Fandom: Princess Tutu
Rating: PG-13 (but not until later parts)
Chapter: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4
Summary: Some stories cannot ever be finished; some changes take patience, care, and time. Rue begins to heal.
Notes: Third part!
(i’m not ready / i’m not ready / for the weight of us)
And so they stay. The winter months spread out before Rue like a sea, interminable, so far-reaching that she cannot hope to see the shore on the other side. Each day digs its nails deep into the ground and holds fast. Every hour is palpable, its tension thick in her skin, her throat, the pull and push of every bone. What else is there to do but bear it? Spring will come.
For the most part, the men do not bother her, though it is strange to glimpse their shadows in each hallway, to hear their voices in room once empty. They do not need her for meals; a few know how to cook and are careful to make enough for everyone. They do not want to know much about her; only once or twice do they ask a question that requires more than a one-word answer. Manners have not been forgotten, for they bow and open doors as well as any well-raised man would. No, Rue thinks. It is not within their behavior, but their presence itself that true warnings lie. Every free moment is spent at Siegfried’s side, entertaining him with robust tales of triumph in far-away lands, asking to be taught his legendary techniques of the sword and shield. Her prince is wary, yes, but he cannot help having missed the company, despite the circumstances. The men know this, and so does Rue. None of them are brave enough to be the reason he should leave her. They are merely ensuring that they will be one of the benefits.
The priest is different. There are no more pretenses; he carries himself with all the poise and disdain of a perfect man in an imperfect world. Rue avoids him to the best of her ability, but there are moments here and there when she must pass him in empty hallway. He never speaks, only looks to her with eyes dark and drowning. Hurry past me with your head bowed like a girl knowing of sin should, they tell her. Beg for my forgiveness, they tell her.
Rue will do neither. Each time he draws near, she stands tall, her toes pointed and her mouth a thin, thin curl. She does not pretend she isn’t afraid; she can bear being graceless, if only for a moment. Pointedly, she holds his gaze, and does not look away until he does so first. She does this the second time they meet, the third, the fourth.
The fifth time, she stands in his way.
“If you have something to say to me,” she says, the words like ice on her lips, all sense of politeness long bled clean from her, “then by all means, say it. There is no pretense where I’m concerned. There’s nothing to me other than what you see before you.” Her heart feels much too heavy, rattling through her chest like a caged bird. She means to stop, but a swell of emotion overtakes her, and the words tear their way out. “I am simply a girl who loves him!”
The priest is still. His face is a shadow, his eyes as stark as stones in a riverbed. With a grave breath, he looks away after only a moment; he passes, as ever, without comment.
Rue does not think of this moment again until several hours have passed, until it is night and she is alone in the bedroom once again. The voices of the men carry, like ghosts in the air all around her, and so she stands at the window, needing a distraction. The moonlight is thick and bright, coloring the day-old snow a brilliant pearl color, casting such deep shadows across the dips in the field that if looks as if ink has been spilled through them. The forest’s edge trembles.
She remembers then and thinks of Tutu’s lady, alone in that vast, cold forest. For almost a month now, Rue has not seen her. Her fingers strain across the windowsill, her knuckles white, the veins there thin and winding along the back of her hand like roads with no endings. She surely must be aware of the guests, must have some understanding of why they‘ve come. It wouldn’t take much at all for her to be made their champion, a lady of light and good to drown all her darkness in. There is motive; their encounter in the garden made that all that too clear. Even if she had not admitted it, Rue was never blind to the hunger in her eyes when she talked of the prince, for she saw the same look, however softened, in Ahiru’s eyes; she saw the same look each time she glimpsed herself in a mirror, hardened and tainted but still raw underneath all the glamour. So why does she not appear?
I am sure of it. You are simply a very brave girl.
Rue sighs, and the soft sound bleeds into the breeze. She’d thought of those words when she had spoken to the priest; somehow, since that day, they’d woven into her, clung fast to her heart, her blood, her every bone. It’s true, isn’t it? It’s such a simple thing, but she must keep reminding herself of it. When all her trappings are torn away, when all things foreign and forced upon her have been stripped clean and bare, she is only a child of unfortunate circumstances, human in every way.
She loves him, too. When everything in the entire world proved false, when her life was dark and cruel and lies, all lies, every word she spoke and every word spoken to her a lie – that was always true. She never lied about loving him. Isn’t that enough?
Without meaning to, she steadies a hand against a near wall. It is made of stone, and yet, at the weight of her touch, it buckles with a sigh.
Ink stains every line in her palm, the color as dark as a wound.
A month passes, then another.
She finds little ways to measure the time, collecting the seconds and minutes and hours as though they are grains on a tilting scale: the changing of the men’s bodies, weaker, ever-thinner. The number of days it takes for her blood to grow restless, to burn and murmur sharp, senseless things against her bones once again. How many nights in a row dreams wake her.
Do you miss the ravens, my daughter? They were coarser then you, blacker then you, crueler then you. Now that they are gone, you are the only shadow left. Do you feel lonely in your gilded palace, in your aviary full of light? You always did love the darkest corners most of all.
Rue muffles her gasp in the sheets; she turns her face towards the wall. She listens to the shuddering of wind on glass, to the cries of animals distant and unknown, to Siegfried’s soft breathing, fitting just so between the bones in her back. It takes time, but she sleeps once more. If she dreams again, she does not remember it.
She is preparing some food for later one day when her prince slips into the kitchen, carrying a bundle of familiar pearl-white flowers, each petal fringed with half-melted ice. “The lady in white gave them to me,” he says when she arches an eyebrow at the sight.
“Oh,” Rue says. At once, she returns to her work. Her hands are sticky and sore, kept so busy that she is nearly able to ignore how her shoulders tense, how the lean muscles just beneath the back of her dress are at once taut. Of course, she thinks, and frowns when Siegfried briefly stands with his back to her. Of course. “How kind of her,” she adds a moment later with the shyest of disdain – only to blink as he turns and steadies her cheek with his hand, threading the stem of one flower through her curls with the other. It rests snug atop the crook of her ear, the petals tickling her skin.
“She asked me to deliver them,” Siegfried says, pressing the rest of the bundle into her hands. “She said they were a gift for you.”
Rue stares for several moments before realizing her lips aren’t moving. “Oh,” she says at last, the tone of the word very different the second time around. She clutches them to her chest, their wispy shapes fluttering with each breath she manages. Siegfried smiles and moves to find a vase. Her bread begins to burn, demanding attention, and so it went.
(She does not attempt to understand it. She only sets the flowers aside and shakes her head. She only thinks, with thin lips and a strange, brief warmth in her throat: you silly child, you silly child.)
There are good moments, still. The men are, above all else, simple, and easily distracted by hearty dinners or clumsy jokes thrown about a room. When this happens, Siegfried will squeeze her hand or Rue will touch a nail or two to the low of his shoulder, and carefully, they’ll slip out, escaping into the higher floors of the castle, hiding like children in rooms most unassuming. Often, they’ll talk; other times, they dance. Once or twice, they’ve only enjoyed the silence, a simple thing that is, nonetheless, now rarely afforded to them. One morning, though, feeling especially chagrined, Rue kisses him the moment they step into an empty hallway, brusque and brazen and unthinking. She moves away only when she can no longer ignore the need to breathe, wobbling on her heels. He steadies her.
“The men would have surely found that far too scandalous to be done in their company,” she says, rather wryly. Siegfried laughs, his voice like the peal of a bell. He touches his hands to her neck; his fingers splay across her skin, wings to frame the breath in her throat.
“I don’t doubt it,” is his response, heavy with warmth, and when he gently guides her back to him, Rue thinks, briefly but so, so vividly, that everything is certain to be all right after all.
When there is nothing else left to find comfort in, Rue dances.
Spring is coming. The men are relentless. She and Siegfried once performed together during these quiet afternoon hours, their movements clean and simple – but now, they have denied her even this, carting her prince off to rooms cold and windowless, where he will not be able to keep track of the passing of time. Rue carries her dark stares and sharp-edged words like weapons in hilts, easily brandished at the sight of them, but it cannot be ignored that she has no power, can find very little in this world of men and malice. Her lips pull thin at the thought. Still, she ties her toe-shoes with the utmost of care, the ribbons soft against her scratched fingertips.
She knows not how long she goes on, only that there will surely be blisters on her feet and blood in her shoes by the end of it. A naïve eye would think her sad and self-punishing, but briefly, in the breath after a turn or arabesque or grand jete, she finds room for a smile. Such cruelties are known to her. There are times when they are worth it.
So she dances, and thinks of other times, far-away places. She remembers being young and wandering onto the Academy grounds, taking in every lax and strain of the students’ limbs as she watched through windows, mimicking such movements later when alone, hungry for the briefness of beauty. She remembers the silence that would fall over a restless room of first-years as she was called on to perform, the awe in their eyes nearly palpable, like sunlight on her skin. Without meaning to, she remembers a world that bled darkness all around her, the rattle of skeletons –
She stumbles. The drawing room spreads out around her, quiet, long-emptied of furniture. Light pours over her through two nearby open windows, thick and warm and tasting nothing of despair.
Her feet tense then draw into the nearest position. She begins again. She has no need of the past; there are several more recent concerns to occupy herself with.
The first: Not even three months in this land and the men are already foundering. The slow meshing of their colors reminds her of paint not yet dried; the lines of their limbs have grown dark, like sweeps of ink. Even the priest is nearly unable to support his own weight at this point, more caricature than flesh-and-blood. They do their best not to see it, but there is panic there, beneath all the stock pleasantness and joviality. Rue finds relief in this more than anything else, for it means they surely won’t linger any longer than they must.
(There are times where she wonders why she and Siegfried alone have remained unaffected. The thought is brief and always silenced quickly. If there is a reason for their immunity, Rue thinks it would be best to remain blind to it.)
The second: For almost three weeks now, the Raven’s blood has not spoken to her.
She pretends not to notice. She must, or –
Again, Rue stumbles. A dull pain thrums through both feet as they steady at awkward angles, the sun a burning shape at her back. Had this happened at the Academy, Mister Cat would have gently reprimanded her, speaking of how her thoughts needed not to stray, how her mind must be wholly captured by the dance, its every turn, every swell, every ebb and flow.
Her hands curl, held loose at the low of her stomach. Perhaps it would be best to follow such advice. After all, if anything, she has spent the entirety of her life thinking far too much. Rue remembers what it was like when all of her circumstances spread out before her like little cogs and screws needing to be clicked beside one another in just the right order, every person subjected to scrutiny, every word she spoke painstakingly designed to deter or egg on. Even before she remembered the Raven, the consequences of every action still loomed large in her darkest spaces, whether it was a few sharp words to a brazen classmate or inviting a lesser student to partner with her to prove her own mastery, as she had once done with Ahiru.
Well, she thinks, and steps into position once more. There is so much about her she has tried to change already. Why not this?
Again, Rue dances. This time, she thinks not of distant places, tiresome concerns. Her limbs are dark, clean lines in the shadow of the sun; her chest heaves, her neck tense and gleaming with sweat. A recent memory finds her, but it is not so much a thought as it is a feeling, washing over her like a wave across a shore – the rhythm of their footsteps in that empty hallway, the way his fingers curled in her hair as he kissed her. The hope that had fluttered somewhere deep and unfathomable within her, sharp and vivid, so brief that it may not have been there at all.
At last, she finishes without incident. With a deep sigh, she sinks to the floor, her limbs folding close to the stone as she completes a few simple stretches. Gingerly, she pulls her shoes’ ribbons loose, tied so tight that her ankles ache upon being freed from them. She wipes her wrist across her neck; she hides a smile, quick, behind her fingertips.
It is a strange thing, hope. In a time that is starting to seem so far away, she remembers only a life of absolutes, of strings she could tug at and strain but never truly break, and yet – maybe now, everything will turn out all right. Maybe it – maybe she, she and nothing else – is enough.
She is strong enough to allow herself, at least, the possibility.
It is like a thousand lifetimes, this interim of cold and dark – but finally, winter comes to the precipice, and her bones loosen at last. The frost melts, leaving branching veins of water along each windowpane. The snow is whittled away until the white expanse of the kingdom is replaced with brown and black and touches of green, stark in spots like dabs of paint. Rue has never been one to allow her brighter emotions to flourish on the surface, but the men have begun to glance out windows to their horses, restless in the stables, to the forest and all the lands beyond it, full and waiting, and the sight lightens her footsteps. Spring is near, she thinks and feels all but reborn. Spring is near.
It is on a day like this, warm and pleasant and thoroughly unassuming that she comes upon them: two of the men, half-draped in shadow, voices low and steady. Normally she would not find them worth any attention, but the sound of her prince’s name brims at the turn of her heels, followed by “a decision—” and “—quite the surprise.” A breath from the bend of the hall, she stills; she stands with her black flat to the stone.
They speak. Rue listens. She does not catch every word, nor does she need to. What she hears is enough to cement her in place long after the men have tired of their conversation and moved towards the kitchen; it is enough for her heartbeat to quicken, skin burning cold just above it.
Siegfried has asked them to stay.
For a moment, she does not understand. Her head is heavy; her body feels indefinite, as if at a great length from herself. Her hands make sure that she is still whole, flitting from her legs to her stomach to the bowed shape of her collarbone. To her shoulders, dipping below then up to meet her fingertips as she breathes. To her neck, the muscles there strained, so thick beneath her thin, thin skin.
What does this mean? They have no further purpose in this half-dead land, no roles to fill besides the one they‘ve taken upon themselves. Why would he ask this of them? Unless – unless they are meant to rebuild, restore, revive. Unless they have homes to return to, trades that must be begun anew. Unless…
Rue realizes then, and it is like a piece of her has clicked out of place, stuttering against cogs once-fluid. She is of several minds in that moment. The child in her is overcome, her sadness an ocean on all sides and she already half-drowned. The woman is resigned, so disappointed in herself because isn’t this how it was always meant to end, of course it was, of course, how could you have dared to believe anything else? The raven – and this is what nearly brings her to tears, because it is soft-voiced, so much softer than before but still there, it is still there, and she had at last allowed herself to believe it had gone to sleep, it had gone – is feverish with fury.
She does not know how or why she begins to walk, only that the hall is suddenly blurring in the corners of her eyes. Her bones press up against her skin; both hands flutter needlessly at her side, and for a moment, they feel like claws, stark against her skirt. No, Rue thinks, and shakes them until every fingertip has gone half-numb. She does not know for sure whether it’s true, not yet, not yet. Maybe she’s misunderstood. Maybe it was a lie. She cannot smother everything violent within her, but she must try. She must bear it, despite the fear and the aching and oh, my prince, my prince, how could you –
Short of breath, she reaches a bend in the hallway, only to stop a few steps beyond it.
At the other end of the corridor she’s just entered is Siegfried, speaking with the priest. He is close and yet feels so distant to her, a colorless figure in a far-away place. Briefly, she is reminded of being small and graceless, hot tears pricking at her cheeks as he left her again and again, stay and watch me, I practiced so hard, and oh, it is too much. She has to close her eyes. Her heart swells, like fire in her chest. She wants to go to him and spill it out at his feet, scream herself raw until she is hollowed of everything she has ever felt. It will not be possible. She will try, nonetheless.
One breath, then another. Her lashes tremble, tickling the faintest line of her cheeks. She opens her eyes again just as Siegfried turns towards an open window, the sunlight bright on his face as he smiles.
A strange thing happens to her in that moment. It is not as easy as her emotions simply vanishing, of course – but still, their coarse edges are softened, whittled down to brief, easy bursts, fury come and fury gone. She has seen him smile before, but only rarely has it been with such warmth. He looked the same when he first saw the castle towers through the morning mist, when the priest, very much alive, appeared at the doors, when the men filled each empty, aching room with life again – because that’s right, isn’t it? He is not doing this to hurt her, but to save them, these people he loved and lost long before he even knew her name. She had realized that long before, hadn‘t she? She had planned to leave even, her thoughts only of the waiting carriage just outside the forests, of his face, half-feverish against her fingertips. That was before hope had bled into her, foreign and foundering but still bright, a star in all her darkness. Before –
She stands straight. Her breath stings; her skin burns cold beneath her dress. Both hands curl close to her chest, as if to catch her heart should it try to tear its way out of her. Yes, Rue thinks. The scale is skewed too far. She has already tried to take so much of him for herself. Isn’t this only one more piece she will all but destroy in the name of love? One more precious thing that will crumple into ash the moment she takes it in her hands and tries to keep it safe.
In that moment, she decides.
Siegfried notices her then. At once, he moves past the priest, raising his hand in earnest. The sun catches in his eyes, coloring them a bright, burning amber, like a beacon calling her to port.
“Rue,” he says.
Again, he calls her name, but the sound is little more than a sting at the bare of her ankles, turned so quick she nearly stumbles. She doesn’t know where she’s going, only that she’s already at the corner, already at the last step of the stairwell, already at the doors and away. Spring is still infant, unwieldy in its execution, seen in the way the field bleeds dark, messy color all around her. One of her shoes is dirtied, then the other. At the bend of a hill, she steps out of them, as easily as a ghost.
This isn’t the end, she tells herself again and again, even as the words hurt, even as they settle in her stomach like stones. She could return to the Academy and continue her lessons. She could join a troupe, one just like the group that performed Sleeping Beauty for them, so small and warm and elegant. She could travel, see the dizzying, colorful places she once saw illustrations of in books. There was the faintest of curiosities there once, quickly smothered by her own violent heart, by the story’s ever-taut strings – but it was there, nonetheless, and the thought is a comfort. She is more than what this blood has made of her. She will overcome it. She must. She must.
And yet, the stretch of mud she stops before is wide and black and curled at the edges like wings, such endlessly enormous wings that she is sure with one step she would drown in them, die in them. Rue faces the wind. Her shoulders begin to shake. She covers her face with her hands.
My daughter, my daughter, my ugly daughter. Do you understand now? It did not matter that you escaped the despair within me. I had already devoured every last piece of you long before. I had already left you only your bones and a heart so coarse and raw that even a raven could not stomach it.
She turns. Her breath burns in her throat; one hand catches across her neck, fingers bent like a rope pulled tight. Siegfried is running towards her. She means to call out – my prince? Here I am! – but can’t. She means to keep going, but her legs are cold, useless shapes beneath her thin skirt – or they are until suddenly, only a few feet from her, he trips. At once, she is there, having run through the mud, unthinking of her bare feet. She catches him against her just as his knees graze the grass.
“Thank you,” he says, his breath burning at her wrist. “Once again, you’ve saved me.”
He smiles up at her then, as bright and kind-faced as a child and oh, it is too much. Her hands tremble. She presses one nail into his shoulder, then another.
“How can you say that?” She did not mean to speak, but a voice tears its way out regardless, a voice that is not like hers at all, that is aching and monstrous and without grace, how could he ever love someone who speaks with such a voice, how shameful – “I have not saved you. I’ve ruined it. All of this. Everything –”
Siegfried blinks, his smile unraveling into an uneasy shape. Gently, he takes her hands from his shoulders and steadies them. “What do you mean? What’s wrong?”
She closes her eyes, unable to look him in the face. “If it were not for me, the story would not be suffering.”
The sudden way he stills is enough to show her he understands. “No one knows that,” he says after a moment. “It has been too long –”
“Even then!” Her voice reaches an ugly pitch, and at once, she bows her head. “Even then, I am still the one to blame! I am the one who kept you from regaining your heart. If it were not for me, you would have never have had to know any of this pain!”
Siegfried’s breaths are shallow. He allows her hands to slip from his and cradles her face instead, his palms open and warm at her chin. “Rue,” he says, and it is only when a few of his fingertips touch her cheek that she realizes she’s crying. “Rue, listen to me –”
“Stop,” she says, quiet but stern, and he does. She does not want to hear him say the words, nor does she need to. In one fluid motion, she reaches up and takes his wrists with both hands, holding them tight. “I know why you’ve asked them to stay,” she continues, her voice cracking on every odd word, “and I understand the reasons for it, I really do. My love may have been enough to save you from the Raven’s blood, but it is not enough to save all of this. It will never be enough.”
The tears bleed into her curls and are gone. For one breath longer, she holds him to her. Then, with another, she steps out of reach, as simply as air.
(Because she is stronger than this. Because she is more than her selfishness, her wanting, her fear. Because she is simply a very brave girl.)
Silence. The wind is a steady thrum, sharp in her ears, cold at her back. In it, she can smell dew, the wetness of the dirt, flowers. They are in the garden, she realizes. Yes – there is the patch of daisies she picked stems for her wreath from, impossibly bright even on the darkest winter day. And there, the patch of land where, in the twilight of fall, they danced. Rue trembles but holds steady on her bare, blackened feet. With both hands, she gathers up her skirt and begins to turn away.
“Rue,” Siegfried says again. She stops. His voice is warm. “I have asked the men to stay because I would like them to bear witness to our union. The priest has agreed to marry us.”
At once, she draws in a breath, deep, like a person nearly drowned.
“What?” She asks.
He smiles and holds his hands out to her, fingers curled and palms open as if to say: come back, come back. “I would like it very much if you married me in a few days’ time. Is that all right?”
She cannot look at him – not yet. Her lips form a variety of clumsy shapes. The words are swollen in her throat, hot on her tongue. “I couldn’t,” she says at last. “I can’t –”
“I know,” he says, softer than anything he’s said before, and when she does not come to him, he comes to her, brings her in, envelops her. She fists her hands in his shirt. His heartbeat echoes against her knuckles, as steady as the chime of a bell.
“I’ve finally told them everything,” he says, his voice warm in her hair. “What has happened outside the story, the suffering we’ve both weathered – and what’s become of my blood.”
Her breath hitches. “You mean –”
“Yes. They understand now, at last. Even if I was to do as they say, there is no guarantee the story could be saved. I am not the same as I once was. I cannot fit back into the role so easily. The Raven’s blood has made sure of that.”
With a harsh breath, she presses her forehead to his shoulder if only so that he will not see her cry again. Rue remembers: the feeling of love, as pretty as a little jewel in her hand. So warm, such a strong, steady pulse. How she clenched it between her fingernails and thought of breaking it: easy, like glass. How she dropped it into her father’s blood and simply watched as its glimmer ebbed away. With a gasp, she clings to him all the more fiercely, the front of his shirt quickly dampened. In the end, her leaving would mean nothing. She cannot save him in that way, for she has already ruined him in this way, and beyond that, she imagines a world of deeper, slyer scars, simply waiting for the ones before them to be overcome. Yes, Rue thinks. She can do nothing. She doomed him the moment she chose to love him at all.
“Rue,” he says, with more gentleness than she could ever deserve. His arms cross at the crest of her shoulders, holding her as she shakes. “Rue, please don’t cry. Look at me. Please –”
“I am so sorry,” she chokes out. She feels one of his hands leave her shoulder and fold just so beneath her bowed head. His thumb catches at the curve of her chin, tilting it up. She allows him to lead her, but still, she doesn’t open her eyes, her long lashes thick with tears. “I can’t be forgiven for this. I can’t.”
“Rue,” he says again. “Look at me.”
Unthinking, she does. Her vision blurs, colors bleeding into one another, but at last, there he is. His eyes are soft. His smile, wholly genuine.
“It’s too late for that,” he says. “It’s too late. I already have.”
With anyone else’s voice, such words would sound hollow, pitying – but the warmth in the way he’s looking at her now is unwavering, and for not the first time, she thinks: how could she have ever believed the prince would be better off without his heart?
“There’s still a chance,” she hears herself say, the words half- raw at their edges. “If you tried –”
But Siegfried shakes his head. “Those who were lost may return, yes, but with the way I am now, they could come back half-formed or corrupted or – or not even human at all. I couldn’t risk that.”
She tells herself to breathe, in then out, in then out, the rhythm of it so sudden and heavy in her chest that she feels she may faint. His hands, held at her shoulders, tighten, as though he is the one who now needs to be steadied by her.
“Believe me when I tell you this. If there is nothing else I can do to save my kingdom – well, then I will mourn its loss until the end of my days. I can only pray that those who left have found some measure of contentment wherever they are now. As for those who stayed behind, I will cry for them,” he says, his voice suddenly thick, and she knows he already has, many times, “and carry them with me always. It will not be easy, I am sure, but it is a loss I can bear.” He winds his fingers against her sleeve gently, so gently. “I could not bear to lose you again.”
Rue no longer knows if she is smiling or crying – maybe both. Her heart is a violent, trembling thing, the weight of it a sharp pain in her chest. She wants him to stop. She wants him to never stop.
Siegfried smiles into her hair; he leans in so close that the warmth of each word brushes her lips. “Nothing will change the fact that I am in love with you, Rue,” he says. “I’m only more aware of it with every day that passes. No matter where we may go, what hardships we have to weather – I want to be at your side. I can only hope you feel the same.”
He takes one of her hands in his own and holds it tight, his skin dry and warm as he threads his fingers between hers. He closes his eyes, waiting. Over his shoulder, Rue sees the castle, dark against a clean sky. She thinks of the men, of their black eyes, of the smell of ink and the way it stuck to her, wet in the lines of her palms – but somewhere, a bird is chirping, its melody a promise of spring. Siegfried squeezes her hand, and that is a promise too, written across every finger, the strain of her knuckles. Rue breathes in. She breathes.
“Yes,” she says at last, hoarse, and he looks up at her again. “That will be all right.”
Siegfried blinks. “What will?”
She cannot hold back a smile, her eyes burning again with the threat of tears, though this time for an entirely different reason. “It will be all right if we get married. Did you ask me that a moment ago, or was it my imagination?”
His mirroring of her smile is an answer in itself. Unable to contain herself, she erases the step between them, embracing him so fervently that he stumbles backwards, unprepared, the two of them falling back into a heap among the ice and grass.
“Are you all right?” Siegfried asks at once, alarmed, surely thinking she’s crying, thinking she’s been hurt – only to see her laughing into her cupped hands. Rue cannot remember ever having laughed before without the weight of malice, of pity, of pain and disbelief. It feels wonderful. It feels like life.
“I’m fine,” she says. With one hand, she reaches out to steady herself against the ground. Her fingertips brush a strange shape, half-hidden by the remains of a bush; she pulls the object free, wondering, and – and, oh, it’s a wreath. It’s the wreath she wove at the beginning of the season, the flowers as fresh and bright as the day she plucked them from their stems. How is that possible?
“What is that?” Siegfried has pulled himself upright by then as well. Rue gently touches the crown-shape, the woven green stems, each soft petal. With a smile, she reaches up and places it on Siegfried’s head.
“Do you like it, my prince?” She asks.
He laughs then too. “Yes, very much,” he says, and it is one last severance, quick and clean, from what has come before. It is a beginning.