The Princess & The Witch
Sophie had waited all her life to be kidnapped.
But tonight, all the other children of Gavaldon writhed in their beds. If the School Master took them, they’d never return. Never lead a full life. Never see their family again. Tonight these children dreamt of a red-eyed thief with the body of a beast, come to rip them from their sheets and stifle their screams.
Sophie dreamt of princes instead.
She had arrived at a castle ball thrown in her honor, only to find the hall filled with a hundred suitors and no other girls in sight. Here for the first time were boys who deserved her, she thought as she walked the line. Hair shiny and thick, muscles taut through shirts, skin smooth and tan, beautiful and attentive like princes should be. But just as she came to one who seemed better than the rest, with brilliant blue eyes and ghostly white hair, the one who felt like Happily Ever After . . . a hammer broke through the walls of the room and smashed the princes to shards.
Sophie’s eyes opened to morning. The hammer was real. The princes were not.
“Father, if I don’t sleep nine hours, my eyes look swollen.”
“Everyone’s prattling on that you’re to be taken this year,” her father said, nailing a misshapen bar over her bedroom window, now completely obscured by locks, spikes, and screws. “They tell me to shear your hair, muddy up your face, as if I believe all this fairy-tale hogwash. But no one’s getting in here tonight. That’s for sure.” He pounded a deafening crack as exclamation.
Sophie rubbed her ears and frowned at her once lovely window, now something you’d see in a witch’s den. “Locks. Why didn’t anyone think of that before?”
“I don’t know why they all think it’s you,” he said, silver hair slicked with sweat. “If it’s goodness that School Master fellow wants, he’ll take Gunilda’s daughter.”
Sophie tensed. “Belle?”
“Perfect child that one is,” he said. “Brings her father home-cooked lunches at the mill. Gives the leftovers to the poor hag in the square.”
Sophie heard the edge in her father’s voice. She had never once cooked a full meal for him, even after her mother died. Naturally she had good reason (the oil and smoke would clog her pores) but she knew it was a sore point. This didn’t mean her father had gone hungry. Instead, she offered him her own favorite foods: mashed beets, broccoli stew, boiled asparagus, steamed spinach. He hadn’t ballooned into a blimp like Belle’s father, precisely because she hadn’t brought him home-cooked lamb fricassees and cheese soufflés at the mill. As for the poor hag in the square, that old crone, despite claiming hunger day after day, was fat. And if Belle had anything to do with it, then she wasn’t good at all, but the worst kind of evil.
Sophie smiled back at her father. “Like you said, it’s all hogwash.” She swept out of bed and slammed the bathroom door.
She studied her face in the mirror. The rude awakening had taken its toll. Her waist-long hair, the color of spun gold, didn’t have its usual sheen. Her jade-green eyes looked faded, her luscious red lips a touch dry. Even the glow of her creamy peach skin had dulled. But still a princess, she thought. Her father couldn’t see she was special, but her mother had. “You are too beautiful for this world, Sophie,” she said with her last breaths. Her mother had gone somewhere better and now so would she.
Tonight she would be taken into the woods. Tonight she would begin a new life. Tonight she would live out her fairy tale.
And now she needed to look the part.
To begin, she rubbed fish eggs into her skin, which smelled of dirty feet but warded off spots. Then she massaged in pumpkin puree, rinsed with goat’s milk, and soaked her face in a mask of melon and turtle egg yolk. As she waited for the mask to dry, Sophie flipped through a storybook and sipped on cucumber juice to keep her skin dewy soft. She skipped to her favorite part of the story, where the wicked hag is rolled down a hill in a nail-spiked barrel, until all that remains is her bracelet made of little boys’ bones. Gazing at the gruesome bracelet, Sophie felt her thoughts drift to cucumbers. Suppose there were no cucumbers in the woods? Suppose other princesses had depleted the supply? No cucumbers! She’d shrivel, she’d wither, she’d—
Dried melon flakes fell to the page. She turned to the mirror and saw her brow creased in worry. First ruined sleep and now wrinkles. At this rate she’d be a hag by afternoon. She relaxed her face and banished thoughts of vegetables.
As for the rest of Sophie’s beauty routine, it could fill a dozen storybooks (suffice it to say it included goose feathers, pickled potatoes, horse hooves, cream of cashews, and a vial of cow’s blood). Two hours of rigorous grooming later, she stepped from the house in a breezy pink dress, sparkling glass heels, and hair in an impeccable braid. She had one last day before the School Master’s arrival and planned to use each and every minute to remind him why she, and not Belle or Tabitha or Sabrina or any other impostor, should be kidnapped.
Sophie’s best friend lived in a cemetery. Given her loathing of things grim, gray, and poorly lit, one would expect Sophie to host visits at her cottage or find a new best friend. But instead, she had climbed to the house atop Graves Hill every day this week, careful to maintain a smile on her face, since that was the point of a good deed after all.
To get there, she had to walk nearly a mile from the bright lakeside cottages, with green eaves and sun-drenched turrets, towards the gloomy edges of the forest. Sounds of hammering echoed through cottage lanes as she passed fathers boarding up doors, mothers stuffing scarecrows, boys and girls hunched on porches, noses buried in storybooks. The last sight wasn’t unusual, for children in Gavaldon did little besides read their fairy tales. But today Sophie noticed their eyes, wild, frenzied, scouring each page as if their lives depended on it. Four years ago, she had seen the same desperation to avoid the curse, but it wasn’t her turn then. The School Master took only those past their twelfth year, those who could no longer disguise as children.
Now her turn had come.
As she slogged up Graves Hill, picnic basket in hand, Sophie felt her thighs burn. Had these climbs thickened her legs? All the princesses in storybooks had the same perfect proportions; thick thighs were as unlikely as a hooked nose or big feet. Feeling anxious, Sophie distracted herself by counting her good deeds from the day before. First, she had fed the lake’s geese a blend of lentils and leeks (a natural laxative to offset cheese thrown by oafish children). Then she had donated homemade lemonwood face wash to the town orphanage (for, as she insisted to the befuddled benefactor, “Proper skin care is the greatest deed of all.”). Finally she had put up a mirror in the church toilet, so people could return to the pews looking their best. Was this enough? Did these compete with baking homemade pies and feeding homeless hags? Her thoughts shifted nervously to cucumbers. Perhaps she could sneak a private supply into the woods. She still had plenty of time to pack before nightfall. But weren’t cucumbers heavy? Would the school send footmen? Perhaps she should juice them before she—