It is an insult to die at midday.
In the mountain country where I was born, such things take place in the dark of night: the fall of an axe, the knotting of a noose. Here, it is a spectacle. From the narrow window of my tower room, I can see the road that leads away from the castle, down to the sea; it is already lined with people, jostling and squabbling amongst themselves for the best view of my execution.
In this place, a town will turn out to watch a man kill his wife, and call it justice.
My husband wants me to see this, to spend my last hours thinking about what will happen when the sun hits its zenith. Very soon he will step from the great oak doors, and a guard will come to bring me down. The crowd will get what they hunger for then. I hope it haunts them. It probably won’t.
By this point it makes no difference. He can break every bone in my body and shed every drop of my blood and he will still be the fool.
Elyse will still be gone.
This is the story I stole. It began without me, in a city I will never see again.
Elyse was the queen’s seventh child and the first to survive infancy. By then no one expected a son; it had begun to be doubted there would be an heir at all. The rumours that had plagued the queen from her first miscarriage grew louder, circumventions around a central point, delicately half-said by people who mattered. The outlandish death of the queen’s mother. Her difficulty birthing a healthy child. In the early years of her marriage, the servants swore it had rained when she cried, and stormed when she raged.
Witch blood, was what they wouldn’t say out loud.
So on her fifth birthday Elyse was paraded through the streets in a palanquin, a poppet princess waving solemnly to the curious populace, drowning out the gossip in a rush of loyalist sentiment. Daughters have their uses.
For the queen, however, it opened a new quandary. Elyse was now too old for a nurse, yet too young for lady’s maid. She needed a companion—a handmaid close to her own age, quiet, quick and competent. There were plenty of servants to suit already at work in the castle, but while commoner girls were good enough to scrub floors and pluck chickens, even the daughter of a better sort of merchant was never going to be the confidante of a princess. To say the queen was a traditionalist would be to say that a tree is made of wood; her daughter had to have a companion of good noble blood, as generations of heirs had before her.
Unfortunately, while the practice was still favoured by the royal family, the sense of it being an honour had declined amongst the nobility. They would rather send their daughters abroad to the new academies, to forge friendships that might mature into advantageous political alliances and acquire a cultured polish that would appeal to wealthy husbands. Royal patronage could only take you so far; a future marchioness was much better off learning to talk about art in five languages.
That was never going to be my life.
My father’s title was the only aristocracy my family could claim. Instead of keeping a house in the city or moving south to a villa for the winter, the way our friends did, we lived in an ancient pile in the western valleys, held together more by ivy than mortar. Breeding racehorses was not a hobby for my father; it was the only way to pay the farmhands. I was the second eldest of thirteen and could turn my hand to any number of household tasks, including minding a horde of small brothers and sisters. When asked why she had not yet sent me away for a proper education, my mother looked hunted and made excuses about my “weak heart.”
The royal summons was a reprieve for her, a way to save face. As for me, it was the adventure I’d never believed I would have. I could not wait to go.
The city of Celvre was two days travel to the north, close to the mountain pass for which it was named. I arrived at dusk inside the grandest carriage I had ever seen, bowling downhill towards the sweeping curve of the city that encircled moon-bright Lady’s Lake. The way ahead was lit by glass lamps, blooming in the dark like captive stars. As the carriage rolled through wide winding streets, I knelt precariously on my seat, the better to stare. Women in jewel-coloured gowns alighted at a theatre, wearing lace masks of silver and gold; at one street corner a juggler spun knives between his fingers, while at the next a fire eater exhaled blue flame.
Above it all rose the shadowy weight of Mordan’s Keep. It had been a fortress for centuries before it became a palace and when I lifted my eyes to its night-shrouded walls, it stared back through narrowed arrow slits, a stone giant patiently awaiting the next war. Green banners snapped atop the turrets, bearing the white horsehead of the queen.
If her husband’s banner was aloft beside hers, I did not see it. That was a fitting beginning. In all the years I spent at the side of his daughter, I never exchanged a word with the king. His ill health was notorious—if he left his sickbed for above a week it was considered a marvel and his physician of the hour might start dreaming of a knighthood. It never lasted, though. At length his gaunt, dull-eyed presence would fade away like a sad dream and the queen would sit alone once more in the throne room.
It was there I first saw Elyse.
Though I was not quite four years the elder, to her eyes I must have seemed almost grown up. Tall for my age, nerves pulling my mouth into a severe line, I towered awkwardly over her. She tried to hide her face in her mother’s skirts but the queen pulled quickly away, as if embarrassed by her daughter’s indecorum.
“You may approach, child,” she said to me, her voice clear and brittle as glass.
I obeyed very carefully, afraid of using the wrong word, the wrong gesture, of being run through by that steely gaze. Not as afraid as Elyse, though. That woke a whisper of rebellion in me. As I curtseyed, my head was brought briefly level with the princess’s, and I pulled a face where the queen couldn’t see. The little girl frowned and tilted her head, like a dubious bird wondering whether to fly away.
She was the same age as my youngest sister Mardie, but for weeks I thought she was older. Mardie had never been silent in her life; she ran and laughed and screamed her lungs raw when she wanted attention. The princess was not allowed to run. She had been taught from an early age to cover every laugh with her hand, as if it were a dirty thing. The last thing she wanted was attention.
Is it terrible I liked that, at first? Yes. I think it is.
I was not at my boldest either, of course. Life in the castle could not have been more different from the mildly anarchic informality of my home. Elyse became my bellwether: by watching what she did, I learned when meals were meant to be eaten and where, what places I was permitted to go and which were forbidden. That way I knew what to pretend I was doing.
When we were not at lessons—it being rightly, if insultingly, assumed that I would be Elyse’s educational equal—we were for the most part expected to keep to her rooms in the Maiden’s Tower, on the east side of the keep. There were bell cords in each room to summon a servant should we need one and an elderly attendant of indeterminate status stationed at the foot of the tower stairs, who was to catch any slack as I learned my duties. She was tiny and fiercely genteel, quick to crack down on any mistake. I discovered eventually that she had been lady’s maid to the old queen, the one whose scandalous death still haunted this place like a ghost. As far as I was concerned, she had high standards and low expectations; Elyse was treated with distant, chilly courtesy. By unsaid agreement, we avoided her quarters whenever we could.
To be honest, accustomed as I was to a rabble of fractious siblings, having only the one charge threw me. What was I supposed to do with her? Any attempt at jokes or games was met with wide-eyed incomprehension. When in the same room as the queen, Elyse resembled nothing so much as a pretty clockwork doll.
It was only in the gardens she really came to life. Twice a day we were sent outdoors to walk the shrubbery paths that crisscrossed the royal estate. Elyse would politely ignore any attempt of mine to set our course and go whatever way she wanted. The place was a maze, but she never got lost.
Often we’d go to the royal aviary and she’d poke crusts through the bars for the parrots. Another favourite haunt was the hothouse, where tropical fruit trees grew green all year round underneath steaming glass. Her mother would have forbidden it if she knew, but Elyse was a favourite with the gardeners and no one told. She only led me there once she’d known me a few weeks and seen my own minor misdemeanours. She had a soul of her own, the queen’s daughter, but she held it close where no one could see.
As the months passed, it felt like the chill of the keep’s stone walls was sinking through my skin. What child of five is never allowed to play in the dirt? What little girl is not even permitted to bend over and pick up a dropped toy, because it does not befit the dignity of her station?
“Watch,” I whispered one day, when we were alone together in the gardens. Bay tree hedges rose high on either side, forming a corridor of dim green light. Hitching up my skirts, I crouched and dug my hands into the dirt beside the path. It was damp enough to be easily moulded. I made a messy man-shape and stuck twig arms to the sides.
“Go on,” I urged. “Get your hands as dirty as you like.”
Elyse stared. To a child schooled in obedience from the first moments of her birth, I must have seemed an utter radical. She looked from me to the hedge, where roots dug deep into the earth and little pillows of moss grew thick in the shadows. Stiffly, like the little old woman she was not, she bent over and poked her finger into the damp earth. She drew a frowning face and gave a gulping little giggle at her own daring—then flicked me a startled look as I started giggling too. It was all so absurd.
Footsteps on the pavement made us both jump up. The princess went white, hiding her grubby hands behind her back. A sudden gust of wind eddied around us, whipping up a cloud of dried leaves; when they cleared, we saw a garden boy carrying a basket of weeds, struggling to hold onto his hat. He froze at the sight of us, then bowed so low he almost overbalanced and fled as fast as he could. I looked at Elyse. She looked at me. I was the first to start laughing and then she did too, only a little bit hysterically.
From that day onward, we were an alliance.
When the queen forbade sweets (“a princess’s teeth must be as flawless as her reputation”) I smuggled sugared violets and peppermint candies from the kitchen in my sewing box. We taught each other all the games we knew and made up new ones that could be played in secret, tracing shapes onto each other’s hands during lessons or the dull afternoons when Elyse was trotted out to smile at strangers. When she wept into her pillow over a failed lesson, I wrote the answers in her place. A five-year-old’s handwriting is not difficult to mimic, and I was old enough to actually understand what we had been told. Sitting in quiet corners with my head down and my ears open, I was learning fast.
The queen did not age with the passing years; rather, she petrified. She dressed as if in a perpetual state of half-mourning, and there was so much distance in her eyes that I sometimes wondered how she could see me at all. Though Elyse and I were taught how to dance, parties were unknown within the castle walls, supposedly on account of the king’s ill health—as if he would even notice—and any excursion into the city was so carefully managed she might as well have had us on strings.
In response, we became mistresses of illusion. The princess would invent irreproachable employments of our time while I swept away the evidence: chalk scrawls, forbidden dice, powdered sugar. Once or twice, we were caught and punished, but our repentance was very visible and our next secrets better kept.
The guard is at my door.
There is a moment of surreal awkwardness as he grasps for the correct title. At length he settles for a curt bow. “They are waiting,” he says.
I know him. I was here for his first day of duty, when he opened the wrong gate and was swarmed by geese—it was the first time I’d laughed in months. Poor boy. He does not know what to think. I leave my window, leave the room without any attempt at delay—there’s no point now. The guard takes my arm very lightly, with a mumbled apology, then let’s go again when he realises we must go single file down the stairs. He moves ahead of me. I lift my skirt daintily and follow.
“Will you stay and watch?” I ask, as if we’re talking about a mildly amusing show.
He hunches his shoulders against my gaze. “I must. I—it’s my duty.”
“I’m sorry,” he whispers, almost whimpers, as if he’s hurting. “I don’t want—I don’t know—why? Why did you do it?”
We have reached the last step. I pat his shoulder gently.
“That’s for me to know,” I tell him.
Let me make this plain: I do not want to die. More than anything, I don’t want to die like this. But I paid a very high price for this pretence and a few kind words are not enough to earn the truth.
The doors swing open.
The crowd howls.
Elyse at sixteen: not a clockwork doll any more. Her hair had darkened to a deep buttery shade but retained its curl, with a tendency to spring out from whatever style I’d attempted to create. She was not thin or pale enough to suit the queen, who now gave uneasy attention to her daughter’s looks, like an artist who suspects her masterwork is coming out wrong. There wasn’t much of her in the princess, and not much of the king either. Sometimes people mistook the two of us for sisters. I really don’t know why.
Me at twenty: still the taller, if only by half an inch, finally grown into my legs and nose, with hair a shade of brown that sometimes looked blonde in the right light. Quite an ordinary sort of pretty. My looks were a relief to the queen because they made Elyse look more fashionable by comparison.
By day we walked in careful steps, trussed into tight bodices, drinking bitter tea at soirees and tracing out frowning faces on each other’s wrists instead of saying rude things. By night, we made it a mission to break every one of the queen’s rules.
I patched together luridly colourful gowns with ruffled skirts and Elyse stole a rope ladder from the gardeners. We climbed out the window, swinging lightly down from the castle walls, and roamed the night markets, dancing with jugglers and thieves and learning to cheat at cards. When people asked our names, we laughed. By lantern-light we might be tumblers, storytellers, flower-sellers, minstrel’s daughters—a pair of light-footed troublemakers always gone by daybreak.
If the queen had caught me, she would probably have killed me. She had fought all her life for the respectability we were so determined to throw away, had beaten it into armour, but that did not keep her safe. The whispers only ever grew louder.
In the night market, we heard them.
What woman never gets wet in the rain? Never gets dirty when she walks in the mud? My cousin said…my aunt saw…everyone knows…
“Remember her mother,” the rumour mongers reminded each other. The old queen, they meant, who had ridden out in the last war with a bow on her back and never missed a shot—who had died throwing herself atop her lover’s funeral pyre, screaming at the flames to give him back. “Never seen a storm like that before,” we were told, warning looks exchanged above our heads. The lake had broken its banks that night, rushing through the streets.
Sorceress. Witch. Tainted blood.
It felt wrong to listen. I was, in my own way, a loyalist. But Elyse wouldn’t leave, eating up secrets with her hands fisted under the table, and I couldn’t go without her.
“You know it’s not true,” I said, walking back through the dark.
“How do you know?”
“They say she has a spell to watch her enemies. If she could do that, she’d know where we are right now.” I stopped, melodramatically raising a hand to cup my ear. “Do you hear the guards on their way?”
Elyse smacked my arm. “Just because she can’t scry—”
“She’s not to blame for how her mother died.”
“Are you sorry for her?” Elyse asked, incredulous. She spun to face me, bright skirts whirling around her ankles, long hair loose around her shoulders. She was pretending to be a travelling player and had painted flowers on her cheek. I rubbed them carefully away with my thumb.
“Do you really think your mother is a witch?” I asked.
Elyse looked away. I still had my hand against her cheek; I let it fall.
The queen never did catch us, and in the end the reward was worse than any punishment. A princess could not inherit the throne; only a son could. The queen needed a grandchild to be her heir, and had no time for sentiment.
The duke of Hamonsea was the chosen man, second son of a courted ally. He possessed a vast estate on the other side of the forest. A catch, the queen might have said if she didn’t believe such terms to be disgustingly vulgar. “Fortunate,” she called it instead, as Elyse stared at his portrait. The princess said nothing. Nor did I. We nodded and curtseyed ourselves out the door and into the gardens, where Elyse ripped branches off trees and smashed flower pots and spat out every curse she’d ever learned. Suddenly she collapsed in the grass and started to cry.
“I won’t!” she sobbed, over and over again. “I won’t, I won’t!”
I had no words to comfort her. The duke of Hamonsea might be rich and titled with a throne just one brother away, but he was also twice the princess’s age and had two wives already cold in the ground. From childbirth, we’d been told, but he had no children. He lived in a remote stronghold on the coast, as if even his father couldn’t stand to have him close.
“He’ll kill me,” the princess wept, burying her face in her hands. Her hair pooled in heavy golden chains. “He’ll cut me up and bury me with the other wives.”
I knelt and put my arms around her. The day had seemed bright a few hours ago, but now clouds were bruising the horizon. There was a storm coming.
“He’ll kill me,” Elyse said again, very softly, against my shoulder.
“He won’t,” I promised. “He won’t lay a hand on you.”
She calmed after that; she believed me, you see. Night after night I lay awake, trying to find a way out. We could run away—sell some jewels to pay passage across the sea, or buy a small boat of our own. I could make a living for us as a seamstress. I allowed myself to fantasise about a house of our own, what it would be like to wear colour every day and laugh as loud as we wanted. Where neither of us would have to marry anyone. It was such a pretty, fragile thought.
But there were more guards outside every night, patrolling the castle walls, walking the gardens. When I tried to slip out, as I’d done so often before, I was caught and had to invent an excuse very quickly. This alliance meant a great deal to the queen. She was taking no chances.
Elyse was to marry in Hamonsea; all the preparations were made with the grim efficiency of a funeral. Several times I suggested errands that might take me from the castle, but none of my pretexts were enough to get away. Watching the queen dress her silent daughter in white wedding silks, my heart felt like a stone in my chest. It was like forgetting how to breathe.
Weeks passed. The day came for our departure.
The weather was foul. Thunder rattled the windows, and squalls of rain had turned the courtyard into a morass of mud. It seemed the queen must surely put off the journey, but she did not. Instead she stood at the top of the castle steps and pressed a kiss against Elyse’s forehead, like a benediction, while I stood shivering beside our mounts. Mine was a placid brown gelding, the princess’s a restless white mare I had never seen before. Elyse wasn’t a good rider at the best of times—in this weather, on a horse she had not ridden before, I didn’t know how on earth she’d keep her seat.
I reached over to pet the mare’s neck, hoping to calm it down, and realised it was not after all entirely white. Three rusty red marks like smeared thumbprints spotted its forehead, between the eyes. My fingers stung when I brushed them and the queen looked up abruptly.
I dropped my hand, staring at the horse. It stared back at me.
The stone in my chest grew, expanding until it felt my ribs might crack.
“Go with my blessing,” the queen said, and we rode into the rain.
Four guards travelled with us as protection from any danger on the road and, as I am sure the queen intended, insurance we would not bolt before we were safely delivered to our destination. It was spring, not long after the thaw, the trees overhead budding with newborn leaves. The princess, riding between her guards, stared at the ground without seeing a thing. She wouldn’t talk. Now and again, her horse lifted its head to look at me.
They say the queen has a spell to watch her enemies. I should have listened.
Between the southern valleys and the coastline of the neigbouring kingdom lay the forest we called the Merewold. It was only four days ride from the castle, but here the chill of winter lingered among the evergreens; the air was cold, scented with pine and wet earth. We rode the path in single file, speaking little, for it seemed even to the least superstitious of us that something in this wood was listening. As Elyse rode the trees swayed, bending as if to watch her pass. The leaves whirled in her wake.
It never stopped raining.
For two more days we rode, until on the third morning we emerged from the trees and saw the road snaking downwards with the sea beyond.
The guards left us then. It would be an insult to the groom for them to stay, implying as that did that the queen didn’t believe he could protect her daughter. The men were so glad to go, they did not even wait for the duke’s appearance—he would be waiting at the road’s end, they assured us, and with that they disappeared among the pines, leaving Elyse and I alone. I doubted they would go far today. They were more afraid of the queen than of the forest.
There was a stream somewhere to the left of the path, just visible through the trees. Without a word Elyse plunged towards it, forcing her way through pine needles and waist-high brambles, falling to her knees by the water and thrusting her hands into its icy current. They were bleeding from the thorns.
“Elyse.” I bent, trying to pull her away. “Stop. I’ll fetch a cup.”
“You lied,” she said, without looking at me. “We can’t escape. You made me hope, and you lied.”
“No, I swear, we’ll find a way—”
Something moved behind us, a crushing tread in the undergrowth. I turned sharply and found the white horse pushing its way through the trees. Elyse made a startled sound.
“Queen’s daughter, do your duty,” the mare said. Its voice was a sibilant murmur, a courtier’s tones from a horse’s throat. I stifled a scream with my hands. “Be your heart broken, be it whole, duty is all.”
Elyse choked. She would have fallen into the stream but caught my skirts in time—she rose jerkily, still clinging to me.
“A witch horse,” she whimpered. “I’ve been riding a witch’s horse.”
“Your mother’s horse,” I whispered. She was shaking in my arms. We stood together at the stream’s edge, trapped under the mare’s steady gaze. I grew up around horses; I learned to ride and walk at the same time. Horses did not stare like that.
“Away from the river, queen’s daughter,” it said, and we shuddered. “The duke awaits. The day grows ever old.”
I decided then. It wasn’t a conscious decision, a carefully laid plan—if it had been I think it would have failed. I let Elyse go and started running, breaking through the undergrowth towards the road. My gelding was patiently cropping grass; no one had thought to curse my mount. I scrabbled wildly in the saddlebags, pulling free a long blue gown that had buttons instead of laces. It was not quite long enough, but it would do. My hair and face I could do nothing about—I was no princess.
That didn’t matter. Everyone knows portrait painters can’t be trusted.
Elyse reached me as I was swinging into the saddle. The mare was trying to follow, but had become snared in the brambles and whispering trees; I could hear its struggles to get free.
“Where are you going?” What a sight my princess was, tear-streaked and muddy. She didn’t understand.
“The duke is waiting,” I said. I left her there on the road, calling out my name.
It wasn’t my name any more.
The duke was waiting at road’s end, as promised, with a group of his men. I slowed the gelding as I reached them, holding out my hand for him to kiss. His fingers were cold, his smile colder. I held my back regally straight, and smiled.
“My lord! Forgive my undignified arrival. It has been a most awkward journey. My horse threw me and so I am forced to ride my maid’s. She is following on foot. Would one of your men go to collect her? Otherwise I fear we will be here all day, and I am wearied of these endless trees.”
The duke had never met the princess before, and certainly not her handmaid. In these clothes, with my arrogant ease, the duke did not doubt my authenticity for a moment. At his swift gesture, a man detached from the party and rode back the way I had come. The rest of us continued down the path, exchanging cool pleasantries.
“What would you have done with the guilty beast?” the duke asked.
“Oh, it is hopeless!” I exclaimed. “I declare it is more than half wild. Have its head cut off, for all I care, only do not allow it near myself or my maid again.” A bubble of hysteria welled from my chest and escaped as laughter. “My, but I sound bloodthirsty! My mother would not recognise me.”
The duke half-smiled. “We are not inclined to sentimentality, highness, here in Hamonsea. The beast will be slaughtered and a new mount found for you.”
By the time Elyse arrived, riding with the duke’s man, it was too late for her to stop me. She strained forward in the saddle, trying to meet my eye, but I turned away from her to laugh at the duke. He was saying something about hunting; I could not hear the individual words. He smiled again, and pressed my hand with his large heavy one.
There were ceremonies that night, fine lords and fine food and even dancing. I was so exhausted by then that I wanted to curl in a ball on the floor, but somehow I danced in the hard brawny arms of my fiancé, and smiled for his bleak-eyed father. My maid was, of course, excluded from the ceremonies. She had been sent to my chamber to prepare my things, but I was already thinking ahead to that.
“It is not that she’s an ill-hearted girl,” I said gaily to my groom-to-be at some point in the night, while I sat at his side and forced my aching face to smile, smile, smile. “But she has a sharp tongue and complains a good deal. I have a mind to dismiss her. Perhaps a purse to set her on her way could be arranged, and a new maid found for me tomorrow?”
“Of course,” said the duke. “I am glad you, too, disapprove insubordinance.”
“Well, naturally,” I said. “I cannot stand people always expecting more.”
Elyse was sent away that night. She knew I was watching and did not go quietly. She called for me, she kicked and wept and shouted, but the guards turned her roughly out the gates and threw her bag after her. My bag, it had been this morning. I’d slipped enough jewellery inside to buy her passage on the next ship out. I watched her disappear into the night, a defiant silhouette that kept turning back, as though she expected even now I might come down.
I did not. I went to bed and slept the sleep of the drugged and damned, until the sun of my wedding day came to wake me.
I married the duke of Hamonsea. The king blessed us without meeting my eyes, and we said our vows, and I wore a smile until it felt like a rictus. My hair looked almost golden in the sunlight, under my veils, and I knew the people who had come to watch our procession longed to be like me, to be the princess.
That night, in his bed, I bit down the tears until my lip bled.
We stayed a week after the wedding at the palace of the king, and afterwards rode in a beautiful white carriage up the steep and rutted roads to the duke’s stronghold. My rooms overlooked the sea—the only kindness that stone tomb ever had for me. I spent a great many hours looking out over the water and dreaming of a day that never came, when I would step on a boat and sail off to find Elyse in whatever haven she had built for herself. I hoped she was happy. Surely I had paid enough for that.
Two years passed before the queen came to visit her wedded daughter.
We had exchanged no letters; that pretence was beyond what I could bear and besides, Elyse would not have done it. I can’t say what kept the queen away for so long. I want to believe it was guilt; she did not want to face what she had done. Perhaps that is why she gave no warning of her impending visit—she thought Elyse would find a way to elude her. The first I knew of her arrival was when I saw horses coming up the road to the castle, led by the queen’s pennant.
I froze at the window, one hand pressed against my mouth. As the queen rode through the gates, she looked up. Nailed to the arch was the head of the horse whose death I had ordered, hung there by my husband in mockery of my bloodthirsty ways. Wind and sun and rain had reduced it to an empty skull, but the queen guessed. Her eyes went wide and found me, at my window.
And I smiled.
I stand here in the sun, waiting to die.
The queen stands on my left, my judge; the duke on my right, my executioner. I wonder whose thought it was that I should die this way, thrust naked into a barrel studded with nails and rolled down to the sea, where my bloodied remnants will be washed away by the tide. I suppose it doesn’t matter. They can do what they want. I have won.
With trembling fingers, I untie the ribbon at my throat and my white shift falls to the ground. The shouts of the crowd are deafening. The duke has trained them well.
He grips my shoulders and turns me to face him. I know him too well by now to hope for mercy—he should know me better than to hope for fear. The life I have is not worth begging for. His hands leave red prints on the bare skin of my arms. He thrusts me away and I stumble backwards, towards the barrel.
I fall on hard stone. All the breath in my body is knocked out of me.
The barrel is rolling away.
A wind has blown up from nowhere on this still, hot day. It fills my lungs, sweeps my hair across my face, blinds me for a moment—and in that moment, the crowd falls suddenly quiet. I comb the hair from my eyes and look down the road to the sea. A boat is bobbing in the water of the bay, and a girl is standing where the road meets the sand.
“Elyse,” I whisper.
And—”Elyse,” breathes the queen.
The wind whips at her, lashing the name from her lips. She staggers, holding up her hands as if to ward it off, but it is relentless. It whirls around the courtyard, leaving me untouched at the eye of the storm. The duke starts forward, drawing his sword; the wind beats him to his knees. At the end of the road, my death rolls to a halt at Elyse’s feet, and she looks me in the eyes. She holds out her arms.
I push myself to my feet. The wind caresses my cheek like a kiss.
And I run as fast as I can, past the gaping guards and the silenced crowd, all the way down to the water, where a witch’s daughter and her boat wait for me.
The wind fills our sails, and we are gone.