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“Whimsical, witty, and brimming over with charm” (India Holton), Olivia Atwater’s delightful debut will transport you to a magical version of Regency England, where the only thing more meddlesome than a fairy is a marriage-minded mother!
It’s difficult to find a husband in Regency England when you’re a young lady with only half a soul.
Ever since she was cursed by a faerie, Theodora Ettings has had no sense of fear or embarrassment—an unfortunate condition that leaves her prone to accidental scandal. Dora hopes to be a quiet, sensible wallflower during the London Season—but when Elias Wilder, the handsome, peculiar, and utterly ill-mannered Lord Sorcier, discovers her condition, she is instead drawn into strange and dangerous faerie affairs.
“Whimsical but never frivolous, sweet but not sugary. I loved it.” —Alix E. Harrow, author of The Once and Future Witches
Regency Faerie Tales
Half a Soul
Ten Thousand Stitches
Sir Albus Balfour was nattering on about his family's horses again.
Now, to be clear, Dora liked horses. She didn't mind the occasional discussion on the subject of equine family trees. But Sir Albus had the most singular way of draining all normal sustenance from a conversation with his monotonous voice and his insistence on drawing out the first syllable in the word purebred. By Dora's admittedly distracted count, in fact, Sir Albus had used the word purebred nearly a hundred times since she and Vanessa had first arrived at Lady Walcote's dratted garden party.
Poor Vanessa. She had finally come out into society at eighteen years old – and already she found herself surrounded by suitors of the worst sort. Her luscious golden hair, her fair, unfreckled complexion and her utterly sweet demeanour had so far attracted every scoundrel, gambler and toothless old man within the county. Surely Dora's lovely cousin would be equally attractive to far better suitors... but Dora greatly suspected that such men were out in London, if they were to be found anywhere at all.
At nineteen – very nearly pushing twenty! – Dora was on the verge of being considered a spinster, though she had supposedly entered society alongside her cousin. In reality, Dora knew that Vanessa had only put off her own debut for so long in order to keep her company. No one in the family was under any illusions as to Dora's attractiveness to potential suitors, with her one strange eye and her bizarre demeanour.
"Have you ever wondered what might happen if we bred a horse with a dolphin, Sir Albus?" Dora interrupted distantly.
"I— What?" The older fellow blinked, caught off his stride by the unexpected question. His salt-and-pepper moustache twitched, and the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes deepened, perplexed. "No, I cannot say that I have, Miss Ettings. The two simply do not mix." He seemed at a loss that he even had to explain the second part. Sir Albus turned his attention instantly back towards Vanessa. "Now, as I was saying, the mare was purebred, but she wasn't to be of any use unless we could find an equally impressive stud—"
Vanessa winced imperceptibly at the repetition of the word purebred. Aha. So she had noticed the awful pattern.
Dora interrupted again.
"– but do you think such a union would produce a dolphin's head and a horse's end, or do you think it would be the other way around?" she asked Sir Albus in a bemused tone.
Sir Albus shot Dora a venomous look. "Now see here," he began.
"Oh, what a fun thought!" Vanessa said, with desperate cheer. "You do always come up with the most wonderful games, Dora!" Vanessa looped her arm through Dora's, squeezing at her elbow a bit more firmly than was necessary, then turned her eyes back towards Sir Albus. "Might we inquire as to your expert opinion, sir?" she asked. "Which would it be, do you think?"
Sir Albus flailed at this, flustered out of his rhythm. He had only one script, Dora observed idly, and absolutely no imagination with which to deviate from it. "I... I could not possibly answer such an absurd question!" he managed. "The very idea! It's impossible!"
"Oh, but I'm sure that the Lord Sorcier would know," Dora observed to Vanessa. Her thoughts meandered slowly away from the subject, and on to other matters. "I hear the new court magician is quite talented. He defeated Napoleon's Lord Sorcier at Vitoria, you know. He does at least three impossible things before breakfast, the way I hear it told. Certainly, he could tell us which end would be which."
Vanessa blinked at that for some reason, as though Dora had revealed a great secret to her instead of a bit of idle gossip. "Well," Vanessa said slowly, "the Lord Sorcier is almost certainly in London, far away from here. And I wonder if he would lower himself to answering such a question, even if it were the sort of impossible thing he could accomplish." Vanessa cleared her throat and turned her eyes to the rest of the garden party. "But perhaps there are some here with a less impossible grasp of magic who might offer their expert opinion instead?"
Sir Albus's moustache was all but vibrating now, as he failed to suppress his outrage at the conversation's turn away from him and his prized horses. "Young lady!" he sputtered towards Dora. "That is quite enough! If you wish to discuss flights of fancy, then please do so somewhere far afield from us. We are having a serious, adult conversation!"
The man's vehemence was such that a drop of spittle hit Dora along the cheek. She blinked at him slowly. Sir Albus was red-faced and shaking with upset, leaning towards her in a vaguely threatening manner. Dimly, Dora knew she ought to be afraid of him – any other lady might have cringed back from such a violent outpouring of passion. But whatever impulse normally made ladies wither and faint in the face of frightening things had been lost on its way to her conscious mind for years on end now.
"Sir!" Vanessa managed in a shocked, trembling voice. "You must not address my cousin in such a way. Such behaviour is absolutely beyond the pale!"
Dora glanced towards her cousin, considering the way that her lip trembled and her hands clutched together. Quietly, she tried to mirror the gestures. Her aunt had begged her to act normal at this party, after all.
For a moment, as Dora turned her trembling lip back towards Sir Albus, a chastised look crossed his eyes. "I... I do apologise," he said stiffly. But Dora noticed that he addressed the apology to Vanessa, and not to her.
"Apologise for what?" Dora murmured absently. "For impacting your chances with my cousin, or for acting the boor?"
Sir Albus widened his eyes in shocked fury.
Oh, Dora thought with a sigh. That was not the sort of thing that normal, frightened women say, I suppose.
"Your apology is accepted!" Vanessa blurted out quickly. She pushed to her feet as she spoke, dragging Dora firmly away by the arm. "But I... I'm afraid I must go and regain my composure, sir. We shall have to discuss this further at another time."
Vanessa charged for the house with as much ladylike delicacy as she could muster while hauling her older cousin behind her.
"I've fumbled things again, haven't I?" Dora asked her softly. A distant pang of distress clenched at her heart. Acute problems rarely seemed to trouble Dora the way that they should, but emotions born of longer, wearier issues still hung upon her like a shroud. Vanessa should be married by now, Dora thought. She would be married if not for me. It was an old idea by now, and it never failed to sadden her.
"Oh no, you haven't at all!" Vanessa reassured her cousin as they slipped inside the house. "You've saved me again, Dora. Perhaps you were a bit pert, but I don't know if I could have stood to listen to him say that word even one more time!"
"What, purebred?" Dora asked, with a faint curve of her lips.
Vanessa shuddered. "Oh, please don't," she said. "It's just awful. I'll never be able to listen to anyone talk about horses again without hearing it that way."
Dora smiled gently back at her. Though Dora's soul was numb and distant, her cousin's presence remained a warm and steady light beside her. Vanessa was like a glowing lantern in the dark, or a comforting fire in the hearth. Dora had no joy of her own – though she knew the sense of contentment, or a kind of pleasant peace. But when Vanessa was happy, Dora sometimes swore she could feel it rubbing off on her, seeping into the holes where her own happiness had once been torn away and lighting a little lantern of her own.
"I don't think you would have enjoyed marrying him anyway," Dora told Vanessa. "Though I'll be sad if I've scared away some other man you would have liked more."
Vanessa sighed heavily. "I don't intend to marry and leave you all alone, Dora," she said quietly. "I really worry that Mother might turn you out entirely if I wasn't there to insist otherwise." Her lips turned down into a troubled frown that was still somehow prettier than any smile had ever looked on Dora's face. "But if I must marry, I should hope that it would be a man who didn't mind you coming to live with me."
"That is a very difficult thing to ask," Dora chided Vanessa, though the words touched gently at that warm, ember glow within her. "Few men will wish to share their new wife with some mad cousin who wears embroidery scissors around her neck."
Vanessa's eyes glanced towards the top of Dora's dress. They both knew of the little leather sheath that pressed against her breast, still carrying those iron scissors. It had been Vanessa's idea. Lord Hollowvale fears those scissors, she had said, so you should have them on you always, in case he comes for you and I am not around to stab him in his other leg.
Vanessa pursed her lips. "Well!" she said. "I suppose I shall have to be difficult, then. For the only way I shall ever be parted from you, Dora, is if you become mad with love and desert me for some wonderful husband of your own." Her eyes brightened at the thought. "Wouldn't it be wonderful if we fell in love at the same time? I could go to your wedding then, and you could come to mine!"
Dora smiled placidly at her cousin. No one is ever going to marry me, she thought. But she didn't say it aloud. The thought was barely a nuisance – rather like that fly in the corner – but Vanessa was always so horrified when Dora said common sense things like that. Dora didn't like upsetting Vanessa, so she kept the thought to herself. "That would be very nice," she said instead.
Vanessa chewed at her lower lip, and Dora wondered whether her cousin had somehow guessed her thoughts.
"...either way," Vanessa said finally, "neither of us shall find a proper husband in the country, I think. Mother has been bothering me to go to London for the Season, you know. I believe I want to go, Dora – but only if you swear you will come with me."
Dora blinked at her cousin slowly. Auntie Frances will not like that at all, she thought. But Vanessa, for all of her lovely grace and charm and good behaviour, always did seem to get her way with her stern-eyed mother.
On the one hand, Dora thought, she was quite certain that she would be just as much a hindrance to Vanessa's marriage prospects in London as she was here in the country. But on the other hand, there were bound to be any number of Sir Albuses hunting about London's ballrooms as well, just waiting to pounce on her poor, good-natured cousin. And as much of a terror as Vanessa was to faerie gentry, she really was as meek as a mouse when it came to normal human beings.
"I suppose I must come with you, then," Dora agreed. "If only so you needn't talk of horses ever again."
Vanessa smiled winsomely at her. "You are my hero, Dora," she said.
That lantern light within Dora glowed a tiny bit brighter at the words. "But you were mine first," she replied. "So I must certainly repay the debt."
Vanessa took her by the arm again – and soon Dora's thoughts had wandered well away from London, and far afield from things like purebred horses and impossible court magicians.
Auntie Frances was not pleased at the idea of Dora accompanying her cousin to London. "She'll require gowns!" was the woman's very first protest, as they discussed the matter over tea. "It will be far too expensive to dress two of you! I am sure that Lord Lockheed will not approve the money."
"She can wear my old dresses," Vanessa replied cheerfully, as though she'd already thought this through. "You always did like the pink muslin, didn't you, Dora?" Dora, for her part, merely nodded along obligingly and sipped at her teacup.
"She'll drive away your suitors!" Auntie Frances sputtered next. "What with her strangeness—"
"Mother!" Vanessa protested, with a glance at Dora. "Must you speak so awfully? And right in front of her as well!"
Auntie Frances frowned darkly. "She doesn't care, Vanessa," she said shortly. "Look at her. Getting that girl to feel anything at all is an exercise in futility. She may as well be a doll you carry around with you for comfort."
Dora sipped at her tea again, unfazed. The words failed to prick at her in the way that they should have. She wasn't upset or offended or tempted to weep. There was a small part of her, however – very deep down – that added the comment to a longstanding pile of other, similar comments. That pile gave her a faint sinking feeling which she never could quite shake. Sometimes, she would find herself taking it out and examining it in the middle of the night, for no particular reason she could discern.
Vanessa, however, was quite visibly crushed. Her eyes filled up with tears. "You can't mean that, Mother," she said. "Oh, please take it back! I shan't be able to forgive you if you won't!"
Auntie Frances stiffened her posture at her daughter's obvious misery. A weary resignation flickered across her features. "Yes, fine," she sighed, though she didn't look at Dora as she said it. "That comment was somewhat over the line." She pulled out her lace handkerchief and handed it over to her daughter. "Do you really wish to go to London, Dora?" she asked. It was clear from her tone that she expected to hear some vague, noncommittal answer.
"I do," Dora told her serenely. Auntie Frances frowned sharply at that and glanced towards her.
Because Vanessa wants me there, Dora thought. And I don't want to leave her. But she thought that this elaboration might complicate the point, and so she kept it to herself.
Auntie Frances said that she would think on the matter. Dora suspected that this was her way of delaying the conversation and hoping that Vanessa would change her mind.
But Vanessa Ettings always did get her way eventually.
Thus it was that they soon took off for London, all three of them. Lord Lockheed, always distant and more consumed with his affairs than with his daughter, did not deign to accompany them – but Auntie Frances had pulled strings through her sister's husband to secure them a place to stay with the Countess of Hayworth, who was possessed of a residence within London and only too pleased to have guests. Since Vanessa had declared her interest so belatedly, they had to wait for the roads to clear of mud – by the time they left Lockheed for London, it was already late March, with only a month or two left in the Season.
After so much fuss, the carriage into London was not at all how Dora might have imagined it. Even in her usual detached state, she couldn't help but notice the stench as they entered the city proper. It was a rude mixture of sweat, urine and other things, all packed together in too close a space. Auntie Frances and Vanessa reacted much more visibly; Auntie Frances pulled out her handkerchief and pressed it over her mouth, while Vanessa knit her brow and craned her head to look outside the carriage. Dora followed Vanessa's lead, glancing over her cousin's shoulder to see out the window.
There were so very many people. It was one thing to be told that London was well-populated, and another thing entirely to see it with one's own eyes. All those people running back and forth in the street got into each other's way, and they all seemed somewhat cross with one another. Often, their driver had to yell at someone crossing in front of their carriage, shaking his fist and threatening to run them down.
The noise would have been startling, if Dora were capable of being startled. It settled into her bones more readily than anything else had ever done, however – the biggest fly yet in the corner of the room. Dora found herself frowning at the chaos.
Thankfully, both the hubbub and the awful scents died down as their carriage crossed further into the city, onto wider, calmer avenues. The jumble of buildings that passed them slowly became more elegant and refined, and the suffocating press of people thinned out. Eventually, their carriage driver stopped them in front of a tall, terraced townhouse and stepped down to open the doors for them.
The front door of the townhouse opened just as Dora was stepping down after her cousin and her aunt. A maid and a footman both exited, followed by a thin, steel-haired woman in a dignified rose and beige gown. The two servants swept past, already helping to unload their things, while the older woman stepped out with a smile and took Auntie Frances's hands in hers.
"My dear Lady Lockheed!" the older woman declared. "What a pleasure it is to host you and your daughter. It has been an age since my last daughter was married off, you know, and I've had little excuse to make the rounds since then. I cannot wait to show you all around London!"
Auntie Frances smiled back with unexpected warmth, though there was a hint of nervousness behind the expression. "The pleasure is all ours, of course, Lady Hayworth," she said. "It's ever so gracious of you to allow us your time and attention." Auntie Frances turned back towards Vanessa, who had already dropped into a polite curtsy – this, despite the fact that they were all certainly stiff and miserable from the journey. "This is my daughter, Vanessa."
"It's so delightful to meet you, Lady Hayworth," Vanessa said, with the utmost sincerity in her tone. It was one of Vanessa's charms, Dora thought, that she was always able to find something to be truly delighted about.
"Oh, how lovely you are, my dear!" the countess cried. "You remind me already of my youngest. You can be sure we shall be fighting off more suitors than we can handle in no time!" Lady Hayworth's eyes swept briefly over Dora, but then continued past her. Dora was wearing a dark, sturdy dress which must have made her appear as a very fine lady's maid, rather than as a member of the family. Lady Hayworth turned back towards the townhouse, beckoning them forward. "You must be awfully tired from the road," she said. "Please come inside, and we shall set a table—"
"This is my cousin, Theodora!" Vanessa blurted out. She reached out to grab Dora's arm, as though to make sure no one could mistake the subject of her introduction. The countess turned with a slight frown. Her gaze settled back upon Dora – and then upon her eyes. Lady Hayworth's warm manner cooled to a faint wariness as she took in the mismatched colours there.
"I see," the countess said. "My apologies. Lady Lockheed did mention that you might be bringing another cousin, but I fear that I quite forgot."
Dora suspected that Auntie Frances might have downplayed the possibility, in the hopes that Vanessa might change her mind before they left. But Lady Hayworth was quick to adjust, even if she didn't quite pause to finish the formal introduction.
Still, Lady Hayworth led them into a comfortable sitting room, where a maid brought them biscuits and hot tea while they waited for supper to finish being prepared. The countess and Auntie Frances talked for quite some time, gossiping about upcoming parties and the eligible bachelors who were known to be attending them. Dora found herself distracted by the sight of a tiny ladybird crawling across the knee of her gown. She was just thinking that she ought to sneak it outside before one of the maids noticed it, when Vanessa spoke and broke her out of her musings.
"And which parties will the Lord Sorcier be attending?" Dora's cousin asked the countess.
Lady Hayworth blinked, caught off-guard by the inquiry. "The Lord Sorcier?" she asked, as though she wasn't certain she'd heard Vanessa correctly. When Vanessa nodded emphatically, the countess frowned. "I admit, I do not know offhand," she said. "But whatever romantic notions you may have taken up about him, I fear that he will not be a suitable match for you, my dear."
"Why ever not?" Vanessa asked innocently over her tea. "He's quite young for the position of court magician, I hear, and very handsome as well. And is he not a hero of the war?" Dora heard a subtle, misleading note in her cousin's voice, however, and she studied Vanessa's face carefully, trying to pick apart what she was up to.
"That much is true," Lady Hayworth admitted. "But Lord Elias Wilder is really barely a lord. The Prince Regent insisted on giving him the French courtesy title, of course, with all those silly privileges that the French give their own court magicians. Technically, the Lord Sorcier may even sit in on the House of Lords. But his blood is common, and his manners are exceptionally uncouth. I have had the misfortune of encountering him on several occasions now. He has the face of an angel, and the tongue of some foul... dockworker."
Dora found it amusing that the countess apparently considered dockworkers to be an appropriate foil for angels. She was briefly distracted by the notion that hell might be full of legions and legions of dockworkers, rather than devils.
"He does sound terribly unsuitable," Vanessa said reluctantly, regaining Dora's attention. "But please, if you don't mind – I would love to meet the Lord Sorcier at least once. I've heard such stories about him, and I would be crushed to leave London without even seeing him."
The countess tutted mildly. "I suppose we shall see," she said. "But for the very first thing, I have a wish to see you at Lady Carroway's ball. She has many fine and suitable sons, and you could do worse than entering London society at one of her parties..."
The subject meandered once again, until they were brought into dinner. They met Lord Hayworth that evening in passing, though he seemed quite busy with his own affairs, and less than interested in his wife's social doings. Once or twice, Dora thought to ask Vanessa about her interest in the Lord Sorcier, but her cousin kept demurring and changing the subject of conversation, and she eventually decided it was best to drop the matter while within current company.
Dora next thought that she would wait to ask until they were off to bed... but directly after dinner, she was swept away by a maid and given a hot bath, then bundled into a very lovely feather-down bed a few rooms down from her cousin.
Tomorrow, Dora thought distantly, while she stared at the foreign ceiling with interest. I am sure we'll speak tomorrow.
Quietly, she pulled the iron scissors from the sheath around her neck and tucked them beneath her pillow. As she drifted off to sleep, she dreamt of angels on the London docks, filing up and down the pier and hustling crates of tea onto ships.
For many days, Dora had no opportunity at all to speak to her cousin.
In fact, when she woke in her room the next day, she had to search out a maid to be told that Lady Hayworth and Auntie Frances had gone out shopping for accessories with Vanessa. Partway through the day, someone sent word that they would be unaccountably delayed, as they had been invited to dinner at the residence of one of Lady Hayworth's friends. After a day of ambling uncertainly about the townhouse, Dora finally went back to bed early, hoping that the next day might offer more fortuitous circumstances.
When Dora next woke, she was advised that Vanessa was getting her gown adjusted at the last moment, on Lady Hayworth's recommendation. This being the second day in a growing pattern, Dora did not waste any more time sitting at windows drinking tea. Instead, she asked where she might find something to read. She was directed towards a single bookcase within a small library, where were the sorts of books that ladies ought to read. Here she found a tattered, type-printed novel tucked away in the corner – perhaps a guilty pleasure for one of Lady Hayworth's absent daughters – and spent a few hours reading. The subject matter would have been quite shocking, if she had been the sort to shock, but it was an entertaining novel all the same.
The third day, Dora decided that it was time she went outside – and so she did. She put on her most reasonable dress and walked right out the front door and into the street. If the servants thought there was something odd about her walking out alone, they must have been convinced that there were some mitigating circumstances to which they were not privy, because no one tried to stop her. Then again, since Dora had no sense of fear, she was quite good at projecting a mild, distracted sort of confidence.
- On Sale
- Jun 28, 2022
- Page Count
- 304 pages