"We have a problem," said Randolf.
Godmother Elena drew in her breath. Her mirror-servant's words weren't exactly unexpected; for the past several weeks she'd felt hints of something in the air, of the Tradition gathering force, preparing to make a move. That was why she'd sent him out to reconnoiter in the first place. And of course it was a relief to have a well-defined problem that she could take steps to solve, rather than the looming sense of unease that accompanied the buildup of Traditional power. She liked being a Godmother, relished the challenge of redirecting the Tradition around people's lives for the best possible outcome. But it was never easy – challenges never were – and from the expression on Randolf's disembodied face, she had a feeling that this one was going to be a doozy.
"All right," she said to the face in the mirror. "Where?"
"Anboria," said Randolf, and Elena frowned. Anboria was a small Kingdom at the edge of the realm of her responsibility. She wasn't even technically its Godmother, really – things had been going well enough without one there for several generations – but it was nearer to her territory than anybody else's, and so she looked in on it every so often.
"Anboria," she repeated, thoughtfully. There was something tugging at her memory, something she couldn't quite place. She pulled her enchanted blank book from her pocket and tapped it with her wand. "My most recent notes on Anboria, please."
Sparkles swirled around the book and became words on the page. King Anson and Queen Delia had been only lightly touched by the Tradition, it seemed; she had been a Duke's daughter from Otraria, and he had won and wed her as a matter of diplomacy rather than as a result of any Quest. Of course, that was still Traditional, but there were fewer potential problems with that sort of path, and therefore less need for a Godmother to keep things from going horribly wrong. They had two children, Prince Harold, who was about to turn eighteen, and Princess Alyssa, who was fifteen.
"Oh, no. Princess Alyssa's nearly sixteen." A girl's sixteenth birthday was, Traditionally, a momentous occasion. A Princess's sixteenth birthday was even more so, if possible. "I need Godmother Bella's notes about her christening, please," she told the book. Fifteen years ago was long before Elena became Godmother. What curse had been laid on Alyssa as an infant? What fate would she, Elena, need to ward off?
"It's not her," said Randolf.
"What?" She looked up from the black swirls that were forming themselves into words.
"It's not the Princess. It's the Ella Cinders."
That was what she'd been trying to recall about Anboria. While Elena had still been an Apprentice, Godmother Bella had told her about the Ella Cinders in Anboria, and she had listened with interest, because that was her tale. Or it would have been, had Prince Florian been of an age to marry her, instead of an eleven-year-old child. Not that it had turned out badly; now she was a Godmother, which was to her mind much better than being a Princess, or even a Queen. And Prince Florian was a sweet boy, but he wasn't Alexander…. A smile curved her lips for a moment, as she thought of Alexander. But no, there was no time for that.
"But that one is turning into the tale, isn't it?" She glanced at the book for confirmation; yes, Godmother Bella had allowed this Ella Cinders to continue the course the Tradition had set, to live as a servant in her childhood home with her wicked stepmother and uncaring stepsisters, to cook and clean and dream of the handsome Prince who would one day fall in love with her and lift her from her life of drudgery. Because he was real; he was Prince Harold, of course, and he would fall in love with her. The Tradition would see to it.
She smiled with relief. "So it must be about time for the ball, and for me to help poor Ella win her Prince." That was part and parcel of a Godmother's duties.
"Not exactly," said Randolf.
"What do you mean?"
"I'd better show you." Randolf's face disappeared into the depths of the mirror. In its place appeared a small but neatly kept yard surrounded by hedges on two sides, with a door in the single wall to the right – no doubt it went to the kitchen – and a chipped basin next to a large iron pump in the middle. A gap in the hedge at the back led to a stable, where she could just see the heads of two horses. From the unfocused and jagged edges of her view, Elena could tell she was looking through a small, broken piece of mirror, maybe even just a shard of polished metal.
The door opened and a figure came through, carrying a bucket. This could only be the Ella Cinders; her blonde hair was tied back in a long plait and covered by a kerchief, her face was smudged and dirty, and her gown – well, you couldn't really call it a gown. It was a dull and shapeless thing, even worse than the rags Elena had worn when she lived with Madame Klovis.
The girl placed the bucket near the pump and went through to the stable; Elena couldn't see what she did, and no sound came through the mirror, but when she came back, she was smiling. She then went to the pump and filled the bucket with a half-dozen strong strokes on the pump handle. She was unusually tall, Elena noted, and her arms were surprisingly muscular, no doubt from pumping all the water her pampered stepsisters required. Then she spilled a little water into the basin, dipped her sleeve into it, set the bucket down and walked directly toward Elena – of course, she was going to the mirror.
The Ella Cinders looked critically at herself in the mirror, and Elena looked critically at her. Under the smudges, which the girl was dabbing at with her moistened sleeves, she was – not exactly beautiful. By no means was she ugly, of course – the Tradition would not have an ugly Ella Cinders – but her nose was a bit sharp, her cheekbones a bit prominent, her chin a bit strong for what was considered beauty anywhere in the Five Hundred Kingdoms.
Then the girl went over to the hedges at the side of the yard, lifted her skirts, and….
"Oh, dear," said Godmother Elena.
"Exactly," said Randolf, returning to the mirror. "As I said, we have a problem."
"You're certainly right about that," murmured Elena. No wonder the Tradition was all riled up! How had Godmother Bella missed this essential fact about this Ella Cinders? And what was she supposed to do with a…with a Cinder-Fellow?
"Here we go," Elena said, more to herself than to anyone else. The All Forests Are One spell had brought her to the small Anborian village. It was the night of Prince Harold's birthday ball. Now, it was up to her. She knocked on the door.
"Come on, I know you're in there," she muttered. She didn't want to expend any more magic than she absolutely had to, but if she had to…but no, the door opened, and there stood the – well, she couldn't call him Ella Cinders now, could she?
"I'm sorry," said the – the person in front of her. "Madame Clenham and her daughters have gone to –"
"I have not come to see Madame Clenham," said Elena, sweeping into the room. She'd dressed in what she had come to think of as basic Fairy Godmother rig, a diaphanous pink gown lavishly decorated with jewels, a sparkling tiara atop the tall wig she secretly detested. Not as elaborate as the formal outfits needed for state occasions, but something to impress the poor girls (well, usually they were girls!) with the full weight of Tradition. "I've come to see you, Allie." She'd found the name in Godmother Bella's notes. She smiled brightly. "I'm your Fairy Godmother. I bet you'd like to go to the ball."
To his credit, the Cinder-Fellow blushed. He looked sheepishly at the ground. "Um. Well. I'd probably better not."
His voice, thought Elena, was interesting. It had started to change; after all, he had just turned eighteen, and he was starting to become a man. Even so, it was more tenor than bass. It could be mistaken for a woman's voice. Perhaps the voice of a woman with a slight head cold, but still, not unequivocally a male voice.
"Nonsense," she replied briskly. "There is a long Tradition of – of people like you, Allie, and I'm here to see that you get to the ball. Suitably clad, of course."
"People like me?" His voice was barely a whisper.
Of course, thought Elena, he doesn't know about the Tradition. She hadn't known, when she was an Ella Cinders. "I know all about you, Allie. I know that your father married an awful woman, and that he died mysteriously soon after. I know that your stepmother and her daughters treated you as their servant girl." It was strange, speaking the words, remembering the time when that had been her life as well. She lifted his chin and looked him in the eye. "But you're not a servant girl, are you, Allie."
He swallowed. "Allan.""What?"
"My name is Allan. They call me Allie." From the twist of his lips, she knew he hated that name. She wondered if they – his stepmother and her daughters – called him "Cinder-Allie." They probably did, she decided, and he probably hated that even more.
He pulled off the kerchief and ran his fingers through his hair, undoing the plait. "They said that cooking and cleaning was a girl's task. But all they had was me. So I had to be a girl. But I'm not." His voice was soft, matter-of-fact, and his eyes met hers without shame, as though daring her to laugh at him. Which she never would have done. She knew there were girls in the Five Hundred Kingdoms who thought they should have been born boys, who were more interested in adventure and opportunity than in marriage and children. And of course there were boys who felt that despite their bodies they were really girls, and she had wondered if this would be the case with Allie – with Allan. The Tradition, of course, wouldn't care one way or the other.
"I almost ran away when Father died. I thought about it. But what could I do? I wasn't brought up to a trade. I was supposed to be a gentleman. I couldn't do anything useful to earn my bread."
"That's all right," she said, soothingly. "You are a gentleman, Allan. And you're going to go to the ball, as a gentleman."
"Prince Harold's birthday ball? I've only ever seen him at a distance."
"Yes, Prince Harold's birthday ball."
"My stepmother's there. And my stepsisters," he said, doubtfully.
"They won't recognize you."
"Will I get to meet the Prince?"
"Undoubtedly," she said dryly. "More importantly, though, you will get to meet his sister the Princess." And she will fall in love with you, as the Tradition demands, thought Elena. Once she had realized that the Prince had a sister, her course had been obvious. It would be perfectly Traditional. "Now, let's get you out of those rags and into something more suitable, shall we?"
She waved her wand, and the magic did her bidding.
"Ready to brave the dragons?" asked Hal. He looked good, Alyssa thought; dashing and noble in his dress uniform, with the gold starbursts at the shoulders that signaled his rank in the Anborian army. Not that he was ever allowed to actually do anything that might put him in harm's way, since he was the heir. It was really the second son who should have been wearing those starbursts, but she had been born the wrong sex for that. Pity. That uniform looked a lot more comfortable than the stupid dress she had been laced into by her maidservant.
"If you're absolutely certain we can't run away," she said, sighing dramatically, and he laughed and gave her his arm.
"Somebody's got to run the kingdom when Father dies. Hopefully a long time from now." She knew it wasn't just politeness that made him say that. He hated every minute he had to spend in council chambers at court, or indoors at all, for that matter. For her part, she was fascinated by the discussions and debate that went on between her father and his councilors. It was amazing, all the little details that went into running a Kingdom! One day, she'd sit at the table and be allowed to give her opinion, instead of just sitting along the wall and listening quietly. She hoped she would be, anyway. If Hal could talk Father into it. If she could avoid being married off to some horrid princeling from a strategically located Kingdom. If pigs flew, she admitted to herself as they walked into the ballroom to flourishes of trumpets.
The presentations went on and on. Prince this, Princess that, Lord this, Lady that, first to Hal as host, then to Alyssa as his hostess, and then to their parents, who stood just above and behind them. Alyssa knew that Hal was getting bored, but of course he was too polite to show it. Their parents, of course, greeted everyone with practiced ease. Part of the duties of a King and Queen, she knew. Alyssa did her best, which meant that she restrained her impulses to kick Prince Olaf in the shins when he tried to look down her bodice, and didn't turn away from old Lady Martingale's rotten fish-breath. Sometimes it was a real trial, being a Princess.
The last noble had been presented, and Hal was about to step down and signal for the band to begin playing music for dancing, when the double doors at the end of the ballroom swung open again. "Lord Allan of Otraria!" announced the herald, and Alyssa heard small gasps of surprise coming from the assembled guests; the Kingdom of Otraria was quite distant from Anboria, far to the southeast. It was a long way for a guest to come.
Or perhaps, she thought as Lord Allan approached, those were simply gasps of admiration. Now that was how a Lord – or a Prince, for that matter – ought to look. Tall but not too tall, slender but muscular, long blond hair tied back with a simple blue ribbon that matched the rich, deep blue of his brocade jacket. And his eyes. Oh, yes. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad being married off to a foreign nobleman, if he looked like this one.
"Your Highness," said Lord Allan to her brother, bowing deeply. His voice was soft and musical, and Alyssa decided she liked this Lord Allan quite a lot. When he bowed to her, she'd charm him – she could do it, when she wanted to – and maybe he'd dance with her, too, and….
Except he didn't bow to her. He and Hal were talking with each other, heedless of the stares of the assembled nobles and the glares of her parents. Hal was grinning like he almost never did, and his head was bent forward, close to Lord Allan's blond one, and how could he have forgotten protocol like this?
She took a small step toward them and grasped Hal's arm. He stopped in mid-sentence, looking over at her with a confused frown. Oh, no, she thought. Not Hal. Not now.
"Lord Allan," she said sweetly, "how good of you to come all this way."
"Oh, not that far," said Lord Allan. "That is, I'm currently, er. Traveling, here in Anboria, my lady. I mean, Your Highness." He looked at her helplessly, as though he'd forgotten why he was there, then glanced back at Hal and smiled a little, and Hal smiled back at him, and Alyssa's breath caught in her throat. If the King and Queen were paying attention….
But Lord Allan seemed to have got hold of himself again, and he bowed very correctly to her and then to her parents.
"And how is my old friend Queen Sophia?" asked her mother, and Alyssa let out her breath in a whoosh as Lord Allan assured her that she was in good health. Apparently a visitor from far-away Otraria was important enough that his dubious behavior in the receiving line could be ignored.
The music began and the Royal couples took the floor to begin the first dance. As soon as their parents were far enough away that they couldn't hear, Alyssa bent close to her brother's ear. "Are you mad? Anyone with eyes to see will know!"
"It doesn't matter." Hal's whispered voice was thick with emotion, and she looked up at him, alarmed, but his face was a perfect mask, a smile on his lips. "This is who I am, Liss. And I know it's right. I know he's right."
"You've thought that before," she said pointedly. He'd mooned over that traveling minstrel that came to Anboria the previous year, and a knight from Fleurberg who had passed through on a Quest. Fortunately, Hal had enough of a sense of self-preservation not to act on his thoughts – at least, up until tonight.
"This is something I've never felt. I can't explain it. But I know."
"Oh, Hal." They both fell silent, then, moving carefully through the steps of the dance, until the music changed and other couples joined them on the floor. Alyssa was swept away by the Count of Benswick, who was at least under sixty, and out of the corner of her eye she saw Hal leading some nobleman's pretty daughter onto the dance floor. Good, she thought. At least he's got his wits back.
But as she smiled and twirled and flattered the various nobles who came to dance with her, she made sure to watch Hal, and to watch Lord Allan; and often it was easy to do both, because they would be standing together drinking goblets of wine, deep in conversation. It made her uneasy. What had Hal meant by saying it didn't matter? What was he planning?
Finally, as the musicians paused between dances, she curtseyed to her partner of the moment and then gathered her skirts and walked as quickly as she could, looking to neither side so as to avoid making eye contact with anybody who might ask her for a turn on the floor, to where her brother stood, talking earnestly with Lord Allan. "And I hear there's a school for Champions now – we could travel wherever we liked, and fight whatever monsters needed killing."
"Oh, could you?" she said dryly, and they both looked across at her, guilt on their faces. Hal had the grace to blush. "You know you're needed here." As you are not, an unwanted voice in her head added.
"Liss, it's not –"
"Lord Allan, isn't it?" she interrupted, pointedly not looking at Hal. "I do not know how they do things in Otraria, but in Anboria it is customary for visiting nobles to ask the Princess to dance."
A strangled laugh came from Hal's mouth, but she ignored him, fixing her dark eyes upon Lord Allan's blue ones.
"Of course, Princess," he said smoothly, holding a hand out to her. "Would you honor this poor visitor to your kingdom?"
They moved out onto the floor. He wasn't the best dancing partner she'd ever had, but he wasn't the worst, either. Not that it mattered. "Tell me you and he aren't running away together."
"We're not," he said, and there was such a palpable sadness in his voice that she could tell that he wished it was otherwise.
"Are you – are you like he is?"
"Nobody is like he is." He looked over toward where Hal was dutifully dancing with a dowager at least three times his age, and she could see the admiration mixed with longing in his eyes.
"You know what I mean," she muttered.
His eyes cut to her, guarded and wary. "You know?"
"I've always known."
A few bars of music passed before he spoke again. He twirled her, pulled her close, stepped away again, and all around them noblemen in silks did the same with their glittering partners. When they were close together again, his arms guiding her as they promenaded across the floor, he whispered, "I would run away with him, if I could. But I must not."
Before she could ask him what he meant, the music ended, and a hand fell on her shoulder. "It is late, Princess."
Alyssa turned to face her governess, whose severe black gown made her face look even paler and more severe than usual. "But it is not yet midnight," she protested.
"It is very near midnight, and you are not yet sixteen. Your mother the Queen expressly said that you must be in bed by midnight."
Lord Allan bent over her hand, kissing it. "Goodnight, Your Highness. Do not worry about that matter we discussed."
"And what is it that you would have to discuss with Her Highness?" snapped the governess, but Lord Allan had already turned away and was soon lost in the crowd.
"It was nothing," Alyssa lied. "You are right, I am very tired. Take me to my chamber."
But once in her room in one of the castle's high towers, she felt that her nerves were too jittery to allow her to sleep. Instead she went to her window and looked out on the moonlit forest and the lawn before the castle door, at the lines of horses and carriages belonging to the people attending the ball.
The clock began to strike midnight.
A flash of movement caught her eye. Lord Allan was striding out of the castle, his dark blue cape swirling about him, his long hair flying behind. A groom stepped out of the shadows, leading a magnificent white stallion. Its mane and tail shimmered and rippled like a waterfall, and its coat gleamed silver in the moonlight.
As Lord Allan put a hand on the saddle, there was another sudden flurry of movement. Another man was running out of the castle, toward the nobleman and his horse – oh, no. It was Hal.
She could not hear their voices from her window, only the slow, loud tolling of the tower bell, but from their sharp gestures it was clearly a heated conversation. Hal put a hand on Lord Allan's shoulder, pulling him closer, and – oh, no, she thought desperately, don't do this, not out in the open, where anyone might see. She stared down in horror, afraid to look away.
But at the last moment Lord Allan pulled away, shaking his head violently. In one swift movement he mounted his horse, and almost instantly they were off, galloping swiftly toward the forest, disappearing among the trees just as the final echoes of the last stroke of the bell faded away.
Her brother looked so forlorn, she thought, standing there alone in the moonlight. As difficult as it was for her to accept her fate, to keep a regal smile on her lips as she curtseyed to Prince This and Prince That, wondering which Kingdom would offer the most in barter and win her in exchange – at least she wanted to be married, eventually. To share in the ruling of whatever Kingdom she ended up in, even if it wasn't as nice as Anboria, and to have children, Princes and Princesses who would grow up and rule in turn. But Hal – Hal didn't want any part of his fate, not the Princess he was destined to marry, not the Kingdom he was destined to rule.
Suddenly there was a distant boom, as of thunder, although there were no clouds in the sky. Hal's head snapped up, his eyes fixed on the forest path where Lord Allan had disappeared, as the snow-white stallion galloped out of the forest toward him. Now it bore no rider, Alyssa saw, and her heart constricted as she watched it halt in front of her brother.
He looked back toward the castle, and although his face was shadowed she thought he looked nervous, and perhaps a little guilty. He placed a hand on the creature's neck and started to step up into the stirrup, but the horse sidestepped away, whinnying. Hal murmured something softly and stroked its neck, then tried again; this time the horse broke away entirely and cantered off some distance, then returned.
Interesting, thought Alyssa as she watched Hal signal a groom to come over to help. The groom had no more luck mounting the horse himself, and when the groom held the white stallion firmly by the reins to allow Hal to try a third time, the horse almost seemed to fly upward, out of reach of both men, before trotting back toward Hal.
Man and horse gazed at each other for a long moment. Finally the horse turned its huge head and began trotting in the direction of the Royal stables. Hal and the groom exchanged baffled shrugs; then the groom followed the horse, and Hal went back in to the castle.
Alyssa returned to her bed, her head whirling with thoughts. Why had Lord Allan's horse come back to the castle? Why wouldn't it let Hal ride it? Why had it gone to the stables – and would it still be there in the morning?
"Anything yet?" asked Lily as Elena and Alexander came down for breakfast. Robin, too, looked up hopefully as he placed plates of eggs and sausage before them.
"Not yet," answered Elena, and the Brownies' faces fell.
"I'm certain it will be soon, Godmother," Lily said earnestly. "The Tradition wouldn't stand for it otherwise."
That was certainly true, thought Elena. With every day that passed she could feel the weight of the Tradition building, piling up like a tower of granite blocks. If the tale played out as it was supposed to, the tower would be solid, and the Tradition and everyone who depended upon it would be made stronger for its presence. But this tale already rested on shaky ground. And if it were to fall….
She turned to Alexander. "How long do you think Lightrunner will be willing to stay at the Castle?"
He smiled. "Sergei has assured me that this younger brother of his would be as loyal and brave as his brother Nightsong has been to me. He'll stay until the Princess takes him around the Kingdom of Anboria to find the only man who can ride him."
For that was the plan they had settled on, to turn the Ella Cinders tale into one suitable for a Cinder-Fellow and a Princess. The Traditional Ella Cinders would flee the ball at midnight, leaving behind one delicate slipper that fit no foot save hers, and a Prince determined to find the girl who could wear it. But it would have been difficult for Allan to manage to drop one of his boots as he ran out of the castle; and anyway, nobody cared about the size of a man's feet.
Fortunately, there was ample Tradition around the testing of men. Usually they were Questers seeking to wed a Princess and gain a Kingdom, and she supposed that was true in this case as well. The horse that only the successful Quester could ride was a staple of such tales, and she'd turned to Sergei, the Little Humpback Horse, whose brother horses were often used for these tales. They were strong and handsome and graceful, and although not nearly as smart as Sergei himself, they had enough wit to learn to recognize the single rider who would be permitted to sit himself in the saddle. (They could fly, too, but hopefully Lightrunner would not need to do that.)
But it all depended on the Princess. She had to tell her parents that she'd fallen in love with the mysterious stranger who'd appeared at the ball, and that his horse was now in their stables. The Queen would send word to her friend Queen Sophia of Otraria, only to find that nobody had heard of this "Lord Allan." The King would go to the stables and try to ride the horse, or maybe her brother the Prince would – or maybe both – and soon they would discover that nobody at the castle could ride the beautiful white stallion. With the Tradition gently pushing them along, they would come to the obvious conclusion. There would be a Test. Noblemen would come from miles around to ride the white stallion, and all would fail. All but one.
Except Randolf had been checking in on Anboria daily, and the King hadn't announced a Test. The Princess hadn't scoured the Kingdom for her mysterious suitor. The Cinder-Fellow was still cleaning the house of his stepmother and stepsisters, and Godmother Elena was getting nervous.
She sighed. "I suppose I'd better go myself, to make sure everything goes as it should." That was, after all, her job.
"Very good, Godmother," said Robin, and the other Brownies nodded and smiled.
"But I'm not going until I finish these eggs," she added. She had a feeling that wrestling the Tradition into this somewhat un-Traditional path was going to be a challenge. She was the first to admit that she enjoyed challenges – but she preferred them when they came after breakfast.
To Elena's relief, King Anson and Queen Delia had been delighted to welcome her to Anboria. In most Kingdoms where magical intervention was so rare that it had finally been relegated to mythology, the existence of Fairy Godmothers had been entirely forgotten. Elena had been prepared for a fight. She'd dressed in pale blue and silver, with seed-pearls on her bodice and a silver tiara in her upswept hair, and she held a staff of dark wood chased in silver.
But Queen Delia, before she had been betrothed to King Anson, had been a nobleman's daughter in Otraria, where Elena herself had been born. She had been friends with Queen Sophia, who once was the Princess Who Could Not Laugh, and she had heard stories of Godmother Bella, and how she had helped her find her true love and happiness with the goose-boy who was now King Colin. It alarmed her, of course, that her daughter might need the help of a Godmother, but she was only too happy to permit Elena to speak with Princess Alyssa, and sent a servant to bring her to the small audience chamber where Godmother Elena had been received.
"Although I don't see what the problem is," Queen Delia added doubtfully. "She doesn't seem to be under any sort of curse."
"Of course not," agreed Elena. "But hasn't she been pining away with love for the mysterious nobleman she met at her brother's ball?"
The King and Queen exchanged baffled glances. "Er…no?" said the King.
"The man she danced with the whole evening? Who left as the clock struck twelve?"
"She's not yet allowed to stay up past midnight," said the King. "She's only fourteen."
"Fifteen," corrected the Queen, with a sharp glance at her husband. "Almost sixteen. But she danced with many, not just one. And she certainly hasn't been pining away."
King Anson snorted. "I certainly hope not. She's Princess of Anboria, not some mere hedge-lord's daughter. I have my eye on the Prince of Belinia for her. A fine Kingdom, Belinia. Very strategically located."
"Although a bit far to go for a visit," sighed the Queen, sounding wistful.
Oh, dear, thought Elena. She should have had Randolf checking in on the Princess. It would have been easy; palaces always had lots of mirrors. But she had been so sure that the Tradition would seize on the obvious match, to make the Ella Cinders tale come true even though the roles were reversed. Things must truly be even more of a mess than she had thought.
She frowned. "You do have a strange white horse in the stables, don't you?"
The King laughed ruefully. "Oh, yes. My son is determined to ride it, but so far hasn't managed to even get on its back."
That, at least, was as she'd expected. Princes were nearly always accomplished horsemen, and Lightrunner was magnificent. Allan had been captivated by the handsome stallion. Taking care of his stepmother's horses was his favorite duty.
The Queen eyed her thoughtfully. "That was the horse the nobleman from Otraria rode, wasn't it? Now he was certainly a handsome fellow, but I'm not sure he danced even once with Alyssa. In fact, I thought he spent far too much time talking with Hal."
The door to the audience chamber swung open. "Your Majesties, honored guest," murmured the liveried servant; then he stepped aside and the Princess Alyssa walked into the room.
She was tall for her age, and quite pretty. Her chestnut hair was demurely swept back into a braid under a slender gold circlet. Her gown was simple but of the finest quality, and she walked with confident strides, not mincing steps. And she had not a scrap of Traditional magic hovering around her.
"You're a real Fairy Godmother?" The girl's eyes had gone wide when the Queen had introduced her. "It's been over a hundred years since the last Fairy Godmother visited Anboria."
"You know your history," said Elena, with surprise.
"She reads far too much," grumbled the King. "I don't see why she needs to bury her head in all those old books."
The Princess Alyssa's face tightened, but she said nothing. Interesting, thought Elena. Aloud she said only, "Did you have a pleasant time at the ball last week, Your Highness?"
"Yes, very much so." Her face was guarded, though, and it sounded like one of those glib answers that people give when the truth is too complicated to explain.
"Did you dance?"
"Too much, I think. My feet hurt all the next day." Now that had more of the ring of truth.
"You must have had a lot of partners," Elena said, and the Princess nodded. "Did you dance at all with a visiting Lord from Otraria? Allan, I believe his name was?"
The name had an immediate effect, although it wasn't quite the effect she was expecting. Princess Alyssa bit her lip and glanced warily at her parents, then back at Godmother Elena, lifting her chin and looking into her eyes as though searching for something. There was something in the way that the Princess looked at her that reminded her of the gaze of the Elven Queen, when Elena had been brought to her as Madame Bella's apprentice. It was as though she was being assessed, being measured in some manner, and she almost laughed out loud at the incongruity.
Then Princess Alyssa nodded, a tiny movement that was barely perceptible. She turned to the King and Queen. "May I walk with Godmother Elena in the gardens?"
Disapproval clear on his features, the King began to speak; but the Queen was quicker, laying her hand on his arm and shooting him a glance that even Elena could read. "Of course, dear," Queen Delia said. "Take as long as you like."
The palace gardens were beautiful, hedges of roses and lilies and more exotic flowers arrayed along pathways that meandered among ponds and tall trees. Princess Alyssa stopped under one of these trees that stood on a rise, so that when they turned they could see the garden spread out before them. There was a wrought-iron bench under the tree's spreading branches; the Princess sat, and Elena did the same.
The silence stretched between them for several heartbeats. Princess Alyssa looked at her again with that penetrating gaze, then down at the ground. "Godmother, I know why you're here. I read about the Tradition, in the history books. I know about the stories, and...I'm not sure how to tell you this…." Her voice trailed off. She plucked a fallen leaf from the ground and began shredding it between her fingers.
Elena nodded. She'd already figured it out; it was clear from the girl's demeanor, and the lack of Traditional magic around her. "You're not in love with him.""No."
More silence, while Elena wondered what her next steps would be. In the usual tale, the Prince would fall in love with Ella Cinders, but this was not the usual tale. Instead it looked as though the tale had simply fallen apart when the Prince met the male Ella Cinders – just as Elena had prevented Princess Kylia of Fleurberg from falling in love with her rescuer by taking on that task herself. In that case, of course, she would have to do something about Allan. Perhaps she'd turn him over to Alexander for grooming into a Champion. But it had seemed so much more likely that the Tradition would choose the Princess, to make the tale work. And the Traditional magic was still accumulating here in Anboria, even if it wasn't accumulating around Princess Alyssa. Elena could feel it, like a weight pressing against her from all sides.
"Hal is, though."
Elena swiveled her head and stared at Princess Alyssa, who was studying the mangled leaf in her hands. "What? Prince Harold?" Wheels began turning and churning in her head. The tale hadn't fallen apart. The Prince had fallen in love with the Cinder-Fellow.
"Yes." Bits of leaf fluttered to the ground. "He's always been that way. Falling in love with other men, I mean. Mother and Father don't know." She looked up suddenly, fiercely. "You're not going to tell them, are you? He'll get in so much trouble."
"I…I don't know." She had no idea what she should do. She knew that some men were this way – even some Princes – but that sort of behavior was decidedly un-Traditional. And where did this leave Allan?
"I think Lord Allan's in love with him, too."
"Is he," Elena said faintly. Well, that would simplify things.
"They spent all their time talking. Lord Allan said he wanted to run away with Hal, but he wouldn't."
"Did he." What a strange turn for the tale to take. But she remembered now that Allan hadn't said a word when she had told him the Princess would fall in love with him. He'd only asked whether he'd meet the Prince. She hadn't given it any thought. She had only made assumptions. And they'd all been wrong. The Tradition had known what it was doing all along.
"And I'm glad," the Princess said suddenly. "Hal deserves to be happy. He doesn't want to marry a Princess and be King of Anboria. I think he'd rather be a Champion." She bit her lip again. "Although I don't know if Champions are allowed to, you know. Be like that."
"Well, usually Champions are second sons, and people don't worry too much about second sons." She frowned. "But I can't imagine King Anson allowing your brother to be a Champion – or to avoid marrying, for that matter. A King must have an heir. King Anson only has one son."
The Princess lifted her chin and looked Elena in the eye. "He has a daughter."
Oh, my, thought Elena, and a smile bubbled up onto her lips. "He certainly does." Her expression turned grave again as she thought over the implications. From what the King had said earlier, it seemed as though he had his children's future all mapped out in accordance with Anborian tradition – which might not have the same weight of magic behind it as the big-T Tradition, but which was powerful all the same.
And yet she, as a Fairy Godmother, was able to turn Tradition into new channels, to write new tales that suited the people who had to live them much better than the old tales that the Tradition tried to force them into. Perhaps she could do the same with the King.
"Oh, look, there's Hal," said Princess Alyssa. She gestured toward the lower garden, by the castle wall. "Did you want to speak with him?"
Elena looked toward the figure walking towards them, unmistakably wreathed in the magic of the Tradition. "I think perhaps I had better. And then we will all speak with your parents – no," she added quickly when the Princess's face crumpled with alarm, "not about that. Yet. But it is time to set things in motion." Because if Hal wanted Allan, and Allan wanted Hal, and the Tradition wanted to put them together – well, that was her job, wasn't it?
It was no surprise to Alyssa that her father was not pleased with the Godmother's announcement that the Tradition required Prince Harold to set out on a Quest. The five of them stood in the audience chamber, the tension as thick as the fog that sometimes covered the castle grounds in the early morning. "He's needed here," King Anson grumbled. "Got to lead the army."
"We haven't been at war since before I was born," Hal pointed out.
"You've got to sit in the court council. How will you be a fair and just King if you don't have the experience?"
"Father, you're going to rule for many more years. I have plenty of time to go on a Quest."
Well done, Alyssa thought. Godmother Elena had warned them to be truthful in what they said – she'd said that the Tradition would twist lies into traps for them, if they weren't careful – but that what they said didn't have to include everything. Hal had no intention of becoming King, but he didn't need to tell their father that. "Not yet," the Godmother had said. Which meant that at some point they were going to have to tell their parents everything. Alyssa was sure that conversation would be even worse than this one.
"I think it's a fine idea," her mother said unexpectedly.
"You can't be in favor of this madness!"
"You yourself said he needs experience to be a fair and just King. He's not going to get that sitting around Anboria. Traveling to other lands will give him a perspective he can't get in your council chamber." She smiled at Godmother Elena. "And besides, the Tradition demands it."
The Godmother hadn't phrased it exactly like that, but she'd managed to give the King and Queen that impression, and she wasn't contradicting them. That was a skill worth learning, thought Alyssa.
"But what if something happens to him while he's out…" The King waved his hand in the air. "Out questing?"
"Nothing will happen to him," said the Queen, but her voice betrayed a hint of anxiety. She looked toward the Godmother again. "That's why he has to have a Companion, right?"
"The Prince and his Companion will defend each other," said Godmother Elena. "Two traveling together are safer than one." Again, no promises, just vague statements, but Alyssa could see that her parents looked relieved.
"And how do we find this Companion?" demanded the King.
Hal stepped forward. "My Companion will be Lord Allan of Otraria. A man who can ride a stallion such as his will be a strong ally in a Quest."
"The Tradition has chosen him," confirmed the Godmother.
"So again, how do we find him? Must we send to Otraria?"
"He's here," Alyssa said. "I mean, he told me he was traveling in Anboria. Except he can't be traveling very far." Everyone looked at her. "Well, we have his horse, right?"
"Right," said Hal.
"So why hasn't he come to retrieve it?" asked the Queen.
"Perhaps something's happened to him." King Anson snorted audibly. "A fine Companion he'd be. Can't even keep track of his livestock."
"He is changed from the guise in which he came to the ball," said Godmother Elena. "You would not recognize him were he to come to the castle."
The Queen's eyes widened. "Is he under a curse?"
"The Tradition works in mysterious ways."
"But he's the only one who can ride that white horse," said Alyssa. "I mean, that's what you said, Hal – that you tried to ride it, and you couldn't even get close." Come on, come on, she thought. They'd talked this over with the Godmother, and she'd told them what they needed to do.
Hal nodded. "None of the grooms can, either. Nor the three best riders in my regiment. None of them."
"But Lord Allan rode it to the ball," added Alyssa. "And he rode off on it – I mean, before the horse came back." Hal turned sharply to look at her, and she bit her lip and looked at the ground. She hadn't told him she'd watched from her window as Lord Allan took his leave. She hadn't told him what she'd seen.
"I know!" exclaimed the Queen, her eyes sparkling. "We'll invite all the noblemen of Anboria – of any Kingdom, anyone who wishes to try his luck – to a Royal Contest. We'll set up an arena, and give each man a chance to ride the horse. Whoever does shall be Prince Harold's Companion, for he must be Lord Allan!"
Finally, thought Alyssa.
"What a splendid idea," said Godmother Elena.
"What a ridiculous idea," muttered the King.
"Nonsense, dear. It will be a magnificent event. We'll have pastries and wine, and a pavilion for the ladies to watch from." The Queen clapped her hands. "I'll arrange it at once."
The King frowned. "This Lord Allan had better show up."
"Oh, I imagine he will," said Godmother Elena. "Eventually."
The one thing Alyssa didn't like about the Royal Contest was that she had to dress up in a fancy dress with a corset. At least it wasn't as uncomfortable as the one she'd worn to the ball. But her mother had insisted she look appropriately Princess-y, and so she had donned a crisp white gown with a dark green overskirt, and a small tiara as well.
But it was worth it to sit in the pavilion under the shade of a gauze awning, and eat fruit and slices of almond cake, and watch as one over-stuffed nobleman after another approached the beautiful white stallion, put a hand on its neck and a foot in one stirrup, swung up across the saddle, and was unceremoniously thrown in the dirt. Some of the men didn't even get that far, as the horse shied away before they could even get close. Actually, those were the nicer ones, the ones who seemed the most thoughtful during council meetings or who Alyssa had noticed never shouted at their servants or kicked dogs.
At first, she thought it was kind of unfair, that the nastier noblemen at least got a little farther with their task. Then she noticed one man – a duke she particularly disliked, with an overly-loud voice and a reputation for cruelly beating his servants for the most minor, accidental offenses – vault into the saddle and immediately get tossed nearly the entire length of the arena, landing with a very hard thud. He slowly picked himself up off the ground, wincing and rubbing his hip. As he limped out of the arena, she wondered whether the horse somehow could discern what sort of man each of his would-be riders might be, and was treating each exactly as he deserved.
She herself only recognized a small number of the men who had come to try their luck. Most of them, from their garb, were gentlemen rather than noblemen, sons of well-off countrymen or merchants who hoped to change their fortune with success at the Royal Contest. Twenty or so were foreign Princes or other nobles, who stood out from the rest by the style of their clothes and by their retinues of serving-men and grooms. When the plans had been discussed, she had wondered why the Anborian noblemen the King and Queen knew well would be allowed to try their luck; after all, none of them, obviously, was the man they sought. But Godmother Elena had explained that it was something men expected, to be able to enter the Royal Contest and perhaps prevail against all odds. "And besides," she'd added, "it's an important part of the Tradition."
"Well, I suppose we must allow them in, then."
"Of course," said Godmother Elena thoughtfully, "it's usually a contest for the hand of the Princess." Alyssa couldn't hide her stricken look, but the Godmother shook her head and told her not to worry. "Apparently the Tradition's only interested in your brother at the moment. Although I suspect I might be back in a year or two."
"I can wait," Alyssa had said fervently, and the Godmother had laughed.
Godmother Elena had come to the castle along with a handsome Knight named Alexander, who was serving as Master of Ceremonies for the contest. Hal had poked her in the ribs and whispered that this Alexander was the one who ran the school for Champions he wanted to attend. Alyssa supposed the Godmother was somewhere in the pavilion, but she hadn't seen her since the festivities had begun.
The pavilion and the lawn next to it were crowded. It seemed that every lady in Anboria – and many who did not exactly qualify as ladies – was there to cheer for her favorite candidate. Or perhaps to jeer at her least-favorite, as Alyssa noticed the shouts were generally more raucous the harder the landing. The nobles sat under the awnings beside and behind the Royal box where she sat with her parents and brother, the gentlefolk sat in the wings of the pavilion with their servants holding parasols over their heads, and the peasants, sprawled on blankets spread on the lawn.
"Who will be next?" called Alexander, from the center of the arena, as the latest disappointed candidate brushed the dust from his clothes and slunk away. Next to him, the white horse pawed the ground, looked sidewise at him, and snorted in a way that seemed almost derisive.
A small, slender man in a fur-trimmed jerkin pushed his way to the fore. His beard came to a sharp point below his chin, like a dagger, and his boots had pointy toes to match. "It will be mine to try," he said, bowing slightly, and the assembled lords and ladies applauded politely.
His movements almost seemed a dance, the pointed toes of his boots sliding and skipping across the ground, first toward the horse, then away, then back again as he circled around the arena. The horse held perfectly still in the center, seemingly allowing his approach, and Alyssa wondered if this was somehow a disguised Lord Allan, although she rather thought he was taller. Then the man leapt toward the horse – which was suddenly no longer there, but standing unconcernedly by the edge of the arena. The man stumbled and sprawled on the ground. There was a wave of tittering from the crowd.
He pulled himself to his feet and bowed again, a short, sharp movement. Again he danced toward the horse, and again, as he abruptly lunged, the horse was somewhere else. Alyssa thought it almost looked as though the horse had flown across the arena. The laughter was louder this time, and the expression on the man's face angrier. The third time, he did not even attempt to dance but went straight for the saddle; the horse slid and turned and pranced away, and finally the man with the pointy beard and pointy boots admitted defeat and left the arena.
"Is there nobody here who will ride this horse?" called Alexander again. The nobles whispered among themselves but nobody stepped forward.
"I rather think we've exhausted our nobility," said the King. "As well as that of several neighboring Kingdoms. I believe that last one had a Carassion accent."
"I'll have a go," called a stout man from the lawn. He wore the simple clothes of a farmer, and a straw hat, and as he got to his feet the woman beside him pulled ineffectually at his arm. "Leave off, Roberta, can't I ride a horse?"
The King frowned and beckoned to Alexander. "Must we let the common people try as well?"
"I'm afraid it's part of the Tradition," said Alexander gravely. He returned to the center of the arena and nodded to the stout man, who barely managed to get his toe into the stirrup before he was ejected.
But he had inspired others. Soon there was a whole new line of men waiting their turn to get thrown from the stallion – or more likely, to be unable to even lay a hand on it. It wasn't a long line, though, as the countryfolk seemed more interested in watching noblemen fail than in attempting the feat themselves.
On the other hand, most of the nobles and gentry who had laughed as their peers had been tossed from the saddle were now starting to look bored. The chatter grew louder as the ladies ignored the arena and talked among themselves. Next to her parents, Alyssa dutifully feigned interest in watching one bumpkin after another prove unworthy, but surreptitiously she scanned the crowd. If Lord Allan is here, she thought, he had best show himself soon.
A raised voice off to her right caught her ear, and she turned to see. "Stop it, Allie," ordered a fat girl, pulling at the arm of the servant standing beside her. The girl was dressed in an overly-fussy pink gown which had so many frills and ruffles that her face and hands were almost invisible, but Alyssa thought she might be about her own age. "How dare you think you can even try?"
"You're just a serving girl," said another, scornfully. She was skinny and had the sharp face of a weasel, but her dress was identical to the first girl's save its color, which was a pale green that did not, Alyssa thought, go very well with her sallow skin.
"Girls, quiet," snapped a woman next to them. She was also overdressed for the occasion, and wore far too much paint and powder.
"But Mother!" whined the fat one. "If Allie tries to ride the horse she won't be here to hold the parasol and my face will get all burned!"
"Don't be silly. Allie isn't going to ride the horse. That's only for noblemen."
The servant muttered something Alyssa couldn't catch, and the woman rapped her arm with her fan. "Perhaps the King and Queen are allowing them to try – although I can't imagine why," she added, peering with distaste at the arena below, "but I'm sure we all know that a common man wouldn't have a hope of success. And besides, Allie, this is for men. Not for girls."
"I'm not a girl," said the servant, wriggling free of the fat girl's grasp. The servant strode toward the arena with long, sure steps, toward Alexander, who was standing alone next to the stallion. "I want to try."
The crowd laughed derisively, and Alyssa couldn't blame them. The servant wore shapeless brown rags that looked a bit like an old gown, but were split like trousers. The long braid of tangled yellow hair looked like a girl's, but the servant had walked with the long stride of a man. The face was no help, as it was so thoroughly smudged with dirt and soot that the features were nearly invisible, and the voice…well, it was a bit high, but more like a young boy's than a girl's. And suddenly Alyssa realized she'd heard that voice before. She smiled and leaned forward. Oh, this would be good.
Alexander inclined his head. "You may."
The servant stepped up to the stallion and gently rubbed a hand along its neck. It whickered and seemed to lean into the touch, playfully butting the servant's chest with its head and then stretching back as if to make sure it got stroked in its favorite spot.
From the lawn came a mocking shout: "Don't get that nice white horse dirty, Allie-Cinders!" Ignoring the laughter, the servant put a foot in the stirrup and swung up in the saddle. "Now you're in for it!" called another man, but the laughter died down when the horse trotted around the arena in a broad circle, Lord Allan – for of course it must be he – sitting erect on its back.
Lord Allan must have pulled on the reins or given the horse some sort of signal, for they came to a stop directly in front of the very center of the pavilion, where the Royal family sat. Alyssa glanced over at Hal – he must have figured it out, too, because his eyes were bright and the corners of his mouth were twitching as though he were trying to keep from grinning.
The King frowned. "What is this, then? Who are you?"
The clear, musical voice rang out. "Your Majesty, you know me as Lord Allan."
"Nonsense! I remember Lord Allan, and you look nothing like him."
"Perhaps this will help," came a voice from behind them, and Alyssa saw it was Godmother Elena. She pointed her wand at Lord Allan and his rags dissolved into the fine midnight-blue brocade he had been wearing the night of the ball. His hair untangled and arranged itself into a neat tail, and the smudges on his face vanished. The assembled nobles and gentry gasped with amazement and surprise, and a buzz of excited talk filled the pavilion.
Smoothly Lord Allan swung off the horse and knelt before the King. "I am not truly a Lord, Your Majesty, but I would be your son's Companion on his Quest."
"In that case," started the King, but the Queen put a hand on his arm to forestall him. "You have won the Contest, and that shall be your reward. And after all, you are from my home Kingdom of Otraria."
Lord Allan looked at her sheepishly. "Actually, I'm not. I am only –"
He was interrupted by the Godmother, who had made her way down to the Royal box. "He is Allan, and the Tradition has chosen him to be your son's Companion. And I believe him to be a worthy one."
"We have a Companion!" announced Alexander loudly, and a cheer rang out.
The King sighed. "I suppose we will need to discuss this."
"An excellent idea, Your Majesty," said Godmother Elena. "There is a great deal to discuss," she added, looking significantly at Hal and Alyssa. Shall we adjourn to the palace?"
They gathered around the long table in the council chamber: her father and mother, her brother and not-really-Lord Allan, Godmother Elena and Alexander, and Alyssa, feeling a little like an extra wheel on a carriage. The King set his elbows on the table and rested his chin on his interlaced fingers, looking at Godmother Elena. "Here we are, Madame. My son apparently has a Companion. Now tell me about this Quest."
"There are many varieties of Quest, Your Majesty. Some Quests require the completion of certain tasks, which may be accomplished only by a particular person, or by someone who has proven himself to be the necessary candidate. Some Quests involve battle – defeating a monster, or perhaps an army. And some Quests go to the very root of what a Quest is: the search for something which may not be easy to find."
"And which is this?"
Alexander spoke. "The Prince and his Companion will journey to the Glass Mountain, and there they will train to become Champions. Things are always happening in the Five Hundred Kingdoms which require Champions to set them right."
The King snorted. "That sounds suspiciously open-ended. I ask again, what kind of Quest is this to be?"
"It is a search," said Hal quietly. "A search for who I am and what I was destined to be."
"You are my son, and you are destined to be King one day."
"No." Hal's voice trembled slightly, but his jaw was set. From where she was sitting, Alyssa could see Allan reach for his hand under the table and give it a squeeze. That seemed to give Hal courage, as he looked their father in the eye and spoke calmly and evenly. "I am your son, but I shall never be King. I have never wanted to be King. I wouldn't be any good at it, anyway. I don't understand half of what goes on in council, and I don't have the patience to figure it out. The only thing I've learned from attending council meetings is that the business of ruling a Kingdom is incredibly boring." He took a deep breath. "So I don't want to be King. And the Tradition doesn't want me to be King, either."
"How can you say that?" thundered the King. In one swift motion he slapped his palms on the table and stood, glowering at them all. "You are my heir!"
"Yes, a King must have an heir. Which is another reason why I cannot be King of Anboria. I will not marry a Princess I can never love for the sake of an heir. If I become King, the line will stop with me, and I don't think that's what you want."
"Harold, please," said the Queen. "Surely you don't really know that you will never –"
"I know," said Hal quietly. He rose to his feet, pulling Allan up with him, and now everyone could see their clasped hands. "I have chosen my Companion. And he has chosen me."
Dead silence around the table. Alyssa counted one, two, three seconds, and then: "No! You will not do this!" The King's eyes were flashing, and he looked furious. Alyssa hadn't seen him this angry since the time she and Hal rode their horses to Emerald Lake without telling anybody they'd gone. They'd come back just before nightfall to find the entire palace guard out searching for them, a quietly sobbing mother, and an enraged father who grounded them both for an entire month. Right now, he looked like he wanted to ground Hal for his entire life. Which she guessed was sort of how Hal saw it, too.
Hal's voice was very quiet and very firm. "I will not change my mind, Father."
"You must! We must have an heir to the throne of Anboria!"
She took a quick glance at Godmother Elena, who smiled encouragingly. Now, she thought, and took a deep breath, and stood. "We have an heir."
"Silence, Alyssa. This is not about you."
He wasn't even looking at her. He was glaring at Hal, and not even looking at her, and somehow that gave her courage, gave her a little more steel in her spine. "Yes, it is. This is about both of us. Hal doesn't want to rule Anboria, and I do." At that he finally turned toward her, and she plowed on: "He hates sitting in court, and I think it's interesting, listening to what the people ask you for and how you decide what to do. I've been going to every council meeting for two years so I can learn what is really happening in Anboria. I've read all the history books in the castle library, and I don't think Hal has opened a single one."
"And you think these things qualify you to rule this Kingdom?"
"I am your child, just the same as Hal is. That is what qualifies me."
The King studied her for a moment, and then, to her surprise, smiled. "You are indeed my child. No other would dare. But –" he spread his hands and raised an eyebrow. "You are my daughter. You are a girl."
"She is, isn't she," said Queen Delia, rising suddenly, and although her voice was gentle it seemed to cut through the room like a sword. "And in a few years she will be a woman. A well-read, intelligent woman, with the best interests of Anboria at heart." She smiled very sweetly at the King. "I think she'll be an excellent Queen, don't you, dear?"
"This is a Kingdom, not a – a Queen-dom," he grumbled, but the anger seemed to have gone out of him, and when she patted his arm, he slumped back down into his chair.
"There is no reason a Kingdom can't be ruled by a Queen," she continued, and Alyssa wondered if maybe it was, sort of, already. "But as to this other matter. Harold, you're certain this is what you want?" She looked at him, and he nodded. She sighed. "I suppose we'll have to get used to it."
"Don't worry, Your Majesty," Hal said stiffly. "We will be well away from here as soon as we can make the –"
"Oh, don't be silly, Harold," interrupted the Queen. "What I meant is that we'll have to get used to you going off and being a Champion. We weren't expecting that, were we, dear?" The King mumbled something inaudible. "You will have to come back to visit as frequently as you can." She turned to Allan and reached out to clasp his hand. "You both will."
"Yes, Your Majesty," Allan said. His voice was barely above a whisper. Alyssa couldn't blame him for looking a bit over-awed. She was feeling a little intimidated, herself. She'd never realized that Mother could be such a – such a Queen.
"Now, you'll take good care of Harold," she continued. It wasn't a question.
"Yes, Your Majesty."
"And you will do the same for him.""Yes, Mother."
"Then it's settled. You may leave with Godmother Elena and Champion Alexander."
The air around Alyssa seemed to swirl, as though a wind had sprung up suddenly inside the room. A wave of dizziness passed through her, and she blinked. Hal and Allan looked a bit unsteady on their feet, too.
"Interesting," murmured Godmother Elena.
"What was that?" asked Alyssa.
"You felt it?" Alyssa nodded. "That, your Highness, was the Tradition. Since the night of his birthday ball, the Traditional magic has been building up around Prince Harold, pushing him into the path that has been worn smooth by hundreds of Princes and hundreds of beautiful, good-hearted daughters who toiled in servitude to their wicked stepmothers."
"And one handsome, good-hearted son," said Hal, looking at Allan.
"I was hoping for a daughter-in-law," said the King.
"Hush, dear," said the Queen.
"But now the Tradition has done its work," said Godmother Elena. "That story has been fulfilled, and the Tradition can move on to other stories. And it's already made its first move." She eyed Alyssa thoughtfully. "You're fifteen, aren't you?"
"I will be sixteen in two months."
"Two months," she repeated, nodding. "Well, Princess Alyssa, we will see each other again in two months. I suspect you will have a very, hmm." She smiled conspiratorially at Alyssa. "A very exciting birthday."
"Wonderful," muttered the King, and buried his face in his hands.