Read Moonlight and Ashes Online

Authors: Sophie Masson

Tags: #Fiction

Moonlight and Ashes

About the Book

The story of Cinderella as you've never heard it before . . .

A girl whose fortunes have plummeted from wealthy aristocrat to servant-girl.

A magic hazel twig. A prince.

A desperate escape from danger.

This is not the story of a girl whose fairy godmother arranges her future for her. This is the story of Selena, who will take charge of her own destiny, and learn that her magic is not to be feared but celebrated.

‘In Sophie Masson's elegant hands, a classic fairytale is transformed into an engaging thriller full of drama and clever plot twists.' –
Isobelle Carmody, author of The Obernewtyn Chronicles

Once upon a time, I would have walked in through the beautiful carved doors of the Angel Patisserie and Tea Salon. Once, and not so long ago either, my feet would have glided across the soft carpet in smart shoes, my long skirts swishing behind my mother's as we headed to our favourite table looking out across St Hilda's Square at the bustling morning crowds. Once, we would have sat on the plush velvet chairs while the waiter brought us plates of cream puffs, chocolate hazelnut tart or cream-layered honey sponge served on delicate china plates edged with gilt. We'd have eaten our cakes and sipped fragrant tea from fine cups as the owner of the Angel, Monsieur Thomas, resplendent in a blue silk waistcoat and white tail coat, would have made sure to stop by our table and wish us good day. He'd have told Mama how fine she was looking, and me how much of a young lady I was becoming. Mama and I would giggle about it afterwards because, although Monsieur Thomas always
said the same thing, it was always in such a hushed tone as if he was telling us a secret instead of a rather tedious politeness.

That was then. If I tried to go in through the front door of the Angel now, Monsieur Thomas would have me thrown out. And no wonder for my feet, now clad in old shoes that let in the rain, are not fit to tread on the soft carpets. My skirts, patched and old, no longer swish but flop limply around me. And the taste of those cakes is nothing more than a sweet, distant memory. These days I have to go around the back of the Angel and wait in the dingy little courtyard no proper customer ever sees. I am handed the box of cakes my stepmother and stepsisters have ordered, and am warned that if I so much as think of opening it I will have the police set on me. I am told to ‘Begone!' by people who once would have bowed to me as the daughter of Sir Claus dez Mestmor, a rich and important nobleman from one of the oldest families in Ashberg. They all know I have become a servant in my own father's house and that has made all the difference. I used to think people were nice to me because they liked me. Now I know better.

But not everyone is like that. Even at the Angel, where faces are hard as overcooked pastry and tongues bitter as wormwood. There's Maria, the scullery maid, who has never stopped being nice to me even though it would cost her her job if anyone were to find out. When she can, Maria slips me bits and pieces she's kept from the kitchens, and always with a kind word or two which is almost as comforting. This day, she had a surprise for me. As I stood in the courtyard waiting for a box of cakes, trying to avoid
the drips from the clearing rain, she crept out and handed me a little parcel done up in brown paper and string. ‘Happy birthday, Selena,' she whispered, giving me a quick smile before scuttling back in just as Rudi, a waiter who never misses an opportunity to laugh at me, came out. He's got his eye on my stepsister Babette, and thinks that will get in her good books, though if he thinks Babette will even look once, let alone twice, at a waiter, no matter how fine his waistcoat, he's in for a great disappointment. To her and Odette, waiters may as well not exist, or at least no more than as some kind of useful machine.

That morning, as usual, I put up with his heavy attempts at wit at my expense to avoid a quarrel I could not afford to have. Not if I am to keep the promise I made to my dear mother two years ago on her deathbed, whose loss I still feel like an arrow to the heart. I promised her that I would not abandon my father, no matter what was to happen. Papa is not a man who can cope with illness, and my poor mother had been sick for a year or more. She had lost the good looks that had made him forget her humble origins and fall in love with her. I think she knew he could not stay alone for long, and so it proved – for within a few months he had married Grizelda, a rich widow from the imperial capital, Faustina. She had brought her daughters, Babette and Odette, home to Ashberg and had set about removing all reminders of my mother, throwing out her pictures and books, of which I could save but a few. And so my ordeal began.

Of course, there are moments when rage and sorrow boil within me like scalding pitch. When I think of my weak and indifferent father who seems to have almost
forgotten my existence altogether. When I remember the day my stepmother summoned me to triumphantly announce the annulment of my parents' marriage and, in turn, my social demotion in the eyes of the law to a mere ‘natural daughter' of my father, dependent entirely on his goodwill. When my mother's portrait was burned and her books thrown out, except for the few I managed to hide. When my stepsisters taunt me with a cruel nickname, Ashes, and delight in tormenting me with tales of the parties they've been to, the young men who shower them with compliments, the fine dresses they've ordered from the best seamstresses in the city, and the exciting trips they'll go on while I have to stay in my kitchen.

In those moments the promise I made to Mama seems like a cross that's much too hard to bear. But, always, I master myself; I cannot break my promise to her for fear of losing my honour. They have taken everything else – I will not let them take my word as well. Alone in my room at night I take out one of Mama's books and, though I've read each many times over the years, cover to cover, I take comfort in it. I remember Mama's voice as she read to me, her smile as she read to herself, and it brings her close to me once again. I whisper to the empty room as though she were there. I whisper how I feel – how I really feel – deep inside. It helps me to be patient, to try and hold fast to the hope that my mother would never have bound me to such a promise if she did not think that one day things would get better for me.

Maria's kindness touched me. Sixteen. I turned sixteen today. I didn't expect anyone to remember. My father's away, like he is nearly all the time these days, and his
new family would rather think I had sprung from an amoeba. Anyway, who ever heard of a servant having a birthday? Squelching home through the wet streets, carefully holding the box of cakes, I thought of the pleasure I'd have in opening her little parcel later that night. It would mark the day that someone other than myself had remembered. Sixteen – the coming of age, when you are no longer a girl but a woman. I remember Mama saying how this important birthday was marked in her own forest village, far away. How on your sixteenth birthday you'd be given a dish of honey and cream, a crown of roses and a hazel twig. It seemed a strange combination to me and I always asked why,
why
. But she would only smile and say that on my sixteenth birthday, she would tell me.

I was so absorbed in my thoughts and bittersweet memories that I didn't notice the carriage heading down the street behind me. It was only as it was almost upon me that I suddenly heard the rumbling of wheels and the coachman's shout, and tried to jump aside. Instead, I tripped and fell sprawling in the gutter, the cakes flying out of my hands as the carriage squeezed past me with just inches to spare. As I looked after it, breathless from the fright, I saw it was completely closed with black blinds drawn down across the windows. And my heart skipped a beat as I recognised the crest on the side of the door to be the sinister snake and two wands of the Mancers.

By the time I'd gathered my wits together, the carriage had hurtled around the corner and disappeared. I knew I'd be in trouble for the ruined cakes but just at that moment I didn't much care. I was only relieved that whoever was in that carriage had paid me no attention. Not that it much mattered which of the Mancers it was, or even of what rank or seniority – the mere fact it was one of them was enough. My mother had made sure I knew that much.

Because that was the other thing she'd said to me as she lay there on her deathbed, patiently waiting for my father to finally make an appearance before she passed to the next world. She'd told me to come close and whispered in my ear, her dying breath as mustily sweet as a withering rose, ‘My darling Selena, you must know the truth. But you must keep it to yourself as tightly as your promise not to desert your father. For if you do not and the Mancers get to hear of it . . .'

A look of terror had passed over her face then – a look that haunts me to this day. I whispered, my voice thick with tears I could hardly hold back, ‘Mama, what is it? What have the Mancers to do with
us
?'

‘Nothing,' she had said, her voice trembling. ‘Nothing, for I have tried with all my might and main to keep it that way and you must do so too, my darling, or else everything will have been in vain and the sacrifice I made to be with your father will have turned to dust and ashes.'

Dust and ashes! That is what my life has become since Mama's death, I thought as I trudged up the street towards the house that felt like prison rather than home. I thought of the look in Mama's eyes as she had clasped my hand tightly with the desperate strength of the dying, and as she told me the truth of what I was – of what she had been.

A moon-sister. I'd heard of them, of course. Who hadn't? They were legendary. They lived in whispered stories, and glared menacingly from the pages of history books. Once, they had been as important as the Mancers; the two co-existing peacefully. But theirs is a forbidden knowledge now. The kind that's been outlawed for more than a hundred years, since the time of Lady Serafina. Better known as the Grey Widow, she was the most powerful of all moon-sisters at the time and perhaps the most powerful ever. In history books, she is depicted as a grim hag with crooked teeth and stringy hair. It doesn't quite fit, however, with the legend that she somehow bewitched the Emperor of the time, Karl the Great. The story goes that when she had gained the Emperor's confidence – and, some say, even his love – Lady Serafina treacherously plotted a rebellion
against him, planning to lay waste to the Empire and to cast a terrible spell that would have killed half its inhabitants and turned the remainder into mindless slaves. Or so we are told.

But her plans failed because the Chief Mancer had a good network of spies all over the Empire. The result was the capture, confession and execution of the Grey Widow and hundreds, even thousands, of her followers, including a motley crew of shapeshifters, village wizards and fortune-tellers. As to the remaining moon-sisters, even those who had taken no part in the rebellion, they were hunted down and slaughtered along with their families, and that is how, according to the history books, ‘this evil, tainted blood' vanished completely off the face of the earth. Any mention of the moon-sisters other than as evil traitors has been forbidden.

What's more, all kinds of magic except that which is practised by the Mancers has been strictly forbidden within the borders of the Faustine Empire. No more fortune-telling, spell-making, potion-brewing, cardreading or ghost-raising. Shapeshifters are now extinct in the Empire, and village wizards only a distant memory. The Mancers are not only the sole practitioners of magic of any kind, they also police everything to do with it. I'd never questioned it. Like everyone else, I feared the Mancers and their powers. But they were remote from my concerns; they did not intervene in ordinary lives. They were like black shadows hovering at the edge of our ordinary sunlit existence. I'd never imagined that, one day, that shadow might blot out the sun, as it did when I learned the truth about my mother's heritage.

The history books had been wrong. The moon-sisters hadn't all been killed. A few had escaped, vanishing into the deepest parts of the deepest forests. They had brought up children who inherited their gifts; and their secrets, bound in unbreakable oaths, were passed down in utter silence. For there was not to be a hint, a whisper, nor the slightest chance of a sign to the Mancers that there was any kind of surviving legacy of the moon-sisters.

My own mother had learned the truth from her mother and so it had gone, through the ages. But she'd had to turn her back on the knowledge when she fell in love with my father. He never knew the truth. He'd never have married her if he had – he is not a brave man. He had been bold enough marrying a forest girl so far below him in station. That was quite enough courage for him, no matter how beautiful and sweet she was. It had meant that for the rest of her life Mama had to hide her own potential. She could not practise any form of magic at all, not even a harmless fidelity potion when my father's attention began to wander. She couldn't even brew herbs to help her through her sickness. Nothing that could remotely be interpreted as magic was allowed to happen.
Nothing
. She took an oath to that effect. They all did, to protect the others. How many of them were there, hiding, unable to do a thing but pass on a seemingly useless knowledge that could never ever be applied?

I couldn't tell Mama, of course. I couldn't tell her how the secret she'd passed on to me was one I wished I'd never known. Not because it put me in danger, although it did do that, but because it was useless. Being a moon-sister hadn't helped her. In fact, it had made her life more diffi
cult. What is the good of having magic in your bones – in your blood – if you can never use it? It's worse than useless, because it's a constant frustration. And I felt that frustration had eaten away at my mother's very heart, that the ‘tainted blood' had slowly killed her every bit as much as her illness and my father's indifference. So can you blame me for rejecting the knowledge? Mama had said that until the right time came, I had to keep it tight inside me like the promise I'd made not to abandon my father. I hadn't asked her what she meant by ‘the right time'; I hadn't wanted to talk about it. But I have done as she asked. I have kept the knowledge of my heritage locked and bound inside and secured with chains, and not because I was afraid but because I hated it.

Normally, I can avoid thinking about it. Days and weeks can go past before I remember that in my veins runs the blood of the fabled, notorious enchantresses. But what I cannot forget is that I have gone from being Selena, cherished daughter of the house, to ‘Ashes', the servant girl crouching in the cinders of the kitchen fireplace. All the moon-sister magic in the world can do nothing about that because I cannot ever admit to a living soul what my mother told me, for if I did, I would be in an even worse position than I am now. If Grizelda and her daughters had even an inkling of my secret, I would not put it past them to denounce me to the Mancers. They would do so anonymously, of course, as they wouldn't want even a breath of the scandal to jeopardise their standing in Ashberg. But even if they didn't denounce me, the mere fact they'd know would give them a whip hand over me for ever and ever. So I have
been very careful to avoid even a stray thought about it in case I betray myself in some way.

It is rare to see a Mancer in the streets, at least it is in Ashberg. Of course, the ones here are only a provincial branch of the Mancer headquarters in Faustina. Their Ashberg quarters are located within a part of the castle on top of the hill, just over the river; quarters that no-one can enter except with special licence. It's said that there are sights there that would make your hair stand on end. But they are only rumours, for it would be more than your life's worth to tell of what you'd seen if you were one of the few people who've actually been there, such as tradesmen and officials. It is said they make outsiders sign a document that spells out the dire consequences of blabbing and, so far as I know, no-one has ever dared to go against it.

Not that Mancers are much in evidence usually. They couldn't care less about the ordinary populace and most people think that if you don't give them a reason to take an interest in you – that is, if you do not break the law on magic – then they will leave you alone. After the Emperor, they are the greatest power in the empire, certainly much greater than the Ashberg city authorities, and are a law unto themselves. And if by accident or design you fall into their clutches – then God help you, because no-one else will.

I'd known I would pay for the ruined cakes, and so I did. They had been specially ordered for an afternoon tea my stepmother was to host the next day and she would now
have to make do with whichever ordinary pastries the Angel might be able to supply. All the guests would know they were just the sort anyone could buy in the shop, that they'd not been specially made for her, and the Lady Grizelda's standing would suffer mildly as a result, which was an unspeakable crime to her and, of course, entirely my fault.

My stepmother never hits me. She knows better than to do that, aware that even my weak and cowardly father might rebel if she lifted a hand against me. Besides, violence isn't her style. Cruelty and the refinements of humiliation are her weapons of choice as well as the more blunt instruments of hunger and exhaustion. So I went without supper that night, not even the leftovers I am usually allowed. The housekeeper Mrs Jager, who has always disliked me on principle – she came with my stepmother from Faustina along with the current staff who replaced our previous servants – made me polish every scrap of silver in the place, scrub the kitchen floor twice over and iron the already-ironed tablecloths. And when I was so tired I thought I might faint, after the rest of the staff had long gone to bed, she told me sharply that I'd have to get up an hour earlier the next morning to darn my stepsisters' stockings and mend their clothes.

It was no good protesting that I had done it all that very morning; there was no doubt in my mind that Babette and Odette were quite capable of deliberately making new holes in their stockings and ripping ribbons off their dresses in order to join in their mother's petty games. Although Babette and Odette each have their own personal maid, it is always up to me to perform these menial tasks. Mrs Jager says it is kindly intended, that it is to improve my sewing
skills and hence my future employability. But I know better. It is intended, as everything that my stepmother and her daughters do, to try and break my spirit.

I was so tired, I was beyond rage and hatred. Or maybe it was still the shock of seeing that black carriage. Whatever it was, by the time I was back in my poky little room that backed onto the kitchen fireplace (Mrs Jager kept saying how lucky I was to live there and not in the attic) I didn't even have the strength to change into my nightdress but just fell fully clothed onto the narrow bed. It was only when I turned on my side that I felt a sharp bump in my pocket and remembered Maria's gift and that today I had turned sixteen. I don't cry – not usually – for there is no point, but at that moment, as I opened the little parcel to reveal a small, heart-shaped locket on a cheap chain, tears welled in my eyes. Made of green enamel, it was the sort of thing you can buy at fairs – the only kind of gift poor Maria could afford. The locket had a little catch so you could open it and put something inside – though the space was so small and thin it was hard to know what one could put in there. Gently, I unhooked the clasp of the chain and fastened the locket around my neck, hiding it under my clothes where it would not be seen. Once, I'd owned beautiful, costly jewellery, brought back by my father from his trips abroad – jewels which have long vanished into my stepsisters' keep. But not one of those glittering necklaces or bracelets or rings had touched me half as much as this humble trinket on its tawdry chain. Somehow this calmed me so that instead of lying there, overtired, I fell instantly into a deep sleep.