The entire castle had been bustling with excitement since the princess was born. The entire kingdom. The hum of energy stretched through the halls and into my studio. I bustled around, gathering supplies and glancing at the sea every few minutes to admire the view. My orange taffeta gown rustled when I moved. I glimpsed my reflection in the mirror and snapped a few more yellow bows onto the skirt. No need to look plain.
|Alma and the Fairy By A. G. Marshall|
Now, the gown for the princess.
They hadnâ€™t named her yet. King Nicholas and Queen Ingrid had been arguing about the name for months before their daughter was born and still hadnâ€™t chosen. Apparently Salarians waited for a christening ceremony to name their children. At least, the nobles did.
I smirked, picturing a Salarian peasant couple standing on their porch, holding their newborn up for all the neighbors to see.
â€œI name her-â€
My mind went blank. What would a Salarian peasant name a daughter? I settled on Vonda. It sounded vaguely Salarian. I think I had an assistant named Vonda once.
Or was it Felda?
â€œI name her Vonda!â€
Their neighbors would cheer for a few moments then go back to their houses.
I had lived in Salaria for a while, but many of their traditions still didnâ€™t make sense to me. Why not name the child at birth?
Of course the princessâ€™s christening would be a huge celebration. The king and queen would present her from the balcony above the courtyard, and peasants would crowd into the courtyard under it. Nobles would watch from their windows, comfortably lifted above the masses.
I waved my hand, and a length of purple silk slid out from a drawer. It floated through the air, rippling gently before landing on my worktable. It never got old, working magic. I always felt a rush of excitement when I shaped the fabric into something beautiful. Something new. The salt charms around the room glowed silver as I pulled magic from them to split the fabric into pieces. I could use soul magic, of course, but I preferred to save that for more complicated projects. A baby gown certainly didnâ€™t qualify as complex.
I had little experience working with children. Iâ€™d made costumes for them a few times, when Queen Ingrid wanted a childrenâ€™s chorus in an opera production, but that was about it. It was tricky. The clothes were so small, it was hard to get the embellishments just right. And their proportions differed from adults.
Making a gown for an infant was even trickier. I had the princessâ€™s measurements, but she would wear this while lying down. And she was pretty much a shapeless blob with a head.
A faint wail echoed through the chamber. I sighed. The princess cried constantly. Halfway across the castle, her cries still carried whenever anyone opened a door to the nursery.
I took the dress form I had created from her measurements and wrapped the purple silk around it. The gown should be simple. Most of the crowd would be far away. I used my magic to gather the hem into a ruffle. No, that looked terrible. I loosened the fabric until it hung straight. I rustled through a drawer, found a bag of diamonds, and attached them to the edge of the hem.
When they caught the sunlight, she would look dazzling!
Something wasnâ€™t quite right though. The purple, meant to stand for royalty, seemed too pretentious for such a tiny dress. I snapped my fingers and changed it to blue.
No, still not right. I frowned and rubbed my chins. Both of them. A third was starting to form. I just kept expanding. I had known it would happen, but it was getting ridiculous. I was practically round. All my clothes had been enchanted to lift me up a bit, to help support my weight. This let me be nimble no matter how big I got.
Another snap, and the silk turned pink.
â€œCliche, but it really does look better that way.â€
There was no one else in the room. If I took an apprentice, I wouldnâ€™t have to talk to myself all the time. But the potential apprentices Queen Ingrid offered me were so useless I told her I preferred to work alone.
The dress was adorable, but this baby was a princess. She needed to be more regal somehow.
Red. It needed red.
I waved my hands in small circles. Red ribbons flew off the table and tied themselves into bows. With a slight flick of my wrist, I sent a needle through the air to sew them onto the dress. I could hold them on with magic, but this dress was for an infant. Did salt magic have the same effect on young children that soul magic did?
I didnâ€™t intend to find out.
â€œYour technique has improved, darling.â€
The voice floated through the air a moment before golden sparkles lit my studio. Both made me frown. I glared at the woman who emerged from the shower of light.
She was tall. Much taller than me, but then everyone was. Her long green dress and golden hair rippled around her even though there was no breeze. She folded her delicate golden wings behind her back. They peeked over her shoulders, hidden beneath her hair.
Her skin glowed. I had seen a drop of fairy blood once, a pure bead of amber filled with a flame. The longer I looked at the fairy, the more sure I became that her blood illuminated her skin. She glowed from within.
â€œDivinia,â€ I said. â€œWhat a surprise.â€
â€œAnd a pleasant one, Iâ€™m sure.â€
It was not. I was not excited to see her at all. What did she want?
How is Lorenzo?
The question popped into my head, almost as unwelcome as Divinia, but I refused to ask it.
Divinia walked around my studio, examining bolts of fabric and spools of thread.
â€œIs this what youâ€™ve done with your life, Alma? Become a common seamstress? That is a shame. You always had such potential.â€
Potential she tried her best to cover up. Seeing her brought back memories Iâ€™d buried in my work and magic. I felt like I was fourteen again, back in Castana, unsure of the world and myself.
I had built a new life is Salaria. I was happy. I used magic to make beautiful things.
I was not a common seamstress.
Divinia finished examining my fabric and turned her attention to the work tables. She rested her hand over a carved wooden box on the table. My eyes narrowed. We both knew what it held.
â€œIs that why youâ€™ve come? After all these years?â€
She dared to smile at me. After everything, she dared to smile. Her eyes traveled up and down my short, round figure.
â€œWell, youâ€™re obviously not using it. Do you mind? I know it was a gift, but I really could use it for a project.â€
I shrugged. Diviniaâ€™s smile widened, and she opened the box. A faint silver glow escaped the lid. She pulled out a silver necklace, weighed it in her palm, and tucked it into the folds of her skirt.
I should have thrown it into the sea when I had the chance. Why did I keep it?
I never planned to wear it again.
The door to my studio swung open.
â€œLady Alma, are you ready yet? I-â€
Queen Ingrid stood in the doorway, staring at Divinia. Her jaw dropped. She looked completely stunned.
Divinia looked the same. She obviously didnâ€™t plan on being seen by anyone but me. She stared at the queen with wide eyes. I felt a smile twitching at my lips.
â€œYour Majesty, may I introduce the Fairy Divinia? Divinia, this is Queen Ingrid of Salaria.â€
Queen Ingridâ€™s face burst into a smile.
â€œOh, youâ€™ve actually come! Of course I hoped, but I never thought youâ€™d actually- Oh, Nicholas will be so surprised!â€
Diviniaâ€™s face was priceless. Any trace of smugness disappeared. Queen Ingrid clasped Diviniaâ€™s hands. Divinia stared at me. She had no idea what was going on.
Neither did I, but that didnâ€™t matter. My smile widened.
â€œIâ€™m sure you have a lot to discuss. Iâ€™ll just take this down to the nursery.â€
I picked up the pink and red silk dress. Divinia tried to signal me to stay, but I ignored her. Queen Ingrid beamed at me.
â€œPlease do, Alma. The colors are perfect.â€
Of course they were. I donâ€™t make mistakes.
I curtsied and left the room. Behind me, Divinia was trying to figure out what to do.
â€œAs you, uh, said, Your Majesty. I have come.â€
I chuckled to myself as I walked down the hallway. It made my chins jiggle. Divinia was stuck. She couldnâ€™t just poof away. Queen Ingrid would search for her. Sheâ€™d already written one letter to the fairies. If they found out sheâ€™d visited, Divinia would have to explain why.
And that would mean explaining why she gave me that necklace. Explaining that she had broken their rules and interfered with human lives.
A piercing wail echoed through the corridor as I approached the nursery. Thank goodness my room was on the other side of the castle near my studio.
Thank goodness I refused the offer of a room in the royal suite.
Three nursemaids hovered over the cradle, offering the princess a variety of toys. She ignored all of them and continued to thrash and scream.
â€œLady Alma,â€ the head nursemaid said. â€œPlease tell me theyâ€™ll be ready to begin the christening soon!â€
There were dark circles under her eyes, and the sort of panicked gleam that comes with extreme stress.
â€œI have her gown ready. They should be starting any time.â€
Nursemaids oohed and aahed as I presented the pink and red dress. The diamonds twinkled. The princess stopped crying and reached for them.
â€œExpensive taste,â€ one nursemaid joked.
â€œWell, she is a princess.â€
I snapped my fingers, and the dress disappeared from my hands and onto the princessâ€™s tiny body. The motion startled her, and she started to cry again. Louder than before if that was possible.
â€œUgh,â€ the head nursemaid said. â€œThis is the loudest baby Iâ€™ve ever cared for. What could be taking them so long?â€
I stared at the princess. What was taking them so long? Divinia should have worked her way out of the situation by now. Fairies donâ€™t interfere. Explain that, let them down gently, and poof away.
â€œLetâ€™s move her to the balcony,â€ I said. â€œIâ€™m sure theyâ€™ll be ready soon.â€
The head nursemaid picked up the princess. She didnâ€™t stop crying. The other two nursemaids waved their hands and floated the cradle along behind us.
A huge crowd had gathered in the courtyard. Much bigger than I expected. Peasants had climbed the stone walls because there wasnâ€™t any room on the ground. Even the nobles in the castle looked crammed. They squished onto their small balconies and pressed their faces to the windows. I scanned the crowd for Rosa, but I couldnâ€™t find her. She must be here somewhere though. It seemed everyone in Salaria had crammed into the courtyard.
Even the royal balcony was nearly full. The most prominent lords and ladies of Salaria huddled to the side, jostling each other for a view of the princess. A painter had an easel set up in the corner. He sketched pencil outlines on canvases. The paintings would be completed later when there was more time.
The head nursemaid put a white cap on the princess to protect her from- something, Iâ€™m sure. I flicked my wrist and changed it to the same shade of pink as the dress. It still looked a bit off. I leaned over the cradle to adjust the angle.
There. Much more becoming.
The princess was still crying.
Someone entered the balcony. I turned to greet them and frowned. Divinia walked in beside the king and queen.
â€œYour Majesty, what is she doing here?â€
The queenâ€™s face glowed with excitement.
â€œOh, sheâ€™s going to bless the princess!â€
My whole body tightened. I clenched my jaw. Impossible.
â€œYour Majesty, I must object. This fairy-â€œ
â€œOh, I know it hasnâ€™t been done in a while, Alma, but thatâ€™s what makes it so exciting!â€
They had no idea. Fairies werenâ€™t supposed to interfere. Not since the mountains wept. Not since the fairy snow. Not for over a hundred years.
And she didnâ€™t come to see them. She wasnâ€™t here to bless the princess.
She was here for me.
I needed to fix this. Now.
I turned to the King.
â€œKing Nicholas, please reconsider. Divinia-â€
The crowdâ€™s cheers drowned out my voice. They came to see a princess, and now there was a fairy.
What a show.
Divinia had already started. She held the princess awkwardly in one arm and snapped her fingers. Golden dust and sparkles covered us and filled the courtyard. I snorted. She was just showing off! The sparkles did nothing!
But everyone blinked, dazzled.
I pushed my way through the blinding golden dust.
â€œWhat are you doing?â€ I hissed. â€œJust go home. She doesnâ€™t need your blessing.â€
â€œDonâ€™t be jealous, Alma. Just because you didnâ€™t appreciate my work doesnâ€™t mean others wonâ€™t. Now stand back. You donâ€™t want any of the beauty to land on you.â€
Of all the nerve! I stepped forward, hands clenched into fists. I wanted to slap her, tackle her, do anything to stop her! But Divinia giggled and hugged the princess tighter. If I attacked her, I might hurt the princess.
Or Divinia might.
She spoke the spell, and her words echoed through the courtyard.
â€œDark as a rookâ€™s wing, hair flows like the Ghone.
Night prism eyes reflect colors unknown.
Moonlight complexion, pearly reflection.
By every standard, you are perfection.
Radiant voice like the song of a star.
Reddest of roses, loveliest by far.
I name thee Salara, Salarian princess,
Born to be queen of them all.
Ideals align, beauty be thine.
Names, souls, and destinies all intertwine.â€
While I tried to process what those words actually meant, what effect they would have, Divinia thrust Princess Salara into my arms and disappeared in a flash of light.
Salara. Salara of Salaria. She named the princess after the country. It would have been better to call her Vonda. Princess Vonda. Princess Salara. The whole thing seemed ridiculous, but everyone around me looked very serious.
I stared at the baby in my arms. She seemed all right. Her skin was clear, and her eyes were bright.
Impossibly bright. Like dark stars in a pale sky.
She opened her mouth and inhaled. I braced myself for a shriek. The sound that came out sounded like crying, but also like music. Everyone in the courtyard listened in rapt attention, and we all sighed in disappointment when it stopped.
Princess Salara had fallen asleep.
I handed her over to the head nursemaid. Queen Ingrid fluttered around, talking to herself and waving her hands, already planning art projects around her newly beautiful daughter.
King Nicholas just looked thoughtful. He bowed to me as he left.
I waved my hand, trying to sense anything out of place or unusual about the baby. She seemed normal, but I didnâ€™t know much about medical magic.
Rosa might be able to help if I could convince her to come back to the palace. She didnâ€™t get along well with the queen. Both of them were too opinionated. Too passionate about completely different things.
I wandered back to my studio, dazed. Queen Ingrid would want a new dress for tomorrow nightâ€™s dinner, perhaps something inspired by the fairyâ€™s visit. I pulled out every green fabric I had and layered them on a dress form tailored to the queen.
I closed my eyes and pictured my family back in Castana. Father and Donna Senona, the day of their wedding. The memory made my stomach jolt slightly, and I locked on to that motion, pushing it until my soul circled around my body in a loop.
This gown would be tricky. I would need soul magic to recreate the waving, ephemeral fairy fabric. Using the magical energy from the loop, I adjusted the fabrics, making heavy ones more transparent. Something halfway between velvet and silk for the base. Organza for the top, but the color needed to be darker. When it looked right, I stopped my soul loop, pulled a small salt charm from a drawer, and pinned it to the skirt. The fabric rippled in the still evening air.
Ingrid would love it.
I rummaged through my shelves for gold trim. Would wings on the back of the gown be too much?
â€œImitating my look? Iâ€™m flattered, Alma.â€
Divinia stood beside the dress. I couldnâ€™t help being proud. The gowns looked almost identical.
Then I felt horrified.
â€œWhat have you done?â€ I asked. â€œHow does the spell work? Has she been harmed?â€
â€œI have you to thank for all this, Alma. After all, you introduced me to Queen Ingrid.â€
â€œYou already have a godchild.â€
I said it through gritted teeth, and his name hung unspoken between us. Divinia knew not to mention him. She wasnâ€™t willing to push me that far.
And I wasnâ€™t willing to ask.
â€œI have a godchild in Castana,â€ she said. â€œSalaria is completely different. This is a young country, Alma. They donâ€™t have centuries of traditions to uphold. Canâ€™t you feel the energy?â€
â€œFairies donâ€™t interfere. You said it. Celia said it. Fairies donâ€™t interfere.â€
â€œAnd I wonâ€™t. Consider me out of your life now. Out of Salaraâ€™s life. Out of Salaria. I donâ€™t expect to return anytime soon.â€
I watched her. She wasn't finished. She would leave if she were finished.
â€œWhat?â€ I said.
â€œI was just wondering if you really want to give this up.â€
She pulled the silver charm out of her skirt and dangled it in front of my face.
â€œIt could do you some good, you know. Put it on, catch a ship to Castanaâ€¦â€
â€œVery well. Goodbye, Alma. Any messages youâ€™d like to send?â€
Divinia disappeared in a flash of golden light.
I sank into a chair.
What had she done?
Almaâ€™s Story Preview
More of Lady Almaâ€™s story is coming soon!
What happened between Lady Alma and Divinia?
Who is Lorenzo?
Why did Lady Alma travel to Salaria?
Before she became Princess Salaraâ€™s designer, Lady Alma was just Alma, an ordinary Castanian girl. Then her father remarried, Prince Lorenzo asked her to dance, and her corset exploded.
Caught in a web of intrigue and magic in the heart of Castana, Alma must use her wits to save her country, her prince, and her future.
Rook and Shadow Excerpt
Diviniaâ€™s spell was just the beginning.
The adventure continues in Rook and Shadow. Read on for a free excerpt!
Can beauty save a kingdom?
Princess Salara is her nationâ€™s greatest treasure. Her fairy godmotherâ€™s blessing gives her beauty and an enchanted voice, but she spends her days surrounded by annoying poets and tourists. Desperate for freedom, Princess Salara runs away, but peasant life is not at all what she expected. Guards are sent to bring her back to the palace, but a bandit called the Shadow and a pirate called the Dragon have other ideas. When a mysterious curse threatens Salaria, only the Princess can save the day.
â€œPure adventure through and through.â€ â€“ Mary Newport, NTown Magazine
â€œI could not put it down! I love adventure and magic, and I got just what I wanted!â€ â€“ Delaney, Amazon reviewer
I crept through my dark bedroom, pushed the tapestry on the wall aside, and crawled through the opening behind it. Seda, my kitten, ran between my legs and tripped me as he clawed the hem of my night gown. I stood still until he tired of the game. Slivers of moonlight filtered through cracks in the stone. Sedaâ€™s white fur caught the light as he ran.
As my eyes adjusted I could follow his shape against the dark stones. When we reached the end of the tunnel, even more moonlight flooded through the rotting trap door above us. I climbed the rock wall, and Seda climbed my nightgown until he sat on my shoulder.
Fresh sea air flooded the dank tunnel as I opened the door and climbed onto the tower. Stars twinkled overhead, fading gradually into the predawn light.
Seda walked on the edge of the tower railing, watching birds fly over the ocean. I stood motionless, soaking in the view and solitude. Waves crashed on the shore far below me and drowned out the voices of sailors and merchants getting an early start on the docks.
I joined Seda at the edge and leaned over it. A narrow staircase without a railing wound around the tower. I climbed it once in the middle of the night, clinging to the wall and hoping no one noticed my white nightgown against the dark stone. I expected the stairs to lead somewhere interesting. The castle treasury, perhaps. Or even beyond the castle to a different part of the city. Instead, they led me to the castleâ€™s main garden. A disappointing reward for such a dangerous climb, since I visited the garden often. I did not use the stairs again.
Although the staircase stopped at the garden, the tower stretched downwards and blended into the town below. Castlemont, the capital of Salaria, was divided into tiers. Ramps made of large stones and packed dirt connected the flat platforms of earth circling the mountain. Without the tiers, the mountain ground would be too steep for a city. Top levels held large houses inhabited by nobility. The middle tiers, home to artists and servants, held humbler dwellings. Individual houses in Lower Castlemont were indistinguishable from one another. If there were walkways between the shacks, they must be very narrow. The lower part of the city looked like one enormous roof, patched and faded and badly needing repair.
At the bottom, the Ghone River spilled into the sea, and a port just outside Castlemontâ€™s protective wall bustled with activity. Sailors loaded crates of salt and checked ropes on massive ships with fluttering white sails. Smaller vessels sailed up the Ghone into the heart of Salaria. They disappeared into the forest, although the sails of larger ships floated above the trees like ghosts. Beyond the forest, open fields and tiny villages stretched to the Weeping Mountains, the source of the Ghone. I could just make out the silhouette of the mountain range in the light of a sun not yet risen.
I rummaged through the crate I kept on the tower. Under the books on magic technique I had sneaked out of the library, I found my gold opera glasses. I turned to the ocean, examining the ships too far away to see without aid. The wind pulled strands of hair from my floor length black braid and whipped my face with them. The usual ships sailed along the coast. Navy vessels, both men and ships clean and polished and identical. I skipped past them. The merchant ships intrigued me. Their stained sails and tattered crews hinted at stories I could only imagine, and they had almost as many canons on their decks as the naval vessels to protect against pirates.
I watched the flags flutter in the breeze. None of the ships in sight flew the flag of New Salaria. Surely the delegation would not be delayed another day? The ocean glowed pink as the sun progressed towards the horizon.
Too near the horizon. I needed to hurry back.
I climbed through the trap door and pulled Seda with me. He yowled as I shut it and carried him back down the tunnel. Golden sunlight slipped through cracks now, but it was still much darker than being outside. Before my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I reached my room and pushed aside the tapestry blocking the tunnel entrance. I took a moment to adjust it so no one would discover my secret. I wouldnâ€™t have found the passage without Sedaâ€™s help, and I had lived in this room my entire life. The secret tunnel continued past my room to Lady Almaâ€™s studio and the council chambers, although I never went that way. Too many courtiers wandering around, looking for the latest gossip.
I jumped into bed and tried to smooth my braid. Hopeless. I snapped my fingers, trying to summon magic to help. Nothing happened. My hair remained a tangled mess. If I was lucky, everyone would assume I had been having bad dreams. Rumors would spread throughout the kingdom that nightmares troubled the sleep of Salariaâ€™s greatest treasure, but everyone would forget about it in a few days. They would have new gossip after my birthday celebration. I closed my eyes, relaxed my body, and waited.
A breeze rustled through my hair when the door opened, but I did not stir. I kept my eyes closed and my breathing slow and even. Scrapes, scuffles and whispers echoed through my room. They always tried to be quiet, but they seldom were. At least thick carpets muffled the footsteps. I listened for sounds out of the ordinary. My birthday was tomorrow. According to tradition, my fairy godmother should come for a visit. Had the Fairy Divinia come early? Did a fairyâ€™s footsteps sound any different?
A string quartet began to play my aria from our latest opera production. I waited. As the violins hit their highest note, I turned my head and opened my eyes.
No fairy. Just the usual crowd. I smiled at them to hide my disappointment.
Divinia would come tomorrow. The Colonial Delegation would have a safe journey.
Everything would be fine.
Lady Alma, my personal designer, opened the curtains with a snap of her fingers. Light streamed down on me. My tangled hair reflected dark colors on the walls. Lady Almaâ€™s hair also did a fair bit of reflecting; she wore a pink wig covered in diamonds that towered high above her head. The pink contrasted nicely with her warm Castanian complexion. I once overheard a Duchess complain that Lady Alma had the skin of a sailor as if she spent all her time working in the sun. Lady Alma refused to let her naturally tan skin stop her from making bold fashion choices.
â€œNight prism eyes reflect colors unknown,â€ Mother said, quoting the spell Divinia spoke over me on the day of my birth.
Because of that spell, I am my nationâ€™s greatest treasure. Those words changed my life. They also rhymed. Mother embraced poetry with a passion after the blessing, and I have been surrounded by poets ever since.
I smiled at Mother and nodded to the group of courtiers and artists standing in the back of the room. Sir Quill, Minister of Poetry and unmistakable in his hat that doubled as an inkwell, stepped forward and spoke.
Roses are red, violets are blue
Salaraâ€™s eyes reflect indescribable hues.
Violets are blue, and roses are red.
Everyone here agrees with what I said.
Violets and roses. Red, purple, and blue.
Colors mean more when reflected by you.
He stepped back into the crowd. Lady Alma came forward, shorter than everyone in the room and as wide as she was tall. Her four chins jiggled as she walked.
Two courtiers pulled back my velvet blankets and satin sheets, and I stepped onto the carpet. Lady Alma raised an eyebrow at my wrinkled nightgown and tangled hair. I ignored her questioning gaze and walked to the center of the room. Light from every window blinded me as I stepped into the sunny spotlight. My hair reflected even more colors onto the wall, a dark rainbow of blue, purple, and green that drowned out the pink light from the wig.
Lady Alma snapped her fingers. Silver sparkles swirled around me until I could see outlines of the crowd, but no details. My nightgown disappeared. A red breakfast gown with a high collar and frilly sleeves replaced it. I gained two inches in height as shoes materialized under my feet. Jewelry appeared on my wrists, neck, and ears. My hair rippled in a breeze until the tangles from the sea wind became gentle waves hanging down my back.
The sparkles dissolved, and the courtiers gasped and applauded. Sir Quill pulled the feather from his cap, dipped it in the inkwell balanced on top of his head, and wrote. I followed Mother out of the room. Everyone bowed as I passed. Lady Alma walked directly behind me, and the courtiers trailed behind her in order of importance. The string quartetâ€™s music faded as we walked down the hall, and a trio of flutes replaced it when we entered the breakfast room.
Father stood in the doorway. Mother took his right arm, and I took his left. Courtiers pulled out chairs for us at the breakfast table. We sat next to each other, facing a wall of windows with a view of the sea.
â€œI trust you had productive meetings this morning, Nicholas?â€ Mother said.
Father nodded and took a bite of oatmeal.
â€œBecause you missed waking our daughter. Again. On the eve of her birthday.â€
The low murmur of a crowd entering the room obscured his mumbled reply. Mother glared at them, and everyone fell silent. They stood behind a velvet ribbon held by guards and watched us eat.
â€œIs there any news from the Colonial Delegation?â€ I asked.
Perhaps they were delayed by bad weather and sent a message?
Father shook his head.
â€œI insist you sanction them if they do not arrive in time for our treasureâ€™s birthday celebration,â€ Mother said.
â€œIt isnâ€™t their fault theyâ€™ve been delayed by the Dragon!â€ I said.
â€œPiracy is hardly suitable breakfast conversation, Salara,â€ she hissed.
Father ate his oatmeal and read a scroll of parchment.
A courtier escorted the crowd out of the room. A new group replaced them. I pulled a rose out of a vase and twirled it between my fingers. The Dragon was a human pirate, but I had overheard enough conversations to know he was causing far more trouble than most. He sank several official Salarian trade vessels last month, in spite of a naval escort. They called him the Dragon because he set the ships on fire before sending them to the bottom of the ocean. If he attacked the Colonial Delegation, I could only imagine the trouble it would cause.
I couldnâ€™t do more than imagine it because I was never allowed into council meetings.
â€œSo your meetings were productive this morning, Father?â€ I asked. â€œDid you work on the new treaty?â€
â€œThe treaty is finished,â€ Father said.
â€œUnless the Delegation is late for Salaraâ€™s birthday celebration. And then you will sanction them,â€ Mother said.
Another crowd entered. Their whispers created a quiet buzz.
â€œWhat does sanctioning them mean?â€
I leaned forward, trying to look at the parchment in Fatherâ€™s hands.
â€œWe are not sanctioning anyone, Ingrid,â€ Father said.
â€œUnless they are late,â€ Mother said.
â€œThe Dragon stole another shipment of salt. Castana is threatening to take action against us if a shipment does not reach them by the end of the month. The guest list for a birthday party is the least of our concerns.â€
I sat up straight, trying to look grown up.
â€œWhat action would Castana take?â€
â€œJust raise taxes or something,â€ Mother said.
She dismissed Father with a wave of her hand and turned to me.
â€œDo you have your lines for the opera memorized?â€
â€œYes, but what about the sanctions? What about Castana?â€
â€œThat really doesnâ€™t concern you.â€
â€œIâ€™m heir to the throne. I need to-â€
â€œGet ready for your portrait sitting,â€ Mother said.
She stood. I looked at Father. He shrugged and turned back to his oatmeal.
I followed Mother out of the room. Soldiers pushed the crowd back as I walked past them and turned towards Lady Almaâ€™s studio. I flung the door open, not waiting for the footmen standing outside the room to do their job, and stomped into the room. Lady Alma raised an eyebrow at me.
â€œBreakfast disagree with you?â€
â€œIâ€™m trying to learn things, but theyâ€™re no help! They wouldnâ€™t even explain what a sanction is! And Mother wants Father to put one on the colonies.â€
â€œA sanction is a kind of penalty,â€ Lady Alma said. â€œThey would make the colony pay extra taxes on traded goods or some such thing. Your father would never impose a sanction so hastily.â€
Getting an answer to my question did little to improve my mood, but I made an effort to smile at her.
I stepped onto a pedestal in the center of her studio, an octagonal room with walls covered by mirrors, shelves and drawers. The mirror in the corner behind her sewing table swung out and led to my secret passage. If Lady Alma knew about the tunnel, she never mentioned it. The enchanted ceiling transformed into a mirror, window, or painting of roses depending on what Lady Alma wanted. The walls could do the same. Bolts of fabric and spools of ribbons covered the floor. Chaos, but Lady Alma always found what she needed.
Three blond noblewomen stood in the corner of the room using charms to polish emeralds. They wore pink plumes in their hair to match Lady Almaâ€™s wig. Lady Alma told me their names yesterday, but I didnâ€™t remember. With their matching outfits and identical hair color, I wasnâ€™t even sure which was which.
Lady Alma took the emeralds and fastened them in my hair. They cascaded down my back, held by magic. When my hair rippled, the gems moved with it as if they weighed nothing at all.
â€œIs it supposed to be the Ghone?â€ I asked, turning my head to see the back in the mirror. â€œSapphires would be better to represent water.â€
Lady Alma fastened a salt charm around my neck to power the enchantment. She had decorated the flat, silver pendant with tiny gems.
â€œIt is whatever your mother decides it is, and the effect is delightful! Although your hair always makes gemstones look cheap.â€
Her assistants took this as their cue and spoke.
â€œYour hair is like the Ghone reflecting a starry sky!â€
â€œReflecting colors unknown onto the surface of our souls!â€
â€œLike salt in a stew, your beauty preserves us!â€
Lady Alma waited for the chorus to finish.
â€œWhen do you think Divinia will come?â€ I asked.
â€œIt would be traditional for her to arrive tomorrow morning. But she also should have come to your tenth birthday. I wouldnâ€™t count on her.â€
I stood silent as she snapped me into a floor length blue gown trimmed with white lace.
â€œThe blue makes your hair look darker than ever!â€ the assistants said.
â€œIt did the same at the fitting yesterday,â€ I muttered under my breath.
Lady Alma winked at me.
She didnâ€™t need help, but Mother insisted she have attendants. All the other artists of the castle had assistants and took apprentices when they found someone really talented. Lady Alma had yet to find anyone she considered worth dealing with long term.
â€œWhat if the Dragon sinks the Colonial Delegationâ€™s ship?â€ I asked.
â€œTheyâ€™ll send another ambassador.â€
She turned her attention from my dress to my face.
â€œWerenâ€™t we going to have sapphires draping down the gown?â€ I asked. â€œThe front is a bit bare.â€
Lady Almaâ€™s lips pursed together.
â€œI donâ€™t have any more gems that match this fabric.â€
â€œNonsense, the museum sent a shipment.â€
She shook her head. I gasped.
â€œThe Shadow stole them, didnâ€™t he? Is that why thereâ€™s so much extra fabric here? Youâ€™re stocking up just in case?â€
The noblewomen gasped and clutched their hearts.
â€œDonâ€™t start rumors, Princess,â€ Lady Alma said. â€œThe museum simply forgot to send them.â€
But she shook her head at me as she walked behind her assistants. I nodded back, very slightly. The women assigned to help were always courtiersâ€™ daughters appointed as a favor to their fathers. They were terrible gossips.
â€œMaybe some diamonds, then?â€
â€œI used all the diamonds for your opera costume. I do have rubies, but they wonâ€™t suit the blue at all. Lace might work, but all I have is the pattern I used yesterday.â€
I blushed at the humiliation. Wearing yesterdayâ€™s lace? For my birthday portrait?
Lady Alma stared at the lace, then nodded.
â€œIf I layer this, no one will know. Donâ€™t you dare mention it!â€
She glared at the assistants. They were all head and shoulders taller than her, but they stepped back as they met her gaze.
â€œWe wonâ€™t tell a soul,â€ the nearest girl whispered.
Lady Alma waved her hands and added a few ruffles. Layered, the lace really did look like a different pattern.
â€œShadows only make you shine brighter!â€ an assistant said.
â€œSalaraâ€™s eyes are the only sparkle she needs!â€
â€œThe lace is layered like your many charms!â€
â€œQuiet,â€ Lady Alma said. She pulled a box seemingly from thin air and painted something sticky on my mouth.
â€œOnly Lady Almaâ€™s genius could add to your lipâ€™s rosiness!â€
â€œDo you really think the Shadow-â€
â€œHush. Iâ€™m not done with your lips.â€
There was no time for questions when she finished. A footman rushed me to the painting studio where the most experienced apprentice painters arranged my dress and hair under Lady Almaâ€™s careful supervision. After one last adjustment, Lady Alma set Seda on my lap, and Mother swept into the room. Sir Bristle, Minister of the Brush, followed closely behind her. More apprentices followed him, carrying Motherâ€™s easel and paints.
Seda clawed at my dress, trying to escape. I kept smiling and pulled him closer. For this yearâ€™s portrait, I sat on a throne carved from a giant block of salt. More salt carvings filled the space, and they had even sprinkled it on the floor. At least it powered the enchanted candles they used to light the room.
Seda dug his claw into my leg. I winced, but kept smiling. I had held him in every birthday portrait since I turned six, and he hated it as much as ever. If anyone knew why Seda did not age, they had never bothered to explain it to me. But then, most people assumed I wouldnâ€™t understand anything about spells and charms since I couldnâ€™t work them myself. I had read every book about magic in our library, but found no mention of an enchantment that would keep a kitten young for ten years. Even Lady Alma would not answer my questions about Seda.
Mother, paintbrush in hand, stared at me while dabbing at the canvas in front of her. Sir Bristle hovered behind her holding her palette and an assortment of tools. His best apprentices, the finest painters in Salaria, and guest artists from surrounding countries worked behind them painting me onto cakes, boiled eggs, and smaller canvases.
â€œAlma, Iâ€™d like to see the dress in green.â€
â€œSheâ€™ll look like wilted asparagus tossed out in the snow.â€
â€œDivinia wore green the day she blessed my daughter. The symbolismâ€¦â€
Lady Alma snapped her fingers. My dress turned green.
â€œSir Bristle, adjust the color of the dress while I examine the scene.â€
Sir Bristle snapped his fingers over his palette. Every other painter in the room did the same. Green paint replaced blue.
The Fairy Divinia had blessed me and named me the day of my birth. According to tradition, that made her my Fairy Godmother. And according to tradition, she should visit me every once in a while and grant my heartâ€™s desire. So far she had not even sent a calling card.
I stared ahead, struggling to maintain my smile. Was she alright? Could harm come to fairies? Had the Dragon stopped her from traveling? He seemed to take more and more ships every day. Did fairies travel by ship?
Pirates on our shores and bandits within them. Maybe she did not feel safe in Salaria. If she had sent a message by ship, it could easily have been intercepted.
Mother walked to the back of the room and examined the work of the other painters. She stopped to address an apprentice with squinted eyes and frizzy red hair hunched over a medium sized canvas.
â€œWho is this supposed to be?â€
â€œIt is the Princess Salara, Your Highness.â€
Sir Bristle stopped correcting the color of my dress and approached them.
â€œIs there a problem? I assure you, Your Highness, Lacquer is one of my best apprentices.â€
â€œIndeed? And has he learned how to draw a nose yet?â€
â€œI beg your pardon, Highness?â€
â€œHave you taught him to draw a nose, Sir Bristle? Because this painting, with a nose like that, is not my daughter.â€
Sir Bristle examined the painting and frowned.
â€œI donâ€™t understand, Your Highness. Until now, all of his work has been exemplary.â€
â€œIs this a joke to you, young man?â€ Mother grabbed the canvas and shook it in Lacquerâ€™s face. â€œDo you think painting the Princess Salara is a joke?â€
Lacquer looked from me to the canvas.
â€œI donâ€™t understand the problem, Your Highness.â€
â€œDonâ€™t understand the problem?â€
Sir Bristle bowed low.
â€œYour Highness, perhaps he lacks the proper experience to do the Princess justice. Lacquer, you will paint eggs for the remainder of this session.â€
Lacquer opened his mouth to protest, then shut it again. He bowed, collected his brushes, and moved to the back of the room where the youngest apprentices decorated boiled eggs. Mother handed his unfinished painting to a guard.
â€œSee to it that this is destroyed,â€ she said. â€œI will not have such an inaccurate portrayal of the Princess fall into the wrong hands.â€
She took a deep breath and turned back to me. I smiled and stared straight ahead, trying my best to look perfect. Mother picked up her brush.
â€œI prefer blue, Lady Alma. Blue for the Salarian Sea and the Ghone. Blue and white. The sky and the fairy snow. Change her dress to blue.â€
Lady Alma winked at me and snapped her fingers. My dress shifted back to the original hue. Seda pawed at it and frayed the fabric. Lady Alma waved her hand and wove the threads back together until the fraying disappeared. The painters cleaned their brushes and changed the green paint back to blue with a snap of their fingers.
Mother painted in silence. Sir Bristle examined the work of his apprentices and the guest artists when he was not filling in details for her while she examined the scene.
I always had plenty of time to think during portrait sessions, which is the polite way to say they were dreadfully boring. I stared at the wall and let my mind drift. What would I do when I met Divinia? It would be against every tradition if she did not come to celebrate my coming of age. Fairies didnâ€™t bless people often these days, but against all odds she had blessed me. What would I say? Thanks for the beauty and great voice?
And what would I wish for?
Right now, a more comfortable chair. Salariaâ€™s most plentiful natural resource made terrible furniture. Mother gushed about the symbolism, but the grains and bumps pushed further into my legs the longer I sat. I was supposed to be the fairy queen during the fairy snow, a Salarian legend Mother loved to recreate in any way possible
â€œHer lips arenâ€™t quite right, Sir Bristle. Fix them while I examine the scene.â€
I realized I had stopped smiling. I grimaced at Sir Bristle. He frowned and continued painting.
Both my legs were asleep by the time we finished. I had to lean against Lady Alma as we walked through the palace to my next engagement. Seda jumped out a window and climbed down a tree the moment I let him go. Lady Alma and I walked through the gardens to an ornate building so new the paint was still drying.
Our new opera house.
Sir Lefting, Minster of Opera, kissed my hand as I entered the stage.
â€œI trust the plot has not changed again,â€ Lady Alma whispered. â€œI have designed three costumes for this already.â€
â€œI finished adding the remainder of Her Majestyâ€™s revisions last night. Another costume will not be necessary.â€
Mother strode across the stage and sat in a chair at the front of the opera house. Sir Lefting ran forward to greet her. Backstage, Lady Alma snapped me into a white satin gown, which flared into a triangle starting at my armpits. She opened a gilded chest. A swarm of diamonds flew out and hovered just above my dress. As I moved, they followed. The dress rippled constantly even though there was no breeze backstage, and the diamonds followed the movements of the fabric.
Lady Alma pulled my hair up with a wave of her hand and put a round silver hat over my head. She fastened a new salt crystal around my neck. It glowed white, providing the magic to keep the diamonds floating.
â€œSo Iâ€™m not a shepherdess in disguise anymore?â€
Lady Alma laughed.
â€œThe sheep made a mess all over the stage, and your mother stepped in it. There has been an extensive revision since then.â€
â€œWhat am I now? A salt shaker?â€
â€œDonâ€™t say that too loud. Your mother will get ideas about symbolism. You are a snowflake.â€
â€œReally? Weâ€™re doing the fairy snow again?â€
Lady Alma snapped me into white leather boots with a bit of a heel. They fanned out at my ankle into a lace snowflake pattern accented with swan feathers.
â€œThis opera premieres tomorrow. Donâ€™t you dare say anything. Youâ€™re playing the first snowflake instead of the fairy queen, which makes it completely different from the last three operas your mother wrote. Put these on.â€
She handed me two silver bracelets. I slid them onto my right arm.
â€œNo, one on each arm.â€
â€œPlease tell me the choreography hasnâ€™t changed.â€
Sir Lefting entered. He held his conductorâ€™s baton and waved it around to punctuate everything he said.
â€œThe choreography is exactly the same. Except you must step backwards every twelve counts.â€
â€œAs part of the stage magic,â€ Lady Alma said. â€œTry it now.â€
I stepped back, tripped on something, and nearly lost my balance. I lifted my triangular skirt to see what had caught my shoe. My foot hovered a few inches above the floor. I tapped it. Something solid and invisible stopped my shoe from reaching the ground.
â€œA genius spell by the Lady Alma,â€ Sir Lefting said. â€œEach time you step back, you will be elevated a few inches.â€
â€œHow do I get down?â€
â€œOnce you reach the top of the stage, each step will take you down regardless of direction. Perhaps we may begin rehearsal now?â€
â€œIt is perfectly safe,â€ Lady Alma said.
I did not feel unsafe, just unsettled. No one noticed my feet were not touching the ground as I entered the stage and bowed. Sir Lefting waved his baton. The music began.
The chorus of singers and ballerinas wore blue trimmed with silver. They entered the stage and surrounded me. I twirled amongst them. Every twelve beats I stepped backwards, and my invisible platform rose a few inches. The diamonds hovering over my dress spread out as I danced above the stage. The dress itself also spread out. Extra fabric unfolded until I was surrounded by a circle of white silk. By the time my feet reached the top of everyoneâ€™s heads, the diamonds surrounded me like rays of the sun. My salt shaker hat became the center of the snowflake.
One by one, the chorus left the stage. When they had all gone, I stood at the center and began my aria. My enchanted voice rang through the opera house. Gradually the players of the orchestra stopped until I sang alone. As I sang my final note, I walked forward and descended an invisible staircase until I reached the stage. The diamonds on my dress drifted towards me until they sat just above the fabric again, rippling in a wind I couldnâ€™t feel. Two footsteps echoed in the silent hall when my feet connected with the floor.
â€œMagnificent!â€ Mother yelled. â€œMy greatest triumph yet! Now run the whole opera. I want to see my revisions in action.â€
I nodded to Sir Lefting and walked backstage. My solo was the operaâ€™s grand finale, so I had time to relax until I performed again.
A page ran onto the stage, knocking over a few of the singers.
â€œStop everything! The Colonial Delegation has arrived!â€
Discover the rest of Princess Salaraâ€™s story in Rook and Shadow.