La Nouvelle Cendrillon
by A. J. Grace-Smith
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
The trouble with using antique mirrors for scrying was that one could never be certain whether the truths they revealed were the truths being sought. Yet these were the only true mirrors in FarFetch Station. Nell prepared to try again. The Hall of Time Resumed (as it was now) was never truly dark: the mirrors emitted aeons-old reflections of candlelight, echoes of evenings long past.
Nell’s voice — no longer neutrally cold — rose in soft counterpoint to the piano echoes, and she unbound her white-gold hair with long fingers now silver-tipped. The mirror she had chosen slowly darkened. Never blinking, barely breathing, she waited. Glass this old should never be rushed.
Another series of images began to flicker before her. Philip, after his audience with the Emperor; the black-haired Emissary raging in cryosleep; the ravening Emperor again, always hungry in his need to dominate. Lillia, seemingly asleep, hair in dark waves upon white pillows, long lashes curving against pale cheeks.
Still Nell had not found what she sought. Even as she turned away from the glass, she glimpsed her mistress lying in her customary bed of silk and darkness. In her thirteen years of service here, Nell had yet to prove that Alba’s illness was of Philip’s making. He could not kill his wife outright without sacrificing the power her lineage bestowed — and losing his right to claim the Enitharmon system as his own to hold — but to keep her subdued, sedated, slowly poisoned in a death-like sleep... How had he done it? Nell’s frustration caused the glass to sparkle, sequins of light dancing across the surface, changing the image. At last.
Lillia, as she had been that morning, kneeling in the shadows by her mother’s bed, clasping her mother’s pale hands, waiting for her eyes to open. So alike they were, and yet not alike: Lillia was her father’s daughter too, it showed in the curl of her lip, and in the turn of her head as she bent over her mother. What was she doing?
Nell stepped back from the glass, feet silent on the golden floor. Even through the mirror she could taste Lillia’s power, a bittersweet compound of almonds, honey and blood. She could not look away from the scene shimmering before her, tears in the girl’s eyes, and Alba’s smile of triumph. But there was something about Lillia’s face; she seemed lost, trancelike.
Then Lillia turned to stare out of the frame, out of time, directly into Nell’s eyes. Nell understood. The transference of power had been achieved, and Alba had found a way to cheat her husband — but at what price? Had Lillia’s Choice been made for her? For good or ill she had her mother’s blood on her hands, and Nell knew the Bloodtrance when she saw it. This was Ancient Magic, and it could not be undone.
Nell felt the burning within her, as her true aspect began to assert itself. Like quicksilver fire she rose towards the glass dome, long hair floating around a form now lithe, and the charred wisps of her dress disintegrating about her.
Silver dust rained down to mingle with the gold, and the scent of roses grew stronger.
In the darkness, drifting dreamless on a sea of alpha waves, waiting for the delta tide to take her deeper, Lillia knew immediately that her governess had gone. Only after the birth of her own daughter would she acknowledge the protection that Nell had given her. But today was going to be special. Today would also have been her mother’s birthday, a blood day...
On her father’s orders Lillia spent the day in her room, alone, and in a dazed state of heightening awareness. Lying on her bed, she could feel the alterations beneath her skin as her body assimilated new energies, new potencies, the gifts of her mother’s blood. Lillia extended her perceptions, narrowing the focus of six into one. She could feel the heartbeat of every hidden spy, every long-traveled guest, even the aggressive arrhythmia of her father, as he approached her room.
Whispers clear as conversation, and, at the edge of it all, the snapping and snarling of her now inevitable husband-to-be as his pretty little ship entered Enitharmon System snap of splintered bone taste the death taste the dark eyes sightless teeth white in the dark the dark lap the iron smell dark blood spurting she fought the instinct to snarl back.
She needed the other shoe: a marriage of Blood and Blood, not Blood and Light, her Choice, her fate, her path. No control but her own, and she would deal with the Emissary when he arrived. A snap of her fingers and his threats were blocked. And there, in the sudden silence, she felt it.
Her pulse slowed, matching its beat. Everything felt brighter, clearer, sharper. The smell of beeswax was unbearably strong, nearly smothering the taste of her mother’s blood; she knew it would never leave her. Her sight wavered.
No time for tears while her father prowled the long halls. She went to the window, seeing, and not seeing, the grey-green line of trees glimmering in the silver-gilt Enitharmon evening. She was almost ready.
Almost ready, but not yet dressed.
Lillia opened the armoire. She had not bothered to try on the dress before, but now its opalescent folds fascinated her. She reached out a hand to touch it. Tight in the bodice, and full skirted, it shimmered in the dimmed biolights. Her coming-out and coming of age dress, now to be her wedding gown also. It would not remain so virginally pristine for long... She wondered how it would feel.
It slithered silkily over her head, caressing her skin. She shivered, anticipating the possibility of pleasure to come.
Her father opened the door. She turned to face him, and something else took over...
Ghosting down the East Wing towards the Hall of Time Resumed, bare feet silent on the cold tiles. Hair black as night, skin pale as bone, and the shining skirts shirring around her. Lips and right hand splashed red, and the only other sound the drip drip drip of her father’s heart’s blood upon the slickly shining floor.
Blood roses bloomed on her dress now, and bloodied footprints patterned the floor behind her. She could smell the workings of her power, clouding the air around her: family blood, in which her birthright resided, roses, sweet smoke, bitter almonds, and another scent she would soon identify as sex.
The ebon doors ahead were closed. Lillia paused. The taste of the air around her altered then, tainted with something like bile, and cold sweat: the Emissary had arrived, with the other shoe. Taking a deep breath, Lillia raised her clean hand towards the doors. They swung silently inwards.
The assembled guests were a rainbow blur of infinite finery, secrets and suspicions, endlessly reflected in the antique mirrors. Their chatter stilled as Lillia entered, tentative applause fading as they took in her gore spattered appearance. The reek of curiosity and fear was only another ribbon among the scent strands swirling around her.
She ignored them all, concentrating on the shoe, glowing in its jar. Guests flurried out of her path, and each mirror, as she passed, fractured, reflecting Lillia in legion imperfection. She was aware of the doors to the North Wing opening. As the bell jar evaporated, she bared her teeth in a smile of feral brilliance. Gently she caught up the little shoe, replacing it on the cushion with her father’s still warm heart. At last!
Ice, and fire, gripped her wrist. She had not noticed the Emissary moving to her side. Even as he twisted her arm tightly behind her back, her smile did not falter. Grey eyes met yellow. He was handsome enough, she supposed. Ridiculously high cheekbones, and the ghostly pallor of the habitual cryosleeper. Dark hair stranded with grey, and a mouth with lips too thin for her liking, currently revealing prominent canines, and a touch of halitosis. She deliberately widened her smile.
Snap bone rip her throat vengeance taste her bloody lips kiss her taste her take her
Lillia turned her face aside as his lips — and teeth — grazed her cheek.
“It is customary to wish me happy birthday first, before giving me my present.” She held her breath, but only because of the reek of his.
He growled, then released her, raising her hand to his lips, his tongue gently tasting the blood congealed across her fingers.
The trembling in her stomach and knees surprised Lillia. Control!
“Happy birthday, shiny girl. Where is your father? I should pay my respects.”
Lillia glanced sideways to where Philip’s heart bloomed red on white, then up at the Emissary. She liked that he was more than three inches taller than she, at least for the time being.
“You’re too late.”
He followed her glance, and smiled again. “Ah... I’m sorry for your loss.”
His insincerity amused her. “I’m not. I killed him. Don’t you have something for me?”
He patted the pockets of his white frock coat. Lillia was certain it had been deep red when he’d entered. And then he produced the other shoe, and she caught her breath. It glowed with its own inner light, whitely cold and pure as the one clasped in her clean hand.
He took it from her, genuflecting to place the shoes neatly side by side, easing them onto her feet as she stepped daintily into them, resting one hand on his shoulder for balance. His warm hands on her feet, and the beating pulse in his neck, were disconcerting, even distracting. Control!
A perfect fit. At last. She is the One.
A perfect fit, as she had known they would be. Lillia pirouetted around the Emissary, skirts and hair flaring around her. Round and round she danced her way to the largest mirror, the guests scattering once more as they tried to stay out of her way, their unease fermenting into fear. She stopped before the crazed glass, smoothing her hair with her clean left hand, while her blood-dappled right reached towards her myriad reflections. She knew he was watching her — was his smile indulgent, or hungry? No matter. She made her choice.
Implosion of light. Felted blanket of silence smothering movement and thought. Lillia stood before a glass now blank, her skin shimmering with finest silica dust, her raven hair silvered, and in each hand a wide sliver of glass.
The Emissary broke the silence. “Dance with me.” It was not a request.
A dazzle of light. A smell of iron. The glass shards disappeared. The mirrors were flawless once more. The scent of Lillia’s personal brand of magic grew stronger as she smiled up at him.
The omnipresent piano music grew stronger, resolving into a delicate waltz. The Emissary swept the girl into a brief embrace, then sent her twirling across the floor, before pulling her back to him. Her delighted laughter rang out above the music. His smile widened, prominent canines glinting. And around them the guests surged together across the golden floor, a panicked rainbow of gliding steps, tightened knuckles, anxious faces.
Only the most watchful might have observed the transformation; as Lillia danced in the Emissary’s arms, her palely pretty feet took on a rosier hue, bleeding into deeper shades of red. Yet their looking-glass image remained clear as cold starlight.
While the new-met lovers danced through the mirrors, weaving between the spell-struck couples, Lillia and her Prince Charming waltzed through the doors beneath the moon-faced clock, waltzed down the chessboard marble halls, blood-red shoes tap tap tapping with bone-clicking precision, to where the Fata waited, engine thrumming and eager to stretch her wings once more.
The doors swung shut. The music stopped.
The compulsion to dance fell away from the hapless guests. One by one they sank to the floor as consciousness fled.
Stasis-locked, the clock stopped.
The Hall of Lost Time slipped between dimensions, a haven-in-waiting for the shoe’s — and its wearer’s — safe return. Its absence from the Winter Palace caused FarFetch Station’s orbit to decay. The light of its destruction, as it slid inexorably into Enitharmon Prime, flared briefly blue in the Fata’s rear sensors before the explosive kinesics, exhausted, dissipated into so much space-dust. Lillia, already jousting for dominance in blood-soaked sheets, did not mourn the destruction of her birth-home. Her sights were fixed on her future.
Copyright © 2012 by A. J. Grace-Smith