They told us we were princesses, and we believed them.
At least, I believed them. I think most of the others did, too. Except Kenna, perhaps; she had her suspicions. But Kenna was suspicious of everything, always. It made her tiring to talk to.
To be fair, we did live in a castle. And we had servant women who attended to us, and fine gowns made of luxurious fabrics, and we ate goose and mutton pie on a long table arrayed with silver plates. We used to gather on the eastern battlements to look down at the brown, busy village and revel in the fact that we had escaped from it.
None of us really knew what our lives in the village would have been like. But it was fair to say that prosperous people with sufficient food probably didn’t leave their babies on castle doorsteps.
We were glad to have been left. We had easy days and magical nights, plentiful food and garments of silk. And we had each other.
The only rigor in our lives was our daily dancing lesson. We were taught by one of the old women who served us, a bone-thin taskmaster whose wrinkles creased her face like the furrows of the sea. But her arms and legs were strong, and she taught us well. Though it was only natural, I suppose, that she lavished her greatest attention on those of us who showed talent: Beatrice, who floated across the ballroom floor like a dream, and Gittel, who could leap so high she seemed suspended in mid-air.
I never managed either grace or power. All those years of daily lessons gave me only basic competency, and barely that. But that only mattered during lessons, when the sun streamed in through the high narrow windows and tried to warm the wooden ballroom floor. At night, under the stars, I didn’t care about the position of my feet or about moving my arms in sync with everyone else’s. I cared only about the ecstasy of the dance.
Our partners didn’t care, either. They danced across from us, all grace and beauty, never breaking formation even when the wild swell of the music made it impossible for me and my sisters to restrain ourselves. They rarely smiled, and when one did, it was thrilling and terrifying. We could never tell what made them smile.
“It was that double leap Amelie did, for certain,” one of us would say, as the boats brought us back to the castle’s shore. Or, “It was Gittel’s new dress, the way the layers fluttered out and looked like waves.” Or, “It was when you turned too fast, Mira, and almost bumped into Fiona. Come on, you have to admit it was funny!”
I did not have to admit any such thing. I pressed my lips together and watched the stone walls of the castle get closer, the water parting silkily before my boat.
I can hear us now, the giggles that floated across the black water, obscuring the dying strains of music from the island. As we approached the castle, we dropped our worn-out shoes overboard, and somehow, the sight of them plopping into the dark water was hilarious. By the time we filed up the castle stairs and collapsed into our high, pillow-strewn beds, our heads ached from laughter as much as our feet hurt from dancing.
We never spoke of the dances the next morning. Maybe we were too tired. Maybe we were wary of being overheard—we honestly thought it was our secret.
Or maybe we were simply afraid that if we brought the dances into the light, they would go away. That the next night we would descend the narrow stairway and find no boats waiting for us, no island in the distance, no music and no partners and no dancing at all.
He told us he was a prince, but none of us believed that.
He arrived dressed like a commoner—for disguise while traveling, he claimed. We watched from the battlements as he approached, not particularly curious. It happened from time to time, a man coming to save us.
We called him Your Highness, to be polite, and invited him in for dinner. The servant women sat him next to me, which was a surprise. Usually it was Amelie’s job to flirt with our rescuers and make sure they didn’t notice the sleep dust we sprinkled into their wine. Amelie was the most beautiful of us, so it was her burden.
But tonight Amelie was seated all the way at one end of the table, and the prince and I were placed all the way at the other.
He had changed into finer clothes, silk and velvet, and he cut a fine figure in them; but he was not as suave as the rescuers usually were. He was, in fact, visibly nervous, which was probably why he had been put near me. Amelie would have intimidated him so much that he likely wouldn’t have managed to eat—or, more importantly, drink—anything.
I was nervous too, but determined to put on a good show. If I didn’t, my sisters would never let me hear the end of it. So I fluttered my eyelashes as I dipped my spoon into my soup. “What brings you to our castle, Your Highness?” I said.
Deirdra snickered. I shot her a glare and went on. “We do not get many visitors, being as out of the way as we are. And it is nice to have the company of a fine man like yourself.”
Our rescuer flushed and took another drink of his wine. Which was all that mattered, really.
“No, it’s not all that matters,” Estelle said that evening as we tied on our dancing shoes. “Don’t you think there’s some value in not embarrassing yourself?”
“In front of whom?” I snorted. “A supposed prince who’s probably a—a shoemaker’s apprentice or something? I’d be embarrassed to actually care about his opinion.”
“Enough,” Amelie said. She had been irritable all evening, her mouth set in a scowl so deep that fine lines radiated from it. “We’re late. Let’s go.”
We filed out of our room and down the stairs to the back entrance of the castle. There, on a small rocky outcropping, twelve boats bobbed on the sea. The music from the island was already audible, a faint, melodic whisper on the wind. We were late.
Our boats glided over the water, and the music grew louder as we got closer, thrumming under our skin and coiling through our blood. When we reached the island, we leapt out of the boats. Iona tripped on the hem of her gown, and I took her hand and tugged her to her feet.
The trails were familiar to us, well-trodden by the soft soles of our dancing shoes. The trees glittered around and above us, the branches hanging low and heavy with the weight of their diamond leaves. The music called us, and we didn’t stop running until we emerged from the woods into a large marble clearing lit by starlight. We leapt onto the floor where our fae partners awaited us, and without stopping to catch our breaths, we began to dance.
We danced and we danced. The moon rose and arced across the black sky, and the night air grew cooler against our flushed, sweaty skin. The marble floor was vast and spacious, the music came from everywhere and nowhere, and the air smelled like snow even though it was early summer. There was only us and our partners, with their inhuman beauty and stark, angular faces, their pointed ears and amber eyes. They never spoke, but their gazes and their movements and the music told us that we were young and beautiful and would be forever.
We danced until dawn stained the sky pink and the music began to fade. Then, reluctantly, we filed back down the trails between trees that glittered less sharply in the growing daylight. The way back was always longer and harder, as the music ebbed from our blood and left weariness behind. Fiona, as always, fell asleep in her boat, and we had to haul her out by her armpits and dump her into bed still dressed in her ball gown.
The rest of us barely managed to strip off our fancy clothes before collapsing into our beds, to sleep away as much of the day as we would be allowed to.
Normally we were allowed to sleep away most of it. We usually started our day with a late midday meal, then our dancing lesson. After that, we embroidered if we felt like it, or played games if we didn’t…cards or chess or ball, anything to while away the hours before we could eat dinner and pretend to go to bed.
What we were really doing was waiting, time creeping heavy and sluggish around us, slowing our heartbeats and dulling our thoughts. The only thing that made the waiting bearable was the same thing that made it torture: our yearning for what the night would bring.
But the presence of a rescuer meant we had to wake at a decent hour and spend the day pretending to be ordinary, industrious princesses: embroidering and studying and such. In this case it meant I had to spend the day entertaining him, even though I was tired and irritable and in no mood to talk to anyone.
Though by the time Amelie finished instructing me on how to talk to him, which mainly involved criticizing all the things she was already sure I would do wrong, I rather thought spending time with a pretend prince would be an improvement.
“What’s put you in such a foul mood, anyhow?” I snapped. Amelie and I had always been close; she had, until now, reserved her sharp tongue for the others. I hadn’t realized how deeply it sliced. “You claim to hate dealing with our rescuers. Are you really out of sorts because this one won’t look at you all moon-eyed?”
“You’re so stupid, Mira!” She brushed her black curls away from her face. “Don’t you understand? Why do you think he was given to you and not to me?” Her face twisted, and I realized she was trying not to cry. My anger drained away in an instant. “It’s because they’re training you! They’re training you to take over once I’m gone!”
She turned and rushed through the door. On the way, she nearly collided with one of our serving women, who had come to bring me lotion for my hair. Amelie made a strangled sound and tried to push past her, but the woman grabbed my sister’s wrist and held her.
A shock went through me. Nobody held us still. Nobody.
The woman twisted Amelie’s wrist and bent to examine the back of her hand. She looked up at my sister’s face, eyes sharp and black, almost hidden in the wrinkled folds of her skin.
Amelie pulled free, so violently that she staggered back into the doorpost.
“It’s nothing,” she said fiercely. “My skin is dry. That’s all.”
The serving woman smiled, toothlessly and sadly.
“It comes suddenly,” she said, “when it comes. When they’re done with you. That’s how it was for all of us.”
Amelie whirled and ran, and the serving woman turned and went after her, taking my hair-lotion with her.
So I went to meet him without anything to smooth down my hair, which escaped from my braids in wiry, scraggly bits. I took a roundabout route to the dining hall to avoid my sisters. I didn’t really care what our rescuer thought of my hair, but I was in no mood to endure their teasing.
He was already done dining, and I was too tired to be hungry. I searched for him a short while before finding him in the ballroom where we had our dancing lessons. He stood leaning against one of the wide white pillars, his feet turned out as if he was about to glide across the scratched wooden floor.
When he turned to greet me, something about the way he moved made me catch my breath. I half-expected to see inhuman eyes, wide and amber, and ears stretched into points. But it was only an ordinary human face, brown eyes and tanned skin and a square-ish jaw.
“Princess Mira,” he said. “Do you dance?”
I laughed. “Come now…” It took me a moment to remember his name… “Prince Peren. You know the answer to that. You’ve heard stories about us, surely.”
The startled look on his face delighted me. If I had truly been as bold as I was pretending, I would have stepped closer to him. Instead I stood where I was, enjoying the sharpness of his gaze. “Which of the tales brought you here?”
He was silent for a moment. Then he said, “They told me you were cursed.”
“Do you believe that?”
He regarded me for a moment, then stepped back and held out his hand.
“Shall we?” he said.
It took me a second to realize what he meant. Then I smiled back, and held my smile when he kissed the back of my hand before letting it go.
He began to dance.
He danced with a fluid, powerful grace that far surpassed anything any of us had ever achieved. I didn’t mind—I was used to dancing opposite a superior partner—and we stepped around and past each other, graceful and light. It was a new, heady feeling to dance with someone who watched my face as we moved, who followed my cues, who smiled back at me with delight.
But there was also something muted about this dance, something missing. As if we were aping joy rather than truly feeling it.
Peren didn’t notice—or maybe he was just better at pretense than I was. When we finally came to a stop, he bowed to me, and I saw that he hadn’t even broken a sweat.
“How is it,” I said, “that you know how to dance so well?”
“I used to be one of the king’s dancers. You have heard of us?”
“I’m afraid not,” I said. “We are far from the capital.”
He slid backward and stepped sideways, an achingly graceful motion. Even Beatrice, the best dancer of us all, could not move like that.
“Used to be,” I repeated. “Are you not one of the king’s dancers anymore?”
He looked away. “I was injured. The dances we perform for the king are strenuous; the court requires spectacle. The older we get…” He lifted his shoulders… “The harder it becomes for our bones and muscles to knit back together. I am perfectly healthy by most standards, but too old and too damaged to dance for the king.”
I thought of what it would feel like to have my own dancing taken from me—to be told that my body was no longer acceptable.
“Do you miss it?” I asked.
He answered in a voice scraped raw. “I miss it more than anything.”
A sharp, confused panic welled up in me.
“I am sorry,” I murmured. And then, ignoring all of Amelie’s coaching, I turned and fled.
There had been a time—just a day ago, in fact—when my first instinct would have been to tell my sisters everything. But Amelie was still in a foul temper that evening, and chose to release her bad mood by criticizing my behavior at dinner. I should not have leaned so close to him. I should not have laughed at his jests. I should not have blushed when he complimented me.
“It only encourages him,” she snapped, “and it will be longer before we’re rid of him.” She was peering at one of our mirrors, not even looking at me, busy plucking stray hairs from her hairline. “Though perhaps that’s what you want?”
My cheeks flamed. “I’m sorry for not being as practiced at this as you are. I haven’t already led dozens of men to their deaths.”
The room was suddenly and absolutely silent. Amelie’s skin was too dark to blush, but her eyes narrowed, and everyone else looked away.
No one ever told us what happened to the men who tried and failed to rescue us. We never asked, so they had no need to lie to us—or to tell us the truth. The rescuers came, they slept a drugged sleep for two or three nights, and then one day they and their intrusive questions and their uncomfortable presence were gone.
It was possible, if we didn’t think about it too hard, to assume they had just given up and gone home. So my accusation was merely a guess, until I saw Amelie’s reaction to it.
“We shouldn’t,” I said. My voice was very small. “Not with this one. There’s something different about him.” I hesitated, on the verge of telling them what I had learned.
“Of course there is,” Amelie said. “It’s that he’s talking to you.”
My sisters all tittered. Then Deirdra turned impatiently to the steps, and Hattie went after her, and all twelve of us flew down to the waiting water without another word passing between us.
During that night’s dance, Amelie stumbled.
She righted herself immediately, twirling to the music and clapping to the beat. But her face, in that moment, looked as if she had fallen over the side of a cliff.
She danced flawlessly for the rest of the night, and the joy coiling around us made the dance whole and perfect again, as if nothing untoward had happened. But when we wound our way down the trail, her face was grim and set, all her joy left behind on the marble dance floor.
And when she got into her boat, it refused to move.
The rest of us were already floating away, gliding along the pink and golden path that the rising sun cut through the sea. We turned and stared at her in horror. The boats had no oars; we didn’t know how to move them on our own. Or how to stop them.
“Amelie!” I cried, and heard my sisters’ wails echoing me, fragmented by the wind and the ripples: Amelie! Amelie!
I scrambled to the back of my boat to get closer to her. The boat rocked from side to side so wildly that I feared it would capsize.
“Fine!” Amelie cried. Her carefully constructed braids had come loose, and dark curls hung about her face, shiny with sweat. “Have them back!”
She flung out her hand, and a dozen diamond leaves clattered onto the rocky beach.
Once her boat began moving, it caught up swiftly with the rest, and we all pulled up to the castle together. Amelie sat ramrod stiff, her hands clenched tightly in her lap.
Deirdra watched her with troubled eyes, and Gittel’s chin trembled. But no one said a word.
I waited with Amelie while the others stumbled up the stairs. I was a little scared of her in that moment, but I made myself speak. “Why did you try to steal the diamonds? What were you going to do with them?”
She was silent for so long that I thought she wasn’t going to answer me. Then she said, “Leave.”
I stared. “Leave…leave us?”
“I don’t want to. But I’m getting too old for the dance, Mira. I need to leave before it’s too late. And I can’t make my way in the world without money.”
I wanted to say it wasn’t true. I wanted to believe it wasn’t true. Instead I said, “Then why don’t you go with one of the men? Let one rescue you. Let Peren rescue you.”
She shook her head bitterly, then stepped carefully over the edge of her boat and dragged herself up the stairs after the rest of my sisters.
The next morning I woke early and went to find Peren, though my limbs ached and my head felt sluggish. When I found him standing on the castle battlements, I walked over to him and said without preamble, “I want you to take Amelie away from here.”
He turned, his eyebrows arced downward. “Amelie?” Behind him, the sea melted into the sky. There was no sign of our island. That was not unusual; we never saw it except from the boats.
“You should marry her,” I said. “She’ll make you happy. She’s witty and patient and kind.” Except when she was in a bad temper. But everyone had their flaws. “You’ll fall in love with her, once you get to know her. She’ll be wonderful with children—”
“Children?” He shook his head. “She’s too old for that, Mira.”
I snorted. “She’s barely older than me. Certainly no older than you.”
He looked at me like I had gone mad. “She’s old enough to be my mother.”
“I—” I stopped. When was the last time I had really looked at Amelie?
In my mind she was young and lithe and blooming with beauty, the obvious choice to ensnare our would-be rescuers. But suddenly I put together the fine lines around her mouth, the slowness of her steps, the white hairs she had been plucking from her brow.
But the last rescuer had been here just a few months ago, and he had been smitten by her. I remembered her hand reaching behind his shoulder to drop the sleep dust into his wine, her face smiling up at him, holding his attention so he wouldn’t notice. Her smooth unlined skin, her bright eyes, her wealth of black hair.
It comes suddenly, when it comes.
The air was no longer pleasantly cool. I felt like I was wrapped in ice.
“You’re shivering.” Peren removed his cloak and wrapped it around me. “Were I to take someone from this place, Mira, I would rather it be you.”
I squeezed my eyes shut, then opened them. “You would be better off with my sister. She is the eldest of us princesses. If you marry her, then you would be—”
I stopped. He was not laughing at me—not quite—but I could see on his face that he was carefully not laughing at me.
“We are princesses.” I meant to snap it defiantly. But it came out as a question, and a rhetorical one at that.
“In the tales,” Peren said, his tone conciliatory, “they do say you are princesses. But the minstrels turn all girls into princesses.”
I was afraid that if I spoke, I would cry.
“Did your guardians claim that you were special? That the twelve of you are the only ones the fae ever chose?” His voice was still gentle, but there was a barb in it somewhere. “This is the same bargain the fae always make: youth in exchange for joy. They find mortals willing to trade in countless villages and many cities and often deep in forests—only occasionally in castles. It’s all the same to them, and when they’re done—or discovered, or threatened—they move on. They will eventually move on from this place, too, and find new mortals to tempt.”
Was this a threat? An offer? I couldn’t meet his eyes, so I had no way to judge. I looked at my hands, smooth and slim and young, like Amelie’s had been a few months ago.
“Save my sister,” I said, “and I’ll come with you, too. I promise.”
I wasn’t sure if I meant it. I could tell he wasn’t sure, either. He tilted his head and said, “So you admit you need saving?”
“Does it matter?”
His jaw tightened. “I want to see what I’m saving you from.”
Of course he did. What he needed from us was a story of magic and heroism, a tale to win back the favor of those who had deemed him too old and broken to be shown at court. A princess on his arm, freed by his courage.
Heroes did not skulk out of castles. They did not flee gnarled old women and slim young girls. They did not run away, not unless they were running from something no human being could fight.
I drew in a breath and said, “I’ll show you.”
That evening, surrounded by my sisters, I was sickened by what I had done. I almost hoped that my betrayal would destroy the spell and the boats wouldn’t come tonight. I even wished my sisters would spot Peren, realize what I had done, and turn on me in justified outrage before throwing him into the sea.
But it went seamlessly. Peren was curled up in the bottom of my boat by the time we descended the stairs, and no one noticed that I sat sideways to avoid kicking him. My boat lagged behind, gliding lower in the water than the others, but no one noticed that, either. Fiona waited on shore until my boat caught up, an effort that must have cost her dearly—come, come dance, the music called—but she asked no questions, merely took my hand and raced with me up the trail.
By the time we reached the dance floor, I had almost forgotten Peren. I had never quite grasped the power of the night music until I tried to set myself against it. Even ordinary music can get into your blood, make it flow faster, infuse it with energy you didn’t know you were capable of. The fae music made that power as sharp and pure as a weapon. My thoughts and plans and fears crumpled, tossed about and shattered. There was only music and movement, beauty and abandon, there was only now now now and now stretched on forever.
Until Peren stepped out of the woods and onto the dance floor with us.
The music didn’t falter, so neither did our steps. But our heads turned, and my sisters and I stared at him as we danced. Twelve princesses, twelve fae princes, and one trained mortal dancer.
He was better than any of us. His leaps were powerful as well as elegant, his turns as tight as they were wild, his every movement precise and controlled. Yet somehow, that deliberateness and precision transformed his dance into something with more abandon and more beauty than it had any right to possess.
Dread coiled up within me as I realized: I had been deceived. He had not come here to see our curse. He had not come here to save us from it.
He had come here to join us.
Or to replace us.
I miss it more than anything.
I watched Peren dance, and I watched my sisters watching him, and that, finally, was when I realized: there were, as there always had been, only twenty-four figures dancing beneath the stars.
Amelie had no partner.
Stopping was the hardest thing I had ever done—though I had not, to be fair, done many hard things in my life. I shut my eyes and clapped my hands over my ears and threw myself to my knees. They hit the marble floor hard, and I cried out.
Everything stopped. The music. The fae. My sisters went through a few more dance steps before they, too, froze. Fiona went on dancing the longest, until she finally noticed mid-pirouette that something was wrong. She slowed and stilled and blinked around.
“You can’t,” I said fiercely. I glared at Peren, the pain still quivering up my legs, helping me focus. “You can’t take Amelie’s place.”
He had not stopped. He did a quick series of turns, and even in the absence of the music, the beauty of his motions took my breath away. “Why not?”
“Because…” I looked at our fae partners. Their faces, now that we weren’t dancing, were inhuman in their stillness. Beautiful and crystalline and cruel. “Because they’re not going to give you your youth and your strength back. Don’t you understand? They’re going to take it, until there’s nothing left in you!”
Gittel flinched. Fiona wrapped her arms around herself.
“But until then,” Peren said, “I will dance.”
“For how long?” I chose my next words deliberately. He had tricked me, he had used me, and it wasn’t difficult to be harsh. “You’re already old. You won’t dance for long.”
“For as long as I get,” Peren said, “it will be worth it.”
And there it was on his face: the grim desperation I had seen earlier that day.
“Isn’t that why you’re all here?” he said. “You know it’s better to dance briefly and brightly, to be truly alive for a short time, than to trudge through a long empty lifetime like most mortals do.” He turned a bit more, so he was looking directly at Amelie. “Isn’t it worth it?”
Amelie stood apart from us, her mouth drawing tight lines across the lower half of her face. Was it starlight making her hair look gray?
“Not once it’s over,” she said.
Fiona’s indrawn breath was small and sharp.
Peren laughed. “It ends eventually no matter what. If you’d traded this for more years as a mortal, more days to drag yourself through until you die at the end anyhow, do you think that would have been worth the price?”
Amelie looked away.
“When they’re done with me,” he said, “I will end as all the men who come here do. I will fling myself into the sea. But I will taste immortality first.” He held his hand out. “Come dance.”
He was talking to me.
The music started up again, and our fae partners took our hands. But no one took mine, and when I looked around, I saw that two of the fae princes were dancing with each other and Peren was still waiting for me.
The music rose all around us and slid under my skin, into my blood. The clearing was beautiful and magical and sparkling, and from the corner of my eye, I saw Amelie stumble to the head of the trail. She looked over her shoulder at us, her face bright with hunger. In the light of the diamonds, I could clearly see the tiny wrinkles radiating from her eyes.
I couldn’t stop myself from dancing. But I whirled away from Peren, danced to Amelie, and grabbed her hand. Her fingers were thin and bony, knuckles jutting from papery skin.
“Let’s go,” I said.
Diamonds fell around us as we fled down the trail, pattering and pinging through the trees, bouncing when they hit the hard-packed dirt and popping in all directions before coming to rest on the ground. One hit me in the cheek, another on my shoulder, and the pain was once again helpful. I focused on it, and not on the music that was calling me back, back, back.
By the time we reached the shore, the dark earth was covered with diamonds. Every tree and shrub and broken branch glittered in the moonlight. Amelie had the presence of mind to reach down and scoop up a handful. She held them in her skirt as we ran, and they jangled musically against each other.
We burst through the trees onto the short stretch of sandy beach. Across the sea, our castle rose black and solid against the softer sky. A single boat rested on the sand, the water smashing against its side in a moonlit froth.
One boat. For Amelie.
“We can both fit in,” she said, and there was a note of pleading in her voice. “Escape while you’re still young, Mira. I wish I had.”
I looked back. The trail was littered with diamonds, and the music coiled over them, its strains latching into my heart. I performed a quick twirl, and found that it had taken me backward, away from the boat and into the shadow of the woods. I didn’t actually remember letting go of Amelie’s hand.
My sister’s mouth twisted. She walked over to the boat and sat. I heard some diamonds clatter to its bottom.
But this time the diamonds didn’t hold her there, perhaps because she hadn’t ripped them off the trees this time, or maybe the island was just ready to let her go. The boat scraped across the sand, and the dark water grabbed it and held it and began to carry it away.
I closed my eyes and heard Amelie’s stifled sob, a moment before the music swelled so loudly it drowned out all sound and all thought and all choice. I turned toward it, caught helplessly in the moment, the future a distant and toothless thing. I would be old someday, but I was not old yet.
I opened my eyes just in time to see Deirdra come racing down the trail. Her face was red, her hair undone. Behind her stumbled Fiona, and then Gittel.
The music was demanding and angry, but my sisters’ footsteps were closer and louder.
“Come on,” Fiona cried, and grabbed my hand.
It was a tight fit, five of us in one boat. The craft sank lower than it ever had before, and I caught my breath in fear.
But the boat skimmed straight and true across the rippled water. The five of us sat in silence, clutching hands but not looking at each other. Deirdra glanced back and gasped.
The moon rose over the sea, its reflection a shimmering golden path that stretched from shore to sky, uninterrupted by anything but water. There was no island between us and the horizon.
That was when I realized I could no longer hear the music.
Deirdra, Fiona, and Gittel leapt out of the boat as soon as we reached the shore. I remained behind and helped Amelie gather up the fallen diamonds. We found the last one wedged in the very back of the boat, a tiny leaf-shaped sparkle that we could live on for years.
We had to think of such things now, and there was no music drifting across the roiling water, and I didn’t want to get out of the boat. I trailed my fingers across its smooth wooden side one last time.
My shoes were not worn out. They were as good as new. So I kept them on as we went up the stairs, and only removed them right before I threw myself onto my bed.
But when I woke the next morning, they were gone.
We told ourselves we were free, and I suppose it’s true.
But sometimes, at night, we still slip away. Not all of us at once; often it will be Amelie with me, or Deirdra—or Gittel, when she comes back to visit. Sometimes it will just be me. It hardly matters, because we don’t speak. We creep down the stairs in silence, so as not to wake the servant women or any visitors. No one would stop us from doing as we please—not as long as we still have that stash of diamonds—but old habits die hard. We step out of the castle onto the rocky outcropping where no boats are waiting, and we stare across the empty expanse of white-flecked sea.
We stand in silence, and we listen hard, but I, at least, never hear anything.
When dawn stains the sky pink and I slip back into bed, my husband turns on his side and slips an arm around me, his only indication that he knows I was gone. I curl against his heavy, human warmth and feel the strength of his love, more solid and more real than the enchantment that drew me from this bed. A better exchange for my youth and freedom. I tell myself that even if I did hear the music, even if those boats were waiting, I would have come back to him. I tell myself that I am happier now than I ever was, because my happiness is real and lasting and not based on lies.
And then I close my eyes and drift off to sleep, and in my dreams, I dance again.
(Editors’ Note: “The Night Dance” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 44A.)
© 2022 Leah Cypess