Her cabinet is full of perfumes, and the scents try to escape as soon as I open the door – twined tendrils reaching out – each scent a murmur, a ripple of memory beneath my skin. There are liquid amber and fluid gold, swirling ruby and molten jade, lustrous indigo and glossy lilac – gleaming prisms of crystal and glass, stoppers carved into birds and beasts and blossoms – all aglow in her gloomy boudoir, lit only by the flames beneath the copper cauldron in the other room.
“Don’t touch, Alynna.”
Mother’s voice. Not loud or sharp, because Mother never raises her voice. But firm. Like the hand on my shoulder, turning me around, away.
She asks me to brush her hair, as she has done every night for as long as I dare remember. I unravel her waist-long braid, brushing black tresses into silk and shadow, her skin already warm and flushed in the heat and steam rising from the deep basin cut into the stone floor.
The golden mirror holds Mother’s reflection. She is so beautiful that it hurts even me to look at her: beauty like a blade – a sleek, perfect edge – sliding through skin and ribs so easily you barely notice when it stops your heart. I don’t want to look, but I inhale her scent with each sweep of the brush: the smell of spring mornings in the garden, days when she’d hold my hand, bedtimes when she kissed me. Each brushstroke tangling into memory.
In the other room, the fire keeps the water boiling, heating the large transparent sphere suspended on its chain above the cauldron. Inside the glass, the heated fluids rise, trickling slowly through twisting tubes of copper, dripping into vials. Something twitches within the steam and mist and glass. I do not wish to see. Not tonight.
She rises from the chair, and the weakest part of me wishes that she would stay this way: that she would not undress, not step into the steaming water, not wash and rinse her skin. I breathe in her scent, trying to hold on to it, keep it safe, forever. Mother, safe, forever.
The gown drops, embroidered silk blazing blue and black like butterfly wings, smooth brown skin beneath.
Through the window beyond her naked form, I glimpse the forest: trees, the moon, narrow trails made by paws and hooves beneath shriveled leaves and twisted boughs. There is a way through the shadows and the mires. Maybe a bird could fly above. Maybe a wolf could find the trail. But I have no wings, no fur, no beak, no snout. I have only a child’s hands, scarred and calloused. Strong enough to carry water and light the fire, to brush Mother’s hair, and lay out the gowns upon the bed. Not strong enough to break open locks, or crack the wood that bars the door.
Once, I touched. Once, I balanced on a stool, reaching into the cabinet, my hand trembling so it almost knocked the bottles over. I took the vial on the highest shelf, in the farthest corner, the one with the carved onyx stopper, wings spread in flight, black feathers carved into the stone. I removed the stopper, didn’t let the liquid touch my skin, only breathed: felt the shiver of beak and flight.
That bottle isn’t there anymore. Perhaps it’s locked in the chest next to her bed, buried beneath pearl-embroidered lace and silver-stitched brocades.
I watch her descend into the scalding water, watch her wash Mother off her flesh and bones with oil and soap and sponge, shedding scent and memories, skin and spirit, until she is twisted spines and cracked hide, gut-rip claws, and needle fangs, red tongue flickering between. The water fills the crooks and crevices of her body, rinsing warped limbs stitched together by sinew, spell, and shadow. She rises, stripped of all illusion. Clean. Strong as roots and vines, as tooth and bone.
In the other room, the glass sphere glistens, tarnished with dark residue above the roiling water. I smell wolf tonight. By now I can tell the smells apart: the animals and birds, the children, the women and the men, the tiny faeries with wings of spun gold, the beasts of horn and wing and tusk. Each trapped inside the sphere, above the heat; giving up its scent and spirit, releasing the essence hid within as the bonds of life are loosened. Only the dregs are left behind, slick and foul, to scrub and clean, leaving my palms and fingers raw.
A crooked talon strokes my hair, slides down my cheek, cutting into skin and flesh.
“Alynna, give her to me.”
She takes the bottle filled only yesterday from my hand, contents shimmering like liquid strawberries and honey: the girl with red hair, barely older than I am, eyes like moss and water. Mouth open, but bereft of sound as she lay inside the glass, as the heat drew out every last bit of her. Her essence held in crystal now, a crimson stopper to keep her in her place.
One splash, two, of strawberry and honey. Firm flesh and creamy skin blushed with fire flows over stripped bones and creaking joints, eyes like moss and water open, red-brass curls tumble down her back.
“You will be gorgeous one day, won’t you?” There is a gleam of hidden teeth and darkness as she speaks. “Make your Mother proud.”
I think of black feathers stirring, claws and beak, and I nod.