Cimorene crossed the threshold of her new home for the first and final time, and a strange pressure built up in her throat and behind her eyes. Several confused moments passed, wherein Cimorene spun and checked the air for the telltale flickering of spell remnants or tendrils of chokevine before she recognized the sensation as the urge to cry.
Cimorene couldn’t remember the last time she’d actually cried. When Father cancelled her fencing lessons, or her magic lessons, or the cooking or the Latin or the juggling or any of the other ways Cimorene tried to take control of her tedious days as a child, she had not burst into tears. Cimorene had channelled her frustration into action, bullying a new tutor into teaching her new skills, sneaking out to provide herself new occupation; crying had seemed an awful waste of time, and messy and inconvenient besides. She’d never seen the point.
The years had not changed Cimorene’s mind. When Kazul disappeared, when Mendanbar first went missing, every time the most important people in Cimorene’s life were taken from her, Cimorene had not let herself give in to despair. It was always better to make a plan and do something about it, and through three years of disasters and misadventures, Cimorene had done just that. There could hardly be time for feeling sorry for oneself when there were dragons and firewitches and wizards and magic carpets and giants and danger at every corner, not to mention good friends to help her through it.
Of course, now there would be no more adventures, or danger, and no more company of good friends, not for sixteen long years. They couldn’t risk it, not when every communication risked detection by the wizards, and they’d all agreed. Cimorene had come up with the plan, had even argued for it when Kazul and the others tried to dissuade her. It made the most sense, she’d said, putting her hands on her hips and giving them her best, most Queenlike stare. There was no point in trying to dissuade her.
She hadn’t let herself think about what that meant, not really. She couldn’t. If she had then she might have faltered, and Cimorene couldn’t falter, not when Kazul would have leapt at the slightest hesitation and used it to try to countermand the decision. Cimorene had needed to be more certain than she’d ever been in her life, and so she’d let herself glide past the day to day and focused on the broad sweep of things. The dragons thought sixteen years an eye-blink, and Cimorene tricked herself into thinking so, too.
Cimorene kept up this perspective until she stepped through the door into the plain, serviceable cottage and found it dark and somewhat chilly. There were no friends or companions or even Willin waiting for her, no tasks laid out in front of her. Worse, Cimorene had no exciting quests waiting for her around the corner. The sixteen years stretched out ahead, long and empty and yawning in a vast chasm, and Cimorene felt their weight as though she’d jumped into a lake wearing a heavy, jewel-laden gown and attempted to swim.
For a moment Cimorene almost considered crying, if only for the sheer novelty. What would it matter if she took a minute — even an hour — to cry, alone in her house, with no one to see and judge her? She had half a lifetime ahead of her — as many years as she’d lived before meeting Kazul and Morwen and starting her new life in the first place — and plenty of time to be strong and brave and appropriately stoic in the face of trial after, once she figured out what to do with it. And after all, no one was watching.
Cimorene looked down to see Daystar, wrapped tight against her chest in a woven shawl, looking up at her with his father’s wide, solemn grey eyes. “Mama?” he said, and reached up one hand to touch his soft fingers to her cheek.
At once the spell of melancholy broke, and Cimorene laughed. She swiped a hand across her eyes — her fingers came away dry — and took Daystar’s hand in hers, bending to kiss his knuckles. “Well,” said Cimorene, matter of fact. “That’s enough of that.”
Cimorene lit the lamps, and she lifted Daystar out of the sling and into her arms so he could explore the cottage at height. He reached for anything remotely shiny, clapped at the dancing shadows cast by the lamplight on the ceiling, and together they explored their new home. Cimorene smiled at the kitchen, stocked with pots and pans and utensils that would not look out of place in a peasant’s cottage at a glance, but which she knew would not rust or chip or crack with any ease. At last she lit the hearth, and as the flames danced and crackled and the warmth chased away the draughts and the last of the seeping chill, Cimorene sat in front of the fire with Daystar dozing in her lap and let herself feel.
She and Mendanbar had scarcely been married a year when the wizards took him. By the time Cimorene got him back, they would be separated seventeen times longer than they’d been together, and moreover — as the math continued to calculate itself in her mind in a relentless march — that meant Cimorene would be in her fifties by the time they managed to make up for all those lost years. That felt so far away as to be almost laughable, especially given that only four years ago Cimorene had been bored and ready to chew off her own arm back in Linderwall.
The problem, Cimorene thought to herself, was lack of occupation. As Kazul’s princess, and then her Chief Cook and Librarian, Cimorene had no end of tasks to keep herself occupied. Keredwel and the other princesses, on the other hand, with nothing to do but sit in their caves and bemoan their tragic fates, had soon fallen prey to ill humour and malaise. Certainly, raising a child on her own would provide its own challenge, but Cimorene needed to find something else, a way to keep her mind occupied so that it could not wander and get into trouble on gloomy shores.
Daystar’s breathing slowed as he moved from drowsiness into a deep sleep, and Cimorene carried him to bed, laying him down in his high-railed cot. Cimorene looked around her bedroom, pleased in spite of herself at the simple furnishings, the enchanted wardrobe from Kazul’s caves disguised in the corner as an ordinary piece of furniture, then stopped at the sight of a door at the far end.
She didn’t recall a door on the far side when exploring earlier, nor the space for a closet. Cimorene frowned, an expression which only deepened when the handle didn’t turn. After a few attempts, an idea tickled the back of Cimorene’s mind, and she took a step back. After glancing at Daystar, still sleeping soundly, Cimorene took a deep breath and chanted under her breath:
By night and flame and shining rock,
Open thou thy hidden lock,
A pause just long enough for Cimorene to feel exceedingly silly, and then the door swung open. Cimorene stepped through into the room beyond and let out a delighted laugh.
Inside the enchanted space stood rows of bookshelves, packed full of beautiful, leather-bound volumes. Among the assorted books Cimorene recognized the aging, cracked spines of Kazul’s library, the neat covers and precise labelling system from Morwen’s personal collection, and even — miracle of miracles — a number of scrolls and tomes that someone had somehow managed to wheedle away from Telemain. Cimorene ran her gaze along the spines, scanning the titles, and noted everything from histories to magical treatises to advanced theory. Along the back wall was a rack of swords, including one that matched Cimorene’s reach and a few of increasing size that would be perfect for a growing boy some years down the line. Another wall contained shelves of various magical paraphernalia and common spell ingredients, just in case, and Cimorene looked around the room and felt a warm glow of warmth and affection.
A note lay on the table, and Cimorene picked it up to find Morwen’s neat, unadorned handwriting. Everyone needs a little space to themselves, it read. Really, I expect you’ll astonish us all by the time you get back.
This time Cimorene’s eyes did sting, but she felt no shame in wiping away the trickle of moisture. Already she missed her friends with a fierceness that ached, but the thought of Morwen’s bracing frankness brought Cimorene a fresh wave of comfort. And just think — with a private library at her disposal and her own space to study magic, perhaps Cimorene might surprise the wizards with a few discoveries of her own.
She lost herself in the pages until Daystar stirred in the next room, and Cimorene tore herself away from her reading with reluctance until she reminded herself she could return any time. This was her library, her life; she was no longer a princess or a queen, and no one was here to argue that any knowledge was improper. Certainly Daystar would be raised with good manners enough not to go poking around in his mother’s room without permission, even if he did think to try obscure dragon spells on her closet door.
Cimorene smiled as she left her books on the table and closed the door behind her, lifting Daystar from his cot and bouncing him against her shoulder. “I think we’re going to do just fine here, Daystar,” she said, and poked him in the nose to make him laugh.
Cimorene dug the points of her knuckles into the inside hollows of her eye sockets just below her brow bone and let out a very loud, very un-queenlike groan. Daystar looked up from where he was gnawing on a piece of wood wrapped in soft cloth, his eyes wide and inquisitive as always. Cimorene sighed and set the book down gently, rather than throwing it across the room as her temper would have preferred.
“Listen to me, Daystar,” Cimorene said, pointing to him in mock-seriousness. “If you grow up to write magical treatises, I want you to promise to use language that actual people can understand. There is no need to use all this mystical sounding mumbo-jumbo to obfuscate what you’re trying to say. You don’t become more intelligent the fewer people can understand you.”
Daystar gummed his chew toy for a moment, then popped it out of his mouth and waved it with an emphatic, “Ba!”
“Exactly,” Cimorene said with a sharp nod. “I’m glad you understand.” She turned back to the unnecessarily-titled tome and gave it a dour stare. She couldn’t help thinking that Morwen had always managed to discuss even the most complex magic without ever finding the need to do backflips through six-syllable words to make her point, despite attending the same magical institution as Telemain.
Cimorene’s childhood magic tutor had not bothered much with theory when moonlighting with his bored twelve-year-old pupil. He had taught her the spells and she had learned them with an uncanny speed and accuracy, but they hadn’t much time to sit down and break apart what made them work, how the various elements twisted together to create and shape the magic itself. This meant that while Cimorene could perform magic and follow instructions in a spell-book without any trouble, she could not accurately substitute ingredients to make up for a shortfall, or come up with any new spells herself based on innovations in magical theory.
Not unlike the inability to cook without following a recipe, Cimorene thought, remembering her early days with Kazul, but the memory filled her with a sense of determination. She had learned to cook without the need to consult the books for every measurement, every exchange of ingredients; magic was not as simple as creaming eggs and butter, but Cimorene would learn. She had chafed each occasion she’d been forced to ask someone to explain Telemain’s jargon to her, but there had never been time to sit down and chew through the ridiculously complex theory tomes enough to build up her fundamentals.
Cimorene narrowed her eyes and flipped open the book to the index, abandoning her straight-through approach for now and skimming for anything that caught her interest. Near the end her eye snagged on the word ‘temporal’, and Cimorene jerked to a stop, her heart beating a hard staccato in her chest. Paging back to the appropriate section, Cimorene let out a breath as she found herself staring down at a chapter entitled “Postulations on Thaumaturgy as a Means to Induce Temporal Distortion: Theory and Potential Applications”.
With a freshly snipped quill, a pot of ink and a stack of blank pages at her elbow, Cimorene focused on the ridiculously convoluted paragraphs and got to work.
Magical theory was no less dry than Cimorene remembered it from her previous forays, and the addition of Daystar demanding attention every few minutes definitely did not expedite the process, but gradually she worked her way through the chapter and made reasonable headway. Once she’d completed her notes, Cimorene set the volume aside and went on to check the other works in her library, scouring them for any references to theoretical magic on the alteration of time.
Most magical scholars took a dim view of the possibility of time travel, which rather surprised Cimorene, given how much magical study was given over to spatial dynamics: moving people and objects across great distances in a blink of an eye or expanding the inside of an ordinary bag to fit the contents of a large pantry. She would have thought that magicians would have been tripping over their robes to unlock the key to moving through time as easily as they rippled through open space. Still, the prevailing attitude was negative, calling it fluff, philosophical twaddle, pure conjecture, or, rather memorably, “pure theoretical fiddle-faddle, a mental thought exercise designed to stun and impress the uneducated and easily-awed dinner guest at dull gatherings.”
Others fulminated against the lack of rigour in reporting results, with many citing a prominent magician named Pembroke Newcomb McDewey, who claimed to have gone back in time. When asked to provide a demonstration, McDewey stated only, “By travelling into the past to provide you with proof, the incident in question will have already occurred before I leave from our current perspective. You have only to look at chronicles of history to find evidence of my presence.” The fact that McDewey was never seen again, and that an enthusiastic society of conspiracy theorists sprang up in his wake, dedicated to trawling historical records in search of any trace of him, only served to further infuriate the serious thaumaturgical community.
(Cimorene would rather liked to have set the Academy for Practicable Theoretical Magic against the Linderwall court philosopher. It would have made for a solid afternoon of entertainment at the very least.)
While these accounts were entertaining — once Cimorene made it through the multiple layers of jargon and needlessly discursive sentences — they didn’t help with the idea tickling the back of Cimorene’s mind. She refused to let herself chase it with too much fervour, afraid she might spook it or get herself too attached to the impossible, but even after half a dozen separate works decried the field, Cimorene kept searching. If her time as Queen had taught her anything, it’s that no one would be this angry about the idea of temporal magic unless someone existed who took it seriously. She could only hope her library contained at least one of them.
As the days, weeks and months passed, Cimorene fell into a routine. She and Daystar woke early, ate breakfast and went for a walk together down the long dirt path that led from their cottage away from the Enchanted Forest. The Forest called to her every morning, the soft murmur of its leaves and the faint hum of magic like a distant whisper, but Cimorene couldn’t risk it. One chatty squirrel or enthusiastic elf eager to brag to their friends about who they’d seen and all her efforts could be for nothing. Instead she gathered what she needed from the ordinary woods a half-hour’s walk away before heading back.
Most of Cimorene’s days were spent with Daystar or keeping up with the cottage life — cooking, cleaning, maintenance, gardening, procuring food — but she managed to carve out an hour or two each day for her magical research while Daystar napped or entertained himself on his blanket with his collection of crude, hand-carved toys.
A pattern slowly developed as Cimorene covered page after page with notes culled from her readings. If anyone had attempted any sort of practical experiments regarding temporal distortion, they hadn’t made any kind of success significant enough to warrant publication. Everything was extremely cagily written, couched in even more muddled terms than usual, with every single statement preceded by a long-winded disclaimer.
Once she worked her way past that, the prevailing theories appeared to agree that if it were possible to travel through time, the ability to alter events would be limited. Fortunately — or not — Cimorene was very familiar with the concept of magical snapback thanks to Telemain and his transportation exertions, and she managed to work through this section with relative ease. A small but significant handful of writers believed that in the event of a temporal distortion, any changes to fixed events would cause an ever-widening cascade of ripples until the magic eventually snapped, causing the chronology of the universe to forcibly rewrite itself. This would — hypothetically, of course — throw the caster into an altered present, where the events they spurred had already occurred and shaped the existing past.
This was compounded by an additional theory, that major events, such as death or incidents experienced by a large number of people that entered into public knowledge, were considered “locked” in time and could not be undone, only modified, similar to the working of a witch’s curse. Attempting to change a locked event in the past would have as disastrous a result as trying to avoid the outcome of a curse or prophesy; far smarter, the scholars argued, to work around the locked events, much like the more enterprising accursed might hire a third party to work a less drastic clause onto the original curse. Moreover, the greater the change, the sooner the snapback; a circumspect traveller might explore the past at their leisure with nothing more than a few ripples, but any alterations surrounding a locked event would certainly cause the thread to break.
Cimorene pushed her notes away from her and frowned, swallowing a wave of frustration. If these theories were correct, then the wizards attacking the castle and sealing Mendanbar away would certainly count as a locked event, and attempting to go back far enough to stop it from happening would only cause something much worse. None of the scholars deigned to speculate on what that might be, but if regular magical snapback could cause vomiting and unconsciousness for days on end, Cimorene didn’t want to spend too much time thinking about anything on a larger scale.
Entirely hypothetical, of course. By the time Cimorene collected a full stack of notes on the matter, she was ready to start setting fires every time she came across the dreaded word.
“Daystar, I’ve changed my mind,” Cimorene called. Daystar rolled over onto his stomach and pulled himself forward on his arms, gripping at the floor with his fists, until he came to rest beneath her chair. “You are not allowed to become a theoretical magician whatsoever. Mother forbids it.”
“Bih,” Daystar repeated, twisting his face into a replica of Cimorene’s exasperated expression before it collapsed into a delighted grin.
“Yes, exactly, I forbid you,” Cimorene said, mock-sternly, and lifted him into her lap. Back in the old days she would take a walk through the Caves or visit Morwen for a cup of tea and a complaining session, but a good, solid hike through the non-enchanted forest trails with Daystar at her back would have to do.
A few nights later, Cimorene jolted awake in the middle of the night. Daystar, mercifully, still slept, and outside her window the branches stirred in the calm nighttime breeze. The last traces of sleep clung to the edges of her mind, and Cimorene brushed them away like errant cobwebs. If the wizards attacking the castle and imprisoning Mendanbar acted as fixed points in time, then surely so must Daystar mastering the sword and dismantle the protective enchantment surrounding the castle at sixteen. Cimorene already planned to raise Daystar to be the hero he’d need to become without him knowing so that he could defeat the wizards and save his father; these events were already in motion toward a future fixed point. However, what if she could bring them all together?
Daystar must always destroy the barrier, enter the castle and find his father. He must always be at least sixteen years old when he did so in order to wield the sword. But what if — what if he had been sixteen years old already when the wizards cast their spells? What if Cimorene could fix it so no one had to wait very long at all?
In that case, what she and Daystar would one day do need not be changed; it was only a matter of when.
Hypothetical, theoretical, impossible, preposterous: the words flew at Cimorene’s face, but she batted them away like overenthusiastic hummingbirds. Every magical discovery had been impossible once upon a time, and curiosity could be no stronger a motivator than desperation and pure determination. Cimorene threw back the blankets and stood, restless energy driving her out of bed to pace the room, until finally she stood over Daystar’s cot and watched him sleep, one arm flung above his head as he lay sprawled on his back.
Cimorene reached one hand down and brushed one finger across Daystar’s forehead. So much pressure on a child who couldn’t know his destiny until he was sent off to do it, and while Cimorene would do her best to raise him to be equal to the task, if she could do anything to help — to create a life for him where he could live without that burden —
Yes. She had to try. And if that meant diving head-first into the impossible to attempt something the magical community considered patently ridiculous, not to mention simply not done — that sounded very much like what Cimorene had been doing her entire life. If nothing else, none of those things had ever stopped her before.
The revelation with Cimorene’s magical studies didn’t come in one big wave so much as it did a hundred little ones over the course of Daystar’s childhood. With nowhere to start, Cimorene did the best she could: she started at the beginning, taking things apart to figure out how they worked. Daystar provided accidental motivation more than once; he was a curious child, and often asked follow-up questions to the stories Cimorene told him that involved tales of magic.
“How did the dwarf turn the straw into gold?”
“How do seven-league boots work?”
“How can cabbages turn someone into a donkey?”
“How did the old lady become a young lady again?”
Cimorene had asked many of the same questions when she was a girl, although of course her nurse had only responded with a fondly exasperated “Because magic, dear!”
Cimorene had never enjoyed that answer as a child, and she would never dream of brushing off Daystar in the same way; the challenge here was giving him a response that didn’t tip him off that she was anything more than an ordinary woman living in a cottage in the woods. At least Daystar, while inquisitive, did not seem inclined to question his mother about her life choices, and he took Cimorene’s knowledge as the sort of thing one learns if one is simply curious and well-versed about the workings of the world the world.
Daystar’s imagination caught particularly on the idea of age-altering potions. “You said youth potions make you into you when you were younger, so that’s easy, but what about aging ones? If you drank one, would you turn into any old lady, or would you be you when you’re older?” he asked, eyes bright with excitement. “Or would you be a different old lady every time? Or does it switch you with the body of a real old lady somewhere?”
“First of all,” Cimorene said, giving Daystar a firm look, “Don’t say ‘old lady’, that’s considered impolite. ‘Old woman’ will do if you must, and even then it’s best to see if she’s the sort of person who will be good-humoured about it. As for the rest of it, I’m afraid I don’t know. The stories rarely go into how the magic actually works. Most people don’t think to ask the question.” Daystar beamed. “How do you think it happens?”
Daystar liked that tactic very much, and could spend hours devising imaginary magical theories that grew increasingly implausible as the afternoon stretched on. Cimorene always encouraged him, because as ridiculous as his ideas ended up, anything fresh would be better than staring at piles of DeMontmorencys and Chadburys and Fitwallace-Glosturmances for hours when Cimorene’s brain had turned to mush.
And as it turned out, her breakthrough came thanks to Daystar’s questions about seven-league boots and aging spells.
Seven-league boots, Cimorene told Daystar, did not actually move the wearer across so great a distance at high speed. Moving that fast would be very dangerous and used to cause severe strain on the wearer, and so now, modern boots acted like a mini transportation spell, folding the space between the seven leagues together so that stepping between them took no more effort than an ordinary stride. Daystar frowned at her until Cimorene illustrated, holding the folds of her skirt taut, then bringing her hands together with the fabric bunched between them, then moving the next hand forward to continue with the next ‘step’ until his expression cleared with understanding. And unlike a transportation spell cast by a magician, the boots themselves carried the necessary preparations in their construction, meaning no backlash unless their owner grew careless with maintenance and repair.
Aging spells did not, Cimorene discovered after delving into a particularly dense tome on the deconstruction of non-alchemical thaumaturgical transformations, randomly change the subject into an older or younger person through a simple physical transformation. Cosmetic changes — as Killer found out — could run together and be difficult to remove, and actually transmogrifying a younger person into an older one ran the risk of damage when trying to reverse the spell.
Trying to figure out what the spells did involve took a longer to parse, but eventually — very, very eventually, long after Daystar would have ever forgotten asking the question in the first place — Cimorene managed to work it out. For all that everyone decried the idea of manipulating time, aging spells turned out to do exactly that, creating a localized temporal anomaly around the user in order to age them without creating an actual, physical transformation that might be difficult to reverse. This way the body did not suffer any negative effects from having such a dramatic change forced upon it; in a sense the body didn’t change at all, but time simply cycled around it so quickly that it moved through its own natural state.
It was, of course, a flexible rather than fixed anomaly, since an aging spell couldn’t predict whether the subject would in fact die or lose an important limb before reaching old age, and nothing around the subject actually altered. Maybe this was why most scholars didn’t actually consider it true temporal manipulation, and how they continued to argue that the actual altering of time was a practical impossibility.
The candles on the table were guttering, and Daystar had long since gone to bed as Cimorene stared at the mad scrawl of notes spread over her table. Magical theory, breakdowns of spells and popular magical items, mixed with deconstructions of children’s stories and popular contemporary legends. Her back ached, the crick in her neck had brought a dragon-worthy number of relatives to join the party, and she half wondered whether at this point she hadn’t completely lost her senses and begun conjuring castles out of cobwebs. Yet as she stared, the pieces began to creep together in her mind.
(Cimorene tried very hard not to feel too much like Telemain, muttering to himself in a corner while the rest of them waited in exasperation.)
If someone could take the temporal anomaly created by aging and de-aging spells, and combine them with the space-folding properties of seven-league boots —
— If the precision of the boots’ distance could be mapped onto time —
— If the focus of the aging spell’s time-altering could be shifted from the subject’s physical form while still keeping the effects localized to the subject and their position —
— then maybe someone could create a way to move the user through time at fixed and predictable intervals, forward or back, without creating any adverse effects or creating snapback. At least, until she started changing events in the past, after which the temporal strain would — if all the theory Cimorene had suffered through at the start of her research was correct — eventually snap and send her back to the starting point, with all the ripple effects firmly in place.
Cimorene raised her head, feeling her eyes burning bloodshot in her face. “I am either a genius or I have lost my mind,” she said to the empty room, very glad that her son still had no idea about her nightly activities.
Only one way to find out.
Cimorene’s world narrowed to her cottage, the surrounding woods and town, her son and her research. Now that she had her focus — and, after a quick word to one of the more enterprising merchants in the nearby town, a pair of seven-league boots as a base model to begin her experiments — Cimorene’s energy for her pet project returned with a vengeance. She split her days between making her theories a reality and raising Daystar to be a good, honest and respectful boy, and amused herself trying to imagine which task was the more impressive feat in the grand scheme of things.
Certainly the magic proved much more recalcitrant; Daystar showed no sign of growing up a spoiled, sullen princeling under Cimorene’s parentage, polite and eager to please and help his mother around the house, and Cimorene privately adjusted her opinions on princes and princely behaviour. Rather like Mendanbar assuming all princesses had been taught economics and politics and simply ignored them, maybe princes had been raised without anyone showing them the proper way to behave.
Perhaps if all princes had to spend a few years living as poor woodcutters or farmers’ sons they might not be so insufferable — a thought Cimorene would have to keep in mind if her plan worked and Daystar had the chance to live his childhood over in the castle. That didn’t stop Cimorene’s irritation whenever the brash adventuring variety showed up at her door looking for directions, but she did try to keep a bit of perspective.
Cimorene’s years of practice meant she could generally get rid of them quite quickly, at least, even without the threats of Kazul or Willin’s interminable bureaucracy to aid her. Once she was indoors preparing dinner while Daystar chopped more wood for the fire when a visitor passed by, and Cimorene started to head out to shoo him away but stopped at the doorway to see how Daystar would handle it. He was twelve now, growing tall but still lanky, and definitely unassuming in his simple homespun clothing.
He gave directions to the Enchanted Forest with simple courtesy and managed to avoid offering the adventurer — a knight, Cimorene guessed by the armour, too functional and not enough gold to be a prince — any refreshments or a place to rest his feet without coming off as rude or inhospitable. Cimorene nodded to herself, satisfied, but then the knight gave Daystar a considering look and she paused, eyes narrowed.
“Where is your father, then?” the knight asked in that jovial yet presumptuous way that Cimorene had to assume they all learned at school somewhere.
Daystar paused, one hand resting on the handle of the axe. “My mother is inside,” he said. “But she doesn’t like to be disturbed when she’s working.”
“A young lad like you should be out having adventures,” said the knight. Cimorene bit her tongue. “Why don’t you come with me, be my squire? I’m always doing exciting things, you know, rescuing princesses, slaying ogres, fighting dragons —“
(Slaying ogres, Cimorene thought with a silent scoff, when everyone knew ogres scheduled their pillaging for mutual convenience with the rulers of nearby kingdoms? Not likely.)
“Mother taught me to be polite to dragons,” Daystar said, still using the same polite yet implacable tone, and Cimorene made a mental note to give him an extra helping of bread pudding tonight. “And I do appreciate the offer, but I’m quite happy here.”
The knight frowned, glancing back toward the house, Cimorene sighed and began unpinning her hair, as the best way to intimidate unwanted visitors was to stun them with ankle-length jet-black curls rather than service-like braids wrapped inconspicuously around her head. “Are you quite sure?” he asked dubiously. “I was a squire myself at your age, you know, it really is quite the thing. We could even go on a proper quest if you like, you know, explore your heritage and all that.”
Daystar cocked his head to one side. “What do you mean, explore my heritage?”
“Well, that’s what’s done, isn’t it?” said the knight, warming to the idea. “Young boy, no father, living alone in the woods, it’s what you’re meant to do, isn’t it? Everyone wants to know the truth about where they came from, and what better way to do that than with someone who knows what he’s doing to show you around?”
Daystar’s expression turned thoughtful, his grey eyes solemn and so much like Mendanbar’s when he puzzled out a problem that Cimorene’s chest ached — with pride, or missing him, or something deeper. “If I thought it mattered where I came from I wouldn’t need to go on a quest,” he said finally. “I would ask Mother.”
“Ask your mother?” the knight sputtered. “But that isn’t —“
“Unless you think she doesn’t know or wouldn’t tell me, which isn’t very polite to say,” Daystar continued. “And I’ve never heard of poor boys going on quests to discover who they really are with an established knight. I thought the whole point of a hero’s journey was to do it alone.”
The knight shifted his weight, expression turning shifty. “Well — I do sort of think these quests are made up so that boys don’t feel bad about growing up with their fathers, you know, give them a way to make a sorry situation seem romantic and heroic and all that, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t!”
“Are you sure you don’t just need a squire?” Daystar asked. Cimorene had to stifle a laugh against the back of her hand. “You seem very keen.”
This time the knight definitely looked uncomfortable. “Well, as a matter of fact, my provisional membership is about to run out, and if I don’t find a squire in the next four days the Brotherhood of Knights might not promote me to full member. I’d heard this kind of area was good for picking up squires, lots of disgruntled goose-herds or pig-keepers, that sort of thing, but no luck.”
“Mother says there’s a very strong farmworkers’ union here,” Daystar said helpfully.
“That would do it,” the knight said mournfully. “Well, if you’re not interested…”
“You might have more luck actually asking for what you want, rather than trying to be sneaky,” Daystar said. “Especially if you’re going to the Enchanted Forest. Mother says it’s best to be very specific.”
The knight peered back toward the cottage, eyes narrowed. “I think I’d best head out before I meet this mother of yours, she sounds rather terrifying,” he said, sounding darkly amused by the idea. “Well, good luck to you, boy, and thank you for the directions.”
Daystar went back to chopping the last of the wood while Cimorene hastily braided and pinned her hair, then made it back to the kitchen before he came in. “Is everything all right?” Cimorene asked as he came in and stacked the wood next to the fireplace. “I heard we had a visitor.”
“Another knight,” Daystar said. “He wasn’t very smart, or polite.”
“That seems to be a pattern,” Cimorene said neutrally, and Daystar laughed. But then he hesitated, fiddling with the stack of logs, rearranging them so they sat just so, and Cimorene frowned. “Daystar, come here.”
He did, hanging his head a little, and actually tucked himself in against Cimorene’s side, ducking his head into the curve of her shoulder. “He said I should come be a squire with him and go on adventures,” Daystar said. “I told him I didn’t want to and I was happy here with you. That’s all right, isn’t it, Mother?”
Cimorene set down her spoon and ran her fingers through Daystar’s hair, unruly like his parents’ no matter how many times he attempted to comb it. “I can’t imagine an education with an impolite, not very smart knight would be very instructive,” Cimorene said, and bent to kiss the top of his head. “Now help me finish up dinner.”