The Lair of the Twelve Princesses
by Amanda C. Davis
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?"