Wintersong(2)

By: S. Jae-Jones


I winced. Käthe was the beauty of our family, with sunshine hair, summer-blue eyes, apple-blossom cheeks, and a buxom figure. At seventeen, she already looked like a woman full-grown, with a small waist and generous hips that her new dress showed off to great advantage. I was nearly two years older but still looked like a child: small, thin, and sallow. The little hobgoblin, Papa called me. Fey, was Constanze’s pronouncement. Only Josef ever called me beautiful. Not pretty, my brother would say. Beautiful.

“Yes, I’m jealous,” I said. “Now, are we going to the market or not?”

“In a bit.” Käthe rummaged through her box of trinkets. “What do you think, Liesl?” she asked, holding up a few lengths of ribbon. “Red or blue?”

“Does it matter?”

She sighed. “I suppose not. None of the village boys will care anymore, now that I’m to be married.” She glumly plucked at the trim on her gown. “Hans isn’t the sort for fun or finery.”

My lips tightened. “Hans is a good man.”

“A good man, and boring,” Käthe said. “Did you see him at the dance the other night? He never, not once, asked me to take a turn with him. He just stood in the corner and glared disapprovingly.”

It was because Käthe had been flirting shamelessly with a handful of Austrian soldiers en route to Munich to oust the French. Pretty girl, they coaxed her in their funny Austrian accents, Come give us a kiss!

“A wanton woman is ripened fruit,” Constanze intoned, “begging to be plucked by the Goblin King.”

A frisson of unease ran up my spine. Our grandmother liked to scare us with tales of goblins and other creatures that lived in the woods beyond our village, but Käthe, Josef, and I hadn’t taken her stories seriously since we were children. At eighteen, I was too old for my grandmother’s fairy tales, yet I cherished the guilty thrill that ran through me whenever the Goblin King was mentioned. Despite everything, I still believed in the Goblin King. I still wanted to believe in the Goblin King.

“Oh, go squawk at someone else, you old crow.” Käthe pouted. “Why must you always be pecking at me?”

“Mark my words.” Constanze glared at my sister from beneath layers of yellowed lace and faded ruffles, her dark brown eyes the only sharp things in her wizened face. “You watch yourself, Katharina, lest the goblins come take you for your licentious ways.”

“Enough, Constanze,” I said. “Leave Käthe alone and let us go on our way. We must be back before Master Antonius arrives.”

“Yes, Heaven forbid we miss our precious little Josef’s audition for the famous violin maestro,” my sister muttered.

“Käthe!”

“I know, I know.” She sighed. “Stop worrying, Liesl. He’ll be fine. You’re worse than a hen with a fox at the door.”

“He won’t be fine if he doesn’t have any bows to play with.” I turned to leave. “Come, or I’ll be going without you.”

“Wait.” Käthe grabbed my hand. “Would you let me do a little something with your hair? You have such gorgeous locks; it’s a shame you plait them out of the way. I could—”

“A wren is still a wren, even in a peacock’s feathers.” I shook her off. “Don’t waste your time. It’s not like Hans—anyone—would notice anyway.”

My sister flinched at the mention of her betrothed’s name. “Fine,” she said shortly, then strode past me without another word.

“Ka—” I began, but Constanze stopped me before I could follow.

“You take care of your sister, girlie,” she warned. “You watch over her.”

“Don’t I always?” I snapped. It had always been up to me—me and Mother—to hold the family together. Mother looked after the inn that was our house and livelihood; I looked after the members who made it home.

“Do you?” My grandmother fixed her dark eyes on my face. “Josef isn’t the only one who needs looking after, you know.”

I frowned. “What do you mean?”

“You forget what day it is.”