At last Famke did let herself cough. She coughed a good, long time, to get all the tickles and scratches out of her lungs. When she was done she climbed down from the little platform and joined him at the window.
"Albert," she said, laying a tentative hand on his arm. She added, in English, "Sweetheart . . . "
He continued to sulk, so she looked out the window, too, and chewed a lip in thought. It was a pristine November day, sunlight dazzling on a full, thick blanket of snow that even the horses hadnt gone tisse in yet. Chimney smoke had only just begun to soot the rooftops, the trains were blocked by the snow on the rails, and in the narrow harbor chunks of ice were bumping against each other, like pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle trying gently for a better fit. A draft leaked in through the warped panes and Famke, shivering, pressed herself against Alberts back.
She was somewhat pleased to find he was staring toward the ruin of the royal palace, now a white mound to the south. It was a mound they both knew well; one night a month or so ago, just after the fire that started in a garderobe had finally quenched itself in the harbor, the two of them had sneaked past the sentries and poked around the rubble for souvenirs. Famke had held a shuttered lantern while Albert dug out a nearly perfect silver tinderbox still filled with royal matches, something that he with his fondness for cheroots could put to far better use than she; and yet he presented it to her with a gallant flourish. It sat now on the icy mantel, polished to such a gloss that the three ladies carved on the top, whom Albert called the Graces, seemed to move with the light.
Albert spoke. "That ruin"he pulled her up beside him and pointed, as if she couldnt see it for herself "that was the first thing I saw when I woke this morning. "
"Our first snowfalling," Famke agreed, but he didnt seem to hear.
"I said to myself, 'That is my inspiration. That is whats been lacking in the work I came here to do . . . '"
"Your entryness," she elaborated, "to your Brothergood. "
"Brotherhood. "He adjusted the angle of her head, even though she wasnt posing now. "And yes, you are right. You," he said, looking at and yet beyond her, "will be Nimue, creating the ice cave in which you will make the noble Merlin a prisoner for time and all eternity. The enchantress baiting her trap. Eyes weaving spellsmaking this icy cell a crystal semblance of paradise . . . "
She strained to look especially magical. Albert studied her critically and said, "Your figure is right, your eyes and your face. Your hair. And yet something is missing. "
Famke dropped her last attempt at a pose. She hardly understood when Albert talked in this voice, with this passion and despair; hed only just begun to teach her his language, and she was barely seventeen, hardly a scholar. She clutched her elbows and said, "Doesnt magic people feel cold?"
"Cold," Albert whispered. He was prone to repeating the last word that had stuck in his mind, as if there hed find the revelation that would make him the most celebrated of the painterly Brotherhood to which he aspired. "A paradise. Coldice!" And, perhaps giving up on some loftier endeavor, he kissed her.
Who would imagine paradise to be cold? Famke thought as Alberts lips oystered away at hers. To her the cold meant chillblains, a red nose, and extra pain in the lungs. Everyone had trouble keeping warm in a winter like this of 1884, and Albert for some reason insisted on living in a garret with a fireplace that would not draw. She didnt even have a full set of underwear on. But when she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him deep, she felt his warmth through the layers of his coat and waistcoat and shirt and undershirt, and sudden bright heat sprang into her cheeks, sweat to her brow. She broke into a fever so intense she might have swooned if she hadnt been caught by another fierce bout of coughing.
Excerpted from Breath and Bones© Susann Cokal. Published by Unbridled Books. All rights reserved
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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