Please Note: this is an unedited draft offered for anticipation and entertainment only.
The Law of Greeting bound me to him. The Law of Unraveling stole me away.
No one had told me about that law, either, but something in my bones already knew about the dark law that streaks all our memories with tiger-striped charcoal. It’s the law that tells us nothing lasts forever. The law that reminds us that you can’t account for everything that might happen before it does. The law that determines that if something bad could happen … then it will happen.
And it was that law which stole me away. That, and my own foolishness. For in this, as in so many things, I was author of my own undoing, crafter of my own sorrow, grand architect of my own destruction. I had betrayed my husband and with him, I had betrayed myself.
And though I tried to pull my way free of my brother’s grip, though I tried to wrench the hood from my face, all I received in return was his firm rebukes and gentle shushing.
“Hush, Izolda. You have suffered a great harm and you are mad with it. You are drunk on magic. You will come back to sanity soon enough.”
Sanity? I was sane as any other. Saner than him, perhaps, as I had not spent my life hunting a lost sister.
Sane or not, my heart felt like a patchwork quilt torn asunder by giant hands. One half flapped in tatters reminding me of my family and hearth, urging me to think of a brother’s love so deep, so protective, that it crossed the walls of the world to come and snatch me from the hand of death.
But the other half fluttered and snapped and forced to my mind the look on my husband’s face and the agony in his eyes as he bent to kiss me before I was torn away from him. It forced me to remember his hearth with its living tenant fire and his people with their fates caught in his hands.
And these two halves turned from torn halves to gnashing wolves that chased each other round and round in a vicious circle until I could not tell which was eating the other and which I wanted to survive. But with every bite that one tore from the other, it tore a chunk of flesh from my heart.
Eventually, the hood fell from my head and though Svetgin still held my arms tight at my sides, I could see again.
My breath gusted into the air in little puffs of lamb’s wool, hanging so innocently for a bare moment before being snatched away by the wind as we rode.
We rode through the darkness on a well-travelled road, the moon – shockingly large and yellow for all that it was the lesser light of the heavens – coated the snow and trees with vermeil. It gilt each of our compatriots so that their horses looked as if by a snap of the fingers they could be frozen and placed on the mantle of a great room for the entertainment of guests centuries to come.
Each face I saw was human and grim as though they had ridden through death’s halls and plundered the depths of hell itself – as I supposed they had.
And I was the trophy they returned with – a plain human girl made less plain by this strange mortal light.
I saw no sign of my husband and heard no echo of him in my mind.
But my brother spoke of him as we rode, his voice stuttering slightly as the horse’s trot jarred us. “You’ll forget whatever that reprobate did to you, Izolda. In time, you’ll heal from it. I’ll secure you a good husband. A sound one. One who does not steal you away. And our name will be cleansed of the reek of ill luck.”
“I’m already married,” I said through frozen lips. My words sounded too soft, too intangible.
“It wasn’t real,” Svetgin said. “It wasn’t to a real person. It was like being married to death. You’ll see. You’ll understand. You just need time.”
But time was what he was taking from Bluebeard because if my husband did not have my days, then he would not be able to play the Great Game of crowns and fates, and if he didn’t play, all would be lost for Svetgin and for Pensmoore and for the mortal world.
An owl hooted in the shadows above and I shivered at his aching call. But still the horses kicked up sprays of gilt snow like showers of cider and the shadows danced to the heavy drums of the hooves beating the ground. The snow was sharp-edged and sugar-slick as it is in late spring when winter tries with all her heart to cling to the world she’s lost.
I tried to squirm in my seat to look behind us. Had they taken anyone else? Did they have Bluebeard back there somewhere?
My heart, my heart, what had I done? I’d betrayed him, I’d offered up life for death and full arms for a breast bereft of life.
But Svetgin held me fast, whispering, “Almost there. Almost there,” as the hours bled one into another.
My heart beat as hard as the hooves of the horses and my breath raced so fast that I tasted blood in my breath, but it wasn’t until we rounded the corner of a cliff that it was truly snatched from my lungs.
I saw no sign of my husband and heard no echo of him in my mind.
Before us, seated next to a river rushing with spring swell, stood a tower capped in a peak like a spiraled onion. I had heard of the peaked towers of Aayadmoore, but never see one before.
“Our allies,” Svetgin told me, sounding relieved. “The Towers of Aayadmoore.”
Within the tower was a light, and the light glowed through the stripes that spiraled vertically through the onion tower top. They must have been made of panes of glass cut to fit the curve of that tower peak. But who had such mastery at their disposal and why would they use it for that? The spiraled windows threw light across the ground around us, and shadows, too, and because of how the onion was curved, the light looked like claws trying to shred us to pieces.
“Why are we not in Pensmoore?” I asked, trying to keep my voice steady. If I objected too strongly – if I seemed anything other than grateful to have been wrenched from the arms of my husband – he would think I had gone mad. Something inside me prickled, warning me that no good could come of that. They locked mad women away in towers, didn’t they?
I watched the tower and tried to clamp down on the voice whispering in my head that it was already too late, that my ruddy-cheeked brother had brought me here to live and die out my days in that tower top above.
I could taste the lack of magic in this world as one tastes burnt garlic on the back of the tongue. The colors of the indigo forest were less vibrant, the scents of pine and spring-melting snow less pungent, the timbre of voices less shivery. It was as if I had sucked the juice from a piece of summer melon but left the flesh unbitten. It was a pale miserable thing where once it had been bright and full and I itched with the loss of it – a ghost limb no longer mine.
Hooves pounded on the road, turning from the dull thudding of iron shoe on ground to the harsh clop of iron shoe on cobble. We were among the houses like a dog among grouse – sudden and predatory. I half expected them to scatter – but no. Only the houses of the Wittenhame flew. These buildings were nothing more than false teeth in a craven man’s jaw – lifeless, ill-fitting, a shade of what could be.
Men in uniform let us pass through iron wrought gates, saluting as if to superiors, and then we were in among closer, darker buildings seeming to crawl with military uniformed men like a hive of bees arranging itself for conquest.
And of course, this was so. I tried to remember who had pulled Aayadmoore’s name for the Great Game. Was it not the Sword? Was this not his pawn in that game of kings and fates?
The sound of forges working into the night rang out, but there was too much bustle and hurry, too many moving bodies and animals for me to count or keep a tally of what we would face if ever we were again free.
We reached the dread doors of the palace far sooner than was reasonable. Far sooner than I would have liked. And Svetgin – finally – released my wrists as he drew me from the back of his mount. She huffed, shaking her matted grey mane, and rolling her horsey eye at me as if in reprimand for the scent of magic that clung to me still.
I shied back from her and found myself suddenly surrounded by the men who had kidnapped me and brought me to this foreign place. They formed up around me like an honor guard, leaving Svetgin in the middle with me as we were greeted by a man with a snowy white beard and the air of a chamberlain.
He bowed deeply. “We honor you, Brotherhood of Stolen Sisters. We honor your bravery. We honor your success.”
There was a murmur from those around me that sounded like agreement.
“Please,” the man said, “follow me. Refreshments have been prepared for you. The Lord Saberac has sent word that he is on his way and will offer you audience as soon as he arrives.”
We were led into the tower and to my surprise, it was richly decorated – so richly that it seemed like too much. No one needed so many silken hangings, so many gilt doorways, so many small curiosities on tables and shelves, in corners and lining the walls. They combined with the cloying smell of rose water to make my stomach clench within me.
But it was not long until we found the small dining room set aside for our use – and, I noted – guarded by soldiers whose uniforms did not match my brothers, nor any of the other men in our escort. Svetgin followed my eyes and whispered, “The hospitality of Aayadmoore is generous, is it not, sister?”
I offered a close-lipped smile. If ever there was a time to keep my lips closed, it was now.
“Is our mother well?” I asked him cautiously, but his face fell.
“Dead these ten years past,” he said quietly, grief painting his face. Something lurched in my chest – something wild and painful that hurt and caught and tore at me.
I had been very fond of my mother. She was everything I was not in all the best ways.
“Father?” I gasped.
“Last winter the cough took him.”
He wouldn’t look at me now, wouldn’t meet my eyes. I felt my lip trembling.
“Rolgrin?” I asked, barely able to choke out his name.
Svetgin coughed, trying to disguise his emotion. “The same cough a week later.”
“Then you are Lord Savataz,” I said and it felt like I had swallowed a lump of porridge too quickly and it was lodged in my throat.
“You are the last of my family,” he said helplessly, and he seemed glad for the chance to turn away from me to other things.
The men sat without delay, feasting on the roasted meats and vegetables and toasting one another with wine for their great success – all but a bare few whose wounds were being treated in the room beside ours. And though my worried brother offered me a plate and then tried to ply me with morsels of his own, I did not eat or drink as if it were this world rather than the world of the Wittenbrand that might trap me within if I tasted their food or drank their wine. Already I felt trapped by it, caught in a nightmare I would not wish on my worst enemy. My family gone except Svetgin, and he so changed I did not recognize his heart.
The thought of eating made me ill, but the speculative looks of the men around the table when they eyed me made me more ill.
“You’ll find a groom for her then, Savataz? A lordling of your nation?” one of them asked in an accent I did not know. He was not much older than I was. Far too young to be the brother of any bride my husband had taken.
I looked around the table. With the exception of one older man who stared at his lamb with hollow eyes and my brother, none of these men could be truly a brother or father of those he had taken. Was it a mantle passed from father to son, then? Carried through the years like a prized axe or a medallion of note?
“Indeed,” Svetgin said firmly but when the man opened his mouth again my brother gave him the barest shake of the head as if to silence him and his mouth closed with a click. They deferred to him. Good. That meant we wouldn’t see trouble from them.
But I froze when four men came in an hour into the feast, their hands shaking and eyes haunted.
“Is it done then?” the one who had inquired about my future asked, but he was waved off irritably by the newcomers who did not eat but buried themselves deep into their cups.
What were they waiting for? Could it have something to do with Bluebeard?
I watched them all with great care until the little chamberlain returned, his eyes bright as lingonberries and his smile more oily than the lamb dish.
“The Lord Saberac has sent a gift for the rescued lady,” he said, bowing to my brother. “He will gather you forthwith to the top of the tower but bid me present this, first.”
There was a gasp from around the table as the chamberlain held out a gold dress trimmed in olive green. It looked like the overly decorated room we were situated in. It looked like something a princess might wear to a fancy ball – but not a Pensmoore ball with that low V cut so deep into both the front and the back that it would brush my waist at either side and a pair of ribbons that ran to a heavy gem collar from the sleeves and across the shoulders to keep it up.
“A grand gesture,” my brother said, looking at the garment warily.
“And yet I find I am clothed well enough and far too simple a woman to wear such finery,” I said, sparing him the need to turn down the dress. My heart seized in my chest at the sight of that dress. Whoever wore it would be collared like an animal and no amount of gems could make up for that.
“You’ll wear it all the same, fair lady,” the chamberlain said smoothly, “and it will suit you well, for today is your wedding day.”
A gasp went up around me and two of the men whooped, clinking their glasses.
“I’m already married,” I said calmly. Surely, they’d realize this was a mistake.
“Her wedding day?” Svetgin asked, looking between the shock on my face and the excitement of his fellows.
“The Lord Saberac has declared he will marry your sister himself, Svetgin Lord Savataz, honoring you and erasing forever the shame of your house.”
My heart sank at the look of relief on my brother’s face. There would be no help from him. He was as relieved as if he had been told a death sentence had been lifted from his neck.
“And my living husband?” I pressed, needing to know the answer, and dreading it all the same.
“The Lord Saberac wanted you to be well assured that he would take care of that complication.”