If there’s one thing I’ve learned about magic rings during my long and very peculiar life, it’s that they have a higher than usual rate of getting lost. Another thing I’ve noticed is that the least likely person to find the missing ring will be the person who lost it.
There’s a third thing I’ve noticed. This is only indirectly related to magic rings, but it is completely relevant to my current situation. If you want help from a wizard, she will want you to help her far more than you want her to help you. But you’ll end up doing what she wants because you want her aid even more than she wants yours.
Or that’ s how I gather it goes. Actually, this is the first time I’ve been on the side of the people looking for help, rather than sneering superciliously from the wizard’s shoulder. This time the sneering is being done by a leaf-green snake loosely coiled over the bare shoulders of a singularly beautiful dark-skinned wizard called Yarrow.
You’d think it would be impossible to sneer without lips, but this snake has it down. If I had hackles, they’d definitely rise. Instead, I settle for flapping my silver wings in agitation.
Ryanne raises one hand to gently stroke me. “Calm down, little dragon,” she sends to me through our mental link.
I do. The wizard is explaining her terms and I’m not about to let that serpent distract me.
“I can create the charm you desire, Princess Snowdrop,” Wizard Yarrow says. Her voice is a piece with the rest of her: elegant and sultry. “However, I could do this far more rapidly if I had a certain ring—a ring that I had the misfortune to lose.”
“So, Yarrow, are you suggesting we go hunting for your missing bauble?” Princess Snowdrop asks. Her tone is dry and subtly mocking.
“Oh, never!” the wizard replies, teeth flashing in an amused smile. “There’s no need for hunting. I know where the ring is. I only require that you repossess it for me.”
“And the current possessor of the ring?”
“Is the Wizard Xavarian.”
Princess Snowdrop becomes completely still. Another woman might blanch, but Princess Snowdrop is already about as white as she can get. Well, except for her eyes. As if to make up for the lack of pigment elsewhere, these are a deep garnet red.
“Wizard Xavarian. My older brother?”
“That’s right. Your older brother. One of the king’s most highly ranked arcane advisors. The very man.”
At this point Valida interrupts. She’s a boyishly slim woman whose androgynous appearance is currently emphasized by the dark fuzz that covers her shining brown scalp. As she speaks, she unconsciously rubs her right hand over her nearly bald pate.
“Princess Snowdrop… Really, you don’t need to do anything… I can manage very well without hair until mine grows back of its own accord. Please…”
Princess Snowdrop waves a hand to hush her. “Oh, don’t worry, my dear child. Yarrow here knows me all too well. After all, we were at school together. Peace now.”
Valida reluctantly obeys, but there’s no doubt she’s still simmering.
Princess Snowdrop returns her attention to Wizard Yarrow. “So you lost a ring, and my brother just happened to be the one who found it. Do you have any idea where he might be keeping it?”
For the first time, Yarrow shows unease. She traces the grain of the polished mahogany table around which the humans are all seated. The leaf-green snake glides around her bare forearm like an elaborate piece of jewelry, coming to rest with its head on the back of her slender hand.
However, I hardly notice the reptile’s ostentatious posing. I’m taken with what Princess Snowdrop just said about having been “at school” with Wizard Yarrow. Princess Snowdrop is a striking figure, and in the fine condition one would expect of a woman who has dedicated herself to travel and adventure, but she looks at least thirty years older than the wizard, who does not appear to be more than twenty-five.
Then I get it. It is completely possible that both Yarrow’s beauty and youth are illusory. In the next moment, Yarrow shows herself quite capable of creating illusions. She moves her fingers in a series of complex motions and a castle appears, floating in the air to one side of her.
“I lost the ring’s trace here,” she says, “at Castle Grace. It is your brother’s holding, which would be enough reason to suspect him. However, through various charms and enchantments I have confirmed my suspicions. My ring is in his possession.”
“I know Castle Grace well,” Princess Snowdrop says. “My mother liked to take us there when court became too much. When she died, she willed it to my brother, but he’d been in residence for many years before.”
“All the better,” Yarrow says. “I thought I remembered you had spent time there. Are you interested?”
Princess Snowdrop appears to consider, but I know her consideration for a pose. Rather than her brother’s involvement dissuading her, it has guaranteed her interest.
“I would like a chance to discuss this with my retainers,” Princess Snowdrop says, “since I will be relying on their assistance.”
Yarrow inclines her head in a gracious nod. “Very well. I shall withdraw to the library. Please avail yourself of the refreshments on the sideboard.”
She rises with such sinuous grace that the gold beads ornamenting the myriad braids of her long hair barely rattle against each other and departs, taking the snake with her.
“Surely she won’t give us privacy,” Ryanne says, reaching for one of the small silken bags in which she keeps the tiny carvings through which she channels her magic. “I’ll set up a privacy ward.”
Princess Snowdrop accepts the tall glass of something frosty and cool Kolas brings her. “If it makes you feel better, by all means, do so.”
I know how much energy it takes for Ryanne to create her charms so, rather than suffering through her making a new one, I send to her: “Let me check. I believe I should be able to detect any obvious eavesdropping magics.”
Ryanne sends back, “Are you certain? We can’t take a risk.”
I shrug my wings. “Fine. Use your charm then, but I’ll check anyhow.”
She begins to set her ward. I don’t really blame her for not trusting me. We haven’t known each other more than a week. Moreover, familiar spirits are notoriously untrustworthy, except when given a direct command. Still, I admit, I’m just a little hurt. After all, wasn’t it Ryanne who’d insisted that she didn’t want a familiar, that if I was to stay with her it would be as the newest member of Princess Snowdrop’s peculiar band?
Then I realize that Ryanne is treating me just as she would one of the others. Look at how Valida had argued with Princess Snowdrop—even with Wizard Yarrow as a witness. Yet, there’s no doubt that the princess is the leader of the group. Her retainers are fiercely loyal to her and to each other, but that doesn’t mean they give up thinking for themselves.
Without letting myself become distracted from my self-assigned task, I take a fresh look at my comrades. Big, blond, fair-skinned Kolas is busy playing butler. He’s poured drinks for everyone—including a stiff whiskey for me—and now he’s shifting some of the elegant little snacks from the sideboard to the table, so they’ll be within Ryanne’s ward.
Ryanne sets small carvings of the beasts of the seven directions in their appropriate positions. I’ve served enough humans to know that in any land my ostensible owner would be considered lushly beautiful. She has midnight blue-black tresses, jetty eyes, and golden-brown skin. From our link, I know Ryanne would love to be a little less generously-shaped, since those full breasts, curving hips, and perky rump attract a great deal of attention, but she can’t quite make herself give up the rich foods. Even as she contemplates the perfect orientation for the crystal sea nettle that will mark “center,” she’s absently nibbling a sugar-dusted date stuffed with cream cheese.
Then there’s me. I’m still getting used to my current form but I’m not ashamed to admit that if I must have a body, this is a very fine one. Currently, I’m a very small dragon, just the right size to sit on a wizard’s shoulder. My scales are a shimmering sapphire blue, my wings and talons shining silver. My slit-pupiled eyes are the rich green of a high-quality emerald. I could pass as a particularly ostentatious broach, which is no surprise, since my body originated as one of Ryanne’s carvings.
Immediately after Ryanne announces that her ward is in place, and adds that I report no obvious eavesdropping, Valida begins to protest again.
“Princess Snowdrop, don’t go to the trouble and expense of purchasing a charm to grow my hair back. If you don’t like my stubbly scalp buy me a wig. Buy me three wigs! But don’t let that sorceress,” she all but hisses the word, “manipulate you!”
The princess gently pats Valida’s hand. “Don’t fuss so, Valida. My relationship with my brother is not such that I mind annoying him.”
Ryanne muses aloud. “I had wondered. In all the time I’ve known you, you have never consulted Wizard Xavarian, directly or indirectly, even when it would have been convenient. At first I thought it was because you are…”
“I was going to say ‘Too proud to ask for help and exquisitely independent,’ but have it your own way. Am I correct in guessing that you and your brother do not get along?”
Princess Snowdrop salutes Ryanne with an imaginary sword. “You have it. I do have siblings with whom I get along quite well, but Brother Xavarian is not one of them.”
This revelation surprises me not in the least. Maybe it’s different with common folk but, when you’re talking about royalty, a close relationship rarely equates to close friendship. Royalty are born rivals, especially in circumstances like those which exist in Princess Snowdrop’s family.
King Farand hadn’t been the sort of man to restrict himself to one woman—not even to one wife. He’d had several legal wives, then complicated the succession further by periodically disowning this child or naming that one as heir—only to change his mind later. He’d also legitimized any number of offspring by various mistresses. Lately, the question of the succession has been further twisted by rumors that he plans to skip his children entirely in favor of one of his numerous grandchildren.
Since I’m not trying to hide my thoughts, Ryanne catches some of this. Frowning, she asks, “Isn’t Wizard Xavarian your full brother?”
“He is,” Princess Snowdrop confirms. “Our mother was one of the king’s legal wives. However, Mother was notoriously infertile. Brother grew up accustomed to thinking of himself as an only child, as well as the son of the king. By all accounts, when our mother became pregnant with me, Xavarian was not thrilled. Although quite young, he had already begun to show a talent for sorcery. I have no confirmation of this, but my mother—and many others—believed that my albinism is a result of dear brother’s meddling.”
Kolas has been silent. Part of his job is to seem what he is not: a big, dumb bodyguard. Now he speaks in a rumbly voice more suited to a bear than a man. “Do you mean Wizard Xavarian cursed you when you were yet unborn?”
“Cursed me or tried to abort the pregnancy.” Princess Snowdrop’s casual manner doesn’t fool any of us. “There’s no evidence. It’s possible I might have been born an albino without any magical meddling. If Xavarian was responsible, he did me a favor.”
“Favor?” Kolas’s voice holds a distant thunder of disbelief.
“Without my disability, it’s completely possible my father might not have noticed me at all. He already had far too many children, and was onto his next mistress before I was born. However, I was, at the very least, unusual: a pale, slight, almost elfin infant. When I grew old enough to start toddling about, Father arranged for the charm that enables me to tolerate sunlight. After that…”
She concludes with a shrug of her slim shoulders.
Kolas persists. “You want to take the job, even though you suspect that Wizard Yarrow is using your less than sisterly feelings for your brother to goad you on?”
“Suspect?” Princess Snowdrop laughs. “Oh, she knows how I feel about Xavarian. We were schoolmates at that age when gushing about innermost feelings and speculating on the motivations of others is a prime pastime. I told her all about my—as I saw it then—tragic life.”
“And she told you?”
“About her longing to be a wizard, despite all sorts of resistance from her family. Yarrow comes from a seafaring dynasty with noble pretentions in her homeland. Her parents wanted her to marry someone who would give those pretentions a firmer grounding. She wanted to study the arcane arts. Well… You can see who won.”
“But you’re friends,” Ryanne persists, seeking reassurance. “That’s why you decided to obtain Wizard Yarrow’s assistance in reversing Valida’s problem.”
“I came to Yarrow because she’s very talented and geographically convenient. I admit, I find her price a bit high for what should be a relatively routine haircare preparation, but Yarrow always was one to take advantage of a situation.” Princess Snowdrop pauses and smiles thoughtfully. “As am I, of course. There are reasons we got along well in school.”
Valida tries one more time. “But, as you say, a charm for hair growth should be fairly routine. I can’t believe that wizards naturally have such long hair and beards. Why don’t we go elsewhere? I have savings. I can pay.”
“Why don’t we?” Princess Snowdrop smiles wickedly. “Why, because this will be so much more fun!
Upon reentering, Yarrow resumes her prior seat on one side of the table. Princess Snowdrop sits facing her, with Ryanne on one side and Valida on the other. Kolas stands behind. To confuse who I “belong” to, I flutter up to sit on one of his broad shoulders.
Princess and wizard dicker, working out the precise terms of their agreement. When that’s been thumbprinted in blood, Princess Snowdrop says, “All right, Yarrow. Tell us about this ring. I want very precise details because it’s one thing to repossess a ring. We’re not going to steal—either deliberately or accidentally.”
Wizard Yarrow grins mischievously, as if remembering schoolgirl pranks. “Oh, absolutely! We can’t have stealing, can we?”
She waves her hand in the air and an illusion takes shape, several sizes larger than actual size, so we can’t miss any details. The ring’s bezel is crafted of what appears to be gold, but could be one of the more magically sensitive metals. Unlike most rings, in which the bezel is simply the setting for displaying a gem or signet, the bezel itself is the ornament. It depicts mirror images of elm leaves in different shades of gold. In the center are a pair of grape leaves, accented by a cluster of dots that represent grapes. The design evokes forest or field.
“How large is the ring?” Ryanne asks.
“It’s not overly large, just over an inch and a quarter from the top edge to the bottom.”
“Wizard Xavarian could hide that just about anywhere,” Valida grumbles.
“But he won’t,” Princess Snowdrop responds. “Magical rings that aren’t keyed to one particular user are very valuable. If he’s not using it, Xavarian will not simply toss it on the top of his dresser or leave it in his pocket.”
“Any other questions?” Princess Snowdrop asks. “No? Then we’ll be off. Castle Grace is a good day’s ride from here, more if the weather doesn’t cooperate.”
“Good luck,” Wizard Yarrow says, ringing for a servant to show us out.
“Thanks,” the princess says, “but you know me. I don’t count on luck.”
Castle Grace stands by itself on a hill overlooking some very prosperous fields. To both the north and south are villages. Jadewater, the village to the south, is the larger, benefiting from a river which bring both trade and travelers. We arrive there in the evening.
As I learn is her custom when she doesn’t care to be noticed, Princess Snowdrop has streaked her pure white hair with grey. She has also used cosmetics to darken her brows and lips. She puts off the trousers, shirt, vest, boots, and sword belt that are her favored attire, donning instead a dowdy gown and twisting her hair up into a tidy bun. The final touch is a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles with tinted lens that disguise her garnet red eyes.
“Not,” she says with a laugh, “that anyone is likely to be gazing deeply into my eyes at my age!”
Valida is clad as a boy, a cap pulled down over her shaven head. Kolas doesn’t do much to change his appearance, other than wearing a pair of spectacles much like the princess’s own that do much to conceal the metallic steel grey of his eyes. Ryanne’s job is to be the one everyone looks at. She loops her dark tresses up, and adorns the elaborate coiffure with ribbons and minute bows. She applies some wholly unnecessary cosmetics, puts on a frothy gown, and switches to a sidesaddle.
I’m the most identifiable of the lot. However, very few people know to associate me with the princess’ group. Nonetheless, I am noticeable, so I travel tucked into Ryanne’s satin-lined reticule, with only my head—which if noticed will be taken as a jeweled ornament—poking out.
With these small adjustments, our group is transformed from four wandering rogues to a lovely young woman escorted by chaperone, bodyguard, and servant. We take a suite at an inn respectable enough to keep away the worse element, while not so respectable that anyone will remark comings and goings. Princess Snowdrop startles me by how well she can counterfeit a fussy older woman. She gives out to any who ask, as well as to many who do not, that we are waiting for a particular river transport. Something in how she says “particular” manages to stop all questions.
Once we are settled at our inn, Princess Snowdrop uses her guise as a gossipy matron to gather information about Castle Grace. She learns that Wizard Xavarian is currently at court, which prompts us to make our move as quickly as possible, since the castle’s defenses are likely to become more intense when he returns.
Our first task is carefully scouting the castle’s defenses. Valida gets work driving a cart for the butcher who has a contract supplying the castle. Since I see very well in the dark, my job is to scout where Valida couldn’t possibly go. Over the course of several nights, I dance with bats and night-flying insects, taking note of doors, windows, and hidden guard posts.
Ryanne draws a neat little map from the images I share with her, augmented with Valida’s reports. These maps are poured over until everyone has memorized Castle Grace’s layout.
“I don’t think the ring will be in the main storage vault,” Princess Snowdrop states with typical certainty. “That’s underground, and designed to store currency, armor, sculpture, and bulky bits of art. However, there is a much smaller vault in the residential wing intended for small, highly valuable items—jewelry in particular.”
Ryanne looks worried “But, Princess Snowdrop, couldn’t the jewelry vault have been moved since you last visited the castle? You did say you haven’t stayed there since your brother took over.”
“Maybe,” Princess Snowdrop replies, “but vaults involve a major investment, first in their initial construction, then in the locks and wards that keep them secure. I still think it’s our best bet.”
“Better certainly,” Kolas agrees, “than prowling at random through the castle. Where do we go in?”
Princess Snowdrop points to a segment of the castle, high and well-surrounded by various defensive formations. “There. That’s where the residential quarters are—or at least where they were. I believe we can get in without bothering with the main gate.”
On the dark of the moon, we begin our infiltration of Wizard Xavarian’s stronghold.
The first obstacle is an exceptionally wide moat. Superficially, it appears to be little more than a water barrier, ornamented with aquatic lilies and stocked with fresh fish for the castle table. However, from a butcher’s boy who thought to horrify her, Valida had learned that the moat is also stocked with gigantic lampreys who will attack any who are not using one of the official boats. Since said craft are taken inside the castle wall each night, there is probably at least some truth to this rumor.
Ryanne solves the problem of how to cross the moat by carving a water lily that is also, somehow, a raft. Since her petrified wood amulet transforms into a living plant, the lampreys don’t attack it. They do try for the human passengers, but Princess Snowdrop and Kolas slay the more aggressive, while Valida and Ryanne swiftly pole the raft across the moat. The water lily fades to aquatic slime when the last human steps onto the narrow stone ledge that is the opposite shore, leaving no trace of our passage. The lampreys devour their own dead and dying.
I’m very impressed with how well our plan is working out, but Princess Snowdrop mutters, “Too easy. Too easy. Too easy,” even as her blade drips slimy, translucent lamprey guts.
She again mouths this refrain after Kolas unbars a long disused sally port. He uses his peculiar gift for absorbing metal to suck in the latches and locks. Then he silently lifts the door out of the opening without tripping the wards.
The sally port takes us inside the castle’s outer defensive wall, but there’s a courtyard between us and the main keep. Using any of the doors right off the courtyard is out of the question. Even a sleepy guard on routine patrol couldn’t miss us. My aerial scouting provides the solution: we will go in via the roof where there are numerous doors that lead into various parts of the castle. Even better, there are no guards posted up there, since towers on the outer wall are much more effective for keeping watch over the landscape. It’s quite possible that these rooftop doors aren’t even locked.
How to get up to the roof without being seen is solved by Valida’s peculiar gift for working with rope and thread. Although the front of the keep is appropriately stark, around the sides there are several quite elegant walled gardens. We steal into one of these, then Valida causes otherwise insubstantial vines to weave themselves into a sturdy ladder. The humans swarm up this onto one of the lower roofs. From there, climbing to the appropriate segment of the main castle roof is not exactly easy, but it is possible.
Getting onto the castle’s roof this way would be impossible for anyone else, since the garden’s plants had been carefully chosen to be ornamental but fragile. Nonetheless, Princess Snowdrop’s lips move and I can read, “Too easy. Too easy.”
Maybe Princess Snowdrop just doesn’t want to tempt fate. For my part, I feel unconscionably proud of my new comrades. I’m sure that no one other than this group with its wildly assorted and eclectic talents could have been able to get through Castle Grace’s defenses undetected.
I take high guard while the humans ghost over the rooftops to a small tower built over a staircase. Tonight the tower is dark, the narrow windows shadowed eyes against the rough grey stone.
Once again, Kolas presses his hand to the iron locking mechanism, absorbing the metal into himself. Since most wards and traps are meant to be triggered by someone attempting to open the lock with something other than the proper key, Kolas’s gift is far better than anything but having that key. Actually, his gift might even have an advantage over the key, since sometimes keys are enchanted so they can only be used by certain people.
I doubt this would be the case with a semi-public door like this one: too many opportunities for false alarms and too much wasted magic, but why take risks? I’m more worried about the lock to the treasure vault. Still, as Princess Snowdrop had said, we need to get there first, then settle precisely how we’ll open the vault.
The stair the rooftop tower protects twists in tight curves into the keep. I flit down, confirming that the stairwell is unblocked and that the door at the base is locked but not warded. I let Ryanne know. Princess Snowdrop pads down first, then Valida, then Ryannne, each keeping enough distance so that weapons can be easily drawn. Kolas keeps watch within the tower up top. Me? After a quick pass around the roof to make sure everything remains quiet, I join Princess Snowdrop. I have some ability to sense magical workings—which is not as useful a thing in a wizard’s castle as it might be, since it’s a bit like sensing water in a rainstorm. Still, if something goes wrong, I can immediately relay the information up to Ryanne.
At the base of the tower stair, Princess Snowdrop kneels, checks over the mechanism, then picks the simple lock as neatly as I’ve ever seen it done. I’m impressed, but I see her lips move in the now familiar “Too easy. Too easy.”
The princess eases the door open the barest crack, confirming that the room outside is dark. I flare my nostrils, picking up the scents of stale air, dust, and rodent droppings. No one has been up here for a while. I relay this to Ryanne, then dart over Princess Snowdrop’s head to scout the immediate vicinity. All seems still, as one would expect of a castle when the master is not in residence.
When everyone has descended, we proceed deeper into the castle, Princess Snowdrop on point, me just overhead. The corridors are carpeted, so the humans make hardly a sound. Small glow-tubes provide just enough light that no one treads on the person in front of them or crashes into the furniture. No one says a word, so that even their breathing and the gentle flapping of my wings begins to seem loud.
The princess signals periodically that she recognizes where she is. We descend a servants’ staircase to a more luxuriously furnished wing. We turn once, twice, go up a few short stairs, then Princess Snowdrop slows, counting doorways and examining ornamental carvings.
Given the lateness of the hour, as well as the fact that Wizard Xavarian is reportedly not in residence, there really is no reason why we should encounter anyone in this part of the castle. Nonetheless, I find myself straining for the slightest sound. Once or twice, I catch a whiff of a not unpleasant perfume, a few times the air seems too fresh, but when I relay this to Ryanne, she gives the mental equivalent of a shrug.
I realize she’s right. We’ve come this far. It will take a lot more than a bit of scent to justify a retreat.
At last the corridor leads into a large foyer flanked on two sides by paired entryways. One set of doorways would look more suitable fronting a mansion than opening off an interior foyer. The other set is only slightly less ornate. These lead, I know from Princess Snowdrop’s briefing, to the lift that enables those who live in this aerie to reach their quarters without having to mount quantities of stairs. The corridor continues through the foyer, but we have come to our destination: the royal suite.
Kneeling, Princess Snowdrop checks the lock on the set of doors into the royal suite. I see her pale lips quirk in a sardonic smile, then she motions the others close.
“I can pick this easily enough,” she says softly, “but stay alert.” She glances at me. “See any wards? There weren’t in my time, but then…”
I shake my head. Princess Snowdrop’s smile widens as she picks the lock, but somehow that doesn’t comfort me. Sword in one hand, light in the other, she eases open the door. The space within is unlit, but the air seems fresh. Too fresh? Is that perfume? Why shouldn’t there be?
Quickly, the princess casts her light around revealing another foyer, only slightly smaller than the first. Princess Snowdrop had sketched us a quick map from memory, so I know that the shadowed openings lead into parlors, a grand hall for gatherings more intimate than the ballroom in the castle proper, a dining room with a table that seats a cozy dozen or so.
We move past these into the living quarters. Princess Snowdrop walks more quickly now, on familiar ground where she had doubtless run and skipped as an impulsive child. She doesn’t pause until we have come to an ostentatiously large bedchamber dominated by an impressive canopied bed.
There are three doors off the room. The one on the right leads to the bath. The two on the left lead into dressing rooms. The vault is built into the wall between the dressing rooms, but can only be accessed from behind a large mirror in the bedroom proper.
Ryanne and I join Princess Snowdrop by the mirror. Kolas stands guard by the door into the corridor. Valida stands near the foot of the ornately carved bedframe, ready to give aid, while keeping watch on the interior of the room.
I scan the mirror, then relay to Ryanne the location of a series of intricate wards. She disarms these with talismans shaped like snowflakes, designed to freeze magical workings for a short period of time. When the wards have been disarmed, Princess Snowdrop picks up a silver stylus and uses it to write the words that will open the lock: “Xavarian and Snowdrop, my greatest treasures.”
The vault’s door pops open, revealing a number of boxes of different sizes, including many appropriate for holding rings. Princess Snowdrop picks one up. As she is opening it, Valida gasps.
We spin in time to see a concealed door on the right-hand wall slide noiselessly open, admitting two people. The first is Wizard Yarrow, her annoying snake coiled loosely around her neck like a multi-tiered necklace, a ring that looks very much like the one we’re supposed to be searching for gleaming on one dark finger. The second person is a man I have never seen before but, judging from our finding him here—not because he looks anything like Princess Snowdrop—who I suspect must be Wizard Xavarian.
He leans lightly against an orb-topped staff of carved wood held in his right hand, while a boringly classic white owl rests on his left shoulder.
“Surprised, little sister?” Wizard Xavarian queries in a silky baritone.
Princess Snowdrop drops the ring box, then takes up her sword from where she’d leaned it against the wall, holding it point down in the carpet in front of her. It looks like a casual stance, but I know she can get the blade into play with frightening ease.
“Not really,” she drawls. “I thought it was odd when Yarrow asked me to take on this job, especially since not long ago she had written to tell me that I should come to her if I had need of something magical. I mean, we had been at school together, but other than exchanging the usual holiday greetings, we hadn’t had much to do with each other for decades. I made a few inquiries here and there, confirmed that Yarrow wasn’t particularly hurting for clients, so I guessed that she wanted to renew our acquaintance for some other reason. When she pointed me toward you, I decided it was one of two things: she was your ally or your enemy. I was betting on ally.”
Wizard Yarrow smothers a snort of far from ladylike laughter. Wizard Xavarian is far less amused.
“You figured all of that out, did you? I don’t believe that for a moment. It hardly matters. Your cleverness will do you no good. My associate and I have caught you breaking into my castle, pawing through the contents of my very private vault. That’s trespassing and theft.
“Trespassing, certainly,” Princess Snowdrop agrees, “but I have taken nothing. You really should have waited until I did so.”
“Your intention is clear,” Wizard Xavarian blusters. “The vault is open. When we entered, you held a box in one hand.”
“Maybe I was looking for some of our mother’s jewelry,” Princess Snowdrop counters. “You were left this castle, but I was left her more portable belongings. According to a list one of my retainers has been compiling for me, several very important pieces never made their way to me. Perhaps I remembered the secret vault in this castle. When I came and learned you were not in residence—you do know that according to everyone we asked, you are generally assumed not to be in residence?—I decided to let myself in rather than trouble your retainers with a difficult moral and ethical decision.”
“Nonsense!” Wizard Xavarian roars. He’s drawing in a deep breath to say a lot more when Wizard Yarrow interrupts.
“Wait!” she says, her voice softer than his, but far more commanding. “Princess Snowdrop, although he seems to have forgotten, your brother has an interesting proposition for you. Perhaps you two should sit down and let him have his say.”
Princess Snowdrop arcs one elegant eyebrow. “A proposition that he couldn’t make without luring me—as he thought—to his stronghold?”
“Actually,” says Wizard Yarrow, “the need for secrecy is part of the proposal. Surely you can at least listen. If you don’t like what Xavarian has to say, you can go back to bickering.”
Like a couple of small children, her expression says, although she’s too polite to say the words aloud.
It’s the word “secrecy” that hooks Princess Snowdrop. I know this even without the resigned confirmation that comes to me through my link to Ryanne. There are few things Princess Snowdrop likes more than secrets. I wouldn’t be surprised if Wizard Yarrow knows this perfectly well.
“I don’t see any harm with hearing Xavarian out,” Princess Snowdrop says. “After all, part of the reason for my coming here was to figure out what he’s up to.”
“And the other part?” Yarrow asks, no doubt to give Wizard Xavarian the opportunity to collect his temper and arrange his thoughts.
“Why, you might actually have lost a magical ring and needed it reclaimed for you,” Princess Snowdrop replies, sheathing her blade. “After all, we were at school together.”
We retire to one of the parlors where a long divan and a couple of chairs are arranged around a low table. Princess Snowdrop seats herself on the divan, Valida on her right, Ryanne to her left. I settle myself on the back of the divan and begin to groom, hopefully leaving open to conjecture the question of whether I am no more than an attractive pet.
This time Kolas does not stand behind the princess, but takes a post near the doorway, where he stands looking bored and slightly stupid. I doubt it fools anyone, but what humans will believe never ceases to amaze me.
Across from the divan, the wizards seat themselves in matching high-backed chairs upholstered with some deep, plushy fabric. They sit side by side, looking for all the world like monarchs seated on thrones rather more comfortable than the usual. Wizard Yarrow’s snake goes from doing an imitation of a necklace to that of an armband. Wizard Xavarian’s owl flaps up onto the back of the chair where it blinks and competes with Kolas in looking stupid.
“No refreshments, brother dear?” Princess Snowdrop asks, leaning back and putting her feet in their soft boots on the low table.
“I didn’t think you’d care to drink with me,” Wizard Xavarian grumps. “Figured you’d think I was going to poison you or some such nonsense.”
“Nonsense, indeed,” Princess Snowdrop says sweetly. “Why would you go to such trouble to lure me here just to poison me? It would leave you with an awkward body on your hands, as well as a tremendous amount of explaining to do. No, we’ll be happy to drink your tea. The hour is very late, and I could use a stimulant.”
Wizard Xavarian makes an exasperated sound, thumps his staff on the floor three times, and a tea tray, complete with an assortment of little cakes, appears on the low table. Princess Snowdrop promptly takes her boots down away from the food.
“Ryanne, dear, won’t you pour? Valida can hand the cups around. And now, Wizard Xavarian,” the princess says, donning her court manners as easily as she’d removed her boots from the table, “pray tell us the reason you have arranged this family reunion.”
Wizard Xavarian swallows his pique, for the first time seeming what he is—a powerful sorcerer and one of the reigning monarch’s most highly regarded counselors. “Although it has never seemed to bother you, Snowdrop, for the last four or five years, our father has begun to talk about bypassing our generation entirely and moving to the next to name his heir.”
“Yes,” Princess Snowdrop replies, “I think it was when Emmie’s eldest boy started shaping up so promisingly. It didn’t hurt that not only are the grandchildren so much more awed by Father than his own children are, but that, by doing this, he could make any number of people think they might get a line on the throne. Grandchildren, after all, share only a quarter of his bloodline.”
“You have thought about this more than I imagined,” Wizard Xavarian says, stroking his long beard with one hand.
“Well, I may not care to become queen myself, and I may not have any children eligible for the lottery, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care who becomes the next monarch. I’d like it to be someone suitable for the job, as well as someone who would not attempt to take control of my holdings. They may not be as extensive as yours, but I do value them highly.”
“So you would support a monarch who would promise to preserve your holdings, perhaps even add to them, a monarch who…”
“If you’re trying to sound me out regarding how I feel about treason,” Princess Snowdrop interrupts, “I’ll give you your answer. I’m against it. King Farand has not necessarily been the best father, but he has been a very sound monarch. In fact, the very things that make him a less than ideal father make him quite a good king. I can even see his point about skipping his increasingly greying brood, then training up someone younger while he still has time to put his stamp on the end product.”
“I plan no treason,” Wizard Xavarian says earnestly. “Rather, I have come up with a plan that will enable our father to select an heir both from the children of his body—rather than from a more attenuated pool—and young enough to rule for many years to come. Even better, he will have no doubt that his heir has been firmly influenced by his policies, for that person has long worked beside him.”
Princess Snowdrop arrives at the answer immediately. “You believe you have found rejuvenation magic. You’ll use it on yourself, then present yourself to our father. Tell me, what’s to keep him from demanding that you work the rite on him as well?”
“Currently,” Wizard Xavarian replies, “the ritual only works for one who has spent years in the study of magic. It also requires the use of a very rare magical item, one that will take decades to duplicate.”
“My ring,” Wizard Yarrow says, looking complacently at her hand. “It really is extraordinary. You see, it channels vegetative energy.”
Valida cuts in. “Why is that so interesting? Don’t most spells require a more vital energy source, like blood or souls?”
Wizard Xavarian looks annoyed, but Princess Snowdrop smiles indulgently at Valida. “I beg your pardon, brother, but I’m actually amazed Val’s stayed quiet this long. And she does have an excellent question. Yarrow? Will you provide an answer?”
Wizard Yarrow reaches over to pat Wizard Xavarian on the knee with her snake-wreathed arm. “Certainly, Snowdrop. It’s not as if you can turn the information to any use. Humans tend to regard plants as slow and stagnant, simply because plants don’t dash about. However, plants may be the most dynamic of all living things. Consider the vine Valida used to create your ladder—lovely adaptation of a relatively limited talent, by the way. Like almost all of the growing things in that garden, that vine is an annual. In the course of a few months, it grows from a seed so small that dozens would fit in this teaspoon to a flowering vine large enough to cover an area several yards in height and as much in width. Tell me of an animal that can channel that much energy so quickly!”
“I see your point,” Valida says, completely ignoring the dig about her own abilities. “That is remarkable.”
Princess Snowdrop returns her attention to Wizard Xavarian. “If you have your spell ready to go, why do you need me?”
Wizard Xavarian draws in a deep breath. “Power and proximity to power are not guarantees of popularity. If anything, they are the reverse. Moreover, if I use this spell as a means to set myself above our various half-siblings—many of whom are not as indifferent as you to the possibility of being made monarch, or at least of having the opportunity to rule through one of their children—my popularity will not grow. It would help a great deal if I had the backing of my only full sibling.”
Princess Snowdrop laughs so hard she has to set her teacup down. “Your sole sibling, who almost everyone believes—whether rightly or not—you cursed. That would indeed be a sign of support, especially since I am known to be rather addicted to choosing my own friends.”
Silence falls while the two siblings study each other. No one—not even Valida—says anything. I expect Princess Snowdrop to ask next, whether Xavarian did indeed curse her. However, she surprises me (and Ryanne, too, I feel) by turning to Wizard Yarrow.
“And what is your part in this? What do you get for letting him use your ring?”
Wizard Yarrow strokes her fingers along the coils of the green snake. “Two things. First, a share in the rejuvenation magic, enough to make me as young as I currently appear. Second, Wizard Xavarian as my lawfully wedded husband, bound to me by vows that will make it impossible to cast me off as your father has done with his wives and mistresses.”
“Very nice,” Snowdrop says. “Additionally, you would gain for your family the prestige they desired long ago. I am sure they would be quite grateful.”
“Possibly grateful enough to make me queen in my natal land,” Wizard Yarrow agrees complacently. “Then Xavarian and I would both be reigning monarchs, and both our lands would benefit from the alliance.”
“Very neat indeed,” Princess Snowdrop agrees. “And I can see how my support of my brother—and my dear schoolmate—would help.”
She pauses, pours herself a cup of fragrant tea, and nibbles pink cake. The wizards may think she’s meditating over what to demand in return for her support. However, Ryanne has no doubt what the princess desires.
“Princess Snowdrop wants that ring,” she sends to me. “Leave the wizards to the others. Getting the ring will be our job.”
Princess Snowdrop sets down the cake, cradles the teacup between her hands. “And if I do not choose to support you?”
“You were still found trespassing,” Wizard Xavarian says dryly. “Accidents do happen to trespassers, especially in a wizard’s castle.”
“Ah…” Princess Snowdrop says. “Well, it’s a good thing I like to choose my friends, isn’t it?”
On the final word, she tosses the steaming brew directly into her brother’s eyes. She’s on her feet in an instant, kicking over the low table and drawing her sword. Kolas moves to her side, his own sword—a curious weapon of bone and amber—in his hand. Valida rolls back to where she can use the divan for cover, so I suspect she’s working something with that “limited” talent of hers.
I don’t have time to wonder what. I’m diving straight for that smirking green snake. It’s worried me that—unlike Wizard Xavarian—Wizard Yarrow does not bear either a staff or a wand. It’s almost too late when I figure out that the snake, now stiffening, serves both as wand and as familiar spirit. No wonder the damn thing smirks!
Trusting Ryanne to keep Wizard Yarrow distracted, I go in close, knowing that Yarrow’s first move will be to put up wards. I need to be close enough either to be inside them or to interrupt their flow. Besides, I’m seriously eager to roast some reptile. Let’s see him smirk when he’s green with black stripes.
My flame doesn’t have much range, but it’s very hot. I exhale hard and have the satisfaction of seeing the snake re-coil. Now, rather than looking like a wand, it looks like a badly wrapped spring. Wizard Yarrow shrieks, both in protest and because I’ve set her gown on fire.
Nonetheless, if Ryanne hadn’t backed me up, I wouldn’t have had a chance against Yarrow. Before we came into the castle, Ryanne had readied a bunch of her talismans. Princess Snowdrop had impressed on us that she preferred we not kill anyone, so Ryanne’s first attack is to toss a carving of a slender pepper into Yarrow’s mouth when the wizard shrieks.
After that, it’s all Yarrow can do to breathe and beat out the flames, forget casting a spell. The green snake takes this opportunity to wriggle off to save its own scales. As I’ve had reason to mention in the past, familiars are not necessarily loyal, only bound. Still, I glide after it, herding it with little jets of flame until it takes refuge inside the teapot and coils in the cooling brew, soothing its wounds.
Ryanne wrests the ring off Wizard Yarrow’s finger, saying as she does so, “Don’t fight me and I’ll give you an antidote. Fight me and I’ll shove another chile where it will really hurt.”
Yarrow frantically offers her surrender. I would, too. Ryanne may look like eye candy, but she’s ruthless when pushed.
With our side of the battle won—the green snake can’t attack without violating Wizard Yarrow’s surrender—I flap up to see how I can help the others, but that fight is over as well. Two swords proved too much for Wizard Xavarian, especially since when Princess Snowdrop had kicked the table over, it had knocked his staff a few vital inches from his hand. Valida had used her “limited” talent to entangle the white owl’s feet in the threads of the upholstered chair.
Once the battle is resolved, Wizard Xavarian is too astonished at his sister’s refusal to be furious. “Why wouldn’t you support me? Surely you don’t bear a grudge against me? We’re adults now. We can help each other.”
“I’m not interested in allying myself with someone who believes he needs to blackmail me to be assured of my trustworthiness,” Princess Snowdrop replies coolly. “I’m assuming that—rather than any need for secrecy—is why you chose this convoluted way of bringing us together.”
Wizard Yarrow stops sucking on the lozenge Ryanne has given her long enough to say in a rough and wheezy voice, “Actually, secrecy was part of it. What reason would you two have to meet except to conspire? It was important that you seem to offer spontaneous support.”
“Ah,” Princess Snowdrop says. “Well, that’s not going to happen. If Xavarian had told me of his plan before trying to make sure he had a hold on me, I might have supported him. It is a very clever plan. However, knowing that cleverness is paired with such ruthlessness makes me understand why our father—who, after all, knows Xavarian far better than I do—has not chosen to name him his heir.”
“And,” Ryanne says, holding up the ring, which she has secured on a very sturdy steel chain, “without this, you’ll be a long time making that rejuvenation spell work, so I think your plan is shot.”
Wizard Xavarian sputters, but Wizard Yarrow actually has the brass to hold out her hand as if she expects Ryanne to return the ring to her. “I did,” she reminds us, “hire you to retrieve it for me.”
Princess Snowdrop laughs. “I think you’re in breach of contract in several dozen ways but, if you want to sue me, feel free. I’ll be happy to talk about every little detail of this in court. If my brother finds himself short of friends now, I can’t imagine how it will be after that. Perhaps one of these days, Yarrow, you can do a favor for me, and I’ll return the ring then.”
Wizard Yarrow manages to shape her grotesquely swollen lips into a smile. “I don’t suppose a hair growth potion will do it?”
“Not this time.” Princess Snowdrop sheathes her sword. “I assume we’re free to go? Don’t worry about showing us out. I remember the way perfectly. Oh… Xavarian, dear, I’ll be sending a representative to retrieve the rest of Mother’s jewelry and trinkets. So nice of you to keep them safe… A less loving sister would think you meant to steal them.”
We leave by rooftop and wall because, while we may have won, that’s no reason to be trusting. Behind us, I hear the crash of broken dreams counterpointed by the sound of a scorched serpent’s frustrated weeping.