no, not that one
“Who the fuck is the Godmother?”
It’s a good question.
The elaborately carved mahogany clock on the mantle is ticking.
“Your stepdaughter,” the herald finally presses, lifting his chin and tucking a sturdy vellum scroll under one arm, his waxed, curlicued moustache glinting orange-red in the thinly-veiled lamplight. “Will she be very much longer?”
“I already told you,” Carmine says with an imperious, decidedly unfriendly sniff, brushing an imaginary speck of lint off the watered silk sleeve of her dressing gown. “She isn’t here.”
The herald’s mouth puckers like he’s bit into a stale lemon cake. “Perhaps I should amend my inquiry—will she be very much longer returning from wherever she presently is?” A pause, suffocatingly thick with condescension. “Which is not here.” Another pause. Sharper. More scathing. “Obviously.”
“I couldn’t begin to speculate,” Carmine says through carefully—delicately, always delicately—gritted teeth. “She was not a member of our party at the ball.”
“Well, of course she wasn’t.”
The herald forces a tight, visibly insincere smile. “His Royal Highness would not have sent me to fetch her this morning had she not been so quick to flee down the palace steps. The carriage she left in was . . . quite unfamiliar to him. And our guards.”
“Oh.” Carmine hums and laces her fingers together in her lap. The princess-cut ruby centered on the band of her widow’s ring glitters. Glares. “I see.”
“Am I to understand, madam,” the herald says, jowls practically quivering with an oddly gleeful kind of indignation, “that you do not know where your stepdaughter is? At all?”
Carmine is pouring a splash of brandy into her ghastly, over-steeped tea when a second herald in ill-fitting palace livery—nearly indistinguishable from the first—rushes into the drawing room.
“The King,” the second herald gasps, barreled chest heaving, ink-stained fingertips fluttering, pockmarked cheeks ruddy with either excitement or exertion, it’s impossible to tell, “the King is—”
“Excuse you,” the first herald says, blustering. “Is that any way to enter a noblewoman’s residence? To announce yourself? You are a representative, neigh, an extension of the Royal—”
“And as such,” the second herald interrupts, appearing quite irritated, “I am here to convey a grievous bit of news. Most grievous, indeed.”
The first herald sneers. “Oh, indeed?”
“The King,” the second herald says again, throwing his shoulders back and taking a large, sniveling breath, “is dead.”
The first herald turns frightfully pale and emits a frankly alarming choking noise, garbled and high-pitched. “You—how dare you—His Majesty is not—His Majesty will never—you lying, conniving, gutless little scoundrel, I’ll have you executed, I swear to—”
Carmine rolls her eyes heavenward before yawning and making somewhat of a show of checking the clock on the mantle. She smoothly plucks a sugar cube out of the floral-patterned porcelain jar on the tea service, dropping it into her cup with dainty, well-practiced flick of her wrist.
“Dead?” she echoes, politely disbelieving. “Surely you’re mistaken.”
“I am not mistaken, madam,” the second herald says, casting a devastating glare over towards the first herald. The second herald then ducks his chin and lowers his voice like they’re servants gossiping in the kitchen about the cut of a debutante’s dress, or the assortment of murky lavender bruises littering the column of a courtier’s throat. “The King is dead. They’ve only just found the body.”
The first herald collapses on the nearest settee in a suspiciously graceful faint.
Scarlett and Vermillion drift downstairs, fully dressed and rabidly curious, with sparkling, bejeweled butterflies pinned in their hair.
“Mother,” Scarlett trills, just as Vermillion blurts out, “God, what is going on?”
Scarlett shoots Vermillion a disapproving frown. “Don’t be rude.”
“I am not being rude, I am merely wondering why that man—”
“Which—the one sleeping in our drawing room, that’s what I was—”
“Why ever do you suppose he’s doing that?”
“That’s what I’m asking!”
Scarlett clucks her tongue. “It takes you ages to get to the point, doesn’t it? Maddening.”
Before Vermillion can speak again—and Carmine very desperately does not want her to speak again, her nerves simply cannot bear it—the second herald, who is, to be fair, the lone remaining conscious herald, is coughing into his fist with an oily, exaggerated wince and holding up the long-forgotten scroll that the first herald had unrolled but never read, and that the second herald had been rather carelessly fanning him with while Carmine clenched her jaw and cursed her dead husband and gripped the armrests of her dreadfully uncomfortable chair tightly enough for its flimsy wooden skeleton to creak and groan and otherwise audibly protest the current atmosphere—the current events—with a voracity that she is, personally, quite envious of.
“The King,” the second herald says, sweeping his arms out like an actor in search of thunderous, mid-performance applause, “has been murdered.”
Scarlett and Vermillion both draw their hands up to their throats, twin expressions of abject, unmitigated, vaguely fascinated horror crossing their faces.
“God,” Scarlett bleats, just as Vermillion looks over at Carmine and demands, “Mother, did you hear? The King has been murdered!”
“Oh, now he’s been murdered?” Carmine snaps, nostrils flaring as she tries in vain to recall the precise technique her governess had taught her, once upon a distant, idyllic time, to summon a debilitating migraine. “Saved that bit of information for last, did you?”
The second herald blinks at her. “It did not seem pertinent, madam.”
“To—well, that is to—I am in possession, you see, of all the relevant details, I am but a humble—”
A terrible, preposterous thought occurs to her. “Sorry,” she lies breezily, “but who did you say sent you? Sent you here, specifically?” Her upper lip curls. “Sent you to me, even more specifically?”
The second herald smiles, slow and patronizing. “Perhaps we should all just wait for the inspector from the Royal Guard to arrive.”
“All of her things are still in her room, you know.”
“All of them.”
“She didn’t even take the blanket I made for her.”
“You didn’t make her a blanket.”
“Yes, I did!”
“It was more of a rag, wasn’t it?”
“It was a quilt.”
“A quilted rag, then.”
“Girls,” the inspector interjects, looking pained. “If you could—please—stay on topic, I would be most grateful.”
Scarlett bats her eyelashes. “Of course.”
“We do apologize,” Vermillion adds sweetly.
“It’s just we’re so very concerned—”
“About our darling, dearest, most precious of stepsisters.”
“Isn’t she your only stepsister?” the inspector asks, moustache twitching. He slants a confounded, supremely mistrustful glare over at Carmine, as if this farce is somehow her fault. Her responsibility. “Let’s go back to the ball, to yesterday evening—you mentioned you saw her? Your stepsister? Miss—ah—Miss Olive—”
“She showed up late,” Scarlett says, wrinkling her nose. “Quite late.”
“Disrespectfully late, in my opinion,” Vermillion tacks on. “There was nothing fashionable about it.”
“Write that down, please, that there was nothing fashionable about it.”
“And then she accosted the poor prince.”
“Dragged him around the ballroom like a horse, didn’t she?”
The inspector lowers his eyes to his smartly gloved hands, stretching his fingers out one by one, as if to reassure himself that they’re all present and accounted for. “I’m afraid I don’t follow the—ah. Um. The metaphor.”
Scarlett steels her spine like she’s preparing to march onto a battlefield. “It was all very suspicious.”
“Extremely,” Vermillion agrees sagely.
“So, naturally, we followed them outside.”
“Onto the balcony.”
“Which is where, from the comfort of a well-appointed stone bench—”
“Behind the topiary.”
The inspector heaves a tired, exasperated sigh. “Do you mean the windowsill?”
“We observed them dancing—”
“If you can call it such.”
“And they wouldn’t stop whispering to each other.”
“No sense of romance.”
“I would’ve been quite put out, if I were the prince.”
The inspector pinches the hardened, peasant-bumpy bridge of his nose, his demeanor that of a particularly jaded, overworked nursemaid being pelted by a spoonful of peas, and Carmine feels brief, instinctual, entirely unwelcome surge of pity. Sympathy? No, pity.
Sympathy is regrettable.
Pity is not.
“Well,” Carmine drawls, pouting mournfully, “if His Majesty is, indeed, dead—”
“He is,” the inspector says with a cool, flatly unimpressed scowl. “Dead. Indisputably. Saw the body myself.”
Carmine takes a wary, measured sip of her tea—now liberally doused with more brandy, bless her own foresight—and skewers the inspector with an appraising, close-mouthed, patently insincere smile.
He wilts, just a fraction, under her scrutiny.
“Then it would seem that His Royal Highness’s inexplicable, ah, interest in my stepdaughter’s whereabouts is no longer a priority.”
“I am here at the discretion of the Royal Guard, madam, not His Royal Highness.”
Carmine’s grasp on the fragile bone-china handle of her teacup grows infinitesimally tighter. “And?”
The inspector hesitates, shifting his considerable weight around on the plump velvet cushion of the settee. “Your stepdaughter is the actual daughter of a known traitor to the Crown,” he finally says with a terse, awkward grunt. “The fact that she has, coincidentally or not, gone missing mere hours after His Majesty’s death—well, she’s our prime suspect, madam.”
Carmine’s lips part with soundless, irreverent outrage. “You dare suggest that my late husband—”
“No, no, not him,” the inspector says, swatting his hand through the air with the same degree of annoyance Carmine herself might assign to an uninvited houseguest, or a marauding swarm of insects. “His wife. Ah—that is—his previous wife. The one before you. The first one. The—”
“Yes,” Carmine seethes, “I understand.”
“Right. Of course.”
She feigns nonchalance. “Disregarding my darling, dearest stepdaughter’s uncanny resemblance to her, what does that woman have to do with—any of this?”
The inspector furrows his broad, heavy brow. “Well, she was executed, wasn’t she? Rebel business?”
Carmine’s teacup falls into the saucer below with a shrill, messy, jarring clatter.
A third herald, sweat soaking his temples and mud streaking his dingy palace livery, dashes into the drawing room and heads directly for the inspector. They mutter to one another, hushed and conspiratorial, going swiftly back and forth like the pendulum on the ever-ticking mantle clock.
A wedding gift, Carmine remembers suddenly.
The clock had been a wedding gift from the royal family.
“What?” she demands, patience worn thin like an ancient pair of stockings. “What is it now?”
The inspector exchanges a loaded, cagey glance with the third herald.
“It would seem,” the inspector says, visibly reluctant, “that His Royal Highness, the Prince—” Scarlett and Vermillion eagerly lean forward, perched on the edges of their seats like silly, breathless, incompetent birds. “—has also, additionally, ah, mysteriously, that is, gone . . . missing.”
Carmine purses her lips and rises somewhat jerkily to her feet, reflexively cinching the belt of her dressing gown as she stomps back over to the sideboard. The decanter of brandy is still there, stopper pulled and crystal shimmering. She doesn’t bother with a teacup this time.
“So,” she begins, indecently loud, “we have a dead king—”
“God rest his soul,” the third herald murmurs.
“—and a missing prince—”
“Technically a missing king.”
“—and a, what, a fugitive stepdaughter? Is that right?”
The inspector furtively clears his throat. “Actually, the prince—”
“King,” the third herald bleats, quite a bit too cheerfully. “He is the King, now.”
“—left a note,” the inspector finishes, tugging at the cuffs of his jacket. It’s black, snarled with gold and burgundy accents, ornaments, patches and medals. “Apparently.”
Carmine pours more brandy into her glass. “Apparently?”
“It’s a ransom note,” the inspector goes on, undeterred. “It would seem that he’s been kidnapped.”
A pit begins to form in Carmine’s stomach, roiling and foamy and acidic and deep, and she wonders fleetingly, numbly, if it’s from the brandy or from something else. Something inarguably worse. She has always preferred the idea of mirrors—of self-reflection—to the reality of them.
“Kidnapped?” she repeats, tapping the butter-soft crescent of her thumbnail against her glass. “By a political foe? A rival kingdom?”
“By someone calling themselves—” The inspector scrubs at the scruff on his chin and peers down at the scroll the third herald had arrived with. “—the Godmother.”
At that, the drawing room door slams open again.
The prince staggers forward, clutching what appears to be a sluggishly bleeding wound in his lower abdomen. His golden-blond hair is matted, sweat-stiff and tangled like a neglected bale of straw, and he’s wearing a fine linen nightshirt over loosely-laced buckskin breeches. A smattering of murky lavender bruises shades the side of his neck.
The third herald stumbles as if he’s been struck, tripping over his own feet, the backs of his knees colliding with an empty armchair—he slumps down, gaze pinned with unwavering, wild-eyed astonishment on the prince’s bloody nightshirt, while Scarlett and Vermillion shriek and flail in unison, their hands flying right back up to their respective throats as they sway in their seats, cheeks blooming a garish, unflattering pink.
Carmine narrows her eyes.
So does the inspector.
“Where did you come from, my prince?” Carmine asks with a demurely calculated tilt of her head. “Have you received medical attention? Shall I summon—”
The prince cuts her off with a faint, ragged breath, collapsing into a bedraggled heap on the lush cream carpet, It’s all very theatrical. “It’s—I’m the King now, actually,” he manages to rasp. “Could do with a bit of decorum, in my present condition.”
“You!” the prince cries, a comically uneven thread of accusation warbling through his voice as points a shaking, elegantly manicured finger at—Carmine. What? “You, you—harpy! You did this!”
The inspector’s eyes narrow further, almost into slits. “She did that?”
“I did not do that,” Carmine says, alarmed.
“You stabbed me, and then you locked me in an attic, and then you—”
“No, I most certainly did not!”
“Yes, you did!”
“No, I didn’t!”
“Well, I say you did, and I’m the King,” the prince says smugly. Meanly. Snidely, like he’s just won a card game and cheated some naïve country squire out of the bulk of his inheritance. He leans back on his heels, lifting a single haughty, pretentious brow. “You also hired an assassin to murder my father.”
“The villainy,” the third herald mumbles to himself, audibly aghast. “The evil.”
Scarlett and Vermillion glance helplessly—delightedly—between Carmine and the prince, between Carmine and the inspector, between Carmine and the filthy, insipid, infuriatingly useless third herald, even; but they don’t speak up, don’t come to Carmine’s defense, and the inspector’s gaze remains shuttered. Conflicted. He’s twirling his bushy, unkempt moustache, the line of his posture tense and unforgiving. Peculiar.
“Yes, well,” the inspector says gravely. “I remain curious. Who is the Godmother?”
The prince smirks at that, slick and sly and poisonous, venomous, and Carmine—
Carmine has quite lost the ability to do anything, anything at all, but fucking laugh.
“I am innocent,” Carmine says hoarsely. The manacles encircling her wrists are heavy, dirty, old, partially eaten through in several spots with flaking, grizzled scars of orange-brown rust. The metal is already rubbing her skin raw. Scratching. Chafing. Corroding. “I could not have possibly committed any of those crimes.”
The inspector clasps his hands behind his back, turning on his heel with military precision and striding briskly over to the mantle. “No,” he agrees, with very little inflection. He’s staring—at the sterling silver candlesticks, at the porcelain vase still stocked with yesterday’s blood-red winter tulips, at the clock, ticking and ticking, shrouded in expertly carved vines of winding, snaking ivy and intimidatingly toothsome poinsettia leaves. “You could not have.”
“The King, madam.”
“The prince,” she insists with pointed, acidic, near-hysterical disdain, “and that girl, that awful, arrogant, ungrateful girl—”
“Your stepdaughter, madam.”
“That girl,” Carmine says again, her chin wobbling, an ugly, riotous concoction of hatred and terror and frustration and frothing, impotent rage spilling out of her in a great lurching wave, like a torrent of piercing, stinging, thunderous rainfall breaching the clouds, the sky, the stars. “That girl has nothing of her father in her. Nothing. She has always been—always been her dead mother’s daughter, always been scheming and rebellious and cruel and so convinced of her own cleverness that she—that I—and I am innocent! I have done nothing wrong!”
The silence that settles upon the drawing room, then, is swampy. Slimy. Rife with something markedly unpleasant that Carmine cannot identify, does not want to identify, will not identify, not ever, not if it means wading through a decade’s worth of muck and grime and tarnished, silken dishonesty.
“Perhaps you are innocent, madam,” the inspector eventually says, sounding exhausted, sounding sad, sounding guilty, too. “But I’m afraid you are powerless to prove it.”
originally published january, 2020