The woman crosses herself, and Addie calls out in a hoarse and broken voice, “I am not dead.” But the woman only shuffles away and Addie turns her fury on the cart. “I am not dead!” she says again, kicking at the wooden wheel.
“Hey!” shouts a man, holding the legs of a frail and twisted corpse.
“Stay back,” shouts a second, gripping its shoulders.
Of course, they do not remember throwing her in. Addie backs away as they swing the newest body up into the cart. It lands with a sickening thud atop the others, and her stomach churns to think she was among them, even briefly.
A whip cracks, the horses shuffle forward, the wheels turn on the cobbled stones, and it is not until the cart has gone, not until Addie thrusts her trembling hands into the pockets of her stolen coat, that she realizes they are empty.
The little wooden bird is gone.
The last of her past life, carried away with the dead.
For months, she will keep reaching for the bird, hand drifting to her pocket the way it might to a stubborn curl, a motion born of so much habit. She cannot seem to remind her fingers it is gone, cannot seem to remind her heart, which stutters a little every time she finds the pocket empty. But, there, blooming amid the sorrow, is a terrible relief. Every moment since she left Villon, she has feared the loss of this last token.
Now that it is gone, there is a guilty gladness tucked among the grief.
This last, brittle thread to her old life has broken, and Addie has been set well, and truly, and forcibly free.
July 29, 1715
Dreamer is too soft a word.
It conjures thoughts of silken sleep, of lazy days in fields of tall grass, of charcoal smudges on soft parchment.
Addie still holds on to dreams, but she is learning to be sharper. Less the artist’s hand, and more the knife, honing the pencil’s edge.
“Pour me a drink,” she says, holding out the bottle of wine, and the man pries out the cork and fills two glasses from the low shelf of the rented room. He hands her one, and she doesn’t touch it as he throws his back in a single swallow, downs a second before abandoning the glass and reaching for her dress.
“Where’s the rush?” she says, guiding him back. “You’ve paid for the room. We have all night.”
She is careful not to push him away, careful to keep the pressure of her resistance coy. Some men, she’s found, take pleasure in disregarding the wishes of a woman. Instead, Addie lifts her own glass to his hungry mouth, tips the rust-red contents between his lips, tries to pass the gesture off as seduction instead of force.
He drinks deep, then knocks the glass away. Clumsy hands paw at her front, fighting with the laces and the stays.
“I cannot wait to…” he slurs, but the drug in the wine is already taking hold, and soon he trails off, his tongue going heavy in his mouth.
He sags back onto the bed, still grasping at her dress, and a moment later his eyes roll back and he slumps sideways, lost to sleep before his head strikes the thin pillow.
Addie leans over and pushes until he rolls off the bed, hitting the floor like a sack of grain. The man lets out a muted groan, but does not wake.
She finishes his work, loosening the laces of her dress until she can breathe again. Paris fashion—twice as tight as country clothes, and half as practical.
She stretches out on the bed, grateful to have it to herself, at least for the night. She does not want to think about tomorrow, when she is forced to start again.
That is the madness of it. Every day is amber, and she is the fly trapped inside. No way to think in days or weeks when she lives in moments. Time begins to lose its meaning—and yet, she has not lost track of time. She cannot seem to misplace it (no matter how she tries) and so Addie knows what month it is, what day, what night, and so she knows it has been a year.
A year since she ran from her own wedding.
A year since she fled into the woods.
A year since she sold her soul for this. For freedom. For time.
A year, and she has spent it learning the boundaries of this new life.
Walking the edges of her curse like a lion in its cage. (She has seen lions now. They came to Paris in the spring as part of an exhibit. They were nothing like the beasts of her imagination. So much grander, and so much less, their majesty diminished by the dimensions of their cells. Addie went a dozen times to see them, studied their mournful gazes, looking past the visitors to the gap in the tent, the single sliver of freedom.)
A year she’s spent bound within the prism of this deal, forced to suffer but not die, starve but not waste, want but not wither. Every moment pressed into her own memory, while she herself slips from the minds of others with the slightest push, erased by a closing door, an instant out of sight, a moment of sleep. Unable to leave a mark on anyone, or anything.
Even the man slumped on the floor.
She draws the stoppered bottle of laudanum from her skirts, and holds it to the meager light. Three tries, and two bottles of the precious medicine wasted before she realized she could not drug the drinks herself, could not be the hand that did the harm. But mix it in the bottle of wine, reset the cork, and let them pour their own glass, and the action is no longer hers.
She is learning.
It is a lonely education.
She tips the bottle, the last of the milky substance shifting inside the glass, and wonders if it might buy her a night of dreamless sleep, a deep and drugged peace.
At the sound of the voice, Addie nearly drops the laudanum. She twists around in the small room, scouring the dark, but cannot find its source.
“I confess, my dear, I expected more.”
The voice seems to come from every shadow—then, from one. It gathers in the darkest corner of the room, like smoke. And then he steps forward into the circle cast by the candle flame. Black curls tumble across his brow. Shadows land in the hollows of his face, and green eyes glitter with their own internal light.
And for a traitorous instant, her heart lurches at the familiar sight of her stranger, before she remembers it is only him.
The darkness from the woods.
A year she’s lived this curse, and in that time, she’s called for him. She’s pleaded with the night, sunk coins she could not spare into the banks of the Seine, begged for him to answer just so she could ask why, why, why.
Now, she throws the bottle of laudanum straight at his head.
The shadow does not move to catch it, does not need to. It passes straight through, shatters against the wall behind him. He gives her a pitying smile.
Adeline. A name she thought she’d never hear again. A name that aches like a bruise, even as her heart skips to hear it.
“You,” she snarls.
The barest incline of his head. The curl of his smile. “Have you missed me?”
She hurtles toward him like the stoppered bottle, throws herself against his front, half expecting to fall through and shatter as it did. But her hands meet flesh and bone, or at least, the illusion of it. She pounds against his chest, and it is like striking a tree, just as hard and just as pointless.
He looks down at her, amused. “I see you have.”
She tears herself away, wants to scream, to rage, to sob. “You left me there. You took everything from me, and you left. Do you know how many nights I begged—”