Home > Cruel Beauty

Cruel Beauty
Author: Rosamund Hodge

1

I was raised to marry a monster.

The day before the wedding, I could barely breathe. Fear and fury curdled in my stomach. All afternoon I skulked in the library, running my hands over the leather spines of books I would never touch again. I leaned against the shelves and wished I could run, wished I could scream at the people who had made this fate for me.

I eyed the shadowed corners of the library. When my twin sister, Astraia, and I were little, we heard the same terrible story as other children: Demons are made of shadow. Don’t look at the shadows too long or a demon might look back. It was even more horrible for us because we regularly saw the victims of demon attacks, screaming or mute with madness. Their families had dragged them in through the hallways and begged Father to use his Hermetic arts to cure them.

Sometimes he could ease their pain, just a little. But there was no cure for the madness inflicted by demons.

And my future husband—the Gentle Lord—was the prince of demons.

He was not like the vicious, mindless shadows that he ruled. As befit a prince, he far surpassed his subjects in power: he could speak and take such form that mortal eyes could look on him and not go mad. But he was a demon still. After our wedding night, how much of me would be left?

I heard a wet cough and whirled around. Behind me stood Aunt Telomache, thin lips pressed together, one wisp of hair escaping from her bun.

“We will dress for dinner.” She said it in the same placid, matter-of-fact way that she had said it last night, You are the hope of our people. Last night, and a thousand times before.

Her voice sharpened. “Are you listening, Nyx? Your father has arranged this farewell dinner for you. Don’t be late.”

I wished I could seize her bony shoulders and shake them. It was Father’s fault that I was leaving.

“Yes, Aunt,” I whispered.

Father wore his red silk waistcoat; Astraia her ruffled blue dress with the five petticoats; Aunt Telomache her pearls; and I put on my best black mourning dress, the one with satin bows. The food was just as grand: candied almonds, pickled olives, stuffed sparrows, and Father’s best wine. One of the servants even strummed at a lute in the corner as if we were at a duke’s banquet. I almost could have pretended that Father was trying to show how much he loved me, or at least how much he honored my sacrifice. But I knew, as soon as I saw Astraia sitting red-eyed at the table, that the dinner was all for her sake.

So I sat straight-backed in my chair, barely able to choke down my food but with a smile fixed on my face. Sometimes the conversation lagged, and I heard the heavy ticktock of the grandfather clock in the sitting room, counting off each second that brought me closer to my husband. My stomach roiled, but I smiled wider and gritted out cheerful nothings about how my marriage was an adventure, how I was so excited to fight the Gentle Lord, and by the spirit of our dead mother, I swore she would be avenged.

That last made Astraia droop again, but I leaned forward and asked her about the village boy always lingering beneath her window—Adamastos or some such—and she smiled and laughed soon enough. Why shouldn’t she laugh? She could marry a mortal man and live to old age in freedom.

I knew my resentment was unfair—surely she laughed for my sake, as I smiled for hers—but it still bubbled at the back of my mind all through dinner, until every smile, every glance she darted at me scraped across my skin. My left hand clenched under the table, nails biting into my palm, but I still managed to smile back at her and pretend.

At last the servants cleared away the empty custard dishes. Father adjusted his spectacles and looked at me. I knew that he was about to sigh and repeat his favorite saying: “Duty is bitter to taste but sweet to drink.” And I knew that he’d be thinking more about how he was sacrificing one half of his wife’s legacy than how I was sacrificing life and freedom.

I surged to my feet. “Father, may I please be excused?”

Surprise caught him for a moment before he replied, “Of course, Nyx.”

I bobbed my head. “Thank you so much for dinner.”

Then I tried to flee, but in a moment Aunt Telomache was at my elbow. “Dear,” she began softly.

And Astraia was at my other elbow. “I can talk to her for just a minute, please, can’t I?” she said, and without waiting for an answer she dragged me up to her bedroom.

As soon as the door had closed behind us, she turned to me. I managed not to flinch, but I couldn’t meet her eyes. Astraia didn’t deserve anyone’s anger, least of all mine. She didn’t. But for the past few years, whenever I looked at her, all I could see was the reason that I would have to face the Gentle Lord.

One of us had to die. That was the bargain Father had struck, and it was not her fault that he had picked her to be the one who lived, but every time she smiled, I still thought: She smiles because she is safe. She is safe because I am going to die.

I used to believe that if I just tried hard enough, I could learn to love her without resentment, but finally I had accepted that it was impossible. So now I stared at one of the framed cross-stitches on the wall—a country cottage choked in roses—and prepared myself to lie and smile and lie until she had finished whatever tender moment she wanted and I could crawl into the safety of my room.

But when she said, “Nyx,” her voice was ragged and weak. Without meaning to, I looked at her—and now she had no smile, no pretty tears, only a fist pressed to her mouth as she tried to keep control. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I know you must hate me,” and her voice broke.

Suddenly I remembered one morning when we were ten and she dragged me out of the library because our old cat Penelope wouldn’t eat and wouldn’t drink and Father can fix her, can’t he? Can’t he? But she had already known the answer.

“No.” I grabbed her shoulders. “No.” The lie felt like broken glass in my throat, but anything was better than hearing that hopeless grief and knowing I had caused it.

“But you’re going to die—” She hiccupped on a sob. “Because of me—”

“Because of the Gentle Lord and Father’s bargain.” I managed to meet her eyes and summon a smile. “And who says I’ll die? Don’t you believe your own sister can defeat him?”

Her own sister was lying to her: there was no possible way for me to defeat my husband without destroying myself as well. But I’d been telling her the lie that I could kill him and come home for far too long to stop now.

 

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