Odette’s agreement to walk the Yule grove spiral with a stranger is born of desperation. Her brother and sisters are all expecting happy events. Odette loves them, but she has always felt out of place at Cygne Manor. She is much bigger than her golden-haired sisters, and her hair is black with a white streak. Is it any wonder she feels like a changeling? Courtfolk men think her odd. Leprechauns call her Eala Dubh, or Black Swan. At twenty-three, she feels left behind and overlooked, and even with a new gown and an heirloom necklace, the prospect of one more Yule ball filled with Christmas cheer and happy announcements fills her with dismay.
Enter Godfrey de Courcy, who doesn’t want to be at the Yule ball either. He should be perfect for Odette, but he’s such a typical courtfolk man.
Odette, the youngest and only unmarried daughter of Cygne Manor, should have been looking forward to the Yule ball.
Her mother, Rinette, was a gracious lady who slipped so gently through life that folk were inclined to forget about her in between meetings. It was a family joke that Odette’s papa, Roche, had met Maman a dozen times, and danced with her as many, before he could remember her name. Even then he found it unsuitable, so Katerina “Rina” Marquessa agreed to a new diminutive—one her soon-to-be husband would remember.
Odette didn’t believe it. Was it likely Papa would ask Maman to change her name to match the odd Cygne tradition?
No. It must have been Rinette’s idea.
Odette’s tall, fair, cheerful sisters, Lizette and Alouette, were married to tall, fair, cheerful men. Their brother, Rodan, was wed to a tall, fair, smiling woman. They were all devoted. The husbands were sash-led, as the saying went, but that was their choice. They were the ones who’d made the proposals.
Grandmama Cygne said gentlemen did the proposing, but the power was in ladies’ hands. They could delight or blight a suitor’s life with a smiling yes or a regretful thank you, no. A proper lady, Grandmama added, never allowed an unwanted proposal to happen.
Odette had never had the chance to test the theory.
She felt like a changeling. No one ever said so in her hearing, but she was sure they thought it.
Left by the humans under a sweetwood tree. The real Odette Cygne, the tall, fair, smiling one, the gold swan with the unfailingly sweet nature, is somewhere over there, delighting the humans. Meanwhile, here am I, dark, grumpy and ungrateful…
That was a silly superstition. Everyone knew humans didn’t really leave changelings. After all, they couldn’t get out of their homeland of over there without an escort.
Lizette, Alouette, Rodan and their families were spending Christmas at Cygne Manor. The nurseries would be full with the eight grandchildren they had wrought between them. Rinette hinted that all three couples had special news to impart at the ball tonight.
Cats in the pantry! Again? Odette managed not to say it aloud. She loved her siblings, liked their spouses, and was fond of their children. Sort of.
There were five grave little fair-haired maidens— Paulette, Mariette, Henriette, Colette, and Linette. The three flaxen boys were Rhone, Roland and Robere. They seemed puzzled by her, as if they knew she had no business in the family.
Odette gazed at herself in the looking glass as she laced up her gown. It was powder blue with three rows of dull gold braid lapping the shoulders and angling down the skirt to swirl about the hem.
It wasn’t a hand-me-down from her sisters. Odette was a different shape from Liz and Lou, who looked like their maman. She was tall, like them, but rounder. Her bosom reminded her of two cottage loaves wrapped in a cloth. She’d looked grown-up at fifteen. Even at twelve, she’d outgrown her beloved pony, Pish. His real name was Pishogue, a fine leprechaun name meaning a spell or a charm. Pish had been a gift from Jeven Joyful, who, despite his green skin and irrepressible leprechaun nature, was considered one of the family.
Odette pinned up her hair. It, too, was out-of-step with her sisters’. They managed a creditable spun-gold effect. It looked marvellous in paintings.
Odette’s hair was swan’s-wing black with an odd white streak. She had not been painted yet, but she was sure that when she was, the streak would look as if someone had pinned in a swatch of hair clipped from the tail of Snowcloud, the family cow.
Maybe when I’m seventy the streak will be distinguished, rather than odd.
Cousin Toinette’s thick dark tresses had a striped and dappled effect, like a mackerel tabby’s, but the painting done when she turned thirty showed her hair as dark as soot. She was posed in the manor kitchen, up to her elbows in dough, with her lover peeping over her shoulder and extending one finger to steal from the bowl.
Odette had always admired that painting. It was so lovingly eccentric.
She liked Toinette’s man, Jeven, too. Toinette had fallen in love with him over fifty years ago. Their halfling children were grown and had families of their own. Some might be at the ball tonight. She hoped so. The halfling cousins were fun. They were inclined to do odd and delightful things, and they didn’t conjure.
Odette could conjure, but she wasn’t good at it. Her brother and sisters were.
For about five minutes, at fifteen, Odette had entertained the fantasy that she was really Cousin Toinette’s daughter. Mature thought quashed that notion. Odette had none of the leprechaun markers, and she couldn’t believe Toinette would ever lie down with anyone but her beloved Jeven Joyful.
Leprechauns had interesting names and interesting lives. Odette wished she could marry one, but none of the green way men had ever shown interest. They avoided using her name, addressing her instead as Eala Dubh, which Jeven told her meant black swan.
“They mean nothin’ bad wid it, lovie,” he’d explained. “It’s just the green way to call it as we see it.”
Cousin Toinette was comforting. “Black swans are beautiful, sweet. I have a gown made in black satin with a white ruffle in the train tucked away in my old boudoir. Jeven calls that my swan gown. It makes him all excited.”