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The Hungry Path

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Song: I Am Stretched On Your Grave by Kate Rusby

 

In those days, it seemed to Bettrice that her sisters were too tired to dream of anything but mornings. Mornings long and golden and slow, mornings brisk in clear air, mornings quiet and grey. She was not the youngest, but she was young enough to be a little more awake than her older sisters, and when she dreamed, she dreamed of days spread out ahead of her, of nights filled with nothing but dreams.

There must, she thought, be other worlds than this one bounded by night, an enchanted cavern, and a cold, cold lake. Even for princesses. Even for princesses who knew so very little of the world. Perhaps that was why her mother had chosen to carry so many daughters. If one or two of them chose something a little different, well, there were still plenty of them to marry into alliances. To become diplomats, stateswomen, brokers of power in the kingdoms.

Perhaps it was to give them all the choice she could. But all the doors she had opened had closed, save one.

 

Of all the doors in the castle, the one to the library was usually one of the few unlocked. Perhaps this was an oversight on her father’s part, and the door was meant to be locked like every other door. Or perhaps he had simply assumed that his daughters, being princesses, would read about gardening, or sewing, or manners and never lift a book heavier than a silk fan. Especially not one of history or politics or magic or romance. Bettrice, privately, thought that her father was probably unaware that the castle library contained romances. She had never seen him enter the room, not in all the many hours she had spent there in the dust and the dark among the heavy folds of the tapestries, before the dancing.

Before the dancing. When she was younger, Bettrice had wanted to be a sorceress. Still powerful, as powerful as any of her sisters (never more: not then, not ever), but the power she had wanted was over the rule of magic and the will of men and the forces of nature. She would live alone (with twelve sisters, one was never alone) in a tower in the middle of a forest (or by the ocean, near a lake, wreathed in mist in a swamp, but somewhere far from where she was) and all would respect and fear her. She would be able to walk where she pleased, when she pleased, and every door would open at her touch. There would be no hall unlighted, no room windowless.

Being enchanted, however, had left her with a bad taste in her mouth for magic.

“What would you do, if you were not here?” she asked her prince, once. He was the same age as she, which was why they shared a boat and were bound together in the curse. The curse paid no mind to questions of preference, gender, power brokering, or anything else; there were twelve daughters of the king, and so there must be twelve princes, of roughly the same age and station. Who they were did not matter. Where they came from did not matter. All would dance their lives away, dance until the floors shone red in the candlelight.

“Who would not wish to be here?” he had said, and gestured to the ballroom with its gleaming floors, its thousand-candled chandeliers, the mirrors that lined the walls and ceiling. Dancing in that hall was like dancing in a glittering prism, the light reflecting off each mirror a thousand times, each princess and prince reflected themselves until there was no telling where anyone stood within the hall. One learned, in that place, to look at the floor, for though it gleamed it gave back no reflections. “Here, there is nothing but pleasure, nothing but the company of beautiful women, nothing but the most delicious food, the sweetest drink. One would be a fool to wish oneself elsewhere.”

“A fool, or mad,” she had agreed, and it was so: to wish oneself elsewhere, when one was in that hall, was to court a worsening of their fate. To never see the morning sky, to never have the energy to pursue anything but the dance their feet were locked in, was punishment enough. Outside the hall, it was—perhaps—safe to whisper of winning free of the curse. Inside the hall, they painted their best smiles across their lips and danced as if they wanted nothing more from life.

After all, it was what they had asked for.

 

Sophia, her eldest sister, had been twenty-five, and Royse, the youngest, just fifteen, just starting to chafe at the long room with the double row of beds, the dresses plain and gray, the hard shoes. There were lessons enough to keep them busy, but while all could dance with the perfection expected of princesses, none had danced with anyone but their sisters. The library, when they had had it, told them they should be singing to suitors in the garden (in that castle the garden was full of thorns and choked with weeds), dancing with young men in the ballroom (they had seen the ballroom once, and where the dust and spiderwebs could not be seen, there were shadows and echoes), finding love letters in arrangements of flowers and pleasure and company in every window and door.

The door was bolted. The windows were shuttered and nailed tight. The skylight let in nothing but light. It had been many years since they had tried a door to see if it was open, in their long walks through the uneasy narrowings of the corridors. Many years, since a turn had not turned in on itself.

 

So Bettrice was twenty, neither the oldest nor the youngest, when the twins Godith and Richelda found the books, and, well. Twelve girls, restless, curious, with the fearlessnesss of never having had anything to fear. Not really. Twelve girls, tired of inexperience. Twelve girls. Her mother had borne so many daughters; perhaps she had intended to.

These were the real books, the ones with the lists of ingredients never found in any castle’s walls, the ones with the matter-of-fact step-by-step instructions. The ones that said, if you want something, you can have it. If you ask. If you’re willing to do what it takes.

She had still wanted to be a sorceress, then.

And so she had been the one to convince Sophia, who, for all her frustrated longings, was the most cautious of them all.

The eldest generally are. A lifetime of responsibility does little to prepare its bearers for impossible tasks and unbelievable beliefs, though they are often left with them nonetheless.

“It’s the last page,” Bettrice had said, trying to keep her voice smooth, unexcited. “All the spell wants is a few words, a strong will. What could it hurt?”

And Sophia had had to agree.

She had not thought to wonder why a spell so simple had not been at the beginning. She had never done a spell before. She had not considered why they had not found the books till Royse turned sixteen. But there had never been anything to consent to , before.

As it happens, it’s true that if you want something enough, badly enough, are willing to do whatever it takes to get it – you can.

 

When the room opened up and the void surrounded them, Bettrice held her sisters’ hands and met her sisters’ eyes, and was unafraid. When the winds began to blow and strange sounds and smells swirled around them in maddening confusion, she held fast and did not falter. It was strange, certainly, but so would anything be outside the four walls of that long room. Later, Bettrice would compare that void to a sky without stars, the strange winds to the gales that tossed a ship in the depths of the sea, and feel the chill of those memories haunt her. Then, without context, she and her sisters were without fear.

So they held each other’s hands fast against the wind and the sucking cold, held fast to their desire, and in the end, it was granted them.

Secret, perfect, magical nights of pleasure.

A harmless enough wish.

 

And so it was, at first. The void had faded and the winds died down, and that night, when they went to dress for bed, ballgowns of matchless beauty appeared spread across their beds, and delicate, perfect shoes beside them. Bettrice lifted hers and wondered at the rich colors and the softness of the weave. She had never touched anything so fine. Perhaps the castle had held some such once, but if it had, those fabrics now lay rotting behind locks so rusted no key would turn in them.

Once, she had found a painting of her mother in the library, hidden between two shelves, shrouded in dusty muslin. She had looked much as Bettrice did – as they all did – though perhaps Iseut was closest to their mother in the turn of her head and the sheen of her hair. Her gown had been much like the one she now held, rosy and glowing, falling over the hand like water. Bettrice had looked at it for a while, to see if it woke any memories within her. None stirred, though for a moment, she thought she smelled lilacs. The next day, the painting had no longer been between the shelves, and a thick coat of dust lay where none should.

Now she held the dress up to herself, marveling at its fineness, and her sisters were her mirrors. Each of them shed their plain gray dress, their hard shoes, and it was with light and skipping steps that they opened the trapdoor for the first time.

Bettrice was swept down the path in the midst of her sisters, gasping and spinning through the forests of gold and silver and diamond. She ran her fingertips over branch and stem, was shocked by the cool reflectivity of leaf and flower. This was the beauty their spells had promised them, the light and the luster they had longed for. She paused for a moment in the headlong rush to see what bird might sing in such a forest, and heard none – and if there was nothing living in that place, no cool bough had ever stretched over her that she might know the difference.

There were princes, when they reached the lake, and by each prince waited a little white boat, flowers carved into their hulls, silver lanterns at their prows. The ballroom across the lake glittered unsteadily, like the remnants of a dream. She stood with one hand on the prow to watch the lights draw nearer. If her escort barely spoke, and then as if to whisper, she did not notice. And if his hands were strangely cold – well. There was a chill that lay over the black lake. And perhaps, after all, it was not strange. Perhaps all men were made that way.

She danced all through that night, and it was as if the music carried her – she could put no foot wrong, buoyed by its gaiety, no matter how heavy her eyes grew as the night wore on. She ate, and the fruits she tasted there were sweeter than honey from the rock, strange red globes with garnets that burst upon the tongue.

The suitors were handsome. They were beautiful. The music danced through their veins. That night was everything they had asked for. Everything they had wanted.

 

When Bettrice woke in the morning, the dress she had laid over her bed to marvel at in the gleam of morning had gone, though all their shoes stood yet in a heap by the door.

“Should we hide them?” Royse asked, uncertain.

“Where?” said Adara, who was of a practical bent. It was true; the window was shuttered and nailed shut, the skylight too small, too high to reach. There was nothing in their room that could hide so much as dust. In an hour, the servants would come and clean, and if there were something to be found, they would find it. They always had.

Bettrice picked one up and held it in her hand. Sky blue. The sole was almost worn through. Yet she stood without pain.

“What harm can come of shoes with no explanation?” Godith said, shrugging. There was a murmur of uncertainty, but what else was there to do? “Even Papa cannot be angry with us for something that no one can explain.”

So they left them there, an uneasy cairn of fraying silk and tattered ribbons.

 

Nothing happened. There was no summons. The day passed as all days passed.

 

When Bettrice returned to her room that evening, the pile of shoes was gone. Perhaps the servants had carried them away. Perhaps – unlikely – the shoes had been missed, and vanished as the moon rose in the sky, bringing with it new finery. On her bed – on each bed – lay a new dress, and beside it, new shoes. Tonight hers was gold, heavy with sparkling threads.

One by one, they slipped into their dresses. Richelda lifted the trapdoor. They descended.

Again, they ran through the strange, glittering forests. Again, they crossed the lake in the little white boats with the birds on the prows. Again, they danced the night away, and again, the night was perfect. For all the weight of her dress, Bettrice could not seem to stop dancing. Even as she drank her wine and ate her sweetmeats, she swayed in time.

This time, when they returned, they did not bother to hang their finery or drape it neatly across their beds. There would be a new dress that night, and new shoes, to celebrate the strange freedom they had found in that abyss, and in any case, it would be gone by the time they woke.

And so it was. When Bettrice woke, the hour was late, and the servants were rapping at the door. The gowns had disappeared from the floorboards and the beds, and the shoes were once more piled in a heap by the door.

“A moment,” she called to the servants, and shook her sisters awake one by one. They rose and dressed slowly, their eyes heavy.

When Sophia finally opened the door, there were strangers standing by. They wore the dull brown that all the servants wore, but Bettrice had never seen these women before. And they would not meet their eyes.

“Where are Marie and Lisette?” Bettrice asked, standing before one of them. She did not answer. “Have they taken a holiday? Have they retired?”

“What is your name?” asked Adhelina of the other. She did not respond. Nor would she meet Adhelina’s gaze.

Perhaps, Bettrice thought hopefully, they were simply new, and overawed by this much royalty. After all, they were princesses, even dressed as plainly as this. And there were twelve of them.

But when they saw the pile of shoes, they moved more slowly, as if their work pained them. And it did not seem to lift their spirits when the princesses left for their lessons.

 

There were two more new servants the next day. They, too, would not meet the princesses’ eyes, and would not speak.

Only when Bettrice tried to leave did one stop her.

“All the castle is closed to you, your highnesses,” the woman said, her eyes on the floor.

“But where shall we take our lessons?” asked Aloice, who was next to Sophia in age, and of them all the likeliest to make a queen.

“In this room, or not at all,” the woman said. And that was the last they had of her, for she would not speak again.

Soon, she finished her work and left the room. Her head was bowed, and her face gray.

Bettrice wondered at this, but soon she shrugged and went to her lunch of bread and cheese and fruit, dreaming of the rich gravies and sweet cakes she would eat that night.

 

But that night, Adara would not put on her shoes or gown.

“I’m weary, sisters,” she said, yawning and smiling through her yawn, and her sisters laughed. Gentle Adara was the quietest of them all, and fond of sleeping. “A good night’s sleep for me, and I’ll join you tomorrow night ready for whatever the dance may bring.”

But the moment she laid down in her bed, she sprang back up again. Blood welled from cuts along her back, and the hand she had used to pillow her cheek was scorched red and blistered. Her sisters paused in their dressing and ran to her, exclaiming.

“I don’t know—the moment I had settled in, it was as if the mattress were made of broken glass, and the pillow of red-hot iron,” Adara whispered. Her voice sounded raw, as if she had been screaming, though she had made no sound

From across the room where she had laid it, her gown for the evening lifted itself up and drifted slowly, silently, across the room to lay itself across the bed. The coverlet smoothed out, and the bright new shoes tapped out from underneath the bed to stand before it.

Bettrice had never been afraid. What was there to fear, in her life? She had her sisters, and the castle was her home. Together, and here, there was nothing to be afraid of.

But they had invited fear into their home, and, it seemed, it was here to stay.

Silently, they laced Adara into her gown. The blood seeped through the fabric, slowly, and her face was gray with pain. They helped her into her shoes, and Bettrice took her good hand to lead her down the stairs and into the dark cavern. That night, as she danced, her smile was like a mask.

In the morning, the dresses were gone, and Adara was no longer bleeding. Her hand was as pale and white as the moon. When they looked at her back, there was a faint tracery of scars across it, as if what had happened had happened long ago, as if the pain were only a memory. But the memory of it left new lines on Adara’s face, and she was quieter than ever.

 

There were new servants again. When they saw the pile of shoes by the door, they moved very slowly indeed, and Bettrice thought to wonder: how had their father reacted, when he learned his cloistered daughters had danced the night away? He did not know about the darkness, the winds, the sounds, and the voice that had promised them their hearts’ desire. All he knew was that his daughters, his perfect beautiful unseen daughters, had slipped away and danced with men who were not him. And someone must have helped them.

They tried to hide the shoes, after that. But their room was as bare as an anchorite’s cell, and there was no nook nor cranny where they could be sure the shoes would not be found.

The spell, they learned, was hungry.

Fewer and fewer servants came to tidy their room.

 

One late morning, as Bettrice lay dreaming, it seemed that she sensed the door to their chambers opening, though she knew Sophia had locked it as she always did the night before. And who would enter? Not the servants. They were afraid.

The feet were heavy on the floor, as the servants’ never were. Boots. A long firm stride, rather than a careful shuffle. Footsteps paced the room from end to end, slowly, searching. They paused by each bed, as if to survey its occupant.

The footsteps came closer, and closer still. The spell would not let her wake. The fear they had let in rose in her quick and wild. She could not move. She could not flee.

And what had happened to their servants, she could guess.

That night, at least, the boots passed on.

 

With the castle closed to them, they lived for nightfall. Bettrice’s porridge felt thick and tasteless in her mouth, the fruits grainy and dry, and as the days passed she found it harder to bring herself to eat. Her mind, too, felt thick and dry, with nothing but the same four walls to look at, no voices but those of her sisters, and those falling quiet too as they waited for nightfall and the dancing. Those four walls, the long path through the forests of silver and gold and diamond, the pavilion in the black lake.

She could not even read for a wider world.

Later, she thought the spell had known that that was the night she grew too impatient, for why else would it have given her a dress so white, with ribbons at the wrists and criss-crossing down across her back? She put it on, the same as every night, laced up the silver slippers, slipped down the stairs after her sisters and down the long dark path. It glimmered, though from what light she could not tell. There was no moon, after all, to light their subterranean pleasure palace. Each branch in the silver forest gleamed distinct in the darkness and did not seem to fade, though the forest itself was not dense enough to block her sight. Neither their footsteps nor their voices seemed to ring from its trunks and limbs.

She slowed a little in the golden forest, peering through the branches. How far did it extend? What strange world bordered it? The flowers on the forest floor glinted brightly – almost as if they moved, a little. As if the flower heads turned to watch them pass. If she lingered, would she see them swing slowly back to how they had been before she and her sisters passed?

It seemed to her then that something rustled deep within the golden forest, and she thought she saw a glimpse of flame – but no more than a glimpse and it was gone. No bird had ever stirred in those cold branches that she had seen. An illusion born of wanting, and no more.

In the wood of diamonds, her pace slowed further yet. This wood was strange, for it seemed both present and not – looking into it, once could almost see the shadows of other trees through the tree one was looking at, refracted, multiplied. To see far into the wood at all, one could not look at the trees. They seemed to glow, and the light they threw shifted, threw colors back and forth, ever changing. Only the path onwards was clear and dark and still. She wandered close to the edge of the path, squinting into the light. What was it, just through those trees?

She stepped over the black stone border and into the diamond forest.

And the trees moved.

They grabbed at her, branches curling into the ribbons at her wrists, spreading her arms wide. She struggled and screamed, pulling and tearing at the ribbons to loosen them, but they would not let her go. The ribbons held as firm as chains. Snaking twigs crept over her wrists, binding her, slicing at her skin. Thin branches beat at her, whipping against her back and arms and breasts until they ran with blood, staining her white dress with rivulets of red. Her sisters ran for her, but could not reach her to pull her free without stepping off the path themselves, and even as she screamed she begged them to keep away.

It hurt so much. It was unbearable, this pain, the sharp sting and sickening drip of her blood. It flooded her mind until nothing was left in it but pain and fear and the struggle to get away, and beneath it all the shuddering crawl of roots across her slippers as they twisted and writhed, seeking for the drops of blood that fell from her flesh onto the forest floor.

And it would not let her faint – she was kept awake to suffer this, unable to escape until the forest freed her of its own volition. It seemed to her, when it came, that it was with some reluctance that she was let free to stumble back onto the path and into her sisters’ waiting arms.

“Come back to our room, Bettrice, you are in no fit state for dancing!” Sophia said. “Please, Bettrice, do not go on, you cannot go on like this.”

“I must,” she whispered, though she could barely stand. “Do you think we will be let return so soon? You cannot think that I would let you risk yourselves for my own folly.”

“It is a risk we would gladly take,” said Godith bravely. Behind her, Bettrice could see Adara clinging to Juliane, shaking her head. She knew too well what pain Bettrice suffered, and what pain might come to any who tried any further defiance.

“It is a risk you will not take,” Bettrice said. “I would not have you bleed for me, my sister. I cannot have you bleed for me. It is – what is, is already too much.”

She could not say what was too much.

As Sophia and Aloice supported her down the path, she turned her head for a moment to see the clear white branches stained red with blood. But they were still and pure as frost.

 

The next day, their father called them in to sup with him, and it was no high day, no holiday, no birthday. They dressed in their plain gray gowns, put the hard shoes on their aching feet, and went to meet him in the dining hall.

He stood at the far end of the table, as he always did, but beside him, a stranger stood. A man, and that was strange enough, in a castle where the only man they had ever seen was their father. Bettrice stared, astonished. Sophia, who spoke for them, asked,

“Why have you called us to sup with you, my King? It is no high day, nor holiday, nor birthday.”

“Can a father not wish to see his daughters?” The king asked. “Sit, and be silent.”

They sat along the table, six to a side in the empty echoing hall, and plain white plates were placed before them. Silent servants came in, and served them clear broth and bread. The king and the stranger were given wine, red as rubies, rich venison, savory vegetables soaked in gravy. As one, they began to eat, mechanical, listening to the king their father speak down the table to the stranger.

“Sir, these are the princesses, my daughters. Are they not lovely? Are they not all that could be desired? I keep them here, close to me, where none may steal them away, and yet - someone has. Something has.” He gestured at them. “They are pale and gray, they move slowly. They wince when they step, as if the mere pressure of the floor pains them. Every morning, dancing shoes litter their floor. They hide them, but I find them. They cannot hide from me. I ask them where they go—Sophia, where do you go at night?”

“Where can we go, sire? The window is shuttered and the door barred,” she said. Her hand was white on her fork, though it did not tremble.

“You see? I ask them and they answer with nonsense, with insolence. They go somewhere, someone helps them escape—and to keep the rest, I will lose the one. Sir, find out where my daughters go, and you may take whichever one you choose and the kingdom too, when I die.” The king laughed. “Perhaps you will take the oldest—she is getting old and plain, and is as insolent as a kitchen wench. Perhaps you will teach her better manners, or get a daughter off her less curst than her mother.”

Bettrice lifted her spoon, opened her mouth, swallowed. She kept her eyes on her plate, and her hidden hand clenched her sister’s tightly.

“I’ll find them out,” the stranger said. His eyes trailed over them, one by one, and paused the longest on Royse. Sophia’s hand clenched around Bettrice’s.

“You have three nights,” the king said. “And if you should fail, your head is forfeit.”

When they found the steaming cup of wine on the table by the door that evening, Bettrice doubted that Sophia found it hard to pick up the one on the table by the door and offer it to the stranger, laughing, and saying, “Drink with us a little nightcap, and then we shall all be off to sleep. Only, make sure to close your eyes when you are done, as befits a man in a room of maids who must make ready for the night!”

He took the cup with smug pleasure, and tossed it back in one gulp, keeping his eyes locked on Sophia’s. When he finished, he set it down, and turned his chair out to face the room, never looking away from Sophia’s face till he had finished.

She smiled, and turned away. Before another minute had passed, he was snoring in his chair.

“Royse, come dress behind me,” Sophia said, looking at the stranger. “And—and all of you. He may yet be feigning sleep.”

But he was not, and they danced the night away, and another, and another. And the stranger did not trouble them again after the third night, though Sophia’s face was drawn when she awoke that afternoon, for all he had been what he had been.

 

There were more strangers, after that. Some were more pleasant than the first, and some less so. It was easier, Bettrice decided, when they were dreadful. It still was not easy to hand them the cup night after night and know what was to come, but better that than what they might do if they did not sleep. Better that than what might happen to a sister if they did not hand them the cup that stood steaming on the table by the door.

Once, after the first suitor came, but before they knew how frequently they would sit at that too-still table, Richelda had decided she would not dance. She stood beside her prince in the glittering ballroom, and when there was no chair to be found, she sat upon the floor and would not stand again. The lights flickered off. When the candles lit again, Bettrice saw her standing, her eyes terrified, and she was danced alone in the middle of the hall while the rest of them stood frozen, the music silent. Her feet, her arms, her head, they all moved for her. Her mouth was set in a perfect smile. And her eyes were so afraid. She was danced, and then the music started and they all moved to join her, her prince moved to take her in his arms and dance with her, as if his arms could give her comfort while she was trapped inside herself.

Her body did not stop moving until the dancing ended, and as they walked through the cold, silent forests, her feet left bloody prints through the slippers on the stone path.

Bettrice did not turn around to see if the path soaked up the prints behind them, sucking them in in a great thirst.

 

In the evenings, after the suitors had drunk the wine but before the trapdoor opened, they would whisper to each other. Bettrice dreamed of falling asleep to the rain on the roof of the palace, and waking in the morning rested. Clarelle imagined a life without warm milk to soothe her to a sleep it was too dangerous to fall into. Iseut dreamed of hearty breakfasts; croissants dripping with butter, sausages, piles of golden eggs, sweet summer jams, warm fall fruit butters. They never had much of an appetite after a night of dancing, were too queasy from exhaustion to take more than dry toast and endless cups of tea and coffee. And what they ate at night would never satisfy.

 

By the time the soldier came, there was not much left of them. Even the enchanted dresses hung loosely on their frames, and their fingers were so thin and pale that no amount of dancing could warm them. Every night, they dined with their father at the still table. Every fourth night, a new suitor sat at his right hand. And every night, they lifted the cup of wine.

At first he seemed no different than the others, though he was a poor soldier and they had been princes, lords, and rich merchants’ sons. He sat at their father’s right hand, and when the offer of a kingdom and a docile wife was made, he took it.

“Look at my daughters,” the king said, solicitous now as he had not been at first. “They are pale, they are listless. They toy with their food. Is it not clear that they suffer under a curse?”

“There can be no other explanation, sire,” the soldier said. He did not look up from his plate.

“I have kept them so carefully,” the king told him. “They have eaten only simple food, taken only simple pleasures. They know no other way than to be obedient and quiet.”

“A wise father,” the soldier said, and continued to eat. The food, it seemed, was good, and from his clothes he had a long road behind him. Bettrice, watching from the corner of her eye, wondered if he had stumbled in the castle doors hoping only for a solid meal and a sound night’s sleep. If so—was he disappointed, or replete with his perceived good luck?

“Until the curse began, they saw no man but me,” the king told him. His voice was restless, unsatisfied. Bettrice felt she barely breathed. “Since then, a thousand men have stepped into their chamber. None have left this castle alive. Do you understand the terms of this arrangement, soldier?”

“I find out where your daughters go, I get my pick and the kingdom when you die,” the soldier said. He speared a final piece of steak, red and tender. “I fail, after three nights you cut my head off.”

“Are we in accord?” the king said. “The kingdom and a daughter. The rest are left to me.”

“Sounds fair.” The soldier shrugged, philosophical. “Can’t expect something for nothing, and there’s not much for me out there.”

“Then walk with them to their chamber, soldier,” the king said, and smiled. “And be warned: any man who sullies the honor of my daughters in word or deed or thought, I will have his entrails pulled out inch by inch and fed to the castle dogs before his eyes.”

“Sire, a man would have to be a fool,” the soldier said. “Enchanted women are the devil’s own.”

Of all the suitors her father had threatened, none had ever thought his daughters more dangerous than the king.

 

He stopped them right outside their bedroom door, the flock of them pausing at his raised hand. Around them, the torchlight flickered, but his expression was steady and grave.

“I’m not going to play games with you, ladies,” he said, his voice quiet and casual. “You’ve got about as much at stake as any person in this thing, and I figure you’ve had less to say about it than anyone as well. I’ll give you that say if you work with me.”

“What do you want with us?” Bettrice asked. He was strange: casual, rough. And yet, for all he spoke to them as no suitor has spoken to them, his eyes were elsewhere, fixed on some distant prize.

“There’s something not right here,” he said. “And there’s two ways we can go about fixing it. The first is, you give me whatever you can, whatever you’ve got. I put some spin on it and sell it to your dad, and you’re squeaky clean. The second is, you play dumb, I figure it out anyway, and I still marry one of you and get the kingdom. What happens to the rest of you, well, I won’t stand in the way. Now, obviously you’re not happy here, and I can fix that. Work with me, and I’ll see that all but one of you gets out of here and gets some meat on their bones.”

To leave. To be outside the castle. To see the whole sky, not the piece of that floated over their bedroom. To feel rain and snow and sun.

“There is more to this than that,” Sophia said, and Bettrice knew that she was right. Whatever the soldier saw before his eyes, it haunted him as surely as they were haunted by the long staircase into the dark. “What drives you down this path? It is not one a man of sense would take, nor one with much to lose.”

“No,” the soldier said gravely. “But for those with sense remaining, and those with something to lose, I’ll take it. There’s boys out there deserve better than what was done to me, and I’ll see they get it, no matter what it takes to give it to them.”

“You seek retribution?” Adara questioned, her voice disapproving. Bettrice, flushing, thought to ask her what she knew of revenge, and stopped. What did any of them know of revenge, or of hate? What haunted them had no form to rage against, no betrayals to burn their souls. It was cold, and it hungered, and they ran.

But then, from what she had read of hate, perhaps they were the wiser after all.

“Yes,” he said, and that was all. It was enough.

“And what of us?” Sophia asked. “What would you with us, when the kingdom is won?”

“One of you I’ll marry,” the soldier said. “Royal blood, whatever. I need you for the crown. The rest of you, you’ll work as we find places for you. Not here, for sure.”

Work. On their backs, most likely, married off to the highest bidders with the biggest armies. Use their voices in the breakfast rooms, their smiles at parties, their bodies at night. Flaunt their beauty and their mystery until kingdoms fell at their feet, and they handed them over to him, their savior, for rescuing them from a slow death in a windowless room.

It was a kind of freedom, Bettrice knew. There were wider worlds than hers in the soldier’s words. But she had always wanted to find her own world.

“Then I wish that we had something we could tell you,” she told him, her voice steady and her eyes as pleading as she could make them. “For what you offer is sweet indeed. But truly, what binds us is something we cannot speak, and where we go we cannot say.”

“Well, you can’t say I didn’t offer,” the soldier said, philosophical. He opened the door of the room to them. They curtsied as they went by, their eyes low and on the floor. Sophia was the last to enter.

“Soldier, take a cup with us for your troubles,” she said, and handed him the glass from beside the door.

 

Mechanically, she held her gleaming gown against her body, admired the glinting ribbons and the glittering jewels, looked across the room to see herself reflected in a sister’s glassy eyes. They were so tired. Each laugh shattered, and as they ran down the trapdoor, their steps were as light as a running deer’s.

Bettrice looked behind her as she went down the stairs. This one had seemed so certain that he could find the way to follow them—to rescue them—but there he slept and there he lay, and so he would as they swept onwards through the forests of gold and silver and diamond, faces frozen in awe at wonders too terrible to touch or name. This was what their spell had given them. The light and the luster they had longed for.

And then Royse cried out and stumbled. They froze. But she stood there, unharmed—no blood poured down her back. Her face moved from surprise to shock to confusion. Her hands fluttered to her mouth, unblistered.

“Royse?” Bettrice said.

“Someone has... stepped upon my gown,” said Royse. “I felt it, I nearly fell.”

But there was no one behind her on the stair, Bettrice saw.

“Perhaps a nail?” suggested Godith. “I have caught my skirt before on a nail that stood too high.”

The stairs rose sharp and black behind Royse, and the dull shine of them admitted no interruption, no shadowed indentations or stark lines. Her skirts pooled smoothly at her feet.

“I—that must be so,” Royse said, biting at her lip. “For the soldier sleeps.”

“And snores!” laughed Richelda. “Perhaps one can find an army at night by the sounds of its soldiers sleeping, though how could any sleep in such a din!”

“And why would any sleep when he had such joys as we have?” Sophia’s voice was flat. “Come, my sisters. The night grows weary of waiting.”

As they rushed onwards, Bettrice found herself rubbing her wrists, over and over, where the ribbons had bound her to the crystal trees.

 

“And there’s nothing that you can tell me?” the soldier asked, bowing over Sophia’s hand as he took the goblet from her. They stood in a semi-circle around him, silent and watching. Had he been the third suitor, they might have laughed. Had he been the sixth, they might have ignored him. But he had come too late for that. “I’d say there’s plenty that you know.”

“I would not name you dishonest,” murmured Sophia, looking at him through her lashes. Bettrice clenched her hands in her skirts. Not dishonest, no. He had told them what they were wanted for. And their Sophia, queen to the last, who burned no bridges her sisters might need to flee down, whatever the cost to herself might be. “But there is nothing I can tell you, no matter what I would.”

“And would you?” the soldier asked. He sounded amused, as if these fine distinctions were laid out for his amusement.

“Would you?” her sister asked him. “We are sisters, sir, and have known no other friends. Would you, were it your battle-brothers standing here beside you?”

“No,” he said. His voice was quiet. “I would not.”

He drank deep.

 

As always, their princes waited on the black shore of the lake, standing by the little white boats like flowers, the silver lanterns at their prows. The black sand was always silent beneath her slippers, too, but that night Bettrice thought she could hear something, a strange soft shuffle, in between the lapping of the water against the hulls.

“Do you hear something?” she asked her prince. In all these nights of dancing, she had never learned his name.

“Only your voice,” he whispered. “That is all I ever hear.”

He offered her his hand and she took it, stepping neatly over the gunwale. His fingers were cold as ice. He dropped his hand as soon as she was stable, and she picked up her skirts to seat herself, rubbing her fingers against the fabric to rid them of the chill.

“Is it lonely?” she asked, and knew she should not have. She rushed on, away from whatever it was he could not tell her, whatever it was she did not want to know. “The wait on the shore, I mean. Are you lonely for my company, each evening?”

Finally, slightly, he nodded, and there was nothing more to say.

Down the beach, her sisters were safely stowed within their boats, and the princes picked up their oars and began to row. But Royse’s boat, Bettrice saw, soon lagged behind the others.

“Are you tired tonight?” she heard Royse ask, the words clear across the stillness of the water.

“Never of your company,” the prince replied, glib and empty. “But is your dress made of stone tonight? Look how low in the water the boat lies.”

“I do not feel the weight,” Royse said, her voice troubled. “It may be so.”

It was true that no matter what their gowns were made of, they always felt as light as leaves. It was true that this was not the case for whatever else they lay on. And yet… but the soldier lay dreaming, and there was no spell that Bettrice knew to hide a man from sight.

 

“Tomorrow, I will speak to the king,” the soldier said. His voice was grave, and his eyes were steady. “Will you tell me what it is you know, before it is too late?”

Too late for him, he meant. One did not have to have cast the curse to know that it was hungry, and Bettrice did not have to have a window to know what adorned the castle walls. But—Royse had nearly fallen, and her boat had been so heavy. What if he had not slept? What if he had followed them on light and quiet feet? It seemed impossible – but every night she walked through forests made of jewels in a gown made of dreams to dance with the dead, so perhaps it was not so impossible after all.

So say that he had followed them, these last two endless nights. What then, tomorrow at dinner in the banquet hall? He would say to their father, Sire, there is a secret stair and a secret path through still and shining forests to a still and depthless lake, and there in the center there is a palace, and there your daughters dance the night away, twelve princes to their twelve selves. And then? At this discovery, would the stair no longer open when there was no door at night to close behind them all?

The curse was hungrier, she thought, than the soldier with all his talk of hating. As hungry as their longing, as hungry as their fear. There was no room that staircase would not reach. Perhaps it would be satisfied when they had withered into nothingness and lay in dust—perhaps, as with their princes, it would dance them still.

“It is too late,” Sophia said, and Bettrice knew from her voice that she grieved. For the servants, for the suitors. Even for the first suitor, and the ones that had been no better, or had been worse. “It has been too late since it began, and there is nothing that I can tell you that will make it not so.”

“You can change your future, or the cast of it,” the soldier suggested. “I’m not minded to have an unwilling wife, or one that won’t speak me civil. But I will, if that’s the way it has to be. And your sisters—well, there’s worse than I’m offering them, and I’m thinking that this room might be among what’s worse.”

“What you say may be,” Sophia said, turning away to the door. “But we cannot give what we cannot give. Will you drink with me once more, this final night?”

 

It seemed to Bettrice that the forests were restless, though no branch moved and no leaf quivered. The stillness lay in wait. She could not bring herself to laugh and chatter through her empty smile. Her sisters, too, were quieter, though all the forest watched.

As they came to the transition between one forest and the next, where the gold and silver trees were intermingled, Sophia paused and turned to them.

“Why so quiet, my sisters?” she asked, laughing. The sound was dead and deadened further by the cold branches of the trees. Her eyes were wide and tense. “Laugh, for do we not go to our bridegrooms this night? What cause have we for solemnity?”

“Is it not said that ‘Silence is the perfectest herald of joy’?” Bettrice countered. Her smile was too wide. The curse was not a subtle one; it might be satisfied by mouthing pleasure alone. “’I were but little happy, if I could say how much.’ Tonight, my joy is quiet, for it has magnitude.”

Somewhere in the shadows of the forest behind them, a twig snapped. They started, and Bettrice turned to stare back into the darkness up the path. There was nothing.

It was not a loud sound—it was a quieter sound than one might expect the snapping of a twig from a branch of gold to be. It was no louder than the breaking of a pencil. But it broke in a quiet room, and the hollow reverberations from tree to tree seemed to fill all the space with noise.

“Even in a perfect forest, a branch must fall,” Sophia told them, and shepherded them down the path. What would be, would be; here and now there was the thirsty stone. Bettrice fell into step beside her. They walked in silence through the forest of silver. It seemed to glow with the moon, though there was nothing to brighten that dark roof.

As the forest merged into the diamond, again, from far behind them, a twig snapped. But behind them on the path, there was nothing. Not even a shadow.

Bettrice shuddered, and looked at Sophia from the corner of her eye. She was so pale. And the soldier would choose her, and she would suffer for her silence, and still the stairs would open every night for Bettrice and her sisters until there was nothing left of them but empty slippers, and still those slippers would be whirled in an endless ghostly dance. Perhaps Sophia would be spared that, in her marriage. After all, it would be much the worse for her to not be listed in that number.

“I would linger on the shore tonight, Sophia,” she murmured. “I have a yearning to study the way the dark lake laps upon the silver shore.”

“Do not linger too long, dear sister,” Sophia told her. “Your prince will not thank you for denying him your hand in the dance.”

Perhaps they had all lingered too long on the shore of their curse. There had been no need to break it, before they were afraid. And then – then, they had been afraid.

It was true, or true enough, that the curse was of their own making (and never mind those locked doors, never mind that room with the twelve beds). It was true, or true enough, that it was others that paid for it (and never mind the long nights and empty days, never mind the goblet that stood by the door). It might be true that the curse could end, though Bettrice did not see how. But the soldier would not succeed—and if he did, there was no recompense for those long nights and the long gray years.

 

They came upon the shore, then. Far behind them in the diamond forest, the last twig snapped. Bettrice did not look behind her.

 

One by one, her sisters stepped into their light boats. One by one their princes rowed them across the lake to where the pleasure-palace beckoned, blinding. One by one they lighted on the shore and ran into the hall. Only Bettrice remained, left upon the shore. She knelt and ran her fingers through the sand.

“What will you, mistress?” said her prince. “Our nights are long, but they pass in the end.”

“As all must do,” Bettrice said. The sand trickled through her fingers and spread out among the stones of the shore. Her prince looked towards the lake in silence. “How settles the boat in the lake tonight?”

“As it - “ The prince stopped and looked at his boat. Bettrice wondered how many nights he had rowed it from this shore to the palace, and rowed it back again. How many nights had she passed in his company? “It is weighed down with our hours, mistress.”

“How can our hours be heavy, in such a place as this, with such a craft as this?” Bettrice said. “Let us go, then, you and I. Perhaps the load will lighten as we draw near.”

As she spoke, she stood, and she came to her prince and placed her hands in his. They were so, so cold. His fingers closed around hers.

“I would do what I may to lighten your burdens, lady.”

“It is kindly said, my prince.” She stepped into the boat and placed her hand upon the stern to look at towards the shining palace. “Is there nothing I may give you in return?”

“My peace,” he said, “is in your happiness, lady.”

No doubt it was. She wondered how the princes spent their days. The lake was dark and still and cold. The palace drew nearer. She turned her head and smiled at her prince.

There was a splash. The prince settled back onto his bench and began to row once more. Behind them, the lake grew still. No ripple marred its surface. The boat left no wake.

She would not trail a hand in its waters.

 

When they returned to their chambers, eyes dull with sleeplessness, the chair beside the door was cold and empty.

“He might have succeeded,” said Iseut, tearing her dress off. She dropped it on the floor. Godith bent to pick it up. “Is our state so fine, that we would not change it?”

“Not for that,” Bettrice said. “And by what name would he call success? A bride and a kingdom and all else beside, and who’s to know or care for the queen and princesses? They have been unwell for so long, after all.”

“There might have been mornings,” Katrina said. She took Royse’s hand, put her head on her shoulder, stroked her hair. “I would give much, for mornings.”

“Perhaps,” said Sophia. “And perhaps there would be other lands, and every night the staircase opening and no sisters to stand beside. It is a weak spell that is only seen and it is broken. And I do not think our spell is weak.”

“Not anymore,” Bettrice said. Her dress felt as heavy as chains, as heavy as drowning. “Once, perhaps. Before the suitors came. But it is a hungry spell. And soon, I fear, we will be all that is left to feed it.”

“Dry mouthfuls as we are!” Iseut laughed. Bettrice could not remember the last time Iseut had laughed for joy. “Hardly a fitting finish to such a long and glorious meal.”

Perhaps, Bettrice thought, it was what they deserved. Perhaps the slow starvation, the long strain, perhaps these things were what came of magic. Of too much wanting, with nothing of their own to offer in exchange. And so many had died.

But all the doors in the castle had been locked, and sometimes there was the slow, quiet thud of boots in a dark room at night. They had not seen a trap. Only a door.

“We were young,” Godith said. Iseut’s dress still hung from her hands. “We were so young.”

“We were selfish,” Sophia told her. All the books had told them that a princess should die for her country, not—devour it. All the books but one.

They were still so selfish now. It was too late, Bettrice knew, for repining.

 

It should have been a surprise, when the door opened. It had been locked and it had been barred, and their gray peace between dancing and sleeping had seemed inviolate. Had been inviolate for a year and many a year. And when they slept—well, the door was never unlocked when they awakened.

It was more surprising to Bettrice that he had never entered before now. Perhaps another father might have sat at his own daughters’ bedsides, keeping himself from sleep to protect them from a curse they could not fight. Perhaps another father might have tended their hurts and nourished their bodies, to strengthen them against whatever it was that lay siege. Perhaps another father would not have locked the doors of his home against his children, keeping them in and keeping them out.

He closed the door behind them. Iseut snatched her dress from Godith’s hand and held it to her breast. The room was still.

“Where’s the soldier?” His voice was low and cold. “Did he speak you fair? Did he please your eyes? You are harlots, you are the cheapest whores on the streets of the city, that one so low can have you for a rough word. Bitches in heat that writhe before any man, eager for his cock—well, it will serve you ill, for there is no distance he can cover that will save him. I will—”

“I killed him, Father,” Bettrice said. Her hands were knotted in her skirt, so tight that when she spoke her voice did not tremble. “He bargained too light. We would not sell our freedom for so little, when we value it so high. A thing that one has never had is always valued so.”

He moved too fast for her to dodge, but Sophia was faster still. She held his hand at the wrist, her arms stretched above her head, her white arms, the muscles straining.

“You will not harm her,” Sophia said. “You will not touch her.”

“Any of us,” Bettrice said, and took Godith’s hand. “None of us.”

Iseut dropped her gown unheeded to the floor. They crowded closer, closer. Bettrice held her sisters’ hands and met her sisters’ eyes, and when the wind began to blow, she held fast and did not falter. Here was the root of the root and the seed of the seed, the slow steps in the night, the lock that held the doors bound shut. Here were the halls that twisted in and in and never opened into light and air. Here was that long gray room with the twelve narrow beds and no crack or slit where they might see the sky, the source of the hunger.

But he—was just a man. And they were twelve. So they held each other’s hands and held them fast, and the cold streamed through them and in towards the center and was gone, and it was morning.