The Lost Sisters Page 1

Do you remember the fairy story “Mr. Fox”?

Once upon a time, there was a girl who was beautiful and clever, adored by her elder brothers and by her suitors, who included a mysterious man named Mr. Fox. No one knew much of him, except that he was impeccably mannered and gallant, and lived in a very grand castle. The girl liked him above the rest, and soon it was agreed that they should be married.

The girl was not only beautiful and clever, but she was also curious, and so, before the wedding, when Mr. Fox said he would be away on business, she went to see the castle in which she would be living. It was every bit as grand as people said, with high, strong walls crawling with ivy and a deep, dank moat. As she got closer, she saw that over the gate words had been inscribed in the stone: BE BOLD, BE BOLD.

On she went, through the gate and to the door, where she found words again: BE BOLD, BE BOLD, BUT NOT TOO BOLD.

Still on she went, into the empty house. She walked through fine galleries and parlors until she came to an enormous staircase. There she found a door, over which more words were inscribed: BE BOLD, BE BOLD, BUT NOT TOO BOLD, LEST THAT YOUR HEART’S BLOOD SHOULD RUN COLD.

When she opened the door, she found that it was filled with the corpses of brides. Some were freshly killed, their gowns stained with blood. Others were nearly skeletal. All had clearly been murdered on the day of their wedding.

Horrified, the girl closed the door and ran down the stairs. She would have rushed out except, just at that moment, Mr. Fox came in the door carrying the body of his latest victim. The girl hid herself behind a large urn and made no sound as Mr. Fox carried his new bride up the stairs. At the landing, he tried to prize a ring off the dead girl’s finger, and when that failed, he took out a knife and sawed off her hand at the wrist. No sooner had he cut it off, though, slippery with blood as it was, it fell—right into the lap of the hidden girl. Resolving to look for it later, he carried the body into his charnel room, and the girl made her escape.

The next day, Mr. Fox came to visit the girl, for it was time for them to sign their marriage contract. There, sitting with her brothers and her family around her, she recounted what had happened to her as though it had been a troubling dream. At every turn of her tale, Mr. Fox denied it, but when she pulled out the hand of the murdered bride with a ring still shining on one finger, no one believed his denials. Then the girl’s brothers leaped up and cut Mr. Fox into a thousand pieces.

I think about that story a lot. I think about it all the time.

It’s the kind of thing you like. The wicked are slain, with swords no less. Vengeance is had. Boldness is rewarded. But what about all those girls, all those obedient girls who trusted and loved and wed and died? Weren’t they bold, too?

I bet you don’t think so. I bet you think they were just stupid.

That’s your problem in a nutshell. You’re judgmental. Everyone makes mistakes. They trust the wrong people. They fall in love. Not you, though. And that’s why it’s so hard to ask you for forgiveness.

But I am. Asking. I mean, I am going to ask. I am going to try to explain how it happened and how sorry I am.

Let’s start with a love story.

Or maybe it’s another horror story. It seems like the difference is mostly in where the ending comes.

Once, there was a woman who was beautiful and clever and, because of her beauty and cleverness, believed that she would always be happy. Perhaps she should have known better, but she didn’t.

When she met her future husband, he carried the scent of blood and oiled steel and windswept rocks. He courted her with charming old-fashioned ways. He was the promise of the unfamiliar, the epic. And if he made her parents uncomfortable and her friends afraid, that only made her love bigger and feel more important. If she had reservations, she buried them. Everything else had always turned out well for her. She could not imagine it being otherwise.

And so she went to dwell with him in his castle across the waves and discovered all the horrors he’d kept secret.

I wonder if you think Mom was stupid, like the dead girls in the first story. But Mom’s story is a lesson. All stories are lessons.

Fairy tales have a moral: Stay on the path. Don’t trust wolves. Don’t steal things, not even things you think no normal person would care about. Share your food but don’t trust people who want to share their food with you; don’t eat their shiny red apples, nor their candy houses, nor any of it. Be nice, always nice, and polite to everyone: kings and beggars, witches and wounded bears. Don’t break a promise.

Be bold, be bold, but not too bold.

It’s important that we learn the lessons our mother didn’t.

Once, there were three sisters who lived in a subdivision of a suburb. Three girls, Vivienne, Jude, and Taryn. The eldest was one of the Folk herself, with split-pupiled eyes and ears that came to slender points. The two youngest were twins with cheeks as plump as peaches, ready to be eaten up. Their father was a bladesmith who sold his swords over the internet. Their mother helped him run his business. She didn’t like to dwell on unpleasant things, like mistakes or regrets or burning down her past and running away from husbands in Faerieland.

And when Mom’s past caught up with her, she didn’t even have to live with the consequences. She and Dad, dead in moments. And us girls, taken across the sea to be raised by a monster. The three lost sisters. Doesn’t that sound just like another tale?

Let’s skip ahead, past all the blood and the crying and the fear of a terrifying new place with terrifying magical people.

Let’s skip to the beginning of what I did that was wrong.

It started with Locke slipping a note into my rucksack. He must have done it on the grounds of the palace, where tutors instruct the children of the Gentry—and us—in history and riddle games and divination and all the other things needed to be productive members of society.

If I came to your window, would you come out?

Locke, constant companion to the youngest prince of Elfhame. Hair like fox fur and a laugh that could charm the apples to drop from the trees. Why would he bother slipping that—or any note—to a mortal girl?

I guess I caught his eye.

There was a day when you were practicing for the tournament and I was reading a book of stories. Locke peered over my shoulder, looking at an illustration of a serpent curled around a princess with a long knife.

“How does it feel?” he asked. “To be stuck in a fairy tale?”

“How does it feel to be one?” I countered, then felt foolish. Talking to one of Prince Cardan’s awful friends was always risky, but when Locke grinned, it felt like boldness instead.

“I like stories,” he said. “And perhaps I like you as well.”

Then three days later, the message from him.

Fairy tales are full of girls who wait, who endure, who suffer. Good girls. Obedient girls. Girls who crush nettles until their hands bleed. Girls who haul water for witches. Girls who wander through deserts or sleep in ashes or make homes for transformed brothers in the woods. Girls without hands, without eyes, without the power of speech, without any power at all.

But then a prince rides up and sees the girl and finds her beautiful. Beautiful, not despite her suffering, but because of it.

And when I saw that note in my bag, I thought that maybe I was no longer stuck in a fairy tale, maybe I could be the hero of one.

All through dinner at Madoc’s long table, where Oriana fussed over little Oak while Vivi made faces at him and you stabbed at your venison, I was hopelessly distracted. My thoughts strayed again and again to Locke. Later, in the parlor, I tried to finish the embroidery I was adding to my velvet cape, but I stabbed my own finger with the needle, over and over, until even Oriana asked me if there was something wrong.

Do you remember that night? You sat before the fire, limned by flames, polishing a dagger, your brown curls tumbling over your face. I wanted to tell you about the note, but I was afraid that if I did, you would warn me it was some kind of trick. That Locke was just trying to humiliate me. You knew he was a boon companion of the youngest and worst of the princes of Elfhame, after all. You knew what Locke and his friends found amusing: cruelty.

But Locke didn’t do the worst stuff. He wasn’t like Prince Cardan, who listened to weeping like it was fine music, who stole selkie skins and tried them on, who smashed and burned enough things that it was said he was no longer welcome in his father’s palace.

At least I didn’t want to believe that Locke was like him.

I didn’t want the note to be some kind of trick.

You know I hate it when people don’t like me. I hate it that the Folk look down on us for being mortal. I comfort myself with the knowledge that they need us, even if they don’t like to admit it. They need mortal lovers to bear their immortal children and mortal ambition to inspire them. Without us, not enough babies would be born, not enough ballads would be composed, no less sung.

And I comforted myself that I understand their baroque customs, their love of courtesy. Which was why I couldn’t let Locke’s note go unanswered. Etiquette demanded some kind of response.

Of course, it didn’t demand that I agree to meet him.

Instead of telling you about my dilemma, I went to Vivi. She was outside, staring up at the stars.

“Prophesying?” I guessed. Neither you nor I have been good at seeing the future in the skies. Neither of us can see in the dark well enough to note the movement of the stars accurately.

Maybe if we’d been better at it, we could have seen what was coming.

Vivi shook her head. “Thinking. About our mother. I was remembering something she’d told me.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to that. You know how Vivi is, cheerful when things go her way, and brooding when they don’t. She’d been touchy the whole week before, sneaking off to the mortal world whenever possible. She’s like that around the anniversary of us coming here and the anniversary of that one time we tried to leave for good. But I didn’t need her moodiness. I needed her advice.

Vivi’s voice took on an odd, distant quality. “I was in the bath, drowning boats and sending plastic sharks after them under the bubbles. I must have been very little. And Mom said to me, ‘You must be particularly kind to people. Other kids can act like monsters, but not you.’”

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