Mariella was cleaning her palettes, humming under her breath. A cute song, something festive now that the chill that heralded December’s arrival had settled in properly. And why shouldn’t she be festive? Maybe this year she would finally have something to celebrate.
She’d just finished up a landscape piece — a snowy forest with a mystical hush about it. She’d tiptoed around the canvas as she’d placed paint just so, creating an atmosphere so like what she remembered from when she was young that it had almost brought tears to her eyes. It may have been her finest work yet.
Henry, the dear, brought over her brushes and knives and deposited them on the counter so she wouldn’t have to make two trips and track water into the studio. He chuckled and nudged her with his elbow. “Someone’s cheerful.”
She grinned — really grinned, with her whole self, whereas before her smiles were clipped and secretive: lips-only affairs. How dull. “I used to always love this time of year, I remember.” She glanced out the window at the falling snow. Magic, of course: the southern climate still wasn’t hospitable to such conditions. While the more average of the citizenry was able to frolic among the little blue flakes, making snowmen or flinging balls of ice at each other’s faces or whatever regular people did nowadays, the tiny perfect crystalline specimens disintegrated against her skin, their artificial chill not even touching her. They clung to her hair and lashes and clothes well enough to fool everyone else, but her little immunity made her enjoyment of the game short-lived. “I think I’ll make a little outing today.”
Henry narrowed his eyes. “I thought we agreed — no gifts.”
Mariella laughed, a delightful little giggle that surprised even her own self. “Oh, don’t worry dear. I was thinking of trying to find something for Jilli.”
“Do you think that’s wise?”
Mariella stopped cleaning her brush, letting the water flow over her hands, as she looked at Henry. Her faithful friend all these long, long years. They’d lived countless lives together, been so many different people that she couldn’t quite remember when exactly they had crossed paths. Henry was never cruel to her. But this hurt. “You don’t?”
Henry sighed and looked away. He always had the same expression when he was trying to put something delicately. Maybe that’s what she would paint next. “I wonder if she’s a little overwhelmed is all. I know you’ve done your best to get her to trust you these last few months, but I think she would be suspicious of any gifts. And now isn’t a good time to give her a reason to rescind any of that trust.”
Mariella considered that, taking up one of her knives and rinsing the paint off. She turned it over in her hand. “Then,” she decided, “it might be courteous to get rid of a thorn in her side. It’s really the least I could do.”
A slow smile spread across her face and she took up the humming again.
By the time she had her plan in place, a real doozy of a snowstorm had reared its head at the precise location of her destination. As if it was all coming together just for her. Gorgeous.
It was lucky for her that she was able to travel for this particular task — she’d missed the cooler climate when she relocated to California all those years ago to build her empire. This was true cold. The wind nipped at her nose and snowflakes clung to her dark ringlets. Her breath fogged out in front of her, guiding her along the path. Her long, red coat swirled around her as she walked, and her boots crunched in the snow, making the most satisfying sound. She could have done a dance right there for how positively giddy it made her.
But she had restraint.
Maybe she ought to buy a home in the mountains for when city life became too much? Return to the forests where she truly felt like herself once in a while.
Her sources had told her that dear sweet Owen Summers was staying in his remote cabin for an elongated vacation. Sans family. Well, she couldn’t possibly guess what the golden boy senator could possibly have been up to all out here on his own. But she guessed it was nothing good.
Mariella decided to spare the courtesy to knock, but waited only a few seconds before entering. She supposed she shouldn’t be surprised by what it was that greeted her, but the idyllic winter scene outside was a sharp contrast to what lay in wait behind closed doors.
A fire was roaring in the fireplace, hot and orange the way normal fires should burn. A candle was burning on the table nearby: gingerbread or cinnamon, perhaps. A Christmas tree stood in the corner of the room, half-decorated.
It could have been a quaint little place, if it hadn’t been for the handy tools and instruments laid out on the sofa, blood spatters on the wall and floor, and the obvious torture taking place right in the middle of the living room.
“Ah, Ms. Morrow,” Owen Summers greeted. He straightened and wiped the blood off his hands with a spare rag and discarded it carelessly over the arm of a nearby couch. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
She spared only a glance for the poor victim moaning in the center of the room, face battered and bloody, slumped over in a chair, duct tape the only thing keeping the poor dear from spilling onto the floor and ruining the carpet even further. Looking back up at Owen Summers, she smiled, tight-lipped, and raised the basket she’d been holding. “What do you say let’s make cookies. And have a little chat.”
He shrugged, as if he had nothing better to do. “I don’t see why not. What kind of cookies?”
“I haven’t decided yet. Let’s call it a surprise.”
“Much like your visit to my little cottage. If I knew I’d be having guests, I’d have tidied up a bit.” He punched his victim one more time for emphasis, knocking the poor thing unconscious.
Mariella locked away her distaste at this wasteful violence. Her partnership with the senator and his notorious anti-magic stance was vital to her plans, and it meant that he wouldn’t try to use any magic against her if it came to any...disagreements and discover the truth of her condition.
After all, it was her high magic resistance that had saved her life during the last attempt her enemies made to end it. It was a good secret to keep to herself.
The downside, of course, was that if he wanted to hurt her — and Mariella believed that Owen Summers wanted to hurt everyone, a little bit — there was little standing in his way. Other than the already occupied living room, she supposed. But a psychopath like Senator Summers probably wasn’t opposed to making the living room a little grislier.
He smiled and extended a hand out to her. She’d always hated his smile. He never seemed to be able to do it right, not even for the cameras. His eyes were always empty.
She glided over to him anyway, sidestepping blood spatters and discarded pliers. Was that a tooth? It didn’t matter. She slid her hand into his and he kissed the top of it, like the accommodating gentleman he pretended to be.
“It’s lovely to see you nonetheless. Do come in.” He waved his hand toward the rest of the cabin, drawing her attention away from the mess.
She entered, shedding her coat as she did so. Mariella could feel his gaze on her, predatory but not hostile. She had been in far worse predicaments than this, and it never stopped the thrill of electricity under her skin. She was made for this. All she had to do was tread carefully.
It would be easy.
“To what do I owe the pleasure of hosting the late and great Sylvia Morrow in my kitchen?” he asked as he led her into the other room, taking the basket from her and setting it down on the countertops as he did so.
Ah, Sylvia Morrow. It had been a while since anyone had used that name to address her to her face. She felt the old identity sliding over her like a second skin. Sometimes she missed it. Pity that it was stolen from her too soon: she hadn’t been quite done with it.
She rummaged in the basket and sorted through her items, humming to herself again while she decided what should happen next. “I was worried you were running away when you rescheduled your little reelection fundraiser,” she murmured. “Perhaps my resurfacing has made you rethink our little arrangement.”
“On the contrary,” Owen replied, leaning against the countertop next to her. Casual, as if they were old friends catching up. “I do think your big reveal with the country’s main CEOs is a tick in my favor.”
Though she allowed the rest of the world to believe her dead in the fire that had been set in her office ten years ago, it was finally time to resurface and take back what belonged to her. Part of that meant playing this ghost come back for revenge. It was simple: revenge was part of the reason she was back, anyway.
She only used her real name with Henry. And dear Jillian, of course. They should be honest with each other, after all, if this was to work.
“Well, I’m glad to hear you haven’t caught cold feet,” she replied, brushing a curl behind her ear.
“What do you think: chocolate chip or snickerdoodles?”
“I might have sprinkles in here somewhere — maybe sugar cookies. It’s been ages since I’ve had any.” He rummaged in some cabinets to make his search more believable.
Mariella kept him in her sights. “Tell me, who is that poor soul on his way to decomposing in your living room?”
Owen laughed over his shoulder. “Don’t you recognize him? He worked on Oasis’s new building. Knows the place inside and out. But he was just a contractor — not worth protecting on the inside.”
Mariella lingered on the rolling pin as she brought it out of her basket. Considered. Set it aside.
“You’re going after their contractors? Why?”
Not casual enough. Owen shot her one of those unsettling smiles. “Why, for the information you requested, of course.”
Mariella raised a brow over her shoulder. “Just Oasis?”
“I decided to start there.”
“Oh dear,” she sighed, fingers itching for the rolling pin again. But she needed to exercise some restraint. “I’m afraid that’s not entirely the way I imagined things.”
Owen came back with some red and green sugar crystals in little jars. “You know how I like to work.”
She nodded and made a little humming noise under her breath as if conceding the point.
“Shall we?” Owen asked, tying on an apron over his bloodied suit.
She turned her full attention on him, a smile plastered on her lips. “Owen, dear, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but,” she said graciously, “please wash your hands.”
He laughed and sauntered over to the kitchen sink, letting the water run over his hands until it turned red. “I always knew I liked you.”
Mariella laughed in return. If only the feeling was mutual.
“You know, it’s been bothering me. You see, Jezebel mentioned this on the phone with me a few weeks ago.” Mariella paced, making lazy, haphazard patterns around the room.
The string of attacks on former contractors or contacts was so sudden — everyone who so much as entered the building in the past five years had seemed to be a potential target, and there was no rhyme or reason that anyone had been able to see for the sudden surge of violence. All the victims had worked on different projects, and most had never even met one another. The only thing that connected them was Jillian — or Jezebel to everyone else — herself, as she had personally hired every single one of them.
That would have made Jilli a suspect automatically — if all the employees’ records there had been public knowledge.
“But now I have the key to the puzzle. It’s been you all this time.” She drummed her fingers on her chin. “I know I asked you to gather some information about the finer details of the main companies dealing in illegal magic under the table. A union against a common enemy.” She shook her head. She never imagined it would lead to this. Jilli’s people hurt, her company reeling, and it was all her fault.
“It’s too bad you haven’t even procured any useful information for me.”
He made a noise of protest.
“Shush. I don’t care about what Oasis is doing. I could probably just ask nicely. Did you ever think about asking nicely, Owen?” He’d had a problem with Jillian from the start. She should have known he’d have started there.
“Well,” she murmured, hands on her hips, “what’s done is done, isn’t it, dear?”
Now it was Owen strapped to the chair, beaten and bloody. True, she’d had to discipline him in the past, but he’d been unmedicated and clear-headed. Why, he’d nearly begged for the opportunity. A strange man, really.
“No...whip...this time?” Owen bit out.
She laughed. True, she had favored that as a weapon in the past, hadn’t she? “I’m so sorry to disappoint, Owen dear. I must have left it at home.” In truth, she’d grown tired of it. The image didn’t suit her anymore. But since she hadn’t anything on hand apart from kitchen utensils and Owen’s primitive torture tools, she had to improvise.
After all, this wasn’t necessarily what she’d had in mind when she decided to pay a little visit.
Besides, the bloody rolling pin in her hand had a reassuring weight to it. She smiled as she put it down and helped herself to another cookie, watching Owen’s eyes widen as she took an exaggeratedly slow bite.
“Why, I invite you to guess!” She giggled, a crumb falling from the corner of her mouth. “Do you mind if I help myself to some milk?” She waited a split second for a response. “Of course not, what use do you have for any at this hour?” She wandered into the kitchen, ruffling his hair as she did so.
She checked the oven timer, made a satisfied sound under her breath, and poured herself a glass of milk before gliding back into the living room. Owen’s eyes tracked her every movement, but she could see his head hanging heavy.
“Don’t worry; they’re almost ready.” She set the glass of milk down on the nearby table and took up the rolling pin again, spinning it between her hands as if she was thinking of something important.
“So, any guesses?”
“You...brought magic.” He cut her a glare. She was sure it was meant to be meaningful and brimming with hate, but really all he was able to muster was a pathetic sort of scowl.
Mariella giggled, her chest warming. “Ahh, that’s very good. Very good. Oh, don’t look at me like that. You should know me better than to play by your rules.”
He made some other sounds, but none of them sounded like words.
“I don’t have the same mission as you, dear. You think magic is wild and dangerous and should be shoved back into the pocket of the universe it came from. But you don’t see the bigger picture. It’s too late for that anyway. And you’re so blind that you can’t see past your own prejudice.
“You know that Octium tried to kill me all those years ago. Did you ever ask yourself why?” She laughed to herself, bitter this time. “They wanted to privatize magic. Limit and commodify it until it became the next symbol of status and prestige and wealth. And you know what I said?”
She turned to Owen, who only stared.
“I said fuck that.”
“I know, it’s not every day that anyone stands up to Octium. And so they just,” she flicked her fingers as if shooing away an annoying pest, “removed me from the game altogether.
“Or they would have, if not for—” The timer in the kitchen went off.
“The snickerdoodles! Oh, you’ll love them. It’s a secret recipe.” Mariella winked and whisked off to the kitchen to take the cookies out of the oven. “They smell wonderful!” she called over her shoulder.
She heard a loud yelling-noise of moderate protest and scoffed. “Someone doesn’t appreciate freshly baked cookies.” She set the cookies on the counter to cool and shut the oven off before making her way back to the living room.
“Now, where were we!”
“Always knew...you were a...fucking...bitch.”
She smirked. “Of course. But that’s why you like me so much, isn’t it?”
He spat. Or tried to. His face was probably still numb, so all he did was dribble a little down his chin.
Mariella put her hands on her hips. “Honestly, men need to come up with a better insult than that. Bitch. Please. As if that’s the one word that summarizes me as a person and that’s the only thing I can be. So narrow minded. Like you can’t be both a feminist and a murderer — oh!” She interrupted herself and spun around, covering her mouth with her hand to suppress a giggle.
“You know, it’s been a while since I’ve killed anyone.” She picked up the rolling pin again and tossed it in the air, flipping it lengthwise before catching it again. She turned it this way and that, examining it thoughtfully. “I wonder if I’m any good at it.”
Owen made feeble attempts to strain against his bindings.
“It’s so pathetic, you know,” she said. “We haven’t even gotten to the best part. Don’t you want to know a secret?”
He stilled. She laughed.
One last trip into the kitchen. She grabbed a fresh snickerdoodle and the thumb-sized vial of blue swirling liquid from her coat pocket. Time for a little magic show. It shimmered in the firelight, as if getting ready for its time as the star of the show.
Mariella perched on Owen’s lap for her demonstration, up close and personal to make sure he really knew who was going to ruin him and how. Close enough to whisper her Christmas wish into his ear. As if she was a child at a party, asking Santa pretty please for a unicorn, putting all her faith into the making of this one important wish.
Well, here was her unicorn.
She poured the smallest drop of the liquid from the vial and watched as the sugar dusting the top of the cookie turned blue. She locked eyes with Owen Summers, a slow smile spreading across her face. “This is how I did it.”
And she took a big bite out of the cookie.
Owen’s eyes widened.
Seconds passed. Breaths stopped.
But nothing happened.
Mariella’s innate resistance to magic also let her direct it by merely telling it what to do, no paired compounds or modifications or messy science involved. So a poison that would ordinarily be detectable in the bloodstream could be made undetectable just because she wished it so.
Five-year-old Mariella would be so proud, whisked away by fantasies of fairy queens and magical adventures. Ten-year-old Mariella had wanted to be a witch, and this was about as close as reality dared, it seemed. Adult Mariella put this to far more practical use: rebuilding an empire.
And a poison would be too boring anyway. Cyanide? In almond cookies? A cliche. A muscle relaxer and a tiny drop of truth potion mixed in with the chocolate chips? Creative finesse. Let the victim think nothing was amiss until their limbs were too heavy to lift a hand in self-defense. Keep them awake and aware enough to know exactly what was happening every step of the way.
She laughed and leaned in to whisper her secret. “Magic has never worked on me, dear.” She took another bite. “Tastes like lilac, by the way.”
Maybe she was needlessly cruel. And she oh so regretted having to stoop to this level. But Owen Summers had simply gone too far this time. Going after poor Jilli’s people when she had no way of protecting them. Willfully misinterpreting her instructions to make good on a personal vendetta. Childish. Unbecoming. Not the way she preferred to do business.
It was too bad that Owen’s first victim was dead by the time she’d checked on him. She frowned but resigned herself to it. Collateral damage was the way the game was played, after all. Some things just couldn’t be helped.
In the end, the news outlets would report that the fire in the fireplace had blazed out of control due to the mishandling of a magical device meant to keep the fire going into the night. Politicians from both sides of the magic debate would get in such a tizzy over it, and the reporters would go on eating it up like rabid raccoons.
She had poured out the magic vial into the fireplace, suppressing her shudder at seeing the flames turn blue. “May all your bacon burn,” she murmured, uttering a favorite curse from her childhood. The magic knew what to do from there: consume the house and everything inside, but no more.
Magic was easy: intent dressed up in pretty words, the more powerful to the speaker the better. Spoken over this strange blue not-liquid that came from between the cracks in the universe. A shortcut compared to the elixirs and chemicals mixed up with it to change its form and direct its energy.
Mariella wasn’t sure if her condition led her to be able to influence magic in this way, or if it was because no one else had tried it her way yet. Or perhaps it was something different entirely. She hadn’t exactly had many friends to philosophize about it with. Henry liked to keep his hands out of magic as much as possible, which she respected and understood. He’d been in the same fire as she had, after all, and had lost much more than she could ever comprehend. Though maybe she was starting to.
Because she was immune, she was left untouched by the raging blue inferno. But she had learned from the last fire she was trapped in: she gathered up her coat and her bag, all magic- and fireproofed along with the rest of her clothes years ago. A messy affair involving far too much blood, but worth it in the end.
She took her sweet time going through the house to make sure there was no one else hiding in corners or unconscious in the basement. Forced herself to walk among the blue flames until she was sure that Owen Summers wouldn’t make any miraculous comebacks. His screams were oh so satisfying in the end. They drowned out the same ones echoing in her head from all those poor people she hadn’t been able to save. People she had trusted. People who had counted on her. And all for nothing.
They say facing your fears is one of the best ways to get over them. Not so on this night. Mariella shivered in the sudden cold as she was swept up in the snowstorm once again and vowed to throw away every candle in her home upon her return. At least for now. Just in case.
The only thought to make her smile again was the idea of sending Jilli her leftover cookies the next day, accompanied with a lovely note. Yes, that would do the trick nicely.
She laughed, an intimate sound between her and the smoke and the stars, as she trekked her way out of the forest and back home.
Merry Little Murderess Writing Contest!
Alright, guys and gals and non-binaries! We're having a story competition! The prize? I have no effing clue, but we'll come up with one if you have a hankering after it. The challenge? To write a story (any story, maybe even a Christmas story! Any genre, any setting or time period) 5000 words or less with the title "Merry Little Murderess" [or Murderer, if you prefer].
When is it due? My arbitrary reply is a month from now, which is...the eve of Mikulas - December 6th! The day after Czechs bombard the streets in trios comprised of St. Mikulas, an angel, and a demon. When better to be freed from the spars of a competition but on the very night you can go out and wreak mischief? Voting on everyone's favorite story will then begin, with the final votes coming in December 15th.
Where to submit? Here! Below, enter your story as a comment.
Is that it? Yes, that's it! I've babbled enough. Going back under my introvert rock now, thank you very much. * bows *
Merry Little Murderess Writing Contest entries
Merry Little Murderess
Michelle Robins |
Mariella was cleaning her palettes, humming under her breath. A cute song, something festive now that the chill that heralded December’s arrival had settled in properly. And why shouldn’t she be festive? Maybe this year she would finally have something to celebrate.
Merry Little Murderess
Nate Duff |
Her name was Merry, but no one called her that, because she was never merry. They called her You, or It, or Urchin, or Brat. If they were feeling kind, they called her That Little Match Girl.
She looked rather like a matchstick, pale and scrawny with an unkempt ruddy mop that might have caught fire if brushed against a striking surface. Also, she sold matches on the city streets, carrying a basket of matchbooks under her arm. Passersby seldom gave her a sidelong glance, let alone a farthing.
Her father worked at the match factory, where he stole samples off the production line. While he sat in their flat and drank, she went out and earned her keep. When she didn’t sell enough, she didn’t get any bread. When she didn’t sell any, she got his belt.
Nobody was buying any matches tonight.
It was New Year’s Eve, chilly and snowy. Most people were home with their families.
Her bleeding feet were wrapped in rags. She’d gone out wearing her mother’s slippers, much too big for Merry, but lost them when she’d dodged a speeding carriage. One slipper had simply disappeared. A boy had run off with the other, saying he was going to use it as a cradle when he had his own children one day. Merry had said awful things to him. She’d meant every word.
Her bleeding feet took her to a little church, the same place her family used to go every Sunday. The tall stained-glass windows had iron bars to keep out thieves and vandals, undesirables like Merry. She peered inside. Somewhere in the congregation was her father, sweating in his shabby suit. Somewhere in the children’s choir, she thought she saw the boy who stole her slipper.
The last time Merry had been there was her grandmother’s funeral. Before that, her mother’s. Her father had driven her mother to an early grave, yelling and hitting and drinking, always drinking. Her mother often had bruises where her father had thought no one would see. They saw. On Sundays, everyone looked away. They knew, and looked away. They did the same for Merry.
She heard a noise. In the middle of the service, an altar boy sneaked outside to relieve himself in the bushes. Merry bribed him to let her into the vestibule. To keep him from telling on her, she did things with her mouth, things the vicar had shown her.
Back when her grandmother was alive and took her to confession, Merry had told the vicar she didn’t have any sins to confess. It wasn’t like she’d ever killed anybody. The vicar disagreed. There, in the darkness of the confessional booth, he’d taught her sin, taught her shame.
Her grandmother had never known. Merry had never told her. Her father had always been waiting for her in the chancel, swapping swigs of gin with the sexton. One night, when her father grew especially angry, Merry had tried the same things on him. Even drunk, he’d pushed her away and called her a wicked child and beaten her worse than ever. By morning, he’d forgotten.
The altar boy had to return to the service, so when they’d finished, he left Merry alone. It was dark and cold, even in the vestibule. The small room was all that separated the sanctuary and the outside world.
Merry hadn’t had anything to eat or drink the whole day, so she set down her basket of matches and went exploring. Under a table covered with a white cloth, she found a plate of bread crusts and a metal cruet of red wine. The elements of the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ.
She wolfed down the bread. It was dry and stale, unleavened and unfilling, but better than nothing. She even tried the wine, but gagged at the taste and spat it out. It stained the tablecloth.
Feeling slightly better, though perhaps a bit dizzy from the wine, she peeked through the double doors into the sanctuary. It was warm and bright, and everyone was singing together.
There was the vicar in his white vestments, speaking to everyone. Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are the hungry, for they shall be filled. Blessed are those who weep, for they shall laugh. The congregation said amen, and the deacons passed the offering plate.
Merry was poor. She was still hungry. She cried every night, and she couldn’t even remember the last time she’d laughed. Blessed? What did that even mean?
She looked at the people. At her basket of matches. At her bleeding feet.
Merry shut the double doors. She put a crosier, a shepherd’s staff which the bishops carried, through the door handles. Now no one could get in or out. Then she went in search of the sexton’s jug of gin. It was hidden in the supply closet, amid the chasubles and chalices.
As the congregation rose for an anthem, she poured cheap liquor on the floor in the vestibule. From wall to wall, from door to door. The smell made her nose run and her eyes water. She didn’t stop until the jug was empty.
Then she picked up a book of matches. Struck one. It was too damp to light, and the head snapped off. She struck another. It made a spark, then guttered out.
The third one lit.
In the flame, she saw visions. Of her grandmother, who brought Merry to confession and invited the vicar to dinner. Of her mother, who whipped Merry with rosary beads and sang her to sleep every night. Of her father, who…
She dropped the match.
The fire spread much faster than she’d thought.
The congregation must have smelled the smoke. From the sanctuary, Merry heard running, screaming. The double doors rattled, but the crosier held them shut. They couldn’t escape through the windows, not through the iron bars.
She ran to the front door. It didn’t budge.
The altar boy. He’d locked her in. Had he planned to turn her over to the vicar?
She looked around. Flames filled the vestibule, floor to ceiling, and spread to the sanctuary. There was no way back, no way out.
Coughing, she lay down and waited for the end.
As the people in the sanctuary choked and screamed, Merry thought they sounded like geese. It made her think of her grandmother’s Sunday dinners. She could almost smell the roast in the oven.
Her basket of matches burned. It stank of sulfur, brimstone. Hellfire.
As hellfire consumed the church, she didn’t feel cold or hungry. At last, she was warmed and filled. She laughed.
On New Year’s Day, someone might find her body in the ashes. If anyone ever did, they’d find her smiling, but never know why. They’d never even know her name. Merry, the little murderess.
Here ya go so there ain't just two stories... :-D
Sonya Lano |
I die for the thirty-second time in a parlor.
Lit only by a shaft of light from a flickering lamppost outside the window, I sprawl helpless on beautiful carpet, my long pale hair entwined with bloody strings, my budding scream sliced away by steel.
As my cartilage and arteries leak blood into my severed esophagus, the hot liquid flows straggling into my lungs until my breath drowns in shallow puddles, my head too light, my lungs sloshing too heavy with dark liquid.
As gently as waves lapping at a shore, I suffocate with sweet, soft invasion, on scarlet ribbons. With fading breath, my mind goes languid.
My murderer looms like a shade poised beyond the lamplight’s grasp, a figment of human wrought by the night’s caprice, a silhouette cut by the merciless rim of a dagger.
Beneath my weighted lids, I watch the moths in lamplight beyond the glass.
They whirl on drunken wings.
I wake alone—as always, with everyone murdered months ago…or years?—and only sunbeams remain to embrace me.
Their glossy heat skips warmth across my cheeks and forehead, and my parched lips which stick together, chapped and dry.
My eyelids flutter open, and the world is uncurtained.
Here is the stage: a sun-washed parlor; a plaster ceiling molded with curlicues and twining vines; a maroon-and-ivory upholstered chair, its back curved like a stern matron; and a hearth unstirred, its fire unstoked, with any remnants of heat gone ash-cold; and beneath me, a carpet matted with clotted blood.
A cerulean gown glimmers around my body like swaths of pearlescent sky…a sky smeared with dried blood.
I lever myself up on shaking elbows, and old blood flakes off like black snow.
They’re mere vestiges of attempted murder, for beneath the skin of my throat coated rust-red, my flesh knits flawless and unscarred.
You cannot murder a girl bound by curse.
Waking from murder always leaves me restless. Aimless, I meander the labyrinthine halls of my palatial mansion.
A fairytale construct of grand façade, it rises rife with turrets and towers strewn with lavish extravagance. Within its spacious halls, glittering gold candelabra threaded with cobwebs vie with crystal chandeliers webbed thick with dust. Mahogany tables hold desiccated flowers, and gilded mirrors strive to entice me with my reflection as I wander.
I am not cajoled. I know what would look back at me.
Lips gone luridly ruby-red from biting.
Grey irises darting here and darting there, trying to catch the constant anxiety that flits around me.
Papery purplish bruises painting circles under my eyes.
The silver hair of someone five times my true age of nineteen.
And blood dried all down my throat.
Thank you, no, thank you, I don’t need to see that.
A faint sound brings a traitorous leap of hope to my heart, but I tamp it down.
Loneliness is a trickster like that. It beguiles me into believing the creaks of the mansion could be a person, a friend, a potential lover, or a fantastical being just launched in a rustle of gossamer wings.
I imagine it. Turning the corner to a small dragon on a span of membraned wings. A whiff of steam from scaly nostrils.
Of course nothing’s there.
Nothing would thrive in this atmosphere of neglect, not even I, who merely exist, setting one foot into the next and the next through rooms filled with shelves of fanciful inventions, wind-up birds that chirp cheerily on command, gadgets tinkered into reality that speak of generations of brilliant minds.
No one’s cared for anything here for months. The dust coating the floor tiles has been scuffed in places only by recent footfalls.
Mine, and my murderer’s.
No one else comes here.
Except for the girl in the morning.
And the boy in the eve.
I meet her at the gate, a basket full of food on her arm and a basket full of trinkets on mine.
We exchange baskets and smiles, mine tentative and restrained, but hers?
Her smile dons the confidence of freedom.
The freedom to roam outside these gates. To rove the market and gather fruit, bread, cheese, to barter with vendors and flirt with whom she will.
She has the look of one who knows how. That saucy lift of her chin, the brazen black strands of hair, the curvy swish of her hips, her self-assured sashay.
Beyond her, a white gravel path meanders through a field of wildflowers.
Somewhere beyond the small wood lay the town.
The town I protect.
The town where a grown man hurts a powerless boy.
I’ve always fallen in love with wounded creatures.
Today, I find the boy in the same place, curled up beneath the roses.
Perhaps no longer a boy, but a young man, his torn pants too short for his eighteen-year-old frame, his ripped shirt revealing a lean-muscled torso, his square jaw sharply defined beneath unevenly shorn hair, the strands the earth-black of onyx.
As I kneel in the soft, damp loam, he cracks open one swollen-shut eye, its iris so dark as to be a near-fathomless chasm. A thousand words speak within, spinning a hundred memories of us meeting like this before. In sun and blooms, in rain and mud, and, once, in starlit night.
He’s beaten, bruised. A busted lip.
A smile like it hurts him to breathe.
His back is bloodied today, crusted to his shirt.
He rolls upright with difficulty, swishing aside the rosebush’s branches and wincing away the smile. He turns his back to me and sits cross-legged in the weedy dirt. “Can you get it off?”
I must try, although the sight of his blood makes me cringe, and having to scoot close to him makes my stupid heart race.
But I compress my nerves and, with utmost care, I peel the tattered shirt from his midriff, then ease it up over his overheated skin.
Every near contact of my fingers close to his skin makes my insides jump.
As he lifts his arms, he groans—quietly, almost inaudibly, but I catch it because the birds never sing when he comes, and the crickets don’t chirp, and his every escaped moan resounds in the silence of my gut, where it houses my guilt.
The ragged, blood-spattered shirt slides over shoulders, off his arms, and then flutters to the dirt from my hand.
I glance at his back again…and lose my breath, for on his golden skin, skin the shade of butter-cream in the sunshine, spreads a tattoo of raven wings. So stunningly rendered, they seem ready to unfold from his shoulders, every feather depicted in immaculate detail. I swear the breeze ruffles their vanes.
Entranced, I graze my fingertips along its texture.
Only his smooth flesh slides beneath my skin, not feathers, but he goes utterly still beneath my touch.
Realizing what I’m doing, I freeze the breath within my chest.
My fingertips go still upon his skin.
A moment of…something…locks us in place.
I free us as I draw back, ashamed, for he is two years younger than I, and abused, and I just stroked his skin without permission.
“I’m sorry.” My voice is a raspy croak, but he twists around, his look intense—always intense.
“Don’t.” His voice is as raspy as mine, but no apology taints it, only a ferocious ire. “Any touch come with sweetness, not abuse, is welcome. And yours—”
“Mine?” I prompt when he doesn’t finish.
Those chasm-deep eyes invite me to leap in deep. “Will you let me in today?”
I let him in every day, but still he asks as if one day I shall revoke the invitation into my hollow mansion of echoes and neglect.
He speaks little, his speeches sparse, but he makes up for it in intensity.
Every minute we’re together, he makes me feel like an enigma he could solve if only he stares hard enough into my eyes, long enough for me to open up my soul.
He stares while I cleanse his wounds with cool water and a clean rag, while I gather together apples and bread and butter and he wolfs them down as if his family starves him as well as beats him—and perhaps they do—and he stares while we sit side by side on the rose divan in the library, in the rays of diminishing afternoon, and I read to him my favorite books, some bloody, some whimsical, and some as discomfiting as history ever is.
As he watches me constantly, he also listens, avid, engaged by every word, absorbed by every nuance, and attuned to every shift of my expression.
Sometimes his brow furrows at a passage, unhappy with a bad turn or a bad choice—or no choice at all.
Even more rarely, something makes him smile—or not smile, but almost. Perhaps a flicker of one, gone by the time I look up.
Never does anything make him laugh, though. Always, the awareness runs too close to the surface that after this respite in my rose garden, after the apples in my kitchen and the histories in my library, he will have to return home, a slave to whippings and rage until the time his father will rend him apart so far that nothing will be able to put him together again or pick him up, and he will not even be able to crawl to my roses for me to find him again.
What will I do then, unable to leave my mansion to find him?
I could save him before that happens.
He knows it, too, as well as the consequences if I did: dooming everyone in the town to a war—an enemy—that my family has magically protected them from for centuries.
He says nothing about it, how I could free him to the utter devastation of everything else, but he looks at me as if one day he might summon the courage to ask anyway.
Perhaps when he is certain the answer will be yes.
Will it be?
I can no longer tell, for every day that he appears with another injury, it adds another lash to my too-flayed soul. His tortured looks peel me apart layer by layer, until every word he speaks from those bruised-smile lips burrows into my guilt, until I think he must hate me, although he doesn’t show it.
Even now, as his fingertips venture over my knuckles and my voice falters at the first time he’s dared touch me—perhaps emboldened by my own caress—I think he must be searching for weakness rather than affection. But—
“Sanguine…” The way he speaks my name tells a different story, a beggar’s tale, and I lift my eyes to his penetrating gaze.
He shifts closer, and the concentration of power and intensity between us ramps up till I can scarcely breathe.
His fingertips on my jaw feel like both claiming and a release in one, releasing me from broken wings to soar again—or to sail the wind for the first time ever. Liberated, weightless, too far from the ground that offered me stability, I feel like I’m hurtling, euphoric, terrified, toward a boundless sky.
I inhale the sweet leather of books and his feathery scent.
He’s so close, my elation rampant inside, and then…
He kisses with the same intensity with which he looks.
But the feeling—the feeling is a thousand times more incredible.
In the blood-red dusk, he leaves me with my lips flushed and swollen with passion. His eyes glitter when he looks at them, his own lips lush from mine and curving upward on his satisfaction. There’s no doubt that he likes what he’s done, and that I like it, too, and that we will do it again. But—
Is there not always a ‘but’?
Is there love within his heart, I can’t help but wonder, or is it merely the gleam of lust within him, the thrill of two young bodies locking mouths and breath and seeking a relief from too much yearning? His thirst wants quenched, and I’ve just become a vessel that lets him drink deep.
But something else drinks of me more, and the time has come to slake it.
As long as the mists screen our town from those outside, we will survive.
So said my father, when he taught me the duty that all of us in my family must shoulder: the bloodletting.
As I stood watching, enrapt, the blood dripping from his slit skin, curiosity bloomed upon my lips and found expression: “What if you don’t give it blood, Father?”
“Then the spells would fade and the enemy outside would annihilate us all. You can’t let that happen, Sang.”
“And what would happen if our blood runs out?”
“It won’t.” Father, too, watched his blood stream thick and red-black. “As long as the spell drinks, one of us will live to feed it.”
After the others were murdered, I tested that truth. Gripped in a thrall of grief for my mother, my father, my brother, I tried multiple times.
I tried exsanguination, the slice of a blade across wrists.
Shivers, pervasive cold, unable to escape the vehement shuddering in my core. Freezing.
Then waking weak and pale but with my heartbeat pumping blood beneath flesh.
I tried a leap from a tower.
Impact, violently winded, my bones crunched, cracked, pain jolting through my spine, my head splitting in an inescapable ache.
Then waking tender and sore but with my bones whole.
I tried starvation.
Unable to move, I lay listless, sure I’d beat the curse that time.
But then came the bugs, spiders, flies, swarming. They climbed, crawled, or flew into my mouth, squeezing between my lips and forcing themselves past my silent shrieks and down my throat to their deaths so I may live.
That was the last time I tried.
A murderer may try to kill me, but they cannot stop it any more than I could.
I am the only one left of my line, and I am the magic’s sustenance.
I glide down worn stone stairs deep beneath the mansion, and in the sphere of my candle’s radiance, I kneel on a mosaicked floor.
A blade presses against my flesh, then I open my vein and tilt my wrist above a bottomless hole.
I let my blood pour into the magic, and in so doing, for another day, I protect every living soul within these walls from the war and destruction outside the mists.
Which means I make the choice to imprison my boy with his abuser another day, and I pray he will survive to kiss me again, and I’m ashamed.
I no longer know whether I spill my blood into good, or evil.
The next day, the girl trades her wares for my baubles with a troubled mien.
Something’s amiss, her smile of freedom pinned down to a butterfly board by grief.
The boy does not come at all.
I wait for him, of course, by the rose arbor, in the scatter of shed petals dying upon the sward.
I bite my lips to a plump, jeweled red until they shine blood-bright from the hunger of my anxiety. In the rippled reflection of the fish pond, they match the rose-red hue that lacerated his skin.
Today, they provide shade to nothing but old blood: his spilled ache from past thrashings.
That night, I wander in worthless spate after worthless spate of listlessness. I pace and pause and peer through the gate, and I implore him to come. I linger, longing for him to limp up the path with his pained smile.
The only pained smile tonight, however, stirs upon my own lips.
I cave and I ask the girl. The next morning, beneath a damp, weeping sky that moistens the world beneath my feet to soggy ground, I ask: A boy, with tattooed wings? Where…
Her face crumples. Her brother.
Her brother! I think. But she mourns, and my off-rhythm heart has no time to brace.
Her confession shambles out:
A hard clout, a clumsy fall, his skull clipped and half-cleaved by an iron edge.
No more to rise.
I cannot feed it anymore.
This curse. The magic.
I will not sustain the protection of a town that did not protect the boy.
Once, I read that grief is only love with nowhere to go.
That is me now, my love on a blocked path with no fork in the way, no other avenue for it to tread.
In the furor of that uncaught love for him, I spare a small dab of wondering for myself.
If I do not feed the magic, will it cease feeding me? Will my murderer finally succeed, as the weakening magic cannot infuse my veins with magical life?
I cannot imagine…not waking up.
I still do wake, however, those first few nights, my hair sticky from waking in puddles of congealed black blood.
A slit throat, a smooth garrote.
Like some garish murderess, I bathe those mornings in bathwater turned scarlet.
Denied my blood, the magic dwindles.
The walls decline like stone slowly crumbling into my blood, pebbles beneath my skin rolling off the cliff of my heart.
As they collapse, I collapse, all within me folding in.
I should be shriveling up, but my skin glows a healthy, rosy peach; my eyes go olive-dark and oil-glossed. My love that has nowhere to go yearns to go beyond.
I sense the enemy scavenging the breadth of our decaying perimeter. They prowl there on clawed feet: monstrous, furred, fanged, tailed. Their presence rakes across my skin like fingernails scratching.
They’ve been craving to slay the last of my kind for centuries.
Now they can have us. Every wicked one. Every last bite.
The girl senses it, too, although her demeanor goes not terrified, but anticipatory. As taut as a bow, she’s as vivid and vibrant as violin strings in the culminating intensity of a masterpiece.
She wants out.
She stops killing me every night, for wasn’t it her? She who wanted me to stop the curse from trapping her here? Perhaps she has some lover beyond our boundaries, though I’ve no clue how she found one.
But her love still has somewhere to go, unlike mine, and now true freedom hovers near at hand, almost within her grasp. Why bother killing me anymore? I no longer bind anyone to this place.
And those in town all know that the boundaries wane.
When the last of the walls topple, I’m lying on the roof of my mansion beneath a sky of stars. The weightlessness of the magic remnants fading from my blood whirls through me like a thousand birds in flight.
I lie depleted but flying, vacant but brimming with laughter—or madness.
Wings swish through air.
Claws click on the roof.
The shadow of my kneeling enemy falls upon me.
The whisper of his breath upon my lips—like roses and bruises and…love.
I open my eyes to my wounded boy, all scraped with injuries beneath his tattered shirt of stains, his wrists a-clink with manacles, a buckled leather leash upon his neck, and at his back, a host of claws and fur and jutting jaws.
I thought him gone, and yet here he kneels with his hurting smile. Abused not by his father, but…
His sister—my would-be killer, the merry little murderess—stands purring behind him, unabashedly kissing the throat of the enemy queen.
The fanged queen bares bloodied teeth.
How many did she kill tonight?
Those I’d wrenched protection from. And for what?
Quivering like a melody, the girl scarcely tears her lips away from kissing the queen to strew together words. “I knew thinking my sweet idiot brother was gone would break you. What shall we do with them now, my queen?”
Blood-red lips peel back from blood-dotted fangs. The queen fans out her razor claws. “We need something to chase.” Her claw swipes down, severing the boy’s leash. “Now run.”