I sink into my sister’s tub, then hiss. The near-boiling water burns against my skin.
My mind wheels back to two days ago, when the assassins ambushed my carriage, slaughtering even the horses. I emerged the lone survivor.
I still recall the arrow finding my stomach. But I couldn’t feel it. I yanked it, anticipating for my innards to burst from their confinements. There was no blood. Then one of the assassins dropped dead.
Whenever someone tries hurting me, the damage is inflicted upon them instead. Abominations. That’s what they call us. Papa ordered the roundup of hundreds of abominations, locking them in cells and starving them of food and drink. It’s only way to kill my kind. Luckily my secret died with Mama’s midwife.
My younger sister’s voice jolts me back to the present.
“Yahri, fetch some tea,” Mirabelle orders.
The old servant was once my nursemaid when Mama and Papa were too busy ruling the kingdom. She sinks into a curtsy and strides out the gilded door, head drooping.
Yahri turns around, catching Mirabelle’s magnetic gaze. “Don’t forget the sugar.”
I manage a faint smile. My younger sister almost never remembers I take tea with sugar.
Soon as Yahri leaves, Mirabelle collapses into a plush chair, burying her head in her hands. “Avalon! Saints, I was so worried about you!” She stands and starts pacing, the only exercise she will willingly do.
“I heard terrible things…” Her eyes squeeze shut. “They said you were ambushed by brigands. That everyone was killed! But you’re here now. Saints, Avalon, I just…” She swabs her cheek with her sleeve. Then she twists the six rings of her fingers, setting them on a dish. We acquire them for each task we succeed at the Autumn Princess Trials. I stare down at my ringless digits.
Squirting soap into her hands, she kneels by the tub. I’m about to say I can wash my tresses myself but forget my protests when she begins massaging my scalp.
Yahri comes back in, balancing a tray of midnight treats. Her arms quiver though the tray doesn’t seem heavy. She sets it on the bed.
A sweat builds on my upper lip, a sign that bathing time has come to end. After rinsing off, I dry myself with a towel and slip into a cream-colored nightgown while Mirabelle adorns her fingers again.
She and I huddle around the sweets. “Yahri, pour the tea,” she commands.
Yahri’s complexion turns vanilla-frosting white. “Yes, Your Highness.”
I arch an eyebrow. She’s not usually brittle as toffee.
Hands shaking, Yahri pours tea into two teacups. “Sugar?” she croaks. She refuses to meet my eyes.
Mirabelle shakes her head as predicted.
“Three cubes, please,” I say, holding out my teacup. Tongs choose sugar cubes.
Yahri withdraws to the gilded door. My hands warm around the teacup as I study the dissolving cubes. Mirabelle sips her tea. How does she manage to keep such an indifferent expression while tasting bitterness incarnate?
“Well. Involved in his kingly responsibilities as always.” Her eyes strain far back.
I ignore her sarcasm and reach for a lemon biscuit. “As he should be.”
“Of course you should say so.”
I pull taut my lips, deciding there are better battles to win.
“How’s your tea?” she says airily, digressing.
I shrug, then drain my teacup in less time it takes a crumb to fall—a habit Papa admonishes.
But soon as I swallow, an acidic film coats my mouth and throat. My eyes bulge.
I spit out what little is left. “Mirabelle! Oh, Saints. Don’t drink the tea…” I thrust two digits down my throat, preparing to vomit.
But Mirabelle pins me down. “If what I’ve heard is true, older sister, you should be fine.”
I yelp, fighting her. She poisoned me?
In less than ten beats, Yahri thuds to the floor.
Of course. She ordered Yahri to so the servant would pay the consequence instead.
Mirabelle looks up, distracted. I shove her off me, scrambling to Yahri. “No! Yahri!”
Her eyes dart like minnows, features already swollen purple. She tries speaking but her tongue doesn’t fit in her mouth.
A tear escapes as I choke back a sob. “My oldest servant. Depart in peace.” Her bloated fingers cup my cheek, wiping the tear away. Moments later, her hands goes limp.
“Interesting.” Mirabelle makes no move. “Papa dearest, come out now.”
My breath catches.
The gilded door creaks open and in steps Papa, his mercury orbs oozing over the scene.
“My own daughter… an abomination?”
“Yes,” I say, voice quaking. “But—but does it matter? It can be an advantage—”
“It is unnatural. The Saints did not intend this. Surely you know.”
I say nothing.
His fist clench. “You will be dead before the next Eden Trials.”
Two weeks. Is that how long it takes to starve to death?
Guards march in, securing my wrists and shoulders. Before leaving, I overhear Mirabelle murmuring to Papa.
He sighs. “Yes, you will inherit the crown.”
Mirabelle leads the way to the starvation cells. The king follows at a careful distance.
Butternut-squash light marks the way. The guards shove me forward, sending me sprawling into an empty cell.
Mirabelle bends, lifting my chin. “Oh, Avalon.” Her rings dig into my skin. “Abominations cannot be princesses.”
I jerk her fingers back. She cries out in pain but doesn’t notice when I slide her pinkie ring off. “You will never be a fit ruler,” I shoot back. Behind the cell bars, the man I once called Papa flinches. At least we agree upon something.
After a moment’s pause, Mirabelle leaves, locking the cell doors behind her.
I reign in a sob, refusing to let it bubble over. There’s hope yet, but first I must get to work.
After an hour of striking Mirabelle’s pinkie ring against the stone ground at odd angles, I examine my work in the dim light. A weak smile lifts my cheeks.
I have fashioned a lock pick.