The Monstrosities are Coming
Listen. Did you fall prey?
I did. I fell prey to the honeyed trap.
And I do not speak of the snare of the monsters with flesh the hue of storm and mouths that teem with fangs.
It is humans who concoct honeyed confections that rot the teeth and spoil the child.
I went as rotten as the rest, supping on their moist cakes that sugared my discontent.
I perceived myself as a thing of power, laced up in a corset embedded with iron rods, armed with straitlaced austerity over an unbending spine, and I donned a genteel mask as I plotted my life through the lavish balls of that spiteful court. I schemed while sipping wine under teardrop chandeliers, my lips painted ruby by fermented berries, and my belly gorged on meat a-drip with juices that weighed as heavy as lead.
I enticed myself to malice. My caustic tongue spewed bristle and scorn on airy terraces, where I traded calumnies amongst my friends.
Everything around us overpowered the senses. Perfumes of lilac and jasmine jammed my lungs, and dancing with the First Magnate’s impassive sons dizzied my mind.
Then my fate began to close around me like a circle of foes. A marriage was arranged—with some vilely unsightly man, someone distantly related to the magnate of the Second Demesne.
I began to rail against my fate.
But those appetizing confectionaries I’d swallowed had merely deadened me to the trap. My corset was a cage, and I had nurtured my subservience to their chains too long.
Now I began to suffocate from the cast-iron mold they shut me inside. I did not fit; it constricted my freedom too much. I could not breathe.
Can you understand?
At night, in my plush bed, I lay sick at heart, bloated with the day’s cruelties. I envisioned my fate spanning the decades before me.
My obedience had turned into a changeling at my breast: a maddened creature sharp of tooth and dark of eye. Once a mask, my rancor would fuse with my sinew and bone. I would become as virulent as the pinch-faced woman who’d birthed me: a vinegar-soured purse of lips, a curdling of gimlet eye, my uplifted nose astride my contempt.
I would pucker up like a sour mouth painted as dark as blood.
I wanted out.
Do you finally grasp?
I fled my fate, and where else should I flee but to the chapel of our Absent God?
No one, though, can find solace in a god who left humankind to fend for itself centuries before.
When I prostrated myself, imploring, before the altar, only candles flickered in the naves. Naught but discomfort seeped from the stone. And the unheard entreaties of the thousands who had knelt in vain before me besieged my hope with only unanswered echoes.
Denied succor, I rose to abandon our Absent God as He had abandoned me.
But then, the ringing of bells entreated my soul to stillness.
Riveted by the melody, I swore I heard in it…a promise.
In the hushed resonance of its finale, I glided up the staircase like one whose heart had been tied up by a string. That string pulled taut and led me forth.
Beneath the bell whose chimes had struck the chord within me, I curled up in a nook of shadow beneath its engraved iron.
A froth of a girl in white lace, I released my grief in a torrent. I wept like one hurt…and looked up like one found.
For there, in the belfry, appeared a boy scarcely older than I. Garbed in a robe from head to toe, he possessed so pretty a face I thought, strangely, that his lips must taste like cherries, and his hair must shine in daylight like the finest of silver.
And if the boy lost his breath when he saw me, I gained it. For the first time in an existence bound by strictures and corsets, my lungs expanded, full and astonished, and the breath there felt like a laugh. Or the prelude to one.
And I had never laughed in my life.
On that near-soundless night, when you could hear the beating of a heart, he’d discovered the trail of sorrow that led to me.
Now, here, upon this parchment, I tender you my confession, patched together from torn-off bits of agony that I have purled away from my soul. Peek between the droplets of heartache in the blurred ink, the stains of blood raked out by my ragged nails, and find my love: my mute foundling in the belfry.
After that night, he became my breathless escape, an irony because his smiles enabled me to finally breathe, only for his very proximity to take that breath away again.
Although he had no voice—born unspeaking—he conveyed everything through a blush or a sheepish duck of head, through the ruffle of his hand through his hair, or through a luminous smile gifted only to me.
We were always sneaking—into shadowed naves, forgotten corners, or the chapel’s cramped library, where the priest hid raisin-nut cakes and steaming cider among scattered parchments—but mostly, we sneaked into happiness. At day, at dusk, and once, in the night-hushed belfry, he knelt upon my flowing gown that pooled around us like froth.
He brought our pulses a mere hairsbreadth apart.
Then our lips were no longer apart at all.
For a single moment, during that wondrous kiss, everything else in my life was rendered insignificant.
But I’d been hatched in the poisonous court, and that vipers’ nest never sets its victims free.
That cursed day!
I skipped from the chapel—and ran straight into the magnate’s eldest son.
We both bounced backward, hurling apologies, and then stopped, recognizing one another.
I was a flushed young noblewoman, prettily in love.
He was the handsome future king, enigmatic and mussed.
To everyone in the treacherous court, we could be the perfect match.
To the future king and I, born and bred in that ruthless cradle of schemes, we could be the perfect match.
And although both our hearts had tangled in poorer places—his with a penniless girl, mine with my mute foundling—and pierced us with hidden briars in the secret forests of our love, those matches were unacceptable for marriage.
The future king and I, we understood. We could appease the court by joining with each other and meeting our lovers in secret, after we’d produced the royal septuplets.
When he offered for my hand, I snatched at the chance to rid myself of my former betrothed, that Vile Unsightly, for he could not compare to this new match to a future king.
My family dumped the Vile like a slug.
And truth be told, part of me reveled that, by marrying the magnate’s eldest son, I would one day be Queen. I would bear the next royal septuplets.
But I had to tell the boy.
I tried to explain to him the rules of royalty, that I would become the mother of the future rulers, and how the entire court now expected this of me. If I reneged, my family would be exiled for the dishonor. I would be ruined. I had given my word to our future king, and a promise spoken in court was not one revoked.
The boy and I could still be lovers—in secretly snatched bits of time, after I wed my king and bore him the next rulers.
But the boy didn’t understand. He couldn’t comprehend the workings of humans who didn’t esteem the heart, who stingily parceled it out piecemeal to this lover and that husband.
And I didn’t understand the workings of the heart at all.
The magnate’s son and I married in my mute foundling’s chapel.
I was resplendent in a gown of scarlet flowers. People threw petals upon our upturned faces. The open windows permitted a fresh breeze that whisked the overwhelming floral perfumes to the vaulted ceiling, leaving only a faintest scent of blossoms.
Tamed doves swooped overhead. Their feathers floated down as we knelt amid flower petals and smiles, with the sweet taste in our mouths from the ceremonial wine we drank.
I strained my ears for the bells my love would ring. Bated for his song, I waited for the moment I could escape my husband and promise the boy that I loved him most.
But his heartache spread its wings in the belfry.
They found him folded, lifeless, beneath the bell where my gown had once frothed around our kisses.
They groomed me for hubris.
They prepared me for spite and envy.
They instilled in me the importance of never crumbling before the court, for a queen must never show weakness.
And I have not. Only a few have glimpsed through the cracks of the steel mask I present to the world. Only a few have peered through the fissures down to the madness that boils and stews in my core.
I dare you to stroke the iron curve of my spine. Its spikes will disfigure your courage.
Only I feel the blood seep through the thousands of holes in the sieve of my heart.
It can hold nothing anymore. My blood is only good for bruising. It no longer brings heat, life—no wild pulse. No more and never again.
All the lessons beaten into me—the thousands of hours of comportment, repartee, vilification—worthless.
Nothing prepares you for heartbreak. Nothing prepares you for the atrophying of a heart.
Those who say, “Rally and love again!”—how dare you strive to strike a spark in the heart that I have shut?
You have no concept of the changeling ghoul I’ve rocked to sleep in the fading day.
The lullabies I’ve sung to bloodied hands.
Let me tell you of the pleasure of my king and I.
Anything our bodies wrought together was mechanical and empty, a shudder of flesh and tissue without any heart. A rapid pulse without passion.
My song had silenced with the boy, and after our first consummation, the future king stumbled from our bed and retched out the window while I lay limp and willed my soul to leave.
Any time he held me was an apology. He stroked my hair in a game of pretend that I pretended to believe. Every kiss to my brow, every halfhearted smile, every feeble touch that faded too quick was his apology for not wanting to be with me, because we had to succeed. The Demesnes needed the next seven rulers.
Eventually, we settled.
He could make love to me without retching. I could shut off my mind and cry out in the meager pleasure of our coupling. We sat calmly on our thrones every day.
But we wore our guilt like cloaks of ravaged wishes.
And a series of stillborn years made me the disappointment of an entire kingdom. No septuplets were born alive.
Only a single girl child survived the devastated ruins of my hateful womb. The daughter I hate and have turned the entire kingdom against.
And my king’s lover still lived. His visits to my bed dwindled while his visits outside the castle increased.
I followed him once to a dingy shack in the poor quarter, where a statuesque woman laughed wryly when he propped his foot into her cracked door.
Oh, she made a display of protesting when he swept inside, telling him he was wed now and must sire the septuplets, but he was already kissing her, and she got no farther than those husky breaths.
Was it fair that he still had his love and I had lost mine?
But I was Queen, and coins of gold can cascade so effortlessly from the fingertips of a woman scorned.
Straight into the purses of brutes.
They ensured that my king’s lover suffered at the end.
As he had destroyed me, so I destroyed him. Is that not fair?
The daughter he got on me, though, has not proven as easily slain. Her existence is a thorn that pricks me with the reminder every day that I’ve failed to bear the next seven rulers.
And my King no longer visits my chambers at all. He takes lovers, one woman after another. Every one is worthless, of course, for none can bear the royal septuplets; the Book of Promises clearly decrees that no illegitimate septuplets can rule.
Which means if I don’t bear the rulers as his wedded queen, no one will. And I must. I wish to. Even our kingdom grows restless for their birth.
But our hopes for it become futile, as futile as my hopes for my king’s return to me.
In this empty life, this empty bed, even an empty man is preferable to nothing at all.
But not even this empty man returns.
They taught me that a queen never crumbles, never caves, not even with the entire world set against her.
Not even when her own heart has turned its face away, when it taunts her with dreams where I never skip out of that chapel. In those dreams, I stay with my foundling mute. He wraps me up in his shabby coat—
But those dreams are lies, for the warmth escapes through his coat’s myriad holes, and although I press nearer, and nearer, he disperses into a phantom formed only of regret.
The boy who could have warmed me decayed long ago.
Now, from the most magnificent castle in the known world, I stare out upon the pox of stars.
They scar the sky like heartache scars my soul.
Listen. Do you hear the call of madness?
Its flicker of forked tongue whispers of intent, of power. It cries for me to hear.
And I heed.
I am sick of them all. I did everything right. I did all I was supposed to do. I married as they bade, and what have I to show?
I am beaten, spurned, unloved, used up.
But they forged in me a steel heart, an iron spine, and an indomitable will. I thank them for it now, for that courage kept me unafraid when I conspired with our ancient foe with his eyes of flame.
Behind the shutters of night, I have made a pact with the enemy to spare only the worthy in the Seven Demesnes and doom the undeserving.
The city walls that were erected centuries prior to keep the monsters at bay will not ward them off forever. Monstrosities honed of barbarity and vigor are coming: prowling shadows with bladed claws around the corner.
They will lay justice at the feet of the wronged, and rid our world of the corrupt.
And they will enable my womb to fill with the septuplets of my king.
Imagine the reckoning: a razor-toothed smile above a slumbering girl.
Creatures steeped in nightmare staking their victory in the night, leaving only the worthy alive.
Nothing can save the wicked now. Definitely not a daughter birthed from my loveless bed.
A Scarred and Shadow-Enshrouded Heart
While I wait for my allies’ plans to reach fruition and for their promise of my magnate’s return to my bed to be fulfilled, the monsters stave off my impatience with gifts of magic.
Like most in the First Demesne, I was born magicless.
My allies, though, have handed me power in a frosted-glass vial.
Inside this vial interweave filaments of gold, and each of those honey-hued ribbons inside is a tiny, magical spell. At a fingertip’s touch, I can unhook one strand from the snarl of the rest and dangle it before my eyes, after which my whisper conveys my wish to see this event or that one, this person or that one—any event at all, past or present, whichever I wish.
If I leave my eyes open, the golden thread plays the scene in the air before me.
And if I shut my eyes, I live the scene inside the body the person I choose.
The magic threads spy upon anyone I want, anytime, in any place.
Naught but fibrous fancies unable to achieve what I most crave: to bear the septuplets.
And slay my daughter. Sometimes I wonder if I might even long to kill her more than save the Demesnes.
While she prances about, alive, and my magnate ruts with his mistress, what consolation does it offer me to peep upon the past?
And yet what else remains to me but to wander the bleak and barren moor of my despondency? For in my empty bed, in this empty room, my empty life taxes my every breath.
Why is emptiness so heavy? How can something so vacant belabor my steps?
What irony is it that love is a ripe and full-fleshed fruit while loneliness is a shriveled, juiceless husk, and yet loneliness proves a far weightier burden than love?
And so, I wander.
Reclining upon my silks, a jaded queen awaiting her time of glory, I am frivolous with magic.
I ponder whose past I should spy upon.
Perhaps upon the healer’s.
Repellent with kindheartedness and revoltingly obsessed with hope, she glides through my castle’s corridors like an over-cloying blossom emanating compassion. Surely she hides something behind that innocent sham.
Yes, I believe I’ll root out her nasty secret.
For the first time in years, I am whimsical. From my idle sprawl upon the bed, I twine a magical golden thread around my beringed fingers.
I smile grandly into the dressing table’s gilded mirror while I stroke my gem-encrusted bodice.
My lips gleam as dark as plums, my thoughts behind them infested with worms.
What harm in spying?
Here is how my daughter was born: half-dead but still squalling, shrill and ugly, she slid from my womb—the slick and bloody body of her first enemy—only to land in the thrall of her second enemy.
My husband’s wizard—such a pretty young man!—nurtured mangled emotion in place of a heart. Any kindness had been wrung out by past travail, and a lack of succor from the apathetic world had let his empathy shrivel.
He worked his spells in his dark lair, in our highest tower.
There, he clinched my infant daughter’s soul with his dark magic.
He readied to peel her essence from her bones.
The healer ruined everything.
Thirteen years old, Iminique Demascus—untrained, untried healer, and tiny even for her age—hurtled from the castle ballroom.
She wasn’t chasing the screams of the queen in birth, but was tracking the traces of an infant’s soul. A boy babe had already been slain, his soul simply pulled out, and now his twin sister, a princess, was sliding from the womb on his heels—in the hold of the same unseen mage who had killed her brother.
Iminique’s healing—clumsy, scarcely used, only half-learned—fended off the mage while she clasped the babe’s soul and raced through the castle toward the birthing room.
Why resist? purred a silky voice in Iminique’s mind. The child is mine.
She fought on, harder, but with more ferocity than skill, and he proved too strong. The web of his spell became an iron net around her throat… and he took out her soul along with the infant princess’s.
He held them both, but her, Iminique, he pinned inside his heart. And there, he immersed her in unbearable pain.
Not her pain, but his, for inside his heart, she found him: a man long ruined, his dreams shattered, his hope torn, his body stolen.
Lost amidst broken things, she’d understood his torment, its depth, and with her dying strength, she quit fighting and just held him, a man wounded beyond repair.
But she was a healer without match.
She loved without compare.
And faced with this inconceivably ravaged heart, she did what healers do best.
He let her go.
The stupid healer! She had saved a child nobody wanted. Our seven cities and I wanted seven boys to rule the seven demesnes, the septuplets, not a princess worth nothing.
Like I, the rest of the cities, too, would rather let my daughter die.
And perhaps she would have died, wrinkled up and unloved in some disregarded royal cradle, had the royal midwife not offered up the healer as nursemaid.
At the palace’s summons the day after the infant’s birth, Iminique’s father blustered—she was, after all, an aristocrat, not a member of the caste that served as nursemaids—but Iminique answered the midwife by presenting herself at the castle.
Scarcely had she dared that small defiance against her father than she found herself kneeling in the throne room, the royal babe in her arms.
She suddenly held the audience of a cold court. Courtiers in peacock-hued waistcoats of ruby and emerald and indigo peered at her from kohl-painted eyes. The glacial queen glared loftily down a patrician nose. The uninterested king picked at his nails and let the skin scatter into his ruffled sleeves.
And their boyish mage, with his headful of pretty curls, stood in a shaft of sunbeam behind the thrones.
How else could Iminique construe his bright and laughing gaze other than that he recognized her?
She recognized him, too, despite not having previously seen those curls that shimmered like sun-kissed honey halfway down his back, or the belted blue tunic he wore that matched his fair-lashed eyes, with gold embroidery that matched his hair.
She had woven back together his heart.
And she knew that, despite his pretty face, his was not a pretty heart.
It harbored an ugly secret: he had killed the boy babe, had nearly slain the newborn princess, and had nearly strangled Iminique’s soul before inexplicably letting her and the infant girl go.
He had followed Iminique last night into her dreams, where he’d ambled lazily, like a curious visitor making himself at home there.
He was keeping the septuplets from being born. Why else would he kill the royal children as they emerged from the queen’s womb?
Faced with him now in the throne room—this murderous mage brimming with amusement, a member of the court!—Iminique could not remain silent.
And so she balanced the baby on one arm, ignored the drip of drool on her wrist, and curtseyed to the magnate and his stone-faced wife. “Your wizard,” she began, but then her tongue rebelled and left the rest of her sentence unsaid.
The magnate turned his head partway toward the mage posted in sunlight behind him. “My wizard?”
Iminique surreptitiously wiped her damp palms on the gurgling baby’s frilly lace. “He’s young. And striking.”
No. She hadn’t meant to say that.
Hadn’t you? the wizard’s voice echoed in her mind, his glee dancing at the fringes of her consciousness.
“Impertinence!” The queen snarled at the baby. “Have her dismissed at once, Declan, and the babe killed.”
The magnate raised a hand, silencing the queen, and leaned forward. “Our wizard is young, Iminique Demascus, though I’d wager to say a good six years older than you. And he’s powerful, too.”
Powerful and a killer, Iminique tried to say. It emerged: “Powerful and alluring.”
Her face flooded with heat. What was wrong with her?
“Declan!” The queen snapped shut her fan. “You can’t mean to—”
The magnate touched the queen’s hand, quieting her once more. “Alluring?” He steepled his hands and measured Iminique, his next words soft. “Even to one so young.”
No. Iminique fought rising panic. He’s keeping the septuplets from being born! she wanted to cry. He killed your son, nearly killed your daughter, will likely continue to kill more…
Her lips parted on another attempt.
Better not try, the wizard spoke again directly into her mind, the solemn tone at odds with the mirth physically evident in his face. Next time I’ll embarrass you more.
You can’t control me! Iminique defied him.
His angelic smile widened in challenge.
Doggedly, she spoke again. “He’s divinely, wondrously, exquisitely…”
Her mouth clamped shut.
The magnate’s brow bunched. The queen inhaled for another tirade.
And Iminique, petrified by the disobedience of her voice, the inappropriateness of her words—in front of the entire court!—and the frost of rage that rimmed the queen’s eyes, came close to babbling.
She scrambled to repair her gaffe. “Your majesties, I beg your forgiveness!” She executed her most deferential, loveliest obeisance, a flawless curtsy that brought her nose to the red carpet, difficult but not impossible to do with a baby in one’s arms. “I was merely taken aback by his—youth—”his dark heart, she added in her mind, winning the mage’s beatific smile from him behind the magnate’s throne “—and I gravely misspoke. Please, I entreat your tolerance.”
The nobles snickered, and another girl might have blushed, but Iminique recovered her poise before she rose and presented only a marmoreal serenity for the magnate to judge.
She awaited her fate.
How sickeningly trite, to battle for a female babe!
She should have focused her power on protecting the septuplets—if, indeed, the wizard had been truly taking them from my womb.
I did not know of his perfidy. Why would he prevent the septuplets from being born?
He will be one of the first to die when the monsters storm our walls. I will ensure it.
And the healer with him. Not only did she waste her life on saving my daughter, but she is so falsely overstuffed with good intentions that it revolts the stomach with its falseness. Her soul is as fattened with goodness as a meat pie. No wonder the nobility wanted to eat her alive.
She succeeded in her entreaty to my magnate—if one could call it success for an aristocratic girl to be appointed a royal baby’s nanny—because no other living soul in the kingdom cared about my child, and my king, indifferent to the babe but lacking my hate, thought who better to keep a babe than a healer?
The healer, after all, simulated an unspoiled vessel, but surely something had cracked it. No one can live life without being shattered at least once.
I harvest another golden thread.
Show me, I whispered, show me her downfall.
Although Iminique wasn’t permitted into the throne room after that first infraction, whenever she crossed paths in the corridor with a noble, or the magnate himself, she attempted to speak the truth, for she refused to relinquish her endeavors to expose the mage’s perfidy.
Every time she opened her mouth, other words materialized on her tongue—flattering words about the young mage’s beauty—and made her seem puerile.
She always caught herself too late, which made her appear a strange, flustered, stuttering child.
She even attempted to set out the truth in ink on paper. But no matter how many times she scrawled out the confession, only other sentences emerged while his secret stayed firmly locked in her mind.
Day in and day out, the young mage forced her to live with the knowledge that he was an enemy of the demesnes and she was powerless to do a thing to stop it. She had to watch him stroll into private councils, any plans there poured straight into the ears of the enemy, while the magnate consulted with him and acted based on his advice.
Moreover, she had to keep the babe alive—and herself alive—while the mad queen at first commanded that no one feed them, and then dispatched assassins in the night to slay them.
Iminique’s every step became a struggle. No one would feed either her or the babe. No one even named the babe.
And as for Iminique…
She was castigated, shunned, wrongfully blamed for crimes, half-starved, publicly whipped, viciously scorned, and precariously numb from sleep-deprived, assassin-fraught nights.
As if that weren’t enough for a thirteen-year-old girl to shoulder, in her attempt to save the princess’s life that first night, Iminique had unwittingly bound her life and the princess’s together.
If the babe starved, Iminique starved. If Iminique perished, the babe perished.
No one helped her but the young mage.
When the kitchen staff denied her any sustenance, he presented her with fruit tarts and cheeses and spiced pheasant pies.
When assassins skulked in the dark, his warnings came in her mind—Im, quickly!
He was always in her mind.
My name is Quentyn, Im. You could use it sometime…
And he was always saving her life.
And once, when a female assassin came to kill the babe, he went so far as to bind the assassin’s soul.
Thus, he gifted to Iminique a protector.
It did not make sense. And yet Iminique, left no recourse and blocked off every other way, stepped down the path he offered.
She found herself traveling a peculiar and dangerous course, feasting on his raspberry tarts, on honey cakes and steaming, crusty breads.
With every bite of his gifts, though, she burrowed herself ever deeper into the debt of an enigmatically smiling mage with a deeply scarred and shadow-enshrouded heart.
So begins her wayward foray, her descent into moral ambiguity.
Still, she nauseates me with her goodwill. I skim more years of her life.
When the surviving babe was six months old, Iminique contrived an encounter with the king in the corridor.
Politely—Iminique never strayed from courtesy—she begged the First Magnate to name the babe.
The king, after having barely glanced at the child since her birth, now raised his brows at the ferociously pumping arms expressing the babe’s exuberance.
Then he smiled, disarmed. He touched her fingertips, chuckling when his neglected progeny happily attempted to pound him with pinwheeling arms.
“Seriah,” he said. “She has the ferocity of a Seriah.”
Was that the moment when my king’s affections fell to the child? Had I finally given him something he could love, only it was the creature I most abhorred?
I still longed to kill her, but that proved impossible, with her protectors a healer, the healer’s soul-bound assassin, and the septuplet-murdering mage.
Inside that protective circle, my daughter flourished despite a world that loathed her. She became alternately exuberant and solemn, as sedate as a willow and rampant as a weed, with wide eyes almost swallowed by black, and hair so pale it shone almost white: hair that curled into spirals so tight it invariably defied combs.
She was a solitary child, a spurned child, and the healer worried about her so.
Still mawkishly good, that healer. Such a bore.
With another strand and a yawn, I jump to her eighteenth year.
Here, finally, hides the downfall I want, for the white gauze of the healer’s canopied bed begins to ripple around empty sheets.
Where did she go at night?
And there, I find it: she yielded to ruin in the mage’s windowless lair.
For all that I hate him for stealing the septuplets from my womb for years, I commend him this: the deed of wrecking the healer’s immaculate virtue.
Amid his rich dark furs and black swaths of silk, she succumbed. She let his golden body enfold hers, her perspiring limbs wrapped around his, both of them agleam in the candlelight.
For all that she presented the alabaster mien of one untouchable in public, she let the mage touch her everywhere at night.
Her shamed morning scurries from his tower could not undo what she consented to in the dark.
She justified her capitulation to the traitorous mage by reasoning: where better to fight the foe than close enough to pull the strings of his heart?
But she never unknotted those snarled strings.
He merely entangled her in them whenever it pleased him. And it pleased him often.