They destroy the berry bushes first. Then the red cabbages at midsummer and the grape vines before the frost comes. The darker irises and the daylilies are dug up and thrown on great bonfires, burning away in their fragrant beauty. They would dig up the very roots of the cherry trees, too, but they are wary, not stupid. The cherry brandy made from the fruit is too valuable an export.
We learn to live without sweet berry jam, cabbage cooked with apples, and wine. We train ourselves not to miss the flowers, and we toe the line. We always toe the line. When the soldiers ransack our homes, collecting any purple item of clothing, we hand it over. We also are wary, not stupid; our lives are worth more than a scrap of cloth.
But our country is worth a great deal more than our lives.
We stitch the violet stars in secret, our needles flashing faster at the thought of being caught. We dye scraps of fabric with forgotten berries found deep within the forest. We hoard it carefully under mattresses and behind bureaus, as we wait to make tiny beacons of hope. One for each family, each home, each window that needs to light the way. We sew for months.
When the soldiers come with their black boots and their swords and their pistols, we are ready. Polina and Elzbet and I hold hands as they question Madam Kovalski. She stands before them, spine straight, hands folded neatly before her—the perfect posture for a dressmaker. She has trained us in it; long hours of her rapping our heads with her knuckles when we dared to slouch.
“I don’t know what you’re looking for,” Madam says.
“Useless purple things,” the first soldier says, slapping her across the face. Madam stays as still as a statue. “Because of that ridiculous legend.”
“They’re not—” Polina begins, but I elbow her hard in the ribs to silence her.
“She was dropped on her head as a baby,” I say. “Please don’t pay her any attention.”
This makes the other soldier laugh, the one who looks barely older than us. The sound of his laughter is infectious, and I fight the urge to giggle.
“It’s a load of rotgut,” the first soldier growls, and backhands the other soldier across the ear to make him stop.
“Roza, I just wanted to—” Polina says, and I jam my elbow into her yet again. The young soldier looks liable to break into laughter again any minute. He catches my eye and grins, like we both know the same secret.
The soldiers tear the dressmaking shop apart, but they find nothing. We are smarter than them; our work has been moved to even more secure hiding spots, in secret compartments under floorboards and behind walls. All across the country, this scene is surely being repeated countless times—soldiers harassing women, soldiers searching halfheartedly, all because their leaders insist that this is for our protection. Oh, how foolish it all is.
Except it isn’t.
When they came, they knew. When they conquered us, they knew. When they took most of our men away to labor for them, they knew. They knew, and still, they came.
There will be violet stars in the sky, and we will thrill to the sound of dragon wings beating. We will rejoice when the cold crackles across the night. We will cheer, and they will die. And it will be enough.
Because it has to be.
Three times—in the distant past—the dragon has come before. Three times, when others have tried to destroy us. Three times, it has spread its dark wings and beat ice across the sky. Three times, it has saved us.
“Three times,” Madam said, when I was too small to do much in the shop but sit at her knee and learn. When I was still young enough to let her brush my hair at night and tell me tales. “Three times.”
Three times, when we placed a violet star in every window in the land. Three times, when we lit its way through the winter night. When we regaled it and prayed for it and hoped that we would never need its help again—because there is always a price.
The dragon does not forget, and neither do we.
Polina and Elzbet and I run errands together while Madam lies in a dark room and rests her eyes. She has been up too late again, writing letters in an everchanging code and sewing with the rest of us by the light of one dim candle. When she swayed on her feet this afternoon, we made her shut the shop early. She protested, but she always protests.
“Stop taking care of me,” she said, but she has always taken care of us. She is the one who found me at the workhouse, the one who taught me to read, the one who has been more of a mother to me than the mother that abandoned me. Hard times call for hard measures, but working herself to death will help no one.
None of us want to go out by ourselves. The soldiers who searched the shop always seem to be waiting for us. They loiter across the street, smoking cheroots and ogling the women passing by with market baskets.
Today, the older soldier spits at Polina’s feet, and the younger soldier winks at me. He is handsome, which does wonders for his appeal. Like all men, the impression will probably be ruined whenever he opens his mouth
“You know how to sew? Good with a needle, little misses?” the older soldier says, pointing to his chest and leering. “How about you tell Olaf about it?”
“Many women know how to sew,” I answer.
“But they know how to really sew, don’t they, Maksim?” he says, clapping a hand on the younger soldier’s shoulder. “They’re good at making things. What things have you been making lately?”
“Only dresses,” Elzbet says, and we politely push past them. As we walk by, Maksim bumps into me, and I feel something small and folded in his hand as it brushes against mine.
We’re not alone in the constant surveillance; each dressmaker in the city has been assigned their own pair of soldiers. The army leaders are clearly getting restless and grasping at straws.
“They’re horrible,” Elzbet says, running a shaking hand over her dress after we’ve scurried several streets away.
“You should ignore them,” I say.
“It’s not easy to ignore evil,” Polina says.
“Maybe they’re not all evil,” I say, shoving the note that Maksim passed me deep within my skirt pocket.
“They took my brother,” Elzbet says, and the half-sob in her voice hurts something deep inside me. “I want him back.”
I want to wrap my arms around her; she needs kisses and cuddling until the pain is gone, but we are on the open street, and all the love in the world will not bring her brother back. The things we do in our bedchamber are a poor substitute for the people missing from her life. So, I look at her and she looks at me, and we keep walking with Polina through the city streets.
“I want my father back, too,” Polina says, after a while.
“Madam says soon,” I say, and we link arms, our shopping baskets dangling from our elbows as we make our way to the market square. She always says soon. Except it never is soon enough.
Two things happen almost at the same hour: I sneak out to see the young soldier, and Madam Kovalski goes to a secret political meeting in the cellar of a nearby wine store. Only one of us returns home to the shop that night.
I meet Maksim underneath the Western Bridge, where the riverbank joins the water’s edge. The stone of the bridge above us is green with moss, and the winter grass under our feet is sparse. We stand in the shadows and stare awkwardly at each other.
He’s polite, as polite as a foreigner can be with his clumsy pronunciation of our language. We shake hands, and I feel only the slightest bit of worry at his touch.
“I know,” he says simply, once our hands drop.
“You’re an intelligent girl, Roza.”
“You know that the sun rises in the east?”
Of course, he knows. Someone was bound to find out what we’ve been doing, despite our best efforts to conceal it. There are too many threads being woven together, too many people involved; there has always been the risk that someone would find out about the violet stars. We sew them anyway.
“Try again,” he says, taking a step closer to me.
“You know that being a soldier is a thankless job?” I say, surprising a harsh laugh out of him.
Maksim takes another step toward me, reaching out to tilt my chin upwards so that I’m forced to look him in the eyes. For a second, I’m frozen—tethered in place by the feel of his hand on my face. Suddenly, he is no longer just the young soldier who haunts our movements outside the dressmaking shop; his eyes are harder, and an expression that scares me flits across his face. Just as quickly, the friendly soldier is back.
“You know what I mean,” he says.
“Yes,” I say, despite my better judgment. His touch burns against my skin, and I am not sure whether I like it or not.
“Then, we are on the same page, at least,” he says, his thumb tracing the outline of my jaw. “What do you think I should do about it?”
I stay still and say nothing.
“I could turn you into the authorities. It would be easy to destroy you,” he continues, his hand hot against my face.
“You don’t want to do that.”
It would be foolish for him to give up the advantage that the knowledge grants him. But two can also play that game. His hand on my face is almost tender.
“I want information. Names, times, meeting places,” he says.
Things to smooth his path to promotion, to get him away from his oafish partner; maybe things that will get him away from our country. He must have a life, a home, somewhere else he wants to be. We are only seamstresses, after all.
“Things you can give your superiors,” I say.
“And if I don’t?”
His hand stills on my face, and we stand there staring at each other again. If I give him information, inevitably, someone will be betrayed. All the artifice and confusion in the world will mean nothing if some of what I say isn’t backed up by truth. If I don’t give him the information, he can just as easily turn us into the authorities. Except he probably has no proof. And without proof, he’s just spinning tales. But that may not matter.
Maksim brings up his other hand, and cups my face between them.
“Do you really want to do that?” he says
“Do you really think they’ll believe you without proof?”
A shadow of doubt flickers across his face, and then he’s back to bluffing.
“Who says I don’t have proof?”
“You wouldn’t need me otherwise. I want information in return.”
“It’s a fair trade. Tell me where Elzbet’s brother and Polina’s father are. Give me something in return for betraying my friends.”
“I’m giving you your life.”
“That’s not worth much.”
“You could kill me now. It would save time.”
“You sweet, foolish girl.”
I follow my instincts and lean forward to kiss him. God help me, I both like it and hate it. His mouth tastes nothing like Elzbet’s. There’s nothing tender about the kiss at all, just two people saving each other from drowning for a moment. When we eventually pause for breath, he pushes me away, and my back bumps against the damp stone of the bridge.
“I don’t want a whore,” he says.
“Are you going to shoot me now?”
“We are going to meet again three nights from now. Same place, same time,” he says, and I watch him stalk off into the darkness, one hand raised in farewell.
What a sweet, foolish boy.
When we wake in the morning and Madam’s bed is empty, we know. When Polina runs to the wine store and sees the shutters nailed shut, we know. When customer after customer comes into the shop, all of them clucking like biddy hens, we know.
We would have to be fools not to know. But knowing is not the same as being able to do something. We are girls with needles, not swords.
I pack a basket full of cheese and apples, a shawl for cold nights, and a flask of warmed cider. There is only one place that they could be holding Madam. Elzbet crowds me into the back room to kiss me good-bye before she gently ties my hood under my chin and whispers, “Please bring her back.” I can only squeeze her hand in response because if I open my mouth, I worry that the wrong words will come flying out.
I leave the two of them measuring a customer for a new midwinter dress. Elzbet shows the woman samples of braided gold trim, and Polina mentions that we stock a wide variety of fabric colors.
“Do you have deep blue?” the woman says. “Or indigo? Or better yet, purple?”
“No,” Polina says. “Never purple. Never again.” I watch her lock eyes with the woman, and something akin to understanding passes between them. There are others of us out there, just as surely as the soldiers are trying to stop us. The chance of success is so small, but the reality of living under occupation is too large. There is no easy in-between.
The soldiers at the city prison are just as bullying as Maksim’s partner. They lift my skirt and run their hands underneath, checking for weapons. I want to smack their filthy paws away, to tell them what they can do with themselves; I hold my tongue. They finally let me pass, through the gates and the bars and the stinking stone hallways. I follow the guard and try not to touch anything.
When we arrive, the matron rifles through my basket, slinging the shawl over her shoulders and drinking deeply from the flask. She takes out a knife and begins to peel one of the apples.
“Can I give her any of it?” I say, after a wait which seems interminable.
The matron digs through the basket again and pulls out the smallest piece of cheese. She tosses it through the bars of Madam’s cell, and says, “You have five minutes.” I watch her walk a short distance away; close enough to intervene, not quite close enough to hear what we’re saying.
“Smart girl,” Madam says, when I squat down near the cell bars. I try not to think about the muck touching the hem of my skirt or the rat droppings scattered about. Madam sits on a pile of dirty straw, as close as she can get to me.
“You taught me.”
Madam reaches out her hand to grasp mine and says nothing.
“Polina and Elzbet are minding the shop,” I say.
“Do you remember what I taught you to do, in my place?”
I do, as much as I don’t want to admit that I do. There are names written down in code, lists of people, the makings of a complex calculus of distribution. I’m not sure whether Madam has told the others as much information as she has told me, but—
“You want me to do everything?”
“So, you’re not coming home soon?”
“What do you think, my smart little Roza?”
That I want her to come back. That I’m not sure her contacts will trust me. That I’m not able to balance being me and being an informant for Maksim and not telling Elzbet anything and sewing violet stars and leading a silent revolution. That I’m not sure I can see it through to the end alone. That all of this may be the price that the dragon demands, even if it isn’t here yet and may never come. That maybe the only way forward is to let the pressure chew you up until there’s nothing left, and that’s how you win.
“That you were foolish to go to the meeting,” I say instead.
“We all make foolish mistakes. Even you.”
“Time’s up,” the matron calls, coming forward to hurry me away.
“Thank you for the cheese,” Madam shouts, and that is how I remember her: pressed against the bars of her cell, holding the piece of cheese like it is more precious than the finest diamond.
He kisses me this time.
When I arrive at the Western Bridge, Maksim reaches out a hand to catch hold of mine. He drags me under the bridge’s shadow, his arms wrapping around my waist. We are both wet from the winter rain, and our breath forms tiny clouds of mist in the air. The heat of his mouth on mine feels like fire.
I do not quite know what game we are playing tonight, but I have spent the days since Madam’s capture writing coded letters, trying to interpret her plans, and trading heated glances with Maksim that speak more than words. I have avoided Elzbet as much as possible, pretending to be asleep each time she comes to bed. If I am not careful, my traitorous mouth will say something, and all of the games I am playing will crumple to ashes.
It’s a relief to give in to the purely physical; to kiss and to touch until I no longer have to think about what I’m doing. Maksim’s hands are warm on my body, and we are human and we are breathing, and for one blissful moment we are on the same side. But that ends. It always ends.
“I thought you didn’t want a whore,” I say, my hands still in his hair. His uniform cap is somewhere on the ground, growing damp.
“But you want this.”
“I didn’t necessarily say that.”
I smirk at him, but he only laughs and takes a step back from me. I watch as he bends down to retrieve his cap, shaking the wetness from it before he jams it on his head.
“What do you have for me?” he says, and now it’s business, all business.
“What do you want?”
“Not to play this game again, Roza.”
“There’s a dressmaker, two streets east of the Grand Cathedral, that you may want to investigate. Another near Karolin Street, if you take the second alleyway on the right,” I say carefully, naming only those locations that have hopefully been evacuated. If the people in Madam’s circle are smart. If they are heeding the advice in my coded letters. If. If. If.
“And?” he says, pulling a small oilcloth pouch from his pocket and removing a flint and touch-paper. I wait until he strikes the flint against his knife and ignites the touch-paper.
“You want more?”
“Always, darling,” he says, lighting his cheroot. The smell of tobacco wafts sweet and woody, the smoke illuminated by the light of the full moon peeping through the clouds.
“And if I don’t have more?”
“Then I know you’re lying.”
Of course, I’m lying. I spend every minute of every day lying. When I avoid Elzbet out of guilt, when I kiss Maksim, when I try to fill Madam’s place: lies, all of it. By the time the dragon comes, I’ll be an empty shell, filled with nothing but lies.
But I won’t get any of the information that I want, if I don’t feed Maksim more breadcrumbs. So, I tell him about a millinery shop in a village on the city’s outskirts and a tavern in another village, two days’ ride from here.
“Good,” he says, when I’m done.
“What do you have for me?”
“I don’t have to give you anything.”
“But you will.”
I lean forward and take the cheroot out of his hand, dancing away from him with my prize. He follows, trying to get it back. I dart out into the rain and back under the bridge again; Maksim runs after me. We play like two children, slipping on the wet grass, running and giggling at the same time. Maksim manages to back me against the bridge, caging me in with his body, and takes the now-extinguished cheroot out of my hands. He tucks it into his pocket and kisses me again, his mouth a riot of tobacco.
I’m a bad person, a bad friend, a bad lover for Elzbet because I enjoy all of this way too much. The stone against my back is cold, Maksim’s body is a furnace against mine, and the juxtaposition of the two makes the back of my neck tingle. I am in danger of losing myself like this; of confusing the purpose for why I am here and what I need to do. I gently push him away from me.
“Where are they?” I say.
It takes him a moment to catch his breath, before he answers, “Polina’s father is in the northern forests. At a logging camp. According to the records.”
“And Elzbet’s brother?”
“I couldn’t find him.”
“That’s a lie.”
“I swear to God I’m telling you the truth.”
Of course, that’s a lie too. He knows that I know he’s lying. His army is full of meticulous record-keepers; somewhere, locked in an office, there is a document with the name of Elzbet’s brother. But pushing him on this would be like trying to get blood from a stone—painful and fruitless. There’s only so much of me left, and I must ration it carefully.
“Why are you here?” I say instead. “Not under the bridge. But here, wearing that uniform?”
“Money, fame, the usual glory?”
But he is lying again. And somehow, this lie bothers me more than the other ones do.
“That’s also a lie.”
“It’s better that it’s a lie, Roza,” he says, and the expression on his face is a little boy’s—hurt, confused, unsure who to trust. I lace my fingers through his and say nothing. Because sometimes, there’s nothing you can say.
I should hate him; I should hate all of them. I should have a burning fury toward them, a hatred that doesn’t die—I should want them all dead, like Elzbet and Polina do. I should be sewing my stars and writing my coded letters, and praying for their deaths. But what I should do and what I will do have never been quite the same.
I lean my head on Maksim’s shoulder, and we stand listening to the rain together, long into the dark winter night.
Elzbet is waiting.
“Where?” she says, as I pull off my wet boots. The kitchen is lit only by the dying embers of the fire.
“Who?” she says, stabbing the star she’s sewing with her needle.
“I can explain.”
“I’m being blackmailed.”
“Why do you assume that—”
“Who. Is. She,” she says, each word as sharp as a knife.
“Elzbet, please, it’s not—”
“I know what you look like when you’ve been kissed.”
My knees go weak at that, and I sink into the nearest chair, banging my shin on the leg of the kitchen table. I can’t tell her the truth because telling her destroys my only potential source of information about her family. She would ask Maksim, and he would be forced to report us to his superiors. I would be a fool if I thought that kisses outweighed Maksim’s chances for a higher rank, as pleasant as they are. And we are close, so very close to summoning the dragon.
“You don’t know them,” I say. “You don’t want to know them. It’s safer that you don’t.”
Elzbet stares at me for a long while, and I see tears gathering in the corners of her eyes. She is proud, so very proud, and I have managed to wound her. I am a mess of contradictions, wanting to collapse into her arms and tell her everything and wanting to run far away before I hurt her further. I am so very bad sometimes at playing games.
“You sleep in the sitting room tonight,” she says at last, standing to hide her half-sewn star behind the hollow carvings built into the mantelpiece. I watch her check that the fire is banked before she climbs the stairs that lead to the bedchambers above the shop.
“Please let me explain,” I say, as I follow her, sticking my foot in the bedchamber door so that she can’t shut it in my face. “It doesn’t mean anything. If you only—”
“Be quiet!” she says, motioning across the hall at Polina’s small bedchamber. “You’ll wake her. Wait here.” I move my foot aside to let her close the door.
I am quiet because the words coming out of my mouth are lies and the words I wish that I could say are dangerous. There is no easy way to explain that I have spent half the night kissing a man who will likely betray me.
A minute later, the door opens, and Elzbet shoves a pillow and blanket in my arms before closing it again.
I spend the rest of the night face-down on Madam’s uncomfortable settee, the musty scent of its horsehair stuffing lingering in my nose. I quickly learn that tears only make the smell worse.
Two weeks later, we start handing out the violet stars, sneaking them deep inside customers’ corsets and stitching them to their petticoats. A steady stream of women fills our shop as word spreads, whispered from one mouth to another. To an outsider’s eye, business is booming, despite Madam’s continued incarceration. We are girls with needles, after all, and dresses wear out, no matter who is currently ruling the country.
Maksim and Olaf search the shop several times more, continuing to find nothing. Olaf pushes us around and looms over us with his bulky body; Maksim merely mutters “Sorry, it’s orders,” and keeps his head down. We are skilled at hiding, but I begin to suspect that Maksim is equally skilled at misdirecting Olaf away from the more obvious hiding places. There is a moment when our eyes meet over the top of a curio cabinet, and I am left feeling that everything I have been doing is instantly visible to him. The fact that I like this is not reassuring at all.
There are more secret meetings and there are more kisses, and there are more people’s names that I betray to my enemy. I am caught in a spiderweb of lies, and I cling to Maksim, because he is just as covered in the spider silk as I am.
Elzbet refuses to speak to me, conveying all her requests through Polina in an elaborate game of hurt. I don’t blame her; I am clearly wrong here, and yet what I am doing also feels strangely right. I move into Madam’s bedchamber, and that also feels both wrong and right. At the very least, it is a bed to sleep in and a small writing desk to use as I write coded letters.
Every night, my dreams are full of the sound of great wings beating.
They hang Madam on the day the true snows begin.
We cram into the central square, the copper-covered onion domes of the Grand Cathedral looming above us. The army has built a platform with a gallows in front of it, obscuring the entrance to the cathedral itself, as if they can block what they are doing from the heavens above. It feels like the entire city is standing with us, herded like cattle into the square to watch. Soldiers line the perimeter, preventing anyone from leaving. Maksim refuses to meet my eyes.
There are audible gasps when they bring the prisoners out. Madam looks horrible—her ankles shackled, her hair stringy and lifeless, her dress gray with dirt. Whatever hope I have crumples inside me at the sight of her hands tied behind her back and the defiant set of her head.
Some of the dressmakers who I have told Maksim about are also in the line of prisoners. I do not know whether they ignored my coded letters or whether they were tracked down separately by the army. All I know is that I bear responsibility—of course, I bear responsibility—and that knowledge alone is enough to make my stomach sour.
Polina starts to cry before they’re even done reading the charges aloud. Loud sobs roll through her body until she is doubled over in the middle of the crowd, shaking like a leaf.
“Make her stop,” Elzbet says, speaking directly to me for the first time in weeks.
“I don’t know how.”
People start to stare because Polina has begun keening like a broken whistle. It is loud and annoying, and more importantly, it is drawing the attention of the soldiers.
“You hold her back, I’ll hold her at the front,” I say. “She needs to be quiet.”
Elzbet and I bend down to pull Polina into a more upright position and sandwich her between us. She is still loud, still shaking, but I have her mouth pressed into my chest which is muffling the sound. I can’t see what’s happening near the gallows, but the officials are still listing the supposed crimes of the accused. For crimes of high treason, of rebellion, of overt acts against the army and the country that has conquered us—of all these things, they are guilty. Madam will die, and the others will die, and there is not a thing I can do but hold my friend as she collapses.
“They’ll shoot us, if we try to leave,” I whisper across Polina.
“Yes,” Elzbet says, tightening her grip on Polina’s back and shoulders. “Even your friend.”
“He wouldn’t,” I say, deliberately not rising to her barb. Elzbet is smart; she was bound to figure it out. I don’t know how, but clearly she has.
“He would,” she says, and I don’t want to believe her. But all the bitterness and hurt in Elzbet’s voice can’t hide the fact that she is likely correct.
Polina’s sobs cannot drown out the sound of the trapdoors on the gallows opening, nor the raucous cheer of the soldiers around the square as the “traitors” are hung. They cannot cover the noise that the crowd makes, a cry of resigned dismay that ripples and moves throughout the square. They can only exist in their own bubble of sound, as Elzbet and I stare at each other and fat flakes of snow start to turn the square white.
“We see this through to the end,” I whisper to her, as if I had a choice in the matter. Madam knew what was required, and so do I.
Elzbet nods, the slightest movement of her head in the falling snow, and it is enough.
We have stars to sew.
The snow is falling in vast clouds when Maksim and I meet again under the bridge. My hood is icy and has barely managed to keep the snow out of my eyes. Maksim is huddled under the bridge, his leather-gloved hands tucked into his armpits, stamping his feet to keep warm.
“My mother,” he says, when I get close enough to hear. He’s brought a lantern this time, its small shuttered light making a glowing circle at his feet.
“Your mother?” I say, stepping into the circle of light as I let my hood fall backward onto my shoulders.
“My mother is why I’m here. You asked me once, and I never answered.”
“My father drinks and she’s sick and the little ones—”
“Maksim,” I say again, putting a hand on his arm, and something in my voice makes him stop. “Your army just executed the woman who was the closest thing I had to a mother.”
He stares at me and I stare at him, trying to fight back my tears. Madam died for something that she believed in; it would be dishonorable to cry over that. She left me this revolution to run, and to give in to tears would be weak. Cowardly. Revolutionaries are not allowed to weep.
But girls with needles are, and when Maksim gathers me into his arms, the tears come. I bury my face in the crook of his neck while he rests his cheek on top of my head. I sob and sob, as he strokes my back and murmurs things softly to me in his own language. I don’t know how long I cry, only that there are so many tears in me, all fighting to escape. My nose is dripping cold snot, and my eyes are red by the time I manage to stop. Maksim holds me at arm’s length and brushes my hair away from my face.
“When?” I ask him, as he hands me his handkerchief.
“When is it my turn to die?”
At this point, I see no way that I’m getting out of this alive. The army will find me, will track me down, will string me up like they did to Madam. The only question is whether we can summon the dragon before that happens. It is a waiting game, it has always been a waiting game, and as much as I care for Maksim, I know that I’m living on borrowed time.
“When do you tell them about me?” I say, wiping my nose. “When am I the one dangling from the gallows?”
“When do you stop lying to yourself about that?”
“You’re not allowed to die,” Maksim says, closing the distance between us and kissing me. His mouth is gentle, and it feels like a prayer as much as a kiss; something tender and ineffable passing between us, as if we were always meant to be in this place, in this time, under this snowy bridge with one another. It is a kiss that says fragile things that we dare not speak, too afraid that they will shatter.
“Roza,” he says, his hand on my cheek. “Run away with me.”
“Run away, with you?” I say slowly, as if that will make the words any more logical.
“The forest. The northern sea. Across the great ocean. Anywhere but here.”
“I could sew,” I say, because the fantasy is tempting.
“And I could farm. Or hunt. Or even chop wood.”
“We could have a home.”
“And children. Lots of children.”
“Please,” he says, and I kiss him because there is nothing else I can do. In another place, in another time, perhaps. But then we would never have met, and this would never have started. And whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, I cannot say.
I break the kiss and take a step back.
“I can’t,” I say.
There are too many people depending on me, too many lives that I am trying to save; my own life is not worth a fraction of theirs, when all is said and done. All our work with the violet stars would mean nothing.
“Roza, please, I—”
“Don’t say it,” I say, placing a finger on his lips. “If you don’t say it, we can pretend. That you don’t really care. That it’s fine that you’re going to lie to me about the whereabouts of Elzbet’s brother yet again, when I ask you. That we’re just two people who know each other, and we meet occasionally to trade secrets. That you never wanted this.”
And now I’m crying again, the tears rolling down my cold cheeks, because the look on Maksim’s face is breaking me in two. If I was another person. If I had any choice. But there are no choices; there are never any choices.
“I’m sorry,” I say, and step away from the lantern light. I pull my hood over my head and tie it tight against the snowfall. I turn my back on Maksim, check carefully for patrols, and start down the path toward the main part of the city. I am still holding his handkerchief.
Over the noise of the storm, I hear boots crunching in the snow, and when I turn my head, he is running after me. I stop walking, and he skids to a stop, wrapping his arms around me from behind. We are terribly exposed, but only fools are out tonight, and we are both that.
“Wait,” he says, kissing the small amount of uncovered skin on the back of my neck, between my coat collar and my hood. “Please.”
I stay still, as the snow blows into my wet face. Maksim’s arms tighten around me, and then his voice is in my ear.
“Elzbet’s brother is in Dublensk, a city just past the eastern border. They have him working at an iron foundry. And Roza?”
“I’ve always wanted this. Don’t you ever dare doubt that.”
I search for his hand and hold it for the space of one heartbeat, for the time it takes the two of us to say none of the things that really matter. There is only the storm and the snow and the moments that cannot last.
I drop Maksim’s hand and walk into the night.
We place the violet stars in the windows at sunset, two days later.
“Quickly,” Elzbet says, and she and Polina hurry, affixing stars to the window glass with small drops of paste. I dart out the shop door, my boots slipping on the snow-scattered cobblestones, avoiding Maksim and the other soldiers on patrol.
There are stars in all the windows. More and more stars in more and more windows as I glance up and down the street. I run to the corner, and in windows everywhere, I can see women placing them.
Fresh snow begins to fall, and the bells of the Grand Cathedral ring out for evening prayers. The soldiers I pass in the streets are gaping at the stars and shouting angrily amongst themselves, their hands on their sword hilts. It’s a relief to run back through the shop door and slam it behind me.
“Everywhere?” Elzbet says, and I can only nod as I catch my breath. “Truly everywhere?”
“Every house and shop, as far as I could see,” I say.
“It’s working, isn’t it?” Polina says. She is quivering with excitement, and tears of hope glisten on her cheeks.
“We’ll know soon enough.”
Elzbet and Polina have spent the days since the snowstorm accelerating the distribution of the stars; I have spent them writing even more coded letters, holding meetings with other coordinators, and not sleeping.
I have refused to close my eyes because when I do, I am back in the snowstorm and I am pleading with myself to find Maksim. Except there are wings beating above my head and breath that is colder than ice and I am alone, battered by the storm. And then I wake screaming.
I always wake screaming.
Polina and Elzbet and I hold hands as we watch through the window, the shop lights dark behind us. The wind starts to howl like wingbeats, slicing through the air in great icy gusts. The snow falls harder, coating the street, until the cobblestones are lost in frozen white. As the twilight darkens, there’s a bang on the shop door.
We don’t move.
We ignore the banging, we ignore the shouts, we ignore it all. There are only the soldiers hurrying in groups from building to building, demanding entry, and still the wind and snow come. The air that leaks in around the edges of the window is bitter; colder than any winter I have ever known.
There are stars in all the windows, there are stars in the sky, and as true darkness falls, all of them start to glow with a violet light. We stand there, painted in purple through the windows, and bear witness.
The wind turns the snow into great swirling clouds, the icy breath of the dragon roars across the sky, and the soldiers keep coming. There are more and more of them on the street, rushing about in confused groups, and we watch as their boots slip in the snow. They fire shots at people’s windows, and we hear glass breaking.
The soldiers scurry to form a firing line, pointing their guns towards the sky, and as the wind howls even harder, they stumble even more. They are slower—seeming to fumble with even the basic task of reloading their guns. The snow moves and swirls, half-hiding them from our view, as they break ranks and huddle together, clusters of men trying to fight an enemy they cannot touch.
The dragon is coming, and there is nothing that they can do. I hear the wings beating, we all hear the wings beating, and I know my time is soon.
Our enemies will die, and we will be free, and perhaps in time we will remember what that actually means. I should stand with these girls and feel my heart sing. But instead, when I hear the knocking on the kitchen door, I know. Because you always know.
And so I pull Maksim inside to safety, because even I am not that cruel.
The dragon comes with the dawn.
I do not think anyone has truly slept through this night; there are children’s faces in the upper windows and shopkeepers peeping from shutters down below. They shy away from the dragon as its shadow descends over the entire city, but they stare at it anyway. The edges of its wings are purple tipped with gold, and its claws crunch over the corpses of the frozen soldiers.
It lands with a great rumble that rattles all our windows in their panes and knocks the bolts of fabric off their shelves. One great foot, as big as a house, settles in front of the cobbler shop three doors down; the opposite one seems to be resting on the next street over. The dragon’s neck towers above the buildings, stretching higher than the spire on the top of the Grand Cathedral’s onion domes, and its head is hidden in the clouds.
Its tail trails over the houses and stretches through the streets toward the river, so massive that it should be toppling chimneys and flattening buildings, yet it’s not. If I squint into the distance, I can see nothing but purple and gold scales, seeming to overlap with buildings and streets.
I hold my breath when its neck bends down, its great head swooping low to the ground, and then it’s staring through the shop window with one great, gold eye. The dragon’s eye is so broad that only the bottom sliver of it is visible, and it looms so close to the window that it seems to be inside the shop with us, as if the eye is melting through the window itself.
I search for Maksim’s hand. He is dozing, his head leaning against my shoulder, as we sit together on the shop carpet. He opens his eyes when I grab at his hand, and he stares at me, confused.
“Look,” I say, and point to the window.
He looks. So does Elzbet, who has spent the night watching over us all. Polina still dozes in Madam’s good shop chair.
“Roza,” he says, and I feel him grip my hand more tightly. “It’s real.”
“You really summoned—”
“It was never a legend,” I say softly.
I feel the immense eye pulling at me, drawing me closer and closer. Like metal drawn to a lodestone, I cannot escape the dragon’s pull, and I am not sure that I even want to.
Part of me is already outside the window with it. It is as though the life I had before is blowing into pieces. If the others cannot hear it, I certainly can: the dragon is waiting. All these months of preparing, of putting the pieces into place, all of it has led to this moment—to this massive eye staring at me, staring into me, and the knowledge that this is the final thing I have to do.
Absolutely everything, Madam had said in that dingy cell, and I know, as sure as the snow falls, what she meant for me to do. What I must do.
I hear the thunderous huff of the dragon’s breath and the click of its claws on the corpses. I have to go now; I must go now.
But I’m selfish still, and I cling to Maksim’s hand for a minute more. There is only the feel of his fingers in mine, the warmth of his body against me, the way that his breath hitches when I run my free hand down his cheek. Everything that could be and never will.
“I need to go,” I say, and I make myself get to my feet.
“Where?” he says, still holding on to my hand.
“No, Roza,” Elzbet says, scrambling to stand. “Don’t go near it.”
“I have to.”
“You’re being foolish.”
“No, I’m doing what Madam would have done.”
“What is she talking about?” Maksim says.
“You’re not Madam,” Elzbet says, a panicked edge creeping into her voice.
Of course, I’m not. I have never been her, although God knows I have tried. I may not be Madam’s daughter, but she has taught me well. Nothing comes for free in this world. Even freedom itself has a cost.
“Polina, wake up,” Elzbet screams, running across the room to shake her awake. But the dragon is growing impatient; I can tell, even if the others can’t. They have not dreamt of wings coming; they have not known what must be done.
I start to open the shop door, but Maksim stops me. He pulls his gloves from his pocket and puts them on my hands, dressing me as if I was a child. Or a doll. Or someone he loves too much to let go.
“For the cold,” he says, and his mouth is soft and sweet as I kiss him back.
“Thank you,” I say, blinking back tears.
“Come back,” he says, and I do not have the heart to tell him I can’t. I can only nod when he opens the shop door for me.
The cold air from outside blows in, and when I reach reflexively for his hand, I feel nothing. I look down, and my fingers pass through his, intersecting but never quite touching. Maksim grabs for them, trying to interlace his hand with mine, but the same thing happens again.
“No,” he says, and if his voice doesn’t break me, the sadness in his eyes does.
“I’m so sorry,” I whisper, and I walk out the door.
The dragon is before me, above me, around me; it fills the street and the sky and the city itself. It smells like the forest, like leaves ground underfoot, like the damp earth scent that comes with the first drops of rain.
I stare at it, and its great gold eye stares at me.
The dragon snorts, a thunderclap that knocks tiles from the roofs along the street, and extends its foreleg to me. I start to climb it, even though I hear shouts from the shop. Hand by hand, foot by foot, I scale its leg and crawl onto its back; I clamber along its spine and between its great shoulders until I am able to perch on its neck. The shop doorway, and the people I love who are standing in it, look so small from up here. And the city looks so very large.
If we stay another moment in this place, I will be tempted to go back.
“Go,” I tell the dragon. “Go now.”
And we go, rushing through brick and stone in a manner that should not be possible. All around me, I hear the crunch of the dragon’s claws and I see the streets and squares blur by. Faster and faster, until the dragon spreads its wings and we are flying.
We soar together—above the gleaming copper domes of the Grand Cathedral and over the river bridges that are clogged with fleeing soldiers. The city and its people look like nothing more than children’s toys dusted with snow. The dragon wheels towards the east, and we pass through clouds that are still lit with the pale pink of winter sunrise.
And Madam comes to me. Her dress is clean and her hair is in its perfectly braided bun, but she is just as insubstantial as I am. She sits on the dragon’s neck, surrounded by the others: the dressmakers who were executed alongside her, and all of the women who never answered my coded letters. All of them waiting, all of them here.
All of us, who lived and fought and made the dragon come.
Madam smiles and reaches out a hand to me, and when I take it, her grip is solid in my hand. I sit next to her, next to all the women, and together, we hold each other’s hands as the dragon flies onward.