Where After Is
Marie of Stahlbaum is inching closer to marriage with the Rat King, until her friend Drosselmeyer realizes it's time to help her and fix his century old mistake.
Prince Cristian Dietrich was cursed to remain a doll for the rest of his life instead of facing death with the rest of his family. If Marie agrees to help break Cristian's curse, she can free herself from an unwanted marriage. But nothing is ever as easy as it seems, and too often the price is greater than first believed.
Marie grinned at the greeting. Drosselmeyer was bent over the table, white hair pulled back for a change. Probably because the last time she had seen him, his hair had caught on fire. He was a brilliant inventor, but calling him aware would be giving him too much credit.
While not actually related by blood, Marie and her brother, Fritz, had known Drosselmeyer for most of their lives. They had sat at his feet and learned to write and read, the way of politics, and to see magic in a world trying to destroy it. They were two orphans who had nobody but this man.
Him and the Rat King, of course.
“I got another letter from Fritz today.” Marie took a seat on the stool across from his work table. “He’s doing well. He said that your boots really saved his neck in the marshes bordering Obok.”
“I’m amazed the king let you have that one,” he responded. Not once had he looked up at her: Not when she had entered the room. Not when she had sat. He tightened a screw on the miniature clock tower he was working on.
“The seal had not been broken.”
That caught Drosselmeyer’s attention. His nimble fingers paused in their work, and he looked up at her. She expected surprise on his face, perhaps awe. Maybe a little bit of mischief. Instead, what she got was a blank expression and green eyes burning with thought.
When Marie was barely six, her parents had been killed during a botched assassination plot. The Rat King had sat her in his lap as she’d cried and told her it had been the old fairies of Hanvor who wanted to hurt the Rat King still. Her mother had been his top advisor, her father a general. In tribute to her parents, the old monarch who had no children took her and Fritz in. He was a fair ruler, but he was not a nice man.
At twelve, she had been betrothed to the Rat King himself. Fritz protested the arrangement. Marie was not a princess, he argued. He vowed to not let this marriage happen.
But once Fritz had turned sixteen, the king had separated the two of them by forcing her brother into his army. He was, after all, the son of his most beloved general.
They wrote each other as often as they could, but the Rat King screened their letters with such scrutiny; she was sure neither of them ever received as many as they sent. If his intentions were to keep her from her brother until after they were married, it was certainly a plan that would work. She would be the queen Goethe was in need of, and Frtiz’s protests wouldn’t matter.
“You know something,” Marie accused.
He wore a secret smile, the kind that only barely ghosted over the lips. “What makes you say that?”
“Because I once broke my fingernail clean off and bled over your table, and you still didn’t look up from your tinkering.”
“The stain is still in the wood.” Drosselmeyer frowned as he stared at the discolored spot.
Marie found herself smiling. He was a strange old man, and he always had been. Like her fiancé, Drosselmeyer was part fairy, a remnant of long ago before the magic began drying up in the world. They had unnaturally long lives, which often led to some instability. Humanity and magic coexisted side by side once but co-mingling was another story. Madness was common. Curses that had gone awry often came from a half-fairy. Even worse were the blessings that turned malicious. Her favorite story came from an ambassador who spoke of a half-fairy who had turned completely into water.
“Why is this distraction important?”
The old man stood. His joints cracked as he did, and she had a terrible image that he would simply fall to pieces if anything else felt the need to pop. Drosselmeyer held his hand out to her. Marie hesitated, brows furrowing, before she placed her smaller hand inside of his. He helped her to stand, and she shook her skirts out to fall around her legs more smoothly while they walked.
“What is it?”
“I have been carrying a secret for a very long time, Marie.” He didn’t let go of her hand, and she didn’t try to take it away.
She wanted to ask about this secret. She wanted to know why it mattered the king was distracted now, when this was a yearly occurrence. Long ago, the Rat King had lost his family to a war, and he always mourned deeply on the anniversary.
She kept silent instead and let him lead her across his workshop until they reached the little corner that was his sleeping area. When his hand finally released hers, it was only so that he could begin to bend down and reach for the faded green rug on the floor.
His spine creaked.
“Drosselmeyer,” she said in a soft voice. “Let me pull it back.”
He nodded and moved aside for her. The rug was heavier than she had expected and smelled musty enough that she wanted to pinch her nose tight. Beneath it was exactly what she was expecting: a secret door cut into the wood.
Her mouth felt dry. She glanced up and tried to not feel the hand of terror that was trying to wrap itself around her throat. “What’s down here?”