Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 26
Stories
Arkmind
by Niall Francis McMahon
Story with Pictures and Conversation
by Brontops Baruq   FREE
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
Orson Scott Card - Sneak Preview
Excerpt from Ruins
by Orson Scott Card
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

The Lair of the Twelve Princesses
    by Amanda C. Davis

The Lair of the Twelve Princesses
Artwork by Julie Dillon

I. The First Night

Bay followed the dance of the ivory dice across the table. Her bitten-dull nails dug into her palms. A bounce -- another -- and the pair fell still. A one and a three. There went the last of her coins. Oh well, she thought, grinding the heel of her hand into her eyes as the narrow-faced man across the table from her raked in his winnings. Wasn't enough to buy a room anyway.

The winner called out false condolences; Bay gave him a halfhearted sneer in return. She gathered her army kit from under her chair. Waving away the sniggering offers from her fellow-gamblers to share their beds, she collected her sword at the tavern door and limped out into the warm city evening.

When she was well into the shadows of the streets, a cloud of ash swirled from the lead bottle tied at her waist. It settled atop her shoulder and solidified into a deep-red, oddly handsome imp, who made himself comfortable between the collar and epaulet of her faded army uniform. "Poor fortune again, I see."

Bay limped along, steadfast and slow as always. "You could have been more help in there, Khloromain."

"I would have," sniffed the imp, "had you simply wished me to. But you chose to trust your dice to fate."

"Between you and fate, I trust fate further," said Bay. "I thought I saw an empty alley behind the butcher's a few streets over. Stunk to hell but I bet nobody'd bother us until morning."

Khloromain made a noise of interest and rose from her shoulder without warning. "Wait." He zipped away. In a moment he returned carrying a poster bearing the seal of the king. He waggled the poster in Bay's face. "Why don't we lodge in the king's manor instead?"

Bay brushed the poster aside. "What's it say?"

The imp's eyebrows rose craftily. "You wish me to read it?"

"No, I want you to read it, Khloromain," said Bay, with the patience of a weary parent. "No wishes. You'll know when I use my wishes."

Khloromain gave an elaborate sigh. "Fine, fine. If it will save me from sleeping in a butcher's scrap pile. It's a royal notice. The king's daughters require a bodyguard. Permit me to suggest, my battle-hardened mistress, that you might make an ideal candidate to guard a passel of princesses."

Bay stroked her sword-hilt with her thumb, thinking. The leather there had long since worn smooth. "You're leaving something out," she said. "What's the catch?"

"Ah, well," said Khloromain, shrugging, "there's some sort of mild curse. But a great reward for breaking it!" he added. "Listen -- 'Marriage to the princess of his choosing, and succession to the throne'!"

"Khloromain . . ."

"I'd take her off your hands, of course. Or you could negotiate for something more personally appealing."

Bay gazed at the cobblestones, thinking of all the things she could have for the price of a throne. Soft beds. Warm meals. A place in the country. Ale in her glass, cool ivory dice in her fingers and always enough coins for the next roll. She'd given the king years of service already and earned none of that. But this was different. She wouldn't come out of this job just another damaged soldier with a fast-vanishing pension. She could come out of it enormously rich. A hero.

"All right," she said. She tugged the notice from Khloromain's claws and folded it carefully. "Why not? There's no harm in trying."

"No harm at all," said Khloromain, grinning wide.

"Get back in your bottle," she said, tucking the notice into her jacket. "I want you as a trick up my sleeve, for now." The imp made a sardonic little bow and fell into smoke. He trickled from her shoulder into his lead bottle. Bay set off at a steady limp down the street. "An audience with the king. Almost makes me wish I hadn't sold the medals."

"I'm sure you'll make a fine presentation," said the bottle.

"That's funny," said Bay, tilting her head. "I thought I heard a vote of confidence just now."

"Must have been the wind," said the bottle.

"That must be it."

Once more she turned her feet toward the service of the king.

The king's manor squatted amid acres of lush gardens that glowed under pinprick lantern-lights. It was gated in every direction. The guards at the front gate tossed Bay back with casual threats until she pulled out the folded notice. In minutes, she was led to the throne room and there she knelt, Bay, before the king. She had seen him before, but only from afar. She remembered his rich clothing, his fine horse. Then she'd been flanked by comrades. Now she stood alone.

He bid her rise. He was uncrowned and casually-garbed, with only a handful of court ladies whispering in a ruffled cluster across the room. Perhaps she'd been wrong to seek an audience so late. He looked her up and down. "Assuming you haven't stolen that uniform, I suppose you're one of those mad women from the south. I hope the war was everything you hoped."

Her at-attention stance came naturally, though it had been months. "Everything and more, your majesty," said Bay.

"They say you want a try at guarding my daughters," said the king. "I'll tell you now, you can't marry any of them."

One of the courtiers gave a loud, nervous giggle. Bay raised her chin. "Keep your daughter, sir," she said. "Only give me her dowry if I succeed."

The king stroked his chin. "A fair enough substitute. Very well. I'll let my daughters explain it. Griselda?"

A tall woman stepped out from among the courtiers, and Bay realized with a sinking shock that they were the princesses -- all the princesses. The infamous dozen. She felt terrifically outnumbered. The tall woman made a brusque curtsey. "Every night my sisters and I retire to our bedchamber, and father locks us in himself, with his own key. And when we wake, we find our shoes worn through at the sole."

"Passing strange, isn't it, Griselda?" said the king, without a smile.

"Yes, father," said Griselda. Her chilly tone echoed her father's. "Passing strange."

"It's costing me a fortune in shoes," said the king, "so I took to posting guards outside their chambers. And yet night after night: worn-out shoes. It's an epidemic. The kingdom cannot go on like this."

"No, sir," said Bay, frankly bewildered. This was worth a royal notice and a vast reward?

"Then you'll take the challenge?" said the king. "I warn you, you're not the first to try."

"Perhaps I will be lucky, sir," said Bay.

"You may well be. I hope in three days' time I will be rewarding your bravery rather than executing you for your failure."

Bay felt her expression slip ever so slightly. "Execution, sir?"

"You understand that if you can't solve the riddle in three days you'll be put to death. It's on the notice in plain writing."

In plain writing! Much good that did her. Bay recovered herself. "Of course, sir."

"Then let your investigation begin immediately. You have the run of the castle. Here is the only key to the princesses' room. Griselda, make our guest comfortable."

Bay made a bow and a crisp salute to the king. When he nodded, she turned and followed the princess Griselda from the throne room into the narrow hall.

Bay kept at Griselda's heels, at a quicker pace than she liked. Her thigh gave a warning twinge. She gritted her teeth. No good would come of starting her new undertaking by showing weakness.

"So you're a soldier," said Griselda. Her low, sharp voice carried along the corridor. "How novel. I always thought war a fool's errand, myself."

Bay took that as an invitation to reply. "I agree, your highness," she said. "But if you ever find your home invaded and your family burned, you may find foolishness to your liking."

"I doubt it," said Griselda.

"Can you tell me anything about what happens at night?" asked Bay, at Griselda's back. "Have you and your sisters noticed anything?"

"Nothing," said Griselda impatiently.

"Any evidence other than the shoes?"

"None."

"Might I --"

"You might not," snapped Griselda, stopping and turning so fast that Bay nearly ran into her. "Our father may believe our dignity is worthless but we will hold fast to it."

"I mean no harm," said Bay. "Only to end your curse."

Griselda raised her chin. "Princes have failed this challenge, you know," she said, eyes flashing. "Princes have died."

Bay held her gaze. "Then it's lucky I am no prince."

Griselda's eyes went narrow. She raised an arm and for a moment Bay tensed, wondered what exactly she was going to try; but then the princess put her fingers on a door and pushed it open. "You will sleep here tonight. Our chamber is nearby." Her mouth tightened. "You'll know it by the guards outside the door. Excuse me." The princess Griselda turned on her heel and swept away.

Bay spotted the two guards around a bend of the hallway and gave them a nod; they could be allies in this campaign. When they nodded in return, she went inside her chamber and closed the door. She made a careful examination of the room, the entrances and exits, the dark corners. When she was certain she was alone, Bay put her thumb over the mouth of the lead bottle and gave it a few hard shakes.

Khloromain emerged, clutching his head between his hands.

"Did you perhaps," said Bay through her teeth, "forget to mention something important on that notice?"

"I can't think what you're --"

Bay gave the bottle a few more shakes, and the imp howled in pain.

"Well?"

"Yes, yes, there's a punishment if you don't solve it -- you can't seriously be concerned -- I have no doubt of my wise and experienced mistress's ability to settle this matter, with my help . . ."

"Ah." Bay sat on the bed and unstrapped her scabbard. "'With your help.' You clever thing. Now that I'm in it, you think I'll either need a wish to solve the riddle, or to save my neck after three days."

"To the benefit of us both," said Khloromain. He settled on her shoulder, rubbing his temples.

She drew her sword and ran her fingers up and down the blade, just to feel the familiar metallic sting. "Were you listening?"

"Of course."

"What do you think?"

"To be honest?" said Khloromain. "I think something about this arrangement is fundamentally suspect."

"I agree," said Bay, sheathing her sword. "Kings don't give away daughters like medals, even if they have a dozen of them. Nor their dowries. Not for the sake of a few dozen shoes. There's more to this than we're being told."

Timid knuckles rapped on the door.

It was another one of the princesses, much brighter of mien than her sister, bearing a tray with a goblet balanced upon it. "Settled already?" she chirped, as soon as Bay opened the door. "Here's something for before bed. I knew you'd want to see what the palace wine cellars hold, all soldiers do -- so they say, anyway -- I suppose it's not fair to judge you by all the others but then again I've yet to meet a soldier who didn't. I'm Lucretia, by the way. Do try it!"

"Thank you, your highness," said Bay. Griselda, Lucretia -- it was going to be a nightmare telling them all apart. She raised the glass in a gentle toast and drained it. "I'll keep watch in your chambers while your regular guards watch from outside. If anyone tries to break in, I think he'll find -- " She broke off. Unbearable drowsiness crushed her brain like a heavy quilt. Her knees buckled.

"Oh dear!" cried Lucretia. She put the tray on an end table and caught Bay's elbow. "But you must be exhausted. It's a good thing we had this chamber made up before you came!"

"No, I --" said Bay. She couldn't tell whether the slur in her words was the fault of her tongue or her ears. The lines and corners of her vision turned to dim shapes. She clung to the Lucretia's arm because that contact was suddenly all she could be sure of. "Got to --"

"Hush," said Lucretia. "Here's your bed." Bay realized she couldn't tell whether she was upright or lying down. And then it didn't matter, because sleep seized her so tightly that she couldn't do a thing about it anyway.

II. The Second Night

The sunlight was made of daggers. Bay, flat on her back, threw an arm across her clenched eyelids to block it before she remembered that she should not be on her back and that, the last she knew, the sun was not up. She sprang upright. A searing headache and a tangle of sheets sent her crashing back down. She landed hard on the floor beside the bed.

Khloromain, hovering over an open book on the end table, said, "How gracefully my mistress wakes."

Bay clutched her head. She barely had the presence of mind to curse him. "What happened?"

"Think it over," said Khloromain, going back to his book. "I'm sure you can puzzle it out."

It came back slowly. The dice game, the king's notice. The king himself. A glass of wine. "The princesses," Bay gasped.

She scrambled to her feet and burst into the hallway. The guards at the princesses' door were still there, looking a bit weary themselves. "Missed the fun, I take it," said one, as Bay fumbled in her pocket for the key. "Don't worry. Nobody went through that door. Not that it's helped before, mind."

Bay put a finger to her lips. She creaked open the door. The princesses sprawled across their beds, resplendent in brilliant sleeping-gowns: a confetti of princesses. A blue silk shoe lay discarded near the door. Bay picked it up and backed out of the room noiselessly. Once the door was shut behind her, she took a look. The sole was worn through.

"Damn me," she said.

"Two more nights of that and it'll be the chopping block that damns you," the talkative guard observed.

Bay turned the shoe over and over in her hands. She'd been nearer to death than two days, but something about this piece of corrupted silk gave her the unsettling feeling that she was fighting a new and very dangerous kind of war.

One night gone. The king didn't ask how she was doing, and she didn't tell him. There wasn't a doubt in her mind that someone had put a drug in her wine the night before; but since she couldn't guess who or why, she didn't want to tip her hand to anyone. She suspected the princesses. If that was true, they were not her clients; they were her adversaries. But she needed more information.

"I'd like to talk to your cobbler," she said to the first princess she saw that morning. "Where is he, please?"

"Oh -- hmm?" said the princess, eyes widening slightly in badly-concealed alarm. "I don't know where he works. I really don't."

After that, Bay found that the difficulty was not getting the princesses' attention; it was getting away from them.

The twelve princesses had the cumulative ability to be simply everywhere. One lounged idly in the kitchen, striking up vapid chatter whenever Bay tried to ask the maids what they'd seen. There were two in the rear garden: shy, wide-eyed types whose twin gazes seemed to rob the gardeners of their powers of speech. The front garden -- a green maze of topiary and roses -- held a princess whose passion, it seemed, was walking the paths with her nose in a book, just a few paces behind Bay.

"The cobbler?" said Bay, as she helped a little boy weed flowers near the fountain.

He cast a brief look of terror over his shoulder, before exclaiming, "Look! A worm!" and launching into a litany of his favorite types of bug.

Bay looked behind her. A princess smiled and waved.

At the gatehouse, Bay reminisced with the head guard. He too had fought Suramanco in the south, and didn't seem to mind that the princess Lucretia had settled herself in the grass nearby to do her embroidery, clearly noting every word.

"They say princes have tried this task," Bay said to him, while Lucretia pretended nonchalance.

"Oh aye," said the guard. "Quite a few of 'em. What's it now? Fifteen?"

Bay staggered. "Fifteen?"

"One after t'other," said the guard cheerfully. "Oh, chin up, girl. It's no great loss. Suramanco's youngest son, Vorland's eldest. Two from Albica! Suppose his third son's got more sense." He chuckled. "If this'd all happened before the wars we might've had better luck, eh?"

The memories of battle rose in Bay's mind, as they did sometimes, loud and bright as the red fields of Barrowgate, where the Suramancan war had been lost. "Luck," Bay echoed. From the corner of her eye she saw that Lucretia had stopped sewing and had her head cocked toward them. She raised her voice. "Which prince did you prefer, your highness? Did any catch your fancy?"

Lucretia ducked her head over her embroidery. Her cheeks went brilliantly red.

The head guard laughed. Bay, wary of mirth at the best of times, did not.

Late after dinner Bay washed up and dressed as if it were a second morning instead of night.

"I've talked to the guards at the princesses' chambers," said Bay as she hooked her jacket up the front. "They hear nothing at night. The cooks and maids have seen nothing. The royal hairdresser, the haberdasher, the pedicurist -- how many people does it take to dress a princess, anyhow?"

"More than you'd think," said Khloromain. "Effortless beauty can be devilishly hard work."

"No one's seen anything unusual -- at least, that they're willing to admit. Nothing but the shoes. And I'm certain the princesses drugged my wine last night."

"Of course they did," said Khloromain. "With a dosage meant for a strapping young prince, I don't doubt. It would have worked on him much more slowly. Foolish princesses."

"I'll bet you gold that they try it again," said Bay. "And that they aren't so foolish with the dosage this time."

"Then how exactly are you going to keep from tipping your hand?"

To answer, Bay took up a folded towel and laid it against her chest. She fastened her jacket to the neck around it.

"I drink," she said. "Very messily."

"As a soldier does," said Khloromain, but his eyes took on a sly approval.

Bay nodded. "I'll either get to see what is done to them or what they do," she said, as she was tying her hair up. "After that, we'll know for sure who to blame."

"That's rather thin information for your second of three nights," said Khloromain. "If my lady pleases, I could --"

She patted her bun into place. "As a favor, or as a wish?"

Khloromain rose, turning deeper red. He whipped back and forth in midair. "You're so predictable!" he cried. "Just three wishes between me and freedom! I could give you anything. I could fix your leg, I could build you a prince to wed, I could invent for you a kingdom! And here you are wasting your time scuttling after whatever dregs you can pull in through your own mortal power. Wealth, land, fame, strength, the whole green world -- just pick three!"

Bay endured this familiar tirade with a weary smile. "I think I'll see what I can earn of that first. You've three chances to save my life. I'm not going to spend you on anything less."

"So I've noticed," said Khloromain acidly.

Bay poked a finger into his chest, grinning. He scowled back. "And that 'wasting my time' you mentioned?" she said. "We mortals call that 'living.'"

He sniffed. "Enjoy it, then. By my count you have a day and a half left to do it."

Someone knocked on the door.

It was Lucretia, the bright and talkative princess, bearing a goblet on a tray. Bay took the goblet and raised it in a short salute, just as she had done the previous night. "Thank you, your majesty." She tipped it back.

Wine flowed past her closed lips and down the sides of her face; the towel at her chin and chest grew sticky. She wiped her face with her sleeve -- and took the chance to tuck the towel down further at the same time. "Wonderful." She put the goblet back on its tray. "I'll be standing guard in your chambers tonight."

Lucretia balked. "What?"

"It's the only way to protect you," said Bay. "Come along. I'd hate to delay your bedtime."

"But I --"

Bay strode to the princess's chambers, nodded to the guards, and flung open the door.

The eleven of them stopped dead. "Yes?" said Griselda.

"Don't mind me," said Bay. "I thought I'd stand guard over you tonight. In case something happens you're not awake to see."

Griselda's face froze. "No commoner has a place in our chambers at night."

"Your father didn't think so," said Bay. "Shall we ask him?"

Griselda's scowl nearly dimmed the lights. "Very well. Can we offer you refreshment before your long night on watch?"

If Bay had any doubt whether their wine was drugged, that settled it. She took up a post at the door. "One glass of wine is enough," she said. "No need to tax your highnesses' generosity."

Griselda's bitter laugh would have been more fitting in a brothel or prison than in the bedchamber of the daughters of a king.

Bay hadn't been on a proper guard since her tour of duty ended, and she was badly out of practice -- but she put on a good enough show. She kept a sharp eye out as they got ready for bed. Bustle died down and calm descended. But before long, restlessness began again. That was Bay's cue. She gave a huge yawn, let her legs go out from under her, and slid to the floor.

At once the bedroom perked into activity. In a moment, one of the princesses had her hand on Bay's arm, urging her to stand, helping her to a bed while saying soothing things. Bay went where she was led. She let them lower her onto a bed far softer than she expected, and she didn't move.

Whispers: "Is she asleep?"

"She is asleep." One of the older girls, by the sound of it. "Hurry. She's held us up long enough!"

The bedroom burst into rustling, scraping, and soft wicked giggles. Bay let her eyelids flicker open just slightly, once in a while. Whenever she did, she caught glimpses of swishing lace and brilliant swaths of cloth, princesses leaning close to their mirrors, jewels flashing on slender wrists and necks. Periodically one of them would pass by and poke her arm. Bay kept her face slack and quietly tallied the worst offenders.

Griselda went further, shaking Bay's shoulder hard. "Our ever-ready guardian," she laughed, when Bay didn't react. "No wonder we lost the southern war."

"The Suramancan prince was no wiser," giggled someone else, and many other laughs joined hers.

Griselda said, "Are we ready, dear sisters?"

They were.

Bay peeked out from under her eyelashes. The princesses, cloaked and hidden under wide white masks with jewels and exaggerated eyes, joined hands in the center of the room. Spread out, they stretched from wall to wall. Their hair rustled under sudden breeze.

The center of the floor roiled. The stones circled each other, then melted into magma. The floor pulled open like a blooming tulip to reveal a wide hole with a staircase leading down. One by one, the masked princesses descended.

Bay waited agonizing seconds until the very last princess climbed down the staircase and out of view. She threw herself at the door -- but too late. The stones flowed together and froze.

Bay scrambled across the floor. No trace remained of the golden circle.

Khloromain zoomed out of his bottle. "Naughty princesses!" he crowed. "I like the way this is going!"

"Hush!" said Bay. On her hands and knees she prodded the seams in the stonework, seeking a loose set, a soft bit of mortar. Nothing. "Go through the floor, see what's below!"

"Why should I?"

"Go!" Bay roared.

Khloromain heaved a sigh and fell through the floor like a stone dropped into a lake. He returned moments later. "Below is a room filled brimming with girls' clothes," he said. "One door and no windows. Below that, half a closet and a hallway too narrow to pass a princess in a ball gown. I saw no portals -- although I cannot see the one they used here in the floor. It's a strange path they took. Even if they did their trick with the staircase again, they'd have nowhere to go."

Bay sat back on her haunches. "Magic."

"Clever," said Khloromain, in deadpan. "What now, my most perceptive mistress?"

Bay stood. The room was strewn with nightclothes and combs, scarves chosen and then discarded. "Now I search this room top to bottom," she said. "There's got to be something. Anything."

She hid the wine-soaked towel under some other dirty clothes where the princesses, at least, were unlikely to spot it, and went to work.

Careful not to disturb things further than they could be replaced, she forged a meticulous path through the wardrobes, the drawers, the beds and settees of the twelve princesses. In one of the closets she found a mask like the ones the princesses had worn into their enchanted staircase. She tucked it away in her jacket. Otherwise, she found nothing that seemed related to what she had seen, and although she admitted she didn't know exactly what she was looking for, nothing she saw seemed out of place in a room full of women so outlandishly rich.

She stood in the center of the room with her hands on her hips, on the spot where she had last seen them.

"I need help," she said.

Khloromain, amusing himself in a mirror, perked up immediately. "Your wish is my command!"

"I didn't mean yours."

He sneered. "I see." He dove into a box of pearls.

Two nights gone, and so little to go on. Somehow, she had to follow them. Find out where they went first, if she could. And she had a day and a night to do it.

But she had made it into their chambers. That was something.

She said, "I'm going to try to knock them off-balance a little."

"Oh?" said Khloromain, emerging from the jewelry box with six necklaces looped around his chest. "And just how are you going to accomplish that?"

Bay rummaged in a bureau and came up with a piece of pumice. "Misery loves company." She took off her boots. She hunched on the edge of the bed and wedged one boot sole-side-up between her knees. A short, sad laugh escaped her. "Look how worn they are already. This won't take long." She held the shoe in place with one hand. The other brought the pumice stone down and across the worn leather, swift and deft, until the hole grew to gaping.

Khloromain, inspecting the princesses' jewels, said, "You'll be sorry if that doesn't work."

Bay took up the second boot. "Not as sorry as you'll be if any of their jewelry turns up missing. Remember that my misfortune is your misfortune." She destroyed the other boot and looked it over keenly. "There we are. I think we can call it a night."

She put on her ruined boots and threw herself onto the bed the princesses had put her in. "Not bad," she said. She yawned. "Do you think we ought to wait up for them?"

"I'll keep an eye or two open," said Khloromain. He floated over and nestled into the crook of her neck. "Look at us. Sleeping on silk and feathers. It's been centuries since I was in a princess's bedchambers. She was shy as the crescent moon. Her teeth were lanterns on a dark sea . . ."

"Save your poetry for a princess," Bay murmured. Her eyes drifted shut.

"For the moment, you're all I have," said Khloromain.

She didn't reply. When her breathing grew slow and soft, the imp fell into smoke and slipped into the bottle at her waist, and the room built for twelve princesses held nothing but one soldier, fast asleep.

III. The Third Night

Bay slept until near dawn, then pretended to until the princesses returned, strew themselves across their beds, caught a few hours of sleep, rose, dressed, and strolled off to have breakfast with their father. For Bay it was an agony of waiting -- but essential. When all the royal family were seated and served, she strode into their dining room, and, with all the bravado she could muster, announced:

"I uncovered a clue, your majesty."

The chatter at the breakfast table became abrupt silence. "Oh?" said the king.

"Yes, sir," said Bay. "I spent the night in the princess's chambers. When I woke, my own shoes were worn through." She raised her sole just high enough to show them.

She did not miss the rustle of unease from the princesses. The king chewed slowly, watching Bay all the while. "No other investigator reported this."

"No other investigator shared their room, sir."

"How shrewd," said the king, but he didn't elaborate.

"I will spend the day seeking more clues, your majesty," said Bay. "I ask only one more thing."

"Go ahead."

"I would be greatly obliged for someone to fix my boots."

The princesses froze.

"Our cobbler works from a small shop near the stables," said the king. "I'm sure you'll find him there."

"Thank you, sir."

Then Bay was out of the castle and away from the princesses as fast as she could go.

The cobbler welcomed her with unexpected joy.

"Puttin' soles on ladies' slippers day in and day out," he cried, ushering Bay into his workshop. "Fixing those same shoes over and over until I want to cry! Sit there, dear," he added, inserting Bay into a chair by the door. "Haven't had good boot leather in me hands for a month. Hand 'em over, lass."

Bay obliged. The cobbler accepted them lovingly, running long, stained fingers across the leather. "Oh yes. I remember this design. Very long-lasting. Terrible color though." He turned one over and grimaced. He slapped the back of his fingers against the pumice-worn soles. "What was this? A shuffle-dance across a troll's back?"

"Once or twice," said Bay, surprised into a grin. "But I may have helped those holes along."

"That's obvious," said the cobbler. "I'd complain if I didn't welcome the change. I'll have new soles on these by tonight. Try a few of those in the meantime. One of 'em might be close enough."

Bay tried on shoes until she found a pair that wasn't too big. "You say this has been going on for a month?"

"Nigh on two months!" said the cobbler. "Little wonder I see dancing shoes in my sleep."

"Dancing shoes," said Bay.

The cobbler nodded. "Oh yes. I designed them for balls and parties and now I repair them every day. Take a look at this."

He fitted one of Bay's boots into a vise. "See the wear on your sole? Walking mostly. The heel's as worn as the ball of the foot -- excepting that scraping you did," he added, arching an eyebrow toward her. "And look at the differences between the right and left. If I'd never laid eyes on you I'd know you were a gimpy soldier: years of marching, then walking off an old wound."

"Amazing," said Bay.

"This?" He grabbed a slipper from his workbench and waved it in the air. "All the wear's on the ball of her foot."

Bay took the slipper. "What's that mean?"

"Well, she didn't wear that off walkin', did she? See, a lady dancing is a matter of balance. She's got to be quick on her feet, go where her partner leads her. Ladies dance on the balls of their feet. I don't know how it happens overnight, mind . . . but those girls are wearing out their shoes just the way they were meant to. They're dancing."

Bay turned the silk shoe over and over in her hand. The silk caught on the rough parts of her hands. "Does the king know this?"

The cobbler shrugged. "He's the king. He don't have to look at the bottoms of people's shoes."

Bay felt suddenly ridiculous for having shown the king her sole. "Then he didn't ask you to investigate?"

"Why, not that I know, miss," said the cobbler. "Nought's come to talk to me except you. And I wouldn't put me own neck on the line to marry into that family. Besides," he laughed, "I'd make a poor king."

"I don't know," said Bay. "You'd keep the whole kingdom well-shod. Few kings can do that."

The cobbler laughed. "Come back this evening, miss. I'll have your boots by then. And who knows? Maybe you'll solve the mystery in the meantime. I'd be terrible sad to put all this work into boots that were only worn a single day."

"I'm grateful," said Bay. "Really."

A princess appeared in the doorway: one of about Bay's height and coloring, that she hadn't managed to speak to yet. Her cheeks were red with exertion. She composed herself quickly. "Silly soldier!" she said, sounding winded. "Aren't you finished bothering our dear old cobbler?"

"I suppose I am," said Bay. The conversation had buoyed her, settled her nerves. Made her feel lucky. "And what's your name, your highness?"

The princess curtsied. "I'm Tarmellinda."

Bay offered her elbow. "You're right, Tarmellinda. I think I'd rather spend the day with you and your sisters. Why don't you show me what it's like to be a princess?"

"Gladly," said Tarmellinda. She led Bay off, looking relieved; Bay followed, feeling relief of her own. At last, she had a plan.

Bay spent the day watching the princesses -- their habits, their mannerisms. In the evening she went back to the cobbler to get her boots. Then she went on the hunt. She found Tarmellinda reading by the lamplight in a flower-heavy garden, far from the others.

She approached with deep deference. "A word, your highness?"

The princess Tarmellinda looked alarmed. "If you will."

Bay sat beside her on the bench, angled in, making herself look grave and desperate. "Forgive me. I don't know who else to trust."

"I -- er --"

Bay forged on. "Twice now I've slept the night without meaning to. Twice I've been brought wine before bed. I suspect one of your sisters may be feeding me potions and enchanting the rest of you. I can't tell which, but I've watched you all carefully, and I think you, at least, are innocent."

Tarmellinda's hand moved to her mouth. "Oh," she said. "Oh, how . . . what a dreadful accusation."

"I know. Forgive me. I dare not make guesses to the king. But I think together we can solve this mystery and save you and the rest of your sisters."

Tarmellinda's eyes remained fixed on Bay's face. "Yes, all right," she said slowly. "Will you then . . . will you not drink?"

Bay bit her knuckle. "I can't. But I can't let on to them what I suspect. Maybe I can think of a way to pretend to drink . . ."

"Oh, that won't do," said Tarmellinda. "My sisters are too clever for that."

"Then what can I do?" said Bay. "I'll be dead by morning!"

Tarmellinda was silent for a moment. Then: "What if I offered to fetch your wine tonight?"

Bay sat straighter. "That's it! The others would be satisfied, and I'd be awake to investigate. Just one night, that's all I need. I knew I was right to trust you."

"Oh yes," said Tarmellinda, still wide-eyed. "Yes. I'll do it."

Bay grasped the princess's hands the way she had done with her best friend when she was a tiny girl. "Thank you. You've saved my life. I swear, I'll break your curse or die trying."

She stood, saluted, and strode back into the castle to pass her last evening in the king's dwelling . . . and it wasn't too late that night before she heard a knock at her chamber door.

Khloromain, who had been hunting flies on the ceiling, vanished into the closet. Bay answered the door. When she saw Tarmellinda she sagged in relief. "You did come!" She shooed the princess inside and shut the door behind her.

"Of course I came," said Tarmellinda. She held out the tray and the single goblet of wine. "Tonight you can enjoy your wine with no worries."

Bay hesitated. "Must I drink?"

"They'll know if you don't," said Tarmellinda. "Griselda always knows everything. Oh, don't worry," she added, laughing. "It's quite safe."

Bay took the wine and put it on the end table. "I hope not."

In one swift motion, she caught Tarmellinda's arms behind her back. Khloromain burst forth to help, winding himself around the princess until she was immobile. Bay poured as much of the wine down Tarmellinda's throat as possible, clutching her tight as the potion took hold. In moments, Tarmellinda went limp in her arms. "They must have tripled the dose," Bay murmured. She hoisted the princess to the bed and laid her out. "I hope whatever drug they used was a strong one."

Khloromain said, "This was the one you thought you most resembled?"

"I chose the best I could," said Bay, tugging off the girl's stockings. "It's not my fault I don't look like a princess."

"Bah!" said Khloromain. "I could make you the very image of her with a simple wish."

"I'll take my chances," said Bay. "Help me strip her."

Khloromain swirled to the ceiling and back. "Perhaps you aren't such a cruel mistress after all!"

The nightdress felt like nothing Bay had worn for years. She sat uncomfortably as Khloromain did up her hair. "There," he said, giving her curls a final twist. "A coiffure fit for royalty."

She stood and looked in the mirror. "Ugh." She put on the mask she had taken the night before. A slight improvement. It would have to do. She strapped Khloromain's lead vial around her waist, under the gown. "Ready?"

"I suppose," said Khloromain.

"Then wish me luck."

"Wish me free."

"Oh, never mind." Bay took up the tray with the empty cup and swept across the hall to her "sisters."

The place was already a chaos of dresses and chatter. Bay slid to Tarmellinda's closet, trying to forget that her only disguise was a nightgown, a hairstyle, and a thin white mask. She put on a ball gown and let another princess help her button it and helped button one or two of the others. She chose silk slippers to match. The mix of risk and glamour was intoxicating. But whenever she began to enjoy it -- whenever her fingers lingered too long on the silk -- she would hear Griselda's laugh ring out over the others, and grow cold. These girls were trying to kill her. She couldn't forget that.

They circled the floor. The magic worked despite the imposter. The stones boiled and broke into a staircase; Bay, carefully last, followed the swishing skirts down the dark stairs.

For long moments there was no light: just the rustle of fabric, hard stone beneath her slippered feet, stone walls close to her shoulders. Then -- quicker than a lamp flaring to life -- pale pink light flooded the staircase, so dim that the girls cast no shadows. The corridor was just wide enough for their skirts, but it rose higher than the castle walls. Bay raised her masked face and saw no ceiling at all: only pink-lit walls stretching into a dark sky.

The staircase ended at a door made of spider silk. At the front of their chain, Griselda stroked the thin veil. It parted like the curtain of mist over a waterfall. One by one they passed. As Bay passed through it closed behind her with a chime like glass bells.

A lake dark as onyx stretched before them; then a pier, where twelve boats bobbed. A single oarsman stood alongside each. The princesses hurried to them; Bay followed as slow as she dared. She went to the last of them. Up close she could make out his face, his dead eyes. She knew that face. She'd seen it many times -- not in person, but on the papers they passed around before battles, on the coin of foreign realms. He offered his hand. It was cold. Bay, and all the others, stepped into the boats and one by one they set off across the lake.

Bay sat on the edge of her nerves, waiting for the dead prince to speak. Across the water she heard rippling laughter from the other boats as the princesses chatted with their ferrymen. She whispered, "Are you prince of Suramanco?"

"I was," he said.

"How did you get here?"

His voice was the creak of windy branches. "I failed the challenge." He stared ahead and rowed. "The king executed me, as was his right. The princesses brought me here to serve them."

"How?" said Bay. But he would say nothing more.

The boat docked along a sandy shore. The boatman-prince stepped to the shallows and offered his hand so that Bay could disembark. She did so, clumsily, striking her foot against the prow as she stumbled onto the sand.

The forest beyond the shore shimmered. The stone path shifted under Bay's feet and moaned as she trod it. She made well sure to stay behind the others. She put a hand on a tree trunk with silver bark and leaves of cut diamond. She snapped off a twig and tucked it away. The tree shrieked faintly at the loss.

As they went, the branches that so eerily resembled fingers and arms bent until they were unmistakable. The trunks of trees became trunks of men twisted in agony. Twigs became fingers. Bay stuck close to the middle of the path. She couldn't be sure of what she'd do if the fingertips of a man-tree brushed her skin.

At the end of the path stood a pavilion. Two rows of men lined up along its edges: one for each princess. Some looked like foreign princes, but others wore the same uniform that Bay had left in the castle. She chose one of those. She put her hands around his elbow, as the others did, and let him lead her through a slow promenade around the pavilion.

Bay whispered: "How did you come to be here?"

"I fell at Barrowgate. I was called here to serve."

"Barrowgate," said Bay. Her mind filled with noise and the blur of memories: some images strange and muddled, some portrait-clear. She spoke to bring herself back. "The princesses called you to service here?"

"Not the princesses," said the infantryman.

"Who?" whispered Bay.

His hand was cold in hers. "Our king."

A clash of bright, merry music broke up their conversation. A waltz. Bay couldn't see any musicians. Griselda clapped her hands gaily above her head and cried, "Why don't we have Tarmellinda start the dancing tonight?"

The other princesses cheered. Bay's heart sank. She shook her head and clutched her dead escort's arm more tightly.

"Go on, dear!" called Griselda.

The soldier on her arm waited dumbly. Bay smiled weakly and tugged at him. "Come on," she murmured. "Make me look good."

He swept her to the center of the gazebo -- or would have, if Bay hadn't stumbled at the unfamiliar tugging. Her long-wounded thigh began to ache. She did her best to match his steps -- but knew, desperately, how badly she was doing. How long, she thought, how long can I carry this on before I am found out --?

She caught a glimpse of Griselda's laughing face. It came to her in a flash. They already knew.

She stopped dancing.

"Not having fun any longer, soldier?" called Griselda. "How foolish do you think I am? Do you think I don't know my own sister?"

Quick as a flash, Bay grabbed the sword from the scabbard of the soldier beside her. He made no move to stop her. She tore aside her mask. No point in it now. "What is this place?"

"Our haven," said Griselda, "and after we kill you it'll be where you serve forever after. Not as a dancer, obviously. But you'll make a nice shrub."

The words of the dead soldier rang in her ears. "Does your father know?"

"He should," said Griselda. "It was his long before we conquered it from it. And as long as he keeps sending princes to try to get it back, we'll keep finding ways to use them. Question time is over, soldier." She raised her hand; the dead guards stood ready. "Time to die."

Bay held the sword before her. "Khloromain!"

"What?" snapped Griselda.

From the lead bottle at Bay's waist rose a cloud of black smoke that rose until it towered behind her, a writhing backdrop. "Yes, my lady!"

"I wish every soul enslaved to this kingdom were set free."

"What is this?" snarled Griselda.

"Now!"

"As you wish!" cried Khloromain joyfully. He clapped his hands together.

Immediately the floor lurched. The columns rumbled and began to fall. The soldier at Bay's side fell into a heap of bones and vanished. So did the stones and trees, the dancers and boats . . . The whole kingdom made of dead men crumbled around them.

Griselda shrieked. Bay swore. "Khloromain! Get us out!"

"Is that another wish?"

"Do you wish to be buried with me? Get us out!"

"It'd serve you right, you wish-miser!" he cried. "Oh well -- better one than none --" He took hold of her under the arms and hauled her to dizzy heights. Through rock . . . through space . . . through magic . . .

They collapsed onto the princesses' bedroom floor.

Khloromain shrank to his usual size. "I hope you're happy."

Bay, lost amid the rumpled ball gown, let the sword fall from her hands. She saw not the room around her, but the fields of Barrowgate, thick with the dead; felt the blood of friends and enemies clog her skin until she saw red and breathed blood; heard thunder and dreadful screams. She couldn't catch her breath. She was drowning in memory.

Khloromain said, "Mistress . . .?"

She grabbed at his voice and hung on. "He built that place from our dead," she whispered. "Maybe the princesses stole it, but it was his first. And then he murdered fifteen princes just fighting with his daughters over who could have it." She put her hand across her eyes. "Why . . ."

"Because kings are kings," said Khloromain. "You have your answer. Let's get your reward before he realizes what it truly cost him."

Bay stood. She bent to take up the slain soldier's sword. "I'll go. Pack my bag. Meet me in the king's chambers. I can't stand to be in this place one more hour."

"Finally," said Khloromain, "we agree." He burst into of smoke and vanished.

Bay charged down the midnight-silent hall.

She burst into the king's bedchamber, to the foot of his lavish bed.

He roused admirably quickly. "What -- is that the soldier --?"

"I know where your daughters go at night. And so do you."

The king composed himself quickly. "What is this?"

"I've been there. I've seen the shambling servants, the buildings built from the dead -- and those enemy princes raised as shadows to dance with your daughters -- and my comrades, the dead, my dead, who I thought were given at least a noble rest --" She drew her sword. The king barely flinched. "Explain to me how you would use your servants this way."

"You're mine to use," said the king simply.

Bay's rage rose to her cheeks and brought her heart high in her throat. "You dare to tell me that -- but to use it as a trap for the sons of your enemies -- and God help you, your allies --"

Instead of answering, the king said, "I sleep protected, you know."

Cold steel settled against the back of Bay's neck. She grew very still.

"Drop the sword." Bay did so. Her sword clattered to the stone between them. The king sat as dignified in bed as he would have on the throne. "Where are my daughters?"

"One is drugged and asleep," said Bay. The sword at her neck pressed her into a shallow bow. "The others are trapped under stone in the ruins of your kingdom. I did not stay to see their fate."

The king's face went slack with horror. "The . . . ruins . . .?"

"The dead are free and the walls were crumbling as I left."

The lines in his face deepened into a mask. "Oh, what have you done?"

"You are a traitor to your people," Bay hissed, "and your daughters are dead for it."

The king's voice shook. "Kill her."

The moment he spoke -- at the first syllable of "kill" -- Bay threw herself flat onto her stomach. She snatched up the sword and rolled beneath the king's bed. Her shoulders scraped the underside of his mattress. She scrambled to her feet on the other side -- in enough time to block the guard's blow. She let her shoulder slide close to his. The swords kissed and wrestled. Just as the guard's muscle began to overpower her own, Bay slid aside. The guard stumbled forward on his own force. His head cracked against the bedpost. Bay kicked his feet out from under him and finished him with a quick stroke to the neck. She turned the swordpoint again to the king.

This time he quailed. "Don't kill me."

They stared at each other for a long time, soldier and liege. "I took oaths for this kingdom," said Bay at last. "I would no more slit your throat than my own."

The king said nothing. Bay did not let the point of her sword waver. She swallowed hard.

"But hear this," she said. "I will kill any man you send after me. And then I will tell everyone I see about the kingdom under your kingdom, and how you filled it."

"No one will believe you."

"That will be on their conscience, not mine. I pray it will weigh on yours."

In a puff of smoke, Khloromain, with her things, appeared beside her. He looked from Bay to the king to the fallen guard and back. "I take it we don't get the reward after all."

"Bid his majesty well," Bay sneered. She tossed down the dead soldier's sword and took up her own. It felt friendly in her hand. "I'll explain on the way."

The bedchamber door slammed behind them. Khloromain said, "Not even a thank you?"

"Not even a thank you," said Bay. She didn't look back. "You were right. Kings are kings. Best we leave this one be."

The sun had risen before they dared stop. Bay changed back into her uniform and rolled the ball gown into a tight cylinder to keep in the bottom of her pack. She didn't want to sell something that lovely quite so soon.

Khloromain came to sit on her shoulder. "I suppose the adventure wasn't a total waste."

"How's that?"

"You finally spent a wish."

"Don't think I'll use the other two so lightly."

"Lightly!" he said. "If rescue from eleven witches and an army of the dead is what you call 'light' then I hope we never get into a really tight spot! You're just lucky I deigned to get us both out of there in the bargain."

She patted the spot between his ears with one finger. "Thank you, Khloromain."

"Ah," he said. "Well. You see. Your misfortune is my misfortune."

Bay grinned. "And my fortune . . ."

"We'll talk about that if we ever have any. Which, given the nature of our adventures, seems increasingly unlikely."

"Oh?" said Bay. "Then what do you call this?"

She drew from her jacket a silver twig with two perfect, diamond leaves.

Khloromain let out a shouting laugh. "I call that a good day's work!"

"I call it a few more nights in feather beds, and a chance at retirement, if we can find a buyer."

"Not in this kingdom, if I may be so bold."

"No," said Bay, with a sigh. "No, I think this kingdom is done with us. But there are many more."

Khloromain settled against her collar. "Then let us find them."

They turned toward the north, to strange lands and strange roads, and the only sounds were the wind in the trees and the squeak of supple boots with brand-new soles.


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