Chapter One                 Chapter Two                  Chapter Three             Chapter Four                Chapter Five            Chapter Six
Chapter Seven             Chapter Eight            Chapter Nine


            “My lord,” a voice said. 
               The Shadow King wearily turned his head from where he had been staring over his balcony ledge into the darkness.  A woman with sleek, pinned curls and a pure white brocaded dress was standing behind him, looking solemn.
               “Aurelia,” he said.
               Aurelia curtsied gracefully, smooth and perfect.
               “Is there anything you need to tell me?” he asked, turning around and leaning his elbows on the banister of the balcony rail.  In the Shadow Kingdom, every object was black as night, barely distinguishable from the solid void of darkness that filled this world, so thick it was almost tangible.  The only thing that betrayed the dark rail’s form was the faint shading, a slightly darker black than the air, delineating the underside from the polish of the smooth top.
               “Come here, my king,” she said, holding out a hand. In the vivid black pressing in on all sides, Aurelia, like the other Goddesses, seemed to emit a faint ghostly light that shielded her from the oozing darkness.
               “What do you need?” he said, tired.
               “I can understand that you are troubled,” she said softly, “and as your guardian, the prime Goddess, it is my duty to ease you in times of need.”
               “I’m fine.”
               “Surely not.”
               “Well, I am more or less fine.”
               Aurelia smiled.  “Step away from that banister, my lord.”
               The king moved away, which sent his cloak fluttering behind him, and the banister dissolved into nothing. It was always hard to think of the substantiality of the Shadow Kingdom, as there seemed to be only one dimension and yet infinite dimensions at the same time, and objects kept melting and appearing. Yet, he knew, if he had indeed been leaning over the banister when it disappeared, he would not have fallen. The “ground” would have risen to meet him. At the same time, what Aurelia was standing on would not have risen. But they were still both standing on the same level.
               He had learned that is was much easier to just accept this bizarre world.  Three years in this place, which he could not leave unless there was not a drop of sunlight in the outside world, had taught him this much thus far.
               Aurelia’s skirts eerily made no sound in the sucking abyss as she stepped closer to him.  “My lord,” she said gently.  “What is wrong?”
               He sighed and sat down on the chair that had miraculously formed at his will, just behind him, and he cupped his chin in his hands.  “Honestly, I don’t know, Aurelia,” he said, the timbre of his voice reverberating as the only sound heard for miles.  “I just don’t quite feel—right.  And it’s not the usual kind of not right—not the kind that comes with living in this dark place.  Well—I—hm.  It is difficult to say.”
               “You still miss the Sunlight Queen,” Aurelia said, her voice low.
               “No!”  The King sat bolt upright.  “No, I don’t.”
               “You know you do,” Aurelia said.  “I am the Goddess of compassion, my king, as you know, and therefore I am very good at reading emotions.  Yours are all in turmoil, aren’t they? Both you and I know that you are still thinking of the Queen…how she would smile at you and ask you to do something for her…but, alas, those days are over.”  Here she sighed, and the faint glow around her became more diminished, not quite as strong.  “You know she is still crying over your fate, my lord?  She knows it seems harsh to treat you as so…her most faithful servant…but she also knows she had no choice.  She cannot show kindness to you now, after you broke the ancient magic that even she has no power over. They were rules written long ago, many centuries before you appeared in the world.”
               “You have seen the Sunlight Queen?” he asked, alert.
               Aurelia smiled bitterly. “I have…ah….paid her a visit, if you will.”
               “No doubt talking about me behind my back,” the King said glumly, sitting back in his chair.
               “Well—yes,” she admitted.
               “I knew it!”  The King sat forward, mischief in his eyes.  His silky cloak settled around him.  “What did she say?  Was it anything good? Or was it bad?”
               Aurelia hesitated.  “Do you really wish to know?”
               “It was bad, wasn’t it?” he guessed, losing some of his fervor and slumping.  He looked up.  “Well, tell me anyways.  It’s terrible without any news from the Light, no matter if it is good news or bad news.”
               Aurelia hesitated again as she spoke, as if they took a lot of effort.  “She said…she said she couldn’t abide you.  And that she…has judged and…and condemned you to live here, forever in—in pain as a reminder of—what you did…not only to her, but also to the kingdom; she has already left you to rest in her memories of sunshine.”
               The King was silent.
               “My—my lord?” Aurelia asked softly. 
               A breeze was conjured up out of nothing, and it swirled through them, sweeping the King’s cloak onto his left shoulder.  Aurelia gently took the silk in her hands, undid the knobbly knot, and let the cloak slide to the floor with a whisper. “I’m sorry,” she said.
               “I was just—hoping,” he said brokenly.
               “Of course you were.”  Aurelia gathered up the cloak and sized him up.  He looked so much more how he used to without it; that sleek river of black over his shoulders.  “You may want to rest a little, my lord.  All your recent trips to the outside world must have been—exhausting.”
               “Indeed,” he said emotionlessly, standing up, and the chair melted away, leaving nothing but space.  He leaned forward and the rail he had been leaning on earlier was suddenly there, fully formed.  Folding his arms upon it, he crossed his legs and stared out into the sea of blackness.
               Aurelia watched him with a detached sort of sadness.
               A knock sounded on the door (which hadn’t been there before—yet more meddling of substance in the dimensions of the Shadow Kingdom).  Aurelia brightened up a tad.
               “What is it?” the King said in a low voice in the direction of the door.
               It opened and two of the Goddesses spilled in; one in a perky butter-yellow dress and one in plain tawny brown. 
               “Esmeralda. Larissa.”  His voice was rather cold.  “You have something to ask of me?”
               Both of them curtsied.  Esme was two inches shorter than her sister, and Aurelia was the tallest out of the three in the room. 
               “My lord, if you’re so dedicated to the Queen, honestly, you should just tell her,” Esme blurted out as soon as she straightened. 
               “You know I can’t leave this place.”
               “You could send a letter,” Esme suggested.
               “Shush,” Larissa said softly, kicking some tangible darkness onto Esme’s slipper.
               “What good would that do, exactly?” the King said.  Aurelia, sensing a stormcloud mood, quickly excused herself and left, seeming to just fade away.  “She has no patience for me.  She can’t even—abide me anymore, and she—”
               “We heard what the Queen said; we were there,” Larissa interrupted, though quietly.  She spoke in her soothing way, taking a seat—yet another chair had formed, he realized—and she calmly comforted him.  “You know the Queen better than anyone, my lord.  She says such things for a reason, and that that point…well, she did know in her heart that she still wished you were with her.”
               “And yet she is a woman who tricked me and then banished me.”
               “Perhaps.  The Queen is a decidedly clever yet foolish person, and none of us can understand her motives.”
               “Yes, that was exactly my point.”
               “But she has goodness in her heart, I am sure,” Larissa said, still continuing in her gentle, sensible way as Esme let her head fall to one side and smiled at him to encourage him.  “She let you keep us, did she not?”
               “Well…I suppose,” he said reluctantly.
               “If I had to decide, I would say that you are actually the one who has the most hardness in either of your hearts. You have to let it go, my lord, and with it…you must also release her.  She cannot do anything for you anymore.”
               The King’s hands tightened on the banister rail, so hard his knuckles were white in stark contrast to the dark scenery.  “I cannot.  Not yet.”
               “Then so be it,” Larissa said simply, fingering the coarse mended fabric of her dress.
               The King sighed.  “Thank you.”
               “You’re very welcome.”
               “Are you saying thank you to me?” Esme asked brightly.
               “Yes, you too.”
               “Well, you’re welcome.”
               “Would you like some hot chocolate?”  A black platter with steaming mugs had appeared on Larissa’s lap.  “I’m afraid the chocolate is dark chocolate, black as everything else here…”


Early that evening, before supper, Wednesday started hanging up her new dresses in her section of the wardrobe.  Mother had brought back an entire suitcase of new dresses for the girls (which they oohed and aahed over) and even a few suitcoats and sleeves for Father (which he looked at, stone-faced).  Winter had spent almost the entire rest of the day acting as Mother’s personal servant, running to get tea from the kitchens, asking Mother how she felt, stoking up the fire and giving Mother blankets, all the while smiling angelically.  (“Ah, Mrs. Bootlicker,” Willow had whispered to Wednesday when they witnessed Winter mowing down everything in her way trying to get Mother some biscuits. Wednesday snorted.) Willow had sat by the fire, laying out her new dresses, feeling the soft cloth and comparing them to Wednesday’s and Winter’s.  She’d traded one with Wednesday; a white one with a lacy corset for a dappled green one.
               As for Wednesday, she’d sat deep in thought for a while, thinking how nice Mother was (and yet strict about certain things—lessons, dressing properly, table etiquette, dancing form), though if only she’d had eyes for her.  She thought about Mother’s reaction to how the girls had fawned over the young gentlemen, and winced.
               Then, to clear her mind, she’d run around in the garden for half an hour, remembering to don a cloak and to tie it tight.  With the cold stinging air that had freshened her senses instantly and the perfume of the early daffodils, she knew it had been worth it, even though when she’d gotten back the rest of her family had commented on how pale she was, and Mother had pointed out that her hair was coming unpinned. 
               Presently she carefully laid out on her bed one of the dresses Mother had bought for her, and smoothed it out as the skirts billowed up in a cloud.  How had Mother found the money to buy these wonders?  They were absolutely gorgeous.  Even Wednesday’s (which were smaller and not as showy, to not make her ill health even more of a contrast) were the most beautiful things the girls had ever seen.
               Wednesday gazed down at the gauzy dress.  It seemed something like the Goddesses would wear—a soft blue thing, like water, with ruffles on the side, and streaks of black that somehow made it seem like a bluebird’s down.  The rest of her dresses were the same way—one absolutely sweet white one with black trim, a light green with swoops of white and yellow tassels, rose and lavender and honeysuckle. 
               Willow burst into the girls’ bedroom as Wednesday was draping her new light green dress on a hanger and hanging it in the pine wardrobe. 
               “Wednesday, are you coming down for supper?” she asked, bouncing up and down.
               “Supper already?” Wednesday said, laying down the yellow dress she’d just picked up from her pile on her bed.  “But it’s not even past five yet.”
               “Well, Mother’s had a big trip, and I frankly can’t blame her for being hungry,” Willow said.  “Anyway, pleasing Mother is a good idea.  She says if she’s feeling up to it tomorrow, in the morning she’ll take us riding!  In that meadow over the hill that you can see by the east wing—”
               “Riding?”  Wednesday sighed slightly.  “Of all the silly…Willow, you know I’m not a rider.  I just fall off like a sack of potatoes.”
               “Yes, I know you’re a terrible rider,” Willow said dismissively, waving this away with one hand.  “My point is, the rest of us want to go riding, too.  Even Father will come if he doesn’t have any business to tend to.  You know how busy he’ll be now that Mother’s back and isn’t in work—I say he could use a break before he delves into everything he has to do.”  Here she smiled slyly at Wednesday, and Wednesday heaved a greater sigh.  Obviously Willow was not going to give this up.
               “Well, all right.  Just let me finish hanging up these dresses first; I don’t want you to run up here after supper and flop down on my nice new dresses.”  Wednesday took up her yellow dress again, fluffing out the skirts and smoothing down the crinolines, and hung it neatly up in the wardrobe so it was bunched tightly against the others, squeezed together to save space but making the skirts stick out at unusual angles.     “Honestly, you are just so neat about everything, Wednesday,” Willow said, plopping down on the bed where Wednesday had just removed a rosy dress.  “Mine are still downstairs.  I left them on the floor, on the big purple rug by the fireplace.”  She suddenly gasped.  “Surely nobody will accidentally brush them a bit too close to the coals and they’ll…good heavens!”  She leapt up from the bed with a vigorous fervor and fled the room.
               “This is why you should be more careful, Willow,” Wednesday murmured in the empty room as she placidly hung up another dress.
               A bit later that evening, supper was a very busy affair.  From the dining room windows, Wednesday could clearly see the sky, which had faded to only mildly dark—a faint purple tinge at the corners of the heavens and a few stained clouds of two swift dashes of an egg-beater, sharp against the light sky.  Storm clouds were gathered anxiously at one side of the rectangle of glass, as if hesitant to show their appearance, and upon inching forward came problems ordinarily found in a shy lass—gently poking forward like a cautious little dove, the running self-consciousness trickling its way into one’s soul, requiring a brave surge that perhaps these clouds did not have—and so they backed up, wondering who had noticed them, and peered through the swooping curtain-drapes at the window’s corner and the glass, carefully observing with a strong will to not be noticed; and the manner of them were curiously attracting Wednesday’s attention; a mystic thing, perhaps though reason shows she had seen them because she herself was much like those storm clouds—full of tears, yet shy to be shown. 
               Serrying around the polished mahogany table—which, while nicked and perhaps not suitable in the image of perfection, was rather charming—all of them were at their veriest jauntiness, almost overly so, while Mother seemed completely at ease without even a slight discomfort.  Obviously she had settled in, and cheerfully chattered away about her travels while the rest of them sat bemused at her side; Willow folding and unfolding her napkin, Winter saying “Yes, Mother” every few seconds and hanging enraptured to Mother’s every word, Wednesday staring at the peculiarly shy storm clouds from her seat (from which she could see the entire expanse of the sky through the glass, save for the corners, which were covered by the pulled-back curtains), and Father glancing nervously at the kitchen door, probably wondering why supper was not here yet.
               “Why, the times I had in France,” Mother was saying as if announcing she had won the Nobel Peace Prize—and here Winter echoed, “France?!” in a voice of wonder—“Well, they were just corking.”  She touched a finger to her cheek.  “There was this one delightful French lady who lived just under my floor, and after I had explained I was not a widow and I was just on business—”  And Winter gasped with horror at the thought of Mother being a widow— “well, we became excellent friends.  Bernadette—that was her name—she was such a sweet little thing, all pink and flowers and cheer.  Cheerful disposition, with a smile that could brighten the room—it’s no wonder her husband loves her so.  Sometimes it was hard to get through a conversation because her English was somewhat broken and she had a very, very thick French accent—but, all I can say, it was—interesting. A new experience.”  Her face lit up, and she shook her head ruefully, making those beautiful cinnamon curls bounce, coils of thin coffee hair all wound up around her chin.  Then something caught her eye, and she turned, and everyone turned with her.  One of the maids was balancing part of their supper, bowls and spoons stacked in one hand, a covered battered pot with the other.  The lid was sideways and a ladle’s handle was poking out. 
               Winter leapt up and took the bowls from the maid and spread them out—a clatter, and the spoons all landed on their napkins.  She then snatched the large pot from the maid and set it with a clunk in the middle of the table.
               The maid looked surprised but hurried back towards the kitchen without a word.
               “This is supper?” Mother asked, looking surprised.  “Is this…soup?”
               “Not quite,” Father said gaily.  Before he could continue, the maid returned with a stack of dainty glasses and a squat pot of what Wednesday assumed was tea.  She put them on the table and left quietly, biting her lip.
               “What’s that…scent?” Willow said, inhaling deeply. Wednesday sniffed. Something smelled fresh and yet elder, almost as if the sea had been added to their dining room, hold the salt.
               “Ah,” said Father.  He lifted the lid off the teapot, and a ripple of easy sighs ran through the girls at the smell, as well as a cloud of steam that drifted. “Esthetique…I asked for this to be made for you.”  He took her hand.  “After all…I do know how much you like the ocean
[TS1] .”
               “What is it made from?” Mother asked, holding back her hair and peering inquisitively at the translucent bronze of the tea. Small, wrinkly shapes mottled the bottom.
               “It is callitrichaceae,” Father said solemnly, pouring Mother a cup, and then one for each of the girls.  “Dicot aquatic herbs—I was fortunate to buy some a few months ago.  You had already left at that time, my dear.”
               “Oh, George,” Mother said, teary-eyed.  “You’re as romantic and perfect as ever.”
               “Please,” Willow said distastefully as Mother and Father kissed rather exuberantly.  “You haven’t even tried the actual tea yet!”
               “It’s the gesture that counts,” Winter said, kicking Willow in the foot (“Ouch!”) and watching Mother and Father, her expression misty.
               “Well, I honestly don’t care,” Willow said petulantly, kicking Winter back (no response).  She picked up her teacup and took a sip.  “Though the tea is just deliciously light.”
               Wednesday took a sip as well, burning her tongue.  It was.  Light and cleansing, leaving a fresh feeling across her palate.
               Once Mother and Father finally broke apart, the girls uncovered the large metal pot with interest, revealing a slumgullion—potatoes cut in thick wedges, cubes of meat, pickled vegetables; all swimming in a heavy porridge. 
               “Oh, again?” Willow said, flopping back in her chair, sending her hair cascading around her shoulders.  “I thought it’d be a little more spectacular, since it’s Mother’s day back.” 
               Father glared at her, but not really angrily.  “Willow, we’re not on the rich side.”
               “Still.”  Willow frowned, then grabbed the ladle and put some in her bowl.  The glutinous porridge adhered to the metal of the ladle and she shook it vigorously to get it off. Bits of stew peppered Wednesday’s bowl, and she cast Willow an exasperated glance, wrinkling her brow.  Willow did not see.
               “It’s okay, my love,” Mother said, and pecked Father’s cheek.  Her squeezed her hand gently in turn. 
I love stew, no matter how simple.”
               Time was a blur after that.  Everyone enjoyed their tea, and exclaimed with how fine it was, and then passed the ladle around and took turns shaking the slumgullion onto their plates. Winter commented on how rich
[m2]  it was, and there were smiles all around as Mother started up another stream of chatter.  By this time her voice had become rather background to Wednesday, and after giving New Year’s greetings all around, as Mother dived into recalling her adventures/business trip in Paris, Wednesday missed the exordium because she was too busy thinking of her own adventures at the New Year’s Festival and in the resulting and extremely busy day that had ensued because of it.
               Thinking of Castil Seigfried—and his very unapompentic departure—made her feel funny on the inside.  He was sweet, feminine almost, with his beautiful glossy black hair and his pretty blue eyes with the violet at the rings and his capability to excuse anything.  At the same time, she couldn’t picture a pair of green eyes without an image of Cassius flashing in her mind—his always-tousled cinnamon hair, rakish, sly and yet kind disposition, and especially those eyes, like emerald jade, or peridot.  Both of them seemed indescribably similar, as if brothers, and at the same time she couldn’t imagine any two people who were more different and had nothing to with each other. 
               She wished she had gotten to know both of them better.  It wasn’t just that she was curious; she had a determination to understand these two mysterious young gentlemen better, and the fact that she had known both of them directly for less than twenty-four hours—a tiny taste of their personalities—only made her want to understand more, as one does when one samples something delicious, but only just enough to say, “How wonderful this is!” and then burn to enjoy more, and ends up buying it.
               She was confident she would see Castil again—Winter had promised fervently that she would give him his jacket back if it killed her.  And perhaps she’d see Cassius, too.  After all, that very morning, Willow had made the two other sisters promise to get Cassius to marry her (and Wednesday scowled at the thought of Winter’s choking magic of persuasion, which had forced her to agree to Willow’s terms—just because Winter was curious about what had made Castil leave!), and they had no choice but to follow through, since a promise could not be broken.  It was one of the ancient laws of magic that stretched way back to the flicker of creation, when magic had crept into this world and some godly figure had attached the archaic laws. A solemn promise could not be broken, lest disaster befall one. So (and the thought left a bitter taste in her mouth that she could not wash out with her tea) she would see Cassius when he and Willow were married. The thought did no wonders for her attitude, and she found herself with a severe case of the mulligrubs, and fading into the background while Mother cheerfully prattled on.
               “Wednesday. Earth to Wednesday!”
               Willow was hissing in her ear, kicking her shins lightly underneath the table, trying to talk without being noticed.  Wednesday blinked, surfacing from her stupor, and looked at Willow.  “What?” she murmured back, picking up her spoon and digging in her bowl until she had a shovelful of beans and potatoes.
               “After supper, do you think we can play some parlor games in the library?” Willow asked as Wednesday tried to fit her spoon of mush in her mouth.  “We haven’t played any in so long, what with Mother gone and Father busy and Winter boring and you always sick. I’m the only one with any spirit…but now that Mother’s back, don’t you think Father would agree to play?”
               “Perhaps,” Wednesday said shortly, swallowing her food, “as long as we’re not playing statues, or the laughing game.  I think that one’s just ridiculous.”
               “We could play spillikins,” Willow offered. “It’s not so strange, and it does require thinking.”
               “Is that all you’re saying? Perhaps?”
               “Well, if you weren’t so stubborn, then maybe—” Wednesday began.
               “Girls?” Mother broke in.  “Is everything all right over there?”
               “Yes, we’re fine,” Willow said dismissively. She smiled at Mother, her pretty little dimples showing.  “Mother, after supper, could we go to the library, perhaps? Or maybe the piano room? And there we could play some games.”
               “The library is under renovation by my hand,” Father said.  “We cannot play in there, unless you wish a book’s falling gracefully off the shelf and onto your head.”
               Wednesday and Winter giggled behind their hands.  Willow kept smiling, though her dimples had vanished.  She wasn’t amused at Father’s funning.
               “Well, I suppose,” Mother said.  “I was hoping to tell you a little bit more about my business in Bellarine—”
               “Naturally—” Willow said hastily. 
               “Of course, Mother,” Winter bulldozed over Willow’s voice.  “We can stay in the piano room, and you could tell us all about your trips in Bellarine.”  She clasped her hands together, smiling.  “I’m sure they’re absolutely thrilling. And I could play a bit of piano to soothe us all, especially such a rambunctious girl as Willow—”  She frowned discreetly at Willow, who scowled back.  “And after some coffee, once you’re all done, then we can play a little.”
               “Oh, joy,” Willow muttered.  “Such a showoff.” 
               Winter kicked sideways, giving Willow a warning.
               “Sounds like you’ve planned everything out, as usual,” Mother said, smiling at Winter and sipping her tea.  Wednesday rolled her eyes at her sisters and helped herself to more stew.  It was rich and bursting with flavor, even though it was inexpensive and thrown together. 
               Winter beamed. 
               After supper, still clutching their dainty cups of the aquatic herbal tea, they gathered around in the piano room, a large but relatively pointless room with rather scruffy carpeting, a few old sofas, and two baby grand pianos positioned opposite each other across the room.  While Mother seated herself gracefully on the sofa, with Father next to her, Winter took a seat at the closest piano’s bench, and began flipping through her music.  Willow, not to be outdone by her competitive sister, immediately flounced to the other piano.  Their eyes met, directly eye to eye, over the shiny black surfaces.
               “A duet, then,” Mother said hesitantly, using a cheery voice, breaking the bridge of tension that was arching between the two pianos. 
               Winter looked through her book. “Come Away to the Skies, Willow?”
               “Mm,” Willow agreed primly, flicking aside a page.  She had her hands ready, and, sitting on the couch, Wednesday could see both of them, positioned carefully with their music in front.
               The post-supper entertainment was decidedly competitive, Wednesday decided.  The rest of them watched, silent, while Winter and Willow played back and forth, competing for dynamics, articulation, tempo, matching each other.  Then, after the duet (“Bravo!” Mother said, clapping), there were solos, Winter better suited to graceful, smooth, soft songs, while Willow dexterously let her fingers fly across the keys in an allegro Prelude in E
, not to mention many other fast, haunting songs that made Wednesday gut curl and feel like she needed to stand up and run. 
               After much piano playing (and rendering both Willow and Winter panting and pink), Mother finally composed herself, and began to speak again of her trips, with the two other girls crowding on both of her sides, listening with rapture and squealing with delight whenever Mother said something funny, Father content, all of them crowded cozily together on the sofa.  Despite being strict, Mother was a pleasant woman, and she spun her story in her clever, enticing way; yet all her words filtered through Wednesday brain and she could only hear them faintly.  It wasn’t that Wednesday was feeling weak or sick; she was just unable to focus.  An image of the garden sprang to her mind, and she felt clogged, and that somewhere in her mind the thought was crystal clear: the garden would clear it. 
               Wednesday excused herself, much to the others’ surprise, and Mother stared at her questioningly but didn’t raise a commotion as she quickly walked out of the piano room and down the hall.  From the doorway, a quick right and she was in the gardens, the southwest section.  The gardens were a sprawling, low-cut series of untrimmed arbors overflowing with thin lime vines starting to sprout the barest hint of leaves, from where she stood.  To her left was a hedge, which in early summer was full of soft blooming lilacs and topiaries bursting with colors. Right now it was a bare, grim green, but she was confident they would start to color soon enough.  The southwest section was a rose section, but as none of them had bloomed yet, all that there was for her to see was a threadbare forest of thorny branches, jutting out a sickly green with brown spines.  Roses and leaves would soon flourish on those same tangled branches, transforming them into beauties, but currently there were still only thistles.  Lattices were placed, alternating with the hedges and arbors, and each white espalier only had snake-like dead vines clinging, but by the time spring arrived, morning glories would open and perfume the air.
               She had been right.  The cold hiemal temperature whipped her hair about, snapping her to alertness in an instant, and she chided herself, not for the first time, for not bringing a cloak.  It was still only the evening of the first day of January, and of course the air would be cold.  Frost lay in spikes over the plants.  The sun had finally succumbed to the horizon line and was gone, and a soothing kind of chilly darkness was enveloping the castle.  Even the timid storm clouds she had seen at supper were venturing out, only faintly distinguishable from the dark of the sky.  One of them had even dared to sidle in front of the moon, cutting a pie slice sort of shape from its almost completely full roundness.  It was almost as if…as if no light were coming through the heavens, despite the moon’s ghostly white glow.
               Something peach-colored, a color that didn’t match the solemnity of the brown and gray, managed to catch her eye, and she turned.  At the base of one delicate rosebush, its arms gracefully positioned upwards, was a small bud of a rose that was almost open.  Wednesday bent down at the knees to examine it more closely, not caring that her hem was sweeping the dirt and her hair, which was coming unpinned yet again, was falling over her face, and the wind would soon tangle it in the rosebush’s arms if she didn’t step away.  The bud was a pretty little thing, nothing special exactly, but still cute and young.  The hedge she was kneeling in front of shadowed her entire form, and she felt almost as though she had melted into the darkness.
               There was a rustle from somewhere decently near to her—not too close, and yet not too far away.  Wednesday froze.
               Another rustle, a bit louder this time.  Someone else, someone besides her, was walking through the gardens.
               Wednesday stood up, looking around, and brushed her hair behind her—
               Pain yanked her scalp.  She stifled a yelp, whipping around to see if anyone had grabbed her hair, but there was no one.  She looked down and realized that the rosebush was the culprit, clutching a coil innocently. 
               “You—”  Wednesday gritted her teeth and bent down again to disengage her hair from the thorn.  Meanwhile, the rustling was getting closer.  Not in a menacing way, but just as though someone were taking a stroll, not particularly caring what they bumped into, such as trees, or bushes, or hedges, even.  Wednesday couldn’t imagine taking such a clumsy walk, though, and she wondered if someone was drunk.  It was a possibility.
               If someone were drunk, then she needed to get out of here. 
               The wind gusted and moaned.  Just as Wednesday freed her hair, another tendril became ensnared.  She glared at the rosebush, which was placidly waving in the breeze, and started to tug the lock of auburn free. The steps were still approaching, still at an absent-like pace. 
               They stopped.
               Wednesday furiously jerked at the hair and it tore free with a shock of pain through her head, and it left a few long strands in the hands of the bush, which fluttered them teasingly.  Triumphant and still holding the ends, Wednesday stood up—
               —And found herself face to face with a gentleman. 
               “Oh!”  Wednesday backed up quickly, and her skirts, blowing forward in the wind, caught in the rosebush again.  She and the young man locked eyes over the tall rose hedge arbor, and she started, recognizing that black silk cloak so long that it brushed the floor, the hood over his head that cast shadows over his face, the silver watch he was holding, letting it dangle by the chain from his fingertip.
               The Shadow King.
               Wednesday yelp-screamed as reality flashed in her mind.  She tried to run, but her skirts were still tangled in that one annoying rosebush, and she stared up at him, caught. He stared back, as surprised as she was.
               She couldn’t see his face.  His long hood covered everything but his facial features, and the shadows seemed to just cover the rest of him, obscuring it.  Only the gleam of his eyes was visible, but even those she couldn’t make out the color.
               Time halted and they stared at each other.
               The pocket watch ticked.
               Tick.  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.
               “Oh…” Wednesday whispered.
               Then time sped up again, back to normal speed, and her mind screamed, He’s dangerous! Get away from him! Now!
               Wednesday wrenched at her skirts and they came free, and she fled. She dove through the topiaries and bushes and ran.
               Her shoes went clicka-click every time they hit the ground, and the sound overwhelmed her ears as she sprinted, her feet taking her to somewhere she knew not, and she half expected the King to give chase; hair streaming in back of her, she was carried by her feet far away from that section of the gardens, tearing off and panting, her breath a white cloud, breathing so quickly the cloud was almost opaque, and her heart trilled in her chest and almost shocked her with the force.  Her legs gave way several minutes later and she crumpled, landing hard upon the dirt, her knees colliding with the ground—and she just fell over, letting her head smack, her hair a waterfall and falling to the ground with her.  She was curled up on the frozen ground, and she felt icy, with a burning sensation, and yet her heart still shrieked and drumrolled, tearing along like a train, out of control, and she gasped for air.  Her eyes stared into the black sky straight above, and she closed them, terrified that she would see the Shadow King leaning over her.
               He—he—the King! He was here! In the gardens!
               Her eyes flew open.  The Shadow King had been in their gardens!  She’d seen him! And yet—in the moment, when she’d seen—he had been—shocked.  And—unexpected—and—and—
               Wednesday pressed her hands to her head so hard her forearms hurt from the pressure. Oh—oh—oh! The fact that he had been here—and maybe still was—that was—
               Calm down, she thought, closing her eyes again.  Calm. Calm. Calm! 
               “It’s okay,” she whispered aloud, tears starting to well in her eyes.  They rolled over her cheekbones and down towards her ears. “It’s okay. He—he’s not here. He’s not going to hurt you—”
               A thought occurred to her and the color drained from her already-drawn face. What if he hadn’t left when she’d run? What is he had come to—to hurt her family? What if he had come to kill someone?
               Wednesday sat up so abruptly her vision dissolved into colorful stars for a moment.  Once they had cleared, she looked around.
               She was right next to a pyramid-like structure with steps. Craning her neck and looking up, she saw the top of the pyramid had a rope bridge precariously attached to it, swaying in the wind. 
               Wednesday set her jaw.  She had to see if the King was still here.  From up there, he would be unlikely to see her because she was high up, and she would be able to see the entire spread of the greenish-brown gardens. His smooth black form would stand out. Even if she was afraid of heights, she had to know if he was still a threat.
               She started to climb up the steps, wobbly.
              The bridge pitched as she neared it, and it seemed to be more and more flimsy as she watched.  Her determination wavered.  Was it really necessary to walk on that…thing?  She imagined scurrying on the wooden boards, and it suddenly giving way, and shivered.  Sometimes it was better not to consider the possibilities. 
               Finally she was at the pyramid’s top, and she eyed the rope sides and coarse planks of the bridge suspiciously, dubiously.  She placed a tentative foot on the first plank, then put some weight on it.
               The bridge held.
               Wednesday hoisted herself up onto the bridge and grasped the ropes, biting her lip to keep from crying out as the entire thing swayed back and forth in the wind, and she felt as if her stomach were rising up and trying to fit through her esophagus.  Slowly, she inched along, trying not to look down but at the same time trying to look to see if she could still see the Shadow King.  The bridge was holding firm, not exactly what one would call steady, but not as fragile as it appeared.  Her confidence growing, she moved along a bit quicker, and, after a deep breath, dared to look down.
               It wasn’t as bad as she’d thought.  Like that morning Willow had dragged her out onto the bridge to witness the magical sunrise, from her point on the rope bridge she could see the mass of the northwest and southwest gardens, and even some bits of the central maze.  The bridge was a narrow path in front of her, and she could see, to her left, that swoop of the bridge, and another to her right.  As the bridge had been designed, all four of the pieces of the bridge would meet in a sort of X shape in the center, directly over the heart of the maze. 
               The air was freezing cold, and she rubbed her arms, wishing it were more like summer.  She daintily moved along the length of the bridge, warily eyeing the shadowy grays and greens below, trying to catch sight of a black-clothed figure.  She saw nothing but trees and arbors, and the occasional yellow splotch of a row of early-blooming daffodils. Wind blew through her hair, tangling it, and she absently tied it up and pinned the entire thing into one large blob on her head.  She could fix it later. 
               A thin fog started to settle, and drops coalesced on her skin.  She grimaced and brushed them away, peering through the mist as she continued to smoothly slide along the length of the bridge.  The wind was starting to die down, and it wasn’t nearly as wobbly anymore. She was almost at the center, where all four bridges met.  Was he not here anymore?
               She looked down and saw herself, with a strange trill of fear, or maybe exhilaration, now over the green hedges of the maze, which in summer were in bloom with brilliant flowers. Even though the fog was settling in, she could already see the X at which the bridges connected in a cross.
               Perhaps he had gone.  That was the best-case scenario, Wednesday thought, relieved, as she reached the center.  She now had four paths she could take; the one straight ahead, two that were perpendicular, and the one she had just come from.  She hadn’t seen the King the entire way. 
               Looking up at the moon, which was now not only half-covered with clouds but also with wisps of fog, she remembered that when she had eavesdropped on Aurelia and the King, Aurelia had mentioned a curse, and that he had to be careful.  Wednesday wondered what that curse was.  Surely it was not that he couldn’t interact with human beings, since he and Wednesday had met face-to-face hardly half an hour ago. What could it be, then? If it wasn’t something that restricted him from being with people, surely he would come into the human world more often—it had to be depressing in the Shadow Kingdom, all black.  Well, all black was what the history books said.
               The fog was now as thick as the stew they had had for supper, and Wednesday could hardly see the ropes that were the bridge’s handholds.
               “I suppose he left,” Wednesday said to herself, aloud, and she was thankful. 
               “So you were looking for me, my lady?”
               The roguishly amused voice behind her was dulcet and as smooth as velvet. Wednesday whirled around.
               Standing casually behind her…was the Shadow King.


Wednesday tried to scream, but her throat constricted. It was too hard.
               “Honestly,” he said.  His voice was soothing as honey.  “I was just taking a walk. It’s nothing to be afraid of.”  The fog and the shadows made it harder to see him than ever.  “When you’re me, it’s not easy to have down time.”
               Wednesday whimpered.
              “Don’t be so scared,” he said kindly.  His trailing silk cloak whispered on the boards behind him, sometimes flowing into the thin spaces between the strung planks.
               “I…”  Wednesday felt faint, as if she’d danced a hundred polkas.  She took a deep, shuddering breath, and tried to find the rope railing behind her to steady herself.  But she was in the crossroads of the bridge, and there was nothing but space.  She grabbed at the rope on the sides and felt its presence steadying, somehow. 
               He started forward, but Wednesday yelped.
               “Don’t come near!
               The King stopped.  She wished she could see his face, his expression, to see if he was trying to be helpful or menacing.
               “All right,” he said finally.  “I’ll stay put.”
               “Only…”  Wednesday struggled with her speech, since the pounding of her heartbeat in her ears was so loud she couldn’t think.  “What are you doing here?”
              “Here?”  His voice was so blasted nice.  And so young, too, by the sounds of it.  “Taking a walk, of course.  Just to clear my head.  Unless you mean up here on the bridge, of course, which would be because I was wondering if you could point me the way out, since I’m lost. But, ah! From up here you can see everything, and I don’t need directions, eh?”  He laughed quietly.  “Also, I thought I’d given you quite a scare—”
               “You did!” Wednesday blurted out, her heart still trying to leap out of her mouth.
               “So I thought I’d come up and apologize.”  There was a glint of white in the shadows of his face, and she supposed that he had smiled.  “This is a strange place to be, is it not?”  He took in her hair, which was no doubt a mess of pinned, unpinned, and sloppily re-pinned auburn coils; her pale face; her frightened green eyes; her dress, which was torn at the hem, with her bare arms covered in goosepimples. 
               “Um…yes.”  Wednesday started to back away, slowly, trying not to be noticed. 
              He clicked open his silver pocketwatch, closed it again, and kept clicking it, seemingly absently.  “You may want to go inside, my lady.  I’m sure you’re frozen to the bones.”
               “I can’t. Yet.”  It was hard to explain.  Wednesday felt as if that now, now that she was starting to calm down, if she returned to that stuffy piano room with Mother’s voice taking up all the space and her sisters squeezing round her, she would end up running back out again.
               “Then perhaps you should warm up?”  He put his watch away and offered her a black teacup (which Wednesday knew for sure hadn’t been in his hand a second before) with steam rising from the top, and Wednesday cautiously looked in it.  The beverage was as black as coffee, as well as the same color of the cup and saucer. 
               “Is this safe to drink?” she asked dubiously, trying not to sound rude.
               “It should be. Unless you’re allergic to hot chocolate.”
               “This is hot chocolate?” Wednesday said, frowning into her cup.  It was black, too black, and didn’t smell sweet.
               “Dark chocolate,” he said.  Suddenly, he too also had a steaming cup, which he took a quick sip from before adding hastily, “Sorry, I don’t usually drink it with sugar.”  And then, magically it seemed, he had a small black jar, which he handed to her. 
               Please don’t let his sugar be black as well, Wednesday prayed, grim.
               The sugar was indeed black, though it was transparent, like regular sugar. A quick taste confirmed that it was just as sweet and harmless as real sugar, and Wednesday, still dubious, shook a pinch or two into her cup.
               “Sorry,” she said, looking up, “I don’t suppose you have anything to stir—?”
               He was already handing a small black metal spoon to her, not even looking as he took another sip from his own cup.  Wednesday stirred her quietly. Clink, clink. He had already known.  But how?
               “Sorry, I’m not a good conversation starter,” he said suddenly.  It was strange, being so close to him, drinking hot chocolate—well, possibly hot chocolate—with him, and yet she couldn’t even see his face as his cloak pooled around him.  A bit creepy, actually.
               “Er—that is—all right,” Wednesday stammered.  She lifted her spoon from the hot chocolate—which was strangely thin—and took a deep drink.  It was delicious, definitely chocolate, with the taste of sugar melting over her tongue—and yet there was something different.  It must have been the bittersweet dark chocolate flavor.  The chocolate warmed her instantly, and she stopped shivering.
               “This is good,” she said, smiling tentatively over the rim of her cup. She was unsure what to do with her spoon, but as the thought crossed her mind, she felt a fizzy sensation in her palm, looked down, and realized it’d dissolved in her hand. 
               “Good heavens,” she said softly.
               The Shadow King drank the rest of his hot chocolate and heaved a deep sigh as he set the empty cup down on his saucer.  “Some things are nice about the Shadows,” he said, a hint of a smile in his voice.  Then it turned sorrowful.  “And some things are not.”
               “What’s it like, over there?” Wednesday said, hoping to engage him in conversation in fear that if she waited idly, he would get an urge or kill her or something.
               “It’s hard to think about it,” he admitted.  He seemed so…human.  Nothing like the strange, unearthly descriptions in her and her sisters’ textbooks or fantasies.  “Not just because it really isn’t a happy place, but also because…”  He sighed gently.  “Well, it’s hard to understand how it works. That’s how I can sort of…manipulate and create things subconsciously.  Like this.” 
              “Like—?”  Wednesday suddenly noticed the wrapped candy stick that had appeared in his hand.  Unlike most of his possessions, this was not black, but white with orange stripes that followed the contours of the stick.  “That wasn’t there before, was it?”  She also realized, with a start, that his empty teacup was gone.  “How do you do that?”
               “It’s complicated,” he said simply, pressing the stick into her hands. “Harder to create things in this world, but not everything has to be black here. In the Shadows, everything is black, and it’s just hard to see any dimension because it’s so dark…and…and there seem to be dimensions that don’t exist here.”  He hesitated.  “Ah, well, even I don’t understand it. Some things will be mysteries forever.”
               Wednesday finished her chocolate.  “I suppose they will,” she said lamely, unsure if she should comfort him or not.
               At that moment, that clock tower rumbled, chiming nine.  Both Wednesday and the King started, and Wednesday said, “It’s just the clock tower.  Chimes the hour every day.”
               “Is that not a bother while trying to sleep?” the King asked, sounding skeptical.
               “I honestly don’t know,” Wednesday said, shrugging.  “Both my sister have said that I sleep like a rock.  Or a pig. Or a tree.  It really doesn’t matter; I just sleep really soundly.  I’ve never been bothered by the peals after I’ve fallen asleep. Perhaps the tower doesn’t chime after ten? No, but that wouldn’t make sense because I heard it at the ball,” she muttered, more to herself than him now.  Then she looked up.  “Sorry for my mumbling.” 
               He waved it away and clicked open his pocketwatch again, and Wednesday realized that it was not black.  “If everything you have in the Shadows is black, what about your watch?” she inquired as politely as possible, gesturing at it with her head. 
               He glanced down in surprise, as if he hadn’t noticed he was playing with it.  “My watch?  Oh.  It was…a gift.”
               “A gift,” Wednesday echoed.  An absurd picture popped into her head with the notion of this phrase, and she imagined a bizarre pitch-black room with vague-formed people giving birthday presents to the King.  Somehow it didn’t seem quite right, but she didn’t want to prod.
               “I’ll be late if I don’t hurry,” he said, clicking it shut and tucking it away.  “I still must apologize for giving you such a scare.”  Here he sank into a deep, graceful bow, and upon straightening snapped his silk cloak out behind him—for it had been curling about him and dripping through the bridge cracks—and smiled, his white teeth flashing in the moonlight.  “Good night, my lady.”
               In an instant he was gone.  Wednesday hadn’t even realized that he’d left for a few seconds, and, when bringing it to mind, she couldn’t quite remember how he had disappeared.  It wasn’t as though he’d vaporized, had he? 
               She was still trying to untangle her thoughts about his leave when she let her head droop downwards, and saw that unlike her spoon, her empty teacup and saucer were both still clasped in her hands.  They hadn’t disappeared.  A thin, gritty ring of chocolate sand encircled the bottom, and with a shock, she saw words imprinted clearly in the empty center circle, on the bottom of the teacup, barely distinguishable in the fine black porcelain.
               It’s yours, the imprint read.


“Rise and shine, missy,” Willow’s voice said bossily[TS3] .
               Wednesday brushed auburn tendrils off her face.  The simple motion of her arm made her feel nauseous, and she felt creaky and rusty, the way she always did after a sleep. She was lying on her back with her pillow sideways, her covers falling off the side of her bed, and the curtains were pulled aside so bright, pretty light filtered through.
               Unfortunately, that same bright, pretty light was flashing right in her eyes.  Wednesday winced and moved her head sideways.
               Willow was sitting on her own separate bed, and Wednesday could hear water running in the bathroom, so Winter was probably washing up.  Willow was already dressed, pretty in one of the casual dresses Mother had just given to her the previous day; dark green with little frills.  It contrasted well with her fiery golden-red hair, giving her a festive, Christmassy look.  Her hair was still unpinned, and she looked feisty, beaming down at Wednesday with an almost sly look.
               “My goodness, you still sleep like a corpse,” Willow said, tugging a red-clogged hairbrush through her long, wispy hair. 
               “Corpses don’t sleep,” Wednesday said, her voice a little slurred and hitched.  Waking up was always the worst for her, since her body had been still and limp for an entire night.  In fact, recently, she’d been spending an awful lot of time in bed, and it didn’t do any wonders for her temper. 
               She pushed herself up and winced as her elbows twinged, and she almost heard the creaking noise of unoiled joints as she sat up with difficulty, feeling dry and sickly as usual, but much better than she had on the evening of the New Year’s Festival. 
               She’d returned last night after hot chocolate with the Shadow King, and her family had still been arranged cozily in the piano room, with Mother still blathering about her travels and making cheery, bubbly comments that bounced around in Wednesday skull, with nothing registering.  After five times of Mother asking her a question and she not responding in the slightest, Father suggested gently that she head on to bed, assuring her that it was late. Wednesday had protested only mildly faintly, but Father had insisted (and so had Willow, insisting rather that Wednesday was quiet and unremarkable as a vase in the corner of a room, and therefore creeping her out), and, after pressing a hot cup of water into Wednesday’s hands, he’d shooed her up to bed.  None of them had noticed Wednesday still firmly clasping the teacup and saucer, keeping that hand half hidden in her skirts.  After reaching the bedroom, she’d safely stowed it in her drawer, and then undressed, cleaned, put on her nightgown, and fallen asleep before even ten minutes had passed, completely exhausted from her fright in the evening with the Shadow King.
               She’d dreamt about him that night.
               She had been running through a forest, trees with sinewy black trunks and ominous silver leaves leering down at her, with something vague and dark that Wednesday couldn’t quite recall chasing her down, and then suddenly the King in his eerie black cloak had appeared, shadowed as usual, and he had teleported her to the Shadow Kingdom, a vast black place with soupy, roiling haze. From there he proceeded to lower his hood, and at the precise moment he was uncovered, she’d woken up.
               “So, guess what, Wednesday,” Willow said with the air of someone holding back excitement, tossing her hairbrush aside and started to pin up her hair.
               Wednesday, now fully sitting up, took a swig of medicine from her bottle. There was no denying that it had soured—and inexplicably so—and she frowned at the sticky label on the side to check for expiration. It was set for February.  “I have a feeling you’re going to tell me anyway,” she said, quietly replacing the bottle back to its former place on the bureau. 
               “Mother’s taking us riding today,” Willow singsonged, drifting to the vanity so she could pin her hair correctly.
               “It’s going to be absolutely dreamy,” Winter said, exiting the bathroom.  She was wearing an immaculate riding outfit of stiff, starched black, with her pretty strawberry and blonde hair neatly pinned up against her head.  Her matching feathered hat was tucker under her arm. 
               Willow whistled, scooting over so Winter could have a quick peek in the mirror before pushing her out of the way.  “Where did you get that beauty?”
               “Mother,” Winter said simply.  She eyed Willow’s green one, and frowned.  “Why do you get the green one?  This black one makes me feel like I’m in mourning.”
               “I have a white one, but it’s an older one,” Wednesday said, finally mustering the strength to drag herself out of bed.  Her legs almost gave way when they touched the floor, but she inhaled deeply and steadied herself.  It was just walking, after all.  “You can borrow it if you like, but it’s not as fashionable as yours.”
               “Yours will be too small,” Winter said cuttingly, fluffing up the stiff petticoat of her riding dress. “Anyhow, it might be dirty…you know, Mother said she saw bringing some of her friends along…some of her gentlemen friends, that is.”  She blushed faintly.  “You know that she wants me to get acquainted quickly, being an older girl now and all…”
               Willow stuffed her last pin into place as Wednesday headed for the bathroom.  “Maybe that’s for the best, Winter,” she said before she ducked into the bathroom.  “I hope you find a gentleman you like.”
               Winter muttered something but just shook her head. 
               A fresh vase of small roses sat in the bathroom.  None of them were larger than tightly closed buds, and Wednesday sighed.  If only spring would come sooner!  Then the roses would be in full bloom, beautiful in their spreading colors and furled petals, delicate centers and a most delicious scent, and they could have rich, full roses every day.  A flower that was completely open was rare these days.  New Year’s had definitely qualified as a rare occasion. 
               After cleaning herself up, and then putting on her riding habit, Wednesday returned to the bedroom, looking into the vanity, and sighed as she studied her reflection.  The white outfit was chiffon, with bits of somewhat frayed lace, but it was still a nice white color and the hat didn’t have any of the fake flowers or ribbons coming off.  The stark white betrayed her bright auburn hair against her deathly pale face all the more, and she gently rubbed a forefinger over her eyelashes, wishing they were longer like Willow’s.  A tiny ringlet of ginger-brown was untucked, and she poked it up behind her ear, hoping it wouldn’t blow out while she was riding. 
               Wednesday was not a fan of riding.  Ponies were pretty, but she hated the snuffly straw smell, and ever since one horse had stepped on her foot (thankfully she had been wearing hard shiny boots that day), she hadn’t liked their hooves, either.  The whole rocking sensation as they cantered did not improve the feeling of her stomach-churning at all. 
               Still, perhaps if she wasn’t feeling well, she could just stay with Mother (and the gentlemen guests, she reminded herself) and watch Willow and Winter ride. 
               The girls trooped downstairs at half past eight.  This was a bit of a mistake on their part, as Father was picky about timeliness (which, oddly enough, was not a habit shared by the usually more-strict Mother), and he sat at the dining room table, eating his corn muffins and sausage with a grim face.  Mother was coaxing him that it was holiday break—a half-truth—and that the girls weren’t to blame.
               They quietly sat, knowing that they were not to blurt anything out to Father, and as Winter and Willow silently bickered over the corn muffins and butter, Wednesday helped herself to a boiled egg and ate.
               “It looks like all of you are dressed and ready to go,” Mother said crisply, with a smile.  “Right after breakfast we’ll set out and meet some of the gentlemen at the tailor’s, and then we can head to the field.  The gentlemen are here on…business. I thought it would be a perfect chance for you girls to have fun and for me to finish some things at the same time.”
               Winter dropped her half-spread corn muffin on her plate with dismay.  “You’re still working, Mother? I thought you were done and taking a leave.”
               “Some things are never completed on time,” Mother said pleasantly, spreading orange marmalade over a slice of scratchy bread.
               “Where are we going for riding?” Willow said around her crumbly muffin.  “It’s winter.  There can’t be any good fields.”
               “I daresay it’ll take a while to get there,” Father said suddenly.  “You girls mind your mother, now.”
               Winter dropped her muffin again.  “You are…not coming?” she asked.
               “No.”  Father calmly speared an egg and ate it, not looking at them.  “With your mother taking a bit of a leave, and having not much work, I am carrying it temporarily.  She will resume in a few months, but for now, I am handling paperwork inside.  You girls are free to play.”
               Wednesday looked at him seriously.  Father had never been good at handling stress.  His hair was graying a bit at the temples and his eyes had more lines around them than she remembered.  Even the notion of stress was making him stressed.  She shook her head slightly and sighed.
               “Sorry?” Father said.
               “What?” Wednesday was confused.
               “Did you say something?” he inquired, in his calm, impassive way.
               “No,” Wednesday said, still confused.  He must’ve heard her sigh and thought she had said something.  She cut her bread into little squares and drizzled honey over them, avoiding his eyes.
               There was a strange sort of silence, in which Willow glanced around as if she were unsure if it was out of tension or awkwardness.
               “Well, I’m done,” she said, standing up and smoothing down her riding habit.  She primly took her plate to the sink and dumped it in, then came and sat back down.  “Why is the mood so frigid? I feel as if there’s something I missed out on.”
               “It’s nothing,” Wednesday said, looking away from Willow’s face.  Seeing Father’s green’s stare, it reminded her of Cassius’s eyes catching her at the festival, and she clenched her teeth to keep a blush from rising to her face. 
               “If you say so,” Willow said indifferently, trying to arrange her hat on her head backwards. Winter rolled her eyes and jammed it on Willow’s head the right way before returning her attention to her breakfast. 
               Wednesday focused on Mother instead, who had gray eyes—which was a strange mix with cinnamon hair but was from her wild ethical heritage—and noticed that Mother had been more subdued that usual that morning.  Mother was a rule-follower, but bubbly and always cheerful at that, and today her pretty face was more shadowed than it had been yesterday. 
               “Is something bothering you, Mother?” she asked quietly.
               Mother smiled rather wearily.  “Such efforts do affect one eventually, Wednesday.  My aumildar is being most difficult—”
               “Rotter,” Winter muttered under her breath.
               “And therefore…well, I suppose you could say I am now showing the strain.  All the hard work from the past years is catching up to me and taking its toll.”  She brightened a bit.  “That’s why we’re going riding—so we can all loosen up a bit.”
               “I don’t think they need it, Esthetique,” Father said affectionately.  “They’ve just been to a festival, after all.”
               Mother narrowed her eyes at him.  “Don’t think that I don’t know the peculiar events following that festival.”  Her gaze flickered in Wednesday’s direction, and Wednesday guiltily remembered falling on top of Castil.
               “If you insist,” Father said airily, finishing his food. 
               “Well, I do insist,” Mother said.  “The girls haven’t seen me in over…oh, I don’t even remember how long ago it was.  And even then I had no time to spend with them.  They’re already almost ready to be married, George—especially you, Winter—and doesn’t it seem proper that they recognize their own mother better before they leave our household? 
               “That reminds me,” she continued, pushing aside her plate and fixing all the girls with a slate-gray stare.  “I wanted to tell you—you had better marry rich, girls.  So pretty—that shouldn’t go to waste.  And coming from this household…though minor in the grand scheme of the monarchy, we are a royal family.  Maybe it doesn’t seem important to you, but as a young woman, each of you should marry richer than our family.  It’s only proper, and it will bring prosperity to our house.  It’s never too late to gain more money,” she added thoughtfully, her business mind kicking in.
               “We know, Mother,” Willow said plaintively.  “I’ve already found someone I like.”
               “You aren’t of age yet; hush.”
               “I think…”  Winter hesitated.  “I think I have actually found someone that I…will consider marrying.”  She spoke the words with great effort, as if it pained her to admit that she was good enough to be married to mere man. 
               “Ooh, who is it?” Willow teased.
               “You wouldn’t know him,” Winter said loftily.  She turned back to Mother, who was watching her with admiration and encouragement.  Father sat beside her, stony, and Wednesday could almost hear the gears turning in his brain as he tried to work out when Winter had seen someone she enjoyed.  “I saw him at the festival…and he is rich, of course,” she added hastily as Mother opened her mouth to say something.  “He’s a lord.  I talked to him a bit…not much, of course…”
               “His name?” Mother inquired, eyebrows raised. 
               Winter opened her mouth, then closed it, face hot. The entire family was hanging on to her every word—Mother intrigued, Father impassive, Willow excited, and Wednesday bewildered at this sudden turn of events.
               Winter pushed another bite of muffin into her mouth.
               “What, you aren’t going to tell us?” Willow demanded, slamming her hands on the table, and Mother admonished,
               Winter shrugged, eyes down.  “He’s my business.”
               “Winter,” Mother said tersely, “I need to speak to you about some—things tonight when we come back.”
               Father’s perplex became more pronounced to the point of being a frown. 
               “You are leaving now?” he said.  “Without an answer?”
               Mother merely smiled and gently pushed Willow towards the doors, then tugged Wednesday and Winter to their feet and shooed them out also.
              Wednesday glanced back, and saw that Father was staring at them in disbelief, before Mother, with finality, closed the door on him.

It wasn’t Wednesday’s business to poke around in Winter’s love life, but as Mother urged them into the scarlet carriage and had the carriage man lash the horses, she couldn’t help but wonder who it was.
               At sixteen, Winter was reaching the height of her marrying age, and she was also becoming prettier and prettier every passing day—which was preposterous, seeing that she was about as beautiful as a girl could get.  Whoever she had in mind was in luck.
               Willow nagged at Winter.  It was obvious that Willow loved gossip and these playful stories in which she could dreamily spin tales about what Winter’s children would look like, or how bossy Winter would be as a mother.  After various mixed methods of begging, teasing, threatening, ignoring, arguing, indifference, bribing, and guilting (all of which produced absolutely nothing for her efforts), Willow lapsed into a sulky silence, before declaring for unknown reasons that Winter was jealous and assuming an all-knowing air that made Wednesday want to thump her.
               Mother peeked out of the curtained windows, sighing gently every so often and seeming lost in her own thoughts.
               Wednesday arranged her hat, trying to avoid Willow and Winter.  This was near impossible, considering that all of them were together in the carriage, but the seats were roomy and Wednesday scooted as far away from them as she could.
               Mother signaled to the driver to pull up for a moment in front of the tailor’s, and Wednesday curiously poked her head out of the small square window, interested to see the gentlemen Mother was discussing business with.  Winter and Willow stopped their silent staring contest and scrambled to the other window; Willow claimed it first and Winter shared Wednesday’s window with her.
               The tailor shop was a homey, chunky sort of wobbly brick building with an old-fashioned charm, and it was located centrally in town, therefore being a popular place to meet with other people.  The actual tailor, who was a pleasant older woman with an equally pleasant chatter, often sent guests who were waiting for others into the back, where a sort of inn’s lobby-like place was set up.  Wednesday knew because once she had waited for Willow there, and it was nice and smelled of leather and starched linen.
               Mother stepped out of the carriage, smoothed down her dress, and directed the girls to stay inside before heading up to the door and knocking.  The tailor’s assistant opened it almost instantly.  There was a trading of words that none of the girls could hear, and then Mother graciously moved inside.
               “Look, there’s a carriage parked behind ours,” Willow murmured.  Wednesday craned her neck to the right and saw that a modest carriage was indeed sitting there a few ways away, vacant.
               “It doesn’t look like it’s someone important’s,” Winter muttered.  Wednesday privately agreed.  The carriage wasn’t as grand-looking as their own, and it seemed a little rickety and crooked.  Yet it was fairly large.  Wednesday figured it must be rented, a large one to hold all the gentlemen Mother was dealing with, and she smiled faintly.  The tottering rented carriage had its charm. 
               A few minutes later, Mother exited the tailor’s, this time with a short line of solemn-looking gentlemen following her.  In a flurry, the girls withdrew their heads from the windows in embarrassment, and yanked the curtains closed before any of the gentlemen were close enough to see distinct faces.
               “Ha, we were just spying,” Willow whispered excitedly as the sound of feet on the ground drew closer, and the girls knew the gentlemen had reached the carriages. 
               “Is that something to be proud of?” Winter hissed, red in the face, but still trying to peek out a sliver of window still visible at the corner of her drifting curtain.
               “…and have a safe trip.”  That was Mother’s voice.  There was a polite murmuring of men’s voices, and the clicking of a carriage door opening, and a  sharp snap of it closing a few moments later after the gentlemen had presumably all filed in.
               A second later, the door of the girls’ carriage unlatched and Mother smoothly climbed in, taking a delicate seat.
               “What happened, Mother?” Willow said in an excited but convincing imitation of someone who had not been peeking out the carriage windows.
               “They are ready; their carriage is following ours.  As soon as we reach the field, they will start up discussion of business with me.”  Mother was cool as a spring breeze. 
               “What are they discussing with you?” Willow pestered.
               “We are currently trying to strike a deal to gain enough money to repair some of the shabbier bits of the castle,” Mother said.  “Father may have told you that we are renovating?”
               Wednesday recalled Father telling her this, some time after the festival; when exactly, she wasn’t quite sure.  An image of her sitting in bed, meekly sipping hot water, sprung to mind—ah.  He had said this when he came to talk to her after she had fallen on Castil.  Who you don’t like, she reminded herself automatically.  This, of course, made matters worse, as now she could only think of him. 
               “Anyhow,” said Mother as the carriage lurched, then started moving again, “it is none of your concern.  You can take your pick of ponies when we reach the pasture, hm, girls?”
               The rest of the ride was a rather solemn, quiet one.  Willow peered out of the curtains, looking back and trying to catch a glimpse of the trundling, awkwardly large carriage tailing them, but apparently she hadn’t found anything worth discussing, for she simply sighed, folding her lace gloves in her lap, and stopped looking.  Wednesday didn’t feel bold enough to stick her head out the window and ogle the carriage behind, so she accepted Willow’s semblance of disappointment and hoped Willow wasn’t just pretending she hadn’t seen anything. 
               It had possibly been a good but quite silent half an hour’s time before Wednesday dared to poke the fluttering curtains aside and merely glance out—but as she had expected, there was nothing interesting.  On her side was a park, with a pretty little lake that was currently a pale, icy blue and birch trees that ordinarily would be leafy but were bare, their naked arms shivering in the gentle whisper of a wind.  Very few people were out and about, and Wednesday sighed, watching the landscape swiftly pass by, but not really looking anymore. 
               She remembered the last time she had gone riding.  It had been a spring from over two years ago, a pleasant breezy day with the long grass of the pasture blowing sideways in the zephyr, and the horses’ long manes and tails undulated while they, unconcerned, sniffed the girls’ hair.  The ride had been nice enough, with the gentle gusts and the soft, sweet meadow smell of fresh earth, but the pony had had a mind of its own, and it cantered in a most carefree manner across the field, and promptly stopped following Wednesday’s tugs and yanks on its mane, and soon had lost itself in a nearby neighboring forest.  And then Wednesday had become seriously scared, and had cried and begged the confused pony to go back, but it wouldn’t budge and shied away when she tried pulling it.
               Her sisters had found her in good time, for they had seen her pony galloping across the grass before it’d disappeared. Still, it had taken her an hour to get over the event, even though Winter and Willow had rolled their eyes and left her in their room.
               The memory wasn’t exactly something Wednesday wanted to be reminded of.  Still, she had higher hopes for this ride, especially now that she was older and had more sensibility about these kinds of things.  She paused, wondering what had happened to that pony, and sighed gently.  Perhaps, if she had a good mind and a sharp sense, she would be able to enjoy this time round. 
               “You know,” Willow said, startling Wednesday out of her stupor—and Winter, who had previously been staring at the window curtains in deep thought, also jolted awake out of her half-daze and looked at Willow with rapt attention.  “I think that…when I’m of age…”  And at this time she directed her words at Mother, who watched her with a still and mild kind of vacant coolness.  “I don’t think I’ll…need to wait.  As soon as I’m of age—and who knows when that’ll be—well, I…”
               Willow blushed.  A sinking feeling crept down Wednesday’s chest, and she knew what was coming next.  “I think,” Willow continued, trying to control her stammer, “I already know who I want to marry.”
               Mother twisted her gloves in her lap, as if trying to maintain her composure by taking it out. 
               “And…”  Willow hesitated.  “With your permission—and his and his family’s of course—would that be…er…possible?”
               Winter gazed at Willow, her face a mask.  Willow glanced at her for a moment, blushed beet red, and stared fiercely at Mother. 
               “Wednesday and Winter agreed with me, earlier, yesterday morning,” Willow added quickly.  Wednesday started to protest, but she remembered, bitterly so, that it had been true; that morning, she recalled, had been the day Castil Seigfried had made them porridge for breakfast, and Willow had licked the spoon—and the resulting questioning of Willow that had followed required the two other sisters to promise Willow’s hand to Cassius, with Winter using her persuasive magic to force Wednesday to agree to Willow’s terms.  Winter had seemed completely oblivious that Wednesday had mixed feelings about Cassius, and apparently she had nothing going for him whatsoever, since she’d immediately gave her word to Willow about Cassius’s marriage. 
               Mother pursed her lips.  “It is…unusual,” she said after a moment.  “But not unheard of, I’m sure.  We may be able to arrange something like what you’ve asked if we know a bit more about the gentleman you desire.”
               “His name is Cassius Wickerworth,” Willow supplied helpfully.
               Mother arched an eyebrow, smiling thinly.  “And?”
               “Er…he’s a thread spinner,” Willow added thoughtfully.  “But he’s very eloquent, and a very good dancer!” she snapped as Mother looked incredulous. 
               “What is his position?” Mother asked.  “Does he play the piano? The organ?  The violin?”
               “Of course!”  Willow bristled.  A moment passed and she paused.  “Well, actually, I don’t know.  I’m sure he does, though, since he’s so good at everything—I just don’t know where he gets all his talent from!  Here I am practicing away every day, and someone like him, who has to work, is even better—now that’s admirable, I say.”  She lifted her chin, pink blooming in her cheeks. 
               Wednesday groaned inwardly.  Why did Willow have to blather off to Mother about Cassius?  That was…awful.  Now she was sure he would never spare her a glance—especially with someone like Willow in his vision.  She wondered if, at this very moment, Cassius was thinking of Willow.  And then the picture was hard to bear, and she wondered instead if Castil was thinking of herself. 
               Mother stroked her gloves absently.  “Perhaps,” she said softly, deep in thought.  “Perhaps.”
               Winter went back to staring at the curtains. 
               Wednesday watched, bored, as Willow lapsed into a solemn but also somewhat pleading silence, and when Willow made no further attempts to ask Mother about Cassius, she eventually turned her attention away. 
               She wasn’t sure how much later, but somehow she managed to drift off to sleep.

“I love wildflowers,” Wednesday said, standing ankle-deep in the swaying green reeds and inhaling deeply.  The perfume of the delicate, bouncy sprigs filled her lungs, and the clear air filled her lungs, cleansing them, and her hair streamed behind her, for some reason unpinned. 
               “I knew you’d like it, Wednesday,” Desdemona said behind her, beaming.
               Wednesday turned around, a look of bliss on her face.  “I can’t believe you’ve gone to such lengths to create some place as beautiful as this.  You’ve done so much…it makes me feel inadequate.”
               Desdemona smiled knowingly.  “Well, I must confess—it’s not just for you; I love flowers and ponds as well.  You know how I am—solitary, always hiding—”
               “In short, like me?” Wednesday offered.
               “Yes,” Desdemona agreed. 
               Wednesday’s older cousin was just as slight as she was, with a kind of unearthly beauty.  Her honey-blonde hair was long and drifty and beautiful, strands flowing in the wind, falling in gentle curves around her delicate face, with her hair pulled back, though not bothering to be pinned.  Her skin was pale, but not a sickly kind of pale like Wednesday’s—instead, a beautiful, pristine pale, like porcelain.  Desdemona was wearing the dress in which Wednesday had seen her last—a gorgeous gossamer creation, with many layers all pinned up at the hip—as well as a sparkly purple shawl and a thin circlet tilting sideways on her head.  At fifteen, Desdemona looked younger, and from a distance, with her pretty waist and beautiful form, one would think she was as lovely as Willow.  The one thing that shattered Desdemona was her eyes—pretty but fatefully two-tone: one dark blue, cobalt night; the other, a pale amber that was somehow distant, as if a faint reflection.  Most people avoided her because those eyes would scare them, and consequently Desdemona was always given a wide berth, and nobody knew that she was sweet and harmless, and by all means just as human as any of the Fontana family. 
               Desdemona’s hair streamed.  Like Wednesday’s, it was unpinned.  She moved closer to Wednesday.  “I wish…I wish I didn’t have these eyes,” she said mournfully, but not with a bitter tone.
               Wednesday smiled sadly.  “Most people just don’t recognize you for who you are, Des.”  She looked straight into those clear two-tone eyes, which she had long lost her fear of.  “You’re just as gorgeous as Willow—even more beautiful, actually, since you have that purity and poise that Willow lacks.”
               Des squeezed her arm gently. “Those are comforting words, Wednesday.  I know that you yourself have doubts about your self-image.”
               Wednesday sat down in the grass and hugged her bare feet, her hair sweeping forward and draping over them.  In front of her, the spread of Desdemona’s family’s back fields lay, a vast plain of waving green grasses dotted with wildflower blossoms and reeds and cattails that ringed small ponds that were fractured with constant ripples as the long stalks bent and brushed the water’s surface.  “I try not to think about it,” she said in a low voice, shrugging.  “You never know.  One day I might suddenly break free of the strange illness that always holds me, and I’ll be more beautiful than Willow!”
               Des plopped down next to her.  “You’re so upbeat, Wednesday.  I don’t know how you do it.  I suppose I’m just selfish, always wallowing in my self-pity.  It tends to curdle that way, when you only have a sister who’s engaged and no one else to toughen you up.”
               Wednesday shrugged again.  “If you want to think about it that way.  Winter and Willow don’t exactly use torture devices on me, you know.”
               Des cracked a smile.
               “So when’s Lei’Anne getting married to Mr. Gildrane?” Wednesday said coaxingly.  “I haven’t heard any news about them for months.  In fact, where is Lei’Anne right now? My dear cousin Lei’Anne, getting married soon, and all of a sudden, when I come over just for a day or two, she’s gone.”
               Laughing, Des seemed to be more at ease.  “Lei’Anne isn’t getting married for a while.  They still haven’t confirmed anything of the date or anything of the sorts, actually.  At this snail rate, she and our favorite Gilbert Gerdrane won’t be married until Lei’Anne’s, oh, twenty-five or so.”
               Wednesday laughed.  “Twenty-five?  Lei’Anne’s out of her mind.”
               “Ah, well, she never was quite right in the head,” Des said seriously, and the two of the doubled over laughing, the hems of the dresses tickling each other’s legs in the breeze. 
               Once their laughter had subsided, Des regained her composure.  “So—yes, er, yes, they’re—getting married, but right now they’re still only engaged,” she said, fighting for a straight face.  “Right now, Lei’Anne’s out, and of course Mr. Gerdrane went with her—oh, I just have to call him Gilbert, saying Gerdrane is even stranger than his first name,” she blurted out, and Wednesday started laughing again so hard she almost choked.  “Um, yes, well, naturally Gilbert went with her. Where, I don’t know—”  And as Wednesday looked a little concerned, Des immediately reassured her.  “Oh, it’s just me who doesn’t know, Father and Mother know, obviously.  I didn’t really care as to where Lei’Anne is tromping around, she frankly goes too many places for me to remember.  I could create a logbook, if you like,” she offered with a straight face, before she couldn’t hold back her broad grin any longer, and Wednesday responded to it with enthusiasm, fighting so hard to hold onto even a little bit of composure so hard her cheeks hurt with the effort. 
               “Where are your mother and father, then?” Wednesday asked.  Her own family wasn’t too familiar with Desdemona’s, as her father George and Des’s father Jerry hadn’t been close.
               “Oh, well, Mother’s inside,” Des said, using a very modest voice, “making potato soup.”
               “You had to dismiss your cook?” Wednesday asked, startled. 
               “No, no, nothing like that!” Des said immediately, and Wednesday saw a blush rising to her cheeks—Des’s family was rather poor, of a slightly lower class than Wednesday’s, but the thought of sinking that low was offensive to her.  “No—Father’s just been in a rather—bad mood lately, having to organize everything with Lei’Anne’s marriage with Lei’Anne not even paying attention—and Mother—just his favorite dish—”
               It was clear that Des was flustered at the idea, and Wednesday immediately felt a pang of guilt: how could she have accused Des’s family of having to dismiss their cook?  The thought was very low-class indeed, much lower than the level Des’s family was at. 
               “Sorry,” Wednesday said abruptly, and Des cut off her anxious rambling.
               “Ah, well…”  Des hesitated, tugging at the hem of her dress as it floated on the wind around her ankles.  Both girls were barefoot.  She bashfully ducked her head.  “Things happen.”
               Wednesday wasn’t sure what she meant by that, but she was glad Des wasn’t holding anything against her.  While their families weren’t frequent with each other, she and Des were best friends—or cousins, rather—and it was very rarely they argued.  Like any self-respecting pair, they would argue, of course, but the occasions on which this happened were so infrequent that around each other, both girls would usually forget how to argue, as they were so agreeable with each other. 
               “Well…”  Wednesday was unsure how to continue their once-pleasant conversation, and the silence felt exposed, barer than usual. 
               Des stood up.  Her eyes were a little steely, and the pale amber one had a distinctly inhuman look in it.  “Wednesday,” she said, “do take a turn through the thicket with me.”
               Wednesday knew what the thicket was.  Des’s family of Fontanas had a small glade in back, farther than the reedy pools and springy flower fields, and it was pretty, if not a little eerie and unearthly.  She clumsily scrambled to her feet and followed as Des turned without another word and started to briskly walk towards the copse. 
               Once they reached the clumpy underbrush with strings of pale vines and blooming, unnatural flowers, Des took off at a light run, hair a swift blonde river coursing on the carrying air, her skirts flattened against her legs by the wind.  Wednesday started to run after her, feet sinking into the mossier grass and then onto pine needles littering the floor as Des disappeared into the undergrowth.  Wednesday tried to keep up, but Des’s hair kept flitting in and out of view around tumbled thistles and crumbly branches with clinging lichen, and eventually, after a few minutes of attempting to keep track of where her cousin was, she couldn’t follow Des’s path at all. 
               Wednesday shaded her eyes from the sun filtering in palmy strips through the leaning, soft fronds that sheltered most of the thicket, and she leaned against a sturdy old maple while she caught her breath.  Des was nowhere to be seen, and she couldn’t hear Des’s footsteps either over the whispering wind.  Vainly, she tried to scale a tree but achieved only gaining four feet’s height before the biting rough bark hurt her hands and she slid down, plucking her skirts free from the peeling outer layer of the pine. 
               The wind hissed through Wednesday’s hair, and she solemnly gazed around.  The murmurs of the breeze began to mutate into a eldritch, ghostly sort of low hum, and as she looked around frantically, her surroundings began to morph, the light bending and the shadowy weeds and plants changing shape, curving together to form a new place—above her, the towering fronds thickened with slithering noises and blocked out more of the gentle, protective light; staring down at her with weeping, tragic faces, waving in the howling gusts that were building up; they pressed together to form an impossibly high wall, surrounding her on every side and trapping her—the trees were skeletal and stared at her with gaping eyeholes, and every gleam was one blade of a million swords that had once been reeds—the wind was shrieking, a tortured sound, and beneath it was an beastly chanting of horrible creatures that she knew not—she flinched and shielded her face as something went hurtling past her—a wave of shadows with ghastly faces were bearing down, swallowing everything up in a snap—Wednesday screamed as the jaws opened wide and tossed her like a rag doll; there was a flash where she glimpsed a figure, a black silk river over his shoulders—
               “Wednesday!  Wednesday? Wake up, please!”
               Wednesday blinked, her eyes snapping open.  Mother, Willow, and Winter were all peering down, their faces shadowed as Wednesday blinked quickly in the light, trying to clear her vision.
               “Wednesday? What’s wrong?” Mother asked.
               “I—”  Wednesday was confused.  A moment ago she’d been in the thicket…oh, it had been a dream, she realized.  Another thought occurred to her; that it had been ridiculous that she had not noticed it had been a dream before, and the idea of her being so boneheaded that she didn’t even know the difference between reality and a dream—or a nightmare, really, she reflected—made her wince inwardly.  She’d never really been with Desdemona, and she’d never gotten lost in that thicket, and the woods had not come alive and eaten her.  “I—it was just—just a bad dream,” she stammered.  “I fell asleep.”
               Willow slouched back onto the seat, hugging a cushion.  “You gave us all heart attacks, Wednesday!”  She glared.  “Thrashing about and then suddenly screaming like a tea kettle—what exactly were you dreaming about?  You never have been a violent sleeper.”
               Wednesday paused, digesting this. 
               It was true—her sleep had always been silent, her breaths not even making any noise, and she would stay in one position, rock still, for the entire length of her slumber.  She remembered the dream she’d had this morning, walking through the silvery forest, and the Shadow King lowering his hood.  Then, this dream: she’d seen, for just a moment, a figure in a silk black cloak.  It was the second dream/nightmare she’d had of the King in a single day.  
               “I don’t know,” she said truthfully.  “I suppose—I suppose it was just a particularly bad dream, then.”  She shuddered, thinking of the ghastly leering thorns and plants, and the monstrous shadow beast that had gobbled everything up, and the low, foreign-tongued chanting.  It truly had been a particularly bad dream; she wasn’t lying about that.
               The others went back to sitting quietly, only occasionally shooting Wednesday quizzical looks.  She pressed her palms to her no doubt flaming cheeks, trying to hide her embarrassment of being frightened by a mere dream spun by her own mind.  She patiently stared into space as the carriage bumped and jostled over stones and dirt, gently tumbling them all.
               Willow seemed to be bored to tears.  Her lips were pursed tightly, and the longer they waited in terse silence, the more tightly pursed they became.  Finally, she couldn’t seem to hold herself in any longer.  “How much more time until we get to the fields?” she blurted out.
               “Just a short while longer,” Mother said, who was reading a thin book titled “Striking Impossible Deals Under Pressure: A Manipulative Guide”.  She didn’t even look up and turned a page while continuing, “Perhaps fifteen minutes?”
               Willow groaned, raising a hand to her head, and fell over backwards onto Wednesday’s lap.  Wednesday ignored the soft weight of Willow’s head crushing her hat and the dainty waves of roan hair curling over her dress, resisting the urge to yank on Willow’s hair, hard. 
               “Buck up, Willow, it’s not the end of the world,” Winter said impatiently, snapping her fingers in front of Willow’s face.
               “I hate boredom,” Willow complained petulantly.  “I should’ve brought a book, like Mother—but I hate reading.  And you can’t draw or practice piano or dance in a carriage!”  The last word was emphasized with scorn, and Wednesday closed her eyes and gritted her teeth.  Willow was driving them all up the wall—a scowl settling on Winter’s face, Mother’s lips pressed thinly as she stubbornly read, and Wednesday on the verge of telling Willow to shut up—but Willow didn’t care.
               “Well, you could sleep,” Wednesday said, pushing Willow’s head off her lap, “just don’t sleep on me.  I’m tired enough of you without your head on my knees—they’re getting numb.  Why is your head so heavy? It’s like you carry rocks in there, honestly.”
               “Because I’m smart, so I have a big brain, and therefore it’s heavy,” Willow retorted smartly, sitting up.  Her hair was all flung to one side and her hat sideways, and she busily untied the ribbon and started to comb through her hair with her fingers.
               Wednesday rolled her eyes and turned away, leaning her elbow on the window ledge and resting her jaw on her arm, staring at the curtains and the little tiny bit of outside she could see, rolling by.  Willow was a pain, which was why Wednesday normally disliked Willow the most—but at times, such as when Winter had an insult storm, Winter could be the menace.  They both had their ups and downs, Wednesday thought glumly, and stared without really seeing.
               The dream-nightmare had been quite disorienting to her, and the fact that she’d acted out of the ordinary made it no better.  The transformed thicket had been frightening and garish, the air noisome with the thick, musty scents as shadows overwhelmed the teeth-baring plants.  It had started out a pleasant dream, being in the fields behind Des’s house and talking together, they way they usually did, Wednesday thought, and she was unsure why her mind had turned to such frightful events.  Most of the dream had been true, from what she could remember.  The last time she had seen Desdemona had been half a year ago, at Lei’Anne and Gilbert Gerdrane’s engagement celebration.
               Jerry Fontana and Cheri Wallace were Desdemona and Lei’Anne’s parents, and Jerry was Father’s cousin, meaning that Desdemona and Lei’Anne were cousins with Wednesday and her own sisters.  Lei’Anne was seventeen, and had just been engaged to Gilbert Gerdrane.  Wednesday didn’t know much about Lei’Anne’s fiancé, but Des had told her that Lei’Anne and Mr. Gerdrane—or Gilbert, rather, as they preferred to called him, because of his unfortunately silly-sounding surname—had known each other for a fair amount of time before they had been engaged. Desdemona was two years younger than Lei’Anne, and while the two were on quite good terms with each other, Lei’Anne didn’t spend much time at home, and therefore she and Des didn’t talk together, or really do anything together. 
               When Wednesday and her family had gone to the engagement party, if not a little hesitantly, she and Des had been excited to see each other again, as they were best friends.  The two of them would disappear into the sprawling fields in back of Des’s family’s country home farther down south, laughing together and running through the cheery grass, dipping their toes in the shallow natural pools. It had been a nice visit, as far as Wednesday could recall—for she didn’t remember the details of the actual party, only her time spent with Des.  Upon departure, they had sadly said good-bye, promising to visit again as soon as their parents would let them. 
               Des was the clearest non-immediate family member in Wednesday’s mind.  She knew, of course, that Lei’Anne was Des’s sister, and who their parents were.  She also knew, a little more vaguely, Father’s sister Elizabeth Fontana, and she also knew that she had some other cousins, too, traveling down the family line from Charles Fontana, Wednesday’s great-grandfather, who with his wife Mary Zübelle had had four children, one of which was Wednesday’s grandfather George Fontana.  Wednesday’s own father was George the Second. 
               One of Charles Fontana’s children was Anna Fontana, who married Gordon Ebenezer (or someone of a name that was similar—Wednesday wasn’t sure if she’d had the name correct) and had Reyna Ebenezer, who in turn married Damien Corell and had four children, all of whom were Wednesday’s cousins.  It was a hard family tree to keep straight, even though a tapestry depicting the generations including Wednesday’s generation was hanging right in the foyer.  Not only did she have Lei’Anne and Des as cousins, but there were also Anna, Lance, Brielle, and Luka Corell.  She didn’t even have the thinking capacity to extend to her aunts and uncles, grandfathers, grandmother, and into the greats, and she probably had some great-aunts, second or third removed cousins, and great step-fathers in there as well.
               She’d seen the Corells at the engagement party.  If Father wasn’t familiar with Jerry Fontana, then he was on bad terms with Damien Corell, the father of Anna, Lance, Brielle, and Luka.  Wednesday hardly knew the four siblings that were her somewhat-distant cousins, only knowing that Anna was the eldest, down to Luka, the youngest—but she wasn’t sure of their ages, or their personalities, or anything about them in particular.  Every time there was an invite to an event in which the Corells would be attending, Father would say no, quickly.  Wednesday could only guess that he and Damien Corell weren’t exactly best buddies. 
               Still, she was curious about her four relatively unknown cousins, and hoped that they would visit soon, now that Mother was back.  Mother loved parties and fun, and Wednesday couldn’t see her turning down an invitation just because the Corells were there. 
               As if she had been listening in on Wednesday’s thoughts, Mother suddenly snapped her book shut, demanding all three girls’ attention.  “Girls,” she said, “I can’t believe I forgot—you do know that your grand-aunt Lady Anna Fontana’s birthday is this month, the twenty-sixth of January?”
               Willow frowned from where she’d been tying the ribbon on her hat into a dainty bow under her chin.  “Who’s Grand-Aunt Anna Fontana?”
              “That’s what I was wondering,” Winter muttered, “but a few years ago.”  She raised her voice, addressing Mother.  “Isn’t she the lady who married this German Ebenezer gentleman and their family line trickles down to the Corells?”
               “Who are the Corells?” Willow said, acting stupid.
               Mother gave her a little frown, and nodded at Winter.  “Yes.  We will be going to your grand-aunt Anna’s birthday celebration—she will be turning sixty-six, I believe…”
               “How do you remember all of this?” Willow muttered under her breath; she was often cranky when bored. 
               “And so,” Mother continued, ignoring Willow, “your cousins the Corells will be there…and I believe your other cousins, Desdemona and Lei’Anne, will also be there.”
               The girls perked up.  While Wednesday and Des spent time together, Willow and Winter absolutely adored Lei’Anne, who acted much older than she really was but had a good-natured, motherly air. 
               “Will Lei’Anne be there, since she’s getting married to Mr. Gerdrane soon?” Winter asked, stiffly ignoring Willow and Wednesday silent giggles at the sound of Gilbert Gerdrane’s last name. 
               “I believe so,” Mother said, now rummaging through her bag, “though it hasn’t been confirmed—say, have any of you seen the invitation?”
               “No,” they all said together. 
               “Well, never mind that, then,” said Mother, pushing her purse onto the seat beside her.  “The point is, it will be a more grown-up celebration, as it’s for your grand-aunt and not for youngsters like you—and I expect you all to be mature and know your limits, and to take care of yourselves?  We’ll be going to the Corells’s house, and they are a fine family; I expect you to dress smartly, and to be nice to everyone, especially the Corells.  While I know you three have not gotten to know them very well yet, it’s all the more that you play nice, and this is an excellent opportunity to recognize them.”  She looked seriously at them, gray eyes solemn, and though a touch of a dimple and smile were across her face, they could tell Mother wasn’t playing.  “I expect you to know all of their names, at least—”  Willow groaned audibly and Winter kicked her boot.  “Not to mention their ages, and how their family is doing.  As to who else will be there—well, I had it written down, but I seem to have lost it.”  Mother looked flustered.  “Anyhow, I know at least that your grandfather George will be there, his wife Lucia, Anna Fontana and her husband Gordon Ebenezer, their daughter Reyna, her husband Damien Corell, and their four children—Anna, Lance, Brielle, and Luka, I believe.  There are probably a few others that you won’t know—oh, and of course Desdemona, Lei’Anne, Jerry, and his wife Cheri will be there, also.”
               Wednesday head was reeling from the names.  She’d lost Mother after “grandfather George.”  Apparently, her sisters felt the same way; Willow closed her eyes hard and gritted her teeth, and Winter had a look on her face that was part fear, part elation, and part violent shock.
               “Say,” said Willow.  “Say, if I ended up not liking one of my newly introduced cousins—”
               “You will,” Mother said firmly.
               “But let’s just say I didn’t,” Willow pressed.  “As in, not at all.  Would it be every so out of the ordinary that a very large vase, perhaps, fell off the stairs onto one of them—or maybe, though the Lord forbid this ever happen, one of their drinks was switched with wine or brandy…”
               Mother frowned at her.  Willow was grinning, playing dumb. 
               “I’d say that I, for one, wouldn’t be fooled,” Mother said finally, knowing Willow was just playing.  She leaned over and kissed Willow’s forehead, her dimples showing. 
               Wednesday stared out the window, smiling inwardly.

The riding field was nice, Wednesday thought, but nothing like the picturesque fields behind Des’s house in her dream.
               After maybe ten more minutes’ riding along in the carriage, which bumped more and more as the ride continued as the roads became less smooth, they had stopped, and the carriage man had pronounced them arrived at the field which Mother had expected for the girls to ride on. 
               Wednesday pushed aside the curtain, looking at the field.  She supposed it wasn’t easy to keep a field green, no matter how faint of a green, in January, and that by winter standards the field was very well kept, but she couldn’t help remembering the sprawl of the pretty waving flower-speckled grasses in the dream, and in her chest there was a sense of anticlimax. 
               She glanced back from where her head was barely protruding from the rectangle that was the window and saw the rickety, awkwardly large carriage that held all the business gentlemen pulling up behind them, slowing down with the faint creaking of its bouncy wheels.  The horse tossed its head and looked back at Wednesday.  She quickly pulled her head back into the carriage.
               “This is the field?” Willow asked, gazing out of the other window.  She sounded excited, but controlled.  “How come I don’t see anyone? Or any horses?”
               “We passed the stables with the owner already; we’ll have to walk back a bit to reach your precious ponies,” Mother said, smiling.  “It’s hardly a few paces, though—all right, out, now all of you, and go and have fun.  If you get out and turn around, you’ll see the little wooden stables, and there should be a gentleman and his wife there, preparing the horses.”
               Willow scrambled out; hurriedly tightening the bow of her hat under her chin, Winter quickly spilled out after her.  Mother smiled at Wednesday, and she reluctantly opened the door and stepped out, smoothing down her skirts as they crumpled over the threshold of the carriage as she got down, and blinked in the bright light, taking in the little field.
               It was more a pasture-ish thing than a real field, Wednesday realized, taking in the neat little fences, and the short trimmed grass.  Through the faint green of the mostly yellower meadow, she could see spots of dry earth, pale from frost, and Wednesday shivered slightly at the cold.  Though it was warm for a January, the chill still settled into her bones and stayed there. 
               Willow was already taking off towards the little house-like structure that Mother must’ve meant.  Winter glanced at Wednesday, and the two of them ran after Willow, skirts flattening against their legs in the breeze. 
               As it turned out, the owners of the stables were very nice people, a middle-aged couple with children, all of whom had already left to begin their families.  Willow and Winter looked through the rows and rows of well-behaved, groomed ponies blinking at them from their neat stalls while the stable owners stood back and let them choose their own horses.  Wednesday shyly averted her eyes every time she passed the couple, and wondered if there was a gentle horse who would fit her personality.
               “Hey—hey, Wednesday, come here!”
               Wednesday looked up from where she’d been stroking a small tan pony’s forelock.  Willow was gesticulating for her to come over, and she crossed the break in the rows of stalls and came to stand by Willow, trying to not breath in the thick horsey scent that made her nose wrinkle.
               “What?” she said.
               “Don’t you think this horse would be great for you?” Willow said brightly, tossing back her head to clear the strands of hair falling in her face.  She smiled at the ginger horse in the stall, who was quietly watching them without a sound.
               “I don’t know,” Wednesday said cautiously.  “Have you decided on a horse yet, Willow?”
               “I’m looking for a big one,” she said, sounding a tad disappointed, “but I haven’t found one that suits my fancy yet.  I think tan coats on my ride flatter me, hm?”
               “I saw a tan horse back there,” Wednesday said, motioning to the far end of the stable, where Winter was wandering, “and he might be big enough for what you’re looking for—but they probably don’t have very large horses, you know that Willow, right?” she added anxiously as Willow stared down the wooden planks with fierce determination. 
               “Well, naturally,” Willow said, without really comprehending what Wednesday had just said, and she started down the aisle. 
               Wednesday turned her attention back to the creamy horse Willow had recommended for her, who nuzzled her hand contentedly.  She pulled back; its lips were soft and a bit damp. The horse looked down at her with large dark eyes and flicked its tail back and forth, pressing against the side of its wooden booth.  Maybe Willow was right, Wednesday thought, and she unlatched the lock on the front of the stall and crammed her hat on her head. 


Wednesday followed Willow’s lead at a light canter, the stiff cold breeze blowing her hat back on her head so precariously she felt as though it would fall off any second.  In front of her, Willow’s horse galloped forward, Willow’s hair bouncing with each hoof beat, riding habit bunched at a square angle on either side. 
               The cream pony followed Wednesday’s lead excellently; a gentle thing with an understanding of her frailty, it kept its footfalls smooth as possible while keeping the ride enjoyable, and for one of the first times she’d ever gone riding, Wednesday felt content.  The sound of the horse’s hooves seemed to echo as it hit the cold ground and sprang off lightly; it was as if riding in a boat, bobbing and sweeping along, slightly rocking, and Wednesday could almost imagine breathing in the salty air of the sea as the breeze, conjured by the speed of her horse, stung her nose and throat with the cold. 
               Willow turned, and her horse skittered sideways for a moment on the frozen dirt before curving around in an almost crescent manner; Wednesday copied her and led the creamy pony in an arc, and it responded to her thoughts, bounding with sprightly steps, and Wednesday broke away from Willow’s path and spotted a gleam of black up to the right; Winter was riding at a fast, straight gallop—Wednesday urged the horse after her.  There was a quick scramble over a large rock that was half-embedded in the dirt, and they cantered around as one as Wednesday caught up to her eldest sister and they matched each other step for step, with the wind whipping their cheeks rosy with cold, and their throats cold and scratchy; and yet Wednesday didn’t find it unpleasant as her faithful, lovely steed turned in perfect unison with Winter’s, and the two girls, side by side, rode in a race track, with Wednesday on the outside, in a wider turn, and Winter neatly clipping her bend at every opportunity. 
They rode in a dizzying pace, and Wednesday felt fresh as she had never been before, feeling a shrill fluttering in her chest mixed with excitement and exhilaration. 

               Winter made a sharp cut to the left, and Wednesday didn’t turn in time; instead, she let her movement carry her in an arc to the right and she peeled away from Winter, free riding against the wind.  A slight tug on the reins, and her horse galloped in a large circle, and Wednesday caught a glimpse of a cluster of people gathered at the far edge of the field—Mother dealing with the gentlemen.   
               Everything is perfect, Wednesday thought.  It was true.  At that moment in time, if she could have frozen the second, everything was perfect—beautiful scenery, open heart, joy rushing through her ablaze.  She couldn’t have thought of anything more…idyllic.
               Well, except for maybe Cassius.  Or Castil. 
               Wednesday loosened her grip for a second, her mind suddenly reeling with the idea of her two angelic gentlemen, and at that moment a blur darted across her path.  She barely had time to register the blur of auburn hair before her horse whinnied, kicking its front legs up, jolting back in a startle as Willow drove straight past them, and as it bucked, the reins were flung from Wednesday’s loose grip, and she was tossed through the air.

Wednesday watched sourly as Willow and Cassius danced alone on the ballroom floor. 
               It was nauseating, she decided, seeing the two of them entwined perfectly into one another, gazing into each others’ eyes, that perfect touch of a smile that graced both their lips.  Her own lips went thin as she stared angrily at Willow for stealing Cassius away, and though it was undoubtedly odd that a thirteen-year old as she herself was completely preoccupied with wondering if he liked her or not, she couldn’t help it.
               Willow’s hair was streaming behind her.  She danced with easy grace, Cassius matching her perfectly, and as they drew closer, Wednesday could see the clear emotion in their eyes.  She didn’t like it one bit.
               A minor chord on the piano struck the air, sending a harsh jerk of pain through her skull.
               Wednesday opened her eyes, confused.
               She was lying half on her back, half on her side, curled up slightly.  The ground was flat-packed dirt with dribbles of crackly frost, and an infinite sky was a zone of blue ahead. Faces were looking down at her with partial concern, partial mild annoyance.
               Her head throbbed and pulsed, and she felt as if her ears and the inside of her head were both hot as a furnace. 
               “Thrown off a horse, now weren’t you?” Winter said drily, but sounding somewhat relieved at Wednesday’s revival.
               Wednesday groaned and massaged her head.  There was a splintery pain in her knees and a few spots on her side that suggested the cream-colored horse had bucked her off and she had landed hard.  “Why am I always the one who gets injuries?”
               “Because you’re dumb and can’t handle a thing,” Willow said, grabbing Wednesday’s elbow and hauling her to her feet.  “Get up now; that cold is going to seep into your bones and stay there permanently.”
               Stars were bursting in her vision.  She wobbled, and Willow seemed to realize that Wednesday probably needed a bit more time after being launched off a moving animal to recover before she could walk properly.  Winter held onto Wednesday shoulder so she wouldn’t topple over.
               “Where’s Mother?” Wednesday murmured vaguely, to none of them in particular.
               “She’s going to get the carriage man,” Winter said.  “You fell off, and Mother and all the others saw, and she was terrified, so she ran to get the carriage and possible some piping hot tea, and she says that we’re going home as fast as possible.”
               “You messed it up for us,” Willow said, cranky and childish.
               Wednesday decided not to point out that Willow was the one that had startled her horse and made her fall off, seeing how grumpy Willow was.  She could be so puerile, only thinking of her own pleasantries and wishes, not giving a rat’s fart about anything else.  Instead, she clutched at her sisters as they helped her slowly and crookedly to reach as close to the edge of the field as they dared.  None of the gentlemen were in sight; it looked as though they had all run over the hill bend with Mother to do as much as they could for Wednesday.  She felt a rush of gratitude.  The horses were also gone from the field, and she suspected, as she heard soft clattering from the stables, that the owners were struggling to put the horses away. 
               Guilt trickled through her.  She always messed things up. 
               “You have a lot to answer to when we get back, missy,” Willow said as they stopped, waiting for Mother and the carriage and the gentlemen.  Breezes ripple through their hair, and Wednesday hadn’t even realized until that moment that her hat was squashed sideways, dropping down to the back of her head.  “We only got in ten minutes of riding for that long wait we had…and now we have to ride it back…”
               Wednesday tuned her out.
               “Therefore,” Winter supplied helpfully when Willow paused, “you need to be quiet, Willow, and stop being so annoying.  Honestly, I’ve never seen someone who whines as much as you do.”
               “And I have never seen as much of a boot-licker as you are,” Willow quipped in response.  Wednesday’s head was buzzing, and the pulsing was getting louder. The girls’ voices were, at the same time, getting fainter and fainter as she listened.  Her consciousness was seeping away, and the last thing she remembered was Willow’s voice uttering callow words, “As I was saying, we’re going home, but this isn’t over, I hope.  I’ll have to get Mother to take us again another time.”

Chapter One                 Chapter Two                  Chapter Three             Chapter Four                Chapter Five            Chapter Six
Chapter Seven             Chapter Eight            Chapter Nine