, gentlemen had left their calling cards at her house. The cards sat in a silver bowl in the entry hall where the crone had collected them. Erin had ignored them like unpaid debts. Her friends all advised her that it was time to move on, but she just couldn’t picture herself as another man’s wife. She twisted the large diamond ring on her finger, unwilling to remove it.

What was the alternative? She feared the day when her green eyes would turn back to their natural brown color. Then the transformation would begin as she aged rapidly over the next two years until she was a wrinkled, hunchbacked monster. Could she face her reflection each day as she twisted up her hair? She imagined one of the house crone’s wrinkled faces in the place of her lovely one. Nightmares on top of nightmares, and I’m not even asleep!

Without a husband, where would she live? According to their laws, since she was childless, her father would own the shop and blacksmith trade. Her home would be sold to pay the prince’s death tax. Although she could move in with her sister and her husband, they would be forced to hide her because of her hideousness. Forced to disappear from all social life, she would wander as a wraith through the corridors of the house until she perished in her ugliness.

Am I seriously considering becoming a crone? A shiver ran through her as she realized she was contemplating remaining unmarried. She wasn’t a rebel. Her entire life obediently followed the traditions of her people. But her pain gave her courage she had never known. Courage to honor Mikel by allowing her beauty to follow him in death.

If she chose this path, there was another place for her. The College.

She had heard that some widows went there and learned to support themselves. They didn’t need husbands to survive. Erin had always admired the crone healers who came to the village to treat the sick and injured. If she studied to be a healer, she could have a meaningful occupation. Maybe her pain could be buried in her studies so that she could feel like herself again. Her family would not miss her as they rushed to keep up with their social lives. Seeing her would prolong their grief, as she was a reminder of her failed future at the royal court.

With a sigh, Erin stood up and walked stiffly toward the door. Even as she argued with herself she knew her mind was set. The memorial service made Mikel’s death a reality and it set for her a starting point—or a jumping off point, she thought—to begin anew. It was time to leave her locked tower of grief. She would make an appearance at the wake and graciously thank all of her neighbors and friends. After all, they meant well. Then she would return home for the last time. A few items needed to be packed. She would say her farewell to her sister and parents. At one time she had loved them deeply, but her heart was lost with Mikel.  Emptiness drove her to action. She could remain in Riversedge as a shade, but she felt the slightest flutter of hope. It was time to follow it.

College of the Crones- cont.

tonic

Chapter One- The Funeral- Part 3

But the prince was overwhelmingly handsome, charming in speech, and strong in will, and none of the women who joined his court could resist him. Mikel had shielded her, his importance as a blacksmith affording him a few privileges.  But now she was exposed, husbandless. Their ruler could take her as an act of charity, sparing her destruction.

Some of the wives came forward to offer their condolences and admire her fine mourning clothes. Mikel would have loved this dress. It contrasts perfectly with my pale skin and pink lips. Her neighbor Madelin approached her with hugs and kisses, wishing her good fortune in seeking her next mate. Adel, already a veteran of six marriages, tried to introduce her to a potential suitor, one of her distant relatives. How can they be so cold? My dearest friend and husband is suddenly gone, and they choose this moment, his memorial, to begin the matchmaking. 

Mikel was Erin’s first husband. Will I ever bond with another mate only to lose him as well? He carried my heart away with him that night. I have nothing left for another.  In a culture where arranged marriages and third and fourth husbands were the norm, it seemed love was a luxury few women enjoyed. But for Erin, life would forever be divided into two parts: life with Mikel and life without him. Her loss was a fortress surrounding her, separating her from the kindness of others. She refused to be comforted, preferring instead to remain captive in sorrow.

After crone singers opened with a solemn song, the mayor began the memorial, saying many fine things about her husband. He praised their blacksmith’s every accomplishment, from the shoeing of the prince’s famous steeds to the construction of the elegant village clock. After he was finished, the prince’s representative delivered a stirring eulogy praising the marvelous weapons Mikel had forged. Erin’s step-father and sister sat dabbing their eyes and sniffing. Her mother’s striking features were dry, her pale green eyes narrowed slightly as her gaze fell on her eldest daughter. Erin sat next to but far apart from them, trying not to get caught up in their grief, having too much of it herself to take on more.

Next was Old Tong, who shared his memories of training Mikel as his apprentice. Old Tong had been a precise craftsman in his day, concerned with every detail, from heating the forge to shaping a nail. This eye for detail stamped into young Mikel as well, as the elder blacksmith spent many hours insisting that they adopt standards of excellence. “Hot forge, cool head, steady hand, stout heart,” he’d always said. Mikel was the finest student he had ever trained.

Erin listened to her husband’s teacher, brimming with pride.  But her face and body betrayed no emotion at all. She knew if she allowed any feelings to show she would lose all control. It was hard enough to keep the knives quiet in her heart without allowing tears to seep through. She had not cried since she was a young girl. Crying made her eyes look puffy. She kept her eyes on her lace gloves. They seemed to need constant adjustment.

After all the words were shared, songs sung, tears wept, and family members hugged, the crones took the children home to bed while the rest headed over to the pub. After assuring her sister that she would soon join them, Erin allowed herself to relax in the empty room. As difficult as it was to attend her husband’s memorial, somehow some of the crushing weight was gone.

 

 

College of the Crones- revised

tonic

Chapter One- Funeral Part 1

Erin looked over her shoulder, shivering at the icy cloud of death surrounding the somber villagers as they silently filed into the council chamber. She smoothed down her long black dress elegantly trimmed with black crocheted lace and pearl buttons. Her ageless face was hidden behind a veil that cascaded over the brim of a black feather-trimmed hat. She adjusted the hat so that it sat correctly on top of her dark braided hair.  Then she pressed her dress smartly down over her knees and crossed her hands in her lap to ensure no one could see them shaking.

I can’t believe I’m here. She closed her eyes with a sigh, and then opened them expecting to see her husband enter the room, rushing over to comfort her. I can’t believe he’s really gone. When Mikel had first disappeared, she clung to the hope that he would be found somewhere in the hills, injured but still alive. She left early that night from the prince’s ball, with some of their friends. Mikel told her he needed to finish up some business at the castle and would return the next day. He had kissed her hastily, neither imagining this would be their last kiss.

But it was their last kiss, as well as their last embrace, last glance, last smile together. Even now she dared not gaze at his face in her memories. The sharp knives of loss waited in ambush. Instead she took a deep breath and smoothed her dress again. She must remain poised and beautiful, despite her grief. After a few moments, her discipline failed, and her mind returned to that day.

Frantically she had appealed to the prince concerning her husband. The prince and his agents swore they sent Mikel home the next morning on one of the royal stable’s finest horses, but the animal returned to the castle riderless that evening. In response to Erin’s plea, their ruler had sent out his best trackers to scour the surrounding countryside.

No trace of her husband was ever found.

Six months later, she realized that her identity had disappeared on that horse as well. After a childhood spent learning how to become “Mikel the blacksmith’s beautiful wife,” she wasn’t sure who she was supposed to be now. Her husband was different from most of the men in Beautiful. He truly loved her for who she was, regardless of her beauty. Memories of him forced their way to the front of her mind: dancing at her sixteenth birthday ball, riding away in their wedding carriage a few months later, cuddling together by the fire, whispering dreams to each other… The searing pain stabbed her without mercy. Without Mikel, she was a delicate crystal goblet after a party. Stunning but empty.

 

 

The Problem with Meghan

Another story from the world of The College of the Crones:

tonic

“I don’t care if Mother forbids us to speak her name!” Bridgette snapped at her sister, Mary. “Meghan was our cousin! We played dolls with her. We played in the fields together.” She stamped her foot on the wooden stool on which she stood, sounding a boom with her silk slipper. The dressmaker’s other patrons, milling around bolts of fabric in the outer room, looked in at the young woman to see what was causing the disturbance. One didn’t scream like a little girl at a fitting. It was a time for stillness and quiet, unless one wanted to get poked with pins. The dressmaker herself, Mrs. Pincer, frowned at her, a task made more difficult by the pins in her mouth.

“She was our cousin, and a dear friend, but don’t blame Mother.” Mary gently took her younger sister by the hand, their green eyes reflecting each other. “Be reasonable,” she continued, using her most soothing voice. “Think about it. The broken engagement, poor Harold the baker, the birthday party. Everything was perfect- the flowers, the music, the cake. The only thing missing was the birthday girl. Think about how Aunt Margaret and Uncle Edmund felt.”

“Excuse me, ladies,” Mrs. Pincer interrupted. “I’ve finished marking the hem. If you could carefully take off the gown, I’ll take it. It should be finished by weeks end.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Pincer,” Bridgette replied, calmer now. Mary smiled up at her, and walked to her back, unlacing the pale green gown and helping Bridgette out of it. It sat on its layers like cupcake icing on the circular wooden pinning stand. The dressmaker pulled it up by the fitted bodice and gently pushed the full skirt through the fitting room doorway.

“But that doesn’t mean she never existed!” Bridgette said through clenched teeth. Her long bouncy blonde curls shook with conviction.

“Let’s get out of here,” her sister insisted, dragging her out of the shop. “I’m dying of thirst. Let’s go get some tea.”

The main street in Riversedge was bustling with fine ladies, some on foot and others in carriages that slowly pushed their way through the crowds. The sisters shook the summer dust off the bottoms of their dark blue silk dresses after they crossed over to the other side of the street. Both sides of the street were full of shops—dress shops, hat shops, bakeries, floral shops, jewelers, and one special shop.

The storefront itself was inconsequential, smaller than the shops on either side of it. It had a bright red door and no windows. A wooden sign hung over the door read, “The Royal Tonic Shop.” Every woman knew its exact location, yet none of them had ever crossed its threshold. Only men were allowed.

Bridgette shuddered slightly as they passed it on the way to the tea room. Was it the tonic that caused Meghan, their usually compliant cousin, to run away in the night?

            Mary glanced at her sister, and took her arm, steering them through the maze of horses, carriage wheels, and giggling girls. “Bridgette, you couldn’t have done anything. You know how closed Meghan could be. No one knew this treachery was in her heart.”

“But why, Mary? Why did she do it?” Bridgette shouted over the noise of the street, her eyes welling up with tears. Mary quickly took out her lavender scented hankie and dabbed her sister’s eyes.

“Now, now, Bridgette,” she said, putting her hankie away in her small jewel encrusted bag. “You’re going to make your eyes puffy. Forget about that sad business. It was a tragedy, that’s all.” She sighed, pulling her sister out of the path of oncoming horses.

“I can’t forget about it,” Bridgette insisted, her dainty nose turned up. “Our cousin left her betrothed, her family, and her entire future, content instead to crumble into a hideous crone. Even though all she had to do was get married to be cured.”

“It was her choice,” Mary sniffed, as she adjusted her tiny velvet hat perched on her elaborately braided tawny hair. “Every woman must choose when she becomes eighteen. Marry and take the tonic to remain beautiful, or fall to the crone curse. Meghan knew what she was doing. Obviously living with hunched over, wart-crusted crones was preferable to society life with her family.”

“But what if she knew something?” Bridgette said, stopping as they approached the tea room. “Meghan was always thinking, always reading, even though as a woman it was not her role to do either. What if she made the better choice?”
“Ridiculous!” Mary scoffed. “What woman in her right mind would allow herself to transform into an ugly old woman? The right choice, the only choice, is to marry. That way your husband is allowed to buy the prince’s tonic.”

“That was our choice,” Bridgette agreed. “Even though we were practically forced into it by our parents. Not that my Richard is hard to live with. He gives me everything I desire.”

“And the parties!” Mary sighed. “With my Robert I have invitations to dances and feasts every night. Who would want to miss the prince’s balls? I dance so much I can’t wake until evening the next day. We have the perfect life.”

The women entered the tea room and found an empty table in the back of the large room. Since the inns were considered unsavory for the local nobility, the tea room had opened exclusively for ladies. The establishment had many tables covered with white tablecloths and fresh flowers in exquisite crystal vases. The windows were large and well cleaned, allowing women passing by on the street to see who was sipping tea within. The light was cheerful, and the buzz of women’s conversations droned on throughout the day like contented bumblebees.

After they ordered their tea, Bridgette took a deep breath. Mary could see that her sister needed to unburden her heart, so she resolved not to dismiss her concerns. Instead she settled into her cushioned chair patiently as she waited for the rest of it.

“Meghan’s been on my mind, all these months since she left,” Bridgette shared. “Do we truly know what happened to her? What if some robber beat her and left her for dead? Has anyone even tried to follow her trail?”

“I don’t know,” Mary admitted. “Since no one in the family talks about her, I don’t know what has been done. I can’t imagine Uncle Edmund not trying to find his only daughter. He spent much more time with her than Aunt Margaret ever did.”

“But don’t you think she probably went to the College?” Bridgette asked. A crone dressed in a grey dress with a crisply pressed apron brought them a silver pot with a spicy aroma and two dainty ceramic cups in saucers. The crone’s thinning white hair was pulled back under a white cap. With gnarled hands she poured their tea, and bowed out of their way.

Mary took a tiny sip, mindful of the steaming liquid. “Meghan might have gone to the College of the Crones,” she agreed. “After all, she could read, and she loved to sing. Maybe we’ll see her someday, performing at the prince’s castle.” She sighed as the tea soothed her throat.

Bridgette set down her cup after tasting the sweet, spicy brew. Her flawless face showed rare furrows as she struggled to find the right words. Suddenly she was aware of her action and quickly smoothed her face. “I wonder what it would be like. Choosing your own future, apart from parties and dresses and jewels. Instead of pleasing your husband, serving others with your vocation learned at the College. The crones are healers, actors, singers, and artists. Maybe Meghan knew better than we did, sister.”

Her sister’s eyes widened in alarm. She looked around to see if any of the other women had taken notice of their conversation. But the rumble of laughter and conversations full of hairstyles and wine selections passed by them, unaffected by Bridgette’s heresy.

“Don’t speak that way!” she gasped, reaching for Bridgette’s trembling hand. “We live to serve beauty. Our prince demands it. Beauty is our mother, covering us with her favor. Any other way of life is pure ugliness.”

A crone servant passed their table at that moment, struggling with a tray of tea and cakes, and seemed to gaze at the young women with pity, but Bridgette couldn’t be certain.

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