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Strange Grace 29
Most of Three Graces doesn’t hold anything against Rhun or Arthur, though some continue to give Arthur sideways glances, but likely because Arthur is as quick to sneer as ever. Arthur thinks the first time someone dies of illness there’ll be a hard few weeks for the former saints. Rhun promises they’ll get through it. Rhun the Elder and Braith Bowen and Cat Dee create a few plans for storing more food over the winter and ask for better records of the animals and crops in the valley, just in case they need, in the spring, to send someone into a city for supplies or more chickens or something. They’ll figure it out.
This morning it’s two weeks since the Slaughter Moon, and as the sun rises, so does an impossibly tiny sliver of a smiling moon.
Rhun crouches at the edge of the Devil’s Forest, hands covering his bowed head. Light spreads over Arthur beside him, stretched out in uncertain sleep.
A bird trills at the dawn, hesitant in the frosty breeze. Not a cloud mars the sky, so dawn rings the valley: pink and gold in the east, gentle cream in the west. Stars cling to their last in the dark apex. Rhun presses his fingers into his scalp, releasing fractions of the gentle ache that’s haunted him the past hour or so.
Arthur is not asleep, but unready to open his eyes. His back is cold where he’s lain for hours, flattening the yellow grass, and the tip of his nose, too. Only his hands are warm, folded under the front of his jacket. He’s tired of this dawn vigil, impatient for Mairwen to either prove herself alive or be dead. If she’s dead he’ll want to die too, but Rhun will need him. The not knowing is making his stomach crawl constantly.
Then he can taste the light on his lips.
Rhun puts his hand on Arthur’s waist, and the heat of the touch through his shirt opens Arthur’s eyes. He squints and sits smoothly, taking Rhun’s hand and holding on to it by the wrist. He stares at the smear of bright pink burn scar, shining perfectly parallel to one of the lines across Rhun’s palm.
“It’s been too long,” Arthur murmurs.
Rhun’s fingers curl protectively around his palm. “She told me she would marry you.”
Arthur laughs merrily. “She doesn’t even like me.”
Rhun only watches, quietly amazed at how beautiful Arthur is when he forgets to be cranky. Dawn brightens the sharp line of Arthur’s jaw, and the ragged layers of his hair, and flares along his eyelashes.
The hungry look on Rhun’s face reminds Arthur their hands are folded together and his easy laugher fades into a suspicion. “You mean she said she’d marry me if you died.”
“No. She promised either way. And if I survived, I could live with you both.”
“Oh God.” Arthur is laughing again, thinking what a disaster it would be, but liking it.
Rhun shrugs, over-aware that Arthur is holding his hand, thumb stroking the delicate skin of his palm. He shivers. There’s still some magic here, and perhaps throughout the valley.
Suddenly Arthur goes rigid. “Rhun,” he whispers. “Flowers are blooming in the forest.”
• • •
There is a smile in her heart that has yet to translate onto her mouth, for her body is new, transformed, less a girl than yesterday. Or the day before. She isn’t sure. Where she steps, the forest roots rise to poke and caress, and branches reach out for her where she passes. Her touch encourages brightening leaves, despite the approach of winter. The beat of her heart is strong, pumping cool blood, like forest streams that never see sunlight, through her veins.
If she pauses to close her eyes, she can feel all of it: the entire valley. Her feet connect through the earth, her hands through the trees she strokes. She tastes it on her tongue and hears the quiet song of it. Her heart throbs and the valley echoes it back. A hundred, no a thousand and more lives flicker with her. People. Little creatures, clicking their teeth. Birds, hounds, rabbits and foxes and a few white deer. Some are hungry, some asleep. Some hunting and others stretching wings against the cold breeze. Alive. They’re all alive.
She’s not stuck between light and dark, or valley and forest. She isn’t a thread of magic or a piece of a charm. She’s not one of three. She’s the center of it all.
The sun rises and she approaches the edge. A forest devil, a witch, a young woman, with eyes like a starry night and teeth like cats, and thorny, flowering brambles tangled in her hair, littering white petals behind her.
They’re waiting for her. Two of the hearts: one burning, one perfectly in tune.
She smiles, lips parted over sharp but not too-sharp teeth.
Instead of slowing, she leaps forward. She dives at them, throwing arms around both together. One hisses as some sharp piece of her body slices at his skin, and the other grunts because he catches most of her weight. Neither of them lets go.
Thanks to everyone who’s ever listened to me talk about how suspicious I am of magic while at the same time longing for it, or argued with me about witches and forest gods and gender. This book was born during those bonfire conversations.
Natalie, my wife, bears the brunt of my magic and gender anxieties, followed closely by Robin Murphy, who I have yelled at about b.s. gender essentialism in modern paganism for twenty years. I’m only a little sorry, and I love you both.
Lydia Ash for hooking me up with resources on bone cleaning, and Gretchen McNeil for horror recommendations that I basically did not use at all.
My dad and brothers for not flinching when I texted them asking very specific questions about sewing somebody’s hand bones into somebody else’s chest.
And thanks to my mom for putting up with all of us.
My agent, Laura Rennert, who refuses to give up on me or any of the weird things I send her.
My editor, Ruta Rimas, who not only helped me make the book better, she identified some of my worst writing habits and didn’t let me get away with them. That is worth my weight in gold. And thanks to the unsung heroes at McElderry Books who copyedit, design, produce, and sell my work.
I got incredibly helpful feedback from the following readers: Miriam Weinberg, Jordan Brown, Laura Ruby, and Justina Ireland. I owe you!
To all the friends who’ve supported me and my family throughout the past two rough years, thank you. When someday I take to the sea, you can all come. Maybe.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
TESSA GRATTON is the associate director of Madcap Retreats; the author of the Blood Journals series and the Gods of New Asgard series, as well as dozens of short stories available in anthologies and on merryfates.com; and co-author of YA writing books The Curiosities and The Anatomy of Curiosity. Though she’s lived all over the world, she’s finally returned to her prairie roots in Kansas with her wife. Her current projects include Tremontaine at Serial Box Publishing and her adult fantasy debut, The Queens of Innis Lear, from Tor. Visit her at tessagratton.com.
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MARGARET K. McELDERRY BOOKS
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This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real places are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and events are products of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or places or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Text copyright © 2018 by Tessa Gratton
Jacket photo-illustration by Sonia Chaghatzbanian
Jacket back cover photograph copyright © 2018 by Paul Bucknall/Arcangel Images
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Gratton, Tessa, author.
Title: Strange grace / Tessa Gratton.
Description: First edition. | New York : Margaret K. McElderry Books,  | Summary: “Every seven years, the people of Three Graces send a sacrifice to the woods. The death of their ‘best boy’ ensures seven years free from disease, blight, and pain. But this year, the Slaughter Moon has risen early, and three, not one, will run into the forest as a sacrifice”—Provided by publisher.
Identifiers: LCCN 2017038908 | ISBN 9781534402089 (hardcover) ISBN 9781534402102 (eBook)
Subjects: | CYAC: Fantasy. | Human sacrifice—Fiction. | Devil—Fiction. | Witches—Fiction. | Forests and forestry—Fiction. | Villages—Fiction.
Classification: LCC PZ7.G77215 Stg 2018 | DDC [Fic]—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017038908
Tessa Gratton, Strange Grace
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