The Crowns’ Mourning: A Tale from the Ashes
My brother Jasper was the first of us to start a family. We all thought it would be Elise, after all she was by far the most popular out of the four of us. But then Jasper met Emilia during one of his disguised visits into the city outside the castle. The day he met her, he came bursting into my room, his face almost as red as his hair and his eyes completely dazed. He was in love, and even though he talked to her for a while, he forgot to ask her if she was single.
Out of pity for Jasper’s incompetence, I visited her. She was a florist, with a small shop in the city’s market district. The moment I saw her I knew why Jasper had fallen for her so quickly; when she greeted me she had one of those rare smiles—one of those genuine ones that reached her eyes and lit up the room. I sparked a conversation, asking her if she had any suggestions for my older brother, who needed flowers to woo a woman he had fallen for. She suggested white and purple lilacs, for a budding love and innocence.
“So,” I began, “if my helpless brother, a certain tall, handsome, redhead who may have been here yesterday, were to come again tomorrow, lilacs in hand, would you care to receive them?”
She smiled again. She would love to, she said. She was disappointed yesterday, when Jasper left without asking if she was available.
I sent Jasper back to her later that day, and the two dates for almost a year before he proposed. He waited months to tell her who he really was, surprising her with a visit to the castle, where she met our sisters, Elena and Elise.
They married the spring following Jasper’s proposal. Just over a year later, in the dead of winter, Emilia gave birth to triplets. Garnet, Hanna, and Julian. Garnet and Hanna had both inherited their father’s red hair, while Julian had inherited Emilia’s pale brown curls.
I was designated the royal babysitter of my niece and nephews; I think my brother and sisters often forgot I wore the same ashen crown as they did, but I guess that came with being the youngest. I was a proud uncle, and even when they weren’t dumped on me, I often spent much of my time with them.
Emilia was unaffected by the Curse that struck over a decade ago, and for a while, we thought the triplets were too. We were wrong. Along with his red hair, Garnet and Hanna also inherited Jasper’s fire, a discovery I made when they were five. Hanna had been in the midst of a temper tantrum after losing a round of hide and seek when the flames slid down her arms onto the carpet beneath her. Garnet, who had found her, stood still as the flames nipped his toes, unburned just as my siblings were when they released the fire from their skin. Julian, on the other hand, screamed in panic and pain. I picked him up as fast as I could, calling for the servants nearby to bring water as I did. When the fire was put out I rushed Garnet and Hanna back to Jasper; I was not inclined to play games with children who couldn’t control their flames.
When the flames sparked, something changed in Hanna. Her childish innocence was replaced by a troubling darkness. I wish we had recognized it for what it was then, maybe Emilia’s and Hanna’s fates would have been different.
But nothing changes where my siblings and I are right now, each standing in a corner of the execution platform. After all, murder carries the death penalty. Normally, murderers are burned by my brother and sisters—by executing the murderer, we take responsibility, something the previous monarchy thought was below them—but Hanna doesn’t burn. Still, we stood at the platform as we always did, only this time there was another executioner on the platform, just behind my seventeen-year-old niece. This isn’t how she wanted to die; she wanted to be drowned, so she could die painfully like her mother, but Jasper couldn’t let her, and I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of leaving how she wanted to. Not after what she did.
I noticed she liked to watch things burn. I thought nothing of it at first, since it seemed to me that my siblings liked to as well. It must have been a trait they all share, I thought. I figured it harmless when little Hanna was found every now and again gathering bundles of wood and plastic and paper to burn. I didn’t think it was strange how she stared at the flames she created, mesmerized by the way materials burned differently. Until she burned Julian’s puppy alive when she was eleven. After that, Julian refused to be anywhere near her, especially if Garnet wasn’t around, and even Garnet was on edge around her.
She was sent to a boarding school after that, where she was not allowed to have or be near anything flammable. In all the years she was away, the castle never received word of a fire-related incident. It was a phase, we all said, relieved that her pyromaniac tendencies had passed.
Then she returned home.
Julian, who remembered all too well what she was like when they were children, made it a point to be seen around her, but remained cautious in her presence. He didn’t want her to know how she still terrified him even after six years. Garnet, like Julian, was guarded towards their sister and fiercely protective of Julian, to the point that made one wonder if she had tried to hurt him at some point before her departure. Because Julian made it a point to be with Hanna, Garnet seemed to make it a point to always be between them.
But whatever happened between them when they were children, this time, Julian was not who Hanna was after.
Emilia was always so quick to forgive and love again, being a mother, I think, only increased her virtue—and naivety. At Hanna’s insistence, she and Emilia went into town for a mother-daughter day. Julian, Garnet, and I begged Emilia to refuse, but she would not deny her daughter. Just after dark, Hanna returned to the castle, alone. She was questioned, again and again, but said nothing. Elise thought it wise to place a curfew on the city, so we could search for Emilia without obstructions. Elise, Garnet, Julian and I set off immediately to search for Emilia, while Elena, usually the fiercest of us, lingered behind to console her twin, whose soul was breaking before our eyes. She must have pulled him together, at least somewhat, because they joined to search not too long after.
We found her body a week later in the center of the city’s garden hedge maze, charred past recognition. None of us wanted to believe it was her, but DNA from the remains confirmed our nightmares.
I steal another glance towards Jasper. Whether it’s the pain of a king, a husband, or a father, pain is all that can be felt emanating from him. As my older brother, he’s always protected me, but now, I want nothing more than to wrap my arms around him—to tell him to close his eyes and cover his ears; to tell him he doesn’t have to be the one to signal the execution. But I can’t, and it has to be him, not just because he is a king, but because he is a father, and he must take responsibility for Hanna, and for all the things he failed to notice.
“I, King Jasper of the Ashen Crowns, condemn this murderer to death.” The words are strong and steady, a worthy precursor to the thunder sounding Hanna’s death.
After her body was buried and everyone has gone to their separate corners to mourn and assign blame to themselves, I begin my search the castle for my nephews. I find Garnet first; he’s got a habit of holing himself up in the library whenever anything even slightly bothersome has happened. He doesn’t want to leave the fort of books he’s made, but no one makes me ask for the same thing twice. Julian, though, is more difficult to locate. I find him, though, in the training yard, sword in mid swing towards his sparring partner. I call out his name and the sparring partner immediately freezes in place. Julian, probably frustrated I’m interrupting his match, turns to face me. “Come,” I say before I resume walking.
I take them to the castle garden, Emilia’s favorite place and where my brother is no doubt mourning. I tell them not to let their father all apart; I tell Julian, who’s always favored his mother, to make his father look at him, and to tell my brother that it is okay to cry. “Remind him of his humanity,” I instruct before sending them to into the garden their mother created.
The voices started when I was young—five, maybe. When I was seven I realized they only came when I was alone in silence. Until I was eight, I kept my sanity by whispering to myself, or humming a tune, or letting the TV play—anything that kept silence at bay. My parents, concerned, by dependence on sound, tried to talk to me about why I didn’t like silence.
“It never stays quiet,” I told them. I told them about the voices, how they came when silence crept upon me whenever I was alone. They listened, as parents should, and took me to a child psychologist.
She asked about the voices—when they came, what they were like, and how long I had been hearing them. I told her, just as I had told my parents, about when I heard them. I told her how they were like loud whispers, always right next to my ear.
“What do they say to you?” she asked. I didn’t know. There were always too many—too many layers to pick through to understand what any of them said.
Monophobia. That was what she told my parents I had. An intense fear of being alone, a misdiagnosis so far from the truth it’s almost laughable. The voices, she claimed, were hallucinations, an effort by my mind to make me feel like I wasn’t really alone. There were no medications available for children to rid me of the hallucinations, and since it was clear my parents had no idea how to help me, the best thing to do was to continue the sessions, at least for a little while longer.
At eight I convinced my dad to get me CD player while we were out shopping for a birthday present for mom. “If I have this I won’t have to talk to myself anymore,” I explained. It was a lie, of course. The truth was that sleeping was getting more difficult. It was ten hours of lying in the dark quiet, all alone. The exact opposite of what I wanted to do.
Neither of us were music buffs, so my first CD was decided by a random pulling from a large bin of marked down albums. It was Louis Armstrong.
For two years I never went anywhere without that CD player. Kids at school had started to catch on to my troubles and actively avoided me; I was the freak and I was alone much more often than any child should be. And that’s when the voices first pulled me in.
I was careless, when it happened. I was walking home from the bus stop, so caught up in Armstrong’s playful scatting, I didn’t notice the group of boys walking behind me. They were four boys from school, known for harassing anyone even slightly vulnerable. Until this point I had just avoided them. I kept to myself as much as I could, and since others preferred to avoid me, it was easy. But, in hindsight, I was the most vulnerable student at school, and it was only a matter of time before I caught their attention. And I was never more vulnerable to them than when I was swinging and swaying to Louis’ trumpet, my eyes closed as I pretended to play my own while I walked towards home.
My ‘playing’ was abruptly ended when two hands to my back sent me plummeting towards the hard cement. I was shocked, at first, caught unawares as I was. My arms felt burned where I landed on them, but my real concern was my CD player; I didn’t know what I would do if it were to break. I turned around to see who had shoved me, and the sight of the four boys in front of me erased all thoughts of CD player and the pain I felt radiating from my arms from my mind. The sun was on their side, forcing me to squint just to make out their silhouettes. I don’t remember their taunts, they were never relevant, but I remember that my silence angered them. I remember the largest one—Devin—getting on top of me and the sudden pain I felt when his fist landed on my jaw. Once, twice, three, four times he hit me, shouting something all the while. But I couldn’t hear him, I couldn’t hear anything because of the shock. That was when the voices came.
They were different this time, though, somehow more concrete—more solid, if voices could ever be described as such. It was like falling asleep, when they pulled me. One moment I was lying on the sidewalk, trapped beneath a boy almost twice my size, the next I was back home, lying in my bed. I didn’t understand it; the day hadn’t been a dream, so how had I managed to get back home? Even stranger was the lack of pain. I was beaten by Devin and his friends, I knew I was, yet nothing hurt. I had to see it for myself—my face that Devin had punched so many times.
It was on my way to the bathroom that I noticed how eerily quiet the house was. And dark. I walked faster, suddenly afraid of the dark, and flipped the light switch frantically as panic started to set in. The light came on, illuminating the still darkening hallway. Only after I shut and locked the door did I calm down.
I was examining my face in the mirror, in both fascination and confusion, when I thought I saw something in my peripheral vision. I turned. There was nothing. I faced the mirror again, this time greeted by a little girl rather than my reflection. She was like a little girl you would see in a horror movie: small and dolled in a pale pink dress; her brown hair fell in curls just past her shoulders; her eye blinked, shifting between soft, brown eyes, to demonic black holes.
Heart racing, hands shaking, I fumbled with the lock, only managing to open the door after what felt like an eternity, and then I ran. It was dark—too dark to see—but I didn’t care. I raced down the stairs, holding onto the railing so I wouldn’t fall. The front door, my only exit, was right in front of the stairs. It opened with ease, exposing a world of light beyond the house’s pitch black.
I woke gasping for air in a hospital room. Immediately someone’s hands were on mine. I looked up to see my dad sitting in a chair beside me. He had been there for two days. My mother had left while I was at school two days ago. I guess she and dad had been arguing for a while and she had finally had enough.
The only words I spoke were to tell him how everything hurt, which led to him asking the nurse if I could have any more pain medication. I could, and I did, and it lulled me into an empty sleep. The next time I woke my dad was still there anxious for me to tell him what had happened. When I didn’t come home after school, he called the school to make sure I got onto the bus. I did, they told him. Like any frantic and panicking parent, he called 9-1-1, whose operator told him that because it hadn’t been twenty-four hours yet, I wasn’t technically missing. He raced to my bus stop, hoping to find some clue as to where I went, but instead found me, lying limp on the ground, bleeding and bruised.
I was vaguely aware of the concept of a ‘snitch’ and that being one was frowned upon, but I didn’t care, and somehow, I knew that my dad needed something to direct his fury towards. That’s what I like to tell myself, anyway. So, I gave him their names, and just before I my mind was pulled back into a peaceful oblivion, I saw him pull his phone from his pocket, ready to start his hunt. Truth be told, though, I wanted retribution; I wanted to see what hell they would go through once I turned them in to my father.
Unfortunately, I never had the chance. All four of them—Devin, Liam, AJ, and Ben—were found dead in their beds the morning I woke up in the hospital.
I was nine when death cast its cold, dark shadow over my people and stole the lives of my parents. We were sitting across from one another, my family, joining hands to say grace so we could eat the dinner my father had so enthusiastically prepared for us that evening, whatever it may have been. He loved to cook. My mother had only just gotten home from work. She was tired but still smiled and hugged us all when we ran to meet her at the door. Including myself there were four children—my twin, Jasper, and I were the oldest, with seven-year-old Elise, and five-year-old Adrien behind us. Father always used to say that together, the five of us resembled a living fire; Adrien, who inherited our father’s almost golden hair, made the image of a flame more real.
Together, the four of us took our mother’s things and walked with her to the kitchen, where Dad was setting the table. They embraced, as they always did, and Dad led her to her seat at the table, her plate already in its proper place. Jasper and I helped Elise and Adrien, and soon the six of use were seated and ready to eat.
We were happy then.
But then it happened. Some call it the Curse, others the New Plague. Others still, who wanted to stop the spread of rumors of the divine and mysticism in its tracks, claimed it was an attack on our great nation, but by who they could not say. Not that its name matters. No matter what we choose to call it; no matter if we choose to believe it was of God or Hell or man, I still watched as my parents died in front of me and my siblings. No matter what it was, on that day, before the sun set, every active and retired member of the military died, struck down by some invisible hand of death.
I was holding my father’s hand when it happened. It was large and warm, soothing to my cold skin. Until it wasn’t. In an instant the smile that typically adorned my father’s face was replaced by an expression of pure agony, and all the warmth I took comfort suddenly froze over. He was dead. Across the table, I saw my mother fall to the same fate.
My siblings and I scrambled over our parents. We begged and pleaded for them to wake up, not understanding what had just occurred before our eyes. When our mother wouldn’t wake, Adrien began to cry, and Elise quickly followed suit. Not knowing what else to do, Jasper and I gather our younger siblings and ran to our neighbor’s home. Dogged from our shock and faces wet from tears, we tried to explain what had happened.
For what it took, the curse also gave. In the days following the deaths, people of all ages across the nation began exhibiting abilities. There was no pattern to who obtained abilities, or what they could do, at least across different families. Within families, similarities were easily spotted. Jasper, Elise, and I quickly realized we had gained power over fire. produce and manipulate it at will. Adrien, on the other hand, could manipulate the air and weather around him.
The years went by, and the pain and hatred that our parents’ deaths sowed in us only continued to grow, and when no cause for the curse revealed itself, our hatred was turned toward the monarchy that did nothing as our people fell apart and crumbled into chaos. Criminals became empowered by the monarchy’s inability to enforce the law, instilling fear in anyone without the power to protect themselves. Eventually families banded together to ensure their survival, forming communities in which those gifted with abilities learned side by side, in hopes of growing strong enough to defend against any who would threaten their homes.
Our flames consumed any who threatened our home—we would never lose anyone we loved ever again. When we were old enough and had mastered all that our flames and wind could achieve, we consumed the crown.
It was beautiful, the fire that sprang from our fingertips, and the lightning called forth from the heavens. I remember how my flames licked my skin, tingling as they traveled from my hands to the streets of the capital, blazing a road of fire to the castle. I remember how the nobility cowered before us, incapable of extinguishing our flames or calming the storm we brought with us. I remember the sound of their extinction—their screams for mercy and forgiveness, and the cries of victory from those who fought alongside us.
I remember it all.
I remember it all as I wait next to my brothers and sister, our knees resting on the cold, stone floor of a reconstructed castle, while our crowns are placed upon our heads—crowns blackened by the ashes from which we rose.