My mother’s slaughtered corpse still cooled in the battlefield’s mud as I stood between my two sisters at the foot of our family’s gilded throne. Tallest to shortest, youngest to oldest, father placed the three of us on display like common goods in a storefront window.
While we suffered the scrutiny of the conquering King, Anna and Maria kept their eyes on the floor and their shoulders folded. Their hands were clasped solemnly at their navels, and they did not fidget as fate calculated their worth.
I held my head high the way Mother always did, as he measured my bosom, commented on my hips, and tugged on strands of my copper curls. I balled my hands into white-knuckled fists to suffocate the secret flames that simmered on my fingertips and met gaze for glare. King Gregor’s eyes crinkled with mirth at my inability to imitate the meek compliance of the chattel at my flanks, and after a thorough inspection of each daughter, he planted himself in front of me.
He was tall, broad, and square. His eyes were blue and his face was handsome, though wearied from war and rugged from time. His crown was not glamorous, but what it lacked in glittering adornment it made up for in iron authority. The scarred hilt of his infamous broadsword peaked over his right shoulder. It sang to the calloused paws that looped easily through his belt, and I wondered if he had yet cleaned Mother’s blood from its blade.
“What’s your name, girl?”
“Sofia.” I hoped my tremble would go unnoticed, that the flare in my palms would not draw his attention.
“Sofia,” he mused, tasting my name on his tongue as if he were considering a fine vintage wine. “While your sisters resemble your father, I can see that you are made of your mother.”
I snarled at her mention, and his grin grew wide.
“Your mother was a great warrior. She gifted me this many years ago.” He tugged aside the neck of his leather tunic to reveal the tail of an angry white snake that writhed across his collarbone. “She was a great Queen, one who earned my respect.”
“Not enough, clearly,” I replied through gritted teeth.
The King laughed loud and hearty. “Respect extends only so far in war; however, I agreed to consider your father’s final appeal out of hope that her nature lived on. Tell me, what magic have you been gifted?”
“None,” I lied, perhaps too quickly, and was immediately sent sprawling with a stinging cheek to the floor. Anna and Maria both cried out, clutching at their skirts, but dared not move. I licked a dribble of blood from my lips as Gregor knelt down, so close that I could taste the clinging gore of those he’d recently slain.
“I will have the truth, or your sisters will meet their death.”
“The Sight. Like my mother.” I spat with venom.
He held my gaze for what felt like an eternity, and then offered a massive hand to help me to my feet. “Hardly an exciting talent, but it’s something. You will do well for my boy, and for that, the rest of your family will live. For now.”
So Father made a deal with the Devil, and I was the price of exchange.
I squared my shoulders with all the dignity I could muster as the terms of my sale were agreed—I was to marry the Prince and produce heirs that would, with luck, inherit my coveted magic. My dowry was to be our Kingdom, and my remaining unremarkable relatives would be spared to live out their days in exile.
I went quietly, my inferno leashed, just as Mother had instructed.
A fortnight later I was again publicly appraised, dressed in foreign fashion and gliding past foreign faces in the King’s imposing fortress. The arched ceilings stretched tall, and the dark stone walls were ablaze with the flickering light of hundreds of torches that couldn’t help but flare in salute as I passed.
The King sat at the head of the hall, the claws of a vanquished grizzly dangling over his chest, his legs spread wide on the seat of the impressive carved throne. He drank deeply from a jeweled goblet, shrewd eyes following my procession through the crowded room. All around me, the gathered courtiers whispered, assessing the cheap purchase that would soon demand their knees.
Prince Kasimir stood at his father’s side, noticeably unworthy of his title. While Gregor had indisputably earned his rank, the Prince was plainly untried. Although handsome like his father, he was lithe and lean, and wielded a smug swagger that marked more time spent in the bedroom than in battle.
He leered down with mingling curiosity and condescension at my arrival. The mere hunger in his eyes as they traveled below my neckline made me desperate to smite him on the spot, but instead I swept into a deep curtsy—deep enough to dance the line between respect and scorn. While Kasimir’s face contorted in annoyed offense, the King’s laughter rumbled like thunder over the heads of his subjects.
“Be welcome, Sofia, and meet your betrothed.”
The Prince deigned to descend from the dais and held out a hand to drag me from the bow. A trio of musicians struck up an unfamiliar tune, and I was suddenly swept up with arrogant assumption into a dance I did not know.
“You have very warm hands,” he murmured softly in my ear as I fumbled to follow his lead. “They’ll be a delight in bed later.”
“We are not yet married,” I rebuked, despite the heat that welled in my cheeks. “You are not welcome in my bed.”
“That’s not how we do things here,” he replied.
Whether that was true or not, I had no way of knowing, but I had been stoking the embers under my skin for months now, and could not waste their cumulative power on this boy alone. I was an assassin with a mission to demolish a Kingdom, not to sting a pretty Prince.
Although Mother had not inherited the gift of flames as I had, it was true that she did have a dash of the Sight.
On my fourteenth birthday, she burst into my room to douse the wardrobe against which I had committed accidental arson. While I stared in fright at my glowing fingers and the charred doors, she peered into the future and beheld the incineration of her enemies.
So began Mother’s planning.
For her sacrifice.
For my sale.
For their scorching.
She was the flint and I the flame.
We told no one of my magic, and I was weaponized in secret. Over the next few years, I grew into my power and we worked to tame my flames and train my focus, honing my skills and expanding my capacity so that I would be prepared for the surge that would be required to lay waste to Gregor’s Kingdom.
I was to be the finale of the centuries-old feud between our families, Mother told me proudly on the day that I turned entire acres of ancient forest to ash. With more aggressive power in my blood than had been seen in generations, I would finally destroy those who had, for so long, maimed and murdered in their crusade to steal our magic.
To be a princess is to be a pawn, and I was playing my part well even after the death of my master.
But, to collect enough kernels of heat to succeed, I needed more time.
So I finished the dance with clumsy grace and greeted the lords and ladies of the King’s court.
I ate their heavy food and drank their honey mead and began to learn their strange customs.
I received the Prince in the night with open arms so as to avoid confrontation, and was pleased to discover he was indeed well-acquainted with the bedroom.
In preparation for our upcoming nuptial, I was fitted for an extravagant diamond-crusted gown and presented with an elegant tiara that had belonged to Kasimir’s late mother. Everyone in the Kingdom was invited to witness our union and revel in the aftermath.
It was then that I intended to let my fire fly.
But as the date grew nearer, my resolve grew weaker. Gregor assured me the entire Kingdom would be attending the wedding—this now included my mother’s former subjects, and I balked at the thought of burning them too.
Further, the Prince came to elicit my sympathy; bound by the machinations of his father, he was a pawn in his own right who drowned his lack of autonomy in lust and liquor. Our dalliances quickly became more than physical, and I was uneasy to discover buds of affection blooming in my soul as he helped me to navigate the unfamiliar terrain of their court and softened my heart towards his people’s plight.
“I do not understand.” I said one evening while we lay sprawled in a labyrinth of twisted sheets, “I expected them to hate me, to go out of their way to hurt me.”
Kasimir stroked a lazy finger up my arm. “They do not hate you. They fear you.”
I considered how the majority of the courtiers avoided my eye, found somewhere else to be when I entered a room, and tittered nervously when they were unable to evade my conversation.
“Many of my father’s subjects do not support our quest. They have been taught only the horrors of magic, and want nothing to do with it.”
“Do you support it?” I asked. “Are you happy that you finally captured the tiny, unexciting, bit of the Sight that I possess?”
“Fire must be fought with fire,” he answered simply, and my stomach curled.
“That’s ridiculous,” I laughed off his too-apt metaphor, “Fire must be fought with water.”
“But why fight at all?” he responded. “Why could the fire not be contained to leave us in peace?”
“You were left in peace,” I snapped. “Our existence and your envy were enough provocation.”
“Is that so?”
“I suppose you and I learned different histories. Please – let’s not argue. I’d rather put those deliciously toasty hands of yours to use.”
While the conversation was put to bed (literally), Kasimir’s last point was etched in my heart. As I came to better understand their perspective, roasting these people alive became much less appealing.
Although Mother had given her life for the cause that she so deeply believed in, for the trust in me that she so greatly gave, I wavered in my conviction of her conviction. Perhaps I could dispose of the King alone, and end the vendetta without paying the cost of the innocent lives amongst whom I now lived.
Even as I knelt at the altar, laden in satin and crystal, with my hand in Kasimir’s, I debated my path. Even as the crowds cheered and the King jeered, I tried to reconcile their beliefs with mine. Even as we stood on the steps of Gregor’s fortress overlooking our guests, bound in matrimony, with an immense furnace burning in my chest, I hesitated.
“For my lovely new daughter-in-law!” The King stepped forward and waved his arms theatrically. “A gift!”
The crowd parted with a hush, and a masked man thrice the size of the King dragged forth a cart caged in iron bars.
Inside—beaten, bruised, bloody—was Mother.
She sat straight and tall, every inch a Queen despite her flayed skin and swollen face, oblivious to the tossed stones and hissed curses that were hurled from the masses.
I turned to Kasimir, who smirked at my shock.
“You knew?” I whispered.
He shrugged, as though I should have seen this coming. “My father is very clever, even without magic at his disposal. I suppose you meant to set our marital bed alight tonight?”
My heart was rent in half. The blooms of my fondness withered and died. My vision was glazed in crimson. The flames were sizzling snakes my belly, writhing to be let loose and strike.
“Douse your fire, witch.” The King commanded. “Whatever flame you may summon, keep it smothered. Or they all die.”
Anna and Maria were flung forward from the crowd. They landed on their knees, wrists bound, weeping in the mud beside Mother’s cage.
Mother leaned forward, clutching the iron bars between her ruined hands, with eyes for no one but me.
The last thing I saw before I exploded was the King’s face, twisted in fear at the misfortune of his miscalculation. Hell’s fury rained down until there was no one left but me, drifting through an echoing cloud of ash, smoke, and screams.