The blade tore through my stomach.
“Ah, Yoowuh Ecklensy... Why...?” (Ah, Your Excellency... why...?)
“This is for the family, you filthy wretch. Don’t make a fuss. Just die.”
No, I’m scared. I don’t want to. I’m scared. I’m scared. I don’t want to die!
An enormous, drooling dog lunged at me, barking ferociously.
I was running for my life with a hand pressed to my stab wound when I was bit on the ankle and fell over.
“Ah, it huhts. It huhts...” (Ah, it hurts. It hurts…)
I couldn’t breathe through the scorching pain. My vision went pitch-black.
The dog’s sharp, saliva-dripping fangs threatened me. It wasn’t a terror a young child like me could endure. My whole body shook and my sight blurred from the tears welling in my eyes. I looked down at my palms and saw them soaked in crimson blood.
“You repulsive demon spawn.”
Those were the last words I heard before I died. My uncle’s ever-cold face broke into a smile for the first time as he watched me tremble in fear. He dragged me by the hair, then hurled me into a corner.
The pain wasn’t something I could get used to, no matter how many times I swallowed it back. No matter how hard I struggled to believe this wasn’t real, it didn’t take away the agony.
A flash of silver flickered in my lifeless eyes.
And, just like that, I was beheaded.
* * *
“Gowin’ to poijen!” (Going to poison!) I mumbled, practicing again for nearly the 666th time while facing my makeshift doll—a rotten log with an orange mushroom sprouting from it.
Whether it was from malnutrition from being underfed or for some other reason, I was still too small for my five years of age. My tongue must’ve been as stunted in development as my body was, because despite my best efforts, I couldn’t get my consonants right. It frustrated me, but I made another babbling attempt.
“The cuwpwi’ is the no-goo’ cown’!” (The culprit is the no-good count!)
It wasn’t easy, but it felt extremely satisfying that I got it right. This sentence was directly linked to my very survival, so I had to practice it thoroughly if I didn’t want to die. Without wasting a second, I moved straight to the next sentence.
“Gol’, coin pwe’y. Mi’e.” (Gold, coin pretty. Mine.)
It was a particularly difficult sentence for a child’s tongue to manage. I put my hands together politely and, pushing them forward, recited the most important line.
“Chide suppoh’ pwease.” (Child support please.) In gold! Definitely in gold.
If anyone saw me, they’d think I was some money-grubber paid off to frame an innocent bystander for a crime. But I was just a little kid, only as tall as a grown man’s knees. No matter how much I loved money, no one would commission me for a job like that.
The reason I was desperately prattling on was to save my life. “I nee’ to ge’ my pwonun-cia-sho’ wigh’...” (I need to get my pronunciation right...) Or else I wouldn’t be able to hold my ground at the negotiating table. This baby tongue just wouldn’t do.
I initially thought that once I reached the age of five, I’d shoot up like a plant and everything would become easier. But lo and behold, my growth continued to linger at around a three or four-year-old’s size.
Feeling despondent, I plopped down on the ground. There was no one to stop me, since I was alone in the room. I looked down at my dismal state and heaved my 667th sigh. My hair, which had never once been trimmed since the day I was born, fell long and messy over my face and obstructed my view. The dusty clothes I wore were so old and worn that it was impossible to tell what their original color had been.
This alone was enough to warrant arrest for child abuse, but no one could save me. I mean, who would even know these things, when I was locked up and kept from going outside? No one knew I was here. Blowing air into my hollow cheeks sunken in from malnutrition, I stared at the old door I’d never once passed through in my entire life. I lived in this house, but my existence was no different from a ghost’s.
But it’ll open today, right?
At the bottom of the door there was a doggie door that had originally been meant for the family hunting dog. It was now used to push in my meals, so I guess I should call it a food door now. I couldn’t escape through it, because there were locks on the outside to prevent me from leaving.
I knew because I’d tried. It was better not to waste my energy on futile attempts, considering I barely had enough stamina to keep my eyes open throughout the day. There was nothing I could do with hands as small as ducklings’ feet.
As if on cue, my tummy growled. It was so empty, my bellybutton was practically touching my spine. I pinched my bony belly and scolded it. “Stoppi’!” (Stop it!)
Babies must eat when they’re hungry, but it’ s only natural for unloved babies to be left to starve. I gauged from the sunlight leaking down from the high window that it would be a long time until “the moment” would come.
I should just get back to working on my pronunciation. The days ahead would be pivotal. I’d been enduring all this time for the events to come, and today would be the beginning of it all.
I held back the tiny hungry tears wetting my eyes and opened my blue lips again. “I came foh de chide suppoh’ you haben bin gibbin’ me, Daddy.” (I came for the child support you haven’t been giving me, Daddy.)
* * *
I was the daughter of a saint.
Why then, you ask, was I confined like this? Simple. Because I was a cursed child who killed her own mother the moment I was born. But that wasn’t the only problem.
According to the doctrine of El-Halla, the religion followed by half the empire, God created the world, then declared that the neraphim would protect the humans. But the neraphim were angels who used holy powers and lived in God’s Elysium, where no human could reach, so they decided to select humans to receive their blessings. These special humans chosen to borrow and wield the power of the neraphim were known as “saints” and “holy knights,” and their direct descendants were born with gleaming silver hair.
Their opposites were the “devils,” or, as some called them, the “demons.” According to the doctrine of El-Halla, they were old enemies of the neraphim who possessed twisted and evil powers. And just as many as those who believed in El-Halla were those who believed in the Doctrine of Devils. The unholy enemies of the neraphim, the humans imbued with the power of the devils, were distinguished by their jet-black hair.
Saint Arcilla Evelan, the ninth daughter of God who came down to this world to punish the devils and save mankind—that was my mother. She was as pretty as a lily and, of course, had silver hair.
But one day she came home pregnant, turning the house upside down. Apparently, she wouldn’t say who the father was no matter how much the family interrogated her.
However, the secret they thought she would take to the grave was laid bare the day I was born. As my mother’s child, I should’ve had silver locks proving the neraphim had blessed my existence. No question. But I was—drumrolls, please—black-haired.
The house went into an uproar at the blasphemy, and I was hastily hidden away. Publicly, I had never been born, and my mother had died from a sudden illness.
It’s not like I asked to be born with black hair... I pouted my lips in protest. My aunt and uncle, my mother’s sister and brother, hated me with a fury. No, let me correct that—everyone in this house loathed me.
My aunt spurned me from the beginning. She wished me dead, saying that I was a demon’s seed who ruined my mother. My uncle raged at me, saying my existence barred him from promotion within the holy order, and that I’d destroyed his chances at becoming a cardinal. This was because my mother’s death had brought the age of God’s ninth daughter to an end. House Evelan’s dream of securing even more power withered with the passing of the ninth saint.
As it was customary for a new saint to appear within ten years of the passing of the previous one, God’s tenth daughter was expected to descend upon the world soon. In other words, my uncle had become nothing more than a rudderless ship on the Nustaf River.
And so I was neglected. The maid who changed my diapers came only once a day. I was taught to write by the butler, who came once a week. And aside from those two, I had no other visitors in this small room.
What awful people, treating a baby like this. I puffed out my cheeks. I have to leave as soon as possible, or I’ll definitely end up dead... Or a killer.
When my legs grew out like they should, when I could walk long distances all by myself, then I’d go far, far away. But where to? I didn’t have any money. I was a fairly rational and calculating child—a world-weary five-year-old who worried about her survival. I wasn’t reckless, nor was I caught up in sentimentality, believing everything would turn out fine in the end.
Money! Every time the butler or maid looked at me, they clicked their tongues and berated me, asking me if I knew how much money went into raising me. Of course I didn’t know. But I knew money was a necessity to survive in this world. That made it simple. I had to get money!
But how would I do that when I couldn’t even get out of this cramped room? No one in this household was on my side. I diligently gave out bright smiles to whoever came into this room to win them over, but all I ever got in return was a cold shoulder.
I was a child who was never supposed to be born. It would have been easier for them if they’d just killed me, so why were they keeping me alive? I’d finally learned the answer to that question on my birthday early this year.
* * *
“I’m sowwy. I’m soww— Ack!”
It snowed heavily that winter, and I’d falling asleep shivering as usual. My birthday wasn’t any warmer than any other day. On that morning, my aunt came to see me for the first time in three months.
“You destroyed my sister’s life! Die! Die!” My aunt, who’d been staring at me from the doorway, abruptly struck and clawed at me. The raging hostility in her face was honestly terrifying. The soft baby skin of my face couldn’t withstand her fingernails, and it flushed red everywhere she struck. “It’s all your fault. If it weren’t for you, my sister wouldn’t have died. You killed her!”
“An’ Mawianne, An’ Mawianne... I’m sowwy. I’m sowwy... I’m sowwy...!” (Aunt Marianne, Aunt Marianne… I’m sorry. I’m sorry… I’m sorry…!)
I fell to my knees and begged for mercy.
“Repeat after me. I killed my mother. My mother died because I was born. I said, repeat after me!”
But no matter how hard I cried, the violence didn’t stop, even though she hadn’t gone nearly as far when I’d been three or four years old. In the end, I had no choice but to follow my aunt’s demands, trembling as I crouched down on the floor. “I-I, mothuh, my mothuh...”
“I killed her.”
“I... kiwed huh.”
“That’s right, you killed her. Now write it down here. You know how to write, don’t you? You’ve been taught.” My aunt gave a pleased smile and pushed the sheets of paper in front of my nose.
“Ah...” I looked forlornly at the bundle of paper. She was right. I had learned to write. And the first thing the butler had taught me to write hadn’t been my name, nor the name of my family.
“Don’t expect any food until you’ve written a hundred letters of repentance. Don’t tell me you’re hungry on the day you devoured your mother. You’re not that shameless, are you?”
On the night I grew a year older, I suffered that much longer. I lay on the wooden floor, staring vacantly at the dusty ceiling above me.
—I’m a daughter who killed her mother.
The ache in my wrist was unimaginable after writing the same sentence over and over, not one hundred times, but enough to fill one hundred pages. After a while, I lost all feeling in my hand.
I killed my mother. That’s why I’m being punished.
I was a bad child. I was a demon that should never have been born. I should just die. I should just...
But... I don’t want to die.
I want to live too.
A fever came over me. Clutching my wrist, I fainted and dreamed four long, long dreams. The dreams were so vivid they were etched into my mind, impossible to forget.
All four of the dreams started the same way.