(there's a cold heart buried beneath / and warm blood, running deep)
Their chariot flies for days and nights and does not seem to think of stopping. Above, whispered words are unraveling into oblivion, beckoning them nearer, nearer still. Below, the land is dark and distant, rippling like the pages of a storybook.
At the first color of dawn, Rue wakes. Her face is pale in the dim light. Unthinking, she reaches out, searching for the nearest warmth.
The prince speaks her name, moving to steady her. He has not slept, too thrilled, too stricken, but still, his hands settle gently upon her as she trembles. With one fingertip, he wipes away a tear that has beaded in her eyelashes. She does not answer.
“Rue,” he says again, softer.
She breathes in; the air drags across her teeth, sits swollen in her throat. At last, she looks up, her dark, mussed curls wreathed at the edges of her cheeks. She thinks of red – but there is only gold in his eyes, warm, so bright even in the haze of early morning. Her heartbeat stutters then slows at last, reassured.
“A dream,” she murmurs, and they both hear what she does not say.
He takes her hand. She rests her head upon his shoulder but does not sleep again. The swans beat their wings in perfect rhythm, their whistling breaths like music.
The chariot flies on.
Siegfried’s castle is just as he has told her, stone and stained glass woven through clouds, the towers nearly dizzying in their elegance. The gates have stiffened with rust and the walls seem to writhe, gnarled vines coiled around their corners, but his smile is still warmer than she has ever seen it.
He reaches to her. Rue hesitates, her lips pulled thin.
“You will be welcomed with open arms,” he assures her. “Do not be afraid.”
“Of course,” she says, as though it’s simple.
It is even lovelier within. Every floor is a clean, white marble, her reflection shimmering beneath her, blithely unmarred. Tapestries flutter against each impossibly large window, their colors faded but still beautiful, precious stones threaded against every other deliberate stitch. Siegfried makes sure she misses not a sight, pointing to this and that, telling her the kitchen is just around this corner and every year, they would decorate these rooms for the festival and there, I used to play there as a child. His every feeling is clear, bright in his eyes; he is home, and Rue can’t help but smile.
It isn’t until they’ve wandered through a few corridors, tired but happy, that something seems strange: there is no one around.
At first, it’s almost amusing, as if everyone’s simply stepped out for a collective afternoon stroll. He leads her to his own quarters on the highest floor, the walls arched and gray, the ornate furniture coated with dust that scatters when touched, burning in the sunlight. They sit by the window, hands entangled, and wait.
An hour passes, then another. The castle sits empty.
It is painfully gradual, the change that comes over her prince. At first, he wanders through the hallways, knocking on doors left open, calling the names of people she does not and will perhaps never know. The tenth call passes without answer, and his voice begins to strain. Walking becomes running, their footsteps seeming the only sound in all the world. The sun brims just beneath the horizon. Soon, it is he who grips to her, stiff and without thought.
“I will go into town,” he tells her. “Surely, there will be…”
Rue does not want him to abandon her in this aching silence, but is more unwilling still to see his reaction should he find the town just as unforgiving. She stays. She wanders. She walks in twirling paths across the cobblestone, toes pointed, breaths shallow. She rests in open rooms, touching fingertips to unmade beds, half-full cupboards, clean gowns and tunics hung in armoires, as if washed only the day before. Some tables bear plates set in perfect patterns, still smelling of lunch and dinner. It is like they have vanished in mid-thought, she thinks. It is like the story has simply erased them, without grief, without wonder, without care.
She presses one palm to a wall. For a moment, she feels not stone, but paper, buckling beneath her touch.
For months, they wait. What else is there to do? This is Siegfried’s home, and Rue knows he will not abandon it, not without some measure of truth, some semblance of peace. They must stay. They must see if anyone returns for him.
After a day, they trade their elaborate garments for simpler attire, folding them in careful patterns and hiding them away in drawers where they will not be seen again for days, weeks, months. They have not yet been married, but still, they sleep together in his bed, Siegfried’s arms curled around her, hands pressed to the low of her back as if forming a mime she cannot see. Rue prefers to rest her head upon his chest, his heartbeat echoing all through her, steady and warm.
Each day is similar, gentle in its activities. They take walks in the morning, read from the library as evening eases the light away. They fill the silence with pleasant talk of things that do not matter. Siegfried often tells her tales from the time before he left his story, finding comfort in such memories. After a while, they find pairs of toe shoes in an unassuming room, wrapped in cloth and stiff from disuse but not too worn – there were surely performers and artists here once in such a large kingdom, after all, and besides, who is to say whether ballet can exist in one story and not another - so in every room, they dance, Rue humming broken notes of songs she’s long forgotten to lead their steps, Siegfried catching her when she wavers, overcome. Wanting to be kept busy, she elects herself to prepare their meals, brushing aside Siegfried’s gentle insistence that it would be only fair to take turns. They find impossibly fresh food in the depths of the kitchen, recipes left neatly arranged on flour-stained tables. Cooking, she soon discovers, is not a talent of hers, her dishes dark and distinct, but still, he eats them all without the slightest of hesitation, thanking her with a kiss at the crease of her mouth each time.
She will never speak it out loud, never – but Rue knows she could spend an eternity like this, her and her prince and no one else. Once, she dreamed endlessly of moments like this, of a time when distractions would cease to exist and no one could come close. She is not strong enough to deny herself a private sort of pleasure at this outcome – and yet, her prince walks with a weight at his shoulders, his eyes grave as he looks upon his empty kingdom. Every day, he leaves her for a time to venture through the land, searching. Every day, he returns alone.
Rue waits. She does not want to see him in pain, to watch the light in his eyes be stifled – and yet, a small, sharp part of her wonders why she is not enough. She understands, of course she understands. She knows so well of his people, that he cared for them and protected them and gave of his very heart to save them, but she cannot help this aching, this fear. She waits, convinced that this will be the day he will not return, that he will find them at last and stay where they have gone, forgetting even her name. She is different from what she once was, yes, but not as different as he believes. Her ugliness has been smothered, but not silenced. Rue is still selfish. Rue is still afraid. Rue still wants and wants and will never have enough.
You have caused this, the Raven’s blood whispers to her when all is quiet. You have driven them all away. There is no room in this story for such darkness.
But Siegfried returns all the same, brightening when he sees her, his arms open and beckoning her close. She watches him eat the dinner she has prepared and suddenly feels tears sliding down the swell of her cheeks, hot and pricking.
He looks to her with widened eyes, his hand reaching out at once to touch her own. “What’s the matter?”
She responds by kissing him, fast and hard. Her hands crumple tight to his neck as though he may slip through her fingers by mistake, like water, like sand. There was a time when he sat still and silent as she moved to touch him, a ghost against her skin, his eyes open and burning her very insides with their emptiness – but now he meets her lips fully, urging her closer. His hands tangle in her hair. She smiles against his mouth.
Rue is still selfish, still wanting – but perhaps if she learns not to be afraid, the darkness in her will quiet, and the rest will soon follow.
It is summer when a voice that is not theirs echoes through the castle. They are preparing to dance, as they often do when there is nothing else to fill the silence. Siegfried lingers in his stretches, his breaths long and steady. Rue ties her toe shoes, the ribbons soft against her dry skin. A dark curl of hair tickles at her nose, and she reaches to tuck it back.
The sound brims all around them without warning. Her fingertips still against the crook of her ear. He looks up, and they share a glance, a mutual warm look of oh, our imagination, surely –
Another shout, more urgent, and Siegfried runs for the door.
By the time Rue arrives in the entryway, half-knotted ribbons trailing at her heels, an old man she has never seen before is wobbling on his knees against the marble, kissing her prince’s hands.
“I had heard rumors,” he cries over and over again, as though it isn’t being heard each time before. Siegfried’s smile is breathtaking in its joy. He must know this person, Rue thinks. He looks as if an official of some sort. A priest long out of practice, perhaps.
“Some have seen you,” the man says. “Oh, they have seen you, but it was thought an illusion, a demon sent to torment, and so they hid –”
He notices her standing at the stairs then. Siegfried introduces her, speaks her name as though it is the most beautiful word in all the world, but the man’s kind face distorts as she nears. He looks into her eyes. He presses a kiss, only one, to her knuckles. At once, she feels his fear against her. Rue pulls from his grip too quickly, her teeth caught on the greeting she had meant to give.
They move to the kitchen. She finds herself unwilling to sit between them, feeling sturdier if she stands at a distance, and so she prepares tea. The man tells Siegfried of what has happened.
They waited, his people. They knew their prince was surely suffering in some far-away land, the Raven’s hunger merciless; they knew time had somehow halted in its tracks, the trees forever darkened with the weight of late autumn, their clothes and books and buildings like new no matter how much use they weathered. His people prayed. They hoped with all their might for his triumphant return. They sought and sang and sacrificed, their hearts full and aching – but what felt like ten lifetimes passed and answers did not come.
The change seeped in, then. It seemed like mere illness at first, bodies withering, skin thinned and pale like paper. Then, in the midst of a daily vigil, someone cried out. A child had broken at the seams, crumpling in a mess of color and parchment, as though never even human to begin with. Others followed, always at the simplest, most horrible of times – mid-meal, mid-song, mid-sentence. No one could fathom a way in which to stop such a thing, for there were no ailments, no warnings; a person was simply there and then not. Many grew hysterical, convinced it was the Raven’s final curse, and so they fled the land in droves, never to return. Others remained, ever hopeful, and – well, the man says darkly. Their fates are clear enough.
A spot of tea spits from the kettle onto Rue’s wrist, but she feels nothing. With a harsh breath, she turns her head to steal a glimpse at the man at the table. Only just now, having heard of colors and parchments and people who were no longer people does she realize what is odd about him. His body moves strangely, the shape of him thin, his colors slow and too absolute, like an illustration in a storybook. She imagines touching him only to see paint smudged in the lines of her palms.
Her prince sits rigid in his chair, hardly breathing. The man glances to her, his eyes furtive, and she looks away.
“I’ve forgotten the cups,” Rue says, even though they are in the cupboard just above her head. She slips out into the hall then pulls the door shut behind her. Her back settles softly against the wood.
Siegfried’s voice is hoarse, uneven. “What could have caused this?”
“It is impossible to know for sure,” the man answers with equal graveness. “Of course, it could be the Raven’s curse, as so many feared. Perhaps the land could not bear the burden of so much time having passed without you. Perhaps something vital has simply seeped away. Clearly, we have been abandoned by a higher power,” he says. “Or…”
“What is it?”
A pause. Rue cannot see for herself, but she knows he is looking to every depth of the room, making sure she has truly gone. Her hands settle to her chest, fingers curled like wings to keep her heart warm, to brace it for what is coming next.
“Rue,” Siegfried corrects at once.
The man sighs. “This may seem a mere fantasy,” he continues, “but I always believed you would return at last fulfilled, perhaps with a beautiful royal to take as your princess. You have certainly heard of other ruined lands near us, in which such a marriage restored it to its former glory and beyond. Why, news recently came to me of a kingdom not far from here. It is said that their prince was once a monster, a beastly shadow of his former self, and his marriage to a virtuous woman who loved him despite it brought prosperity to --”
Siegfried gently interjects. “What has this to do with us?”
“My prince, does it not seem best to follow suit? It is the best chance we have to restore our home to splendor. Tragedies may be reversed! Life will return here and flourish yet again!”
“Perhaps it still will. When Rue and I are married, I am sure that –”
It is the man’s turn to cut in with vigor, his gentleness chipping away. “I am not blind,” he snaps. “That girl is not a royal nor does she have a worthy heart. Far, far from it. You must see what I see, dear Siegfried. I do not even have to look. I am simply near her and all I smell is blood! It cannot be hidden! It will never –”
“That is enough,” Siegfried orders, and Rue will not hear anymore. She enters at once, her breath shallow, lamenting her foolishness for having not realized the cups were already present. The men offer her half-true smiles and turn their conversation towards trivialities, though not for long – the priest takes his leave while the sun is still high in the sky, promising to return in due time for “further discussion.” Rue watches from a high window, looking not to him but to Siegfried, who walks with him to the gates.
They lay in bed that night, their breathing an uneven rhythm. Rue sighs and raises her chin only to see that his eyes are still open, dim shapes of gold turned towards the ceiling.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers.
He smiles and touches a cold hand to her cheek, but says nothing.
She does not sleep that night.
It is not even dawn and she is already in the kitchen, kettles whistling and fire crackling. Anything to fill the hollowness of these rooms; anything to quiet the thrumming of her blood. She buries herself in the work, plates set in lovely arrangements, the food warm and for once not burnt. Rue closes her eyes and inhales, savoring this moment of perfection; she has known so few. With soft footsteps, she goes to wake him, pausing briefly before a mirror to frown at the gaunt color just beneath her eyes.
Their room is empty.
She steadies herself against the half-open door. Calls for him, but hears no answer. Drags sticky fingertips along his place in bed, still warm, where she’d seen him resting not an hour ago. Her breath thins and turns cold. Her heart is a bell, ringing, ringing. My prince, she thinks. He has gone. I have lost him.
Rue searches. Her footsteps beat against the stone, brusque, lonely sounds. With each silent room passed, she moves more recklessly, her skirt tumbling roughly against the sharp sway of her legs. At the curve of the staircase, she passes a window – only to stop, and with wide eyes, return to it. The new sun falls in waves along the field. Siegfried stands amidst it, his back turned to her, half-melted within the color and light. Breathless, she hurries to the door and is there in only a moment, mere feet from him, the wind tangling in her curls. She feels silly now, ridiculous even, her cheeks darkening with color. What was she thinking, acting so irrationally? Of course he hadn’t…
Something in her trembles. Instead of calling out, she erases the distance; unthinking, she holds him from behind, her arms tight around the breadth of his chest.
He stiffens then relaxes, warm against her. “Rue,” he says, chuckling. He raises a hand to rest against her own, his palm pressed just so to where her grip meets, fingers strained. “Good morning. I had wondered where you’d gone.”
Rue says nothing. She is so weak, helpless to do anything but clutch him tighter, bury herself in this desperate intimacy, his touch and his sound and his smell seeming all around her. Her lips press to his shoulder, unraveling in a harsh sigh. She wants to say: Stay. Don’t leave me. I need you. The words wither, swollen in her throat. She does not know how to set them free.
He says her name once more, his hand tightening over her own. “Is something wrong?”
One breath, then another. They do not come easily. She shifts her fingers, curved just so: love, soft against him. If she cannot speak it, she will show him with her hands, her toes, her sway and rise, as only dancers know how.
“I thought you had gone,” she says.
He smiles. “Where would I have gone?” He asks, honestly baffled, and it is as if the day before never even happened.
They eat their breakfast there in the dip of the field, the rising sun warm on their faces, their hands quickly dirtied and sticking to the grass, still thick with dew. Birds come, attracted by the food, and Siegfried feeds them from his palm, laughing when they chirp and nestle against his curled fingers. He gives a little robin to Rue to hold, but it falls silent as her hands tighten around it. Instead of singing, it nips at her palm, wanting to be set free.
“You are afraid,” he says once she’s released it. Rue turns her head sharply at the words, and it’s enough to send the entire flock briefly into the air, feathers ruffled. “Trust them, and they will trust you.”
When her cup is empty, he goes to fetch the kettle for her. Rue is left alone, watching the birds as they linger a short distance away, chirping amongst themselves as they peck at the grass. A memory comes to mind, silly, irrelevant in every way: one late afternoon, passing her dormitory at the Academy, when she had heard birds and glanced up only to see Ahiru at her high window, feeding them, laughing as they swarmed around her. A smile twitches at the corners of Rue’s lips.
Ahiru was never afraid, she thinks, and tries once more.