She has never been beautiful. Her hair is too wiry. Her eyes are too small. Her hands are too large, too pitted with scars from years of pulling bread out of the oven. No men stand upon her stoop, all fumbling charm, ragged posies in their hands as they beg her parents for an afternoon’s worth of company.
So when Fali comes to the bakery’s door reeking of dill and dirt, asking after “some help, just until the moon’s turn, just someone to plant bulbs and stir stews,” it’s barely a choice at all.
Fali is an old witch, of country esteem. She cuts out cankers and blesses babies, does things with eggshells and afterbirth. She’s a shambling pillar of shawls, nearly all of them stained. Beryl spends a month sleeping in a heap of pelts by the hearth, helping Fali get up and down the stairs, scattering pepper around the house to keep the ants out, mixing up vials of sugar water and thyme for the love spells her gigglier peers beg for.
Eventually, Fali tuns to her, smoke curling from her nostrils. “Will you be staying?”
“Yes,” Beryl says. “But I want a real bed.”
“You’ll get a hammock.” Fali coughs wetly. “But you can have the shed out back to yourself, if you’re willing to clean it.”
She is. She is willing to paint it too, and to plant a few mismatched tulips by its door, and to chop down the pine she needs for the wood she needs for the lean-to she needs to house her own cauldron, her own cutlery, her own cabinet of herbs.
“That’s the way,” Fali remarks, watching Beryl sand freshly-hewn planks. “You’ll never need permission to make something of nothing.”
He’s on some sort of tour. A kind of endless, princely nod to the thatched and patched subsistence of his subjects. She is determined to hate him.
He comes to her door, not Fali’s, guards a few yards behind him, and asks to come in.
He smiles, and she can tell that he doesn’t yet realize how charming a smile it is, how sweet and how sunny. “Your tulips are beautiful.”
She lets him in. He examines her hammock, her racks of ampoules, the bundles of tansy she’s tacked to the walls to dry. His every glance is pleasant and considering.
“I’ve heard of your skill with headaches,” he says. “If you wouldn’t mind…?”
And so Beryl listens as Prince Endymion explains the duration of his headaches, and their tenacity, and that the court healer had tried everything, simply everything, which mostly amounted to mustard poultices and zealous bouts of leeching.
“Do they come mostly in the spring? Perhaps after you’ve been out hunting?”
“Well…yes, actually,” he says, examining her sewing basket. “They do! Is that related?”
She smiles, in spite of herself. “Most likely. The Drizzini vine is a species I’ve noticed more and more in the past few years—some trader had a few seeds clinging to his coat, most like, and now it’s eating up our forests. Quite a few folk are allergic to it.”
His face is nakedly relieved. “Goodness, is that all? An allergy?”
She presses two fingertips to the center of his forehead. She blushes, then bites the inside of her cheek as sharply as she can. “Is the pain concentrated here?”
“Yes!” He nearly shouts it. “Always right there!”
She nods. “The pollen is inflaming your sinus cavities. Have your healer grind up some peppermint to sprinkle in a hot bath. The steam will soothe the ache.”
He takes her hand. His eyes are as blue as cornflowers. “My lady witch, you have done me a tremendous service. You have no idea how frustrating this has been.”
“I do, actually.” She smiles wanly, her eyes firmly on the floor. “I suffer the same headaches.”
He laughs. “Kindred spirits!”
He insists on payment, and she asks for meat. The next day, there are geese and venison at her door, and Beryl feels love like a rasp in her lungs.
She is invited to his birthday ball. Fali leaves a dress on her bed. It’s hopelessly out of style, an ungainly, bunched column of calico, but she has nothing else.
It’s no matter, she tells herself as she approaches the palace. The front hall is the color of teeth. It’s not like I’m here to make a match.
“Lady Beryl!” Endymion cries out, resplendent in damask and polished silver. “I was worried your many supplicants would keep you from coming.”
She is hideous. She is a hideous peasant in a hideous peasant dress. “Not so many,” she mutters, her throat damnably dry. “And it…it was so kind of you, to invite me.”
“Please,” he says, taking her gently by the arm. “You must meet the court healer, Mauritan.” He leans in closely. He smells faintly of ginger. “Hopefully, some of your skill will rub off on the old goat.”
It is only when he deposits her before a tall, reedy-looking man in heather grey robes that Beryl realizes she’s been holding her breath.
The fabled Princess Serenity is, as it turns out, little more than a jumpy naïf wrapped in watered silk. She does a terrible job of concealing herself behind a rosebush. Beryl watches as she bobs up and down on the balls of her feet, her cheeks puffed in juvenile frustration.
Beryl has never met anyone from the moon before. Like most earthlings, she maintains a faint grudge against their long lives and slippery brand of magic. But this child is—a child. Softened by unshed baby fat, her face unpainted. She is clearly waiting for someone. Beryl cannot imagine who.
Endymion’s hands are so visibly gentle upon the small of the Princess’s back that Beryl can nearly feel them against her own skin. As light as a sparrow, as an apron sash.
Beryl walks home. It takes hours. She burns the dress to cinders the next day, and plows the ashes into her garden.
Fali had loved someone once: a rangy old horsewoman with red hair and strong arms, who died very suddenly of an infection. “A scrape,” Fali loved to recall, as she lingered over her dinner. “It was only a scrape, but it grew and festered and it felled her before the week was out.”
She takes Beryl’s hand gently that night, as she clears away their bowls. “It isn’t worth it,” she murmurs. “He isn’t worth parceling your soul out.”
Fali does not stir the next morning, as she probably knew she wouldn’t. Beryl nestles her within the logs of a pyre with something like tenderness.
The voice comes for the first time that night.
It’s a soft voice, but not like a mother’s or a child’s. It feels like a voice she could sink her fingers into. Pliable, porous, loosely wefted.
“Yes,” she says, because she cannot think of anything else to say. “Yes. Hello?”
A LONE LITTLE WITCH
LITTLE LONE WITCH
LITTLE LONE WITCH ALONE
“Alone,” she repeats. “Yes. I’m alone.”
She waits, hunched over her quilt, until the sun comes up. In the morning, there is a beautiful stone in her lap. It’s jagged, unpolished, green as ivy. It feels warm to the touch, but not like human warmth. Like a coal, or sunlight, or a lathered horse’s flank. Like the ovens she’d grown up beside.
Endymion and Serenity. It’s a tremendous scandal.
Beryl mixes and tills and stews and listens as the villagers prattle on about the shame of it, of the decadent excess of the Moon Kingdom, of the Princess’s fabled senshi and their many dark deviancies.
A letter arrives, on stationery the color of stormclouds. Our healer has passed away. Your expertise would be enormously appreciated.
She rips it apart. And does not cry.
Beryl, who wasn’t sleeping, sits up. Her hands find the stone immediately.
“Yes. I’m alone.” The stone’s edges bite into her palm. “What do you want? Where are you?”
GIFT FOR LONE WITCH
STONE ALONE A LONE WITCH
LITTLE STONE GIFT
“Beryl.” She looks down, eyeing her namesake. “I’d never…actually seen beryl before.” She pauses awkwardly. She wants a pair of eyes to focus on, a mouth to watch move. “Thank you.”
“Do…you want a gift?”
“Ashes,” she repeats. But there is no reply.
The darkness at the foot of her bed rustles faintly as it consumes Fali’s ashes. Only a thimbleful. Beryl isn’t a monster, and she knows Fali would have understood.
THANK YOU BERYL
“You’re welcome,” she says, peering at the oily nimbus now swirling by her herb cabinet. She clears her throat. “You’re ready then, I suppose? To depart?”
HERE FOR BERYL
Beryl has nothing to say to that. She’s a witch; she knows something of severed souls needing a little help on the journey. But anything that wants to stay means ill.
“You need to leave,” she says, as steadily as she can. “This isn’t your home any longer.”
I AM NOT GHOST
Beryl watches as the thing that speaks to her contracts, as though in shyness. “What are you, then?”
YOU KNOW HUNGER
And Beryl does.
Lyrali’s mouth is set in a thin, hard line as Beryl lances the boil on her ankle. “It’s not right. There’s no power over them, nothing keeping them from…doing whatever they like to us.”
“I know,” Beryl says, pressing a clean rag to the wound. “But I didn’t know you felt so strongly about it.”
“Everyone’s starting to.” Lyrali winces, but her voice maintains its resolute ring. “Ever since Endymion. It’s not right. No loyalty.”
“None,” Beryl mutters.
Lyrali lowers her voice conspiratorially. “You know, my brother’s thinking of joining the rebellion. They’re going to do something a month from now, at the palace.”
I WAS QUEEN
IN MY BLOOD
BUT I WAS SLAIN
PEOPLE OF THE MOON
THEIR POWER IS
NOT LIKE OURS
NOT LIKE EARTH
I WANT TO PROTECT
“I know. I know you do.”
Beryl isn’t an idiot. She knows better than to trust a bodiless spirit, royal or otherwise. But there are signs and whispers, a swelling army, everywhere: anger. And aren’t they right? Don’t they have many fine and rational points?
She leafs through Fali’s oldest papers, travels to the city to search the archives. And there is Metalia’s name, everywhere her eyes fall. Benevolent goddess, queen, mother, torn from her emerald throne. Almost entirely wiped from history by the machinations of the Moon Kingdom.
She returns home a few days later, calmer than she’s felt in months.
Blood drips from Beryl’s palm into the dirt. Metalia—now a sinuous strip of cirrus—coils herself upon it. When she lifts, the blood is gone.
She looks at Beryl. Her eyes are two open sores.
Endymion urges his people to be calm and considerate. His people lash out at this condescension, at this impunity, and Beryl finds herself knelt towards.
“Please,” Lyrali says to her feet. “There’s no one else to do it but you.”
All of a sudden, Beryl has the love of a people. All of a sudden, there exists a people. And hasn’t she healed them? Stitched them? Soothed them? Pulled their babies, bloodied and squalling, from their ravaged bodies? Bathed their dead when no one else would? Bent the spirits towards their fragile dreams?
The stone is in her hand. She doesn’t remember ever dropping it. Or grabbing it. The stone is in her hand.
She touches Lyrali’s forehead gently, as a mother would.
YOU MUST STRIKE
“I know.” Beryl squints at the map of Serenity’s palace spread out before her. “It’s already planned.”
“For you. I know.”
Beryl closes her eyes. “I know.”
When she opens them, Metalia has a mouth. She smiles at her. She has fangs to bare.
Beryl’s hair is softer. Finer. A ruddy sort of sunset color.
Her eyes are elegantly tilted.
Her hands are smooth.
Her legs are as long and slim as tulip stalks.
Magic. But she can no longer tell whose.
The siege goes absurdly well. The people of the moon, for all their cunning, are weak to true ruthlessness. Princess Serenity’s guardian senshi are their last decent defense, and there are only four of them.
Beryl stands watching from a bone-colored cliff a mile south. Her armies surge forward, as implacable as the sea.
Metalia is in every pore. Metalia crackles from her fingertips. Metalia coats every strand of her hair. Metalia glazes her eyes. Metalia oozes from her mouth. Metalia holds a sword aloft and urges her forward.
I AM WITH YOU
Darkness enfolds her, and she is on the palace’s terrace. It is beautiful, even as it smolders. Lustrous and somehow faraway, even as her feet are cooled by its marble.
Endymion is a vision in enameled steel. His eyes are wells of hurt. Serenity cowers behind him, a shivering smear of rose and cream.
“Stop this!” he pleads, his sword thrust before him. “End this pointless war, Beryl!”
Beryl’s sword swings down, as unstoppable as wind.
He staggers, blood flying from his mouth.
She feels her face stretch into a smile as she watches the princess lift his fallen sword, as she drives it through her pretty white breast. Even their gore is beautiful.
Venus’s steel nearly cleaves her in two. She shrieks something. Beryl shrieks something. Beryl falls to her knees. Metalia lifts from her like a veil, and she knows, in that moment, what she has done.
Endymion’s eyes are so blue. Not like a faded handkerchief. Not like the shallow pond she led the goats to. Like the summer sky above the valley, like the earth as seen from this cold, lonely pearl of a planet. Like something too deep and clear and eternal to sustain.
Endymion, Beryl thinks, maybe, in the next life—