Senafey had arrived at Castle Fayne with her pockets and sleeves filled with herbs. The dried plants had helped complete her guise as a wise healer, though she also intended to use most of the odd and ends she’d spent months gathering. She was not, of course, a midwife—the stooped stablemaster probably knew a great deal more about birthing children than her—but she had hurried over to Castle Fayne at the first whispered rumors of a curse, and mimicking the role of a healer had served her well.
Now, as she picked her way over brittle pine needles and around lingering snow patches on her way home, she clutched a sleeping baby girl to her shoulder. The girl’s blanket slipped; when Senafey tucked the end back into place with her chin, Camille stirred and blinked her tiny eyes.
“Don’t wake up, silly creature,” Senafey scolded. She knew Camille would prove to be a fascinating experiment as well as a complete nuisance, yet she was oddly fond of the girl already.
By the time Senafey neared her home, the child was wide awake and crying fussily. “Hush, you stupid thing,” Senafey said again and again, turning the words into a little song. She knew Camille was hungry, and she wished the child knew there was nothing to be done about it. “I’m hungry too, but you don’t hear me complaining, do you?”
Instead of continuing past the hill of bare oaks, Senafey turned left and trod the familiar stony way up to the hermit’s cave. He lived beneath a rocky overhang at the base of a cliff, and both he and Senafey often complained of how steep and exhausting the climb to his home was.
“I’ve come home,” she called when she saw the goat in front of the cave. It was a skeleton of a goat, actually; it had once been the hermit’s favorite pet, and when she had died the hermit had reassembled the skeleton and propped it in front of his door.
There was no response from inside the cave, though it was dark enough outside that Senafey knew the hermit should be home. Perhaps while she had been away he’d finally decided to keep his vow of silence.
“Hurry up, old man,” Senafey said, louder this time. “I’ve got a baby, and you don’t want her to start crying again.”
Shifting Camille in her arms, Senafey gave the goat skeleton a pat on the skull and ducked past the vines into the hermit’s cave. As she’d guessed, the hermit was sitting by his fire and drinking a cup of his favorite blackcurrant tea. The cave looked much tidier than it had many months ago when she’d last been home; the hermit had an irritating habit of cleaning it from top to bottom every day that Senafey was not around to distract him.
The hermit appeared to struggle with himself for a moment, probably trying as usual to maintain his silence; at last he shook his head and said, “Blimey. You weren’t lying about the baby.”
Senafey clicked her tongue and set Camille down on the hermit’s patchwork mattress. “What did you expect, another goat? Speaking of which, don’t tell me the new one has died too. The baby needs milk.”
The hermit scratched at his raggedy beard and set his tea cup ponderously onto the mantle. “A baby,” he said again. “Yes, I’ve still got the goat.” He scratched his beard again and shuffled off to the cave entrance while Senafey took a seat beside Camille. After how much trouble the girl had been on the walk here, Senafey was relieved that she slept so soundly now.
When the hermit came back into the cave, this time leading a knobby-kneed goat with a piece of ivy hanging from its mouth, he was frowning and muttering something to himself. A moment later he raised his voice and said, “My, you must have been busy while you were away. A baby? Madness.”
Senafey snorted. “Are you blind, old man?” She lifted the bundle off the patchwork mattress and held Camille’s peaceful face next to her own. “The girl doesn’t look a thing like me.” Camille’s dark shadow of hair was wound close to her head in tight black curls, while Senafey’s hung straight and matted down to her waist. Furthermore, Camille’s skin was dark and smooth beside Senafey’s pale, work-toughened hands. “Besides, do you have any idea how old I am?” She grinned at the hermit.
Once the goat was milked and Camille was propped up against the pillows of the hermit’s bed with a bottle, Senafey helped herself to the hermit’s leftover stew and let him wheedle the story of the past year out of her.
When the story was finished, and Senafey verified that the hermit had been doing exactly the same things he’d been doing for the past ten years while she had been away, she set aside her dishes and said, “Do you know anything about taking care of babies?”
“No. No, no, absolutely not.” The hermit set his mug emphatically on the table, scowling so fiercely that the corners of his mouth nearly dropped past his jaw. “I am not taking that thing from you. It’s nothing but a fussy little mess, and hermits are absolutely not fathers.”
Camille waved her little arms in the air, gurgling happily, and the hermit absentmindedly wiped milk from her chin with a corner of his quilt. Senafey tried her hardest not to laugh. “It’s only for a day or so,” she said. “There’s a dark bit of magic that’s living in the dungeon of Castle Fayne—well, it appeared on midwinter’s night, so you could say it’s just starting to settle in—and I want to know what it is. The queen called it a monster, or a demon, but it looked like black flame or boiling ink or something of the sort.” She smiled to herself at the memory. “I’ve been searching for years, and I’ve never seen magic that potent or beautiful. I have to see what it is!”
As usual, the hermit agreed to Senafey’s plan with a great deal of unnecessary grumbling, and the next morning he waved her away from the entrance of his cave, Camille snuggled safely in his arms. Imp
“No more babies this time,” he called as Senafey vanished down the hill. “One little midget is enough!”
She just shook her head and kept walking.
Senafey made a short stop at her house before retracing her path to Castle Fayne; though she had not been home in months, the hut looked just as cozy as she remembered. Senafey, of course, was perfectly aware that her idea of coziness would set most travelers running—when the hermit had propped up his goat skeleton outside the cave, Senafey had felt perfectly justified in decorating her own fence with stray animal bones and skulls she found around the woods. She enjoyed frightening people almost as much as she loved poking and prodding at the fragile net that restrained the forest’s magic.
Once her dried herbs and remedies were stacked safely on their shelves, Senafey wrapped her shoulders in an enormous fraying cloak and left her cottage behind. Two days and two nights she walked, while the forest grew darker and mistier around her. That was part of the curse as well, the mist, and Senafey laughed to herself whenever she looked up and remembered how sunny these woods had once been. One foolish queen was all it took, she thought happily; the forest’s magic was much livelier and readier to pounce than she had guessed.
The castle had already changed since Senafey had last seen it. Someone had taken it upon themselves to carve fancy curling letters all over the stone gate; when Senafey looked closer, she realized the words spelled a warning.
Cursed are ye who enter here.
Very impressive, she thought…and pushed open the gate.
“Halloo!” Senafey called from the cobblestone lane that led to the front door. “Anyone home?” The blacksmith and stablemaster were usually in the sheds nearby, within hailing distance of anyone who arrived; when the minutes of silence stretched on and on, Senafey realized that the household must be sheltering inside, as though stone walls would keep the curse at bay.
“They’re blinder than the hermit,” she said under her breath. The curse was within the castle, not outside, and while the servants and nobles continued to live there, it would eat away at them from the inside like a fever.
Another set of words had been carved into the archway above the heavy wood doors of the castle, though these letters were rough and uneven, as if an overenthusiastic child had been playing with a mason’s chisel. This warning read,
When five by five years have swiftly gone by,
These five luckless children will come back to die.
Senafey shook her head and pushed open the doors, wondering what the queen had meant by this. It obviously belonged to a longer poem (or spell, she reminded herself; if she started calling sorceries “poetry,” the castle’s inhabitants would never listen to her), so why had Queen Magdelyse chosen these particular lines to single out? The words themselves meant little.
As the door creaked open to reveal a familiar entrance hall that was even darker than the gloomy, mist-drenched forest, Senafey heard a shout and the sudden swish of a drawn arrow.
“Hold it right there, mister,” she croaked, resuming the elderly voice she’d used as an accessory to her wise-woman role. “Barely four days I’ve been gone, and you’ve already forgotten my face?” She took a step forward into the dim light, leaving the door to swing shut behind her.
“My lady Senafey.” The arms master lowered the arrow and bobbed his head respectfully. “Where is the child?”
Senafey nearly made a joke of her reply, until she realized how frightened and jumpy the arms master looked. In his state, he was likelier to shoot her than to laugh. “Camille is safe, of course. Still, Queen Magdelyse should have realized that such a small child would suffer without her mother’s milk; the poor girl was in a right state by the time I reached home, fretting and crying like she’d never stop.”
“Beg pardon, my lady.” The arms master finally let the bow drop to his side.
Senafey glanced around the hall, wondering if the cook or the scribe would be in a better state to help her. “I was curious, in fact—what was the meaning of the writing above this door?”
The wiry man cleared his throat. “Oh, I—the rhyme, you mean?” He glanced up at the lintel as though he meant to see through it. “The queen made that up, just before she—have you heard? She vanished not twelve hours after you left.”
That would explain a lot.
“In any case,” the man continued, growing more anxious by the minute, “Queen Magdelyse meant it as a warning. You ought not to have come back here, my lady!”
Senafey shook her head and folded her arms under her cloak. “First of all, don’t be foolish—the queen didn’t write the poem. No, that witty little couplet comes from a book so old and dangerous that you wouldn’t dare meddle with it.” She lowered her head, lengthening the shadow her hood threw over her face. “That is why I returned. I need that book.”
Chapter 1: Madeia (Twenty-five years later)
Madeia was in the habit of telling herself, every morning when she woke up, I’ll be a princess someday. It was the way she got through the icy winter dawns and the lumpy, greasy bowls of porridge.
When the dirty beggar boy approached her in the street at the market, saying, “You’re very beautiful, miss. Who are you?” her automatic reply was,
“I’m Princess Madeia.”
The boy had clearly been about to stick his filth-caked hands in her face and beg for money, but at Madeia’s words he stopped and gaped at her openmouthed. She felt sorry for him, with his wiry arms and disheveled mop of hair, so she glanced back to where Father Deus was examining a collection of wicker baskets before dropping to her knees to speak to the boy.
“I’m going to tell you a secret, child,” she said. Kneeling, she was nearly eye-level with the bewildered little boy. “When I was very young, I was stolen from the palace where my royal parents lived. Father Deus found me in a basket with nothing more than a crown and a book of songs, but ever since then he’s promised to take me home and make me a princess again.” It sounded a bit ridiculous when she said it out loud, but Madeia had to believe in Father Deus. He allowed her to hope for a better life someday.
The boy took a step away, his bare feet sinking into the mud of a nearby puddle. “Sorry for bothering you, miss. Majesty, like. Only, if you’re gonna be royalty and all, have you got a spare coin to give?”
Madeia knew Father Deus would berate her terribly if he knew what she was doing, but she was already growing fond of this earnest beggar boy. She was old enough to yearn for a child of her own. “What is your name, lad?” She tried to imitate a regal bearing, wishing he would drop his empty hands. Princesses did not give handouts to beggars, Father Deus would say. Or, to put it more plainly, they simply couldn’t spare the change.
The boy lowered his filthy hands and squelched his feet in the mud. “Name’s Fadrian, miss. Majesty. Sure you haven’t got a coin?”
Madeia got back to her feet and brushed dust from her skirts. “Stop begging, child. I haven’t got any more money than you. If you want coins from me, you’ll first help me become a princess. Once I live in a palace, with hundreds of silk gowns and jewels—and hot baths,” she added, thinking of the icy dip that morning, “—I will have chests and chests of treasure to give out, and I will arrange feasts where I invite every filthy little beggar I see.”
Now Fadrian’s narrow face was shining with enthusiasm. “I’ve never even seen a feast, miss. Majesty.”
Madeia had a sudden idea. She was really starting to like this boy, and she didn’t relish the idea of him sleeping outside tonight in the cold, as he’d undoubtedly been doing for weeks, if not forever. “Do you have a family, Fadrian?”
He shook his head, smearing his filthy hands on his shirt. “Folks always said people’d be nicer out in the small villages, but turns out they’re no better than in the city.”
Father Deus would be furious when he realized what Madeia was doing. “Listen carefully, child,” she said. “Wash yourself up, find a few decent clothes, and join me by the well at sundown. You will be the first member of my retinue.”
When Fadrian started grinning, Madeia decided she didn’t care what Father Deus said.
“Don’t say anything just yet,” she cautioned. “I shall see you at sundown.” Lifting her skirts, she picked her way carefully around the mud puddle, making for her favorite flower stand. She kept her head tilted regally and her skirts lifted just so until Fadrian was out of sight; as soon as he darted around the corner, she slumped and let her faded skirts fall to her side once more.
While she pretended to peruse the flowers, sticking her nose in drooping lilies and testing the waxy texture of rose-hips, Madeia was actually keeping a careful eye on Father Deus. For years he’d been promising to bring Madeia home to her palace once she was grown, to present her to the royal court, and she had an inkling this would happen soon. Father Deus had once suggested they arrive for the midwinter Festival of Lights, when all the royalty and nobility would be gathered in the city center for the show, and the festival season was drawing near. Madeia had never left this village since Father Deus had found her, but she’d seen paintings of the city, so she could imagine what a sight it would be.
In any case, Madeia had turned twenty-five earlier this year, which meant she was hardly a child now. If she guessed correctly, she and Father Deus would be leaving for the city within the next week.
“Sweetie, are you planning to buy anything?” the man at the flower stand asked in irritation.
Madeia started and dropped the bunch of dried lavender she’d been fingering.
“Because I’d appreciate it if you stopped touching my wares.”
Madeia scowled. “Mind your tongue, peasant,” she said sharply. “You’re speaking to royalty.” The flower-seller wasn’t the woman who usually ran the stand; Madeia wondered vaguely where she had gone.
Then the flower-seller caught Madeia completely off-guard—he set down his clipping knife and swept her a deep bow, not a trace of sarcasm in his expression. Surprised and grateful, Madeia bought a pair of roses for Father Deus.
When Madeia sauntered on down the street, this time heading deliberately for the store that Father Deus had vanished into, she caught a glimpse of Fadrian running off towards the nearby stream. She waved.
At the end of the market, Madeia ducked into the fabric shop where Father Deus stood running his running his long fingers over the bolts of silk.
“Father! I have something for you.” She bent her knees in a quick curtsey and produced the pair of roses from behind her back.
Father Deus gave her a distracted smile, one hand on his well-padded stomach. “Start saying your farewells to this village, Princess.” He took one of the roses and tucked it between a pair of mismatched buttons on his doublet. “In three days we’re packing up and making for the city.”
Madeia bit her tongue and pressed the second rose to her face to hide a grin.
Father Deus spent the rest of the afternoon stroking fabrics and urging the seamstress to get through fitting Madeia more efficiently. Madeia was forced to stand still for hours while the poor little woman draped different cloths over her shoulders and pinned gauzy stuff at her waist; she was reminded unpleasantly of the days when Father Deus used to pile books on her head to teach her to stand straight.
“How are you expecting to pay for all of this?” Madeia finally whispered when Father Deus suggested yet another dress.
“Don’t worry, Princess,” he said, sweeping back his thinning brown hair. “We’ll be selling everything in the house tomorrow. The house too, as a matter of fact.” Madeia noticed his eyes gleaming at that; he was probably anxious to return to his former life in the city. “Our land should fetch a decent price, you know—the village has been trying to buy it from us for years. Some jumped-up nobleman wants to build a mill there.”
That was an unwelcome surprise. Madeia loved their little cottage by the stream; as much as she dreamed of returning to her long-forgotten palace, this was the home she’d grown up in, the one place where she felt safe and untroubled. She couldn’t believe that Father Deus cared so little about it.
Several dresses later, the tiny seamstress bowed them from the shop, looking extremely relieved. “Safe journey, Sir Deustephor,” she said. “Good luck, Princess Madeia.” As soon as the door swung shut, Madeia saw her hang the “closed” sign from the glass.
Madeia had completely forgotten about the beggar boy she’d spoken to that morning, so she was startled when a well-groomed child with bare feet bowed to her at the village well. He was wearing a floppy straw hat, so it wasn’t until he swept off the hat that Madeia recognized him.
“Oh! Fay—” She stopped herself. Part of her plan involved pretending she didn’t know Fadrian. Turning to Father Deus, she said, “Father, if I’m to look like a princess, I’ll need a retinue. Could we invite this boy to become my first attendant?”
Fadrian winked at her. “I’m a squire come all the way from the big city, mister.” He plopped the straw hat back onto his head and folded his arms haughtily. “I got lost in those woods, and I hafta find the noblemen again. They’ll be in the city for that festival thing, and you’ll be in the city too, so you should let me come.”
Father Deus looked from Madeia to Fadrian, frowning. He could be dangerous sometimes, when he got angry, so Madeia held her breath in nervous anticipation.
“You don’t hafta pay me nothing,” Fadrian added helpfully.
“I suppose you’re right, Princess,” Father Deus said at last. He squatted in front of Fadrian so he was eye level with the boy and then grabbed his scrawny wrist. “Do you know what they do to criminals and thieves in the city?” He tightened his long fingers around Fadrian’s wrist. “They cut off your hands. Chop.”
Fadrian winced, though he didn’t look surprised by the information. Madeia guessed he’d had plenty of experience thieving in the city; in fact, he’d probably honed his skills that very afternoon, acquiring decent clothes and that ridiculous straw hat.
“Well, jolly good,” Father Deus said. He got back to his feet and kicked a clump of mud from his boot. “I’m sure the three of us will get along splendidly, isn’t that right, Princess?” He took Madeia’s arm and resumed strolling down the rutted dirt lane. “Just don’t let the boy see your songbook,” he said in an undertone.
Madeia nodded, wide-eyed. “Of course not, Father,” she lied.
Madeia was startled awake the next morning by a muffled crash.
“Not to worry, not to worry,” Father Deus called. “That was just the bookshelf.”
Stumbling to her feet, Madeia wrapped her blanket around her shoulders before hurrying outside. “What’s happening?” She stopped on the front step, staring. What looked like all of their worldly possessions were piled into a wagon just outside the gate, spindly chairs and rusted pans and scuffed-up leather boots all spilling over each other and vying for space. With a pang she saw that the quilt she’d spent months sewing for Father Deus was bundled in behind the driver’s seat.
“Morning, Princess,” Father Deus said when he finally noticed her. He had been whistling happily as he strapped the dented bookshelf into place. “I’m so glad you’re up; that bed of yours is the next thing we have to load. I’ve sent the ridiculous boy to find horses.”
Madeia nodded, trying her hardest to smile. She had never imagined their departure would be so abrupt or so thorough.
Back inside their near-empty cottage, she shed her blanket and pulled on the same faded blue dress she’d worn yesterday (it was the nicest she owned), shivering and trying not to look at the bare mantle or the blank walls. She and Father Deus hadn’t owned much, but the absence of what they had possessed was striking.
By the time Madeia rejoined Father Deus in the garden, Fadrian was back, leading a pair of bad-tempered donkeys that kept tugging their ropes in opposite directions.
“Horses, I told you, foolish boy!” Father Deus scolded. “Whatever is the use of a squire who can’t follow orders?”
Fadrian stuck his tongue out behind Father Deus’s back. An instant later he swept off his hat and bowed, all polite apologies and meek concern. “Terribly sorry, mister, sir. They hadn’t got any horses, they said, but these mules are supposed to be awful nice.”
“Donkeys, boy, not mules,” Father Deus said. “If they haven’t dropped dead by the time we reach the village, I may forgive you.” He turned to Madeia, who was waiting with a bundle of blankets she’d ripped off her bed. “Sit down, Princess. You must be exhausted. We’ll be finished in a few minutes.”
Arms still full of blankets, Madeia perched on her favorite log bench in front of the house. She was still stiff with cold, so she buried her arms in the blankets and hugged them close to her chest. As she watched Father Deus and Fadrian wrestle her bed through the door and onto the wagon, she couldn’t help thinking how ridiculous it was that Fadrian was doing the work when he was barely half her size.
“I’m a princess,” she whispered to a squirrel that had begun digging in the dead leaves at her feet. “A princess, not a peasant. I must be pretty, proper, poised, and pure.” Father Deus had taught her that mantra; she was sure there were more attributes to a real princess, though the others probably didn’t start with P.
The squirrel twitched its bushy red tail and darted away.
When the wagon was finally loaded and secured to Father Deus’s satisfaction, he roped the donkeys to the front and began leading the bulky mess into town. Madeia and Fadrian trailed along behind, with orders to give Father Deus a shout if anything came loose.
“Do you know how to read?” Madeia asked quietly as soon as her abandoned cottage was out of sight behind a stand of trees. She held her breath waiting for his response.
“Some,” Fadrian admitted.
Madeia beamed at him.
“I don’t know too many big words, but I can sound out the letters and even write a bit.”
Excited, Madeia grabbed Fadrian’s hand and squeezed it. “You have to teach me! I’ve always wanted to learn to read, but Father Deus said it was unseemly behavior for a princess.” She made a face. “Besides, he seems to think I’m twelve years old.”
Fadrian narrowed his eyes doubtfully. “Have you seen the alphabet or anything? ‘Cause I can’t write that good.”
Lifting her frayed skirts, Madeia stepped over a puddle. The icy night hadn’t quite frozen the mud, so her shoe still sank an inch when she put her weight on it. “I know most of the letters,” she said. “Remember how I told you I was left with a songbook and a crown? Well, Father Deus used to sing to me from the songbook, so I’ve taught myself to recognize almost all the words of those songs.”
“Oh. I can teach you a bit more, then.” Fadrian gave her an impish grin. “But only if you tell me why your dadda didn’t want me to look at the songbook.”
Madeia shrugged. She knew the reason perfectly well, but she didn’t want to explain it just now. Instead she started singing the refrain of one of her favorite songs:
The trees are a-turning,
The night frost come
‘Tis time for pies and harvest
And apple rum.
When they reached the village, Father Deus gave Madeia a few coins and told her to find lunch. “Next time you see me, I’ll be a rich man!” He patted his stomach and smiled fondly at her. “Then we’ll see about making you a real princess.”
“Come on, Fadrian,” Madeia said. “Are you hungry?”
Fadrian skipped after her, grinning.
At the local bakery, Madeia bought an enormous roll and two pastries for Fadrian, whose eyes went as wide as gold coins at the sight of so much food. For herself she bought a cinnamon bun and a pot of tea.
“Your lesson comes first,” Madeia said. “If you’re to live in a royal court, you must be well-versed in etiquette. As my servant, you would be pouring tea for me. Careful not to spill.”
Fadrian fumbled with the mismatched cups and dumped so much tea into Madeia’s that it overflowed; it was amusing to watch him struggle to sop up the mess, tongue poking between his lips in concentration.
“You’re stronger than you look,” Madeia said, looking from Fadrian’s bony arms to his narrow shoulders. “I was watching you help Father Deus this morning. But you don’t have the slightest notion of grace. Next time I’ll expect better from you.” She ruined the sternness of her reprimand with a grin.
“Whoops,” Fadrian said.
“Now you can teach me to read that.” Madeia pointed to the notice board near the bakery door, where a scroll of parchment had been nailed into place. The letters across the parchment were looping and elegant, and there was an official-looking seal at the foot of the page, so Madeia had a feeling the words were important.
Fadrian squinted at the paper and began to read: “Roo-yal ann-oose-ment.”
“Excellent!” Madeia said. “Father Deus will want to see it, I presume.” She raised her voice. “Lady!” she called to the woman at the bakery counter. After a moment the woman sighed and strode over to Madeia’s table by the window.
“Do you need more sugar?”
“Unpin that notice and tie it up for me,” Madeia ordered. “I’m a princess, and the royal announcement pertains to me.”
The baker woman seemed to restrain herself from rolling her eyes with great difficulty. Madeia felt a bit foolish, but she continued to stare haughtily at the woman until she sighed and obeyed the command. Once she was wearing her new gowns, Father Deus had promised no one would dare treat her so poorly.
When the scroll was safely bundled away in Madeia’s bag, she and Fadrian finished off the tea and went in search of Father Deus.
“It was my friend in the city who showed me the alphabet,” Fadrian said. After eating such a mound of sugary pastries, he was bouncing with every step. “He was off at some school, ‘cause his parents was rich and all, but he said they had to sing a song for the letters and draw them too.”
Madeia smiled. “I love songs! Sing it for me.”
Fadrian stopped bouncing and, with a comically serious expression, began:
A is for artisan,
C like a crescent,
D for deck of cards.
He traced every letter as he sang, matching his movements to each off-key syllable. When he reached Z for zigzag, Madeia applauded.
“Oh,” she said, remembering suddenly. “I think Father Deus is in here.” She pointed to the fabric shop. After glancing in the window, she and Fadrian sat down on a pair of overturned barrels to wait for him.
Fadrian scuffed his new shoes in the dirt, sandy locks falling into his eyes. Madeia smiled to herself as she realized his hair was several shades lighter than it had been when she’d first seen him. Before yesterday, it must have been weeks since he’d bathed.
“I’m glad I met you, Fadrian,” she said. Her fondness of the boy was mixed with a wistful motherly devotion—many of the peasant girls she’d known from childhood were now wedded with children of their own, but Father Deus had reminded Madeia time and time again that she would have to marry according to her station. That meant waiting for a man waiting for a real family. She sighed and raised her eyes to the clouds, wondering if it would snow that night. Without a house to shelter in, snow would be miserable.
“I’m real glad you found me too, Princess Madeia.” Fadrian grinned impishly. “Are we gonna have cakes for supper, too?”
Madeia didn’t reply, because she was still thinking of the royal family she would have someday. A golden-haired prince dressed all in crimson silk would court her and whisper sweet poetry to her, until at last she surrendered to love and fell into his arms. Her face grew warm as she imagined his satin kisses. She would grow round with his precious children, and together they would raise the most beautiful family anyone—
A sharp poke in the ribs shattered the sweet vision.
“Don’t do that!” Madeia scolded.
Fadrian crossed his arms defiantly. “Your dadda keeps yelling at you—he says the dresses and things are done.”
“Oh.” Madeia blinked and got to her feet. Casting the low clouds another suspicious glance, she turned and pushed open the jingling door to the dress shop. The musty, cloying scent of rich fabric settled around her, and she wondered if her palace would smell this way with so many finely-dressed figures passing through the halls.
For a moment Madeia couldn’t even locate Father Deus. Then he moved, and she realized that he’d dressed himself in trousers and a new coat so lurid he matched the riotously-colored bolts of cloth lining the walls.
“Princess!” Father Deus cried, holding out his arms. “How do I look?”
Madeia wanted to laugh, but instead she said, “Absolutely dashing, Father.” Any prince she deigned to marry would possess a much better sense of style.
The tiny seamstress looked much happier now that Father Deus was showering her with money, and she greeted Madeia warmly.
“Stand right here, Majesty,” she said, gesturing with her pincushion towards a tall, narrow mirror. “We have to finish fitting your new dresses so I have time to make any final adjustments before your departure. Boy, come hold this.” She thrust the pincushion and a curling tape measure at Fadrian.
Nervously Madeia stepped into place before the mirror and scrutinized her reflection. As often as Father Deus told her she was beautiful and regal, Madeia couldn’t see any hint of royalty hiding behind her plain blue dress or unruly auburn hair. Though disappointed by her humble appearance, Madeia was looking forward to the feel of the rich, smooth fabrics against her skin as she tried on her new dresses.
The seamstress began bustling around Madeia, smoothing out skirts and digging through boxes until she found a finely woven white slip. When Madeia made to unbutton her dress, the seamstress slapped her hands away.
“No, no, no,” she said, clicking her tongue. “A princess must wait for others to dress her.”
Madeia nodded, feeling very small; after that she stood stiffly with her arms tensed at her sides while the seamstress’s fingers flew down the row of buttons.
For a long time Fadrian and Father Deus watched in silence while Madeia was bundled into layer after layer of heavy cloth. She began to sweat, and her neck itched horribly, but she didn’t dare move except to lower her head and look longingly out at the bustling street. Her finger twitched—if only she could scratch her neck…
The seamstress didn’t speak except to give the occasional command of “arms up” or “turn left.” Madeia avoided the lure of the mirror, because she didn’t want to ruin the thrill of what she hoped would be a remarkable transformation.