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Authors: Leah Cypess

Buried Above Ground

BOOK: Buried Above Ground
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Chapter One

The
second the garrote tightened against her throat, Emilie began to look for clues. There was no point in trying to escape her death, or to catch a glimpse of her killer's face; attempting to turn would only cinch the garrote tighter. She pushed her panic away and grabbed at the hands twisting the wire, managing to scrape one fingernail down her killer's right hand. Then she kicked back sharply, in the hopes of making her murderer yell. She got only a grunt, too indistinct to identify.

That was all she had time for before she died.

When she opened her eyes next, she was lying in the place of her death: the little pink-and-ivory room that Lord Ardun had installed her in, with expensive furnishings and pretty tapestries. Directly in her line of view was the delicate vanity table where she had been standing when she died, brushes and tweezers and perfume bottles still laid out neatly on the right side.

Sitting up on the plush carpet, Emilie smoothed her hair, then bit her lower lip. She had worked hard for this room. She hated to think of it going to Lord Ardun's next mistress, who would probably be Lady Bianca. Lady Bianca didn't even
like
pink.

Of course, if Lord Ardun was the one who had killed her, that wouldn't be an issue. She would kill him before he had a chance to give this room to anyone.

Rage pulsed through her at the thought. Whoever had done this to her would pay. Every murdered soul in Ghostland came back as a ghost, and every ghost had but one purpose: vengeance, so that their souls could be laid to rest.

She could already feel the fabled rage of the dead rising unstoppably within her. After all she had done to get to this point, to make her life worth living, someone had taken it away from her in less than a minute. All her sacrifices and struggles had been for nothing. She wanted her murderer to
suffer
.

She dug her fingernails into the carpet, wrestling her emotions under control. Only when her mind felt clear and cool did she get to her feet, noting with relief that there was no sign of her strangled body. Emilie had no desire to see her own corpse.

She shook her head to dislodge the unwelcome image, and was straightening her skirts when the door swung open. She whirled, prepared to be outraged—had he installed someone else here
already
? How long had she been dead?—but it was only her maid, Annette, who stopped short in the doorway at the expression on Emilie's face.

“My lady?” she said tentatively. Annette was a plain girl; unlike Lady Ardun, Emilie wasn't about to make the mistake of taking on a pretty maid. As usual, Annette had a hesitant expression on her broad, doughy face. “I thought you might like help dressing for the banquet.”

“The banquet?” Emilie's hands went still on the yellow silk of her gown. “Is that—do you mean Lord Renfil's birthday banquet?”

“Of course.”

Emilie had been preparing for Lord Renfil's banquet when someone had stepped up behind her and slipped the garrote over her head. Which meant . . . she had returned as a ghost only a few hours after she was murdered?

It was not unheard of. Most murdered souls took two or three days to rise from the dead, but it had been known to happen faster than that. Still, it was unusual enough that her murderer might not expect her to be back yet. And since whoever had killed her had also disposed of her body, nobody else even knew she was dead.

That could be quite an advantage, if she played it right. And if there was anything Emilie was good at, it was playing her advantages right.

“I'm sorry,” she said, since Annette was still gaping at her. “I fell asleep, and was confused.” She glanced down and saw that the pattern of the rug was visible through her foot. In their solid form, there was no easy way to tell the dead from the living, but translucent body parts were easy giveaways. “I will not be requiring assistance.”

Annette didn't move. “But—”

“I can manage,” Emilie snapped. She didn't dare draw attention to her foot by looking down at it. Instead, she concentrated on holding herself firm and solid. It took most ghosts time to learn to control their transitions from vaporous to firm, but Emilie didn't have time. “I used to be a maid myself, remember? Leave me.”

Annette muttered something under her breath, too indistinct to make out, and left.

Emilie stiffened instinctively, then shook her head. Annette would be someone else's problem soon enough. Emilie couldn't worry about her maid. She had just about an hour to get used to being dead.

Chapter Two

She
was late to the banquet, and her hair was wholly inadequate . . . but when Emilie walked into the glittering and crowded banquet hall, nobody would have guessed that she was a ghost. Her body was solid to sight and touch, her feet stepped firmly on the marble floor, and she even fancied she could feel her heart racing.

Time to find her murderer.

Her whole body tensed as the compulsion for vengeance rose up in her, and she looked fiercely around the crowd. Soon,
soon
, she would find the person who had strangled her, and then she would have her revenge.

With time, she had been told, the urge for vengeance would grow into an all-consuming ache, a terrible hunger that she would do anything to satiate. And if she couldn't, eventually it would become an ever-present emptiness within her, robbing her of true joy or contentment for the rest of her existence. Which, as far as anyone knew, would last forever.

The court was filled with ghosts whose chance for vengeance and peace had passed them by. They made the best of the half-existence left to them, participating in the life of the court, in festivities and races and hunts. Death was a sort of nobility, and many commoners who had been murdered now attended balls they would never have been invited to while alive. One of those was Emilie's best friend. Lizette had helped Emilie understand the ways of the court, had tutored her in how best to attract a nobleman's attention.

Lizette would be quite disappointed when she heard that Emilie had wasted all that effort by getting herself killed.

Emilie bit her lip, then lifted her head and forced a smile. She had no intention of becoming like Lizette, who had been robbed of the chance for vengeance when her murderess, in a fit of spite, hanged herself. Emilie would find her murderer and kill him, and her spirit would rest.

In the meantime, she might as well enjoy her last party.

A page passed by with a tray of flaky pastries and paused long enough for Emilie to pluck one and pop it into her mouth. Ghosts didn't have to eat, but they could, and death didn't appear to have affected her taste buds at all. The pastry was filled with well-spiced meat, and she closed her eyes as she chewed and swallowed. By the time she opened them, the page was halfway across the room. She considered going after him and collecting a few more, but the itch for vengeance overcame the impulse. She had more important things to do. Besides, the food at the main meal would be just as delicious.

Emilie still remembered the first time she had tasted food this good. Lord Ardun had brought it to her so they could enjoy a private meal, back when he had been pursuing her. It had also been the first time in all her life that she went to bed with her stomach completely full. It had felt so odd, it kept her from sleep for hours—that, and the fear that she would give in to the lord too early or too late and become nothing more than a lady's maid again, snatching bites of dull, stale servants' food between her duties.

The pursuit had ended that night, though she had been wise enough not to let Lord Ardun know that he had caught her. Not right away.

Now she searched the crowd until she found him, sitting at a round table loaded with glittering plates and goblets, eating with his horse-faced wife. Once, he would have been looking for her, too, would have traded a surreptitious glance and made an excuse to pass by and share a whisper. Now he sat eating his soup as if there was nothing else in the room that could possibly hold any interest for him.

A familiar pang shot through the urge for vengeance, and for a moment the two feelings seemed to be the same thing. She shook her head, pushing off unwelcome thoughts. Perhaps he wasn't as attentive as he used to be . . . but three days ago, he had read her poetry and brought her expensive chocolates from the Green Islands, so rich and sweet she had made herself eat only one a day. He still loved her, when he remembered to think of her.

He wouldn't have killed her.

But then again, he thought she was desperately in love with him; she had done everything in her power to give that impression, and he had lapped it up as if it was his due. Maybe she had been fooled, just like he had.

Fortunately there was an easy way to find out.

Lord Ardun turned, startled and horrified, when she slid into the seat next to his. Lady Ardun, on his other side, stared at Emilie with almost comically wide, kohl-rimmed eyes. Lady Ardun always used far too much kohl and powder, as if enough color could make her look pretty. Instead it made her look desperate for the beauty she would never have.

One quick glance at her lover's hands told Emilie that she was right: he had not killed her. The life of the castle took place at night, to accommodate the ghosts; like all the nobles who slept away the sunlight hours, Lord Ardun's skin was pale, and like all nobles everywhere, it was smooth and soft, unmarked by any hint of work. The scratch she had landed on her killer would have stood out like a beacon on those unblemished white hands.

A wave of relief surprised her. Well, Lizette had warned her: no matter what her reason for taking a lover, eventually she would come to either love him a little, or hate him a lot. Loving him had made the last three years much more pleasant than they would otherwise have been.

“How dare you,” Lady Ardun hissed, and Emilie looked away from her lover's hands to meet his wife's pale blue eyes. Spittle flew from her lips. “This is not your place.”

Emilie smiled at her, slowly and scornfully, something she had been longing to do for three years. Lady Ardun flushed and looked away, and the surge of satisfaction within Emilie drowned out, for the moment, the hunger for vengeance.

Once, very briefly, Emilie had been Lady Ardun's maid. It had taken only days for Lord Ardun to notice her, and about a week for Lady Ardun to notice his noticing. Lady Ardun had, of course, dismissed Emilie immediately. But she had been too late.

Emilie sometimes wondered if she should feel grateful to Lady Ardun for selecting an untrained country girl to be one of her personal maids. She still didn't know why Lady Ardun had done it. If not for that choice, Emilie would have been sent to the kitchens, or the stables.

It had also occurred to her that she should be ashamed of how she had repaid that favor. And perhaps, if Lady Ardun had ever bothered to acknowledge her existence, back when Emilie had been tying her stays and painting her face and washing her filthy hair, Emilie would be ashamed.

“Emilie,” Lord Ardun said. His gaze flickered, briefly and frantically, between the two women. “If you wish to speak to me, this is not the—”

“I do not,” Emilie said. “I wish to speak to her.”

Lady Ardun's hands were hidden beneath the table. Not that it mattered, since her white silk gloves reached nearly to her armpits. The current fashion for formal gloves was, given the circumstances, rather unfortunate.

“I have nothing to say to you,” Lady Ardun said, low and vicious.

Emilie kept her smile. “I'm sure you don't. But I have something to say to you, and you would probably prefer that I not say it in public.”

“Emilie!” Lord Ardun was angry now. “This is not appropriate, and not what I expect of you. Leave us at once.”

“My lord,” Emilie said sweetly, “I'm sorry for causing you distress. But this doesn't actually concern you.”

She might have imagined it, but she thought she saw a slight, quickly hidden smile on his wife's face before Lady Ardun said, “Let us go out into the hall, then.”

The hall outside the banquet room was lined with copper mirrors, since silver ones didn't reflect ghosts. Emilie was struck by her own reflection, so youthful and pretty and vibrant. For a moment it was difficult to believe she was dead. But she remembered the feel of wire biting into her skin; the sudden, panicked inability to breathe; and her rage at whoever was squeezing out her life. She banished the thought quickly and turned to the woman whose reflection, next to hers, was gaunt and sallow and old.

“Take off your gloves,” Emilie said.

Lady Ardun's thin eyebrows nearly touched her scraggly hair. “No.”

“Why not?”

“Because you are nothing but an unusually pretty commoner, and I hardly think your finding your way into my husband's bed entitles you to give me orders.”

Emilie tensed, years of instinct preparing her for some sort of attack. That would be a good thing. In a fight, it would be perfectly reasonable for gloves to get pulled off. And besides, Emilie wanted a fight. She wanted to hit and punch and kick, to hurt someone just as she had been hurt.

But Lady Ardun did not move. She even looked amused as she looked down her crooked nose at Emilie. This was not Emilie's old village, where people fought over everything because there was nothing to be had. This was not the kitchens or the maids' room. Noblewomen did not fight with fists and fingernails.

They fought with words.

“I didn't find my way into his bed,” Emilie said. “I was invited.”

“I'm sure you were. That's usually how it goes.” Lady Ardun smiled at her. “Really, my dear, do you think you were the first? You weren't even the most interesting.”

And they were good at fighting with words. Far better than unusually pretty commoners.

“You were the first to last three years,” Lady Ardun added kindly, and that kindness was like a knife's edge. “That is something. But you must know that you won't be the last girl, either.”

“I do know.” Emilie struggled to keep her voice even. “Especially now that I'm dead.” She had planned to keep this a secret, but the words came rushing out; anything to wipe that smug certainty off Lady Ardun's face.

It worked. Lady Ardun's mouth dropped open, shock wiping both kindness and triumph off her face.

Emilie didn't think she was faking it. Which was, she supposed, just as effective as pulling off her gloves would have been.

She should have turned and left, now that she had the information she wanted. Instead she found herself saying, “It must grate on you all the same. That your husband loved me.”

She almost said “loves,” but her fear of ridicule was greater than her capacity for self-deception.

She might as well have used the present tense. Lady Ardun's lip curled.

“Did he?” she said.

Emilie's throat tightened. “Yes.”

“And how did that come to be, do you think? Did he admire how you did my hair? Your skill with a broom?”

“He thought I was beautiful,” Emilie snapped. “Because I am. I'm not deluded about what happened between me and your husband, my lady. But he loved me, as much as men like him ever do love girls like me.”

“You should think about it more,” Lady Ardun said. “About why he chose
you
, out of all my other beautiful maids.”

Lady Ardun had indeed hired many beautiful maids. Emilie had wondered about that, because the woman didn't seem stupid. And the odd thing was, she was still hiring them; Emilie had gone to great lengths to keep the latest, a dark-haired wisp named Chlari, away from Lord Ardun's eye.

“You should ask your friend Lizette to explain it,” Lady Ardun added spitefully. “If you can't figure it out on your own.”

With that, she swept back into the banquet hall. Even from the back, she looked ridiculous, her elaborate gown clinging to the rolls of fat around her waist, her hair escaping in grayish frizz from its pins. Emilie tried to take comfort in that, but couldn't.

She turned and went the other way, down the hall that led to the main stairway. Suddenly she was no longer in the mood to attend a party.

BOOK: Buried Above Ground
4.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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