By Grace Brannan
Betrayal was a dungeon, cold and dark. There was no respite in the damp, slimy walls or stone floors. Her daily rations were moldy, stale, mealy, worm-ridden. The sole reminder of her humanity was a bucket to relieve herself, emptied once a week. None of the guards would speak to her, or even look at her. They were told she was dangerous, that her sobs were manufactured, her tears an illusion.
It took months before desperation propelled her to kill rats to eat. They had been her only company for so long, and she wept as she wrung their necks. She didn’t try to escape. She let her gifts dull and fade.
The dead watched her silently.
When the king finally released her, he hardly recognized the girl he had locked away two years before. She was no longer a gangly adolescent: a young woman had blossomed in the dark. She was bathed and dressed, her matted hair shorn, the wounds around her manacled wrists cleaned and bandaged.
After supper, the king appraised this wounded creature from across the long table. The guards refused her cutlery, but she hadn’t needed it: she attacked the food with hands and teeth.
She lifted her head and looked at him, eyes wild. She opened her mouth like a snake unhinging its jaw, uttering her first words in two years.
“Why didn’t you just kill me?”
His eyes glittered in the candlelight.
“How could I?” he said softly. “You’re my sister. I love you.”
The guards pushed her out of the carriage and lifted the blinds from her eyes. Skewers of brightness slowly resolved into sunlight, dappling through branches. They unbound her wrists and left her in the forest, alone.
She was not afraid. She did not know how to fear anymore.
She lay on the soft forest floor, ear to the ground, breathing in slow time with the trees. Predator and prey avoided her, sensing her wrongness. She grew a cocoon, black and chitinous, enveloping her in familiar darkness.
The dead watched from the recesses of the forest, and—softly, softly—they began to sing.
Her brother, the king, had forgotten the stories about the forest. He had always been too preoccupied to listen to tales whispered by their nurses when they were small, of the magic that still haunted some parts of the world.
She had listened to the stories, trembling with anticipation and fear on her nurse’s lap—yet she didn’t remember them as she lay beneath her black shield.
She just wanted, she waited, to die.
But the songs of the dead drew the mages of the forest to her. They approached her cocoon with soft steps and pity in their eyes. Some of them could still remember what it had been like to be shattered and cast aside, a broken thing.
It took them several minutes to whisper away her shell—she was powerful, this one, able to withstand their workings for longer than most. It was hours before she opened her eyes, saw the women encircling her.
“Who are you?” she croaked.
“Your future, little one,” one of them said, although she couldn’t tell who; none of their mouths seemed to move. “If you will let us teach you.”
She hadn’t meant to kill her parents.
She had been so angry. They kept her locked away like a secret, told the populace that the princess was too ill to be seen. It was unfair—she didn’t feel sick, no matter what her parents said.
They took away her nurses and her tutors, ended her lessons with the other children of the palace. She could still play her music, but only alone in her room. Her only friend left was her brother.
She wanted more, she told them that night. She wanted to leave.
She screamed at her parents until her throat was raw. Until blood ran from their eyes, until their flesh bubbled, until their bodies slumped out of their chairs and thudded to the ground.
She turned to her brother—the new king—wide-eyed. “I’m so sorry—” she began. “I didn’t mean—you know I didn’t mean—”
The king looked at her, and he didn’t see his sister.
Betrayal was a dungeon, cold and dark.
The king sat on his throne, surrounded by attendants: then suddenly, she was there before him, standing still amid the crowd of petitioners. He frantically looked to his guards, but they gazed stoically ahead. They could not see the vision.
She was older—had it really been fifteen years?—but the king knew her immediately. Thin lines cobwebbed around her mouth and eyes, etched too deeply for a woman who had only seen thirty harvests: the signature of agony felt at a young age. His throat closed.
Despite the distance between them, he could hear the words she uttered as clearly as if she had whispered in his ear. He realized with a pang that he had missed her voice.
“I’m coming for you.”
He could not tell his advisors. They would think him mad. He had kept the truth hidden for so long, shielding it even from his wife, his children, his closest allies. They still believed his parents had been poisoned by foreign enemies, his frail sister dead from an unnamed illness.
So when she slipped into his private chamber one night, the king was ready. He was waiting. And he was alone.
Even so, he was too slow to react, shocked by the nearness of her presence after so long. Their swords barely crossed before she cut off his hand and his future with one clean, cruel slice. He collapsed to his knees. The king could not tell what she was thinking as she stared down at him—the girl he once knew was so long gone, he had trouble remembering if she ever existed.
“I should have killed you when I had the chance,” the king rasped.
His sister plunged her sword through his heart, watching the life leave his eyes.
“You did,” she whispered.