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My dear ones,
By now you have heard the story of my sisters — of the day when the earth cracked open and the gaping maw of the Abyss swallowed a great and terrible evil.
Blood was spilled. Darkness was defeated.
Or so we thought.
Perhaps the Almighty saw fit to punish me for my defiance. Perhaps I was due to atone for the sins of my father.
Perhaps it was recompense for the darkness still beating within my own heart.
You have heard the first story, surely.
But you have not heard the whole story.
And so, I tell it to you now, that you may avoid my fate — that you may live long and beautiful lives of joy, love, and happiness.
That you may never yourselves descend into the depths of hell, and thereby doing, damn your own soul.
It begins, as always, with blood.CHAPTER 2
"You must be more careful, Edward," my father said. My brother, impulsive, distracted, and dwelling within his own mind more than usual that day, had reached for the serving platter of pheasant in the center of the table and carelessly brushed his fingers against the sharp knife lain across the edge of the dish. "Are you well? Shall I send you to bed without cake?"
With a sheepish look at my father from beneath hooded lids, Edward placed his freshly-bloodied fingertips in his mouth. After several moments, he withdrew his hand and slid it under his leg. I hoped that the pressure might stop any additional bleeding, rather than cause his lifeblood to stain the soft pillow upon which he sat. Not for any love of the pillow — it was a remnant of our stepmother Celia's days in our home, overly decorative and hideous and therefore relegated to cushioning our lower extremities during mealtimes — but because it would be my task to attempt to remove the stain. Laundry was not a chore I relished, but we divided duties equally since Father's return.
"I saw her again today," Edward said, his voice full of quiet excitement. He showed no outward sign of being pained by the cuts on his fingers, and with his pronouncement, I felt my shoulders brace in anticipation of the words that might follow. Meals these days were either a somber affair or a grand gesture, meaning that we took little if any comfort in them. Every meal caused the air to feel as though it had been stretched thin. Unsaid words dangled from strands of trifling conversation, though Edward often tried to engage us in some spirited discussion or another about his toy soldiers, or lessons, or the horses out back.
I no longer had the stomach for family mealtime, but I suppose children's memories are shorter and their forgiveness readier.
"Did you, now?" Father's pointed look at me did not go unnoticed. His gaze brushed over the empty seat to my right, and the hitch as they swept past was not well disguised. William, my betrothed and the prince of the realm, did not dine with us that night, nor had I been invited to the palace to sit at his right hand.
Today, the French king visited to speak with our ruler regarding economics, trade, and certain military ventures perceived — incorrectly — to have been authorized intrusions into French territory.
William and I had not intruded. We'd merely chased down a demon horde and sent it back to whence it came. If we had crossed the French border to do so, what of it? Demons respect neither borders nor military treatises. Their hunters must be granted the same freedom.
"Did she stand outside the cathedral ruins again, then?" Father addressed Edward, whose nods were eager. "What did she wear this time? White dress? Bloodied robes?"
"Today she wore her hair in a plait and a dirtied white shift, much like Ellison when she mucks the stables." I threw a pea at him and he laughed as it struck him on the nose. "What? It's the truth, is it not?" It was, but that was not the point. I caught Father's eye, eager to dissuade my eight-year-old brother from pursuing this line of discourse. Father knew as well as I did that nothing good could come of it. But I hoped, I prayed, that Edward's ghostly visions remained the only repercussions of his time spent among the dead two years prior.
The first time Edward saw a ghost, he had been playing outside. It was a week after William, Father, and I sent Celia hurtling back into the Abyss, with Edward in her clutches — only having him returned to us by the unlikely generosity of the child spirit Oliroomim. He had been playing in the stables out back, marching toy soldiers in the dirt while I tended to our horses. We hadn't yet hired back our former staff, dismissed during Celia's reign — or at least, the few who were still alive — and so we were all required to pitch in and do our part. Celia's extravagancies had depleted our household coffers and Father struggled to recover what he could, so until then, we worked together as needs must to ensure all the tasks of managing a household were performed to the best of our abilities.
"Look at the kitten!" Edward had exclaimed, full of delight. "Ella, may I keep her?"
I had turned with interest to pet the tiny bundle of fluff but saw nothing there beyond air. Edward's hand hovered several inches above the floor, and he cooed as one would showering affection on a small feline. I thought perhaps he'd chosen to play a joke, as he is wont to do, but when he began to insist and I — annoyed by his perseverance in the matter — reprimanded him for his behavior, it did not quell that insistence but added another layer of vehemence to his claims.
Several days after, it was a frog he claimed to see. And then a small child. A woman by the church steps. A man in chains, shaking them as if to frighten Edward away. But my brother had gone to hell and back, and so there was very little that scared his adventurous and inquisitive spirit.
It was I who felt frightened by this newfound ability, and who took these concerns to our father, only to be brushed aside.
"They're the fancies of a child," he'd said, choosing to ignore the greater question. "They do him no harm, and he enjoys the sights."
"Your son sees the dead," I had protested. "You and I may have conjured spirits, demons, and the souls of those passed on, but he views them unbidden on this plane. Does that not concern you?"
"They do him no harm," he had repeated.
I did not think I had to remind him that I'd thought the same when I conjured my first spirit.
That night at the dinner table, Edward must have grasped my worry, the recollection visible on my face, for he leaned forward to declare with resoluteness, "It wasn't you, though. Only a ghost. She wants to go to church, but she can't and never will. That's all."
I made a note to visit the Royal Archives and ask for the ledger of deaths for our town. Perhaps I could find a record of the woman and how she died. Unlike those few occasions when my mother's spirit spoke to me under the hazel tree in the graveyard beside the Church of the Holy Paraclete, these shades did not speak to Edward. Not aloud, anyhow.
"Same as ever, then, yes?" Our father matched my gaze this time. "And how fare your lessons?"
In a huff, I gathered my plate and retreated to the kitchen, where I slammed the dish on the countertop with such force it split in two. I blinked at it, disbelieving that I could be so careless with something so fragile.
Was that how William felt I had treated his own life? Was that how the king felt I had treated his son?
"He would have you there if he could. You must know this." My father stood in the kitchen doorway, head tilted, brows lowered.
"And how do you presume to know what His Majesty would do?"
"I speak of your William, Ellison. He loves you dearly and would have you by his side always, if he could." Father sighed, a wearier gesture than he'd shown at dinner. "It takes time for laws to change, for people to be convinced of truth even when it stares at them unblinking. I'm sure his father is grateful for all that you and William have done for his kingdom. If not for your efforts, there would be far more evil in this world."
I picked up the broken pieces of my plate and slammed them down again. "Then why does he not show it?"
They shattered further, ceramic chips peppering the countertop. My father stepped quickly to my side, taking my hands in his and pressing them together, as if to stop me from further destruction.
"I never wished this life for you," he murmured.
But my temper flared as hot as the tears pooling in my eyes. "Then you should have burned that book."
"You cannot mean that."
"I do." He waited. I thought. I recanted. "I don't."
"It may be a thankless life of thankless tasks, but you have others who love you and a prince who will take your hand in marriage as surely as you both live and breathe. Give his father time to make sense of the change and convince his Paladin Council that the match is suitable, in more ways than one."
"Have two years not been enough?"
"A king merely has to decree a thing, and it is law. The people will accept it. The Paladin Council —"
"It's not the same thing."
"It is the same thing, for it has the same leader and ruler of this kingdom as its head!" I stomped my foot — a foolish, childish thing to do, I acknowledge — turned on my heel, and fled the room.
Where was the benefit and wisdom we were to be given by His Majesty? Protector of Light, Commander of the Knights of Our Holy Lord — where was his mercy and lovingkindness now?
I slipped out the front door, uncertain of my destination. Two years prior, I had ventured to my mother's grave, a site at the back of the Church of the Holy Paraclete, where a hazel tree stood watch over her final resting place. It was there I first met William, the boy who pretended to be a commoner for my sake. It was there Celia stole Edward from us, pulling him into the darkest depths, leaving my brother forever changed.
It was also there my mother's spirit first appeared as a whisper in the air, then as a being of pure and gentle light.
I wished to see her again. I knew it was an undeserved blessing that she'd appeared to me at all, but I worried about words left unsaid, and I'd prayed time and time again these past two years that I might see her face once more. But since the day of Celia's abolition, since Edward was returned from beyond, she'd remained silent.
I hoped she didn't suffer further because of my doings. She had refused to answer the question when I had asked if she would be punished for my actions, so I held fast to the belief that a soul filled with such goodness as she — who could not endure my touch, for my darkness burned her brilliant spirit — would not be made to suffer for even the barest moment.
But I also knew that nothing is fair, and that what I believe to be true can be nothing but a grand deception, so I tried not to hold my hopes too close to my heart.
Oh, it is a difficult thing, to stave off hope when it is truly the sustenance that nourishes the spirit.
I began to walk there — toward the cathedral and the graveyard and my mother's tree — but took not twelve steps before my feet stilled their pace.
As always, I had forgotten, and the sight surprised me each time. There were no more cathedral spires rising above the far fringes of the town, no more towers that looked to strike the sky. Celia had brought them all down, crashing through the roof and toppling the walls with her massive, beastly form.
If I continued through the town square, past the shops and the stalls, beyond the King's Arm tavern, through to the road on the other side that leads toward the palace, I would see ruination.
The sight would not be good for my soul — but then again, neither were many of my deeds. Still, I refused to give up hope of redemption. After all, the hazel tree had been uprooted by Celia and replanted by the townspeople, and still thrived. The gravestones, crushed to dust by my stepmother's monstrous form, had been replaced at royal expense. Simple things, these, but they held great meaning.
I strode with purpose but took only three more steps before hearing him behind me.
"Are you going to see her?"
"Go home, Edward." I turned on him as he pouted. "You have lessons to finish, and I doubt very much that Father knows you followed me outside."
"I don't care," he said, in the way only little brothers can. "I want to see her too."
Of course, he did. "I'm not visiting Liesl. She's a very busy woman, and I believe she dines tonight with a wealthy potential investor for her father's business. Perhaps tomorrow, though, as I would like to catch up with her."
But Edward would have none of it. "Not Liesl," he said, looking utterly disgusted with my suggestion. I would not tell my dearest friend of my brother's reaction; she would find it humorous and look to make a joke of it at Edward's expense. I never knew whether my brother would be a good or poor sport.
I sighed and folded my arms across my chest. "If not Liesl, then who? Surely, you've had enough of the shade at the cathedral steps for now. Doesn't she only appear every few weeks?"
Edward tilted his head, appearing so much like Father in the gesture that my heart clenched. He'd grown up too quickly these past few years.
"Not her, either," he said. He paused, seeing my confusion, then spoke with a slow and careful pace. "Aren't you going to see Mother? Sometimes she calls me into the graveyard as I pass by. Does she not speak to you too?"CHAPTER 3
I do not know how long I stood there, staring at my brother, but it was long enough to cause the kind of discomfort that instinctively sends the watcher falling back two or three steps, furrowing their brow in concern.
Finally, I found the strength to speak again. "You've seen our mother?"
The words felt like ash in my mouth.
"When?" My voice rose in volume and pitch, shock giving way to disbelief and plunging hopes. Why appear to Edward and not to me? "When and where and how?"
"Several times," Edward said, and it became clear he recognized my distress. He thrust his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels, gaze flitting from my face to the ground and back again. "Mostly in the graveyard. Once in a dream that wasn't a dream."
"How long ago? When was the first time?"
He gazed at the sky and pressed his lips into a thin line, and I saw that my brother would not be a child for much longer. The lines in his face and the angles of his features evoked our father in so many ways, though the air of softness about him came from none other than she who bore us. His features may have taken after our father, but he was our mother's child, through and through.
"I think a year," he said after a time. "Yes, a year ago come July. I saw the lady ghost by the church steps and heard a whisper of my name. I followed the voice into the graveyard and there she was, by her tree."
A year. She had made herself known to him a year prior. "Why didn't you say anything? How could you have kept this from me?" Hot tears welled in my eyes for the second time that night. I would not let them spill. I would not allow them to fall. "You know I miss her as much as you do."
"Why didn't you tell me when she first came to you?"
He was much younger then. Ill. In grave danger. If he had spoken to Celia of my visits to the cemetery, I might have suffered worse — or he might have borne the brunt of my punishment. But I know these arguments have little meaning to a boy of eight who misses his mother, so I said nothing of it.
Instead, I asked, "Did she give you a message? For me or Father?"
He shook his head, folding his arms across his chest, mimicking my stance. "No. I didn't not tell you on purpose, Ellison, but every time she appeared to me, you and Will were away together."
Without me, were his unspoken words.
This is the truth of it: After Celia's defeat, William and I were officially betrothed in a palace ceremony. I still don't understand to what end such a ceremony is held, but many people gathered, and it was a time of great rejoicing. Evil had been banished, I vowed never to conjure from the great tome again, and I refused to call upon my dark talents for any purpose — I wished not to place myself at odds with William or his family, particularly the king. My father, with greater reluctance, took a similar vow — though I cannot imagine what desire might have stopped him from doing so, since he and my mother had already paid the ultimate price of The Book of Conjuring through their actions.
This vow, in the king's eyes, allowed that I be considered a suitable match for his son, a man who had taken upon himself a lifelong mantle, a devotion to upholding all that is good by protecting this world in the Almighty's name from the evils that roam the earth.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Cinderella's Inferno"
Copyright © 2018 F.M. Boughan.
Excerpted by permission of Month9Books.
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