It was a heartbreaking dream of better days.
Skye clambered up the twining tower stairs, calling after his sister. "Muriel, come down! I'm sorry. Muriel!" He caught a flash of her bare feet just once. She was too fast. The door to the lookout was open and swinging in the wind when he reached the top stair, gasping.
His sister was sitting on the flagstones by the balustrade, her back to him. She looked like one of her dolls. Thick, tangled hair whipped around her head. Her legs splayed out at odd angles beneath her. She was crying.
"Not stupid," she mumbled.
"I didn't mean it!" he lied. "I was just mad. I'm sorry. Muriel, look at me, please?"
She stubbornly turned her head away, insisting, "Not."
On impulse, he hugged her. She was bigger than him, older, and all stiff-limbed. It was like hugging a rock.
"Prince Skye," the strident voice of his nurse gasped. "You get away from her, now!"
Wrinkling his nose, Skye turned towards the woman. His nurse, Miss Bonny. She was bent over, hands on knees, trying very hard to catch her breath. She looked more than ever like a sack of potatoes with lace stuck on in places. Was that spittle? Out of spite, he kept his grip on his sister.
Miss Bonny straightened and stalked forward but still stopped far away from them. Her chest was still heaving. "Now," she repeated and viciously stabbed a finger at a spot next to her right hip. "Get away from that…away from her before you catch the curse."
"Mother says it's not a curse," he replied cheekily. "Mother says its because she was dropped on her head as a baby. That's why she's..." He caught himself just before he called Muriel stupid. Again, and that was why they were up here to begin with. "…like this," he finished. Muriel made a low sound, like a wounded cat, and tried to push him off, but he stuck to her like a leech.
Face red, Miss Bonny's mouth moved like she wanted to scream at him but had forgotten how. "Your mother…" She almost began a tirade before pursing her lips. Her final response ("The priests say it is a curse, so it is a curse.") did not sit with Skye well.
"Priests are stupid!" he groused.
The look on the nurses face was exactly like Muriel's when he used the word her. He had snuck into her nursery, wanting to play with her new toy, a windup dog that walked and everything. They had instantly starting fighting over it. Is mine, not yours, is mine, was the gist of his older sister's argument. Even if it should be his turn, even if she had been playing with the dog for hours. Puffing up, he had called her stupid.
She'd gone white. Her eyes bulged. Her eyebrows shot up, almost into her hairline. Her lips drew back and down as her throat went all tight.
That was the look on Miss Bonnie's face. "Your Highness!" She was completely outraged, and probably would have smacked him if she were allowed to. She darted up to him and, wrapping her hands first in her apron, pried him off of Muriel. Dragging him towards the stair, she screeched little snatches of word like, "Why I should," "a heretic," "your father," and "bath, now!"
At the last he cringed. He hated baths!
When they reached the door, something, probably Muriel's sniffling, made him look back. She was still sitting with her back to him. She looked small and lonely out there. It didn't seem like she would be getting up any time soon. He suddenly felt bad. She would still be happily playing with the little metal dog in her nursery if he hadn't ruined everything. Now she would sit out in the dark until she thought to wander back in or Mother found out.
Mother. She was going to hate him. "Sorry!" he cried out, trying to fix things, before Miss Bonny slammed the door shut and hauled him to the washroom.
Scrubbed raw, dressed for dinner, and completely miserable, Skye watched his mother enter Muriel's nursery with a tray of food and leave looking completely distraught. "Baby!" she called out, peering under a lace tablecloth before moving on. "Where are you?"
He was dead. "Mother?" he asked.
"Not now darling," she replied, mouth tight. "Muriel?"
He was almost willing to let her go on ignoring him, but a tight feeling in his chest made him try again. "Mutti?" he tremulously asked again, this time in the language she spoke to him in sometimes.
She paused and turned to face him, frowning. "What, Skye?"
A second's pause and then it all tumbled out. How Muriel hadn't let him play with the dog, and he hadn't meant to, not really, and he tried to say he sorry. He hadn't wanted to leave her up there by the tower but Miss Bonny had dragged him away and he was sorry. Mother stared at him before breaking into a dead run.
He grabbed a pillow and pressed his face into it, crying. He stayed like that until he heard them come back. Mother was humming and Muriel was making the wet gasping sounds she did when she was scared. Sky peeked over the edge of the pillow, only to bury his head into again when Mother turned to him.
"Oh, Skye," she murmured. He felt her sit down beside him. "I don't think either of us will be ready for dinner. Come here." Obediently, he burrowed into her warmth.
They sat for a long time. Mother left briefly to bring back the tray back from the nursery and the all quietly chewed on soft bread, fruit, and cheeses. Eventually, Mother started to tell a story about a wizard – a person with holy powers from her country – and how he saved a princess from a monster. Skye decided he wanted to be a wizard and said so. Instead of smiling, Mother looked away and said he couldn't be a wizard here. Mandalay, their country, had no wizards.
Still, Skye fell asleep dreaming of princesses and powers.
…you embarrass yourself like this!"
Skye blinked groggily at the screech.
"Miriam, be quiet!" his mother hissed.
Was Miriam here? He turned towards the door. Dressed in silk, ribbons festooning her hair, a girl stood with her arms folded, glaring. Ugh. Yes, she was.
Don't get him wrong. He loved Miriam. But he had to; she was his sister. Miriam was old, though, almost fourteen, and she was mean. She hated him, even if their mother completely denied it, and she hated Muriel, which no one could deny. Skye's crime was being a boy; he supposed she had wanted a sister. Muriel was beautiful, and Miriam wasn't. Miriam was smart and Muriel wasn't, but that didn't even things out in her opinion. She looked at them like bugs most of the time, and as nuisances the rest of it.
They were bugs at the moment. Mother wasn't happy. "Dear, if you can't be nice, I think you should be in bed."
Miriam's nose wrinkled. "I'm not a child anymore, Mother," she complained.
"No. I suppose you aren't. Which should mean you're past being rude, but then you've never let anything get in your way before, so why should that stop you now?"
Miriam got her tongue from their mother, though the princess used it a lot more than the Queen. Skye was just glad they both thought he was still asleep.
"That thing should be put out if its misery, not allowed to traipse around like a beloved pet. And God only knows what the curse is doing to my dear little brother." She didn't sound all that broken up about it. "If it were up to me…"
"Well it isn't, now is it, dear." Mother's voice was icy for one tiny moment before brightening. "Now why don't you run along and catch up on your beauty rest."
Miriam turned purple. Purple. "I'll do that!" she snapped and stalked out. A door slammed in the distance.
Skye felt his mother slump. His head was on her thigh. She twined her fingers through his curls, muttering, "That girl. I wish I could beat her."
"So you don't like her either!" he blurted before he could stop himself. She stiffened.
"Oh, Skye, you didn't hear all that," she moaned, clearly wishing that he hadn't.
"I don't like her either," he reminded her, trying to be helpful.
She frowned at him. "Don't you say things like that. You're a good boy, or should be. It's your time for bed, too."
"But Mutti, I already slept," he tried.
But to no avail. She stood him up smartly. "Bed. Now. Don't ever say things like that about Miriam. And promise me you'll stay away from her. Just," she shot a look at Muriel, still asleep on the couch. "Just stay away," she demanded, eyes pleading.
Skye couldn't do anything but nod, and then he found himself in his nursery, being undressed by a still fuming Miss Bonny.
It wasn't very hard to stay away from Miriam. Miss Bonny practically had a leash on him for the first few days. He was trapped in his nursery, which Miriam avoided on principle. He saw her twice when he ate dinner at the court table, but the table was very long, and Miriam sat beside their father on one end while Sky was lodged firmly next to his mother on the other. Sometimes it seems like hundreds of dining nobles and priests separated him from his sister.
It was nothing like the distance between him and Muriel, even, though their nurseries were very close. Miss Bonny kept too close a watch. He almost made it once to see her, but the nurse dragged him right back out.
This all changed when Miss Bonny fell asleep during his afternoon nap. Cracking an eye open, he watched the woman in the chair for three minutes before crawling out of the bed and tiptoeing from the room. He had to apologize to Muriel somehow, or he would continue to feel awful until the day he died.
She wasn't in her nursery, but he finally tracked her down to the garden. She would sit out on a blanket, pretending to have her own tea when the Queen and her ladies did the same just out of sight. Not even daring to look at the gathering of women chattering for fear of his mother spotting him, he dashed through a thing stand of trees and sure enough, Muriel was playing with her dolls and little wooden cups.
She seemed happy enough until she saw him. As he had guessed, she hadn't forgotten the whole thing with the dog and the tower. Pouting she slammed her cup down on the blanket at looked away.
"I said I was sorry!" he whined, dropping down onto his knees beside her.
She hmphed. Miriam used to make the same sound, but how Muriel had picked it up from her, secluded as she was, Sky had no idea.
Tentatively, he picked up one of the cups. Part of him wanted to dash back under his covers before Miss Bonny woke and found him gone. Another part squashed it. This had to be made right. He just wished Muriel would make it easier on him.
"Can we play a game?" he tried. She glanced at him. Well, that was something. "We can be like Mother's story. You'll be the princess."
"Am princess," she snapped back.
"A real one," he snapped back before catching himself. "And I'll be the wizard."
A curious look stole over her face. "With powers?"
He paused, not sure how to continue. Muriel wasn't the best at imagining. She could make do, drink water and call it tea time, but imagining something that wasn't there at all was just too hard. Knowing that, he still made the mistake of saying yes.
"See powers," she instantly demanded and thing went down from there. He was finished if she started screaming and someone (their mother) came over and found him. So he promised he would try.
Eyes clenched, straining until he was sweating, he tried, willing something, anything to happen. After a while, his stomach started to feel strange and he thought the trying was making himself sick until Muriel gasped and giggled, "Pretty!"
He opened his eyes and gasped himself. Bobbing between them was a blue light. It looked like one of Miss Bonny's tangled balls of yarn to Skye, but tilting his head, he guessed it could be pretty. If you were a girl.
He scowled and the light linked out. Muriel looked put out a moment before clapping and laughing, "Again. Make the pretty again."
At first Skye wondered what she thought he had to do with the strange light. Then he realized it had to be him. Peering intently at the air, he tried very hard. Nothing happened. Nothing happened, and then…
Muriel reached for the light, delighted.
Miss Bonny was not happy. Fortunately for both of them, his mother volunteered to watch him for the night, to let the woman calm her nerves. Skye wondered how to bring up what had happened during their quiet dinner alone before just blurting it out. "Mutti, I'm a wizard!"
She froze. "What did you say?" she whispered.
"I said I'm…"
"I heard you," she interrupted, making him wonder why she had even asked. She set down her fork. "And no, you are most definitely not!"
Confused and angry that she wasn't absolutely thrilled, he tried, "But I can…"
"No!" With that, she grabbed him from the couch they shared, turned him over her lap, and smacked him hard, four times.
While he was still too shocked to even cry, she pulled him up and made him look at her. "You can't be, Skye. You won't be, do you hear me!" She shook him. "Well?"
"Yes, Mother," he managed in a small voice before he started sobbing. Instead of comforting him, she dragged him to his nursery and deposited him on the bed before rushing out again, slamming the door as she went. He fell asleep miserable, wishing he knew what he had done wrong.
He awoke feeling awful with a hand poking his side. He turned to glare at the offending person, only to stare and bolt upright. "Muriel?" he gasped.
She smiled at him hopefully. "Pretty," she asked. Well, at least she didn't hate him anymore. The same could not be said for Mother. With a sigh, he took Muriel's hand and led her quietly back to her nursery. She wasn't supposed to wander, but her door didn't lock, so naturally she went where she wanted. And right then she wanted Sky, or more accurately, she wanted his pretty. Her pout and the possibility of her screaming proved too much and he concentrated until the blue light swam back into view.
This light was why his mother hated him. He resolved to hide it from her, which meant hiding it from everyone but Muriel, who wasn't smart enough to blab. And seeing Muriel happy made him feel better, so what was the harm?
Over the next few weeks, Skye got much better at escaping Miss Bonny, to the point where he suspected she had just given up. He spent his days entertaining Muriel with the light. It become easier and easier to summon. Then he learned to control it's movements, letting his sister chase after it around her nursery or her secluded part of the garden.
Their next big fight almost happened over the same thing as the last. One afternoon, Skye grew tired of letting Muriel play with the light, wanting to study it himself. She wasn't having any of it, snapping, "My Pretty," and attempting to snatch it from the air with little success. Anger swelled in him and he was about to yell something unforgivable again when between them a second light flared up. It was yellow as a hornet and buzzing about just like one, too.
"Pretties," she remarked, startled.
Of course, when Skye reared back in surprise, they both winked out. Fortunately, Muriel was shocked into forgetting she was about to pull a tantrum. Gritting his teeth, he re-summoned the blue and sent it several feet away. "Play with that one," he demanded before concentrating on bringing back the yellow.
"Pretties," she murmured again before obeying. The yellow, at first, wouldn't show up until he was angry at it for refusing to. Then slowly, as the weeks passed, it became like second nature. A violet ball of light began to appear, but only when he wasn't trying too hard. It was a slippery color, harder than the first two and much paler, like it wasn't sure it was there.
It was the day the green first appeared that everything came undone. They were in the garden again, Skye having sneaked past a ladies' luncheon to play with Muriel. He hadn't want to go. It just bothered him that snotty Miriam got to when she didn't want to either. His mind was centered on those thoughts when the light appeared before him. Softly, he reached out to hold it. He knew, faintly, that Muriel was shrieking "New Pretty!" over and over, but was too busy forcing the pale green sphere to keep its shape. When they unraveled, they always vanished, and he hated that.
It would have been better if they had vanished. There was a gasp. He looked up to see Miriam. The remains of a hateful expression lay on his eldest sister's face. She must have stalked over from the party to yell at Muriel for being so loud. Now she was looking at him, and she seemed…happy. Deliriously happy, even, but it was mixed in with that leftover hate. The result was unnerving. Fear clenched in his gut, and then the lights winked out.
Miriam stared at him for several seconds before grinning. Then she took a deep breath and screamed at the top of her lungs. She took off running, shrieking, "Priest! Damned! He's Damned! Help, priest, he's Damned!"
Those words marked the end of the happy part of Skye's childhood. The rest was too painful to remember. Especially what the priests had done.
The story didn't originally start this way, but I realized people had no idea what was going on the first way I had it. Oops. Usually leaping straight into the action is good, but background knowledge is necessary too. Now everything that happens in the following should make more sense. Please tell me if they don't. Any helpful input will get your name added to the story's acknowledgements in my profile as thanks.