These are three moments from Sophie’s life.
The first is when Christine’s house reaches the castle. It pulls in its iron legs. It squats there and it rests.
“Hey,” Violet says.
Christine doesn’t respond. She walks past Violet into the castle, leaving the door of her house open behind her.
So Violet walks in. She walks to the great furnace at the house’s core.
“Hey,” she says.
The furnace has gone cold. There is a great black lump in it. Violet takes a poker and she prods the lump.
Slowly, Sophie uncurls. The ash on her skin cracks and falls away. She is withered, like a homonculus. Her hair is mostly burned away, but it’s growing again, in fits and starts.
“I brought you some clean clothes,” Violet says. She puts them down.
Sophie has a fingerbone in her palm. She’s been curled around it to protect it from the fire.
“How did you know I was here?” Sophie says.
“Where else would you be?”
Sophie frowns at Violet. Then, slowly, she offers Violet the bone.
“If I keep this,” she says, “I’m going to break it. I can’t let him win. He isn’t worthy of it.”
Violet smiles at Sophie. She pushes Sophie’s hand away.
“He’s your brother,” Violet says.
Sophie stares at her.
Then she lowers her head, hair hanging over her face to hide her tears.
“I’m not good,” Sophie says.
But Violet touches her arm, gently.
Sophie looks up, and for a moment she is naked; but then she dons the clothes that Violet brought her and they walk out to Castle Gargamel.
In a time of wizards and kings, one name stood above the rest. He was Montechristien Gargamel.
He seized from the mushroom village one hundred of the blue essentials and transformed them into gold. From that time on his power was limitless. He broke the world and repaired it again. He dispensed terrible destinies and powers as if they were the most ordinary of gifts. And as the time of his death approached his children came to his Castle to dispose of the matter of their legacy.
Violet, his eldest and most dear, who had betrayed him before she was even half-grown.
Francescu, the deathless sorcerer, who had turned his back on the affairs of the world.
Manfred, the fallen knight, whose strength was legend and whose spear was magic’s bane.
Tomas the cruel, who had looked in his tenth year upon the face of God.
Christine, the mad sorceress, who wandered the world in her living house.
Sophie the skinchanger, soulless and Devil-tainted, and once the one Montechristien loved best.
Elisabet, the Devil’s child, a creature as much of shadow as of life.
In the hour of the end, each turned their hands against each other, and the halls of Castle Gargamel ran with blood. This is the twenty-sixth installment of the story of that time.
“Father,” Sophie says, not long thereafter.
Montechristien Gargamel does not turn as she enters the room. He is staring out the window. Now and again his neck will twitch, as if he might turn his head, but he does not.
“Sophie,” he says.
“I’m sorry you’re dying,” Sophie says.
Sophie stands there, hesitant. She wrings her hands. “Yes.”
“It won’t matter,” Gargamel lies. “My soul is already in Heaven.”
“. . . it won’t matter,” Gargamel concedes. “My soul is already in Hell.”
“It will matter to me.”
“Did you know,” says Montechristien Gargamel, “that I have in my possession only ninety-nine golden eidolons?”
“I will die,” says Montechristien Gargamel, “and there will be nothing left for me but damnation, because someone of my kin and blood took from my treasury the eldest golden man. And I must ask myself: who is it that the Devil hunted at night for seven years? Who is it who went out and faced him alone, and fell beneath his will? Because that person would be, you see, the natural suspect in this matter.”
Gargamel laughs. It is bitter.
“There is a little crack in my defenses now, you see,” he says. “A little hole through which the shadow creeps. I should not have let you live, Sophie, or let you in—”
“What did Christine tell you?” Sophie shrieks.
“Be still!” Gargamel says.
He turns on her. There is no air around her. Her words are swallowed up in the void and her eyes hurt and she cannot breathe.
“You were my favorite,” Montechristien says.
Then there is air again.
“I didn’t fail,” Sophie says, her voice as tight as an overwound spring.
“Get out,” Montechristien says.
And she realizes that she will leave the room or she will be cast from it.
So she backs away, her face as stiff as stone. She says, “I will come back later, when you have recovered your composure.”
Then she closes the door and runs in swiftness down the stairs.
The old man goes to his bed. He sits down. He lets himself cry.
“Don’t lie to me,” he says to the air.
And as he thinks of what she has endured, he adds, “I never thought it was your fault.”
An Unclean Legacy
Some time has passed; and four of seven children are dying.
Tomas makes protests to Violet. He seeks to stall her. But she is not stalled. She has picked up the scent of blood and death in the air and Violet follows it at a run.
It is not Elisabet she finds.
Violet bursts into the room at the base of Gargamel’s tower; and what she sees there tears a scream from her throat.
Francescu flicks his eyes towards Violet.
Painedly, he says, “Please excuse us.”
Tomas comes. He stands in the doorway. He stares.
Manfred is slumped on the floor, bleeding out his life. His spear has pinned Sophie to Francescu, and both seem dearly hurt.
Violet, after a moment of frantic thought, steps forward. She pulls on the spear Cursebreaker; but it does not move. The outer layer of skin upon Violet’s hands comes off.
“Manfred,” Violet says.
She kneels down by him.
It is hard for her to think because this is an agony room: though Manfred, Sophie, and Francescu are stern folk, still there burst from them at time to time whimpers and sounds in an erratic symphony that no ears should ever have to hear.
“Manfred,” she says, holding herself from fainting by sheer will, “you must pull it out.”
And Manfred gives her a kind of weary, dizzy grin, and he mouths, “No.”
“I will make Francescu heal you,” Violet says, causing Francescu’s mouth to narrow before a spasm of pain distracts him. “But pull it free.”
“Don’t you understand?” Violet says. “Don’t any of you fucking understand? You are so dedicated to how important it is to love or hate or kill or save one another and in my entire life I have never seen any of you be right even once about who the rest of us are.”
Manfred peers at her blearily, as if her words are the bleating of a goat. He makes a wretched gargling sound.
Tomas says, “It is enough, Violet. Let them die.”
And Violet turns on him, and she says, “I love them.”
And the words are raw in the air.
Christine is standing in the doorway behind Tomas. She says, softly, “The Devil is coming. There is a great fire to the west. Where is Elisabet?”
Christine is not looking into the room. She is not processing what she sees there at all. Her eyes and ears are closed to it. Her face is pale and her voice is soft.
“If these are dead, then who else can defend us?” Christine asks.
Manfred is slowly rising to his hands and feet. Violet casts him a startled glance.
“Manfred,” she says, “you have cut arteries. You can’t fight the Devil.”
Manfred hits the ground with one fist. The stone floor cracks. There is a faint white light rising from below. Violet startles back.
Manfred sways to his feet.
Manfred seizes the spear in his two hands. With a growl and a gurgle, he wrenches it out. Then he falls half-dead to the floor.
Sophie staggers. She goes down on hands and knees. She coughs up black ichor mixed with little veins of red and blue and gold.
She is gaunt.
Francescu looks distant and calm again, though his wound is unhealed. The lines of pain on his face are gone.
“Not Elisabet,” Sophie mutters.
“She can’t know,” Sophie says.
Violet is staring fiercely at Francescu. After a moment, Francescu growls irritably and makes a gesture and Manfred’s throat is whole.
Then Violet sits by Sophie and gently she strokes Sophie’s hair and she says, “I’m sorry.”
And Sophie does not know that Violet is apologizing for her sin; for her secret; for the fact that still after all these years Montechristien does not know that it is Violet who betrayed him.
So she leans into Violet and she cries and she says, “They abandoned me.”
And Violet holds her; and Sophie is, for the smallest moment, weak; and Manfred stares at them like a man would stare at a great black blotch appearing, unexpectedly, upon the sun.
An Unclean Legacy concludes tomorrow.