Willow-Wearer//Pomegranate-Seed-Eater First Draft
The night that Astraios leaves, Proserpine feels like an adult for the first time. She is just fourteen and before now Astraios has always stood between her and their parents. That night, battered and stiff with slowly forming scabs, she packs his room. She gathers the things no one will notice. When she has packed a small, moth eaten bag that she hadn’t even known they’d had, full of band tees he had hidden under his bed and other small things she had never known he had smuggled in, she hesitates. His wand is on the bedside table.
Proserpine knows for a fact that their mother has not yet been in here, she doubts that she will so much as peer in the door for weeks, if not longer. Mother likes to ignore the things that she considers imperfect.
She doesn’t know why she does it, if her mother were to ever find out she would kill her, but Proserpine feels tired beyond her years and she fears for what will happen to Astraios without it. She picks up Astraios’s wand. It is long and knobby, with uncut stones inlaid haphazardly across it. It looks almost like a constellation. Mother had been so angry when Astraios had come home from school for the first time with this wand. It was nothing like the wands that the Sallow family traditionally made, all sleek and dark wood. It was not a proper wand, their mother had said, but instead a druid’s prop. At the time Proserpine had agreed. Looking at the wand now, she was filled with anger. She throws the wand on the bed and sinks silently to the ground, giving way for the first time since she was small.
Summers were tough, especially since Astraios had started boarding school. The limited time together seemed only to build tension rather than lessen it. Proserpine was used to this. She had been young when Astraios had first gone to school, maybe eight, and barely remembered what it had been like before, though she sensed that it had been different.
So when Astraios and Mother had started fighting, Proserpine had stayed in her room, intent on staying out of the range of fire. She had sat in her room, back straight and book in hand. Her eyes scanned over the words, but she did not turn the page. She was not listening exactly, but she remained alert.
After about an hour, things changed. Astraios, who could match their mother every bit once he started yelling, fell silent. Proserpine put her book down and listened closely. There was a crack and the yelling started again, unintellible.
Proserpine crept out into the hall to look down the stairs. In the entrance way. Astraios stood with his back to the door, face red in anger. Proserpine knew her presence was noted, but no one looked at her. Orcus, who rarely got involved in Mother and Astraios’s fights, except, when it was all over, to dole out punishment, had his wand out, pointed sharply at the sealed front door. There was smoke coming from the door, indicating that the spell had been cast with remarkable and unnecessary force.
Orcus lowered his wand and adjusted his posture, smoothing his shirt as he did so. He looked at Astraios, and though he did not speak, everyone understood that he had issued a warning, and that there would not be another one. Proserpine held her breath.
Astraios looked between Mother and Father, shaking in anger, but silent. He was wandless, which Proserpine could not help but think was a reckless choice. But then again, Astraios had always been short sighted and impulsive.
Proserpine felt for her own wand. It sat comfortably in the pocket inside her blue cardigan. It was short, dark, sleek, she had learned from Astraios. Her only rebellion had been a single stone, cut and polished, in the base of the wand. It was small, and her mother had scoffed at it, but compared to Astraios from just a few years before, she had relented that it was tasteful, and that no one would see the dark stone anyway.
Astraios moved away from the door, to the side towards the entrance way fire place. He moved slowly, and Mother was worked up enough that she did not seem to be paying much attention. She had started ranting again.
“You are such a disappointment Astraios, if only you could be more like your sister! You were supposed to be such a powerful magician, the seer’s told me, when you were born, that you would be strong in magic. If you could just listen to me Astraios, things would be ok, we could forget about all of this, don’t you want your family Astraios?” She turned towards him slowly, and if Proserpine hadn’t known better, she would have thought Abeona was going to cry, but Prospepine knew her mother, and she knew that there were no tears, no matter what tricks she could play with her voice, crying on command was not something Abeona Sallow had in her.
Astraios shook his head, “Fuck you Mother,” He spat, eyes on Orcus’s wand. Orcus did not move, allowing his wife to handle it.
“You ungrateful brat! How dare you-”
Astraios’s fist curled around the fire place spade and in one solid motion he had smashed the window and flung himself out it, cursing as he scrapped the glass. He didn’t look back.
“Get back here boy!” Orcus yelled, but Astraios was gone, and he hadn’t not for a second, looked back.
Proserpine felt like she was floating outside her body, loosing her connection with earth.
Back on the floor of Astraios’s room, at something close to four in the morning, Prosperpine gathered herself, rage fading. If she was going to do this, she had little time left to do it. Mother rose with the birds, and if she discovered her in here it would not end well for Proserpine. Before she could change her mind, Proserpine guiltlily slid Astraios’s wand into the bag and waved her wand over it, muttering. The bag sprouted wings and flapped them experimentally. Proserpine opened the window and instructed it quietly, “Astraios, only Astraios, you understand?” She watched the bag, though it gave no indication that it understood, she nodded. “Go.”
The bag took off out the window and disappeared into the early morning mist. Proserpine closed the window and turned back into the room. As she left, she brushed her fingers over the desk, which was covered in loose papers and scribbles she recognized as Astraios’s handwriting. It all looked like nonsense, some old homework maybe. She paused over the astrology textbook. She hadn’t thought it, but it seemed like Astraios had been a fan. Fitting, she thought almost spitfully, her brother had always had a flare for the dramatic. She swallowed deeply, brother, but discarded the thought, best not to dwell. Prosperpine knew for a fact that Astraios would not need the textbook anymore, but she also knew she was registered for the same class this fall. Without thinking, almost sentimentally, she scooped up the textbook. It was an economic choice, she tried to convince herself, it would be silly for mother to buy a new textbook when there’s one right here.
Mind settled, Proserpine slips out of the room, textbook in hand, and goes back to her room at the other end of the hall, expertly avoiding all the magic traps and regular squeaky floorboards meant to alert her parents if someone was out of bed.
She leaves the textbooks on a stack of other textbooks on the desk and sits gingerly on the edge of her bed. She has not slept for at least a few days, the stress of all the fighting getting to her. It is almost morning, and mother will expect her promptly for breakfast, but she lays back anyway, hopeful to squeeze in an hour. As her eyes close, Proserpine’s body stiffens.
And all too quickly the events of the evening come flooding back.
Her hands burn, and she sobs silently, paralyzed in partial sleep.
After Astraios had left, Mother had called her into the sitting room.
“You will never leave me, will you Proserpine?” Mother had said, airs of patience and an undercurrent of threat.
Proserpine’s thoughts had raced, she wanted nothing more than to run, but in that moment, she saw he mother, all broken and sharp inside, and she knew in that moment that only one of them was ever going to get to leave this house, and Astraios had already gone. He deserves it, she thought. Astraios had always been the brave one, the special one, with his freedom he would do great things. Proserpine was meant for this, meant to stay here, but more than anything she longed to run.
“Of course not Mother,” She manages to get out, weakly.
“Promise me,” Abeona says, gripping Proserpine’s hands too tightly.
“I promise mother. I will not leave,” there are no glowing lights, no visual cues that something has changed, but in that moment Proserpine knows that she will no longer have a choice in this, not ever again. I will die here, surrounded by the portraits of my ancestors. It is not a peaceful thought.
Proserpine blinks. She and Mother stand before the far wall in the parlor. Proserpine thinks she must have walked here, but the memory escapes her. Mother waves her wand over the wall, and the wall paper peels away.
Proserpine has seen this once before, when she was young. The wallpaper reveals a beating and breathing mass. Mother calls it the family tree. Father doesn’t call it anything. It lives in the walls of this house and when they were young, Mother had bound them to it, adding them to the family. As it heaves Proserpine thinks she can feel it almost more now, now that she has made this promise and cannot leave, thought she knows this is probably not true.
The wall is made of beating hearts and lungs, all sorts of organs, each person is different. They are not the literal organs of the Sallow family, but they beat in tandem with them, tying the whole family together. In runes on each organ is each name. Proserpine sees cousin Deverra’s liver pulse next to her sisters, cousin Flora and cousin Naenia’s twin lungs. Mother gestures to the wall, “Tear it out,” she says.
“W-what?” Proserpine stutters. Before now, she had thought, almost, that Astraios would be back. He often ran away, but he always came back. A sneaky voice in her head reminds her that this time, he had not looked back.
“Tear him out. He is not your brother anymore.”
Proserpine brandishes her wand and slowly brings it up towards the wall, “He’ll, won’t he be back mother? Shouldn’t we wait?”
“Are you questioning me?”
Proserpine waves her wand and Astraios’s head wiggles in the wall, but doesn’t budge. Her heart roars in her ears, her face is burning. She waves her wand again. Nothing happens.
“Proserpine.” Her mother warns.
Desperately she waves her wand, thinking as hard as she can, “t-tripsis.” Again, nothing happens.
“You have to mean it daughter.”
Proserpine feels sick. “T-t-tripsis.”
Mother flicks her wand at Proserpine, she does not breathe a word, and pain wracks Proserpine’s body. She screams.
“Again,” Mother says, calmly, coldly, “tear it out.”
Proserpine knows this is a test, she does not want to take it.
“You have to mean it,” her mother scoffs, “his spell work was always stronger.”
Proserpine allows herself to be angry. She is angry at the comparison, when she is still here, by her mother’s side, and Astraios is not. She is angry that he has left her alone, to deal with this. She is angry that she is going to die here, bound to this stupid house. She raises her wand again, “Tripsis.”
Astraios’s heart is torn from the wall in pieces, and bleeds out on the floor, flailing as it dies. Proserpine knows that it is not strictly real, it is magic, sure, and she does not know what it will do to Astraios, but she also knows it would be foolish to keep something that could so easily kill the family around. Still, as she watches the heart die, she feels sick, and almost, jealous. Astraious is free.
Mother waves her wand again and everything blurs.
Proserpine is back in her bed, awake. It’s dawn. She sits up in bed, still in her clothes from yesterday, plain black robes and a blue cardigan. The cardigan had been her favorite, but looking at it on her body now makes her feel dirty.
Proserpine changes and goes down stairs for breakfast. It is the first day without Astraios and all eyes are on her now.
Proserpine stands before the Academy, a towering and narrow red and black gothic building, that tower up into the sky. Inside the school, it will seem spacious, there are forests and lakes and hidden halls. All her belongings are in her hands and they still burn with guilt. She is alone for the first time. Her father had left her at the gates without a word and Astraios was no where to be seen.
She understood that she was not meant to speak to him, but a part of her was still desperate to run to him and for all of this to be over. She begins to walk, lugging her bags. Most kids shrunk their things, or if they were too young to know how, their parents did it for them. Proserpine was not particularly adept at the spell, but her parents hadn’t mentioned it and they did not exactly have a relationship where she could have asked.
Proserpine trails behind the other students. She is glad to be back at school, if only so that she does not have to be at the Sallow House. Proserpine looks around. She is one of the few older students alone, but she realizes, sharply, that there is no one she can consider a friend. She has always been to wrapped up in her studies, too much under pressure, to really talk to anyone. Maybe this semester I can change that.
It feels like a lie, but she lets it be. She carries her things to her room, a single, as a privilege for being an honors student (and probably also because her family’s reputation precedes them). She can hardly remember her roommates from the previous year, which is troubling, but there’s nothing to be done about it.
She sets her things on the bed and decides to unpack after the welcome dinner. She takes her time walking to the dining hall, not looking forward to sitting alone in the back while everyone reunites with their friends. When she gets to the hall, Professor Dealy, the Runes professor, stands at the entrance greeting students. She is one of Proserpine’s favorite people at the school, though they rarely speak about anything, but runes.
“Good evening Professor,” Proserpine says.
“Welcome back Proserpine,” Dealy says, “How was your break?”
Proserpine shudders internally, thinking of the silence that followed Astraios’s departure and the guilt burned into her palms. She swallows the burning feeling and tries to smile, “Uneventful.”
Dealy frowns and leans a bit closer, quietly she says, “I heard some,” She bites her lip, “concerning things. If you want to talk, I’m here.”
Proserpine appreciates it, in theory, but the idea of opening up to Professor Dealy makes her want to get swallowed by the floor and if her parents ever knew she was talking about something so personal with a professor it would end in disaster. Proserpine reinforces her smile, “Thanks professor, really though. Uneventful,” It’s weak and they both know it.
Dealy purses her lips and pats Proserpine on the shoulder, ushering her into the hall, “Off to dinner with you.”
Proserpine is glad to go.
She sits alone in the back as she usually does. A few tables over she sees Astraios. She does not wave to him, but she does look and hope that he sees. He pointedly doesn’t look at her, but his friends look between the two of them with concern. It makes Proserpine feel sick in a way she can’t place. She has tea for dinner, unable to even consider stomaching a meal.
When the welcome dinner has ended and they’re all excused, Proserpine follows Astraios out of the hall. “Astraios,” She says softly, trying to be discreet and not knowing what she wants to say exactly. “Astraios.”
His eyes flicker to her, but he focusing forward and picks up the pace subtely. Bodhi Evans, on Astraios’s right, looks back. “Stars, come on,” He says.
Proserpine has never understood their strange nicknames for each other.
Astraios does not listen to Bodhi and the two of them turn down the hall towards their dorm and Proserpine is left alone in the crowd of students. She draws a shaky breath and guilt threatens to consume her. He must know. He must.
She all but runs back to her room. Behind closed doors, she screams silently, scratching at her skin madly. Eventually, she exhausts herself and collapses, still in her traveling clothes, onto the unmade bed and falls asleep.
She sleeps fitfully, dreaming of the wall and Astraios’s heart on the carpet, bleeding out. She wakes in the middle of the night all at once, gasping, but silent, too afraid and confused to make noise. When she gets her bearings, she sits up.
Proserpine methodically changes into her pajamas and sits up in the corner of her bed, back to the wall. She pulls her bag towards her and begins to unpack her textbooks. As she does, she drops Astraios’s old astronomy text book. Loose papers spill out of it and Proserpine feels a twinge of annoyance. It is just like Astraios to keep scraps in his books, she should have just dealt with it and gotten a new one. There’s probably pages missing.
She leans over the side of the bed and gathers it all back up. Turning the loose papers over, she realizes that they’re not scraps, but instead hidden, unsent letters. Curious, beside herself, she opens the first one. It’s addressed to Bodhi (“Bowie”) and full of blacked out words and phrases, but what can be made out reads:
Things are bad here. Might come early.
I’m worried about what happens to Proserpine if I leave. I know you said she could
come, but are your parents definitely okay with that?
Proserpine feels a strange freezing sensation and feels like she’s floating outside her body and watching herself dig through the letters with a new fervor.
I can’t do this anymore.
Today Abeona called me a disgrace, so normal day. Proserpine hasn’t spoken in
three days. I don’t think they’ve even noticed.
I don’t know that I’m gonna make it. I just want to take her and run.
The last one starts, more serious.
I saw Abeona use a control curse on Proserpine today. I think she’s been doing it to
us both since we were kids. She wiped her memory of it after. I can’t talk to
Proserpine about it, it’s not safe. We’re not safe, I can’t. I’m so angry. That bitch.
Proserpine feels her blood go cold. The world is warping. Mother using a control curse? It is completely in character, so much so that Proserpine almost wonders why she didn’t know, why Mother even bothers to hid it. For a moment she wishes she didn’t know any of this and in the next she doesn’t believe it at all. She settles, cautiously, on it being the truth. Astraios is nothing if not honest to a fault.
He wanted to take her with him, he hadn’t meant to leave her. She doesn’t know whether to feel better or worse knowing that ultimately he didn’t. Proserpine sits alone in her room and holds the knowledge that she was wanted close to her chest. His additude earlier confuses her even more now, but he always has been a bit more than she can understand.
She unfolds the last letter, expecting more of the same, but it only further confuses her.
More talk of the Angels. I think Abeona thinks I’m gonna join when I graduate.
Said it was my duty. No thanks I know what kind of people this family are. I
tried to gather more information, but I think she’s starting to get suspicious. If I
don’t make it back in the fall, she did it. Haha. But actually.
Angels? Proserpine wonders. What kind of people our family are? Proserpine is not naive. She knows that the Sallow family is not exactly, nice, but she also can’t imagine them doing anything bad. At least, not to anyone not already in the family. Astraios seems to think differently and while she’s inclined to believe him, she also is someone who needs a bit more evidence than some vague say-so.
Proserpine considers the letter. She has never heard someone say anything about Angels at any family gathering. It could be something Astraios has coined? But something tells her that isn’t it. She almost gets up to go to the library, but the moon is still bright out her window. It is maybe 3am. The library is closed and she should be resting for the first day of class tomorrow.
Proserpine carefully stows the letter beneath her desk drawer and stacks all the textbooks on top of the desk. Instead of going to sleep, she unpacks. Carefully folds all of her clothes and places a tray for incense on top of the dresser. All her things are practical, and nothing is out of place. She looks back out the window at the moon.
It stares back at her, a blue moon, bright and attention demanding. Proserpine lays the wrong way on her bed to stare at it, wand under her pillow. She falls into a brief, but more restful sleep. Things unpacked and being watched, carefully, by the moon.
In the second week of school, Proserpine is approached by her cousin, Fortuna. Fortuna was the middle of three sisters and of all her cousins, Proserpine was closest with Fortuna’s family. This did not, however mean, that she was close to Fortuna. They had hardly spoken at school since Proserpine’s first year. Fortuna was now in her second to last year, while Proserpine was stuck in the middle of her education.
Proserpine had not spoken to anyone in her family since school had started. Until one day after class, Fortuna stopped her in the hall.
She and Fortuna looked startlingly alike. They could have been twins. Proserpine preferred to wear her hair in two neat braids and Fortuna tied hers back messily. Besides their age, there was little else to disguinish between them. Fortuna even had a similar port wine stain on the side of her face.
“Hello little cousin,” Fortuna said from where she leaned against the wall, watching the underclassman spill out of a lecture.
Proserpine slowed to a hesitant stop, “Hello Fortuna.”
Fortuna grinned at her wickedly. Her smile had always been to sharp, it had unsettled Proserpine their whole lives. “Have you spoken to the traitor at all?” She asks casually, pushing off the wall and falling beside Proserpine, looking bored. The two of them continue down the hall together, though Proserpine is not sure where they are headed.
“No,” Proserpine says, though she has not thought of Astraios as a traitor until now. It did not seem like an accurate word, but she knew better than to dispute it with Fortuna.
“Good good,” Fortuna smiles, “Me either.”
They continue to walk, though Fortuna does not let them walk in silence for long. Proserpine would have preferred it.
“I wouldn’t be caught dead talking to scum like that,” as she says it Astraios rounds the corner and spots them. Proserpine knows he can hear this conversation. “Right? Little cousin?” This is a test, Proserpine knows. She knows the right answer, but does not want to give it, does not know what it will mean if she does.
Looking at Astraios, feeling lost, she says, “Right. Of course not,” she looks away, “Wouldn’t want anyone getting the wrong idea,” It’s supposed to be light, but it doesn’t land right. Fortuna ignores this.
“Exactly Prospie,” Fortuna pats her on the head. Astraios has stormed off in the other direction, clearly having heard every word. Proserpine’s heat breaks into just a few more little pieces. “It’s a matter of decency, of loyalty,” Fortuna’s eyes shimmer with untold secrets. Proserpine feels as if there is a joke she is not getting. Fortuna continues, “you get it.”
Proserpine nods, words escaping her.
“We wouldn’t want anyone doubting your loyalty to the Sallow House would we? We can trust you Proserpine,” Fortuna’s hand is on her shoulder, Proserpine feels sick, “can’t we?”
“Of course,” Proserpine chokes out, then, clearer, “Of course you can. Why wouldn’t you?”
Fortuna smiles at her again, the closest to soft her smiles ever got, “No reason little angel.” Fortuna pats her on the head and is off down the hallway, leaving Proserpine with bile rising in her throat. There is was again, that word, angel. It couldn’t be coincidence, though Proserpine couldn’t fathom what the connection was.
The limited reading in the library had spoken only of religion in the non-magical world and even that there was very little information on.
Proserpine walked numbly back to her dorm room. She closed herself in alone and laid her books down carefully on her desk. Astraios’s unsent letters felt like red hot damning evidence in her desk, and without thinking, she rips them out from under the drawer. She draws her wand and lights them on fire, vanishing the ash when they have finished burning. All trace of them gone, Proserpine sinks to the floor, numbness threatening to consume her.
She stays there, legs akimbo and face blank, mouth slightly open, for the next hour. She does not think, she hardly breathes, she misses dinner. Eventually, she blinks, coming back to the world. Astraios. She thinks, I need to talk to Astraios.
Proserpine stands and moves to her desk. Standing over it, she opens her Runes notebook and rips out a blank page. She hesitates. Astraios does not seem to want to talk to her and if Fortuna were ever to find out it would end poorly. She shakes her head. The guilt in her palms pushes her forward. Fortuna will simply have to never find out.
She uncaps her pen and stares at the page. What do I say? Which of course, means, what will make him come? She doesn’t know, but starts to write anyway.
Can we talk? Please. 11pm on the Astronomy deck?
She signs it, but reconsiders and crosses it out. No need to incriminate herself further. She hates that talking to her brother has become a taboo. She considers and then adds a post script.
P.S. I found your letters.
Proserpine folds the note carefully, into a small triangle. She seals it was wax, but does not stamp it. She then raises her wand and repeats the spell she had used to send Astraios his wand over the summer.
The note grows tiny little wings and soars towards the window. It hits the closed glass and bounces back. Proserpine smiles, but its strained. She gets up and opens the window. The note is off, no taking it back now. She hopes that he even reads it. She hopes that she is not risking proof of loyalty to the Sallow House for nothing. She doesn’t know what she wants from this, but she is full of guilt and fear, and wants nothing more than the only person who had ever given her even a semblance of safety.
Proserpine shivers alone on the astronomy deck. It is long after anyone is supposed to be out and about, but the astronomy deck is removed enough that no one ever thinks to check and its too out of the way for other students to make the trek to it. This is precisely why Proserpine had chosen it and she hopes that Astraios is not deterred by the time or by the distance, though it does not seem like him to be.
She still has not figured out exactly what she wants to say to him. Thoughts of how could you? jump to I’m sorry. She doesn’t know if she’s going to tell him, she doesn’t know if he felt it. A part of her brain, ever scientific, wants to ask. She wraps her shawl tighter. The wind whips around her and her dark wool dress threatens to flip up. It will not, too imbued with Proserpine’s magic to disobey her, but it the physics of it all makes it consider its options.
He’s late, which is completely in character. Just as Proserpine is about to head back and huddle into her warm bed, she hears voices.
Astraios, goofing around and arguing with Bodhi Evans and the quieter, exhausted voice of Meilyr Green. She had not expected him to bring company, though maybe she should have. If she’d had reinforcements to bring, she may have done the same, but Proserpine did not have people she could trust that way. The extra witnesses makes her nervous, though logically she knows Astraios’s friends will be nothing like their family and will not tell Fortuna about the meeting.
The trio reaches the top of the steps and they see her, immediately they fall silent. Bodhi and Meilyr watch Astraios, like they’re not sure if they should hug him or hold him back. Astraios surprises them all and is remarkably restrained. He walks towards Proserpine, posture straightened and alert. He stops just a few feet away and then, shockingly, stays silent, and waits.
Proserpine doesn’t know how to begin. She looks from Bodhi to Meilyr, but does not make eye contact with any of the trio. She casts her eyes down and bites her lip. “No one can know about this.” She can see that it hurts Astraios, but it needs to be said, “Please.” And maybe it is the fear in her voice that convinces him, or maybe he is just ashamed to be seen with her.
“Of course,” He agrees.
She breathes a sigh of relief and adjusts her shawl.
“What did you want to talk about?” He asks.
It is an obvious question, with any number of answers, both obvious and not. Proserpine, cursing herself for cowardice, starts where it’s easy.
“I found your letters,” She says and Astraios frowns, “in the astronomy textbook.”
“Oh.” He says.
Yeah, she thinks. The pause is awkward and the wind hisses between them. She feels so far away. “I,” She struggles, but then shakes her head, circling way back around. “What did you mean angels?”
There is immediate tension at the phrase. “That’s what this is about?” Astraios asks and she can tell he’s hurt that of all things this is what she wants to talk about.
She looks down, feeling like she might cry, “No. It’s not.”
“Prospie?” He whispers at how her voice cracks. He takes half a step forward, but maintains his distance. It is simply how it is now.
“I’m sorry,” she says and now the tears are falling. She can’t stop it. It makes her feel manipulative; she had not meant to cry.
Astraios looks pained, but he keeps his distance and lets her gather herself.
“I’m sorry,” She says again, breathing deeply, “I did not mean to cry.” She sniffles and pulls herself up straight. Her braids whip around in the wind before her. Astraios takes a step back and she realizes he has never seen her take up space like this, she doesn’t know if she ever has. She looks him in the eyes and breathes, “I’m sorry. I don’t know if you know, or if you felt it, but I was the one to remove your heart from the house.”
For a moment, nothing. Then, “You what?” Astraios spits, shoving aside Bodhi’s hand that immediately had gone to his shoulder.
“I didn’t have a choice. I’m so sorry,” The tears threaten to return, but she pushes them back. “You were gone Astraios I, things are different now.”
“Things are different now,” He repeats, dumbfounded, “Where is that sense of loyalty?”
Proserpine wants to scream about how their mother had hurt her, how all attention was on her now, instead, she pivots, “What are the angels?”
“You can’t just, change the subject like that. Shit Proserpine,” Astraios walks back and does a short loop around the deck. “Why?” He asks finally.
“I had to,” Proserpine stresses, “I had to.”
Astraios doesn’t seem like he believes her, which is ridiculous. He knows their mother.
“You know Mother,” She says, “She gets what she wants.”
Astraios’s freezes, “She does, doesn’t she.”
“What are the angels Astraios?” Proserpine asks, desperate, an overwhelming sense that this cannot be avoided coming over her. “It’s important.”
“Why, you thinking of joining them?” He hisses. Sometimes, he is very much the Sallow that he tries to be nothing like.
Proserpine hasn’t thought about it, really, “I don’t know, maybe, I just want to know what they are?”
“Really? What the fuck is wrong with you? You’re going to join them?” Astraios gets up in her face, yelling.
Proserpine cowers. She still does not know who or what they even are.
Astraios storms off and with a look back, Bodhi follows him. Meilyr and Bodhi seem to communicate something silently and Meilyr stays behind with Proserpine. If she was thinking about it, she would realize that they had never actually spoken before.
“I’m sorry for him,” Meilyr says. It is so strange to have someone apologize for her own brother to her.
She shakes her head mutely. I’ve been apologizing for him my whole life. She wants to say, but doesn’t. Her shoulders roll down and she hunches over, clutching herself. For warmth or simply to physically hold herself together is unclear.
Meilyr bites his lip and looks back where Astraios and Bodhi have disappeared down the stairs. Proserpine doesn’t tell him to go, but she can tell he wants to. Eventually, the silence drives him away and Proserpine is left alone on the astronomy deck. She stays there, unthinking and holds herself. Astraios is so angry, so righteous, but she does not understand any of it. It is too much to be angry.
Later, Proserpine will realize that she does not remember returning to her dorm room, but the next morning she wakes there all the same. She dresses mechanically for the day, but does not go to class. There is a knock on her door, and robotically she coughs and tells whoever it is that she’s ill. No one bothers her after that.
Proserpine sits like that, in silence, dressed, but hair unbraided at her desk, until long after dark. When the moon is high in the night sky, Proserpine begins to braid her hair. It takes her longer than usual, but when she finishes, she follows the moonlight outside. In the night air, she stops. It is cold, and for the first time that day, she wakes up.
Still, she needs a walk. So she looks up and takes her time following the moon. She is halfway around the grounds when footsteps run up behind her and someone grabs her shoudler. She shrieks and pushes the person away, drawing her wand.
It is Meilyr, he looks just as surprised as her, and has landed on the ground.
“I’m so sorry,” Proserpine says and means it. She has always been jumpy, but she’s never had friends for it to be a problem before.
Meilyr laughs, “It’s ok. Sorry for scaring you.”
Proserpine nods, confused.
“I was looking for you,” He says.
This confuses her even further. “Why?”
“I wanted to see if you were ok, I mean, after last night,” He shrugs, awkward.
Proserpine blinks. No one has ever checked on her before, it’s a kindness she is unfamiliar with. She scoffs a little and immediately curses herself for it. “I’m fine.”
Meilyr, whether he is just used to Astraios or is naturally a paitient person says, “it’s ok if you’re not.”
And for a moment, Proserpine lets herself get angry, “It’s not, actually,” She snaps. “Weakness is unacceptable. If I so much as stumble I will lose everything,” She stresses. “Everything. Meilyr Green. My mother may actually kill me.”
“Can I help?” It is too kind of a response for someone she had just yelled at.
She sighs, “No,” and then, remembering her manners, “But thank you,” She means it, which surprises her. “I’m just the only one left now. I’ll never get to leave.”
Meilyr looks like he’s going to protest, but Proserpine stops him.
“No, really. Only one of us was ever going to get to leave and if we’re being honest,” She smiles sadly, “it was always going to be Astraios.” She shakes her head, forcing her smile to sustain itself. “Don’t worry. It’s ok.”
The platitude fools no one, but Meilyr doesn’t call her out for it and Proserpine is grateful for it. They stand underneath the moonlight in a comfortable silence. It is the most at peace Proserpine has felt in years, though it only lasts a moment.
“Be safe Proserpine Sallow,” Meilyr says, waving to her.
She nods and he turns and goes back inside, leaving her once again alone outside in the night. Instead of staying outside like she had the night before she goes back to her room, feeling, not peaceful, but almost okay.
As soon as the door closes behind her, she realizes how public that conversation had been. Anyone could have seen them. The low grade panic that follows her everywhere these days starts to set back in. She hadn’t seen anyone, but that didn’t mean someone hadn’t seen them. She tries to breathe, there’s no way. Fortuna will never know.
But the feeling does not go away and the longer it stays, the more sure Proserpine is that Fortuna will be talking to her about it by the end of the week. Meilyr Green was not the kind of person that the Sallow family approved of and even though she had never been told why, Proserpine understood this as a fact. Understood it as a rule she had to follow to maintain her own standing. It was exhausting. Body wracked with stress, Proserpine left her homework unfinished and tucked herself into bed. She was out into a fitful sleep instantly.
It has been a week since her conversation with Meilyr and so far, no one had said anything to Proserpine about it. No one has said anything to her at all, besides her professors in class, but that’s besides the point.
She’s eating breakfast today, oatmeal with dried fruit and it seems like maybe today could be okay. The breakfast does not threaten to come back up as soon as she eats and she’s starting to feel like she’s got a handle on everything.
This growing confidence is why, when Fortuna slips her a letter on her way out, Proserpine does not immediately read it. She doesn’t even really worry. She just finishes her breakfast, clears her plate and heads to class. She almost forgets about the letter until her free period after lunch, when she feels it russel in her pocket.
Slowly she takes it out. The envelope it plain, but stiff and clearly good quality paper. The seal is familiar, a twisting willow tree in a silvery purple wax. Her name is written on the back in perfect, likely magically produced, script.
She breaks the seal, going through no trouble to save the image. It is beautiful, but the novelty of it wore off ages ago. She doesn’t think of it.
The letter inside is on a different kind of paper, it’s finer, but almost lacy and still very strong. Proserpine recognizes it from her father’s study. She unfolds it, wondering briefly why her parents sent her a message through Fortuna. In a scrawling, slow script, the letter reads:
It is not her father’s handwriting, strangely, but she does not recognize it. And there it is again. That word. Angel.
The time has come to demonstrate your loyalty to the Sallow Houses. A message will be sent to you with your test, do not miss it.
As soon as her eye scan across the last word, the words glow painfully bright. Proserpine looks away and feels the note disintegrate in her hand. When she opens her eyes, there is no trace that anything was ever there.
She frowns, turning her hand over. A test? Proserpine doesn’t know what that means, but it is not something she wants to deal with. She would much rather sit in her room and do homework until the end of time, not deal with cryptic and vague messages from her family.
(That’s the other thing. She’s not exactly sure who wrote this. Her father would be the obvious choice, but the handwriting…)
Proserpine gathers her things and continues through her day, looking all day for anything that could be considered a hidden message. She sees ravens through the window and in her Biology class they go out to take samples from the great willow tree on one of the outdoor pockets in the middle of the school. If these are messages though, she is not sure what they’re supposed to communicate. That her family is watching her? That’s not news.
Proserpine almost stops looking, though she knows that if she’s misses something the consqeunces will be dire. For the next several days, Proserpine sees little clues in every corner. Every time she looks over her shoulder she catches a glimpse of Fortuna.
Over the next week, the stress sets back in for Proserpine. Everything she sees is a clue and also none of them are clues at all. She can’t connect the dots, Fortuna keeps watching her. She skips class one day in a mad hunt for the message.
Now, she’s crashing in her dorm room. Alone again, without Fortuna’s prying eyes. Her heart hammers in her chest and it strikes her that she may just die young because of all the stress. She laughs at that, numb. Immediately feeling rushes her and tears fall. She sobs, holding herself, back to the door. She wants her brother to come and save her, like he always did when they were kids.
Just because she wishes it however, does not make it happen. No one comes for her. Knowing this, Proserpine stands and relocates to her desk. Where she pulls out some paper and, before she can think to hard about it, she begins to write.
I’m so tired. I don’t know how much longer I can do this. Being the center of their attention. How did you ever handle it? I feel like I wasn’t made for this. Though I guess, you weren’t either.
She taps her pen on the desk, thinking.
Why did our conversation the other night have to end that way? I want my brother back. I’m lonely. I’m scared.
Your friend. Meilyr Green. Mother would hate him…
I think he’s quite nice. Don’t loose that one.
She gasps dramatically and puts down her pen. This is ridiculous and she sounds ancient. She scratches out a couple lines. This is a waste of time. She thinks, but regardless, she picks her pen back up and continues to write.
They’re sending me a hidden message. With a task in it. I have to prove my loyalty to the family. Did they make you do something like this? I assume not, given that clearly you hold no loyalty to the family. Sorry, I don’t know if that’s, harsh?
I’m scared I’ll miss the message. That something will happen. You were always the one who got to escape Astraios. I’m jealous.
Immediately Proserpine scratches out her last sentence. It surprises her to know that it’s true. It is a dangerous thought for her to have. I will never get to leave. She thinks, Better get used to it. She does not sign it. The letter is unfinished and it mocks her, but she is too shaken by the realization that she is jealous of Astraios to continue. It’s not a unreasonable feeling, but her stomach sinks with it. It is not something she gets to feel and it is definitely why she is being issues a challenge to prove her loyalty.
Proserpine looks down at the letter, it is not everything, but it is too honest for her to risk anyone else ever laying eyes on it. She grasps her pen, eyes wide and unblinking. Madly, she scribbles out every line she’s written. Ink smudges on her fingers. The pen snaps and she quickly picks up another, not stopping until the paper is damp with ink and no words remain. Then, she raises her wand and ignites the paper. The fumes make her cough, but soon enough the evidence is gone.
The next day, the message arrives.
It is more straightforward than she thought it would be. The message arrives, tied to the leg of a raven, in her window one morning before class. She carefully unties it and gets pecked at by the raven for her trouble.
“Hey!” She protests. Proserpine unfurls the note. On it is simply a name.
What does that mean? She wonders. Proserpine thinks hard. She thinks, that a few years above her there was a girl named Gail Moore. She cannot clearly picture her face or recall much about her, other than that her family was not particularly notable. What could the Sallow family want with her? And how did that prove her loyalty?
“What am I supposed to do?” She whispered to the raven, who squared angrily and flew back the way it had come. “Helpful,” She says, voice dry.
She folds the note back up carefully and hides it underneath her desk drawer, where Astraios’s letters had been hidden until their destruction.
Later, in the dining hall, Fortuna trails her fingers around the table as she walks past and says, “Don’t wait too long, little cousin.”
Proserpine wants to stop her, to ask what the message means, but she refrains. She just nods mutely and finishes her tea alone at the table.