The Witch Queen comes on wings of night.
The Witch Queen has your heart's delight.
Hold him, hold him, hold on tight.
Hide him, hide him, out of sight.
“It'll be fine. She won't pick me.”
“Of course not.” Lina pressed a fingertip into the door frame. “She only takes the pretty ones.”
“And we both know that I am anything but pretty.” Finley grinned at his reflection in the mirror, a lock of licorice-black hair falling forward into eyes as gray as the winter sea. Lina had the same hair, but dyed it. The same eyes, but they were set too far apart. The same sand-gold skin, but she’d been cursed with Ma’s unfortunate nose. One day, she’d figure out how her brother had managed to steal all the good genes.
“It’ll be fine,” Finley repeated for the thousandth time, smoothing down his suit, grin fading into seriousness. “We’ll stick together, be in and out of it all before you can worry. Ready?”
Lina looped the string of blood-coral beads he’d gifted her for her seventeenth birthday twice around her neck. Glossy red and round as marbles, they clicked as they fell to rest against her chest. “We can just go to Uncle’s. I’ll go with you. He’ll skin us alive if he finds out you—”
“A lock of hair,” Finley cut in. “Seven strands of a witch’s hair to tie into a charm to heal your ankle. That’s what you’re hoping to get tonight?”
Lina hesitated. It wasn’t to heal her ankle, which was healing fine on its own. It was to tie into a charm to curse the brother who’d broken it.
Finley’s gaze locked on her leg. The plaster was off now, the bare skin still sickly pale and slightly swollen. Because she’d danced on it. She knew she shouldn’t have. She wasn’t allowed to, not yet. But she’d been laid up for weeks and weeks. The urge to move was like an itch. And she’d needed to know she could still dance.
Guilt crossed her brother’s features, a passing shadow, quickly masked by a jaw-clenching determination. “I’ll get the strands for you.”
Why did he insist on playing the villain and the hero? Either way it piled the blame on her shoulders. Everything he did was somehow because of her.
She could imagine what the rest of the family would say if anything happened tonight.
Why didn’t you stop him? He only took the risk for you. Because you weren’t well enough to dance.
Finley’s violin gleamed at the foot of his bed. She’d heard him rehearsing “The Witch’s Reel” and “Seven Ravens.” The same songs Marek had played at the revel last year to win a spell to enter someone’s dreams. The same songs Lina had danced to in order to win a charm of protection for their mothers’ ship.
She shifted, biting back her frustration, letting her strong leg take her weight. “I’ll meet you downstairs. Your tie’s crooked.”
Finley’s brow creased in alarm. He squinted at his reflection, tugging his tie, swatting at his cowlick, which immediately sprang up again just to spite him. “Make sure the doors are locked.”
Lina nodded, a tiny grim smile pulling at the corners of her mouth. “Oh, I will.” There was no use in arguing. She’d just waste more breath. She was finished pleading, done with listing the endless reasons why what he was planning to do wasn’t safe. He was just as stubborn as she was.
She pulled the door closed as she left his bedroom, and then she locked it. A loud click echoed like a gunshot through the house.
There was an immediate pounding of footsteps, followed by fists smacking against wood. The frantic rattle of the door handle. “Lina!”
Lina dragged a chair away from the landing wall and shoved it underneath the handle. Just in case. She didn’t think he had another key. She’d nicked the original from his desk and the spare from the kitchen cupboard. Lovely little things. Silver and skeletal. She smiled fondly at the one in her hand. “You’ll thank me later.”
“Like hell I—” A long, lethal string of curses filtered through the door. Lina filed a few away for her own use.
“Be a good boy, and I’ll bring you back something nice.” She crossed the landing, limping slightly, heart beating an uneasy stutter at what she’d done. But he’d be safe now. No witches would spirit him away. He didn’t need to risk himself for her sake.
A salt breeze blew through her open bedroom window, the green shutters pinned to the yellow walls like butterfly wings. Outside in the flooded street three stories below, people were laughing, singing, and swaying as they sailed past in the little flat-bottomed skiffs Caldella’s locals called their brooms. Everybody half-drunk already. Lina could taste the smoke from the witches’ bonfires. Great plumes of it peeked through the gaps between rooftops, drifting up to cloud the star- dusted sky. And beneath all the noise and chaos she could hear it, a susurration like the drumming of waves beating against the shore.
The queen is coming.
Lina shivered. She usually loved St. Walpurga’s Eve. The last night of winter. The one night of the year when the witches who ruled the island city came and danced with the common folk. The one night of the year when magic—which was so damn expensive—was given away for free. Or could be won, at least. A night of fireworks and shadow games, enchantments and music.
Honey for flies, she realized.
They lured you in with prizes—a string of pearls, each one extending your life another year—and promises—if you kiss the person you love by the light of the thirteen bonfires, they’ll be yours forever. But if the Witch Queen kissed you…
You were this year’s sacrifice. To be drowned in St. Casimir’s Square on the next full moon, fed to the dark tide to keep the city from sinking.
Lina dug though her drawers, unearthing neatly folded scarves and stockings that only this morning had littered the floor. Auntie Van, or maybe Auntie Iris—one of Ma’s sisters, anyway—must’ve snuck into the house to tidy and snoop, because clearly Lina and Finley couldn’t be trusted to keep the place clean while their mothers were away at sea.
She flexed her foot, pointed it, and flexed it again, grimacing. She’d been doing all her strength-building exercises, and she really had tried to rest like she’d been ordered, but it was so hard to stay still when she knew what her body could do. So hard not to just push through the pain like she’d been trained to after years and years of being yelled at by dance teachers. “Again. Again. Yes, Lina! Like that. Breathe through it. You have to push hard. Harder.”
She plucked a pair of gauntlet-length gloves off the bed. Pale blue to match her dress. One more dance wouldn’t hurt. And luckily, tonight’s revel was safe for girls. The Witch Queen always picked a boy. As the women of the island said to their husbands, brothers, and sons: It’s different for us. It’s not safe for you. Which was why she’d had to lock Finley away.
Lina hummed. Music. Free magic. Maybe even a kiss?
Outside a firework exploded, a crimson flower blooming bright, its falling petals scattering red light through the window.
The revel had begun.
Her stocking feet slipped on the wrought iron steps as she hurried downstairs, her hip throbbing as it caught the curled edge of the banister. Caldella’s locals made their homes on the second and third floors of their colorful townhouses due to frequent flooding; eerie ink-black water lapped darkly at the bottom three steps.
A shout rang out as Lina delved into the sea of rubber boots and umbrellas crammed onto a shelf set in the wall. A faint cry. And not a curse this time. Finley’s voice. Sounding pained. Panicked.
Followed by a deafening bang.
Lina jumped, swallowed. “Finley?”
A second loud bang. Lina glanced over her shoulder at the ceiling, edging back upstairs, setting one foot on the creaking third-story landing. “Finley?”
The banging came again, growing louder as she neared his door.
Lina cursed and dragged the chair away, cursed again and hurried back to her room for the key she’d left there. She jammed it into the lock, heart pounding, hesitating before she turned it. “Finley?”
What if it was a trick? Some ploy so she’d let him out?
“Finley, are you okay? This isn’t a joke. Tonight isn’t a joke.” Lina pressed her forehead against the wood and bit her cheek. She’d seen the boys the queen had picked as sacrifices. She’d known them. Finley had known them. Handsome Eli with his crooked grin. Aarav, who’d danced duets like a dream. Niko with his million freckles. Thomas Lin.
She banished their faces from her thoughts. Did Finley think she wanted this, that she’d be happy if he risked himself? Did he think she cared more for some charm than she did for his life? Did he think that if he magicked away her injury it would make up for his part in causing it?
Or maybe this wasn’t even about her. Hadn’t he been fretting about the flooding? Muttering about doing anything he could to make it stop? Studying crumpled tide charts and lunar calendars, faded, dust-coated histories of the island and the magic that kept it safe.
Maybe it had been different in the old days. When the dark tide had risen and threatened to sink the city, the islanders had had no choice but to strike a deal with the witch who would become their first queen. They’d fled war on the mainland, fled because of what they believed or didn’t, because of who they loved or didn’t. This was their new home, their haven, and they’d had no time to escape and nowhere to run as the black water rushed in. The first boys had gone to their deaths willingly.
But now…well, now they still had nowhere to go, and yes, the flooding was getting worse, and yes, there was something terribly romantic and brave about saving your home and the people you loved at the cost of your own life, but that didn’t mean the sacrifice had to be her brother. It didn’t mean it had to be Finley.
“Finley, please, please don’t do this.”
Another bang. Wood striking wood. The quaver of glass shivering in the wake of a violent blow.
Lina unlocked the door and peeked inside.The room was empty. Finley’s bed was shoved up against the wall. His desk chair was stranded atop the mattress, a pile of books and an old scuffed trunk stacked on top of its seat. His violin and bow were gone.
An icy breeze whispered in Lina’s ears. The feather in her headband rustled against her bobbed blond hair.
The tiny window near the ceiling was open, its blue shutters battered back and forth with terrific bangs as the wind picked up. She had forgotten about that window. It was such a tiny thing, never opened, barely wider than her shoulders. How had he even fit through? He was a giant. Two heads taller than her and broad.
Lina climbed the teetering makeshift ladder, white-knuckled fingers gripping the window frame for dear life. She leaned out into the night, peering up, then down, red-hot fury fast replacing her fear. “I hope she does take you!”
The only response was laughter, bubbling up from the flooded street below. Amber lantern light sparked off black water, off shimmering dresses and faces painted with silver and gold.
“You lost someone, love?” a bearded figure called up. “Better find them before somebody else does.”