-1Hot breath, warm lips, the taste of cinnamon. She opened her eyes. A stranger's face hovered inches from her own. A dark, curious gaze met hers for a suspended second before Constanta let out a gasp and jerked away. The man straightened up, stood there, made no move to come closer, no move to leave.
He had kissed her. She felt strange, her mind slow and clumsy, as though she were recovering from a long illness. "Who are you?" she asked into the silence. His eyes widened, dark brows winging over warm coffee-colored skin. He stared but he did not answer. "Who are you?" Constanta asked again, louder. She pulled the bedcovers to her chin, as if they'd somehow shield her, and peered around him toward the door. It was tightly shut, and he was blocking the way. But surely Dacia would arrive any minute with breakfast and realize something was wrong. Constanta just had to stall him.
He said something soft and low and held out his hand to her, the way one would to a wild animal. His words were a wild tumble. She stared at him, feeling frozen in place. A foreigner. How had a foreigner gotten into her chambers? There were no visitors in the palace.
The man frowned and spoke even more slowly: "I will not hurt you." His accent was heavy and strange, but the words were recognizable.
"What are you doing in my room?" Constanta asked again. He frowned. His clothes were odd, patched and tattered, the sleeves on his shirt ridiculously long and loose. Constanta felt her unease grow.
"I came to wake you," he said at last. At least, she thought that was what he said.
"Get out," she ordered. "Leave my chamber at once, or my father will have you butchered alive."
She watched him work through her words, his mouth moving silently. When he looked at her again there was a new expression on his face that she had trouble reading. Pity? Disappointment? She tensed, preparing to scream, but to her astonishment he nodded and backed away, leaving the room without another word. The heavy wooden door closed with a thud behind him.
Constanta took a deep breath, then another, fighting the urge to panic. The sense of wrong-ness was stronger now, pressing into her brain, clouding her eyes. With trembling fingers she found the bell pull and yanked. Dacia would tell her. Dacia always knew what was going on. Then Constanta stood up on weak, rubbery legs and went to pull the bolt shut on the door. What an odd way to start the morning. And it was late, later than she ever slept, the sun streaming through her curtains. Why hadn't Dacia woken her?
She sat back down on the bed to wait for the maid, and uneasiness stirred again. It was very quiet. She could hear nothing, no sounds from outside, no noises drifting up from the lower reaches of the castle.
Something had happened the previous night to make her upset. She pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to remember. Then her head shot up. Aelfic's hired fighters had arrived as the sun went down, lighting up the forest with hundreds of campfires as they settled in to wait for morning. The king and queen had been grim, but Constanta had been ordered to retire to her chambers as usual.
And now it was morning. The man--he must have been one of Aelfic's fighters. The castle had fallen, then. She could only pray Aelfic would be merciful to her family. And Dacia--her maid might even be dead. Constanta tried to swallow the icy lump in her throat. Very well. She would go down to meet her fate.
It wasn't quite so easy as that. It took ages to find a dress she could struggle into without Dacia's help, and her brown hair was in a hopeless snarl. She could only pin it up and pray it would stay. She paused by the window as she turned to leave the room. and sucked in a startled breath. The snow outside had melted. All of it. The drifts had been higher than a horse last night, covering eves and ramparts, but the tree tops visible from her window now were a brilliant leafy green. She clutched the sill, bewildered, and leaned further out. The roof. Something was wrong with the tiling that stretched and sloped beneath the tower. And the courtyard wall. Why did the courtyard wall look so strange?
Her heart beating in her throat, she turned from the window, desperate for answers. Pulling open the door she nearly collided with the strange man, who was leaning with folded arms against the wall. "You will escort me to Aelfic," Constanta ordered, trying to hide the tremor in her voice. His brows knit. "Aelfic," Constanta repeated.
He shook his head. "I am sorry. I do not understand who you mean."
"Never mind," said Constanta, her fear making her impatient. "I'll find him myself." She turned to descend the stairway, noting dimly that of the wall sconces were either unlit or missing.
"Wait." A hand tugged at her elbow. "I am not who you think I am."
She spun around to face him. "Are you one of ours? Have you seen my parents? Are the all right?" Hope flared painfully in her chest.
He was silent for a moment. "You have been asleep for a long time," he said at last.
Constanta wasn't sure she'd heard him properly. "I am accustomed to getting up at an earlier hour," she said, "but I would hardly call it a long time. Please, if you know where my parents are, take me to them."
"You have been asleep for a long time," he said again. "I think they must all be dead by now."
She stared at him, not understanding. His words still fell oddly on her ears, but there had been no mistaking what he'd just said. "I-I don't understand," she said. "What is happening? Where is everyone else? How could they all be dead?"
"Come," he told her, "I will show you." He started down the narrow stone staircase, unconcerned by the tarry blackness. Constanta followed slowly behind. The stair treads were cracked and rough, and there was a great deal of rubble littering her path. The door at the bottom of the stairwell was missing, but Constanta hurried forward eagerly into the corridor that would take her to the great hall. "Wait," the man ordered from behind. Impatiently, Constanta reigned in her pace to match his. Something about the corridor seemed wrong. The tapestries. The tapestries were missing, and mildewed heap of something were strewn across the floor.
"What happened?" she asked, stopping completely, suddenly terrified of going into the great hall. "Tell me."
He hesitated for an excruciating moment. "In this land there are many strange tales," he said slowly. "I grew up listening to them all. But the strangest has always been the story of the enchanted castle, protected by a forest of thorns that on one could breach."
"Stop," said Constanta. "I don't-"
He cut her off, continuing his story. "Some tried, and died in the attempt. One day, some years ago, when I was a little younger and a good deal more foolish, my caravan camped not far from this fabled castle, and the temptation proved too great for me to resist. Imagine my surprise when I made my way out of the thorns, still alive, and found myself in the courtyard of a castle. The entire place was crumbling and empty except for a few birds, but there was a wealth of treasure for the taking—pots, pans, things that could be sold. I gathered what I could. I was preparing to leave when I saw a tower room at the top of the castle which seemed strangely untouched by time and weather. I was curious. My questions about the place were still unanswered; perhaps this tower held the key. It wasn't difficult to find the right staircase. Imagine my astonishment when I entered the room and found it perfectly intact, like it was frozen in time. Imagine my horror when I discovered the room was still occupied."
"Stop!" Constanta begged again. He ignored her. "There was a young woman on the bed, who seemed to be sleeping—but I could not wake her. I tried. I shouted, I shook her. But it was growing late, and I needed to return to my camp."
He took a breath. "The next day, we moved on, and I thought I would never have the chance to solve the mystery. But a few years later, our path brought us once again to the abandoned castle, and I was given another chance to wake the girl. I failed that time, too. It was another two years before we returned. This time," he stared at her with fathomless dark eyes. "This time I succeeded in waking her."
Constanta shook her head, trying to shake everything he'd just told her out of it. "No, no, no, no," she heard herself saying from a very far distance.
"You don't look well," the man said, from the same far distance. "Maybe you should sit." He put out a hand but she shook it off, walking blindly toward the great hall.
She stopped in the wide double doorway, her eyes offering irrefutable proof of the man's story. The place was destroyed. The beautiful stained glass windows were all shattered, letting in light and the groping arms of wild vines. Rubble littered the floor. A large hole in the roof revealed the darting forms of swallows coming and going. The dais showed evidence of a small campfire, and one of the heavy wooden chairs was all that remained, tipped on its side and looking like nothing so much as a pile of kindling. The room spun for a moment and a hot burning began behind her eyes. Her home was ruined. Her family was dead. She was alone.
A hand on her shoulder snapped her back. "I'm sorry," the man said. "If I'd known it would cause you so much pain, I would have let you sleep."
The thought did not comfort her. "How long have I-" she swallowed. "How long have I been asleep?"
He did not answer, and she twisted around to look up at him. His shoulders were tensed; he seemed troubled. "I do not know," he said. "I had hoped you would be able to answer my questions. I know nothing of this place."
"What year is it?" she asked, terror in her throat.
He shrugged. "By our reckoning, it is seven years since the death of our king Elbon, forty years since the death of Queen Imara, fifty years since we were driven from the southern mountains, eighty-two years since we have-"
"Stop," said Constanta. "Do you not keep time by the death of the witch-woman Morvaine?"
He shook his head. "I have never heard of your Morvaine."
The hollowness descended on her again. "My family?" she asked. "The Tirisetti?" He shook his head.
"Perhaps you would like some time to yourself," he finally said into the silence. "I will be outside, by the old fountain when you are through here." He waited for her to nod; when she did not he walked off through the ruined hall, picking his way carefully to the door. She watched him go. She should be crying and screaming, but she felt curiously empty, almost weightless, as though she were watching events from very far away. She had been rude to him, despite his bluntness. She should have apologized.
She stared blindly into the great hall for another minute, then turned and began walking down the long rear corridor, needing to see for herself what had happened to the rest of the castle. The corridor wasn't as dark as it should have been. Great gaps and cracks in the walls and ceiling let in light as she stumbled along.
The kitchens stretched away like a cavern, vast and silent. There was nothing in them. No food. Not even the remains of food. It was just a great, echoing space. She hurried through to the other end, where a door let into a kitchen garden. There wasn't a garden anymore. She was greeted by a chest-high tangle of weeds. Above the wild profusion she could just see the back of the stables, the thatched roof entirely gone. But where the land behind the stable should have sloped away to a gentle pasture bordered by the river she could see nothing but a massive, towering hedge of brambles that threatened to block out the late afternoon sun.
With a sharp breath, she turned and fled back into the kitchen.
She spent several hours wandering through the rest of the palace in a daze. Everything had been destroyed by time and weather, and all of the sturdier objects--weapons, china, jewelry-- had vanished. At length Constanta found that she had come full circle back to her tower chambers. Her rubbery legs carried her back up the collapsing staircase, back into her bedroom, which now seemed ridiculous and absurd in its perfection. She sat on the bed. She sat and stared at nothing, and found that she couldn't get up again, didn't want to get up again. So she sat and she stared.
It wasn't until her stomach began hurting that she stood up, intending to ring Dacia up with a tray. But Dacia was gone, and it was too much trouble to sit back down on the bed, the ridiculous bed with its soft, silken coverings. Instead she left the room, closing the door very carefully as though leaving the room of a sick relative, and climbed back down the stairs and through the great hall into the world outside.