Free Short Story

 

Stepsister

Leah Cypess

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Sept/Oct 2020

(@14,000 words)

 

The story you know isn’t exactly a lie.

It leaves a lot out, but everything you’ve been told is absolutely true. This is the story you’ve heard. Just not exactly as you’ve heard it.

You are hearing this new version when you’re older, so you can see the cracks in it, the dark absurdities and sickening cruelties. But it is not so different from the story you were told as a child. To a child, everything related by a trusted adult is a solid, reasonable truth. Perhaps if a child was told no tales, the whole world would appear senseless and cruel.

Instead, your mind fits itself to the truth you know. It grows with you, becomes a part of you, and you cannot question it without murdering a little bit of yourself.

And what would compel anyone to do that?

 

I like to tell my friends that when we were younger, King Ciar and I used to spar with wooden posts, and that once the prince knocked my makeshift helmet so hard that it spun around and stuck on my head, and it took five servants and a vat of butter to get me free.

“The butter made my hair spike,” I said, “and I liked the look so much I refused to wash it out. It was two months before my mother had enough. She tied me up while I slept, then woke me by dumping a vat of sudsy water over my head. She spent half an hour scrubbing my scalp and ignoring my screams.”

Laughter roared through the tavern, even from the far tables I hadn’t been addressing. It was an easy enough sight for them to imagine; I had more than two decades on me, but my face was still round and childish, and my sporadic attempts to grow a beard only made it worse rather than better. Plus, when my hair was overlong—which it tended to be, because I had reservations about letting the castle barbers’ knives get too near my throat—it stuck out from my head in tufts.

“Your mother?” said Lissa, and I swore softly before turning to grin at her. I had forgotten that Lissa’s mother, like mine, was a long-time servant at the castle. Lissa knew that my mother had died when I was five years old.

“Yes,” I said, meeting her dark eyes. “She always wanted a girl, see. I think she was glad of the excuse.”

A moment of silence. I held my breath. It could have gone either way; Lissa liked nothing better than proving people wrong, but partly as a result of that hobby, she had very few friends left. Hopefully she wouldn’t risk antagonizing one of them.

She leaned back. “Glad of an excuse to wash your hair? Or to tie you up?”

More laughter, much louder than what I had elicited. I was glad of it, and of Lissa’s smirk. If the laughter satisfied her, she would let me get away with my slip.

I wasn’t lying, by the way. The story was true. It was just that it was I who hit the prince, and his helmet that had to be removed with butter, and it was his mother, the queen, who had him tied up and covered with suds—not with her own hands, of course. She hadn’t whipped me with her own hands, either, though she had stood nearby and watched, to make sure I understood the consequences of putting the crown prince’s life in danger.

She had made Ciar watch, too. It was the one time I had ever seen a tear trickle down the cheek of our infamously ruthless monarch.

That story isn’t as funny. And if I told of our king’s humiliation, that would have been treason, and I might have ended up hanged rather than merely whipped. You have to walk a fine line around royalty. Unless you’re smart enough to stay far away from them to begin with.

I like to think I would have been smart enough, if I’d ever been given a choice in the matter.

Someone coughed from the tavern door. It was the sort of cough that stopped our laughter cold and wiped the smirk off Lissa’s face. We all turned toward it, like marionettes being pulled by a single string.

“Lord Garrin,” the royal messenger said, and the others’ faces turned toward me, Lissa’s eyes narrowing in speculation.

I resisted the urge to point out that I had no title. It wasn’t the messenger’s fault; nobody is ever quite sure of how to address me. I was the king’s best friend, his sworn companion. I was also a potential claimant to his throne, a possible dagger to his throat. And the only family he now had left.

Lord didn’t exactly sum it up, but it was as close as anyone could get.

The messenger cleared his throat. “His Majesty has need of you.”

I was glad I’d told the story. It had kept me from draining my tankard, and the last thing I needed, when dealing with King Ciar, was to be drunk.

“Of course,” I said, and rose to my feet with only the slightest of stumbles. “Take me to him.”

 

Ciar was two people, these days: the king he was turning into, harsh and weary and determined, and the brother I’d grown up with, reckless and hedonistic and loyal. Usually, it was easy for me to tell which Ciar I would be dealing with. But today he was someone else entirely, someone who sat in his bedchamber staring out the window, his face set in lines of melancholy.

I searched through all my memories of Ciar—twenty-two years’ worth—and failed to come up with a single melancholy one. Even that day in the courtyard, with the whip tearing through my skin, his face hadn’t looked like this. I couldn’t actually remember what his face did look like that day, but I was sure it hadn’t been this bleak.

I’d never had a chance to ask, since Ciar never mentioned that day again. His gaze was ever forward, never back. It was part of the problem with him, and also part of the reason men followed him: his certainty that whatever he was headed toward, it was better than what was behind him.

“Everyone else,” he said, without looking up, “leave us.”

It was quite an exodus, for there were at least ten people in the room. The servants of his chamber, his guards, his retainers, his supposed friends: they all filed past me with resentful stares. Lady Aniya, who was either his mistress or angling for the position, gave me a warm smile as if we knew each other. We didn’t, but I admired her brains in trying to get me on her side. Unlike Queen Ella, who had always seen her husband’s bastard brother as a rival and tried to turn Ciar against me. The queen still didn’t appear to have noticed that I was the only person in Ciar’s life he had never left behind.

Not yet, Lissa told me once. But only because we had been arguing; even she knew better than that. I had been Ciar’s friend for our entire lives. No one else—no woman, no companion, not even a favorite hunting dog—had retained their place in his affections for longer than five years.

“Garrin,” Ciar said, once we were alone. “I need your help.”

I didn’t know whether to sink to one knee or stride over and clasp his arm. But the words I had to say were the same in either case, so I said them without moving. “Of course, Your Majesty.”

He turned away from the window and faced me. Sadness looked wrong on his features, like an ill-fitting mask. “You must find my wife’s stepsister and bring her to court.”

“I will,” I said automatically, before the meaning of his words sank in. Then they did, and every muscle in my body tensed. “Ciar, why?”

He blinked, and a more familiar expression swept over his face: cold, clear determination. “That is not your concern.”

A surge of rage went through me, an anger I’d only felt—only allowed myself to feel—once before. I pushed it down, back to its usual banked simmer. After all, as far as he knew, it was true; I had no reason to care more about this order than any other he gave me.

He was the king now, and I had to think about which questions I dared ask. “Does Her Majesty the queen know that you are—”

“Of course not.” That flicker of pain again, before his expression closed up around it. “And you are to make sure she does not find out.”

Sometimes, it is very dangerous to have a king trust you. Especially when his queen hates you for it.

Especially when she is right to.

“Of course, Your Majesty.” I decided to bow. “What excuse shall I give for my departure?”

“I doubt you’ll need one,” he said. “I was out hunting from dawn to dusk yesterday, and she never even asked me where I was. These days, my wife doesn’t pay much attention to anything that isn’t ladies’ gossip.”

The scorn in his voice made me blink. I had never heard him speak of Ella with anything but deep, reverential love. His blindness when it came to her had irritated me, though of course I’d never said anything. I had no right to take anything from Ciar, and that included his happiness.

Though really, I should not have been surprised. After all, he and Queen Ella had now been married for almost five years.

 

I was also not surprised when I found one of the queen’s maids waiting for me at the door to my room.

Make sure she does not find out, indeed.

The maid curtsied to me, a bit mockingly. Amelie did everything mockingly, as if she found all the people in the castle ridiculous, and only played the part of queen’s maid because it amused her to do so. “Her Majesty requests your presence in her sitting room.”

“Oh, good,” I said. “I didn’t want to eat or drink today anyhow.”

Amelie laughed. “I can have pastries sent to the sitting room, if you think you’ll have the stomach for them while she’s yelling at you.”

“Is Her Majesty planning to yell at me?”

“Planning to? No.” Amelie lifted an eyebrow. “But I would bet good coin that it’s going to happen.”

I liked Amelie. She was small and quick—not pretty, but only because she couldn’t be bothered to be—and she acted like we were all the same, king and noble and commoner alike. She acted that way because she considered us all so far beneath her that the differences were not discernible. But still, it was refreshing.

I liked her, but I didn’t trust her. So I resisted the urge to ask any more questions. Instead, I said, “Order the pastries. I think I’ll be fine.”

She pouted for a second, because I wouldn’t play her game, then laughed and danced down the hall.

I sighed and followed her.

 

There were no pastries. There was no queen, either; she kept me waiting for nearly an hour. I had nothing to do but count the scratches on the intricate wooden furniture and the folds in the thick velvet curtains. The king’s command burned in the back of my mind, making me restless and itchy. I should have been on a horse already, galloping along the road into the mountains.

I could only hope Ciar would understand that the delay, too, was in his service.

I did not allow myself to think that any of my impatience was for myself, or that I had my own reasons for being anxious to start. Jacinda was not as far away as Ciar assumed. It was already midafternoon, but if I left right now and rode hard, I could be at her cottage before nightfall.

Instead, I cooled my heels in an overdecorated sitting room, empty and silent except for the growling of my stomach.

The queen played this game with everyone, and normally it didn’t bother me. I understood why she did it. She had spent so many years being the one to wait and serve; not in a warm, fancy room, either, but in a dank attic or a sweltering kitchen, barefoot and hungry and often in pain. I had once, by accident, seen the welts on her back, and Ciar had told me some of the things her stepfamily had said to her—that she was worthless, that she lived on the pity of others, that it was her place to scurry after them and anticipate their needs and wait, wait, wait for them.

So I understood. But still, it had been five years; perhaps it was time for her to start letting it go.

When Queen Ella finally swept into the room, I dropped immediately to one knee and bowed my head. I had learned early that, while I might drop some formalities with Ciar, I had better never let his wife think I had forgotten her position.

“Rise, Garrin,” she said. No pretend “lord” for her.

I rose.

The tales tell the truth about the queen’s beauty—the tales, and the bards, and anyone who catches a glimpse of her to this very day. All softness and elegance and grace, perfectly formed features beneath a waterfall of golden hair.

Jacinda’s hair was coarse and dark, her eyebrows thick, her nose prominent. She was no beauty, that’s for certain. But she had an arresting force on men nonetheless—or on two men, at least. For me, it was the sharpness of her dark eyes, the intensity with which she held herself. The way she moved, quick and steady, not graceful so much as unfaltering.

I always assumed it was the same for Ciar.

But of course, it was impossible to ask.

The queen was particularly exquisite that day, in an icy blue gown with a lace overdress, her hair coiled in towering braids around her head. Her famously blue eyes were delicately outlined with kohl, and they were, as always, the first thing you saw when you looked at her. The poets all spend at least three stanzas on the blueness of the queen’s eyes, with good reason.

She had brought only Amelie with her, which was a sure sign of trouble. It meant that whatever she was going to say to me, she didn’t want it overheard.

I met Amelie’s eyes, and she shook her head slightly. I couldn’t tell if it was a warning, or an indication that there would be no pastries.

“Sit,” Queen Ella commanded, and I sat, settling myself on a delicate cushioned chair that was a bit too small for me. “What did my husband want from you?”

The queen tends to get straight to the point. It’s a lingering effect of her common origins.

But I was raised by a commoner, too. “He commanded me not to tell you.”

She hissed between her teeth and took two steps toward me. “I could have you executed for treason right now.”

She could, without a doubt. The only question was how Ciar would react if she did, and I didn’t know the answer to that. He loved her deeply, but I was his oldest friend.

I bent my head, hoping that she didn’t know the answer, either.

She was so close that I could see her hands. They clenched and unclenched, the knobs of her knuckles jutting out. For all her ministrations and creams—and, some whispered, alchemy—she had never been able to reclaim her hands. They were still rough and spotted, marked by years of scrubbing and scouring and scraping.

“You surprise me, Garrin,” she said. Her voice was slow and measured, and my name sounded like the scrape of stone on sandpaper. “Do you not fear me? Do you think me sweet and innocent and incapable of taking revenge? I had thought you would know better.”

“I do,” I said. I wanted to glance up, but I refrained. I knew what her face would look like; I still remembered her expression when she pronounced her stepfamily’s punishment. Take them away from me and stone them until they die. “And I do fear you. But not enough to make me betray my king.”

Amelie made a small amused sound.

The queen turned on her heel and walked away from me, a light tap-tap on the floor and a swish of heavy skirts. I did not look up until the door shut behind her with a heavy thud.

Amelie remained. She leaned near the door, one foot propped up against the wall, an unrefined pose that would have been shocking on anyone else.

“You should fear her more,” she said. “More than you fear your king.”

“I don’t fear Ciar,” I said. “I love him.”

Amelie lifted an eyebrow. “So does she.”

I had nothing to say to that.

Amelie straightened and walked toward me. She had an odd way of walking, like she was almost flying but had forgotten how to. “My queen loves very fiercely. And she hates fiercely, too.”

I could tell my face was betraying me anyhow, so I allowed myself a harsh laugh. “We all know that.”

Amelie knew at once what I was referring to. She pursed her lips. “She was right to punish them. I was there, Garrin. I saw how they treated her. Her stepmother was the worst, but her daughters were eager learners. And jealous besides. Ella was better than them, far better, and yet she was the one forced to stay home and scrub dirt off their shoes while they got to go to the castle and dance with dukes.”

By better, of course, she meant prettier.

“I don’t doubt it,” I said, and I truly didn’t. Raising children to hate is just as easy—easier, probably—than raising them to love. “But I don’t know why you’re telling me this.”

“I think you do,” Amelie said, then turned and slipped out the door.

 

By then, it was too late to set off. I couldn’t help but wonder if that had been the queen’s intention.

I went back to the tavern for dinner—I am a man of predictable habits—and alleviated my frustration with a chunky bowl of stew and some extremely well-spiced mead. I usually drink only in Ciar’s company—he has a tendency to forget that he is the king when he’s drunk, and the resumption of our old easy friendship is well worth the next day’s hangover—but lately, I had found myself drifting more and more to drink when I was alone. Maybe because I now associated the feeling of drunkenness with Ciar’s laugh and his trust.

I had been hoping to run into Lissa at the tavern, but she was gone. Instead, I found myself surrounded by castle servants—groomsmen and kennel masters and smiths, those paid well enough to afford the food at this tavern, but still too lowly to dine with the nobility.

“Heard you had audiences with both Their Majesties, Garrin,” one of the tailors said, passing me a flagon so I could refill my cup. “But separate audiences, eh? What’s the story behind that?”

I smiled at him and took the flagon. His question hadn’t truly been in earnest. Everyone knew I didn’t gossip about my king’s business.

“Trouble brewing is the story,” said one of the waitresses, passing by and snatching the flagon out of my hand. “Their Majesties have been seen together less and less lately, is what I’ve heard.”

The tailor laughed. “Well, that’s not going to help them get us an heir.”

“It’s likely the lack of an heir that’s causing the problem.” This from a man I didn’t know. “The queen has been summoning doctors from all over the continent to see what ails her womb.”

“No mystery what ails her,” the waitress snorted, “and it’s nothing a doctor can cure. You dabble in faerie magic, you pay the price.”

A momentary hush fell, and the waitress’s cheeks colored. She glanced swiftly around the room. That had been a bit too close to treason for anyone’s comfort.

“It will be two coppers if you want a refill,” she said to me finally, her voice high and forced.

I handed her the coppers and added an order of pie, to give her an excuse to go back to the kitchen. But I left before she returned with my dessert, and with half my cup undrained as well.

I wasn’t sure why the thought of a rift between the king and queen made my heart heavy. I had never believed in their fairy tale because I had always known there was magic behind it, though it wasn’t Ella who had dabbled in it.

Maybe because the marriage had made Ciar so happy. It might seem odd that I would worry about his well-being, but I did. I wanted his happiness as much as I desired my own.

When I got to my room in the castle, there were pastries waiting on a tray on my bed. One was a fluffy almond croissant, which I could not eat; almonds made my throat itch, and everyone who worked in the castle kitchen knew it. Which meant it had not been brought here for me to eat.

I broke the croissant open carefully and extracted the paper folded inside.

The handwriting was large and blocky, like that of a child. Or a commoner who had only recently learned to form letters.

 

Garrin,

            If you love me, leave me in peace.

            Please.

                                                            Jacinda

 

On the bottom, she had sketched—more carefully than she had drawn the letters—a picture of a delicate glass slipper with a dark splotch of ink spreading from its toe.

 

We all grew up knowing that we shared our world with the fae. They lent magic and wonder to our grinding lives, favored us with the occasional sprinkle of miracle or tragedy, and all they asked in return was for us to dance. Once at midsummer and once at the winter solstice: a grand ball, for royalty and commoners alike, where the dancing gets wilder all through the night and our movements shimmer with beauty and abandon. Nights when the ugly appear beautiful and the beautiful transcendent, when the melancholy turn joyful and the happy go insane, when romance turns into a solid reality and princes fall in love with peasant girls.

Many families lock their daughters away on the nights of the fae balls. Between the glitter and the magic, things happen that should not be seen—or participated in—by girls with good morals. But doors tend to unlatch, windows tend to creak open, nimble fae fingers drawing us all to their dance.

The story has grown—a coach, a train of horses, a magical gown—but I was there. The fae did no more for Queen Ella than they did for dozens of eager girls willing to risk their futures for a night of revelry.

It’s just that for most of them, it doesn’t turn out as well.

My mother taught me that. They say that what happens on fae nights is forgiven and forgotten by morning, and for men, that is certainly true. For women, not so much.

They also say that children conceived on the night of a fae ball have magic of their own, but I had never seen any evidence of that.

My mother taught me to stay away from the dances. She never forbade me, for that just tempts the fae, but she frightened me. Even though I was only five years old when she died, even though I can barely remember her face, I still recall her low, intense voice:

The dances are not for us. They are for them, so they can drain our energy and guzzle at our lives. They need to feed off us, and so they have set a beautiful trap. They have beauty in abundance; it costs them nothing to throw some our way. And we are too bedazzled to ask what it costs us.

But I was seventeen that night and chafing at my dead mother’s caution, walking around the castle grounds while strains of wild, unearthly music drifted through the walls. Circling closer and closer, like a moth drawn toward the flame, not yet admitting to myself what I was doing.

That was when I saw the girl fleeing the castle. She held her skirts up, but they were so bulky they hindered her view of the ground, and, inevitably, she tripped and fell.

I headed toward her, glad of a distraction. When I reached her, she was still kneeling on the ground, her dark hair falling over her face, her shoulders heaving.

“My lady,” I said. “Are you all right?”

She blinked up at me, and her dark eyes widened as she took in my face. “Ciar—”

“No,” I said. “I am not him. Are you searching for the prince?”

She took a closer look at me, and a mix of relief and disappointment crossed her face. She shook her head.

I held out my hand and helped her to her feet. Up close, I could see that her dress, though in current fashion and elaborately decorated, was made of second-rate cloth roughly stitched together. Probably the best she could afford. Many common girls spent everything they had for the dances, these evenings when love had enough power to change a life.

Though usually not for the better. No one tells the girls that until it’s too late.

I had seen enough of the world by now to know that my mother was wrong. They did tell the girls, over and over. It was just that the girls didn’t particularly want to hear it.

Judging by the tears on this one’s face, she knew now, and it was already too late.

My heart wrenched. She was not particularly beautiful, this girl, but there was something about her eyes, wide and dark and direct, and the set of her full lips. And the music, still drifting through the air and winding through my heart, pulling it toward wild leaps of sentimental abandon.

“The dance has barely begun,” I said. “I can escort you back, if you’d like?”

Desire flashed in her eyes, and I could practically see the music moving in them. But she shook her head.

I glanced at the castle. She had been there, in the midst of the music and magic, and she had left. What could have caused her to do that?

And what sort of strength had enabled her to do it?

“You can dance with me here,” she said abruptly. Her voice was throaty and slightly ragged. “If . . . if you would like to.”

I met her eyes and saw the desperation in them. I saw the echoes of the fae magic, urging her to go back, to join the rest, to dance the night away. To forget what tomorrow might bring.

I held out my arms, and she stepped into them.

We did not go back. We did not join the rest of them. But we danced, and it was enough, for that one night, to let us resist. We danced as if we had been dancing together all our lives, and eventually we also laughed, and at the very end of our dance, when dawn was staining the sky and the fae power was fading along with their music, when people in the castle were blinking and staring around and discovering that tomorrow had come despite their ignoring it, we finally stepped apart. I bowed. She curtsied.

I knew her name by then: Jacinda. And I had seen and recognized the token tucked into the bodice of her gown, a lock of golden hair bound with silver thread. Ciar gave one like it to every girl he fancied.

But she had left Ciar and danced with me, and though I knew I should not have allowed it, I was filled with a tender joy. It was the music and the magic strumming through my skin, turning my mind inside out and making me forget the rule my safety was built around: You must never take anything from Ciar.

But she was so fierce and so real, and for the first time in my life, I wanted something so badly I didn’t think about the consequences. (A foolish mood, not a brave one. The consequences, like the morning, would come anyhow.) I reached for her hand and pulled her closer, and her dark eyes watched me, then slowly closed as I bent my head to hers.

Our lips barely touched. She made a small, pained sound and stepped back.

“Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?” I whispered. She had not let go of my hand.

“For . . .” She opened her eyes and searched my face. “This is not what you think. You’re not feeling what you think you’re feeling. It’s only fae magic.”

Of course it was; we could still hear the fading strains of music from the castle. But I had never understood this business of calling feelings less real just because you know what caused them. After all, if you decided to love someone—if you thought over your options, and took into account character and rank and similar interests—then that wasn’t love, at least not by the standards of the court bards. True love was supposed to be sudden and senseless and all-consuming; it was supposed to make no sense at all. Just like magic. A force that destroyed rather than built.

Love had ruined my mother’s life, and she had always warned me against it. Yet here I stood, with the fae music strumming against my skin and my heart beating as if it would rip that skin apart, and my mother’s warning was faint and distant and inconsequential.

The poets say they would give up anything for love, she’d told me. But they only say that because they don’t think they’ll have to.

I was no poet, but I knew exactly what I would be giving up. Ciar had already seen this girl, had danced with her, had chosen her. It was a lesson drummed into me from early childhood, a condition of my continued existence at court—perhaps of my existence altogether: I must never take anything from Ciar.

If I did, that act would be the dividing line between begrudging tolerance and vengeful fear. Because if I ever took his toy, or his triumph, or his girl . . .

Then next, I might try to take his kingdom.

And my life depended on no one ever, ever thinking I would do that.

“I shouldn’t have danced with you,” Jacinda said. “It wasn’t fair. I have . . .” She leaned over and tugged off her shoes, which were as clear and bright as glass. As she dangled them from her hand, a drop fell from the toe of one of them — small and wet like dew, but darker than dew. “I enchanted them with my own blood and pain, to ensnare a suitor of royal blood.”

“I’m impressed,” I said, still holding her hand. “Many women seek the prince’s eyes, but few go so far as to sacrifice to the fae.”

“Well,” she said with a shrug, “other women have beauty to rely upon.”

As if that was a truer reason for love than magic.

My silence tugged the corners of her lips upward. “Will you not protest and say I am beautiful?”

“I think you are,” I said honestly. “You are as gorgeous as the night. But that is not the way Ciar’s taste runs.”

She looked startled. “You know Prince Ciar?”

“We are . . .” The word trembled on my lips, but I had never spoken it aloud. To do so would be to take something from Ciar. “We have been friends since we were babes. My mother was his wet nurse.”

She peered at me closely again—at the shape of my face, which had caused her to make a mistake when she first saw me. She pulled her hand free, and I let her.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

She lifted her skirts again, so she could make her way across the castle grounds. She strode swiftly through the darkness, the glass slippers swinging from her hand, dripping something black and sticky into the tall grass.

The next time I saw those slippers, they were on the queen’s feet.

 

If you love me, the note said.

Perhaps she had changed her mind about what made love real.

More likely, she was simply desperate.

I let the pieces of croissant fall back onto the tray and ran my fingers over the paper, as if I could feel her fingers touching it.

I did not, of course, still love her. How could I? It had been five years; there had been other dances, and other girls. Besides, I knew the truth about her now. Her cruelty toward her stepsister, her meanness and vindictiveness.

I had never disbelieved the stories, because I had seen that cruelty in her eyes. What I had called fierceness, and admired, because I was not its victim.

No one had blamed our new queen when she condemned her stepmother and stepsisters to death. She had shown us the marks on her arms, the scars that would never heal. No one had tried to stop her from punishing her tormentors.

Not even me.

I had thought of saying something to Ciar. But what could I have said? Should I have told him to deny his beloved? That her glass slippers were bespelled, and not exactly in the way she had claimed? That he loved her for reasons other than her beauty and her mystery and the fact that he’d had to pursue her?

I could not take anything from Ciar, and that included his joy in his new bride.

It had been he who called me, the night before their punishment, his summons dragging me from my bed. I had not been sleeping anyhow. I had been thinking of Jacinda, of the joy on her face as we danced on the castle lawn, as if the illusion of freedom was a rare and sweet taste in her mouth. I had been wondering what she would look like as she died.

She once buried cutlery in the yard, then made Ella dig it up and clean it, Ciar had said, in one of the few minutes we spent together—fitting doublets for his wedding, which was being arranged with great haste. The ones that weren’t clean enough, she threw at her. Ella still has those scars. This is a fitting punishment.

Which she? I asked, and he’d looked at me sideways as if hearing something in my tone. I had caught his glance and held it, keeping my expression steady. There were three shes to be dealt with—a stepmother and two stepsisters—so it was a reasonable question.

All of them, Ciar had snapped. All three of them tormented her together. It makes no difference which one chose any particular cruelty.

It was the closest I had ever come to the boundaries of what I could ask Ciar. Even for Jacinda, I could go no farther.

Love has its limits.

Desperate or not, she should have known better than to ask.

I burned the note before I went to bed. I stood watching the flame eat those carefully drawn letters, the edges of the paper folding up on themselves, curling and blackening.

I shouldn’t have done it. I should have held on to it, to show to Ciar. Even though that note was mine, written for me and meant for my eyes, I still had no right to steal it from my king.

I watched until the paper was a scattering of ashes, and then I went to bed.

 

I expected to dream of Jacinda. But the smell of burned paper kept me awake, so I had to settle for merely remembering her, without the confusion and softening a dream would have brought.

She had talked to me about Ella, a bit. Not on the night of the dance, but later, in the stable yard under Ciar’s hard eyes. She admitted everything: the degradation, the spite, the cruelty. She had not pretended not to hate her stepsister, or even to regret her treatment of her. I suppose she’d had no reason to. She already knew that, for whatever reason, Ciar was going behind his bride’s back to send her to safety.

At one point, her gaze flickered to me, and something broke in her eyes. But she turned back to Ciar before she spoke again.

“She was supposed to be beaten down,” she said. “It was the way it always was, and it seemed normal to us. I never had reason to question it.”

She didn’t say it like it was an excuse, because of course it wasn’t.

She said nothing to me directly, not even on that long evening ride through the mountains. She was too busy clinging to her horse and retching into the grass. But when we reached the village, and I had set her up in the small prepared cottage, she looked at me with those fierce, direct eyes.

“It’s true, you know,” she said. “Everything I confessed to your prince. Everything Ella said I did to her. She didn’t exaggerate at all.” She had drawn her cloak around her body and curled up on the narrow bed, in the same type of peasants’ hovel she had tried so hard to escape, and turned toward the wall. “I deserve this.”

I wanted to contradict her, but I didn’t know how.

So instead I just left her there, as my prince had commanded me to.

No.

I thought of her dark eyes, her refusal to make up excuses for herself, and was ashamed of my own excuses.

I had left her there, all alone, and ridden back to my castle and my life.

 

When I finally fell asleep, I didn’t dream at all. Perhaps that was why, when I woke, my only thought was about what to do first: tell Ciar about the letter, or determine how it had gotten into the castle and into my pastry.

Taking this news to Ciar would be complicated. First, I would have to explain why the note no longer existed. Second, I still wasn’t sure whether there was a reason why Ciar had entrusted Jacinda to me all those years ago. Did he know I had my own reasons for wanting to keep her safe? Or had he believed I was his man, loyal and without opinions, as I always had been and should forever have continued to be?

I had done much for Ciar over the years. I had been his best friend, his confidante, and his loyal follower. But his mother had always viewed me as a threat, like a devoted watchdog with a predisposition to go rabid, and she had warned him—had warned both of us—that no matter how much he liked me, no matter how close we were, he must be prepared to have me executed the second it became necessary.

“I never will,” he told me once. Only once. “I know you would never betray me.”

And I never had.

Ciar was a just king. He was a loyal friend. But he had grown up immersed in his mother’s view of me—in the whole kingdom’s view of me. No one had ever challenged it, and I had no reason to believe he ever stopped holding it.

I didn’t want to tell him I had burned the letter. If I did, I would have to explain why, and I wasn’t sure I could.

But solving the letter’s appearance on my own was equally impossible. No one in this castle knew where Jacinda was, except me. Ciar had insisted that I be the only one to know. He said I was the only one he trusted.

“Don’t even tell me,” he had said while I mounted. He looked up at me, one hand on my saddle, his face bright and clear in the moonlight. “Ella is smart. If she figures out what I did, if it gets back to her that only two women were executed tonight . . . I don’t want to be able to tell her where her stepsister is hiding.”

I looked down at him, aghast at his admission of this common girl’s power over him. Did love really possess that kind of strength? Or was this a sign of the darker magic she had used to ensnare him?

And if so . . . was that why he was letting Jacinda go? Because she was the source of that magic, and her snare, too, still clung to his heart?

I didn’t ask then. I figured the time to probe would be when he changed his mind and instructed me to tell him where Jacinda was after all.

But he never did. For the last five years, until yesterday, he had never mentioned her. At times, I wondered if he had truly forgotten her.

But she, clearly, had not forgotten him. Because there were, in the end, two people who knew this secret. I had held my tongue. But Jacinda, it seemed, had not stayed where she was put.

I couldn’t imagine what had possessed her to take such a risk when she must know the queen would want her dead—and likely the king would as well, once she broke the terms under which he had saved her. Now, too late, Jacinda was trying to undo whatever mistake she had made.

But how had she delivered the letter? An ally in the castle? And if she had one, was that the same person who had betrayed her to the king?

I found that very likely, which put me right back at the beginning I had tried so hard to avoid. I had to talk to Ciar.

I headed for the door to my room, trying to work out what to tell him. Perhaps I could say the note had combusted in my hand . . . but that implied that Jacinda still dabbled in magic, and put her in danger. Besides, it was unworthy of me. I never lied to my king.

The truth would suffice. Ciar would understand, and even if he didn’t understand, he would forgive me. I should trust him, just as he trusted me.

I pulled my door open, strode out into the hall, and felt the knife slide through my skin a moment before I registered the flash of motion on my right.

I was almost too slow. Had it been a regular blade, that would be the end of this story. But it was a stone knife, clumsy and dull-edged, not the sort of thing to use if you really want to kill someone. I knocked it out of my attacker’s hand before it had done more than draw blood (and also really, really hurt).

My attacker dove for the knife. She was shockingly fast—perhaps it hadn’t been only my distraction that let her get past me the first time—but her speed was no match for my strength, training, and, most importantly, steel. I got my blade under her chin and my arm across her chest, pinning her against the wall, and found myself staring into the small triangular face of the queen’s maid, Amelie.

 

You are not surprised. Even though the queen had dozens of maids, and it could have been any one of them.

That’s because you’re hearing about these events as a story. If Amelie wasn’t important, I wouldn’t have told you so much about her, would I?

I didn’t have your advantage. I was surprised, so much so that I lowered my blade. But Amelie didn’t try to take advantage of the opening. Instead, she grinned up at me like she was daring me.

I had no idea what she was daring me to do, so I didn’t have to think about whether I should do it. I stepped back, and she straightened and smoothed down her hair.

“I’m sorry,” she said, not sounding sorry at all.

“What were you trying to accomplish?” I demanded. “Did you actually think you were going to manage to kill me?”

Her eyes sparkled. “I was just trying to get your attention.”

“With a knife?”

“Well, all right.” She shrugged. “I was trying to kill you. But getting your attention was my second best option.”

Perhaps I should have been angrier, but the idea that she might have succeeded in killing me was hard to take seriously. I cocked my head to the side. “And if you had managed your first option? How do you think you would have gotten away with it?”

“It would have been an accident. A fall from a window.” Her smile didn’t waver; she leaned forward a bit, as if we were sharing a private joke. “The windows in this castle are far too large. Very dangerous.”

I tried not to show a reaction. Five years ago, a week after the royal wedding, one of Ciar’s most trusted men had fallen to his death. Witnesses claimed to have seen him staggering near the window while drunk, so I had never questioned that it was an accident, though I had been concerned by how little our newly married prince was grieved by his death. Before his marriage, Ciar had always been as devoted to his men as they were to him.

It had been my first hint of how wedded bliss might change Ciar. I had been relieved when our relationship, after a few weeks of distance, had gone back to normal. Or at least to how it had always been.

Now, I wondered if his lack of concern had been more than that. If he hadn’t wanted to look too closely at how his servant had died, and who might have ordered it.

“Why does your queen want me dead?” I demanded.

Amelie rolled her eyes. “Probably to stop you from bringing her wicked stepsister back to court.”

“I—that’s not—” I stopped my instinctive denial. Apparently, Amelie had decided we were going to be honest with each other. It was in my best interest to continue in that vein, since she clearly knew far more than I did. “How long has the queen known that her stepsister was alive?”

“Oh, from the beginning. The king is not as subtle as he thinks he is.”

“Then why,” I said, “didn’t she try to stop him then?”

“Who knows,” Amelie said. “Gratitude, perhaps? If Jacinda hadn’t dabbled in blood magic to begin with, Ella would never have become queen.”

So we really were being honest today.

I wondered how far it went. What would Amelie say if I asked her where she had come from, and why she was so loyal to our commoner queen? Why she had tried to attack me with a stone knife, and what would happen if she held one with iron in it?

I wish I had asked. But I was loyal and steadfast, and on the king’s business, and, like a good soldier, I focused my attention on my mission.

“In that case,” I said, “why doesn’t she want Jacinda to come back to court?”

“She’s willing to let her stepsister live. That doesn’t mean she wants to look at her face every single day.” Amelie stepped away from me, and I let her. As she turned to face me, I sheathed my blade. “It’s the king’s motives you should be wondering about, Garrin. He’s ignored Jacinda’s existence for five years. Why do you think he wants her back now?”

Because he stopped loving his queen, and remembered that he loved her. As soon as I opened my mouth to say it, I realized how ridiculous it was. There had been dozens of girls before either of them, and Ciar never looked back. If his fancy was passing to another, it would be to someone new.

The realization hit me like a blow to my stomach. While I stood absorbing it, Amelie said, “Come with me, and ask the queen yourself.”

She turned and walked down the hallway without waiting to see if I would follow her.

I should have turned and walked the other way. Nothing the queen said to me could make a difference. I knew my prince’s command. I didn’t need to know his reasons.

But if he didn’t love Jacinda, if he never had . . .

All this time I had known where she was, and I had never gone to her. Never seen what that moonlit dance might have turned into, once the strains of faerie music and the pull of faerie magic were gone.

I had assumed I could not. And maybe all this time, Ciar wouldn’t even have cared.

Although Amelie’s back was to me, I could imagine her expression if I were to say any of this. Which, of course, I had no intention of doing.

But I did follow her: down the passageway, through the side hall, and up the west stairs to the queen’s quarters.

 

Queen Ella was not surprised to see us. She sat on her bed fully dressed, in a simple green gown that made her beauty look wholesome and innocent. Something unspoken passed between her and her maid, and then Amelie crossed the room and stood by the side of the bed, hands clasped together.

“Your Majesty,” I said. I had no choice but to bow, so I did it more deeply than necessary, in the hope that it would come off as sardonic. “You wished to speak to me?”

“I wished,” Queen Ella said, “to never speak to you again.”

Oh, how nice. We were all being honest with each other today.

“I told you the plan wouldn’t work,” Amelie said. “He’s a trained fighter.”

“But you are—” The queen bit the sentence off. “Very well. Garrin. What can I offer you, to leave my stepsister in peace?”

In peace . . .

“It wasn’t her,” I said. It was suddenly obvious, and I was aghast at how easily I had been fooled. “You wrote that note.”

The queen shrugged.

I should have realized. There was, after all, only one other person who knew how important those slippers really were.

And the If you love me? Had she merely been guessing? Or had I been that obvious?

If so, had it been obvious to Ciar, too?

“Why?” I said. “Why are you trying so hard to keep her in exile? Just let her come back.”

For a brief moment, the queen didn’t look beautiful at all. She looked like a trapped, snarling animal. “You don’t know her. You don’t—you can’t understand what she’s capable of. She’s a witch, she sacrificed her own blood to the fae—”

“If she’s so terrible,” I said, “why didn’t she sacrifice your blood?”

Amelie laughed softly. The queen shot her a silencing look, then turned back to me. “Do you know why Ciar spared her, even though he let me kill the other two?”

“I don’t,” I said.

Which was what I would have said even if I did know. But Ciar had not shared his reasons with me that night. He’d met me in the stables, one horse saddled, another already mounted by a figure in a dark cloak with wild, wind-swept hair.

“Take her,” he’d said. “Take her somewhere far away from here.”

I hadn’t asked why, both because I didn’t need to know, and because I thought I did know. He’d loved her first, and he loved her still, and he didn’t want to watch her die.

And though I hadn’t asked about his reason for this mission, either, I could guess that as well. It had been five years, and he had changed his mind. But not about letting her go.

About letting her live.

And that was why I was still here in this castle, pretending that notes and the queen were any of my business. I should have been on my horse, racing down the long, straight road that eventually wound its way into the mountains. I could have been in the village by now, in that tiny cottage. I imagined the way Jacinda’s eyes would widen when she saw me. She would understand at once why I was there.

That the king’s mercy had wound down to nothing, and I had been sent to fulfill his will.

Instead I was here, in the castle, talking to the queen. The only person, aside from me, who didn’t want this to happen.

But only because she didn’t know what was happening. She thought Ciar was sending for Jacinda in order to replace her. I had thought the same thing, until I was forced to see how ridiculous it was. None of us are rational about the people who gave us our deepest scars.

“I’m sorry, Your Majesty,” I said, “but the king has given me a command, and I must carry it out.”

Her lip curled. “Because you are his devoted servant?”

“I am.”

“Please, Garrin.” She said my name like it was stuck in her throat. “You can’t fool me. You’re dangerous. Someday, you’re going to turn on Ciar.”

She said it like she was pronouncing a remarkable insight, even though that was the consensus of every other person in the castle.

The consensus was wrong. But nothing I said would convince the queen of that, so I said nothing.

“Do you know how I know?” She swung her legs over the side of the bed, and Amelie took her hand to help her stand. “Because it’s what I did. So many years of being the grateful, lesser sister, with no right to anything, in debt to them for keeping a roof over my head. For giving me any place at all in my own home. They never imagined that someday, I might take everything they had. But it was the best thing I ever did.”

“They were cruel to you,” I said. “They treated you like a slave. Ciar treats me like a friend.” She made a small, skeptical sound, and I stiffened. “Whether you believe it or not, it’s true.”

“Oh, I believe it.” She shook her hand free of Amelie’s grasp. “But you are both fools if you think that makes a difference. He still has so many things that you do not.”

“They’re his things,” I said. “I don’t want them. I am loyal to Ciar. I’ve always been loyal to Ciar.” I was so tired of people doubting it, when I had spent twenty-two years proving my devotion . . . But then, she had only been here for five of those years. “I’ve done everything he ever asked of me, and will continue to do so. I doubt you can say as much.”

She drew herself up, her eyes turning to ice. “Watch yourself. I am his wife and your queen. He loves me.”

“Of course he does,” I said. “You saw to that, didn’t you?”

She shuffled her feet back instinctively, even though she was wearing only satin-beaded house slippers. The glass slippers were brought out only on special occasions. Fortunately for her, we lived in a castle, so there were plenty of those.

“You stole your stepsister’s magic,” I said flatly. “You used it to make him love you.”

“What difference does it make,” Queen Ella snapped, “if he loves me for my beauty, or for my wit, or for faerie magic? Whatever it is, the true reason is the same. He loves me because I make him happy.” She took a step toward me. “And I do. I do make him happy.”

“But it didn’t have to be you,” I said. “That’s the real reason you don’t want her here, isn’t it? Not because she took what was yours, but because you took what was hers.”

“You are wrong.” Her lips were white. “I stole much from Jacinda, but not Ciar. And all I want now is to keep what is mine. I want you to take her away.”

“You could go to the Daeonian Islands,” Amelie put in, while I stood staring at them. “Prince Ciar isn’t going to chase you through the mountains and risk starting a war. Not over a woman he threw away years ago.”

And not over you. She didn’t have to say it. Ciar would miss me, but he would listen to his advisers, who would all agree that it was better for me to be gone. One danger less.

“I would take care of things here,” Queen Ella added. “Arrange for you to set out with wealth and with fake papers.”

Clearly, they had planned this in advance. A backup in case the killing-me plot didn’t work out.

It was a far better plan. Not just for me, but for everyone. Ciar’s mother had proposed it many times, urging first her husband and then her son to send me away.

“The bastard son of a king, living at court, is a threat,” she had told them. She knew I was listening; she hadn’t cared. “But a foreign bastard son is nothing. He’ll be happier far away from here.”

That last had been for Ciar’s benefit. She could not have cared less about my happiness.

Which didn’t mean she hadn’t been right about it.

“And what,” I asked, “makes you think Jacinda would go anywhere with me?”

Queen Ella smiled, her eyes gleaming. “Trust me.”

“But that’s the thing,” I said. “I don’t.” I set my jaw. “I trust Ciar, and he trusts me. He is my king. I will not betray him.”

The words felt hollow. But they sounded strong, and I felt the twist in my gut that told me I was doing the right thing.

“You fool,” Queen Ella hissed, but I’d heard enough, and wasted enough time. I turned to the door and pulled it open.

Ciar stood on the other side.

I whirled, just in time to see Queen Ella assume an expression of surprise. She was very good at it. I would have been convinced of her shock if I hadn’t seen her face the moment before she put surprise on it.

She had meant for Ciar to be there. To hear me agreeing to betray him, to take what was his, to become the danger everyone had always warned I would be.

My heart pounded with terror at how close I had come to falling into her trap. I bowed to my king, to give me time to compose my face.

“Garrin.” Ciar’s voice was cold. “You have yet to carry out my mission. Why is that?”

“I was on my way.” I shot the queen a look, not quite able to keep the spite out of my voice. This plot of hers had been designed to end in my death; I deserved a bit of spite. “I was, as you see, detained.”

Ciar’s face went completely blank, as if he couldn’t decide what to place upon it. It was an expression I had seen on him once before, and that memory rose sharp and unbidden: the pain ripping through my back, my small body tensing for the next lash, the blood on my lip where I had bitten it in an attempt not to cry out. Ciar, with his mother’s hand clenched around his, holding him at her side and making him watch.

I had not seen what expression he finally chose. The next lash ripped a scream from me, and I turned away in shame. When I looked up, his mother was leading him away, and I could see only the back of his head.

In my memory, there was a tear on his cheek. But had I really seen it?

I couldn’t be sure. And so I watched his face now, with more intensity than the moment deserved, even though he wasn’t even looking at me. He was looking at his queen.

She looked back, every bit as intent as I. But Ciar’s face remained without expression, until finally his wife strode across the room toward him. Her skirts whispered against her legs.

“My love,” she said. “Don’t do it. Please. Don’t bring my stepsister back into our lives.”

“I’m sorry.” He didn’t sound it, though. “We need her.”

Why?” Ella’s voice rose and she lost control of her accent; its rough, common edge bled through. “I’ve summoned doctors from the islands. They say they can help me. I will conceive, Ciar, it will just—”

“Doctors can’t help you.” He stepped away from her, and she flinched as if he had hit her. “Don’t you see? It’s fae magic closing your womb. Your stepsister laid a curse on you. We need to force her to remove it.”

The queen’s eyes widened. She knew full well that the only magic her sister had ever summoned was trapped in a pair of slippers that lay in her own closet.

“I wanted to keep it from you,” Ciar said, “to spare you grief.” His tone was sincere, his eyes deep and warm—but still, he did not touch her. “I see that I was wrong. I am sorry. Let’s do this together.”

A flicker of alarm crossed the queen’s face. “Together?”

“Yes. Let us set out, the three of us”—Amelie gave him an exaggerated pout, which only I saw—“to retrieve your stepsister and force her to undo her final attempt to hurt you.”

Queen Ella looked at me, then back at her husband.

“You don’t have to be afraid of her,” Ciar said gently. “Not anymore. You know that, don’t you?”

“I know it,” Ella said. “I just don’t believe it.” She took a deep breath and lifted her chin. “But with you, I always feel safe. You rescued me before. I know you’ll do it again.”

Ciar reached for her hand and wound his fingers through hers.

“Wonderful,” I said. I knew my voice was too sour, but I couldn’t help it; besides, Amelie was making exaggeratedly nauseated faces, and if I stopped focusing on my bitterness, I was going to laugh. “It will be a party.”

 

I was already wearing riding clothes, so I had some extra time before we were expected to meet at the stables. I went straight there anyhow, saddled my horse swiftly, then left him with a pat on the nose and made my way to the stall that housed the queen’s favorite mare.

I expected to be there before anyone else. My plan was to conceal myself so I could eavesdrop on the queen and Amelie. But I had miscalculated. The two of them were already in the stall, and all I could do was lurk outside the wooden walls. Amelie seemed to be doing most of the talking, and I was too far away to make out what she was saying. Her voice was like a soft breeze, dissipating into incomprehensible wisps by the time it reached my ears.

Queen Ella’s voice, however, was sharp and clear as glass. “I am keeping our bargain. All I ask for is for one day’s delay. I will return the slippers to you when I return. I swore to set you free, and I will.”

Amelie said something else, and the queen laughed bitterly. “And what good will it do to tell him my womb is quickened, if he has already chosen another bride and another heir? He can put me aside easily and legitimize her child. Then my babe will be the bastard, and she will once again have everything that should be mine. His love for me is the only weapon I have. I need to keep it.”

In my eagerness to hear more, I risked edging closer. So I heard, barely, what Amelie said next. “Love does not change anyone’s actions, my queen. Certainly not your husband’s.”

“It did once,” Queen Ella said, and then I must have made some sound, because they both went silent and turned in my direction. I strolled past the wall and into the stall, as if I had just arrived, and bowed.

“Your Majesty,” I said. “Are you ready to depart?”

“I suppose I have to be,” the queen said, and stepped away from her horse.

It took me a moment to realize what she was waiting for. I gritted my teeth, got to my knees, and began tightening the straps of her sidesaddle.

Amelie laughed. It sounded like the tinkling of bells. “That was one of the things I always liked about you, my lady. Your pettiness.”

“Well,” Queen Ella said grimly, “I learned it from the best.”

Amelie shook her head. “Jacinda was no good at pettiness. She always had to work herself into hatred first. Such a waste of energy.”

My hand slipped on the leather. Somehow, it was a shock to hear her name. Even though this was all about her, it felt oddly like it had nothing to do with her at all. Like she existed as nothing but a picture, one we had all drawn to our own design, one we kept reacting to in the absence of the reality of who she was.

Except for me. But the instant I thought it, I knew it wasn’t true. I had shared one dance with Jacinda, and one terrible nighttime ride, and since then, all I’d had was the thought of her. The memory of the one side of her I had seen: not the girl who had desperately wanted her mother’s approval, not the girl who had tormented her stepsister as viciously as she was able, not the girl who had shed her own blood and dabbled with the fae in order to be queen. Just a girl fleeing across a lawn, the castle looming over her; a terrified girl who had nonetheless stopped for a brief, wild dance.

That was the Jacinda I remembered. But the queen remembered the same person differently, and when I stood and met her blue eyes, I saw that she was terrified. Afraid to stand again before the person who had once tormented her while she was small and helpless.

“You defeated her last time,” I reminded her. “There’s nothing to be afraid of now.”

Her blue eyes went wide, and then her lips thinned. “She never told you?”

Did everyone know about me and Jacinda? And did everyone assume there was more to know than there actually had been?

“Tell me what?” I said.

“That I never defeated her. I never stole those slippers from her.”

I laughed harshly—the one time, I knew, that I would dare laugh at my queen. “Then how did they come to be on your feet? Did she give them to you as a gift?”

“Yes,” the queen said.

We stared at each other. I glanced over at Amelie, who met my gaze and nodded.

“Why,” I said, “would she do that?”

“I don’t know. She never told me.” The queen’s shoulders lifted and fell. “Guilt, perhaps.”

I snorted. “I can’t imagine Jacinda feeling guilty.”

“You didn’t know her,” the queen said. “You loved her, and that made you blind.”

“And you hated her,” I retorted, “which is just a different type of blindness.”

She laughed, low and bitter. “And how would you know, Garrin? Who do you hate? It seems to me that you can do nothing but snivel and submit, even to those who wrong you over and over—”

“Your Majesty,” Amelie said. A warning.

Queen Ella pressed her lips together, then let out a breath and relaxed her shoulders. She turned from me and smiled at her maid, a soft, rueful smile. “What will I do, Amelie, when you are not here to advise me?”

Amelie shrugged.

“Would you not stay?” the queen said. “Once I have no hold on you, will you not feel even the slightest desire to protect me?”

Amelie gave her a sideways look, as if she had said something very stupid. “No, my queen. That is a magic we neither wield nor understand. I’ve told you as much, many times.”

“I see something different,” the queen said, “when I look at you. Perhaps you do not know who you truly are.”

Amelie laughed, like bells chiming wildly.

The queen’s face hardened. She turned to me. “Help me mount, Garrin, and quickly. We would not want to keep the king waiting.”

 

But of course, it was Ciar who kept us waiting; not to make a point, but because it would never have occurred to him to rush on anyone’s behalf. The queen and I had nothing more to say to each other, and it was a long, uncomfortable wait.

In the end, we set out shortly before noon. By the time we made it to the cottage, the sun was pulling the colors of the sky behind the mountains, leaving a dark, purplish smudge in their place.

It was a mostly silent ride. I had to show them the way, which was a good excuse for keeping my mount far in the lead. I wouldn’t have heard Ciar and Ella speaking, even if they did.

But I don’t think they did.

Ciar was dressed in plain black clothes with a hood over his head, and Ella wore a gray riding dress and a veil that covered the lower half of her face. Not disguises so much as indications to the populace that they should pretend not to recognize their monarchs. The travelers we passed on the road, and the villagers in the mountains, all obeyed.

Jacinda’s cottage was set apart from the village, which struck me now as an unnecessary cruelty. I dismounted beside the newly painted fence, dismayed to find that my heart was pounding. I couldn’t tell if I was eager or afraid.

Ciar dismounted as well, then helped his wife off her horse. The queen’s face was dead white. That was fear, and as soon as I saw it, I recognized how different it was from what I felt. I was braced and ready, but not truly afraid.

I was . . . eager.

But then, we weren’t preparing to see the same person. We had all seen her from different angles, each of our views hiding certain aspects of her and bringing others into focus. And Jacinda was more than what any one of us saw in her. She was made up not of those angles, but of a core that, for all I knew, none of us had ever gotten close to.

I glanced at Ciar, waited for his nod, then strode up to the door and knocked.

No one answered.

Ciar came up behind me. I knew he wouldn’t knock—royalty didn’t—so I pushed the door open and stepped inside.

My readiness drained away in a single glance.

Ciar made a sound, somewhere between a cough and a gasp, and I reached out instinctively to steady him.

As I did, I turned and saw Queen Ella’s face. She had one delicate hand raised to her lips, pressing the veil against her mouth. But I could see her eyes, and the expression in them when she first realized that her stepsister was dead.

The cottage was, for a few seconds, utterly silent and utterly still.

In those few seconds, I took in several facts about the room we stood in:

Neat and clean, save for the blackening pool of blood.

A metal blade in Jacinda’s hand, her fingers curled around its hilt.

Her hair had been in braids, but they had come loose. Her dark hair was spread around her motionless face. Some of it was matted with blood.

Her corpse was still stiff and clenched. She had been dead for only a day or two.

The blankets on her pallet were raised into a large lump, and the lump was completely still.

“You did this,” the queen said shrilly. She pointed at me. “You were the only one who knew where she was. You killed her!”

The sentence ended in a choked sob, and she moved her hands up to cover her eyes.

“Are you crying for her?” I demanded. My voice was far harsher than I should have dared use to my queen; but sometimes, it doesn’t require fae magic to make people disregard consequences. “You ordered her death five years ago. What changed since then?”

Queen Ella took a few steps closer, then halted, probably because of the stench. She stared at her stepsister’s still, rigid face.

“Five years,” she said. “That’s all. Five years passed. It doesn’t alter what she did to me, but it gave me time to hate her less.”

“My love,” Ciar said, and she whirled on him. For a moment, from the look on her face, I thought she would accuse him of ordering me to do this. Instead, she let out a choked cry and threw herself into his arms.

I approached Jacinda’s body and knelt beside her. Her throat had been slit, neatly and professionally. It had probably taken her only seconds to die.

I gritted my teeth. With Ciar watching, I dared not cry.

“Who could have done this?” Queen Ella sobbed.

The obvious answer was: You. The queen had been so desperate to keep her stepsister away, and helpless to stop me from going to retrieve her. Surely, she and Amelie had been prepared with a third backup plan.

But they hadn’t known where Jacinda was.

Or had they? I suspected that Amelie had ways of knowing things that I couldn’t even guess at.

“We all did it,” Ciar said sorrowfully. “We left her alone, in her loneliness and grief, and she couldn’t bear it anymore. She took her own life.”

“No.” Queen Ella pulled slightly away from him. “No. That wasn’t what Jacinda—she would never.”

I tended to agree. Not because of the fierceness I remembered; a lot could change in five years, including that. But because of that lump in the bed, which I had just seen move.

I said nothing, though, because the queen was right. I was the only person who had known where Jacinda was. I had never told Ciar—he had made it easy, by never asking. I had never told anyone. If this was deemed murder, I would be the only suspect.

Queen Ella’s shoulders shook with sobs for the woman she had long ago condemned to death. Ciar’s face was drawn and mournful—it was, I saw now, a new demeanor he was practicing—his eyes soft as he looked down at his wife. The queen whirled toward the door, and I saw the glitter of glass beneath her hem. An odd choice for riding shoes.

Ciar looked over the queen’s shoulder and met my eyes.

“You should search the room,” he said.

He did not look at the lump on the bed. He would leave it to me to uncover it, and pretend he hadn’t known what was there.

It’s the lack of an heir that’s causing the problem.

He can legitimize her child.

“Of course,” I said, obedient as always, and saw the faint flash of relief in his eyes before he turned back to his wife.

I was always obedient, yet he had never fully trusted me. Always waiting for something to make me turn.

Of course, of course, he’d had me followed. All those years ago, when I fled with Jacinda down these roads, there had been someone behind us. To make sure I did as he ordered. To make sure I came back. To make sure I didn’t try to take what was his.

The man who had fallen out the window, two days after my return, had been just the sort of person he would pick for that task. A loyal nobody.

No wonder Ciar had never asked where she was. All this time, he had known. Yet he had sent me to retrieve her instead of going himself.

Or had he?

I pulled the blanket free. The boy beneath it grabbed it back, trying to pull it over himself again. His dark eyes were wide and terrified, his round face scrubbed clean, his black hair a tangle of curls.

He was about five years old, and he looked like Ciar.

I can’t explain what came over me as I looked at that small round face, the large dark eyes, frightened and hopefully trusting. I would say it was magic, for in my experience, only love triggered by magic strikes like that: fast and sudden and completely without reason.

But the fae do not bear children, and this is a magic they neither wield nor understand.

“Whose child is that?” Queen Ella said shrilly, and I turned.

The queen’s eyes were stricken above her veil. She already knew whose child this was. And now she knew why Ciar had saved her stepsister, and why he had sent for her now, after five years of a childless marriage.

Except he had not actually sent anyone. Not at first. He had ridden here alone, to inform Jacinda that he needed his heir back.

I could see it in my mind’s eye. Him showing up, expecting her to hand over his child. So he could raise the boy at court. An heir if he needed one . . . or, if Ella bore him an heir, a royal bastard.

He probably hadn’t imagined that she might refuse him. Might try to take what was his.

We had all been trained never to take anything from Ciar . . . and in the process, he, too, had been trained. To never expect or allow anyone to do so.

Back when his mother had made him watch my whipping, Ciar had obeyed silently, with no expression on his small face. When the whipping was over, he had taken his mother’s hand and let her lead him to his room.

He had never said a word to me about it. Not ever. I’d thought maybe he was embarrassed, maybe he was confused, maybe he was angry. I had imagined him weeping for me.

We are all so stupid, when it comes to the people we need to love us. That was my only excuse for why I had missed the most obvious explanation.

He had said nothing because, as far as he was concerned, there was nothing that needed to be said.

The queen made a small, whimpering sound, and I heard the genuine grief in it. She, too, could not see the truth about the person whose love she craved. How easily she had believed that her stepsister had given her the shoes out of kindness, even though Jacinda had never showed her kindness in her life.

And perhaps the cruelest thing Jacinda had ever done to her stepsister was to hand her over to Ciar.

Yet Jacinda had still not managed to get away from him. I wondered if she had been surprised when she saw him at her door, and how much time she’d had to fight. Though her braids had come loose, it wouldn’t have been much of a struggle. Ciar was far larger than her, and well trained. Ruthless and determined.

I wondered why he hadn’t just taken the child then. He could have gotten away with it; he was king. Had he been afraid of his queen’s reaction? Or of the court’s? After all, if he had just shown up with a child, with no explanation, that child’s parentage would forever have been in doubt. Even though he looked like Ciar.

I spoke without thinking. If I had thought, I might not have done it.

“He’s mine,” I said.

Both faces turned toward me: Ciar aghast, Ella stunned.

But neither of them disbelieving.

Everyone thought I had known Jacinda so much better than I did. That there had been more between us than there truly was.

I hadn’t known her at all. But now she was dead, and who she truly was didn’t really matter, did it? All that was left was the image of a person she had imprinted on each of our hearts. Ciar’s. Ella’s. Mine.

This boy’s.

“She never told me,” I said. It was not hard to sound stupid and betrayed. “She never told me about my own child.”

Ella drew in her breath, then let it out without speaking.

“I should have known,” I said. “She made me swear never to tell about us, and the way she left . . . so suddenly . . . I should have guessed. How could I be so stupid?”

I met the king’s eyes, and I kept on my usual expression: loyalty. Trust. Subservience.

I saw him work it through. The resemblance. The timing. The fact that he had never sired a child, not with any of the other women and not with his wife.

“I’m sorry,” I said, and I saw him believe me. All those years of obedience, paying off at last. He would not think that I would do something this audacious, not when I had never, ever, since we were seven years old and playing with lances, taken a single thing from him.

Queen Ella’s eyes narrowed, and I thought that perhaps I had not fooled her. But it didn’t matter, because we were on the same side now. It was in her interest for the boy to be mine. The bastard son of a king was a threat, but the bastard son of a bastard son was nothing at all.

It wouldn’t take her long to see that I was drawing the boy farther from the center of court, farther from his father’s eye, farther from her own child. When it came time to go farther still, to take him someplace distant from any royalty, I hoped she would remember the bargain she had offered me this morning.

I stepped in front of the boy, so he wouldn’t see his mother’s body. He held up his small hands to me—where he got such trust, I do not know; his mother must have made his world feel very safe—and I gathered him up in my arms.

“Let’s go,” I said. “I want to take my son home.”

 

And there you go. That’s the story I promised I would tell you, once you were old enough to hear it.

You’re likely not old enough yet, but I have no choice. I may not have time to wait until you have some maturity and sense—and really, a young man who pulls those kinds of faces at his father is definitely not old enough—hahaha, okay. Enough.

In time, you’ll think of questions. I’ll answer them if I can.

You’re probably already wondering why Lissa wasn’t part of this story.

There’s no why, son. She simply wasn’t. The castle was full of people who weren’t. I mentioned her name at the start merely because it was the only opportunity I had; the only time she brushed past this tale.

That must seem odd to you, when in all your memories of us, we’ve been caring for you together. But how that came about . . .

Well. That was later, much later. And it’s a story for another time.

 

–The End–

 

(My interview with F&SF about this story, including buy links to the magazine.)