I never liked visiting my sister Mara, though I loved her so desperately that sometimes I found myself convinced the feeling was not love at all, but something much fouler: guilt, bone-crushing shame, a confused, defensive revulsion.
We visited her on the third Wednesday of every month-Farrin, Father, and me. By conventional means, it would have been an excruciatingly boring two-week journey to the center of the continent, where the Mist stretched from coast to coast like a seething silver river.
Fortunately-or unfortunately, according to Farrin-no one in the Ashbourne family could be described as conventional. Centuries ago, at the time of the Unmaking, hundreds of families were chosen by the gods to receive kernels of their power and serve as guardians of Edyn, the human realm. Our family was among them-one of the great Anointed clans. Yet even among our Anointed peers, we stood apart. Generations of eminent magicians, shrewd investments, and even shrewder political maneuvering will do that-a reality that Farrin despised.
I didn't, though I'd never admit that to her. To admit that I actually liked being not only an Anointed family but one of the most respected in the world would mean acknowledging the horrible truth to Farrin: Yes, when the Warden came to our home twelve years past, it was me she was meant to take away. Yes, I was the one originally meant to serve at the Middlemist-Farrin, the heir; Mara, the spare; and me, Imogen, the youngest, the superfluous. And yes, Mara took my place because at the last moment, Father fretted that I, fragile kitten that I am, was ill suited for such a life.
And yes, Farrin, I know, of course, that Father claims it was not long after Mara was taken to the Mist that Mother left us, because grief is deadlier than poison, he says, and will bring anyone crashing helplessly to their knees, no matter their beauty or cunning or how passionately they are loved.
The whispers flew across the country like storms. No one could believe it; little Mara Ashbourne had actually persuaded the Warden of the Middlemist, for the first time in recorded history, to break with the tradition of recruiting a family's youngest daughter to serve in the Order of the Rose. Mara Ashbourne had insisted on taking the place of her younger sister, and the Warden had acquiesced. And wasn't it remarkable that the Ashbournes even had three daughters in the first place, when most Anointed families were blessed with only one or two?
This was what I could never tell Farrin-that I liked all the gossip, even when our neighbors chewed over the shreds of our grief as though they were bonbons, lighter than air and easily forgotten. Even then, I liked how people whispered and bowed and watched us with dreamy admiration wherever we went. I liked the gowns our wealth and status afforded us. I could enter any restaurant in the capital and immediately be seated at the best table. At our lavish parties, I could hold my beaded fan a certain way, cast my gaze just so about the ballroom, and in less than two minutes have twenty of the room's most exquisite people crowded around me with their sweeping brocaded coats and plunging necklines, each of them desperate for my favor.
I liked this about my life. I reveled in it. What girl wouldn't? I was breathtaking and wealthy and beloved, and I wouldn't have given up any of that, not even if it meant bringing Mother and Mara back. Even if some diamond-eyed artificer from the Old Country came to Ivyhill and offered me a new strong body, free of ailment, fear, or strangeness, and in exchange I need only live a humble but peaceful life out on a country farm somewhere-even then I'd laugh in their face and have Father expel them from the grounds.
Unbidden, the family story of my pet name flashed through my mind. Three-year-old Mara, insistent on speaking as often and impressively as possible, had one night struggled with my name so spectacularly that Imogen quickly became Immie, then Genna, then Gemma, which was the one to stick. Triumphant once she had settled upon the word, little Mara had pounded her fist on the table, catapulting a spoonful of mashed vegetables onto Father's vest, and shouted joyfully, "Gemma!"
Imagining this, my heart broke into a thousand pieces and yet, if given the opportunity, I would not have exchanged my pretty life for Mara's freedom.
That selfish cowardice was my deepest, most terrible secret. I shared it with no one, not even my dearest friend, Illaria. Farrin would have despised me for such thoughts. She probably suspected the truth and despised me anyway.
She despised most things, Farrin, but she wasn't always that way.
This spring morning, as the three of us strode through the dew-sprinkled hedge maze just before sunup, I looked at Farrin sidelong, trying to find in her pale face the echo of the laughing girl she had once been. Sharp chin and cheekbones, a coy little mouth most often held in a grim line of displeasure. Honey-gold hair, unglamoured and a bit darker than mine, tied back from her face in a ruthless braid. Brown eyes, just like Father and Mara. A serious brow that never seemed to relax into contentedness, not anymore. She would have wrinkles in a year if she wasn't careful, and if she kept refusing to be fitted for a glamour. As a child, Farrin was always serious, but she was never bitter, and she was never cruel. Now, at twenty-four years old, Farrin was made of thorns.
Just before we passed through the greenway, she caught me watching her. Her mouth thinned.
"Have I not groomed myself well enough this morning to satisfy your standards?" she snapped.
In reply I showed her the sweetest smile I could muster, though my chest pulled tight with anger. On an ordinary morning, I wouldn't have so much as flinched at a lash from Farrin's sharp tongue, but visiting Mara always left me feeling brittle as old glass.
When a girl has condemned her sister to a life of servitude, that girl does not much relish the times when she must look said doomed sister in the eye.
"You look stunning, as always, dear sister of mine," I said, cupping Farrin's cheek. "A paragon of fashionable taste and refined manners."
Then I looked pointedly at her rather severe gown-slate gray and high necked, tiny buttons at her wrists and throat, unadorned with lace or ribbon. No one had worn dresses like that in a decade. I remembered it well: the entire continent of Gallinor had suddenly become fascinated with the Order of the Rose and had begun imitating the reclusive, demure Roses. I'd hated those few months. At ten years old, I'd been without my sister for two years, and my breath had caught painfully in my throat every time I glimpsed some giggling debutante garbed in austere Middlemist gray. Kerrish, my stylist-an ancient old viper with eyes and hands of steel-had informed me back then that such obsessions with the Order swept through Gallinor quite regularly. The collective fixation would surface in every art, from the sartorial to the culinary.
Farrin had long ago stopped caring about such things. Frippery and fashion is your specialty, Gemma, she would say, wearing a smile as false as my own.
But before she could draw breath to reply, before Father could scold me for goading her, I turned away with a breezy little laugh and closed my eyes. Ignoring the pain buffeting up my spine with a force I knew from experience would bruise me, I reached out for a nearby hedge, thick and glossy with tangled ivy.
At my touch, the greenery gave way to a cold, snapping mouth of air that enveloped my hand. As I stepped into its hungry pull, I hoped this time would be different. Surely this time, I prayed desperately to the gods, something inside me would shift. I would no longer grow ill at the touch of this magic. I would emerge from the greenway just as sure-footed and unbothered as Farrin and Father, both of them right on my heels.
Father's stern reprimand chased me into the darkness. The greenway's magic twisted his voice, first deepening it, then muddying it, then turning it shrill and sharp as an angry jay's. Even without understanding his words, I knew what they would be.
Gemma, you know you must never enter the greenway first. You must always follow me or Farrin.
Gemma, how could you be so foolish as to risk becoming ill and upsetting Mara?
Gemma, you know these rules exist for a reason-to protect you.
The greenway released me with a vicious little shove, and I fell forward onto the ground, into a patch of thick green clover at the back of Rosewarren's garden. It was hidden from the house by a stone wall and an iron gate, the latter of which was draped with heavy vines of snow-blossoms.
Years ago, when the Warden took Mara, Father had hired an elemental to magick that thick tangle of blooms to forever chime and jingle like tiny winter bells to mask our arrivals. Here, my family could emerge from the greenway unseen and unheard. People would think we had simply strolled up the long winding dirt road that led up the mountain from the main thoroughfare below. They would never know of the greening magic-rare and staggeringly expensive-that allowed us to travel instantaneously from our family estate of Ivyhill to the priory of Rosewarren. They wouldn't know, but they would suspect, and wonder, and whisper to their friends with sparkling eyes.
We were Ashbournes, after all.