I did not sleep.
Not the night of the fete, not for many nights after. I feared, for the moment I closed my eyes, dreams of catastrophe, of a seductive and snaking evil wound their way around my mind, waiting, waiting to see how long until I gave in. I stopped attending the morning teas, I hardly went to the gardens, I never stayed in my rooms. I hurried from place to place, not wanting to stop, for fear my curse would finally catch up to me and doom everything.
Ise came to see me, when I had gone briefly to the main gates to give a message from Rohan to one of the guards. "I've searched for you everywhere," she said. "You look horrid." Ise never minced words, but I knew it was true. I disgusted myself—I had purple-veined bags under my eyes, lines on my brow from a perpetual frown, and I'd lost weight, looked skeletal, like a morbid parody of death. But I couldn't eat, couldn't rest. My dark heart would find me, devour me alive.
"You should go back to Monsire's." I spoke quickly, not wanting to linger at the gate. My feet flittered on the ground.
"I'm worried," she said, which told me how concerned she was. It was not in her nature to say that. "Everyone is."
"Ise," I whispered, "I don't know who to...I don't know what I can do. I can't stay here, but there is nowhere for me to go." About to continue, I opened my mouth, but looking down out of mere chance, there, in the courtyard, was the shadow-man. He looked up.
A crashing wave of vertigo, then panic, slammed through my body—and then, only darkness.
I opened my eyes to a strange room. I clenched them shut quickly, and prayed desperately to lady Fate, harder than anything before, that I was not in that fearful place of my dreams. And then I heard a whispered voice—"Look! Is she awake?"
I shot up in bed, dizzy with relief. "Rain!" And he was there beside me, his weight heavy and reassuring on the bed.
"What were you thinking, you little idiot?" Rain picked up one of my hands. "You're so cold. So cold." His voice broke a bit, elated and furious at once, if such a thing were possible. My arms felt light, light and cold, as if they were not truly attached to my body and would float away. Disembodied angels. Turtledoves...
I reached up, to try to sit up, to whisper, but I could not. I lacked even the strength for that. And then I shook. Rain laid a hand across my forehead, cool and misty, dewdrops on roses. "What does it feel like," I whispered, "to speak from crimson petals?" He frowned, but his mouth was made of roses; I fell through a garden, one of light and shadow and mist dancing on crimson painted roses, and from underneath the petals, crawled dying, rotting souls, creeping into everything alive. Withered.
I heard—"She's burning to death. Her fever, it eats her from within."
And Rain—"What can be done? Something must be done!"
Then – "The fever comes from within. Her heart and soul burn. Find those who know her. Find what she wants, why she burns."
All the roses were burning, burning, merrily, burning. They turned to black char, and the wind swept away the ashes, in the sky, grinning, grinning like death.
"Find my half-sister," Rain commanded his unknown companion, "and tell her..."
I drifted away on the petals, floating out to sea like the goddess Venu, in her sea foam, and the waves turned me about, singing and weeping, until I spun off the edge of the world.
Rain was there again. This time, asleep. I struggled up in the bed a bit farther, and watched him. He had grown up, still, since our almost-dance, but he was tired. I could tell from the lines of his body, the tilt of his jaw as he slept. I felt my own face—gaunt, bone dry, and my hair, tangled and too long.
I was going to die. I should have already been dead. My mother had been right all along. How could I have been so blind to it, when I saw? And I would infect all of Rose Court—I was a plague, a dark malaise, like a terrible angel, carrying sin and death to all it touches, and I had to leave before it spread. I tried to wiggle my way out of the bed, so I could crawl to the door- I didn't think past that; I could hardly think at all, so deep in terror was I- but I was too weak, still, and fell to the floor like a stone in a river. And I woke Rain, who found me sprawled out beside his bed.
"Violante!" he exclaimed, still sleep-ridden. Then he shot up, beside me, gathering me into his arms. "Stop it. Stop this now. Are you trying to die?" His words were harsh, each a slap.
I burst into shuddering, racking sobs—and a shocked prince just tightened his arms around me. Don't love me- I wanted to scream- I am your doom. But I couldn't draw breath, and I wept until I fell asleep on the floor in Rain's arms.
He sat at the bottom of the bed in the morning, and greeted me with, "We are getting out of the court." I looked around—was this still a dream?
Rain scooted closer, serious. "Look at me, Violante. I am going on a sea expedition, and you are coming with me."
"Why?" I could only manage one word at a time.
"Ise said you needed to go. I spoke to her. And you've spent enough time at the beach- don't deny you want to see the ocean. You can't."
No, that I could not. So it was arranged that I would travel on his voyage, though I'm sure many were less than pleased at that news. Rain, and especially I, tried to keep it as quiet as we could. When we returned, it would be for Rain's coronation, and both he and I wanted to avoid that as long as possible, for varied reasons of course.
I didn't want Rain leading the troops against the shadow armies of Mvor. He didn't want to marry a Queen. But it was a silent pact not to speak of those matters, and when we left, he spoke only of what we'd find in the far seas. Mermaids and gods and treasures and wishes. As I was still somewhat ill, Rain made me ride in his carriage to the ship, so we had more than enough time for discussion.
I, of course, had other aims concerning this sea expedition than new maps and charts for Rose Court. At the mere mention of the sea, every bone in my body ached for it, but since the Keep, I had been more cautious in my dealings with Alrbiesh. I did not want to discover more that I did not understand until I could find a way to learn about what I found. Or, what found me.
But Rain seemed bent on an attempt to speak of what his new gardens would be like, how much I would enjoy them, so my mind was much occupied during the ride in any case, and I did not dwell on troubling thoughts. It was the last light conversation I had for days.
The ship, The Dancing Assassin, was large and sturdy—at least to my unknowledgeable eyes. But its captain made me uneasy. His expression was warm as we boarded, but his eyes were blank as gray slate. It recalled to me the gray palace of my nightmares, the flat and never-ending walls that trapped me, and I wondered if I would ever escape them. Nothing appeared to bother Rain, but his troubles fell more in the tangible realm of politics than in my odd and snaky dream world.
I had hoped I wouldn't often run into the captain as Rain expressed a desire for me to rest on the first leg of the voyage, but my wishes were not heeded by my Lady. The first time I went to the sea at night, he caught me. I had crept from my cabin because Rain insisted on helping me with everything, and I feared for his image. And to be seen with me again, and at night...no.
So as I neared the railing alone, Captain Revore's voice shattered my peace. "You would not think to jump?" His voice was toneless, yet somehow still cold. And empty.
I spun around, my back pressing against the wooden rail. "I simply admired the view," my voice dropped to a whisper, "captain."
He had come alone, and came to stand beside me, with his gaze set at the ocean. "These are hard times, with hard choices, and especially for those with old blood." Revore's next words cracked like a whip. "Some choices can cause even tangled Fates to change." I shuddered, and was then to ask what he meant by his first statement, when a bird cried out.
A bird, at night?
You see, I should have realized at that moment, but I had been distracted by my own frets. But Rain's troubles had caught up with both him and me, in the form of deception.
In the instant the bird cawed, Revore grabbed both my wrists, and whistled back a cry of his own. My eyes widened, but it was too late to struggle- I could have fought, but I was not built for strength, and my fever had wasted what muscle I did have from swimming.
I practiced my own deception instead. Pretending to faint, I feel forward slowly, and when I felt Revore's arms slack, I pitched myself backward, and into Alrbiesh's arms.
I was lucky, I think, in having heard that bird cry before. It tugged on my memory while I fought the waves, which grabbed the heavy fabric of my dress and pulled down- little children, tugging at my hems, come and play, come and... Die.
It was in Cecily's waiting halls that I'd heard it last. Rohan had been guiding the Preama's niece around, and bored, she had been making up stories about the decorations Cecily kept. Then, she'd done bird calls, looking at a painted vase of Kasha birds chasing nectar-flowers.
I floated easily once I'd kicked off my dress, but I had no where to swim. I'd avoided the ship, ducking my head 'neath foamy caps, but I tread in the midst of Alrbiesh's domain, with only waves in sight.
She'd arranged this, I realized, I knew, and I of course, knew why, understood. She wanted to rule Rose Court. What troubled me was how she had arranged it…and her lack of insight. I could never marry Rain, no matter what delusions he himself held, I was not fit—not in manner, education, intellect, nor spirit. Freedom sung in my bones, a strong and coursing song, and a queen was bound eternally in chains of duty.
What was I to do? Though I was a strong swimmer, stronger than most believed, I was no lady of mer to brave the depths forever. But I was strangely calm. It seemed I had overcome my wasting fear with the sea, but only in time to face death. Perhaps anxiety was worse than the battle. Still, I refused to simply sink, so I swam as hard and as fast as I could for the horizon.
And as I swam, I heard, again, it was their voices in the storms, in the tide, in the sand, in the stone. In me. And in my dimming vision, a pair of, a light touch of...
I laughed, laughed at the incredulity of it all, and blacked out with salt water in my nose and lungs, but laughter in my heart.
And the laughter echoed back in the pounding of the surf.