I was not surprised when, scarcely nine months after my mother’s death, my father returned from one of his buying trips with a cartload of second-rate silks and a new wife. I wasn’t angry, either. He was the sort of man who needed a wife. He needed stability, love and care. He needed someone to remind him to eat in the mornings and to take him to bed at night.
When I saw the carriage trailing his cart, I’d high hopes of his new wife. But then he told me she was a beautiful, impoverished noblewoman. He called her a delicate flower who needed his care. He told me his new wife had two daughters just my age, and he promised we would be the best of friends.
My father herded half a dozen footmen out to hold the horses, set up the stairs and open the door so he could help his new wife down from the carriage. Her hand preceded her from the dark interior. It was delicate and powdered white, gilded with a filigree of rings and bracelets. Her fingernails were varnished pink. The stones in her many rings twinkled prettily in the sunlight, but I knew they were glass.
My stepmother’s foot followed next. She wore shoes of gaudy pink satin, frayed at the toes, studded with dull glass gems, and capped by a spindly wooden heel that would barely support its wearer from one end of her bedchamber to the other. I do not mean to be cruel when I say this, only factual: I knew her for a whore before I ever saw her face.
...She paused when she saw me, and I couldn’t blame her. I knew what I looked like—my cold expression, my red hair and freckled skin, my black eyes smoldering like hot coals. Her eyes flicked to the torches flanking our door, noting, I am sure, the way the flames yearned toward me though the wind urged them in the opposite direction.
Her face tightened beneath its façade of paint. Her white-powdered hand wavered on the verge of greeting me. In that moment, she realized my father’s tales of an innocent, biddable daughter were spun from the same wishful imagination that had let him believe her to be a noblewoman, and to believe the two hard-eyed whores (scarcely a decade her junior) who peered out of the carriage behind her were her daughters.
“Step-mamá!” I greeted her, taking her shoulders and kissing her powdered cheeks. My lips came away white with a mixture of lead and lard, but it was worth it for the expression of surprise that crossed her face. When my father wasn’t looking, I wiped my mouth on the cuff of my velvet sleeve.
“Come inside, let me show you and my new sisters our home. I know we shall be ever so happy together!”
With my father’s help, the three women wrestled their threadbare satin skirts and listing panniers up the stairs and into the house. I showed them to the parlor, which still stank faintly of burned flesh, and directed my new step mama to sit in my mother’s blue leather chair.
“I just knew you four would get along,” my father said, beaming from the doorway. I hadn’t seen him so happy since before my mother’s illness. “I’ll leave you ladies to get acquainted while I see to the unloading of my latest shipment of fine textiles.”
My new stepmother’s lips parted on a word as the door swung shut. I think she was going to say, “Wait.”
I smiled, pleased as a spider to have so many flies trapped in my parlor. I winked at the hearth and it roared to life, shooting flames up the chimney and sparks onto the rug. The candles followed, lighting all at once.
“Please don’t hurt us!” One of my new stepsisters pleaded. Despite her shopworn satin and powdered hair, she suddenly looked young and frightened.
“We didn’t know,” said the other. “We didn’t know Master Drayman’s daughter was a Wise Woman.”
“A witch,” I corrected, smiling wide to show my teeth.
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