3. The Cinder Girl
My sisters came to supper in the kitchen at sunrise. Minette and Sylvia were cheerful and chatty as magpies. Dulcie did not sleep well under even the best of circumstances, and that morning she had shadows like bruises beneath her eyes.
I set our food on the table: meat, eggs, tea and toast.
“Mmm! Ember, this is perfect.” Sylvie sang. “It is not so tasty as a good d’Oran breakfast, but there is no better cook in Tierra Del Maré than you!”
Sylvie meant it as a compliment. Truly. Though her countrymen had been ready to burn her at the stake as punishment for her affliction, she still believed (as do all d’Orans) that nothing in the world is as good or as beautiful as the art, language, food and culture of Terre d’Or. I imagine I would feel the same way, were I forced to leave Tierra del Maré. How fortunate for me that my homeland would never be so backward as to persecute one of her citizens for the loup or any other unwitting manifestation of magic.
“How goes the royal visitation?” I asked.
“Do not ask me,” Minette answered, “for I shall only chatter on about the prince. He’s so charming—“
“And so handsome!” Sylvie interrupted.
“…And so clever and so kind,” Minette continued.
I looked to Dulcie, but she said nothing. Her face was pale and tinged with green as though she might be ill.
“…But when I think about it,” Sylvie continued happily talking of the prince, “I do wonder where he got his lovely face. I’ve seen old Justinian. The man has a nose like a hawk’s beak and eyes set so deep, his sockets might be empty for all I know.”
“And all that dark hair!” Minette complained. “The king always looks in need of a shave.”
“So does his wife!” Sylvie giggled. “But it isn’t surprising. She’s a distant cousin, right?”
They looked to me, the only native to Tierra del Maré, to settle the question. “The queen is the king’s second cousin.”
“You see!” Sylvie took a great gulp of her tea and swallowed it in a hurry. “His parents both have hawk noses and brooding eyes and too much hair on their cheeks, but the prince…Oh, he’s golden and perfect.”
I had lived my whole life in Ciú Dellos Reyes. I was a fool not to have seen it before. “It’s the curse! The curse makes him appear handsome, the better to make people love him.”
Minette shook herself, seeming to wake from her daydreams of the prince. “Ember, you look happy at the news.”
“Yes,” I smiled.
“When you showed us to the parlor the day we first arrived, you had the same wicked smile. Tell us what you are thinking.”
“I have just figured out how to break the geas the prince put on Dulcie, and how to make sure he never sees me.”
“You knew about it?” Dulcie sobbed. “I’ve been trying so hard not to say anything to you, but I keep hearing it in my head: ‘You must tell her to come to me.’ I thought I would go mad!”
“Don’t fret, Dulcie,” I said, trying to sound as gentle as Minette and failing utterly. From my lips, the words emerged as an order. “The curse is strong, and the prince is wise to its uses. He’s right, I must go to him.”
“No! You mustn’t. Once he has you, he won’t let you go. There’s something mad about him, about the way he wants you. I could almost feel it, like a lash against my skin, when he said your name.”
“To break a geas, one need only obey the letter of the promise. I’ll go to his bedchamber, and he’ll never know I’ve been there.”
“How?” Minette asked.
I opened my mouth to reveal my clever plan, to tell my sisters I could hide myself in an illusion and the prince would never know me. But I remembered how persuasive the prince could be. “You’ll have to forgive my secrecy. I’ve already said too much.”
My words made Dulcie cry in earnest, for no matter how loyal we four were to each other, the prince could make traitors of us at any moment. I rose from the table, and went back to the cookshed.
That day, I became the Cinder Girl.
I made an ink of chicken’s blood and charcoal, and painted sigils on my hands before writing the words of my spell ninety-nine times on ninety-nine scraps of paper. I fed the paper to the fire. When the ash cooled, I worked it into my hair, skin and clothes until it smothered my scent and my red hair was gray with it.
The secret to a good illusion is not to change too much, for illusion alters appearance but nothing else. You can bespell a large man to appear as a small one, but his footprints won’t change. He will still bump his head on doorways and take up the better part of a bench when he sits.
When I had donned the illusion, I looked in my old brass mirror and a Cinder Girl stared back at me. She was pretty in a dull sort of way with wide blue eyes and wheat-colored curls. She’d all of her fingers and she didn’t walk with a limp. Her face was not marred by my orange freckles, cold expression, and sly smile. I would have to learn to hide my prickly demeanor on my own, though. Magic cannot alter personality.
To complete my disguise, I wove a little spell of forgetting into my illusion. It was simple and subtle—a whispered suggestion to forget Ember the Witch. A breath of old memory to make anyone who did not know me well believe the Drayman’s daughter had always been golden and pretty, sweet and kind. It would not work on those who had formed a strong impression of me, but it would be enough to blur the memory of my presence in the minds of passing acquaintances and nosy neighbors.
I gathered a bucket of kindling and coal and went upstairs to the prince’s bedchamber. I was almost to his door before I remembered to tuck the moonlight pendant beneath my bodice and shift. Sunlight overpowered it, but it might betray my illusion in darkness or weak candlelight.
The prince was sprawled across the blankets, naked and perfect. He was asleep, so I let myself look at him. The vial of moonlight between my breasts kept the worst of his curse at bay, but it couldn’t stop the natural lust that coursed through my body at the sight of so fine a masculine nude.
Sylvie had said he was fair, but his hair appeared quite dark to me. I wished he were fair, for I liked dark men better, and I didn’t want to like the look of him at all. Perhaps the magic of his Charm that made me perceive in him every feature I considered handsome.
I tried to detect the edges of his illusion. I looked at the outline of his body against the blanket. He was taller, perhaps, and bigger framed than he appeared. He appeared to have broad shoulders and smooth, golden skin, his chest lightly sprinkled with dark hair. His torso was muscled to perfection, neither too much nor too little. His cock lay long and thick against his muscled thigh, sated and peaceful as he slept. I imagined the size and the girth of it when he grew hard, and shivered at the thought of taking it into my body.
He stirred. I hurried over to the hearth and made haste to light the fire. It had been years since I’d lit a fire by mundane means, and the task took twice as long as it should have.
When I turned from the hearth, I found the prince awake and watching me. He evinced no shame in his nakedness, even though his cock now stood at attention. “I haven’t seen you before.”
I was surprised he spoke to me. Nobles rarely deign to notice servants, and he was the noblest man in the land, save his father.
I looked down, feigning embarrassment I didn’t feel, and made a clumsy curtsy. “I’m sorry to have disturbed your Highness. Please forgive me. I’ll be on my way and let you sleep.”
He looked me over once and then again. His eyes lingered, as though he liked the look of the Cinder Girl. “You needn’t leave.” There was seduction in his words, in their shape, sound and source.
I took a step toward him with no conscious thought. I meant to run for the door, but my feet brought me to his bedside instead. He caught my hand and pulled me down to sit on the bed beside him. “You’re a pretty thing, aren’t you?”
“Your Highness flatters me.”
He drew my face forward and kissed me. I did not know what to make of it, except that I liked the feel of his lips. I’d thought a man with no need to woo women would be careless when he kissed, but the prince was as careful as an uncertain suitor. His lips were gentle over mine. Caressing, exploring, seducing. I felt the brush of stubble from his cheek though I hadn’t seen so much as a shadow of beard on his face.
His tongue brushed against my lips. I would have opened them for him, but he drew away. “You taste of ash.” He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and I was, unaccountably, hurt by it.
If he’d insulted my face or form, I would have shrugged it off, for they were illusion and thus no part of me. But I spent my days and nights near fire, listening to its whispers, Working magic with its light. I always smelled of ash and smoke, and probably tasted of it, too.
“I’m sorry to displease your Highness.” I began to back away, meaning to gather my tools and flee his presence as soon as I could.
Like something separate from his body, his hand reached after me. “Don’t go.”
My missing finger burned as though I were back in my mother’s parlor watching it crumble in the flames.
“Come here, let me touch you.”
His curse came upon me like the slide of snake’s scales across my ankles. It tickled my skin like a herd of millipedes scampering up my arms. I wanted to brush it off, to burn it away, but I could do nothing to free myself without betraying my disguise.
He took my hesitation for fear and tried to soothe me. “I’m not trying to get under your skirts,” he whispered.
I glanced down at his cock. It was thick and half-hard, making a liar of him in the plainest way possible. He had the grace to look ashamed as he drew the corner of the counterpane across his sex.
My missing finger burned, shooting shrill jolts of pain up my left arm. I made a fist of my hand and shook my head. “My mistress will beat me, Highness, if I abandon my tasks.”
“Then you must go.” He opened a box on the bedside table and withdrew a silver coin. “For luck.” He tossed the hateful thing at me, forcing me to catch it before it hit me in the face.
The coin itched against my bare palm, and I thought I could feel it writhing in my grip like a burrowing worm. I wanted to throw it back in his face, but instead I made a low curtsy and thanked him before fleeing his chamber.
Dulcie was asleep with her head on the table when I returned to the kitchen. Sylvie sat beside her, petting her hair.
“You did it,” Sylvie said when she heard my footsteps on the floor behind her. She turned to face me, and her expression crumpled in confusion at the sight of the Cinder Girl. “Who are you?”
If I told her the truth, the prince might later compel the answer from her. Though I hated to do it, I smiled at my sister and lied. “I’m here at the behest of your sister, the witch, to protect you.”
“Are you a witch, too?”
I tried to make my voice kind, but there’s no decent way to admit to witchcraft. “Yes.”
Sylvie’s face grew fierce. “I went to find her in the cookshed, but found only blood on the floor. What did your help cost her?”
“Not life, limb, nor any of her blood. Rest easy, girl. She’ll be back when it’s safe.”
Sylvie backed down and let me pass, though a low growl rumbled from her throat as I walked by. When I got outside, I threw the prince’s coin over the back wall into the alley.
I was still awake when the cookshed fire began to flicker that night, for it is difficult to fall asleep while wearing a face not your own. I fed the fire pitchy twigs, and it again showed me the prince’s bedchamber in our house.
He had Dulcie and Sylvie with him. They were clothed, and the gathering looked more like an interrogation than a tryst. My sisters sat side-by-side on the prince’s bed, blank-eyed and witless from the force of his Charm. The prince paced, restless as a caged animal.
“She didn’t come to me.” He turned to Dulcie. “You promised you wouldn’t rest until she came to me, yet you slept today.”
“She must have come to you.” Dulcie’s voice held no inflection.
“I waited and watched. How could she have escaped me?”
I hated that he’d asked so general a question. Dulcie tried to resist answering for as long as she could, but at last she spoke, halting and through clenched teeth. “Our sister is a witch.”
“You mean she is a Wise Woman,” the prince corrected. “We honor Wise Women here in Tierra del Maré, not witches. You d’Orans are too ignorant to tell the difference.”
Sylvie shook her head, bristling at the insult to her homeland. “No, she’s a witch, if ever there was one. She cut off her own finger and made the Witch’s Bargain with the spirits of Fire. She writes her spells in blood. When Lord Campos blacked my eye, she sent a plague of rats and ravens to drive him from the city. And she keeps a little doll made in his image to poke with pins or singe with fire whenever she needs amusement.”
“Is she wicked?”
“What does wicked mean? She watched the ravens harryCamposout of town, and laughed to see the wounds they pecked into his skin. But she did it to protect me. When Minette married her father, we meant to rob him blind. She struck a bargain with us to treat him well. She helped us. We’re sisters now and I do not doubt she loves us.”
“She loves?” The prince’s voice betrayed an interest I’d not expected from him. “How?”
“Yes, she loves. Not easily, but fiercely.”
The prince turned away from my sisters and the fire. I couldn’t see his expression. He was silent for some time, a man caught deep in thought. Finally, he kissed my sisters chastely, upon their brows. “You’ve both done well.” He pressed a silver coin into Sylvie’s limp palm and curled her hand around it. “You may go.”
My sisters left the room and the prince sat down in silence, but still I fed the fire fuel and watched him. I didn’t know what he wanted from me, or why. I could think of no reason why he might care whether I loved, except a reason I did not want to contemplate.
Most witches walk a darker path than I. They sacrifice more of their flesh and blood for power; they barter their emotions for knowledge. Some even kill their children. Witchcraft’s unsavory reputation is far from undeserved. You’d be safer to assume all witches are incapable of love, than to risk your life and heart by loving a woman who loves power above all else.
Every lover I’ve ever had has gone to my sisters first to ask after me. They asked if I was kind or cruel, if I was forgiving or vengeful, and if I was loving or hateful. They asked how much I cared for power. Only when they were sure of my nature did my suitors dare approach me.
The prince, for all the power of his awful curse, had sounded like a suitor when he interrogated Sylvie and Dulcie. It softened me toward him, to think he might want me as something other than a whore. And that frightened me.