Stain – A.G. Howard

In one enchanted telling of old, a prince desperately seeks a princess to wed and rule by his side. But when his destiny arrives upon the castle steps, she fails to look the part of royalty, being drenched and forlorn after facing a cloudburst on her journey. To satisfy the prince’s queenly mother, she must prove herself a real princess, with a constitution so delicate the slightest lump beneath a tower of eiderdown mattresses—a lump no bigger than a pea—bruises her flesh and hinders her sleep. Only a girl as tender as a budding rose may marry the royal son and become a queen in her own right. However, that antiquated telling neglects one vital detail: roses need thorns, just as thorns need roses. If one looks closely at the partnership, they can see the balance a thorn provides—brutal enough to protect from predators, yet gentle enough to share the stem and never tear the fragile blossom. Only if that thorn should lose its rose does it become ugly, purposeless, vicious and vile, with ill intentions to expand its reach and dominate at the expense of all else. This is the story of two very different princesses—one who lost her rose, and one who gained her thorns. Their journeys to prove their worth unwind within a fairy tale entangled amidst the briars. It begins with “Once Upon,” and a touch of morbid to set the tone . Once upon a nightmare, a princess was born in the kingdom of perpetual daylight—a fine-boned babe who killed her queenly mother upon her entrance to the world. Yet, that’s not entirely true. Queen Arael had become ill seven months prior, after pricking her finger on a thorny rosebush yielding deep lavender blooms at the base of Mount Astra, the highest mountain in Eldoria.

The queen adored flowers, and this rose called to her with a seductive nuance of shadows and mystery her sun-bright, royally regimented days were lacking. She didn’t stop to consider that its roots spread deep beneath the earth, far enough to feed off the alter-world of Nerezeth, land of eternal night. An impish, satiny voice whispered on the wind and tickled her ear. Convinced it was her own conscience inspiring her, she ignored any sense of impending doom and plucked the stem free. Some said the moment the thorn pierced the queen’s skin her blood filled with a demon’s curse . a darkness that crept into every facet of her being, intruding upon the babe she carried within. Her death while giving birth only validated the rumor for those foolish enough to believe such folly. On that day of loss and life, a sorrowful hush fell over the sparkling ivory castle of Eldoria. The king’s sister, the beautiful Lady Griselda—elegant as a statue carved of the ivory stones lining the garden ponds, with glossy hair both crimson and black—stepped forward to be the princess’s governess. Though Griselda put on a show of compassion for her brother, her heart waxed cold with envy, for she had three little daughters of her own who would never sit upon the throne now that an heir had been born to the king. Her embittered mind wasted no time concocting some means to amend this injustice. Had the babe died with her gentle mother, her fate would have been kinder than what was in store .

King Kiran of the House of Eyvindur, so overcome with grief, had yet to look upon his new daughter. Weeping, he pressed his lips to the limp, cold hand of his lovely wife’s corpse. The scent of soil and flowers still clung upon her olive skin from her time in the garden earlier that day. “If only Arael could’ve stayed long enough to see the babe but once.” “Better that her mother didn’t see.” Griselda’s gaze, dark and hard as wrought iron, fixed upon her brother while she wrapped the wriggling bundle in an itchy lace blanket. “She’s quite unusual. Her lashes . they’re bone-white. And longer and more numerous than a centipede’s legs.

” Griselda’s own dark, thick lashes trembled as if in pity. “It is startling.” The newborn screeched out at her aunt’s severe handling. The cry sliced through the silence and echoed through every hall and corridor. Each servant within the room—from those gathering up bloody sheets to the ones mopping the crimson smears off the white tiles—paused and held their breath. For the sound was anything but obtrusive. The child’s wails formed a melody that wrapped around each particle of air, silver and resonate and pure—like a songbird’s trill on a mild spring day. Other servants who had been occupied elsewhere congregated around the door to peer inside. The king’s tears slowed, and for the first time he turned to look at the babe, taking her gently from his sister’s hands. “So lyrical.

Her voice is music. I shall call her Lyra.” He nodded, his white-gold crown glinting in the candlelight, since the curtains had been drawn to offer privacy while the queen struggled to give birth. “Arael would’ve liked that.” The baby snuggled into her father’s gentle arms. “Those eyes . that skin.” Griselda observed the babe around her brother’s sturdy shoulder; the tiny princess wriggled within her lace blanket, a faint, bluish-tinged creature that resembled a shadow on a saucer of curdled cream. “There’s no denying she’s been touched by moonlight. She’ll have no shield from the sun.

And she appears sickly; it must be the illness from the queen’s blood. A contagion from the cursed land of eternal gloom and ice.” “She has a rare and melancholy beauty, it is true,” her brother answered in that deep, wise tone that made him so beloved to his people, while his black beard nuzzled the babe’s milky-soft head. “But you yourself can relate to tender skin, and how outward appearances rarely reflect inward strength. See how she grips my finger.” Lyra’s tiny pale hand curled halfway around his russetcolored thumb and squeezed. The king chuckled. “Such pith in one so small. Yes. I shall see her live to a ripe old age.

She’s blood of my blood and was born to gift our world with song. She will sit the throne and rule in grace and light just as her mother did.” Even amidst the heartbreak over his loss, he loved this child more than his own breath, and the flavor of his tears forever imprinted upon Lyra’s lips as the taste of purest comfort. Over the years, as the princess grew, so did her differences. She looked nothing like her cousins— a trio of velvet-eyed beauties whose hair glistened auburn in the candlelight, whose ivory skin freckled from time spent outdoors. The elder two’s figures were sure to be shapely and sensual like their mother’s one day, but the cousin closest to her age, Lustacia, shared Lyra’s willowy build. However, no one shared her odd characteristics. Lyra had iridescent eyes—mother-of-pearl prisms that shifted from the rich amber of autumn leaves to a lilac so gentle and serene it was almost transparent; moonlit skin—the color of hydrangea petals faded to the lightest shade of blue—too spectral to hide the delicate network of veins beneath; and hair, eyebrows, and lashes so silverywhite and glistening, they rivaled the spiderwebs which draped the corners of the castle where even the candlelight couldn’t quite reach. Over time, her lashes grew so long they stretched above her eyebrows and often tangled within her hair. Thus, any strands about her face were kept drawn into plaits, allowing her to blink freely.

To everyone but her doting father, she remained a creature of otherworldly strangeness. Her skin burned with excruciating pain when sliced by the slightest strand of sun. Her eyes had never shed a tear. They guided her through shaded corners and antechambers, glistening gold with the precision of a cat, yet shifted to purple-tinged and left her blind as a mole in daylight. Outside of her brother’s earshot, Griselda poisoned the servants against the child. “Her blood is contaminated. She walks in shadows like the gloom-dwellers. Already, we’ve lost the queen to her. Now her demon wiles have bewitched my kingly brother. And when it’s her turn to reign, what then? What purpose can she serve to a kingdom where the sun shines eternally from our victory centuries ago? Will we all live locked up indoors, indentured to darkness for her comfort? Or will she split the earth so night can seep in once more to contuse our skies?” On Lyra’s fourth birthday, she toddled down the corridors, the floor cool and slick beneath her bare feet.

Heavy drapes cloaked the windows; only candles were lit on the north side of the ivory castle in respect for her tender skin. Three servants peered around the corner, dim light flickering across their faces. Upon seeing them, Lyra waved. They shook their heads. “I miss the sun’s warm glow,” whined Brindle, the court jester. The bells on his hat jingled with each bob of his chin. “Must we always live in hiding?” seethed Matilde, the head cook, her crossed arms cradling a soup ladle that dripped with a mouthwatering scent. “Just for her?” snarled Mia from behind a basket piled with bed linens. She had served as Queen Arael’s faithful lady’s maid but was reluctant to do the same for the odd little princess. Lyra didn’t quite understand the septic bite of their words.

All she knew was their murmurs tickled her ears like the tiny chattering mice in the storybooks her father read. She ran to greet them with a melodic giggle. All three servants’ expressions changed . frowns becoming smiles, eyes once dim with mistrust brightening with optimism. Matilde caught a breath and Brindle spun in place, his bells jingling merrily. “Her voice . it be like sitting in the shade on a blanket of spring flowers, ain’t it?” He laughed. Mia set aside her basket. “What are we all standing about for? It’s the princess’s birthday, and as her lady’s maid, I intend to see ’er pampered and spoiled.” The other two servants agreed.

Matilde baked a honey-iced cake and tickled Lyra’s feet with plucked goose feathers as she ate; Brindle crafted a chime of glittery, tinkling tin triangles to hang over her small bed; and Mia gave her a bubble bath scented with rich, woody magnolia and vanilla brandy. Lyra laughed as the bubbles perched weightless on her lashes and hands, thrilled by the candle glow captured inside. Nothing held more fascination for her than light. From that point on, the cook, jester, and maid aimed to elicit the princess’s laughter as often as possible. Hidden from sight, Griselda watched their loyalty grow and her grudge burned deeper and darker, branding her heart with an irreversible smudge. Three more years tumbled by. Preoccupied with his daughter’s needs, King Kiran was oblivious to his sister’s darkening moods. He failed to notice how often Griselda stayed with her daughters on the east side of the castle, isolating her small family and half of the castle’s servants where the curtains remained open to the never-changing sun. One day, in the north wing, as Lyra stared sadly at the heavy drapes on the windows, the king stopped beside her to stroke her satiny hair. “Wishing for greener pastures, little lamb?” She bowed her head low.

Something was amiss with her tongue. She couldn’t form words—only those lyrical sounds that seemed to make everyone either happy or confuddled. She’d given up trying to speak. Better to make no sound at all than be misunderstood. But she and her father had a special bond. He could read her gestures and expressions. No answer to his question was needed; she knew he understood better than anyone how she longed to go outside and feel the sun on her face, or the wind in her hair. “Well,” the king answered her silence with a cheerful note in his voice. “It just so happens I’m bringing the pasture to you. I’ve sent for the three royal mages.

They’re on their way from Mount Astra’s peak to find a means for you to stand in the light.” So overcome with happiness, Lyra threw her arms around his leg and nuzzled the spiced scent of his royal robes. The immortal triplet brothers arrived, walking barefoot and soundless through the castle halls like tethered spirits. Their feet and hands glittered, resembling pale beige sands that slipped through an hourglass. Descended from ancient seraphs, they were so bright and beautiful, no mortal could look upon their faces for fear of going blind. Thus, they wore shimmery, cowled robes and birdlike masks. Lyra studied them in reverent awe as they measured her head and neck. Renowned for combining their magic in clever ways, the mages designed a hood made of nightsky, a fabric woven at the hands of enchanted seamstresses—one part midnight shadows and one part stardust. Being customized for the princess only, it followed her every movement without touching, like a school of fish darting to-andfro about her head. With her hood in place, Lyra scampered to a window her father had opened.

A floral-scented breeze wafted through the swirling fabric and she basked in its sweetness. She gestured toward a tree in the garden with a thick white trunk and twisty, twining branches adorned in feathery crimson leaves. It stood out like a flame in the center of the lush green backdrop, so bright she could see it even through the muted screen protecting her face. King Kiran knelt beside her. “That is a sylph elm. Before your birth, the leaves turned red. Your mother told me the legend, that the leaves only bleed when an elm hides the severed wings of a sylph. If an air elemental brings an injustice upon someone pure of heart, they’re cursed to be earthbound in their two shifting forms.” He paused, and Lyra sensed him trying to keep his voice strong. She wondered if he was doing what she was: envisioning her mother in the garden right now.

“But the sylph can be freed one day, once all the other leaves become richest gold—the color of your eyes cloaked in shade.” He tweaked Lyra’s nose. She giggled, knowing the chiming lilt would snuff out his sadness. His answering smile was her reward. “During that time—when only two red leaves remain among the gold—if the sylph performs a selfless deed out of the kindness of their heart, they can reclaim their wings and return to their true form.” As if prompted by his words, a red butterfly perched upon the windowsill. Forgetting the light’s danger, Lyra reached farther than she should’ve with her bare hand. A strand of sun grazed her moonlit skin. Her fingers sizzled and charred. She howled in agony, her own cries mocking her with joyful lyricism.

Mortified, the king caught her up and watched somberly as the mages treated and bandaged her blisters. He commissioned an entire suit of nightsky. However, the hood had taken all of the materials preserved in jars from centuries before. The mages could find no current source of moon-born shadows or stars because Nerezeth had been hoarding the nights for hundreds and hundreds of years. “Gather all of the shadows from the castle’s corners and hearths! Dig them up from the dungeon if you must!” the king shouted. “Your highness,” the trio of mages said simultaneously in bass, baritone, and tenor voices—for they always spoke in unison. “Only the deepest twilight shadows will do, as they hold the night’s turning point. And there is the lack of stars . without stardust to stabilize the shadows and weigh them down, they will simply escape.” For the next five years, Lyra had to be satisfied looking out from beneath her hood.

Even with her body wrapped in heavy fabrics from neck to toe, the sun penetrated and burned. She could only see the beauty of her sparkling kingdom in muted shades from the safety of her home. Thus, her favorite time became that singular moment she could remove the hood to look out a clear window, unprotected, after the day’s westward diurnal course. When that blink of dusk softened the light to a purple-blue haze, she was free for twenty full breaths before the sun brightened again to begin its eastern reversal across the sky for the cessation course. Lyra loved the light with such fervor this was enough, until the tragic moment she saw herself within a mirror. Avaricette, Griselda’s daughter of fifteen, stood in the sunny kitchen with her two sisters. Twelveyear-old Lyra had followed, lured by the aroma of fresh-baked treats. Covered neck-to-toe-to-finger in heavy cloth, she placed teacups at the table in hopes her cousins might join her for a tea party. “Lyra, perhaps we’re too old to play such childish games.” The most studious and brightest of Griselda’s daughters, Lustacia, adjusted the glossy, auburn curls draping her shoulders and blinked her deep-blue, thick-lashed eyes.

She had always been kinder than the others, being only a year older than Lyra, so her gentle scolding failed to discourage the princess. She continued to fold napkins and place them on saucers, her hood of shadows surging and swimming around her head. “How could she know of anything that’s normal?” Avaricette said before shoving a plum confectionery into her mouth. “She’s too solitary.” Avaricette narrowed her brown eyes and talked around the food squashed between her teeth. “She cannot even walk beside opened windows without wearing mittens and wrapping up like a mummy. Mother says she’s a stain on our royal bloodline.” “Yes, a stain.” Wrathalyne puckered her brow in disgust as she adjusted the satiny bows on her dress—the same rusty-brown as her freckles. “That explains why she can’t speak.

Stains don’t have tongues. She inveritably belongs with the spiders and centipedes in the dungeon, amongst her own sodiforous kind.” Wrathalyne considered herself very well-spoken for someone of fourteen, often making up words in an effort to prove it. Lyra stopped playing then. She backed into a corner and dropped a spoon with a clang beside her feet—ashamed, though not quite sure why. “Hush.” Matilde entered, her ruddy, wrinkled face glowering. She covered Lyra’s ears. Those work-roughened fingers were sweet and soothing compared to the sharp-toothed words her cousins had spoken. As if sensing Lyra’s affection for the cook, the nightsky fabric enveloped the elderly woman’s hands, allowing the contact, then closed again over Lyra’s head as she pulled free.

Matilde lifted a wooden spoon and shook it in Avaricette’s direction. “I ever hear you speak such ugliness about the princess again, I’ll lose the recipe for your favorite honeyed confits. Could be I’ll forget how to make desserts altogether.” Wrathalyne narrowed her licorice-dark eyes, prepared to unleash a retort from her “corpulent vocabulary,” but Avaricette took both her sisters’ hands and dragged them from the room. Having an abundance of sweets at the ready was of utmost importance to her. In their absence, insecurity swarmed in Lyra’s head: Was she a stain? As hideous as the hairy spiders rumored to live in the dungeon? She’d never looked upon her image . had only seen painted portraits of herself, her complexion altered to some normalcy by the artists. Blurred reflections in copper pans and bathwater weren’t enough. Her father kept the mirrors in the castle put away for fear the glass might catch a ray of light and magnify it upon her skin. Determined to know, Lyra climbed to one of the highest towers where her mother’s childhood items were stored.

There in the dimness, she found an antique mirror gilded with coppery accents. She perched on a pile of books, nose tingling from dust, and slipped off her hood, slippers, and bindings so only her chemise and bloomers remained. After wiping a powdery haze off the glass, she saw her ghostly reflection. Her eyes glowed amber in the darkness and illuminated fanlike lashes. They resembled the silvery metallic strands of tinsel people strung upon lampposts and gates to honor Eldoria’s victory over ice and snow during the sun solstice (a three-month-long celebration that took place in what once served as the winter season centuries earlier). Lyra stared. How startling her differences were: such a far cry from the portraits of her mother, her father, cousins, or aunt. Even the castle’s servants and citizens of Eldoria—varying shades of ivory, rose, gold, copper and ebony—didn’t match her anemic pallor. Other than her lips which were shaped like her mother’s, “bee-stung” her father often teased, she looked like no one and nothing she’d ever seen, except the sugary cookie dough Matilde tinged with one drop of blue cornflower syrup before baking. If only she could bake to golden perfection so she might stand in the sun, barefaced and sturdy, and at last embrace the light she loved.

If only she were a cookie. Stain, she repeated in her mind, though didn’t dare try to speak it aloud. Wishing she could somehow trap her grotesque image within the glass, Lyra stretched her hood over the mirror’s frame. She yanked at the seams, pulling so hard the mirror toppled off balance. The glass broke, renting the astral fabric in half. As shadows are prone to do when loosed, they escaped into the farthest corners of the room, leaving nothing but a pile of golden stardust on the floor. Lyra regretted the mishap immediately. Warm trickles wet her face and she peered at the broken mirror. Tears of inky violet trailed her cheeks. She had seen other people cry—streams clear as water.

Even her tears were stained. It was too much. Sobbing, she sprang barefoot into the dust and glass. The shards jabbed into her tender skin, and small footprints smeared with blood trailed her as she ran down winding stairs through the castle. “Lyra!” As she rounded a corner, the king caught her in his strong embrace. He held her, bleeding and weeping. The dark purple of her tears seemed more unsettling and terrible to him than the cuts on her feet, and she wondered if a bruise was seeping from her soul. He carried her to the kitchen, where even her favorite sugar cookies failed to console her.

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