“I really don’t see why we’re doing this for them,” Lilith said. Ophelia and Beatrice were roaming the shelves of the library, grabbing every alchemical text they could find. Lilith, who sometimes at least started a task with them, sat this one out from the start, twirling her hair and punctuating long silences with occasional complaints.
“You’re the one who said we should help them in the first place,” Beatrice reminded her. “O and I were quite happy to turn them away.”
“She’s not interested now that it’s dusty old kings asking things of us, and not strapping knights,” Ophelia quipped.
“Oh shut up,” Lilith snapped back. “It was an excuse to go somewhere different. But now we’re just holed up in this castle instead of the cottage. And they aren’t exactly treating us like honored guests. And what they’re asking…”
Beatrice stopped and turned, leaning against the shelf. “You’re right. It’s not a decision I make lightly. It’s not a decision I’ve made at all. Not yet. I could still change my mind. But…you saw it the first night we were here.”
Lilith swept some of her hair in front of her face, and peered out from behind the curtain of curled tendrils. “What’s your point?”
“I saw it.”
“I think,” Ophelia interjected, “what she’s saying is we both saw it. We saw it for what it was. And if we could see it…”
Beatrice finished for her–“then someone more attuned to such things, like you, Lily, could recognize it, too.”
They weren’t wrong. From her room, Lilith had a tremendous view of the city and the countryside beyond. And she watched that first evening as the sun set. The star was laid to rest, then rose from the dead, drained of its pink and red, made pale and chilly, tinged with the iciness of moonlight, but somehow colder still. More hollow. The light of Aeterneau’s kingdom took the place of the sun–a necrotic light that oozed like pus into the air.
It was almost thrilling to see at first, something so profane, but the thrill was quickly drained and gave way to an itchy dread, that grew and grew, until it wasn’t itchy any more, but overwhelming–burning. And Lilith’s sensitivity to things that hadn’t yet transpired was amplified by this light made of lives that long ago transpired. In the past, she saw vibrant visions of the future. Pestilence. War. Famine. Suffering. Decay.
The ghosts revealed themselves as exactly what they were.
Lilith nodded and slowly stood to join the others in their search. Moments later, the door to the library opened and Ysabelle peeked cautiously down the row the witches were examining.
“Oh, look who’s here,” Lilith said, blowing a cloud of dust from the cover of an ancient book.
“Did your father send you to check on us?” Ophelia asked.
Ysabelle shook her head. “No. I just came to talk.”
“Please do,” Lilith said. “I find all the silence in here dreadful.”
Ysabelle hovered, unsure what to do with the invitation. She sat at the table the alchemical textbooks were stacked on and began to pick at their bindings. “Tell me,” she said finally, “how did the three of you come to find each other?”
“Beatrice and I have been friends since childhood,” Ophelia explained. “Lilith…we met later.”
Ysabelle nodded politely, though it was a vague answer.
Beatrice tried to clarify– “We didn’t quite fit anywhere else. So we decided not to fit in together.”
“I envy you,” Ysabelle said. “Sometimes l’d like nothing more than to not be…what I am.”
“So many girls spend days dreaming of being a princess,” Beatrice said. “And the princess dreams of being a peasant.” Her tone was mocking.
“You think I lie?”
“I think you’re ignorant,” Ophelia corrected. Her words had the cut of an insult, but her disinterested tone made them more painful–it made them sound like a diagnosis. Impartial. Scientific. “I think you have no idea what life looks like outside of these walls. Which makes it easy to romanticize.”
Ysabelle made no effort to defend herself. Instead, she stood and quietly moved to the bookcase. “I can help you look, if you’d like.”
Beatrice nodded. “That would be lovely.”
“I know of one,” Ysabelle said, crouching and gliding quickly along the bottom row, “that must be particularly old. I remember looking through it as a child, for one of my lessons. Even back then it seemed like it might fall apart at any moment.” She finally stopped and retrieved a book that once upon a time might have been a deep shade of burgundy, but was now a dingy whisper of that color. She handed it to Lilith, who was immediately unimpressed and tossed it to Beatrice.
“This is a text by Aldusa.”
Ysabelle nodded, though the name meant nothing to her.
“Aldusa is maybe the greatest alchemist who ever lived. To find an original copy of one of her texts…this is miraculous.”
“I just remember it as a boring textbook,” Ysabelle said apologetically.
Beatrice added it to the pile. “I’ll enjoy reading that one.”
“But…” Ysabelle walked over and picked the book back up. “I do remember one particular potion in this book.” She flipped the disintegrating, fibrous pages carefully, her eyes rapidly scanning them. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.”
Lilith approached and looked over her shoulder. When Ysabelle finally found what she was looking for, Lilith’s eyes went wide. “That’s barbaric. Why? Who would ever?”
Beatrice took the book, her interest piqued. “It’s a hex. A ‘Potion of Poisoned Passion.’” She skimmed Aldusa’s scribblings on the elixir. “Why have you been thinking of this?”
“Do you think you could make it for me?”
Ophelia was skeptical. “You said it was a hex?” she asked Beatrice, and then turned fiercely toward the princess. “Why would we help you hex someone? Your father is foisting enough guilt on us. We needn’t seek any more out.”
“It’s not for someone else. It’s for me.”
Ophelia grabbed the book from Beatrice and read:
This potion will manifest a hex that is sensitive to emotion, to desire. It will make the kiss from a woman’s lips poisonous, lethal to any for which she does not hold love in her heart.
She looked up and gripped the princess with unforgiving, incredulous eyes.
But Ysabelle insisted: “It’s for me.”
“Odo should have the skills to mix this. Why have you not asked him?” Beatrice asked.
Lilith put her hand to her hip and rolled her eyes. “Don’t ask stupid questions. It’s obvious why she came to us. Just be honest with her–will you help or not?”
Ysabelle smiled at Lilith for her support.
“And when the planned nuptials fall apart because of a poisoned bride, your father will rightly blame us and have our heads. This is foolish,” Beatrice said.
“I swear it,” Ysabelle pleaded. “I will take all the blame. I will say that I stole it from your belongings. That it was already mixed and I stole it and that you had no knowledge. I don’t even know if I’ll take it yet. I don’t know. I just…I need the option. I need a way out.” Desperation was bleeding into her voice. “Please.”
Ophelia and Beatrice looked to each other, each seeing their own resignation in the other’s eyes.