Arm in arm, we passed the guardsmen, who bowed their farewell, and headed through the gate. Fortunately for my feet our journey was short. One of the finer inns just inside the walls had kindly lent us two rooms for the day and wouldn’t hear of payment. (After the results of my misadventure, though, I had a nagging feeling that their goodwill was merely a side effect of my lineage.) Once behind closed doors we were able to change into our homecoming disguises: palace servants. We’d slip right back in with no one the wiser. Well, no one except my parents, the inn’s owners, and the men on duty at the gatehouse—every good plan needed at least a few co-conspirators.
The yellow and white serving woman’s dress felt like a fine gown compared to the threadbare beggar’s outfit. If there was something more luxurious than having shoes that fit I couldn’t remember what it was. I took advantage of the full-length mirror standing in one corner of the room to banish my old glamour spell and just giggled at my reflection for a moment. Yellow went well with my blonde hair and tanned skin, actually. I could have done without the lacy kerchief—I didn’t know how the servants wore it all day without getting annoyed. Pushing away my silly thoughts, I went to work on a new illusion. To tell the truth, my confidence tended to go missing if there wasn’t a mirror handy. Though a pins and needles sensation washed over me each time the magic told hold, it was so easy to overlook important details. With a mirror I could be sure the fine lines I traced around my mouth looked natural, the shade I darkened my skin to matched Minh’s, and that my blackened hair shone in the right places. Even then I had to study my handiwork for a minute before realizing my eyes were still green. Two blinks turned them brown, and I ran my fingers over the lids to give them an almond shape.
“You look like you could be my older sister,” Minh said when I met him in the hallway.
I curtsied. “Do whatever I say and no one will ever suspect otherwise.”
He tugged the floppy brim of his hat a little lower, rolling his eyes. “Don’t I always? Come on. The innkeepers should have the horses hitched to the cart by now.”
My heart turned into a tiny mule determined to kick its way out of my ribcage. I clutched the small bag holding the beggar disguise to my chest. “Can’t we walk?”
“Walk? It would take an hour at least and it’s already dark.”
“Just partway then?” I was sure he could hear my heartbeat even through the layers of fabric.
A minute ticked by while Minh stared at me like I was a stranger. I must have sweat at least two buckets worth under his scrutiny.
At last he slung the bag holding his borrowed guard’s uniform and sword over one shoulder and held out his hand for mine. “All right,” he said, voice soft as a sigh. “We’ll walk a bit.”
Somehow, I kept from melting into a puddle of grateful jelly and followed him out of the inn. After a few words to the proprietors, we were on our way along the city’s main thoroughfare. The night air was a balm to my flushed skin. Few others were out and about to appreciate it, though—mostly shopkeepers tidying up after closing time or their workers hurrying home. No one who would question what sort of errand we were on. A good thing too since my own mind was already busy picking me to pieces. As we started down the central street I looked up at the countless stars littered across the sky. Children of the sun, set there to watch over humans while night swallowed the world. I said a silent prayer for guidance, but I doubted they heard. Like a single star, one girl couldn’t mean much in the scheme of things. I was just one pinpoint of light in the middle of myriads.
A warm hand took hold of mine, yanking my attention back to earth. I blinked up at my cousin.
“Kristal, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I blurted. Then, after a moment, “Something. Everything. I don’t know.”
“Are you worried about facing Emilie and the other nobles?”
“Well, a little.” I began clenching and unclenching a fistful of my skirt. “It’s more than the fact that none of them spared a coin for a beggar, though.”
Minh brought us to a stop. He set the bags on the ground, put his hands on my shoulders, and gently turned me his way. “You can tell me. Whatever it is, I’ll help.”
Tears stung the backs of my eyes and I squeezed them shut to dam up a flood. The answer became lodged in my throat, burning like bile. I pressed my face against his chest.
“I turn fifteen tomorrow,” I finally choked out. “If I don’t do my duty by marrying…”
“You have to do it by joining in the fighting along the border,” he finished. His arms went around me, hugging tight. “Is that what you’ve been worried about?”
All I could do was nod.
“Being afraid is nothing to be ashamed of. Who isn’t scared to face their enemies, especially when they’re as savage as Mortigeans? Never making it back home, never seeing your family or friends again—they’re horrible thoughts. And even though healers aren’t on the front lines I know you still fight your own battles. Like deciding which warriors you can save while watching the others die.” He stroked my hair. “I wish you didn’t have to. I want to be selfish and tell you to pick one of those spoiled country lords so you can stay safe.”
I felt him shudder as he took a deep breath. “But it’s not my choice. The only thing I can do is support you along whatever path you take, and I will. I promise.”
My hot tears soaked into his shirt while he continued to pet me and murmur comfort. Minh would protect and care for me. He always had, from the time I had barely learned to walk.
But I knew he wouldn’t understand if I told him the whole truth.
Imagining the blood, the screams, and the memories that would be carved into my mind forever was enough to make me wish I’d been born a peasant in a half-forgotten hamlet somewhere. Knowing that I would help inflict those horrors on others, though, was enough to make me wish I’d never been born at all.
The Mortigeans deserved no pity. I knew that. Night-borns, blood-borns, moon beasts, necromagi, death worshippers—they had all turned from the light and wouldn’t think twice about enslaving or destroying us given half a chance. Nothing but the lonely, frozen wastes of the Otherworld waited for them once our knights, priests, and mages slaughtered them. Or dragged their wounded to the healers’ tents. Draining bugs and grass was one thing. At least I knew those weren’t damned to suffer for eternity.
I knew I shouldn’t care. But I didn’t know how to stop.
“Feel better now?” Minh smiled and brushed the last tears from my cheeks. “You cried your eyes green again.”
I sniffled and forced out a smile. Hands pressed over my face, I concentrated on repairing the illusion. That much about myself I could fix.
I’d just felt the prickles that said the magic had taken hold when Minh tensed.
“Cart coming,” he whispered.
We quickly resumed our stroll and, sure enough, I heard the clop of hooves behind us. My heart copied their rhythm. Keeping my head down to hide my puffy eyes, I waited for them to pass.
The hoofbeats slowed and their owners came to a halt alongside us instead.
“Whoa there!” called a man. “And a good evening to you, strangers.”
There was nothing to do but stop and be polite. I peered up at the speaker from behind Minh. The man doffed a straw hat that looked like it had caught the attention of his horses, judging from the missing chunk of brim. The face underneath was in much better shape: not much older than my cousin’s, tanned, and wearing a smile that made my misgivings melt away like morning fog.
“Didn’t mean to startle you folks,” the man said. “Just saw your clothes and wondered if you might need a ride to the palace. If that’s where you’re going?” He cocked his head.
Minh and I traded identical wide-eyed stares. A simple cart driver possessed more generosity than all the kingdom’s nobility.
“Only if it isn’t out of your way, friend,” my cousin managed to answer with a small bow.
The man chuckled. “It’s at the end of our way, matter of fact. We’ll make some room for you. Won’t we?”
“We” included a blonde bear of a man and a pretty woman sharing the seat with him. A long string of grumbles came from the first as he climbed into the back. I couldn’t blame him. There wasn’t much room among all the crates they were carrying for him to squeeze his muscular into. The woman simply stepped down and waited, foot tapping, for me to clamber up. Once back in her place she kept as much space between us as possible without falling off. Lady Emilie would have been impressed—the glance she shot me could have corroded steel. I shrank down in the seat. It hadn’t been my idea to delay them. Or maybe I was in worse need of a bath than I’d thought. I had been running along the gatehouse stairs all day.
The driver clucked to his two horses, snapped the reins, and we were off. “Well,” he said, as pleased as his companions were put out. “I think introductions are in order. You can call me Wilfried. The chatterbox in back is my friend Harald.”
Said chatterbox grunted a greeting.
Beside me, the woman tossed her coppery hair over her shoulders. “And I’m—”
“Griselda. My faithful wife.” Wilfried’s smile only widened under her formidable glare.
“Your estranged wife. Likely your widow before the night’s out.”
He batted gray eyes at her. “Sweet as turpentine.”
Facing an entire legion of Zephyr LeMarta’s soldiers alone and unarmed seemed safer than sitting between the two of them right then.
“A pleasure to meet you all,” Minh chimed in before blood could be spilled. “My name is Vinh.”
“And I’m Kris—” My mouth snapped shut but the damage was done. I scrambled to salvage my answer. “Ta. Krista.”
Wilfried sat up straighter. “Oh, named in honor of our princess, were you?”
Knots in my stomach loosened, I nodded. Griselda went into a coughing fit that held more than a hint of laughter.
“Badb’s breath, here he goes…” Harald groaned.
His friend twisted around to scowl at him. “What, I ask you, is wrong with talking about Princess Kristal? And mind your mouth! There’s a lady present now.”
I swore the air around Griselda grew colder. “Nothing’s wrong with it aside from the fact you do it non-stop! If we were talking about the best way to kill a den of trolls you’d manage to slip a mention of your precious princess in.”
“Her Highness could ask the trolls to behave themselves and I bet my life they would.”
She flung her hands in the air. I just wondered how someone could think I’d go anywhere near a troll den, never mind lecture the creatures.
“Can’t help myself,” he went on with a heavy sigh. “It’s not often that beauty and goodness share the same body. A shame tradition’s got to spoil that by sending her off to the butchery along the borders.”
From the way I jumped he might have pinched me. “You don’t think the princess will choose any of the suitors at her birthday celebration?”
“That bunch of flower-picking nitwits?” Wilfried sneered. “For her sake I hope not. War can destroy a person inside and out, but so can being shackled to someone you can’t stand. I ought to know.”
“Widow. Definitely his widow,” Griselda muttered.
If her husband dreaded his impending doom, the wink he gave me hid it well. “’Course, there’s that foreign fellow, but…” His tail of ash-blonde hair swung as he shook his head.
“Who?” Minh and I said at the same time.
He twitched his head toward the back of the cart. “The man who sent all these gifts for Princess Kristal. Some warlord or prince or other. Don’t recall his name.”
“It was something ridiculous. His parents must have hated him,” volunteered Harald.
Wilfried made the same face I had when trying a pickled onion for the first—and last—time. “Doesn’t matter one way or the other. He doesn’t have a prayer.”
It was a struggle to keep my tone light. “Why not?”
Our new friend shrugged. “Can you see the princess married off to a heathen from some backwater?”
“Well, yes. We’ve been discussing—that is, the palace staff has been gossiping about plans to forge an alliance with the Han and Nihonjin of Dien. It’s true they’re given to things like ancestor worship and fortune-telling, but they seem civilized enough. Their writing is beautiful. A work of art in itself.”
I finally realized I was rambling, blushed, and cleared my throat. His news had sent my spirits soaring, though. So many gifts simply had to compliment a marriage proposal. I clasped my hands in my lap to keep from diving into the back and prying the crates open to see what secrets they held.
“Huh,” Wilfried said after a minute. “Hans and Nihow…Nohang…Aw, whatever he is, can’t blame the man for trying. He’s obviously half in love with her already.”
Harald snorted. “Or deluded.”
A nod from Griselda. “An infatuated fathead.”
“A mental midget.”
“Full of unicorn shit.”
Wilfried’s grip tightened around the reins, nearly jerking the horses off course as his friends were overpowered by laughter. “I’m ashamed to call either of you my countrymen! Might as well have been raised by ogres or Mortigeans or both!”
What I’d done to deserve such devotion from the man sitting next to me or one who lived leagues across the sea, I had no idea. That didn’t keep my heart from swelling until it felt like there couldn’t be room inside of me for anything else. I laid one of my hands over Wilfried’s, smiling when the tension eased out of it and he turned towards me. Calling his eyes gray was selling them short, I realized. Every movement and shift in light caused them to change, like rain clouds. There were streaks of silver, then flecks that were almost blue. His other hand covered mine, cool and calloused, making the colors change yet again.
“Pure and bright. True to your name,” he said, softly enough so that only we could hear.
It dawned on me then that his eyes weren’t the only interesting things about Wilfried. His mouth was worth studying too. Not to mention close enough for me to feel his breath brush my cheek.
Griselda’s—his wife’s—cough wasn’t nearly as amused the second time around. “Oh, look. There’s the palace gate.”
I spent the trip through them as red as rhubarb and looking at everything but him. Luckily, there was plenty to distract me. Servants still rushed around the grounds, tidying up and putting final touches on the decorations. I worried whether there were any flowers left in the gardens after noticing the garlands draped over every railing and doorway.
A mighty sneeze came from in back.
“Badb’s breath,” Harald swore with a sniffle.
“Is he going to be all right?” I whispered.
“Oh, sure.” Griselda plucked a loose string from her skirt. “He just has a touchy nose is all.”
“Who wouldn’t with these—” sneeze “—damn weeds covering everything?”
She was pretty even in a bad mood, but when she let her expression melt a little Griselda became a beauty. “Shush. A girl only turns fifteen once. The occasion should be over the top—something for her to remember later in life.”
Harald blew his nose loudly enough to wake people living on the outskirts of the city. “And how many years worth of dusty memories do you have dig through to remember yours, huh?”
“More than you can count to, cretin.”
That earned a rumbling laugh. Either Harald was as hardy as he looked or Griselda was less fearsome. I knew where I would have placed my bet.
“Ah, here you are, safe and sound,” announced Wilfried once we finally came around to the other side of the palace. He reined the horses in behind two more carts that were being unloaded, jumped down, and motioned for me to follow. Struggling to keep my expression empty, I did.
Hands took hold of my waist. A mousy squeak escaped me as Wilfried lifted and then lowered me to the ground.
“A pleasure meeting you, Miss Krista.” His hands lingered for the few moments it took my cousin to hop out of the cart. I remembered how to breathe while they clasped each other’s forearms.
“The sun shine on you and yours,” Wilfried told him.
“The same to you, friend.”
After a parting bow and curtsey for Griselda and Harald, Minh and I left them to their work.
“What a friendly bunch.” As we reached the entrance leading to the kitchen and storerooms, I smoothed down the front of my borrowed dress—and tried, without much success, to shake the feeling of a certain cart driver’s touch.
“Friendly,” Minh agreed. He pulled off his hat to scratch his head. “Not to mention a little strange.”