by Sherwood Smith
Wren stared at Tess in amazement. “You’re a what?”
“A princess,” Tess said again.
“Oh, I get it. A new game.” Wren clapped her hands. “So how do we play? Am I a princess, too?”
Tess shook her head. “It’s not a game.”
“Tess,” Wren said slowly, “if this is supposed to be a joke, it’s not working.”
The two girls stood there under the spreading branches of their favorite tree, each trying to see understanding in her best friend’s countenance.
Wren studied Tess’s familiar face above the plain gray dress that all the girls at Three Groves Orphanage wore. She saw no hint of a smile on the curved lips, and Tess’s blue eyes gazed steadily and solemnly back at her. In front of Tess’s white apron, her long hands clasped each other tightly. This wasn’t any joke.
“Long lost?” Wren asked in a tentative voice. Images flitted through her mind, and she just had to add, “Lost . . . stolen away by the Iyon Daiyin, perhaps? And you’ve been rediscovered—here?”
Tess smiled at last, her own sweet smile that transformed her long face into something very beautiful indeed.
“Not long lost. Just—hidden.”
Wren’s skin prickled with horror when a gleam appeared along in her friend’s eyelids—a sheen of tears Tess was not going to let fall. If she just found out she’s a princess, Wren thought, the news doesn’t seem to be part of a happy ending. To make her best friend smile, Wren gave a loud and dramatic sigh of disappointment. “Well, then I’ll still have hopes for me.” She plumped down on a tuft of long green grass. “So you’ve had a secret, and now you’re telling me. Can you tell me any more than that?”
Tess rubbed one of her hands up her sleeve and down again.
“Yes. Mistress Leila is my aunt, and a princess in her own right. She’s really Leila Shaltar—”
Wren knew as well as any child in Siradayel the names of Queen Nerith’s offspring. “Princess Leila Shaltar, the Queen’s youngest daughter? The one who was supposed to have gone off traveling and settled out of the country?” At Tess’s nod, Wren’s light blue eyes grew round as icebird eggs. “Are you a secret ninth child—”
Tess shook her head. “No. I’m the daughter of Princess Astren—”
“Third daughter of Queen Nerith!”
“—and King Verne Rhisadel, of Meldrith.”
Perplexed, Wren frowned. “I thought . . . well, I guess I never thought much about Meldrith—it being so far away—but I remember, somehow, hearing that there wasn’t any heir.”
“There is an heir. Me. But I’ve had to live here in secret except for a short trip every year to see my parents. On my birthday, which comes day after tomorrow.”
“I thought your birthday was in summer, just after Gerrin’s—oh! That was a pretend one?”
Tess nodded slowly, solemn again as Wren sighed, sagging like one of the orphanage cushions. She was a short girl, with a square face and small hands and feet. Her only remarkable feature was her bushy cloud of brown and blond streaked hair, as if—Zanna the orphanage pest said once—two scalps of hair had had a fight for possession of her head and both had become attached. Wren’s braids were long and thick and heavy and seldom remained neat. Tess admired that about Wren. That hair of hers had character.
In contrast, Wren often and longingly wished that her hair was more like Tess’s—waving, shining, auburn, and it never seemed messy.
A new idea seized Wren, like a boulder had transported itself straight into her heart. “So you’re leaving for good, is that it? That’s why you’re telling me?”
Tess said quietly, “I think my parents might try to keep me in Cantirmoor this time if nothing happens.”
“Nothing happens?” Wren repeated, bouncing up from the ground. “A curse? Is that it? You’ve been under a curse?”
Tess nodded, her forehead puckered with unhappiness.
Wren said longingly, “Oh, how I wish it were me.”
This made Tess laugh. She sank down onto a low rock and laughed, rocking back and forth rather like a kettle on the boil, because she didn’t make any noise. Wren stopped bouncing about and regarded her with a mixture of mischief and concern. To Wren, Tess’s laughter sounded uncomfortably close to tears. “I guess I shouldn’t have said that—” Wren began.
Tess lifted her head. “Why should you stop saying what you wish?”
Wren spread her hands, giving her friend a funny, lopsided smile. “Well, things have changed.”
“Do you think I’ve changed?”
Wren peered doubtfully into Tess’s upturned face. “You haven’t, but your place has. Unless you’re about to tell me that I’m a princess, too.” Wren struck a princess pose—and sure enough, Tess smiled again.
“I wish I could. In fact, truth to tell, I wish we could trade places. You want a life of adventure—how many times we’ve talked about it! And I don’t, really.”
Wren thought about that. She had been sent down to the larger Three Groves Orphanage from a small, overcrowded one in the high border mountains three years ago. There, orphans were trained to obey orders and to be good general helpers, and when they prenticed out on their twelfth or thirteenth birthdays, it was nearly always for unskilled labor. The mountain folk were very close. Weavers, clock-makers, and other skilled artisans tended to take prentices from their own families first. No one in the mountains had much need for scholars or scribes. So it had not been thought necessary to teach Wren and her fellow orphans to read.
When she had been near nine—reckoning from the day she was first found—the Keepers had met with the Village Council, who had decreed that there were too many children and not enough jobs.
Wren was among those sent down to the larger village of Three Groves. She’d been happy about the change—hoping she might now be allowed to do what she wanted—but at Three Groves she’d found that, despite the larger numbers of children, the available positions were much the same. True, a small number of children, mostly girls, were trained to serve as scribes or governesses for noble families in the local great houses, but Wren was told that she was too old to learn the many skills needed. And traveling players? Three Groves children were prenticed out for respectable jobs! So Wren was once more employed in the garden, laundry, kitchen, and more and more often at the pottery.
At first she hadn’t noticed Tess, who was quiet and diligent. But one after noon she caught Zanna and her two toady friends picking on Tess. One thing Wren had learned on the mountain was how to deal with bullies. She dashed in, arms swinging, to defend Tess, though she was older, sending Zanna and her pals scattering like squawking chickens.
Wren told Tess how to handle bullies, after which the two got to talking . . . or rather, Wren talked and Tess listened, with such interest and sympathy that in a burst of confidence, Wren admitted her secret desire to become a stage player. Tess had a revelation of her own: that she owned a book of historical plays. She volunteered to teach Wren to read them. That had sealed their friendship.
Wren looked up. “You always knew, didn’t you? You were living in disguise.”
Tess smiled. “Aunt Leila told me when I was five. Before then we made those yearly visits, but I didn’t know who the strange man and woman in the pretty clothes were.”
“When you go there, do you get to put on jewels and a crown and have people wait on your every wish?”
Tess got up and stared through the hanging willow leaves to the tumbling stream. “No. Nice dresses, but otherwise my visits have always been much like life here. I never got to meet any other children, of course. I had to be kept in secrecy, and I was always on my very best behavior . . .” Tess hesitated, then shrugged. “It was not exciting. It was—strange. My parents are strangers. My true home strange as well.”
Tess’s voice was soft and even, as always, but Wren understood that being a secret princess wasn’t nearly as much fun as it sounded. Mistress Leila, teacher of writing and deportment at the orphanage, had coached Tess to speak dearly and well, to never raise her voice. Tess had also learned to hide her feelings.
I don’t really know her. Wren grimaced at her hands, struggling with the idea. I thought I did.
She’d thought her best friend a quiet, ordinary girl, content with things as they were, content with Wren being leader in everything they did.
“And here you’ve been spending all this time listening to me pretend to be people in history and watching me juggle and tumble,” Wren exclaimed. Then she remembered the import of Tess’s words and winced. “So back to the question I really hate. You’re telling me good-bye?”
Tess said quickly, “I believe I am to go back for good, but Aunt Leila said I could tell you, in case you might like to come to Cantirmoor with me.”
Wren sighed happily. “Would I!” She wrinkled her nose. “Or would I have to be your maidservant? I will, if I must—but I don’t know that I’d be a very good one. You know how they’re always getting mad at me in the kitchen, and garden, for daydreaming.”
Tess shook her head. “I wouldn’t want you to come as that. I know you wouldn’t be happy. Aunt Leila said we have to leave here as just Wren and Tess. No one here’s to know. She said that there will be plenty of opportunities for you to try other things in Cantirmoor.”
Wren clasped her hands. “The stage players.” She danced across the grassy space, then did a cartwheel. “Not those old, mean traveling players who came to the village square, and chased us away from their wagon, but real players, with beautiful clothes, speaking poetry, and performing before the toffs.” She struck a proud pose, then grimaced. “Though I thought you had to be beautiful. And no matter how much I try, I will never be able to sing.”
“You’d do well, I should think, because your memory for long poems is so good,” Tess said loyally. “And you know by heart all the plays in my—”
In the distance, a bell clanged.
“Dinner. “ Wren groaned.
Tess got up and straightened her skirts with smooth, automatic movements. “Aunt Leila said we could come here to talk privately just until dinner.”
Wren looked around the small space, protected by the thick hanging leaves, where they’d shared so many games. “Nobody knew! But why . . . how . . . your parents—” Wren stopped and drew a deep breath. “I think my head is going to pop from all the questions growing in it. Let’s begin with one. The curse.”
“Not a curse, precisely—a threat.” Tess pushed aside a curtain of leaves. “Does the idea frighten you? Would you rather not come?”
Wren said fervently, “Not likely!”
“Then let’s talk more tomorrow, as soon as we can find time alone.” Tess waited until Wren passed, then let the leaves fall. “We’d better go to dinner now, or we’ll be missed.”
Wren’s answer was a muffled groan of impatience as she bounced up the rocky slope behind their Secret Tree. Tess smiled and followed more slowly.
Looking at her narrow bunk that night, Wren whispered, “Last time for you.”
She had begun to unlace her plain woolen orphan’s gown when she was startled by a shriek of rage from the next bunk.
Wren spun around in time to catch Zanna’s golden head ducking aside as her fingers tweaked viciously at Mira’s braid.
Mira’s nightgown was still over her head. Mira gave a muffled squawk and tried to fend off the bully, but Zanna elbowed her hard in the mid-section and stuck out a foot so that Mira staggered into the center aisle and crashed into two other girls.
Wren caught Zanna’s arm as the older girl tried to escape around the side of a bunk.
“I saw that,” Wren said. “Leave Mira alone.”
Zanna glowered at Wren, then sniffed and flounced back to her side of the room. Mira yanked her nightgown down, her eyes filled with tears. The rest of the girls quickly finished getting into their nightclothes.
Climbing into bed, Wren thought about how strange it was. This might be the last time she’d defend anyone against Zanna and her pals. She’d tried to teach Mira and the smaller girls how to handle bullies, but they’d always come to Wren because she was stronger, quicker, and good at it.
I’m good because I learned to be, Wren thought. Should I warn them they’d better start practicing?
No, she had to keep Tess’s secret. Well, it’s not like they don’t know what to do. I’ve showed them, over and over. It’s time for them to do it.
The door opened, and Mistress Lith swept in, demanding to know why there was so much noise. Voices rose, but as usual only her favorite, Zanna, was allowed to speak. After she told her version, everyone was threatened with extra kitchen duty if it happened again. Then Mistress Lith blew out the lamp and left.
Wren lay quietly, smiling in the dark, and listened to the familiar hasty rustlings as the slow girls finished getting into their nightgowns, the creak of the wooden beds, and last the soft hiss of breathing.
I’ll be gone, she thought, savoring the strangeness of the idea. She fell asleep trying to imagine life in a real royal palace and only worrying a little about Tess and the curse.
The next morning, instead of racing out while braiding her hair, Wren jostled for a place in front of the little mirror to make certain her braids were neat and her apron and bodice laces straight.
At breakfast Tess gave her only a brief, shy smile as Wren passed by to sit with her own dormitory.
Afterward Wren dawdled in the hall until she felt a light touch on her shoulder. She found herself looking up into Mistress Leila’s face. Mistress Leila was the youngest Keeper, with bright red hair worn in the customary severe Keeper’s bun. Her smile was rare and usually wry, and though she never raised her voice, she had a way with sharp words that had earned her a formidable reputation. Even the rowdiest boys seldom gave her trouble.
She’s really a princess, Wren thought wonderingly as Mistress Leila said in a very low voice, “Tess is waiting for you in the Keepers’ parlor. I’ll be there presently.” Then she glided smoothly by as red-faced Master Milvar bustled in, shouting orders at a string of youths running after.
Wren put a hand up to hide her grin. No more digging out carrots with him bawling and squalling at me to be faster, she thought as she walked with sedate steps to the Keepers’ parlor.
She opened the door and peeked in curiously.
On ordinary days the orphans were not allowed in there. The room was much like the plain, scrubbed-clean downstairs parlor, where the orphans were interviewed by potential masters when it was their turn to prentice out. Tess had been sitting by the window, staring down into the road, but at the sound of the door opening, she smiled a welcome.
Wren plopped down onto one of the straight-backed chairs and said, “Now! Tell me about the curse.”
Tess gave a quiet laugh. “It wasn’t a curse. I’m glad, I must say. It was a threat. From King Andreus of Senna Lirwan.”
Wren’s jaw dropped. “Truth?”
Even in the orphanage, Wren had heard of the wicked King Andreus of Senna Lirwan, though orphanage children were given only the scantiest lessons in history or current affairs. She had listened eagerly, however, whenever rumors or fireside tales were told in the village. She had also enjoyed sneaking glances at the single, ancient, much-repaired map in the scribe students’ room, imagining adventures as her gaze roamed over the orange-painted Great Desert lying far to the west.
She shut her eyes and pictured the map in her mind: Senna Lirwan, land of the wicked King Andreus, lay across the high mountains to the southeast of Siradayel. Like Siradayel and Meldrith, it was land-locked. She recalled bits of gossip about how the wicked king was trying to expand his country at the expense of his neighbors.
“Why did King Andreus threaten your father?” Wren asked.
“It has to do with something my father did. Aunt Leila told me only that he once rescued someone from Andreus’s castle. She said my parents will tell me more—when they think I’m old enough.” Tess wrinkled her upper lip a little, and Wren snorted in agreement. “All I know about the curse is that Andreus threatened to take any child that my father had as a return for this rescue that happened before I was born. That’s all I know.”
“So they think the threat is over now?”
“Well, that’s what they hope. Aunt Leila told me he did try to steal me away with some kind of magic spell just after I was born. Luckily Halfrid, the King’s Magician, was ready for that. But they decided to send me away soon after.”
“But why here? I thought those magicians have places where nobody can get in.”
Tess shook her head. “Like the Free Vale? But other magicians can get in. Aunt Leila told me, when I asked her that same question, that most rulers don’t trust any magicians besides their own. If I were sent to one of those faraway magic strong-holds, my father would worry that any ambitious magician could grab me. But nobody knew about Three Groves except my parents and Aunt Leila. Anyway, nothing has happened on any of my visits to my parents in Cantirmoor, so they’re going to try to keep me. But, at first, no one is to know who I am. Aunt Leila told me last night.” Tess smiled lopsidedly. “People are going to think that you and I are new heraldry prentices, sent to the palace from the north country. They are always sent in pairs. That’s if anyone sees us. We’re going to be kept away from people for a while.”
“Ah!” Wren exclaimed. “Is that why I’m to go, too? As a kind of disguise? What fun!”
“We’ll be able to read all the history records and plays that we want—” Tess broke off as the door opened.
Mistress Leila entered, closed the door, and studied Wren with steady dark gray eyes. “Well, Wren, would you like to come to Cantirmoor as a companion for Teressa?”
“Yes, Mistress,” Wren answered promptly.
Mistress Leila’s eyebrows were long and slanted, and when she smiled as she did now, they slanted even more steeply. There was no mistaking the humor there, though her mouth stayed serious. “You understand that you will have to be circumspect. That means you must talk to no one until you are given leave. You will also have to behave like a young scribal prentice. That means no acrobatics when you think the adults aren’t looking, and no juggling pieces of fruit, or glass weights, or whatever you might find handy. Do you understand?”
Mistress Leila brought her chin down in a short nod. “Very well. Let us go.”
“Now? But won’t everyone know we’re going?” Wren exclaimed.
Leila smiled. “Did you ever notice us going in the past?”
After Wren shook her head, she went on, “And can you tell me where everyone in Three Groves is right now?”
Wren shook her head slowly. “Maybe some—but mornings are always so hen-like around here.” She flapped her hands crazily.
Mistress Leila smiled. “Exactly. But I know where they all are. They think the three of us are somewhere else.”
She gestured for the girls to stand up. Tess’s hand reached for Wren’s and held it. Her other hand slipped into Mistress Leila’s, as Tess gazed out the window, her shoulders braced stiffly.
Wren watched in amazement as Mistress Leila made a quick gesture with her free hand, then whispered two words.
A whirlwind of streaky light and buffeting wind and roaring sound nearly overwhelmed Wren, then stopped.
She staggered and drew in a shaky breath as she blinked the blur out of her eyes. They now stood in a room with high, round-topped windows down one long wall. All around the walls of the room were low shelves with books in them, more books than she had ever seen. At each end of the room round glow globes, set on spindly silver rods, gave off soft light, adding to the light that streamed in the windows. Under her feet lay a carpet, threadbare down the middle. The walls were plain whitewash unadorned by any pictures.
Mistress Leila murmured, “Wait here, please, girls,” and walked swiftly toward one of the doors.
Nudging Tess, Wren whispered, “Is this the royal palace?”
“No, it’s the Magic School,” Tess whispered back through tight lips. Wren looked at her pale face in surprise. Tess drew a slow, careful breath and then added, “I think she’s finding out if anything has happened before we go on to the palace.”
“Are you ill?” Wren asked anxiously.
Tess tried to smile, but it looked pained. “It’s that magic transfer. Doesn’t it make you dizzy?”
“For a moment.” Wren considered. “Kind of like swinging on the big rope over the pond, and spinning at the same time.”
Wren stopped talking when a tall man in brown tunic and hose met Mistress Leila at the door. The man’s bushy beard fluffed out when he smiled in the girls’ direction, then he and Mistress Leila held a low-voiced conversation.
So this is the Magic School? Wren thought. And that was real magic. She stretched her hand out, trying to mimic Mistress Leila’s gesture. She remembered the two words clearly.
Mistress Leila returned, moving with such a straight-backed briskness that Wren decided to try practicing that walk when she was alone. It would be the way to show a princess in disguise walking, if I ever do get to be a player.
Once again Mistress Leila took Tess’s hand. Tess and Wren held hands tightly as Mistress Leila’s fingers gestured a shape in the air. This time, she was looking away as she spoke, so the words were indistinct.
The whirl of light, sound, and almost-wind was quick this time, a spin and thump, and Wren found herself in yet another room.
This one had to be the palace! High, vaulted ceilings curved overhead, decorated with painted green and gilt leaves twining upward in vines along the groins. High archways with mosaic insets graced each wall, and a parquet floor with different shades of wood in a star pattern glowed clean and polished underfoot. Through some of the archways Wren glimpsed other hallways, and on two distant walls huge, colorful tapestries hung.
Mistress Leila turned to face the girls. “I will not be staying with you this time, Teressa. Your parents have made their own arrangements. Obey them as you have obeyed me. I must return to Three Groves for a few days, until they can find a replacement for me, then I will be back to see how you are doing. The others at Three Groves will be told that you two prenticed out early. Remember what I said!”
This last was addressed to Wren. Then Mistress Leila walked through one of the archways and disappeared.
Tess sank gratefully onto an embroidered sofa nearby. “We’re to wait here,” she said.
Wren dropped happily onto the comfortable cushions be-side Tess, admiring the fancy stitchwork on the pillows—spring leaves and golden buds—that even the Sewing Mistress at Three Groves would not have been able to do.
Then a smiling woman in a dove gray gown entered the room with a rustling of skirts.
“Princess?” She smiled at the girls as she bowed to Tess. “Young Mistress? The King and Queen await you.”
Tess’s face lit with her sudden, transfiguring smile. She got up swiftly and started after the maid. Wren followed, looking around at the fine furnishings and decorations. At the end of a hall there was a wooden door entirely decorated with carved, gilt leaves and glowers. Beyond it lay a splendid room with flowers, birds, and growing things painted in spring colors high on the walls, the colors worked into the embroidery on the upholstery of the curve-edged furniture.
In the middle of this pretty room sat a man and a woman in silk and velvet even more elaborately embroidered than the cushions that they sat on. Wren blinked. They seemed larger than life, and impossibly handsome.
Then Tess ran forward, hands outstretched, and the woman moved, closing her arms around Tess to hug her tight. This woman had a much longer face than Tess and bony hands.
Wren hung back, unable to hear the soft words the Queen murmured to her daughter, or the replies that Tess made into her mother’s velvet-clad shoulder. Then Tess transferred herself to the King’s arms, and she was caught up and swung round in a wide circle.
“My brave girl!” the King exclaimed. Tan and thin, he had a short gray-streaked brown beard. Narrow, dark eyes crinkled with good humor when he looked over Tess’s head at Wren. “Come forward, child,” he said genially. His voice was clear and loud, but somehow reassuring. “So, you’re the one who wants to be a pirate, eh?”
Wren’s face prickled with heat. “Well, only when we play adventure games.” Startled at how different her voice sounded in the large room, she added belatedly, “Your Majesties.” And she bobbed into an awkward curtsy.
The King laughed. “So once did I, child. We’ll have to compare tales. Now I fear I must return to duty—it wouldn’t do for the curious to know that I was here to welcome two heraldry students. Tomorrow, though, I have arranged a surprise. We will have time to talk then.” He bent down to kiss Tess and left.
“Let us get you settled, my dears,” the Queen said, her voice low and musical.
She spoke to both girls, but her gaze lingered on Tess as she led the way through one of the high arches. Tess slipped her hand tentatively into her mother’s, and the Queen clasped it tightly as they walked.
Through a pair of marble pillars, Wren spotted a row of long diamond-paned windows. They overlooked an ordered garden, and more of the palace bordering it. She couldn’t help hopping a little as she tried to contain her longing to bang through the nearest door and go exploring.
Two maidservants in gray and green gowns appeared. The young one opened a tall door to a suite of rooms. These rooms were smaller and simpler than the one in which the King and Queen had welcomed the girls, but they were still far more splendid than anything Wren had seen before.
“Fleris and Lur will stay with you here in the guest wing.” The Queen indicated the two maids, who both curtsied. “They know who you are, but they will address you as Young Mistresses from the city of Chancebridge. Until Halfrid feels it is safe, I must ask you not to talk to anyone else unless one of us is with you. Now I will leave you alone, for I also have other duties, and I imagine you would like a chance to refresh yourselves. We will dine together tonight, just the three of us. Welcome back, my sweet dove.” The Queen bent to kiss Tess’s brow.
Wren’s throat tightened, the way it always did when she thought about parents or families. Mixed up in her heart was pleasure at how nice the Queen seemed and regret that no one would ever kiss her that way. Then she noticed Tess surreptitiously dashing tears from her eyes.
She’s been a kind of orphan as well, Wren thought. And in some ways, it’s been worse for her. She knew she had parents—wonderful ones—and never got to see them.
But Tess sniffed only once, then lifted her chin. “Well, shall we go in? Just wait till you see what the bathtubs are like here.”
“What? No more nasty wooden tubs with splinters and cold water?” Wren matched her friend’s tone. “I wonder where Chance is? Chancebridge. It sounds like anything could happen there! Do they know any magic?”
The maid Fleris, a teenager, was plump with a big smile and blue-black hair. Lur was older, tall and gray-haired. They showed Wren and Tess into a tiled room with a wide pool into which water poured from a spout cleverly worked into a statue of tumbling fish.
When Wren stepped cautiously into the clean, swirling water, she found it warm and scented.
“I think I approve.” She laughed before ducking her head under.
“I think it won’t be too hard not to be a princess yet,” Tess answered, and joined her in the tub.
The dinner with Queen Astren was the most wonderful event of Wren’s life so far. The Queen had her harp brought in, and after they ate a delicious meal—with several plates to choose from, a rare occurrence for orphans who had been raised to eat what was on the plate before them, like it or not—she sang and played for them. Wren had been right in her guess about the Queen’s voice.
When darkness fell, a servant came in and lit three lamps. That was when the Queen turned the talk to the orphanage.
“Tell me everything,” she said, patting the cushion next to her. “For instance, what nasty things did Zanna get away with this year, and is Noker still playing his awful practical jokes on everyone?”
At first Tess and Wren took turns talking, but Tess seemed more content to lean against her mother and listen. Soon she waved off her own turn. “Tell Mama the time the rain made the roof crash in just when Mistress Lith gave us extra laundry duty!”
Encouraged by the Queen’s laughter, Wren stood up and acted out the best incidents. When the girls finished telling about life in the orphanage, the Queen said, “Teressa told me you wish to become a player, Wren. Besides becoming a pirate captain, an adventurer, and a hermit in a haunted castle with several treasures.”
Wren grinned. “I suppose my mind changes now and then.” She paused, and when the Queen motioned for her to continue, she said, “I decided about being a player when I realized that I wasn’t going to learn to manage a charger—never even seen one—nor find a magic sword. Mistress Varu, when she measured me for my last dress, said I probably wouldn’t grow much taller. I know that Eren Beyond-Stars in my favorite play wasn’t much older than I am when she had her adventures, but she was really a princess and had lots of magic knowledge. I didn’t think that orphans who are supposed to prentice to the pottery when they reach twelve ever find much in the way of adventure.”
The Queen said, “Being a player is a fine vocation. There would be long years of difficult training, but I don’t think you’re afraid of that.”
“No. It certainly can’t be harder than years of mixing clay.”
“The Keepers did not consider it to be fine.” Tess pressed her cheek against her mother’s shoulder. “They always told Wren that her dreams were foolish and that they would get her into trouble if they kept her from the work at hand.”
Queen Astren smiled. “Many would praise that practical attitude. But there’s only one ‘practical’ idea I wonder if you’ve considered, Wren, and that is: only one person in your favorite play can be Eren Beyond-Stars. All the other players take the roles of villains or silly courtiers or cooks.”
Wren shrugged, grimacing a little. She was pleased to be taken seriously by the Queen of Meldrith, but at the same time she admitted to herself that she had not considered this. Her preparation had always been for the heroic roles. Nevertheless she said firmly, ‘‘I’ll do my part, whatever it is, if it just keeps me from having to darn any more baskets of black orphan socks.”
They all laughed, and then a special treat was brought in: warm milk with dark, rich chocolate from the faraway Summer Islands. Wren slurped hers down after the first astonished and delighted taste, and was given a second cup.
The Queen had them leave soon after, telling them that they needed a good night of rest. “Tomorrow is Teressa’s twelfth birthday, and we have special things planned,” she promised as she leaned down to kiss her daughter one last time. She gave Wren a pat on the head, then Lur came to take them back to their rooms.
Wren thought she’d never be able to sleep. And, as she lay down in the soft, big bed—in a room all by herself, but with Tess within shouting distance—she realized that in a long evening of talk and song, one thing had not been mentioned: the wicked King Andreus. But then her eyes closed, and she fell asleep.
The next day dawned clear and, though the season was early spring, warm. Wren wondered whether the weather in Meldrith was different from what she’d grown up with in Siradayel, or if this was just a lucky day. Meldrith! She was in a different country.
And all at once, too. She flexed her fingers and tried to copy the gesture she’d seen Mistress Leila making the day before. She was moving her fingers in the air, wondering if she had it right, when Tess came in, wearing a fresh green dress, and smiling happily.
“Is something amiss with your hand?” Tess pointed.
“I was trying to do that magic thing that Mistress Leila did. Did you notice it? Or hear the words?”
“I guess I’ve never paid much attention to her hands. Magic makes me feel so nasty, like I’ve eaten a bad pie and had a nightmare at the same time. When she does it, I try to keep my mind on seeing my parents again. Anyway she never seems to talk. Hums, more like . . .” Tess’s brow creased faintly as she thought it over.
“She spoke, all right. I heard that much,” Wren said.
“Well, I suppose you could ask her. She’ll be here at the end of the week, Mama said. Meantime, get dressed. Shall we go down and have a look at the garden?”
“Yes,” Wren exclaimed, swinging her feet out of the bed.
Then she frowned. “My dress from yesterday is gone.”
Tess laughed. “Certainly! You’re in the palace now.” And, putting her nose in the air, she added, “The courtiers never wear a thing twice. Twice in a row, at least, for the likes of heraldry prenties. Look in that chest there. You should find some gowns.”
“I was afraid to touch any of the furnishings,” Wren admitted, moving to a big carved chest at the other end of the room. Lifting the lid, she smelled sweet wood. Several folded dresses lay in the chest, all made of soft, heavy polished linen. The top one was pale blue. “Like the eastern sky just before the sun comes up,” Wren said in delight, lifting it out.
The skirt dragged across the tops of her feet, and even laced up tightly, the bodice was loose up high but tight in the waist. Wren still thought she looked grand. She turned round and round, admiring the square-cut neck and the long, slightly belled sleeves. Then she looked at Tess, whose gown was equally bare of decoration but equally well made.
“We look like toffs, don’t we?” Wren said, posing with her nose in the air.
Tess smiled and gave her head a shake. “Well, to Three Groves orphans we would. To some of these courtiers, we’d look like servants. They can be quite horrid, some of them. I’ve heard them from the balcony, when they didn’t know anyone was listening, and I had to stay out of sight. But we don’t have to think about that yet. Come, let’s explore that garden and maybe act out one play before we get called for breakfast. “
Wren pushed her feet into her slippers, tied them quickly up her ankles, then paused and looked up. “Are we going to be told exactly what happened to your father and why the wicked king did his threat, or shall we try to nose into the records?”
“Mama promised we’ll hear the full story tonight, at the special dinner they have planned.”
Wren smacked her hands and rubbed them, thinking, I hope if this is a dream I never wake up, as she followed Tess out.
The garden was full of early blooms, which the girls admired, but what interested them was the grove of light-leafed aspen trees at the far end. Here they explored, playing Morayen and Tre Resdir discovering the Rainbow River, until they had gone over the entire grove.
Finally Wren exclaimed breathlessly, “I’m getting hungry,” and flopped onto the soft, well-clipped grass. Tess dropped down beside her.
“Princess Teressa,” a low voice said respectfully.
The girls looked up. Sun dazzled their eyes, making it hard to see any more than a short, plump person in a gray and green gown.
“Is it time for breakfast, Fleris?” Tess asked. “We’re ready.”
“Your father desires your presence,” Fleris replied. “You must come quickly. Halfrid is there also.”
Tess exchanged looks with Wren.
“I wonder if something has happened. I guess I had better go.”
“They won’t want me, or they would have asked.” Wren shrugged. “I’ll go in and see if the breakfast is coming.”
“Good idea. If there are sweetberry rolls, save me two,” Tess called as she got up and followed Fleris.
As they vanished among the trees, Wren wondered why the great magician Halfrid would be meeting Tess and her father. And for that matter, why did Fleris forget to call us ‘Young Mistresses from the city of Chancebridge’?
She was tempted to follow them and ask, but hesitated. She was afraid of bursting in on important state business—anything a king did pretty much had to be important state business. I know, I’ll ask Lur, she thought.
Back inside the cool marble hallway, she saw the older maid carrying fresh rowels into the tiled bathroom. “Good morning, Lur. We’re ready for breakfast any time you can point us to it. That is, soon as Tess gets back.”
“Gets back, Young Mistress?” Lur said blankly.
“Fleris just carne out to us in the garden and whisked Tess away. Said the King and Halfrid needed her right now.”
Lur set her towels down carefully on a gilt chair in the hallway. She approached Wren, her expression intent as she said slowly and distinctly, “Tell me again, of your courtesy, Young Mistress. Fleris came to you? She was not out in the garden with you?”
“No! Should she have been? We were playing a game—went out soon as we woke . . .” Wren stopped speaking as Lur’s eyes widened, her face lengthening from worry to horror.
“Wait here, child,” Lur said abruptly, whirling about. She stopped. “No. You had better come with me.”
Surprised, Wren followed her outside into the garden again.
Lur was tall, with long legs, and though she was gray-haired, she certainly wasn’t slow. She walked so fast that Wren had to run as they zigzagged from path to path through the empty garden, finally ending up at the palace again.
Lur hurried through three archways that each opened into a series of rooms. Her head turned sharply, and Wren tried to follow her gaze, catching glimpses of people of all ages and styles of dress, but so sign of Fleris or Tess.
At last Lur stopped, slightly winded, and whispered, “Gone!”
A knot tightened in Wren’s stomach as she followed the grim-faced, silent woman. Lur hastened faster than before as they descended two flights of stairs and down the length of another set of halls.
Through one handsome door Wren caught sight of paintings and carpets. She wanted to explore them with Tess, and . . . where was Tess? That knot got bigger.
They entered a long dining hall with servants busy clearing away plates, the smell of breakfast lingering in the air. Lur walked past the servants until she reached a short, fat man wearing a silver chain of office about his neck, who was giving orders to two waiting servers. As soon as he saw them, he stopped.
“Lur? Was something amiss with the food preparations this morning?”
Lur whispered, “The food never arrived, and someone seems to have sent Fleris to fetch . . . her . . . to the King.”
The fat man’s cheeks purpled. “Not to my knowledge.”
Another time, Wren would have enjoyed the way he hitched up his belt above his round belly and blew out his jowls importantly, but that knot was far too big for anything but worry.
The man turned Wren’s way. “This is the other one, yes?”
“Yes—” Lur began.
“Tell me what happened,” the man said to Wren.
Even the Keepers had not such an air of command. Wren said hastily, “We got up, dressed, and went into the garden to play. It was getting kind of late when Fleris came and said . . .” Wren repeated the conversation with Fleris, ending with, “So Tess went off with her, and I came in to see about some food.”
The man’s round cheeks paled, and then the whole world seemed to explode. In a thundering voice he issued orders to the waiting servants. “You! Take a message to the King. You! Deliver these trays. Lur! Take this child to the Guild anteroom.”
This meant another fast walk until they reached an empty room with pennants hung at intervals on the high walls, depicting the objects representing guild skills. The room contained a number of chairs.
Lur waved at the chairs. “Sit.”
Wren sat. Lur began to pace back and forth, glaring at the door as if she could draw Tess and Fleris in by the power of her frown.
Wren occupied herself for a short time by examining the guild pennants. Who could have known there were so many jobs in the world? Orphans always seemed to be directed toward farming, cooking, or all the variations of cleaning.
The knot in her middle kept getting bigger until Wren crossed her arms tightly over her ribs. When she couldn’t stand it anymore, she said, “What’s happened?”
Lur stopped and looked at her. “Fleris was supposed to be with you soon as you rose up. Breakfast ready for you. One of us was to be with you all the time—did the Queen not tell you?”
Wren’s eyes stung at Lur’s sharp, accusatory tone.
But before she could answer, Lur took a deep breath. “Not your fault. You were new-arrived. While I was down in the laundry rooms, she was to be with you. When she took the trays back, I was to be with you. Those were the Queen’s orders.”
Wren said in a small voice, “She called her Princess Teressa, not Young Mistress.”
Lur spun about, clasping her hands tightly. “That will have to be answered for as well.”
“Well, maybe she forgot about that if there was such an emergency,” Wren said, then stopped as loud footsteps approached outside the door. Wren hoped that was someone coming to report that all was well.
Instead, the door was opened by a tall, frowning guard in polished helm and clinking mail under a green surcoat. He said, “Follow me.”
Lur sent one frightened look at Wren and they left for another fast walk.
This time they entered a room with books lining the walls, below shuttered windows. The King stood in the center of the room, looking more like a king than the ordinary father he’d seemed before. The friendliness was gone from his face.
Wren halted behind a group of worried adults who’d gathered around Fleris, who sat on a chair, a bandage round her head. Fleris’s eyes were red-rimmed. She was trying not to weep as another woman in green and gray bent over her, talking in an earnest whisper.
Lur was telling her part to the King. As she finished, she curtsied and backed away.
The round man with the silver chain gestured Wren forward to tell her story. When she got to the part about Fleris in the garden, Fleris’s voice burst out, wailing. “It wasn’t me, it wasn’t. I woke up just now, with cold water in my face and Marrith standing over me. The last thing I knew, I was going down to the kitchen to get the trays from—”
“We’ve heard your tale,” the fat man interjected. “Be silent.”
Wren faced the King. His gaze was still cold and stony, but his voice was even and patient. “Now, child, would you tell us again? This time, describe everything exactly as it happened when Fleris came.”
At the sound of her name the servant burst into tears again, quickly muffled.
Wren’s shoulders hunched. The knot in her middle had turned into a pit of writhing snakes. “Now that I’ve heard it, the voice isn’t right.” Wren pointed at Fleris on her chair. “She has that high voice. Out in the garden, the voice was kind of flat and much lower. Anyway, the girl we thought was Fleris said, ‘Princess Teressa?’ And we looked up. The sun was just behind her. All we—I—could really see was her shape and her dress. Then she said what I told you before, ‘Your father requires your presence—’ “
“Your pardon, Young Mistress,” a new voice cut in. Wren recognized the bearded man she’d seen Mistress Leila talking to at the Magic School upon their first arrival. “Did you at any time see her features clearly?”
Wren shook her head. “I didn’t. I don’t like looking into the sun. Hurts my eyes. I looked at Tess, right until they were gone.”
“Shape-change illusion. A simple one,” the man murmured. “That’s possible here?” The King frowned. “Never mind. Halfrid will answer that when he arrives.” To Wren he said, “Thank you.”
Wren sensed the dismissal in his voice, but her sick feeling made her daring. “She isn’t . . . gone?” She flushed when her voice came out squeaky, just like a baby’s.
The King actually smiled, just a little. “So it seems. I trust we will restore her to you shortly.”
Now she knew she had been dismissed. He had turned to address some low-voiced comments to the bearded man, but Wren performed her very best curtsy and backed away to find Lur waiting.
Lur took her back to the rooms that she and Tess had enjoyed for such a short time, and left her alone to wander about aimlessly. She tried admiring the fine carving on the chairs, the embroidered starliss on the cushions, but there was no Tess to appreciate them with. So she gazed out the window into the garden, but that just reminded her of Tess vanishing.
Time dragged on, measured by the tree shadows creeping across the lawn. The light turned gold when the shadows grew longest, then the light faded into the blended shadows. Lur brought food in once, but Wren found that she could not eat more than a few bites.
At sunset Fleris appeared, her eyes still red-rimmed. Lur arrived from the other direction, bearing a supper tray. Both Lur and Wren greeted Fleris with, “Any news?”
Fleris shook her head. “Except that new runner from the kitchens is also missing. And poor Mavin, who was supposed to have met me with the tray, was found in her room half dreaming and moaning from some terrible sickness that took her during the night. They think she was poisoned. And they believed this!” She pulled her bandage down and pointed to a big, purple-red bruise at her hairline, then said to Lur, “We’re to wait, to act as if nothing’s happened, until the steward tells us further.”
Wren wondered what she was supposed to do. She felt strange, as if she’d become invisible. They don’t know what to do with me, she thought when the maids left her alone with the tray.
Gloomily she attacked the food.
By the next day, her gloom had deepened. It’s not only they don’t know what to do with me, they don’t even want me around, she thought as she prowled around her room once more. She’d tried to go to the garden, but Lur told her to stay inside. Later, when Fleris brought a tray of food in, Wren said, “Is anyone looking around for that wicked Andreus?”
Fleris said quickly, “That’s up to the King and Master Halfrid. And the Scarlet Guard.”
Wren sat down with a sigh. Her biggest worry was Tess, but she couldn’t help but wonder what they were going to do with her if the days stretched on and they still couldn’t find Tess. They’d ship her back to the orphanage, of course. And I’ll never find out what happened.
So far, Wren had striven to be good, to do what she was told, and not to make any fuss. But she knew she was nothing more than an unwanted piece of baggage.
It was time to stop being a good, obedient piece of baggage, and Do Something.
Night fell with her again unable to sleep. Instead of worrying about what might have happened to Tess, she wrestled with ideas. What should she be doing?
Around midnight, she knew she was not going to sleep. Her thoughts kept coming back to Mistress Leila’s spell. Wren was certain she remembered it. Maybe she could use the spell somehow, and search for Tess. She could at least try. Anything had to be better than sitting around like . . . baggage.
She rose, rummaged in the trunk for a fresh dress, put it on, then stretched out her hand in the darkness. She pictured the way Mistress Leila’s capable fingers had sketched that gesture in the air. Wren mimed it carefully. At the same time she murmured the two words.
Wren to the Rescue
by Sherwood Smith
$1.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-102-3