B E A S T
We always know before the change comes. When a storm approaches, we feel it in thethickness of the air, the tension in the earthawaiting the blanket of snow. We feel the moment the wind changes direction. We sense a shift of power when it is coming.
Tonight there is hunger in the air. The forest waits for something. We pace, our steps stirring the early snows. Our frustration vents in growls and grunts. Each of us could read the change to come, neither hindered by the other. We could track it, or we could run with it. But we are trapped, and we can do neither.
We always know before the change comes—but we never know what the change will bring.
O N E
YEVA WATCHED THE SKY over the far-off forest, listening to the baronessa with one ear. The air was heavy and unfamiliar. A storm? she wondered, inhaling the strangeness. In the distance the treetops swayed as if in a gust of wind, but the rest of the forest was still.
She leaned forward, abandoning the sewing on her lap so she could nudge the glass-paned window open a fraction. The air outside was frigid, especially for Yeva in her finely embroidered dress, but she didn’t mind—the glass distorted the distant woods, and she’d rather see clearly than be warm. How large must a creature be to cause movement like that? Larger than anything an arrow could bring down, unless the shot was beyond lucky. Here on the edge of the wood, there shouldn’t be anything larger than a bear skulking beneath the canopy. Her father used to tell stories of larger, stranger things that hid in the heart of the wood, but she’d outgrown stories long ago. If only that sign of movement would come again, perhaps she’d be able to—
“Yeva, darling!” The baronessa’s voice cut in, the world snapping back to the present. “You’ll get your death in that draft. Close the window before we all catch a cough.”
Yeva reached for the latch to pull it closed, trying to look less rattled than she felt. “Sorry, my lady. I thought I saw bad weather approaching.”
“Not another storm,” moaned the baronessa, clutching her fur wrap more closely about her shoulders. “It’s too early for such snow, I don’t know what we’ll do this winter.”
“Do you really think a storm is coming?” asked Galina, one of the baronessa’s other ladies.
With her attention mostly on the far-off forest, Yeva noticed with a start that Galina had been speaking to her. “The air smells of it,” Yeva replied, eyes shifting from Galina’s face to the baronessa’s.
Galina turned to whisper to the lady next to her, forgetting herself. The baronessa scarcely noticed, though, too busy wringing her hands. “Oh, what shall we do?” she murmured, not bothering to look outside herself, but staring around at the faces of her ladies.
Yeva glanced back at the window. There was still no sign of bad weather on the horizon, but uneasiness lingered at the back of her mind. The parlor had erupted into whispers, and with creeping dread Yeva realized that she could be here all night.
“My lady,” she said, adopting for once the gentle voice she was meant to be cultivating, “perhaps the other ladies and I should retire, if we are to get home to our families before the storm arrives.” A number of heads lifted among the circle of women.
“And leave me alone?” cried the baronessa as though Yeva had proposed taking her out into the storm and blindfolding her.
The baronessa was fairer skinned than most, claiming some Varangian blood in her ancestry. Other nobles would have hidden those roots, but she owned them with pride, attributing some romantic hot-bloodedness to them. Combined with her plump face and bow-shaped mouth, it gave her a youthful appearance, childlike and sweet. For all her silliness, Yeva could not help but feel a twinge of pity for the woman. She wasn’t that much older than Yeva herself, not even twenty yet, with her husband more than three times her age. The company of the wealthy ladies in the town was all she had in the dark months of the year.
Yeva smiled at her, for once not having to search for the expression. “The baron will be home soon, and of course Machna and Lada will be here.” The two sisters were guests of the baron’s household, visiting from the city.
The baronessa chewed at her lip, casting a glance for the first time at the tiny window. Yeva had secured the spot by being the most junior of the women in the baronessa’s circle, and thus taking the coldest seat—but she preferred it to any other, with its view of the forest beyond the edge of the baron’s property. Yeva felt impatience strum at her insides. She hated the indecisiveness of people in town, how they waited to make decisions, took weeks or months or years to settle, until the decisions were made for them by inaction.
“Oh, very well,” the baronessa said finally, waving her hand in a sad, dismissive gesture. “If the snow has not marooned us all by morning, will you ladies return tomorrow afternoon? If it snows my husband will not be hunting, but he will be so cross that I would rather have company when facing him.”
Yeva felt a sluggish stirring of dislike in her stomach. Only a nobleman, whose idea of hunting involved sitting high on a spotlessly decorated stallion while half-starved hounds did all the work, would be turned away by snow. The snow is a canvas, her father would say, upon which the beast paints his past, his home, his intentions, his future. Learn to see the picture and you will know him as you know yourself.
“Of course we will come back tomorrow,” Galina replied, saving Yeva from having to formulate an answer. “Thank you, my lady.”
The girls all stood, tucking their sewing away, preparing to leave until the next afternoon. Yeva hurried to follow suit, shoving her embroidery into its basket. She’d learned in her first few days that the baronessa often snared the last of the girls to leave, drawing them into conversations that could last for hours. It wasn’t so much that Yeva disliked speaking with the baronessa, but rather that she’d prefer to reach home by nightfall.
And before the storm, if one was coming.
They left the baronessa mournfully describing her husband’s hunting exploits to the hapless sisters from the city, and rushed to bundle up in their winter gear.
“Thank you,” whispered Galina as she caught up to Yeva, jogging her elbow a little and casting her a smile.
Yeva shook her head, the corners of her mouth twitching. “I was only thinking of our safety, traveling in the weather.”
One of the baronessa’s ladies, overhearing Yeva, laughed. “We knew exactly what you were thinking of, Yeva. What time is Solmir meeting you?”
Yeva’s smile vanished. “Solmir?” she echoed.
“Don’t think we haven’t seen how much attention he pays you at the baronessa’s dinners.” The lady raised an eyebrow. She was one of the older members of the baronessa’s inner circle, soon to be engaged to a man in the baron’s hunting party. “Don’t give me that look. That is the point of this all, no? For us to see, and be seen.”
Yeva looked over at Galina, who was watching quietly as she laced the ties on her cloak. Finding no answer there, Yeva could only shrug in response.
Galina fell into step beside Yeva, and they walked in silence through the high doors of the house and onto the street. Galina was the second-newest addition to the baronessa’s collection, and somewhat more understanding of Yeva’s peculiarities. She had never once blanched at the accidental mention of weaponry.
“Was it true?” Yeva broke the quiet as they passed the church.
“Was what true?” Galina looked up, brown eyes blank.
“What they said about Solmir.” Yeva glanced behind them, checking that no one was near enough to hear. She felt her cheeks warming despite the cold. “About his attention to me.”
Galina smiled. The expression was always sudden and unexpected on her small, solemn face. She was a relatively plain girl, but her smile was beautiful. “Yeva, you silly thing. You can’t say you haven’t noticed. They tease you only because they feel certain there is an understanding between you.”
Yeva stopped short, abruptly enough that slush sprayed up onto the hem of her skirts. “An understanding?” She had tied her cloak too tightly—her breathing felt labored, uncertain.
“I am sorry to be the one to tell you,” said Galina, dimming her smile with clear effort. Her expression was still brimming with amusement. “See you tomorrow,” she added, before turning at the corner to make her way toward her own father’s house, in the opposite direction. Yeva stood stirring the slush with the toe of her boot.
Solmir? He was nothing, barely more than a name in her mind. No, that was unfair; he was more than that. One of the baron’s hunting party, he was without land or title, but his family was wealthy nonetheless. His father had been a respected cooper and manager of the baron’s wine cellar until his death, at which point Solmir had become the baron’s ward. Rumor had it that the baron, childless after two previous marriages, might confer his lands and titles to Solmir if the new baronessa failed to produce him an heir.
Yeva tried to picture Solmir in her mind, conjuring up hazy memories of dinners past. They’d always been a trial for her. The afternoons with the baronessa were one thing; they kept Yeva—for the most part—from longing for the forest trails. The dinners, however, were another. She’d always counted the moments until she could be back home again with her father, feeling like one of those ragged birds at the market beating halfheartedly against their wicker cages. The only image of Solmir her memory provided was of friendly hazel eyes and a soft voice that made her cheeks f lush all the more. She recalled him broaching the strangest subjects, though she preferred his bizarre company to the dull conversation of the other gentlemen.
How long had the other ladies been talking about them, with Yeva completely unaware?
She tried to ignore how warm she was under her furs. It was not quite cold enough for full winter gear but she wore it anyway—a blizzard could rise swiftly and without warning, even this early in the winter. Sweat started to form between her shoulder blades and trickle down her spine; she set off down the road toward her father’s house.
They lived toward the edge of town not because Yeva’s father couldn’t afford to live at its center, but because he, like Yeva, felt more comfortable with a house that bordered on nature. He’d given up life as a hunter to marry Yeva’s mother, using his wealth to start a career as a merchant, but he couldn’t wholly give up the need for the woods and the snow and the wild tang of the beasts.
Yeva felt a tension draining that she hadn’t realized she was carrying. She liked the baronessa, and she appreciated having been taken into her circle, but some part of her still longed for the freedom she’d had even a year ago. Her father used to take her with him, training her, teaching her what he knew of hunting. It was all in fun, because what harm was there in teaching these things to a child? Echoes from a past life; things his own father taught him. Sharing them was the only way of keeping them real. Being a merchant held no passion for him, but it was safe, and it had made his wife happy until she died when the girls were young. It was only recently that her father had noticed Yeva’s age, and thought that she ought to be a lady now, and no longer his wild little Beauty.
It was time to join her older sisters in society—such as it was.
The houses became smaller and more spread out as she trudged along, the laneways connecting them covered with snow once more instead of the slush churned up by many feet and carriage wheels. Yeva could see her father’s house on the ridge and hurried her steps.
The sky was growing darker, though the hour was too early for the sun to set. The clouds were thickening. Perhaps there would be a storm after all. Yeva felt no shame at the fiction— there had been something in the air—but she would feel better able to face the baronessa tomorrow if some kind of weather came in the night.
The hill was steep enough to make Yeva’s breath puff white in the cold air, and she sputtered an oath. Such terrible shape for a hunter to be in. She used to be able to run for hours, uphill or down, blood coursing through her and urging her onward. But then, she was not a hunter anymore. The roundness of face and limb she saw in the washbasin each morning, the sleek deep red of her hair, the full lips, the lazy gaze—every day she was more a lady. Every day less herself.
Yeva hurried through the door, trying to still her panting breath so no one would see her winded. One of the servants met her at the door, his lanky arms outstretched to receive her furs.
“Thank you, Albe,” she told him with a smile that made him blush and duck his head. Albe had been with them since he was a boy, but lately he’d been inching around Yeva and her sisters as if they were made of glass.
All the merchants’ daughters were spoken of as beauties. Yeva would have preferred to be admired for her skill, but she’d suffered the great misfortune of having been born a girl. And so no one would ever know. When she was younger, she used to dream of a husband who would love her all the more if she could hunt with him, side by side. But age, and time spent with the baronessa, had worn away that imagined future.
She could remain unmarried, but to do so would make her a financial burden to her father. To marry would be to leave the wood forever, surrendering what little freedom she still had.
But Solmir is a hunter, whispered a sinuous thought. And a good one. If anyone were to admire your skill in the forest, it would be him….
“Your sisters are in the kitchen, mistress,” said Albe, head still bowed. Yeva could see a flush on the back of his neck and the tips of his ears.
“Thank you,” she repeated, and left the poor boy to recover.
As she headed down the hall, a thumping, clattering, wild noise exploded from the back corner of the house. Laughing, Yeva crouched down so that when a pair of dogs came barreling around the edge of the hall, they hit her square. Less painful than letting them catch an arm or a leg. Doe-Eyes whined eagerly, burying her face in the fold of Yeva’s hip, while Pelei sniffed her all over, circling and circling and snuffling his aggravation at her collection of the day’s scents.
Pelei was the scent hound, thick and shaggy and red-brown, named for the clay he so resembled. Doe-Eyes was the runner, slimmer and lighter built, less armored against the biting cold in winter. They were her father’s hunting dogs, but any time the subject arose, he delighted in moaning about how his youngest daughter had stolen them from him, how they betrayed him every day they ran to her. But he loved to see them love her, and always spoke with a twinkle in his eye.
Yeva ordered the dogs back to their corner of the house, sending them reluctantly away, and went to the kitchen. She found Asenka and Lena kneading bread together, moving as one, each leaning down into the stroke as the other folded. They were closer in age to each other than Asenka was to Yeva, and so alike as to be nearly twins. Asenka’s hair was two shades darker than Lena’s chestnut brown, and her cheeks fuller and pinker, but from a distance the two were indistinguishable.
“Yeva,” said Asenka warmly, looking up but not halting at her work. “You’re home early.”
“The ladies thought there might be a storm coming,” Yeva replied, “and the baronessa dismissed us early.”
“The ladies?” echoed Asenka, a smile lurking behind her black eyes.
Yeva grinned and lifted one shoulder delicately. “My seat is closest to the window—why shouldn’t I notice incoming weather first?” She reached for the laces on her dress and tugged them loose, drawing in a long breath. Her blood was still pumping from her uphill walk.
“Oh, Yeva.” Lena’s voice was heavy with weary scolding.
“What are you doing? Father will be home soon—what if he should see you?”
“Father has seen me head to toe in men’s clothing,” Yeva reminded her, “and half covered in boar’s blood. I don’t think he will die from the scandal.”
“But you were a child then,” said Lena delicately. “Now you are grown. And anyway, what if Albe were to come in?”
“Then he shall probably explode on the spot.”
Asenka let out a strangled laugh before turning her head aside to hide her mouth against her shoulder. Lena glared at her, the expression quickly dissipating in favor of a rueful smile. “Service to the baronessa was supposed to tame you, Beauty, not teach you new ways to torment us all.”
Yeva smiled, turning away before Lena noticed her mistake. Yeva had been Beauty all through her childhood. Her father had named her on the day she was born after the old goddess of beauty, as he’d named her sisters after light and grace. Every few years, the holy men from the west came through to perform weddings and naming ceremonies, and the townsfolk would hide their heathen accoutrements, as the priests called them, and hang up their crosses.
The merchant’s youngest daughter was renamed Yeva, after the temptress in the garden. She would have preferred Beauty, for at least there is beauty in all things, not only temptation, but Yeva she was to be. Her mother enforced the name as strictly as a warden minding his charges, but she died when Yeva was only five years old, so there was no one after that to insist her father use her proper name.
She had always been Beauty when they hunted together, always Beauty when he tucked her in at night. He called her Yeva now, because she was to be a fine lady someday, and her proper name was the one society knew. And yet there was always a half second’s pause before he said that name, a tiny catch in his voice that was all that remained of who she’d been before.
Though the servants were responsible for preparing dinner, Yeva and her sisters often helped. The three spent their days apart—Yeva with the baronessa, Asenka at the leech’s shop tending the sick, and Lena managing the household and spending time with her fiancé, Radak, whenever he was in town. He was a merchant like their father, and was both very much interested in merging empires and very much in love with Lena.
The evening was their time to be together, in the brief hour before their father returned, and they had little taste for sewing and gossiping as ladies were meant to do. Preparation of fresh bread to accompany the meal was tradition.
Yeva busied herself fetching herbs down from the racks, crumbling them between her fingers and breathing in the scent. Seasoning had been her job when she was too little to knead the bread, and so it remained even now she was old enough. Asenka shaped the dough, and Yeva rolled it in the crumbled herbs until there was a light crust coating the loaf. Then Lena wrapped it all in a cloth and tucked it close to the hearth to rise. She pulled out the risen loaf prepared the night before and slid it carefully into the oven, then she and Asenka washed their hands in the basin, pulling their aprons off, chattering.
Yeva drifted into the next room, preferring to leave the aroma of herbs on her skin. She took up her spot on the floor by her father’s chair, crossing her arms on the footstool and resting her chin on her hands. The smell of herbs mingled with the smell of the bread as it warmed in the oven, and she closed her eyes. At some point her sisters joined her, still chatting and laughing. Lena helped Asenka into her chair before taking her own. It wasn’t until a name caught Yeva’s attention that she opened her eyes and lifted her head.
“Do you think there’s any truth to it?” Asenka’s voice was low, with the strange wobble in it that showed she was thinking intensely about whatever she was saying.
“It’s everywhere. I can’t see that there wouldn’t be at least a grain of truth in the telling, if everyone is telling it. Yeva, have you heard anything at the baronessa’s?”
Yeva swallowed. She’d heard the name, but not the context. “About what? I had my eyes closed.”
They were used to her tuning out their chatter—Yeva was the quiet sister. Lena leaned forward, her face shining with interest. “There is a rumor that Solmir is going to speak for one of Tvertko’s daughters.” Her eyes sparkled as she spoke their father’s name.
Yeva’s heart seized. But before she could answer, Lena turned back to gaze at Asenka, whose own face carried a delicate pink flush. “Oh, it must be true. You’ve admired him for years, Ashka. And if he asks—why, then we can be married together! Think of it, a double wedding in the spring when the snows melt.”
Asenka bowed her head, covering her face with her hands. “Stop that!” she protested. “My face will fall apart from the smiling. It’s a rumor, nothing more. Leave it be, will you?”
Yeva kept silent, her stomach roiling. She prayed they wouldn’t ask her again what she knew, for she couldn’t lie to them. But how could she tell them that it was the youngest sister, not the eldest, who had caught Solmir’s eye? How could Asenka bear to see her sisters spoken for, when no one had cast an eye in her direction?
Asenka always sat so that her twisted foot would be covered by the hem of her skirts, but Yeva found her eyes going there anyway. Her sister walked with difficulty and great pain, but managed everything else with such ease that most people tended to forget the malady she was born with. At the leech’s office she was admired for her compassion, and for the long hours she spent limping along the beds, fetching down tinctures and salves without a word of complaint.
Yeva’s fists clenched around handfuls of her skirt, fury replacing the uneasy roiling in her stomach. Why should it always be beauty? Why could her sister not be sought after for her kindness, her empathy, her strength? Why could she not be loved for that, instead of passed over because of one misfortune of birth that supposedly marred her?
Anger prompted her to rise, mouth opening to burst out with the truth, the injustice of it. Her sisters looked up at her, mouths forming identical Os of surprise. But before she could speak, the sound of the door opening in the hall interrupted her.
“Father’s home!” cried Lena. “Yeva, how do you always know?” She helped Asenka to her feet, and the two sisters made their way to the hall. Someone outside the family might speak of the cruelty of naming a baby with a twisted foot after grace. But in everything but her step, Asenka was the most graceful girl Yeva had ever seen. Gentle of smile, long-fingered, slender and lovely. Her voice was always soft, her laugh never too loud in a quiet room. Even as she leaned on Lena, the way she walked was careful and smooth with deliberation.
Yeva stood clenching her jaw, tongue pressed against her teeth to still it. Let them believe she had leaped to her feet to greet their father. How could she break Asenka’s heart with the truth?
“I was thinking of spending next summer in the city,” her father was saying as he mopped up the last of the gravy on his plate with some of the fresh bread.
Yeva lifted her head, torn from the thoughts swirling around Solmir and Asenka. Her father had taken Yeva and her sisters with him to the city on business once years ago, and while they had lit up at the flood of new sights and experiences, Yeva had found it overwhelming. The streets stank and every face was strange, and she could not follow any paths or trails through the churned-up streets or across the uneven cobbles. She had spent every moment clinging to her father’s hand.
Now, his glance passed between his older daughters before coming to rest on his youngest. “I have some business with the cartographers there, and it’ll take some time to get my affairs settled. So I’ll be required to take a house in the area for a few months. It’ll be quiet there all by myself, so I was thinking of bringing you three to live with me.”
The older girls exploded with glee, chattering and laughing, celebrating their good fortune. While none of the sisters was solely fixated upon fashions and society and standing the way the baronessa was, the prospect of being surrounded by so much of it for three months of the summer was a delight.
Yeva alone was quiet, watching her father. She knew how much it cost him to move away from the wilderness; it cost her the same. But she knew why her father wanted to go. None of the men here had spoken for Asenka. Perhaps somewhere new, her loveliness would catch a man’s eye the way it hadn’t here. Her father raised eyebrows peppered with gray, watching Yeva in return. She took a deep breath and summoned a smile. He nodded and leaned back in his chair.
“Of course,” he said, speaking now primarily to his older girls, “you’ll be required to bring along any husbands or fiancés you may have acquired in the meantime.” This pronouncement brought on further shouting and laughing, and even Yeva’s smile grew less stiff in the face of her sisters’ glee.
“Pechta!” called her father, summoning the cook into the doorway. “I believe the girls would like some sweets to celebrate.” The cook bobbed a curtsy and vanished back into the kitchen.
The dogs had crept in during the merriment, as if hoping they wouldn’t be noticed. Lena, as lady of the household, objected to them in the rooms where people ate and slept, but for right now even she could not be distracted. Pelei stood watch beside her father’s chair, and Doe-Eyes slunk over to Yeva, nose nudging up under her elbow and into her lap. Doe-Eyes had been purchased during that trip to the city all those years ago. Yeva sat stroking her absently, watching her sisters’ excitement.
Outside, the wind had picked up, beginning to beat against the sturdy frame of the house. The servants had shuttered the windows already to prepare for the storm, but Yeva felt a flicker of the uneasiness she’d experienced at the baronessa’s, a restlessness she could not name.
Suddenly, over the howl of the rising storm, a heavy pounding against the front door broke through the sounds of chatter and laughter. The sisters exchanged glances as their father leaned to the side to look around the edge of his chair toward the hall.
“Is it Radak?” wondered Asenka, glancing at her younger sister. It was unlike Lena’s fiancé to come calling without first having made an appointment with their father.
“He is away on business. Maybe it’s Solmir,” whispered Lena before dissolving into quiet laughter again at the blush that crept over Asenka’s face.
Yeva volunteered no guesses. She could hear the howling of the wind, and could imagine no one who would venture out in such weather except due to some terrible emergency.
The pounding came again, this time so urgently that the smiles faded from the older girls’ faces. Albe had finally arrived at the door and was nearly thrown back as he opened it by the force of the wind on the other side. Yeva couldn’t recognize the man who stumbled through it, covered head to toe in winter gear. Only the tip of his nose was visible over his muffler, red and shiny from cold. He pawed at his face to free his mouth, gasping their father’s name.
“Tvertko,” he said, choking in the sudden heat of the house as Albe struggled to close the door again. “I need to see Tvertko. Where is he, I must see him immediately.”
Albe gaped at him, stammering his usual greeting. The man glanced past him to see Yeva’s father in his chair and shoved his way into the room.
“Tvertko,” he said, throwing himself forward. “It’s gone. It’s all gone.”
Her father’s face became very still, brows lowered. “What’s gone, Pietr? Speak clearly, man.”
“All of it,” the man moaned again, dropping to his knees. He was exhausted, that much was clear. And he was not a local, or Yeva would have recognized him the moment he pulled the muffler from his face. And yet, her father knew him. One of his contacts in the city, perhaps?
Her father was silent, watching the man gasping for breath and dripping melted snow onto Lena’s immaculate floorboards. Then he lifted his head, addressing his daughters. “Girls, please go upstairs. Take the dogs. And please tell Pechta to boil some tea.”
“But Father—” Yeva began, startled. He had never excluded them from his business discussions before.
“Go, Yeva.” His voice was no louder than it had been, but so firm that it brooked no opposition.
Her sisters were on their feet, Lena clinging to Asenka as much as the other way around. Yeva leaned down to lay a hand on each of the dogs, murmuring to them to go upstairs. Sensing her urgency, they obeyed, slinking up the stairs with their tails low. As Lena guided Asenka to the first step, Yeva ducked into the kitchen.
She found all four of the servants there, wide-eyed and midgossip. Albe was still in disarray from having opened the door to the storm, his hair standing up roughly in every direction.
“Tea,” said Yeva. “For my father and his guest.” She was not usually so abrupt, but something cold had seized her belly and she couldn’t find it in her to soften the order. Pechta merely nodded, forgetting to curtsy, and hurried to the fireplace and the kettle.
Yeva took the long way back around to the stairs, passing through the hallway instead of the living room where her father still sat, listening to his visitor. Halfway up she paused; some acoustical anomaly in the building of the house conspired to throw their voices so clearly she could hear what they were saying.
“…and every man of them dead,” the visitor was saying, his voice rough with exhaustion. “Barbarian swords in their guts, heads piled in the wagons and burned. All the goods stolen or destroyed.”
“No one was left alive?” Her father’s voice was full of quiet grief. Yeva could imagine his head bowed, eyes closed as he listened. “Not even the boys?”
“No one,” repeated the visitor. “Are you hearing me, Tvertko? It’s all gone. You’re ruined.”
Ruined. Yeva’s ears rang with the word in the ensuing silence.
“Yeva!” a voice hissed. Yeva blinked, finding her eyes watering in the stillness, and looked up. Lena was at the top of the stairs, beckoning to her. “Come.”
Yeva joined her sisters, not wishing to hear any more than she already had. They all piled into Asenka’s bed, the three of them and the dogs too, and for once Lena didn’t push them away. Doe- Eyes lay with her head trembling in Yeva’s lap, keeping as still as possible in the hope that no one would notice her and make her leave. Pelei kept licking and licking at the hem of Yeva’s skirt, scenting the nervousness in the air and trying to make sense of it.
They waited, none of them talking, although Asenka moved now and then to shift her weight and ease her twisted foot. It wasn’t until they heard the front door open again, a brief gust of air howling through the house and tossing their hair back, that Yeva lifted her head. The door slammed again, leaving them in utter silence.
Lena spoke first. “Should we—?”
Yeva drew in a breath, trying to still the shaking in her legs as she slipped out from underneath Doe-Eyes’s head. “I’ll go.” Both of her sisters relaxed a fraction—they had been waiting for her to offer. She was their father’s favorite, though it was no source of angst or friction among them. It was part of her family duty to be her father’s daughter.
She told the dogs to stay, although Doe-Eyes scrambled off the bed and followed her as far as the doorway of the room. Bare feet tingling against the chill of the floorboards, Yeva made her way back down the stairs.
She found her father still sitting in his chair, though he was leaning forward, feet braced against the ground. He looked somehow smaller, elbows propped on his knees, forehead resting on his balled fists. The firelight granted false color to what she could see of his pale face, the lines etched there throwing ghastly shadows. Yeva had never realized that her father’s face was wrinkled.
Yeva swallowed and crept forward. Her father gave no sign that he was aware of her presence, but when she reached out and touched his shoulder with the tips of her fingers, he didn’t jump or cry out.
He merely sighed, the breath leaving his body in a low groan. “Oh, Beauty,” he said, without lifting his head. He raised one of his hands to grasp at hers, fingers wrapping around her hand with the strength of a drowning man. Saying nothing else, he only sat there clasping her hand against his shoulder, head pressed against his fist.