Her mother took one hand in both of hers, brown-green eyes just like Stella’s staring back at her in concern. Stella hated making her mother worry. She hated how the dear woman’s fretting never seemed to end. Stella sometimes wondered if maybe it was better that she leave. Her mother seemed to have no life except Stella’s, no interest except Stella, and yet her daughter’s life had been so dreary, such a big nothing, filled with fevers and nightmares and someone else’s thoughts. Her mother—so dedicated, so giving—didn’t deserve this kind of life at all.
“I found you like this on your bed. You were hardly breathing.” Her mom’s voice shook as she ran her knuckles down Stella’s cheek. “I’ve been so worried. For a moment, I thought—”
Stella stared at her grimly. “What?” she demanded, her voice breaking unannounced. “That the Villain took me, is that what you feared?”
Her mother cautiously nodded.
Stella shot to her feet, thrusting her hands in the air. “Maybe I want him to take me. Maybe I want him to take me and do what he would with me!”
Her mother froze on the bed, her eyes widening. “Stella!” she gasped, wrapping her arms around herself to suppress a shiver. “Don’t ever repeat that again in my house!”
Stella pursed her lips, determined not to cry, not in front of her mother, not for that silly, stupid man.
Her forehead creasing with worry, her mother bounded from the bed and rushed to her, hugging the breath out of Stella’s lungs. “Oh, my darling, my baby,” she cooed, tears brimming in every word. Stella let her herself be held, let her mother’s chubby, pliant arms remain wrapped around her, let them try to give her peace. “Sweetie, I’ve never told you this, but maybe I should have. Oh, dear God, this is difficult.” There was a long pause. “The day you were born…”
Stella pushed herself back to study her. “I know what happened, Mother. I know it’s…I know it’s the day after she killed herself, the day Gabriel burned her body.”
Her mother covered her mouth, stifling a shriek before nodding. “Dear God, yes. That’s his name! He burned Mr. Dawson’s house that night too. No one had ever heard from Mr. Dawson since. We’re all sure he was killed in the fire. Then the Villain stole her body from the grave and burned her to ashes and spread them on the sea. Mrs. Grieves heard him, speaking strange words, angry words, words of his … black magic.” Her mother’s eyes seemed to darken, and they looked unfocused, as if she were there, reliving it all over again. “Those crows that like to follow him went crazy that night. I could hear them out on the streets, cawing and cawing that ungodly sound. My birth pains were so heavy, but I was scared and…oh, dear God, one of those ugly birds cracked the window open—just like that! The hideous black thing burst into the room. The midwife panicked, but I was already halfway through the labor. The bird flew and flew around the room, shrieking like they do. Your father went crazy. He fetched a broom and tried to get it out, kill it even, while I pushed and pushed, and then you were born, and we heard your cry, and the bird stopped flying, suddenly just pausing by the window and…staring at you…and then it was gone.”
Stella asked something she’d always wanted to, and yet had never dared. She squeezed her mother’s shoulders, the touch gentle as her voice. “Why did Father leave us?”
Her mother sniffled and shakily brushed a tear from the corner of her eye. “Well, I was so busy with you, I never did have much time for him. You used to have such strange dreams, and go into trances all of a sudden, and then the fevers! You were such a sick little girl! He used to tell me—in fact we always fought because of it, because I refused to admit it—but the truth is, he always suspected…Oh, sweetness.” Stella had never seen that expression on her mother’s face, and the look of it filled her with dread. “I think you might be cursed.”
Stella stared blankly at her as her brain digested the news, then she realized, feeling strangely unaffected, that she wasn’t surprised at all. She knew there was a reason she couldn’t ever seem to be happy. She knew there was something different about her, a reason the townsfolk kept a safe distance from her. She knew there was a reason she hardly ever smiled, hardly ever felt the desire to do anything but what she must. Until…
She hugged her mother then, as tightly as she could, and buried her face into her hair. “Oh, Mother,?
? she said feelingly. “I think I am cursed.”
When she felt the plump woman stiffen in her arms, Stella quickly expelled a breath. “I’m in love with the Villain.”
* * *
Damn you, Gabriel, you hotheaded, stupid man!
He had heard her, and he had smiled; he was still smiling over that. She wanted to give him her body, and that touched him beyond measure, made his heart feel so damned heavy he was barely able to carry it in his chest.
He’d felt rage at first, that she should even tempt him to do so, that she would think him so low, so capable of taking someone’s soul away. He’d been so angry, she was lucky all he did was send her home. But yet he’d pondered over it for hours afterward, concluding there was only one reason anyone would do something so unselfish. Only one reason Stella could know what Faith knew.
And then he’d realized Stella was Faith.
He’d trembled at the realization. Joy and love and disbelief all tangled and twisted inside him. His magic—it felt strong now, a burning light, more powerful than ever, simmering with energy in the pit of his being.
Growing up, Gabriel had thought his magic was evil. It had been too strong for such a little boy, and he hadn’t known how to control it. Several times as a kid, he’d been angry, and he’d wished for things he shouldn’t have. His father’s drunken bouts hade made him wish to be left alone, and one morning his wish came true. His father never woke from his sleep. Gabriel was sure he had killed him.
He’d felt so ashamed, so guilty, that he swore he’d never use his magic again. He’d tried to hold it back from then on, contain it, ignore it. But then the years passed, and he met her.
Faith Harrison. Beautiful, kind, warm-hearted Faith.
Was she blind? he’d first wondered when she smiled that dazzling white smile at him. Gabriel had turned to look at the sidewalk behind him, certain she couldn’t be smiling at him. Not that angel. Certainly not.
But she had been smiling at him, and although Gabriel didn’t believe in love at first sight, that hadn’t kept him from falling, hard.
He never told Faith about his magic, and yet she was a curious little thing, asking more questions than she should about everything. One day she trapped him, holding the bud of a lily in her hand, and wistfully wishing out loud that it open for her. Like the love-sick fool he was, wanting to impress his lady, Gabriel fell for that, and in less than a second the flower bloomed in her hand.
Faith had turned to him with wide, worshipping eyes. “I knew it!” she had said, waving the lily at him. “I knew it. I knew it. I knew it!”
From then on, Faith steadily encouraged him, steadfast in her belief that magic could do good, and that Gabriel was good. He’d desperately wanted to believe her, and yet he never truly embraced this “goodness” of which she spoke.