He didn’t come back that night, but she hardly slept a wink. Every imagined noise jolted her awake in a cold sweat. She sat up gasping so many times she even fell into a laughing fit, tired as she was, until she thought she heard a noise from the first floor and choked into silence.
“It’s nothing, it’s nothing,” she hissed to herself. “He’s never come back at night before.” Still, her hand went to the imposter key at her neck. The true key was now hidden under a flagstone in a dark corner of the tower. She had burned the filthy underdress in the kitchen hearth. Her hair was combed and her body clean. But she couldn’t put herself at ease. What sensible person could?
She listened for a long time, then sighed. “No sleep tonight, then, Lizzie. It would be wise to be rested.” She pushed herself out of the enormous bed. She had considered sleeping on a nest of blankets on the floor, or searching for another bed chamber, but it would all require explanation if — when— he came back.
Down the hall, down the back stairs, pausing before the landings; she knew this place well, every floor of it. That was one useful thing that came of being forbidden from stepping outdoors. Yes, she had explored every part of it.
She walked by the tall windows of the front parlor. They looked like ice the way they caught the moonlight from the slim crescent. She stopped at the door, reached for the handle, let her hand hover there a moment. “What good does it do, Lizzie?” she asked. “What do you think you’ll find?”
She straightened up. She could almost feel the pressure of the ghost wives’ words, pushing against her back, trembling against her fingers. “But, why would he put shoes outside?”
Why would he take them in the first place?
It was a fair point. Still she hesitated, and it made her blanch. Had she really given up her freedom, the little she could steal, so easily? Here it was, the middle of the night, with not much moonlight and no one but ghosts in the castle to tell tales on her, and she was too afraid to disobey her husband? Her husband the murderer? A wife was supposed to be good— she was supposed to be good. She’d been trained in it, saturated with that upbraiding, but wasn’t there a limit to goodness? Wasn’t there a balance in which disobedience was the better choice in the end?
“Oh, get on with it!” And she flung the door wide.
He stood on the doorstep, she swore it. She screamed. But when she opened her eyes, no one was there.
“God, Lizzie, get ahold of yourself.” She shook out her trembling limbs, kicking her legs like her brothers would do after a hard run. She paused; she hadn’t thought of them in a long time. Maybe they were dead. Or maybe not.
“Maybe I’ll live to see them again.”
This gave her courage, though she couldn’t put a name on why. But with the memories Jacobi and Hescher, she felt she wasn’t stepping out alone. The wives up in the tower, they were like her sisters, but they also weren’t alive, they might never be. The boys were real. They existed in her, in all the memories of games played together in the hay field and stories told at night as they lay in their beds in the cottage loft.
Lizzie drew in a long breath and closed her eyes. Yes, she could almost feel them. And mustn’t they sometimes feel afraid, terrified to be soldiers? She could work as hard as either of them in the fields. She would pretend she was a soldier in the king’s army, too. “No, the queen’s army.” She smiled.
She looked out from the front stoop. The squares of stone curved in a broad arc before the white gravel drive. This was the entrance meant to receive guests, fine ladies and gentlemen in carriages drawn by prancing horses. It didn’t seem likely that she would find three dozen pairs of stolen slippers here. Even if Bluebeard disdained them, he wouldn’t be so careless.
That’s right Lizzie. See if you can find them.
It was Hescher’s voice in her head. She smiled. “If I’m going crazy, I’m glad for the company. And I always was good at our hide-and-seek.” She could find the boys every time. She wasn’t always fast, but there was that thoroughness. She was good with certain tasks in which stubbornness paid off: untangling knots, hunting for truffles in the forest, mending socks. And especially at finding lost things. She began to walk the side of the house, balancing on the low stone wall that bordered the drive.
She had found Missus Finnigan’s key out in the field. She spied the three seed pearls that had burst from a fine lady’s shoe and lain hidden in the grass of the roadside. Darning needles, buttons, even a message for the burgomaster that had gone astray in the wind. Hadn’t she found them all?
She came to the corner of the parlor bolstered by these recollections. She could find the shoes, she could! She turned and walked in the cool grass in the shadow of the house. She didn’t feel sleepy at all anymore. Everything smelled fresh and alive. Inside the house it was all under Bluebeard’s rule, but out here? He might hold the deed to the land, but he didn’t own the air, the sky, the small winking stars!
Lizzie hurried along, scanning the ground, the foundation, looking for a stone out of place. Why she looked at the walls she couldn’t say; it could have only been habit, the way a dog kept caged for too long will not immediately understand how big the world is but will walk paces as if the bars are still in place. But it wasn’t. It was Fate. No one sees that in the beginning, only afterwards, but it was Fate that kept Lizzie hugging the white-gold walls of the castle.
She turned the next corner and began her search of the back side. She was feeling good. Her feet pushed off the grass and her skirt whooshed with her stride. She laughed— she actually laughed! She gathered up her skirt and began to run, forgetting the search, forgetting the danger, feeling only that she was alive, that she was awake and herself once more!
Then a dip in the ground caught her by surprise, tripped her up and sent her sprawling. She cried out and clutched at her ankle. It throbbed and squeezed it hard between her hands and blinked back tears. Her back prickled with sweat and her lungs and throat burned after such long inactivity. She cradled her foot in the dark and let hot tears run down her cheeks until the breeze chilled her damp dress and the cool of the grass crept up into her legs.
She pushed herself upright, stumbled, caught herself, and then drew in a breath.
She reached carefully forward, sweeping her hand back and forth. There was the feather grass and then, to the left weathered wood bordered with low stones. She got down on her knees to investigate. If she had been in any farming village she would have guessed she had stumbled upon a root cellar. In a grand house, maybe a wine cellar. But in a cursed castle like this?
Lizzie had found a door.
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