She fell to the floor with a gurgled cry, red blooming down her white chest. The others surged forward and fell back instantly, but Lizzie cried out.
“You beast! You gave me your word!” She sank to her knees, everything forgotten but the girl who gasped and then went still in front of her.
“You are not worthy of my word,” spat Bluebeard. “You are no more than cattle. A man may say anything to like to his beasts— they have no hold on him. I said what I wished for you to hear and you, being a soft and foolish woman, believed it. That fault is yours, not mine.” He shook his head. Though his goatee was tangled, his face unshaven and he was dressed only in underclothes, he looked powerful. He was powerful. Outnumbered by such a ratio and yet still he had the upper hand. Lizzie gripped Taisia’s still hand in hers and wept, heart pressed to her chest.
“Ah, what’s this? You’ve brought me something. For that I might let you live,” here he chuckled, “though you won’t see that as a reward, will you. Hand it over.”
Lizzie looked up at him. He thrust out his hand, so completely confident that she had only one choice, that it shocked her back to life.
“No.” She stood, legs trembling. A sudden remembrance of her mother calling her much younger self stubborn made her smile, nearly laugh!
Bluebeard narrowed his eyes. “No? That is not a word for a wife,” he hissed the word between his straight, strong teeth.
Lizzie reached for the pin, and as her hatred swelled, so did the metal. It wobbled, shifted; it was a dagger, and then a needle again. Bluebeard saw it, and the shock showed.
“You’ve been to the witch, a thousand curses on her. But I have already proven myself better than her; anything she’s given you is weak by extension. Hand me the heart.”
Again, Lizzie felt rage fill her, felt the dagger in her hand, knew how easily it would pierce the unprotected organ. But she also felt the heart beat against her skin. It pressed and pressed, a small, blind animal that was afraid and sought shelter, comfort and— a word that made her feel sick. Forgiveness.
Bluebeard watched her and seemed to know, or guess, at what she thought.
“Hand me the heart or be done with it. I don’t need it. It does not hold the power you think it does.” When she still didn’t move he lunged sideways and grabbed—
“Apple, is it? There’ll be no tombstone for you.” He gave her a squeeze. “Plump and tender as the day I carried you off.” He nibbled her neck. Apple— Magda— flinched but held still. She didn’t take her eyes off Lizzie, and her voice sounded in Lizzie’s head. A kindness before I die.
The words struck Lizzie like a bell. Her heart shook. The dagger slid down to a needle once more. She stepped forward.
“Here. I brought it back for you.”
Bluebeard looked at her and pushed Magda aside. “That was your intention?”
“Not always, but yes. It’s yours. It shouldn’t be… down there.”
Bluebeard’s eyebrows raised. “You saw it? You went Below? You have more grit than I had realized. Perhaps I will keep you…” Then his eyes narrowed. “But where is the shell?”
Lizzie shrugged. She was buzzing and it took all her attention to speak. “I don’t know. I didn’t see. My eyes were closed.”
Bluebeard did not put out his hand. His eyes were slits now, nearly the only things visible save for his pale chest in the growing darkness. The other women were silent, their breathing hushed. Everyone was waiting. It was quiet enough to hear the exposed heart beat, thick and sluggish.
Bluebeard crossed and uncrossed his arms. “What have you done to it. A chimera’s shell is impervious to every metal, every spell. Did she give you an incantation, that witch?” As he grew angry he looked larger, more terrible, but Lizzie didn’t flinch. She looked instead at the heart in her hand.
“No. It was a spell to soften my heart. Not revenge, but… forgiveness.”
“You fool! No!” Fabiana leaped out from the shadows. The others held her, but she cursed Lizzie. “It is justice! For all of us! How dare you? You can’t take it from us! I will do it myself!”
“Be quiet!” Bluebeard’s voice was like a gong and it rattled her into silence. Her turned back to Lizzie. His voice hissed like wet coal. “I don’t want your forgiveness. I want what is mine.”
“We all do,” she said, stepping forward. “I will give you back your heart.” She dipped down smoothly, unexpectedly. They all watched her; none stopped her. She plucked a shining silver hair from Taisia’s head. It quivered a moment, then threaded itself through the needle in Lizzie’s left hand. She took a third step and closed the gap between them, and still Bluebeard had not moved. She ran the needle down his chest so that a thin line of blood beaded, then she waited.
When nothing happened, Bluebeard began to laugh. It was a loud, raucous laugh, a cruel one; a laugh so certain of itself that even Lizzie felt a lightning bolt of doubt course through her body. Silverscales had said…
Then the laugh stopped. It cut off with a gurgling moan, and the large man stumbled backwards, fell, scrambled. The women shuffled nearer to look, and they gasped as one.
Bluebeard’s chest was splitting open, bloody and wet— and empty.
“Someone fetch a lamp, please,” said Lizzie. When it appeared by her side she was not surprised to see that Bri, the little gray girl, was the one who brought it.
“Do you need anything else, Mistress?”
“No, Bri, only a steady hand— for light and the needle. And perhaps, your blessings,” she glanced up at the circle of women illuminated by the single flame. Fabiana’s face stood out, angry and hurt. Lizzie felt her question.
“It isn’t out of love for him. It’s out of love for us. Can you understand? There are different kinds of freedom, different degrees of justice. Maybe you can’t imagine it— but a wise friend explained it to me, and I still feel it in my bones, in my body. And see— there’s some power here.” She gestured at the man who trembled before her, a man large enough to send her flying with a single strike who only stared with too-large eyes at the heart in her hand.
“Please, even if you can’t understand— believe me. I do what I think is best, for all of us.” She looked down. “Even him.” She was quiet a long time. “I don’t want to be a killer, too.”
There was a moment of stillness, then someone put a hand on her shoulder. It felt like a spark, like another lamp lit. And then another joined the chain of blessing, and another. Even Fabiana, eyes red-rimmed and distrustful and hurt, put her hand on the shoulder beside her.
Lizzie’s hands steadied. She took a slow breath, and they breathed with her. Then carefully, very carefully, she turned the heart in her hands and laid it in Bluebeard’s chest.
READER RESPONSE: Leave a comment and tell me what you like, what images stand out, or your curious questions. (No suggestions/grammar critiques, please). Thanks for supporting my work-in-progress! -Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux