Beware: Here there are possibly spoilers, typos, and unedited lines. Also, content warning for gore, death, and gender feelings.
The original chapter one and chapter two, which were a bit too rambling & a bit too thief-y.
Chapter One: Anne
I ate dirt as a child. Nothing grew where Lord Sun had kissed the land and left a dusty, barren strip, punishing our town for taxes or tariffs or some such. I was six, mama was pregnant with the twins, and we’d rationed everything out to last through the week with enough for her in case she got sick. Marco and Jean, four and two and terrors already, cried till I gave them my supper. I’d cried, quiet, and pulled at my sides like I’d be able to pry my ribs apart and scratch out the hunger tugging them together and cutting away my insides. After three days, dirt started looking good. Didn’t taste good. Like a mouthful of papa’s funeral, all smoke and ash and salt. But Marco and Jean stopped crying.
I was a good sister back then.
“No food, no sitting, no talking,” the guard shackling my wrists to the stockade said, “for two days, noon to noon.” He looked up. His eyes bunched up, white slits against the sun. “You sure you don’t want to apologize?”
I was not a good sister now.
“Only two days.” I rolled my wrists. The old, dusty shackles dragged against my skin.
He hooked his keys back onto his belt. “Holler when you need water.”
He stomped off behind me, a door creaked open and shut, and the town clock tolled noon.
It was a dead noon. The stocks were at the center of town, squat stone guard house looming over my back. They’d block only a sliver of sun this evening, and I couldn’t even turn to glance at them. No hope there, and no hope in the ten folks looking for food or drinks or their next deal. A red-headed girl loitered in the shadow of a tea stall, and the sweat-shiny seller handed her a cup. I’d been to Bosquet plenty, Vaser was only a day away and too small for a real market, but I didn’t recognize them or the others. Bosquet was huge.
The observatory split the town in two, and each passing minute dripped away directly in front of me. The rays of the church paced across the steps, gold coats glittering in the sun, and beckoned random passerbys inside to pray or confess. They didn’t glance at me.
I’d deprived Lord Sun another soldier to fight in his name and Lady Moon another guard to protect her. I was at their mercy now.
Nothing waited for me at home. Only chores and anger and fighting. There’d never been fighting before. I’d never argued with anything they’d asked me to do. Why couldn’t I have this one? Divining wasn’t even as expensive to learn as soldiering, and I could’ve gotten a job. A good job.
A flighty, bitter panic spread out from my chest. My ribs pinched together. Breathing got hard. The slick, watery feeling that meant I was about to be sick filled my mouth.
I squeezed my eyes shut, clasped my hands together, and lifted my face to the sky.
I am one single drop among many. I am never alone even on the darkest night. I will be ice. I will be strong. I will not be broken. I will be the calm before the snowslide.
I will be calm. I will stay calm.
I kept my face to the sun. It burned, the good sort, like standing too close to the fire in winter, and maybe, if Lord Sun felt kind, he’d burn me so bad no one would want to marry me and mama would stop trying to set me up with the boys in town. Couldn’t leave. Who’d watch the twins then? Couldn’t stay. Who’d pay to feed me when I’d no skills and town had no jobs? Divining would’ve freed me.
I needed to get away from Bosquet and Vaser, from mama and papa and my brothers and everyone in town who knew me. I needed to not be Annette Boucher. I couldn’t be me anymore. Not here.
Not after stealing the money Marc was going to use to pay for his training. It wasn’t even his! I’d made it. I’d saved it up. And mama had just given it to him.
He had a future. He needed it. I didn’t.
There was nothing for me here. I had to get out of these shackles and out of town. I wasn’t the best at divining, but I could find things for folks, give enough of their future to earn enough to make it to the convent of Our Mother, A Quiet Night. I could do that.
Silver. I needed silver.
I turned away from the sky and opened my eyes. The observatory’s waterclock would’ve been perfect if I were closer, but from here, the liquid gold might as well’ve been floating in air. The woven glass was too clear for divining. A glinting woman crossed the market. Mirrored combs.
“I could use those,” I muttered, and the words sucked away all the spit in my mouth. A scratching heat burned beneath my eyes and along the tip of my nose. “Come here, come here.”
I turned my hands in the shackles. I was calm. I was focused. The threads were everywhere, and I was good enough to find them at least. Just had to find one connected to her combs.
I took a deep breath and thought of still, clear lakes, the little puddle of rotten water that collected and stayed near the corner of my bed when it rained, snow-melt rivers flecked with ice that caught blue-tinged images of me when the water ripped them past. It was only light. Moments of history caught in the light.
And the light caught in the threads like everything else in this world.
A flicker. A knot. There.
I hooked my fingers around a frayed, barely-there thread. I couldn’t see it, but it hummed with life and knotted through the marketplace to the woman. She spoke to one of the rays and tilted her head to the side. A hangnail of light pulled away from the comb. The thread tugged it aside.
The image was too far away to be clear. If I could just—
The woman turned away and walked into the observatory, her hands clasped in the ray’s.
“Fine.” I shook my head. The word was a whisper. I was too dry for much else. “Guard Hackett?”
He’d throw me off. He’d notice, but I’d no other option.
I chewed on my lip. Cracked skin caught between my teeth and flaked away. The footsteps behind me were slow and short, and I focused on the opposite end of the market while gnawing a hole in my lip. The girl getting tea, ruby lips and redder curls bouncing against her chest, was leaning against it now, her white dress hemmed in pearls and dirt. Noble.
Only a noble girl would wear something like that and not give a lick about getting it filthy. Mama would’ve switched me.
She raised the tea to her lips, the top half of her face hidden in the shadows of a midnight blue parasol. I cocked my head to the side.
She twisted her fingers round her mug like she was knotting a thread.
The guard came around before me and held up a mug of water. “You finally get thirsty?”
I jerked up. Nodded. “Thank you.”
“Such a kind little runaway,” he said, handing me the mug. “What were you even running from?”
Everyone in town had asked that when papa had caught me. I’d no future to run to, so I must’ve been running away.
I took a sip of the water and swished it around, waiting long enough for him to assume I was thinking on his words. Wasn’t.
I knew what I’d done.
I’d finally saved enough to enroll in the diving school for common girls, and I’d have been scrying for Demeine, but making sure Marco had money to fight for a lord we’d never even seen was more important. Now neither of us had what we wanted. And I’d nothing.
“Can I keep the cup?” I asked.
The guard leaned closer, frowning. “What?”
I caught sight of the girl again. Still there. Still staring at me.
“Can I keep the cup?” I cleared my throat and ducked my head. His closeness prickled over my skin, uncomfortable and cold. The water rippled. Stilled. “To drink later?”
Show me the future.
A thread of silver and gold drifted into the cup, frayed end dragging along the water’s surface. The image bubbled up, wobbly and crooked.
Red hands in black hair. Cracked silver spectacles. Snow.
Too far ahead to be helpful. Why’d I always get the wrong threads when I needed real help?
“Not allowed,” he said. “Get all you want now.”
I nipped at my lip once more, blood welled, and I took a sip, letting the water carry that bit of me into the cup. More specific.
Show me what the guards do tonight.
The toe-end of a boot. A dirt path. Blackberry thickets. A bed.
I downed the rest of the water, threads slipped through my open lip like needles through cloth, and handed the cup back.
“Thank you.” The magic faded, broken threads fading back into the world. A biting cold seeped over my tongue
He huffed and left. The red-headed girl was still there.
I closed my eyes and tucked my chin into my shoulder. I’d have to wait until night, staring girl or no. The stocks would be easy, reknotting the threads of life until they grew and burst and I could yank free. The shackles I could deal with later.
I opened my eyes. The heat seared them back closed, and I tucked my face into my shoulder. The girl stayed. Her short, shallow breaths filled my ears.
“What you want?” I asked, and it creaked out of me, old floorboards under foot.
She twirled her parasol till the midnight silk stretched across its ribs covered both of our faces. Her painted lips curled up, and red smeared across her front teeth. “My name is Comtesse Emilia Marchand, and how would you to be me?”
Chapter Two: Emilia
The girl in the stocks resembled me so clearly that my mother had glanced at her twice as we had passed that morning, once to check the spectacle and once again to make sure I was staring at a sign surely sent by our merciful Lady Moon.
A sign, indeed. Not the one my mother intended, of course; the sight of a girl wearing more dirt than cloth wasn’t enough to intimidate me into attending finishing school and abandoning my path to alchemical mastery. But the world would never have dropped a girl so identical to me, from the long nose and narrow mouth to the knobby fingers and too-short-to-be-fashionable fingernails, completely by coincidence.
The girl looked around quickly, as if I weren’t directly in front of her face. “What? No. Who are you?”
“I am Comtesse Emilia Marchand, sole heir to the Marchand name.” I touched my palm to my chest, the heirloom silver necklaces so fine they tangled in my fingers like wayward thread, and bowed my head slightly. “I am supposed to enter Madame Gardiner’s Private Academy today to learn all the very fine and very boring arts of being a noble woman. I don’t want to do that. I want to be an alchemist.”
Her gaze flicked from my eyes to my necklaces. Her shackles clanked against the stocks, and a thread of magic so thin I barely felt it pulled away from the mirror-bright surface of the only necklace I liked. I tucked it into my dress.
“And I am sure you are desperate to be free of here,” I said and tapped the stocks with a toe. “Probably. I don’t want to assume incorrectly, but I can’t imagine this is fun. I don’t want this.” I gestured to myself.
“What?” She cocked her head to the side. We looked less alike up-close—I was stout, she was spindly, and our faces were two different shapes—but the important, memorable pieces would be enough. “Like your parents assumed wrong at birth?”
I frowned. “No, I mean, I can’t say this has been since birth, but I don’t want to study divination or etiquette. I want to study alchemy.”
“Never mind.” She shook her head, top lip pulling up into a sneer and tongue sucking against the back of her teeth, like trying to call a particularly disgruntled creature. “That’s noonday arts, and they don’t let girls do them.”
I ground my teeth together. “I am very aware.”
If only I had a gold sol for each time someone had told me so, there would be no more coins left in all the world. I had always loved alchemy. I had not always wanted to be an alchemist.
Then, so many people had told me I couldn’t.
“No one wants to not be a comtesse.” The girl screwed up her face, nose scrunched, wholly unladylike, and then did the sudden shake that mother did too when realizing she had been caught expressing emotions. “You may be proper-like and rich, but no noble’s tossing nobility aside for—” she shrugged and rattled her shackles “—this.”
“I don’t want to learn the midnight arts, extispicy, embroidery, and whatever else Gardiner and Charon are peddling, and I would rather I lose the benefits of my title in order to study alchemy in any shape or form. And if someone else gets to fulfill their dream in thanks to my loss, all the better.” I hadn’t cared about her wanting to learn the midnight arts, only that she could pass as me, but then she’d plucked at the threads of this world, a weaver at an intangible loom, and I had known she would want this. “Will it really be so bad to be a comtesse?”
“Will if they find out I’m not you,” she muttered.
I leaned in close, my silver cuffs against her shackles. “I could pay your punishment away; a gift of charity from a nice, young lady. They won’t even question it.”
It was the only true kindness tradition had granted me—I could use it against others.
Traditionally, a young lady’s mother escorted to the edge of town and let her walk the rest of the way to Madame Gardiner’s academy as a show of trust, a way to let her daughter learn about the village she would soon be partially in charge of. My mother was too clever to do that.
She woke me up well before dawn, when I had slept barely at all, and watched, chilling as my bath water, while I was soaped and scoured clean. My hair had been curled and braided with enough ribbons to distract from its short length. My lungs had been pinched between the ribs of a corset imported last week despite the new tariffs. My protests had been stifled with the smack of a cosmetics puff against my face.
The girl studied me again, her eyes rolling down and up, boot to high-buttoned collar, and I scratched at the edges of my dress. It was another trick to make sure I didn’t run. The whole of me was bound in five layers of smooth white linen and silver-threaded silk, my back a foggy horizon spotted with pearl stars and my front a snowy sea of draped linens and opal slivers that rippled with each move. The silk was worth one hundred silver crescents at the very least. It was a gratuitous show of power and a trap.
I couldn’t breathe in a corset and dress like this, and I certainly couldn’t run.
And I certainly wouldn’t walk through the gate to Madame Gardiner’s far enough for mother to assume I was in too deep to flee so that I could scale a tree and climb back over the fence and into the city once I was sure she had left.
She understood me about as well as humanity understood the sky—passively from a distance with a dozen conflicting speculations.
“I know I appear as if I have robbed the grand duchessa’s wardrobe, but it’s for a special occasion.” The red cream on my lips stuck to my teeth, clotting in the corners of my mouth. “I saw you weaving the threads.” The passersby of the market began to stare at us, and I glanced back at the guard house. We had a few moments yet. I grabbed one of her hands. “They’ll teach you to divine and do all the things a noble lady would. You’ll leave with skills many don’t get the chance to hone.”
A begging man, hands burned to the marrow and eyes the red-tinged burn of sleepless nights, stumbled
“He tried to do alchemy he hadn’t been trained to do, see?” I moved the parasol so she could see his hands. “The power burned its way out of him. You need to be trained so that doesn’t happen to you with divining, and I need to train so I can learn how to heal injuries like that.”
“His son was up in the mountains fighting off bandits and they sent him back burned up,” the girl whispered. “Died a day later. He’s been howling about alchemy ever since. Said they stole his bones.”
“And we’re going to help make sure that doesn’t happen again.” If it even could. Soldiers were dying to bandits in the eastern mountains every day, but all things considered, stealing bones seemed improbable. Grief was the more likely culprit.
Was my desire to become an alchemist and prove everyone wrong about me still spiteful if I did want to save lives while doing so?
The girl licked her lips. “I’m all right at scrying. I’m not comtesse-good like you and your lot.”
“Are you joking?” I asked. “I think Madame Gardiner and Mistress Charon would be more eager to teach you than me.”
Not everyone could see the threads of the world, and even fewer could knot, twist, and fray them. The noonday arts changed the world, used the energy from the threads to change the very core of the world, and the midnight arts simply shifted it, unraveling some secret utilizing what was already there. Creation and stagnation. But to manipulate the threads while shackled was a feat even some trained weavers couldn’t do.
The girl froze, her mouth open, her crooked teeth bared. “You promise? I get to learn with Mistress Charon?”
The leading expert in the midnight arts and royal wartime scryer: so this girl did want something.
I nodded. Her face fell back into the impassive calm of a frozen lake despite her current situation. She was a proper Demeine lady to the bone.
I was hardly one to the skin, only an amalgam of expensive clothes and cosmetics so meticulously applied they hid my multitude of inappropriate expressions.
“You can learn your divination,” I said, “and I can learn my alchemy. Do we have a deal?”
“You!” A rough, throaty voice came from the direction of the guardhouse. “What’re you doing up here?”
“Are you in?” I asked.
She could be the perfect lady, the pristine calm of Demeine my mother had always wanted of me.
She nodded. “Yes.”
And I could be the avalanche lurking beneath.
And then a few months later, I tried this.
Chapter One: Emilie
There was no dark like a new moon night. In the depths of my mother’s despair, in the dimmest hours of her attempts to teach me the delicate arts of being a proper lady of Demeine, she muttered that under her breath. I considered it a success each time, a crack in her stoic ladylike armor, and she considered it another slight. I was her new moon daughter, she always said. I was a disappointment, she never said, but I could taste it in the silent air between us. I was not the daughter she had longed for.
But for all the disasters I had wrought when she tried to teach me the midnight arts, I had learned.
“The noonday arts are too risky, Emilie,” I muttered, repeating my mother’s favorite line to the empty room I had been locked in this morning. They had given me nothing that a nice young lady of Demeine might use to escape. “Nothing good can come from attempting such powerful magic.”
My fingers shook against the door. I took a breath, stilled them, and closed my eyes. There was magic in this room despite their utter stripping of my person until I didn’t even have a single piece of silver to scry with—not that I could have if I wanted to. The divinations of the midnight arts were entirely lost to me. But I still had my sight.
The threads of the ethereal weave were always there, a comforting hum beneath my skin. Magic would never abandon me.
It was all I had and all I needed.
I opened my eyes. The threads of the world glowed in my sight—the soft, shimmering overlay of magic that laced the world and could be manipulated by deft hands and disciplined minds—and I plucked at the frayed end of a gold-tinged thread. I would have recognized the noonday arts anywhere.
One of the guards had braided the threads of the door until the ethereal pieces of it had shifted from wood to stone and melded with the wall so that they were one solid, inescapable partition. It was magic woven with brute force, and the staccato shuddering of the door’s wood-turned-stone meant it hadn’t been fully transformed. Our family only employed two guards with the sight, and only Edouard had the skill to weave the threads without unraveling himself. This magic was beyond his skill and desperate to be fixed. The wood knew it wasn’t as it should be.
I plunged my own power into the threads and undid the knots holding the partition together. The weave shuddered. I stumbled back. The world wanted to be as it should be: to change it was to project power and to maintain the balance was to receive power. New threads could not be created or destroyed, only balanced.
It was the first tenet of the weaving arts a child with the sight learned.
The wall creaked, stone dust shaking from the mortar, and the oddly smooth expanse of stone became a door again. It was weaker, speckled with holes and stretches of wood so thin the light shone through. Channeling too much power through an object with the noonday arts—living or not—degraded it, unraveling the threads that made up all its little pieces and erasing it from existence. Even the best weavers couldn’t transform an object repeatedly. It always returned to its original state missing something.
It was why only the best weavers could be physicians. They dealt in flesh and to lose control would be to lose a life.
“I will be a surgeon,” I said, lips caked in dust and splinters. “I will be as I should or I will not be at all.”
My future would not be taken from me by a last minute abduction, simple lock, and sloppy weaving.
My kidnappers had misjudged me as most people did. They had thought I wouldn’t be able to weave the noonday arts and alter the world as I needed, that the power required to do so was far too great for my form. Most noble girls were far too afraid of unraveling to attempt anything other than the midnight arts. But I was not any noble girl, and I would not unravel.
It happened, sometimes, to countrymen who had not been born with the grace to control the power they attempted to wield. They would unravel their hands or history or an unlucky loved one they had tried to heal and leave no trace at all that the unraveled party had ever existed in this world. Afterward, the remnants of the power still in the threads that made up their body would break them down too till their sight or virility diminished. Country girls with no family name and noble expectations could become physicians’ assistants, learning a limited amount of noonday arts with their male peers at university. It ruined their bodies.
But I wasn’t afraid of ruination or the ill-informed weavers who had taken me.
They had overtaken me while I had been returning home from a visit with the Marais physician. Their gloved hands had smelled of salt and seaweed—locals, surely, and almost certainly members of my own guard—and the blindfold had been silk. I had long since advanced past needing my eye sight to use my sight, and though I had not been able to map the whole of the estate they were holding me on, I knew there was a window at the end of this hall. The braids in the shutters were a simple piece of the midnight arts meant to keep out rain and insects.
I crept down the pitch black hall. This place was old, spider webs clinging to the bones of the bare ceiling above me. A distant crash, water on rocks, drowned out the groan of the wind in the rafters, and I stepped in time with it to hide my steps. The observatory bells had chimed twelve a few moments before our arrival. A good omen, my mother would have said.
“Scry for me now,” I whispered. Moonlight shone through slats at the end of the hallway, my window, and I darted for it. “See how much it accomplishes.”
I reached for the window, fingers grasping for the latch. It creaked open.
A hand reached out from the darkness behind me and slammed it shut. I froze.
“Your Grace,” a rough, recognizable voice said over my right shoulder. “It would’ve been much better if you’d stayed put.”
“Hello Edouard.” I swallowed and glanced back. “I really don’t mind the betrayal—I’m hardly the first comtesse to be kidnapped—but knowing you are involved does sting.”
I side-stepped left. Edouard, a white man with sandy hair and ruddy cheeks, didn’t move from the shadows of the hallway. He was one of my family’s guards, and I had spent many nights as a child following him around the grounds and begging him to teach me the noonday arts. His skills as a weaver were passable for a countryman, and they had helped him rise in the ranks of the army back when we had been at war with Vertgana up north. My mother had picked him to guard me because he was nice and didn’t scowl when I asked too many questions. I liked him.
I had liked him.
He shook his head, shaggy hair bouncing off his cheeks. “You undo the door?”
“You’re good but you’re not that good.” I slipped my left leg back and widened the gap between us. “If my heart weren’t so in pieces at this duplicity, that would have wounded my pride.”
The uncomfortable lightness of my chest, a dropped stitched in my tapestry, fluttered sporadically from my sacrum through the flat of my sternum. A feverish, arrhythmic stutter that I could not let him see.
“Please, Your Grace, we both know that if anything is indestructible, it’s your pride.” He held out his hand. “You will not escape through the window, and even if you did, you will not escape the grounds. Please come back to your room. You know we’re not going to hurt you. It’s for your own good.”
“I’m leaving,” I said slowly. “I am going to the University of Star-blessed Wisdom and I’m going to study medicine. Don’t try to stop me with whatever this—” I gestured to the building around us. “—is supposed to be because I don’t really care. I’m leaving.”
“The university’s quite particular about who it admits.” He sniffed, broad nose wrinkling, and held his scarred hands out before him. If he were not a weaver, it would have been comforting, but I knew he could turn empty air into a fragile but usable blade in a blink. “They’re not going to let you in. They didn’t even let me in.”
“They won’t be judging Emilie DesMarais.” I tucked my hands behind me and wove my fingers through the threads. My skin sagged beneath the power. Without looking, I couldn’t judge what all I was weaving. “They let boys common as they come by physicians if they’re good enough, and anyone who can weave is permitted to be a hack. They will accept me, and I will prove them wrong.”
I had eight days until the summer solstice and school began. I could get to Sunskeep in time.
“It’s not that easy,” Edouard said, and his face fell slack. It was unbecoming on him; I could not remember him frowning, and in these circumstance, I shouldn’t have cared but I did. “Making people, people who spend all their time sticking their nose in your business, people who demand to know who you are to them, take you seriously isn’t possible like that. They take it as a loss of control, like you knowing your place in the world disrupts theirs.”
I reared back, and he held up one hand.
“They think that if you know who you are and what you’re worth, you’re a threat. They’re right, but you’re not doing this to know yourself,” he said. His shoulders slumped, as if the weight of the whole weave of the world had settled upon his shoulders. His eyes softened, half-closed in the dark, but a tight line of tension kept his spine straight and his hands shaking. It was the same stance he always took when offering advice, but never had he been so scared of what he was about to say. “Listen, Your Grace, Emilie, I know you are frustrated, but the world is not as you think. You don’t understand. I would know. I tried—”
“I understand. I knew why the blindfold and magic was necessary the moment I was taken,” I said quickly. It always came back to that, didn’t it? I was too young to understand how unkind the court and university would be to me if I tried to become a surgeon. I wasn’t a child any long and I wasn’t so foolish. “And I’m sorry, Edouard. I am.”
Edouard lunged. I threw my hands out before me, braid of magic and sizzling blood splattering across his face. The threads of my body, the ones I spilt, slithered into him, making the inner workings of his body shine in my sight like a layer of gold silk laid across plain cloth. We were all nothing by lightning in a bloody bottle. A twist, a snap, and a push of power through my blood and threads to his brain.
Edouard dropped to the floor, unconscious. The magic I had worked dripped from his forehead to the floor in clots, and I wiped it from his face with the hem of my skirts, my hands shaking against his cheeks. Controlling the amount of power required to force his body into overdrive and produce the alchemical components of sleep left me as exhausted as him. I was to be a physician; I would keep my hands clean.
It would have been easier to kill him. Mortals were fragile things.
“I won’t unravel,” I whispered as I stepped over Edouard’s prone form—he would wake up soon and come after me—and opened the window. “I’m in control.”
Of my magic and future.
The breeze burned. My nose dripped and my hands smeared red across the window sill. I crawled out of it, skirts snagging on the wood, and turned my face to the east, sucking in a salt-tinged breeze. We were farther south than I thought but thankfully on the first floor. My boots sunk into the soft earth.
There was no moon, only stars, and they speckled the night sky between the branches of coast-strong trees. I paused against a trunk and blinked until the threads of the world were splayed out before me. There was magic here—noonday weavings meant to keep those with ill-intentions out and me in; knots to store energy for transformations, trapping feet in the earth and turning shoes into stones. But there was a way out, a gap in the braids.
I was free!
I jerked forward, but my hand stuck to the tree. I looked back at it. It was still my hand, still attacked, but no amount of will moved it. My fingers stayed flush against the bark. I grabbed my wrist and yanked.
A soft voice chuckled behind me. “Emilie, please, we both know you don’t have the aptitude to undo the midnight arts.”
I froze. Because of her. Of course she had deemed this important enough to make an appearance. The end of my life as I knew it. She must have been overjoyed.
“Let me go.” I pinched the thin skin of my stuck hand, the burn in my eyes dulling against the pain in my hand, and tilted my face up. “You call me the dramatic one, and yet you staged a kidnapping.”
“I would hardly call it staged,” she said. “How else was I supposed to get you to finishing school? You cling to your dreams of surgery like a drowning man to a raft.”
I turned, and there, frown wavering in the flickering light of the stars, stood my mother with her scrying mirror in one hand and a knife of glacier ice woven with magic in the other. Its tip was buried into a tree strides away from mine, but the thread of magic connection it to me was clear as glass. No wonder I couldn’t move.
My great betrayer. It was one thing to suspect your own mother would have guards blindfold you and lock you up, but it was a whole different thing to be faced with it. I wasn’t her daughter at all, not to her, was I?
“It pains me that I was right to assume you would attempt this,” she said, laughing with no mirth behind it. The short strands of her brown hair clung to her face in the damp air, unruly from where she had run her fingers through them. She was wanton in her disappoint. Finally, I had dragged some expression from her. Not the perfect lady now, was she? If she was my ruin, I would be hers. “Yet the fact you must think me either a fool or a terrible scryer pains me more. Did you really believe I would not notice? My only daughter creeping out in the night? And what you did to Edouard? You could have hurt him!”
I curtsied, hand still stuck to the tree, and tested the knot holding me to her. The thread connecting me to her knife tip shivered. I couldn’t break it. “It pains me that you think me a terrible physician. My life is—”
She yanked her knife free and tossed it to the ground. “It’s finishing school. Most would be thrilled to get the education you are turning your nose up at. You are lucky to be a DesMarais. Do not spit on the position you didn’t have to earn.” She turned and nodded to the guards, including Edouard whose eyes were still heavy with sleep. “Take her to my room and tie her to my bed post. She’s not leaving my sight until she’s in Bosquet and has nowhere to go.” She glanced at me. “We leave tomorrow.”
I didn’t fight the guards. Edouard was ever-watchful and I was exhausted; altering alchemistry in such a delicate way was more difficult than healing any number of physical wounds. His threads clung to my skin like scabs.
“Be like ice, Your Grace,” he said, knowing it was my mother’s favorite line when I was scowling.
I didn’t even look at him. “I am not good at accepting defeat.”
I would not accept this.
“Of course, not Your Grace. You’re mostly good at being arrogant.” He had always been kind to me, had always hinted at understanding my anger, but that mercy was nowhere now, and his whisper stung in my ear, all hints of our pasts understandings gone. He leaned in close and muttered, “Let me assure you this: you’re not the first person Demeine has labeled a woman to attempt the noonday arts, and more worthy people have tried to get accepted to the university. Your desire for fame as the first female noonday weaver will find no sympathy with me. You have a chance to do some good for the people as a weaver of the midnight arts. Be a good noble and listen to your mother for once.”
From before us, just beyond the line of dim light where I could only see the outline of her white dress, my mother said, “Be like ice, Emilie. Do not melt, do not break. Endure like a lady ought.”
So I endured.
Chapter Two: Anne
I ate dirt as a child. Nothing grew where Master Sun had kissed the land and left a dusty, barren strip. It was an ill omen or punishment, and for fear of attracting his fiery gaze back to us, I’d followed the rationing rules exactly. I was six, Mama was pregnant, and we’d rationed everything out to last through the week with enough for her in case she got sick. Marco and Jean, four and three and terrors already, cried till I gave them my supper. I’d cried too but quiet, and pulled at my sides like I’d be able to pry my ribs apart and scratch the hunger out of them. After three days, dirt started looking good. It didn’t tastes good. Like a mouthful of Alaine’s funeral, all smoke and ash and salt. But Marco and Jean stopped crying.
I was a good sister then.
“I don’t need you in a convent,” Mama said in the tone that meant she wasn’t saying anything else after this. “I need you here. Working.”
We were standing in the root cellar, Mama and me. Her black hair was bound around the top of her head in a thick braid, cut through with dried rosemary from the herbs hanging above her. Soft spines, the threads I’d pressed into the stems months ago to keep them fresh, flickered against the pale green specks, and my fingers ached to pinch them all away. This was my room, my magic, and she’d come stomping down to talk. It was never just talk.
“Look at me, Annette,” she said.
“We are family and family sacrifices things for each other.”
A cold, thick sweat, like being sick, seeped over my skin. Marco wanted to be a knight’s varlet, helping some noble stay alive and clean, a solder with more chores, and Jean wanted to do whatever Marco, and to get them there and pay for their things would costs a whole month’s money plus mine, but varlets were honorable. Marco had just enough of the sight to see the threads, and he’d be snatched up by a knight in need of someone who could weave. He wanted it so much he’d cried when asking Papa to send him to Sunskeep.
“Your family needs you.” She bent over, crooked and wobbling, and patted my cheek. The flour stuck to her fingers scratched. “Annette, what else have I asked from you? We need this. Vaser needs this.”
She never asked for anything. Not really.
I folded in, chin dropping to my chest. “If I do good, Vaser would be proud of me. I’d get a job divining.”
“You’d get a job eventually, sure, but until then you’d be earning no money and we’d have to pay someone to help.” She laughed. “We’re doing better than we used to but not that well. We can’t afford losing you.”
I wasn’t the best at the midnight arts but I was passable. Mistress Moon sent me sights occasionally, and I could keep a rosemary stems fresh for a whole year after plucking. I’d earned enough to get me to Sunskeep and into the convent at least. It was my money.
But they were my parents, so my money was family money.
“Send Marco and me.” I swallowed and rocked. It took a whole day and a half to get to Sunskeep from here, and the solstice was two days away. The convent wouldn’t take me after. “He can be a varlet and I can be a diviner, and we can both start earning our keep.”
“Annette!” She slapped the rafter above her, rattling rosemary leaves and thyme down between us, and the spiders I’d been keeping scattered. The warm brown of her eyes were bright in the cellar dim. “You’re not going to convent. You’re not scrying or divining or doing anything of the sort unless you’re doing it here.”
When I was six and small and full of earth, she’d given me a silver half-moon to spend how I wanted soon as everything was back to normal since I’d kept Marco and Jean quiet and let her rest. She hadn’t asked me to keep quiet, she never asked for anything, but for a whole week any time I’d talked to Papa about food, she’d watched me.
Like she watched me now. Eyes narrowed, unblinking, and the little crinkles of her age bundled up at the corners of her eyes like a handful of nettlecloth.
“I want—” The words stuck to my teeth, and ran my tongue along the back to think. Behind her, in the reflection of old knives I’d saved and scoured clean, the threads of the world pulled back. A gnarled tree. The lap of a river against rocks. Silver and copper, a half moon, drowning beneath the water. “I want to go to the convent with the money I earned.”
That was the tree by the Verglas runoff with spindly limbs and roots all the way down to the ice cold water roaring beneath it. Mistress Moon never showed me things that weren’t important. Maybe the coin was an offering. Maybe, if I offered her something, she’d show me how to be a diviner.
It wasn’t much but it was useful, and if Kalthorne kept sending raiders across The Pinch like the priests said when reading updates from town after services, we’d need war diviners soon enough. Knights would take their varlets to war. I’d be looking after Marco and the family. Just from the convent, not from here.
Mama sighed and shifted. Her skirts swished together. I reached out to take her hand, and she pulled away from me. Her shoulders rolled back. The line of her mouth thinned.
“You’d do this to us after what happened with Alaine?” Mama said slowly, softly. “You’re not a good diviner, you’re barely a good enough weaver to keep these fresh.” She ripped the rosemary from the rafters and tossed a handful at my feet. “If you couldn’t divine your own flesh and blood, what do you think you’ll be able to do for folks you don’t even know? You can’t even scry.”
I crouched to pick up the rosemary, and her toes curled against the thin leather of her boots. She shuffled. I stayed kneeling.
“You can have the day,” she said. Her fingers grazed my crown but didn’t stay. “Just take today for you. We’ll talk tomorrow when Marco and Jean have gone.”
She left. I hung my rosemary back up. The spider webs strung above the knots of my magic wobbled, and I plucked one but no spiders showed.
“Should I leave?” I asked the blurry circle of polished knives. Papa had given them to me in exchange for me cleaning up after him every other day for a summer. I touched the silver edge of one. “To the river?”
The strands of the world parted beneath my fingers, and I slipped into my magic like a needle through silk, a sliver of something against a large, expanding tapestry. And there, at the end of a braid, I pulled. A future played out before my eyes.
Small, well-worked hands clasped around a bone mug and my fingers dripping blood into the water.
Divination by water at the hands of a teacher.
“Thank you.” I pressed a kiss to the knives and gathered up my things.
There weren’t many. I’d moved down into the root cellar to sleep once Marco and Jean got too loud for me. My little sleeping mat could stay, and convent students always wore the Mistress’s smock, so I only took an extra set of clothes and my nice winter cloak. The money Mama had counted out that morning was still in my purse on the shelf next to the parsnips, and I squeezed between our two great shelves to grab it. No food. It was only two days and Mama’s planning would get thrown off. The little silver bowl our nearest neighbor Solane had gifted me last year I tucked into my bag. They were nice, at least.
They taught me how to braid so the plants stayed alive and said I had promise. Solane was nice to lie.
I found a stick of charcoal and wrote a note on the table we used for pickling prep.
I’m taking the money saved and going to the convent. I know it was supposed to be family money for paying you back for raising me, but I’m only taking mine and only what I need. There’s enough for Marco. I’ll send back what I can. I’m sorry. Tell Mama I’ll be better and it won’t happen again.
That was enough. They’d all be cross, but I’d be long gone.
I crept up the stairs and into the house proper, listening at the door to see where Mama was. She’d given me the day but my bag would give me away. Silence save for the sounds of hard at work on the opposite side of the building. I slipped out the back door of home and raced into the thin woods toward the Verglas. An offering and then I’d leave.
There’d be students like me at the convent, weavers common as they came who wanted to learn and weren’t rich enough for Madame Gardinier’s school or the University. There were plenty of us, but affording training was a magic itself. Without training, we’d unravel faster than we could braid. Any common kid who could weave could light a fire, noonday or midnight arts. Sometimes, when I was deep in the weaving or Solane let me use their divining mirror, it felt like there was no difference at all, both unraveled you when you used them too much, and Solane always had to bandage my hands when the power got too great. But the priests and the DuChamps, the noble family running our region, said it was because we weren’t trained right. We weren’t aware of how important the order of the world was. We didn’t know how close we’d come to another Night Siege a hundred and some years ago when the king’s grandfather had overthrown the Two-Faced Queen of old Demeine. The new court had implemented order for a reason. To obey it was to survive.
But war with Kalthorne still loomed. Maybe I didn’t understand anything. Maybe it was partly my fault. Like Alaine.
“I’ll divine for them,” I said to the empty road. “When Kalthorne comes, I’ll divine and we’ll know, and we won’t be taken by surprise.”
The border patrols—the countrymen sent out first—wouldn’t die if they were forewarned. I would be a part of something big and important, and people would understand that. I’d be important. They’d need me.
“Go away.” The guilt gnawing at my stomach was sharp and insistent, and I dug my fist into the squishy flesh beneath my ribs. “They’ll be fine without me and Marco can be a varlet next year.”
They’d be fine, I’d be trained, and Mistress Moon wouldn’t regret gifting me the sight.
Soon enough, the thrum of the Verglas shook up my legs. The river cutting Demeine in half wasn’t wide but it was deep and fast, an ice-cold rip across the country. We were supposed to stay away from it, falling in was almost always death, and here the little outcropping over the water was thin and crackling. It threatened to fall in each year but never followed through. I laid one hand on the gnarled tree, and a moth white as the moon fluttered away. The guilt eating me faded.
A good omen.
I knelt so that my knees stuck out over the water, tree looming to my left, and took a half moon from my purse. When I opened my eyes again, the woven world glowed soft and welcoming, a lingering ghost. It brightened the foaming white of the water to quicksilver.
“Mistress,” I said. I opened my purse in my lap. “I know I’m not much but I’m real good at divining, and I’ll learn to scry. I promise. If you show me—”
A high-pitched shriek split the air. I jerked, crawling to my feet. The sound came again, high and sharp and familiar. I spun to it, and my mother, arms raised, sprinted to me. Behind her ran the priest. His gold coat glinted in the sun, and I blinked, blinded. My heels crunched through the edge of the little cliff. I stumbled.
Half of my purse spilled into to the water below, a flickering rain of silver and bronze.
My mother screamed again, and a hollow drop filled my stomach.
It wasn’t a sign. I wasn’t chosen for anything. Mama was at my back and the priest from the Observatory was with her, his weathered face stretched in a shout. It wasn’t anything nice and godly like he usually preached. The Verglas swallowed the sounds, but I could read his lips.
It wasn’t a vision of a good future.
I wasn’t chosen for anything.
Mama shrieked again, a sickly, shuddering sound that filled my head, and for a brief moment, her arms outstretched as the Verglas roared behind me, I thought she was reaching for me and I raised one hand to her.
But she ran past me, past the outcrop, and down to the shores of the river where my purse had upended. I let my arm fall.
I was not a good sister now. And I dumped the rest of my money into the river, leather purse drowning with it, before the priest pulled me back from the edge and begged me not to jump.
Also, here is a single line I removed because the book was already far too long (124,000 words) and it didn’t really matter (but it did survive in my notes, so here you go). How often do you get to use the word ‘farthingale?”
“You are lucky they keep us out of the farthingale until we are fifteen.” Emilie grabbed the overdress, shift, and layered petticoats. “No, it’s this first, but I suppose no one will notice if your underthings are out of sorts.
And how about Laurence (use name, fun fact, used to be Laurent) and Estrel being terrible nerds (it’s all they know how to do)?
It was a courier glad in dirt-hemmed traveling clothes and walking like they lived on a horse. The shooting star pin on their chest glittered with fake gold. Estrel stood and took them by the shoulders.
“Breathe.” She handed him the cup of water that had been hers and let him to the plush chair that was usually mine. “Letter or message?”
“Letter.” The courier gasped and shook out their arms. They held out a folded letter on thick paper. The good kind. Someone had splurged on real paper and forgone glass. The writer wanted this message saved, impossible to erase without fire. Even then, you’d have the ash. “From his grace, the Grand Duc of Mont Lance.”
“He prefers Weaver actually.” Estrel hummed, going back to her desk. “Leave it on the table. I’ll respond if necessary with a rested courier later.”
“It’s from Weaver DuMontimer,” the courier said, sniffing. They downed the cup of water in two messy gulps. “That DuMontimer.”
“Yes, I am aware of who DuMontimer it is.” Estrel ignored the letter in their hand in favor for her own scrying bowl. One of her eyebrows arched at whatever she saw. “Raise your hands over your head and breathe through your nose slowly. It will help with the stitch in your side.”
The courier gaped at her. “It’s from Laurent DuMontimer. It’s important.”
“If I were to draw two lines, one being what that man thinks is important and the other being what is actually important, they would be parallel.” She rolled her shoulders back and shook her head. “He knows I’m busy and that if anything truly important happened, I would see it.”
For all her posturing over hating him and his disdain at Sunskeep, she was right. It was a wonder they had to correspond at all. They could probably scry each other easily as breathing.
The courier pulled another piece of paper from their pocket. “This makes more sense now. He told me to tell you that if you ignored it: Estrel, glossing over whatever atrocious metaphor you just used, read the letter. It’s actually important. It involves unraveling. You couldn’t have scryed it any more than I could have.”
She stared at him. I covered my mouth with my hand and muffled my laughing.
Scene One: Emilie & her mother
“Do not speak of politics,” my mother said, her hand on my shoulder. “Liying says many, including her family, are tired of dealing with His Majesty.”
I hummed. It was wholly unlike my mother to even repeat something so rude about our king.
Lady Zhang had met my mother when they were children, both studying in the Empire before it declared Demeine heretical. They still wrote despite the months it took to receive letters.
“How is she?” I asked.
I could be polite. I could prove my mother wrong.
“Well,” said my mother. “She was in Kalthorne several months ago. Jie has been studying languages. Apparently she is quite gifted.”
Why did it always feel like my mother made Jie, Liying’s eldest daughter, and I compete? The soft way my mother tilted her head and glanced at me when she said “gifted” told me more than her words ever could. It wasn’t fair. I enjoyed Jie’s letters. There was no reason for us to compete save for the whims of our world forcing competition upon us, as if there could only be one girl at any given time. Maybe I should have fled to Kalthorne.
Jie, at least, appreciated my interests.
Scene Two: Emilie & Charles
“Stop using your bare hands.” Charles chuckled and held up his hands like claws. “But really, you might hurt yourself.”
I wove an illusion over my hand—more hair and claws, giant soft pads—and used it to hold out the vial.
“I’m using bear hands,” I said.
Charles opened his mouth. Shut it. His eyebrows drew together, and he narrowed his eyes at me. “No you’re not.”
“I am!” I scratched at him with it, letting the claws pass right through him, and wiggled the fingers. “It took me a week to make this look more bear than dog, and you’re—”
“It’s just one hand,” he said, “so technically you’re using a bear hand.”
“I’m going to murder you.” I raised my chin up and sniffed, letting the threads fall away. “And you will regret this slight.”
Charles prodded my now human hand. “Are you going to maw me to death?”
“Yes.” I swallowed. The summer thrived in my cheeks, and I flicked my hand out to lower the lights so he wouldn’t see. “I shall buy a bear solely for this purpose.”
“Oh, will you start when it is a cub?” He laughed, and the sound was warm in my ears. “That will be an adorable way to go, so I don’t know if I can be upset.”
Scene Three: Madeline
I tossed my notes aside. “I can’t keep any of this straight.”
Madeline snorted, and Charles laughed—loudly—at me before holding up a hand and backing away. I crossed my arms.
“Maybe the problem with all the plans you make for your future,” Madeline said, “is that they’re too straight.”
“What?” I shook my head. “What do you mean?”
Scene Four: Charles and Seb
“Think about this, then.” Laurence held out his hands, palms up, scars bared, to me. “We have the means to make sure no one dies from disease; we have the means to make sure no one goes without a visit to a physician or a gnathic; we have the means to protect every person of Demeine against small pox. Why don’t me?”
The words, the phrase I had heard my father mutter so ofter, rolled to the tip of my tongue, and I couldn’t say them. I should say them. I didn’t deserve to hide or flinch from them.
“Because the costs to the major noble houses would be astronomical,” I said.
“That’s not fair!” Seb threw a hand up and pointed at Charles. “Keep your treason to yourself. Just because not every single house is in agreement doesn’t me it’s all terrible. And what do we do after that? Hand out free food? Free houses? There would be no end to it, and all we would have would be a nation on the brink of collapse.”
“Would we, though?” Charles asked.
Scene Five: Charles
“Do you want to be a girl?” he asked softly.
I shrugged. “Everything I have ever wanted was wrong, and I don’t know how to separate my dislike of that wrongness from me. It feels like it’s part of me. I am not comfortable in my skin, but is that me or the world that keeps sinking its claws in me? I don’t know. I don’t know. Maybe I don’t. I don’t want to be what Demeine demands of me. I just want to be me, to have my emotions, to own my wants and faults, to know and act on who I am, but all my life I’ve been told that a good lady of Demeine must have no faults and must bear no feelings. I’ve never been permitted anger. Do you know how much I would die to just be allowed to be happy? To show that happiness? To be smug? To be furious? To bask in it?”
I had to be as cold and distant as Mistress Moon, and if I wasn’t, I was all wrong. For so long, being wrong felt like the only option I could take, and I clung to it. I didn’t want to be wrong.
I wanted the chance to figure out who I was.
“Yes,” said Charles. “I know that feeling very well.”
“I shouldn’t have to constantly be adhering to the standards this strictly.” Charles ran a hand through his hair and tugged at the ends. “Maybe I wanted to wear silver or not have to constantly be on and chatty and social. Maybe I want to be a little feminine sometimes. Demeine is not simply broken—it was built to kill me and so many others. It was designed to fail us so that others could survive.”
Scene Six: Annette
My vision blackened. Nora’s hand slid from my arm, and I struggled to my feet. The weave tensed and tore and crashed against me, and I walked through the soldiers at my feet, ethereal and furious. Smoke billowed across the field before me, in my veins and lungs, and the skin of my arm sloughed away. Silver leaked from the wound, jagged bones so pitted and hollow the wind tore them away, and I blinked. DuRand stared at me, eyes on fire, no. Eyes on me. I bent and picked up my arm, fingers sinking through the flesh like a spoon through soft cheese, and brandished the steel sword at DuRand. The threads knotted through it peeled apart. A wet cracked rent the air.
DuRand raised his hand again and made a fist. A sharp, prickling numbness settled over my skin, and my hand gripped my own throat. DuRand laughed.
“I won’t need to unravel you,” he didn’t say but I heard it in my head. “Such delightful obedience.”
I collapsed against Estrel’s corpse. Ethereal. Hungry. Eating itself to stay alive. So little left of such an important person. My fingers drifted through her face, white skin streaked in red, and grass poked through the holes in her skull.
“I am no different than anything else in this world, Annette. Everything in this world is made up of the same pieces no matter what the king tells you. His blood, my blood, your blood – it’s all the same once you break it down far enough. But remember that to create you must always break something. Choose carefully.”
I crawled from Estrel’s side, broken ribs stabbing deeper with each breathe, and closed my fingers around the rib Estrel had ripped free from Mistress Moon’s corpse. It’s magic still writhed.
If the king and his court wanted power, I would show them power.
I plunged it into my chest, slipping the bone deeper and deeper between mine, threads fraying faster and faster, weave fading, hunger rising and raging and—
Scene Seven: Emilie
Madeline coughed—blood, bile, and broken down flesh.
And I cracked.
“Give them back,” I said, but my words came from DuCarvell’s mouth. My ruined left hand closed around his arm, ethereal as him, and stuck. The threads of me tied us together. His power burned in me. “Give them back.”
The hunger I had kept at bay surged through me, burning through my bones and from my threads, twisting from me in weavings I hadn’t known. I yanked at the last threads of Laurence DuMontimer, every piece and every thread and every thought, tangled in the web I weaved, and pulled them to me. My hand, white as bone and made of mushroom gills again, trembled before me. We were only pieces.
“A stable bond will release energy when formed. Unfortunately, not all bonds are stable and many biological forms cannot be repaired once damaged. The threads of life are fickle things.”
Pieces, nothing but brilliant pieces, skull cracked, brain blacked. Laurence, who had taught us all how to save lives and would teach us nothing more, dead. Unraveled.
“I love you,” I whispered, no words in the world but in the weave and in their heads. “I love you all.”
A face, an empty chest, and unraveling eyes. Laurence’s bones were nothing but power, hollowed out by magic just like Lord Sun’s.
I pried the last whole rib from his spine and stabbed through the top of my stomach, bone through muscle and diaphragm, lodged against the front of my spine. The little white threads of power, not magic, curled around the notches and burrowed and ate and changed and—