My friend and reader Christine requested a deleted scene from Sterling, Tales of Blood and Light 3, and so this next one is for her. Book Three had fewer purely deleted scenes and many more “reworked” ones, so this scene may have familiar bits, for those of you who have read Sterling. This was the Prologue I had in the first draft, which was reworked and rewritten and massaged into the shorter and less wordy Prologue I used in the final version.
Sterling, of course, is the narrator, albeit a bit younger than she ended up in the final prologue:
“Every girl has a fairy tale,” my sister Stesichore said. We sat on the sun porch off the fourth floor of our Shankar house, as grand a dwelling as any in Lethemia. “Why, there’s a fairy tale for any situation and any appearance. There’s Cinder and Ashe for a housemaid, and Rose Red for a girl whose mother has died. Clever girls have The Peasant’s Wise Daughter, and beauties can have their pick from Fair Ruslana or Pretty Poppy.”
Stesi’s musing came about because she’d found me out on the deck reading a book of such stories, and she’d asked me if I liked them. I’d told her honestly that they were silly and unrealistic, and she’d begged to differ. Now she had to prove herself, which I knew could be a tedious game. I sighed and put the book aside. Stesi, impossible to ignore, demanded attention. She couldn’t endure being alone; only through the eyes of others could she make sense of the world and herself. I was fourteen; she was twenty-two, but I was the sister with more sense. Not that anyone would ever recognize that.
I acceded to her overtaking my quiet afternoon. “So what would your tale be, Stesi?”
“The Princess in the Tower, of course.”
I wrinkled my brow, trying to determine why “of course” tagged this sentence. I couldn’t reason it out. “Why that one? I would have thought Fair Ruslana more to your liking.” Fair Ruslana told the tale of a beautiful, fair-haired princess enchanted into a long sleep, only to be broken by the kiss of her true love, a prince.
Stesi patted at her hair, upswept into a fabulous arrangement that likely took several hours for her handmaiden to create. “Well, first of all, I have beautiful hair. Everyone says so.”
That was true enough. Stesi’s hair was long and heavy, the color of honey. She’d been chagrined when the pale blonde of her youth had changed to the darker hue. She’d begged for a year to be allowed to dye it, but my mother had said that “Only courtesans and loose women alter their appearance with artificial aids.” So Stesi, in typical fashion, had begun to believe that honey-gold hair was far more desirable than the pale locks I had never outgrown.
“And The Princess in the Tower is all about an unattainable woman. That’s me. I have rejected all my suitors thus far, and I shall wait until the best one offers for me.”
“Oh? And who will that be?” I couldn’t help asking, though I knew encouraging Stesi in this way could be foolish.
“Prince Costas, of course. I am going to marry him and become Queen of Lethemia.”
This plan, far-fetched as it sounded, was not beyond the realm of possibility. In fact, my parents were likely angling for the match. But there had been no word yet that Costas Galatien, a full three years younger than Stesi, intended to hold a Marriage Brokering anytime soon.
“So what’s my fairy tale?” I asked, knowing this question would shatter Stesi’s argument to pieces. There were no fairy tales for a girl like me.
“The Ugly Duchess,” Stesi said without hesitation. Her selection of that tale for me came as no surprise, but her choice showed how little Stesi knew. The Ugly Duchess told the story of a fair-skinned girl born into a dark-skinned world. She grew up her whole life being called ugly, until her father married her off to a duke from a distant land. When she arrived in her new home, she discovered that there were other fair-skinned people, and the people of the fair-skinned world considered her beautiful beyond compare. Like most fairy tales, the message intended to be uplifting: that beauty could be in the eye of the beholder—but the message was wrong. I should know. I had the kind of ugliness that could not be remedied by a change in perspective. I’d been born with a wine-stain birthmark sprawling across the right side of my face and trailing down my neck. My mark would not be considered lovely anywhere in the world.
I had been an outsider my whole life, looking in at other people’s stories from a distance. Stesi’s story dominated my childhood. Her beauty and her importance as the heir to House Ricknagel eclipsed everything else in Mama and Papa’s eyes.
But that afternoon after Stesi flounced away from the sun porch to do something “more interesting than reading fusty tales,” I began to see that I had a story too, though it bore no resemblance to Stesi’s bejeweled fairy tale.
This was the first circle of my story, the truth on which the world agreed: Sterling Ricknagel was nobody, the ugly, shameful daughter of a great house. Any story is never only one story, one circle. Concentric circles lie beneath; even the tightest story has other tales creeping below, silent loops waiting for only a slight weakening in the first story to break free.
No one would remember me in the history books. The passage of my life would be forgotten, and I couldn’t help but think it would be a mercy if it were. I would make no mark upon the world.
I slammed the book of fairy tales closed.