Fairy tale retellings always generate a lot of attention, but Melissa Bashardoust's Girls Made of Snow and Glass might generate a bit more than the usual reboot. Publisher's copy calls Girls Made of Snow and Glass a "feminist Snow White" story, and Bashardoust's POV character choices aren't what you'd expect. I've got a sneak peek at the cover plus two chapters from this Fall 2017 release for you below.
Set in the wintry city of Whitespring, Melissa Bashardoust's Girls Made of Snow and Glass centers on two narrators, Mina and Lynet, whose lives and fates have become intertwined over the last 16 years.
Mina has lived a life devoid of love since Gregory, her unscrupulous magician father, replaced her defective heart with a glass replica when she was very young. Gregory secured a place in the court for himself and his daughter after he administered to the king's wife during her labor. The queen died, but her daughter, Lynet, lived.
Years later, Lynet has become every bit as beautiful as her mother was, and has grown up adoring her stepmother, Mina. Lynet does not know how or why Mina came into her father's life, but the appearance of a mysterious female surgeon sparks a discovery that puts her on the run for her life.
Check out the cover for Melissa Bashardoust's Girls Made of Snow and Glass and read an excerpt from the novel below. This Snow White retelling hits store shelves on Sep. 5.
CHAPTER ONE: LYNET
Lynet first saw her in the courtyard.
Well, the girl was in the courtyard. Lynet was in a tree. The juniper tree in the central courtyard was one of the few trees still in leaf at Whitespring, and so it was one of the best hiding places on the castle grounds. Nestled up in its branches, Lynet was only visible to anyone directly beneath her. This hiding place was especially helpful on afternoons like these, when she had decided to skip her lessons without telling her tutors.
The young woman who walked briskly across the courtyard did not pass directly under the tree, so she didn’t notice Lynet watching. What struck Lynet first was the girl’s clothing. Instead of a dress, the girl was wearing a long brown tunic over loose trousers, allowing her to move more freely, in a long, striding gait. She walked with purpose, dark eyes staring straight ahead.
Lynet thought she knew every face at Whitespring, but she didn’t recognize the girl at all. True, they had visitors come and go through out the year, but usually for special occasions, and even then, Lynet could recognize most of them by sight, if not by name.
A stream of questions all fought for attention in Lynet’s head: Who was this girl? Where had she come from? What was she doing at Whitespring? Where was she heading now with such conviction? Why was she carrying a large bag in her hand? She was a mystery, and mysteries were rare at Whitespring, where so little changed from day to day. The stranger was certainly more exciting than the music lesson Lynet was avoiding.
Now at the other side of the courtyard, the girl went up the short flight of stone steps that led to the west wing of the castle. As soon as she’d disappeared through the arched doorway, Lynet dropped down out of the tree and hurried after her, her bare feet silent on the snow. She peeked down the hall and saw the girl starting to go up the stairwell on the left. Lynet waited until the girl was out of sight and then scurried directly across the hall to climb out the window. Whitespring’s uneven stones and ledges and sharp corners made the castle excellent for climbing, something she had discovered at a young age. She used the ledge above the window to pull herself up, careful not to snag her gray wool dress on the sharper parts of the sculpted ledge. She didn’t want to have to explain to her father why there was a tear in her dress, or to see the forced smile on her sewing mistress’s face as she asked why the embroidery on the hems that Lynet had done just last week was already coming undone.
Crouching silently on the ledge, Lynet traced the young woman’s movements in her mind: after going up the stairs, she would come down the hall until she reached the first turn, a little past where Lynet was perched, at which point she could continue straight ahead or turn right down another hallway. Lynet counted the seconds, knowing that she should be hearing footsteps any moment—
Yes, there they were, passing down the hallway just inside. Lynet was sure to duck her head so the girl wouldn’t see her hair peeking up past the window frame, and she listened as the footsteps continued on past the turn, straight down to the end of the hall, followed by a loud knock.
She heard a voice call, “Ah, come in!” and then the sound of the door closing again.
Lynet wasn’t sure who had spoken, but it didn’t matter who, as long as she knew where. She peeked over the ledge just in time to see the stranger going through the door at the very end of the hall to her left. Lynet climbed in through the window, hurried down the same hall, and went back out the last window so that was she now on the other side of the castle. She carefully skirted the ledge, counting the windows in her head.
When Lynet reached the window of the room where the stranger had gone, she knelt on the ledge and peeked in through the corner. The window was closed, but she had a clear view of the young woman, and that was what truly mattered. Lynet recognized the other person as Tobias, one of the nobles who had lived at Whitespring since before Lynet was born.
Tobias was saying something now, his enormous eyebrows making him look fiercer than he really was. But the young stranger didn’t seem at all intimidated by Tobias’s intense stare—she held her head high and stared right back.
In fact, the stranger didn’t seem to let anything trouble her. There were flakes of snow in the messy dark braid down her back and on the collar of her shirt, but she made no move to brush them away. The bag she was holding was bulging full, and yet even after carrying it through the castle, she showed no sign of tiring. The inky thumbprint on her jawline, the fraying edge on one sleeve . . . these small imperfections fascinated Lynet because the girl wore them all with such ease and confidence. Lynet had never seen a woman look so comfortable in her own skin without appearing pristine.
Who was she?
Lynet leaned in farther, and the young woman set down her bag and opened it. With her head bent, her sharp cheekbones were especially striking, her eyelashes casting long shadows across her pale brown skin. . . . She looked up suddenly, and Lynet jerked her head away from the window. She was sure the girl hadn’t seen her—Lynet had been barely visible in the corner—but when the girl had looked up, Lynet had thought their eyes had met.
When Lynet peeked again, the girl wasn’t looking up anymore, and Lynet squinted to see what she was taking out of the bag— that would be one mystery solved, at least. And then she saw in the girl’s lean hands a long metal instrument that curved at the end like the beak of some vicious bird. Lynet gasped sharply, and she could tell from the way Tobias was rapidly blinking that he hadn’t expected this either.
The young woman was watching Tobias, waiting for some response, and Lynet couldn’t stop watching her. She wondered how this girl could stand so perfectly still, hands never trembling under the weight of that monstrous instrument she was holding. She seemed almost defiant as she held it, and Lynet longed even more to know this strange girl—not just to know who she was, but to know her, and maybe to absorb some of that boldness for herself.
Tobias gave a short nod and settled down in a chair. On the table beside him was a wineskin, and he drank heavily from it before tilting his head back. The young woman took a breath and then placed the curved end of the metal instrument inside Tobias’s mouth.
Finally, Lynet understood what was about to happen, but not before it was too late to look away.
The young woman yanked the instrument back, and the nobleman screamed as his tooth was wrenched out of his mouth.
Lynet was glad he screamed, because she had let out a small yelp herself. She ran her tongue over her own teeth, reassuring herself that they were still in place.
A surgeon. The young woman must be a surgeon. Though the answer should have satisfied her, Lynet only grew more curious. She had never seen a woman surgeon before.
Lynet remained perched on her ledge until the surgeon had cleaned Tobias up and given him some herbs for the pain. When Lynet heard her leave, she abandoned her post and went back around the ledge, listening for footsteps inside. Her heart was thumping; where would the surgeon go next? What would she do?
When the surgeon had gone down the hall, Lynet slipped back inside through the window just in time to see her turn a corner. Lynet silently followed, but as she rounded the same corner, she ran into the Pigeons.
“Princess Lynet!” one of the women cried, and then they were all around her, and it was too late to escape.
She called them the Pigeons because of their gray hair and their constant cooing, and because they always traveled in flocks. Unlike most of the nobility, who preferred to live in their own private estates in clusters throughout the North, the Pigeons lived in Whitespring permanently, having made their nests here long before Lynet was born. They were Whitespring’s oldest residents, and so they always seemed so surprised to see how much Lynet had grown, even if they had only seen her yesterday.
“Her mother would be so proud,” one of them was saying now.
From behind her, another of the women said,“Look at this hair. So much like the queen’s.”
When she was a child, Lynet had thought they’d meant she looked like Mina when they said she looked like the queen, and she had swelled with pride at resembling her stepmother. But now she understood that when they talked of the queen, they always meant the late queen, Emilia. And the worst part was that they were right: Mina’s hair was a deep red, her eyes brown, while Lynet had her mother’s thick black hair and striking gray eyes. Mina’s face was angular and defined, her skin golden -brown, while Lynet had her mother’s round face and muted olive-brown coloring. Lynet’s cheeks, her nose, her lips, and everything else she possessed belonged to a dead woman who she didn’t even remember.
The unofficial leader of this little band, a gray-haired, long-necked woman named Xenia who served on the king’s council, bent down a little—out of habit, mostly, since Lynet was now taller than her—and took Lynet’s face in her hand. “So lovely. King Nicholas must be so proud of you, my lady. You’ll be such a splen did queen, just like your mother.” Even in the shadows of the dim hallway, Xenia’s black eyes shone with a suspicious gleam, but Lynet wasn’t worried—Xenia always squinted at people like she thought that they were lying to her.
Lynet smiled and nodded and thanked them until the Pigeons were finished. Perhaps it was flattering to be fussed over, but she knew their fondness wasn’t for her own sake. They loved her mother, and Lynet looked like her mother, so they thought that they loved her, too.
When the Pigeons continued down the hall in a cloud of gray, Lynet had no idea where the surgeon had gone. She wandered through a few corridors before she had to admit that she’d lost her. Still, Lynet was sure she would see her again soon enough. The castle had been without a court surgeon since the prior one had left several months ago—Lynet was sure the surgeon would be in high demand for a while. She would keep watch, and next time she wouldn’t lose track of her.
Lynet dragged her feet down the hall until she reached the music room, where her tutor was waiting for her, seated at his harp. He was mid-yawn when she walked in, and as soon as he saw her, he straightened, swallowing the rest of the yawn with a startled chirp. “There you are, my lady!” he said. “A little late, perhaps, but that’s no trouble.” His lined face stretched into a smile. She was more than an hour late, but he wouldn’t scold her. None of her tutors ever scolded her for anything.
Lynet had once liked the idea of playing the harp. But the actual lessons were long and tiresome, and she never seemed to improve, so she didn’t see any harm in skipping them when she could. She felt less bitter about the tedious hour to follow now that she had a new project, but as she sat down at her harp, she knew she would play even worse than usual today, her mind still following the new surgeon, even when her feet couldn’t.
When her lesson was finished (miserably, as expected), dusk was falling. Without even thinking, Lynet flew up the stairs to the royal apartments. Sometimes she felt that her entire day was only a prelude for her nightly visit with Mina, a tradition that had begun so long ago, Lynet couldn’t remember exactly how it had started.
The fire was blazing high when Lynet stepped quietly through to her stepmother’s bedchamber. Even though Mina had come to Whitespring from the South nearly sixteen years ago—around the same time Lynet was born—she had never become accustomed to their constant winter, and so she was always cold. Lynet, having been born in Whitespring, was never cold.
A maidservant braided Mina’s hair in front of the mirror. Lynet could see her stepmother’s reflection, serene and regal, her head held high, her back straight.
When Mina saw Lynet’s reflection behind hers in the mirror, she held her hand up to signal the maid to stop. “That’ll be all for now,” she said, and the maid dipped a curtsy before hurrying away, managing a quick smile for Lynet before she left.
Mina stood to let Lynet take her place on the low chair in front of the mirror. As soon as Lynet sat, Mina smiled. “You have snow in your hair.”
Embarrassed, Lynet reached up to brush it away. She supposed one day, when she was queen, she would have to appear as effortlessly composed as Mina did, but that day was years away.
Mina started to comb through Lynet’s hair with her fingers. Combs and brushes were useless on Lynet’s hair; they only snagged and caught in her curls, while Mina’s hands deftly unsnarled and untangled them. They’d done this every night since Lynet was a child, and neither of them ever mentioned that Lynet was old enough to untangle her own hair by now.
Mina asked her about her day, and Lynet told her how useless she was at playing the harp, how she’d already been through three music tutors. “I never get any better, so they all give up on me in the end,” she said.“It’s not you,” Mina reassured her. “Whitespring is too gloomy and isolated for most people.” Lynet knew she was right. It wasn’t just the music tutors who all left. The only people, noble or not, who stayed at Whitespring permanently were those who had been here so long that they couldn’t be troubled to leave. Lynet wondered about her new surgeon, how long she would stay. . . .
“You’ve left me behind,” Mina said softly after Lynet had lapsed into silent thought for too long. “Where did you go?”
“There’s a new surgeon,” Lynet said without thinking.
“I’m glad to hear it. Whitespring has been without one for long enough.”
“She’s quite young,” Lynet said.
Mina lifted an eyebrow. “She?”
Mina was watching her with interest, but Lynet didn’t want to tell her more. She felt oddly protective of her new stranger, and she didn’t want to share her with anyone else yet. “I also saw the Pigeons today,” she said quickly.
Mina grimaced, and she accidentally tugged at one of Lynet’s curls. “Same as usual, I expect?”
Lynet knew the Pigeons would distract Mina—Mina found them even more unbearable than Lynet did. The first time Lynet had slipped and called them by that name in front of Mina, she’d been afraid that she’d be scolded. Instead, Mina had burst into laughter. Lynet didn’t blame her; though the Pigeons were always charming and respectful to Mina’s face, Lynet heard the way they talked about her when they were alone. They called her the southerner, rather than the queen—a title they reserved for Lynet’s mother.
“Same as always,” Lynet grumbled as Mina started braiding her hair. “I look so much like my mother, my hair looks just like my mother’s, I have my mother’s eyes . . . they probably even think I have my mother’s elbows.”
Mina frowned a little and bit her lip, but said nothing.
Lynet continued. “It wouldn’t be so bad if it was just them, but—” She stopped, feeling too guilty to give voice to her thoughts.
“But you wish your father would stop comparing you to her as well?” Mina offered.
Lynet nodded. She started twisting a piece of her skirt in her hands. “It’s even worse with him,” she said quietly.
Mina laid her hands on Lynet’s shoulders. “Why do you say that?”
Lynet kept her head down. It was easier to talk about it when she wasn’t looking at anyone else—or at herself. She wanted to change the subject, but she had already done that once, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to manage it again. Whenever they talked about Lynet’s father, Mina seemed to . . . harden somehow, like she was putting a shield in place that even Lynet wasn’t allowed behind. Sometimes Lynet wondered why they had married at all, when they seemed to spend so little time together and show such little affection when they did.
Mina squeezed Lynet’s shoulders gently. “It’s all right, wolf cub,” she said. “Don’t be afraid.”
Mina’s special name for her rallied Lynet’s spirits, as it always did. She hated feeling afraid. “It’s just that . . . well, the others only talk about how much I look like her, but Papa. . . I think he wants me to be like her in every way. He expects me to be sweet and gentle and—and delicate.”
Lynet practically choked on the word. It was what her father always said about her mother—and about Lynet, too. Your features are delicate, Lynet, like a bird’s. You shouldn’t be climbing trees, Lynet, not when your hands and feet are so soft and delicate. Emilia had died, he said, because her body had been too delicate for childbirth. Being delicate had killed her mother, and yet he was so eager to bestow the quality on her.
“You say that like it’s a curse,” Mina said, her voice low and heavy. “There are worse things in the world to be than delicate. If you’re delicate, it means no one has tried to break you.”
Lynet felt ashamed without knowing why. She had always tried to emulate her stepmother, but the way Mina spoke now, Lynet wondered if she was trying to take on a weight she didn’t fully understand. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I must sound like such a child.”
“That’s because you are a child.” Mina smiled, but her smile started to fade as she studied their reflections in the mirror. “Or maybe not,” she said. “You’re turning sixteen soon, aren’t you?”
Lynet nodded. “In a month and a half.”
“Sixteen.” Mina knelt down beside her. “That’s how old I was when I left my home in the South to come to Whitespring. I think part of me has always thought of myself as sixteen, no matter how many years have passed.” Mina looked at the mirror and scowled, seemingly disturbed by what it showed her. Their faces were side by side, and for the first time, Lynet noticed a single white strand in her stepmother’s hair.
“You’re still young,” Lynet said uncertainly.
Mina wasn’t paying attention to her, though. She brought her hand up to her cheek, examining the corners of her eyes, the thin lines around her mouth. “If they love you for anything, it will be for your beauty,” she murmured softly, but Lynet didn’t think the words were meant for her, so she felt guilty for hearing them at all.
She waited a moment and then she said, “Mina? Is something wrong?”
Her stepmother shook her head. “Only a memory.” She turned to Lynet and kissed her on the head. “You’ve grown up so fast. It took me by surprise. Soon you won’t even need me anymore.” Mina stood and gave Lynet’s braid a playful tug. “Run off now, and enjoy the rest of your evening.”
Lynet started to go when Mina called to her, “And do let me know what happens with your young surgeon. It’ll be good for you to have someone closer to your own age to socialize with for a change.”
Lynet didn’t respond as she hurried out the door, but for some reason she couldn’t explain, she felt herself blush.
CHAPTER TWO: MINA
At sixteen, Mina knew she was beautiful. Sitting on the grass, angling her mother’s hand mirror so that the reflected sun wouldn’t blind her, she discovered the secrets of beauty: the way the blaze of the afternoon sun transformed her dark russet hair into a halo of fire; the way her golden-brown skin glowed when she held her face at the right angles in the light; the way the shadows elongated her cheekbones.
These were secrets no one had taught her. Her father, when he was home, kept to himself, and her nurse, Hana, would sneer at her for being so vain. Her mother was long gone, of course, but Mina liked to think that she had left behind the silver-backed mirror as a guide for her daughter.
“Dorothea,” Mina whispered to herself, wishing that just saying the name could conjure her mother on the spot. She had died so soon after falling ill that Mina didn’t remember her being ill at all. She’d been four, recovering from an unrelated illness of her own, when her mother had died, so memories of her mother were faint, shimmering things, like coins at the bottom of a moving river.
Mina groaned at the sound of her nurse’s call. She had hoped that leaving the house for the refuge of the hills would allow her some peace from the woman’s constant disapproval.
Hana had been old and shrill for as long as Mina could remember, but now that Mina was growing out of girlhood, Hana had become superfluous as well. The only reason Mina listened to her at all was because she was the best source of information about her mother. Hana loved to talk about the lovely girl who had run off with a young man against her wealthy family’s wishes and had consequently been disowned by them. Mina wondered sometimes if the nurse was just making up stories—it was hard to imagine anyone risking such displeasure for the love of her father, and Hana hadn’t become Dorothea’s maidservant until after the marriage. But even half-true stories were better than nothing.
“Mina, I know you can hear me, you selfish child!”
There was a hint of desperation in Hana’s voice, like she was scared of something. But there was only one thing Hana was scared of, and that was Mina’s father, Gregory.
He’s home, Mina thought. He’d left on one of his frequent journeys nearly two months ago. Mina always valued the times when he was away; the house felt lighter with Gregory gone, like some stormy cloud overhead had dissolved. Mina looked at herself in the mirror once more, wishing she could crawl inside it and wait until both her nurse and her father went away.
“There you are,” Hana said, huffing behind her. “I know you come all the way out here just to make me kill myself from climbing these hills.”
She was almost right. Avoiding Hana was one benefit of the hills, but if the nurse had been paying any attention, she might have noticed that the Summer Castle was visible from this hill. Though the royal family had never finished its construction, leaving it half-finished for nearly a century, the completed gold domes of the Summer Castle still gleamed in the sun, shining through the trees like a beacon. If it weren’t so far, Mina would have tried to sneak onto the grounds, maybe plant a little garden there. She imagined that garden growing all around the castle, keeping everyone— especially her father—away.
“Your father is home,” Hana said. “Don’t you want to greet him?”
“Did he ask to see me?”
Hana glowered at her, but she didn’t respond, so Mina knew he hadn’t. Still, she couldn’t avoid him forever, so she stood up and brushed the grass from her skirt.
“Fine,” she said, “let’s go.”
Hana grabbed her by the arm, but then she released it and reached for the mirror lying on the grass. “Is that—is that your mother’s mirror?”
“I was just borrowing it,” Mina said, blocking Hana from taking it away.
“I can’t believe you would treat your dear mother’s belongings so poorly. What if you had broken it? What if you had lost it? It’s as if you don’t care about her at all.” She shook her head at Mina in reproach.
“I do care!” Mina protested.
“I don’t know about that,” Hana muttered. “You don’t care for anything but yourself.” She grabbed at Mina’s arm again. “Now hurry up.”
Mina wrenched her arm out of her nurse’s grip, grabbed the mirror, and charged down the hill past her. She was in no hurry to see her father, but she didn’t want Hana to think she was afraid of him. She kept up her quick pace until she reached the edge of the village market.
She hadn’t been planning to come home so soon. She had snuck out early this morning, and she’d been planning to stay out for a few more hours. She’d never purposefully walk through the village in the middle of the day, especially not on market day, when it would be at its busiest.
“Just keep your head down and walk fast,” Hana whispered. “No one bothered me on my way through. It’s your father they fear, not you.”
But Hana was as forgettable as she was unthreatening. People remembered Mina just as clearly as they remembered her father. Ever since magic had made the North freeze over, people were often suspicious toward those born with unnatural abilities. Whenever her father heard rumors of others with magical talents, he would set off at once to investigate, but as far as he knew, he was the only magician for the past few generations. Still, that didn’t stop the villagers from considering Mina just as dangerous as her father. It never occurred to them that now it was Mina who felt she had to keep safe from them.
The village on market day was a visual feast. There were the familiar sights of the South—brightly colored fruit, fresh dates and nuts, colorful woven rugs—along with the rarer luxuries of the North—jewelry with gems from the mountains, soft furs, intricate wood carvings. Mina would have loved to spend all day walking back and forth down the long passageway between stalls, reveling in all that beauty. But as she and Hana passed through the crumbling stone archway that marked the entrance to the marketplace, Mina kept her eyes down on the dusty ground, letting her sheet of hair fall forward to cover her face.
It didn’t matter. No matter how dowdy she tried to look, how modestly she cast her eyes downward, someone always recognized her, and then the whispers spread outward until they surrounded her.
The villagers went quiet as she passed. Then she heard the word magician in hushed tones, over and over again, until it sounded less like a word and more like the chirping of crickets. Once the whis pers had spread far enough, the villagers started to step aside from her, keeping their distance from the magician’s daughter. But in the narrow passageway through the market, there wasn’t much room for keeping one’s distance, not for the villagers, and not for Mina, either.
On all sides, people jostled into her and then jumped away. It would have wounded her, perhaps, if she’d felt anything but con tempt for these people. They were hypocrites, shying away from her in the light of day, but sneaking to her father’s house at night, begging him for magical solutions to their mundane problems. She passed by Lila, the weaver, who glanced away from her as she wrapped her arms around her swollen belly. She had come to Mina’s father a few months ago asking for something to help her conceive a child, and even though she had gotten what she wanted, she didn’t want to be reminded of how she’d done it. Vulgar midwifery, her father had dismissed the potion he’d given her. He didn’t even consider such services to be magic, but they provided him with money to conduct his own experiments in his private laboratory. Of course, it was rumors of those experiments—his meddling with the forces of life and death—that made the villagers so wary of the magician and his daughter in the first place.
They were nearing the last of the merchants’ stalls when Mina felt something strike the backs of her ankles. She halted, and she could practically hear the collective gasp of breath. When she turned around, she saw a small boy scurry behind his mother’s legs, peeking guiltily up at Mina. Small rocks littered the ground by her feet—he must have thrown them at her. For now, it was only the children who struck out at her, but she knew she couldn’t count on that forever.
“Come on, Mina, stop lingering.”
“Just a minute, Hana,” Mina said, loud enough for people to hear. They were all pretending to go about their business, but their movements were slow and unfocused. “Since we’re here, we might as well do some shopping.”
The backs of her ankles still stung from where the small stones had hit her. If she hurried away now, it would only prove that violence would deter her, that they could scare her away. The scale of fear was still tipped in her favor: they were more scared of her than she was of them.
She walked to the nearest stall and picked an object at random: a plain silver bracelet. “How much?” Mina demanded of the merchant. If he had been local, he might have waived the fee to get rid of her quickly. But Mina could see from the cool olive of his skin and the drab colors he wore that he was from the North, too concerned with his own business to worry himself with gossip about the magician and his daughter, and so he named his price. Mina handed some coins over to him and placed the bracelet around her wrist, a reminder that she would not be chased off like a scared animal.
“I’m ready to go home now,” Mina said, turning again to Hana. She pitched her voice a little louder: “I’m ready to see my father.”
Her bravado faded once she reached home. Mina knocked on the door of her father’s study, taking a deep breath. After receiving no response, she peeked inside, but the room appeared empty. “Father?” she called softly.
Did he not even want to see her, after being gone for so long? True, she wasn’t particularly eager to see him again, but some part of her always stubbornly expected him to reach out to his daughter, the way she imagined most fathers did, even though he never gave her any reason to believe that he would.
Mina’s hands balled into fists at her side. Her eyes went to a door at the back of the room, almost hidden by the surrounding bookshelves—the door to her father’s laboratory, the inner room where he did most of his work. Mina had been here in her father’s study before—it was ordinary, if a little chaotic, with books scattered everywhere—but it was merely a presentable facade meant to distract from the hidden door leading to that secret adjoining room. She’d only been in the laboratory once in her life. Those memories were foggy, though, and her head pounded whenever she tried to remember.
She listened for sound of her father approaching, and when she didn’t hear anything, she crossed the study to that unassuming door. It was unlocked; she slipped inside.
The laboratory was dim and narrow, and along the walls were shelves full of vials and jars. She read a few of the scrawled labels: some were simply potions for sleep or health, but others announced themselves as deadly poisons. They had oddly fanciful names, like Whisper of Death or Burning Needle, and she knew from the proud penmanship that they were Gregory’s inventions. He brewed death here, in a myriad of creative ways, just to pass the time.
She walked past a long wooden table where a lamp burned low. There was a dark black stain in one spot, but otherwise the table was covered in open books with strange symbols and drawings. She knew how to read, but most of the books were written in unfamiliar languages, so she ignored the books and focused again on the shelves.
Mina’s eyes kept flickering to the contents of the jars, and she grew more unsettled each time. In many of the jars were misshapen lumps of . . . flesh? Bone? Feathers? She wasn’t sure what they were until she saw an actual miniature replica of a human being in one of the jars. It floated in cloudy liquid, like a tiny wax doll, except she was sure it wasn’t made of wax.
At the back of the room was a single jar resting on a small table. There was something inside the jar, and when Mina saw it clearly, she drew back at once. Unlike the strange fleshy things in the other jars, the contents of this one hadn’t been preserved. She peered at the rotten lump of meat in the jar, thankful there was no smell coming from it. What purpose did this withered, shriveled piece of flesh serve for her father? Another failed experiment? An ingredient for one of his poisonous concoctions? The sight of it filled her with an inexplicable sense of dread.
“Repulsive, isn’t it?”
Mina whirled around at the sound of her father’s voice. He leaned against the doorway, his arms folded over his chest. But he wasn’t the same as he had been when he’d left two months ago. His dark hair had lightened to gray, and there were more lines on his now-gaunt face. He looked to have aged at least twenty years while he’d been away.
“What happened to you?” Mina said, forgetting for a moment that he had caught her trespassing.
He walked over to the table, ignoring her question completely. “Do you know where I’ve been these past months?”
Mina was still tense, waiting for him to scold or berate her for invading his inner study. “Off on a useless search for another magi cian, I assume,” she said.
He fumbled with the books on his table, tossing some on the floor, while stacking others in a pile. “Wrong,” he said. “I was at Whitespring.”
Mina couldn’t hide her curiosity. “At the castle? With the king and queen?”
“With King Nicholas, yes. Queen Emilia, however, is dead.” He looked up and watched for her reaction, but Mina gave none. Why should she care if the queen was dead? What happened in the North was of little concern to her.
Gregory chuckled to himself and leaned heavily against the table. “I don’t know why I expected you to care. You should care, though, because her death has changed both of our lives forever.”
Again, he waited for a reaction, for her to ask him what he meant. Mina knew he was baiting her, so she refused to answer at all. He’d tell her whatever he wanted to in the end, with or without her prompting.
“She died in childbirth,” he continued, “but she left behind, in her stead, a daughter as beautiful as she was.”
“I didn’t know she was carrying a child,” Mina said placidly.
“News travels slowly, I suppose. But she had . . . complications. The child was killing her from the inside out. The king called for me in secret to see if I could save her and the child through magic, since medicine had failed. He’d heard what I could do, he said. He’d heard whispers that I had power over life and death.” Gregory’s eyes glittered in the dim light, his voice solemn with pride, but then he glanced away, and Mina saw his hands gripping the side of the table. “I was too late to save the queen,” he forced out, “but I did manage to save the child, using. .. unconventional means. That’s why you find me so . . . changed. The process was draining.”
For a moment, Mina forgot that she was pretending not to care, drawn in by her father’s faltering words, his altered appearance. She had never seen her father look so vulnerable, so uncertain, and she wondered if the change in him was more than physical. Shyly, she reached out to lay a hand on his arm. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
Gregory looked down at her hand and then brushed it away like it was a piece of dirt on his sleeve. “You’ve never pretended to care before, Mina. There’s no need to start now.”
Mina flinched and crossed her arms, trying to keep herself from storming out. She didn’t want to give her father the satisfaction of driving her away.
“And now what?” Mina snapped. “You said this would change things for us.”
His eyebrows went up in mock surprise. “You don’t think I would perform such a feat without a price, do you? In exchange for saving his daughter, the king has invited us to live at court.”
“A fresh start for us both.”
“But it’s so . . . so . . .” Cold, she was thinking. Mina was used to the bright days and warm nights of the South. Whitespring was so named because even in the spring, the ground was white with snow. How could she ever belong in such a place?
“It’s better than living like outcasts.”
Mina wrung her hands, trying to think of a way to persuade him without having to beg. Summoning as much authority as she could, she dropped her arms to her side, stood tall, and said, “Go without me, then. I’ll take care of things here. You don’t need me.”
He released the table and stepped closer to her. “Oh, but I do need you. I need that face of yours.” He took her face in one hand, his fingers pressing into her jaw. “You’ll marry someone highborn, and my place—our place—will be secure even if the king forgets his debt to me.”
Mina tried to push his arm away and free herself from his rough grip, but even in his weakened state, he was stronger than she was. He waited until she’d given up before finally letting go.
“If you need me,” she said, rubbing her jaw, “then you should try to be more persuasive. I don’t owe you anything.”
His face twisted in anger, but then he laughed. “You don’t owe me anything? No, Mina, you owe me everything. You owe me your life. And not just because I’m your father.”
Mina wanted to turn away, but there was nowhere safe to look. The whole room was full of him. “Fine,” she said. “Tell me what I owe you, exactly. If you’re convincing enough, maybe I’ll change my mind.”He nodded, wearing the arrogant smile of a man who knew he was about to win. “All right, if that’s the game you want to play.” Gregory grabbed her wrist, and Mina, resenting the feel of his fingers digging into her skin, but knowing from experience that she couldn’t break his grip, allowed him to drag her over to the table. He took a small pouch from his pocket and poured its contents—a handful of sand—out onto the table.
“Watch carefully,” he said, sifting through the sand.
To Mina’s astonishment, the sand started to move, to shift even without his touch, and then it wasn’t sand anymore but a small gray mouse, bouncing off the sides of his cupped hands. She gasped, berating herself for it when she heard him laugh. She’d heard the same whispers that the king had, that the magician Gregory had the power to create life, but she’d never seen her father demonstrate his otherworldly power. He played the part of magician for the villagers with his potions, but he kept his real magic in his laboratory, for himself alone.
Gregory was grimacing, his jaw tense as if with pain, but then he recovered. “It’s alchemy in its purest form,” he said, “transforming one thing into another without any intermediary. I was born with the power to take any inanimate substance and transform it into something organic . . . but only to some extent. This mouse is no true mouse. It is, in its essence, still sand. It will not grow or age or die. It’s not even truly alive.” To prove his point, he balled his hands into fists, and the tiny, squeaking mouse abruptly disintegrated, once again a pile of sand.
Mina nearly gasped a second time, but though her jaw hung open, she made no sound. Her eyes saw a pile of sand, but her mind transformed it into a pile of bones and meat. It was both grave and corpse in one.
With a careless gesture, Gregory swept the sand back into the pouch. “It’s like a mechanical doll, do you see? If you wind it up, it resembles life, but it is only a resemblance. In order to make it a real, living mouse, I would need to add my blood—the source of my magic.” A weary note crept into his voice. “It . . . has taken me many years and many attempts to figure that out.”
“What’s the point of all this?” Mina rasped, her throat dry. She kept thinking of the shelves around her, of the misshapen creations in their jars.
“Ah yes. This was only a prologue to the story I want to tell you. Once, when you were a child, no more than four years old, you fell deathly ill. Your mother wept, for there was no one who could help you. Your heart was damaged, likely since birth, and all we could do was wait for it to stop altogether. And one day, it did. Your mother was frantic, almost furious, in her grief, and I hated to see her in such a state.”
Mina couldn’t help raising an eyebrow at that, especially since Gregory’s lip curled slightly at the mention of her mother. Gregory paused, glaring coldly at her, and Mina couldn’t stop herself from taking a step back away from him.
“I know what you’re thinking, but I did love your mother once. I wanted her to be happy. And so I brought you here, to this room. I lay you down here, on this table. And then I opened up your chest, took out your useless heart, and replaced it with a new one, made from glass.”
Mina almost laughed at him. Was he trying to frighten her? True, she’d been sickly as a child—Hana had told her that—but this was the first she’d heard of glass hearts. She made no effort to hide her skepticism, but Gregory was undeterred. He placed one hand on her chest and said, “Don’t you have a scar, right here? Haven’t you ever wondered why you don’t have a heartbeat?”
This time, Mina did laugh. “I may have a scar, but I also have a heartbeat. I wouldn’t be alive, otherwise.”
“Have you ever heard it? Felt it?”
“Of course not. It’s too quiet for me to hear.”
“Give me your hand,” he said, but he grabbed her hand before she could give it and held her palm to his chest.
Mina instantly started to take her hand back, but she stopped when she felt something peculiar under her palm: a faint, rhythmic pounding. She pulled away in shock. “What is that? What’s wrong with you?”
“It’s not me, my sweet. Put your hand to anyone’s chest or wrist or throat, and you’ll feel the same steady pulse.”
Mina put her hand on her own chest, waiting for something she’d never felt before.
“Don’t bother. You won’t find it, because you don’t have one. Remember what I told you about my blood? When you were sick, I didn’t yet know how to create something more genuine than that sand mouse.”
Mina’s throat tightened and she had to force out the question: “Are you saying that I’m just like—”
“Oh, no, no,” Gregory said, frowning at her like she had said something completely ridiculous. “You are alive, Mina, and you will grow and live and die the same as any living being; it’s only your heart that’s artificial. I commanded your new heart to keep you alive, but because I created it without my blood, it is still, in essence, glass, so it lacks some of the nuances of a real heart—like a heartbeat. It was the best I could do.”
She tried to think back to a time when her heart might have lurched or pounded or fluttered—anything to announce its presence— but there was only ever silence. She thought again of that mouse dissolving into sand. “I don’t—I don’t believe you.”
“Do you need more proof? I was hoping you would. Turn around.”
She knew. She knew as she turned to the table at the end of the room what he wanted her to see. She knew what that withered, rotten piece of meat inside the jar was, and she fought the urge to retch.
“That’s your heart, Mina,” Gregory said from right behind her. “Aren’t you grateful that rotting thing isn’t a part of you anymore? Don’t you think you owe me, after all?”