Fairest, p.11
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       Fairest, p.11

         Part #3.50 of The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer
 
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  She would do to the child what Channary had done to her.

  Come here, baby sister. I want to show you something.

  Only, unlike Channary, she would be merciful. She would not force the child to then go on living.

  * * *

  She stood in the doorway to the nursery, listening to the girls giggling in their playhouse. They had covered the top with blankets from Evret’s bed for added privacy. From here, Levana could see intricate apple blossoms embroidered around the edges of one of the blankets, and it surprised her to think that, no matter how many times she had slipped into Evret’s bed, she had never noticed those designs. The blanket was not something commissioned for the palace, which meant that Evret had brought it from his previous marriage, and had kept this secret part of Solstice hidden these past years.

  Realizing that she was fidgeting with her black wedding band, Levana let her hands fall to her sides.

  Inside the playhouse, Winter said something about being princesses in the tower, but then it all dissolved into childish nonsense and laughter that Levana couldn’t follow.

  It would be over after today, and that knowledge was a relief. She could stop thinking about the princess that would one day grow up and take everything from her. She could stop being haunted by the ghost of her sister and the legacy she’d left behind.

  After today, all of Luna would be hers.

  It had occurred to her that she could choose not to take Winter away after all, and to let the fire claim them both. Then all of Evret would be hers too. But then she thought of what a hollowed-out shell of a man Evret had been in the months following his wife’s death, and she couldn’t stand to watch that again.

  “Oh, pardon me. Are you—”

  Levana turned and the girl drew back with a gasp, before falling into a hasty curtsy. “Forgive me, Your Majesty. I didn’t recognize you.”

  The girl was no great beauty, with limp hair and a nose too large for her face. But there was a delicateness to her that Levana thought could appeal to some, and a grace in her curtsy that befit someone who had been hired to raise their next queen.

  “You must be the new nanny,” said Levana.

  “Y-yes, My Queen. It is a great honor to be in your presence.”

  “I am not the queen,” said Levana, tasting her own bitterness. “I am merely keeping watch over the throne until my niece is older.”

  “Oh, yes, of course. I … I meant no disrespect. Your … Highness.”

  The giggling had stopped. When Levana glanced toward the playhouse, she saw that the girls had pulled back the blankets and were watching with curious eyes and open mouths.

  “Winter is being seen by Dr. Eliot today,” said Levana. “I’ve come to take her.”

  The nanny stayed in her curtsy, uncertain if she was allowed to rise and look upon Levana or not. It was obvious from the stretched-thin silence that she wanted to ask why the queen would bother when it was within the nanny’s own duties to make sure the girls made their appointments, or why the doctor didn’t come see the princess here in the nursery. But she didn’t argue. Of course she didn’t.

  “Winter, come along,” Levana called. The blanket fell again, hiding the princesses. “You have an appointment with Dr. Eliot. Let’s not keep her waiting.”

  “Shall I expect the princess’s return this afternoon, Your Highness?” asked the nanny.

  Levana’s gut tightened. “No. I will take her back to our private quarters after the appointment.” She watched as Winter climbed down the ladder, graceful in the way that only a four-year-old child could be, even with her chubby legs and a very full skirt. Her hair bounced as she dropped to the floor.

  The blanket shifted again. Selene, peering out from the gap.

  Levana met her stare, and she could sense the distrust from the child, the instinctual dislike. Jaw tightening, she sucked in a quick breath.

  “I have a job for you.”

  The nanny, growing uncomfortable, rose from the curtsy. “For me, Your Highness?”

  “Do you have a family? Any children of your own?”

  “Oh. No, Your Highness.”

  “A husband, or a lover?”

  The girl flushed. She was probably no more than fifteen herself, but that meant so little in Artemisia.

  “No. I am not married, Your Highness.”

  Levana nodded. Selene had no family, and neither did this girl—none that needed her, at least. It was perfect.

  It was meant to be.

  A hand slipped into Levana’s, making her jump.

  “I’m ready to go, Mother,” said Winter.

  Pulse thrumming, Levana yanked her hand away. “Go wait in the corridor. I’ll be there in a moment.”

  Crestfallen, Winter turned and waved at Selene. A tiny hand snaked out from beneath the blanket and waved back, before Winter floated out of the nursery.

  Now. She would do it now.

  After today, it would all be over.

  Levana pressed her hands against her skirt, wicking off her damp palms. “Go into the playhouse,” she said, almost like she was speaking to herself. “Go be with the princess. It is almost time for her nap.” She spoke slowly, impressing the idea into the nanny’s mind. Reaching into a hidden pocket, she produced a candle, already half burned. “It will be dark under that blanket, so you will want this candle to see by. Set it out of the way so the princess doesn’t accidentally burn herself. Near the edge of the playhouse. Under that blanket … the one with the apple blossoms. You will stay with the girl until you both fall asleep. You are already tired. It will not take long.”

  The nanny tilted her head to one side, like listening to a song that she couldn’t quite place.

  Producing a tiny book of matches, Levana let the nanny hold the candle while she lit it. Her hands trembled with the spark of the match, fear of the flame tensing every muscle. By the time the wick took light, she could feel the flame creeping up the little match, threatening to singe her fingers.

  Levana hastily shook it out, breathing easier the second the flame was extinguished. She dropped the smoldering match into the nanny’s apron pocket. The girl said nothing.

  “Go now. The princess is waiting.”

  Empty eyed, the nanny turned and wandered toward the little playhouse, carrying the lit candle aloft. Selene was peering out again. Confused and curious.

  Licking her lips, Levana forced herself to turn away. In the corridor, she grabbed Winter’s hand without a word and tugged her toward the doctor’s office. Her heart was pummeling against the inside of her chest.

  She had done it. She had done what she needed to do.

  Now she had only to wait.

  * * *

  It was more than an hour before Levana heard the first stirrings within the palace. Though her nerves were throbbing the entire time since she’d left the nursery, it had already begun to feel like a dream. Just another one of her fantasies, resulting in disappointment. While Dr. Eliot checked that Winter was as healthy as any child had ever been, Levana paced around the waiting room. The doctor’s office was in the palace, a satellite office from the one she kept at the med-center on the other side of the city, so that she could be on call at the slightest sign of a cough or fever from the royal family.

  Realizing that she was still holding the little book of matches, Levana checked that no one was around and dropped them into a trash bin, then wiped her hands on an upholstered chair as if the evidence might show itself in ashen traces on her fingertips.

  “Doctor!”

  Levana jumped, spinning toward the office’s open doorway. In the other room, Dr. Eliot’s voice went quiet, and then she appeared holding a vitals scanner in one hand. Behind her, Winter was sitting on a papered table, swinging her stockinged feet against the side.

  A servant appeared, face red and panting for breath.

  “Doctor! Come quick!”

  “I beg your pardon, but I am with Her Highness and—”

  “No—it’s the nursery!
Princess Selene!” The servant’s voice pitched so high it cracked.

  A chill rolled across Levana’s skin, but she managed to maintain her baffled expression.

  “Whatever could be—”

  “There was a fire. Please, you have to come. There’s no time to lose!”

  Dr. Eliot hesitated, glancing at Levana, then back at Winter.

  Gulping, Levana took a step forward. “Well, of course, you must go. If our future queen is in danger, you must see to her at once.”

  It was all the prompting the doctor needed. As she scooped up a medical bag, Levana turned to the servant. “What’s happened? What about a fire?”

  “We’re not sure, Your Highness. They were in the playhouse and it caught fire … we think they must have been sleeping…”

  “They?”

  “The princess and her nanny.” Gaze alighting on Winter, the servant suddenly started to sob. “Thank the stars Princess Winter wasn’t there too. It’s awful. Awful!”

  It took only a few seconds for Levana to become annoyed with the servant’s wails.

  Winter hopped down from the table and went to put on her shoes, but Levana grabbed her wrist and dragged her after the doctor. “Not now, Winter. We’ll come back for them.”

  The doctor ran. Levana wanted to. Her curiosity was agony, all her fantasies accumulating in that breathless moment. But she didn’t want to carry Winter, and princesses did not run.

  Future queens did not run.

  She was still gripping Winter’s hand when she smelled the smoke. Heard the screams. Felt the pounding of footsteps reverberating through the floors.

  A crowd had gathered by the time they arrived. Servants and guards and thaumaturges filling up the corridor.

  “WINTER!” It was Evret, his face made of relief when he spotted his child. Shoving his way through the crowd, he stooped to lift Winter into his arms, squeezing her against him. “I didn’t know where you were … I didn’t know…”

  “What’s happened?” said Levana, trying to push her way into the nursery.

  “No, don’t look. Don’t go in there. It’s horrible.”

  “I want to see, Papa.”

  “No, you don’t, darling. No, you don’t. Sweetheart—”

  Levana bristled. Never did he call her that when they were in public, always hiding their relationship behind closed doors for fear of impropriety. He must have been truly shaken. He tried to grab her wrist, but she ripped her hand away. She had to see. She had to know.

  “Move aside! She is my niece. Let me see her!”

  The people listened. How could they not? Their faces drawn in horror, cloths pressed over their mouths to stifle the stench of smoke and coals and … she thought, certainly that wasn’t the smell of burning flesh? But it did have a familiar meatiness that turned her stomach.

  When finally she reached the front of the crowd, she paused, taking in the sight through a veil of smoke. Dr. Eliot was there, along with countless guards, some still holding empty buckets that must have been used to put out the flames, others stamping out the remaining embers. The blanket was entirely gone, the playhouse reduced to a teetering wood structure, all blackened timbers and ashes. Scorch marks were left on the wallpaper and elaborate crown moldings.

  Through the clustered guards, Levana could make out two bodies on the playhouse’s upper level. Obviously bodies, though from this distance they looked like little more than charred remains.

  “Step back! Step away!” Dr. Eliot screamed. “Give me room to look at her. Give me space. You’re not helping!”

  “Come away,” Evret said, behind her again.

  Shivering, Levana stepped back, and dared to turn to face him. She didn’t have to fake the shock. The sight of it was a thousand times more terrifying than her imagination had given her. A thousand times more real.

  She had done this.

  Those bodies were her fault.

  Selene was dead.

  Though Evret was still holding Winter against his hip, and trying to block her view with his hands, Levana could see the girl craning her head to see the commotion and the chaos, the burned remains of her playhouse and her only cousin.

  “Come away,” Evret said again. He took Levana’s hand, and she allowed him to guide her. Her thoughts were a daze as they made their way back through the corridors. Her stomach was writhing with a hundred emotions she couldn’t have named. Winter’s questions started coming in force. What happened, Papa? Where is Selene? What’s going on? Why does it smell like that?

  She went largely ignored, answered only by kisses pressed against her thick curls.

  “She is dead,” Levana murmured.

  “It’s horrible,” said Evret. “A horrible, horrible accident.”

  “Yes. A horrible accident.” Levana’s grip tightened around his hand. “And now … you understand? This means I will be the queen.”

  Evret glanced at her, his face full of sorrow as he scooped his free arm around her shoulder and pulled her against him. He pressed a kiss against the top of her head then too.

  “You don’t need to think about that now, sweetheart.”

  But he was wrong.

  As the knots in her stomach slowly began to loosen, it was all she could think of.

  She was the queen.

  The guilt and the horror and the memory of that awful smell might stay with her forever, but she was the queen.

  * * *

  Princess Selene was pronounced dead that evening. Levana made the announcement to the people from the palace’s broadcast center. The video showed pictures of the young princess while Levana struggled to keep her voice somber, even while her nerves tingled from success. It was not happiness—she was very sad to know that victory had required such an appalling act. But success was success, victory was victory. She had done it and now, as the country mourned, she would be the one to lift them out of this tragedy.

  Little Selene, barely three years old, would hardly even make a blip in their history. The memory of their little princess would be entirely eclipsed with the reign of Queen Levana.

  The fairest queen that Luna had ever known.

  For once, she was satisfied. She had Evret. She had her crown.

  She did not yet have an heir, but now that she was the last of the royal bloodline, surely fate would smile on even this request. She was all that was left. Not having a child of her own was not an option. After all, Winter couldn’t grow up to be queen. No. Levana would have a child.

  With Selene gone, these were the new thoughts that engulfed her. How she would be a great ruler and how the people would love her with all their hearts. And how, when Levana finally gave Evret a child of their own, he too would love her, finally, even more than his darling Solstice.

  She was making the life she’d always wanted for herself, and she was close to it now. So very, very close.

  But only a week had gone by when Levana began to notice the change.

  The way people dropped their eyes when she walked past, not with normal respect, but something akin to fear. Perhaps—was she imagining it? Perhaps even disgust.

  The way there was a new coldness from the palace servants. How they all seemed to be biting their tongues, wanting to say something to her and daring not to.

  The way that Evret asked her one night why she had gone to get Winter that day. Why she had brought it on herself to take Winter to the doctor’s appointment when clearly it was something the nanny was capable of.

  “What do you mean?” Levana asked, her heart in her throat. “She’s my daughter, and I hardly get to spend time with her these days. Why shouldn’t I take her to her appointments?”

  “It’s just…”

  She tensed. “It’s just what?”

  “Nothing. It’s nothing. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

  He kissed her, and that was the last that was said of it.

  But all this she could have ignored. Let them think she was guilty. Let them accuse her behind closed doors. As
the queen of Luna and the only royal descendant of the Blackburn bloodline, no one would dare accuse her to her face.

  No—it was another rumor that chilled Levana to her core.

  They were saying that Selene had survived.

  It was not possible.

  It could not be possible.

  She had seen the body, smelled the charred flesh, witnessed the aftermath of the fire. A tiny toddler could not have lived through that.

  She was dead. She was gone.

  It was over.

  So why did she go on haunting Levana this way?

  * * *

  “I hope you know that you are not in any trouble,” said Levana. “I only want to make sure I know the complete truth.”

  Dr. Eliot stood before her in the center of the throne room. Normally this was the type of proceeding that would be dealt with in front of the entire court, but without knowing what, exactly, the doctor knew, Levana trusted very few people to listen to her testimony. She had even left her personal guards to wait in the corridor, for the last person she wanted to receive an account of this meeting was Evret, and even highly trained guards were not impervious to spreading gossip.

  So it was only her, seated on her throne, and her trusted head thaumaturge, Sybil Mira, standing to the side with her hands tucked into the sleeves of her stark white coat.

  “I have told you everything that I know, My Queen,” said Dr. Eliot.

  “Yes, but … there are rumors. I’m sure you’ve heard them. Rumors that say Princess Selene may have survived the fire? That you, as the first person to inspect the bodies, might have some information about what was found in the fire that you’ve chosen to keep hidden.”

  “I would hide nothing from you, My Queen.”

  She inhaled a patient breath. “She was my niece, doctor. I deserve to know the truth. If she is still alive, it would … it would pain me very much to think that anyone would withhold that information from me. You know that I loved her as if she were my own.”

  Dr. Eliot pressed her lips, the look brief yet intense. “I am sure,” she said, enunciating carefully, “that it would mean a great deal to you had the princess survived, My Queen. But when I saw the body after the fire, I’m afraid she was already lost. There was no saving her.”

 
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