Traveler, your only choice is what to lose;
This path will take your soul, this one your pride.
The choice is yours. I will not help you choose.
That snowy northern path–who could refuse
That southern trail in fiery autumn hues
And east, a dragon’s shadow makes a bruise
if you continue west beneath the yews
North flies the gryphon, east rolls the foam,
East brings glory, south gives treasure,
into the future that dangles before you,
The names of all beasts? The speech of dragons?
Was he handsome? Was he plain?
Who is it sleeps in unhallowed ground?
Whom does the gallows-widow mourn?
Whose company does your shadow keep?
Mountain or meadow, field or cave,
Megan Arkenberg is a student in Wisconsin, pursuing a degree in Strange Reading Habits and the Accumulation of Library Fines. Her work has appeared in Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and dozens of other places. She procrastinates by editing the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance and the historical fiction e-zine Lacuna. She says:
This poem sequence began as a companion to two of my pieces in Scherezade’s Bequest, “Song at a Cottage Door” and “Song Before a Quest.” But the crossroads presented too many possible images and stories for just one song, and as I tried to fit them in, I began to experiment with different forms and voices. The resulting bramble-patch took a lot of snipping and cutting and rearranging to shape it into the serviceable sequence you see before you!
Illustration is by Lothaire de Seebach (depicting la rue de l’hôpital à Strasbourg) and is in the public domain.
the grasping fortune-seekers,
the reckless lovers of your wildness.
We could not hold you close
against all the unconquered blackness of space.
We were so young, and had not learned
the singular preciousness
of unattainable things.
How were we to know
Megan Arkenberg is a student in Wisconsin. Her work has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Fantasy Magazine, Strange Horizons and Clarkesworld. She procrastinates by editing the online magazines Mirror Dance and Lacuna.
If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. – Mark 3:25
It began in the south wing, near the long cold Hall of Empires and the chambers of the Duke of Cloud. Helene, the Duchess, woke at midnight to the metal sound of marching in the corridor, and farther away, the hollow ring of drums.
“Paride,” she whispered, shaking her husband’s shoulder. The cold was bitter, even in the Duke’s bedchamber, and her breath froze in a puff of white. The distant marching became louder, and she reached for the dagger on her bedside table.
Before Paride had fully awakened, the Duchess was flinging a silk dressing gown around her and fumbling for a candle. The fire had died — strangely, as the maids of Copperroof were known for their diligence — but the air smelled faintly of smoke.
“Ghosts,” the Duke murmured, pulling on a pair of trousers. “But I’ll be damned if they burn down Copperroof in the King’s absence.”
“Ghosts never enter the south wing,” Helene said. She climbed up on the chair by her writing desk and took two trophies from the wall: an ancient Imixian saber, curved and wickedly sharp, and a bastard sword from the brief reign of Socorro XI. She handed the saber to her husband and led the way — candle and dagger in one hand, sword in the other — into the smoke-choked corridor.
Night in Copperroof was never silent. There were the usual noises, lovers’ muffled laughter, the echoes of a duel in the basement tunnels, a drunk violinist playing a half-remembered tune. And there were some noises that were only usual in Copperroof; whispered conversations of which only a word or two could be understood; footsteps pattering in a walled-up staircase; the mechanical organ in the Salon of Cats humming itself to sleep. Even the south wing housed the parlor where the pen of the Marquise von Argent whispered silkily on invisible pages, rewriting the infamous letter that drove the Marquis to hang himself in the tunnels.
But that night, the night the war began, the sounds were different. Even the Duchess’s footsteps as she slid along the corridor echoed like the clang of iron boots. The smoke was thick and white, swallowing vision, swallowing breath. Helene had to listen for the rustle of her husband’s dressing gown only inches behind her.
“My father told me a story when I was a child,” Paride said softly; the Duchess shirked to admit how much the warmth of his voice comforted her. “He said that in the days when his grandmother was Duchess of Cloud, a war broke out in the Library of Cadmus.”
“North wing,” Helene said contemptuously. She was south wing only by marriage, having been born to a humble tailor in the Via Theatre, but distrust of the north wing came readily and hard. “They’d fight for a dropped glove.”
“I don’t know what they fought for, but my father said it began like this; smoke and drums. The armory had been rearranging itself for days, and some of the suits had gone missing, but the archivists were too afraid to let anyone know.” Something hit the marble floor with a heavy clang, and the Duke and Duchess froze like two suits of armor themselves. A round object was rolling towards them in the dark: clang-bringa-bringa-clang-bringa-bringa-clang.
“The King had been gone then, too,” Paride said.
The thing halted at the Duchess’s feet. She flipped it over with her toe, gripping her sword tightly. It was a brass helmet, polished for display, but with a brutal dent in the left cheek. Two green lights seemed to gleam in its depths like a pair of drowned eyes.
“Reign of Albinus,” said Helene, who was almost as well-versed in arms as the archivists. “From the Gallery of Spears.”
“North wing,” the Duke said.
A blast of ice struck them from behind, extinguishing the candle. The Duchess swung her sword and felt it connect with something hard and smooth. She raised her dagger, but something cold sliced across her cheek and she stumbled backwards. Paride’s cry of pain was the last thing she heard before her head struck the floor.
The war had begun.
Of course, the real trouble began three days earlier, when the King announced that he was leaving Copperroof.
“It’s ridiculous,” the Duke had said — and it meant something, as his was the most powerful voice in the south wing. “His child will be born any day now, and he wants to leave Copperroof. For the love of God, why?”
Room by room, Copperroof took up the cry of protest. How could the King wish to leave? His house had the finest theatre, the finest poets, the finest gardens, the finest paintings and books and horses and playing-fields in all the land. Every play worth seeing was performed in Copperroof; every salon worth attending was hosted there. Men and women spent their lives trying to breach those marble walls. From the monstrous canvases in the Hall of Empires to the sulfur pool two miles away in the Bath of Virgins to the sun-heated orangery and the Grotto of Austerity, everything a King could desire was there to be had.
And there was the Queen: Arete, youngest sister of the Duke of Cloud. Tall, slender, as dark as her brother was fair — and heavy with the King’s child. But while the Duke fumed, then wheedled, then begged, she said quietly that her husband would do as he pleased.
The day before he left, she retreated with little ceremony to the chapel on the west façade. It had been built in the reign of Consolata III, and crouched over the orangery like a buttress-clawed panther. Even the King could not miss the significance of this gesture, as the Queen famously loved neither God nor oranges.
Nevertheless, the King left. It was the first sign of trouble in Copperfield.
Paride was screaming; he could not get enough air; everything was smoke and bitter cold. He heard Helene grunting as she swung her sword, then the sickening thud of iron and marble against bone.
Then he was awake, lying on a velvet couch in the Chartreuse Parlor, and Helene was smoothing his forehead with a damp handkerchief. A bandage covered her left cheek and eye, pinkish-white against her brown skin. Her right eye was red from smoke and weeping.
“Thank God,” she said when he caught her hand, pressing his lips to her cold palm. “If something had happened to you, I’d tear those metal bastards limb from limb.”
“Someone already did,” said a dry voice from the doorway. The Duke turned his head, wincing as a bandage peeled away from his shoulder. Madame Chloe Saré, the senior archivist of Copperroof’s armories, was stripping a pair of blood-stained gloves from her hand fingertip by fingertip. Though educated in the north wing libraries, she was born above the Catacombs, and her gestures always carried the air of a torturer.
“We have the suits mostly reassembled,” she continued, as though it should reassure him. “The complete ones are laid out in the tunnel beneath the Arborie. Now we’re working on the… miscellaneous pieces.”
“There’s one even I don’t recognize,” Helene said, “and I know every sword from the Gallery of Spears to the Broken Nautilus.” She lifted something from the rug by her knee and handed it to Paride.
It was a sword — that much was clear. But of what metal, in what tradition, from which room was harder to determine. A marble hand still gripped its hilt, stained and fractured cleanly at the wrist.
Paride shook his head. “I’ve never seen it before,” he said. “Don’t you have a guess?”
“Well, we know one thing for certain,” Saré said. “It’s not from the north wing.”
Then again, perhaps the trouble began earlier than the King’s departure. Perhaps it began when Yvon was thrown out of Copperroof.
It had been an unsightly but well-attended tragedy at the time. No one could imagine a worse fate than exile, and Yvon, beautiful and cruel and lion-proud, had never been popular in Copperoof. Most of the house turned out that pale winter morning to watch him flung down the long flight of stairs at the east end of the orangery. His head left streaks of red on the snow-powdered marble — blood or strands of his famous hair, it was hard to say.
He scrambled to his feet at the base of the stairs, trembling with cold and the pain of wounded dignity. His shirt billowed in the wind, snow-damp and translucent as his skin. When he had stood there for a moment, staring at the King’s metal guards like a fox cornered by hounds, the King took pity on him and came down the orchard stairs. Yvon reached for his hand, bending to kiss it. The King struck him across the face, and Yvon fell sprawling in the snow.
Three days into the war, the north wing armor disappeared from the tunnel beneath the Arborie. Madame Saré left a card, brief and tactfully worded, pasted on the Duke and Duchess’s door. She thought it would be best, her precise calligraphy said, if the Queen was left uninformed until the last possible moment; Arete had gone into labor that morning.
It was the last anyone in Copperroof heard of Madame Saré.
Two weeks before Yvon was thrown out, Arete said an interesting thing to the Duke of Cloud.
“I want the key to the Globe Library.” She stood by her boudoir window, one hand on her mounded belly, the other pressed against the frost-speckled glass. Her cheeks were red as peach-skin, soft and blotchy.
The Duke sat on the floor across from her, laying cards against himself. It was a game he and Arete had played as children: Kings and Queens, odd and even cards dueling each other, with the Knaves calling for a reshuffle. Paride had been explaining for nearly an hour how he would teach the game to his nephew.
He frowned, laying the Queen of Crowns on his north-hand pile. “The Globe Library is locked?”
“Unlocked,” the Queen said. “I wish I could lock it. The King spends all his time there now.”
Paride’s frown deepened. He remembered the story now: how King Bastian had the lock made for the library at the far end of the north wing, after Queen Nausicaa VII took to cataloguing the shelves instead of ruling her kingdom. The catalogue had survived, saved in a golden casket near the Hall of the Catafalque. Nausicaa had died of apoplexy within the year.
“What is he doing there?” the Duke asked. “I thought it was an archive of obscure texts.” And not the interestingly obscure ones — those had a salon to themselves, east of the Via Theatre.
“It houses the collection of Gertrude the Surveyor,” Arete said. “I’m told he’s been reading that.”
“Tax records and travel logs?”
“And maps.” She stroked the black velvet stretched over her abdomen. “I am so tired of hearing him talk about mountains and the sea.”
Five days into the war, the Count of Belphoebe was drinking ginger tea in the Arborie, leafing through the collected poems of Téo von Blum, when he saw them.
He thought at first they were the Ash Children, a trio of phantasms who often appeared near fireplaces on the ground floor. He was about to offer them tea — the customary offering was three drops of brandy, but Belphoebe hadn’t touched alcohol in seventy-nine years and wasn’t about to start now — when he saw that there were at least a dozen of them, and none were less than seven feet tall. He remembered the missing armor — but the Duchess of Cloud had said they clanked as they marched. These were silent, and their eyes were flat and red.
That night, something broke into the northern stables. Two of the horses were slaughtered, their eyes ripped out and their legs snapped like firewood. A third horse died convulsing, apparently from fright.
By the sixth day, the things were sighted all across the north wing, red-eyed shadows that smelled of musk and dead violets and lilac turned to dust. A maid went missing; nine hours of searching uncovered her at the bottom of a little-used stairwell, her neck twisted at an odd angle. There was blood beneath her fingernails, and worse things, a whitish substance veined with red. The dead girl’s hair smelled like musk and lilac.
Pasiphae of Blois, whose family was the oldest north of the Gallery of Spears, sent a letter to the Duke and Duchess of Cloud offering the north wing’s unconditional surrender. The Duke’s reply was curt, as his messenger preferred not to linger: They aren’t ours.
On the seventh day, Frances, Lord Oberon saw them in the Via Theatre, running on two or four or eight legs across the catwalks in the Opera House itself. But by then, no one cared.
When Arete announced her pregnancy, Copperroof erupted in spontaneous displays of joy. The mechanical organ in the Salon of Cats began a waltz that would last almost two months, the orangery blossomed until the petals fell thick as snow. Even the Bath of Virgins bubbled with excitement, filling the adjacent corridors with pungent steam.
But the greatest victory came at the masquerade the King declared to mark Arete’s third month. No one knew how it happened, but suddenly Yvon and the Queen were dancing with the rest, their foreheads pressed together, their hair spilling over Arete’s bare shoulders, entwined crimson and coal.
“The wolf and the lamb have made peace,” Paride whispered to his wife.
“Yes,” Helene said, “but which is which?”
“I’m sorry, your grace,” the girl said, “but no one is allowed within.” She was a tiny thing, dark-skinned like the Duchess, and seemed to melt into the twisted ebony carvings on the chapel doors. But her voice was firm, sharp-edged as the dagger hanging unsheathed at her hip.
The Duke of Cloud moved his hand to the hilt of his own dagger. “She’s my sister,” he hissed. “Step aside and let me speak to her.”
“The Queen is exhausted from the birth. She has no energy to waste on these foolish squabbles.”
“Squabbles? Copperroof is destroying itself!” Paride gestured broadly at the hall around him, the Hall of the Antechamber of the Most Holy Presence. The red-eyed shadows had swept through in the night, tearing canvases and breaking swords from the statues of Kings and Queens. The smell of dead violets clung to the marble shards. “The world is breaking around our heads. This isn’t a squabble, it’s a war.”
“A war started by petty men who have not the courage to kill with their hands.” The maid raised her eyebrows, like a pedantic archivist at a salon. “If they cannot make peace among themselves, it must wait until the King returns.”
“Look at this place. Look at this.” The Duke unwound his cravat, showing the long mark of an ancient spearhead along his neck. “Do you think men began this war?”
The girl lifted her chin, a perfect imitation of Arete. “Be reasonable, your grace. It is men who fight wars, not houses. And for all that Copperroof is, it is still only a house.”
They gathered in the Candlecomb on the last night of autumn, the King and Queen, the Duke and Duchess, Arete’s ladies and attendants, and Yvon clinging to the King like a second shadow. The Candlecomb was a handsome room, small and warm, filled with honey-colored light and mirrors and the sweet mingling scents of wine and cinnamon. Paride held a deck of cards in his hands, and one by one the gathered company drew from it.
“The Ace of Roses,” he said, checking Arete’s hand.
She lay the card on the game table. “And what might that mean, brother? Am I to name every Empire that rose and fell between Remus and the Lampade? Or sing the seven songs of the Nephelean service?”
“Not that last, please,” the King said, smiling. “God would fall in shock from his throne, hearing His name on your lips.”
Paride bowed to his sister. “It means you must name a man whose love means more to you than your husband’s.”
The King’s smile faltered, but the Queen waved a long-fingered hand and laughed like the cracking of ice. “Is that all?” she said. She turned to the King, curving a hand around his knee. “My son. Our son.”
The King’s eyes widened, golden in the candlelight. “You’re certain?” he whispered.
Arete nodded. The King lifted her hand and kissed it, closing his eyes tightly. Yvon, standing with one pale hand on the marble mantelpiece, swept up the Ace of Roses and handed it to the Duke of Cloud. “You will have to devise a more difficult task for the next player,” he said sharply.
Paride flushed scarlet and offered the deck to the King, who rose slowly, gripping a card as though it were a struggling viper. “The Queen of Crowns,” he said.
“Well,” Paride said, glancing at Yvon. “A more difficult task? I charge you — before God, who damns all falsehoods — to kiss on the mouth the man or woman in this room whom you love above all others. Is that difficult enough, my lord Yvon?”
“Yes,” Yvon said. “But I motion that all present close their eyes to keep the King’s choice a secret.”
“Agreed,” said the King, and all closed their eyes.
In the silence that followed, they heard the King stand and move about the room. It seemed to Paride that he went to the fireplace and stood there for a long moment before returning to his chair at Arete’s side.
“It is done,” the King said. “You may open your eyes.”
Yvon and the Queen stared at each other and the gathered company glanced inquiringly about the room. At last Helene spoke, her voice cool. “Who was it?”
“Not I,” Arete said, equally cold.
“Nor I,” Paride laughed. “Give the King some privacy.”
“It was the bust,” Yvon said. All turned to him. On the mantle at his elbow, a handsome white bust of the King stood gleaming in the candlelight.
“Yes,” the King said, “it was the bust. Now someone draw the next card, or let us be done with this game and retire. My wife and I have a child to celebrate.”
While the others filed out, Yvon lingered near the fireplace. The King felt his eyes on him and paused in the doorway. Slowly, as if performing some act of great moment, Yvon went to the bust and placed a kiss on its cold white mouth.
By nightfall on the seventh day of the war, all Copperroof knew what the Queen had said. Conversation in salons and parlors was subdued; guests returned to their chambers in groups, and once there they locked their doors and moved armoires for barricades. All manner of arms disappeared from the archives, this time by less supernatural agencies. Now and then a scream would echo in a distant corridor, but no one wanted to investigate.
The Duke and Duchess of Cloud sat before their fireplace, playing a slow game of cards. Helene winced at every unfamiliar sound, though she had believed herself broken of the habit. Paride stared solidly at the cards in his hand.
“Do you really think a man is doing this?” Helene asked. “I thought so at first, but not with all of Copperroof terrorized. Who could be gaining from it?”
“No one in Copperroof.” The Duke lay his card on the wolfskin rug: the Knave of Roses. “But Arete is right. It can’t be the house itself.”
“Perhaps the ghosts…”
“The ghosts have fled, Helene. Listen.” The only sound was the crackling of the fire. “There’s the armor, which is… memories, old bloodlust. But it answers to men.” He shrugged roughly. “Or it used to. No one’s seen so much as a gauntlet since Saré disappeared.”
Helene lay her card on top of her husband’s: the Ten of Swords. “What about them?” she asked.
Paride shuddered. “The shadow-things? They aren’t ghosts in their own right. Ghosts — human ghosts — have never caused us harm. But perhaps they too answer to someone.” He did not look at their door, barricaded by a dressing table and the volumes of an old Encyclopaedia. “Someone outside of Copperroof.”
“Paride, I think they are Copperroof.”
He narrowed his eyes, still staring at the cards. She leaned over and pressed her fingers to his knee. “Can’t you feel it, when they’re nearby? They feel so angry, so betrayed. And there’s a bit of fear, too — fear that the King will return.”
“Why would Copperroof fear that?”
“Because it knows the King would stop it. It doesn’t want to be kept on a leash.”
“A feral house,” the Duke said, laughing without humor. “But there is another possibility, love. It could well be a man outside of Copperroof who doesn’t want the King to return.” He raised his card: the Queen of Crowns. “Can you not think of one?”
Standing in the corridor outside the Candlecomb, Helene had overheard Paride and Yvon whispering as they lit candles for the King’s gathering.
“You know it is Arete who lets you near him,” the Duke said. “She is more forgiving than I. Given half a chance, I would turn you out in the snow.”
“The King would never allow it,” Yvon said. His voice was quietly rough, like the rustling of book pages. “Unless you would invent something — some unspeakable crime. Would the noble Duke of Cloud stoop to calumny to protect his Queen?”
“I would,” Paride said. “But knowing you, you snake, I wouldn’t have to lie. And I wouldn’t trust your King so far.”
Yvon made a muffled sound in his throat, halfway between a moan and a laugh.
“One word from Arete,” the Duke said, “and he would slit your throat with his own hand.”
The Duchess, hearing the ice in her husband’s voice, stopped her ears and shivered.
On the tenth day of the war, Helene found the missing armor.
There was a helmet in her writing desk, a greave in her armoire, a glove in the case of her harpsichord. Breastplates filled her bath, and chainmail jangled when she opened the bedroom curtains. Laid across the bed she shared with Paride was the strange exotic sword, its hilt still gripped by a marble hand. She did not have to look in the shadow of her wardrobe to know that a pair of red eyes was there, watching.
She lifted her own bastard sword from its place on her bedside table, took the helmet from her writing desk, and went to see the Queen.
“I will not be stopped,” she said to the maid at the door, “by a half-grown chit who hides behind a throne and a cradle while Copperroof falls around her head. I do not care if Arete is tired or sick or ready to brood a litter of dragons, she will hear me speak.” And with the sword in one hand and the helmet in the other, the Duchess of Cloud pushed open the chapel doors.
The light in the chapel was cool and green, the light of water running beneath ice. Windows taller than seven men standing on each other’s shoulders made a strange cage of the marble room, seeming harder and more substantial than the lengths of white stone between them. In the center of the harlequin floor was a cradle, and standing over the cradle, a tall woman in gray.
“So angry,” the Queen said, gently chiding. “You’ll wake the princess.”
“If I heel like the dog you think I am, your child will have bigger concerns. Namely a house filled with corpses, one of which will be your brother.”
Arete snapped her mouth open and shut, a clicking sound of disbelief. “My brother. And what does our fond superstitious Duke fear now? Are the walls caving in on him? Are the floors clamoring for his overthrow?”
“You know Copperroof is more than walls and floor,” Helene said. “But the threat I fear comes from outside the house. He is trying to kill us.” She flung the helmet at the Queen’s feet. It rolled lopsided around the base of the cradle.
“Have you realized that?” the Queen said.
“All this time, it’s been Yvon. Paride told me three nights ago, but I couldn’t believe it, couldn’t believe one man’s anger and betrayal would be enough—”
“Yvon? Of course that’s what he’d want you to think,” Arete said. She bent and caught the rolling helmet on one finger. Helene could see the flash of her ring in its depths, like a single emerald eye. “But for all your prattling about Copperroof, you know so little of it. The archives, for example…” She leaned her head against the helmet’s crown, eye to invisible eye. “While most of the armor is in the north wing, it belongs to the Dukes of Cloud. Did you know that?”
“It tried to kill us, whether it belongs to us or not.”
“It tried to kill you, love.” Arete let the helmet fall with an echoing clang. “Poor Helene. Armor is incapable of treachery. Like ghosts, and houses — and Yvon, in the end. It always obeys its master.” She shrugged, sending black curls tumbling down her rigid back. “Its master is Paride.”
“No.” The Duchess of Cloud clenched her sword. Its weight felt too great for her arm. Her cut cheek stung, her injured eye burned with tears. “No. Not Paride.” But the question burned in her mind: Would the noble Duke of Cloud stoop to calumny to protect his Queen? Did he hate Yvon so much?
The Queen smiled quietly, rocking the cradle with her foot. “No?” she said. “As you wish. It is very easy, I find, to keep one’s illusions in Copperroof.”
Yvon had approached her before the wedding began. He was all in black, with garnets on his fingers and in his ears. He did not smile, but neither did he weep, as Helene had seen other bitches do when their hounds changed collars.
“Your grace,” he said, bowing over her with one hand on her chair arm. His hair smelled sweetly of orange blossoms and rain. “Would you give your husband a message from me?”
Helene nodded, glancing at the back of the hall. Paride stood beside the bride, brushing a black tendril of hair behind her ear.
“Tell him Arete must never know,” Yvon said. “She would not bear it… gracefully. I suspect, in fact, that she would do something rash.”
The Duchess tossed her head. “What must she never know?”
“Something I told Paride when we first met. Nothing to concern yourself with, your grace.” He kissed her hand, his lips dry as paper. “Tell him also that I do not worry. He is very good at keeping secrets.”
In the back of the hall, Arete laughed brightly. Her fingers worked deftly to braid a strand of hair with her brother’s, midnight and gold.
Paride found her in the Hall of Empires. Helene stood very still, hands resting on the pommel of her sword, like a marble Queen in the Antechamber of the Most Holy Presence. It seemed she had been waiting for him for a long time; he could not say why he thought so, or why the thought frightened him.
“The noble Duke of Cloud,” Helene sneered. Her breath looked like steam pouring past her copper-colored lips. “I should have guessed. But how was I to know your hatred ran so deep? Even when he is gone, you would bath his name in blood.”
Paride flinched, holding his hands as if to ward off a blow. He had heard that voice before, but from crueler, redder lips. “Where have you been?” he asked. “Who were you talking to?”
“Forget where I learned it. I want to know if it’s true.” Helene pointed over his shoulder at the length of the war-scarred hall. “Do you command the soldiers in the archives? Do you hate Yvon enough to murder in his name?”
The air in his lungs froze, became solid ice pressing against his heart. He took a step closer and caught her scent in the air, musky and bitterly sweet.
“Did you start the Copperroof war?” Helene asked.
He stopped in front of her and placed his hands over hers on the iron sword’s pommel. “Yvon was a cruel man who took pleasure in tormenting my sister and my King,” he said, “but no matter how much I hate him, you know I would not stoop to lies.”
“But secrets and games are permissible, aren’t they, your grace?” Helene bared her teeth, a cornered wolf. “Maybe it isn’t Yvon you aim for. You’ve always been a jealous man, Paride, and most of all you envy your sister. She married a King, after all, and what are you saddled with? A poor tailor’s brat.”
“A tailor’s brat I wouldn’t trade for all the Kings in the world.” He felt his heart breaking itself against the ice in his chest. “Believe me, love, I did not start this war. Not to hurt Yvon, and not to hurt Arete. I don’t wish to command soldiers or wear a crown. I don’t know how you came to suspect me—”
Helene ripped her hand from the sword and pressed it against her injured cheek. “The sword that gave me this belong to the Duke of Cloud. Who but you has the right to that title?”
He caught her scent again—musk, and dead violets, and lilacs turned to dust.
“Where were you?” he whispered.
The Duchess drew herself up. “The chapel,” she said.
Paride’s grip tightened on the sword. “Arete.”
The night before her wedding, Arete came to her brother’s study. Her face was white above her waistcoat checkered blue and gold — the colors of the Dukes of Cloud. Already her features seemed better suited to royal black and white.
“I had a terrible dream,” she said. “I dreamed a voice was calling to me from the walls, begging me not to marry the King.”
Paride pushed his chair back from his writing desk and folded his hands in his lap. “You’re nervous,” he said. “It’s understandable. Before I married Helene—”
“I’m marrying the King, Paride. There’s no reason to be nervous.” Her teeth flitted across her lip. “Besides, it wasn’t a normal dream. It felt like a warning. A warning to run away.”
“A warning from who?”
Arete closed her eyes. He saw at once that she had already begun to look like a Queen; she seemed unbearably tired. “From Copperroof,” she said.
Copperroof is only a house, he thought, but he words died on his lips. If Arete was to be Queen, there were things it would be better if she never knew.
Before he entered the chapel, Paride matched the strange marble-gripped sword to the King’s statue in the Antechamber. His heart did not sink; it had already fallen to the deepest part of him. He lay the sword at the King’s feet, like an offering, and went into the chapel.
Arete still stood over her daughter’s cradle, the evening sunlight making a long needle of her shadow. She did not look up when the Duke entered, though she must have heard the door slam behind him.
She knelt slowly, brushing her child’s cheek with one silky fingertip. “Why you?” she said. “Because it fit. It’s perfectly true that the armor only answers to the Dukes of Cloud — I was a Duchess before I became Queen.”
“You know what I’m asking.”
“And how would you have me answer?” She looked at him for the first time, her eyes red in the setting sun. “This palace is a prison, love. Can I be blamed for playing a game to while away the time?”
“You tried to kill Copperroof!”
“I tried to kill you,” Arete spat. “Copperroof is a house, Paride. It can’t fight and it can’t die.”
She stood, leaning heavily on the cradle edge. The scent as she came near him was almost unbearable, as sweet and heady as rot. “You think I was jealous of this place because my husband loved it. As you think I was jealous of Yvon. But I am incapable of jealousy, brother. The kindest thing I ever did was cast Yvon out of this place.”
“Why would you show kindness to him?”
“Because I knew the King would follow him out.” She did not smile, but her pale face softened. “I saved the man I loved most, and the man who loved him most. Now he will see everything he dreamed of — the mountains, and the sea.”
He saw a flicker of movement in the shadows behind her, the flat red gleam of eyes.
“I must admit,” she said, “that in the end Copperroof surprised me. I thought the north wing and the south wing would tear each other apart. I thought that old wounds given time to fester would poison this place anew.”
“The hatred is yours,” Paride said, watching as the shadows emerged from hiding at the feet of columns. The princess began to cry, a healthy sound of fear. Unthinkingly, Paride crossed the chapel and lifted his niece in his arms. “Why do you hate so much?”
“What else is there to do here?” Arete closed her eyes for a moment, sighing wearily. When she opened them again, they were flat and red.
Paride ran. He heard the hate-things running after him, and the sobbing of the child against his chest. The doors held for a moment, heavy as fear, but he pushed them open with his shoulder and ran to reclaim the King’s sword. He thrust the blade through the handles like a bar on a prison door and leaned against it, heart pounding.
All was silent. Then Arete screamed.
The Duke stopped his ears, hunched over the sobbing princess. He felt the weight of the house around him, its anger, its betrayal. Its warning, stronger than all of them, not to open the chapel door.
It was a warning he heeded, even when the screaming stopped.
Yvon first appeared in Copperroof on a warm day in early spring. Paride walked with him through the halls, through the galleries and gardens, playing guide as the King had asked. Yvon was very quiet, until Paride paused by the chapel windows and asked him what he thought.
“It’s pleasant enough,” Yvon said, “but really, it’s only a house. There’s a whole world outside of Copperroof.” He smiled, dazzling in the sunlight. “Didn’t you know?”
The Duchess of Cloud paused at the edge of the rose garden. She looked at her husband on the path beside her, his pale hair loose in the wind, his arms folded tightly around the child sleeping against his chest. The shadows that had darkened his eyes when she found him weeping at the chapel door were still there, like ghosts against a marble wall.
“This is the farthest I’ve ever been from Copperroof,” Helene said.
Paride glanced over his shoulder. She knew what he saw in the distance; the great dead bulk of Copperroof, its windows curtained and dark, the rays of morning sunlight gilding its roof in fire.
Helene took his hand. “The King is never coming back,” she said.
“It’s only…” Paride began, but whatever he had to say died in a puff of ice on his lips.
Before their feet, snow stretched like a linen sheet to the black hills on the horizon. A road ran through the distant shadows, like a strand of silver in a woman’s dark hair.
Megan Arkenberg is a student in Wisconsin. Her work has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Fantasy Magazine, Strange Horizons and Clarkesworld. She edits the online magazines Mirror Dance and Lacuna. She says:
This story owes its conception to a fine book of photographs of Versailles from my public library. The idea of the self-contained world, with its own history and geography and political alliances–not to mention the sheer size of the thing–rolled around in my mind until I woke up about a week later with a line in my head: “The Copperroof War began in the south wing.”
My beautiful daughter,
what gift is this you bring me
on your wedding day?
Iron shoes? Oh, love,
I am no fairy anymore
to be kept away by iron
nor frightened by the heat!
Give them here—here, let me dance!
I was a lovely dancer in my day.
As lovely, I dare say,
as you used to be
that night in the forest
when I drank a pig’s blood.
Oh, yes, you are lovely,
So why the shoes?
But watch me dance, my darling.
Megan Arkenberg is a student in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her poetry has appeared in or been accepted for the Lorelei Signal, Labyrinth Inhabitant, Illumen, and Dreams & Nightmares. She procrastinates by editing the small fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance (http://mirrordancefantasy.blogspot.com). She says:
“The iron shoes at the end of the Snow White story never seemed like a protagonist’s brainchild to me. That was my first hint that there might be more than one villainess in that fairy tale.”