[Bettie Sharpe pretty much rocks my pants. She's got a novella coming out from Samhain, which is a part of their Strangers in the Night anthology, in January. This full-length freebie she has graciously provided for us is a 10-parter]
Warning: This story contains sex, violence, and naughty words. It’s based on a fairytale, but it isn’t for kids. You must be over 18 to read.
To my mother.
No matter what anyone says, the gory old of fairytales make great bedtime stories. Thanks for reading them to me.
To my Fairy Godmother Bam, & crit partner Jodie for your encouragement & help.
1. The Witch
I know you think you’ve heard this story before, but you’re wrong. Some would have it that this story begins with a virtuous virgin, a young woman of honesty and integrity sucker punched by cruel fortune and forced to sleep among the cinders while her moral inferiors lived the life which was meant to be hers. Bullshit.
This is no fairytale. The real story doesn’t even start with me; it starts with the Prince. The tales have him faceless and nameless, a passionless plywood man meant to represent everything a good girl is supposed to want. Nothing could be further from the truth.
His given name was Adrian Juste, but after the witch Gaetane bestowed her double-edged blessing on his naming day, none called him aught but Charming.
“Charme,” she whispered the word in the language of the Old Ones, the tongue of curses and enchantments. The blessing fell from her lips with a spatter of blood, for the tongue of the Old Ones is sharp as broken glass against the tender flesh of mortal mouths. “May he be charming. May every eye find perfection in his face and form. May every man respect him and every woman desire him. May all who meet him love him and long to please him.”
The old king smiled. Who wouldn’t wish such a gift for their child? Only the royal Wise Woman, Raisende, grasped import of Gaetane’s blessing. She grew pale with shock and fright.
“Sister,” whispered Raisende, “what have you done?”
“A blessing,” Gaetane replied, her voice untroubled as she wiped her bloody lips on her glove.
“A curse, more like! You’ve ‘blessed’ the boy with respect he won’t have to earn, desire he’ll never learn to appreciate and love he’ll never need to reciprocate. He’ll become a tyrant!”
“You worry overmuch, Raisende.” Gaetane removed her bloody gloves to place her hand across the infant Prince’s brow. Her hands were delicate and lovely, save for the stump where the smallest finger of her left hand had been. “You wished him wisdom, did you not? Have some confidence he’ll make use of it.”
If Raisende’s gift of wisdom tempered the Prince’s pride, we never saw it. No man or woman who met him could deny him. No listener who heard his voice could help but love him. He grew to manhood but remained a boy, carousing, whoring and pleasing himself in any manner that took his fancy.
And we loved him for it. We loved him for the fortunes he spent on his horses and his hounds. We loved him for the virgins he seduced and the whores upon whom he bestowed the jewels of the royal treasury. We loved him for the treaties he struck, just by asking foreign monarchs to agree. We loved him for the wars he won simply by walking onto the battlefield knowing no man would raise a sword against him.
The Prince’s charm was our charm. Despite his self-indulgence, our little kingdom grew to greatness through Charming’s wicked gift. Peace lay over the land like a warm blanket in winter. Wealth flowed to us like a river flowing to the sea. Fishermen and draymen became merchants. Merchants became princes.
You may think me disingenuous to complain of the Prince’s curse when my father was among the tradesmen who made their fortunes on the coattails of the Prince’s charm. It was profit from the Prince’s treaties that bought our grand townhouse on the Avenida Delpalacio, not a mile from the palace. It was profit from the Prince’s curse that bought the ladylike dresses of silk and satin I never wore, and paid the small army of learned doctors who tried in vain to save my mother’s life.
Money, like the Prince’s charm, could change the appearance of a life, but not the substance of it. Money couldn’t make a lady of a drayman’s daughter. Money couldn’t save a merchant’s dying wife.
I had nineteen years the summer my mother died, and the Prince had twenty-four. Fearing the power of his curse, my mother forbid me to look upon him when he rode past our house on his way into the city. But my mother was bedridden that summer, and all of my friends did nothing but sigh the Prince’s name.
Even at nineteen, I had a formidable knowledge of magic. I thought I was strong enough to resist the tug of a simple nameday blessing. I was headstrong and I disobeyed my mother.
One day I joined the crowd on the Avenida Delpalacio to wave and cheer as the Prince rode past. Even before he came in sight, I felt the strength of his charm. It was thick and damp in the air around me, sneaking into my lungs with every breath I took, heating my blood with anticipation. It brushed against my skin like a slimy touch, a leech inching over my wrist, a snake slithering up my leg. I knew then that I faced strength greater than my ability to resist. But it was too late.
His party rounded the corner and I saw him. Sun-gilded and perfect, he sat atop a white stallion and lit a fire in my blood such as I’d never known. The feeling was not the innocent stuff of daydreams or girlish sighs. It was desire, full blown and inescapable. Desire made my skin prickle and ache for want of his hands. Desire drenched my virgin cunt with the slick heat of a woman’s readiness.
His eyes met mine as he surveyed the crowd—or in my fevered state I thought they did. I cannot say what color his eyes were, but I remember thinking they were the most beautiful I’d ever seen. I loved him completely, more thoroughly than any woman has ever loved a man. Every girl in the crowd felt the same.
Longing for him usurped my will and dissolved my dignity. I would have stripped myself naked and begged him to fuck me on the filthy cobbles if he’d looked at me again. I would have acceded to any act, no matter how depraved, for the blessing of his penetration.
I never felt my lack of beauty so keenly as I did when I gazed upon the perfection of the Prince. For the first time, I became ashamed of my frizzy red hair and the garish freckles marring my skin. I lamented my scrawny, girlish body and the way the inborn twist of my right foot marked my walk with a slight limp. A perfect man deserved a perfect woman, and perfection was far beyond the reach of such as me.
He smiled and threw coins to the crowd as he passed, oblivious to the tortures I suffered in my lust for him. The shiny silver coins were stamped with a likeness of his face so exact, girls had taken to wearing the coins strung on a bit of ribbon around their necks to keep Charming close to their hearts.
The coins hit the cobbles with the metallic clatter of dented bells but none of the crowd even glanced at the wealth of silver bouncing and rolling past their feet. None could bear to look away from our beloved Prince. The strength of his curse overpowered even natural greed.
Panting, feverish, and frightened, I, alone of all the crowd, forced my gaze from his face and fixed it on the cobbles at my feet until he passed. When he was gone, his spell weakened enough to allow me to search the street for fallen coins. I found one wedged into the muddy crack in a broken stone. I pried it loose and cleaned it on my russet silk skirts.
His profile winked sunlight at me from the silver surface of the coin. I raised it to my lips and kissed his likeness’s metal cheek. Licked it. I slid the coin into my mouth, tasting the tannic flavor of his glove above the metal and beneath the grime.
With the silver likeness of the Prince clamped between my lips, I turned and hurried back inside. I could not close the door fast enough to suit the drumbeat of desire in my blood. I hadn’t the patience to climb to my chamber and dream of him in private. Indeed, I barely managed to squeeze into a broom closet and shut the door before my hands were pulling up my skirts and parting the hot, slick folds of my sex.
I ran my tongue across his likeness on the coin as I thought of him. I thought of his eyes on me, his hands on me. I imagined the sublime joys of his touch, the taste of his skin, the feel of his cock between my lips.
I imagined the exquisite pain of him taking my maidenhead. Oh, I’d been told the pain was a minor one, but in my fevered, foolish virgin’s imagination I envisioned it as saber thrust and imagined myself a martyr on the altar of his pleasure. My virgin’s blood became my life’s blood and I lay beneath him, dying from the loss of my innocence, happily fading into nothingness for his enjoyment.
I dreamt he leaned over me crying; his hot tears fell upon my cold cheeks. “Oh, she was so pure,” he wailed. “She was so delicate and special. She has died for the love of me. I can love no other!”
I must pause here to tell you, I see the way your lips are twitching. Please, don’t be afraid to laugh. My dignity is not so rigid I can’t see the humor in those youthful imaginings.
Now, where was I? Ah yes, having taken my virgin’s blood, and with it my very life, the Prince could love no other. He would spend the rest of his days remembering my face and longing for my touch. No lady, princess or queen would ever affect him so much as I had. He would spend his life mourning the loss of me, Ember, a drayman’s daughter.
As sad as it is to admit it, I must tell you this melodramatic imagining was the thought that gave me my first taste of womanly pleasure. My body seized, climaxing with a ferocity that made me stumble to the floor. I gasped for air, only to feel the cold bite of the silver coin lodging in my throat.
I panicked, coughing and gagging, trying to force a decent breath around the silver barrier imprinted with the Prince’s face. My death flashed before my eyes and in this scenario, I was not a noble virgin sacrifice, but a silly girl, crumpled on the floor of a broom closet with her skirts rumpled and her hands stinking of sex. The lack of air was nothing—I almost died of embarrassment!
Dizzy and struggling, I shouldered my way out of the broom closet. My vision swam with black spots and above the pounding of my heart I heard the wheezing whistle of my futile attempts to breathe.
All the servants were upstairs, seeing to my mother on her sickbed. Robbed of breath and voice, I tried to stagger up the stairs in search of help, but I hadn’t the strength. I stumbled and spun like a sloppy drunk and fell forward over the polished oak newel post at the bottom of the stairs.
The coin flew from my throat like a cannon shot and hit the tiled floor with a metallic clink! before rolling off into the shadows. Exhausted and gasping, I sank to the stairs and tried not to think about how close I’d come to death and posthumous humiliation.
Moments after I managed to take a calm breath, I heard the sound of footsteps on the landing above followed shortly by the breathy rasp of my mother’s voice.
“Ember! What has happened to you?”
I looked up to see my mother, her pale skin stark against the faded red of her thinning hair, leaning against the steady shoulder of one of our footmen.
I began to weep. I’ve never learned the knack of crying prettily. Soon, my eyes were puffy and red rimmed, and I was wiping snot and spit from my face with the cuffs of my sleeves. “Oh!” I wailed. “It’s terrible. I love him!”
My mother said nothing. She whispered to the footman to help her into the parlor, and then ordered me to follow. When the footman had got her situated in a comfortable chair and left the room, she turned her tired, clouded eyes on me and said, “You went out to see the Prince.”
“Yes,” I brayed, scrubbing my wet cheeks on my already damp cuffs. “I never should have, for now I love him and he doesn’t even know me! He’ll never be mine. I wish I could die!”
“Don’t be an idiot. The Prince’s curse has teeth like a lamprey. It latches onto everything he touches. Its power seeps from every utterance of his name and image of his face.”
My mother shivered as she turned her head to look at the cold hearth. It was summer and we kept no fuel beside it. “Light the fire and listen carefully.”
When I winked at the empty hearth, it leapt into flame, eager to please me. In neighboring countries, like Terre d’Or, women are burned at the stake for lesser acts, but Tierra del Maré has always been more tolerant of Wise Women. I’d no need to hide my abilities, as my mother had never needed to hide hers.
My mother was a very learned woman. Before illness crippled her, people from all across Ciú Dellos Reyes came to our home humbly petitioning advice, blessings and curses. Behind our backs, those same people whispered my mother was the only reason my father had risen from humble drayman to wealthy merchant.
While I would like to say Mother was above such supernatural tampering, I must admit, there was some evidence of magic at work. Father’s horses never shied, his cartwheels never broke. Grain never rotted in his carts and fruit never withered while on the road. He kept a compass with him that always pointed to honest men.
“Very good.” My mother smiled at the fire burning in the empty hearth. “Now, tell me: What reveals illusions and counteracts all curses?”
Her voice was measured and slow, insultingly so. Any idiot can tell you the light of the full moon reveals truth, unravels illusion, and protects all who stand beneath it from magical harm. That’s why witches craft their most dangerous spells at the full moon and why all beasts hidden in human flesh must take their true forms for the nights it shines.
Firelight or candlelight will counter the effects of even the three quarter moon, but there is no spell spoken that can withstand the light of the full moon. The full moon counteracted even the Prince’s potent curse, and he knew it. Rumor said he locked himself in his chambers alone on full moon nights, with torches and candles burning from dusk until dawn.
“But the effects of the full moon only last until daybreak,” I whined. “What good is it to be free of him at night if I wake wanting him at dawn?”
“Shh.” My mother ran a frail hand through my hair, which was red as hers had been before her illness. She reached beneath the collar of her nightgown and drew out the pendant she always wore on a long chain around her neck. The pendant had a soft radiance to it, like moonlight on a misty night. “Light from the full moon, trapped in a vial. It will weaken the curse.”
Reluctantly, I took it from her and slipped it over my head and tucked the pendant beneath my bodice and shift. My craving for the Prince and all my foolish fantasies receded when the vial of moonlight touched my skin. Despite my humbled pride, I felt almost like myself again, only wiser and more wary.
“This will protect me?”
“The pendant, and one other thing.”
The footman reappeared at the parlor door. He carried a wad of bandages and a wooden chopping block beneath his left arm. And in his right hand he carried a butcher’s knife.”
“No,” I shook my head. “You can’t mean it. Blood magic is illegal. Charms and philters will protect me just as well.”
“The Prince’s curse is too strong now for such temporary measures. And I fear it will only get worse with time.” My mother motioned the footman to set the block and knife on the delicate tea table in front of me. “I must know you’ll be safe from his curse. I must know before I die.”
“Don’t talk like that. You’re not going to die.”
“Do not deceive yourself, Ember. You’ve magic and sense enough to recognize the pall of death upon me.” My mother pointed to the knife. When she spoke again, her voice held no emotion. “Choices and change require sacrifice. Heat the knife.”
How could I disobey her twice in the same day? I called the fire to the knife, and heated it as hot as it would go without losing its edge. I made a fist of my left hand, except the smallest finger, which I laid upon the block. I took a breath but couldn’t act.
“Do it!” My mother shouted the words. There was magic behind them. My right hand lifted the knife and severed my little finger just above the knuckle. I screamed at the pain of it, and at the sight of my bloody finger on our cook’s cutting board.
You’re thinking my mother was cruel and meant to punish me. Don’t shake your head, I read it in your eyes. You’re thinking of all the tales you’ve heard of wicked magic, of how witches make their sacrifices in blood and bone—their own, and others’. But it wasn’t like that. Not really.
She meant to keep me safe. She meant for me to hide the finger somewhere far away. So long as a piece of my body was beyond the curse’s reach, I would, with struggle, be able to resist the Prince. After she bandaged my wound, my mother tucked my severed finger into the palm of my right hand. “Hide it well.”
There are many stories of this wizard or that sorcerer who hid his heart in a tree or a gorgon’s nest atop a mountain thinking none would ever find it. You and I both know how they end. And you know I have never liked to take chances.
Some will say what I did next was blood magic, or something darker. Some will say I sacrificed my soul that day. But what I did, I did to save myself. It was no great evil, just a minor sin. And don’t the Old Wives say that, sometimes, minor sins may serve a greater good?
I offered my severed finger to the fire and spoke the Witch’s Bargain. “Flesh for power. Blood for knowledge. Bone for strength. Take my offering and become my servant, even as I am yours.”
My mother gasped, but did not say a word to stop me.
No power, no knowledge, no strength may be got without suffering. I felt every lick of fire as my severed flesh burned. I felt the flames every instant until my offering burnt to grit and ash. I screamed and cried at the pain, beating the floor and biting my lips until they bled. At last the pain died away, though the stench of burning meat never truly left the air. Even today, the front parlor stinks faintly from my wicked bargain with the Fire.
My mother wept that I’d made a witch of myself, but when I met her eyes she nodded at my choice. “I cannot rebuke you as I should for choosing the way of the witch over the way of the Wise Woman. Mother’s love has made me selfish. I’d rather you lived a long, possibly wicked life than a short and virtuous one.”
My mother grew weaker that night. I begged her to take her pendant back, but she wouldn’t have it. “I’m going to die, Ember. There is no stopping it. I had rather go easily into death knowing my only child is safe than to live a few extra days worrying the curse will take you again.”
She died a few weeks later. Every fire in the city went out the morning my father and I found her cold in her sickbed. I did not want to believe the dead fires were my doing. I did not want to believe the fire had liked the taste of my flesh enough to grant my emotions such sway, but for the three days until we freed my mother’s ashes, there was no light or heat or warmth in the city but her pyre. For three nights, there was no light save moonlight. Rumor said the Prince locked himself in his chambers at sunset each night without fire and allowed no one to look upon him.
The fire returned when we threw my mother’s ashes into the wind. By then I was ready for it. I was at peace with my grief, and resolved to honor my mother’s memory by keeping myself safe from the Prince’s curse.
I entered and left our house through the alley behind it and never walked the Avenida Delpalacio again. I avoided every image of the Prince, from the statues in the parks to his profile on silver coins. I carried my money in coppers and never complained at the ungainly weight of my purse. It was better to travel alleyways with a purse full of copper as a free woman than to strut the avenidas spending silver as a slave to desires not my own.
I was so careful to avoid the Prince that I might have gone my whole life without ever seeing him again. I might have lived happily ever after, without him. But Fate, and the Prince, himself, had other plans for me.
Watch out for Chapter Two to be published next week!
You can find a prettified PDF copy of Chapter one ova here!
To the aspiring authors and all the other authors who want to share their own delicious tales, email me and I’ll hook you up with a spot on The Serial.
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