By Molly Lazer
If you were to turn the hourglass back eighty years, long before you and I walked the forest paths of the Vale, when King Philip’s grandfather ruled over Colandaria, you would find the stream in the woods running in the same direction it does now, slow enough that children could chase after their wooden boats as the current took them away. The mists still sat low to the ground, snaking around the trees and hiding small forest creatures from predators overhead. And on most days, you would find Anelle sitting at her loom in her mother’s small house, hands flying across the frame as she pushed her shuttle through the warp.
By the time Anelle was twenty-one, she had woven thirty-six tapestries taller than her father. One, which showed knights battling a large dragon, hung in Lord Briadach’s front hall. She didn’t know where the others were displayed, but she hoped they gave pleasure to their owners.
Anelle watched her two older sisters marry at sixteen. Now she waited for her turn to stand with gold and silver threads twining her hands together with her husband’s. Summers passed, but her turn never came.
* * *
She heard about him first from Kira.
“They call him Bluebeard. He’s not handsome, but he’s rich. He spent five hundred lil on a fortepiano and another hundred to have the shop boys carry it to his cart for him. And he’s from the Vale! He’s young, too. Young enough, anyway.”
With her delicate, bird-like features, Kira flitted from suitor to suitor. She had already turned twenty, and her mother worried that if she didn’t settle, she would grow old alone.
“Did you speak with this Bluebeard?” Anelle asked, taking the scarlet threads that her friend brought from the Market and winding them around her shuttle
“No. There was something cold about him. I was afraid to.”
“But you think he’d be right for me?” Anelle poked Kira in the ribs so she laughed. “You think I’d be happy with the ugly, cold, rich man? We could spend evenings sitting by the fire so he could warm up, not saying a word. He sounds perfect!”
Kira stopped laughing. “It would be better than nothing, wouldn’t it?”
* * *
She saw him a week later at Lord Briadach’s ball. Kira pointed him out as the girls gazed into the crowd of whirling dancers. There were faces Anelle recognized—sons and daughters of the lords and ladies her mother would visit, girls she played with when she was a child. Lord Briadach stood on the other side of the room, one hand on his large belly as he spoke to a tall stranger in a midnight blue tunic. Kira leaned her head on Anelle’s shoulder. “It’s him.”
“Look at you!” Anelle exclaimed, “Lovesick over the cold, ugly man!”
As if her words had been carried over the crowd, the stranger turned and met her gaze. Anelle’s breath caught in her throat. His face was long and thin, and his hair and beard were so black they shone blue in the glow of the candles on the walls. His eyes were pale and frozen. She shivered.
The stranger bid farewell to Lord Briadach and crossed towards the girls. Briadach followed, making his own way through the crowd.
“I’m going to talk to him. How do I look?” Kira twirled. Her golden skirt spread out around her.
“Fine,” Anelle said, distracted as the man wove between the waltzing couples.
“Here I go.” Kira squeezed Anelle’s hand for luck and set off to meet the stranger halfway across the ballroom. Anelle called out, but her friend had already disappeared into the throng. The man wasn’t coming for Kira. Anelle could feel it deep in her chest. He was coming for her.
“Enjoying yourself?” Lord Briadach’s deep voice made Anelle jump.
“It’s a lovely ball,” she said. “The musicians are wonderful.”
Briadach chuckled. “They are, aren’t they? They can’t hold a candle to my boy, though. I almost have him convinced to take a turn at the crwth tonight.”
“Aidan is here?” Anelle asked. She played with Amena, Lord Briadach’s daughter, when they were younger. But Aidan had been older, wanting nothing to do with girls and their games.
“He came home in the spring,” Briadach said. “He’d been studying for so long I barely remembered what he looked like. When I was his age, I had a wife and family, but Aidan has his books and music.” Briadach scratched his moustache. “There have been ladies, but‒”
Lady Rowena appeared behind her husband. “Is Briadach boring you?” she asked, giving him a playful kiss on the cheek. “You’re scaring off all of this lovely young woman’s suitors. How is your mother, Anelle?”
“She’s well, thank you. She’s sorry that she couldn’t come tonight. She’s on her way to the Summit. My sister is due to give birth in a few weeks.”
“Wonderful news,” Rowena said. “Goddess bless the mother and child.”
Another childhood friend passed by and asked Anelle to dance. With a nod of encouragement from the Lord and Lady, she took his hand. As he led her out to the floor, she glimpsed Kira’s gold dress shining as she danced with the dark stranger. He was surprisingly graceful given his long, reedy limbs, and he twirled Kira with practiced ease. After one turn around the floor, Anelle decided that she was wrong. There was some color in his cheeks after all.
Later in the evening, Lord Briadach climbed onto the musicians’ platform and spread his arms to his guests. “My friends,” he said. “We invited you tonight to celebrate our son’s homecoming. He’s been gone five years, and we’re overjoyed to have him back in the Vale. Aidan, come up here.” With reluctance in his step, the young man came out of the crowd. Candlelight glinted off his blue-black hair.
“Bluebeard?” Anelle said. Kira blushed next to her.
Aidan shook his father’s hand and took a seat next to the musicians. The lead player handed him a crwth. The pale wood glowed against his dark tunic as he leaned the bridge against his shoulder. Anelle drew in a breath as his bow touched the strings. As the music washed over her, she pictured rain falling on the gently rolling hills of the Vale, the water bubbling out of the ground, making an ocean of the grass.
The crowd remained silent after Aidan finished. Anelle wiped away a tear. The only one who seemed unaffected by the song was Aidan himself, who gazed out at the crowd with a numb expression. Lady Rowena started to clap, and the mood broke. Aidan smiled and embraced his mother. It was a strange, slow smile, as though he were just learning how to turn the corners of his mouth up and show happiness.
Briadach nodded to the musicians, and they began to play again, a jolly reel this time. By the end of the night, Anelle battled exhaustion. She pulled Kira out of the crowd and told her it was time to go.
“Aidan asked me to stay. He’s going to play the fortepiano.” Kira glanced back at where Aidan stood, speaking with his parents.
Anelle could see the delight in her friend’s eyes.
“All right. Send word in the morning that you got home safely.”
“I will.” Kira bounded off with a skip and a wave, leaving Anelle to search out someone with whom she could ride the dark forest paths home.
* * *
Kira sent word that Aidan invited her to his estate, a quarter-day’s journey from Lord Briadach’s home at the Vale proper. Anelle knew the house; she passed it when she took the northeastern path on her long walks through the woods to find the plants she used to dye her threads.
She heard from her friend infrequently after that, as Kira spent more time with Aidan and bare winter branches sprouted spring buds. Anelle filled her days sitting in front of her loom. Her mind, most of the time, was elsewhere.
When she finished her weaving, she took the tapestries to the Market. She made the day-and-a-half-long trip once each season, loading her cart and setting out hours before dawn. When she was young, her father took her to the Market, hoisting her up to sit beside him on the wagon seat. Now, she made the journey down the shady paths of the Vale, along the border of the Runes, and past the Castle alone.
Anelle arrived at the Market in the evening and set up camp with the other wagons at the edge of the forest. She made small talk with the people around her and joined a family from the Ken at their fire for supper. Before going to sleep, she tied a string of bells around her wagon so that she would wake up if thieves came during the night. She slept with her head on a sack of yarn.
In the morning, Anelle found Madylen setting up her table. Madylen came to the Market twice each month to sell hides that she and her sisters tanned. Once each season—just before the Solstices and just after the Equinoxes—Madylen cleared off half her stand so Anelle could lay out her tapestries.
The Market was jammed with customers. Anelle’s stomach rumbled as the scent of the breads, meats, and spices being sold a few aisles away wafted over the crowd. She regretted only eating a slice of bread and a piece of cheese for breakfast. Music sounded from the gold entertainment tent, and when no one browsed their wares, Anelle and Madelyn danced to the bright rhythms, twirling each other around and laughing. They ducked under the table when explosions sounded from the other side of the Market and glittering smoke blew up into the air. Anelle had been down that strange, mystical aisle where casual Market-goers did not venture. The magics were beautiful, but Anelle always went home empty-handed.
After the midday meal, the mood among the vendors shifted. Anelle had to shout to be heard over the vendor across from her, who was selling cloth that he loudly advertised as the smoothest satin in all Colandaria.
Madylen haggled with a servant from the Summit over the price of an elk hide.
“My lord said I should only spend thirty.”
“It’s worth at least sixty.”
“I won’t pay a lil over thirty-five.”
Anelle leaned over Madylen’s side of the stand. “Make it sixty, and she’ll throw in one of the horns. Or take the hide and both horns for seventy-five.”
The servant dug into his sack for the coins.
“That hide was worth forty, at best,” Anelle said once he left.
Madylen shrugged. “He didn’t know that. You have a customer.”
Anelle turned and was ensnared by pale eyes and blue-black hair. She opened her mouth, but nothing came out.
“Anelle!” Kira, who Anelle hadn’t noticed hanging on Aidan’s arm, bounded around the stand to give her a hug.
“You look beautiful!” Anelle said. Kira stood back so Anelle could admire her dress, an expensive blue satin affair. Everything about her seemed more refined.
“Thanks,” Kira said, taking Aidan’s arm again. “We’ve been well.” He smiled at her, and Anelle was ashamed of her jealousy. “Aidan,” Kira said, “this is Anelle, one of my oldest friends.”
“I remember you from the ball,” he said. “It’s nice to see you again.” His voice sounded like the music of the crwth, textured and melodious, if slightly harsh. Anelle thought that if she closed her eyes and covered her ears, she would still be able to feel his words prickling at her skin.
Aidan ran his hand over one of the tapestries on the table. “Ah, yes,” he murmured. “The weaver. My father has one of your pieces in his hall.”
“It was one of the first ones I ever finished,” Anelle said.
“You’ve improved since then. How much do you charge for the large ones?”
Anelle glanced at the tapestry hanging behind her, which showed lords and ladies at a ball. She was proud of the way the ladies’ skirts twirled off the threads. But her pride changed to horror as she noticed for the first time the tall, lanky man playing the fortepiano behind the dancers. She vaguely remembered winding the inky black threads for his hair around the shuttle. If Aidan noticed his image, he didn’t show it.
“A hundred and fifty lil,” Anelle stammered.
“I’ll give you seventy-five,” Aidan said, and they began the usual dance between customer and vendor.
“A hundred thirty.”
“A hundred twenty.”
“Eighty-five,” Aidan said. “I won’t go any higher.”
“She’ll take it.”
Anelle tore herself away from Aidan’s gaze to look at Madylen. “What?”
“Eighty-five. She’ll take it.”
Aidan pulled the coins out of his pocket. Madylen took the tapestry down, rolled it up, and shoved it at Kira as Aidan poured his payment into her outstretched hand.
“Thank you,” he said. “It’s lovely.”
Madylen said, “Have a good day,” and waved Aidan and Kira away. As they left, Kira said she would visit Anelle soon. Aidan smiled at Anelle over his shoulder, and they disappeared back into the crowd.
“What was that for?” she asked Madylen, trying to mask her disappointment at Aidan’s departure. “You were rude to my customers, and you cost me fifteen lil! You know I don’t go lower than a hundred on the big ones.”
Madylen grumbled as she pulled three five-lil pieces from a box under the stand. “Here,” she said. “I couldn’t have that man standing here any longer.”
“What are you talking about?”
“There’s something wrong with him. I didn’t recognize him right away, but he courted my cousin a few years ago.”
Madylen shook her head. “My aunt and uncle won’t talk about it. Tell your friend to stay away.”
Anelle caught a glimpse of the Aidan and Kira a few aisles away, arms intertwined, her head resting on his shoulder.
“Are you sure it’s the same man?”
Hatred shone in Madylen’s eyes. “Bluebeard? Oh, yes.” She got up as a customer approached the stand. “Excuse me,” she said and began to bargain.
* * *
Kira didn’t visit that week. When a fortnight had gone by with no message, Anelle began to worry. She shrugged off her unease—Kira was probably off somewhere with Aidan—and threw herself into weaving. But Madylen’s warning weighed on her. When a month passed, Anelle rode to Kira’s house.
Bronwyn, Kira’s mother, always kept the windows of their house open whenever the sun was out. Now, they were closed, and dark cloth hung over the glass. Anelle knocked three times before the door opened.
Bronwyn stood in the doorway. She looked thinner than Anelle remembered.
“Good day,” Anelle stammered.
“Is it?” Bronwyn asked. Anelle didn’t know how to answer.
“Is Kira home?”
“She’s taken ill.”
Anelle tried to look past Bronwyn’s shoulder. “Can I see her?”
Bronwyn shook her head. “You have to leave. I’m sorry.”
Bronwyn’s shoulders sagged. “I’m sorry.” She shut the door.
Three successive visits to Kira’s house met with the same result. Bronwyn looked more haggard each time she came to the door.
Desperate, Anelle turned to the northeastern path. Forest mist rose up from the ground, disturbed by her horse’s swift gallop. Aidan’s estate was set off from the path behind a grove of ash trees. She imagined that the mica in its stone walls might sparkle if the sun were out, but in the dull light of the grey sky, the house was foreboding.
She brought her horse to the stable and tied him to a post inside. The stallion in the first stall kicked over its water bucket, angry at the intrusion. Anelle stroked her horse’s mane and whispered reassurance. He looked at her as if he knew that her words were as much for herself as they were for him.
The grey estate was dark, eerily similar to Kira’s house. Anelle knocked on the large oak door.
The skies opened up as she waited for an answer.
“Aidan?” she called, trying to shield herself from the rain. “It’s Anelle, Kira’s friend.”
The house was silent. The door swung open when Anelle pushed at it.
She held her hands in front of her so that she wouldn’t bump into anything as she stepped into the dark house and called Aidan’s name. Just as she was about return to the stable to wait for the rain to let up, a soft glow caught her eye. She passed through a library, and, ducking under a thick drape, she stepped into the next room. Candles flickered in sconces on the walls. Aidan sat in front of the fortepiano with his fingers resting on the keys. His face was drawn and pale.
“Aidan?” Anelle said. He didn’t look up. “Do you know where Kira is? I haven’t seen her in a month. Her mother says she’s sick, but she won’t let me see her.”
Aidan didn’t respond. Anelle wanted to shake him.
“Where is Kira?” she repeated, more forcefully this time.
He looked up at her. His eyes were lifeless, his face slack and grey, completely devoid of emotion.
Anelle’s knees buckled. She reached for something to hold onto, and her hand brushed against a hanging on the wall. Without turning around, she recognized the careful pattern of the threads as her own.
“Kira,” she said. Aidan looked at her blankly. “My friend. The girl you’re courting.”
A memory flickered in his eye.
“She’s gone,” he said in a scratched monotone.
“She ended things with me.” Aidan pressed his index finger down on one of the fortepiano keys, and the note resonated through the room. He stared at the instrument, amazed.
Anelle rubbed her temples, trying to suppress her frustration. “Did you know she’s sick?”
He shook his head, but Anelle couldn’t tell whether he was saying yes or no. The candlelight created dark hollows under his eyes.
Anelle pressed her hand to his forehead. Her fingers froze, and he shrunk away. She imagined Kira at home, covered in boils, her skin turned black and flaking off, or laying in bed, unresponsive, with hollows under her unfeeling eyes, cold to the touch. Maybe Bronwyn had sent for a healer. Maybe she had given up and was sitting by Kira’s bed, waiting for the inevitable. Anelle wondered if the same thoughts were running through Aidan’s mind, or if he was even thinking at all.
Bronwyn wouldn’t let Anelle into her house, but Aidan had left his front door open.
All she could do was focus on what was in front of her.
“Come on,” she said, putting her arm around Aidan’s waist and standing him up. “You’re freezing.” He leaned heavily against her, and his head fell sideways to rest against hers. Anelle flushed at the softness of his hair on her cheek and was overcome with the feeling that, even if their relationship really was over, she was betraying Kira simply by being in Aidan’s house. His legs wobbled as she walked him out of the music room, and she forced her focus on keeping him balanced.
She wondered where the servants were as she fumbled through dirty pots until she found one clean enough to make soup with the meager ingredients Aidan had in his kitchen. The barley and yellowseed broth did little to warm him up, but Anelle thought she saw a bit of color return to his cheeks after he ate.
As night fell, Anelle curled up on the lyre chair across from the divan on which Aidan lay in the parlor. His shoulders and hips cut sharp angles under his blanket. Anelle was sure that she could hurt him with just a touch.
She asked, “How do you feel?”
His eyes were closed. “I’m sorry,” he murmured.
“Sorry,” he whispered, and Anelle thought she saw a smile flicker onto his face as he fell asleep. “…I’m feeling…”
* * *
The sun cast bright rectangles on the stone floor. Anelle’s back twinged with pain from sleeping on the lyre chair. Aidan was still asleep. His resting form reminded Anelle of her empty loom; if she picked the right color and texture of yarn, she could weave him into whomever she wanted. But when he opened his eyes, Anelle knew that his pattern was already woven with a stubborn attention to detail.
She made sure that the candles were lit in the evening and the windows opened during the day. Without her weaving, her hands ached for something to do. She spent mornings tending to the garden behind the estate, mining its rows for potatoes, onions, and sweet maplemoss that she could make into a hearty stew. Afternoons were spent paging through the books in Aidan’s library. She slept in an extra bedchamber with a painting of Lord Briadach and Lady Rowena on the wall.
As the lord and lady stared at her, their smiling faces unchanged from morning to morning, Anelle wondered what she was doing at Aidan’s estate. What would her sisters think of her waking up in a bed that was not her own? What would her mother think of the fact that she was alone with a strange man? What would Kira—Anelle pushed away thoughts of her friend. When Kira was well, she would send word. Until then, Anelle could not help her.
Anelle’s sisters were busy with husbands and travels and babies. Her mother was too wrapped up in the arrival of her first grandchild to return home until after the Summer Solstice. Anelle was alone but for the man for whom Madelyn had shown such distain.
After a fortnight, Anelle came in from the garden to discover Aidan missing from his place on the divan. Her nervous search ended in the stable, where she found him bent over, cleaning the stalls. He stood up, cheeks flushed, brushed the hair out of his eyes, and nodded to her before returning to his task. Later in the evening, she found him collapsed on the divan, overwhelmed by his own determination.
The servants, two men and a woman, returned with the new moon. When Anelle asked where they were, the woman told her Aidan sent them to the Summit to find books for his library.
“All of you?” Anelle asked.
The woman shrugged, and Anelle sensed that this was not an uncommon occurrence.
“Aidan can fend for himself,” she said and went back to cleaning. Anelle pictured him weak and unresponsive and was sure the truth was otherwise. The servants never asked her to explain her presence at the house.
Without housekeeping to do, there was no need for Anelle to remain at the estate, but she could not bring herself to leave. The servants left her to garden, and the plot flourished under her care. On a cool morning, as she dug in the dirt, Anelle heard the glassy sound of the crwth floating from the window. That night, she sat in the dining room instead of taking her supper in her bedroom. Aidan sat across from her with the barest hint of a smile on his face.
“I heard you playing,” she said. Aidan’s pale eyes met hers. “It was lovely.”
He looked back down at his food. “Thank you.”
The next day, dark clouds threatened, erasing Anelle’s thoughts of returning home. Aidan mentioned at dinner that he’d noticed Anelle’s horse limping when he was in the stable. She wouldn’t be able to ride for at least a week. They looked at each other across the table, not saying anything else as they ate.
She became aware of Aidan watching her as she moved around the house. One evening, she found him sitting in the drawing room with a chessboard in front of him. She sat down and picked up a white pawn to make her first move. He asked about her family, and she told him about her mother, who couldn’t contain her excitement at the birth of her first grandchild, and about her oldest sister, who had traveled past the Farlands with her husband and returned with stories of deep canyons, purple sunsets, and people who could shoot sparks from their fingertips. “And your father?” Aidan asked.
Anelle rolled her rook between her fingers. “He passed last summer. He fell from the roof.” She brushed her cheek with the back of her hand. Even though it had been some time, the hurt at her father’s passing still seemed new. Aidan stared at her, and silence thickened the room.
Anelle slid the rook across the board to capture one of Aidan’s knights. “Papa loved the roof. He would go up there just to watch the clouds go by.”
“He sounds like a good man.”
“He was. What about your family?”
“You know them.”
“Not like you do.”
“My father is a loon, but he means well. He’s much smarter than people give him credit for. My mother is his oldest friend. They never tire of each other. I envy them.” He seemed surprised at this admission. It was the most she’d heard him say at one time.
Aidan took her rook with his other knight. “She’s married and living by the water in the Ken. I visited her while I was studying. She’s very happy. You knew her, didn’t you?”
“We played when we were girls.”
He looked up at the ceiling, eyes half-closed, a smile creeping onto his face. “Yes,” he said, “I knew it when I saw you at the ball. You were familiar, but I couldn’t place you. I remember the two of you playing by the river at my parents’ house. You’d always play at—what was it?”
“Being sailors,” Anelle said. “We had grand adventures. We even found some treasure. But as I recall, you never wanted to join.”
“No. You and Amena always ended up covered in mud. I didn’t want to get my books dirty.” He laughed, a strange guttural sound that caused Anelle to erupt in giggles.
“That’s the first time I’ve heard you laugh,” she choked out.
“I forgot what it felt like.” He studied her face until she had to turn away. “I remember you with your hair plaited all the way down your back. There was one strand in the front that would always break free.” He reached over the chessboard and tucked the stray lock behind her ear. “Some things don’t change.”
Anelle looked down at the game, blushing. She moved her queen to his side of the board.
* * *
They talked about the books Anelle read and the flowers and vegetables in the garden. When it rained, Aidan taught her melodies on the fortepiano. She watched as he leaned into the instrument, his fingers dancing across the keys, reminding Anelle of her surprise at how gracefully he’d moved at the ball. On sunny days, she showed him how to make dyes from flowers in the woods. Their hands were stained ochre for days.
He rode with her back to her house to fetch clothing and her loom. There was a moment of hesitation before they returned to his estate, as if they both realized the absurdity of her staying at his house when her own was so close by. This time, there was no storm, no fog, no coming night or lame horse to keep her. The pieces of her loom were wrapped up in a cloth under his arm.
“Are you ready?” he asked. She nodded.
They did not talk about Kira.
When a thunderstorm shook his house, they sat on the divan, knees touching, using their laps as a table for the chessboard. The next evening, Aidan took Anelle up to the top floor of the house, cracked open a window in the roof, and hoisted himself outside.
He extended his hand into back the room. Anelle balked, unable to decide if he was being callous.
“My father–” Tears stung at the corners of her eyes.
“You said he loved going on the roof.”
A wonderful, innocent smile played on his mouth, but not in his eyes. There was an emptiness in him that she couldn’t grasp. Sometimes she thought she had it, had him, but then whatever was lacking fell further away. He hadn’t thought that going on the roof would cause her pain. But it did. And she went anyway.
She took his hand, letting him help her up. The Vale spread out before them, the mists on the ground making the forest floor glow blue. The sky burned crimson. Aidan lay on his back, staring up at the purple clouds streaking the horizon.
“I can see why your father liked this,” he said.
Anelle pointed out constellations and told stories she learned from her father of how foolish birds, wise kings, and lithe fairies came to be hung in the heavens.
Aidan propped himself up on one elbow. “You’re always doing that. Weaving. Tapestries or stories, it doesn’t matter.”
Anelle brushed her hair back behind her ears. “Tapestries and stories have minds of their own. I just bring them to life. Each color or texture says something different, and even if I choose the wrong one, it’s a happy accident. I end up with something that’s different from what I intended, but whatever comes out is right. It’s like your music.”
Aidan watched a sparrow fly overhead, silhouetted on the moon. “Not exactly. The wrong notes are the ones people will remember. I can’t unplay a mistake. I have to get it right the first time.”
“Aidan,” Anelle said, “how is it that you’re almost thirty and you’re not married?”
He didn’t answer. She rolled over to look at him. He lay on his back, his face a mixture of tension and confusion.
“Why is it,” he asked in return, “that I’ve been well for more than a month and you’re still here?”
The questions hung between them, thickening the air.
With the Summer Solstice and another trip to the Market approaching, Anelle focused on her tapestries and thought about going home. Her threads wove a turbulent ocean with a ship rolling in the waves. She had only seen the sea in pictures, so she let her imagination fill in the gaps. She made a point to show clear sky in the distance to give her sailors hope.
The evening before she left for the Market, Aidan sat next to her as she tied off the fringe at the bottom of her loom.
“I was married,” he said. “You asked why I wasn’t married. I was, once. She ended it.”
“I’m sorry,” Anelle said.
Aidan’s voice was strangely emotionless, as though he were talking about something that had happened to someone else. “We were young. She was lovely in her wedding dress.”
When he didn’t continue, she began to remove the completed tapestry from her loom.
“And you?” he asked, inflection returning to his voice. “I answered your question. You answer mine. Why are you still here?”
Anelle folded the tapestry, avoiding his eyes for fear he’d see how nervous she had become. She was overcome with the sensation that something significant was about to happen. “I’m not,” she said. “I’m going to the Market tomorrow.”
“Are you coming back?”
Anelle traced the line of one of the waves crashing across the tapestry. “Do you want me to?”
He covered her hand with his.
“Yes,” she repeated. She reached up and placed her hand on his cheek. He shuddered for a moment, and his eyes gleamed with something that might have been wonder. He leaned into her.
His beard tickled her chin.
* * *
At the Market, Madylen remarked upon Anelle’s good mood. Anelle only said that things were going well as she sold another tapestry.
“Your friend who was with Bluebeard. How is she?” Madylen asked as the girls sat around Anelle’s fire at the end of the day. She unbraided her long, red hair and began to comb through the snarls. “Say she left him.”
Anelle tore a piece of bread off of the loaf she bought as the Market closed. “She left him.”
“She got out in one piece?”
“She’s sick. I haven’t seen her since the Equinox. Her mother wouldn’t let me. But I think she did something to Aidan. He was strange after she left.”
“You saw him?”
Anelle nodded, and Madylen read the guilt on her face.
“You’re not‒?” She took Anelle’s hand. “Please, don’t.”
Anelle was silent.
Aidan was in the music room when she returned to the Vale. They sat side-by-side at the fortepiano.
“Play with me?” he asked. She began to tap out one of the melodies he’d taught her in counterpoint to his more complex song. She thought about the fear in Madelyn’s eyes when she said goodbye that morning and hit a series of wrong notes.
Aidan stopped playing. “Were those ‘happy accidents?’” he laughed.
Anelle looked at him. She thought about the two months she spent in his house and made the decision once more to focus on what was in front of her, what she could see, and what she felt.
But a seed of doubt had been planted in the back of her mind. Before the new moon, she would try to see Kira.
* * *
“I have to go.” Aidan walked into his bedchamber. “My father invited me to the Vale proper.”
Anelle looked up from her book. Aidan sat on the bed and put on his boots.
“Do you want me to come with you?” she asked. He lay back so that his head rested on her lap. She combed her fingers through his hair.
“It’s going to be a group of old men. My mother won’t even be there. You’d be bored. I think I’m going to be bored.”
“Fine.” Anelle pushed him off her. “I’ll stay here, all by my lonesome.”
Aidan pulled a key ring out of his pocket. “So you can lock the door if you go anywhere. The house key is the big one.”
Anelle twirled the ring around her finger. “And the little gold one?”
Aidan stood and turned towards the door. “You don’t need it.”
“What does it open?”
He didn’t look at her when he answered, so quietly that she wasn’t sure she’d heard him right.
“You don’t need to use that key, I said.”
“No.” Anelle got out of the bed. “You said it opened your—”
He pulled her towards him, pressing her hands to his chest. “So don’t use it,” he said forcefully, then, softening, “because you’re already here.”
After he left, Anelle dressed and set about her chores in the garden. She kept the keys on a chain around her neck. She threaded her loom, finished her book, and went for a walk in the forest, locking the front door behind her. By evening, she found herself pacing back and forth in the drawing room. She glanced her loom, but it held no interest. The forbidden key pulsed against her chest.
She counted rooms in her head: the drawing room, music room, library, kitchen, two bedchambers, the servants’ quarters. None of these had doors that locked. She grabbed a candle off of the wall. Guilt burrowed into her heart as she searched for a hidden door. She found it on the top floor in the corner where the moonlight from the window in the roof would never reach.
She fit the key into the lock.
She thought about Madylen and her cousin and about Kira. Even though she didn’t want to, she thought about Aidan’s wife, lovely in her wedding dress. Finally, she thought of Aidan. He asked her not to, trusted her not to. But that part of him that was missing–whatever it was–lay behind the door. She couldn’t do without it anymore.
Anelle turned the key.
Her candle had almost burned out. She winced as wax dripped onto her skin. The dark room stank of fetid, old metal. A broken, twisted form covered by a sheet rested on a low platform in the center of the room. As Anelle approached, what she had thought to be a shroud revealed itself as a long, white dress, stained dark red. The woman’s blonde hair, caked with gore, covered her face. Gold and silver wedding threads sliced into her wrists.
Anelle stumbled backwards as bile rose in her throat. She dropped the keys, which splashed into a pool of viscous liquid. Cold fingers brushed her neck. She wheeled around to face another form leaning up against the wall, head tilted at an unnatural angle and red hair cascading onto the floor. A jagged stump of bone protruded from the shoulder where an arm should have been. Anelle tripped over the missing limb as she went for the door, falling and landing hard against the ground. Her candle flew out of her hands and rolled into the center of the room.
There were nine bodies, bloody and mangled. Light shone on a figure in a blue dress slumped in the corner with a single gash across her cheek. Kira’s cold eyes stared back at Anelle as the candle shuddered and went out.
Anelle felt along the floor. Her fingers brushed against fabric, hard and crusted with dried blood, against hair and cold, waxy flesh, and, finally, against the doorway as she crawled back into the attic. She ran down the stairs and out of the house, gasping to fill herself with sweet evening air. The image of Kira, cold and alone but for her eight silent sisters, floated in front of her.
Anelle’s horse perked up as she ran into the stable and threw a saddle on his back. Wind tossed her hair as they galloped down the forest path. As soon as she could see Kira’s house, she leapt off her mount, ran across the clearing, and pounded on the door.
“Bronwyn!” she shouted. “Open up!”
Anelle heard soft voices as someone approached from inside. Bronwyn threw the door open.
“Goddess, girl, it’s the dead of night!”
Anelle’s hand flew to her chest to stop her heart from fluttering out.
“You said Kira was sick! She’s dead and locked up in a closet in the attic!”
“What are you blathering on about? Kira is here.”
“No,” Anelle stammered, “She was dead and there was a gash on her cheek and—”
“Kira is here.” Bronwyn placed a gentle hand on Anelle’s shoulder. “See for yourself.”
“Anelle?” A weak voice came from inside. Bronwyn stood aside as Anelle rushed by. Kira sat in bed, hair ringed by moonlight from the window behind her.
“Kira! But I just saw you‒”
Kira’s arms were pale and thin, covered with the fresh scars of pox marks. Her shoulders jutted out under her nightdress as she leaned forward to take Anelle’s hands.
“What are you doing here so late?” she asked.
“I thought you were dead,” Anelle said as a mixture of relief and confusion flooded through her. “I saw your body.”
“I’m not. I had the pox. I don’t remember much of it. But Mama took care of me. She said you came by a few times. I’m sorry she wouldn’t let you in. She was afraid you’d get sick, too. What happened? Did you have a dream?”
“No!” Anelle said, much louder than she’d intended. Bronwyn came into the room with a cup of tea and encouraged Anelle to sit.
“At Aidan’s house,” Anelle said, gritting her teeth. “There’s a room in the attic, and you’re in it. You’re dead.”
“Well, I’m not.” Kira laughed nervously. “I haven’t been at Aidan’s since a fortnight after we saw you at the Market. I was starting to feel sick, and he never noticed. I told him I wouldn’t be coming back.” Kira gazed at Anelle with amused suspicion. “Why were you there?”
Anelle’s hands trembled, and she fought not to spill her tea.
“I sent a message to your house when Mama said I could have visitors. Did you get it?”
“No,” Anelle said. “I haven’t been at home.” She ran her thumb around the edge of the cup. “Did you ever go up to Aidan’s attic?”
“Why would I?”
Hot tea splashed onto Anelle’s hand as she placed the cup next to the bed.
“I have to go.” She leaned over and kissed Kira’s forehead. “I’m glad you’re feeling better. And I’m sorry that I didn’t come around for so long. I’ve been—” She closed her eyes and Aidan smiled his wonderful, unreachable smile before the image decayed into something horrific. “I have to go. I’ll come again soon, I promise.”
She bid farewell to Bronwyn and guided her horse away with her hands locked around the reins. The horse trotted instinctually down the path back to Aidan’s estate, and Anelle turned him away.
Her mother’s house was almost unfamiliar as she put her horse back in his old stall. He whinnied, unhappy about the stale oats that had been in his bucket for the last two months. Anelle stroked his neck, promising she’d get him something fresh in the morning.
Rainwater streaked the windows. Anelle imagined her mother’s words of chastisement at how neglectful she had been. She picked up a paper stuck under the door. Was sick, the note said in Kira’s careful handwriting. Am getting better. Come by. ~K. Anelle folded the parchment and went inside. She walked through the rooms, brushing her hands over dusty tables. Leaving her dress on the floor beside her, she crawled into bed, pulled the blanket up to her chin, and stared up at the ceiling. For the first time that night, she cried.
* * *
It was all Anelle could do not to think about the hidden room as she spent the next day cleaning her mother’s house. She had come to think of Aidan’s estate as her home, comfortable and warm. Now, her memory made the structure dark and dismal. She had discovered what the house had secreted away and feared that there was worse yet to find within its master.
The dress that she wore the day before lay at the foot of her bed; the hem was caked with blood. A sob caught in her throat. She ran to the river that cut across her family’s land. No matter how much she pounded it against the rocks, the stain would not come out. As the sun set, she realized how much time had passed since she came down to the water. Her fingers were wrinkled, and the hem of the tainted dress was in tatters. She stared at the stream rushing below her and felt terribly alone.
Anelle hooked her hair behind her ears and turned towards the northeastern path.
* * *
The stairs creaked as she walked up to the attic, carrying a candle from the drawing room. Her shadow loomed in the narrow stairway. The door to the hidden room was still wide open. Decaying scents permeated the attic.
Kira’s body slumped against the far wall, wearing the same dress that she had worn when Anelle had seen her with Aidan at the Market. Anelle crouched on the floor before the corpse and touched its face. The skin was solid, waxy, and cold, but the body bore no signs of harm other than the gash across its cheek. Kira may have been alive and well, but this body was undeniably hers. As Anelle looked around the room, she tried to remember if Madylen said if her cousin was alive; the red-haired corpse on the opposite wall bore too strong a resemblance not to be her relation.
The voice came from downstairs. Aidan was home.
He called again, this time from the second floor. The stairs creaked as he ascended. Snuffing her candle, Anelle pressed herself into the shadows in the corner of the crypt.
Aidan stopped in front of the open door. His candle illuminated his hands and face, which crumpled as he looked into the room. “No…” he whispered. His breath blew out the flame for a moment before it caught again. He picked something up from the ground. Anelle saw the keys he had given her two days before, sticky with blood. He clutched the ring to his chest, streaking his tunic with the blood that covered the house key. From her hidden corner, Anelle could see that, just like her ruined dress, the key to the crypt remained tarnished no matter how much he rubbed at it.
Aidan’s motions became frantic, and he cried out as the metal ripped through the fabric and bit into his skin. With an anguished yell, he threw the keys against the wall, where they bounced off the stone and landed in the lap of a raven-haired corpse.
He walked with leaden steps towards the platform in the center of the room. Anelle shrank back against the wall to stay in the shadows. Aidan sat, regarding his wife’s bloodied body with indifference, and buried his face in his hands. He murmured Anelle’s name, sending a shiver down her back.
Aidan wiped at the tears that streaked his cheeks and spoke in what sounded like a foreign tongue, repeating the incantation with a rising cadence. The candlelight intensified as he spoke.
Thunder sounded inside the room, and Aidan’s body arced violently backwards. His candle fell to the floor. His eyes froze to the ceiling, and his arms spread wide as light shot forth from his chest. As the glow shifted above him, a female form swam in the air, made of light, dust, and starstuff. Aidan shook as the figure solidified. The form’s hair, which darkened to a reddish brown, waved about as though it were underwater. Her hands clutched at his chest.
Aidan’s face twisted as he contorted his torso in an effort to make the spectre relinquish her hold. A scarlet stain crept down the front of her dress. Blood sprayed across the floor as violent slashes appeared on her cheeks, but her expression remained loving. Her face floated down to brush against his cheek with a ghostly kiss. Aidan tried to pull away. His movement bent the spirit’s hands in an impossible angle. With a terrible snap, one of her fingers broke off, flying across the room to land next to Anelle.
She stared in horror at the broken digit. Without realizing what she was doing, she picked it up. The finger was warm and soft, like it was made of real flesh and bone. Blood dripped from the severed end onto her palm. She shoved it into the pocket of her dress as Aidan screamed again and panic rose inside her.
With a final cry, Aidan broke free, the spirit expelled. They both dropped to the floor. Aidan’s face smashed into the stone, and his nose gushed blood. The spectre, now solid, thudded to the ground with her neck bent at an odd angle. Anelle rushed over and rolled Aidan onto his side. His face was cold as she brushed his cheek with her fingers. He moaned. Anelle crawled back to the corner of the room, wrapped her arms around her knees, and rocked back and forth. Aidan’s body shook as he raised himself up, mechanically wiping away the blood that dripped from his nose. He stumbled out of the room with all the grace of a marionette with half its strings cut.
When she was sure he was gone, Anelle went to the new corpse. Her front was covered in crimson blood that was warm on Anelle’s fingers. She wore a gown the color of new grass, edged in cream-colored lace. Anelle recognized it as the one she had worn at Lord Briadach’s ball. She smoothed back the corpse’s thick, brown-red hair and found herself staring into her own lifeless green eyes.
She wanted to scream. She was staring into a mirror of what could be, where how she felt on the inside matched what she looked like on the outside, and for a moment, she wasn’t sure which body she belonged in. Her mind flashed back to Aidan’s exit, his indifference to what he had birthed, and everything came together. “His heart,” she murmured. “He said the key unlocked his heart.” She ran out of the room.
Aidan stood in the attic, staring at the wall. Anelle yelled at his back.
He turned around, cocking his head as his blank eyes tried to decide what to make of her.
“On your wedding day,” she demanded, “how did you feel? Were you scared? Happy? Nervous? What were you?”
Aidan’s cheek twitched.
“And when she left you? How much did it hurt? You don’t know because it’s all locked up in that room. What about when you kissed me? How did that make you feel?” Aidan’s focus turned inward as he searched for an answer that she knew wasn’t there. “What about right now? What do you feel, Aidan? Tell me!”
“I don’t know,” he whispered in the dry monotone that Anelle hadn’t heard since she first entered his house. She rushed at him, pushing against his shoulders. He crumpled to the floor in a tangle of limbs.
“Did you feel that?” she yelled. “Is this some kind of test that you give all the women you court? You tempt them with the key and then see if they’ll look in your little room and find your secret? And when they fail, they end up—” Anelle grabbed the finger out of her pocket and shoved it in his face. “This is wrong!”
His eyes followed the finger with muted interest. Anelle hurled it at him. The finger hit him in the chest, where it vanished in a flash of blue light. Anelle took a few steps back in surprise. Aidan gasped, taking short, pained breaths. When he looked at Anelle, it was with the dim light of a far-away memory.
“What do you feel towards me right now?” she asked.
Panic sliced across Aidan’s face. He shrank towards the wall. “I don’t know,” he croaked. A bit of emotion returned to his voice. “It hurts.” He clutched at his chest where the finger disappeared.
Anelle sank down against the opposite wall, next to the door to Aidan’s heart, unlocked, its gruesome contents open for everyone to see.
“All those women,” she struggled to say what she was almost unable to fathom. “They’re not women. They’re you. Your feelings.”
“My wife.” The effort of recalling the memory showed on his face. “We were married three months. She said she loved me, but she just wanted status. And I—I wasn’t enough. I wasn’t right. So she left. I remember what happened, but it’s like a story that someone told me. It hurt, I think. I think it hurt like it does now. It’s like there’s just a little bit of feeling inside me, but it’s blown up to fill the whole space, and it—” He closed his eyes. “It’s too much.”
“And what is that feeling?” Anelle spat. “I hope it hurts. Because then you might understand how I feel.” Her cruelty shocked her. Tears sprang to her eyes. “But you can’t understand that. How could you think about anyone else when you keep having to learn how to feel again yourself?”
Aidan looked past her into the hidden room, breathing in ragged gasps. Fresh blood pooled on the floor near the entrance, mixing with the dried gore.
“It was so hard. She didn’t want to go,” he said. “Or maybe I didn’t want to let her. And she ended up like that. Some of them…are harder to let go.”
Anelle followed his gaze back to the room, where her figure stared at the ceiling with lifeless eyes. She felt a sick comfort at the idea that she had been one of the difficult ones.
“You can’t just magic away your feelings and put them in a room every time you get hurt.” She leaned back against the wall. “Those women—your wife, the others—what did they do when they found themselves in the room?”
“The ones who saw the room never came back. And the ones who didn’t—they never came back either. It was only when they were gone that I—”
Anelle felt heaviness in her chest as the last piece fit into the puzzle. “You thought I’d left for good,” she murmured. “So you got rid of me. And now you feel nothing.”
They sat in silence but for Aidan’s gasping breaths. Dust hovered in the shaft of moonlight above his head.
“I didn’t say you could do that,” Anelle said. “Put it back.”
Fear rose on Aidan’s face. “What?”
“All of it. The finger went back. Everything else can too.”
“You can’t, or you’re afraid to?”
He covered his heart with his hands. “Just putting that little bit back, it’s almost unbearable. All of it? I can’t—”
“You don’t know what you can do,” Anelle said. “You’re just a shell of who you’re supposed to be.”
“I’m sure it does. But you learn to manage it. That’s what we do when we lose someone. You got rid of everything, even the good parts, and you’re left with nothing at all.”
Aidan’s tears mixed with the blood from his nose. It seemed to Anelle that he’d actually become the empty loom she’d once imagined him to be.
“If I took it all back,” he said, “I don’t know who I’d be. All those feelings could make me into someone else, and…”
He looked down at his hands.
“…you might not want me.”
Anelle closed her eyes. Warmth flooded through her. Even now, when he was so incomplete, part of Aidan—the small part of his feelings he’d taken back already or maybe something even deeper—still cared for her. But he was right: if he emptied the room, took that grotesque menagerie back into himself, he could become someone else. His fear cooled her senses.
“You’re right,” she said. “I might not.”
She turned towards the staircase that would lead her downstairs and out of the house.
“But I might.”
She felt him reaching for her, but he stayed, tethered to the shaft of moonlight. She stopped, one hand on the wall, and turned back to him.
“You might not want me, either,” she said. “But I can’t love just part of you.”
As she started down the stairs, the bands that held Anelle’s heart together snapped in two. For a moment, she wished she could forget. But she reveled in the hurt, its strength almost making her smile.
* * *
In the week that followed, Anelle visited Kira every day but kept what happened in Aidan’s attic to herself. The girls went for slow walks along the forest paths. Kira leaned on a walking stick for support as Anelle gathered saplings to make a new loom. She furiously cleaned her house, making sure it was tidy for when her mother returned.
The new moon hid in the shadows when Anelle climbed up to the roof. She lay on her back, feeling the breeze tickle her bare feet, and closed her eyes.
A terrible scream from the distant woods jolted her out of her half-sleep, and she sat up, almost losing her balance. Blue light erupted over the tree line, illuminating the forest with starstuff. Anelle drew in a hopeful breath, but the light disappeared as quickly as it came.
* * *
A fortnight passed before there was a knock on the door. Anelle put down her shuttle, wound with thread to begin the first tapestry on her new loom, and ran to answer it, eager to see her mother after her long absence.
“Mama?” she called as she threw the door open.
Aidan stood before her, leaning wearily against the doorframe. Sunlight glinted off his blue-black hair.
“Anelle.” He looked exhausted. His cheeks were hollow, his undereyes puffy and dark. But fire radiated from within him, even as he looked away to fish for something in his pocket. When he met her eyes again, she knew that something was different. He was more present, more solid. His voice sounded with new resonance.
“I have something for you.” A shiver ran up her arm at his touch. He placed something cool and smooth into her palm and folded her fingers back over it, covering her hand with his. “You can do whatever you want with it. Keep it, give it back, throw it away. It’s yours.”
She opened her hand and looked down to see the small gold key, clean and sparkling in the sun.
She asked, “What is it?”
He smiled, and the man Anelle knew bubbled to the surface.
– end –
Tags: Molly Lazer