Loveliness Increases by J. Federle

This story first appeared in Splickety Magazine, June 2018.

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Francis allowed his sister to sit him up. His rawboned arms flexed, and the blues and greens of his veins splayed like spider webs across his upturned wrists. He admired the patterns as Sarah used her free hand to stack the embroidered pillows behind him. He thought of Margaret as he admired his arms. Margaret had brought him hot oats every night when he was a boy, just in case “the little prince” had the strength to eat. He loved Margaret’s left eye, which she claimed had been milky since birth. Its swirling opalescence was the only thing he’d ever found as beautiful as his own pale skin.

“Here, Francis,” Sarah leaned him back onto the pillows, but failed to mind his head. His skull flopped back with undignified speed. 

Francis exhaled, taking in once more the mural spanning the plaster ceiling. Margaret had a new mural commissioned every year for his birthday. On this, his seventeenth year of life, the exquisite Endymion reclined above Francis’ bed. The shepherd’s sleep was eternal, but the cursed slumber preserved his youthful beauty. In the dizzying night sky, amid a flurry of white robes and silvery hair, the captivated moon goddess hung, her eyes fixed on Endymion’s graceful form.

“That nanny of yours, she’s venomous.” Sarah settled into a chair by Francis’s side. “The hag slapped my new maid just for sneaking a glimpse at the painter this year. I’d like to have a gorgon painted on her damn ceiling.”

“Margaret is not my nanny,” Francis hissed, his contemplation broken. “And Nancy is a willful servant. Margaret told her never to enter this wing of the palace.”

From the bedside table, Sarah plucked a soft plum from the bowl of fruit Margaret had set out. Her left hand dove into her pile of red skirts, extracting a small pocketknife.

“I heard Nolan visited you again last week,” she said.

“My weakness comforts our suspicious big brother. Why have you come, Sarah?”

Sarah’s blade sliced into the plum.

“Father has gone mad,” she reported, feeding the first piece to herself.

“The king has always been mad,” Francis quipped. Sarah held the next piece up to his lips. He allowed her to feed him.

“Father tried to catch a swan yesterday,” she continued. “He escaped the steward and waded into the fountain in nothing but his bathrobe. Half the court saw.”

“Perhaps it was a lovely swan.” Francis was admiring the length of Endymion’s graceful fingers.

“There wasn’t a swan. The fool was chasing his own empty hands.” Sarah sat the half-eaten plum back on the table. “It was your Margaret, you know, that distracted the steward. Dropped a tea kettle nearly on his feet.”

“Hah! You think Margaret ordered the king’s steward to clean spilled tea?” Francis scoffed. “As she tells it, Nolan slapped the tray from her hands. Nolan is an idiot, but he knows enough to want the crown.”

“So you had nothing to do with it?”

“Sister,” he sighed. “I live comfortably because the king has forgotten me. If Nolan takes the crown, Margaret and I will be dead within a week, our peaceful hallway packed with women and hunting trophies before our corpses go cold.”

Sarah licked her knife before stowing it back inside her hidden pocket, seemingly satisfied.

“The magistrates will poison father tonight.”

Francis frowned and tipped his head to face her.

“That’s too soon,” he started. Then he caught her expression.

Nolan’s small eyes were mud-colored. Sarah’s were large and blue, set above high cheekbones. If Francis weren’t so anemic, and she not so full faced, they could be twins. At the moment, Sarah’s blue eyes glittered with triumph. She dipped into her petticoats again to produce several faded papers. Folding them back along deep creases reunited a circle of red wax, the queen’s seal crushed into it.

“Where was it?”

“Hidden in the wall. I had to tear mother’s old room apart.”

“Margaret watched her write it,” he murmured. “The queen assumed her maid couldn’t read. But we feared mother might’ve burned the letter in the end.”

“It confesses everything!” Sarah clutched the papers. “The lovely virgin queen was pregnant at her own wedding! Nolan is not our blood,” she spat with delight.

Francis returned his gaze to the mural, but his lips were drawn tight.

“When will you reveal the letter?”

“Three magistrates with a distaste for Nolan already know.” Sarah leaned forward. “Your sister will rule, Francis,” she whispered into his ear. Overcome, she snatched his limp hand, clasping it to her chest. Her fingers were still sticky. “Nothing will change for you, brother! I’ll keep you as comfortable as ever. Nothing will change.”

That night, Francis found the strength to hobble from his bed. He found a new vantage point, craning his head back. Despite Endymion’s slumber, the vibrant young body on the ceiling seemed in motion, legs extended, arms tossed over his head of twisting curls.

“The prince stands today!”

Francis staggered round. Margaret’s white apron glowed in the dim doorway.

“You almost hid the letter too well,” he chastised.

“The work bettered her belief,” the old woman croaked, shuffling to him.

“The queen left me only two treasures.” Francis took Margaret’s chin in his bony hand. Her iridescent left eye beautifully echoed his pale skin. “That letter and you.”

Margaret cackled in gratitude.

“Nolan will have Sarah killed tonight,” Francis breathed. “Last week I had him roaring over her treachery. He swore he’d kill her the moment the crown left father’s head.” He focused on the good eye, grey and wet. “Tonight, Margaret, crucify Nancy about hidden items in petticoats. Say you stuck yourself on a pocketknife. When Sarah’s body is discovered tomorrow, I want that girl wailing about secret petticoat pockets.”

“Poor magistrates,” Margaret hacked, “Dead king, dead princess? A bastard child that murders sisters?”

Francis, returning her gnarled smile, released Margaret’s chin.

“And one empty throne requiring an innocent prince.”


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Copyright J. Federle 2018

J. Federle has Kentucky in her blood. Folktale and forests are important elements in her stories, which also enjoy the fresh citrusy twist of inspiration from her nomadic lifestyle. She studied storytelling in Ireland, a country which uses humor to present its darkest tales. In France, where stories have often decided who lost their head, she studied the violent history of Notre Dame. In England, she earned her MA in Romantic poetry. She currently lives in Lima, Peru, where the rich storytelling history has enticing veins of mysticism. In June 2018, one of her flash fiction pieces was in Splickety’s Heirs and Spares issue.

J. Federle is a repeat author with Tell-Tale Press. Her work is also available in the Fantasy Library and the Horror Library.

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