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Gilded Ashes
Author: Rosamund Hodge

My mother loved me more than life itself. That’s how everything went wrong.

I wake with fear prickling at my skin.

I sit up, knuckling the sleep out of my eyes. The kitchen looks the same as usual: garlic and rosemary hang in neat bunches from the ceiling. The pots I scoured last night sit gleaming on the stove. From over the doorway, the little miniature portrait of Mother smiles down at me. Everything is peaceful and safe. I begin to stretch.

And then.

From the corner of my eye, I see them: shadows clustered around the coal scuttle. Too many shadows.

And one thought burns through my body: there is a demon in the kitchen.

Even before my heart slams against my rib cage, my hands fly to cover my eyes. To see a demon is to go mad. Every child knows that. Every child knows the prayer. Apollo all-healer, Apollo light-bringer, Apollo Invictus: deliver us from the eyes of demons. I remember Mother whispering it to me when I was little and she was still alive; I remember how she stroked the hair back from my face and explained why I must never look too long at the shadows.

But I don’t say the prayer. Because I am no longer a child. And my mother is not alive.

“Mother,” I whisper instead. “Please. Send away the demon.”

Suddenly my skin no longer feels like the taut surface of a drum; my heartbeat slows, and the pressure in my chest eases. The kitchen gapes chill and empty about me. I’m alone again.

The air stirs against my shoulder, half a sigh and half a kiss. I swallow convulsively, then smile, because I’m never alone.

My mother’s ghost is always with me.

“Thank you, Mother,” I say.

I am the only girl in the world whose mother can protect her from demons.

The clock chimes seven thirty. Fear hurtles me to my feet, sharp and cold as when the demon huddled by the coal scuttle. Stepmother always comes down to breakfast at eight, and if it isn’t steaming on the table when she walks into the room, then she’s angry. If she’s angry, then she punishes me. If she punishes me, then Mother will get angry—and if Mother gets angry, as she did with my nurse—

Don’t think it, don’t think it. I slam the pots into position, because if I think about what happened to my nurse, then I will cry, and I can’t cry. I cannot ever, ever cry.

That airy caress again, this time against my cheek. I smile; my body is trained even when my mind is awhirl.

My mother will never stop loving me, so I can never stop lying.

“It’s a beautiful morning, Mother. I’m glad I can get up early enough to see the dawn.” Sausages are in the pan. Time to start the porridge. “And cooking breakfast makes it even better. Of course, I wish I could cook it for you, but cooking it with you for Stepmother and Koré and Thea is still delightful.”

The sausages start to sizzle. Their thick, greasy scent turns my stomach, but I’ve found my rhythm now, and the lies dance easily between my teeth. “Poor Koré and Thea, never allowed in the kitchen! Stepmother’s awfully hard on them, but I suppose she knows best. And I get to be alone with you.” I set the coffeepot on the stove and twirl. She likes it when I twirl. It makes her think that I am happy.

I catch myself against the countertop and smile at the painting over the doorway. “I’m so happy to be with you,” I say, and the lie comes out smooth and sweet as fresh butter. “I’m so very, very happy.”

It’s not exactly a lie. I am always happy. I have to be.

Because I’m the only girl in the world who can protect anyone from my mother.

Serving breakfast is a relief. In the kitchen, I must smile and sing and dance through my tasks, because if I don’t like my tasks, Mother may get angry at the ones who set them. In the breakfast room, I need only stand silent in the corner, hands clasped and head bowed, because Stepmother gets angry if I am too cheerful.

I nestle into the curtains. They used to be stiff and scratchy, but last year Stepmother squandered nearly a month’s income to buy cascades of soft, frothy white lace. We had to eat bread and pickled fish for a week. And I watch my family from under my lashes.

Stepmother sits at the head of the table, wrapped in a moth-eaten dressing gown that was crimson once but has faded to a dirty purple. She spears her sausage with a fork, then holds it up and sniffs, her eyes half-lidded. I think she’s trying to show she has demanding and refined taste, but she only looks like a pampered lapdog trying to decide if a table scrap is worth the bother of chewing.

“Maia,” she says, setting the sausage down again, “you know I don’t like them cooked this crisp.”

“I’m sorry, my lady,” I murmur.

Thea looks up from her plate, where she’s cut her sausages into twelve pieces and pushed them around without eating a bite. She doesn’t like heavy food in the morning any more than I do.

“It’s my fault, Mother,” she says. “I asked Maia to make them crisp. I love them this way.” She stuffs four pieces into her mouth, then looks pained.

Thea is kind and impulsive and very stupid. I’m not sure, sometimes, why she is still alive. Or why she thinks she can love and be loved by everyone in this house. She even thinks that the two of us can be friends, and she is forever trying to drag me from my chores and make me drink tea or practice dancing. No matter how much either of us gets punished, she never learns.

“You’re too kind to her,” says Koré. She’s the older of my stepsisters—seventeen, like me—and even eating breakfast, she manages to look like a statue carved by a master artist. Partly it’s her perfect posture, but there’s no denying the gods gave her beauty—wide dark eyes and high cheekbones, a face of pure symmetry framed by night-black hair. She looks worthy of a hundred statues, and it’s a testament to Stepmother’s foolishness that she’s never had a single suitor.

“But I love them,” says Thea through the mouthful of sausage she still hasn’t managed to swallow. It makes her look like she’s only ten instead of fourteen. It also makes her look even more like a lackluster imitation of Koré than she usually does: she has all her sister’s lovely features, but smudged and softened from beauty down to mere prettiness.

“You are making excuses for that girl like you always do.” Stepmother’s voice is suddenly thin and harsh with loathing. “The honor of our house demands—” She pauses, wincing, and puts a hand to her forehead.

Without either of us meaning to, Koré and I meet each other’s eyes grimly across the table. It’s never a good sign when Stepmother starts talking about the honor of our house. Stepmother loved my father more than reason; this ramshackle building and our half-disgraced name are all she has left of him. When she starts talking about the honor of our house, at best it means that she’s going to squander more money on curtains and silverware, and be more strict than usual with the three of us. At worst—

 

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