Between the Covers
Anne sailed through the swinging kitchen door and straight into the blond man on the other side.
"Oh!" Her tray clattered to the floor, scattering dirty dishes.
She ought to fall to her knees and clean up the mess. Cook would descend at any moment to scream at her. Instead she stood, caught by the most extraordinary pair of gray eyes.
Like pools of silver, she thought and felt her face turn red. The rest of him pleased her, of course-blond hair, white shirt open over his chest, black pants low over slim hips, bare feet. All the men here were beautiful. None, though, had affected her as this man did.
I know him. Except that was ridiculous. She didn't know anyone here.
His forehead crinkled. "You. I know you."
She gaped, shocked at her thoughts spoken in his voice.
Then fingers dug into her arm. She winced, but Cook held tight, shaking her. "Stupid girl. He almost dropped his tray. Apologize."
Only then did she notice he carried his own tray, laden with wine and oysters.
That explained why he'd come into the kitchen, where the men rarely came. One of his women had sent him for food rather than ringing for Anne.
"I'm sorry," she said, because Madame had made it clear she must obey Cook. Madame had said nothing about lying, though, so Anne lied. She wasn't sorry. She'd run into him again if she could.
He stared at his tray as if it had suddenly sprung from his palm. He shivered and pulled his shirt closed. A silver cuff bracelet encircled his left wrist.
"I must go." He swept by in a rush of air that smelled of lamp oil and ink. The door swung closed behind him.
"Don't just stand there," Cook snapped. "Clean up this mess."
Anne knelt. She gathered scattered dishes and spilled cheese and crackers. She breathed in oil and ink, along with salt and cheddar. That silver cuff-she'd seen it before, but how? She had so little interaction with the men.
"Who was he?" she asked.
Cook's lip curled. Her hand swung out. Too late, Anne ducked. Cook's fist caught the side of her head, sending her sprawling. She lay, her cheek pressed against the floor, her ear throbbing.
"That's none of your business." Cook kicked the tray. Crackers skidded, and she stalked the kitchen, grounding each errant cracker into the tiles. "Now," she said, wiping her shoes, "clean that up." She stomped back to her stove.
Anne pushed herself onto her knees. Her head ached. Bits of crackers clung to her fingers, hard and dry, but she thought only of silver.
When the next bell rang, Anne loaded her tray with strawberries, cream, and melted chocolate. She carried it up the servants' stairs to the second-floor hallway. With every step, panic grew in her chest.
Ever since the blond man had left, it was as if she had woken from a dream. She had puzzled over Cook's kitchen, devoid of hearth and hand pump. Now, she noticed the hallway lights shone with a dim even glow that couldn't come from candles. Her clothes shocked her the most-she wore a black skirt that barely reached her knees, a black shirt that dipped too low in the front, and a ridiculous black apron. She tugged her skirt hem as she walked. What had happened to her brown woolen dress and chemise? How could she have only vague memories of her life before she'd seen two silver eyes?
Her heeled shoes made no sound on the second-floor carpet. She tugged again at her skirt as she scanned the doors that lined the hallway, examining the plaques that differentiated one man's white-paneled door from the next. There it was-the one that matched the piece of paper on her tray. This one read Welcome to Pemberley. Below it, a small embroidered pillow hung around the doorknob announced Do not disturb.
She knew what she must do. Even if the light was odd and her clothing indecent and her memory hazy, her mission remained clear in her mind. She must leave the tray on the small table outside the room, slip the piece of paper under the door to alert those inside that their food was ready, and return straight to the kitchen. She must not linger or speak to those inside. She'd been following these orders for as long as she could remember, ever since Madame told her she now worked for Cook.
A giggle sounded behind the door, followed by squeaking.
Anne paused, the tray poised over the small table. The smell of ripe strawberries wafted up.
The squeaking quickened. A woman moaned.
Anne felt her face turn read. She stared at the pure white door with the hand-stitched pillow, as if its sweetness could change the telltale sounds. She wasn't hearing-no, she didn't want to hear this.
The woman inside shrieked.
Anne left the tray, shoved the paper under the door, and hurried away. Her face flamed. She hurried down the back stairs, emerging onto the first floor. More doors, two with door hangers and the sounds of passion. Gods-she must have been sleepwalking not to recognize that she now worked in a brothel.
She dashed along the hallway, searching the door plaques. She remembered one in particular, one that had to be his, the man with the silver cuff. He had sparked this awakening within her. He must provide answers.
There it was-the plaque that showed a silver lion rampant. No pillow hung from the knob. She knocked.
At her first rap, the door opened.
"Thank the gods, you're here." He ushered her inside.
She walked into a room all done up in silver. Silver sheets and a silver comforter spilled onto the silver carpet. Drawers and cushions from a silver nightstand and upholstered silver chair lined the silver walls. Clothes and belongings were scattered everywhere. Amid the mess were silver bottles and lamps and robes. The air smelled of oil and ink and sweat and desperation. She had either walked in on a frantic search, or the aftermath of a gigantic tantrum.
He closed the door quietly, watching her intently. He had buttoned his shirt to the collar, but his feet were still bare, and the memory of his chest underneath made her shiver. She gripped the back of the chair, realizing how rash she'd been to barge into the room of a-
"Don't look at me that way." He remained by the door, as far from the bed as he could. "Think. Don't you know me?"
She must have been drugged. Or charmed. Her brain spilt out images-him at table, reading a book; on a black horse, riding through a shower of autumn leaves; on a balcony, waving to the masses.
Who was he? What was happening to her?
He tugged at his silver cuff in frustration. "Do you know who you are?"
"Anne." Of course she knew that. "Anne-" Her tongue tripped. She fought down panic. "Anne-Anne Baldwin!"
She lost his words in the deluge. As if a key had been turned, she remembered.
"Kristinger." She breathed his name. "Oh gods, Kristinger."
My love, she thought but didn't say. She was good at not saying such things to this beautiful, impossible man. Kristinger Vale, the Silver Lion. The most famous mage in Lutesse, the Good Queen's Champion. Betrothed of Sophia, the Queen's sister. A man who, before his sudden rise at court, had spent his evenings discussing books with her at her family's tavern.
You've come back to me, but that wasn't true, either. He'd never been hers, not really. To him, she'd been a good friend, nothing more. And now he belonged to Sophia.
He pulled a robe from the mess on the floor. She took it gratefully to cover herself. He averted his face while she did so.
"Where are we?" she asked, knotting the robe closed. "Why are we here?" Then-"Did you bring us here?"
"I most definitely did not." He turned back to her. "We've been brought into another world."
She'd always known anything was possible with him, but traveling into another world gave her pause. Then again, she'd spent many a night discussing all sorts of fantastic ideas with him. "We're in Fairy?"
He grinned, proud of her for asking. "Good thought, but the air here is dead. There's no magic in it." He crinkled his nose, as if affronted by the lack. "No, I believe we are in a place where our world-we-only exist in books."
She laughed, a gasp of disbelief. "I'm a character in a book?"
He didn't laugh. "In this world you are."
"You, maybe. You're deserving of a book. I'm no one."
"Never say that about yourself." He dug under a flung chair cushion and withdrew a fat volume. "Here, look."
It was an elegant, well-made book, of better quality than the battered third-hand ones he used to loan her. She turned it over, revealing the cover, and froze. There was Kristinger, his silver cuff aglow, striding up a spiral staircase. Behind him, all in white, ran Sophia.
She flipped through the pages, many of which were bent and underlined. Someone had loved this book very much. "Where did you get this?"
"Turn to page 38," he said instead.
He sat at the familiar wooden table, the fire hot at his back. Here, at least, no one sneered if he used the wrong fork or addressed a duke as My Lord. Here he could make battered soup spoons dance and flowers grow from the ceiling, and he'd get applause, good conversation, and a mug of free beer.
As if on cue, a mug thumped down at his elbow.
"On the house, for our favorite mage."
It was Anne, the brewer's eldest daughter.
She sank onto the chair arm. "I remember this. It was the last time we got to talk. You had that book on astronomy."
He nodded, grave. "That was a good evening, before the world went wrong."
Before the Queen's counselor Matteo turned against his Queen and Nature. Before the Queen summoned all mages to the palace to counter the threat. Before Kristinger sent Matteo into the Seventh Underworld, and received Sophia's hand as reward.
It seemed so long ago, though it had only been four months.
"But why are we here? We're in a-a male brothel!"
He looked at her, sharp. "Male? Men only?"
Some tension eased in his face. "So you-they haven't-you have not been molested?"
"No. I'm just the help."
He rubbed his face. "Oh, thank the gods."
She didn't know how to respond to that. What was being done to him was monstrous enough.
"Look in the front of the book," he said. "That will tell you why we're here."
She opened the front cover, where a plate listed its previous owner. Girlish handwriting flowed across the page, a heart dotting the i.
She tossed the book away, feeling dirty. "You got this from one of the women. She brought you here to-" She couldn't say the word.
"She didn't bring us. Madame did."
Of course. Oh, how she hated that woman. "Do the other men know who-what they are?"
"I doubt it. I didn't. I was-oh, gods. I was happy. I wanted to-with them-and then I saw you, and it was like a key clicked in my brain. I started to puzzle it out, and then I found this in that last woman's bag." He kicked the book under the bed. "It all fell into place."
Let the book stay there. She never wanted to touch it again, not if it was the story of how another woman won the Silver Lion. "But why am I here?"
He picked up a bottle, sniffed it, and set it back on the nightstand. "I'm afraid that's my fault. Do you remember that safekeeping charm I put on you, before I had to leave for the palace? The one that let me know if you were well?"
She pressed her hand to her chest. She could feel it still, a warm spot over her heart. "Of course I remember."
"I think it pulled you through with me. Madame called me out of the book, and because of the ties between us, you came, too."
She swallowed, trying to take it in. The idea that she'd been pulled into another world paled in comparison to one thought: "But if that charm pulled me through... You didn't-you never put a charm on Sophia?"
"No." He colored again. "I would have had to remove the charm on you."
"Oh." And he was marrying Sophia in Lutesse's grand temple, before the gods and the Queen. She could have kicked him for allowing himself to be maneuvered like that. How brilliant he was about most things, and how simple about others. Instead she asked, "How do we get back? Can you magic us away?"
"No." He pressed his fists to his temples. "She's blocked me. I can't even light a candle." He banged his wrist against the wall. "I need my cuff."
She frowned. "You're wearing it."
"Not this." He yanked the bracelet off and chucked it into the mess on the floor. "This is a fake, a prop. There's not a spit of magic in it. I need my real cuff."
Then she knew. "I know where it is."
He stared at her. He approached the silver chair and knelt at her feet. Every particle of his being focused on her.
It was disconcerting to have those gray eyes gazing at her again. She shouldn't respond. He was promised to another; not even Lutesse's greatest mage could refuse the Queen's insistence on the match. But knowing she shouldn't respond didn't stop her from hoarding close the pleasure that he was looking at her like that, and not at Sophia.
"Downstairs in the entryway where Madame first meets the women. I clean there every morning. Along one wall there's a display case with all sorts of things-a rose, a scarf, a violin. Your cuff is there, on the second shelf. I used to talk to it while I cleaned. It just called out to me, and I never knew why."
He sank onto his heels. "I can't go there. I can't leave this room unless one of them gives me leave."
"She cages you?"
"It's a spell, on me, or the room, or both." He scowled at the mess. "If I could just figure out the locus of her power."
"I can get your cuff."
He looked at her. "Anne, it's dangerous. She's dangerous."
"Not for me. Tomorrow morning, while I'm cleaning, I'll find a way to take it."
"No, you don't understand. I must have it now."
He'd always been like this, a whirlwind of determination. The slight panic in his voice scared her, though. She wanted to touch him but kept her hands in her lap. Hadn't he been touched enough without his consent? "I'm sorry. I know it's hard to wait, but there's no reason for me to go now. She'd suspect me."
"You have to. The spell that holds us here-she'll need to renew it every night. Tomorrow we won't remember each other. We'll be like sleepwalkers again unless we happen to meet."
Which was unlikely. A minute later, and she would have missed him that afternoon. No wonder Madame had kept her contact with the men to a minimum. "I'll go now then." She straightened her spine. "The women might like refreshments when they come in. I could bring them something."
"How will that help you get my cuff?"
"I'll smash my tray into the case."
His face was troubled. "I wish I could go instead. You mustn't let Madame suspect. She's a powerful sorceress, with magics I don't understand yet. If she catches you, I don't know what she could do."
"So I won't let her catch me." She felt shaky at the warning, but he had worries enough so she spoke lightly. "I'll be back in no time, and then we can go home."
He bowed his head. Carefully he took both her hands and folded them in his. "You are a remarkable woman, Anne Baldwin. If I ever find myself trapped in hell again, I hope I'm as blessed in my companions."
Halfway down the hall to the entryway, her arms burned with the weight of the tray. She had loaded it with the strange uncooked fish-the word sushi bubbled up from her spell-muddled memory-while Cook muttered and banged pots. She'd put too much ice on the tray and fled before she lost her nerve.
She'd pay for that, if she dropped her tray too early. She almost wished for the mindless state of the sleepwalking spell, when she felt neither pain nor fear.
Madame's office door stood ajar. From inside came the sound of her husky voice speaking in a one-sided conversation. "Oh, yes, we have two dozen of the most popular literary heroes. Special requests require twenty-four hour notice. Do you have a character in mind?"
Anne walked faster. How dare that woman hawk Kristinger and the others as if they were trinkets. Wasn't it bad enough that the Queen controlled his future? She would not let one mad sorceress control his present. She would put an end to this now.
A buzz sounded in the entryway.
It jolted her. She had no idea what it might be, but she couldn't lose this chance. She sped forward. Ahead, the glass display case sat just inside the front door. Laid out inside like so many seashells or stuffed birds were the emblems of men: boots and riding crops, bows and arrows, a wooden pipe, a top hat. And there, on the second shelf, lay a silver cuff bracelet.
The buzz in the entryway ended, something clicked, and the front door opened. A person stepped inside, a black shape against the sunlight beyond.
For a moment, the light blinded her. The door closed, and she found herself facing a young woman dressed in scandalously tight pants and an oversized blue jacket. A string of earrings crawled up one ear.
The woman looked Anne over, clearly unimpressed. "You're new."
She wanted to hit this woman, who had chosen the worst moment to step into the house. Instead she shifted her tray. "Sushi?"
The woman turned up her nose. "I'm a vegetarian. Go away."
As if sneering dismissal weren't bad enough, Madame spoke at that moment from the hallway. "Anne, what are you doing?"
Anne pivoted, her brain whirling. Madame must not suspect. What would a sleepwalker do in a situation like this? What would she have done just the day before?
She tilted her head. She forced a smile to her lips. "Refreshments?"
Madame strode into the entryway. She smelled of smoke under perfume. Chunky jewelry encircled her throat and wrists, the baubles pale like bone. "Who asked you to do that?"
Anne kept her head tilted. She felt the stare of the woman behind her. Though her every muscle shook with a desire to bolt, she offered the tray to Madame. "Refreshments?"
"Those are for upstairs. Take them away."
If the way had been clear, she would have lobbed the sushi at Madame and smashed the case with her tray. She couldn't, not with the woman in the way. She might make it out the front door, might find help outside, but she would not leave Kristinger.
She strode past Madame and made her way upstairs.
"I was so close," Anne fumed after Kristinger let her in. She kicked the silver chair. "We'll have to try again later."
"Or we can try again now." He was energized, his face aglow.
She loved him when he looked like this.
"It's words," he said. "In this world, the words themselves are magic. Not things. We have to find the book that Madame brought us out of. If we can destroy that, it should send us home." He beamed at her. "Do you know where it is?"
"Damn." He paced the room, kicking debris out of the way.
"But if words are magic, couldn't you say some now, make the book explode from here?"
"Not quite. If that were true, every person in this world would be a magician. No, there will be a specific spell or incantation that renders words powerful. I don't even know what language to use. It will take time to discover the right words-more than the rest of today." He whirled and approached her. "You realize what this means, if words are magic? It means she can hurt us by speech alone. She doesn't need a cuff or a wand or a ring. I think she can't destroy you without also destroying me, but she could make you hurt yourself, or me, just with a word."
The idea sent cold shivers over her skin. "So, before I look for the book, I stuff something in my ears."
He shook his head. "You'd have to block out her voice completely. If I had my cuff-"
A husky voice spoke in the room: "Kristinger."
She jumped. "What was that?"
He'd gone rigid. Slowly, all color drained from his face. "No," he said.
Madame's voice spoke again: "Kristinger." It issued from a small box over the door. Beside it, a light illuminated.
"I've been summoned." He spoke as if he'd just swallowed offal.
She thought of the woman in the entryway, of her inked-on pants and pointed nose. She should have broken the tray over her head.
"I won't go," he said, but even as he spoke, he turned towards the door. He took a step, and another.
"Where are you going?"
He grabbed the chair arm and held on. "Nowhere. I will break her." Still he inched towards the door, tugging the chair with him.
Then she understood. Horrified, she threw herself into the chair. She seized his wrists. "What should I do?"
"Words. I need words." Sweat gleamed on his face. Words poured from his lips. Words of defiance and negation, words in languages she didn't know, words that made the hairs rise on her arms. She didn't want to hear those words in his voice.
Still he dragged her with him towards the door. The room filled with his voice. It roared in her ears. He lugged the chair over sheets, over the quilt. His voice cracked. Still he said words.
She caught his face between her hands. "Stop. Maybe you should just go."
"I'd rather die."
"I won't let you die. Listen. The case with your cuff is just inside the entryway. You could run in there and smash the case. They won't expect it. You have a chance."
She felt his ragged breathing. She'd never seen him powerless before. Without his cuff, it was as if he'd lost one of his arms.
"You can do it," she said.
Madame spoke his name, louder.
"I'll be right behind you."
"I know." He breathed out. With that breath he seemed to step into another skin. On came the calm mask of the Queen's Champion. He straightened. With deft fingers, he unbuttoned his shirt. He ran his fingers through his hair, ruffling it a little. It was, she thought, the strangest armor she'd ever seen.
"Don't let her speak to you," he said before he opened the door.
She dumped the sushi into his silver wastebasket and handed him the tray, which he tucked under his arm. They went downstairs.
It was more nerve-wracking to watch. She discovered this when she snuck behind a wall panel and crouched on the bottom step of a servants' staircase, the door pulled closed to a crack. Here she could see without drawing attention. She would rather have been out, walking beside him.
He strode along the hallway towards the private meeting rooms. At the last moment, he bolted into the entryway.
"Kris!" Madame's voice cracked across the hallway. His name became a word of power. All the hair on Anne's neck rose.
He stumbled. An arm's length from the case, he hit the carpet on hands and knees.
Anne shot to her feet, but Kristinger twisted. He flung out a hand, two fingers pointed at Madame. "Stop!"
Fear and determination threaded his command, but no hint of power. Madame advanced towards him.
"I do not consent to this," he shouted. "You will let us go."
Madame smirked. She licked her lips.
Distract her, Anne thought. She burst from the staircase and yanked a picture from the wall. She threw it, smacking Madame in the hip. Madame grunted; without turning, she loosed a word over her shoulder.
Power bowled into Anne, knocking her to the floor. Her head spun. She tried to get up, but the air had left her lungs.
"Kris," she heard Madame say. More words flowed, prickly, sticky words. The air thrummed.
He pounded his tray against the display case. Inside, the items rattled.
"Kristinger, stop. Come to me."
As if his bones had melted, he sagged. He lay on the floor, his forehead pressed to the carpet. Then he rose and walked to Madame.
She smacked him lightly on his cheek. "That was naughty of you."
He let her hit him. He bowed his head. "I'm sorry, Madame."
"You will forget this. You want only to please the women who love you. Come and meet your current favorite lady."
His head came up, his face brightened, and all of Anne's hopes that maybe, just maybe, he'd been pretending to submit fled. She climbed to her feet, stunned, as he hurried to the room where the woman waited. The door clicked closed behind him.
Madame spun. Her gaze scoured the hallway.
Anne stood petrified, half-hidden by the staircase door. She might have been a book immobile on a shelf. Then her wits snapped into place, and she bolted up the servants' staircase.
She fled up staircases and down passages, through attics and past boarded-up windows, fleeing from Madame's voice.
Stop, the voice hissed from a doorknob. Go back, it purred from a cobweb. Turn yourself over to Madame.
She covered her ears as she ran. Her footsteps pounded on the floorboards.
Stop! The voice boomed from an overhead beam.
She froze. Off-balance, she fell. The thud of her falling jarred her, and she covered her ears, humming, the noise thrumming through her skull, drowning out the sound of Madame. She hummed until her throat hurt, until she couldn't hear a whisper in the attics. Still she hummed, thinking that she would never submit. She would never go back to life as a mindless drone.
It was better than thinking of Kristinger caught, Kristinger overpowered, Kristinger and that woman-
She would not think of that. She would think of escaping this house. Of rescuing Kristinger. He'd said that they should find the book from which they'd been taken. That they should destroy it.
Books she knew. Books she loved. What she didn't know was where Madame kept her books of power.
The only books she'd seen were in the waiting rooms, but the idea of going into one-of entering a place where men were bought and sold-set her stomach to roiling. And yet-she sat up on the attic floor, her hands still over her ears. What if Madame had left their means of escape right in front of their noses? Wouldn't that be a cruel joke? Anne could have destroyed the book that very morning.
She would have to go back, return to the domain of Madame's voice. The idea set her to shaking. She curled up, her arms over her head.
But Kristinger was down there, too.
She rose, wiped her face, and stole back down the servants' stairs.
A furtive look showed the hallway to be empty. She raced across into the first waiting room. It was, she supposed, intended as an intimate, cozy space, though it felt strange to her. A glass-fronted fireplace took up the left-hand wall, the fire crackling without heat or smoke. In the back corner were a chair, a hexagonal table, a small lamp, and a teakettle that hissed even though it didn't sit on a stove. Beside it rested a half-dozen books.
She picked up the first book. It contained dozens of love poems. The next held famous love quotations. She dropped them both in disgust.
The door opened. She whirled. "There you are," Cook hissed, stepping inside.
Anne threw the quotation book. Cook ducked, the book thumping the doorjamb.
"Madame!" Cook yelled. "Meeting room one."
Anne yanked up the teapot. Had Madame heard? She must escape before Madame loosed her voice again. She ripped off the pot lid and hurled the contents at Cook, dousing the front of her shirt with boiling water. While Cook shrieked, Anne bashed the lamp over her head. She went down with a moan.
Still wary, Anne snatched up the love poems, ready to hit Cook again, but Cook stayed down.
She ran for the entryway. The only other place Madame might keep books was in her office, but Anne would be mad to storm in there. Instead, she would steal Kristinger's cuff and escape out the front door. Outside, she could hide until she found a way to free all the men.
She dashed into the entryway. Sunlight from the frosted windows around the door illuminated the display case, glinting off empty shelves. She stumbled to a halt, aghast at the shelves devoid of boots and hats and cuffs.
Madame had done this. Madame must have taken his cuff, along with all the tokens, into the sanctum of her office. She might as well have taken them to the moon.
Anne stepped towards the door. The frosted glass meant she'd never seen what lay beyond. Did she dare leave without his cuff?
"Anne!" Her name thundered down the hallway.
The hair on her arms rose, and the floor tilted. She fell to her knees, gripping the hardback book. The room spun, and the door felt leagues away. Lying face down on the carpet suddenly seemed a wise thing to do.
She must not. She squeezed her eyes closed, willing the world to settle. Madame must not take her mind.
So she would make Madame think her mind was already gone.
She untied her apron and sank onto the floor. Trying not to think how nice it felt to be there, she hugged the book to her chest, her apron over top. She was shivering, her fingers cold around the book. Still she called, "Madame, I'm here."
Madame clomped into the entryway, muttering words beneath her breath. Her heels stopped in front of Anne's nose. "Get up."
Her body obeyed. She pushed herself onto her knees, her arms moving without her command. But no, this wasn't the plan. She needed Madame to bend down to her, needed some way to keep Madame from speaking more power.
Panic came easily into her voice. "Madame, are you angry?"
Madame huffed. "Get up."
She must obey. Very well. She surged up and threw her apron in Madame's face. Madame flinched, and Anne smacked her in the face with the book. Something crunched. Madame staggered back, blood at her nose. She swore, a word of power that made all feeling leave Anne's hands. Frantic, Anne clamped her fingers down and cracked the book over Madame's head.
Madame swayed. Anne swung again, the spine of the book clipping Madame's temple. She hit again, and again, until Madame sank to the floor. She would have hit once more, but she hated to destroy a book.
She knelt and felt for Madame's breath. It warmed the back of her wrist. Then she had to sit down hard, her forehead pressed to the carpet, and breathe deeply through her mouth. Feeling crept back into her hands.
When she felt strong again, she tied Madame's wrists together with her apron, drawing the strings tight. She pulled off her stockings and stuffed them in Madame's mouth.
Only then did she let herself into Madame's office, a glistening expanse of polished wood and cut-glass figurines. The tokens from the display case sat jumbled on a shelf, next to two dozen novels tied shut with human hair. She picked out Kristinger's cuff. It tingled against her wrist. She held it close as she called up to summon each man, reading the names printed beneath their room numbers.
The first man to come wore elegant evening dress, his face hidden by a silk mask. He snatched up the violin token as if it were a lost child. When she explained what had been done to him, his fingers clenched around the violin's neck. "I will kill her."
"Let the others help you decide."
His eyes glittered behind his mask. "They will feel the same. Still, if they come quickly they may join me."
She left him to his revenge. She pushed through the crowd of men, searching for Kristinger. When she didn't see him, she rushed to his room. She had to knock repeatedly before he opened the door.
"I heard the summons," he said through the crack. "But a lady is already here, and she-oh." He opened the door wider. "Do I know you?" He clutched his robe closed at his throat. He looked confused and unhappy and hopelessly dear.
She held out his cuff.
His eyes widened. He yanked the door open and grabbed his cuff. It slid onto his wrist like a second skin.
"Anne," he whispered.
A shiver slid down her spine.
He winked and closed the door.
A moment later, the woman inside shrieked. Shortly thereafter, she stumbled into the hallway, doing up her pants as she moved. She hugged her jacket under one arm. "I will speak to Madame!"
"She's downstairs." Anne pointed. "Better hurry."
The woman stalked off.
The door opened. Kristinger was dressed again, his cuff gleaming around his wrist. "You did it." He raised his hand, his fingers brushing her cheek.
She breathed ink and oil. She leaned into his touch.
At that, he blinked and snapped his hand back. He retreated a step. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that."
No, he shouldn't have. He was engaged to the Queen's sister. That didn't stop her from wishing he'd continued, though.
"Madame's downstairs," she said, because she didn't know what else to say. "The other men are deciding what to do with her and Cook. Do you want to join them?"
He touched his cuff. He frowned, listening to something she couldn't hear. "We're too late. It's done. That's just as well. I don't like mobs, or what they do. And now-" His fingers raced over the symbols on his cuff. "Now no one will ever, ever do this to us again." His smile rivaled the sun. "Time to go home."
Now that they could, she found she was afraid. What could she say to her family or friends? What could she say to him if she ever saw him again?
What if she never saw him?
Delay would only make it worse. She handed him the tied copy of their book. "You do have a wedding to attend."
"So I do." His mouth twisted. He stubbed a finger against Sophia's face on the cover. "I won't forget you, though."
It was gallant of him to say. She wished he would touch her again instead.
At a touch from his cuff, the book burst into flame. His face glowed with joy at that simple spell. As the world faded around them, she watched his face, lit by firelight.
Two days later, she sat at her favorite wooden table, the fire blazing to her right. Around her, her family recovered from the busy noontime rush. Preparations for dinnertime would begin soon.
"Here." Her mother slid a loaf of bread across the table. "Rye, your favorite."
"Thank you." She forced herself to smile. She couldn't blame her mother for worrying. No time had passed in Lutesse, and she'd not yet found a way to tell her family of her ordeal. She'd spent the last two days wondering if she could get into the castle to see Kristinger. She ached to talk with him. But would it be wise?
He must have other, more pressing concerns now. The castle already sported banners in anticipation of his wedding, ten days hence.
"Do you want anything else?" her mother asked.
She meant to say no, but her mother gasped, her attention fixed over Anne's shoulder.
A mug of beer appeared at Anne's elbow. Silver glinted at the wrist of the hand that put it there. "I didn't forget you."
She closed her mouth, gathered her wits, and handed him a slice of rye. He plopped down opposite her, looking fine in a gray suit. Her family, gaping, quietly withdrew.
"Word will get out soon." He fiddled with the bread, not quite looking at her. "I asked for a delay to the wedding. I couldn't go through with it, not after..." He took a breath. "She refused, and so I broke the engagement. I hope she finds a nice duke."
"Oh," she whispered. She couldn't find anything else to say, certainly none of the polite condolences she was probably supposed to offer. An impossible hope bloomed in her chest.
He peeked at her from under his lashes. "You've not been well these last two days." He touched his chest, where the other half of the safekeeping charm rested.
"Too many memories," she admitted. "I couldn't even read to take my mind off. Imagine that-me, unable to read."
He shook his head at such a preposterous thought. "There is something else I wanted to tell you. Do you know how that book ended, the one we were taken out of?"
"I didn't get a chance to read it." As if she would have wanted to.
"With my marrying Sophia, on a glorious sunny day, amid much rejoicing."
"But-" She sat back. "I don't understand. You aren't getting married."
"Not now." He grinned, his smile dazzling. "You said you weren't worthy of a book, but don't you see? You rewrote history. You saved me from a terrible mistake."
"Me?" It seemed ridiculous.
"The one and only. Because of you, I'm free of the Queen, just as I'm free of Madame. And I was hoping, maybe..." He flushed. Her heart began to pound. "Maybe there's still time for a happy ending."
"Yes," she said, answering many questions at once. She took his hand. "The best books always have surprise endings."
He kissed her palm. "I knew I could trust you, Anne Baldwin."