I am ugliness in body and bone, breath and heartbeat. I am muddy rocks and jagged scars snaking across salt-sown fields. I am insect larvae wriggling inside the great dead beasts into which they were born. Too, I am the hanks of dead flesh rotting. I am the ungrateful child’s sneer, the plague sore bursting, the swing of shadow beneath the gallows rope. Ugliness is my hands, my feet, my fingernails. Ugliness is my gaze, boring into you like a worm into rotting fruit.
Listen to me, my prince. Tomorrow, when dawn breaks and you stand in the chapel accepting your late father’s crown, your fate will be set. Do nothing and you will be dead by sundown. Your kingdom will be laid waste, its remnants preserved only in the bellies of carrion birds.
There is another option. Marry me.
Rise from your bed and take my hand. We will be as one, husband and wife.
O, my prince, do not answer hastily. It is no ludicrous suggestion for you to love ugliness, marry ugliness. Already, you have wed yourself to hate. She lies beside you even now, your linen sheets tangled around her naked curves, the heat of her flesh close and tempting.
Repudiate her. Rise from your bed and take my hand. We will be as one, husband and wife. It is your only chance for survival. It is your kingdom’s only chance for survival. Marry me and you will keep your life and your crown—if you have the courage.
• • • •
The day you met your princess, I was the thicket, watching as you rode with your hunters through the snow-swept clearing. Your horses’ manes were bright with royal colors. Hounds prowled through your ranks, ears pricked for the rustling of foxes.
One of your knights sounded his horn and the animals were off, hooves and paws crunching through the frosty undergrowth. One dog tore his side on my thorny branches. He whimpered, tail tucked between his legs, blood trickling into the snow.
You kicked your heels into your stallion’s sides to urge him forward. He bolted a few steps before halting. He tossed his head wildly, mad eyes darting toward a nearby stand of oaks. You kicked your heels again. He didn’t budge. You tugged the reins. He tossed his head as he had before, the muscles in his great neck straining.
This time you followed his gaze with your own, catching a glimpse of blue between the bare-branched oaks. Tugging your steed’s reins in that direction, you kicked your heels once more. This time, the horse obeyed.
Your princess sat sidesaddle on a white mare, half-obscured by trees. An unhooded hawk perched on her shoulder, beaming its cruel-eyed gaze at you. Yellow and white ribbons adorned her wheat-colored hair. Her kirtle was the soft blue of mid-afternoon. A distant preoccupation glazed her eyes, giving her a fey appearance.
“Who are you?” you asked, awed.
Though your approach had not been quiet, she startled at your words. One alabaster hand flew across her mouth. As though called back from a great distance, her gaze settled on your face.
“My name is Lady Alna. I’m from the north.” She paused. “I am faint from thirst. Perhaps . . .”
You drew a flask of wine from your pack and offered it to her, your eyes brightening as her fingers trailed across the back of your gloved hand. She drank in small, fluttering sips. You gazed at her, entranced by her high forehead and round cheeks.
Flirting her eyes downward, Alna returned the flask. “Might I ask my benefactor’s name?”
You laughed with the genuine pleasure of not being recognized. “I am called Raius. I am the prince of this realm.”
You failed to notice the brief twitch of her lips that would have revealed to a more perceptive man that she had known your identity all along. She ducked her head. “Pardon my ignorance. I’ve been traveling a long time. I come from a tiny city called Elithi, in the frozen north. Its towers once rose in the valley between the two highest mountains in the world, but vainglorious warlords have burned them down. My father sent me away when his spies learned of the approaching armies. He and my brothers remained to stage a last stand. I have wandered alone since then, riding further than I can reckon.”
Her hawk screeched, wings stretched wide. She laughed brightly and held out her bare wrist. It jumped down, talons leaving no mark on her skin.
“Not quite alone,” she amended. “This is Karn—my sole companion.”
I saw love catch light in your gaze like an ember igniting firewood. I wish I could say that it surprised me that you could be so easily inflamed by beauty. Alas, I know you are only human.
I was everywhere around you, but you did not see me. You looked past the thorny briars ringing the copse, the poisonous mushrooms sprouting between the roots of the trees, the steam rising from the fox guts spilled by your hounds. All you saw was the smooth, pale face of Lady Alna. This is the fate of fools in love. They are blind to half the world.
• • • •
I’ve seen much since the world began. When the sky was made, there were thick brown clouds blotting the cleansing light of the sky. I was those clouds. When the earth was made, there were rocks and mud that choked out the green of growing things. I was those rocks, and I was that mud. I was bony-eyed fish swimming through ocean depths. I was centipedes wriggling across the forest floor. I was mildew spreading tendrils across damp cave walls, filling caverns with the stench of decay.
Wherever death is, there is ugliness. And so I have been everywhere.
I recall the first time I learned that I was one thing—one despised thing—and that there was another thing outside me, one that was loved.
At that time, I was a swamp surrounding a band of travelers who had entered my depths at nightfall. They carried with them a creature in a cage, a wretched animal with torn ears and tattered fur. They had not fed it for days, and it was starving. That night, they let it out on a rope. They petted and praised it and gorged it on raw meats.
They loved me that night. They petted and fed me, too. They wore the cured skins of their conquered foes, and pierced their hands with bone needles. They stomped and shouted and distorted their faces into hideous masks.
When the creature was full and resting, watching them through satisfied half-lidded eyes, they slaughtered it. I was its entrails which they smeared across their arms and faces. I was their grunts and groans and howls; the stench of their rancid sweat; the angry slash of fire and shadow cast by their torches across their gaping mouths.
I came to love them. Ours was a strange, new synthesis. Other creatures had made themselves ugly to ward off rivals or predators, but nothing had ever before approached me with open arms and thinking minds, seeking to understand and become me. I felt myself unbound and remade as they wove me into themselves.
In the morning, they buried the dead creature. Their leader stood over its grave and intoned, “Hideous spirits that danced with us and dwelled with us, hear me. We have feasted and flattered you, and now I banish you.”
With that, they left the swamp.
In the meadow beyond, they bathed themselves in the sparkling waters of the river that threaded through the grass. They rubbed their newly clean bodies with oil extracted from crushed flowers, and painted their faces with delicate shades of white and red. They sang instead of speaking, danced instead of walking. At dusk, they dined on fresh goats’ milk, apples, blackberries, and honey.
I followed them as oozing mud, until there was no more mud. I circled above their heads, calling with the grating voices of birds that feast on dead things. They pretended not to hear my lonely cries. They turned away from me, seeking instead that vixen beauty whose trail I am always following, but whom I have never met.
What did she give them? Nothing but the ephemeral favor of her smile. In the end, when she left them, they returned to me. It was I, their jilted lover, who was left to tenderly trail the drool across their wizened jaws, and to twist their limbs in rigor mortis. I could have loved them all along, but they wouldn’t take me until beauty fled from the rasp of their dying breaths. That day, I learned hurt. I have never forgotten it.
• • • •
You, too, know hurt.
When you were born, I was born with you. Together, we felt the midwife’s rough hands pull you from your mother. However, only I had enough experience of the world to recognize the fear and disgust on her face as she beheld your crippled foot.
She was quick to blink away her disdain. She wrapped us in a tight blanket and laid us on the queen’s belly. “Keep them warm and comfortable,” she instructed one of the ladies in waiting. “There are herbs I must fetch from my house. I will return within the hour.” She was careful not to let her voice betray something had gone wrong. She had guessed that your father, the king, would blame her for your deformity.
By dusk the next day, your father’s soldiers had discovered her attempting to flee the kingdom with a caravan of pilgrims headed through the mountains. Your father had her strung up on the castle gate. During your first few weeks, I hung with her, inhabiting her gnarled bones as the crows pecked them clean.
At the same time, I lay with you in your cradle as we nursed on both the queen’s milk and her strained expression of sadness and distaste. She and her ladies did their best to conceal their revulsion beneath polished smiles, but even as an infant, you were not deceived. You were raised on the same provisions I’d become accustomed to over the millennia: the darting glances, cut quickly away; the whispers beneath raised hands; the unabashed stares of children too young to have learned that civil, transparent lies are considered more polite than honest acknowledgement.
Day after day, you tottered after the other children, desperate to join their games. I longed to tell you that you were not alone. I was always with you, my invisible fingers in your hair, my lips pressed against your crippled foot as a mother’s lips kiss away her child’s injury. Alas, you could not hear my voice, or feel my shadow.
I know your most painful secrets. Oh, yes. The ones you’ve consigned to memory’s dusty, forsaken chambers. Their doors unlock for me. I have trespassed within them.
Don’t doubt me, my prince. I could recount tales of your older brother that even you have forgotten you remember. Once, he was the center around which your thoughts revolved. Now you’ve learned to set him aside as a woman does with a spoiled bit of embroidery, only taking up his memory when regret inclines you to open old wounds. Your courtiers think your tense, stoic silences stem from grief, but we know the truth. Don’t we?
Fear not. Your secrets are safe with me. I hated Edrian as much as you did. I loathed the beauty he wore with the entitlement of a crown prince, his shining blond hair and long flawless legs. The imperious expression he wore as he goaded the other children into racing laps through the castle’s circular corridors. His grin as he watched you lurch after them, trailing behind them all, even the short, fat daughters of the duke.
Sometimes, Edrian would run beside you, breathing easy as you wheezed with the effort of dragging your useless foot. He reached out to steady you, features arrayed in a mimicry of compassion. “We’ll run together,” he said. He waited for you to rest your weight on his shoulders, and then he pulled away and rushed ahead, leaving you to stumble and fall as his laughter echoed through the halls, bright as birds’ calls.
Again and again, he did this. Always, you thought to yourself, this time, this time, he will help me, and offered your trust once more.
As painful as those memories are for you, others of your memories are for me. The news of your brother’s death arriving with the knights who’d ridden with him on that doomed hunt—I did not mourn his death, but I mourned what I knew it would mean for you. The sudden shower of attention bestowed on a previously unimportant son; the brocades and perfumes; the haberdashers and seamstresses and tailors.
Even I could not have predicted the southern magician, wrapped in so many layers of grey gauze that his body was blurred and indistinct, whose tales of healing miracles won him entrance into your bedchamber. He set candles smoldering in the corners of your room and knelt over them, chanting for hours, before he approached your bed. His hands emerged from his shroud, delicate and dark as carved ebony. I saw the magic on him like a shadow, and I despaired.
While you screamed with the pain of his needles and bone-breaking vises, the part of my spirit that lived within you stretched and thinned. I felt myself sifted from your flesh, like sand through a sieve.
The magician pulled aside the netting that had veiled his face. I stared into his bald, white eyes. He touched his fingers to his forehead in salute and spoke a few grave syllables to banish me. I reeled away, dizzy and spinning.
As a normal-bodied boy, you grew distant. Sometimes I watched you, inhabiting the decaying corpses of mice left on the flagstones by well-fed castle cats, or pockmarks scarring the chef’s daughter. I watched as you lost your thoughtful gravity. The ugly hesitate over their actions, knowing that they survive on the sufferance of the beautiful. You were comfortable, and careless, and free.
Already, you had forgotten me.
• • • •
Though you don’t see it, your new love betrays you as completely as your brother did. I know, for I am the foul taste that coats her tongue when she remembers your kisses, her lingering expression of disgust when she turns from your caress. You’ve blinded yourself to her ugliness, just as the tribe in the swamp turned deaf ears to my aching calls.
At night, as you prepare for your rest, the Lady Alna lingers outside your bedchamber to speak with your bodyguard. Through the door, you hear the murmur of her voice. You are not suspicious; it reminds you of the pleasant, reassuring hum of her sleeping breath. But I am the scar across your bodyguard’s bicep where he took a blow meant for you, and I hear what she says.
She lays her hand across your bodyguard’s forearm. “I’ve been here a year. We’ve hardly spoken. I don’t even know your name.”
Then, with a laugh: “You’re so strong. Flex again. My husband must be afraid to travel without you.”
“Yes, I’ve seen him in such moods! He does not seem to want my company either. Sometimes, he forgets I am there, and I must sit quietly and wait for his dismissal. It’s kind of you to withdraw when he needs his privacy.”
And leaning in, voice and lashes lowered: “The prince has confided in me that he’s found the preparations for the coronation wearying. His father’s death is still new and raw. He is grieving. After the ceremony, I will take him aside for a walk through the apple orchard to look at the new blossoms. Perhaps you would be so kind as to leave us alone . . .?”
As she withdraws her hand, her fingertips brush his wrist. His muscles tense, his heart rushes, his pupils dilate. She tilts her head to the side, exposing her neck. Her wheat-colored curls are crushed against her shoulder. On the other side of the door, you wait, innocent.
Later, an abstracted look on her face, she tells you that she misses the towers of her father’s city. “Go to the wizard’s tower,” you tell her. She smiles with the pleasure of knowing you think it’s your idea, so that you will not become suspicious when she spends her afternoons there, day after day.
I am the skulls and bones and bottled screams your wizard keeps in his chamber, the premature age that gnarls his spine. I watch as the Lady Alna drops her pretense in his presence. Her shy stance becomes imperious.
She releases her hawk. He circles the room, spreading his wings with the confidence of a creature used to owning all he surveys.
Alna lays her hand on the wizard’s twisted knuckles. It is her way of establishing control over men. The touch has only a dusting of magic in it, not enough to affect a man of magic. She does it anyway, for body to body has a magic of its own. Above, the hawk screams and extends his talons. He does not like it when she touches other men.
She laughs at the bird. He lands on me—one of the wizard’s skulls. His talons are sharp, even against bone.
She pulls a list from her robe. “I have the Winter’s Wit and Spikeleaf,” she says. “I need Stitch Brew.”
I extend into the wizard’s crooked, toothless leer. “Stitch Brew is hard to obtain,” he says.
Still, he promises to get it.
• • • •
I was there the day the City of Towers burned.
The fairies of the north drove to Elithi in their icy chariots. I caught only glimpses of them as they passed, for the fairies are so beautiful that I have never seen their faces.
When they reached the city, the fairies gathered at the base of the towers. Their chancellor, who is so beautiful that I cannot see for twenty yards around him, read a statement from the fairies to the people of Elithi.
Elithi was beautiful—its spires built of finest marble, its willowy nobles dressed in whispering silks. Yet I always resided within its walls, for Elithi’s beauty was purchased with ugly deeds. Some days, I watched the city from the wailing faces of maidens stolen from their homes to be sacrificed for magic spells. Others, I inhabited the severed hands and tongues cut from Elithians who’d dared speak against the city’s rulers.
On the day when the fairies came to Elithi, I dwelled in the corpses of children whose organs had been harvested to make sweetmeats for the western barbarians. In the body of a disemboweled girl-child, her last breaths rattling with blood, I crawled to the tower window. The fairy chancellor’s mellifluous voice echoed through the valley.
“Elithi is a blight on the ice,” he said. “Its evil is a spreading blackness. For too long, we have stood aside. Our sorceresses came to us and told us of your sins. We turned them away, for the thought of destroying an entire people was too much to bear.
“Those of us who made that decision are shamed. It was only the most compassionate among us who looked not at the pain it would cause us to destroy you, but at the pain we could prevent. For years, they have traveled, filling bottles with the tears and screams and sorrows your magic has caused. Many among them have gone mad from witnessing such grief. This was their sacrifice, made in order to force us to see the agony caused by our inaction.
“To excise you from the world will hurt us. Yet it is the course of least evil. Some of us remember a world where light and dark were unalterably distinct. Now they are mixed. We stand at the estuary where they flow into each other. To stop evil, we commit evil.”
As the echoes of the chancellor’s voice faded, the fairies turned toward the city. In unison, they lifted their hands to the heavens. From their icy palms radiated a fiery nimbus which hung in great sheets across the air like the northern lights. Where it touched the tower walls, they burst into flame.
The Elithian nobles made a habit of living in the highest rooms, as removed as possible from the pain and despair wrought on their behalf in the city’s cellars. That day, their callousness doomed them. They burned and died, their screams thrown down like falling stones.
High in the tallest tower, below only the king himself, the heir to the throne of Elithi dwelled in rooms draped in brocaded silks. His name was Honorable Karn and he lived with his young wife, the witch Alna.
They fled to the windows. Below, they heard the screams of dying peasants.
Alna stepped backward. Her wheat-colored hair was bound in braids atop her head. She pulled a dagger from the stone altar beneath the window and sawed through one of the braids. Her tongue twisted into the strange, spidery syllables of the mystic language. She had always been a wary, suspicious creature, and so she kept an arsenal of spells at her fingertips, all but complete. The beginning of this one had been cast ten years ago on a moonless midnight, over the still-beating heart cut from a priest.
Her feet rose from the ground. Her gold brocade gown trailed below her, billowing in the snap of the wind.
Her bear of a husband grabbed her skirts. She struggled. “What about me?” he growled. (I was his growl. I was his livid eyes.)
She batted him away. “Let me go, you fool.”
“I won’t let you desert me,” said Karn. “I’ll keep you here until we both burn.”
Alna grimaced. I was twinned. “What do you want?”
“Make me fly.”
“I can’t. I only cut out one priest’s heart.”
“Find another way then, or we’ll die together!”
Alna pursed her lips. Her pale brows drew together as she considered. “Very well,” she said, “but you may not like it.” She bound together another spell she’d been saving, one woven from the anguish of a bride watching her groom murdered before their consummation. Alna smiled as she began the final incantation. Karn looked up in surprise and pain as his fingers stretched out into feathers.
• • • •
My prince, you must marry me. If you do not, she will kill you tomorrow. After the coronation, you will retreat with a small entourage to the castle chapel in order to receive private blessing from your priest. Alna will catch the holy man’s eye. He will avert his gaze. Still, his hands will shake as he anoints your face with oil—for she has corrupted him with her whispers and wiles. He no longer has the power to call on God’s protection.
The oil will dry sweet and cool on your forehead. Your wife will clasp your hand. She will lean against you, her silk gown caressing your skin. The carved gold leaves on her coronet will shine against her elaborate coiffure.
“Come walk with me,” she will whisper. “I want to be alone with you.”
Perhaps a tatter of memory will rustle in your mind, but you will cast aside this night’s revelations as the unpleasant echoes of a nightmare.
You will take her hand. The two of you will leave the chapel. The perfume of apple blossoms will waft toward you. Your steward will release a cloud of doves that flap across your path before disappearing into the bright summer sky.
As you and Alna walk down the winding garden path, breeze will stir the apple trees, strewing petals at your feet. Alna will step off the path, her slippered feet pale as the blossoms. She will tug your hand and pull you into the trees. Your bodyguard will follow a few steps, a nettlesome suspicion turning in his stomach, until Lady Alna turns to soothe him with her smile.
You will walk together to the orchard’s heart. The sun will warm to the gold of afternoon, gilding the trunks. Veiled in the canopy’s deep shadows, you will feel calm and tired. You will lie at the foot of a massive tree, resting your head on a root the thickness of your arm. Your thoughts will drift back to those days when you were an unwanted extra son, set loose to range the castle grounds alone.
Your first warning will be Karn’s shadow, inscribing aerial circles with you at their center. The primordial, frightened part of your mind will recognize what it is to be prey before your reasoned self understands. You will convulse with tension, heart thumping as you struggle to your feet.
It will be too late.
Karn will descend from the sky, golden beak glinting as he dives to peck out your eyes. Behind you, Alna will begin her spell.
When your blood mixes with the packets of herbs Alna carries at her belt, a violent shuddering will overtake you. You will bleed through the skin as your soul is forced from your body. Your limbs will seize. You will choke on your tongue.
Your thoughts will rush with her betrayal. What more could she want? you will wonder. You will have made her queen, the most powerful woman for kingdoms around.
It is not your kingdom she desires. She is not interested in paltry command over meadows and sheep. She craves the power of your death: the agony of a good-hearted king betrayed by his queen on the day of his coronation. In Alna’s skilled hands, it will yield more power than any sorceress has possessed since the liminal years.
Karn will circle your corpse, beak bloody and glistening with the remnants of your eyes. He will caw with delight, wings spread to the wind. Alna will smile again, and hold out her wrist. He will alight there, ready to gain the first rewards of her power.
Alna will have become so powerful that she can ignite a spell with a simple gesture. She will fan her fingers, light will flare, and then Karn will be standing before her, admiring his strong hairy hands.
“Welcome back, my love,” Alna will say, laughter in her voice. For she will have left him with the beady eyes and cruel beak of a hawk, commanded by a hawk’s stupidly focused brain.
“I do what I please,” she will tell him. “I’ve had enough of your jealousy.”
She will fix a leather hood over his head, and a silver chain around his ankle, and she will lead him north to the frozen lands. She will kill or enslave every fairy who breathes, and then she will set them to rebuilding the elegant spires of Elithi. This time, she will be the one to sit on the throne in the highest tower. Karn will stand beside her, beak bared, a curved sword of ice grasped in his huge hairy hands, acting as both Alna’s bodyguard and a warning to those who would oppose her.
Here, in the warm lands, your enemies will be emboldened. Your nation, deprived of leaders, will languish in chaos. Neighboring kingdoms will squabble over your fields. Your nobles will die on the invader’s blades, your serfs marched north to be sold in Alna’s Elithi.
I will dwell in more places than ever before, rolling in hideous waves across the world. Yet the heart of me will wait with you as you die, seeking to soothe your pain. Do not do that to me, my prince. Do not force me to die with you.
• • • •
Accept my hand and none of this shall come to pass.
Instead, the magic will come from your professed love. Its power will allow me to take human form.
“Close your eyes,” I’ll say, newly incarnated. When you have, I will ease you from your bed and settle you elsewhere while I do what I must.
I will approach your queen as she sleeps in your bed, and lay my hand gently on her cheek. She will wake and behold the full, terrible strength of my ugliness. Her heart shall seize and fail. She will die with a curse on her lips.
Down in the rookery, Karn will let out a wailing cry. His talons will rip through his bonds. He will fly free, seeking to avenge his mate. As he wings to your bedroom window, I shall turn to face him. He, too, shall perish and fall.
This is the downfall of evil. They have not the courage to see the full face of ugliness, for they know it to be the appearance of their secret selves.
When they are gone, I will allow you to open your eyes. Despite how well we have known each other, you will wince, but you will not be able to draw your gaze away from me. I am riveting.
Arm in arm, we will march to the chapel. When we throw open the door, your corrupt priest will fall under the weight of his guilt. I will take his place at the altar, for ugliness has witnessed many marriages.
After we have pronounced our vows, I will take you into my arms, and we will be one again. Do not mistake me for male or female. Ugliness has no sex. Yet for you, I will be all that is feminine, that which absorbs but is yielding. I will be for you a swamp, rising around you in muddy tides that caress and engulf.
Ugliness does not deserve your rebuff. I am neither evil nor virtuous. I simply am. Since the beginning, I have been with you, yearning.
Enthroned as your queen, I will transform your lands into my flesh so that you may better rule them. Your verdant forests will lose their leaves, skeletal branches scratching against hazy skies. Dirt will choke your rivers. Your village’s fair youths will stoop, their lovely maidens be afflicted with warts and lazy eyes.
The armies that lurk even now on your borders will turn back. I shall ride on their fear and transform their lands, too, into my domain. Your rule shall extend, out through all the warring kingdoms into the great empire beyond, and then further, across the vast expanse of the ocean into realms your people have never even imagined.
Someday, you will die. I will take your body into myself and sustain myself on your flesh. Your beauty will become part of me. It will ripple across our realm. What I had made hideous will be restored, but changed: even the loveliest tree with the most perfect leaves will know what it was to have been me.
I shall set your skeleton on the throne. Your skull shall rule wisely, ugly-yet-not beneath the shining gold of your crown. Fused beneath our rule, the world will know no more ugliness, no more beauty—only unity. Hate and love will spin on their axes. Flowers and weeds will be tended together; fair and blighted women sought with equal fervor. Your descendants will flourish under our wise, eternal reign.
This is the vision I offer, should you take the brave and noble risk of holding out your hand to me.
Or, refuse my offer if you must, and return to your fitful sleep beside your traitorous wife. Put aside my warnings as ghastly dreams and follow the scent of apple blossoms to your death.
Either way, I will gain your kingdom, riding in on the bloody blades of conquerors, or mounting the gilded dais on your arm. The only choice is whether I will be a slave, forced to do the will of destruction, or a wife, striving to serve my liege.
Well, my prince? Are you brave? Will you stand tall and marry me?
Or will you quiver in your bed, ridden by your cowardice until the breaking of a dim and restless dawn?