The insulted faerie appeared in the middle of the king’s festivities. Right in the middle of his table, as a matter of fact. Her large eyes widened as they quickly absorbed her surroundings. “Oh, my,” she breathed. Urgently, she lifted the icy blue silks of her loosely draped gown, revealing slender feet clad in rings and one thin bracelet around her right ankle. They balanced on either side of a golden platter cradling portions of the king’s supper. Holding yards of silk bunched about her hips, she gazed down at the king’s colorless face and cocked her head. “I must be interrupting something.”
The queen was crying.
“What can I do for a faerie at the supper hour?” the king asked.
The faerie’s eyes remained steady on the king’s; her head remained cocked. The largest toe on her left foot twitched; a bowl of peas jerked sharply. “An early supper indeed,” she said. “I have come to see my goddaughter.”
The queen cried harder, crumbling forward in her seat, covering her head with her arms and revealing her face only to the tablecloth. The woman’s trembling was discernable through the layers of silk, fine linen and whale-boned corsetry.
“But I see I am interrupting.” Blue and white and violet wings sprouted from the faerie’s back, nearly as tall as she. They fluttered and she rose until her relaxed toes just barely did not dip into the king’s feast. She appeared to be balancing precariously on the king’s favored onion soup by a single amethyst-tinted toenail.
Her whole body jerked as her wings beat. She seemed to appear suddenly on the floor before the king’s long table. “You seem to be having quite a party with your supper.” Her wings shrank until they disappeared in the folds of her gown. “Dignitaries from every human province and kingdom and state. One at your own table—hmm. And twelve of my own kind. The faerie never appear in anything but twos or threes. Oh, dear. And finally, the little princess herself.”
The queen sat bolt upright, but her royal husband held her to her seat.
The faerie advanced on the cradle, displayed in ornate grandeur some three paces behind her. “She is lovely. And so many very … fine .. things to play with you have, little sweeting.” She knelt, half hanging over the cradle’s side, and stroked the baby’s petal-soft cheek. Like stroking water, she mused. So delicate, so fragile. So easily disrupted.
“They were gifts, Del.”
Del’s head lifted, turned toward the voice. She was forced to stand and twist about. She faced her green-eyed kinsman with an expression of false astonishment. “Gifts,” she repeated. “Of course they are. Gold, gems, diadems. Beauty, grace, poise.”
The man nodded but did not retake his seat.
Del presented her back to him and the rest of the guests. “Royals and nobles from so far away. Twelve faerie exactly. Invitations were sent for this petite fête—the princess’s presentation. Yes.” The last word was but a sigh before she continued in a voice reminiscent of cascading boulders. “Twelve invitations were sent to my kingdom, very deliberately not to me. I might wager that boy there is the only other in this room to arrive without a gilded note of entrance. But, lucky boy, you were brought as a gift; our little princess has a husband before she can so much as utter the word ‘no.’ How convenient.”
She advanced toward the king’s table and placed one hand on its smooth surface, leaning her slight weight on it. “Did you not think I warranted an invitation? You tried hard to keep me away. I cannot fathom a reason why.”
“Can’t you?” the queen cried. She lifted her head and managed not to glower at the faerie. “You hold human affairs too close. You meddle.”
The faerie slammed her other hand down on the table. More than just the peas jumped and rattled. “You were quite content to let me meddle before now, Highnesses. If not for my meddling, there would be no child to celebrate this evening.”
The king rose. “We thanked you properly. We do not wish for further influence from the faerie.”
“Mmm. Yes, I can see that.” She stood straight, soaking in the wordless fear from the monarchs before her. She let the moment stretch until it felt as solid as fossilized tree sap, until the king’s hand jerked.
“Leth was about to give her gift.”
One slender, crest-like brow raised. “Indeed.” Silk fluttered. By the time her back faced the king, her wings were large once more, the tattered violet edges obscuring her slender form.
“I believe I am insulted.” Her hands settled on her hips as she spoke. “Leth is trembling within her lemony costume. Catch your breath, dearheart, and remember which useless, feminine trait you shall so kindly bestow. I shall give my gift and go. But remember, this, King.”
No one saw her move. Suddenly, the faerie’s harsh, winter-like beauty filled his vision and he could not look away. The gasp of his fellow king, the whimper and cuddle of his wife, neither grasped his attention while eyes the color of smoke held him pinned. Terrified, the king believed that he could see tiny flames licking the ebon pupils.
“I will not come back. Once I have left these halls nothing you can do shall entice me back. No bribe, no promise, and no apology.”
Her wings beat twice and she stood just before the cradle. Sleep, she urged the now-restless child—not with words still incomprehensible to the infant, but rather with thought and impression. The child quieted among its many pink cushions, silk sheets and woolen afghans.
The faerie shuffled through the words in her head. The ones she had come with would have to change. They must be perfect; even the slightest error of synonym would ruin all of her plans. She discarded several words, too long and bulky for such a delicate little thing no doubt already saddled with such heavy words as grace and manners and beauty and poise. But they must be strong words nonetheless, binding words.
“All the gifts in the world cannot take away what nature herself gave already. She is quite a curious, inquisitive child. She will seek out and find all manner of things, noble, common, and fantastic. But on the day she finds the old spinner in the forgotten tower, she shall draw blood oh-so-innocently on the spindle—such a common occurrence among the common folk.”
There was a gasp from the room at large. The king lost what little color he retained on his cheekbones. The faerie fluttered her great moon-toned wings and hovered above the cradle, looking down her long straight nose at the yellow-haired king. “But she shall die.”
The hall erupted with sounds—shouts, cries, wooden chairs over marble floor, stiff taffeta and tule petticoats, the click of heeled shoes. She waited for the king to speak. He uttered one word.
Like lightening before a clap of nearby thunder, she disappeared. She knew the sweet little faerie, the last gift-giver’s brains were as addled by lemons as was her fashion sense. Leth adored the color but abhorred the taste—yes, she would finish the job nicely. The faerie’s laughter rang out like the sound of tiny, silver bells on a mountain breeze.
* * *
The queen could feel the trembling in her arms as she held her daughter close. The child couldn’t die, she could not! The pain of bearing her was too unbearable; the queen could not—would not—do it again. She pulled the silk-wrapped infant closer.
“Please, your Highnesses, I have not yet gifted the princess.”
“Can you undo such terrible magic?” the king asked. The queen felt her hoops shift as her husband stepped closer. She gazed at the delicate faerie, soothed by her slender beauty. Golden hair like spun sunbeams was piled atop her head, a few wispy curls sliding over her shoulders. Her paler garments hung loosely about her, seemed to float on a light breeze as she moved, made her look something out of a dream. Lips smiled gently in a smooth, pale face the shade of lilies.
She reached out a beringed hand and pulled a smoke-gray ribbon from the folds of the infant’s wrappings. “I can but give the hope of life. Happiness was to be my gift, for life is dull without it, and this shall I give. No hell-bent spinner shall take your life. You shall but wait in sleep. Happiness shall wake thee, little princess; love’s first kiss will open your eyes from death’s pale shadow.”
She had knotted her own silk-of-gold ribbon about the gray, until little of the offending color remained. “That is what I can do, your Highnesses. It is my gift to your daughter, the princess.” She slipped the knotted ribbons back between the blankets and out of view. Then, with a twitch of her butter-and-melon-colored wings, she was back at her place at the table, the last of the faerie settings, not a fold of her gown swaying from her flight.
* * *
Slowly, a search of the castle began. The king and his steward organized groups of men and women to search for the old spinner. Such handicrafts were made illegal, punishable by death within the palace walls. Even the great looms were taken away for fear a splinter might substitute the spindle. Only the queen was allowed to keep her embroidery stand for the tapestries of knights and dragons and unicorns that she and her ladies painstakingly pieced together.
“My lord, it is the forgotten tower the evil faerie cited,” the steward peered down at the original schematics of the ancient castle, several plans for subsequent changes and additions scattered over it. “Even with these, it could take years to search the ones we haven’t forgotten. This place is a monstrosity the kings of old added onto rather than redecorate. I’m sure half the towers that were built have been covered up and forgotten.”
“Then let my reign be known for dusting every cobweb, ousting every last moth and beetle from the place.” And so the searchers searched, asking servants of wings they had never before visited for news of an old spinner.
“Save the one in the heavens weaving destinies, I know of none,” was their answer.
Rugs were cleaned, trunks filled with treasure ranging from ancient to merely antique were transferred to the royal treasury, tapestries taken to the queen to be refurbished, paintings counted and noted in their stately frames. Gardens were discovered where one tower had toppled over and had never been rebuilt. The elderly head gardener could not have appeared less shocked if his wife had told him she could have cured his arthritis with a posy—a decade ago. The king was impressed; the queen had a sitting area arranged near a stand of lilac trees and a wall covered in a drapery of orange-tipped yellow roses; she brought her ladies every morning for tea and to cuddle the baby. Libraries filled with forgotten literature were found, and scholars hired to read and translate it all. Several more crowns from past monarchs were gathered with the only ones that truly mattered, and a collection started. The queen one day organized the exchange of beds when she saw one in some ancient lady’s chamber. “I simply cannot stand the feeling of being trapped. This one is free to the room,” she said.
Five years later, the steward’s son asked a serving maid for news of an old spinner.
The girl blinked her cow-like brown eyes. “Do you mean old Temmy? He passed on over the winter. I’m sorry. Did you know him? He just wasn’t the same after they took his wheel away. Hard for an old blind man to learn a new trade, I’m afraid.”
The steward’s son nodded and asked the girl to show him old Temmy’s room and grave. It was as she had said. The grave was simple wood, the carved letters already slipping away into the elements. He showed his father, and then he showed the king.
“I have never been so happy to see an honest man dead,” the king said. Then he turned his back on the grave and returned to his sprawling palace. He continued the cleaning, the dusting, the collecting, the cataloging, but gradually the searchers quit asking for an old spinner. The disappearing grave gave comfort at night to the king and his queen. They grew secure in the cocoon they created around their daughter.
* * *
Aislynn peered into the half-cleaned room. Her father’s servants had left it for the night—even this great palace slept through the night. The door closed softly on newly oiled hinges. She was alone, the sphere of light radiating from the tip of her ivory-colored candle illuminating her face, but not her ears, and down a line at her sides. The room’s darkness swallowed her shadow whole. Trying to peer farther than the sphere of light would allow, the little princess moved farther into the room.
Not allowed into the rediscovered places throughout the palace until they had been cleaned and declared fit for royal feet and royal eyes, Aislynn often snuck out of her bed when Nurse’s nearby snoring woke her. She wrapped herself in whatever shawl or dressing gown she could reach—hoping for something rather plain, but nearly always finding ornate brocade and fringed silk instead. After properly covering her nightrail, she slipped through the little half-door hidden by the unicorn tapestry her mother sewn. No one ever saw her come into the corridor.
It had taken her a half an hour to find this new room. Other than dust clinging to her hem like dusk clings to the horizon, she wasn’t seeing anything. Usually there were tools from the workers and boxes and interesting furniture. The last room that had been discovered had a table with snarling dragons holding up each corner. The table had disappeared in the light of day, when she had been allowed in.
She came to the empty room’s far wall before she found anything interesting. The tapestry on the wall looked as though it had been the main course for moths and mice for generations. She could make little to nothing out of the fraying threads. The bottom loops and spikes and points of letters and words peered into the sphere of light, but not enough for her to read them, though she did know how.
She followed the wall until she came to a marble bench. Its legs were made of twisted bronze. Four of them, thick and gnarly. She placed her candle carefully on one end then climbed to sit where some ancient prince or princess might have one day sat. After a few moments staring into the darkness, she decided that it was not a very lucky prince or princess who had to sit there for very long. Used as she was to feather pillows and plump cushions with embroidered ivy and roses, her bottom began protesting quickly.
She sighed and leaned back against the wall.
There was a click and the wall shifted against her spine.
She sat bolt upright and twisted on the bench, heedless of the candle, her fancy dressing gown, and the ancient tapestries adorning the wall. She pulled them back, opening the wall’s tattered coverings where they met. The bench had held the fragile fabric in place. Aislynn slid from the bench, placed the candle on the floor, and tugged until the bronze feet had scooted two inches from the wall. Then she clambered on top again and pushed the tapestries aside.
Darkness greeted her gaze. She pushed. She had to shove with her shoulder, and when the tall, slender door finally opened, she nearly tumbled through. On her stomach, clutching cold marble—white shot through with gray is what the candle’s light had revealed—she felt her head engulfed by black. She squirmed and slithered and pulled herself back until she landed on her knees before the bench.
The little princess took up her candle once more, coveting the light, comforted within its sphere. She brought it with her when she pushed her hand back through the curtain of tapestries, into the darkness beyond. She stepped off the bench and into a world covered in the snow of dust and cobwebs. Tiny clouds of gray-white floated noiselessly to the ground as she walked. She came to a staircase. Three steps up, a spiral of them down. She went up.
The door was already half open, and she didn’t have to budge it farther to slip in. It was a bedchamber, she discovered. Her protective sphere of light couldn’t reach the top of the bed’s canopy, but it pulled out the colors of the curtains, the cloth-of-gold and appliquéd scraps of jewel-colored silk in random, curling patterns. The coverlet was more like a tapestry than a blanket, sewn with the same colors as the curtains. She peered inside and caught a glimpse of large, round pillows, velvet and moth-eaten.
She found a dressing table with a huge, square mirror rising above it. Fat jars with pointed and onion-shaped lids adorned the table’s surface. Combs of gold with emeralds and sapphires were scattered about. One studded with rubies caught her attention. She placed the candle on the table and reached for her hair. Blond and curly, she twisted some about the crown of her head and speared the three-pronged comb though it. It remained well enough.
In the polished bronze mirror, the candle’s yellow glow made her complexion look golden. She blinked at it, thinking that she looked rather faerie in the small light with her childish, thin features that couldn’t decide what they should be.
On the other side of the room, she found a ledge as long as the wall, cushioned with a single long cushion of gold on blue brocade. A series of windows ran above it. She climbed up and examined the windows with their boards of brown wood behind them. She sat her candle—now halfway gone—on the ledge and traced the latches with her fingers. She twisted and pulled. The hinges creaked. Deep within the palace, she knew no one would have heard. She pulled the panel open. The black iron was delicate between the panels of thick, clear glass. Patterns like teardrops obscured the glass, but enhanced the panel’s beauty. As she gazed up at the window at the very edge of her sphere of golden light, she thought of the chapel, the only addition her father was ever likely to build onto the castle of add-ons he had inherited. Its windows were large and pointed so at the top.
She pushed the window out of the light and turned to the wood. Was it there to protect the glass and black iron scrolls from yet another wall of stone? She pushed and could hear nails groan in their wooden prisons. She pushed harder, shoved and pounded. Finally, she managed to get one of the sides pried off of the window. She tasted fresh air and glimpsed a sliver of moon before she pulled back and the wood came along.
Aislynn gasped. She had been found out! But by whom? “Hello?” she whispered back. She pushed at the wood again, holding it out as far as she could from the wall.
A brown eye peered in, and part of a nose. Enough to determine that he couldn’t have been many years older than she. “Help me pull this down,” she said.
“But if we pull it down, everyone will know that we were here.”
“I want to see what the windows used to see.”
“It’s not the same these days. This tower was built centuries ago.”
“Then shouldn’t they see the changes too? Just this one window. Just part of it. We can cover it back up. Will anyone notice part of the window uncovered?”
“Not until winter. Men are paid to board up all the windows but the ones with flags hanging out the corners.”
“Then help me pull this off. I want to see.”
“You’re not going to give up on this, are you, girl?”
“No. And my name is Aislynn, not Girl.”
The boy gasped. “The princess?”
She leaned in closer to the boy’s eye and half a nose. “I’m just a girl wandering in the dark who happens to have a name. Now are you going to help me or not?”
Wordlessly, he began tugging at the board. Finally, they pried it loose. With a brush of fresh air, frosty starlight and fractured moonlight. Her golden sphere evaporated.
“My candle!” she cried, watching a tendril of silky gray smoke dance away on the breeze.
“I will light it again so you can find your way back.”
She could see both of the boy’s eyes now, and all of his nose. His hair—it looked dark, but she could see little of color—was a little wild after playing with the wind, but properly short.
“You have my name,” she told him. “What is yours?”
“Brendan, now help me climb in.”
She moved her candle and grasped his arms, holding them through heavy brocade while his feet scraped against the stone of the outer wall. It took him only a moment or two to climb through the window. He stood head and shoulders taller than she. “You didn’t need my help. Your hands gripped the sill just fine.”
He grinned and shrugged. “But I got it just the same, didn’t I?”
In a perfect imitation of her queenly mother when irritated at the king, Aislynn tilted her nose in the air, sniffed in the sent of owls and night, and turned on her slippered heel.
The room was illuminated in the frosty light of one window. A large rectangle elongated over a knotted rug depicting fantastic catlike animals with stripes and spots. She tapped on the bed’s post; the sharp thud of wood filled her ears.
“Whose room is this?” Brendan asked.
Aislynn shrugged. “I don’t know. They haven’t found it yet. My father has ordered the cleaning of the entire palace.”
“I know. Everyone knows that.”
“Well, they haven’t found this room yet. When they do we’ll know whose room it is. Until then, it’s mine.” She knelt on the ground and ran her fingers along the tight knots of the rug. She traced the round spots of one creature. “Have you ever seen anything like it?”
Brendan knelt beside her, careful not to obscure the figure with his shadow. “Of course I have. It’s a leopard.”
She looked up at him, uncertain whether he was teasing. “There is no such creature.”
“Yes there is. Father had one of their skins only last winter. It went for quite a high price to some lord or other for his court costume. They’re big cats, bigger than dogs.”
“As big as a pony?”
“Some of them. There are others. See this one? That’s a tiger; see the stripes?”
“What about the one with the bush on its head? Does it really look like that?” She had scooted down and pulled her nightrail and dressing gown out of her knees’ way.
“As much as any of them do. Lions have long hair like a girl’s. And see the black one next to it? That’s a panther.”
“How do you know all this stuff?”
“My father sends me to school.”
“Oh. I wish I could be sent off to school.”
“You can’t. You’re the princess—you’d have private tutors even if you didn’t have a curse attached to you.”
“What? What do you mean a curse?”
The boy looked at her, startled that she didn’t know. Her eyes were wide, dark and colorless pools in the night, her golden hair threaded with the stars’ silver. He had never noticed how small a girl-child four years younger than he could be—and her skeleton had all the sturdiness of a wren.
“What curse?” she asked again. Her voice got deeper rather than higher.
“I thought everyone knew.”
“Well, this Everyone forgot to tell me!”
“Don’t you know the story of your presentation, Princess?”
“Of course I do! Mother and Father invited all of the kings of other countries and nobles of our own, and twelve of the faeries he was so proud to finally have an heir, even if I was just a girl. They all brought me gifts which are in my bedchamber.”
“And the evil faerie? What did they tell you about her?”
“What evil faerie? I’ve never heard anything about an evil faerie. I think you’re making it up.”
“I’m not, Princess. They say the evil faerie broke the faerie law of twos and threes and came anyway, making thirteen. She was angry not to be invited and she cursed you to stab yourself and die.”
“She said I would kill myself?”
“No, she said it would be an accident.”
“How could I accidentally stab myself?”
“I don’t know. But that’s why your father started cleaning his castle. He was really searching for the rest of the prophecy.”
She pulled her pink dressing gown closer around her. “Did he find it?”
“Oh, yeah, years ago. There was a gala on your birthday.”
“I was five … I remember it; it was just three years ago. I got my first pretty gown to wear.”
“My sisters didn’t wear gowns until they were fifteen and presented.”
“Oh.” She looked down at the rug once more. Something blazed red in her hair. “But they found the rest of the prophecy, so that means I’ll be okay, right?”
He watched the ruby glow against gold in the starlight. He nodded, words caught in a net somewhere in the middle of his throat. Finally one simple syllable slipped through. “Yeah.” She looked up and smiled at him. He’d never seen anything as pretty and white as her face, anything as dark and beguiling as her eyes, the way they turned up at the ends when she smiled. “You’re like some faerie in a dream,” he said. “I don’t think it’s real.”
“It has to be real,” she said. “Wait.”
She left him sitting on the rug, near the edge of the silvery rectangle. She let the dark swarm around her as she walked to where she remembered the dressing table to be. As she drew nearer the bronze mirror trapped a little of the light in a hazy rectangle slashing across its surface. It wasn’t enough light to see by. Her hands skimmed the surface of the table until they found a box. There was no lock like the boxes on her mother’s table. She lifted the lid, snapping thin strands of spiders’ webs. She pushed her fingers inside. She felt rings that could fit two of her fingers within the band, bracelets studded with gems unknown. She continued searching until she found something that would fit in her palm, something on a long chain. She took it with her back to where the boy sat.
“Take this.” She held out a silver knotwork pendant in the shape of a diamond, fat white pearls at each corner. It spun slowly and revealed another in its center. “Then in the morning you can see if it’s a dream.”
“I can’t take this! What if I’m caught with it?”
“If it’s a dream you won’t have it in the morning.”
“But I don’t want it to be a dream.”
She crawled forward on her knees and put the chain around his neck. “It’s not a dream,” she said. “And if you’re so worried about getting caught, don’t be. I’m not caught when I wander through the palace where I’m not supposed to go at night. It’s easy to hide once you figure out how. And you’ll know that this wasn’t a dream.”
Brendan fingered the pendant hanging halfway down on his chest.
“Until my father’s servants find this room it’s mine. Besides, no one’s seen this stuff in centuries. No one will know it’s missing. My mother wouldn’t like it, it’s not gold. But it is pretty, isn’t it? Take it like an old knight takes a lady’s favor, and remember that this was not a dream.”
They both peered at the knotted diamond hanging from its thick rope chain.
Aislynn’s lips barely moved as she formed soft words. “If it is a dream, it’s the best one I’ve ever had. If it is a dream then no one else will find this room.”
“Here,” the boy said, reaching in a slender pouch that hung from his belt. “Take this. Then we both have something to prove it wasn’t a dream.”
Her hands drifted toward the comb in her hair, readjusted it, then fell once more to her lap. He put something warm and slender into her hands. This will be something to prove he was real, she thought. To remember that I had a real conversation with a real person. He even told me about the curse; my parents didn’t ever tell me about the curse. “What is it?”
He took it from her and showed her how she could pull a slender blade folded inside the patterned wood. The metal gleamed like liquid silver in the simple white light. He showed her how to fold it back so that it was safe within its case. “Keep it in your pocket, Princess.”
“I don’t want to be a princess tonight. I told you, my name is Aislynn.”
“That’s the princess’s name.”
“Pretend that it’s not. I have to go. I have to be back in bed before Nurse wakes up. It took me half of an hour to get here, it’ll take that long to get back, if there aren’t any people wandering about the corridors that I have to hide from.”
She returned to the window and brought back her candlestick. “You said that you would light it for me, Brendan.”
He brought out a little box filled with red-tipped sticks. He struck one along the side of the box and a flame erupted from the contact. Aislynn jumped back. “Is it magic?”
Brendan held the stick to her candle and waited until the flame spread to the wick. “If this was magic my father would throw me out. Fires can ruin a merchant as easily as a bad storm. They’re matches, Lynn. I’d wager even your father’s servants keep boxes of them in their pockets.”
“Oh.” She suddenly felt the weight of everything she did not know, everything that everyone else did. Staring at the tiny flame she felt it was her own self; the darkness about the room was everything she did not know, everything that the boy sitting in front of her knew; the darkness of the palace, the darkness of the night, was what everyone else knew.
“Can you get back down?”
“Don’t worry about me, Lynn. I’ve been wandering about the palace grounds at night for a couple of years now.”
“But you’ve never been inside?”
“Of course I’ve been inside. My father brought me inside when the queen bought our silks for her yuletide gown.”
“I mean when you wander at night.”
“Of course not. Tonight was the first time.”
“Tonight was the first time I’ve seen anyone, too.”
She watched him climb over the pillows, then over the wooden back and sill, then swing like the pet monkey her mother’s best friend kept. He hung on for a moment, then fell to the ground; he became a lone head left on the windowsill. It was no stranger than the cats tied into the rug. She sat on her knees, smelled the scent of decaying ticking and crumbled dust and bay leaves. She spoke to the head.
“Will I see you again?”
“If you can keep this room.”
She shrugged. “My father’s servants will probably find it. It can’t remain forgotten for long. I can show you the rest of the palace. Can you come during the day?”
“Perhaps, but why would I want to watch you play princess with a bunch of other snooty girls and your servants? I don’t like tiny sugar cakes you girls eat with tea.”
“We are not snooty.”
“You are too. You were earlier. You put your nose in the air and turned about like some kind of dancer. That’s snooty.”
She huffed at him, expelling the smell of old cloth from her nostrils. “If you can come, I can get away.”
Before he could reply, she pushed the window shut. His face was nothing but a spot of darkness distorted and blurred through the old glass. “Please come,” she told the vision. She wondered if he would. She wondered if she would really abandon Nurse and her friends when he did.
* * *
He did come, and she did slip away. She disappeared among the hooped skirts and ruffles, got lost in the ribbons and lace. She pulled Brendan with her into the shadows and showed him everything that she knew and everything that she wasn’t supposed to know. They hid in the shadows cast by huge barrels, watching the cooks pound and roll dough. In her closet, she hid him within her largest set of hoops that she only wore with her fanciest of court gowns when Nurse nearly caught them. He didn’t even have to curl tightly in a ball, just keep his head low not to be seen. She brought him into her world of lace-edged satin, of brilliant color and dramatic shadows.
The tower Aislynn had discovered remained undiscovered by the cleaners. The slender door was too cleverly hidden among the wooden paneling; too many turns in the corridors left people confused as to where the outside walls were. Aislynn brought two oil lamps and as many candles as she could stuff into the pockets of her dressing gown or a pouch made of one delicate shawl or another. She didn’t think to blush clad only in only her nightrail until she was thirteen. Brendan could hardly take his eyes off the carnation pink staining her cheekbones.
When she was old enough to take walks alone in the gardens, she learned how to slip out of her lace edged world completely. A simple sidestep through the wisteria-covered portico, around the tumbling rosebushes and behind a curtain of ivy; the magnificent gardens hid her secrets in every shadowed ivy leaf and trembling petal. She gladly left behind her parents’ world, taking with her only her pet, Sookie. Brendan took her from the manicured chaos of the gardens and brought her into the city, beyond the main road her mother’s carriage drove down twice a year from the sprawling palace. In a wide brimmed hat trimmed with green silk netting, a rainbow of ribbons, and a trio of freshly plucked roses she followed him into shops he knew from his sisters’ sighs and business, from his mother’s praise. He took her to parks and exhibits of art and animals.
“They are real,” she whispered through her emerald veil, gazing at the leopard pacing in its cage, eyeing each and every person to walk by. “You were right,” she amended, watching the lion’s dark tresses sway with each dip of his great head. “They’re beautiful.” Her father would permit nothing of the sort in his menagerie of cooing birds and sniffing rabbits and chirping monkeys and other rather harmless creatures.
He took her to the docks and to the beach, where he convinced her to take off her shoes and stockings—“I’ve seen your bare feet before, Princess,” he had said, and she had removed the items, just to show him that she would—and let the sand settle between their toes then be washed away by the tide. She first beheld the glittering waves licking at her feet and declared that mermaids must be the luckiest of all creatures to call such a thing home. She missed supper that night, blaming it on an eight-act faerie play she had been reading behind a stand of roses where no one much went. The king and queen exchanged a glance and decided that she had had enough of the gardens for the week; the king demanded both the queen’s and his daughter’s presence in court for the next three days.
When she realized how simple it was to simply become part of the garden and slip beyond it, Aislynn gave Brendan one of her old hair sticks and demanded he sell it—she was not given an allowance, for she was not set loose upon the shops of the city; whatever she wanted she asked for and subsequently received. But she could not ask for what she wished to hold a secret. With the money he slid into her cupped palm they created a made-up girl for her to become as she explored the wider world that smelled of spice and salty sea. While she was supposed to be smelling the roses and gathering snapdragons and bleeding hearts she donned her brown brocade gown—for that color revealed dirt the least—over her most modest set of hoops, lined her hat’s brim with the king’s flowers, and set out to admire her father’s city from behind a veil the same color as her eyes.
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