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One Dark Window: Part 1 – Chapter 5

Be wary the pink,

Be wary the rose.

Be wary of beauty divine, unopposed.

Her thorns will grow sharp,

She’ll eat her own heart.

Be wary of beauty divine, unopposed.

Daylight hit my eyelids. When I opened them, I muffled a scream, four eyes blazing onto me. Dimia and Nya sat on opposite sides of my bed, leering over me like vultures.

I sat up, my head heavy. “What time is it?”

“Almost midday,” Nya said.

Dimia, with considerably less delicacy than her sister, leaned in so close I could see the spots on her chin. “We saw you leave the hall with Emory Yew.”

I blinked at her. “Is there a question in there, Dimia?”

My door opened with a bang. I sat up in bed, my eyes narrowing when Nerium stepped into the room. “The sleeping princess finally wakes,” she said with an unfeeling smile, raking her fingernails over the doorframe. When her eyes traveled to her daughters, pert, on either side of my bed, her smile evaporated. “What are you talking about?”

“Emory Yew,” Dimia said. She fluttered her eyelids. “He’s terribly handsome.”

Nerium tittered. “He’s not the sort of company a sophisticated young lady keeps.” Her eyes turned to me. “Even you would do well to avoid him, Elspeth.”

I pushed my way out of bed. “Your advice is always appreciated, Nerium.” I moved to the wash table, splashing fresh water over my face. If it had been warm, that was many hours ago. The water was so cold it stung. “And if you must know, Emory Yew was a complete pig.”

My half sisters’ eyebrows raised in twin expressions of curious satisfaction. Even Nerium leaned in, thirsty for gossip. “There is something terribly off about that boy,” Nya said, tucking a strand of golden hair behind her ear. “If he’s not sequestered in his chambers for some new illness, he’s drunk as a vagrant, saying the strangest things.” She stepped next to me, her voice teeming with poorly masked excitement. “Did he say anything… odd to you?”

The Nightmare’s laugh was oily, sticking to the corners of my thoughts.

I shuddered, cold from more than the water. He mentioned yellow eyes. How could he possibly have known about your eyes? Do you think he—

—knows there is a five-hundred-year-old monster stalking the dark corners of your mind?

That’s impossible. I pulled at the hem of my nightdress. Still… there was something so unnerving about him.

I could see confusion begin to etch its way across my half sisters’ faces—as it often did when the conversation in my head tarried too long. I ran a distracted hand through my hair and shrugged, offering a dispassion I did not feel. “He was drunk,” I said. “He couldn’t even make it up the stairs.”

“Count your blessings,” Nya said. “He’s an absolute thorn. I can’t remember a dinner at Spindle House when Emory didn’t break something.”

“That was ages ago,” her mother corrected. “He’s been living here at least two years.”

I knit my brow. “The Yews sent Emory to live here, in Stone, with the King? Why?”

Nerium looked at me the same way she looked at her dog when it pissed on the carpet—endlessly annoyed. “So Prince Renelm can control that nasty little temper, of course.”

I recalled the red light spilling from the seat next to Emory last night. Prince Renelm’s Scythe Card. A Card reserved only for royalty. With it, the Prince had the power to control anyone he chose—in any way he chose.

Before I could hide my grimace, my father opened the chamber door from his room, startling all four of us. He cleared his throat. “Feeling better, Elspeth?”

It felt like a strangle, having all of them in my room at once. I was beginning to regret not taking a room with the Hawthorns. “Much better,” I lied.

“You’ve missed the breakfast hour, but there will be a walk in the gardens after the men leave for the hunt.”

I felt rocks in my stomach at the prospect of trudging through the garden with a herd of Blunder women. When my father closed the door, my half sisters hurried to their adjoining room, lost in the choosing of dresses.

I wore a gray dress made of fine linen—not too coarse, not too heavy. I wove matching gray ribbon in my hair and braided it in a crown around my head. It was the perfect ensemble for a warm day at the tail end of summer, its color so akin to the mist I almost felt invisible.

When we descended into the great hall, I cast my gaze over the banister to the room below. Dozens of women mingled, basking in each other’s company, but I saw neither Ione nor my aunt.

My stepmother and half sisters abandoned me shortly, offering neither companionship nor introduction. Ahead, someone opened the outer doors and we went through the castle, shepherded by servants in purple garb out into the garden, the summer warmth floating in the mist like steam.

I ambled along the outside of the crowd. My slippers bore no fashionable heel, and I relished the silence of my step. I reached my hand over the greenery of the garden, my fingers trailing the delicate petals and stems of King Rowan’s flowers.

I listened to the women nearby—the ebb and flow of conversation lulling me. Far ahead, the gray of two Prophet Cards shone through the crowd. Beyond it, I distinguished the enchanting pink light of a Maiden Card.

Be wary the pink, the Nightmare said as he sniffed the air. Be wary the rose. Be wary of beauty divine, unopposed.

I found myself missing the sound of Ione’s voice in my ear. I began to search for her yellow hair in the crowd, anxious to mend the rift between us. Perhaps she was right, and I was too untrusting, too closed, too unfamiliar with the notion of hope. I admired the way she so readily embraced change—how keen she was to see the old, cruel ways of Blunder disappear. If the world were ever to change—if those infected were to be cared for, not hunted like animals—it would be by the hands and heart of someone like Ione.

But no matter how I combed the crowd, I could not find her.

I found my aunt instead. She was stopped on the side of the path, admiring the splendor of the King’s flowers. I put a hand on her back, and she embraced me heartily.

I lingered in her arms. She smelled of rosemary and warm soil, soft and earthy. I did not tell her about my fight with Ione. Instead, we walked arm in arm, speaking quietly as we moved with the tide of women.

“What can you tell me about Emory Yew, Aunt?”

She wiggled her brows at me. “A bit young for you, isn’t he, dear?”

The Nightmare gave a sharp laugh.

“I didn’t mean it like that.” I lowered my voice, steering us to a quieter part of the path. “Do you think anyone—apart from myself—survived the fever as a child?” My stomach turned. “Without getting caught?”

Whatever she had expected me to ask, it was not that. The lines in her face grew taut, and when she spoke, her voice was small. “I don’t know, Elspeth. I doubt it.”

“Surely someone else—”

“The Destriers and Physicians bring every infected child here—to Stone. To the dungeon. And we know what happens in the dungeon.”

I shuddered.

“It’s law, I’m afraid.”

“Yes, but I’m here,” I whispered. “My father was the King’s Destrier, and he did not turn me in when the fever struck. Surely there are other parents who have done the same.”

“They have tried. But horrible as the infection was for you, Elspeth, it did not remain. You have no magic—no obvious tells for the Destriers to spot you by. Others are not so lucky.”

I looked away. But before I could say anything else, someone came up behind us. When I turned, pink light clapped me over the eyes. I stumbled into my aunt, knocking us both into a tall hedge.

Ione, colored by the brilliant pink of a Maiden Card, stared down at me.

My aunt picked herself out of the hedge, brushing her skirt off. “Heavens, Elspeth.” She pulled me to my feet and began to pick leaves out of my hair, but I waved her off. All I could think about was the bright pink Card in my cousin’s pocket.

And the implications of the magic it held.

In the darkness, the Nightmare prowled, alert—aware. Interesting, he purred. A gift from King Rowan in exchange for your uncle’s Nightmare Card?

No, I managed, my mind turning over itself, panicked. The Maiden Card is nowhere near as valuable as the Nightmare.

Then perhaps the Maiden Card is merely part of a much larger sum.

My eyes traced Ione’s face. Her features were as they always were—her face unchanged by the beauty the Card promised. I felt a small relief. She isn’t using it.

Yet, the Nightmare replied.

Ione’s brow furled. “Elspeth?”

The crowd pushed around us. I could hear the titters of onlookers, Blunder’s women shooting me narrow glances as they passed.

I stared at my cousin, my eyes falling to the pink light in her pocket, then back to her face. “Where have you been?” I asked, my voice heavy. “I looked for you.”

The pink radiating off Ione’s Maiden Card almost made it impossible to distinguish her blush. Almost. “Nowhere,” she said. “Just wandering the castle.”

It was a poor lie. But that did not soften its blow. Ione was hiding something from me. When my cousin’s eyes met mine, I was certain she could see the hurt on my face.

But that only seemed to deepen the set of her brow. Whatever had happened between our argument yesterday and now, it was clear her anger with me was not yet spent.

“Come,” my aunt said, “let’s keep walking. We’re blocking the path.”

I said nothing. Then, spurred by my own anger, I reached out, snagging Ione’s sleeve, and pulled her with me off the path.

“Bess, wha—”

“I want to talk, Ione,” I said, marching us farther down the gravel path through the rose garden. I shot my aunt a backward glance. “We’ll be back shortly.”

I turned a corner, the two of us hidden behind the hedgerow. The air smelled of dying roses, so fragrant they could almost mask the scent of their own decay. Ione ripped her sleeve out of my grasp. Even bathed in the pink light of the Maiden Card, I could distinguish the red in her cheeks. “What’s the matter with you, Bess?”

“Me, Ione? What about you? ‘Wandering the castle’?”

“What of it?”

“It’s a lie.” I bit my lip. “You met with Prince Hauth, didn’t you?”

She prickled. “I told you I would, didn’t I?”

“You never told me there would be a Maiden Card involved.”

Ione froze, her hazel eyes rounding, searching my face. “How do you know about the Maiden Card?”

I clenched my jaw. “Did he give it to you? Hauth Rowan?”

Ione brow furrowed. “I can’t understand why you hate the Rowans so much, Elspeth. Hauth has five hundred years of legacy hoisted upon him. He needs support and understanding, not blind resentment.” Her voice, so soft, had hardened. “Or can you only think of yourself?”

The Nightmare stalked the shadows of my mind, whispering. The berry of rowans is red, always red. The earth at its trunk is dark with blood shed. No water, nor cloth, can lessen its spread. He’ll ask for a maiden…

Then turn her heart dead.

My stomach dropped, my anger with my cousin turning to desperation. I reached out for her hand, locking my eyes with hers. “I don’t know what Uncle bargained for the Nightmare Card, but I beg of you, Ione, please do not use the Maiden.” My throat tightened. “And if Hauth Rowan asks you to marry him, you must not say yes.”

I saw the downturn of her lips, the flash of tears in her hazel eyes, the map of fine lines tiptoeing around her eyes. “You ask so much of me, Elspeth. And all of it for yourself.”

I shook my head, vehement. “Can’t you understand? You are perfect, Ione. Just as you are. The gap in your teeth—your voice, too loud in the mornings—the lines next to your eyes when you smile. The Maiden will steal those things from you.” I clenched my jaw, fighting the rising lump in my throat. “The Rowans offer it as a gift. But they do it to control you, Ione. To distract you. To make you beholden to them. Please, do not let them.”

Tears were falling from my cousin’s eyes. But she didn’t wipe them away. She let them fall down her cheeks and slip into the creases of her face. When she spoke, her voice cracked. “Do you love me, Elspeth?” she said.

Something in my chest snapped. “More than anything.”

She took a rattling breath, then another. Then, slowly, as if bolstered by an invisible force, Ione’s gaze grew stronger, harder. Still, her voice shook. “Then let me make my own choices.”

She pulled her hand from mine, her steps so light I hardly heard them, then disappeared without a backward glance, leaving me alone, bereft, with the dying roses.

Utterly empty, I hardly noticed the thorns that snagged my palms as I stepped off the garden path. I walked deeper into the garden—walked until I ran. I did not care that I’d gone off the path into the mist. I ran until my heart threatened to burst. Then, at the base of an old poplar tree with sagging branches at the edge of the wood, I wept.

I sat by the tree and traced my finger through the damp soil where the foliage had begun to rot. In my other hand, I twisted my charm. I wiped my eyes on the back of my palm, tears stinging my skin where the thorns had cut it. She’s better than this wretched kingdom deserves. If she uses the Maiden too often, that will be gone. She’ll be cold—heartless. She won’t be Ione anymore.

I took a twig from the foliage and snapped it several times until the shards were small enough to sit in my hand.

The Nightmare drummed his claws together. The Maiden is not just a Card of vanity. Magic is not for vanity.

It is if it’s merely used to impress a Prince, I said, venom in my voice.

He snickered. A deeply misunderstood Card, the Maiden.

I stood and said nothing, shame and heartbreak washing over me.

In the end, the Nightmare continued, it does not matter how and why the Cards are used. Nothing is free, nothing is safe. Magic always comes at a cost.

Stop telling me that, I said, throwing broken pieces of twig on the ground. For once, just shut up and leave me al—

“Miss Spindle?”

I whirled, the depth of the voice behind me striking me like a blow to the stomach.

Ravyn Yew watched me with gray eyes, his head tilted to the side. He looked like his namesake, the raven: sharp, intelligent, striking.

But my gaze did not linger on the Captain’s face. I was too caught up in the color—the light—radiating from his breast pocket. It was darker than the Maiden, but just as strong. Dread curled my chest and I choked on air. I had seen that hue of velvet before.

Burgundy—rich and blood red.

The second Nightmare Card.


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