Edition 20: Bluebeard’s Daughter by Angela Slatter
Rosaline, daughter of the indomitable Bluebeard, finds herself thrust into a quest certainly designed with her death in mind. But she’s no fool, she’s taking her own heading, right into the woods. And we all know what they say about those…SY
‘Here,’ she says, ‘have an apple.’
Yeah, right. As if I know nothing about stepmothers. As if I know nothing about apples. But I’m polite and I’m not stupid, so I put the green orb in my bag, and thank her.
‘Now, don’t forget: you’ll need to be careful and cunning. You’ll need your wits about you. It’s hidden deep, the treasure, and there will be all kinds of obstacles.’ Hands on hips, Orienne surveys me critically. ‘It’s a long journey, but you’ve got the most fat on you of all of us. You’ll be fine; the exercise will do you good. Don’t forget that apple, Rosaline; no cakes or pastries.’
As if I’m likely to forget that bloody apple; I know what she’s done to it. Trust her to manage a dig at my weight—I come from a long line of women who eat their grief, but my father’s fifth wife is of thin stock. Busy, busy, busy all the time, bustling and fidgeting, organising and ordering, burning away everything she eats, hating anyone to be idle; she’s got the energy of a hummingbird and a heart that softens for her own child alone. Gods forbid anyone should spend an afternoon sitting on their arse, reading a good book.
That was how I got caught; sitting on my arse, buried in a book, oblivious to the world. The rest of the family had made themselves scarce, knowing she was on a tear about too little food, too many mouths; as if we were poor, as if my father didn’t provide for all the children he’d sired, and all those that had been brought by previous wives and left here when said wives had gone.
As if it wasn’t just an excuse to cull the herd.
As if she hadn’t done it before.
As if a horrifyingly large number of my siblings—full, half, and step—haven’t ended badly.
‘Here’s the map, but you won’t need a compass, you’ve got a wonderful sense of direction.’
We both know I get lost in the library sometimes, but it’s no use contradicting her; she’ll just raise her voice and talk right over the top of me, pretending this is a serious task. A journey from which I’ll return.
‘Remember to be polite and biddable to any creature you meet on the way. Try to be home before winter…of course, your natural insulation should keep you warm. We’re all counting on you, Rosaline. And don’t forget that apple, if you’re peckish.’
She finishes adjusting the strap of my satchel and stands back, surveying me with the resigned disappointment of a woman who knows she’s done her best with second-rate materials. ‘Well, that’s you taken care of then.’
Or so she bloody well hopes.
My father likes being married and, despite everything, he’s apparently catnip for women, whether for his fortune, castle, or the great virile bushy beard, who can say.
Matrimony’s never worked out too well for his wives, however, but they all appear to think it’s a good idea at the time. None of them ever seems to think he’ll turn on them. None of them ever seems to consider not entering the locked room, even when he makes it very clear that possession of the key comes with responsibilities and consequences. None of them ever seems to think they’ll get caught. Eventually, they all go—even my own mother—and open the door to take a peek inside.
All of them until her.
I have to give Orienne credit, she’s smart. If she has ever entered that room—whether by witchcraft or dint of the same skill I’ve used: lockpicking—she’s managed to keep it a secret from my father. Whenever he returns from a voyage, she’ll hand him back the keys, and he looks carefully at the smallest one—he always has the wives’ copies made of gold because it’s so soft and there’s no hiding if it’s been used, even once—and without fail, he nods with a kind of satisfied surprise. He’ll give her a resounding kiss, before carrying her up to their bedchamber. Maybe that’s why he’s so wilfully blind to the dwindling number of children in his house.
Dispatched to get water, Zipporah and Judith both met an old woman by a well. The former, sweet-natured, helped her without complaint, and was rewarded with diamonds, pearls and roses falling from her lips each time she spoke. She vomited such things for three days before she died, spitting blood and spewing slivers of her own torn flesh. Judith, wary of her sister’s fate, let her sharp tongue have rein when the very same old woman asked for assistance—she threw herself from a cliff when toads and vipers began to accompany her words.
Ada and Beatrice, Sara and Lizzie, were sent with charity baskets to help the less-fortunate who lived deep in the woods, but none of the girls was ever seen again, although it was observed on several occasions that the wolves looked particularly well-fed that winter. Minette, Anya and Louise were crushed in an unfortunate mattress stacking accident whilst setting up a test for a potential bride for Armand, my stepmother’s son; come to think of it, the bride died, too. Leticia, playing with matches, trying to stay warm in the icy attic to which Orienne had banished her, managed to self-immolate. Gabriella was scalded to death when a vat of boiling broth mysteriously tipped from the hob. Susannah was carried away by a kelpie while crossing a river she’d been assured was perfectly safe. And Lucy…Lucy, was turned into a hare, somehow, and torn apart by our stepmother’s pack of brachet hounds. After each and every misfortune, Orienne wept cold, glittering tears and proclaimed ‘How dreadful!’ in most convincing tones, at least in Father’s hearing.
Six daughters remain, of whom I am one and, apparently, the next to be shuffled aside in Orienne’s quest to secure her own future: no other heirs will be tolerated. I thought I was safe, and for a long while I was, being Father’s favourite…but after Lucy I thought, Enough’s enough. I complained to Father and discovered I’d made a mistake; favourite or no, not a word against his beloved, trusted wife would be tolerated. So I’ve been in the dog house for a few weeks and, with my parent having departed on yet another trip, Orienne’s decided it’s time to move against me. I should have known better. The only one who’s secure is Armand, her very own boy, her sole offspring whom she loves to distraction, and the single good thing she brought into this house.
He looks a little like her, slender and pale, with blackest of black hair and blue eyes, though where hers are ashen-frost, his are summer-sky. He’s tall and broad-shouldered, and beautiful my stepbrother, so beautiful that even I can’t ignore him, no matter how I feel about his mother. And he’s been kind to me, even though Orienne never has been. He likes books and we talk about them, and one time we almost…I’ll miss him, talking to him, staring at him, and almost-ing him.
I’d set off from the castle nice and early into a morning that was already puffing out wintery breath, waved off by those who cared or simply wished to make sure I was gone. Orienne watched longer than the others—I kept looking over my shoulder to see if she was still there, and she was so I couldn’t do what I wanted, which was to go left at the fork in the road, not right. But she was still staring, so I gave one last wave and stoically traipsed onwards as if I had every intention of going where she wants me to go. As if I was going to do what she wants me to do, which is die horribly either whilst trying to find objects that probably don’t exist or eating the poisoned apple she’s pressed on me as a snack.
And even if the items in question are real, they won’t be where she claims. But there’ll be ogres, and trolls, and witches—the bad kind—or robber bridegrooms who’ve got more in common with my father than I’d like to think. But the things I’m supposed to look for, specifically a loaf of bread you can never entirely devour and a bottle of wine that never runs out? They’ll not be there.
After hours of walking the path through the forest isn’t too bad. The road is wide and not terribly rutted, and the leafy canopy above isn’t so thick that it blocks the sun, creating a darkness that might encourage predators to come and bid me welcome. My boots are sturdy and comfortable, well-worn; it should be a while before blisters appear, but I can feel my thighs chaffing under my skirts as I walk, oosh, oosh, oosh. I should have insisted on grabbing a pair of trews before I left, no matter how fast she was hustling me out of the castle; I barely had time to pin my long hair back. I’ll find a pair of britches as soon as I can, whether I have to beg, borrow, or steal them from someone’s washing line.
Which may be an opportunity that will present itself sooner rather than later: there’s a little trail winding off the roadway, compressed by soft shoes and leather-padded paws. Through the fat tree trunks I can see where it leads: to a cottage that looks small and neat, but odd. The tones are all wrong, the textures…I squint. It should be wood and wattle and daub; it should be thatch and glass and stone…but all I can make out is a riot of colours that don’t naturally occur in woodland architecture. I can’t resist: I must investigate. If there’s a chance of satisfying my curiosity and need for trousers, I’ll risk it.
I creep along the path, and then pause before stepping into the clearing. The place doesn’t look dangerous. There’s a lot of brown but it’s a cinnamon-sprinkle kind of brown; there’s frosting of blue and green and yellow and rose along the eaves and around the window frames. I stare a little longer. The garden inside the fence is full of flowers but they don’t move in the breeze like proper ones should; they stay stiff, quite rigid as if made of sterner stuff, like liquorice and marzipan, with leaves of sugared mint. The windowpanes look like clear-blown toffee. It’s one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen and that’s saying something.
I’m about to commit to the glade when a hand grabs my arm and clamps tight. I bite down on a scream purely because it won’t help matters at all, and I remember I put the kitchen knife I stole inside my pack, so there’s no getting to it now. I swing about and see blue, blue eyes, high cheekbones and pouting lips, hair as black as ebony. My heart, embarrassingly enough, steps up its rhythm, kicks out a little tarantella.
‘Hello,’ says Armand. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘What am I doing?’ I hiss. ‘I’m supposed to be here. Your mother sent me away.’
He ignores the tone and says, ‘Not here, though, you’re meant to be on the main road, heading towards the mountains so you can complete your quest and come back to us.’
‘I’ve been walking for hours. I need somewhere to rest. And to find breeches.’ I peer at him. ‘Why are you here?’
‘I wanted to help.’ He shrugs and I can see it’s the truth, plain and simple. Sweet boy just wanted to render assistance in a princely fashion. ‘Come on, let’s get a move on.’
‘No,’ I begin and am interrupted by a weak shriek coming from inside the weird little cottage. Then there’s a cry for help, a woman’s voice cracked with age and fear. ‘Well, that settles it,’ I say, and head off at a run, through the gate in the white picket fence that smells like peppermint, along the path made of humbugs, towards the Turkish Delight window boxes bloom-full of icing-sculpted flowers in a riot of hues.
I knock on the door, which is sturdy yet peculiarly pliant; it thuds nicely beneath my hand, but gives a little too, like a firm sponge. It smells like gingerbread.
‘Are you alright?’ I call and the wail comes again, trickling to a whimper as Armand thunders up behind me. I turn the lemon sherbet door handle and shove.
A pink cloud that smells like musk and dreams puffs around us as we collapse over the threshold. Any queries as to anyone’s safety or otherwise expire on our lips as we fall immediately into a deep slumber.
I wake up overheated and flushed, the smell of warm sugar in my nostrils. My face is pressed against something tacky on the floor…no, not the floor. The bottom of a cage, a cage made of candy canes shaped and melded into a box, not big enough for me to stand, but I can sit if I slouch. I roll up, pulling painfully away from the gluey surface. My head feels as if candyfloss, blown in one ear, has chosen not to go out the other, but rather take up residence in my skull.
I look around, blinking. My satchel, with the kitchen knife in it—not to mention my little roll of lockpicks—lies on the flags beside the door, for all the good it will do me. Idly, I wonder how long it would take for me to chew my way out.
There’s all the usual furniture you’d expect of a little old lady’s cottage, although made of substances not generally associated with furniture: marshmallow armchairs with antimacassars of fondant lace; tables of fudge; rugs of pulled taffy; paintings with wafer picture frames; jelly bean footstools; a peanut brittle bedstead, with chocolate brownie pillows and a coverlet that looks like woven ribbon candy, atop which lies Armand, still unconscious. It all looks adorable and, in spite of everything, my stomach rumbles, and that’s what attracts the attention of the little old lady herself, who’s diligently stoking the fire beneath the enormous oven in one corner. She’s wizened and ancient, shoulders rounded, and back bent. She limps over to me, fingers thin and twigish, hair like steel wool, nose crooked.
‘Ah!’ She cackles. ‘Awake, awake, awake!’
‘I rushed in to help you, you know,’ I tell her with reproach. ‘You tricked me.’
‘Well, I’d never get a meal otherwise. People are very particular about not getting eaten. Do all sorts of things to avoid it.’ She shakes her head. ‘Good meals are few and far between for the likes of me.’
‘We’re all bad witches at some point, dearie. Have you not worked that out yet?’
I don’t say anything because I know she’s right, more or less.
‘Anyway, though you won’t appreciate this, it’s pleased I am to see you. Far too many skinny girls nowadays, not enough for a filling repast.’ She eyes my well-padded flanks. ‘I’ll have you salted and smoked and put away for the cold months! Meatloaf! Steaks! Chops and ribs! Ah, the soups your bones will make—I’ve got the best pearl barley and dried peas set by. Oh, and black pudding! I’ve not had that in so long.’ She fairly salivates.
‘What have you done to Armand?’
‘Nothing. Yet.’ She grins lasciviously and she’s missing teeth here and there. I notice the shackle around Armand’s ankle, a genuine iron item in this place of sugar and spice. ‘He’s a heavy sleeper, still under for now, but I’ll be on top of him soon and that’ll wake him up.’
I think my jaw drops at that.
‘What? I’ve got needs! I get lonely.’
‘Didn’t anyone ever teach you that fulfilling your own needs at the cost of others is not okay?’
‘Do you think anyone ever bothered teaching me anything?’ she sneers, and glares at me for long moments. ‘Those of us who are on our own, with no one to care for us, we make our own way, our own rules as and how we must.’
And though part of that makes sense, I can’t see how it justifies turning me into a five-course feast and Armand into a sex slave. I’m about to tell her so when there’s a groan from the bed.
‘Ah. Time to change into something a little less comfortable.’ She draws herself up, pats at her dark grey skirts, her iron-sky hair, and begins to whisper a spell. The words come out as a mist, slowly falling and encircling her as it goes, until she’s enveloped in a minty-fresh fog that thickens and thickens until she at last steps out of the cloud of it, thoroughly changed.
She’s tall and blonde; her squinty raisin eyes are large and limpid and green, furrowed lips are full and ripe as cherries, her age-spotted skin is milky and smooth, her cloth of gold dress is a thing to cause Orienne to turn jade.
‘Neat trick,’ I say, more than a little envious that someone can change their shape so easily.
She pulls a swathe of cloth from a shelf and says, ‘Thank you. Now, I like a little privacy, so don’t take this personally,’ and wraps the cloth around my cage as if I’m a bird being put to sleep for the night.
I hear her move away, begin to coo sweet nothings to the rousing man.
I examine the lock on my prison: it’s made of metal and I can work with that. My lockpicks might be out of reach, but there are more than enough pins in my hair to make up for it. It takes me a little longer than usual—I’m less skilled with a clip, and I have to try to block out the sounds of her seduction and Armand’s drowsy responses—but eventually I hear a snick. The door cracks open without too much noise, while I, on the other hand, make a racket and a half getting out of the cage. I leave skin behind, my legs are all pins and needles, and don’t want to hold me up as I wobble about, flailing at the draped sheet.
All of which gives the witch time to struggle off the bed, bodice unhooked, hair dishevelled, skirts getting in the way. Although she’s magicked herself a young woman’s body, she still moves like an old one, and that gives me the chance to grab a metal poker from beside the oven, just as she’s coming towards me, just as she’s raising her hands, just as she’s moving her lips to spill out some curse, some hex, some enchantment that will turn me into a toad or a goose or an entrée.
I’m faster with the poker than she is with her words, and I split her skull like an egg. The spell shatters as easily as her head does, and both spill out grey and red. In a moment, she’s shrunk to fairy dust and floss, fine and silver as spider webs. I wait for the cottage to dissolve around us, to melt and drip into a sugary apocalypse, that’s generally the way things go, but no. It stays. It sticks. It’s not connected to her like so many magic things are to their masters. Perhaps she didn’t make it, perhaps she just wandered in, found it. Perhaps it just grew up around her, made strange on its own.
‘Rosaline,’ mumbles Armand, stretched out on the bed, his shirt lacings loose, his trousers disturbed in more ways than one. ‘Are you alright?’
‘Uh huh. Nothing a good bath won’t cure.’ I move towards him, throwing one final suspicious look at the witchy mess on the floor. Into the oven with that as soon as I get my stepbrother free. I’m faster with the hairpin this time, and have him unfettered in a trice. ‘There.’
‘Thank you.’ He pulls me up to lie beside him, strokes my face, my hair, my lips, my throat, my chest, oh my! Part of me thinks This isn’t for you, this is just what the witch started, but the other part, the hopeful part says He followed you, he came after you, he wanted to keep you safe—and for the love of all that’s holy, this has got to be better than those spotty stableboys!
When he kisses me my heart feels as if it’s unfurling like the petals of a flower blooming in the sun.
We can, I think, be together. We can make a future, untethered from our pasts, from our family. We can be happy.
‘We can be happy,’ I say aloud, curled around Armand. ‘We can stay here.’
‘Oh, no,’ he answers, blinking. ‘We have to go. You have to find the loaf of bread that can’t be eaten up and the bottle of wine that never runs out. It’s the only way we’ll make it through winter.’
‘What?’ I ask stupidly, all the glowing feelings that were surging through me, thudding happily in my chest, warming my flesh, buzzing between my legs with a lovely throbbing pulse…all of them stop, freeze over, feel like a coating of ice on my sweaty skin.
‘We have to bring them back to Mother. She’ll be waiting.’ He smiles. ‘She said you’d never make it, that you’d never return home again. That’s why I came after you, to keep you motivated.’ He slaps my ample backside as if I’m an ornery horse he’s been obliged to ride.
‘Your mother wants me to die out here, Armand, the way all the other sisters have on their fool’s errands.’ You stupid bastard, you’ll die too—whatever will Mother say to that?
He sits up, stares down at me. ‘Don’t be silly. Mother wouldn’t do that. Mother loves her stepdaughters. It’s not her fault you’re all so unfortunate.’
He wanted to help her, not me. He’s too thick to realise I’m not meant to succeed. He’ll never believe it of her, has never suspected her of any ill intent towards the children that aren’t her own—no more than my father will. And as I stare into his eyes I can see her there, as a white dot in the pupils, an unmelting ice queen, a woman who’ll always be there before me. Someone he’ll never let go; someone he’ll always love best. I’ll never hold him as tightly as she does. My heart tightens, curls in upon itself, and I realise this is what my father feels every damned time one of the wives lets him down. He allows himself love, to care, and to trust…and they requite him so badly. I think I understand him at last.
‘I’m hungry,’ says Armand. Armand who’s clueless, who’s blind to what’s beneath his nose; who’ll happily drive me to my doom all to please his murderous mater.
And I think about secret chambers and poisoned hearts, and lackwits who can’t be trusted. I roll out of bed, find my satchel by the door, and fish out a green orb, crisp and sweet-looking, tempting as can be.
‘Here,’ I say, ‘ have an apple.’
Angela Slatter is the author of The Girl with No Hands and Other Tales, Sourdough and Other Stories, Black-Winged Angels, The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings, and Midnight and Moonshine and The Female Factory (both with Lisa L. Hannett). She has five Aurealis Awards, one British Fantasy Award, and has been a World Fantasy finalist. She holds an MA and a PhD in Creative Writing, is a graduate of Clarion South and Tin House, and was an inaugural Queensland Writers Fellow. Her story Of Sorrow and Such is part of the new Tor.com novella series. She blogs at www.angelaslatter.com about shiny things that catch her eye and lurks on Twitter @AngelaSlatter.