To Eruca at times, Ernst seemed the one point of sanity in their world. Or perhaps not sanity, but serenity. Ernst was ever calm, ever quiet. People loved his clearheaded ways. Ernst was such a contrast to their father's violent outbursts of petulance and jealousy should the attention ever turn away from him.
People in court were ever having to stoop, to apologize and deflect away any claim for glory, for all glory belonged to the king.
Ernst cared nothing for glory, only justice and honor.
He used to read her fairytales late at night. Before he started being the acting prince, before the work which would make their father condemn him as an enemy. Ernst was always in libraries or the training area, training with their uncle. Sometimes she'd watch them, her uncle and Ernst playing chess together. Most would find it boring, but her brother had a quiet intensity which she could only hope to achieve someday, to emulate. Technically, she was too old for nighttime stories, but Ernst still read to her though she'd passed into double digits and already given him half her soul. It reminded her of better, more innocent times, in the single digit years when the ritual was a great unknown and the world was still a good place.
Even now, she still remembered the scene as vividly as if it had happened moments ago.
She had held a golden silk pillow to her chest as he finished the last paragraph. The witch was boiled alive, the sisters torn to pieces by demons, the princess and prince lived happily ever after.
"Don't you ever feel sorry for them?" Eruca had asked.
"For whom?" Ernst had said, barely looking up from the glit-edged tome.
"The monsters, the step-sisters. They never find their happy endings."
"Justice isn't kind," Ernst had said. He had closed the book, a ribbon of hers as a bookmark.
"But is there a way to merge it? To make it just and kind, where everyone ends up happy?" Eruca had said.
"Mercy," Ernst had said thoughtfully. He had smiled ever so faintly. "Mercy isn't something you see a lot in this life, but if I ever find a way, I'll let you know."
He had closed the book and set it aside. She had reached out to his sleeve.
"You promised you'd teach me swords," she had said, with just a hint of childish petulance creeping in.
"I know. I have things to attend to with uncle. Tomorrow, I will. I promise."
"I'll hold you to that," Eruca had said.
Ernst had smiled, ever so slightly. "I'm sure you will. Sleep tight, sister."
And as he left, she had blew out the candle.
In later years, she would turn this memory over and over in her mind. Perhaps this was the defining moment, for it was their last. Ernst was taken away, and with him, the world began to spiral down. The ritual couldn't be completed, and despite her pouring through the books of the library day by day, no alternative way.
And yet, a part of her was glad, glad that death had taken him suddenly and he hadn't had to make that walk to the chamber, knowing he would be torn apart and yet still willing to go through with it.
For them, for all of them.
The burden fell to her shoulders with her father's death. She wasn't even sure her half a soul could be a good enough offering, and she wasn't sure the world would hold together by the time her child was born.
Her child, sent to die. He or she hadn't even been born yet, and already the destiny of a sacrificial lamb was laid at their feet.
But Eruca vowed that she wouldn't just sit and watch the end of the world come. She would find the elusive mercy within the justice, even if it killed her.
Fairytales warned against stepmothers, yet Eruca gave hers the benefit of the doubt. She never condemned anyone, and even held a quiet hope that the beastkind were misunderstood, and hardly the savages the tales portrayed them as.
That was before Ernst died, before the sorrow filled her. It seemed impossible to be split more than this, half her soul given to her brother. The lingering taste of ashes in her mouth, the gnawing emptiness.
That was before she realized that there was nothing good in her stepmother, only ugliness. The queen was shallow, selfish, and unaware of the duty laid to those of royal blood. She was crass, perverse, and as hard as Eruca tried, she could find no excuse for her stepmother's ways.
Then was the day she began to turn. In most stories, princesses waited in towers, waited for princes and to be saved. The day Ernst died, she knew there would be no quarter for her, no one to save her from herself.
Even then, even then she always knew. One day he would leave her to do his duty and keep the world turning, to stop the desertification. One day she would be alone, bearing this burden.
She hadn't even taken off her mourning clothes the day she snuck out down the ivy of her room. Cloak over her hair, she'd made her way to the weapon shop on the far side of the city. She could have taken one from the armory, but then a servant might be accused of theft, and she wouldn't have that.
Up until then, her training had been all of the genteel sort. She could dance the waltz and foxtrot, arrange flowers, do needlepoint, play the pianoforte and make small conversation. Eruca had always wanted her brother to teach her swordsmanship, but it had been one of those tomorrow things. Tomorrow, they'd read together again, tomorrow he'd teach her the way of the sword, tomorrow they'd enjoy a little more of their fading life of a fading world that knew nothing but cruelty and suffering.
Then, tomorrow never came.
The dealer eyed her suspiciously as she walked in. His face was as craggy as a desert canyon, his eyes deep set and dark under his low-slung hat. She only dared to nod to his greeting. Her eyes went straight to the merchandise, all the while, her heart unsteady within her. Was she really doing this? Was she strong enough to take these steps in mind?
She would have to be. Ernst was here no longer, her stepmother was a tyrant, and the world was falling to pieces before her very eyes. She had no skills as of yet, but she would learn. She ran her fingers over the smooth metal of the weapons laid out. Large three-pronged spears like pitchforks, gauntlets, thin knives, long silver swords and curved bows.
"Are you going to buy? This ain't a library," The dealer said.
Eruca pulled her hand back as if she'd felt an electric shock. She wasn't used to such crass treatment. But then, she reminded herself, I am walking amongst the common people as if I am one of them.
"I'm deciding. Do you want my gold or not?" She said. Her voice wavered, so even her show of strength was short-lived. But it was a halting new step, like a newborn foal trying to find its bearing.
"Fah, I guess you're gold is as good as any," the dealer said.
Eruca knew her limits. If she took the sword, she would nearly fall over from the weight, so unused to the pressure she was. A spear would be even more unwieldy. Knives were tempting, for their easy concealment and light weight, and yet, she never learned the intricacies of combat which knife fighting required. She had no training in archery, and a bow could not be hidden away in her dresses without much effort.
No, none of those would do.
She looked on and upwards, above the dealer's head. Mounted on the wall was a gun with a pearlescent handle. It was elegant, easily concealed, and even from this far away she could feel the magic emanating from it.
She may have never gotten a lesson in swords, but in preparation of the ritual, she knew spellweaving.
"How much for the gun?" Eruca said. She motioned above him.
"That? That's a real treasure. I won't be willing to part with that without some serious gold."
And the unsaid: which I hardly think someone like you would have.
She laid down a ring set with large sapphires.
"I trust this would cover it?"
His eyes widened, but he did not comment on its origin. She wondered if it could come to that, guards called and taken in for stealing her own ring. But in the end, greed won through.
He wordlessly reached up to bring down the gun. He picked it up, and felt the sudden shock of coldness, like winter had been woven deep in the metal. It was heavier than it looked.
"I'll take it," she said.
The first star was visible in the twilight. There were no guards near here, all overseeing the latest execution of a supposed traitor. Eruca lifted up her gun and aimed it at a far corner outcropping on the stone walls. She pulled the trigger, and felt a harsh recoil driving her back, the sound of a crack cutting through the night. The bullet sailed through the air, shining like a shooting star with the magic imbued in it. It ricocheted off the outcropping and sailed up into the sky before disappearing into the night. A star faded out.
She blew away the smoke, and put the gun under her cloak as she sunk into shadows, and away from the coming guards. The night chill snuck under her cloak, cold fingers to her skin. Today was a beginning, the first step towards a future she wasn't even sure could be saved. Wish upon a star, wish I may, wish I might, she thought.
If you're up there, brother, then please watch over me. I'll try and save the world you loved, I'll try and find mercy yet.