It took Celestine a second glance to realize that there was a black cat in the distance.
Amidst the thicket of trees and shrubbery that lined the edge of the clearing, the cat sat still, blending perfectly with the shadows. Celestine wasn’t certain how long it had been there; she had been reading a book in her usual spot, enjoying the shade under the large oak tree, when she noticed its eyes in the background.
Bright, brilliant red eyes that shone like rubies. Eyes that stared at her with such focus and clarity that made her catch her breath the second she peered right into them.
Celestine sat there on the grass, transfixed, as a strange sense of warmth spread throughout her body. It was odd, but she felt mesmerized and unsettled at the same time; torn between wanting to continue admiring the cat and wanting to look away because it made her feel vulnerable. A notion suddenly popped in her head that it was looking into her soul, searching for something.
Looking into my soul? Celestine blinked away, and gave herself a small shake. Good gods, what am I thinking? Clearly, I’ve been reading way too many horrid books from the library. At this thought, she frowned down at her lap where the leather-bound copy of The Monster of Norfolk rested, and immediately hid it inside her straw basket.
But still… there was no denying that there was something unusual about the cat. Celestine dared another glance. It was still looking at her in that unnerving way, quite unlike the strays that she would encounter when she and Silas would sneak into the nearby villages. The oddest thing was the unflinching way it held her gaze, showing a complete lack of trepidation that smaller animals would normally have for bigger ones.
Could it be someone’s pet? That could explain why it was unafraid of people, although it was unlikely that it belonged to someone from Valancourt given the duke’s passion for hunting dogs. It would have caused a raucous already if it had been raised within the estate.
Which would leave the possibility of it coming from Lindenshire, the closest village, which was a good few miles to the east. Could a cat truly have wandered from it? How did it get here? And more importantly, how was Celestine going to bring it back? She was forbidden to leave the property, and sneaking out would be so much more difficult with a living being in tow.
I’ll think about those later. Poor thing, it must be starving if it came all this way from Lindenshire. Tucking a lock of platinum blond hair behind her ear, Celestine reached into her straw basket and grabbed the warm cloth packet inside. It was held together by a loose knot on top, which unraveled easily with one sharp tug, revealing a batch of beautifully baked scones. Bits of strawberry decorated the perfectly crisp brown crust, topped by a glaze that she knew to have just the right amount of sweetness.
As she grabbed a scone, Celestine saw that the cat had emerged from the trees and was sauntering towards her. The late afternoon light glistened on top of its sheer black coat, tinging its lithe body with a bit of yellow and orange. After a few steps, it suddenly sprang into leaps, surprising her with how gracefully and precisely it maneuvered across the clearing, quickly bridging the gap between them until it was only a foot or two away from her.
“Goodness, you’re a fast one, aren’t you?” Celestine said, placing the pastry on the ground. “Here, come on. You should eat. You must be hungry.”
The cat’s gaze flickered onto the round piece of bread, but didn’t make a move towards it.
Celestine raised a golden brow. “What? You don’t like scones?”
It gave an unimpressed meow.
“Mind you, I had to save up a month’s worth of my meager allowance to afford the strawberries I used for this batch, so I’d appreciate it if you don’t waste it.” She nudged the scone to its direction. “Come on, I can guarantee you it’s delicious. Just try it.”
The silliness of the situation wasn’t lost on Celestine. If Silas and Lucille were already here to witness it, they would have surely teased her for not only conversing with a cat but also trying to convince it to try her baking. But she couldn’t stop herself; baking was the one thing she was immensely proud of, the only thing she could call her own, and she wasn’t going to let anyone or anything look down on it.
As if spurred by Celestine’s impassioned remark, the cat leaned forward to briefly sniff at it before taking a bite. Its ears perked up upon doing so, its pupils dilating. Some seconds later, another bite followed, but this time it was accompanied by soft purrs of delight. Three more large bites came in swift succession, and then the scone was no more.
“See? That’s why you shouldn’t reject something before you’ve tried it,” Celestine laughed and reached out to pet the cheeky beast. It hadn’t occurred to her that it would be alarmed by her touch, so she was surprised to feel it shudder against her fingertips. Thankfully, it otherwise remained motionless, though its bright eyes were fastened on hers once more.
Celestine waited for any violent reaction. When none came, she continued stroking the length of its supple body, noting the healthy sheen of its coat. “Your owners must take exceptional care of you.”
“It must be nice to be so loved, huh?” Celestine asked wistfully. She tried—but failed—to block the vision of her father and her half-siblings from her mind: their rich honey-blond hair that shimmered in the sunlight; their vibrant blue eyes that held only scorn and disgust for her; their flawless complexion that bespoke of a life of luxury.
The Grand Duke of Norfolk and his official children.
As far as society was concerned, Grand Duke Cornelius Alexander De Vere VII had only one heir and one beloved daughter. Scribbled under him in the family registry were the names Cornelius Marcus De Vere VIII and Honoria Valeria De Vere. Nothing else. There was no space in the registry for bastards.
And Celestine knew that it only took one look to ascertain that she and Silas were indeed bastards. They were too different, too flawed. While Celestine had a similar coloring to the rest of the family, she was aware that her platinum blond hair was too light, almost whitish, and her pale blue eyes lacked the vividness that characterized a true De Vere. She was also a foot shorter than Honoria, with a chest that was considered too plump and a hip too shapely—qualities not suitable for a respectable lady, as Mrs. Wicks, the Head Maid, would often point out.
Silas, on the other hand, was fortunate enough to inherit much of the duke’s facial features. Like Marcus, he had their father’s imperious brow, the same prominent nose, the same angular jaw. But it was his curly brown hair and ocher eyes that betrayed his status as a bastard. These he had gotten from his mother, the widowed Countess of Averdale, who had gleefully participated in an affair with the duke when the late duchess was on her sickbed.
At least Silas knows who his mother is, Celestine thought bitterly. In contrast, she barely knew anything about hers. Was her mother still alive? Where was she from? Did she truly give away her five year old daughter because she couldn’t afford her anymore?
Did she… ever love her?
These were questions that had plagued Celestine all her life, though she had only voiced them out once. She had been a naive ten year old girl who had dared to hope that the duke would give her the answers she sought; what he had given instead was a hard slap that left her right cheek swollen for days, and a warning never to ask such nonsense again.
And she never did. Which was why she now found herself at the age of eighteen as clueless as she had been eight years prior. Desperate curiosity has become her friend, clawing at her day and night, but she was certain of one thing—there was only one way forward:
She needed to leave the estate.
She needed freedom to seek the truth.
Heaving a steadying breath, Celestine drew her attention back to the cat, which had been examining her quite intently. “Where was I? Oh, yes, your owners—they must be worried about you.” She smiled weakly. “Don’t worry, I don’t know how, but I promise to take you back to your owners, little cat.”
It didn’t meow or purr, but merely tilted its head.
“First things first, though, we have to sneak you back into my room. It’s a good thing you’re very quiet for a cat, but you must—“
A sudden clatter of hooves sliced through the silence of the clearing, interrupting what Celestine was about to say. Familiar voices erupted from its direction.
“Cel, sorry we’re late!”
“My lady, where are you?”
“Silas, Lucille, I’m here in the usual spot—beneath the giant oak tree,” Celestine called out, straightening up. She waved at the approaching figures of her half-brother and her close friend, mounted on top of a chestnut horse. They slowed down into a trot until stopping some feet away from her.
The sight of her two favorite people instantly lifted Celestine’s mood. Silas looked ludicrously boyish with his damp hair falling into little springs on his forehead, and his long-sleeved cotton shirt hanging loosely on top of his tan breeches. He had that lopsided grin that never failed to make Celestine smile in response.
“My lady, are you alright? Did you wait long?” Lucille peered over Silas’s shoulder, smoothing back the red tendrils that escaped her ponytail from the wind. The simple gray dress she wore was already faded, but was starched properly so it didn’t seem to get wrinkled from the horse ride.
Celestine shook her head. “It’s alright. I came here just half an hour ago myself, so I didn’t have to wait too long.”
“Apologies for the delay, Vinias’s training went on for longer than I thought,” Silas said as he slid off the horse and helped Lucille down. “That old man didn’t hold back at all. He still manages to surprise me no matter how many times I spar with him. You should have seen it, Cel, the way he parried my lunges earlier was almost unreal, especially considering his age. He must be what? Fifty?”
“Fifty-five, actually,” Lucille replied.
“Wow, fifty-five, and to think that not once have I managed to unarm him in combat.” Silas whistled and untied the satchel that was strapped onto the side of the horse. “But I suppose that’s to be expected from Marcus’s teacher. Only the best for the heir of the Norfolk dukedom, of course.”
Celestine didn’t miss the hint of bitterness in Silas’s remark. She reached out to pat his arm reassuringly. “You just need practice, brother. Give it a few more months and you’ll be out there fighting those Elysians as the best knight that Aurelia has ever seen.”
Silas rolled his eyes. “Right, then people will erect statues of me in every village, and name their firstborn sons after me.”
“Oh, for sure. That’s the least they could do for the hero who will bring an end to the war between the kingdoms. Oh, hail, Silas, the— the—”
“Oh, I know! How about Silas the Stalwart?” Lucille offered, her green eyes bright with amusement.
“You make him sound so boring, Lucille.” Celestine protested. “We need a name that will strike fear into the hearts of those Elysian brutes. What do you think of Silas the Savage?”
Silas wrinkled his nose. “I want to be a knight, not a barbarian, Cel. And you might as well call me Silas the Hungry, because all that training has me worked up quite the appetite. Say, are those your special scones?”
The image of the black cat with ruby eyes floated in Celestine’s mind at the mention of scones. She turned sharply, wanting to show it off to Silas and Lucille, but it was gone. Only her straw basket and scones remained.
“Is something the matter, my lady?” Lucille asked.
“Where is it?” Celestine’s blue eyes scanned the clearing, but there was no sign of it. She quickly looked up, thinking that it had climbed the oak tree, but it wasn’t there either. Where could it have gone?
“What is it, Cel?”
“There was a cat here earlier. A black cat with red eyes.”
Silas made his way towards the scones. “Here in Valancourt? Are you sure?”
“Maybe it left already, the same way it came inside,” Lucille said.
“Perhaps,” Celestine murmured. She looked around one more time before joining Silas and Lucille under the oak tree.