Chapter 1: The Beach
“It’s a lie! You know it’s a lie!”
Red-faced, the youngest princess thrashed, scattering ash blond hair over her shoulders and kicking up clouds of dirt. Her small, bird-like body did little to halt the hard-faced men who gripped her by the arms and dragged her onto the beach.
Three coffins lay on the soft, white sand. They were made of polished cedar, rounded at the bottom like boats, and inlayed with silk and soft cushions. Palace guards holding blue banners waited near the lids with hammers and nails.
“Don’t do this to us! Please.”
The youngest princess’ voice rang like a bell, clear and sharp.
No one moved to help her. The tall white cliffs of King’s Isle formed a crescent moon shape that surrounded the beach and sheltered it from the public eye. Only the castle looked down from the craggy rocks, and the shadows of sunset darkened its face.
Two more princesses stood arm-in-arm on the wet sand, like long candles in their shapeless white tunica gowns. Each wore a cross necklace on a gold chain. The eldest princess’ brow furrowed with concern at the sound of her crying sister, while the middle princess trembled.
The king would not look at them.
His head drooped, and his broad shoulders slumped, as if the weight of his finery were too much to bear. The king wore a gold dalmatica mantle over his tunica with black pearls stitched into the collar and cuffs. A gem-encrusted belt circled his wide girth, but the scabbard was empty. The king wore no crown. His head was bald, except for a few tufts of brown hair behind his ears.
The priest was bald, too. He wore a broad stripe of black cloth down the front of his tunica, and he had dark eyebrows and hard, dark eyes that narrowed at the sight of the youngest princess, who would not stop fighting, even as the guards lugged her to the coffins.
“We are innocent. You’re condemning us to death!”
“Enough!” the priest barked. “Your fate is already upon you. Face it with dignity.”
The princess stopped and drew up to her full height of not-quite-five-feet tall.
“You!” she spat. “You slunk in after Mother’s death and took advantage of my father’s grief. Now you plan to make him an accomplice to our murders.” She turned to the palace guards. “Stop him! Please, I command you. Don’t let him kill us.”
The guards shifted uncomfortably in their scale armor. Most of them had watched the youngest princess grow up. They hated to do this to her. But the hard-faced men who held her arms looked at the princess without pity.
“Little girl, you understand nothing of the world,” the priest said. “I have suffered through darkness and seen visions to make your blood run cold. I sat near a pool of starlight as an angel descended upon me and whispered a prophecy into my ear. She told me that one of you three princesses harbors dangerous magic.”
“It’s a lie,” the princess said, more weakly this time.
“And one day, that magic will overtake us all.” The priest’s voice rose like the waves. “Birds will fall from the sky, lambs will lie bloody in the fields, and babies will die in their mother’s arms. The Seven Isles will sink into the sea.”
He put his hand to his throat.
“To prevent this, we must cast the princesses out into the ocean. The guilty princess will sink, but the innocent ones will wash safely back to shore. So spoke the angel of starlight. So shall it pass.”
The priest’s words hypnotized the beach. Everyone stared at him in awe—all but the youngest princess. Her hands squeezed to fists.
“None of this is true,” she insisted. “You’re a liar.”
“If your faith is so weak, perhaps your sisters will inspire you.” The priest smiled at the two older princesses. “Who will be first to enter a coffin?”
“I will.” The eldest princess stepped forward.
“Don’t worry, little sister.” Helene put a hand on the youngest princess’ head. “Soon you’ll step foot on dry land and feel the morning sun on your face.”
The eldest princess walked regally up to the coffin, her chin held high, her green eyes calm. Every now and then, she would steal a glance at the young palace guard with sandy hair and blue eyes, who wore a dolphin clasp on his cape. He helped her into the coffin. When Helene nestled in the silk, her chestnut curls draped beautifully over her shoulders.
The young guard took out a small golden ball, about the size of a nut, and placed it in the eldest princess’ open palm. The smell of rosewater emanated from the orb.
“Here’s your pomander ball, my lady.”
Helene beamed at him. “Thank you, Lysander.”
“Be safe, Princess.”
Two different guards put the lid over the coffin and hammered it shut. The youngest princess wailed as the guards dragged the coffin to the water’s edge and gave it a push. The coffin floated into the open ocean.
“Helene…” The youngest princess’ face crumpled.
“I’ll go next,” the middle princess said.
“Don’t do it, Ariadne!”
Ariadne moved like a corpse. All color had left her face, and her brown eyes were ringed with shadows. The middle princess gave her sister a stiff hug and murmured goodbye in a voice too low to hear. As Ariadne sank into the coffin, her dark hair wrapped her shoulders like a shroud.
“Princess,” Lysander said formally.
He handed her a crystal goblet with olive branches carved along the rim. Ariadne put the cup under her chin and squeezed the stem with her pale fingers. The guards lifted the lid over her face.
As the second coffin drifted into the sea, the youngest princess withered like a flower.
The priest nodded. “Now for the last one.”
“No!” The youngest princess flailed. “Someone stop them. Father! Father!”
The king shuddered and turned.
His face was long and haggard, aged by sorrow beyond his years. His brown eyes melted to see his daughter. Tears flowed freely down his cheeks.
“My little Odele...”
The priest put a hand on the king’s neck. “No matter how hard this may be, you are doing what’s best for your kingdom, for your family.”
“He’s lying! Father—”
“Listen to her, and you’ll lose not one daughter, but all three.” The priest’s grip tightened. “You must stay strong, Eustachius.”
The king’s eyes dimmed. “Bring her to the coffin.”
Odele’s screams pierced the hush of the beach.
The hard-faced men threw the youngest princess into the coffin. She tried to climb out, but one man pinned her arms down. The other held her legs. Odele whipped her head back and forth and yelled in a raw, desperate voice.
“He’s a liar! He’s lying to you all.”
“Put the lid on quickly,” the priest said.
“Wait!” cried the princess. “My token. I need my token.”
“A wild animal has no need for comfort items,” the priest said coldly.
“Please,” Odele begged the young guard. “Please.”
Lysander slipped her a knife.
“Be careful with this,” his whispered.
Odele clenched her teeth. The hard-faced men slammed down the lid.
“You did well, Eustachius,” the priest told the king, giving him a pat. “Your subjects will marvel at the wisdom of your actions.”
The king shut his eyes. His shoulders shook as sobs wracked his body.
The palace guards hauled the final coffin into the ocean, and the greedy waves lapped up the offering. A seagull flitted above a floating coffin, squawked, and flew to its home in the cliffs. As the sun set, the first of the stars twinkled in the sky. Except for the sigh of waves, the beach was silent.