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Life Is A Series Of Tests

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Since Morlana’s fifteenth birthday, she’d spent an inordinate amount of time feeling elderly.

Sitting around wells asking people to draw you up a bucket, since you couldn’t yourself, would do that to a person.

So would having a creaky back, grey hair, and tremors.

Well, the tremors were put on – in the ordinary way, rather than the transformatory or illusory way – but the creaky back and the grey hair, as well as the layers of raggedy knitwear, were real. Morlana had always found it difficult to hold an illusion while doing something else; she preferred flat-out transformation.

As a cart rattled by, far too quickly and noisily for the driver to see her, let alone be tested, Morlana sighed. It had been almost a week since she’d tested someone properly.

After a quick glance about, Morlana reversed her transformation, wincing a little as the creak came out of her now nineteen-year-old back. She’d just have to give this town a miss, leave it both uncursed and unrewarded. She didn’t mind much (aside from the fruitlessness of sitting uncomfortably by a well for six days for nothing), but her mother wouldn’t be pleased.

Not that Kerya bothered to interfere with Morlana’s business much anymore; her daughter was a grown woman, perfectly capable of managing her own enchantments, she said. The or else remained unspoken, and all the louder for that.

The truth was, Morlana had never much seen the point in testing people: life did that itself, surely. She’d wondered a little, when her powers first came in, if all this testing business was about justice – but with her talents, there would be far more effective ways of ensuring justice. No answers were ever forthcoming from her mother – ‘That’s just the way things are,’ Kerya said, over and over and over again, as if that was some sort of reason.

It was never any good arguing. Once, Morlana had pointed out that her mother didn’t have any powers – no one in their family had for several generations – and didn’t that mean she wasn’t really qualified to decide how things were?

After the frozen-stone look Kerya had given her, she hadn’t even needed the two-hour lecture to make up her mind to never mention it again.

Testing, that was how it was done. No good asking for a why or a what if. You tested people, you rewarded them or punished them as suitable, and you moved on. When there was some problem or quest or contest, you set some deserving soul up to solve it or complete it or win it. You never used your magic for yourself.

The last part was the only one Morlana had never questioned or rebelled against. It felt like a real Rule of magic, not like the rest of her mother’s complicated, inexplicable strictures, and even if it wasn’t, it wasn’t worth whatever potentially dire consequences might exist just to test it.

Retrieving her rucksack from behind a tree, Morlana slung it back up to its accustomed place on her shoulder and turned to trudge down the road. She couldn’t stay in the village; it was frowned upon to stay in close quarters with the people you had been – or had been trying to – test. Someone might wonder why her outfit looked familiar, in any case. No, she’d camp a few hours down the road. Fortunately, since she didn’t have a tent, she wouldn’t have to set it up in the dark.

Half-sighing, half-grumbling, she picked up her pace, hoping there wouldn’t be anyone she’d be obliged to test between her and whatever open field she could lay her bedroll in.

*

She’d been right, Morlana found the next morning, after six hours of walking. There was some sort of trouble two countries over.

The vague whispers she’d heard hadn’t really been clear whether it was Suhdet or Parshalan with the problem, or maybe even Donland, just that there was some mysterious issue with ‘the royalty’ over somewhere vaguely eastward.

Donland, the carter who’d stopped to water his horses confirmed. He didn’t know what it was, just that it had something to do with the king’s daughters – he was the one with so many you couldn’t keep track, you know – and there was some sort of reward offered. Not for him; he’d left Lindara for business, yes, but also to get away from the waves of northern refugees. “Makes life complicated, it does.”

Morlana thanked him for the information, and waited for him to leave before examining her map. The northerners were fleeing unrest and famine both, and she hesitated to meddle with that. Magic and such things seemed unlikely to mix well. You needed something relatively straightforward – a king with a daughter problem offering a reward seemed like a much better fit than the complicated interplay of factors that led to famine, and the combination of that with whatever else had caused unrest and instability. Besides, she’d never tried to bring crops back to life wholesale before, and would possibly die trying – or simply fail, and look foolish (or die horribly from violating her mother’s precious rules. One never knew for certain.)

If she crossed the border to Lindara in the right place, it turned out, she could cross the entire country at its narrowest point and be in Donland in two or three days, unless she stopped to test people. But maybe she could test people on the road – by disguising herself as a refugee, or even by testing real refuges, although that made her wince. It didn’t seem fair to punish people for being stingy when they already had so little. Still, maybe they’d pass and she could set them up well for their new life.

*

As it turned out, she only had to punish two people – a drunkard who threw a rotten cabbage at refugee-Morlana’s head (cursed with all his food tasting rotten), and a nasty woman who had clearly been making her daughter’s and daughter-in-law’s life highly unpleasant long before Morlana asked for a little water (cursed with muteness).

She’d rewarded six people, most of them in need of it, and was feeling very good about the future when she crossed the Donlandish border. And testing eight people in two and a half days was impressive, she thought. The next time she saw her mother, she could mention it.

Before she could decide whether she ought to go all the way to the Donlandish capital or just try to find out the relevant details and select a suitably upstanding farmer or milkmaid to complete the quest, a middle-aged woman driving a cart hallooed her.

“Going to Darian?”

That was the capital. “I’m not sure yet,” Morlana said truthfully.

“It’s too far to walk, a girl as young as you,” the woman said. “I can take you as far a Finderley at least; you won’t have to choose until you reach the crossroads. Unless you’re planning to cross the border south to Suhdet, but they’re not too friendly there to outsiders.” She looked apologetic.

The woman took her for a refugee even without a disguise, Morlana realized. Well, she was dressed for travelling, and the refugees she’d seen varied significantly in their raggedness, or lack thereof.

“I’m strong,” she said instead. “I’ve walked this far.” Across nearly ten countries, in fact. Her homeland and Donland she hadn’t crossed from one side to another, but perhaps together they made one.

“Oh, I’m sure,” the woman said. “I sent my daughter all the way from home to Darian on foot, and she’s done well there, but I’d have never sent her alone. Most young girls I’ve seen have family.”

Touched by the concern for her safety, and idly considering what curse she might put on someone who did bother her, Morlana accepted the ride, and the information  that the woman was happy to give her.

Her name was Tyrin, her daughter Saffa was a seamstress in Darian, she owned a small farm that had done very well the last ten years or so, her husband’s name was Gethrall and he liked to whittle… and more importantly, Morlana had heard, she supposed, about the princesses…

Morlana had been listening somewhat wistfully to all the details of Tyrin’s life, wishing she wasn’t always passing in and out of people’s stories without having one of her own, but at the mention of the princesses she sat up. “I haven’t really,” she said. “What’s wrong with them?”

“Oh, they sneak away at night,” Tyrin said. “Their shoes show it. Dirty and worn out, as if they’d been dancing. Every night. Royal physician says they’re suffering under exhaustion.” She nodded decisively. “So you’d think they’d stop! But they don’t. The king’s had the doors locked, guards posted, everything short of chaining the princesses to their beds – and maybe even that, I don’t know – but it keeps happening. He’s had two betrothals fall through already. Princes and nobles don’t want a wife who’ll run about all night dancing – and anyway, it’s started whispers about their chastity. The king says it’s magic.”

“And he’s posted a reward?” Morlana asked, as if for clarification.

“Reward of the winner’s choosing,” Tyrin said, nodding again. “Anyone who can find out where they’re going or how they’re getting out. A few’ve tried.”

“I’d think there’d be more than a few,” Morlana protested. “With a reward like that!” It was part of the reason she didn’t advertise.

“Well, if you try and you can’t do it, you get executed,” Tyrin said matter-of-factly. “Probably to stop insinuations about the hopefuls and the princesses getting up to anything.”

“…Ah,” Morlana said. “That would… that would do it.” She definitely needed to find a likely candidate, before the lunatic king killed anyone else. And she needed a very good reward so that they’d be able to complete the task in one piece.

*

Morlana alighted from the cart the next day in the large market-town of Fenderley, bade a grateful goodbye to Tyrin, and, though it might have been stretching the definition of ‘testing’ a little, quietly blessed the other woman with perpetually safe travels.

She’d already decided that whoever she chose to fulfill the king’s quest should be one of the northern refugees. It might do something for people’s attitudes if one of them saved the princesses from… whatever was going on. Their own folly, possibly, although the locked doors and guards being ineffective suggested magic.

To that end, she ducked behind a house, transformed herself into an old woman, and creaked her way to the crossroads that lay just on the other side of the town. There she sat down by the side of the road and waited.

Three days later, she’d rewarded three locals with various magical trinkets, cursed four people, including a particularly nasty one for the man who’d spat at her, and been missed entirely by everyone driving a cart. Finally, a few hours past noon, another large group of refugees like the one she’d travelled with trudged past from Fenderley, looking tired and dusty.

“I beg your pardon,” Morlana said, quavering her voice. “But I’ve been walking all day and I’ve nothing to eat. Could any of you spare a little bread for a hungry old woman?”

There was much awkward shuffling and mumbling. Morlana felt a little guilty. Clearly they felt they ought to share their food, but were having trouble stretching it as it was.

“I don’t mind,” one of the young men said finally. “She can have mine. I ate plenty this morning anyway.” He was plainly lying, but his companions accepted, relieved, and began to move on while he rummaged through his sadly patched rucksack.

“It’s not much,” he said, finally presenting her with a slightly withered apple, a chunk of bread, and two small strips of dried meat, “but I hope it will do for you. You ought to see if someone in a cart will give you a ride, Grandmother. You shouldn’t take up too much room.”

“Why, thank you so much, young man,” Morlana replied. “You’re so kind to an old woman. Let me give you a present in return.” She reached into her pack, feeling the items take shape under her tingling fingers. She pulled out a short, soft cape, then a round ball of red string.

“They’re very nice, Grandmother,” he said, smiling, “but I don’t think that will fit me properly. And you should keep your string. You might need it.”

“Oh, no,” Morlana said, lowering her voice to nearly a whisper for effect. “These are enchanted. The cloak will hide you; if you put it on, you will become invisible. And the string can track anything you like. You just put it on the ground and whisper, ‘String, show me the way.’ They’re just what you need to save the king’s daughters.”

The young man had been reaching tentatively for the ball of string, but at her last words he blanched and pulled back.

“Oh, no,” he said. “No, no, no. Me, take the king’s challenge? No. No, no. He cuts people’s heads off if they fail it, you know. No, no. Thank you very much, but no.”

Morlana blinked. “That is why I’m giving you this gift,” she said. “With the magic cloak and –”

“No, no,” he said, backing up another pace. “Thank you. I don’t want a reward from the king. I just want to earn a little money and find a place on a farm somewhere. I like farms. I like farming. Thank you. No. No thank you.” He turned and hastened away, only just managing not to run. Morlana, flustered, shouted after him, forgetting not to use her normal voice, “Then I – I bless you with, ah, never breaking anything by accident ever again.”

*

What was she supposed to do with the magical items?

She wasn’t sure she ought to offer someone else’s reward to a different person – it seemed as if it could go wrong somehow. Everything she made, from trinkets to spells, was inherently tailored to the person she crafted it for. If she gave them to someone else, they might not work, or they might work… badly.

But they couldn’t be destroyed or discarded and the only person who could use them now without potential ill effects was… well, Morlana herself.

There was no reason she couldn’t use them, she supposed. It was absolutely wrong and dangerous to make or do things for herself with magic, but she had made these for someone else. It seemed strange, but it wasn’t inherently wrong.

But what would she do with them? Solve the mystery of the princesses? That wasn’t the sort of thing people like her did. They were observers, judgers, chess-masters – not heroes or playing pieces. They didn’t engage.

But – if the mystery was solved, the king would stop killing people.

She’d wished when Tyrin had first told her about that that she could punish them – well, here was a way. All she had to do was succeed, and then choose for her prize something he wouldn’t want to give her. If he reneged, she could punish him, and wouldn’t that be satisfying?

It was a bad idea, and if her mother ever found out about it, she’d be furious, but Morlana didn’t care. She tucked the cloak and the ball of string back into her pack, and marched down the road. If she was doing this, the sooner she got to Darian, the better. Or she might lose her nerve.

*

The princesses were named Annabella, Beatrice, Celandine, Delilah, Emmeline, Faunetta, Gwyneth, Henrietta, Isabeau, Jocelle, Kateira, and Zenia. The queen, it seemed, had been past the point of subtlety after twelve childbirths.

Morlana regarded them cautiously; they, for their part, paid no attention to her at all.

The various servants and officials she’d spoken to had scoffed at the idea of a woman contestant, but they’d kept referring her to their superiors until after three hours she’d managed to speak to someone actually authorized to assign her the task.

She wasn’t to speak to the princesses, or bother them in any way, and after night fell she was to watch from outside the room. Other than that she could do whatever she pleased, and in three days they’d cut her head off – unless, of course, he’d added as an afterthought, she managed to solve the problem.

Not particularly encouraging.

Morlana examined the two windows carefully, inspecting the locks, then did the same with the door, mainly to be doing something. Surely they would have been caught leaving that way. Then she sat down in an out-of-the-way corner to think.

She’d expected an opportunity to put on her cloak would come sooner, rather than later, but the princesses never seemed to leave their room. Occasionally one would drift to the door, vanish with an escort of two guards, and return a few minutes later, but there were never fewer than eleven girls in the room.

Twelve, rather, Morlana corrected, with a bit of a shock. She was there as well.

Had she really been on the outside of other people’s stories for so long that she’d forgotten how to think of herself as one of them? Or was it because of all the travelling that she didn’t consider herself a girl anymore, despite being younger than at least two of the princesses?

She hoped it was the latter, but felt, uneasily, that it wasn’t.

The arrival of several servants with carts and trays both roused her from her thoughts and distracted the princesses. She’d been sitting there so quietly for so long that none of them noticed when in all the commotion she just… vanished.

It was a pity she wouldn’t be able to eat anything, Morlana realized. She was hungry already. But it was too late to take off the cloak now, and in any event, she couldn’t be confident of another chance to put in on. She needed to be in the room, and even invisible, she doubted she could sneak past the guards and through a locked door.

After the dishes and trays were cleared away, the princesses turned almost as one and began to prepare to retire. Morlana frowned. There was something a little uncanny about it, not quite right.

“Right,” one of the guards declared. “Time to – ” He broke off. “Where is she?”

Princess Beatrice turned, lowering her hairbrush. “The watcher?” she asked coolly. “I suppose she left. They’re not permitted in here after dark. No more are you.”

The guard frowned, but he didn’t question either Morlana’s disappearance or the princess’s admonishment. He left, and a moment later the door locked with a decisive click.

“Probably watching the window,” Princess Emmeline muttered.

“It doesn’t matter,” her sister Celandine said. “She won’t see anything, even if she is still awake.” She crossed to both windows, which Morlana had seen earlier were nailed shut, and drew the curtains closed. In the dark, it would indeed have been nearly impossible to see through the fabric without a bright light shining through it.

Morlana had wondered at the princesses combing their hair before dressing for bed, but she saw now that they had no intentions of putting on nightgowns. Instead, they dressed as if for dancing, seeming much less uncanny and more natural now they were alone. Morlana had thought them merely haughty when they didn’t acknowledge her, and strange in the mechanical way they performed tasks, now she wondered how long they had been confined to this room. Surely the king didn’t keep them locked up during the day, when all the strange activity seemed to happen at night?

Elsewhere in the palace, a great bell tolled. Precisely on the twelfth stroke, a huge stone in the floor slid away, revealing a long, dark stair leading down beneath the castle. Despite herself, Morlana gasped, but luckily the sound was inaudible under the grinding of stone.

The princesses, who were clearly as unsurprised as Morlana had been shocked, rose as one and began to descend the steps, Princess Annabella in the lead. Morlana rose as quietly as she could, gripped the straps of her pack firmly beneath her cloak, and tiptoed over to the entrance.

Scarcely had Princess Zenia stepped down onto the first stair than the grating of stone began again. Afraid of being trapped in the room, or worse, crushed by the trapdoor, Morlana scrambled down behind the younger girl, ducking her head and crossing her fingers. She just barely avoided a highly unpleasant haircut by way of solid granite, but her foot came down far too heavily – and on Princess Zenia’s hem.

The princess was yanked up short and she cried out. Her sisters turned and hushed her harshly as Morlana jumped back, slamming the top of her head on the stone above it and biting hard on her cheek so as not to cry out.

“Something got me!” Princess Zenia whispered loudly.

“You got your dress caught in the door again, dummy,” Princess Kateira said. “And you screamed in my ear.”

“I’m not a dummy!”

Shhhh!” commanded Princess Delilah. “Stop bickering and hurry up, or we’ll miss the boats!”

Boats? Morlana thought, trying to ignore the pain in her head. Underground?

The knock on the head was making her silly, apparently. She’d heard the expression ‘miss the boat’ before! Stop making silly mistakes, she told herself harshly, fighting the sinking feeling that she was in much further over her head than she’d thought.

As the shimmering train of Princess Zenia’s gown disappeared into the gloom, Morlana sat down slowly on the steps and slowly, carefully felt her head. It hurt a lot, but there was no real damage, though the pounding made it hard to think. Rather than risk doing something stupid while she was distracted by pain, Morlana waited for it to subside. She could easily find the princesses again, and letting them get ahead of her meant more space and less chance of another accident.

Finally, when the throbbing had died down, she got up again, retrieving her string from the backpack. Unwinding the end of it, she set the ball on the stairs and whispered, “Find Princess Annabella.”

The ball of string unrolled, picking up speed until she couldn’t see it any longer, and leaving a thin, bright red trail for her to follow.

She followed the string-path down the stairs and through a cramped underground corridor, and emerged –

Morlana stopped and blinked. She was… outside? No, surely not. And besides… the plants were strange. She squinted upward and thought she discerned a high, dark ceiling. She wasn’t outside, then. She was in a cavern – a monstrously huge cavern, so large she couldn’t see any of the other walls, a cavern full of strange glimmering plants, a cavern with – Morlana groaned. A cavern with a lake. We’ll miss the boats. It had been exactly what it sounded like. The princesses were already halfway across the lake; she could see eight, ten – yes, twelve small boats making their way to the other side. Sighing, Morlana jerked sharply on the string and waited for it to wind itself up, then stowed it back in her pack.

She couldn’t catch up with them tonight, but she could look around the cavern, starting with the strange, glimmering underground trees. What tree could survive entirely underground?

A silver one, it seemed, when she looked closer. A perfect replica of a real tree, a birch, in silver. A little ways away was another tree, this one a small pine, also silver, also perfect. Morlana frowned at it. She was no stranger to magic, but this… this was utterly different from what she knew. It felt wrong.

Returning to the birch, she snapped off three twigs, wrapped them in a handkerchief, and slid it into a pocket of her dress, not wanting to risk it touching anything in her pack. After a moment of thought, she withdrew the ball of string again and bade it find the trapdoor. As much as she would have liked to see the princesses return so that she could look at the boats, and find out who was rowing them, it would be too easy to be caught that way, and she wasn’t willing to risk being trapped on the wrong side of the floor when it closed again.

For a moment, her stomach dropped – what if the princesses had a different way of getting back into the palace, from the other side of the lake? If the door didn’t open again…

Then you’ll be hungry and tired, but already in position when they come back down tomorrow, she told herself firmly.

To occupy herself, she unwrapped the silver twigs from her handkerchief and examined them. There was still nothing about them that was remotely explicable. They didn’t feel magical, and they didn’t seem like ordinary – if vastly unusual – objects, and what that left Morlana didn’t know and wasn’t sure she wanted to.

She dozed briefly, uncomfortable against the stone, woke with a crick in her neck and wondered if she had been stranded, and heard the noise of soft shoes on stone with barely enough time to stand, rewrap the twigs, and press herself against the wall.

“–just feel guilty, is all,” one of them – Princess Faunetta – was saying as the princesses trailed tiredly up the steps. “It’s not her fault.”

“It’s not our fault,” said Princess Beatrice. “Blame Father – he’s the one chopping their heads off.”

“It’s my fault,” Princess Celandine said quietly.

“It is not,” Annabella said, her quiet voice steely. “Bea’s right. You know it.” She stopped walking and turned to look her sister fiercely in the face. “You know it.

After a moment Celandine sighed and looked down, but she nodded, and Annabella seemed to accept it. Morlana wiggled backwards, jamming her back into the ceiling to try and get a little more space as the older girl turned and came a few steps forward. She stopped just where her head brushed the ceiling, and Morlana, bent nearly double, breathed an inaudible sigh of relief.

As if they’d known to time their arrival to the minute, or as if the stone could sense their presence, the thick block of it above her grated slowly forward. Morlana leaned over even farther so her head wouldn’t end up aching any more than it already was, and scrambled out as soon as she thought she could fit through the gap.

The princesses followed more slowly. The floor closed up again behind them, and Morlana watched as they all removed their gowns and prepared, truly this time, for bed, leaving no sign they had ever left – except for the dismal shape of their slippers.

*

Morlana had slipped easily out of the room when the guards arrived with breakfast, removed her cloak in an out-of-the-way corner, and caught a few hours’ sleep in the room that had been provided her. Then she sat a few hours to think.

Despite the uncanny nature of their midnight trips, the princesses’ behaviour – indeed, the behaviour of everyone around them – was what truly bothered her. Did the king really keep his daughters locked up during the day? Did he not realize that simply keeping a female guard inside the room could solve his problem better than beheading people? Why had Princess Celandine assumed Morlana would fall asleep, and why was the king’s executing people – if that was indeed what they had been discussing – her fault? If the princesses pitied those who failed the task and were killed, why did they continue to disappear to the underground cavern?

The answers wouldn’t provide a solution, but they might provide enough clarity that Morlana could find one. But first, she had to find out how the princesses crossed the lake – and why.

Mindful of her experience the night before, she slipped into the room already wearing her magic cloak and stood against the wall near the now-invisible trapdoor. If she was the first one through she wouldn’t hurt her head or step on anyone’s dress.

The princesses went about their activities just as quietly and strangely passively as the day before. Annabella wrote in a notebook or possibly a journal. Delilah played chess with Beatrice and then with Gwyneth. Henrietta and Isabeau braided their three younger sisters’ hair. Celandine and Faunetta talked quietly, and Emmeline read a book. There was something strange, off, about the atmosphere; Morlana felt it even more than the day before, but she was also more and more convinced that it was outwardly imposed. Everything was too quiet, too orderly, too decorous. The door to the room was open, but four guards stood outside it, and when Princess Jocelle left to visit the water-closet, Delilah, who had just murmured something to Gwyneth and paused their game, sat back down and moved a piece, only rising to leave the room after Jocelle came back.

The passed the afternoon peaceably, ate quietly, and began the same pretense at ablutions that had fooled the servants the night before. Only when the lock on the door clicked shut did Princess Emmeline mutter, “No watcher today.” The effect was entirely that she seemed suddenly to have turned from a well-behaved construct back into a real person.

“Just as well,” Princess Annabella observed tiredly.

“It’s better not to get attached, anyway,” said Princess Kateira in a world-weary tone that made Morlana wince. The girl couldn’t have been more than fifteen at the most.

“No one’s getting attached,” Emmeline snapped. “She probably ran for it after they drugged her the first night.”

“Pity her, then,” Beatrice said crisply. “You know Father never lets them run. Otherwise everyone would stay two nights and take the cowards way out when they failed, he says.”

“Enough talk,” Annabella told them all. “Just get dressed.”

They did. Morlana had to admire the way they helped each other dress and did up each other’s hair. She’d seen enough rough sibling relationships to know that the bond of sisterly compassion was usually a myth, but the princesses seemed to embody it even when they weren’t being watched. And she wouldn’t have expected women of such high rank to be able to dress their own hair and manage complicated gowns.

Once again, the stone slid back exactly at midnight. Morlana scrambled down as soon as there was room, just barely keeping her footing on the narrow stairs, only two paces ahead of Princess Annabella. Unencumbered by large, flowing skirts, she got her balance and descended as quickly as she could without falling and breaking both her head and her disguise. As soon as the staircase ended and the first passage began, Morlana stepped to the side and pressed herself against the wall, letting them pass her. After giving Princess Zenia the count of five to ensure there would be no more skirt-stepping, she followed behind the youngest princess, enchanted red string in her hand, just in case.

When they entered the cavern, the princesses headed directly toward the lake, without a glance at the silver trees. As they approached it, Morlana could see that all twelve boats she’d seen the night before were moored at a small dock. Twelve tall youths stood there.

Each princess took the arm of a young man, and he escorted her to her boat and handed her, most chivalrously, in. Morlana hesitated, but before she could miss her chance, stepped down into the same boat as Princess Kateira, who was the smallest and lightest. It was difficult to keep from brushing either of the other passengers in the small boat, but she managed it by practically curling up on the bottom in between the benches, and the only sign of any suspicion was when Princess Kateira asked the rower why they were going so slowly.

“I beg your pardon, my lady,” was all he said, applying himself more vigorously to his rowing.

They arrived, only a little behind the others, and though Morlana made the boat rock a little when she pressed herself to the side to avoid being stepped on by the princess, no one seemed to think anything of it, save one or two of the youth’s companions rolling their eyes at his supposed lack of watercraft.

She waited several minutes before she risked climbing out of the boat herself; she wasn’t accustomed to them, and even if she managed not to bungle it, she didn’t want anyone to see the boat bounce upward when relieved of her weight. The princesses and their guides were gone by then, of course, but Morlana was confident that there were no more lakes to cross, and the red string would find them all quite easily.

The string, and the path it lay on, wound up a small hill, and through more silver trees, these ones much taller, their branches latticeing together to make an intricate, shimmering roof. As she emerged from the forest, the princesses and their destination became visible.

Two or three stone’s-throws away was an open, circular floor, on which couples whirled to music. Morlana located the musicians on a small platform off to the side; their instruments gleamed in a way that made her suspect they were not constructed from ordinary metals. Behind the dance floor was a long table, laden with food and drink, and along it sat twenty or thirty people, facing the dancing.

As Morlana came closer, she picked out first Princess Delilah and Princess Gwyneth along the table, and then Princesses Beatrice, Faunetta, and Henrietta among the dancers. Whispering to the string, she waited for it to roll itself up again, then stowed it away neatly.

Morlana stopped at the edge of the dance floor and quickly glanced over the dancers and the long table, counting princesses on her fingers until she was sure they were all still here. Then she turned her attention to the others.

Like the young men who had escorted the princesses, all the strangers were tall, the shortest still taller than Morlana, the tallest likely past seven feet. There was a strange sameness about their features that Morlana couldn’t quite pin down – she could see the differences, larger mouths, smaller ears, differently shaped noses and pointier chins… but somehow there was still a feeling of… uniformity. Perhaps it was something to do with the fact that despite the wide variance in skin tones, they all had the same odd, waxy cast to their complexions.

The waxiness, Morlana was quite sure, was unnatural. Or if not unnatural, inhuman. She wasn’t sure which would be worse.

Making her way around the edge of the dance floor, she saw Princess Beatrice smile widely at her dance partner, and say something that made him chuckle. Morlana felt, oddly, slightly reassured. He seemed less taciturn than earlier, and at the same time, less terrifyingly grand and stately than the other dancers. More… well, more human, she supposed. On the other side of the floor, Princess Jocelle’s partner was smiling indulgently as he twirled her yet again.

This was all very strange, and uncanny, and Morlana was quite sure she didn’t like it, but she couldn’t be sure that it was truly dangerous.

There was enough room between the table and the dance floor that Morlana could walk invisible down it and examine everyone sitting at it from only two feet away. Everyone at the table (bar Princess Delilah, Princess Annabella, Princess Gwyneth, and Princess Zenia, of course) had the same waxy cast, and the same strange way of setting Morlana’s teeth on edge, as the dancers. She paused briefly in front of Princess Gwyneth, who was sitting between a dark man who must have been near seven feet standing, and an even taller woman with skin the white-yellow shade of old bone, eating… a peach.

Morlana shook her head slightly and moved on.

The princesses seemed to run from happy to merely content, but the only one who looked remotely unsettled was Princess Annabella, who frowned slightly as if distracted as she conversed politely with the glittering woman on her left. Aside from the terrifying, stately hosts and the tableware that appeared to be made of – Morlana looked closer – actual gemstone, it could have been any other ball.

Or so Morlana assumed, anyway. She had never attended an ordinary ball, or indeed any sort of ball.

The man in front of her rose suddenly, and Morlana felt a jolt of heart-stopping fear – but she was still invisible, and he merely walked around the edge of the table to join the dancers. Glancing down at his plate, which glinted in the torchlight, Morlana considered how unbelievable her story might be to the king, and so she glanced over her shoulder, took a quick, assessing glance at the two nearest people – both preoccupied – and filched his goblet. She beat a hasty retreat to the far side of the dance floor, and sat on the grass for a moment to examine it.

Best she could determine, the cup had been made by carving out an extremely large diamond, and smoothing the outside into a curve with a flat bottom. She stared at it for a few moments, then shook her head determinedly and tucked it into her skirt pocket.

Morlana watched the dancing for an hour or two, drifting around the edges and trying to overhear relevant conversation without bumping into anyone. From what she could tell, none of the princesses talked to their escorts about anything concrete, or to their sisters at all, and there was nothing to be learned from the conversations between the strange cavern inhabitants – not even if they did indeed live in the cavern. All their talk was utterly impenetrable, and Morlana had the uncomfortable sensation that she forgot what they were saying once she walked away. Finally, she gave up and walked back through the strange silver tree-hallway and down the hill to the boats, settling herself in one ahead of time, and hoping fervently that no one would step on her skirt, or notice the extra weight.

*

On the second morning, when Morlana stepped back into her room again, one of the hoity-hoity servants (in truth she wasn’t sure what to call them; they weren’t quite officials, but the word ‘servant’ made her think of ordinary people, which was clearly inaccurate) who’d sneered at her when she’d first arrived was there waiting.

“So you are still here,” he droned, managing to sound bored and contemptuous at once.

“I have no intention of leaving,” Morlana told him, and bit the inside of her cheek hard to stifle a yawn.  “I think the king will be very pleased with what I have to say tomorrow.”

“No trying to run when you find out otherwise,” the servant said loftily. “It’s been tried before, but no one’s ever managed.”

“I’ve heard,” Morlana said sweetly, then stared straight into his eyes with as steely as gaze as possible until he finally snorted and left her to set a few hours’ sleep.

After a certain amount of inner debate – far too much of it while trying to get said sleep - she actually entered the princesses’ room that afternoon without wearing her cloak, interested in seeing how they behaved when they knew she was there. The result, at first, seemed simply to be pitying glances.

It was understandable, she supposed, since they naturally thought she was going to die, but why? Why all the sneers and disdain from the people who should be wanting her to succeed, and the pity from the ones who, the evidence would have suggested, didn’t care if people in her position lived or died.

And then there was the earlier implication that the food was drugged. She still wasn’t quite sure what to do with that, other than eat a very large lunch.

Morlana did so, ignoring the continued glances. Most of the princesses had returned to everyday tasks, but there still seemed to be one or two of them looking at her at any given moment. Princess Kateira looked positively sorrowful, and both Isabeau and Zenia kept biting their bottom lip in regret.

It was when Princess Beatrice glanced over at her and sighed, then shook her head regretfully and went back to her book, that Morlana realized that she’d made a decision.

It was a dangerous, foolish decision, with nothing following it that could really be called a plan, but it was already made. She wanted to help these girls, and she wanted a profound apology from them, and at this point both of those things required the same course of action – one which also, most likely, would finally reveal, not what was going on, but why on earth it was going on.

She was just going to ask.

*

Morlana left a little before supper, put on her cloak, and returned in the wake of the servants bringing the meal. Again she slipped into the dark passage as soon as there was room, but this time she quickly descended the stair and then sprinted all the way to the cavern. She arrived with at least twenty minutes’ lead, winded but satisfied, and proud of her peasantly robustness in comparison to so many elegant ladies.

She took the walk down to the pier a little more slowly, tiptoed between the tall, inhuman youths with much less apprehension than was probably appropriate, and, when the princesses arrived, used the brief disturbance to step down into the boat that she was relatively sure would be Princess Kateira’s.

The princess’s escort frowned at the oars after the third stroke, but he seemed more frustrated with his sudden increase in difficulty rowing and over-compensated in such a way that meant they were the first to arrive, and that Morlana managed to scramble ungracefully out ahead of the princess, and without alerting anyone. Then she re-centered her pack on her shoulders and jogged up the hill and through the long silver arboreal archway. There she stopped, and found a place between the trees where only someone looking directly off the path would be able to see her.

In due time, the group arrived, the young men still with their uncannily correct posture and their eyes never darting aside. The princesses, however, were only human. She waited for one of their gazes to drift off to where she stood, and when one did – it was Princess Emmeline – she removed the cloak with, it must be said, a bit of a flourish.

The princess stared, stopped short, and reddened with outrage, and quite possibly fear. Morlana simply turned and began walking away. She was gambling that Emmeline would tell only her sisters and not the strange – and likely dangerous – cavern-folk, but she thought it was a safe bet. Emmeline, it was true, seemed the least forgiving of her sisters, but she was also likely the least inclined to accept outside help. The lack of shouting and chasing suggested her gamble had succeeded, at least for now.

Morlana stopped soon after she was completely out of sight of the path. They had to be able to find her again. Away from the huge treetrunks and entwining branches framing the walkway, the trees were gold, not silver, and smaller again – not as small as the ones on the other side of the lake, but nearly the size of ordinary trees. Willows, maybe.

She didn’t have to wait long. Princesses Beatrice, Annabella, and Emmeline arrived in less than ten minutes, forging, struggling, and crashing, respectively through the lower branches in their large dresses.

“How?” Annabella asked as soon as they arrived, looking Morlana straight in the face.

“Never mind how,” Beatrice said. “Now what?” Her expression dared Morlana to say something.

You!” Princess Emmeline snarled, and seemed content to leave it at that.

“I’ve solved the puzzle of the slippers,” Morlana said, after letting the silence sit for a moment. “What happens now depends on a lot of things.”

“What th –” Beatrice began, but Annabella held up a hand. The sound of footsteps and snapping branches hadn’t entirely gone away.

A moment later, Princesses Celandine, Delilah, and Henrietta came into view. Emmeline groaned loudly.

“Don’t groan at us,” Delilah said with asperity. “We’re older than you.” She cast an apologetic look at Henrietta, who wasn’t, then turned to Morlana. “So it’s over then?”

“It’s probably for the best,” Henrietta said knowingly, then glared when Emmeline made a face at her.

“She followed us here!” Emmeline proclaimed, tone accusing.

Princess Annabella sighed. “Of course she did,” she said patiently. “It’s her life on the line. I just don’t understand how.”

“I’m a great deal quieter than your sisters,” Morlana said, and then in response to Delilah’s offended expression, “No, no…”

After a few more moments of snapping twigs, Princesses Faunetta, Gwyneth, Isabeau, and Jocelle arrived. “I told Gwyneth,” Faunetta said defiantly to Emmeline.

“You can’t fool us,” Isabeau added, glancing at Jocelle, who Morlana now realized was her twin. “There are two of us.”

Beatrice gritted her teeth. “I told you all to let us handle it!”

Morlana turned away and let them bicker. Surprisingly, it was Delilah who managed to call everyone back to order. “We’re here now and we’re not leaving. And stop snapping at everyone, Emmy, nobody cares how tough you are. What’s going to happen now?”

“Well,” Morlana said, “first I should say you aren’t the only ones who are here now.”

Most of the princesses turned, to see that their youngest sisters were much better at navigating the golden trees quietly than they were.

“We told them we were going to find you,” Princess Kateira announced. “And we did.”

“You broke off a lot of branches,” Princess Zenia added.

Beatrice and Annabella both opened their mouths – to remonstrate on one part and cajole on the other, Morlana thought – but before they could speak Morlana cleared her throat loudly and said, “If I may!”

They all turned to look at her.

For one mad moment Morlana looked around at the princesses surrounding her in wood made literally out of gold, gowned in shimmering fabric and wearing rubies around her neck, her in her homespun dress and sturdy boots, with her hair loose and half-tangled from running, and felt herself a penniless commoner, young and inexperienced.

Then she shoved it ruthlessly away.

“Before I tell you how,” she said calmly, “I have a question for you. Why?”

The princesses looked at each other uneasily.

“Why spirit yourselves away to an underground ball when you live in a palace?” she clarified. “Why ruin your own marriage prospects? Why keep doing it if you care so much for the lives of the people who die trying to solve the mystery. You all pity me, but none of you stepped forward to save my life.”

Some of them looked down. Princess Celandine looked as if she might cry. Princess Emmeline glared.

“And why every night?” Morlana added. “Don’t you want to sleep?”

“We didn’t used to always go,” Beatrice said after a moment, reluctantly. “Only every now and then –” Princess Emmeline hissed at her to be quiet, but her older sister only shot her a glare. “It was nice, but it was tiring, and we had other things. And I…” she hesitated. “Well, we didn’t know the princes that well back then.” From the way Faunetta raised her eyebrows at her sister, Morlana suspected it was no secret that Beatrice was rather fond of one of the princes, now she did know them. “But then… well, Mother died about six years ago, and shortly after that… Well, Father was already getting more controlling and tyrannical – in his personal life, anyway – but things were only… stricter. They didn’t get as bad as they are now until there was an… incident.”

“It was me,” Princess Celandine said quietly. “I tried to run away with someone. I was in love, but… father didn’t approve. We were caught. Father…”

“He was furious,” Annabella said matter-of-factly, only the convulsive movement in her throat showing anything but equanimity. “He said we were all… He said horrid things about Dinah, and that we were all like that. And then he ‘took necessary measures’.”

“He locked us up,” Emmeline said flatly. “And I don’t see what you’re going to do about it, other than sell us out to save your own wretched hide.”

“Emmy, it’s not fair.” They all turned, surprised at Princess Zenia’s interruption. Her lip wobbled, and there were tears in her eyes, but she went on. “You can’t ask her to die so that we can dance.”

“She set herself up for it,” Emmeline responded, voice harsh. “She wanted the reward.”

“Actually, I didn’t want a reward,” Morlana said, as mildly as possible. She waited until they were all gaping at her, and went on. “I wanted to punish the king who was chopping people’s heads off for failing a task. It’s what I do – I test people, and I bless or curse them as they deserve.” She mustered her most innocuous smile. “When I ask him for a reward… that’s just the test.”

“Spices and spinnerets,” Faunetta whispered.

Morlana gave a much more honest smile, with razor edges. “My testing him could be very good for you. But you had better start by telling me everything.”

*

Surprisingly, it was Princess Celandine, not either of her older sisters, who broke the silence.

“If you can help us, we’ll tell you everything you need to know.”

“I’ll go tell them we’re leaving early,” Princess Annabella said, gathering up her skirts. The rest of the princesses looked at each other uncertainly.

“I’ll do it,” Beatrice said after a moment, voice matter-of-fact. “Walk back with me.”

“This is stupid,” Princess Emmeline muttered. “She’s going to ruin everything.”

“Stop it,” Gwyneth said sharply.

“Why don’t you walk with me, Emmy?” Princess Annabella said, steel turning her question into an order. Emmeline glared sulkily at she and Morlana alike, but she moved ahead to walk with Annabella.

“The people down here,” Beatrice began, “well, they’re not like us, but they’re good people. I don’t know exactly how the door works or when the passageway was built, but sometime after I was born my mother did some kind of favour to them. They’ve been grateful even since, and they told her that she and her daughters would be welcome at any ball we chose to attend. At first she took us every now and then, as we got old enough, and then when we got older we used to go by ourselves sometimes – the room we share now used to be mine, and it wasn’t unusual for two or three of us to spend the night together. After Mother died, we went less. It was... hard, with Father insisting on changing everything – we always needed escorts and we had to be at meals at the right times – no more sleeping late after dancing all night. And of course Mother wasn’t there to arrange for new slippers in secret. But the times when we did sneak away… it was like being free again.” She stopped, as if embarrassed. “And then… well, Celandine told you what happened. None of us knew what she was planning, except Gwyneth, and Dinah didn’t know she knew. She heard them talking. But she tried to cover it up for them when Father found out, and so he found out she knew, and he wouldn’t believe that she hadn’t been in Dinah’s confidence, and he accused us of all being in collusion…” She sighed. “Father likes controlling things. So he said we were untrustworthy and he shut us all up in my room – we never leave unless there’s some important reason, and we’re always guarded and there’s nothing to do and no one to talk to – except each other, and it’s so hard not to fight sometimes, but we can’t, because there’s no way to get away from each other to cool off.” She glanced at Morlana. “Coming down here… maybe it was selfish after Father started cutting people’s heads off, but we tried to stop. But after two months without ever leaving that room except to use the necessary and the rare occasion when Father wants to shout at one of us…”

There was nothing Morlana could say to that.

Beatrice tried to smile. “Down here is better than nothing, but I haven’t been outside – really outside, just in the gardens, or… it’s been more than a year, and that was just to cross a courtyard.”

“I can certainly understand your position,” Morlana said, because screaming with rage would make them doubt whether she was really the all-powerful arbiter of justice she’d led them to believe. “But I don’t understand why the food was drugged. Or were those comments about falling asleep meant as an insult to my willpower.”

“No, the servants drug the food,” Beatrice says. “It’s meant to stop us sneaking off, but we’ve had the antidote since the first time they tried it – we got it down here.” She held up a wrist adorned with a wrought silver bracelet. “We didn’t ask how they did it, but the drugs don’t work on us anymore.”

“And they never thought that drugging me would be somewhat counterproductive?”

“They only do that sometimes,” Beatrice said. “When the candidate isn’t someone Father approves of being honoured in front of the whole kingdom. Too poor. Too old.” She glanced sideways at Morlana and made a face. “Female.”

Morlana’s blood ran cold. She thought of the sweet, innocent refugee boy who she’d almost sent here just for giving his only food to an old lady, and she reined in her sheer horror at the callousness necessary to doom people to death for failing because you sabotaged them, and swore that she would see this king destroyed if she had to tear down his throne with her bare hands.

“Beatrice.” It was Princess Annabella. “They’re here to row us back. Maybe… uh. Our… guest? Can come with me?”

Her sister nodded, smiled tightly at Morlana, and walked over to her escort. They spoke together in whispers for a moment, and then he looked up and stared, stricken, at Morlana.

“Whatever you do, I hope we’ll be able to come back here again,” Annabella said quietly.

“That will depend on what the new queen has to say about it,” Morlana told her, nodding towards Annabella herself as she climbed down into the boat. Annabella blanched, but swallowed hard and nodded.

“Thank you,” Morlana said awkwardly to the oarsman as Annabella squeezed onto the bench next to her. She wasn’t sure she hadn’t been more comfortable sitting in the bottom of the boat.

“How long have you been following us?” Annabella asked.

“Since the first night,” Morlana told her.

“The first night?”

“I was invisible.”

From the expression on Annabella’s face, she didn’t fancy asking any more questions.

“Beatrice told me about your father, and the dancing,” she said. “Is there anything else I should know?”

“He’s not a bad king,” Annabella said. At the look on Morlana’s face she clarified quickly, “Oh, he’s not a good one. But he… as long as he thinks he’s already in control, he seems reasonable. And so far he’s had no reason to feel otherwise about the country. About us, yes, but until something happens to shake him, he won’t close his fist.”

So be careful, Morlana thought. His people don’t hate him as much as they might. “Like in killing anyone who fails,” she said aloud.

“He feels vulnerable, I suppose,” Annabella said. “It’s monstrous.”

Her calm acceptance of both truths made Morlana hope she’d be a good queen, although there wasn’t much a nineteen-year-old peasant girl from a farm leagues away could know about that.

“There isn’t much else,” she said. “I need to ask for a reward he’ll refuse, but I can do that. I’ll need to talk to Princess Celandine.”

Annabella frowned. “She takes too much on herself,” she said. “But if you need to… I’m sure she’ll tell you whatever you need. You can walk back the rest of the way with her.”

*

“And do you know what strange malady afflicts the princesses?” the king droned, almost bored.

“I do, your majesty,” Morlana said.

The attending nobles murmured, the spectating commoners muttered loudly to each other, and the king turned sharp attention to her.

“Every night,” Morlana said, “the princesses leave through a secret door in their chamber which only opens at midnight. They descend into a secret passage which leads to a gargantuan cavern, filled with trees of silver.”

There was general laughter.

“Do you think to save yourself by such japes?” the king demanded. “I shall –” Morlana withdrew the silver twigs from her pocket.

Silence fell.

At a sign, a page hurriedly took the twigs from her and presented them to the king. He examined them for a long time. Finally, “Impossible,” he proclaimed, setting them back down on the page’s tray.

“They approached a lake,” Morlana continued, unfazed. “Where they were received by twelve fey youths, who rowed them across it. On the other side there were trees of gold.” She presented two of the golden twigs the princesses had broken off in the woods.

After another pause, during which the king examined them and said nothing, she picked up the story again. “There they joined a large party of fey ladies and gentlemen, all dressed for a magnificent ball. The princesses danced with their escorts and ate and drank from goblets and plates carved of gemstone.” She produced the diamond cup.

“Blocking the entrance, or removing the princesses to another chamber, should end your troubles,” she said once the king had looked at it. “I am willing to wait to name my reward until you have confirmed my story.”

The king slammed the cup down onto the page’s tray so hard Morlana was sure he would refuse point-blank now and give her an excuse to curse him. Instead, he bit out, “I will reward you now. Name your price.”

Morlana breathed deep and drew herself up to the fullest height she could manage. “The reward I name is the rescinding of your banishment of Baron Chamall of Renfall.”

The king stood. “You collude with my daughters,” he said in a tone of ice. “I will see you executed for treason.”

There was a general gasp, but Morlana ignored it. She would give them reason to gasp! She reached for her magic with both hands, threw all the caution she’d ever used into the wind, and made herself a sorceress, tall and handsome and frightening, made her voice echo and boom like thunder, made her newly elegant skirts billow in a non-existing wind. “You betray your oath,” she proclaimed. Several servants and most of the observing citizenry fell to their knees. “You have failed the test of honour. You are unworthy of your throne.” She watched the man who had locked up his daughters, kept Celandine from her beloved and the younger girls from their childhood, and murdered any number of innocent men for his own failures. He pressed back against his throne, but his face displayed more anger and outrage than fear. “I strip you of your legacy, your name, and the claim of that name to the throne. From this day forth you will have no identity, and your face will be forgotten by all who knew you.” She threw her actual curse at him, and the magic intended for him settled into his face, making him unrecognizable without changing anything, turned his fine clothes to rough wool and cotton, and pulled all his memories and fine education and pride out of him – and then, to make it complete, she sent him away.

Morlana wasn’t actually capable of transporting people magically, but she could eject them from buildings, and the castle was a large building. Once he was outside it on the streets… then he was no one, and she might as well have sent him to the other side of the world.

She took a deep breath, brought back the wind she’d forgotten to keep up, and finished, “The reign of House Thollent is finished. I name the first ruler of House Palander, Queen Annabella of Donland.” And then… she vanished.

Well, truthfully, she pulled the magic cloak out and threw it haphazardly over her head, but she did it so quickly none of the stunned people noticed, just as they didn’t notice that for half a second before she disappeared she was suddenly shorter and ordinary-looking again.

Morlana found the nearest wall by walking into it, shrunk against it in order to settle the cloak on in a way that wouldn’t blind her, and waited for the chaos to subside. Then she simply walked out.

She thought about staying, of course – to see Annabella become queen, to see if Beatrice would go back to see her strange young man, to see Celandine reunited with Baron Chamall’s daughter.

But these women, though less afraid of her than the people who had watched her curse their king, nevertheless thought that the tall, regal, terrifying sorceress was who she was, a powerful, doubtless creature without a name. And she wasn’t a sorceress.

She thought about continuing on, wandering whichever way chance took her, going back to who she was before this, nameless, wearing other people’s faces, but that was a way to lose the world, to forget you were part of it. And she was part of it.

She thought about returning to the farm she’d grown up on, letting her mother lecture her until she couldn’t stand it anymore, sinking back into Kerya’s uncomfortable but familiar disapproval. Being just Morlana again.

But she wasn’t just Morlana anymore.

In the end, she took out the red ball of string and set it on the ground. “Find my home,” she told it. And, invisible until the time was right – or at least until she’d gotten out of the city – she followed.