Justin and Max were already in the lair when Alex walked in, carrying three steak knives. Max, emptying the last of the Cheetos into his mouth straight from the bag, didn’t notice, but Justin had developed a sixth sense when it came to his sister and sharp edges. He noticed almost before she entered.
“Alex?” his eyes narrowed. “What are you doing with those?”
“Don’t get skittish,” Alex said, and rolled her eyes. “I’m just helping Dad. These are for today’s wizard lesson.”
“Knives? What kind of wizard lesson involves knives?”
“How should I know? If I knew that, we wouldn’t need a lesson on it. And if I actually asked Dad about it—well, I’d be you.” She dropped the knives on a table, then looked over at the youngest Russo, who was frantically clawing at the Cheeto bag stuck on his head. “I’d rather be Max.”
They had just got the bag off their brother’s head when Jerry came in.
“What’s with the knives, Dad?” Justin asked. “And what’s with getting Alex to carry them? I thought she wasn’t allowed to have knives. By order of the state of New York.”
“Justin, your sister offered to help—”
“And that didn’t make you suspicious?”
“Will you stop it?” Alex scowled. “You always do that.”
“Do what? Thwart your evil schemes?”
“First of all, they aren’t evil schemes; they’re practice, to make sure I know how to keep from getting caught later on, when I can be tried as an adult. And second, no. I mean, you always underestimate me! Why is it so weird that maybe I’d want to help Dad?”
“Because it’s you.”
“All right, all right,” Jerry shook his head, “you two, enough of this. The Wizard Competition is soon, you guys. If there was ever a time for you all to get serious about your studies, it . . . well, it would have been a few years ago. But that doesn’t mean we should just quit now, so for our pre-Christmas Eve lesson, with all of the food we’ll be eating over the next few days, I thought it was a good idea for you to learn how to turn steak knives in to spoons.”
“Sorry,” Justin shook his head, “I must have misheard that. I thought you just said we’re going to turn steak knives into spoons.”
“I did, and you are.”
“Wh— Dad, why would we ever need to know how to do that?”
“Justin!” Alex simmered with righteous indignation. “Are you questioning our father’s wisdom in designing our curriculum? You know how hard he works to make sure we learn everything we could ever possibly need to know!”
“Okay,” Max shook his head, “even I thought that was a little over the top.”
“Yeah,” Jerry frowned. “Alex, what’s going on?” His eyes narrowed. “What did you break?”
Alex looked from one brother to the other, then to her father, and sighed. “Fine! Dad, I know you said you and Mom already bought all my Christmas presents—”
“—and we did—”
“—but the newest Judy Axehand comic came out today and if I wait until I have enough money to actually buy it, it will probably be sold out ‘til New Year! So can’t it be just one early Christmas gift? Please?”
“Alex, your mother and I already exceeded our holiday budget this year.” He shook his head, frowning. “Apparently some people think that buying the Christmas gifts at all the Boxing Day sales is not in the spirit of the holiday season. So if you want the comic that badly, you’ll have to buy it yourself.”
“But I don’t have any money! I actually bought everyone’s gifts this year, instead of steal— I mean . . . I’ve already got everyone’s gifts.”
“Look,” Justin kneaded the bridge of his nose. “If I promise to buy you the comic for Christmas, can we get on with the lesson?”
Alex looked at him, surprised. “You’d do that for me?”
“Sure, if it means we can learn something today. Besides, it’d be nice to give you a book I know you’ll actually appreciate.”
“Hey, I appreciated that last one you gave me. It was just the right size to prop open my window when it gets hot at night. And the one before that keeps my chair at the dinner table form being all wobbly. I appreciate that, too!”
Justin’s knuckles picked up a steady rhythm on either side of his nose. “Can we let Dad get on with the lesson? Please?”
Jerry did get on with the lesson, but it didn’t go as expected. Justin was able to successfully turn his knife into a spoon, and then back again, but Alex only managed to turn hers into a fork and couldn’t make it change back. Then Max took his turn, and instead of turning the steak knife into different cutlery, he turned it into an actual steak.
“Perfect!” he decided, and used Justin’s steak knife and Alex’s fork to cut himself a piece.
“Mmm,” Jerry said, and reached for the steak as well.
“Dad!” Justin protested.
“But it looks so good!”
“Fine,” Justin said. “Eat the steak. I’ll go with Alex.”
“Go with me where?” Alex asked.
“To get your Christmas gift.”
“Oh,” she said, visibly deflated, “I kind of thought you’d just give me the money and I could get it myself.”
“You want a Christmas gift you picked out and bought yourself? One I didn’t even wrap? That’s . . . festive.”
“Hey! Don’t you judge my holiday traditions. Did I judge you when you wore that reindeer sweater to Christmas dinner last year?”
“Judge me? Alex, you poured your eggnog all over it.”
“Yeah, but without judgement. It was more like performance art. Especially after you started hopping around, having conniptions, and you got too close to the Advent wreath. You went up like a firecracker.”
“That was kind of unavoidable, given the way you spiked your eggnog.”
“There you go again, judging my holiday traditions.”
“Holiday tradition or not, I am not giving you a chance to screw up your own Christmas gift. If you want Judy Axehand, you’re coming with me to get it.”
“Fine,” Alex huffed, and they went through the portal together, leaving Jerry and Max arguing over who should get the bigger piece of steak.
When Alex and Justin reached the bookstore, it was closed. Alex didn’t miss a beat before turning on her brother, and poking her finger at his chest.
“This is your fault,” she decided. “If you hadn’t wasted so much time arguing with me back in the lair, we could have got here in time.”
“Alex, I don’t think we just missed them. It looks like it’s been closed for a while. Is today a holiday somewhere?”
“Ugh,” Alex crossed her arms over her chest, “this is the problem with the Wizard World celebrating every holiday, anywhere, ever. Stuff’s always closed! And look, there it is,” she pressed her hands and face to the glass, staring in the window at the display of various books, including a face-out copy of the latest issue of Judy Axehand. “I want it, and they won’t be open again for days. Okay,” she decided, pulling her wand from her boot, “I’m just going to zap it out here. That way I can read it and then just zap it back.”
“No you’re not,” Justin vetoed. “First, because no, and second, this is the Wizard World. They’ll have some type of magic alarm system in place to prevent you doing that. I’ll buy you a comic book for Christmas but I’m not going to spend Christmas in jail for anybody. Even you. Especially you.”
“Oh, come on. Wizard jail isn’t that bad. They have cookies on Friday nights.”
“How do you know that?”
“Look, do you want to hear a really long and complicated story about how I spent spring break, or do you want to find out what happens next to Judy Axehand?”
“Alex, you can’t bring the comic book—”
“No, I know we can’t bring the comic out, but that doesn’t mean we can’t go to the book. I’ll just put us into it, and we can see what happens first hand.”
“Alex, no, wait—”
But she had already waved the wand airily around her head, and cast the spell: “literarium terrarium!”
Her words were followed by a flash of light, and the street was empty where moments ago the two wizards had stood.
The one good thing Justin would find to say about the situation much later on was it started with a soft landing. They missed the boulder by inches and the thornbush by even less, tumbling together onto a soft bed of moss in the middle of a towering green forest.
“Ungh,” said Justin, “I think I sprained my . . . everything.”
“Where are we?” Alex was already on her feet, looking around. “This isn’t the knife shop. All the Judy Axehand comics start in her knife shop. This is . . . what is this?”
By the time Justin got to his feet, Alex had left the bed of moss and found a narrow, barely-visible track worn into the forest floor, leading off into the trees. She turned to face her brother with all the accusatory power of a younger sister and said “this is not Judy Axehand!”
“That’s what I was trying to tell you. When you cast literarium terrarium near a whole bunch of books, you get pulled into whichever book is closest. Your comic was way up on the top of the display. Whatever book we got pulled into must have been one of the big ones near the bottom. Whichever it was, that’ll be the one we’re in now.”
“Well that’s all right,” Alex said, “I’ll just zap us back out again.”
“You can’t. This isn’t your journal, it’s a book somebody else wrote. The story’s already complete, and you aren’t the author. It’s like our books from when we were little, the wizard fairy tales; you have to stay until the end.”
“You mean we’re stuck here?”
“Yes, until the story ends. That’s what I was trying to tell you before you zapped us in here, but surprise, you wouldn’t listen.”
Alex made a face at him, but her heart clearly wasn’t in it. She considered the forest around them, and reached out to touch a fern.
“What book do you think we’re in?” she asked.
“I don’t know, but we should find out. Once we know what story it is, we might have a better idea how to move toward the end and get out of here.”
“That should be easy enough,” Alex decided, as Justin joined her on the narrow track and they followed it through the woods. “You’ve read just about every book ever, right?” She clambered over a rotting log that blocked their path. “Whatever book it is, I hope it isn’t a long one. If we’re going to be stuck here overnight, I’ll need some things. Moisturizer, pajamas, and, you know,” she landed awkwardly on the other side of the log, “a bed.”
“Right now,” said Justin, “I’d settle for finding a road.”
They found one, but it took a while. The woods were enormous, and some of the trees looked like they had been there for many hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It was damp and cool and almost impossibly green. When they topped a small crest and found themselves looking down at a wide, dirt road, the contrast between the rich living forest and the hard-packed yellow-brown dirt was all the sharper.
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Justin said with obvious relief. They skidded down the hill to stand on the level, beaten ground. “This is clearly a main road.”
“How can this clearly be a main road? It’s dirt. What kind of main road isn’t even paved? We aren’t in one of your dorky Lord of the Hobbit books are we? Because if so, you can just finish this whole stupid quest on your own.”
“I’m pretty sure this isn’t anything by Tolkien. I think it’s a main road because it’s so wide. You can tell it’s been travelled a lot.” Justin squinted down the road in each direction. “It must lead to a town, or at least an encampment. Let’s walk that far, and see if we can figure out what story this is when we get there.”
“Fine,” she sighed. Justin picked a direction, and they started their trek.
The road was in good shape, considering it saw little in the way of maintenance. They had been walking for what Justin figured (by the way the sun had moved, and the degree by which Alex’s whining had increased) had to be at least half an hour, when a faint rumbling sound reached them.
“What is that?” Alex looked around. “An earthquake?”
“No, it’s not; it sounds like a vehicle. Alex, move out of the road.”
But Alex stayed put, watching as a coach rounded a bend in the road and rumbled toward them. It was a heavy and inelegant contraption, pulled by four labouring horses who had been whipped to a brisk pace. It had six outriders all around it, and even though the Russos both waved and shouted (well, Justin waved and shouted; Alex fluttered one hand in a manner reminiscent of somebody trying to bat a fly) none of the people around or in the coach gave any sign that they saw them. The horses bore down without slacking speed, and at the last possible moment Justin gave Alex a shove and they both tumbled off the road, narrowly missing a trampling under the horses’ hooves.
“Hey!” Alex yelled at the retreating coach. “Hey, we’re walking, here!”
“You okay?” Justin asked, helping her to her feet.
“Yeah, fine, but what the hell was that about? Didn’t they see us?”
“We probably didn’t look important enough to bother with,” Justin decided. “That looked like a Medieval-era coach. It would be owned by somebody rich, or at least important. No reason they should stop for us.
“Actually . . . huh,” he looked around them with fresh consideration. “Maybe we’re in some version of Robin Hood. This could be Sherwood Forest, don’t you think?”
“Sure, maybe, I don’t know,” Alex said, and bent to rub each of her calves. “As long as our first stop in the village can be the Nottingham Shoe Store, that’s all I care about. My feet are killing me.”
“What do you expect?” Justin lectured, as they resumed walking. “The heels on those boots make them a stupid choice for any occasion, much less hiking down a dirt road.”
“Well excuse me for not knowing I was going to be hiking down a dirt road today, Justin!” she shot back. “Next time I’ll be sure to—”
“Quiet,” Justin said suddenly.
“Who do you think you are, telling me to be—”
“Alex, I mean it, be quiet!” He pressed a palm to her mouth. “Do you hear that?”
She listened, then batted his hand away from her lips.
“Hoofbeats? Big deal. Probably another coach. If these guys try to run us down, I’m putting such a curse on them.”
“I guess it could be a coach, but I don’t hear . . .” he broke off at the sight of three black-clad, mounted men in light steel armour topping the ridge in front of them. “No. Not a coach.”
“Who are those guys? The cops?”
“Maybe. But if this is Robin Hood, we don’t want to get mixed up with the guards. They’d be loyal to the—”
“It’s her!” the lead rider shouted, and pointed at Alex. “After them!”
“Coach or not, still gonna curse them,” Alex decided, and yanked her wand out of her boot. She twirled it through the air, narrowing her eyes at the oncoming guards.
“These three guards are now not, three grasshoppers should fill their spots.”
Nothing happened. The guards did not change, they kept coming, and the gap between them and the Russos was narrowing by the second.
“Plan B,” Alex decided. “Run.”
Together, they dove for the woods.
“Who do they think we are?” Alex panted, as they crashed through the underbrush.
“If we knew that, we’d know what book we were in! We’d also maybe know how to prove we aren’t whoever they think we— there! Quick, get under there. And quiet.”
Brother and sister huddled together in the shadow of a twisted mess of tree roots, a dense patch of ferns shielding them from view. They listened as their pursuers crunched and thumped their way through the forest. Once the sounds of pursuit had faded, they squirmed out from their hiding place.
“You okay?” Justin asked.
“Yeah, I think so . . . who were those guys? And why couldn’t I change them?” Alex wondered, and examined her wand. “Do you think I broke it, bringing us here?”
“There must be magic in this book,” Justin decided. “If the book were based on our own world, or the Wizard World, your magic should work here the way it does there. But if this is a fantasy story, magic will have its own set of rules that the author created. Our magic has to abide by the same rules, whatever they are.”
“So that explains the wand,” Alex frowned, “but it still doesn’t explain what they did. Why did they attack us like that?”
This time it wasn’t Justin who answered her question.
“Because,” said a voice from somewhere high above their heads, “they thought you were me.”
Justin and Alex leaped back from the tree just as a dark-haired young woman, clad all in coarse grey-green clothes and ratty furs, shinned down from the branch she’d been straddling. She landed on the forest floor as light as a cat, and turned to face them.
The Russos stared.
“A . . . female Robin Hood?” Justin said at last. The woman scrunched her face in confusion.
“Robin Hood? No.” She dug into her vest and pulled out a tattered, much-abused folded square of paper. “This is me.”
Alex took the paper, unfolded it and stared. In the middle of the paper was a crude line drawing of the woman in front of them, who did indeed bear a superficial resemblance to Alex. Above and below the sketch were boldly-lettered words, which Justin read aloud.
“Wanted for crimes against the Queen, murder, treason, treachery . . . really?”
“Really,” the woman nodded.
“Impressive,” Alex decided, tapping the poster. “So you’re a bandit? Like Robin Hood?”
“No,” the woman said. “I’m a fugitive. Like a woman whose stepmother tried to have her heart cut out.”
“Her heart—Snow White?” Justin blinked, looking from the poster to the wild woman, then to the poster again. “Really?”
“Really,” Snow White repeated.
“Huh,” Justin said. Then he frowned. “Why do you carry your own wanted poster around with you?”
The woman cracked a very small smile. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“I get it,” Alex volunteered. “It’s probably the same reason I keep a scrapbook with all the newspaper clippings that talk about me. And by I keep,” she amended, “I mean, I make Harper keep it. But it’s okay, she likes to cut and paste.”
“There are newspaper articles that mention you?” Justin said.
“Well,” Alex tossed her hair over her shoulder, affecting nonchalance, “not by name. But, you know.”
“No,” said Justin, “I don’t, and I don’t want to.”
“Look,” said Snow White, “if you two kids want to hang around here talking, that’s fine, but if I were you I wouldn’t want to still be here when the guards come back.” Then she started back toward the road.
Alex moved as if to follow, but stopped and looked back when she realized her brother wasn’t moving.
“Justin?” she prompted. “You hear that? Guards coming back? Let’s go!”
But Justin had returned his attention to the poster, studying it more closely. “I wonder which adaptation of the fable we’re in,” he said.
“Does it matter?” Alex frowned. “It’s Snow White. And we just found her. Obviously, sticking with her will get us to the end of the story eventually, right? Come on!”
She grabbed Justin’s wrist and hauled him and the wanted poster through the woods, following the rapidly-departing woman in cloak and furs.
Snow White moved through the forest with perceptible familiarity. She reached the road in no time and seemed hardly winded, although both the Russos had to catch their breath once they were back on the beaten path.
“Are we far from a town of some kind?” Justin asked, passing the wanted poster back to their new guide. “My sister and I are, uh, not from around here.”
“Now there’s a shock,” Snow White said dryly.
“Oh no,” Alex said, in real horror, “is it that obvious? Do we look like tourists?”
Snow White glanced at the younger girl. “What I meant was that anybody who doesn’t recognize the Queen’s guards must not be from around here. So how is it you came into these woods? Did a jealous stepmother turn you out into the world with only a few crusts of bread to eat? You’d be surprised how often that happens.”
“No, um, we’re kind of on a quest,” Alex said, seeing that Justin was too lost in thought to answer. “Or we were, but it went a little wrong, and we ended up here.”
“What is the nature of your quest?” Snow White asked. Her tone of voice was the one most people use to inquire about the weather.
“Now it’s just to get home,” Alex said. “Though if a lot more of those guards are hanging around, this could get sort of complicated. Are there a lot more of them?”
“There are patrols,” Snow White nodded, “and when you get closer to the castle, they grow more frequent. My advice to you is to keep well away from the town.” She turned to look at Alex more closely, considering the girl’s face. “There is enough of a resemblance that others who have not seen me in person might make the same mistake. That would be bad for both of you.”
“You must have really pissed your stepmom off, huh?” Alex said. “And all because you’re prettier than her, is that it?”
“Well,” Snow White shook her head, “that’s part of it.”
“Only part?” Justin looked up. “What’s the other part?”
Snow White pressed her lips together and said nothing, but Justin wouldn’t let it go. “Really,” he prodded, “what’s the rest of it?”
“Shut up, Justin,” Alex hissed, grabbing his arm and forcing him to drop back a little, out of earshot of the deposed princess. “Can’t you see she doesn’t want to talk about it? What do you care anyway, what the story is?”
“It might be a clue. It could help me determine if this is one of the traditional versions of the fable, or a more modern re-imagining of it.”
“Does that even matter?”
“It could help us know how to proceed, and give us an idea of how the story will end.”
“We already know how it ends. Everybody knows; I mean, it’s Snow White! It’s all love and romance and happily ever after. You can’t change that. Otherwise people would get pissed and stop buying the book.”
“You don’t understand. The time period when the story was written will affect other elements too. For instance, older versions will focus less on character development, and more on overarching themes and a strong moral.”
“You mean something like don’t try to kill your stepdaughter? Because I’m pretty sure that’s a moral for today, too. Or at least,” Alex qualified, upon reflection, “don’t get caught trying to kill your stepdaughter.”
“No, not that.” A deep red flush crept up Justin’s neck. “More of a . . . metaphor, actually, to do with female sexual awakening, and the loss of—ah—virginity.”
“Oh. My. God.” Alex blinked. “Is that what you learn in pre-med?”
Justin could not have looked more desperate to escape if he’d been dipped in honey and tied to an anthill.
“I’m required to take two English courses. One I picked is Children’s Literature.”
“Children’s literature? Justin, that shit isn’t for kids! There is nothing G-rated about female sexual awakening!” Alex sputtered, sounding for just a moment more like Justin than Justin himself. “Believe me.”
“I know it seems strange, given our post-Victorian sensibilities, but traditionally children’s stories were much less—wait,” he finally processed the last thing she had said to him. “What did you say?”
The order didn’t come from Alex, but Snow White. She stood perfectly still in the middle of the road, her eyes fixed on the wood. The Russos stopped too, and stood with her.
“What is it?” Justin whispered.
“I thought I heard . . .” Snow White hesitated, listened again, then shook her head. “Never mind. I was mistaken.”
She took just one more step forward before the brush on the side of the road gave way, and three castle guards rode out to surround them.
They tried to make a break for it. Justin dodged one horse, Snow White rolled under another, spooking it, and Alex rushed the third. Then a heavy, gauntleted hand came crashing down on the back of Justin’s skull, and he didn’t get to see what happened next.
The ache in the back of Justin’s head spread to encompass all of it, then tightened to a heavy, dull pain as he came to himself, and realized he was being tied to the back of a horse.
“Ungh,” he said. An answering grunt came from somewhere to his left. “Alex?” he said.
“Yeah,” she answered. “Bout time you woke up. Did you faint?”
“No I did not!” he sputtered, as a rank-smelling guard mounted the horse he was strapped to, and they set off at a jouncing, awkward pace. “I w- uh- as n-n-n-n-awk! uhnf,” he grunted, as all the wind rushed out of him. He didn’t finish explaining himself, but Alex seemed to understand what he was going for. The next communication from her was terse, but decipherable.
Whether she meant being knocked out, or being hung over a horse like a side of beef and riding at such a pace you could barely even breathe, much less speak, Justin wasn’t sure. He decided to believe she meant both.
He didn’t speak again until they had left the forest behind them and entered some kind of small town, which he didn’t so much see as he heard and smelled. The only thing he could actually see was a bit of dirt, and a lot of glossy grey horse-hip. The crowds he heard, however, meant that the guards were forced to slack their pace, and the Russos were able to catch their breath.
“We’re probably missing dinner right about now,” Alex reflected. “I hope it was something healthy. I’d hate to think we were missing ten-cheese enchiladas for this.”
Justin chose not to respond to that, but addressed a question to the guards. “Where are you taking us?” he asked. There was a brief silence, and then the one riding the horse Justin was tied to seemed to make up his mind.
“To the Queen.”
“Look,” Justin began, then broke off in coughing when he got a mouthful of horsetail. Alex filled in the gap.
“I’m not Snow White!” she said. “Honest, I’m not!”
“We know,” another guard confirmed. The horses drew to a halt, and the sound of a heavy chain rattling preceded the clank and squeal of a gate being raised. “But you were found consorting with her, and seeing as she has escaped, we thought to present you both to the Queen, instead.”
Snow White had escaped? Justin craned his neck, trying to look around some more, but it wasn’t until the horses had been drawn to another halt in the middle of a castle courtyard and he and Alex were unloaded like two sacks of grain that he was able to see clearly for himself.
Three guards, three horses, two Russos . . . and no wild princess from the trees.
“This is so gross,” Alex muttered, “I smell like a horse.” She looked up at Justin as they were marched through cavernous, dark corridors, moving too quickly for them to really take in anything around them. “You smell like a horse, too.”
“Alex,” Justin spoke through clenched teeth, “is this really the time to worry about that?”
“I’m just saying—”
“Hmph.” Alex clenched her own jaw, and looked much more dangerous than Justin could ever hope to. Her eyes glittered in the half-light of the hallway.
That, Justin thought, was probably what made her resemblance to the next woman they met so . . . pronounced. They were shoved through a towering pair of double doors into a massive throne room, with only one other occupant: a black-haired woman, clad in sweeping dark robes with eyes that glittered as fiercely as his sister’s.
“Your Majesty,” the guards spoke and bowed as one.
The Queen inclined her head in acknowledgment, but her gaze was focused on Justin and Alex.
“So,” she said, “what do we have here?” She moved off her dais and came down toward the Russos in a manner that would have reminded most people of a big cat stalking its prey, but which just reminded Justin of . . . Alex. “I understand you two dear children have been conspiring with my enemy. Is that true?”
“Conspiring,” Justin said, “is such a strong word. Don’t you think? I mean,” he amended quickly, “not that we were conspiring, or doing anything like that. Not intentionally. With your enemies. I mean, not with anybody we actually knew, at the time, was your enemy. How could we have known who your enemies were? We’ve only just met. Met you, that is, not each other. We’ve known each other for a while; for all my sister’s life, actually, and—”
“Justin,” said Alex, “shut up.”
The Queen laughed, and moved in close enough to wrap her fingers around Justin’s jaw, squeezing until the big ring on her thumb cut into his chin and he flinched.
“Consorting, then,” she purred. “You were consorting with a wanted fugitive.”
“I don’t see that you’ve got room to criticize,” Alex decided. “You were the one who tried to kill her in the first place, weren’t you?”
The Queen whipped around, her expression murderous, and Justin’s panicked whisper filled the room: “Alex!”
The Queen and Alex both ignored him.
“I think you’ll find,” the woman said, advancing on the younger girl, “that it is a queen’s privilege to do whatever she wishes.”
“Pfft,” said Alex. “You don’t need to be an evil queen to do that. Trust me.”
Justin’s groan also echoed around the room.
The Queen drew back, looking from one to the other, and seemed to consider them both. Then she smiled. Justin had seen smiles like that before, and they never led to good things for him. He felt chilled.
“So,” said the Queen, “you are friends of Snow White.”
“Not friends,” Justin said quickly. “Hardly even friendly, really. We just kind of came across each other in the woods.”
“Your idiot guards thought I was her,” Alex added.
“Well then,” the Queen smiled broadly, “I believe I see a way out of this that should make us all happy. You, boy,” she nodded at Justin, “will go back to the forest, find Snow White, and persuade her by whatever means you see fit to employ to return with you here, to the castle.”
Justin blinked, shook his head, and said “but— that doesn’t make any sense! We just met her today, how do you expect me to—”
“How you convince her,” the Queen interrupted, “is your own problem. And, of course,” she turned, advanced on Alex and wrapped one hand around her chin, “your sister’s problem.”
Justin went very still. The Queen, still framing the girl’s face with her hand, looked over at Justin and smiled.
“Do whatever it takes to bring Snow White back. Trick her, trap her . . . trip her up and stuff her in a sack, I really don’t care. Only know that if you fail to do as I demand, I will make sure your sister’s last moments are the most excruciating of her entire life. Her life is the price of your failure. Do I make myself clear?”
Justin didn’t trust himself to speak, but he nodded. The Queen seemed satisfied with that.
“Very good,” she said. Then she addressed the guards who held him. “Take our new deputy and see that he is fitted out with everything he’ll need to run the bitch to ground. Horse, food, weapons—everything. You and I,” she smiled at the guard who held Alex, “will show our pretty little guest to her new room.”
When the Queen let go of her face, Alex looked over to her brother. For the first time she looked more than annoyed by their latest adventure; she looked scared.
“Justin,” she said.
That was it. Just his name. But he’d heard her say his name that way before, and it never got easier to hear. His name in that tone meant she didn’t know what to do, and she was frightened enough by that to ask him for help.
In a way, Justin was grateful to be dragged from the throne room before he could answer her. At least this way, he was spared having to tell her he didn’t know what to do either.
In all the books Justin had read that involved a hero held captive in the lair of the enemy, the hero made a point of memorizing every twist and turn of their journey so he could sneak back later and do something clever and devastating, like blow the whole place up. Justin always figured if he ever got stuck in a book, he’d do that too.
Unfortunately, Justin hadn’t read any books where the hero’s reckless little sister got them stuck in a fairy tale and captured by an evil queen, then charged with the task of tracking and betraying the exiled princess of the kingdom—probably because there was no story like that. It was something that could only happen with Alex.
Justin, uniquely fortunate in his possession of such a sister, was too distracted with wondering what exactly she was getting up to in his absence to notice which turns they took, which stairs they climbed or which hallways they walked down. He only noticed where they were after the guards marched him through a heavy door into the open air of an inner courtyard.
The sky had darkened in the short time since he and Alex reached the castle, and a cold wind whipped up the dead leaves on the ground into miniature cyclones. Justin shivered, even in the heavy sweater he had pulled on over his collectible Captain Jim Bob Sherwood graphic tee. The guards, weighted down with padding and armour, seemed not to feel the chill, but they noticed that he did. The first stop they made in the courtyard was in a small shed, where he was outfitted with a coarse dark cloak so heavy that the mere weight of it actually slowed his gait.
As Justin tried to adjust his pace to match the weight of the cloak, he was pushed toward a door set in the courtyard wall. This opened into a long, narrow, smoky kitchen. A cook cursed them in greeting, but when he actually turned and saw who stood there, his next insult died on his tongue. The guards told him, in short, sharp words, what they wanted; the sweaty-faced man promptly moved around, assembling the requested items, and gave up a small parcel of dried foodstuff and a waterskin without a murmur of complaint.
“Now get on with you,” he ordered, but it was more bluster than any real command. Before he turned back to his stewpot, Justin noticed a flicker of genuine fear in the man’s eyes. He wondered if this cook had lived in the castle when it was still Snow White’s home, and if perhaps staying on after she’d been exiled was less a matter of free choice than it was of forced labour.
The guards turned Justin around with a hand on each of his shoulders. This time the sharp chill of the courtyard hit him like a rousing slap to the face. In the few minutes he’d stood in the kitchen, he had begun to sweat under his cloak and his eyes streamed tears from the smoke. The courtyard was a welcome relief from both.
“So,” he said, “where next?”
The guards did not speak, but answered by shoving him toward . . . the stables.
Even given the situation, Justin was grateful Alex wasn’t on hand to witness this. Under ordinary circumstances (whatever that meant, when Russos were involved) Justin, if you’d asked him, would have said he didn’t much like horses and had a healthy, rational respect for the damage they could inflict. Alex, if you’d asked her, would have said Justin was a big baby and could be relied upon to lose his shit if he was required to mount anything larger than a pony.
Neither statement would have been untrue.
Without Alex there to tell them so, however, the grooms had no way of knowing this was the case. When the castle guards arrived with Justin and said “get him a horse” the grooms rushed to do just that . . . which was how Justin came to find himself face-to-nose with the biggest, broadest, brawniest beast he had seen in his life.
“Well,” said the groom, impatiently, “what are you waiting for, boy, an invitation to dance? Git on up!”
The horse snorted a billowing, steaming breath into the cold air of the courtyard. From where the wizard stood, the animal might as well have breathed fire.
His eyes rolled back in his head, and Justin collapsed in a dead faint.
When Justin came to himself, it took him a moment to remember where he was. Then it took him a moment longer to realize he wasn’t where he’d thought he was; the dry chill of the courtyard at dusk was replaced by the damp chill of a room that wanted airing.
He was no longer wearing his cloak. He was lying on a bed in a room that was lit by a single lamp, and—he saw, on raising his head—Alex was standing in front of a small mirror, admiring herself in his cloak. When she saw he was awake, she turned, and held out her arms in a ‘ta da!’ sort of gesture.
“Well?” she said. “I make this work, right?”
Justin pressed a hand to his head, and sat up. “How long was I asleep?” he asked.
“You mean,” Alex corrected him, “how long were you in a faint? That’s right,” she added, when she saw him flush crimson, “they told me. You saw a horse and you fainted. I said yeah, and? But I guess that was enough to surprise them. Men around here aren’t really the type to faint when they see a horse, you know?” She turned back to her mirror, and gave a little swish that set the cloak to twirling. “They’re all macho and stuff.”
“It can’t all have been a faint,” Justin protested. “Some of it must have been stress, or exhaustion, or something else. Nobody stays in a faint for the amount of time it would have taken them to carry me all the way in to . . . where are we, anyway?”
“It’s kind of my room now, I guess,” Alex said, glancing around. “I thought she’d throw me in a dungeon or something, but I guess they’re full. So there are guards outside to keep me from leaving, which,” she scoffed, “please. But it’s not for long, anyway. Just until you do that whole tricking Snow White thing.” She hesitated. “I guess you’re really going to do it, huh?”
She left the mirror, and crossed the floor to plop down on the end of the bed. Even in the dim yellow glow of the lamp, Justin saw a shadow of uncertainty pass over his sister’s face. “I mean, it doesn’t really sound like something you’d do: capturing the princess.”
Justin squirmed awkwardly on the bed. He didn’t want Alex to know he’d been thinking that same thing.
“I guess not,” he mumbled, “but it’s more like trapping the wanted outlaw to save the captured princess, isn’t it?”
Alex brightened a little at this. “You mean I’m the captured princess?” she said. Justin flushed, and looked away.
“Yeah, well,” he said, and shrugged. “Anyway, I guess I’d better, uh . . . get going.”
“Now?” Alex jumped to her feet. “Justin, you can’t go now! It’s getting dark out, and this place is creepy. You missed it, but there was this cricket that came into the room before you did, and he started, like, criticizing all my life choices! I mean, if I wanted that I would have just stayed home with you and Dad! Don’t go. Not yet.”
Her reluctance to see him leave unsettled Justin more than anything else he’d seen so far.
“Alex, look,” he placed a hand on her shoulder. “I’m going to come back. I promise.”
Alex searched his face, then sighed and nodded.
“I know you will,” she said. “I just . . .” but she didn’t finish the sentence. Instead she cracked her knuckles to punctuate a change of subject. “I just can’t promise you this place will still be standing when you do come back, is all. I’m going to raise a little hell while you’re gone.”
Justin smiled fondly.
“I know you will.”
By the time Justin was escorted back down to the courtyard, the sky had turned the deep bluish pewter of late dusk. Lit sconces cast an orange, dancing glow on the walls as a groom who did not even bother to conceal his smile led out a short, squat, thickly-furred pony.
“Smallest thing we’ve got,” he announced, giving the stocky creature a heavy thwap on its rump. “Woolly will get you where you need to go, but you had best hope you don’t need him to go above a sharp trot. Woolly likes to take his time, like.” Then he leaned toward Justin, and put up a conspiratorial eyebrow. “You think you can handle him, son?”
So great was Justin’s indignation that he actually reached forward and grabbed Woolly’s reins of his own accord, without pausing to think of what the shaggy pony’s teeth could do to one of his fingers if the animal had a mind to bite.
Well, he didn’t think about it much.
After Justin managed to get settled on Woolly, he looked from one guard to the other, and said “uh, what about some kind of weapon?”
One guard snorted. The other said, “what, and have you turn it on us the moment it’s in your hands? I don’t think.”
“But if I don’t have any kind of weapon, how am I supposed to make Snow White come back with me?” Justin protested. “If I don’t—” but he broke off in a yelp, because Woolly chose that moment to pick his footing, and Justin had to fling both his arms around the pony’s neck in response.
Woolly looked exactly as impressed by that as you might expect.
The guards, if possible, looked even less impressed than Woolly. Rather than argue with Justin, they simply stepped to the side and indicated the narrow arch set in the far wall.
“You go through there,” one ordered. “You come out in the town, you follow the road to the forest. You come back when you have Snow White. Not before.”
Justin would have stayed to argue further, but the groom behind him drew back his hand and gave such a wallop to Woolly’s flank that the little pony was jarred into a brisk, indignant trot. Justin bounced and flopped around on the animal’s back all the way through the tunnel and out into the emptying streets of the town.
They were almost at the forest entrance when Justin fell off.
Woolly, somewhat to his credit, did not bolt the moment he was riderless. Less to his credit, he paid Justin no attention whatsoever. Instead he ambled over to the side of the road and sampled the grass he found there. Justin picked his way cautiously to his feet, made sure no bones were broken, and decided he would not re-mount the pony.
Rather than ride Woolly into the forest, Justin walked him. At first the fall was still fresh in his mind, and he wasn’t even sure he’d be able to manage that. Only after giving himself a vigorous pep talk, its content borrowed heavily from the pep talk he’d given the Alien Language League when they first applied to Mr. Laritate for school funding for a trip to a meadow where alien abductions were rumoured to be common (he chose not to remember that Mr. Laritate had turned him down) he convinced himself he could handle this, and reached for the trailing reins.
“You’re kind of like a big dog, right?” he said to Woolly. The pony eyed him sceptically and mouthed at his bit, but did not answer. “That’s right,” Justin went on, “kind of like a big, wild, dangerous, unpredictable . . . okay, enough of the pep talk. Let’s go, Woolly! Walkies!”
Woolly was not ready to leave his clump of grass, but Justin had grown up with Alex, and if there was one thing he’d learned how to do, it was to overcome a stubborn individual. Woolly had his opinions, of course, but he was no Alex; in remarkably short order Justin had them both moving along again, at a clip almost faster than the original trot had been.
It was certainly more comfortable.
Less comfortable was the way the darkness of the forest closed in on them both the farther in they went. Justin drew closer to Woolly as they walked. Even the pony was slightly less alarming than the way the trees seemed to reach out, leaning in, tangling above his head . . .
The pop of a twig made him yelp, jump, and grab hold of Woolly in a panic. Woolly jerked his head away, mortally offended.
“Where are we, anyway?” Justin muttered, half to himself and half to a pony that was probably wishing it had never been involved in this adventure—much like Justin himself. “How am I supposed to know if we’re getting close to where we left her? What if she isn’t even in the area anymore? She’s a wanted fugitive, she must know better than to stay in one spot for long.”
Woolly gave a lengthy snort that sounded suspiciously like one of Alex’s most exasperated sighs. Justin felt defensive.
“Well,” he said, “she must.”
Woolly made no comment.
They travelled some distance further before coming to a section in the road that sloped down under their feet, and Justin felt a prickle of recognition, even though by this point he could barely see his own hand in front of his face. The guards had topped a ridge shortly before he and Alex fled to the woods, and met Snow White. If this was that ridge . . .
Justin hesitated only a minute before he decided that even if this wasn’t the ridge, blundering down a road in the dark was not the way to figure out where the ridge was. For now, he and Woolly should get off the road, find a place to spend the night, and continue their search in the morning.
With some difficulty he persuaded Woolly to leave the road with him, and they blundered together through the woods, making enough racket Justin was a little surprised they didn’t rouse the birds from their nests. But then, this being a fairy tale forest, maybe they were used to all sorts of weird intruders at various hours of the day.
When the close-pressing brush around them widened, and Woolly’s every step no longer snapped five twigs in a way that sounded like gunshots echoing through the forest, Justin tugged the pony to a halt. Woolly immediately began to strain toward a nearby clump of grass, and Justin let him go to it, but as for actually lying down on the ground in the dark, Justin found he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
He’d slept outside on the ground before, but he’d had Alex with him at the time, and he’d been able to hide his own fear from both his sister and himself by lecturing her on the proper way to construct an emergency shelter. He’d been at his most pompous that evening, parroting everything he had learned online from all those camping websites about choosing an area with a properly graded piece of open ground, selecting the correct brush to tie together for a roof, orienting the bivouac in the optimal direction . . . everything.
Alex had hated it, of course, but that was what he’d been counting on. Her increasingly caustic remarks had been just the sting he needed to drive him on, keep him going, and remind him that if he didn’t do this for both of them, nobody would.
Without Alex in the woods that night to tell him what a stupid idea building a shelter was, Justin couldn’t even muster the willpower to do it.
“This,” he told himself half heartedly, “is a good location for our camp site, because the land is ideally graded for rainwater runoff.”
Woolly was too busy snarfing the undergrowth to even look up, much less criticize.
“We can use these branches,” Justin went on with even less interest, as he approached a low hanging bough, “to make a shelter—”
“And get attacked by territorial enchanted squirrels,” a new voice concluded.
Justin yelped and leaped straight up in the air. Then he spun around, as if he fully expected the speaker to have materialized at his back. Only empty blackness yawned before him.
“Wh- what?” he said. Even imagining Alex’s scathing assessment of that eloquent reaction was not enough to calm his racing heart.
“There are squirrels who live in that tree,” the unseen speaker explained. “Two fairies had a fight nearby a while ago, and I guess some of the squirrels got in the way of their jinxes, and sort of absorbed them. Now . . . you really don’t want to make them mad.”
“Oh.” Justin stepped back from the tree and looked around. “Are you one of them?”
The reply to this question came in the form of a quick, sharp laugh, followed by the spark and flare of a light. The flame quickly settled down to suck greedily at the wick of a shaded, much-battered tin lantern held some dozen feet above the ground, in a tree presumably not infested with angry enchanted squirrels.
Firelight and shadows danced across Snow White’s face as she smiled down at Justin.
“Not a squirrel,” she promised. “I heard you crashing around out here, so I came to see what was going on. You got away from the castle guards, I see, but where’s your sister? And,” she frowned at Woolly, who had not even paused in his feast, “where did you get the pony?” Then her eyes widened.
“Oh no, the pony’s not your sister, is it? Because that one pool’s supposed to have a sign up, warning travellers not to drink from it. There used to be an old crone who stood along the highway and warned travellers away from the pool, but they kept drinking from it anyway. Finally the villagers just got together and pooled their money for a sign . . . though your sister didn’t really strike me as the sign-reading type.”
“She’s really not,” said Justin, “but that isn’t her. That’s just Woolly. Actually,” he looked at the small, cloaked figure perched high above the ground, “I didn’t exactly escape from the castle guards. We, uh . . . met your stepmother today.”
All traces of amusement in Snow White’s face fled to the shadows. Her lips compressed in a thin, hard line.
“I see,” she said. Then she spoke the words Justin hadn’t even realized he was waiting to hear:
“What do you need me to do?”
Early the following morning, Alex creeped out of bed. She slipped past the guards at her door with so little difficulty that it almost felt like cheating, and she began to explore. It took her almost an hour before she found what she was looking for, but once she had, she set right to work.
Less than two hours later, an explosion shook the castle tower.
The dust was still settling in the ravaged tower room when two harried-looking guards rushed in, swords drawn. They were followed at a more leisurely pace by the Queen herself. She surveyed the smoking ruin that had once been an apothecary table, a small library’s worth of books tossed and thrown about, then turned a cold, steady gaze on the soot-blacked girl standing to one side.
Alex coughed, waved her hand in front of her face, and nodded at the newcomers.
“What have you done?” the Queen demanded, looking back to the charred wreckage of the room. “This is monstrous. What magic is this?”
“Well, actually,” Alex said conspiratorially, “it isn’t. Magic, I mean. It’s just a bunch of bowls of powder I found, and kind of mixed together. Neat, am I right? Eh, never mind,” she waved her hand kindly at the Queen, who seemed bereft of speech. “I know I’m right.”
The Queen’s mouth opened, then shut; opened once more, then shut again. Finally she marshalled her senses and asked another question. “How did you know . . . where did you learn to do this?”
“Pfft,” Alex said scornfully, looking up from a casual examination of her smoking sleeve, “learn? Please. Like anybody would actually teach me anything like this. I don’t know anybody that cool. I just figured out which ones smelled like of like the stuff inside cherry bombs, and popped them all together. Not bad, huh?” A note of pride crept into her tone as she surveyed her handiwork again. “I mean, come on; you gotta admit this is cool.”
The Queen, it turned out, disagreed. She made a furious gesture at the guards, who promptly clanked forward and took hold of Alex to escort her back to her quarters.
When Alex reached her room, she was glad to note that the little cricket hadn’t come back. It turned out that, although receiving criticism from Justin often spurred Alex to new and loftier levels of villainy, receiving it from a cricket just made her want to squash his sorry ass.
Instead of a cricket, the next guest she received was the Queen herself. There was no knock, no announcement, or anything like that. The woman simply swept in through the door and stood on the far side of the room, regarding Alex with an expression the girl found difficult to name.
“Yeah?” said Alex. The Queen frowned.
“What you did in the tower,” she said. “That was . . . impressive.”
“I know, right?” Alex said, accepting the praise as nothing less than her due. “I mean, nothing like you could probably have done,” she added, and was pleased to note the Queen looked flattered at this. “But still, not bad.”
“Not at all,” the Queen agreed. “But it is very like something I myself would have attempted, in your position. Which is why . . . well,” she shrugged. “It’s almost a shame your brother is coming back for you; I wonder if I might not have been able to teach you a few things, given the time.”
“Yeah?” Alex flopped on the edge of her bed. “I don’t know. Learning’s kind of a lot of work, and I don’t like that. Sucks, though, because it would be easier if I did. I think you’re probably wrong about Justin; I bet you anything he isn’t even coming back.”
“No?” the Queen frowned. “I did not get the impression that your brother intended to abandon you. Quite the opposite, he seemed . . . deeply concerned.” Then she smiled in a self-satisfied way that Alex didn’t like to see anywhere save in her own mirror.
“Well there’s no way you could have realized why he’d want me stuck here,” Alex said. “You couldn’t know about the competition, after all.”
“It's kind of a quest. Only it’s not one we’re all on together. Instead, it’s all of us working against each other; him, and me, and our other brother too. It’s sort of a family tradition. We’re all competing with each other sometime soon, and whoever wins gets . . .” Alex swallowed, and looked down at her hands. “Everything.”
“I see,” said the Queen, and Alex was pretty sure she actually did, in spirit if not in specifics. “You mean to say you think your brother will elimate you as competition in this quest by leaving you to my mercies? That sounds terribly calculating for such a forthright young man.”
“Well,” said Alex, “actually that sounds more like what Justin would mean to say. But that’s pretty much it. Without me there to compete against, it’s just him and Max . . . and I am pretty sure nobody thinks Max is any kind of serious competition.”
“But you are?”
“Justin would never say so,” Alex said. She traced her fingers over the woven counterpane on her bed, remembering what she fought every night to forget: those few dizzying moments when triune power had coursed through her, wild and unrestrained, before she gave her brothers back the chance to win against her. “But he and I both know I’ve surprised him before.”
The Queen smiled. Alex smiled back.
“My dear,” said the Queen, “I believe I should like to know you better. Will you join me for a meal this afternoon?”
Alex’s smile widened.
“So what is this place?” Justin looked around at the town Snow White had brought them to. He moved, spoke and even acted with all the mental acuity of a boy who had spent the night sleeping underground; Snow White’s hideout was secure, but sadly lacking in luxury, and Justin’s sleep had been uneasy at best. Especially after the rats came out.
“It’s one of the neighbouring kingdoms,” replied Snow White. Her voice was muffled. She spoke from beneath the protective cover of her hood, which had been drawn over her head and face to improve the chances that nobody would recognize her.
In addition to the hood, she rode Woolly in the posture of a woman far older than she, hunched over so far that even Justin, who led the pony and stood directly beneath her, could not make out more than a shadowy feature or two of the young woman’s face when he looked up at her. To the casual observer they would appear as an old woman and her grandson or perhaps her servant, leading her in to town. Since they didn’t plan to invite anything more pointed than the most casual observation, they hoped the ruse would allow them to pass.
“So, not yours, then?” said Justin, looking around more boldly as his fears of being pounced on by the Queen’s castle guards decreased. “Shouldn’t we be safe here, if it’s not a kingdom under her control?”
“We’re not safe anywhere,” she hissed. One hand tangled in the collar of his cloak, and pulled tight to emphasize her point. “You need to understand that. She wants me dead. She has spies posted everywhere; the rules of law and diplomacy are nothing in her mind, next to the chance to have my heart cut out for her own. Don’t trust anybody.”
Suitably shaken, Justin nodded.
“All right,” he said. “All right.”
She released his cloak, he rubbed his neck, and they continued on.
As they travelled further into the village, Justin noticed the chaotic bustle of most market towns seemed in this town to be more purposeful and uniform in goal. People were excessively cheery and there was a disproportionate number of fresh-cut flowers being carried around, down the streets, toward the castle.
“Is there a party planned?” he asked. “Is that why you felt it was safe to come here today, even though somebody might recognize you?”
“No,” Snow White shook her head. “I brought us here because this is the home of somebody I trust.” Her hands moved restlessly down a length of Woolly’s mane. “I don’t trust many people these days, but the man we’re going to see has proved himself more than once. I would trust him with my life, and your sister’s, too.”
Justin nodded, willing to accept the explanation as it stood. They pressed on through the town at Snow White’s direction, inching ever closer to the castle.
“This man we’re going to see, will he be at this party?” Justin asked.
Snow White was silent for so long he was just beginning to wonder if she’d even heard him when she finally answered. Her voice was very soft.
“I guess so,” she said. “It’s his wedding, after all.”
“So it’s Christmas,” Alex explained to the Queen, who sat at the other end of the dinner table. “It’s Christmas, and our family always does this thing where we donate stuff to the church, because it’s what Mom’s family always did, and something to do with traditions, and . . . I don’t know, it’s fine. Only this year? Last week Justin went into my room while I was out, and he took a bunch of my things and donated them without even asking! Just like that! So I got home and found my favourite boots were gone, along with a sweater and a shirt I would almost definitely have worn again some day, and the cutest pair of jeans I ever owned. Just, gone!”
The Queen shook her head and clucked her tongue.
“Betrayal,” she said, “is the worst crime a person can commit. The person who betrays another deserves everything that befalls him.” She toyed with the stem of her goblet, a hard look twisting her lip. “Or her.”
“Absolutely,” Alex said with absent-minded vigour, raising her fork in a sort of toast-making gesture. “Everything. Mm, this is good. What is it, some kind of McRoast?”
“Venison,” said the Queen. But she was studying Alex, not the meat on her plate. “I’m so pleased you like it.”
“It’s no hamburger,” Alex shrugged, “but it’s not half bad.” She continued to enjoy the meal while the Queen considered her guest.
“Perhaps,” she suggested, “before you leave us, we might be able to find other amusements around the castle that are to your liking.”
“Maybe,” said Alex, and reached for the salt. “What’s for dessert?”
Justin had thought he’d grown accustomed to feeling inferior next to a certain type of guy. He didn’t enjoy it, but he was used to it; after all, there was really no escaping that guy. The guy who could throw a football, dance without embarassing himself, flirt with cleerleaders . . . Justin knew what he felt like next to those guys, and he was mostly okay with it.
He just hadn’t expected to find one of those guys in a Medieval fairy tale world, all tall, broad and blonde good looks, done up in a fancy doublet and greeting Snow White like she was his long lost sweetheart, and like he wasn’t getting married to someone else the very next morning.
Not that Justin was there to judge, or anything.
But the way the Prince looked at Snow White when she slipped in through the door and pulled her hood back, and said “hi, Charming” like maybe she was saying about five other, much naughtier things at the same time . . . yeah, it was hard not to misread that expression.
“What are you doing here?” Prince Charming asked. The way he said it, like there was one specific answer he was hoping for . . . it was hard not to misread that, too.
The answer Snow White gave was clearly not the one he hoped to hear. She had to repeat herself a few times before the Prince was even able to believe what he’d heard.
“Let me get this straight,” Prince Charming said. “You want me to invite that witch to my wedding because it will get you into her castle—help you break into the home of a woman who wants nothing more than to see you dead—because this boy,” he looked over to where Justin stood, some distance across the room and beyond the range of easy comparison, “needs to rescue his sister?”
“That’s the sum of it, yes,” Snow White nodded. “So will you?”
“What makes you even think I can help with something like that?”
“Mostly because you’re the prince of a neighbouring kingdom, and she’d find it perfectly plausible you wouldn’t want to get on the bad side of such a powerful enchantress. Naturally you would invite her to your wedding in person, to avoid offending her. While she’s meeting with you, Justin and I will sneak in and get his sister out. Distracting the queen and her guards like that is the only way I can think of to get us in and out on such short notice.”
She looked up into his face when she said this, and her expression was one Justin had seen before, albeit not often. Alex sometimes got that desperate, determined look on her face too, the few times she cared enough about something to actually let slip how much it really meant to her.
If the answering expression on Prince Charming’s face was anything to judge by, he found himself even more rapidly undone by the sight of it than Justin usually did.
“So,” Snow White repeated, “will you?”
Justin wasn’t at all surprised when Prince Charming immediately said “of course.”
“I don’t know about you,” said Alex, “but I think I make this work.” She stood in front of her mirror, admiring the flowing black cloak the Queen had loaned her. “I mean yes it’s a little long, but not too bad; I don’t think I’ll trip, anyway, and I kind of like this sweeping thing it does. It’s all sinister and plotting and stuff.”
“Sinister and plotting?” the Queen echoed, like she had never deliberately chosen her outfits for those attributes before (which, pfft, Alex thought; but if she wanted to act like the sinisterly plotty nature of the outfit was pure coincidence, well, fine). “What an interesting description.”
As she spoke, the Queen crossed to the bed, where she had set a heavy wooden box. She flipped the catch and raised the lid to reveal an ornate, intricately-wrought silver necklace set with small, blood-red stones.
“Oh, wow,” Alex said. Her admiration was wholly genuine, and as she reached out to brush her fingertips along the curve of the chain, the Queen smiled.
“You like it?” she said. “I do hope you’ll agree to wear it.”
“Really?” Alex said, still staring at the rich, quiet glitter of the piece. “It’s beautiful.”
“I had hoped it would go to my daughter,” said the Queen, “but I am afraid even my step daughter proved something of a disappointment. Perhaps, in her place . . ?”
“Are you serious?” The red stones seemed almost to speak to the girl, and she couldn’t take her eyes off the necklace.
“Let’s call it a symbol of your loyalty,” the Queen suggested. “As women who have been too often betrayed by those closest to us, it seems, I think, a fitting symbol.”
“For real? This is way fancier than any pact I’ve made before. When Harper and I made our friendship pact, she made us bracelets out of soda can tabs and I tried to spit-shake on it. But she said that was gross, so I rubbed the spit in my palm on T.J. Taylor instead. Actually, that was a lot more fun than spit-shaking would have been. He got really angry.”
The Queen blinked rapidly at the end of this spiel. At last she said “ . . . does this mean yes?”
“Hell, yeah!” Alex said. Then she turned to face the mirror in her sinister, plotting, swishing gown so the Queen could settle the necklace over her head and hook the clasp at the back of the girl’s neck.
Alex trailed her fingertips over the shimmering patterns in the silver. As she touched them, she half-imagined she could see them come to life under her fingers, the filigree tightening, twisting, pulling closer together . . .
“Very nice,” approved the Queen, setting her hand on Alex’s shoulder. “I think it suits you, don’t you agree?”
“Hmm?” said Alex, squinting into the mirror. The filigree did not move. “I guess I do.”
But she did not take her hand away from her neck, even when one of the guards appeared at the doorway to announce that the prince from a neighbouring kingdom had come to seek an audience with the Queen.
“You really know where we’re going, right?” Justin said, as Snow White let them both in through a side door.
“Of course I know,” she said. “This used to be my home, you know.”
“Oh, right,” Justin nodded, belatedly solemn. “Sorry.”
“You said the room she was in looked out over the river?” Snow White said. She led the way up a tight, twisting flight of steps cut in stone, moving over them with the quiet sure-footed grace of a cat in the dark. Justin, knocking his knee against the sixth step since they had started to climb, cursed softly before he gave his answer.
“Uh, yeah. Overlooking the river, and it had a fireplace on the left wall, and . . .” he tried to remember the other distinctive features he had related to Snow White so she could identify the room where Alex was held. “There was a kind of mural above the fireplace, I think. Some kind of party, like a baby shower. A big long table with gold plates, and a baby. Lots of fairies, too.”
“That would be Aurora’s christening,” Snow White said. Justin thought he must be getting used to her, if he could hear her rolling her eyes without even having to see her face. “It was ages ago; more than a century. But everybody was so happy when she finally rolled her lazy bones out of bed, they started painting her all over the place. I’m pretty sure I know which room you mean, though. Wait a moment.”
She pressed him to the wall at the top of the stairs, and leaned toward the corridor beyond. He could feel the tension in her as she listened, straining to hear any indication that somebody was passing by. At last she relaxed slightly, nodded, and slipped out into the corridor. Justin followed close behind.
The prince who was sometimes called Charming, and other times called James, but no longer called by a name that had been his since birth, was shown into the throne room with all the pomp and fanfare that was due a visiting nobleman.
He approached a dais that he knew rightfully belonged to a murdered King he had never met, and performed a bow that lacked polish. In his defence, he had not been bowing in that manner for very long. Fortunately the Queen he greeted did not seem to mind.
“Prince James,” she said, “this is unexpected.”
“Yes, and very short notice, too,” he agreed. “I’m afraid my father and I differed on a few points of protocol, but I finally won our argument this morning. I come in person to plead your forgiveness for the delay of this invitation, and to invite you, personally, to do me the honour of attending my wedding. Tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” the Queen repeated. Her eyebrows rose.
“I did say,” said James, “that it was very short notice. But I would be honoured if you could find it in your heart to clear your schedule and put in an appearance.”
For somebody newly-come to the whole courtly manners thing, James didn’t actually do too badly at it.
“Hmm,” the Queen considered the question, then glanced to her right. “What do you think, Alexandra?”
It was just as well she looked over at the girl to ask the question; that way she missed seeing the awkward shade of green that crept into James’s face when he realized the girl Snow White and Justin were taking such pains to rescue was actually sitting right in front of him, mere feet away from the Queen who held her prisoner.
“I say sure,” Alex shrugged. “I mean, who turns down the chance to go to a party?”
“Are you sure this is the right room?” Snow White said. She watched Justin drag his fingers through his hair, and turn in a circle for the eighth time since they’d entered the empty chamber.
“Yes! Yes, this is definitely it, the mural is the same, and I woke up on this bed, and that,” he pointed at a crumpled pile of grey-and-black sweater, jeans and black spike-heeled boots, “is definitely Alex’s mess. Oh no,” he sank onto the bed, “you don’t think somebody melted her, do you?”
Snow White considered and rejected the idea. “It would be unlikely,” she decided. “Only evil witches are melted in this region.”
“That’s what I was afraid of,” Justin brooded. “How will I tell my parents I got my sister melted?”
“She may have just been moved somewhere else,” Snow White said. “She might be in another area of the castle, like the dungeon.”
“I guess that’s possible,” Justin brightened at the thought. “All right, let’s look there.” Then he headed for the door before Snow White could hold him back.
“No, Justin, wait!” she hissed, starting after him. “Justin, you’ve got to look out for—”
She rounded the corner and collided with a tall, black-clad man in armour. Another already held Justin. Snow grimaced, twisted, and glared at the boy she’d been trying to help.
“Guards,” she said tartly.
Then the two men bore them away down the hall, cutting off any apology Justin might have been tempted to make.
“I thank your Highness,” the Queen said, “for your generous—” she broke off at the sound of a scuffle just beyond a side door. “What’s that?”
The Prince, the Queen and Alex all looked over as the door was thrown open and Snow White and Justin were shoved into the room ahead of the men who had caught them. Before the Queen could react to the sight of the stepdaughter she had hunted for so long being unceremoniously delivered via a side door, Alex beat her to it.
“Justin?” Alex was on her feet. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Justin skidded to a halt and stared at his sister, clad head to toe in sweeping black, her hair elaborately arranged on the top of her head and a necklace that looked like ice and fire wrapped around her throat.
“What am I doing?” he choked. “I thought I was rescuing you, but it looks like you’ve done just fine for yourself without my help! What the hell, Alex? Did you decide I could fend for myself in the forest? Or did you figure I was already dead? Or,” bitterly, “did you just decide it was more fun to be the bad guy?”
“What do you mean,” Alex snorted, “did I ‘just decide’? Justin, it’s always more fun to be the bad guy.”
“That’s typical. All of this is typical, and I’m getting sick of it. You never think of anybody but yourself!”
“Me?” Alex fired back. “That’s some talk, from the guy who gave away my clothes without even asking!”
“Without even—I did ask! I asked if you had clothes for the donation drive, and you said yes. My mistake was thinking you’d actually listened to the question! So I thought that stuff on your bed was your donation, and I put it in the box with everything else, but then you got angry at me. And now I find you couldn’t even wait two whole days before you decide the Evil Queen’s a better bet, and you join up with her instead! Like I said: typical.”
“Yeah,” she said bitterly, “you’re right. It is typical. Typical that you think you’re the only one who can do anything worthwhile, that you’re the only one who can fix everything . . . typical for you to actually think you’re the only one can save the day.
"You can’t stand it that I can do better at things than you without even trying. You can’t believe,” she took a step forward, her eyes snapping and an eerie, grey-green fog rising around her, “that I could do the right thing even without my big brother here to tell me to.”
Then the fog swirling around Alex hardened and blasted out into the room. A thunderous explosion shook the castle, knocking everybody to the ground.
Justin was still shaking his head to clear it when a slim hand closed around his wrist. He looked up into the tear-streaked, angry face of his little sister.
“So there,” she concluded, and stuck her tongue out.
“Alex,” he shook his head again. Things still didn't make a lot of sense, but they were coming clearer than before. He looked around at the throne room. "Why'd you do that?”
“I did it because I know my evil queens, idiot. She'd never have let us go. Even if you had done everything she asked, there’s no way she’d have held up her end of the deal. It’s just not what they do.”
“Okay, but how’d you even do that?”
“The explosion?” she tugged him to his feet. “That was easy. I just remembered what you said about figuring out the rules of magic in this world, so I went up to the tower and read a bunch of boring books until I had it sorted. Turns out there are creatures that are magic, like fairies and stuff, and they can do whatever, but people like us can only cast spells that have already been cast. Like recycling. So I practiced some explosions, and made those my next spell. It was easy, once I knew how.”
Justin stared at his sister, blinked, then shook his head yet again. He was pretty sure something in there had been knocked loose by the blast.
“All right,” he said, “you win. I’m sorry, I was wrong, I was stupid, and just . . . you win.” Then, before he could tell himself this wasn’t the time or the place, he grabbed her and pulled her against him in a hug that made her squeak, then sigh, then squirm.
“Justin,” she said, “not really the best time. We should get Medieval Ken and Barbie and get the hell out of here.”
“Right,” he agreed, “right.” He released her, and squinted into the settling dust of the throne room. “Where are . . .”
Snow White he saw only as a hazy shape through the cloud of mortar, bent over a fallen wooden candelabra about four feet in diameter. Prince Charming was pinned beneath it, and Snow White was still struggling to lift it off him when a tall, slim figure clad all in black swept up behind her, grabbed her by the hair and dragged her back.
Snow White cried out, and reached up to where her stepmother’s fingers were tangled in her hair.
“If nothing else comes of this,” hissed the Queen, “at least it will be the day on which I finally put an end to you.”
She drew her free hand back, and Justin saw a muted glitter through the dust. His throat tightened.
“Magic here is just recycling a pre-cast spell?” he repeated. Alex nodded.
“Kind of, basically, yes.”
If these were ordinary circumstances he would have doubted her, or at least pretended to. He would have said “are you sure?” and stared at her in deep suspicion even as she protested that he needed to trust her. But here, now, with a knife arcing toward Snow White’s side and no time to act like Alex’s big brother, he let himself acknowledge what he always knew: that Alex, when it really counted, would never let him down.
So he held out his hand, and recycled the first half of the spell he had cast an attic, a bookshop and one badly misfired ‘literarium terrarium’ ago.
Instead of a dagger piercing her flesh, a soup spoon glanced harmlessly off Snow White’s side.
“What-?” said the Queen, and in that moment of distraction Snow White twisted free and bent to pull her prince out from under the fallen light fixture.
“Go on!” Justin yelled at both of them, waving vaguely toward the door. “Go on, get out!”
They did. Then Justin turned back to face the Queen, confident that whatever version of the story they were in, this had to set it back on the road to completion, and the requisite happily ever after.
“Unless you’re planning on charging us with a soup spoon,” he said, “I think you’re going to have to admit defeat.”
“Or perhaps,” the Queen countered, keeping a wary eye on the boy through the still-settling dust, “you might want to consider your position, before something unfortunate happens to your sister.”
Justin, against his better judgement, was about to ask what the hell she meant by that when a soft choking came from behind him. He spun around to see Alex clawing at her neck. Her necklace was tightening, digging into her flesh and cutting off her air. He watched, appalled, as she dropped to her knees, still clawing frantically at the closing links of silver.
“I’ve been betrayed too many times in the past,” the Queen explained, “to take the risk of it ever happening again.”
Justin ignored her. He dropped to his knees beside his sister. He tried to fit his own fingers under the links, but they were already pressing cruelly into her skin and he couldn’t find purchase.
“What the hell kind of sucky fairy tale is this?” he said bitterly. “There's no happily ever after, no triumph over evil . . . not even a curse broken with a—”
He broke off. His eyes widened. Alex’s own expression, choking though she was, mirrored his own for shock, realization and . . . hope.
If these were ordinary circumstances, he would have doubted himself, or at least pretended to. He would have said “there’s no way” and tried to think of something else, even though she was ready to trust him from the start. But here, now, with his sister’s lips tinged blue and no time to act like Alex’s big brother, he cradled the back of her head in his hands and clumsily, awkwardly, broke a curse with a kiss.
The necklace shattered in a shower of rubies and silver dust. Alex slumped, coughing and choking, into his lap. He cradled her in his arms and looked up at the approach of the Queen, fully expecting that the next breaths they drew would be their last . . .
But the Queen couldn’t reach them. She kept walking, then running at them, but they were slipping away, the dust and colours of the throne room muting and puddling and swirling together in a murky cloud of light, then dark, then black.
When the light returned they were huddled together on the floor inside the Wizard World bookshop. All around them it was silent.
Christmas morning in the Russo household was rung in—literally—by Max getting tangled up in the sleigh bells and garland that decorated the banister when he tried to slide down to the living room. While Theresa armed herself with ice cubes and tweezers to pluck out the pine needles that were lodged in Max’s hands and thighs, Jerry poured glasses of sludgy homemade wine, Alex dozed on the couch and Justin obligingly Googled ‘pine needle extraction’ and read the results aloud to his mother.
Once Max had been salved and bandaged and arranged on the couch in a way that didn’t make him yelp (Alex, displaced to the floor, continued to snooze) everybody gathered around the tree to exchange gifts.
Alex slept through the first two rounds of gift opening, but with the judicious application of a few shouts and shoves she was persuaded to sit up and open her next gift: a strange, heavy lumpy thing addressed to her, from Justin.
“This isn’t Judy Axehand,” she said.
“No,” said Justin, “seeing as you pocketed the latest issue of Judy Axehand when we were in the bookshop, so I had to settle with the clerk when he came to answer the alarm, it definitely isn’t Judy Axehand. But I think you’ll like it all the same.”
Alex tugged back the wrapping paper to uncover a sweater, a shirt, a pair of jeans and a pair of boots. Her face lit up.
“Hey, that’s my clothes!” she exulted. “The ones you gave away!” She shook them out and admired them, pleased. “How’d you get them back, anyway?”
“Oh,” Justin shrugged, “I just traded donations, is all. Gave them something else instead.”
“You can do that?” Alex asked.
“Apparently.” Justin leaned back against the couch. He tried not to think about all the other books the clerk had made him buy before he agreed not to press charges; virtually the entire front window display, as it happened. The volunteers at the church had been delighted to swap a few pre-worn garments for a whole box of brand new books.
He watched Alex shrug into her sweater, still beaming, and found that he was smiling too.
“Merry Christmas, Alex.”
Elsewhere, after Christmas
In a small town in Maine that nobody would ever leave, a heavy cardboard box was sent to a school mostly by accident.
The town had not been there very long, although nobody who lived there knew it. The school had been there exactly as long as the town, no longer, no less, although nobody in the town knew that, either; not even the teachers.
The schoolteacher who received the box was called Mary Margaret. She didn’t look like anybody who had once roamed wild through the woods, nor one who had broken curses and destroyed the life of a sorceress. She was a quiet, faded-looking woman with close-cropped dark hair, and an air about her that made it seem she had just lost something without even knowing it.
She was going to look that way for a long time.
The package she received confused her. Theirs was a parochial school, but as far as she knew the world beyond their town never seemed to bother with them. This was the first time she could remember that the diocese had even acknowledged their existence; that they had done so with a whole, heavy box, and not merely a letter or a card was even more mystifying.
Mary Margaret used her house key to slit the packaging on the box. The flaps lifted to reveal . . . books.
Her frown deepening, Mary Margaret lifted the books out one at a time. Not one of them looked as though their spines had ever been cracked; they were beautiful, new, wonderful books. The reverence with which she handled each book increased the farther into the box she went. She sorted them into piles by genre, all the while wondering what had directed this box to their school . . . and then she reached the last book.
It filled the bottom of the box, and was such a tight fit that she couldn’t even wedge her fingers in around it. She had to shred the box itself, a sweaty and aggressive endeavour that felt strangely soothing, once she was done; strange, really, but it felt almost as though she had some reason to be angry, only she couldn’t remember what it was.
Once the box was destroyed, the book remained. It was heavy, square and bound in rich, old-fashioned burgundy. The letters were stamped in gilt across the cover, promising every imaginable adventure within.
“Once upon a time,” Mary Margaret read. She traced the letters with one finger. Slowly, for the first time in months, she started to smile.
The book was too big to fit on the shelf, so she put it in a drawer instead. She shut it up safely, and she would forget about it for a while . . . until she met a student who needed the promise of a happy ending.