The Songbirds Overture Page 3

Neither she nor Gran acknowledged each other, but that wasn't anything new I pulled out a seat for my mother, and only quick action on my part got it back underneath her in time as she sat without looking. Hurrying to the fire, I poured steaming water from the kettle into the teapot, placing the chipped tea service with fresh cream and honey on the table in front of her. I could feel both their eyes on me as I sliced a few thick pieces of the fresh loaf Gran had baked, smeared them with butter I'd churned myself, and put them on the table with the tea. Then I cautiously sat down on the chair between them, careful to cross my ankles properly rather than pulling them up underneath me as was my habit.

My mother poured the tea for both of us, adding a generous amount of honey to both cups. I didn't like mine sweet, but I was afraid to argue.

She took a small sip of the steaming liquid, eyes fixed on me. What important things did she want to talk about? Had something happened? How did it involve me? A thousand questions leapt through my head, but underneath my curiosity, hope was growing.

’’Sing.’’

The demand managed to be expected and surprising at the same time. Tea slopped out of my cup onto my hand, and I had to bite my lip to keep from yelping at the pain. I'd imagined this situation more times than I could count, but now that it was upon me, I had no idea what to do. In my imagination, I'd always known the perfect song to sing, but in reality, I'd never learned anything beyond what we sang at festivals. I cast an imploring look Gran's direction, but she only rested her chin on crossed fingers. She wouldn't help me in this.

Sucking in a deep breath, I leapt into the song every­one always asked me to sing at dances. It was enthusiastic and joyful, but I barely made it through the first few lines before my mother flung up a hand, choking me off. ’’Stop. Please stop.’’ Her brow was creased with a scowl, her eyes cold as the winter sky. ’’Any talentless wretch could manage that.’’

’’I don't know any others,’’ I whispered, feeling a tremble in my voice. Do not cry, I screamed at myself. Don't you dare cry.

’’Why am I not surprised.’’ She sipped a mouthful of tea. ’’Cecile, you will repeat after me.’’

She sang a few lines, her voice lovelier than I'd remembered. ’’Now you.’’

I imitated her, hesitantly at first, but then with more confidence. She'd sing, and I'd repeat, trilling like a songbird mimicking a flute. My father walked in dur­ing the middle of it, the smile on his face sad and proud at the same time. I beamed at him while I stretched my voice to match the higher and higher notes my mother sang, meeting each and every one of them. It was the most exquisitely wonderful moment of my life.

She stopped singing as abruptly as she'd begun. Taking a mouthful of tea, my mother smiled. ’’Well done, Cecile. Well done.’’ Then she turned to my father. ’’I'll take her when she's seventeen.’’

’’No!’’ My father looked as surprised as anyone that he'd spoken. ’’No,’’ he repeated, more quietly this time. ’’You ain't taking her, Genevieve. I need her here. And besides, this here is her home.’’

’’She's wasted here!’’ There was heat in my mother's voice.

My father opened his mouth, looking ready to argue, but she jerked a hand up, cutting him off. ’’She's strong, clever, and once she's grown out of this awkward stage, she'll be fair enough. And her voice is divine.’’ Her eyes gleamed. ’’She's wasted out here in the country where no one would know talent if it kicked them in the face. I'll arrange for tutors to come out to Goshawk's Hollow to teach her I'll not have her arriving with the manners of a milk cow.’’

’’She knows plenty,’’ my father retorted. ’’More than most her age. She can keep house and farm, work the land, and hunt for game. She'll make a good wife.’’

’’As if that's all she's good for,’’ my mother spat, ris­ing to her feet. ’’Why should she limit herself to becoming a farmer's wife when she can be so much more?’’

My father went pale. ’’There was a time you thought becoming a farmer's wife was a mighty fine thing.’’

’’And look how well that turned out!’’

’’Enough, both of you!’’ Gran's voice filled the kitchen, drowning them both out. ’’This is Cecile's decision.’’

The tips of my fingers tingled as I looked from her, to my father, and then to my mother. I was equal parts astonished and terrified to hold my future in my own hands. My mother was offering me everything that I had ever dreamt about on a silver platter, but at what cost? My departure would not only leave my father short-handed on the farm and burden my grand­mother with more chores, it would hurt them. Joss, too. I'd be doing exactly what she feared I would leaving her. They'd think I was choosing my mother over them, when that wasn't it at all.

No, a dark little voice whispered inside my head, you'll be choosing your own selfish desires over the good of your family.

’’It won't be only music you learn,’’ my mother said softly. ’’You'll learn to read. You'll have a proper edu­cation.’’

I could hear the persuasion in her voice, but it was entirely unnecessary. I already wanted those things that wasn't the problem. ’’The pigs need me,’’ I said, my voice sounding tight in my own ears because it wasn't really the pigs I was talking about.

Nobody said anything for a long time.

’’Don't make this decision about the pigs,’’ Gran finally said, and I knew she wasn't talking about the animals either. She was all but telling me to follow my heart, to do whatever it was that I wanted to do. If only I could be certain what my heart really desired. I wanted to go to Trianon. I wanted to be with my fam­ily. But I couldn't have both.

Choose.

I swallowed hard. ’’I'm sorry, Papa,’’ I whispered. ’’But I have to know what it's like.’’

His face tightened, but it seemed like he'd known what my choice would be even before I did. ’’I'll make arrangements for the folks you send to stay at the inn,’’ he said to my mother. Then without another word, he turned around and left. Gran rose and went after him.

As soon as they were gone, my mother flung her arms around me, squeezing so tight my ribs creaked. Then she kissed me on both cheeks. ’’You made the right decision, darling. I knew you would.’’ She unclasped a golden pendant from her neck and fas­tened it around mine. Leaning down, she whispered in my ear, ’’Beauty can be created, knowledge learned, but talent can neither be purchased nor taught. And you've talent, my dearest girl. When you stand on stage and sing, the whole world will love you.’’

Her words repeated over and over again in my head as I watched her pull back and away from me. ’’I can­not linger here, my love;I'm needed in Trianon tonight.’’ A soft laugh erupted from her throat. ’’I wish I could take you with me now, but it's better if we wait. You need to be ready so that everything will be perfect.’’

I watched her retreat to her carriage, my mind whirling with elation, fear, and excitement. I had four years to practice. Four years to learn. Four years to prepare.

And when I turned seventeen, I'd be ready to take on all the world had to offer.


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