Aislynn’s hands were bleeding. Her dress was stained with dirt and muck, her hair unraveling with each heaving breath. The scent of dampness, of mud and sweat, filled her nose. She was alone in the cold, dark garden, with a ruined dress and bloodied palms.
Through the nighttime came the muffled sounds of the spring ball, of laughter and dancing and people falling in love. Aislynn felt so very far away and wished that this was just another nightmare. That this was something she could be awakened from.
All of it was her fault. She should have tried harder, should have controlled the curse, should have remained on the Path. But there was no use wishing to change what could not be changed.
Soon they would come looking for her. With a trembling hand, Aislynn brushed the dust from her gown, careful not to bloody the material, and tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. Glancing at the destroyed rosebushes strewn across the dirt, Aislynn went though the gate, up the stairs, and back to the ball.
That morning she had woken tangled in sheets and nightmares. The linens were easily discarded, but the dreams lingered like smoke. In them she was always alone. Alone in an unknown forest, with sharp branches and a round, waxen moon above her.
But last night had been different.
Last night there had been footsteps. They had echoed in the dark, and Aislynn had searched the shadows, turning round and round until a pair of yellow eyes appeared in front of her, as if they had been there all along. Above her, the clouds had shifted, and the moonlight revealed the creature. A long snout and wet, wide mouth. A wolf.
No matter how many times Aislynn prayed for a chaste heart, no matter how often she vowed to keep her desires pure, every evening her wild wishes followed her to bed, sprawling across her pillow and tangling in her hair. Jealous, prideful wishes. And as she slept, they wrapped themselves around her and twisted into nightmares.
Aislynn knew she was to blame. No good girl had such dreams, of darkness and moonlight and now of wolves. Of animals so fierce that they lived off brambles sharp enough to cut their pink tongues. The dream was a warning, a reminder that a maiden’s heart was capable of growing both roses and thorns. That if she was not careful, if she was not diligent, her step along the Path would falter.
Aislynn stood and faced the wall. Crossing her wrists over her chest, she could feel the warmth of her heavy gold locket against her palm. She dropped to her knees and, in a sleep-sore murmur, recited the words inscribed on the pendant.
“I will accept the Path I am taking. I will not stray. I will not yearn for what I cannot have. I will heed the words of my advisers and guard my loving heart against cursed magic. Ever after.”
As Aislynn’s heartbeat settled back into a slow, steady rhythm, she heard the soft patter of footsteps and the rustle of uniforms in the hallway. Her bedroom door opened, letting in Tahlia, tea, and the beginning of the day.
Aislynn would not mention last night’s dream. She forced a smile and sat back on her bed, smoothing her nightgown tightly around her stockinged feet and legs. Just another secret to keep.
“Good morning,” said Tahlia as she set the tray down on the vanity and pulled back the curtains, inviting bright spring sunlight into the bedroom. From behind, the fairy godmother barely looked like a person, more like a soft triangle in her wimple and loose robes. As was traditional, her uniform hid all but her hands and face. She returned Aislynn’s smile, only hers was easy and sweet, the corners of her green eyes crinkling.
“What would my lady like to wear today?” Tahlia asked, dropping sugar cubes into the tea with two soft plinks before opening the massive wardrobe to reveal the dozens of blue dresses inside. Without waiting for a response, the fairy godmother retrieved two gowns. The one she passed to Aislynn was a cotton periwinkle dress that had been worn dozens of times. Pretty and simple.
The other dress Tahlia hung carefully next to the mirror. It was exquisite. Made of a rich satin, the vibrant sapphire color was slightly muted by a layer of organza across the massive skirt. Blue lace and delicate beading decorated the long sleeves and high collar that were customary for a young lady from the Northern Kingdom.
But it wasn’t the sleeves or the neckline that had Aislynn’s attention. It was the rose. Now that she was sixteen, it would be embroidered on each of her gowns: a rose in perfect bloom over her heart.
Disappointed that she had to wait until the evening to wear the beautiful gown, Aislynn stepped into the cotton day dress. Tahlia tended to the endless line of buttons down its back, and Aislynn did her best not to flinch each time her fairy godmother’s fingers brushed against bare skin. No matter the warmth of the room, or the heat of the season, Tahlia’s hands, like all fairy godmothers’, were frigid.
The morning bell rang just as the last button was fastened. Slipping into her shoes, Aislynn followed Tahlia out of the bedroom and down the stairs to breakfast.
Four years at Nerine Academy, but to Aislynn it had never felt anything like a home. Until a girl was settled into her married life, everything else was only temporary. It was best not to get attached, and the academy made it easy. Everything was stone, hard and bleak. Though Northerners were fond of embellishments, the only decorations the headmistress tolerated were the enormous tapestries. The one outside the dining hall portrayed a young woman with her head arched back, her mouth open in a silent scream. Between the hands crossed over her heart was a tangle of briars tearing through her chest, bloodying her fingers. She had black hair like Aislynn’s.
The familiar sounds of gossip and laughter floated into the corridor as Aislynn made her way into the dining hall. At the sight of the lone figure seated at the farthest corner table, she walked a little faster.
Maris didn’t look up when Aislynn approached, her attention focused on the blond curl she was twisting between her fingers. Her other hand was tracing the embroidered rose on her yellow dress.
“Morning,” Aislynn said as she took the seat opposite her friend.
“Morning” was the sullen response.
There was a burst of laughter from across the room where the other, more favored girls were seated. Maris cast an envious look in their direction.
Guilt filled Aislynn’s chest. Someone should have told Maris, when she had arrived at Nerine last season, that offering friendship and kindness to someone like Aislynn meant sacrificing her own social standing within the academy.
Selfishly, Aislynn was glad for Maris’s misstep. At least now they had each other. She cast a covert look behind her, where half a dozen girls were seated separately, their heads down, trying not to draw any attention to themselves.
The room grew silent as the headmistress entered the dining hall, followed by a line of equally stern-faced teachers. Their robes were nearly identical to the ones fairy godmothers wore, except for the embroidery over their hearts.
Aislynn crossed her wrists over her chest as Madame Odette led them all in the morning prayer. “May our hearts be modest and our steps unwavering. Ever after.”
Both Aislynn and Maris were silent as breakfast was set in front of them, a bowl of porridge for each, accompanied by a dish of brown sugar and a platter of fruit. Adding large scoops of sugar, Aislynn stirred her food until it was nearly the same shade as her skin.
“You’re going to eat that?” Maris asked as Aislynn took her first bite. The porridge was too hot and burned her throat as she swallowed. “You know it’s a bad idea to eat on the day of a ball,” Maris said.
“Of course.” Aislynn quickly pushed her food away. “Thank you.”
“Someone ought to remind Sariah.” Maris was looking over Aislynn’s shoulder with a smirk. Aislynn glanced back. The girl in question had already finished her breakfast and was now eating from the platter of fruit. “I still can’t believe she’ll be Contained before me. Maybe if my father was a lord . . .” Maris pressed her spoon hard against the table. “You’ll probably be Contained within the season.”
“Do you think so?” Aislynn said, surprised. To become engaged, let alone marry, soon after being Introduced was quite unusual.
“Of course.” Maris laughed, the noise empty and forced. “Truth and honesty, Aislynn, whomever you marry will get to be king. It doesn’t matter what you look like.”
Aislynn’s father was one of the handful of kings in the North. Like all kingdoms, the North had one first-class monarch, who ruled over the entirety of his country. Under him were the second-class kings, who oversaw several provinces, each in turn run by third-class dukes. And below those were the fourth-class royals, like Maris’s family, who managed their own lands and servants. Once her father died, Aislynn’s husband would take on the responsibilities of king and manage Nepeta and its surrounding provinces.
Aislynn knew that Maris was right, that it was her status that would be tempting to suitors, but she couldn’t help wishing there were other reasons she could be Contained so quickly. A dangerous heat began to flicker in her chest, and Aislynn took a deep breath, willing away her vain and wicked thoughts.
“At least no one can tell I’m from the West,” Maris said, pushing blond strands back from her pale face. Indeed, of the two of them, it would be easy to mistake Maris for being northern born, where her coloring was more common. “The last thing I’d want is to look too . . . exotic.” She eyed Aislynn’s dark hair, but there was a hint of jealousy in her gaze.
“I’m sure you’ll be Contained soon.”
Her friend glared at her. “Of course I will,” Maris said. “Have I told you about the shoes I’ll be wearing this evening?” There was nothing Maris liked to talk about more than her small feet and delicate shoes, so even though Aislynn had already heard about them, she shook her head and let the other girl launch into a detailed description.
“Well, they have tiny stitching across the heels, and each toe is embroidered with a single perfect yellow rose, so when anyone bows to greet me, they will see the rose and be reminded that I am in bloom.” Maris had previously mentioned that her gloves would also be embroidered with yellow roses, so the added embellishment to her shoes seemed like a rather desperate indication of her status.
But Aislynn said nothing. She supposed that being so close to turning seventeen without a proposal of marriage would make someone very desperate indeed.
On any other day, the time between breakfast and lunch would be occupied by lessons in needlepoint and calligraphy, both of which had been canceled due to the evening’s events. As Aislynn was an artless student of both, she was grateful for the respite. Since the ball was to be hosted at Nerine Academy, time that would usually be spent traveling could now be used for reflection and contemplation.
Aislynn had hoped to spend this time with Maris talking more about their dresses for the evening, but the other girl claimed sleepiness and retreated upstairs to nap. So Aislynn went to the library, which was blessedly empty. From the window seat, she could see the enormous hedges that wrapped around the ballroom, its balcony, and the small gardens below.
The layout of Nerine Academy was not unlike a person lying down with her arms spread out and her feet together. With the kitchen at the head, the classrooms and the second floor dormitories occupied what would be the body and legs, while the dining hall was one arm and the ballroom the other.The library was in one of the feet.
Aislynn’s stomach growled. She was disappointed that Maris had gone to her room. For several weeks now, she had been searching for the courage to suggest to her that they become each other’s lady-in-waiting. It was a title reserved for only the most loyal and loving of friends, someone who would be completely truthful and honest. Young maidens were encouraged to find such a companion so they would refrain from annoying their husbands with the silly topics of conversation that women preferred. Occasionally there were rumors of friendships that had developed further than was appropriate, but advisers were quick to extinguish any such entanglements.
Aislynn would ask Maris tonight after the ball. Or before that, when they were getting ready. Maybe during lunch. Yes, during lunch, she decided as she watched the sun climb in the sky.
Their table was empty when she entered the dining hall hours later, so Aislynn took her usual seat and waited. It wasn’t long before the room filled with girls and giggling as her classmates made their way to their places.
“Eating alone, Ashy-linn?”
Shoulders tensing, Aislynn stared straight ahead, refusing to meet the amethyst eyes she knew were watching her. Violaine had not bothered her for weeks, harassing other students instead, but it had been foolish to imagine that such luck would last.
“Is your lady-in-waiting keeping you waiting?” Violaine moved closer, her cotton day dress brushing against Aislynn’s back. She sighed loudly. “I just heard her crying in her room. Probably about having to eat with you again.” There was a ripple of laughter, but Aislynn clenched her jaw and said nothing. “Truth and honesty, you know Maris only tolerates you because your status is higher than hers,”Violaine sneered. “It’s not as if she actually likes you.”
Aislynn knew the other girl wanted to make her cry. She had done it before. When she first arrived at the academy, Violaine’s favorite activity had been stepping on the hem of Aislynn’s gown whenever they walked past the headmistress or other teachers. She never got caught. Instead, it was Aislynn who was always punished, since a proper lady never stumbles.
One time, though, Aislynn had turned just as Violaine was lowering her foot. Aislynn’s toes got caught under Violaine’s sharp heel, and as pain shot through her, she grabbed Violaine’s shoulders. With a gasp, the other girl shoved her to the floor, but not before Aislynn felt magic surge through her palms, faster than she could control.
“What happened?” the teacher who had rushed to the scene demanded.
With a smug look on her face, Violaine had opened her mouth to answer, but instead of words, a tiny frog slipped from her lips. It hit the floor next to Aislynn before quickly hopping away. Violaine’s shriek had shattered the silence.
Aislynn had been confined to her room for over a week. By the time she was allowed back in the dining hall, the story had been respun, and the tiny frog had become a nearly endless stream of toads and snakes and Aislynn had become someone to fear. For good reason, she supposed.
When a proper young lady had an occurrence, she might change the color of her hair ribbon or slam a door that she wasn’t touching. When Aislynn had an occurrence, she made girls spit toads or worse. She could still picture her first time, when she had lit a pile of books on fire.
“I suppose it’s not your fault,” Violaine said now. “Wasn’t your father a Westerner? Wasn’t he one of hers?”
Aislynn didn’t want to hear any more. Uncurling her fingers, she lifted her hand from her lap and raised her eyes to meet Violaine’s.
“Ribbit,” Aislynn murmured.
Violaine jerked back, her skin so fair that it seemed translucent. Her companions shrieked and scattered.
A throat cleared. Glancing up, Aislynn realized that the entire room had gone still. All eyes were on Madame Odette, who was watching the events with a displeased tilt of her head. The headmistress beckoned, and Aislynn walked to the front of the room on shaky legs. As she passedViolaine and the other girls, they cowered away from her. Aislynn allowed herself the tiniest sliver of satisfaction.
But as she curtsied in front of the teachers, that satisfaction was quickly replaced by shame, and she did her best not to flinch when Madame Odette rose from her seat.
Her words were as withering as her gaze. “I think it would be best for you to take your lunch in your room.”
“But I didn’t . . . ,” Aislynn blurted out, regretting the words instantly. Talking back to a teacher was nearly unheard of, but contradicting the headmistress was unthinkable. The entire dining hall seemed to gasp.
“‘Journeys,’ chapter fourteen, verse twenty-four.” Madame Odette’s words were loud enough for everyone to hear. “Now remove yourself from my presence, or your punishment will be even more severe.”
Aislynn could hear the other girls snickering as she curtsied again. The distance from the teachers’ table to the door felt longer than her sixteen years. As soon as she was out of sight, even though it was against the rules, Aislynn raced all the way up the stairs as if she could outrun her humiliation and impudence. Slamming the door of her bedroom behind her, she struggled to calm her uneven breathing and rat-tat-tat pulse.
Sitting on the dresser was her copy of The Path. She didn’t need to look up the passage the headmistress had recommended. She knew it by heart.
“‘The flowers farthest from the Path have the sharpest barbs,’” she murmured to herself. Curling her fingers around the book, Aislynn willed the words to calm her. They didn’t. Instead she felt her chest tighten with anger and frustration. Sucking in a breath, she drew back her arm.
“Thorns!” she swore. With a tremendous heave, she sent the sacred text flying.
As it hit the wall and tumbled down, the reality of what she had done, the wickedness of her actions, jolted Aislynn out of her self-pity. She rushed to the fallen book and scooped it from the floor. Some of the pages were bent. As she smoothed them down, Aislynn reminded herself that she was the one to blame. She wouldn’t be treated this way if she didn’t deserve it.
Her entire room served as a reminder of that. The headmistress had forbidden Tahlia to perform any permanent fixes, but her fairy godmother had done her best to hide the worst of it. From where she sat on the floor, Aislynn could see under her bed, where the cream carpet was stained with uneven splotches of color, as though someone had spilled purple and yellow ink all over it. The wallpaper, once blue, was now streaked with green and covered in scorch marks.
Aislynn hated her room.
There was a soft knock at the door, and Tahlia entered with a tray of cheese and fruit. “I thought you might want some lunch,” she said.
Avoiding Tahlia’s gaze, Aislynn pressed The Path against her chest. “Thank you.”
“I’ll start your bath,” the fairy godmother said, piling a robe and dressing gown into her arms before disappearing into the bathing room. In a few moments the bathwater would be heated just right, and it would remain at the perfect temperature until Aislynn was ready to get out.
Her stomach grumbling, Aislynn sat down at the vanity and reached for one of the strawberries Tahlia had brought her. Most of the girls regarded their meals in the same way they regarded their fairy godmothers: as a displeasing necessity. That was Aislynn’s problem. One of her many problems. She was overly fond of both.
It would be easier if Tahlia were more like the others— distant and detached—like the fairy godmother Aislynn had been given when she first arrived at Nerine.
Returning the strawberry to the tray, Aislynn opened The Path and turned the thin pages carefully until she found the chapter on fairy godmothers: “Servants of Purity.”
“Embrace her heart, but do not hold her close.
Though she is pruned of all desires but devotion,
her thorns can still draw blood.”
Gently resting her fingers on her chest, Aislynn imagined a copper kettle there, between her ribs. When she was lucky, when her thoughts were pure and good, the kettle remained cool and still. But there were times when wickedness would overcome her, and she would begin to simmer, her terrible desires churning and boiling until her kettle heart cracked, magic spilling from her like scalding water.
Aislynn felt Tahlia’s hand on her shoulder. This time she welcomed the cold—it pulled her away from her unpleasant thoughts. Once submerged in her bath, Aislynn rested her head against the smooth porcelain and slid down beneath the bubbles. Filling her ears with the soft, round sound of water, Aislynn calmed her mind with fantasies of the night ahead.
She tried to imagine the suitors Adviser Hull would present to her father. It was commonly said that men married up for power, down for beauty. Aislynn’s husband would be the future king of Nepeta, and a man could forgive a lot to be king. Or so Aislynn’s teachers had told her.
With the fragrant water embracing her, Aislynn imagined herself a beau who was handsome and tall, who gazed down on her with such love and affection that the entire room would stare. She imagined his cheek warm against hers.
It would have been nice to stay in the bath all day, floating among her fantasies, but there was too much to be done. Aislynn wrapped herself in her long dressing gown and stepped into her bedroom. Tahlia had cleared the untouched tray of food. She had also set out clean undergarments and stockings, which Aislynn quickly put on. It had been a long time since her fairy godmother had seen Aislynn’s legs, and like the walls of her room, they were something that could not be fixed.
Spread out across the bed was the blue satin gown Adviser Hull had chosen for her. Everything followed his design, from her hairstyle to the length of her sleeves and the height of her heels. Next to the dress was the original sketch, in Adviser Hull’s formal, linear style, which portrayed Aislynn with a tiny waist and hips in equal balance to her shoulders.
The corset would help, but she shuddered as she glanced at the stiff boning and silken ties draped over a chair. Next to the corset was a full underskirt so sturdy that it could stand on its own. Smoothing her hand over the dress’s slippery soft fabric, Aislynn pictured a suitor taking her waist and imagined how his fingers would feel through the layers of satin and linen.
Tahlia returned. It was time to prepare. The corset was first. Taking her last deep breath of the evening, Aislynn allowed her fairy godmother to begin lacing up the stiff contraption. With each tug, she reminded herself that a smaller waist might garner more dance requests.
Those who were kind would say that, in looks, Aislynn was the perfect combination of her parents. While she didn’t have her mother’s Northern complexion, they shared the same long fingers and eggcup chin, a chin that seemed far too small for Aislynn’s face. Her wavy hair and large brown eyes were an inheritance from her Western father, along with skin the color of toasted bread. But while his was lovely and smooth, her cheeks turned a splotchy red when she blushed. So while she appreciated these gifts, she couldn’t help wishing that she could also have been given her mother’s thinly shaped nose and her father’s easy smile. Or Maris’s delicate feet and Violaine’s arresting eyes.
Before arriving at the academy, Aislynn had not given much thought to her looks. But students were expected to help one another recognize their flaws, both to maintain their humility and to encourage self-improvement. Aislynn’s fellow classmates had been quick to point out the areas in which she was lacking.
Watching herself in the mirror as Tahlia made the final adjustments to her unruly hair, Aislynn tried to clear her mind of jealous, covetous thoughts, the same desires that undoubtedly conjured last night’s dreams. She didn’t need to be beautiful to get married. Maris was right. It was her royal rank that would secure her future, not her looks. And it was wrong to want what she did not need.