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Once: Six Historically Inspired Fairytales

 

Once

Six Historically Inspired Fairytales

by

Elisabeth Grace Foley, Rachel Heffington, J. Grace Pennington, Emily Ann Putzke, Suzannah Rowntree, and Hayden Wand.

The Mountain of the Wolf © 2016 Elisabeth Grace Foley

She But Sleepeth © 2016 Rachel Heffington

[_Rumpled _]© 2016 J. Grace Pennington

Sweet Remembrance © 2016 Emily Ann Putzke

Death Be Not Proud © 2016 Suzannah Rowntree

With Blossoms Gold © 2016 Hayden Wand

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—for example, electronic, photocopy, recording—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.

This volume contains works of fiction. Names, characters, incidents, and dialogues are products of the each author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Book design by Suzannah Rowntree

Cover design by Suzannah Rowntree

Copy editing by J. Grace Pennington

Preface

Humanity was born craving a story. We were born with a desire to assimilate facts, emotion, and experience into a tangible understanding of what is happening. What has happened to us, to them, to humanity at large. Story is our answer to the question of why we are here and from whence we came and where we will go. In fact, this pursuit of our thirst is the reason we cannot be content with the old ways of telling things.

All the authors who have contributed stories to this collection have come from varied backgrounds, locations, and lives. Elisabeth Grace Foley, an accomplished writer of Westerns, also writes fairytale retellings set in historical periods. The Mountain of The Wolf, with its deliciously moody setting and slow-burning romance, is a bit more intense than her previous two. J. Grace Pennington predominantly writes science fiction and dystopia, and her steampunk novella, Rumpled, is a unique mesh of science fiction with the historical and fairytale genres. Emily Ann Putzke, author of Sweet Remembrance, is a budding expert on the subject of WWII, having written a novel based on the life of Hans Scholl. The setting of the Warsaw ghetto for her story bears the rich stamp of her intimacy with this time period. Suzannah Rowntree primarily focuses on historical fantasy, writing an an ongoing series of fairytale retelling novellas in wildly different genres, cultures, and time periods, of which[_ Death Be Not Proud_] is the fourth and set in a dazzling portion of New Zealand. Hayden Wand’s stories tend to meld her love of history with a sense of fun and humor, and these aspects shine in her contribution, With Blossoms Gold. My own story, She But Sleepeth, is rooted in highly personal, sensory memories of my several trips to the beautiful country of Romania and the uncanny hold Peles Castle and its royals have on my imagination and my heart.

We six write in vastly different genres. We live different lives and pursue different careers, but this quest for Story is our unifying factor and the thing which, we hope, reaches you and binds we story-cravers – authors and readers – together.

It is a new age we live in. A confusing, pain-filled, rich and thrashing age. If life was, at one period, lived on the bucolic edge of Once Upon A Time, we now live under the nose of the dragon who, while not yet slain, is certainly aware of a roving knight on his way thither. It makes the dragon petulant, understandably, and we under that rule are pressed harder than ever to see past the smoke and scales to our rescue. The fairytale must speak differently to us now. So we reassemble. We change the story just enough to help us understand our own way through the larger narrative. Perhaps Rapunzel in her tower can no longer help us; we need a Rapunzel who has broken free. Red-Riding Hood no longer a child afraid of wolves, but a strong woman who seeks them. Sleeping Beauty must sleep no longer but awaken to her rightful inheritance with a will to protect. And while caught in our Age like a princess bound promise-wise to Rumpelstiltskin, we can strike these fairytales like matches at midnight, lighting the way for the still-noble huntsman who will break fealty with the Evil Queen.

And while we make the changes our hearts glow, pumping warm blood into numb fingertips. Here is Story again, in a way we can understand it, in a way we can attain it. Here is courage and high honor. Daring and the truest love.

Here are fairytales. Beware the dragons, and enter in.

Rachel Heffington

Contributing Author She But Sleepeth

The Mountain of the Wolf

Elisabeth Grace Foley

I.

The fences had fallen into disrepair in a year and a half. Down below the level shelf of land where the buildings stood the clay-colored cliffs, the thread of dark green in the bottom of the canyon, and the long, silent expanse of blue sky over it were all unchanged. But it seemed quieter, and not only because there were no horses in the corrals.

In the dusty, sun-baked yard in front of the house, Charlie Conlan, who had never met a silence he did not break, lounged against the fence and gave tongue. “Hey, Rosa Jean!” he called. “Ain’t you gonna tell what’s for supper tonight? I got a sneaking predisposition that it’s pie.”

There was no answer, and he slid his elbows off the fence and came closer—edging round outside a certain radius from the door, however, for he had met a pan of dishwater in the face before, and could not be entirely sure it had been by accident. “Hey!” he hollered. “Rosa Je-e-an! What’s on the bill-a-fare?”

Rosa Jean appeared in the doorway and shook the dust from a faded rag-rug mat with a snap. “Salt pork,” she said. “I haven’t seen a red cent out of you or Wirt yet. You’re not getting anything better till you pay up.”

Charlie began complainingly, “Aw, say, listen—” but she cut him off: “And don’t tell me you haven’t got any money, because I know Wirt went down to the Gulch to lay in supplies. I’m not running any free lunch counter, for you or anybody else.”

“Shooee!” said Charlie. “You got a bite today. Any special reason?”

“I wouldn’t call you a special reason,” said Rosa Jean Kennedy tartly. She disappeared into the house and came back with a broom, and began to sweep the dry, splintered wooden steps.

Charlie grinned only half sourly. His customary expression wavered between joking bravado and a rather sneaky, guilty look, as if he had just been caught in something or expected to be caught at any minute. He put his foot up on the lower step, and Rosa Jean pushed it off with the broom. “All right, all right. Reckon maybe I ought to marry into the business if I expect not to starve. You are gonna marry me one day, aren’t you, Rosa Jean?”

“If it ever snows on the Fourth of July I might consider it.”

Charlie let the well-worn joke fall with a flop. “Well,” he said, “I reckon it’s too much trouble to take for pie. Maybe I’d a’ had a better chance with you if Bruce was around—he used to say he could sweet-talk you into most anything so long as he caught you before your mind was all the way made up.”

The words were barely out of his mouth before he perceived he had made a mistake. Rosa Jean’s face changed—all expression wiped from it, stiffened in hard reserve. Charlie, made as uneasy as it was possible for him to be, looked away and hitched his shoulders awkwardly. “I’m—I’m sorry, Rosa Jean. I didn’t mean to remind you.”

“You’re not fit to remind me.”

Charlie either could not or did not want to attempt protest of this. He looked away down the trail sloping from the ranch toward the canyon, twisting his face into a squint that did nothing to improve his appearance. Rosa Jean turned on her heel and went inside.

She re-emerged in a moment carrying a basket, came down the steps and started for the chicken coop. Charlie started to follow her for a few steps but thought better of it and stopped.

“Going to be three of us for supper,” he said, with a half-hearted effort at sounding defiantly normal. “We’re taking a third fella in with us this trip. Guess I’ll go and meet Wirt and him now.”

“I’m not stopping you,” said Rosa Jean without turning her head.

Charlie, once it had penetrated his mind that this was a hint, glanced vaguely around the yard, shrugged, and walked to his horse, which stood saddled and resting a hind hoof by the fence. He mounted and started down the trail, a soft, choking plume of dust-like smoke ascending from his horse’s hooves and blowing up and over the empty, run-down little mountain ranch to dissipate in the endless skies above.

Rosa Jean paused at the enclosure of the chicken coop with her hand on the latch, and stood looking back until the dust thinned and faded, leaving a clear view of the canyon below. The long, diamond-shaped shelf of land was a halfway point tucked against the side of the rough red mountain range—a few acres of pasturage and a small cluster of buildings that stood in the shallow inner point of the diamond against the mountainside. To the left of the house, the trail dropped toward the canyon; away at the far end of the pasture began another that wound up into the mountains. Most of the prospectors who hunted silver and the mustangers who hunted wild horses there passed this way on their journey upwards—yet even these visitors were few and scattered enough.

Rosa Jean fed the chickens, then put her empty basket on top of a fence post and crossed to the barn. Inside the barn was dark, and a phosphorescent haze hung in front of her eyes for a moment as they adjusted from the suddenly-shut-off afternoon glare. The one horse inside moved white in the gloom—a finely speckled flea-bitten gray which turned its well-shaped face toward her inquiringly. Rosa Jean moved close to the horse, put her hands on either side of its neck, and pressed her face against the firmness of its smooth, wiry coat. She was conscious of an intense desire to feel some living thing close to her, to direct toward it some other feeling besides the indifference and dislike bestowed on most of the human beings who crossed her path. She was weary of feeling those things, and only those things.

Perhaps it was because Pheasant was the only other living creature, besides Wirt and Charlie, who had been there when Bruce was. She had sold his two horses that were left, but Pheasant was her own. The only other creature who would remember, if horses could remember. All the others had forgotten, or else they did not care.

Meanwhile, Charlie Conlan rode at a lope along the trail that skirted the edge of the canyon. Further on, the trail curved down and descended into it, and away below the canyon and a succession of pine-clad slopes lay the mining town of Gorham Gulch. The Gulch had been brought into existence, like a mushroom forced in a greenhouse, by a silver boom ten years before and was now kept alive in a somewhat reduced state by a small but steady trickle of ore from the few mines that remained open.

Half a mile above the place where the trail climbed out of the canyon, Charlie met two riders with a pack-horse coming up—Wirt Timmins and another man. They drew rein facing each other at the crest of the long ledge of sun-baked rock, and made salutations after their own fashion.

“Hey,” said Charlie. “Got everythin’?”

Wirt Timmins had a thin, pointed nose, a wide mouth, and a complexion the color and texture of a gunnysack. His head was balanced on his scrawny neck in such a way that it seemed every heavy nod would bobble it off. He made one of these nods now in answer to Charlie, and then gestured toward his companion. “This here’s Quincy Burnett. Told you about him.”

“Yep,” said Charlie with a squint and tilt of his hat in the direction of the newcomer.

Quincy Burnett returned the acknowledgement with a nod, for he felt that after this exchange “Pleased to meet you” would have seemed an extravagance. He was young, with a suntanned face and tousled light hair, and the studious expression he preserved while in Charlie and Wirt’s presence hinted at his intelligence.

Charlie turned his horse around and they proceeded up the trail, Wirt and the pack-horse falling to the rear. The sun, almost directly ahead of them, was taking on its evening tint, and the rocks, the canyonsides below, and the huge bulk of the mountain range looming above all emitted a red-gold glow, as if the whole was baking in some gigantic kiln. Quincy Burnett turned in the saddle to look back at the trail, then pushed his hat back and tilted his head to look up at the peaks, as though gathering a sense of how this majestic mass of creation related to the small gulch of civilization he had left behind.

He glanced at the sinking sun and brought his horse up alongside Charlie’s, the trail having widened to permit two abreast. “Going far tonight? Looks like it’ll be dark before we make those hills.”

“Naw, not far,” said Charlie. “It’s only half an hour from here to Rosa Jean’s place. We’ll lay over there for the night. Start up in the morning.”

Quincy, who had been studying the looming mountains again, glanced at Charlie with a mildly curious flicker of an eyebrow. “Who’s Rosa Jean?”

This question seemed to give Charlie considerable mental exercise. “Well,” he said after a minute, “she’s Rosa Jean—Kennedy. Lives up ahead—alongside of the mountains.”

“Alone?” said Quincy, a little more surprised.

“Yeah. She cooks meals for the prospectors and such that come up this way into the hills.”

“Seems like a strange place for a woman alone—this far up from the Gulch, even,” said Quincy, his gaze straying into the darkening reaches of the canyon.

“Well, it was her brother’s place. She used to live there with him.”

“What happened to him?” said Quincy.

Again there was a small, uncomfortable pause before Charlie spoke. “He’s dead.”

Quincy asked no further questions. He sensed that there was some unpleasant story woven around the Kennedys, and somehow it seemed to make it more sordid to pry it in pieces from the likes of Charlie Conlan.

It was dusk when they arrived at the Kennedy place. A light in the window of the house shone out like a single eye through the gloom. They unsaddled and turned their horses into the corral, and Quincy followed the other two to the bunkhouse, a long narrow shed that looked settled and crooked even in the uncertain lighting. Inside, Wirt lit a small lamp with a smoky chimney, revealing a couple of narrow bunks against the walls at one end and some old Army cots crowded around a tin stove at the other. They stowed their saddles and packs under the bunks, put out the light, and went across to the house for supper.

After the bare, musty-smelling bunkhouse, the front room of the little three-room house surprised Quincy somewhat. It was bare enough, but the plank walls and floor were scrupulously clean, and there were turkey-red calico curtains at the windows and a couple of braided rag rugs on the floorboards. A cot with some Navajo blankets on it simulated a sofa, some pegs on the wall near the door held a man’s old sourdough coat and some kerchiefs or aprons, and there was a little thing of needlework in a wooden frame on another wall. Quincy looked at it more closely; it was a little girl’s sampler with the precise letters of the alphabet in colored worsteds and a motto stitched a bit crookedly but proudly beneath it:

Heaven is our Guard, and Innocence its Care

Nor need the Just the worst of Dangers fear.

He felt an unexpected little stab of pity—it was so far removed from the night and the inhospitable place and the crude little house. A pitiful remembrance of innocence long gone, perhaps.

He turned away from the frame, not wanting to be caught looking at it, and joined his two companions at the table. There were some noises in the kitchen of dishes being moved and pans scraped across a stove, and as Quincy pulled his chair up to the table a girl came through the door into the front room with a platter of food in her hands. Quincy gave her a sidelong glance—and then another that stayed on her, with slow surprise.

A child—that was his first impression, but on the second look he revised it. She was older than that, though probably not much more than seventeen or eighteen. She was tall and slender and angular, her straight dark hair drawn back from her face into a long braid that fell halfway to her waist; her brown calico dress was worn but clean like everything else in the house. Nothing about her matched the idea he had formed in his head of the lone woman belonging to a place like this.

Charlie made introductions with a jerk of his tow-colored head and his mouth already full. “This’s Quincy Burnett—he’s goin’ back in the hills with us after horses.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said Quincy, looking up at her from the act of filling his own plate. From across the table Rosa Jean looked directly at him for the first time, studied him for a second as if taking his measure, and then turned away toward the kitchen without having betrayed a flicker of interest.

Quincy fell to the business of eating along with the other two, all of them with considerable appetites and their elbows on the table, but he could not resist glancing toward the kitchen door now and then. The girl puzzled him. She was not what he would have called attractive, with her thin, dark, high-cheekboned young face, but there was a strange tired, far-away look in her eyes that stirred a questioning instinct in him. What was a kid like that doing alone in a place like this?

He did not see whether she had her supper in the kitchen, or if she had eaten before they came, but when they were finished she came back into the front room and began to collect their empty tin plates and cups. She came around Wirt’s chair and leaned past Quincy Burnett to pick up his empty cup, and Quincy looked up at her. “Thanks,” he said. “It was real good.”

Rosa Jean stared down at him almost as if surprised, and he thought her expression softened uncertainly—perhaps the would-be equivalent of a smile. Then she turned away.

Quincy leaned back in his chair and spoke to Charlie. “Passed a lot of abandoned claims on the way up,” he said. “Silver pretty much played out around here?”

“Not all the way. One or two o’ the strikes, the veins kept going—mining company’s got hold o’ them now. Good enough for prospectors to keep looking—but there ain’t many claims worth jumping.” Charlie gave a snort of a laugh.

“The Gulch seemed pretty quiet to me.”

“Is now. They say it was fair wide-open back during the boom, though. Before my time. Now the ore they ship out ain’t hardly worth anybody’s trouble to interfere with.”

“Or the payrolls either, I guess.”

“Chicken feed,” said Charlie laconically.

Quincy grinned dryly. “Must’ve fallen off pretty quick,” he observed. “I knew a fella over in Nevada who said his brother got killed by claim-jumpers in Gorham Gulch not three years ago. Heck,” he added, “I even heard talk that the Dugan gang used to hang out around here. Probably just talk—Ralph Dugan would be too smart to waste his time on cheap ore.”

There was a sudden scrape of one tin dish against another. Quincy looked at the other three, but he could not tell whose hand had caused the sound. But something had happened in the room. Wirt Timmins was staring studiously at nothing, and Charlie Conlan’s face and stocky neck had turned a slow, uncomfortable red. Quincy Burnett glanced across the table at Rosa Jean Kennedy and caught a brief flash of expression in her dark eyes. It was almost like hate.

The moment was so short he almost thought he had imagined it. Rosa Jean leaned over the table, piled forks and cups on a stack of tin plates, and turned with them toward the kitchen. Charlie Conlan began in a voice pitched a little higher than before to tell a rambling anecdote about claim-jumpers that was clearly intended to fill the silence. By the time he finished, the tension that had been in the room, whatever it was, had gone.

Rosa Jean came back from the kitchen, picked up the last empty cup and stray knife, and disappeared again. She did not even look at any of them, and Wirt and Charlie seemed to pay little attention to her—Wirt somnolent and nodding in his chair, Charlie on his feet stretching and yawning. Quincy got up and went to the door and opened it. A rim of pale light still rested round the horizon, and above it, a single glimmering star hung straight above the canyon. All else was blue-black. The silence was enormous, as if the vastness of the uninhabited mountains expanded after dark.

“Guess we’ll get started in the morning after breakfast,” said Charlie. He shouldered past Quincy and down the wooden steps that creaked.

Wirt trailed after him, his large head and hat floating along looking weirdly disembodied in the dusk, and Quincy pulled the door shut and followed them. He walked slowly across the dark yard, the crunch of crumbled sandstone underfoot—to his left were the crooked, grayish lines of corral fences, to his right a wall of mountainside more sensed than seen. He was thinking about the strange things a man saw sometimes along the roadsides of a journey through life.

When the dishes were washed and put away, Rosa Jean emptied the dishwater out into the darkness. She wiped out the dishpan and hung it on its nail in the kitchen, and then she went back and stood for a moment in the open door. She had put out the lamp in the front room, so that before and behind her lay equally swallowed up in night—she stood as indistinguishable as a slender shadow in the darkened doorway. With the sun gone, a breath of cooler air came up across the yard to meet her. Rosa Jean laid her head against her hand on the doorframe—her head ached, and the breeze felt good on her sweaty forehead.

Away to the right, a dim light filtered from one of the smeared windows in the bunkhouse. Rosa Jean shut her eyes. The ache was there again, not just in her head but in her very being, worse than it had been that afternoon. A long line of unwashed tin plates and cups jangled through her memory; endless pots of beans and endless sourdough biscuits. Men—fat men and thin men, unshaven men, shoveling food into their mouths, the odor of tobacco hanging round them—loud ones and taciturn ones, and the scant silver and copper coins they counted out in payment. Always a prickly guard to keep up for her own safety, and never any conversation more congenial than Charlie Conlan’s. And in between them, long spaces of vacancy. She realized dimly that the one who had spoken to her tonight was the first in months who had thought to say thank you.

And then he had said that. It was always this way. A moment’s lightening of the load, a moment’s false peace, and then—the reminder.

Rosa Jean opened her eyes. The light in the bunkhouse was out.

From somewhere far, far above, in those mountains against which the ranch lay huddled, the howl of a solitary wolf fell like a dark meteor through the night. Wolves’ dens were up among the peaks, too well hidden for any hunter to find without risking his life. Packs of them preyed on the herds of wild horses that ran in the mountains, vanishing into their fastnesses afterwards too quickly for the occasional mustanger who spotted them to pursue. Her brother had taken a shot at a fleeing wolf once up in the mountains, but missed.

In the darkness of the doorway, with her head resting against her hand, Rosa Jean brought her teeth together slowly and held them clenched tight. As long as that cry from the mountain was there to remind her, she would not weaken. She would keep to the lonely course she had set.

II.

Sunlight came pouring through the open door, and the sky over the canyon was a piercing light blue. Rosa Jean was setting the table when she heard a footstep and saw a crisp-cut shadow fall on the floorboards, and she looked up to see Quincy Burnett in the doorway. He stepped in and walked across to the table. “Good morning,” he said easily.

“Good morning,” said Rosa Jean after the fraction of a second’s pause. She slid another tin plate across the table to its place.

Quincy looked back through the open door. “Quite a view you’ve got up here,” he said. “I’ll bet some of those hills are in the next county.”

She nodded. “You can see three counties on a clear day.”

“It’s pretty grand, all right,” said Quincy. “It must get a—” he glanced at Rosa Jean “—a little lonesome up here, though… doesn’t it?”

Asked in that honest way, it sounded like such a small, everyday thing—to be a little lonesome. Rosa Jean would have given a good deal not to answer the question, but she did not feel like being rude this morning—not to someone who had treated her better than most. She gave a noncommittal shrug. “A little.”

She lifted her eyes from the table to find Quincy Burnett looking at her in a puzzled, meditative way. He had been intelligent enough to ask the question; he must be intelligent enough to see how she brushed it off. She had to lift her chin to look at him fairly, though she was tall enough for a girl; he looked down at her from a good six feet. He was a sturdy young giant, not at all bad-looking, with broad shoulders and hard-muscled arms more like a lumberjack’s than a mustanger’s, and tawny-gold curling hair.

The bacon was snapping and sizzling in the skillet on the stove, and Rosa Jean put a handful of knives and forks on the table and went out to the kitchen to attend to it, then came back. Quincy Burnett pulled out a chair from the table and turned it around and sat down straddling it, folding his arms across the back, as she started putting the cutlery around at the places. “I didn’t know anybody lived up this far,” he said. “Wirt told me there was nothing much up here but wild horses and a few prospectors. Is there anybody else living up here?”

“There’s the Joymans, a few miles further up—they’re a little odd, but they’re decent enough. I don’t see them very often, though. That’s about it.”

“Then you—really live here all by yourself?” said Quincy, as if he had not quite believed it until then.

Rosa Jean steeled herself to make the answer, as much to herself as to him. “I make out all right. I don’t need very much—I go down to the Gulch every few months for supplies, or Wirt or Charlie goes for me if they’re around.”

“Well—I didn’t mean that exactly. I mean, for a woman—don’t you ever get uneasy being alone with strangers stopping here?”

Rosa Jean looked sideways at him. His blue eyes had a squint when he was puzzled, but somehow it was not like the screwed-up, fractious squint of Charlie’s that continually got on her nerves. She was used to making short, dismissive assessments of the characters of men who pulled chairs up to her table, out of self-defense, usually beginning by assuming the worst to make things easier. The attention Quincy Burnett was paying her was enough to be noticeable, but it did not feel threatening. “I don’t worry about it,” she said.

“But should you?” said Quincy, his eyes following her as she moved away.

Rosa Jean turned on her heel in the kitchen doorway and spoke crisply. “I can take care of myself all right. I don’t need to worry.”

Charlie and Wirt arrived and came tramping in to breakfast before the conversation could go any further, and Quincy turned his chair around and joined them at the table. Rosa Jean, after bringing in the bacon and flapjacks, retreated to the kitchen and heated water to wash the dishes—listening to them discuss questions of rope halters and waterholes and box-canyons as they ate. And then in a little while they were gone—finished with breakfast and outside saddling their horses and loading the pack-horse. Rosa Jean went out into the bright blue-domed morning to feed the chickens while they were still at work. Quincy Burnett did not pay any further attention to her before they left, and Rosa Jean felt that if it had mattered more to her, she would have been a little sorry. He had been rather nice. But her rebuff had been very plain to understand, and no doubt he had taken it and had put her entirely out of his mind by now. He did not even look back when, the three men having mounted up, they rode out between the end of the corral and the bunkhouse and across the pasture to where the trail began its climb into the hills.

But that was what she had intended, after all: to be invisible. To live here small and silent and dark and easily forgotten, to listen without being noticed, that all served her purpose. There was no sense in being disappointed when she succeeded.

Through the brilliant hours of morning, with the sun growing hotter, the three riders climbed, winding deeper and deeper into the range of mountains toward the wild horses’ range. Quincy followed the others up a narrow but well-trodden trail, whose existence made him curious until he remembered there were other mountain-dwellers higher up. From time to time it took them into shadow up through a stand of pine, then out along a risky ledge strewn with loose stone, then again through a narrow defile with rock walls rising shoulder-high on each side. But no matter how they climbed, the great red peaks were always higher still, seemingly unscalable towers overhead.

Around mid-morning they passed the Joymans’ cabin, and its inhabitants—Ma and Pa Joyman, solemn and aged, and their three grown sons, solemn and balding early—stood still at their tasks and watched the file of horses pass, rather like a family of tall prairie dogs. The Joymans had come up during the boom and wandered vaguely through the mountains for a while looking for silver without finding it, and eventually settled on the spot where they had decided to stop looking. A cluster of pigs and chickens shared their existence on the ledge, and Abe, Rube, and Zeb sometimes hunted wolves for their pelts, but not with any notable degree of success.

All this and more Charlie Conlan conveyed to Quincy in scraps as they made their way up the trail, plus biographies of other denizens of Gorham Gulch and accounts of his own exploits there and otherwise. Charlie could not go without talking for long, and the flow of information, jerkily jolted by his horse’s gait, sometimes louder as he drew ahead or fell behind Quincy on the trail, went on all forenoon. Quincy listened with surprising patience, and paid more attention to the disconnected anecdotes than one would have thought they deserved. In the rear with the pack horse, Wirt rode with his head bobbing negligently and spoke not a word.

They camped that night on a ledge overlooking a long, grassy canyon sunk among the cliffs, and slept in the open around their small fire, each using his saddle for a pillow. And when Quincy awoke the next morning, there in the soft new light, looking small and far-away down at the other end of the canyon, was a little group of ten or so brown and dun and buckskin mares grazing quietly among the scattered brush.

Quincy kicked off his blankets and got up, leaving his companions still slumbering by the gray ashes of the fire, and went to the edge of the cliff. It was very quiet, in the flush of dawn—in every direction stretched the rocks and peaks, with no other sign of life besides the distant horses and a trio of birds flying against the morning sky, so far off that their wings were a mere blink of motion. One would not have known there was another human being within a hundred miles.

He wondered if it was really as empty as it seemed.

The herd stayed in the end of the canyon all the time the three men were eating breakfast, browsing slowly across the open space to the left. When the mustangers had finished their coffee and bacon they saddled their horses and worked their way carefully down a narrow switchback trail into the canyon, doing their best not to alarm the grazing herd. If they could ease down along the right wall and get between the horses and the canyon’s outlet at the far end, they would have a good chance at them.

They spread out slowly, surreptitiously shaking out the loops of their ropes. Quincy, as befitting the newcomer in the venture, took the middle position. As they neared the herd one or two mares’ heads went up, nostrils flaring to snuff suspiciously—one of them stamped a hoof, but still they did not move. Then suddenly a trumpeting whinny rang from the canyon walls and a dark streak of a stallion plunged from the brush where he had been keeping watch, diving between the mustangers and the herd. Instantly the mares wheeled, feet lifted and tails flying, and headed for the canyon opening. Charlie Conlan lashed his mount into a gallop toward the same point, but the running mustangs closed on their goal too quickly for him to head them off and poured through, their tails whisking amid the cloud of dust lit by sunlight streaming back through the gap.

Charlie pulled up when he saw it was no use, and Wirt and Quincy caught up with him. “We’ll get ‘em yet!” said Charlie. “That stallion’s too smart by half. But there’s other places on ahead where we can corner ‘em better.”

For the rest of the day they played hide-and-seek with the mustang herd, catching fleeting glimpses of them from time to time, and once or twice coming close enough for another skirmish in which the dark stallion again came off victor. Quincy seemed interested by the network of canyons and passes through which they pursued their quarry, and occasionally dropped behind to examine a blind turn in which a mustang was assuredly too intelligent to be caught, scanning the red walls and sometimes squinting at a ledge or crevice masked by brush. There was little to be seen there, however, and he nudged his horse into a canter to catch up with the others again.

Late in the afternoon as they crossed over an open cliff-top, angling to descend into the next valley ahead of the herd they were trailing, Quincy was surprised to see a thread of smoke winding up from below. He reined up for a moment to allow Wirt and the pack-horse to begin the stone-rattling descent ahead of him, and stood up in his stirrups to look down over the edge. Twenty yards below, where he could look directly down onto its flat roof, a wooden shack was backed up against the red rock at the head of a narrow cliff-ringed valley shaped roughly like a noose. A crooked bit of stovepipe protruded from the roof, from which smoke drifted slowly, and down in front of the shack a figure was moving about.

Quincy turned to speak up over his shoulder to Charlie. “Say, I thought you said there was nobody else living up here.”

“Oh, that’s only old man Sullivan. He don’t count,” said Charlie. “He’s more’n half cracked. Stays up here all by himself even though he could be livin’ down in Gorham Gulch with folks—his daughter’s married to the assay officer. He wouldn’t come down, though—insists on sittin’ up there on his old mine and chippin’ out twopenny pieces of ore.”

“Does he make a living at it?”

“Thinks he does. Ore’s not much good, but he goes an’ trades it in every six months or so and believes he’s makin’ out fine. His daughter sends food an’ such up to him now and then, since he won’t come down. He’s good for a laugh, anyway. We stop for water whenever we’re up here, and he never remembers who we are. Don’t know his own daughter half the time.”

Quincy gave a short laugh, half to himself. “I wonder, does everybody who lives up here have to be a little cracked?”

“Huh?” said Charlie, squinting.

“Nothing,” said Quincy. “What kind of mine—silver?”

“Yep. He’s been here ten years, chippin’ away at it all by himself.” Charlie laughed. “Reckon the only reason the wolves haven’t et him an’ his old mule is ‘cause there’s hardly enough meat on their bones to be worth it.”

The horses clattered down the slope to the left, and the rocks hid Sullivan’s shack from view. A quarter of a mile further down, they joined a narrow rocky trail sloping the same way and doubled back to follow it up to the right. Halfway up, the trail widened slightly, and here the crookedly gaping black hole and heavy timbers of a mine entrance hunched under a ledge of rock on the left. Beyond it the trail grew steeper—the horses expended all their effort in climbing, necks stretched forward, shoulder and flank muscles rigid. Finally they scrambled up over the crest of the incline and out onto the bare sun-baked patch of earth in front of the shack.

Charlie and Wirt made with familiarity for the water trough by a pen of knobbly poles where a stunted small mule sheltered itself from the sun in a narrow slice of shade against the cliff; and from near the shack the old man watched them, his shoulders hunched forward and his hands hanging by his sides, his mouth drooping open loosely.

The shack was half the size of the Kennedy place or even the Joymans’ cabin, built of rotted and weathered gray planks on a crumbling stone foundation. Quincy reined up his horse just below the ledge on which it stood, near the old man, and dismounted. “Morning,” he said.

The white head swung slowly toward him, and the old man’s blank eyes stared. Quincy nodded to him. “Your name’s Sullivan, isn’t it?”

The old man bent over and began doing something vaguely with a rope and bucket at his feet. He half glanced sideways at Quincy without looking up at his face. “I ain’t got any whisky,” he mumbled. “I tol’ you I ain’t got any.”

“I didn’t come for whisky,” said Quincy good-naturedly. “Just stopped for water. Don’t mind, do you?”

The old man mumbled an unintelligible answer, intent on tying a knot in the rope with gnarled fingers. His too-big trousers hung from wide suspenders twisted over his shoulders; his white hair was a few sparse wisps over a bald head patched and mottled with age. He seemed not to want to look anyone in the eye, though he cast surreptitious glances toward Quincy’s feet.

“Hey, old-timer!” hollered Charlie, approaching from the water trough wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “Still kicking, are you? How many tons you mined since we saw you last?”

The old man stared at him briefly from under white corkscrew eyebrows. “You ain’t the same one,” he said. Then he turned his attention on the knotted rope again, with a fretful frown. “I tol’ you I ain’t got no whisky.”

“Let him be,” said Quincy in an undertone. “He’s harmless enough. You’re only upsetting him.”

Charlie bent over with his hands on his knees so his head was on a level with the old man’s. “You remember your old pals! Why, we was practically swearin’ eternal friendship last time we left.”

“No-o,” said Sullivan, shaking his wavering head a little more fretfully. “I ain’t got time. I got work to do.”

Charlie laughed, but Quincy only smiled briefly and shook his head. “Come on, Charlie, let’s get going. We’ll lose that herd if we don’t.”

“Reckon so,” said Charlie, abandoning his sport as carelessly as he had taken it up. He swung around and went back to the horses, but Quincy lingered a minute to watch the old man, who gathered up his rope with the bucket swinging from it, and a shovel, and inched off down the slope, presumably toward his mine.

The mustangers filled their canteens, tightened their saddle cinches, and mounted up again. One by one they guided their mounts over the edge of the slope and picked their way down the steep trail. Charlie and Wirt rode out without looking back, but Quincy Burnett paused for a second at the bend of the trail that would hide Sullivan’s place from sight, and looked back thoughtfully at the shack against the cliff, and the slow, shambling figure of the little old man moving down away from it.

The next three or four days followed the same pattern. They lost the original herd and spotted another, followed it further and higher into the mountains, trailing behind in hopes of finding a likely place to corner some of the mares and separate them from the stallion.

Quincy, after a few days of camping and riding with them, had become accustomed to his companions. They were not what he would have chosen for congenial company, but by mostly keeping his opinions to himself and allowing them to lead where they liked, he got on with them well enough. Charlie was loud-voiced and talkative, and in an unguarded mood by the fire in the evenings was prone to boast of sundry shady horse deals carried off in the past, with the aid of a running-iron or the midnight removal of bars from fences. Wirt was more dependable when it came to camp chores or caring for the horses, but slow to understand anything asked of him. Any attempt at wit bounced off him unavailing. He seldom contributed to the conversation except when called on to corroborate Charlie with a monosyllable.

So Quincy, lying on his back with his head and shoulders resting comfortably against his blanket-draped saddle and watching the flicker of their campfire’s light play on the cliffs under which they camped, let most of Charlie’s talk bounce over his head, keeping just enough in tune with it to give a nod of agreement every once in a while. What he really thought, he did not say.

He noticed that there was only one subject Charlie never touched. Although once or twice Charlie mentioned Bruce Kennedy, who had apparently been the third man on several of their mustanging trips before, and once even referred briefly to Rosa Jean, he never said how Bruce had died or made any remotely revealing remark about either of the Kennedys. For someone so loose-tongued it seemed a curious omission. Quincy once thought of questioning Wirt, but decided that the effort required would draw too much unnecessary attention to the inquiry.

III.

Rosa Jean heard the thunder of hooves and dropped her rolling pin to run for the door, only to falter to a stop halfway. It was queer the way that sound still made her heart give a little jump of excitement, and then just as quickly the thud of sickening remembrance. She could not get used to it. Every time the noise of hooves took her unawares it took her back a year and a half and told her that once again Bruce and Charlie and Wirt were running a batch of mustangs down from the mountains and into the corrals.

She opened the door, unable to resist looking. It was very much like old times—three outriders and a dozen darting, plunging mustangs of all colors with wild manes and tails, being swept through a haze of sun-shot dust into the corral. The men’s whistles and shouts came faintly through the chaotic thunder of hooves; the coiled ropes in their hands rose and fell. She saw Quincy Burnett through the dust on the near side of the herd as he pulled his sorrel down from a long lope to a trot, shepherding the mustangs through the corral gate.

The spell was broken, but still Rosa Jean went across the yard and looped her arm around one of the corral’s upright poles and watched the horses milling about inside. Her eyes followed a copper-colored mare, then a speckled blue-roan yearling with an attractive head that reminded her of Pheasant. It was the biggest herd these corrals had seen in a while, the fruit of two weeks’ hunting in the mountains.

“What d’you think of them?” said Quincy Burnett’s voice, and Rosa Jean turned with her hand still linked around the pole to see him sitting his horse just behind her, coiling up his lariat.

“There’s some beauties,” said Rosa Jean, a little reluctant to speak but unable to hold back praise with the horses in front of her. She took her hand from the post and pointed toward the blue colt. “That’s one of that iron-gray stallion’s colts, isn’t it.”

Quincy glanced up from securing the rope to his saddle horn, his blue eyes squinting a little under the shading brim of his hat. “How’d you know that?”

“I’ve seen four years of his colts; I ought to know them by now.”

“The gray gelding in the stable—he’s one, isn’t he?”

Rosa Jean had just folded her arms on the top bar of the corral fence, but she turned back toward him in some surprise. “Yes… how did you know?”

It seemed to her that Quincy’s eyes were serious, but he smiled good-naturedly as he said, “Oh, I notice things too. It pays to notice things sometimes.”

Rosa Jean said nothing. She watched him knot the rawhide string securing the lariat, then stand up in the stirrups and twist to look over his shoulder and across the milling herd in the corral. She did not know what she ought to think of him. He seemed so clean and honest and unconcerned—but he was much too sharp, in ways she wished he was not.

She left the fence and walked back to the house, and went back to the pie crust she had left half rolled on the table. The quiet of the ranch was effectively broken for the day. From the corral came an occasional whinny or clatter of hoofs as the mustangs dodged about inside, and as she worked Rosa Jean caught the drift of voices, and then a little later someone whistling a tune.

She wondered whether the men were planning to break the horses themselves, or whether they meant to drive them on down to Gorham Gulch and sell them unbroken. And she wondered whether it made any difference to her.

Charlie had at first been all for selling the mustangs unbroken, but it did not take much to bring him around to Quincy Burnett’s opinion that rough-broke horses would fetch a better price. They started in the next morning: roping a horse out of the main corral, getting a saddle on it, and letting it tear around the breaking-corral for a while until it began to be accustomed to the object on its back, until half a dozen had received the treatment. On the second day the real work began: the sweat and dust and occasional falls; the struggle between untamed horse and determined rider.

It had been a while since Quincy had ridden a bucking horse, but he felt reasonably certain of making a decent job of it. It was good enough work to satisfy his partners in the venture, anyway. Their own work was a little slipshod—Quincy found himself after awhile almost filling the role of foreman, keeping them focused in a way they probably would not have been without a third person to direct their efforts. He suspected that this was the role Bruce Kennedy must have played in the past.

Three times a day they repaired to the house for the meals Rosa Jean cooked and served for them. Quincy was puzzled by the nature of Wirt and Charlie’s relationship with Rosa Jean—they treated her with a kind of careless familiarity as toward a sister, yet with basic indifference as toward a hired girl. Her own attitude to them seemed something more than indifference—like a tolerance that just overlaid contempt. Over the dinner table, on days when the horse breaking went well enough for good spirits, Charlie would attempt what he fancied jovial banter with Rosa Jean, and she snubbed him crisply, coolly, and often with an acid wit that made Quincy Burnett grin behind his coffee cup. Once or twice Rosa Jean caught him at it, and for a second he thought he saw again that very slight warming or softening of expression that was not quite a smile, almost as if she wanted to respond to the fun in his eyes but could not—or would not.

For despite sundry small tries, Quincy got no closer to even the most casual kind of friendship with her, though he could not tell why—nor did he know just why he tried. Rosa Jean was civil to him; she did not appear to dislike or fear him—yet there was a quiet wall up around her, one that hid whatever her true character might be. There was a wall up in her dark eyes, which veiled the reason for that far-away pain that had first pricked his attention.

What was the use of trying, anyway? Quincy did not know, yet he was human enough to be put out by his failure.

On a few occasions, their party at the supper table was enlarged by a passing prospector who stopped for a meal—an old man with a bushy gray beard and rabbitty teeth who never looked up from his plate; a big heavy man who boasted all through the meal of improbable ore strikes he had witnessed. They usually arrived about midday, and Quincy, from the top rail of the fence where he waited his turn in the breaking corral, watched them from the corner of his eye with bent brows that denoted no very pleased attention as they tied horse or mule, loosened straps on a pack-saddle, wiped a sweaty face with a kerchief, and then crossed the yard to go up the steps and disappear into the house.

The second time, Charlie Conlan came and leaned on the inside of the fence near him and spoke with a snicker. “What’s the matter—you jealous?”

Quincy turned abruptly and looked down at him, and somehow the sharp blue slice of his glance robbed Charlie of any further desire to be facetious. “Mind your own business,” he said.

Wirt had the next horse snubbed up to a post for mounting, and Quincy swung his other leg over the fence and dropped into the corral, only too glad of something to do to divert attention. He was vexed with himself for being so easily provoked, for his departure from the usual careless manner he preserved around Charlie. That was not the way to be inconspicuous.

Matters came to a head a day later.

It was near suppertime, and Quincy left the corral ahead of the others and crossed to the house. He noticed a horse and mule in the pen by the barn and a pack-saddle deposited against the side of it, and concluded that a traveler had arrived while they were too busy to notice. He went on to the house and mounted the steps.

The table was set for supper but there was no one in the front room, and as Quincy stepped in he heard sharp voices coming from the kitchen.

“I can’t work with you underfoot. Clear out of here, will you?”

The man’s voice stretched out in a would-be ingratiating drawl. “You could keep still for two seconds together.”

“Not if you want supper I can’t.”

“Well, what’s your hurry?”

“Your hurry, more like. I thought you wanted to eat.”

The man laughed. Quincy arrived in the kitchen doorway to take in the scene at a glance. Rosa Jean was at the stove. A shortish, red-bearded man was leaning one hand against the wall as near to her as he could get, so that in order to properly reach everything on the stove she had to stand with her back to him, nearly touching him. As she moved closer to him of necessity his other hand came out and he tried to get it round her waist. Rosa Jean elbowed it sharply away and put a step between them. “Will you go on out of here and leave me be? I’m busy.”

“A whole lot busier’n you need to be,” said the man. His hand came forward again and his fingers hooked under her elbow. Rosa Jean twisted away and swung to face him and reached for something on the stove as he made a move toward her—but both broke off in mid-motion and looked toward the door as Quincy Burnett stepped into the kitchen.

“Get away from her,” he said.

“Who in blazes are you?” demanded the prospector.

“That doesn’t make any difference,” said Quincy. “Get out of here.”

The red-bearded man hung fire for a second, obviously smoldering at the interruption, but an appraisal of the size of Quincy’s hands and his uncompromising attitude swayed the balance. With a disgusted glance at Rosa Jean, he obeyed. He half pushed against Quincy in passing him, the sort of gesture meant to express resentment without being enough to call out retaliation. Quincy, at any rate, was too deadly calm to regard it. “Let me catch you in here again and you’ll go out on your nose,” was all he said.

He turned back to find, unexpectedly, that Rosa Jean was also simmering with aggravation, her mouth set straight and her eyes showing more of a spark than he had seen in them thus far. As soon as the bearded man was out of hearing she lashed out tartly at Quincy. “You didn’t have to interfere!”

“It’s a good thing I did,” said Quincy, rather nettled.

Rosa Jean tossed down a potholder and shoved the coffeepot away across the stove with a shriek of metal on metal. “There wasn’t any need. I’d have dumped boiling coffee over him in another second.”

“Like that would have done any good! You ever see anything madder than a wet hornet? He’d likely have knocked your teeth out—for starters.”

“What business is it of yours anyway?” demanded Rosa Jean.

“I didn’t say it was my business. Any man’s got a right to give a kick to a cockroach he finds pestering a woman.”

“Well, you’ve done it, so now you can go.” She slammed the lid on a skillet, jerked the damper of the stove, and moved the coffeepot again, her back to him.

Quincy’s impatience and bewilderment finally boiled to the surface. “Rosa Jean, you know better. You know it’s a fool thing to try and stick it out up here alone, and you’ll pay for it one day. You’ve just been darn lucky so far.”

She would not look at him. “Wirt and Charlie are around most of the time. They may not be worth much, but they wouldn’t let anyone hurt me.”

“And when they’re not around? Rosa Jean, that’s nonsense! We were gone a good two weeks after those horses—how many dirty old philanderers did you have to fight off with a coffeepot all that time?”

“Will you get out of my kitchen before I have to throw you out?” she cried, turning toward him with red staining her cheeks and something edging her voice that was almost a loss of control.

Quincy dropped his hand from the doorframe and went, but wheeled and came back to say, “I just don’t understand why you’re so stubborn about it. What’s this place to you? It’s not worth anything without livestock and men to run it. You could make a living the way you are now down in Gorham Gulch, or a better place than that. Why are you so set on staying here?”

Again he saw it—her expression shut up like a door being closed, her mouth set straight and her eyes offering no clue to her thoughts. It must hurt, he thought involuntarily, to do that—he did not know where the unsettling idea sprung from.

Her voice again was straight, controlled, revealing nothing. “I stay here because I want to,” she said, and turned away to the stove.

“I don’t believe it,” said Quincy bluntly. Irritation at last overrode tact, and out came the question that had been nagging at him for weeks. “What happened to your brother, anyway? How did he die?”

Something clattered sharply on the stove. Rosa Jean turned around, and Quincy instantly regretted what he had done. The white, drawn look of her face was almost one of physical pain.

“Ralph Dugan shot him,” she said.

The thud and trample of footsteps filled his ears, and the other men were filing in to dinner. Amid the screech of chairs being pulled out and the meaningless clamor of voices Quincy sat down, his mind spinning.

IV.

That night, Rosa Jean lay awake, staring into the darkness. The moonlight was blue around the edges of the calico curtain that covered the small window above her bed. It cast a small, ghostly gleam on the barrel of the revolver that lay on the bureau within reach of her hand every night.

Nights alone here had been frightening at first. The months that had passed without incident, and the gun near at hand, had mostly worn that away. But no weapon could keep off the memories, restless and painful, that tonight’s quarrel had stirred up in her mind.

It was four years ago that she had first come up here with her older brother Bruce. He had bought the mountainside ranch cheap from someone departing Gorham Gulch, and sometime during the second year had forged an unofficial partnership with Charlie Conlan and Wirt Timmins, footloose wanderers who were agreeable to a try at mustanging. The venture was successful, intermittently; they found plenty of horses in the mountains and ran them down to the ranch for breaking, and then sold them in the Gulch or somewhere else further below. Bruce did most of the breaking—Wirt and Charlie were wont to drift off occasionally, on expeditions Rosa Jean tacitly understood to be on the shady side of the law. Bruce seemed to know it well enough, but made no objection. Once or twice he had even gone with them, without telling Rosa Jean much about it afterwards.

Bruce had been like the others, she thought. He was handsomer and smarter, but just as reckless and just as willing to risk something a little unscrupulous if he thought there was a good chance of its paying off. He would have killed to protect his sister, but merely laughed if she tried to caution him or questioned whether what he was doing was really all right. For Rosa Jean had been doubtful sometimes. She was in the habit of accepting what Bruce said and did, because he had been her only guardian and companion—all the family she had—for so long a time. But she had enough conscience and enough common sense to see that he was not infallible, and to worry for him sometimes.

Still he had been a good brother. He had provided for her, looked out for her, teased and cheered her, and when he was around Rosa Jean never found the mountain ranch lonely or dull. She was quite content with their lot.

Afterwards, Rosa Jean had fruitlessly searched for ways to blame herself. Had she been too naïve? Had she not known enough to warn Bruce sooner, or at least more earnestly, before the Kennedy determination to carry a thing through had locked in like an anchor? Blaming herself would have made more sense, almost, than the raging injustice of what had really happened—but looking back, she was forced to admit there was nothing else she could have done.

Bruce had met Ralph Dugan in a Gorham Gulch saloon—although that was not the name Dugan was using at the time. Dugan was already well-known at twenty-four—some said twenty-two—as having killed five men, and was strongly suspected of having been involved in several notable bank and stage robberies across the territory. They said he enjoyed killing. Some who had escaped with their lives swore they saw him smile before he pulled the trigger.

His face was not known as far out as a place like Gorham Gulch; a good likeness had not yet been produced for the wanted posters in circulation—but alias notwithstanding, Bruce Kennedy had guessed at his identity almost at once. The word-of-mouth description fit, of a lean, dark young man—his hanging about the Gulch without visible occupation, the few men who hung about with him and seemed to take their tune from him, and some things dropped casually in his conversation with Bruce all confirmed the notion. Bruce had given no hint of his recognition. They met several times when he was down at the Gulch for supplies, and the end result was an agreement for Bruce and his partners to sell Dugan eight horses, unbranded mustangs broken to saddle—ostensibly to be used in a relay race that he and his friends were planning to enter.

Bruce told Rosa Jean about it at home the next night, when the deal had already been struck. He seemed highly satisfied with his bargaining, and even with the fun involved in carrying the transaction through without betraying that he knew its real purport. Far from having scruples over dealing with an outlaw, he seemed to enjoy the idea that his guess at Dugan’s identity gave him a kind of upper hand, even if he had no intention of using it. How much he told Wirt and Charlie Rosa Jean did not know, but she was fairly sure all three of them knew exactly who was buying the horses, and that there was small chance of their ever being used in a relay race.

Then, a few days before the horses were to be delivered, they had foregathered with Dugan and his friends in the saloon again one night—a low-roofed, smoke-filled, ill-lit establishment that was still the best Gorham Gulch had to offer. Charlie told Rosa Jean later what happened that night. Lined up along the bar, the seven of them, they stood each other to a few rounds of drinks, joked and talked for a while. Finally the conversation came around to the horses. The exact price had not been agreed on yet; Bruce and Dugan had arrived at a general figure, give or take a dollar or so per head, to be finally fixed nearer the time for handing over payment. Charlie had not known what Bruce was planning to do, and none of them ever knew for sure why he acted the way he did that night—whether he had intended it all along, or whether the drinks and the atmosphere had affected him. When the question was finally put, he named a price slightly but noticeably steeper than what the buyers had been led to expect.

Ralph Dugan slid a glance at him, but did not answer right away. He had his elbows on the bar, his lean shoulders hunched forward a little, and he fingered the rim of his whisky glass as if he had nothing better to do. Finally he looked at Bruce Kennedy again. “That’s a little more than we agreed on.”

“Not by much,” said Bruce. “Anyway we’ve put a lot of work into breaking them. I think they’re worth more than we agreed on.”

“Maybe,” said Dugan, still toying with the glass, “but are they worth it to me to pay that steep for them?”

“I think so,” said Bruce. “You might not get horses like this anywhere else. Fact is, you might not get any horses at all—anywhere else.”

There was plenty of noise around them, but among those at the bar there was a pause which might as well have been a dead silence. It might have been no longer than a typical break in conversation, but every man in the group knew what it meant. Even Charlie Conlan, standing beyond Bruce Kennedy, could not help but see the strange, speculative gleam that came into Ralph Dugan’s black eyes as he turned his head slightly to look at Bruce. In that one unguarded speech and moment Bruce had let Dugan see what he had maintained a pretense of not knowing for weeks—had as good as admitted the fact that it was a pretense.

But Ralph Dugan let it pass. Had it not been for that pause, that look, one would have thought he did not suspect. He spoke to the bartender and ordered another round of drinks, and then very casually he allowed that maybe Bruce was right about the horses being worth a little more. But he couldn’t swallow paying that much more without thinking it over. Bruce, who now felt secure in his upper hand, shook his head and said he didn’t think he could come down from that price.

Dugan seemed to think about it for a moment, in a cool, detached way—and more than one man in that group waited with tight nerves. But then, quite easily—too easily—he capitulated.

“All right, then,” he said, “since it looks like I haven’t got any other choice…”

Two nights later, the last of a cloudless sunset was washing rock and canyon and corrals with its fair, clear light, and Rosa Jean was in the kitchen doing the last of the supper dishes. Wirt and Charlie were away, and Bruce was somewhere down in the pasture beyond the barn. Rosa Jean was in the act of hanging her damp dishtowel to dry when she heard horses. Not very near, but she could tell they were coming swiftly. Then suddenly they were close outside, and the sound was a rumble that shook the little house. Rosa Jean dropped the dishtowel—she remembered it slipped limply from the edge of the table to the floor—and ran from the kitchen toward the open front door.

It must have happened very quickly, for all through it, when she relived it in her mind, she seemed to be just arriving at the door. She did not think any of them saw her. Four riders swept by the house, thundering through dust, got the corral gate open, and drove the horses out—the mustangs plunged and swerved and collided with each other and broke into a gallop as each one passed the gate. Rosa Jean caught a glimpse of one man—even in that half-second she knew he matched Bruce’s description of Ralph Dugan. They were running the horses off. Bruce came running up the slope by the barn with an infuriated yell—he knew he was beaten—he was not wearing a gun. The horses were already streaming down the trail, but Ralph Dugan pulled up and turned his horse around and shot Bruce Kennedy through the heart. The arm lifted straight, the angle of the hat brim above the dark face, the puff of smoke and kick of the revolver, all would remain printed on Rosa Jean’s memory for ages afterward. She saw Bruce spin around and plunge to the ground, and somehow she knew that he was already dead.

He was dead when Rosa Jean reached him, before the yells of the outlaws had faded out of hearing and before the thundering horses were even out of sight down the canyon trail. Her brother lay dead in the dust, with his face turned up toward the pale sunset-washed sky, and Rosa Jean—kneeling there in front of the open corral, her fingers touching his still chest as if in a faint, fruitless plea for the life to come back—was alone in the strange dislocated silence that followed, which was not just of the empty ranch with the dust settling over it, but of her whole empty world.

She was too devastated to cry. She sat there motionless in the dust, looking at his face, until the sunset had faded and the shadows of dusk stole along the rock walls and between the buildings and blotted the yard, until Charlie and Wirt came home and found her there. All the rest of that night, to speak, to think, to walk, was mere mechanical effort.

But next morning, with white face and heavy eyes, she knew what needed to be done. She knew enough to insist on going down to Gorham Gulch, and the other two, though showing the first signs of a reluctance Rosa Jean did not then understand, had to go with her, bringing Bruce’s body with them. And at the end of that afternoon, after she had seen her brother buried in the mining camp graveyard on a hill outside town, she went to the sheriff and told him the whole story.

But contrary to what she had expected, the sheriff only seemed ill at ease on hearing it and rumpled up his untidy gray hair with one hand. “Well,” he said, “yes, but… Miss Kennedy, did you ever meet this fellow you say is Dugan? How do you know it was him?”

“I saw him,” said Rosa Jean, staring into the sheriff’s uneasy, unshaven face. “I was in the door, and I saw him shoot my brother—and it was the man he’d told me about, I’m absolutely certain. It couldn’t be anyone else.”

The sheriff scratched behind his ear, and looked unpleasantly cornered again. “But you can’t say for certain that fellow was really Ralph Dugan. None of us can. We don’t know him by sight here, so we got no proof it was him. I can’t make out a warrant on that kind of hearsay.”

“But Bruce knew it was him. He didn’t have any doubt about it—he told me himself. And that’s why Dugan killed him! Ask Charlie—and Wirt—they were there; they met him; they can tell you all about it.”

But Bruce’s two partners, when put on the spot, displayed a now very definite reluctance to commit themselves. They hemmed, and hedged, and grew vaguer with every answer. They’d met the fellow, and he did look kind of like that, but they couldn’t say for sure he was Dugan. Nobody had called him by that name. Bruce hadn’t said anything positive about it to them; he might have suspected, but they couldn’t say whether he had any real proof. They’d known Bruce was going to sell some horses, but they didn’t know to who—the deal hadn’t been finally settled yet. Rosa Jean, listening through a fog of unexpressed grief and utter weariness, realized with a dull, dead feeling what was happening. They were backing out. They wanted no more to do with Ralph Dugan and his gang than the sheriff did—they wanted only to put as much distance between themselves and the murder as possible.

In the end, the sheriff, after saying several condoling and inadequate things, would not issue a warrant. He promised to be on the lookout for the stolen horses, a promise which meant exactly nothing, and Rosa Jean left his office, moving as if walking in her sleep. On a corner of the boardwalk, she got in Charlie’s way and confronted him with dark, weary eyes and a voice low with hate.

“Why did you do that?” she said. “You could have convinced him if the two of you insisted. You know it was Dugan.”

Charlie was fidgety and defensive. “Use your head, Rosa Jean. What d’you think Dugan and his gang wanted those horses for? Next thing we’ll hear they held up and robbed a bank or a train someplace, and if we let on we sold ‘em horses—knowing who Dugan was and knowing he was probably buying ‘em with stolen money—what’s the odds they’ll haul us into jail? If they can’t catch Dugan—and nobody ever does—they’ll want somebody else to be mad at.”

Rosa Jean’s voice quivered slightly for the first time, but her eyes pierced into him. “Is that all you care about? Don’t you even care that Bruce is dead—and you want to let the man that murdered him go free?”

“There’s nothing gonna bring him back,” said Charlie determinedly. “We all got to look out for ourselves. And you saw what happened to Bruce. If we try an’ have Dugan hauled in on a murder charge, and they don’t catch him, he’s just as liable to come after us for spite.”

Rosa Jean stood very still, looking at Charlie. He could not bear up under the look for long and looked away. Wirt was sitting down on the edge of the boardwalk, fumbling with the ends of his horse’s reins. Rosa Jean realized that she stood completely alone—that no one else in Gorham Gulch, or anywhere else in the world, cared that Bruce Kennedy was dead, or had the smallest interest in seeing his murderer brought to justice. His death made a difference to no one, except that it left her alone in a hollow world.

Two weeks later, news came through that Ralph Dugan and his gang had held up and robbed a bank forty miles away, killing two men in the process, and then vanished from the ken of posses on their trail. Rosa Jean was still alone at the mountain ranch, living in a kind of suspended state—she had no idea yet where to go or what to do—and when she heard it, she set her straight lips in a quiet, peculiar way. At the end of the month, the Dugan gang accounted for another wrecked stagecoach and stolen strong-box and once again defied pursuit—and after that Rosa Jean never said a word to anyone about leaving the mountain. No one cared to dispute her claim to her brother’s property. She sold Bruce’s two saddle-horses and used the money to lay in supplies that allowed her to cook for passing prospectors. She had the chickens she had raised and a small vegetable garden. If Wirt and Charlie had any opinion about her staying, they had no right to say anything to her now.

A year and a half went by. In that time, the Dugan gang periodically reappeared to rob at will, and always vanished again into some secure, untraceable hideout. They had become the scourge and scandal of the territory. While newspaper editors demanded to know why Dugan was not caught, sheriffs protested they were doing the best they could, and bank managers pounded their fists on desks for better protection, no one knew that Rosa Jean Kennedy was lying awake at night in her solitary little house on the side of the mountain, plotting her revenge.

She put the pieces together, from a more personal viewpoint than any harassed sheriff or apoplectic editor could show. All the robberies took place within a certain radius of the spot where Dugan had struck the fatal bargain for the horses. And looming over Gorham Gulch was a mountain range full of undiscovered clefts where a band of outlaws could hide out.

The real reason for Bruce’s murder was now clear to her. Ralph Dugan would not have bothered so much about merely being recognized, but it would not do to be pegged by someone who lived close by where Dugan and his gang planned to establish a base of operations. If Bruce was sharp enough to guess his identity so soon, he might be sharp enough to deduce other things, too. And so Dugan had to get rid of him. But he had been too quick in one respect: he had not seen Bruce’s sister in the door.

So for a year and a half Rosa Jean stayed silent—listened to every scrap of gossip from Charlie Conlan, from every prospector, mustanger, or hunter who set foot in her house or dooryard—sorted and reviewed every bit of knowledge she possessed about the mountains and the trails through them. It was there, she knew, that the Dugan gang must disappear after their depredations. No one else seemed to share her theory, and this suited her. Someday she and she alone would be the one to uncover Ralph Dugan’s secret, and she would be the one to exact vengeance for her brother.

Lying awake in the darkness, Rosa Jean drew a restless sigh and moved her head uncomfortably on her pillow. She had lost count of all the wakeful nights she had spent—some in steady planning and reasoning, but others, like tonight, when she simply could not rest. Ever since Bruce’s death there had seemed to be some restless, thwarted source of energy inside her, something that did not want to let her sleep, or let her haunted thoughts cease.

She had never been able to cry. Her grief was a restless burning in her heart and brain, a thing she felt she must do something to subdue. But tonight, for the first time, she wondered if that feeling would be assuaged if Ralph Dugan were dead—by her own hand, even. Would that give her rest? Was there anything for her on the other side of revenge but more emptiness—the same emptiness as when she had returned to the lonesome and silent ranch after burying her brother?

The moonlight around the curtains was falling at a different angle now. Rosa Jean wondered if half the pain of her grief was simply the loneliness. What could revenge against Ralph Dugan do for that? After it was accomplished, she would still be left to make her own way in a world where no one cared, where sheriffs scratched their heads and made excuses because they did not want to take risks, where men would see a partner buried and wriggle away from testifying against his killer because all they cared about was their own interest. They all looked out for themselves and they had left her to do the same.

Rosa Jean twisted under the blankets and flung her arms above her head. Why did it hurt so badly tonight? Why had that brief quarrel with Quincy Burnett upset her so much? It was not just because he had been right, or because she could not tell him that the risks she took in this lonely life were calculated ones. Was she actually allowing herself to wonder whether it was all worth it?

Not just the risks—but the loneliness.

And why, Rosa Jean wondered, staring at the moonlight lining the faint cracks in the plank walls, was loneliness even something she might think she had a chance of escaping?

V.

Rosa Jean was feeding the chickens next morning when Quincy Burnett came over from the direction of the corral and leaned against the rail of the chicken coop enclosure. For a minute he said nothing, and looked off in the direction of the pasture, then he shifted to rest one elbow on the rail and looked at the ground and addressed her. “I guess I spoke a little out of turn yesterday,” he said. “I want to apologize.”

Rosa Jean looked up at him, slight surprise mingling with another feeling that she understood even less—why, was she glad that he had come to say this to her?—but said nothing yet. Quincy gave a shrug. “I won’t say I think any different than I did,” he said, “but I didn’t have any right to shout at you like that. I hope—you won’t think any less of me for it.”

Rosa Jean did not realize she was standing lost in thought until a moment or two had gone by. “Cat got your tongue?” said Quincy.

“No,” she said, bringing the basket from under her arm and turning it up to tap out the last crumbs for the hens. “I was just trying to decide whether I was mad enough at you to give you a cold shoulder or not.”

Quincy’s grin was one of surprise, caught off-guard by her bluntness. “Well, I like somebody who says what they think,” he said. “What’d you decide? Are you mad enough?”

Rosa Jean shook her head, smiling for what she felt was the first time in a long while. “No, I’m not. I—I was pretty disagreeable myself yesterday. It wasn’t all your fault.”

“Why, you’re human after all!” said Quincy with an air of great discovery, an unexpectedly pleased look coming into his eyes above the smile.

“You wondered?” said Rosa Jean, her eyes on the brown hens poking about at her feet.

“No,” said Quincy. “I’m just teasing. But I—” He seemed to wrestle a moment with something he wondered whether he ought to say or not, and finally came out, “I just hate to see you letting yourself be made a doormat of. Like waiting on and putting up with a couple of jackasses like Charlie and Wirt. You’re not the sort to get tromped on unless you allow it… I don’t see why you do it.”

“If it comes to that, what are you doing with them? You don’t seem the sort to suffer jackasses gladly, either,” said Rosa Jean.

“A man’s got to make a living,” said Quincy, with another indifferent shrug. “I could do worse. At least it’s honest.”

Rosa Jean gave a considering nod. “Mmm-hmm. But don’t get left with any wooden nickels when the time comes to go shares.”

Quincy darted her a look of surprise. Then he laughed. Their eyes met for a second and she saw that he understood, though the understanding was mingled with the curiosity she knew would always be in his eyes when he looked at her, so long as she let him know nothing more about her.

There was a short silence. Both seemed to feel the deliberate omission of reference to the most significant revelation made last night, but neither wanted to touch it. Quincy looked at the chickens, and Rosa Jean, taking advantage of his eyes being diverted away from her, found unexpected interest in studying his profile.

“Hey,” yelled Charlie from the corral, “come on! The first one up’s yours.”

Quincy left the chicken coop and went toward the corral, and after a moment Rosa Jean unlatched the door of the enclosure and stepped out, fastened it again, and followed him.

“How much more work do you have on them?” she asked, from a few steps behind him.

Quincy glanced over his shoulder, his face lighting as if he was pleased to find her there. “Oh, another couple of weeks. They’re getting used to the saddle. The dun here still bucks a few jumps every time you first get on her, but she’ll go gentle enough after I’ve taken the kinks out of her.”

He slipped over the corral fence and went over to where Charlie held the saddled and bridled mustang mare close by the bars. Rosa Jean put her basket down and climbed up to sit sidewise on the top rail. A wind coming up off the canyon ruffled her hair as she watched Quincy take the reins, speaking casually toward the swiveling ears and patting the horse’s neck. With the reins held in one hand, he turned the stirrup toward him and inserted his foot, and the dun mare blew through her nostrils warily and shifted a step, ears canted partway back. Quincy waited a second and spoke to her soothingly again, settled his left foot firmly in the stirrup, and in one swift motion pulled himself up and swung his other leg across the horse’s back and was in the saddle before the mare had gathered herself for the first leap.

The dun went off like a firecracker with a couple of long plunges forward, hind hoofs striking up at the air, and then settled into a series of short, stiff bucks, head down and spine twisting with a sharp jerk each time. Rosa Jean held her breath a little out of habit but she could see that Quincy was still in command, sticking tight to the saddle and following the rhythm of the horse’s leaps. The force of the dun’s bucking lessened, its leaps becoming longer and less stiff, and then suddenly at the last minute it gave a sideways twist that threw Quincy off balance and pitched him cleanly over the horse’s left shoulder. He landed with a skidding somersault in the dust, while the dun mare took off on a rapid lap around the corral with her tail waving high in victory.

Quincy crawled to his feet, stood still for a second to catch his breath, struck some of the dust from his clothes with the flat of his hand, and examined a torn sleeve. “That’s what I get for showing off,” he said. He came over and leaned against the rail fence next to Rosa Jean. “Darned jughead knew I had an audience. Yes, I’m all right, thank you.”

“I can see that,” said Rosa Jean, unable to keep her smile from twisting into view.

Quincy pushed his hat at a roguish angle. “If you enjoyed that, maybe you’d like to see me do it again? I’m sure the mare wouldn’t mind, but I haven’t got time. Hey, Wirt!” he shouted across the corral. “Never mind the rope; I’ll catch her myself. She won’t give any more trouble.”

“Seems to me that’s what you said before,” said Rosa Jean.

“Give every dog two bites,” said Quincy. He left the fence and approached the dun mare, who tossed her head but let him come. He collected the dragging reins, moving easily, and again put his foot in the stirrup and swung up. The mare started forward quickly, but this time showed no tendency to buck. After a moment at the quick nervous trot, Quincy pushed her forward into a lope and circled the corral, the horse’s stride gradually growing smoother and its response to the reins better. After a few times around he pulled up and dismounted, and Wirt opened the gate for him to lead the horse through. Quincy threw a brief glance back over his shoulder toward Rosa Jean as he went through the gate, and somehow the gesture made her feel like smiling again. The idea that he liked her approval was amusing, and yet also oddly pleasing.

Yes, she thought, she was glad that she had not been cold with him when he spoke to her this morning. It might mean nothing in the long run, but it made life at the moment a good deal more pleasant.

At the end of the week the time fell due for someone to go down to Gorham Gulch for supplies, and Charlie Conlan went down. The horse breaking came to a halt, for Quincy Burnett took the opportunity to go up into the mountains alone for a few days to do some hunting. He had been talking about wanting a try at the mountain goats whose tracks they had seen while horse hunting, and so on the same morning that Charlie left he cleaned his rifle, strapped bedroll and saddlebags onto his sorrel gelding, and rode off up the pasture toward the mountain trail.

When they were gone, the ranch seemed very still and empty after the activity it had seen these mornings past. Wirt had stayed behind, but since he spent most of the day dozing in the shade of the bunkhouse with his hat tipped over his face, his presence made little difference. Rosa Jean found the time hanging heavily on her hands. She spent most of the afternoon working in her vegetable garden behind the house, and went to bed rather early that night.

The second day was much the same, and by mid-morning Rosa Jean was very much at loose ends for something to do. She put her hair up, something she seldom took the time to do, and got out her workbasket to fix a frayed hem on one of her dresses. She stared at the faded green gingham fabric between her fingers, and wondered if it was rather drab. Most of her clothes were. But what good would it do to have pretty clothes, away up here?

Inconsequentially, as she put the pins in the hem she remembered the blue shirt that Quincy Burnett had torn breaking the horse the other day. He had ripped the sleeve almost the length of the forearm, and had not worn the shirt since—she surmised he must have left it behind with the other clothes in his war sack, in the bunkhouse. Mending it would at least give her something to do.

It is possible this idea would not have occurred to her had matters stood between them the way they had in the first few weeks—which showed that Quincy had made a little progress after all. Rosa Jean had never mended clothes for her regular bunkhouse tenants before unless badgered, and then she usually drove a sharp bargain for her labors. But she was not thinking that way today.

The bunkhouse was empty and quiet, with the sun streaming in through a cracked window, a little dustier than the house, with the smoke-blackened oil lamp, a checkerboard and checkers, and the parts of a disassembled bridle on the table. Rosa Jean found Quincy’s war sack stowed under the foot of his bunk, lifted it up on top, and loosened the drawstring. The torn blue shirt was easily found, folded loosely near the top. As Rosa Jean pulled it out and turned it over to look at the ripped sleeve, a folded square of paper fell to the floor beside her. She stooped and picked it up. The paper was wrinkled as if it had seen much wear, and she could make out the shapes of bold letters printed on the inside.

Some vague, instinctive sense of familiarity made her keep it in her hand for a moment—made her do something she otherwise never would have done. She put the blue shirt down on the bunk and unfolded the paper.

The heavy black ink of the tall, bold letters across the top flashed in her face. It was a reward notice from a bank whose name she knew well, offering five thousand dollars for information leading to the capture of one Ralph Dugan and any members of his gang, who had held up and robbed the bank on November tenth last.

Rosa Jean stood still for a long moment, looking at the paper. The look on her face had changed once more to that remote, shut-off expressionlessness. Then, with the paper still in one hand, she picked up the blue shirt, pushed it back into Quincy’s war sack, and pulled the drawstring closed. She put the bag back under his bunk and left the empty bunkhouse, taking the wanted poster with her.

The floor did not particularly need cleaning, but Rosa Jean heated water, tied up her head in an old red kerchief, and spent the rest of the morning on her hands and knees scrubbing every inch of it. She rooted in every corner, scouring every crack of every worn floorboard with the stiff-bristled brush until her fingers were wet and bumped and scraped and her skirt and apron splotched and damp with soapy water. Work was her only vent. Bruce used to laugh at her sometimes—when her temper was fired by something that couldn’t be taken out in arguing, she would direct the energy into cleaning out a chicken coop, beating rugs or weeding the garden, or when that failed, fiercely cleaning a house that never really had time to get dirty.

As she worked, her lips compressed and then loosened; her knuckles whitened in their grip on the scrubbing brush, the only testaments to the thoughts roiling in her mind. The bristles scratched almost venomously across the floor.

So that was what he had gone “hunting.” Well, what of it? Quincy Burnett had no obligation to tell her his business. But he knew—he knew what the Dugan gang meant to her, and he had deliberately kept silent.

Maybe he was only a stray mustanger who had come across the poster and stuck it in his pocket, thinking it would mean good money if he ever stumbled across some of the Dugan gang. No—Rosa Jean knew what her instinct had told her all along: that Quincy was too intelligent to have come all the way up here and to take up with Charlie Conlan and Wirt Timmins just to hunt wild horses. There had been another reason.

Why hadn’t he told her, that morning by the chicken coop? It would have been so easy to do—just a few words. He must not have wanted her to know. There was a five-thousand-dollar reward at stake, after all, and no doubt he saw the danger of letting someone with a real reason to hate Ralph Dugan know that he was a rival in the chase.

And she had thought he was different—had almost begun to like him.

That was what burned like betrayal: that he had smiled at her and put her at ease and almost made her like him, when at any moment of that time he might have taken from under her very nose the bitter prize of revenge for which she had sacrificed so many weary days of her life.

She gripped the brush with both hands and bent over it, scrubbing hard. Her anger was partly against herself, for having let her guard down. But it burned more bitterly against him, for the double crime of having betrayed her, and having robbed her of what she had thought he was.

At nearly the same hour that Rosa Jean was in the bunkhouse, Quincy Burnett was lying up on the edge of a red stone ledge with his rifle beside him, looking down into the stony little box canyon that held old Sullivan’s shack. He had been at this post all morning, and so far had seen nothing except for an occasional appearance of the old man pottering about by the house. Quincy had chosen a crevice in the rock that shielded him from view except from directly across the canyon, but which afforded him a clear view of both the cliff-tops and everything beneath.

As he had guessed, it was less than half a day’s ride from the Kennedy place to Sullivan’s if one climbed directly. On his previous trip with Charlie and Wirt, they had taken a roundabout route in pursuit of the mustangs. On his first day, however, he had invested some of his time along the way. He stopped at the Joymans’ cabin, on pretense of checking a loose horseshoe, and had a chat with Pa Joyman about the habits of mountain goats and other game. A visitor being an uncommon occurrence, the rest of the family gathered round to listen and Abe, Rube and Zeb offered their solemn, considered opinions when appealed to. The Joymans seemed mild-mannered, simple folk, who found it necessary to all look at each other before anyone answered the simplest question, as if to make sure the answer was unanimous. However, Quincy left the cabin satisfied that they were what they seemed to be and nothing more.

The sun rose higher as the morning wore on, and pierced unsympathetically into Quincy’s crevice of rock. The barrel of his Winchester burned to the touch. He pulled a bandana from his pocket and mopped his face, and pushed his hat up on his forehead to relieve the sweaty crease left by his hatband. But he made no move to retreat to a more comfortable location. He pushed the bandana back into his hip pocket and settled himself on one elbow to continue his vigil.

He wondered, for the hundredth time, what Bruce Kennedy had been like and why he had died at Ralph Dugan’s hand. But something in him had shrunk from asking Rosa Jean. She had had enough grief on that score already—and she would probably only retreat further from him into herself if pressed.

Not yet. And with this new intelligence, he was even less sure how far to trust Charlie Conlan.

Early in the afternoon he was at last rewarded. A faint rattle of hoofs, diminished by distance and thrown around off the walls of the canyon, sounded from below, and in another moment two horsemen emerged from the rocky trail and rode up to the shack. Quincy, keeping his head down as low as he could, lay with the rifle in his hands and watched them. They dismounted by the shack, spoke briefly to the old man, and watered their horses at the trough. Quincy was too high above for the sound of voices to carry to him. They did not appear to be in any particular hurry, but neither did they linger and lounge like mustangers taking a respite from the chase. They left their horses tied at the fence and went into the shack after Sullivan, and came out again in about ten minutes. As if they had stopped for a meal or a drink, Quincy thought. He studied the men as well as distance would allow as they mounted their horses. There was nothing to distinguish them about their clothes or their horses and saddles; both wore guns. Neither matched the description of Ralph Dugan.

Quincy waited until they had disappeared down the trail, and gave them five minutes’ start. Then he slid back from the ledge, got up, and climbed down to where he had left his horse. On his way up yesterday he had marked out a route that would bring him out at a lower point on the trail, and would keep him out of sight most of the way.

But only bafflement awaited him. When he reached the trail, he was certain the men he had seen at Sullivan’s could not yet have passed that point. He waited more than fifteen minutes, holding his horse in ambush standing in the shade of a boulder, but no one appeared—not one squeak of leather or clink of hoof on rock came from above. His brow creased in puzzlement, he at last swung his horse out into the trail and headed upward. If he met anyone, he would be what in essence he was at this moment: a stray mustanger hunting wild game.

But he met no one. Where the trail narrowed for the climb to Sullivan’s Quincy drew rein, puzzled, and turned and rode back down, studying the rocks on either side. What particularly baffled him was that on the right hand the rock walls loomed high, with no possible outlet—on the left, the side on which he had descended from the cliff-top, there were breaks where a horse and rider might go up, but Quincy felt sure he must have seen or encountered the two riders if they had doubled back up that way.

They could not have passed him going down the trail before he reached it. Quincy, no newcomer to the business of tracking, was as sure of that as he could be. He spent an hour working back and forth among the ledges and rocks, but the two men had vanished without a trace—in a way that spoke deliberate disappearance. Finally Quincy gave it up, and, playing a hunch that would not leave him, turned his horse back toward Sullivan’s.

The old man was outside the shack, scraping out a pan of ashes from the stove. Quincy nodded to him and dismounted, and led his horse to the trough as if he were well accustomed to stopping here. He was interested to see what effect this produced. The old man stared at him for a moment, and then went back to his work with no sign of recognition or intelligence.

Quincy wandered casually over toward him. “Hello,” he said. “How’ve you been?”

The old man lifted his head, eyes squinting in his wrinkled face. “You remember me, don’t you?” said Quincy, watching him with attention.

“You was here—yesterday,” said Sullivan in a rusty, unused-sounding voice.

“No, not yesterday—another time.” On impulse Quincy added, “Who was here yesterday? Same fellas that were here today?”

The old man looked confused, and shook his head, waveringly, as if he was not sure he meant to do that either.

Quincy let it drop for the moment, and leaned against the wall of the shack. For a minute or two he studied his thumbnail and glanced off across the yard, pretending not to pay any attention to the old man so as not to unsettle him. He felt sure that the shambling little prospector could not be part of the Dugan gang. His blundering, bewildered senility was no sham. But the outlaws made use of him somehow. If only some scrap of information had lodged itself in a corner of the old man’s brain, perhaps he could get it out of him. Quincy felt fairly safe in showing his hand with someone who would not even remember he had been here.

He said aloud, without seeming to look at Sullivan, “Seen Dugan lately?”

Sullivan looked blankly at him, and frowned. “Dugan?”

It was a long, fruitless cross-questioning. Quincy described Ralph Dugan carefully; he suggested times he might have been there, other men who might have been with him, though he was careful not to let on his reasons for wanting to find him. The old man listened and frowned, occasionally repeating a few of Quincy’s words as if trying to process them, but always ended by shaking his head. Quincy, coming to the end of his patience, became even less guarded than he had intended and urged him to try and remember, but Sullivan, reaching fretfulness at last, only reiterated that he had no whisky. Quincy gave up, again.

He arrived at the Joymans’ that night in time to share their dinner, where they gravely commiserated with him on his failure to bag a mountain goat.

“Where’d you try for ‘em?” Abe asked, as they were sitting out in the dusk in front of the cabin.

“Up in the rocks above old man Sullivan’s place.”

“That ain’t no good,” said Rube after a pause, as if announcing a carefully considered decision. “There’s nothing up there but wolves.”

VI.

Quincy returned to the Kennedy place shortly before noon on a hot, dry, generally disagreeable day. A glance at the saddles in the barn told him Charlie was not back yet, and Wirt barely moved an inch from his reclining position by the bunkhouse to acknowledge Quincy’s appearance. Quincy was not in the best of humor. He was hot and dusty and his trip had not been as profitable as he wished, and he was nagged by an additional restless feeling he could not place. He unsaddled and rubbed down his horse, tossed his blanket roll and rifle on his bunk, and went across to the house.

The door was open. Rosa Jean was sitting on the other side of the table, her dark head bent over some sewing. She did not look up when Quincy entered, but he was not yet in a frame of mind to notice this. He tossed his hat on the sofa-cot, dropped into a chair by the table with a sigh, and stretched his legs out in front of him. “Hullo,” he said. “Hot as blazes today, isn’t it.”

“Mm,” said Rosa Jean briefly, without lifting her eyes from her work.

“Charlie not back yet?”

Rosa Jean shook her head.

There was a lull in conversation. Then Quincy moved a little restlessly and said, “Anything to drink around here? I’ve been eating dust all the way down from Joyman’s.”

Without answering Rosa Jean got up and went to the kitchen, and filled a tin cup from an earthenware pitcher. She came back and put the cup on the table and turned away still without a word. Quincy was thinking of other things—he was half conscious of Rosa Jean moving about doing something in the bedroom and coming back, but as he raised the tin cup to his lips for the second time he realized she had come silently round to stand at his elbow. Without speaking she put a single creased sheet of paper, a black-lettered wanted poster, on the table before him.

Quincy looked up at her, and from the poster back to her again. Rosa Jean’s face was unreadable.

“I found it in your things,” she said. “I was going to mend one of your shirts, and—that fell out.”

Still Quincy did not answer. He could not tell what her attitude was; there was something almost accusing in it that he did not understand.

“You’re no mustanger, and you’re not a lawman either,” she said. “If you were you wouldn’t be after the reward. You’re a bounty hunter.”

Quincy’s glance drifted across the bold figures of $5,000 on the poster, and lifted again to her face. “Should that bother you?”

Rosa Jean disregarded the question. “That’s why you came up here, isn’t it? Why you joined up with Wirt and Charlie in the first place?”

Quincy leaned back and ran his fingers through his curly hair in an impatient gesture. “Look, if you’re worrying about those two, though I still don’t know why, I’m not—”

“It doesn’t have anything to do with them! It’s Ralph Dugan you’re after.”

Quincy was half irritated and more puzzled than ever. “Of course it is. But what difference does it make to you if—”

He broke off, as the sudden shock of an idea assailed him—a horribly plausible idea. It would account for everything: Rosa Jean’s staying out in this lonely place—why her brother’s death was never spoken of—Ralph Dugan—and Rosa Jean—?

He got up, and stood staring down at her. “Rosa Jean,” he said unbelievingly, a little hoarse, “you’re—you’re shielding Dugan, aren’t you! Is that why you—are you—”

Rosa Jean’s dark eyes flamed; a whip of passion flashed into her voice, the passion he had always known must be hiding somewhere. “I’d see him dead first! You—you’d dare to suggest I’d protect the man who murdered my brother?”

Quincy passed his hand through his hair again, this time in relief that rather amazed him. “I don’t get it,” he said. “I should think you’d be glad enough to have me catch Dugan, then. Why the fuss?”

“Because I’ve stayed here too long, and put in too much planning and too much waiting for you to come waltzing in under my nose and try to pot him for a miserable bank reward!” said Rosa Jean hotly. She put her hand on the back of a chair and eyed Quincy with bitterness. “You’ve been full of questions about me ever since you came up here, haven’t you. Well, now you know. I’m not going to leave this place until I find Ralph Dugan and make him pay for what he did. And I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t interfere.”

Quincy sat down on the edge of the table. “Till you find him!” he said. “Rosa Jean, do you—do you even know what you’re trying to ask of yourself? How many miles of mountains there are? And if anyone should get wind of what you were after—do you even know what Dugan’s like?”

“I know,” she said through hollowly clenched teeth. “I saw him shoot my brother—outside that door.”

“Did he see you?” Quincy’s voice sharpened suddenly.

“No. I don’t think he would have left me here alive if he had.”

So she was not as much of a fool as he had thought. And she had seen her brother murdered. Quincy felt a sudden ache of pity for all the pain that must be locked behind that silence of hers. But one look told him that she was holding herself stiff and cold again, and any attempt at compassion would be the last thing she wanted from him right now.

He said, after a short silence, “I’d never heard of Dugan being wanted for murder up this way.”

Rosa Jean said in a tight flat voice, “The sheriff in Gorham Gulch wouldn’t swear out a warrant, because he didn’t want any part of trying to catch him. Wirt and Charlie wouldn’t swear the man Bruce met was Dugan, because they were only concerned about their own hides. And after that, I knew I couldn’t count on anyone else.”

“Oh, now, listen,” said Quincy more gently, “that’s not so. Why—there’s men all up and down the territory who want to see Dugan caught just as bad as you do.”

“No,” said Rosa Jean, “not like I do. I don’t just want to see him shot in the back for a bank reward. I want him to hang, but I want it to be for my brother’s murder and for him to know it’s for my brother’s murder. He—” she choked a little—”it didn’t mean the least thing to him. He shot Bruce and it was just like stepping on an insect that got in his way.”

“Listen, I’ve never shot a man in the back in my life!” said Quincy, both nettled by the implication and made uneasy by the tremor in Rosa Jean’s voice.

“Go away,” said Rosa Jean, in a voice wrenched back steady by main force, “please, Quincy—just go.”

She turned and took two blind steps to the open door and stood there. Quincy could see her sharply-etched profile and the curve of dark hair that flowed into the long braid down her back. Why did the mere sight of her have so strong a hold on him? He had never thought of her as pretty, but that look in her eyes would not leave him. Those eyes! Those haunted, weary eyes that looked as though they longed for someone to break the curse of grief and bitterness that held her in captivity. He found himself thinking what it would be like to kiss that small serious mouth, what expression that might bring into her eyes, what response or show of feeling it might finally wring from her—

Quincy caught himself up with a shock. What—?

He felt a sudden surge of anger at himself, anger and alarm. What in the heck was he doing? How was he any better than the leering prospector he had loudly insisted had no right to be in the house? He got up and took a turn about the room until his thoughts steadied, and then unhappily vented the anger at himself against the only other person present.

“I think you’re being a darn fool,” he said. “Even if you could pick up a clue to Dugan’s hideout, do you think you could follow it up without being caught? A girl, all by yourself—you think Dugan’s gang are likely to show you any consideration?—oh, show some sense!”

“That would suit you just fine, wouldn’t it,” said Rosa Jean, turning a dark look on him. “Well, I don’t need your help or your advice, and I could do without your insults too!”

“No, you don’t want my advice or anybody else’s, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need it! Of all the mule-headed girls I ever—”

“You’ve certainly outdone yourself giving advice where it wasn’t wanted. You can say you’ve done your part and call it quits now—and stay out of my way.” She turned swiftly, snatched up the poster from the table and holding it out to him. “I wouldn’t bother trying to claim that reward. I know these mountains better than you do, and I swear I’ll find him first.”

Quincy clipped it out of her hand with equally little ceremony, folded it, and shoved it in his vest pocket. He was more calmly furious now, though the incongruity of wanting to wring Rosa Jean’s fool neck because she was risking her fool neck did not occur to him.

“So,” he said, “you think Dugan’s hideout is up here, too. I guess you would know. Well, I’ve been right so far anyway. But don’t think I’m about to quit just to please you. I only hope I do find him first—because if you should happen to, it’ll be the last fool thing you ever do.”

And with that, he picked up his hat, shouldered his way past her through the door and down the steps and strode away across the yard toward the bunkhouse.

VII.

The day began with another quarrel. It was a gray day that had an air of being disgusted with itself, with heavy, angry gray clouds shrouding the mountaintops. It was not a promising atmosphere for already disgruntled people to work well together, and when Charlie Conlan came and told Quincy Burnett they were several coils short of the rope needed to make halters for the mustangs, Quincy, who for several days had spoken less than Wirt but still more than Rosa Jean, promptly relieved himself of an excess supply of words.

“You mush-headed, pie-faced son of a jackrabbit!” he blurted. “You were down in Gorham Gulch three days ago and you didn’t lay in a supply of rope? You ought to have known we needed it!”

“I forgot!” said Charlie, the first and last line of his defense.

“Too busy flapping your jaw in the saloon to think about it, that’s why. Who else takes four days to buy supplies? I tell you, I don’t know how you ever made a living at anything, let alone mustanging. What have you got between your ears, cotton wool?”

“What are we gonna do about the rope?” said Charlie, who at least knew he was not equipped to compete in a battle of words at this level.

“Get saddled up and go down to the Gulch after it, that’s all we can do.”

“Me? But I just got back! I ain’t going all the way down there again. It’s your turn to go down next—”

Quincy nearly exploded again, but bit it off in exasperation. “All right. All right. I’ll go. I’ll be back sooner than you would. You’d probably forget what you came for time you got there, anyway.”

“Well, somebody sure rolled off’n the wrong side o’ the bunk this morning,” said Charlie disgustedly, and departed.

The first faint mutterings of thunder came from the west as Quincy saddled his horse in the open door of the barn. He glanced out at the gray-cloaked sky. The clouds were wispy, drifting; the storm did not look likely to break before evening, and with any luck he would be down at the Gulch by then. Quincy flipped the reins back over his horse’s neck, then hesitated and looked out through the open door again. He left his horse and walked out and over behind the house, where Rosa Jean was bent over working with the wind whipping her hair, picking beans from a tangle of half-dried vines.

“I’m going down to the Gulch,” he said. “Charlie forgot the rope the other day, and he says we haven’t got enough for halters.”

“You have my permission to go, if that’s what you’re after,” said Rosa Jean, tossing her long braid over her shoulder with one dusty hand.

“No, I want you to listen to me for a minute,” said Quincy, who looked agitated but determined. “There’s one thing I’m going to say to you. I don’t think I got it across very well the other day, and I want to say it before I go. I’m not just trying to make trouble for you, Rosa Jean, or to get in your way just to be contrary. I maybe think you’re making some fool choices, but that’s another thing altogether. All I’m trying to do is be a friend to you, whether you want it or think you need it or not, and that’s what I’m going to keep on doing.”

Rosa Jean looked up at him quickly and a brief, dark look of anger flitted across her face. “Do you call it being a friend to try and keep me from getting justice for my brother?”

“I don’t think you want justice,” said Quincy, coming a step closer. “Not really. If you wanted justice, you’d give your blessing to me or anyone who was after Ralph Dugan. You want your own revenge. If you had a gun in your hand and a chance at him, you’d take that over a chance at bringing him in to the law. I can see it in your face every time you say his name. But it’s not going to work, Rosa Jean. If that’s why you want him dead, it won’t make you feel any better afterward than you did before.”

Rosa Jean was on her feet by this time, very pale. A gust of wind swept past them, raising dust at their feet and rattling the bean vines, and he saw her slim figure tremble as if at a chill. “You think you know me very well,” she said.

“Am I far wrong?” said Quincy. He shook his head. “It’s no good either way, Rosa Jean. Even if you don’t get yourself killed, what kind of life will you have left? Or suppose you just go on like this—telling yourself all the time that you’ll get at Dugan one day, and never letting yourself live for anything else?”

“Why should you care?” said Rosa Jean. “You never saw me in your life before you came up here. You don’t owe me anything but the price of your meals and a place to sleep at night. If I’m ruining my life or risking it, if I’m happy or unhappy or nothing at all, what does it matter to you?”

“Maybe it just does matter to me,” Quincy blurted out. He stopped—half startled by his own words. For one dismayed second he stared at her, not sure what he had done or what he ought to do next.

For a few seconds Rosa Jean seemed not to breathe. Then she lifted her chin and her mouth set straight again. “Maybe it doesn’t,” she said. “You tried to pull the wool over my eyes. If you cared anything about me, you would have told me why you were up here. I’ll bet you just want to make sure I don’t claim your reward money.”

Quincy lost his temper. Even the best of intentions cannot always prevent it.

“You’ve got the feelings of a sour mule!” he said angrily. “You don’t want to do anything but kick anyone who comes near you! More fool me for trying.”

“So you’ve finally realized that, have you?” said Rosa Jean with a strange tremor in her voice.

“That makes us a pair of blockheads,” said Quincy. “Well, I wish you joy of it. But you’ll be sorry one day, Rosa Jean. I’m going now.”

He turned and strode away. He went to the barn and brought out his horse, mounted, and kicked the sorrel into a quick trot down the trail. The wind swept along in the same direction, blowing the horse’s mane and tail awry and half hiding them both in a cloud of dust. Thunder rumbled again as if it was the voice of the cloud, and when the sound had settled he was gone.

Leaving her basket of bean pods where it was, Rosa Jean stumbled toward the barn. She had to get inside—into the dark, like a hurt thing seeking its den. She pushed the flimsy crack-seamed door shut behind her; the wind pushed back against it and banged it a few times. Pheasant was there—Pheasant turned a speckled gray face toward her: quiet, sympathetic, and able to offer her nothing. Rosa Jean put her arm on the horse’s back and rested her head against her forearm.

“You’ll be sorry one day, Rosa Jean.”

Sorry one day? How could she be sorrier than she was now, when her heart was being torn out of her and twisted for a second time?

Oh, why did he have to be so nice to her that first night at supper—why did he have to have such nice eyes, such a pleasant flash of a smile and such a pleasant voice? He was the only person in a long time who had ever seemed concerned about her welfare—but wasn’t it just because she was getting in his way? She was just something he hadn’t accounted for, something that was distracting him from carrying out his plans.

But she knew what Quincy thought of her now. To him she was a stubborn, foolish child who wouldn’t listen to advice or rebuke. It would be utterly incomprehensible to him that she loved him so terribly, that her love was a wild thing fiercely scrabbling for life against every piece of common sense or cynicism she tried to kill it with. Even if she had been able to believe the best of him, Rosa Jean knew she had ruined her own cause—had thrown away every chance to change his opinion of her. Stubbornness had been a habit for so long; it had been the thing that kept her alive. Harsh words had come to her lips so often in self-defense that they had successfully defended her against the one person whom her heart did not want to keep out.

She pressed her face into the crook of her arm, the knife of misery twisting inside her.

All that day Charlie Conlan was fidgety and restless, as if he was waiting for something. More than once he went out and looked down the length of the pasture, and came back more dissatisfied. He was abstracted at supper and left the house without any attempt at teasing Rosa Jean. All that night the storm clouds continued to roll overhead, with only a brief shower or two around midnight as if they were still building their forces.

In the morning Charlie was much the same. He fidgeted around without giving any clue why; and then just past noon, when the threatening skies were already almost as dark as dusk, he sought out Rosa Jean in the house.

“Look here, Rosa Jean,” he said, “you know Quincy’s gone down to the Gulch for rope.”

Rosa Jean made no answer beyond flashing him a glance that was not encouraging, and Charlie fidgeted round the table and tried again. “I guess he’ll prob’ly be back before nightfall.”

“So?”

“Well, look, I wanted to ask you,” said Charlie, “seems you might know—you seem like you been kind of thick with him lately, and all.”

Rosa Jean had to swallow a hard painful lump in her throat, but still managed to come back impatiently, “Ask me what? What might I know?”

“Well, about him,” said Charlie, “what he thinks, and—what he might be expected to think about a thing.” He paused, wrinkled up his nose in a hesitating squint for a minute, then said, “I met a friend down in the Gulch the other day. He asked me if I had a place he could keep some horses for a night, on his way to someplace. I told him I reckoned he could keep ‘em here a night.”

“Are they stolen horses?” said Rosa Jean, with the calm of one who is not surprised.

“Well… he didn’t say.”

“I suppose you forgot to bring up rope from the Gulch on purpose.”

“Hob didn’t show yesterday like he said he would,” said Charlie. “If Quincy gets back tonight, an’ then Hob turns up tonight or tomorrow, I reckon I’ll have to explain. But golly Moses, Rosa Jean, I don’t know Burnett all that well, even after breaking horses with him a couple of months. I ain’t sure how he’ll take it.”

“I don’t know why I bother telling you anything, seeing as you never listen to me,” said Rosa Jean, “but if you take my advice, you won’t try anything fishy so long as Quincy’s around here. I might as well tell you—he didn’t just come up here to hunt horses. He’s a bounty hunter.”

Charlie assimilated this information with lifted eyebrows, but with somewhat less surprise than Rosa Jean had expected. “Huh,” he said after a minute. “I’ll be dogged. Reckon that kind of explains some things, though.”

Rosa Jean looked up. “What things?”

“Oh, this thing an’ that. He asks questions sometimes. Is he after the Dugan gang?”

Rosa Jean stared at him, momentarily stunned by his matter-of-factness. Charlie knew too? “Why would you say that?”

“Well, I don’t see why he’d be so all-fired cagey about tracking anyone else,” said Charlie. “Now I think of it, he was awful interested in side canyons an’ such when we was up in the mountains. Like he was looking for a place that could be a hideout. It’d explain why he was so interested in old man Sullivan’s place, too, though I coulda told him there was nothin’ in that.”

A tiny prickle of something—premonition—intuition—stirred down inside Rosa Jean. On the outside, however, nothing was different about her face or voice as she said, “Why? What’d he say about Sullivan’s?”

“Oh, he never said nothin’ to us. But we stopped twice there for water when we was after the herd, and he was forever hangin’ round talking to the old man, and seemed real interested in his old shack. Wirt said somethin’ the other day about Quincy askin’ him things about the old man, too. But he’s sure on the wrong trail. That old man’s so batty nobody could trust him to keep a secret—I misdoubt he could remember a secret long enough to keep it, the way he gets folks’ faces mixed up. Nobody as smart as Dugan’s gonna trust him with knowing what they’re up to or where they might be hiding out.”

Rosa Jean nodded slowly, only half knowing she was doing it. An idea had showed itself in her brain, and then danced back out of reach—but the flicker was still there, just outside her reach, and if she concentrated long enough she might see it again. The old man—something Charlie had said—

Charlie seemed to have talked himself back into a better humor, and saw nothing of her abstraction. “Well, if Hob don’t show by morning I guess I’ll ride out and see if I can find him. Tell him maybe it ain’t such a good idea to come up here—’specially since we ain’t sold our horses yet. Say, Rosa Jean, you making any more pie for supper?”

“Yes,” said Rosa Jean slowly, “yes, I think so.”

“Good! Well, I’ll be going.”

Somehow he and his noisy voice and presence were out of the house, and Rosa Jean hastily closed the door behind him. She wanted to think. She felt she had been given the key to a riddle, if only she could pick it out of everything else jumbled in Charlie’s speech. She went in and sat on the edge of her bed, one hand on either side of her, and stared at the opposite wall.

No one else had shared her theory of the mountain hideout—until Quincy Burnett. Quincy, who manifestly knew what he was doing, had showed a definite interest in old man Sullivan’s shack. But there was nothing there. Rosa Jean had been in that shack once with Bruce. It was one shabby little room with bare plank walls, built against the cliff and on top of stone—there was no way it could mask the secret entrance to anything. There was nowhere for an outlaw gang to hide their horses in that exposed little canyon, open to the sky and views from the cliff-tops. There was no trustworthy accomplice there, only a muddle-headed little old man who every day shambled down the trail to chip at the stone walls in his played-out old mine—

The mine.

Rosa Jean thought her heart stopped beating for a moment. The old silver mine.

Could it be?

A mine ten years old, no doubt with half a dozen abandoned shafts and passages—one of which just might have been extended with a little labor by some shrewd outlaws to open on some undiscovered canyon on the other side. A mine whose timbered entrance down by the rock-walled trail could not be seen from the shack, nor, undoubtedly, from the cliffs above it. And an old man who couldn’t keep a secret, who couldn’t remember a secret long enough to keep it—better than a trusted conspirator, for he knew the secret and yet knew nothing at all.

What better camouflage than a wavering, senile, half-deaf old man who couldn’t remember names or faces? He would never remember who came to his shack or what they did there, or the times they had come and gone. No sheriff would place any value on his testimony. He had been given a pass because he was harmless and ineffectual, and his very harmlessness made him valuable to Ralph Dugan and his gang.

The conviction of her theory brought Rosa Jean to her feet—and then she stopped. What had her first impulse been? Tell Quincy? He already held half the key to the riddle in his own hands; he had acknowledged her correct instincts regarding the whereabouts of the gang’s hideout—he would see the whole thing at once.

But that was all wrong. Quincy had no part in this—no part in the sleepless nights of aching head and heart and planning for the moment it would all be paid back. Once share the task with him, and the quest for vengeance would no longer belong to her, as it still belonged now. And how could she be sure he would not take the final prize from her as well? He was only a bounty hunter, with a ticket to five thousand dollars in his pocket. Much easier to kill a wanted man on sight—and then Ralph Dugan would never know that it was Bruce Kennedy’s murder which had caught up with him at last.

Rosa Jean’s teeth clenched. [He could have told me. He took me to task for wanting to do it all myself, but he didn’t want anyone interfering with _]his[ plans, did he!_]

Had Quincy been at the Kennedy place at the hour all this transpired, things might have been different. In the first agitation of her discovery, Rosa Jean might have swallowed her pride and gone to him after all. But he was not there, and she had time to think twice. For a few hours at least she was ahead of him on Dugan’s trail, at least until he got back to the Kennedy place and within reach of Charlie’s careless blabbering. She could wait—or she could use the time herself.

It didn’t have to be revenge. She didn’t have to kill Dugan herself. She could put him into the hands of the law, and throw Quincy’s accusations back in his teeth. But for that, she had to have proof. The sheriff of Gorham Gulch would never go up and poke about in old man Sullivan’s mine merely on the strength of a girl’s wild theory.

If she could only have a look at the mine herself—if she could find evidence of horses being taken in there or a passage being extended—those would be physical clues whose existence the sheriff could not overlook. It would be enough to coerce him into making the search.

The coming storm had darkened the sky outside so that it was almost like night in the house. The oil lamp in the wall bracket burned feebly, looking ill at ease in an atmosphere that was not quite night or day. Rosa Jean walked back and forth across the floor, her head bent and her arms folded. She had to have an excuse—a reason to go. For what she had in mind it was necessary that she come face to face with the old man and anybody else who might be up there with him. She had to carry it off as natural if she expected to come back alive.

Rosa Jean paused and stood looking for a moment at a basket hanging on its peg beside her apron. She was remembering the assay officer’s wife whom she had seen in Gorham Gulch—old man Sullivan’s daughter—and her little girls in pigtails and calico pinafores—remembered the woman talking ruefully of her father’s obstinate habits, and how he hardly knew her when she took him up provisions, much less knew his grandchildren—

Rosa Jean turned and went quickly into her bedroom and shut the door behind her. She pulled the hairpins from the knot of hair at the nape of her neck and let its long dark length fall, and began to unfasten the back of her dress. She changed into an old short skirt that came above her ankles, an old print blouse that made her thin chest look even flatter, and brushed her hair out and braided it in two long pigtails on either side of her face. She stared into her small mirror, trying to practice an expression with eyes open in childish unconcern and unawareness. With the severe youthful lines of her face, the pigtails, and the right expression, she thought she could pass for fourteen at least.

She came out and took the basket from its nail and brought it to the kitchen, where she lined it with a napkin and rapidly added what odds and ends of food she could find—a few glass jars of preserves and vegetables, half a pie left over from supper. As she covered them with the ends of the napkin her mind was still thrumming agitatedly. An independent visit to her grandfather on the mountain was the sort of escapade an adventurous child might undertake. If old Sullivan was muddled by the appearance of a granddaughter he could not remember, that was only natural—it had happened before.

Rosa Jean put the filled basket on the table and went into her room again. She slid open the top drawer of the bureau—the revolver was there under her folded nightdresses. She put her hand in and her fingers slid around the grip and the cold trigger guard.

I’m not going up there to kill anybody. I’m not going for revenge. I’m not.

She jerked the gun out and shut the drawer with a sharp bang, and went back to the front room. She hid the gun deep in her basket, underneath the pie, wadded up in the folds of the checked napkin. It would be foolish to go unarmed—but the gun was only for a last emergency.

She pulled her faded red calico kerchief from its peg and put it over her head, tying it at the back of her neck. Then she reached up and turned down the lamp. As the flame went slowly down, leaving her standing in the gray storm-dark, for the first time Rosa Jean quailed at what lay ahead of her. The mountains loomed large; the climb to the isolated shack under threatening, darkening clouds looked lonely and alarming. If only Quincy was there—

Rosa Jean’s lips trembled, but once again her native stubbornness lifted her chin and straightened her shoulders. She had made her choice. She was going through with it.

A glance from the window showed no sign of Charlie or Wirt. They were probably in the bunkhouse. With her basket on her arm Rosa Jean slipped out of the house, closed the door, and ran for the barn, her heart beating erratically as she went and the jars in the basket clinking against each other. Inside the barn she put the basket down, pulled the door most of the way closed, and saddled Pheasant with chilly fingers in the gloom. The only thing she had to worry about was being spotted as she slipped away, for she had no desire to make explanations to those two in the bunkhouse. Even they might think this exploit was too outrageous and try to stop her going. But there was no window on the side of the bunkhouse facing the mountain, so if she circled around behind the barn and slipped through that way she might get past unobserved.

She managed it. She led Pheasant partway down the pasture, far enough so that the sound of hoofs would not carry back, and then mounted. She held the basket on her arm close against her, trying to balance it so the jars would not be jolted so much by the horse’s gait, and nudged Pheasant with her heels.

In five minutes they were climbing from the pasture onto the mountain trail. Rosa Jean looked up—the gray clouds, layered thickly in different shades, boiled swiftly behind the darkened red peaks. But the trail was well marked, and if she kept to it she would reach her destination sooner or later. And then—?

Rosa Jean pushed the question out of sight. She had no room left for anything but the burning ache in her heart and mind that was driving her upwards, leading her into the heart of the storm.

VIII.

Quincy arrived home in the gray afternoon, in a calmer frame of mind than he had departed the day before. The long solitary ride from Gorham Gulch had given him plenty of time to think and reflect. He had not entirely sorted out his thoughts as regarded his feelings toward Rosa Jean, but he knew that it was somehow important to him to mend the breach between them. Whatever came next—as yet he was not sure—that was important.

Quincy unsaddled his horse and turned it into the corral, stowed his saddle and the coils of new rope in the barn, and then looked toward the house. He was of two minds whether to go up there right away. Rosa Jean might think he was making a pest of himself, coming back as soon as he returned, or if he went straight off to the bunkhouse she might think he was deliberately ignoring her. Quincy chose being regarded as a pest as the lesser of two evils, and started for the house.

The door was shut and the window dark. Quincy knocked at the door, a deferential knock. He waited—there was no answer.

After a minute he knocked again, even more deferentially, if possible. Had Rosa Jean seen the abashed humility of his expression then, as he stood with his head bent slightly and one ear tilted toward the door to listen, she could hardly have resisted him. But after a moment a slight frown stole over Quincy’s face, and he lifted his head and looked at the door. There did not seem to be any sound at all inside. He leaned to one side and tried to look through the front window, but the dark within and the grayness of clouds reflected on the glass obscured his view.

He knocked again, a little louder. “Rosa Jean?” he said.

There was no answer. Quincy put his hand on the doorknob—a premonition, much like the one that had made Rosa Jean unfold the wanted poster, made him turn it. He opened the door and stepped in. The house was dark—there was no fire in the kitchen stove. The door to Rosa Jean’s bedroom was open, and a glance showed Quincy she was not there. Some clothes lay tumbled on the bed as if she had changed them in a hurry.

With premonition ticking quickly in his mind like an alarm clock, Quincy left the house, banging the door behind him, and walked quickly to the barn. Rosa Jean’s gray gelding was gone, and a saddle. After the one glance around that told him this, Quincy left the barn door to swing closed and headed for the bunkhouse.

Charlie and Wirt were sitting on either side of the table with a game of checkers between them. Quincy closed the bunkhouse door behind him as thunder rumbled somewhere in the distance, and stood for a moment looking from one to the other. They were bent over the game and did not look as though they had noticed anything wrong.

“Where’s Rosa Jean?” he said.

Charlie and Wirt looked up, indifferent and uncomprehending. “Huh?” said Charlie.

“I asked where Rosa Jean is,” said Quincy, coming a step nearer the table and pulling one of his gloves off. “Have you seen her?”

“Ain’t she in the house?”

“No, she’s not,” said Quincy. “There’s no fire in the stove and her horse and saddle are gone.”

Charlie looked puzzled. He looked across at Wirt, whose face was a blank, and screwed his own face into a hard-thinking squint. “Maybe,” he said—”no, she couldn’t a’ done that. But she’s crazy enough for it sometimes.”

“For what?” said Quincy, his voice sharpening.

Charlie flapped one hand dismissively, trying to return his attention to the checkerboard. “Nothin’. I just thought she might a’ got an idea, from what I told her about you, but it’s no account anyway.”

A clipped tension had come into Quincy’s voice, a tension of foreboding, and he felt it tighten his jaw and stiffen along his shoulders. “What’s no account? What’d you tell her about me?”

“About Dugan,” Charlie explained, trying to seem as if he were not paying attention, “and the mountain. Rosa Jean’s got her own ideas about that. But I told her—”

Quincy’s hands jolted on the edge of the table and all the checkers jumped halfway into the next squares. “What about Dugan? Where did she go? Charlie, you start making sense or so help me, I’ll—”

“Hey, look what you done,” said Charlie. “I just thought she might a’ got an idea, is all. But I didn’t—”

Quincy twisted both hands in the front of Charlie’s shirt and hauled him up out of his seat, pushed him stumbling back over the clattering upset chair, and shoved him hard against the bunkhouse wall. “Where is she?” he shouted, his face only inches from Charlie’s. “What did you tell her, and where did she go? You tell me or I’ll beat it out of you!”

It took a few seconds for Charlie to form the words, for his lips were shaking and Quincy’s hands grasping his twisted collar were at his throat. His face was a sickened pasty white. “She told me—you were a bounty-hunter,” he said, “and I—I said that—explained some things. I said was you—l-looking for Dugan—and maybe that’s why you was so interested in old man Sullivan’s place—” Quincy gave his collar another angry twist as if in test of truthfulness, but Charlie winced and gulped and went on, “—Sullivan’s place. That’s all. Honest. Th-that’s all I told her.”

Quincy let go of him roughly, and Charlie stayed wilted against the wall, his hand creeping up shakily to rub his neck. Across the table Wirt was on his feet, staring at them. Quincy drew a deep, unsteady breath—he looked from one to the other of them with an expression of fury and incredulity, and then he turned and slammed out of the bunkhouse.

He ran to the barn as thunder boomed menacingly again, hauled his saddle out, and took it over to the corral. Raindrops were beginning to spatter across the dusty yard. His own horse was played out after the long climb from the canyon; he would have to take one of the mustangs. Quincy got his rope, shook out a loop, and sent it sailing over the head of one of them; the other horses bunched and circled nervously around the corral, set on edge by the thunder. He snubbed the mustang up to a post, bridled it, and slapped on his saddle, mentally calling Rosa Jean all the non-profane names he could think of in a fit of near-panic that answered all his questions once and for all. Now, in the hour when she was in danger, she was no longer just a lonely girl who needed a friend—she was his girl, his heart and soul, everything he ever wanted. How could he have been such a fool not to know it sooner? Now it might be too late.

Thunder rumbled again and echoed off the rocks—to Rosa Jean the sound seemed to circle all round her, growling off ledges overhead and from the narrow trail behind her like a pursuing beast. Pheasant climbed steadily, at little faster than a walk despite the effort put into it; occasionally bits of rock came loose under his hooves and slid rattling down the trail behind them.

Alone—alone. The dusk and storm blotted her surroundings so that not even a companionable bit of brush or stunted scrub pine was visible; there were only great lumps and towers of rock looming against the swift-moving dark clouds of the sky. The only thing human in the landscape was the shack perched high in the mountains that was her goal—and even that was only in her mind’s eye, the light from its window an imagined beacon and a half sinister one.

Hours ago she had crept past Joyman’s unobserved—picked her way through the canyons of mustang country she had ridden through with Bruce long ago. She was on the exposed upper slopes of the mountains now, where the winds cut colder and the storm’s thunder seemed to strike and recoil loudly all around her. And suddenly a wolf’s howl pierced clearly through the gloom, from somewhere above and to her left.

Rosa Jean half unconsciously tightened her hand on the reins, and Pheasant’s steps slowed and halted for a second—the actions seemed almost independent of each other, as if they had both reacted to the sound. Then she tapped the horse’s side with her heels and urged him forward, in a whisper that came dry from her throat.

Another howl came from somewhere on the right, and this time Rosa Jean distinctly felt the horse’s muscles tense beneath her. Her own heart was beating thickly against the basket held close to her breast. These were the haunts of wolves, wolves both human and animal, who came out to strike and devour and then vanished again, taunting their victims with their inviolability. To invade their precincts unadvisedly meant death.

A turn in the rock wall ahead seemed familiar. It was the last climb toward Sullivan’s. Pheasant threw his shoulders into the climb, and Rosa Jean held tight with her knees and her hand on the horse’s tensed withers and kept the basket held tight against her side, the rain pattering on the damp kerchief tied over her head. Irregular ribbons of rain had been flung down at them on the gusting wind from time to time, and now another gust brought more wolves’ howls, rising from everywhere across the mountains. Pheasant balked in mid-stride, shuddering and shying sideways, and came to a halt trembling all over. Rosa Jean nudged him with her foot and twitched the reins on his neck, trying in vain to start him forward. “Come on, Pheasant, come on!” she begged him, hearing the shaking in her own voice and wondering if it was fear, or if she was almost crying at the awful aloneness.

Pheasant backed a step, stumbling on the steep trail, his ears flat and his tail clamped down tight. Rosa Jean slid from the saddle, clinging awkwardly to the basket hooked on her arm, and moved up alongside the horse to lead him, keeping a tight grip on his bridle. Pheasant whinnied and pulled back, and Rosa Jean braced her feet—still with desperately irrelevant visions of jars of blackberry preserves smashed on the trail. She knew what was more vital, that if she lost her grip and her horse bolted and left her there she was in a very bad spot indeed.

“Come on, Pheasant!” she half sobbed. “Don’t you desert me now… I’ve got to get there… got to…”

Slowly, a step at a time, he came, still bobbing and shaking his head in protest. They were in between steeper rock walls now, where the buffeting of the wind was less, and the sounds of the wolves seemed to have ceased. Were they watching from ledges above, waiting until their prey was fully in their reach?

Pheasant came without pulling now, and Rosa Jean had only to look to her own climb up that final steep-pitched, scrambling hump of trail. She drew breath as the gaping black opening of the mine loomed up on the left. What she would have given to step straight in there and put her theories to the test at once—! But she had to go up to the shack first to see if anyone besides Sullivan was there, or else they might easily come down to the mine while she was inside and take her unawares.

Rosa Jean took a final, shaking breath, nearly of exhaustion, as they crested the slope. The shack was there against the dark cliff, a light shining from its single window just as she had imagined it. And yet unreality still clung round her. Had she really done this—had she really climbed all this way alone? And with this accomplished, what was she to do now? She began to have an inkling of why Quincy had been so outraged.

But she was here—and this was her moment.

She led Pheasant over to the pole corral and tied him there. It was too dark to see far in front of her; a humped shape that must be Sullivan’s mule—or mules—was huddled in the lean-to against the cliff. Rosa Jean pulled her braids forward over her shoulders, wiped the rain from her face with her sleeve, and adjusted the basket on her arm, then climbed the stone steps to the shack. She knocked at the door.

A moment’s pause—a slight noise inside—and she heard the latch being undone. The door creaked open. Rosa Jean’s eyes drifted up from where she had expected to find the face of the little old man on a level with her own, to the face of the dark-haired younger man who stood looking down at her, and in that moment Rosa Jean knew she was looking into the face of her brother’s murderer.

He was younger-looking than she had thought, but there were hard lines in his forehead and at the corners of his eyes. His face was tanned brown and his thick black hair fell in a rough, boyish way over the side of his forehead. But there was nothing careless or young about the attentive night-black eyes fixed on her—those eyes were capable of everything she had ever heard about him.

All this Rosa Jean saw and thought in seconds, but she did not lose her composure. She looked up at him, letting frank surprise come into her face, and said “Oh,” and then, “Who are you? Where’s Grandpa?”

Ralph Dugan’s glance skimmed over her from head to foot—a slightly lifted dark eyebrow the only change in his expression. “Grandpa?” he said.

“Yes. Mr. Sullivan. He’s my grandfather, you know. Isn’t he here?” Rosa Jean stood on tiptoe and leaned to look past him, and Dugan drew back a little as if to let her enter. She walked in as if quite accustomed to it and looked round the room—empty but for the disordered bunk, a table, chair, and little tin stove—and looked innocently back to Dugan for explanation.

He pushed the door shut with one hand, a casual gesture that spoke of nothing more than keeping the rain out—but she saw his right hand slip away from the holster at his hip, where it had doubtless been as he opened the door to her. “No, he wasn’t home when I got here. Probably out scrounging firewood or such like.”

“Oh, bother,” said Rosa Jean, setting her basket on the table with a thump. “I hope he gets back soon… I wanted to get back home before Ma starts to fuss. I didn’t tell her I was coming up here; I wanted to surprise Grandpa and I didn’t know if she’d let me come. See, I brought him some of Ma’s blackberry preserves, and vegetables, and part of a pie. I made that myself.”

The one sliver of truth at the end seemed to return her to some form of reality, from which, for a moment, she felt herself floating free. It seemed she was not really here in the shack; it was this other girl, this chattering creature she had created out of old clothes and imagination.

“You know the way up here yourself?” said Dugan, with another slight lift of his brows that seemed as careless as she was.

Rosa Jean took the cue. “Oh, sure, I’ve been up here with Ma before. Grandpa don’t always remember us, though. He probably won’t know who I am even if I tell him and tell him.” She laughed, and was amazed at how natural it sounded.

She let her glance travel half curiously, half indifferently round the shack—over the jumble of ropes and lanterns, tools and coal oil cans against the foot of the lefthand wall, the shelves above them with their dusty cans and jars and limp half-filled sacks of flour and meal. Then she came back to Dugan. “Who’re you—anyway? Do you know Grandpa?”

“Sure,” said Dugan lightly. “I’m a sort of friend of his… I stop in for a jaw with him whenever I come this way.”

It was nothing like she had pictured—this being here, being in the same room with him. She had no chance to watch him, to see what he was really like, because he was always looking at her without seeming to put any special effort into it.

He turned and picked up a half-smoked cigarette, giving her five seconds’ opportunity. His black head was bent a little—the tiny glow from the cigarette tip threw his eyes into shadow, like a mask. Rosa Jean tried to swallow a queer metallic taste in her mouth. In fancy she felt the heaviness and coldness of a revolver in her hand, felt her finger tighten on the trigger. A kind of fascination dragged her eyes to the front of Dugan’s shirt—pictured it torn and crimson-stained like her brother’s. She stood six feet from him, and the gun was in reach of her hand.

But then—what? What was left her after that—except an empty cabin inhabited by a dead man?

Dugan was near the table; he looked at her basket—idly, it seemed, he turned back the napkin to look at the food inside, and for one breathless second Rosa Jean’s vision wavered at the thought of the gun. But Dugan let the napkin fall, and investigated no further. She began to breathe again.

She swallowed his last speech without comment, because it seemed the only thing to do. Would this talkative child she had invented allow sort of a friend to pass without further curiosity? Dugan’s casual manner gave her no clue as to whether he accepted her in the role she was playing. She must look bedraggled and childish enough, anyway, with her pigtails and the few wisps of damp hair draggling over her forehead from under the red kerchief, but that was not what counted.

Thunder rumbled overhead, sounding very close to the mountain. Rosa Jean looked up. “Oh, golly,” she said. “If I’ve got to wait for Grandpa I’d better take care of my horse. He can’t stand in the rain all this time. I’ll be back in a minute—”

Dugan turned swiftly, smoothly for the first time. “I’ll do it. I’ll put him around in the lean-to with my horse; you stay inside.”

He flicked her a brief lazy smile, which Rosa Jean felt go through her in a queer way. He opened the door with one hand in his unhurried way; she noted the athletic swing of his body as he stepped out into the night. Then the door closed and she was alone in the dim shack.

Rosa Jean stood still in the middle of the room, aware for the first time of her heart’s beating. She did not know why he had gone outside, but with Ralph Dugan nothing was done by accident. Either there was something outside he did not want her to see—or it was a test, to see how she behaved herself while he was gone. What would the old man’s grandchild do? And where was the old man, on a night like this?

Rosa Jean shivered and rubbed her arms; the shoulders of her blouse were damp from the rain. She would put a piece of wood in the stove; that was natural enough. She moved toward the woodbox, a big deep thing almost as tall as the stove, which must take many hours of foraging for the old man to keep filled. It was full now, heaped over in fact. The first branch Rosa Jean touched was hooked with others—she tried to untangle it and half the pile shifted, exposing a gap in the next layer. There was something else beneath the wood—it looked like cloth.

Rosa Jean’s lips parted with a quick breath. She leaned over and put her hand down into the woodbox—pushed a piece of wood aside. She saw a faded, twisted brown suspender—a mottled bald head with a wisp of white hair trailing from it—and she knew why the old man was not at home on this inhospitable night.

For a moment Rosa Jean stood perfectly still. Oddly enough she did not feel frightened, or sick; it seemed as if the whole world had come to a stop for that moment. She thought and realized very clearly: that Quincy had been on the right track, and that Ralph Dugan had suspected, and that this was what happened when Ralph Dugan suspected.

Then she moved. She pushed some branches down in the hole, and shoved the top layer back as close as possible to how it had been, keeping back just one crooked stub which she put in the stove. She turned and looked around for something else the assayer’s child might be expected to do. She would fix the rumpled bunk, no doubt. Rosa Jean bent over it and began to shake out the soiled and tattered quilt, and was busily engaged with it when Ralph Dugan came back in.

He closed the door. Rosa Jean glanced up. “It’s awfully untidy here,” she said. “Ma says Grandpa lives up here just because he can’t abide proper housekeeping. It looks like he never does any, anyway.”

She did not dare look directly at Dugan yet, but from the attitude in which he leaned back against the wall by the door she thought he seemed amused. He never stopped looking at her. She could not look up at him unless she could be sure her eyes were clear and her expression unsuspecting. And fear had begun to beat in her breast and to be a hot little pulse in her throat.

Rosa Jean tucked in the end of the quilt and left the bunk alone. She came and sat down in the single chair, tucking her feet under it and putting her hands in her lap like a little girl on her best behavior. Ralph Dugan had taken papers and tobacco from his pocket and was building a cigarette. Outside it thundered again suddenly, and then on the heels of it came muffled howls—quite nearby, sounding as if they were just on the other side of a wall. Both of them lifted their heads to look in the direction of the sound.

“They sound pretty near,” ventured Rosa Jean. She sighed. “I hope Grandpa comes soon… I sure can’t sit up all night waiting for him. Took me longer to get up here than I thought—Ma and Pa’ll both be crazy. I guess… if he doesn’t come soon I should just start home.”

“I wouldn’t,” said Dugan briefly, the cigarette in one hand as he reached in his pocket for matches. “You can hear those wolves out there. You might not want to go down that trail in the dark.”

Rosa Jean was thinking of the ride up. Unconsciously she stiffened her back and spoke as herself, with a certain determination in her voice. “I’ll be all right. I’m not afraid of any wolves.”

There was a pause—she realized the slight unintended emphasis she had put on a word. She looked at Ralph Dugan. He was looking at her in a curiously meditative way—his black eyes seemed clearer and deeper, more alert in the tanned and hardened face that still kept its youthful features. He had noticed too. And Rosa Jean realized that she was seeing that same expression Charlie had told her about—the expression that had been on Dugan’s face that night in the saloon when he caught the implication in Bruce Kennedy’s ill-considered speech. Whatever he might have thought of her before, she had his attention now.

Dugan put the cigarette between his lips and drew on it slowly before he spoke. “Wait till the old man gets back,” he said, “and I’ll ride down with you myself. You shouldn’t be alone up here anyway.”

Rosa Jean started to frown, but realized just as quickly that this was a trap. She was not supposed to know the old man would not be coming back. She lifted her eyes to Dugan’s face, the anxiety in them not unfitting. “But if the wolves are dangerous, and Grandpa’s out there, how do you know they haven’t gotten him?

Dugan’s white teeth flashed a peculiar smile in his dark face. “I expect they’re so used to him maundering around, they won’t bother.”

He slid around to lean against the table, and pinched ash from his cigarette so it fell on the floor. “You know anything about a fellow called Burnett?” he said casually.

Rosa Jean never knew how she survived the suffocating thud and rush of blood into her ears, but somehow she clutched at composure and held on.

“Bur-nett?” she repeated, tilting her head and trying to sound quizzical. She gave a quick swallow before going on. “I don’t know. Is he a miner? My pa might know him; he knows just about everybody in the Gulch.”

“No,” said Dugan. “Calls himself a mustanger. From what I hear, he’s only been around a few months.” He spoke in a meditative, deliberate way, as if he had carefully gathered and considered his information already. “Youngish… doesn’t come from these parts. Seems to have been up here kind of a lot.”

“Most everybody who comes up in these mountains stops at Grandpa’s,” said Rosa Jean, as if Grandpa’s granddaughter was rather proud of the fact.

“Yeah,” said Dugan, “but usually not so noticeable that Grandpa remembers them.”

He was looking straight at her now, making no attempt to hide his interest in her response. What could he know? She had not trembled when she feared for herself, but she was having a hard time keeping calm now. For she knew where this talk was tending—Quincy Burnett knew too much, as her brother had once known too much—as Dugan had decided Sullivan knew too much.

That was why he was here. He knew Quincy would come back.

Rosa Jean twisted cold fingers in her lap and tried to shake her pigtails unconcernedly. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him,” she said.

Ralph Dugan was smiling a little. One side of his mouth twitched back a little more at her answer. “Never?”

All the times she had ever seen him, the way he smiled and the way he walked, the way his curly hair looked in the sunlight when he took his hat off—oh, Quincy, Quincy, it’s too late now—all the times he had ever looked at her and all the times she had been near him, all poured through Rosa Jean’s mind, but she shook her head—it was meant to be careless, but it was a stiff little jerk. “No.”

She made the mistake of lifting her eyes to her tormentor. He was smiling. He was like a wolf—a dark wolf, with gleaming, intelligent eyes and a dangerous smile.

Fear was a hot streak up and down her spine. She had to do something to pull herself back into character, or she was lost. There was only her and Dugan and the basket on the table between them. The basket—her last chance, if she could only pretend long enough to reach it. Rosa Jean got up from her chair, trying to put a younger girl’s bounce in her step, and unfolded the napkin from over the jars and pie. She heard and sensed Dugan slide off the table, and all at once he was there beside her. Rosa Jean’s quick intake of breath almost choked her—her fingers clutched inside the basket and tangled in the checked napkin. She half turned toward him—before she could do anything Dugan put out one hand and hooked the braid on the left side of her face back with his thumb; he reached around and pulled both pigtails behind her, tipping her head back so her face was tilted up toward his. He studied her face, and a slow smile of satisfaction spread over his.

“You’re no kid,” he said. His eyes lingered insolently on hers as if to savor the amusement of his next words. “Burnett hasn’t done bad.”

Rosa Jean tried to widen her eyes in a look of innocence, but the betraying color rushed hot into her face, flooding up to her forehead. Dugan laughed. He pulled her closer to him—Rosa Jean stiffened and struggled, pulling back both with revulsion and an even more horrible sense of how alive and near and darkly handsome he was. She tried to turn her face to one side, but he twisted her braids in his hand and forced her head back, his mouth coming close to hers—

Rosa Jean said, with the little breath that was left her, “You killed my brother.”

Dugan let go of her sharply, startled, and Rosa Jean twisted out of his arms and fell two steps backward. For one moment she stood free; for that moment her anger flared brighter than her fear, and though she knew it was dangerous, she had to speak.

“Bruce Kennedy,” she said. “You cheated him, and then you shot him down in cold blood. I saw you do it. And I’ve been waiting all this time to make you pay for it. I came up here to find you.”

Thunder rattled tensely overhead. Dugan’s face had darkened with anger, but it steadied into an even more menacing satisfaction. “Well, you only did me a favor, then,” he said, and started for her.

It was all wrong. She had spit the words in his face as she had dreamed so long and bitterly of doing—but the advantage was his; treachery was going to win out after all, and swallow her with it.

Rosa Jean spun and ran for the door. She almost reached it, but Dugan’s hand grabbed her shoulder and jerked her around—she screamed, too desperate for anything else, and he clamped his other hand over her mouth, slamming her head back against the wall so hard that she thought the thunder was something in her own head. This was the end—she was all alone here—even the thunder was an enemy to drown her screams. She struggled, but he pressed her against the wall so hard she felt suffocated—and then the wood of door and wall splintered just inches from her head as the latch tore loose and the flimsy door burst inward. Quincy Burnett was in the doorway, panting and wild-eyed, his face wet and rain dripping from the brim of his hat and his gun already in his hand.

Dugan saw it all in a second and took two backwards strides across the room, dragging Rosa Jean in front of him as a shield. Rosa Jean, after one frantic glance over her shoulder at Quincy, tried to pull aside and leave the field of fire open. Quincy yelled, “Don’t be a damn fool, Dugan, put ‘em up!”

Dugan pulled Rosa Jean back in front of him—it was his right hand that gripped her wrist—and in the second she was between them he let go and reached for his gun. Rosa Jean stumbled against the table and then fell as it went over with a crash, scattering the contents of her basket across the floor, and Dugan’s gun came up from the holster and exploded into fire. But Quincy was already firing; he dropped to one knee and fanned the shots one after another. Dugan’s shoulders slammed into the wall in the corner and he slid down, his gun still firing until the barrel tipped downward and the last shot went into the floor. He slumped down in the corner and lay still.

The silence was like an explosion itself in its suddenness. Overhead, the muttering thunder trailed off, sounding tame after the savagery of the gunshots in the narrow cabin.

IX.

Quincy let out a gasp, as if he had been holding his breath for hours. He staggered to his feet and dropped his gun into its holster, and then he bent and lifted Rosa Jean from the floor and wrapped his arms around her, held her close against his chest. “You little—idiot!” he said violently.

He held her tight for a moment; the feeling of her slender form against him was like holding some delicate wild thing in his arms. Rosa Jean lifted her head, dark uncomprehending eyes looking up at him from a white face—and then her head tipped back and she sank down limp in his arms. Quincy gave a dismayed exclamation—he shifted his hold on her, trying to lift her up, and his hand came away from her side wet and streaked red. There was a soaked dark patch on her blouse low on her right side, just above her hip. His heart thudding sickeningly in his throat, Quincy slipped an arm beneath her knees and gathered her up in his arms like a child, carried her to the bunk and laid her on the ragged quilt. One of those last convulsive shots from Dugan’s gun must have gone wild—she had not been in the way of the first shots they exchanged.

He looked frantically about for something to stem the bleeding. His fingers went to the bandana knotted around his own neck; it was wet and dirty. Rosa Jean’s upturned basket lay in the middle of the floor, the smashed remains of pie and trickles of spilled preserves around it—Quincy’s boots crunched on glass from one of the broken jars as he bent and snatched up the clean white napkin. The faded red kerchief had half slid from Rosa Jean’s head; he freed it and hastily wadded it up to press against the wound. He tore the napkin into strips with his teeth and wound them around her waist to hold the makeshift bandage in place.

Rosa Jean turned her head slightly and made a very faint, soft sound. Quincy looked down at her and saw that her eyes were open—very big and dark as she stared up at him. “What…happened?” she said.

“It’s over,” said Quincy, “it’s all over. Dugan’s dead.”

Rosa Jean formed the words slowly, as if from far away. “Am I hurt bad?”

He was terribly afraid, but somehow controlled himself so it did not show. “I’m going to take care of you, sweetheart. I’m going to take you down to Joyman’s and let Ma look after you. You’ll be fine.”

“He killed… Sullivan, too,” whispered Rosa Jean. “Before I came. He knew.”

“The old man?” Quincy still spoke quietly. “Where is he—do you know?”

“In the—the woodbox.”

Quincy gave her a quick startled look, but saw the words were lucid. He left the bunk and went to investigate for a moment, and came back looking a little grimmer. “All right,” he said, as he knelt down beside the bunk, “I’m going to lift you, sweetheart; I’ll try not to hurt you too much.”

“Pheasant,” said Rosa Jean anxiously, her breathing coming quicker, turning her head to one side, “don’t leave Pheasant here… there’s wolves… don’t let the wolves get him.”

“I won’t. I’ll take him down with us, don’t worry.” Rosa Jean’s horse would be easier to handle now than the winded mustang he had ridden up. Quincy rose to his feet, and touched her shoulder gently. “Lie still just one minute—I’ll be right back.”

He went out into the rain and ran around the pole corral. Rosa Jean’s gray, Sullivan’s mule, and another horse that must be Dugan’s were huddled in the lean-to. Quincy led Pheasant out, and after a second’s thought left the bars down on the corral—if there were wolves about, might as well give the mule and the other horse a chance to run for it. He led the gray around front, stopped to unstrap his rain slicker from his own horse and snubbed the mustang’s reins to Pheasant’s saddle horn, and went back inside.

“All right, honey,” he murmured again as he bent over her, “won’t be long now… easy.”

Rosa Jean gave a little moan and clutched at him as he slipped his arm under her shoulders and lifted her. He wrapped the rain slicker around her and lifted her in his arms as gently as he could. As he turned from the bunk he cast one more glance back at Dugan’s body on the floor in the corner, and the woodbox with its grim secret—and then he carried her out into the night, ducking his head under the low door.

It was not easy to mount with Rosa Jean in his arms, but with Pheasant standing below the sharp slope from the shack, he managed it. He was hardly in the saddle when a wolf’s howl rose loud from somewhere close by and both horses jumped. Quincy steadied Pheasant with the reins and spoke to them in low tones, meaningless words, while his mind was occupied with a pithy and fervent prayer that the wolves would mind their own business tonight. He had two horses to handle and Rosa Jean weak and bleeding in his arms, and that was about all he could manage—Providence would just have to take care of the wolves.

He turned Pheasant down over the brow of the slope. The wind roared uneasily and every once in a while the thunder boomed again; the horses’ feet scrabbled on the wet trail. Quincy had no sense of time or distance; all he could see was the gray’s ears and wet mane in front of him—the only thing that held any meaning to him was Rosa Jean huddled still and soundless against him. In the darkness he could not see her face, could discern no reassuring heartbeat or breathing. But it must be there. She had to be all right.

God, don’t let it be too late. Don’t let me lose her now.

The night was endless. Quincy paced the dirt floor of the Joymans’ cabin, or sat miserably in a corner with his head in his hands. Shut out by the quilt-hung bedroom door, he was helpless and useless now. Pa Joyman and his sons sat and watched him and fished for something to say, and not finding it, gave up the effort.

But morning came at last, brilliant with sunlight streaking the rain-washed canyon walls and lighting the quivering drops of water that strung the pines like crystal. And with it came wispy little Ma Joyman from the bedroom, placidly assuring him that Rosa Jean would “do just fine now.” For Quincy, hearing it through a haze of relief and weariness, the golden blaze of that sunrise and the heavenly figure of the wrinkled little woman in calico dress and apron coming through it to bring him the good tidings were ever afterwards inextricably mixed in his mind.

For the rest of that day and night they would not let him see her. Ma Joyman, in a more earthly form by now, declared that Rosa Jean needed to sleep and that Quincy would be more aggravating than any fever. Quincy stood out until the next morning, and then finally wheedled Ma into letting him into the bedroom for a few moments. He pushed under the hanging quilt cautiously, half afraid of what he would find. But Rosa Jean turned toward him a face that was little changed, though pale with its framing of loose dark braids as she lay back on the pillow. When Quincy knelt down beside the bed she lifted her hand a little, and he took it and held it as tightly as he dared. He could not think of anything to say, and so in the end he fumbled for a repetition of their last meeting.

“You—blame little idiot,” he said, his voice both shaken and tender.

Rosa Jean smiled, a remarkably beautiful smile to be called up by that greeting. Quincy managed a short laugh, relieved and unutterably happy, and simply looked at her for a moment, alive to the feeling of her hand securely and unreservedly in his own for the first time.

“Stubborn,” he said. “Just plain stubborn. That’s why you did it, wasn’t it?”

“Mostly,” said Rosa Jean, with a flicker of mischief flitting through her smile. Then it faded. “But… it wasn’t the only reason, Quincy, if you can believe that.”

“Try me,” he said gently.

Her dark eyes lifted to his face with a kind of appeal. “I had this feeling that—that only my going could set things right. Bruce was all I had, and I was all he had. And he was murdered, and no one else cared enough about it to speak up for him, or try to see his murderer caught. It seemed so unjust. I wanted to do something to set it right. If no one would arrest Dugan for murder, I… I at least wanted it to be something of my doing that brought him down in the end… that if I could bring it about, Bruce wouldn’t have died for nothing.”

“I think I understand,” said Quincy, after a few seconds’ silence. “But you know, Rosa Jean, I could have helped you. If you’d only told me like that before, I’d have understood. I could have given you the chance to feel you’d set someone on the trail to find him, without you having to risk yourself like that.”

“I know that… now,” said Rosa Jean. “But I’d grown so used to people not caring about anything but themselves. I couldn’t help but look at you that way, even though in my heart I wanted to believe you were different.”

She looked down at her hand, which still lay in his. “When I found that poster—and realized you’d been holding out on me—I’d only just begun to trust you a little. That hurt.”

“It was only because I didn’t want to hurt you. I thought you didn’t like to talk about it.”

“I didn’t. But it would have been better to just tell me the truth.”

Quincy began to laugh. “As I recall, there were times when you didn’t exactly fancy the truth either.”

“There is a difference between being told the truth and being beaten over the head with it,” said Rosa Jean, with a momentary return of her old tartness.

“Fair enough,” said Quincy, grinning. “I know. I didn’t go about it in the best way to win favor, that’s for sure.”

His face clouded for a moment. “What happened to the old man was my fault, too. I didn’t think far enough. I was sure he was too muddle-headed to really understand anything I asked him, but I never thought about what might happen if he repeated any of it, even not understanding it.”

There was a pause. Then Quincy added, “I sent Charlie and Wirt to fetch Dugan’s and the old man’s bodies down to the Gulch, and tell the sheriff what happened. He didn’t believe their story—can’t say I blame him much—and he clapped them both in jail. He sent a deputy up yesterday to find me and get my side of it, and I put him straight. The sheriff’s going to let them go, and I’m going to let them have half of the reward for Dugan—and I hope to goodness they make something worthwhile out of it.”

“They won’t,” said Rosa Jean resignedly. “It’s not in their nature to keep money in their pockets for long, however they get it.”

“That’s what I half figured,” said Quincy. “Oh, well, I tried, anyway. I owe ‘em something over all this. At any rate,” he added more seriously, “I mean to make good use out of my share.”

He added, “You’ll come away with me now, won’t you, Rosa Jean? There’s nothing more to keep you here. Dugan’s gone… your brother’s gone… it’s all finished.” He watched her face, over which a slight shadow had fallen, and gently caressed her fingers with his other hand. “Will you come?”

“Yes,” said Rosa Jean quietly. “Yes… I’ll go.”

“We’ll have a good start,” said Quincy, feeling that something was missing, but not sure what, “with the reward money, and my share from the horses… I don’t know if I’m cut out for farming, but there’s a little town over in Nevada where a sheriff offered me a job as his deputy, last year. If he’ll pay me enough to support a wife, I’ll go back and hold him to it.”

Rosa Jean was looking at him with an expression he did not understand. “A wife?”

Quincy stared back at her. “Yes—what did you think?”

Rosa Jean’s eyes filled suddenly, quietly with tears. “Oh, Quincy, I didn’t know,” she whispered. “I didn’t think that you—I thought you thought I was only a stubborn, troublesome kid.”

“You are. Good Lord, you are,” said Quincy. “But you’re a lot more besides that, sweetheart, and I knew that from the moment I laid eyes on you. You’re quite a woman, Rosa Jean, and Lord help me, I love you.”

She could not speak. He saw it in the eloquence of her streaming eyes, and he bent and gathered her into his arms so her face was pressed against his shoulder, and let her tears flow. He sensed somehow that they were the first tears she had allowed herself to shed in a long time. When at last she lifted her face from his shoulder, a faint smile on her tremulous lips, and lay back exhausted on the pillow her face was wet, but it had the look of a new day washed clean by a night’s rain.

He leaned down and kissed her, softly, lingeringly, and then kissed her again. Then they were quiet for a while, and Rosa Jean twined her fingers in his and held his hand against her cheek.

“I wanted you to come,” she said after a while. “In my mind I had a dozen good reasons why I was going… but deep down, I didn’t want to be alone. And it wasn’t just because I was afraid. Even down here, while I was getting ready to go, I wanted you terribly all the time.”

“To hear you say that almost—almost—makes up for the scare you gave me,” said Quincy, grinning.

“Oh, I did. And then up there, when I had Dugan in front of me, I knew for certain you’d been right—it wasn’t only the justice I’d been thinking about. I’d been telling myself that seeing him dead or caught would stop me from hurting so much. But it wouldn’t. Even if he was dead, I’d still be alone.”

Quincy leaned down and kissed her fingers, and put his lips close to her ear. “Well, you’re not alone any more… and you never will be again, so long as I’m alive.”

He chuckled suddenly. “That’s a first, you know. You said I was right.”

“I did,” said Rosa Jean. “It wasn’t the first time, though. I admitted it to myself as hard as could be all the way up that trail, and all the time I was in the cabin.” Her smile was rueful, but her eyes were full of love. “You’ll remind me of that if I ever want to do anything specially foolish again, I’m sure.”

The old smile was back on Quincy’s face. “Oh, you can just bet I will.”

About Elisabeth Grace Foley

Elisabeth Grace Foley (that’s Elisabeth spelled with an S, mind you) has been an insatiable reader and eager history buff ever since she learned to read, and has been scribbling stories ever since she learned to write. She now combines those interests in writing historical fiction. Her short Western novel Left-Hand Kelly was a nominee for the 2015 Peacemaker Award for Best Independently-Published Western Novel. Besides her Westerns, she is also the author of the historical-mystery series The Mrs. Meade Mysteries, a series of fairytale-retelling novellas set in different historical eras, and a variety of short fiction. When not reading or writing, she enjoys music, crocheting, spending time outdoors, and watching sports and classic film. She lives in upstate New York with her family and the world’s best German Shepherd. Visit her online at www.elisabethgracefoley.com.

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Other fairytale retellings by Elisabeth Grace Foley

Corral Nocturne

A short and sweet retelling of the beloved Cinderella story set on the Montana prairies.

Life on her brother’s ranch is lonely for Ellie Strickland. Ed’s ungracious manners and tight-fisted habits keep visitors away and his mother and sister close to home. But when Cole Newcomb, son of the wealthiest rancher in the county, meets Ellie by chance, he is struck by an unexpected impulse to rescue her from her solitude.

Lost Lake House

The Twelve Dancing Princesses meets the heady glamor and danger of the Jazz Age

All Dorothy Perkins wants is to have a good time. She’s wild about dancing, and can’t understand or accept her father’s strictness in forbidding it. Night after night she sneaks out to the Lost Lake House, a glamorous island nightclub rumored to be the front for more than just music and dancing…in spite of an increasingly uneasy feeling that she may be getting into something more than she can handle.

Click here to read more fairytale retellings by Elisabeth Grace Foley

She But Sleepeth

Rachel Heffington

I.

The Spindle

Los Angeles, California

L.A., luridly in need of a power wash, smelled of swimming pools and half-boiled dreams.

“Why Peles Castle?” Brandon Thurman, the film producer, asked.

“It’s pronounced, ‘Pelesh,’“ Maria muttered. As head of set design, she was really not in authority to correct her boss but she hated liberties taken with pronunciation. Especially of places she considered important.

He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Okay, so, why there? I mean, it’s in Romania. I know The Sleeping Plague’s a big project. You don’t have to go halfway across the globe, though.”

Maria watched a solar-powered Chewbacca dance on the windowsill beyond her boss’s right shoulder. Not that solar-powered Wookies generally captivated her, but they outranked her boss’s eyes fastened on her, waiting for an answer.

“If America had a single authentic German-Renaissance castle, I’d be more than willing to look at it,” she recited from her practiced arguments. “But we don’t.”

Maria transferred her notice from Chewbacca to Thurman. That look on his stolid face: unprofessional impatience mixed with professional knowledge of all the reasons it was not strictly necessary to send a set designer to a European destination. But she had to get there. Ever since the image of Peles Castle popped up in her online search, Maria had been unable to think of anything else. In the most bizarre way, it looked like it belonged to her. And nothing had ever really belonged to her. Being kicked from foster home to foster home like a hackey sack had taken care of that.

“I’m a patient guy, ‘Ria-Princess,” Thurman said. “And a generous one.”

Maria’s mouth bent in something which wasn’t a smile as she ripped her mental focus away from that mountaintop residence in Romania. “Are you?”

“Look, Princess.” Thurman sounded sad. Wounded, even. “This isn’t about Peles Castle. I like working with you better than anyone else in this company. But you’re slacking.” He tipped his head. Red skin rolled in two more chins beneath his first. “It’s like something snapped in your creative process. You’re all, ‘I can’t do it yet, Brandon. Give me more time, Brandon.’ You’ve got to get some hustle, sweetheart, or I’ll call another girl to take your place. You’re head of design for Thurman-Fischer; you point, we go. What’s the hang-up?”

Maria shifted her weight. Her phone buzzed in the pocket of her white jeans. Probably her intern, Heath Fischer, with a reminder to spring it on Thurman strong. Just like they’d talked about over drinks last night. At the thought of Heath, happiness pushed a blush to Maria’s face. She closed her eyes.

“I can’t just [_demand _]inspiration, Brandon.”

“It’s time, Princess.”

An unreasonable desire to cry pressed under Maria’s breastbone. She fixed the picture of Peles Castle in her mind: creamy walls, chocolate-colored cornices, lattices, rooftops, turrets. A fairytale palace soaring against a slightly pixelated blue sky, swaths of verdant mountains rising behind it.

“Brandon…”

“What?” Thurman chewed his fleshy lip.

“I’m… worried.”

He snorted. “Well, yeah. We’re already months behind schedule on this project. Investors aren’t thrilled and it’s largely your fault.”

She moved her gaze to a vintage Disney calendar on the wall. Heath had instructed her to play it chill, to absolutely not let on how much she wanted this, but to stand firm and demand it for inspiration’s sake. Keep it impersonal. Professional. But she didn’t feel the way Heath, her intern, had told her to feel. It [_did _]matter the way this ended. It mattered because perhaps, if she could get to Romania, she might be able to sleep again. It had been so long.

She forced a calm breath. “I’m worried that I’m going to have a… a breakdown.”

“Right here?” He actually looked concerned.

“No. Soon.” Maria blinked back tears. “Can you please give me a week?”

“In Romania?”

“…yes,” she whispered.

He pointed at her. “[_If _]you promise to give me some ideas, I’ll consider.”

“If you give me a real castle,” she countered, egged on by the promise of a good night’s rest. “The ideas will come. [_The Sleeping Plague _]needs to be fresh.”

Thurman shook a pencil at her. “Fresh. Not overdone. Exactly! ‘Sleeping Beauty Goes Bubonic’ – can’t afford a cliché.”

“Which is where I’m stuck. Castles—fairytales. I mean, how can it be made new?” Emboldened suddenly, Maria commandeered eye contact. “Send me to Peles Castle. There are one-hundred and sixty rooms, each decorated in an entirely different manner. You never know what you’ll find when you round the next corner. It’s the perfect setting, architecture, everything. I’ve done as much research as I can from home. I need to physically conduct the remainder. On location.”

Done. Nuanced and everything.

He looked at her for a long moment. “Fine.”

Thurman sat back in his chair and drummed out the remainder of his reluctance with a pen on the desktop. “You think I’m in the habit of sending employees on exotic vacations, do you? Thurman-Fischer has thrived only because I’m good with money. I don’t spend it helter-skelter.”

Relief swam before Maria’s eyes. “Whatever.”

“What?”

“I said, ‘Thanks, Brandon. You’re the best ever.’“

“That’s the attitude.”

Another buzz. Maria slid her phone out of her pocket and glanced at the screen. A single line from her immaculately tailored intern:

Do it like royalty princess :)

Questionable punctuation aside, the message calmed her. She mentally locked eyes with Heath while she spoke, toeing her next phrase like a wedge into the conversation, just as she’d practiced with him:

“I expect two plane tickets in my inbox this afternoon.” He had smiled at her delivery of that line last night and she’d studied the bubbles in her champagne flute, turning pinker than rosé.

“Two?” Brandon complained, jowls sagging like disappointed dollar signs.

She smiled. “I’m taking the intern along.”

“I didn’t sanction that.”

“Brandon…”

“You know I have personal reasons for disliking him.”

“Heath Fischer has never done anything to deserve your poor opinion, sir.”

Brandon ran a hand through his hair and stood it all on end. “His father was my dad’s partner, Maria. Mr. Fischer embezzled company funds and temporarily made the company a complete gaff.”

Maria pocketed her hands and shrugged. “Then why on earth give Heath a chance? You obviously hate him.”

“I don’t hate him. He isn’t his dad—I hope. Besides, I sort of need an honorary Fischer to keep the whole Fischer-Thurman name accurate. He’s a decent employee.” Brandon finished with a shrug. “I don’t have to like the guy to admit that.”

Maria smiled. “Then you’ll make arrangements for both of us to catch a flight to Romania.”

He swatted at her, hand cupped like a catcher’s mitt. “Get out of here, princess. Two tickets. And don’t bother to come back till you’ve got something original.”

Peles Castle

Sinaia, Romania

“King Carrrrrrrrol of Romania made summer palace to be hees child after hees real child died…”

The tour guide’s accent weighed down her words, fastening Maria’s imagination to the sumptuous foyer in which they stood. Intense wood adornments twined darkly up the green walls like piped frosting to a series of panelings which, upon first sight, appeared to be paintings done in shades of brown. The effect of watercolor was actually achieved with a deft play of wood inlays. One such piece of expert craftsmanship would form the focal point in an American millionaire’s collection. Here, eight reposed in the same square room, understated and priceless. Just hanging out there above large ivory figurines and ebony carvings, as if they’d been nothing but aboriginal cave paintings instead of remarkable pieces of art. Above them, on one side of the soaring, arched entryway, a little staircase twisted to the third floor. Maria poised her stylus above the screen of her tablet, ready to take notes, but she only half listened to the petite guide whose creative style of English told her little.

Peles Castle. How could she not feel invigorated by wandering through a Neo-German Renaissance-style estate? She frowned and drew a squiggle on her tablet screen, making sure her stylus was working. The problem was, she wasn’t going to get in a good wander and that kind of trumped the initial jet lag-induced glow. And she still hadn’t had a good night’s sleep.

“Eef you will be looking to the ceiling,” the guide crooned, “you will see stained glass. Thees panels retract and act like doors for star-seeing.”

At this information, a collective murmur fluttered from the guests and beat like dove-sounds upward, toward the roof. Maria let her gaze follow the guide’s manicured finger as she pointed and when Maria saw, her breath snagged in her throat. The ceiling was made completely of glass, stained red and green and blue and yellow at the edges. Where it arched in the middle, the guide indicated, the panels of glass pulled away, allowing for an uninhibited view of the night sky. A happy chill crawled through Maria at the idea of dancing under the stars of an Alpine sky. Dancing with someone who looked a terrible lot like Heath Fischer, when she scrutinized the fantasy.

When she brought her eyes down, her gaze collided with Heath himself. He raised his chin and slipped into a smile. Maria’s pulse thundered and she hastily erased the mental image of being held, in his arms.

“Ceausescu stole idea from thees room to make ceiling for hees ballroom in Palace of Parliament. Whole ball-room ceiling peels back. Like a citrus.” Sing-song-sing.

Another appreciative murmur from the crowd, which Maria did not join. She found the roll-back ceiling enchanting, but it still did nothing to endear that guide-woman to her.

“[_Please _]come into the weapon’s room.”

The woman had unnerving yellow-gold eyes. Not to mention she had made Maria put plastic booties over her Toms, for heaven’s sake. Crinkling across red carpets would dampen anyone’s ardor for original furnishings.

When Maria followed up the rear of the group into the grandiose weapons room, she knew she was thrilled to be there, viewing the criss-crossed sabers and full suit of horse armor. But she was tired. She had fastened on this palace. She’d become an insomniac for it. Every night since first finding photos of Peles Castle online, Maria had lain awake. Not even slightly sleepy, though exhaustion pooled in every joint and hollow of her body.

“King Carrrrrrrrrrroll many weapons collected in thees room.”

Maria felt the grit beneath eyelids heavy with begging for sleep. Besides, it was her [_birthday _]and she’d been made to stand on a nineteenth-century red carpet in plastic booties. She wanted to be alone to stare at the magnificent walls and steep in the grandeur.

But no, the tour moved on into the masculine receiving room which was carved up in Germanic wood like a chocolate-frosted cake.

“King Carrrrrrroll of Romania all hees business conducted at thees desk.”

“Is this tour in English or not?” Heath’s voice so close to her ear startled Maria.

She’d almost forgotten about him. “What, having a hard time understanding your native tongue?”

He adjusted his tie. “That’s [_not _]the kind of English that teaches anything. And you can’t gain knowledge by osmosis, Itty.”

His use of her nickname smoothed down some of Maria’s ruffled temper. It was a ridiculous name, but it was his for her. She wondered if it bothered him much to be under her direction when his own father had once owned a half share in the company. Probably.

The guide pushed between them and inclined her left hand to the tall doorway. “Next is King Carrrrrol’s library. Please come.”

Maria prepared to exit the dark-paneled room with its portraits of the handsome king and his patient-eyed queen. She found their longsuffering faces, especially the queen’s, unsettling. Like a young fashion maven who hadn’t received her customary invitation to the Met Gala and was going to wait for it instead of saying something. Gold level avoidance of confrontation. Maria felt a certain kinship with the queen on that. She could think of few things worse than a frank discussion.

Business. Maria erased the squiggle on her tablet, tried to focus. She was here to scout the place and save her job, not mull over the portraits.

“Concentrate,” she muttered. “Heath?”

Graceful and self possessed even in plastic booties, the intern hefted his eyebrows. “What’s up?”

“I wondered…”

“Quit bogging down the tour, Itty. You heard the woman: ‘please come.’” He smiled. “I don’t know if you care but I’d rather not wrestle a language barrier to the floor. Today we are nice Americans. Let’s just play obedient peasant, okay?”

That peculiar feeling slipped over her of being Heath’s understudy rather than the reverse, but she didn’t mind. There were a thousand things worse than feeling subservient to Heath Fischer.

Trailing the tour group, Maria and Heath passed through the doorway of a new room.

“King Carrrrrrol’s wife, Queen Eleeeeeesabeth, spent much time in this room,” the tour guide trilled and beckoned to the book-lined walls. “For a queen she is reading so much.”

Maria tipped her head back, gawking at the collection. Heath’s quiet, satisfied laughter brought her chin down and her mouth closed. The wonder, however, remained. Never before had she experienced a room spinning with so many delights. Books everywhere from ceiling to floor; more books than she’d ever seen collected in a private library. Books in muted pastel colors or masculine leather binding. Where the sun touched them, gilt embellishments winked, turning plain cloth-bound volumes into royal treasures. Books caged neatly behind gingerbread-house glass, or living and breathing in the silence of the open room.

The familiar escapism of reading began to solace her. Peles Castle: so far removed from the stress of design block and L.A.’s non-reading populace, it almost seemed a hallucination.

It was not the palace she belonged to, it was this library. Maria gripped her intern’s arm. “I want it all.”

A short laugh. “Yeah. Bet you do.”

The foreign guide stepped to one side. “In the king’s library were t’ousands of books. In languages Romanian, Russian, German, English…”

Maria, feeling the weight of knowing only English, turned a full circle. “We’re definitely casting this library in our film.”

“Then I know you’ll want a photo.” Heath raised her camera and squinted through the viewfinder.

Like he would know how to work a manual focus. Maria swiped at the camera. Heath pulled it out of reach with a quick, lopsided smile.”

“Ah-ah. I’m the one with the badge,” he said.

She released him. “I can’t believe I paid twenty lei for your blurry little pictures.”

Heath grinned. “Give me your tablet and I’ll impress you.”

“That’s an expensive camera dragged through customs specifically for this purpose. I only work with quality photos.”

“And I work only with touch-screens,” he boomed.

The tour guide’s and other guests’ voices dwindled. All notice centered on the pleasantly arguing Americans grappling with a Nikon.

Maria blushed and shoved Heath in the ribs with the side of her arm. “Try not to let your hands shake.”

Ex-cuse me.” The woman guide wedged herself between them and stole back the tour group’s attention with a pointed cough.

“In this room,” she said, lilting on the middle word, “was built secret staircase from library to royal bedroom. This way King Carrrrrrol could move about palace without seeing visitors. Can anyone tell me where is hidden the door?”

The crowd shuffled a few stepped closer to inspect the books. Maria turned to a shelf. A yellow-bound volume caught her eye. Fairytales, they looked like. And what could be a better place to conceal a secret passage than behind a book of fairytales?

She tapped the glass in front of the books. “Here?”

A giggle or two leaked out from some German students in the corner. The guide acknowledged them with a caramel-colored flicker of a gaze.

“The king’s study is on the opposite side of that wall, which is four inches thick.” She sing-songed the word ‘side’ and descended further from the note with each word.

For the second time in five minutes, Maria blushed. Heath bent close again, his nearness overwhelming her.

“Gotta give it to you, Itty,” he murmured. “You’ve got a brain for mystery; few people would think to look for a staircase in a four-inch-thick wall. Should’ve consulted you for building-plans.”

Disgruntled, Maria tucked her tablet under her left arm and made for the windows toward the right side of the room.

“Can anyone tell me where is secret staircase?” the guide repeated. “I will buy an ice-cream cone for the person who tells me first. After _]hours.” [_Sing-song. The cadence of her voice would have annoyed Maria if it hadn’t felt peculiarly relaxing.

Heath pointed to a set of books papered in light blue, right-hand wall. “These?”

The guide beamed at him. “Dah. Behind those books is the lever to open the secret door. I will make a joke: meet me for ice-cream later. After five o’clock.” Sing-song, sing-song, sing.

Of course Heath would find it. Heath, who could walk in plastic booties without crinkling. A feeling almost like sleep settled at the back of Maria’s eyes. She yawned, touching off a responsive yawn from an elderly gentleman to her left.

The guide narrowed her eyes again: her version of a smile. “Not yet,” Sing-song. “Sleep is for Royal Bedroom. Next is music hall. Please come.”

But she didn’t want to leave this room that made her feel drowsy for the first time in what seemed like years. The tour floated off and Maria stayed behind. She wanted to see the fairytale book again. Curious, Maria slid the palm of her hand over the door-frame through which they’d entered the library. Yeah, four inches. No space for a staircase, even if it had been her idea, and therefore obviously a good one. She dragged her fingers lightly across the bookcase. Where had that yellow book gone? Ah, here it was: The Spindle. What a pretty name. The case thrummed. Strange. But at the same time caution raised its head, Maria’s drowsiness increased.

“Hey, Maria.”

She was conscious, without actually seeing, that Heath had poked his head back into the room and wanted her.

But the glass casing hummed beneath her hand, its beauty physically drawing her near: hundreds of unfamiliar stories in unfamiliar languages, made friends by their livery of leather and cloth and goldleaf. If only there was no barrier between her and the books. If only she could touch them—just touch their spines and run her fingers across a page or two—the glass—how strong could it be? Would they even have an alarm system?

“Birthday girl?”

Heath, at least, remembered it was her birthday.

“Hush.” Her voice grated in her own ears. Silence, sing-song silence. The proper language for this temple of books. Silence and an hour with the cases thrown open. Was it too much to desire?

Heath pinched her arm. “Hey, Itty.”

The glass hummed stronger, a dizzying sensation coursing from her fingers and palm straight to her heart. In the foggy background stood Heath, bull-horning his way into her life, as usual. But the books: the only thing in this castle not reminding her of looming work deadlines. The only thing that could bring peace and rest.

Blessed rest.

She had to touch just one. Maria rattled the case but it was locked, of course. She growled and shook the glass, beating it with frustrated, wild hands. She didn’t even want all the books. Just the yellow Spindle. A bedtime story and then she could sleep.

Heath snapped his fingers near her ear. “Hey. Hey! What are you trying to do? Break it?”

“Yes.” Maria balled-up her fist.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I need to sleep.” Without a twinge of guilt, without a shard of hesitation Maria sent her hand through the bookcase.

The case shattered in utter silence. Glass spangled the carpet. Glass caught in her blue plastic booties and her nut-brown hair. Glass sliced her hands and her scarlet blood rained down on the beautiful yellow Spindle. At this point, two things happened. Strange but familiar, in the way all fateful things can be.

First, an incense-laden wind freshened in her face from the books within.

Second, Heath vanished from her sight. The books were suddenly separated by a yawning, arrow-shaped doorway leading to—oh, wouldn’t they feel silly for not believing her—to a staircase.

She plucked The Spindle off the shelf and tucked it under her arm on top of her tablet. Her blouse brushed a fresh wound to her knuckles and she hissed, re-positioning the pretty yellow book.

[The Spindle. _]What a haunting, perfectly beautiful name. She hoped the blood would wash off its binding. A shame to spill her blood on _The Spindle. And on her birthday, too.

How Heath would laugh.

“You little minx!” Heath’s voice came at her blurry and warped as the staircase sharpened in view.

What did he want from her? For her to leave this rush of triumph and the spindle-book beneath her arm? Come fully back to her senses and finish the tour? Because Heath, the first man she’d dared to fall for, wished it? Oh no. She was right about the staircase and dizzy with the fact. What else might she be right about that she hadn’t yet thought to wonder? Worlds within worlds fought their way into her consciousness. Begged her to explore them.

Suddenly, Heath grabbed her arm. The first time he’d touched her (pulling her from the path of an oncoming Uber in L.A.) a thrill had shot up her arm, straight to her jaw and murmured there. Those were the exact words written in the margin lines of her meeting notes—she’d memorized them. But now she flicked him away, waspish, and did not want him.

Leave me be, she meant to say, but it never came out. With a dazed laugh that seemed to belong not exactly to herself, Maria stepped into the stairway and the world she knew vanished.

II.

The Staircase

All the light had fled, which disconcerted her.

The wooliness too, but she welcomed a bit of clarity.

Maria stood within the wall and sniffed.[_ ]Must. Old books. A comforting smell to someone who rummaged in other peoples’ castaway histories for fun. Within the odors of age-damp paper, cracked binding, and fading ink and incense lurked something deliciously golden and autumnal in scent: _apples. Maria peeled off those awful plastic booties and scuffed her Toms against the floor. Rough-hewn stone, not wood or marble like the rest of the castle’s interior. Had she left Peles Castle, then? Maria tapped the flashlight icon on her tablet screen and lit up the narrow passage in which she stood. Behind, where she’d burst through the bookcase, the wall was smooth and plastered white over the stone. She felt with her fingers for a secret door, but the passage stood solid as honesty. Not Peles. Someplace different. Forward, then.

Maria stooped slightly to keep from bumping her head against the roof of the stairwell—there might be spiders—and descended the staircase with hopeful caution. After twenty-six steps, Maria’s forgetfulness of her claustrophobia failed.

Don’t panic, Itty. Don’t you dare panic. She forced several calm breaths. [See, that’s air. That’s oxygen. You’re fine. _]It loomed behind her memories, though, older than nightmare: a great blackness—layers of it—blotting out light, just as if she’d been put in a heavy, narrow box. It _was a heavy, narrow box—layers of boxes. That was the dream—memory. Whatever.

Maria wished for Heath’s hand to hold, even though she’d never, in eighty-million years, be brave enough to grab it. Still, it would be something to have company in this sealed-up stairwell.

[No, girl, it would mean even less air for you. Quit freaking out. You would _]not[ want Heath here._]

If there was no way out in front, and no way out behind, what was left? Up?

“Okay… okay.”

Maria tiptoed and pressed the slates above her head at the very bottom of the stairs. To her complete surprise, the stone shifted. She pressed a little harder, squeaked when a small avalanche of dust and daddy-long-legs fell out, and finished heaving the stone aside. Above her head glared a square a bit darker than her present darkness, just large enough to wrench herself through if she could manage to pull up that high. She dropped The Spindle and her tablet, leaving the flashlight on. In a burst of ambition, Maria tried to haul herself into the space. In three seconds, her arms gave way.

“Curse you, gogosi,” she growled, thinking guiltily of the fifth pillow of sweet, fried dough she had snuck that morning when Heath was speaking with the hotel proprietor at breakfast. It wasn’t exactly her fault the exchange rate made apple strudel and gogosi and every other mouth-watering pastry under the Romanian flag a matter of fifty cents or less. Maria tried for a pull up once more before giving up. She’d never get out of here by upper arm strength. The passage measured only just wider than the hole—how glad Maria felt that she had no company at this moment.

Grunting, straining, and muttering a few choice terms to the silent space around, Maria braced arms and legs on either side of the narrow passage and shimmied up the wall. With more effort than prowess, she managed to work her head and shoulders into the darkness above, but could come no higher. Another roof pressed against her scalp.

No. Maria’s throat ached with sudden tears. Below, The Spindle’s cover glowed an eerie shade of green, or maybe it was the color cast off from her tablet’s LED light. There had to be a way around this. Panting, shrinking from the touch of the unknown, Maria felt in all directions around her. Three hand spans to the left, three to the right, then smooth, slick walls. In front and behind, she could not feel the end of the darkness. And that suffocating roof above, more than ever like the lid to that box in her night terrors. She knocked against it with her knuckles and because it felt less solid than the stone purgatory below, Maria opted to continue. Eyes squeezed shut, body tensed and shuddering with the effort, Maria shifted herself at an angle up and out of the hole and into the black box. Panicked, Maria sensed the lid of this awful little hell inches from her face—her breath hit it and flooded back into her nose and mouth. She choked and held her breath.

Suffocation was better than knowing the awful confinement of this tiny place. Here, there seemed barely enough space for her body. Maria crossed her arms over her chest to keep from feeling the walls of this strange, horizontal passage, but it touched her anyway; her head, her feet.

At least if I die here, she thought, I’m already in a grave. Ghoulish, the truth kick boxed Maria in her gut:

This was no passage.

This was no escape.

This was a coffin.

“I frustrate myself with my own insipidness. I paint, I play, I write, I charm. But not well enough. Not well enough to make him notice or love me. We are married only in word, I fear. I, who swore from my girlhood to marry for love or not at all. Royal children inherit an invisible crown and he wears that crown at all times, even to bed. I cannot get near him. How easily the self-promises of youth fade, lulled to sleep by the careworn hands of experience.”

Queen Elisabeth blotted the inked page, shut the pearled clasp of her tooled leather journal, and, feeling expressed if not better, pressed the buzzer on the wall behind her desk. Perhaps she’d publish those words under the name “Carmen Sylva” as she did all the others she liked the public to think entirely fictional. A jarring buzzer summoned one of the servants.

The girl bobbed upon entry to the music parlor. “Your Highness?”

“Has His Majesty returned from his hunt?”

“No, Highness.”

“You will remember to alert me when he does return?”

“Yes, Highness.”

The Queen remained at her desk, toying with her pen after the girl’s exit. She looked to the several excellent paintings on the walls, to the dark wainscoting, the marble cornices and expensive draperies. Castula Peles, their summer home, was halfway complete after years of construction. For this she ought to have been thankful. So many years of tradesmen and craftsmen, dust and bother. Enduring life in Bucharest when they both wanted nothing more than to be here in the glacier-like freshness of the Carpathian mountains. Short summer visits to Germany to visit relatives while the heaviest work was completed. Trips here, to see how the work got on or—if the work was at a lull—to stay for a few weeks and imagine the grandeur of the modern wonder. Now here they were: the King and Queen of Romania in a palace soon to have its own cinema and central vacuuming system, not to mention heating and cooling. And were they happy?

After a fashion, she supposed they were.

Light footsteps. “Your Highness? King Carol has returned.”

The queen glanced up and arranged a smile. “Thank you, Mariana.”

The girl curtsied and dropped away as her queen wove through the library, office, weapons room, solarium, down the red-carpeted staircase, through the foyer, through the latticed wood doors, out to the courtyard. Her husband was dismounting just now from his horse, handsome as any one of the men depicted in the merry, brightly-colored murals above him. He handed the reins to a stable hand and drank from the fountain before turning to her.

“Karl.” The queen greeted him with a polite smile. It would be for him to kiss her or not. “I trust your hunt was successful?”

Today, as usual, he gave no kiss. Instead, a curated smile and a gloved hand to her spine, guiding her with him out the arch and onto the beautiful piazzas.

“The Fox lives to run another day, I fear,” he spoke. “Pleasant morning?”

Her heart throbbed. “Mmm. Quite uneventful.”

They paused at one of the newer statues. Karl fingered the cherub’s wings with an abstracted expression. Elisabeth squinted at the view in the distance as if some new mountain had sprung up in Sinaia. In truth, she couldn’t bear the hope of waiting for a loving smile from her husband. They did not come often but they came sometimes, and it hurt to wait for them. The long portions of time between stretched the walls of her heart past bearing.

“Your little club meeting tonight?” he asked at length.

Elisabeth nettled under her husband’s casual treatment of her renowned musical soirees, but she knew him well enough to understand he did not care whether she was, or was not pleased.

“Our friends will be dining with us, followed by entertainment in the music room.”

“Sounds lively.”

“Karl!” Elisabeth’s tone stung more than she intended and her husband’s blue eyes darted, troubled, to her face. The look melted her. Cold he certainly was, but he was not cruel.

“Karl,” she tried again, “do you ever wonder how different our lives might have been if…”

“If what, my dear?”

“If… our Maria had not been sick.”

The King’s soldierly bearing softened not a fragment, but he put a hand to his beard. A display of keen stress. “In truth, Elisabeth, I strive not to think of it.”

Which is how Karl would deal with the echoing sense of loss. The loss greeted the queen in any moment of the day she had neglected to fill with one of her many pursuits. The same sense, she assumed, led the King to avoid any display of excess emotion.

Just now, as they circled slowly back up the terraced patios to the grand arch, the queen weighed the cost of asking the one question to which she already guessed the answer: “When our sweet Mariechen died, did you swear to never again love anyone, even her mother?”

But, as always, she hesitated. Already so strained, what might honesty add to the turmoil? No, far better to accept the coolness in place of warmer emotions and, philosopher-like, remark that the weather was pleasant enough to require only a light wrap. She placed her arm in his, reminded him of their evening engagements and, at the door, parted from him with a sensation like frostbite pulsing in her throat.

Their precious Itty had died. Karl was changed. And Carmen Sylva had a thousand volumes yet to write buried deep in her bruised soul. If the king wanted her, she informed another servant passing in the hall, she would be at her desk, writing.

Maria kicked through the last layer of coffin lid. Now covered in sawdust, plaster, and crumbs of antiquity, she lay there panting a moment. A living corpse, that’s what she was. A sweaty, cramped, terrified little corpse. Maria pushed against what she now took to be a paving stone and shifted it a little. Another push with greater strength behind it, and daylight peered down upon her.

“Heath,” she squeaked pitifully to the empty air, then thrashed up and out of the coffin, spitting bits of debris out of her mouth.

A high, cadenced ceiling rose up, up, up above her; a ceiling just like music. Once her eyes adjusted, she saw that she lay in state in an inner sanctum of a church. Heavy murals of somber saints stared at her from their perches high up in the owlish gilding. Another time she would have been frozen in awe, but she was more immediately concerned with getting out of this wretched coffin. One of her Toms caught on the coffin’s edge as she stepped out, tripping her. She caught a good scrape on her already glass-sliced palms, but it was good, solid paving stones that did it. In a sudden flush of gratitude, Maria bent and kissed the cool floor.

“Thank God for stone floors,” she whispered, and kissed it again.

“Pace,” a man’s voice said, nearby. “Peace.”

Maria jumped to her feet and brushed off the worst of the dust. A priest stood before her, hands folded in his sleeves, brow knit. He looked from the wrecked coffin to Maria and back again, wavering visibly between anger and polite confusion.

She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and smiled. “P-pace.” There was no hand offered to shake so she went for the traditional cheek kiss. The man backed away.

Priests. Right. Priests.

“I’m… I’m so sorry.” Her face flamed. She hid her hands in the small of her back.

“English?” the man said.

Maria smiled. “Yes.”

“Why are you here?” His English, though accented, moved easily. His eyes scanned her disapprovingly until they came to rest again on her face. “You are vandalizing our church.”

“I came from… Peles Castle.” It all seemed so distant, as if she’d traveled not through a secret passage but through miles and seasons and years.

“Peles Castle?” the priest hummed the name to himself, eyebrows rampant. “Wherever you mean to say you are coming from, does not explain why you are… abusing our church. In Romania we are not coming into churches and breaking things.”

“Abusing… oh!” Shame rushed over Maria that the priest would even think she had come from the outside of the church in to defile the sanctity by—what? Robbing a grave? She looked down at the cracked tombstone near her feet.

Weep not;” half of it read, and the other half: “she is not dead, but sleepeth. Luke 8:52.”

Like The Sleeping Plague. Not dead but sleeping. Though this was certainly no dream. Maria read it over twice and memorized the reference to look up later, when she got back to Heath and her big-girl career. Who was buried here, and why had their family chosen a verse so—so relentlessly hopeful? A peculiar epithet for an old grave. And then there was the fact that she’d come through about three coffins at once, all neatly stacked like some gauche Russian nesting doll. Shuddering, Maria looked at the dust and plaster littering the sanctuary floor and the priest who waited with a Monday face.

“I do apologize for the mess. I came through…” she twisted and pointed. “Through there.”

“Through the grave?” The priest’s twisted countenance showed too plainly he did not believe her. “This is foolish speaking. I am thinking the authorities have better do talking with you.”

Maria reached out for the brother’s arm to keep him from leaving for the police, then thought against it. His reaction the first time was bad enough. He might truly call the police—or the Pope or something—if she touched him again.

Maria stepped away from the wreckage and motioned to the ceilings. “This chapel is beautiful. Who did the friezes?”

“You are an admirer of the art?”

“I am.” She smiled. The priest was young and, despite an unfortunate haircut, not bad-looking. “Back home,” she continued, taking the center aisle of the church, head tilted back to view the decorations, “I’m a set designer.”

“Set… designer?” The man looked not much older than Heath. How different the two were. “For the theatre?”

She hugged herself. “You know. Movies. Hollywood.”

He removed his gaze, evidently embarrassed by the topic.

Maria looked him over. “How old are you? It’s my birthday,” she added, so he wouldn’t think the question too odd.

He glanced up. “I have twenty-four years.”

“How many as a priest?”

“Eight.”

“Mmm. Do you like it?”

“Like it?”

“Being a priest.”

He regarded her quietly, owlishly, and shrugged. “It is my calling. A calling is not the same as what you are speaking of as a… job. Does it matter if I enjoy it? No. But it is mine to do. I am provided for and I am able to help.” Another shrug. “This is how it can be.”

Near the front doors now, Maria stuck her hands in her jeans pockets and flapped her elbows.

“I really admire your commitment. I really do.” She pushed the wooden doors open with her backside and let in a swirl of city noise. “This is a beautiful church.”

The man bowed his head.

“Thanks for showing me around! I’d love to stay and talk but I’m sure you’ve got some candles to light or something.” She grinned, waved, and ducked into the saving grace of the open air. He would not call the police once she was gone, she was sure. Dodged that one.

Maria trotted along the street, vaguely aware of the crisp air and the rough paving under her shoes. The few elderly men and women with whom she crossed the street wore funny, antiquated clothing. Just as she reached the center lane of traffic, a vehicle rumbled past her, barely missing the chance to knock her over and crush her to jam. The driver shouted and glared as he darted past but it was not this, nor twisting her ankle as she stepped back, nor the curious looks bestowed on her by her fellow street-crossers that made her squeak, “Oh!” in an enraged, desperate tone.

For Maria, whom precious little could surprise or ruffle, was entirely undone by the sight of the vehicle, a utilitarian horse-drawn omnibus. The road rattled with other similar transportation: wagons, carriages, carts; not a single bus, taxi, or car relieved her frantic eyes.

She limped to the farther side, holding herself close, scanning the street. No telephone lines. No power polls. No tram system. No cell phones. Then, in the window of the abandoned storefront closest to the street, Maria found her answers. Though she knew precious little Romanian, she understood months, and the dates shouted at her, stamped at the top of the fresh newspapers in the shop windows:

19, Septembrie, 1897.

21 Septembrie, 1897.

25 Septembrie, 1897.

“Oh. Oh no. Oh no!” Maria tapped the glass with her panicked finger. “No, no, no. This can’t be happening.”

But it had. She’d done it now. She’d gone and time traveled. No one on that end would know what had happened and no one on this end knew she was coming. Maria gulped down her terror and made a quick calculation. Even the oldest living person from her era wouldn’t be born for another—twenty-eight years.

Blast Heath. Where was her intern when she needed him?

III.

The Family

Heath squinted at a painting on the wall of the office in Peles Castle. A copy of something not too fine to begin with. Far below the standard set by the rest of the castle.

“Dah, dah,” the tour guide cooed into the phone. “Bine, bine. Ceau, ceau, ceau.” She hung up, twisted the phone’s cord around her fingers, and looked him over.

“Well?” Heath leaned forward, hands on his knees. “Where did my boss go?”

“I cannot tell you.”

Sing-song.

“Why not?”

“Because there is no staircase in that wall.”

Heath was too clever to fall for the favorite “Americans are stupid so I will try to lie to them” trick. “Ma’am, all I know is that your bookcase swallowed up my boss and there is an entire film company in America who will continue to throw themselves at your office door unless you tell me where she went.”

The tour guide’s honey-hued eyes riveted Heath as if she’d taken her hand and tipped his chin to force the connection. He found an alluring, unsettling conviction in their touch.

“Peles,” she said melodically, “is a palace, not castle.”

Heath shook himself away from her gaze. “I don’t give a—listen, ma’am. Maria Wied is missing on your [_palace _]grounds. I watched her vanish into that wall.” Who cared if he had begun to shout? If the other guests might hear and wonder what this crazy American had to complain about? “And if you don’t give me a convincing reason as to why you can’t tell me her location, I will have the American ambassador on this property in two hours.”

She tilted at him with her golden-handed eyes, then settled back lusciously in her seat. “Traffic is bad in Buchuresti this time of day. I think it will take longer than two hours.”

“Try me.” His concern had tended more toward annoyance at the beginning, but each moment it mounted into a deeper, more unnerving feeling that Maria had gone somewhere far beyond his reach. And he actually cared.

Heath hadn’t worked long with Maria Wied, but time didn’t matter with someone of her composition, he told himself. She was smart, talented, vivacious, and occasionally grossly naïve. He did sometimes wonder how she managed to take care of herself all alone in the big, bad world, but he respected her. It was his personal business to simultaneously annoy and direct her and she’d always been near to hand for it. And now she wasn’t. And now he cared.

“So what’s it going to be?” Heath took his cellphone out of his pocket and waved it at the guide. “You going to tell me where Miss Wied went, or do I have to call the embassy?”

The guide smirked. “Do you even have phone service here? We are, after all, on top of a mountain in a foreign country. No, you do not have to answer me.” She came to his side of the desk, leaned against it, and crossed her arms.

“Your English keeps getting better and better,” he said.

She smirked again. Such an unpleasant expression. “I think you mentioned it was your Miss Wied who broke the glass in my bookcase, no? So if you call the authorities, what are you going to tell them? That your boss vanished after stealing one of my books? I have been down to the library. I see The Spindle is gone with her. It is a very rare copy of a very rare book. Valuable. And Miss Wied escaped with it. I trust you understand what you will be implying about her if you are calling your ambassador.” She pushed the phone toward him. “But by all means.”

Heath clamped his jaw shut to keep from spewing an armament of uncivil English words. His hands trembled. The woman, obnoxiously, was right. If he called the embassy, the law would be on the palace’s side. They would take it as a given that he and Maria had planned the theft and that she had secreted away the target item without him. It happened often enough on crime shows. Why split the profit when you could have it all yourself?

He rose stiffly from the chair and felt better, looking down on the petite woman from this height. “I’m leaving now,” he said. “And I will be back. Oh, by the way.” Heath bent to rip the shoe-covers from his feet. “Your plastic booties are ridiculous.”

Her eyes glinted at him. “I know. But you are all so funny to watch in them.”

Murder would only heighten the charges against him and Maria.

Heath stalked away from Peles at double speed. He had left their yellow Fiat van in the far parking lot, so, fuming, he struck out down the long, cobbled drive. Half his anger bent toward Maria, who just had to go shoving her fist through a historic bookcase. The other half, fueled by fear, wondered how the heck he was supposed to find his boss. He wouldn’t call headquarters yet. Better to get away and think first.

Heath forced himself to notice the wide, forest-lined avenue and the sound of a river purling a short distance away. Could a more pleasant, Alpine afternoon be requested? He passed a sign warning the pedestrian of possible bear sightings, and grimaced. If a bear would show up now and take care of everything for him, he’d probably not mind as much as he would have this morning. Before Maria had been so asinine. Before she’d vanished in a wall four inches thick. But—how [_had _]she?

Something was terribly wrong, and Heath’s mood spun sour again.

God help him, he’d fix that tour guide.

When she was quite sure the comely American had departed and would not surprise her by returning, the tour guide exited the upstairs office, turned the lock, and pocketed the key.

Carlotta, as she was called, made her way upstairs to the library, careful to keep out of step with any tours going along. She checked her gold watch. The last permissible tour of the day, according to the rules, should have finished by now, the tourists being ushered back down the red-carpeted stairs in their idiotic plastic booties. Tepid vindication warmed Carlotta as she lurked in the hall, watching that final tour shuffle through the pink, Italian-marble hall with its Murano glass accents and tall mirrors. Twenty-three years she’d spent learning every detail about this strange world. Twenty-three years passing the portraits of the man and woman she most hated, guarding the secret second staircase against the chance of their little daughter ever slipping homeward. Twenty-three years and the daily sight of hundreds of foreigners shuffling through the castle her only amusement. Paltry entertainment, but if that was the best to be had in her current life, it had better satisfy, hadn’t it?

Carlotta skimmed through the palace. Her footsteps made no sound and even if they had, there was no one to disturb as she moved along crimson carpets in the white, vaulted halls. Just an empty palace, hollow and shuddering with a devastating beauty which had set it so far above any other, that it could never be loved in the familiar way again. She passed giant mirrors, the movie theater, the concert halls and tea rooms, and in all the bauble of it, she passed her own jealousy. Finally, she stepped into the library, and forced herself to calm.

Carlotta faced the shattered bookcase and a terrible rage. The world had once known and respected her gypsy power. Not now. She ran her hand into the glass, saw the red blood from the young princess’s hand smeared on the shelf.

“So unlikely,” Carlotta muttered. How many times had she searched through the tour groups, knowing that Maria, daughter of Elisabeth of Wied, would, by Fate’s hand, try to come home? Her suspicion always landed upon a woman fair of form and face, light and laughing as the child had been last she saw her. And she’d watched such women, guided them away from the bookcase, sing-songed them to the safety of the outer court. Till this one—this very American, brown-haired, green-eyed person, slightly plump and not graceful in movement—slipped past her notice. Why? Because she had not considered a Romanian princess could have looked so wonderfully—commonplace. When they had come through by magic, Carlotta had lost the little princess but she knew magic would not play false. It would place the princess somewhere. And someday she would try to come home.

Carlotta hissed and slid her palm along the empty place in the bookcase where [The Spindle _]once slept in peace. No, she could not afford to lose that book of spells. The common ones—the cleaning spells and forgetting spells and communication spells—she had memorized. But other magic whispered on the pages. Deeper magic Carlotta could never hope to employ without aid of the book. One particular spell had, since the day she’d killed to make _The Spindle hers, kept off the ravages of a terrible illness. Her fingers shook as she touched the empty space. Already, she felt weaker. It hurt too sharply to breathe, and she knew instinctively that her fever had returned. The illness would claim Carlotta if she did not find a way to retrieve the yellow spellbook, and she acknowledged the fact with a sneer.

She had paid much in the way of blood and gold to achieve what she had achieved for that world behind. Here, a century and a quarter ahead of her times, she was safe from the retribution of home, and with The Spindle she could live in relative comfort. Twenty-three years had passed here; twenty-three years had passed there. This whole time Carlotta had thought the distance great enough. No one who knew anything about the Princess Maria would live long enough to meet her in this future. It was impossible. But she had not reckoned with the idea of the Princess herself succeeding in slipping past the vigilance of a gypsy’s envy.

“Carlotta?”

The gypsy dropped her hand and turned with a golden smile to the security guard. “Nelu.”

“Is everything all right?” he asked in Romanian.

She shrugged, tossing a hand to the broken glass behind. “A clumsy guest put his elbow through the case.”

“Ahhhh. American, probably?”

“Probably. Would you clean up this mess? Just have your men replace the glass panel. And Nelu?”

“Yes?”

“Let me know if there is any incident. I do not,” she affirmed, “expect an incident, but one likes to be certain.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Carlotta drifted her golden magic over the room and departed. As vividly furious—and ill—as she was, the discipline of twenty-three years calmed her to reason. That second American—that Heath Fischer. He would reappear before this was through, she knew. He obviously wanted to get the princess back from wherever she’d gone, mistakenly assuming it was as easy as demanding Maria to reverse her steps. But Carlotta knew better. It was more complicated than that. The reversal of time-magic required blood to feed on. They had killed a priest at Cotroceni to affect the magic of bringing the princess forward. Of course when it came down to it, Carlotta and this Heath Fischer wanted the same thing: to hurry Maria back to the twenty-first century. Perhaps there was a way to coordinate. She wanted to be certain with her own vicious brand of certainty that she thought this through before pursuing any definite action, but a shard of insanity came to rest in her imagination and burned like a coal.

The American. The handsome one. He might do.

Outside, Carlotta slipped into her BMW and drove through the small village of Sinaia, winding down the mountain and away to her home with its wrought-iron gates, turrets, and lacquered tiles and its opulence. She parked under cover inside the courtyard.

“Daniel?” she called.

A young boy—very pale for a gypsy—scuttled off the front porch and came to her. She ruffled his hair and put away her golden magic for a time. His hand fit son-like into her own.

“What has Tamara made for dinner?” Carlotta asked.

“Sarmali.”

“Mmm. Did you go to school?”

Daniel scuffed his toes in the clean white gravel of the courtyard and looked off to the rosebeds. Carlotta sighed and chucked under his chin.

“Daniel, you know you must attend school.”

“Why?”

“Because.” She pulled him along.

“Because why?”

“You are a gypsy.”

“I don’t look like a gypsy.”

That was what Ioan had said, all those years ago.

Carlotta swung his hand. “You know what they think of us.”

Daniel’s dark eyes searched her face mischievously. “What? That we cannot learn?”

“That we are too shiftless to want to learn.[_ I_] know that is not true. And so do you.”

“Maybe I do not want to learn.”

Carlotta’s voice dipped to the coaxing tone—one which she seldom employed. “You want to learn to make magic, don’t you? Like your ancestors?”

His black eyes riveted on hers. “I want that.”

“Mmmmm. Good,” she hummed, and pushed open the heavy, gilded door. “Then you know what you must do. Apply yourself to the normal studies. Learn them well enough to get into the mathematics and science high school.”

“And then you will teach me, Lady Carlotta?” Daniel asked, all eager eyes and feather-like hair. So much like Ioan’s.

“Just so.” She kissed Daniel’s smooth, white cheek. “Tell Tamara we should eat at seven-thirty. I am going to bathe.”

As Carlotta mounted the winding staircase, she held the image of Daniel’s intensely intelligent face in mind. It was the eleven-year-old version of his great-grandfather’s Ioan’s face and she had never loved a face so well. She passed into her bedroom, pulled the shutters closed, and slipped out of the awful guide’s uniform that felt as rough and uncouth as a cocoon must feel to a Viceroy butterfly. She drew a bath and shook into the coils of steam the most exotic and precious of her spices. With one slender hand, Carlotta stirred the brew, then dipped one foot in to test the water. At the heat of it, her breath caught in her teeth, but in a moment she had lowered herself into the copper tub. Carlotta removed the pins from her wealth of braids, shook the hair loose, and glared at the world from behind glossy curtains as decadent as her home.

“Ioan,” she murmured. “I know you are there.”

The steam bent this way, then that, but as firmly as she knew Ioan was there, she also knew he was not. Her fault, of course.

“I did not leave him,” she announced to the empty bathroom with its blue and gold tiles. “He chose to stay.”

The echoes did not believe her. They said so, hissing it in coiled steam and heavy fragrance.

Someone had had to make the magic while she passed between the worlds with the young princess. It so happened Ioan had been a loyal subject and given his maleficent lady the benefit of that loyalty. The steam and scent of the spices wove a web of memory for Carlotta and she watched again their final moments together.

Ioan spreading his clever hands across the pages of The Spindle. Beautiful, white-fingered hands. Catching a certain phrase in the spell. Reading it again to be sure he had it right. His eyes pleading with her.

Inside his voice, his heart had splintered: “You must be the one to go.”

“If I leave, they might know it is you,” she said. She did not offer to stay, but Ioan would not have expected her to. She was the Lady Carlotta, after all. It was not her duty to sacrifice anything.

“They won’t know I had a thing to do with it,” Ioan said, smiling a smile full of brokenness. “I don’t look like a gypsy.”

This was true. The king and queen knew her magic well. They would not suspect a mortal man with skin the shade of the stars; the king’s own secretary and a man who had never been known to speak with anyone under the rank of a baron.

“The princess is not dead?” Ioan asked, and the luminous white of his face and his hands seemed to flicker for a moment.

Carlotta had motioned to the child, as corpse-like as any child could be. “She will wake in a century.”

“A new century?” Even in that moment, Ioan’s admiration for her cunning shone out, sullenly, like a shuttered lantern.

“That is what I intend.”

“I will stay and make the magic.” He pushed against her feeble, half protest. “I am aware of the cost. I know you will not return for me.” He put the book into her arms.

“Ioan…”

“What?” A brittle laugh broke from him. “You will not. You do not feel for me all I feel for you.”

Before she could prevent it, Ioan came at her, pressed a hard, desperate kiss to her red mouth. Then, avoiding her with his eyes, his waxen lips murmured the spell, witching she and the dead child away.

His, the first of the souls spent to soothe her jealousy.

And not the last.

But she would not think of that now.

Maria.

She would think of Maria.

She would think of The Spindle, and the probable cost of rearranging history.

O Doamne, the cost.

Maria gripped the edge of the wagon as it teetered up the last mountain curve. They lurched to a halt in the cupped hand of the monastery cobbles. The cargo of assorted passengers the toothless farmer had taken this far dropped their coin in his leather palm and climbed down. She had only one [_ban _]left after discovering these antiquated Romanians would not accept the colorful, laminated lei she had brought in abundance. Out of desperation, she had traded her Toms for an ensemble resembling more a feed sack tied with a woolen scarf than anything recognizable as fashion, and a pair of ugly leather clogs. The trade had hurt her worse than she’d thought it would. Those glorious Toms—formed exactly to the shape of her foot—gone to an old, sewage-scented woman who appeared to be growing a [_beard _]of all things!

Maria clambered off the wagon. Her panic stopped swelling and made space under her breastbone for a sliver of relief. The monastery at the foot of the noble drive looked the same as it had a few hours earlier—hours earlier, or a century later? How everything spun about—Maria had an urge to bend down and kiss these stones as well, but she had had enough kneeling for one day.

Without hesitation, Maria made for the palace. The oddness of knowing her way began to press into her, for it was clear to her that Peles was not entirely finished being built at the moment. Workmen and carts crammed the road which led to the castle. Here a long-eared, sad-eyed donkey looking as if doomsday drew nigh, there a random knot of sheep and a lanky shepherd. No stables or garages yet. Definitely no gift shops or vendors selling sheep’s fleeces and roasted corncobs and painted wooden toys or boomerangs which refused to come back to those those who threw them. Maria knew more of the palace than the palace knew of itself. The idea enchanted her and for one fleeting moment, she forgot her terror.

It came back twofold when a stocky worker leading a team of domestic buffalo approached, speaking Romanian. He waved to her and asked something.

“Nu stiu.” Maria shook her head. “I don’t know what you’re saying.”

The buffalo and driver paused directly before her. “Are you English, then?”

The dark eyes and swarthy skin of the man looked Romani, but his words confused Maria.

She blinked. “Are… are you?”

“No, but I lived in England for some time while studying architecture. My name is Cristian.”

“Oh, God bless your socks off, sir.”

His eyebrows twisted good-humoredly. “That’s an odd greeting, even for your country.”

Maria laughed louder than warranted. “I can’t even.”

“Can’t even… what, exactly?”

“Handle this.”

The man shifted his weight. “You are a strange woman. This isn’t the general costume of American ladies, either. Where is your escort?”

“He’s… late.” She frowned at the thought of Heath. The missing-him took on a ghastly shape. “Very late.”

A hundred-and-some-odd years late.

Cristian removed his cap and scratched his head. “Well, then, I suppose I ought to extend the customary gallantry. Are you staying in the village? Do you need help finding anyone?”

“I…” Maria paused and considered the man, marking his honest looks and general bon homie. He had a meat-and-potatoes air, as her dad would say. And if so, he must be an okay choice for confidante. “How good are you at believing impossible things?”

At the end of her story the gypsy mopped his forehead and whistled. “That is a terrifyingly odd story.”

Maria rubbed her eyes. “Do you even partly belief it? I mean, I know it’s far-fetched but… I really need an ally.”

“One thing lends you credence, if you won’t think me too ungentlemanly to say so: you are almost as odd as your story.” The darkness in his eyes twinkled. “And I suppose I would rather believe you honest than insane.”

Maria punched his arm as she would Heath’s. “Oh, just stop already.”

His smile dropped and he took a better hold on the lines of his team, which had stood there shifting their weight from one hoof to the other for the last twenty minutes.

“What do you plan to do?” Cristian inquired.

“I plan nothing. Heath is the planner.”

“Your escort?”

She thought of Heath in that light—as her dashing protector, companion, her favorite—and smiled as she nodded. “He’s a smart one. He’d know what to do.”

“But he isn’t here,” Cristian pointed out. “I can tell you’re not a great one for facts but I only state the case so that we may view our options.”

Maria patted the lead buffalo’s horns and squinted at the peaceful green forest arched over the road. “I guess I hoped someone would be able to decide that for me. Like… maybe someone will know what the heck is going on and rescue me. I mean, I’m not even from Romania. I didn’t mean to punch out the glass in the library. I certainly didn’t mean to come back in time a full century. I just… wanted to sleep.”

Cristian untied and then knotted the leads. “You say you stepped through a bookcase in this castle… from the future?”

“Yeah. Well, I came through a staircase behind the bookcase at any rate.”

“And you came up through a series of… of coffins into the cathedral. At Cotroceni?”

“As far as I can tell.”

“It’s very odd,” Cristian said.

Maria’s laugh snapped out bitter with frustration. “Yes, well, I think we’ve established that.”

Cristian’s face crinkled into a disbelieving smile. “You know, in wives’ tale they’d say you’d been bewitched by a fairy into destroying that case and coming through.”

“Right, and fairies just wander through modern Europe witching away decent people. Makes sense.”

His eyes held that teasing light Maria had come to know so well in Heath. “I only observe,” he said.

“Do you have anything helpful to suggest or should I just try my luck with the king?”

Cristian looked down the road a ways where he doubtless had a warm dinner and good beer waiting, and rolled his eyes. “My wife would never forgive me if I left a member of her sex to face such a conundrum on her own. Hai, Marius!”

So hailing a Romanian workman in passing, Cristian handed off the team of buffalo and offered Maria his arm. She took it, ignoring the curious looks the other man scattered their way, and walked toward the palace. As they went, Cristian proved to be an informative guide.

“We’re a rather modern and cosmopolitan bunch,” he said. “The queen is, of course, of German extraction. We have Poles and Czechs, Italians and Germans, Romanians, and Englishmen working on Peles. And the queen can speak to each man in his home tongue.”

“Really?”

“Perhaps not every man, but Her Majesty is proficient in several languages, they say.” Cristian continued to mention the many points of interest until, by the time they had reached the pale stone terraces outside the palace, Maria had grown calm again.

“Do you have access to the royal family?” she asked. “Because that would be awesome.”

Cristian shook his head. “No commoner has direct access to the king. But as a foreman I am acquainted with the king’s dismal-looking secretary. For the sake of your sweet face I will pose the matter to him and see what can be arranged on your behalf by that shroud-faced archangel.”

And so it was that Maria found herself sitting in a white marble room built off a hall like a rare cell of quiet in a beehive. Just as she had been out of place in her modern clothes in Bucharest, here she felt the judgment of the deadly pale young man sitting across from her. His black, serious suit set off distinct, finely-carved features. Maria was not sure she had ever seen a handsomer, albeit emptier face.

His eyes flickered annoyance as they watched Cristian, rounding off his explanation:

“And so, Ioan, we throw yourselves upon your mercy.”

Ioan now cast his fathomless eyes over Maria’s face. She didn’t like the searching in them or the manner in which his slender fingers rested so quietly in his lap. They were intelligent fingers, accustomed to action. They should not have been so still.

“I find your testimony to believe almost… impossible.”

His English was not perfect, but pretty good, Maria thought. Better than the golden-eyed guide’s had been. She lifted her chin and smiled prettily at the white-lipped man.

“It is almost impossible to believe. And if I came here wanting to pull a fast one on your king and queen, I would have chosen a more plausible story.”

Ioan’s white lips bent as tallow into a facsimile of a smile. “If by “fast one” you are meaning a trick, then yes, you would do well to be making a better story.”

The depth of silence beat like a heart.

“So you believe me?”

A strangled, frustrated sigh eased out of Ioan. “Would you swear on your life it is so?”

“The realest parts of my life.”

If she’d been forced to swear on anything less, Maria would have worried Ioan would still refuse to believe her. But the dark and colorless secretary moved his too-still hands in sudden affability. Cristian’s stance relaxed.

“Your lady will be needing a change of clothing if she is to see their Majesties,” Ioan said. “I promise nothing. Their Majesties will likely not be wanting to speak with her at all.”

He walked to the wall and pressed a buzzer. After a moment, a starched-looking maid pattered into the room.

“Flora.” Ioan jerked his head toward Maria. “American,” he said.

The maid arched her eyebrows. “Dah?”

“Dah.” Ioan spoke something more in Romanian and not gently, but not roughly either, delivered Maria into her care.

Just like that, she was someone else’s problem just as she had been the monk’s, and then Cristian’s and, for a half-second, Ioan’s. Would she become the queen’s problem in the end, or was the maid to take her to some later-to-be-renovated dungeon and leave her to rot till the modern era? But they would have sent a man for that, not this tinder-faced maid.

Maria bade Cristian farewell and promised to see him again. He bowed to her, shook Ioan’s hand, and departed.

Maria, outwardly submissive, followed the maid up several staircases to the upper capacity of the house and, once wedged into a hot attic room, found herself ordered in no uncertain terms to strip down to the bare minimums.

“Do you speak English?” Maria asked.

A supercilious sniff and shoulder toss were the only answers from the woman which, Maria reasoned, meant an answer in the negative. Flora was blond, slender, poised, and polished. Everything Maria was not, and that rankled. The maid took the old garments from Maria’s embarrassed hand. Her mouth twisted in disgust as she rolled the mess into a ball and cast it in a hamper. In their place, she handed to Maria a linen shift, grey stockings, leather shoes, and a neat cotton dress.

Like an Amish girl, Maria thought. I can do this. Laura-Ingalls-style. Stockings, petticoat, dress. The reflection looked back at her cramped and dwarfish in the side of a pewter pitcher. A less than attractive image of plain clothing, wild hair, and traces of winged eyeliner which had begun to chip off and sift under her eyes.

“Charming.” She licked her thumb to help rub off the makeup.

“Nu, nu, nu!” The maid slapped Maria’s hand away and continued to scold her in Romanian, then dipped a square of flannel into the pitcher and applied it to Maria’s face. The scrubbing was merciless and extended behind her ears, around her neck, and even to her collarbones, but at the end of it, the girl in the squatty reflection was, at least, moderately clean. The maid attacked Maria’s hair next, pulling it out of the messy bun with many a muttered complaint. She braided it, impaled Maria’s scalp with a number of hairpins that felt knife-tipped, and then, seemingly, considered her duty done.

In rousing Romanian, her dark eyes flashing, the maid lectured Maria. Then without warning, she grinned, a malicious expression which showed small, white teeth, sharp as a kitten’s.

“You are so stupid,” Flora remarked in near-perfect English. “You think you are important.” Flora took a mincing step forward, then reached out and pinched Maria’s forearm. A hard, twisting pinch.

“What the heck?” Maria yanked her arm away and massaged the bruised skin.

“That is for being American. This,” and Flora grabbed her chin, “is for being prettier than I. Beware your pride, English.”

Maria tore the irrational maid away from her. “You’re insane!”

“Ceau,” Flora said and, with another kitten smile, drifted from the room.

“Wait—do I stay here?” Maria shouted after her. Fearing to be left alone in the far reaches of a strange mansion, she scurried after the asylum-worthy maid.

Vanished.

Maria paused in the empty hall, painfully conscious of her own heartbeat and the fact that she had absolutely no idea of what to do now. What seemed like a hundred doors opened onto that hall, each exactly alike. Maria cursed herself that she was unable to remember which side they’d come from. That would at least give her a chance to fumble her way back down to the white room and present herself before Ioan like a lamb ready for the slaughter. What he planned to do with her might as easily be accomplished downstairs as up. There might be witnesses there at least.

“Not the biggest fan of that idea, are you, Itty?” she mumbled, hugging herself. The man’s eyes were like actual wells and his skin was too white. No, she didn’t like the thought of stumbling into his office, admitting to having lost the vindictive Flora.

Then, like the ram in the wilderness, an unsought strain of logic wrestled down Maria’s panic. If she wanted to present her case to the king and queen anyway, she’d have to find them herself. The maid left no doubt that Ioan would not aid her in that respect. Cristian had said the queen spoke at least a bit of English. Maria smoothed her skirts. She guessed she looked presentable enough now to spring the news on them gently. Ugly, subservient clothing, what more could a foreign dignitary ask?

Thus determined, Maria calmly chose a door on the farthest end of the hall.

With a begrudging wail it opened onto a staircase much like the one they’d taken upward. She trudged down this without incident, meeting neither ghoul nor housemaid, and found herself in the red-carpeted hall. From this room, Maria felt she remembered the route taken by their tour guide in the former world. This part of Peles seemed to be exactly the same as Peles of the Future, so Maria pushed through the striking weapons rooms decorated, literally, to the hilt. It would embolden her, she thought, to smash through some of this glass and steal the coral-inlaid saber with which to protect herself against the bedlamites staffing this palace, but there was no time.

On the threshold of the king’s study, she paused. How ridiculous to barge into a throne room and expect to be welcomed. Perhaps she had better think this over better. But the insanity of the entire situation propelled her forward. Reason could not aid her now. [_Reasonably _]thinking, she would never have traveled back in time, or been scrubbed up by a maid with murder in her eyes, or have ridden up a mountain road in a cart that smelled of donkeys, or given her Toms to a beggar woman. Reason would have argued that she stay home, and she would never have gotten into this situation in the first place. She had a whole new respect for Reason, now that it meant nothing.

Maria breathed deeply of the smell of new wood and lacquer and beeswax. An intelligent smell. A kingly smell. Beyond the lintel a pen scritched across paper, spelling out state secrets or dull orders.

She leveled her shoulders and stepped through the study.

All sound suspended. Maria was vaguely, awesomely aware of Ioan at his tall desk, his composed, white face looking almost luminous it had gone so pale. He opened his mouth to speak and Maria, at a loss for how to behave, smiled at him.

She had sighted the other man seated at a heavily carved, ponderous desk. The king, narrow-faced and bearded, bearing in his countenance a lifetime of heavy responsibility. Maria passed Ioan’s desk under silent protest, stopped, faced the other desk, and looked His Majesty in the eye.

“I’m Maria Wied. I’m twenty-six years old, I’m American, and I am from the future.”

To his credit, Ioan remained white and scandalized, as distant as the Polar star and quite as icy.

His Majesty glowered as he rose. Maria had never felt at ease among military men—she always felt they would enlist her, shave her head, and force her into pushups given the slightest chance. Now, under the incensed gaze of a soldier-turned-monarch, Maria’s nerves gave way.

“I’m sorry to bust in here like I own the place,” she babbled, suddenly fearful of what anyone might do, “but if you only knew how [confused _]I am. I broke through the bookcase in your very own library but somehow ended up at the monastery at Cotroceni in this era. I have no idea what happened and there was this monk who was going to arrest me for grave-robbing or something so I came here and Cristian—you probably wouldn’t know Cristian, but he’s foreman of the draftsmen—suggested I talk to Ioan here but Ioan sent me off with this horrible maid who abused me and then left me in the attic or someplace so I came down to find you on my own. I just don’t know what to do and… _oh!”

The tears would come after this and for a wretched five minutes, Maria bent over the king’s desk, dropping hot tears onto the cherry wood, not even considering the varnish. Strangely, neither king nor secretary moved a fraction during this time. It was possible Reason returned to the world in their actions, for one cannot continue to cry bitterly when other people in the room stand there, emotionless as candlesticks. It is not physically possible. Maria finished her cry. If she did not feel less anxious she at least felt a little damp, and that was sympathy of some sort. She rubbed her nose on her sleeve. She was twenty-six. She had meant to impress the king with her oration and now—well, now he looked as if she’d gone and drunk the sacramental wine in the middle of Matins.

A simple “I’m sorry” and tear-bath wasn’t going to cut this one. From the distance of a hundred and some-odd years, Maria felt Heath’s disappointment. It comforted her somehow, as if his actual hand settled on her shoulder with a proper:

“Oh come on, dry up,” and that bracing eye-brow raise reserved particularly for her edification.

At the balancing point in all awkward interactions when some decision or another must be made, the farther door opened and the queen who had once been beautiful entered.

She paused, wavered, and turned to go.

“Elisabeth.”

The queen’s head snapped into submission. Maria winced.

“Forgive me, Karl,” the queen murmured. “I was not aware you were occupied.”

“Wait, please.” The first sentence Maria had heard from the king. The weary, weary weight in his tone surprised Maria out of the straggling remainder of her tears.

She stood a little straighter, swallowed the lump in her throat, wished wildly for an Advil, and waited.

“This young woman has brought to us a strange, wild story,” he continued in accented, but fair English. “I think, if anyone’s mind will be making sense of the truth behind her story, yours is up to the task.”

Maria didn’t think she’d imagined the half wounded, half pleading look the King gifted his queen. Upon a direction from the king’s frighteningly important first finger, Maria said her story over again, omitting nothing. The queen listened with a beautiful kind of understanding in her face. Affection for this woman, instant and unreasonable, gathered in Maria’s chest. She reminded Maria irrationally of the sort of mother she’d always wanted; the sort she’d never had, being tossed through foster families the duration of her childhood. At this thought, her sudden affection expanded in an ever-widening pool drifting through her whole being. She loved this woman.

After a moment, silence reigned. Then the queen cocked her head and looked at Maria. The corner of her mouth slid upward. “What is your name, my dear?”

“Maria Wied.”

This time she knew the deafening clash of meaning in the king’s and queen’s glances was not something her battered fancy had drawn up. So they believed her? She ventured a small smile and a little shrug.

“I guess it’s kind of crazy, but I hope you believe me.” A pause and a snipped-off laugh. “There’s no one else left.”

The king gripped the edge of the desk. He did not look at her, but remained with his gaze riveted on his wife who had lost all her color. Almost as pale as Ioan. Maria, suddenly wondering whatever had happened to the devastating-looking secretary, turned a fraction. Ioan’s jaw hung slack. He encountered her curiosity. His eyes flickered, but he did not stop staring. Maria returned to her original position, feeling all the new misery of being the center of an uncommon attention.

The queen’s breath snagged as her eyes gnawed at Maria.

No amount of Southern etiquette had taught Maria how to deport herself while being stared at as if she were a pork barbecue sandwich. Her first instinct, and she recognized it as a poor one, was to make a joke, to divert attention from herself and the break the awful, palpable silence with a laugh, a smile, anything. Anything for mercy’s sake.

No, no why was the queen rushing to her? Taking her hand? Ordinarily, Maria didn’t care how she looked, but with the queen’s cream-colored fingers touching her own unkempt ones, Maria was sharply aware of the cracked blue polish on her nails.

“Itty,” Elisabeth crooned, sliding her other hand up Maria’s cheek. “Mariechen, my child, God has spared you to me at last.”

IV.

The Gypsy

In a dreadful humor, Heath returned to their lodgings in town. The hotel clerk, a man with decent command of the English tongue, had harangued him about leaving his girlfriend alone in a strange country. Heath forced his lips to part in an affable smile, neglecting to correct the man. Without bothering to explain where Maria had gone, Heath mounted the stairs to a room which smelled irreparably of cigarettes, and flung himself across the bed.

His iPad connected to the hotel’s shaky wifi (“free wifey,” the man had boasted over the phone) but the signal strength barely supported the simplest of searches. He threw the tablet onto the mauve-colored chair and buried his face in his arms.

Out of the mass of unwonted emotion, Heath tried to strain a single clear thought. His mental sieve caught nothing in the mesh. When he tried to think succinctly, he found only one panic-engineered phrase:

Maria’s gone.

Heath rolled over onto his back, then his side, before stalking to the window to pace the tiles in front of the radiator.

That tour guide. There was something completely wrong about her. She reminded him of someone—at once grossly strange and wonderfully familiar, like all his nightmares made flesh.

He’d had a girlfriend with golden eyes once.

Must be that.

“Come on, Maria.” He pressed a fist to the windowpane and watched a group of tourists load onto a bus. “You know Brandon’s gonna kill me.’“

Their boss would have to be told about Maria, of course. Heath knew he couldn’t very well let the set designer vanish and not at least hint that they ought to start lining up substitutes. It’s not that Heath feared calling Brandon, though it wasn’t the most pleasant idea in the the universe. But once he admitted to HQ that Maria was gone, it meant she really was. And that was a reality he could not suffer.

He could message Brandon on the interdepartment system. Never mind. Cowards shrank from speaking aloud. He pulled up Brandon’s personal number and dialed it on the hotel phone.

The producer’s phone rang once, twice, three times.

Heath glanced at the simple wall clock and calculated that if it was seven o’clock here, it would be noon in New York and nine in L.A.

Brandon Thurman was likely finishing his second mimosa, wiping his mouth on a monogrammed napkin, calling for Natalie to reschedule his nine-fifteen appointment an hour later so he could cram some yoga into his routine and swing by the juice bar before hitting the office.

Heath winced as a deafening crackle birthed a dubious connection between two continents. Was he ready to handle this conversation?

“What’s up, man?” Brandon’s voice sounded suntanned.

“Hey, Mr. Thurman.” Killed Heath to call him that, seeing as the only difference between them was that Brandon had graduated into money and Heath had not. And that Heath had class and Brandon wouldn’t know class if it knocked on his door in a three-piece suit playing a Vivaldi concerto on a Stradivarius.

“Heath?”

“Yes sir.”

“So how’s Europe? Glittering? Gorgeous?”

“Um, yeah. Yes sir. All that.”

Heath listened to Brandon drag on a Cuban cigar. The cigar was always a point of contention. A cigar? Really? No subtlety. Now if it had been him, Heath always thought, he’d go in for tailored suits, a daily professional shave, and excellent shoes. Leave the Cubans out of it.

“You working out for Maria? How is she? Got any ideas for me yet?”

On the European side of the phone, Heath viciously knotted the phone cord. “Look, international phone calls are useless for anything but news. Bad or good.”

“Yeah, who’s paying for this call?”

“Mr. Thurman, this news is bad.”

Brandon puffed some more on his cigar. “What’d you do? Get canned for smuggling something through customs?”

“Listen.” Heath pinched the bridge of his nose to still his throbbing headache. “We were touring one of the castles here and Maria—well, you know how Maria is—she stayed behind to look at some of the books and broke the glass in one of the cases.”

On the American side, Brandon shuffled through papers. “Wow. Broken glass. Sure Interpol’s after you two, all right. Look, just tell them Fischer-Thurman will pay for whatever damage was done. We’re an American film company. It’s not like we don’t have insurance for this sort of thing. It’s not like you flew the Millennium Falcon into a castle turret.”

“Yes, sir.” Heath paused. “I wish that was the only trouble.”

“If it isn’t one thing, it’s everything with you people. What’d my designer do? Steal the royal chef’s jeweled cook-book?”

“A book [_is _]missing, sir. And so is Maria.”

Silence. Silence so firm and cold you could skate across it. Heath watched the second hand of the wall clock make the rounds before Brandon spoke. When he did, it was without the accompaniment of a cigar.

“I hope you’re satisfied with your performance, Heath, because I don’t think the board will be. I gave you this internship as a friendly bandage for your slightly ruined reputation.”

Heath’s chest seized. “I applied just like everyone else and went through the process.”

“Hah. Applications, the board, just formalities. I knew if you worked for Fischer-Thurman, you’d have a chance to get another corporate job and [_not _]botch it this time like your father did.”

Heath dug his left fist into the duvet cover of his bed. “I don’t see how this relates to him.”

“Cor-rect. It doesn’t relate. Because was Fischer even your father? Seems like your mother had a hard time confirming that, if the water cooler gossip is even halfway accurate.” Brandon’s loud exhale forced Heath to pull the receiver away from his ear.

“I’m not my father, Thurman.”

“I know you aren’t. And I’m just picturing you and your father having a Vader and Skywalker moment here. Morality and high courage.”

Heath stiffened. “Is there any way this conversation is even remotely helpful in getting Maria back?”

Brandon wound down. “Haven’t you called the police yet? Isn’t it their job to figure things like this out? It’ll probably give them the most excitement they’ve had in years. Bet they’ve had enough of investigating marten-poaching.”

“Sir, your employee, Maria Wied, is missing in a foreign country and you’re not concerned?”

“Tell me what I’m supposed to do, Heath.”

Grinding his jaw. “Don’t you know anybody?”

Brandon’s breath whistled through his nostrils as he considered this. “There is a guy I know—filmmaker. He’s Romanian. Or maybe Moldovan. Something.”

“And can you call him? He might know people.”

“It’s worth a call,” Brandon agreed. “But look, try to get her out of trouble with the least publicity.”

“Myself?”

“Yourself, via the police, the mafia, [_I _]don’t care. Find her. And if you can’t find her, come home and clear out your desk so I can get someone more competent to take your place. I’ll put in a call to Moshe.”

“Yes sir.”

A beat. “That all?”

“Yes sir.”

“Okay, Skywalker—”

Heath crashed the phone back onto the receiver and passed trembling hands over his face. His father, the original Fischer, had founded the film company with Brandon Thurman’s father. Worked there for years until his greed caught up with him and he was caught in multiple scandals. That had all blown over by the time Heath came of age—or so he thought. But it seemed the sins of the fathers do pass on to the sons. Heath had come to Fischer-Thurman for a job after a corporate scandal that, though innocent, he’d been implicated in. As much as Heath hated the Thurman family’s arrogance and blind distrust of anyone who didn’t make six-figure incomes, he knew a job there was the only chance he had to erase his father’s shame. He’d keep this job, have something new on his resume, grow a new reputation, get a job someplace else. Rebuild.

And now look at him, come to rest in a Romanian hotel room perfumed by sixty years of cheap cigarettes smoked under its low ceiling.

His heart flipped sickeningly in his chest cavity but Heath forced calm. He facial I.D’d his options:

A.)Call the police. Face the consequences described by that golden tour-hussy.

B.)Call the embassy. Face vague suggestions that he find a local way to handle the matter.

C.)Handle the matter himself.

The options appeared equally unpromising but not nearly as lurid as the fourth course which Heath found himself adopting. He grabbed a jacket, his wallet and passport, and headed outside. He was going to find that tour guide again and demand she help him. It was her ridiculous book anyway. All he had to do was find someone who knew where she lived.

September lay sweetly on the mountainside and everyone but Heath appeared in the highest humor. He chose one of the many bars which opened onto the street, took a seat beside an enormous old peasant, and ordered a Coke. The bartender girl brought it to him without ice and Heath, too world-weary to request any, drank it warm. The familiar, tannic flavor soothed him. As the light faded, Heath watched passersby in the street, watched a bus jerk to a corner, make a five-point turn, and head back downhill after depositing its load of tourists.

The giant man belched and exited the bar. Someone else plopped onto the cracked, red pleather seat just vacated and ordered one Coke, a pint of beer, and a pot of lemonade.

Intrigued by the apparently boundless depth of the newcomer’s thirst, Heath shifted so he could see what sort of person it was. A boy; small, dark-eyed, dark-haired, pale-skinned. The child grinned frankly at Heath and spoke to him in Romanian.

Despite his current ill temper, Heath felt the corner of his mouth slide into a half grin. He shook his head. “Nu stiu.”

“Ahhhhh.” The boy’s tone husked and cracked in several places. His eyes danced. “American?”

“Yeah. Dah.”

Into the boy’s possession came the beer, the Coke, and the lemonade. He smacked his thin chest with a mannish fist. “Daniel.”

“Heath.”

Daniel’s nose wrinkled. “Heat?”

“Heath-th.”

“Heeeeeeeeeeat.” Daniel slurped his lemonade and shook his head, laughing. He babbled on in Romanian, sharing some story Heath was evidently meant to appreciate, as the boy would occasionally nudge him with his elbow.

As the child spoke, a gypsy man entered the bar. Heath blinked as the bar’s neon lights rang off the Romani’s gilded presence. Gold ring on his finger, gold rings in his ears, a black leather jacket trimmed not with chrome in the American way, but unabashed gold. The gypsy swaggered over and clamped a hand over Daniel’s shoulder.

Heath prickled a little at this. He felt protective, somehow, of the kid. This kid should have nothing to do with a man that experienced looking. The boy pushed the mug of beer into the man’s hands and hopped off the stool so he could have a seat.

The newcomer leaned on the counter away from Heath. The gold studs of his jacket clinked sweetly against the counter. Absolute power emanated from him. [_Corrupt, absolutely, _]Heath thought, but a not completely unpleasant corruption, somehow. Fascinating in the way all wildly powerful men are fascinating, even if when one knows their power must end in disaster at some point. Somehow, he reminded Heath of the woman tour guide. Maybe it was all the gold. Either way, Heath grabbed his courage by the forelock.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Do you speak English? Engleza?”

The gypsy turned slowly. “Dah.”

“Do you? That’s good.” Heath put a shaking hand to his chest, suddenly nervous. “Heath Fischer.”

“Flavian.”

“That’s a nice name.”

Flavian rippled back, draining his beer, clashing the glass onto the counter. “So what do you do, Heath Fischer? Why are you here?”

Flavian looked more genie than man and with every movement of his curiously tattooed hands, Heath almost expected to be ensnared by some untoward sorcery.

I’m sorry, sweet girl. I’ll get you. I promise.

“I work in the film industry,” he answered.

Flavian’s eyebrows buckled. “You are doing a movie at Peles?”

“No. My boss and I were conducting research at Peles for a set design film project. The movie’s going to be filmed in New Zealand or someplace, I guess.”

Flavian smiled. “Your boss, he is easily bored with staying in one place?”

“She,” Heath corrected automatically, thinking of Maria and how apt Flavian’s question was as applied to her.

“Ah, she.” A knowing grin, a subtle gesture for a refill of beer from the girl behind the counter. “This she, is she here at the bar?” Flavian leaned back to see down the seats past Heath.

Heath beat on the counter with his empty Coke bottle. The glass thrummed. “She’s not here.”

“You are leaving her alone in a strange place?” He made a wry, golden face. “Ohhhhh, is she one of those strong women?”

At this question, Heath laughed outright. “In her own way. She’s a rare mix of spirit and sweetness and brains. And complete idiocy.”

Flavian laughed too, baring an alarming and attractive smile. Heath wasn’t accustomed to being the less handsome man in the room. He was glad Maria wasn’t here to think the gypsy handsomer than himself.

“So this girl. I’d like to meet this Mixy one,” Flavian said. “Where is she?”

“Missing.”

Flavian stilled. “She ran away?”

“Well, I guess you could say that. She disappeared.”

Daniel’s eager face peeked around Flavian’s shoulder. His eyes gleamed as he said something in Romanian.

“Like a magic trick?” Flavian interpreted.

“Yeah.” Heath raised his hands hopelessly. “Vanished. Right into a wall.”

“Yeah?” Flavian laughed and shook his head. “Doamne, the things you can see after getting drunk.”

Heath’s conscience bit at the nape of his neck. He’d gone too far, telling the Romanians about Maria. He should leave it here, let them think he’d been drunk and hallucinating, but he couldn’t.

“Actually, hard as it is to believe, I was perfectly sober. It happened up there in the palace.” He breathed steadily through his nose, quelling the desire to smash his bottle against the counter edge and rage through his utter frustration with the world. “I’m looking for the tour guide at the palace. Do you know her?”

Flavian squinted at him over the rim of his refilled beer stein. “We are having many, many guides at Peles, but I know a few of them. What is her name?”

“I… I don’t know.” Incompetent, that’s what he was. “She appears to be Romani. Her eyes are… gold.”

“Carlotta.”

“You know her?” Heath hadn’t meant to sound as excited and relieved as he felt.

“Yeah. What is it you want with Carlotta?”

“I want to make her help me find my boss.”

“The Mixy one.”

“Yes.”

“How can Carlotta help when the Mixy one is gone? It isn’t Carlotta’s doing.”

“Maria broke the bookcase, a door opened, and she stepped through,” Heath explained.

“Oh, yeah.” Flavian nodded. “I’ve heard they have a secret staircase there.”

Heath leaned in. “This wasn’t the same case.”

“Wasn’t?”

“Nope. This was the opposite wall. A wall four inches thick. But a passage opened. Poof! Like that. Then my boss vanished along with the book and the passage closed behind her. I know it’s crazy.”

“So,” said Flavian.

“So,” said Daniel.

“So,” said Heath. “I guess…” he groped through the mist in his mind to find a solution that could be logically expressed, but the words that came to him were the words he’d forbidden himself to even think this whole afternoon. The words that made him look incompetent, childish, and more helpless than ever:

“So I guess… it was… it has to have been… magic.”

“Darling Itty.”

Maria finished peeling the rind from an orange and looked up. The queen’s sweet face bloomed with tears as she reached across the table and squeezed Maria’s hand.

“God has spared you to us. I can think of nothing else. Each time I try a new refrain it comes back to this and only this: Fi binecuvantat, Mariechen.”

The family sat at table in the dining room, enjoying the final course of a summer supper. A dessert of grapefruit, half-peeled to look like blossoms, reposed on silver trays. The King reclined in a mahogany chair, if the slight relaxing of his spine could be counted as such. A cigar dangled between his resolute lips, at odds with the apparent immovability of its owner. Such a leisure piece clashed with his mien. Beyond the King’s shoulder, enormous mirrors reflected the family over and over again: an incandescent mother, a sober, thoughtful father, a daughter who was stranger and heir to them both. Reflections seeming to multiply into eternity down the corridors made by the mirrors and Maria felt she recognized less and less who those people were and what they did there, so quietly and strangely grouped.

She twisted in her chair to view another angle and caught Ioan’s sardonic eye. He fluttered on the borderland of shadow beyond the table, pouring a glass of claret from a decanter. Quickly, she settled in her chair and began to pleat a napkin to save her fingers trembling.

“May I ask something?” Her voice rang too loud for the confines of this costly room with its fine wood table polished to clarinet-black.

The queen nodded. The king observed her yet without words, that imperturbable cigar lying in state.

“What happened… to… to me?”

No answer. Almost imperceptibly, Ioan rotated from the bar, glass in hand, and glided back to his seat. The queen’s skirts rustled. The king’s lips pursed around his cigar, then opened, and a wreath of fragrant smoke encircled him like another crown.

“There was a sickness,” the queen sighed.

“Then what?” Maria pressed.

“You died,” the King curtly answered.

Maria blushed at being spoken to thus. “And? How am I here now?”

“You were not dead,” countered the queen. “You but slept.”

“Well, you buried me.”

“In boxes to let you grow, and inscribed what we believed above your tomb.” An insane hope brightened the queen’s sweet, wilted beauty. “ ‘Do not mourn. She is not dead but sleepeth.’ ”

“I don’t understand.”

“Nor would you.” The king removed his cigar. His eyes claimed Maria’s and in them she sensed much confusion, much pain. A measure of agony the weight of which she could barely guess. “For your sleeping-death was not of natural make.”

“What—”

He cut her off with a brusque motion of a hand. “I do not know if in your modern age the world is more accepting of magic.”

“Disney’s pretty cool about it,” Maria quipped, and immediately regretted the use of humor.

The king—her father—raised his chin. Here was a man who weighed times and customs in his right hand and chose what he would. “Regardless, magic conducted your living death. A vengeful gypsy, a queen among her people.”

Maria caught the end of a regal, wounded look from her mother. “A gypsy queen killed me?”

“She was never a queen,” Queen Elisabeth spoke. Her tone wore a coronet inlaid with years of mistrust. “And she will never be.”

“And she never would have been,” King Carol countered. He spread a frustrated hand on the tabletop.

Ioan’s fork clinked at his plate. He murmured a near-silent apology. Maria watched the faintest flush of pink creep over his still, molded features stretched in a way that could have been a smile. What amused him so? And what caused this tension which passed with a kinetic frenzy between the king and queen?

With a patience foreign to her, Maria kept these things for later. She picked a grapefruit from the platter and gently tore away one petal. This princess thing, you know, wasn’t too bad.

When their fruit had been eaten and coffee sipped, the queen excused herself.

“Come to me soon, Mariechen. Your father would speak with you.” She rested her gentle hand on Maria’s shoulder in passing.

Supper began to sit unsafely in Maria’s stomach at the thought of being left alone with that sober, wood-faced king. He was her father but when had he yet showed the slightest warmth or love for her? Was he angry at her return? Did he hate the sight of her? Those years in foster care chalked a panicked, inaccurate score in the sudden blank of Maria’s thoughts: not smart enough, not pretty enough, not young enough, not old enough. People always had a reason you were not enough to let you stay. Perhaps her father, even now, would not want or allow her to stay.

The queen’s footsteps pattered away toward the sanctuary of her colored-glass music room. Maria wanted to follow her instead of remaining here with a man no gladder in face than the peculiar Eastern rooms were in decoration, but he was her father and, she mused, her king.

Many long, unripe moments of silence. Maria kept her eyes on the empty table and waited.

“Itty, my… my child.”

Were those—tears in his voice? Maria’s eyes snapped to the king’s countenance. Moisture gleamed in the corners of his eyes. Candlelight sparked on something wet in his beard. Ioan, as usual, kept to his own business across the table. His long, waxen hands fingered the stem of his glass and his lips spread in that non-smile.

King Carol rubbed his thumb against his forefinger. His eyes spoke things she didn’t want to guess at, they were so bare and heavy. “Come here, child.”

She hesitated a moment, then scooted back from the table and came to him, hands folded in her skirts. Her father put a hand to her cheek. Metal kiss from his signet ring, trembling flesh eager, yet cool against her face. She hardly dared to do so, but Maria raised a hand and tentatively covered her father’s with it.

Doamne, I’ve missed you,” the king softly swore.

It was just a flash of a moment, hardly seen before he shuttered up again behind his unfathomable face. But Maria’s heart lurched happily as she nestled her hand again in her voluminous skirts. No one had ever spoken to her in that intense, immediate way. Somehow it reminded her of Heath—the same slow, slumbering fire unleashed all at once before growling back to sleep.

“I am so pleased to have you back, Maria,” her father continued. “I am not a man of gentle or numerous words, but that does not mean I lack love for you. I love quietly, by my loyal service and long peace. This is something which confuses your mother.”

“She thinks you do not love her?” The moment Maria said it, she regretted having asked so personal a question of a man who had already bent knee before her.

But the king only stood and managed a smile which wobbled on one side from lack of use. Maria thought it a darling expression, and her heart warmed even as he bade her goodnight and requested Ioan escort her to her mother, the queen.

Presently, Ioan stood and slid to her side. Everything about him chilled Maria but even she could not deny his beauty. He seemed like a white moth to her, ever fluttering in darkness, flirting with the light. What harm could he do her? If her father trusted the man he must not be a bad sort. Not likely he could have helped being born with a bloodless face and would she hate him for that?

Ioan bowed and crooked his arm. “Will you come, princess?”

“Sure.” She slid her arm into his.

He pressed her against his side as they exited the dining room and led a leisurely pace down the hall. When they reached the great hall, Maria thought her arm had spent long enough in the secretary’s possession. She extracted herself and clasped her hands behind her back.

“It’s a beautiful night,” she remarked. “Why don’t they roll back the ceiling?”

Ioan pinched off a smile for her. “If Your Highness wishes it, I am sure an exhibition of that wonder can be arranged, though it is generally kept for parties and guests of state.”

Leave it to that bleached, brittle man to make her feel like an idiot for asking. All Maria’s black dislike pooled again in her skull. “Yeah, because I’m not important or anything.”

“No.”

His answer surprised her. “Yeah, I mean, I’m just the missing princess come home. Not like that’s worth celebrating or anything.”

Ioan did not answer right away and when he did, his bland disgust slapped limply at her: “You [_say _]you are the missing princess.”

“I am.”

“Are you?”

“You don’t believe me, do you.”

“I watched you die. I watched them bury you.” A helpless anger swayed his body. “I watched them carefully as they mourned your passing, to be sure they did not mourn themselves into their own graves. It was finished.”

“The king and queen know I am their daughter,” Maria sad. “Why would you doubt them?”

Ioan sliced a hand through the air. “Folk will see what they most desire to see. You are but a clever impostor at best. My king and queen lost a child—their only child—and it is only the basest of people who would intrude on that sorrow and exploit it for profit.”

Maria watched the rage and suspicion war within him. He really believed her a pretender, did he? Well, she was sorry to disappoint but she’d never have attempted such a coup d’etat on her own volition.

“I am the princess,” she said quite simply.

“Impossible.”

“And yet, here I am,” Maria answered. She held his gaze for an uncomfortable moment, then tipped her chin and breathed in the beauty of the glass ceiling. “If you’d be so good as to tell the king, I would like to see what that roof can do.”

“It must have been magic.”

After Heath confessed the non-plausible plausible solution to Flavian, the man had quieted.

He rolled the rim of his beer glass with a fingertip. “I will take you to Carlotta. She will not be so happy to see you, but this is how it can be.”

“Really?”

“Dah.” He brought a pair of dark eyes to Heath’s face and flashed a smile. “Follow me.”

“Where will you take me?” Every cell in Heath’s composed, civilized brain told him this was what travel guidebooks called “a compromising situation” and suggested the American traveler at all costs avoid. Still, he’d asked to meet with Carlotta and did he really have another way? Brandon’s film connection might turn up a different lead—eventually. Meanwhile, Maria was very likely in danger.

“Coming?” Flavian inquired.

“Yeah, give me just a second.”

The man nodded and casually steered little Daniel outside. A commercial screamed on the television behind the bar.

Heath zipped his jacket and switched his passport and wallet to the inside of his shirt, making sure it was tucked and his belt tightened. Then, as cautious as he could reasonably be in this moment, he followed Flavian and Daniel through the purple evening. They skimmed several bricked, patch-worked side streets and several alleys, climbed a fence or two, and exited the white sector of town.

Here, the peoples’ skin blended with the dusk while the fabric of their clothing screamed of exotic places. Sultry-eyed girls in tiered floral skirts hawked bright gold watches—all the colors at which conservative Romanians balked. Skinny boys and gangly men, shapely women with braids swinging to their hips, fat women with hair combed into thick knots at their necks. Everyone out in the mild, drawing night. No one seemed in a particular hurry to close themselves into their homes for the evening. All doors were open to the street. Half the children ran naked, chasing a ball down the center of the avenue. Dogs skulked between legs and cats hid in potted petunias, their eyes catching odd shards of light leftover from the setting sun.

The reek of unwashed bodies and odd housekeeping persisted until Flavian led Heath and the boy into a clean, white lane set with opulent mansions. The contrast between the sector through which they’d just trekked and this celestial glory hurt Heath’s eyes almost physically. He blinked and caught his breath while Flavian spoke to a slender gypsy man smoking against a gold-painted fence. Daniel clambered up to the top spikes, making faces at the grand house in its beautiful cage. He took a rock and banged on the metal gate. An old, old woman with a bruised left eye jerked open a window.

Daniel hailed her with a grin.

She tossed her hands and swore at him.

“Daniel,” Flavian called, and jerked his head. The boy came off the fence.

Flavian gave instructions which Heath could not understand. An urgent, constant stream of foreign tongue.

They waited and watched the boy trot away into the darkness. Flavian then turned to Heath and slung his arm across his shoulders.

“Carlotta is a very influential woman in our community,” he explained. “You did a good thing to not go to the police.”

Suspicion rankled. “Why?” He winced at his tone.

“Oh, because you know the police. They will not be believing stories of magic and sorcery.” Flavian chewed his bottom lip. “Those things are too upsetting for the people. Better to keep to things easily to explain. Your boss stole the book and ran away from you with it. That is what they would be saying right now. And you would be staying the night in a prison, I am thinking.”

“Yeah.” Heath shoved his hands in his pockets and shrugged. “Guess it is a good thing I didn’t set off the hue and cry.”

“I am supposing the spirits brought me to you.”

Heath looked at him curiously. “You believe that?”

Flavian’s dark eyes gleamed. “Of course. What do you believe? Are you Orthodox?”

“I’m not saying I don’t sometimes forget it, but I’m a Christian.” He laughed.

Flavian eyed him slyly. “Ah… Pentecostal.”

Heath grinned. “Baptist or something.”

“Okay.”

They had reached the largest house on the street: a mansion standing in a gravel-filled courtyard, gleaming white as if carved of pure hope. A few lights glowed from the upper windows and hit upon the bronze cupola on the roof, sparking fire off it.

The two men crunched across the drive and climbed to the porch. Flavian knocked with the backs of his knuckles on the ornamental paneling of the front door. A brief moment, and the door was wrenched open from within.

“The American?” she of the golden eyes hissed. Drenched angora cats seldom look quite as bemused as she. Arms crossed, Carlotta leaned against the lintel of the door and dared him silently to cross her.

Heath stiffened and made a bow. Afterward it seemed to him quite stupid, but her manner required he genuflect. She watched him. A smirk played on her lips, failing, as usual, to reach her eyes. And the eyes themselves—the ex-girlfriend eyes—began their entrancement.

“So you’ve found me,” she murmured. “You want help, I presume?”

Funny, how the more they interacted, the better her English. If he’d been any less frustrated, he would have found it mesmerizing.

Heath set his jaw. “I want answers. If I can get them by way of your help, I can deal with my distaste for it.”

She laughed and sulkily shoved off the door-frame with another musing smile. “This way.”

Through a house half-sunk in gold, mosaic tiles, and upholstery, Carlotta led him. In one foyer hung a chandelier so large, so ceramic, it seemed an immense teapot upended. Nine feet tall. How heavy must it be? Pure goldenness numbed Heath’s senses; the rooms flowed with a muffled sing-song of their own. Every lamp seemed the rim of a wine-glass stroked by a dulcet finger-tip.

The windows sang. The room, filled with amber liquors in huge decanters, seemed an orchestra itself and no sooner had they passed through one space, then the sound followed them to another.

Last came a heavy room looking vaguely pagan, vaguely pleasant, gorged on silk drapery. Tantalizing. A place demanding leisurely exploration. Carlotta sank to the satin pillows on the floor and seemed to grow into them, rooting herself poisonously deep. Her billowing yellow robes mixed with the red pillows, turning blush and orange on the edges. Indefinite. Nothing but pure color, like oil paints on a canvas stretched taut.

Enough. Keep your mind. Heath looked to Flavian. The man smiled and he too seemed cast in gold. He pushed Heath’s shoulder gently.

Look to Carlotta, the gesture said. Focus.

Yes, focus.

Carlotta was speaking. He saw her lips move but could make out none of it. Her words were not Romanian, nor English, nor any written language from any portion of this world. But as she spoke, pictures filled Heath’s mind. Carlotta glistened at him and softly, the pictures became a dream.

A king, a queen, a viciously gorgeous caravan and stepping out from it: a wild, storm-ridden woman. Jealously sat upon her like a crown and no jeweler could have fashioned for her a more fitting adornment. In her arms she held a yellow book. The same yellow book taken by Maria when she vanished into the case.

“You forgot,” the woman cried. Her tone laughed at the king and queen, pitied them. “I was to be invited. It should have been my wedding.”

“Guards, remove her.”

The gypsy clicked her tongue. “Oh, hush. We had an agreement. I was to marry him.”

The king halted in his protests. His queen, wedding garments fitted to her gentle figure, trembled beside him. He put his arm around her and she quietened. At this, the stranger flashed dusky laughter.

“Look at you! A spring flower, fit for nothing but to wilt at a blow! Look at the queen you chose, Carol. Does she suit you? Does she know how to bear your humors?”

The king flinched and Heath watched the intensity flow from the king’s jaw to his hands, which clenched. Men’s common instinct to strike out at words.

“No more,” His Majesty commanded.

The wild one swept to his side and stroked his face with the back of her hand. “Oh, Carol, how noble it is to please your family. Elisabeth will make you a very… blancmange queen.”

“Who are you?” the queen protested.

Carlotta, for she it was, tossed her head. “Queen of my people. Your husband favors my warmth, you know. As I said, he pledged his first troth to me.”

“He did no such thing. I am his mate. We are one.”

“Mmmm, it seems so now, doesn’t it?” Carlotta’s gaze seethed with insane humor. “But when he is rigid in manner, will you melt him? When worry overtakes him, will you be able to share his load? Have you will? Have you passion? You have words. And words will not take you far with him, I believe.” She had kept her hand to the king’s cheek this whole time. Now she drew it back and whipped him with the back of her palm. A heavy green ring bit into his flesh, but the King did not cry out.

“A curse upon you, Carol, faithless man.”

“Witch!” Something sang out of nowhere, accompanying the words, and struck Carlotta’s mouth. It was the queen’s hand and Carlotta, properly aghast, stared back at the queen who looked no less white with anger than herself.

“You will not speak of my husband like this. Not now; never.”

Deep in his mind, Heath felt that the pulsing warmth of Carlotta’s fury had grown into his own breath and he heard her words as if they proceeded from his own mouth:

“Then I curse you. I curse your family and your lineage.” He felt her arm, as if were his own, raise the yellow Spindle-book into the air. “I curse the ground upon which you stand and I curse the promise you have pledged. Enjoy your reign, O, Carol of Romania. I am certain it will be suited to a man like yourself. All honor and dignity.”

What that meant, she did not say, but a prickling sensation in Heath’s stomach distracted him a moment. The scene whisked away and a new one took its place. Heath found himself in a church. He looked over the rim of a coffin into the face of a dead child. Soulless. An unmoored body drifting, no ties to this world.

“My darling,” a voice breathed.

Startled, Heath’s gaze lurched to the figure beside him. There stood the poor queen, and her blue eyes bored wildly into his own. He balked at the intensity and backed away.

“Karl,” she wailed, and flung herself on his chest, beating her fists against him. “Kiss her. Say you will see her again. You will! You will!”

With calm, terrified hands, Heath put her away from himself. He looked at the hands which were not his, felt the beard which he had not grown. He realized he embodied the king’s form. Heath looked to the dead daughter, lying motionless. A far, far, dismal cry from the laughing aspect of childhood was this waxen form, lips parted as if straining for a breath, hands folded with crass calm in her lap. When were a child’s hands ever still? When were limbs so straight and tidy? What Heath saw knotted his guts into ropes of helplessness. Unable to act as Heath swore he would have acted, he watched himself—in the king’s body—push away his queen with rough hands. He stalked away from the coffin. Not a farewell, not a kiss, not a kind word. Nothing. Because reality tugged him from the dream and reality was Carlotta’s hand in his, stroking his fingers, pulling him into the future.

He thrashed, panting into focus, and they were once again in the temple room, now seated on red pillows. Heath felt a great thirst. His shirt clung to his chest and shoulders, soaked with sweat.

“My God. Mercy,” he panted.

“So,” Carlotta purled, smoothing his hair away from his forehead, “you know about me.”

“That was you.” He blinked, trying to bring himself into the real world. This could not be the real world.

“My finest work.”

“You killed their child!”

Carlotta caught her rich bottom lip between her teeth and looked at him fondly. “Oh, you are sweet. I didn’t kill their child. I stole her, which is infinitely worse for the parents. One must,” here, she dropped her lids and smiled modestly, “make concessions for stereotypes. Gypsies steal children, do they not? The King lived in denial to the end of his life. Worthless man. But Elisabeth—she had more spirit than I supposed. She understood what I had done.”

“Taken her child.”

“Delayed her child’s life for a hundred and twenty years.” Her lids lifted and the serpentine gold glinting out from under them struck Heath like barbed venom. “The queen had a verse from her sweet little Scriptures engraved on the child’s tomb. Tattle-tale that she was: “‘Weep not; she is not dead, but sleepeth.’“ Carlotta smirked. “ I had not thought it possible to hate her more.”

“And the princess?” The words ground willfully from Heath’s mouth. He did not want to know the answer. He did not want to be here in this treacle-like golden stupor.

“Why, I brought her here… to this world. An age apart from that in which she might have lived, had I not dabbled in more effective sorcery than most.”

“What did you do? Say it plainly before I throttle you.”

Carlotta’s skirts rustled as she rose to claim a cup from Flavian, who had absented himself. This she put to Heath’s lips and bade him drink. When he had finished, she wiped his lips with the hem of her skirt and grew thoughtful.

“You are not as swift as I might have hoped,” she mentioned. “I caused the princess to sleep for more than a hundred years. My race was to have mingled with theirs,” she breathed. “I was to have made a way for the Romani. This…” she spread her fingers toward the outer world, “…would no longer exist if I had married Carol. Our lines would have crossed, our blood mixed with theirs. We would have had our pride.”

“You knew that would never happen,” Heath said, coldly. “So you acted in jealousy.”

“Of course.” Carlotta stood, clasped her hands behind her back, and paced before him. “Many a crime has been committed for lesser reasons.” She sprang to him fiercely, gracelessly. “He crushed my happiness. I stole his.”

A great weariness came over Heath and as he stood, his legs shook. “What do you intend to do with me?”

“As you have wished from the start: help you find your… boss.” She winced at the term and ran a hand through her perfumed hair.

Heath breathed deeply, squared his shoulders. “At risk of sounding like a 1930’s film noir heroine, why would you tell me all of this if you intended in the first place to help me find Maria?”

“Because, Childe Harold, you have the heart of an artichoke. You will pity me. You pity her. I can do with you what I will.”

“Why would Maria need my pity? What have you done with her?”

“I did nothing. She was the one who fumbled backward a century. It was none of my doing, I can assure you!”

“She time-traveled.”

“Yes, you asinine creature, she went backward to her birthright.”

Many worlds collided in Heath’s headache. He groped about for words. “Maria is…”

“Of all the slack-jawed, brainless beetles I’ve seen in my reign,” Carlotta snapped. “Here it is plainly: your Maria is the princess. She has gone back in time and will try to change it all. History will be rewritten and Doamne knows where we will end up. So you, dear hero, are going to get her for me by exactly the method I choose.”

Heath laughed. “How do you think I’ll agree to that?”

Carlotta’s eyes narrowed into flame-filled half-moons. “Because, sweet, you’ve drunk of my cup. Maria might have taken The Spindle but I can effect simple magic without a spell book. Sending one person backward is not difficult. You’ll go and you’ll get her and you’ll bring her back.”

“Why do you want Maria in this age?”

Carlotta knotted the edge of her robe. “If she returns to her parents, her throne, her life… what good would all my sacrifice have been? I am sending you back. You will effect the time-travel spell in The Spindle as I lead you.”

“You need your spell book, don’t you?”

Rage emanated from the gypsy as she burned into her luxurious bed of satin pillows. At last, she raised her eyes to him and spread red lips in a smile. “I do need my spells.”

Then for the first time, Heath noticed dark circles underscoring Carlotta’s eyes and her chest rising and falling rapidly. As he noticed this, the desperation of her consumptive beauty shocked him.

“You’re sick,” he marveled.

“Silence! You will bring Maria back and you will bring with you The Spindle. And if anything goes wrong… you will kill her.”

“I won’t kill Maria,” Heath snarled. “You’re insane.”

She moved to him and her fingers were silken-fine to his skin. He twitched under her touch like a mustang bridled for the first time.

“But you will, darling. You cannot help but do what I bid, having drunk the cup of obedience. You are my slave, American.” Carlotta laughed. “Oh, do not be alarmed. Flavian finds it most agreeable to be my manservant. Don’t you, Flavian?”

Heath jerked from her touch but she followed him and twined a terrifyingly muscular arm around his neck.

“I will never kill Maria,” he growled. “I will never give you the spell book.”

“Nonsense. Of course you will.” Carlotta moved her mouth to his ear and when she spoke next her words were a honey-laden caress: “Go awaken her. Show her eternity. You know it is what we all long to see.”

Heath’s muscles tensed with hatred. “Never.”

But Carlotta had begun to sing again. Her voice filled his ears and the room hummed till the tiles shook out of their cement and rattled like castanets. He was half aware of Carlotta’s fingers stroking his palm again, of the fabric of her skirts tangling around his feet as she wove in front and behind. Then, with a rending sound, the worlds divided and Heath awoke, startled, on the steps of an old stone church.

The year was 1897 and this time, his internship paid in blood.

V.

The Mission

By the afternoon of the second day, Maria had almost forgotten what life was like in modernity. Not forgotten entirely, because that would mean forgetting about Toms and latte art and her collection of leather-bound Shakespeare, but those things had faded like a dream. At first Maria had been concerned with getting back to modernity. The longer she stayed, however, the less certain she became that returning to her former life was what she wanted. Maybe she should not try to find her modern life again. Here, she was treated like a princess because she was a princess. The servants—most of them—respected her. She had a bedroom larger than her L.A. apartment and a sitting room attached to it. Damask walls, four-poster curtained bed, wardrobe stuffed to the gills with fine dresses and real jewels. And—best of all, she had slept. Ioan held her in suspicion, certainly, but her parents knew the truth. They would never believe a limpet-like man full of petty jealousy. No, Maria had little to vex her in this new life as part of the royal family.

In the next day or two, she would meet her cousin and the adopted heir-to-the-throne, Ferdinand, when he returned from a diplomatic mission. Queen Elisabeth’s favorite lady, Elena, had been very kind to Maria. Why, Maria had even watched King Carol and Ioan play a game of chess together after breakfast and had almost enjoyed it. She had family here. A world that not only wanted her, but possibly needed her.

Even if that were not true—if she inflated her importance to a country she’d barely heard about until two weeks ago—Maria enjoyed knowing more than everyone else for once. The satisfaction lay within when she walked through the unfinished castle like a demi-goddess, knowing what was to come. It felt like the old photos of Disneyland—the ones with Walt Disney smiling beside a fresh hole in the ground where the Carousel would eventually be. All the promises of what was to come, none of the proof. But she’d seen the future—been there—and found pleasure in watching the palace in its toddling stage.

Guilt niggled at Maria anytime she entertained the idea of trying to find a way home. Her mother, the queen, loved her desperately. It would be like committing murder, she thought, to strip away a daughter again from the woman.

Yes, were it not for the fact that being permanently away from Heath felt like being stabbed in the gut, Maria thought she would be content to stay here forever.

“Ferdinand will arrive this afternoon,” Queen Elisabeth said as the two walked arm and arm in the Moorish room. “He cannot wait to see you, I am sure.”

Maria lifted an eyebrow. “Is that so?”

“He is your cousin, Maria. Karl and I adopted him after…” Elisabeth squeezed Maria’s arm to her side. “He has grown to be a handsome man. Very charming. Talented, well-traveled… married to Queen Victoria of England’s granddaughter. The Princess Marie of Edinburgh. Rather overawed by your father, they say.”

“Gosh, I wonder why?”

A laugh flashed in Elisabeth’s blue eyes. “Marie is Crown Princess and quite popular… though there is some…” the queen’s color mounted. “Some scandal attached to her at this moment.”

“Will Ferdinand be any good as a king?” Maria asked.

Elisabeth looked at her seriously. “I think he… I do not know. But when you love a person, does it matter?”

“You’re talking about my father?”

Her face crumpled into a sad smile. “I am talking about many people. We love them. We do not always see them as useful, but essential nevertheless. I loved Karl when I married him. I respect and understand him now. Which must we really count as love?”

They paced a moment among the low furniture, thinking this over. At least, Maria thought it over. She became weary of pacing the heavy scarlet room, but to sit also seemed tedious.

“Could we go outside for a while?”

Elisabeth brightened. “I could summon the horses for a ride.”

“I’ve never ridden a horse in my life.”

“This, then,” said the Queen with a smile, “I will take you in the carriage to town.”

Maria found the offer of touring Sinaia in a phaeton attractive. But the family had agreed last night not to spread the news of her return until a plausible explanation could be formulated. It would not do to have the entire world hear of the magic. Would she be reintroduced as the Princess Maria or an adopted duchess or lady?

“If we go into town won’t the people begin to wonder who I am?”

“Oh, that.” Elisabeth patted her hand. “We’ll say you are a cousin visiting from Germany. No one will think a thing of it.”

Mother and daughter wound through the working men and construction mess. Elisabeth spoke to the people on her way and Maria, entirely at a loss as to what was particularly said, watched their faces brighten and their pace increase. They wanted to please her because she tried to please them, an attractive arrangement. Maria saw what it meant to them to live under an understanding queen.

By the monastery walls an open carriage waited, all tooled leather and eager horseflesh. Maria joined the queen inside, less gracefully but quite as anxious as the horses to be off.

Down, down, down the mountainside the driver took them, past elegant buildings and shabby ones, marketplaces and barking dogs. A light, chilly breeze lifted Maria’s hat but it was firmly attached to her chignon with a heavy cow’s horn pin and at no risk of flying off.

How funny the peasant women looked with layers and layers up top, bundled against an imaginary chill, bare legs poking out like sticks from short, faded skirts. And the peasant men too with their beetling eyebrows and square, raspy chins. Here wheedled a gypsy, there minced a gentlewoman and her two daughters. An artist sketched against that post, and there, climbing down from a horse-drawn omnibus with a frown upon his face was—

“HEATH?” Scarcely thinking, Maria scrambled down from the carriage, grateful in her heedless way that they had not been going above a crawl through the cobbled town. At her shout through the otherwise dignified square, activity suspended. Everyone, including the queen, watched as Maria pelted through the crowd and flung herself into Heath’s arms. She grabbed his shirt in her hands and buried her nose against his chest, breathing in the clean, modern smell of her intern: his solidness, his realness.

“Gosh, Maria.” He clutched her to himself and rocked side to side, squashing her nose against his shirt buttons.

She twisted the back of his shirt in tight, sweaty fists and rubbed her face in his shoulder. When she’d finished reminding herself of his peculiar blend of cologne, new leather, and Barbasol shaving cream, she pulled away. How beautiful to cling to someone familiar, of her own place and time. And heart.

“I have never been happier to see anyone in my whole life.” She touched Heath’s face with her palm, stroking his smooth skin. “You’re real and you’re here and you can tell these people I’m not crazy!”

Something about him was off. Unrelenting. That was the word for Heath’s stiffness under her hand. Being that he was the sort of person who liked his dignity, Maria realized that this was the least of all dignified ways in which she could have greeted him. She let go, straightened, and brushed her bangs out of her eyes with a shy grin.

“So… welcome to the past.”

Heath’s brown eyes raked her over with an expression like relief. “You look… like a gentlewoman.”

She glanced down at her dark blue bustled and corseted dress and fingered the fichu of lace cascading at her throat. “Yeah. A lot less comfy than a Henley and jeans. Gosh, I miss my Toms.”

Heath did not quite smile but looked at her kindly and gripped her shoulder. “I’m really glad you’re safe.”

Maria looked around the marketplace. “Well, I’m kind of the princess and they tend to guard that sort of thing. Did you know that’s who I am?”

“That you’re the princess? I… yeah. Someone told me.”

Joy licked at Maria’s heart like a candle flame. “Oh, then someone else from my world knows about this? When it happened, you know, I was a little worried I would be lost forever. I mean, it isn’t every day someone actually time-travels. They’ll probably want to study me or something.”

A thought lippity-lipped through her contentment. “Uh-oh. Will they stick me with needles? Would it be [that _]kind of study? Because I would _not be all about that.”

Heath gripped her arm. “Look, Maria. There’s a whole lot going on that I don’t understand… but we need to talk.”

The livid intensity of his eyes knocked away from her tongue all ready remarks.

“Okay Can you… just come this way.” Maria wrapped her forefinger around Heath’s pinky and tugged him toward the carriage.

“Mother, may I introduce Heath Fischer to you?”

The queen nodded to him and extended her hand, which Heath took and kissed. As she watched, Maria smiled. His immaculate poise did have its place. She didn’t feel remotely like being annoyed with how easily he handled meeting a European dignitary. And now that he was here, they could stay. Together.

“Is Mr. Fischer an acquaintance of special importance?” the queen inquired behind her gloved hand as Heath helped Maria into the carriage.

Maria didn’t try to dissolve the silly grin which slid across her face. “He was my intern. Intern? Oh, well… the film company I worked for assigned him to be… I guess my assistant.”

Her mother smiled. “Charming.”

“Yes, he is a little bit charming, isn’t he?” Maria folded her hands in her lap and sighed happily. This day was going so well. Of course her brain ached to know how Heath had followed her, but she was so very glad he did that it trivialized her curiosity.

“I assume you would rather return to the house than continue on with our outing?” asked the queen.

“If you don’t mind terribly much.”

“I do not mind,” said the queen. “I will simply ask the stables to saddle Pasha for me. I will go riding with Margot and Elena.”

“Her ladies-in-waiting,” Maria translated for Heath, who had fallen silent again.

After some small difficulty in turning the phaeton around in the busy street, the driver took them back through the construction. Maria recognized bluff, solid Cristian at work among the other men. She hailed him as they passed. Recognizing her, he stood straighter and waved. A handsome Romani. A kind, honest man.

“Who’s that?” Heath asked.

Maria blinked at the suspicion in his tone. “Just Cristian. He helped me get into the palace. You can’t just walk up and say, ‘Hello, I don’t know who I am but I disappeared in your bookcase here,’ you know.”

“Yeah. Bet not.”

“He’s a real solid guy, Heath. He took good care of me.”

“Mr. Fischer,” Elisabeth began, “if you don’t mind me saying so, you have a very noble face. I should like to draw it at some point.”

Heath’s eyes crinkled. “My face is at your disposal, Your Majesty.”

“Good.” She laughed and clapped her hands like a girl. “This whole business is so mysterious but such good fun.”

They drew up to the palace courtyard and were helped from the carriage by a liveried servant. Maria twined her fingers in and out of each other as she waited for Heath to dismount, waited as the queen ordered her horse saddled, waited as the horse came and the queen made small talk with Heath, waited as the servants disbanded and she and Heath were finally alone.

Maria came to him again and linked her arm through his. “Let’s walk about for a moment.”

Heath had his head tipped back, viewing the murals. “‘Walk about for a moment?’ What has this place done to your vocabulary, Itty?”

She sobered. “Itty… that’s what they call me here, too. Apparently that was what they always called me.” Reality ensnared her lighter mood. “Heath, how did I get here?”

He told her then, all the difficult, loathsome truth and though she’d heard most of it, by the end of his recitation, Maria felt leaden-hearted. She sat on the marble edge of one of the terraces between two dog statues and rubbed her forehead. Heath sank beside her.

“I can’t understand why I don’t have a single memory from my childhood,” Maria admitted.

“Do people usually remember things from when they were three?” Heath’s tone lacked blood. Maria noticed the dark circles under his eyes. He looked positively ghoulish.

She dared to smooth his hair away from his hot temples with gentle fingertips. “Look, why don’t you go inside and take a rest? I’ll take you to the guest quarters. I don’t actually know where they are yet, but Ioan can tell me. He’s very helpful, once you get past the fact that he looks like a famished vampire.”

“And who’s Ioan?” Heath growled.

“You can sometimes act super jealous,” Maria chided. She patted her intern’s very good hair, then froze. “Wait… [_are _]you jealous?” He couldn’t possibly be because if he was jealous, that meant he wished other people wouldn’t have what he wanted to have himself which would be— “Heath Fischer! Are you in love with me?”

Heath stood and filled the space in front of her with his firmness. “Maria Wied. Are you crazy?”

She thought she knew what that question meant, but then again, she had never been the best at social nuances and translating the unspoken.

“I [_am _]crazy… for you?” She hadn’t meant for the end of the sentence to bend itself into a question mark like that. She ducked her chin and felt even the tips of her ears turn coral.

Heath only looked at her with a face that said she’d done all right and nodded toward the house. “A rest would be fantastic, actually.”

“Okay. So you promise you won’t murder Ioan?”

It had to be her imagination that he prickled like a human hedgehog at that joke. “I have no intention of doing any such thing, princess.”

Maria took his arm and hugged it close to her side. She had to trot to keep up with each of his long strides, but she didn’t care. Heath was back. He’d know what to do. He was never out of the right answers. Plus, he loved her.

Heath closed the door of his lush bedroom as Maria and the cadaverous fellow exited, and shoved shaky fingers through his hair. Already, he felt Carlotta’s curse at work. Heath spread out his options like cards. Where was his ace? There had to be a way out of this that did not including returning The Spindle to Carlotta or killing Maria.

They could just stay here, back in time. He would refuse to kill Maria and Carlotta wouldn’t have to know.

Heath considered it for a while. It had its attractions as well as two key problems: Carlotta would know and she could send someone else through to kill both of them. Besides, they weren’t two normal humans deciding at random to live in a different era. Maria was royalty. Heath had listened to Carlotta’s informative, faux-English tour of Peles Castle. He knew the king and queen had adopted a nephew as heir and that said nephew had married one of Queen Victoria’s granddaughters.

This was high-octane roulette they dabbled in. Depose the heir-apparent and his British monarch bride and what sort of mayhem would break loose? Heath wasn’t sure if Maria could even legally inherit the throne, but she would be expected to marry influentially, and how might that change history? What position would Romania then hold in relation to the rest of Europe? If Maria married some foreign prince (Heath would rather die than watch that happen), how might that affect the course of time? Would Russia absorb them as it had so often threatened to do? In 1897 there were two world wars still to come—if he and Maria shifted the political climate even the slightest degree, would the Kaiser applaud? Would Adolf Hitler kiss their cheeks and call them angels? And what of all the million other things such a choice would change? History had had its deadly moments. Perhaps by staying they could change the course of the world to avoid such an end. Perhaps by staying they would set off such a series of explosions as would destroy the world before the modern era had opportunity to arrive.

The questions had a ravishingly simple answer: they could not stay.

Second option, then: they could both return to modernity and deal with Carlotta on that side. The Spindle was in Maria’s possession, Heath assumed. Could they conduct the magic themselves to pass through the bookcase again? Did one person have to stay behind to make the magic? Heath shied from it with the sense of a horse smelling sulphur. Maria could do it, possibly, but he had no faith. No faith in magic, no faith in his ability to conduct magic. And Maria’s return—or death—and the return of the book of sorcery were the primary targets of Heath’s indenture.

Suddenly dizzy, Heath lowered himself to the floor. Absently, he picked at the crimson threads in the carpet beneath him. His stomach roiled. All the blood in his fingertips buzzed with an uncommon chill. The illness had strengthened since coming through the monastery at Cotroceni and Heath feared it. Twice, as he’d spoken with Maria, murder had flickered through his mind; when she hugged him and formed her softness against his unyielding figure, he thought how easy it would be to put a knife through her. Then, when she’d asked him if he loved her—in that moment when all reason melted and ‘yes’ was pounding through his core—something dark and livid whispered that he could easily drown her in the fountain near which they sat. And this time, there would be no witnesses.

Carlotta had set him with a fence of thorns. Her sorcery gnawed him. To be thus unhinged terrified him. Never before had he felt this helpless—almost formless. Pride he could swallow, disappointment he could conquer, anger he could smother, but magic—this tantalizing danger—he had no power here.

“I have to get her away. Get her home,” he muttered.

The longer Heath remained without either doing Carlotta’s will or finding an impossible way around it, the more of a danger he was to Maria. It felt like a scale: the moments stacking and sliding and slipping. The longer he spent returning Maria to the future, the closer he was to Carlotta demanding he kill her. And when that order came, Heath knew he could not resist.

“I hate you,” he whispered. He wasn’t sure to whom he spoke. Himself? Carlotta. But the thought sprang back at him with her golden laughter attached and he felt like vomiting.

He hated the public conscience that forced him to care about the world’s fate. He wished it could just be about Maria. He could allow her to stay on as a princess and he would stay with her and if they would not let him marry her, he would at least find a way to be alongside her and if Carlotta killed him, what then? There had to be a place at the palace for interns.

But no, it was about Europe. It was about international politics and the lives of millions. He could not reshape history with his clumsy hands and expect things to come out in balance, not even for a woman he loved. Martyrs to a cause greater than themselves. They would have to be. As much as he hated it, as much as every healthy cell in his brain fomented against it, Carlotta’s will was the only one that managed to save[_ most_] of humanity.

Curse a reasoning conscience.

Heath exited his room and skimmed down the great staircase. “The drawing room?” he asked a servant.

“Which, sir?” she asked in a sing-song voice which he grimly identified as Carlotta’s reaching into his psyche.

“In which might I find the young lady?”

The servant simpered and batted her eyelashes. “I can take you.”

“No, please. Tell me which direction.”

“That way, sir.”

Heath stretched his fingers, easing out of them the thought of pressing against a white throat. “Thanks.”

He walked, stomach flipping, heart slamming, soul howling and damning him in three languages, to the door of the drawing room. He paused a moment to collect himself, lowered his hand, and stepped inside.

“Heath! I thought you were resting.” Maria rustled across the drawing room, leaving on the table the start of a sketch. The queen’s remark about drawing Heath’s face had got her thinking—but Maria wasn’t much of an artist, really, and Heath might not be extraordinarily flattered by her depiction of him.

“You don’t look very well.” Awful, actually. “You’re sweating like a pig!”

“Pigs don’t sweat, Miss Wied.”

“What, did you intern at Old MacDonald’s farm before working for Fischer-Thurman?” Maria saw some flicker of tenderness in his face. She patted his hand and dragged him to a long, low sofa. “Sit here and please don’t refuse brandy. Or cognac. Or whatever this is.”

She sniffed it, poured him a glass, put it into his hand, and pushed him back against the sofa. “I’m still your boss, though I’m not even sure cinema has been invented yet, so do as I say and sit down.”

Heath raised the amber liquid. “You didn’t put any black magic in here, did you?”

“As if I’d know what to do with magic if it hit me on the head.”

“How’re your hands?” Heath asked softly.

Maria looked at them and made a face. “Oh, you saw that.”

“Yeah, the last bit of you I saw before you whizzed through into another world was you bleeding like a suicidal kleptomaniac. Skills, woman.” He sipped and made a face. “This is [_not _]brandy. And it’s not cognac.”

“What is it, then?”

“A very expensive waste of a decanter.” He put the drink aside and chewed on his lip.

Maria watched him. He had not behaved a single bit like his old self yet and it bothered her. Heath, to her memory, had never not acted like himself before. He was a man to whom acting like oneself—dignity and all—was on equal footing with keeping the Ten Commandments and voting Democrat every election and going Burberry when it came to choosing a trench coat.

She pushed the conversational door open with her toe and waited for him to come in, arching his back and purring as usual: “So, tell me all about it.”

As Heath had spread his story before her, Maria sat, for once, without fidgeting. His story of what would happen if they remained here, of what might happen to the world and what would certainly happen to the royal family ached under her breastbone. She had, of course, thought about all this at some point since coming. She’d managed to stuff it behind her head, though, and not think about it.

“Carlotta deserves to be scalped,” she said mildly.

Heath chuckled and picked up her hand.

She felt a secret in his touch. An unpleasant, unsettled thrill. “There’s more…”

His brow contracted. “No there isn’t.”

“Heath.”

“There isn’t.” His eyes tore at her. “I’ve told you everything.” But he continued to hold her gaze and a parade of horrors passed through her mind as she looked at him. She pulled her hand away and hugged herself.

“You said Carlotta got me to the future by using a spell from The Spindle.”

Heath’s breath came heavy and laboring now. Black circles underscored his eyes. “Yeah.”

“But I left it in the grave. Or the bookcase. Whichever it was.”

“Fine work there.”

She rolled her eyes. “So if I can find The Spindle again, I can just use the same spell and get us back?”

“I’m not sure if that’s how it works… but we have to try it.”

“But Heath, I’m a princess here. I’m not sure I… what if I don’t want to leave?”

His eyes threw the kind of sparks made by tossing more wood on a fire. “You have to.”

[Or what? _]“I’m part of the royal family. If you only _saw the queen’s face when we figured out who I am. If I left, it would kill her.”

“What does the king think of you?” Heath asked.

Maria relaxed an increment. That question was like her intern of old. “I think he doesn’t dislike me. He said he was glad to have me home. Even you, Mr. Fischer, got over despising me.”

“I never despised you.”

“Oh, really? I could have sworn that was what caused all the eye rolling.” She smiled at him but his confused countenance still bothered her. “I’m important here, Heath. Maybe I could do something helpful. What am I at home?”

“You’re a set designer with an important film project you’ve left Fischer-Thurman to finish. Last I knew they were scuttling around like an overturned anthill trying to cover for you.”

“Seriously, Heath.”

He took her hand again. “You’re a good friend, a beautiful soul, and a faithful employee.”

“Who loves me there, Heath? You are the only person who loves me in that modern age. What do I have there? What sort of life do I have if I go back?”

“I’m sorry, Maria, but this life…” Heath swept his hand around the opulent room and his angered, almost amused look settled on her costume. “This is almost as much of a sham as playing dress up. What might have been is tantalizing.” His grip tightened on her fingers. “But what is… what you have and what you’ve lived and the life you’ve made. That’s reality. This isn’t real life. Maybe it could have been, but it’s not. Nothing will be the same if you stay. Most of what would happen could end tragically. Look at history, Maria.”

She looked. She looked at history with a fearful mind and at Heath with a fearful heart. What he said was true enough, but here she had value. She’d lived a very quiet life in L.A. and not many people realized she was missing at all. But her real, royal parents had mourned the loss of their only daughter once already. Was it fair to subject them to a second death? Besides—in the modern age she was nothing close to a princess. Here, she was a sort of second Kate Middleton, sans motherhood and British accent. And long legs.

“Oh, Heath,” she whispered. “Tell me where I belong.”

She dropped her head onto his shoulder. His thumb caressed the back of her hand. For a moment the world—whichever world in which they were meant to live—had settled into peace once more. Heath’s other hand moved to a letter opener on the desktop.

Now what was he—Maria jolted upright and tore her hand from his, fighting down her heart which had jumped into her mouth.

Heath raised the letter opener. The light caught on its clever blade and flashed into his tortured face. His eyes, full of a great, great weariness, begged forgiveness.

Maria’s terror scalded Heath. His hand shook as he raised his knife.

Who am I?

What is this?

I’m no murderer.

I love her.

From the distance, Carlotta’s fingers closed around his chest and squeezed the last honest breath from his lungs. Somehow—perhaps because Maria had now told him the location of the spellbook or because they had talked too long of staying—Carlotta wanted her dead. Heath moaned and lurched clumsily at Maria.

“Heath!” She scrambled backward in a flurry of too much skirt. He watched himself grab for her dress, clumsily trying to make her stay, and then saw her hand swing at him before he felt the considerable punch of her left fist to his right ear. The mist before his eyes began to lift.

“What the heck do you think you’re doing?” she yelled at him. Tears pooled in her green eyes and spilled down her chin, down her neck. The lace at her throat dampened.

He rubbed his eyes, tried to say something. He didn’t want to kill her but it had become a physical urge, like vomiting. It would happen and Heath could do nothing to prevent it.

Heath opened his mouth to say, “Carlotta gave me some philter to drink,” but the words stuck in his throat. He couldn’t say them because it was against the gypsy’s will.

“Maria,” he churned out, “find The Spindle. It is not safe for you to stay.” To stay here, to stay with me.

She stared, trembling, at him and the reproach and agony in her face was almost too much for him to bear. “You came here just to kill me?”

“Yes.” No, you misunderstand. But could he say that aloud? Carlotta’s hand clenched around his lungs again, compressed his thoughts into one: kill.

“Maria, go. GO.”

He roared the command and lunged at her again. Maria gathered her skirts and quickly outpaced him. She was not laboring under a curse. She was well and quick and would, please God, understand his meaning.

She fled the room, leaving a wake of rattled silence. Heath took up the cup of expensive liquor again and sipped it, regaining his composure. He could breathe a little easier with Maria out of his presence.

Some thirty minutes later, when the queen entered, Heath rose and answered truthfully that he had not seen Maria in the last half hour. Where had she gone? He was not certain, but Bucharesti might not be the worst place to look.

The queen stepped toward him, then hesitated. Peals of fractured, colored light washed over her Madonna’s face from the stained glass windows high behind Heath. She rested a slender hand on the satin finish of her beloved piano. Detached as he made himself from this moment, Heath nevertheless noticed how that hand trembled, how the arm supported her whole, pleading body.

“The gypsy is in you,” she accused. “I cannot tell how, but I sense it.”

“Yes.” Answering ‘yes’ was not forbidden.

Dangerous mother-light filled her eyes. “You will not harm the princess.”

Heath did not answer.

“You love her.” The queen darted out of the tempered rainbow-shadows and gripped Heath’s arm convulsively. “Whatever you do, whatever you need to do, keep her safe.”

As much as Heath wanted to, he could not promise. Carlotta forbade that with another golden crushing of his chest. But promise in word and promise in purpose were two different beasts. Saying nothing, he kissed the queen’s hand and sent a prayer for time heavenward.

“Your Majesty, have you a horse you might lend?”

Hours along her way to the church at Cotroceni, Maria sat in the hired carriage, fuming. She would not think or wish or do anything except ride to the church and try to find a way back into the grave.

Heath had tried to kill her.

Heath had tried to kill her.

Nope, she wasn’t thinking about that. Maria clamped her folded hands in her lap as the royal carriage jolted along the lengthy road to Bucharesti. Somewhere in her grave lay The Spindle. If the place was real and not just a temporary holding room for the magic that had transported her from modernity to history, Maria knew she could find it again. Just squeeze back down into that terrifying hole and grab the thing. And if I find it, I can read the spell and get back to normal.

Even to Maria, it seemed a paling hope. What did she know of magic? How would she make the magic? And why did she want to? All she loved remained in this world where she had a place and a purpose. And now the man she loved pursued her with the intent to murder.

When the carriage dropped her off at the proper point, Maria inhaled deeply of the city air. It was a mistake, of course, for the city at this time did not smell of patisseries. There were no knots of young men in nice clothes waiting at the bus stop with bouquets of red roses or perfumeries wafting scents into the streets.

Urine. Horses. Steam. Coal.

Maria pressed the back of her hand to her nose, pulled her skirt away from the mud and, giving a backward glance to be sure that even now Heath wasn’t after her, entered the church.

A different priest than before staggered to his feet from the altar at the sound of her entrance, brows knit disapprovingly. He spoke some reproof but Maria had no time for this. She put up an imperious hand, summoning from her core all the authority she might have had as a regent, and swept up the center aisle. For a space, she was unsure which grave had been hers, and then she saw a scar of new mortar in the slates of the floor.

She stomped on the grave marker with her foot. It lay somberly sturdy in its place. No give. Not even the littlest. The priest frowned at her and Maria smiled.

“Vorbesti Engleza?” she asked.

“…Nu.”

So he didn’t speak English. No matter. “I am going to ask you to leave now. I want a bit of privacy for the confessions I intend to make.” Maria knelt beside the grave and waved him away.

It was obvious to Maria that the man did not trust her, yet she could not allow him to stand spectator-like as she chopped open a grave. Things like that were simply not done. Even in modern day America.

With a sound that could have been a sigh or even a half stifled moan, the priest bowed and departed. Maria cast about for something she could use as a hammer. Along the left wall clung a ceramic wood stove and beside it tools for keeping a fire. She waited until the priest had exited the sanctum, then grabbed the poker, hurried back to the grave, and, hesitating only a moment, bashed the slate.

Such a terrible racket! She might have been Death’s bells for how ghostly her blows sounded, shivering into the vaulted ceiling, battering her with soulless echoes. Sparks flew off the flagstone with each blow. Maria’s arms soon grew weary of hitting, but the stone still seemed immovable. Surely it was not as strong as all this, having been broken once?

Slam.

Clang.

Slam.

Clang.

She paused, gulping for air, unused to the corsets preventing a real breath.

Slam.

Clang.

Slam.

Clang.

The slate shingled into pieces and Maria, in dimness of reality, was aware of the priest’s head poking back through the arched cathedral doors, looking concerned. She lowered herself into the black maw of the grave and slipped down again into the dusty, spider-laden room between the ages. There lay The Spindle, castaway alongside her tablet in a nest of dead leaves and daddy-long-legs. Maria bent to pick it up. Such an innocent, pretty book it had seemed when she first saw it. She knew the book now for what it was: a blood summoner. A love breaker.

She knelt on the floor, skirts billowing, and flipped with frantic hands through the pages until she came to a page marked well with illustrations of the gypsy and a child. Black, scar-like text reared against the bone-white page and these words Maria began to sound out in a whisper. She drew a trembling finger against the page. Paper rattled as fear convulsed her body and she formed the spell with her words.

“Maria!”

Maria whipped about as a brawny arm grabbed around her waist. It pulled her backward into a muscled grip while another wrenched the book from her and threw it across the bricked floor of the hidden passage. It shrieked as it went, scattering sparks. Or perhaps it was her voice that made the sound. Maria jabbed her elbow backward and scrambled free of the grasp just long enough to see that it was Heath who had dropped after her into the passage.

“Stop it!” she yelled.

Heath grabbed for her again. Maria tried to kick him but her stupid, trundling dress made it futile. He held her tight against his body. Something cold and metal tipped against the soft flesh of her throat.

Oh, God, Heath’s killing me. She squinted her eyes shut and stopped struggling. God, God, God.

“You’re not going back, I’m killing you.” Heath growled. His chin dug into her scalp.

“You’re hurting me!”

“I’m sorry, Maria. She…” His chest convulsed against her back. Even through of the tremor of her own heart, Maria felt his.

“This isn’t your choice, is it?” she hissed.

“I’m not allowed to choose.”

The blade nipped at her skin. She felt her flesh flying apart. A droplet coursed down her throat. It was a tear. No, blood. “Okay, Heath. Heath.” She grabbed his hands with her own. Nearly frozen, they were so cold.

“You don’t have to do this.”

“I can’t choose.”

“You [_can _]choose! You like me, don’t you?”

“Maria, of all the—”

“Hush. I’m going to ask you one final question, okay? And it’s not ladylike of me, but I don’t care.” She swallowed the lump in her throat and felt the sting of her wound. “It’s the most important question you’re ever going to answer, Heath, so give me a [_real _]answer. Give me the truth.” Their pulses had matched at some point in the last moments. She felt his heartbeat through and with her own. He shared her terror.

“Okay, Heath.” Her vision blurred as more blood spilled into her collar. “I’m terrified. But I guess… just… do you love me?”

His right hand shook. His left, wrapped around the knife, strained. “I do.”

“And God knows I love you.”

He moaned and buried his face against the back of her head. Was he weeping? His hands shook now like castanets. His knife beat against her throat, marking it with tiny, tiny slits. She stood very still, barely hanging onto consciousness.

“I love you,” Maria whimpered. “I just need you to know that before… okay? I love you. So much.”

Her legs buckled and as Maria’s consciousness vanished, she felt Heath catch her. He lowered her onto the pavement. Merciful blackness covered the pain. The golden hum that had lured her into the bookcase seized her body and shook her violently. She had no control over the convulsions or the tears or the sobs wracking her body. She saw him, as through a mist, reach for The Spindle and take back up the page she had marked. Then something at once soft and searching and possessive touched her lips. The merciful blackness threshed out the gold.

She stilled.

Hush now, my princess, she thought someone said. I love you, sweet girl. I can choose.

Maria, weary with living and filled with the favorite voice, let herself sleep.

VI.

Epilogue

Later, Maria awakened. How much later, she could not say. Had she slept a hundred years or did she awake in an instant? She did not know, but she lay against Heath’s still-warm body, curled up on the wooden floor of the library in Peles Castle.

He was dead, and Maria knew this. For though the spoken truth of love is stronger than magic and the kiss of such a love stronger than death, Heath had saved her at a cost. He had finished the spell and witched them here, and spent his life for her sake.

“Heath. Heath, wake up. Please wake up.” But Maria did not shake him. To disrupt him as he slept there, with a faint smile on his pale features, seemed wrong. She laid her head on his chest and worked her fingers into his. This corpse was not Heath. Not the Heath she knew. Unable to laugh, to smile, to ruffle her hair. Not the essence of the man she loved. That part had fled someplace holier than she was able follow herself, yet.

“I love you, darling,” she whispered, and passed her fingers over his dear face.

“He is dead, you know,” a constricted, triumphant voice purred.

Maria jumped and raised her head. Carlotta—the tour guide—pushed away from the library window and sauntered toward Maria. The gypsy wore khakis and a dark red shirt and smiled a python’s smile at Maria.

“You did this to him,” Maria growled.

“Of course.”

Carlotta—now the thing came clear to Maria—had poisoned his heart, the home of that great, pulsing love, with her golden magic and killed him. Maria clung harder to Heath’s hand and enormous, feverish tears spilled over her cheeks.

“You pitiful child,” Carlotta hissed. “You whimpering, weak, disgusting child. You thought love would win. Love will never win. Love is a lie.”

Maria kissed Heath’s hands, his lips, his forehead. She struggled to her feet. Her throat, still bleeding from the dozens of small cuts, ached.

“You never had the chance to know,” Maria spat. “Love? What have you ever known of it? You are nothing but rage and jealousy and selfishness. You are nothing but pain and throbbing darkness. That is the essence of you, witch.”

With a savage cry, Carlotta darted toward Maria and grabbed her by the throat. And as she did so, an ordinary modern interruption occurred: an interruption which, like some inconveniences may, saved Maria’s life; a tour group crossed into the library just as Carlotta laid hands on Maria: a portly assembly of British men and women, a shocked Romanian group-leader. He stared for a minute at Carlotta.

“Nelu!” she laughed hysterically, coming off Maria and hiding her hands.

“What is it you are doing, Carlotta?” His disbelieving brown eyes roamed from Maria to Carlotta, to the body lying in the center of the rug.

“It is not what you think, Nelu.”

“It is looking exactly like what I am thinking.” Nelu stepped forward and grabbed Carlotta’s upper arm. “If you are excusing me, ladies and gentlemens, we will be leaving you.”

Maria managed to live. Her heart, fed by Heath’s extraordinary love, could not lose courage. She hated herself sometimes for the ability to go on, when all she wanted was to return to that world-between-worlds when there had been nothing but warm blackness and Heath’s voice running through.

Sometimes when she thought no one was watching, at night or under her umbrella on a rainy street, or in the back of a taxi cab, Maria let herself weep. And when she wept, her mind played over and over one particular memory of Heath.

What might have been is tantalizing.” His grip tightened on her fingers. “[But what _]is[_… what you have and what you’ve lived and the life you’ve _]made[. That’s reality.”_]

What might have been was tantalizing. What could have happened had she and Heath remained in the world of her birthright? Maybe he would be living. Maybe they would be married with a child of their own. Maybe—then Maria would breathe in the memory and breathe out the grief.

And if she could stand to do so, if she was home and the memory of Heath did not hurt as it sometimes did, Maria would walk to her bookshelf and take down from a secret place The Spindle. Thirty-three pages in, pockmarked by her own tears and the tears of how many other souls who had known love and separation, lived the page. The page of a communication spell. And if she felt especially alone and especially brave in that lonesomeness, Maria would recite the spell she knew well enough to need no reading light, and send a message to her mother and father. She fancied they received the messages and were comforted by them and that, though they could not respond for lack of a spell book, they thrived. Together. For perhaps, in time, love had bloomed again between them, stronger than any living death. That was, at any rate, what the history books suggested.

So, long after the murder at Peles had been forgotten by most, Maria Wied taught herself to smile again. And with every smile, an emboldening thought built her courage, stone upon stone, a palace for their love:

I love you, sweet boy. I can choose.

Historical Note

King Carol I of Romania (rule: 15th March, 1881 – 10 October, 1914) and his wife, the Princess Elisabeth of Wied are real figures of Romanian history: a royal couple infamously mismatched in temperament and habit. Twice I have had the thrilling experience of visiting Peles Castle, their summer palace. Both times I found myself fascinated by this soldierly king and his dreamy, artistically-inclined wife. Who were they in their private lives, and what made them so? Originally I wanted to set a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” at Peles, but as I began to research this mysterious, estranged couple, a different and clearer path emerged: a refashioning of the classic fairytale, “The Sleeping Beauty.”

For the Princess Maria of Romania was a real person. King Carol and Queen Elisabeth’s only child, Maria was born in September of 1870. By all accounts a beautiful and precocious child, Maria died in April, 1874 at the age of three from scarlet fever. A sad but common enough tale for Victorian children. Nothing strange here—until I began to read about the princess’s burial. By the queen’s request, the princess was buried in an adult size coffin. The little princess’s body was enclosed in several other caskets of decreasing size. Over her tombstone the queen had engraved the verse from Luke 8:53:

“Weep not, for she is not dead, but sleepeth.”

Did the queen accept her death or was she obsessed with keeping her—almost alive? Detail after detail built for me no escape: I had to retell Maria’s story in a way which made the most of these historic facts which seemed to come together so perfectly for me. I confess to growing attached to the king and queen over the course of writing this story. Never well-suited to each other, the princess’s death drove the couple farther apart:

“Elizabeth’s nerves are so shaken that the greatest care is necessary. I must confess to you that I am often anxious myself, and am much depressed by pain, sorrow, and apprehension. I get but very little sleep at night, and have repeatedly heard my poor Elizabeth cry out in her dreams: ‘Dead, dead!’. This cry of pain is each time a fresh stab in my wounded heart.”

Carol 5th May 1874 in a letter to his father, Prince Karl Anton of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen

Despite the gap between their affections, Carol and Elisabeth did love one another and by the time of the king’s death in 1914, had reconciled and become good friends and companions. This couple and the sad fate of their daughter deeply affected me as I wrote this story. The pleasant part of fictionalizing an account of history is the fact that you can sometimes try to heal those wounds with more speed.

I have obviously taken liberties with this portion of Romanian history. Maria’s cousin Ferdinand and the Lady Elena are historical figures but Carlotta, Ioan, Cristian, and Heath are characters drawn up for the sake of a good story. The beautiful Romani people have a long and complex history and I trust I do not offend anyone by casting the most powerful character in this story as one of them. Carlotta is, perhaps, the most intricate and compelling character in the cast of [_She But Sleepeth. _]As an aside, the descriptions of her home are based off an evening I spent with a generous Romani couple, when my friends and I were welcomed with the finest brand of hospitality into their mansion to share supper.

Romania is a staggeringly beautiful nation with a history at times tumultuous and noble. I know I have done an inadequate job of translating that beauty and turbulence into story form, but I hope I have at least planted within my readers a seed of affection for a country which has become so dear to me as to feel like a second home. Peles Castle and its inhabitants have taught me much: to love deeply, to speak clearly, and to never release hope. May you, too, take these things to heart and may your wandering footsteps one day bring you to Sinaia yourself. Then you, too, can be lost in the grandeur which is Peles Castle.

-R.H.

About Rachel Heffington

Rachel Heffington lives in the dazzling state of Virginia where she enjoys a wide array of pursuits apart from her writing. Among her favorite activities are traveling, recipe development, food blogging, watercolor painting, and building a local creative community. She is a hybrid author, having previously independently published two novels, freelanced for a magazine, and had a fairytale novella published by Rooglewood Press in the Five Glass Slippers anthology.

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Other fairytales by Rachel Heffington

The Windy Side of Care (in Five Glass Slippers)

Alisandra is determined to have her rights. She knows that she is the king’s secretly dispossessed daughter, the true heir to the throne. Prince Auguste is an imposter, and if she plays her cards right, Alis will prove it to the world! That is, if charming Auguste doesn’t succeed in winning her heart before she gets her chance…

Rumpled

J. Grace Pennington

I.

Once Upon a Time…

If her father hadn’t gone out at that particular moment on that particular day to unload that particular load of grain, Amanda might have remained nothing more than “the miller’s daughter” to the end of her days. He wasn’t in the habit of being prompt to unload shipments. If anything he usually put it off as long as possible, which usually wasn’t until the gears ground to a stop and the motorized monotone told him the mill was empty.

That particular day was an exception. Amanda remembered ever after the moment when her father stopped gazing at the array of gears and belts, wiped the steam-flour paste from his forehead, and headed out the door to bring in more wheat.

She just kept on cranking the generator, not bothering to smear the paste from her own skin.

“Fifty. Seven. Percent. Power. Generated.” The AI didn’t know how to string words together to properly form a sentence, so it just said one word at a time. Amanda could practically hear the period between each one.

Fifty-seven percent. It would take about fifteen minutes to get to a hundred, then she could take a break. Her arms would welcome the respite. It would give her time to work on her new dress. A few stitches here and there. Trying not to cover the relative finery in flour dust. She probably wouldn’t be able to finish the dress fully for another few weeks, but there was no rush. And it would be worth it. She needed something better than calico frocks to go with her mother’s necklace. She smiled at the cold of the pearls against her chest. A new dress would allow her to wear it outside her clothes instead of under them, if nowhere else than to the town socials held every other Saturday evening.

Why wasn’t he back with a bag of wheat by now? He’d had plenty of time to go out, hoist one onto his shoulder, tug it back in, and dump it into the mill. There were only a few hours left of daylight, and they were still shy a few pounds of their quota.

Maybe he’d gotten distracted. She sighed.

“Sixty. Eight. Percent. Power. Generated.”

“I know,” she called over the clanking of the mill. She had gotten good at calculating the correlation between a turn of the crank and the percentage of power.

Her father popped his head back in. “Mandy, come out for a moment.”

She could barely hear his voice over the din, but she read his lips.

“I’m not finished,” she mouthed back.

“Come anyway. I want you to meet someone.”

She groaned. Not again.

There were two possibilities. Either this was yet another disinterested young man her father was intent on convincing of the beauty of a dusty, sweaty, poor miller’s daughter, or it was some businessman from the big city or a neighboring state or federation he thought might be the one who would finally employ her somewhere far away from the the mill, and the field, and the small town.

How many non-suitors and non-employers did her father have to waylay before he realized the truth and accepted it, like she had?

Prying her fingers from the generator, she trudged out the door of the mill, praying her face didn’t look as grimy as it felt.

“Eighty. Two. Percent. Power. Generated,” the voice called after her.

The sunlight assaulted her eyes and she squinted. Which, of course, would make her look even more attractive and intelligent. Again, it didn’t matter, she chided herself. Likely her father’s new conquest was only some poor neighboring farmer, and on the off chance that he saw whatever beauty her father so blatantly bragged about, she would merely be trading a life of running mill generators for one of managing the latest irrigation technology. Excellent.

Her eyes became accustomed to the sun as she walked and she blinked towards the road, trying to stem the rising tide of curiosity beneath her bodice.

She saw the horse’s chestnut legs first and knew this was no poor farmer. Those were the shining, chiseled legs of a finely-cared-for thoroughbred, not some nag who weathered storms, pulled a plow, and rolled about in the mud.

It wasn’t the only horse, either. There was a whole forest of horse legs behind it, all equally fine and well-bred. As her gaze traveled up the horse’s body to its rider, her face flushed under the flour paste.

She recognized him from the newspaper. He was certainly in it often enough, between gossip of his exploits with the most eligible heiresses in his state, to the news surrounding his oh-so-surprising election after his father’s death, to speculation regarding the cessation of his once generous donations to the advancement of technology. High-functioning AI was his passion, the columnists always claimed. Not that she ever read or cared about such things.

In his hand was one of their course, chipped cups. Filled with water, no doubt. It was miles from their mill to anywhere else, and this man, like any mortal, must become thirsty at some point.

She had been staring too long. Flushing, she averted her eyes and tuned her father’s prattling back in.

“…a hard worker, bless her heart. She’s a good girl. Makes her father proud, she does. I promise you, your honor, you’ve never seen talent like hers.”

Amanda tilted her head back up towards the governor and found him peering at her with polite disinterest. The poor man no doubt had grand affairs to attend to. He had no time to sit astride his horse in the middle of a poor miller’s land on a hot summer day in those beautifully rich clothes surrounded by servants to hear her father go on about how talented she was. Amanda had her share of skill when it came to artificial intelligence and mechanics, that was true enough. More than probably any other girl for five-score miles. But it was rudimentary skill. She could work the mill generator and make tweaks here and there to its AI here and there; nothing that would be of any interest to someone like Governor Byron Weaver.

But her father never would see it that way. He didn’t know that the kind of work she did was nothing like the kind of work that someone with dreams as big and as wide as this man’s would need. He only wanted a life for her away from mills and endless summer days grinding wheat until they finally could rest before beginning another day.

Bless his heart.

She sighed, and interjected. “Your honor, allow me to apologize for the interruption of your ride. Do make the most of the rest of your day.”

The governor tipped his silk cap to her then addressed himself to her father. “I thank you for the opportunity to meet your daughter, sir. I wish I could help you, but I’m afraid that New England is tightening restrictions on workers from out of state. It would be impossible to employ her in any capacity.” He drained the dregs from the chipped cup and handed it back to her father. “I thank you for the refreshment. Can I pay you for your trouble?”

She cut in before her father could reply in the affirmative. “No need. It’s our honor to serve you, sir.”

Governor Weaver tipped his cap to her with a smile. “I am grateful. Now if you will excuse me, we must return before nightfall…”

“One more thing,” her father cut in, her poor, stupid, well-meaning father. “Did I mention just how talented she is?”

“As you say, I am sure she is overflowing with talent, sir. Now I bid you…”

“She can take the most worthless bits of junk and create high-functioning AI machines worthy of any technician’s jealousy.”

The governor stopped his courteous dismissal and a spark of interest lit in his eyes.

That was the moment that Amanda should have spoken up and denied this absurd affirmation. She could barely fashion the most basic programming for the mill. She knew nothing of more complex creations or how to make anything that would meet even the barest qualifications of “high-functioning.” Programs she created could follow a single or perhaps double protocol, but they could not learn, and they certainly couldn’t understand how to perform more than twenty different tasks. This was a field that, from what she could discern from the papers, was barely being touched by the most advanced inventors.

So it was absurd to think that a poor, uneducated miller’s daughter could succeed where the best minds had failed.

This most likely was the reason she didn’t speak up. Regardless, she kept silent.

“I say,” the governor remarked. “That is intriguing. Do you have anything you could show me?”

She opened her mouth to speak, but her father cut in. “I wish so, your honor, but the small things she has had time to make have been sold.”

That statement, isolated, was not untrue. She had made some small machines, mainly programs to help run generators, like the one they used for the mill. But they were not even close to high-functioning.

Her father probably just didn’t know what high-functioning meant.

The governor sighed before she could figure out the most gracious way to deny the claim. “If this is true… if it were up to me I would employ her on the spot. But as I said, New England has laws against employing anyone outside the state. I can’t afford to run afoul of the labor unions right now. Not while everyone knows I want more automation in the workplace.” He pulled a silk handkerchief from his pocket and drew it across his forehead. Then his eyes met hers. They were brown eyes, she could see even from the distance of her spot on the ground to his place on the horse. “I am truly sorry. Perhaps I can find some other way to advance your career.”

Her heart sank most illogically. “Understandable, your honor. Thank you for your time.”

The man tipped his hat to them each in turn. “Good day. And best wishes.”

Then the forest of horse legs began to move, and the party shuffled away into the forest of trees.

Amanda watched after them until they had vanished, then she turned to her father, opting in the moment not to address his lies or misconceptions, whichever they were. He had good intentions. No harm had come of his bragging.

“Come on, papa. Let’s finish up.”

He turned and followed her into the mill, which was grinding air in their absence.

“Fifty. Two. Percent. Power. Generated,” greeted the voice as she walked in.

She breathed, and took her place at the crank again.

Amanda could barely remember the war. Perhaps she could not remember it at all. Sometimes, when she slept, she had a dream of being very small and hiding under the table while soldiers stormed the house demanding provisions. These were the New England soldiers, and her parents always gave them what they needed. Usually her father would go, shaking, to the pantry to retrieve anything they could spare, and her mother would crawl under the table to hold her close.

Or perhaps it was only a dream, built from faint memories of her mother and stories she’d heard of raids on neighboring farms.

Three nights after the governor’s visit, she had the dream and woke up suddenly, heart pounding. Fingers shaking, she touched the pearls underneath her cotton nightgown and ran her fingers along the bumpy, cold surface.

She was an adult. The war was over. Her mother was dead. What had once been the United States had become New England, the Confederation, the States of Virginia, and the New Union. They even all cooperated fairly decently, despite widely differing views on technology, industrialization, and human alterations.

She sat up in bed and swung her legs over the side, then wrapped her mother’s old dressing gown around her. It always felt like a threadbare hug, and she still imagined it held her mother’s lingering scent, though of course that had long since ceased to be true.

She snuck downstairs to the mill. It too seemed dead; dark and motionless in the scant moonlight that filtered through the stone-framed windows.

The generator lights blinked green, showing a minimal percentage of power still conserved.

There had to be some way to improve the ratio of cranking to power generation. There had to be some way to train the AI to use power more efficiently than it did.

Even if there wasn’t, it would take her mind off the war, and her mother, and all the missed opportunities.

She turned the AI on, set it to silent so as not to awaken her father in the next room, rolled up her sleeves, and delved into the program.

Maybe if she had been born in New England, it would have been different. There, any talent she had would have had the ability to be truly cultivated. But the States frowned on automation, especially when it came to removing jobs from needy workers. And when an issue had been big enough to tear a country apart in war, people tended to be a little sensitive about it.

So Amanda had to be satisfied with what little work she could apply to the mill itself.

Not that New England was free of prejudice. Sure, altered humans might not be entirely embraced in the States, but in New England they could barely even live. Not allowed to get an education, get a job, patronize public places, marry, or even adopt children.

How backwards.

Amanda wrinkled her nose. She’d much rather be a part of a state that tolerated people who had to accept mechanical alterations than one that allowed further technological advances.

Or so she told herself.

The work kept at least a large chunk of her mind anchored, keeping her from following a thousand lines of thought at once. This calmed her to the point that when her father shook her awake in the early morning light, she didn’t even remember drifting off to sleep with her back against the generator.

She blinked up at him.

“Rise and shine, Mandy,” her father said.

She shuffled to her feet and said something that was meant to be “I’ll go get dressed” but came out garbled.

Half an hour later, she was washed and dressed and ready to begin the grind again. Grind. She chuckled to herself but didn’t bother to say it aloud.

Thus began another day.

The sun shone high in the sky before Amanda felt, rather than saw, a shadow cast over the mill’s floor. She looked up, expecting to have to explain to a customer why his flour was not quite ready.

Instead, her eyes met Governor Weaver’s handsome brown ones.

She jerked her hands from the crank as though it burned her.

He mouthed, “Can we talk?”

II.

Be Our Guest

Life took unexpected turns sometimes. Not often. At least, not for Amanda. Most of her life had been fairly predictable. There were two exceptions. Her mother’s death of consumption when she was six, and being taken by the governor of New England to be his wife.

Conditionally, of course.

She blinked in the sunset light that streamed through the stone windows.

That morning, she had awakened in her own bed in her little room above the mill. By evening, she had been whisked away to the capitol of the neighboring state and locked away in a barren room with piles and piles of junk.

All because her father either was anxious to be rid of her, or he truly was as stupid as he sometimes looked.

She squeezed her eyes shut. That wasn’t fair. Her father wasn’t stupid exactly. He was merely ignorant. It couldn’t be helped. He always had been.

After that initial surprise, she and her father had seated Governor Weaver at their table in the dining room behind the mill and listened while he talked.

“I think I may have found a way,” he’d told them. “I can’t hire someone from another state, I really can’t in the current political climate. But…” here he looked a little bit uncomfortable, “if I were to marry this person… they would be a citizen of New England, and that would be much more acceptable.”

Amanda had only stared.

Her father, bless his heart, instead of telling the governor he was raving mad, asked for more information.

“I know emigration seems simpler,” the governor said, answering her question before she asked it, “but the current process takes months or years, and I think it would be viewed with suspicion. But a marriage…” He shrugged. “No one dares inquire into matters… of the heart.”

He really was mad. Handsome, but mad.

“When would you be ready to take her?” her father asked, but Amanda pressed a hand on his arm. She probably pressed a little too hard.

“Papa, may I speak with you alone for a moment?”

“Excuse us,” her father said, and they exited to the mill. Amanda closed the door behind them.

“Papa,” she said, close to his ear to be heard over the grinding of the mill, “I don’t know how to make high-functioning AI. Besides, I’m not going to marry a stranger.”

He whispered back, his whiskers tickling her ear. “But Mandy dear, I know you can do it. You’re the smartest girl this side of the Potomac.”

Flattering. And quite possibly true. But, “I really can’t.”

“Have you ever tried?”

“Well, no, but…”

“Then you don’t know that!” He nodded sagely at her.

She sighed. “Papa… even if that were true, I’m not going to marry someone just to be able to work on technology.” What was he thinking? She would just go live in this handsome man’s lavish house and do whatever she pleased whenever she pleased and contribute to the advance of technology in ways she’d only dreamed of?

Not that it sounded entirely miserable.

“You wouldn’t really be marrying him,” her father said. “Didn’t he make plain it was just a formality? So you can work for him.”

“But Papa, then I won’t be able to marry anyone else.”

“I know, but… what better is there for you?”

The words dropped her heart straight to the floor. What better was there for her, anyhow?

Would getting away from the mill be so bad?

She frowned and shook the thoughts away. She was as mad as the two of them. “No, Papa. I told you, I don’t know how to do it.”

She hated the disappointment in his eyes. “It’s up to you, Mandy. You know you’re always welcome here.”

Those words didn’t bring her heart back to her chest, where it belonged.

She went back into the room where the governor sat drinking the tea she’d made.

He turned as she entered and flashed a charming smile. “Well?”

This was when she should politely decline.

Curse those eyes. She had gotten lost in the flutter of her heart for just long enough. After all, her father was right. She’d seen images of Governor Weaver’s home in the papers. She knew the nearly royal lifestyle he lived. But she never expected him to look at her with such a depth of interest in those eyes. She had never expected him to look at her at all.

What better would there be, anyway?

“I’ll do it,” she said, throwing the words at him before she could stuff them down again.

Thus she sat on the edge of a plain bed in a spacious stone room, staring at a hundred thousand scraps of metal. They had given her tools before they locked her there. A welder. Pliers. Things she would have known how to use if she were just repairing some of the mill’s mechanism, but nothing that gave her even the slightest bit of direction when it came to building even the most basic AI machine.

She hadn’t allowed herself to think when he’d literally swept her off her feet and onto his horse. And she had continued not thinking when she’d waved goodbye until her father faded, and then the mill itself became a speck in the fields.

She was mad. Stark, raving mad.

She had to breathe. Later, if indeed she could do nothing close to what he needed, she could say that she had been mistaken. That she hadn’t understood what was meant by high-functioning AI. That she was only a stupid miller girl who didn’t know any better.

This was just a ride. A ride to the palace. At any moment, she could make it end.

There was no binding contract, whether auditory or written. When her father had suggested they record the agreement, the governor had shaken his head.

“No,” he said. “If this is to work, the true nature of the union must remain between us. But I am a man of my word. I will give your daughter the opportunity to show me her skills, and if it’s anywhere near what you have said, I will legally marry her.”

All in all, she was grateful for the secrecy. It freed her from the possibility of prosecution when she failed. Or admitted the truth.

But with every passing moment, it grew harder to speak up. Small talk with Governor Weaver was easy. The ride was delightful. And when they approached the palace—she wanted to see the inside so badly. Surely she could wait just a little longer before correcting the mistake.

Her heart fluttered all over again when he helped her off her horse. He talked pleasantly with her as he led her in on his arm—and her breath had been whisked away the instant she stepped inside. The mansion was so huge and beautiful and clean. It was so bright. The art on the walls was like nothing she’d ever seen outside a newspaper. The servants’ clothes were so much cleaner and more beautiful than anything she owned.

While she was still busy being dazzled, he had called a maid to him and asked that she be taken to one of the rooms and bathed and put into clean clothes. She should have told him then. She should have explained. But—she had heard that they had machines that could produce hot water at the touch of a button. She wanted to wear something truly nice, just this once. Then she would explain.

A hot bath and a beautiful green silk gown later, she was escorted back to him. He gave her his arm and walked her downstairs to a simple wooden door.

“Thank you for agreeing to help me,” he smiled at her. “I… I am not a rich man, despite appearances. No doubt you have seen the speculations in the paper. None of my investments in AI invention have yielded a return, and there’s one corporation in particular that seems determined to run me into bankruptcy. But I would love to one day see every business in the state incorporate automation into their workflow.”

His eyes took on a dreamy quality when he spoke of it.

“Imagine that,” he went on. “Think what we could do, and what we would no longer have to do. Think what more humanity could focus on, if we fashioned metal men to do what they can, so we only had to do what they cannot.”

This was it. The place to correct herself, to feign misunderstanding.

Instead, she put the final nail in her coffin. “I shall do my best, your honor.”

He signed the undocumented contract with his smile. “Call me Byron.”

Her statement hadn’t been a lie. Her best might be barely anything, but that was exactly what she would do.

“Take all the time you need,” he’d told her. “I’ll come check on you in the morning.”

Thus, she sat on a simple bed in a barren room surrounded by nearly useless things.

She might be able to create another generator, similar to the mill’s.

Might.

But she could as soon form straw into gold as create AI out of anything at all—much less bits of junk just barely saved from the furnace.

She put her head in her hands and started to cry.

Best case scenario was that the governor would come in the morning, see how useless she was, and send her away. It would be difficult to go back to the grind of everyday life after seeing such finery and hoping for such opportunity, but that was the outcome she prayed for.

Even if there were no formal contract, he was the governor of all New England.

No doubt he had his ways of making his opponents suffer.

She picked up the smallest pair of pliers and turned it over in her hands.

Nothing. It was too late to do anything to avert her fate. Even if she could somehow get out the window, and it looked too small, the governor knew where she lived. It probably looked far worse to run away than to stay and face up to her dishonesty. At least in a face-to-face encounter, she could beg for mercy.

She put down the pliers and cried again.

As the sunlight dimmed, electric lights flickered on above her, illuminating the space in an orange tint that caused the heaps of junk to cast faint shadows. Maybe she should just try to sleep.

She heaved a deep sigh and started to lie down.

A cranking from across the room caused her to jerk back to a sitting position, heart racing. At first she couldn’t determine the source of the sound, but once her gaze had darted around the room for a moment, she saw a small portion of the wooden floor lifting up as if on hinges.

A trap door.

She pulled her feet up off the floor and hugged her knees to her chest as a hand pushed open the door. A head poked up into the dim light and she gasped.

The head was bald, except for a fringe of dark gray hair around the edges. It was smudged with grime, and when the body followed the head out into the room, she saw that the man was the size of a child, but disproportionate. His head and torso seemed mostly the right sizes, but his legs were so short he had trouble stepping up out of the hole. His clothes were rough and plain and wrinkled so thoroughly she doubted they had ever been otherwise.

But none of those things were what horrified her. No, what caused her heart to pound was the man’s right eye.

Metal and glass covered the eye and a few inches beyond it, and wires protruded from the back of his head somewhere to connect to the device, which shone a mild red light where the eye itself should have been.

The red blinked off and on in concurrence with the blink of the other eye as she stared.

III.

For the First Time in Forever

She’d never seen one up close. How could an altered human get into the governor’s palace, of all places? She was pretty sure they weren’t even supposed to be in town, really. Not here. And not many other New England cities, either.

And here she’d thought that she, as a Virginian, was above such prejudices. Now, however, she wasn’t sure which of the day’s happenings she was more ashamed of—agreeing to go along with her father’s risky charade, or the fear that gripped her heart at the sight of a man enhanced with wire and metal.

The red eye continued to watch her as the thoughts zipped through her brain.

“Y-you shouldn’t be here,” was all she could stammer, pressured by the silent, blinking eye.

“Should you?” he replied. His voice was hoarse, but steady.

Her conscience kept her silent in reply.

He just stood looking at her for a moment, then walked over, navigating the piles of junk around the room without looking at them, and approached her. She just stared, heart still pounding.

Then he reached out and laid a hand gently on her arm. It felt just like any other hand, warm and calloused.

“Why are you crying?”

She still half expected some hint of automation in his voice, some alteration. But there was nothing but plain, simple humanity.

She hesitated.

He pulled his hand away and just kept looking at her, waiting.

“It’s just such a mess,” she finally sobbed, and she told him the whole story. Who she was, what her father had done, how she had gone along with it, how by morning the truth would be out. She was a fraud, and would be sent back home, back to the work and cotton-dress socials, and the endless dust of flour over everything.

When she finished speaking, he again just looked at her for a moment. Then he asked the last question she had expected.

“Do you want to stay?”

She focused on his one human eye. It was shadowed in the electric light, and she couldn’t tell what color it was.

“Of course,” she answered at last. “This is the most wonderful place I’ve ever seen.” She looked down at the green silk gown she wore, now moist with tear-spots. “There’s so much I could do and make and learn… and I feel like I was born to be here… but… I know I don’t belong.”

Another moment of silence. Then, “What will you give me if I do it for you?”

She jerked her head up. “Do… you mean make the AI? But how? This is all useless.” She gestured to the heaps that surrounded them.

“That’s not an answer to my question.” His voice remained calm.

What could she give him? She had nothing. Nothing but the clothes she wore, which didn’t even truly belong to her.

Except—

“I have a pearl necklace,” she faltered, pulling the strand from underneath her bodice and fingering it. “It was my mother’s.”

He reached for it with grimy, slightly disproportionately short fingers, then hesitated. “May I?”

She nodded, and he touched one of the pearls.

“I can make one model in exchange.”

She blinked. “I’m not sure you understand. He wants high-functioning AI. Out of junk. Before morning.”

“Yes. I will do that for the necklace.”

She looked down at the pearls, and then focused beyond them at the green silk dress.

Then she nodded and reached around to undo the clasp. She pulled it off her neck and held it in her hand a moment.

He held his hand out in expectation.

She tightened her fingers around it briefly, then put it in his hand. He took it, put it in his pocket, and turned to pick up the tools.

“What’s your name?” she blurted out.

He picked up some metal cutters. “Just call me Rumpled. Now get some sleep.”

Exhausted, she curled up on the bed and watched as he approached one of the junk piles with purpose, and picked up a piece. Then she fell asleep to the sounds of gentle cutting, welding, and clicking in the silence of the palace.

She awoke to the warmth of sunlight on her cheek. It took a sleep-addled few moments for her to remember that she was not in her own bed in her little room above the mill. No, she was in the governor’s palace.

The little altered man.

She flew up in bed and looked around the room.

There was no sign of life. At least, not human life. Instead, a multi-colored metallic face stared vacantly at her, unmoving.

She stared at it. It was a whole metal person, an elaborate array of gears and wires and metal plates, sturdy and mismatched, yet somehow elegant.

Another glance around the room affirmed that the little man was gone and she swung her legs over the side of the bed and onto the floor, then pushed herself up.

The room was so silent.

Cautiously, she approached the machine. Panic began to build in her chest. This ornate device was nothing like the basic AI she’d worked with back home. What if the governor had questions? What if he asked her how it worked? What if he wanted specifics as to how she had designed it?

Before she had time to even touch the creation, the wooden door to her side swung open and the governor walked in, followed by his manservant.

“Good morning.” He bowed, taking just enough time to let his gaze rest on her before turning to the machine.

“Good morning,” she returned, remembering to curtsy despite her pounding heart.

Byron approached the metallic marvel and rested his hand on its shoulder. “This is… incredibly impressive, I must say.”

She didn’t know how to respond, and so she smiled.

“You must be exhausted, but may I examine it briefly before you take some rest?”

“Of course, your honor.”

She watched, heartbeat working faster than the mill. He touched a small circle on its chest area and it whirred to life, gears spinning, eyes blinking orange.

“Good morning,” said the automated voice. “How may I serve you?”

It’s diction was certainly an improvement over the mill’s AI. But it was still far less than human, with inflections always slightly off from what they should be.

“What is your protocol?” the governor asked.

“I am programmable with fifty different actions, which I learn through observation. To program me, say, ‘observe,’ then perform an action. When the action is complete, say, ‘program.’“

“Impressive indeed.” The governor looked at Amanda with new respect in his eyes. Then he turned back to the machine. “What is your name?”

“My designation is 5-R,” the automated voice said.

“We’ll call you Fiver,” the governor said. “Fiver, observe.” He stepped to Amanda and took her hand. “Thank you.” He held her hand a moment, and his was so soft that warmth crept up her cheeks as she thought how rough her own hand must feel.

He let go of her hand and said, “Program.”

Fiver picked up one metallic leg and stepped forward on it. He reached out and took Amanda’s hand in his cold, metal one. “Thank you,” the voice intoned.

She and Byron laughed. She with the sweet release of relief, he, presumably with elation.

The servants would have to know of the arrangement, Byron concluded when they discussed things over a dinner the next day, after she had spent a sleepless night in a beautiful upstairs room. It would be impossible and unnecessarily exhausting to keep up the pretense that she was a fine lady-wife among the people who lived with and served them, he insisted. And besides, he trusted each of them implicitly.

She had nodded, trying not to feel nervous as she picked at her food. It was glorious food, dishes she had never heard of before. Not to mention it was the first meal in a long time, other than the occasional church social, that she hadn’t cooked herself. But its glory couldn’t drown out her nervousness.

“What will the arrangement be, exactly?” She did her best to hide her nervousness. She was to work for him, she knew, but doing what? And when? And how and where would she be playing the part that all others were to think was hers?

“You’ll have your own workshop,” he said. “Adjacent to your room, if you like.”

Her room. Of course. The two would not be sharing a room. Absurd Amanda. Remember why you’re here.

“And I won’t expect particular work from you,” he went on. “Consider this more of me funding your work than a proper job. I can tell you have a passion for technology. I’m interested in science in all its forms, honestly, but my primary interest lies in things that can be used to make commerce safer and more efficient. Why should our factories be full of overworked people, and our homes of underpaid servants, when we’re so close to being able to have so much of that work done by machines? I know…” he answered her thoughts, “not everyone approves, especially here. They see me as a monster trying to remove the lower classes from the only gainful employment they can get.” He chuckled, but it was a dry, rueful sound. “Particularly the Tyrellian Corporation. If there’s a campaign or a bill out there against my efforts, you can trust them to fund it.”

Hearing him ramble on about his goals and obstacles lessened the tension in Amanda’s stomach, allowing her to nibble at her food again.

“But,” he continued, “they don’t understand. Yes, if we incorporate a machine to do the job of a man in a thread factory, say. That man might lose his job. Or, with the time and money saved, the company might be able to pay him more. Or they might be able to create a new position they can’t now afford that he could fill even better and more safely. Or maybe he does lose his job. But also, with the company spending less on employees, they may be able to lower the price of thread, which lowers the cost of clothing, which makes the lower class a little less poor. Then what they save on clothing, perhaps they will spend on something else the man who lost his job may do instead.” He sighed, and wiped his lips with a napkin.

Amanda had forgotten to eat and was just listening, attempting to follow his ideas through the examples he spun and the information he showered on her.

“Anyway, I’m boring you,” he said at last, an apologetic smile on his face. “And I’ve digressed… I would love to invest in anything you can create, but I do have a special interest in machines that make work easier and safer. That’s all of it in a rather ambitious nutshell.”

“Can a nutshell really be ambitious though?” she asked. Curse his calming voice. What a ridiculous thing to say.

But he laughed. “As for formalities,” he went on, “there will be a wedding. No doubt there will be social functions to attend here and there. But there will also be plenty of time for your work. I’m not often home. And you wouldn’t be expected to attend anything without me. So you should have plenty of time. Not… not that I expect you to work like a servant, of course. You may take any form of recreation available, and I expect you to take plenty of rest. I’ll check in on your progress now and then, and I would love to see something new at least once or twice a month, but don’t worry.” He quirked a smile. “I won’t divorce you if you hit a slow spell.”

She laughed, trying to keep it from sounding nervous, as the food turned her stomach queasy all over again. What could she really make that would in any way help him? How could he trust her so implicitly?

Because of what he thought she’d already done for him, of course.

Now was the time to tell him the truth. Better to get out now, before it was too late for him to avoid a scandal.

“Will a thousand pounds a month be enough to fund your work?” he asked. “I know it isn’t much, but I know you are resourceful.”

She looked into his eyes and all the tightness in her gut loosened into pure, sweet hope.

“That will be more than enough,” she answered.

And he smiled.

IV.

Part of Your World

“I now pronounce you husband and wife. What God hath joined together, let no man separate,” the priest concluded.

Amanda forced a smile at her new husband, and he smiled back and leaned forward to kiss her.

She had been secretly anticipating this moment. Yes, she knew this was a partnership and not a marriage, and the kiss, like the rest of the ceremony, would only be for him to keep up pretenses for the sake of his ambitions. And she was fine with that. She was. She was excited to finally have the time and resources to experiment, to try new things, to create in ways she’d only vaguely dreamed of. At least, she thought she was excited.

Still, it wouldn’t be so terrible to receive a sign of physical affection from him. After all he was her husband. Not really, exactly, but he was. So why shouldn’t she look forward to it? Even though she knew they were both, in a strange way, in it for the money. She for opportunity, yes, but also for the fine clothes and fine food and fine lodgings. He for what she could give him with her work. Gossip among the servants had implied to her that his father, the previous governor, had lost much of the family fortune investing in AI experiments that never went anywhere, and that the son had squandered most of the remaining money on the same pursuit.

She had seen very little of him for the two weeks of their “engagement.” Of course he would be busy. He was the governor! He had matters of state to attend to, not to mention a household to oversee and a new AI machine to program. When she had seen him, he had been full only of excited prattle about the machine and how much it was going to help his cause. It was just the sort of thing that could more safely do the work of a human in a factory assembly line.

In the end, the kiss wasn’t satisfactory in the least. He gave her a chaste peck on the lips, then turned, smiling, to the congregation. She blushed, unused to the amount of attention, and sought her father’s face. He sat in the front row in a suit that Byron had purchased for him, looking very out of place, but he smiled at her. She smiled back, wondering whether she should tell him how she had accomplished the impossible task he had set her.

Probably not.

Ever after in her memory, the wedding reception remained a blur of curtsies and thank-yous and food which was unbelievable both in quantity and quality. Her father hugged her, reporters tried to get in, and at one point there was an uproar over one guest who was discovered to be an incognito journalist.

She had a headache long before the ordeal was over.

Evening found her being dressed for bed in her luxurious new bedroom. She was still getting used to being dressed by someone else, though she was surprised how quickly she was becoming accustomed to it.

The silence weighed on her as her maid, a petite brunette with a round, mousy face, buttoned up her nightgown. In the wordlessness, she could hear the woman’s pity for her peculiar situation and she felt ruffled by it.

“Is my laboratory finished?” was the first thing she could think of to say.

“I believe so, ma’am,” Mary said, not looking her mistress in the eyes.

“I hope so. I am very excited to begin my work.”

“Of course, ma’am.”

Quiet descended upon the room again.

A knock at the door startled her and she jolted, though Mary didn’t pause in braiding her hair. “That’ll be your husband, ma’am,” she said.

Her husband.

“Of course.” She forced a calm smile. “Let him in. Then you are dismissed.”

The maid curtsied and obliged. When she opened the door, Byron stood there in his dressing gown, handsome as ever. “May I come in?”

Amanda nodded, keeping the smile painted on her face. What were his expectations for the evening? He had said they were not to live truly as husband and wife, that it was merely a formality, but—

He stepped in, and Mary slipped out of the room and closed the door behind her.

The weight of silence became palpable.

“I’m sorry, you must be tired,” he said at last. “I only wanted to congratulate you… I’ve had wind of tomorrow’s papers, and they are full only of wedding gossip and congratulations, not a whisper of a rumor regarding our true arrangement.”

The weight lifted, and she could breathe normally.

“What a relief!”

“Indeed.” He smiled at her. “Are you comfortable here?” He looked around the scrumptious room. “Are you in need of anything?”

She couldn’t bear the penetration of his brown eyes, and she dropped her gaze to the floor.

“No, sir. That is, I am comfortable. Very. Thank you.”

“No, thank you.” He turned to leave, then looked over his shoulder. “I’m excited to see what you come up with in your days here.”

She looked up and smiled, then watched him leave and close the door behind him.

“Goodnight,” she said softly to the wooden panels.

Then she slipped under the covers and laid her head on the pillow, marveling again at its rich softness. She reached up to pull the chain on the wall next to her and the lights turned off, leaving her alone in the rich darkness.

When she awoke the next morning, bright light assaulted her eyes through the windows, indicating that if she were still back at the mill, she would have been up and at work hours before.

She snuggled against the feather pillow, relishing the feeling of silk all around her.

It seemed like a good day for breakfast in bed.

She sat up just enough to reach the cord that dangled beside the bedpost and tugged on it the way Mary had showed her, then nestled back into the silk and feather heaven.

She had settled it in her mind while she lay in the dark the night before. She was not Byron’s wife, not really. But nor was she his servant or his employee. She was lower than the former position, but higher than the latter. It had puzzled her at first. What was she, then? To the outside world, including her father, she held a position of privilege, but she and her husband and the servants knew better. So what was she to them?

She wouldn’t know how to behave or to interact with them until she knew the answer.

Finally it came to her. She was his ward. His protege. His project. A rough gem he had plucked from the gutter in the hopes that time and money would polish it into a diamond. She was his own personal rags-to-riches story, pulled from rags but not having yet earned the riches.

She was the heroine of a feminized Horatio Alger Jr. story.

As she recalled these revelations, the door swung open and her maid bobbed in. “Good morning, ma’am. Can I get you some breakfast?”

“That would be wonderful,” Amanda smiled.

“What will you have?”

“Surprise me.” She loved the feeling of power the words gave her. She loved knowing that something amazing would be coming, whether simple bacon and eggs or something she’d never even heard of. And she loved above all the fact that she did not have to cook it herself.

“Yes ma’am,” Mary nodded, and slipped out of the room.

Amanda sank back into the bed and let her gaze drift around the room. Everything, from the rich wine color of the walls, to the mahogany wardrobe in the corner, to the small chest overflowing with jewelry on the desk, cried out, “You’ve finally moved up in the world. You’re going places. You can do anything you want.”

She smiled.

Breakfast, when it came, was crepes with fresh fruit and a glass of juice. It was paradise on a fork. When she finished, Mary cleared the dishes, then helped her dress in another gown—not silk this time, but a lightweight royal blue linen.

Then she showed Amanda to her laboratory.

It was a clean, almost sterile white room with shelves and desks spanning the walls. The shelves were loaded, and the sight was sweeter to her than candy. Tools and equipment and materials lined every surface in an orderly fashion, while basic programming stations were placed at intervals around the room. In the center of it all a long, narrow table stood laden with more tools and equipment, situated so she could easily dive right into her work.

Byron had been serious about giving her everything she needed. All this must have taken well over her thousand pounds for the month.

Unless he’d already owned much of it. She recalled that he’d invested in AI before. Had any of his other hopefuls worked or even lived at the palace?

“I’ll come get you for luncheon, ma’am,” said Mary, bobbing her head.

Then she vanished, and Amanda stood alone in the white room.

She took it all in; the coils of wire, the stacks of gears, the metal plates, the welders, the pliers, the bolts, the batteries, the programming machines, the bulbs, the vinyl disks.

And she smiled.

When Mary tapped on the door and opened it to call her for the midday meal, Amanda had her nose in the scientific journals that were piled up in one corner of the room. She assumed they had been hand-picked by the governor, since nearly all the articles were geared more or less towards the practical applications of artificial intelligence.

This was all so far beyond anything she’d ever thought while working with the mill AI.

“Luncheon is served, ma’am.” The maid’s voice jolted her from her ponderings.

Amanda stood up and laid down the paper. “Thank you.”

She followed Mary to the small breakfast room downstairs, then hesitated in the doorway at the sight of the single place setting.

“Where is… Byron?” Amanda tried to make the name feel natural on her tongue, to mask the timidity she felt.

“I believe he is out at a meeting, ma’am,” the maid said.

So Amanda ate alone.

It was to be expected. After all, he was her husband in name only, and a busy man. She still couldn’t get over the feeling that she really belonged neither here nor downstairs with the servants.

But there was no third option, so the fine breakfast room it was.

After luncheon, when the footman had cleared her plate, she asked him to send Mary up. He obliged, and when the maid appeared Amanda had a question.

“Is there a library?”

Mary’s thin lips seemed to be resisting a smile, and Amanda felt absurd. A grand mansion not have a library? Ah, how naïve. “Yes ma’am. Shall I take you there?”

“Yes, please.” The haughty tone surprised her. Why should she think herself any better than this girl? Or did she? Was the haughtiness born of a desire to mask her embarrassment?

It was new.

The library itself was a glory of wealth and beauty. Books lined what seemed like miles of shelves covering every wall, arranged by type. The array of colors dazzled her.

There were novels and biographies and histories and theologies and law books and—yes, there was a science section that made the modest lending library of her hometown look like a joke, and not a very funny one.

She lost herself in the books, seeking information in their pages until she fell asleep in her chair in front of the electric heater.

When she woke up, she was cold and stiff. She moved slowly, unfolding one joint at a time, and stood, tucking the programming book under her arm.

She took the long way back to her workshop, or at least that’s what she told herself. She needed to stretch her legs and work the kinks out of her back. No, of course it wasn’t just that she wanted to explore the house.

She found a rich ballroom, overshadowed by a dormant electric chandelier of the most intricate detail and expensive proportions. She found guest bedrooms by the dozen, all boasting rich furniture and silk curtains. She found sitting rooms and lavish and technologically advanced lavatories, and she found doors that led up into the attic or down into the basement, but she didn’t dare open those.

At last she made her way back to the laboratory again, stuffing down feelings of reluctance. She had progress to make, machines to create, inventions to dream up.

And reading to do. So much reading. After all, one could not be inspired out of thin air. One had to piece together the progress of others and turn it into something that was both old and new, borrowed and blue with the guilt of one’s artistic stealing.

She didn’t have to make something original. After all, no one ever truly did. She had only to improve upon what existed. And so she studied.

The shadows were lengthening when Mary popped her round head in and called her for dinner. She slipped through the doorway and started down the hall but Mary stopped her with an urgent, “Excuse me, ma’am.”

Amanda turned back to her.

There was that thin-lipped non-smile again. “You have to dress for dinner, ma’am.”

Amanda was glad the light was dim enough to hide her blush.

This time she was escorted, silk-gowned, into the grand dining room, and her husband was there.

“How was your day?” she asked timidly after they’d been eating for a few minutes.

He smiled at her. “Very profitable. I did some demonstrations of your AI. It was well-received for the most part, though the unions are going to take a lot of winning over. But the senate has been mostly tied up in discussion about some of the new auditory contract policies. Still, it looks as though I may be able to secure some grants for you from one of the factories that is more favorable to automization.”

“That’s good news,” she smiled back, though the reference to “her AI” made her stomach twist a little.

“Indeed.” His smile softened. “Really, you have no idea how much this means to me. I was on the verge of giving up on this. But,” he turned back to his food, “I haven’t heard how your day was.”

She studied his face as he focused on his soup, and she wanted to tell him about her breakfast, and about her exploration of the house, and the journals she’d read, and her amazement at the library, and even her confusion at what her station was. She wanted to expound on her wonder at the chandelier and plumbing and the wealth of the house.

But someone fitting to his station wouldn’t have been so impressed by the latest technology, and a girl of his class wouldn’t have marveled so at silk and books. She would only damn herself further if she rambled, sinking closer and closer to the servants and away from him.

He thought her the tiniest bit better than that. Even though he thought the only reason she was worthy of his attention was her ability to create the AI.

Which wasn’t even true.

The twist in her stomach tightened.

“It was fine,” she said at last. “I’m working on some ideas.”

Byron smiled, wiped his lips on a napkin, and pushed his empty bowl away. “I’m glad to hear it. But how are you doing? I know this place can be overwhelming. Do you need anything?”

Yes. She needed to know what to do, how to act, what to say.

She swallowed.

“No sir. Thank you.”

He stood up. “Please tell me if you do,” he said with one last smile. Then he turned and left the room to take his rest.

Amanda sat for a moment, waiting until the footman had taken both sets of dishes away. Then she lifted the hem of her skirt, stood as gracefully as she could, and left to go to sleep.

V.

When Will My Life Begin?

Amanda was surprised how quickly the excitement wore off. With so much to work with, she had—perhaps subconsciously—expected the previously fettered genius to flow from her fingers into brilliant creations. The one comfort was that one thing she had said when beginning the whole ordeal had been true after all.

She had no idea how to create high-functioning AI.

Then again, that was no comfort whatsoever.

She read journals and science books, and made sure to spend at least four hours a day in her workshop, tinkering. At least, she told Byron she was tinkering. She told Mary she was tinkering. In reality she was studying different materials and browsing the programming of the machines in the room. She made a few improvements to them. Improved their efficiency and widened their scope.

But when a week passed and she had created nothing new, she began to be concerned.

Perhaps the problem was being confined by an almost—thermodynamic process. She was operating in a closed system. Yes, that was it. She was giving her mind no opportunity to receive outside information.

So she took more walks. She explored more rooms. She even snuck in readings of a few novels. Inspiration could be found anywhere, couldn’t it?

Every morning, she laid in bed until she became restless. She always asked to be surprised at breakfast, but the dishes weren’t infinite and she eventually ran out of new things to try. She would read and explore and think and attempt to work until dinnertime finally arrived, and then she would always eat with Byron while he talked about the day’s meetings. His discourses tended to run along two tracks—the process of sorting out the auditory updates to the state’s contract laws, and the process of trying to reform labor laws to embrace more automation.

“Fiver always performs well,” he told her one evening over cheese souffles. “I took him to a book factory today and did a demonstration for the press. I think everyone can see the potential. I may even be winning over some of the unions. But…” He sighed.

“The Tyrellian Corporation?” she asked. She might only understand half of what he said—all right, more like a quarter—but she’d heard the name come up often enough to guess.

“At every turn.” He shook his head. “I don’t know why they’re so adamant. I’m guessing it has something to do with their former president, though.”

Amanda hadn’t heard anything about this, and she kept quiet, hoping he would explain without being asked.

He took a few more bites, then obliged. “There’s no way to know what really happened, though. He was forced off the board in some disgrace. My father probably knew something—Mr. Tyrellian had worked with him. I even met the man once. I was only a child—and something about him frightened me, but I didn’t know what.” He chuckled. “Anyhow. My father said nothing to me about it. But if it had anything to do with automation, that would explain a sore spot for the company. But still.” He sighed again, then shook his head as if shaking off the cares of the day and smiled at Amanda. “You don’t have to eat in here, you know. I’m sure I bore you.”

He didn’t. “That’s all right. I appreciate the company.”

“Oh, company. That reminds me.” He pulled a slip of paper from his jacket pocket and handed it to her. “We’ll be expected to host the first holiday ball this year. I don’t know how Virginia does it, but here nobody else would dream of having a ball until the governor opens the season. And now that I have a wife—” here he smiled, “—expectations will run a bit higher than in the past few years.”

She unfolded the paper and found a list of important points for the party.

“Not that you’ll need to do anything,” he assured. “The servants will run the thing, but you’ll be expected to play the role of hostess. I hope that’s not too much to ask.” His tone was apologetic, as if instead of asking her to put on a beautiful dress and dance he were requesting that she spend all day scrubbing the lavatories.

“I can do that,” was all she said.

“Excellent.” His smile made her feel sick. “Now, how was your day? Any projects coming along?”

She had long since giving up describing her day, since he was not nearly as good at pretending to listen as she was. Instead, she reported on what she’d been learning and tried to make it sound as though she had some practical application for it.

As always, he smiled and said, “I’m eager to see what you come up with,” excused himself, bid her goodnight, and disappeared to bed.

Then she would always follow his example and retreat to her haven of silk and fluffiness to try to drown her worries in sleep.

One evening she was in a chair reading about positronic theory and he walked through the doors and settled himself at his desk across the room. She wasn’t too absorbed in her reading to notice, and his appearance was rare enough to cause her heart to flutter with surprise, but she pretended not to be aware of him. She kept her nose between the book’s pages.

“Would you mind turning the heater down?” he asked, not turning to her.

She slipped from her chair and dialed the temperature down a few notches.

“Thank you,” he said, still displaying only the back of his head.

An automated voice spoke softly into the silence. “It is now nine o’ clock p.m.”

It was so much smoother than the intonation of the mill’s AI. This could almost be the voice of a person. Almost. It was close, but it was still missing some quality that would have made it fully human.

As if the voice had been a reminder, Byron stopped writing, sat up, and turned towards Amanda with a smile. “How are your projects coming along?”

Her heart sped up. What was she supposed to say? The closest she’d come to a project was welding five metal plates together to make herself a box to hold her tools.

“So far so good,” she said. “I’m sorry it’s so slow. I’ve been focusing on polishing my programming skills.” It was not untrue. When her brain got tired, she liked to fiddle with the calculating machines, both their software and hardware. And she was learning. She just—wasn’t inspired.

“What ideas have you had?” he asked.

She bit her lip. “I’ve—had some trouble being inspired.” There. Finally, some honesty. But just how far could lack of inspiration get her? At some point she would have to power forward.

Goodness, would he truly divorce her if he found how useless she was finding herself to be?

He rested his chin on the back of his chair and peered thoughtfully at her in the dim electric light. “Do you lack anything you need?”

“Oh no,” she said, his gaze tying a knot in her stomach. “I’m just still—baking some ideas.”

He smiled, and the expression turned the knot into a weight. “I look forward to seeing the fruit of these ideas.”

Then he turned back to his writing, and she turned her face back towards her book, but the words were a jumble. She had to come up with something to make. Something. Anything. Had she been wrong about herself all those times she’d dreamed of an opportunity like this? Could she really only improve on the ideas of others, and had none of her own?

She’d have to come up with some story to explain why she couldn’t just make more AI machines. Lack of inspiration wouldn’t help her there. And she couldn’t count on the little altered man magically appearing when she needed him a second time. Even if by some impossible chance he did, she didn’t dare risk him being discovered and the truth coming out.

But what reason could she possibly give? As far as the governor was concerned, she had done it once. Even if she lacked further brilliance, she should be able to duplicate the experiment.

Maybe it was time to just confess.

Or time to risk it again.

If nothing else, perhaps such an undertaking would bring a little excitement into this world of silk and books and breakfast and endless attempts to think and to create.

Then again, returning to a world without any of those things didn’t sound so appealing.

Nor did returning to a world without Byron. An honorary husband was better than none at all—right?

He laid down his pen and stretched. “I’m off to bed. Long day tomorrow. Do you need anything?”

She shook her head and forced a smile.

“Never hesitate to ask,” he said, then turned and left her alone in the enormous library to ponder her predicament and regret her foolishness.

VI.

A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes

“I’ve been thinking.”

These words signaled exactly what she had been dreading. Thinking. She hadn’t wanted him to think, of all things. Thinking was never good. Thinking meant he would start to wonder why she had yet to turn up any significant projects for him.

He was sitting at his desk again, answering letters and signing things she didn’t understand. She was again across the room, allegedly studying, but her book had begun to droop towards her lap as she dozed.

His words jerked her rudely back to consciousness. “Yes?” She forced the words past the tightening in her chest.

He scratched down another signature, then laid down his pen and turned towards her, arm resting across the back of his chair.

Her heart fluttered, painful butterfly wings against the constriction of her ribs.

“I was just thinking—perhaps while you work on your new inventions, you might be willing to create another AI machine, like Fiver.”

Her stomach twisted predictably, but she forced her body to remain outwardly relaxed. “Oh? Why? What happened to Fiver?”

He stood up and walked to the back of hear chair, then leaned on the back of it. “I sold him to Donovan and Company. Furniture factory. They were interested in incorporating some machines into their workflow, and Fiver can easily be programmed to carve or paint intricate designs. I’m hoping against hope that their experience will start to impact others.”

She latched onto the politics, hoping for a distraction from the idea of another high-functioning machine. “What about the Tyrellian Corporation?”

His shoulders drooped. “I see no hope there. If anything, I have my suspicions that they’ve been feeding the prejudices against both automation and alterations. I think they have at least a few senators in their pockets. They insist automation is dangerous and unnatural. Ironically enough, for a technology company.”

When he spoke of these matters, she liked to watch his eyes. Did they get more expressive over time, or was she just learning to read them? She sensed with perfect clarity his hope, discouragement, and the excitement in his soul. It sparked something in her own heart, but the flame burned her. She might share the tiniest corner of his passion, but she had no means to add to it.

“So…” He shook the sorrow from his eyes and smiled at her. “If you’re willing… I don’t want to take you away from what you’re working on now, but… what have you been working on?”

What would his eyes look like if she told him what a fraud she was?

“I’ve… actually been working on some ideas for improving high-functioning machines.” Sure. Why not delve a little deeper into the deception.

He leaned down towards her. “Would you make another machine, then? For me?”

Amanda should have been—and in her heart, she was—too sensible to believe that doing this would buy any of what she wanted from him. But with those brown eyes looking down at her in the glow of the dim electric lights—

“I’ll make two,” she said.

He reached down and took her hand in his soft, warm one, and she lost herself in the moment, feeling the sensibilities of her heart melt away under his gaze.

“I would love two,” he said.

She banished the knowledge that he was only thanking her, that he didn’t care for her beyond what he thought she could do, that if it weren’t for that, she would be naught but a stranger in the street to him.

His smile as he let go of her hand sent the last hesitating whispers into oblivion. The moment he turned to go back to his desk, she began her prayers that the little man—Rumpled—would appear once more.

Just one more time.

She had insisted on the conditions that exactly duplicated her previous feat. Byron had of course suggested she do it in the day, after a good night’s rest, and in her laboratory with better tools and better parts. She had staunchly refused. She claimed that it was “just how her inspiration worked.” (Whatever that meant—did inspiration work at all?) In reality, she feared that the chances of the little man showing up would be diminished if anything was different.

She even insisted on another silk gown. Though that was mostly for her own benefit.

Byron had agreed, and the next evening found her once again in a little stone room at the base of the palace, surrounded by piles of junk, with tools on a tabletop to her right.

Again, clueless. Again, afraid. This time she might have a smidgen of hope, but the stakes were also much higher. If this “Rumpled” didn’t appear, what would she do? How could she explain her ability to do something once, and then forget how in the span of a couple months?

For awhile—she didn’t know how long; there was no clock in the room either mechanical or electric—she just sat on the edge of the bed as she had the first time. She stared across the room, half expecting him to rise from the floor unbidden.

Like magic.

But he didn’t.

When the shadows of the junk heaps began to reach the walls and the little man still had not appeared, she stood and made her way across the room, trying to remember where the trap door had been. She knew the general area, but when she got to where she thought it was, she couldn’t discern a break in the floorboards.

Her heart sank. What if it really was magic? She had never believed in magic, or in miracles, or anything that she could not understand. But what if there was something mysterious at work here? What if the door and the little man had been there only for her benefit that once, an act of compassion by a higher power? And what if that same power was now poised to punish her for not learning from her first mistake, for lying a second time?

She gathered up her silken skirts and knelt, then pounded on the floor. In books, people always detected where a secret door was by whether or not the surface sounded hollow, but did this section sound hollow? She thumped her fists on another section to the right, and it sounded the same. She moved a little further and pounded there, too. Then she crawled forward, hitting the floor as she went, listening for that elusive “hollow” sound.

Finally she stopped and just pounded her fists on the floor over and over again until her hands were red and stinging and the shadows had lengthened into almost complete dusk. Then she sat back on her heels and stared at the floorboards.

The orange lights overhead flickered on.

Exhausted, she crawled back to the bed and curled up on it, then cried.

Every last bit of light was gone from the window by the time she finally wore herself out and had no more tears and just laid, curled up, on the bed.

Maybe she should just run away. But how? If she could get out, where would she go? She couldn’t go back to her father. She had no friends close enough to endanger themselves for her.

She could just go far, far away. Run until she found a forest and then disappear into it.

If she could even get out.

And if she could ever shake the memory of her husband’s hand in hers. She clenched that hand into a fist until her nails bit her palms, and she found she had a few more tears.

A creaking from across the room propelled her into a sitting position, and her heartbeat climbed rapidly. She squinted into the shadows, praying to see the blinking red eye peering out at her.

A crimson glow coming from an opening in the floor made the tears flow freely again. The balding head poked up into the room, electric eye staring in her direction.

He climbed out of the hole again, but this time she didn’t wait for him to approach. She gathered up her skirts, stood up, and ran to him, barely giving him time to close the trap door before she dropped to her knees before him.

“I need your help,” she said.

Natural and unnatural eyes stared at her, nearly level with her own. “Why are you crying?”

She swallowed. “My husband wants more AI. Two this time. I told him I could do it again… I didn’t know what to do. Please, I can give you anything. Jewels, money, power… I can give you anything you want.”

He turned his face away so that she could only see the purely human side, and laid his hand on a scrap of metal in the pile next to him. “I don’t want any of those things.”

Cold gripped her body. “But… you did it for my necklace before, I thought…”

He looked straight at her again, and the chilling light of the red eye seemed to bore through her. “I did it out of compassion before. I demanded something only because I don’t approve of giving something for nothing. But I want no riches. I am a wealthy man.”

“What about power, then?” she pleaded, warm tears trickling down her face. “I could ensure you a position in the government.”

He smiled in the light of his eye. “Even if I wanted such a thing, you couldn’t ensure it.”

She knew that this was true. No one would ever allow an altered human to hold any kind of public office at all, let alone one with any significant power. Certainly not in New England. Probably not anywhere else.

“Please…” she clasped her hands. “There must be something I can offer you.”

He continued staring at her for a moment. Then, “Why is this so important to you?”

She swallowed. “I want to keep working.”

He smiled and shook his head. “If you wanted that, you would already have made something worthwhile. No, you are not a creator. You are a tinkerer. You can only improve. You know that now.”

If she could have done so with any sliver of truth, she would have denied it vehemently. But she kept her mouth closed. He went on.

“So tell me truly. What is it?”

She should have said that she didn’t want to be imprisoned, that she didn’t want to bring shame on her father’s house, that she didn’t want to bring scandal to the governor for his deception—something along those lines. But she hesitated.

“Ah.” He breathed out a long breath. “You love this man, this—prince charming, don’t you?”

She had no answer.

He smiled, but only with his mouth. The expression didn’t touch his human eye. “There is only one thing I want.”

“What is it? I’ll do anything.”

“A child.”

She pulled back and stared. His eye was dead serious, unwavering. “A child… but… I have no child to give you.”

“Not now, no. But one day, perhaps?”

One day? When would she ever have a chance to have a child? Her marriage, she knew, was a mockery. Byron had never expressed the slightest hint of interest in activities that would produce a child. Whether from respect for her or from true lack of enthusiasm, she did not know.

Did she really think that one more lie, one more miracle, would change that?

Byron was always so considerate of her comfort and happiness, but it was not love. It was mere kindness. But married she was.

What had she been thinking?

And yet—if she did this for him, this one more glorious thing, it might—just might—buy her that. Perhaps—he would look at her differently. If not—well, there was no child yet. And in all probability, there never would be.

She pinched her lips together. “You’re asking for my child, should I ever bear one?”

“Correct. I would take excellent care of it.”

People adopted children all the time. And again—there was no child even to speak of.

She took a deep breath.

“Agreed.”

Electronic and human eyes blinked in unison. “I will make two more machines in exchange for your firstborn child, then.”

Two automated lives for one human one that did not even exist.

“All right. Do it.”

He nodded and rolled up his rough, rumpled sleeves. “Get some rest. Your eyes are more red than mine, dearie.”

She tried to smile at this, but her heart was weighted too heavily. She got to her feet, walked back to the bed, pulled down the covers, and laid down. Then she watched him work until she once again drifted off to sleep.

VII.

Whistle While You Work

Again, the warmth of the sunlight on her face awakened her. But unlike last time, the first thing she noticed was the lack of silk and plush on her resting place.

AI. Rumpled had made it for her again.

She sat upright and looked around the room. Again, the little altered man was gone. Again, the junk had been transformed, this time into two machines, which faced her, staring with lifeless eyes in the silence.

She stood up and walked to them. They were different from the previous one, but just as intricate and beautiful. She peered at the one on the left, whose torso was covered in gears of all colors and sizes, and she ran one finger along the mechanical pathway, taking in the changes from rusty to smooth metal among them.

“What is your name?” she almost whispered.

Its eyes flickered to life, becoming points of dim, blue light in its metallic face. “My designation is J-N. How may I serve you?”

She watched with fascination as the gears whirred and wires arced with tiny bursts of electricity. “Can I call you Janine?”

“I will answer to Janine. How may I serve you?”

Her imagination projected a more feminine quality onto this one, and a spark of affection crept into her heart.

A knock at the heavy wooden door startled her from her fixation on the machine. “Amanda?”

She realized then that she wasn’t sure she’d ever heard him call her that.

“It’s me, Byron,” he went on. “May I come in? Are you finished?”

It was an improvement over just walking in on her, like before. An improvement born of respect, perhaps? Her heart fluttered. “Yes, come in,” she said.

Byron pushed the door open and stuck his head into the room before entering. A smile lit up his face when he caught sight of the machines.

She smiled back.

“They’re beautiful,” he said. “Thank you so much.” He stepped through the doorway and approached where she stood with Janine.

Her heart sank ever so slightly when his eyes remained fixed on the machines rather than on her. He took in every detail of their bodies hungrily and touched Janine on the shoulder. She followed his gaze to the glowing blue eyes and her heart ached.

“Byron?” she said.

“Yes?” He turned to her, still smiling.

“Maybe… we could keep this one?” She prodded a finger in Janine’s direction. “If you can afford it.”

He rubbed his chin. “I suppose we could. Yes, I think we could. At least for awhile.”

“Thank you.” She started to curtsy, but stopped mid-bob. He [_was _]her husband, even if only in name. Why should she curtsy to him?

He didn’t seem to notice. “You are a godsend.”

She looked down. “I’m glad.”

He spent the rest of the morning examining and working with the AI. She watched until she could bear it no longer, then retreated to her workshop to wait again for inspiration to strike.

The cycle began all over again. Breakfast in bed, long hours in the workshop or the library, or sometimes walking, exploring the house, or even napping. The only difference was that she kept Janine with her everywhere she went. When she woke up each morning, she would call out, “Janine,” and the gears would whir and the wires would spark, and the machine would straighten up and turn her blue eyes on Amanda. “How may I serve you?”

She taught Janine how to bring her books and tools and how to choose clothes from the wardrobe and how to adjust the heater, how to get a bath ready and how to carry a tray of food upstairs. She took her on walks and taught her to carry on a simple conversation. Mostly this only involved asking how Amanda was, listening a lot, nodding, and sometimes interjecting an automated, “Oh,” or “That’s nice,” or “I’m sorry to hear that.” As the days dragged on, the machine learned slowly to interpret the tone of Amanda’s voice and began to be able to pick the appropriate response for what she was saying. When she heard the word “lonely,” Janine learned to reach over and pat Amanda’s arm twice.

But Janine could only do so much, and it wasn’t long before Amanda was again bored. She was tired of taking bits of metal, welding them together, and having useless contraptions sent down to the basement furnace. She would create out of desperation, but never anything with any practicality or interest whatsoever. She was tired of reading, and grew restless to actually put her knowledge to use. There was no more of the house to explore except the basement, where she had no desire to go. There were no more dresses to wear or foods to try. And she had run out of things to teach Janine.

One morning, she woke up to the sunlight and the silk and the lack of anyone besides herself and just laid there. She looked out the window at the clear, blue sky. She took in the tiny, distant sounds of doors opening, pails being set down, and footsteps in the hall as the maids took care of the empty rooms that mirrored her own.

She missed it.

She blinked. That feeling had been unexpected. Never, in all her years, had she thought she would miss scrubbing or making beds or cleaning out the fireplace or even changing sheets. Sewing, cooking, dusting—she actually missed all of it. It had been the bane of her existence before, but now—somehow it actually sounded like an improvement over tinkering and technical reading and discouraged boredom.

She pushed herself up on one elbow.

Who said she couldn’t do those things?

Everyone knew she was the governor’s wife in name only, so acting as though it were below her dignity was a joke. And yes she was supposed to be inventing and making grand things—but since she wasn’t, and couldn’t seem to, what harm would taking a cleaning break do?

“Janine?”

The machine whirred to life and its blue eyes blinked on. “Yes, Amanda?”

She sat up more fully and swung her legs over the side of the bed. “Bring me the simplest dress I have.”

Janine blinked. “What is ‘the simplest dress I have,’ Mistress?”

Amanda smiled. “Never mind. I’ll get it.” She stood and plodded across the floor to her wardrobe. She opened it and looked through the colorful labyrinth of silk and linen. In the very back, she found it.

Black, cotton, simple, with a clean white collar and cuffs.

Amanda thought back to the black dress she’d been sewing back home, the dress that was to be her finery, and smiled. “Perfect.”

By the time Mary arrived, Amanda had already pulled down the bed covers, smoothed the sheets, fluffed the pillows, and was pulling the covers back up until they were as smooth as a calm, clear lake.

The maid stared. “I can do that, ma’am…”

“No, it’s all right.” Amanda gave the pillows a few finishing tweaks. “Could I have a feather duster?”

Mary’s round face crinkled. “May I ask the purpose, ma’am?”

“For dusting, silly goose.” Amanda took the time to stop and look at her maid and saw a girl not much older than herself. “And don’t call me ma’am, please. I’m Amanda.”

Still frowning, Mary said, “Yes ma’am. That is… yes. All right. I’ll get it.” And she vanished down the hall.

She returned moments later with a fluffy gray feather duster, which she handed to Amanda. She held onto it an extra second, reluctantly, but at last relinquished it. “Can I get you anything else, ma’… Amanda?”

“No thank you. I’m just going to dust for a bit.”

Mary kept her eyebrows furrowed, but nodded. “Yes m… all right. Just… ring for me if you need me.”

Then the maid left, and Amanda turned, and began to dust her way around the room.

About halfway through her task, the door hinges creaked ever so slightly, and she turned to see a young housemaid, blonde hair wisping from under her cap, standing there with a feather duster of her own.

“Oh…” The maid blushed. “I’m so sorry, ma’am. I thought you had gone…”

“No, come on in. It’s fine.”

The girl advanced slowly, and Amanda stifled a laugh at her shocked face.

“Do you always dust this room?” she asked, hoping to put the girl at ease.

“No ma’am. Sometimes Jane does it.”

“And what’s your name?”

“Ellie, ma’am.”

“Short for anything?” Amanda picked up a jewelry box to dust under it.

“Short for Eleanor, ma’am.”

“You don’t have to say ‘ma’am’ every time. I’m not much older than you.”

“Yes ma’am. I mean no ma’am.”

Amanda smiled and put the box back down, then hesitated, looking at it.

“Ellie,” she asked at last, “how long does it take you or Jane to dust a room?”

Ellie shrugged. “Depends… mostly about twenty minutes, I suppose.”

Amanda looked at the duster in her hand and ran her fingers through the feathers. Then she laid it down. “I’ve got to go. See you later.”

She didn’t see whether the young maid gave any response because she dashed through the door that led to her workshop, closed it, and stood leaning against the wall, thinking.

Twenty minutes to dust a room.

She darted over to a shelf to pick up a handful of gears.

Perhaps not all inventions had to be grand, world-changing affairs. Or perhaps a small time-and-labor saving device could indeed change the world. One wad of dust at a time.

She smiled.

Three days later she emerged from her workshop triumphant, holding a boxy contraption less than a foot long with an electric cord wrapped around it. She dashed down the hall, peeking in each room. In one she spotted a slender girl dusting, and poked her head in the room. “Ellie?” she said.

The girl turned around but it was a brunette with a small, sharp nose.

“You must be Jane,” Amanda nodded. “Where’s Ellie, please?”

The girl pointed to the right. “I think she’s in the next room, ma’am.”

Not sparing another word Amanda spun around and trotted into the next room, where Ellie was dusting a desk.

“Ellie, would you help me with something?”

The maid turned and looked at her, head tilted to one side.

“I’ve made something, and I need you to test it for me.”

“Yes ma’am.” Ellie laid the duster down and approached shyly. “What is it?”

Amanda’s smile hurt her cheeks. “It’s a duster.”

The girl’s eyes widened.

“Here, I’ll show you.” Amanda glanced around the room and found a steel electrical outlet near the base of one wall. “Hold this.” She thrust the contraption into the maid’s arms and began to unwind the cord. She plugged it into the wall, then darted back and pointed to a switch. “This turns it on. You just flip that, and then point it wherever you need to dust.”

The girl looked down at the switch. “What does it do?”

“It sucks the dust away. Would you try it?”

Eyes still wide, Ellie hesitantly touched the switch, then started a bit as the machine whirred to life. The noise it made was constant but not overly loud, and the girl gripped it in both hands and trained it at the desk she had been dusting.

Poofs of dust made their way from the wood and disappeared into the device like magic.

Ellie gasped, and flipped the switch off. “My land,” was all she said.

“It should make your dusting much faster,” Amanda nodded, cheeks still hurting with delight. “Just be careful not to suck up other things… valuables or your hair, for instance. Not that your hair isn’t valuable.”

Ellie giggled.

“But when that light comes on,” Amanda pointed to a tiny red bulb on the top, “it means the machine is full and needs to be emptied before you dust any more. Come find me when it happens, and I’ll show you how.”

“All right.” In her excitement, Ellie dropped the “ma’am.” “Wait,” she called after Amanda, who had turned to go.

“Yes?”

The girl glanced at the machine, then at Amanda again. “Where are you going?”

“Well where do you think I’m going? To make another one for Jane.”

Ellie smiled.

Once her mind had latched onto the idea of creating machines to help with household tasks, inspiration flowed like one of the fountains in the front gardens. She made more dusting machines, including one that was specially made for Janine to hold and use. It could be plugged directly into the AI, removing the cord’s limitations. Next, she started work on an apparatus to help file away the grime that the steam always deposited on the inside of the heaters. It took a couple tries, but it too became a success. She made two of those, too, one for each of the scullery maids.

Somewhat irrationally—or so she thought at first—she said nothing to Byron about these developments, and she rather hoped he wouldn’t find out. As time went on, she realized that her hesitance was born of embarrassment. He had such high and fine ideals of what he wanted machinery to accomplish—dreams of high-functioning artificial intelligence that could help run businesses and dramatically improve his state. Why would he care about dusting machines and heater cleaners?

Not to mention when he thought about how much lower these creations were than, say, Janine, he might begin to question things. And of course, she couldn’t have that.

So she just kept busy, and when he asked about her day, she eluded his questions with generalities.

One day she had awoken early with an idea for a larger dusting machine for carpets, and bolted for her laboratory without taking the time to dress properly. When Mary tapped at her door hours later, the growling of her stomach revealed that she had inadvertently skipped breakfast.

“You must be exhausted,” the maid said. She nearly always dropped the “ma’am” now. “I was just coming to call you for luncheon.

Amanda mentally surveyed herself. “Maybe slightly tired,” she said. But it was a better tired than she’d felt for months.

Mary chuckled. “Well, your meal is almost ready. Would you like to change?”

The pointed comment, reminded Amanda that she was still in her dressing gown, and she smiled sheepishly. “All right. I’ll be down in a moment.”

“Very well, ma’am.” Mary turned to leave, but Amanda hesitated, then called to her.

“Mary?”

The maid stopped, and turned back, eyebrows raised.

“Could I eat with you instead of in the dining room?”

It was Mary’s turn to hesitate. She raised her eyebrows further. “I… I suppose you could, ma’am. I take my luncheon in the servants’ hall…”

“Could I eat there, then?”

Mary didn’t reply for a moment.

“Please,” Amanda said. The idea of eating with a group rather than alone at the big table was sounding better and better as she thought about it.

“I don’t see why not, ma’am. That is… Amanda. Come down whenever you’re ready, then.”

Amanda changed into a yellow linen dress and scurried downstairs.

At first, the amount of servants was intimidating. Amanda felt very out of place, not only by virtue of her colorful clothing but by the familiarity everyone shared. Other than Mary, Ellie, Jane, and the footmen who served in the dining room, the servants were barely more than strangers to Amanda.

They offered her a seat between Ellie and Mary, and she took it gladly and partook of the cold turkey and cheese they served. By the end of the meal, she had made the acquaintance of the cook, Mrs. LaFaye, the kitchen maid, Lilly, the butler, a fatherly, gray-haired man named Southworth, and a stable boy, Pete. Before she had only seen them here and there, like phantoms throughout the house, appearing and then disappearing out of the corner of her eye while she worked or studied.

“They like you,” Mary whispered as Amanda exited the servants’ hall. The sentiment replaced the slight tension in her chest with a fuzzy warmth.

After that she tried to read some more about circuitry, but her exhaustion pushed her to sleep in the library chair. She had been awakened by Mary, who shook her urgently and told her that Master Byron was home, and asked her if she wanted to change. For half an instant her fogged brain entertained the thought of appearing at dinner as she was, in her plain linen with hair pulled back in a simple braid. Instead, she opted to change, have her hair done, and appear at supper the fine lady the rest of the world thought her to be.

As always, he updated her as to his affairs over the bisque and salad and fresh bread. He had been drawn again into some dispute over some legislation involving the nuances of audio contracts, but still found time to take the other AI machine to a toy factory for a demonstration. The owners seemed to show interest but in the end sent him away noncommittally, which to him was proof that the Tyrellian Corporation’s representatives had been there first.

When he finished, he asked about her day. She thought for a moment, again entering into the debate with herself over whether it was more risky to tell him about her inventions—or to keep hiding them.

“I worked more on programming Janine,” she told him. “I read about positronic circuitry. And I took a nap—reading all of that tired me. Janine is coming along nicely.”

He smiled. “Sounds much better than my day.” He wiped his mouth and stood up. “Well, I’m off to bed. Are you going to bed, too?”

And as usual, she was. After talking to Mrs. LaFaye she had a new idea for a device that could help mix things in the kitchen.

She couldn’t wait to wake up and begin working on it.

VIII.

There May Be Something There That Wasn’t There Before

The days passed. Save for the dressed-up dinners and impending Christmas ball, Amanda could almost have forgotten she was the wife of the governor. When she finished her larger carpet dusting machines, she moved on to a simple apparatus that could release water straight into the mop fibers, so the maids wouldn’t have to carry a pail around and be constantly dipping into it. It took her awhile to perfect that design, and then they wanted four of them, so it was awhile before she saw the last of her mopping devices.

She stopped falling asleep in the chair in the library, and found she fell asleep quick and hard at night. She stopped having breakfast in bed, and started getting up earlier to take breakfast in the servants’ hall. She stopped ignoring or avoiding the servants, and began laughing and talking with Ellie, Jane, Mary, and others. She brought Janine with her to the servants’ hall one day and taught the footmen, Frank and Alfred, how to program her. She took piano lessons from Jane.

And as she worked, her subconscious pining for her husband and her fear that there would ever be a child she must sacrifice on the altar of her lies faded into the background.

One day she stopped work early and slipped into the kitchen an hour before luncheon. She stood in the doorway a few minutes until Mrs. LaFaye noticed her.

“Dearie, what are you doing here at this hour?” the middle-aged woman asked, wiping perspiration from her brow with her sleeve.

“I’m starting work on that mixing machine we talked about,” she explained, taking another step into the stuffy room. “But I really don’t know anything about fancy cooking… I don’t know what requirements you’d have. So I thought I’d watch a bit. Maybe I could even help?”

Mrs. LaFay hesitated, looking Amanda from head to toe in the interim. Finally she nodded. “You can go over and help Lilly with the souffle, if you like. That should help you get a feel for it.”

Amanda cast her gaze towards the youngest kitchen maid, who was whipping eggs in a bowl.

“All right. Thank you.” She smiled at the cook, then sidled over to Lilly feeling very much out of her element. “What’s a souffle?” she whispered.

The girl, who couldn’t have been older than seventeen, giggled. “It’s a sort of cake, miss. Made from eggs.”

Miss. Had the slip been merely ignorance, or had the girl simply forgotten Amanda was, technically, married?

She brushed the thought from her mind and looked at the stiff egg whites. “How long does it take you to get them that fluffy?”

“Oh, ten minutes, I guess. I’m not sure.”

Amanda watched as the girl twirled the whisk with rapid motions of her wrist. “Can I do anything?” She asked after a moment.

“You could stir the sauce if you like, miss. It’s cooling.”

Obediently, Amanda lifted a spoon and turned to the bubbling red that sat on the stove. Maybe she could create a machine that could both mix and stir, she thought as the liquid swirled slowly.

After a few moments, Lilly declared the sauce cool and asked, “Do you want to fold the eggs in, miss?”

Amanda blinked. Fold? She looked from the eggs to the sauce. “Stir them?” she asked.

“Oh no ma’am, don’t stir them.” The young girl lifted the stiff egg whites and began slowly pouring them into the sauce a little at a time, using the spoon to gently lift sauce on top of egg and egg on top of sauce.

Could the machine be somehow programmed to also fold? Ideas began to spiral as she watched Lilly spoon the mixture into a small dish and place it carefully into the oven. “If you move too quickly it will fall,” she said.

“Is that for dinner?” Amanda asked.

“Yes ma’am.”

“I can’t wait.”

Lilly smiled shyly.

“I’m going to try to make something to help you stir and whip and fold, Lilly.”

The maid cocked her head. “A machine, like you made for Ellie and Jane?”

“Well, not like that, but a machine. How would you like that?”

The little maid didn’t answer, but she hid a broadening smile behind her sleeve.

“Mrs. LaFaye, I have a message from Governor Weaver…” The voice of Southworth stopped short when he saw Amanda standing in the kitchen. “Mrs. Weaver. I apologize, I didn’t know…”

Amanda dismissed his apologies with a wave of her hand. “It’s fine. Go on.”

The butler nodded, and he turned to the cook again. “The governor wants to speak with you this evening after dinner about the menu for the Christmas ball. He thought it might help keep your load light if you start thinking about it earlier this year.”

Mrs. LaFaye laughed. “Oh, so the master knows how to run a kitchen better than I do, does he? Begging your pardon, ma’am…”

Amanda sighed. “Look… you don’t all have to act like I’m some fine lady. We all know that Byron—Governor Weaver—is my husband in name only. Please, don’t treat me like an outsider. It’s not what I deserve, or…” She hesitated. “Or what I want.”

The silence that followed was awkward and shared by all present.

Finally, Southworth cleared his throat. “Very well, ma’am. Amanda.”

She lifted one corner of her mouth in a forced smile.

“I’ll talk with the governor after dinner,” Mrs. LaFaye hastened.

“Excellent.” Southworth held his arms behind his back and left.

Coming up with a machine that would do every kind of stirring necessary in the well-run kitchen was more challenging than Amanda had expected in her fit of inspiration. Unlike the other things she’d created so far, it would require some basic AI to tell the little motor how the stirring apparatus should move. Thus, she dipped her toe hesitantly into the pool of AI creation and found the waters to her liking. In early December, she finished the machine just in time for Christmas preparations and presented it proudly.

Lilly was making blueberry scones that day, a true test of the folding setting on the device. If it didn’t work, Byron was going to have some pastries that were a rather icky blue color for dessert. She held her breath as the maid plugged the stirring machine into the wall, inserted it into the dough, and turned it on a low setting.

Mrs. LaFay watched, as did Ellie, Jane, and the two footmen, all of whom had snuck in to watch the demonstration.

The metal arm of the apparatus began to gently lift and turn the dough.

Everyone cheered and clapped, and Amanda let out a breath and relaxed her shoulders. Lilly giggled, and went on folding.

“Congratulations,” Mrs. LaFaye nodded after Lilly turned off the machine and set it on the counter.

“Thank you.” Amanda’s chest swelled with pride. It might not be high-functioning, and it might not be anything that could benefit a large business, but it was something. “How many do you think you can use?”

As she turned to face the cook, the warmth in her chest seemed to grow until it choked her at the sight of Byron standing in the doorway, watching her.

“I imagine we could make use of three of them,” Mrs. LaFaye answered obliviously. “What else can it do?”

She barely heard the words. Byron held her gaze for half a second, then vanished down the hall.

She blinked, heart pounding, wondering how long he’d been there.

“Three?” she said at last, focusing again on the cook’s round, pleasant face. “Three… yes, I’ll work on it.”

“Are you all right, Miss Amanda?” Ellie asked.

Amanda shook her head. “I’m not feeling well. I think I might go and have a bath.”

She found Mary sitting in the servants’ dining room and gripped her arms. “I think Byron saw me,” she whispered.

Mary helped her creep up the back stairway and bathe and change. All the while her heart beat furiously in anticipation of the confrontation with her husband.

Why had she not told him sooner what she was doing? Had her first lie just turned her into a blasted deceiver who lied for the fun of it? Why should he care? He had hired—married—her to invent things. Weren’t household labor-saving devices better than the nothing he thought she was creating?

Dinner that night was silent. Byron ate without looking at her, without even relating his day to her or asking how her day had been. The two just ate in thick silence, and Amanda’s heart continued to pound.

Finally when they were nearly finished with dessert, Byron laid down his fork and cleared his throat.

“How was your day?” he asked.

She picked at her scone and said nothing.

“Amanda…” He hesitated, then reached over and touched her hand. “I saw what you made.”

She still said nothing. She felt the weight of her lies pressing down on her, like a flour sack on each shoulder.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked quietly.

She couldn’t meet those brown eyes. She couldn’t. She didn’t move, didn’t look at him. “I thought you wouldn’t care.”

He kept his fingers on her hand. “What do you mean?”

She shot a glance up at him, chest tightening. “You want something grand. You want something you can show to the factories, and the senate, and the Tyrellian Corporation, and sweep them off their feet so that you can change the world. You don’t want… dusters and sweepers and mixers…”

“Wait…” He pulled his hand back. “Dusters? Sweepers?”

She looked back down and said nothing.

“Amanda,” he went on, “I hired you to create things because I saw something in you that I trusted. I saw a creativity in you, a way of looking at problems that was different than everyone else. I saw what you’d done with your father’s mill. I hired you because I thought that you could succeed where everyone else had failed, not because you thought bigger—but because you thought smaller.”

Frowning, she peeked up at him again and found the brown eyes fixed on her.

“Sometimes I think too enormously. I needed someone who could look at a problem and fix it. Nothing more, nothing less.”

The weight eased. Maybe—maybe the lie of the AI machines wasn’t the only reason he’d wanted her. Maybe—there was a grain of truth in what he’d thought of her after all.

“But I’m sorry I made you feel you couldn’t tell me. To be honest… I was starting to worry after all these months when you hadn’t made anything new. I was starting to worry that you were—pardon the vulgarity—something of a one-trick pony.”

She smiled slightly.

“But. I can see I was right to take a chance on you. I think these devices of yours could be highly marketable. The mixer, for instance—couldn’t it be applied in a restaurant or a grocery? Will you tell me about your inventions, please?”

And with those eyes on her, she forced the last persistent weight away, and began to tell him.

The next day, she was interrupted by a knock on her workroom door while she sat at her desk, crafting another stirring machine. She looked up, expecting to see Mary with a call to luncheon or perhaps even just to talk. Instead, she saw Byron’s face peeking through the space between the door and the wall.

“I’m sorry,” he said as she started, “I didn’t mean to startle you. I finished early and thought you might like to take a walk.”

The suggestion stirred the clouds that had finally begun to lay dormant in her heart. “A walk?” she reiterated.

“To discuss the upcoming festivities,” he explained.

So she went.

But they didn’t discuss the upcoming ball. Instead, he was quiet for the greater part of the stroll—no rambling about AI or auditory contract law or the Tyrellian corporation. He just walked beside her, hands clasped behind his back.

At last he spoke without looking at her. “Are you happy here?”

It startled her. She stole a glance at his face, but his eyes were as unreadable as the Latin science book she’d opened earlier.

“I think so,” she said.

He didn’t reply to this at first, then he said, “I owe you an apology.”

She looked at him again, less shyly this time. “For what?”

“I didn’t realize—or I suppose, I didn’t think—what a position I was putting you in when I brought you here. I thought only of myself and my agenda. And for that, I am deeply sorry.”

She hastened to assure him that no, she was grateful for the opportunity, but he went on before she could.

“It grieves me that you felt you had to hide your creations from me. It makes me realize how—lonely things must have been.”

“I’ve become friends with the servants,” she said, shushing the flapping wings in her stomach.

“I know, and I’m glad of that, but…” Here he seemed to struggle. “I realize I’ve—left you without any honorable prospects for more intimate companionship. That is, I don’t mean…” here he actually blushed, “I don’t mean purely carnal, you understand, I just… I’ve put you in a bad situation, and I am deeply sorry.”

She felt the urge to deny it, but she was so very tired of lying. She felt the truth of it, felt it deeply.

“You take very good care of me,” was all she could say. But the words made her heart ache.

“I would like to take better care of you, though,” he protested. “I would like to… truly be a husband to you. You have done so much for me, and I would like to act rightly by you.”

Her heart ached more still with the words, a reaction she hadn’t been expecting. She had done nothing at all for him. She should tell him the truth. She should.

“What are you proposing?” she said at last.

He looked down at his shoes, giving her the impression of an awkward little boy rather than an intelligent, capable leader.

“You are my wife,” he said slowly. “I would like now to… win your heart.”

What was there to say to this? Yes, all right. Do that. Though to be honest, you’ve already won it. How, I’m not at all certain. Because you’re certainly right about all you’ve just said about yourself.

None of that would do, of course. So instead, she said, “What should I wear to the ball?”

He smiled a little. “I think red might be your color.”

She agreed.

In the two weeks that remained before the ball, Byron took to coming home for luncheon every day and asking her to take a walk or ride with him. He always said he wanted to discuss the fast-approaching ball, but strangely, he hardly ever talked about it once they were out of the house. And he didn’t talk quite as much about AI or politics, either. He listened. Really listened. Listened while she talked of science and the mill and her father, and listened while she talked of her mother and the war. He took her shopping for the perfect red silk for her ball gown, then shipped it to the most expensive seamstress in New England. He walked her up to her room every evening and said goodnight before he retreated down the hall to his own room.

And she would watch after him until he disappeared into the dark, and feel an odd sense of something missing.

She saw less of the servants now, other than Mary, but they were so busy they wouldn’t have had any time to spend on her, regardless. There was rearranging to be done, cooking trials to be performed, special uniforms to be washed and pressed and mended, decorations to be put up. In the mornings, Amanda kept working on the other two stirring machines, but the rest of her time was taken up helping oversee things, or spending time with Byron.

Since that one conversation—the one she held locked up inside her heart—he hadn’t said a word about winning her heart or being a true husband to her, but she had no reason to think he had forgotten. One afternoon, two days before the ball, he brought her flowers, handing them to her with again the shy demeanor of a schoolboy.

“Thank you,” she smiled. And he smiled back.

The big day finally arrived. Amanda had thought at first that she was supposed to be dressed and ready before the occasion started, to greet “her” guests as they arrived, but Mary explained that it would be customary for the lady of the house to make a grand entrance after everyone was already in the ballroom.

Which made Amanda very nervous indeed.

“I don’t know any of them,” she protested. “And I don’t know how to behave.”

Mary laughed as she brushed through her mistress’s hair. “You know how to curtsy and say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you for coming,’ don’t you?”

“Well yes…”

“And you know how to dance, and how to eat without making a mess?”

“Of course!”

“Then you know how to behave.”

Finally, Amanda was cinched and pulled and laced into her dress, bedecked with jewelry, and had her hair piled in a mess of curls and twists on top of her head. Mary stepped back to admire her handiwork, and the satisfied smile on her face was better than any mirror Amanda could have asked for.

“You’re ready. Now breathe deep.”

“As deep as I can in this corset,” Amanda said.

Mary smiled. “Yes, as deep as you can.” She backed towards the door, opened it, and said, “Careful going down the stairs.”

Then she stepped aside.

Feeling like a china doll, Amanda began to glide as gracefully as she could out of her room and down the hall. When she reached the top of the stairs, she breathed in deeply, not sure if the pain in her chest was from her corset or from the anticipation. Partly of greeting a room full of strangers, and partly the primary thought coursing through her mind.

What will Byron think of me?

She started down the stairs.

The sounds of the party grew louder as she moved downwards, and soon she could see the lights and the many colors of ball gowns, and the fewer shades of gray suits.

As she reached the last dozen steps, someone must have caught sight of her, and the room began to hush. She sought the sea of faces for one in particular and found it, near the foot of the stairs.

Byron’s face was all she could have hoped for.

He took her hand to help her down the last couple steps and whispered in her ear, “You look beautiful.”

Then they danced.

Ever after, Amanda could barely remember the evening. There was a constant stream of music from some unknown location, there were people greeting her and wishing her well this holiday season, there was dancing until she thought she would explode. There was fine food and drinks, and there were ladies who said she really must call on them sometime, and there were so very many fine dresses, but she barely saw them because the only dress that mattered was the one she saw reflected in her husband’s eyes, because it had brought her praise.

All she remembered clearly was that when at last everyone had gone, the two of them escaped to the top of the stairs and sat, watching the servants cleaning quietly down below.

“You were wonderful tonight,” he said at last.

“Thank you,” she said, heart pounding beneath her corset.

He touched her face, sending thrills over her body. “You really are beautiful.”

She looked up at him and let herself be lost in the eyes.

Then he kissed her.

Her heart melted into the kiss, and she wrapped her arms around him. He reciprocated, pulling her body close to his until she felt sure that he must feel her heart beating through the wonderful dress, corset and all.

He ended the kiss, and whispered in her ear. “Do you love me?”

Her heart burst, and she whispered back, “I thought you’d never ask.”

Several hours passed before they slept.

IX.

Once Upon a Dream

It was strange waking up with her husband’s arms around her. The morning found her torn between a state of joy and gut-twisting fear. Her husband loved her. The rush of emotion made her feel warm with happiness.

She shifted, wondering if he was still asleep. He seemed to be.

But trepidation warred with the feelings of delight. What if she were to become pregnant?

In the heat of the moment she hadn’t considered this possibility, but now, in the morning light, the possibility weighed on her. She had no great desire for children, had never been one of those girls who longed for her own offspring. But she assumed that if she did have one, she would not be inclined to give it up. Worse still, if she had a child, and the little man appeared somehow and demanded it—Byron would have to know the truth.

Upon which knowledge, he would no doubt despise her.

She could always tell her husband she wanted to avoid having children. As far as she knew he had no special desire for them, and would no doubt defer to her wishes. He was always very considerate, even when she had been merely his employee. But what reason could she possibly give? Say she wanted to focus on her inventions, perhaps?

Maybe she wouldn’t get pregnant. It had taken her mother five years, she knew, and while some of her friends who had married had borne children immediately, others had struggled to conceive.

Or maybe she could just have one child and give it up, then have more to take its place.

She frowned. That was terrible. One child could not replace another She knew better.

If he did find out, how could he force her to give up her child, anyway? How could he prove that she had agreed to such an outrageous proposal?

She shivered.

The motion woke her husband, and he moved beside her and stretched. “Are you awake?” he whispered.

She turned to face him with a smile that was half forced and half shining from her heart. “Yes.”

He kissed her, and she relaxed in his embrace.

After all, she wasn’t pregnant yet. And maybe she never would be.

Timing could be a funny thing. When her one year anniversary rolled around, Amanda was tremendously happy, and immensely enjoyed the party that her husband held in honor of their union. She and Byron were closer than she had ever dreamed, and she was creating, new things every month. The more she made, the more ideas she had. Byron even reported that the sheer practicality of her creations seemed to give the Tyrellian corporation pause in their efforts against him. After all, what was threatening in a machine to sew or to stir or to clean? And the unions were beginning to admit that such things could perhaps give people safer jobs rather than taking their jobs away.

But in the pauses between one event and another, she felt a weight settle on her. Not a weight of certainty, but of fear.

As the guests were moving from the library into the ballroom to dance, she pulled Janine into a corner and whispered, “I think I’m pregnant.”

Janine blinked her luminescent blue eyes at her. “What is pregnant?”

“It’s when you’re going to have a child. Have a baby.”

“Oh,” Janine replied. Amanda wasn’t sure how much she’d picked up on this topic, but she nodded as if she understood. “Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure.”

“Does Master Byron know?”

Amanda’s gaze drifted to the ballroom, where her husband was talking and laughing with some other men around his age.

“No.”

“Are you going to tell him?”

“Well he’ll have to find out at some point.”

“Why?”

“Do you remember when the gardener’s wife was pregnant?”

“Oh.” Janine’s gears whirled as she processed. “Then you should tell him.”

Talking with Janine was always like talking to her conscience. “I know. Maybe tonight.”

“Don’t you want to?”

Amanda kept her eyes on Byron, watching the way his face lit up as he laughed. “I don’t know.”

She tried to shake the whole thing as she danced with him, five dances, and then she was tired and felt sick, so she sat down. He sat with her, holding her hand, and they watched the other dancers in silence.

“Are you sure you don’t want to go to bed, my love?” he frowned.

She shook her head. “No, I don’t want to miss the party. Thank you, though.”

Another moment, during which Amanda looked towards one corner of the enormous room and found Janine’s eyes shining at her.

“Byron?” she said, just loud enough to be heard above the music and the voices.

He turned to her.

She swallowed. What would happen if Rumpled did find out? Would Byron ever look at her that way again?

“I think I’m pregnant.”

His reaction was as unexpected as it was joyful, and the look in his eyes as he put his arms around here was almost worth her anguish.

Gradually, Amanda had to take a break from inventing because alternating between standing and sitting and focusing so intently made her nauseated. She tried to keep going anyway, but Byron bid her rest and not take more exercise than a slow, relaxing walk. Sometimes when he had to be away, she would sit in the servants’ hall and visit with them. She relished the company, and Mrs. LaFaye was always quick to cook her whatever her fickle appetite demanded. Janine became useful for helping her into and out of chairs. Doctors came and went with greater frequency as time went on.

One evening she was frazzled from being still too much of the day and sat in the library, staring out the window at the pouring rain. “I want to walk,” she complained.

Byron turned from his desk. “You can’t go out there, my love. You’ll catch your death of cold.”

She sighed and rested her hands on her enormous stomach.

He studied her for a moment, then stood and walked to where she sat. He held his hands down to her.

“Where are we going?” she asked, taking his hands and letting him heft her up.

He hooked his arm through hers. “Let’s just take a walk through the house.”

She smiled.

They promenaded down the halls, upstairs along the shadowed corridors, downstairs through the sitting rooms and down the quiet ballroom where he took her in his arms and danced, silent.

When they wandered down the side downstairs hall, Amanda stopped short.

Byron looked at her quizzically.

“I’d rather not go there,” she said.

He turned around, but asked, “Why, dearest?”

She glanced over her shoulder at the heavy wooden door to the room containing the trap door to her savior turned tormentor. “It’s too cold,” she said.

When the baby came, it was a girl. Byron wanted to name her Elizabeth after his mother, and Amanda liked the name and consented. The instant she held little Elizabeth—Lizzie—in her arms, her heart flew from her body and lodged in the big, brown eyes that were so much like Byron’s.

Her instinct had been right. There was no way she was going to be able to give up this precious one.

Byron suggested a nanny, but Amanda was convinced that she and Mary and Janine could manage to care for the child and he let them try. Janine couldn’t hold her in her bare, metal arms, but she could rock a cradle and play recorded lullabies, which she would for hours while the baby slept. Amanda changed, bathed, fed, and played with the child herself, creating an ache for her own absent mother. Mary would watch after Lizzie while Amanda napped or took a brief walk or worked on a new invention, but Amanda never liked to be away from her child for more than a few minutes.

Byron and the servants assumed this was merely maternal affection, but Amanda knew better.

Every time she was away from Lizzie for more than a moment, fear would begin to eat black holes in her heart. She would conjure visions of the little rumpled man with his red, blinking, metal eye, appearing from a trap door in the nursery floor and sneaking the baby from under Mary or Janine’s nose, and she would fly back to be with her darling again.

She never took Lizzie anywhere near the passage to the room where she had met Rumpled. When newspapers wanted to do a story on the child of the governor and his imported wife, she always refused, hoping against hope that news of the baby wouldn’t go too far.

And so the months passed. The baby learned to sit up and put things in her mouth. She learned that she could always get attention from Janine, because the machine didn’t know how to tell her “no.” She learned to say “da-da” to Byron, and she learned to laugh. Each day lessened the unease in Amanda’s soul.

Maybe Rumpled was gone. Maybe he had never truly intended to take her child from her. What would a little altered man who lived somewhere under the floor do with a child, anyway?

Then, her world collapsed.

December rolled around again, and with it the holiday ball. Amanda dressed her baby in the laciest of tiny red silk gowns and managed to affix a red bow to her barely existent dark brown hair.

“You’re going to be mama’s belle of the ball this year, aren’t you, baby?” she cooed.

Lizzie gurgled and slid out of her mother’s arms to play on the floor.

The guests had already begun to arrive, but Byron was late. In the past year, at least a dozen corporations had begun to wade into the pool of automation, which kept him both busier and happier than ever. This day, he had been asked to speak at a conference on the integration of AI into the development of motor vehicles, and while he’d promised he would be back in plenty of time for the gala, Amanda had known better. He wouldn’t be able to resist the slew of questions that would assault him after his speech, especially if there were representatives of the Tyrellian Corporation present. They were slowly coming around, and he would not be able to resist a verbal altercation that might just be the last straw in overcoming their last hesitations.

Ridiculous man. But then, if it weren’t for Lizzie she would be right there with him. Balls were very grand and wonderful, but nothing could compare to hearing her husband expound on his vision for the advance of technology in his state.

She would wait with Lizzie in the bedroom just another minute, and then if he had not yet returned, she would have to make her entrance without him.

Lizzie played with her toes on the rug. Amanda smiled.

“The time is seven thirty o’ clock,” spoke a gentle automated voice.

Amanda scooped the baby up in her arms. “Come on, Lizzie. We can’t wait for papa anymore. Time to make your debut.”

She left the room and started down the stairs.

As she neared the last few steps, she heard the commotion in the ballroom halt in waves, replaced with mixed gasps and silence. She smiled. They were as impressed by her baby’s beauty as she was. She took the last step to the floor, a greeting for her guests ready on her lips.

Her heart stopped.

In the giant main doorway across the room stood the short, nearly bald man with rumpled clothes and one metal eye who haunted her nightmares.

The finely-dressed attendees pulled away from the doorway like a human curtain, leaving a path between herself and the little altered man. Whispers abounded. Somewhere, she was fairly certain she heard a lady faint.

Rumpled just stood in the doorway, staring at her in the bright lights of the electric chandelier for a moment. Then he turned his half inhuman gaze on Lizzie.

Amanda clutched her baby closer, and simply waited.

The little man strolled into the grand room on his short legs, arms behind his back, standing straight and tall as if he owned the place. He walked to the foot of the stairs and then stopped three feet away from her. The effect of his red eye was diminished in the brightness.

“She’s beautiful,” he said.

Amanda held the child closer still. Lizzie began to fuss and squirm.

He watched for a moment, then looked Amanda square in the face. “You know why I’m here.”

Both eyes blinked.

How was his presence so intimidating? The unbroken calm; the utter lack of mindfulness of the crowd.

“Let’s talk in the library,” Amanda managed to choke out. Aloud, to her guests, she said, “Pardon me for a moment. I’ll handle this. Begin the dancing!”

She hoped her voice sounded regal and relaxed, as a governor’s wife always should. But she had a feeling it was instead as stilted as the mill’s AI.

The rumpled man followed her into the library, where she closed the doors behind them, then melted into her regular chair beside the heater, shaking.

He stood again three feet from her, and watched her.

The pace of her heart shot upwards as the situation sank in. “Please…”

The red of his eye melded into the glow of the heater. “I’m here for the baby.”

Amanda clutched Lizzie tighter still, chest aching. “Please, I’ll give you anything else. I will. I have money…”

“I told you, I have no need for money.”

His voice was calm. Amanda trembled. “You can’t have her. There must be something else. Land… or… gold or anything…”

He shook his head, both eyes blinking in unison. “None of those things are as valuable as a child.”

Amanda couldn’t swallow. She couldn’t breathe. “Who are you?”

He smiled, a slightly crooked smile. “You don’t need to know that.”

“But why? Why are you doing this?”

“We had an agreement.”

She felt dizzy. Lizzie had stopped fussing and sat still in her arms, and she pressed her hands against the baby’s back, desperate to feel her close. “You can’t prove that. It’s your word against mine.”

The little man kept smiling and shook his head. “I could always ask for a demonstration to be held. One where both of us are given a junk pile and instructed to make high-functioning AI.”

She had no answer for this.

“But I wouldn’t do that,” he went on. “I wouldn’t need to.” He reached into his wrinkled coat and pulled out a copper tube a little longer than his hand and held it up to her.

“What is it?” she asked, voice shaky.

He gripped it in one fist. “An audio recorder.”

Despair blanketed her. She’d heard Byron ramble often enough about the laws regarding auditory contracts. They were as binding as written contracts. As long as an offer was made and accepted with consideration, it would hold solidly in the courts.

Tears stung her eyes.

“Please… please. There must be something I can do.”

He put the recorder back inside his coat and looked at her, head cocked to the right, blinking at her.

She didn’t know whether he waited ten seconds or ten minutes before answering.

“Very well,” he said.

She stared back at him, waiting for the elaboration.

“You may keep your child,” he said slowly, “If you can guess who I am.”

The momentary speck of hope was dashed hard. “Who you are?”

“Guess my first name within three days,” he said, still speaking slowly and calmly. “I will visit you each evening here. If, by the third visit, you can correctly guess my name, you may keep your baby.” He interrupted her as she opened her mouth to speak, “And yes, I have recorded this contract as well.”

She tried to swallow. “Guess your name?”

Lizzie fidgeted and began sucking her thumb.

He nodded. “But this is your last chance,” he said, matter-of-factly.

Then he took one last look at Lizzie, said “Enjoy your party,” and left the room, closing the great library doors behind him.

X.

Reflection

When Byron finally arrived a quarter of an hour later, he found her crying in the library, gripping Lizzie against her.

“There you are.” He approached, eyebrows furrowed with concern. “I’m so terribly sorry… I had finally gotten the Tyrellian corporation to agree to discuss terms for implementing some automation, I didn’t notice the time. The guests were wondering what happened. They said a small altered man showed up, and you had come here with him… what’s wrong?”

If there was ever a time to tell the truth, it was now.

“He… just wanted some money,” she said. “I gave him some and he left.” She tried desperately to still her body, to force it to stop shaking. “It scared me. I’ve never seen one before.” If she were in a fairytale, her nose would have grown to enormous length by now. Then again, a long nose would be far better than this terrible crushing weight on her heart.

“I’m so sorry, my darling.” Byron kissed her forehead. “I can’t imagine how he slipped past the servants. I should have left the conference earlier and been here for you.”

She shook her head, wordless.

“Anyway, it’s over now.” He rested a hand on Lizzie’s head. “She’s asleep… shouldn’t we put her to bed? I can apologize to our guests.”

The governor’s Christmas ball, ruined. And it was all Rumpled’s fault. She nodded, not trusting herself to speak without bursting into tears again, but refused to hand Lizzie over. She followed her husband to the nursery, where she laid the baby in her cradle, then sat beside it.

Byron laid a hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently. “I’ll go take care of the guests. But you’re exhausted from the shock… you should go to bed. I’ll be back soon.”

When Amanda responded, her voice sounded shaky in the dark. “I think I’d rather stay here for awhile.”

“Janine can watch her. Dearest, you need rest.”

Amanda shook her head, afraid to take her eyes off the baby.

Byron moved his hand to her arm and knelt beside her, eyes searching hers in the moonlight. “Amanda, tell me what’s wrong?”

She looked down at him, focusing on the reflection of the window in his eyes.

“Please,” he said softly. “I care about you. I want to know what’s wrong. Let me help you.”

She couldn’t tell him. If she told him, he’d know that she’d lied.

But—did she really want her life to be built on a lie forever?

She tried to swallow. He kept his hand on her arm.

“You have to take care of our guests,” she protested feebly.

He made no move to leave. “The servants can deal with them. I’m more worried about you.”

“You… won’t love me if I tell you,” she said just above a whisper.

His only answer was to lean forward and hold her. “Tell me,” he murmured.

So she spilled the entire story on her husband’s shoulder, from her father’s impulsive exaggeration, to the time the little man had first appeared, to her desperation to win his love, to the agreement she’d made with the mysterious altered human. When she related his demand for Lizzie in the library, Byron’s arms tightened around her.

“And he recorded that, as well,” she concluded. “So I have three days to guess his name.”

For a long moment, he said nothing. He just held her close.

“Do you hate me?” she whispered.

She felt his head shake. Then at last he said, “I’m so sorry, Amanda.”

She pulled back and looked him in the eyes. “Sorry? For what?”

He rested his hands on her shoulders. “I’m so sorry you’re in this situation. I should have realized.”

What he should have realized she wasn’t entirely sure, but the entirely unexpected reaction filled her eyes with tears again and she cried on his shoulder in the dark while he stroked her hair.

She woke up in bed next to him, disoriented after a nightmare she couldn’t remember. He had convinced her at last to go to bed and let Janine watch over the baby.

“Good, you’re awake,” he said.

She rolled over and looked at him.

“I’ve been thinking.” His demeanor was every inch the politician. “We need to obtain proof that both contracts are indeed recorded. I’ve never seen a recorder such as the one you mentioned. When he comes tonight, I will be with you and I’ll ask for a copy of the contracts.”

“If he can make things like Janine out of piles of junk…”

“I know. But it can’t hurt to check.”

She nodded, letting herself lean into his strength and assurance.

“You said you couldn’t find the trap door when you checked?”

She shook her head. “I pounded all over the floor.”

He put an arm around her and stroked her shoulder with his fingers. “We could always just tear up the whole floor.”

She frowned. “I don’t think that will work… he specified that I had to guess. If we go in there tearing things up, he’s sure to know. And that might void the contract.”

“Possibly.” He stared out the window, still stroking her shoulder absently. “At least I can get plans of the house from the builder’s firm. They should have records of any secret passages. I know this house was part of the underground railroad during the war, so I’m not surprised there are places I don’t know about.”

She nodded and closed her eyes.

He squeezed her shoulder. “I think my father had any tunnels that led outside closed off after the war, so unless some were missed… well, the little altered man must have access to the basement, since that’s presumably where a passage below the floor would lead.”

“What’s down there?” she asked.

“A lot of things. Storage and plumbing and the generator and garbage disposal—I rarely go down there.”

She pursed her lips. “Do you think… he works there?”

He shook his head. “I’m sure I would know if there was an altered human among my staff. Especially if the parts are as obvious as you described.”

It was true. There was no way Rumpled could be inconspicuous with his alterations. And his size.

“What should we do, then?” she asked. She felt calmer than the night before, but the worry still clung to her like a wet petticoat, leaving her wanting to do nothing but hold her daughter close every minute of the day.

“I’m going to get some discreet legal advice. No doubt there will be speculation about who the man was and why you and I abandoned our guests last night, but I’d still like to keep all this as quiet as possible. You can talk to the servants and see if they know anything about the man—you’re closer with them than I am.”

She nodded again, and nestled close to him.

For a moment, there was silence between them. Then, “Byron?”

He looked down at her.

“Are you… angry with me for lying to you?”

She tried in vain to read his face.

“I’m sad,” he said.

Sad. She searched his eyes for elaboration.

“I’m sad that you’ve had to live with this,” he went on after a pause. “And I wish I had known sooner. But I understand, and I own my part of it all. I want to get to the bottom of things and discuss it all with you and build better trust. Later. Right now all I want to do is keep you and Lizzie safe.”

Her eyes burned and she hid her face against his chest, and they laid still for a little while.

At last he patted her back and said softly, “We need to get to work.” Then he kissed her, got up, put on his dressing gown, and rang for his manservant to come get him dressed. Amanda got out of bed, walked to her wardrobe, and pulled out a black dress.

She talked cautiously with all the servants. They had never seen or heard of anyone matching Rumpled’s description, and swore that there had been no altered humans or even tiny men in the house, including the basement. She asked to be taken to the basement, just in case, and Southworth led her down. It was a dark place, lined with well-organized shelves and compacted bins of waste. In the center of the room, electric lights illuminated an enormous generator. It dwarfed the one she had run back at the mill.

But she saw no sign of Rumpled.

She visited the room where she’d met him, and tried again to find the trap door, but no amount of tapping or prying at the floorboards yielded any result.

Byron arrived home before supper and joined her in the library, where she sat with Lizzie clutched in her arms.

He came forward and kissed her, then sank into the chair opposite her. “I talked to a lawyer,” he said.

She cradled the baby and waited expectantly.

“He agrees with me that we need to get copies of the recordings to ensure that they exist. He’s also going to look further into the adoption laws and how they intersect with contract law. Altered humans can’t adopt through normal avenues, because they can’t pass medical exams. But the wishes of a biological parent can override some adoption laws. And a contract with a biological parent could qualify as the parent’s wishes in the eyes of the court. There may be some precedent.”

Amanda’s heart plummeted.

Byron noticed. “He’s going to dig for loopholes or anything that this… person may have overlooked or may not know. He’s the best lawyer in the area. If there’s a chance on that front, he’ll find it.”

She nodded. “I couldn’t find anything about him from the servants, or in the basement. I did write down a list of all the men’s names I could think of, though.”

He smiled slightly, reached into his jacket pocket, and pulled out a folded piece of paper. “So did I.”

She returned the faint smile and reached for the list. He handed it to her, then said, “Let me hold her.”

For a second she hesitated, then she lifted Lizzie and passed her to her father. He would protect her. And she was the one who had to guess the name.

She looked down at the lists, mentally crossing out duplicates. She was almost done when the library doors glided open.

They both looked up and saw the little man in the doorway again.

If he was surprised to see Byron there, he didn’t show it. He strode forward and again positioned himself three feet in front of Amanda, hands clasped behind his back.

Amanda nervously cleared her throat, but her husband interrupted.

“Before we begin this, I would like to have a copy of both contracts.”

Rumpled reached into his wrinkled coat, pulled out a copper stick, and handed it to the governor without looking at him. “I thought you might.”

Byron took it, examined it, and then flicked a switch on one end of the gadget. It whirred to life, and fuzzy but unmistakable versions of the little man’s voice and Amanda’s pressed into the silence of the room. First the conversation about trading her firstborn for two machines, then the one about guessing the name.

Amanda’s cheeks burned as the recording played, and when Rumpled’s low voice intoned, “You love this man, this—prince charming, don’t you?” she wanted a trap door to appear below her chair and devour her. She stole a glance up at Byron and found his face emotionless.

“Are you satisfied now?” the little man asked evenly.

Byron’s face tightened, but he said, “Carry on.”

Amanda licked her lips and gripped the papers, trying to ignore the red blinking light and focus on the scrawled names on the papers in front of her. “Is your name… John?” she asked.

Rumpled shook his head.

“Samuel?”

No good.

“Nathan?”

He denied it.

“William? Thomas? Jasper? Peter? Frank? George?”

None of those. Nor was it Max, Daniel, Michael, Walter, Lawrence, Stephen, Titus, Theodore, Arthur, Victor, Richard, Ned, or Louis.

She went through her list first, then her husband’s. When she got to the last name, her chest felt cold.

“Is it Matthew?” she asked.

“No.” He didn’t appear nervous. If anything, he almost looked bored, ready for them to be finished and let him be gone until the next evening.

She looked at Byron.

“How will we have proof of your real name?” her husband questioned, his eyebrows lowered over his eyes in a way she’d never seen.

Rumpled didn’t reciprocate the intensity. “When you are finished guessing, either because I say you are correct or because the time is out, I will provide acceptable documents. I am a human being. I receive mail and I pay taxes. I have my proof.”

There was nothing further to say. Amanda wanted to plead and beg again, but knew the little man would not relent.

“I will see you tomorrow night,” he said, turning on his heel and walking out of the room.

Neither of them slept much that night. Every time one of them thought of a name, they would get up and turn on the light and write it down. When morning finally arrived, Byron got up early to put more of his plans into action. Amanda questioned the groom and stableboys and gardeners in case they knew something the house staff did not. They couldn’t help her.

When the mail came, she flew out of the house eagerly to greet it, hoping that the plans Byron had ordered would come so that she could find the location of the trap door, but they didn’t arrive. So she retreated to the library and began scanning the spine of every book systematically, compiling a compendium of men’s names.

Byron again came home early with the disheartening news that his lawyer had uncovered no legal ways out of the predicament. He had requested a copy of last year’s census for all of New England, and had been informed that it would take three days to process.

“He probably knew that,” he concluded, brows furrowing in anger again.

The comfort she had felt from his strong assurance that there had to be a way out of this faded as he talked. Rumpled was no idiot. His genius had been apparent in his creations, and was now just as clear in the plan he’d laid.

“Why would he even give me a chance, then?” She picked Lizzie up from where she played on the rug and held her close. The baby tried to wiggle out of her grasp.

Byron gazed into the distance absently. “I don’t know. Maybe he just wanted you to feel you’d been given a chance. Or maybe he wanted to feel he’d given you one, without risking his goal.”

Amanda stroked Lizzie’s fuzzy hair until the child calmed down. “And why does he want her?”

Byron did not know.

They sat, waiting, searching their minds for any names they might have forgotten. Neither could remember at what time the little man had appeared the evening before, though they knew it had been before eight o’ clock. As the clock hands neared the hour, apprehension built in Amanda’s stomach until she thought she would be sick.

When the doors did finally open, she jumped. Upon turning her head, she saw that Rumpled did indeed stand in the doorway.

Just like the other nights, he approached her, not sparing a look for Byron. His red eye glowed up at her, and he stood and waited.

Amanda cleared her throat, trying to use the sound to shatter the roar of panic in her mind, and lifted both lists in one hand, still clutching Lizzie with the other.

“Is your name Ezra?”

He shook his head.

“Is it Edwin?”

Shook it again.

“Lucian? Jefferson? Gilbert? Zachariah? Julius? Orville? Bernard?”

It was none of those things. Nor was it Horatio, Archibald, Earnest, Hugh, Roderick, Christopher, Simeon, Ambrose, or any of the other names she rattled off for nearly half an hour.

She finally reached the last name. “What about… Augustus?”

He shook his head again. “None of those names are mine.”

Amanda crumpled the papers in her fist. “Why do you want my baby?” she cried.

Rumpled didn’t answer. He only said, “I will see you tomorrow,” and turned to leave.

Byron leapt to his feet. “I will give you anything. I will work to amend the altered human statutes… I’ll find a child who has no home for you to adopt.”

Rumpled stopped his exit, but didn’t turn to face the governor. “You know as well as I do that you do not have the power to do those things. There are not enough strings that you can pull to make things change fast enough for me. I want a child. I earned yours perfectly fairly and legally. And I will have her.” And with this calm epithet, he left the room.

Byron would have rushed after him, but Amanda reached for his hand. “Don’t…”

Her husband whirled around. “I can follow him and find where he lives!”

“I have to guess… that’s the rule. If he can prove we forced it from him, the contract is no good. Please.”

He stood looking down on her, chest rising and falling rapidly. “But… I have to do something. I won’t stand by and let her go.”

Amanda reached further until she touched his fingers with her own. “I know. Maybe you can… pull some strings to hurry the census report along.”

He sank to his knees beside her chair and grasped her hand. “Even if I can, there are hundreds and hundreds of people on that list. How can we read them all? And what if he doesn’t even live in this state? What then?”

Tears stung her eyes. “I don’t know.”

He encircled both her and the baby with his arms and held them close as the windows darkened into night.”

XI.

At Last I See the Light

Byron told her before they went to bed that he was going to leave early the next morning, but it was still odd to awaken without him again. For a moment she was flashed back to the early days of their marriage when she consistently awoke under silk covers, with the sun on her face, and a long day of lies and uselessness ahead of her.

Panic flamed in her chest and she shot up. Lizzie.

A baby’s cry drifted through the open door to the nursery reassuring her.

She got out of bed and wrapped her dressing gown haphazardly around herself, then slipped into the next room.

Janine sat faithfully next to the baby’s cradle, rocking it at perfect intervals. She looked up and her eyes glowed at her mistress.

“I think she wants her mother.”

“I’m sure. Thank you, Janine.”

The gears in the machine’s arm whirred as she moved from the cradle and let Amanda pick Lizzie up. The baby calmed as her mother’s arms closed gently around her, and her tiny fists clenched as she nestled her head against Amanda’s shoulder.

Amanda’s heart quivered. “I’ve got you,” she whispered.

“Are you all right, mistress?” asked Janine.

Amanda nodded, fighting tears. “Can you ask the servants to gather in their dining room? I need their help with something.”

Amanda’s trepidation at humbling herself before the servants melted away in the face of their sympathy. Instead of despising her for her lies, they were eager to do all they could to help. Nothing she said had jogged their memory further with regards to Rumpled. None of them had ever seen a small man with an electronic eye, or even without one, anywhere near the palace. Most of them had never seen either an altered human or a man that small, and any they had seen didn’t match the description of Rumpled at all.

Southworth, however, did have a friend at the architect’s office and he offered to get the plans to her by luncheon. Mary agreed to take care of Lizzie while Amanda looked for more names, and all the other servants paused in their work to sit down and write any names of men they knew or had ever heard of. Amanda did the same, searching the depths of her mind for any names she might have forgotten. Then she took all the servants’ lists and did her best to condense them down into one great list of names she had not yet tried. A few of them were names she had never even heard of.

At this point, however, she was fairly certain that if it were something she could guess he would never have offered her the chance. If, however, she could find the trap door and make her way quietly to where he had come from? If she could see or overhear something that would show her what his name was?

She had a hurried lunch with the servants and the butler returned before she was finished eating. He handed her a large roll of paper, tied with a blue ribbon.

She looked up at him.

He nodded. “The plans for the house.”

She pushed her food out of the way and untied the ribbon with trembling fingers. Then she spread the plans out on top of the table.

She could see the general outline of the house, but the lines and numbers confused her. “Where’s the room?” she asked, looking from face to face, her own cheeks warming slightly at her ignorance.

“Here,” one of the footmen pointed out. “And it looks like the plans do include a trap door, but I don’t see anything about how to open it.”

Based on where he was pointing, it looked like the door was about where she’d thought it was.

“He may have rigged it with his own mechanism,” the butler said. “And… it’s possible it can only be opened from the other side.”

Her heart sank and she strained her memory. “No… I know that he closed it behind him. And he still managed to get back in later.”

The servants looked at each other.

“Just let us pry up the whole floor, dearie,” Mrs. LaFaye urged.

She shook her head. “If I get down there, it has to be in a way that he can’t prove.”

An automated voice spoke from behind her. “Would you like to feed Lizzie, mistress, or do you want Mary to do it?”

Amanda turned to face Janine and her mind lit up with an idea. “Mary can do it. Then, Janine… can you meet me in the room where you were made, please?”

“Of course.” Janine left to relay the message.

Amanda rolled the plans back up and headed to the room where it had all begun.

If Rumpled was the one who had engineered the mechanism that opened the trap door, maybe Janine could figure it out. After all, he had engineered her, too.

Janine stood in the middle of the room, blue eyes fixed on the section of the floor Amanda had pointed out.

“I do not understand,” she said. “This door is a trap?”

“That just means it’s a door in the floor,” Amanda explained. Once again she surveyed the floorboards for any hint of cracks that shouldn’t be there, and saw nothing.

“And you want for me to open it?”

Even after over a year, the machine’s grammar needed some work. “I thought you could help me figure out how. I think the man who made the way to open the door is the same man who made you.”

Janine looked at Amanda, then back at the floor. She tilted her head to one side, a mannerism she had picked up from Byron.

“Touch the button on the back of my head,” the machine said at last.

Amanda surveyed the metal plate in the location indicated. “I don’t see a button.”

“It’s there.”

She reached forward and touched the warm metal. She felt over every inch of it with her fingers, noticing spots where it was welded to other metal or even rusted through. When she pressed her finger carefully into the third rust hole she came upon, she was startled to see a tiny hatch pop open, revealing tiny gears that whirled around a small lever.

“Don’t pull the lever,” Janine instructed. “It resets me.”

Amanda pushed the hatch closed until it clicked into place.

“He hid the button in the surface’s imperfections,” she mused, letting her gaze dart over the floor near the location of the trap door.

There was a knot in one board.

Trembling, Amanda knelt and pressed her finger firmly into it.

A clicking and whirring sounded as a square but jagged section of floor rose straight up an inch, leaving a slight gap between itself and the other boards. Heart pounding, Amanda put her fingers underneath the edge and lifted it. It was heavy, but not too heavy for her to swing upwards and lower carefully back onto the floor.

Amanda looked down into the black hole that appeared. Janine clomped forward and joined her.

Stone steps spiraled down into the darkness.

“I will go with you, mistress,” Janine offered.

Amanda shook her head slowly. “No. Thank you, but you… don’t walk very quietly. I need to go myself.”

She looked for another moment, then turned, gripped the edge of the hole, and lowered herself onto the steps.

“Be careful,” Janine said.

“I will.” And Amanda began her descent.

The steps were small, and she climbed down backwards as though the passage were a ladder, clutching the steps above her as she went. The square of light above her framed Janine’s face, but as the stairway spiraled downwards, her view of the opening became obscured until all she could see was the glow of sunlight tinted with blue.

She stepped as quietly as she could, making her way down until she tried to find the next step and met level ground instead. The light from above was now so dim that she could barely see her hand in front of her face.

Breathing deeply, she turned around and walked forward slowly, taking small steps, hands extended.

A few steps in, her fingers met wood. She felt along it until she found a knob, which she turned.

The light that met her eyes as the door opened was faint, giving her a view of only vague shapes in the room beyond. She continued walking forward with her hands in front of her and only a few steps brought her to another door. This one had light struggling from underneath it and indefinite sounds came from the other side.

She swallowed and closed her eyes. Then she located the knob, turned it, and opened the door less than an inch.

She opened her eyes and peered through the crack.

The basement.

She let out a breath and opened the door another fraction of an inch.

At first, the vast space looked empty. The huge generator still glowed in the middle of the room. Other than the whistling of steam valves and the cranking of gears as the generator powered the mansion, she heard nothing.

“That took you long enough.”

Her heart nearly flew out of her chest as the words broke the dullness. She fought to keep from slamming the door, and kept her eye to the crack.

Another voice answered. “I know. He said to apologize. He wanted to test it first.”

“As if I’ve ever failed to deliver,” the first voice responded dryly.

A chill tickled over her. She knew that voice.

Rumpled.

She dared to crack the door open further.

Two men stood to the left of the generator. One was tall and nearly bald, and he was counting what looked like a great deal of money. The other was a little shorter, with shoulder-length hair and a stiff, expensive-looking suit.

The tall man finished counting the money and put it into the pocket of his wrinkled coat. “I suppose you want a receipt?”

The man in the suit nodded and pulled out a pen and paper.

Amanda stared, hardly daring to breathe as the tall man turned his face in her direction to take the pen.

It was him. He lacked the eye, but a black eye patch took its place. But how was he tall?

He pressed the paper against the surface of the generator and turned his back to her for a moment. Then he handed pen and paper back to the other man. “Always a pleasure,” he said, without expression.

The other man pocketed the two items. “He wants to order two more.”

“Well then, he’ll have to talk to me about that himself.”

If the man in the suit had a tail, it would have been tucked between his legs as he retreated.

Rumpled turned to the generator again as the other man’s footsteps died off.

Amanda closed the door and pressed her back against it.

He was a scientist. Of course he could find an ingenious way to hide his height. Leg extensions of some kind.

But that didn’t matter. She was here to find his name.

Mail. He had mentioned getting mail.

She reached along the wall on both sides of the door, shaking, desperate for some switch or chain to turn a light on. She finally located a chain and yanked it.

Dim orange light illuminated the space.

It was a very small room. She saw a bed much like the one upstairs against one wall, a desk, a chair, and a bookshelf loaded with ragged books.

She didn’t have time to think or to explore. She just needed a name.

The desk was covered in papers. She rushed to it and scanned every sheet for a name. Plans. Equations. Calculations. She saw no letters.

Stress rising to a fever pitch, she began lifting pages and looking beneath. More pages. More equations. More plans.

Drawers. There were drawers under the surface of the desk. She pulled one open and there, on top, she found an envelope. It was addressed to the palace.

To a name she had heard before.

She took it in at a glance, then shoved the door closed and jumped across the room to turn off the light. Then she took small, rapid steps back through the room to the door she’d come in by, left, and scurried up the stairs as though the mysterious man were chasing her all the way.

She had never watched so intently for her husband’s return as she did that afternoon. As soon as she had gotten upstairs and closed the trap door, she had written the name down, even though she knew there was no chance of forgetting it. Not a name like that.

Suppertime arrived, and still Byron had not returned. She tried to eat, but couldn’t down more than a few bites. She had only sat there for a few minutes when Frank the footmen entered the room and told her that the carriage had just come back with a message from the governor for her. He would be back in another hour or two—he was finishing up a few things.

Poor Byron. He was no doubt exhausting every last measure at his disposal still, not having any idea of her adventure. If she’d had any idea where to find him she would have sent him a message of her own, reassuring him that everything would—hopefully—be all right.

She excused herself, picked Lizzie up from her high chair, and retreated to the library, heart fluttering with hope.

And there she sat. Waiting. Waiting for her husband, waiting for Rumpled. Waiting to discover her baby’s fate.

Waiting for mercy.

With each automated announcement of the clock, she grew more nervous. What if she were wrong, and this wasn’t his name after all?

“It is now seven thirty p.m.,” the voice announced.

She clutched her baby close and closed her eyes.

She heard the faint brush of the library doors against the carpet, and opened her eyes.

Rumpled stood in the doorway.

Her heart thumped. Where was Byron? It had been nearly two hours.

She took a deep breath. Calm. She had to be calm. She had the answer, she was sure of it.

Once again, the little man stepped forward, red eye blinking at her. He stopped about three feet from her chair and waited.

With one hand, she reached into her apron pocket and pulled out the list of names the servants had helped her compile. She had decided to read off several of them before getting to what she was sure was the answer, to avert his suspicion.

Her voice shaking, she began at the top of the paper. “Is your name Llewellyn?”

He shook his head.

“Alonzo?”

Another shake.

She read on down. Mordecai, Harland, Cephas, Hubert, Zedock, Meriwether, Columbus, Ora—it was none of these. She continued into names she had made up in her earlier desperation. Winneston, Shanedan, Tornestol. He didn’t crack a smile at the unusual concoctions, just went on shaking his head.

“Amanda!”

The library doors burst open and Byron rushed in, covering the distance between the door and her chair in a few strides.

Rumpled, who had turned his head when the governor first entered, turned back to her.

Byron knelt beside her, and the desperation that danced in his eyes pierced her heart. “Don’t give her up. We can leave here. Run away somewhere. Somewhere he won’t find us.”

He spoke as though their tormentor were not there in range of hearing.

A flow of peace poured into her soul as she looked down into his eyes and she smiled. He loved her. He loved their child enough to give up everything for her.

Perhaps if there was a higher power, it was not punishing her after all.

She laid her hand over her husband’s. “It’s okay,” she whispered. “It’s going to be okay.”

She turned back towards Rumpled, who took another step forward.

“Is your name Junidell?” she asked.

“No.”

“Is it Franquellen?”

“No. And you cannot simply keep stringing sounds together for the entire evening. If you are finished guessing, I will take my child.” He held out his arms towards Lizzie.

Byron jumped up, but Amanda hastened to read aloud the last name on her list.

“Is your name Tyrellian?”

The way he stopped short and stared at her, both eyes unblinking, confirmed her hopes. She relaxed her grip on Lizzie and couldn’t hold back a smile.

“Is it?” she asked again.

The little man’s one visible eyebrow furrowed deeply and his fists clenched. “You cannot have guessed that! Who told you?”

“Nobody told me,” she said.

“You cannot have guessed! How did you find out? No one here knows. No one.”

“Is it your name, or isn’t it?”

The red eye darted from her to Byron and back again, and his one natural eye narrowed at her.

“Wait…” Byron stood up slowly, letting his hand slip off her arm. “You’re him? You’re the founder of the Tyrellian corporation?”

Tyrellian just glared.

“But… Tyrellian wasn’t that short…”

Amanda looked up at her husband, wondering.

“I don’t know what you mean,” the little man insisted.

Byron took one step forward. “It is you! I remember you now. How did you make yourself tall?”

The rumpled man said nothing.

“How do you have money, then? Aren’t you an indentured servant here?”

Looking like a cornered wild animal, the man darted a glance over his shoulder.

“There’s nowhere to go. Especially once news of your alterations gets out. Which it will.”

“I have no money,” Tyrellian said at last, voice calm but strained.

“You told Amanda you were a wealthy man.”

The little man pounded one foot on the floor. “I lied! Of course I lied. Who told you? No one knows my name! No one!” His voice rose with each word, and woke the dozing Lizzie, who began to cry.

Amanda held her baby close, heart light with relief.

They were safe now.

Byron was still talking. “You will be confined to a room in the servants’ quarters for the evening, and we’ll settle this tomorrow. I’m sure my lawyer will have some interesting research to do regarding your employment here and your medical status.” He stepped to the side and pulled a chain, which sent Frank to the room.

“Take this man to an empty room downstairs, and keep a guard at his door, please.”

The footman nodded and escorted the little man out.

“I know you didn’t guess!” yelled Tyrellian on his way out. He looked over his shoulder and glared at Amanda with both eyes. “I tried to help you. I did help you. We had a deal. A child to raise without prejudice. One child, in all the world. Is that too much to ask, of you in your silk and your opportunity and your perfection? Is it?”

Her husband strode to the library doors and closed them behind the two, shutting out the rumpled man’s voice.

He turned to her. “Are you all right?”

She stroked her baby’s hair and smiled at her husband. She had so many questions and so many regrets. She had pity for the man and gratitude for the turn of fate. She had many things to ask and to say, but in the moment all of it dimmed in the light of her new ability to rest. To enjoy her husband and her baby and her home and her inventions to the fullest, with nothing more hanging over her.

To be free.

“Yes,” she said, “I’m fine.”

XII.

…And They Lived Happily Ever After

Many years before, a brilliant young scientist named Tyrellian Hanover had arrived at the governor’s palace for an interview. Governor Samuel Weaver was obsessed with technology and artificial intelligence, and everyone knew that the depth of his pockets was nearly unlimited for anyone who could further these fields. Tyrellian had traveled far to show the governor his work, but regretted that he could not showcase his most impressive invention to date—the mechanical legs that allowed him to appear to be of average height when in reality he was only three feet tall.

But that was a secret between himself and his mother. He was tired of being teased for both his height and his unusual name, but he knew that if his secret were known, he would be subject to the prejudices and discrimination that any altered human faced. The field of alterations was still new, but the reactions to the few cases had been pronounced enough not to leave any doubt.

People were afraid of this unknown horror.

One day, Tyrellian would show them. He would become famous for his inventions, and once he had proved himself, he would reveal himself. He would show them he was just like them.

His AI, formed of bits and pieces from his mother’s farm, impressed the governor so much that he invited him to stay at the palace and continue his experiments. So Tyrellian did. The governor invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into his research. When Tyrellian wanted to start his own technology company, the governor invested thousands of dollars in that, too.

Things were going well.

But even while Tyrellian worked, running his factory or tweaking his latest marketable product, one experiment in particular coalesced his time and imagination. High-functioning AI. Artificial intelligence that could actually learn from people around it how to interact, how to behave, how to perform any action physically possible.

Then the unthinkable happened.

He was still a long way from finishing the project when something went terribly wrong. One mistake caused an explosion which blinded one eye and nearly blinded the other.

And what good was a blind scientist?

He owed the governor over a million dollars. His own corporation booted him from the company, jaded to any technology too ambitious and unheard of. And there were very few jobs he could perform with such limited eyesight.

Governor Weaver took pity on him and took him on as an indentured servant, running the palace generator until he could work off his debt, but he kept the arrangement quiet. There was too much scandal associated with Tyrellian’s name.

The years dragged on. Servants came and went. The governor died, and his assets passed to his son, along with the governorship. Byron ran the generator.

And he kept creating.

First an electronic eye that would allow him to see well enough to continue even more delicate work. This took many years. When finally he could see again, he picked up his work.

When he created his first machine, he didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t present it to his benefactor, because the governor would know there was no way he could do such work with his natural eyesight. And if he sold it through any traditional channels, word was sure to get around.

So he turned to the black market. His first machine sold for only five hundred dollars, but as news spread through the seedy underground of advanced technology dealers, he was able to raise his prices higher and higher until he had more money than he knew what to do with.

As his time of servitude drew to a close, he began to think of purchasing a cabin in the woods, somewhere near his old hometown, where he could live and work in peace.

But alone. An island in a sea of prejudice.

Then when the new governor sent down to the basement for loads of junk from the garbage, his curiosity was aroused. He didn’t like to draw attention to himself, and as he grew older it was getting more painful to walk up stairs with his leg extensions, so he snuck up the secret staircase from his room to the empty chamber. He had long ago rigged the door with his own mechanism for when he wanted to get some fresh air without having to hide his height or his eye.

When he climbed out, he found a girl crying on a bed, surrounded by heaps of metal.

And his heart went out to her.

Amanda heard the story bit by bit later, some from her husband, and some in the courts when she had to go testify in the cases that came up between the governor and Tyrellian. They not only ruled that the contracts had been satisfied and that baby Elizabeth belonged to her parents, but they found that because the rumpled man had been using property of Governor Weaver to make the machines that he sold, the money made was forfeit, belonging now to the governor.

Thus Tyrellian left the courtroom in the same condition he had started all those years before.

A free man, a genius, but with nothing.

Only now, everyone knew of his altered status, taking his chances of finding a job from scant to nonexistent.

Amanda pulled Byron aside as people filed out of the courtroom and whispered to him.

“Would it make you happy?” he asked.

She smiled into his eyes and nodded.

And always after that, when visits were made to the basement of the governor’s palace, one would find a small man in a wrinkled coat working there faithfully for a modest salary. And when asked his name, he would look at the questioner with one natural eye and one red one, blink, and say, “Rumpled.”

And that was all.

The End

About J. Grace Pennington

J. Grace Pennington has been telling stories since she could talk, and writing them down since age five. Now she lives in the great state of Texas, where she recently became engaged to her own personal prince charming. Her time is now mostly dominated by wedding planning, but when she has a spare moment she loves to write, read good books, and eat dark chocolate.

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Other books by J. Grace Pennington

The Firmament Series

The Firmament series chronicles in eighteen books the adventures of young medical assistant Andi Lloyd as she travels through the galaxy aboard the starship Surveyor and navigates the difficulties of family and faith.

Sweet Remembrance

Emily Ann Putzke

“Oh, take me with you! You go away when the match burns out.”

— Hans Christian Anderson

I.

A bitter gale raps against the cracked window. It’s determined to get in, sink its icy teeth into my fragile flesh, and drain every last scrap of warmth from my body and soul. It pulls at the shards of glass in a frantic effort to reach me.

Kasia, _]it whispers, [_give in. You know you won’t survive another night. Give in.

But I can’t. Not yet. Romek would be disappointed in me. I can hear his voice cut through my groggy thoughts, countering the wind.

[_You have to live, Kasia. You have so many dreams… _]

Romek, you don’t know how much you asked of me.

My fingers grip the doorknob. I hesitate only a moment. One glance at the swelling bruise on my arm reminds me that Father will be home soon. When he finds out I haven’t brought home any bread, I’ll pay for my failure. He doesn’t seem to realize that there’s no food left in the ghetto.

I stumble down the stairs, my fingers grazing the wall. The wind rushes toward me as I near the door. [_Come to me, Kasia. Come to me. _]A blizzard of white lashes against the cobblestone as I step outside. It howls in my ears and rattles my teeth against my aching jaw. What am I doing? Where am I going? I don’t know. I just walk, my cramped shoes crunching the snow beneath me. The street is quiet this evening. The Germans find it more amusing to inflict torture on us in the warmer weather, for they very rightly assume that winter will take care of us for them. Naked bodies are frozen to the pavement. There’s brown snow under every window. Some snow is crimson. I don’t want to be here when it thaws, and the secrets of winter melt in the sunlight.

I don’t have to worry. I won’t be here.

The old apothecary shop sign swings in the wind, and a German-issued resettlement leaflet flutters across the sidewalk. I step on it, grinding the death notice into the snow. Evening is descending, cloaking the ghetto in inky shadows and smothering the cries of the innocent. Was life ever anything but despair? Did I ever have a desire but to die a painless death? I can’t remember. It’s all hazy now, and I just want to sleep. A sharp wind encircles me. Its vicious fingers tug on my sweater in attempt to hurry the process. I tug back. I’m not ready yet. My feet are taking me somewhere. I stumble over an abandoned baby pram, and the icy metal digs into my shin. Blood drips down my leg and saturates the snow.

“Are you all right, child?”

I lift my eyes. A middle-aged woman stops to help me up. Her face is gaunt and ashen, her lips blue. I stretch out my hand, and she struggles to help me to my feet. I try not to think of the nauseating pain clawing at my skin.

“Thank you.”

“It’s getting dark. Go home before trouble finds you,” she whispers, readjusting her kerchief.

What home?

I simply nod and watch her walk away. She intermittently casts glances over her shoulder before disappearing down an alley. Her kindness propels me to walk a bit further, to struggle against the determined wind.

Geh weiter! Schnell!”

My nerves prick at the sound of deep, cutting voices. I stop walking, my eyes searching for the source. Just ahead, Nazi soldiers are dragging four young Jewish men toward the former watchmaker’s shop. The young men are half naked, and their waxy skin clings to their bones. They are shoved against the exterior of the building.

A soldier waves his pistol at them, a cigarette dangling between his teeth. “Face the wall!”

Three of the young men turn their bodies toward the wall, the red stone that is the last thing their eyes will see. But the fourth man doesn’t move. His hands are balled into fists. With a glare, he burns holes into the soldier’s skull. “‘If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?’” He spits at his captor’s feet, his final act of defiance.

The soldier aims his pistol with apathy, and the young man crumples to the ground like a rag doll. Blood seeps through his meager rags. The German continues down the line, never flinching as he steals life after life. “Judenschwein,” he grunts once they are all face down in their own blood. He kicks the bodies with his jackboots to be sure he did his job thoroughly. Romek’s face materializes in my mind, taking the place of the brazen young man. I remember his comrade coming to me one bleak November night. He told me Romek was among a group of resisters executed against the old concert hall. He threw out words that were supposed to comfort me.

Romek gave his life for a noble cause.

I stare at the limp bodies. The Germans don’t care that we want to live. Their guns speak for them. What right do you have to wish such a thing? The soldiers move up the street as they share a chuckle. They hold their heads high. I slink into the alleyway and lean against the brick wall until they’ve passed. I try to clear my head but can still see the dead men across the street, their death replaying in my mind like a hellish newsreel. I see Romek’s face. His eyes that crinkled when he laughed. His smile that could light up even the darkest days.

I start running, exerting every muscle in my body as the raw air rips open my lungs. My energy flags as I approach a woman huddled near a small fire in the alleyway. Her eyes are fixed on the ebbing flame, and she clutches an infant tightly to her breast. She rocks back and forth, but her child is inconsolable. Tears trickle down her hollow cheeks as she sings a lullaby.[_ _]“Sleep, sleep my beloved son. Sleep, sleep with no worries nor pain. Close your beautiful eyes. Sleep, sleep favorably. Close your beautiful eyes.”

I know what Romek would do. He’d stop running. He’d search his pockets for anything he might have that would help the suffering people before him. Romek wouldn’t turn a blind eye, like I long to do. I’m suffering! I want to scream. [_Why can’t someone help me? _]But my feet move without my consent. I plunge my hand into my dress pocket until my fingers land on a rough cardboard box. I look down into my palm.

A matchbox.

The woman cradling the wailing infant snaps her dark eyes away from the waning fire and sets them on me. She’s younger than I first thought. She’s only a teenaged mother trying to hold onto life. I feel her inquiring stare as I struggle to open the flimsy box. When the box gives way, I count the sticks. There are five left.

“Here,” I say, holding out a matchstick to her.

She reaches out her hand, and I gently place it in her palm. Such a small gift. How will it benefit her? Perhaps give her one last night to keep warm? Perhaps not even that. But she smiles at me and nods her head in thanks.

As I walk away, I look over my shoulder.

I can see Romek stopping in his tracks, kneeling before a woman and her child near the Vistula river.

A Memory

He made me light up like a firefly whenever he walked into the shop, but all I knew about him were four things: His name was Romek. He was very respectful to me and my mother. He liked books, and he was the most handsome boy in all of Poland. He came to our shop at least once a week, but I never gathered up the nerve to ask him any questions about himself.

It was an early July morning, and I had just flipped the sign to “open” on the freshly washed window. I sat behind the counter, my feet propped up on a stool. I was turning the page in my book when the bells chimed above the door.

[_“Good morning,” I said, dropping my feet. When I glanced up, my heart burst into a million butterflies. Romek stood there, his hat tucked under his arm. _]

[_“Good morning,” he replied, offering me a cordial grin. _]

[_I tucked a tendril of hair behind my ear and tried to offer a smile back. “Romek, isn’t it?” _]

_I cringed at my attempt to sound ignorant. _

“You have a good memory, Kasia.”

He remembered my name? “Can I help you find something today?”

“Actually, yes.” He took long strides to the counter and looked at me. I hid my instinctive blush. His brown eyes, sprinkled with flecks of gold, sank into my gaze. “I’m looking for Naborowski.”

[_“You like poetry?” I raised an eyebrow. _]

“Don’t look so surprised.” He smirked.

“Oh, I’m not.” I dropped my gaze. “Let me see what we have.” I circled around the counter to the bookshelves that homed a large selection of classic Polish writers. Mama wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s just… well, most young men who frequent this store limit their search to cigarettes and the newspaper.”

“I like cigarettes and the newspaper just as well as the next man, but when you’re a student of literature you’re apt to enjoy a good poem or two.”

_There. Now I knew five things about him. _

I trailed my finger across the leatherbound classics, the raised lettering firm and stately under my touch. I was so lost in searching for the book that I didn’t notice his stare. But I caught him as I turned around. He quickly looked away and my stomach flipped as I held out the book . “Will this one do?”

He hardly glanced at it. “Yeah, that would be fine.”

“I’ll just ring this up for you.”

“Thanks. I appreciate it.” He dug in his pockets as I took the book to the counter. I wished he would put it on credit, just so I could learn his last name. Unfortunately he had the money and placed it on the counter. I took my time wrapping the book in brown paper.

“You’re good at that.” He nodded at my folding.

“I’ve been doing it for a long time.”

“How long?”

“My parents started the shop eight years ago.” I didn’t dare tell him my father then gambled away our earnings, skipped town, and only came home when he saw fit. “What do your parents do?” I asked.

“My father is a professor of science, though most people get the impression that he’s a musician.”

“Why?” I slid the neatly wrapped package toward him.

[_“Our last name is Mendelssohn.” He winked as he grabbed the package. _]

[_I couldn’t help it. I burst out laughing, and he smiled at my response. _]

“Do you like music?” He lingered near the counter.

“I dream of being a concert pianist in the Warsaw Philharmonic someday.” My body tensed. Why did I tell him that? He’d laugh, just like everyone did.

“No kidding?” Was his look of surprise undertoned by mockery or genuine curiosity? I couldn’t tell.

“It’s silly. I know it is.” Heat creeped into my face. I busied my hands with rolling up the paper packaging.

“If it’s your dream, it’s not silly. You shouldn’t talk like that.” I met his gaze. No one had ever defended my dream before. “What are you reading, if you don’t mind my asking?” He was looking at the book I had abandoned on the counter.

[_ “Music theory. But it’s just on my own. I can’t…” I took a deep breath, swallowing my pride. “Well, I can’t afford going to university right now.”_]

[_“Then I commend you for your dedication.” _]

“Thank you.” I smiled, not sure what else to say.

A heavy silence hung over us for a long moment. I racked my brain for something—anything!—to say. He cleared his throat and moved away from the counter. “Well, it was very nice talking with you.” He turned to leave.

[_My heart sank. He must have found me dull. Why couldn’t I think of anything interesting to say to keep him longer? I sank down into my chair to watch him leave. _]

He stopped halfway toward the door, hesitated, then turned. “Kasia?”

I dropped my book, my hands trembling. “Did you need something else?”

“Yeah… sort of. I just…” He was staring at the ground, his brow furrowed as if trying to sort out his words. “You can tell me no, and I’ll never bother you again, but I just thought that maybe you’d like to go to a concert tomorrow night since you like music and everything…” He looked up at me.

“With you?”

He rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah… but if you have a… you know… a boyfriend…”

What was he asking? “Yes, I’d love to go,” I cut into his tangled up sentence. “Thank you.”

A smile danced across his lips. “Great. I’ll come by tomorrow around seven.”

[_I wanted to ask him, “Is this a date?” But what else could it be? _]

I walked on clouds for the remainder of the day.

The next evening I couldn’t swallow, breathe, or do anything human except feel my stomach do somersaults one after the other.

“What if I can’t think of anything to say?” I asked Mama. She was sweeping the shop floor, a kerchief covering her silver hair. She grinned but kept her eyes fixed on her work.

“There’s beauty in silence, Kasia.”

I tapped my fingers on the counter and kept watch out the side window for Romek. “How do I know if he’s the right one?”

“You’ll know.”

[_“That’s not very helpful,” I grumbled to myself. I leaned forward on the stool, cupping my chin in my hands, as I observed a young couple strolling past the shop. My dedicated vigil was rudely interrupted by jingling bells. Romek swiped off his hat upon entering. _]

“Good evening, Mrs. Heim.” He nodded toward Mama, and then his eyes fell on me. “Hi, Kasia.”

[_I jumped off the stool.. “Hi, Romek. Let me… I just need to grab my sweater.” I felt his eyes on me as I hurried into the back room where I had shed my sweater earlier. I haphazardly draped it over my arm. “Well, I think I’m ready.” _]

“Have a good time, you two.” Mama kissed my cheek, then turned her gaze on Romek. “Have her home by ten, please. I’ll be waiting.”

“Yes, Mrs. Heim. I’ll take good care of her.”

His response pleased her, so we set off without any further questioning. Romek pulled open the door and we stepped outside into the gathering twilight. The air was cool for a summer evening.

[_“It’s a bit chilly,” he said. “Here, let me help you.” He took the sweater from my arm, gently wrapping it across my shoulders. “Do you mind walking?” _]

_I shook my head. Ribbons of coral hung in the dusky sky, and a waft of fresh pastries lingered under our noses as we passed the bakery. _

[_“You know,” he said, breaking the silence, “I’ve been meaning to ask you about this concert for a while. I guess I was too nervous you’d say no.” _]

I fixed my eyes on the buildings ahead. “I never say no to a concert.”

“Good to know.”

[_I tried to study the faces of the passersby to calm my thudding heart. There was a schoolboy kicking a ball around, an old woman and her middle-aged daughter, and a young couple so lost in each other’s eyes that they nearly pummeled right into us. Romek took my hand in his and pulled me out of the way. Our eyes met for half a second. He quickly dropped his hand. I probed for something to say to alleviate his embarrassment. _]

“What do you want to do with your life, Romek?” Did I just say that? I blinked, wondering why I couldn’t converse like a normal human.

His chuckle caused heat to crawl up my neck and burn into my cheeks. “That’s quite the question.”

“Sorry, I… I don’t know why I asked that.”

[_“No, it was a good question.” He buried his hands into his pockets and lifted his head to the sky as if it held all the answers. _]

[_“You are a student of literature. Do you want to be a world-renowned author or scholar someday?” _]

[_“No.” He was quick to answer. “I just want a simple life. No heroics or fame, you know? Besides,” he said, glancing at me with a grin, “who says I can write anything fame-worthy? Now you on the other hand are going to be a famous pianist, and I think it would suit you. I better get your autograph now before the crowds swarm you and you forget all about me.” _]

“That will never happen.”

[_“Yes, it will.” He nudged my shoulder. “Just wait until you’re playing in the Philharmonic. The crowds will go wild.” _]

[_“I mean, forgetting about you… that would never happen.” What was happening to me? Words were spilling out of my mouth without sufficient thought. I bit my lip, scolding myself for sounding so flirtatious. _]

“Oh.” He sounded surprised, but pleased. “Good.”

[_The concert hall was a beehive of activity when we arrived. I suddenly realized how underdressed we were. Ladies draped in fur stoles were escorted by dapper men in crisp black suits. Romek and I exchanged a look. “I like to keep things simple.” Romek shrugged, glancing down at his freshly pressed button up shirt and trousers. He was clean-shaven, and I could smell his aftershave as we waited in line. When my eyes fell on my own humble garments, I unconsciously let out a little sigh of disappointment. My black and white houndstooth dress was fresh and clean, but plain. The only consolation I had in regards to my evening wear was Mama’s pearl necklace that was draped across my neck. My fingers fell on the smooth, cold beads. _]

[_“You look really nice, Kasia. I meant to tell you that earlier.” _]

My heart jumped. “You do, too.”

He leaned over and whispered conspiratorially, “I think fur coats look ridiculous.”

That made me smile, even though I wasn’t certain I agreed. I knew he was just trying to make me feel better. The line moved slowly, but I took the time to admire the warm glow of lights twinkling above us in the lobby. I soaked in every detail—the polished floors, the feel of lush fur coats against my arm as ladies brushed past me, the smell of cigar smoke that hung in the air, and the hazy, warm, elegant atmosphere that made my skin tingle with excitement. I followed Romek to our seats, my eyes drawn to the lights glimmering above us. A din of voices flooded the room.

“I’m sorry our seats are so far in the back,” he said.

“I don’t mind.” I really didn’t. I was bewitched by the sights and sounds. Even the seats felt like heaven. My body relaxed as I sank into the velvet cushion. I glanced over at Romek. He was staring at me with an amused grin.

[_“What?” I asked, blushing. He must have thought me silly to be so enthralled by something so natural to the rest of society. _]

“You’re refreshing.”

Unsure of his meaning, I ignored the statement and made one of my own instead. “Stop staring at me.”

[_“I’m not staring at you!” He quickly looked down at the program he was bending into a mangled-up fan. _]

“Yes, you were. It makes me nervous.” The lights began to dim. I scooted to the edge of my seat, hands clasped tightly in front of me.

[_“I wasn’t staring!” He lowered his voice to a defensive whisper. He just had to get the last word in. _]

“Shh! The concert’s starting.”

He fell back into his chair with a defeated sigh.

[_I watched every gentle movement of the pianist as the soulful melody of Mendelssohn’s “Sweet Remembrance” enraptured me. I drank in every note, every movement, until I became drunk on the impassioned cadence. I sank back into the chair and closed my eyes. Our arms brushed against each other, but neither of us moved. We sat like that for the remainder of the evening, our arms gently touching on the armrest as we soaked in the music. My mood rose and fell with the notes, tangling me into an emotional jumble of bewildering thoughts and feelings. Tears burned in my eyes. I blinked, letting the warmth streak down my cheeks. A roar of applause rose from the crowd as the lights flickered on. I clapped my hands as hard as I could, joy springing through every vein in my body. _]

“Well? What did you think?” Romek asked, as we began walking homeward.

“I’ve never heard anything so beautiful in my life!” I twirled around in reckless abandon, so enlivened by the evening and our budding love. He watched me, his eyes shining with pleasure. But the church bells tolling ten o’clock brought us both back to earth once again.

[_“Your mother’s going to hang me if I don’t get you home soon,” he sighed, a hint of reluctance in his voice. Could it be he didn’t want the evening to end? _]

[_“Yes, she will,” I agreed with a little laugh, but I didn’t want to go home. _]

[_He slowed his strides to match mine as we meandered down the sidewalk, trying to drag the night on for as long as we could. I stayed close to his side and he seemed to like that, for he inched a bit closer, too. The lights still shone through the bakery window, and we stopped to purchase a box of mixed pastries. As the buttercream melted in my mouth, I lifted my eyes to admire the night sky. The moon tossed streaks of pale light against the cobblestone, and a thick fog hovered under the silver birch trees. We lingered outside the shop for a long moment. Romek’s face was ruddy from the chill. He tugged on his cap, a shyness creeping into his bearing. _]

[_“Well, how did you like it?” _]

I held in a laugh. “You already asked me that.”

[_“I did?” He ducked his head sheepishly. _]

“Yes, and I told you how much I loved it.”

_He suddenly glanced over his shoulder, watching the silent street. _

“What’s wrong?” I asked, hand lingering on the doorknob.

“Nothing. I just—” He turned again. “I thought I heard something.”

I shivered and pulled my sweater tighter to myself. “Thanks again for the nice evening. I’ll never forget it for as long as I live.”

“Neither will I.” He smiled and reached out to squeeze my hand. “Good night, Kasia.”

I bolted upstairs to my room, shedding my sweater on the bed. As I unpinned my hair, I watched Romek from between my curtain blinds. He was moving slowly up the street, stopping every now and then to listen. What did he hear? I dropped a pin on my nightstand, squinting my eyes against the hazy fog that hovered over the Vistula. I thought I saw something move in the shadows near the bridge. My eyes tried to pick the object out of a cloud of darkness. The clouds shifted, pale moonbeams falling on a woman rocking her young child. Her clothes were tattered and torn. As I cracked open the window, a child’s cry drifted into my bedroom. I could see Romek kneeling beside them, rummaging through his pockets. He held out a handful of zlotys.

[_“I don’t want your money.” The woman’s voice was dripping with bitterness. _]

“Then at least take this,” Romek’s tone was kind, but firm as he slipped a wrapped pastry into her hand. “You shouldn’t be out here. Let me take you to a shelter—”

“No!” The woman’s voice pitched louder. “No. I don’t want your help, or anyone’s for that matter. Leave us be.”

Romek reluctantly stood up, swiping a hand through his hair in an agitated manner. “Please, let me help you.”

_She shook her head, squeezing the child to her chest. _

Romek lingered for a long moment then crouched down again, reaching for the child. “Please, let me—”

[A firm _]slap![ split through the air. My hand flew to my mouth as Romek stumbled to his feet, his hand on his face. “I’m sorry. I just wanted to help.” He made a mad dash for the street, then suddenly stopped. He ripped off his coat and ambled back, draping it over the woman and her child before running off, forcing them to accept the small gift. _]

[_What made him so willing to help a complete stranger when it would be easier to simply brush past them and utter a prayer for their well-being instead?What made him sacrifice his evening simply to nurture my dream? Respect and admiration stirred in my heart. I couldn’t continue lying to myself about Romek. It wasn’t an infatuation any longer. _]

That night, I knew I was in love with him.

II.

Sorrow and joy wage a fierce battle in my heart. Why must the memories prick at my heart like this? Tears spill down my cheeks as I roam the alley, stuffing the matchbox deep into my pocket. I long for that evening when my head was whirling with thoughts of love, not with the knowledge that I might not survive another night. I clutch the memory to my heart possessively. The Germans have taken everything and everyone from me. But not my memories.

I won’t let them have my memories.

My ears ache from the cold. I could stop and make a fire, for evening is falling rapidly. I finger the matchbox. Or I could give them away. I have four matches left. The wind digs its nails into my skin, and I pull my sweater across my chest, slipping into a doorway.

Stay warm. Savour the warmth of the matches while you can.

Give them away. Don’t hoard what you can share with the suffering.

What good can one match do?

One match can’t save a life, can it?

My eyes snap forward as shoes scrape against pavement. A boy is running toward the ghetto wall. He stops and peeks over his shoulder before kneeling down. He’s searching for the false bricks that cover a small opening to the Polish side. His scrawny frame moves along the wall in quick movements and I take a tentative step out of my safe haven to keep watch for German sentries.

The sound of jackboots cracks against the icy cobblestone. We both stop. The boy inhales and scrambles to find the false bricks. The footfalls are swifter now. I hear the clinking of a rifle against a belt. I run toward the brick wall, ready to intercept the sentry.

What am I doing?

But I don’t stop. I quicken my pace.

I step in front of the sentry who stops in his tracks. He’s a foot taller than I am, a giant demon looming over me. My pulse roars in my ears.

Oh God, what have I done?

He hesitates a moment, as if deciding which offense is more worthy of punishment. He looks past me as the boy disappears into the opening.

“Please.” My voice cracks. I wonder if he can even hear me. “Please, he’s hungry.”

The sentry stares at me. I flinch, preparing for the punishment.

“You stupid Jew.” His deep voice slices through the air. “You know I could kill you for this.” He takes a step forward, his gear rattling against itself.

I swallow dryly. I long to slink into the shadows, to disappear from everything and everyone. My fingers search for the matches in my pocket. I slip one into my palm and hold it out to him. “May I light your cigarette, sir?”

He studies me for a long moment, nearly as shocked by my confidence as I am. Without taking his eyes off me, he calmly reaches into his breast pocket, yanking out a cigarette. He slips it between his teeth, inclining his head toward mine. I don’t dare breathe as I strike the match against the brick. I stand on my tip toes and touch the flicker of light to the end of his cigarette. He stares at me, but his eyes aren’t like the others’. They don’t sear into my skull or degrade me with one callous glance. They are almost understanding. I look away, unsure if I merely imagine a spark of kindness in them, for at any moment he can kill me. He could be giving me a false sense of safety before sending a bullet through my head. My blood turns cold as he straightens and takes a long drag.

Danke.”

My hands fall to my side. Did he just thank me? Did a German soldier thank me for lighting his cigarette? What kind of cruel trick is this? I don’t move. I wait for my fate. Will he kill me now? Will he make me run before shooting me from behind? Why doesn’t he do it already? What is he waiting for?

“I have three daughters,” he says, positioning the cigarette between his finger and thumb. He gazes past me, lost in thought.

That’s his explanation. He is a father. He has a heart.

No.

He has some ulterior motive. I’m sure of it. But then he does an about-face and saunters up the street, smoke swirling from his cigarette. I blink once. Twice. I wait for him to whip around and shoot me. I wait for the heat of a bullet meeting my flesh. He continues his beat. He never turns, only glances at the wall now and then. He doesn’t even take the rifle off his shoulder.

There’s no sense to it. There’s no consistency. I can’t depend on anything, not even death.

[_There are good people in the world. Don’t ever doubt that. If we doubt it, how can we go on? _]Romek’s words flood my mind, and a flame of warmth kindles in my heart. He encouraged me to seek the good in others, even when I was certain there was none left.

A Memory

It was my first birthday away from home, and the first one since war had been declared. I bundled up in my overcoat, red scarf, and boots, snatched the plate of muffins I’d baked earlier, and hurried to Romek’s house for the evening. Golden leaves crunched under my boots as I passed a newspaper stand. Bolded headlines screamed our downfall.

WARSAW SURRENDERS.

[_I stepped aside, nearly tripping over the curb, as a squadron of German soldiers marched past. The sunlight reflected off their helmets. They were so close I could have touched the eagle emblem on their field-grey jackets. Their voices rose on the conquered Polish air: “Hail our Leader, Hail Hitler to thee!” One soldier stared at me, a nasty smile spreading across his lips that made my stomach turn. The rest of the squadron kept their eyes fixed ahead, as if we were all invisible. Once the hammering of jackboots began to fade, I ran across the street to Romek’s apartment. I bit my lip, casting a wary glance at the brick building then back at the street. _]

[_“What if your family doesn’t like me?” I had asked him the day prior. _]

“It doesn’t matter, Kasia. I like you.”

[_I had no time to entertain any further anxiety, for the door flew open, and Romek pulled me inside. “I was about to come get you. I just heard Nazi bastards singing their hearts out.” He lingered in the doorway, as if he was considering running out into the street to strangle the entire squadron. He must have thought better of it, for he slammed the door. _]

“I ran into them on my way here.”

[_“Did they hurt you?” He looked me up and down, swallowing hard. _]

[_“No.” I didn’t tell him about the one with the nasty smile. Instead, I let my eyes linger on the glasses he was wearing. _]

[_“Oh—” He swiped them from his face with a sheepish grin. I spotted ink stains on his rolled up shirt sleeves. “Can’t read without these.” _]

[_I couldn’t mask a grin. “You look like a student of literature.” _]

“Yeah, when I want to look smart I pull these out.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I almost forgot to wish you a happy birthday. I can be such an idiot when I’m around a pretty girl.”

[_“Yeah, you can be.” I lifted my anxious eyes to meet his. He smiled down at me. _]

[_“Don’t worry. They’ll love you, Kasia. I don’t know how anyone couldn’t.” _]

Why was he doing this to me? My knees were giving out, so I quickly held out the plate of muffins to him before they landed on the floor.

“You didn’t have to do that,” he said, lifting the cloth to sneak a peek. “But I’m glad you did.”

I followed him through the elegantly furnished foyer, catching a glimpse of myself in the oval mirror. My cheeks were ruddy from the cold, and I tried to straighten the wrinkles from my dress as Romek ducked his head into the kitchen.

“She’s here.”

[_A pan clanged into the sink and a woman hurried to the doorway, untying her apron with an apologetic smile. Her shoulder-length hair was the color of cinnamon. As I looked at her, I discovered where Romek inherited his gold-brown eyes. Behind her stood a broad-shouldered man smoking a pipe. His relaxed style suggested a calm, appreciative demeanor. _]

“It’s so good to finally meet you, Kasia. Romek talks about you all the time.”

[_ Romek raked a hand through his hair, obviously embarrassed by his father’s words. His mother grabbed my hands, her skin warm and smooth. I began to relax under her kind touch. _]

“Romek,” she ordered, “take Kasia into the parlor. I’ll be in shortly with the drinks.”

Romek motioned me to follow him further into the house, past his sisters who were folding napkins in the dining room. Their hair was pulled back into thick braids, and their dark brown eyes assessed me carefully. “Jannah and Aleksandra, this is Kasia.”

[_ Jannah, the older of the two, gave me a shy smile, while Aleksandra continued to study the situation. “Are you his girlfriend?” _]

“Oh… um…” I nervously tucked a piece of hair behind my ear.

Romek tugged on Aleksandra’s braid. “Maybe she would be if I didn’t have such a nosy little sister.”

That produced shy grins all around.

As Romek led me out of the dining room and into the parlor, I glanced back to find his sisters leaning across the table, whispering and giggling, as they watched us. My face burned.

“I wanted to show you this.” Romek led me to a Bechstein grand piano positioned beneath a large oil painting of the Vistula river. The keys glistened, shined to a gleaming luster, and the bench was pulled back as if waiting for someone to sit. I let out a squeal while Romek beamed with pleasure. “I thought you’d like it.”

I jumped up and down as if it were my ninth birthday, not nineteenth. “You never told me!”

“I wanted it to be a surprise for your birthday.” He ran a finger along the keys. “No one plays it much.”

“I can see that. It’s perfect.”

“Will you play for me?”

My hands fell to my side. “Right now?”

[_He nodded. “Everyone’s in the other room. It’s just me. Besides, if you’re going to be a famous pianist someday, you have to learn to play in front of an audience.” _]

He did have a valid point. “Oh… all right.” I brushed the back of my dress against my legs and took a seat. It seemed to be waiting just for me. “What should I play?”

“How about that Mendelssohn song you like so much?”

“Sweet Remembrance? I don’t know… I’m not very good at it yet.”

[_“Ah, go on and give it a try.” Romek leaned against the piano, watching as I dusted my fingers along the cold keys. The light flickered from the lamp as my fingers settled into the familiar arrangement. Each note swelled with passion and despair, fear and joy. I lost myself in the melody, closing my eyes to the cruel world outside those walls, closing my ears to the sound of jackboots against pavement. My soul and fingers were in rhythm, sparking pieces of my heart into the evening air. As I lifted my fingers from the final note, I opened my eyes to find Romek staring at me with such wonder and admiration that it sent my heart beating wildly. _]

“Romek!” The spell was broken as his mother entered the room, her face ashen. “You have to hide the girls.” Jannah and Aleksandra filed in behind their mother, mirroring my confusion.

[_Pounding tore through the air. “Open the door, you filthy Jews!” _]

“Jannah,” Romek grabbed his sister by both shoulders, giving her a firm shake. “Take Aleksandra and Kasia out the back door. Go quickly to Uncle Peter’s house.”

“But—”

[_“Jannah, do as I say!” His voice was thick with urgency. _]

But it was too late. The Germans had thrown open the front door, shattering the peaceful night. There were three of them, all young men with fingers curved around the triggers of their guns. One husky soldier swept his eyes across the room until they landed on me. I gripped the piano bench, my knuckles turning white.

“What are you Jews doing?” His eyes pinned me to the bench.

“We’re having a birthday celebration.” Romek’s father stepped in front of me. His voice was calm, but his face had lost all color. “That is not a crime, I hope?”

[_My skin crawled as the soldier shared a smirk with his comrade. “Ah. It’s the little Jewess’ birthday. I would not be celebrating anything if I were you. No, Jews, you should not be celebrating another year of life.” He snatched a lighter from the side table, lit himself a cigarette, and strolled around the room. I held my breath as he stopped in front of me, exhaling a breath of smoke above my head. I tried to swallow a cough but it came out in a mangled choke. _]

[_The third soldier didn’t appear to be enjoying himself like his comrades. His eyes roamed around the room, stopping on Romek. They shared a long glance before he snapped his attention to me. _]

[_“You, Jewess. Play us a song.” _]

His comrades began to protest, but he must have outranked them, for one sharp look shut their mouths. A sickening wave of terror seized my body, and I couldn’t move, even if I had wanted to. Romek slid onto the bench beside me and leaned into my shoulder. “Play, Kasia. We’re going to be all right. Trust me.”

How could he possibly know that? It was a foolish promise, but I clung to it with all I had. My trembling fingers pressed down on the keys and sent a bittersweet melody into the nightmare around me.

“Enough!” The husky soldier tossed his cigarette on the floor, grinding it into the carpet. “Line up against the wall.”

[_Perspiration dripped down the nape of my neck and the room began to spin. Would I die instantly? Would it be painfully drawn out? _]

[_The veins bulged in his neck. “Move, you lazy pigs!” _]

[_Romek laced his fingers through mine and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “We’ll be all right,” he whispered again. I wanted to scream at him! We were not all right. We were on death’s doorstep. He reached out a hand to Jannah, pulling her into himself. The blood drained from her face, and her eyes blinked wildly. I couldn’t bear to look at his parents or his ten-year-old sister whose cries were smothered as she clung to her mother. _]

God, please spare us!

The third soldier grabbed the pistol from his comrade’s hand. My stomach rolled. “This is a waste of time.” He stuffed the pistol into his belt and moved toward the door. He motioned for the soldiers to follow him. “Let’s get a beer.”

[_“Fine, after you take care of them.” The husky soldier pointed at the six of us lined against the parlor wall. _]

[_“We’ll get lots of them later. God, I need a stiff drink.” _]

[_The two soldiers hesitated, but finally relented as their free beer stormed out the front door. “Go ahead,” the husky soldier laughed. “Go ahead and celebrate while you can, Jews.” The door slammed behind them, rattling the pictures on the walls. The lightbulb flickered. The room was swallowed in silence. _]

“He remembered.”

A wave of nausea consumed me, and I collapsed onto the piano bench. “W-who did?”

“Franz.”

“What?”

Romek gently brushed a tear from my cheek. I hadn’t noticed I was crying. “I knew we wouldn’t die tonight.”

“How could you possibly know that?” My voice was as shaky as my knees.

“We were friends when he studied in Warsaw before the war. We got in a lot of trouble, but we always looked out for each other.” He looked at his parents. “Franz stayed at our house once or twice over the holidays.”

His father nodded, holding his wife and daughters close. “He promised to do what he could if things got bad for our family. I never doubted his word.”

“When I saw him, I knew we’d be all right.” Romek kneeled before me, lifting my chin. His fingers trembled. “There are still good people in this world, even when they appear to be the enemy.”

Church bells chimed the hour. None of us spoke as we listened to the lonesome bells split through the still night. Romek disappeared into the kitchen, coming out with wine glasses for each of us.

“To the year ahead,” he whispered, raising his glass. “Happy birthday, Kasia.”

“Happy birthday.” Trembling voices rang out in unison as we clinked our glasses together.

[_ I took a long sip of the wine. It tingled down my throat, swelling my insides with warmth and healing my frayed nerves. Romek leaned in and dropped a tender kiss on my cheek. His warm breath tickled my ear. “There are good people in the world. Don’t ever doubt that. If we doubt it, how can we go on?”_]

I breathed in and out. I was alive, and despite the trials I was certain my nineteenth year was going to bring, I felt braver knowing that good people still walked the earth.

III.

I lift my fingers to my cheek. I can almost feel Romek’s warm breath on my skin as I replay the moment in my mind. But a gale of wind steals it away, twisting it into the bitter air. The thumping of jackboots grows dim, and an eerie silence falls over the wall.

Move, Kasia.

I duck into an alleyway and lean against the cold exterior of a building. I inhale frosty air that cuts into my lungs. I can no longer feel my feet. I’m not certain when I last ate. Where am I going? Where are my feet leading me? Clinging to the walls, I walk further into the ghetto despite the cold, despite the hunger. I’m in a dreamy haze, my mind just barely aware of my actions. I end up in front of an apartment. The door has been knocked from its hinges and inside the entryway, a young girl is curled up beside a waning candlelight. Her loose braids tumble about her emaciated shoulders. Her lips are swollen and cracked, and her skin is translucent.

“Can I sit with you?” I ask.

I don’t wait for a response. I slip into the shelter and slink down against the wall. The girl stares at me through hollow eyes. “Why don’t you go further inside?” I ask, nodding toward the rooms beyond.

“They’re dead,” she says. “I’m… I’m too scared.”

The comfort of the candle now feels cruel and cold. Any words I can conjure up to comfort her seem flat, so I say nothing.

“They didn’t find it.” Her voice is shaky.

I look up. “What?”

“They didn’t find my art. I’m going to bury it. I won’t let them kill it too.” She pulls a stack of mismatched papers from beneath her tattered blanket. I reach out a hand, eager to see beauty.

The girl tentatively hands me one sheet of paper. “This was my first drawing. My uncle smuggled the drawing pencils and gave them to me for my birthday. Do you like it? I used to love dancing.”

I stare at the two figures expertly sketched on the page. A young man is holding the hand of a woman in a swirly, elegant gown. I can see the movement as they dance. I can feel the love as they gaze at each other.

I can feel Romek’s hand in mine as he holds me close.

“I know,” the girl says, taking it back. “It makes me cry, too.”

I blink back tears, but one escapes down my cheek and lands on my lips. The girl conceals the pages under her blanket, hunching over them as if they are gold. “They’ll burn these if they find them, but I won’t let them. Someday, years from now, someone will find my art buried beneath the ruins of Poland.” The girl’s clammy face grows paler by the minute. Death lingers over both of us. Who will it take first? I don’t want to move. I ache too much. I’m too tired, but my feet push me on.

[_Stand up. Stand up! _]

I lean against the wall, digging my fingers into the peeling wallpaper.

“You’re leaving,” the girl states. “Though heaven knows where you’ll go. You’ll die out there.”

The candlelight flickers. The girl heaves a sigh as she stares at the only light she has left. I dig into my pocket until my fingers touch the third match. “Thank you for sharing your art with me.” I place it in her palm and watch as her bony fingers close on top of it.

I can’t erase the drawing from my mind as I wander into the street once more. No matter what they do to me, they can’t steal my memories of young love.

A Memory

“Romek, you’re going to get us killed!”

Romek took my hand in his. “We’ll be back before curfew. Don’t worry.”

[_I threw a wary glance over my shoulder as we hurried through the ghetto, passing a man trying to sell trinkets from a suitcase. The Jews of Warsaw didn’t need trinkets. We needed food. I had seen this man before. He and his wife once pulled their six children in carts up and down the streets. The children wore tattered rags on swollen limbs as they sang for their bread. They had such cheerful voices, and as Romek and I walked past them, we’d sometimes slip a piece of bread into their hands. Then the children began to disappear. Then the carts. Then the wife. Now the father wandered the streets. I longed to tell him he had such beautiful children, but his mind was somewhere else. Somewhere distant. _]

[_ “We’re going to get shot,” I whispered._]

Romek said to come prepared to dance, but where in the ghetto could two Jews find peace and solitude, let alone a place to dance?

He stopped walking and glanced down at me. “Kasia, please trust me.”

I nodded, swallowing back my fear. “All right.”

He led me inside the bakery where a bespectacled man was kneading dough. The counter was no longer filled with creamy pastries. The smell of yeast hung in the air, and sacks of sawdust-flour were piled in the corner. The man looked up as we entered.

“‘All people are equal brothers,’” whispered Romek.

_The baker wiped his hands across his apron, and motioned for us to follow him. Without a word he pushed aside the sacks of flour, revealing a trap door. As he pulled it open, the plucking of violin strings and laughter wafted into the bakery. _

[_“Go on,” the baker’s voice cracked. _]

_We hurried down a creaky set of stairs into a dimly lit basement. The trap door closed, and I heard the sacks being dragged across. Rows of chairs were filled with young men and women listening to the light hearted melody of a violinist who stood on a stage of crates. Beyond the makeshift concert, young couples held each other closely as they waltzed in the light of carbide lamps. _

Here, beneath the Nazis’ feet, we could all pretend we were free.

[_A young man approached us immediately and gave Romek a firm handshake. He had a mop of red hair that he kept neatly trimmed and slicked back from his broad face. “Well, look who finally decided to show up! And I see you have a girlfriend? It’s about time.” He nodded approvingly at me. _]

Romek took my hand with a smile. “Benson, this is Kasia Heim.”

“A pleasure,” said Benson, firmly shaking my hand. He turned his attention to Romek. “You are coming to the meeting on Friday night?”

“Yes, I’ll be there.”

“What meeting?” I peered at Romek, but Benson cut in before he could say anything.

“A meeting of youth who won’t be passive anymore,” Benson lowered his voice and stepped in closer. “We’re preparing for armed resistance. We all know they’re not taking the very young and old to labor camps. We have contacts on the Aryan side where we can get weapons. The Polish Home Army has given the fighters a small cache of guns, but hardly enough to crow over.”

[_Perhaps it was the sense of security being underneath the ghetto, but suddenly I felt reckless. “I want to join the resistance.” _]

“No.” Romek’s eyes locked with mine.

Benson gave him a befuddled look. “Why can’t she?”

I was confused by the glare between them. “I can do it, Romek.”

“I know you can do it, but—”

Benson interrupted us with a glance at his watch. “Look, we’re here to dance and have a bit of fun before curfew. Bring her on Friday. We’ll make a compromise.” Benson didn’t wait for a response. He strolled away, offering a dance to a shy girl sitting in the corner.

_We were silent for a long moment as we took a seat, each lost in our own thoughts. _

“Kasia?” Romek whispered.

“Hmm?”

“I’m sorry. I just don’t want anything to happen…”

I reached out and patted his hand. “I know.”

We were silent again, listening as the violinist changed his tune to a slow waltz.

“Do you like to dance?”

I smiled at him. “Of course I do.”

He looked away, seemingly embarrassed. “I mean… do you want to dance right now?”

[_“Right now?” _]

[_“Yeah, I mean, we don’t have to. I don’t know. I just—” _]

[_“I would like that.” I stood up, brushing the wrinkles from my dress. _]

That produced a relieved smile. He took my hand, and we walked to the back of the room to join the dancers. He placed one hand on the small of my back. He held my hand firmly in his own, as if he wasn’t planning on letting go anytime soon. “I have a confession to make,” he said, pulling me a bit closer. “I don’t know how to dance.”

I stared at him, momentarily dazed. “What?”

He ducked his head sheepishly, but I caught a shy grin. “How else was I supposed to get this close to you?”

I tried to hold back a smile, but it broke through. “Romek, you’re terrible.”

“I’m sorry.” But he didn’t look sorry.

[_“Well, I could teach you how to dance.” _]

[_“You could try.” He shrugged his shoulders. “But I think it only fair to warn you that I have two left feet.” _]

[_“Honestly, you never learned?” _]

“My mother tried teaching me, but she gave up very quickly.” He winked.

“It’s easy. Just move your left foot toward me. Then move right, two, three. Left, two, three.”

[_He caught on quickly, so quickly in fact that I suddenly wondered if he had been teasing me all along. His steps mirrored mine, and he didn’t once step on my toes. _]

“You lied to me.”

He furrowed his brow and squeezed my hand. “What do you mean?”

“You know how to dance.”

His face broke into smile. “You’re a good teacher.”

Our hearts pounded against each other. I could see the gold specks in his eyes and the stubble on his chin in the warm, murky light. I released his hand as the room began to sway. “Maybe we should sit. I’m… I’m feeling a little light headed.”

“Oh.” He nodded, rubbing his jaw and seeming a bit disoriented. “All right.”

_We sat against the wall, stretching our legs in front of us. I stared at my tattered boots, frowning at the sole that was peeling off my right foot. My stockings were ripped at the knee, but my dress was still in tolerable condition. _

“The Nazis can’t touch us down here,” Romek sighed, as if he actually believed those words.

I didn’t dare entertain the very real possibility that they could find the trapdoor. Instead I pretended that I believed him. “Then let’s never go back.”

[_“Okay.” He was close now. I could feel his breath tickle my neck. His eyes lingered on my face, searching and studying every detail. I dropped my eyes. _]

“Don’t stare at me.”

But this time he didn’t feign innocence, and he didn’t look away. “But you’re beautiful.”

[_My hair was grimy, and my skin was frightfully pale. I placed a hand over his eyes. “I’m a product of this ghetto now. I don’t want you staring at me like that.” _]

His eyelashes brushed against my palm. “Stop it.” He pulled my hand away with annoyance. “Don’t talk like that.”

_ I dropped my hands into my lap and lifted my eyes to meet his, quickly losing myself in his gaze. _

“I love you,” he said.

[_My stomach flipped, and a smile spread across my face. “Thanks.” _]

“I just confessed my love for you, and all you say is thanks?” He laughed.

My face burned. “I meant to say… I don’t know what to say.” I stared at my shoes and chided myself for messing up the most beautiful of moments.

“Well, you have two options,” Romek teased. “You could throw yourself at me like they do in the movies and say something really romantic, or you could tell me to jump in a lake.”

I was amused by his options. “Or I could do both.”

He raised an eyebrow and shook his head. “But that would just confuse me.”

“Then I suppose I’ll just keep this as simple as possible. Romek, I love you too.”

“Thanks.” The dancers and the music faded away as he grew closer. “I’ll keep this as simple as possible too. Can I kiss you?”

I nodded. We were blissfully ignorant of all that lay ahead. The only thing on our minds was a future together. I wrapped my arms tightly around his neck. He placed both hands on my face, and I closed my eyes as his lips met mine.

IV.

I’m nearing the resistance headquarters, but how did I end up here? I peek over my shoulder as the snow tumbles from the sky and is laid across the cobblestone like a blanket. I’m blocks away from home and still my body pushes me deeper into the ghetto.

“Kasia?”

My breath quickens.

“It’s me, Benson.”

I recognize the tall figure as he emerges from the shadows, a pistol shoved into the top of his pants. His face becomes sharper in the glimmer of the snow. The last time I saw him was through a haze of tears when he told me of Romek’s fate.

“What are you doing out here?” he whispers.

“I’m… I’m just remembering.”

“I’m sorry about Romek.” He lowers his eyes as I lift a hand to hide the tears fighting to break free. “Romek really loved you. I hope you know that.”

I nod. “Yes, I know.”

“Everything he did was for you.”

Benson, stop! I want to scream. But instead, I reign in my emotions and look at him. “Romek wasn’t one to give up easily.”

“And neither are you.”

“No, but I know when it’s time to surrender.”

Benson checks the alley before stepping in closer. “They’re gone, Kasia. Everyone in our cell of the resistance is gone.”

I feel nothing anymore. “We knew we wouldn’t win. We knew we’d lose our friends in the fight.”

“But knowing feels so different than the reality of it all.” Benson exhales a long breath. “You and I are the only ones left.”

I can’t envision the basement that was once bursting with young life ready to defeat an army now empty and still. “What are you going to do now?”

Benson pats his pistol with pride. “I’ll fight. Will you join me?” He looks hopeful, but I shake my head. My bones ache with every move as I find a match for Benson. My fourth match. He stares at it in confusion.

“For your Molotov cocktails,” I explain. “Fight back until Poland is free.”

He takes it in his calloused hand, staring at me with pity. “Shalom, Kasia.”

Shalom, my friend.”

I watch as he melts into the murky shadows as quickly as he came out of them.

We were fighters in the resistance, but we had not fully considered the consequences.

A Memory

A wave of typhus had seized the ghetto, wringing the life out of its victims. It took my beautiful Mama on a rainy October morning. I became determined to fight for those who couldn’t fight for themselves. On Friday evening, Romek took me to the resistance headquarters. Dozens of fighters rushed around the basement of the watchmaker’s shop under the dim glow of flickering light bulbs. The air was heavy with the scent of sweat and gunpowder. In one corner of the room, young men and women were trained to load and shoot guns. They aimed their pistols at the wall, squeezing one eye shut as they imagined a target. In the other corner, men were gathered around a table strewn with glass bottles, vials, cloth, and a plethora of tiny objects. Benson was leaning over something, fully engrossed in his work when Romek clasped his shoulder. “Things are shaping up around here.”

Benson jumped, turning to look at us. “Romek, unless you want to meet your great-aunt Ruth, I’d suggest not touching me while I’m making a bomb. “

“Oh.” Romek quickly stepped back, his eyes wide. “Sorry.”

Benson wiped his hands along his trousers, peering from Romek to me. “So, you talked this dolt into letting you come?”

[_“Only because I didn’t want Kasia back at the shop by herself all night. I still feel uneasy about her joining.” Romek turned to me. “I just don’t want anything to happen to her.” _]

“See? Romek doesn’t deny he’s a dolt.” Benson grinned at me. “Kasia can help sort bullets, and Romek, your assistance is needed teaching those boys how to hold a gun.”He nodded toward the new recruits with a cringe. “I can’t blame them. They were students, not soldiers.”

“I’ll do anything I can to help,” I said.

[_Romek looked at me. He lifted my chin and placed a kiss on my lips. I kissed him back until Benson cleared his throat to break it up. “I hate to interrupt, but we have a war to fight.” _]

[_Benson led us to the supply room where small caches of ammunition were being sorted. I had been learning to differentiate the bullets when my body began to ache. It was the same aching I had felt for the past two days, but I hadn’t told anyone. _]

[_“Something wrong?” The young man sorting bullets beside me paused his work. _]

[_“No,” I mumbled, picking up the cold bullets. My eyes burned. I blinked, trying to see through the cloud clogging my vision. _]

[_“You don’t look good. Maybe you should take a break.” _]

“I’m fine.” The room began to spin, and a wave of chills seized my body.

“No, you’re not. Just sit down, okay?”

I felt myself falling backward, the bullets slipping between my trembling fingers. The only thing I remember hearing was a cry for help.

When I awoke, I was on my bed. Two warm hands held my clammy face. I squinted through a haze of delirium and saw Romek standing over me. I could see his mouth moving, but no words grazed my ears. Then, as if I had been tossed to land after being submerged in a rushing sea, the sounds came back louder and clearer: the ticking of the clock, my own heavy breathing, Romek asking me questions.

I tried sitting up, but he placed a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t. Just relax.”

I obeyed and sank into the bed. I blinked as harsh sunlight poured through my windows. “Is it typhus?”

He didn’t say anything for a long moment. “I… I don’t know.”

_That meant yes. _

[_I covered my face with both hands, trying to hide my ugliness from him. “You better go.” _]

“I’m not planning on it.” The bed shifted as he sat on the edge. The scent of fresh air and musty sweat clung to his jacket. He pried my hands away from my face.

I slapped his arm. “Go before you get sick. You have to stay safe.”

“I’ll never be safe. None of us are.” He stared past me, his jaw firmly clenched. As if he felt my gaze, he turned to me with a renewed sense of duty. “Hungry?”

_I shook my head. _

Romek pulled a small loaf of bread from the inside of his jacket and ripped off a chunk. “Well, you’re going to eat this anyway.” He shoved it into my hands.

I began picking at the dry bread while Romek disappeared into the other room. He returned with a cup of water. It sloshed against the sides as he presented it to me. “You’re going to get better.”

[_But I didn’t feel as if I’d ever feel better. I could see my bones poking through my pale skin. My body refused nourishment. I turned over in bed, leaving the nibbled bread on the sheet beside me. Another rush of chills racked my body, and I began squirming around to keep warm. _]

Romek set the cup of water on the floor. “Kasia, what’s wrong?”

I could barely get my words out as my teeth chattered against one another. “I… I’m so cold.”

“What do you need? What can I do to help?”

I tried stretching out my arms, but my body tensed. “Just keep me warm.”

He sat on the bed and pulled me up into the crook of his arm. He rubbed the goosebumps from my arms. I buried my face into his jacket, listening to his quickening heartbeat as my mind tripped into a feverish daze. “You’re going to be all right,” was his constant refrain, spoken with such firm authority that I almost believed him. His arms tightened around me. “Kasia, stay with me! Kasia… Kasia… Kasia…” His pleas were distant, like echoes bouncing off a mountain.

When I opened my eyes, they no longer burned. My body didn’t ache, and hunger, like a ravenous lion, now clawed at my stomach. The room was dim with grey morning shadows. Romek kneeled beside my bed, his head resting on the mattress. Both hands clung to my arm. I whispered his name, and he slowly lifted his tousled head, squinting at me through sleep heavy eyes.

“You stayed all night?” I asked, my voice cracking.

[_He leaned over me, placing his hand on my forehead. The sleep vanished from his eyes as he dropped a tender kiss on my cheek. “Couldn’t leave you.” He grabbed the cup of water and placed it in my hands. “Drink.” _]

_I brought the enamelware cup to my mouth, closing my eyes as the liquid refreshed my cracked lips and dry throat. _

“I thought I lost you.” He lowered his head, his voice thick with emotion. “Don’t ever do that to me again. Why didn’t you tell me you felt it coming?”

I ran my fingers through his short, wavy hair. “I’m sorry. I thought I’d feel better in a few days. I didn’t want to worry you.”

He looked up at me, fatigue washing over his face. “Last night I made up my mind. I’m going to get you out of the ghetto.”

I dropped my hand. “No. Not without you.”

“Kasia—”

“Where would I go?” Tears welled in my eyes.

“There are Poles who will hide you. I’ll have it all arranged. Please,” he winced as he watched me, “don’t cry.”

[_“I don’t want to be safe, can’t you see?” I tore off the sheet and climbed out of bed. My legs wobbled when my feet touched the cold floorboards. Romek caught my elbow before I fell, and my face burned at my attempt at a heroic exit. _]

Romek grabbed my shoulders, giving me a firm shake. “Kasia, you have to live. You have so many dreams—”

I pulled away from him. “You have dreams, too.”

[_“Yes, but they were never quite as lofty as yours. Besides, my dream can’t come true in this place.” Romek’s eyes were clouded, and he quickly lifted his hand to shield them. His first display of tears ripped into my heart. _]

I touched the side of his face. “I want us to always be together.”

He swallowed hard as his emotions waged a war inside him. “You think I don’t? That’s all I want but—”

“We don’t have anyone left but each other. How can you even think of separating us?”

[_ He stared at me for a long moment. Finally he reached out, tucking a curl behind my ear. His resistance was ebbing. I bound my arms tightly around his neck, and he hesitated only a moment before wrapping his arms around me snugly. “We’re stronger together, Romek.”_]

V.

I know now where my feet are taking me. I try to turn back.

Too many memories live there.

Too many reminders of love and loss.

But I continue on toward the abandoned concert hall that’s silhouetted against the gleaming snow. My lungs burn, and my feet are numb with frostbite, as I duck into the building, shaking snow from my dress. The foyer that once shimmered with lights and was infused by the scent of cologne and perfume, the room that once beheld women in pearls and fur coats, is now veiled in grey shadows and reeks of mold. Wasn’t it just yesterday that Romek and I were shyly exchanging glances in this foyer? I can almost see his eyes dancing as he leans over to whisper, “I think fur coats look ridiculous.”

And now he’s gone.

I trail my hand across the wall to keep my balance as I stumble blindly into the darkness. My fingers land on a door, and I push it open. I enter the auditorium that once swelled with music and laughter. Now there are starving bodies sleeping on the velvet chairs. A draft swirls in from a hole in the ceiling caused by the blitzkreig. The magic has been crushed with a new cruel reality.

I’m walking up the stage where I dreamed I’d someday be a pianist, where bows flew across strings and mingled with lulling piano notes. It was a foolish dream, perhaps, but it kept my spirits up during the darker days.

The piano still stands in the corner, covered in charred debris. A fresh snow is sprinkled on the keys.

A Memory

“Bundle up, Kasia. It’s going to be cold.”

I wrapped my red scarf around my neck and plunged my arms through my sweater sleeves. “Where are we going?”

“It’s a secret.”

“I don’t like secrets.”

[_“You’ll like this one.” He tossed me a wink, which I couldn’t help but accept. _]

We linked arms and took the back way out of the shop, Romek sweeping the street with a watchful eye before stepping out. I limped beside him, and we didn’t say a word as we hurried down alleys. I kept my eyes fixed ahead, trusting Romek to lead us safely to our destination. I wondered what sort of place in the ghetto he would be excited to show me and couldn’t think of a single place. I struggled to keep up. Romek must have sensed my depleting energy, for he slowed his pace and looked at me with concern.

“I’m all right,” I whispered. “Just a bit tired.”

He put his arm around my waist, and we walked slower until I recognized the part of the ghetto he was taking me to. It was hard to imagine that this was once was a lively place for Poles to enjoy a nice dinner and attend a concert. I glanced at him. “Romek—”

“We’re almost there.”

I kept silent as we snuck into the concert hall. It was in shambles now, just like everything in the ghetto, including our lives. Romek took my hand. “Follow me.” We climbed up a narrow staircase, brushing past a tall middle-aged man wearing a weathered suit.

He nodded to us and muttered, “It’s a shame, but I can’t leave it.”

“Leave what?” Romek asked, raising a brow.

“That piano. My sister used to be a pianist before the war, so I come by now and then to make sure it’s not left to rot, like everything else. It’s the least I can do for her…” He stared past us, lost in his own world. He suddenly remembered we were standing there and cleared his throat. “Are you musicians, perhaps?”

[_“She is.” Romek beamed at me with pride. _]

[_“Good.” The man nodded, swallowing hard. “My sister would have liked it to be played.” He hurried past us, and I wondered what had happened to his pianist sister. _]

We emerged into a musty, dark room. “Stage left,” Romek whispered in my ear. “Go ahead.”

He released my hand, and I took tentative steps toward the beckoning stage. I could make out heavy curtains silhouetted against the inky shadows. Instead of wearing an old tattered dress, I imagined myself in a dazzling red gown, my hair pinned up, my skin smooth and tan instead of frozen and ashen. Instead of empty chairs and debris piled throughout the auditorium, it was full of ladies wearing expensive hats and men smoking cigars.

“Curtsy,” came Romek’s whisper from back stage.

I threw him a smile and did as he instructed. I curtsied to a room of imagined people. In my mind, they applauded with vigor. They jumped to their feet and cheered me on.

A tear trickled down my cheek.

Romek’s footfalls sounded against the stage floor. I reached out for him, and he held me close, resting his chin on my head. “So many dreams that won’t come true.” My throat tightened. “It’s not fair.”

He wiped the tears away with his thumb, then took my hand. “Come here.” He led me to the back of the stage where the piano stood. A dark blue blanket was draped over the shiny surface, and Romek pulled it off in one quick sweep. Despite the despair around it, the Bechstein was strong and firm, just like we all were before the war. The man’s sister would have been proud. I ran over to the piano and dusted my fingers along the keys. “Can I?”

He peered over his shoulder before nodding.”Quietly.”

[_I placed both hands on the keys. Suddenly the room was filled with a harmony it hadn’t heard since the war. I breathed in the music as if it were oxygen. It soothed my nerves, my aching bones, my hunger, my worry. I played until hot tears began spilling down my face. I was only twenty-one. I still had a life to live. I had my life planned. I had a future, but the war stole it. _]

_Hitler stole it. _

[_I stopped playing and stared at the keys through a haze of tears. A dull, empty ache gnawed at my soul as Romek slid onto the seat beside me. He didn’t say anything. If I had looked over at him, perhaps I would have seen tears in his eyes. But I didn’t. _]

“Kasia, I have something for you.” He reached into his pocket. In his palm was a silver ring. “I know it seems silly now because it can never happen here, but this was my dream. I wanted you to be my bride.” He gave me a wistful smile. I could see tears glistening in his eyes as he swallowed hard. “I wanted us to have a brood of children. I wanted to provide and care for you all the days of my life. But we know, don’t we… that’s not our future.” He ducked his head, his voice tripping. “They’ve taken everything from us.”

[_“No.” I took his face in both hands, forcing him to look at me. The grief in his eyes tugged at my heart. “They haven’t taken everything from us. There are some things that can’t be stolen, like our memories and our love. Those are ours, Romek.” _]

He searched my eyes. “Marry me.”

[_“But we know we can’t have a future together. We’ll die fighting back. Think of how many comrades we’ve already lost.” There were a hundred reasons we could never be together. _]

[_“Why can’t we fight back as husband and wife?” _]

My heart thudded wildly. In the midst of war and certain death, I suddenly nodded my head. It was a wild idea, and yet it felt so right. “Yes, I’ll marry you. I’ll marry you right now.”

He leaned in and kissed me with passion, weaving his fingers through my hair. “We’ll get married tonight. Go home, Kasia, and I’ll be there soon.” Romek leapt up, raking a hand through his hair with a lopsided smile. “Are we crazy?”

“Yes, but I love you,” I whispered in his ear. “Thank you for always believing in me.”

I lost myself in his eyes that bore a gentle courage. He turned to leave, hesitated, and then kissed me once more. I clung to him, not wanting him to leave for a moment. Anything could happen in a moment. I gripped the piano, watching him leave for the last time.

I didn’t hear the gunshots.

I didn’t hear anything but my beating heart.

I collapse onto the stage floor, my eyes fixed on the void in the ceiling where snow tumbles down like diamonds. Every breath I take burns my lungs and becomes laborious and cutting, like a knife ripping open my throat. I know my time is near. The cold wind presses around me. [_It’s time to go, Kasia, _]it whispers, wrapping me in its frosty embrace. My head falls back against the floor. Through my hazy vision I can see the endless sky where no war, no hatred, no sorrow reside. My fingers are brittle with cold as I grip my final match. I drag it across the floor until a flicker glows. I hold it close to my face, relishing the momentary warmth and watch as it eats away the match, swiftly growing dimmer.

“Kasia.”

Romek’s sitting beside me, his smile ever present, and his hair tousled. I gaze into his face. It’s so fresh and clean. His touch is gentle as he wipes the snow from my cheeks, eyelashes, and lips. “I’ve missed you.” His voice is like the final chord of a sonata. I close my eyes as it swells on the wind. He pulls me onto his lap, and I curl into him. He holds me close to his chest. His shirt smells fresh, like verdant grass and rich earth. I melt into his embrace. “Kasia,” his breath is warm in my ear. “It’s time to come home.” He picks me up, holding me tightly in his strong arms. I gaze into his eyes and realize each breath is no longer a fight. I’m drinking in warm air instead of the raw cold. My skin is no longer clinging to my bones. It’s healthy and smooth. My body no longer aches.

I’m warm. I’m loved. I’m going home.

About Emily Ann Putzke

Emily Ann Putzke is a young novelist, historical reenactor, and history lover.

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Other books by Emily Ann Putzke

It Took a War

1861 – Sixteen year old Joe Roberts leads a mundane life as far as he’s concerned. His world spins in the same circle each day: working at his family’s store, taking his sisters on boyish escapades and bickering with his rogue of a cousin, Lucas. Joe can’t understand why his mother allows Lucas to live and work with them after all the pain he caused their family. When war is declared, Joe is quick to join up and become a soldier with the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteers, but war is nothing like he imagined. To make matters worse, he must endure having Lucas in the same regiment. Can Joe put the pain of the past behind him? Forgiveness is easier said than done.

Ain’t We Got Fun

It was never much of an issue for Bess: living contentedly on her family’s farm, despite the Depression which loomed around them. But when her older sister Georgiana takes off to New York City to make a fortune and help Papa out, feelings of adventure and wanderlust strike Bess at home. Through their lively letter correspondence, the sisters recount to one another their adventures, surprises, and heartaches, leaving little room for depression. For in a world of such wonder, ain’t we got fun?

Resist

Munich, Germany 1942—Hans Scholl never intended to get his younger sister involved in an underground resistance. Hans knows the consequences for their actions—execution for committing high treason—but firm in his convictions, he’s prepared to lose his life for a righteous cause.

Death Be Not Proud

Suzannah Rowntree

I.

If only I’d had some warning. If only the thing had come the same way a storm from the north comes—racing down the lake faster than a horse can run, the water whipping from glass to silvered whitecaps under its scudding feet. Or if only it had come like a traffic smash, with the screech of brakes and an agonised honk of the horn.

But there was no warning. No whitecaps, no screech. Just the crisp air of a night in late autumn, the hectic sound of jazz, and Mr. Hunt elbowing his way through the crowd on the dancefloor to lean his knuckles on my table.

“Ruby?” His voice was breathless, portentous. “There’s a gent over there wants to buy you a drink.”

By day, the marquee on Roy’s Island hosts a meek teashop, where respectable businessmen and holidaying families pay too much for tea and buns. But on Sunday evenings like this one, most people with a claim to respectability stay home. Paper lanterns bloom on the rafters. Tom Hunt posts a lookout on shore with a covered lantern to signal if the police decide to join us. Big unmarked flasks come up from the still hidden on the north side of the island, the quartet from Oamaru sets up next to the bar, and the singing and dancing gets louder and faster late into the night.

Usually someone offered to buy me a drink, but not until after I’d sung. I snapped my lipstick shut and lifted an eyebrow. “A ‘gent’? Anyone I know? You know I’m bad with strangers.”

Beside me, Kat Johnson snorted. “What a liar you are, Ruby. He can buy me a drink if he likes, Tom. Bill Fisher’s getting Ruby an applejack.”

But Mr. Hunt kept his eyes on me. “He’s over in the far corner,” he said with a jerk of his head, “and I think you’ll find you know him.”

Just then the band struck a final chord and the couples on the dance floor milled toward their tables, blocking my view of the corner. I threw my handbag onto the table and got up. “Well, he’ll have to wait. This is my number.”

Mr. Hunt opened his mouth as if to object, but then closed it again. He hurried to the microphone.

“Ladies and gentlemen, she needs no words of introduction. The nightingale of Lake Wanaka: the lovely, the scintillating Miss Ruby Black!”

The applause and the catcalls ran through my blood like a jolt of electricity, and I slid into the spotlight with a whoop. The band launched into the jaunty melody of If You Knew Susie, but I’d tweaked the words.

If you knew Ruby, like I know Ruby,

Oh, oh, oh, what a girl!

I dance well and sing better. Some less-than-sober voices picked up the tune and shouted it along with me. I finished the first verse and tapped intently, arms swinging, rumpled black bob storming into my eyes, dress flashing sequined and red in the spotlight.

I was alive.

It was May, I remember, and though the weather had been glorious for so late in the autumn, and the poplars and larches on the lakeside went on crackling in a dying shower of orange sparks, the summer season was over. A little snow had fallen in the mountains, but the winter skiing would not begin until the weather became more stable. So for the moment there were precious few tourists, and we had our little mountain lake and our little mountain town to ourselves.

Or so I thought, beating out the rhythm with clattering heels and toes, until somewhere in the second verse—oh what a chassis!—someone moved under the paper lanterns in the far corner. My heart lurched, as if a great hand had snatched it out of my chest and shot it into the icy lake.

I was amazed to find that I had not missed a single beat, that my song had not faltered. In another moment I was back inside the music, but my voice and feet quickened. The band scrambled to catch up. The music ran through my veins like liquid heat.

So that was why Tom Hunt spoke in an awestruck whisper.

I got to the final verse and stepped out of the spotlight, weaving between tables and chairs to appreciative catcalls. Oh, whoah, whoah, what a girl!—The band hit the final chord. I slid to a stop in front of his table and threw the hair back from my face with a flick of my chin.

“You wanted to buy me a drink, Mr. Moran? Now’s your chance.”

Everyone stared at us. In the sudden silence, someone squealed, “Oh, gosh!” Celebrities are rare with us this time of year, but if the King himself was touring New Zealand I’d bet his glory would fade before Dunedin’s favourite son. Max Moran, half back for the All Blacks.

He sat there, staring at me, dumbstruck.

“Well? I’m all yours.”

“Have a seat,” he managed. I pulled out the chair opposite his and sank into it, still breathing hard after the number. The band started into another, and some of the attention slid away from us as couples returned to the dance floor. Max Moran went on staring at me, and I couldn’t read his face at all. At close quarters he looked just the way he did in the papers, with a narrow determined face under an unruly thatch of light brown hair. Perhaps a little wider in the shoulders than one expected.

“Can you spare me a cigarette?” I asked. I’d left my purse with Kat, and I needed some kind of stage business to occupy my hands while he came out of his trance and gathered his wits. But he shook his head.

“Sorry. I don’t smoke.”

“Don’t worry, then.” I swivelled in my seat and prodded a shoulder belonging to the next table. “Hey, Jim! Give me a smoke!” The cigarette was at once forthcoming, together with a match to light it, and still Max Moran only stared at me with a faint line between his brows.

“I liked your singing.” His voice was abrupt.

“I’m told it’s something.”

“But I have to wonder. Why waste a voice like yours on popular songs? You’ve obviously had classical training.”

Marcie Hunt came up at that moment to ask for our order. I said “The usual,” and Max Moran ordered ginger-beer. I shook my head at him.

“Pembroke may be off the beaten path, Mr. Moran, but she can afford a little hooch. I can recommend the applejack.”

“Thanks, but I prefer to stay legal.”

“What a good boy,” I said, and I meant it to sting. All the same, I was relieved when the stone-faced façade cracked in a smile.

“Maybe. I’ve come to prefer the right side of the law.” The laughter drained out of him. “You do, when you’ve seen what I’ve seen.”

He leaned back in his chair, fidgeting with something in his pocket, as Marcie brought my applejack. I shifted my elbows onto the table. “What have you seen, Max Moran?”

He waited until Marcie put down his ginger-beer and then leaned forward again, his voice dropping. “Do you really not know me?”

“What’s that supposed to mean? Your face is all over the papers, Mr. Moran. Of course I know you.”

“My name is Max. And I’m positive we’ve been over this already. I know it sounds daft, but you look like—you might almost be someone I used to know.”

“I bet you tell all the girls that.” I watched the smoke curling from the end of my cigarette. “Almost? If not for—what?”

“That other girl is dead.”

It came so matter-of-factly that I shivered, and dragged on my cigarette to calm my nerves. “Don’t tell me that. Where are you staying?”

“The Lakeside Chalet.”

“That explains it. I’m a maid there. Sometimes I don’t catch the guests’ names. You probably saw me when you arrived.”

He didn’t seem to hear. “The girl I spoke of, I knew her in Dunedin. Her name was Wu Xue Bai.”

“Never heard of her.”

“You should; you said you read the papers. Two years back. She was kidnapped by the Irish mob, they say. They ripped out her heart and sent it to her father. She was sixteen. Gifted, by all accounts, but too young to die.” There was the faintest shadow of an Irish lilt in his own voice.

“I remember. Half Chinese, wasn’t she? Word is her family runs opium. Do I look so much like her?”

“You look nothing like a schoolgirl,” said Max Moran. He broke the gaze which had kept me pinned with such uncomfortable intensity, and glanced down at his drink. Something in him changed; the dead girl was swept aside and he picked up the glass. “The other reason is that moonshine tastes awful. You aren’t old enough to know the taste of good liquor.”

“Who says I’m not? I’m older than I look.”

“You look about eighteen.”

“Heavens, you whites. I’m twenty-four. Older than you are.”

“It must be the Chinese blood.”

“Korean, actually. There’s a difference.” A trained eye can often spot it—Koreans tend to have flatter faces with higher cheekbones—but Max Moran’s eye wouldn’t be trained. Possibly this Xue Bai was the only Asian woman he’d ever known.

He blinked. “You’re Korean?”

“A lot of us came out for the gold. Most folks set us down as Chinese.” A breeze drove across the lake and through the trees, and set the marquee lanterns swinging. The slow burn of alcohol and the glow of dancing faded. I shivered and got up, swallowing the last mouthful of applejack.

“I think Kat Johnson is going to try to get your autograph as soon as I leave. I can see her over there, champing at the bit.”

A smile. “Then don’t leave. I hate signing things.”

“It’s cold and I need to get my wrap. But thanks for the drink.”

“Xue Bai, wait,” he said.

The words hung in the air. I turned back to him, the hair prickling on the back of my neck.

“I want to see you again. Tomorrow?”

“You mean Ruby,” I said, very gently.

He blinked and leaned back. “Ruby. Forgive me. How stupid.”

I hesitated, watching him. There was something odd about Max Moran, some razor-sharp focus that unsettled me more than I liked to admit, even to myself. I didn’t for a moment believe he had made a slip of the tongue. “Tomorrow,” I said, “I’m working from nine till late. You’ll see me.”

But he wouldn’t get the chance to speak to me. That I would see to.

No one knows how deep Lake Wanaka is. No matter the time of year it is always clear as glass and cold as ice. Clear enough to count the stones on the lakebed as you swim yards above them, even near town where boats are moored and the black scaup-ducks dive for scraps.

Cold enough, if you swim too long, to kill you.

Further out, the lake takes on a wonderful greenish-grey colour, something crisper and more mysterious than the sky, the glacial colour of mountain waters.

Since the first day I came to Pembroke, I have never been able to resist it.

The Lakeside Chalet was still asleep and the sun only just up when I flung a woollen coat over my bathing suit and went down through scrub and flax to the shore. Ripples the colour of turquoise lapped against the shingle. I kicked off my shoes and tossed my coat onto the gravel, startling a red admiral butterfly from its perch on a nearby piece of driftwood. Further out, the water reflected gold streaks from the sky and honey-coloured specks from stones on the lakebed. Further yet, the sky’s reflection melted into reflections of the mountains near and far: Roy’s Peak above the town, Treble Cone and Black Peak dominating the far horizon, Mount Alta looming on the right.

I loved the mountains in all their changeable moods. Right now they rose light and airy into a horizon of purple clouds flushed with pink. The snow on their upper slopes took on the colours of that muted sky, so that the mountains themselves seemed clouds.

Later the sun would wheel into the blue expanse above me and it would be a glorious day, but by then my shift would have started. And the water would be no warmer.

I stepped into the ripples, treading carefully over the stones of the lakebed. Apart from the plash and wash of small waves on the shore, there was no sound but the faint and far-off hum of a motor. Someone was out early—fishing, perhaps, from Beacon Point further south toward the town. The water reached my thighs and I began to lower myself by easy inches. There is no good rushing this; the body goes into shock if it’s too quickly immersed. When the icy water hit my lower stomach, my breathing quickened involuntarily. Taking long slow breaths to calm my heart and lungs, I went on sinking, snaking my arms gently into the water, wrapping them around my knees.

I sat in a crouch, the water ringing my neck like a choker, until I began to tingle with warmth. Then I pushed off and began to swim.

Stay in cold water too long, and you’ll first lose the feeling in your extremities, then die very slowly as your body slows breathing and heartrate to conserve energy, drifting into a sleep from which there may be no return. Stay in just long enough, and you are shocked into wakefulness, warmth, and an exhilarating sense of vitality. My Taoist ancestors, meditating in the dews of winter to cultivate the life force within them, perhaps knew something of this. I could never sit still for very long but I never felt more alive than on chilly mornings like this, in this elixir of a lake. I sprinted out toward the brown bulk of the Peninsula and turned to come in again, feeling worth about a million pounds.

As I turned I trod water for a moment to take in the view of the shore.

The Chalet stood under a sombre darkness of pines with a bright fringe of poplars beneath it. Beyond, the low bulk of Mount Iron stood muted and green against the western sky. To the right, Beacon Point and Eely Point blocked my view of the town, but not of little Roy’s Island on the far side of the bay, sleepy and unadorned this morning after last night’s lights and revels. To the left, the lake narrowed and swept into the Clutha River.

On the shore above the shapeless mound of my coat crouched the black figure of a man. I thought he was going through the pockets. My heart gave an unpleasant lurch. Then he stood and I realised, first, that it wasn’t Max Moran—too short, too broad—and second, that he was watching me.

Watching, and waiting for my return.

Perhaps I was mistaken. I turned right, aiming for Beacon Point, and struck out in a long, scrambling crawl. The point was half a mile off at the far end of a shallow bay. As I gasped for air between strokes, I got brief watery glimpses of the shore and of the black, Homburg-hatted silhouette of the stranger moving along the bank to keep pace with me.

Once more I stopped and waited, treading water.

The stranger on the bank also waited.

This was ridiculous. I should swim in now and ask him what the blazes he was doing pawing my things. For a moment I nearly did. He was probably just a passerby on his way to town. Vulgarly curious. Or a vagabond in search of spare change or cigarettes.

A pretty idiot I would look if it turned out to be a benevolent stranger thinking to return a lost coat.

Or if it turned out to be a dangerous lunatic bent on murder.

I took a deep breath and dove, then turned in the water, altering my course again for the Chalet. I crawled as far as my lungs would take me and then broke surface gasping for air. Opposite on the bank the stranger hadn’t moved, but when he saw me he started back up the path to intercept me.

At that I must have lost my head entirely. It seemed suddenly impossible to return to the shore. I twisted in the water, close to panic, and saw the towering brown slopes of the Peninsula.

The big spur of a hill, barren and pathless, practically an island, the Peninsula reaches from the east shore of Lake Wanaka toward the mouth of the Clutha. To reach it, my pursuer must either follow me across the lake, or walk for miles by shore, or sprout wings and fly.

It was not above half a mile across open water from the Lakeside Chalet. In desperation, I turned and struck out for it. At the time, the thought did not seem so wild. The Peninsula seemed to offer safety, and in that panicked moment, with the blood still running hot and fast in my veins, I forgot how little time I had before the lake leeched all the life from me.

I had covered barely a quarter of the distance before I remembered.

My hands and feet went numb, as if they had turned to wooden blocks. I paused, and though I was breathing hard with my efforts, the water pressed close. All my body ached with cold. Ahead, the Peninsula seemed no nearer than it had ten or fifteen minutes ago when I began, but when I looked back the friendly shore, dark green with pines and fire yellow with poplars, looked far beyond reach.

Worse, the throb of a motor underlined my thumping pulse. From the direction of the Chalet, a boat cut purposefully through the water toward me.

That spurred me into action. I twisted toward the Peninsula and pulled frantically, trying not to think how deep the water was. Think instead of the little holiday cabins dotting the shore ahead of me; think of warm blankets, spirit stoves, tinned soup—

For the first few strokes I felt stronger, faster, but then it seemed as if the water thickened to glass around me, slowing my motions to a snail’s pace. Wearily, I reached through the water again and again, until at last it closed over my head and my gasping mouth found only water.

In a panic, I thrashed back to the surface. When my head broke water the roar of the motor launch was louder. I coughed and gasped, blinded with a curtain of hair over my eyes, until a hand plunged down as if from heaven itself, snatched a fistful of my short-cropped bob, and steadied me.

I couldn’t speak; I was coughing too hard, but I had forgotten about the Homburg hat and was thinking only of the yawning deep below. I clawed desperately for his arm and slammed my knuckles against the boat. A jolt of pain pierced through the numbness. I scraped my hair out of my eyes with my other hand and looked up. My wrist, wrinkled and pale, streaming blood, was caught in a man’s hand.

“Easy, easy,” he said, over and again.

I squinted against the sky and saw Max Moran.

“Hup,” he said, and slid me out of the water.

I slithered aboard in a stream of water and he pushed me onto a bench in the stern, not speaking but moving quickly and purposefully. He grabbed a greasy cotton rag from a locker and began rubbing my arms and legs. It was wringing wet in a moment and he threw it down and came out with another. I sat there shivering, teeth chattering, while he scoured me dry. When he was done he peeled off his down jacket and pulled it around my shoulders, then crammed his woollen cap over my head down to the ears.

Then he opened another locker and produced a Thermos. His hands were shaking as he pulled the lid off and unscrewed the cap, but he grinned up at me and said, “You going my way?”

There were binoculars hanging against his chest. Had he been watching[_ _]me?

I shrugged with as much unconcern as I could manage, blue with cold and rattling in the wind as I was. “That depends. I have to get back to the chalet. My shift starts at nine.”

He handed me a steaming cup of coffee, his unsteady hands scattering drops of it into the bottom of the boat. As I curled my own shaking hands around it, he yanked a tarpaulin over my knees. It was scratchy and smelled of fish, but it helped block the wind. “Your shift? You’re not seriously going to work? You’ll catch your death.”

“I don’t live on air. I’ve got to eat.” Against the cup, my hands burned with pins and needles. “What’s the time? How late will I be?”

He glanced at his wristwatch. “Ten to nine. What you need is a bed and a hot water bottle.”

So the whole thing had taken less than twenty minutes. “Applesauce!” I said weakly.

“Who’s your manager?”

“Bill Fisher, but—”

“I’ll fix it up with him.”

“Absolutely not.”

He paused, the muscles tightening at the corners of his mouth. “What were you doing, anyway?”

“Cultivating my inner life-force. You should try it sometime.”

“Looked like drowning to me.”

“So I went out a little far this morning. It won’t happen again.”

“Idiot,” he said.

I laughed shakily into my coffee. It was still too hot to drink, but the steam warmed my face. “You know how to make a girl feel special.”

“Look,” he said, gentling somewhat, “you can trust me. If you’ve been feeling grummy lately—or lonely—”

Wide eyes. Innocent look. “You think I was trying to do away with myself?”

A pause. “Were you?”

“I’d hardly tell a complete stranger.”

He looked like he wanted to swear. Possibly it would have been the best thing for his blood pressure. Instead he gritted his teeth and said, “Look, we’re alone. You can talk to me, Xue Bai.”

“Xue Bai?” I swallowed. The dead girl again. “You keep calling me that. I told you my name. Ruby Black.”

He stared at me, his jaw working.

I pointed at the binoculars. My hand shook, but I didn’t know if it was from anger or cold. “You were watching me. Why?”

“I said I wanted to speak to you,” he said after a moment. Reaching into the same locker where he’d kept his coffee, he brought out a big envelope and dropped it on my knees. “About this.”

His face wasn’t telling me much but he sat forward on the seat opposite mine, shoulders tensed with an odd and furtive eagerness. Reluctantly I handed him the coffee and opened the envelope. My hands left damp marks on the paper. Inside was a sheaf of papers—newspaper clippings, police reports, scribbled notes, snapshots—

I gave a horrified yelp and clapped my hands to my mouth. The photographs spilled across the wet floor of the boat. Max leaned down and collected them, but one remained on my knees, caught in a fold of the tarpaulin, fluttering a little in the wind. I turned my head away, not willing to look closer.

“What is it?”

Max stared at me with a dissonant serenity. “It’s a human heart. Xue Bai’s heart—or so we all believed.” He paused. “They never found the body.”

I couldn’t pretend I didn’t understand him. I moistened my lips, wondering if I was about to be sick. “You think it’s me. You think I’m her.”

“Aren’t you?” A pause. A fleeting smile. “Because if you are, I want to know how—”

“You’re crazy.”

“I asked at the Chalet. You’ve only been in Pembroke a year. No one knew you before that.”

“Bill Fisher did. I knew him in Christchurch. That’s how I landed the job.”

“And before that?”

“Before that? Oh, for heaven’s sake!” My voice lifted half an octave. “Tell me what you want to see. A letter of reference from my last job? Christmas cards from the family? Names of school friends? Holiday snaps? Tax documents? What the blazes, Max?”

“All right. All right. Of course I haven’t the right—”

“I’m serious!” I was shaking, head to foot, on the edge of my seat. “If that’s what it will take to convince you, I want you to have it!”

“All right! I’ll take your word for it.”

“Good.” That horrible photograph was still on my knee. I shuddered and turned it face down so I wouldn’t have to look at it. “Are we done yet?”

“Give me another moment.” Max held up another photograph, this one a headstone. “Here’s where they buried the heart.”

The inscription was clear, even with water blurring the ink. John Donne’s Holy Sonnet X.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so:

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death; nor yet canst thou kill me.

I swallowed. “So?”

He handed me another photo. “Do you know this man?”

Neat business suit, hair thinning at the temples, and the features of an Oriental. I would have placed him in Shansi or one of those north-eastern provinces. “Let me guess,” I said wearily, “the drug-running father?”

His brow knitted. “No,” he said, lifting up another picture, “this is Xue Bai’s father. The photograph you’re holding now is the family chauffeur, Li Chang. The day Xue Bai disappeared, so did he.”

“I suppose he must have done it.”

“The police never tracked him down. Nor could they trace the heart back to him. Instead, they arrested a man with family ties to the Irish mob.” Max pulled out another photograph. A young man in a rugby jersey, crouching on the oval. Curly brown hair, level watchful eyes.

Max Moran.

I swallowed painfully. “They thought you did it?”

“They held me a week for questioning, but nothing conclusive turned up and Xue Bai’s parents believed I was innocent.” Another photograph: a European woman with a shiny blonde Marcel wave. “It’s Mrs. Wu I have to thank that I never went on trial for my life.”

“She looks like money.”

“She was poor enough before she married Wu. His second wife, of course.” He held up the last snapshot. A thin clever face looked at me through narrow, almost suspicious eyes, their slant emphasised with a long flick of kohl at the corners, the mouth sharply curved and half smiling. Around the slim neck, and dangling across the forehead, a matching necklace and diadem caught the light.

“Xue Bai,” he said, “in costume for a performance at a school concert.”

I put out my hand and took the photograph from him. The lake was very silent; I could only hear a faint slap, slap, slap of waves against the boat. “Good heavens,” I said.

“You see.”

“I see… the resemblance. It’s extraordinary.”

I felt his eyes on me, boring through me; I felt the dead girl’s eyes, slanted and mistrustful. I thrust the bit of pasteboard back at him. “And did you? Kill her, I mean?”

The pupils were very wide in his brown eyes. “What would you do if I said yes?”

II.

I reached out and took his wrist. Under the skin his pulse beat as fast and erratic as mine did. I let go and looked back at the shore, so far away, so very far—

“I’m freezing,” I said, “and I’m late to work. And frankly, I think this subject is morbid and unnatural.”

He didn’t move. “I know who killed her. I know who killed Xue Bai.”

“So why not tell the police?”

“There isn’t a shred of evidence they’d accept in court. But what about you? Don’t you want to know?”

I could only stare at him.

“That’s what I had to tell you,” he said. “If ever you do want to know who killed Xue Bai—if it concerns you to know—you have only to ask.”

“Good heavens, no!” I half stood, so suddenly that the boat lurched. Under the influence of wind and current, we had been drifting imperceptibly closer to the Clutha and the Chalet, and while I was still bitterly cold and shivering, the sensation had returned to my hands and feet. “Why would I want to know a thing like that? I’ve already told you I have nothing to do with these people. Are you going to take me home, or do I need to swim?”

“All right.” He handed my coffee back to me and stuffed the pictures back into the envelope. He tossed it into the locker and hesitated. “You still haven’t told me what you were doing out here.”

I took an incautious mouthful of coffee, so hot it brought tears to my eyes going down, but just the taste gave me some of my courage back. “I went for a swim like I do every morning. When I turned to come back in, someone was waiting for me on the shore—I thought he was searching my coat. I struck out for Beacon Point. He began to follow me and I panicked, thinking I could make it to the Peninsula and come back another way. That’s all. I was lucky you came along.”

Slowly, he nodded. “All right.” He started the motor with a roar and turned the boat, then opened the throttle. The launch surged ahead. In another moment the wind cut me to the bone. I marvelled how far I must have swum before he picked me out of the water, but it could not have been more than a minute before he brought the boat around in a wide arc and the keel touched pebbles.

Max kicked off his shoes and vaulted over the side. As his feet touched water, he grunted in shock.

“You swim in this? They ought to give you a medal, Ruby.” He held out his arms. “Come on.”

I didn’t want to be carried, certainly not by Max Moran, but my spirit quailed at the cold water and the stony lakebed. I hesitated.

“You said the chauffeur disappeared the same day as Xue Bai.”

The smile on his face vanished. “Yes.”

“Did no one ever look for him?”

“I thought you weren’t interested.”

I reached into the glass-clear water and splashed him.

“Hah!” he yelped, laughing. “They tracked him as far as Hong Kong. And lost him.”

“And Xue Bai’s parents? Are they still in Dunedin?”

“Her stepmother is.” Max steadied the boat with both hands on the gunwale. “Her father’s dead.”

My face was almost level with his and I suddenly knew it was important, very important, to go on looking him in the eye; or who knew what might come into his head? “That’s awful. When did it happen?”

“Last year. It was methanol that killed him.”

“From drinking bad moonshine? A man after my own heart.”

He kept looking at me, a little furrow between his brows. “You didn’t see it in the papers?”

“No. I don’t look at them very often.” Though clearly I should have paid more attention. I pushed the tarpaulin off my knees and lurched over the gunwale into his arms.

I had never been much more than a featherweight. On the shingle, he swung me down and said, “Check your coat.”

There was nothing valuable in the pockets, I knew, just a handkerchief with my initials, RB, embroidered in the corner. I slipped my feet into my rope-soled sandals, handed him his jacket and pulled on my coat, feeling the pockets anyway to make certain. “Nothing missing,” I said cheerfully, “except for my peace of mind. You don’t know anything about it, do you?”

“Good heavens, no,” said Max, and his brows knitted. “Look, Ruby, I’m sorry. You’ve had a pretty foul morning. You’ll have to forgive me for being so insistent, before. But it’s uncanny. I can still hardly believe you aren’t her.”

The way he said it, I felt as if I understood, a little, some of what might lie behind his queer obsessive focus on the dead girl. A twinge of sympathy shot through me. “You must have known her well.”

He hesitated. “Well enough.”

“Cared for her?”

At first he didn’t answer, just stared at the path as we climbed the slope toward the Chalet. His voice was gruff when he finally replied. “That’s all in the past now.”

I slid him a mocking smile.

“I owe you something for putting up with me,” he said suddenly. “Look! I’ll tell you what we’ll do. If you haven’t come down with raging pneumonia by nightfall, I’ll take you out to dinner in Queenstown.”

Some consolation. “My shift doesn’t finish till nine, Max.”

“When’s your night off?”

“Sundays. Cabaret night.”

“I’ll be gone by then. Who did you say your manager was? Fisher? I’ll fix it up—”

I had to laugh. “No, Max. Honestly. It’s not you; I need the money.”

“Well, fair enough. We’ll have to make it after your shift one night. There’ll be somewhere nice to eat here in Pembroke.”

There was no helping it. “Not with me, Max.”

A sheepish grin. “No more police photographs. I promise.”

And just like that, I would have given almost anything to say yes. “Oh, it’s not that. It’s just that I don’t want to be splashed across all the society pages. ‘Max Moran’s latest.’ That’s not my style.”

He looked at me, the smile slowly fading. “What’s wrong, Ruby Black? You on the lam?”

“Just shy. Over here.” I led the way to the little shingle-roofed cabin near the big chalet which I shared with the three other girls on the staff. Bill Fisher occupied a dingy basement under the chalet itself, and the two valets and the chef lived in another cabin closer to the road. Eight of us in total.

I was going to be late, and I desperately needed to get warm, but I hesitated in the doorway. Maybe he was a mystery I couldn’t resist. Maybe I felt sorry for him. Maybe, after all this time on my own, I craved his attention.

“Thanks again, Max. I don’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t been watching. Look, let’s go somewhere with no society columnists. Have you ever seen the sun rise from Mount Iron?”

“No.” He looked hopeful.

“Right. Meet me on the summit tomorrow at eight. I’ll bring pastries and coffee.”

Mount Iron seems a friendly little hill by comparison to the massive splendour of snow-covered peaks at the other end of the lake. It was still dark the next morning when I hid my bicycle deep among the tea tree growing on the Albert Town side of the hill, settled the strap of my knapsack more comfortably across my shoulder, and began the ascent.

At this time of the morning, the sunrise was still only a faint yellow glow beyond the purple heads of the Grandview Range. It would be another glorious day.

I disturbed no rabbits as I climbed; they would all be asleep in their holes by now. There was barely even a sleepy murmur of birdsong. The path climbed steadily, looping under rocky crags on this side of the mountain, then reaching a gentler flank, running uphill through the shadows of more tea tree.

This side was steeper than the other, and further from the chalet, but I knew I could get better pastries for a lower price in Albert Town than anywhere else. I felt no regret for my thriftiness. Each penny counted. Each penny was a step closer to freedom.

I would not give one of them up unnecessarily. Certainly not for Max Moran.

The path steepened again, ridged underfoot with long striations of rock, and I stopped to catch my breath for the final ascent. In the east the light had strengthened. The Grandviews were covered in cloud shot at the edges with gold, as if a divine chariot were about to break loose on the world. Under the delicate pink and gold of the sky, the farmland of the Clutha basin took on rich jewel colours: dark foresty jades of pine or cypress, the fresh malachite of paddocks, and above them the warm dry jasper of barren slopes.

In the scrub below me, something moved.

My first impulse, I remember, was one of curiosity. I edged closer to the brink of the path to look more closely. The world was so quiet I could hear his footsteps for a moment before he emerged from behind a clump of gorse. By now the light was strong enough to show me his outline. When he came in view he lifted up the pale oval of his face and I saw him hesitate just for a moment. Then he lowered his head again and went on climbing.

There was no mistaking the set of his shoulders, the unhurried walk, the Homburg hat. It was the man who had followed me by the lakeside yesterday morning.

I turned from the sunrise and quickened my pace as much as I dared on the steep and treacherous path. Whoever the stranger was, it would do no good to break an ankle on these slopes. Slowly the path lifted above the trees. Now it led me through short grass pocked with rabbit burrows, bristling with gorse bushes and wild roses berry-red with hips.

Once or twice, as I glanced back, I saw the Homburg hat moving through the bushes, and each time it was a little closer.

I put on a new turn of speed. How was he gaining on me? How much further to the summit?

What if Max were late?

I flung back a glance as I turned another corner, just as the stranger panted into view behind me.

“Miss—!” he called.

I didn’t stop. I clutched my bag to my side and ran.

Impulse will be the death of me. I went up that path slipping and staggering on the stony ridges, with fright roaring in my ears.

I kept my eyes on the ground, so I never saw him coming. When I collided with another body, I gave a thin yelp of despair.

Firm hands gripped my shoulders. “Ruby! What’s the matter? What’s happened?”

Max. I knotted my fists into the lapels of his jacket, gasping for breath, my panic ebbing away. When I dared, I glanced back the way I had come.

No one.

“It’s nothing,” I managed at last.

“Nothing, my hat.” He held me away, studying my face. “You’re terrified. I could tell from the way you were running. Out with it.”

“He was following me again,” I admitted. “The man with the Homburg hat.”

“Was he?” Max’s mouth set, and he put me aside and started down the path.

“No!” I ran after him and caught him by the arm. “Don’t leave me!”

He hesitated, then slipped his arm around my shoulders and stood watching the bend in the path. But no one appeared.

I said uncertainly, “I must have been wrong.”

“You say it was the same fellow that frightened you on the lake yesterday?”

“I thought it was the same fellow. He wore a Homburg hat.” My face went hot. “Me and my vivid imagination. I’m sorry. I’m such a butterfly. Let’s get to the top before we miss the sunrise.”

He glanced reluctantly downhill, then tucked my arm under his and turned up the last slope.

On the summit, I discovered that Max had brought a rug for us to sit on, as well as a small basket. “I brought chocolate,” he said absent-mindedly, rummaging in the basket, “and I tried to find strawberries, but I’m afraid they weren’t very good. I bought apples instead.”

“I love apples.”

“So did Xue Bai.” He spoke softly, as if on impulse. I couldn’t help wondering how he had come to know her so well—but I didn’t want to ask, didn’t want to stir up the phantom that ruled him. Instead I opened my own bag, afraid of what might have become of the box of Albert Town pastries. But they had survived in all their splendour. And the coffee was still hot.

“You’ll be getting the wrong idea about me,” I said ruefully, pouring him a cup. “I promise I’m not the kind to panic at a shadow.”

“So why now?”

I shrugged. “Too many Ethel Lina White novels before bed.”

A sliver of the sun’s disk broke out above the eastern clouds and slowly the distant sheen of lakes and rivers—the long looping snakes of the Cardrona, the Clutha, and the Hawea—sharpened to silver. Max unfolded himself onto the rug and leaned back on his elbows, but he wasn’t looking at the sunrise. He was looking at me.

I sipped my coffee and kept my eyes on the horizon. “So tell me about yourself, Max. Do you have a nice girl to watch sunrises with in Dunedin?”

“No, I don’t.”

“That’s a pain.”

“But I’ve got a nice girl to watch sunrises with in Pembroke.”

“Me?” I spared him a glance from the mountains that glowed red against the skyline as the sun gilded their peaks. “You really don’t have anyone else? Tell me about your last girl, then. Why’d she break it off?”

Max gave a soft and derisive snort of laughter. The light crawled a little further down the distant slopes before he said, “She didn’t.”

“You?”

“No.”

I waited. It was something my father used to say—Never take the first answer. Wait. When there’s been a little silence, he’ll start talking again. And that’s when you’ll get the information you want.

Max flung out a hand, picked up a pastry, sat up, and began to eat it. When he finished, he brushed the crumbs off his trousers. Finally, he said, “She was never really my girl. It was more a—a business arrangement between her father and mine. It never came off.”

I lifted my eyebrows. “An arranged match? Golly! How frightfully old fashioned. I’m not surprised you got the icy mitt.”

There was an odd twist in the corner of his mouth, but he didn’t pursue the subject, however patiently I waited. “What about you?”

I stretched and began on my own pastry. “Me? Oh, I’m young. I’ve far too many things to do with myself before I shackle myself down. Besides, I don’t see myself finding the right fellow in Pembroke.”

Max grinned and picked up his coffee cup. “To finding the right fellow,” he announced, and clicked it against mine.

“To avoiding him as long as I can.”

Max shook his head with a wry laugh. I took another bite of pastry. Max stared at the view, and I congratulated myself on distracting him from the question of the Homburg hat.

“Are you going to the police about it?” he said abruptly.

“The police?” I swallowed. “Goodness, no!”

“I’m serious. This is how crimes happen.”

“Come on, Max. What would they do? They’d laugh at me—and I’d deserve it.”

“I know what I’m talking about,” he said. “I told you. My family—we’re Morans. Crime is a specialty of ours.”

I couldn’t help myself. I went into a peal of laughter.

He turned his head and gave me a long hard look. “Do you take nothing seriously, Ruby?”

“Do you take nothing lightly?” I wiped the back of a hand over my eyes. “For a Moran, you seem very fond of the police.”

“Don’t assume I’m anything[_ like_] a Moran. I haven’t spoken to my family since—” He caught himself midsentence. But I guessed at once how he meant to complete it.

“Since she died?” I took a sharp breath of realisation. “It was her. You were going to marry her.”

He stared at the ripening east and nodded.

“Was it your family that did it, Max?”

He went very still.

“You said you would tell me, if I wanted to know.”

“And if you were involved. Personally, I meant.”

“Oh, but I am, Max.” I fluttered my lashes at him. “Remember Donne? ‘I am involved in mankind.’”

He looked at me like I was crazy. “You think I can make accusations at random?”

I retired the lashes at once. “If you say so. Curiosity killed the cat. We’ll forget it.”

“Agreed,” he said. Then, “I still think you ought to be careful. If someone is following you about when you’re alone…”

There was something frighteningly single-minded about him. I said, “I can take care of myself.”

“You can’t seriously believe that. Are you dishonest, or just stupid?”

It took a moment to catch my breath. “Well, aren’t you rude!”

“No, just correct.”

Yes, blast it, he was correct. But there was no way I’d admit it.

“At least tell me if you recognise him at all.”

“Don’t know him from Adam.”

“Ruby. Seriously.”

“I am serious!”

He let out a sigh. “All right. But if you see him again—please, do go to the police.”

I screwed up my mouth and began to shred the chocolate wrapper into tiny pieces. “I don’t like to do that. He hasn’t hurt me.”

“Your safety means so little to you?”

I laughed. “And it means so much to you?”

Stubborn silence.

“I promise you, Max. I do everything, everything I can, to keep myself safe.”

He still didn’t reply.

“Anyway, what could the police do? At best, they can’t stop anything happening to me. At worst, they’d be paid to keep their mouths shut. Besides, I’m not in the market for payback. I decided that a long time ago.”

“Payback?” Max was incredulous. “Payback? Is that what you think this is about? What about justice?”

“I suppose I don’t see a meaningful difference.”

“Payback is…” For a moment, he seemed at a loss. “Payback is irrational. Emotional. Personal. Justice is none of those things. Justice is objective—justice is transcendent truth applied to the facts of a situation.”

“And I suppose you think that it’s justice that motivates you?”

“You think it’s not?”

I gave the little shrug I learned from my French teacher. “Objective is not a word I’d apply to a man who carries a picture of his dead fiancée’s eviscerated heart in his pocket.”

He had no reply to that.

I took a deep breath. “You see, Max, you may think you’re being objective, but I know I never will be. I don’t think any of us are impersonal enough to deal out justice.”

“Why not? It’s not so hard to find an impartial third party. That’s why we have a court system.”

“I don’t know anything about the court system. But I’m not talking about the courts, I’m talking about you and me. I know what I want from my life. I know that joining a crusade takes all the fun out of things and half the time gets you killed to boot. I learned that much in history. Live and let live—love and let love—that’s my motto.” The sun was in my eyes, and the last shadows of dawn were gone. I shifted my seat on the rug and glanced at my watch. “Twenty past eight! Oh, blazes, I’ll be late again.”

While I stowed the thermos and the flattened pastry box in my bag, Max more slowly gathered up the rug. We headed toward the western path, that wonderful descent through gorse and rose bushes, in silence. The view opened before us—the jewel-like setting of the lake, smooth as glass in the still morning air. Pembroke on the near bank and little Roy’s Island on the far and snowy peaks looming on every horizon.

I caught my breath. “Odd, isn’t it, how much bigger the mountains seem the higher up you are?”

Max stared at the lake. “No man is an island.”

I kept moving as fast as I dared down the path. “Excuse me?”

“You quoted Donne before. I was trying to remember the whole thing.”

In a sing-song voice, in time with my feet, I said, “‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less… Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’”

“Any man’s death diminishes me,” he repeated, thoughtfully. “We all bear the same divine stamp. What if that lays an obligation on the rest of us?”

“To prevent death, you mean?”

“Or to punish it, if necessary.”

“Punish it.” My scalp prickled. “You mean you’d have someone sent to the chair. Or hanged.”

“If that’s what justice requires.”

“See, you keep using that word.” My voice hitched up a register. “Is that humane? Is that loving? Is that going to mend anything?”

“It might stop things getting worse,” he said, more gently than I expected. “Just remember Donne. Don’t die and diminish us, Ruby Black.”

Don’t die—I swallowed, feeling once again the cold burning into my bones, yesterday morning in the lake. I was too young to die; my life was only beginning.

“Not if I can help it. That’s a promise, Max.”

By the time we reached the foot of the mountain and circled south toward the Luggate Road it was a jewel of a day, warm and clear. Above the town, Roy’s Peak had gained another powdering of snow in the night. The road was already busy with automobiles and I could see Max’s car, a fawn-coloured Cadillac LaSalle, pulled off and waiting for us beside a shabby Morris.

Leaning against the little car’s front fender smoking a cigarette was the man in the Homburg hat.

I stopped so abruptly, Max nearly ran into me. “What is it?” he asked, but from the tone of his voice I thought he guessed.

“That’s him. The man who was following me.”

“Is it?” His voice was as soft as my own. Then he stalked off ahead of me, so fast that I had to run to catch up with him.

“What are you going to do?” I hissed.

“Nothing. I’ll just ask him what he thinks he’s doing following you around like this.”

“No! Who do you think you are, my mother?”

“Ruby. Please. Let me do this for you.”

He didn’t slacken pace, and for a few footsteps I had to fall behind as the path narrowed between two wild roses. Then I ran to catch up.

“Over my dead body, Max. Look, you wait here and I’ll go speak to him myself.”

“All right, you do the talking. But I’m coming with you.”

I didn’t much like the idea, but it seemed a fair compromise. The Homburg hat went on smoking as he watched us approach. Then he must have finished his cigarette, for he flicked away the butt, sauntered around to the driver’s side, and opened the door. For a moment Max and I lost sight of him in the narrow space between the Cadillac and the Morris, and by unspoken agreement, we both quickened pace.

Just as we rounded the front of the Cadillac, a brilliant flash struck us in the eyes and we blinked at a camera.

The Homburg hat appeared from behind it with a flushed and cheerful face. “Hullo, Moran!” it greeted. “Care to introduce the lady?”

I froze in my tracks.

“Phipps,” said Max in blank surprise.

“Do you know him?” I managed.

He turned on me with a short and embarrassed laugh. “Society journalist. But harmless, mostly.”

“Thanks,” said the journalist, grinning. He’d already stowed the camera carefully into the Morris again, and stood on the running board behind the open door, one hand on the steering wheel, as if poised for a quick getaway.

Max glowered at him. “It wasn’t a compliment. What do you mean by harassing this lady? It’s a wonder she hasn’t come to harm trying to get away from you.”

“Yeah, sorry about that,” said Phipps. “So give us the scoop. You two are an item, aren’t you?”

A society journalist. He was a society journalist, and he had my photograph. It ran through my head in a dull litany before I came back to myself. “I’m leaving,” I said coldly, and turned my back on them and headed toward the mountain, back to where I’d left my bicycle on the eastern slope.

Max swung after me. “Ruby, wait!”

“Ruby!” said Phipps, triumphantly. “Anything else you can tell us?”

Max got in front of me, holding up entreating hands. “Look, Ruby, I’m sorry. I didn’t know. Let me drive you home, and I’ll apologise all you like.”

I didn’t trust myself not to slap him. What use was an apology? “I’ll ride my bicycle, thanks.”

I tried to push past him, but he shifted to keep blocking my way. “I swear I’ll make this right.”

I put my hands on my hips. “You want to make it right? Really? You mean it?”

“Of course I mean it.”

“Then forget about an apology and make him give you that film.”

A moment of silence. “All right. But look, if I know Phipps, he’s not going to—”

“So choke it out of him! Didn’t they teach you anything in the mob?”

His breath came out in a whoosh of laughter. “Take it easy! Who do you think I am, Al Capone? The film belongs to Phipps.”

“Then if you won’t help me, get out of my way.”

He didn’t move and I shot an exasperated glance behind me. Flash! Phipps had his camera out again.

“To answer your question, Mr. Phipps,” I said, clipping my words short in a frozen rage, “no, Mr. Moran and I are not, nor will we ever be, ‘an item.’”

“Let’s go, Ruby,” Max said, and gripped my elbow.

That touch dissolved all my self control, and I whipped around and hit him across the face with my open palm. The camera bulb flashed again as my hand connected. In the roaring silence that followed the blow I froze, suddenly terrified, staring into his face.

Max blinked twice, and took a firmer grip on my elbow. “All right, Ruby,” he said, “you’re coming with me.” There was such decision in his voice, and I was so dazed by what I had done, that I let him pull me to the Cadillac and help me into the front passenger seat without a word of protest. “Phipps!” I heard him say as he slammed the door shut, and it wasn’t until that moment that I realised he was really angry.

Inside the Cadillac I couldn’t hear Phipps’s response, and Max had lowered his voice too. I slewed around in the seat to watch them. Max had his arms folded and his lips pressed shut in a furious white line. Phipps backed away from him, hugging the camera. When Max unfolded his arms and stepped forward, shooting out a hand to point at me, the shorter man flinched.

I waited for Max to raise his voice again, to reach out and grab the journalist by the collar. For my sake, my father would have done it without thinking. But Max did nothing of the kind. Instead, after a moment, he turned away from Phipps, wrenched open the car door, and got in.

He didn’t say anything, just turned the key in the ignition and shot into the road. Neither of us spoke until he pulled up on Eely Point facing the lake, threw his elbow onto the back of the seat, and turned to look at me.

The razor-sharp focus was back in his eyes, and a red five-fingered welt had developed on his face where I’d slapped him. I shifted uncomfortably. Eely Point is a lonely place, about midway between the town and the Lakeside Chalet, masked and shadowed with pines. “I thought you were taking me home.”

“We need to talk.”

I shrugged.

“I offered Phipps a hundred pounds for the film from his camera,” he said after a short and bristling silence. “He wouldn’t give it up at any price. Said he had to think of his career.”

I didn’t look at him. “Which paper is he with?”

“He’s a freelancer. But he usually sells to the Dunedin Mirror.”

“Oh, heavens,” I said under my breath.

“There’s another way,” said Max. “I can go to court and get an injunction. You know what that is?”

I shook my head.

“That’s a court order to prevent him publishing the photographs. He’ll never be able to use them. There’s one catch.”

I kept staring at the lake.

“You need a good reason to get an injunction like that. Like the risk of serious financial or bodily harm.”

It was a long time between breaths. At last I drew another and looked up at him. “Seems like I’ll have to bear with being plastered all over the Mirror, then. Will you take me back now?”

He slammed both hands against the steering wheel. “By thunder, Ruby! If not that, then what’s got you spooked?”

I should have known he was trouble. I should have left when he first came.

“I don’t see what business it is of yours,” I said in a small and sullen voice. “Like I said, I’m willing to let it go. If you wanted to bully someone, you should have bullied Phipps. He was about to crack. All you had to do was push a little harder.”

Max snorted. “What happened to ‘live and let live’?”

A cheap shot. I didn’t answer.

He sat silent, waiting.

I went over my options. I could get out of the car and walk back to the Chalet, but that would take half an hour at least, and make me late for my shift. If I had to leave Pembroke I would need the money, and a good character reference to take with me.

I said, “I’ve run away from home. I don’t want to be found.”

“Why?”

“That’s no one’s business but mine.”

He pressed his lips together, but finally, grudgingly, he relaxed. “At least tell me that if these photographs go to print, I won’t be fishing your cold corpse out of the lake.”

Once more the words conjured up yesterday’s cold, yesterday’s panic, so sharply I could nearly feel it in my bones. I managed a laugh. “Max, I don’t know what it’s like growing up in the mob, but that’s not something that happens to normal people.”

He smiled, but there was a little puzzled crease between his eyebrows.

“Okay, Max. It’s Dad. He’s got… well, he’s got definite ideas about how a girl should behave. If he finds out I’m a working girl at a hotel, or worse, a cabaret dancer, he’ll try to make me come home.”

“He’d force you to leave Pembroke?”

“No! Like I said, we’re not the mob. But he’d certainly come. And there’d be a scene. And there’d be relatives. And there’d be the fiancé.”

“Fiancé?” He looked genuinely startled.

“I…” I swallowed. “I left in a hurry. I just looked at it all one day, and I thought, this isn’t what I want.”

“What do you want?”

I wove my fingers into each other. It hurt, a little, to let anyone see the real Ruby underneath. “I’m saving up,” I murmured. “I want to go to Australia. A girl from my school lives in Melbourne now, and she’s offered to let me live with her. She’s on the stage, with the Opera. She says she can get me an audition. It would be a dream come true.”

He watched me, his eyebrows canted up inquiringly. “That’s it? You don’t want to shock your family?”

“That’s it.”

“And they’ve no idea if you’re dead or alive.”

I felt the blood mounting to my face. “I’m going to write as soon as I get to Melbourne. Far away from them. It’s just taking longer than I intended to get there, that’s all… Now won’t you take me back to the Chalet before I get fired for levanting with the guests?”

He gave a perfunctory half smile and started the car again. He ran me directly to my cabin, shut off the engine, and said, “Ruby.”

I looked back at him with one foot on the running board.

“Come back to Dunedin with me,” he said. “The papers can take all the photos they like. And you can let your family know you’re all right. If they try to interfere with you, I’ll square them.”

He was pushy and protective and sometimes I fancied I could hear him ticking ominously, the way a bomb does in the pictures. But in another life, if he had not been Max Moran, or if I had not been Ruby Black, he might have been my kind of fellow.

And so it was hard to smile back at him and say, “I’m sorry, Max. You’re a little too plush for me.”

He let out a tense breath, and suddenly I couldn’t help myself, and leaned over to peck him swiftly on the cheek. “Chin up, glamour boy!” Then I slid out of the car and ran into the cabin to yank on my uniform.

The Lakeside Chalet is small, but terribly exclusive. The first owner had it built for the Swiss woman he married, and so it is a rich, colourful place, all honey-coloured wood and lovely carved furniture, cuckoo clocks and Persian rugs, four-poster beds and candle sconces. In cold weather there is a blazing fire in the common room, and in warm weather there is a green-tiled swimming pool.

I ran into the kitchen still tying my apron strings. “What’s cooking, good looking?” I sang out.

Hard at work slicing apples, Bunny Hopper strangled a snort of laughter. Nearer the door, Paora, the chef, glanced up with a flashing smile from a big rainbow trout which he was painting with oil. “Newlyweds in the Master Suite brought it in. Say they’ll have it for lunch. Nice one, aye.”

Paora was a Maori from the North Island. Like many of that ancestry he was not tall but immensely stocky, with an accent you could stun a bull with.

“Poor creature. Do you get rainbow trout in Rotorua?”

“Nah, nothing lives in the water up there. Don’t put fish in the water up there unless you want it boiled.” He made an eloquent face. “It’s not like our lake, that’s for sure. That lake will put life into you. Why, the other day we were having a baptism—”

Paora is a regular at St Columba’s and has a taste for miraculous stories. Ordinarily I would have been happy to hear him, but this was no ordinary morning. “Have you seen Bill this morning?”

“Mr. Fisher? Yeah, he was looking for you.”

“Crumbs, was he? Is he furious?”

Paora shook his head. “Nah, it was about the man from the Mirror who came asking questions about you.”

I put a hand to my head. “Phipps? Phipps was here?”

“Phipps, that was his name.”

“When? What happened?”

“No fear.” Paora smiled reassuringly. “I knew what to do. I called Mr. Fisher. Mr. Fisher got rid of him.”

“Oh, bless you, Paora. Bunny, I swear I’ll come back and help you.” I ran out the back door and clattered down the steps to where Bill Fisher lived under the chalet. It was a dark, cramped set of rooms—a kitchen, a bed sitter, an office. Bill was in the office, chewing his pencil over a sheaf of receipts.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, rushing in the door. “I got delayed again—it wasn’t my fault, but Max insisted on stopping. It won’t happen again.”

Bill lifted his eyebrows at me and pulled off his spectacles. “Bunny had to do your work in the kitchen.”

I’d often thought Bill Fisher the nicest man in Pembroke. Lanky and dark and clever. I didn’t like to disappoint him. “I’m sorry, Bill. I’ll make it up to her.”

He nodded. “So you’ve been going out with Max Moran.”

To my surprise, my cheeks burned. “Yes, and I’ve already been hounded by the press. Paora said the journalist came around.”

“Just now. I sent him away and told him not to come back.”

“Thanks.” I cleared my throat. “Max—Mr. Moran already warned him away from me this morning. But he got photos.”

“He’ll need copy to go with them,” Bill said. “He won’t get it here. I’ve warned the staff.”

“That was sweet of you, but Pembroke’s so full of gossip. Bill, I wonder if I should go away. Just for a few days, till this blows over. I’ve given Max the flick, and he’s leaving in a couple of days anyway. But this journalist…”

Bill was more than an employer; he was a friend. He knew that if I wanted to forego a paycheque it must be serious. But he twiddled his pencil between his fingers and grimaced. “We’re booked solid for the next two weeks, and apart from Moran, there’s a high turnaround. I’m sorry, but…”

I gave a half-hearted smile. “No, I know.”

“We’ll keep Phipps clear of you,” Bill promised, and I had to be content with that.

Of course there was an article in the Mirror, and of course the photographs had developed beautifully. Bill came down to the cabin while I was warming up after my morning swim with hot coffee and scrambled eggs, and tossed the paper onto the table in front of me without a word.

“Oh, dear,” I said.

MORAN FINDS PEMBROKE BEAUTY TOO HOT TO HANDLE, the headline shrieked. It was a gossipy feature on my altercation with Max at Mount Iron yesterday morning, entirely overwhelming the other items on the page, a murder trial and a million-pound sale of pearls. “Oh What a Girl! Has Max Met His Match?” inquired the byline.

The whole thing was gracefully illustrated with a shot of the two of us in the moment after I’d hit him. Max stood facing the camera foursquare, his face still screwed up from the slap. I was half turned away from him, my hand blurred with speed, my profile clear and furious.

I felt a wild desire to laugh. Instead, my voice was hushed and a little awed. “Good night. Have you read this, Bill?”

“I thought it was rather good.” There was a grin in his voice, if not on his face.

“It really happened quite differently,” I said, skimming the text. “I wasn’t mad at him for being forward, I was mad at him for letting Phipps take those pictures. Oh, crumbs, it’s saying Max tried to suppress them.”

“That part is true, isn’t it?”

“Yes, but he makes it sound like Max was embarrassed for his own sake.”

“A lot of men would be embarrassed to see something like this in the paper.” Bill shoved his spectacles further up on his nose with a forefinger. “It’s hard enough working up the courage to speak to a girl if you like her, let alone being held up to national ridicule afterward.”

I stared at him. “Oh, he’ll be furious.”

“He’ll live.”

If Max was so mortified, Bill bore it with great fortitude. I went back to the paper. “It’s all here, Bill. My name. The Chalet. The cabaret. Even the routine—If You Knew Ruby. Phipps must have found all this information in town.”

I dropped the paper on the tabletop again and reached for my cooling coffee. Bill picked the paper up and folded it under his arm. “I know I told you to stay, Ruby, but if you really need to leave—”

“What good would it do now? Phipps has had his pound of flesh, that should content him. And Max is leaving tomorrow.”

“We can spare you if we have to.”

There was a smudge of lipstick on the rim of my mug. I wiped it away with my thumb before replying.

“Thanks, Bill, but not now. Let’s wait a bit, and see what happens.”

III.

I’m not sure exactly what I expected to happen next. Certainly not Ava Wu.

She came into the chalet on Max’s arm that evening in furs and black satin and diamonds that flashed with each movement. Above that, her sleek blonde head glowed like candlelight, and in that moment I couldn’t help comparing her to the scholarship student she’d been when I first met her at Otago Girls’. She graduated five years ahead of me, but stayed on to teach music because her family could afford nothing better for her. It was Ava who’d given me my first singing lessons, and it was Ava who’d lost her position when I complained I needed a better teacher. They’d hired an aging opera singer and let Ava go. I remember as vividly as if it was yesterday the look on her face when they sent her away on a pony cart in the rain. But Ava’s story ended happily. Soon after she’d made that brilliant match, marrying one of the richest men in Dunedin.

I had never asked her forgiveness, and sometimes the regret came back to gnaw on me.

I caught a glimpse of her as I came out of the Master Suite, and had just enough presence of mind to whisk back inside the door as they crossed into the common room. While Max helped Ava off with her furs, I held my breath, not daring to move. Letting myself get involved with Max had been a mistake, and he didn’t even know me. How much more damage would it do to let Ava see me?

“Thanks, darling,” said Ava and her voice gave me a little wistful twinge for the old days. “You were right. It is a charming place.”

“The food is even better,” he promised. “Give me a moment.”

I realised I had dropped my duster outside the door.

Max headed off in the direction of the kitchen. Ava was sitting with her back to me. I stole out, snatched the duster, and then retreated through the Master Suite, going out by the French doors onto the terrace. Kat Johnson was there with one of the valets, frowning at a piece of paper.

“Kat,” I said breathlessly, “I thought you were waiting tables this week. Mr. Moran’s just come in.”

“Botheration,” Kat said, and thrust the paper at me. “Fine. You handle the poodle’s dinner.”

She headed toward the kitchen, and I frowned at the paper. “What’s this, Jim?”

“We’re out of chopped liver,” he said mournfully. “There’s nothing to feed the poodle in the Fountain Suite—and they were most particular about the little beast.”

“Where’s Bill?”

“Still in Oamaru seeing the accountant.”

“Casey?”

“He drove Monsieur and Madame Poodle into town to a restaurant. Frank took the newlyweds from the Master Suite.”

Which meant that if Jim went to find chopped liver, only Paora would be left with us. “I suppose there’s no help for it. Bunny and Edie have already finished their shifts and Kat’s needed in the kitchen. The Roy farm will have liver. You’d better take the Ford.”

Jim nodded, but he didn’t go straight to the garage. “You look exhausted, Ruby.”

“Gosh, thanks.”

“Not in a bad way. Just get an early night, will you?”

“I’ve still got the upstairs suite to service and the common room to sweep. Don’t worry about me. Drive safe.”

I waved him goodbye and followed in Kat’s steps around the front of the Chalet toward the kitchen. As I passed the front door, I noticed a man sitting in the back of Max’s Cadillac, reading a paper and chewing gum. From his cheap suit and his battered face I assumed he must be some sort of bodyguard, probably belonging to Ava. I kept my head down but as I passed him I felt his eyes on me.

I was glad it was dark.

I glanced through the window into the common room before I headed into the kitchen. Max and Ava seemed to be having a good time with elderflower cordial and oysters—or as much of a good time as it was possible to have on elderflower cordial. I had another wistful twinge, and wondered if it could actually be jealousy. But I had had my chance with Max.

The kitchen was full of good smells and a gust of words. Paora was beating sauce in a pan, telling one of his tall tales. “…and when she comes up, she walks back to shore. Ruby!” He greeted me without pausing for breath. “Mr. Moran was asking for you.”

“Well, he’s not going to get me,” I said. “What did he want?”

“Didn’t say. So back she goes to her doctor,” he said to Kat, “and he tells her there’s nothing wrong with her. ‘Doctor,’ she tells him, ‘it was living water.’ ”

“I have to take orders,” said Kat, and fled through the swinging doors.

“When was this?” I asked, hoping to distract him.

“Just this past Sunday.”

“Well, I hope it takes.”

Kat came through the swinging doors into the kitchen and slapped a notepad down on the bench. “They aren’t staying for dinner,” she announced, “they decided to go into town.”

Paora grinned. “Good! That means a five-star dinner for us. Take a seat, Ruby.”

But as he spoke I heard Max’s voice in the hall saying “—try one more time.”

“Not now,” I blurted. “I have to feed the poodle,” and I fled outside. But out in the cold evening air, I dropped to a crouch and pressed my ear against the door.

“Is Ruby there?” Max.

“She came through, but she didn’t stay,” Paora answered. “It sounded urgent.”

Good old Paora!

“That’s a shame,” Max said, and I could almost hear the little line between his eyebrows. “Thanks anyway.”

A moment later I heard the front door open and the Cadillac’s engine started.

I sat down on the doorstep, wrapped my arms around my knees, and shivered. Now that I had escaped them for a moment, I felt a whirr of panic. Why was Ava here? Was she looking for me? What was she doing with Max?

I needed answers, and soon.

I put up my hands and smoothed down my wavy hair, took a few deep breaths to calm myself, and then went back into the kitchen.

“Ah, there you are.” Paora handed me a warm plate on which a lamb chop steamed under a rich sauce. “Now the poodle has eaten, you can eat, h’mm?”

I stared at him in blank misunderstanding for a moment until I remembered the excuse I’d made for escaping a moment ago. “Oh, the poodle is still waiting for his dinner. I just wanted to escape Mr. Moran.”

He sighed. “Ah, Ruby. You didn’t need to lie.”

He had no idea.

The door swung open and Kat came in pulling the trolley, with Max and Ava’s oyster shells making a doleful rattle on the plate. I snatched an uneaten oyster and dug it from its shell. “How long will Max be away? I still need to do his rooms.”

“He said he’d be late.” Kat slid onto a stool and sniffed appreciatively at her dinner.

Plenty of time to do his rooms, then. And plenty of time to look for answers—if there were any to find.

At the top of the stair, the door to the Balcony Suite groaned when I pushed it open. Kat was still downstairs in the kitchen helping Paora prepare tomorrow’s breakfast. Bunny and Edie had turned in. Jim was still waiting at the Roys’ for chopped liver. Casey and Frank had not yet brought the other guests back from town, and several hours ago Bill had ‘phoned to say he had run into trouble with the accountant.

If all went well, I’d have hours.

I went through the suite methodically, sweeping and straightening, dusting and wiping. Bill said he wouldn’t be back till late, but I planned to wait up for him. With Ava here, I definitely needed to slip away for a few days.

Or maybe I should move on. Queenstown, perhaps, or Te Anau.

I moved from the sitting room to the bedroom, and began stripping down the bed. Max was leaving tomorrow and in the ordinary way of things I should have waited until then to change the linen. But if anyone came up, I wanted an excuse for my presence here.

Max wanted me to meet Ava. Why?

There was something he wasn’t telling me. But I had to bet that whatever it was, it had to do with the dead girl.

With the mattress freshly sheeted and the pillows and duvet still jumbled in a pile on the carpet, I opened the long closet on the north wall.

A shiver walked down my spine, the awareness of being watched. It was impossible; the room was empty, but before I did anything else I ran to the French windows on the opposite wall and pulled them open a crack. Beyond, a balcony looked over the driveway and the front-door steps; the bend of gravel was empty and silent.

I went back to the closet, reached behind the hanging jackets, and pulled out Max’s suitcases. One, two.

The second was heavy.

I threw back the lid. Inside was a thick file, battered with long use, and a soft bundle wrapped neatly in cotton. I dropped the file onto the floor with a thump and opened it with shaking fingers.

On top lay the envelope Max had shown me two days ago, the tip of a papery iceberg. I set it aside. Beneath, a newspaper cutting screamed at me. KINGPIN’S DAUGHTER IN GRUESOME KIDNAP CASE. MORAN FAMILY QUESTIONED IN SCHOOLGIRL MURDER. Wu Xue Bai, 16, disappeared from her family home on Tuesday morning…

Too much. Too much. But I couldn’t look away, not this time. I turned over more pages. Police reports, depositions, transcripts, handwritten notes, the Crown Coroner’s report. Verdict: murder by a person or persons unknown.

Against that typewritten statement, a pen had scored the paper with a black and emphatic exclamation mark.

I picked up the cloth-covered bundle and pulled aside its wrappings. Inside, the white cotton was stained the dull brown colour of rust. The thing inside was a hunting knife with a curved black blade for skinning and gutting. The hilt, still brown with long-ago blood, was made from scrimshawed bone; the image was a representation of a bloody haloed Christ with the emblem on his breast (of all things) of the Sacred Heart.

I was holding a murder weapon.

I dropped it on the floor, cloth and all, and tried to take a breath. It wouldn’t come. There was a roaring in my ears. The room floated around me—

I was going to faint.

Somehow I got to my feet and staggered to the French doors. For a little while I stood with my forehead pressed against the lintel while the cold air revived me.

Downstairs, in the silence of the night, a telephone began to ring.

I forced myself to move slowly and think clearly. I wrapped up the knife, careful not to handle it, and returned it to the suitcase. The ‘phone went on ringing but I was too far away to answer. Instead, I opened the file again and sifted through the inquest transcripts, checking the name of each witness as he gave evidence. James Wu. The doctor. Daniel Moran.

Here.

Yes, I know this knife. It belongs to my brother Max.

Max never told me why they arrested him.

Downstairs, the ‘phone stopped ringing. The silence made me stop and listen. In the stillness I heard footsteps in the common room below. My heart jolted, and I ran for the window again. Outside, something gleamed fawn coloured and sleek in the starlight. Max’s car. Consumed by my search, I’d never heard it.

The stair creaked; he was coming up. I dropped the file into the suitcase and snapped the catches just as the door opened into the sitting room. I shoved the cases blindly to the back of the closet and pulled two fresh pillows from the top shelf.

In the sitting room, the light switched off.

Odd. I took two breaths to calm myself and then went to the bedroom door. “Mr. Moran?” I called.

No answer.

I stepped into the sitting room, peering into the dark. “Max? I’m sorry, I’m nearly—”

I never finished speaking. Two hands came from behind and fastened on my throat. He had been waiting beside the door for me. I would have screamed, but I never had the chance; the only sound was a tortured gurgle in my throat. My ears roared. Blackness clouded my vision. In that moment, only two of my senses continued to function: I tasted blood, as if I’d bitten my tongue, and I felt the shock of bone against bone as I slammed my right heel back and caught him on the shin.

His hands didn’t loosen. My lungs spasmed for air. Great pinwheels of fire burst in the darkness that had swallowed my vision. I clawed at his hands with my nails, only to find that he was wearing gloves. I flailed with my elbows, but none of my blows connected; he’d stepped out of range and held me at arm’s length.

I don’t know how long the agony lasted. I know I thought I was dying and it seemed terribly unfair that there was nothing I could do about it. The next thing was Bill’s voice coming from a long way away. “Ruby! Ruby! Wake up!”

Someone was shaking me. I gave a cry, a ragged, weak sound that hurt my throat, and lashed out with my fists.

“It’s me, Ruby!” He scrambled back, out of range. “It’s me! It’s Bill!”

I pushed myself up and scrambled backwards till I hit the wall, blinking in the glare of the electric light. Bill must have thrown the switch when he came in. It was very cold; the French doors in the bedroom were open, and the wind roared in.

Sweet, sweet air.

“What happened to you, Ruby?”

Outside, a motor started.

“He’s getting away,” I rasped.

Bill dashed for the bedroom and I put up a shaky hand to my throat. In the morning there would be bruises. As I got to my feet and staggered into the bedroom, Bill closed the French doors and turned to me.

“I couldn’t see anything,” he growled. “Who was it?”

I rubbed my throat. “I don’t know. I didn’t see his face.” But he was driving Max’s car.

“I just got back from Oamaru,” Bill said, “and the ‘phone was ringing. No idea who it was. The voice said there was an intruder in the chalet. I checked downstairs first. By the time I came up, he was already gone.”

“He must have heard you coming.”

Bill sighed. “I know you don’t like the police, Ruby, but…”

“No,” I said quickly.

He must have sensed my determination, because he didn’t try to convince me. Instead, he moved around the room, straightening the bed and gathering up my cleaning things. “Okay. But you were right. You can’t stay here. There’s my sister in Oamaru; she’d be glad to have you.”

“I can’t go back to Oamaru. They know me there. That’s where I went to school.”

He rubbed a hand across his chin, his face troubled.

“It’ll be all right,” I said. “First thing in the morning, I’ll go back to the island.”

I lay awake in the moonlit quiet. There was no sound but the soft rhythm of breathing. Kat, Bunny, and Edie shared the tiny cabin with me, our beds filling the loft space.

I remembered the night I first came to the Chalet, climbing in one of the windows and curling up in the empty Fountain Suite after demolishing half a loaf of bread and a complete tub of paté. It was late, I had walked all the way from Pembroke, and Bill Fisher had only been the memory of a kind face and an offer I’d hoped not to take.

Strange then, that the Chalet should have become so much a part of me now.

I got up and tiptoed to the small window that overlooked the lake. The catch was secure and nothing moved outside. But the world was bright in the moonlight, mysterious and misleading. Full of forking paths. You never knew where the smallest decision might take you. A half-joking complaint about a teacher, the offer of a drink at a cabaret, and your life was knocked off course.

I went down the ladder into the tiny space that served us as a kitchen and checked that the downstairs windows were also securely fastened. Under the loft was a narrow closet where each of us had a little storage room. I dragged the curtain back and reached for the filmy chiffon of my red dress. Stray moonlight glinted off beaded fringes and sequined butterflies. I’d sewn them myself when Mr. Hunt gave me my job at the cabaret.

I fingered the beads. Once the dress had meant hope, freedom, and a faster path out of New Zealand. Now I didn’t know what it meant. I pushed past it, reached into the dark recesses of the top shelf, groped under spare uniforms and towels, and pulled out the sock I kept my savings in.

A third-class passage to Melbourne aboard the Christchurch mail steamer cost thirty-nine pounds. I counted the money coin by coin, trying to convince myself it would be enough. Nineteen pounds, three shillings halfpence. It could be months before I made the full sum, and what would happen in the meantime?

I pulled on my wool coat and opened the door onto the night. There were no lights burning in the Chalet; even Bill had turned in. I climbed up through the grapevines on the north side of the garden, breathing the delirious sticky-yeasty scent of the year’s late yield. We kept a little moonshine whiskey on a high shelf in the kitchen, and I thought it might steady my nerves enough to let me sleep. Paora didn’t approve, of course, but the guests expected it and technically we weren’t selling it. In the kitchen, I poured a scant three fingers’ worth and topped it off with a shot of soda water. The siphon hissed, startling me in the quiet, and I knocked the cut-glass bottle against the counter with a harsh clank.

I froze and caught my breath.

There was no answering movement anywhere in the house. The sound had not been terribly loud, anyway. I returned the bottles to their place and went into the common room.

Max sat there in the carved chair at the head of the table, his hands clasped under his chin. Against the big picture window that looked onto the lake, his silhouette was terribly stark. I stood motionless, my heart not daring to beat. Then he turned and saw me.

“Ruby.” He pushed his chair back with a rattle that seemed shatteringly loud.

I backed. “Keep away from me.”

“You’re alive.” He spoke very softly, and moved closer.

I backed again. “Why? You want to finish the job?” My voice rose a little. If he came any closer I would scream blue murder.

He stopped. His voice tightened. “Don’t be a fool! I wanted you to meet my friend. You made yourself scarce, and you nearly got yourself killed.”

“You’re blaming me now?”

“You’re the spitting double of a girl who’s already died once,” he bit. “What did you think would happen if she came back to life?”

He meant that Xue Bai’s killer would finish me off just to make sure. Did he mean himself? Did he still think I was the dead girl?

Or was he crazy enough to kill a stranger for the sake of a resemblance?

I had to know. I edged around him, into the moonlight, until the table was between us and I could see his face. “All right, I’ll listen. How do you propose I keep myself alive?”

He gripped the chair opposite me, his tense posture a mirror of mine. “I can protect you, Ruby. But you have to do as I ask.”

“I need something better than that.” Even in the moonlight it was hard to read his face. “Why did you bring Ava? You think she would have helped me?”

He stilled. “So you know her.”

Mistake. Mistake. “The same way I know you.” I took hold of the chair in front of me to keep my hands from shaking. “Society columns.”

“You said you didn’t look at them often.”

He had a mind like a steel trap. “You know Ava pretty well, don’t you?”

“She’s in the habit of doing me good turns. Now she sponsors the team.”

“You fancy her?”

“No.”

“Then you’re missing your chance. Because she surely fancies you.”

He didn’t answer that. “You’re shivering.”

“It’s cold.” Better than telling him I was scared and inches away from panicking again.

“You’re frightened. By thunder, you’re terrified. You know you can trust me, don’t you?”

“Someone tried to strangle me!” It burst out, too loud in the midnight quiet. I picked up my glass from the table and drained it, then set it down again with a smart click. “He was in [_your _]room. He was driving [_your _]car. And you tell me to trust you?”

He swore, a low sound of concentrated fury that made my scalp prickle. Then he was silent and I could have begged him to speak again, to tell me that Ava would vouch for his not leaving her side that evening. He didn’t. Instead he reached into his breast pocket and brought out a small package, wrapped, like the knife had been, in white cotton.

“Ruby. You need to see this.”

He put it down gently on the table and then pushed it to the centre, midway between us.

Another souvenir from the morgue? I pulled back. “No.”

He glanced up at me, and then reached out and tugged the cloth open. It was a hair comb with seven tapering tines and a black-and-red enamelled butterfly decorating the head. There was a sparkle in the moonlight. It had ruby eyes.

Its shape was lovely and delicate, and I couldn’t resist reaching out to touch it.

“I took it from a dead man’s pocket.”

I snatched my hand back.

Always, with Max Moran, the dead.

“He kept it with him the rest of his life. Next to his heart. It was his vow to avenge her. I know who did that, too.” His voice dropped to the thread of a murmur. “I know who killed Xue Bai’s father.”

The blood whoosh-whooshed through my ears so loudly I could barely hear anything else until my own voice cut dimly through the rush:

“Her father? You said he died naturally.”

“I said he died of methanol poisoning.”

“Poisoning.” On the back of the chair, my fingernails were hurting. “Why? Who says he was poisoned?”

“I say he was poisoned. No solid proof. Death by misadventure. But I was there when he died.”

It sounded horribly like a boast. I couldn’t stand it anymore. I struck wildly at the butterfly with the ruby eyes and sent it careening across the table. Max dove to one knee and caught it. When he came up, cradling the delicate thing in both hands, I already stood in the kitchen doorway.

I wanted to scream at him. I wanted to call him what I thought him: a monster, a killer. I choked it all down because I must get through the night; I must live just long enough to make the world safe from him.

“I don’t want to know.” My voice was ragged. “This has nothing to do with me.”

But as I said them, I knew the words were a lie. Whether I wanted anything to do with her or not, the dead girl in Dunedin had left me a terrible bequest.

IV.

I could have hidden on Roy’s Island for weeks. Although it forms barely more than a fish-shaped fleck just outside the bay, and although the teashop brings visitors from the town on most sunny afternoons, there is plenty of loneliness to be found there. Long and tapering in the south, the ground rises steadily toward the north end of the island, where the marquee stands. A steep shelving cliff cuts off easy access to the northwest corner.

Very few knew that in this corner under the cliff, screened by trees now gilded by the autumn, the Hunts kept their still in a ramshackle cabin. I was one of those few, and once or twice before, when it had made me feel happier to drop out of public view for a while, I had spent a few days or a week there: reading, sleeping, tending the still.

Before, even in the depths of winter, I had found comfort and a sense of safety in this isolation. Now the dark walls of the secret cabin hemmed me in. In the constant silence I found myself listening for the footsteps of death, and the cold sweep of the lake under the stars when I went out at night confronted me with a truth much clearer than glass, much colder than ice.

Sooner or later, I must go out and face what Xue Bai had left me.

My legs were goosefleshed that Sunday evening when I sat down on a fallen tree at the top of the island and pulled my stockings from my purse. I’d come up from the cabin barelegged to save the nylons from the prickly undergrowth that concealed the path. It was nearing midnight and the stars were bright in the clear and frosty sky. All lit up with paper lanterns and local firewater, the marquee beyond the brow of the hill radiated light and laughter like a tiny sunrise. The cabaret had already been at full swing for hours.

I slipped my feet into my shoes and stood up, pulling my scarf more securely around my shoulders, sliding my fingers through the fringe on my dress to brush off any bits of bark.

Fear seethed in my stomach.

I took two slow breaths, closed my eyes, and conjured a memory of music to calm myself. Tonight I had to sing, and I couldn’t do that with my stomach and shoulders in knots. Humming under my breath, I started up the hill.

In the darkness behind the marquee’s solid rear wall, Edie Jackson met me as I’d asked. She clutched a worn book to her chest, and her voice was nervous in the darkness.

“Are you sure about this, Ruby?”

Softly, I followed the wall and stood on the fringes of shadow, looking into the light. Under the glow of coloured lanterns, the quartet launched into a new set and the open dancefloor filled with couples. But I saw them, Max and Ava, sitting at a far table.

The pianist hammered the keys unmercifully. Edie whispered, “You know it’s horribly out of tune.”

“He’s still here,” I said. “Max Moran.”

“He extended his booking. Come on, Ruby, why not leave it another week? We could do with more practice.”

“No. It has to be tonight. Tell Mr. Hunt I’m here.”

She bit her lip. “All right.”

Tonight I would not be singing jazz. My lips moved, repeating the words under my breath. Tanto amore, segreto e inconfessato… My mind was suddenly full of colour and sound that blocked out everything else. Instead of lanterns, I saw the glare of limelight. Instead of hectic jazz, I heard the ardent swell of strings and felt the cool weight of costume jewellery on head and throat.

How long was it since I last [_used _]my voice? How long since I had done anything but hide it and hope for it? Two years, while I’d chased a distant dream that would probably never be anything more.

Edie came back to me.

“You’re so calm,” she said, wonderingly.

But it was not the performance that filled me with dread.

The band finished and Mr. Hunt stepped to the microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he boomed, his amplified voice crackling around the edges, “you all know our lovely Ruby Black!”

Beside Ava’s pale slim paw resting on the table, Max’s hand slowly clenched, tighter and tighter.

“Ruby won’t be joining us tonight.” A chorus of groans from the tables. “But never fear! Tonight, I have the [_special _]pleasure of welcoming a wanderer from ancient China—” he squinted at a paper in his hand— “Puccini’s Liú!”

Edie slid onto the piano bench and began to play.

I opened my mouth. And the music welled out.

Princess, it is love…

Love…

I stepped onto the stage, into the light, and heard the smash of broken glass. I thought it came from Max’s table.

I took no notice. My body was stiff, hands half clenched on air, chin tilted up, as I battled two years’ cobwebs in a once-silver throat.

A secret and unconfessed love,

so great that these torments are sweet to me,

because I make a gift of them to my lord,

because, keeping silent, I give him your love.

I give you him, Princess,

and I lose everything!

Even my impossible hope!

Bind me! Torture me!

Let me suffer every torment!

Ah! as the supreme gift of my love!

The final chords of the death aria faded away. I drifted back to the moment, gradually aware that my palms were sweating, my heart racing, and the marquee utterly silent.

I looked at Max. He was leaning forward a little, and there was a triumphant glitter in his eyes.

The chair beside him was empty. Ava had gone.

Then the marquee erupted into applause. Edie got up from the piano and hugged me. A shadow fell between me and the light, but it was only Mr. Hunt, beaming, with an applejack.

“It’s on me,” he said, putting the glass in my hand. Then he leaned over so that the microphone caught his next words. “Well, I don’t know much about the opera, but who knew you could do that, Ruby?”

Before I could stop myself, I glanced across the dance floor again to the corner table, and this time my eyes locked with Ava’s. She stood by Max, clenching a white napkin to her black satin bosom, her eyes huge and reproachful.

There were dark, red spots on the napkin. Her hand was bleeding. It was her glass that had broken.

As she bent down and spoke to Max, she never took her eyes from my face. I tasted my applejack and my teeth rattled against the glass.

Max got up and offered Ava his chair. The band had already filed back into place; up went the big string bass like a flag. Ava sank down, still clutching her hand against her bosom. When Max started toward me, I fled unashamedly to the bar.

If I was wrong about this—

The lights blinked out behind his shoulders. “Ruby! I’ve been looking high and low for you. Where did you go?”

He was too close, too loud and accusing. I shrank back against the bar. “That’s my business.”

“Ruby?” Bill Fisher materialised next to us. “Is he bothering you?”

“Not at all,” I said. “I was about to leave.”

I swallowed the last mouthful in my glass and set it down on the bar. Max grabbed me by the shoulder and spun me around.

“You think you get to slap me in the face and walk away? You think you get to make a fool of me?”

His voice sliced through the music and the tread of dancing feet. At the same moment, Bill moved almost too fast to see. There was the sound of a blow and Max reeled back, losing his grip on my shoulder.

I bit off a shriek. There was a collective gasp, and the music stopped.

Max straightened, gingerly touching his face. Bill Fisher stepped between us, fists clenched.

“Look here, Moran, I don’t care who you think you are. But on this island Ruby Black chooses her own company.”

In the silence, someone yelled, “That’s right!” Jim Harper. And in the midst of all that chaos, warmth flooded through me. I ignored Max’s glare, and took my scarf and purse from Edie. “I’m leaving.”

“Jim will walk you to the ferry.” Bill must have seen the protest in my face, for he leaned down and his voice dropped. “Please, don’t stay on the island. Go ashore and wait for me at the chalet.”

There was no way to explain to him what I had to do. “All right. But let me walk myself to the ferry.”

Bill glanced doubtfully at Max.

“I don’t imagine Mr. Moran wants to find himself made a laughingstock in the Mirror again, Bill.”

At that barb, Max’s jaw flexed, but he kept silence. I pushed past him to reach the south path to the jetty, and he stood unmoving to let me by. But only I heard the words he murmured:

“You want to be careful out there, Ruby.”

I pretended I hadn’t heard.

Most likely I would not be followed. Most likely the ferry would still be docked at the jetty at the foot of the island. But if it came to the worst it was only a short swim, barely a quarter of a mile across a deep strait which I had swum before—swum, and floated over the brink of an underwater cliff which, in the crystalline water, could be seen plunging to unfathomable depths.

But it was dark now, and I was wearing my red dress.

I went down the path that traced the length of the island’s backbone, reached the jetty, and paused. No ferry.

That made things simpler. The cabin at the north end of the island was still well hidden; the police had never discovered the moonshine or the still. Instinct told me I would be safe if I stole back to my old hideaway. If I walked along the shore, the thick scrub and the steep, shelving flank of the island would both screen me from the path.

At once I slipped off stockings and shoes and eased down onto the pebbly shingle.

The jetty faded into the night behind me. The wavelets of the lake lapped, lapped, lapped endlessly on the stones.

On the path above, I heard footsteps. At once I looked up and saw his head and shoulders silhouetted against the night sky. It was Max, of course. Alert and listening.

“Ruby?”

You want to be careful out there.

I sprang into motion. In the same instant his shape quickened against the stars. I left him on my right, fighting through the scrub toward the shore, and bolted for the north end of the island. If he meant me harm it was the only sensible thing to do; the shoreline would take me close enough to the cabaret to scream for help.

I couldn’t help crying with pain as I ran barefoot over the stony shingle, but even if it had been safe to wear them I didn’t dare stop to buckle on my shoes. In another moment Max gained the shore behind and I heard the steady crunch-crunch of his feet as he closed in. I scrambled up the short bank rising on my right, and regained the scrub. Twiggy fingers clutched at my dress. I tore through the branches, not without a twinge as the chiffon ripped.

Focus, Ruby!

I pelted through the scrub, shielding my face with my arms. Under the trees, it was too dark to see anything. At the last moment, some sixth sense pulled me to a halt.

Too late. My arms jarred against stone.

For a moment I stood groping with outstretched arms against the rock. Behind, Max thrashed the undergrowth. In the dark I’d borne too far to the right, and instead of striking the concealed path that skirted the hidden cabin further north and reached the marquee by an easier slope, I’d trapped myself where the island’s flank reared up in a low cliff.

The only way was up.

The wall of rock rose against the stars. I remembered how it looked in the daylight, its face seamed along sedimentary layers. I liked to climb. I had climbed it before, at a different place, and in the light.

But I could not hesitate. I dropped shoes, stockings, and scarf, kilted up my skirt, and sought with splayed toes and fingers for a hold. By the time Max emerged from the scrub below, I was halfway up—well out of reach, even for a tall man.

I paused to catch my breath, tensing for what might happen next.

“Blasted Chink,” he groaned.

It was hard to believe this was a matter of life or death, not some madcap game the two of us were playing. “Lousy pakeha,” I yelled. Then I pushed up, reaching for a handhold I couldn’t see. Unless I kept moving, my arms would weary and I’d fall.

He chose not to hoist his two hundred pounds’ weight up the face of that cliff in the dark. Instead, he pelted through the undergrowth, aiming north, doubtless looking for the first path up. He was famous for his speed on the playing field. It was a race I had to win.

I scrambled recklessly skyward and finally rolled over the upper edge with a sob that was half relief, half the pain of a skinned knee. Not far away, heavy footsteps quickened as Max found the north path.

I couldn’t move until I’d caught my breath, but my mettle was up and triumphant. This was my island, and no one would run me to earth here. I rolled to my feet and came up running. Ahead were the cabaret lights and the slow croon of the night’s last song and lanterns bobbing one by one down the path to meet the ferry.

Up here there was less undergrowth. The trees were either winter naked or solitary stilted pines. The moon came out from behind a cloud to light my path. To the left, I heard Max change direction as he left the path and charged directly to cut me off. I refused to focus on him, instead fixing my eyes on the cabaret, putting on one last desperate burst of speed—

He struck me in a low tackle and wound his arms around my hips. We ploughed into the ground barely fifty metres from the edge of the light. I felt the hem of my much-abused dress give way with a low shriek, and released my breath in a scream of my own. A moment too late, his hand found my mouth and cut me off.

The music stopped. The last scattered couples crowded toward this side of the floor, peering into the dark.

“Who’s there?” someone called.

Max hesitated. For one moment his silhouette above me was perfectly still, staring at the marquee. For one moment, his attention was off me.

I bit his hand and yelled as he yanked it away. Mr. Hunt said, “It’s Ruby!” and jumped over the railing at the marquee’s side. Max hissed through his teeth and jumped off me.

I am coming back for you,” he said. Then something rose up in the darkness. There was the rush of air and the sound of a blow, and Max crumpled to the ground.

I screamed again, this time for pure shock. Mr. Hunt reached me and helped me to my feet—I was shaking, I realised, like I had that first morning when Max pulled me out of the lake. Out of the shadows, the pale oval of a face coalesced and I stared with dizzy stupidity at Ava’s bodyguard.

No. No. This was wrong. This was not part of the plan.

“Is that Moran?” Mr. Hunt quavered, pushing me behind him into an outstretched array of comforting hands.

“You leave him to me,” said the bodyguard. “We’ll see him to the police station. Won’t we, ma’am?”

He spoke to someone beyond us. In the breathless silence Mr. Hunt turned, and after a moment so did I. Ava Wu came across the grass from the pavilion with the light making a spun-gold halo of her hair. One bandaged hand was pressed to her heart. The other fluttered before her like a sleepwalker’s.

I don’t think she heard her bodyguard’s words. I don’t think she saw anyone but me.

I’d always known that the moment she laid eyes on me, my charade was done. Ava had known me so much better than Max ever had. She knew me, and above anything else she knew my voice.

“Xue Bai,” she choked. “Xue Bai. Oh! to think I should hear that voice again!”

Xue Bai.

The name sounded like a death sentence. I was lightheaded and almost nauseous as Ava pulled me into her arms. “I’ve got you, darling,” she whispered. “It’s going to be all right. Everything will be all right.”

“Ava.” I tried to pull away. “Daddy… they tell me Daddy’s gone.”

“Don’t. You can barely stand.”

“Where’s Bill?”

“Already gone back to town,” Mr. Hunt said, “in the Chalet launch—said he was meeting you at the hotel.”

Ava helped me across the uneven ground and onto the dance floor, then eased me into a seat under the coloured lanterns. “Speak to me, Xue Bai. What happened?”

I fought back the fuzziness in my head. “I think Max Moran is trying to kill me.”

“Don’t be afraid; you’re safe now. Did he hurt you?”

“No. I just feel a bit—” I let out a nervous, high-pitched laugh—”a bit grummy.”

“Grummy! I thought you were dead. It wasn’t until I saw the photograph in the Mirror—and even then I could hardly believe it. Not till Max sent a telegram.” She shook her head. “I’ll get you a drink.”

“No,” I said sharply, and she stared at me with her lips parted. My hands were shaking on the tabletop. “A smoke, maybe.”

The murmuration of onlookers in the air around us became suddenly more animated, and half-a-dozen cigarettes offered themselves. Ava made an imperious gesture, rather like the princess in the opera signalling to her executioners. “Stand back and give her air!”

Someone put a lighted cigarette in my hand and then they must have dispersed, for the murmuration faded. Ava sank down in the seat opposite me. She was not smiling; the moment was too solemn for a smile.

“Selections from Turandot at Otago Girls’. Do you remember?”

“I remember. You played Liú.” The part called for a voice of fragile beauty. Ava to the life.

“You made a magnificent Turandot.” Ava lit a cigarette of her own, sat back, and gave a wispy sigh. “I told you at the time you were too young for the role. That you’d ruin your voice trying to hit those notes. But it didn’t stop you. It never stopped you.” She looked into the night, to where we’d left Max with the bodyguard. “Turandot. Butterfly. You always had to be the prima donna, didn’t you?”

“You must admit I looked the part better than anyone else.” I managed a faint smile and went to drag on my cigarette. But my hands wandered, and I could not get the thing between my lips. I stared at it. An ice-cold fear slid into the pit of my stomach.

Ava followed my gaze. “What is it?”

“I feel—I feel awfully—” My voice got lost in the dizziness of my mind. In the background, I heard voices and pattering feet. Nearly everyone had left the cabaret by now. Someone leaned down and spoke to Ava. Dimly, I realised I must have had something more than a shock tonight. But how?

There was a tilted curve to Ava’s smile as she turned back to me. “You’re feeling dizzy and disoriented,” she said. “Your head aches and you’re nauseous. I’m surprised; the symptoms usually take a little longer to appear. But then, you’ve had a rather taxing night.”

I stared at her, my lips parted.

“A methanol overdose. Oh, Xue Bai. It’s so dangerous to drink applejack.”

But the only thing I’d drunk tonight came from Mr. Hunt. After my song.

When Ava was at the bar getting a napkin for her hand.

When I turned my head, the lanterns spun around me. Light and darkness and hurrying shadows. “Mr. Hunt!”

My voice was too faint to break through the commotion.

“He was here a moment ago.” Ava’s voice was relentlessly calm. The hand holding her cigarette was shaking, whether from fear or excitement, I had no way of knowing. “But he’ll be halfway to the jetty by now. It seems the police think he has a still hidden on the island and are coming out to find it.”

I watched the shaking hand. “What are you going to do with me?”

“I told Hunt you were feeling ill, that I’d see you to land myself. And I will, as soon as Angus returns with the boat. My chauffeur, you understand. He’s taking Max ashore.”

But the police were coming, and I was still alive. Ava walked a tightrope, and she knew it. I slowed my breathing, cleared my mind with an effort, and managed to stamp out my cigarette in the ashtray.

“It was you. All this time. [_You murdered my father.” _]I swallowed, unsure whether the heaving in my chest was poison or loathing. “Good night, Ava, I hoped I was mistaken. I thought you were my friend.”

“I was never your friend.” Her eyes glittered with hatred. “Before you came I had that school wrapped around my finger. I was poor, but I had a future. I could sing. I could dance. People loved me. Until you came and took it away from me.”

All this time, and I’d never suspected.

“I came? What, you think I meant to be your rival? You think I did all the taking? What about Dad? You got him to marry you, didn’t you?” Then I realised. “He was payback.”

Ava nodded. “You owed me something. And I saw my chance to take it. Your father’s attention. His love. His money. I swear I would have been content with that. But you never could leave well alone. You wanted Max too.”

“I did not. That was Dad’s idea from first to last.”

She didn’t seem to hear. “I was married to a man twice my age. I deserved some happiness! Besides, Max was my discovery. [I _]convinced your father to sponsor him. _I launched his career.” She shook her head. “Introducing him to your father was a mistake. He saw Max as a way to reopen dealings with the Irish by marrying him to you. No doubt you convinced him to keep it from me. I never knew until I opened the Mirror and saw the engagement listed in the society columns.

“After that, I knew you had to be stopped.”

In fairytales, witches seem good and beautiful till you catch them bathing in blood by the new moon. Maybe I had wandered into one of those old stories. Maybe I was dreaming with my eyes open.

Maybe fairytales were more truthful than I’d ever believed.

“So you had me kidnapped.”

“Yes.” She tapped the ash from her cigarette. “And told Chang to cut out your heart, just to be sure. But he didn’t, did he? I wonder where he got the thing he sent me. Sheep? Deer?”

Did she think the police couldn’t tell the difference between a human heart and a deer’s heart? Maybe she had her own naiveté. I didn’t want to think where Chang had found the heart. “All I know is that when the lorry stopped, the driver—he was masked, but it [_was _]Chang, wasn’t it?—the driver opened the door and told me to run if I wanted to live.”

“Ahhh.” She exhaled a long thin stream of smoke. “So Chang betrayed me before he left. I should never have bought him that fare to Hong Kong. I handled it myself the second time.”

I clenched my hands on the tabletop. “When you murdered my father.”

I watched her face for any sign, any slightest sign of contrition. But she continued to smoke without a tremor. “Yes.”

“Why?”

“The job wasn’t done.”

I understood. “Max wouldn’t go near you.”

A shrug. “After you died, he and your father became close. I realised he wanted to be loyal to his friend.”

“So you killed Dad.” My stomach cramped, and once more I didn’t know if it was the methanol or my own disgust. I did know that the disgust was more than half for myself. I’d told myself it was as much as my life was worth to show my face in Dunedin again. But I should have taken the risk. I should have gone back. I should have baited Ava out of hiding long ago, and perhaps he would still be alive.

Far off, I heard the sound of launch motors. The police, thank God.

Wheezingly, I began to laugh.

“What’s so funny?”

“You killed Xue Bai. I could have resurrected her years ago, but until tonight I chose to let her lie. Don’t you want to know why I sang Turandot?”

Ava’s eyes narrowed.

“Because I[_ ]wanted[ _]you to recognise me. Because I wanted justice for Dad. Do you think you’re winning? It’s all part of the plan, Ava. Show myself and give you every bit of rope you need to hang yourself.” In truth, the plan had gone to blazes the moment I drank poisoned applejack. But I tried to put conviction into my voice. “Do you really think the police are coming for the still?”

She had to believe they were coming for her. If she didn’t believe that, all was lost. For the space of two breaths, Ava stared at me, her lips parted, her cigarette forgotten. In the distance, the sound of motors died. The police were on the island.

“You’re bluffing,” she said at last.

“Try waiting for them and see what happens.”

Footsteps tramped up to the cabaret from the north shore of the island. Startled, Ava swung around on her chair. I hoped for a friendly face. But it was only the bodyguard.

Ava sighed. “Angus! Thank goodness you’re here. Where is he?”

“Dropped him on the foreshore, ma’am.”

“Is he awake? You didn’t hit him too hard?”

“He’s pretty groggy, ma’am. I put him in his automobile.”

“And the police?”

“Just landing.”

“I shall have to speak to them. I hope you didn’t strain yourself moving him, Angus.”

“No, ma’am.”

“The silly boy. He could have got himself arrested, behaving like that.” She had become smooth tongued and calm again, and I realised with a shiver that it was because she thought she was winning.

Between them, Angus and Ava helped me to my feet. It did not take much skill to pretend more weakness than I felt. I groaned and closed my eyes, hanging limp in their arms, till Ava slapped me.

“Stand up. You might as well make it a good show.”

Their footsteps crunched up the path in time with the beating in my head. Under the lamps, Ava lit another cigarette. Angus pulled my arm around his neck, grabbed me by the waist with an iron grip, and began to half drag me toward the north path.

The beam of a torch picked us out. “Stay where you are! This is a raid!”

Angus froze and I took my chance, twisting in his grip. “Help me!”

In the commotion of wind and footsteps, the sound of my voice was lost. There must have been at least ten of them, plain-clothes detectives from out of town, and McGinnis, our local sergeant, looking sleepy.

Trailing smoke like a banner in the air, Ava advanced upon their leader. “Good evening, Inspector.”

“Mrs. Wu.” He whipped off his hat. “I didn’t expect to find you here.”

A thin red smile. “I seem to be caught in a trap meant for someone else.”

“We heard there was a still on the island.” His tone was apologetic.

“I’m sure there is, but I couldn’t say where. You don’t need to detain us, do you? I’m worried about my young friend over there. She’s had a bad shock and she needs a doctor.”

Again, the beam of light dazzled my eyes. “I don’t have time for this,” the inspector grumbled under his breath. But he came over, laid a hand across my forehead, and felt my pulse.

“Help me.” My voice sounded slurred in my own ears. “I’ve been poisoned.”

The bodyguard’s grip tightened in warning. The inspector turned back to his men. “She’s been drinking. Could have been something wrong with the moonshine.”

“Best get her to a doctor at once,” said McGinnis. “I’ll take her.”

For a wild moment I had hope.

“No, you’ve got to help us find that still. Mrs. Wu, since you were going to take her—”

“Of course.”

Ava’s heels clacked across the floor toward us. I tried to call out, but once again my whimper of protest was swallowed up by the tromping of regulation boots across the wooden dancefloor. Angus dragged me down the north path. So much for the police.

For a moment I must have blacked out, because the next thing I heard was the ripple of water on the beach as Angus dumped me in the stern of a boat.

Ava stepped in after me, and the engine started.

“I knew she was bluffing,” she said blithely.

“Where to, ma’am?”

“Shore, Angus, but take it easy and stay in deep water. We mustn’t rush things.”

A silver ribbon of water opened between us and the island. I watched it with fading hope.

Ava drew on her cigarette and said, “Ah! what a glorious night. You can see every star. Do you know what the best of it is, my dear?”

She didn’t wait for an answer.

“The best of it is that Liú sang the truth. Your death gives him to me. I must thank you for that, at least. You made a fool of Max in the Mirror with the whole world watching. He telegraphed me at once, guessing that if you came back to life, so would your killer. Then I revealed myself to him, and he did not despise me,” she said dreamily. “He and I, we had both seen your true nature.”

We cut smoothly through the water. All around us stars rippled in the glassy depths. I kept my failing eyes on the south shore with its dark fringe of trees. On the hillside above them, the distant lights of Roy’s farm pricked out of the darkness. I had friends there, friends on the island, friends in the town. And I would die within sight of them.

Closer. Closer. Perhaps there was still a chance.

“You’re wrong about Max.”

“That’s close enough, Angus,” snapped Ava. She felt inside a locker and turned the beam of an electric torch into my face. I winced; my head felt ready to burst.

“There’s life in her yet. Turn it off, Angus, and let’s wait a moment. We don’t want her getting ashore too soon.”

The motor died. Ava switched off the torch, plunging us suddenly into blind darkness.

I don’t know where I found the strength. But I grabbed the gunwale and launched myself over the side into the water. For half a second, the icy depths shocked me into a heavenly ease of body and clarity of mind. Then the cold overwhelmed me. The air spasmed from my lungs, my limbs jerked uncontrollably, and a blinding pain, so sharp I could see light behind it, burned through my head.

I clenched my teeth and forced myself not to gasp for air. I no longer had any idea where the shore lay, or even which way was up. It didn’t matter. I reached out and began to kick in what I hoped was the right direction.

My lungs ached. I felt the pull of buoyancy now, dragging me toward the surface, but I fought it as long as I could. I must make it to shore.

This was how my father had died. Slowly, painfully, perhaps while Ava preened and cooed and boasted of how she had done it.

If I never made it to shore, she would never answer for what she had done to him.

My head broke the surface and I gasped air. There was a roar in my ears, a dazzle of light in my eyes. They’d started the motor again and were sweeping in circles looking for me. Because of the boat’s roar, they hadn’t heard me break surface. They hadn’t heard my tortured gasp for air.

I took my bearings. I’d come south from the boat, and the lights of Roy’s farm twinkled uphill to my right. I turned toward them and dove.

Cold pressed in on me, numbing my bones. Behind all the pain in my head, there was no room for any thought beyond the desperate need to keep moving. If I could only make it ashore—

I needed another breath, but I couldn’t find the surface. My lungs were bursting. My body was a scream of pain. I couldn’t feel my arms or legs.

Something scraped my front. Pebbles. The lakebed. How deep had I drifted? Fear spurred me to one last effort and I shoved against the stones with ghostly limbs. Then I lost even the lakebed. I was drifting in endless water, wrapped in a glass chrysalis, chill and clear and unfathomably deep.

I could no longer feel the cold. I could no longer fight.

For half an instant, it felt like relief to let my lungs open.

Even though I’ve been there, I don’t pretend to know for certain what lies on the threshold between life and death. Not for everyone. Some day, tomorrow or next year or forty years from now, when you succumb to the weakness of your mortal body, it may be that you go through that dark door without a backward look, either too entranced to look back, or perhaps too terrified by what lies beyond.

Or perhaps you will stay, like I did, and linger, like I did, reliving the memory of the moment that brought you to death.

My final night at the Lakeside Chalet. Moonlight pouring through the windows, while I stood in the common room doorway, afraid to go and afraid to stay.

Max Moran facing me, cradling a butterfly comb in his hands like something unbearably precious.

I remembered how my voice had sliced defensively through the night. “I don’t want to know. This has nothing to do with me.”

Maybe I should have let the door swing shut between us. Maybe, one last time, I should have run away and hid myself.

But something had held me there an instant too long, and in that instant Max had spoken.

“I know.” His voice softened. “Look, I know I’ve put my foot in it—and badly. But please. I need you to listen.”

“I can’t. I’m leaving.” But I stood motionless and waited for him to speak again.

“It was Ava,” he said. “Ava was the killer.”

Ava. It couldn’t be.

“She killed James Wu. She killed Xue Bai. Wu and I were trying to figure it out, but we had nothing to go on. Not until your father was already on his deathbed. That’s when he remembered seeing the methanol in her possession. He told me with his last breath.” A long pause. “He made me swear to bring her to justice.”

My lips felt numb. “No. No—you killed James Wu. They used your knife to cut out Xue Bai’s heart.”

“It wasn’t my knife.”

“Max. I read the transcripts.”

He gave a soft snort. “Yes. Of course you did. All the same, the knife belonged to my brother Danny.” His laughter vanished, like the sun when it is covered by clouds on a winter’s day. “Ava must have planned to pin the murder on him, but Danny never liked me much, did he? So he told the coroner it was mine. And Dad backed him up.”

It was so plausible it couldn’t possibly be true. “So you brought Ava here without telling me she was the killer.”

He let out a gust of breath. “Yes. I did. I’m sorry. I got her to confess to me, but it was only by pretending to want you dead as badly as she did. It was the worst kind of mistake, but I did my best. I tried to get her to send me, tonight, instead of her trained gorilla. When she insisted, I got away from the table and ‘phoned Fisher to warn him.”

“You should have told me it was Ava.”

“I know. I thought… Please, forgive me, I thought…”

He let his voice trail off. When he spoke again, it was with almost violent force. “I wanted you to be Xue Bai. I wanted it so badly that I thought—I thought you must be Xue Bai, and that you’d admit to it, just to know who killed you.”

I put a dizzy hand to my head, but he went on.

“Afterward, you said you weren’t interested in justice. Not for yourself, not for anyone. I thought the one thing I could do was spring you on Ava and watch to see what happened. Some good it did me! I have her confession but no record, and not even a witness to confirm it was Angus that attacked you tonight.”

“But why?” I whispered. “Why do you pretend to care for her so much? For Xue Bai, I mean? You only ever met her once. It’s not as if you knew her.”

“I know, but…” He cut off, and stared at me through the moonlight, his eyebrows a low bar that shadowed his eyes. “Yes. I only met her once. But I never told you that.”

A mistake. I took a hectic breath. The whole world held still.

Max’s eyes widened, and his hands tightened on the butterfly with the ruby eyes.

Xue Bai.”

I started back, but he lunged forward and pulled me into the moonlight to study my face.

It’s really you.” He stared at me with huge eyes. “‘Death, be not proud.’ It’s true…”

I trembled looking into his face, for fear I should see murder there. What I saw was something more like worship. Unbidden, that adoration reached inside me and pulled tears to my eyes.

But why?”

For a moment, he only looked at me. “For two years I have lived to find your killer, to fight your battle. I do not think any man can do that for a woman without coming to love her.”

He spoke it like the naked truth it was, and it did not occur to me for a moment to doubt him.

Max loved me. He wasn’t the killer, and he loved me. I pulled away from him and backed into the shadows with a sudden, shaken need to hide my face. Later, I would decide what to think of this. At the moment, only one thing mattered.

“You say Ava killed Dad,” I said, when I could trust my voice again.

“She confessed it to me tonight.”

“This is my fault.” I swallowed. “I should have gone back. I was so frightened, Max, so frightened that if I ever went back, if I ever wrote, it would be the last thing I did. I should have risked it. I should have unmasked her before—before—”

“It’s not too late to bring her to justice.”

“No.” My fingernails bit into my palms. “I’m going to make her pay.”

“Ruby.” Max’s voice was full of warning. “What are you thinking?”

“You don’t have to know. This is personal.”

I shifted toward the door, but he got in front of me. “Ruby, you’re not doing this.”

“Why not?” I shoved his chest. “You’re the one who thinks people ought to be punished.”

“And you’re the one who thinks they ought to be loved.” He flung the words right back at me. “Where’s Ava in your love for mankind?”

Once I would have laughed at the idea of Max Moran teaching me anything about love. Now I only stood speechless. He folded his arms.

“No matter what Ava’s done, we owe her a fair trial and a just defence.”

“My father would have thrown her in the lake with iron shoes on.”

Max snorted. “Your father had some faults of his own.” But he didn’t drop his gaze.

For an endless heartbeat I looked into his eyes. His best argument was there, in the silence. I could not defy it long. I dropped my eyes, and when I spoke again my voice was softer than I’d heard it in a long time.

“All right, you win. But I want to see her. What was your original plan? Show me to Ava and let her incriminate herself? We’ll do it again. Only this time, I won’t run away.”

But he shook his head. “Absolutely not. It’s too risky. I was an idiot to try it. Leave her to me; I’ve already got her to confess.”

“You have to let me face her. It’s the only way.”

“I’ll think of something.”

“You can be right there with me.”

“I can’t. Not as a friend; she thinks I want you dead.”

“So you’ll have to go on pretending to hate me. That would be best, I think. If you take my part now we’ll spook her, and we’ll never get the proof we need.” I laughed, trying not to sound as nervous as I felt. “You’ll have to chase me through the bush or something, so I can pretend to fall gratefully into her arms. It’ll be fun.”

“I still don’t like it.” He stepped forward, putting out a hand to brush my cheek. “Xue Bai, you don’t know how precious you are to me… Now I’ve got you back, I won’t risk you again.”

“You think Dad wasn’t precious to me? You think I wouldn’t fight for him as readily as you’ve fought for me?” He’d dropped the butterfly comb on the table. I marched over and picked it up. “He didn’t want me to make a career of opera, you know. He wanted me to be a good traditional Chinese girl: tiny voice, tiny movements, tiny feelings. But when he gave me this comb he told me I would have made the greatest Madame Butterfly the world had ever seen.” I ran my finger along the glimmering enamelled wings. “Oh, Max. If I’d only gone back to him…”

“If you’d gone back to him you’d be dead. That’s the thing about fighting, Ruby. You lose your life.”

“Then I’ll lose it. It might be the first really important thing I’ve done with it.”

He pursed his lips.

I touched his arm pleadingly. “Come, Max, aren’t you pleased with me? You begged me to take something seriously, and now I have.”

He shook his head with a wry smile, and took my face gently between his hands. “You’re so different, Xue Bai—Ruby. To what I expected. I’d spoken to so many people about you; I thought I knew you.”

“The more fool you! So it’s agreed?”

“Oh, thunder. Yes. It’s agreed.” He paused, searching my face again, shaking his head with an incredulous smile.

I blushed. “You really fell in love with a dead girl, just trying to figure out how she died?”

A grimace. “That sounds horribly morbid.”

“Well, I’m getting used to you, Max.”

His thumb brushed my cheekbone. “You are? Don’t make yourself too comfortable. Dead girls are overrated. I’m thinking of giving them up.”

He leaned down and kissed me.

Far away, in a place of shadow and ice, my cold spirit remembered and felt warm.

Pain blossomed in my head from a dull ache to a raging agony. Then it faded to nothing at all.

A blinding light pierced my vision. My lungs heaved. My body jerked: retching, coughing, emptying itself of water. Other senses began to come back. Taste: water and weeds and the grit of dirt. Hearing: someone steadily cursing and a counterpoint closer at hand, “Ruby! Ruby!” Touch: the bite of a harsh cold wind, the hard curved boards of a boat, and the lingering impression of lips on mine.

Sight, as a hand scraped the clinging hair from my face: a grey glare of morning light, and Max Moran, streaming with water and looking like death.

In the background, the swearing continued.

“Shut up and get us to shore,” Max said without turning his head. He was kneeling across my body, holding one of my wrists with his free hand as if I’d interrupted him in the middle of a resucitation exercise. “Ruby, speak to me.”

It hurt to say it, because coughing up so much water had turned my throat to fire. “Where’s Ava? What time is it?”

I don’t think it was till then that he really believed. “Ruby,” he said again, and pulled me fiercely into his arms.

As the boat surged toward shore, he pulled a blanket around my shoulders. “It’s eleven o’clock in the morning, and Ava’s behind bars. What the blazes, Ruby, we thought you’d been down there for twelve hours.”

I coughed again. “I was.”

“We would have come sooner, but we thought Ava had you, and it took us all night to run her down. It was your disappearance that clinched it for her. After that anyone could see there’d been foul play… You went down in four metres of water like glass. I saw you lying on the bottom.”

I had been poisoned too. “How on earth did you bring me round?”

“Bring you round? Who do you think I am, God Almighty? That’s not a league I can compete in. I fished you out and went through the old Boy Scout routine, but when does that work?”

The boat bumped against the jetty and I looked up into a crowd of faces. Bill Fisher and the seven staff of the Lakeside Chalet. The undertaker, Mr. Berry, and his hearse. Jack McGinnis. Mr. Hunt. Dr. Bernard. The Roys.

Not one of them moved. Not one of them spoke.

Without warning, we were half blinded by a flash. Phipps, the photographer from the Mirror, reappeared from behind his camera.

“Come on, Moran!” he said. “Give us the scoop!”

I had lunch that afternoon on the north-facing balcony at the Chalet, rugged up like an invalid and settled comfortably in the sunlight. I might have somehow survived the night, but I had a host of ailments to remember it by: a tender stomach, an aching head, a sore throat, and skinned knees that hurt like fire.

Also my life lay in a heaped-up pile of wreckage before me, and I did not even know where to begin picking up the pieces and fitting them back together.

I pulled my blanket closer with fingers still pale and wrinkled from twelve hours in the water, and picked up my teacup.

The door opened, and I spilled a little tea in the saucer.

“It’s me.” Max came onto the balcony. “Dr. Bernard just ‘phoned.”

“And?”

“He thinks it was the hypothermia. Enough cold, and your body goes into hibernation. It uses less oxygen, so you take longer to drown. There have been other cases of prolonged survival in cold water.”

I shook my head. “How prolonged? Twelve hours?”

“That’s his story, and he’s sticking to it.” There was glimmer of laughter in his eyes. “He said you’ve certainly suffered a near-toxic dose of methanol. Your father will get justice, and that’s what matters.” He folded his arms and leaned against the balcony rail. “How are you mending?”

“Pretty well—considering. Have some lunch.”

“Thanks. I ate something at the police station.”

“There’s apple juice,” I coaxed. “They found the still, I’m afraid, so it’s the best I can offer you. Here.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t plan to stay.”

He shifted, and moved toward the door.

I put down my tea and said, “What’s wrong? You ask me to come up and recover on your balcony, but you refuse to share it with me?”

“No, it’s…”

“Go on.”

“I can call you Ruby?”

“Oh, heavens, please. I don’t think I’m ready to be Wu Xue Bai again, not yet.”

“Ruby.” He leaned on the back of the other chair, a little line between his eyebrows. On the balcony rail behind him a red admiral butterfly alit and sat with quivering wings— “Look,” Max said, “I know I’ve done a lot of bossing you around since we met—and I’m thinking, you have a lot of decisions to be making about your future, aye. If you keep me around, I might be tempted to make some of them for you.”

I stared unseeing at my teacup and then glanced up at him, managing to smile. “Why not? It’s worked well so far.”

“Don’t laugh.” He stared at the table with a scowl of concentration. “You need to set your own life in order. There’ll be Ava’s trial, and your legal existence, and your father’s estate to take care of, and—”

I interrupted him. “D’you think I need to wade through a lake of paperwork before I know my own mind, Max Moran?”

“No, but you do need to know—”

“The only thing I need to know is whether you meant what you said the other night.”

The butterfly scudded away on the breeze. Max circled the table, put his hands on the arms of my chair, and leaned down to look me sternly in the eye.

“You need to do this, Ruby.”

“So much for letting me make my own decisions.”

A muscle tightened in his jaw; a dangerous glint shone in his eye. “Ruby—”

“Hypocrite.”

“Ruby—”

“You’re not answering my question. Did you mean it? Yes or no.”

For a moment he wavered. Then he broke his gaze and glanced at the sky. “Did I mean it?—Oh, shut up, Ruby,” and for a little while he made it impossible for either of us to say anything at all.

S.D.G

About Suzannah Rowntree

When Suzannah Rowntree isn’t travelling the world to help out friends in need, she lives in a big house in rural Australia with her awesome parents and siblings, trying to beat her previous number-of-books-read-in-a-year record. She blogs the results at Vintage Novels and is the author of both fiction and non-fiction.

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Other books by Suzannah Rowntree

Pendragon’s Heir

Blanche Pendragon enjoys her undemanding life as the ward of an eccentric nobleman in 1900 England. It’s been years since she wondered what happened to her long lost parents, but then a gift on the night of her eighteenth birthday reveals a heritage more dangerous and awe-inspiring than she ever dreamed of—or wanted.

The Rakshasa’s Bride

Preeti Kamla has the evil eye. It’s the only explanation for the tragedy and disgrace besetting her once wealthy family. But when a handsome stranger in the village square tells her he has broken her curse, Preeti almost believes him.

Until a twist of fate whisks her away from everything she knows, and the gruesome Demon Rajah claims her as his bride.

A rich and romantic retelling of Beauty and the Beast in the style of a Bollywood epic. Novella, approximately 18,000 words.

The Prince of Fishes

In Constantinople, the Queen of Cities, poverty-stricken Michael the Fisherman and his wife Eudokia dream of a better life for their family. When Michael catches a fish that is able to grant wishes, he and Eudokia finally get their chance to taste the wealth and power of their wildest dreams. But will their ambition destroy the city and cost them everything they hold dear?

An epic clockpunk retelling of the Grimms’ fairytale The Fisherman and His Wife, set against the theological turmoil and imperial grandeur of 700s Byzantium. Novella, approximately 33,000 words.

The Bells of Paradise

Only a madman would go into Faerie of his own accord.

The one thing John the blacksmith loves more than his peaceful, hardworking life in Middleton Dale is the tailor’s free-spirited daughter Janet. But unlike John, Janet dreams of adventure beyond the Dale. And when her dreams lead her into Faerie to be captured by a dangerous witch, John realises he must dare the perilous realm of the Lordly Folk to free his bride.

A poignant and profound retelling of the Grimms’ fairytale Jorinda and Joringel, set in the fantastical realms of Elizabethan folklore. Novella, approximately 25,000 words.

Click here to see Suzannah’s other books!

With Blossoms Gold

Hayden Wand

This book, more than any other I’ve yet written, owes its existence to friends.

Thank you all.

I.

Once upon a time, there had been a door in the tower.

Nella knew so, for she had stepped through it nearly a dozen years ago, away from one life and into another. She remembered hauling stones and mixing cement to help her grandmother wall up the entrance, every moment fearing that they had been followed. When no hordes of angry villagers had pursued them that fear had turned to relief, which had, as years passed, turned to boredom, until it had finally culminated into something like contentment. Hidden within a forest bordered by the Alpi, it was unlikely, after all, that anyone would happen upon her small corner of the world.

Nella softly stepped across the tile floor, her bare feet not making the least bit of noise. The parakeets were chirping in their cage, which Nella had moved outside onto the balcony since the day was so fine.

“I don’t suppose you wish to leave,” she told the birds, stroking the smallest one’s feathers through the bars. “It’s a dangerous world out there, you know,” she reminded them. “You wouldn’t wish for a hawk or a fox to snatch you up, would you? The world is full of such creatures, eager to devour whoever gets in their way.” She frowned at this last thought and her eyes scanned the view from the balcony out of habit. Think of something else, she told herself. No one is going to find you. “For I am young and fain to sing,” she began, “In this happy tide of spring, of love and many a gentle thing…” She heard the sounds of wheels and bells in the distance and her voice grew softer and distracted for a moment before her singing ceased altogether. Her heartbeat rang in her ears as she strained her head to see past the balcony. She let of sigh of relief escape her when she saw who it was. Of course it is him, she reminded herself. Who else would it be? Stop worrying so much.

“Hello, Cornelius!” she said, her voice carrying on the breeze as she greeted the friendly, middle-aged merchant whom she knew so well. A large wagon, full of bottles and bags and luggage, dragged behind him.

“Good day, Nella,” he said. “And how is m’lady this fine morning?” He had to strain his neck to get a glimpse of her, as the balcony was at least fifteen feet from the ground. In times past she would have let down a ladder for him to climb, but his age and a bad leg had curtailed such activities.

“I am well, Cornelius. I have some new salves for you! I’ll be right back.” She flew back into the tower and up two flights of stairs. Her products were ready, but she hadn’t been expecting Cornelius to come until tomorrow or else she would have moved the basket of her jars and bottles to the balcony already. She came back down quickly, tied the basket to a long piece of rope, and gently lowered it to the ground. Cornelius caught it and then unloaded the basket. He refilled it with several bags and then tugged on the rope.

“All right!” He yelled.

She pulled the rope to find the basket filled with a slab of bacon, a leg of lamb, two quarts of fresh milk, and a dozen eggs.

She couldn’t remember a time when Cornelius wasn’t nearby to deliver supplies. He’d been doing it before she and her nonna had ever moved into the tower, and he had never wavered in his constancy—not even when the villagers had run them out of town. Of course her beauty supplies, salves, and medicines fetched him more than a fair price, so it was only good business to keep her well stocked. Even so, Cornelius was genuinely fond of Nella, and she blessed his kindness. Now that Nonna was gone, succumbed to the illness that not even the best of her elixirs could cure, Cornelius was Nella’s sole connection to anything human besides herself. And as his journeys took him all over the Holy Roman Empire, he brought her news directly from Rome itself—albeit several months late. But the passage of time didn’t matter so much in the tower as it seemed to in other places.

There was also a small bag in the basket, and she opened it to find several gold coins. “Oh Cornelius, what am I to do with this?”

“It’s always best to be prepared, Nella,” he said, his perpetual grin suddenly disappearing. “It would be unbecoming of me to make so much of a profit from your work and not give you a florin.”

“But what would I do with it?” Nella asked, almost annoyed. “I’ve no way to spend it.”

Though she knew Cornelius would have liked nothing better than to tell her she would if she would just leave her tower, he didn’t. “I may not always be near to you, Nella. You know how the country is in turmoil. If there was to be a war—”

“There isn’t to be a war, as you’ve told me a hundred times.” Though Cornelius often brought her word of what was happening in the outside world, he was always quick to reassure her that their conflict with the neighboring kingdom of Ruchartes would come to naught.

But Cornelius was frowning. “I find myself less certain of that these days. I just want you to be safe. If one day I cannot come to you—”

“I will be fine, Cornelius. I am grateful for your concern, but I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

Though Cornelius was clearly anything but reassured, he smiled up at her and said, “I have something else for you before I go.” He made his way to the back of the wagon where he pulled out something and cradled it in his arms before placing it in the basket. “Pull it up now,” he said. “But be careful!”

The basket was almost within arm’s reach when she heard a mewling sound. “Oh, Cornelius!” A small gray kitten was curled up within. “Where did it come from?”

“My wife’s cat had kittens, and she insisted you have one to keep you company.”

“Does it have a name?”

“Well, Tosca’s been calling it Persephone. Her tastes do run a little romantic, don’t they?”

Nella laughed. “If your wife liked it, then Persephone it is.” She lifted the kitten into her arms and giggled as it licked her fingers. “She’s beautiful!”

“I can’t stay long, but I’ll be back next week. My daughter’s had her baby, and the family’s a bit occupied at the moment.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful! How are they? Was it a boy or a girl?”

“A little girl, and a howler, too. Just like the rest of the family.” He gave a hearty laugh. “But they are both as fine as can be, and for that we’re grateful.”

“Well, tell Nicoletta and Lorenzo that I give my congratulations. I have something for the baby, too. Wait a moment!” Nella ran back inside, still carrying the kitten, and fetched the small, delicately embroidered yellow blanket that she had been working on ever since she’d learned of Nicoletta’s pregnancy. She placed it in the carrying basket and lowered it to the ground.

Cornelius smiled when he saw it. “Why, our Little Giovanna will look adorable snuggled up in this, Nella!” He fingered the designs before looking up. “Perhaps you should begin to sell your embroidery, too?” he teased, knowing full well Nella’s frustration with textiles.

Nella laughed. “Medicines and beauty potions are enough for me, Cornelius. Only but my dearest friends can entice me to pull out a needle and thread.”

Cornelius said his goodbyes, and Nella, cuddling the kitten, walked into the library. “The name Persephone is a little long for such a small thing,” she told the cat, scratching behind its ears. “Perhaps we should shorten it to Persi. What do you think of that?”

The cat meowed.

“Ah well, you didn’t choose your name any more than I chose mine. Petrosinella. It’s a form of Petrosine. Parsley. Frightful, isn’t it? I hate parsley. It’s the one thing I’ll never grow.”

With that thought causing her a frown, she closed the balcony door and let the kitten loose on the floor so she could return to her work.

Though her medicines were well received, Cornelius told her time and again that her beauty solutions were the most sought after, made all the more desirable by his refusal to share the name of its maker with his customers. Throwing her long blonde hair over her shoulder, Nella bent over the stove where she warmed a pot of rosewater. Her melted beeswax was already on the table and as soon as the rosewater was cooled to a lukewarm temperature, she poured it into the beeswax, beating it steadily until it was smooth and thick. She tested it with her finger.

“Not bad.” She smelled it and smiled. “I think this one should sell just as well as ever. Cornelius said he needed more hair wash, though.” The kitten did not seem interested in conversation, and began batting at the fringe of a tapestry hanging on the wall. Nella’s workshop was one of her favorite places in the tower. There were heavy curtains on each of the massive windows that could be drawn if needed, but she liked the way the light shone through and illuminated everything in their path. Her glass jars and tubes that she used for extracting essential oils made her look like a madwoman, but Nella had a method to everything she did, just as Nonna had taught her.

It was Nonna’s odd methods and endless experiments that had caused them so much trouble in the first place. If she hadn’t been so keen on trying to cure every disease, maybe the villagers wouldn’t have become so wary of her mixes and the strange smells and smoke that their cottage emitted. Maybe she never would have been labeled a witch.

Nella bottled up her face cream and quickly wrote some labels, which she tied to the bottles with a piece of twine. She kept one for herself—this she put into her own bedchamber—and then stacked the rest in the empty wooden crate prepared for Cornelius’s next visit, just as she had done countless times. She sighed, surprised by her lack of enthusiasm. Normally finishing a batch gave her a feeling of satisfaction, but today her only emotion was weariness. Am I jealous? Jealous of Nicoletta, with her normal life and baby daughter? So much new life today. She looked at Persi and smiled, grateful for the presence of the little creature.[_ What have I to be discontent about? I am safe and warm, and now I even have company. What more could I ask for?_]

She undressed for bed and unbraided her long blonde hair. The sun had just set, and the stars twinkled in endless glory for her to see as she stood upon the second, tiny balcony outside of her bedroom. She wrapped a shawl around her shoulders to keep away the evening’s chill, and the breeze played with her hair. She closed her eyes and felt the wind on her face, its movements bringing her a wave of pleasure. She almost wished she could pray—though her grandmother had not been a religious woman, they’d attended mass and prayed by rote when they’d lived in the village. Since coming to the tower as a girl of twelve, however, Nella hadn’t thought about such things and she doubted God would wish to hear from a woman no better than a pagan. She sighed. Her life was secure now, but at that moment the future seemed threatening. What if, heaven forbid, Cornelius was right and something prevented him from coming to see her? She relied on him for nearly everything—food, clothing, and even water when they’d had a dry spell. She could survive, perhaps, from the vegetables she grew along with her herbs and flowers on the tower’s rooftop garden. But it would be a lonely, precarious existence indeed. It was not the first time he’d spoken a warning alluding to impending war, but she’d never taken him too seriously—until now. He had never looked so worried before. What would I do?

Leaving the tower was completely out of the question. She had thought it an idea, once. But that had changed the day Nonna died. That was the day she discovered that she could never leave.

II.

Benedict Allesandro said that he had gone on his daily ride for exercise. That had been a lie. Truthfully, he was avoiding his fiancée.

“She’s a very… beautiful girl,” his mother had reminded him that morning. As Bellarmine’s queen, he knew that his mother had long hoped for her eldest son to find a suitable bride, but even she had seemed to struggle at the thought of Lady Cécile Verdier for a daughter-in-law. Better a daughter-in-law than a wife, Benedict thought.

The sun had begun to sink in the sky, and he knew he needed to turn back towards the castle. The thought did not please him. Though certainly a beauty and more than intelligent, there was something artificial and calculating about Cécile’s demeanor, giving Benedict a constant urge to escape her presence.

“It’s time you returned,” his younger brother, Orlando, greeted him at the front hall. “I was wondering if you had escaped the country altogether.”

“I certainly thought about it.”

Orlando followed Benedict upstairs into Benedict’s chamber. “You cannot avoid the woman forever. You are to be married.”

“Then I shall face her then. Let me savor my last few days of freedom!” Benedict quickly stripped himself of his riding clothes and changed for dinner. “Here, hold this.” He handed Orlando his royal pendant, straightening his giorna before letting his brother place the chain over his head.

There was a knock upon the door and at Benedict’s permission, it opened. It was his mother, dressed for dinner but with a look of disappointment in her eyes.

“Out riding again, Benedict?” she asked.

“You know how the fresh air invigorates me.”

“Please, Benedict,” her gaze was pleading. “Try. Please attempt to like her. I know she is not the easiest to love, but if you could simply set aside your first impression of her, perhaps the two of you could find happiness. You know this betrothal took ages to arrange.”

He had tried to engage his fiancée in conversation, but Cecile had an off-putting tendency to answer his every question with vague disapproval in her eyes. “I will try, but that does not change the fact that currently I’d rather be thrown into the tombs of Sainct-Maurice.”

“Benedict!” His mother scolded.

“I apologize; no doubt the sentiment is ill-mannered and discourteous. But mother,” he smiled at her in the way that had won her over since his childhood, “how can I help but compare my future wife to you, a woman of incomparable virtue and beauty? No one else shall ever equal you.”

“Cease your manipulative flattery, Benedict Allesandro,” his mother scolded. “I am no paragon, as your father well knows. Now, the food is ready, and they cannot begin without the three of us. You know how irritable I can be when meals are delayed. That’s only one of the many defects that belie your words about me.”

The table was full that night. Though King Giancarlo was a man more practical than poetic, with little use for aimless popularity or pomp, his court was a glittering exhibition of the arts, driven by his wife and sons’ appreciation for such things. Food was plenty and the conversation good. Artists, eager for the patronage of the wealthy and powerful, kept their ears tuned for word of opportunities, while ladies let their wit sparkle in display, verbally jousting with men all too eager for a pretty wife or sweetheart. Normally, this scene of after-dinner entertainment would have lifted Benedict’s spirits, reminding him of his time spent in Florence and Milan, but tonight it brought him only discomfort. Lady Cécile had not seen him enter yet. She was seated near the fire, its light casting up onto her face a warming glow and illuminating the silver threads of embroidery shot through her blue high-waisted gown. Her gaze was fixed upon a young couple who were engaged in a game of chess.

Perhaps I can try, he thought as he watched her. At least our marriage does not require me to move to an unfamiliar and foreign land, as it does for her. She deserves my compassion for that, if nothing else.

The betrothal, of course, was purely political. Relations with the neighboring kingdom of Ruchartes had always been tense, and bad blood had remained between the two royal families for generations. Ruchartes’s continued claim as rightful rulers of Bellarmine was heightened by the fact that Bellarminian land contained a highly desirable mountain pass and access to the rest of Italy. Twice in the past century Ruchartes had attempted invasion, and though they had failed, rumors had lately begun to swirl about King Michel’s plans to resurrect the old Ruchartan dream of conquest. With such delicate and easily toppled foreign relations, Benedict’s parents had thought a marriage treaty would afford them some stability. Unfortunately, King Michel was childless, and the closest female relative of marriageable age was his niece, Lady Cécile.

“Admiring your betrothed?” a familiar voice asked at his side, and he turned to see his brother’s fiancée, Silvana, beside him.

“She is beautiful, isn’t she?”

“Very much so.”

“Do you like her?” he asked.

Silvana opened her mouth and then closed it again before finally saying, “She does not seem unkind. But we don’t talk very much. She doesn’t seem interested in my company, I am afraid.”

Benedict sighed. “I shall see if I can interest her in mine.” He gave Silvie a hopeful smile and was about to move across the room when a hand grasped his arm.

“May I have a moment of your time, m’lord?” It was one of his most trusted servants, Jerome.

“Of course.” The two moved towards the hallway.

“This was in the lady’s bedchamber,” he whispered discreetly, nodding towards Lady Cécile and handing Benedict a letter.

“What were you doing in there?” Benedict asked as they both moved further down the hall. “I must say I disapprove of your entering a ladies’ room in such a manner.”

“I was suspicious. I had seen her more than once with a man of her people—Lord Amyot—and I feared…”

“For my honor? I see our betrothal means little to her. I must say, I was little pleased with our marriage arrangement, but I had at least planned on remaining faithful to our vows.”

“If this letter is any indication, it was no lover’s tryst, my lord. ‘tis much worse.”

Benedict opened the letter and read it quickly. “Who else knows of this, Jerome?” he asked, all traces of jesting gone from his voice as his heart fell. He had no wish to marry the woman, but neither did he rejoice in the news the missive contained.

“No one.”

“Please tell Orlando I wish to see him in my father’s chambers. I think I should speak to both of them.” He stared at Jerome’s back and let out a shaky breath when he was out of sight. The news had shaken him more than he wished to reveal. He preferred to face his threats straight-on rather than through the maze of court intrigue and espionage.

When Benedict arrived in his father’s study, he found that he was not alone; two of his father’s advisors, Lord Ludovico and his cousin, Cardinal Marchisetti, were both conversing with the king. Benedict stood to the side of the room.

“Yes, Benedict?” his father inquired, as Orlando entered.

Benedict looked to Marchestti and Ludovico, and, deciding to rely on their trustworthiness, handed his father the letter.

“Jerome found this in the chamber of Lady Cécile Verdier. The letter is signed with initials—vague, but suggestive—and they reference a plot against the Bellarminian crown.”

“More specifically, against you,” his father said gravely, as he read the missive. His face grew more and concerned as he read, until finally he stood up in agitation and crumpled the letter in his hand. “I should have known that their agreement to the treaty was too good to be true. Does anyone else know of this?”

“Aside from Jerome, only those in this room.”

Orlando took the letter and straightened it before reading. “She means to kill you, Benedict,” he said in disbelief. “Or at least participate in orchestrating your death.”

Benedict kept his voice steady. “So it would seem.”

“Are you certain that this is what the letter truly means?” Cardinal Marchisetti asked. “Without this treaty, our relations with Ruchartes are just as tenuous as they were before. You could always go through with the betrothal anyway—”

“Are you mad? Do you truly wish to bring this viper into the bosom of the court?” Benedict asked, letting his emotions get the best of him. “Do not forget, I was there when Giuliano de’Medici was murdered by the Pazzi family. I have no wish to find myself likewise deposed.”

“He was not royalty,” his father reminded him. “No one would dare raise a hand against you. You are no merchant or banker’s son. You are a prince!”

“Treachery bears no respect for nobility. It only masks itself well enough to pass undetected,” Orlando replied. “We have Jerome to thank that this plot was uncovered, or else Benedict would have found himself in an early grave and the rest of us none the wiser.” He emitted a sound of resigned frustration. “Besides, you know the Ruchartans consider us pretenders to the throne. They are loathe to recognize us as rightful rulers, and always have been.”

Benedict’s jaw clenched in anger. A long-past Bellarminian king had caused much trouble between the two countries for centuries, ever since gossip had begun to swirl about the legitimacy of his eldest son by his first wife. This groundless rumor only served the purpose of another of his descendants: the current ruler of Ruchartes.

“Perhaps we could simply keep the woman under guard,” Lord Ludovico suggested.

“We would have to explain to her uncle why. We cannot imprison a member of foreign nobility without cause—and this cause King Michel will surely deny, and accuse us of treachery,” Marchisetti reminded him.

“Let us simply send her back,” Benedict said. “We shall merely say that the lady and I did not suit—which is true. King Michel can surmise the rest. My own feelings aside, she was never fond of me, either. And who knows but that she had little choice in the matter? If she was forced into this plot by her uncle, then I have only sympathy for her.”

“This is a change from your earlier sentiments, Benedict,” his father reminded him. “You called her a viper not a moment ago.”

“I may have been overhasty in that regard. I have seen far too many people being used as pawns in a political game of chess than I care to remember. If Lady Cécile is one of them, I do not want to judge her unkindly.”

“We will prepare, then, to send her back.” King Giancarlo sighed. “It seems our every effort for peace with Ruchartes is thwarted.”

“Who shall tell the lady?” Ludovico asked.

“I will,” Benedict said. “I believe it is my duty, and no one else’s.”

“Lady Cécile, might I have a word?”

She turned to him, and Benedict realized anew how beautiful she was—and how cold her eyes were. “I believe you dropped this.” He held out the letter, and her face paled. Though she attempted to compose herself, he saw her swallow as she took it. Had he not been used to reading the expressions of others, he might have missed it. Her fear softened him slightly; it was the first time he had seen her show human emotion.

“I see. And did you—that is, I trust you are a gentleman?”

Meaning, of course, to ask if he had read her letter.

“I am always a gentleman, m’lady. But I am also a prince, who knows how to watch his back. I trust you understand this.” His face was impassive.

Her eyes hardened. “Indeed.”

“I do not think ourselves well-suited to marriage, Lady Cécile. At least, not to each other. You will forgive me, I hope, for the inconvenience.”

She raised her chin. “Of course.”

He turned to leave, but her voice stopped him. “When will I be leaving?”

“In three days.”

“So soon?”

“I thought you should be eager to return to your home,” he said.

“That place is no home to me,” she said, moving closer to him. She blinked back tears and glanced towards the letter. “I had no choice. My every move is his. How can one disobey a king? If I can stay—you can protect me, can’t you?”

Benedict was unmoved. Her startled fright moments before had been real. Her appeal now, so far removed from her former manner, was not.

“I suggest you task your handmaiden with packing your things at once, m’lady,” was all he said.

Her eyes speared him with sudden hatred, revealing that his supposition about her had not been wrong. “I will be ready, then, Your Highness.” Scorn dripped from her voice. “I should be eager to leave before your father’s mockery of a reign ends. As it will.”

“I wouldn’t count on such a thing, Cécile.” He dropped the lady from her name, finding the title inappropriate. “I destroy injustice and treachery wherever I find it. Perhaps you could tell your uncle so, when you next see him. Since it seems that such things are pet diversions of his.”

Her jaw clenched as though she would kill him now if she could. “You are despicable.”

“Perhaps in your view. But my conscience, at least, is clear. I should entreat you to examine yours.”

Benedict heaved a sigh of relief when he could enter his private chambers, where Orlando was waiting for him. I am glad that is over and done with. “I suppose that relief is not an appropriate response to this revelation? Relief that I don’t need to marry her, I mean,” Benedict said as he sat in his chair before the fire.

“You will have to get used to the intrigue, Ben,” Orlando said. “You’ve escaped enough of it thus far, but you cannot elude it forever.”

“I hate politics. They bore me, they distress me, and they make my life miserable. I need to escape for a few days—clear my head.” He felt exhausted, and his life, under the burden of kingship, stretched before him like an upward mountain path.

“You’re always bored.” A hint of frustration laced Orlando’s words. “Why can’t you find a nice girl—a countess, preferably—settle down, and start a family?”

Benedict looked away, his conscience pricked. For generations the law of the land had stated that the elder sons of the reigning monarch were required to wed before the younger, the legacy of a paranoid king who’d been attempting to dodge betrothing his younger son into a rival family. Orlando and Silvana were childhood sweethearts, but they were unable to marry until Benedict found a bride. As of yet, it was the only reason that he had done his best to find a suitable wife, and why he had even been willing to put up with Lady Cécile’s icy disdain.

I wasn’t that Benedict disliked the idea of marriage, exactly. But it had always seemed to him a pleasant but far-off dream for when his days of thrill seeking and adventure were over. And as every betrothal he’d ever entered into had ended due to circumstances beyond his control, he’d grown used to bachelorhood. But now, after Cécile, his failed romances seemed more like the result of a curse than mere misfortune. At least his other fiancées hadn’t tried to kill him. At best, he wanted to wait. Forty seemed a good age for marriage. He told his brother that once, and Orlando had nearly given him a black eye.

“I’m not waiting another twenty years to marry Silvie,” he had said, furious. “So don’t you dare!” Benedict had thought his brother’s reaction was slightly exaggerated; he’d be forty in only thirteen years, not twenty.

This afternoon, though, Orlando seemed more resigned than angry. He gave a deep sigh.

“Never mind. Silvana’s already planning to play matchmaker. She has a widowed duchess from the south picked out for you at the moment.”

“I’m glad to know Silvana has my future planned,” Benedict said, fearing he was sincere in his sentiments. Putting his future in Silvana’s hands might not be a bad thing. She was a sensible one. “However,” he went on, “for the time being, I have other plans. I heard rumors of a werewolf prowling around the woods of Griffin’s Peak—”

“Heaven help us all! You’re so anxious for adventure you’re giving credence to the superstitions of fishwives, now. I suppose next you’ll be gallivanting off in search of the beautiful maiden held captive in a tower.”

“A maiden in a tower?” Benedict asked, interested. He leaned forward. “I haven’t heard that one yet. It sounds promising.”

“That one’s been around for years, Ben. Some peasants from Ivly swear that an old witch stole a beautiful young girl with golden hair and locked her in a tower.” He laughed and shook his head.

But Benedict was serious. He leaned back in his chair. “I might look into that one.”

“Yes. Amusing.”

“No, in truth.” Benedict sprang up from his chair and grabbed his cloak. “Ivly, you said? I think I’ll go. Much more interesting than a German werewolf. And much closer.”

“Ben, you cannot be serious! It’s absurd!” He rolled his eyes. “Never mind. I told you that about the ‘vampire’ of Venice and you went there anyway.”

“What you fail to realize, Orlando, is that no matter how seemingly ridiculous a tale is, there is almost always a grain of truth in it. There was no vampire, but there was a sadistic—bloodthirsty, if you will—murderer on the loose. And if I hadn’t brought the man to justice, he might be out there still.” He shrugged into his cloak. “Now, do you care to come?” He said it lightly, but he felt a pounding in his chest, the same urge that always prodded him when the right quest had fallen into his lap. It would take him only moments to prepare, and Ivly was but a day’s ride from the palace.

“No thank you. But Ben—” Orlando’s voice stopped his brother at the door. “If there really is a maiden, do us all a favor and marry the girl!”

Ben laughed. “You know how tales get distorted. I’m willing to bet the maiden locked in that tower is bald, losing her teeth, and all of sixty-five. With a wart on her nose for good measure!”

Orlando’s reluctant laugher followed him down the hall.

III.

The tower was quiet but for the faint crunching of the pestle and mortar in Nella’s hands as she ground oats. The day was cold for early fall, and she had shut all of the windows to keep out drafts. Persephone was playing on the floor by her feet, attacking a ball of yarn. One of the parakeets chirped in their cage and Persephone, instantly distracted, stood on her hind legs to get a better look. “Don’t touch the birds, Persi,” Nella said absent-mindedly as she crushed the oats with one hand and examined her recipe in the other. She knew the birds, hanging from a hook in the ceiling, were far out of reach from her cat’s curiosity.

She glanced up momentarily, only to see a man’s form on the balcony reflected in the mirror across from her. She shrieked and, leaping from her seat, grabbed the closest heavy object she found—a large vase.

““Who are you? What do you want? Get out of here!” She raised the vase, as if to throw it.

The man stepped back from the doorway. “Wait, wait just a second. I’m not here to hurt you. I’m here to rescue you!”

“I don’t need to be rescued,” Nella looked at him as if he were deranged, her voice taking upon itself the tone of someone trying to chase away a stray dog: part forceful, part terrified. “Go away!”

The man cleared his throat. “I’m afraid there’s been a bit of a misunderstanding. I was told that a beautiful maiden was held captive in this tower against her will. Though I won’t deny that you are a beautiful maiden—”

Nella’s frown deepened.

“—apparently I was misinformed about the captivity. Anyway,” his eyes flickered to the vase, “I see you are quite able to take care of yourself, so it has been nice meeting you and I will be on my way.” He backed out of the room.

“Wait!” Nella lowered the vase, though she still kept it firmly in her hands. “What do you mean, that you were told I was kept here against my will?”

The man stopped. “There’s a great legend about someone whom I can only assume is you. Something about a witch stealing you away at birth and locking you up or some such thing.”

“By all the saints!” She set the vase down on the table with a clang. She frowned, suddenly realizing a fuller implication of his words. “You mean… they know I’m here?” The villagers knew that Nonna had fled with her towards the woods, but surely they had forgotten all about her by now. It had been over a dozen years since they’d seen either of them.

“Well, I don’t think they know where you are exactly. It took me nearly a week to find you in this forest, and then yesterday I came by and couldn’t think of a way to get up here—”

“You were here yesterday?” Nella’s face turned white.

“Well, yes. And I saw the balcony and came back with a rope and grappling hook and climbed in.”

Nella felt nauseous. Was it true she hadn’t been as hidden and safe as she had first thought?

“I’m sorry; have I upset you?”

“Upset me? Upset me?” Her voice was on the fringes of hysteria. She grabbed hold of the corner of the table to steady herself. Her uninvited guest strode forward as if to help her, but she held up a hand. “I’m fine,” she said. “I’m fine.” She took a deep breath and attempted to calm her breathing. You’re fine. Does he look like he means to hurt you? No. Keep your head. [If he _]does[ mean you harm, how can outwit him if you cannot focus?_] She swallowed, ready to speak, when she suddenly saw the open door. “Persephone?”

The man looked around. “Who?”

“My cat. She was right here—” her eyes widened. “You didn’t leave the door open, did you?”

“I did. I did not think…” he turned.

“Oh, no!” Nella pulled up the edges of her gamurra and ran to the balcony. “Oh, now look what you’ve done!” She was ready to cry with vexation. Persephone, free from the confines of the tower, had wandered out onto the balcony rail and begun to climb the ivy on the side of the tower several feet above. Her soft meowing signified that she had gotten stuck. “She’s going to fall and break her neck!”

The man sighed. “Here, I’ll get her.” He put his foot on the rail of the balcony and heaved himself up. Nella sucked in a breath at his precarious position, but he seemed completely at ease.

“Come on, kitty.” He slipped his foot onto a stone in the tower and began to climb.

Nella bit her lip, her worry over Persi temporarily usurping her terror at being found. Think of the smaller things, she reminded herself. The things you can control and resolve.

Persephone, meowing, leapt onto his shoulder. Nella could see the cat’s claws dig into the stranger’s shirt and she winced.

The man, meanwhile, had climbed down. Persephone pranced around his shoulders and then jumped onto the floor of the balcony.

“Oh, Persi!” Nella scolded. “Don’t you do that again.” She scooped up the animal and held it firmly in her arms in front of her chest like a shield before turning to the stranger. “Thank you, sir.”

The man shrugged. “I don’t see the need to thank me when it was my fault she got out in the first place.”

Nella had thought the same thing herself. “I was just being polite,” she said awkwardly. It had been so long since she had spoken to anyone besides Cornelius that she didn’t really know what to say. “I’m Nella.” She stuttered in nervousness, suddenly realizing, now that she was no longer operating in a fog of terror, that the man was attractive, with a strong jaw and thick, curly dark hair. She hadn’t seen any young men in years, not since she was little more than a child. Though, as she took a closer look at him, this man wasn’t quite as young as she had first thought. Small wrinkles were beginning to form around his eyes and upon his forehead, and there was something in his manner that spoke of experience. But that seemed to somehow add to his appeal, rather than detract from it.

The man paused a moment before seeming to realize that he should introduce himself as well. “Ben. My name is Ben.” He swallowed. “You have an interesting home. It seems very comfortable.”

“Yes, it is. And very private—or so I thought.”

“I apologize again for my intrusion. I had no thoughts to cause you grief. I only thought someone was in trouble here, and I wished to help.

“How did you find me?”

“The Ivly rumors placed you somewhere in this forest. It’s a large one, though. I was ready to give up until I heard your singing.”

“My singing?” she asked, horrified and feeling as though her privacy had, if possible, been even more violated.

“It was quite beautiful, actually. But sound carries. It led me here.”

“Then I did this,” she whispered. “It was my own stupidity that led you here!” She walked away, feeling her heart rate speed up and her breath catch. I am going to be sick.

“It wasn’t stupidity,” he quickly assured her as he followed her back into the tower. “I don’t know why you are so determined to stay hidden, but I shall not tell anyone of your presence if you do not wish it.”

“No, I do not wish it!” she exclaimed. “I like being alone. I don’t want anyone nearby.”

“I see. You word your opinion very strongly.”

She turned to him and pursed her lips. Her queasiness was abating, but she still felt uneasy. “Perhaps you do not mean any harm. If I have been impolite, I apologize.”

He smiled. “It is no matter.”

“I simply find the company of other people tiresome. They understand very little,” she said, feeling an unaccountable need to explain herself.

“About what?” he asked in interest.

“About everything! But especially me.”

“Well, then, if I may be so bold to say so, no one will ever understand you if they never meet you.”

“But they will never misunderstand me, either.”

“This is odd logic.”

“But it is not untrue,” she shot back.

“No,” he said slowly. “I would not say it was untrue. I would say it is—” he stopped.

“You would say it is what? Selfish? Foolish?”

“Sad,” he said.

Nella set her jaw and looked away, affronted.

“I am sorry if I offended you.”

“Don’t be,” Nella said. “You owe me nothing.”

“I am a guest in your home,” Ben said in surprise. “I owe you the respect and deference I would show to anyone into whose home I had been invited. How much more should I show to you, whose home I have invaded?”

Nella looked at him and narrowed her eyes. “You are too clever. Do all the women you know believe your smooth tongue?”

“I do not lie, m’lady. But I shall not trouble you anymore. I shall take my leave, and not trespass upon your kindness.”

“Wait!” Nella surprised herself with her sudden entreaty. “I mean, you must go, of course.” She wanted him to go. Of course she did. “I just want to say that if I had been in trouble, I would have been grateful for your assistance. That is all.” The words sounded clumsy and insipid even to her ears, but he seemed not to mind.

“My pride is glad to hear it. Farewell, m’lady!”

“Orion!” Nella scolded, opening one of the birdcages. “Stop teasing Calypso.” She tapped the delinquent bird on the head and then let Cassiopeia hop onto her finger. The other birdcage, housing Leo, Ursa, and Aquila, chirped happily. Nella rubbed Cassiopeia under her neck. “You’re a good girl, aren’t you, Cassie?”

Persephone meowed on her hind legs, swatting at Nella’s skirts. “Oh, no, Persi,” she said, placing Cassiopeia back in her cage. “The birdies are not for you.”

Persi jumped up into Nella’s arms, and the two of them made their way upstairs to Nella’s bedroom. The room was more than comfortable, as Nonna had enjoyed being extravagant in buying Nella gifts, some of them from distant lands like Arabia or India.

Nella, with Persi still in her arms, fell backwards onto the pillows of her bed. It had been a trying day. She had burnt a batch of rosewater after becoming distracted from the stove when Persi had knocked over a vase. Then, one of her experiments had gone wrong and the entire laboratory level of the tower smelt horrible. She closed her eyes and tried to take a nap. She’d never had such difficulty focusing before. It was that man. He had come and filled her head with reminders of an outside world. It had been so easy to pretend that nothing beyond her tower existed; even Cornelius was such a constant in her life that he was no longer truly connected to the idea of a changing, tumultuous world outside. But that man—she rolled over and buried her head in her pillows, wishing she could feel content as she usually did.

She heard pounding on the lower balcony door.

Nella sat up, eyes wide. The sound stopped, and she hoped she had imagined it. The pounding commenced again and she hurried down the stairs, where she was greeted by a face pressed against the glass of the door on the balcony.

She opened the door forcefully. “You,” she said, almost relieved that it was the same person from yesterday, and not a new interloper. “What are you doing here?” She looked over his shoulder. “Did you climb up the tower again?”

Ben held out his arms, as if in entreaty. “I was going to say goodbye. I’m leaving the forest today. It was nice meeting you, and I’m glad you are not in distress. But most of all I wanted to tell you that some of the townspeople asked of my success when I went back to the inn last night. I was sure to tell them that I found nothing.”

Nella looked at him unsurely.

The man’s nose twitched. “Is something burning?” he asked in concern. “Are you all right?”

“I had a bit of an accident in the kitchen this morning,” she snapped, a bit abashed at her behavior. Her grandmother would have been ashamed of her lack of hospitality. “I suppose you have a long journey ahead of you. Would like something to eat before you go?” she asked reluctantly. After all, besides Cornelius, this could be the only other person she might ever see for the rest of her life. Normally, that thought would not have bothered her. Today, it did.

He looked at her skeptically.

“I burned my rosewater, not the food. I have some fresh bread and pork if you’d like some.”

“I will accept your kind offer, then.” He smiled. “I am sorry for all of the inconvenience I’ve caused.”

“It was not your fault that the villagers gossip, although I do wonder at your giving credence to their musings.”

“Flames of speculation can only come if there is a spark of truth somewhere. It must be said that I did find you in a tower.”

“It was once a hermitage, abandoned during my grandmother’s girlhood. I believe her uncle had been a monk here. That’s how she knew of it. But there was no witch—just my grandmother. And I came with her willingly.” Though Nella did wonder at the specificity of the tower, as the villagers had no way of knowing about it. Perhaps Cornelius had been indiscreet, or more likely, one of his children had thoughtlessly made allusion to it. Perhaps one of her grandmother’s childhood friends had known about it, and made suppositions. Nella did not know for sure, and she doubted she ever would.

“Your grandmother?”

Nella looked down. “Nonna… she was no witch. She was a healer and a midwife though, and to some minds that can garner suspicion. She adopted me after my mother died, though we were not related by blood. She has been dead some years now.”

“I am sorry.”

Nella nodded, not wishing to talk about it. There had always been rumors that had spun around Nella in whispers, of how she was born during the famine when starvation had threatened the village, and how her father had spied a miraculously appearing bed of parsley in a neighbor’s garden. Parsley that he hadn’t thought twice about stealing to save his rapidly failing and heavily pregnant wife. But stealing food had been a capital offense in those days, and to escape execution, he had come to an agreement with the neighbor—Nonna—that the coming child would be given to her as recompense.

The parsley had not been enough to save Nella’s mother, and she had died in childbirth, never knowing of her husband’s wretched bargain. He had died not long afterward. Nonna never spoke of Nella’s origins, but the villagers would talk, and the young girls, especially, were keen on relating their mothers’ gossip to Nella’s ears. She was never certain just how accurate or true their words were.

“What about you? Have you a family?” she asked to deflect the conversation off of her.

“I have a brother,” Ben told her. “And both of my parents are still alive. I have not always seen eye-to-eye with my parents—or my brother for that matter—but we are very close. They are far better people than I am.”

“And do you often…” she searched for the correct phrasing, “…find damsels in need of saving?”

“I try to help anyone in distress,” he said. “Man, woman, child. It matters not. I’ve made it my mission in life, going anywhere I please to fight injustice where I find it.” He grinned, his words filled with enthusiastic, boyish passion.

Nella found it both admirable and naïve. She set a plate of food on the table before him. “I suppose you are kept busy then, with all the injustices in the world.”

“Last summer I journeyed to Milan—that’s a tale, for certain. Sforza is determined to secure an ally against Venice, and he is looking to France. I ran into some rioters protesting his taxes, and barely escaped with my head intact.” He cleared his throat, perhaps noticing Nella’s guarded and disapproving look. Or perhaps he had realized that his voice had taken on a somewhat self-important, lordly tone. “But enough talk of politics—I hear far too much of it at home.”

“So you are well-travelled, then?” Nella asked, interested in spite of herself.

“I would say so,” he admitted with no trace of arrogance. “There is not a state in Italy I haven’t visited. I travelled once to France and to Spain, and twice to Switzerland.”

Jealousy threatened Nella until she reminded herself that she hated traveling. “Isn’t it dangerous?”

“It can be, which is my favorite part.” He grinned rakishly and took a sip of the watered-down wine Nella had given him. Nella frowned at his admiration of recklessness, wondering how anyone could find the prospect of danger appealing. She didn’t think she liked this man, full of arrogance and immodest opinions of his own valor. He finished drinking and set down his cup.

“Why did you really come back?” she asked, feeling suspicious. “You didn’t need to tell me goodbye. So why waste your time to come here?”

“Because I think you need a friend,” Ben said simply. “And I am available.”

“I don’t need friends,” she told him, offended. “I do just fine on my own.”

“No one should be alone, my friend!”

“You are not my friend!”

“I shall attempt to salvage my pride and not take your words to heart, my kind lady.”

“Oh, you are impossible!” She slapped her dishrag against the table and stalked away. What she was truly afraid of was that he would take her up on her words and leave. She didn’t want him to.

But she also never wanted to see him again.

But then again, she also craved his company.

“Do you truly wish for me to leave and never return, Signorina?” he asked, still standing in the doorway. Nella turned to look at him and for a moment saw the first sign of awkwardness that he had ever displayed. Ah, so you are not immune to rejection, she thought with triumph. “I do wish it!” she said firmly and turned away.

“I see. I will not bother you again.”

Nella never thought of playing games; she did not think she wanted him back. But as he turned to go, a strange sort of panic overtook her. “No! I did not mean it!”

He looked at her in astonishment.

“Oh, I do not know [what _]I want!” She walked away, angry at the way she could not control her emotions or her words in his company. It was easy to pretend she was happy and all right when she was alone, or even when Cornelius came by and stayed safely fifteen feet below her. But Ben was _there. He was close enough to see her face. And she had no practice at hiding from her feelings under such scrutiny. She walked into her library and slammed the door behind her, feeling as though she was going mad. Or perhaps I already am. Perhaps I am insane, and I do not know how to speak to others.

She heard footsteps come closer to the door. “So I’ll come back tomorrow, then?” he asked through the door, and she almost laughed in her frustration.

“Yes,” she yelled, hating herself, the world, and everything in it. “Come back tomorrow!”

Benedict still didn’t know what had possessed him to return to the forest. Wouldn’t it be easier to pretend I had never met such an infuriating and unstable woman in the first place? He could not tell if he was truly violating her wishes. She [said _]that she didn’t like company, but seemed strangely conflicted about it, one moment all but pushing him out the door and the next engaging him in conversation. _Or her dislike of you is clear, and you are only misinterpreting her actions. Are you so arrogant that you believe every woman must find your presence fascinating? At any rate, he was thankful to have her permission to see her again. How can anyone live like that? Wasn’t she lonely? He still felt that he was on a mission, though not the one he had originally thought to accomplish. This one was different. She is still held captive in some way. My work here is not yet done.

He looked back at the tower, his last glance before turning around the bend into the trees. It was tall, only a few feet shorter than the largest trees, and sturdy. Its base was squared for about fifteen feet, until it widened into a balcony that extended around the entirety of the tower. The next stories were circular, ending in a flat-topped terrace at the very top. It was devoid of much adornment but had no lack of charm, mostly due to the greenery growing around it and spilling out over the balcony. It was unusual, but by no means a prison.

So why then did he feel that she still needed to be rescued?

IV.

He came again a week later. And again a week after that. Though Nella would have denied it, she soon found herself looking forward to his calls, which had begun to take on a weekly consistency like Cornelius’s visits. And now that she found that she could expect him at regular, certain intervals, the idea of his presence caused her less discomfort. All they ever did was talk. He never seemed to ask for anything, or require anything of her. She still could not puzzle him out.

“But why?” she asked, upon his fourth appearance. “Why do you keep coming? I am no pleasant company, I know.”

“Because no one should live alone as you do. And I like your company.”

“You cannot like my company,” Nella said with sour wisdom. “I am not young and beautiful; I am not charming and sparkling. I am dull, and angry, and—and—prosaic!”

“You are intelligent and clever and unique. And if you are not young, then I am ancient.”

She rolled her eyes at him.

“You are also very beautiful,” he added without flirtation, as if he thought he should answer all of her self-depreciating claims.

“I’ll take none of your flattery.”

“Well, you have not yet thrown me out of the tower,” Ben pointed out. “And I am flippant, oblivious, and arrogant.”

“Yes, you are.”

“Oh, how she wounds me!” He fell backwards dramatically on the couch.

Nella wondered how it was that this man could make her smile. She shook away the amused look. “I have things to do. Even I must make a living, you know.” She began pulling bottles out of her cabinet in preparation for Cornelius’s visit tomorrow.

“What do you do?” Ben asked with interest.

“I manufacture cosmetics. When I was a child, my grandmother was the village midwife and herbalist. But her methods were not always orthodox.” A shadow passed over her face. “I prefer lotions and perfumes to medicines and poisons.”

“Where do you go to sell your bottles?” he asked, as if it suddenly occurred to him that she’d have to leave her tower. Nella didn’t get a chance to answer.

“Hello, Nella!” She heard Cornelius’s voice from outside and she quickly rose to her feet. Of course he’d come a day early today of all days! What would Cornelius think of her visitor? She wasn’t sure she liked the idea of him knowing. He would not approve.

“Who’s that?” Ben asked.

“It’s Cornelius. He brings me my food and supplies.” She opened the door. “I’m here, Cornelius! I’ll just go get my basket.” She went back inside and poked Ben sharply in the chest. “You stay in here.”

“All right.” He shrugged his shoulders and sat in a chair. Persephone, traitor that she was, pounced into his lap and began to purr as he pet her. Nella grabbed her empty basket for her supplies and went out onto the balcony. “Hello Cornelius!” She looked down but didn’t see him by his cart.

“Cornelius?” Nella leaned over the balcony and realized that Cornelius had wandered off with a bemused expression and was examining a horse. Ben’s horse. By the tombs of Sainct-Maurice! She had forgotten about that.

“Nella?” he asked in disbelief. “What is one of the palace horses doing by your tower?”

Nella dropped the basket. “The palace! What do you mean, the palace?”

“There’s a horse here with the seal of the crown on its saddle, in the royal colors. I’d know it anywhere.”

She stared at him in confusion for one moment until horrific, sudden enlightenment came to her at once. She spun around and stomped back inside. “You! ‘Ben’ indeed! You’re Prince Benedict!”

“Nella?” Cornelius called. “Are you all right? Is someone up there with you?”

“What if I am?” The prince shrugged. “What possible difference does it make?”

“You’re the one who sneaked into Count Robachi’s chambers to examine his playing cards.”

“Yes, I did.” He seemed pleased that she’d heard. “I’m surprised you remember that. It was a long time ago. He was cheating at Bassetta. I was able to prove it.”

And you stole the casket containing the splinter of Saint Peter’s cross!”

“Only because it was fake! They were charging poor peasants to see a scrap of wood. It was irreligious and conniving.”

“You stole from an abbey! If anything is irreligious, that must be it! The nuns were furious!”

“I was twelve!”

“Nella?” Cornelius called again, his voice growing more concerned. Nella paused in indecision before stepping out onto the balcony.

“The prince is here, Cornelius. I am afraid that he was most disappointed to find that I was not held captive by an evil witch as was supposed.”

“Oh, Nella. I never thought you’d hear those rumors.”

“I see the villagers at least have excluded me from their censure of my grandmother. I am a victim now, not an accomplice.”

She heard Ben’s footsteps behind her.

“Your highness.” Cornelius bowed at the sight of Benedict.

“You must be Signor—”

“Buonarroti,” Nella whispered quickly.

“Buonarroti,” Ben continued smoothly. “Nella was just telling me about you.”

Nella thought this was a bit of a stretch, but she felt as though Cornelius had just caught her in the middle of a lie, and said nothing.

“She is a dear girl, Nella is.” Cornelius nodded at the prince. “Your highness will not mind if I send up her supplies?”

“Of course not!”

Benedict stood by as Cornelius silently handed up Nella’s supplies. Benedict moved in to help her carry the food back inside, and she tried not to look at him.

“Do you need me for anything else, Nella?” Cornelius asked meaningfully, looking with distrust at the prince.

“I am fine, Cornelius.” She smiled to put him at ease, though she felt anything comfortable. “I promise.”

“Then I will see you in a week’s time!” Cornelius looked again at Benedict, shook his head bewilderedly, and left.

Nella was alone with Benedict. Prince Benedict.

She felt mortified. Back in the village, every girl had been in love with the heir to the Bellarminian throne. Worse was that Nella herself had not been immune to giggling and gossiping about the handsome teenage prince. At one time—before she and Nonna had become outcasts—she’d been among the girls of the village who would meet on washing day, where they’d share the stories they’d heard of the prince’s exploits. Now, all that Nella could think of as she looked at Ben were those times. Her face turned red.

“You lied to me,” she said.

“I omitted information.” He paused. “Which may be just as deplorable.”

“Is that what you like about my company, then? Because I have no knowledge of your position? Because I do not treat you as a prince? Am I just a novelty for you?” She didn’t know why she was so furious—maybe it was because she had let him invade her world and know of her secret existence, and he had not the courtesy to even let her know of his true identity.

“And am I a novelty for you?” he shot back. “Why do you put up with my company, I wonder? Is it because I am the only company available? For all your opinions of me, I do not flatter myself. You agreed to my visitations because I existed, not because you liked me. I choose to visit you because I like you!”

It was the first time he had raised his voice, and it silenced Nella. “I do have a right to be angry,” she said finally after her momentary pause. She was still upset, but his words had reminded her of her own failings. “It was wrong of you to keep your identity from me.”

“Perhaps it was. But could you of all people fault me for wanting some rare opportunity for privacy?” He grunted to himself and took his hat. “I need to go home.”

“Will—will you come back?” Nella asked, her voice sounding small and childlike.

His movements stopped, but he did not turn back to look at her. “Yes, if you wish it.”

“I do.”

“Then I will return.” He continued out of the door and neither of them said anymore until he had mounted his horse and begun to move away from the tower.

“Benedict!” she called after him, using his full name for the first time. He turned to look at her, and her mouth felt dry. “I—I like your company, too. I thought you should know.”

His face softened. “Thank you,” he said.

“Might I have a word, Your Highness?”

Benedict was usually observant of his surroundings, but the woods were dense and he did not expect to see Nella’s merchant friend around the bend on the wooded pathway.

“Signor Buonarroti! I did not think to see you again so soon. But yes, of course you may speak.” He stopped his horse and leaned in the man’s direction.

Cornelius looked torn between a fear of Benedict’s position and a great urge to say something.

“Do not worry, Signor,” Benedict assured him. “I have no intention of executing anyone today. Speak freely.”

“It is Nella. She is very dear to me, and I am fond of her.”

“Ah. I see.” And indeed, Benedict did. “I won’t harm her in any way.”

“You may not mean to,” Cornelius said. “But Nella has lived a very sheltered life in some respects, and that is one of them. She knows of the wickedness of people, and of betrayal and cruelty. But of men—of the workings of people’s hearts—”

“I have no intention of such things, Signor. I like Nella, and I think she needs someone to talk to. A person could go mad, living alone as she does. I wish to convince her to leave her solitary confinement. That is all.”

“So I have often said, my lord. Not of the madness, but of her need for others. But she will not leave.”

“Perhaps one day I can persuade her.”

Cornelius looked worried. “Perhaps it would be best not to, Your Highness.”

“Why? Did you not say she needed to leave? Could she not be shown that there is a life worth living outside of a tower?”

“Do not make the mistake of thinking you know her so well. She will not give up all of her secrets to you at once—and some she never shall. Do not press her in directions she does not wish to go.”

Though Cornelius’ voice was threatening, Benedict was far from being offended. On the contrary, he was beginning to admire the man. “I will remember your wise words, Signor.” He tightened his hold on his reigns, preparing to leave.

“Do you always have this need to act the savior, m’lord?” Cornelius asked.

“Is that such a dreadful thing?” Benedict asked with an easy smile as he moved his horse ahead.

“Perhaps not,” Cornelius called back in response. “But it would be wise to remember that though you may be a prince you are not a god, able to do whatever you please and bend others to your will, however well intentioned you may be.”

It was more than a week before Benedict came by again, which did not surprise Nella now that she knew of his identity. She felt sure his visits to her were very low on his list of priorities.

He arrived on the first truly cold day of the year. Nella heard his horse coming, and went out onto the balcony. She leaned over, and her blonde braid waved in the wind. “You must be freezing!” she called out. She dropped a bundle of blankets over the side of the tower. “For your horse,” she explained. He nodded and tied his horse near the base of the tower where the overhanging balcony gave it shelter. It wasn’t snowing, but the air was brisk. She tied a sturdy rope over the side of the tower and waited for him to climb up.

“I have a fire going in the library,” Nella said as he made his way over the railing. “You should come in and get warm.”

“Thank you. Winter seems to have come early this year.” He rubbed his hands together for warmth as Nella led him inside and down to a lower level of the tower.

Nella’s library was no mean collection. Like the contents of her room, Nella’s books had come from all over the world. Several books were out upon the table: Maimonides’ medical works, La Chanson de Roland, and Dante’s Inferno. She’d had ample time to teach herself German, Latin, and Arabic; she’d learned French in her childhood. One day she hoped to add English and Greek to her language repertoire, but had not yet acquired the right books to do so. She had few distractions in her life, and her isolation gave her more than enough time to master a plethora of skills. She knew Bellerminian law inside and out, and had studied everything from battle tactics and foreign policy to oil painting and musical notation. It had never occurred to her before now that her stores of knowledge were of no practical use, since she rarely had a chance to utilize them for any good.

Ben picked up one of the volumes and examined it. “Did Cornelius bring you all of these?”

“Yes. Most of it was Nonna’s doing. She wished for me to be an educated woman. But there is still much to learn, and I enjoy it, so Cornelius still brings me books when he can. He sells my wares, and brings me back supplies and whatever else I desire. Occasionally he insists I take money, but I find that needless. I don’t ever have occasion to use it.”

“It’s good of him, though.”

“Yes, it is. He’s one of the few trustworthy people that I know. He was the only friend we had who stood by us after… well, after we left the village. He helped us move in here, and kept our secret safe.”

Ben placed the book back on the shelf. “My brother would enjoy your library. I do like reading, but he thrives on books of all kinds. Sometimes when he’s in the midst of a good book, I think he would forget to eat if our mother and Silvie didn’t remind him to now and then.

“Silvie?”

“His fiancée.”

“Ah.” Nella was silent, but she glanced up at Benedict through her eyelashes, contemplating his family dynamic. She knew as well as anyone that Prince Orlando was unable to marry until Benedict did. It was an odd and constricting law, but had never caused difficulties before, as most of the royals had been promised in marriage—at least by proxy—before the age of twelve. Benedict had, too, but his childhood betrothals had never lasted long. Nella believed she remembered mention of Lady Silvana, too, the young ward of the king who had been orphaned a few years before Nella had moved to the tower.

“And do you—that is, have you any betrothals currently?” she asked.

He laughed. “I do seem to go through them at an alarming rate, don’t I?”

“Well, you did when I was a child. I think there were five before I reached the age of twelve.”

“Oh, probably at least eight or nine.” He grinned. “No, not currently. I seem to have a bit of bad luck with that.”

Nella was horrified to find herself glad. Jealousy was a sign of attachment. Or worse. “Well, I wish you all the best in that, then.” She hated saying the words, and she hated that she hated it.

Benedict seemed not to notice. “Do you ever hope of getting married?”

Nella stiffened and jerked her head in his direction, but he was examining the titles on her shelf and didn’t seem concerned with whether or not the subject was suggestive coming from an unmarried man.

“Do you really ask me that in seriousness?” she said with false wryness.

He looked at her and grinned. “I suppose being tethered to a man for the rest of your life makes you shudder.”

“Until the rest of his life,” she corrected, not able to restrain a smirk. She was back on familiar ground now.

“I see.” He moved back towards the bookshelf. “Maybe we should keep the books on poisons out of your reach, then.”

“I’m afraid it would be futile, Benedict. I have them all memorized.” She looked away dramatically, and he laughed.

“Do you really have them memorized?”

“Of course not! Even I don’t have that much time to waste.” She plucked the book from his hand and replaced it on the shelf. “Come. I have cider in the kitchen.”

“You can’t escape the war forever, Benedict!”

The sound of Orlando’s words haunted Benedict as he rode towards the forest near Ivly. The day before, Ruchartes had sent an ultimatum, demanding two towns along the Bellarminian border. It was an impossible request, and the strained and anxious air in the castle was one he was eager to escape. My presence will not matter one way or the other, he told himself. We already know what our answer is, and there’s nothing there that I can fix. At this point, he doubted if even Pope Alexander VI could have convinced Ruchartes to abandon its mad desire for the Bellarminian throne.

At first Benedict’s visits to Nella had been once every week or two. But he’d grown to enjoy her company so much that the stretches of time in between visits had grown shorter, and the lengths of the visits longer. The more he saw her, the easier it was to forget Cornelius’s warnings.

He could convince Nella to leave the tower. She deserved something better than such a solitary existence. She could come to the palace. She was more than talented; the court would love her.

At least he hoped they would.

Benedict saw Nella through the open door off of the balcony before she saw him. Her dress was undoubtedly of her own design, a deep brown that glinted purple in the sunlight. It was simple and unadorned, with lacings up the sides. The top half of her fair hair was contained in a braid while the rest of it hung loose down her back. Her only adornment was a golden pendant hung from a plain cord. These were not the trappings of a peasant, but not the attire of a lady, either. Rather, she seemed isolated into a category unto herself, something half sprite, half anchoress. She was beautiful, in an untouchable, ethereal way. She turned as she heard him climb over the balcony railing.

“What,” she asked pointedly as he entered the tower, “is that?”

“It’s a ladder!” Ben held it up for her to see. “I thought you might like to come down. We could take a walk.”

“Oh, no,” she took a step back and went inside. “I don’t think so,” she called over her shoulder. “I don’t leave the tower.”

“Why not?” Benedict struggled to understand. Why did she hate the outside world so much?

“I just don’t.”

“Are you scared?” He asked curiously.

“Of course not!” she snapped. “Why would I be?”

“I don’t know. I just couldn’t think of another reason you wouldn’t want to leave.”

“I don’t like people,” she said sourly. “I prefer solitude. The outside world is vexing, full of hypocritical and ignorant people.” She banged her wooden spoon against the bowl to shake off the rest of the lotion she had been concocting. It sounded angry, and he tried to cheer her.

“I don’t think we’ll run into any of those in the middle of the forest, Nella. Except for me, of course.” He gave her a grin and sat down in a bench next to the door, letting the rope drop to the floor.

Nella was unmoved. “No.” She answered firmly. “Why would I want to forsake my nice, warm tower for the cold, ungrateful world beyond? I have no desire to leave it,” she finished loftily.

“You know,” Ben said, sitting backward and hoping to goad her into trying it, “I bet you can’t go down there.” He folded his arms.

“What?” she spun around.

“Perhaps it’s a curse—yes, a curse, I think. If you leave the tower you’ll turn into a… a Corsican bulldog.”

“That’s very specific.”

He shrugged. “It was the first thing I thought of. Or perhaps you’d turn into something more fearsome—a lion, maybe. Or a wolf.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Of course, maybe you are simply too frightened.”

He meant it as a joke—he knew that Nella was the type of person to do things because people told her that she couldn’t—so he was surprised when her voice said, more softly than he was expecting, “Perhaps.”

“Oh.” All the jesting ran out of him. “In truth?”

“I mean, I’m not [_really _]scared,” she quickly amended. “I just haven’t been out there in so long…” She laughed, but it did not ring quite true. “It’s a little daunting.”

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of. I would be with you the whole time. Nothing would happen.”

“I know!” she said quickly. “I’m just… not ready. That’s all.”

Benedict nodded as he tried not to show how disappointed he was. He had turned her world sideways so much already. Anything more would be too much to hope for.

Orlando tapped his fingers on the table as he stared out the window, thinking.

Silvana entered the room and, putting her arms around his neck, rested her chin on the top of his head. Orlando absent-mindedly patted her hand.

“Has Ben not yet returned?” she asked.

Orlando sighed. “I don’t understand what he could be doing! Adventure seeking is one matter, but now he’s being secretive and evasive—”

“It’s a woman.” Silvana said with assurance. “It has to be.”

“I hope not!” Orlando sprung up, loosening Silvana’s hold. “The only reason he’d be secretive about it would be if he was planning to marry her and she was unsuitable! What if she’s some ignorant, barefoot peasant girl?”

“Orlando!” Silvana scolded him. “You know that Benedict has good judgment in such matters. He’d never choose anyone for his bride who was anything less than lady, in heart and manner if not in title. And he was never one for ill-advised love affairs.”

“I know, I know. But something must be wrong with her if he’s keeping it secret.”

“Not necessarily. Maybe he’s just embarrassed to speak of it. You know Benedict doesn’t like to be seen as… maudlin.”

“Yes, but he’s never been in love before. There was nothing for him to be maudlin about. But there’s always been a romantic strain in the family,” Orlando sighed. “My grandfather married the woman he’d met at a ball designed to help him pick his future bride. I doubt his parents expected him to foolishly choose one of the serving girls.”

Now Silvana was annoyed. “I can’t believe you’d refer to your grandfather’s wife as foolish! Everyone loved your grandmother, and she was always kind to me as a little girl, even if I was homely and orphaned.”

“You were never homely, Silvie.”

“Not to you,” Silvana said fondly, her anger at her intended slightly abated.

“But I speak in seriousness, Silvie. What if it is a peasant girl? Or a gypsy? He’s going to be king. He needs a woman who understands what that responsibility entails. A woman who understands politics and duty and court life. She needs to be refined and intelligent.”

“You make it all sound so dull and business-like, even if your words are true.”

“I know. I don’t blame Benedict for putting off marriage. I was blessed with you.” He kissed her hand. “I never had to be burdened with the responsibility of choosing a queen for a nation. I could choose you for love and affection—and both of our positions in life made that possible. Benedict doesn’t have that choice.”

“I don’t see why he shouldn’t,” Silvana persisted. “There are many lovely and suitable young women who he could come to love. They are not all Lady Céciles.”

“Lady Céciles are not always so apparent upon first glance. I fear more that his chivalry may end in binding him to a woman of ill worth. You know I love Ben. But he’s impulsive and reckless. Sometimes I worry.”

“He’s passionate and adventurous,” she said. Then she rolled her eyes and admitted, “And yes, impulsive and reckless. But he has a good heart and a good brother who keeps him grounded.”

“But I can’t keep him grounded if he won’t share his life with me! What if it’s not a woman? What if it’s something else, and he’s in danger? We just discovered a plot to murder him, for heaven’s sake!” He looked at Silvie in dismay. “And he is neglecting his responsibilities, even more so than usual. The Ruchartan threat is still upon us, and yet he still persists in gallivanting off on his wild escapades.”

“He only wants to help people, Orlando. He can take care of himself.”

“I know he can take care of himself, Silvie. But what I begin to wonder is if he can take care of the country.”

V.

Nella had grown fond of Benedict’s calls. But a small niggling fear and unease had remained—a fear that one day, he would ask her to leave. You knew it would come to this. You knew he would wonder. Who could not? She paced the floor of her room, watching the fire and wishing that her life had never taken the turn that it had all those years ago.

Maybe it won’t happen this time, she thought. It’s been so long since I tried… She licked her lips and realized how dry they were. She’d known, in the back of her mind, that letting Benedict into her life meant that one day she’d have to face the outside. At least, she knew that eventually he would want her to try. He doesn’t know why you won’t leave, she thought. You lied to him about it. “No I didn’t,” she mumbled in annoyance. “I didn’t lie. I’m not scared.”

And now you’re lying to yourself. But Benedict wanted her to leave. Benedict—she clenched her jaw and took out her paints, feeling the need to splatter something repeatedly. At the moment, the walls would do.

The next time Benedict came for a visit she brought up the topic casually. “I’ve been thinking that I do want to leave the tower for a bit. Maybe we could go for a walk.”

Benedict raised his eyebrows. “Are you sure?”

“Of course!” She said it lightly, hiding the way her insides clattered at the thought.

“All right, then. Let’s go.” Ben grinned, and Nella tried to do the same. He grabbed the ladder he had brought all those weeks ago and fastened it to the side of the balcony. Nella took a deep breath.

“Come on.” Benedict held out a hand and then led her down the ladder. Nella’s heart beat hard. How could she have decided to do this? Maybe it will be different this time. I have a reason to leave. Maybe it won’t happen like before. When her foot touched the grass below, she felt a twinge go through her entire body.

“See.” She swallowed and threw her hair behind her. “I told you I could do it.” She breathed out. After all these years, she was outside and she felt—fine.

She took a few shaky steps. When her eyes caught sight of a crude wooden cross underneath a grove of leafless trees, she stopped.

“Nella, are you all right?” Ben leaned down, trying to get a good look at her face.

She had frozen, her eyes glued to the grave.

“Nella? Nella, look at me. You’re shaking!”

A million emotions hit Nella. They didn’t divide themselves into individual thoughts or feelings; instead she felt the panic, sorrow, fear, and terror smothering her at once. She was paralyzed, frozen in place.

“Nella! Nella!” Benedict was saying her name over and over, but she didn’t hear him. She didn’t know what her body was doing. Her legs felt numb and the world faded into a blur as she was completely overwhelmed by the largeness of the outside. Images flashed across her mind—flames—dirt—chirping birds—an angry mob—

With a shuddering break, she sank to her knees. A dry sob escaped her. “Take me back, take me back, take me back…” was all she was able to mumble, over and over. Benedict tried to lift her to her feet, but gave up and scooped her up in his arms and carried her back to the tower.

“Nella, look at me,” he whispered, turning her face up at him. “You’re at the tower. But I can’t carry you up. You have to climb up slowly. Can you do that for me?” His voice was so gentle that it soothed Nella slightly.

Nella gulped down a sob and nodded her head. She was already feeling herself calm. He slowly released her and she tentatively placed one foot on the lowest rung of the ladder. Already the panic was dissipating. With Ben close behind, she climbed to the top and flung herself over the balcony rail. Benedict leapt over the rail himself and the led Nella back inside where she collapsed onto the couch, her head in her hands. “I’m sorry.” She whispered. “I’m so sorry. I should have told you.”

“No, I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I shouldn’t have—I’m so sorry, Nella.”

Fearing she was about to dissolve into tears again, she let Benedict sit beside her and take her hands in his. They sat in silence until Nella’s breathing returned to normal and she let out one last, shuddering breath.

“Tell me,” he said gently. “Why are you so afraid?”

“I don’t really know. Nonna and I moved here when I was twelve. They—the townspeople—burned down our cottage. They said Nonna was a witch. But she wasn’t.” Nella turned frantic eyes toward Benedict’s. A small fraction of her panic reemerged. “She wasn’t! She—”

“I believe you, Nell, of course. Go on.”

Nella took a breath. “We stayed here for years. Cornelius brought us everything we needed, and we didn’t leave because it was too dangerous. But four years ago, Nonna—” she wiped away tears—”Nonna died. Cornelius and his family helped me bury her. That was, they buried her. Because when I left the tower…” she looked up at him. “I fell apart. The outside world was so big and dangerous. I couldn’t control anything. Anything could happen, anything at all! And all I’d be able to do was watch helplessly, like when they burned us out…”

Benedict squeezed her hand.

“I was so upset that Cornelius and his wife could barely get me back inside the tower. Later I thought I could try again. If I could just master it… That week, I tried three more times to leave. But each time, I froze, or I began to weep. When I go out, I simply can’t move, and the world crushes me and I can’t do it. It’s hopeless. I can’t even name my fear. I know it’s unreasonable. But it’s always there.” She had to pause to take a deep breath again. “Sometimes I think I can leave. I feel fine in here, and so sometimes I almost believe that I can do it. But whenever I try—” she couldn’t go on, and her voice broke.

Benedict embraced her again and she wiped her tears away with the back of her sleeve.

He released her and looked into her eyes. “What happened today, it is like what happened at your grandmother’s grave?”

Nella shook her head, breaking eye contact. “No. Today was worse.”

Benedict came back the next day. He knocked gently on the door. “Nella?” When he opened it, she saw that her eyes were red-rimmed.

“Oh, Nell.” He embraced her and she cried against his shoulder. It still shocked him that she let him comfort her; they had grown close in spirit, but there was a heavy wall around her person that never let him get too close. The day that he’d helped her up and down the tower had been the first time she’d let him even touch her.

Her crying lasted only a few moments. “I’m sorry,” she said, coming back to herself and wiping her eyes with her sleeve. “I just thought that I could do it. I thought I could do better. I was wrong.”

Benedict had never felt so helpless. It was jarring to see Nella—who he’d always seen as stubbornly strong—so broken. All of the fight seemed to have seeped out of her. He hated himself for what he had, in his obliviousness and arrogance, convinced her to do. “It’s all right, Nella. I understand.” Persephone clawed at his leg, and he picked the cat up and led Nella deeper inside the room. “You sit down and I’ll fix you something to eat.”

She gave a weak but genuine laugh, and it warmed him. “You? Can our prince really cook?”

“I can try.” He set Persi down on the couch and made his way into Nella’s kitchen. [_I can’t bring her back with me. _]The thought solidified in his mind, and he wished that it hadn’t. He would not press Nella to leave the tower again, not after what he’d seen. He didn’t know why the outside world affected her so much, but he wanted to help her. The physicians would say the episodes were the fault of imbalanced humours, perhaps. The churchmen might blame a demon. For his own part, he did not know, but after seeing the pain he had caused, he couldn’t make himself do it to her again.

A few moments later he made his way back to Nella’s sitting room. He looked down at the cold meat and bread. “It’s not much. But at least I found where you keep your food.”

She gave a careworn smile and took the plate from him. He picked at his own food and collected Nella’s plate when she was done. When he came back he found her curled up in a large chair, leaning against the side of it and staring at the fire. She’d wrapped herself with a blanket even though the spring air had grown warmer.

He sat down by the chair in front of the fire.

“There’s a book in the basket by the chair,” she said quietly. “Perhaps you could read it to me?”

He picked it up. The Nibelungenlied. “I hope you shall not mind my German,” he said. “It is far from perfect.”

“I don’t mind,” Nella said. “I read it much better than I speak it.”

“I doubly hope you can understand me, then.” He smiled and began. “Uns ist in alten mæren wunders vil geseit…”

It was comforting, sitting there and reading to Nella. They’d talked often, about everything under the sun. But not conversing, he realized, could be just as pleasant. He simply liked being in her presence. As he read, Nella’s eyes began to close. When her breathing had grown regular with the peace that comes from sleep, he gently stopped his reading, not wanting to disturb her. He set the book down and smiled at her as he passed by the chair, letting himself stroke the top of her head. Her eyes opened and she smiled.

Benedict could only say that he was entranced. He moved closer to her, not even quite sure what he was planning to do until his hand touched her face.

A moment before his lips touched hers, she pushed him away violently and sprang from the chair.

“No!” she said. “No, I cannot. We cannot. It would not be right.”

He looked at her in confusion and mortification. “Nella—”

“No, Benedict. Your wife would not like it.”

“My wife?” He exclaimed in horror. “I’m not married. How could you think I was married?”

“No, I know you are not. Not now. But you will be, one day. You will have a wife. And I will not take what is rightfully hers.”

“And why can you not be that woman?” He asked desperately, now knowing why it had been so important that Nella leave the tower. He knew now, of course. It was obvious. She was the woman he wanted to marry. Her and only her.

“You know why not!” she said. “How can you even speak of such things? I am not right for you.”

“Then I will not marry at all.”

“Oh, Benedict,” she said and looked at him with such tenderness that he felt a physical pain in his chest. “We both know you will. I know the law as well as you do. You love your brother too much. You will marry for his sake, if not your own.”

He looked down, knowing she was right.

“I think,” she said, almost in a whisper, “that this was a mistake. All of it.”

“We will not speak of this again, then.”

“No.” she shook her head. “You misunderstand me. You should not come back.”

He closed his eyes. “Nella—”

“You know I am right.” She left his side, giving space between them.

“I do not wish to leave you alone like this, Nella.”

“I was alone for four years before you came, Ben. I will survive.”

He sat down in one of Nella’s wooden chairs and rested his forehead on his clasped hands. His emotions warred with his intellect. In a practical view, she was right. Even if they had been able to marry and she stayed in the tower, it could not be kept secret. And as soon as Nella’s existence was learned of, her privacy and safety would be forever gone. If Benedict could find her, anyone could. They were wrong for each other for every practical and political reason. Yet every feeling in him rebelled. It was Orlando whose head always ruled over his heart—Benedict had always relied on his intuition and emotion for his decisions.

“Marry quickly, Benedict. You will forget about me. I will be nothing but a vague memory. Maybe not even a pleasant one.”

“Do not talk of yourself like that, Nella,” he implored. “How could I regret knowing you?” She didn’t answer, and his body shuddered with a sigh. “Is this truly what you want?”

“Yes. I never—want—to see you—again.” She said it each word distinctly, and they hit him harder than a punch thrown to his jaw. He stood up abruptly and turned away. “I see.”

“Go.” He turned to her, and he saw her eyes were glittering with anger. “Go, Benedict!”

He didn’t move.

“I said go!”

And he did. He never saw her collapse onto the floor as he shut the door, leaving her alone with her tears.

Benedict pushed his horse hard as he rode back home. He was angry and disgusted with himself. If he had never attempted to kiss her, it wouldn’t have happened.

Yes, it would have.

He knew that their conversation would have occurred eventually. They would have had to face the consequences of the relationship at some point. Maybe it would have come months later, perhaps even years. But it would have come nevertheless. He just wished it hadn’t been so soon. [I am an idiot. _]This was one scrape he had no idea how to get out of. One problem he didn’t know how to fix. _You were right, Signor, he thought, remembering Cornelius’s words. But did you know I would get hurt just as much?

As soon as he was within sight of the castle, a rider came galloping towards him. “Prince Benedict!”

Benedict pulled up beside him. “Jerome? What is it?”

“It’s the Ruchartans, sire. They’ve laid siege to the castle at Lantilde. We are at war.”

VI.

Benedict’s fingers touched the sabre at his side. Though his forces had come to the aid of Lantilde and had relieved the castle, the lull in fighting did not last long. Ruchartes was not willing to give up so easily. He exited his tent and stared at the expanse between their camp and the Ruchartans, where the battle would begin within the hour.

He wanted to fight. Needed to.

His aide, Piero, came up beside him. “The men are gathered, Sir.”

“Of course.” Benedict adjusted his plated armor and followed him, carrying his helmet at his side. He’d killed men before, and he’d practiced battle. But the stakes had never been this high. Bellarmine was a small country, insignificant to Europe, and nothing more than a dot to the rest of the world. But it was his home, and he would fight for it.

He mounted his horse and spurred the animal towards the men. His men. The responsibility of that leadership weighed far heavier than his armor. The men’s faces were taut, their eyes alert. He looked at the sea of faces. All so different, all so varied. Yet all the same. He pulled the reins in front of the mass of men. They were many, but fewer in number than the enemy. He sucked in his breath.

“We are young!” He yelled, looking at one of the young men, no more than seventeen. He glanced at a man older than his father, and continued. “We are old! Some of us have never killed a man. Some of us wear the blood of our enemies as a trophy, or as a burden.” He looked into the eyes of every man he could see. “Some of us come from wealth, others from the poorest regions of our land. We are merchants, farmers, masons. We are artists and philosophers and scientists. But these differences do not matter today. Today, we fight as one. We think as one. For we are Bellarminian!

The men cheered, and he waited until the noise died down. “Today I implore you to fight. Not from hate, but from love. For love is much stronger.” His voice wavered from emotion. “We fight for our mothers and wives, our sons and daughters. We fight for our sweethearts and our friends. May their belief in us impel us onward to protect our land and our honor. As we see the enemy, may we remember the faces of those behind us! We will not cower in fear nor will we retreat in confusion. We will stride onward until we take our dying breaths! We will fight for victory and we will not fail! For we do not fight alone. We are accompanied by the spirit of our people, the love of our families, and the greatness of our Lord!” He voice rose and carried far beyond him, his emotions stirred as he heeded his own words. He saw his father and mother, his brother and Silvie. Nella. Every maid and servant in his castle; every child he’d seen playing in the streets.

“Against such a force, who can stop us?” He yelled.

“No one!” the men answered as one.

He donned his helmet. “Then let us fight!”

The first line of men, equipped with harquebuses on stands, fired. Their sightline was lost in a shroud of smoke, but the gunners were already reloading. The firearms were inaccurate, but they were many in number and a wall of bullets assaulted the enemy as the soldiers moved forward.

The men fired again, and Benedict saw that the enemy line was close. He rubbed his horse. Any moment now. He heard the cries of battle on the other side of the smoke, and he raised his arm and gave a war cry of his own before his troops plunged into combat.

The first moments were a blur. Benedict could not recall later what he did nor how he fared in the first hour. The memory was clouded, blocked by a mist in his mind. He knew he lost his horse, it having gone down from an enemy arrow. His hands and feet were constantly moving: hacking, pulling, pushing. At one moment his sword was propelled out of his hand, and he was saved only by the appearance of a gawky boy stabbing Benedict’s assailant through the heart.

“Get down!” Benedict pushed the boy down and threw a knife into the chest of an oncoming Ruchartan soldier. Ben had lost his helmet and one of his gauntlets, and he pulled the boy up with his bare hand before retrieving his sword. In the mass of humanity, it was difficult to tell who was winning.

It soon became clear it was not them.

What if he did die? Would Nella grieve for him? Would she ever even know? He didn’t have time to think of such things. He dodged an arrow and plunged his sword past hard metal into solid flesh. He stumbled and fell next to a body. It was the young boy who’d saved his life earlier. He scrambled up and took down another two Ruchartans. Just go on. Don’t stop. An explosion ignited behind him and he flew forward, the blast leaving him in pain and darkness.

When Orlando saw the messengers approached the palace that morning, he knew that news of the battle had come. I should have been there. He knew it was a pointless wish—it would have been unwise for both heirs to be put at risk—but he felt that his rightful place should have been beside Benedict, not inside a fortified castle.

He met his father in the hall.

“Your brother is missing,” the king said quietly as the two men walked quickly down the hall. Orlando closed his eyes. It was the news that he’d dreaded all his life—that of his brother leaving and never coming home. Only he’d always assumed that it would be on one of Benedict’s ill-advised excursions that misfortune would befall him, not in battle.

“Did they take him prisoner?”

“We don’t know.” His father’s face was tight with worry. “There’s been no news of ransom, no news of—” he stopped, unable to go on.

Though Orlando had often disparaged and scolded his brother, in truth he had always admired his daring and easy-going charm. Nothing could touch Benedict; he was born under a lucky star. He’d been in enough predicaments to have died twenty times over, yet he somehow always escaped unscathed. Orlando had always shaken his head in bewildered amusement, half-proud, half-annoyed.

“If anyone could survive, it would be Benedict,” he reminded their father.

“I know. But the fighting was brutal, and an enemy desperate for power is not an enemy inclined towards mercy.”

VII.

Nella did not think about the war. It did not exist, not to her. And Benedict would not fight, surely. He was the crown prince, the heir to the throne. And though Bellarmine’s kings and princes had always led their troops into battle, Nella convinced herself that Benedict would not do so. It was foolish. If he died, what would happen to the country?

She thought about Benedict much more than she would have liked. Sometimes she forgot that she had sent him away, and she’d find herself wondering when he was next going to visit. Then she would berate herself and focus on a medical text or practice her painting.

A few weeks after Cornelius had shared his news about the war, he came again to send her supplies. She found herself gladder than usual to see him, and she wondered if Benedict had ruined her for absolute solitude.

Cornelius took down her basket and then filled it up. She leaned over to pull up the basket, and got a good look as his expression. His face was grave.

“What is it, Cornelius?”

“I do not wish to grieve you, Petrosinella.”

The use of Nella’s full name frightened her. She set the basket on the floor by her feet. “Tell me, Cornelius.”

“It’s the prince. He went missing in battle.”

“Oh.” The breath came out of Nella at once. Her hands gripped the railing. “They have—they have not found his body?”

“No.”

“Then he may be alive yet.” Her statement was more of a question, and he smiled sadly.

“Yes, he may be alive.”

Nella knew he did not believe it. “I—I feel tired, Cornelius.”

“I understand. Do you need me for anything?”

“No. No, I—” she turned away and stared as though she were in a fog.

“Nella?”

“I sent him away, Cornelius. I told him I never wanted to see him again.” She stared blindly ahead at the trees, not looking down. “I didn’t tell you that before.”

“I’m coming back tomorrow, Nella.”

She didn’t hear him.

Nella stared at the stars. In the past few days, her fear had begun to seep through the walls, invading her safety. She had had an attack earlier that night, alone in the kitchen. It had never happened inside the tower before, and it frightened her. Would her world only continue to grow smaller and smaller, until she was trapped in her room? Would even then she find herself paralyzed by her fear until there was no place safe she could go? At the moment, the only thing she felt could comfort her was seeing Benedict. She shivered.

He could still be alive.

The small voice taunted her with its possibility. She’d quizzed Cornelius with everything he knew about the battle, despite his disapproval. He feared she was only torturing herself. But a small idea—and a small hope—had lit itself inside her heart, and she could not stomp it out.

I could find him. It was foolish, she knew. But as a woman—and an insignificant woman at that—she would find it much easier to sneak into a Ruchartan camp than a Bellarminian soldier or noble would. If his body hadn’t been found, wasn’t that a sign that he might be held captive? There was but ten miles from the western edge of her forest to the Ruchartes border, near where the battle had taken place. She knew the language of the enemy. She could blend in.

It was possible.

Possible I can make it. But is it possible that he is there? She didn’t know. But she’d also thought it impossible to leave the tower. If she could prove herself wrong in that—if she could prove that anything could happen—then she felt sure she would find Benedict.

If I can leave the tower, he can be alive.

For once in her life, she was more frightened of what would happen if she stayed in the tower than what would happen if she left it. So the next morning Nella did what she had never assumed she would ever do: she packed.

“We’re going on a journey, Persi.” She spoke to the cat as she took a sack and filled it with food and provisions. She locked all of the windows and doors and tidied the rooms. I will come back, she told herself. I will not be gone forever.

Her birds chirped at her, and she looked at them sadly. “I cannot take you with me.” She opened one of the cages and Calypso hopped on her finger. She stroked its feathers. “Perhaps I was wrong to cage you, my friend.” She opened her bedroom window and extended her arms. Calypso fluttered her feathers and flew away. Nella smiled wistfully and proceeded to release the rest of them.

She had shoved Benedict’s rope ladder in a large cabinet, hoping she’d never have to see it again. Now she dug it out and unrolled it. She took a deep breath. You can do this, Nella. Benedict would believe you could.

She fastened it to the side of the lowest balcony and carried Persephone under her arm. Don’t think, she told herself. Just do.

Her foot touched the ground and she closed her eyes.

Nella knew, vaguely, where Cornelius’s village was. She and her grandmother had looked forward to his visits back when they’d lived in Ivly, and she’d known the road that led to Cornelius’s. She followed it now, even though she hated that she had to pass her old village on the way. She wondered, briefly, about the people who’d lived there. Some she would have even considered friends once. But that was before the common sentiment had turned against Nonna. Those she’d once played with had ignored her, their snubs evolving into taunts and accusations that eventually turned to violence when sickness entered the village.

Creating a scapegoat seemed to be a human necessity to accepting calamity.

Nella’s merchandise had contributed to making Cornelius’s business a successful one, and when Nella inquired about his home, she found herself directed to a spacious villa on the edge of the village.

“Nella? Petrosinella?” Cornelius came towards her in joyous disbelief. “Why, what are you doing here?” He waved a servant forward and gave orders to have a room made up for their guest.

“Hello, Cornelius.” She let him embrace her before she explained the reason for her presence.

He looked more than skeptical; he looked disturbed. “Are you sure about this, Nella? It is an impossible task. He could be dead, and you—” he seemed unwilling to mention her hindrance.

“I got here all by myself.”

“Yes, but how many did you have on the way?” He asked gently.

Nella bit her lip and looked away. “Three.”

He gave a large sigh. “Do you want me to tell my family of your purpose?”

“No. You may tell Tosca after I’ve left, but I don’t think it would be wise to widely advertise my intentions.”

“I agree. I’ll tell them that you plan to accompany me on my trip to Zaretta tomorrow, to see the fruits of your labors firsthand.”

“You’re leaving for Zaretta tomorrow?” she asked in disbelief, wondering at the coincidence. The town was the last Bellarminian settlement before the border.

“I am now.”

“Cornelius—”

“Nella! I haven’t seen you in many a year!” Tosca was no sooner in sight than she enveloped Nella in a warm embrace. That had always been ingrained upon Nella’s memory: the Buonarroti family was affectionate. Greatly affectionate. “Welcome, my darling! Oh, you’ve grown so beautiful.” She didn’t question the reason for Nella’s presence, but she did throw a questioning glance her husband’s way. “It’s nearly time to eat. Come inside! I know Nicoletta will be glad to see you, as will the boys.”

Nella swallowed, unsure if she could handle so many people at once. Her stomach churned in anxiety, though she tried to remind herself that the Buonarrotis would never hurt her, would never judge her—they were friends. But Cornelius’s family was boisterous. His four sons—three of them married with families of their own—laughed and joked together, while his only daughter cradled her firstborn child. The baby seemed undisturbed by the noise and remained slumbering in her mother’s arms. Perhaps it was so used to the loudness of the family camaraderie that it seemed more a lullaby than a disturbance. For Nella, the atmosphere was foreign, though she couldn’t quite bring herself to find it unpleasant. Yet her head spun.

She was there, and yet she wasn’t. It was as if she had suddenly become detached from everything around her. She wasn’t real—or they weren’t. She felt lightheaded. I’m going to faint.

“Nella?” Cornelius called her name three times before she noticed. “Nella!”

“Hmm?” she jumped. “Oh, Cornelius.” She didn’t realize that she had been holding her breath. For some reason, the sight of his familiar face calmed her. She breathed heavily with relief.

“Nella, are you all right?” he asked discreetly.

Nella nodded. “It was just a small one. I’m fine now, Cornelius. I am.”

“All right.” He looked at her with concern. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“I have to. I won’t feel peace unless I do.”

He put his hand on her shoulder. “You are a brave girl, Nella. No, not a girl. A woman now.”

“I was always a girl to you and Nonna, Cornelius,” she said smiling.

“I used to argue with her about you,” he admitted. “I thought you needed to be around other people. I even asked if you could stay with us for a little while. Nicoletta always wanted a sister.”

“Maybe you were right,” Nella said. “Nonna meant well, but she was far from perfect. Perhaps if I had been forced out of my isolation earlier, it wouldn’t be such a struggle now. I’m so used to my life, anything else seems dangerous.” She glanced at Nicoletta and the small infant. How could Nicoletta look at little Giovanna and smile, knowing all the pain and suffering that could descend upon her beloved child at a moment’s notice? Sickness, death. Wars and political intrigue. The judgment of others. Perhaps that was why her Nonna had shut her up in the tower, to protect her. And yet did that truly help me?

“They’re leaving tomorrow,” Cornelius said quietly. “All five of them.”

“Who?”

My sons and Lorenzo. They’re joining the army.”

For some reason it hadn’t occurred to Nella in personal terms what war meant for the people—for those besides her. “How can you smile?” Nella asked in amazement. “How can they? When they know what they are facing, and what they might lose?”

“Each day has enough trouble of its own, as the Scriptures say, Nella.” He nodded at his family. “This laughter, this family, this joy—that is what they are fighting for. The right to keep it. Sometimes we are required to risk everything we have for the sake of something more important, as the saints and martyrs of old have done. As you yourself are doing, my daughter.”

A single tear escaped Nella’s eye and she quickly wiped it away. “I’m no saint,” she said, surprised at her emotion.

“No,” he said with some amusement. “None of us think we are, and if we were to ask those we call so now, I doubt they would have thought themselves special or holy. They would have simply said they were doing their duty towards the One they loved. They were strengthened with the Holy One and with prayer. “

“Will you pray for me, then, Cornelius? I am afraid I no longer know how.” Another tear ran down her face, but this one she didn’t wipe away.

“I will pray for your journey, Nella. But most of all, I will pray that you will learn how to do so for yourself.”

VIII.

The days travelling with Cornelius were the easiest. He did not press her for conversation, and the sight of his familiar face helped to keep her attacks at bay. She let herself believe that he would not let anything happen to her; if she told herself that enough, it became truth in her mind. She was able to hold her emotions steady when he, with concern written on every line of his face, had to leave her after they had reached Zaretta. What she never told anyone afterward was that only the greatest restraint kept her from running madly after him as she watched him leave. She never told him about the attack that occurred when she could no longer see him over the mountainous ridge, and how the metallic tang in her mouth had caused her stomach to heave and her head to pound.

She slowly learned not to think. She did all she could mindlessly. At first she had focused on her surroundings, on everything that could go wrong, so that she could plan for every situation. That idea had failed. It had become overwhelming. Her breath had become short, she had trembled.

She couldn’t breathe.

After minutes of huddling near on the grass, shaking, she had finally felt her body cease to quiver. She focused on the blade of grass in front of her. Take a deep breath. She picked a wildflower, admiring its beauty in an attempt to distract herself. The attack had left her as suddenly as it had come, and she closed her eyes. Her cheeks were wet, and she hadn’t realized she’d shed tears.

In that moment, she hated herself. She hated her weakness.

She learned that the more she thought about everything that could happen, the more tense she became. She also avoided people; her greatest fear was having an attack in front of others, who would have no idea what to do or what was happening. She had felt safe with Cornelius, and the people hadn’t been so difficult to face then. But here, by herself, she was terrified.

Unless she refused to think about it. Think of other things. The last book she’d read. The dozens of recipes she’d memorized. The way her lavender pillow at home smelled. Sing.

Most of the time she found that she was really quite all right, her emotions no different than when she’d been safe in her tower. But when the moments of panic came, they were debilitating.

As the days passed, she learned that practice helped.

She had smiled at a young girl she had passed on the road, and she had, without thinking of it, asked pardon of a woman she had bumped into in a crowded village street. All her years in the tower had given her ample time to learn other languages. The sounds of people speaking French became more and more common as she ventured along the border of Bellarmine and Ruchartes and the closer she got to the camp outside of Luzarche.

I’m almost there.

Benedict licked his lips, longing for more than the ration of questionable water he’d received that day from his captors. He’d been one of the enemy’s prisoners for over a week now, and he wondered how much longer it would be before he learned his fate. The Ruchartans usually sold their prisoners into slavery or some other form of servitude, but he still did not know what they planned to do with him. Ransom? He wasn’t sure.

His stomach growled, but he refrained from reaching for the damp chunk of bread in his pocket that he’d saved from that morning. The prisoners were fed twice a day—once in the morning, once in the evening—and he’d learned to save a bit of his breakfast for the middle of the day, when he felt the weakest from the heat of the sun.

The camp itself was within sight of the tombs of Sainct-Maurice, a labyrinth of catacombs that wound itself underneath the grounds of a ruined and ancient Roman city. The countryside rang with the legends of the men who had lost themselves within its twists and turns, thrust into a darkness black enough to terrify the most hardened of soldiers. They said the cries of the men below the ground could still be heard for days, echoing at night until the inmates starved or killed themselves from insane terror. It was a tale that had ventured far beyond the borders of Ruchartes and into threats of Bellarminian mothers to their children. Don’t make me throw you into the tombs of Sainct-Maurice!

The men—both Ruchartan and Bellarminian—were nervous just at the sight of it.

At noon, whispers rang through that there was a lady in the camp. There were always women around, of course—those who took care of the washing and cooking, and others for reasons Benedict didn’t dwell on. But this woman, they said, was a lady.

Piero leaned towards him. “One of the men knows her. It’s the Lady Cécile. She’s come to confer with the captain.”

Benedict winced.

“Are you all right, Your Highness?” Piero asked. Benedict didn’t get a chance to answer before Piero quickly added, “She’s coming this way.”

Benedict averted his face, hoping that he wouldn’t be recognized. He had no desire to see her again.

“My uncle expects a full report of your progress,” she said as she adjusted her riding attire. She didn’t accept help, but mounted her horse herself. He moved his body as much as he could in his chains and looked away as he heard the sounds of the hooves of her horse as she began to make her way through the center of camp. Abruptly, the sound stopped.

“Jean, who is that man?” Her voice was sharp, and Benedict looked up in spite of himself. It was fatal. Her gaze connected with his, and the recognition was instant.

“I see. Jean, bring him here.”

Jean snapped his fingers, and a man unlocked the bonds at Benedict’s ankles and jerked him to his feet. He was pulled towards the princess. She laughed: a cold, self-satisfied laugh. “Jean, please tell the captain I wish to see him once more.” She turned to Benedict. “I must admit I thought our previous meeting would be our last. Benedict Allesandro, we meet again.” She extended her hand and he leaned forward to kiss it. As quickly as possible.

“Lady Cécile,” he greeted. “I see the matters of war still remain a matter of mutual interest to us.”

She laughed again. “Oh, Prince Benedict, you do amuse me. I think I should have made you a very good wife.”

“Perhaps, if you had not planned on murdering me in our bed, I would have made you a very good husband.”

“Don’t flatter yourself to think so.” She looked up as the captain approached.

“You wished to see me, m’lady?”

“Indeed. You did not tell me that it was you who captured the prince of Bellarmine, Captain Duval.”

“Your uncle has no use for the Bellarminian pretenders to the throne. You yourself delivered to me your uncle’s proclamation of his fate.”

“I am no pretender. Michel’s claims are nothing more than the desperate words of a greedy and power-hungry man,” Benedict said, unable to hold his tongue.

Cécile slapped him with a suddenness that threw him off guard. “You would do well not to insult my uncle.”

“As he refrains from insulting the honor of my own ancestors?” Benedict asked.

“We’re to send him to the king at first light,” the captain said to Lady Cécile before she could respond, as if to placate her. “He has plans for an execution.”

Benedict looked down, wondering how he had been so close to escaping death only to find himself staring it in the face yet again.

“A sad end for the heroic Prince Benedict, is it not?” Cécile’s voice was mocking. “The man who fights the dragon and revels in the glory of its defeat. To be cut down by an executioner’s ax like a common criminal!”

Benedict swallowed as an ominous dread shuddered through his spine. He stared stonily towards the ruins, refusing to look at Cécile.

“Take him back to the others, Jean,” Captain Duval commanded, pushing Benedict towards one of his officers.

Benedict allowed the man to take him back towards the other prisoners. He glanced around, reviewing his options. I can make it. Without his chains, it was his only chance. In one swift motion, he elbowed Jean and flipped him to the ground. Sprinting towards the ruins, he heard the sounds of an entire enemy camp rushing to their feet. Vicious French commands issued forth from the captain’s mouth as Benedict sought refuge in the remains of the Roman city barely more than a stone’s throw away.[_ _]The shadowy ruins reflected the quickly fading sunlight, and he tripped over a root before regaining his balance. He turned a corner and found himself facing two furious soldiers ten feet away. They saw him, and he dove into the first escape he saw: an opening slanted into the hillside, like a tilted well.

The catacombs.

Benedict stumbled and fell down the sloped entrance. The slope dropped off and he tumbled to the ground, struggling in the damp dirt to get to his knees. In the few moments of light he was granted before he ran deeper into the tombs all he could see was a wall and two cavernous halls on either side. He picked the left corridor and ran in without a backward glance.

“He’s gone into the tombs!” one of the soldiers yelled. Ben heard footsteps run down the first few steps of the tombs, and then stop.

“Go in, man!” the Captain yelled.

Benedict heard voices, but he had gone too far in to make out their words. When he realized no one was following him, he stepped closer to the opening and hid himself behind a corner. The voices echoed in the front chamber.

“It’s the tombs of Sainct-Maurice, sir. They mean certain death.”

“I don’t care!” The captain responded.

“But sir—”

He heard shuffling and mumbling and what seemed to be a rapid conversation before the captain yelled, “Jean! Bring men to seal the tomb! We shall set guards in front of it.”

“Are you sure this is wise, Captain?” another man asked. “He could escape. We may live to regret this decision.”

“In four hundred years no one has escaped the catacombs, Jean. I doubt our wearied prince will be the first.”

Minutes later, Benedict heard the groans and grunts of men as, from his vantage point in the darkness, he saw them close up the entrance with a giant stone. All light disappeared.

Benedict crept closer until he could touch the stone. It was far too heavy for one man to move, and it would kill him to even try. And if the weight didn’t kill him, then the guards outside would.

Benedict fumbled in the dark until he found the opposite wall, rough with pieces of bone cemented into it. [_There is a way out. All the legends say so… and legends always contain grains of truth somewhere within them. I only have to find it. _]

The smells were musty and old, and made him feel even dirtier than he already was. As he walked through the labyrinth, he shivered from the damp. It had rained a few days before, and he stepped into a puddle. With no light, he could only hope it was rainwater that had seeped through the ground. It was so dark that he closed his eyes and reopened them, just to make sure that they had truly been open in the first place. Within minutes, the hope he had felt upon first entering the tombs failed him. It was pitch black, with a heaviness he could feel.

And he thought of Nella.

She would never know what happened to him. Perhaps it was better that way. He imagined her laughter and the jokes they’d shared. He thought of her hazel eyes and golden hair. Her smile.

If he thought about her he could stand the blackness. If Bellarmine fell, would she be safe in her tower? He hoped so. Perhaps it is best that she stayed. The palace would be a dangerous place for her if overtaken by the enemy.

Something squeaked and he heard the sound of a rodent scurrying. His stomach lurched, but he kept walking. In battle, he hadn’t cared whether he lived or died, but now it surprised him just how strongly he wanted to live. He wanted to see the sun again, feel the fresh air.

He would not be buried alive.

He kept his eyes open, hoping upon hope that he would eventually see a sliver of light ahead. He kept his hand on the wall as he stumbled in the darkness. First he thought of nothing—of simply focusing on what was ahead of him and the best way to get out of the catacombs. But as the hours passed, and the darkness only grew more and more monotonous, he began to contemplate other things.

He thought of all of his adventures, and the way his parents had disapproved of them. He’d thought them narrow minded and selfish, for had he not been helping the unfortunate? He had exposed liars and thieves, and saved young girls from destitution and families from starvation.

But he had also been running. The problems he solved were always quickly fixed. They were battles to be conquered and then forgotten about. But ruling a country was different. It took commitment and patience. It took a responsibility he’d been avoiding his whole life.

He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall. He had played the hero to satisfy himself, staunching the bloody wounds of society but refusing to address the abuse and injustice that caused the injuries in the first place. All of his quests had been solved within a day or two. He had never kept at anything for long—until Nella.

He wondered if all men on the verge of death felt such regret. Did they all see their lives so clearly, their faults magnified by the mortality of their existence? What good could I have done as prince and king? [_How many more could I have helped? _]His eyes closed and he slept, tormented by dreams of what-might-have-beens and his own dissatisfaction.

Orlando was awakened around midnight by the sound of his mother’s wails. He closed his eyes. Benedict. He’d dreaded every messenger that came, knowing it was unreasonable to hope that Benedict had survived. But Orlando knew that if anyone could, it was his older brother. Ben had survived more life-risking situations than any person had a right to.

But it seemed that even he had not survived this one.

Jerome met him at his bedroom door.

“Ruchartes has sent your brother’s armor and sword,” he said quietly.

“And?”

“A letter demanding surrender. Nothing else.”

“He is dead, then.”

“They claim nothing.”

“You disbelieve?” Orlando asked, a tinge of hope in his words.

“If I was king of Ruchartes and I’d killed the son of my enemy, I would do so without any ambiguity or question,” Jerome said firmly.

Orlando nodded. “And would be just as explicit if he was alive, in order to ask for ransom.” He sighed. “You think if he was dead they would have sent his body.”

“Or a part of it.”

Orlando swallowed and looked away, trying to gather his emotions.

“If anything happened to him, he wanted me to give this to you.” Jerome pulled out a letter, sealed with red wax.

Orlando took it from him. “I had not thought I should ever have need to read one of these,” he said quietly. As children, the brothers had made a practice of writing each other “battle letters”: a safeguard in case either of them didn’t come back from fighting. It had started as a lark, during fake battles and jousting tournaments. It had been an overly dramatic form of playacting, and Orlando had almost forgotten about it. Benedict, it seemed, had not.

Orlando took the letter from Jerome and sat by the fire of his sitting room, wanting to read the letter and yet not wanting to. Once he had, his brother would be silenced forever. In a burst of decision, he opened it.

To Orlando, my brother in blood and arms,

We have written more than our share of farewell letters, most of which have been lighthearted and unnecessary, but this time I have a feeling of ill omen. This letter, I fear, will be my last.

Perhaps it is for the best. I always knew you were better suited to rule the country. More times than not it was you who acted the older brother, who kept me stable and focused. You have the steadiness and willingness to follow in Father’s footsteps, and a woman at your side more ready than most to be queen. Though I have never told you so, I am proud to call you my brother.

I also fear that I have given you reason to grieve in these last days. Perhaps you have rightly guessed the source of my agitation. If you have not, I will tell you that her name is Nella. You were right, that day when you told me about the girl in the tower and said I should marry her. I would like nothing better. She is beautiful and intelligent, but she is trapped in a prison. Not one of iron bars or stone walls, but a prison of the mind, which is worse. I know better than most that things are not always what they seem to be, and Nella has never been held captive by a witch. But she is a captive, to something that I cannot fight with sword or arrow. And it kills me. I cannot send you to her, or even send her word of my death. But I implore you to remember her in prayer, with the hope that God can help her where I cannot.

I love you, my brother. Tell Silvie she has always been the sister of my heart, and perhaps, if you have a dozen children, you might spare to name one for me.

Your favorite (and only) brother,

Benedict

Orlando stared at the fire, chewing on his brother’s words as the candles melted with the hour. Silvie eventually came in.

“Are you all right, Orlando? Your mother was asking for you.”

“I have Ben’s battle letter.” He extended his hand, which still grasped the paper. “I’d like you to read it.”

She took it from him and moved closer to the firelight, where she held the letter up to better see the writing.

“He’s wrong, you know,” Orlando said quietly when Silvana had finished reading. “I was never meant to be king. I’m too easily stressed, too agitated. I crack under pressure. He never did. Benedict was stronger than I.”

“And I never desired to be queen,” Silvie smiled sadly. “Is there no hope for his survival?”

“The Ruchartans want the royal family dead. They consider us traitors. If he did not fall in battle, he was surely captured and executed.” He gave her the worse possible case he could think of, not wanting to give anyone the false hope he feared he now carried.

“Then why do they not send us word?” Silvie asked wretchedly. “Why do they not solidify their claim by sending us his body? I do not believe he is dead, Orlando!” She sat next to him. “And I cannot believe that you think so as well.”

Orlando stood up abruptly and walked towards the fire. Silvie knew him too well. He kept his back towards her. “I want nothing more than to believe it. But I cannot let myself hope. If my hopes are raised and then dashed…”

“You are like your mother,” Silvie said softly. “She will not believe it either.”

“What do you think of the girl he mentioned—this Nella. It all seems cryptic. Perhaps we could find her—”

“I don’t know who she is, but it does not seem to be Benedict’s wish that we seek her out.” She took Orlando’s hand. “But that is not what is most important at the moment. Your family is. And your parents need you.”

He nodded. “I know.”

Nella was nearly towards the Ruchartan border. She told herself there was nothing between her and Benedict but a stretch of lonely, deserted road facing the mountains and filled with the fresh alpine air. No people. Just the distance. The thought made her breath a little easier.

As she passed a small copse of trees, she noticed a child in her peripheral vision. She glanced at him and realized he was older than she’d first thought—twelve or so, perhaps. He stared at her and then got up and ran away. Nella felt the first tremors of unease. She picked up Persephone in her arms and quickened her pace.

Another two figures appeared on the side of the road: a man and a woman. They came up behind her and started following her, first at a distance, and then closer.

Nella was almost running now. Persephone meowed against her chest.

Even with all of her recent walking, Nella was still not used to physical exertion, and the two figures caught up to her quickly. She was gasping for breath, both from fear and tiredness. She tried to veer to the side of the road, but the man stuck out his hand and grabbed her elbow. She tripped and almost swung into the dirt. She dropped Persephone and the cat howled.

“I have nothing!” she yelled. The man laughed, and nodded to the woman she assumed was his wife. She pulled Nella towards her and patted her hands over Nella’s bodice.

“Stop it!” Nella pulled away but the man took her arms and held her tightly so that the woman could continue her search.

The woman moved on to her skirt. Nella twisted, but it was no use. The woman felt the lump near Nella’s hem and grinned. She took out a knife and tore it through the bottom of the skirt. The small pouch of money fell to the ground. The woman crowed and scooped up the bag. “Ah, you thought you were a smart one, didn’t you?” She opened it and let the coins fall into her hand.

“That’s mine!” Nella bit out, furious. “You have no right!”

The man pushed her down and the two thieves ran off, leaving Nella alone after an encounter that had lasted only moments. “You have no right!” She yelled after them, wishing she had some godlike power to strike them with lightning bolts.

Nella sank to the road in despair. Had she not known the depravity of mankind? How could she have let her guard down, even for a moment? The emotion within her was not fear, though: it was anger. She knelt close to the ground and pounded it in anguish as tears rolled down her face. Hate and frustration oozed out of her body as she hit the earth, over and over again. Why, why, why? Finally exhausted, she collapsed on the ground in sobs. Her golden hair drifted in the dirt. Persephone tentatively walked towards her and nuzzled Nella’s face, the cat’s whiskers tickling her nose. Nella got to her knees and lifted her eyes towards the sky. She took a deep breath. Benedict needs you. She needed that money. Her food was almost gone, and she couldn’t neglect her need for shelter—or options for bribery when it came to the enemy’s camp. What can I do?

Then she saw her hair.

IX.

Nella had an attack that evening. She’d been less than a mile from Luzarche—the closest village to the battle camp—when she’d begun to feel nauseous and her head began to spin. It was her third episode since she’d been without Cornelius, but enough time had passed since her last two that she had begun to wonder if perhaps the curse she’d lived with for so long had left her. But that night found her in an agonizing panic—her worst since Benedict had convinced her to leave the tower. She could only assume it was a belated reaction to her assault on the road earlier. That was what she could never understand about her body— the way it rebelled against her will at the oddest of times. All she could be thankful for was that she’d hadn’t yet entered the village, where others would see her. She shivered, wondering if they would think her demon possessed or filled with sorcery.

Sometimes she wondered if she was.

She had picked herself up and continued, shakily at first, and then stronger as she put more time between her and her attack.

She would not allow her fears to stop her. She would not allow her body to stop her. And she would not allow others to break her and drive her from her purpose.

Luzarche was a provincial town, far removed from the bustle and progress of the city—much like Ivly, Nella thought. The roads were narrow and dirty, full of the sounds and smells of animals, and of people worried about things more important than their own personal cleanliness. She’d rented a small room over a tavern after making a quick stop beforehand to get the money she needed.

The money. It weighed more heavily on her heart than in her hand.

She stood in the small, decrepit room, barely larger than a closet, and touched her shoulder, covered by fabric but naked without the hair that had streamed over it for so long. Ragged blonde edges touched her jawline. Her regret was tempered with the knowledge that her haircut had been necessary; she knew she had to find some sort of employment, but that would not pay for her lodging that night. The man in the shop had been generous with his payment, though she knew that her well-kept, ankle-length blonde hair had been no easy product to obtain. Her neck felt cold, and her head light enough to make her giddy. She moved a strand away from her face. Haven’t I lost enough? [Did the world have to take this from me, too? _]She tiptoed across the creaking wooden floor and curled up in the lumpy bed, grateful for Persephone’s warm body heat and calming purr. She took out her kerchief, still scented with lavender, and laid upon it, hoping its scent would calm her and remind her of home. _Home. At that moment, she missed it more than anything. She missed her bottles and oils and flowers. She missed her chair in front of the fire and her stacks of books. She missed Benedict. Persi nuzzled her temple, eliciting a small smile from Nella. She stroked the little animal. “Thank you,” she whispered, and fell asleep dreaming of Benedict reading to her by candlelight.

The next morning Nella dressed quickly and went downstairs. Her accent was good, and if she was quiet and spoke little, she didn’t think it would be too difficult to pass as Ruchartan. “Do you know of any work that needs doing?” she asked the mistress of the tavern. “I’m a hard worker.”

“Many hard workers are without employment,” the woman said. “You’re not alone.” At Nella’s fallen expression she added, “But the army’s always looking for laundresses. I hate to send you there, though. The army barracks are no place for a young girl.”

“Thank you.” She smiled softly. “I don’t mind, and I’m older and stronger than I look.”

The woman viewed her somewhat doubtfully, but said no more. The camp supervisor did not seem very particular with the women he employed, so much so that Nella, had she been less nervous, could have smiled at his underestimation of her motivations.

Nella was not there for dirty laundry.

She carried a basket piled with pungent and dirty clothing across the camp, grateful for something to hide behind and even for the dreadful smell that distracted her. Her steps slowed as she walked past the captain’s tent.

“The rumors are spreading, captain,” one of the men inside complained. “The Bellarminian countryside rings with the hope that the prince is still alive!”

Nella almost dropped the clothing in her arms. She looked around and, not seeing anyone paying much attention to her, pretended to stumble and spill the laundry outside of the tent. She listened intently as she gathered it back up.

“Well, he is not,” the captain said emphatically. “The rumors are meaningless to the campaign. They are best to be ignored.”

“We both know that isn’t true. We cannot break the Bellarminians’ spirits whilst they cling to the hope of their prince’s survival.”

“You never should have let him escape,” another voice, authoritative and cultured, snapped. “Even if he has been buried alive in the tombs, we truly do not know whether or not the prince lives. Take a group of men and search them. Find him—or his body—and set these rumors to rest.”

“The men won’t enter the tombs,” the first voice complained. “The superstition surrounding them runs deep. They would rather die by our hand than enter.”

“You command an army!” The authoritative voice—one that could only belong to a lord—yelled. “Can you not capture an already-dead prince?”

“Sending men into the catacombs will lead to mutiny,” The captain said in a clipped tone. “Which would be a disaster even greater that what we face now.”

Having finished, Nella crept away from the tent and back to the steaming pot, where she dumped in her load of laundry. She thought hard. How long had he been in the catacombs? The battle had taken place weeks ago. If he had been escaped into them that long ago, it was doubtful he was still alive.

That night at the tavern, she listened closely to the talk around her. The town might have been Ruchartan, but they were not immune to the temptation of gossip, and Prince Benedict was a subject ripe for discussion.

“If you ask me,” one man said loudly, “they should have run him through at the first, before he had a chance to escape.”

“To find oneself in the catacombs of Sainct-Maurice is a crueler punishment,” one grizzled old man said wisely. “Men have grown mad long before dying of hunger. My uncle fell into the catacombs when I was a child. He stayed where he was and called for help. It was two hours before he was rescued. But he was never the same afterward.”

The room’s response was divided by snorts of derision by one half and nods of acceptance on the other. “I remember that,” the proprietor’s mother, ancient and wrinkled, croaked across the room. “Your uncle was one of the lucky ones. Aside from him, I’ve never heard of anyone making it out.”

“How long has he been in there?” Nella asked the man next to her. “The Bellarminian prince, I mean?”

“Four days.”

Four days. It was better than she had hoped. With the battle two weeks old, she had feared that he had been in the catacombs for just as long. If I had not left when I did, she realized, there truly would have been no chance for him. She looked down into her bowl of stew, trying to disguise the emotions that flitted across her face.

A young boy rushed into the tavern. “Did you hear the news? The captain’s offered a reward to anyone who’ll go into the tombs and find the prince!” Nella’s head shot up.

One of the men laughed. “If the soldiers quake with fear and refuse to enter, do they truly believe that one of us would? We have lived long enough in the shadow of the tombs to know its dangers.”

Nella ignored him and crept silently out of the door of the tavern. She needed to see the captain.

Nella silently waited outside of the captain’s tent as the guard explained her presence. She tried to steady herself but she could feel her emotions shifting from unease to terror, and she closed her eyes. Recipe for the removal of face marks, she thought. [Roots of the _]iris florentina[ boiled until reduced by half. Purify for use of washing face. ]She felt her muscles relax and she continued: _To make hair blonde like gold, mince the roots of ivy and make them like water in the alembic. Wash in the hair for a week until result is achieved.

“The captain will see you now, Mademoiselle.”

Nella, startled out of her thoughts, looked up at the guard. “Of course.” She hid her hands behind her back so he couldn’t see them shaking.

“You said you had news about Prince Benedict?” The captain asked severely when she walked in.

“Not exactly, Sir. I heard of the proclamation,” Nella said. “What if I were to do it?”

“You?” The other man, who she had learned was called Lord Ribault, said in derision.

“The prince is sure to be weak,” she said. “If not dead already.” She shrugged carelessly and tried to give herself a belligerent air, all while her insides clattered. “I have no family, no money. Nothing to lose. I can find the prince, for the safety of the kingdom.” My kingdom, she thought. Not yours.

“What would the king say,” the lord hissed to the captain’s side, “if he found out we sent a girl to do a soldier’s job?”

“It matters not who finds him, just so long that he is found,” the captain responded.

“The king doesn’t have to know,” Nella said boldly, and then wondered if she had gone too far.

The captain narrowed his eyes at Nella. “You are not from the village, are you?”

“No, sir. I’m from the country. But my family died of the plague, and so I came here, looking for work.”

The captain rested his chin in his hands. “So you have been here, ever since?”

“Only in the camp a few days. I’ve been staying in Luzarche.”

The captain glanced at Ribault, who was frowning. “Would you need any supplies—?”

“Nell.”

“Nell.” He repeated.

“I shall need food and a torch,” she told them. “And some string to mark my way.” Persephone, who had followed her from the tavern, came close to her mistress and meowed. “My cat will also come.”

Lord Ribault rolled his eyes. “Of course. Her cat wishes to come.”

“And what do you want if you should succeed?” The captain asked.

Nella thought. “My family’s farm— I lost it to creditors. I just want it back.” Asking for nothing would be sure to excite the men’s skepticism; asking for much might do so as well.

Lord Ribault snorted in derision, the captain seemed almost hopeful.

“Done. You have one chance. You will enter it at first light tomorrow.”

It took three men to remove the stone from the entrance to the catacombs. “It will be left cracked open,” the captain told her. “A guard will stand by for two days. That is how long you will have. After that, I can make no promises.”

“Of course.” Nella was not planning on coming back anyway. She took a deep breath, hoping with every step that she would not succumb to an attack. Not in front of them. She was not the first woman to thwart the military machinations of the enemy. Jael had done it. Judith had. She held the lit torch high and stepped down into the catacombs. The last step was almost three feet from the ground, and she carefully climbed down. She heard the men replace the stone and the light from the outside disappeared until only a small sliver remained. She turned back to the cavernous maze in front of her.

The walls were covered with bones.[_ _]

Her breath shuddered. The firelight from her torch flickered against the skulls, casting ominous shadows upon the damp floor. She stepped on something hard, and lifted her foot to see a fragment of humerus that had been displaced from the wall. The ground was soft, and her footsteps left no echo. She shivered and took the ball of string she had brought with her. She tied one end of it around one of the skulls in the wall, hoping it was not dishonoring to the poor soul, and used it to mark a path of where she had been. Persi took a paw and hit the string.

“No, Persi,” she whispered. Finding it difficult to unwind the string and carry the torch, she kicked the ball along the ground to unwind it. “Benedict?” Her soft voice drifted through the tunnel like smoke. She was reminded of Dante’s vision of hell:[_ Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate. _]Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

It seemed like she had been in the tombs for hours. The walls alternated between grisly mosaics made of human bone and split passageways covered in ancient paintings of a religious nature. She touched one of the paintings, that of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Her finger came away covered in dust.

“Benedict?” Now far away from the entrance, she had allowed her voice to grow louder. “Benedict?”

She had turned down another passageway and found herself back where she started. She took a skull from the wall and placed it in front of the passage, and then walked back the way she came until she was back in the first hallway. She placed another bone in that entrance so that she knew she had already been there. “Benedict?”

He had been alone for almost five full days. No food. No water. If she didn’t find him soon, all she would discover was his corpse. She had found several already. Complete skeletons, some still wearing the remainders of clothing. They too, had gotten lost and never returned. She looked at her torch, which was burning low. She had brought more, and knew she could always tear the edges of her clothes to burn. But even that could only last her for so long.

And then the string ran out.

She had known from the beginning that it eventually would, but she felt desperation settle over her as she dropped the last inch of string on the ground. She looked backward. Her feet and Persephone’s paws had made small marks in the dirt, and she hoped it would be enough to find her way back. Even if she did, she didn’t know how she would escape the tombs. They were still guarded by the Ruchartans.

The silence was deafening, and she couldn’t think. With a trembling voice, she began to sing.

Though he knew the stories of the tombs, a part of Benedict had laughed at the idea of his falling into insanity. But as the darkness prevented him from finding any way to keep track of time and his stomach growled from hunger, he had felt an almost manic form of panic. He had spent hours scratching at walls and calling out for help. Perhaps, he realized, he had been in truth calling out for days, and that was why his throat was so hoarse. Finally, he had given up, too weak from thirst and hunger to go on. He had crawled up to the wall and slept for hours, sometime waking and realizing that his plight was not a nightmare, but reality.

And now, he realized, he was hearing things.

I am young and fain to sing

In this happy tide of spring

Of love and many a gentle thing,

I wander through green meadows dight

With blossoms gold and red and white.

With blossoms gold… It reminded him of Nella’s golden hair shimmering in the firelight, more delicate than any blossom. It was one of Nella’s songs, the one that had led him to her tower all those months before. Years before? He didn’t know. I am dying, he realized. I am hallucinating, and her voice is accompanying me to Paradise. He leaned back his head, eyes closed. He did not want to die, but it seemed like weeks since he had been left. There was no way out.

Rose by the thorn and lily fair,

Both one and all I do compare

With him who, worshipping my charms,

For aye would fold me in his arms

The singing stopped, and he was sorry for it. He would have liked for the last words he heard to be about holding his love in his arms.

Instead, he heard a shriek and a, “Benedict! If you are not alive I am going to [_kill _]you!”

He opened his eyes to see a flicker of light before someone dove into his arms. The light didn’t last long, for it fell to floor and rolled away.

He gasped. “Nella?” He felt the shoulders of the woman in his arms. He touched her head, but only found short hairs, which confused him. A cat meowed, and he was doubly bemused. Were cats supposed to welcome one into heaven? The idea seemed to have no theological basis. He doubted the Church would approve. The animal purred against his chest. Persephone? Ah, goddess of the underworld, he thought. Fitting.

“Benedict?” the woman slapped his face. “Ben!” She held water to his lips, and he blinked, making out dim shadows from the torch on the ground. Someone should pick that up before it starts a fire. Fire? Maybe I am in Hades.

“Ben!”

No, he thought. If I was, Nella would not be here. “Nella? The torch!” he managed to gasp out, and she rushed away from him and picked it up. “It’s fine, Benedict. It’s fine. Here.” She pulled out a bag and tore a piece of bread from a loaf. “Take this.”

Slightly revitalized from the water, he greedily stuffed the bread in his mouth. She gave him some more, and some slices of ham. He couldn’t each much, but what he could breathed new life into him.

He felt stronger, though Nella’s presence still made him wonder if he was in his right mind. Perhaps he was hallucinating. “How did you get here?” he asked. He touched her face, trying to convince himself she wasn’t an illusion.

“Cornelius sent me news that you’d gone missing in the battle. No one knew if you were dead or alive.” She sat on her knees, Persephone on her lap. The cat hopped onto Benedict, and he ran his fingers through her fur, finding the motion comforting. The catacombs had been dark and cold and hard; Persephone was soft and warm. He would have embraced Nella again, too, but she was still holding the torch.

“I found out where the battle had been,” she continued, “and then where they had taken prisoners. I simply followed your trail.”

“But how did you leave the tower?” he asked. “Are you…” he struggled, not exactly wanting to use the word “cured.”

“I still have them,” she said quietly. “At first, they came often on the journey, though Cornelius helped. He came with me all the way to Zaretta, and then I was on my own.”

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Benedict said, though he was glad that she had. “It’s dangerous coming alone, dangerous for anyone. If you wanted to stay safe, that was a pretty foolish way to do so.” But then the joy of her presence hit him again, and he couldn’t help laughing a little. He pulled her into his arms, forgetting about the torch. She made a worried grunt and held out her arm so that it wouldn’t burn either of them. “Can you put that down anywhere?” he asked.

“There aren’t any sconces on the walls,” she told him. “It’s been very tiring, holding it for so long.”

“Let me.” He took it from her to give her arms a rest.

“I was so worried about you,” Nella said. “I started having the attacks again, even inside the tower. I supposed I realized that if they could happen anywhere, I might as well go anywhere. At least to find you.”

“I don’t deserve you, Nell. You had more bravery to come in here than any of those soldiers in the Ruchartan army.”

“They wouldn’t come, even though the captain wanted someone to come in and find your body. There are rumors that you’re still alive, despite all of his efforts to proclaim otherwise. Your presence in the tombs is an open secret among the villagers. Not that any of them think you’re still alive,” she clarified.

“Your hair,” he said abruptly. Now that he was in his right mind, the sight of her shortened hair suddenly penetrated his brain. “What—?”

“I was robbed on my way,” she responded. “I had to find another way to get the money I needed.”

“Nell!” he was horrified. “Did they hurt you?”

“Not badly. I just got a bruise or two. They kicked Persi, though, poor thing.”

He shook his head in wonderment. “You’ve defeated it all, Nella.”

“No I haven’t.” she smiled sadly. “They still come. The—the attacks. Even when I don’t think I’m frightened, they’re there. I’m afraid they always will be.”

“Even if that is true,” Benedict said as he moved a strand of her short hair behind her ear, “You have not let it hinder you. You’ve made your way despite it. That is what I mean by defeating it. It has no power over you anymore.” He laughed. “You’re here. Nella, you’re here!”

“Yes, I am.” She smiled, and he thought it was the more beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

Then another thought hit him, and the smile left his face. “Only, we’re still lost.”

X.

Nella held up the torch and looked behind her. “I think I could perhaps find my way back, but I don’t know how we would escape the village without being recognized.”

“They say there are other ways out.” Benedict seemed stronger now that he’d eaten, but she still insisted that he rest for a while. He’d acquiesced to her request but not for long, and he now got to his feet.

“I know,” she nodded. “I had planned on finding one of them.” They began to walk down the dim corridor until the wall split into two different directions. Both Nella and Benedict stood there and contemplated which way to go.

“I couldn’t see the paintings before,” Benedict said, looking at the murals on the wall. “Are there many of them?”

“All over. Most of the walls are made of bones, but—” She stopped and turned to Benedict. “The murals—they only appear whenever the passageway splits, or there’s another corridor off of the main one.” Her light flickered in the middle of hall, shedding illumination scantly on both murals inside the cavernous openings. “Do you think they could be directions, like a signpost?”

Benedict took his torch and moved into the left passage. “Let’s look.” He held up his light to the wall. “What is it, do you think?”

Nella cocked her head. An old man was holding up a small child, as a beam of faded yellow sunlight split the painting. A halo adorned the infant.

“Is it the story of Simeon and the Christ child?” she asked.

Benedict rubbed the left corner of the mural, and she was only just able to make out the figures of a man and woman, also with halos.

“If this is Joseph and Mary, I believe so,” he said.

“Do you see anything? Any numbers or letters?” she leaned closer to the wall to examine it, but found nothing. “Perhaps there are some sort of directions in Latin. Or maybe Greek.”

“No.” Ben rubbed some more. “I’m afraid I might damage it if I attempt to clean it anymore. Any signs might have faded.”

Nella sighed. “Let’s look at the other one, then.” This painting was less difficult to decipher; the man surrounded by lions could only be Daniel.

“Perhaps it’s a cipher from the pictures themselves,” Benedict suggested. “Using the beginning letters of the stories. Or the books of the Scriptures they are found in.”

They spent a good half hour scribbling the dirt and dust, trying to make sense of it before giving up and choosing the story of Simeon and Jesus on a whim.

The made their way down the hall in silence until they came to another turn.

“There are two more pictures ahead!” Benedict, in front, called to Nella.

Nella scratched the top of Persi’s head and followed. “What are they?”

“Samson and Delilah,” Benedict answered. “What’s the second?”

Nella took her torch into the other hall. “The Feeding of the Five Thousand,” she called. She met Benedict back in front. “Which do we choose?”

“I don’t know.”

“Samson and Delilah seems ominous,” Benedict finally said as they both stared at the painting. “Perhaps we should choose the other?”

“That seems logical,” she agreed. Benedict took Nella’s hand and they walked down the short, twisting corridor. They came to a small room full of old wooden coffins before they came to another hall. Nella had gotten so accustomed to the sight of bones it no longer struck her as especially morbid.

They quickly reached another split, this time to halls containing two stories, both of a more optimistic nature: That of the baptism of Jesus, and that of the prophet Samuel anointing a young David.

“I don’t know,” Benedict said simply.

“Perhaps we should pray?” Nella looked up at him, the thought coming to her suddenly. Surely God would listen to Benedict, a prince.

“I have been praying,” Benedict said with an unamused laugh. “But we can pray together.”

I will pray that you will learn how to do so yourself. She thought of Cornelius’s words and nervously cleared her throat. “I have not spoken to Thee in many a year,” Nella began. “I know not if I should speak in Latin, or quote the Scriptures, or fall to my knees.” She knelt upon the ground, just in case. Benedict knelt beside her. “But I do believe that Thou art good, and holy. For the sake of my people, for the sake of Benedict, I ask Thee to lead us.” She opened her eyes and looked at Benedict, who squeezed her hand. They both stood.

Follow Me.

The words were not audible, nor especial strong. It was simply a thought, one that tenderly wound its way through Nella’s mind. Follow Me. Was it a theological plea? An instruction? I will follow You then, she thought. But that does not answer my question! She stopped and stared. Or does it? “Could it really be so simple?” She turned back to look at Benedict. “What if there isn’t a hidden message? What if our only directions are to follow the Christ himself?”

“What?”

“We are in the catacombs,” Nella said, almost laughing. “Where early Christians met in secret. Is it not logical to assume they would mark their way with the very One they followed?”

The relief came over Benedict’s face in a wave. “Of course. They were followers of The Way. The Way.”

Their decision now made for them, they used Nella’s theory in every winding passage way. Each passage had two pictures— and only one of each contained a portrayal of Jesus. Nella’s heart thumped the farther they went, as she hoped she was right and dreaded that she wasn’t. After several more turns and perhaps an hour more of walking, they ran out of passageways.

“It’s a dead end,” Nella said in disbelief. “I was wrong. I thought—”

Benedict held up a hand and touched the wall. “This isn’t stone.” He pressed his body against it, and it gave. “Come here!”

Nella ran towards him and pressed with all her might. With the two of them working together, the door opened—in a matter of speaking. What used to be a wooden door fell down in front of them. Sunlight filled her eyes and she blinked. “Oh, I can’t see!”

“Neither can I.” Both of them squinted into the sunlight until their eyes adjusted to the light. Benedict seemed aware a moment before Nella did that they were on the edge of a precipice. He pushed her back. Persi, not bothered by the steep edge, was cleaning herself on a rock.

“We must be in the ravine. We passed it on our way to the camp,” Benedict said.

“I don’t remember seeing it.”

“It’s not by the road.” He pointed. “The battle was a mile or two that way.”

“Which side of the border are we on?” Nella asked.

“The Ruchartan side,” Benedict informed her, to her disappointment. He stepped out the small grassy ledge and looked up. The door had opened somewhere in the middle of the ravine. “We’re about twelve feet from the top of the ridge,” he told her. “But it’s far too open and risky to go up.”

“It’s far longer to the bottom,” Nella said, looking down.

“We don’t have a choice.”

Nella nodded. “You’re right.” Benedict took her hand and led her down the side of the ravine. It appeared that there had been steps leading down at one time, but they had fallen to pieces from the elements. Climbing down was a tedious, time-consuming task, but they both knew it needed to be done before nightfall. The steps ended five feet before the ground. Benedict jumped down, while Nella pushed herself over the side so that her feet dangled and then dropped. Benedict caught her and helped her down. The sky was beginning to dim. “You don’t mind losing a bit of sleep?” he asked her. “It would be better to travel in the dark.”

“I just want us to get back home safely. I’ll do whatever it takes to get there.”

“Father, I can do this,” Orlando pleaded. “Your days of warfare are over. You should rest.”

“I am not in the grave yet, Orlando,” the king said in annoyance. “And I’ve already lost your brother.” Orlando knew they were both thinking about the dreaded law that had kept him unmarried. It had been an inconvenience before; now it could be disastrous. Had he and Silvana married three years ago, when she’d first come of age, perhaps they would have had a son of their own by now. As it was, the royal line now ended with Orlando. The Ruchartan army was advancing quickly, leaving a trail of devastation in its wake. Lord Ludovico had gathered an army of condottieri and met the Ruchartans outside the borders of Ivly, where he had been soundly defeated. They were a breath away from losing the Bellarminian throne.

“I am still king, my son,” Giancarlo placed his hands on his son’s shoulders.

“I never doubt the strength of your heart, father. It is your strength in body that worries me.” He stared into his father’s eyes, seeing Benedict there. “We will fight this together.”

King Giancarlo was silent for a moment. “I have one request.”

“Anything, Father.”

“Marry Silvie before you go. The two of you have waited long enough.”

“But Benedict—”

“Benedict is dead, Orlando. Go find Silvie.”

After conferring with his fiancée, Orlando stepped quickly down the stairs to the chapel to find the priest. It was far from the type of wedding he had imagined for himself and Silvie, and the cost of their marriage overshadowed the joy he should have felt. I was never supposed to be king. It was Benedict, always Benedict.

Travelling through the Ruchartan countryside was slow. Every moment Nella lived in fear that they would be discovered, although they kept close to forests and journeyed only at night. Nella didn’t think anyone would recognize her, so she had even crept back into Luzarche to buy Benedict a change of clothes. She had almost cried with relief when they made it over the border. Benedict remained grave.

“They’ve been here,” he said with seriousness. “They’re moving towards the capital and the palace. Did you hear anything about it in the camp?”

“I know that there was a battle led by King Michel’s cousin Lord Amyot against the duke of Vertolli. We lost,” she added quietly.

“Ludovico,” Benedict said in recognition at the duke’s name. “The duke—did he survive?”

“I never learned. I only know that Captain Duval was jealous of Amyot, and he complained about his own orders to stay in Luzarche. But I know nothing else. I was only in the camp two days.”

“And they let you find me?” Benedict asked in surprise.

Nella laughed. “I think they were desperate.” Her amusement dimmed. “They mentioned something of a woman in the camp. Who was she?”

“Ah, my former betrothed, Lady Cécile.” He smiled at the look on Nella’s face. “Be not jealous, my dear. We were ill suited. The lady had plans to murder me for the sake of her uncle, King Michel. Lord Amyot was her accomplice. Her desire to speak to me led to my ability to escape. A foolish wish of hers, to be sure.”

“For them. For my own part, I thank her for it.”

Benedict had told her that they were taking a faster route, one that skirted around Ivly and Zaretta and cut straight to the capital. “I would take you home, Nella, but—”

“I stay with you, Benedict. And I cannot hinder you in this. My own feelings cannot come before an entire country. And neither can yours.”

The third day of their traveling, Nella watched the sun rise through the trees. She shivered for no reason, and wondered if it was because she was tired. Not long afterward, a shadow blocked the sun.

“Something isn’t right.” Benedict stood still and Nella looked up at the sky, unsure if she was only sensing his unease or if it really had grown darker. There was something tingling in the air. A metallic taste. The smell of smoke. Benedict moved stealthily along the brook and crossed it swiftly. Nella lifted her skirts and did the same. As she moved away from the stream, she heard a faint yell and the clang of metal upon metal. A cannon boomed in the distance.

Benedict ran to the top of the ridge and stood over the valley. Nella caught up with him and clapped a hand over her mouth. “Oh!”

The smell of death and sweat permeated the air as they watched battle below. The bloody mess of confusion and violence threatened her and she clenched her stomach, hoping she could calm the anxious fluttering she felt there. “We’re losing,” Nella realized as she continued to stare at the clash below. Her revulsion at the sight of the violence faded into a specific dread. “We’re losing ground.” She noted that every muscle in Benedict’s body was tense. She looked back to the crowd of men below, wondering if Cornelius’s sons were down there. She thought of Nicoletta and Giovanna, waiting for Lorenzo.

A man in full armor raised his sword and yelled something indistinguishable from the rest of the noise.

“Father,” Benedict whispered. “He’s leading them.” He turned to Nella, an apology on his face. “Nella…”

“Go,” she said. “Do it.”

Orlando knew he was losing. They all were. The battle had been long, stretching for more than four hours, since before the very first glimmer of sunlight had brightened the horizon. His arms hurt. His legs were sore. Blood dripped from various regions of his body and he didn’t even know whether or not it was his own. His lethargy was not singular. The men were wearied, worn down by their two previous defeats. A sword intent on parting Orlando’s head from his body bore down on him, and in a burst of strength he defeated the man. I can’t go on much longer, he thought. He felt weak, and for the first time realized it might have been from lack of blood. His arm was dribbling red at an alarming rate.

At that moment, a triumphant, unmistakable cry rang through the valley. Orlando turned in disbelief.

Benedict.

For a moment Orlando didn’t know if his brother had come as an avenging spirit or a warrior angel, but he didn’t care. Benedict was bearing upon enemies fast, hacking his way through with no armor and a Ruchartan sword he had picked up from a fallen soldier.

“All for Prince Benedict!” Orlando screamed, and with renewed energy found a well of untapped strength that drove him through the crowd. Benedict grabbed him for a quick but warm embrace before both of them turned back to the battle at hand.

Orlando laughed. “You can’t even stay dead like a reasonable person!” he yelled, overjoyed at the sight of his brother.

“What, you didn’t miss me?” Benedict asked with a grin.

“I think you just wanted to make an entrance as always, Ben!”

“Father is fighting over by the brush,” Benedict said. “We should join him.”

“Juan!” Orlando yelled. When Orlando caught the officer’s gaze, he jerked his head toward the brush where the king was fighting. Juan nodded and Orlando turned back to Benedict. “It is good to see you, Ben.”

“It’s good to see you too, Orlando.”

“I have so many questions—”

“Then the both of us better survive this so that I can answer them.”

As Benedict fought his way to his father, a new inner fire had been lit inside of him. He had the drive of a man of unfinished business ahead. For one mad, glorious moment upon his rescue in the catacombs, Benedict had imagined following Nella back to her tower, where they could live quietly together. Everyone already thought him dead, and Orlando would easily fill in the role of heir. But such a thought had lasted no longer than a butterfly resting a moment on a branch. It had been nothing more than a selfish escape from the life he’d been born to, the one he’d been avoiding all his life. In many ways, his fear was just as strong as Nella’s. How could he, for all his faults, handle the responsibility of ruling a country? A careless move by him could destroy countless lives.

Then maybe, his inner voice scolded, you should not be careless. His fear stemmed more from what he didn’t want to do more than what he couldn’t do. His avoidance tactics could not maneuver around his destiny, he supposed. It was time he embraced his role, not ran from it. God help me. He moved north, towards the fray where his father had been surrounded. When he got there, surrounded and distracted by a thousand sounds and sights of combat, he looked to Orlando in dreaded confusion. The king’s guards were facedown, lifeless and bleeding on the ground before them.

And their father was nowhere to be seen.

Nella was choking. The attack had come out of nowhere. She should have expected it. She could hear the sounds of battle, the sounds of a battle threatening the very life of the man whose life she had tried so hard to save. She gasped for breath. Oh God, save me. This was the very reason she had locked herself in her tower—to escape this horrendous uncertainty and danger. She felt like screaming, but no sound passed through her lips, which was almost worse. Her stomach heaved and her mouth felt dry. She fell against a tree and leaned her forehead against it. The bark was cool and soothing. Her breathing slowly returned to normal, and she felt peace invade her. Finally. She tried to block the sounds of the fighting that echoed through her mind. How can something sound both so faint and so loud?

She quietly crawled to the base of the tree and pulled her knees to her forehead, attempting to block out the noise. Something rustled in the bushes and her head shot up. The noise was louder and more distinct, and she heard swords touch, far closer to her than any other sounds of the battle. Her instinct for self preservation took over, and she ran deeper into the woods to crouch behind a mulberry bush. A man appeared and stumbled over the hill, his armor clanging as he hit the earth. Another man, younger, stronger, and leaner appeared. He scrambled over the hill and jumped the older man. The older man blocked his thrust at the last moment. Nella winced at the sound of the metal scraping against metal. The older man turned, and Nella got a closer look at his face. Her brows furrowed with tentative recognition. She’d seen paintings of King Giancarlo, but a man in the heat of battle looked far different than he did dressed in regalia and seated for a royal portrait. The younger man kicked the king, who fell down. The king’s sword flew. Nella’s vision fixed upon it as King Giancarlo blocked the other soldier’s hit with his shield and tried to roll closer to his fallen weapon. It was within his arm’s length.

God, I can’t do this. She tried to steady her breathing. You found Benedict. She swallowed. You journeyed to Ruchartes. Her fear began to drain. You infiltrated an enemy camp. That thought almost made her smile at its pure improbability. I can do this. She crawled behind the skirmishing men, both of whom were too focused to notice her quiet movements. Breathing heavily, she took up a large rock and moved a step closer. She felt one last tremor of anxiety before she threw it all away and acted. Using every element of force in her body, she threw the rock at the soldier’s head. It hit him right below the neck and he stumbled.

The split second of distraction gave the king enough time to grab the sword next to him and plunge it in between the pieces of the soldier’s breastplate. Nella’s breath caught as the soldier toppled over with a shocked gaze. The king stood and stared at her, as though he couldn’t believe what had just happened. Nella did the same.

Then he smiled, and she saw Benedict in his upturned lips, setting to rest any uncertainty about his identity. “Thank you—” His knees gave way and he fell. Nella noticed the blood seeping through his armor and dripping onto the metal of his cuisse. She ran to him and propped him up. “Where are you hurt?”

He gasped for breath and clutched his side. Nella moved aside his breastplate and examined the cloth underneath. The gash was serious, but she could not yet tell if it would prove fatal. She smiled with more optimism than she felt. “You’ll be fine.” She looked around, feeling frustrated at her lack of medical supplies. If she’d been back in her tower—

Don’t be ridiculous. If you were in the tower, you wouldn’t be able to help him at all. She tore the bottom of her gown into a bandage to help staunch the bleeding. He held it to himself and gave a gasping breath before trying to stand.

Nella realized that he meant to return to the fighting. “You can’t go back,” she said in astonishment. “You’re hurt!”

“I am not the only one, Signorina.” He gave her an exhausted smile and clumsily patted her arm. “Thank you for your kindness.” He winced once and then straightened his back. Her arms momentarily fluttered at her sides and she restrained herself from helping him as he turned back towards the hill. His steps grew steadier and stronger as he walked, until he was running. She watched him until he disappeared over the ridge.

Benedict could not let his father’s absence distract him. The tide of the battle had turned in their favor, and neither he nor Orlando could let their worry distract them from the fighting at hand. Almighty God, protect my father.

The entire army seemed reenergized by Benedict’s appearance, and it frightened him by the power it held. Men were not only willing to fight with him, they were willing to fight for him.

“Up towards the hill!” He shouted, pointing with his sword to the direction of the Ruchartan camp. He engaged in a vicious swordfight with a young Ruchartan and then was hit with another assailant on his right. He dove towards the ground just as the swordsman made a thrust. Ben shoved the other soldier towards him so he bore the full brunt of the blade. Using an abandoned arrow, he shoved it like a knife into the swordsman’s back. He paused for a fraction of a moment before spying Lord Amyot giving orders to his men. His eyes narrowed.

Benedict spat blood and wiped the excess of a shallow face wound from his chin. He fought his way through four men on his way to the captain. Amyot’s face hardened when he saw Benedict and he barked something to a soldier before making his way forwards. Benedict gritted his teeth. He wants to kill me himself. Let him try.

Their swords met on the field. Benedict knew that without his armor, every movement was a risk. But he was also far faster without the pounds of metal weighing him down. Even so, Amyot was by far the best fighter Benedict had thus encountered that day, and Benedict had to keep constantly alert.

“You’re dead,” Amyot said, bearing down upon Benedict.

Benedict flashed an exhausted grin. “I don’t think Death likes me,” he said breathlessly. “We keep running in to each other before deciding to go our separate ways.”

He moved out of the way just in time to miss Amyot’s blade, but fell to the ground in the process. He blocked the next attempt with his sword, but the blade moved closer to his neck, and he struggled to breath. Panic threatened as the sharp edge nicked his neck.

At once, Amyot’s face changed into an expression of complete disbelief. He looked down and Benedict realized that his own stomach was being poked—just slightly—by sword that had gone straight through the captain’s body. The sword was pulled out by an unseen hand, and Amyot fell over with a small gasp, clutching his stomach as he breathed his last.

Benedict gave a sigh of relief mixed with joy as he saw who had come to his aid. “Father.”

The sounds had stopped. Nella hadn’t noticed at first. She had been holding Persephone tightly to herself, praying and feeling helpless. Her body was overwhelmed with weariness but she could not sleep.

She realized then that the loudest sounds she could hear were nothing more than the chirpings of birds and the croaking of a frog. She set Persephone down and crawled up to the ridge to peer over into the battleground below. The fighting had stopped, but the sight was still gruesome. Moving slowly, she stepped down the hillside, her eyes searching frantically for any sign of Benedict.

“Nella?”

Nella’s steps stopped abruptly and she turned. He was a mess. Bleeding. Torn. Dripping with sweat. She didn’t care. She ran into his arms.

And as she stood in Benedict’s embrace she realized that she had never felt safer.

XI.

Epilogue

Three weeks after the battle, Benedict and Nella rode back to the tower. The rope ladder that Nella had left hanging upon the balcony had fallen down, and she picked it up.

“Do you think you could climb?” she asked Benedict, looking up at the place she had called her home for twelve long years. He took the new ladder he had brought over his shoulder and obliged. He threw the ladder over the balcony and she climbed up.

It felt strange to be back at first, but as Nella opened the doors of her home and walked through the empty halls, she realized that she didn’t want to leave again. The smells of her herbs and spices, the feel of her cushions and the sight of her books—it was her home, and she loved it.

But she looked back at Benedict. She loved him, too. And she loved him more.

“Let’s go out onto the rooftop,” she said suddenly. “I’d like to see my garden.”

Weeds had found their places in her raised beds of vegetables and herbs. She plucked a sprig of the lavender she grew around the perimeter or the roof and smelled it. Home.

“Why, Leo!” she exclaimed. “And Cassiopea!” Two of her birds had returned to their nest and were fluttering about her rooftop garden. “I didn’t expect to see you again.” She extended her hand and Leo flapped his wings and descended upon her. She smiled at the familiar feel of his small talons grasping around her fingers.

“We can always come back, you know,” Benedict reminded her as he took her arm. “Like them.”

Nella looked up at the man who she now called husband and smiled. “Perhaps,” she said. “But not for a while. I must learn to love my new home, and I fear that this place will continue to trap me. I must break myself of it. And I cannot leave you—I cannot leave our people—now, when we must be strong.” Their war was over, but another, larger one was threatening the entirety of the Holy Roman Empire as France and Italy remained at odds. It would not be long, she feared, before they would be forced to take part. For once, she realized, her days spent pouring over texts of politics and governments were given some use. Odd but strangely fitting that the education her grandmother had insisted upon had prepared her for the role she’d found herself in.

Nella and Benedict collected the few things she wished to bring with her, and she comforted herself with the fact that she could still garden at the palace. And she had help now—Silvana. Orlando’s wife, had latched on to her immediately, thrilled beyond belief that her brother-in-law had married at last. She was congenial and seemed genuinely interested in Nella.

Nella had not had a friend like that since she was ten years old.

Orlando seemed to like her as well, as he contentedly found himself back in his role as second son rather than heir apparent. The queen had taken a bit longer to come to terms with her son’s choice of bride, but a few words from the king, who was still recovering from his wounds, had managed to shift her perspective. But even with their approval the court still intimidated Nella, and Benedict had spent more than one night holding her in his arms to help calm her anxiety.

She was easing into her new life gently, but her tower still called to her, tempting her back to isolation and safety. To a place with nothing to cause her attacks.

But perhaps with nothing to cause her happiness, either.

“Are you ready?” Benedict had packed her things onto their horses, which stood off to the side of the woods waiting for them.

Nella looked up at the tower one last time. “I am.” She turned to him and put her hands in his as they walked quietly away, with no noise accompanying the sound of their footsteps but the song of a single bird, aloft in the trees as its melody spoke of a freedom found at last.

About Hayden Wand

Hayden Wand is the author of the indie title Hidden Pearls as well as the novella The Wulver’s Rose, which was published in the Five Enchanted Roses collection. A Christian and a 2012 homeschool graduate, she currently attends a local college where she studies history and haunts the campus library.

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Other books by Hayden Wand

The Wulver’s Rose

A life is a high price to pay for stealing a rose. Nevertheless, Bonnie honors her father’s agreement and travels to the remote, ruinous castle wherein dwells the legendary creature known as a wulver—half man, half wolf. Though he is monstrous to behold, this beast is oddly gentle, tenderly caring for his beautiful rosebush, which blooms out of season. Is there more to the wulver than meets the eye? Is he somehow connected to the frightened child who visits Bonnie in her dreams?

Free on Amazon!

Hidden Pearls

When an unexpected letter sends Constance Steele on a voyage across the Atlantic, her adventure affects more people than she ever could have realized. A regency romance with a high seas twist.

For Elise

The aspiring author bought the “haunted” house to stoke his morbid imagination. Unfortunately, the house is having none of it.

Click here to find other books by Hayden Wand!


Once: Six Historically Inspired Fairytales

Six fairytales you thought you knew, set against a tapestry of historical backgrounds. A lonely girl plots revenge in the shadow of a mountain. A stolen princess fumbles a century backward. A dwarfish man crafts brilliant automatons. A Polish Jew strikes matches against the Nazis. A dead girl haunts a crystal lake. A terrified princess searches a labyrinth. A rich collection of six historically inspired retellings, Once is a new generation of fairytales for those who thought they'd heard the tales in all their forms. Featuring the novellas of Elisabeth Grace Foley, Rachel Heffington, J Grace Pennington, Emily Ann Putzke, Suzannah Rowntree, and Hayden Wand.

  • ISBN: 9781370753765
  • Author: Suzannah Rowntree
  • Published: 2017-08-28 03:20:31
  • Words: 159173
Once: Six Historically Inspired Fairytales Once: Six Historically Inspired Fairytales