The night sky hung low, heavy as crushed velvet and thick with diamonds. Rebecca stepped out onto the terrace and shut the doors behind her, but even leaning against them couldn’t shut in the music. It followed her outside, seeping through doorjambs and windows and high stone walls to curl seductively around her, enticing her back inside to dance. When she did not yield to its embrace, the music floated lazily up and away, toward the velvet sky set with stars. The song faded, and Rebecca released the breath she had held trapped behind clenched teeth, her lips trembling slightly in relief. Her relief was premature. Where his music had failed, the musician had come to try his luck.
The violinist was a tall man, and thin. Not so thin as to seem skinny, but his flesh was pulled taut over his bones as though the artist who had shaped him had left no room for either error or embellishment. In form, he was perfect. However, his thinness reflected itself in his eyes and gave everyone who met him the impression of… hunger. That hunger was what Rebecca feared. Matthew’s hunger was powerful, and it called forth the hunger that dwelled in the deepest, blackest parts of others. And, despite her very best efforts, Rebecca was not exempt from that stirring hunger. Matthew stepped onto the balcony, his dark hair silver in the moonlight, his eyes inky pools darker than the night around them.
“Rebecca, my angel, my dove, won’t you come back inside and dance to my music?” Matthew asked. He stretched out his left hand towards her, his right cradling the violin that had become her bane.
The smile resting on his lips was gentle, but she read the truth behind that smile in the razors of his cheekbones, sharp enough to slice through the toughest opponent. She had witnessed him wielding that smile, and held out little hope that she would triumph where others had fallen. Her heart ached at the memory of the musician’s most recent victims. She had once been merely a single dancer among many, but the music had claimed her sisters, one by one. Rebecca was the last of them, and she felt in her bones that, if she succumbed to Matthew’s seduction, she would join her sisters before the sun rose.
“Haven’t you taken enough?” she begged. Her throat was raw with pain and fear, and her words were the softest of whispers. “Please, please let me go. My father will be alone in the world if you take me. Please,” she pleaded with the last of her voice.
She had watched her father mourn each of her sisters, and it had broken her heart. But it was the pain and confusion and fear in the old king’s face that had shattered her. He clung to her, the last of his daughters, and she knew that losing her would break him past the point of repair. Love for her father gave her the strength to take a step away from the musician, but only one. He would have her soon.
“I would never hurt you, my love,” Matthew soothed. “Your sisters were weak, fragile things. But you’re different. They didn’t feel my music like you do.” The hunger in his eyes threatened to swallow her where she stood. The neck of his violin protested beneath white knuckles. His throat bobbed as he spoke past his thirst.
“No one has ever danced to my music with such abandon. No other voice has ever joined with it as sweetly. We are meant, you and I. Your sisters were merely preludes to you. Rebecca,” he moaned as he reached one lithe hand toward her face, “oh, my love. You belong with me.”
Cold iron met her hand as Rebecca took one last shaky step away from the musician. She grasped the railing of the balcony, threading her wrist through the tightly curling metal to keep herself from stepping forward and resting her cheek against Matthew’s outstretched hand. Because, despite her fear and her sorrow over her sisters and her father, the musician was beautiful, and some perverse part of her loved both him and his music. That part of her wanted to dance until nothing remained of her feet but bone and blood, to sing until her throat sliced itself to ribbons and only silence and pain remained. Surely Matthew was merely another name for Mephistopheles; who but the Devil could wield music to entice his listener to pain and death? For her death was certain if she gave in to the music.
Rebecca looked down and, for the briefest of moments, could see through the illusion that clothed her. The lavish ball gown that matched the midnight sky faded, revealing a once white nightgown, now little more than stained rags. In that instant she could see the torn, bloody remnants of her feet, and the bloody footprints that Matthew’s music had inflicted. The dirty hand she held before her fisted into her stained gown as it melted into lush velvet once more. No, she would fair no better than her sisters, no matter what her tormentor professed. Her other hand tightened on the balcony’s railing. If she was going to die, she would go out on her own terms. And those terms did not include dancing. Matthew must have seen the decision in her eyes. His widened in return.
“No!” he cried, lunging for his dancer, his muse. Rebecca twisted away, twirling in one last pirouette. The musician could not match the dancer for speed. Furious with her options, Rebecca snatched Matthew’s violin from his arms. If she was to lose her life, the least he deserved was the loss of his instrument. The musician’s face turned white with rage and fear. Rebecca flashed her teeth in a feral smile and threw herself from the balcony.
A world away, in a kingdom where trees grew leaves of green instead of silver and gold and bore fruit instead of jewels, a princess woke in her bedchamber. She jolted awake, her hands fisted into crimson quilts as she tried to hang on to the present. A shaky laugh fell from Rebecca’s lips. She was alive. Had it all been a dream? Giddy with hope, she leaped from bed to search for her sisters, but stumbled with her first step. Pain shot through her as her feet met the carpeted stone beneath them. Rebecca looked down at the ragged remains of her feet, torn and broken and pitiful. The sight of them reinforced the pain and she fell to her knees, the stone beneath her adding to her bruises.
“So, not a dream, then,” she whispered to herself.
The words were razors inside her battered throat. The tears filling her eyes added to the pain, but she did nothing to fight them. She struggled to her feet once more, but they refused to hold her. So, on bruised knees and filthy hands, she crawled. Pain pulsed through her feet with every move she made, but still she crawled. Sorrow filmed her eyes so thickly with tears that she could see nothing but light and blurred shapes, but this was the room of her childhood and she had no need of sight to crawl its length. She crawled past the vacant beds that should have housed the slumbering frames of her sisters. Hoarse, broken sobs shook her frame, lighting her throat with red hot embers of pain. The backs of her hands were slick with tears. Rebecca had shed countless tears in this room, but never alone. The loneliness broke her heart.
Finally, after what felt like miles beneath her tired hands and knees, Rebecca reached the door of the giant bedchamber. Wood crunched suddenly beneath the palm of her hand. The princess wiped her eyes and knelt, a hiss of pain escaping as her thighs touched her heels. She lifted the broken violin from the floor and cradled it against her chest. Nothing could bring her sisters back, but at least she had caused their murderer pain. A brittle smile twisted her lips as she thought of Matthew’s agony over his loss. Because here, lying against her breast, was the source of his power. She could feel magic pulsing through the broken wood, and she knew she had won.
Footsteps rang down the hallway. The door before her flew open. The king stood before her, his eyes shadowed with exhaustion and haunted by sorrow and fear. The fear receded as he caught sight of his youngest daughter, bent and bloody and broken on the stones before him. He fell to his knees before her and wrapped her in his arms. His tears fell into her chestnut hair as he sobbed.
“I was so afraid that I was going to lose you like I lost your sisters,” the king said, his deep voice thick and gruff from tears. “I was so afraid,” he said again, clutching his last child tightly.
Rebecca pulled away slowly, gently. She held up the broken violin. “He has no power now. I’m so sorry that I didn’t stop him sooner. I could have saved them,” she whispered. Tears dripped from the tip of her nose as she bowed her head in shame.
“No,” said the king. As gently as she had pulled away from him, her father lifted her chin until their eyes met. There was no judgement, no condemnation in those green eyes, only relief. “You couldn’t have known,” he said firmly. “I’m just so glad, so thankful that you figured out a way to save yourself.”
The king helped his daughter to her feet. When her battered feet gave beneath her weight, the king scooped her up into his arms. He closed the door behind them, leaving the broken violin abandoned and alone on the cold stone floor.
The morning of Rebecca’s coronation dawned bright and warm. The air was filled with birdsong and thick with excitement. Twelve years had passed since Rebecca had survived the mad musician. And twelve years had passed since the king had outlawed music from the land. Even the birdsong had tormented him, but no law could silence the throats of nightingales and sparrows; their song was their lifeblood and the breath in their tiny lungs. The kingdom had mourned the loss, though they did not fault the king for his decision. Any man who had lost eleven daughters to the seduction of melody, and had seen his only remaining daughter crippled by its call, was entitled his hatred. But the old king was dead and, despite having every reason to share her father’s hatred, the people knew that their new queen would silence them no longer.
There had been music in the land, of course. In the dead of night, in inns with bolted doors and around fires burned down to ash, there was music. But fear tainted music’s sweetness, and only the most desperate musicians sang or played their songs in the darkness. Today music would be heard in the light, and the entire kingdom had journeyed to the castle to hear the silence broken.
Rebecca smoothed the emerald velvet of her gown. Monarchs were supposed to wear crimson, but the new queen could no longer bear the sight of the color, so close to the shade of fresh blood. Father Silas spoke a blessing over her as he placed the crown atop the thick waves of her hair. She nodded her thanks and reached up beside her. Tobias, her guard and adviser and the best of her friends, helped her to her feet. She squeezed the hand of her soon-to-be husband. Gingerly, she spun to face the crowd of her people and bowed to them. The roar of applause was deafening. The new queen grinned and let herself sink into the wheeled chair the court carpenter had crafted for her.
The entire kingdom was silent as they entered the palace’s largest ballroom. Even children held their tongues in hope. Tobias settled his queen onto her throne, and she nodded to a darkened corner of the room. Light flared to life, a neat trick suggested by the court jester. A band of musicians were revealed by that light, and they began to play, suddenly thankful for breaking the king’s law in the dark of night as their fingers danced lightly across strings. The people cheered, but softly, so as not to drown out the music. Common men and women raced to the dance floor, followed by a trickle of hesitant lords and ladies. There were stumbles and missed steps, but the memory of the dance returned to their feet. The young were taught the steps by the old. The noble were reminded of the rhythm by the common. The kingdom was bound together by the music and the dance.
As the first song ended and the second song began, a hush spread across the crowd as they parted to make room for their queen. She held Tobias’s hand for support, but her steps were smooth and steady. No one had seen Rebecca walk in twelve years. No one, that is, but Tobias. When they reached the center of the floor, the couple bowed to one another. Every living creature in the hall held their breath as the queen began to dance. Beautifully, defiantly, she danced, her arms spread wide to embrace the music that lilted through the air. And as she danced, she sang.