Being an old woman was harder than it looked. Firstly, there was the ache in my joints while I made my twelfth trip down the gatehouse stairs. All fifty of them. Then there were my wooden shoes. I had stuffed the toes with rags earlier, but they kept trying to slip off with every step--after I tumbled to the bottom that afternoon I’d learned to always keep one hand against the wall. Unfortunately, the blisters that had bubbled up on the soles of my feet weren’t so easily prevented. Last but certainly not least was the torturously slow pace these rotten conditions added up to. I was never going to beat the carriage I’d spied clattering up the road to the city gates at that rate. Of course, a broken neck wasn’t going to get me anywhere either.
There was only one reasonable course of action: compromise. I sat and scooted down the remaining stairs, thanking my lucky stars when I found the ground floor deserted. There were enough bruises on my rump without adding any to my dignity.
I opened the gatehouse door a crack, peeked out, and saw that the carriage had won our race by only a bit. A silver pin of the Royal Guard had barely started asking the driver the standard list of questions. I spared a moment to straighten the kerchief tied around my head and catch my breath before sidling up to the newest arrival. My gaze roved over its green-lacquered wood, traced its gold trimmings, and narrowed at the crest emblazoned on its door. It wasn’t often that the swans of the Silver Valley were seen in All Saints’ City. Distance, I suspected, had little to do with that.
All too soon I heard the exchange up front coming to an end. I rapped on the carriage door before my chance could do the same. The window’s velvet curtains parted. A young man, his looks as fresh as a daisy and twice as sweet, peeked out. His hazel eyes grew wider still when they landed not on a proud royal guardsman but stooped, shriveled me.
“Please, noble sir,” I rasped, “have pity on an old woman who has no children to do the same.” I stretched a hand that had more in common with a chicken’s foot towards him.
Understanding bloomed on the young lord’s face. Seeing him smile was like watching the dawn. He shifted in his seat, reaching for the coin purse likely hanging from his belt. “Of course. One moment, old mother.”
“The sun shine on you and yours forever.” Even the gravel in my voice couldn’t completely grind away my soft tone. At last. After days of disappointment here was someone with the treasure I truly sought. The world looked a bit brighter despite the swiftly falling dusk.
“Hermann! What’s all of this fidgeting about, boy? Why are you—”
A woman leaned into view and froze when our gazes met. The red blotches that blossomed in her cheeks clashed terribly with the gold powder she’d dusted onto them. Which, I might add, did more to highlight than hide the creases her face had accumulated over the years. Her painted lips peeled back from teeth almost equally stained by carmine. My heart fluttered like a dying bird, illustrations of snarling blood-borns flashing through my mind. She may have lacked fangs, but that didn’t make her short on ferocity.
“Off with you! Shoo!” The woman smacked her closed fan against the window’s edge, missing my fingers by a fairy’s hair. Her son flinched along with me. “Guards! Guards!”
One, instead of the battalion she had probably expected, marched up beside me a tick and a tock later. The sun brooch pinned to his surcoat was bronze too, at that.
“Is something troubling you, Lady Emilie?” he asked with a smart bow.
Nostrils flaring like a warhorse’s, the lady of the Silver Valley jabbed her fan in my direction. “I should say so, you idiot! There are strays getting their filthy paws all over my property and not one of you has done anything to prevent it! Is this how King Albrecht greets honored guests?”
Her son sank lower in his seat with each word, face gone the color of whey. I resisted the urge to give him a comforting pat.
“Of course not, Your Grace,” said the bronze pin. He bowed again, but not before I caught the way his expression had iced over. “I beg you to accept my deepest apologies. It won’t happen again.”
Lady Emilie snapped her fan open and fluttered it, as if that would snuff out the contempt smoldering in her eyes. “For the sake of the royal reputation let us hope not. After all, what use is a king if he can’t even command beggars?”
A bruising grip on my upper arm turned what might have been a pointed observation about her own reputation into a gasp. The young guard had me nearly on tiptoe as he hauled me out of the good lady’s sight and mind.
I waited until we were a few paces behind the carriage to hiss, “Ease up, Minh! You’re going to break my arm!”
He halted in his tracks, scowl giving way to open-mouthed shock. “Hellfire! I’m sorry, Kristal.” His hand jerked away like it had been bitten.
Smiling, I caught it in my own and laced our fingers together. “There’s no need to swear. Everything’s still in working order. Besides, I think that gave our performance credibility. Don’t you?”
“Yes, well, it had less to do with my acting skills and more with wishing I could set someone’s fancy gown on fire.” Minh’s brows drew down over his eyes like thunderclouds as he watched Lady Emilie’s carriage roll through the city gates.
“This was the whole point of my little trick,” I reminded him. “I know some of these visiting nobles aren’t as…well…noble as they should be.”
“That doesn’t mean I enjoyed seeing it firsthand.”
“Good. Cousin or not, I would have banned you from the celebration tomorrow if you had.” I wagged a finger under his nose to try to draw out a smile. Or at the very least stop him from glaring before he really did cause something to burst into flames. When pyromagi were at ease so was everyone else.
It was a partial success. Sighing, he pulled his helmet off and ruffled some life back into his dark hair. “The way that old magpie treated you was—”
“Very different from the way she’s going to treat me at the palace? Yes, I noticed.” Emilie’s scorn for my family and me would simply be veiled by etiquette then.
“ ‘Honored guest’. Try ‘barely tolerated’. You should have dropped your illusion spell, Kristal—I wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d blown through the roof of her carriage like a firecracker.” That finally inspired a smile, but I wasn’t reassured—it only meant he was plotting ways to make the image a reality.
“Her poor son looked ready to faint when he believed she was yelling at an old beggar woman,” I said, shaking my head. “I’d wind up attending his funeral if he found out she was screaming at the princess he came here to court.” Heat rushed into my face. Shielded by ignorance, young Lord Hermann would be able to look me in the eye tomorrow, but there was no bet I could do the same A gaffe at the dinner table was easy to handle: make a lighthearted comment and everyone moved on. Witnessing a suitor’s total humiliation, however, hadn’t been covered by my tutors’ lessons.
Minh’s smile rolled over and died. “Emilie’s poor son let her ride roughshod over you without making a peep.” He folded his arms across his chest. “I hope you aren’t considering a proposal from that corner—Matroi would wind up with a lapdog on the throne, not a king.”
Gaze dropping to the road, I chewed on my lip. “He tried to be kind, though.” My voice sounded weedy, even to me. “He just…didn’t get a chance to follow through.”
“Unless you can find a way to send Mama Monstrous to the front lines I don’t see it happening in the future either.” My cousin snorted. “Now there’s an idea: let Emilie nag Zephyr LeMarta’s army into submission.”
A shudder that had nothing to do with the cool evening breeze rattled down my spine. It would take more than a gossiping courtier to defeat the night-born king and his literally bloodthirsty subjects.
Minh must have noticed because his expression lost its hard edges. “Enough about that gorgon. Let’s get you back to the palace and your true self. Uncle Albrecht and Aunt Brigitte are probably pulling out their hair with worry.”
Sticking my tongue earned a smirk from him and a few laughs from the guardsmen in the bargain. “Are not! Papa and Mother know you’re here to protect me, and no one could possibly recognize who I am. My glamour spells can fool the god of death himself, thank you very much.”
His smirk spilt into a grin. “I don’t doubt it. You’re awfully wrinkly for a girl who’s barely turning fifteen.”
“Now you’ve gone and done it. If I had a basket I’d hit you over the head like a proper old lady!”
“See? Sorcery is all well and good, but it’s the little details that really sell an illusion.”
“Or make it almost more trouble than it’s worth,” I said, wiggling my toes with a wince. If there was any skin left on my soles it would be a miracle.
Luckily, I didn’t need to wait for one to come along on its own.
Clapping my hands together, I beamed up at Minh. “Would you help me over to the side of the road?”
He raised his eyebrows but put his helmet back on and offered me an arm without hesitation. “What for?”
Balance guaranteed, I started to hobble toward my goal. “I don’t want to walk like an old woman even after I stop looking like one.”
We reached the edge and he put the pieces of my plan together, laughing as I slipped out of my blocky shoes.
“Didn’t I say you’d regret not waiting for the servants to find some that fit?” He pointed at the red stripes of chaffed skin across the tops of my feet to prove his point. At least the damage underneath was hidden.
“I’ll remember that for next time,” I grumbled.
If the future allowed me a next time.
I shook my head and focused on the tickle of soft spring grass against my toes instead. The earth was moist from a recent shower and still held the last traces of the day’s warmth. Tiny creatures crept around in the greenery above the soil or slithered through the inverted forest of roots below. Worms, beetles, ants—they were tiny flames burning in the darkness behind my eyelids.
After taking a deep breath, I began calling those lights, those lives, to me.
Tingling heat spread along the blistered bottoms of my feet, flowed up between my aching toes, and stopped at my ankles. The grass grew brittle and prickly, so I took a step forward.
Three steps later, I looked down at my feet. Red no longer. I lifted a leg to glance back at one sole. Whole and smooth. Behind me stretched a trail of withered grass. Kneeling, I touched the nearest patch.
“Thank you,” I told the land and the creatures I’d taken from it. More would come in time. The next drizzle would soothe the dry, cold bits of earth and heal them, just as they’d done for me.
“Are you ready to leave your clogs behind?” Minh asked, offering me a hand that I accepted with a smile.
“You can burn them right now if you want.”
He chuckled. “I think I can resist until I get you back inside the city.”