Again, not much of an intro. The Ruin of Snow went through a lot of variations and drafts before I settled on the version that was published, and with that came some character changes. In particular a character named Maralah, another of Neyva's sisters, who was cut from the final version and who appears in this scene. Enjoy.
(Philippa also doesn't exist in the final version but she was never all that important of a character, so whatever.)
The door creaked as it opened and Philippa stuck her head in hesitantly. I closed my book and gave her smile, and she returned it with a barely-hidden sigh of relief as she ventured the rest of the way into the room. "Good evening, Miss."
"Good evening." I stood and she trailed behind me to the dressing table, where I sat.
Philippa lifted a hairbrush, relaxing at the easy task she'd been assigned. "Thank you for asking me here, Miss," she said softly as she ran it through my hair, a gentle and steady rhythm.
I met my reflection's eyes. "You've worked tirelessly since you arrived. I felt you deserved it."
She tried to hide how the comment made her beam, but I caught it in the mirror. When she'd worked her expression into an appropriately humble one, she murmured, "I'm honored, Miss."
"Tell me, Philippa, why did you approach my family for work? There are countless in the noble squares who would be happy to hire someone like you. You must have heard the rumors."
"The rumors of...secrets and atrocities in this house?" She shook her head. "Oh, no, Miss, I've never believed them. You and your family are so kind. I must confess, Miss, I saw your family once in passing, years ago, and knew you must be the finest family in all of Acalta."
Sickly sweet words she couldn't possibly believe would flatter me. I worked to keep my expression neutral. "Well, we are very happy to have you." Without looking from the mirror I reached down, sliding open a drawer to my side, and closed my fingers around the cool, hard edges of the stolen jewels. Philippa hardly glanced at what I was doing, until I laid them flat on the table before me, hand still covering them. Her eyes flickered towards my hand for only an instant, but she didn't stray from her task. "A servant with such an eye for finery is valued, indeed."
I saw the apprehension cross her face as I removed my hand, replacing it in my lap. Her hand faltered, the brush tugging at a few pieces of my hair as she slowed to a stop.
"I—Miss—" In the mirror her eyes flashed between me and the jewels, fear rooting quickly in them. She stumbled over a clumsy attempt to save herself. "I—those are beautiful, Miss, but I'm afraid I've never—never seen them before."
I rolled a ring between my fingers, watching the way the candlelight danced off it. "Haven't you? If only your skill in lying matched your work ethic." She just tripped back a step, silent. "We can't allow thieves in this house, Philippa. I'm sure you understand."
I glanced up long enough to see her shaking her head like her skull was detached from her spine. "I would never, Miss, I swear on the Lady. Please, I have nowhere else to go—"
"I don't think you need to worry about that."
I had just lifted the ring again, feeling the way my magic burned into her fingerprints on it, when a knock at the door stopped me. Philippa's head whipped towards the sound and I set the ring down, forcing every muscle to relax.
"Are you terribly busy, Neyva? I'd like to discuss something with you."
Maralah. Just barely behind me getting to Philippa and smart enough to know I'd gotten to her first. Now, what, did she intend on stealing the victory for herself? I'd all but claimed it already.
And yet, it wouldn't do to turn her away. She'd come in whether I invited her or not. I glanced to Philippa, looking from me to the door with a tentative combination of fear and relief, as if she was wondering if I'd show mercy with my sister watching. I lifted one eyebrow at her, and she hurried to return to her place. "Come in," I called.
Maralah entered on silent feet, closing the door behind her. I watched her in the mirror as she studied the situation in an instant, and then crossed to the bed and sat, smoothing her skirt. "Good evening, Philippa."
Philippa kept her head down. "Good evening, Miss."
Maralah ignored her and watched me. I met her reflection's waiting gaze. "I see you've caught the thief. Clever as always, little sister."
Philippa's face paled, but to her credit she didn't falter in her job a second time. "It was simple, really," I told my sister, glancing to the rings again. "She didn't hide them very well. A smarter thief would have chosen somewhere that couldn't be traced back to her."
"Well, sister, aren't you going to punish her?"
Philippa's hand shook and yanked a strand of my hair hard enough to make my wince. I swallowed a sharp order directed at her and instead gave Maralah a guarded glance in the mirror. 'I thought you were here to do it before I could."
She gave a smile as falsely sweet as Philippa's flattery. "Nonsense. Go ahead." I should have taken the opportunity, but I just watched her, waiting. None of my sisters were that selfless. To give up a chance to win? When I hesitated her smile darkened. "What do you plan, I wonder? One of your poisons? Or a quick killing curse? Or perhaps something slower, more fun?"
If Philippa had been pale before, she was ghostly now. Her hand shook so much she was no longer brushing my hair at all, just staring into the mirror. Her voice was thin. "No," she breathed. "You're—you're witches?"
"You should have believed the rumors," I told her simply, and rolled a ring over again.
"Please, I swear to you both, I never—" It was as far as she got before she met my eyes in the glass again. There was pure, raw terror in hers, and I knew what she saw in mine. The eyes of a killer. She dropped the brush and bolted without another word, but Maralah and I were both faster. One the same thought we cast the door a glance and the bolt slid into place untouched. Philippa pulled up short, both hands flat against the door but not daring to make a sound.
I glanced to the candle beside me, trailing a fingertip along the wax beading on the edge. It seared against my skin, but I ignored the pain and let it drip from my finger onto the ring. My words rang through the still air like they were metal themselves. "Where thieving hands have left their mark,
But my voice caught there, and for an instant I didn't know why. As if my throat had closed.
There were tears in Philippa's eyes, shining like silver. She stood with her head lowered, lips moving in a silent prayer. And the sight swept the rest of the spell from my tongue entirely.
I froze. For the first time in my life, I froze.
Maralah's face was like stone as she stood and crossed to stand beside me, every motion stiff and cold. "Let wicked souls sleep in the dark," she finished for me, and blew the flame out.
The room was plunged into a crushing, pitch darkness, and still I couldn't move. Before I could be sure why, the light returned and Philippa was lying motionless on the floor, eyes closed and one hand draped across her chest as if she was peacefully sleeping. But no breath stirred her.
I couldn't look away from the body, but Maralah acted as if she wasn't there at all, stepping up behind me and running her fingers through my hair. "You've always preferred simple curses over complicated ones," she commented nonchalantly. "It makes it quiet easy for another witch to interfere."
My voice came out quieter than I would have liked. "Complicated spells can go wrong."
"Like that one did? So simple, and yet you couldn't even finish it." Still her voice was nothing more than casual, but a chill swept through me. "Is your magic less than you've always led us to believe, or are you suddenly showing mercy, Neyva?"
I lifted my chin. "Neither."
"And yet a true witch would have finished that curse," she murmured, leaning closer. "You look lovely with your hair down."
And she turned away, stepping over Philippa's body as if it wasn't there at all, and unlocked the door. "I'll fetch Mother."