|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)|
|Age Range:||12 - 18 Years|
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The blood of my enemies drips down my forearms, fleeing the confines of the spaces between my fingers, traveling toward freedom on the cold, stone floor.
Red and hot and sticky and sweet — ah, how sweet the air smells — and I can't help but wonder if things might have turned out differently.
It tickles as it pools at my elbow, the many bright rivulets joining as one before that final leap.
I understand their need for freedom. Would that I could simply slip away and escape, but no, not this time.
This was to be my escape — and yet, standing here with bloodied hands and flesh beneath my fingernails, I wonder.
Was I wrong?
Was this truly the only way?
No one deserves to die, my father would have said. As cruel as a person might be, only a monster wishes death upon their enemies.
If only you knew.
If only you'd seen.
If only you'd met my sisters.
On the morning of my fifteenth birthday, my mother died.
It was a cruel and terrible death, wrought with pain and suffering and moments of relief between the screams.
When death finally took her, the darkness hovered like a plague over our home, my father and younger brother and I only moving and breathing to survive, though if anyone had asked us why, we couldn't have given an answer.
On the morning of my sixteenth birthday, the darkness descended in a form incarnate, though at first, we couldn't see it.
Why should we have?
Father thought he'd brought me the best birthday gift a father could give his daughter: a new mother.
I saw nothing but a vile attempt to replace someone utterly irreplaceable.
I screamed, threw the pot I was holding at his head, and locked myself in my room for three days.
On the fourth day, six-year-old Edward knocked on my door.
"You can't stay in there forever," he said, his small voice wavering. "Father is threatening to call the locksmith. Mother —"
"Don't call her that or I won't speak to you," I said.
He paused before continuing, an awkward pause that made me wonder — no, suspect — that she stood outside my door too.
"She is threatening to take a hatchet to your door," he whispered, so soft I could barely hear.
Was she now? I wanted to see her try. Difficult, though, being on the other side of the door.
"And ruin Father's fine craftsmanship? She wouldn't."
But I didn't know if she would or not. After all, I'd only caught one glimpse and hadn't even seen her face. Or looked in her eyes. I'd been a fool.
One's eyes say so much more than most people suspect. While the superstitious bustle about, trying to hide their true names — for they believe there is power in names — they should really be wearing dark glasses and learning to speak while gazing at the ground.
Names? Please. Child's play.
To learn the state of one's soul, find their gaze and hold it.
But I'd thrown a pot and run away.
How differently things might have turned out if I'd only followed my own rule.
A deep, calm, female voice penetrated the safety of my walls and wormed its way into my inner ear. "Ellison, please open the door. You must be starving, and I can't imagine how —"
"I have a window."
Edward sniggered, and I knew he'd been thinking the same thing. Just because there was a chamber pot in the room and I hadn't come out, didn't mean I hadn't at least thought that much through.
She sighed. "I can't even imagine what you're going through, Ella dear."
I flinched. No one called me Ella. No one but my mother.
"And I'm certainly not here to replace your mother," she continued. "I hear she was a wonderful, outstanding woman."
Outstanding? When my mother smiled, flowers bloomed. When she cried, the skies wept. When she spoke, seas parted. No phrase on God's green earth could even begin to describe her.
"But I'm afraid I'm here to stay and, at the very least, I hope we can be friends."
Afraid? No, this woman at my door wasn't afraid. Fear makes people tremble and weep and piss themselves, and she did none of those things.
No, she stood outside my door and fed lie after lie on a silver spoon to my brother, and to me, just as she'd no doubt done to my father.
"I have two daughters who are about your age, Ella." Her voice grew soft and warm. I shivered at the change. "They'll be arriving soon, as soon as school ends for the term. I just know you'll get along splendidly. Won't you come out so I can show you their portrait? I've put it up in the parlour, just above the fireplace."
Above the fireplace? Father's rifle went above the fireplace, not some hideous painting of strange girls in no doubt too-frilly dresses.
Ah, but curiosity and temptation are evil things when they join forces. They crowd one's brain and push and pull until nothing is left but an ache to do exactly that which you know, beyond all doubt, you should not, under any circumstances, do — but at the same time, how could you ever not do it?
The inner self can be so cruel.
I allowed myself a quick glance around my room. No one could say I lacked for anything — I had clothes and dresses for every occasion, a wardrobe that would be envied by the Queen herself, books upon books upon books, jewels to rival the brightest stars, and mirrors wherever I turned.
To remind yourself that you're beautiful, no matter what state you're in, morning, noon, or night, my mother had said.
But what worth was beauty, and what wealth were jewels, compared to the comfort of a mother's touch? I would have given all worldly possessions for that alone.
And so, with trembling fingers and a heart screaming of betrayal, I opened the door.
Her smile was full of teeth, her lips red and full and inviting. I still did not meet her eyes. Though I thought myself a fool and coward for not doing it sooner, I admit I was afraid. Afraid of learning a terrible truth, or worse, discovering that no terrible truth existed beyond the reality of a new mother.
I looked to Edward, but his innocent face was flushed and rapturous as he gazed upon the intruder.
"Come along, Ella," she said. "I'll have your girl draw up some tea. She won't be with us much longer, just until Charlotte and Victoria arrive and get settled. No need paying for a housemaid when there are plenty of able-bodied women about, hmm? Frugality is the Lord's delight!" This should have been my first hint at what was to come.
"I'm not in the mood for tea, if it's all the same to you," I said, still looking at Edward. He might as well have been a glowing firefly, for all the attention he paid to her. What had she done during my self-imposed isolation?
Not-Mother waved her hand before placing it on my shoulder — long, pale, slender fingers curling around my flesh like icy tendrils. But they weren't icy at all. Her touch felt warm and strong and as much as I hated myself for admitting it, reassuring. Was this the beginning of Edward's devotion?
"Edward," I said, perhaps a little more forcefully than warranted.
His gaze snapped to mine as though my speech had sliced through a taut line.
"You're out!" he shouted, a smile spreading across his face without reservation. "You'll love what Mother has done to the parlour, come see!"
Off like a shot, Edward disappeared from sight in the manner that little brothers often do.
What had she done to the parlour? I looked to her for the meaning behind Edward's outburst and caught her eyes.
We froze, she and I.
She gave a tiny gasp, so quiet that I might have missed it were I not looking for any clue or hint or indication as to the nature of this woman we were to now call Mother.
To this day, I know not what she saw when she looked in my eyes. My heart, however, remained in my throat, for I saw something that both terrified and intrigued me in the same blow.
I saw nothing.
"The place simply needed a woman's touch, don't you agree?"
I ignored her veiled insult, choosing to focus my attentions on the abhorrent display of extravagance and wealth that had overtaken our parlour in a matter of days. Our comfortable chaises, Grandfather's tea table, and the practical, heavy window drapery, all gone. In their place? Ornate, delicate seats with barely a hint of cushion for padding, exotic dark-wood furniture, and swaths of fabric so heavily beaded and gilded that I feared robbers might break into our home and live for a year on one drape alone.
I prayed that this woman had spent her own wealth on such a display, for Father would never approve. While we lacked for nothing, he saw no value in decadence, nor the need to flaunt our blessings.
How ungrateful that would seem, my dark beauty, he would say, when there are so many others who have so little?
Not-Mother flew to the window and grasped the corners of a flimsy ivory fabric, pulling it tight across a sliver of sunlight that threatened to invade the dim-lit room.
"Isn't it marvelous?" She sighed and drifted to a portrait on the wall of three women. I recognized her, but not the two younger girls beside her. They stared out of the portrait with an unnerving intensity, and I pitied the artist they'd sat for. The smiles on their lips did not extend to their eyes, and it did not take much deduction to conclude that they must be Charlotte and Victoria.
Our new sisters.
The portrait presented a convincing enough façade, no doubt, for the likes of Father. What was he thinking, bringing this woman and her wretched darlings into our lives?
Not-Mother cleared her throat, waiting for a response.
I couldn't help myself. "I admit, I preferred the rifle."
To Edward, I whispered, "And with so many beads about, I'm afraid to sit down lest one lodge up my —"
"Ellison!" Not-Mother gasped, but at that very moment the front door slammed, both saving and damning me in one breath. I knew those footsteps like I knew nothing else save my own hands.
Father appeared in the doorway, a thin smile plastered on his face. It wavered ever so slightly as he took in the renewed parlour, a flinch at the corner of his mouth at seeing the replacement above the fireplace.
His gaze shifted to me and his true happiness returned. "Ellison, you've emerged."
I hoped he would run forward and envelop me in one of his consuming embraces, but he refrained and offered a tilt of his head instead. Was he embarrassed to show affection to his own children around her? I hoped not. We'd all been restrained since Mother's death, but I saw no necessity for this level of ambivalence.
"I got hungry," I said, hoping to draw him out. "There are very few things worth eating that fit under the crack of a door."
His smile broke free, and a roar of laughter brightened our tomb. My heart lightened and I clutched my mid-section for emphasis, feigning starvation, which made his laugh that much heartier.
It was a beautiful sound, and too long past since heard in the corners of our home.
Of course, our delight was her dismay. She couldn't even allow us this one moment of joy, and she strode toward Father with purpose, grasped his arm, and patted his shoulder with what should have been a loving touch.
I wish I hadn't been the only other person in the room. I wish I hadn't been alone in seeing Father's face grow slack, his eyes dull and laughter cease like a bow screeching across taut strings mid-note. Where had Edward run off to?
"Darling," she said, "Ella and I were just getting acquainted. I've told her about my gorgeous girls, due to arrive any day now. Won't it be wonderful to have the whole family under one roof?"
I gaped as Father nodded, vacant stare fixed on her visage. It made me uncomfortable to admit — she did possess an unearthly sort of beauty — but surely my father would never be swayed by a pretty face and too-sweet words?
He mumbled some incoherent agreement, or so I presumed, and the rage in my belly returned.
Without another word, I grabbed a jeweled pillow from the nearest settee and hurled it at his head.
Then I fled the room and locked myself away for three more days.
On the morning of the fourth day, everything changed.
"I'm leaving for a little while," said Father, his gentle voice drifting through the space between door and wall. "I have business to attend to. It's an opportunity I can't pass up."
I pressed my forehead against the crack. I didn't want to speak to him, but my heart did.
"A little while."
"You're lying," I said. "Lie to Edward, if you must, but not to me. You've never, so don't try to start."
A soft thump against the door told me I'd been right.
"Oh, Ellison," he whispered, "if all goes well, it won't be for long. I truly have a necessary task that demands my —"
I flung open the door, nearly sending my poor father sprawling. "Take me with you."
It seemed the only logical solution.
"I'll make your meals and tend your clothes." Sudden desperation rushed my words. "And you know I'm very good at selling to ladies in the marketplace —"
His smile was sad but kind. "That you are, my daughter. But not this time."
I tried to protest, but he placed a finger across my lips like a seal. His eyes pleaded with an urgency I'd seen only once before. Right before Mother's death.
"Be good while I'm gone, Ellison. Promise me that much. Take care of Edward. Celia will see to it you're well cared for while I'm gone."
I should have stopped him, then and there, but he pressed something into my hand and curled my fingers around it, holding tight to my fist.
"Be good," he repeated, and my puzzlement grew. How could I not?
"I will," I whispered, "but when —"
He shook his head, gaze downcast. "After my business is complete, I will return. That I can promise you."
I nodded, heart aching to diffuse his sadness, while every ounce of my being screamed to cling to him and refuse to let go.
But I did not.
He released my hand and stood, straightening his coat and running a set of fingers through thinning, chestnut hair.
With a firm nod and a glance toward my closed fist, he turned to walk away. At the top of the stairs, he looked back.
He sounded weary, though resolute. What had we become in just one short year?
"Yes?" I tried to match his tone, giving comfort in whatever small way a daughter might.
My father took my gaze and held it, growing suddenly intense and, in a way, frightening. "Prove all things. Hold fast that which is good."
He swept down the stairs, leaving me trembling like a newborn lamb.
I plunged my fist inside the pocket of my robe and released the object he'd given me.
I couldn't bring myself to look. Not now.
Believing he'd return soon was a far easier truth to bear.
He left that same morning, quietly, while the rest of the world still slept. I watched from my window as he galloped down the road that would lead him through town, past the King's palace, and out the other side on the road headed north. For years I'd begged him to take me on one of his distant journeys, and after Mother's death, he'd promised his trips would never again separate the family. We had to stick together now.
Celia's arrival had changed everything.
Father and his horse had barely disappeared from sight when someone rapped on my door — three sharp knocks, and a fourth with ominous finality.
I suppose I shouldn't have answered, but at the time, some small part of me must have hoped that Father's leaving had only been an illusion or some semblance of a nightmare, and that he actually stood on the other side of my door once again, waiting.
But Celia Not-Mother stood there instead, hands clasped at her middle.
"Your father has taken leave for several days to do business in Neustadt. Be a good girl and bring me up a pot of tea. Sweet child."
The last she added as an afterthought.
Be a good girl? For Father, certainly. For her?
"That is not my place," I said, for I had no knowledge of kitchens and pots, nor the necessary interest to deduce what might be needed. "Miss Mary —"
"Is no longer in our employ."
A breath caught in my throat. Father's trail barely minutes cold, and already she'd loosed the woman who'd nursed us and raised us during Mother's frequent convalesces. Miss Mary had no children or family of her own save us.
"You didn't," I said, fists firm at my sides. "You can't."
Celia lifted her chin as though height meant power and folded her arms across the looseness of the blue silk robe she wore which — I swear it, even now — once belonged to my mother.
"I can, and I did. A needless expenditure, she. We must be careful with our coins, child."
Excerpted from "Cinderella, Necromancer"
Copyright © 2017 F.M. Boughan.
Excerpted by permission of Month9Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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