My Master gave me hair from strips of ash-tree bark and lips of rose petals. Violet-black chokeberries became my eyes, and he sculpted the planes of my face with kid-gloves until it was as perfect as perfect could be.
He named me Melea, for it is the word to invoke the power of the Ash.
I breathed a breath of life and rose to my feet, more graceful than the rippling clouds that were my first sight through his chamber window. Master touched my chin with his cold fingers. He was sharp and bright like the sun on ice. He said, “Welcome, Melea. Here is your order: find my rival August Curran, make him love you, and rip out his heart.”
The butterfly in my chest cavity fluttered as the command settled into my ashwood bones.
Master’s housekeeper dressed me in an elegant gown of violet with cream lace and black-pearl buttons. My hair was lifted onto my head and pinned under a cap that frothed with netting and spilled over my eyes. The housekeeper sighed and whispered, “Such a sight I never saw. No need for color on your lips or cheeks, Miss Melea. ‘Tis life and beauty glowing through you like a sunset.”
She shuffled me out the door with a parasol, and boots buttoned up my ankles. The street was damp from an early morning rain and the air smelled of water and oil and dank horses. But also, the breeze hinted of sun-warmed brick and window-box flowers. And the teasing scent of those high-up graceful clouds. I tilted my face and saw the billows of white fluff spread in strips and ripples against the bright sky.
And I began to walk.
My footsteps were quiet against the cobblestones, and every person who passed me tipped a hat or bobbed curtsy. Four times a gentleman paused to guide me around puddles or across the street, and an elderly lady in an open-air carriage offered me a ride somewhere, but I only smiled, nodded, and continued on my way. The butterfly pulled at me, and the smell of the clouds bade me forward.
The sun had dipped below the tallest buildings and I had wandered out of the city’s heart. The homes around me lined the street in simple rows, all white-stone and red bricks, with arching windows and small brown doors. My toes ached where the point of my boots pinched them, so I chose a delicate iron-wrought bench and sat. Lowering the parasol, I placed it across my lap with my hands, in their lace gloves, folded demurely. Here, the air was filled with living smells: trees and grass and flowers from the small square gardens in the center of every block. It was spring, the beginning of it, and blossoms had awakened during the day to sip at the world.
“Miss, are you lost?”
I opened my eyes and saw the face of the man for whom I had hunted all day. He was brown and warm, like tree bark baked long in the sun. His hair curled around his face like wood shavings and his eyes were as green as the garden behind me. For the first time, I parted my lips and formed words. “No, sir, I am where I need to be.” And I smiled. It was an easy smile, for I found myself wanting to be beautiful for him.
The sun-brown man bowed and held out his hand. His gray jacket was not near so opulent as Master’s had been, and he wore boots splattered with mud. But it was fine and fit him impeccably. “I am August Curran, King’s Cunning Man.”
“I am Melea, Mister Curran.” I put my hand into his.
His eyes slid from the crown of my head to the toes of my boots and his smile fell away. “You are, indeed,” he murmured, before smiling again. “And beautiful, too.”
I thought perhaps I should blush, but instead I rose to my feet. I was nearly as tall as Curran, and it was easy to press my lips to his. He tasted like salt, and I gasped.
“My apologies, Melea,” he said, though he did not lean away from me. “I was poison tasting for His Majesty this afternoon. It is only a simple charm, and should not harm one so well put together as you.”
“You know? What I am?” The words tumbled out, though I was certain I should not say them.
“I will not send you back to your death,” he promised, turning to offer his arm.
I took it, and Master’s command shivered again through my butterfly heart.
August Curran fed me delicious soup tasting of mushrooms and curry powder, and while we dined thin, shadowy serving men darted in and out from the kitchens to bring us fresh wine. I ate, discovering that I could be hungry, and watched Mister Curran. The setting sun spilled through the perfectly clear glass of his windows, gilding the edges of his hair. I discovered then, too, that I wanted him to love me. But I did not know if it was the command or my own wish.
“Why did you invite me into your house?” I asked.
“You have nowhere else to go. And so long as you are here, he may leave me alone.”
I was given a room on the third floor of his house, tucked into the corner and full of light. The balcony hung over a thick but well-tended garden surrounded by high stone walls that no one from any of the other houses might peak. I slept with the moon pouring in, and woke with tiny blue finches singing from perches all through out the room: atop the bureau, clinging to the oval mirror, to the back of the armoire chair, and to the bedposts. I sat up, and they fled to the balcony.
I found my way to the dining room and ate from the spread of breakfast cakes. The shadow-men brought me a crystal glass of tart apple juice. I asked one where I might find Mister Curran, and he bowed with a yellow flicker of firelight-eyes. The door behind him opened. I stepped through it and followed the blue hallway around a bend and up a half-flight of stairs. There was no door, but a wide arch leading into a grand library that should not have fit inside the house. August Curran lounged in a rocking chair with a large tome in his lap and a steaming mug of fresh-smelling coffee in hand.
“Ah, Melea, good morning.” He flapped his hand toward another chair, that was cushioned in a yellow to rival the sun.
“Mister Curran.” I curtsied and sat near him in the yellow chair. “Maybe I go into your garden?”
“Yes, of course.” He closed the book and set it on the carpet. “You are no prisoner here.”
I thanked him, and he brushed it off. “Please, you should call me August. You are my guest.”
“August,” I said, letting the name hold still on my tongue. I sighed and said, “It does not feel like a proper name. Did your mother know you would be a wizard?”
“No, I chose it as I began my apprenticeship. Coffee?”
I accepted both the coffee and the cream he poured. It smelled like the earth, like old, rich, but bitter earth. What strange magic to drink in the morning. “Why did you choose it?”
“I thought it sounded delightful before ‘King’s Conjuror’ or ‘Cunning Man and Charmer.’”
August paused as my laughter rang out, and his eyes focused on something invisible just before my mouth. I licked my lips as I watched, thinking of his salt-taste. Did he wear such a charm now? “What is it, August?”
He did not answer until he had taken three breaths and blinked three times. “Ah, it irks me that he knows me well enough to have created you.”
“I am sorry,” I said, for it was true.
“You shouldn’t be sorry for being so appealing, Melea. You are what you are: ideal.”
“Ideal in what I am for, not in who I am.”
“In who you are?” August’s lips twitched with surprise. I suppose it is because I am not anyone outside of my command.
I remained in his house. Though I ventured into the city, I never could be long away. The fluttering command drew me back to him before many hours passed. I pretended at my freedom by taking books from his library into the garden, where I might curl up between eldertrees and read.
Many times he vanished into the lower reaches of his house, where his workrooms were tightly guarded. He came out with his arms filled with potions for the King and parchments covered in his looping notes that he would pass to his fellow conjurors.
We ate supper together every night; soups and greens and never, ever, meat. I caught him often watching me, spoon halfway between bowl and lips, and I watched him back until a shadow-man broke our line of sight with his decanter of blood-red wine.
Some afternoons he accepted visitors and at the beginning of the summer a grand Lady-Witch arrived for dinner. I was banished to my rooms by the shadow-men, and from my balcony heard the lovely and grand tones of her voice. I tried not to hate her. When she finally departed, I stayed on the balcony talking softly to the blue finches who nested in the eaves. The knock on my door was soft, and when I called enter, August walked in, still dressed in his finery. Gold and green swirled on his suit, pulling out all the living colors in his face and hair, and his fingers were clothed in heavy-looking rings.
I did not rise from the stone of the balcony, and so he came to me and crouched. In the moonlight his eyes washed into blackness, but his smile was the same. “Melea, you are angry with me.”
“No,” I lied.
“She would have killed you if she’d seen you.”
Something clawed at my throat from the inside, as though the butterfly grew talons. I choked on my words. “You were protecting me.”
His hands found my shoulders and he pulled me against him. His jacket was rough and stiff from the gilded embroidery, but I did not care. He smelled of sunlight and wood. A forest grove that my butterfly longed for with all its desperate fluttering. “You should have let her kill me,” I said.
“No, no.” His lips pressed to my hair, my ash-bark hair.
“Why not? You know what I am, you know who sent me, and so you must know I will bring you no good.” I whispered into his shoulder, and the corner of my mouth burned with the rough touch of his jacket. “You must destroy me.”
“I cannot.” His arms tightened around me, and I knew what he was going to say. “I cannot because I –”
I kissed him before he could say the words the command vibrating inside me needed to hear. I kissed him and did not let him go.
August brought me into his workroom in the morning, a wide grin teasing his lips as his fingers grasped at mine. “Come, Melea, and don’t be afraid.”
The room spread over the entire subterranean floor, blocked out of the earth with giant white stones. Half was empty but for diagrams and pictures drawn onto the floor. A quarter of what remained held books glowing like miniature moons and shelves of jars and ceramics that every wizard must have. The final quarter was furnished with round and square tables, each of which held additional books, strange metal and glass contraptions, and piles of parchment. The entire place smelled like fire. I paused at the threshold, but August drew me in and tapped the ceiling with a cane he picked up from the closest table. At the third tap, my ears popped and I felt the workroom close behind me.
“Sit down, sweet,” he said, rummaging already through the chaos of the largest round table. He found a pair of spectacles, which he shoved over his nose. I did not sit, but stared as August drew out from inside a long stone box a thin piece of wood. A wand. He brought it to me, muttering under his breath and cupping the pointed tip with his right hand. I didn’t breath as he set the point lightly against my ear. His eyes focused and he said a word of power that sent my butterfly shuddering and my bones a-tingle.
As he pulled the wand away from my ear, I heard Master’s voice snake throughout the workroom: Welcome, Melea. Here is your order: find my rival August Curran, make him love you, and rip out his heart.
I wrapped my arms around my stomach, but August only laughed. “What an old fool,” he said and he turned to me. “He thought you would betray me easily, but you love me, too.”
It was too close. I began to back away. “No, August. Don’t. You mustn’t.”
“Don’t you see, Melea, we can break his command. It is impossible for you to hurt me the way he wants you too. What will you do? Go to the King and offer your body to him? Marry another man? Ha!” He rushed to me, grabbing up my hands. “I love you, and – ”
I opened my mouth and coughed, the butterfly trapped in my neck, trapped and terrified on my tongue. But it would not fly free. I tore away from August, shaking my head. I would not do it. I would not.
August stared, dumbfounded, as I gripped my own hands together and pressed them against my chest. Tears spilled over my cheeks. No, no. The command shoved me forward a step. I stumbled and fell to my knees. The jolt against the hard stone shook my bones, and they did not stop shaking. Get up, get up the butterfly’s wings beat out the command. Get up.
“No,” I whispered. And then August was there, lifting me up by my shoulders. My fingers brushed against his chest, pushing the loose material of his shirt aside.
“Melea, what is happening? What is he doing? He cannot get to you here, not in my workroom.”
I snatched my hands away from him before my nails clawed into his skin.
“Melea, your hair,” said August in a hushed and horrified tone. “Your eyes.”
I could only see my hands: the skin darkened and was thickening back into wax, sticky with honey. The ash-tree bones were brittle; they would break. No doubt my hair was retuning to bark and my eyes to chokeberries. I was fighting my command, and so I was dying.
August touched his chest where I’d bared his skin. “Oh. Oh.” he breathed. “I am the fool.” And he sank back onto his heels. “Three times the fool.”
My vision was dull when I looked anywhere but at his chest and I could not open my mouth. The rose petals that were my lips fell off my wax face and trembled in the air as they sank to the stone floor.
“I do not have the – the ability to remake you, Melea,” he said. “You would not be who you are.”
I managed to nod as I clutched my dangerous hands together. I would fall to pieces on his workroom floor, and he would use the wax in a spell for the King perhaps, the ashbark for the princesses. I would like that.
“Take it,” he said, and his voice was flat. He put a dagger – pulled from the air! – against his chest. With his other hand he lifted up the rose petal and pressed it t
o my mouth. “Take it, and live long with your butterfly, and remember me.” I threw out my hands, but the dagger found its sheath between his ribs. August’s eyes widened and his lips parted enough that I saw his tongue.
“August,” I said as he died. The blood poured over my hands and my lips were my lips again.
His heart was hot and heavier than I expected. But it smelled like the heart of a tree. I could not think, could not speak past the command quivering through me. Cupping the thing in my palms, I walked up the stairs. His blood ran down my forearms and pooled at my elbows before dripping onto my skirts.
Master waited at the front door, surrounded by sparking, furious shadow-men. But they did not – could not – approach Master. He laughed, sharp as cracking ice. “Follow me, Melea,” he said, hands triumphantly on his hips.
But I was not made with a spider or iridescent beetle. I was made with a butterfly. “No,” I whispered, and walked into the sunlight.
image by Simon Hammond