I have little notion of the passing time. I cannot say how many hours pass before a guard – one I haven’t seen before – opens my cell door and beckons me out. Unlike the previous guard, he does not ask me to cloak myself, electing instead to gaze at me as though I am a forest fire – bright, mesmerizing and dangerous.
I might run, but though I can forget my shackles while lying still in my cell, I cannot forget them as I shuffle along beside my guard. I don’t know where he’s taking me, and it’s no use asking. I am a curiosity, not a person. He leads me up a flight of stairs – a small one, but no easy task in shackles. It takes me at least ten minutes to negotiate them.
He grabs an ornate lion knocker and pounds on an equally ornate mahogany door. The door opens, and I gasp in shock.
Standing in front of me, framed by the doorway, is my stepmother.
“This has been no more enjoyable for me than for you, you know,” she says.
The guard has left, having unlocked my shackles and double-locked the door. She and I are seated at a clawed-foot table which is both too large and too small. I want to inch my way away from her, but at the same time the table seems much too long for just two.
“I know you don’t believe me,” she says, “but it’s true.”
I say nothing. She knows nothing of my life. She hasn’t suffered from this.
“Are you going to talk to me?”
I clench my teeth.
“Stubborn girl,” she says. “But regardless, I have an offer to make of you.”
I look up at her cautiously. She draws an apple out of the folds of her dress and sets it down on the table. I stare at it.
“An apple,” she says softly. “But not just any apple – this apple is death.”
I look at her sharply. Death?
“Yes,” she says. “I have a deal for you. I have reason to believe you’ve suffered over the years.”
She has reason to believe. As though she doesn’t know, as though she hasn’t caused it…
“But this apple could stop all that,” she continues.
The smooth, ruby skin glints in the light of the surrounding candles.
“Child,” she says, “there is a bond between us.”
“But you can sever it,” she continues, “if you are willing to go where the bond is.”
Where the bond is?
“The bond does not exist on the same level we do,” she continues. “It exists – immaterially. It exists in the twilight between life and death.”
I catch my breath.
“Take the apple,” she says, “and you will have one hour to sever the bond. Sever it, and you will return to the land of the living a whole woman. Fail to do so, and you will die. Do you understand?”
I nod, galvanized. To live without the bond is unimaginable – but deliciously so. I eye the apple. I can feel her eyes on me. What does she stand to gain from this?
With my death, the magic’s final grasp on my body will be loosened – and for one as desperate for magic as my stepmother, it would be easy to catch.
The possibility of my death should be powerfully discourage me. I know this.
But… if I accept the apple, I can win.
But I can also lose.
I can lose everything I’ve ever had.
I could slice the apple. Lay it on my tongue. Feel it crunch between my teeth.
And be reborn.
The chance of rebirth is not certain.
But nothing ever is.
The apple gleams in the sunlight. It looks so innocent. She spins it around between her fingers. I want it. I want it so, so badly. I want the crisp whiteness on my tongue. I want to snap the bond like a thread of spider web. I want this apple.
I can’t tell if the knife comes into contact with my skin, but I do know that the instant I cut into the apple, I begin to bleed, a slow trickle staining my hand. A droplet falls and soaks into the apple. I pick up the piece and put it in my mouth.
As the apple crunches against my teeth, I look into her eyes. She smiles.