~ Michaelbrent Collings Bram Stoker Award Finalist and Bestseller
~ Johnny Worthen Award-Winning Author of What Immortal Hand
By Michael Darling
The girl with the sapphire eyes stood like a statue against the stones of the wall. She was alone on the far side of the room but didn’t seem to be lonely, staring straight ahead. Her feet were bare and filthy. Her dress was torn and frayed like she’d been chased by dogs and almost caught.
I tapped Faidh on the shoulder. Side-by-side we stood patiently in front of an altar. The hall around us had been decorated for a wedding. The wedding was scheduled for the following day. Realistically, it was only fun because I was here with the woman I loved.
Faidh turned in response to my touch. The hall was warm and her hair was pulled up off her neck. She was breathtaking enough to be the bride, although she wasn’t. I pointed behind us.
“See that girl over there?” I whispered.
Faidh looked, then nodded. “She has beautiful eyes. A little young to be out with no escort.”
“She’s been standing there for a while, and she hasn’t moved a muscle.”
Faidh kept looking. Then, “Are you sure?”
“I’m not even sure she’s breathing.” I replied. “She’s not watching anything going on. Or anybody. Just staring.”
Faidh looked some more. “Her clothes are a mess.”
“Someone here should know her, right?” The group in our rehearsal party wasn’t very large. Only ten or so people, and I was acquainted with most of them. As far as I knew, none of them had a teenage daughter. The girl was shivering now. She was a hundred yards away, give or take, but my eyes were better than most and I could tell. “There’s something wrong.”
“The groom’s place will be closer to the end of the altar, sire.” A hand on my elbow demanded my attention, forcing me to look away from the girl.
Bromach, my valet, had the difficult and ever-thankless job of keeping me from embarrassing myself in princely situations. I moved to stand in the spot where he wanted me. The view from the altar was spectacular, looking out over the cliff to a forest far below and gray-blue clouds in the morning sky.
“Lady Faidh, thy place is here.” Bromach pointed again.
Faidh nodded and stepped to the corner of the altar opposite me. She caught my eye and winked. I tried to wink back but I’d never successfully disconnected whatever link existed between my eyelids and only managed an awkward blink that also twisted my mouth oddly.
The ladies-in-waiting behind Faidh smiled shyly at me as Bromach guided them to their places. I nodded with a smile. Over the past hour, I’m afraid I’d given them rude nicknames. The lady nearest Faidh had decided to resurrect the bustle, but it didn’t quite fit her frame and she was constantly hitching it up and adjusting it, which seemed to give her derriere a rebellious independence. The second lady, to whom I was apparently related closely, had a pallor fairytale writers would call “milky,” and was so pale that the morning sun reflecting off her face was like a searchlight. Or a bat signal. The third had taken a nearly fatal blow from puberty landing on her all at once, instead of spread over the course of a few normal, socially-awkward years. Her acne was closer to road rash.
Thusly, I had dubbed them Creeping Booty, So White, and Ziterella.
Biting my lips for the purpose of smirk control, I chided myself at the same time. They were very nice girls. Polite and graceful. I was only here out of duty and it was wrong of me to make my own fun while I was stuck here.
Yet, their nicknames remained locked in my dark thoughts.
My gaze strayed back to statue girl. The color of her eyes was that deep blue shade of an ocean sky at dusk. Each eye appeared to have a small star twinkling with its own light. She stared at an empty space six feet above the floor. Her hands clenched at her sides as if she were carrying invisible buckets of water. She was shivering harder now. Quivering. Pent-up energy, perhaps, from standing stock still for so long.
Bromach continued to direct the rehearsal, ordering people around, sighing when he wasn’t happy and nodding to himself when he was. He looked to be in his element, running the show in the delicately appointed wedding hall filled with fresh flowers and lace.
Torn between duty and curiosity, I turned back to Faidh for distraction. “Do you wish our wedding had been like this? With all the pretty decorations and food and people? And a church only slightly less modest than Westminster Abbey?”
Faidh looked around, taking in the carved pillars and the crystalline ceiling, made entirely of faceted glass. She shook her head. “We got married under a cherry tree that never ceases to bloom. What could be prettier than that?”
“I’m glad our wedding was quick. It didn’t take a whole week like this one,” I replied.
“Our wedding was so quick, it ended before we knew it had begun.” Faidh laughed.
Curiosity won out. Before I’d taken three steps in the girl’s direction, Bromach called after me. “Sire! Sire? Where goest thou?” He sounded borderline horrified that I was abandoning my post. “Prince Luck! Please!”
Make that full-on horrified.
Halfway to the girl, I paused to look back. “Hang on, Bromach. I’ll just be a minute.”
He sighed. “Thy cousin and thy father will be most displeased.”
“One minute,” I repeated.
Bromach watched me with impatience and pickleface in equal measure. When he saw where I was going he marched in the girl’s direction, determined to get to her before I did. Maybe he was thinking he could get me back to my post if he got rid of her. It was hard for me to be critical. Bromach took his work seriously and his attention to detail meant I owed him my life.
With Bromach ahead of me, I said, “There’s something going on with her. She’s been standing like a statue for half an hour. Maybe longer.”
Bromach slowed at my words and I caught up to him.
We stared at the girl. She stared past us. Standing at arm’s length, I could see she was maybe thirteen years old. No older.
A long moment passed. “She’s mortal,” Bromach said.
She was also Stained.
At some point, the girl had been touched by magic, and the magic had marked her. A shudder shoveled electricity down my spine. Mortals with Stains didn’t often live long. I checked the pattern. It had squarish sections with little points like tridents coming out of them. I’d never seen this particular Stain before. It was subtle, subdued, and almost hypnotic to watch as the wide band of translucent light turned slowly around the girl’s torso.