Sometime during the oblivion of their twelfth night in the mountains, the gypsy deserted them.
She should have sensed his growing discontent, but he was human, and seldom bothered to look her in the eye anyway. Right up until the night they’d been forced to camp beneath the stars, the gypsy been acting exactly the same: churlish.
Lia had felt a certain sympathy. The constant wind and the cold whittled away at her too. She longed for green England and a soft, safe bed. She longed for silence.
It had been growing more and more difficult to secure accommodations after twilight. The villages this high were scattered; they had spent their days rolling through forests so thick the sun never touched the snow below, and passes so narrow she grew nauseated just glancing out the carriage window at the sheer drop to the rivers and gorges far below.
And everywhere they went now, she was drowning in song.
The Carpathian range was iron and gold and copper; it hid diamonds and silver, salt and coal and quartz, and mines spidering miles through the solid rock as evidence for all these things. She had learned that much in her lessons from school, but not once had she considered the implications: this place was like a drug to her. When she closed her eyes she heard countless phantom melodies in her head, softer, louder, changing as their direction changed. To preserve her sanity she practiced picking out one song at a time, following its tune as it plucked at her, soared, and then grew dim, only to fade back into the mists of her mind.
And with its beauty, the dreams became more vivid than ever before.
Three days ago, over a luncheon of dumplings and mutton at an alpine farmhouse, Zane had confronted her point-blank about it.
“You’ve lost weight,” he said in English, brusque. “You’re not eating, you’re wan, and I haven’t noticed that you sleep.”
“You notice if I sleep?” she asked, looking up.
“I consider it part of my job. Are you ill?”
She shook her head, glancing at the farmer’s wife and girl children, kneading dough in a line down at the end of the table, tallest to smallest, like nesting dolls laid out. Lia doubted there was any chance they could understand English, but she knew they listened hard anyway.
Flour from the dough spotted the wood, spurted up in clouds to sift the still air.
“It’s not consumption?”
“Smallpox? The plague?”
“Is it love?” he drawled, very dry.
“Do shut up.”
“Then what ails you, dear wife?”
“Not a thing.”
“I cannot envision which will be worse,” he said, flipping back the lace of his cuff to spear a pickled beet on his plate. “Having to return to your parents and say, ‘Amalia died of consumption,’ or ‘Amalia died of stupidity, for refusing to confide in me. Whilst my back was turned, I’m afraid a dragon came and ate her up.’”
Lia’s gaze flew to the woman standing just feet away.
“Do not say that word.”
“What word?” He smiled, malicious.
She controlled her voice. “Are you attempting to get us skewered with the carving knife or merely tossed out?”
“Yes, sorry, you’re absolutely right. I’d prefer not to be skewered, at least until I’m done with this fine plate of desiccated sheep. Try it, love. A bit chewy, but delightfully piquant.” He glanced significantly at the mutton set before her, then back to the round-faced wife. His smile gleamed handsome and bright. “Don’t make me say it again.”
He watched her as she sawed at the meat, slowly consuming one bite at a time. He finished minutes before she did, sitting back on his bench, sipping the cider they shared from a mug.
The heavy smack of fists striking dough filled the air, muffled, oddly comforting. The odor of yeast was a warm tang on the back of her tongue. Two of the daughters began a lively, hushed conversation; Zane spoke beneath them.
“Bad dreams, snapdragon?” he asked quietly.
She turned a piece of meat over with her fork. “Yes.”
His gaze lowered. For an instant Lia dropped her guard; she stared at him helplessly, angry with herself and him, desperate to stop drinking in the sight of his face and throat and the slope of his shoulders, desperate to stop the memories of her blind nights with him from threatening to sweep over her like a black hungry tide-and then he looked up, and she turned her eyes away.
“I could help you with that,” he said. “I could help you sleep.”
She took a steadying breath. “How?”
His mouth crooked.
Lia felt the animal in her wake at once, its pulse in her blood.
“Herbs,” Zane said, going back to his drink. “Our baker friend over there, for instance, has added thyme and rosemary to her bread. Do you smell it? And the mutton was exceptionally overspiced. I’d wager she has quite a store of herbs in her cupboard. It won’t hurt to ask.”
Her hand ached; Lia was gripping her pewter fork so hard her fingers had gone white. Deliberately, she set it aside. “What do you know of herbology?”
“Only what’s of use to me.” He shrugged. “A successful businessman learns all the nooks and crannies of his profession. On certain-delicate-jobs, I find it’s more profitable to work around a dozing constable rather than a vigilant one. Most of them tend to drink themselves into a stupor by ten, but for those who don’t…” He gave a truly wicked smile. “An apothecary shop would be better, but I doubt we have that option anywhere nearby. Still…a little of this, a little of that. It could help your dreams.”
“Don’t trouble yourself. I’ll be fine.”
“Yes,” the thief said, leaning forward to cover her hand with his own, very briefly. “You will be, because you have me.”
It seemed that the woman was also a midwife, most likely the only one for miles around. She proudly possessed an entire shack of dried plants and flowers, located past the chicken coop filled with hens-which scattered at Lia’s approach-and a pen of mournful ewes-which tossed their heads and kept bleating long after she’d vanished from their sight.
Lia didn’t even have the words for all the wreaths and roots hanging from hooks or mashed into clay jugs littering the shelves. The thief didn’t need the words anyway. With a mixture of flattery and brazen charm, he sidled his way into the drafty shack, opening jars, crumbling leaves between his fingers and thumb, sniffing and occasionally tasting the dust left behind on his fingertips, thoughtful.
The little girls tracked his every move with giggles and more whispers, crowding the doorway and blocking the light, their hands over their mouths. Every now and then Zane would angle a warm look in their direction, and the giggles grew louder.
They left the farmhouse that day with a jug of herbs he had blended himself, which he handed up to her after she was seated in the carriage.
“What am I to do with this?” she asked, still perturbed.
“Unless we can find some hot water this evening for tea, I’m afraid you’re going to have to eat it.”
“The devil I will.” She sat the jug on the seat.
“Language, Lady Amalia.” He gave her a sweeping bow. “I fear I’ve been a shocking poor influence on you.”
“You have no notion,” she grumbled under her breath as he closed the door between them.
That had been the last day they’d had a hot meal. That evening they’d found a new farmhouse-well before sunset-and then the next morning they were off again…but there was only a single small hamlet nearby, only a few hours beyond the previous one. They’d taken a chance on finding another, but there was none. Instead, at last, they’d sought shelter in what appeared to be an abandoned shepherd’s hut.
The Roma lit a fire that sent black smoke pillowing out from the fireplace into the chamber. Cursing, Zane had found a branch to open the chimney; it took the two of them forcing it together to unstick the old flue.
Snow managed to scour most of the soot off their skin, but Lia had spent the rest of the night trying not to cough.
They’d supped on the packet of cold sausages and bread purchased from the last house; she would not touch the jar of herbs. Zane slept as he always did when it was the two of them on the floor: his body molded to hers, his arms pinning her close, her head resting at his shoulder. It was a sexless embrace, at least for him, she assumed. Beneath the sheepskin that covered them, she was hot and uncomfortable and unable to move. When the dreams finally came, she twitched in her sleep like a puppy, distantly feeling his hand sliding up and down her arm to soothe her.
All it did was make the dreams worse.
The next day the villages vanished. As they ambled deeper into the wilderness, they found naught that spoke of people, not even a hint of civilization. No more plowed fields. No mills, or massive rolls of hay dusted with sugar-snow. No grapevines, no wheat sheaths, no cattle or geese or sheep. Only the road, narrow and twisting, climbing nowhere but higher into the purple mountains. Only the woods, hushed and still, as if the birds and deer and squirrels had all fled because they knew she was on her way. Steam rose now and again from the horizon, a sign of hot springs or melt, enormous slow curls dissolving under the sun.
Even the other
But below, far below,
So that next night, that twelfth night, they lacked even a shepherd’s hut to shelter them, and all the leftover food was gone. They found a clearing beside the road and pulled over, resigned to spending the remaining hours of dark in the wilderness. She had argued with Zane about who would sleep where: he wanted her in the carriage, and she’d refused. She knew from experience the seats were not long enough for comfortable rest, and the thought of spending yet another moment cloistered inside its small space was enough to set her teeth on edge.
The night was arctic-clear. Stars spangled the sky like the glitter of scales and ice. The moon was a rising scythe to the east, paling the heavens in a wide circle from jet to lapis blue through the peaks of the trees.
“You’d prefer it out here?” the thief had demanded, sweeping his hand to the woods. The other hand held one of the oil lanterns, casting mad shadows back and forth. “In the freezing cold? Are you daft?”
“Yes,” she’d bit out. “Quite.”
“Take the carriage, if you like it. The cushions stink and the windows rattle. I’m staying out here. In the cold.”
So, of course, he did as well. It turned out the gypsy had decided to take the carriage-and everything in it.
There had been no hot water, no water at all save what was in the flask Zane carried that they filled every morning. He had fetched the jug of herbs from the carriage and shaken out a measure into the cup of his palm. He looked at her, his hand held out, starlight glinting along his hair and skin. Lia gazed back at him, unspeaking.
“I can’t sleep if you don’t,” he said frankly, and took her hand and poured the mixture into her palm. “Try not to taste it. It’ll be easier.”
Beneath the winking stars she had accepted his dry medicine, washing it all down with a drag from the flask. The flavor of wood and dirt lingered unpleasantly in her mouth.
He’d leaned down and touched his lips to her cheek before turning away, trudging through the snow to help the gypsy with the horses. Lia had sat upon the sheepskin and watched them, shadow men frosted silver, the animals snorting and shivering in their harnesses even though she’d made certain to stay downwind.
Zane had built a campfire. It threw a timid warmth against the chill.
His potion worked well. She was already blinking at the light when he came back to her, pulling her down with him to the sheepskin, tucking over them a blanket that smelled strongly of horse, enfolding her in his arms.
The fire crackled and burned.
“Lia-heart,” he murmured, a smoky voice in her ear. “Tell me about your dreams.”
But before she could drag her thoughts together for an answer, the shadows billowed around her like the sails of a dark, beautiful ship.
That night, for the first time in years, she slept in perfect silence.
She awoke alone.
She was aware that she was cold, and the soft something beneath her did little to protect her from the constant chill that seeped up from below. Lia felt heavy and slow, drowsing in the place between sleep and awake, her mind turning over the sensations that began, one by one, to intrude upon her perceptions.
A small wind, stirring against her cheek.
The smell of pine on the wind, and snow, and cold ashes.
The music of the earth, swelling to life.
The yellow sapphire.
Lia opened her eyes. She was by herself in the clearing beside the road of yesterday, and where the carriage used to be there were only tracks laced through the mud and snow. The fire was dead. And Zane, like the coach and the horses and the gypsy, was gone.
She sat up, gathering the blanket around her. The breeze returned and ruffled her hair; she ran a hand over her face, bewildered, and looked back at the prints by the road. They circled off into the dirt and gravel, cutting back over the marks from yesterday.
The wind whiskered through the blue spruce and firs, rushing and fading. Lia found her feet. With the blanket slung over her shoulders, she walked to the embankment where the carriage had been last night. There were the hoof-prints of the horses, all four of them. Various human marks, Zane’s boots and the gypsy’s softer-soled ones, meandering around. But here, just here, it was plain to see how the carriage had turned back to the road, the horses at first walking, then-as she followed it farther down-breaking into a trot.
And pressed through them were the fresher imprints of a man’s running steps. Zane, sprinting from behind.
The entire mess swept over the curve of the hill, marking the mud as far as her eyes could follow.
She returned to the dead fire, settling down upon the sheepskin to wait. The forest around her descended into absolute silence. She wished for birdsong, for the breeze to return, for anything to break this idle spell.
Clouds began to brew against the treetops, majestic, heavy clouds that leisurely roiled and ripped themselves apart, only to blend back together in blotchy confusion. It was going to snow again. She felt the promise of it in her every joint.
“Zane,” she said aloud, but of course received no answer.
When he trudged back over the hill, it was with a stitch in his side and self-recriminations ringing through his head. He should have anticipated this, he should have known-
But he hadn’t. He’d never entirely trusted the Roma, but he also had not believed in the worst of all possible consequences.
He’d awoken to the jingle of harnesses, the soft crump of hooves against snow. The horses were agitated; he felt their uneasy snufflings as if they were standing just next to him. In an instant his mind had pieced together what it meant. He’d bounded up, leaving Lia beneath the blanket, and glared at the sight of the carriage vanishing down the hill into the deceptive haze of a lavender dawn.
That son of a bitch. How had he hitched the horses without waking him?
No time to care. Zane had slept fully clothed; the night necessitated it, and at the moment he was bloody glad for it, because he did not feel the rocky dirt beneath his feet as he ran, and he did not notice the early-morning chill cutting around him. But the gypsy had noticed him, and four horses were swifter than one furious man. With a high
Zane ran and ran, and then slowed to a stop.
It was a lengthy walk back up the road.
She was waiting for him. She sat huddled in her cloak by the burned ring of his fire, her hair mussed to her shoulders, her arms wrapped around her knees.
She’d removed her tapes and hoops for sleeping. Her gown melted around her like a puddle of royal-blue sky.
“I lost him,” he admitted, and heard the anger tightening his voice.
Her head tipped; a shaft of sunlight threw a halo around her, much like that endless stroke of time in the tavern when his world had truly first begun to come undone. Her response was mild.
“We need to find shelter. It’s going to storm.”
It did not occur to him for one second to doubt her.
This was her world, not his.