The Rose Sisterhood
by Susan Taitel
My Sisters and I await the next girl. She will be beautiful. We always are. We hope she’ll be the one to break the curse, that she will have the wherewithal to see our master as he truly is. To succeed where we all failed.
We do not know when she will arrive. We hope it will be soon. It is not good for our master to go too long without a companion. We Sisters are not company.
As we wait, I try to console our newest Sister. It was only a flinch. I assure her she still has a role to play. There are clothes to mend, meals to prepare, and roses to prune. She won’t be comforted yet — her bones are too fresh. I know she will adjust to her new station in time. We all do.
For now, all she can do is weep, berating herself for an involuntary response. That small intake of breath that proved she only saw a beast, forcing our master to behave as one.
She floats after him, begging forgiveness. He can’t hear her and he does not need apologies. All he needs is for the next girl to be better.
The new roses have bloomed by the time the next girl arrives, wrapped in a wool cloak and radiating confusion. She lost her way in the woods. She knew her route; had taken it many times, and there was never a castle. Our master steps into the light. She gasps, but does not faint. A promising start.
He explains that she must stay. He shows her to her room and leaves her to reflect. She tries the door and finds it locked. My Sisters disperse but I remain. Her face gives me pause. I think I’ve seen it on someone else. She looks like my sister. How odd, to forget that I once had a sister. Now I only have Sisters.
She’s too young to be my sister, though how young I cannot tell. I was nineteen. I still am, in a sense. My bones are much older. Perhaps she’s my niece or great-niece.
Marianne. That was my sister’s name. Or was it mine? Our master doesn’t like names.
Each morning he unlocks her door and tells her she may explore the castle, but she will not leave the room. She is unhappy. It’s always hard at first. The isolation and dread. She thinks she’s alone. She does not know how many of us came before her. She cannot see that we’re still here, praying she will be the one.
We know that soon she will begin to see past our master’s claws and teeth. She will see his wit and charm and most importantly, she will see the gentleness inside. It is there. He buries it deep, but every one of us has seen it. When one of my Sisters fell ill, he stayed by her bedside, feeding her broth and speaking softly until her strength returned. The curse seemed very thin then, as if it would snap with a stiff breeze. It made her failure–our failures all the more maddening.
I take it upon myself to make her understand that she is safe and provided for. I tend to her fire and sneak her food since she refuses to come to meals. I leave books on her dresser and bring in fresh flowers from my own plot. I know she can’t see me, but I hope she senses that someone is glad she is here.
I worry I’m encouraging insubordination. Our master is growing displeased. He makes gestures of kindness, but she will not acquiesce. I fear she will join us soon, and wonder what color her roses will be.
My Sisters are in despair for him. He has been cursed for such a long time. They reach out to calm him, but we can no more touch him than an owl can touch the moon, no matter how hard it yearns, or how close it appears.
After a week, she finally steps through the door into the hall. She—I’ve begun calling her Marianne—goes only as far as an alcove with a large bay window. She gazes at the rose garden. The flowers are thriving despite the snow. Our master appears at the end of the hall. Marianne retreats to her room but finds it locked. She let it shut behind her on the way out and must ask him to unlock it. She hurries past him, but the next morning she ventures out again, careful to leave the door ajar.
By the end of the second week, she’s accepted that she is here to stay. Marianne—I can’t decide if the name fits but I can’t recall another— now eats her meals with our master. She doesn’t speak much, but she looks directly at him, her lips curving into a reluctant smile. That is very good. I sometimes follow them on their walks in the gardens. I wonder if she can tell which plot is mine. A foolish thought. She doesn’t know me from any of my Sisters.
On one such walk, she surprises him with a question,
“What kind of creatures are your servants, my lord? Why can’t I see them?”
“How do you know I have servants? Perhaps the castle sees to itself.” He seems amused, even pleased, that she has puzzled this out.
“I do not know for sure, but I have seen objects moving as if carried by invisible hands. One dropped a spoon at breakfast the other day.”
“You are observant. They are spirits bound to this place.” He glances toward the roses. “It is their punishment to serve me.”
“Punishment? Are they wicked spirits?” Her eyes widen in alarm.
“Do not concern yourself. They cannot harm us.”
“But they are everywhere. One entered my room last night to light the hearth. The door was locked.”
“They go where they need to perform their duties, but they cannot touch the living. They are no danger.”
The girl nods and they continue down the path to the castle.
That evening after dinner, our master rises to accompany her to the library. They often read together until it is time to shut her in her room for the night.
She pauses in front of a gilt door. “My lord, I’m tired of the library. May we visit the music room instead?”
“I suppose. Are you fond of music?”
“I adore it.”
He nods at the door and she glides into the room, stopping at the piano. Her hand strokes the polished wood.
“Do you play?” he asks.
“I never learned. I prefer to dance.”
“I do not play either.” Our master chuckles.
“What a shame.” She sighs.
One of my Sisters positions herself on the bench and begins to play. The girl claps in delight and draws our master to the middle of the room. She trips and twirls daintily around him, her silk gown sweeping in time to the music. It’s an old dress but finely made and my Sisters fitted it to her precisely. Nothing goes to waste here.
He moves stiffly; out of practice. We Sisters make an enthusiastic if undetectable audience.
Marianne weaves closer and closer to our master. Her fingers dip into his pocket and—so quick that I can’t be certain it happened—draw out a key. My Sisters appear not to have witnessed the theft. I don’t see what she does with the key. Though her skirt has bunched at the waist and the hem is now slightly off-kilter. The dance ends and our master escorts her to bed.
My Sisters and I have few duties once the candles are extinguished. Marianne is locked away and our master is asleep; we are free to use the time as we will. Some dwell in the library, reading stories we know by heart. Some retreat beneath the roses. I am the only one to hear the girl’s lock click open. She slips into the hall, the key clutched in one hand, a knife in the other. The knife did not come from the kitchen or anywhere in the castle. She brought it with her. The woods are dangerous. Funny that we did not find it. She must have carried it in her boot.
She walks slowly, her feet bare. Didn’t I once sneak out of bed to leave trinkets for the lutin? Is that why I feel damp grass under my feet and a thrill of fear that Maman will catch me at it?
The more I look at this girl the more she looks like family. She may truly be my niece. But how could my family allow it to happen again? How could they send another girl into the woods? Has it been so long that they forgot? Or is she here because they remember?
The girl creeps to our master’s door. Whatever she is planning, it’s too dangerous. She will be caught. Her bones will feed the roses. I should sound an alarm. Instead, I watch her take a steadying breath and push on the door. It’s locked. She searches for a keyhole in the dim light but finds none. The door locks from the inside.
“Imbecile!” She groans and sinks to the floor. She cradles the knife in her lap. I see her plan collapsing. She knows the danger of attacking while he’s awake. Her chin trembles.
Good. She will return to her room and things will go on as they’ve always done. She will break the curse. Or she will become my Sister. I can no longer distinguish her predecessor from the rest. In time there will be no Marianne. Just another nameless Sister.
No. Not this one. No.
I need no key to enter his room. I often collect his washing while he sleeps. I float easily through the door, turn the lock and nudge it open a crack. The girl is fast. She gets to her feet and mouths a thank you to the air. She silently approaches his bedside and without hesitation plunges the knife into his chest. His eyes open. He convulses. She releases the knife and leaps back. He lurches, grabbing for her. His mouth opens to roar. I press a pillow to his face. I can’t make the beds if I can’t touch the pillows.
Marianne—I do like the name—clasps the knife handle and twists. He struggles but I hold firm. I was a farm girl. I was strong once. I’m stronger now. I could have done this at any time. How strange.
He falls still at last. The girl stares at her bloody hands in a daze. I hurl the cushion at her and she returns to sense. She scrambles into the hall, bashing into a table.
The noise draws my Sisters.
I have never heard such screams. They gather around our master and wail. One attempts to stroke his cheek. For a moment, the screams go silent. They can touch him at last. The noise resumes. In a frenzy, a Sister lunges at him, tearing into his flesh. The others join in. Some turn on each other. I return to the corridor and follow the trail of blood to the front hall. How much blood have I washed from these floors?
I help her batter down the reinforced door with a marble pedestal. The curse is fading. She can see me now. She is frightened, but she’s grateful for my help. She flees into the night. I watch awhile. The screaming inside has increased. Once they’ve destroyed the castle, they will tear up the woods, and move to the villages beyond if not stopped. I pilfer a taper from the drawing room.
One by one, I set fire to the roses.
About the Author
Susan Taitel likes stories more than people but likes people in stories the most. Which it turns out is everyone. She grew up in Chicago and now lives in Minnesota, a decision she comes to regret every November through March. She is a graduate of the Viable Paradise writer’s workshop. Her fiction has appeared in Galaxy’s Edge Magazine and Stupefying Stories.
About the Narrator
Leigh Wallace is an Ottawa writer, artist and narrator who works for the Canadian federal government. Her fiction is available in Tesseracts 19, PodCastle and Urban Fantasist. Her art can be found at Tea Princess Chronicles and in the Sunvault anthology, and she’s narrated previously for Glittership. She is a graduate of the 2013 Viable Paradise workshop. Follow her online and on Twitter.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.