Cruel Beauty (Excerpt)

Check out Cruel Beauty, the debut novel from author Rosamund Hodge. Available January 28th from Balzer & Bray, this YA fantasy adds a new twist to an old fairy tale!

 

Betrothed to the evil ruler of her kingdom, Nyx has always known her fate was to marry him, kill him, and free her people from his tyranny.

But on her seventeenth birthday, when she moves into his castle high on the kingdom’s mountaintop, nothing is as she expected—particularly her charming and beguiling new husband.

Nyx knows she must save her homeland at all costs, yet she can’t resist the pull of her sworn enemy—who’s gotten in her way by stealing her heart.

 

 

 

ONE

 

I was raised to marry a monster.

The day before the wedding, I could barely breathe. Fear and fury curdled in my stomach. All afternoon I skulked in the library, running my hands over the leather spines of books I would never touch again. I leaned against the shelves and wished I could run, wished I could scream at the people who had made this fate for me.

I eyed the shadowed corners of the library. When my twin sister, Astraia, and I were little, we heard the same terrible story as other children: Demons are made of shadow. Don’t look at the shadows too long or a demon might look back. It was even more horrible for us because we regularly saw the victims of demon attacks, screaming or mute with madness. Their families dragged them in through the hallways and begged Father to use his Hermetic arts to cure them.

Sometimes he could ease their pain, just a little. But there was no cure for the madness inflicted by demons.

And my future husband—the Gentle Lord—was the prince of demons.

He was not like the vicious, mindless shadows that he ruled. As befit a prince, he far surpassed his subjects in power: he could speak and take such form that mortal eyes could look on him and not go mad. But he was a demon still. after our wedding night, how much of me would be left?

I heard a wet cough and whirled around. Behind me stood Aunt Telomache, thin lips pressed together, one wisp of hair escaping from her bun.

“We will dress for dinner.” She said it in the same placid, matter-of-fact way that she had said last night, You are the hope of our people. Last night, and a thousand times before.

Her voice sharpened. “Are you listening, Nyx? Your father has arranged a farewell dinner for you. Don’t be late.”

I wished I could seize her bony shoulders and shake them. It was Father’s fault that I was leaving.

“Yes, Aunt,” I whispered.

Father wore his red silk waistcoat; Astraia, her ruffled blue dress with the five petticoats; Aunt Telomache, her pearls; and I put on my best black mourning dress, the one with satin bows. The food was just as grand: candied almonds, pickled olives, stuffed sparrows, and Father’s best wine. One of the servants even strummed at a lute in the corner as if we were at a duke’s banquet. I almost could have pretended that Father was trying to show how much he loved me, or at least how much he honored my sacrifice. But I knew, as soon as I saw Astraia sitting red-eyed at the table, that the dinner was all for her sake.

So I sat straight-backed in my chair, barely able to choke down my food but with a smile fixed on my face. Sometimes the conversation lagged, and I heard the heavy ticktock of the grandfather clock in the sitting room, counting off each second that brought me closer to my husband. My stomach roiled, but I smiled wider and gritted out cheerful nothings about how my marriage was an adventure, how I was so excited to fight the Gentle Lord, and by the spirit of our dead mother, I swore she would be avenged.

That last made Astraia droop again, but I leaned forward and asked her about the village boy always lingering beneath her window—Adamastos or some such—and she smiled and laughed soon enough. Why shouldn’t she laugh? She could marry a mortal man and live to old age in freedom.

I knew my resentment was unfair—surely she laughed for my sake, as I smiled for hers—but it still bubbled at the back of my mind all through dinner, until every smile, every glance she darted at me scraped across my skin. My left hand clenched under the table, nails biting into my palm, but I managed to smile back at her and pretend.

At last the servants cleared away the empty custard dishes. Father adjusted his spectacles and looked at me. I knew that he was about to sigh and repeat his favorite saying: “Duty is bitter to taste but sweet to drink.” and I knew that he’d be thinking more about how he was sacrificing one half of his wife’s legacy than how I was sacrificing life and freedom.

I surged to my feet. “Father, may I please be excused?”

Surprise caught him for a moment before he replied, “Of course, Nyx.”

I bobbed my head. “Thank you so much for dinner.”

Then I tried to flee, but in a moment Aunt Telomache was at my elbow. “Dear,” she began softly.

And Astraia was at my other elbow. “I can talk to her for just a minute, please, can’t I?” she said, and without waiting for an answer she dragged me up to her bedroom.

As soon as the door had closed behind us, she turned to me. I managed not to flinch, but I couldn’t meet her eyes. Astraia didn’t deserve anyone’s anger, least of all mine. She didn’t. But for the past few years, whenever I looked at her, all I could see was the reason that I would have to face the Gentle Lord.

One of us had to die. That was the bargain Father had struck, and it was not her fault that he had picked her to be the one who lived, but every time she smiled, I still thought: She smiles because she is safe. She is safe because I am going to die.

I used to believe that if I just tried hard enough, I could learn to love her without resentment, but finally I had accepted that it was impossible. So now I stared at one of the framed crossstitches on the wall—a country cottage choked in roses—and prepared myself to lie and smile and lie until she had finished whatever tender moment she wanted and I could crawl into the safety of my room.

But when she said, “Nyx,” her voice was ragged and weak. Without meaning to, I looked at her—and now she had no smile, no pretty tears, only a fist pressed to her mouth as she tried to keep control. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I know you must hate me,” and her voice broke.

Suddenly I remembered one morning when we were ten and she dragged me out of the library because our old cat Penelope wouldn’t eat and wouldn’t drink and Father can fix her, can’t he? Can’t he? But she had already known the answer.

“No.” I grabbed her shoulders. “No.” The lie felt like broken glass in my throat, but anything was better than hearing that hopeless grief and knowing I had caused it.

“But you’re going to die—” She hiccupped on a sob. “Because of me—”

“Because of the Gentle Lord and Father’s bargain.” I managed to meet her eyes and summon a smile. “and who says I’ll die? Don’t you believe your own sister can defeat him?”

Her own sister was lying to her: there was no possible way for me to defeat my husband without destroying myself as well. But I’d been telling her the lie that I could kill him and come home for far too long to stop now.

“I wish I could help you,” she whispered.

You could ask to take my place.

I pushed the thought away. all Astraia’s life, Father and Aunt Telomache had coddled and protected her. They had taught her over and over that her only purpose was to be loved. It wasn’t her fault that she’d never learnt to be brave, much less that they’d picked her to live instead of me. and anyway, how could I wish to live at the price of my own sister’s life?

Astraia might not be brave, but she wanted me to live. and here I was, wishing her dead in my place.

If one of us had to die, it ought to be the one with poison in her heart.

“I don’t hate you,” I said, and I almost believed it. “I could never hate you,” I said, remembering how she clung to me after we buried Penelope beneath the apple tree. She was my twin, born only minutes after me, but in every way that mattered, she was my little sister. I had to protect her—from the Gentle Lord but also from me, from the endless envy and resentment that seethed beneath my skin.

Astraia sniffed. “Really?”

“I swear by the creek in back of the house,” I said, our private childhood variation on an oath by the river Styx. and while I said the words I was telling the truth. Because I remembered spring mornings when she helped me escape lessons to run through the woods, summer nights catching glowworms, autumn afternoons acting out the story of Persephone in the leaf pile, and winter evenings sitting by the fire when I told her everything I had studied that day and she fell asleep five times but would never admit to being bored.

Astraia pulled me forward into a hug. Her arms wrapped under my shoulder blades and her chin nestled against my shoulder, and for a moment the world was warm and safe and perfect.

Then Aunt Telomache knocked on the door. “Nyx, darling?” “Coming!” I called, pulling away from Astraia.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said. Her voice was still soft but I could tell her grief was healing, and I felt the first trickle of returning resentment.

You wanted to comfort her, I reminded myself.

“I love you,” I said, because it was true no matter what else festered in my heart, and left before she could reply.

Aunt Telomache waited for me in the hallway, her lips pursed. “are you done chatting?”

“She’s my sister. I should say good-bye.”

“You’ll say good-bye tomorrow,” she said, drawing me toward my own bedroom. “Tonight you need to learn about your duties.”

I know my duty, I wanted to say, but followed her silently. I had borne Aunt Telomache’s preaching for years; it couldn’t get any worse now.

“Your wifely duties,” she added, opening the door to my room, and I realized that it could get infinitely worse.

Her explanation took nearly an hour. All I could do was sit still on the bed, my skin crawling and my face burning. As she droned on in her flat, nasal tones, I stared at my hands and tried to shut out her voice. The words Is that what you do with Father every night, when you think no one is watching? curled behind my teeth, but I swallowed them.

“And if he kisses you on—are you listening, Nyx?”

I raised my head, hoping my face had stayed blank. “Yes, Aunt.”

“Of course you’re not listening.” She sighed, straightening her spectacles. “Just remember this: do whatever it takes to make him trust you. Or your mother will have died in vain.”

“Yes, aunt.”

She kissed my cheek. “I know you’ll do well.” Then she stood. She paused in the doorway with a damp huff—she always fancied herself so beautifully poignant, but she sounded like an asthmatic cat.

“Thisbe would be so proud of you,” she murmured.

I stared straight ahead at the cabbage-roses-and-ribbons wallpaper. I could see every curlicue of the hideous pattern with perfect clarity, because Father had spent the money to give me a Hermetic lamp that shone bright and clear with captured daylight. He would use his arts to improve my room, but not to save me.

“I’m sure Mother’s proud of you too,” I said evenly. Aunt Telomache didn’t know that I knew about her and Father, so it was a safe barb. I hoped it hurt.

Another wet sigh. “Good night,” she said, and the door shut behind her.

I picked the Hermetic lamp off my bedside table. The bulb was made of frosted glass and shaped like a cabbage rose. I turned it over. On the underside of the brass base were etched the swirling lines of a Hermetic diagram. It was a simple one: just four interlocking sigils, those abstract designs whose angles and curves invoke the power of the four elements. With the lamp’s light directed down at my lap, I couldn’t make out all the lines—but I could feel the soft, pulsing buzz of the working’s four elemental hearts as they invoked earth, air, fire, and water in a careful harmony to catch sunlight all day and release it again when the lamp was switched on at night.

Everything in the physical world arises from the dance of the four elements, their mating and division. This principle is one of the first Hermetic teachings. So for a Hermetic working to have power, its diagram must invoke all four elements in four “hearts” of elemental energy. and for that power to be broken, all four hearts must be nullified.

I touched a fingertip to the base of the lamp and traced the looping lines of the Hermetic sigil to nullify the lamp’s connection to water. On such a small working, I didn’t need to actually inscribe the sigil with chalk or a stylus; the gesture was enough. The lamp flickered, its light turning red as the working’s Heart of Water broke, leaving it connected to only three elements.

As I started on the next sigil, I remembered the countless evenings I had spent practicing with Father, nullifying Hermetic workings such as this. He wrote one diagram after another on a wax tablet and set me to break them all. As I practiced, he read aloud to me; he said it was so that I could learn to trace the sigils despite distractions, but I knew he had another purpose. He only read me stories of heroes who died accomplishing their duty—as if my mind were a wax tablet and the stories were sigils, and by tracing them onto me often enough, he could mold me into a creature of pure duty and vengeance.

His favorite was the story of Lucretia, who assassinated the tyrant who raped her, then killed herself to wipe out the shame. So she won undying fame as the woman of perfect virtue who freed Rome. Aunt Telomache loved that story too and had more than once hinted that it should comfort me, because Lucretia and I were so alike.

But Lucretia’s father hadn’t pushed her into the tyrant’s bed. Her aunt hadn’t instructed her on how to please him.

I traced the last nullifying sigil and the lamp went out. I dropped it in my lap and hugged myself, back straight and stiff, staring into the darkness. My nails dug into my arms, but inside I felt only a cold knot. In my head, Aunt Telomache’s words tangled with the lessons Father had taught me for years.

Try to move your hips. Every Hermetic working must bind the four elements. If you can’t manage anything else, lie still. As above, so below. It may hurt, but don’t cry. As within, so without. Only smile.

You are the hope of our people.

My fingers writhed, clawing up and down my arms, until I couldn’t bear it anymore. I grabbed the lamp and flung it at the floor. The crash sliced through my head; it left me gasping and shivering, like all the other times I let my temper out, but the voices stopped.

“Nyx?” Aunt Telomache called through the door.

“It’s nothing. I knocked over my lamp.”

Her footsteps pattered closer, and then the door cracked open. “Are you—”

“I’m all right. The maids can clean it up tomorrow.”

“You really—”

“I need to be rested if I’m to use all your advice tomorrow,” I said icily, and then she finally shut the door.

I fell back against my pillows. What was it to her? I wouldn’t ever need that lamp again.

This time the cold that burned through my middle was fear, not anger.

Tomorrow I will marry a monster.

I thought of little else, all the rest of the night.

 


Cruel Beauty © Rosamund Hodge, 2014

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