The Plover’s Egg

The mariner entered the hall with frost in his beard and a woman in his arms. She was wrapped in his wolf-pelt coat and curled against his chest, so I couldn’t see her face. But I could see the mariner’s, beneath the fringe of his fur cap and tangled brows. The shadow of his beard, his narrow body like an otter’s. His arms cradled a tangle of white hair and gray fur. One small fist, tightly balled, rested on his collarbone.

Conversation stopped immediately. The count’s other guests—lords, hunters, wealthy men worth flattering with a banquet—were hungry, but they wanted the gossip more. And though I wouldn’t have passed up fresh fish if they’d thought to offer me some, I still preferred the story. I stood behind the table, waiting until I was needed, waiting to hear.

“We thought we lost you, Aleksander,” one of the hunters said. “You can’t wander off, you’ll get left behind.”

“Though looks like you’ve got your own catch,” said another.

A ripple of laughter followed. The scent of fish rising from the table took on a rotten edge. I swallowed, tasting salt and acid.

The mariner, Aleksander, nodded at the table. “Clear a space.”

I knew he meant me. I shifted the platters of salmon aside, and he laid the woman between them. Away from his arms, she was smaller than I supposed. Her face was half-shielded by her white hair, though she could hardly have been older than me. I longed to run my hand through it, see if it was as smooth as it looked.

“Where on earth,” said the count from the head of the table, “did you get that?”

Aleksander didn’t look away from the woman. With one hand, he brushed a lock of hair from her face. Her cheekbone when revealed stood sharp as a mountain.

“She was under the ice,” he said. “I followed tracks to the river, and I saw her hair. Drifting. Like kelp, but brighter. Like she was calling me.”

Her pale skin had a lavender tinge. Frostbite, or something further. I reached to tug the coat over the woman’s bare feet, which rested near the discarded tail of the salmon.

Aleksander caught me by the wrist. His hand was hot even through his glove. “Don’t,” he said.

I stepped back but didn’t look away. A knife shone beside the platter of fish, and a two-pronged fork plated with gold.

The count and his men speculated about the woman’s origins, her purpose, her use. Their suggestions grew wild. A lost noblewoman from Petersburg, a prophet sent by the Lord, a gift from the tsar for the count’s loyal service. But Aleksander said nothing more, and the woman said nothing at all.

“Take her,” the count said finally. “Let her rest.”

The mariner stepped forward, but the count put a hand on his arm.

“Don’t be ridiculous. Let Marya take her. That’s why we have servants.”

Aleksander froze. I wanted to laugh in his face. Instead, I took the woman in my arms. She was easy to lift. His coat smelled of tobacco and lemon, not scents I associated with the sea. The woman leaned her head against my shoulder and left a damp patch on my dress.

The count turned back to the salmon. He pared off a hunk of flesh and placed it on a plate, then gestured with a knife at the mariner. Aleksander’s face stiffened. Here was a man who’d had a knife turned on him before, and not in friendship.

“Sit,” said the count. “Eat.”

The mariner sat. I watched his lips close around the pink flesh, watched him chew. Then I took the woman upstairs, to an empty bedroom where she could rest.

She was damp still, but I wouldn’t undress her. I couldn’t imagine the fear of it: waking in a strange bed in a strange house, wearing clothes that weren’t yours and not knowing what happened to get you into them. Besides, she wasn’t shivering, and her breath was regular. I laid her in bed, covered her with blankets and spread the mariner’s coat atop them all. Then I lit a fire and sat in the wooden chair beside it. Letting the night pass, watching her.

She looked so small under the thick blankets. This grand chamber, this half-poster bed, this roaring fire, it seemed too big for her, and at the same time too small.

“You can go,” Aleksander said from the door.

I hadn’t heard him coming. Years of walking on creaking decks must have taught him how to move softly. He sat on the edge of the woman’s bed, his hip a hand’s-width away. Even across the room, I thought I could feel heat rolling from him.

“I’ll stay,” I said. “Make sure she’s taken care of.”

He ignored me. He’d given an order, and I’d follow it, because that’s what orders were for. Aleksander’s fingers trailed down the woman’s leg above the blankets. The woman sighed and leaned into his touch. I pictured his hand falling to the floor, an awkward claw cut off at the wrist.

“Call for me if you need help,” I said.

I left her with the mariner and went to bed without eating, without changing clothes, without permission. I lay staring at the ceiling. Directly above me, the woman was sleeping. The outline of her body would mirror mine. I closed my eyes and saw the net of her hair across my pillow, crackling like spiderweb fractures in glass.

The care of the white-haired woman was assigned to me. The count’s staff was small, leaving us little choice but to take on tasks that weren’t ours. Apparently I could be spared from the laundry easier than the others, a fact I tried not to take as an insult. In any case, I was happy to go. It got me out of the scalding water for a few hours, away from the steam and the tang of lye. And it got me into the woman’s room, so I’d be there when she woke.

One day went by, then two. The next morning, when I opened the door, she was sitting up in bed, and the fire was out. She’d found a book somewhere and was reading it, her knees up toward her chest. Eyes on the page, she looked asleep still. It was the only view of her eyelashes I’d ever had. Then she looked up. Her eyes were more gold than brown, almost yellow.

“Good morning,” I said. My breath hung thick in front of me.

She set the book aside and gestured for me to sit on the bed. When I did, the scent of lemon seemed to follow.

“Thank you for taking care of me, miss,” the woman said.

Those golden eyes, so difficult to meet. “No thanks,” I said, “and no miss. Just Marya.”

“Elizaveta,” the woman said, and touched my shoulder. I couldn’t have put into words what exactly made me tremble. But I could meet her eyes now. Beside us, frost clouded the high windows.

“Let me light a fire,” I said, after too long a pause. “You must be freezing.”

Elizaveta laughed. “Not at all. In fact”—she lifted the wolf-pelt coat from her legs and held it out to me. “Take it. I saw you shiver.”

“I couldn’t,” I said, as I put it over my shoulders. “They’ll think it’s theft.”

She grinned. “It wouldn’t be the first coat you’ve stolen.”

No. But that coat had been bearskin, and it smelled of nothing but the back of a wardrobe. My father’s coat, taken late at night with his money still in the pocket. Cold through the threadbare elbows as I tapped against Sonya’s window, urged her to come and say a proper goodbye. The kind my father threatened to kill me for, the reason I was running. She opened the window, glanced over her shoulder, climbed out into the snow. Sonya’s pale brown hair, almost amber. Sonya’s nine narrow fingers, the rounded stub of the tenth from a childhood accident with a door. Sonya’s last kiss, just above the collar of the bearskin coat. Sonya’s breath, thickening around the word Go.

I’d left home that night. Run to the count’s manor seeking work, and found it. But I hadn’t told anyone here why I’d left. And Elizaveta had spoken to no one but me.

I should have denied it. Claimed it all to be a misunderstanding. It wasn’t safe admitting it to anyone, certainly not a stranger. Still, I’d heard nothing, no news, in a year.

“Did you know her?”

“She’s safe,” Elizaveta said. “Her parents sent her away, to Poland, and she married a fisherman’s son. Someone should have told you.”

How could anyone have? How could anyone know?

Elizaveta laid a hand on my shoulder. I flinched as if from lightning.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ve frightened you.”

“No,” I said. “Not at all.”

I smiled and left her to her book and her business. Through the leaded window in the hall, snow swirled upward and sideways. Like sea spray, fast enough to drown in. It had snowed before, snowed yesterday, snowed all winter, but never like this.

I returned to the laundry, where at least the hot water would keep me safe. By nightfall, the snow had piled eight fresh inches and was only falling faster.

My father told me once about a friend of a cousin, Fyodor Ivanovich, who lived in a village twenty miles from Smolensk. One winter morning, Fyodor came across a young man in the woods, red-haired and black-eyed, and offered him a drink from his flask. The young man smiled with teeth too small and close together. He took a short drink and gave the full flask back empty.

“Strong,” he said with a wince.

“That’s the idea,” Fyodor said. “Enough vodka and you can’t feel the cold. You’re sure you’ll be all right alone, friend?”

The man bowed. “Perfectly. Thank you,” he said, “for the hospitality.” And with that, he turned off into the woods.

When Fyodor returned home, he saw the woodpile outside his house had doubled in size, and the room was warm, though no fire burned there. Out the window, a set of fox tracks circled the house. No trail led to or away from them. From then on, an etching of a fox hung among the icons of saints in the east corner of Fyodor’s home. It stayed there until the day he died.

My father held this story up as a warning against credulity, of how folk religion blinded men to reason. Imagine, he’d say, thinking you owed any sort of reverence to a fox. Now, I thought of the way sunlight rippled off Elizaveta’s hair, and I wondered. Pure white and lavender, like scales through water. Those yellow eyes that knew me.

Elizaveta recovered faster than I expected. Soon she moved about the house, receiving a noble’s welcome from the count. Still, she called me to her room at night to keep her company. She felt at ease with me, she said. What I felt was nothing at all like ease, but I never thought of refusing. I could have stayed with her forever, basking in her attention.

My conversation wasn’t worth her time. The great adventure of my life, my love for Sonya and my escape, could be told in an afternoon. Nothing happened to me here. Stupid gossip from downstairs, who’d insulted whom and why. The banality was why I’d come. Predictability was safe.

But safety wasn’t what I wanted now.

When Elizaveta spoke, I’d abandon everything to listen. Sometimes she’d slip into a language I didn’t understand. The words were hollow, deep green streaked with light. Sometimes she told me about the currents—cold and then warm—that danced through her hair and around her knees. She spoke of the salmon that nuzzled her toes, and how she suspected she’d once heard them purr. She spoke of the mariner’s booted feet overhead. The ice creaking. How in a moment the fish were gone, and then in the next so was she.

She never told me how she’d come to be beneath the ice. Whether she’d fallen from above or drifted from below. What happened during her first breath above, when the mariner pulled her to shore. I didn’t dare ask.

I knew from the moment I heard the two of them together. Even from the other end of the hall. No one else heard, but then, no one else was so attuned to her voice. No one needed to know like I did.

The door to Elizaveta’s bedroom was closed, but a warm light poured through the cracks around it. It glowed orange-yellow, the beak and talons of some great bird. I stood there watching it dance.

Elizaveta’s voice came through the door. The music of it only, not the sense. A laugh. And then a response, in a voice that rolled like waves. The mariner’s voice. Aleksander.

The doorknob seared my palm. I dropped my hold on it like a living thing. A fire must have raged inside, warmer than it ever burned for me. For a moment, I saw myself from above: a short, solid, plain girl with a freckled face and servants’ clothes, standing outside a locked door. Flushed, I turned my back on their laughter.

But I knew I’d come when she called.

He left gifts for her, small trinkets from his travels. Elizaveta would show them to me when I came after dark. They stood neatly along the mantle, publicly displayed, glittering like trophies. A pocket mirror with a jeweled peacock on the front—Elizaveta never looked at her reflection—a silver locket with a clasp like an oyster—she never wore jewelry.

Once he brought a plover’s egg painted with a map of the globe. She showed it to me, brimming with pride. I took it and sat on the end of the bed, turning it over in my hands. It was beautiful. I couldn’t fight that. Soft blues and sea greens, done with a brush no wider than a grain of rice. Each country was there, though warped slightly to suit the oblong shape. I ran the lines of my palms along loving, minute renditions of Prussia, Lapland, Persia.

“Look,” she said, and tapped her fingernail against the shell.

Where her nail had touched, a tiny sea monster snaked through the water beyond Japan.

“Isn’t it lovely?” she said.

It was such a little thing. Delicate. And my hands were strong. My knuckles twitched.

Elizaveta snatched the egg from my hands. I’d seen her passionate before, but never angry.

“Find Aleksander,” she said. “I want to thank him.”

I stood. She tucked the egg under her pillow and waited. I went.

I thought of it all night. The two of them together, tangled, one, sharing the minute world beneath her pillow. I lay alone and hoped the egg would crack.

The next night, when she turned her back on me, I reached one hand beneath the pillow. The egg was still there, unharmed.

I sat on the window-ledge, watching Elizaveta watch me. They’d given her finer clothes, but she sat on the end of the bed with the mariner’s old fur coat over her lap. It made her look like an invalid, a young woman trapped in the body of someone much older. The fire had long since burned out. Her yellow eyes shone like glowworms in the dark.

Neither of us had spoken for some minutes. Through the glass, the snow beat encouragement against my back. Ask her. Ask.

“Have you ever been in love?” I said.


“With who?”

She shrugged. “I think I loved the salmon.”

“And the other time?”

Elizaveta said nothing.

The snow tapped harder against my spine. There was nothing else for it. She hadn’t asked for my secret, but she hadn’t told me not to share it. And if I didn’t, he would. I stood up.

“I’ve loved twice too,” I said.

“Sonya, for the first,” she said. “And the other?”

I sat beside her. Moved the coat aside, so the curve of her thighs showed through her wool skirt. “Can I?” I said.

She nodded and then, permission aside, she kissed me.

Poets talk about the heat of love. The sweat between skin and skin, the cloud of a lover’s breath on your cheek. They never say anything about the cold.

Elizaveta tasted of salt, of mint, of vodka just shy of frozen. Her hair was soft beneath my hands, softer than I expected. It seemed impossible she would want me, a plain woman with nothing. But when she touched me I forgot it. She wanted me. Her hands, mouth, knees, hips, they all wanted me, and I let them have me, with a shudder of surrender and victory I let them. At the peak my breath spilled from me in a haze that hung there, almost solid, improbable.

I sank back trembling against the bed. Her laugh rang like falling water. When I woke, her bare arm was around my shoulder, and the sheets crackled with frost. I kissed her cold brow and left her. Walking to the laundry through the deserted house, I allowed myself a broad, unshielded smile.

I was elbow-deep in lye and other people’s stockings when Aleksander came to me. He sat on the table I used for folding. From the floor, where I knelt over the washtub, he seemed as tall as three men. His legs in their cracked sealskin breeches were spread wide. Each time he crossed my path I saw him more clearly. I thought of him as a cheap magician, revealing his own appearance at will and in pieces. I hadn’t noticed the color of his eyes before, their bright salt gray. I hadn’t noticed their light, like they’d be kind if someone gave them permission. I hadn’t noticed the bite of vodka, which I could smell over the lye.

He wanted something, that was clear. But what did it matter now?

I gestured at his breeches, flicking gray water in his direction. “I’m afraid those are beyond my help.”

Aleksander’s laugh erased some of the lines from his face. He could be charming. He was charming. His hands had pulled Elizaveta from the ice.

“No,” he said, “I don’t need washing. Sailor’s curse. I’ll die smelling of the sea.”

Now that was a thought.

“You’re close with Elizaveta,” he said.

The chill of salt on my lips. Her fingers, confident and insistent, frigid yet tender. I almost pitied him, but what I felt couldn’t be called pity.

“You could say that.”

“I wanted to ask you a favor.” Aleksander leaned forward. His eyes were sharper now. “The harbor is frozen, and my ship can’t leave.”

“Should I end the winter?”

He laughed, though there was nothing in it. “If you could. Otherwise, I’ll sail with the thaw. And I want Elizaveta to come with me, as my wife.”

The shirt in my hands caught against the washboard. I tugged, but it wouldn’t come free. Aleksander reached one callused hand and pulled softly, down. A buttonhole had wrapped around the bottom peg of the board. He could see it clearer from his position. I snatched the shirt away and tossed it over a chair. I would finish it later.

“I don’t see what that has to do with me.”

“You could tell her, Marya. Convince her. Tell her no one loves her like I do.”

He loved her. Aleksander. He’d seen her first through a mirror of ice. Crept in at night, that tall handsome man, trailing a cloud of tobacco and lemon. How did he see her? A prize the water held for him? I could have drowned him in the washtub. I thought of it, his sodden smile, his eyes stinging with lye.

His eyes, no longer so kind. The cruelty of a man with the upper hand.

“Yes,” I said, and turned back to the washtub. “I’ll tell her.”

Leaving the laundry for supper, I saw a thick swirl of frost along the lower windows, one that hadn’t been there in the colder hours of the morning. A neat script curled through each pane as if from the tip of a finger.

Marya, Marya, Marya.

On the grounds, visible through the lettering, a woman with white hair walked beside a man. She turned to face him, rose on tiptoe, and brought his face down for a kiss. Her laugh rose in frozen steam. But when I blinked, there was no one there, only my own name.

I didn’t tell her. But then, he didn’t need help. He only wanted me to know.

Aleksander should have told someone about me. Removed me from the scene. Perhaps he feared Elizaveta would be punished for my actions, I don’t know. What I do know is that he told no one, because when the news reached us downstairs, no one thought to lower their voices around me.

The wedding, the other women said, giddy as seagulls. A wedding in spring, the first day there would be pure sun. The engagement ball first and then, at snowmelt, the wedding.

“Whose wedding?” I asked.

“The mariner’s,” they said. “Aleksander, that handsome sailor. And the strange woman from the ice.”

I saw his eyes as he’d watched me in the laundry. Those kind eyes, those mocking eyes. Those eyes that sparkled like gray water and said to me, You’ve lost.

But I hadn’t. Not yet.

“You can’t love him,” I said.

Elizaveta shrugged, which made pinning on her sleeve that much harder. “Why not?”

We only had half an hour, and I still couldn’t get the dress to come together properly. It was a delicate thing, white lace done in tiny scalloped pieces, more like scales than fabric. The intricacy made it impossible to get at the proper seams. This was why I usually washed clothes instead of helping ladies into them. But she’d asked for me. As she shifted her weight, the lace rippled, revealing shades of white I’d never seen before.

“It’s not right,” I said.

She turned, stopping my work. “What if that’s why I like him?”

My palms itched, but I pressed them against my thigh. She hadn’t said love.

“What other wrong things do you like?” I said.

Elizaveta took the one sleeve I’d half-pinned to her shoulder and tugged it off. It hung in her hand like a dead thing before she tossed it away, into the hearth. There hadn’t been a fire there in days, not since Aleksander’s last visit, but I hadn’t swept the ashes either. The scales turned gray as a cloud of cinders rose around them.

“Let’s leave the dress like this,” she said.

I stepped back and looked. Lace brushed her collarbone, slumped down the curve of her shoulders. The fabric moved as she breathed, rippling in and out, frayed.

I reached into my pocket and took out a strand of beads threaded onto a string. I’d taken them from my prayer rope, silver beads with a single yellow one at the center. I tied the ends of the string around her wrist. She held it toward the candlelight, catching sparks in the beads.

“It’s lovely,” she said.

I kissed the back of her hand. “You’ll be late.”

The slate-gray hall had been transformed for the occasion. High-ceilinged and vast, it felt intimate, every flat surface holding candles ensconced in crystal, vases with bursts of purple hyacinths and yellow crocuses. The light fluttered with each brush of skirt, each breath.

And there, at the center, they danced.

I watched them from the door. She in lace alive and breathing in the glow. He in black, his hair slicked smooth and glistening. One hand softly holding hers, the other around her waist. A single crocus behind her ear with the stem tucked into her braid. I couldn’t dance, had never learned the steps, but anyone could see the grace that moved between them like a living thing. My beads glittered against his shoulder. His fingers curled into her hair, and they stood still in the center of a whirling room as he kissed her.

“Excuse me.” A boy stood behind me with a tray of aqua vitae to resupply the high table. I was blocking his way.

“Thank you.” I took two glasses and moved aside. By the time I turned, Elizaveta and Aleksander had rejoined the dance.

The drink was powerful. I felt frozen and flaming, wild as the snow against the window. I wandered the halls, through corridors I had no business being in, with a detour back to the hall for another round of aqua vitae. When I woke the next morning, it was in a third-floor alcove, with a sharp headache and no clear memory of how I’d come there. I dragged myself to the privy to vomit and then stumbled to my own bed.

The next time I woke it was well past noon, and a single crocus petal rested beside my cheek on the pillow. Pale yellow, almost white, narrow at the top and widening to a curve. No larger than my thumb.

It wasn’t a promise, nor was it an apology.

What I took it for was permission.

Most evenings, I knew, Elizaveta retreated to a private place to pray. It wasn’t her bedroom—she hadn’t hung any icons along the wall—and it wasn’t the church—I’d have seen her there—but it was somewhere. Aleksander wasn’t a praying man, but he was predictable. When Elizaveta went off, he’d retreat to his own temple: the stables. He was a horseman through and through, everyone knew it. Perhaps he felt their movement was as close to the sea as he could get here.

It wasn’t, which I meant to show him.

I’d grown up on the banks of the Neva. Tugged fish from it in summer, known which patches of ice would hold my weight in winter. I’d followed it from my father’s house to here, tracing its undulations like a sea monster lain flat. I knew which bends were rocky, which stretches unexpectedly deep. The mariner knew the sea, but the river was mine.

Aleksander was where I’d expected him. He occupied himself with the care of a white gelding, ingratiating himself with the woody musk of its smell. The horse nuzzled its nose into his shoulder as he stroked its coat. Perfectly at its ease. I hated how animals trusted him.

“I hope you enjoyed yourself last night,” Aleksander said as he turned to me.

An insult, but that didn’t matter. “Elizaveta sent me,” I said. “She has something to show you. A wedding present.”

He patted the gelding’s neck and leaned against the stall door. There was a lopsided confidence to him, one that would rock and adapt to the tides. A belief that what he received from the world was his due. He could have had anyone he wanted without effort.

“She doesn’t have to do that,” he said.

“And yet,” I said. “I’ll take you to her.”

We left the stables at dusk. By the time we passed the edge of the grounds and entered the woods, it was fully dark. The moon hung bright, nearly full, but shaded by the bare branches interlaced above us. There were no human footprints here but Aleksander’s and mine. Just elongated tracks of rabbits, a few smaller pads from voles or stoats. I heard small wings flutter between the trees, but when I raised my head the bird was gone.

“Where is she?” Aleksander’s voice fell echoless, swallowed by snow.

Beside me, a thick elm stood with gouges down its bark, evidence of years-old bear claws. I ran my palm along the deepest of them. A splinter tugged my skin though it didn’t stick. My father’s fur coat brushed my chin. The glow of distant manor lights. A home behind, something else ahead. How long had it been, since I first came this way in reverse?

“Not far,” I said.

Half a mile further, the Neva cut a clearing through the woods. And there, somehow, was Elizaveta.

She dangled her legs in the water, swirling her ankles in small loops. Ripples overlapped, this way and that. Around her, as I’d known it would, the river shone with deceptive ice that wouldn’t hold a person’s weight. I wanted to melt away. Bead into glittering drops that fell to earth, leaving a soft hollow in the snow.

“This was beneath you,” she said.

Nothing was beneath me. She should have known that.

“A dirty trick,” she said, and pulled her bare calves from the river. “I expected more.” She folded her legs, pale skin directly against the snow. My flesh prickled in sympathy, but hers didn’t redden. Her purple veins stuck out like paint-strokes.

Aleksander’s eyes widened. He wasn’t stupid. The river here, fast and deep. A body pressed against the bottom of the ice with palms splayed out. How close he’d come to his death. Saved by my own lie coming true despite myself. I saw something harden behind his eyes. A door had shut that couldn’t be opened.

“Come with me,” he said, and grabbed Elizaveta’s wrist. “Leave her.”

He pulled her to her feet so sharply I winced. Her bare feet left skids in the snow before she righted herself.

She looked down. Her skin glowed paler around Aleksander’s fingers. “Let go,” she said.

“You knew,” he said. “The two of you, against me. I should have known.” His other hand reached, grasping for her hair.

Elizaveta didn’t fight him. One minute he yanked her head back to expose her throat, and the next she stood alone two feet away from him. She took a step toward the river. She shook her head.

“I hoped for better from you, too,” she said.

Aleksander started to speak. But he didn’t make it far. Even the river slowed down to watch.

It started slowly. A shivering of her silhouette, a rough slickness rising where before there had been cool unbroken skin. Speckles dotted her brow and shoulders. Her pale hair gathered up and back into a mesh-like fin. A quiet breath, like the thwack of snow falling from a roof. The lavender tinge like veins running shallowly beneath scales.

The eyes shifted last. The pupils widened, but the yellow irises remained. Scornful. I saw those eyes looking at me from a wall of painted icons framed in gold. Demanding more from me, better than what I’d given.

The salmon twisted its tail mid-fall and arced headfirst into the black waters of the Neva. Ripples spread in perfect circles, striking the banks. The wind twisted, and snow caught in my lashes. I tasted mint, cold enough to ache.

On the riverbank, a perfect circle had melted from the snow. The plover’s egg rested in the center as if laid by a careful mother. It stood with the narrow end pointed toward the stars. If I dusted it with snow, I’d still see her fingerprints on it.

Twisted around the base of the egg was a strand of silver beads.

The ripples faded, and then the Neva was still.

Aleksander moaned. I knew the sound as if my heart had made it. He sank to his knees. I sat beside him, past the point of being cold. The snow quickened to a rapid burial. Flakes nestled in the mariner’s tangled brows, in the brim of his fur cap. Too harsh to walk. The manor was impossibly far, and the cold sat hard in my bones. No one would come this way, not this long after sundown.

I looked over my shoulder, but I couldn’t see the way home. All I saw were three figures in the snow, glittering and transient, dancing on curls of wind into the dark.