“Yes,” says Adeline, breathless with want, but the shadow’s expression sours. His hand drops from her skin, and then he is no longer there, but leaning against a tree several strides away.
“I decline,” he says.
Adeline draws back as if struck. “What?” She has come this far, has given everything she has—she made her choice. She cannot go back to that world, that life, that present and past without a future. “You cannot decline.”
One dark brow lifts, but there is no amusement in that face.
“I am not some genie, bound to your whim.” He pushes off the tree. “Nor am I some petty forest spirit, content with granting favors for mortal trinkets. I am stronger than your god and older than your devil. I am the darkness between stars, and the roots beneath the earth. I am promise, and potential, and when it comes to playing games, I divine the rules, I set the pieces, and I choose when to play. And tonight, I say no.”
Adeline? Adeline? Adeline?
Beyond the edge of the woods, the village lights are closer now. There are torches in the field. They are coming for her.
The shadow looks over his shoulder. “Go home, Adeline. Back to your small life.”
“Why?” she pleads, grabbing his arm. “Why do you refuse me?”
He brushes his hand along her cheek, the gesture soft and warm as hearthsmoke. “I am not in the business of charity. You ask for too much. How many years until you’re sated? How many, until I get my due? No, I make deals with endings, and yours has none.”
She will come back to this moment a thousand times.
In frustration, and regret, in sorrow, and self-pity, and unbridled rage.
She will come to face the fact that she cursed herself before he ever did.
But here, and now, all she can see is the flickering torchlight of Villon, and the green eyes of the stranger she once dreamed of loving, and the chance to escape slipping away with his touch.
“You want an ending,” she says. “Then take my life when I am done with it. You can have my soul when I don’t want it anymore.”
The shadow tips his head, suddenly intrigued.
A smile—just like the smile in her drawings, askance, and full of secrets—crosses his mouth. And then he pulls her to him. A lover’s embrace. He is smoke and skin, air and bone, and when his mouth presses against hers, the first thing she tastes is the turning of the seasons, the moment when dusk gives way to night. And then his kiss deepens. His teeth skim her bottom lip, and there is pain in the pleasure, followed by the copper taste of blood on her tongue.
“Done,” whispers the god against her lips.
And then the world goes black, and she is falling.
July 29, 1714
She looks down, and sees that she is sitting on a bed of wet leaves.
A second ago, she was falling—for only a second, barely the length it takes to draw a breath—but time, it seems, has skipped ahead. The stranger is gone, and so are the last dregs of light. The summer sky, where it shows through the canopied trees, is smoothed to a velvet black, marked only by a low-hanging moon.
Adeline rises, studying her hands, looking past the dirt for some sign of transformation.
But she feels … unchanged. A little dizzy, perhaps, as if she’s stood too quickly, or drunk too much wine on an empty stomach, but after a moment even that unsteadiness has passed, and she’s left feeling as if the world has tipped, but not fallen, leaned, and then rebalanced, settled back into the same old groove.
She licks her lips, expecting to taste blood, but the mark left by the stranger’s teeth is gone, swept away with every other trace of him.
How does one know if a spell has worked? She asked for time, for life—will she have to wait a year, or three, or five, to see if age leaves any mark? Or take up a knife and cut into her skin, to see if and how it heals? But no, she had asked for life, not a life unscathed, and if Adeline is being honest, she is afraid to test it, afraid to find her skin still too yielding, afraid to learn that the shadow’s promise was a dream, or worse, a lie.
But she knows one thing—whether or not the deal was real, she will not heed the ringing church bells, will not marry Roger. She will defy her family. She will leave Villon, if she must. She knows she will do whatever it takes now, because she was willing in the dark, and one way or another, from this moment forward, her life will be her own.
The thought is thrilling. Terrifying, but thrilling, as she leaves the forest.
She is halfway across the field before she realizes how quiet the village is.
The festive lanterns have been put out, the bells have stopped ringing, there are no voices calling her name.
Adeline makes her way home, the dull dread growing a little sharper with every step. By the time she gets there, her mind is buzzing with worry. The front door hangs open, spilling light onto the path, and she can hear her mother humming in the kitchen, her father chopping wood around the side of the house. A normal night, made wrong by the fact it was not meant to be a normal night.
“Maman!” she says, stepping inside.
A plate shatters to the floor, and her mother yelps, not in pain, but surprise, her face contorted.
“What are you doing here?” she demands, and here is the anger Addie expected. Here is the dismay.
“I’m sorry,” she starts. “I know you must be mad, but I couldn’t—”
“Who are you?”
The words are a hiss, and she realizes then, that fearsome look on her mother’s face is not the anger of a mother scorned, but that of a woman scared.
Her mother cringes away from the very word. “Get out of my house.”
But Adeline crosses the room, grabs her by the shoulders. “Don’t be absurd. It’s me, A—”
She is about to say Adeline.
Indeed, she tries. Three syllables should not be such a mountain to climb, but she is breathless by the end of the first, unable to manage the second. The air turns to stone inside her throat, and she is left stifled, silent. She tries again, this time attempting Addie, then at last their family name, LaRue, but it is no use. The words meet an impasse between her mind and tongue. And yet, the second she draws breath to say another word, any other word, it is there, lungs filled and throat loose.
“Let go,” pleads her mother.
“What’s this?” demands a voice, low and deep. The voice that soothed Adeline on sick nights, that told her stories as she sat on the floor of his shop.
Her father stands in the doorway, his arms full of wood.
“Papa,” she says, and he draws back, as if the word were sharp.
“The woman is mad,” sobs her mother. “Or cursed.”
“I am your daughter,” she says again.
Her father grimaces. “We have no child.”
Those words, a duller knife. A deeper cut.
“No,” says Adeline, shaking her head at the absurdity. She is three and twenty, has lived every day and every night beneath this roof. “You know me.”
How can they not? The resemblance between them has always been so keen, her father’s eyes, her mother’s chin, one’s brow and the other’s lips, each piece clearly copied from its source.