Happy Saturday and welcome to my stop on the blog tour for THE WICKED ONES by Robin Benway! I’m so excited because today I have an excerpt of the book to share with you! This book is truly amazing and I’m so excited to for you to find out more about it, PLUS enter for a chance to win a print copy!
Series: Dark Ascension #1
Published on January 10, 2023 by Disney Press
Genres: Fantasy, Retellings, Romance, YA
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Author Links: Website, Twitter, Goodreads, Instagram
"Blood is blood...and one way or another, we all bleed." Drizella and Anastasia only know one thing for certain: they will never end up like their mother, Lady Tremaine. When their father left them as young girls, he took what was left of their family’s fortune and their mother’s dignity with him. A few years and one deceased stepfather later, the only version of Lady Tremaine that Drizella and Anastasia know is a bitter and cruel head of house. Anastasia and Drizella have promised themselves—and each other—that they'll be different. They'll find love, see the world, and never let their hearts go cold.
But both sisters are all too aware of what it can mean when cast into disfavor with their mother, and fueled by Lady Tremaine’s tendencies to pit the daughters against one another, Drizella and Anastasia are locked into a complicated waltz of tenuous sisterhood. On the cusp of the royal debut party—their one chance to impress the Prince and live up to their mother’s expectations—the sisters at last get a glimpse of what life could be like outside of Lady Tremaine’s intentions: Drizella discovering a love of science and Anastasia sparking a secret romance. But you should never underestimate the power a mother whose greatest talents lie in manipulation, and the sisters may learn that even the cruelest of hearts can spill blood.
When the man slips his wife’s wedding ring off her finger, he makes sure to do so very, very gently. After all, he would hate to wake her up.
He’s waited until the house is sleeping around him, until his small children are finally settled in their beds, their tiny giggles dying down into sighs before giving over to steady, shallow breaths. His wife is sleeping on her side, facing away from him but with her hands outstretched toward the bed where he should be, reaching for a man who will never be in that space again.
The small gold band comes off so easily. He’s never had the heart to tell her it isn’t real gold. He wonders if she’s never had the heart to tell him that she knows and still loves him anyway.
It’s an interesting thing, being loved, he thinks as he tiptoes to the other side of the bed and reaches under the duck-feathered mattress for his bag, the one that holds the few valuable possessions his family has, the ones that only he will now possess. He thought he knew love when he met his wife, or when his children were born, the two girls just pink wriggling things that reminded him in the moment of newborn puppies, eyes screwed shut, mouths open wide in a scream.
To be loved is to have a responsibility, he thinks as he checks the bag to make sure it’s all there: the jewelry his wife’s mother left her; a few francs he squirreled away over the past several months; an opal-backed hairbrush that belongs to one of his daughters, he isn’t sure which. The people who love him have come to rely on him, and unfortunately, he is not a reliable man. He is not responsible.
He is just a man, he tells himself as he looks back at his wife. Who could ever expect him to be more than that? His wife is still young, face only starting to show the barest cracks of age. The tiniest lines have begun to gather around her eyes, but it’s easy to say that they’re from smiling too much, even though her smiles have appeared less as the debts have grown. She is beautiful in her sleep, less austere, her brown hair fanned out across her pillow. He’s always loved her hair; it was the thing that first drew him to her when they saw each other on the street all those years ago, back when he still imagined himself to be capable of reliability and responsibility.
He would be lying if he said he didn’t think about cutting it off and selling it on some nights, of taking the shears and holding the thick strands in his palm. Four or five snips and it would be done. She would be angry, of course. She would probably even sob, but he could have said that it was for their family, for them. Didn’t their daughters need to eat? Weren’t they tired of avoiding the bill collectors who posted notices on their front door? It was just hair, after all. It would grow back.
But he never did it. The man is many things: a liar and a cheat. A thief, a gambler, a drunk. But, he thinks, he has never been cruel.
He tells himself this as he watches his wife now, as her hands twitch in her sleep, her legs giving a slight kick. She has never slept well; she awakes in the middle of the night and gets up to look out the window, searching for something that they both know isn’t there. He knows there is unhappiness, because she never talks about it. When the man once asked about her childhood, her body went so stiff and straight that he began to suspect that the memories were not in her brain, but her bones, buried deep in the marrow. To get at them would mean breaking her open, and again, he is many things, but he is not cruel.
He watches his wife now, waits for her to move again, but she never does, not even when he kisses his palm and ghosts it over her glorious hair.
What a fortune he could have made from it.
He takes his bag and leaves the bedroom, then eases himself down the hall so that the floorboards don’t creak too much. During the day they’re rarely noticeable, but in the silence of the countryside night, they sound as if a cannon has been fired. Even under their daughters’ small feet, the floors are rickety and splintered. The man and his wife can hear the girls coming into their room at night even when they’re still ten meters away, even before they quietly complain about an ache or pain or dream and he lifts them up into their bed. He’ll miss their small warm bodies pressed between them, but it’s better this way. His daughters’ memories will only be good. He will never have caused them pain. When they think of their father, they’ll remember a man who held and loved them, who tossed them high into the sky but always made sure to catch them on their way down.
They’re certainly better than the memories that his father left him.
The girls’ bedroom door glides open without a single squeak even as the floorboards gently protest. They still share a bedroom despite their now very advanced ages of six and seven, even though they squawk and fight and have tearful episodes several times a week over who did this and who took those and who said that. He lets his wife handle those moments, lets her separate them into corners and fix their ripped dresses and wipe their eyes. From the moment they were born, he’s always been in awe of his daughters, of how strong and tough they are. They remind him of everything he is not, of everything he can never be for them, and it shames and angers him in equal measure.
He would say he never resents them for it, but that would be a lie.
Now, though, tucked into their beds, he feels only fondness, a warm, syrupy emotion that all parents have when they see their sleeping children. His older daughter, Drizella, is in her bed by the window, sleeping facing the moon and stars that peek in from the dusty curtains. She is the daughter who looks up at the night sky, pointing without asking or demanding an answer, and he laughs and names the constellations over and over again, making up the ones he doesn’t know by heart. He is the one who always grew tired of their game first.
They named her Drizella after his wife’s mother, who arrived a week after the baby was born only to look at the child, sniff twice, and announce that any girl born with that much black hair was doomed to trouble. “She looks like she came from a coven” were her exact words, which made the news of Drizella’s name that much harder to deliver. The man saw the light go out of his wife’s eyes that night. It took weeks before it began to flicker back.
Drizella’s hair is still black, now twisted up in rags so that she’ll have perfect ringlets in the morning. His wife twists tight and fast so that tears spring to the girls’ eyes, but they know better than to cry, know that crying will only make her pull tighter, tug harder. The man sometimes wishes he could intervene, but she is their mother, and he is only a man.
Girls, he thinks, always need their mother.
He leans down, setting one hand on the straw mattress for balance, and gently kisses the top of Drizella’s small head. He tries to impart as much love as he can, enough devotion and adoration to carry her through the rest of her life, but there is only so much that a small body can hold. One day, Drizella will grow up and the love that her father presses into her hair tonight will only become smaller, will occupy less and less space until it becomes a tight knot behind her ribs, a quiet stabbing reminder of what has been and what is no longer there.
The man will never know this. He thinks he’s done the right thing. After all, she hasn’t even woken up. He would hate to disturb her sleep. She’s only a child; she needs her rest.
He goes across the room to Anastasia. She still sleeps with her thumb in her mouth. Sleep is the only time she can do so safely without having it yanked out, having it soaked in vine gar so that it’s sour and puckered. “If you keep doing that,” his wife tells her, “your teeth will grow ugly,” but that doesn’t faze Anastasia. She’s his redheaded stubborn one, his lucky copper coin. The day she was born, he won big at a local chicken fight and burst into their bedroom waving fistfuls of francs while the midwives fanned his exhausted, sweating wife. He didn’t even hear the baby’s cries at first, not until she realized she was being ignored in her cradle and decided to raise the volume by a few decibels. He cheered with her, then went out to celebrate, the money and the alcohol both gone by midnight.
He leaves her thumb in her mouth, hating to deny her a small comfort, and gently smooths the blankets over her. They’re cotton when they should be wool, threadbare where they should be thick, scratchy where they should be soft. Children don’t need too much, though, he tells himself. They have wonder and imagination on their side. Didn’t he eat garbage scraps as a child and tell himself that it was as good as a holiday feast? A thin cotton blanket seems like nothing compared to that. He doesn’t think of the upcoming autumn, how the cracks in the walls and windows will let cold air in all night long. He doesn’t think of his two daughters sleeping in one bed for warmth, desperate not to be alone, aching for the kind of comfort that he won’t be there to provide.
He will miss his girls so, so much.
He thinks that’s the same as loving them.
He fixes their blankets one last time and slips out of the room. The old rugs that line the stairs are starting to show signs of wear, sunspots dappling the rich colors with bleached spaces, but he doesn’t notice. He is a man who knows how to make decisions, who knows how to follow through, who can leave without looking back, not even once.
When he shuts the front door behind him for the very last time, no one, not even the mice nestled in the house’s walls, notices that he’s gone.
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