Excerpt: Fairytales Slashed: Volume 7
After Ever After by Nicole Field
The first night in the palace wasn’t all bad. Nothing about her first night in the palace was what she’d been brought up to expect. Servants serving dinner. Servants helping her to undress. Servants nearby just in case she and the charming prince should need anything on their first night together as newly-weds.
Lotte was beyond relieved when the bedroom contained just herself and Phillip.
Her relief must have shown on her face because, the next thing she knew, Phillip closed the gap between them and took her hands in his. “I promise you, it gets easier with time,” he said.
“How much time?” Lotte asked, hearing the plaintive tone in her own voice.
With a small chuckle, Phillip leaned in close, his lips touching hers, causing tingles to her toes. And thus, their wedding night began.
There was a quiet knock at her bedroom door.
Lotte didn’t waken to it immediately. When the knocking came again, Lotte rolled over beneath crisp white covers. Her arm reached out, expecting to find Prince Phillip lying in the bed beside her. She woke up more as her hand came up empty of anything but a cold bed sheet.
“Huh?” Lotte said, blinking out her confusion.
The door opened a crack. “Miss?” came a small voice from the other side of the door.
Rather than dwelling on it, her upset at finding herself alone apparent to all, Lotte tried to pull herself together in time for the servant to come around the door.
“Yes, come in,” Lotte said, exhibiting a hand movement that she’d seen the prince’s mother demonstrate during dinner the night before. There’d been talk of etiquette lessons over dessert, but Lotte supposed she might as well get a head start.
This was another servant Lotte had never seen before. She wondered how on earth she was going to remember all of them. Surely there would be some few who looked after just her? Wasn’t that the way this sort of thing was supposed to go?
Quizzically, Lotte looked to the servant, wondering what she was meant to do now.
The servant girl gave a low dip of a curtsey and kept her eyes on the floor as she said, “I’m supposed to dress you now, Miss.”
Of course. Lotte should have guessed that being helped to undress the night before meant that she would be helped back into her clothes this morning. No doubt the servant was staring at the floor to save Lotte the embarrassment of not knowing where her place was in all of this. Still, she couldn’t help just one quick question escaping her lips, no matter how it discomfited her.
“Where is Prince Phillip this morning?”
“With His Majesty the king, Miss,” the servant spoke, gaze still downward cast.
“Please,” Lotte said, giving in to the instinct to wipe her hand over her eyes from where she sat alone in the middle of her bed. “What is your name?” She could hardly keep calling her ‘the servant’ in her head.
“My name’s Meg, Miss,” the girl answered obediently.
With a quick nod, Lotte rose from the bed and allowed Meg to dress her, even as she inwardly sighing at the absurdity of it. “If you’re going to see me in my undergarments,” she said to Meg, “I feel like you should call me by my first name. It’s Lotte, if you don’t already know it.”
“As it pleases Miss… Lotte,” Meg amended herself.
“Thank you,” Lotte said with a small sigh.
In the Land of the Damned by Camilla Quinn
The Devil sits upon his bone-white throne, naked and unashamed. Golden curls tumble around to his shoulders. Dark eyes gleam against alabaster skin. His wings unfurl, the kaleidoscope of colors shifting in the flickering blue fire. But the Devil’s grin is sharp as an executioner’s axe as he plucks a third golden strand from his head and holds out all three.
Aldo shivers in his boots, his gut dropping in a way he has never before felt. What would the miller and his wife think of Aldo now? A low-born orphan who ran away from a life without adventure, who’s somehow betrothed to a princess and journeyed into Hell to prove his worth. He’s too young to stand at the Devil’s throne and curry favor, only fifteen. This adventure has led him farther astray than he ever imagined.
Swallowing around the lump in his throat, Aldo wills his hands not to tremble as he reaches for the hairs.
The Devil surges forward, his left hand coiling around Aldo’s slender wrist, towering over him. Aldo’s heart thumps harder, not sure if he should heed his fear or indulge his curiosity. With sure fingers, the Devil turns Aldo’s palm face up. “Clever boy,” The Devil says, his voice ancient and mirthful. “Few can boast they’ve bested me. Fewer still are brave enough to claim their prize. Do you know why angel hairs are so valued?”
Aldo shakes his head.
The Devil’s thumb strokes across Aldo’s pulse, waiting in silence. After a moment, Aldo’s heartbeat settles, and the Devil continues. “Because the pieces of an angel hold more power than any mortal can control. No angel, fallen or otherwise, would allow so precious a cargo beyond their reach. To be parted from these strands will cost me dearly.”
The nape of his neck prickles, and static shivers across his skin. Aldo’s cheeks flush. His mouth runs dry as he gapes at the Devil. “Yet you honor our bargain?”
“As did you. You answered my questions, as you vowed. And here is your prize, as I vowed.”
His cheeks burn. Aldo drops his chin to his chest, masking his shame. “Don’t answer wrong,” the Devil had said when the terms were set. Just three answers, and Aldo would hold a bounty worthy of a would-be king. The first and second he spoke truly, but the third. Aldo shudders, still tasting his lie at the back of his throat.
He shakes himself. “The Devil lies,” he whispers, a bitter solace.
“When it pleases me.”
Mouth falling open, Aldo jerks his head back up. Something in the Devil’s dark eyes softens, the fire tamped down in favor of fondness. Though he cannot make it out, Aldo wants to flee from this expression and wallow in it at the same time. Then, the Devil exhales and his shoulders slump. His eyes flit away from Aldo. “Take your boon.”
The Devil presses the hairs into Aldo’s hand. The strands are warm against his skin, whispering secrets in a language Aldo can’t understand.
For a moment, Aldo gapes at the prize in his hand. His quest is complete. He can go home, now with proof for his ever-hateful father-in-law that the midwife who cleaned the clinging afterbirth from his head and face was right, that his caul birth meant he was destined for greatness, that even a penniless wretch can be worthy of a throne.
With a huff of joyless laughter, the Devil speaks. “Now go, boy. Return to your queen and your crown.” The Devil cradles Aldo’s hand, pressing his palm closed with a lingering tough. “It does not do for mortals to dwell in the Land of the Damned.”
Aldo jolts upright in bed, shoving the blankets off him and letting the night air soothe his burning skin. Every time, the dream burns more brightly behind his eyes, the memory seared into his skin. He closes his eyes and shakes his head until the afterimage wears away.
Beside him, the sheets are cold. Hilde hasn’t come to his bed in weeks. She rarely does these days, only when the moon is right and the alchemists say she is ripe for conception. Their mechanical couplings leave him drained and restive. Such is the way of things, he’s been told. Maybe high-borns have perfected the marriage process, but Aldo doesn’t remember Hilde grinning half as merrily as the miller’s wife would smile. Even if he tried his hardest, Hilde smiles for no one. Not anymore.
Aldo recalls the day he set out from the miller’s home at the foot of the river to seek his fortune, or rather the day his fortune found him. Midway through the woods, Aldo came upon a party of knights, among them a broad man with a scar across his throat, King Ewald. The king studied Aldo for a moment before revealing he and his men were searching out a caul-born boy, born fifteen years prior in a mountain village at the headwaters of the local river but had not found him within the village.
Eager to aid his king, Aldo explained he was now fifteen, and his adoptive parents, the miller and his wife, had found him floating downriver in a basket. The king stood wide-eyed before an eerie smile crossed his face. He told Aldo, then, that midwives said caul-birthed children were special, destined to marry royalty, and that Aldo should camp with the king and in the morning, they would journey to the gray keep and Aldo would marry the king’s daughter.