Blood & Honey – Shelby Mahurin

Dark clouds gathered overhead. Though I couldn’t see the sky through the thick canopy of La Fôret des Yeux—or feel the bitter winds rising outside our camp—I knew a storm was brewing. The trees swayed in the gray twilight, and the animals had gone to ground. Several days ago, we’d burrowed into our own sort of hole: a peculiar basin in the forest floor, where the trees had grown roots like fingers, thrusting in and out of the cold earth. I affectionately called it the Hollow. Though snow dusted everything outside it, the flakes melted on contact with the protective magic Madame Labelle had cast. Adjusting the baking stone over the fire, I poked hopefully at the misshapen lump atop it. It couldn’t be called bread, exactly, as I’d cobbled the concoction together from nothing but ground bark and water, but I refused to eat another meal of pine nuts and milk thistle root. I simply refused. A girl needed something with taste now and again—and I didn’t mean the wild onions Coco had found this morning. My breath still smelled like a dragon’s. “I’m not eating that,” Beau said flatly, eyeing the pine bread as if it’d soon sprout legs and attack him. His black hair—usually styled with immaculate detail—stuck out in disheveled waves, and dirt streaked his tawny cheek. Though his velvet suit would’ve been the height of fashion in Cesarine, it too was now sullied with grime. I grinned at him.

“Fine. Starve.” “Is it . ” Ansel edged closer, wrinkling his nose surreptitiously. Eyes bright from hunger and hair tangled from the wind, he hadn’t fared in the wilderness much better than Beau. But Ansel—with his olive skin and willowy build, his curling lashes and his genuine smile—would always be beautiful. He couldn’t help it. “Do you think it’s—” “Edible?” Beau supplied, arching a dark brow. “No.” “I wasn’t going to say that!” Pink colored Ansel’s cheeks, and he shot me an apologetic look.

“I was going to say, er—good. Do you think it’s good?” “Also no.” Beau turned away to rummage in his pack. Triumphant, he straightened a moment later with a handful of onions, popping one into his mouth. “This will be my dinner tonight, thank you.” When I opened my mouth with a scathing reply, Reid’s arm came across my shoulders, heavy and warm and comforting. He brushed a kiss against my temple. “I’m sure the bread is delicious.” “That’s right.” I leaned into him, preening at the compliment.

“It will be delicious. And we won’t smell like ass—er, onion—for the rest of the night.” I smiled sweetly at Beau, who paused with his hand halfway to his mouth, scowling between me and his onion. “Those are going to seep out of your pores for the next day, at least.” Chuckling, Reid bent low to kiss my shoulder, and his voice—slow and deep—rumbled against my skin. “You know, there’s a stream up the way.” Instinctively, I extended my neck, and he placed another kiss on my throat, right beneath my jaw. My pulse spiked against his mouth. Though Beau curled his lip in disgust at our public display, I ignored him, reveling in Reid’s nearness. We hadn’t been properly alone since I’d woken after Modraniht.

“Maybe we should go there,” I said a bit breathlessly. As usual, Reid pulled away too soon. “We could pack up our bread and . picnic.” Madame Labelle’s head jerked toward us from across camp, where she and Coco argued within the roots of an ancient fir. They clutched a piece of parchment between them, their shoulders tense and their faces drawn. Ink and blood dotted Coco’s fingers. Already, she’d sent two notes to La Voisin at the blood camp, pleading for sanctuary. Her aunt hadn’t responded to either. I doubted a third note would change that.

“Absolutely not,” Madame Labelle said. “You cannot leave camp. I’ve forbidden it. Besides, a storm is brewing.” Forbidden it. The words rankled. No one had forbidden me from doing anything since I was three. “Might I remind you,” she continued, her nose in the air and her tone insufferable, “that the forest is still crawling with huntsmen, and though we have not seen them, the witches cannot be far behind. That’s not to mention the king’s guard. Word has spread about Florin’s death on Modraniht”—Reid and I stiffened in each other’s arms—“and bounties have risen.

Even peasants know your faces. You cannot leave this camp until we’ve formed some sort of offensive strategy.” I didn’t miss the subtle emphasis she placed on you, or the way she glanced between Reid and me. We were the ones forbidden from leaving camp. We were the ones with our faces plastered all over Saint-Loire—and by now, probably every other village in the kingdom too. Coco and Ansel had pinched a couple of the wanted posters after their foray into Saint-Loire for supplies—one depicting Reid’s handsome face, his hair colored red with common madder, and one depicting mine. The artist had given me a wart on my chin. Scowling at the memory, I flipped the loaf of pine bread, revealing a burnt, blackened crust on the underside. We all stared at it a moment. “You’re right, Reid.

So delicious.” Beau grinned wide. Behind him, Coco squeezed blood from her palm onto the note. The drops sizzled and smoked where they fell, burning the parchment away into nothing. Transporting it to wherever La Voisin and the Dames Rouges currently camped. Beau waved the rest of his onions directly beneath my nose, reclaiming my attention. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like one?” I knocked them out of his hand. “Piss off.” With a squeeze of my shoulders, Reid swept the burnt loaf from the stone and cut a slice with expert precision. “You don’t have to eat it,” I said sullenly.

His lips quirked in a grin. “Bon appétit.” We watched, transfixed, as he stuffed the bread into his mouth—and choked. Beau roared with laughter. Eyes watering, Reid hastened to swallow as Ansel pounded on his back. “It’s good,” he assured me, still coughing and trying to chew. “Really. It tastes like—like—” “Char?” Beau bent double at my expression, laughing riotously, and Reid glowered, still choking but lifting a foot to kick his ass. Literally. Losing his balance, Beau toppled forward into the moss and lichen of the forest floor, a boot print clearly visible against the seat of his velvet pants.

He spat mud from his mouth as Reid finally swallowed the bread. “Prick.” Before he could take another bite, I knocked the bread back into the fire. “Your chivalry is noted, husband mine, and shall be thusly rewarded.” He pulled me into a hug, his smile genuine now. And shamefully relieved. “I would’ve eaten it.” “I should’ve let you.” “And now all of you will go hungry,” Beau said. Ignoring my stomach’s traitorous growl, I pulled out the bottle of wine I’d hidden amidst the contents of Reid’s rucksack.

I hadn’t been able to pack for the journey myself, what with Morgane snatching me from the steps of Cathédral Saint-Cécile d’Cesarine. Fortunately, I’d just happened to wander a bit too far from camp yesterday, securing a handful of useful items from a peddler on the road. The wine had been essential. As had new clothes. Though Coco and Reid had cobbled together an ensemble for me to wear instead of my bloody ceremonial dress, their clothing hung from my slim frame—a frame made slimmer, no, waiflike from my time at the Chateau. So far, I’d managed to keep the fruits of my little excursion hidden—both within Reid’s rucksack and beneath Madame Labelle’s borrowed cloak—but the bandage had to come off eventually. There was no time like the present. Reid’s eyes sharpened on the bottle of wine, and his smile vanished. “What is that?” “A gift, of course. Don’t you know what day it is?” Determined to save the evening, I pressed the bottle into Ansel’s unsuspecting hands.

His fingers closed around its neck, and he smiled, blushing anew. My heart swelled. “Bon anniversaire, mon petit chou!” “It isn’t my birthday until next month,” he said sheepishly, but he clutched the bottle to his chest anyway. The fire cast flickering light on his quiet joy. “No one’s ever—” He cleared his throat and swallowed hard. “I’ve never received a present before.” The happiness in my chest punctured slightly. As a child, my own birthdays had been revered as holy days. Witches from all over the kingdom had journeyed to Chateau le Blanc to celebrate, and together, we’d danced beneath the light of the moon until our feet had ached. Magic had coated the temple with its sharp scent, and my mother had showered me with extravagant gifts—a tiara of diamonds and pearls one year, a bouquet of eternal ghost orchids the next.

She’d once parted the tides of L’Eau Mélancolique for me to walk the seafloor, and melusines had pressed their beautiful, eerie faces against the walls of water to watch us, tossing their luminous hair and flashing their silver tails. Even then, I’d known my sisters celebrated less my life and more my death, but I’d later wondered—in my weaker moments—if the same had been true for my mother. “We are star-crossed, you and I,” she’d murmured on my fifth birthday, pressing a kiss to my forehead. Though I couldn’t remember the details clearly—only the shadows in my bedroom, the cold night air on my skin, the eucalyptus oil in my hair—I thought a tear had trickled down her cheek. In those weaker moments, I’d known Morgane hadn’t celebrated my birthdays at all. She’d mourned them. “I believe the proper response is thank you.” Coco sidled up to examine the bottle of wine, tossing her black curls over a shoulder. Ansel’s color deepened. With a smirk, she trailed a suggestive finger down the curve of the glass, pressing her own curves into his lanky frame.

“What vintage is it?” Beau rolled his eyes at her obvious performance, stooping to retrieve his onions. She watched him from the corner of her dark eyes. The two hadn’t spoken a civil word in days. It’d been entertaining at first, watching Coco chop at the prince’s bloated head quip by quip, but she’d recently brought Ansel into the carnage. I’d have to talk to her about it soon. My eyes flicked to Ansel, who still smiled from ear to ear as he gazed at the wine. Tomorrow. I’d talk to her tomorrow. Placing her fingers over Ansel’s, Coco lifted the bottle to study the crumbling label. The firelight illuminated the myriad scars on her brown skin.

“Boisaîné,” she read slowly, struggling to discern the letters. She rubbed a bit of dirt away with the hem of her cloak. “Elderwood.” She glanced at me. “I’ve never heard of such a place. It looks ancient, though. Must’ve cost a fortune.” “Much less than you’d think, actually.” Grinning again at Reid’s suspicious expression, I swiped the bottle from her with a wink. A towering summer oak adorned its label, and beside it, a monstrous man with antlers and hooves wore a crown of branches.

Luminescent yellow paint colored his eyes, which had pupils like a cat’s. “He looks scary,” Ansel commented, leaning over my shoulder to peer closer at the label. “He’s the Woodwose.” Nostalgia hit me in an unexpected wave. “The wild man of the forest, the king of all flora and fauna. Morgane used to tell me stories about him when I was little.” The effect of my mother’s name was instantaneous. Beau stopped scowling abruptly. Ansel stopped blushing, and Coco stopped smirking. Reid scanned the shadows around us and slid a hand to the Balisarda in his bandolier.

Even the flames of the fire guttered, as if Morgane herself had blown a cold breath through the trees to extinguish them. I fixed my smile in place. We hadn’t heard a word from Morgane since Modraniht. Days had passed, but we hadn’t seen a single witch. To be fair, we hadn’t seen much of anything beyond this cage of roots. I couldn’t truly complain about the Hollow, however. Indeed—despite the lack of privacy and Madame Labelle’s autocratic rule—I’d been almost relieved when we hadn’t heard back from La Voisin. We’d been granted a reprieve. And we had everything we needed here, anyway. Madame Labelle’s magic kept the danger away—warming us, cloaking us from spying eyes—and Coco had found the mountain-fed stream nearby.

Its current kept the water from freezing, and certainly Ansel would catch a fish one of these days. In this moment, it felt as if we lived in a pocket of time and space separate from the rest of the world. Morgane and her Dames Blanches, Jean Luc and his Chasseurs, even King Auguste—they ceased to exist in this place. No one could touch us. It was . strangely peaceful. Like the calm before a storm. Madame Labelle echoed my unspoken fear. “You know we cannot hide forever,” she said, repeating the same tired argument. Coco and I shared an aggrieved look as she joined us, confiscating the wine.

If I had to hear one more dire warning, I would upend the bottle and drown her in it. “Your mother will find you. We alone cannot keep you from her. However, if we were to gather allies, rally others to our cause, perhaps we could—” “The blood witches’ silence couldn’t be louder.” I grabbed the bottle back from her, wrestling with the cork. “They won’t risk Morgane’s wrath by rallying to our cause. Whatever the hell our cause even is.” “Don’t be obtuse. If Josephine refuses to help us, there are other powerful players we can—” “I need more time,” I interrupted loudly, hardly listening, gesturing to my throat. Though Reid’s magic had closed the wound, saving my life, a thick crust remained.

It still hurt like a bitch. But that wasn’t the reason I wanted to linger here. “You’re barely healed yourself, Helene. We’ll strategize tomorrow.” “Tomorrow.” Her eyes narrowed at the empty promise. I’d said the same for days now. This time, however, even I could hear the words landed different—true. Madame Labelle would no longer accept otherwise. As if to affirm my thoughts, she said, “Tomorrow we will talk, whether or not La Voisin answers our call.

Agreed?” I plunged my knife into the bottle’s cork, twisting sharply. Everyone flinched. Grinning anew, I dipped my chin in the briefest of nods. “Who’s thirsty?” I flicked the cork at Reid’s nose, and he swatted it away in exasperation. “Ansel?” His eyes widened. “Oh, I don’t—” “Perhaps we should procure a nipple.” Beau snatched the bottle from under Ansel’s nose and took a hearty swig. “It might be more palatable to him that way.” I choked on a laugh. “Stop it, Beau—” “You’re right.

He’d have no idea what to do with a breast.” “Have you ever had a drink before, Ansel?” Coco asked curiously. Face darkening, Ansel jerked the wine from Beau and drank deeply. Instead of spluttering, he seemed to unhinge his jaw and inhale half the bottle. When he’d finished, he merely wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and shoved the bottle toward Coco. His cheeks were still pink. “It goes down smooth.” I didn’t know which was funnier—Coco and Beau’s gobsmacked expressions or Ansel’s smug one. I clapped my hands together in delight. “Oh, well done, Ansel.

When you told me you liked wine, I didn’t realize you could drink like a fish.” He shrugged and looked away. “I lived in Saint-Cécile for years. I learned to like it.” His eyes flicked back to the bottle in Coco’s hand. “That one tastes a lot better than anything in the sanctuary, though. Where did you get it?” “Yes,” Reid said, his voice not nearly as amused as the situation warranted. “Where did you get it? Clearly Coco and Ansel didn’t purchase it with our supplies.” They both had the decency to look apologetic. “Ah.

” I batted my lashes as Beau offered the bottle to Madame Labelle, who shook her head curtly. She waited for my answer with pursed lips. “Ask me no questions, mon amour, and I shall tell you no lies.” When he clenched his jaw, clearly battling his temper, I braced myself for the inquisition. Though Reid no longer wore his blue uniform, he just couldn’t seem to help himself. The law was the law. It didn’t matter on which side of it he stood. Bless him. “Tell me you didn’t steal it,” he said. “Tell me you found it in a hole somewhere.

” “All right. I didn’t steal it. I found it in a hole somewhere.” He folded his arms across his chest, leveling me with a stern gaze. “Lou.” “What?” I asked innocently. In a helpful gesture, Coco offered me the bottle, and I took a long pull of my own, admiring his biceps—his square jaw, his full mouth, his copper hair—with unabashed appreciation. I reached up to pat his cheek. “You didn’t ask for the truth.” He trapped my hand against his face.

“I am now.” I stared at him, the impulse to lie rising like a tide in my throat. But—no. I frowned at myself, examining the base instinct with a pause. He mistook my silence for refusal, shifting closer to coax me into answering. “Did you steal it, Lou? The truth, please.” “Well, that was dripping with condescension. Shall we try again?” With an exasperated sigh, he turned his head to kiss my fingers. “You’re impossible.” “I’m impractical, improbable, but never impossible.

” I rose to my toes and pressed my lips to his. Shaking his head, chuckling despite himself, he bent low to fold me in his arms and deepen the kiss. Delicious heat washed through me, and it took considerable self-restraint not to tackle him to the ground and have my wicked way with him. “My God,” Beau said, voice thick with disgust. “It looks like he’s eating her face.” But Madame Labelle wasn’t listening. Her eyes—so familiar and blue—shone with anger. “Answer the question, Louise.” I stiffened at her sharp tone. To my surprise, Reid did too.

He turned to look at her slowly. “Did you leave camp?” For Reid’s sake, I kept my own voice pleasant. “I didn’t steal anything. At least”—I shrugged, forcing myself to maintain an easy smile—“I didn’t steal the wine. I bought it from a peddler on the road this morning with a few of Reid’s couronnes.” “You stole from my son?” Reid held out a calming hand. “Easy. She didn’t steal anything from—” “He’s my husband.” My jaw ached from smiling so hard, and I lifted my left hand for emphasis. Her own mother-of-pearl stone still gleamed on my ring finger.

“What’s mine is his, and what’s his is mine. Isn’t that part of the vows we took?” “Yes, it is.” Reid nodded swiftly, shooting me a reassuring look, before glaring at Madame Labelle. “She’s welcome to anything I own.” “Of course, son.” She flashed her own tight-lipped smile. “Though I do feel obligated to point out the two of you were never legally wed. Louise used a false name on the marriage license, therefore nullifying the contract. Of course, if you still choose to share your possessions with her, you are free to do so, but do not feel obligated in any way. Especially if she insists on endangering your life—all our lives—with her impulsive, reckless behavior.

” My smile finally slipped. “The hood of your cloak hid my face. The woman didn’t recognize me.” “And if she did? If the Chasseurs or Dames Blanches ambush us tonight? What then?” When I made no move to answer her, she sighed and continued softly, “I understand your reluctance to confront this, Louise, but closing your eyes will not make it so the monsters can’t see you. It will only make you blind.” Then, softer still: “You’ve hidden long enough.” Suddenly unable to look at anyone, I dropped my arms from Reid’s neck. They immediately missed his warmth. Though he stepped closer as if to draw me back to him, I took another drink of wine instead. “All right,” I finally said, forcing myself to meet her flinty gaze, “I shouldn’t have left camp, but I couldn’t ask Ansel to buy his own birthday present.

Birthdays are sacred. We’ll strategize tomorrow.” “Really,” Ansel said earnestly, “it isn’t my birthday until next month. This isn’t necessary.” “It is necessary. We might not be here—” I stopped short, biting my errant tongue, but it was too late. Though I hadn’t spoken the words aloud, they reverberated through camp all the same. We might not be here next month. Shoving the wine back at him, I tried again. “Let us celebrate you, Ansel.

It’s not every day you turn seventeen.” His eyes cut to Madame Labelle’s as if seeking permission. She nodded stiffly. “Tomorrow, Louise.” “Of course.” I accepted Reid’s hand, allowing him to pull me close as I feigned another horrible smile. “Tomorrow.” Reid kissed me again—harder, fiercer this time, like he had something to prove. Or something to lose. “Tonight, we celebrate.

” The wind picked up as the sun dipped below the trees, and the clouds continued to thicken.

.

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