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Beyond the Ruby Veil
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I’VE FINALLY BROKEN HER. TODAY REALLY IS MY SPECIAL DAY.
My nursemaid brought it on herself, of course. If she’d had any sense, she’d have gotten rid of me when I was a helpless infant who couldn’t fight back. Instead, the poor sap tended to me, letting me grow and flourish and outmatch her. That’s why she’s standing in the middle of my bedroom, clutching at her face, realizing that she’s never going to bludgeon me into the shape of a docile young lady and that she’s wasted her life trying.
“It’s hideous, Paola,” I inform her as I tear the silk rose in my hands to pieces. “I’m doing us all a favor.”
“Emanuela Ragno.” She barely breathes my name, like the words are cursed. “This gown has been in your mamma’s family for over a hundred years.”
“Yes, and it looks it,” I say. “Smells it, too. Did you really think I was going to walk down the aisle in some musty pile of lace?”
“Musty pile of lace?” she echoes in disbelief. “Musty pile of—So help me, Emanuela, if there’s one day you should wear a musty pile of lace, it’s your wedding day!”
There’s no time I should ever wear this monstrosity. The black skirts are so heavy I can barely move. The sleeves are enormous and puffy. The train stretches out of my bedroom and into the hall. The first time I laid eyes on the gown, I told my mamma it was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen. She sighed and opined about how it’s been passed down on her side, the House of Rosa, for generations—hence the red silk roses tastelessly stuck to every surface. She rhapsodized about my spiritual connection to the women of our family and how wonderful it would be to see me in traditional clothing, for once. Occhian people love tradition. They love doing the exact same things every other person has done since the city began.
I tried the gown on. I didn’t feel a spiritual connection to the women of my family. I felt like a little girl buried in hideous fabric. I also felt itchy, due to the gigantic silk rose smack in the middle of my chest. But I agreed to wear the gown, and my mamma shed a few tears, and we carried on as usual.
Then I bided my time until this very moment. Just as my nursemaid was putting the finishing touches on my outfit, I grabbed the offending rose and ripped it off. Now the fragile silk of my bodice is a ragged mess.
And just down the street, the cathedral bells are ringing. Everyone in the city is already inside, waiting for me, but I’m here, and Paola is in front of me, spiraling into hysterics.
“Your mamma got married in this!” she says. “And her mamma, and her mamma’s mamma—you’re her only daughter, and she’s spent her whole life praying that she would live to see you married, and you just—”
“Calm down, old woman,” I say, tearing another petal off the rose and dropping it onto the very satisfying pile at my feet. “You’re going to hurt yourself.”
“Calm down?” she screeches. “We’re—”
“Late to the wedding? Then why are we just standing around?”
“Because there’s a—”
“A massive hole in my bodice?” I say. “This is an improvement. Look how flattering my corset is.”
Paola leaps to block the doorway, fists clenched. “Emanuela, don’t you dare—I suppose you think you can talk me into this, just like you talked me into the gown with the slit. Not this time, young lady. Weddings are sacred, and you are not parading in front of the whole city with your fruits on display like—”
“Oh?” I drop the last of the rose onto the carpet. “How are you going to stop me?”
We stare each other down. Paola’s nostrils are flaring and her dark eyes are burning. On paper, she’s a servant, and I’m the first and only daughter of the House of Ragno. I could be rid of her with a few choice words to my papá. But I have my reasons for keeping her around, and she knows it, and every so often, we have moments like this—moments where I briefly, genuinely wonder which one of us will crack first.
She unclenches her fists. “All right, you little devil. Just tell me what your scheme is.”
Paola is always the one who cracks. Just like everyone else.
I pick up my skirts and cross the room to my wardrobe.
“I should’ve known,” Paola says to my back. “You haven’t given me a moment’s peace in seventeen years, so why start today? Why have mercy on an old woman for once in her miserable life? Do you know, I still remember when they first put you in my arms.…”
This is the hundredth time I’ve heard this story.
“You were so small,” she rambles on. “And so quiet. And for half a second, I thought you were a peaceful angel. But then you looked at me with those black eyes, and I swear, I heard a voice in my head say, Hello. I’m going to ruin you. And you opened your mouth and spewed all over my—”
“I remember it fondly, too,” I say, reaching into the back of the wardrobe. “But enough about how I’m the only good thing that’s ever happened to you—look what I just found. Another black gown just happens to be sitting around in here, begging to be worn. Isn’t it beautiful?”
Of course it’s beautiful. I designed it, and I spent months secretly stitching it to perfection. My creation is made of flowing black silk, with a tasteful rose pattern winding its way up the skirt. It has lace sleeves that look like spiderwebs and a scandalously low neckline, and when I walk down the aisle in it, the people of my city aren’t going to see every other Rosa woman who came before. They’re going to see me.
Outside, the peal of the cathedral bells dies off. I’m officially late. When I turn around, Paola is still across the room. She’s folded her hands over her plain gray apron, and her eyes are searching me in a way I don’t particularly like.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” she says.
“Paola, I have the best fashion sense in the city,” I say. “Everything I wear is a good idea.”
“That’s not what I mean,” she says, quieter.
I know it’s not what she means.
Paola glances at the bedroom door, even though we both know the rest of the house has already emptied out.
“You don’t have to have a ceremony in front of God and—and everyone,” she says. “The marriage will still be real if it’s done in private—if you just asked Alessandro, he would be more than happy to—”
“No,” I say, sharply.
I’m not going to let her talk me out of this now. Not when I spent all of last night talking myself into it.
Paola presses her mouth into a thin line. She knows the discussion is over, but she waits, like she’s hoping otherwise. I hold my ground until she gives in and unfolds her hands. No one can withstand my forbidding stare for long.
“Well, then,” Paola says, all familiar exasperation again. “Let’s find out just how unholy this creation of yours is.”
She wrestles me out of the old and into the new. Even with the unwieldy lace skirts and my excessive layers of underthings, it’s a quick transformation. I know exactly how to shift and wiggle, and she knows my body better than her own. When we’re willing to cooperate, my nursemaid and I are the most efficient team in Occhia.
Paola does up the last button and peers over my shoulder at the two of us in the mirror. She makes a small noise of disbelief. “God help your husband. That boy isn’t ready.”
I tug down my neckline. “He never will be. One final touch.”
“Oh no,” she says.
I open the drawer of my dressing table and fetch a tub of scarlet rouge from the back. Paola turns white as I brush it onto my cheeks.
“You are the daughter of a duke, you know,” she says. “Surely some part of you understands that this wedding is about the joining of two families and not how good you—God and all his saints—”
I’ve moved on to dusting the rouge between my breasts. Paola grabs the brush out of my hands.
“Are you quite done?” she says.
I’m never done.
It’s a short walk to the cathedral. The cobblestone road has been lined with rose petals, but the windows of the black manors are dark and silent. After the ceremony, we’ll parade back this way to my husband’s house, where there’ll be a ten-course meal and an outrageous number of toasts, but right now, the people are waiting in the pews, praying. In Occhia, nothing is more momentous than a wedding. Everyone will be here, dressed in their finest and bearing handcrafted gifts. People I’ve never met are going to cry. The fact that my husband and I both made it to our wedding day is a blessing for us, and our families, and the city.
To that end, I’m supposed to spend this walk solemnly and reflect with gratitude. But I don’t have the time. I pick up my skirts and march, and Paola makes a harassed noise, trotting to catch up. The towering black cathedral is waiting for us at the heart of Occhia. I crane my neck to look up at one of its enormous spires and past that to the veil overhead. And for a moment, I hesitate.
The veil is glowing a deep, rich red, like it does every day when evening is gathering. When I was a child, I asked a lot of questions about the veil. I wanted to know what it’s made of. I wanted to know why it turns red in the day and black at night. I wanted to know what’s inside it. Everybody had the same answer for everything—God. A thousand years ago, God created our little city. Then he created the first Occhians. He pulled their souls out of the veil and dropped them here, and they brought Occhia to life, claiming the manors and starting Houses that have stayed the same for centuries.
When we die, our souls go back to the veil. Everyone tells me that like it’s as matter-of-fact as breathing and eating. No one seems bothered by the knowledge that we’re encased by a mysterious entity that could swallow us up at any moment. They say that the important thing is that we spend the time we’re given dedicated to our family and our traditions.
I… don’t ask questions anymore.
We slip into the cathedral through a side entrance, where Padre Busto is waiting, looking impatient and dour. Padre Busto had the privilege of counseling me in preparation for my marriage. He loved every second of it.
“Good evening, Donna Emanuela.” He dips his head politely, but his eyes linger on my gown. “I’m glad to see you took ample time to reflect on your walk over. My blessings on this most… holy of days. It is sure to be a… beautiful ceremony.”
The judgmental pauses are not lost on me.
“Thank you, Padre,” I say, curtsying. “You’ll be baptizing our first child before you know it. My family is known for our vigorous wombs.”
“For God’s sake, Emanuela,” Paola mutters, then remembers she’s in God’s house and cups her hands in apologetic prayer.
Padre Busto gives me the look of polite hatred he gives me whenever I speak crassly of my womb. I’m supposed talk about it with reverence, but if it wants to be respected, it shouldn’t cramp and revolt the way it did last week.
“When you’re ready, we’ll move to the prayer room,” he says, extending a very reluctant arm.
Paola starts to walk away. But then she doubles back and, faster than a blink, kisses me on the cheek.
“I know it’s time for you to become a lady and leave your old nursemaid behind,” she whispers. “But—”
“Yes, yes, I turned out wonderful in spite of you,” I say. “Don’t embarrass yourself, Paola.”
I talk over her before I can hear the end, because suddenly, I don’t want to hear the end. I pull away and take Padre Busto’s arm. As he leads me off, I tell myself not to look back. At the last second, I do. Paola is disappearing around the corner. Her hands are folded tightly over her apron and her head is bent toward the floor.
She has nothing to be nervous about. We have nothing to be nervous about.
The priest wordlessly brings me to the prayer room. I step inside, and he shuts the door at my back, leaving me in a tiny, dim space hazy with perfume. In front of me is a small altar smothered in burning candles. A copy of the Holy Book sits in the middle, its golden-edged pages already open to the appropriate passages. I kneel down in front of it with a creak.
Everything is going to be fine. I’m going to be fine. I’ve been fine for seventeen years, and I’ll be fine today.
I dip my fingers into the tiny glass bowl of sacred water. I’m supposed to take the smallest drop imaginable, but instead, I take several and use them to wet down the few loose hairs curling around my face. Then I turn to the gold screen at my side and attempt to peer through the tiny round holes. Now that I’ve solemnly reflected alone, I’m supposed to solemnly reflect with my husband-to-be. We’re meant to slog through pages and pages of prayers about our undying devotion to each other and our commitment to spawning as many small, pious Occhians as we can. The screen, of course, is to keep us from spawning any small Occhians before the ceremony is done. I rap on it.
“Alessandro, your wife is here,” I call. “Stop picking your nose and show some respect.”
There’s a startled thump on the other side.
“I’m not—” My future husband sputters. “Did you have to say that so loudly? What if the priests are listening?”
“You really should’ve thought of that before you blasphemed all over our meeting,” I say.
“I’m not blaspheming on anything,” he insists, taking my words very personally, as usual. “I was… Well, if you must know, I was praying. Like we’re supposed to.”
“How adorable,” I say. “You were asking God how you can someday be worthy of me, I assume?”
“I… suppose you could think of it that way. I was just—”
“Don’t bother.” I idly flip the tissue-thin pages of the Holy Book. “I’m beyond all human reach. Especially in my new gown. And even if you’ll never thirst for me the way you thirst for Manfredo Campana—”
He sputters again. “I don’t—”
“—I hope you can at least appreciate the fact that you have the most magnificent girl in Occhia on your arm.”
For a moment, there’s nothing on Ale’s side but flustered silence.
“I don’t thirst for Manfredo,” he says finally. “I admire him. You make everything sound so unromantic.”
“Ah, yes, forgive me for daring to presume I know better than you, the master of romantic gestures,” I say. “Every great love story begins with a boy stealing the used handkerchief another boy left on the card table.”
Ale goes deathly quiet. The stealing in question happened two nights ago at a dinner party. He thought I didn’t see him. But we’re best friends. I always see.
“I meant to give it back,” he says feebly. “But Manfredo was talking to all the boys from his calcio club, and they’re so intimidating—”
“Don’t tell me I’m going to step into your bedroom and find it covered in Manfredo’s snotty handkerchiefs,” I say. “My fragile constitution can’t take it.”
“It’s not about the snot, Emanuela—there was a cologne smell on it. I just like the…” His voice is rapidly dwindling. “Never mind.”
Alessandro Morandi and I were betrothed seventeen years ago, when we had just emerged from our respective mothers’ wombs. No one asked us how we felt about the matter, because that’s not what our marriage is about. Our marriage is about the fact that we can make the heirs the House of Morandi needs. That’s why, in accordance with tradition, we put this day off until my first bleeding arrived.
My first bleeding took quite a while. Some of my peers were married at thirteen. Everyone wants as much time as they can get, because after all, the oldest Occhian in history lived to fifty before her first omen appeared. Most people don’t even come close to that.
Ale and I may be arriving to the altar late—late enough that it’s inspired gossip—but we’ve arrived. In just a few minutes, I’ll be a duchess with some actual power, and everyone is going to see what I can do with it. And then they’re going to regret their gossiping.
“Did you actually make a new gown?” Ale says. “Of course you did. Is it decent?”
“That depends on your definition of decent,” I say, taking a moment to admire what little cleavage I have. It’s vastly improved by the rouge.
“Oh no,” he whispers.
“Oh yes,” I say.
He’s quiet for a moment.
“Are you nervous?” he says. “At all?”
I realize I’m smoothing down my silk skirts, over and over. Even though he can’t see me, I jerk my hands back to the altar.
“What could I possibly be nervous about?” I say.
“Everybody in the city staring at us. Everybody. What if I trip, or forget the prayers, or vomit like I did during First Rites, or—never mind.” He sighs. “You don’t get nervous.”
“Are you really nervous about everybody staring at you?” I say. “You need to get used to the jealous looks, Signor Morandi, grand duke of Occhia. They’re not going anywhere.”
He makes an uncomfortable noise. In Ale’s ideal life, he sits in his room all day reading novels about other people’s feelings and drama and convoluted webs of romance. In his actual life, he’s about to become the head of the wealthiest house in Occhia, and he’ll be expected to lead Parliament and talk to a lot of people and make a lot of decisions. That’s why we’re a perfect match. I’m good at making decisions, and he’s good at following me.
From the heart of the cathedral, the organ starts blaring. The priests knock on both of our doors at the same time. Ale groans, and his kneeler squeaks as he stands.
“Ale, wait.” I press my hand against the cold screen between us.
“You’re planning something, aren’t you?” he says in a panic. “I knew it. Please don’t be rude to the priest in front of everyone. Please don’t make jokes during the vows. I can’t, Emanuela. I can’t. Not today—”
“Kneel back down,” I say.
“But the priests are—”
“They can wait.”
He kneels back down. When I lean closer, I can feel his apprehension seeping through the barrier between us.
“All you have to do is stand there,” I say softly. “Don’t think about the other people in the cathedral. They don’t matter. If you get too nervous, just take my hand. Nothing is going to happen to you.” I consider. “And if you do vomit, I’ll take all my clothes off, and then no one will be able to talk about anything but me.”
He sighs. He rests his head on the screen, and little tufts of his dark hair poke through.
“All I have to do is stand there,” he says, mostly to himself. “You’re right. I can do that. I can do that—”
He pulls away.
The next time we’re alone, we’ll be husband and wife. I promised myself I’d tell him the truth before we were husband and wife. And even though I knew exactly how my wedding would play out, it still feels like this part has snuck up on me.
“Ale—” I say.
“What?” he says. He sounds much calmer than he did moments ago. He sounds like he’s almost ready for what’s about to happen. I have that effect on him.
This morning, I woke up so early that the veil was still black. I crept onto my balcony and leaned on the iron railing, shivering in the chilly air, and I looked down the street to the grand House of Morandi. I found Ale’s bedroom window, at the very top. The candle on the sill was dark, of course. Every night, he lights his, and I light mine. He sits in his room reading, and I sit in mine scheming and sewing, and when we go to bed, we blow them out. I realized that after today, we won’t need that little ritual anymore, because we’ll be together. I imagined a life married to some other Occhian boy who would see me as a means to an end, not as his friend, and I was certain I was the luckiest girl in the city.
I have to tell him now. He’ll understand.
I open my mouth. “I—”
Or maybe I don’t. It’s not like anything is going to happen. We have nothing to be nervous about.
“I was going to remind you not to lock your knees when you’re standing at the altar,” I say. “If you’re going to faint, let it be because you’re overwhelmed by my beauty.”
“Don’t lock my knees,” he repeats. “Don’t lock my knees—There’s so much to remember—”
He disappears, and I wait in the heavy, perfumed silence. When Padre Busto opens my door, I flinch.
My papá is waiting for me at the front of the cathedral, poised in front of the enormous double doors that lead to the inner chamber. He’s in his usual crisp black suit, and the crests of our family are pinned to his chest—a small golden rose, for the House of Rosa, and a golden spiderweb, for the House of Ragno. When he sees me, he raises his eyebrows.
“What are you wearing, my little spider?” he says.
“Not the old rag Mamma gave me,” I say. “That’s for certain.”
Everybody says I look just like my mamma, because we have the same shiny dark hair and the same sharp features. But Paola insists the Papá in me overshadows everything else. She claims we have the same look in our eyes. It says, I get what I want, and I don’t care what it takes.
“How clever of you,” my papá says, taking my arm. “Nobody ever remembers the people in these ceremonies. They all look the same.”
Our family has lived in the same manor, passing down the same low-level seat in Parliament, since the city began. But now, we have my papá. When I was a day old, he planted himself in the parlor of the richest house in Occhia and refused to leave until they betrothed their newborn son to his newborn daughter. He spent the next seventeen years preparing me—not to be a spouse, but to be the head of a household and the head of our government. My mamma doesn’t understand me. She wants me to dress like her and have babies like her and spend my life quietly tending to a home. My papá wants me to have more than any other Ragno has ever had.
And I will. I’m going to walk down the aisle in front of everybody—everybody—in the whole city and get the life I deserve. I’m not afraid. I have nothing to hide.
My papá pulls something out of his pocket and holds it out. It’s a golden spiderweb pin that matches the one on his chest.
“You’re a Ragno,” he says. “Make sure they remember that, too.”
In spite of myself, I hesitate. I planned the rose embroidery on my skirts and the spiderweb lace on my sleeves for a reason. I want to tell people who I am in my own way.
But of course I’ll make an exception for my papá. We’re a team. I take the pin.
Just as I finish attaching it to my chest, the doors to the inner chamber of the cathedral swing open. And for a split second, I wonder if this was really a good idea. For a split second, I’m wishing I was still hidden in the prayer room. But it’s too late to change my mind now.
The organ music hits me like a wall of sound. The pews squeal as everybody in Occhia leaps to their feet. As my papá guides me forward, I suddenly appreciate how massive this place is. It’s pew after pew and arch after arch and column after column, and they all converge on the golden altar in the distance, where Ale is nothing but a dark smudge in the candlelight.
I keep my gaze fixed straight ahead as we parade past the masses. I can tell when we reach the pews where the noble families sit, because I nearly choke on the mass of perfumes. The whispering gets louder, too. Everyone is either delighted or horrified by my dress. Either one is fine with me.
My feet have grown sweaty in their silk slippers by the time we pass my family. I don’t look over, but I can hear Paola trying to shush my demon little brothers and my army of tiny cousins. We pass a row of stoic guards, their red coats barely visible at the edges of my vision. And all by herself, in the very first pew, is the only person who didn’t stand for me.
I’ve seen the watercrea from a distance before. I don’t have to look to know that she has startlingly white skin and sleek dark hair, and she always wears a brilliant red gown. She looks only a little older than me, but she’s looked that way since the city began.
God made Occhia and everyone in it, but there’s one thing even he can’t make—water. The watercrea is the only person with the power to do that. Her magic lets her control blood and turn it into water, and for a thousand years, she’s been using it to keep us alive.
The watercrea takes her blood from our people. Once their first omen appears, they give themselves to her, and she locks them in her tower and slowly, carefully drains their blood into our underground well. In a matter of hours, they’re gone.
I don’t even bother to look at her as I pass by. Today isn’t about her and her tower and her prisoners with omens. It’s about me.
Ale is standing at the center of the altar, fidgeting erratically. His willowy mamma is at his side, watching me approach with a wavering mouth and dread in her eyes. As my papá kisses my cheek and deposits me next to Ale, two delicious, crystalline tears run down her cheeks.
I spend every day with Ale, but I’m always a little bit alarmed by how tall and gangly he’s become in the last couple of years. Ale has his mamma’s pale skin and graceful features. He could be handsome if he tried, but he’s too busy being gawky and utterly embarrassed by his own existence. Right now, his enormous brown eyes are taking in the crowd, and his panic is slowly growing—as if anyone is really staring at him when they have the option to stare at me. I reach over and take his hand, pointedly pulling him closer. His fingers are trembling and clammy, so maybe he won’t notice that mine are, too.
The organ stops, and in the ringing silence, we turn around to face the priest. Somebody in the crowd coughs softly, and it echoes in the cavernous space. A pew creaks. Ale’s mamma sniffles. Then the priest starts to sing, and his opening prayer drowns it all out.
- "Perfect for fans of Holly Black's The Cruel Prince and Emily A. Duncan's Wicked Saints...a must-purchase for YA collections."—School Library Journal
- "A fast-paced debut that reaches spectacularly bloody heights."—Kirkus
- "Fitzgerald populates her story with fierce women who rule cities and seek glory."—Booklist
- "Wicked sharp and queer as hell, Mara Fitzgerald's Beyond the Ruby Veil takes you on a breathless ride through a world of blood magic and terrifying secrets, with writing as vicious, provocative, and darkly witty as anti-heroine Emanuela herself."—Nina Varela, author of the Crier's War duology
- "With a plot just as intelligent, ruthless, and unpredictable as its heroine, Beyond the Ruby Veil is a YA fantasy debut that will leave readers demanding the sequel."—Christine Lynn Herman, author of The Devouring Gray duology
- "Beyond the Ruby Veil explores the themes of power, ambition, and the thin line between hero and villain in one of the most ingenious fantasy worlds I've seen in YA. Emanuela is both darkly funny and utterly terrifying, and I was compelled to follow her until the bitter, bloodthirsty end."—Julie C. Dao, author of The Rise of the Empress duology
- "Like its singular heroine, Beyond the Ruby Veil demands every bit of your attention. A dark, vicious gem you won't be able to put down."—Katy Rose Pool, author of Morris Award finalist There Will Come A Darkness
- "Beyond the Ruby Veil is a wild ride of a debut, with a heroine you can't help but root for and a world you can't help but fear. You'll be kept guessing what will happen next and delighted by Fitzgerald's mind."—Tara Sim, author of the Scavenge the Stars duology
- "With prose as ruthless and unflinching as its main character, Beyond the Ruby Veil is a bloody story of ambitious girls and the people who can't help but worship them. Fitzgerald brings a fresh new voice to the fantasy genre, a talent to keep your eye on."—Isabel Sterling, author of the These Witches Don't Burn series
- On Sale
- Dec 7, 2021
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers