November 7, 1866
THERE IS BLOOD ON EVE’S LACE.
I turn my palm as a fresh, incriminating bead blooms red on my fingertip. A new streak of crimson drips down the lace and onto the layers of tulle I just spent a week frothing to be as light as meringue.
With a yelp I drop my sewing needle and a hearty string of curses.
The most important performance of Eve’s life is tomorrow, and I’m bleeding across her costume like a stuck pig. I suck on the tip of my finger, tasting rust, and throw a furtive glance around Thorsen’s tailor shop. I am alone for once, tucked in the back behind reams of muted wools and intricate lace, silk scarves bursting with birds, a pincushion studded with needles and pearled buttons.
I could take more, I think. Thorsen keeps an unsorted stash of deliveries on the third floor. He might not notice the missing fabrics before I put aside my earnings from next week. I rise, remembering how I promised Eve I’d make her stand out tomorrow. I envisioned her in a costume dripping in glass beads so she’d reflect light like an icicle in the sun—not one that looks as though she practices arabesques for Nilas the butcher.
Tomorrow, a couple named Freja and Tomas Madsen are coming to the Mill orphanage, looking for a child to adopt. The thought of it makes my heart twist. I’ve poked around, wringing the barest answers out of tightlipped Ness, the orphanage director, and gleaning snatches from servants picking up their masters’ tailoring at the shop. From what I can tell, the Madsens live two towns away—still within a morning’s journey by carriage ride—and they might be Eve’s best chance of getting picked.
If I hurry, I can grab what I need for Eve’s costume before my roommate, Agnes, returns. Otherwise she’ll snitch on me before I even make it back downstairs.
But just as I reach the first step, the bell over the door tinkles, and Agnes herself bursts in with a swirl of leaves. I freeze with my hand on the banister.
“What are you doing?” she asks, unlooping her scarf. We work side by side in Thorsen’s shop and have boarded together in the cramped room upstairs since I aged out of the Mill myself three months ago. For someone who’s barely older than I am, Agnes is as nosy and crotchety as a spinster. But worse, actually, because she has more zest for snooping.
“I just . . .” I say, but she isn’t even listening.
“Did you hear?” She cocks her head and smoothes her hair from the wind. My heart falters. She looks positively gleeful. The only time she ever looks that way is when she’s about to deliver bad news.
“What?” I whisper.
“The Mill’s in a panic. That prospective couple, the Madsens—they aren’t coming tomorrow anymore.” Agnes squints at me, her lips curling up into a miserable smile. “They’re coming today.”
My mouth goes dry. The deliciously selfish part of me whispers, Maybe now they won’t pick Eve. I kick at that thought like it’s a dog that won’t stop nipping at my ankles.
Agnes watches my reaction with growing pleasure, and when I turn, she follows. I stomp up to the second floor, trying to drive her away. “You know, I think I saw a mouse up here,” I call over my shoulder. She squeals and hesitates for half a moment until she sees me bypass our bedroom and continue on.
“Where are you going, Marit?” she yells, charging up the wooden stairs behind me. No one ever wanted either of us, but I hope I hide it better than she does. She aged out of the Mill a year before I did, and the bitterness has settled into her like rot—the kind that repels people with one whiff, the kind that doesn’t want anyone to have what she doesn’t. Don’t be Agnes, I tell myself. You want Eve to have a family. Even if it means they take her away—the last person I have left in the world.
Maybe this time my mind will finally stitch these lies well enough to hold.
“I don’t know why you care so much,” Agnes says behind me. “The Madsens have plenty of girls to choose from. Eve has almost no chance of getting picked.”
“Stop talking, Agnes.” I round the landing to the third floor. Agnes is wrong. Ness must believe that Eve has a very good chance, in fact. Because Ness is having the girls dance. And Eve is the best dancer of them all.
“Unless, of course,” Agnes says, “Eve does something to . . . improve her odds.”
I pause on the final step. It gives a shrill creak under my weight.
“What do you mean?” I ask coldly.
“Nothing, really. Just that there have been rumors.” Agnes tuts her tongue. “Of magic.”
My blood warms and beats faster. I take the final stair and stop in front of the fabric closet.
“She’s always been good at dancing,” Agnes continues. “Unusually good. Perhaps unnatural.”
“Eve doesn’t have magic,” I say.
Magic. To excel in a single area since birth, like a savant, and do things others can do only in their dreams. Magic—the gift that comes with a hefty price. I shudder and think of my sister, Ingrid, of the blue frost that laced itself beneath the delicate skin of her wrists.
Agnes shrugs. “Using magic might get her picked,” she says in a singsong voice, “until the Firn turns her blood to ice.”
I kneel to sort through the boxes, gritting my teeth. Agnes is such a shrew.
“Eve doesn’t have magic,” I repeat. “If anyone would know, it’s me.”
I grab a handful of fabric and a spool of gold thread before Agnes suddenly seems to notice what I’m doing. “Hey! You didn’t pay for that!” she cries.
I straighten. All I can think about is Eve, waiting for me at the Mill, her heart in her throat, her fingers tapping. How much I want the Madsens to pick her today; how much I don’t.
“I’ll tell Thorsen.” Agnes crosses her arms and steps in front of me, challenge swimming in her cold blue eyes. “He’ll kick you out, and I’ll have our room all to myself again.”