by Sherwood Smith
In a tiny, rural kingdom called Vasande Leror, the new ruler and his stepsister were busy with books. The castle where they lived was small, built stolidly of gray, unadorned rock, and mostly empty. The ruler, Leander Tlennen-Hess, sat in his library working hard at magic studies; down the hall in her suite of rooms, Princess Kyale Marlonen lay curled up on a couch reading, two cats nestled against her and one stretched along the headrest. Kyale galloped through the pages of a historical record written by a long-ago princess not much older than she, whose life had been fraught with danger.
She’d sunk so deeply into the past that she failed to see the face peering in at her through the window.
Tap! Tap! Tap! came the sound of knuckles on glass.
Kyale jerked her attention from the book to the window, where a round, freckled face peered in.
“Yagh!” Kyale shrieked, flinging up her hands, and the book sprang into the air.
So did the cats. Before the ancient book (and the three cats) hit the rug Kyale had already dashed out the door. She ran straight to Leander’s study.
He looked up, hating to be distracted; when he saw his stepsister’s frightened face, he vaguely remembered hearing a scream.
Wondering if the horrible ex-queen Mara Jinea had come back from Norsunder to threaten them again, he set down his book. “Kitty? What is it?”
Kyale pointed back toward her room. “She — a girl — my window — ”
Leander ran out, followed by Kyale. He arrived at Kyale’s room at the same time as her governess, Llhei, an older woman of comfortable size and demeanor. Leander bent out of habit, carefully picking up the hand-copied history book.
Then all of them stared at the girl outside the window. This astonishing visitor stared back in at them, laughing; they could just hear her as she chuckled at the sight of the stout woman, the tall dark-haired boy, and the tiny, silvery-blond girl in the pretty dress, all with identical expressions of surprise.
The laugh was an infectious one, a friendly one. Leander and Llhei were the first to notice that the girl’s expression was good-humored, and not at all frightening. Kyale just stared.
Leander set the book down. He flung open the casement of the window next to the one the girl peered into. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“Holding onto the ivy,” the girl exclaimed, still chortling. “If you’ll just listen — ”
“Push her back down,” Kyale demanded, frightened.
“Will you fleebs listen?” the girl yelled. “And let me in,” she added meekly, peeking down at the courtyard below.
“First you can explain why you didn’t come to the door,” Leander began, squarely blocking the window, his mind full of the wicked former queen, Mara Jinea, and the cost in lives to get rid of her. He did not like any situation that he couldn’t understand — the memory was too painful and recent, the sense of threat too near.
At that moment some of the ivy gave, and the red-haired girl dropped lower. “Ulp!”
Her nose was now barely level with the windowsill as she turned her gaze to Kyale. “Tell that kid with eyes the color of pond-scum to stop lip-flappin’ and listen!” she pleaded through the glass.
Kyale didn’t bother telling Leander what he obviously heard as clearly as she did; still in the grip of the written history, with its dangers and heroism, she bustled to the second casement and swung it open.
The girl surged up in a great rustling of ivy, flung herself over the sill and tumbled into Kyale’s room. Then she stood up and dusted herself off. She was short — Kyale’s height — but where Kyale was shaped like a reed, this girl was sturdy. Her bright red hair was confined into two stiff braids from which tight curls aggressively tried to escape.
Leander pointed out wryly, “Your eyes are the color of frogs.”
The girl’s laugh was warm and humorous, and not the least bit threatening. Then she said, “Would you believe froggies can help EEEE-mensely?”
“Help?” Leander and Kyale said together.
“I mean what I say. So park yer duff, and I’ll take a turn at lip-flappin’. Hoo! This is the very first time it’s been me — and not the gang at home — who’s having an adventure.” The girl tipped her head. Her hosts seemed even more confused. “Never mind that. I climbed up the window because everything but this window was dark, and you didn’t have anyone waiting around like you usually find at castles. I tried knocking below but no one answered. Though I didn’t knock loud because that thick wood hurts.” She showed them reddish knuckles.
Kyale glanced at her brother, her nose lifting. “Well, we don’t really have enough servants, and our few were busy elsewhere — ”
“Kitty,” Leander began.
“Though that’s not my fault,” Kyale said. “But do go on.”
“All right. You’ve got this big country west of here, right? Marloven Hess? Full of warriors, seems to me.”
“That’s Marloven Hess,” Leander said grimly.
“And the rulers use magic. Not just the rulers, either,” the girl added. “Because I was a prisoner there. Of a magician, I mean, name o’ Latvian. I made friends with his daughter Hibern. Fern’s what she likes to be called.”
“Fern?” Kyale repeated.
“Yes. She’s fifteen, and wow, is she smart! See, her father had made some sort o’ nasty plan to marry her to the Marloven king someday — ”
“Eeeuw!” Kyale exclaimed.
“Well, she thought so, too! So she pretended to be crazy. And lame. So her father locked Fern in a tower, where she studies magic without any interruption, and I’m here to tell you she knows plen-teee!”
“Go on,” Kyale said, thinking Fern already sounded dull. Too much like Leander — studying and working all the time — and not enough like an adventurous hero ought to be.
“Well, so I also made friends with one of the guards, who was bored with guard duty, and we talked through the tower window a lot, and he was bragging about how smart their king is, and he’s going to launch this plan soon, about taking over here. Reclaiming is what they call it.”
The two Lerorans reacted typically: Leander worried about what this possible threat meant to the kingdom, and Kyale what it meant personally. Both were scared; Kyale tried to disbelieve it.
“Huh,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “If you got it from a mere foot-warrior, it can’t be anything real. I mean, we haven’t done anything to them.”
Leander frowned at the girl. Could she be part of this plot? “Why did you come to tell us?”
The girl’s eyes were wide and earnest. “Because we kids have to stick together, that’s what Clair would say. Especially when there are kid rulers, like us. Well, like Clair. I’m not a ruler, and let me add, I’m grateful for that!” The girl paused, looked at them, sighed. “I see I’m not making any sense. Again. See, Clair’s thirteen — another kid — ”
“Kid,” Kyale repeated, liking the sound of the word — which was the English word, and not the Leroran word for baby goat.
“It means people our age! We got the word from this world called Earth, after — augh! There I go again! Clair’s our queen, and I know she’d want me to do what I did. So I did.” The girl now grimaced comically, adding, “Did do. Do did?”
“So what’re your names?”
“I’m Princess Kyale Marlonen of Vasande Leror,” Kyale enunciated with pride. “He’s Leander Tlennen-Hess, the king.”
The red-haired visitor drew herself up and executed a bow. “Well, Your Greenness and Your Shortness, I — ” She smacked her chest proudly. “ — am My Lamejokeness, Faline Sherwood of Mearsies Heili!” She pronounced her name Fah-LINN-eh.
“Never heard of Mearsies Heili,” Kyale stated.
“Well, I never hear o’ you gnackles either, till ol’ 713 spilled that plan,” Faline retorted in a reasonable voice.
“If you’ve never heard of us, how do you speak our language so well?” Kyale demanded. “I mean, you don’t make any mistakes, only that accent.”
“It’s this spell Clair found and put on us, makes us hear other languages in Mearsiean, and when we speak, it comes out right for you. ’cept for words that you don’t have, then you hear them real. Like ‘kid’.”
Leander began to relax inside. Adults, in his recent experience, rarely told the truth, and were mostly motivated by selfish or incomprehensible desires. He knew he couldn’t judge their trustworthiness by word or expression, but someone his own age he found far easier to trust.
“I’ve heard of that spell, and wish I could find it,” he said. “Of course you haven’t heard of us. We’re not exactly famous here. Where lies Mearsies Heili?”
“On the other side of Enneh Rual, over the ocean.”
“That’s not all that far,” Leander said. “I haven’t yet had time to study the map of the Toaran continent, but I know it lies just across the sea from us here on Halia…” He saw Kyale’s impatience, and Faline’s confusion, and added in haste, “But all that can wait. What’s the plan, exactly?”
“To bring a mage with a bunch o’ splatbrains — uh, warriors — up to some famous pass at your western border, and break the old spells that guard the pass. And while you’re busy with magic trying to fix the spells and get rid of the mage, they’ll have already brought another gang o’ slobs around that way.” Faline pointed north. “Meantime, smasho!” She clapped her hands together. “They bucket in and klunk you all.”
“Bucket,” Kyale repeated, delighted.
Faline grinned. “That’s from CJ, too. Er, Princess Cherene Jennet. Like ‘kid’, ‘bucket’ is slang from Earth. CJ first came from that world, y’see. She had a terrible life on Earth. But Clair rescued her. Brought her to our world. Now she’s our princess, since Clair doesn’t have any brothers or sisters. Only a cousin, and he said if she tried to make him an heir, he’d — there I go again! Anyway, CJ likes funny words. Remind me to tell you about pocalubing, our rule for the proper insulting of villains.”
Leander sighed, not really listening to Faline’s story about people he didn’t know. He was worried about his ignorance of the enormous kingdom over the mountains to the west.
He had tried to find some records of Marloven Hess’s recent history, but Queen Mara Jinea seemed to have destroyed them. All he knew was that they’d mostly been fighting one another for the past few centuries or so, when they weren’t fighting their larger neighbors in order to regain access to the sea. So he’d given up the search. It wasn’t as if he didn’t already have too much to do, like repairing Mara Jinea’s damage to Vasande Leror during her years of rule — and he needed to learn as fast as he could how to be a king.
So far, no one over there had bothered with little Vasande Leror. Obviously that was about to change. “When, do you know?”
Faline flapped her hands in a circle. “Soon, that was what I gathered. Soon like days away. They were marching these fellows here and there when I escaped from Latvian’s.” She twiddled her fingers back and forth. “Which lies not far from the border straight that-away, or I’d still be runnin’ and hidin’!” She flapped a freckled hand westward.
Leander rubbed his hands down his face.
“How can we stop them?” Kyale asked, looking worried.
Faline glanced from one to the other. “I don’t pretend to know anything about military junk, because I don’t. Why, during this horrible adventure we got stuck with a year or so back, in this real military camp, where the bucketbrain in charge was planning a really big takeover — ”
Leander whistled. “Insane.”
“Well, he was that, too, but anyhoo, guess what I got stuck with? Supplies! Some of the other girls had better jobs, though we didn’t have to do it — oh, I’m getting all tangled up again. I can see that this adventuring stuff would be much easier if the villains would let us know one involving us is coming, so we could send CJ’s records on ahead to the people on our side, so they could read them and know us first.” Faline grinned, rocking back and forth from heels to toes.
“Would you send them to the villains, too?” Kyale asked, snickering.
“Only the insults,” Faline assured her. “And CJ always puts plenty of those in when she writes up what happened. Anyhow, seems to me with this plan your problem is, you have to be in two places at once, and you don’t have any army, right?”
Leander sighed. “Right. It’d take days to raise the locals in a militia — everyone’s busy with summer planting.”
“Your group from the forest,” Kyale began.
Leander gave her an impatient look. “What can thirty people do against an army?”
“They can look like an army, if you’ve got your magic,” Faline said.
Leander leaned forward. “Keep talking.”
Faline turned as red as her hair. “You mean it’s a good idea? Well, it ought to be, because Clair used it first, see, when we squelched that insanitic I was talking about. But somehow, if an idea comes from me, it’s gotta turn ridiculous — ” Faline tipped her head to one side, and laughed. “Never mind! I’m not used to bein’ the one in the adventure. I usually follow along.”
“Adventures?” Kyale asked. “You keep saying that. Girls?”
“Yes! See, there are nine of us altogether. I’m one of eight friends of Clair, the queen, like I told you, and we always seem to get into these big splats. But we have lots of fun.”
“Uhhh,” Kyale sighed, in sudden and intense envy.
“Anyway,” Leander prompted.
Faline’s face turned redder as she stared fixedly at the bedknob. “I don’t like to talk about this in the ordinary way, but you see, I happen to be an Yxubarec. I’m pretty sure that’s why Kwenz of the Chwahir snaffled me and sent me over to Latvian in the first place.” She sidled a quick peek at the two Lerorans.
Kyale looked blank; Leander grimaced, and then smoothed his expression.
But not quick enough. Faline pointed at him. “See? That’s how everybody feels about Yxubarecs. Well, I hate being one, too.”
“Being what? What is it?” Kyale asked, eying Faline, who looked ordinary, if rather scruffy. “And who is Kwenz of the Chwahir?”
“Easiest first,” Leander told Kyale. “The Chwahir are another kingdom who really like conquering. They’ve been a threat at the other end of the continent for centuries, but there’s a colony over on Toar, where they’ve been trying to invade and expand. Their rulers are pretty wicked, from anything I’ve heard.”
“You’ve heard right,” Faline said, holding her nose and waving her hand. “Kwenz is pretty bad, but his brother Shnit, who rules their homeland, is far, far worse.”
“As for the Yxubarecs, they are shape-changers,” Leander went on. “Read about ’em. Caused trouble elsewhere in the world, until some mage exiled them to a kind of cloud-city so they couldn’t copy the forms of ordinary humans and get rid of the originals.”
He paused, gripped again by doubt. In his experience, adults were not to be trusted, but people his age were. Also, if Faline were evil like her ancestors, would she have admitted to what she was? In the books, the Yxubarecs always kept their abilities secret.
To Faline he said, “So if Latvian enchanted you, you could be used against someone over there — taking the person’s shape.”
Faline nodded, her round, cheery face now somber. “See, I ran away when I was little. I didn’t like copying people and killing the person so I could take their life for as long as it was fun. I don’t like using my shape-changing talent because it reminds me of them. But here’s an idea.” Her freckled brow puckered in question. “I could, um, copy you, and go to the north border, and you could magic a bunch of fake warriors. You know, illusions. Long’s they don’t actually attack, see, I can try to hold the villains off — being you — and you can scare off the real magician on the west border.”
“I don’t think I can face down an accomplished mage,” Leander said, fingering the history book lying on the table. “I haven’t been able to study like I should — ”
“You study all the time,” Kyale said fiercely.
Leander shook his head. “What does that matter, against some mage who’s got dark magic — which is stronger in destructive power — and decades of learning behind it?”
“But it won’t be Latvian,” Faline said. “He was mad at someone else. I don’t know all the details, just some. You’ll be up against someone from the capital who isn’t as good as he thinks he is. If that’s what ‘He should confine himself to military matters, the thing he knows best’ means. So you throw in a bunch of extra spells and things, that’s what Clair would do. So he smacks into more trouble than he expected.”
Leander nodded slowly, his mind racing through possibilities, some very recently learned — others hinted at farther along in the books. But maybe with some fast study…
He said to Faline, “What about you in the north? I don’t quite get it.”
“Here,” Faline said. “I’ll show you. Got some of your duds you could lend me?” She gave Leander an acute, narrow-eyed scrutiny that fascinated Kyale and made Leander feel uncomfortable.
Leander closed his eyes, muttered, and with a soft paff! of displaced air some neatly folded clothes appeared, smelling of the rosewood trunk where they’d been stored.
Faline grabbed them and vanished into Kyale’s dressing room. She came back a few moments later, and both kids were startled to see Leander’s twin appear in the doorway. “Convincing?” she asked. The voice wasn’t quite the same: it was a teenage boy’s voice, but the intonations weren’t Leander’s.
However, it would do.
Leander let his breath out in a whoosh. “What this means is, we’ve got hope. All right. I’ve got to send some people out to locate these Marlovens, and we’ll use your plan. It sounds better than anything I’d come up with. And thanks.”
“Well, thank Clair, if you ever meet her,” Faline said, clearly embarrassed. “Was her idea. I just pinched it.”
Kyale snickered at the sight of this copy of Leander who spoke in such an un-Leander-like tone.
Faline whisked herself back into the dressing room, and returned a bit later as herself. She dumped Leander’s clothes into his lap, and sat down cross-legged on one of Kyale’s satin hassocks.
Leander got up, thrust his clothes under his arm, and said, “Kitty, you stay here and entertain our guest. Arel and Portan should be in the stable, but where’s Lisaeth?” He opened the door and stampeded out, his mutters diminishing rapidly.
Kyale sighed, then turned to her guest, wondering where to begin. Faline was hardly dressed like one would expect of a member of a royal court, but hadn’t she been a prisoner? Maybe she’d stolen that ugly tunic and those old knee breeches from some peasant during her escape.
She’d listened carefully when Faline described being friends with a queen and a princess who were also girls. She hadn’t once used titles; Kyale veered between introducing herself as Princess Kitty, to maintain proper rank, and — “You can call me Kitty, if you like,” she offered, watching Faline anxiously.
Perhaps Faline would suggest the proper ranking herself.
Faline said, “Kitty! That’s a great nickname! Diana would like it — she likes animals. So does Seshemerria.”
No Maybe I ought to call you Princess Kitty. But at least she hadn’t rolled her eyes, like the Mayor’s daughter had, or worse, sneer, like that girl had who’d come with the duchess from Telyerhas, the big kingdom to the south, when Kyale had tried to get them to call her ‘Princess Kitty’ as a friendly compromise between informality and proper decorum.
“My best friends are animals,” Kyale said. It was the truth. She had had no success finding local friends — either they were too lowborn for her to bother with, or else they were, like that duchess, used to a proper court and fine things, and they looked down on her even though she was a princess. “How many friends does your queen have?”
“There are nine of us, all told.”
“And all of royal birth — or noble?”
Faline snickered. “Only Clair. I think. I dunno, never asked. Clair adopted us all, and some talk about their past and some don’t. But we don’t have any nobles in Mearsies Heili,” Faline added cheerily, without the slightest vestige of embarrassment or apology. “It’s mostly farms and mountains and forest — we’re too small, I guess. Why, you can cross most of our kingdom in a week’s ride!”
Kitty stared at her, thinking, Vasande Leror is much smaller than that.
But Faline went on to describe the girls’ underground hideout, magically protected, all cozy and decorated by the girls, where they had endless fun — no adults allowed — and when they wanted they ran around in the woodland above their hideaway and played day-long games. They also had duties, such as guarding against the Kwenz’s teenage heir and his friends, who kept trying to discover the underground hideout.
Kitty listened in fascination, her emotions swinging between dismay at the utter lack of the protocol and etiquette that she had always thought was essential to one’s status, and envy at all their fun.
It wasn’t until Faline had yawned several times, her vivid blue-green eyes bleary, that Kitty realized she might be tired and hungry.
When she suggested a meal, Faline agreed with fervent gratitude. She ate with enthusiasm, but her yawns came more frequently, and after a short time back in Kitty’s rooms, she reluctantly suggested a rest.
“Oh, that would be nice,” Faline said, her relief plain.
“Llhei will show you to a suitable room.” Kitty reached for her summons bell.
“L — ya — lya — how do you say her name?”
“Ll-yeh-AY-ee, but you run it all together,” Kitty said. “She comes from Sartor, or somewhere far away like that. Sartoran has all those funny l’s and yuh sounds, Leander says.”
“Really?” Faline asked. “How did she end up all the way here? Must be a good story!”
Kitty said, “She’s only my maid.”
“Oh.” Faline looked surprised, a subdued sort of surprise, and Kitty wondered if she’d said something wrong.
Llhei opened the door. “I trust you are going to let your visitor rest now?” she said, beckoning to Faline, who jumped up. “She had a very long day.”
“Of course,” Kitty said, hoping to impress Faline. “That’s why I rang. I’ll see you in the morning,” she added as the two left the room.
Hopefully those idiot Marlovens wouldn’t try any tricks for a while, and in the meantime, Kitty would have this entertaining girl all to herself.
by Sherwood Smith
$4.95 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-058-3