I never understood the ones who said they feared the night. Light was the harbinger of evil in my world. The first rays of dawn meant the yelling started. It wasn’t until sunset that they would pass out again, falling asleep as the sun set. The night gave me strength to live. Under the moonlight I had no bruises.
Midsummer was the worst. Long days shortened the hours of my freedom. I despised the spring blossoms, hated that they meant the night was quickening away. Sometimes I prayed for an early winter. Deep frost, snow, hunger, starvation... none of those mattered if I could wrap myself in a blanket of darkness.
It is noon by the sundial and the garden is in full bloom. Lanterns are being hung throughout the town as people embrace the summer solstice. From the caverns of the kitchen I can hear the bickering of two old woman. Years of jealousy spill between them, a vile acid that’s etched itself into the stone.
From the balcony above I hear the snide mocking of another pair who feed on that acid hatred and give it life in their bosoms. Daylight makes a solemn mockery of all I love.
Quietly, I pull my sleeve down to hide the hand prints that blacken my flesh. Others think I do it out of some kind of vanity, that I hide my moon-pale skin from the sun because I do not embrace the summer’s golden glow. It is not true. Had I no horror to hide, I too would embrace the sun. But how can I when the cold and distant sun is nothing more to me than the witch’s pyre?
“Iulia!” a maid calls my name and I am stolen from the gardens to the goblin’s den. Beautiful as the first true spring morning is the woman I have called Mother all my life. She is radiant and fair to behold. Praised by men, idolized by artists, all who see her bow in awe. They should tremble in fear, for that fair face hides a cruelty that no other creature can possess. Not even a cat tormenting a mouse matches her for cold-hearted pain.
Yet I bow before her, fearing the lash of both her whip and her tongue.
“You are an ugly child.” She has said so all my life.
“Forgive me. I know no other way to be.”
Her gold slippers glitter in the sunlight as she stalks around me, a lioness looking for a weakness. “When I was your age there were men that avowed they would die if they could not dance with me. Kings went to war to win my hand. Maidens took their own lives because they saw me and knew they could never compare.”
“M’lady is the greatest wonder of the modern world,” I said. “Not even the sun is more radiant than she.” This is the prayer I learned in childhood. My scripture is a paean of praise to the woman I hate most.
“Who would see my beauty slip away?”
“No one, my queen. The world would die for want of you.”
“True.” A leather crop caresses my cheek. It is her form of endearment. “Once I hoped you would reign beside me, the Little Queen. The moon to my sun. But it cannot be.”
The cold leather dug into my cheek and I feel hot blood well up where the rough edge cuts me. “M’lady has other daughters, both radiant and fair.” All were dead. The gravestones bordered the garden like a white marble fence. No beauty that competed with her was allowed to live. Yet she birthed daughters like a queen bee, always searching for her destruction. It made her feel alive.
“Tonight we will have visitors to help us celebrate the solstice. Won’t that be nice?”
Victims for the altar. Suitors from abroad. “They are lucky indeed that the most beautiful of all women allows them to walk in her presence.” No matter what my heart feels I must keep to the well-worn script.
The leather crop strikes across my back, a brief riff of pain between my shoulder blades. “Go. Make yourself presentable. Our guests will be on the altar before the sun sets.”
So it is every year. Her sacrifice to the elder gods. Her assurance of power and beauty.
I flee the room and catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Pale skin, white as a winter moon, with hot red blood crusting on my cheek. My pale green dress is marked by the same blood on my back. My hair, crimson as my blood, is matted and filthy. Still, I lift my chin as I walk. The moon is rising, a pale assassin in the sky, and I can feel the strength it gives me.
No one marks my appearance. The servants never rush to help me. They know all too well that the queen only meets out the punishment deserved. Why else would she beat her only living child?
In the cool darkness of my room near the dungeons I bathe. The water sluices over me, washing away and the pain and fear. Resolution strengthens my bones. Tonight the moon rises early.
Tonight, I too will ascend, either to flee this golden kingdom or to stand upon the altar as a sacrifice myself; I do not care. All I wish to do is escape the woman who gave me life. The woman who makes my every nightmare come true.
The bells ring in the square. The visitors are here. For them I shed no tear. Greed led them here, or lust perhaps. The wealthy widow queen whose beauty is beyond compare. They come to claim her, to take what is not theirs. In return she takes their lives to lengthen her own.
“Iulia.” Her voice crawls through the darkness like a spider.
“Mother.” I step out in my pale gray dress. My crimson hair is bound up under a dark gold veil. Tonight I am no more than a statue in my mother’s menagerie.
Her cold fingers grasp my chin through the veil. “Do you not love me child? Have I not given you everything? Have I not laid aside my own desires to see you well? When you were ill, was it not I who sacrificed everything to win the favor of the elder gods and see you healed? Your father would have let you die, but what did I do?”
“You saved me.”
“Yes, I saved you. I gave up everything I held precious so I could see you live.”
How generous were the elder gods to give her endless life when all she asked for was a child’s health... but this I do not say. I did once, and I learned how long it takes for bones to mend. “You are more generous than I can say,” I whisper.
“Come, child. Walk with me. Our visitors must see how much I love my child.”
The stone walls feel like a tomb, although I know my life will end in fire. One day my mother will tire of me. One day she will cease to toy with me and will slit my throat. Drink my blood. One day, she will offer me to the elder gods to capture another season in the sun.
Our footfalls lead to the garden, then down to the gate, and finally to the long white path to the square. The setting sun heats our backs. To the people waiting we are two figures – one glowing and golden, one dark and severe – walking out of the light. They wait, hearts racing in their chests. The queen’s magic stretches out, ensnaring them, entangling them in their own wanton wishes.
I look up at the high and pale moon. The sun is falling. The moon reigns.
Almost unbidden, the silver knife appears in my hand, hidden by the fall of my sleeve.
Beside me, my mother pauses. Sunlight dances along the knife edge and the whole world holds still. Which heart calls to this blade? Whose blood will drip from its curving silver tip?
“Iulia?” My mother looks so confused. “Whatever have I done to you, child, to make you hate me?”
The blade leaps for her throat and I whisper, “Everything.”