She tipped her head back, a smile stretching over her face as the sunlight captured and caressed her skin. Helena’s features were not beautiful. Her eyelashes were too short and her hazel eyes were set too wide apart; her skin was unevenly tanned and freckled after all these months running wild and she looked like a commoner. But when Helena set to work on a man, she had a way of smiling just right to deepen her dimples, and cocking her head to let her curls cascade over one shoulder, and within ten minutes he would be wondering why he ever thought her plain to begin with. It was a compulsion of Helena’s, to ensnare men she had no wish to court.
The last time she did this, however, it had backfired on her.
He was just another man, and it was just another tedious afternoon stocked with unwelcome strangers she was expected to oblige with her company. He was so hopelessly ordinary, and even though her highest-ranking elf whispered that he was satisfyingly rich, Helena had no interest in his wealth. She had wealth of her own, after all. His emotions were raw; she felt them seeping out of his earnest, pleading eyes as he edged forward on the stone bench, yearning to be closer. Helena had twisted a lock of hair around one finger and grinned charmingly at him, casting her eyes down as though demure. Inside her head, she was thinking that this was disgustingly easy prey. He was not a challenge, and he bored her.
Just like with the rest of them, she ended the evening with a coy smile and allowed him to kiss the back of her hand. She had no intentions whatsoever of maintaining contact or allowing him to pursue her. He would be like something from a dream, so meaningless that she’d forget all about him when she opened her eyes in the morning and welcomed the new day.
Helena thought herself much too clever for any men she’d met thus far, and refused to settle for anyone who did not test her, who did not make her stop and think. The second she encountered a man who said something that caused Helena to take a step back and reevaluate, she would consent to marriage immediately. She yearned to be pushed to her limits, to stumble back over her own words and to feel something. She very rarely ever felt.
The gentlemen that came to call, unfortunately, were always too sweet to her. They told her exactly what they imagined any lady would swoon to hear, and littered her with flowers and pretty trinkets. To anyone less proud than Helena, any one of them would have been deemed most amiable and made a husband before a fortnight concluded. Helena’s mother praised the lot and was generous with hearty blessings; but this, to the flighty young woman, was only a negative. She didn’t want anyone that the highly regarded, much-loved and much-adored Rowena Ravenclaw would approve of.
This new gentleman, the one with the ordinary mind and vacant eyes, did not acknowledge Helena’s wish for him to gather his broom and depart for home. She had made a mistake with him, which in itself surprised her. In studying his endless stream of mindless compliments and clichés, she passed off his lack of ingenuity for lack of heart. And heart, she now knew, was something overflowing from his every pore. She’d always underestimated the qualities in others that she herself did not possess. And she had not been able to foresee that when she ran, he would run after her.
Traveling without a corset was unbelievably liberating. She’d sold it to a blushing shopkeeper in the tiny village nestled down in a ring of purple hills, and was sure that she'd secured the upper hand in the exchange, pocketing more gold than it was worth. It was a goblin-made corset, and the material was as fluid as water, magic sewn into every stitch. The shopkeeper’s wife trailed her fingers over it greedily, assessing the thread and fabric with expert eyes and keenly aware of its value.
For the first time since she was a small girl, Helena could feel her lungs expand with oxygen as she walked through broad daylight; and she savored the taste of it, the fulfillment of breathing in and out to her heart’s content. Here in Albania, she was free at last.
The diadem was beginning to haunt her dreams, flickering on the edges of her thoughts even now. Her mother would never dream to publicly accuse her own daughter – the Ravenclaw pride would forbid that. Helena was nothing like her mother, the person she did not understand above all others who confused her. They never saw eye to eye – the two of them were perpetually at odds. Rowena was content with spending all of her time lending herself to others, and trying to resolve predicaments even though it in no way benefited herself. She received no payment or glory out of muddling through the dilemmas of pig farmers, so why did she bother?
Long, rippling grasses tickled Helena’s legs as she coursed through an open field, and she spread out her arms like an eagle and let the feathery grasses skim softly between her fingers. She laughed – a long-forgotten thing of the past – loving the blades of sun-bleached grass and the endless blue sky and the feel of wildflowers like a balm on her heat-soaked skin. She tasted victory in the air, and she relished it.
Despite the nagging guilt about making off with her mother’s most treasured possession and hiding it in a hollow tree, and despite the fact that she was ruining her family’s image by spurning all of her suitors and running away, she couldn’t deny the triumphant lift of her spirits. There would be no more living in her mother’s shadow now.
And yet…the laugh she forced out from the pit of her stomach felt cruel and empty.
Helena recalled the moment she’d gingerly lifted the jeweled crown to her head, and let its weight press around her skull. It wasn’t a physical weight – it was the weight of the world. And Helena did not like what she saw.
She had swiftly gotten rid of the diadem because it made her more intelligent, and the intelligence flooded her with a painful truth about her actions. Inside, she was ignorant, under-handed, and ugly. She could speak six different languages and embroider and play the piano, but none of it meant anything – she sensed all of her former accomplishments slipping through her fingers like sand, leaving her with nothing to be proud of.
A life of privilege and indulgence, of timid governesses and playmates who always let her win at games, had done her no favors. She was shown her own insignificance in the grand scheme of things, and she knew that when she died, she would not be remembered and loved as her mother would be. She would fade away like shadows submerging into darkness, and her mother’s memory would be revered for generations. The diadem had shamed her in ways that Rowena would never have been able to.
The echo of her laughter resounded in Helena’s brain, strange and tingling. It left a bitter edge to her thoughts. But then she laughed again – genuine this time – because the diadem had leaked its wisdom into her empty head, and still held traces of insight there like a pool of water. During the split-second she first donned her mother’s crown, a face flashed in her mind’s eye that she could not shake away. She understood with a dawning unease that there was nothing she could do to make this man a meaningless dream. He refused to let her go. Because of the diadem and all that she knew, she automatically recognized who the footsteps behind her belonged to.
“John,” she declared out loud without turning. There was a mocking smile in her voice, and she felt his scowl tunneling through the back of her head.
She heard the rustling that indicated he was sweeping off his hat, as all respectable men did when greeting a lady. When she turned around, he would incline his head and she was supposed to incline hers. Just for the sheer purpose of rebelling against that, Helena swiveled to let her gaze linger over him. Numerous flaws rushed to the forefront of her attention, and she considered taunting him with them, and with herself. She could tell him yet again that she would never have him, and he wasn’t good enough for her.
He bowed his head politely, shrewd to guess what she was thinking. He saw that she would never curtsy in response. And Helena bit the inside of her cheek, because she could not destroy the knowledge she’d acquired from the diadem. Helena knew that it was she who did not deserve John, and that it was her mundane mind that was inferior.
And it enraged her.
The diadem – a priceless curse – was where it belonged. How could Rowena be worthy to have it adorn her head, but not Helena? It was infuriating because she could not understand it. Helena had devoured the entire contents of her family’s library, and had studied with over a dozen tutors. She was the most accomplished young woman she knew, and could recite any modern song or poem backwards. But when it came to matters of interpreting why people did things, she was utterly lost.
What could drive someone to follow a woman across a span of several countries? Why would anyone share their dwindling stores of food with another if they were poor and hard-to-do to begin with? Why did anyone waste their talents without asking for anything in return, or sit up all night with the elderly cook as she watched over her dying husband? These were matters of psychology and the heart. Helena could not understand the inner workings of one’s heart. And what Helena did not understand, made her exceedingly irate.
Her expression was quizzical as she examined the man, and he was afraid of the sharpness. He saw all that she was and all of the areas she was deficient in, but he loved her relentlessly. He knew that underneath his own unassuming exterior and Helena’s haughty one, there existed two souls that could grow to entwine around each other…like trees planted too closely together, tangling over time.
There was not much to John. He was an undemanding man with minor needs. He led a quiet life as a Baron, and felt that he already owned everything worth wanting. He’d been entirely content with the way things were until he met Helena. There was something singular in the way she treated him – she batted her eyelashes, flirting even in the presence of servants, and he’d felt special and flattered beyond his wildest dreams. No one had ever taken to him so quickly before, especially not someone like rich, pretty, vivacious Helena Ravenclaw.
She had changed her mind, for whatever reason. When he came calling a week later, he was told that she’d gone away. He caught sight of her peering out of an upstairs window and became perplexed, wondering if she was perhaps being punished or had taken a vow of silence. In the coming weeks, he realized that she’d firmly decided not to like him. He became obsessed with restoring her affection for him, and making her see once again that she loved him. There must still be remnants of something there, after the way she’d so brazenly grinned at him and stared into his eyes that afternoon on the stone bench…
“Are you going to stand there looking at me all day, or is there something you wish to tell me?” Helena inquired. He resented the calm venom in her voice, the smug sneer tugging at the corners of her lips. Helena was not a likeable person, and yet he loved her.
“Your mother is very ill,” he replied after a long pause. Sweat beaded on his brow, and he resisted raising a hand to guard his eyes from the sun. The action seemed weak, somehow. And so he did not shield his eyes, or squint, or move into the shade. He defiantly met Helena’s gaze with unwavering dignity, the brightness scorching on his vision. “She wants you to come home.”
“And this is why you’re here?” Helena smirked, rounding to face him full-on. She watched him admire the long ringlets shivering in the warm breeze, and she smiled knowingly. Her hair was the only physical trait she really was proud of. Once a week, her personal elf bathed her hair in olive oil and honey, and it was rinsed with lavender water. Everything good about herself, Helena had worked for. She took her education very seriously, and held her beauty in too high a respect. She managed to convince herself that she was better because she did not come by any of her positive attributes naturally, as Rowena did. She had to claw and fight and grind her teeth to get them. And that made them all the more valuable.
“Yes,” John answered. He swallowed, wishing he could replace his cap to his head to block out the sun’s harsh rays. Helena turned about and resumed walking, deciding that the conversation was over. “She does not have much longer to live,” he informed her, following the woman as she weaved through grass up to her waist in a blatant maze-like pattern. “The Healers estimate that it’s less than three days. Your mother would very much like to see you before she…before she passes.” His mouth closed uncomfortably over the words, wincing at them. Rowena Ravenclaw, in his opinion, was one of the loveliest witches who ever graced the Earth. He’d admired her for as long as he could remember. Helena was aware of this, and it agitated her. She was not her mother, and never would be. Never could be.
“Don’t lie,” Helena simpered. She kept her tone light and tuneful, conscious that her voice was one of her more pleasant traits. Even though she did not want the Baron, and wasn’t even remotely interested in him, she selfishly still craved for him to want her. So as she endeavored to elude him, she also endeavored to make him love her all the more. “You just want to ask me to marry you again.” She drew a breath, chewing on her lip to keep from grinning as she lured the prey into her trap. “I’ve been thinking of you often.”
There was silence, and she waited for it. He never failed to do as she predicted…
“You – you have?” There it was. He’d be stumbling all over himself now, trying to wrestle a confession of love out of her. She smiled wryly.
“Mm hmm,” Helena sang, swaying her hips ever so slightly. It made her feel powerful, sensing his carefully poised control slipping under her spell. “I’ve missed you.”
“You have?” He sounded incredulous, but undoubtedly flattered. “Well, stop for a moment! Let us discuss this.”
Helena couldn’t suppress her grin any longer. She increased her pace, moving so lithely now that it was almost like a dance. She reveled in knowing how much he wanted her, and how much he would give for her to finally surrender herself. This power that she held over him like an axe – knowing in her heart that she would never grant his wish – was better, more sustaining than any kind of marriage. The ability to make or break his happiness was in her custody, exactly where she wanted it to be.
“Helena?” he called out, his robes swishing faster through the grass. “Where are you going? If you missed me, then why are you running away?”
“I’m not going to go visit my mother even if she is dying,” she announced. “There is nothing remarkable about dying. And I’m only running because of what I feel for you. It frightens me, because I feel it so strongly.”
To her enormous surprise, the Baron’s hand grasped her shoulder and spun her around. It was a very un-gentlemanly-like thing to do, but John had no concerns with manners during this moment when he was so close to achieving bliss. His whole purpose for breathing, the reason why he’d apparated to Albania and trekked all over the wilderness, was right in front of him. And she was finally baring her soul, sharing her true thoughts. She loved him! “Tell me,” he pleaded. “Tell me now. Will you marry me?”
Helena’s lips twitched into a radiant smile. This was her greatest pleasure, the most thrilling of all games. “No.”
His face fell, that beaming delight clouding with torment and anger. “Why not?”
“Because I don’t love you,” she purred.
He couldn’t blink; John felt his cheeks flushing dangerously, his entire soul lifting out of him as the mounting frustration took charge of his body. “Why not?” he repeated almost inaudibly, his mouth dry. John didn’t really hear himself – he was floating away somewhere high above them. Nothing meant anything anymore. There was no sense to reality in all of this rejection.
Helena laughed in the Baron’s face, her eyes twinkling merrily. “Why not? Because you aren’t the kind of man I could ever respect! If I cannot respect you, how can I possibly love you? How could anyone ever love you?” One of her eyebrows arched in contempt. “You’re ridiculous.”
And he didn’t know, he didn’t realize…until he jolted back to life and felt the warmth spilling under his hands. He saw with rising terror that the usually shining jewels of his sword were not glinting under the sunlight, because they were coated with torrents of blood. It was an endless river of red…he tugged on his sword, but the blade was thrust all the way in up to the hilt. He had no idea how the sword had even gotten into his hand in the first place.
Helena’s gaze met his, wide and uncomprehending. She couldn’t register what was happening; all she knew was that her power was draining away. Her eyes glazed over, pupils contracting and still locked on John’s horrified face. Even in death, her features were etched with impatient confusion. She had not screamed, or cried out, or asked ‘why’. John’s wide eyes were tortured, one of his hands clasped over his mouth as though he couldn’t believe what he had just done. He had killed Helena Ravenclaw!
And Helena had merely stood there, not understanding. For the second time, she tipped her head back, a puzzled frown stretching over her face as the sunlight did not find her skin, did not drench her with warmth. Her eyes flickered open and there was the Baron, misty and almost transparent in the brilliant afternoon luminosity – the color and quality of a fog rolling in. His silver clothing was coated in Helena’s blood, betraying his actions for the world to see. His eyes were gaunt under the burden of emotion, of agonizing guilt. “I’m so sorry,” he moaned, his voice raspy.
Helena glanced down at their crumpled bodies in the grass, and then back up at the Baron’s pearly form. He was waiting for her to shriek and sob and yell at him. What he failed to remember was that even with of all of her intelligence, Helena was a simple, spiteful person. Something ugly rose inside of her at that moment; she was morbidly pleased in a way, because everyone far and wide would hear about her traumatic murder. She would be a legend in her own right, every bit as famous as her mother.
And something else occurred to Helena – John would be forever in her debt. As a ghost, his guilt and despair would coax him to keep loving her for all eternity. He would spend forever trying to make it up to her – this was a new kind of power. A more powerful kind of power. Only she knew that he would be everlastingly in love, attempting to make amends; but that in the end, she would never forgive him. She carried this new secret close to where her heart should be, and it provided her with a surge of gratification. This was the ultimate game.
She bestowed him with a waspish smile. “I hope you like wearing chains.”