Read The Usurper's Crown Online

Authors: Sarah Zettel

The Usurper's Crown (10 page)

Ingrid said nothing, she just leaned forward to better hear his rasping voice.

“The net is finished, but the working of it has shattered me. I thought myself strong enough, but I was not.” His voice was flat as he said it, but Ingrid had heard the disappointment, and the reproach for himself. “If you want to save your sister, you must do as I tell you.”

“I will.”

“After dark you must take the net to the water’s edge. You must have a fire going, a good one, with plenty of coals to make it hot. You must cast the net into the waters. The net will retrieve the dead man’s bones onto the shore. You must cast them, net and all, into the fire.”

Ingrid nodded.

“He will try to prevent you. You will have to be strong. He will work through your fear, and your cold.”

“I understand.” She spoke the words quickly, meaning only to use them to silence him. She was startled to realize that there was some truth behind them. This insanity had begun to make sense, the way a story of fairies or ghosts made its own sort of sense. As such stories had a deep familiarity to her, so this had all started to feel familiar. She felt at once reassured and disturbed by this realization.

Cloth brushed Ingrid’s wrist as Avan reached for her. “Your sister will be called tonight,” he said hoarsely. “There is not enough iron in any world to keep her safe.”

“I understand,” she said again as she folded his arm fussily back across his chest. He did not need to be agitating himself right now. She was surely agitated enough for them both.

He did not protest, nor did he stir again. “I will be there if I can.”

Ingrid just shook her head. “You have done so much already. You have all my thanks.”

“I hope it is enough.” He turned his face away.

“Avan …” Ingrid rubbed her hands together. He turned toward her again. “Avan, where are you from?”

Avan’s mouth twitched as if he did not know whether to smile or frown. “Isavalta,” he said.

“Isavalta,” Ingrid repeated the strange syllables. “I’ve never heard of it. It must be far away.”

“It is.”

“What did you do there?” Ingrid was not sure why he she had decided to quiz him, especially since a moment ago she had been convinced he should not agitate himself. Perhaps it was to convince herself of his reality. Perhaps part of her expected him to vanish away when all this was over, just another part of this ghost story in which she found herself. She already knew enough to know that if that happened she would be greatly saddened.

Whatever Avan might think of her questions, he answered mildly. “I was hired by a great family to teach their eldest daughter.”

An image of Avan in a long-tailed black coat standing beside a little girl in ribbons and frills and a worktable piled with books flitted through Ingrid’s mind. It felt unaccountably wrong, and yet, she did not believe he lied. “Why aren’t you still there?”

The blanket rustled as Avan shrugged. “The daughter got married, and I was no longer needed.”

“So you came here to work on the boats?”

“As you see.”

“It seems strange that you could not find another teaching position.”

“Yes, I imagine it must.” Ingrid knew he would answer any other question she asked, but she also knew that he hoped she would ask no more.

“I will find some place to stash the net.” Ingrid got to her feet. “It would not be good if I were seen here after dark.”

Understanding and gratitude both glimmered in Avan’s tired eyes. “None of this has been good for you.”

“No. But I do not need to make it any worse.” She bent over the net where it lay and found one of its corners. She began to roll the great mass of knots up into the tidiest bundle she could manage. It was surprisingly heavy, despite the fact that the strings from which it had been made were far too delicate to contain any fish she knew of. The strings radiated out from their knots making patterns like sunbursts, like snowflakes. She had never seen such a net. She felt somehow she could become lost in those patterns if she stared at them for too long.

“You must bear your sister great love.”

Ingrid bowed her head over the bundle in her arms. “She is the one happy thing our family has ever made.” Then, heavily regretting those words, Ingrid strode toward the door. “I shall do as you say tonight.”

She did not give him time to reply. She had stayed far too long already.

Ingrid stashed the net deep in a tangle of tall grass and fern. She marked the spot with three gray stones. She hurried over the bluff heading for home, snatching up branches of dry wood and pausing to pluck up wild thyme as she went so that her arms would not be empty, and her absence would appear less remarkable.

But she had barely reached sight of the family yard when Thad, her youngest brother, came running up the track.

“Papa’s home.”

Ingrid’s back stiffened and her step faltered, but she recovered. “Well, it’s early for him, isn’t it?” she said as brightly as she could manage. “Help me with this.” Thad held out his thin, nine-year-old arms dutifully and Ingrid loaded them with wood. He trotted around the house toward the back door. Relatively unencumbered, she opened the front door and strode into the house.

“So, is it you?” Papa’s voice rumbled out of the back kitchen, and the man himself followed a bare instant later, with Mama and Leo in tow. “And where have you been, miss?”

“As I am sure Mama told you,” said Ingrid calmly. “I have been taking soup down to Mrs. Whitkoff.” She passed him as if nothing was wrong, laying the thyme down on the bare dining table.

“And is that all?” demanded Leo. “Or did you have other goods to deliver?”

For a moment, Ingrid did nothing but breathe in the sharp clean scent of the wild herbs. Then, she stiffened her shoulders and turned to face her accuser. “What wrong do you suspect me of?”

“Our sail tore out” Papa started forward with his shoulders hunched up almost to his ears. “We had to come in early. As we tacked around, we saw a woman going in and out of the fishers’ huts. It was remarked by more than one how much she looked like you.”

Ingrid swallowed, her throat gone suddenly dry.
You knew this would come. You cannot pretend to be surprised
.

“The man Avan says he has a way to help Grace,” she said flatly. “I sought only a remedy for my sister.”

“And what did he seek, eh?” sneered Leo.

That was the final straw. “Curb that evil tongue of yours, Leo, even if you cannot curb your thoughts.”

“Ingrid …” began Mama.

“No,” snapped Ingrid. “I tried to tell you what was wrong with Grace, and you only worried about whether the neighbors would believe we had both kept our virginity safe.”

“Ingrid!” thundered Papa.

“Well, I will tell you what the neighbors think of that.” She barreled on, too hot and angry to stop. “The neighbors don’t care! Half of them are bastards of one stripe or the other! But for God knows what reason you have decided that Grace is wicked, and that I am implicated in her supposed wickedness, because I care what becomes of her, and you don’t.”

“You will not speak so in this house!” Papa raised his heavy hand.

Ingrid did not even flinch. “Go ahead,” she said. “Strike me down, but I tell you this. That blow had better lay me in my grave next to Grace, because if it does not, I will leave this house and I will blacken our name from Sand Island to Bayfield and right down to Chicago.”

Mama had gone paper white. She moved forward, a slow, sleepwalker’s motion that reminded Ingrid of watching Grace slip forward in the darkness.

“If I ever hear it you speak so again in this house, mine will be the hands that throw you out into the dirt.”

“How can you?” Ingrid flung her hands open wide. “She’s your daughter.”

“Do you think for one instant I have forgotten?” spat Mama. “I am responsible for her. I am responsible for whatever deviltry has taken hold of her! God forgive me, this is my fault!” Mama buried her face in her hands. “My fault!”

Ingrid wanted to feel sorry, she wanted to feel pity, but all she felt was tired. “Listen to me. I am going out. I will return by morning. If all goes well, Grace’s affliction will be lifted. After that you can do as you like with me. All I ask is that you consider that I might have been telling nothing but the truth.”

She meant to leave the house then, but even as she turned she realized she could not leave Grace here. Who knew what Papa and Leo would do when she was called out to the shore. So, instead, Ingrid stormed up the stairs to her bedroom.

Grace lay under the covers, as still as any corpse.

“Come, little sister,” said Ingrid gently. “Let’s get you dressed, shall we?”

Through the floorboards, Ingrid could hear the voices of her family raised in argument and blame. She tried in vain to shut them out as she moved about the room, gathering Grace’s clean linen, her thickest skirt, and layers of shawls. Grace’s skin was horribly cold to the touch and Ingrid had to dress her as if she were a rag doll. Grace’s eyelids did not even flutter under Ingrid’s attentions, and nothing passed her lips but the sigh of her breath.

“Perhaps I should become a nurse,” muttered Ingrid as she sat Grace up. “I seem to be making a profession of hauling the sick about with me.”

At the same time, she knew she would never be able to carry Grace all the way down to the beach. Biting her lip, Ingrid pulled the string holding the scrap of iron off from around Grace’s neck and tossed it onto the bed.

As the iron thudded against the quilt, Grace’s head jerked upright and her eyes flew open wide. Her gaze lighted for a moment on Ingrid, but then slipped past her to the door. Her hand tightened briefly on Ingrid’s arm as she used Ingrid to pull herself to her feet. She took three faltering steps, and collapsed, measuring her own length on the floorboards.

Ingrid dropped at once to her knees beside Grace. Grace lifted her bedraggled head and saw Ingrid, truly saw her for the first time in this whole hellish month.

“Help me, Ingrid,” rasped Grace. “Help me go to him.”

“Yes,” said Ingrid, although the word choked her. “We are going to him now.”

Ingrid raised Grace up, shocked at the strength of her sister’s grip. One step at a time, they together made their way down the stairs to the front room. Their family stopped their arguing and stared in a silent astonishment as Ingrid supported Grace to the door.

No one spoke. What was there left to say? No one would stop them. There would be time enough in the morning, if morning came, to worry about whether they would once again be admitted into their home.

The road to the lake’s shore had never seemed so long. Grace stumbled over every rut. Children and old women came to their doorways to stare at their strange, limping progress. A child’s voice laughed. Another’s called a name. A clod of mud arced through the air and thudded softly at Ingrid’s feet. It was of small consolation that this was followed fast by the sound of a sharp rebuke and a ringing slap.

Ingrid did not allow her attention to waver. She kept her mind focused sharply on the road, and on Grace. Grace’s eyes shined with an eager light. Her sunken mouth trembled. Ingrid knew that her lips would be shaping the name of her ghostly lover, if only she knew it.

What will I do if she decides to run into the lake?
Ingrid wondered with sudden desperation.
How can I possibly stop her?

But there was nothing for it but to continue on their way, one weary step at a time. Against her will, Ingrid found her thoughts trailing behind them, all the way back to their door. She could not have said which made her heart heavier: the fear that their family might follow, or the fear that they might not.

At long last, Ingrid and Grace stumbled onto the beach below the bluff. When they reached the sand, Ingrid let go of Grace, although her entire soul screamed at her not to do so. She had to see what Grace would do. Once free, Grace tottered forward a few steps and sank down to the sand, her knees pulled up against her chest and wrapped her arms around them.

“He will come for me,” she said. “After dark. He says so. He sings so to me.”

“Well, we’ll just have to wait,” said Ingrid with a brittle briskness. “Will he object to a fire until then?”

If Grace heard, she had no answer. She just continued to stare hungrily out across the water, listening to a voice Ingrid could not hear.

At least she wasn’t going anywhere, which would require that Ingrid sit with her. Activity allowed Ingrid to keep her mind occupied with things other than the coming night She dug a pit in the sand with her hands and pieces of driftwood. She gathered driftwood and tinder, ranging as far afield as she dared to bring back fuel. She did not want to risk running out of wood. Her foraging also kept her from having to watch the sails from the returning boats, knowing that any one of them who looked toward the shore could see her and Grace, and would wonder about it. Oh, they were now surely the nine days’ wonder of the island. Even if Mama and Papa took them back in when this was over, what then?

Ingrid Loftfield, I’m ashamed of you. How can even be thinking of that now?

But she was. Evidently, something of her parents’ teaching had sunk into her heart. She made herself sit back on her heels and look at Grace — bright, sunny Grace — trapped by a dead man, lost in a ghost story. That was what mattered. That was all that mattered.

Ingrid squatted down beside the fire pit and lit her tinder.

Slowly, the sun lowered itself behind the island and the trees stretched their gray shadows across the beach. The sky and the water darkened to black and the stars, undimmed by any trace of moonlight, lit their own fires one by one. Ingrid’s driftwood and pine burned down to white coals. She could feel the heat beating hard against her. At first, it was a comfort in the rapidly chilling air, but as she continued to lay fuel on the low, hot flames, the heat grew too much for her and she had to stand back several paces.
Surely, that is enough
, she thought, looking at the glowing nest of coals and feeling their heat against her face and the backs of her hands.
Surely that will burn whatever I may have to throw on it
.

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