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s a l t to the

s e a a

novel

RU TA S E P E T YS

PHILOMEL

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BOOKS

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SWEDEN

DENMAR K

Ba

19 4 5 O VERV IE W B O R NH O L M ( D E N MAR K )

K i el

Wilhe Gus tl

Steuben

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G

Sassnitz

Fra B e rl i n

G ER MA N Y

H e i d el b e r g

CZ

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L AT V IA Biržai

Baltic Sea

L I T H UA NIA

Wilhelm Gus tloff

teuben

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G oya

Tilsit

Pillau

Ins terburg Gotenhafen

Kaunas Vi l n i u s

Königsberg Nemmersdorf

EAST PRUSSIA

Frauenburg

Wa r s a w

P OL AND

Lwów

C Z E C H O S L O VA K IA

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We the survivors are not the true witnesses. The true witnesses, those in possession of the unspeakable truth, are the drowned, the dead, the disappeared. —Primo Levi

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joana Guilt is a hunter. My conscience mocked me, picking fights like a petulant child. It’s all your fault, the voice whispered. I quickened my pace and caught up with our small group. The Germans would march us off the field road if they found us. Roads were reserved for the military. Evacuation orders hadn’t been issued and anyone fleeing East Prussia was branded a deserter. But what did that matter? I became a deserter four years ago, when I fled from Lithuania. Lithuania. I had left in 1941. What was happening at home? Were the dreadful things whispered in the streets true? We approached a mound on the side of the road. The small boy in front of me whimpered and pointed. He had joined us two days prior, just wandered out of the forest alone and quietly began following us. “Hello, little one. How old are you?” I had asked. “Six,” he replied. “Who are you traveling with?” He paused and dropped his head. “My Omi.”

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I turned toward the woods to see if his grandmother had emerged. “Where is your Omi now?” I asked. The wandering boy looked up at me, his pale eyes wide. “She didn’t wake up.” So the little boy traveled with us, often drifting just slightly ahead or behind. And now he stood, pointing to a flap of dark wool beneath a meringue of snow. I waved the group onward and when everyone advanced I ran to the snow-covered heap. The wind lifted a layer of icy flakes revealing the dead blue face of a woman, probably in her twenties. Her mouth and eyes were hinged open, fixed in fear. I dug through her iced pockets, but they had already been picked. In the lining of her jacket I found her identification papers. I stuffed them in my coat to pass on to the Red Cross and dragged her body off the road and into the field. She was dead, frozen solid, but the thought of tanks rolling over her was more than I could bear. I ran back to the road and our group. The wandering boy stood in the center of the path, snow falling all around him. “She didn’t wake up either?” he asked quietly. I shook my head and took his mittened hand in mine. And then we both heard it in the distance. Bang.

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florian Fate is a hunter. Engines buzzed in a swarm above. Der Schwarze Tod, “the Black Death,” they called them. I hid beneath the trees. The planes weren’t visible, but I felt them. Close. Trapped by darkness both ahead and behind, I weighed my options. An explosion detonated and death crept closer, curling around me in fingers of smoke. I ran. My legs churned, sluggish, disconnected from my racing mind. I willed them to move, but my conscience noosed around my ankles and pulled down hard. “You are a talented young man, Florian.” That’s what Mother had said. “You are Prussian. Make your own decisions, son,” said my father. Would he have approved of my decisions, of the secrets I now carried across my back? Amidst this war between Hitler and Stalin, would Mother still consider me talented, or criminal? The Soviets would kill me. But how would they torture me first? The Nazis would kill me, but only if they uncovered the plan. How long would it remain a secret? The questions S a lt t o t h e S e a

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propelled me forward, whipping through the cold forest, dodging branches. I clutched my side with one hand, my pistol with the other. The pain surged with each breath and step, releasing warm blood out of the angry wound. The sound of the engines faded. I had been on the run for days and my mind felt as weak as my legs. The hunter preyed on the fatigued and weary. I had to rest. The pain slowed me to a jog and finally a walk. Through the dense trees in the forest I spied branches hiding an old potato cellar. I jumped in. Bang.

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emilia Shame is a hunter. I would rest a moment. I had a moment, didn’t I? I slid across the cold, hard earth toward the back of the cave. The ground quivered. Soldiers were close. I had to move but felt so tired. It was a good idea to put branches over the mouth of the forest cellar. Wasn’t it? No one would trek this far off the road. Would they? I pulled the pink woolen cap down over my ears and tugged my coat closed near my throat. Despite my bundled layers, January’s teeth bit sharp. My fingers had lost all feeling. Pieces of my hair, frozen crisp to my collar, tore as I turned my head. So I thought of August. My eyes dropped closed. And then they opened. A Russian soldier was there. He leaned over me with a light, poking my shoulder with his pistol. I jumped, frantically pushing myself back. “Fräulein.” He grinned, pleased that I was alive. “Komme, Fräulein. How old are you?” “Fifteen,” I whispered. “Please, I’m not German. Nicht Deutsche.” S a lt t o t h e S e a

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He didn’t listen, didn’t understand, or didn’t care. He pointed his gun at me and yanked at my ankle. “Shh, Fräulein.” He lodged the gun under the bone of my chin. I pleaded. I put my hands across my stomach and begged. He moved forward. No. This would not happen. I turned my head. “Shoot me, soldier. Please.” Bang.

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alfred Fear is a hunter. But brave warriors, we brush away fear with a flick of the wrist. We laugh in the face of fear, kick it like a stone across the street. Yes, Hannelore, I compose these letters in my mind first, as I cannot abandon my men as often as I think of you. You would be proud of your watchful companion, sailor Alfred Frick. Today I saved a young woman from falling into the sea. It was nothing really, but she was so grateful she clung to me, not wanting to let go. “Thank you, sailor.” Her warm whisper lingered in my ear. She was quite pretty and smelled like fresh eggs, but there have been many grateful and pretty girls. Oh, do not be concerned. You and your red sweater are foremost in my thoughts. How fondly, how incessantly, I think of my Hannelore and red-sweater days. I’m relieved you are not here to see this. Your sugared heart could not bear the treacherous circumstances here in the port of Gotenhafen. At this very moment, I am guarding dangerous explosives. I am serving Germany well. Only seventeen, yet carrying more valor than those twice my years. There is talk of an honor ceremony but I’m too busy fighting for the Führer to accept honors. Honors are for the dead, I’ve told them. We must fight while we are alive! S a lt t o t h e S e a

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Yes, Hannelore, I shall prove to all of Germany. There is indeed a hero inside of me. Bang. I abandoned my mental letter and crouched in the supply closet, hoping no one would find me. I did not want to go outside.

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florian I stood in the forest cellar, my gun fixed on the dead Russian. The back of his head had departed from his skull. I rolled him off the woman. She wasn’t a woman. She was a girl in a pink woolen cap. And she had fainted. I scavenged through the Russian’s frozen pockets and took cigarettes, a flask, a large sausage wrapped in paper, his gun, and ammunition. He wore two watches on each wrist, trophies collected from his victims. I didn’t touch them. Crouching near the corner of the cellar, I scanned the cold chamber for signs of food but saw none. I put the ammunition in my pack, careful not to disturb the small box wrapped in a cloth. The box. How could something so small hold such power? Wars had been waged over less. Was I really willing to die for it? I gnawed at the dried sausage, savoring the saliva it produced. The ground vibrated slightly. This Russian wasn’t alone. There would be more. I had to move. I turned the top on the soldier’s flask and raised it to my nose. Vodka. I opened my coat, then my shirt, and poured the alcohol down my side. The intensity of the pain produced a S a lt t o t h e S e a

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flash in front of my eyes. My ruptured flesh fought back, twisting and pulsing. I took a breath, bit back a yell, and tortured the gash with the remainder of the alcohol. The girl stirred in the dirt. Her head snapped away from the dead Russian. Her eyes scanned the gun at my feet and the flask in my hand. She sat up, blinking. Her pink hat slid from her head and fell silently into the dirt. The side of her coat was streaked with blood. She reached into her pocket. I threw down the flask and grabbed the gun. She opened her mouth and spoke. Polish.

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emilia The Russian soldier stared at me, mouth open, eyes empty. Dead. What had happened? Crouching in the corner was a young man dressed in civilian clothes. His coat and shirt were unfastened, his skin bloodied and bruised to a deep purple. He held a gun. Was he going to shoot me? No, he had killed the Russian. He had saved me. “Are you okay?” I asked, barely recognizing my own voice. His face twisted at the sound of my words. He was German. I was Polish. He would want nothing to do with me. Adolf Hitler had declared that Polish people were subhuman. We were to be destroyed so the Germans could have the land they needed for their empire. Hitler said Germans were superior and would not live among Poles. We were not Germanizable. But our soil was. I pulled a potato from my pocket and held it out to him. “Thank you.” The dirt pulsed slightly. How much time had passed? “We have to go,” I told him. I tried to use my best German. In my head the sentences were S a lt t o t h e S e a

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intact, but I wasn’t sure they came out that way. Sometimes when I spoke German people laughed at me and then I knew my words were wrong. I lowered my arm and saw my sleeve, splattered with Russian blood. Would this ever end? Tears stirred inside of me. I did not want to cry. The German stared at me, a combination of fatigue and frustration. But I understood. His eyes on the potato said, Emilia, I’m hungry. The dried blood on his shirt said, Emilia, I’m injured. But the way he clutched his pack told me the most. Emilia, don’t touch this.

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joana We trudged farther down the narrow road. Fifteen refugees. The sun had finally surrendered and the temperature followed. A blind girl ahead of me, Ingrid, held a rope tethered to a horse-drawn cart. I had my sight, but we shared a handicap: we both walked into a dark corridor of combat, with no view of what lay ahead. Perhaps her lost vision was a gift. The blind girl could hear and smell things that the rest of us couldn’t. Did she hear the last gasp of the old man as he slipped under the wheels of a cart several kilometers back? Did she taste coins in her mouth when she walked over the fresh blood in the snow? “Heartbreaking. They killed her,” said a voice behind me. It was the old shoemaker. I stopped and allowed him to catch up. “The frozen woman back there,” he continued. “Her shoes killed her. I keep telling them, but they don’t listen. Poorly made shoes will torture your feet, inhibit your progress. Then you will stop.” He squeezed my arm. His soft red face peered out from beneath his hat. “And then you will die,” he whispered. The old man spoke of nothing but shoes. He spoke of them with such love and emotion that a woman in our group had

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crowned him “the shoe poet.” The woman disappeared a day later but the nickname survived. “The shoes always tell the story,” said the shoe poet. “Not always,” I countered. “Yes, always. Your boots, they are expensive, well made. That tells me that you come from a wealthy family. But the style is one made for an older woman. That tells me they probably belonged to your mother. A mother sacrificed her boots for her daughter. That tells me you are loved, my dear. And your mother is not here, so that tells me that you are sad, my dear. The shoes tell the story.” I paused in the center of the frozen road and watched the stubby old cobbler shuffle ahead of me. The shoe poet was right. Mother had sacrificed for me. When we fled from Lithuania she rushed me to Insterburg and, through a friend, arranged for me to work in the hospital. That was four years ago. Where was Mother now? I thought of the countless refugees trekking toward freedom. How many millions of people had lost their home and family during the war? I had agreed with Mother to look to the future, but secretly I dreamed of returning to the past. Had anyone heard from my father or brother? The blind girl put her face to the sky and raised her arm in signal. And then I heard them. Planes.

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florian We had barely crawled out of the potato cellar when the Polish girl began to cry. She knew I was going to leave her. I had no choice. She would slow me down. Hitler aimed to destroy all Poles. They were Slavic, branded inferior. My father said the Nazis had killed millions of Poles. Polish intellectuals were savagely executed in public. Hitler set up extermination camps in German-occupied Poland, filtering the blood of innocent Jews into the Polish soil. Hitler was a coward. That had been one thing Father and I agreed upon. “Proszę . . . bitte,” she begged, alternating between Polish and broken German. I couldn’t stand to look at her, at the streaks of dead Russian splattered down her sleeve. I started to walk away, her sobs flapping behind me. “Wait. Please,” she called out. The sound of her crying was painfully familiar. It had the exact tone of my younger sister, Anni, and the sobs I heard through the hallway the day Mother took her last breath. Anni. Where was she? Was she too in some dark forest hole with a gun to her head?

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A pain ripped through my side, forcing me to stop. The girl’s feet quickly approached. I resumed walking. “Thank you,” she chirped from behind. The sun disappeared and the cold tightened its fist. My calculations told me that I needed to walk another two kilometers west before stopping for the night. There was a better chance of finding shelter along a field road, but also a better chance of running into troops. It was wiser to continue along the edge of the forest. The girl heard them before I did. She grabbed my arm. The buzzing of aircraft engines surged fast and close from behind. The Russians were targeting German ground troops nearby. Were they in front of us or beside us? The bombs began falling. With each explosion, every bone in my body vibrated and hammered, clanging violently against the bell tower that was my flesh. The sound of anti-aircraft fire rang through the sky, answering the initial blasts. The girl tried to pull me onward. I shoved her away. “Run!” She shook her head, pointed forward, and awkwardly tried to pull me through the snow. I wanted to run, forget about her, leave her in the forest. But then I saw the droplets of blood in the snow coming from beneath her bulky coat. And I could not.

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In 1810 the British King, George III, descended into a melan-

choly madness from which he would never recover. In 1811 his son, the Prince of Wales—fat, frivolous, and forty-nine—was declared his regent, and given care of a country that was at war and in deep recession. The new Prince Regent, or “Prinny,” as he was commonly known, immediately gave a sumptuous party for over two thousand members of the upper class, which set the tone for his regency: nine years of staggering extravagance, relentless scandal, and the constant threat of rioting and revolution. In 1812, Prinny had been regent for one year. Britain was on the brink of war with America, and in its tenth year of almost continuous war with France and its emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. None of these countries, however, knew there was another, even older war being waged: a secret battle that had started centuries before against a demonic horde hidden in plain sight across the cities, towns, and villages of the world. Only a small group of people stood in the way of this multitude and its insidious predation upon humankind. London, late April 1812: a month that had seen violent civil unrest, savage battles on the Continent, and the rumblings of aggression from the new American nation. It was also the month in which Queen Charlotte—after a two-year hiatus—returned to the practice of holding drawing rooms for the presentation of young ladies into high society. A battleground of a different kind.

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One

Wednesday, 29 April 1812

I

n the sun-warmed quiet of her uncle’s library, Lady Helen Wrexhall spread the skirt of her muslin morning gown and sank into the deep curtsy required for Royal presentation: back held straight, head slightly bowed, left knee bent so low, it nearly touched the floor. And, of course, face set into a serene Court smile. “Your Majesty is correct,” she said to the blue brocade sofa doing duty as Queen Charlotte. “I am the daughter of Lady Catherine, Countess of Hayden.” Helen glanced sideways at her reflection in the glass-fronted bookcase that lined the wall: the best place in the town house to view the whole of her tall self. The curtsy was good—it should be, after so many weeks of practice—but she sounded far too surly. She tried again. “Yes, Your Highness, I am indeed the daughter of Lady Catherine.” No, too jaunty. She rose from the curtsy and dropped the folds of her gown, opening her fingers into long spreads of frustration. Her aunt had told her to find a tone that acknowledged

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her connection to Lady Catherine but also maintained a dignified distance from it. A great deal of meaning to place upon a few words. She backed a few steps away from the blue silk bulk of the substitute queen. Flanking Her Majesty were two matching brocade armchairs: the princesses Mary and Augusta. Helen eyed the makeshift Royals, already sensing disaster. Tomorrow she would be curtsying to the real Royal ladies, and there could be no room for awkwardness or mistakes. She had to have an answer ready about her mother, just in case Queen Charlotte mentioned the infamous Countess of Hayden. It did not seem likely. Ten years had passed since Helen’s mother and father had drowned at sea. Surely Lady Catherine would not be on the mind of a queen burdened by a mad husband and a profligate son running the country to ruin. Helen pressed her palms together. Even she could not remember much about her mother. Lady Catherine’s name was only uttered as a reproach in her aunt and uncle’s house, and her brother never mentioned their mother anymore. Yet that morning at breakfast, Aunt Leonore had suddenly told Helen to practice a graceful answer to a possible Royal inquiry. Perhaps the Crown never forgot a noblewoman whose name was shrouded in rumor. Especially when those rumors were wound tight around the word treason. One more time, then. Helen held up the edges of her gown and glided into the low obeisance. “Yes, Your Majesty. My mother was Lady Catherine.” That was better; the less said, the smaller the chance of making a mistake. Helen lifted her face to receive the Royal kiss on her forehead, rose from the curtsy, then gathered up her imaginary train and backed away from the sofa—the most difficult maneuver in the whole Court Presentation. Lud, she hoped she did not trip or lose control of her curtsy tomorrow. It was the first official

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Queen’s Drawing Room since the King’s madness had returned two years ago, and there had been a desperate scramble by mothers to secure their daughters a place on the presentation list. Aunt Leonore—who had lost her own daughter and only child at birth—had been at the forefront of the rush, and Helen had duly received her summons from the Lord Chamberlain. What if she wrecked the whole enterprise by stumbling? For a moment she saw an image of herself sprawled on the polished Palace floor, the huge old-fashioned hoopskirt standing up around her like a frigate in full sail. Helen sat on the sofa and slumped against the stiff cushions. It was no good dwelling on possible mishaps; she had done all that she could to prepare for the day. Her dance master had drilled her interminably on every movement of the ceremony. He’d even brought in his dainty wife to demonstrate how to slip a porcelain bourdaloue—shaped, amusingly, like a lady’s slipper—up under the hoop of her Court gown in case she needed to relieve herself during the long wait to be called. Now that was a difficult maneuver, Helen thought, her unruly sense of humor rising into a smile. Especially in a screened corner of a Royal stateroom. What if someone dropped one? Her imagination conjured the sound of smashing porcelain and the stink of warm spreading piss. No, that would not be so funny. And she, for one, was not going to tempt fate. Tomorrow morning she would drink nothing. At least, nothing after her cup of chocolate. On that sensible resolution, Helen turned her attention to the stack of ladies’ magazines her aunt had left on the gilt side table— an unsubtle reminder to find a riding dress she liked. She picked up the new edition of La Belle Assemblée and curled her legs under herself on the sofa, tucking the hem of her gown around the soft soles of her kid leather slippers. Aunt would take a fit if she saw her sitting in such a graceless way, but she felt so twitchy—so unbe-

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comingly lively—that it was best to keep herself folded up as tight as a new parasol. It was a bad case of presentation nerves. Nothing more. She stared fiercely at the magazine as if it could rid her of the knowledge that these nerves had appeared long before any thought of her presentation. They had started at least six months ago, just after her eighteenth birthday, a deep energy that made her follow her curiosity beyond the bounds of propriety. She had made midnight forays into her uncle’s study and his private papers; paid breathless visits up to the silent attic stacked full of chairs; even danced a lone, wild reel in the billiard room. All, she had to admit, for no reason beyond the thrill of it, and the need to rid her body of this unseemly vigor. The other explanation for her nerves sat at the back of her mind like a hundredweight: her mother’s blood. Although never said aloud by her aunt and uncle, the fear that she would have her mother’s wild streak had sat heavily upon their faces when they first took her in. Even then, when she was only eight years old, the implication had been clear to Helen—she must be on guard against her own nature. After all, it had been her mother’s reckless pursuit of intrigue and excitement that had killed her and her husband, leaving their two children orphaned. Helen thought she had escaped that legacy of restless energy. She had read Mr. Locke and found his radical philosophy—that men created themselves from the sum of their own experiences and choices—far more amenable than the idea of a predestined nature. So, she told herself firmly as she turned pages, this worsening of her nerves did not mean she was like her mother. It was just a normal response to the prospect of curtsying before the Queen. She lingered for a moment at a fascinating article about mythology, then resolutely flipped to the fashion pages, stopping at the illustration of an impossibly elongated woman in a bright

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green riding outfit. Helen clicked her tongue. Apparently, the fashions for spring 1812 were to be more military than the army itself. The taste for black braid and frogged clasps had run wild. “Barnett, where is my niece?” Aunt Leonore’s voice carried through the town house hallway to the library. Helen jerked upright. According to the gilt clock on the mantel, only twenty minutes had passed since Aunt had left to view the latest caricatures at Ackermann’s Repository. It was usually a two-hour expedition; something must have happened. She heard the butler’s lower tones directing his mistress to the library, and then the increasing volume of her aunt’s voice as she approached, talking as if she were already in the room. Helen swung her feet to the floor. Three quick flicks smoothed out the telltale creases in her muslin. She positioned the magazine on her lap and gave one last tug at the high waist of her bodice. The double doors opened halfway. Barnett stood for a stately moment in the gap—a well-judged pause in which a person could uncurl herself. But for once Helen was ready. His eyes met hers in warm collusion, then he pushed the doors fully apart and stepped aside. Aunt Leonore entered midsentence, still clad in her scarlet pelisse, working one blue glove from her hand, and trailed by Murphett, her lady’s maid. “. . . you will not credit this, my dear, but I am sure it is the truth. I would not have given it a moment’s notice if only Mrs. Shoreham had the telling of it, but I met Lady Beck, and you know I have the highest faith in her . . .” Aunt Leonore paused, searching for the right accolade. “Her spies?” Helen supplied. She sent a quick glance of thanks to Barnett as he bowed and quietly backed from the room, drawing the doors closed. Aunt Leonore stifled a smile. “You know very well I was not thinking such a thing. Her prudence.” She held out the glove.

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Murphett promptly stepped forward to drape it over her arm. “So what did the prudent Lady Beck tell you?” Helen asked, her curiosity sparking. For an instant Aunt Leonore’s excited smile locked into a strange, stiff grimace. It was such a brief pause in the quicksilver of her expressions that Helen almost missed it. She focused more closely on her aunt’s face: the grimace was gone, replaced by a tiny sideways pull of her mouth and a drawing around the eyes. Some kind of unhappy realization, quickly hidden. Helen knew she was right—reading expressions was her one true accomplishment. When she concentrated properly on a face, her accuracy was startling and a little disturbing. It certainly made her aunt and uncle uneasy, and they had forbidden her to voice her observations about anyone, especially themselves. Girls were meant to paint screens, sob out ballads, and play the pianoforte, not see through the masks of polite society. “It is very cold out today,” her aunt said. “I hope we do not have another spring like last year.” The abrupt change of subject silenced Helen for a moment. Aunt was definitely hiding something. She tried again. “What did Lady Beck say to bring you back so soon?” Her aunt started work on the other glove, her eyes finding La Belle Assemblée on Helen’s lap. “Did you find a riding habit you liked? We must discuss the design with Mr. Duray this week if we want it before the Season truly starts.” The tightness around her aunt’s mouth—a clear refusal— stopped Helen asking a third time. She would wait until Murphett left the room. “I have found nothing I like,” she said. “The gowns this Season are all so overdone.” She wrinkled her nose, belatedly remembering that she had resolved not to do so anymore. She knew it was not her best feature, being a little on the long, narrow side, but

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then Helen was painfully aware that almost everything about herself was on the long, narrow side. As well as being much taller than average, she was scarecrow-thin—according to her older brother, Andrew—although her friends assured her she was celestially slender. Even so, Helen had a mirror, and she knew she was a Long Meg who definitely did not look adorable when she wrinkled her nose. Aunt Leonore pulled the second glove free. “You would dress yourself like a Quaker if I let you.” Helen held up the magazine, still open at the offending illustration. “But look, at least twenty-five frogs on the bodice alone. Is it too much to ask for a dress that won’t scare the horse?” Aunt Leonore gave her loud cackle—the one that had earned her the title Lady Laugh amongst her friends and Lady Hee-Haw amongst her enemies. “Not this Season, my dear. It is all military flimflam.” “Bonaparte has a lot to answer for,” Helen said. “First Europe, and now our fashion.” She flipped the magazine closed and rested it on her lap. “You really do have your mother’s grim sense of humor.” Aunt Leonore lifted her chin as Murphett unbuttoned the bodice of her pelisse. “God rest her soul.” Helen kept her eyes down, feigning interest in the magazine cover. It was best not to show any response to the rare mentions of her mother, especially those concerning shared traits. They were never meant as compliments. “Promise me you won’t make such deplorable jests at Almack’s,” her aunt continued. “No jests,” Helen promised dutifully, but could not help adding, “Perhaps I should not speak again until I am married.” Her aunt gave a soft snort. “That would certainly help my nerves.” She held out her arms, and Murphett deftly pulled the

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scarlet coat free. “No, my dear, I don’t want you to be silent. That would be just as bad. Promise me you will have some proper conversation ready for your dance partners. And make your little quips less political. It does not do for a girl your age to be so aware.” She settled on the sofa next to Helen. “Will that be all, my lady?” Murphett asked. “Yes, thank you.” As Murphett curtsied and exited, pulling the doors closed, Aunt Leonore’s face sagged into the worn pathways of her fifty-four years. She tweaked and smoothed the folds of her blue walking dress, the rearrangements bringing a waft of rose perfume from the fine crepe. Helen saw the fussing for what it was— procrastination—and studied her aunt’s features again. A mix of sadness and anxiety. The sadness disappeared, replaced by irritation. “Do stop staring, Helen.” Helen picked at a loose thread in the binding of La Belle Assemblée. “What is troubling you, Aunt? Something has taken the excitement from your news.” “You read me, didn’t you?” her aunt said. “You know your uncle and I have asked you not to do so.” “I am sorry. I could not help seeing it.” Aunt Leonore sighed, part resignation, part concern. “I suppose I cannot hide the truth; it will come to your ears soon enough. When I came in, I suddenly recalled that you have more than a passing acquaintance with Delia Cransdon. The news is about her, I am afraid. Now, I do not want you to get upset. Tomorrow is such an important day.” Helen stopped pulling at the thread, her hand stilled by a sudden sense of foreboding. While Delia was not her closest friend—that special place belonged to the Honorable Millicent Gardwell—she was nonetheless one of Helen’s cronies from her

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year at Miss Holcromb’s Select Seminary. “Delia is not ill, is she?” “Worse,” Aunt Leonore said, pity drawing down the corners of her mouth. “Three days ago, she ran off with a man by the name of Trent, and there has been no marriage.” Helen’s breath caught in her chest. If it was true, Delia was ruined. “No. That is not possible.” Or was it? Helen thought back over the last few months, and had to admit she had seen despair growing in her friend’s eyes. Delia had made her debut the Season before last, but had received no offers of marriage. She had none of the essential three—beauty, high connections, or fortune—and, at twenty years of age, knew she was coming to the end of her opportunities. She had even confided in Helen and Millicent that all she could see ahead was spinsterhood and its associated humiliations. Had that bleak future forced her to run away with a man who was little more than a stranger? Helen shook her head. “I cannot believe Delia would do such a thing. Lady Beck must be mistaken.” “Her housekeeper had it from the Cransdons’ cook,” Aunt Leonore said, sealing the truth of the matter. “It seems Delia and this Mr. Trent were discovered in a public house, in Sussex, of all places. You know what that means, don’t you? Sussex is in the opposite direction to Scotland—they were not headed toward the border to be married.” She clasped her hands together, the pressure pushing purple into her knuckles. “I suppose I must tell you all, since it will be the talk tomorrow. Lady Beck says your poor friend was found covered in blood.” “Blood!” Helen rose from the sofa, unable to sit quietly alongside such terrible news. “Was she hurt?” “Apparently not.” “Then whose blood was it? Mr. Trent’s?” “My dear, prepare yourself,” Aunt Leonore said softly. “The

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man committed self-murder. He used a pistol, in front of Delia.” Suicide? Helen closed her eyes, fighting back the horror that rose like bile into her throat. The worst crime—the worst sin— of all, and Delia had witnessed it. Unbidden, her mind conjured a vision of her friend’s face splattered with blood, mouth open wide in an unending scream. “And there is something more,” her aunt continued, rescuing her from the terrifying image. “A groom from the public house vows he saw Mr. Trent through the window, lit from within as if he had those new gas candles under his skin. He says Mr. Trent”—her voice lowered into breathy significance—”must have been a ghoul.” “Ghouls do not exist, Aunt,” Helen said sharply, finding comfort in the solid ground of rationality. She did not share her aunt’s fascination with the demons and ghosts of Gothic novels. Yet the shocking image of blood and fear still resonated through her bones. She walked across to the front window and stared out at the everyday activity on Half Moon Street, as if seeing the row of town houses and the aproned oysterman delivering his barrels would somehow rid her of its grisly echoes. Poor Delia. How she must be suffering. “Did she ever say anything about Mr. Trent?” Aunt Leonore asked. “He did not seem to have any connections, and no one has any knowledge of him. It is all very strange. One could even say unnatural.” She clearly did not want to give up the idea of supernatural intervention. “Delia never mentioned a Mr. Trent,” Helen had to admit, “and I’m sure she would have told me if she had a suitor. It cannot be more than a fortnight since I saw her last.” She made a quick count back to the last pre-Season assembly they had both attended. “No, it has been over a month.” She turned from the window. “I saw her despair growing, Aunt. I should have called on her more often, but I have been too busy with these silly preparations.”

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Even as she uttered the word silly, Helen knew it was a misstep. Aunt Leonore drew a deep breath. “They are not silly preparations. Tomorrow must be perfect in all ways. All ways. Come back here and sit down. I have nightmares of you loping around like that in front of the Queen.” Since every move in the presence of Queen Charlotte was strictly controlled by the Palace chamberlains, Aunt Leonore’s horror was not going to come to pass. Nevertheless, Helen returned to the sofa and lowered herself onto the very edge of the seat. Perhaps if she sat very still, her aunt would not be compelled to launch into another lecture about the importance of a young lady’s Court presentation. “Preparation is the key to elegance,” her aunt continued, “and although we may not be beauties, we can be celebrated for our elegance. It lasts longer than beauty and . . .” Helen clenched her hands in her lap, trying to squeeze away the urge to spring up and pace the room as her aunt talked. Poor Delia must be beside herself. “. . . aside from a girl’s wedding day, her presentation is the most momentous day in her life. It is a declaration to society that she is a woman and ready to take on a woman’s responsibilities. Are you listening to me, Helen?” “Yes, Aunt.” Of course she knew that her entrance into society was important. Yet the initial excitement of stepping into the wider world had long been overshadowed by the fact that it was all aimed at her own marriage. Not that she was against marriage—quite the contrary. It brought with it a household and the greater freedoms of a married woman. No, what grated was her uncle’s intention to arrange her betrothal by the end of the year, as if an alliance in her first Season would prove that his good ton had finally overcome the taint of her mother.

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Perhaps she was being singular again, but she wanted more than just one Season to meet the men of her circle. At present she could claim only one truly congenial acquaintance amongst them—her brother’s closest friend, the Duke of Selburn—and while he was very personable, one man of near thirty years of age was hardly a full exploration of possible life mates. It seemed patently obvious to Helen that no one’s real character could be discovered in a few months of balls and parties—even with her special talent to read expressions—yet that was how many matches were made. Millicent, who had also secured a place on the presentation list, had no qualms about a quick betrothal, but poor Delia had understood Helen’s stance. Indeed, when they were all at Miss Holcromb’s—three years past now—it had been Delia who had always tempered their daydreams with the knowledge that once a choice of husband was made, it was final. There could be no appeal to law or family. Helen straightened at the memory of Delia’s caution. What had made her friend forget her convictions and rush into such an unfortunate and tragic alliance? “Aunt, I cannot reconcile this with the Delia that I know,” she said, turning the conversation back to the plight of her friend. “I cannot understand it at all.” “No one can know the secrets of another person’s soul,” Aunt Leonore said. “Perhaps she was unbalanced by her feelings.” “Delia is not the kind of girl to be sent mad by love,” Helen said. She looked at the clock again. It was only a quarter past two—still time to make a call. “I know you want me to rest, Aunt, but may we call on the Cransdons? Please. Delia must be distraught.” “I am sorry for your friend’s unhappy situation, Helen, but you cannot associate with her now. You must know that.” Helen sat even straighter, this time in protest. “I cannot abandon her.”

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“You are a sweet girl, but the family has already left for their estate. I could not sanction a visit anyway. Not now.” Aunt Leonore pressed her hand over Helen’s, the chill of the spring day still on her skin. “You do understand that it is best that she is removed to the country. Her fall is the talk of the town: staying here would be intolerable for her poor family. She would be the object of every quiz’s gaze and society’s disgust.” “I will not let her think I’ve turned my face,” Helen said. Aunt Leonore glanced at the closed doors and lowered her voice. “Write her a letter, then. I can allow that. And I will make sure your uncle franks it before he hears of the scandal.” “But, Aunt, Delia was going to come to my ball. And she was to make up one of my party at Lansdale for Michaelmas.” “I am afraid that is all in the past.” “Please, say she may still come to Lansdale.” “Good Lord, child. After this, your uncle would not hear of it.” “Surely we have enough credit to survive a visit from one girl,” Helen said, unable to hold back the sharpness in her voice. “On Uncle’s own estate.” “I am thinking of you, Helen. I cannot allow you to be associated with such wanton and ungodly behavior.” “But in country society she will not be—” “I am sorry.” Helen saw real regret in the slump of her aunt’s shoulders. “You cannot afford to be associated with any scandal. You know why.” Helen bowed her head. She did know why: the daughter of Lady Catherine would be watched by the beau monde for any sign of bad blood. Even by association. “You do understand, don’t you?” “Yes, of course.” Aunt Leonore patted her hand. “You are a good girl. I have always said it.”

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They both looked up as clattering hooves sounded on the narrow street outside. A smart phaeton passed recklessly close to their front window, two straining grays in the traces. For a moment the brash eyes of the high-seated driver connected with Helen’s, his wild exhilaration leaping across the well-ordered room. Helen found herself leaning forward as if dragged into the wake of such abandon. What if she just ordered one of her uncle’s carriages and caught up with Delia on the open road? A mad idea, but it flared hot for a moment in her veins. “Someone should put a stop to such wicked driving in Mayfair,” Aunt Leonore said, glaring at the now-empty street. She gave Helen’s hand one last squeeze. “Write the letter, but do not dwell on your friend’s disgrace, my dear. You must put it out of your mind.” “I will try,” Helen said, and, as she had done many times in the last few months, quelled the inner fire that rushed through her body. Although she did not want to admit it, she could not escape the thought that it was her mother’s blood that burned within her, nor the fact that it seemed to be getting stronger.

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few hours later, Helen was in her bedchamber finishing the letter to Delia at the drop desk of her mahogany secretaire, when a knock sounded on the door. “Come,� she said, still intent on writing the final sentence in the dwindling light. Hugo, the first footman, entered and bowed. He placed a newly trimmed oil lamp on the mantel, then crossed the room toward the sash windows to close the inner shutters against the press of night. As he passed the desk, Helen was sure she felt his eyes fix upon her letter. She looked up, but he was already at the far window, reaching for the heavy brass shutter latch. Pulling the page closer, Helen tapped the excess ink from her pen and made her signature, the usual flourish of it somewhat subdued. It had been a difficult letter to write: what words could bring consolation after such a devastating mistake, especially when the facts were so few and the story had become embroidered with the supernatural? In the end, Helen had decided to barely mention the event, instead choosing to reassure Delia of her own regard. It was no small pledge: steadfast friendship with a ruined girl was not going to add to Helen’s good ton. She knew her aunt would prefer that she cut the connection completely, but until that was said aloud, she would continue to write to her friend. It was the

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only support she could offer while under the guardianship of her uncle, Viscount Pennworth. A sprinkle of sand across the wet ink, a quick tap and shake of the page, and the letter was ready to be folded and sealed. Helen chose a wafer from the little drawer within the secretaire, dampened it on a sea sponge, and fixed the ends of the paper together. She turned the packet over and wrote the directions to the Cransdons’ estate, leaving a space for her uncle’s free-post frank. All done, for what it was worth. “Hugo,” she called. He stood at the gilt wall sconce lighting the last candle with a long taper. “Yes, my lady?” She held out the letter. “Make sure this goes to my aunt, please. Not Lord Pennworth.” He snuffed the taper’s wick between his finger and thumb—a sidelong glance checking that she saw the show—and crossed the carpet between them. With a bow, he took the letter, but his attention was not on the task or on Helen. His eyes were turning over the contents of the secretaire—her only private space—but it was too late to close the desk hatch. His bland expression had already tightened into sharp interest. She knew what he had found: two tiny portraits propped against the back of the inner shelf. The matched miniatures of her mother and father, painted by the great Sir Joshua Reynolds. Abruptly, she stood, blocking his view. “That will be all, thank you,” she said. “My lady,” he murmured, but she could hear the smug elation in his voice. He had snatched a juicy morsel of gossip for the servants’ hall. As he left the room, Helen took out the portrait of her mother, as if to reclaim it from the footman’s sly gaze. Lady Catherine had specifically bequeathed both miniatures to her, along with

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the secretaire, yet her uncle had nearly denied her possession of the precious paintings. He had flatly refused to have any images of his sister-in-law and her husband in his house. It was only Aunt Leonore’s intervention that had allowed Helen to keep the portraits in her chamber, on the understanding that she would not openly display them. She cradled the small oval pendant in her palm. The miniature always surprised her with its weight—probably the glass covers set over front and back, and the substantial gold frame, although the edging was not solid, but a delicate filigree with a plain gold loop at the top for a chain. Ten years ago, on the long nights when she had fiercely studied the little portrait to stop herself from crying, she had discovered that the gold tracery held a motif: a tiny flame repeated over and over. If it had any special meaning, it was long gone with her mother, but it made a pretty design. Reynolds had painted Lady Catherine on ivory, using the precious substance to re-create the luster of the Countess’s pale skin. Rich auburn hair, dressed high in the old manner, and large blue eyes dominated the oval face that, with its decided chin, was more handsome than beautiful. Reynolds had also captured something of Lady Catherine’s famed daring in his masterful depiction of her clear, challenging gaze. Why did she betray England? Helen turned over the little frame. She had heard so many different rumors about what her mother had supposedly done—some had her spying for Napoleon, stealing state documents, seducing generals and selling their secrets—none of which her aunt and uncle would confirm or deny. They simply refused to talk about the subject. Even Andrew did not know the truth. Or if he did, he would not talk about it either. With a gentle fingertip, she traced the woven swath of hair pressed underneath the glass at the back. Two colors—dark red

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and bright blond—were worked into a tight checkerboard pattern. Her mother’s and father’s hair entwined for eternity. She took one of her own carefully contrived ringlets and inspected it with a frown. By no stretch of the imagination could anyone call her hair auburn. It was brown. Helen dropped the ringlet. She might not have her mother’s fiery hair, but she did have the same pale skin, and her chin was just as decided. That, as far as she could see in any mirror, was the extent of her inheritance from Lady Catherine. She bent to replace the miniature on the shelf. What about the strange energy that coursed through her? The thought stopped Helen’s hand. Could her mother’s blood be blamed for all her restlessness? Or was it her own wayward nature? Neither option brought any comfort. Forcing the disquiet from her mind, she carefully replaced the miniature beside its companion. The sound of a door opening along the hallway turned her attention outward. Lately, her hearing had become more acute—a baffling but useful development. She heard the door click shut, quick footsteps, and the scrape of an opening drawer. Her maid, Darby, had arrived in the adjoining dressing room to prepare the evening toilette. Reassured, Helen picked up her father’s portrait. It also had the flame motif worked into its gold frame, but this time it was fashioned as the loop to hold a chain or riband. There was no woven hair under the glass at the back—just plain white silk. Helen contemplated the painting of Douglas Wrexhall, sixth Earl of Hayden. It was like looking at an image of her brother: the same golden hair, broad forehead, and firm mouth. Andrew had inherited all their father’s good looks, but—according to Aunt Leonore in her more exasperated moments—none of his good sense. Then again, their father had been a married man at twenty-one, whereas Andrew,

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who had just come of age himself, had made it clear he was in no hurry to enter the matrimonial state. It had been a month since Andrew had attained his majority, and during that time a tantalizing question had gathered momentum in Helen’s mind. Now that her brother had control of his fortune and no immediate desire to marry, could he be persuaded to set up a town house for them both? At present he took bachelor lodgings at the Albany, but if he had his own establishment, it would be well within the bounds of propriety for his sister to keep house for him. She would be an excellent hostess, too, and it would save her from Uncle’s ready disapproval and Aunt’s fussing. She could even ask Delia to stay for the Season; be of real service to her friend. Helen chewed her bottom lip. It would answer everything—if Andrew were willing. He was to dine with them that evening; she could ask him before they were called to table. It was a bold scheme, but it was worth a try. Not just for herself, but for poor Delia, too. Satisfied with her plan, she replaced her father’s portrait and sent up her customary prayer for the two missing members of her family—Keep their souls safe—although, in truth, she still felt the unfairness of her parents’ demise. Why had the raging sea taken them, yet spared their small crew? There was, of course, no answer to that question, just as there was no answer to why Lady Catherine had gone against crown and country. If she had not done so, maybe she and Helen’s father would still be alive today. Maybe she would be sitting here, in this room, reassuring her daughter that she’d be at her side throughout the ordeal at the Palace tomorrow. As she should be. Helen lifted her shoulders and let them drop, trying to shake off the reemergence of her old, childish anger. No use railing against the dead. Neither resentment nor yearning brought them back. She picked up the portrait of Lady Catherine again. It really

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was very small—no larger than a gentleman’s fob watch and half as thick. Easy to hide. If she truly wanted some essence of her mother at her presentation, she could carry it and no one would be the wiser. Granted, it was a sentimental idea. Maybe even a little superstitious. Yet wasn’t it natural for an orphaned daughter to want some remembrance of her mother at one of the most important moments in her life? The strict rules of presentation dress did not allow anything but a fan to be carried, so hiding the portrait within a reticule was out of the question. Nor could she slide it inside her skintight gloves. Could it be slipped into her décolletage? She looked down at her narrow chest. Unlike the day dress she was wearing, her presentation gown required long stays that had to be laced tight across the bosom, and the neckline was cut very low. There would not be enough room. Besides, there was something just a little unseemly about hiding her mother in such a place. Perhaps she could conceal the miniature in her hand as she made her curtsy to Queen Charlotte. Helen curled her fingers around it. No, it would not work. She would already have her fan in one hand, and the other had to be free to manage the long train and dreaded hoop. The miniature would be too easily dropped. Unless she attached it to her fan. It was a Vernis Martin—a rare gift from her uncle—with room enough between the painted ivory sticks to thread some cotton. She could hang the miniature from it and keep it nestled in her palm. Did she dare? Helen sighed. No, she did not. Her aunt had put too much effort into the smooth success of her presentation, and such a breach of propriety, if discovered, would be poor thanks for all that dear lady’s hard work. And if Uncle found out, he would be furious. She did not want to see that triumphant look that said, You see? She is cut from the same black cloth as her mother.

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Yet she could not quite give up the idea of her mother’s presence blessing the day. Her hand closed around the portrait again. She would take it to her dressing room and hide it amongst the things on her table. Lady Catherine could, at least, be present for the toilette tomorrow. She shut the desk hatch, turned the lock, and pulled the key free. A quick glance over her shoulder at the adjoining door confirmed that Darby was still in the dressing room. Helen ran her fingers along the lower edge of the desk and found the tiny groove in the banded wood. One firm press followed by a flick to the right, and the small spring-loaded compartment swung out. She had found it on one of her many explorations of the secretaire. Helen slid the key into the shallow slot and pushed the holder home, her mother’s portrait clasped in her other hand. A soft knock sounded from behind the adjoining door: Darby’s announcement that it was time to dress for dinner. Helen stepped back from her desk. “Come.” “Good evening, my lady,” Darby said, emerging from the dressing room with an apricot gown draped across her outstretched arms. “Are you ready for your hot water?” The girl was surrounded by a pale blue shimmer—like tiny ripples in the air—that followed the generous contours of her body. A soft, glowing outline. Helen squeezed her eyes shut. She had obviously worked far too long at the letter to Delia. Lud, she hoped she did not need spectacles. She opened her eyes and shook her head, but the shimmer was still in place. Perhaps it was the migraine. Her aunt suffered greatly from them, and often spoke of seeing strange lights before the terrible headache arrived. She finally focused on her maid’s face. Darby’s eyes were swollen into red-rimmed distress, and the soft contours of her mouth had disappeared into a tight line. She had been crying, and Jen

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Darby was not one for easy tears. Something must have happened downstairs. Helen knew that ever since she had promoted Darby from junior maid to the exalted role of lady’s maid six months ago, some of the more senior housemaids had been waging a campaign of petty meanness against the girl. To make matters worse, neither Murphett nor Mrs. Grant, the housekeeper in charge of the female staff, had done anything to stop it. Neither approved of Jen Darby’s advancement to the exclusive ranks of the upper servants. In their opinion she was far too big—“like a lumbering ox,” Mrs. Grant had commented once, when she thought Helen could not hear—and did not have the proper daintiness or Town polish required for a lady’s maid. Helen had to admit that Darby was not the most delicate of creatures, but she had far more important qualities than mere refinement: a quickness, for instance, that matched Helen’s own, and a bright curiosity. It had only been Helen’s obstinate refusal to accept any other candidate that had swayed Mrs. Grant to allow the promotion. Such a leap in status without due cause, the formidable housekeeper had been heard to mutter, went against the natural order. Ignoring the faint blue shimmer, Helen rose from her chair. “Are you quite well, Darby?” she asked as the maid laid the gown on the four-poster bed. “I’m very well, my lady. Very well, thank you,” Darby said, but the last of her words rose into the squeaky gasp of a held-back sob. “I’m glad you are so well,” Helen said. “If you were any more well, you might break down altogether.” It prompted a tiny smile, as she knew it would. “Please, tell me what is wrong,” she urged. Darby bowed her head for a moment, gathering herself, then looked up with the frankness that had been another reason why

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Helen had raised her so high. “My anxiety is not for me, my lady. It is for Berta. One of the housemaids.” Helen recalled the girl: a new Bavarian émigré, long-limbed and darkly handsome, with a habit of holding her hand over her mouth when she spoke. She usually lit the morning fires in Helen’s rooms, but had not done so for the last two days. “What is wrong? Is she ill?” “No, my lady,” Darby said. “She has disappeared.” “Disappeared?” The word sounded ominous. “When? Why wasn’t I told?” “It happened two days ago. Lady Pennworth told us not to say anything to you. Not before your presentation, anyway.” Her earnest gray eyes met Helen’s in a moment of sudden apprehension. “You won’t tell her I said anything, will you, my lady?” “Of course not. But do you think Berta has run away?” “It is what they are saying—Mrs. Grant and the others downstairs—but her lockbox is still in the room she shares with the kitchen maids.” Helen nodded. Even the lowest servant had a lockable box for his or her belongings; the circumstance would have to be dire for it to be left behind. She turned Lady Catherine’s portrait over and over in her hands, trying to find a reasonable—and unalarming—explanation for the abandoned box. None came to mind. She looked up to find Darby’s attention fixed on the gold miniature. “It is a likeness of my mother,” Helen said. “Yes, my lady. I can see the resemblance.” “Not much of one, I think,” Helen said quickly. She closed her hand around it. “It seems unlikely that Berta would leave her belongings.” Darby took a steadying breath. “I don’t believe Berta has run away at all, my lady, but Mrs. Grant has told me that I am to say

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no more about it. The search is over, and that is that.” She squared her shoulders as if bracing against the sin of opposing the housekeeper. The shimmer followed the movement. Helen blinked hard, but the phenomenon still did not shift. “I would swear on the Good Book that she would not run away,” Darby added. “Her mother relies upon her wages.” “You think she has come to some kind of harm?” “I don’t know. She went out of the house on Monday morning—an errand for Mrs. Grant—and no one saw her after that. The others are saying she’s taken her looks to Covent Garden for better money. But she is a good, God-fearing girl, my lady. I am sure she would not do so.” Helen knew she should feign ignorance of the notorious grid of streets where hundreds of courtesans plied their trade. Yet such delicacy would be of no use to Berta. “Did the search for her take in the Garden? Does she have a father to make inquiries?” “She has only her mother, up north, I believe. My lord did send out Hugo and Philip to look for her when she was missed.” Darby gave a small shrug, an eloquent opinion on the footmen’s diligence. “Philip said that he spoke to a lad—a page—who saw something at the same time that Berta disappeared. . . .” She faltered. “What did he see?” Darby wrapped her arms around her body. The shimmer curved around the new hunched contour. “I am not saying there is any connection, my lady.” Helen caught the wary note in her voice. “You can tell me,” she said. “Whatever it is.” “The boy told Philip he saw a coach. A gentleman’s coach.” “You think she has been taken by a gentleman?” Helen stared at her maid. Surely that was not possible. Then again, if the tales Andrew told about some of his friends were true, it was more than possible. Helen closed her eyes: if Berta had indeed been taken, she was lost to all decent society.

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“I don’t know what to do, my lady. Do you think the Runners would help?” Helen did not. Her uncle said the Bow Street Runners were not much better than the criminals they chased, and the alternatives—the thief-takers for hire—were even worse. In a case with no clear crime, involving only a housemaid, Helen doubted the Runners would bother to investigate. By any measure of decency, it was her uncle’s responsibility to find his servant. And there was no surety that she was actually missing. She might have decided the Garden was more lucrative after all. “Is there any possibility that Berta did run away?” Helen asked. “Perhaps she was not happy. Or maybe she did want more money. For her mother.” Darby stepped back, her face freezing into the impassive mask of service. “I am sorry, my lady. I should not have bothered you,” she said stiffly. “Please forgive me.” She turned to the dress on the bed, smoothing out the silk. Helen closed her fingers even more tightly around the miniature, wretchedly aware that she had not lived up to some expectation. Was it her own or Darby’s? The failure sat like a cold stone in her chest. But what could she do? She could not even visit a friend who was in need. Helen opened her hand and looked down at her mother. Lady Catherine’s clear blue gaze seemed to hold a rebuke. “I do not disbelieve you,” Helen said. “Everyone else does, my lady.” Darby’s voice was small. “They think she is just another fallen girl. But someone has to keep looking for her, don’t they?” “Yes, of course,” Helen said. Yet what could Darby do? If Berta had run away to Covent Garden, she was beyond help. And if a gentleman was involved, a mere lady’s maid could not confront him. No one would listen to a servant above a gentleman or, worse, a nobleman. “I will ask my brother,” Helen finally said. “If it is, indeed, a

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gentleman, maybe the Earl has heard something amongst his acquaintances.” Darby pressed her hands to her tear-streaked cheeks. “Thank you, my lady,” she said, dipping into a curtsy. “I was certain you would know what to do. Thank you.” “He may know nothing,” Helen warned. “Yes, my lady. But something is being done for Berta, and that makes me so much easier. I feared she would just be forgotten.” “That will not happen,” Helen said. “I promise we will find her, however long it takes.” She smiled reassuringly and headed into the dressing room, the rashness of her words weighing heavier and heavier with every step. Why had she made such a pledge? It was going to be almost impossible to locate one girl amongst all the other forgotten girls in the ravenous maw of the city. Helen knew about the dangers outside her door. Every month she read the “Incidents Occurring in and near London” in La Belle Assemblée: a blood-curdling list of all the local murders and cruelties set out on the pages straight after the fashion forecast. At Christmas the papers had been full of the shocking Ratcliffe Highway murders, the brutal slaughter of two innocent families described for weeks in gore-soaked detail. And now, in The Times, there were daily reports of savage attacks by those calling themselves Luddites: desperate working men destroying the new machinery destined to replace them, and setting upon their employers with clubs and guns. All of the gruesome accounts confirmed that a frightening and ever-present savagery lived in the dark shadows beyond Half Moon Street. Three paces took Helen past the green chaise longue to the mahogany dressing table. She rubbed her eyes, glad to be free of the unsettling shimmer. Whatever the problem with her sight, it seemed only to occur around Darby. Perhaps the phenomenon

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The Dark Days Club

29

was confined to living things. Although, of course, Hugo had not shimmered. Nor, come to think of it, did her own body. If she was of her aunt’s turn of mind, she would believe the source to be supernatural, but she was more inclined to invoke Mr. Mesmer’s magnetism or Mr. Galvani’s animal electricity. Helen shrugged away such whimsical theories—it was most likely fatigue. A survey of the neatly arranged pots and brushes and bowls on the dressing table found only one suitable hiding place for the miniature: the space between the edge of the mirror and the white potpourri bowl set before it. She propped the portrait in place and stepped back, a crescent of gold frame and her mother’s challenging eyes just visible. By all rights, she should tell Darby that Berta’s disappearance was Viscount Pennworth’s concern. That it was not appropriate for young ladies or servants to become involved in such grave matters. “Darby?” she called. “There is something I must say.” Her maid reappeared in the doorway, no longer surrounded by blue. It must have been fatigue after all. “Yes, my lady?” “I think—” Helen stopped, fancying that she felt a painted gaze upon her back: a tiny press of disappointment. “I think I will wear the cream gloves, not the apricot,” she said. Appropriate or not, she had made a promise to find Berta, and she would keep her word. And, in the end, Darby was right: no one else was going to look for a maid who might have strayed from the path of virtue. Especially not Uncle Pennworth.

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one

T

hey said the only folks who belonged in Deadshot after dark were the ones who were up to no good. I wasn’t up to no good. Then again, I wasn’t exactly up to no bad neither. I slid from Blue’s saddle and tethered her to a post behind some bar called the Dusty Mouth. The kid sitting against the fence was sizing me up suspiciously. Or maybe that was just his two black eyes. I tugged the wide brim of my hat lower as I stepped out of the yard. I’d stolen the hat from my uncle, along with the horse. Well, borrowed, more like. Everything I owned belonged to my uncle anyway, according to law, down to the clothes on my back. The doors of the bar banged open, spilling out light and noise and a fat drunk with his arm around a pretty

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girl. My hand snapped to my sheema before I could think better of it, checking it was still tightly fastened so the better part of my face was covered. I was wrapped up to my eyes, and even hours after sunset I was sweating under the padding like a sinner at prayers. I figured I looked more like some lost nomad than a real sharpshooter, but so long as I didn’t look like a girl it didn’t much matter. Tonight I was getting out of here with at least my life. All the better if I got out with a few coins in my pocket, too. It wasn’t hard to spot the pistol pit on the other side of Deadshot. It was the noisiest building in town, and that wasn’t saying nothing. A great big gutted-out barn at the end of the dusty street, it was swarming with bodies and blazing with light, propped up against a half-collapsed prayer house with a boarded-up door. Might be that once upon a time the barn had served some honest horse trader, but that was years ago by the looks of things. The crowd thickened the closer I got. Like buzzards swarming to a fresh carcass. A man with a bloody nose was pinned up against a wall by two others while another drove his fist into the man’s face over and over. A girl called out from a window with words that’d make an iron dragger blush. A group of factory workers still in their uniforms huddled around a nomad in a busted-up wagon who was shouting about selling Djinni blood that’d grant good folks their hearts’ desires. His wide grin looked desperate in the oily lamplight, and no wonder. It’d been years since any-

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one round these parts had seen a real live First Being, let alone a Djinni. Besides, he should’ve known better than to think desert dwellers would believe Djinn bled anything other than pure fire—or that anyone in Deadshot would believe themselves good folk. Everybody in the Last County went to prayers enough to know better on both counts. I tried to keep my eyes forward, like I’d seen it all before. If I climbed past the buildings, I’d be able to look across the sand and scrub all the way home to Dustwalk, though there’d be nothing but dark houses. Dustwalk got up and went down with the sun. Good honest behavior didn’t belong to the dark hours of the night. If it were possible to die of boredom, everyone in Dustwalk would be corpses in the sand. But Deadshot was alive and kicking. No one paid me much mind as I slid into the barn. A big crowd was already gathered in the pistol pit. Lines of huge oil lamps hung from the eaves, giving the gawkers’ faces a greasy glow. Scrawny kids were setting up targets and dodging a big man’s blows as he shouted at them to move faster. Orphans, by the looks of them. Likely kids whose fathers had worked in the hulking weapons factory on the outskirts of Dustwalk until they’d gotten blown to bits by faulty machinery. Or until the day they’d gone to work drunk and burned themselves too badly to live. Gunpowder wasn’t hardly safe work. I was so busy staring that I nearly walked straight into the giant of a man at the door. “Front or back?” he de-

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manded, his hands resting carelessly on a scimitar on his left hip and a gun on his right. “What?” I remembered just in time to pitch my voice lower. I’d been practicing imitating my friend Tamid all week, but I still sounded like a boy instead of a man. The hired muscle at the door didn’t seem to care. “It’s three fouza to stand at the back, five to stand at the front. Betting starts at ten.” “How much to stand in the middle?” Damn. I hadn’t meant to say that. Aunt Farrah had been trying to smack the smart mouth off me for a year now with no luck. I got the feeling it would hurt more if this man tried. But he just frowned like he thought I might be simple. “Front or back. There’s no middle, boy.” “I’m not here to watch,” I said before I could lose the last of my nerve. “I’m here to shoot.” “What are you doing wasting my time, then? You want Hasan.” He shoved me toward a heavyset man with billowing, bright red trousers and a dark beard slicked to his chin, standing behind a low table piled with coins that bounced as he drummed his fingers. I took a deep breath through my sheema and tried to look like my stomach wasn’t trying to escape through my mouth. “How much to enter?” The scar on Hasan’s lip made it look like it curled up in a sneer. “Fifty fouza.” Fifty? That was almost everything I had. Everything I’d been saving up in the last year to escape to Izman, the capital of Miraji.

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Even with my face covered from the nose down, Hasan must’ve seen the hesitation. His attention was already wandering past me, like he figured I was about to walk away. That was what did it. I dropped the money on the table in a jangling handful of louzi and half-louzi that I’d scrimped one by one over the past three years. Aunt Farrah always said I didn’t seem to mind proving myself dumb if it meant proving someone else wrong. So maybe Aunt Farrah was right. Hasan eyed the coins skeptically, but when he counted them with the speed of a professional money-grubber he couldn’t deny it was all there. For a brief moment the satisfaction tamped down on my nerves. He shoved a piece of wood at me that dangled from a loop of string like a pendant. The number twenty-seven was painted in black on it. “Had much practice with a gun, twenty-seven?” Hasan asked as I put the string over my head. The tag bounced off the wraps I had forced over my chest to flatten it. “Some,” I hedged. We were wanting for almost everything in Dustwalk, in the whole Last County for that matter. Food. Water. Clothes. There were only two things we had too much of: sand and guns. Hasan snorted. “Then you ought to know enough to keep your hands from shaking.” I pressed my hands close to my body to still them as I walked into the pit. If I couldn’t hold a gun steady it wouldn’t much matter that I learned to aim before I learned to read. I lined up in the sand next to a man who

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looked like he was mostly bones under his grubby factory uniform. Another man came to stand on my other side with a twenty-eight around his thick neck. All around us the stands filled. The bet wranglers shouted out odds and numbers. If I were betting, I’d wager I didn’t have any odds. No one in their right mind would put money on some skinny boy without the guts to even lower his sheema and show his face. Maybe I could win some crazy drunk a poor man’s fortune by proving the right-minded ones wrong. “Good evening, gents!” Hasan’s voice carried over the crowd, quieting them down. Dozens of kids ran among us handing out the pistols. A girl with braids and bare feet passed me mine. The weight was instantly comforting in my palm. I quickly flicked open the chamber; there were six bullets neatly lined up. “Everyone knows the rules. So you’d better play by them or, God help me, I’ll break your cheating faces myself.” A laugh erupted from the stands, and a few whoops. Bottles were being passed around already and men were pointing at us in that way I knew from watching my uncle trade horses. “Round one: you got six bullets, six bottles. If you’ve got any bottles left at the end, you’re out. First ten line up.” The rest of us stayed still as numbers one to ten shuffled into place, their toes on a painted white line in the dirt. I judged it about twelve feet between them and the bottles. A kid could make that. Two men still managed to miss with their very first

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bullets. In the end only half the men hit all their marks. One of them was twice the size of any other competitor. He was wearing what might once have been an army uniform, though it was too worn to tell for sure whether it used to be gleaming army gold or if it was just dirty with desert dust. He wore the number one painted in a bold slash across the piece of wood on his chest. He got the biggest cheer of all. There were cries of “Dahmad! Dahmad! Champion!” as he turned away, grabbing one of the kids scurrying around to collect broken glass. Dahmad spoke too low for me to hear, then shoved the child off. The kid came back with a bottle of brown liquor. Dahmad started chugging, lounging against the bars that separated the pit from the stands. He wouldn’t stay champion long if he was going to wind up sloshed. The next round was even more dismal. Just one of the shooters hit all his targets. As the losers shuffled off, I got a clear view of the winner’s face. Whatever I’d been expecting, this boy wasn’t it. He wasn’t from around here, no doubt about it; that was the first thing I noticed. Everybody around here was from around here. Nobody in their right mind would chose to be in the Last County otherwise. He was young, maybe a few years older than I was, and dressed like one of us, wearing a green sheema carelessly round his neck and desert clothes loose enough that it was hard to tell if he was really as broad as he seemed. His hair was as black as any Mirajin boy’s; even his skin was dark enough that he might’ve passed for one of us. But he just wasn’t. He had strange sharp

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features I’d never seen before, with high-angled cheekbones, a straight square jaw, and eyebrows that made dark slashes above the uncanniest eyes I’d ever seen. He wasn’t bad-looking either, at that. A few of the men he’d beat spat at his feet. The young foreigner’s mouth pulled up in one corner like he was trying to keep from laughing. Then, as if sensing my eyes on him, he glanced at me. I looked away fast. There were eleven of us left and we were jostling for space along the line with the extra body, even with me being half the size of every man here. “Move, twenty-seven!” An elbow jammed into my side. My head shot up with a retort on my tongue. The retort died there as I recognized Fazim Al’Motem sidling up next to me. I fought the urge to curse. Fazim had taught me every curse word I knew, back when he was eight and I was six. When we were caught using them, I got my mouth scrubbed out with sand and he blamed it all on me. Dustwalk was a small town. I’d known Fazim my whole life, hated him since I grew into some sense. These days he spent most of his time in my uncle’s house, where I was stuck living, too, trying to get his hands under my cousin Shira’s clothes. Every so often he’d make a grab at a piece of me, too, when Shira wasn’t looking. What the hell was he doing here? Actually, with the gun in his hand, I could sort of figure. Damn him. It was one thing if I got myself spotted as a girl. It was

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a whole other thing if Fazim recognized me. I’d been in trouble plenty since I was caught cursing, but I’d only been beaten within an inch of my life once. It’d been right after my mother died, when I’d tried to borrow one of my uncle’s horses all the way out of Dustwalk. I made it halfway to Juniper City before they caught me. I couldn’t sit on a horse for a month when Aunt Farrah and her switch were done with me. If Aunt Farrah found out I was in Deadshot gambling stolen money, she’d beat me until that inch felt like it had been a mile. The smart thing would be to turn around and get out of here. Except that would mean I’d be fifty fouza poorer. And money was in shorter supply than smarts. I realized I was standing like a girl and straightened up before facing the targets. The kids were still racing around, lining up the bottles. Fazim tracked their movements with the barrel of his gun, calling out, “Bang, bang, bang!” and laughing as they flinched. I wished his gun would backfire on him and shoot that smile off his face. The kids cleared out fast, and it was just us shooters and our bottles. We were the last group before the end of the first round. Guns were already going off all around me. I focused on my six bottles straight ahead. I could make a shot like this blindfolded. But I was being careful. I checked my distance, lined up the barrel, checked my sight. When I was satisfied, I pulled the trigger. The bottle farthest to the right exploded and my shoulders eased a little. The next three bottles went down in quick succession.

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My finger pressed down on the trigger for the fifth time. A shout punctured my focus. I had no other warning before a body rammed into me. My shot went wide. Fazim had been shoved sideways by another shooter, ramming into me on his way to the ground, another one of the shooters on top of him. A boo went up from the crowd as Fazim scuffled in the sand with the other man. The big man from the door was already breaking up the fight. Fazim was dragged to the side by the scruff of his neck. Hasan watched them go, looking bored, then turned back to the crowd. “Winners from this round—” “Hey!” I shouted without thinking. “I want another bullet.” A laugh went up around me. So much for not drawing attention to myself. My neck was burning with all the eyes on me. But this was too important. Too important not to ask. Scorn was written all over Hasan’s face, and I felt the mix of humiliation and anger rise up in my throat in answer. “That’s not how it works, twenty-seven. Six bullets, six bottles. No second chances.” “But that’s not fair! He pushed me.” I gestured at Fazim, who was nursing his jaw up against the wall. “And this isn’t a school yard, little boy. We don’t need to be fair. Now you can use your last bullet and lose or get out of line and forfeit.” I was the only one with any bullets left. The crowd started jeering at me to get out of the way, and an angry flush rose in my hidden face.

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Standing alone on the line, I raised my gun. I could feel the weight of the single bullet in the chamber. I let out one long breath that moved my sheema from where it was sticking to my lips. One bullet. Two bottles. I took two steps to my right and then half a step back. I twisted my body and tried to see it all in my mind. Dead center and I’d never hit the second one. Clip it too far off and neither would break. Fifty fouza. I shut out the shouting and taunts around me. I ignored the fact that every eye in here was on me and that I’d blown all chances of being inconspicuous. Fear crept in in its place. The same fear that had crouched in my stomach for the past three days. Since the night I’d been crawling around my uncle’s house after dark, on my way to Tamid’s, and overheard Aunt Farrah say my name. “—Amani?” I hadn’t caught whatever had come before my name, but it was enough to make me stop. “She’s needing of a husband.” My uncle Asid’s voice carried more than his first wife’s. “A man could finally beat some sense into her. In less than a month, Zahia will have been dead a year, and Amani will be clean and allowed to wed.” Since my mother was hanged, folks had slowly stopped saying her name like a curse. Now my uncle mentioned her death more like a matter of business. “It’s hard enough to find a husband for your daughters.” Aunt Farrah sounded irritated. “Now you want me to find

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one for my sister’s brat, too?” Aunt Farrah never said my mother’s name. Not since she’d been hanged. “I’ll take her as a wife, then.” Uncle Asid said it like he was talking about trading a horse. My arms nearly buckled into the sand. Aunt Farrah made a disdainful hissing noise at the back of her throat. “She’s too young.” There was an impatient tone in her voice that normally ended a conversation. “No younger than Nida was. She is living in my house anyway. Eating my food.” Aunt Farrah normally ruled the house as first wife, but every so often her husband would root his feet, and just now Uncle Asid was warming to this idea unnervingly fast. “She can either stay here as my wife or leave as someone else’s. I choose her to stay.” I didn’t choose to stay. I chose to get out or die trying. And just like that, everything came into focus. Me and my target. Nothing mattered but the aim. I pulled the trigger. The first bottle broke instantly. The second teetered for a moment on the edge of the wooden bar. I could see the chip in the thick glass where I’d hit it. I held my breath as the bottle rocked back and forth. Fifty fouza I might never see again. Fifty fouza to lose and my only way out. The bottle hit the ground and shattered. The crowd roared. I let out a long breath.

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When I turned around Hasan was looking like I was a snake who’d dodged a snare. Behind him the foreigner was watching me, eyebrows up. I couldn’t stop grinning behind my sheema. “How’d I do?” Hasan’s lip curled. “Line up for round two.”

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two

I

didn’t know how long we’d been shooting. Long enough for sweat to start pooling in the small of my back. Long enough for Dahmad the Champion to slosh down three whole bottles of booze between rounds. And long enough for one man after another to get knocked out of the game. But I still had a gun. The target faced me at the end of the room, bottles moving on a slow rotating board some kid was turning with a crank. I slammed my finger down six times. I didn’t hear the glass shatter over the roar of the crowd. A hand dropped onto my shoulder. “Your final competitors tonight!” Hasan shouted near my ear. “Our own champion, Dahmad!” The man stumbled from the drink and raised his arms high. “Our returning challenger, the

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Eastern Snake.” The foreigner barely acknowledged the taunts and hoots; his mouth just pulled up at one side and he didn’t look up. “And a newcomer on this fine evening.” He yanked my arm up hard and the crowd went wild, hollering and stomping their feet until the barn shook. “The Blue-Eyed Bandit.” The nickname killed my excitement in one panicked jolt. I searched the pistol pit for Fazim. No matter if I could pass for a boy, my eyes weren’t something I could hide. Everything else about me was as dark as any desert girl was supposed to be, but my pale eyes made me stick out. Stupid as he was, if Fazim was still here he might just be smart enough to put two and two together and not come out with three. But I grinned behind my sheema all the same and let the cheers wash over me. Hasan dropped my arm. “Ten minutes to get your last bets in, folks. Our final round is coming up.” There was a rush for the bet wranglers. With nothing else to do, I sank down in the sand in an empty corner of the pit, leaning against the railings. My legs still felt a little unsteady from leftover nerves, my shirt was sticking to my stomach with sweat, and my face felt flushed behind the cloth of my sheema. But I was winning. I closed my eyes. I might actually leave with the cash pot. I worked it out quick in my head. The prize money came to over a thousand fouza. I’d have to scrimp till I was dead to steal and save a thousand fouza. Especially with the mines in Sazi collapsing a few weeks back. An ac-

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cident. Badly placed explosives. That was the official story. It’d happened before, though maybe not so bad. Only I’d heard whispers of sabotage, too. That someone had planted a bomb. Or the wilder rumors claimed it was a First Being. A Djinni striking Sazi down for its sins. But no matter what happened, no metal coming down from the mines meant no guns, which meant no money. Everyone was tightening belts lately. And I didn’t even have enough to buy a belt. But with a thousand fouza I could do a hell of a lot more than that. Get out of this dead-end desert that ran on factory smoke. I could run straight for Izman. All I’d have to do was get to Juniper City on the next caravan. Then there’d be trains from there to Izman. Izman. I couldn’t think of the city without hearing it whispered like a hopeful prayer in my mother’s voice. A promise of a bigger world. A better life. One that didn’t end in a short drop and a sudden stop. “So, ‘Blue-Eyed Bandit.’” I opened my eyes as the foreigner sank down next to me, propping his arms on his knees. He didn’t look at me when he spoke. “It’s better than ‘Eastern Snake,’ at least.” He was holding a skin of water. I hadn’t realized how thirsty I was until that moment, and my eyes tracked it as he took a long drink. “Still, it has a certain dishonest bent to it.” He glanced at me out of the corner of his eyes. There was a skew to his words that would make even the most trusting fool think he was trouble. “You got a real name?”

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“Sure. But you can call me Oman if you’ve got to call me something.” My eyes might betray me to some, but telling him my name was Amani Al’Hiza would betray a lot more. The foreigner snorted. “Funny, Oman’s my name, too.” “Funny,” I agreed drily, a smile pulling at my mouth all the same. I reckoned half the men born in Miraji were called Oman, after our exalted Sultan. I didn’t know if their parents figured it would win them favor with our ruler—not that they’d ever get so much as spitting distance from him—or if they thought God might give them favor by mistake. But I did know that the stranger wasn’t named Oman any more than I was. Everything about him was foreign, from his eyes to the angles in his face and the way he wore his desert clothes like they didn’t belong against his skin. Even his words were tinged with an accent, though he spoke cleaner Mirajin than most folks around here. “Where you from, anyhow?” I asked before I could stop myself. Every time I opened my mouth it was another chance to get found out for a girl. But I couldn’t help myself. The foreigner took a swig of water. “Nowhere in particular. You?” “Nowhere interesting.” I could play that game, too. “Thirsty?” He offered me the skin, his attention a little too sharp. I was parched, but I didn’t dare lift my sheema, not even a little. Besides, this was the desert. You got used to being thirsty.

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“I’ll live,” I said, trying not to run my tongue over my dried lips. “Suit yourself.” He took a long drink. I watched his throat rise and fall greedily. “Our friend certainly seems to be. Thirsty, that is.” I followed his gaze to Dahmad. He was draining another bottle, his face red. “So much the better for you.” I shrugged. “I was going to beat you both anyhow. At least you’re bound to come in second now.” The foreigner broke into easy laughter. I felt stupidly pleased with myself for being the one to drag it out of him. One of the men pushing to the front of the bet wranglers looked over at us, frowning. Like we might be conspiring. “I like you, kid,” the foreigner said. “And you’re talented, so I’m going to give you some advice. Throw the game.” “You really suppose that’s going to work on me?” I tried for bravado, straightening up as much as I could. “You see our friend over there?” He nodded to Dahmad. “He plays for the house. Hasan gets rich off Dahmad’s winning. They don’t like it when strangers beat him.” “And how do you know so much? Not being from around these parts.” The foreigner leaned over conspiratorially. “Because I beat him last week.” We both watched Dahmad sway on his feet, grabbing the wall for support. “Doesn’t seem all that hard.” “It’s not. The two men Hasan sent to corner me in an alley and get the money back were more of a challenge,

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though.” He opened and closed his hand, and I saw healing bruises on his knuckles. He caught me looking. “Don’t worry.” He winked at me. “You ought to see the other guys.” I wiped away whatever he’d seen in my face that he thought was worry. “And here you are, back to give them a second chance at you.” He turned his full attention on me, all joking gone. “How old are you? Thirteen?” Sixteen, near seventeen, as a girl, but as a boy I looked young. “Someone who can shoot like you, you’ll go far in a few more years if you don’t get killed tonight. There’d be no shame in quitting. We all know you can shoot. Don’t need to die proving it.” I eyed him. “Why are you back if it’s so dangerous, then?” “Because I need the money.” He took a swig from the waterskin before getting to his feet. “And I always make it out of trouble alive.” I felt a twinge at that. I knew what it was like to be desperate. He offered me a hand up. I didn’t take it. “You can’t have more need than I do,” I said quietly. And for a moment I felt like we understood each other. We were on the same side. But we were still against each other. The foreigner dropped his hand. “Suit yourself, Bandit.” He walked off. I sat there a moment longer, convincing myself that he was just trying to intimidate me into quitting. I knew we could both beat Dahmad. But the foreigner was a decent shot.

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I was better. I had to be better. The bet wranglers were fending off the last of their customers as the three of us stepped back up to the line. This time when the little barefoot girl ran up, she only brought one bullet with her. In her other hand was a strip of black cloth. “Our final round tonight!” Hasan declared. “Blind man’s bluff.” I reached for the blindfold, but the sound of gunshots stopped me. I ducked before I realized the sound was coming from outside. Someone screamed. Half our audience were on their feet, craning over one another to get a look outside at this new entertainment. I couldn’t see, but I heard the shout clear enough. “In the name of the Rebel Prince Ahmed! A new dawn, a new desert!” Pinpricks raced to every bit of skin I had. “Damn.” The foreigner rubbed his knuckles across his chin. “That wasn’t smart.” A new dawn. A new desert. Everybody had heard the rallying cry of the Rebel Prince, but only in whispers. You’d have to be an idiot to shout your support of the Sultan’s rogue son. There were too many men with old ideas and new guns to say a word against the Sultan in the Last County. Snatches of voices rose from the babble. “The Rebel Prince was killed in Simar weeks ago.” “I heard he’s hiding in the Derva’s caves with his demon sister.” “—should

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be hanged straightaway.” “He’s marching on Izman as we speak!” I’d heard half those stories, too. And a half dozen more. Ever since the day of the Sultim trials, when Prince Ahmed reappeared after disappearing fifteen years earlier, to compete for his father’s throne, the stories about him walked the line between news and myth. They said that he’d won the Sultim trials outright and the Sultan tried to have him killed instead of naming him heir. That he’d cheated using magic and lost all the same. The only part that stayed the same in every version was that after failing to win the throne at the trials, he’d disappeared into the desert to start a rebellion to win the country back. A new dawn. A new desert. A spark of excitement struck inside me. Most stories I knew were about things that happened long ago to people long dead. The Rebel Prince was a story we were all still living. Even if he was likely to get killed any day now. The scuffle outside was short, and then the lug from the door was dragging in a kid by the collar. He was probably as young as I looked in my disguise. Drunken boos went through the crowd as he passed. “Well, well!” Hasan’s voice carried over the din as he tried to get the crowd’s attention back. The boy stumbled to stay on his feet, blood pouring from his face. He looked like he’d taken some bad hits to the face but nothing worse. No bullet holes or stab wounds yet. “It looks like we have a volunteer!” The lug dragged the boy forward and shoved him

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against the target. He put the bottle on top of the kid’s head. My heart went down like a stone into my stomach. “We have a new game, then! Traitor’s bluff,” Hasan crowed, his arms wide. The crowd answered in a roar. I could make that shot without hurting the kid. The foreigner could, too. But the champion was swaying on his feet and downing another drink. I wasn’t sure he could hit the ground if he tripped, never mind anything else. The kid swayed on his feet, and the bottle clunked dully into the sand. The crowd answered with heckles. He looked like he might cry as Hasan’s lug rammed his shoulder back until he stood straight, putting the bottle back on his head. “The kid is too hurt to stand up straight, let alone keep the bottle steady.” I caught the foreigner’s words. He was talking to Hasan. “You can’t shoot a target that won’t stay put.” “Then don’t shoot.” Hasan waved a hand. “If you and the Bandit are too cowardly, then you can just walk away. Let my man win.” So that’s what Hasan was counting on. That the foreigner and I would go yellow-bellied and let Dahmad win. Just to keep some kid alive. Just some kid who was younger than I was and already had arms marked with scars from factory work. No. It was him or me. This kid wasn’t going to survive long in the desert with rebellion on his tongue anyway. Not when half the Last County would rip him to shreds for treason. What would

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it matter if I took the shot and someone else killed him? Wouldn’t make it my fault if he died. “Or shoot him in the head and we’ll call it close enough,” Hasan joked. My hand tightened. “I don’t care.” Of course he did. He was counting on us walking away. We both knew it. “You don’t think it will look a little bit suspicious if we both drop out and let your man win?” I asked, cutting off whatever the foreigner had been about to say. Hasan spun a bullet between his fingers. “I think that my pockets will be heavy with gold and yours won’t.” “Sure,” I flung over my shoulder without taking my eyes off the pathetic young rebel standing with his back against the target. He didn’t deserve to be a victim of the desert any more than I did. “And you’ll have more trouble than gold when your customers figure they’ve been duped.” Hasan's face changed. He hadn’t thought of that. I scanned the crowd, trying to look bored, like I didn’t need this. Like I wasn’t trying to play him just like he was trying to play us. “You’ve got a room full of drunks here who’ve put up some hard-earned money on this. And times are tight lately, what with no raw metals coming in from Sazi. It’s making everyone mighty irritable, I’ve noticed. Don’t you feel it in your bones?” I didn’t need to check if Hasan was following my gaze; a blind man could see the mass of broke factory workers and underfed boys and men with already-raw knuckles aching for a release. Even the kid with his split lip lined up as a target was one of the restless. Only he was drunk

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on the prince’s rebellion instead of two-louzi liquor. Hell, I knew the feeling. I was counting on it to carry me all the way to Izman. “Living under our sun doesn’t exactly give men a cool head. Especially, say, if an Eastern Snake and a Blue-Eyed Bandit were to start talking out there.” I looked at Hasan out of the corner of my eye, praying that he wasn’t about to have me shot. “I’ll tell you what, though. I can help you out.” “Can you, now?” Hasan scoffed, but he was still listening. “Sure. I’ll forfeit and take the kid’s place. For a thousand fouza.” The foreigner rounded on me, saying something in a language I didn’t know but that sounded like cursing. “Are you crazy, kid?” He switched back to Mirajin. “You want to get shot instead of him?” “If I’m lucky, he’ll miss me.” I felt my chest rising and falling with each shallow breath. The kid was rocking back and forth on the sand that I was sure was filled with glass. He had bare feet, but he didn’t whimper. “Are we shooting or what?” Dahmad bellowed, chucking his empty bottle at the kid, missing him by a foot. I was still watching Hasan; the sale wasn’t made yet. “If I’m not lucky, you don’t have to pay me a thing and your crowd gets blood.” Hasan’s lip curled up nasty-like. “And everybody goes home happy.” “Except the dead Bandit,” the foreigner said, low enough that I was the only one who heard. He raised his voice. “We’ll throw the game.” The foreigner’s eyes hadn’t left

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me, though he was talking to Hasan. I opened my mouth to argue, but something in his gaze made me stop. We were on the same side now. “If the Blue-Eyed Bandit here is so determined to get up there as a target, I’ll shoot first. I’ll miss the bottle without shooting him in the head. Then you let the Bandit shoot. With me as the target. He’ll miss, too.” My shoulders felt tight, like my arms knew I couldn’t bear to miss a shot. But he was trusting me. So I nodded ever so slightly. “Your champion wins by default. We all get out of here without a bullet hole in us.” “And with the money,” I piped up before the foreigner could make us both honorable and poor. “We leave with a thousand from the house winnings. Each.” “I’ll give you a hundred each,” Hasan said. “Eight,” I retorted. “Five and you’re grateful I don’t send someone after you to break your fingers and bring me my money back.” “Done.” Five hundred wasn’t a thousand, but it was better than nothing. And I might still be able to get to Izman on that. The crowd was beginning to get rowdy. A cry went up from the stands. “Are you yellow-bellied fools going to shoot? The kid’s about to piss himself!” Hasan tore away from us. “Gents! Who really wants to see this rebel brat get shot at? He’s too short by half anyway.” Hasan snatched the bottle off the kid’s head. “Scram!” The kid stared at him like he was the hangman who’d just cut the noose. Go, I urged silently. Then he was stumbling away.

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The pressure on my chest eased even as a murmur of discontent rose. Hasan silenced them with a raised hand. “Wouldn’t you rather see these three men with a score to settle take aim at each other?” The uproar from the stands was deafening, feet stamping so hard the whole building shook, down to the nails. “Step up, Bandit!” I took one long, shuddering breath. Maybe I ought to have thought this through. Or at least held firmer at a thousand. “Come on, kid,” a voice by my ear said. “You trust me, don’t you?” I eyed the foreigner’s cocksure grin. “I don’t even know you.” He reached out and pulled my hat off my head. I was glad I’d thought to shove my hair back under the sheema that was pulled low as my eyebrows, but still I felt bare without the hat. “All the more reason to trust me.” The walk across the barn seemed too long. Hasan grinned as he balanced the bottle on top of my head. “Better earn your money and not shake, kid. Or everyone’ll see the bottle trembling like a girl on her wedding night.” My anger rooted me; the bottle didn’t move. Not when the foreigner stepped to the line. Not when he slotted his single bullet into the chamber. Not even when he raised the gun and pointed it straight at my head. Except I couldn’t breathe. He took careful aim, adjusting the shot. He was taking his time, and my nerves were fraying by the second. “Just fire, you coward!” The shout burst from my lips the same second the gun went off.

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I didn’t have time to flinch. A boo went up from the crowd. And I was still alive to hear it. I tipped my head and the bottle tumbled unbroken into my hands. I looked, and a bullet was embedded in the wall a hair to the left of my skull. Only then did I start to shake. I wasn’t sure if it was from nerves or from excitement. I wrapped my hands around the bottle to hide it either way. In a blur of boos I walked back to the line. The foreigner passed me halfway across the pit as he walked out to the target. He paused for a second, placing my hat back on my head. “You all right?” he asked. “Cut it a little fine there.” I tugged my hat back down. “What’s the matter, Bandit?” Like he thought something was too damn funny. “Feeling a little less immortal?” I shoved the bottle at him. “I wouldn’t taunt someone who’s about to aim a gun at your head.” He laughed and kept walking. And then I was the one standing behind the white painted line and he was the target. I could hit the bottle no problem if I wanted to. What were the chances Dahmad would actually hit the foreigner anywhere fatal? And even if he did, what was the foreigner to me? Not a thousand fouza in prize money. I fired. The bottle stayed in one piece. “The game is over!” Hasan cried over the shouts. “Dahmad reclaims his spot as your champion!” Some cheered, likely those holding slips with his number on them.

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And slowly a new chant started to go up from the crowd. “Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!” The champion was weaving unsteadily. “Yeah! I want a shot at the Snake, too.” The foreigner had pulled the bottle off his head, but now the champion was swaggering over to the line, taking aim and gesturing at him to step back into place. “They’re right!” Hasan crowed. “We can’t have a winner if Dahmad doesn’t shoot.” He cut his gaze toward me. I understood what he meant clear enough. No winner meant no winnings for the house. And that meant no money for us. “What do you say, Eastern Snake?” My eyes met the foreigner’s and I shook my head. He held my stare for a long moment, all hints of joking gone. Then he stepped back and set the bottle on his head. The champion stumbled up to the line. He could barely stand. He squinted at the foreigner, as if trying to make out where he was exactly. My father had been this drunk most days when he came home from factory work. He got his hands on a gun one of those times. My mother and I would've both been dead if he’d been able to shoot straight. Dahmad raised the gun. From where I was standing I could see he was aiming straight at the foreigner’s chest. The foreigner had beaten the champion last time. Dahmad was drunk enough to think revenge was a better idea than winning. And a man was a big enough target for even a drunk to hit. As the champion’s hand squeezed down on the trigger,

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Hasan’s earlier words crashed down around me. There were no second shots in this game. I flung my body sideways without thinking and crashed into Dahmad. The shove sent the bullet three feet to the left. The liquor sent Dahmad down into the sand while I staggered to find my footing, clutching my arm. The crowd went up like a powder keg that had been waiting for the right spark. They knew they’d been tricked, but no one seemed to know how. Some were screaming that the foreigner and I were in it together; others were shouting that Hasan had scammed them. In an instant they were rushing the bet wranglers. “Son of a whore!” A pair of hands grabbed me by the front of my shirt. Dahmad was back on his feet and he had me clear off the ground, my toes dragging in the sand. I started to thrash, but he shoved me back against the wall of the pistol pit, knocking the air out of my lungs. And then there was a knife in his hand. Dahmad’s face was close to mine, his teeth bared, his breath reeking of spirits hot against my cheek. “I’m going to gut you from navel to nose and leave you here picking your insides up off the ground, boy.” The foreigner’s hand clamped over the champion’s wrist, moving too fast for me to see. But I heard the sickening snap. I dropped to the sand in a heap as the champion fell onto his side roaring in pain, the knife clattering away. I saw bone sticking out of his arm. The foreigner swiped the knife from the ground. “Run,” he ordered.

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The whole place had gone to hell. A drunk smashed into a lantern as he careened; it dropped into the stands, shattering in oil and flames. I turned to make for the entrance, but the brawl was too far gone already. There was no escape that way. The foreigner and I stood, backs against the wall. We were forgotten—the chaos wasn’t even about us anymore. The whole barn was filling with smoke. We were going to be choking in seconds. “I don’t suppose you can fly?” he shouted over the noise, pointing his chin straight above us. A window just out of reach, above the stands. I grinned at him even though he couldn’t see it. “I can’t fly, but I don’t weigh so much.” He understood me perfectly. Linking his fingers together, he created a foothold. I shoved the pistol I was still carrying into my belt. Damned if I’d leave a decent weapon here. I took a few short steps back and ran. My third step landed my right boot in the foreigner’s interlaced fingers and he launched me upward. My arms banged into the ledge with a jolt that was going to leave bruises. His hands were there under me, holding me steady as I dragged myself up the windowsill. The prayer house’s roof was an easy drop below, and in a few seconds I was out in the night air. I was dying to make a run for it. Instead I turned back, bracing my feet against the roof as I pulled him up, until he was out of the window and on the roof beside me.

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We jumped down from the old prayer house, rolling as we hit the sand below. A bullet bounced off the wood near my head. “All right, Bandit,” he gasped. “Where to?” Where to? he asked me, in the town with the sky smelling of smoke and fiery chaos blooming in the dark. I had to get back to my uncle’s house. I had to lose him. My little cousin Nasima once got slapped silly for bringing home a mouse she found under the schoolhouse. I could only guess what’d happen to me if I brought a stray foreigner anywhere near home. And that wasn’t even banking on what the foreigner would do if he found out I was a girl. “Nah, I’ll be all right.” He looked over his shoulder. “Got somewhere to be?” I was already backing away, eyeing the bar where I’d left Blue, hoping to God the horse was still there. “Thanks for everything.” I forced a grin at him even though he couldn’t see it. “But I’ve got to go see a bar about a horse.” And before he could say another word, I bolted.

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“Sin is the cause of all this pain, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” —Julian of Norwich, fourteenth-century mystic, and the first woman known to write a book in English From Revelations of Divine Love, Chapter XXVII


Whatever we inherit from the fortunate We have taken from the defeated What they had to leave us—a symbol: A symbol perfected in death. And all shall be well and All manner of thing shall be well. —T. S. Eliot, twentieth-century poet, quoting Julian in his poem “Little Gidding”


L 129 0


FR I A R A R NAUT D’AV INHONE T The Convent of the Jacobins, Tolosa

I

must write this account, and when I have finished, I will burn it.

Mine is the historian’s task, to record the events of the last

century, showing God’s mighty hand in ridding these southern

lands between the Garona and the Ròse rivers of the heresy of the Albigensians.

I am asked to show future generations how God’s justice was

carried out by the crusade against these so called “good men”

(bons omes), “good women” (bonas femnas) and “friends of God”

(amicx de Dieu), and how the inquisitions that followed, wrought by my brother Dominicans, finished God’s holy work. The col-

lected records of more than half a century of inquisitorial toil are

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1


mine to examine: transcripts, testimonies, and confessions from a generation now all but extinct.

When searching out a history, sifting through a thousand facts

and ten thousand lives, one often uncovers pieces that do not fit.

The prudent choice is to cast those details aside, like chaff into the

fire. The story must be understandable. The moral should be clear. Perhaps I am not a prudent man. I found pieces that haunted

me, voices echoing from parchment leaves that would not let me

sleep at night. I could find no rest until I searched out the truth, studied what I could learn about those involved, and found a way,

with, I pride myself, a minimum of invention, to make the pieces fit. If only for me.

There are those who would say this record casts doubt upon

the righteousness of the Church’s work. Which is why this book, written for my private satisfaction, must not outlive me.

I myself have never been an inquisitor. I was, I confess, not cut

out for it. But I was a patient laborer in the fields of knowledge,

and so to Tolosa’s archives I was sent after my university studies in París. Here I have spent nearly thirty years.

It was in the days when Count Raimon’s daughter Joana still

ruled as Comtessa de Tolosa, before Provensa came under the rule

of the king of Fransa, and when I, myself, was new to this vocation, that the bishop of Tolosa, himself a former inquisitor of renown, came home to the Convent of the Jacobins to spend his final days.

It happened that I served in the hospice one evening. The ail-

ing bishop began to speak to me. He seemed impelled to tell his


tale. He confessed to a secret doubt that had plagued him through-

out his life—unease over whether he had done God’s will in one

particular case. I reassured him with all my heart that he had done his best to serve the Lord. He thanked me with tears. In the morning, he was gone.

Some months after, I found papers belonging to a priest in a

seacoast vila, a priest known for composing sacred songs of great

beauty. The papers made it clear he was not their author. A woman

had written them, and with them, a curious and troubling account of her own spiritual journey. Names and places in the woman’s account reminded me of the old bishop’s testimony. And so I wondered.

Later still, a lengthy narrative from a friar in Barçalona fell

into my hands, painstakingly recorded. The pieces of my mystery at last began to fit. I puzzled over its connecting threads. Finally,

and perhaps, rashly, I decided to stitch the pieces together, however clumsily, and record it. The gaps and errors in the sewing are my own; of its overall completeness, however, I feel certain. These

voices from the past had arisen like ghosts demanding to be heard.

This, I will confess, is one of the secret thrills of my historical

work. But listening too closely to those voices, in these times in which I live, may also be its most terrible danger.

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3


L 1267


BOTILLE

I

swear to tell the full and exact truth about myself and others, living and dead. Why keep secrets? There’s no

one it would help. The dead are all I have to talk about, anyway. What harm can there be in telling their stories now? They are safe, beyond reach.

There was a time when my name was Botille, when I lived

with my sisters and our old Jobau. We lived by our wits, and great buckets of nerve, and anything—anything—we could steal, or sell. Like most in Provensa, we’d seen hunger and illness. We’d

grown up in Carcassona, a city broken by the crusaders before we

were born. But what was yesterday’s war to little girls? We’d lost

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5


our mother. That was all we had room for. She left each of us her love, her reputation, two sisters, and Jobau. And one silver crucifix to share.

We begged for our dinner and stole washing from peasants

to clothe little Sazia. We huddled together to keep warm at night.

Jobau’s drinking and his temper harried us from town to town at the hands of the bayles. We were wanderers, survivors, always searching for a home.

We thrived upon it. Greedy little urchins, foolhardy little

thieves.

Now I see we were magic, my sisters and I. We laughed

at ourselves, at Jobau and the world. Nobody’s ever made me

laugh like my cynical little Sazia could. You wouldn’t think it to know her now. We gave Plazensa, the eldest, fits of rage with our cheek.

Life was sweet, though I doubt we realized how much. Home

was each other. Not walls, but the adventure of the search to find them.

Our wanderings led us to a small seaside town called Bajas,

and there, among vintners and fishermen, we saw an opening and decided to seek a home. We washed our faces and combed our

hair and tried to make something more of ourselves. We swore

we’d give up thieving. We’d grown old enough to know it was safer to be inside the law, and the arms of the vila, than out of them. We took over an old derelict tavern and dared to run it.

6

JULIE BER RY


Plazensa’s brewing, our scrubbing, Sazia’s fortune-telling, and

my hustle brought customers in. We began to feel that we might belong, and others counted us among their neighbors and friends. Finally and forever, I believed, we could be safe. Then I met Dolssa.

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7


L 1 2 41


DOL SSA

T

he summons came from Dominus Roger, him who’d

baptized me and taught me to reverence the body and

blood. Our own parish priest came to lead me to the cloister of the

abbey church of Sant Sarnin, the great cathedral of Tolosa. The inquisitors wished to speak with me.

My mother turned pale. She pulled me into her chamber under

pretense of wrapping a scarf around me.

“Daughter, hear me quickly,” she said. “Answer as little as

possible. Don’t upset them. Say nothing about your preaching, and certainly nothing about your beloved.”

I would have none of this. Who were they, that I should fear

them?

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9


“Speak only as you are,” was her warning. “A modest and true

Christian maiden. Be humble. Be still.”

“But Mamà,” I said, “Why would I be otherwise?”

“My darling,” she pleaded. “You don’t fear them, but you should.

Inquisitors have made Count Raimon send hundreds of heretics to the

fires. Their verdicts—not even he dares resist them. Not anymore.”

She rested her forehead against mine. Anguish poured off her. “You were too young to know all that happened during the war years, and even since. Your papà and I shielded you from it as best we could.”

I was aghast. “What has that to do with me, Mamà? I’m no

heretic! Is that what you believe of me?”

“Hush!” Mamà glanced at the door. “Of course you’re not. You

know how I feel. But you are different. You are . . .” She hesitated.

“Your words give you authority. You have believers. This is something the inquisitors can’t ignore.”

“My beloved does not fear them, nor keep silence,” I told her.

The waiting priest tapped at the door. We both felt caught.

Mamà’s whisper became an urgent breath in my ear. “Youth makes

you bold. Love makes you trusting. But it is madness to provoke these inquisitors. They will not like what you say about your love. Not when you’re so young, and a girl.”

I waited for her to finish. There was no point in vexing her. But

she knew she had lost.

“God knows I will stand by you, come what may.” Her grip

upon my arms was tight. “For my sake, guard your tongue to guard your life, my daughter.”

10

JULIE BER RY


THE TES TIMON Y OF LUCIEN’ S W ITNESSES I: Dolssa de Stigata, the Accused The Cloister of the Abbey Church of Sant Sarnin, Tolosa

Y

ou wish to speak with me, Friar Lucien? Prior Pons? My priest said you wished to ask me questions.

I have seen you, Friar, in the street. You pass by our house

often.

Tell me, what it is like to live in a convent? To take holy vows

along with others? I’ve often wondered.

My mother prayed and planned for me to enter the cloister.

The thought was sweet, in a way. But my beloved told me my path was different. Silence does not serve his purpose for my life. He asks me to tell others about our love.

All right. You shall ask the questions, and I will answer.

Oc, I reject all heresy and false belief, and cling to the true

Catholic faith.

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11


Oc, I swear to tell the full and exact truth about myself and

others, living or dead.

Non, I have never seen a heretic. I do not know any of the bons

omes nor bonas femnas that are called heretics. I have lived a very sheltered life in my parents’ home. Non, I have never listened to their preaching, nor helped them, nor fed them, nor carried gifts for them. How could I? I rarely even leave my house, Friar. I am eighteen years old.

My name, as you well know, is Dolssa de Stigata. My father

was Senhor Gerald de Stigata. He was a knight. He died five years

ago last spring. My mother is Na Pitrella Braida de Stigata. I live

with her and our few servants in my father’s ancestral home here in Tolosa.

I, preach?

In my home, oc. I have shared my thoughts with relatives and

friends on a few occasions.

That is where you heard me? Through a window. You saw me.

I preach that my beloved Christ is the ardent lover of all souls.

That he stands beckoning to all God’s children, to come taste of his goodness. To be one with him, as he is one with me.

Why do I preach this? Good friar-preacher, you who wear the

mantle of Blessed Dominic the Preacher, I could ask the same of you! Oc. In this room, questions are yours to ask.

I preach because my beloved calls me to. My one desire is to

shine his love into the world.

12

JULIE BER RY


What? Oh!

Oc, since you ask, I’m laughing. How can I not? You wondered,

how do I know the devil hasn’t tricked me? I can only answer, if it is the devil who teaches people to trust in the love of Jhesus, then what, I wonder, should we call men of the cloth like you?

Far less impertinent, good friar, than you calling my beloved a

devil. Remember who my beloved is.

Plainly, friar, I am a femna, and yet I speak. I do as my beloved

urges me to do. Who shall forbid what my beloved commands?

Oc, Sant Paul said it was a shame for women to speak in

church, but I do not speak in church. I worship in church, and I speak in my own home, as a Christian woman is free to do.

But oc, you guess rightly. If my beloved bid me to speak in

church, I would do it. My beloved is greater than Sant Paul. Sure-

ly, you would not argue that an apostle’s words are greater than the Lord’s? The apostles didn’t listen to Santa Maria Magdalena,

either, though she was right when she told them she had seen her Lord risen from the tomb.

You accuse me of heresy.

Oc, I am listening. I’ll give you my answer.

I can no more retract or deny what I have said about my be-

loved than I could choose to stop breathing. Against my will, breath would flow into my lungs; against your will, speech will flow from them also. If you seek to silence me, I will only cry more

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urgently. My beloved’s praise will not go unsung, not so long as I have breath.

Oc, I know who you are. I know what you claim you can do

to me.

How can I fear you with my beloved beside me? His arm is

mightier than all flesh, and I know he will protect me.

14

JULIE BER RY


BOTILLE

A

struga picked, of course, the worst time possible to tell me.

We wore our hair dandled up in rags to keep it off our hot

necks, allowing the sun to burn our sweaty skin. Our oldest, flim-

siest skirts we had pulled snug between our legs and pinned to our backs. There we were, thigh-deep in juice, stomping, squashing,

mashing the cool, slimy grapes under our heels and deliciously through our toes, while the harvesters clapped and laughed and

sang to Focho de Capa’s fidel. It was a party. A frolic. And a bit of an exhibition. Astruga’s thighs—purple, even—were nothing to be

ashamed of, and as for mine, skin was skin, wasn’t it? The sky was blue, the air was hot, the sea breeze stirring our little vila of Bajas

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15


was playful, and the splashing new wine was sweet on my lips, its perfume rich enough to knock me over and drown me happily in the old winepress.

And that was when Astruga told me she was pregnant. Not in so many words, of course.

“Look at the buffoons.” Sweat rolled in rivers off her wine-red

cheeks. Jacme and Andrio had linked their beefy, sun-tanned arms and were now swinging each other in idiotic loops, bawling out

their song, while the other men slapped themselves and howled,

and the married women shrieked with laughter. Jacme and Andrio were great laughers, those two.

“They’re a pair, all right,” I said. My thighs ached from all the

stomping, but the music compelled us onward. I’d waited years for my turn in the press. I wasn’t about to flag now.

Astruga showed no signs of slowing. She leaped like a salmon

through her sea of sticky wine. Always a restless one, Astruga. “I need one.”

Maire Maria! She needed a man. Today, not tomorrow. I

sighed. Harvest frolics were known for this. All those tozẹts with their lusty eyes upon her, her buoyant chest bouncing practically

into her eyeballs, and her skirts tucked up and pinned over her bot-

tom . . . Of course she would feel herself in a mood to pick one of these young men, like a grape off the vine, and crush him against the roof of her mouth.

Across Na Pieret di Fabri’s neat vineyards, chestnut trees

blazed with fall color, while dark, narrow cypress pines stood

16

JULIE BER RY


sentinel. Past the trees was the village proper, Bajas, crowning its

round hilltop like a bald man’s hat, and beyond it, the brilliant blue lagoon of the sea, my sea, that cradled and fed tiny Bajas, and connected her to the entire world.

Paradise had stiff competition in our corner of Creation.

Jacme chose that moment to scoop a handful of pulpy juice

out of the vat and pour it down his throat. Purple dribbles bled

into his stubbly beard. He winked at us, and old Na Pieret de Fabri, whose vineyards these were, whacked him harmlessly with her hat.

I looked at all our sweaty purple tozẹts. Great overgrown boys

they were, though I supposed I must call them men. “After we’re done, you can take your pick of omes.”

“Botille,” Astruga said, her smile still as bright, “I need to

speak with you.”

I lowered my weary leg and caught my breath. I knew what

those words meant.

Astruga capered like a baby goat, kicking up her heels and

splashing wine into the open, leering mouths of the tozẹts dancing

around the vat. And now I knew why, why she’d bribed Ramunda, whose turn in the winepress it ought to have been, to give her this chance to bounce and spin in her purple skin for all Bajas to see.

She needed a husband, and fast. Perhaps, she had reasoned, if she played today well, she could find herself one.

Or I could. For that was my job in Bajas. Most tozas helped

the family business of catching fish or harvesting salt. Some spun

The Passion of Dolssa

17


wool or silk; others wove baskets, or helped their papàs and mamàs fashion clay pots. Countless others grew vegetables and tied and trimmed grapevines.

But I, I caught suitors, harvested bridegrooms, wove dowries,

fashioned courtships, grew families, and tied and trimmed the

unruly passions of our hot-blooded young people into acceptable marriages. I brought them all to Dominus Bernard’s altar in the

end. Only sometimes, as now, with a baby on the way, I did not have the luxury of time to plot and plan.

I watched Astruga’s eyes linger on Jacme’s broad face. “Jacme?” I whispered.

She shrugged. “He’ll do.”

I danced a little closer to her. “Is it he?” She looked away, and shook her head.

I danced in a circle around her. If she wanted my help, she’d

best not turn her eyes away from me. “Who is the father?”

She turned the other way, like a naughty little toza who won’t

confess to stealing the honey.

“Tell me,” I pressed. “I have ways of making the father marry

you.” And I did. My sisters and I—we had ways all our own.

The high flush in Astruga’s cheeks cooled. “Not this time, Bo-

tille.”

Ah. He was married already, then. Well, no matter; Astruga

was young and fresh. Weren’t all the tozẹts adoring her even now? This would be easy for me.

“Are you working on another match right now?”

18

JULIE BER RY


“Maybe.”

“If you marry off that cow Sapdalina before me, I swear, I’ll

claw her eyes out.”

It was Sapdalina’s troth I was working on, and while I wouldn’t

call her a cow, per se, she was a challenging case. At least she wasn’t pregnant.

“That would hardly be fair to Sapdalina,” I observed.

Her angry face fell. “Oh, please, Botille. I’ll do anything.

You’ve got to help me.”

Astruga’s skirt came unpinned and sank into the wine. She

squealed and snatched it up, then thrust the soiled cloth into her

mouth to suck out the blood-dark juice. Just then the church bells rang, and she let the skirt fall once more.

I looked toward the village, with its white stone walls, its ris-

ing houses ready to teeter and topple one another, and the brown square bell tower of the church of Sant Martin.

She’d shown me what, if I hadn’t had a head full of wine and

fiddle tunes, my instincts should have smelled before Astruga had even spoken a word. The fruit growing in her vineyard was planted

by a handsome rake, a delightful talker, a charmer if ever there was one, and the source of all my best clients. I owed him, really. Already a growing list of roly-poly babies had him as the papà they would never know.

Dominus Bernard, Bajas’s priest at the church of Sant Martin.

X

The Passion of Dolssa

19


“Acabansa! Finished!”

Focho de Capa, self-proclaimed lord of the revels, scooped a

ladle of syrupy juice from the vat and drank it with a great flourish. “Bon an!” A good year, good for the grapes.

We climbed out of the vat. Itier pulled us each out by the wrist

onto the platform next to the press and planted wine-stained kisses on our cheeks. We climbed down the ladder. Astruga let herself be seized about the waist by frizzle-headed Itier and led off to the

table that had been set up, overflowing with bread, cheese, salmon,

and roasted vegetables. I lingered behind to wipe a bit of the juice off my arms with a rag Na Pieret di Fabri handed me.

Widow Pieret’s eyes were still as blue as la mar, though her

face was brown as carved chestnut and creased with as many deep

grooves. Her husband, related to the lords of Bajas, had been a vintner, but his death, five years back, left Na Pieret to manage his great vineyards alone. It had been a terrible blow. Still, Na

Pieret, who had never been weakened by childbearing, had borne

up under the burden admirably. But today, though she smiled, she seemed tired.

“What is it, ma maire?” I genuflected, a courtesy owed to a

great lady of advanced years, but then I rose and kissed her cheek. All old women were “my mother,” but Na Pieret was someone I could almost wish were my mother.

“Ack! You are covered in viṇ.” She patted my cheek. “Smart

Botille. Not a thing happens in this village but what you have a hand in it, is there?”

20

JULIE BER RY


“Oh, pah.” I unraveled the damp rags from around my hair. “I

won’t take the blame for everything.”

Na Pieret leaned against the handle of her cane. I noticed her

head quiver slightly. “I need your help, Botille.” She spoke quietly. “I can’t run the vineyards anymore.”

I saw how much it hurt her to speak these words, though she

said them simply and without self-pity.

“But your hired help, surely. They do the work for you, non?”

I looked over to the feast table, where half a dozen of her hands

lounged, stuffing their faces. “Are they lazy? Do they steal from

you? Sazia and Plazensa and I can put a stop to that. We’ll teach them a lesson—”

“No, no.” Na Pieret squinted her eyes against the rays of the

setting sun. “They are only as lazy as any other laborers ever were. No, they are kind to me.” “Then what is it?”

“I need a strong back, and eyes I can trust. I need someone

who cares about the grapes like they are his own. But you know I have no children to entrust them to.”

The wine on my skin had dried to a slimy, sticky sheen, and

I began to itch. Hot breezes from the south did nothing to help.

“My mother had two daughters,” Na Pieret went on. “My

younger sister died last winter, leaving her two sons orphans, seven leagues from here, in San Cucufati.” “Oh?”

She nodded. “I want you to bring them to me. I will give

The Passion of Dolssa

21


them the farm, and they shall become my sons.”

Seven leagues? I pictured myself traveling seven long leagues

with two quarrelsome little eṇfans in tow. What did she think I was, a nursemaid?

“How old are they?”

Na Pieret pursed her lips. “They were sturdy, useful children

when I met them last,” she said, “thirteen years ago.”

I smiled, and looked over at Astruga, busy stuffing a piece of

bread into Itier’s mouth. “Is either of them married?”

“Botille!” Na Pieret laughed. “You haven’t become one of the

desperate tozas yourself, have you?”

“Non, Na Pieret.” I took her by the elbow and steered her to-

ward the table. “But there are always plenty of them about, and now I have two more husbands to offer them.”

Na Pieret tapped my forehead with her swollen knuckles.

“Only see to it you don’t marry off my new sons to any of the silly tozas.”

I shoved a half-drunk Andrio aside to make room on the bench

for Widow Pieret to sit. “That, ma maire,” I said, “is a promise I doubt I can keep.”

22

JULIE BER RY


DOL SSA

I

was a young girl when my beloved first appeared to me. Just a girl of no consequence, the child of pious parents

who were much older than most. Mamà used to say I was her miracle eṇfan, the fruit of prayer, just as the prophet Samuel had been. I was happy in my home, and much loved.

Mamà dreamed for me the heaven of the cloister. Nothing

would have made her happier than to see me take a nun’s vows. Papà, however, envisioned the joy of family. He wanted grandchildren, and a legacy for his home and name. Poor, gentle Papà would

not live long enough to see such a dream. He died not long after my visions first began. I don’t know how I would have endured the loss, were it not for my beloved’s secret visits.

The Passion of Dolssa

23


We mourned Papà many days. Kinsmen and neighbors came

to grieve with us, and condole with my widowed mother. Already they began to speak of me, in whispered voices, as a holy maiden, because I went so often to church. They cupped my cheeks in their hands and spoke blessings upon me. Some were faces I knew,

but most, I didn’t. It took me by surprise, seeing so many people claiming Papà’s friendship and commemorating his life. Where were they during that life? Why didn’t I know them? Of course,

I’d only known him in his later years. He’d lived a full life before I came along.

I knew Papà had gone to God. But I would miss him so.

“See how she does not cry,” a cousin of Mamà’s whispered to

her sister. “She’s serene as an angel.” I was only shy.

“Oc, see the pious sweetness of her gaze,” said the sister. “Like

one of the blessed saints.”

I watched my mother, wishing she’d stop talking to all these

family strangers.

There was a man there, tall and grim. He spoke to my mother

in a low voice. I went to her side and slipped my hand in hers.

“Bound for the church,” my mother was saying. “It’s out of the

question.”

The man’s eyes examined my face. “She is very young.” I inched back behind Mamà.

“She will be a nun,” my maire said firmly. “It is already set-

tled.”

24

JULIE BER RY


The tall man tipped his hat to my mother. “My sorrow for your

loss.”

I didn’t understand then what he must have been asking. I only

knew that I would never be a nun. A bride of Christ, oc, but the

cloister could never enclose all my love. It was too vast, too deep for such walls, such silence, such seclusion.

I left my maire’s side and went and lit a candle for Papà. How

I would miss his step in the hall, and his laugh at dinner. I was thirteen, and now Mamà and I were left alone.

X

Not long after mon paire died, the fires began. What once were sweet visions now burned in my soul, in my brain, in my blood.

My beloved, pouring his presence over me, consumed me with his love. I couldn’t sleep. I could scarcely eat.

Mamà thought I mourned Papà. It was easy enough to let her

think that.

The world grew dull to me. Tolosa, the vibrant pink city, the

trobadors’ own rose of Europe, became dismal, tired, and brown. My will to remain in it grew slack.

My beloved was my great romance, and—impossible mira-

cle!—I was his. He caught me up on wings of light, and showed

me the realms of his creation, the glittering gemstones paving his

heaven. He left my body weak and spent, my spirit gorged with honey.

There are no words for this. Like the flesh, like a prison cell,

The Passion of Dolssa

25


so, too, are words confining, narrow, chafing, stupid things, incapa-

ble of expressing one particle of what I felt, what I feel, when I see my beloved’s face, when he takes me in his arms. There is only music. Only light.

And no one may take it from me.

X

I told no one what was happening to me. My beloved was the most private secret of my soul.

Mamà began to speak of the abbey for me, and I refused to

go. We quarreled bitterly, and grew cold with each other. At length

she relented, with a heavy heart, and began to speak cautiously of me marrying. If I would not fulfill her dreams for me, I supposed, she was willing to concede that Papà’s hopes had been honorable. There was a kinsman, she said. A goodly man, well respected. He

had asked Papà about me once, and Papà had been pleased. In a panic I told her my heart was already taken. At this she became sick with worry that I had sinned. So, at my beloved’s urging, I told her the truth about us.

She believed me. Relief made it easy for her to believe. Her

maternal pride thrilled to think of me as being touched by divine grace. The next evening, she brought a cousin over to hear my tale.

I wasn’t happy, but I was glad enough to have the anger between us abated that I told my story anyway.

The next evening, Mamà brought another friend, and her cous-

in brought two others.

26

JULIE BER RY


I was troubled, so asked my love for guidance. He asked me if

I would, for his sake, tell many about the loving kindness he’d lav-

ished upon me. Within a week our house was full to overflowing.

I found myself, against every instinct—for I would far rather have remained in my room, in the solitude where my beloved could find me—speaking to houses full of listeners, night after night.

I began to venture out of doors more, not to preach, but merely

to taste the world, see the city bloom in high summer. I smelled fresh breezes blow across the winding Garona River, and watched larks flit about the porticos of Our Lady de la Daurada.

But I also saw a city still bruised and bleeding from years of

crushing war. I saw souls darkened by loss and bitterness in the crusades. I saw faith destroyed after the brutality we’d endured in its name. And then I understood why my beloved had sent me.

So I opened my mouth to teach the only lesson I knew. Of love

everlasting, of mercy reaching beyond the prison walls of death, of the glory that awaits us when we die.

What a feeling it was, after a lifetime lived in my parents’

house, to be part of the world and make a difference in it. To do

something, however small. To speak, and be heard, if only in my

own home. I thought I would speak in the city squares, but Mamà forbade it. “You do not dare do such a thing,” she said. “This city is

full of inquisitors, combing through the people for hidden heresies. To preach on the street is to arouse their alarm.”

It didn’t matter. People came. People sat outside and listened

under windows. Just so, I later learned, did one eager young in-

The Passion of Dolssa

27


quisitor and his elderly companion sit and listen. I didn’t know it at the time.

I preached almost daily. One day, I remember, I saw the tall

man who had come to our home when Papà died. He sat and listened to me speak. His face was so grave, he frightened me. Afterward, while the other guests mingled and broke bread, he ap-

proached and thanked me for my holy message. He offered me a pair of apricots. They sat so temptingly soft in his hand—did

he know I couldn’t resist apricots?—but I said no. A storm cloud moved across his eyes. He bowed and walked away.

Not long after, Friar Lucien de Saint-Honore began to preach

in the square closest to our home. His voice was musical, but his accent was French and northern. He had keen dark eyes that

missed no detail. Were he not a tonsured friar, he might have been a comely man.

Day after day he returned, raising his voice of warning. I could

hear him from the upper window where I sat. We must flee the treacherous heresy, he said, that entwined itself around our way of

life—the false beliefs that slithered through the grasses of our fair Provensa, with false teachers leading people away from the true

faith and toward unholy rituals and vows. Lucifer’s enticements, he warned, were no less beguiling today than those he’d planted in

the Garden. The heretics, those false teachers of no authority, were serpents, and we ignorant Tolosans were Eve, deadly fruit poised and resting upon our lips.

28

JULIE BER RY


Upon my lips.

In our Father’s house, I told the believers, there is never alarm,

but only gladness, love, and peace.

Not long after that, the interrogations began.

The Passion of Dolssa

29


You are the Hero of your own story. —Joseph Campbell


The first time I slept with Poppy, I cried. We were both sixteen, and I’d been in love with her since I was a kid, since I was still reading monster comics and spending too much time practicing sleight-of-hand tricks because I wanted to be a magician. People say you can’t feel real love that young, but I did. For Poppy. She was the girl next door who fell off her bike and laughed at her bloody knees. She was the neighborhood hero who organized games of Burn the Witch and got everyone to play. She was the high school queen who reached forward one day during math class, grabbed Holly Trueblood’s thick, whiteblond hair in her fist, and cut it off at the skull while Holly screamed and screamed. All because someone said Holly’s hair was prettier than her own. 9


She was Poppy. After we slept together, I started crying. Just a little bit, just because my heart was so full, just a couple of small little tears. Poppy shoved me off, stood up, and laughed. It wasn’t a nice laugh. It wasn’t a We both lost IT together, how wicked of us, how fantastic, I will always love you because we did this One Big Thing for the first time together kind of laugh. No, it was more of a Is that all it is? And you’re crying over it? kind of laugh. Poppy slipped her long, white limbs into her pale yellow dress, like milk sliding into melted butter. She was bonier back then, and didn’t need to wear a bra. She stood in front of the lamp, facing me, and the ray of light shone right through her thin summer clothes, outlining her sweet girl parts in a way I would think of over and over again afterward, until it drove me insane. “Midnight, you’re going to be the best-looking guy in school by senior year.” Poppy leaned her elbows on the window­sill and stared out at the dark. Our high mountain air was thin, but clean, and it smelled even better at night. Pine and juniper and earth. The night smells mingled with the smell of jasmine—Poppy dabbed it from a tiny glass bottle in her pocket, each earlobe, each wrist. “That’s why I let you have me first. I wanted to give it to him. He’s the only boy I’ll ever love. But you don’t know anything 10


about him, and I’m not going to tell you anything about him.” My heart stopped. Started back up again. “Poppy.” My voice was weak and whispery and I hated it. She tapped her fingers on the sill and ignored me. An owl hooted outside. Poppy swept her blond hair back behind her shoulder in that gangly, awkward way she still had then. It was completely gone by the time school started up—she was nothing but smooth elegance and cold, precise movements. “And now no one will be able to say I didn’t have taste, Midnight Hunt, even when I was young. You’re going to be so beautiful at eighteen that girls will melt just looking at you, your long black lashes, your glossy brown hair, your blue, blue eyes. But I had you first, and you had me first. And it was a good move, on my part. A brilliant move.”

And then came the year of me following Poppy around, my heart full of poetry and bursting with love, and never seeing how little she really cared, no matter how many times I had her in my arms and how many times she laughed at me afterward. No matter how many times she made fun of me in front of her friends. No matter how many times I told her I loved her and she never said it back. Not once. Not even close. 11


Every story needs a Hero. Mim read it in my tea leaves the day Midnight moved in next door. She leaned over, pushed my hair out of the way, put her fingers on my chin, and said: “Your story is about to begin, and that boy moving boxes into the slanted old house across the road is the start of it.� And I knew Mim was right about Midnight because the leaves also told her that the big rooster was going die a bloody death in the night. And sure enough, a fox got him. We found him in the morning, his soft feathers stiff with blood, his body broken on the ground, right next to our red wheelbarrow, like in that one poem.

I fell in love with Leaf Bell the day he beat the shit out of DeeDee Ruffler. She was the biggest bully in school and he was the first and 12


only kid to take her down. I’m a bully too, so you might have thought I’d sympathize with her, but I didn’t. DeeDee was a short, wrong-side-of-the-tracks nobody with a mile-high cruel streak. She had a strong, stupid body and a plain, round face and a mean, grating voice, and she’d tried to fight Leaf before, she’d called him all kinds of things—poor, ginger-haired, skinny, dirty, diseased— and he’d just laughed. But the day she called little seventh grader Fleet Park a slant-eyed boy-loving Chink, Fleet started crying, and Leaf snapped. He beat DeeDee into a coma, right there on the school’s cement steps, he pounded her head on the concrete, knees pinning her down by the chest, her boobs jiggling, his red hair flying around his lanky shoulders, the snow-capped mountains in the background. My heart swelled three sizes that day. DeeDee was never the same after Leaf smashed her head in. I’d read about lobotomies in my Modern Woman’s Science class, and that’s how she was now: detached, lethargic, useless. Leaf didn’t get into trouble for that fight, he never got in trouble, just like me. Besides, everyone was sick of DeeDee, even the teachers, especially the teachers. She was as mean to them as she was to everyone else. There was an evil in me too, a cruel streak. I don’t know 13


where it came from and I didn’t really want it, no more than I’d want big feet or mousy brown hair or a piggish nose. But fuck it. If I’d been born with a piggish nose, then I would own it, like I own the cruel and the mean. Leaf was the first to recognize me for what I was. I was gorgeous, even as a kid. I looked like an angel, cherub lips and blushing cheeks and elegant bones and blond halo hair. Everyone loved me and I loved myself and I got my way and did what I wanted and I still left people feeling like they were lucky to know me. No one thinks they’re shallow, ask every last person you know, they’ll deny it, but I’m living proof, I get away with murder because I’m pretty. But Leaf saw right through the pretty, saw straight through it. I was fourteen when Leaf Bell lobotomized DeeDee on the school steps, and I was fifteen when I followed Leaf home and tried to kiss him in the hayloft. He laughed in my face and told me I was ugly on the inside and left me sitting alone in the hay.

14


Every story needs a Villain. The Villain is just as important as the Hero. More important, maybe. I’ve read a lot of books—some out loud to the Orphans, and some just to myself. And all the books had a Villain. The White Witch. The Wicked Witch. The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair. Bill Sykes. Sauron. Mr. Hyde. Mrs. Danvers. Iago. Grendel. I didn’t need Mim’s tea-reading to learn the Villain of my story. The Villain had blond hair and the Hero’s heart on her sleeve. She had teeth and claws and a silver tongue, like the smooth-talking devil in Ash and Grim.

I had an older brother. A half brother. His name was Alabama (to be explained later) and he lived with our mom in Lourmarin, France. My parents weren’t divorced. They just didn’t live together. My mom wrote historical mysteries, and 15


two years ago, in the middle of a blizzard, she decided she would keep writing historical mysteries, but in France instead of here. My dad sighed, and shrugged, and off she went. And Alabama went with her. He’d always been her favorite anyway, probably because his father was my mother’s true love. Alabama’s dad was Muscogee and Choctaw. He ran back to Alabama—the state, not the brother—before my brother was even born. Then my dad came along, with his big heart and weakness for creatures in need. He married my pregnant mother, and the rest was history. Until she gypsied herself and my brother off to a land of grapes and cheese last winter, that is. So my dad sold the dull, spacious, three-bedroom, threebathroom house I grew up in, and moved us into a fivebedroom, one-bath, crumbling, creaking old house in the country. Five acres, apple orchard, sparkling, bubbling creek. Just in time for summer. And I didn’t mind. Not a bit. The house was two miles from town, two miles from Broken Bridge, with its Victorian houses and cobblestone streets and expensive gourmet restaurants and hordes of skiing, snow-bunny tourists in the winter. And it was two blessed, beautiful miles away from Poppy. No more soft taps on my window in the middle of the 16


night from the girl three doors down. No more Poppy laughing as she crawled over my windowsill and into my bed. No more me not knowing whose cologne I smelled all over the front of her shirt. I was done being a sucker. And this old house, nestled between apple trees and pine trees, in a shadowy, forgotten corner of the mountains . . . it was the first step to my freedom. My freedom from Poppy.

I would have given it to Leaf the second he asked for it, except he never ever, ever did, so I gave it to Midnight instead. Midnight and his big droopy eyes, his heart hanging out of his chest, the sighs, the softness, the kisses. I hated him for it, really, really hated him for it, hated hated. Hated, hated, hated, hated. My parents still thought I was a virgin. They never discussed sex in front of me, they refused to acknowledge that I’d grown up because they wanted me to be their stupid little angel baby forever, and it made me rage rage rage inside, all the time, all the time. I wore the shortest skirts I could find, 17


and the lowest-cut tops, oh, how they squirmed, their eyes scrambling to focus on some part of me that wasn’t sexual, so they could keep on thinking of me as they always had. My parents still gave me dolls as presents, ones that looked like me, blond, with big eyes and puffy red lips. And whenever I saw another box sitting on the kitchen table, wrapped in pink paper with my name on it, I knew I would find myself over at Midnight’s window later that night, tap-tap-tapping, wanting to be let in so I could prove to myself how un-angelic I was. Most men lead lives of quiet desperation. Leaf said that a lot. It was some quote from a tree-hugging hippie who lived a boring life in the woods a million years ago, and Leaf probably thought it would open my eyes and make me wise up and get in touch with my inner deeps, but all it did was make me want to tear off all my clothes and run through the town screaming. If I was going to lead a life of desperation, then it would be loud, not quiet.

18


I watched the Hero as he moved boxes into the old Lucy Rish house. I stood by an apple tree, and I was there a long time before he saw me. I was good at not being seen when I didn’t want to be. I’d learned how to be quiet and invisible from reading Sneaks and Shadows. I hadn’t shown Sneaks and Shadows to my brothers and sisters. I didn’t want them learning how to hide in broad daylight. Not yet. I hoped the Hero would like it in his new house. Lucy hadn’t liked it. She’d been a mean, superstitious old woman who called us witches and clutched her rosary whenever she saw us. And she threw apples at the Orphans if they played too close to her lawn. Her husband had been nice, he was always smiling at us from across the road, but he died three years ago. Felix thinks Lucy poisoned him, but I don’t know. Old people die all the time without the help of poison.

19

Penguin Teen Spring 2016 Preview Sampler  

Get a sneak peek at five awesome books coming from Penguin Teen in Spring 2016! Includes Salt to the Sea, The Passion of the Dolssa, The Dar...

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