Odette had grown up with stories about the lake. It was haunted, they said, by the ghost of a man--a sorcerer, really--whose lady had betrayed him and who now lured young women with sweet words and false promises to throw themselves beneath the waves.
His face, paler than moonlight
And eyes like the twilit sky.
Beware, ye ladies all, beware--
His deadly smile, his fiery hair--
Go not to the lake at midnight
Or a watery death you'll die.
It was meant to be a story, one mothers told their daughters when they were old enough to walk out with young men. The lake was a popular trysting place and had been no doubt since the village was built some three hundred years earlier.
That was before Odette's sister vanished.
She remembered that day with startling clarity. Odile had been restless all morning, her smile complacent as the kitchen cat's after finding an entire nest of mice on which to gorge herself, and she'd spent more time than usual at her dressing-table, holding scarves to her face to test their colour against her eyes.
"Who are you meeting?" Odette asked, playing with one of the discarded scarves, pale blue embroidered with vines. "Don't lie, Odile. And if it's that horrid boy from the May Day banquet, you'd do better not to go."
"And how do you know so much about men?" Odile laughed. The expression transformed her face from a lady's mask to that of a woman Odette didn't quite recognise--dark eyes full of secrets and promises but a smile that advised caution. "To answer your question, no, it's not Lukas. And he's not horrid at all--he simply bores me in comparison."
"In comparison to who?"
"To whom, Odette." She studied their reflections side by side. They looked startlingly alike, the two sisters, although those who looked closely enough could see the subtle differences--one's eyes were lighter, the other's mouth fuller, and Odile had darker hair. To the careless or faraway observer, the two orphan nieces of the Countess Gravenhurst were a matched set, and it seemed both girls were content with this state of affairs. "Really, you ask too many questions."
"To whom, then?" Odette persisted, sticking out her tongue. "Does Aunt Gertrude know that you're making comparisons between the gentlemen of Cousin Henry's household and mysterious men by the lake?"
"She knows no such thing and if you had the sense of a goose you wouldn't tell her. How do you expect to see your admirers, if you should ever have them?"
Odile was two years older than Odette, two interminable, impassable years. It was not yet as bad as it would be when Odile was old enough to flirt and put her hair up and, most importantly, be permitted to leave the confines of the Countess' palatial but ultimately finite estate. Odette had not ventured beyond its walls since their arrival ten years ago. Even the village was off-limits to the ladies of the house.
It was Odile's opinion, however, that rules only mattered when she wasn't the one following them. Within two weeks of their arrival, Odette stood by in terror while her sister broke the rusted lock on an ancient door that marked the estate's old boundary, tucked in the back corner of the garden. Only a small stretch of trees separated the door from the path countless feet had trod down between the lake and the village--a small door that led not to a large world, perhaps, but one step closer. She never spoke of it to anyone and lied on her sister's behalf for that and a hundred other small sins without question. Odile would have done the same for her.
Odile had waited till after sunset and, as she always did, Odette had paused beside her at the window that looked out over the gardens to the lake beyond to wish her good luck.
"I'll tell you all about it when I return." That was Odette's price for her secrecy. Odile was a born storyteller (a born liar, their aunt would sniff) and Odette secretly believed that the outside world would likely be disappointing when compared to her sister's tales. "Leave the warming pan by the fire, will you? Or I'll freeze you with my feet."
Odette waited, as she did every night her sister adventured. It was the night of the full moon and the garden was alive with the chattering of a thousand mice, birds, and insects. Just after the clock struck three, however, she heard what she was certain was a cry.
It could have been a bird but it almost sounded like a woman. Odette thrust aside the covers and hurried to the window. Faintly, she could see the outline of birds against the moon. Swans, perhaps. They came every summer to the lake, to lay their eggs and raise their young. The traditional main dish at the Countess' Midsummer ball was roast swan, caught fresh from the lake, as it was for all the nearby estates. It was even supposed that the swans brought them luck.
She listened as hard as she could but the odd sound did not repeat itself. She heard another noise, a faint honking that must have been one of the swans--strange how she wasn't altogether certain what they sounded like. Swans were silent, to Odette's mind.
Her sister did not return at dawn, nor ever again.
At court, they called her the Swan Maiden after learning where was born. It seemed the lake was more famous than she had known. Odile would have worn the sobriquet with pride, perhaps even fashioning some sort of keepsake out of swans' feathers like the natives in those vast lands across the ocean. Not Odette--she flushed to the roots of her hair and mumbled something about swans migrating. The gallants and coquettes left her alone from then on, restricting themselves to the occasional snide giggle behind their fans in her general direction.
Her aunt had sent her to court within several months of Odile's disappearance, assuring Odette that the change of scene would help her recover--as if Odile was an ailment! They searched the entire province for her, or so Odette was told, but she sometimes wondered if her aunt had not been quite as thorough as she claimed. How was it possible for a sixteen-year-old girl to simply disappear?
One of the first things she learnt at court was that it was in fact very easy for girls to disappear. They vanished constantly--with husbands, with families, with lovers, alone and in disgrace--leaving behind little more than rumpled beds and occasionally ribbons and cosmetics then divided amongst the girls who remained. Odette herself had shared her small tower room with no fewer than five different girls, all from different parts of the realm, each as thrilled to join the court as Odette was not. And yet she was the one who remained, outlasting them all.
She moved, as the others did, from household to household as a maid of honour--one girl's disappearance was another's good fortune. Her apparent lack of ambition had quite the opposite effect, as it comforted the more opportunistic of the ladies-in-waiting who constantly worried about a knife in the back, metaphorical or otherwise. When one of the coveted positions in the Queen's retinue arose, then, it was not especially surprising that it fell to Odette.
The Queen's household was the heart of the kingdom in every sense of the word. She had been fifteen years old when she married the King and twenty when he died, leaving the kingdom with an heir barely out of the cradle. For the better part of ten years, she waited, guarding her favours and influence, building a council of her own as her husband's inched closer to retirement, and when Prince Siegfried celebrated his fourteenth birthday, he dismissed the remainder and replaced them with men chosen by his mother. Her word had been law ever since.
She ran her household with military precision and any girl who could not keep up was dismissed. The Queen's ladies had neither the time nor the patience for intrigues, allowing Odette to keep to herself as she had before.
Every Sunday, she went to the palace chapel and asked the Virgin to keep Odile safe, wherever she was. It seemed more appropriate than asking God--Odette suspected the Virgin was likelier to turn a blind eye to Odile's little sins. The intervening months turned into years with no further word from her sister--not, Odette suspected, that their aunt would have taken it upon herself to pass on any correspondence.
It was four years to the day since Odile's disappearance when Odette first saw the black swan. In more ways than one, it was the day her life changed yet again.
Her time in court had taught her many things, not the least of which was a variety of places to hide. One of her favourite haunts was in the far reaches of the palace's extensive gardens, practically at the border of the woods where the prince and his companions spent their days hunting. Ladies rarely joined these outings--the prince had been hunting practically from the cradle and the pace he kept was one that only the wildest of the young men could match, let alone any of the Queen's retinue or the noble ladies who thronged the court in pursuit of him.
This part of the garden had always remained just slightly wilder than the rest, as if there was something in the soil that resisted the gardeners' encroachments or the intrusion of order. It reminded Odette of the home she feared she was beginning to forget for good. In spring, especially, to emerge from the paved path with its tall hedgerows into the small clearing was to step into a bower of roses. Some long-ago royal ancestor had added a small stone terrace with carved seats and several trellises for the profusion of wild rosebushes (and their somewhat tamer sisters added afterward) to grow with as much abandon as pleased them.
She had been reading for some time when she heard the splash behind her. The swan, its feathers black as a raven's, folded its wings daintily and seemed to Odette to be quite absorbed in studying its own reflection in the waters of the small pool. Setting down her book, she moved gingerly toward the water.
The swan looked at her.
It was a decidedly odd sensation, Odette realised, to meet a bird's eyes and feel as though it was evaluating her. She held out her hand and, quite to her surprise, the swan began to paddle closer.
"I didn't know swans could be black." Her voice sounded unusually loud in the near-silent clearing so far from the bustle of the court. "You're very beautiful, but you seem to know that."
The swan--somehow Odette was certain it was a she--tilted her head. It almost seemed as though she might speak, absurd as that thought was, when an arrow sliced through the air to splash into the water beside the swan, sending her rocking back with an ungainly squawk. She took to the air instantly, disappearing into the blue a bare few seconds before a horse and rider crashed through the underbrush into the pool.
Odette cried out, scrambling back toward the terrace. She could hear the rider swearing, wresting the horse back under control before slowly urging the animal out of the water. He dismounted with a squelch of wet boots and Odette managed to turn her stifled giggle into a halfway convincing cough.
"From the sound of that," he said, "I assume you're not hurt."
She swallowed another giggle. "No, sir, but I thank you for asking." The desire to laugh drained out of her the instant he turned and she recognised him. "Your Grace!"
"No, please, don't." He held out one hand to help her to her feet. "I nearly ran you down--the last thing you owe me is ceremony." Odette had to fight not to drop into a curtsey on reflex but his hand kept her steady. "I didn't think any of my mother's ladies even knew about this place. Do you come here often?"
"In the warmer months, yes, Your Grace." The Queen's household was massive enough that she had never been properly introduced to the Prince but that was to be expected. Odette's parents had had little more than a name and a small parcel of property; it was only through her aunt's connections that she'd even been found a place at court. "It's peaceful. I can hear myself think here."
A shadow passed over his face as he glanced in the direction of the palace. "Very few places left for that." He shook his head, an impatient movement, as if shaking away cobwebs. "You have me at a disadvantage, my lady. I'm afraid I have no idea who you are."
"I'm no lady, Your Grace. My name is Odette and my aunt is the Countess Gravenhurst. I am here--at court, that is--at her request." Lowering her eyes, she found herself watching the puddles forming around his feet. "Perhaps you ought to return, Your Grace. You're...wet."
"I've had worse." She could hear the laughter in his voice and peered up at him. "I'm honoured to meet you, Odette. I didn't mean to ruin your hiding place."
"Well, it does all belong to you, Your Grace. Or I suppose it will do, sooner or later." She suddenly realised that he'd never let go of her hand. They stepped apart as if stung. "I should probably..." she waved her hand in the general direction of the palace. Bobbing a quick curtsey, she darted out of the clearing before he could stop her.
Only when she arrived back in her room did she realise she'd left her book behind and that there wasn't time to fetch it before dark. Odette swore under her breath, cursing the prince for his untimely arrival, cursing the swan for distracting her in the first place.
In all the excitement that followed, she'd forgotten the swan. It had escaped, that much she knew. It would need to be enough for now.
The knock on the door brought her out of her thoughts. A page waited outside, her book in his hand and a resentful expression on his face. "I had to ask three people who you were."
Odette could suddenly hear Odile in her head, clear as day. He's asking you to bribe him. She'd never joined the other ladies-in-waiting who spied on one another and vied for the Prince's attention, yet it seemed she'd caught it by accident. She could see herself holding out one hand with a silver coin in it. "No one knows of this." Her voice was low but firm. "Do you understand?"
"Of course, my lady." The page grinned, showing a gap between his front teeth. "My name's Hans."
"My name is Odette."
"You're the swan girl. That's what they call you."
She had been on the verge of dismissing him. What harm could it do? It could even be useful to know what people thought of her. She motioned for him to come in. "What else do they say about me, Hans?"
"From the ladies, that you're rude even though you're a nobody and dull in the bargain. From the men, that you're pretty enough but not worth the effort." He was watching her closely, measuring her reaction. It was an odd expression to see on the face of a twelve-year-old boy. "He's never shown interest in anyone before. This secret might be worth more than a silver."
"You're a very greedy young man, Hans," Odette sighed, rolling her eyes. "Who else pays you?"
"If I told you, that wouldn't be very honourable of me, would it?"
"No, I suppose not." She handed him a second silver piece. "Have pity on me. Nobody likes me."
"Except the Prince, apparently." His lips twitched, hiding laughter. "I'll have pity on you. It's always useful to know the Queen's ladies, especially if she's caught the Prince's eye."
"I've spoken to him once!"
"But he remembered your name. That's more than can be said for any other girl at court."
"Very well. You drive a hard bargain."
Hans looked surprised. "That's what court is, my lady."
After he left, she opened the book. It was a romance of the fairy Melusina, the last gift Odile had given her. This lake isn't the only one with secrets, she'd written on the flyleaf. For there was, of course, another woman in the tale of the lake's ghost--the young man's mistress. How she betrayed him, none of the stories said but Odette imagined it could well have been a secret like Melusina's, a curse beyond her control that followed her wherever she went.
A small piece of paper slipped from between the pages. Odette unfolded it, read the few scrawled words, and closed her eyes.
It seemed her days of quiet obscurity were over.
Prince Siegfried was far better at keeping a secret than Odette had initially supposed. She had perhaps underestimated what she'd assumed to be a childish avoidance of responsibility--it was no secret that the Queen had grown accustomed to her regency and that she actively discouraged her son's involvement. After all, the moment he became king would be the moment she became irrelevant. No woman wants to be irrelevant, sister. She supposed not. Of course, no one had thought to consider the Prince's opinion in this.
"My mother treats me like one of her dogs," he told her, pausing to skim another flat stone across the surface of the pond. They had fallen into an odd routine, finding one another each afternoon in that clearing as May crept into June. "Always underfoot."
"But you're the heir to the throne. Surely you ought to be there," Odette ventured, ignoring the lash of guilt that prompted. She had been finding herself questioning the Queen's decisions more often now and it was not a sensation she relished--still, it seemed worse to lie deliberately. "Have you thought about just asking one of the other members of the council?"
"I've thought about it, certainly, but it feels dishonest. She's still my mother."
"But how are you to learn if not by being there?" At his insistence, she'd gradually forced herself to stop calling him by his title; whether she'd call him by his given name was a battle they were still fighting. "She won't be here forever, you know. You will be king eventually."
"Not if she has anything to say about it," he snorted. "No, I don't mean that, not truly. I know she means well, but I can't stand the way they all look at me, as though I'm some sort of useless, unwanted appendage." Another stone splashed into the water.
"Then change it." She could feel his eyes on her but she focused on the words she was no longer reading. "You're a man. Isn't that what you're meant to do?" Try as she might, she couldn't quite keep the bitterness from her voice.
"What has that to do with anything?" When she didn't answer, he made his way to where she sat, two of his hunting dogs sleeping at her feet. "Odette?"
She shook her head. "Nothing. Something my sister used to say." And no doubt the Queen would agree with it.
"You must miss her."
"Awfully. I suppose it's very stupid. No doubt she's dead, but I just can't--" She stopped, perilously close to tears.
"Oh, dear. Please don't cry." The last thing she expected was for him to climb awkwardly onto the bench beside her--all arms and legs he was, her age but somehow so much younger--and wrap his arms around her. "I didn't mean anything by it."
"Of course you didn't," she said with a watery laugh. "It's all right. You don't need to do anything."
"I had an elder brother once," he finally said, after a few moments. "Did you know that?"
"I hadn't." She closed her eyes against the stiff brocade of his waistcoat, shifting her weight so her elbow was hopefully no longer poking him in the ribs. There was something oddly comforting about him. "Do you remember him?"
"A little. He died when I was three. The smallpox took him." They both made the sign of the cross on reflex. There had been several cases in the village the year before she left, and none of the victims had survived. "It's not stupid at all to miss your sister. I wish my brother hadn't died. I can't help but think he would make a far better king than I would."
"You don't know that." Odette looked up at him, startled. "Why?"
"He was the one who was meant to be king."
"Now you're being stupid." She could hear the rumble of his laughter. "Stop that. It's not a good trait in a king."
"Nor is defying one's parents but you seem to be suggesting I do precisely that."
"Not to her face!" Odette laughed nervously. "And especially not if you're planning to tell her that I suggested it. I'd rather she forgot I existed."
"You're not nearly forgettable enough, I'm afraid." Their laughter faded and they sat in companionable silence for some time. "You'd not lie to me, would you, Odette?"
"I wouldn't want to. Not if I had to face both you and Her Majesty."
"Be serious, swan girl." He pressed his lips to her forehead, a gestured that sent shivers unbidden down Odette's spine. "You would tell me the truth?"
"If you promise to listen when I do."
He looked startlingly like the Queen--indeed, those who were discontent with her regency had been known to point out that resemblance--though Odile would likely have remarked that his features were but a weak reflection of his notoriously beautiful mother. Court poets still flattered the Queen with verses dedicated to the beauty of her eyes; the very eyes now looking down at her from the Prince's face, grey framed with long, dark lashes.
Odile would have already kissed him. It was as much to hide her unexpected laughter at the thought that she leant forward. Their lips had barely touched when the sound of running footsteps on gravel echoed from beyond the hedge.
They jumped apart as if scalded, just as Hans rounded the corner into the clearing. His face was nearly as red as his livery and he had to take several deep breaths before he could speak. "Your Grace, Her Majesty's asked for you. Odette, you're to attend her."
"As Her Majesty wishes." Looking anywhere but at the Prince, Odette dashed away from the clearing.
She knew, of course, that it would not end there. Later that night, he found her in the gallery just outside the Queen's private chambers. There was an alcove that led to a small balcony--a quiet corner known to all of the Queen's ladies as a safe place to meet gentlemen.
"Ironic, isn't it, that the first man I meet on this balcony is you?" She scarce recognised the words; it was something Odile might say, not her. "I mean," she added, thankful of the darkness to hide her blush, "it is a bit funny."
The Prince's response was to kiss her. It was an awkward, stumbling kiss that lasted just long enough for her to feel slightly disappointed when it ended. He was blushing now, to the roots of his pale hair. "I can't believe I did that."
Odette was pressed against the stone balustrade, clutching the edge. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised."
"What do you mean?" The words were sharp and she could see the hurt on his face.
"You're the prince. All the women at court throw themselves at you, hoping for the tiniest scrap of attention. Who am I to refuse you?"
"Are you refusing?"
"You never asked me," she retorted. "I might have said yes if you'd thought to ask."
"Well, I'm sorry, then!"
For a few seconds, they stared at one another before his lips began to twitch with laughter. Odette felt herself smiling unbidden and it was only a matter of time before she joined him. It was only a matter of time before the inevitable question would voice itself.
"If I were to ask, Odette, what would you say?" He sounded cautious, guarded. It was a tone she recognised from overhearing his conversations with the Queen, one that stung more than a little now that it was being directed at her.
"That would depend on the question, wouldn't it?" She held out her hand. "Your Grace--"
"I have a name, you know." Ignoring her hand, he turned to stare out at the darkened courtyard below. "You're frightened of me."
"Not frightened, Yo--" She stopped herself from saying the title but couldn't quite break that final rule and say his name. "Careful. Cautious, perhaps. But you've never given me cause for fear, and for that I'm most grateful."
"Grateful." He all but spat the word. "Then I daresay I have my answer."
"No, Your Grace, I assure you you do not." Odette straightened, bracing her fingers against the balustrade. "I promised you, did I not, that I wouldn't lie to you?" At his grudging nod, she continued. "I am not the sort of woman you could marry and I have no illusions of that, so I see no reason to make ourselves miserable."
"And what if I thought differently? My mother shows no interest in me, least of all in who I marry--"
"And this is what you do to catch her attention? This is how you show your mother the kind of king you will be?" He winced as if slapped. Odette reached forward and grasped his shoulders, drawing nearer until their foreheads touched. "You need time, Siegfried," the name sounded odd to her ears, though not unpleasant, "as I do. You need to learn the sort of king you wish to be--and your queen must be part of that." He opened his mouth and Odette placed her fingers over his lips. "A year and a day, Siegfried. Will you grant me that?"
"A year and a day," he echoed.
"A year and a day. I will give you my answer and you will give me yours." She felt strangely confident, almost giddy. This must have been how Odile felt every day and Odette had to admit it was intoxicating. "On Midsummer's Eve every year, there is a ball in my aunt's home. If you still wish me to be your queen, you will find me there."
For a moment, she feared she'd gone too far. Then, with a tight smile, he said, "Your petition is granted, my lady. On one condition."
"That I do not lose your company and your counsel. Will you write to me, Odette, from home?" Of course she would go home. She couldn't very well stay at court, having turned down the prince, no matter who knew of it.
Odette smiled. "I would be honoured." She caught her breath, then--hearing Odile's laughter at the back of her mind--leant forward to kiss him. "Sealed."
"Another," he breathed, "if you intend to abandon me for a year and a day."
Something shifted in the darkness beyond the balcony and they jumped apart. "A bird, I think," Odette said, unable to hide the trembling in her voice. "I hope." She edged toward the doorway. "We should...I should..."
"Of course." He looked at his feet, smiling ruefully. "Au revoir, then, and not adieu."
"Au revoir, Siegfried."
The next day, she stood before the Queen in her presence chamber, hands clasped at her waist and eyes downcast, focused on the intricately embroidered hem of the Queen's peacock-blue skirts.
"You will be missed, Mistress Odette," the Queen said. "I have become accustomed to you. As, I believe, has my son." Odette looked up, aware that horror was stamped across her face. The Queen's smile lacked the softness of her son's and her eyes were cold as a January morning. "You appear to be making the correct decision."
"There is nothing between us, Your Majesty." It was a very small lie, as they went. A great deal could change in a year. "All the same, I wish to return home."
The Queen studied her, lips pursed. "How long have you given him?"
"I don't know--"
"Don't play me for a fool, girl. You'll fail and regret it."
Odette swallowed. "Midsummer's Eve, next year."
"You're very confident," said the Queen. "Do you expect him to wait for you?"
"I expect him to tell me to my face if he chooses someone else. That is all." Odette met the Queen's gaze, straightening on instinct. "He is a good man, Your Majesty. He deserves more credit than you give him."
"Are you telling me how to treat my own son?"
"I am telling you that you should teach your son to rule. I would not presume to say more."
The Queen sniffed. "Surely that is quite enough." With a wave, she dismissed Odette. "I wish you a safe journey, Mistress. I hope the Schwansee is all that you remember and wish."
The Queen's odd farewell haunted Odette as her coach made its seemingly endless way into the mountains. It was three days' journey to the Countess Gravenhurst's lands and by the time they arrived on the third day it was well past nightfall.
Somehow, it did not matter that she'd travelled hundreds of miles; when she found herself tossing and turning at midnight, she crept out of bed, slipped her cloak over her shoulders, and made her way to Odile's old escape route. Strange how she didn't even hesitate now, her first time, to turn that ancient, rusted latch.
Odile had conjured the woods so well in her stories that Odette knew instinctively how to reach the lake. It stretched into the darkness of the mountains, black and silent but for the flutter of wings and feathers.
The black swan was waiting for her.
"I knew you got away. You seem like a clever swan." Reluctant to kneel on the rocky shore, she bent forward and held out her hand. "You'll like it here. Just watch out this time of year. I'll tell the huntsmen about you. They'll know not to shoot you for the banquet."
The moon was just beginning to peek over the tree-tops, hanging large and low in the sky. The stars seemed brighter too, and the forest unnaturally still, as though something vast were holding its breath.
The swan stepped into a pool of moonlight--and transformed.
The woman looking back at Odette was nearly her double. On her shoulders was the most magnificent cloak Odette had ever seen: black and gleaming, edged with feathers and fashioned at her throat with a great ruby brooch. A sob caught in Odette's throat.
"I'm dreaming, aren't I? I knew I'd never think to use that door--"
"It's about time you did, sister." Odile held out her arms. "I've been keeping watch over you all this time."
Odette embraced her sister fiercely. "What happened?"
"Odette, I didn't tell you the full truth before because I didn't know what to expect. The stories are true. I'll show you if you'll trust me."
"Do you even need to ask me that?"
There was a boat, slim and graceful, hidden behind a clump of nearby bushes. Odette did not know how it cut across the lake, for there were neither oars nor sails, but it only stopped when it came to a small bay on what must be the island.
As far as Odette was aware, nobody ever visited the island. It was too easily reached for smugglers to use while the unpredictable currents in the lake deterred visitors, leaving the island to the swans. Rumour claimed it too was haunted--that the final confrontation between the betrayed sorcerer and his faithless lady had occurred on these very shores, ending only when she revealed her true form and disappeared. What became of the sorcerer, nobody knew, but the stories claimed he could still be found by the lake on nights when the moon was full.
"He's still here, Odette." Odile leant forward and clasped Odette's hands. "Oh, sister, there's more. So much more than I'd even imagined."
Too late, Odette saw the figure standing on the shore, hair gleaming unmistakeably red beneath the silent moon.
"What are you doing?"
"Taking you to our father."
He had been a Baron once, lord of the land on the far side of the Schwansee from the Countess Gravenhurst. Some giant, red-bearded ancestor had inspired the family name of von Rothbart, and it seemed the colour had persisted if not the beard itself.
As for the magic, well. Odette should know well enough that the mountains were still wild. Never mind that civilisation was slowly creeping toward them--there was still magic in these forests. As if on cue, Odile bowed her head, wrapped her cloak more closely around her, and seemed to melt down and reform into a swan.
"But why her?" Odette demanded, horrified. "Odile never did anything wrong. I don't care if you are our father, change her back this instant!"
"It's not him, sister." She turned to find Odile standing beside her again. "He's teaching me. Aren't you, Father?"
Odette grabbed her by the arm and drew her out of earshot, foolish as that felt. "Are you mad? What on earth were you thinking? How do you even know he's our father?"
"He is, Odette. I swear it. I remember our mother; you do not."
"Very well, I believe you. But that doesn't mean you ought to listen to him!" She wasn't accustomed to arguing with Odile, but she wasn't accustomed to her sister being patently wrong. "What are you doing? Why?"
Odile looked at her, her eyes narrowed to slits. "Because it's magic, Odette. Father understands; simply because the world sets rules, one needn't follow them." Leaning forward, she embraced Odette. "Please, Odette. I don't want to lose you again."
Odile, unlike the other swans, had the power to walk as a woman in daylight, though she tended to stay on the island, training with Rothbart. As the weeks and months stretched out, Odette found herself spending more and more of the daylight hours asleep and more of her nights by the lake. She did remember to write to the Prince every fortnight, and he back to her.
My mother watches me like a hawk. I think she might be more disappointed at my successes than at my failures.
Odette thought otherwise and told him so. Whether or not he believed her, she didn't know for certain.
Though the flock of swans went south for the winter, Odile and Rothbart remained, staying across the lake. Odile would fly to her room late in the night and stay there till morning, sleeping side-by-side with Odette as they had when they were children.
"You don't truly want to marry him," Odile said one night in February as she sprawled on Odette's bed. "You hate court."
"Perhaps he might be worth it." Odette was seated at her writing-desk and had just finished her latest letter to the Prince. "I could live with court, I think."
"No man is worth that." Odile shrugged. "Stay with me. I'll teach you what I know. Can't you imagine--the entire world for us!"
Odette folded the letter and sealed it, avoiding her sister's eyes. "Do you know how many times I wished you'd come back? How much I missed you? He makes me laugh, Odile. Only you were ever able to do that." She looked over her shoulder and saw Odile scowling. "Why didn't you ever come back? If you were here all this while, why did you never visit our aunt, never tell her that you were alive?"
Odile lowered her eyes, visibly uncomfortable. "I...couldn't, Odette. I'd made a bargain."
"With Ro...with our father?" It still didn't feel quite right.
"Yes. I had to, you see. Otherwise he wouldn't have taught me--that's how it always works. Niniane bargained with Merlin, did she not?"
"Niniane deceived Merlin. One might even argue she murdered him. That isn't a promising example." Odette moved to seat herself beside Odile. "What are you doing, Odile?"
"I thought you would understand. We have nothing, Odette. Nothing but our names and reputations. How easy would it be for him to abandon you?"
Odette jerked away from her as if stung. "Why must you always think the worst of everyone?"
"I only want to protect you. He's a prince, Odette. You would have nobody else--if he were to tire of you, what could you possibly do? And you cannot think his mother would allow it."
Odette recalled what the prince had last written to her, my mother asked me the other day if I still wrote to you. She seemed surprised when I told her yes.
"But I could make him love you." At that, Odette shivered. Odile reached out and brushed a flyaway strand of Odette's hair away from her face. "He's halfway there already. I must admit I was rather impressed."
"You--when did you see us?"
"On the balcony, of course." In all the years since they had last seen one another, Odile's laugh had not changed--nor had its infectiousness. "After I saw you in the forest that day, I couldn't very well leave. I spent six weeks as a swan, trying to see if my little sister could snare herself a prince."
"I wasn't trying to do anything, Odile. All I did was listen to him."
"And that's all well and good, but I'm talking about love. About desire. I could make him want you, Odette. I could make him dream of you."
"Don't be silly, Odile." Her cheeks were burning and she'd likely gone red as a poppy. "He's got more important things to think about than me."
"Aren't you just a little bit curious? Don't you want to know if there's some duchess or princess vying for his attentions?" Odile's smile had grown predatory. "I know how you could see him tonight if you wanted."
"I'm not interested." It was at least half a lie and they both knew it, but Odile took pity on her and left the subject alone. For the time being.
Spring was just beginning when Odette's curiosity finally got the better of her. It was the cloak, Odile told her, practically bouncing with excitement, enchanted by a swanmaiden of old, those who could transform at will, who ensnared the young men of the province and doomed them to a life of longing for the transcendent.
As she soared over the green landscape and through the mountains, she thought she might perhaps understand why Odile loved it so. There was something comforting in the rhythm of her wings, the rush of the wind through her feathers. She flew into the coming night, due east, and landed on one of the palace's many balconies with all of a swan's grace.
Transformation was not the cloak's only secret, as Odile had told her. She could creep through the palace like a ghost beneath its folds. There was a warren of passages known to servants and rather more exalted members of the household alike, and she plunged through them with barely a draught to signal her passage.
The prince's rooms were no less splendid than his mother's, though farther from the council and presence chambers. A candle still burned beside his bed, its light gilding his skin. Odette's fingers trembled as she unclasped the cloak and let it pool at her feet--a snake shedding its skin.
The gown was of black silk, utterly impractical for winter but Odile assured her far more so for her purposes. Odette moved closer, peering at him as though seeing him for the first time. Emboldened, she reached out, tracing a path along his spine. He shivered beneath the touch and leaned into it at once, the movement almost catlike.
He awakened a moment or so later, squinting at her in bewilderment. "Odette? Am I dreaming?"
"I can't possibly be here, can I?" she teased.
"You seem real enough."
He caught her hand in his, pulling her closer until suddenly she was kissing him and it had all gone out of control far quicker than she'd anticipated. Disentangling herself, she knelt beside the bed. "Shh," she whispered, placing her fingers over his mouth. "You're dreaming, Siegfried. Go back to sleep."
There was something in her words that hadn't been there before--a force--and she watched as his eyes fluttered shut, her heart hammering in her chest. It was too much.
Sweeping the cloak over her shoulders, she threw open the windows and disappeared into the night.
Though Odile offered, she did not take the cloak again.
Instead, it was Odile who wore it as she swept into the Countess Gravenhurst's ballroom on Midsummer's Eve. The Prince frowned as she rose from her curtsey, and she couldn't help but smile. Perhaps her sister hadn't chosen so poorly after all.
Leaning close to him, she pitched her words to his ear alone. "You're right--I'm not her, but I can take you to her. She promised, you see, that I could see you for myself." Drawing back, she looked into his eyes and said in tones of steel, "She is my only sister, Your Grace. Do you treat her well, or you shall answer for it."
"I am duly warned. Although she told me you were dead."
"As far as she knew then, I was."
"I dreamt of her some weeks ago. I know it was her but..."
Odile smiled. "Then you know enough, Your Grace."
There would be stories enough about them, she thought, the prince and the swan maiden. They would multiply, twine in and out of one another, until truth and fiction were indistinguishable, till the older tales of the lake disappeared beneath the new.