Carlotta's older daughter was only three, and her younger daughter not yet a year old, when her husband died for a fairy feud. So when she heard of a rich widower, at the outskirts of the royal city, who likewise had a babe to raise, it seemed a good match; his child would play with her children, she would be its mother, and there would be plenty and certainty for all of them.
Liliana gave her trouble from the start. Carlotta sang to her, swaddled her in soft clothes, and treated her tenderly, but the little girl screamed incessantly, struck at her often, and neither returned nor seemed to understand her smiles. She was spiteful, if a babe so young could be spiteful.
Liliana did not sleep easily, and so Carlotta slept less. Perhaps there were other signs Carlotta would have marked had she been less exhausted; but at last she received the clearest sign of all. One night, she was at Liliana's side when the clock struck midnight, and as the strokes rang out, Carlotta saw silver run through Liliana's veins, saw her teeth and fingernails lengthen and sharpen, and saw her eyes grow black and wide. For the stroke of midnight is when enchantments fail.
Then she got the truth from her husband: his wife had been a fairy, and his daughter was a half-fey child.
She was angry with him, to little effect. The man she had married cared neither for his wealth nor for his welfare; his heart was broken, and he might well die of it, before Carlotta had quite decided if she would be able to love him.
At least now she knew why the child was so difficult. She removed Liliana from the nursery and set up her cot in an attic, so that she might hear fewer of the baby's cries, and so that her own sweet Elenora and Serafina might play undisturbed. She tried to hire a nursemaid to help with the baby, at least during the day, but hireling after hireling gave up on the girl, giving Carlotta grim satisfaction that she had not overestimated her own trials.
Her new husband died, and, carrying out the duty of the funeral, Carlotta discovered that she had not, in fact, come to love him. She did not seem to have much love in her at all, these days. She certainly did not have enough to spare for Liliana. She had married Liliana's father on the promise of mothering the little girl, and, having tried sincerely to bond with Liliana for the first few months, she did not have it in her to do the child a wickedness. But the girl was not her kin, and barely of her kind. And a vast expanse lies between love and hate.
It was easier once Liliana began to speak, and understand, and once Carlotta could coax her into following simple instructions. This took far longer than it did for Serafina, who was a few months her elder; but then Serafina loved to chatter to her mother and respond to what she said, and Liliana's preference was the opposite. Liliana preferred to take what she wanted, not ask for it - especially if that was her sisters' toys.
Elenora was a dear child, thoughtful and tender and helpful, even at an early age. Serafina was lively and loving and cheerful. But Liliana was savage, sullen, and indifferent, and she and Serafina were beginning to truly hate each other.
It came to a head in their seventh year. Liliana was a beautiful girl. She did not have the full perfection of her fairy kin, but her loveliness was unusual enough to receive strangers' praise. Along with that beauty, she was also delicate. She seemed to feel pain and cold most keenly; unfortunately, having convinced Carlotta that she suffered more than others, she often tried to use this to get out of chores or any difficult situation, and complained constantly of being ill-used when asked to work alongside her step-sisters. Carlotta tried to spare her the hardest work, but she could not trust Liliana to be honest about what effort she could bear. And the situation bred great resentment between the sisters: from Serafina and even Elenora, who must work far harder than Liliana; and from Liliana, who felt that she endured the worst abuses yet was despised for laziness.
Carlotta had asked Liliana to sweep out the kichen hearth, and take out the ashes, and had gone to another part of the house on a task of her own. She was summoned back by screaming. In the kitchen, Serafina was shaking a bucket of ashes and still-glowing coals over Liliana's head.
"She said I should do it, because I'm just a brute of a girl!" Serafina declared hotly. "So I said she was just as much a cinder-girl as me, and I think I'll call her that from now on, as it suits her better than her name!"
"You'll do no such thing," Carlotta said, and the fury in her voice took her daughter aback. Liliana's eyes, which were brimming with tears, began to sparkle with interest and mischief instead; that boded ill, but it could not be helped.
"You've made a fine mess here, and it's for you to clean it up," she ordered Serafina, and took Liliana off to examine her for burns.
"She's made a fine mess of me, too," Liliana spat at her, "but I suppose you don't care about that."
"Hush," Carlotta said, dabbing at the girl's face with a wet cloth to try to see if a mark was an injury or only dirt. Liliana flinched dramatically away, nearly knocking the cloth out of Carlotta's hand, and in a rage without thought, Carlotta lifted her other hand.
What stopped her was not self-control or any other virtue. It was the shock of seeing, in Liliana's eyes, expectation; she had never struck Liliana before, and yet if she did, it would surprise her step-daughter not one whit.
"I'm sorry," Carlotta said, and Liliana's eyes grew wide.
"Let me finish," she said, taking up the cloth again.
Then she went to scold Serafina, whose mood was not receptive to such a scolding; she was accustomed, Carlotta realised grimly, to her mother taking her side.
What have I done? she asked herself. I was given a cuckoo-child to raise; I chose to raise the monster, as best I could. But I will raise a whole household of monsters, if I am not careful, and count myself among them.
I do not love Liliana.
That is not good enough.
So she tried again.
It was late, very late, to repair the damage already done. Liliana did not trust her. Her response to Carlotta's kinder words and gestures was to take them as a sign of weakness, and behave terribly until such time as she expected Carlotta would revert to her previous harshness. I have taught her not to expect love, Carlotta thought, and so she has taught herself she does not need or want it, trying to quash the thought in the back of her mind that this was a fairy's natural disposition.
Serafina, and even Elenora, were similarly distrustful of the change in their mother. "Why, mother, has she put a spell on you?" Elenora demanded in indignation one evening, when Liliana drank of her soup too soon, burned her mouth, and smashed the bowl on the floor in a temper, to which Carlotta responded with an even tone, moving to clean up the mess herself.
Carlotta flinched at the words; and yet, her heart had been hardened so fast against Liliana that she doubted any late-blooming fairy glamour could touch her.
Did her children suspect their step-sister's heritage?
But they must not; the remark had been thoughtless, and was not repeated, and careful questions later drew nothing of a suspicious nature from her oldest daughter.
It was hard going. I please no one, not even myself, Carlotta thought, surrounded by ungrateful children; but her conscience whispered, You brought this on yourself.
As Liliana grew, Carlotta feared what would happen if attention were drawn to the girl's beauty, and the birthright that it implied. She kept all her children in well-made clothing, suited to cold or warm weather as the season demanded, but she urged on Liliana drab colours and rough trims. It would have been easier if Liliana had had a taste for powdering and painting her face, but she did not; she knew her own beauty, had a taste for what would show her to the best effect, and resented Carlotta deeply for trying, as she saw it, to make less of her.
When Serafina was sixteen, and Liliana still fifteen, and Elenora a dignified woman of nineteen, just beginning to court a young coachman, there was a great celebration decreed across the land, for the princess of the fairies was at last with child.
She had been consort for longer than Carlotta had been alive, for fairies do not age as quickly as women and men. Nor are they quick to bear or beget children; it is a weakness of their breed. There were trumpets blown and fireworks lit in honour of the news, and there were also mutterings - to avert ill luck, or to bring it, depending on one's mood. The high fairies were not loved. And it was well known that few fairy women survived the bed of childbirth.
Carlotta thought, as she seldom did, of Liliana's true mother. Truly that had been an unfortunate match. Fairy lords were known to take human consorts, as the sturdier stock might bear them half-fey babies, to be bred back into the race; but the product of a human man's union with a fairy woman must surely mean the fairy's death. And yet she had brought the babe to term. And died of it. Had it been ambition - a hope that producing a child, even of mixed race, would promote her within the fairy ranks? Or had she been so singular a fairy as to feel true love?
What a strange and terrible choice, Carlotta thought, and I certainly have regretted it; and then she was regretful again, for it was an unworthy thought.
Whether the wishes whispered to the air had any effect, none can tell; but those who had muttered curses were surely pleased: when it came time for the royal birth, the princess died, and the babe along with her, and the land fell into official mourning.
It was spring when the news came, and the summer passed dully, with no harvest dances or merry-making anywhere, and autumn and winter came, and lay heavily on the people.
But when spring returned, there was an announcement: the fairies were throwing a ball.
Excitement burned through the air like a fever, for it was the first time in a long year that excitement had been smiled upon by those on high. Every household of any means with unmarried youths began to prepare. They paid for fine fabrics, and dancing lessons.
The pronouncements spoke of royal generosity; but those with a less generous mindset - or perhaps those closest to the city - knew that the mortal guests were to be, not entertained, but the entertainment, and woe betide he or she who offended the fairy hosts.
Elenora was then courting a tailor. But even though she was becoming very fond of him, and Carlotta had given her blessing, and his own star was rising high as he took on commissions for the ball, Elenora knew that her attendance at the ball would be required, and she must flirt with the fairy lords if they favoured her.
The fairies' subjects knew they would be summoned, but there were necessary formalities. They must receive an invitation. At last a delegation came from the castle - servants to give out the invitations, and a fine lady to determine where they were bestowed.
She came to Carlotta's house, and Carlotta and Elenora and Serafina and Liliana curtseyed before her, and she nodded in satisfaction, though her eyes narrowed. "Strange," she said to Liliana, "you have the look of kin: my sister, gone these many years." And almost before Liliana could murmur that the lady was too kind, she had turned away, the thought in all likelihood already gone from her mind.
But it was not gone from Liliana's.
"It's true, isn't it?" Liiana challenged Carlotta that evening, in a quiet moment when her sisters were elsewhere.
Carlotta was not prepared for this conversation - not really. She had imagined it, but she had always imagined that it would begin when some mortal villager or traveller expressed a suspicion. Liliana would be frightened and unhappy to receive this rejection, and Carlotta would defend her, saying that she had been raised as a mortal in every possible way - why, Liliana herself did not even know she was fey. Then, with the example of the hostile accuser, Carlotta would be able to explain to Liliana why she had avoided the truth for so long.
She could think of nothing clever to say.
"It's true," she said.
She had expected Liliana to be inconsolable, and she was, but not for the reasons Carlotta had expected. "Why didn't you tell me?" Liliana raged. "I could have been a princess." She stared at Carlotta and said, with devastating accuracy, "You never even wanted me! Why didn't you give me over to someone who did?"
Carlotta said, "I wanted to try to do better by you."
"You wanted," Liliana said bitterly. "You selfish hag."
"That's enough," Carlotta said, and Liliana spat at her feet and ran away.
Carlotta sat down, considering. They did not talk of fairies in her household. It had never occurred to her that Liliana would glean tales of their glory, and not of their pitiless cruelty. She was young, and susceptible to glamour; weak to beauty. An outsider in the family, how compelling she must find the idea that she was different because of her design. And the only fairy she had ever seen had swept past that day in silks and opals, trailed by servants as finely dressed as lords.
Carlotta had expected fear and heartbreak, for to be a fairy was to be a monster, heartless and heedless.
But Liliana did not know that.
The invitations came the next day. There was one for Liliana. Carlotta hid it.
"Wasn't there one for me?" her step-daughter asked her.
"No," Carlotta lied. "The high fairy folk have no love of the half-fey."
Liliana flinched, and Carlotta was sorry, but she did not think anything good could come of Liliana's attendance at the fairy ball. The lies she had spun must be unravelled carefully and slowly, and the fairy court was not a safe place for revelations, or for those in the grip of strong emotions.
When Carlotta and Serafina and Elenora had gone to the ball, Liliana cried for a little while, and then she went outside and said loudly three times,
"Fairy Petrizia, Fairy Petrizia, I call you here in my mother's name."
For that was the name of the fairy who had called her kin.
If the wishes of mortals have power, the wishes of fairies are stronger, and the name of Liliana's mother - even though Liliana did not know that name - was more powerful still, for Petrizia was indeed Liliana's aunt.
So she came; and she and Liliana had much to say to each other, all of which delighted Liliana.
At last, Petrizia said, "It is past time that you should go to the ball, for you were summoned there. Don't fear; I shall make all the arrangements."
Around Liliana she spun a beautiful dress, tight and glittering; she laid on her brow a shining coronet; and placed on her feet shoes of crystal so delicate and thin that Liliana could feel the stones beneath them.
Then she conjured up a coach, and horses to pull it, and a coachman to drive it, and Liliana was off to the ball.
Carlotta had told Liliana that the fairies despised the half-fey, and she was half-right, and she was half-wrong. Petrizia had raged and grieved and despised her sister's match, and not only because of the risk to her sister's life. Half-breed children were scorned among the fairies.
But the prince of the fairies had been long without an heir.
Among the fairies, a prince must sire an heir to be crowned king.
Despite the hopes of glamour-addled mortals - and there would be many, at and after the ball - their prince would not look to a mortal woman to secure his succession. A half-fey child could not be named heir.
One must be three-quarters a fairy, or more, to ascend to the royal throne.
Liliana danced, and dazzled, and in crowds of people all showing off their beauty to greatest effect, she felt completely at home.
Even the prince - splendid, glorious, charming - drew her aside for a moment's conversation. Giddily, she confessed to him that she was not a mortal girl.
Then he knew that he must not let her go.
She did not notice as the other guests departed; she recalled vaguely that her step-mother and step-sister had planned to depart before midnight, but she did not know why. It did not seem to matter that she had planned to return home before they did, because she was having the most wonderful night in her life, and she did not want it to end.
As the clock's hands closed the day, she was with her prince, clasped within his arms.
Then the clock struck midnight, and the court turned strange.
Some among the court were loathsome, rough and oozing, with eyes as wide across as mouths; some were still beautiful in their horror; some were more beautiful still. Liliana flinched back from her own nails, which she had never grown accustomed to. They were as long and twisted as willow branches. Meanwhile, her ears spread out in fans, like exotic leaves. In her arms the prince slithered wetly.
It was thrilling to be among her own kind at the stroke of midnight; but it was also dreadful. It was too much for her. When the prince moved to kiss her, to seal the promises they had begun to whisper to each other, she broke away from him, and ran.
As she took her first step, midnight finished striking, and she was again wearing a dress of gossamer diamonds that clung to her and caught her; but her first footfall on stone shattered one of her glass shoes, and she kicked the other away.
She ran. There was no coach waiting for her; that enchantment had not been restored. She tore heedlessly at the dress until it no longer bound her limbs together. She ran, though her feet burned as if she were running on coals. It occurred to her that she had been very well equipped to arrive at the castle, and very poorly equipped to leave.
But she came at last to Carlotta's door, and pounded to be let in.
There are places where mortals and fairies coexist in which no wise householder opens their door after dark, whether the caller be friend or stranger. But this was the fairies' own country, that mortals inhabited in suffering and by sufferance: to refuse them anything was folly, nor were there charms or customs to bar a fairy's way.
Perhaps Carlotta opened the door so quickly because she hoped Liliana had returned safely; and perhaps it was only habit that caused her hand to leap to the latch.
But she did not cast her out again, despite the trouble that would surely follow.
The next day, Carlotta's household heard that the prince was seeking his intended bride.
"He will not give up until he has found you," Carlotta said to her step-daughter.
Liliana shivered all over. "I do not want to be found."
In less than a week's time, the carter brought news that the prince's entourage was in the next town over; he would surely arrive that day. "Let me take a horse and go," Liliana begged.
"No," Carlotta said, "you cannot flee for long; he is more tireless than you. If we keep you here, we may deceive him, but if he catches you running, he will punish you pitilessly."
"He said he adored me," Liliana protested.
"So he might, and speak truly," Carlotta said. "It will not keep him from rebuking you for your slights."
At last, despairing, Liliana consented to have her hair and skin smeared with mud, and then rolled around in the ashes, that they might stick to her, and entirely disguise her form.
The prince knocked on the door. Among his retinue was Petrizia. Carlotta came before him, and presented Serafina and Elenora.
"Is there not another who lives here?" Petrizia asked.
"There is, my lady," Carlotta said, "but she is so low and filthy that I did not wish to insult his majesty with her presence."
"Bring her," the prince said.
So Liliana was brought, and Petrizia frowned to see her, but said nothing.
The prince stared into Liliana's eyes - a facet of her beauty that mud and ash did nothing to hide. "Wait," he said, and he had her lost shoe brought forth on a velvet cushion. A shoe shaped by magic to fit her foot as closely as a second skin.
Liliana looked at the shoe and gave a gulp of dismay; and then Serafina spoke up. "It must be me," she cried, as if in foolish excitement, "for I danced with you, my lord, and I remember it well." She grabbed the shoe from the cushion and thrust her foot into it. It shattered, and blood ran from her ankle to her toes.
Several things happened then, in the space of a breath. The fairy prince raised his hand to curse Serafina with agony and death; Liliana stepped forward to plead with him; and Petrizia, who would not have stirred to spare Serafina, caught the prince's hand to save her niece.
"Peace, my splendid lord," she said, "the shoe is a bauble I shall make a hundred times over, and these peasants have not earned a moment of your time that could be spent to more swiftly find your bride."
Serafina, Elenora, Carlotta, and Liliana all threw themselves to the ground, begging for mercy. The prince allowed himself to be pacified, and departed.
Slowly, Carlotta and her daughters picked themselves up off the ground, and tended to their hurts. Almost in silence, they worked together to put things back to rights. It was hard to know what to say.
That was not the end of it.
The following day, Petrizia returned alone.
"You acted like a witless clod," she declared. "You disgraced me, and ruined my plans for you. But I see it was a folly of my own, to hope for so much from a maiden unmannered and untutored."
Liliana stood stubborn and defiant, and Carlotta stepped forward to answer for her, but Petrizia waved her aside.
"As your mother's daughter, you should not remain ignorant of your privileges and powers," she said. "Very well. I, Petrizia, will take you and teach you."
"Whether she will it or no?" Carlotta demanded.
"What, and you think she will choose you?"
Carlotta shook her head helplessly. That was not what she had meant.
The lady snorted rudely. "Very well. I will not compel her, in this or any other thing. I swear it by her mother. Well?" She looked at Liliana. "These mortals treat you as less, when you are more. They do not see you as you are, let alone what you may become. Will you stay with them, or follow me?"
"I will come with you," Liliana said quietly.
It was not the fate Carlotta would have chosen for her, but it was no longer for Carlotta to choose.
"Sense at last," Petrizia said. "Choose what you will take with you."
She did, and quickly. She owned little enough. Carlotta had to suppress the impulse to press things upon her: more as evidence of care than as any memento of it.
"Have you anything to say to your step-mother and step-sisters?" Petrizia asked.
Liliana looked at Carlotta, and Carlotta looked at her. She found that she still hoped for gratitude. But she did not expect it.
As Liliana's silence lengthened, Carlotta began to wonder if this was her step-daughter's final act of defiance.
But: "You gave me shelter when I asked for it," she said at last, her gaze flicking to Serafina. "But never before."
"I wish you good health and good fortune," Carlotta said.
Liliana might have nodded, or might not; the movement of her head was so slight that Carlotta was never sure if she had imagined it.
Then Petrizia took her hand, and they vanished.
Carlotta never saw Liliana again.