Offer to me not in wine, she whispers, I am filled with desire for blood.
The flowers in the garden wilt, and stain her hands as if they were bleeding. Her nails are tainted black, but she likes the aesthetic; it feels like an accurate depiction of the infinity of her soul. When Annot looks up at the night sky full of stars, she sees it reflected back at her. She's not certain whether the Gods have blessed her or cursed her, but their intent means little to her; she has power in her fingertips and her intention is to use all of it.
She's marked, and her parents don't like it. They despise her for it; her father refuses to have her sit at the table, and sends his servants to the garden to look for the source of her taint. Annot has buried the evidence deep into the lake bordering their lands, where fish can eat at it. Her mother weeps when she thinks others can't see.
"Your father," Behira says eventually. She casts a nervous glance to Annot's fingers, "Your father and I agree that you cannot appear in dignified company."
Annot remains impassive, and responds with a lustreless shrug. Whatever 'dignified company' may mean, she has no use for it now. She could easily take the world and all that lies beyond, and reshape it. There'd be nothing left of me, though.
What remains to her is Adlai, her little brother – proof of her father's indiscretion with a maiden of a faraway land, yes, brown like the people in the Caribbean. Adlai is an endless source of delight for his elder sister, and they share the same blue eyes that make their family so remarkable.
Their father had completed his obligation to their country, had bought lands somewhere at the edges of the then-known world and ruled there as a lord. After his third voyage, his motherland had gifted him a wife of noble blood. Years later, Behira could never look at that wayward son of his without some measure of restrained loathing. Her husband had returned with the child after his fifth journey; Adlai is younger than their true daughter, only a year or five to her fifteen, and the stain of infidelity covers him from head to toe.
Adlai has secrets in his blue eyes; they're rather similar to the ones Annot carries within her chest. She carries Adlai too – to the gardens where they can whisper their knowledge of stars and constellations, to the lake where they can talk to the plethora of fauna stalking about and within its waters, to the kitchens where he can hide between her sprawling skirts, and steal bits of food while she distracts the matronly cook. They picnic together beneath the shadows of the tallest trees, in corners where they're sure only ghosts can see them.
"She's almost a mother to that boy." Annot hears the butler murmur to a maid. "The only one of his blood that loves him."
It's not true, of course; Adlai's mother hasn't left to a higher place, and she sometimes picnics with them, gives Adlai all the love and kisses he needs. Annot has never seen a woman so beautiful and serene as Deiene – dark brown skin, elegant long limbs, and the patience to answer all of Annot's questions.
Adlai has the same square jaw as Deiene, the same dimples in his cheeks when he deigns to grace people with his smile. His hair does not curl as tightly as his mother's, but it still presents a challenge when Annot tries to comb it, so she leaves Deiene to tame it into braids. Adlai burrows against Deiene when he slumbers, and she rocks him into dreams with songs Annot only understands if her mind wanders elsewhere.
Deiene looks at Annot's blackened nails and smiles. "Now you call the spirits and they won't eat you." She cradles her son in her arms; he sleeps as if nothing but his dreams matter. Annot sees the frown as it passes on Deiene's face.
"But they'll come for me, won't they?" Annot says. She sits down next to Adlai's bed, and smoothens the creases in her light-peach nightgown. "The creatures of shadows and dusk-light – they'll come for me and for Adlai."
"Yes." Deiene responds. She hums a familiar tune, one she uses to put Adlai to sleep.
Their knowledge of the in-between grows too vast too quickly; Adlai says it once Annot's nails have remained black for a year. She's seventeen and he is seven, nearing his eight year. Adlai grows eerily beautiful, stays deceptively innocent within his small, wiry frame. Annot knows they both carry things within them that they cannot keep confined forever; they need a place to go, a bigger space to fill.
"You need to go," says Deiene. "Sail far away, where you can stand on hallowed ground to fight. Your vastness attracts demons, and I cannot protect you forever."
Annot looks to the skies and wishes for a downpour, a storm, but cannot discern why. The sky is wide and blue, big and beautiful. "It isn't the right time."
She thinks of her mother too, alone with only her father for comfort. Annot loves her mother far more than she wishes to leave.
It becomes urgent when Adlai wakes with fully white eyes, and opens his mouth to utter only white noise; it frightens the maid who attends to him. Annot relieves her of attending to Adlai. She holds his face between her hands and tells the power resting between his bones, his ribs, rising within his eyes, to subside, "It's not time yet."
"If not now, then when?" Deiene asks as Annot cradles Adlai against her chest. Annot shakes her head.
A month thence, Annot's parents allow her to return into the same spaces as they, as long as she wears gloves. She wears thin black ones that do not hide her nails, much to their dismay. Still, they take her to balls and tea-parties, to festivals and other events they deem important. It's time for her to present herself as a model daughter of their elite society. She is, after all, of noble blood, and she has to be a proper lady.
"What of Adlai, is he not the same?" she says. "Will you give him equal treatment? His mother is – "
"Was," her father corrects, "But she is nothing in our land."
Annot seethes; unlike Deiene, she cannot take those words and release them to the wind. When she spits in her father's and he demands she respect him, she says, "I cannot respect a man who would not acknowledge the worth of others."
She waits. Perhaps she will grow and wither in the time that it will take, but these seventeen years in a cold, grey land have taught her that, if not a virtue, patience still has merits. Annot sits with Adlai and listens to Deiene weave tales of monsters and fae creatures, she steals pies and leaves their crumbs for black birds. Adlai no longer runs around like a wildling between flowers; he, too, waits.
And when their father announces a seventh voyage, Annot and Adlai make plans of their own. He is eight and she nearly eighteen, and they have to leave. Annot counts the days, and kisses her mother's cheek every morning. It brings her both joy and sadness to see how that love changes Behira so quickly and completely; she sings again, and smiles as brilliantly as her name.
Annot watches her, once, from the archway. "There's not much time left, mother dearest."
"Oh, I know." Behira says. "There's little to be done about it – I'd best dance whilst I still can." In those days, it seems the chasm that grows between them is inexistent. Annot pretends not to know that her mother will die soon.
She gives Behira a bracelet, though she does not mention that Adlai spent many nights patiently putting the gems together. She kisses her mother one last time on a Saturday evening.
The Queen's Blessing sails on a Sunday afternoon. Annot and Adlai hide away beneath the deck, between boxes that hold guns and gun powder, textile, and jewels. The winds are good, so Adlai and she decide to sleep, and save their energies for when the tides turn terribly. Deiene rests inside a pendant that hangs close to Annot's heart.
They wake during the last hour of the calm. Adlai stretches his legs first, crawls between the boxes to look for their bags. Annot refuses to be seasick, so she spends her time ripping her dress into something practical, for when the storm breaks loose. Mother would be appalled, she muses, and frightened.
Adlai brings bread and some cheese; the siblings eat, and talk of those days they had spent by the lake. When the air becomes thicker, Annot hugs Adlai close, and they wait for the ship to break apart under the beatings of the tempest. The hurricane and the waves send them flying into the violent sea, and it seems like centuries pass before Annot can breathe. Adlai calls to her from where he floats upon a piece of wood. She swims and swims until she's with him, and they can begin the rest of their journey.
The isle is small, completely devoid of human life. It's perfect, a paradise with blue waters and white sand. They reach its shores at the break of dawn, surrounded by the crates Annot pulls along. For now, that's all they own. The ghosts they sat with in their garden have followed them too, and others join their little group of phantasms – stranded captains, lost passengers.
"This is no place for a young lady." An elderly fellow says. He leans on a cane, and his eyes are sharp, as grey as his hair. Annot shuts him up with a finger, makes him fly across the oceans to that place he hailed from, wherever it is.
"'Tis the right place for this young lady." She mutters. Adlai takes her hand, and together with Deiene's instructions, they begin to build their palace of dark wood and bones.
"What do we name our isle?" asks Annot as they work. Behind her, the waning moon rises to smile at them.
Adlai looks up above for the answer, to the black sky. "Astriferre," He says, "Bearer of Stars."
Deiene, who stands just behind Adlai, smiles. "That's beautiful."
When three days and three nights have passed, they have a new home. It has enough rooms for all the ghosts they brought along, for the secrets to flee from their confines and fill the dark spaces. There's a large hall where Annot can take Adlai's hands and spin him around without getting dizzy. There's a room next-door where they can brew and spin the things they've always wanted to – thin webs from tears, to turn silver on Adlai's spindle, drinks that erase hunger with only a few dewdrops, flowers Annot can plant in their new garden, made of the crushed skull of a beast they find in a cave, blue glitter-dust from sea-water, precious gems made from dried fruits which they put into jewels, and soft fabric Annot makes from mixing earth with stardust.
From every fresh corpse that finds itself stranded upon the edges of Astriferre Isle, they take the blood and make it wine – The Demon-Queen and the Witch-King.
With their secrets no longer confined, they can run wild and laugh harder. The sand and dirt and earth are their playground and they can form it as they please. In time, they will attract creatures and monsters and demons, they will make their own terrible critters and frightful colossus, but for now this is enough.
A year after they've made Astriferre Isle their home, Deiene leaves for a higher plane of existence. The siblings kiss her goodbye at the shores of Astriffere, and she walks unto the sea and dissipates on the horizon.
Adlai builds Deiene a shrine within a cave of crystals and diamonds, and Annot paves a path of marble. They leave a statue of gold.
Adlai becomes tall and fae-like, with long graceful limbs. Annot becomes wily and whimsical, a wisp-like creature. They rearrange the meanings of the constellations; they make a crown, a crow, the face of death, and a bleeding flower. They use the solarium to look at their stars, so they know where to catch them should they ever fall.
"I'm full of desire for blood." Annot says softly. At the end of time she will be a crone, and still revel in the taste of it. Adlai laughs.
We're the monsters at the end of the world, he whispers back.