The trees murmur overhead, and then go still, as if they too are waiting, and Adeline prays, to every god in the Villon woods, to anyone and anything who will listen. This cannot be her life. This cannot be all there is.
“Answer me,” she pleads as the damp seeps into her wedding dress.
She squeezes her eyes shut, and strains to hear, but the only sound is her own voice on the wind and her name, echoing in her ears like a heartbeat.
She bows her head against the soil and grips the dark earth and screams, “Answer me!”
The silence is mocking.
She has lived here all her life and never heard the woods this quiet. Cold settles over her, and she doesn’t know if it’s coming from the forest or from her own bones, giving up the last of their fight. Her eyes are still shut tight, and perhaps that is why she doesn’t notice that the sun has slipped behind the village at her back, that dusk has given way to dark.
Adeline keeps praying, and doesn’t notice at all.
July 29, 1714
The sound, when it comes, is a low rumble, deep and distant as thunder.
Laughter, Adeline thinks, opening her eyes and noticing, finally, how the light has faded.
She looks up, but sees nothing. “Hello?”
The laughter draws itself into a voice, somewhere behind her.
“You need not kneel,” it says. “Let us see you on your feet.”
She scrambles up, and turns, but she is met only by darkness, surrounded by it, a moonless night after the summer sun has fled. And Adeline knows, then, that she has made a mistake. That this is one of the gods she was warned against.
“Adeline? Adeline?” call the voices from the town, as faint and faraway as the wind.
She squints into the shadows between the trees, but there is no shape, no god to be found—only that voice, close as a breath against her cheek.
“Adeline, Adeline,” it says, mocking, “… they are calling for you.”
She turns again, finding nothing but deep shadow. “Show yourself,” she orders, her own voice sharp and brittle as a stick.
Something brushes her shoulder, grazes her wrist, drapes itself around her like a lover. Adeline swallows. “What are you?”
The shadow’s touch withdraws. “What am I?” it asks, an edge of humor in that velvet tone. “That depends on what you believe.”
The voice splits, doubles, rattling through tree limbs and snaking over moss, folding over on itself until it is everywhere.
“So tell me—tell me—tell me,” it echoes. “Am I the devil—the devil—or the dark—dark—dark? Am I a monster—monster—or a god—god—god—or…”
The shadows in the woods begin to pull together, drawn like storm clouds. But when they settle, the edges are no longer wisps of smoke, but hard lines, the shape of a man, made firm by the light of the village lanterns at his back.
“Or am I this?”
The voice spills from a perfect pair of lips, a shadow revealing emerald eyes that dance below black brows, black hair that curls across his forehead, framing a face Adeline knows too well. One that she has conjured up a thousand times, in pencil and charcoal and dream.
It is the stranger.
She knows it is a trick, a shadow parading as a man, but the sight of him still robs her breath. The darkness looks down at his shape, seeing himself as if for the first time, and seems to approve. “Ah, so the girl believes in something after all.” Those green eyes lift. “Well now,” he says, “you have called, and I have come.”
Never pray to the gods that answer after dark.
Adeline knows—she knows—but this is the only one who answered. The only one who would help.
“Are you prepared to pay?”
Adeline drops to her knees, scours the ground until she finds the leather cord, and frees her father’s ring from the soil.
She holds it out to the god, its pale wood now stained with dirt, and he draws closer. He may look like flesh and blood, but he still moves like shadow. A single step, and he is there, filling her vision, folding one hand around the ring, and resting the other on Adeline’s cheek. His thumb brushes the freckle beneath her eye, the edge of her stars.
“My dear,” says the darkness, taking the ring, “I do not deal in trinkets.”
The wooden band crumbles in his hand, and falls away, nothing more than smoke. A strangled sound escapes her lips—it hurt enough to lose the ring, hurts more to see it wiped from the world like a smudge on skin. But if the ring is not enough, then what?
“Please,” she says, “I will give anything.”
The shadow’s other hand still rests against her cheek. “You assume I want anything,” he says, lifting her chin. “But I take only one coin.” He leans closer still, green eyes impossibly bright, his voice soft as silk. “The deals I make, I make for souls.”
Adeline’s heart lurches in her chest.
In her mind, she sees her mother on her knees in church, speaking of God and Heaven, hears her father talking, telling stories of wishes and riddles. She thinks of Estele, who believes in nothing but a tree over her bones. Who would say that a soul is nothing more than a seed returned to soil—though she’s the one who warned against the dark.
“Adeline,” says the darkness, her name sliding like moss between his teeth. “I am here. Now tell me why.”
She has waited so long to be met—to be answered, to be asked—that at first the words all fail her.
“I do not want to marry.”
She feels so small when she says it. Her whole life feels small, and she sees that judgment reflected in the god’s gaze, as if to say, Is that all?
And no, it is more than that. Of course it is more.
“I do not want to belong to someone else,” she says with sudden vehemence. The words are a door flung wide, and now the rest pour out of her. “I do not want to belong to anyone but myself. I want to be free. Free to live, and to find my own way, to love, or to be alone, but at least it is my choice, and I am so tired of not having choices, so scared of the years rushing past beneath my feet. I do not want to die as I’ve lived, which is no life at all. I—”
The shadow cuts her off, impatient. “What use is it, to tell me what you do not want?” His hand slides through her hair, comes to rest against the back of her neck, drawing her close. “Tell me instead what you want most.”
She looks up. “I want a chance to live. I want to be free.” She thinks of the years slipping by.
Blink, and half your life is gone.
“I want more time.”
He considers her, those green eyes changing shade, now spring grass, now summer leaf. “How long?”
Her mind spins. Fifty years. One hundred. Every number feels too small.
“Ah,” says the darkness, reading her silence. “You do not know.” Again, the green eyes shift, darken. “You ask for time without limit. You want freedom without rule. You want to be untethered. You want to live exactly as you please.”