Of Blood And Light by Camilla Monk

Chapter 1

“How strange to think that your sun was setting as mine rose that day.”

From the private correspondence of the Duke of Caid, on the 8th of Ladlugger, 1851 DSC

It’s not the first time I find myself racing through Toronto in the back of an ambulance, but the fear always carries a new, different tang. There’s no getting used to it, no controlling the frantic drum of my heart as I watch Sage’s listless form on the stretcher. I can barely make out her doll-like features under the mask covering her mouth and nose. One of the EMTs is rechecking her pulse while his partner resumes squeezing the silicone bag that’s forcing oxygen into her airways.

Sage’s lungs are giving up.

We knew it would happen eventually, that her breath would fail her like everything else. Like her digestive system that can no longer assimilate nutrients without a feeding tube connected to a stoma in her belly; like her bones, too brittle; her heart, never strong enough. This time it was bronchitis, back in October, that turned into pneumonia. Within a month, Sage’s already dwindling lung capacity plummeted below 40 percent. Now we have an oxygen concentrator humming twenty-four seven in the living room, connected to a seventy-foot tube snaking around our house. It funnels the air Sage desperately needs directly into her nostrils through a cannula.

But it’s not enough. It never is. She needs new lungs; she needs a whole new, healthy body that no one will give her because no one knows what she has. Most of the doctors told us it could be an atypical form of progeria; a few believe otherwise, since all genetic tests returned negative. One douchenozzle even accused my dad of having Munchausen by proxy.

“Stick with me,” I murmur, trailing shy fingers along the edge of the silver thermal blanket covering her. I’m afraid the slightest touch might bruise her.

I’m only four years older, but she’s always been so small, with her elfin limbs, jade-colored irises that we both inherited from Mom, and baby-soft hair that turned a stark white early in her childhood, when mine grew black as ink. I desperately want to believe she’ll fight and push through once more, but tonight there’s barely any fog on the underside of her oxygen mask. She won’t open her eyes, and her legs are so emaciated that her moose-print leggings no longer cling to her thighs.

I’m not ready. Sage’s clock is ticking too fast, and I don’t think I can live without the pain and joy of being together. I can’t accept that there will be no more discussions of trash-lit and astrophysics, no more walks along Woodbine Beach when it’s a good day and she feels strong enough to go out.

I don’t realize my eyes have grown hot until a gruff male voice spears through the haze of my grief.

“Miss?”

I blink to focus through the blare of the siren and the lights flashing all around us. We’re speeding up Eastern Avenue toward downtown.

“Miss, you’ve got a call. Could be your father.”

My gaze cuts from Sage to the phone buzzing in my hand. I texted Dad ten minutes ago because he wouldn’t pick up—late afternoon is the busiest time of the day at his shop. I swipe to take the call. The warm grit of his voice envelops me and quiets my fear. “Don’t worry, Possum. I’ll be there in twenty. Any change?”

“No. I found her passed out on the couch when I got home. She still had her cannula.” Small blessings. If Sage’s tube had slipped off while she was out . . . I don’t want to think about it. Not now.

Dad is on the same wavelength. He knows better than most how to make the best of a crap hand. “Okay, her cannula stayed on, she had oxygen: that’s all that matters,” he reasons. There’s some honking in the background; he mutters something about “fucking traffic cones” before he returns his attention to me. “You stay with her, and you wait for me. We’re gonna get through this, Possum.”

“We’re almost there,” the paramedic says as I end the call and we round the corner of Shuter and Victoria to pull into St. Mike’s ER drop-off, a gaping maw at the back of a looming, austere brick building. I jump off the second the ambulance doors open and follow Sage’s stretcher on autopilot, barely aware of the gusts of snow chilling me through my hoodie and jeans. I forgot my parka, my gloves, everything—it doesn’t matter.

Wheels clatter across the cold concrete. Glass doors hiss open and close shut, leading to a bright and warm lobby where a pair of nurses in purple scrubs hurry toward us to take over. The handoff is expedited in two minutes. The female EMT, barely older than me, drones through Sage’s symptoms while the triage nurse examines her.

They have questions for me too. My voice sounds brittle, robotic, as I rehash the same brief I’ve given a hundred times to a hundred doctors. Yes, she has a record here at St. Mike’s. Yes, she’s had syncopes before. Am I her primary caretaker? No, but yes. Officially it’s Dad, but I’m the one trying to major in biology at U of T and angling for med school, so I’ve pretty much been running that show since I was sixteen. I list all the meds she takes—so many of them, organized with military precision in the pink plastic crate we keep on the kitchen counter. An entire life spent fighting, summed up in three dry words: unidentified progeroid syndrome.

When they start carting her away, I instinctively move to follow, but a voice stops me.

“Miss Greer?”

A male nurse, one I hadn’t noticed popping up behind me as Sage disappeared down a hallway. He tips his head to the admission booth behind us where a bored clerk has just motioned for me to come over. “They’ll call you when you can see your sister, but for now, we need you to register her.”

I manage a stiff nod. “Yeah, I—I have her OHIP card with me.”

“Excellent.” A smile that reeks of canned sympathy pinches dimples in his cheeks. The syrupy kindness in his voice doesn’t reach his eyes; they are a frosty gray, like the ice on the lake on a cloudy morning.

On a different day, I might have wondered about his crisp British accent. My gaze might have lingered on his slim but powerful build or the sandy-blond waves framing his almost-too-handsome features. Tonight, however, he’s just a rando keeping me away from my sister. I force the annoyance out of my voice. I’m going to need all the help I can get. “Do you know where they’re taking her? The ICU?”

He’s about to reply when Dad’s voice booms across the lobby. “Possum!”

I don’t care that the dozen people waiting are watching me as I run toward a craggy biker with a silvery braid and Hagrid’s beard. “Dad!” I hug him hard, gripping his leather with both hands. You can take the biker three thousand miles away from his MC club, but you can’t really take the club out of the member. With his bouncer build and tattoos, Dad tends to draw stares wherever he goes.

And yet he’s one book you shouldn’t judge by its cover. He gravitated away from his club for good after we moved to Toronto over a decade ago. Dad had spent his entire adult life in California—Sage and I were born there—but after Grandma died and left him her house, he decided it was time for the Greers to reconnect with their Canadian roots . . . because free health care and cheap college tuitions. So he drove back home with us and his Harley in tow, opened a small tattoo parlor, and he’s been a model citizen ever since—if you overlook the shrooms he sometimes sells under the counter to a select clientele.

He made everything better for us. He always does. “They took Sage away,” I mumble into his Mötley Crüe shirt. “She was still breathing, but she was cyanosed, and she won’t wake up.”

He squeezes me tight and strokes my braid. “Did they say how long before we can see her?”

“No. I was about to finish with her registration; they still need to swipe her card.”

“Okay, you do that, and I’ll go ask around.”

I let go reluctantly and watch him stalk toward the blond guy who talked to me earlier. He’s still here; doesn’t he have stuff to do? I can’t help but spy on the two of them from the corner of my eye while I fill in the admissions form. Name: Greer, Sage. Address in Ontario: 1905 Queen Street East, phone number . . . hold on. The blond guy just motioned to a door down the hallway. Dad rushes back to me just as the clerk confirms that we’re done for now.

“He says they’re taking her to imaging, but they won’t let more than one family member in there.”

I bite back a sigh of frustration. “I’ll wait here, but text me if you can?”

He presses a gruff kiss to my hair. “Will do.” I think he meant to be reassuring, but the words came out strangled. I reach to stroke his cheek, skimming deep grooves and old sunspots. He doesn’t speak much about the past, about himself. But tonight, sorrow weighs on his features. His jaw works in silence for a few seconds before he rasps, “I can’t, Possum . . . I can’t lose one of my girls again.”

We never talk about it. We keep old pics on our sideboard, pics where there’s five of us, not three. But Dad isn’t great with words, and I’m not either, so the past remains buried. We never talk about that morning, seventeen years ago, when Mom went out with Floe to the grocery store and they never returned. Dad looked for them for months, then years. His brothers even helped, but it was as if Mom and Floe had vanished off the face of the earth. There was never any lead, no remains to help him grieve and understand. Only sudden, unbearable silence.

I barely remember the two of them. Even Floe, the mirrored half of me, is little more than a foggy outline in my memories. But that old wound won’t scar over even after all this time. I squeeze Dad’s chest. “Go. Sage needs you.”

“I won’t be long.” He lets go and walks away, but not without one last brush of his fingers along my braid, as if it were his good luck charm.

Then it’s just me, hugging myself in that lobby full of strangers, under the artificial glare of tube lights. I eye the seats closest to me. I’m drained, shivering all over, but I’m almost afraid to sit down. I need the energy, the momentum that keeps dark thoughts at bay. I hate waiting.

“Miss Greer.” My head snaps up. A broad-shouldered, mustached guy stands before me. White coat, badge—this one’s a doctor. Like the blond nurse, his husky voice bears the staccato of a British accent. “Would you like to see her?”

My body revs back into action. “Yes!”

“Then follow me, please.” He turns on his heel without another look or a single word of reassurance.

I let him lead me down an empty hallway, every step we take echoing too loudly in the sterile space. Behind each numbered door we pass, I wonder if Sage awaits, if she’s still breathing. When I can’t stand the silence any longer, I ask him, “How’s my sister?”

He stops in front of the steel doors of an elevator. “I’m taking you to her.”

“Is that all you can tell me?” I say as the elevator doors open and we step inside. I try to snuff out my rising temper as we find ourselves facing each other in this cramped space that reeks of detergent and rubbing alcohol. Nothing will be accomplished by biting off this douche’s head.

“Yes.”

Great. It’s when I glance at the numbers rolling on the elevator screen that a genuine sense of unease sets in my bones. Sublevel 1. “Why are we going down? Imaging is upstairs.”

But the morgue isn’t.

A surge of panic squeezes my lungs as the elevator bounces to a stop and the doors hiss open. A silent and dim hallway whose walls shiver from the erratic pulse of a busted tube light. A group of four men in dark three-piece suits awaits, surrounding an empty stretcher. My eyes scan their bowler hats, the chains of pocket watches fastened to their waistcoats. Something doesn’t compute. What is this, Peaky Blinders?

Battling a shiver of unease, I make to turn and leave. “Okay, look—” The doctor grabs my forearm and pain registers, first from his crushing hold, then from the stab of a needle in my neck. Heat and numbness spill into my veins, carrying the terrifying realization that the stretcher is for me.

Chapter 2

Distorted orbs flash over my head. There’s the clatter of wheels, the low rumble of voices speaking a foreign language. I recognize nothing except the suffocating terror pounding under my temples and against my rib cage. The walls—are there any walls still?—feel warped. My body feels warped, twisting in every direction yet held in place by painfully tight straps around my ankles and wrists.

The white of the hallway becomes sudden darkness in which sleek, gleaming monsters undulate. The scent of gas, exhaust fumes. A remote part of my brain is able to coolly assess that they’ve taken me: we’re in the hospital’s garage, and the black monster whose mouth just engulfed me is a van.

The realization affords me a suspended second of absolute clarity: I’m being kidnapped. The rush of heat distorting my reality and speeding up my pulse could be ketamine. If the dose was too low to induce anesthesia, I can still fight this. Sucking in a struggling breath, I grapple at the frayed edges of my consciousness. I mustn’t close my eyes. I blink up at the bowler hat attached to the man now sitting by the stretcher.

His hand is a shapeless blot entering my field of vision. A soft touch on my forehead, a slither that coils my insides in mute horror. He’s stroking back a strand of hair on my forehead. His face seems to bleed into the shadows, but his voice . . . his voice is the only thing that feels real. “Don’t try to fight this. You’re going to fall asleep soon.”

won’t. A rasp burns my throat, but no sound comes out, and I’m so, so scared. I need to keep my head above the water just a little longer. Dad is gonna realize I’m gone; he’ll look for me, call the cops. The van’s doors slam. The sound spears through my eyeballs, echoing in my skull long after the engine has started. I need to stay calm and remember everything. The smell of tobacco and cologne. Bowler Hat’s voice. His voice. As if a veil had been torn before my eyes, I realize that he spoke to me with the same oddly polished British accent as the nurse. He taps his Rs too. I don’t know why that matters so much until his dark profile blurs into a smooth, luminescent one, framed by long black tresses.

He sounds like Mom.

Dad has kept a few videos he took with his phone back when she was still with us. She can be seen giggling at the camera with her hand over her mouth, calling him “dearest Neil.” Dad told me he thinks she was British, but he never found out for sure. She didn’t want to talk about her life before the day she tiptoed into his favorite hangout—an angel lost in Frisco without a suitcase, as he put it. She never felt like letting him in, and he was desperate to keep her just a little longer before the dream misted off, so he never pressed.

I feel numb, and the restraints around my wrists no longer hurt. My vision is growing blurry, and I think the sob that just broke out is mine.

I’m cold. How long have I slept?

Each breath I take feels wet and icy. Something hurts my face, digs into my cheeks—they gagged me with a rag. The sheet of ice coating my chin is my own drool, pooling along the fabric. Panicked pants fill my nostrils with the scent of the woods. We’re outside. I can’t move my hands; a rope bites into my wrists and keeps them locked together. The van’s doors and the bowler hat eddy around me. I sense the tensile strength of my muscles return to me and jerk in response, but it’s no use. I go weightless, my heart pounding in my throat as two men take a firm hold of my arms while another grabs my legs.

Ellom.” Bowler Hat’s voice. I have no idea what he just said, but it’s a command, I know that much.

Twigs crack under the weight of heavy feet as the three shadows who grabbed me readjust their hold. The drug is wearing off. I thrash desperately as they carry me deeper into this nightmare, into unknown woods. I focus on the moon above, huge and streaked by the charred bones of shuddering branches. Then there’s nothing over my head to obstruct the pure, cold glow. A bird call ricochets and dies in the darkness. We’re stopped at the center of a clearing.

Bowler Hat moves away to kneel on the forest ground, as if praying, and for a moment my terror gives way to confusion. The air . . . something is happening in the air. Every breath I suck in through my gag seems to thicken and prickle my skin from the inside out. I’m breathing in electricity, tasting iron. A sense of impending doom has me arching my spine to the breaking point against the punishing hold of my captors.

There’s a shivering pause, a pulse rattling my bones. Then the light, a bluish white, sizzling, rising from under the blanket of fallen leaves and broken twigs. The humus bed turns to shimmering dust, revealing the outline of a Celtic wheel carved into a huge stone plate.

I’m no longer fighting, just shaking and suffocating as the lines etched into the stone absorb the glow and turn incandescent. It’s LEDs. It has to be LEDs because otherwise it’s aliens, and that’s way worse. As the blazing wheel illuminates the ragged trunks around us, I’m swept over by a wave of all-consuming terror, and I remember to fight with all I have. I contort with a growl in a supreme effort to break free, but they’re dragging me toward the light.

I can’t see the wheel anymore. Everything is too bright, and the world is tilting upside down. My body feels loose, as if my bones and tendons are no longer holding me fully together and I’m slipping through the hands imprisoning me.

I’m going liquid. My heart, my organs, stretch like wax bubbles in a volcano lamp.

I’m free-falling, plummeting into the light.Sage . . . Dad.

Chapter 3

I brace myself for an eternity of falling into the pristine void, but the weight of reality slams back to me almost instantly. The forest’s icy air has grown warm, almost stuffy, and my teeth hurt as if I’d just chewed on an entire roll of aluminum foil. I can’t see anything; light lingers in my retinas in bright spots that bloom and swirl everywhere. I try to focus my gaze.

I shiver, stir, only to remember the bruising grip on my arms. Unknown fingers dig into my flesh, and a choke hold around my neck sends a bolt of agony down my spine. A broken scream rips its way out of my throat, muffled by the gag between my teeth. I try to wrench myself free once more, only to go perfectly still when I realize that under my feet, the ground is shuddering and clanking. I’m standing on my legs and we’re no longer in the woods. Did I pass out in the light? For how long? How far did they take me?

I blink away the last of my daze in between frantic pants. We’re standing on a narrow metal platform, suspended over a circular pit so vast and so deep it seems to fade into pure darkness. I dart terrified eyes at the endless walls enclosing us, speckled with tiny shards like diamonds encrusted in the stone. Oh . . . I’ve a feeling we’re not in Ontario anymore.

“Careful. That is one fall you would sorely regret,” a soft masculine voice warns from my blind side.

The bowler hat reenters my field of vision, allowing me a clear view of its owner for the first time. Wherever this place is, a dim bluish light now sculpts his dark coat and feline features as he stands right in front of me. Black eyes assess me, matching sardonic eyebrows like two strokes of tar. Bronze skin, a blade of a nose, dusted with freckles: a face that could be anywhere between twenty and thirty, void of any line, any scar. No visible trace of humanity.

Fear won’t help me in this nightmare, but anger might. I let it rake through me and infuse the glare I level at him.

“Ready to fight, are you? Good, so am I.” Carved and rearranged by the changing light around us, his expression seems to soften, at odds with the threat laced in his voice.

I jerk my head to the side when he reaches for my face once again. Gloved fingers trace the oval of my jaw. I detect a spark of wonder in his eyes. The muscles in my stomach tighten in revulsion. I’m going to either wake up from this nightmare or throw up.

He reiterates the same mysterious order he gave his accomplices back in the woods. “Ellom.

As soon as the command cracks the air, the man behind me releases his hold on my neck and moves into my field of vision. I glimpse a broad nose and a carefully slicked mustache—this one was the fake doctor. Bowler Hat leads the way as the other two start dragging me toward the only visible exit to this abyss: a pair of iron doors in a stone wall at the end of the platform.

As if someone on the other side were expecting us, a pearly thread slashes between the doors as they groan open. Each step forward costs me: I’m struggling to breathe, constantly swallowing the saliva pooling under my tongue against the gag compressing it. A cold tendril of fog slithers through the doors, carrying the scent of the outdoors and wet leaves; they’re taking me outside again—wherever that is.

Bleak daylight washes over us as Bowler Hat leads the way out and his goons wrestle me along. It couldn’t have been past eight p.m. when they took me; have I been out all night long? My feet skid on uneven and slippery ground, a pathway of glistening cobblestones. The fog stretches thin, revealing a paved road ahead of us and several masculine silhouettes gathered around what might be a truck or maybe a . . .

My legs falter when I see the horses. The truck is a carriage drawn by four dapple-grays bearing some sort of fake horn on the forehead piece of their bridle.

What the ever-loving hell is happening here? My mind conjures up horrifying visions of a pack of bloodthirsty Amish sacrificing young women in the middle of nowhere, but deep down, I know this isn’t that. This is worse. I was in Toronto, and then I wasn’t anymore. There are no signs, no utility poles. No asphalt. Nothing that could help me pin this place on a map. We might not even be in Canada anymore for all I know.

The men waiting near the carriage shift amid coils of mist. I think at least a couple of them are wearing hats. One of them walks toward us, a tall old man, judging by the short silvery waves of his hair. I scramble back with a choked gasp only to meet the brawn of the mustached guy and his cronies.

Bowler Hat stops to face the silver-haired newcomer as he emerges from the fog like the monster old tales warn children about. I can’t bring myself to look up, but I know he’s appraising me, stepping closer and closer. Yet he doesn’t speak a word; it’s only the weight of his unseen gaze, inexplicably potent. I’m shivering, and every gulp of saliva I take feels like icy goo trickling down my throat. He’s wearing the same sort of coat Bowler Hat has on, only longer. There are leaves embroidered in the blue silk of his waistcoat. I count them, dissect them, to keep the fear at bay just a little longer.

I’m almost relieved when Bowler Hat breaks the silence. “Good evening, Your Grace. I did not expect your presence tonight.”

Your Grace? Is the old man a duke, then? Oddly, Bowler Hat’s greeting doesn’t sound like it’s meant for “His Grace” but rather one of his companions: a shorter guy with a shiny top hat and a sizable paunch straining the buttons of his checkered coat. The subject of Bowler Hat’s intense scrutiny averts his eyes, unable to withstand the pressure, it seems.

As if able to read their silent exchange, the old man speaks at last. His timbre sounds much younger than I expected. Deep and quiet, like the first peal of thunder before the rain. “Superintendent Kallon was kind enough to keep me apprised of the latest developments of your investigation.” He marks a pause before adding, “As you should have.”

The same cultivated British accent again. I can’t make any sense of this, but I can tell there’s a power play unfolding between Bowler Hat and His Grace, and from the way my kidnapper hooks a thumb in the pocket of his waistcoat and purses his mouth, I’m not sure he’s winning. “Your Grace, I wasn’t at liberty to disclose the—”

“Do spare me the ceremony, Eliud.”

So that’s Bowler Hat’s name. Eliud. Eliud versus His Grace. A known threat versus an unknown one. I don’t feel strong enough yet to meet his eyes, but I risk a peek at his mouth. Although two thin grooves bracket his lips, his close-shaved chin looks smooth and firm. He might not be as old as I first imagined. I find a ridiculous amount of relief in the fact that he isn’t as ominously flawless as Eliud.

The latter motions to me. “Very well. The duchess has been captured on the other side of the Dekwenn Tīrr. She is under arrest for the illegal crossing of an unregistered path—one we have yet to identify. She shall remain in custody of the Pathfinder Office in Aballen until our investigation is over. Only then may she be presented before the Table’s Court.”

What’s that, Aballen? A city? He’s lost his mind—they all have. I start shaking my head vehemently, straining to emit a series of inarticulate groans. They have to listen! This is a judicial error and a complete clusterfuck. I need to tell them I’m not a duchess, that I have no idea what they’re talking about!

“Silence, madam.”

His Grace’s quiet command freezes me on the spot. I look up; he looks down, and when our eyes meet for the first time, I’m disoriented.

He’s not old at all—he’s aged.

His hair may be nearly white at the temples, but his face . . . I can’t come up with any box to neatly file it in. He can’t be much older than Eliud, yet his eyes are sunken, flinty-gray gems tucked under severe eyebrows. The fine lines etched at the corners of his eyes, his gaunt cheekbones, and sharp jaw paint a familiar weariness. Sage looks that way: so much older than her years.

He gauges me without a trace of kindness before his attention sets back on Eliud. “I am taking her back to Thunor Hall.”

My gaze flits between the two of them in panic. Where’s that? Where is he taking me?

Eliud lifts his palm a fraction in a staying gesture. “You well know I can’t let her go.”

I register the clatter of shoes on the pavement as the old guy Eliud stared down moments ago braves the wall of fog to chip in. His hands are shaking a little as he readjusts his spectacles; this can’t be good. “I’m afraid High Constable Wolk is correct, Your Grace. To oppose the duchess’s arrest would entail considerable—”

His Grace cuts his protest short with a single withering glare. “Enough. The Dekwenn Tīrr lies on my land, where my word is law, and where my wife belongs to me, as does every last speck of dust from here to Aballen.”

Dekwenn Tīrr . . . Aballen . . . I have no idea what he means about owning this place—wherever it is—but each word is infused with low thrumming power I can feel down to my marrow. This man is not joking; he’s utterly convinced that I, the stranger trembling under that gag, am his wife. There’s nothing but steel in his eyes as he tells Eliud, “Petition the Table’s Court if you must, but I will take her with me tonight.”

No! I’m not a thing! I don’t belong to either of these psychos, and I don’t want anyone to take me anywhere. I shake my head and grunt in a bid to get His Grace to notice me, but he seems to barely register my struggle, and neither does Eliud—the asswipe is too focused on winning this bizarre legal dispute to care that he’s got the wrong suspect in the first place. There’s a tick in his jaw as he warns in a low voice, “There are crimes for which even the wife of a knight must be held accountable. I say this not as a pathfinder but as your friend, Hadrian. She is not worth the storm you mean to rouse.”

Crimes? I risk another peek up at His Grace—or, rather, Hadrian—and summon every last drop of strength in my jaw to speak through the gag. “Uh uhm uh uh!” Listen to me!

All I can force out are pitiful gurgles as I choke on my own saliva. I wish I could hold back the tears blurring my vision, but I can hear myself croak out a brittle sob and taste salt dripping from the tip of my nose onto my lips. This is insane! Please listen!

“Then as my friend, Eliud, Benāmmen atikorī.” Hadrian retorts, before he marks a pause to study me. Pity wars with contempt in his eyes as he focuses on my gag. “And for blood’s sake, remove that contraption.”

The steadiest part of my mind notes that he speaks that strange liquid language too. Long vowels, smoothly tapped Rs, but nothing else I recognize. Meanwhile, Eliud and his goons have made no move to comply to His Grace’s command. Swallowing the last of my tears, I force myself to look up at him, this ice-cold man of whom I must make an ally of circumstance.

“Eliud, take her gag off,” he orders once more, emphasizing each word.

When Eliud narrows his eyes at me but once more fails to comply, Hadrian reaches for the gag himself but doesn’t touch it. I go perfectly still. His long fingers hover inches from my face, only to flit back just as fast, snuffing the dim flicker of hope in my chest. Except I feel a spark, an unpleasant prickling along the fabric, kind of like a low electric current from bad wiring. When my hand jerks instinctively to touch the spot, two things happen:

One: Eliud’s men have let go of me.

Two: The gag and the ropes around my wrists have come undone—or, rather, they’ve come apart.

I watch them fall at my feet in a state of shock that supersedes fear and exhaustion. The spit-soaked rag and black length of rope are being devoured by sparkling filaments before disintegrating entirely. Barely a second later, there’s nothing left, only traces of grayish powder on the cobblestones.

Gulping a mouthful of oxygen, I immediately stagger sideways, as far as possible from both Eliud and His Goddamn Grace, who just fricking zapped my gag to ashes without even touching it. I don’t even want to know how. I raise shaking hands in a bid to keep them both at bay. “Don’t come near me. I don’t know you! And I’m not your wife!”

“That, you have made abundantly clear,” Hadrian concedes with a quasi-sneer.

“I mean it! I’ve never seen any of you in my life! They took me! They . . .”

My voice dies when I notice Eliud motioning to his goons, and they spread out to encircle me. I dart terrified looks around, my thoughts spinning in tune with the blood hammering in my temples. I need to think fast before they get me. Around us, the fog peels back, revealing crenelated parapets on each side of the road where the carriage awaits. Hold on. That’s not a road. My ears perk up at the whisper of water. How could I miss this? It’s a bridge. We’re on a bridge!

Hadrian is the first to take a step forward, his fists clenched. “Madam, I believe you have quite sufficiently tried my patience for the time being. Do take yourself to the carriage immediately.”

Like hell I will. I keep backing toward one of the parapets, glancing left and right at Eliud’s men. The mustached one is balling ham-sized fists, and I can feel his intent, taste the tension lacing the air. “I’m telling you you’ve got the wrong person!” I yell. “I’m not your wife, and—” I gasp for breath, gather my thoughts. I need time. Just a few more steps back. Just a little more time. “And even if I were, you have no right to snatch me like that! You’re all going to jail for this!”

“Enough of this, Isolde!” Hadrian barks.

I’m not sure I’m making much sense at this point; all I know is that whatever lies under that bridge can’t be worse than what I’m facing on it. I glance back at the parapet, and what little energy is left in my body detonates when Eliud shouts to his men, “Yudwalam kaxtājī!

No need for translation; I’m pretty sure that one means “Get her!” or something like that. I see them, sense them all closing in on me like shards of a mirror flying my way from all directions. His Grace, Eliud, and his cronies. Even the superintendent guy barks orders that get lost in the fog as I bolt away.

Breathe. Run. The pounding of my heart covers their voices, their steps slamming against wet cobblestones. I reach for the ledge. Damp mossy rock and the water beneath, singing, roaring. It’s too late to decide if I can survive the fall. I’m scared. I want to get away from here.

“Isolde!”

I don’t look back as I haul myself atop the parapet. His Grace is calling her, not me. Fingertips graze mine as I leap forward—his, maybe. My chest tightens from sudden vertigo as I rip through the mist I vaguely hope might cushion me. There’s a splash of water and I’m immediately gripped from all sides by a million unseen icy talons. I had no idea the water would be so cold. Within seconds, my clothes, my limbs, become sandbags dragging me down.

Please, I don’t want to die! I don’t . . .

Water freezes its way down my throat as I paddle in vain in these black depths. I watch, powerless, as a shimmering trail of bubbles steals my final breath, carrying it to the surface. I’ve lost the fight, and I can feel my eyelids closing. I’m going to sleep, and Sage will be here at last. I glimpse her hair, a cloud of milk underwater. But Sage’s frail limbs could never summon the strength to hook around my torso like a steel band, to turn me over, swim me upward like this. Through the dark haze and the pain in my lungs, I feel his body against mine. His Grace. Hadrian.

I’m vaguely aware of a dim glow surrounding us as we rise from the abyss and break the surface. Then it’s chaos and freezing cold. Masculine shouts hail from above through the blanket of creamy fog—Eliud and the rest of them are still up there, raging after the prey that nearly escaped them.

Hadrian’s soaked chin brushes my hair, and I register a hoarse whisper amid sloshing sounds. “Mūkokei bewām. Mūko . . .”

My legs jerk from some weak natatorial reflex, but it’s his body that propels us to a muddy bank. I feel squishy grit under my elbows, breathe in wet earth and rotting leaves as he lays me to the ground. I’ve never felt more broken and more alive, with my lungs pumping oxygen like desperate bellows while he leans over me, bracing his weight on his outstretched arms.

His shadow covers me as I rest in the cage of his body. He’s a silvery blur. I can no longer make out his features, only his hand, moving to stroke the side of my face. He combs wet strands away from my eyes, and when his thumb drags along my temple, I feel it again: that strange electric current he destroyed my gag with. He’s using it again, this time directly on me. Stars shimmer at the edge of my vision as his light flows inside me, seeps under my skin and into my veins in search of something.

It’s in my blood. The light is in my blood, probing every atom of me, and I can hear it whisper a single question over and over: Who are you?

A husky exhale fans over my cheeks, then another. “You’re not Isolde.”

A stampede crushes twigs and gravel somewhere to my right, coming closer and closer. Eliud and his goons are coming for me, and I can’t move. Can’t escape His Grace.

“Who are you?” he urges, ignoring the men calling him. “Tell me your name!”

My tongue is dry and heavy as I try to mouth my name. “I’m . . . I’m Ri—”

“Hadrian!” Eliud’s shout cracks through the air, and I see the outline of his damn bowler hat above us, black as tar. “Is she alive?”

“Yes. However, I’m afraid the duchess has fainted.”

I stir at his words. Why is he still calling me that? As Eliud gets on one knee to check on me, Hadrian shifts his body, shielding me from his friend’s suspicious gaze. Our eyes meet, and I detect a flinty glint in his. Resolve. Before I’ve had a chance to move or question his intent, his palm brushes my forehead. This time the light spears me, and dark spots bloom in my vision like ink blotting paper. I can’t move anymore.

He’s picking me up from the ground. I think that asshole just knocked me out.

Chapter 4

“Do you hear it?”

“No.”

“Nope.”

When was that? It’s been so long since we’ve been to Muir Woods with Mom and Floe. The air is warm, a little damp, and smells of earth and crushed leaves. I love it. We’ve wandered away from the path because Mom likes to go deeper into the woods; she says it’s good for Sage.

Mom is watching Dad sleep at her side under the shade of the redwoods with Sage curled on his belly. She’s wrapped Sage in her fleece blanket because she gets cold so easily, even when the sun shines. She looks like a funny little pink ball with a mop of jet-black hair, soft like a baby rabbit’s fur. Dad is worried about Sage all the time, but this afternoon his face looks peaceful as he snores softly at Mom’s side.

Floe and I press our ears to the bark of a tree so big I don’t think it could fit in our house. Her hand reaches for mine as we hug the trunk. We try to listen some more, but she pulls away and huffs. “I can’t hear anything.” She looks back at Mom with a pout. “Are you sure they can really speak?”

Mom smiles as if she knows a big secret, but she doesn’t say anything, so I chip in. “It’s not like that. Maybe they don’t talk with words. Maybe they talk like Sage.”

Floe balls her fists and nods. Sage doesn’t talk yet, but Mom says she’s fine—she’s just taking her time because there are a lot more words and ideas in her head than in most people’s. We can sort of hear Sage anyway, when she’s happy or when she’s ill. It’s not her voice but something else that the doctors don’t seem to hear, like a little murmur inside her. Sage’s heart. Sage’s blood.

Mom gets up slowly, carefully, so as not to wake Dad and Sage. She knows how to pad so quietly her footsteps barely make a sound on the forest ground. “Yes,” she whispers. “The tree’s voice is very weak because trees need a special sort of nutrient to thrive and speak aloud, and there’s not much of it here. But if you listen closely . . .” Gathering the two of us against the redwood trunk once more, Mom presses her cheek to its bark. “Close your eyes; it’ll help you feel it better.”

We both follow her advice, and Floe’s face fades away under my eyelids. I try to listen, but my ears still pick up nothing, just distant bird calls. Mom strokes our hair. “Listen with the tips of your fingers.”

Floe gives a happy squeak. “I can hear it! There’s blood inside!”

Oh, man, she’s right. Weirdly, it’s in my eyeballs that I feel it first. There’s this fluttering pulse deep inside the bark, and it’s like the tree’s sap is humming in my ears. I frown and focus harder, but it doesn’t have much to say: it’s only a tree, after all. It’s alive; it wants to eat, breathe, and grow—thrive, like Mom said. “It’s like us. Inside, it’s like us.”

Mom kneels between us. “A little,” she confirms.

Floe keeps stroking the bark. “It’s the nu . . . trient. We have it too.” She’s always been better than me at these games we play with Mom. I never figure things out as fast as she does.

Mom nods. “We have much of it. The tree barely has any, only enough for you to feel its presence. We, on the other hand, are made almost entirely of it. Our hands . . .” She swirls her pale fingers for us to see. “Our hair, our blood. Do you know what it is called?”

I shake my head, staring at my own hands. When I look up, Mom’s lips are moving, but I can’t hear a sound. Glittering dust motes hang still in the air as her features blur.

When was that? Was that the last day we were together?

Do you know what it is called?

I blink in the dark, hyperaware of the blood pounding in my ears, of each ragged intake of air in my lungs. It’s been ages since I dreamed of Mom and Floe. I wish I could cling to the memory of those faces and voices long forgotten, but already the Muir Woods are evaporating in the dark, their heady scent replaced with that of beeswax and rose potpourri. I ball my fists and feel them clench around crisp embroidered sheets. The bed doesn’t feel right. This is too soft, too large, to be my old IKEA mattress.

Struggling to find my bearings among shivering shadows, I sit up and squint at the only source of light: a couple of candles floating in water, trapped in a stout glass vase. The flickering glow gilds an antique dressing table and the changing scrollwork of a brocade wall behind it.

This isn’t my room.

I drag trembling fingers across a luxurious silk bedspread, and my worst fears are confirmed when I throw back the covers and register layers of featherlight fabric crumpling against my skin. I’m no longer wearing the clothes I had on when I took Sage to St. Mike’s. My hoodie and jeans are gone, as is my fricking underwear. Instead, I’m now commando under some sort of gauzy layered nightgown with a frilly neckline.

Holy sh— I jump from the bed as if the sheets are lava. If this isn’t another dream, then nothing else that transpired tonight was. As I raise an arm to consider the nightgown’s billowing sleeves, I become aware of something missing between my shoulder blades. I reach for the reassuring weight of my braid, only for my fingers to close on thin air. What the hell? My hair has been plaited close to the scalp in an elaborate bun that’s leagues beyond the basic technique Dad taught me. Worse, it feels clean and glossy under my fingertips, despite my earlier fall into the water. My skin crawls from the realization that someone has changed me, washed me. Someone has touched me.

I need to get out of here. Spotting drapes hanging over two huge windows, I rush to tug the heavy velvet aside, only to find a pair of closed shutters behind. I run my hands across their surface, groping for a handle or a lock.

You’ve gotta be kidding me.

There’s nothing. Where the two panels should meet, my fingertips find only smooth wood. What kind of horror flick design is this? As I back away in search of an exit, I register faint thuds coming from the other side of a set of arched doors on the opposite wall. I go still, straining my ears to decipher the silence. Whispers, footsteps: someone’s coming.

I scuttle to the darkest corner of the room, trailing my hands along the rough edges of unseen pieces of furniture in search of a potential weapon. My fingers meet the cold contours of a porcelain figurine—that’ll do. I hunch in the shadows, swallowing my terror in a long gulp. I’m armed and ready, and I don’t care who walks in; they’re getting their skull bashed in.

The doors sigh open, allowing in a whiff of smoky cologne and a streak of coppery light that spreads like fire across the rug. A tall specter now stands in the doorway, as if swathed in flames. What my eyes can’t discern, my memory reconstructs. The pristine shirt and embroidered waistcoat, the dark outline of an old-fashioned cravat around the neck. He closes the doors and walks over to the bed, stopping no more than fifteen feet away from me. There’s a beat of suffocating silence before his deep voice and polished accent fill the darkness between us. “I see you are awake.”

I tighten my grip on the porcelain nymph, my heart ramming furiously against my rib cage. His Grace came to deal with me in person. Can I make it past him and out the doors? And if I do, what—who—will await outside?

“Return that to its rightful place and come to stand before me,” he commands, not once looking in my direction.

He knows. I have less than a second to make a decision, and those closed doors have never seemed so far away. I mentally picture the way he disintegrated my gag back on the bridge. Could he do the same with something bigger? Like . . . a whole human being? Dad says that one must sometimes choose their battles. I don’t think I can win this one, so I set the nymph back on her console and creep out of the dark, goose bumps blooming on my skin everywhere the candlelight touches it.

He turns to me at last, no less frightening than he was hours ago. With his pasty skin, silver hair, and gray eyes, he looks like he might be made of nothing but ice and steel. “Closer.”

“I think I’m good over here.” My bare toes curl from the urge to bolt.

He tilts his head, raking a predatory gaze over me. “I assume by that you mean safe?”

I ignore the threat infused in that last word. “What do you want from me? You said you know I’m not your wife.”

“Indeed.” He prowls toward me. “However, you have yet to answer my most pressing question. If you are not Isolde, then who are you?”

“River Greer,” I breathe out. “My name is River Greer. Where am I? What is this place?”

His nostrils flare at my sudden outburst. “I shall be the one asking the questions. Where’s my wife? Who engineered this farce?”

“I’m telling you I don’t know anything!” Despite my best efforts to control myself, my voice grows strident. “Let me go, you . . . you fucking psychopath!”

The tension singing in my nerves surges as soon as the words escape my lips. I leap and make a run for the doors, only to ram into a chair positioned near the dressing table. Fierce pain explodes in my side, causing me to falter. In the split second it takes me to recover, he’s looped an arm around my waist.

Writhing around, I land a solid punch against the wall of his chest, but whereas the pain of the impact throbs all the way up to my elbow, he seems to barely register it.

“Let me go! Let me—” I writhe, yell for help that won’t come in this quiet hell, but he spins me so fast my vision blurs, and I land on the chair I nearly toppled over earlier. The moment I try to spring up to escape again, unseen claws reach around my chest and wrists.

I look down, and the scream building in my throat just won’t come out. The chair’s arms, they’re . . . moving, slithering. Before my eyes, the ancient wood is growing new branches that coil and tighten around my limbs. I can’t move my legs, can’t get up. “Stop that! Stop it! Please!”

My supplications end in a wheezing gasp when he goes down on one knee to be at eye level with me. Trapped in the storm of his eyes, I dare not breathe. “Understand this, Miss Greer: I have never and will never hurt her.” The sheer intensity of his gaze has me sitting ramrod straight in this monstrous chair. “No matter how much grief and shame she’s caused me. Not even if the Table itself demanded it. You, however, are not her. You are nothing but a fetch, a crude replica. And if you do not cooperate, I will hurt you. More so than you could ever imagine.”

As he concludes his threatening tirade, I realize that the gray in his eyes is swirling, sparkling, like glittery sand in water. The eerie glow intensifies and spreads out in crawling tendrils under his skin. I clench my teeth, paralyzed from terror as the veins on his temple seem to ignite, then it’s his carotids, and the sizzling light snakes down, drawing a path under his shirt from arm to wrist.

When the light reaches his left hand, it gathers there, brighter and brighter until electricity crackles in his palm and morphs into shimmering strands that dance in his grip. I watch in subjugated horror as he stands up and, with his free hand, strokes those impossible tendrils of pure energy, coils them around his fist as if they were actual ropes.

The laws of physics have left the chat, and I’m seconds away from either peeing myself or passing out. I strain against the chair imprisoning me and shake my head frantically. “W—what are you doing? Please stop, stop this!”

“Tell me, fetch, have you ever been whipped by lightning?” he asks. “I cannot think of any word to describe the sheer agony of it. The skin burns and peels off almost instantly.”

“Don’t touch me! Please!”

My eyes screw shut; it’s the only escape I have left. In between whistling pants, I mentally rehash a single desperate mantra: I’m going to wake up. I have to wake up. I have to wake up now.

“Miss Greer.”

Oh God, I’m still here, trapped in this never-ending nightmare. I can’t help but crack one eyelid open at His Grace’s quiet command. As if he can sense I’m on the verge of shattering completely, his voice softens a fraction, and the glow recedes in his veins, extinguishing the lightning flogger. “Where is she? Was she with you?” I flinch as he trails the back of his knuckles along my jaw. “I can sense her in you. Who shaped you in her image? Why?”

It takes me several seconds to control the quivering of my mouth to form words. “No one made me. . . . I don’t even know what a fetch is. I’m just me! Please, please let me go.”

“I cannot. You’ve been arrested—which I assume was the very point of your trading places with Isolde.”

“But I wasn’t—” I croak. “I told you they took me! I was at the hospital with Sage, I was . . .” My voice dies, tears blurring my surroundings as I remember Sage’s prone body on the stretcher, my father’s anguish in the ER.

But His Grace doesn’t give a shit about my family or me as he drones on. “Arrested, as I was saying, for violating the path travel ban, unlawful desertion of one’s spouse, as well as half a dozen other capital offenses I shan’t bother leafing through.”

“You’re not listening.” My head lolls to the side. I just want out.

He won’t have any of it and cups my chin with unexpected gentleness, guiding my gaze back to his unforgiving one. “Speak to me, Miss Greer. Why did you take Isolde’s place? What did you expect would happen once Eliud captured you?”

Eliud. Bowler Hat.

As I prepare to wail my innocence again, the cogs in my brain shudder back to life. I need to keep this fruitcake thinking, talking. Anything to stop him from turning into a lightbulb again. “Why don’t you ask your friend?” I grit out. “He kidnapped me, and he made sure I wouldn’t talk to anyone! They knew I wasn’t your wife. One of his men even called me by my name at the hospital!” I pause to catch my breath and notice a twitch in his brow, the slightest hint of perplexity. I press my advantage. “They gagged me! Why the hell do you think they did that?”

He does that thing again, where he tilts his head like a raptor to appraise me. “Perhaps to silence your lies.”

“Except I’m not lying! They took me, and I don’t know what you’re spouting about my being under arrest: if any of you people were actual cops, you’d know this isn’t what due process looks like.”

His eyes narrow dangerously. “I sit at the Table that makes the laws. I should like to think I possess a fair understanding of what due process entails.”

“What table . . . what is this place?”

“Do you claim no understanding of how you crossed the path?”

“What fricking path?”

His jaw ticks in apparent aggravation—maybe he’s tired of this hellish mess too. “The path to Thule. That, Miss Greer, is where you are.”

Silence sets between us, so thick I can hear my pulse hammering in my ears. For the first time since I felt myself leave St. Mike’s ER, drugged to my eyeballs and tied to a stretcher, one simple terrifying thought thunders through my brain. Am I still high?

Am I tripping balls, talking to myself, maybe freezing to death somewhere on the streets of Toronto? I mean, there have been isolated “incidents” in the past. I’m not a junkie or anything, but there’s the occasional pot brownies Dad bakes—brownies I’ve been known to partake of. Then there’s his shrooms. When they’re fresh, he keeps them in freezer bags in our fridge’s vegetable drawer. I’ve never touched any of those, but what if . . .

There’s unexpected solace, sudden peace washing over me from the notion that I might have simply lost my mind. I release a deep breath and look him straight in the eye. “Thule doesn’t exist. It’s what people used to call Greenland, and uh”—I close my eyes—“you’re not real. It’s the pot brownies.”

When he speaks again, his voice has lost its ominous quality. Now he just sounds annoyed. “I do not know what those are. I can, however, assure you that we are on Thule, in the kingdom of Logres, to be precise.”

I meant to block his ramblings and just space out, but a single preposition has my eyelids popping back open. “On?

Rather than answering my question, he walks over to the sealed shutters I tried to open earlier and flicks his fingers the same way he did when he destroyed my gag. The paneled wood moans, as if worked by invisible hands. A vertical slit scores along the center before powdery light pours into the room through the newly unsealed shutters.

While I try to process that this man has the power to casually redesign his furniture on the fly, the wooden bounds that kept my body prisoner of the chair slither away, merging back into the sculpted frame. I’m shaking too much to stand yet, so I just watch.

The canopy bed I woke up in is revealed. It stands draped in ruched brocade at one end of a cavernous bedroom. The rough texture I felt earlier along the walls wasn’t furniture, it was . . . trees. I cast frantic blinks at the sinewy trunks fused into the walls, the ancient branches woven through the high ceiling like natural coffering. I have no idea how they did it, but this house—or castle, judging by the chandeliers hanging above my head and lavishly painted ceiling—looks like it was built around and within a grove, the long-dead trees forged into its bones. Did that involve the same sort of power His Grace wielded to transform the chair? Do I even want to explore this severe mindfuck?

Fighting renewed chills, I extract myself from the cursed chair with cautious movements, terrified it might snatch me back. The knots in my muscles slowly loosen as I take my first steps toward the windows.

Hadrian steps aside and motions for me to come forward. I’m still shaking all over as I take slow blinks at the scenery outside. Bare trees hedge a sprawling park whose brown lawn seems to await spring. High above us, the remains of a shattered moon hang scattered along the horizon line. Good thing they have another moon to make up for it, a massive orb whose misty outline seems an unfinished sketch on an ashen canvas.

“Oh,” is the only sound I manage to produce before my knees give out and I lose my balance.

Hadrian catches me from behind before I hit the floor, and I hold on to his forearms even as the sudden closeness sparks renewed chills in my chest. He’s the embodiment of fear but also the only thing that feels real, warm, and solid in this moment.

“Am I—am I still high?”

“I do not believe you were ever ‘high’ in the first place.” He never lets go of me as we watch Thule’s sun spear through the clouds and dapple the lawn with gold.

Every last drop of stress and confusion in me coalesces into a single question. “But . . . how?”

“That, Miss Greer, is what I’ve been trying to ask you.”

Chapter 5

“I have a lot more questions than you,” I murmur, tracking the movements of a pair of lone figures across the lawn. A man in farm clothes and a woman wearing some sort of maid outfit carry buckets and packages from a carriage stationed on a gravel path. They mill around, seemingly unbothered by the fractured moon and massive misty planet looming over their heads.

By the time the two strangers disappear, I realize Hadrian is still supporting me, one arm curled over the front of my torso while the other rests around my waist. I cautiously pry myself from his hold. He lets go and takes a step back, allowing some salutary distance between us. “What is this place?”

“Thule,” he reasserts.

“I heard you the first time, but that’s not what I’m asking.” I stagger away from the windows, unable to tear my gaze from the foreign sky outside. “Are we in space?”

One of his eyebrows rises a fraction. “Miss Greer, everything is, by essence, in space.”

“Are we in space elsewhere than on Earth? Like . . . how far?” I urge, desperate for tangible facts to hold on to as I plummet down this rabbit hole.

He motions to the evil chair he used to trap me earlier. “You seem quite overtaxed; would you like to take a seat?”

I shake my head to signal I’m never sitting in that thing again. “How far?”

“We’re approximately two hundred and ninety light-years away from Earth.”

A tremor snakes up my legs; I grip one of the bedposts for support. “How is that . . . No. No. It’s not possible.”

“The paths connect our worlds, as they have since the very first breath of time. The Dekwenn Tīrr, through which Eliud ferried you, is one such path. That is how you came to be here.”

“But it only took a second!” I shriek, the chaos of my thoughts coalescing into something cold and dark. Was it truly a second, or have I been asleep in that bright void for years and lost everything?

“Time and space are quite altered within the paths,” he notes.

“What do you mean? How long have I been here?”

He pulls a gold pocket watch from his waistcoat, flicks it open, and checks the dial. “Slightly over six hours.”

My initial rush of relief becomes a leaden sensation in the pit of my stomach as I recall the twisted physics of Miller’s planet in Interstellar—where severe time dilation caused by a neighboring black hole turns every hour into seven years.

“How long has it been on Earth?” Please let it not be forty-two years. Please.

A crease forms between his eyebrows. “The same amount of time, one should expect.”

Exactly the same? So six hours? A quarter of a day?”

“A tenth, rather,” he corrects. Seeing my face scrunch in confusion, then panic, he adds, “While I’ve never had the privilege of visiting Earth, it is my understanding that solar days there are quite short.”

One-tenth . . . I whip my neurons into action and do the math, the room spinning around me as I process this new level of weird. “Sixty hours. Your solar days last sixty hours.”

“Indeed. It is past midday—” He checks his watch again. “Precisely thirty-two o’clock.”

“Give or take a light-year.”

“As I’ve already explained to you, the rules of time and space do not apply within the paths. Nothing does, in truth,” he adds, like an afterthought.

The room is warm, but I’m trembling, freezing. “I can’t be here. Please let me go home. Take me back through one of those paths!”

The lines bracketing his mouth deepening as he turns to face me once more. “I cannot.”

His earlier conversation with Eliud rings back in my ears: under arrest for the illegal crossing of an unregistered path . . . crimes for which even the wife of a knight must be held accountable.

“You can’t because it’s forbidden even to you.”

A single nod from him. “All paths have been strictly regulated for centuries. Only pathfinders are permitted to cross them freely. Thule’s legislation on the matter is enforced with the greatest severity.”

Centuries. That might explain why Thule hasn’t yet caught up with Earth’s latest fashion and tech and, instead, appears suspended in this weird Victorian bubble. “How severe are we talking?”

“Death.”

Holy shit. I wring my hands, seeing myself on that bridge, running for my life. “That’s what they wanted to do to me—to your wife. Because she ran away from you.”

His gaze darkens. “Indeed. Isolde disappeared four months ago and was eventually tracked down on Earth.”

“Except she wasn’t. was tracked down, and I have nothing to do with her.” I dart a look at the doors. His Grace has calmed down for now, but what if he goes off again?

“That,” he begins cautiously, “I find difficult to believe.”

“Really? Can’t you see this is a complete setup? Eliud and the others took me because I look like her.” Remembering how Eliud and Hadrian fenced for custody of me back on the bridge, I add, “And apparently your bud didn’t want you to check too closely who he’d brought back!”

He crosses his arms over his chest, studying me through speculative eyes. “Would that our quandary were that simple, Miss Greer.” He motions to the bedroom doors in the guise of an answer. “Pray follow me.”

Turning on his heel, he goes to the doors and opens them, revealing stone walls and the interlacing black-and-white pattern of a marble floor. He stands waiting in the doorway while my feet remain frozen. Answers await beyond that bedroom, but I’m suddenly scared to reach out. His Grace doesn’t repeat his invitation, merely turns his head to the side, a challenge in his visible eye.

I take a few tentative steps and follow him out, padding barefoot down an endless hallway. There, too, gnarled branches weave into natural arches to support the ceiling, and between each set of doors we pass, statues watch us through vacant stone eyes. I notice a slow change in their attire as we progress: frock coats become armor and tunics, then cuirasses. “Are they your ancestors?”

“Yes, or at least the most illustrious of them. Some are best forgotten; others did not bear the title long enough to leave their mark in History.”

The title. “Are you a duke? Back there they said . . . I mean, your wife is a duchess, right?”

He stops mid-stride, causing me to nearly bump into him. “Pray forgive the lapse in my manners. We have not yet been properly introduced.”

“You already know my name.” I battle the urge to flinch when he turns around and towers over me. I’m not short, but he’s even taller than Dad, and boy, does His Grace love to loom.

“Indeed, Miss Greer. I am Hadrian Landevale, keeper of the seat of Landevale and thirteenth Duke of Caid.”

An actual alien duke, then. All right. We face each other in silence as I digest this new level of strange. There’s just so much happening, colliding in my brain right now, and I’m not sure I’m prioritizing right, but I hear myself ask, “Are you a wizard?”

“I beg your pardon?”

I clear my throat. “Or a sorcerer. I mean, what you did back there . . . it was magic, right?”

For some reason, he seems offended by the suggestion. “I am not, to the best of my knowledge, a sorcerer, nor do I believe in the existence of magic.”

This man is in denial. “The lightning flogger was definitely magic.”

“It was not.”

“You glow in the dark,” I counter, barely believing this entire conversation is happening.

His shoulders stiffen. “So do you.”

“No. No, I absolutely don’t.”

A subtle expression of shock loosens the crisp lines of his face. “Blood save us. You truly don’t know anything, do you?”

I shake my head slowly.

“Shall I show you?” He extends an upturned palm in a terrifying invitation.

Did he just casually offer to electrocute me? I leap back. “Please don’t touch me again.”

“Very well. I suppose that can wait.” He resumes his progression down the hallway, and I follow warily.

As I suspected, we’re not alone. I register a low creaking sound here, some rustling there. I glance over my shoulder just in time to glimpse blue skirts and the stark white of an apron before they disappear behind a set of doors. There’s life in this silent house—servants, likely, who’ve obviously received instructions not to show their faces.

My attention flits again to Hadrian’s back as he leads us to a landing overlooking a circular hall the size of a mall some thirty feet below. I edge toward the railing of a winged staircase, my breath caught in my throat. All I can do is stare, my eyes growing wider by the second. Never in my life have I seen such magnificence.

They put a tree in there too—or, more likely, the house was built around it, allowing its monumental trunk to support a skylight dome. Chandeliers hang like elaborate icebergs from a star-shaped network of branches, raining colorful flecks of refracted light across a translucent floor below.

My gaze follows the paths of the dry boughs, studying the way they curve and snake down the walls, fused into marble and limestone. Mirroring the star formed by the upper branches, they crawl across the floor, trapped under a layer of glass—until they become one with the roots spreading from the trunk. My breath itches at the impossibility. The branches are roots. The roots are branches, entwined in a never-ending circle.

“It’s an actual tree of life,” I murmur. All life on Earth, born and reborn in an eternal cycle, a Celtic symbol of wisdom and eternity. Dad gets occasional requests from middle-aged women to have one tattooed: over a belly that bears the battle scars of pregnancy, or the smooth ruins of a breast stolen by cancer.

Hadrian shifts closer. “Is that what you call it?”

“Yes. What do you call it?”

Berekor: the flowing blood of the land.” The solemnity of his tone is colored with sadness.

“Was that what you wanted to show me?”

“No. Do turn around.”

I comply and follow the direction of his gaze, only for my jaw to go slack. Hanging on the wall facing the stairs is a life-sized portrait of . . . us.

The painter took great care to flatter His Grace. He looks a little younger—and better rested. Even so, his severe and elegant features are unmistakable, perfectly captured in oil down to the contemptuous flare of his nostrils. He stands draped in a midnight-blue mantle of lustrous velvet, complete with some extravagant bling—a collar and badge worn over a gold-embroidered crimson sash. He wears a silver gauntlet on his right hand and holds a sword with it, while the left one rests on the shoulder of the young woman sitting at his side.

Her. Me.

I gaze into her vacant green eyes, feeling every hair on my body rise on end as she stares back. Her face and limbs are slightly fuller than mine; her waist is cinched tight by the bodice of an ample crinoline dress. She floats, ethereal, among layers of white muslin. There’s no trace of fatigue under her eyes, nor a single freckle on her cheeks and nose, but our features are otherwise identical. We share the same downturned lips, that slight bump on the bridge of our nose. My hair, combed and braided by unseen hands while I was asleep, now looks exactly like hers.

This isn’t okay. I take a wobbly step back and notice Hadrian shifting in sync—as if he’s worried I might bolt again. I reach behind me to grip the cool stone balustrade, steadying my breath in a slow exhale. “Is that her?”

“Yes. The Duchess of Caid, my wife.”

All it takes is another peek for me to get sucked once more into the lifeless gaze of my doppelgänger. There’s so little color in her cheeks; no warmth, no love in her eyes, not even a measure of vain contentment. She seems lonely, even at his side.

I tear my gaze away from the painting, only to find that I, too, am being dissected. Unable to bear His Grace’s hawkish stare any longer, I duck my head. “I don’t understand—I . . .”

My voice breaks when he reaches for me. My first impulse is to retreat, but my back is pressed to the balustrade; there’s nowhere to run. Caught in the lambent silver of his eyes, I watch him like a deer watches the wolf in the dark. Slowly, carefully, his long fingers seek my hand, never squeezing.

“When I first saw you, I believed you might be a fetch: flesh shaped in her image for the purpose of deceiving me. But that is not it, is it? The illusion wouldn’t have lasted this long. You are not her,” he repeats, as he did earlier in the room. “Yet I feel her in you.” The muscles in my forearm coil as he tightens his hold slightly. Warmth and fear mingle in my blood as he runs his thumb over Sage’s name tattooed on the underside of my wrist—the most blatant piece of evidence that I’m not his wife.

There’s a spark where we touch, a current running under my skin; I can’t find the strength to pull away even though I’m trembling all over.

Shall I show you?

His earlier proposal rings back in my ears as I watch my veins come literally alight under his fingertips. The impossible glow branches and throbs its way up my forearm, the sudden rush of sensations breaking through my trance. I tug my hand away in panic. “Stop that! What are you doing to me?”

He doesn’t immediately respond. His Grace seems lost in a daze of his own, considering his palm as if it might hold the answers he seeks. “Who are you?”

That question again. So simple yet vertiginous as I stand before a portrait of myself, painted in a world I never even suspected existed. The light Hadrian has kindled in my blood seems to linger there, a restless warmth under my skin. I am River Greer, daughter of Neil and Lethe Greer, sister of Sage and Floe Greer. I am . . . 

My gaze drifts up, inevitably drawn to the young duchess’s impassive features.

She disappeared, just like I did. Just like Mom and Floe did.

You are not her. Yet I feel her in you. 

What are the chances? That someone took Floe to Thule as Eliud took me, that she grew up here, a universe away from me . . . alone?

“Her mother,” the words tumble through my lips before I can’t stop them. “Isolde’s mother, where is she?”

There’s a shift in Hadrian’s stance as he registers my question; renewed tension fills the air between us. “Lady Lethe passed away some years ago.”

I’m blindsided by the sudden pressure in my chest. Lady Lethe. It makes no sense that a precarious hunch should hurt that much, but I bite down on my lower lip in a vain bid to keep my composure. “What—what was her family name?”

“She was Lady Lethe Gaheris of Orloth, sister to Urtigern Gaheris, keeper of the seat of Gaheris and Baron of Orloth.”

“How did she die?”

“Why do you want to know, Miss Greer?”

How?” I repeat, staring down at my bare feet, stark white against the slab of black marble I’m standing on. The floor pattern is becoming blurry, and the more I try to blink away the heat in my eyes, the worse it gets.

“I am not privy to the details of her passing.” There’s something mechanical to his reply, like a well-rehearsed line.

I wipe my eyes with the heel of my palm. “You’re lying.”

“And you’re crying.” His tone softens. “Why are you crying, Miss Greer?”

“Because you kidnapped me!”

He closes the distance between us once more, relentless. “We both know that is not true. What is the truth?”

I back away toward the stairs, desperate for an escape, for answers that won’t come because I’m not sure I could even bear to hear them. “I don’t know, I—”

I’m cut short by the low moan of hinges somewhere down the hallway. Our heads snap simultaneously toward the source of the noise as a door opens, revealing a middle-aged man I suspect to be some sort of butler because of his white gloves and expertly curled mustache. The man freezes elegantly, tilting his head in silent inquiry.

Nim awetī, Leil,” Hadrian snaps.

The mystery butler gives a slight bow and backtracks, each of his steps silent and controlled. Hadrian’s jaw works in silence as he watches the retreating form until the door snaps shut. That second-long lull is all I need.

There’s no plan, only a discharge of adrenaline thundering through my limbs as I leap aside and make a break for the stairs.

Hadrian’s voice booms on my heels. “Miss Greer!”

I ignore his call and barrel down the steps until my soles meet a smooth, cold surface. Painted walls flash around me as I flit across the roots and branches snaking under the glass floor. It’s only when I reach a set of monumental wooden doors that I realize no footsteps are clattering after me. I risk a peek over my shoulder and see him, still standing atop the stairs. The butler has reappeared, and Hadrian is motioning for him to stay put. He can’t possibly be letting me go; it has to be a trick. I skid to a halt, casting frantic looks left and right at the many identical doors barring any escape. I need to think fast.

The groan of hinges rattles down my spine. I jolt back as a set of doors before me creaks open. A dark lobby stretches and dissolves into the white halo of an archway. Each intake of air becomes a struggle as my rib cage seems to be closing on my lungs. I know he’s toying with me, but the primal instinct drawing me to the light is too powerful to be ignored. I keep running until I crash through the blinding glow and onto a deserted terrace overlooking a park.

Pain shoots up my legs as my bare soles meet gravel. Within a few strides, my racing becomes a pitiful exercise in wobbling punctuated by a slew of curses until I reach the lawn. Even dead and brown, the dew-dampened grass is a balm to the stinging cuts on my feet. There’s a gate across the park whose skeletal outline I can barely make out through the fog. There’s a way out of this nightmare. I can do this, I can—

“You won’t make it far in your current state.”

Hadrian’s voice cracks like a gunshot in the same instant that my toes catch in a root half-tucked under the grass. I barely have time to feel my body tip forward before my knees take the brunt of the fall. Pain trills up my legs as I wrestle myself back up.

“Don’t touch me!”

“I shan’t.”

“Don’t—” Whatever I was about to say comes out as a squeak as something warm brushes my leg. I look down to find that a brown creature has slipped between us, effectively ending the standoff.

“Not now, Juvenal. Away with you.” Hadrian flicks his wrist at the intruder’s agouti coat.

Is that . . . a dog? I wipe the last of my tears with the back of my hand and peer down at my feet, disconcerted. Large nostrils quiver up at me, prolonged by a square head and tiny ears. “Uh . . .” My mouth hangs open. I have no adequate words to finish this sentence. Sitting at my feet and perusing me through its meditative almond-shaped eyes is a fricking capybara.

Chapter 6

The capybara is a plot twist, and I have nothing but new questions—starting with why it’s named after an ancient Roman poet. Then again, Juvenal’s master is Hadrian, so I guess there’s a theme going here. At any rate, I won’t ask. For the first time since I woke up, His Grace is off my case and now onto that of a rebellious rodent.

Hadrian stares down the pot-bellied intruder, a muscle twitching in his jaw. “Out of my sight, young man.”

Juvenal attempts a tactical retreat between my legs as Hadrian bends to catch him. “Twagī nu, Juvenal,” he says in a gruff but gentle voice.

The incriminated party wiggles back farther before cautiously sniffing his master’s hand. I seize this opportunity to put some much-needed distance between His Grace and me. “Why did you pretend to let me go?” I grit out, wiping wet blades of grass from my palms.

“You seemed encumbered by a certain amount of extraneous energy. I assumed you wouldn’t be able to sustain a rational conversation until it was spent in full.”

Rational . . . ?” I point an outraged forefinger at the pair standing before me. “You’re an alien sorcerer with a sidekick capybara for fuck’s sake!”

“Do mind your language, Miss Greer.”

Beaten, shivering, I shake my head and let myself fall on my butt in the grass. “All right, I’m rational now.”

I register a sigh above my head before Hadrian gets down on one knee. Juvenal, too, pads closer, taking cautious sniffs of the hem of my nightgown before collapsing in the grass, his eyes half-closed. He’s seriously gonna nap right here while I’m fighting for my life.

Hadrian gives his indolent partner a quick pat. “Allow me to remind you that under the present circumstances, you are the alien. Now, with all regard to propriety, may I ask to see your feet, Miss Greer?”

“My feet?” I glance down, noticing for the first time the blood beading on my soles where gravel has torn into the skin. He reaches down, the veins snaking between his knuckles alight with a soft glow. I try to bat his fingers away. “Don’t do that! No magic.”

“Oh, if only . . .” he says so low I think he’s talking to himself. Then, louder, he reiterates, “Pray show me your feet. You may rely on my word, as a knight and a gentleman, that I shan’t hurt or take advantage of you.”

There’s a bitter half of me that just wants to lash back that his word means nothing, especially after he knocked me out under that bridge and flexed his powers on me when I woke up. Yet I also acknowledge that resistance is futile at this point. I need to save my energy for the moment I’ll have an actual chance to escape.

I raise the hem of my nightgown a couple of inches, just enough to bare my ankles and allow him to cup my heel delicately. I can’t help but shudder from this benign touch, the strange warmth transferring from his fingertips to my skin.

“As I have already told you, I’m not a sorcerer.” He brushes his thumb over a bloody piece of gravel deeply embedded in my heel. Every single muscle in my body coils as I watch it turn to shimmering dust under his touch. “Merely a humble ichorite.”

“What’s that?” I rasp, my eyes glued to the bleeding gash at the back of my heel, from which a tiny piece of rock stuck out a second ago.

“Allow me to show you.”

I tense, ready to snatch my foot back as his veins start glowing again. His heat transfers to my skin, seeps under it. A gasp catches in my throat as the delicate veins crisscrossing my ankle come alight with a prickling sensation. I tug at my foot in an attempt to free myself from his hold. “Stop that. Please—I don’t like it!”

Undeterred, he reaches a little higher on my leg to keep me seated in place. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Observe, Miss Greer.”

Exhaling through clenched teeth, I force myself to watch the ominous glow spread up my leg and snake through my veins like a Lichtenberg figure. “What are you doing?”

“I am merely rousing from a deep sleep that which has never been awakened.”

As his words register, I realize the bruises on my sole are starting to fade. Each dent is filling up, each cut is drying and healing at impossible speed. He proceeds to do the same with my other foot, and not a minute later, there’s no trace left of my scrapes save for vaguely reddened skin. In his veins and mine, the luminous tide has washed away.

“How did you . . .” I gingerly probe my now-smooth sole.

“I didn’t heal you, if that’s what you mean to ask.”

“But—”

“You healed yourself. My contribution to the process was negligible.”

“You lit up my foot like a Christmas tree!”

“I’ve never heard of that species. Miss Greer, do you understand what runs in your veins?”

“Blood?” An unpleasant presentiment is welling in my chest.

“Not quite, I’m afraid.”

I stare at him in febrile silence.

Berekor.

“The flowing blood of the land,” I translate before he has time to.

Hadrian gives a slow nod and withdraws his hand from my leg to run it across the wilted blades of grass. A weak shimmer answers his probe. Soon, sparse particles of glowing white light emerge from the ground. They whirl and gather around his fingers, follow his movement as he strokes Juvenal’s fur, which glows softly in its turn. Juvenal cracks an eye open and closes it just as fast when he sees that there’s no cause for alarm; it’s just his master lighting him up.

I clasp a hand over my mouth. My heart is beating everywhere at once in my body, in sync with a new pulse I’ve never felt before.

“We commonly call it the ichor,” Hadrian explains, his palm lingering on Juvenal’s side.

“Like the blood of the gods in mythology?”

“We are not gods,” he corrects, solemn. “We’re, perhaps, the dust of their bones. The ichor is pure energy and permeates everything on Thule, from the stones to the flesh of the living. And because it runs particularly strong in certain bloodlines, those of us with a sufficient understanding of its intimate nature can control it.”

And conjure lightning out of thin air.

I need to sit down—hold on, I’m already sitting. I close my eyes and take a slow breath. Oh man, it is magic. “The flogger and the chair—was that how you . . .”

“Yes. Our kind is taught from a young age to perceive the deepest nature of things and control the ichor within them. Most organic structures inside which ichor resides in adequate quantity can be decomposed and, in some cases, reshaped at our will.” He pauses to rest his gaze on my newly healed feet. “That is what your ichor did, admittedly at my prompt. It broke apart the cells which compose your flesh and weaved them back together.”

Nothing in any of my biology classes covered this. My toes curl of their own volition upon hearing that they’ve been subtly deconstructed and mashed back together by some suspicious alien power. Then it finally hits me—the one crucial piece of information that somehow breezed over my head throughout his explanation. “Hang on. My ichor?”

I scramble to my feet, rubbing my arms compulsively as if insects were crawling under my skin. I feel it. I can’t put adequate words on the sensation, the way I’m suddenly aware of a second heartbeat inside me, echoing that of the air and the grass.

Fragments of last night’s dream emerge and coalesce in my mind. “We are made almost entirely of it. . . . Do you know what it is called?”

Now I know.

“You did this to me!” I accuse Hadrian, loud enough for Juvenal to snort awake. “You said you were rousing it.”

“I did,” he admits. “There’s barely any ichor on Earth save for a few sparse pockets. If, as you claim and I am inclined to believe, you have spent your entire life there, your ichor has remained dormant for lack of any other to interact with. What I feel in your veins . . .” he marks a pause, as if treading carefully around some vexing topic, “is similar to the essence of a child. Young, untrained, but quite strong.”

“That can’t be right.” I clench my fists in a vain bid to fight the maddening awareness of this unknown presence stirring deep inside me. “I’m not like you.”

“You are, much more so than you believe.”

I narrow my eyes at him. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”

Again, he temporizes before answering, and I get the sense that he’s handling me like he would a ticking bomb, with careful, calculated moves. “Because the ichor saturates our planet, every being is composed of some amount of it. However, not all Thulites are born equal in that regard. A limited number of bloodlines, the product of millennia of selective breeding, possess an exceedingly high density of ichor in their blood. We are called ichorites.”

I process this with slow, steady breaths. “And they’re all like you?”

“I’m not certain I understand what you mean by that.”

“Can they do the lightning flogger?”

His lips twitch—not quite a smile, but I detect amusement at my ignorance. “Some are able to. Ancient ichorite families generally marry with the express goal of breeding and reinforcing specific traits in their bloodline. Some have better control over water or fire than I ever will, others excel in their ability to transform organic matter.”

“Some can change their appearance,” I venture, recalling that he accused me of being a fetch. “And you deal with electricity.”

A nod. “It is no coincidence that my ancestors chose to name their seat Thunor Hall.”

Thunor. I hadn’t made the connection until now. “It means ‘thunder.’”

“It does.”

“You were bred to control lightning,” I chew out. Each word sounds unreal, ugly, even in the face of glaring evidence.

His gaze lowers to my feet once more. “And you, it appears, were born to regenerate yourself and others, as my wife was.” His voice feels like a cold draft against my skin. I don’t like where this conversation is going. I don’t want any of this.

“I can assure you my parents weren’t into eugenics,” I snap.

“Let us set the matter aside for the time being. Miss Greer, there’s much I must ask you. Would you care to resume this conversation over luncheon?”

I’m pretty sure there’s some ulterior motive behind this sudden change of tack, but a plaintive growl in my stomach reminds me that my last meal was well over fifteen hours ago, and it was a Timbit dunked in a double-double at Tim Hortons. I give a cautious nod.

“Excellent. Do follow me.” He strides back to the house I tried to escape minutes ago, Juvenal trotting behind him. “Isolde’s maids will find you something more appropriate to wear.”

“Appropriate?” I glance down at the austere nightgown covering every inch of my body. There’s a bit of dirt and grass clinging to the hem, a few tears in the muslin, but nothing dire. Then again, Thule definitely seems a little behind where mores and fashion are concerned. A couple centuries behind.

His gaze slides over me, lingering perhaps a millisecond too long on my midsection before he averts his eyes. The 290-light-years-deep cultural chasm between us has never been more apparent than when he remarks, “Let us not give scandalmongers the pleasure of reporting that the Duchess of Caid broke her fast half-naked.”

I freeze, shivering barefoot in the grass. Thunor Hall’s ghostly silhouette stands ahead, a sprawling three-story mansion entwined in dead trees as if emerged from a grove. Curtains shudder apart behind a latticed window only to close just as soon. We’re being watched. “They don’t know,” I murmur, realization dawning. “They think I’m her.”

He nods. “And for your sake and mine, let us maintain that charade.”

“For my sake? You’re the one who snatched me before I could tell them I wasn’t your wife. I could have explained everything and—”

“Been sent home?” he taunts. “Perhaps with a written apology and a piece of candy?”

He might have a point here—which I refuse to concede. “I don’t know about that.”

A beat of silence stretches between us as a somber expression wipes out any trace of sarcasm from his features. “They would have imprisoned you all the same. Your ichor is far too precious to be allowed to leave Thule.”

His words coil around me like ropes. “But you said it was young and untrained.”

“It does not need to be trained to breed a good bloodline,” he replies, his voice softening. I read regret in his eyes, and I hate him for that, for acting like he’s sorry for me when he’s the one holding all the cards of my fate.

“Bred to you, like your wife?”

“To any husband vetted by your appointed legal guardian.” He’s being surgical, matter of fact, even as he tells me that here on Thule, I have no right but that to be owned. My stomach is knotting. I think I’m going to be sick.

“Basically, you’re saying it’s either you or some random asshole.”

He marks a pause before answering, each word slowly and carefully weighed. “Not quite. I’m suggesting that we work together and help each other.”

“How? You just said there was no way out for me.”

“A day ago, I believed there was no way in, either, and yet here I am, learning to challenge my certainties. Perhaps, Miss Greer, you ought to consider doing the same.” His eyes come alight with renewed purpose. “I cannot persuade the Table to release you—leastways not as long as Isolde is missing. I might, however, be able to plead your case and prevent your arrest.”

“And you want me to play along until you do?”

“I believe it would be in our mutual interest. As far as I’m concerned, you are Her Grace Isolde of Caid, my delinquent duchess, safely returned to me by a squadron of our bravest pathfinders.”

Seeing me rub goose bumps off my forearms and take a cautious step back, he adds, “And you have my word, as a knight and a gentleman, that no harm shall come to you so long as you are under my protection.”

“So long as I belong to you,” I remind him, quoting the words he spoke to Eliud on the bridge.

He tilts his head, reading the unspoken fear in my voice. “Rest assured, madam, that our marriage bed shall remain as cold as it has been since the day we exchanged our vows.”

My eyebrows slowly journey up as I process this crucial bit of intel. Then again, there wasn’t much chemistry oozing from that painting of them together, and the duchess went through the trouble of putting an actual universe between her and her husband, so I guess their relationship must have been cold, indeed.

His Grace doesn’t take offense at my incredulity. His lips quirk in self-derision. “There’s not a single gossip from here to Aballen who ignores that the Duke of Caid’s marriage lasted not one month before his duchess elected to take her leave. Your return to the conjugal nest will, in truth, greatly mend the rags of my dignity.” My mouth falls open in a dumbfounded O while Juvenal stares back and forth between Hadrian and me as if waiting for more crispy details on his master’s connubial woes. Spoiler alert: Bravo won’t renew Real Housewives of Thule for a second season. Our leading man adjusts his cravat with a sharp tug before he turns on his heel. His Grace doesn’t miss a step, doesn’t look back as he seals our deal with a dry, “Welcome back to Thunor Hall, madam.”

17 Comments. Leave new

  • I am on chapter 4 and already hooked. I am afraid to read further along… I have a pre-order but April 30 is far away. It is like waiting for the next Spotless all over again (cry).

    Reply
  • This is so awesome! Can’t wait to find out who the mystery woman is!!

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  • Loving it! I envision a very steampunk society in Thule. And I’m dying to know if it was River’s mother or Floe who just showed up!

    Reply
  • I find Uncle incredibly suspicious. I adore your descriptive writing and can’t wait for this book to come out!

    Reply
  • I am really enjoying the world building here. Thank you for sharing this,

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  • The story is swirling. I love the pace! Has a good rhythm. River is a very likeable heroine, makes the ride easy, she is a non-whiner.
    Hadrian. Wow. I adore it when we get a glimpse behind his dukey facade, i really like strong not too talkative or oversharing heroes.
    I can not wait to read the remaining chapters, so many things need to be solved. Thank you Camilla for the adventure, i am so into it!

    Reply
  • I am loving this story. The capybara is a cute little creature. I am utterly confused by the time element. I can’t wait for the next chapters. Thank you!

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    • Thank you so much, Signe! #16 will drop tomorrow morning. 🙂 And yes, I guess the point was to convey River’s disorientation from being in a world that doesn’t have 24h days, but maybe I made it too confusing…

      Reply
  • The depth of characters and fascinating story line are ON POINT.

    I am hoping to read more about the Paths, and other industries of Thule. Also curious about what a kitchen on Thule is like. It’s always fun to learn about how different cultures nourish themselves, and how their culinary traditions evolve.

    I wonder if there’s an underground, women-only fight culture, where women are free to not behave like ladies….

    Reply
    • Thank you! It was fun, indeed, to question everything, from the taste of food to language, and imagine how Thulites built their culture by borrowing from ours and mingling it with their own. There’s actually an underground social group of sorts that’s going to be introduced soon in the story, and which will become a central component of OBAL. 🙂

      I removed my notes from this version, and I wonder if I should add them back. The wine for example: Thulites make and drink wine the way ancient Romans did (thick, flavored with spices or aromatics, super sweet, and then cut with warm water like syrup.) This is something they inherited from leaving Earth shortly after the fall of the Roman Empire, and thus missing the meteoric rise of beer in occident as German and Saxon cultures took over.

      Reply
  • Camilla, really enjoying this so far. I only read a few snippets you posted on Yay Cupid a long time ago, so is fresh for me. It is going at a good pace and I’m glad you moved River on to grappling with her situation rather than running away early on. Looking forward to more!

    Reply
  • This is a fantastic story that sucked me in & held my attention throughout the story. I’ve been waiting to read more since it was originally published a while ago. So worth the wait! And thank you for the fantastic Christmas gift

    River seems to have adapted a bit more quickly to her new surroundings then I thought she would, but that makes sense if she’s been surrounded by strange things throughout her life. Maybe a bit more back story would help readers relate better to her actions.

    Reply
    • Thank you so much! I had a lot of hesitations about what to do with that one. If you read it on fiction press, I pulled it at chap 27 or 28 for that reason. So, you should be all caught up in 4 weeks (I’m currently polishing the chapters of the final act that weren’t published on FP.) And, I guess I meant to portray River as a problem solver, someone who takes things as they come and adapts to whatever new curveball life throws at her. But I’ll keep your comment in mind if I revise it for actual publication!

      Reply

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