The Sin Eater's DaughterBy: Melinda Salisbury
Even when there are no prisoners, I can still hear the screams. They live in the walls like ghosts and echo in between footsteps. If you travel down deep into the belly of the castle, beneath the barracks where the guards sleep, beneath the Telling Room, that is where they linger behind the quiet moments.
The first time I was brought down here I asked my guards what they did to make them scream so. One of them, Dorin, had looked at me and shook his head, his lips pressed together so tightly they turned white, his pace quickening towards the Telling Room. I remember at the time feeling a thrill of fear, the idea of something so terrible, so horrifying that even my calm, strong guard couldn’t say it aloud. I promised myself that I’d find out, that I’d discover this dark secret hidden underground. In my thirteenth harvest year I was naïve. Hopelessly, blindly naïve.
When I first came to the castle, many, many moons ago, I was awed by it, by the decor and the beauty and the richness of it all. There are no rushes on the floor here, no straw embedded with lavender and basil to keep it sweet-smelling. The queen demanded carpets, rugs, runners woven especially for her to tread upon and so our footsteps are muted as we walk.
The walls behind the rich red and blue tapestries are grey stone, flecked with mica that flashes when the servants pull the hangings aside to wash the walls. Gilt and gold adorn the antlered candelabras above my head; cushions are velvet and tasselled and replaced as soon as the pile is rubbed the wrong way. Everything is faultless and pristine; everything is kept ordered and beautiful. The roses in the tall crystal vases are all cut to the same length, all the exact same colour and arranged the same way. There is no room in this castle for things that are not perfect.
My guards walk carefully at my sides, holding their bodies rigid and keeping a good distance between me and them. If I raised an arm to reach for one of them they would recoil in horror. If I tripped, or fainted, if reflex sabotaged them and they tried to help me, it would be a death sentence for them. They would find themselves with their throats slit where they stood as an act of mercy. Compared to a slow death by my poisonous skin, a slit throat would be lucky.
Tyrek was not lucky.
In the Telling Room my guards move to stand against the door and the queen’s apothecary, Rulf, nods curtly towards the stool I am to take, before turning his back on me and checking his equipment. The walls are lined with shelves containing jars of murky substances, strange powders and unnamed leaves, all jumbled together with no obvious order to them. Nothing is labelled, at least not that I can see in the dim light the candles cast, for there are no windows this deep under the castle. At first I thought it strange that something like the Telling would be performed here, hidden away in warren-like passages carved underground, but now I understand it. If I were to fail… Best for that not to happen where the court, the kingdom, could witness it. Better for it to happen in this secret little room, halfway between the underworld of the dungeons and the relative paradise of the Great Hall.
As I arrange my skirts around me on the stool, one of my guards, the younger one, scuffs the floor with his feet, the sound too loud in the stone chamber. Rulf turns, dealing him a sharp glance and as he looks away he catches my eye. His gaze is blank when it skims over me, his face a mask, and I suspect even if he weren’t mute he’d have nothing to say to me now.
Once he would have smiled and shaken his head as Tyrek told me about the trees he’d climbed and the pastries he’d filched from the kitchen. He’d have waved a hand at Tyrek to tell him to stop showing off, even as his eyes shone with affection for his only son. Though the Telling itself only takes a few moments, I used to stay down there for an hour, sometimes two, sitting opposite Tyrek, two arms’ lengths between us as we exchanged stories. My guards would hover close by, keeping one curious eye on Rulf as he went about his experiments and the other on Tyrek and me as we chatted. Back then I had nowhere to be after the Telling, save my temple or my room, and there was nothing to stop me having those few stolen hours down in the Telling Room under my guards’ careful watch. But things are different now; these days I have other demands on my time.
I keep my eyes down as Rulf performs the Telling, cutting my arm and catching a few drops of my blood in the bowl held beneath it before he carries it across the room. He’ll add a single drop of blood to the Morningsbane, deadly poison with no earthly antidote, before bringing the mixture to me. I wait silently, my head bent as he mixes the blood and poison together, as he decants it into a vial. I hold still as he approaches me and drops the vial into my lap. I lift it, the oily liquid crystal clear in the candlelight, no sign my blood is even in there. I remove the stopper and drink.