The Cursed Sea – Lauren DeStefano

THE DEAD PRINCESS OF ARROD returned to her kingdom at sunset. The kingdom itself was none the wiser. Wil arrived unceremoniously, amid weary travelers and crates of fabric bolts and sewing notions. Moments after disembarking and regaining her bearings, she could already see that the kingdom was different. Darker somehow. The winter clouds were gray as smoke, and the people moved about the capital in collective silence. Even the small children did not cry or laugh as they were harried this way and that by adults taking hasty strides. The snow had yet to arrive here, but the late October air carried its ominous chill; winter came early in the North, and stayed late. Wil dug her gloved hands into the pockets of her coat and made her way through the Port Capital, mindful to avoid brushing against the shoulders of passersby. She did not want to add another face to her list of kills. Even the smell was different. Moldy and musty, like old coats in an attic where nothing had stirred for years. Around her, there were carriages offering rides to neighboring towns, but Wil left the cobbles behind and made her way into the woods. If she wanted to reach the castle without arousing suspicion, there was no way but to walk. After a week at sea, now that she was on land the anxiety began to seize her.

The king might make good on his promise to kill her if he saw her again. After the attack he’d waged on the Southern Isles, it was clear his ruthlessness had exceeded her expectations. But her mother was the one whom Wil was most afraid to face. She would have to tell her the truth of what had happened that night by the rapids. Would have to reveal the monstrous thing she had become. And Gerdie—the thought that she would see him in just a few minutes hardly seemed real. What state was he in? What had their father done to him? She’d had nothing but time to think about it on her journey, but when she tried to conjure up an image of her brother, all she got was a shadow. The winter sky was dark and starless by the time she arrived at the castle. Here, her breath came in shallow bursts and she stopped, working to compose herself. The last time she’d seen her home had been in September.

A cool night that smelled of leaves and dirt, all the trees beginning to shed their fiery leaves. She hadn’t looked back at the castle as she left it, because there had been no reason to think she wouldn’t return. Now weeks had passed, and snow coated all the fallen leaves. It seemed a lifetime ago since she’d set foot in her home. Since her father, clutching Owen’s gleaming corpse, had promised to kill her if she ever returned. She could see the guards standing outside the gate. There were thrice as many as before, all of them bearing electric lanterns that spread as far as the line of trees, where she at last paused to collect herself. After the attack her father had commanded upon the South, of course there would be more security. But it wasn’t the guards Wil found menacing, or their blades gleaming brightly at their hips. It was the castle she could just see over the top of the towering stone wall.

She forced herself to take a step, and then another, until the light of the lanterns revealed her and the guards raised their weapons in anticipation. Ferocity fast turned to amusement when they saw what they were dealing with. At her size and with her weapons hidden, she hardly seemed like any sort of threat, and just her luck, all these guards were strangers who wouldn’t recognize their dead princess even if they could believe she’d come back. “Wherever you’re headed, girl, you’ve taken a wrong turn.” One of the guards advanced on her, weapon still drawn. “This here is the Castle of the Royal House of Heidle.” Wil stiffened her posture. “I need to speak with the queen.” “The queen does not receive visitors,” another guard said. “She’ll see me,” Wil said.

“I’m her daughter.” “The queen doesn’t have any daughters,” the guard said, and the words lanced through her. She was prepared to be a dead girl, but to not exist at all? Wil’s eyes were drawn to the light shining through Owen’s bedroom window. It was such a familiar sight, and it flooded her with warmth and the notion that she was home. The feeling was darkened by the reminder that Owen could not be there, spending all hours of the night reading as he often had, his brow furrowed, his intelligent eyes burdened. He was gone. “Listen,” Wil said. “I—” “Who’s out there?” Baren’s voice came from the darkness behind the gate. “Guards! Who are you talking to?” Her brother approached the metal bars, and it was an effort for Wil not to gasp at what she saw. Baren, second in line for the throne after Owen, had never possessed softness in his features.

He had their mother’s blue eyes, but none of their kindness. Still, when Wil had seen him last, he had at least looked like the young man he was. Now, despite his royal dress, he looked no better off than the starving denizens in the slums of the Port Capital. His eyes were sunken and dark. His straight blond hair had grown scraggly and taken over the frame of his face. His cheeks were gaunt. His back was hunched as though he were carrying something heavy around his shoulders. He stared straight at Wil, and then through her. “This girl is claiming to be the princess, Your Majesty,” the guard said. “Impersonating the royal family is a high crime.

What would you have us do with her?” Wil’s breath hitched. Your Majesty? Baren raised the latch and staggered through the gate. He stared at Wil, and she narrowed her eyes as she returned his scrutiny. “This girl right here?” Baren said, sweeping his arm in gesture. “You mean to tell me that you see her? My little sister’s ghost—you see her too?” “She appears to be living, Your Majesty.” Your Majesty. She hadn’t misheard, then. Confusion and worry struggled for dominance, but she pushed all of it away. She had to get past Baren and speak to the queen before she would believe anything. Baren laughed.

“She comes here most nights. Sits atop the spires, or hides under my bed and whispers while I’m sleeping so I’ll have nightmares. She’s a ghost.” “Baren,” Wil said, and at the sound of her voice he went still and silent. “I need to speak to Mother. Where is she?” “You—” He unsheathed his sword and brought its point to her chin. “I told you not to come back here, and you tell Owen and Papa to stay away, too. I’m king now. Return to your grave.” “I am not a ghost,” Wil said firmly, not allowing herself to hear the rest of his words.

“And if I were, what good do you think your sword would be?” He sank the blade into her flesh and drew it back slowly, coaxing a thin, bleeding line under her chin. She shuddered with pain but didn’t move. The young king held the blade before his face for inspection, and his eyes grew wide with hysteria as blood dripped from its edge. His breaths came loud and fast. “No,” he said. “You’re not my sister. My sister is dead. She drowned.” “That isn’t true. Baren, listen to me—” “You’re a trick!” He brandished his sword anew, angling it at her chest.

“You’re a lookalike sent by my enemies to destroy me.” In a fluid motion she unsheathed the dagger at her thigh. The sleep serum would be more merciful than the guns at either hip; she didn’t trust herself to shoot at him and not hit anything vital. She had already killed one brother. He lunged at her, and she dodged the blow for her heart, holding out her dagger and letting his own momentum work to her advantage as the arched blade tore through his skin. He staggered back, startled. The guards came forward with a clatter of guns, but Baren held up his hand to stay them. He regarded Wil, eyes wide. “You’re the price I have to pay,” he said, coming to a realization of some sort. “You were brought back to punish me.

” His voice had grown faint, and he fell to his knees. “Poison!” one of the guards cried out, and again they closed in on her. She would not be able to take on all of them, Wil knew, but if one of them so much as touched her, he would be dead, and she did not want to think what new horror that would evoke. “Mother!” she screamed. The barrel of a gun was pressed into her chin, shoving her face upward. “Mother!” Wil found Baren’s eyes. Eyes that had never shown her a drop of kindness even when they had been children. He was on his knees, struggling to stay awake, glaring at her. Then, from the dark mouth of the castle doors, she saw a white gown billowing on the cold breeze. Wil could just make out the long blond hair.

“Mother!” At the sound of Wil’s voice, the figure began running for them. “Stand down,” the queen cried, gasping. “Stand down—she’s—that’s—” “You are not in charge of my men,” Baren said. He looked like a scared little boy. The queen saw this and held his shoulder to keep him from stumbling to his feet. Somewhere beyond the frenzy, Wil marveled that he was still conscious. Perhaps Zay had diluted the serum to compensate for what she’d used to put Loom to sleep. “I’m the king,” he said. “Yes,” the queen said. She was clutching the button of her capelet, twisting it one way and the next in compulsive sets.

Three twists left, three twists right, five taps to its face with her index finger. “But you have not slept for days. You don’t want to do something you’ll regret.” She smoothed back his hair, and his resolve crumbled. The queen turned to Wil, who was forced now to understand the truth. Her father was no longer the king. He was gone. There was no time yet for Wil to process her shock and all the things this would mean. “Stand down,” Baren mumbled, as though he were talking to himself, and the guards skeptically lowered the weapons pointed at Wil. Now it was the queen’s turn to look as though she had seen a ghost.

But she did not ask Wil if she was dead. She did not ask who had sent her, or who she really was. For after all those years of wanting, she could never fail to recognize the child she’d nearly died to bring into the world. She would know her daughter anywhere. “Wilhelmina.” Wil felt herself trembling. She would not cry. She would not. “It’s me,” she said. Two THE CASTLE WAS HOME, AND at the same time it wasn’t.

Winter’s chill had snaked its way in through the stone walls. A fire was succumbing to a slow death in the hearth of the foyer. Ordinarily there would be servants in the winter to stoke it through the night. But the feeble glow of the lone fire left the castle dim and bleak. And it was quiet. The queen said nothing as she pulled the doors closed behind them, leaving Baren and his guards at the gates. Wil barely felt the sting of the alcohol used to clean her wound. Her mind was numb. It was late and the castle was sleeping, quiet but for the scuff of Baren’s slippers against the stone as he paced outside the washroom. Wil could hear every step through the closed door.

Wil sat on the edge of the tub, her tunic unbuttoned and bloody, while her mother knelt before her, saying nothing. “Mother, where is Gerdie?” If he were whole, if he were here, he would have come to her by now. He would have heard her screaming. “In the basement, I imagine.” The queen’s tone was placid. “You know what an insomniac he is.” She said this so simply, as though things were the same as they’d always been. Wil searched her mother’s eyes for any indication that this was a lie meant to calm her. All she saw was a woman eclipsed by the same dark pall that had been cast over this entire kingdom. But Wil knew that her mother must be right.

If Gerdie had been anywhere but his basement laboratory, he would have heard her scream. That place harbored a solitude of his own design. His work entranced him so much that he often didn’t know she had descended the stairs until she was standing beside him. Maybe this small thing hadn’t changed. One piece of her world was still intact. The queen dabbed a cloth under Wil’s chin, and Wil flinched. “You can’t touch me,” she said, remembering herself. “Wilhelmina.” The queen’s voice was gentle. “Look at me, my love.

” Wil did as she was told. All the Heidle children did as their mother commanded. It was their father they defied. “Are you ready now to tell me what happened?” “Yes,” Wil answered, hoping she would come to believe it if she kept speaking. “And if you never want to see me again once you know, I’ll understand. But all I ask is that you help me— someone will die if I don’t have your help.” The queen rose to her feet. Her skin had lost its tan, and it was clear that the sunlight had not touched her in a long time. But she held a strong posture, and Wil could see that time had not weakened her. That losing two children and a husband she loved had steeled her in a way that made her nomadic soul burn bright.

“We can’t talk here,” she said very quietly. Wil understood. Baren was lurking the halls outside. “Go to your chamber,” the queen said. “I’ll meet you there.” The queen opened the door, and Baren flinched. “Mother, we can’t trust this imposter,” he said. “This ghost.” “Shh.” She wrapped an arm around his shoulders and led him down the hall.

“We’ll find Nanny and have her mix something for you so you’ll sleep.” Nanny. Another thing that had changed in Wil’s absence. When she and her brothers were small, they’d had a nanny, with big, kind eyes and a head filled with stories. Volumes and volumes of them, from every kingdom, in every language. But she’d retired years ago, when Wil and Gerdie, the last in the line, stopped needing someone to look after them. Last Wil heard, the king had put her up in a cottage in Southern Arrod. As their voices moved farther away, Wil crept into the hallway, hoping not to encounter any servants. She could not bear to have any more pairs of eyes looking at her the way Baren’s had. But the servants seemed to have been replaced by guards.

The outside of the castle was under constant vigil, but the inside was empty, eerily quiet. She entered her chamber and stood just inside the doorway, afraid to turn on the light. Had the room always smelled this way? Of crisp, clean linen and cool air seeping through cracks in the ancient window. Of never-used perfumes whose scents faintly escaped their bottles along the shelves; her father had often returned from his travels with those bottles—the harsh, flowery scents didn’t suit her, but they were proof that he had thought of her, however briefly, and so she had displayed them where the sunlight would find them and fill her room with colors. It was night now, and the bottles were dark and lifeless. The castle was dark. The kingdom was dark. Wil sat on the edge of her bed. Then the room was flooded with light, and the queen came in and closed the door behind her. The queen leaned against the door, her hands pinning the knob behind her.

She was looking at the ceiling when she spoke. “Owen?” Wil had learned to shutter out the pain before even the notion of it could reach her. It was as though her brother had granted her permission not to wallow on his account. “He’s dead.” “I knew it wasn’t the rapids,” the queen said. “All along—the way your father carried about. So many times, he stared at closed doors and I thought he was waiting for someone to return.” Wil grasped the lace of her comforter, her palms sweating despite the castle’s relentless chill. “Don’t blame Papa,” she said. “It was me.

All me.” Her mother did not move to sit beside her, as she had so many nights before Wil went to sleep. It occurred to Wil now that her mother had cleaned her wounds but not moved to embrace her. Called her “my love” but hadn’t kissed her cheeks. “Before that night,” Wil went on, “something began happening to me. Something I hid because I thought I could make it go away. Owen and Gerdie knew, and they tried to help me. But I shouldn’t have hidden it. Maybe then he would be alive, but I—” Wil could not summon the words. She unbuttoned her tunic, until she had uncovered the stark white mark between her breasts.

For a moment Wil saw what Zay had described. The queen’s face was fierce and commanding, and Wil saw herself in it. The queen looked at her daughter’s mark, which she had seen countless times before. “This is the mark of a curse,” Wil said. The queen drew a loud breath. “I know.” “You know?” Wil rasped. “Why did you tell me it was a birthmark?” “You seemed fit to outlive us all.” The queen sat beside Wil on the bed, still maintaining her distance, making Wil feel like a damaged bird that had been pushed from its nest. This distance seemed to have nothing to do with her curse, Wil felt.

“I began to think that whatever the curse was, you had defied it, as you had defied death.” “Why?” Wil said. “Why was I cursed?” The queen shook her head. “I don’t know. But in the weeks before we lost you and Owen, I knew something had changed.” Wil looked straight ahead, at her painted white desk. There was an ornithology book, still open, at its center beside an askew chair, waiting for her to sit in the amber glow of the blown-glass lamp and return to reading about spawnlings. This tiny piece of the world that had once belonged to her now felt more like a memorial to a dead girl. Without a word she stood and walked to the window. It stuck, as it always did, and she forced it open with the heel of her hand.

The queen turned to watch as Wil reached along the castle’s outer wall. It didn’t take her long to find a tendril of ivy. Heart beating fast from the anticipation, she plucked a leaf and presented it to her mother. The change was slower this time; there was a dull throb of pain, like her curse had to wrestle its way out of her. But in one final bloom, the ivy hardened to emerald. Sweat beaded Wil’s brow from the strain, and this concerned her. Her curse had never been a conscious effort before. The queen stared at it. She could see the lines of her daughter’s palm through the stone. She was watching still as Wil’s hand shook and the shiver shot up her arm and spread throughout.

She saw the fierce change in her daughter’s eyes, the way they brightened and glazed at the same time. “It was an accident.” It was as though someone else were speaking the words. “I didn’t want Owen to come after me. He was always trying to protect me when he should have just let me go.” The queen understood now what the king must have done to hide this truth from her. She did not ask, now, for the details of her son’s final moments. Later, she would have to. She would have to know what had happened to her son, so that his death could be a part of her the way that his life was a part of her. But for now, she fixed her attention on her living child.

Her daughter. She put her arms around her. Wil shook with a sob. Her face was hot with tears. She was alive—despite everything, alive. Death had never been a match for this one. The emerald fell to the floor and Wil tried to back away. “You can’t touch me. I’ll kill you, too.” The queen tightened her grasp.

“No one tells me I can’t hold my daughter,” she said. “You can’t.” Wil’s voice was pleading. But the queen didn’t let go, and it frightened Wil that her mother loved her so much that she would risk death just to hold her. It reminded her of Owen that night by the rapids. He’d stared at her with defiance, so sure of his decision. Wil twisted from her mother’s grasp. Her mother loved her too much to let go, and Wil loved her mother too much to stay in her arms. “Please,” she whispered. “I couldn’t stand it if I hurt you.

” The queen’s sad expression said that Wil had already hurt her by disappearing, to be taken for dead. “I’m sorry.” Wil wanted to say more, but tears threatened and she knew that she wouldn’t be able to hold them in if she tried to list all the things she was sorry for. There was a strange heaviness in her blood, as though her curse was trying to surge forward. And then it receded. Later, she would experiment with the ivy. Perhaps it was just exhaustion from the travel and the confrontation with Baren.

.

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