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Cruel Sisters

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. She most recently misapplied her professors' hard work to Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. The first book of that series, A Natural History of Dragons, was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and won the Prix Imaginales for Best Translated Novel. Her other novels include the Doppelganger duology of Warrior and Witch, the urban fantasies Lies and Prophecy and Chains and Memory, the Onyx Court historical fantasy series, the Varekai novellas, and nearly sixty short stories, as well as the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides. Together with Alyc Helms as M.A. Carrick, she is the author of the upcoming Rook and Rose epic fantasy trilogy. For more information, visit her website, her Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.

The harp is a gruesome thing. Long bones for the pillar; breastbone for the board; the curve of a spine for the instrument's neck and knee. At the head sits a skull, grinning eyelessly at all who flinch away.
I saw it when they paraded it through the streets after the revolt, carried on high like a triumphant hero. Even without flesh, I knew that grin.
The story's been told from one end of what used to be our kingdom to the other. The death of the younger princess, supposedly from illness -- but one day a minstrel arrived at court, bearing the macabre harp. Its strings, spun from golden hair and tuned by delicate finger-bones, sang out all the crimes and sins of her royal kin, from her murderous elder sister to her treasonous younger brother to her cruel, capricious, contemptible father the king.
Very little of it was a surprise to anybody. But it seems there's nothing like the testimony of a restless ghost to spur people to revolution at last.
And if the voice sounds very little like that of the dead princess... it's a haunted harp. No one questions its authenticity. And I am not about to tell them.
The chapel is grave-quiet as I creep through the shadows toward the harp. It can already see, even though it lacks eyes; I shouldn't be surprised that it can see in the dark. But I still jump when its ethereal voice thrums into the silence.
Dread grips my soul. I suspected, yes--but it is another thing to know.
"You lied," I whisper back, my voice as thin and dry as dust. "Why?"
"You mean, why did I condemn them, instead of you."
The jolt thudding up my arms as I shoved her into the water. It was a stupid argument, and my oath to God, I thought she was exaggerating her distress. She loved to swim in the summer months. But it was early spring, and the water snow-cold, and she never went swimming in her dress. Afterward, I told myself it was the dress that killed her, not me, not me.
I can't find the words to reply. She answers her own question anyway. "Because there are things that matter more than you, my dear, treacherous sister. Like the fate of this country. If I could bring down the monarchy by pretending to be the dead princess... it was hardly a choice."
How many of their crimes were real, and how many invented to rile the mob? I can't ask. I don't want to know. We always disagreed on this anyway, and it's too late to convince either of us of anything. The country I loved is gone.
My cold hands seek out the warmth of my pockets, and the reassuring weight within. "But now. Are you going to tell?"
"That you killed me? No. Not yet."
The tension that started to unwind at "no" twists tight again at "not yet." The golden hair hums with a sound that might be amusement. "Her late highness is so beloved, after all. I can't risk anyone guessing I'm not who I claim to be. Not when there are others to bring down first."
I retreat a step. "Others?"
"Why stop at the royal family? I have a chance to remake this land into what it should be. Sleep without fear, sister mine; if I come for you, it will be many years from now. And perhaps not even then."
The harp may see without eyes, but she cannot see the truth. My fear is not for myself. I came here prepared to defend my life... but the danger I've found is something else entirely.
My sister's strings twang in sudden alarm. "What are you doing?"
"I didn't mean to kill you that day," I say, my voice trembling. "But you should have stayed dead. So I will finish what I started."
Her finger-bones are pegged in place, winding her hair tight. She can speak, she can sing, she can scream--but she cannot stop me as I pull the hammer from my pocket and swing.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, March 10th, 2020

Author Comments

In some versions of the folksong this is based on (variously known as "The Cruel Sister," "Twa Sisters," "The Bonny Swans," "Binnorie," and others), the father of the sisters is a common farmer; in others, he's a king. In Loreena McKennit's version, he's both--randomly changing status halfway through, with zero reason given as to why. One night it occurred to me that you could explain this away by the simple expedient of saying the harp is lying....

- Marie Brennan
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