She found me early that morning on the outskirts of town. I didn’t recognize her at first. A hunched over woman in a well-worn cloak wasn’t a strange sight in the poor district, and I was too busy thinking of the herbs I would collect later to notice much else. By the time she appeared in front of me, there was no time to run.
“Landesfürstin.” Land Princess. She spoke my old title—a forbidden word. I was so surprised to hear it that I froze.
Her hood fell to her shoulders. She looked at least ten years older than her age of twenty-three. Living so close to the poisoned woods did that to you—it stripped your hair of oil and gave it the consistency of straw, it sucked the moisture from your skin, it stole your strength and youth. You had to live in the higher, more affluent zones to avoid it. Or you had to be me.
“You have the wrong person,” I told her.
“I’m Hilda.” She crumpled a paper bag in her hands. Damn.
“I don’t remember you,” I lied.
She blushed. “I know. I didn’t expect a lady such as yourself to.”
Pity compelled me to look into her eyes. It was stupid, for I already knew what I would see—undeserved reverence, and a fear that even the most devout cannot entirely erase from their hearts when they stand before their god.
Her eyes began to water. “You saved my little girl.”
I ground my teeth and nodded. I didn’t want to hear this. I remembered her baby’s flushed, pale skin. The frightening amount of heat her delicate body generated. Her stillness. And I remembered the relief I felt when the fever finally broke. I’d handed her back to her mother, who’d looked down at her baby as if she were a miracle. Women always thought their children were, no matter what they became.
Hilda’s jaw clicked as her mouth opened and closed twice before continuing to speak. “Without your mercy, Landesfürstin, she’d be dead.”
She shoved the bag at me. Slowly, I took it.
I didn’t want her offering. It was probably food that I couldn’t eat and that she needed. But I had to accept it. She’d think my refusal was a sign that I was displeased, and that, therefore, the land was displeased, which could only mean outbreaks of disease, crop failure, and contamination from the poison. Those things happened regardless of how I felt, but I couldn’t say that. I didn’t want to witness a repeat of the hysteria that had ensued two years ago when I refused tribute.
“Thank you,” I said.
“No, thank you, Landesfürstin.” She hurled herself over in a graceless bow, and wedged her hands between her thighs.
The bag was light. It was probably bread. Most likely, she’d cooked an extra loaf last night, and she’d given me the larger of the two.
My hands shook. I almost dropped her offering. “Don’t use that title anymore,” I whispered.
She looked up. “But—”
“You know what could happen to you and your child.”
Her eyes shifted to the side. “Yes, princess.”
The mist was thick, but it would only obscure her image, not her voice. I hoped it would be enough. My uncle only tolerated my presence because he couldn’t kill me outright, or at least not yet. His subjects still saw me as the embodiment of the land—their penance and their joy, their living goddess, their Landesfürstin.
She left. I didn’t move until the white mist swallowed her dark form.
A part of me wanted to tell her that it was not my mercy that had saved her child, but rather a knowledge I’d developed out of necessity and honed through obsession. But that was just my vanity speaking, and besides, I’d developed a tolerance for superstitions. They were, after all, what kept me alive.
I left the unopened paper bag on a barrel outside the poor house. Someone would be happy to find it. Then I headed back to the castle.
Most would call my visits to the poor district acts of mercy, but that wasn’t it. I just couldn’t stand the thought of needless suffering, and I never wanted to see someone die from the poison.
No one knows how the woods were poisoned. There are stories, of course, of the faeries turning against us when my father opened the mines. They say the poison is a curse the fairies put upon our land for betraying them. I’m not satisfied with that explanation. Not once in all my trips to the woods have I seen evidence of fey; and the poison came suddenly, years after the mines were built, around the time I was conceived.
The doctor who brought me into this world said I would not live through the night. All the infants born during my mother’s pregnancy had the same blood red lips, black hair, and skin white as death. None survived, though I believe that bleak statistic was due to the practice of leaving the infected at the edge of the poisoned woods.
My mother did not let them take me. She wrapped me in silk and held me in her arms. She called me Snow White, and she didn’t care if I were a curse or a changeling. She loved me.
I wish she hadn’t. Had they left me out to die, I would not have killed her.
My lips are coated with a lethal concentration of the poison that has contaminated our land. One kiss from me will kill a man in under five minutes. Back then, people thought that even my breath or touch was fatal. My mother proved them wrong, for what little good it did her.
She told me to never kiss anyone. I didn’t listen.
I was four. I remember running up to her. The curtains swayed in the violet, afternoon light. She smelled of roses. I loved the softness of her dress, the way she reached out to me with a smile.
Earlier that morning, I’d watched some girls sit by the fountain in the center of the courtyard. It was the only uncontaminated fountain in our village, and the water was so clear that you could see the silver coins people threw in it for good luck. I was told that all the water in our land looked like that, once.
The girls splashed each other while their mothers looked on, laughing. Then, they’d dash to their mother’s skirts and hug their legs. The mother’s didn’t mind getting wet. They’d lean down, cup their daughter’s cheeks, and kiss them.
“I love you,” I said, breathless, as I rushed into my mother’s arms. She picked me up and I wrapped my legs around her waist. She leaned down and cupped my cheek, just like those other mothers, but she did not kiss me.
I hated that. I wanted to be like those girls by the fountain. I didn’t want there to be any distance between my mother and myself. I wanted us to be so close that a curse couldn’t affect our love.
Sometimes children do things without thinking. Sometimes, they don’t understand. I wish I had some other explanation for it. I wish it hadn’t happened. When I replay the memory in my mind, I force things to turn out differently. My mother presses her palm over my mouth. She sets me down and tells me not to be impulsive and selfish. After, I would never try to do something so stupid again.
But my mother didn’t stop me. She sucked in a breath when I pulled on her hair, bringing her to my level so I could kiss her.
I still remember the feeling of her lips. Human lips. They were warm and smooth. It was the lushest, most beautiful sensation I’ve ever felt.
She began to shake. Her fingers dug into my back, but she couldn’t get a good grip on me, and I slipped off to the floor.
“It’s alright.” She clawed at her throat. “It’s alright.”
It wasn’t alright. She doubled over, grabbed my shoulder, and pulled me close for a brief, sweet kiss. “It’s not your fault. I love you.”
Then she fell.
It took three minutes. I cannot think of a more horrible way to die. After twenty seconds she lost control of her body. At forty-five seconds, her skin was as white as mine, and she’d bitten through her bottom lip to keep from screaming. After a minute, she couldn’t stop.
Her handmaidens gathered at the end of the hallway. My mother’s wails drowned out their own. They wanted to help her, but they were too afraid to get close to me. I grabbed onto my mother’s chest as she convulsed. Her limbs contorted, hitting me. I clung to her as she rolled back and forth. Pain shot through my side. My rib cage bruised. I screamed her name.
At two minutes and thirty seconds, she lost her strength. I thought it was over. I thought she was alright. I crawled onto her stomach and ran my fingers over the black liquid on her cheeks. She just lay there, shaking.
Then, the interval between each breath shortened. She choked on her blood as she swallowed, raising her hand to my face. “I love…”
She never finished.
I awoke to a world of sepia and pink. Dust fell from the ceiling. It turned gold when it hit the light streaming through the warped window glass to my right, and coated everything like a layer of snow.
The soles of someone’s shoes had disturbed the dust on the floor, revealing dark wood. It looked like two men had carried me here and laid me on the bed. They had not tucked me in.
I winced as I sat. Bruises began to bloom on my arms and back where the handmaidens had poked me with sticks. They’d tried to drive me from my mother’s corpse, but were too afraid to touch me. Even the guards had remained behind the shield of screeching women. I guess they were the ones who’d heroically removed my unconscious body from the premises after I passed out.
I closed my eyes. The smell of my mother’s perfume hung in the air. Roses. It was faint, as if she’d opened up the door as I slept to check up on me and left behind only her scent.
My heart raced. I bolted across the room. “Mommy?”
There was no one in the hall. No one in the empty room opposite to mine. No one in the entryway or the library downstairs. Just diffused light, cobwebs, dust, and my little, rapid footsteps breaking the silence.
I threw myself against the red front door.
Light shot into the backs of my eyes. I shut them and fell forward, skinning my knee on the stone walkway. I sucked in a breath and stuffed my palm over the wound.
The garden surrounding me had once been loved. It was still beautiful, but in that unrefined way when nature reclaims what has been abandoned. Native plants grew over the stubs of choked ornamentals—cornflower, chamomile, houndstongue, and forget-me-knots. Delicate vines strangled the gate. Ivy curled around the bars that stretched towards the sky.
I’m in the courtyard of the princess’ tower, I realized. If we’d followed tradition, it would have been my home, but my mother wanted to keep her poisoned daughter near her and safe. My father had cared for it since my birth, and he was more interested in providing a place for political prisoners than gardens. Then again, maybe that was just an excuse, and he’d always intended for me to end up here…
I screamed—first for my mother, then for my father, and finally for anyone. I knew they could hear me; I wasn’t that far from the main palace. But even after my throat was hoarse, and I could no longer make intelligible sounds, no one came.
When the sun began to set, I returned to my room. On the far wall, I saw a girl. Her long, greasy hair was in knots. Violet circles hung under her colorless skin. She looked weak, like she was about to cry.
I ran forward and slammed my fist into her face.
The glass didn’t even crack. Useless. I picked up a music box on the vanity and hurled it into the mirror again and again. It shattered.
I wish I’d stopped there. That room was full of things my ancestors had collected for their daughters. I knew my mother had put things in there for me, too. She was going to show them to me when I got older. Now I’ll never know what they were, only that I’d broken them.
I tore apart everything that carried the scent of roses—the sheer canopy on the bed, the doilies, the tapestries, the blankets, the silk rugs. I kicked over the furniture. I hit the chair against the armoire until its legs snapped off, then used them to smash the shards on the floor into smaller and smaller pieces.
I’d never thrown a tantrum before. Minutes passed, or perhaps hours. One sometimes loses track of time when they throw a fit. Next I remember the dark. I was so tired that I didn’t mind the burning in my throat, the aching in my limbs, or the cuts on my little hands. I didn’t even care that I was alone anymore. I pulled the shredded remains of the sheets off the bed and curled up in them.
The next morning, I looked out my window. The bars shot up from the stone wall hundreds of feet in the air, then curled over the sky like claws.
I decided to climb.
Ivy clung to the stone wall. It hid a nest of scraggly climbing roses. Later that spring they’d be pink, white, or yellow. They’d smell sweet, like my mother. Now they just looked dead. I used the vines as a rope. I had to move fast, before they snapped. I couldn’t avoid the rose thorns, but the pain wouldn’t matter once I was free.
I grabbed the bars and lifted myself to the top of the wall. Already, I was panting. If just this made me so tired, I couldn’t possibly make it all the way…
No, I wouldn’t think of that. I got on my tiptoes, stretched my arms above my head, and jumped.
My hands locked onto the bars. My arms weren’t quite strong enough to pull myself up, but I held on, even when I started to slip.
A sharp, pitiful sound escaped from the back of my throat. I gripped tighter. A few thorns had wedged themselves into my palm. They dug deeper into my skin, and the day-old wounds on my hands reopened. I wrapped my ankles around the bars, tried to pull myself up.
Just a bit more.
I tilted my chin towards the sky. A drop of blood fell on my cheek. It felt like rain. I hadn’t even gotten a quarter of the way up the bars.
I dreamed of an endless sky, and a garden where no plant lived under the shadow of bars. It was spring, and the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen stood beneath a climbing rose. She turned when she heard me approach.
For a moment I couldn’t move. All that existed were her dark, blue, loving eyes. And then I couldn’t stop moving, because no matter how fast I went, it would never be fast enough.
She pulled me into her arms. My screams were muffled by her chest. I could feel her heart beating on my lips. She was alive. I lifted my head and told her I was sorry, that I didn’t mean it. I asked her to come back.
And she kissed me.
I tried to push her away, but she just held on tighter. My lips felt warm, as if I were glowing—as if I were made of gold. Warmth spread through me and into the world around us. Then, she let go.
I pressed my fingertips to her pink lips. I felt her soothing, even breath on my hand.
“Mom,” I whispered, because at that young age I did not know the words to describe how I felt. I still don’t know the words. My hands trembled as she covered them with her own.
This time she did not die. This time, she smiled at me and cupped my cheek. Her kiss had removed the poison from my lips. It had made the water in the woods clear instead of black. It had saved all of us.
A crunching sound from behind the gate—like glass being shattered, like a rib cage snapping. Cold seeped through my dress. I turned.
A man dressed in black towered over us. The sky behind him looked as if it had been smeared with charcoal, and the world drowned in oil. Gnarled, barren trees shot up from the ground like exposed human bones. Far away I heard a chorus of muted screams, as if a group of nuns were trapped in a church, begging for mercy as they burned.
I couldn’t see his face. I was too afraid to look—
He is your destiny.
The words hung in the air. My body buzzed from the soft male voice. I didn’t recognize it, but I knew it hadn’t come from my mother, the man, or me. I threw my arm to my side, blindly reaching for my mother.
“Make him go away,” I pleaded. But when I looked back, mother was gone.
Someone was calling for me.
I opened my eyes.
Above, ivy coiled around the delicate curve of the bars, weaving an intricate, black pattern over the gray sky. The weak sunlight offered little warmth, but still made my eyes ache. Then again, the pounding in my head might have been responsible for that, I couldn’t tell.
I saw exactly where I fell. Not even a fifth of the way up, there was a bare patch where I’d ripped the vines from the bars in my descent. I’d thought I’d climbed so high; I hadn’t even come close.
That voice again—a welcome distraction from my failure. I rolled my head to the side.
There was an old man by the gate. He had red splotches on his wrinkly cheeks and nose, and eyes as blue as a cornflower. They reminded me of my mother’s eyes—of spring. His knobby hands rattled the gate back and forth. He started to yell, but the roaring in my ears had returned and I couldn’t make it out.
He’s come to let me out, I thought. I grabbed the grass and tried to pull myself forward. The blades cut into my gashed palms like knives, then broke. No, can’t stop now. I half-crawled, half-wiggled on my stomach, to the gate.
He got on his knees, to my level. I tried to touch him. He scooted back, just out of reach. “Never do that again, little one. We aren’t allowed to go in, no matter what happens. ”
My hand froze midair. Slowly, I returned it to my side. He wasn’t here to save me. Why had he come, then? Why did he speak so sweetly?
“Let me out.” I’d wanted my voice to be harsh and firm, but it sounded like a plea.
“I can’t do that.”
“Why not? Where’s my dad?”
The man took off his cap and wrung it in his hands. “The king disappeared two nights ago without a word. No one knows where.”
So I’d been alone for at least two nights. It had seemed longer.
“I want my mom.”
I saw his face soften right before he put his hat back on his head and pulled it over his eyes. “She’s not coming back, little one.”
I didn’t fully understand that she was gone until he said those words—gone like the bugs the maids smashed beneath their polished toes, the animals the peasants led to the slaughterhouse in the fall, and my own grandmother who’d disappeared before I was born. My mother had sometimes gone into my grandma’s room and touched the little things on her vanity. She wiped her eyes when she caught me watching in the mirror. Out of courtesy, she tried to never cry in front of me.
Even as a child I never cried. My tears smelled and tasted of ammonia. It disgusted me. It made me sick. It didn’t matter how hard or long I tried to wash it away—the toxic scent would seep into my skin and stay there for hours.
I pressed my forehead into the damp grass and began to cry. The man stayed by me, even though he must have been just as repulsed by the smell as I was.
“May I see your hands?” He asked when I was done.
I was too tired and sore to protest.
He sucked in a breath between his teeth. “Christ, child. Are you trying to kill yourself?”
I shook my head.
“We’ll clean you up. You can’t leave it like that. How’s your head?”
“I can hear you fine. And I can see you.”
He smiled. “Well, that’s good at least. Now, stay there and don’t fall asleep. I’ll be back in thirty minutes. Oh, that reminds me.” He set a basket down by the edge of the bars. “The missus made you lunch. You must be hungry.”
He set down the path, humming a song that I think I’d heard, once, long ago.
A red and white checkered cloth hung over the basket. My hands shook as I brushed it aside. Hunger clawed at my stomach, and even the breeze made the cuts on my palms burn. Would I even be able to eat? The purple shine on those ripe, oblong vegetables taunted me. But wedged between them at the bottom, I saw a cup of soup.
I moved slowly, ignoring the protests of my inflamed hands. I couldn’t afford to spill it. I set it down, leaned over and lapped at it like a cat. Then, I rolled to my side and watched the path.
It seemed like he was gone longer than thirty minutes. It seemed like days had passed. Shadows from passing clouds overhead kept moving over the immobile sun. Maybe time had stopped and I was truly alone. Maybe he wouldn’t come back…
I heard his footsteps crunching up the path before I saw him.
I let him speak first. I was too afraid he’d disappear if I said the wrong thing.
He laughed and pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket. “Did you like it?”
“It was wonderful!”
He wiped the soup off my nose and chin. “I could tell. You weren’t eating very princess-like.”
“I was hungry, and my hands hurt too much—”
“I know little one,” he interrupted softly. “Let’s fix that.”
He’d brought another basket. In it was a glass filled with liquid amber. It smelled like sour fruit. “What’s that?”
“Apple cider vinegar.” He held a white cloth over the tilted container. Copper liquid bled through it.
“What’s it for?”
“All sorts of things, but right now for your hand.” He looked away. “This might sting a bit.”
I told him that was fine, and he took my hand.
It felt wonderful to touch human skin. That was what I noticed first—how gentle he was, and how soft. Then, pain. Reflexively my hand curled into a fist, pushing the cloth deeper into my skin. The apple cider vinegar worked deep into my hands—burning them, cleansing them.
I did not cry. I did not try to move away, either, because I hadn’t been touched in so long. I didn’t think anyone would ever touch me again. To me, the fragile, bony fingers that held me in place were the most precious things I could think of.
He removed the cloth from my fist. “You’re brave, you know,” he said as he bandaged my hands.
I couldn’t answer. I could still feel the vinegar moving inside me like a fire.
I will not cry. I will not cry. “What was in the soup?” I asked.
“Worm root and bog’s breath.”
I frowned. “There’s no such plant as that.”
“Yes there is!” He chuckled. “All the plants from the forest have names like that. Fairy wings and toadstool heel—wait, you don’t know about the plants from the forest?”
I shook my head.
“But you can only eat forest food, right?” He asked.
I nodded again, glad he used the word forest instead of poisoned. My body couldn’t digest uncontaminated plants and animals. I even had to drink that syrupy black water.
He finished working on my hands. They looked mummified.
“Well, you should learn a little about what you can and can’t eat,” he grumbled, then froze. “I mean, it’s not my place to say what you should—”
“I’d like to learn a little,” I interrupted softly. “Fairy wings sound pretty.”
“They are,” he said. “Since I’ve been given the task of bringing you food, I could bring some fairy wings for you tomorrow, too.”
My throat felt tight. “Thank you.”
He said goodbye and took a few steps down the road.
“What’s your name?” I asked him.
He turned. “I don’t think it’s wise to tell you.”
“Why? Is it an ugly name, like toadstool breath?”
He tried to hide his smile. “No.”
“Then why won’t you tell me?”
He continued down the path.
“I’m Snow White!” I called after him.
Gilbert didn’t tell me his name until a week had passed, and he only did so I’d stop calling him “Herr Toadstool Breath.” He always left after I finished my meal, so I learned to chew my food very, very slowly. My old tutor Frau Klein would have been thrilled.
Gilbert knew all about plants—the ones in the garden, the contaminated plants of the forest, and the ones that used to grow before the land was poisoned. His wife knew all about apple cider vinegar, and believed it could cure almost anything. She’d even given it to her cousin Olaf once, but unfortunately the concoction that could shut him up hadn’t been invented yet.
He had a son who’d left when he came of age to study medicine in the south. He sent money and presents, but didn’t visit. Once he’d sent a book, and Gilbert and I spent many hours leafing through it. Neither of us could read, so we looked at the pictures and took turns telling stories about them.
Four years passed, and I began to think that everyone except Gilbert and his wife had forgotten about the poisoned princess.
I was wrong.
Through the bars, I watched the sun sink behind the linden tree. Gilbert was late. He’d never been late before. I’d almost forgotten what it felt like to be hungry, alone and afraid.
I traced the lines on my palm and tried not to watch the sun. I wouldn’t think of the darkness. He would come. He would—
Something was coming.
I stood too fast. My heels slipped off the stone steps, and I slammed my fist into the side of the wall. I was panting when I saw their bayonets cresting the hill.
So many of them, dressed proudly in drab green. I couldn’t tell how many there were. They spread out behind the wall where I couldn’t see. In the center, by the gate, was my father.
The soldier by his side opened it for him. It screeched as it swung. He moved forward, silently, and the crowd followed.
My vision blurred. My heart pounded so fast that, for a moment, I thought I was running at him. But I wasn’t. Only my hand moved, up and down the wall, trying to find something on its smooth surface to hold onto, as he came nearer.
He looked less familiar with each step I took. His mouth was thinner than my father’s, as if he’d chewed his lips into thin, straight lines. His eyes were harder. Years had passed. Maybe that’s why he looked so different. Or maybe…
He stopped and pointed at me. “Is that her?”
The man next to him—a man I did not recognize—nodded.
My father cleared his throat. “Are you Snow White?”
I opened my mouth. Nothing. Even my breath didn’t make a sound. Perhaps I wasn’t breathing.
“Well?” He boomed.
My tongue curled, felt heavy and dry, as if he were pressing down on it with his gigantic boots.
He said something else, but the strength and volume of his voice overpowered his words. My chest began to heave. I shut my eyes. There were so many people. For years I’d wanted someone, anyone, but at that moment I could only think of Gilbert: his crooked smile when he came up the path, the regret in his eyes when he left, the time I spent waiting for him in this enclosed, lonely, beautiful world. Why wasn’t he here? I needed him so much.
Footsteps. That man who was not my father—who could not be my father—was getting closer.
I didn’t even realize I’d fallen until the little pebbles stung my palms.
The people began to yell. I heard them, circling, but they didn’t come too close. They were afraid of touching me, and why wouldn’t they be? Even Gilbert had only touched me once, the first time I’d met him, and only then because I was hurt.
I pressed my forehead to the dirt. I should tell them I was alright; I should tell them to leave. I didn’t want them here—I didn’t want anyone—
Something touched my shoulder.
I flinched, glanced up. A girl looked down at me. It was hard to see her clearly at first. Sunlight spilled over her golden hair. Her lips were pink, and she bit them as she leaned forward. Her eyes were big and blue as a cornflower. They reminded me of spring—of my mother’s eyes. She was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
And she’d touched me.
“Are you Snow White? I’m Rose.”
I looked at the place on my arm where her fingers still lay. Something within me began to break. It hurt to be this close to a person.
“Father, she’s scared,” the girl called over her shoulder.
Her hand began to slip. No. I panicked and grabbed her wrist.
She yelped as I drew her to the ground, next to me. I heard guards rushing from behind the wall, the king yelling something. I began to shake. I was so stupid. I didn’t mean to hurt her; I just didn’t want her to leave. And now they would take her away.
Someone blocked out the sun. I saw his eyes first—one dark and cruel, the other pale as the moon on a cloudy night. Then I saw the knife. He looked to be only a few years older than I was—far too young to be holding something so lethal, and to know how to use it. His posture seemed deceptively relaxed. I couldn’t see him move, but I knew he was coming closer…
“It’s alright,” Rose yelled. I felt her pulse pump furiously beneath my thumb. She was afraid of me, but she’d touched me and she didn’t push me away.
I loosened my hold on her. “Mother,” I whispered.
It startled me as much as it had her that I’d said it, but how could I not? With her golden hair and pale skin, she was like the winter sun, streaming through barren trees, melting the frozen landscape. Her name was Rose, and her eyes were blue, deep and forgiving. Mother was my most sacred word. It was the name of the woman who smelled of roses, who loved me in spite of who I was, who was never afraid to touch me.
She gulped. “You are Snow White.” There was no longer any question in her voice. She wrapped her arms around my shoulders. “I won’t let them hurt you again.”
The rhododendron bush to my left rustled, then fell silent, as if a startled bird had just become aware of my presence.
I continued to walk without changing my pace. I ran my left hand over the back of my neck, as if adjusting my gas-mask—something I did often. I rubbed my shoulder, toyed with a strand of hair. Four paces away. Now five. If he didn’t make his move, he’d lose his chance.
Another rustle, and then a soft thud.
There. Adrenaline coursed through my veins, but I forced my muscles to relax as he took one step forward, and then another.
I fell to my knees.
Air blew past my cheek. A young man attached to a staff flew forward. His blond hair was dirty and damp and clung to the back of his neck. He’d been nervous and had acted too quickly; he’d over extended because he’d expected to get me.
He dug his heel into the ground and spun, regaining his balance. He crouched and readjusted his grip on his staff, green eyes burning as they locked on mine.
I advanced one step, egging him on.
He leaped forward. Dodging his left fist, I grabbed onto his cocked wrist, hitting the pressure point with my thumb. He sucked in a breath. The staff hit his calf, then clattered to the ground.
He flew forward, half falling, half trying to take me down. I latched onto his forearm and allowed his momentum to overtake me.
As we fell, his pulse beat furiously against my finger pad. A vein throbbed in his neck. Rarely was I this close to someone. I almost enjoyed it. The moment before we hit the earth, I twisted to the side, throwing him beneath me. My elbow slammed into the center of his back. I wrapped my leg around him to keep him from moving, then pulled his arm back.
“Damn,” he panted.
Damn was right. I could pull his arm right out of his socket, if I wanted to—and I didn’t exactly find the fact that he’d just tried to hit me with an oversized stick with said arm endearing.
“Enough!” A sharp voice to the right, then, much more softly, “Good job, Snow White!”
I glared at Levi. “Why are you encouraging this? It’s your job to teach him.”
Levi’s eyes crinkled like a dishrag being wrung-out by an overeager scullery maid as he grinned.
I brushed off my knees as I stood. Ridiculous old man, I thought. But insults were pointless when he was so damn proud of one of his students getting his ass handed to him by a princess.
Johann rolled over and groaned. “Christ, you couldn’t go easy on me for once?”
“Not when you try to take my head off.”
He beamed, showing off his missing tooth. I’d knocked it out two years ago when he’d pulled a similar stunt at Levi’s request. He’d tried to give it to me for Christmas.
Let’s just say that hadn’t gone over well.
“I knew you could take it,” Johann said. I suppose he’d meant that as a compliment. Great. Men affectionately attacked me with sticks to show their admiration.
My skin flushed beneath my mask. It cut into the bridge of my nose, my cheeks, and the back of my head, where a thick strap held the monstrosity in place. It always itched, but activity made it worse. After Johann’s little stunt, all I wanted to do was slip my fingers underneath it and scratch. I couldn’t. To remove my mask was an act of treason; to displace it would earn me three days in solitary confinement. It didn’t matter that only my kiss was poisonous; I had to wear a mask so those around me felt safe.
I swallowed, forcing down a feeling I was afraid to give a name to, and offered Johann my hand. He groaned exaggeratedly as he pulled himself up, rubbing his side. “Thanks for the love bump.”
Beneath my mask I smiled. “That wasn’t an act of love on my part.”
“Well, a guy can dream.”
Levi bent over and boxed Johann’s ears. “Hey, who do you think you’re talking to?”
I felt a blush spreading to my cheeks. I guess the mask was good for some things.
Once up, Johann tilted his head towards the sky. His cheeks were lined with shadows from the spindly limbs of the tree overhead. “You don’t think she’s watching, do you?” He asked.
I didn’t need to follow his gaze to know where he was looking, but I did.
There was no way to tell from where we stood. Her tower emerged from the mist on the far side of the castle. It wouldn’t even matter if we were closer, for Rose’s room was almost 50 meters off the ground. Still, I searched for her image in her window, hoping I wouldn’t find it.
“I’m on my way to see her now. Do you want me to ask?”
Johann rubbed the back of his neck. “No. It would be too embarrassing if she was.”
“It would be more embarrassing if I lost.”
Levi started to hyperventilate from laughing so hard. Johann shot me a venomous glare. I was pure evil for enjoying it.
I reached down and handed him his staff. “Here you are—no, Johann, wait!”
He continued to stomp off without turning.
“No you’re not. You’re laughing!” He called over his shoulder.
Alright, there was no point in trying to deny that, but…didn’t his voice sound a little strained? “Wait, are you laughing?”
“Maybe.” Johann glanced back at us, trying not to smile and failing miserably. “Look, just don’t tell me if Rose was watching. I really don’t want to know.”
“I won’t,” I promised.
Levi coughed, sobering up. Perhaps he was touched by the scene. “It’s too bad you aren’t a man, Snow White. I’d give you Johann’s position.”
Or perhaps not.
“Oh, come on! Not you too.” Johann groaned. “I really am leaving this time.”
“Just be sure to have your uniform cleaned by this afternoon!” Levi boomed.
Johann blew me a kiss, gave Levi the finger, and left.
Levi wiped his eyes. “Kids don’t understand the meaning of respect these days. Please excuse me, princess, while I go teach that boy some manners!”
My throat felt tight as I watched the aging, plump soldier waddle after his protégé. I couldn’t imagine that kind, silly man commanding troops, or Johann shooting someone else in battle. It was good no one wanted to go to war with us. The only fighters with any skill were those in my uncle’s elite guard, and they had no tie to this country.
It had rained last night and the earth was still damp. The air would smell of late autumn—of pumpkins, overripe apples, and the few flowers that were blooming beyond their time.
My nose burned as I inhaled sharply, filling my mouth with the taste of mothballs. Normally, the chemical scent of my breath was too faint to notice, but it leeched into the celluloid interior of my standard-issue gas mask. Apart from my mother, the thing I missed most from my childhood was walking in the gardens with my eyes closed, breathing in the mountain air. I hadn’t even known how much I loved that small freedom until it was taken away.
The mist thinned out as I approached the tower. I pushed open the black side door with my shoulder.
Rose and I used to pretend the leaking stairwell was a secret passage, but really everyone knew of its existence. It had just been so old, cold, and dark that only a child could be charmed by it. I still used it because I was one of only three people who could navigate it without a candle.
I pitched myself forward into complete darkness, taking two steps at a time. The sixth and eighteenth shifted under my weight, and a sound reminiscent of grinding bones echoed through the chamber. Only 40 left, I thought, moving faster.
As I passed the window half-way up, something tugged on my jacket.
I froze. I’d been moving too fast. I should have noticed it earlier but—no, there was no excuse. The fog outside was thick, but too little light streamed through the narrow opening, almost as if it someone were blocking it.
I looked down. A black hand held me in its fist. The top of the glove was folded twice and pinned by a gold emblem of a falcon. My uncle had chosen the ‘primitive’ design for those in his elite guard because he thought it would strike fear into the hearts of his ‘primitive’ people.
It worked—an ice shard cut through my heart every time I saw those angular wings—though it wasn’t the symbol that frightened me, but the person behind it.
Hans’ body looked like a stone slab someone had crudely chiseled into a man. He was too wide and tall to appear lithe, yet he moved fluidly. His presence was like the silent growth of a tree’s shadow as the sun sank in the horizon.
“You surprised me.”
“You let me sneak up on you,” he whispered as if there were someone close, eavesdropping. “I thought I taught you better than that.”
I looked into his cool, gray eyes—the right, the color of steel, and the left clouded over, like steam trapped beneath glass. I often wondered how he was able to move so quickly in the dark since I doubted he could see much out of it.
I swallowed. “Please don’t tell me you climbed all the way up here just to remind me to be careful.”
“If you were more alert, I wouldn’t have to.”
But the only person I would ever have to be wary of up here is you.
I couldn’t say it. I didn’t want to hear his answer. Even if he said nothing, his body might betray him.
I tried my best to smile. “Not everyone solves their problems with brute force, you know.”
“And here I thought it was finesse.” As he slipped out of the window, his fist tightened almost imperceptibly around my jacket. Then, he let go.
Hans was only one year my senior. The first time I saw him was in the courtyard the day Rose set me free. I thought he’d looked too young to hold a knife so precicely—too young to have such piercing eyes. And that was before I knew about the scars.
I didn’t look at his gloved hands again. I tried to keep my eyes on his face, where only four thin, white lines stretched from his cloudy eye. But it’s impossible to willfully ignore the things that haunt you once you think of them.
Before he came here—when he was young, perhaps the same age I’d been when I was imprisoned—someone had done unspeakable things to him.
One summer, as he lay on his stomach in the field behind the castle, I’d knelt over him and traced the scars on his back. It was the only time I’d ever done something like that. Usually I was afraid to touch him—afraid that it still hurt, or that physical contact would cause his memories to resurface. But that day I’d spread my little hands over his warm skin, and after a deep breath, he didn’t move.
Most of the scars were white and puffy, and didn’t turn pink in the sun. There were others, though—small deep ones the color of blood, and long bands across his back that looked like rust. At the time I’d been learning how to read, and the complex knot of marks had reminded me of characters from an angry, brutal language that no one should ever learn. Still I’d continued to touch him, even as the scent of ammonia overpowered me, until one of my tears fell on his skin.
He’d said nothing when I pulled away. Then again, Hans rarely said anything. Nothing in this world seemed to affect him. He was the strongest person I’d ever met.
That was why I’d begged him to teach me. I’d wanted to conquer my fear of blood and pain, of facing an opponent more powerful than myself, of confinement. And with his kindness, I’d banished every fear in my heart, except my fear of him.
I wondered if he knew—if that kind of knowledge could hurt him.
“You were gone too long this time,” I said.
“We’re preparing for the prince’s arrival.”
I didn’t ask for details. I was surprised he’d even said that much. He never spoke of his assignments from the king or the council.
We stood a moment longer, face to face and silent.
He looked down. “I missed you,” he said softly, then, “You shouldn’t keep Rose waiting.”
“You’ve seen her, haven’t you? She would want to see you.”
He nodded. “We watched you trounce Johann.”
The bottom edge of my mask cut into my throat as I swallowed. Rose was jealous of my freedoms, and yet, when I told her I’d teach her in secret, she’d refused. Even though she hated him, she never disobeyed her father.
“Johann isn’t the best person to test one’s skill—”
“He does kind of suck, doesn’t he?”
Hans took a step back, grinning. “I was going to say that you still did well—well enough that I’m surprised you let me sneak up on you.”
“That’s only because I didn’t expect a guy to jump through a window fifty meters off the ground.”
The smile on his lips died. “Be careful, Snow White,” he said, then turned.
I waited three minutes until after he’d disappeared before pressing my damp palm to the stone wall and closed my eyes.
Just a few moments more, and I’ll be able to breathe again. It was stupid I still reacted this way to him, and he didn’t need to see it. He was like a brother to me, and you shouldn’t fear those you love.
I always paused before opening the door at the end of the hallway. Long ago, someone had lovingly carved roses into the wood. Most were chipped by now, especially the ones that bloomed near the floor and handle. I’d touched them too frequently as a little girl, before I’d known how delicate they were.
I opened the door.
Rose sat at her vanity with her back to me. She brushed her hair with a silver brush. “Come in.”
As I did, my chest grew tight. The room was almost exactly as my mother had left it. Red velvet hung from the canopy and was draped over the bed. Even the smallest pieces of furniture—the two black chairs by the window, and the rickety stool behind the door—hadn’t been moved. The only thing missing was my ancestral tapestry.
Rose had given that to me. She said my own room needed something human in it. She’d replaced it with one from her homeland depicting the hunt and capture of a unicorn who’d been lured from his sanctuary by a virgin.
She set down her brush and turned. “Take off your mask, sister.”
My hands shook as I undid the bindings.
Cold air rushed beneath the cellulite edge, turning my sweat to ice. The angular folds of the mask cut into my skin. When we were little, Rose tried to make me feel better about wearing them by saying the imprints it left on my cheeks looked like whiskers.
People feared me without the mask; they didn’t trust a girl who had killed her own mother. Sometimes, I wondered if Rose was afraid, too, but forced those feelings down because she loved me.
I hated thinking about things like that.
I let it drop. Carefully, I stepped around it, then made my way to the bed.
“I saw your skirmish with Johann.” Rose’s lips were curled in that familiar, elegant smile. Only the slightest note of sadness in her voice betrayed her true feelings.
“It is not too late to learn. We could even start tomorrow, if you want—”
“No. I think my mother would roll over in her grave if she knew I was out there fighting in the mud.” She glanced at her mirror, then turned away, as if she saw something she didn’t like. “Besides, it is only fair for me to be denied something, since I have taken everything from you.”
Snow White ran her fingers over the bed but did not sit. A yellowing bruise stretched down the side of her neck to her shoulder, the only imperfection on the pearl-like surface of her skin. My father would have been appalled, and I…
I looked down at my soft hands. Pink. The color of the faded roses that adorned my music box. My fist closed around the silver handle of the brush. It had belonged to Snow White’s mother, and I gripped it so tightly that her engraved initials might have left an imprint in my palm had they not been so shallow.
“Let me brush your hair,” I said.
She glanced at me. In this light, her eyes reminded me of the distant, snow-covered mountains in winter. Each iris was the palest shade of lavender, like the thinning layer of poison hanging just below the clear, uncontaminated air. It unnerved me even after all these years.
“Are you still going to prepare the forbidden tower for the prince?” She asked.
So that was why she’d come so early. I lay a towel out on the bed and motioned for her to sit while I thought of how best to answer. “Yes. In an hour or so.”
She grabbed my sleeve. I almost dropped the brush. She’d actually touched me, first—
Her fist tightened when I didn’t answer, turning her skin even whiter. It possessed less color than bleached bone.
“That palace will belong to our future king. He must stay there.” I lowered my voice. “You’re not still worried about the rumors, are you? You possess such a scientific mind, yet still cling to the old—”
“It’s not just that it’s forbidden.”
My body jerked at her sharp tone.
“Sorry. I’m just worried about you.”
“I know,” I murmured. “Now sit.”
She did. I climbed up after, then sat on my ankles and straightened my back so I was higher. I untied her braid. The clumps of dried mud broke apart as I ran my fingers through her hair, covering my knees with dust.
I should have gotten another towel, I thought as she said, “It will upset the people. My father said a curse would fall over the land if the tower were ever opened. They still consider him their king.”
“A king who hasn’t shown himself in thirteen years,” I reminded her.
“That doesn’t matter to them.”
There was nothing to say to that. I resumed brushing.
“A woman gave me tribute today, for saving her baby,” Snow White said.
“Mmm,” I hummed.
She went still and was, for the length of five strokes of my brush, silent. “She called me Landesfürstin.”
The hallway creaked. Someone’s footsteps? A maid might be listening. A guard. A spy. One could never tell. The castle was filled with secret passageways, and even Snow White did not know them all. I waited for another sound.
Nothing. We’d been lucky.
“What are you thinking?” I leaned forward, to hide my lips inside a curtain of my gold hair. I didn’t dare speak above a whisper. “Never say that word.”
“The people don’t care,” she continued, as if she hadn’t just spoken a word that could get her killed. “Our lawful, real, horrific punishments are nothing nothing compared to those they’ve constructed in their minds. I don’t want to see them hurt, or you…” her voice broke. “I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to you.”
“Don’t worry about me,” I pleaded. No one eagerly waited for the opportunity to hurt me—or at least no one close.
The same could not be said of Snow White.
On the day we arrived, my father had wanted to behead her in front of the people. Getting rid of her would be easier while she was still a child, he’d said. The council stopped him because it was too soon.
If the legends were true, the crown had passed from mother to daughter for over one thousand years. The line of succession was never challenged, for queens only gave birth to one child, and that child was always female. The origin of the country’s power, the bounty of the harvest, the health of the land—all these were bound to the Landesfürstin. The people believed that, without her, the earth would die.
My father could not kill her without inciting a revolt, and we were already too vulnerable. In the past, it might have been different. The country was poor. The soil was too rocky to farm. The cost of transporting the vast forest’s lumber exceeded its worth. Then Snow White’s father found something in the mines, and everything changed.
The surrounding principalities waited for our weakest moment to strike. Circling like vultures, my father would sneer, as if he were any different. Only two things stopped them from overtaking us: threats from each other, and the poison.
The poison made modern life difficult, but it was our greatest defense. Airships could not fly over it. Trains could not run through it. Guns could not be fired in it. Only the most rudimentary technology—and only if it had been made from materials from the forest—worked within its boundaries.
In order to exploit the mines, my father needed wealth and a strong ally to secure his rule. He had to make sure we were more useful to that ally alive than dead. He couldn’t get rid of Snow White until then.
And in a fortnight, the youngest prince of Prussia will be here.
I ran my fingers over the back of her neck. If I were more ambitious, if I wanted to secure my position, it would be easy to dispose of her. She didn’t understand how fragile she was. She still trusted…
I rested my forehead on her back, pressing into her hair. It was dark as the earth and smelled like soil. How can I protect you?
“I wish you’d leave,” I whispered.
The tension in her shoulders relaxed. “You know I can’t abandon the people.”
“I can’t abandon you.”
“Then I’ll go too.”
“That would give your father a valid reason to kill me.”
It doesn’t matter. He’ll do it anyway. If you ran, you’d at least have a chance.
I looked up. Why did I bother? Even if the people’s safety was assured, and we could flee without fear of retribution, she wouldn’t leave. No Landesfürstin had ever stepped outside the country in over one thousand years. She wouldn’t break that tradition, and certainly not while the land was poisoned.
She turned. My head slipped to her chest. Her heart beat steadily, slowly, against my cheek as she ran her fingers through my hair. “What are you thinking, Rose?”
Of how powerless and pitiful we are. Of the shadow I will become if I lose you.
She swallowed. Perhaps she thought of those same things. Sometimes, when we were this close, I wondered if our fears bled into one another. But when she broke the silence, she did not speak of fear. “My ancestors didn’t have to marry, you know.”
“I know.” The world was different then. No one even ventured into the fierce, unforgiving mountains to the East. That was before the mines, before the poison. We would never be left alone again.
“Sometimes they took a lover,” she continued soothingly. “Sometimes they went to the forest.”
“It’s a nice story.”
“It doesn’t have to be a story. We could rule together without a man. We could start a new legend about twin queens—one pale as moonlight, the other brilliant as the sun.”
Her voice was so sweet, her words so deceptively simple, that they almost moved me. I refused to give in. Dreams are the cruelest of curses. “We aren’t twins,” I pointed out.
“Maybe not, but history might remember us that way. If that legend isn’t enough, you could add to it. For example, you could take several lovers…”
My head shot up. She beamed at me, eyes gleaming.
“You’re awful,” I said.
“Just wanted to remind you that a spoiled prince is not your only option.”
“That doesn’t mean I need ‘several’ simultaneous options. If it’s between one prince and that, I’ll take the prince, thank you.”
She grinned, knowing how ridiculous she was being and loving every moment of it.
You’re enjoying this far too much. No, I couldn’t say that. It would encourage her. I cleared my throat. “We don’t know for sure that he’s spoiled.”
“He probably wears Hessian boots with pink tassels.”
I couldn’t help but smile. “Hessian boots are very popular.”
She flopped down on the bed, her expression concerned. “Tassels, Rose.”
“I like tassels. My window seat has tassels.”
“Yes, but do you want your husband to match the decorations in your boudoir?”
My lips quirked up. “Sure. He’ll look good in here, especially if he sports manly pink frills.”
Snow White sighed. “Fine. Have your tassels. I’ll take my chances in the forest.”
“I don’t even want to know what kind of creature you’d drag home.”
She raised her eyebrows. “It will be a sexy fairy man, of course.”
“So he’ll have pink sparkles instead of pink tassels?”
Snow White giggled. “Let’s hope so. That way, he’ll get along with your very manly prince.”
Her smile made her look younger than 17. Much younger. I found myself smiling too. “There are no sexy fairy men in that forest, just monsters. Besides, you don’t believe in fairies.”
She pushed herself off the bed. Beneath the worn, leather exterior of her shoes, I saw her feet flexing. She could use new boots. A new mask. A new jacket. But Snow White never asked for anything.
It took her four steps to reach the window. “You’re right. I don’t believe in fairies.” She pressed her palm against the glass, then her forehead. “But I can’t help but feel I’ve missed something.”
The weak sunlight lent her skin some life. That, and the common color of that long, ugly bruise, made her look human. Almost.
“No one understands the poison,” I reasoned.
“Yes, but the more I study it, the less I understand it.”
There were things I probably should have said—that poison had an obtuse nature, that her obsession frightened me, that she shouldn’t blame herself for what happened when she was a girl. But I couldn’t find the words, and even if I had, she wouldn’t have listened.
Her eyes were on the forest. Already, she was thinking of silently creeping on that carpet of black soil and pine needles. Of collecting plants that could heal or kill a man depending on the dose. Of gnarled branches twisting themselves into a thatched canopy so thick that it blocked out the sky.
“I haven’t found evidence that fairies don’t exist.” She wiped the fog from her breath from the window. “To me, that suggests they are either not real, or have abandoned us. Sometimes, I wonder if I haven’t just clung to the most palpable choice.”
My chest grew tight. “You’re not going there today, are you?”
“Where?” She asked, as though she hadn’t known the place I talked of.
“To the woods.”
Her eyes did not move from the window. “There are some herbs I need to collect.”
Don’t. Stay here. “Get Hans to do it,” I blurted out.
“He’s not my errand boy.”
“He’d still do it. He’d insist. He forbade you from visiting the woods until the prince’s visit is over.”
She laughed. “I won’t be chained up like a dog.”
“But there are so many people out now.” There are too many traps. You’re alone and unprotected.
“No one will notice me. Hans shoud know. He’s the one who taught me.”
But who will protect you against Hans? “Lately, there have been reports of strange things.”
“There have always been reports of strange things.” She frowned, as if she hadn’t noted the recent frequency of such events.
“Please don’t go,” I whispered.
As she turned, the shadows of the bars moved across her face. For a moment, it felt like we were both caged in a calm, pink world surrounded by iron.
“I won’t,” she conceded, “if you spend the day with me.”
My hands were ice. Sweat collected under my finger pads. They felt sticky as I dragged them over the velvet. “You know I can’t.”
“Fine.” She walked to the door. One last time she looked back—not at me but at the woods—with longing.
She probably didn’t know how much she loved the forest—she probably couldn’t allow herself to. But though she could hide such things from herself, she couldn’t hide them from me.
“Be careful,” I whispered, balling up my useless fists at my sides.
She paused by the door. I was so struck by her innate beauty that I couldn’t breathe.
“You too, Rose.”
The door clicked shut, followed by the subdued echo of her footsteps. I was alone—finally, and completely, alone.
My throat closed. Do not think about it, I demanded, but my body wouldn’t listen. Snow White was drawn by some unseen force to that horrific place, and so was my mind.
It had taken over three weeks to travel through the poison to the castle. No child should ever be exposed to something like that. For weeks, I existed in the dark, for the trees were so lush that even out my small window, it looked like dusk at midday. I took shallow breaths, out of fear my mask would break and I’d inhale poison. Even at the time I knew it was foolish. No matter how small my breaths, I’d be dead if it broke. It would creep inside me, and once it did, there would be no way to get it out. So I’d lived in pure terror—
That the vibrant, unnatural violet of the poison would seep into my eyes.
That my skin would become as unearthly white as the bark peeling off the trees.
That my lips would be stained blood red like the man-eating flowers.
That my hair would become as black as the darkness that trapped us.
That I’d become a poisoned creature, like Snow White.
No, you love her—the girl who is as beautiful as that ethereal, deadly landscape. I repeated the phrase, bitting my lip but not hard enough to draw blood. I didn’t want my lips to look like—no, I wouldn’t think it. She can’t help it.
Soft light streamed through the window, hitting the chair where her shadow had once been.
I had to find a way to keep her away from the poison. If I didn’t, I would lose her.
Banshee Moss hung from branches, delicate as the moth-eaten bridal veil a retiring crone might place upon her head each evening, with knobby fingers that hadn’t stopped trembling since her husband passed on so many years before.
I parted moss with one hand, keeping the other on my knife. The soles of my worn boots found little traction against the smooth, wet rocks. Advancing barefoot would have been easier, but I couldn’t risk exposing my skin to what lurked below.
To the naked eye, the pond appeared either bottomless or as thin as the first layer of ice in winter. It was impossible to tell. My guess was that it would be about waist deep—if you were lucky enough to hit the bottom. The Vampire’s Kiss would catch you before that. Her spiked roots would wrap around your legs, immobilizing you as she drained your body of blood.
The incense I left at the bank just barely masked her scent. Every few steps, I shut my eyes and searched for it—citrus and cedar. It was the only thing that kept my consciousness from slipping into her sweet, lethal trap.
Here, I was thankful for my mask—it dulled the smell of the Vampire’s Kiss. If her perfume were fainter, it would have been the kind poets assign to doomed lovers in their final embrace. But the goal of the Vampire’s Kiss was not to seduce her victim, but force them to submit. My eyes stung. My throat felt like it was on fire. My plugged nose burned as if I’d inhaled chlorine. Still I moved forward, partly because I needed to collect her venom, but mostly because being distant from that saccharine, overpowering scent made my heart ache.
I took smaller and smaller steps, smaller and smaller breaths, until I reached her mouth.
The water reflected her blood red petals and the three rows of teeth behind them. My vision blurred. I struggled to maintain my balance. Citrus and cedar. Citrus and cedar. Citrus and—there it was.
I reopened my eyes and looked down at her bulbous, transparent tongue. Near the edge was a shriveled carcass of a butterfly, its flightless wings outstretched as if preserved in resin. Next to it lay a claw and a scrap of fur, probably from a partially digested pond rat.
I should have some reaction to this, I thought, but I didn’t. The daze was already getting to me. I could see why men believed that teh vibrant, red flower in the center of her mouth was a pillow—why they chose to climb inside her—how they were able to fall asleep.
I drifted forward. The pollen on the hairs of her tongue trembled. I was losing myself. I had to hurry.
I rolled my sleeve up to my shoulder and drew my blade across my forearm.
Blood dripped from my elbow onto her first row of teeth. I reached into my pack for my syringe and waited.
Her tongue rippled as her taste buds elongated, stretching towards the pooling blood like thousands snails’ eyes. The black spikes weren’t far behind. They were almost as long and sharp as my needle, and meant to inject venom into her prey. They thrust themselves into the air as the veins on her tongue swelled.
I pushed the tip of my syringe into a vein and pulled the pump back.
Purple liquid with the consistency of sap filled the tube. Too much would stop your heart, but if you gave someone just enough, they’d sleep. Nothing, not even cutting open their chest and prodding their pumping heart, would wake them. I suppose that even she was capable of sympathy, though that alone could not change her nature.
The tube was full. My foot slipped as I put away the syringe, and my toe almost hit the water. Damn. I was breathing so slowly, moving so slowly…
Careful, Snow White. I was staying too long, but I couldn’t leave yet.
There was a woman I knew. Her only child had left, and a few years back he’d stopped sending letters. Her back had given out from years of work, but she refused to take anything I’d give her, preferring apple cider vinegar to ‘unnatural concoctions.’
But she loved flowers.
In the back of my mind, Gilbert’s low, musical voice echoed: Remember, little one. Don’t go to Vampire’s Kiss when it’s windy or hot, and never disturb her flower. Don’t be a fool.
I ignored his warning. That woman wouldn’t need many—just a few to add to her potpourri to help her sleep.
I slid my arm into her mouth, between her first row of teeth, then her second, and began to pluck the petals off the flower. I wouldn’t take them all—just a few from the outside—the ones that were already fading to orange and fell into my palm with the slightest touch.
The scent grew stronger. That I expected, for even a light breeze drew out her scent. I expected the aching in my limbs, the tightness in my throat, the inexplicable yearning in my heart that made me lean forward. I even expected the sweetness. I was prepared to be shattered. I just didn’t expect the world to go black.
I blinked rapidly. I can’t see. Panic filled the dark. Don’t move, I reminded myself, keeping my hand steady. If I touched her mouth, she’d stab me and inject her venom, and I’d fall and be consumed.
Citrus and cedar, my mind chanted, but it was so hard to think, and thinking alone would not save me. Standing still wouldn’t either. My arm throbbed with my heartbeat.
I had to leave.
I yanked my arm straight back. Don’t know if I moved slowly or not. Time suspended until my fist slammed into my stomach.
I turned my back to her mouth, removed my gloves. I’d collected seven petals. That was good; that was enough. My hands shook as I put them in my leather pouch. One fell.
Six petals. That was still good. I pulled the drawstring closed.
My vision was slowly returning, but the landscape looked like a wax painting that had been placed beneath a flame. I should wait, I thought. My body swayed to the throbbing of my head. At any moment I’d lose my footing, and I couldn’t afford to fall. How many stones had I crossed? Five. The last few were crooked. I should retrace my steps.
I looked down. The fuzzy, red reflection of the Vampire’s Kiss touched everything except a few dark smudges. Those must be the rocks. I stepped onto the first smudge, then the next. I doubt I would have felt a thing had I fallen, or even realized it. The place where I’d cut myself felt as lush and soothing as my mother’s kiss. I tried not to think of that. I was still trying not to think of it when I reached the bank.
I staggered, kicking over the incense. A spark ignited in the corner of my vision, then went out. Leave, I commanded, pushing forward. Brittle Banshee Moss clawed at my neck. My heart beat faster with every step. It would be so nice to nap beside the pond, just for a few moments…
I fell to my knees. My joints ached too much to walk. So I crawled up the hill, and every time a rock cut through my gloves and into my palm, it felt like my mother’s kiss.
When I got to the top I rolled onto my back. Here, the scent wouldn’t reach me. I pulled up my mask, yanked out my nose plugs. Air, I thought, thick with soil and the acidic scent of decay and autumn leaves. I grabbed a fistful and held them over my face.
Dirt crumbled down my neck and cheeks, into my shirt and hair. It took a long time for the trace of her toxic perfume to clear. Too long. I watched the branches take shape in the darkness as my vision cleared. The backs of my eyes still hurt, as if I’d woken prematurely from a deep, deep dream.
I held my arm above my head. The blood had started to congeal. Good. My palms were raw, but not too bad. I poured apple cider vinegar on a piece of cloth and pressed it into my skin.
I didn’t feel the sting eating through me. I wouldn’t feel anything for at least a few more hours. Maybe I was dreaming. Maybe I’d died back there, plucking petals off a pretty flower for an old lady. Maybe I should sleep a little bit…
I slipped my mask over my head and stood.
One was never alone in the woods. The stillness, the quiet, the awareness of your own breath—those things deceived you. I’d learned to recognize the subtle signs of life: the stench of ammonia from animals marking their territory, displaced pine needles, prints in the soil. I’d grown accustomed to being watched and, sometimes, hunted—perhaps those things even comforted me because I knew them so well.
So the tightness in my stomach, the dampness in my palms, the apprehension dulled only by the lingering effects of the Vampire’s Kiss—these things I’d never felt, and especially not when I found evidence I was not alone.
I crouched behind the Wasp Ferns and placed my hand upon a print I’d never seen before.
There were eight of them. They moved from the south, which suggested they’d come from the kingdom. They wore large boots and walked heel-first, making them easy to track, so they couldn’t have come from the village. The soil wasn’t that soft, but their imprint was a good half centimeter into the ground. They were heavy. Perhaps they carried something.
I didn’t like the idea of strange men stomping around in my forest. I liked even less that they were too careless to notice, or didn’t care enough to know, that they’d trampled a Toad Faerie.
Dark blue and purple spots peppered the backs of her leaves like the head of a toad, while inside it was as white as faerie wings. She was a diuretic, an astringent, a digestive tonic. She was rare, though there were stories of her blooming wildly in the deep woods where no one ventured.
I tucked my gloves into my pocket and picked her up. It could still be used. Her flowers were limp and cut by the wavy imprint of a boot. The petals were just starting to brown. They’d been here recently.
I could think of only one group that fit that description: my uncle’s elite guard.
They’d been patrolling the woods. Everyone knew that. But they didn’t move this quickly or recklessly. They didn’t go out in groups this large. They carried very little. And Hans…it couldn’t be Hans. He would never step on a Toad Faerie. None of them would—it fetched a high price from the apothecary.
My hand found the handle of my knife. I crept forward on my tiptoes, stepping in thick moss or pine needles. I moved as quickly as I could without making a sound.
The group was heading towards the road used on occasion by merchants, travelers, and visitors to the kingdom. They spread out the closer they got. A few moved outward quickly, as if positioning themselves to cut off their prey’s retreat.
The thought startled me into stillness.
They’re closing in on something.
Of course. It was obvious. I’d felt it the second I saw all those footsteps, moving without caring what got in their way. There were so many of them. I had, what? A knife. A vial of venom. A few smoke grenades I always took per Hans’ suggestion, should I ever have the misfortune of running into the elite guard while in the woods I’d been barred from entering.
Fear sharpened my drug-addled mind.
I should head back.
I almost did. But then, faintly in the distance, I heard the first scream.
The prince’s palace looked like a woman had tenderly built and decorated it for her lover. The colors were bold and complex, the furniture large and strong, yet everything possessed a quiet, feminine beauty. Delicate leaves adorned the iron chandelier in the center of the entryway. Beneath was a dry fountain that would sound wonderful when filled with water. I ran a finger over the surface of the railing. It was mahogany beneath all that dust—rich, dark wood, suitable for a man. I smiled, wondering what Snow White’s fantasy prince, dressed from head (but especially) to toe in tassels, would think.
“Princess?” The woman beside me asked hesitantly.
I wiped off my hand on my skirt, leaving a thick, white line of dust. “I’m sorry, Mary. Please continue.”
“No need for you to apologize to me, Princess.” She tilted her head to hide her smile.
So she liked that I remembered her name. I thought she would. It was why I’d made a point to use it.
My father knew that to control the kingdom he had to control the actions of the people he ruled. Sometimes he placated them. Usually, he used force. But I’d found that, often, the most effective methods were the subtlest. I couldn’t strike fear into their hearts—not yet—but I could make them adore me.
The people in the village silently worshiped her, but the servants feared Snow White. They remembered the beauty and kindness of the late queen. They never forgot that she’d died by her daughter’s hand. If it ever came down to just the two of us, they would support me.
Which was why, if they ever decided to take action, I wanted them to come to me instead of my father. I couldn’t let any of them know how much I loved her. I only hoped it was enough—no, it would be enough—to save her.
“Let’s go upstairs. You can show me the rooms,” I said.
I didn’t get a chance to take one step up that magnificent staircase.
A woman’s scream echoed throughout the palace.
In another room, something shattered. A maid dropped her freshly laundered sheets on the uncleaned floor. Dust puffed into the air, settling on my skirt and filling my nose with the scent of age. Mary wrung her hands and stumbled back, tripping over the sheets.
I looked around the room. “Stay where you are,” I yelled. The last thing we needed was a panic, though it looked like it was too late to stop that. I dashed to the back of the palace where the scream had originated.
Footsteps echoed over the marble floors. A man was shouting—perhaps trying to calm the shrieking woman down. As I rounded the corner, someone slammed into me.
“A ghost.” Her knobby, thin hands grabbed my shoulders. Her blue eyes shifted back and forth. Her lips were pulled back, revealing yellowing teeth that were brown near the gums.
“Hey, do you know who you’re speaking to?” Erik, the elite guard my father assigned to oversee this project, yanked the old woman off.
She barely noticed. She brought her shaking arms over her face. “A ghost! I saw him, I did, eyes black as the devil—”
The servants were starting to gather at the end of the hall. “Don’t just stand there, get the doctor!” Erik yelled, then pointed at two gardeners. “You there, help me restrain her.”
She began to convulse. The gardeners held her as gently as they could.
“Lay her out in the drawing room until the doctor gets here,” Erik whispered.
“No, you don’t understand!” Her wild, blue eyes met mine. “My lady, this place should have never been opened! We’re cursed!”
“Come now, miss,” one of the gardeners cooed as she started to shriek again.
“He’s there, waiting for us, in the basement!”
My heart stuttered. There was no basement in this building. “Wait.”
Eric touched my shoulder as I pushed past. “I don’t think it’s wise—”
“Stop moving her,” I demanded. “Now, what did you say about a basement?”
“In the sun room, my lady. I was dusting the corner when the floor opened. It’s hell, my lady.”
My heart pounded so hard that for a few seconds my vision went black. Could it be…? No, it wasn’t possible. My father had torn apart the prince’s palace in his search for anything that could lead to what his brother discovered in the mines—secretly, of course, so as not to excite the superstitious minds of his people. Nothing was found. Not even a ledger, or a single note from his scientific experiments. Still, he knew that it was here his brother conducted his experiments. Servants remembered pale purple mist emanating from the windows at night, and their even paler, hollow-eyed and bony-cheeked king. In the months leading up to Snow White’s birth, he’d surfaced only right before dawn to check on his wife.
After years of searching, my father determined his crazy brother had destroyed it—or at least that was the official report. He still sent someone every month to look for what the others might have missed.
And this woman might have found it.
How long since she started screaming? Two minutes, perhaps. It might be too late, I thought. There were so many witnesses. But if I could clear the area, even if it was just for a few minutes…
I balled my fists at my sides. Nervous energy mounted inside me—energy I could do nothing, at the moment, to expend. “Were you alone?” I asked, trying to keep the edge out of my voice.
“He was there—his eyes—”
“Were you the only one cleaning the room?”
Her head rolled back. “He’s coming for us. We should have never touched this place…”
Alright, I wasn’t going to get anything more from her. I glanced at the gardeners. “Lay her out in the drawing room. Make sure no one else comes back here. No one, do you understand?”
I turned and ran down the hall.
I could see why the contraption had remained undiscovered for so long. Over the years, my father had ripped up floors, torn down walls, destroyed ceilings. Every room had been searched—even this one—though, admittedly, it hadn’t received thorough treatment.
The late king didn’t keep his secret in his study, where he supposedly worked. He didn’t hide it in the pantry, the kitchen, or some other nondescript, insignificant room that would be ‘the last place someone would look.’ He placed it in the room where he met with friends, family and enemies for afternoon tea.
The lever looked like something out of a storybook. It was only a few centimeters wide. It disappeared into the ceiling, between the corners of the far side of the room. It was far from the molding, so it wouldn’t attract spiders or other little things that tempted maids to pick up their dusters. The other maids probably sent the old woman in here to dust because it would be easy, and she must have inexplicably thought that spot was dirty…
I wondered if my father would be more pleased or embarrassed that an aging servant—who probably had poor eyesight to boot—had found it while cleaning.
The late king had possessed a small frame. The entrance to the passage was in the center of the room and only took up four cement squares. It would take seconds to slip inside. I would have done just that, had Erik not followed me.
The elite guard hung near the back of the room. He’d tell my father. There was no way to break his training. I’d have to get rid of him to search the place before anyone else, but I couldn’t arouse his suspicions or—even worse—the suspicions of my father. That meant I had to act as they would expect me to.
I straightened my shoulders. “Evacuate the servants. Take aside the those who heard of this and make sure they keep their mouths shut. Send a message to my father immediately. Organize the guard around the perimeter of the palace. Make sure no one gets inside—including the guard. We don’t know who we can trust.”
“What about you?”
I swallowed. Stupid. I couldn’t show any sign of my nerves. A princess with nothing to hide is confident. I couldn’t let him doubt me.
“I will remain here,” I said as if it were the only logical option.
His mouth was a thin line. “I can’t leave you alone.”
Also logical, but I couldn’t let him do that. “Send for Hans.”
“What if he isn’t—”
“I don’t think you understand,” I interrupted icily. He was going to be difficult; time to switch tactics. “We don’t know who we can trust.”
He worked his jaw. He wanted to say—I’m part of the elite guard; I’ve sworn an oath to your father; of course he can trust me. He was right. The king should trust his guard implicitly, but this one didn’t. My father always told me to be most wary of those with whom you trust with your life.
They were good rules for a king to follow, though he was too obvious about it. The guard knew he didn’t trust him, and it made them uneasy. Worse, in situations like this, it made them doubt their training.
A pang of guilt made my heart stutter. It hurt, almost, when I betrayed that nervous, scheming man, for he distrusted everyone except for me. I suppose, for that, he could be forgiven. If you can’t trust your own children, what is left for you in this world?
I glared into the guard’s dominant, left eye. “How long will it take to reach my father? Ten minutes? If I discover you let anyone other than Hans in this room before our King is notified, I will have you tried for treason. If the council catches word of this before him, I’ll have your head.”
I stepped forward. That dominant eye of his twitched as his nostrils flared almost imperceptibly. All his training could not completely hide the irritation he felt at being ordered about by a woman. I didn’t like doing this. He wasn’t the kind of man I wanted for an enemy. Had I been too hasty? No. I had no choice, and there was no time.
“It’s already been three minutes. The servants should be panicked, and some of them have most likely left the grounds already. You better hurry.”
I didn’t stay in the room as I said I would. The moment the door closed I shot down the stairs and was swallowed by cool, murky air. Normally, I would have waited to make sure he wouldn’t return. Normally, I would have carefully persuaded him instead of bludgeoning him with threats. That doesn’t matter now, I told myself. I’d made my decision. I’d discover what my late uncle had hidden before my father. I’d try to prevent him from controlling it, and if I couldn’t do that, I’d prepare for my next move.
The servants had dropped a lantern at the top of the staircase. I had to use both my arms to pick it up, and my wrist torqued as I held it. It gave off little light, but I was thankful for any amount, even if it was so heavy…
My heel slipped down three stairs—and would have gone further had I not dug my left palm into the the wall, sloughing off my top layer of skin. My shriek echoed down the cavern. Had I been heard?
No time, I reminded myself. At best, I had ten minutes—most likely, I had five. I’d already wasted at least thirty seconds.
The narrow passage began to level out. Tables lined the walls. I half expected the jars to be filled with eyeballs and organs preserved in yellow liquid, but they were empty and dry.
No answer, but a drip, drip, drip far off in the darkness.
I took a deep breath and readjusted my grip. No time. You can’t give up now, not when you’re so close. You can’t let your father have it.
Something creaked again.
If only it were brighter, I wouldn’t be so afraid. I swallowed, stepping forward, my lantern swaying so violently it was a wonder I didn’t drop it.
And then I saw it.
The perimiter of the light just barely touched his knees. I didn’t think it was human flesh at first. It was too thin, bony. His ripped trousers made his thighs disappear into darkness.
A ghost, the old woman had warned. I took a step forward. I didn’t believe—
I almost dropped the lantern.
Chains suspended him from the ceiling. His arms and legs were pulled to the sides, blocking the passage. His pointed toes didn’t quite touch the floor. His skin was as pale as Snow White’s. Long, greasy hair was matted to his forehead, shoulders, hips. His eyes reflected the glow of the lantern, as if fire danced in them. They were…as black as the devil.
I remembered the woman’s words: This place should never have been opened. We’re cursed.
His mouth looked as if it had been coated in blood.
It’s hell. He’s coming for us.
His lips cracked as he smiled, and a thick, black line dripped down his chin. “You were so brave a moment ago, princess. Was it I who made you stop?”
His voice was clear, refined. The kind of voice a that should only exist on a grassy hill on a spring day, reciting poetry to a young lady.
The arm that held the lantern shook. I put my free hand on my wrist to support it. It shook even more. I set it on the floor.
He watched me step forward, following me with those horrific eyes as I touched his raw skin. How could someone do this to another person? It was sticky from old, grimy wounds and fresh blood, as if he’d been bound for countless years.
“How long have you been here?”
“That doesn’t matter.”
I thought it did, but I wouldn’t press him—for now. “Who did this to you?”
The man tilted up his face. “My gods.”
“They thought I would be a new thing—something different and greater—but in the end, I am merely their reflection.”
“What do you mean? Who are you?”
He bowed his head as far forward as his chains allowed, and said, as I cradled his cheeks in my hands: “I am your mirror.”
It wasn’t much of a stream—more like an obsidian snake slithering between black stones and squeezing through barriers of fallen leaves. It would remain like this until the snow melted next spring. Thankfully, they’d decided to travel in autumn. If the waters were deeper, or the current stronger, I would’ve cowered behind a tree and ended up dead before I had a chance to save them.
I still might not have a chance.
The whistle reed was smooth beneath my thumb and forefinger, save for the few joints I felt through my gloves. She bowed as I bent over, following the contours of my legs. She’d fly well enough.
I stopped sharpening the tip of the dart. Told myself I did it to readjust my grip on my knife, but my hand shook so violently that I almost dropped it.
Last one. I swallowed, took a deep breath. My right arm scraped against the lava rock bank each time it moved, fraying my sleeves. Blood slipped from my elbow to my hand, making my grip slick. I felt no pain, though. The Vampire’s Kiss still coursed through my veins, and I hadn’t been able to think clearly since the screaming stopped.
They might all be dead.
No. I wouldn’t even consider it.
The assailants had ambushed them from the trees. When I arrived, the carriage was flipped, the horses cut free, and most of the men already shot. Three died instantly from arrows to the neck. Two lingered on, their quaking, red hands sliding on arrows protruding from their chests.
It was over quickly for one. Somehow, he’d found his grip and yanked the arrow from his breast. I don’t know if he’d been trying to save himself or end his pain, but once it was out, he’d breathed too fast. So much blood pumped from his body that the soil couldn’t drink it all.
I tried not to think of the other. His mask made his screams sound muffled and caged. It echoed when he smacked his lips while sucking in a breath. It didn’t sound human, and the longer I listened, the less human I felt. I was relieved when he stopped—so relieved and so repulsed by my reaction that I’d whimpered.
The muscles in my stomach had tightened. Panting, I wondered whether I should hit the ground or flee before one of their arrows caught me. But the assailants couldn’t hear that careless sound over the screams of the remaining men.
And now it’s silent.
As wind blew through the wasp ferns, I sheathed my knife. I’d lost my opportunity to move—they’d hear me if I did it now. If I’d come ten minutes earlier, I could have stalked them. Picked off a few. Given those who’d survived the attack time to regroup. Or maybe I would’ve been caught in the crossfire and killed.
A tree to my far right rustled—too big to be an animal, bears and wildcats rarely came this close to the road. A bulky, black shape fell from the branches. I just barely caught a glimpse of him before he disappeared behind the jutting rocks and foliage of the opposite side of the bank. Less than a second later, he hit the forest floor.
Must’ve landed on a bed of pine needles. Wouldn’t have heard him if I wasn’t listening for it. He’s close—should cross the stream in less than twenty seconds.
I reached for my atlatl. It had taken about five minutes to make. A harpy oak had fallen during the storm a few nights back, and I found a branch that forked at a 40 degree angle. The longest section was about the size of my forearm, just right. I snapped off the smaller piece, then whittled it into a spur. I took the extra thirty seconds to flatten the side my fingers would curl around when I held it. My coordination was still a bit off thanks to the venom; I needed all the help I could get.
I was placing a dart on the spur when I heard another tree rustle.
I closed my eyes, went completely still.
Three thuds. I was certain there were no more. So four of them had come down from the trees to finish the job. But why so many? It didn’t make sense—unless they’d known beforehand the number of travelers, and that it took four men to silence whomever was left.
Ten meters to my right, a black hand parted a patch of whistle reeds.
I closed my throat mid-exhale, refusing to let any more air—any more sound—escape. My fingers twitched once, then went rigid. In my mind, Han’s cold voice reprimanded me. Move fluidly. Only corpses are stiff.
The figure crouched. I cocked my arm back, mouth dry, heart beating so loudly it was a wonder he couldn’t hear, and still stiff as a corpse.
From this distance, it would be easy to spear that small area of exposed skin between his mask and jacket. But I hadn’t yet coated the tips of my darts with venom, so I’d have to kill him with this dart. He’d catch me before I could prepared another. I probably wouldn’t win that fight. The Vampire’s Kiss made my mind drowsy, my movements slow.
And I’d never killed anyone before.
The man slid down the bank, heels leaving thick grooves in the sandy soil. A slab of lava rock knocked the bow fastened to his back onto the top of mask. It made a sharp ticking sound, like water dripping into a pan. The sound was subdued because the mask’s cellulite shell was wrapped in canvas.
He rubbed his chin against his chest. Itches, doesn’t it? I thought as a sympathy itch crawled behind my ear. Irrespective of the fit, that mask always cut into your neck. It gave you blisters if you weren’t used to wearing it. It was too cold in winter and too hot in summer. It trapped your sweat against your flushed skin. It stank of cellulite even when one was in the deep woods, surrounded by skunk weed.
I knew because it was the same model I wore—the model specifically designed for my uncle’s elite guard.
His black clothes. Black shoes. The careful way he moved. His lethal hands. All of it, eerily familiar.
A dark fist squeezed my chest.
Hans. My lips parted, as if about to speak the name.
No, please don’t be—
He stepped onto a rock, dislodging the pebbles beneath. He put his hand out to steady himself, keeping the other on his sword.
It wasn’t Hans. He wasn’t as tall and his shoulders were broader. Hans wouldn’t have stepped on that snow drop. He wouldn’t have stumbled down the stream bed. And he would have seen me.
This man did not notice the small girl in the shadows of lava rocks and wasp ferns, even though her clothes were a shade lighter than the soil. He didn’t notice the eight broken whistle reed stalks to his left, or think it strange that a cluster of them lay downstream. Or perhaps his attention was so focused on a hypothetical sneak attack from the other side of the stream bed that he couldn’t see it.
Hans would never make such mistakes.
Maybe he’s ignoring you on purpose to give you time to escape.
Wishful thinking. Hans wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t even be able to tell it was me, and even if he did, he might still… A tremor shot down my spine. If he saw me here, the black, impersonal sockets in his mask would be the last things I’d see.
The man placed his sword on the top of the opposite bank and jumped up. Upstream, beyond the bend, I heard the others cross.
No, they were too close. They might hear.
Lose them. No one knows the woods as well as you.
Ah, that magnificent ego of mine. Did it really want to see me killed off that badly?
You can’t take on the elite guard.
That was true. What the hell had I been thinking coming here in the first place? I should stay down and silent until they left.
My heart thudded to the steady pace of their advancement. Each step took them further from me, yet not far enough. One faltered. I heard the sound of someone drawing a bow…
They came down because someone was still alive.
My entire body trembled.
Stay where you are.
It was good advice. Too bad I couldn’t follow it. I’d come to stop the screaming, hadn’t I? Because a person couldn’t hear sounds like that and do nothing. I stood, crept soundlessly to the bank, my feet moving in time with the assailants. I kept my wrist cocked back and ready to attack anything that revealed itself.
Nothing came. I stood on my tiptoes.
They couldn’t see me. The thick nest of wasp ferns hid my mask. I squinted and leaned forward, stopping when the stalks hit my mask. If those delicate, red leaves bended further—down the sides of my cheeks to my exposed neck—I wouldn’t be able to stay still or quiet. They called them wasp ferns for a reason.
Light flickered beneath the carriage. A rusty shadow from a tree, perhaps. Or from a man.
A tendon in my chest snapped.
One’s still alive.
He was badly wounded. He’d left a trail of blood when he dragged himself beneath the carriage. The men closed in, weapons drawn—two swordsmen, two archers. One archer stayed back near the bank, only ten paces from me. The other moved left, as if to pick off anyone who emerged from the carriage door. The swordsmen crept forward, side by side, stepping in between the limbs of fallen men, heels squishing in the rusty, muddy soil.
They must’ve seen the man hiding under the carriage. Why weren’t they attacking?
There must be other survivors.
Nervous energy sprinted through my body as I slouched behind the bank. How many could fit inside that carriage? No, there might be only one left—two, if you counted the half-dead man beneath the carriage, which I didn’t. So one against the four assailants fighting on the ground, and as many as four waiting in the trees. Suicidal odds.
But they didn’t know I was here yet. And unlike them, I knew I could bring a man down with one hit. So if I counted myself, that made, at worst, two against eight…
Alright, adding an extra person did little to improve things. Was I really considering helping them? When I’d come I’d thought—no, I hadn’t been thinking—
Of course not. You’re drugged.
Wow. Those odds kept getting better and better.
At least you’re not hallucinating. Well, probably not.
I took out my syringe and vial of Vampire’s Kiss venom. Opened it. Steady hands. I couldn’t waste any. Each drop was important. Edgar’s leg. Mildred’s surgeries. Others, who’d come home maimed from an accident at the mill. It was too precious to use on some unknown men…
Don’t think of that. Besides, I had my own safety to consider. They hadn’t noticed me yet, but how long until they did? I pushed down on the syringe, coating the tip of each dart with venom. Too much would kill them. Too little, and they wouldn’t fall fast enough. Just right, and they’d be out within three seconds.
I was on the third dart when it started.
Someone dashed forward. Something creaked open. Screaming, followed by a clash of swords, the whizzing of arrows, feet skidding over gravel, and the scent of disturbed earth and blood.
I coated the remaining darts, trying to assess the situation. They were still fighting, which meant at least one of the men who’d been attacked lived. The screaming wasn’t his. So one of the assailants was down—probably a swordsman. Not good. The archers would pick off the survivor before he reached them, and he’d give them a clear shot once the other swordsman backed away or got himself killed.
I thought of the man beneath the carriage, and whoever stood beside him, fighting.
They need my help.
I put a dart on my atlatl. Crouched. Brought my wrist to my shoulder, ready to throw. Grabbed a fistful of wasp ferns with my free hand and stuffed them in my pocket. There. Now I could see better.
Six arrows had been fired. Two rested in the door of the carriage where the survivor’s head would have been when he’d emerged. He’d slashed one of the attackers, probably when they’d opened the door. The fallen man kicked his legs, wailing. He wrapped his arms around his torso, trying to keep his guts in his stomach.
The scene didn’t distract the others. And that sound—like a mother screeching as she cradled her stillborn baby in her arms—no one else seemed to hear it.
My wrist shook. It shook even more when I got a good look at the survivor.
I couldn’t see him, of course, beneath his simple, royal blue clothes. He had a smaller frame than the attackers—probably wasn’t much taller than me.
He stayed close to his attacker, mirroring his footwork and restricted his movements. He could have killed him, but he didn’t, because that would give the archers a clear shot. And I’d never seen anyone move so precisely or so fast, except Hans.
I didn’t trust people who made killing look like an art. Such grace could only be achieved through suffering and blood.
Relax. Don’t give into your fears. Weakness will get you killed.
Hans’ warnings echoed in my mind as I saw the survivor’s weakness.
He wasn’t used to fighting in a mask—it narrowed one’s field of vision, the air was hotter, it felt like there was less of it. He’d fought beautifully—he still fought beautifully—but I could see the strain in his neck as he swung, the muscles tightening beneath his shirt, the rapid rise and fall of his chest. It didn’t matter how good he was. The end for all fighters, even beautiful ones, was always pitiful. And he was only hastening his own death by refusing to abandon his wounded friend.
He must’ve known he could not win against three trained men; that the man beneath the spokes was probably too wounded to make it. But those things didn’t matter when you loved someone. You’d fight for them even when it was hopeless. Even when it made no sense.
I drew back my arm. The man ten paces from me would have to come first. He’d be easier to hit, and if he saw me after I’d thrown a dart at the other archer, he’d reach me before I could reload.
I didn’t think of what would happen if I missed.
A beam of sunlight streamed through the fog and remaining leaves, illuminating the stretched, red skin of his neck. I pitched forward, throwing the dart.
It bounced off his nape.
Panic surged in my veins. It had been too long since I’d used an atlatl. My throw wasn’t strong enough—the dart, not sharp enough. It hadn’t broken the skin. I reached down, grabbing another dart. He’ll get here before I have the time to…
A gurgling sound rose in the man’s throat. He dropped his bow and arrow, brought his hands to his neck. Sighing, his knees hit the ground. Then his torso went lax and he fell.
That beam of sunlight touched his heels. On the back of his neck, obscured by shadow, gleamed a pinprick of blood.
It almost hadn’t been enough.
I inhaled sharply, wasting precious seconds. The other archer would soon notice. He’d see the weapon, glance at the trees and then the stream.
The Vampire’s lingering, almost-kiss made me sluggish. My hand left a blurry trail as I reached for the next dart. I glared between the broken wasp fern stalks, found him circling the two fighting men, trying to get a better shot.
The world pulsed as I cocked back my arm. I heaved forward and, at the last moment, my grip faltered.
I knew, right as it left my hand, that it wouldn’t make it unless he moved. Duck. My lips mimed the word as the dart wiggled through the air.
He turned his head. Perhaps he’d heard me. His shoulders hunched as he did it, lowering himself just barely…
But not enough.
The dart bounced off the back of his leather jacket, mere centimeters from his neck.
He watched it fall. Wedged it into the dirt with his toe. Then, the dark sockets of his mask bore straight into me.
I wouldn’t be able to outrun him while drugged.
I grabbed the rest of the darts in my fist. No time to reload. Maybe he’d pause once he noticed I wore the same mask but…no, he was already moving towards me, arrow raised, pointed straight—
I ducked. An arrow hit a stump on the opposite bank.
I stayed low, pushing my shoulder against the lava rock as I dashed forward.
No. Stop running blindly and think.
I took a deep breath. What would I do in his position?
If I jumped into the stream bed, I might be ambushed.
I could wait for the attacker to come out, but they might escape.
So I’d try to find a high vantage point, one that gave me a good view of the stream. I’d probably already know the attacker had darts instead of arrows. I’d get near or up a tree—something that would give me cover and allow me to exploit the fact I had a more precise weapon.
I took out my knife. The whistle reeds were slick, so the venom hadn’t sunk in yet. I rolled my knife over the tip of a few darts. I’d only get one shot. Better go before he had time to get comfortable.
Two yards left, the wasp ferns stopped growing. I sprinted, threw my darts over the edge and jumped. I rolled twice. My hip hit a rock. Feels like a kiss, I thought as I leaped for the tree’s shadow.
The tree stumbled as my head connected with its elbow, knocking his bow to the ground.
Trees don’t carry bows, Snow White.
I pushed myself onto my feet, staring into those black, impersonal sockets that hid the attacker’s eyes.
He didn’t hesitate. Barely even looked at me as he reached down to collect his bow.
I was dead if he got it.
I threw myself forward. As I soared through the air, I realized that I was going to hit him somewhere below the belt. Too late to stop now, I thought, flinching moments before impact. My nose smashed into the front of my mask. My front teeth bit through my bottom lip. I couldn’t see, and the taste of iron filled my mouth.
He growled and kicked me onto my back. My head slammed into the ground. My skull just shattered, I thought, but the perfume of the Vampire’s Kiss surged through my veins, replacing the searing pain with a gentle throbbing. More kisses, I mused as his fist slammed into my mask.
He hadn’t gone for the bow. That probably meant I hadn’t hit his groin, but had gotten close enough to wake him up.
His thighs dug into mine as he lurched forward, taking my throat in his hands.
I swung my knife into his right armpit.
One second. Two seconds…
I hadn’t coated it with enough venom. Not nearly enough. But, dear God, it must have hurt like Hell—and, unsurprisingly, he was seriously pissed.
He knew he couldn’t pull it out. Who knows what it had made contact with. His right arm fell from my neck, limp, as his breath grew quicker. I turned, trying to slip out of left hand. He smashed my windpipe with his forearm.
I stopped breathing. All I felt was pain closing around me as my world grew smaller and smaller. I wished I’d inhaled more of the Vampire Kiss’ perfume. Just a little more and I wouldn’t feel such intense pain pain. But I’d only taken enough to make me slow and foolish.
The wiry hairs on his wrist made my throat itch.
Wiry hairs. Bare skin.
I stuffed my free hand in my pocket. He didn’t notice as I fisted the wasp fern leaves. Even if he did, I doubt he would’ve done anything. After all, he’d stepped on a toad faerie.
The deep forest purples in my peripheral vision began to saturate. Dark gray bled into his mask. Maybe the sun was setting. Maybe soon, I’d finally rest.
My arm contorted as I raised it. Just a second more. All I need to do is touch it to his skin. Just a second…
I tried to grab onto him but my fingers wouldn’t bend. It didn’t matter. All the wasp fern had to do was touch his skin.
He let go. Started to wail.
My lungs inflated, throat burning as if his hand were still wrapped around it. I should attack, or at least flee, I thought, but I couldn’t stand. Even remaining sprawled on my back was impossible. It felt like my lungs were liquefying, then turning to acid, burning through my rib cage and back…
I curled forward until my knees hit my chest. I tried to cough, spraying blood from my busted lip. It felt like mist against my chin.
“Ifurbuku,” the attacker slurred.
I didn’t know if he spoke a foreign language, or if he were butchering my mother tongue, but some things don’t need to be translated. I know you want to kill me. I couldn’t say it. Even if I somehow survived, my throat was so raw that I doubted I’d ever be able to speak again. He was probably reaching for his bow now, or his sword, as he should have before.
Instinct compelled my hand to grab a rock. The darts were too far away, somewhere down the bank. I couldn’t remember. Light pierced my skull as I opened my eyes. If I can’t see, I can’t throw it—I can’t even hear him over the pounding in my head…
The assailant cried out. His voice was an octave higher than it had been before, but just as quiet. There you are, I thought, throwing my arm forward and hitting his knee with my rock.
His legs crumpled. I winced as he collapsed on my shins.
I gripped my rock harder. I hadn’t hit him that hard. Maybe whatever venom was left on the knife was kicking in?
My vision sharpened. Pink welts ballooned on his wrists where I’d rubbed the wasp fern. He’d dropped his weapons. He clawed at his chest and neck, gloves catching on his buckles.
And then I saw it—the sword stuck through his side, glinting like sunlight on water. It had entered below his rib cage. The tip emerged below his left arm. A precise, cruel hit. Blood ran over the handle, coating the shimmering steel and the black hand that had wielded it in a sticky ruby shadow. Then the hand yanked out the sword. He fell, becoming just another victim of the massacre.
Blood seeped through my clothes. It wasn’t mine. It felt so cold—
“Who are you?”
Why was my throat so tight? My arms still shaking? I set down the rock I’d been clutching onto. Each breath made my throat contract, or at least it felt like it. Even tilting up my chin to get a better look at him hurt.
He wasn’t much taller than me. He had a thin, strong frame. The filter on his mask was silver and the fabric gray, marking him as a foreigner. His boots were almost as worn as mine.
“Th—th—” I couldn’t get the words out. I didn’t even know, really, what I was trying to say. It sounded like I was hissing at him—no, it didn’t sound like it, I was.
His hands gripped my shoulders. He pulled me up gently and propped me up against the trunk of the tree I’d tried to take sanctuary behind when I came out of the stream bed. I coughed, and the top of my mask hit the bottom of his.
“Who are you?” He repeated.
Why did he sound so angry? But it didn’t matter. In the woods, there were more of them, waiting… “More,” I whispered.
“You’re a woman.” He let go of me too fast and fell forward. He had to plant one hand on the tree trunk to keep from crashing into me. “Why are you out here? Who are you?”
“Four more,” I croaked. “There were eight.”
It took him a moment to register my words. “Not here. Otherwise we’d be dead.” He looked down at his hands—at the bloodstains, turning his gloves a deeper shade of black. “They must’ve gone after the other carriage.”
There was a bleakness in his voice I didn’t want to recognize. People he knew had just died all around him. For once, I didn’t want to look at a scene in the forest and see it for what it was.
He looked over his shoulder. “You didn’t kill him?”
The man I’d hit with a dart lay asleep. His chest rose and fell as slowly as a leaf drifting across a pond. “No. Poison.”
“How long until he wakes up?”
“At least…four hours.”
He turned and drew his sword. “So no time to question him.”
I stood too quickly, almost fell. I stayed up only because I slammed my fist into the young man’s shoulder. His muscles tightened from the contact. “What…you doing?”
“Slitting his neck.”
A chill shot down my spine. The footsteps originated from the kingdom. What if one of them were Hans? What if it was Johann? No, it couldn’t be that silly soldier. Where would he get such a uniform? But then again, he might not know enough to hide his footsteps in the woods…
“Don’t,” I whispered.
“They just tried to kill me and you.”
“Maybe they had a good reason to try.” I thought the words, and they came out. Not smart, Snow White. Rose would have been appalled.
He wasn’t. “They did, and they’ll keep trying until I stop them.”
What kind of person admits someone had a good reason for killing him mere minutes after being attacked? What kind of person had I just saved?
“I don’t want to kill anyone,” I whispered.
“I never said you had to.”
“I don’t want you to either.”
“Too late, sweetheart.”
I grabbed his arm. “Don’t.”
“Do you understand the situation we’re in?”
“I could have killed them. If I’d applied more venom, they would have died instantly. I didn’t, because I don’t think it’s right.”
He put his hands over mine. “I’m not risking my life or his because you have a weak stomach.”
His. Who could that be? Oh yes, the man beneath the carriage. “You fought to save him even though it put yourself…” I trailed off because I couldn’t bring myself to say the rest.
“I would have probably died anyway,” was his noncommittal answer.
My ears started to ring as I flexed my hands. They were empty. My knife was still embedded in the side of the man who attacked me. I’d dropped the atlatl, didn’t remember where. The survivor had kicked away my darts.
You let him separate you from your weapons. You’re defenseless.
“You look a little tense, sweetheart.”
“I—I need to check something.”
“What?” His voice was cold again.
I nodded towards the man I’d taken down with the dart. “I want to see if I recognize him.” Oh God, please don’t let me recognize him. I didn’t know what I’d do if I did. A part of me wanted to turn away completely. He had attacked me, after all. But even this lethal, ruthless man had said they’d done so with good reason.
I think I just saved the wrong person.
I took a step back. Why was I even here? Because I heard the screaming. Because I wanted to make it stop. Was it the Vampire’s Kiss that had made me so stupid? Something Hans told me once surfaced in the recess of my memory: You must think before you act. You can’t just rush into something, and you can’t let your emotions control you. Things are not always as they seem.
“Why do you think you’d recognize him?” The silver filter on his mask matched his blade. There could be anything under that mask. I’d never heard his voice before…
“I know a lot of people in the area,” I choked out.
“You must keep interesting company.”
I turned away, stiff. I ignored him—or at least tried to—as I walked towards the body. It was difficult when he shadowed my movements in a fighting stance, as if both I and the man I’d drugged would pop up and ambush him.
I bent over the fallen man. My hands trembled. Someone of his size could last maybe thirty minutes to an hour without it. If I was fast, he’d be fine. Still, I stalled before lifting his mask.
The moment I saw his face—the harsh angles of his cheekbones softened by sleep, his lips slightly parted as he exhaled peacefully—I stopped breathing.
The rusty chains groaned as the man lifted his head. My fingertips rose with his cheeks as if pulled by some magnetic force. Those dark, unflinching pools glared back at me. No human had eyes like those. He’d said his gods did this to him. That was a sign of either madness or justice.
“We don’t have much time,” he said. “You must make your decision.”
“Do you want to leave me here for them or take me with you?”
He’d called himself a mirror. He was so light and frail that, for a moment, it truly felt like he would collapse and shatter if I let go. Still, I pulled away. Stepped back.
None of this made sense. A man could last only a few days without water. Even going for just one day without it was difficult. Perhaps he’d stuck out his tongue to collect drops of moisture from the ceiling? Maybe, if he were lucky, but that wouldn’t be enough. And he’d eventually need food.
He might have been put down here recently, though I doubted it. I was no doctor, but the bruises and cuts on his skin looked old—especially the layers of scar tissue that had built up around his metal cuffs. And the way they felt…I cringed, rubbing my finger pads against my dress to banish the sensation. Rough as sandpaper. Tender as smashed grapes. Wet and sticky and thick.
No, he’d been down here for a long time, which meant someone must “cared” for him. Given him food to eat and water to drink—just enough to survive. He seemed to suffer from mild hallucinations. That part about being a mirror made no sense. Yet, his speech seemed cogent.
I could think of only one man who was cruel enough to do this—one who had the resources to keep such a depraved activity silent. My father. If that were the case, Hans would have been the one assigned to carry it out. Silent, loyal, unreadable Hans. Was he cruel enough to do this after what he’d been through?
I didn’t want to believe it. My father was horrible, but this…
I swallowed. I’d never learn anything if I let them take this man. Iron bands restrained his wrists and legs. There was no way I could break them, and I could not pick locks. “How do I get you out?”
“There are keys on the table to your left.”
Again, it took both hands to lift the lantern. It was harder with him watching. It made me aware of how I grit my teeth as I moved it; how I dropped it on the table instead of setting it down.
Papers covered the surface—neat rows of numbers written in an elegant hand, tenderly rendered geometric shapes, notes scribbled in margins, drawings of creatures I wouldn’t dare name even if I knew them. It didn’t look like something my father would have left out in the open, or something he would have crafted at all. Whoever wrote these things obviously was not sane.
Their author could be Snow White’s father.
It couldn’t be. Why were they still here if that were the case? Why weren’t they hidden or destroyed? Who would lock a man up down here and leave all this?
Something heavy slipped from a yellowing page, making a sharp, chiming sound as it hit the floor.
I dropped to my knees. It fell somewhere in the shadows. I flattened my scraped palms on the floor, hissing as I swooped them out over the grimy surface. My left hand hit something. The key.
I clutched it and stumbled to my feet.
It was the same dark color as his blood. I walked to the man, gently touching his ankles. I didn’t want to hurt him, but it took a full minute of struggling to fit the key inside the rusted lock.
How long had he been down here?
The locks squeaked open. His feet were freed. I closed my eyes as I stood. I didn’t want to look at them. Next, those poor, broken hands.
I had to bring a box over from under the table. Then, I got on my tiptoes. My hands shook so hard that they key almost fell from my grasp. I’d lost track of how long I’d been down here, but knew we were running out of time.
“Don’t worry. We’ll both escape.”
“How can you know that?” I didn’t recognize my small voice. It seemed as frail as the red dust that sifted from the key every time I brushed against it.
He smiled. “You’ll learn to trust me about these sorts of things.” He glanced at my hands. “Still, you should hurry.”
The metal had worn away his skin. Only a thick, white netting of scars remained over green and black flesh. Was his skin rotting off? I recoiled instinctively.
“It’s disgusting, isn’t it?” The man asked.
A chill pierced me. I couldn’t respond. I stabbed the knife into the lock and began turning.
“I admire your resolve,” he said. Then, softer: “But don’t you wonder if I was chained up for a good reason?”
Yes. I did consider it. I’d never say that, but the possibility hung over my every movement like a cool film of mist. Not even beasts were chained like this. If he deserved this fate, he must have been unspeakably horrid. But if he were wronged, suffering such an injustice might make him worse. Still, it didn’t matter what he was. I couldn’t let anyone else have him, and certainly not my father. I alone would uncover whatever secrets were hidden in his mind.
The cuff clinked open. He twisted his free wrist, bones cracking thrice. “I could be dangerous.”
I got started on the next lock. “You could be anything, but you’ll be weak when I release you.”
“Oh?” He sounded amused.
“Your muscles must be severely atrophied.” I stopped, brushed his cracked bottom lip with my thumb, and swallowed the bile that rose in the back of my throat. “I don’t think you’ve had anything to drink for a long time.” I don’t want to think about how long. “Regardless of what you are, no person should be treated this way.”
“I hope you’ll continue to believe that about me,” he whispered.
Before I could reply, the last cuff opened, and the sound of metallic chimes echoed in the cavern. I yelped as he toppled forward, into my arms. My feet teetered on the box as I regained my balance.
“You’ll have to excuse my impertinence, princess. It’s as you guessed. I haven’t eaten in a long time, and I’m a bit lightheaded.”
I held him tighter as I lowered myself to the floor, one foot and then the next. The lantern flickered, and something which should have occurred to me the second I saw him blazed through my mind: I had no way to get him out. He was too heavy to carry. I could drag him, maybe? Yes, and risk pulling off his brutalized limbs. I hadn’t seen a cart on my way in. Maybe further down the hall…
“Wait here,” I whispered, setting him down as gently as I could. He lurched forward and slammed his fists into the table. Well, at least he could hold himself up.
He looked over his shoulder, black eyes narrowed into slits.
How long have you been alone? I wondered as I suppressed a tremor. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon. I just need to figure out a way to get you out of here.”
“I’ll be fine. A little slow, but fine.”
“There’s no way you’ll be fine—”
He pushed himself off the table and took two remarkably unsteady steps. “See?”
I only saw evidence that he was in complete denial. “Let me go look—”
He began to rustle through the papers, ignoring me. He took handfuls in his fists, then crushed them and threw them to the side. “We don’t have much time,” he said as he stopped to study a few. “Almost done.” He slid the papers inside a notebook, then grabbed a glass jar. It was filled to the top with amber liquid. Little disks swarmed like snow in a snow globe as he threw it in a satchel along with the notebook. “There,” he said, grabbing a cardboard box and ripping open the side. “Let’s go.”
Before I could protest he took my hand.
“Leave it,” he hissed, pulling me into the darkness.
I looked over my shoulder. Somewhere, behind the glow of the lantern, was the staircase. “We’re going the wrong way!”
“We can’t use that exit. They’ll be there by the time we escape and, even if they weren’t, we’d have to leave the tower.”
Already, the glow from the lantern was fading. He moved through the dark with such grace that I almost couldn’t believe that just a few moments before he’d collapsed in my arms. His grip was firm. Strong. And he was right. Once I showed my face, I’d be surrounded by guards. How could I smuggle a man that looked like him out of the tower unnoticed? I had only two choices: turn around or trust him.
Filth seeped through my silk shoes—cold, wet, squishy. They were the white ones with apple blossoms—the ones Snow White didn’t like. Well, at least now she’d probably never have to see them again. They’d be ruined after this.
A shout echoed down the hall.
My heart raced. My grip on the strange man faltered as my foot slipped, catapulting me forward.
He didn’t catch me.
I brought my arms in front of my face to soften the blow. I cried out on impact as my elbows hit the cement. I’m breaking, I thought, as I rolled over, pushing myself onto my knees.
My hands and arms burned. Something wet and sticky ran into my cuts, mixing with my blood. I bit my lip. I couldn’t let that distract me. I reached out for the strange man I’d placed my trust in.
Nothing. My hand opened and closed, gripping the darkness.
Slowly, over the pounding of my ears, I heard his footsteps walking away from me.
“Mirror!” I screamed, because that was the only name he’d given me to call him.
I heard his steps falter.
I scrambled up, tried to stand. Pain shot through my ankle. I couldn’t see, and now, I couldn’t even stand. Lord, I was pathetic in flimsy, soggy shoes. They didn’t support my feet at all—were just there to be pretty. No one could see them in the dark. And now, I’d twisted my ankle.
I bit my lip. I will not cry. I will not give him the satisfaction, I thought, forcing down the lump in my throat. I opened my eyes wider, but still only saw darkness.
“Mirror!” I yelled again. “Do not leave me here!”
I heard him come back. I feared it was just my ears playing a cruel trick on me until I felt his hands envelope my wrists.
“My brave, heroic princess,” he murmured. He let go, and I almost whimpered until I felt his hand tremble as it brushed against my cheek. “I can’t leave you.”
“You almost did.” I tried hard to keep my voice even and pleasant. I needed him to get out of here, no matter how much I resented that fact.
“Because it would be easier for me if I had,” he whispered.
My heart began to hammer in my throat. My head pounded. What was he talking about? I clutched onto him. No, don’t leave me in Hell…
“Don’t worry. I can’t bring myself to do it.” He wrapped his arms around my waist.
His back cracked as he lifted me. Put me down, I almost demanded, because it sounded like he would break, but instead I wrapped myself around his neck. “Don’t you dare drop me.”
He chuckled—or maybe groaned, it was hard to tell. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”
I tried to not think of the unevenness of his steps, or that his knees were creaking like ungreased wheels. I held onto him tighter. My palms burned. I balled them into fists, but that only worked the dirt and sweat deeper into my cuts, so I pressed them against the back of his shirt. Cold radiated from his body, soothing my wounds, making me forget about the shouts and footsteps I heard further down the hall that crept ever closer…
He set me down.
I grabbed his shirt.
“I said I wouldn’t leave you,” he said, then promptly left.
Light burst through the ceiling. I felt it all the way in the back of my head, pounding more rapidly than the echoes of footsteps.
He lifted me up into the world.
Blades of grass cut into my sore limbs. It smelled wonderful—like life, I thought, pressing my face into the earth, thankful for anything that wasn’t dank air and dust. I’m alive.
The man crawled up after me.
He flinched from the weak sunlight as if it hurt. The darkness had hidden the extent of his scars. Old wounds decorated his skin like the bruised, discarded petals of purple wildflowers that bloomed so furiously in the first weeks of spring. My eyes felt dry—achingly dry, as they always did when I pushed back my tears—as I met his black gaze.
His flawless, porcelain face betrayed nothing of his scars or pain, or the horrific past that inflicted them upon him. Somehow, that made it worse.
Wordlessly, he pulled a matchbox out of his satchel.
Suddenly, I noticed he no longer carried the cardboard box he’d ripped open, and that the entire front of my body was covered with white powder. “What are you doing?”
I didn’t need to ask what or how. “There are people still down there.”
“Erik is the only one who followed us. He’ll live, though his life may not be especially pleasant.”
Panic pumped through my veins.
He brought the matchbox to his lips. “I can’t afford let them have what’s down there, princess. You can’t afford to either.”
Blood rushed through my body so fast that I almost toppled over. “Don’t do it.”
“If I don’t, your father will have everything he needs to recreate a monstrosity, and it will destroy all of us.”
I shut my eyes. You’re thinking like a woman, Rose. Not a ruler. I’d seen the papers—those strange scribbles and rows of numbers I’d immediately dismissed. But what if they were important? What if my father hadn’t known about the cell, as I’d originally suspected? Or what if he did know about it—and had locked up this person because he’d found out?
I went down there to stop my father and get the upper hand. I wouldn’t surrender it to him. Erik wasn’t going to die. So why did I hesitate?
The man licked his lips. “Are you afraid he will tell others that you sent him away so you could explore the workshop yourself? No, I don’t think you’re too worried about that. You know that they will believe you over him. I think what you’re really afraid of is that now he’ll know you’re a traitor. You remember the look in his eyes when you told him off—you’ll know he’ll blame you for what happens next—and that scares you.”
My throat felt tight. How did he know such things? “Of course it does,” I admitted before I even realized I’d thought the words.
He tilted his head to the side. “Do you want me to kill him so you won’t have to worry?”
A feeling rose within me, as giddy and seductive as a lover’s first kiss. For a moment, its dark light consumed me. It would be so easy…
No, I thought, pushing it down. I would not acknowledge it. I would not let it affect me.
He laughed. “It’s alright, I won’t make you answer that question. And even if you did, I still wouldn’t do it. Let this be your first lesson.”
Before I could ask what he meant, he lit the match, dropped it, and leaped onto me.
The ground shook. Fire shot through the open hole. I screamed as his body crushed into mine, covering it completely. He’s trying to suffocate me, I thought. No, he’s protecting me from the explosion. Heat billowed up from the ground, tearing at my silk shoes. I curled my toes and screamed.
“Rose,” a voice said, softly.
My throat was hoarse, tight.
“Rose,” it repeated.
Slowly, the roaring in my ears quieted. They began to ring—or maybe that was screaming in the distance?
A pale hand pulled me to my feet. I grabbed the battered wrist without thinking. The man flinched, but did not push me away. “This is important princess. Stay here until you see somebody. Then run up to them and start crying.”
I swallowed. Why was my vision pounding with my head? “What? I’m not one to—”
“Do it. It’ll be easier for them to believe you if they think you’re weak. Tell them you heard a noise and were afraid someone else was down there. That you ran down the passage and, once you got to the end, felt the explosions. You escaped, but didn’t see me or anyone else.”
My head was spinning. “But then they’ll know about this entrance.”
“It doesn’t matter. There’s no longer anything down there for them to find.”
“No one will believe I made it all this way in the dark.”
“How would they know you didn’t have a light? Besides, your father will believe you, and that is all that matters.”
“But his guard, they will begin to—”
He placed his forefinger over my lips, silencing me. My tongue instinctively flicked against it, and I tasted dust and iron. “You’ve depended too much on making people love you to make them do what you want. It’s a fine tactic, but you can’t expect everyone in the world to love you, especially when you have power. Next, you need to learn how to control those who hate you.”
“What do you mean?” I said against his hand.
“You will need to learn how to manipulate those who hate you, and those whoa re indifferent towards you.” He pulled away, and wiped the blood from his smile with the back of his hand. “I’m willing to offer my services to you, if you are interested.”
“For what?” I frowned.
“You’re going to need me very soon.” Then, he disappeared into smoke.
“You can’t kill this person,” I whispered, pressing a hand to the sleeping man’s cheek. His skin immediately reacted to the wasp fern oils lingering on my glove. The swelling would die down by the time he awoke, but a rash would remain. It would burn, be sensitive to heat, and make that intolerable mask even more intolerable.
I shouldn’t have touched him. It was cruel. But how could I do nothing?
“Do you know him?” The man I’d saved crouched behind me, torso moving over my back. I felt something sharp near my kidney. A dagger, perhaps.
How should I answer? I worked my jaw, hoping my mask concealed my nerves. I couldn’t just sit here. He’d doubt me if I didn’t say anything. Still, I had to make sure.
I took off my gloves, turned them inside out and placed them in my pocket. I wouldn’t get any more oil on his skin. He would appreciate that when he woke.
No, if he woke.
I slipped a finger inside his mouth. He had all his teeth. I placed a finger on his eyebrow and pushed up. His dilated pupils shrunk. Green eyes—not the pure, vibrant color of a spring leaf, but dull as a soldier’s jacket. Johann had blue eyes. Missing teeth. His skin wasn’t this smooth. He wasn’t this handsome. And yet, some subtle, elusive similarity quivered in the back of my mind—as unsettling as a flower whose petals take flight when you try to touch them because they’re actually butterflies.
Maybe it was just because this man reminded me of my friend because he looked so young as he slept. That must have been it. The first time I met Johann he’d been sleeping like this. I’d picked some nearby cornflowers and weaved them into a crown. I’d put it on his head, and almost immediately he’d blinked.
You’re eyes are blue as a cornflower, I’d said.
He’d touched his floral wreath, and lamented that I’d probably never see him as a man after that…
I opened the fallen man’s eyes once more to make sure they were green. “I’ve never seen him before,” I whispered. That was the truth, wasn’t it?
The man behind me leaned forward, pressing his chest against my shoulder blades, brushing his arm against mine as he reached around to grab the fallen man’s arm. “Do you think he deserves to die peacefully in his sleep?”
His voice trembled as he spoke. I thought of the corpses around us—how sticky the mud was near their bodies and how the soil was so dark, as if it had just stopped raining.
He’d known those men.
I swallowed. “There are four still out there.”
I felt his body tighten. “It seems cruel to question you after all you’ve done, but sometimes I can’t afford to not be cruel.” He removed his hand from the sleeping man to my shoulder. “Why do you know how many there are?”
Silence hung in the air like an admission of guilt. No, I had nothing to do with it. It’s just that I’m so scared I can’t think, I wanted to say, but that would make things worse.
He trailed his fingers from my shoulder to my neck. “You’re clothing looks similar. Your mask is the same.”
Not good. “It’s the elite guard’s—”
“Ah,” he interrupted. “Well, I wasn’t exactly expecting a warm reception, but this was a bit much, don’t you think?”
“That depends on who you are.” I can’t believe I just said that. What the hell is wrong with me?
He leaned forward, and my heart beat so strong that it shook my body. “Do you really not?”
“I really don’t.”
“So you just saved two random men.”
“Didn’t you wonder what kind of men would warrant such an attack?”
Of course I did. Especially when the man I saved seemed less like a victim with every passing second. Unfortunately, I did most of that wondering after the fact.
“I find it hard to believe that a woman would wander these woods alone. That when she heard a fight, she would run towards it. That when she would pick sides on a whim, and help those on that side despite the less than favorable odds.”
Alright. It really didn’t sound smart when he put it like that.
“I’d have to be amazingly lucky for that to be the case. I don’t think there’s a man alive with that much luck.”
“I saved your life,” I whispered. Please don’t make me wonder why I saved it.
“Did you really?”
“What do you think just happened?”
“You saved me, yes, but maybe just to ensnare us in a greater trap.”
“Wandering into a fight wasn’t a very smart move, sweetheart, which is a problem because I don’t think you’re stupid.”
But I am stupid! Apparently…
I tried to breathe slowly. “It’s not like I don’t regret my decision.” I froze. Wrong thing to say. Why couldn’t my mind work? Why did I have to run into this right after plucking the Vampire Kiss’ petals? I wasn’t normally this…this… “I am also a bit intoxicated.”
My tongue stumbled over the word intoxicated, making me sound like the world’s greatest over actor. For some reason he didn’t question it. “Do you often run around the woods intoxicated?”
“No. It happened when I extracted venom from the Vampire’s Kiss. You can’t do that and not get a little…like how I am now.” There. I was sounding more reasoned by the second. In fifteen minutes, I might even make sense.
“So you came here to collect poison,” he said.
“It can also be poison,” I admitted.
“How did you know how many men there were based on their tracks?”
“Your friend needs medical attention,” I reminded him. “Do you want me to explain basic tracking now or later?”
He laughed grimly as he stood, offering me his hand. I didn’t take it—didn’t understand what caused his sudden change of mood.
He wiped his hands on his pants. “Are you generally this mouthy? Or is this just another charming side affect of being intoxicated?”
“I guess the answer to that would depend on who you asked.”
“I think I get it now,” he said quietly. “You’ve never been in a real fight before, have you?”
I stepped past him.
“If that’s the case, it’s remarkable that you were able to keep your head clear, especially while intoxicated. Someone must have spent years training you.”
A tremor shot through me. I didn’t like where this was going.
“They must have cherished you,” he continued.
I stopped. I heard him take a step, couldn’t tell if he moved closer or away from me.
“You should remember what you’re feeling right now before you help someone you don’t know again,” he said. “Not everyone in this world will cherish you.”
I glanced over my shoulder. He stood over the sleeping body. Blood from the men he’d slain dripped from his sword onto the fallen man’s neck.
“You said there were four more?” He asked.
“Yes,” I whispered. “And if you kill him, I won’t help you leave these woods or save your friend.”
A hitch in his breath betrayed his anxiety, but even if I’d heard nothing and only seen his cool, rigid posture, I’d know that, if there was even the slightest chance he could help his friend, he’d take it. I’d seen him fight for him.
“I don’t know how someone like you could be here.” His voice was fragile, a painting of a glass ball on faded paper. “Why would you want to save someone who tried to kill us?”
Not us—you—and after spending a few minutes alone in your company, I can’t blame him for trying. Luckily my mind was just clear enough to hold back that retort. “Because he reminds me of someone, and if that person were ever in a situation like this, I’d pray and hope someone would spare him.”
He said nothing.
“I saved your life,” I repeated. Pleaded.
He readjusted his grip on his sword. “That you did. Hopefully I won’t make you regret it too much.”
He didn’t kill him. I thanked him, but he said I should wait until I saw what kind of person I’d just saved before doing that. Then we removed the masks from the other assailants. Neither of us recognized any of them.
It took two minutes to get the man from underneath the carriage out into the clearing on his back. I wanted to go faster, but couldn’t take any chances—at least not until I knew what I was dealing with. My worst suspicions were confirmed when I realized his arm was not coated in muddy slime, but blood.
I can’t believe you’re not screaming out in pain. Are you even human? “You’re very brave,” I told him.
He turned so that his mask faced mine. “If it looks as bad as it feels, you’re welcome to kill me. Just, please, be quick about it.”
“You’re not going to die,” the man beside me said. “She’s here to help you.”
“You sure?” The wounded man laughed—or tried to. I heard something bubble up in the back of his throat, and every single muscle in my stomach clenched. “I heard you sweet talking her from here, Max,” he continued, voice raspy. “More likely she’ll gut us in our sleep.”
“I’m not going to sleep until your safe,” the man I’d saved—no, Max—said.
I scooted forward on my knees in between his bloody thighs. Blood collected in the folds of his shirt. It looked like the soup Gilbert’s wife used to make me as a treat on Sundays from worm root and bog’s breath.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat it again, I thought as I grabbed the man’s shirt. “This might hurt a bit.” I heard him grind his teeth as I ripped the cloth.
I went still. It was bad. Probably as bad as it felt.
“I look that good, huh?”
“Don’t talk,” Max murmured.
“You’re such a bastard,” the man whispered.
“You’re right. He is a bastard,” I said. “But your friend is also right. You shouldn’t talk.”
I heard him suck in a breath. He clenched his stomach, and blood leaked from his shoulder…
“Not one word,” I said.
I used to bring first aid kits with me. I’d stopped about five years ago. Most wounds could be healed with things from the woods, and I figured if I needed more help than that I wouldn’t make it out alive anyway.
I had to stop the bleeding. I ripped strips of cloth form his shirt and tied them around his arm and chest. Max held his friend down as his body involuntarily shuddered. Without stitches…Lord, were we really going to carry him without stitches? I’d need something sticky. This late in the year, sap oozed down the bark of ox maples. It would irritate his skin—it might even give him a second degree burn—but it would hold the plastic I’d break off from one of the dead men in place, and prevent air from blowing through his torso. But first I needed to clean his wound. I couldn’t use water from the woods. A wounded human body could withstand the affects of poison in the air, but not the poisonous bacteria in forest water. Wait, Snow White. They were traveling. They had to be drinking something.
Max stood. “There are medical supplies in the carriage.”
Oh. Right. A party traveling this far would have such things.
I clutched the wounded man’s hands. Wood snapped as Max forced his way into the ruined carriage.
“Don’t worry so much about me,” the man rasped. “There are worse things than being nursed back to life by a pretty lady.”
I gripped him tighter. Yes. There were worse fates than feeling one’s life slowly drain away, but I didn’t want to think of them. Any beauty I might have possessed was hidden under a monstrous, black gas mask.
Don’t you know you shouldn’t try to comfort your undertaker?
Max returned, leaned over his friend and held down his shoulders. I rummaged through the aid kit. Scissors. Gauze. Antiseptic, which I hesitated to use in such a deep wound. A matchbox, needle and thread. This wouldn’t be pleasant. But I could make it a little better, perhaps.
“One moment,” I said, reaching for my pouch. “I’ll need to lift his mask for a few—”
“No,” Max interrupted coolly.
“I promise it won’t hurt him. This is just to ease some of his pain,” I said.
“Christ, really? Give it to me, then,” the fallen man replied.
Max inhaled sharply. “We need to think about this.”
“No we don’t. I trust her.”
“You’re just saying that because you’re hurt. You’d trust anybody.”
The fallen man grabbed my wrist. “Will you knock him out for me, sweetheart?”
“Fine,” Max groaned. “I won’t forgive you if you die.”
The fallen man shifted, trying to lift his mask. Max sighed and yanked it off in one swift movement.
My hands went still.
He was beautiful. So beautiful that, for a second, I forgot that I was not there to merely look at him. His eyes reminded me of ice blue sky on a clear winter morning. His skin was a few shades darker than most people in the kingdom. He spent many days outside, and the sun had bleached his blond hair. I almost ran my fingers through it. He looked how Rose might have looked if she spent her time doing what she wanted instead of doing what she was told.
I opened my pouch. Held it to his aristocratic nose. “Just inhale,” I whispered.
He gave me a small, private smile. Under different circumstances, I might have described it as devastating. My heartbeat escalated. Max held his head as the fallen man craned his neck and inhaled.
I saw his eyes roll beneath his closed lids. He opened them slowly, inhaled again. His eyebrows relaxed. His pupils dilated. Beneath my thighs, I felt his legs twitch.
“How do you feel?” Max asked.
“You both look like black suns,” he whispered. “You’ve come down to earth to see me.”
“I’d say it’s working pretty well,” I said, pulling the nondescript mask back over his pretty face.
Max held his delirious companion still, saying nothing. I, too, was silent. The shadows around us grew as I worked as fast as I dared. The sounds of the forest became more pronounced—wind blowing through dried leaves sounded like an approaching man. But I reminded myself that if the remaining men knew we were here, we’d already be dead. Funny how that comforted me.
The wound wasn’t quite as bad as it looked—some of the blood wasn’t his—but it would be wise to let him rest and not move him. Too bad we didn’t have that option. Who knew how close those other men were? I dressed the wound and stitched him up the best I could. I couldn’t use venom. I wanted to, but he needed to stay relatively conscious so we wouldn’t have to drag him all the way to the kingdom.
Once done, I took Max aside as his companion passionately recited some bawdy nonsense set to the tune of a nursery song.
“Stop looking at the carriage. We can’t take it,” I told Max.
“I know. I was just…maybe if we got the axles loose—”
“Even if you somehow managed to break the wheels off, they’re too heavy for us to pull. Someone cut the horses loose. Besides, we can’t take the main road. They’ll be looking for us there.”
“So I’ll carry him.”
God, could he carry a man so far? “I’ll help.”
He gave a noncommittal grunt and looked over his shoulder. “Do you really think you can save him?”
“I’ll try.” When he didn’t respond, I said: “Don’t worry. I’ll try very hard. I like him a lot more than you.” My mouth went dry. Oh God, I did it again. “I mean…”
“It’s alright. Everyone does, including me.” He tilted his head. “But does that mean if I were the one dying under that carriage you wouldn’t try very hard to save me?”
“Well, I’d—no—I mean…”
He let out three short exhales—almost a laugh. “You don’t have to answer that.”
I didn’t trust myself to speak as we walked back to my patient. I bent over and he looped his arm around my neck, trying to kiss me. Our masks bonked, making a sterile and mundane sound.
I turned and saw him holding a pistol. Initials were engraved in gold at the bottom. I couldn’t make them out.
“I was told it wouldn’t work here. I didn’t believe it.” He turned the weapon over in his hands, as if contemplating whether he should toss it. After a few seconds, he slipped it back in his holster. “Even had to use a horse and carriage,” He mumbled, then looked up at me. “This place makes no sense.”
Then, he crouched and took his friend in his arms.
We walked up the stream bed for a few hours, then stopped to rest. Things were going well. Too well. I should have known better.
Max and I set his friend down, then collapsed.
“I told him to lay off the biscuits,” Max said as turned his head from side to side, cracking his neck.
“At least it was just biscuits,” I muttered. “But you know, he’s been pretty quiet.”
“Yeah, whatever you gave him really worked.” The fearful undercurrent in his voice set me on edge.
It’s nothing, Snow White. Ignore it. You can’t do anything until you get to town. But I couldn’t. He’s just too quiet, I thought, kicking the fallen man in the knee.
He was breathing too slowly.
I kicked again.
Max bolted up. “Hey, what do you think you’re doing?”
I didn’t want to say anything. I didn’t want to alarm him. But I couldn’t stop my wrists from trembling as I scooted forward.
“I need to check something,” I said.
Max’s voice was laced with panic. “Check what?”
I squinted as I ran my finger along the filter of his mask. I froze when I saw it. The filter was off kilter, leaving a gap in the mask.
It must have happened while we unceremoniously carried him. I knew we should have been more careful, but we’d been so tired and had to hurry. Maybe it had happened in the fight. No, I wouldn’t even entertain that idea. A man his size could only last thirty minutes to an hour before succumbing to the poison.
I could go back and take a mask from one of the dead men.
Not enough time. We’d been walking for hours, and while we moved slowly, it would take me probably at least thirty minutes to retrieve a mask.
He didn’t have thirty minutes. He might not even have five.
It might be too late already.
And the worst part about it was we wouldn’t know for sure until tomorrow, when his organs began the irreversible process of liquefying.
My hands shook as I reached for my straps.
To take off my own mask was treason. To do it to save an unknown man I’d just met in the forest was probably punishable by death. They could be spies. This could all have been a trap. It didn’t matter. His mask was leaking. If I did nothing he would die from the poison, and I couldn’t let that happen again.
“What are you doing?” Max asked.
“There’s a crack in his mask. I’m giving him mine.”
“What the—?” He began as I yanked mine off.
I inhaled deeply. Free. The scent of soil and autumn leaves. The faint fragrance of nearby flowers that bloomed at dusk. The cool air, soothing my pinched, clammy skin. I couldn’t let the vibrant sensation that filled my veins distract me. I took off the blond-haired man’s mask and slipped my own over his head.
Max yelled and pulled me to my feet. “What the hell are you thinking? Take mine off and give it to him, if you must. Put yours back on and—”
I tossed my hair over my shoulder, looking up at him. “No, I’m fine.”
He went completely still and silent.
“I want to save him, but I’m no martyr. I wouldn’t have done it if I wouldn’t be fine,” I reassured.
“What are you?” He looked at me as if he couldn’t look away. Or at least that is what it seemed like. Just barely, I saw something shimmer in the depths of the black holes of his mask. His chest rose and fell quickly as he took in heavy breaths, as if it were he who’d been drugged by the Vampire’s Kiss.
“What are you?” He repeated, finally standing. Gently, he caught my hair in a fist.
I shut my eyes. I didn’t want to think of what he saw. Eyes violet as poisonous smoke. Hair black as a moonless night. Skin white as death. Lips red as human blood.
“Poisoned,” I said. “I’m poisoned.”