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The Autumn Palace (Ondine #2)

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Ondine: The Autumn PalaceSample

When you come to a footnote, click your mouse or tap your finger on the number and it will take you to the (mostly sarcastic, sometimes funny) explanation. Then, if you click/tap the number again, it will take you back to the line you were reading. There is no escaping the footnotes. If you ignore them, they will be patiently waiting for you at the end of each chapter.

Ondine is pronounced On-deen, but you can say it in your head any way you like.

Chapter One

Let’s get one thing clear from the outset. Ondine de Groot is not now, nor will she ever be, psychic.

Smart? Yes.

Prone to blurting out the wrong thing at the wrong time? Certainly.

But psychic? Hardly.

However, as she held Hamish’s warm hand in hers and walked towards the train station in West Venzelemma, she felt something momentous might happen.

Very soon.

Possibly in the next few pages.

Hamish was about to take on a job with the Duke of Brugel, who lived two boroughs away in the poshest part of Venzelemma.1

It would take nine train stops to get there, which meant the next hour could be their last together for a long, long time. In fact, Ondine might not see him again for a whole week! That was far too long to go without seeing the boyfriend she’d only just found.

Giving his hand a squeeze, she steadied her bubbling emotions. In return Hamish gave her his trademark lopsided grin, making her insides go squishy.

“Yer up tae something, lass, I can tell.”

“I was just thinking we might not have to say goodbye, once we reach the Duke’s place.” Naughty flurries spun in her head as a plan to stay together began to form.

“I thought ye looked crafty.”

Ondine grinned. “You know how I promised my parents I’d see you to the Duke’s, then come home. And then I also had to promise I wouldn’t ask the Duke for a job . . .”

“Och, hen, there’s a ‘but’ coming any minute now.”

“But!” And here Ondine beamed with how cleverly she could get around the promises she’d made to her parents without actually breaking them. “It doesn’t mean you can’t ask the Duke for a job on my behalf.”

“Yer sure yer nae stretching yer arm farther than yer sleeve’ll let ye?”

A few cranks and cogs shifted in Ondine’s head before she figured out what he was getting at. “I’m not overreaching. We’ll be fine. What could possibly go wrong?”

“I wouldnae want tae get yer parents off-side. When they find out they’ll be fair affronted.”

Ondine’s hopes crumpled. “You don’t want us to be together?”

“Ye cannae look at me like that, it breaks me wee heart. Ye know I love ye more than anything and I’ll do what I can for ye, lass.”

The tenseness in her shoulders eased. “I love you so much. If the Duke says ‘no,’ then I’ll wear it. But if he says ‘yes,’ then we can stay together.”

The cool autumn breeze blew her brown hair over her eyes, spoiling her view. Hamish tucked a stray tendril behind her ear. He gave her such a loving smile she forgot how to breathe.

“Yer sure this is what ye want?” he asked. “I’ll be right busy, what with all the important things the Duke has planned for me. Havtae admit, I’m right jumpy about ma first real gig.”

Ondine could have sworn his chest puffed out with pride. Fair enough, too. The Duke wanted Hamish – and his particular talents – to spy for him.

“I am absolutely sure. Oh, Hamish, we’re going to have such an adventure.”

“Aye. I cannae wait.” He grinned at her again and she felt lightheaded with relief.

Fresh emotions bubbled in her heart. “Hamish, you are the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

“Aw, hen, yer all that and more tae me.” He gave her a quick kiss. “But time’s wasting, let’s nawt keep the Duke waiting.

Just as they were asking for a couple of City Saver tickets a familiar voice called out, “Yoo-hoo”.2

Turning around, Ondine saw five suitcases cludder into a neat pile on the ground, as if they’d been levitating not a moment earlier.3 A lead weight dropped in her stomach at the sight of her Great-Aunt Colette Romano standing beside the luggage. How on earth had she packed it, then carried it, then caught up with them so quickly? Oh, that’s right, she was a witch.4

“What’s she doing here?” Ondine said to Hamish behind gritted teeth.

“There you are! Hamish, help me with these? There’s a good boy.” Old Col bustled up to the counter in front of them.

Ondine saw Hamish’s brows rise in confusion.

“Col, we are just paying for our tickets,” Hamish said, putting money on the counter. The older woman’s hand slammed down hard on his. He winced. Ondine winced in sympathy. For an old bird, she sure packed a wallop.

Old Col grew stern. “Put your money away, I do not travel second.”5

“I’m not asken ye to.”

“Then how am I to be Ondine’s chaperone if we are not all in the same carriage?” She made a tisking sound, shook her head and turned her attention to the confused ticket clerk. Then she said in a too-loud voice, “Three first tickets to Bellreeve, thank you.”

Ondine thought, Chaperone? For a train ride across town?

Hamish said, “That is very generous of you, but . . .”

The sound of rusty brakes screeched inside Ondine’s head. “Bellreeve? What are we going all the way out there for? The Duke’s right here in Venzelemma.”

“We are going to Bellreeve because that is where the Autumn Palechia is.”6

“But –” started Ondine.

“But –” started Hamish.

Old Col breathed in deeply and squared her shoulders. “Enough!” Just in case they didn’t get it, she held her palm up in a stop sign.

Silently, Ondine gave Hamish’s hand another squeeze to let him know, We’re in this together, we’ll be OK. Judging by Hamish’s pale face, he wasn’t so sure. Col had a way of messing up his life. He’d be numpty to think she’d go easy on him now.7

“Come, children.” Old Col had that air of command about her.

Ondine and Hamish could only shrug and follow. All the while Ondine kept wondering about the sudden change of plan. Then Old Col turned and glared at them, which had the effect of chilling the air by five degrees. “The suitcases aren’t going to carry themselves, are they?”

An empty feeling stole over Ondine as Hamish let go of her hand and retrieved Old Col’s cases. They looked back-breakingly heavy and there were five of them. Why didn’t Old Col levitate them instead?

“Aunt Col, I appreciate your concern for my welfare, but you really don’t need to come. I know the way to the Duke’s city palace, it’s not that far from here,” Ondine said. “Hamish and I have been there before, you know.”

“You would say that, child.”

Patronising old . . . It didn’t make sense to travel all the way to Bellreeve when the Duke lived so close by. If Ondine were honest with herself, she would also admit that the thought of travelling to the country and being so far away from home made her nervous. Having grown up in the bustling streets of Venzelemma, the city felt familiar. The countryside was another matter entirely. With its dark spooky woods and big noisy animals lumbering about, travelling there felt a bit scary and intimidating.

“Clearly you have not thought beyond your hormonal urges, Ondi. There is a bigger picture here and you are blind to it. You may recall that when the Duke of Brugel graced your parent’s hotel several weeks ago,8 he asked me to work for him, and I accepted.9 He also invited Hamish into his employ, and Hamish accepted. He has not, however, extended any such invitation to you. Were the two of you to arrive at his city doorstep together, you, Ondine, would be returning alone.”

The luggage weighed Hamish down. Ondine’s back hurt in sympathy and she grabbed one of the cases to lighten his load. A few paces on, her shoulder felt ready to give out, plus she had a burning strain in her lower back, but she bore it.

Ondine said, “The Duke will find something for me to do. I’ll work for free if I have to.”

“Don’t debase yourself like that!” Old Col tisked for good measure. “Clearly I arrived just in time, before you made a total fool of yourself. If you followed politics at all, you would know the Duke and his family always spend the autumn in Bellreeve before parliament opens. He’ll be there soon enough, so we’ll be spared the hassle of relocating. If anything, we could scout the area for anything untoward.”

“Oh!” That threw an entirely new light on things.

“When the three of us arrive in Bellreeve tonight, we will have travelled so far and for so long that our gracious host will feel obliged to offer you some kind of employment. No decent person would send a young girl on such a long return journey alone.”

It was almost as if Great-Aunt Col was going out of her way to help Ondine. The thought should have been reassuring, but instead it made her uneasy. A few moments ago she and Hamish had been in charge of their destiny. Or as in charge as you can be when you’re relying on a duke to give you a job. Now her great-aunt had taken over and Ondine didn’t like it one bit.

1 The Duke of Brugel is the hereditary head of state for the Constitutional Duchy of Brugel, a former Soviet bloc country in Eastern Europe that still hasn’t won Eurovision. Venzelemma, where Ondine lives with her family, is Brugel’s capital city. Some people might ask, if Brugel was a Soviet state, how did the Duchy survive? Good question. For answers, read The Complete History of Brugel, by Shaaron Melvedeir – 250 pages of folklore, facts, figures and the occasional photo. Another book, Everything Shaaron Melvedeir Says is Rubbish, by Isaak Drixen, 745 pages, is the subject of Brugel’s longest- running defamation action.

2 City Savers are very good value, but only for off-peak travel. All visitors to Venzelemma should buy a ten-pack to see the best the city has to offer. The central hospital with its neo-gothic exterior, flying buttresses and vaulted ceilings in the foyer are a must. The hospital is conveniently located within staggering distance of Brugel’s largest fish market, so visitors overcome by the stench of rotting seafood can get prompt treatment.

3 In Brugel, each dropped object carries a unique verb. For example, dropped cutlery clatters, dropped luggage cludders.

4 This was no disparaging comment, merely the truth. Colette Romano was a witch. The fact that she needed less than an hour to be ready for travel – and levitate five packed cases across a street – proved it.

5 Second is the logical yet slightly insulting term used by Bruglers (the residents of Brugel, who speak Brugelish) to describe any thing that is not first. It can mean as much as missing the 100-metre final by a gnat’s wing, or losing three sets to love in the first round of the Venzelemma Grand Slam.

6 “Palechia” is Brugelish for “palace”. It is pronounced “pe-cha”. Scholars insist the word was originally pronounced “PAL-e-CHEE-a” as recently as two hundred and fifty years ago. When Wiwyam The Gweat became Duke in 1799, his fondness for removing people’s heads from their shoulders made the rest of his advisors wewuctant to cowwect his many speech impediments.

7 Numpty means unwise. If a witch has previously become very cross with you and turned you into a ferret, you’d be numpty to think you could ever trust her.

8 See Ondine: The Summer of Shambles.

9 When the Duke met Old Col, he took a shine to her. Naturally, he wanted someone with her witchery skills to be working for him. If not, she might end up working against him, and that was a chance the Duke wasn’t willing to take.

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Other Books In The Ondine Series

Ondine: The Summer of Shambles


Ondine: The Winter of Magic

Ondine: The Spring Revolution

©E.J. McKenna