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One Dark Window: Part 2 – Chapter 16

Providence Cards are a gift. Their magic is measured. Neither they, nor those who wield them, risk degeneration. Still, be wary. Be clever. Be good. Nothing comes for free, especially magic.

Providence Cards are a gift.

Morette, Jespyr, and I waited in the parlor, seated strategically one chair apart around a spacious oval table. I wore a dark gray dress paired with a white shawl my aunt had knit, a Hawthorn tree embroidered in its center. I wrapped the shawl around my neck and chest, reveling in its warmth, needing the comfort.

Across from me, Jespyr tugged at her frilled collar. Her mother had insisted, since wearing a dress was out of the question, that she don something more formal than her usual attire, which Morette had deemed with an upturned nose “woolens unfit for a stable boy.”

Morette’s eyes flared when she glanced at her daughter. “Are you drinking?”

Jespyr shoved a hip flask under the table. “No.”

“It’s not even midday!”

“Think of it as medicine.” When her mother shot her a look cold as murder, Jespyr threw up her hands. “You can’t expect me to endure Sylvia Pine without a single drop of alcohol.”

“We won’t be enduring her long if she thinks my daughter is a drunkard.”

Jespyr tossed me the flask. I caught it, its contents swishing in the small leather encasement. I smelled wine. “Have some,” Jespyr said. “Trust me, it’ll help.”

I glanced down at the flask, Morette’s eyes boring into me from the other side of the table.

Go on, then, the Nightmare said. Anything to put me out of my misery.

Shut it, grumpy.

I undid the stopper and pressed the lid to my lips. The wine was warm, rich—too strong for so early in the day—but a pleasant burn nonetheless. “Will anyone else be joining us?”

Jespyr eyed me from across the table. “Like who?” Her lips curled, mischievous as a goblin. “Like Ravyn?”

I tossed the flask back, hard. Jespyr caught it with one hand, doing a poor job of tucking her smile away. “He rode back to Stone early this morning. No rest for the Captain.”

The sound of the carriage wheels rumbled. All three of our heads turned to the parlor door. Outside, hooves clattered against stone. The wheels stopped and the horses whickered, only to be drowned out by the sound of high-pitched chittering, several voices competing for air.

The Pine women had arrived.

“Remember,” Morette said in a low voice. “Concealment is key. Don’t make it obvious you are interested in the Iron Gate. Just get them to talk.”

Their steward opened the parlor door with a bang, so abrasive the silver tea set vibrated. He wasn’t a delicate man, Jon Thistle. “Lady Sylvia Pine and her daughters, milady.”

“Thank you, Jon,” Morette said. Her brows raised. A nod, a smile, a soft gesture to the table. The performance had begun. “Please have a seat, Sylvia. Farrah, Gerta, Maylene, please make yourselves comfortable.”

We were flanked by the Pine women. I was seated between Lady Pine and her middle daughter, Gerta. Jespyr sat between the eldest Pine girl, Farrah, and the youngest, Maylene, who was no older than my half sisters.

In the brief moment when the chairs had stopped scraping, before anyone spoke, the silence in the room felt so oppressive I felt it might strangle me. I shot Jespyr a frantic look, but she—fearsome Jespyr Yew, Blunder’s only female Destrier—looked as uncomfortable as I felt, gnawing on her fingernail, eyes like a trapped animal’s.

Jon bustled around us, pouring the tea. For such an unfinished-looking man, he did not spill a single drop. Morette cleared her throat. “Did you ladies enjoy Equinox?”

Lady Pine opened her pursed lips to answer, but her voice was drowned out by her daughters, who talked over one another like yowling cats, each boasting an Equinox story greater than the next.

I was pinned by Gerta, who leaned close to me and told me, with painstaking embellishments, the exact detailing of her three Equinox dresses. I wouldn’t have minded so much—there are worse things to discuss than clothing—if the Nightmare hadn’t been gnashing his teeth the entire time.

Death by a thousand cuts, he groaned. Ask her where the bloody Iron Gate is and be done with it.

And invite a world of suspicion once it’s stolen? Just because they talk too much doesn’t make them idiots.

That’s precisely what it makes them.

I rested my cheek on my hand, checking that my face was still calm—neutral.

“Speaking of beautiful frocks,” Gerta said, taking a long sip of tea, “your cousin Ione looked beyond stunning when they announced her engagement.” Her brow wrinkled, straw-yellow hair falling over her eyes. She swept it away. “I don’t remember her looking quite so becoming—and I saw her at court nigh last year.”

A rock dropped in my stomach. I didn’t want to talk about much, but I especially didn’t want to talk about Ione.

Is this why they wanted my help—to use my relationship with Ione to stir talk of Cards? I glanced at Morette. Seems a bit unfeeling.

A family trait, perhaps.

I turned back to Gerta, picking up my teacup, my voice even. “Ione is luckier than most. She was given a Maiden upon their betrothal.”

Gerta’s face bloomed, her eyes wide, her lips curling up, the gossip so sweet it was as if I’d handed her the key to the city. “She’s got a Maiden Card?”

“Indeed.” I reached to the platter of sweetbread in the center of the table, though my stomach was in knots and I couldn’t take a bite. “It was part of the arrangement my uncle made. He gifted the King his Nightmare Card. The rest you saw at Equinox.”

Gerta nodded. She glanced around the room. “And you, Elspeth? You’ve done well enough for yourself as well—invited to stay in a castle most of us have never seen the inside of.” She took a sip of tea. “Has your father done the same and offered the Captain of the Destriers a Card as your dowry?”

I coughed. Across the table, Jespyr glanced at me. Heat climbed, unwelcome, into my cheeks. “I’m not betrothed to anyone,” I managed. “Especially not Ravyn Yew.”

Gerta gave me a knowing smile. “Of course not.”

Noise from around the table buzzed, but I tried to ignore the others’ voices. The Nightmare scratched his claws idly across my mind. Keep going, he said, his voice slick with oil.

I took a deep breath. “Then again,” I said to Gerta, “my father was given a Card as my mother’s dowry. I suppose someday it will be mine.” I smiled, praying I looked welcoming and not too eager. “Does your father have Cards set aside for your dowry?”

Gerta took a bite of bread, covering her mouth with her hand when she spoke. “In theory.” She rolled her eyes. “Though I suspect Papa is too fond of them to let them go. He’s always carrying them with him, wherever he goes—like a boy with his toys.”

My heart quickened. But Gerta’s face remained soft, her tone conversational, her eyes easy at the corners. She showed no sign of knowing she’d revealed too much. I shot Jespyr a tight look. Her brown eyes caught mine, her brow perked.

We were close.

“Who could blame him?” I said, ripples forming in my tea from my shaking hand. I put the cup down. “Are they very rare, his Cards?”

“Not enough for him to make such a fuss over,” Gerta said, forlorn. “Just a measly Prophet.” She took a sip of tea. I held my breath. “That and an Iron Gate. Pity, isn’t it? I would so love a Maiden, like Ione.”

I smiled. Only this time, it wasn’t pretend. “Pity.”

We waved at the Pine carriage as it passed through the statuary, stilling our hands only when it disappeared into evening shadow, made darker by the looming yew trees above the drive.

“Come,” Morette said, her stern mouth bent by a grin. “Fenir will want to know at once.”

Castle Yew was dark, old, rich, and oddly delicate. Its ceilings were vaulted, so high I had to crane my neck to see them. Along every way there hung tapestries, some depicting maidens and landscapes and woodland creatures, others Providence Cards.

And some, always with his visor shut, the same knight with gilded armor from the carpet in my room.

I smelled leather and wood and cloves, warm, rich, old. I fought the urge to walk the corridors on tiptoe, my echo so unusual against the castle walls it might have been a specter tucked away behind tapestries, lingering along the long corridors.

The Nightmare’s wakefulness was stirred by the strange, aged stone. I could feel the flutter of his consciousness—his curiosity. I followed Morette and Jespyr up a second winding staircase. I ran my hand along the stonework, smelling the cherrywood banisters, watching the fading sunlight cast itself on thousands of tiny dust particles.

The staircase led us to a balcony, laden with books, and a wide entryway. The doors, wood and engraved with designs I did not understand, looked extremely heavy. They stood ajar. Morette did not bother to knock, her shoulders flexing as she pushed them open.

Evening light poured into the wide room from a row of arched windows. Ceiling-to-floor shelves filled with candles, plants—alive or dried—and books covered all four walls, save in front of the windows. A partition, painted with the yew tree insignia, kept me from seeing much of the bed.

Fenir Yew sat at the long chestnut table in the center of the room, poring over scattered parchment. When he looked up and saw us, his brown eyes widened. “Well?”

Jespyr vaulted toward the table. She took a chair and spun it on a single leg until it faced the table backward. She sat with a plop, folding her arms over the back of the chair. “Wayland Pine has an Iron Gate. On his person. Right now.”

Fenir’s eyes shot to Morette. “Truly?”

She nodded. “He’s still at Stone, enjoying Equinox. He’s set to travel home tomorrow.”

It was strange, watching Fenir Yew smile. I wouldn’t have guessed a face that severe could boast one. But it suited him. For a moment, I saw Emory in his face.

“We’ll have to let Ravyn and Elm know at once.”

“Should they act before Pine leaves Stone?”

Fenir shook his head. “Too many opportunities to get caught. Better out in the open, where they can be properly disguised.” He turned to his daughter. “You must go tell them.”

Jespyr ran a hand over her brow. “No rest for the Captain, nor his sister, it seems.” She pushed out of her chair with a sigh. When she passed me, she put a hand on my shoulder. “Good work today. Rest up. You’re going to need it.”

She slipped out of the room. I watched her, a question stirring my thoughts. I took the chair she’d abandoned, pulling myself to the table. “These men whose Cards you take,” I said to Fenir, “men like Pine. Do you hurt them?”

Fenir raised his brows. “You take us for brute thugs, Miss Spindle?”

I raised my brows back at him. “Two of your children are Destriers, are they not?”

Morette cleared her throat. “That’s where you come in, Miss Spindle. With your keen eyes, we should be able to locate and retrieve the Card as hastily as possible. Violence is something we avoid.”

I shifted in my chair, Ravyn’s ivory-hilted dagger flashing across my mind.

“My steward will join us in a moment.” Fenir walked to a far shelf and pulled free an old, sooty tome. “But while we wait, there is something I’d like you to see, Miss Spindle.”

The tome’s leather cover was embroidered with two alder trees, tall and narrow, which stood next to each other in perfect unison. One tree was sewn with black fabric, the other—grayed with age—with white. It was older than my aunt’s copy, its binding more frayed.

I recognized it immediately.

Fenir placed the volume upon the table. “Have you studied The Old Book of Alders, Miss Spindle?”

I wanted to laugh. Had he asked it of me, I could have recited the text from cover to cover. “A bit.”

Fenir opened the cover and coughed, turning the aged parchment until he’d reached the last page. He read it aloud.

The twelve call for each other when the shadows grow long—

When the days are cut short and the Spirit is strong.

They call for the Deck and the Deck calls them back.

Unite us, they say, and we’ll cast out the black.

At the King’s namesake tree, with the black blood of salt,

All twelve shall, together, bring sickness to halt.

They’ll lighten the mist from mountain to sea.

New beginnings—new ends…

But nothing comes free.

“The Cards, the mist, the blood,” I said under my breath.

Morette joined us at the table. “Kings of Blunder have long tried to do what the Shepherd King instructed. But none could bring the Deck of Twelve together. None could find the Twin Alders.”

I tapped my fingers on the table. “Does King Rowan know where to find it?”

“No,” Fenir answered. “He consults with the kingdom’s best cartographers. They gather over an old map of Blunder. Over the years, the map has been colored in with all the places the King’s men have searched. Still, no Twin Alders. There is no record of it being traded, no history of its use. The only two documents that even speak of it are The Old Book of Alders and the history of Brutus Rowan, the first Rowan King.”

The Nightmare hissed through his teeth at the Rowan King’s name. It took all of me not to react. “And what does Brutus say about the Twin Alders?” I asked.

“The same thing everyone else says,” Morette replied. “That the Shepherd King took it into the mist one day and returned without it.”

I frowned. “Surely the Shepherd King has his own history—his own documents.”

Fenir’s voice was grave. “Most of what we know of the Shepherd King we take from lore. His histories were destroyed, and none of his children survived to claim the throne. Brutus Rowan, his Captain of the Guard, became the next King of Blunder.”

The Nightmare’s tail twitched, stirring the darkness in my mind.

I paused. “Suppose we manage to find the Twin Alders.” I looked up at the Yews. “Whose blood do you intend to use to unite the Deck?”

Fenir leaned forward. “You may have met him. He’s head of the King’s Physicians.”

The tall, narrow man with eerily pale eyes. “Orithe Willow?” I cried. “He’s infected?”

Fenir picked up The Old Book of Alders, gingerly placing it back onto his shelf. “Like yourself,” he said, “Orithe caught the infection as a child. But the King kept him alive for one reason. Orithe’s magic allows him to spot the infection in others. Surely you’ve seen the apparatus he wears around his hand?”

I had. It was a metal claw, with long, angry spikes reaching out from each of his pale fingers. I felt the blood drain from my face. “Orithe uses that—that device—to see the infection in others?”

Fenir’s voice was grave. “He claims he can see the infection in their blood.” His brow lowered in a deep frown. “He hunts and bleeds anyone he suspects has caught the fever. That is why the King appointed him head of the Physicians.”

I placed my fingers along my temples to soothe my spinning head. “Spare Emory’s blood, spill Orithe’s,” I murmured. A man responsible for the deaths of dozens of infected children. Two birds…

One stone, said the Nightmare.

Fenir’s steward opened the door. Jon Thistle regarded me with a nod, then placed a leather pouch teeming with brilliant colors onto the table ahead of Fenir.

Light filled the room as Fenir opened the pouch. “Our collection, Miss Spindle,” he said.

I surveyed the Cards through a squint. “They’re not all here.”

“No,” Morette said. “The Destriers keep their Black Horses close. And Elm, as you know by now, is reticent to go anywhere without the Scythe. The Mirror and the Nightmare are often with Ravyn.”

I searched the colors, blinked, then searched again.

Gray, the Prophet.

Pink, the Maiden.

Turquoise, the Chalice.

Yellow, the Golden Egg.

White, the White Eagle.

“Three Cards are missing,” Fenir said. “The Well, the Iron Gate, and the Twin Alders.”

I stared at the pile, the unity of colors strange and beautiful, like a stained glass window. “Do you have a plan for finding the Well?”

“The Well will be tricky to claim,” Jon Thistle said, rubbing his beard. “Given the nature of the Card, men keen to have it are usually wary to begin with.”

The Yews were quiet, their brows knit.

I chewed my lip, clicking my fingernails against the table. The Nightmare slithered behind my eyes, waiting for me to speak. When I did not, his voice filled my mind like steam off a kettle. Go on, he said. Tell them.

My eyes fell back to the collage of color radiating off the Providence Cards. The Cards. The mist. The blood.

I raised my gaze to the Yews. “I know someone who owns a Well Card,” I said. “He lives just down the street.”


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