Annabeth can’t remember her mother. She knows from her father that she was beautiful, but more than that, she was smart. The smartest in the land, her father said. Skeptics said she was a witch, but Annabeth knew better.
Her father said she looked like her mother. Her hair, her eyes. Her brain, too – “you could give your mother a run for her money.” Her father always spoke of her mother this way, in present tense. He didn’t know where she was – no one did.
Her father’s praise came with a warning, though. “Not everyone likes a woman as intelligent as you and your mother. She had a lot of enemies because of it. Be careful.”
When Annabeth was eight years old her father remarried. Mrs. Chase was rather disinterested in Annabeth. She brought two sons with her, Matthew and Bobby, twins a few years younger than Annabeth, who held all their mother’s attention. Annabeth was left largely alone. Her father was often gone, but the house was never empty. There were plenty of staff who worked for them, and Annabeth was friends with many. There was Silena, who worked in the stables, and Juniper who tended the garden. Clarisse helped the boys with their sword training, and she would even train Annabeth after hours, despite her step-mothers wishes. Mrs. Chase did not believe that a girl of Annabeth’s rank should learn something as vulgar and masculine as sword fighting, and even though she and Clarisse weren’t exactly friendly, Clarisse was so offended by Mrs. Chase’s attitude that she vowed to teach Annabeth. So Annabeth was not alone, and even though she missed her father, and the mother she never knew, she had a good life.
That was until the day someone came to the door to inform them regretfully that Frederick Chase had been found dead.
Annabeth doesn’t remember much about what happened after her father’s death. He had been attacked in the woods, found by an old woman. They buried him tearfully, and Mrs. Chase found herself – again – a young widow, with a daughter who wasn’t hers, and a debt she had no way of paying.
Shortly after the funeral the debt collectors came. They came through and shook them until there was nothing left. Annabeth lost everything – her friends, her belongings, almost all of her clothes and all of her books. That had been the most painful, watching them take her books away, the only thing she had to take her mind off her father’s death.
But Frederick Chase had been a good man, and they left them the house. One last consolation. A big empty house with an empty family inside.
Mrs. Chase had tolerated Annabeth before, and Annabeth had kept out of her way. But after her husband’s death, her attitude changed. Annabeth could see why. Mrs. Chase was young, pretty, and twice widowed, stuck in an empty house with a life and a daughter she never wanted. She resented Annabeth; Annabeth, who was smarter than most people in the kingdom. Annabeth, who everybody loved. Annabeth, who had legally been left everything her father owned.
Mrs. Chase had nowhere else to go.
She could have kicked them out. The step-family that never loved her. But she couldn’t.
Something about being left all alone in the world makes you crave any kind of company, even the bad kind.
They all pitched in. Mrs. Chase grew food in the garden, while Annabeth prepared it. Matthew and Bobby learned to hunt as best as they could, but they were all upper class people, unused to living off the land. Annabeth did most of the work; she cooked and cleaned harder than the rest of them, but she didn’t mind so much. It took her mind off of things.
When the annual ball for the prince’s birthday passes without an invitation, that’s when Annabeth realizes how far they’ve fallen.
“The prince is getting married.”
Matthew takes a bite of stew. “So? Are you planning on going for it? Bit old for him, aren’t you? He’s Annabeth’s age.”
Mrs. Chase glares at her son. “No. There is a party. Three, actually. At the end of the third night he will choose a girl to marry.”
“And?” Bobby says. “We’re not invited to those anymore. We’re too poor.”
“The parties,” Mrs. Chase says through clenched teeth, “are open to all. Even the…” she grimaces. “Common folk.”
“So what then? You’re going to go and try husband number three?”
Sometimes Annabeth almost feels sorry for her.
“We have enough money for the three of us to really dress up and make an impression. If we are lucky, maybe you two will catch the eye of some noble woman. Who knows? Maybe one of you will catch the eye of a visiting princess. The Princess Hazel, perhaps. Or maybe Princess Reyna.”
Bobby snorts. “If the rumours are true, Annabeth would have a better chance at seducing Princess Reyna.”
Her step-mother turns her, as if she had only just remembered Annabeth was there. “You will not be attending, Annabeth. We do not have enough money to make you a dress – the boys’ suits will be relatively cheap, but dresses are not. Not to mention… you would probably scare all the suitors away, even if we were able to clean you up enough to look presentable. You’re too smart to be pretty, my dear.”
Annabeth does not mention that technically the money belongs to her, nor does she mention that there is probably enough money for her to attend as well. Annabeth does not want to go to the balls, nor does she particularly care about who Prince Percy would be marrying.
“You two will focus all your energy on the noblewoman. You will be charming and mature. That means no… fart jokes.”
Annabeth almost laughs.
The night of the first ball Annabeth helps the boys put on their suits. Matthew sighs as Annabeth straightens his tie.
“I don’t want to go to this stupid ball,” he mutters.
“It won’t be that bad,” Annabeth says, turning to Bobby’s tie.
“Easy for you to say. You don’t have to go.”
Annabeth watches them go in the rented carriage her step-mother had gotten a hold of. The three of them ride off, grim expressions on their faces, and Annabeth can’t help but wonder if there had ever been a time when her step-mother had been happy. Then she sits on a bench, looking at what used to be such a resplendent garden when Juniper had been in charge. She remembers her friends, remembers her father, remembers her old life. Then she tries to remember the last time she had been happy and fails.
Then she starts to cry.
“Pretty girls shouldn’t be crying.”
Annabeth can’t tell where the voice is coming from. She stands up, trying to remember the moves Clarisse had taught her a lifetime ago, until a figure walks out of the shadows and she sees a young woman, no older than herself.
“My looks shouldn’t dictate my ability to show emotion.”
The girl smiles. Her teeth are very white, and despite her initial words to Annabeth, Annabeth can see in the light of the setting sun that she is far more beautiful than Annabeth is; she is the kind of beautiful that takes no effort, a role out of bed beauty that a lot of people try so hard to achieve. She is beautiful in every way someone can be beautiful. Annabeth is taken aback.
“Trust me, I know. But I have a certain… script to follow.”
Annabeth wipes her tears and then stares warily at the girl. “Who are you?”
The stranger takes a seat. “Depends. I have a lot of names. Which one do you want?”
Annabeth considers this. “What do you call yourself?”
She grins. “You’re smart. I like you.” She holds out her hand. “Piper. Call me Piper.”
Annabeth takes her hand, before sitting back down beside her. “Okay. And why are you here, Piper?”
“When a pretty girl is crying, it’s pretty much in my job description that I have to fix it.”
“Okay. Sure. And what does that mean?”
Piper sighs. “Okay Annabeth –”
“How do you know my name?”
Piper studies her. Annabeth has a hard time meeting her eyes, and when she does they seem to be a different colour each time. Green, blue, brown, and colours Annabeth can’t even name.
“Can I ask you a question?” When Piper nods, she says, “Are you human?”
Another smile. “I really, really like you.” And then there is movement behind her, and Annabeth stares in wonder as large beautiful wings spread out behind her, a beautiful gold colour that reflects the sun. Annabeth’s eyes widen at the sight.
“Witch,” Annabeth breathes out, not unkindly. She had thought witches were old crones, with hunch backs and evil smiles, not beautiful young woman with wings. Surprisingly, Annabeth is not afraid – if anything she is more intrigued. But Piper shakes her head. “Nope. Not a witch.”
“Then what are you?” She says, not realizing how rude that sounds until after the words leave her mouth.
“Have you heard of the goddess Aphrodite?”
Annabeth nods. Stories of Aphrodite and her fellow gods have survived over the centuries, but anyone who believed in them is long gone. They are just stories, now. Myths.
“I’m her daughter.”
Annabeth’s eyebrows raise. Normally she would have passed this off as some kind of joke, or some crazy person wandering around, but those wings are too perfect to be anything but real.
“Do you believe me?”
Annabeth bites her lip. “I can’t see any reason why you would lie to me. So either you’re telling the truth, or you’re insane. I haven’t decided which one of those I believe yet.”
“And how will you decide?”
“You’re going to explain.”
Piper laughs quietly. “The gods and goddesses are real, Annabeth. My mother is Aphrodite.”
“Goddess of love.”
She nods. “My father is a mortal. I’m what is called a half-blood. A demi-god.”
“And the wings? Are those –”
“No. The wings I got when I entered my mother’s service.”
“When was that?”
She gives her a coy smile. “We’re not here for me, Annabeth. We’re here for you.”
Piper rolls her eyes and then says, very fast, “Because you are pure of heart, full of life, and then something about great pain that hasn’t diminished your kindness or the intense amount of love in your heart, etc etc ad nauseam.”
“That sounds scripted.”
“That’s because it is. I’m here because – well. It’s kind of my job. My mother has a thing for sad, lonely girls. It’s kind of her shtick.”
“Okay. So what do you do?”
“For lack of a better word… wishes. Think of me as your fairy godmother.”
“So, like a three wishes kind of deal.”
“That’s a genie. I don’t live in a lamp.”
Annabeth smiles. “Okay. So you’re here to what, grant me wishes because my life has fallen to shit?”
“Something like that.”
“Okay. So can I get my library back?”
Piper shakes her head sadly. “I’m sorry, Annabeth. I wish I could give you your library back. But the rules are strict. My mother deals in love, you see. So the only magic I can give you is magic that will lead you to love.”
Annabeth slouches, disappointed. “That’s some pretty big small print.”
Piper pats her hand. “I’m sorry, Annabeth. Those are the rules. You’re smart, though. I’ll bet you can figure it out.”
Figure it out. Annabeth thinks about this. It sounds like Piper is hinting at something, like there’s something she can do that will get her the true wish. She doesn’t expect to find happiness in love. But maybe love could help her find happiness.
How could love help her get her books back? How could love help her leave that sad empty house and her step-family behind?
The prince. The prince is getting married.
“I want to go to the ball. I want a beautiful dress and I want to go to the ball to meet Prince Percy.”
Piper’s smile is all she needs to tell her that she got it right. Her stomach flips. Probably just nerves.
“That I can do. Close your eyes.”
“Why do I have to close my eyes?”
To her surprise, Piper blushes. “I can’t – it’s embarrassing, but I can’t really perform my magic when I’m being watched.”
Annabeth doesn’t laugh at her. Instead she just closes her eyes.
“Okay. You might feel a little warm and tingly. Or so I’ve heard.”
“You’ve never tried?”
“Like I said. The magic only works for love.” Annabeth thinks she sounds a little sad, but she respects her wishes and closes her eyes.
It does feel warm and tingly, really, like a warm breeze passing through her body. When Piper tells her she can open her eyes she looks down at herself in wonder.
The dress is pale blue, with a large skirt, but other than that she can’t see much of it.
“Do you have a mirror?”
“I’m legally not allowed to leave without one,” Piper says, and Annabeth can’t tell if she’s joking or not. She takes a mirror out of one of her pockets and hands it to Annabeth. Her hair is curled, her eyes done up with makeup. The dress is absolutely beautiful. She is absolutely beautiful. Totally uncomfortable, but beautiful.
“Yeah. No kidding.”
Annabeth lets out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding. “Okay. So how am I getting there?”
Piper thinks. “I’ll get you a carriage.”
“Like with magic? Are you going to make me a carriage out of, like…” She glances around. “A pumpkin, or something?”
“What? No, like a taxi service,” Piper says, smiling at Annabeth as if they had been friends for years. Annabeth finds herself wishing they had been.
Piper calls in a favour – apparently a lot of people owe the goddess of love a favour, and soon enough a carriage is rolling up in front of Annabeth’s house. Piper helps her into the carriage with a smile.
“Is there a time limit? Will the magic run out?”
“No. But a little birdy tells me that your family will be home around one. You should be home before then. Other than that… the night is yours, Annabeth Chase.”
The night is yours. Annabeth can’t remember the last time she had really had anything.
When Annabeth gets to the castle she is blown away. She had been to the castle before, when her father had to come or during the prince’s birthday bashes, but it had never been this busy or decorated so much. Now the castle is open to everyone, and Annabeth has never seen so many people.
The people holding the doors bow at her as she enters. She adjusts her dress, keeping a look out for her family. She doubts they would be able to spot her from afar – they hadn’t expected her to be here, and she was so clean and dressed up that there was no way they would recognize her. But if they were close up, they would know it was her. No one had eyes like Annabeth Chase.
She spots Bobby and Matthew across the room and goes in the other direction. She grabs a biscuit from a waiter and ends up spilling crumbs all over herself. She vaguely recalls a rule that ladies aren’t supposed to eat in public, but she’s hungry and anyway, she’s never been much of a lady.
“May I have a dance, miss?” An older gentleman is holding out his hand and smiling.
“Um, sure. Has the prince come out yet?”
Her partner nods. “He has been busy, dancing with all the beautiful women. But I am dancing with the most beautiful.”
She smiles politely at him. “Thank you.” When the song ends she excuses herself – she has to find the prince.
She is stopped a few more times, but she denies more dances. She finally catches sight of the prince, who is dancing with a pretty red head. Annabeth puts on her prettiest smile and asks a random man for a dance, hoping to catch the prince’s attention.
“Oh. Um. Of course,” says the nervous man she asks to dance. He is probably her age, although he is shorter than her, with curly hair and a goatee. He makes small talk but she just smiles and nods and tries to catch the prince’s eye.
It works. As the song dies down Percy kisses his partner’s hand and then makes his way over to Annabeth.
“Grover,” he says to her dance partner. “You didn’t tell me you had a date.”
Grover laughs nervously; it sounds almost like a bleat.
“No, no. This is… actually, my lady, I never asked your name. My apologies.”
Annabeth smiles and waves this off as no big deal. Percy grins at her.
“If you’re not here with my best friend, may I have a dance with you?”
She nods. “Sure.” No, that’s not what she’s supposed to say. She is supposed to smile demurely and say something like it would be my pleasure, your highness. She’s not very good at this. Her step-mother would be having an aneurism.
The prince takes her hand. Annabeth is suddenly grateful for the dance lessons her father made her suffer through. She’d never be able to bag a prince if she didn’t know how to dance.
Prince Percy is her age, with dark hair and beautiful green eyes. Looking at them, she can’t help but be reminded of Piper’s ever changing eyes. He had a kind smile and smelled faintly of the sea. Naturally, all the girls were in love with him. Percy was handsome and kind, the most eligible bachelor of all, and he was staring at her with sparkling eyes.
And she felt not a thing.
That was okay though, she mused. She had just met the guy. And anyway, she didn’t need to love him; she just needed to marry him. There were worse people she could marry than Percy.
“So far, you’re the best girl in the room that I’ve danced with.”
“And why is that?”
Percy spins her. “First off, no one dances with Grover. Most people are thrown off by him, and he’s too shy to ever ask anyone, so he spends most of these balls alone in the corner eating enchiladas. So you already score bonus points for dancing with my best friend. And secondly, I like the fact that you give me the same look you give to everyone else.”
“And what look is that?”
“Like you could crush me under your heel.”
Annabeth is stunned. “This is just my default expression.”
“You look like the type of person who could convince my father to rename the kingdom. Like you’re capable of anything.”
“I bet you say that to all the girls.”
He smiles. “No. I can promise I don’t.”
The dance ends, and Percy bows to her. “I will try and find myself back here as much as possible tonight.”
She smiles. “Okay.”
The next time he finds her he sweeps her out of the arms of a nice older man. They had been talking about classic architecture and Annabeth is annoyed at being interrupted, although she tries to hide it. Apparently she doesn’t do very well.
“I’m sorry,” Percy says. “But it’s hard to get away, and if I don’t dance with you now who knows when I’ll get another chance. That’s Mr. Brunner, my tutor. You’ll be able to dance with him again.”
“He’s a very smart man.”
“Too smart. He expects too much from me.”
Annabeth cocks her head. He sounds sad. But then just like that a smile is back on his face.
“So you haven’t told me your name yet.”
Annabeth hesitates. He will probably recognize her name – Frederick Chase had been relatively well known at court, and she knows that his death and the debt that followed had been the hot gossip for a while. If he learned who she was he might not want to dance with her anymore, let alone marry her.
“You have to earn my name, highness.”
He laughs. “And how do I do that?”
“I can’t tell you. Otherwise it’s not genuine.” Or, translated – I have no idea. I’m making this up on the spot.
“All right. I can do that.”
The next dance he whisks her almost to the other side of the room.
“What are you doing?”
“My aunt keeps trying to dance with me, and let’s just say I’m not her biggest fan.”
He sighs. “She always spouts off about how important family is but she only cares about the perfect, ideal ones. Like, my father had a bastard born at court, which was pretty shitty of my father, but the kid is all right. His name is Tyson, and we hang out a lot. But my aunt always treats him like garbage, even though it’s not his fault, and she is perfectly civil to my father, even though it was his fault.” He shakes his head. “Sorry. You don’t want to hear this.”
But she did, was the strange thing. It made Percy seem more human, less princely. Like he was letting her see the real him, buried underneath years of princely training.
“My step-mother hates me,” she confides. Percy looks at her seriously.
“Would you like me to have her executed?” He asks. Annabeth leans back.
“I’m just kidding,” he says with a grin. “But if you had have said yes I might have skipped our next dance.”
Annabeth laughs a bit. It is surprisingly easy, imagining a future like this. And even if she never grew to love him, she could still be happy with him. And she could achieve great things with Prince Percy. Things she barely let herself think about. Impossible, impossible things.
“What are you thinking about?”
She doesn’t have to tell him, but she wants to. “Things I want to do when I’m older. Plans.”
“Like your hopes and dreams and stuff?”
She smiles slightly. “I once heard an old woman say that a dream was a wish your heart made.”
He thinks about this. “The other night I had a dream where I was at this huge seafood buffet, stuffing my face with lobster, but when I looked down I was also a lobster. I was a lobster eating a lobster. What do you think that means?”
She looks at him, dead serious, and then she starts to laugh. Percy grins and dips her.
The next dance is the final of the night. Percy takes her from his tutor again.
“You two seem to get along.”
“He was just telling me about your library.”
“You seem like a library kind of girl.”
She remembers her step-mother’s words: you’re too smart to be pretty.
“Does that intimidate you?” She asks carefully.
Damn. But Percy smiles. “Don’t worry. I like it.”
“Some people say a woman shouldn’t be smart.”
“Those aren’t the types of people I like to associate with.”
She smiles, reassured.
“I’ll show you the library,” he says. “If you’d like.”
“Sure. But first you have to tell me your name.”
She bites her lip. She could do it – even if Percy didn’t want anything to do with her after, he would still probably show her.
Then the clock chimes midnight and Annabeth curses in a very unladylike way.
“I have to go,” she says apologetically.
“Curfew. Kind of. I’m sorry.”
“Will you be back tomorrow?”
She nods, and relief spreads across his face.
“All right. Goodnight then.”
She leaves before he comes up out of his bow.
She gets back to the house with hardly any time to spare. She hurries up to her room, only to find Piper, looking closely at herself in the mirror.
“You know,” she says. “You’d think being a messenger of love would mean I wouldn’t get pimples. Oh well. I think I’ll name it Bob.”
Annabeth shrugs off the dress and throws on her regular clothes. When she turns around she is surprised to see that the dress is gone.
“Where did it go?”
“It wasn’t real,” Piper says. Her wings are flapping lazily, sending a light breeze through the room. Annabeth doesn’t even think she realizes. “It doesn’t exist outside of you.”
“What am I supposed to wear tomorrow?”
Piper gives her a look. “Oh, Annabeth. My mother would tack on another twenty years to my sentence if I sent you wearing the same thing two days in a row.”
“Your sentence? What does that mean?”
Piper pales, but before she can answer Annabeth hears the voices of her step-brothers.
“I’ll be back tomorrow, Annabeth. Sleep well.”
Annabeth wants to stop her, but she has no real reason to, so she watches as, amazingly, Piper crawls onto her window sill and casually jumps down.
Her step-mother calls her down. “I’m going to need you to clean these clothes for tomorrow,” she says briskly. “They will need to be perfect.”
Annabeth remembers what Piper had said, about wearing the same thing two days in a row, and she has to bite the inside of her cheek to stop from smirking.
That night she expects to dream of sea green eyes, strong arms and the sea and a never ending room of books. She expects to dream of a happy smile and the promise of happiness stretching out in front of her.
Instead she dreams in gold, rocked to sleep with the comforting feeling of wings around her, and the entire sky at her fingertips.
Piper’s smiles are shyer than Percy’s but they are brighter, so bright that sometimes Annabeth feels like she can’t look at them straight on. She wonders if this is her parentage or just her.
“So what will it be today?”
Annabeth shrugs. “You’re the expert.”
Piper makes a face. “Not by choice.”
Annabeth speaks quietly, as if she’s afraid she might scare her away. “You can tell me –”
“I deal in other people’s happiness, Annabeth. We’re not here for me.”
Annabeth makes a mental note to come back to this subject, in the hopes that maybe Piper will open up. “At the end of three days, will you leave?”
Piper smiles sadly. “There are always people who need help in love, Annabeth.” Annabeth notices that Piper likes to say her name, and Annabeth likes the way it rolls off her tongue, the way her lips form the syllables of her name. She wants to reach out and touch her wings, to see if they are as soft as she had dreamed, but even though she’s not entirely certain on what wing etiquette is, she has a feeling that would probably be rude.
“Close your eyes,” Piper says softly, and Annabeth complies; this time when the warmth floods her body she imagines it is Piper’s wings.
This time the dress is a pale pink, slightly more form fitting than the one from yesterday. She still doesn’t feel very comfortable, but she imagines she looks beautiful. She doesn’t look at her reflection this time – if she looks the same as she had last night then she’s not worried, and she trusts Piper. She’s not sure why she trusts Piper so quickly and so completely, but she does.
“Beautiful as always,” she says, and she tucks a stray piece of hair behind Annabeth’s ear. “Knock ‘em dead.”
Annabeth leaves, fighting the feeling that she would much rather stay behind and spend the night with the winged woman in her bedroom.
“I was wondering when you’d get here.”
Percy is upon her almost as soon as she enters the ballroom. “You say that as if you’ve been watching the doors for me.”
“I have,” he says unabashedly. “It’s been hard. There are a lot of doors.”
Annabeth smiles. “Are you going to ask me to dance?”
The first dance is filled with idle chatter. Percy admits he hasn’t danced with anyone else yet. “It’s caused quite a stir.”
“All that trouble over me,” she teases. “Am I really worth all that?”
He nods seriously.
After he leaves she finds Mr. Brunner again, eager to continue their conversations. She even dances with Grover again.
The next dance she says, “So tell me – is there a leading lady for your affections yet?”
“You could say that.”
“And does she like you?”
His smile is unsure, and Annabeth suddenly realizes that despite his bravado, he’s not as confident as he seems. She wonders how much of his personality has been determined by princely training.
“I hope so.”
“You know – you don’t have to pretend around me. You don’t have to keep up appearances.”
Percy’s grin is full, this time. “I really like you. It would be so nice to be able to call you by your name.”
The music stops, moving onto the next song. Annabeth winks. “You’re getting there.”
She has just finished a dance with an old man who had been far too hands-y when she sees her.
Juniper turns, but her eyes pass right over Annabeth. Wow. She must really look different.
“It’s me,” she says with a wave. “Annabeth.”
Juniper’s eyes widen. “Annabeth? Is that really you?”
Annabeth nods, and Juniper throws her arms around her.
“What are you doing here? Trying to score yourself a prince?”
Juniper blushes. “Oh, no. I work here.”
“Really? In the castle?”
“Normally I tend the gardens, but for an event this big they asked me if I would help serve. I was just on my way to get another tray of drinks.”
“I won’t keep you then.” Annabeth gives her another hug. “It was so good to see you again.”
“You too. And Annabeth – you look beautiful.”
Annabeth smiles and watches her walk away; strangely, she kind of feels like she’s going to cry. Seeing Juniper just brought her back to all those years ago, with a big house and her father and all of her friends. She misses the way things used to be. She misses her father and her friends. She misses her old life.
She is so, so lonely.
“Do you know that girl?”
She turns around to see Grover. She takes a steadying breath and then nods.
“What’s her name?”
“Juniper. She –”
“Works in the gardens. I know.” He stares dreamily in the direction Juniper had gone.
“Have you spoken to her before?”
Grover laughs, that same nervous, bleaty laugh that she had heard before. “No. No, I could never. I mean – well, she wouldn’t want to talk to me.”
Annabeth shakes her head. “Juniper is an incredibly kind person. I’m sure she would appreciate a friend.”
Grover swallows. “You really think she wouldn’t mind?”
She tries her best to smile reassuringly. “I know it.”
Grover is about to walk away when he turns back. “He really likes you, you know. He talked about you all night.”
Annabeth watches him go. The room is suddenly too hot, her dress too tight. It feels like everyone is closing in on her. She needs to get out of here; she needs air.
She makes her way through the crowd and out a door, where she finds herself in the gardens. They are breathtaking – Juniper must be in her element. She sits down and takes a few deep breaths.
“Are you okay?”
She jumps in surprise. Prince Percy is in front of her, looking nervous. She debates just nodding, but she remembers what Grover had said, and so instead she tells the truth.
“My name is Annabeth Chase. My father was Frederick Chase.”
He takes a seat next to her. “I remember him. He… he died, didn’t he?”
Annabeth nods. “I didn’t want to tell you my name because it used to mean something, but now it doesn’t. and that means nothing to me, gods know I don’t care that we were left in disgrace or whatever, but I figured it might… it might matter, not necessarily to you, but to the kingdom, maybe. Or your father.”
“None of that matters to me.”
“Your father wouldn’t want you to marry someone of my rank.”
“My father isn’t the one getting married.”
Annabeth shuffles her feet. Something still feels wrong, but she isn’t sure what. It’s probably just left over concern. Once she gets used to the fact that Percy truly means it, she will get more comfortable. She won’t be afraid of getting hurt.
“Annabeth is a beautiful name.” He gives her a lopsided smile, and she smiles back. “I do remember our deal. A name for a library.”
“Won’t you be missed?”
“Ask me if I care.”
“Do you care?”
She doesn’t understand how he could look at her with so much affection in his eyes when they barely knew each other.
“Not one bit.” He holds out his hand, and she takes it.
And the clock chimes midnight.
“Oh, fuck –” Percy’s eyes widen, but before she can apologize he laughs.
“That’s your cue to leave, I guess?”
“I’m sorry,” she says.
She nods. “Tomorrow.”
Percy kisses her cheek, and then she is gone.
“So how was your night?”
Piper is on her bed, a pencil in one hand and a pad of paper on her lap.
She shrugs. “Occasionally. So. How did it go?”
Annabeth shrugs. “Good. I don’t know. It feels kind of… forced.”
Piper puts the paper down. “Look, Annabeth. Love isn’t an immediate thing. Do you like him?”
“Do I like him, or do I have feelings for him?”
“Don’t worry about the feelings bit for now. Do you like him?”
She nods. If she ignores the fact that she’s trying to marry him, being around Prince Percy is easy and enjoyable.
Piper is giving her another one of those soft smiles that she loves so much. “Love at first sight is a sham, Annabeth. Don’t get all bent out of shape because you’re not head over heels for a guy you just met. Do you need help with that?”
Piper’s hands are soft as she unzips Annabeth’s dress. She hands her the regular clothes, and sure enough when Annabeth turns around, the dress is gone.
“Don’t worry, Annabeth. I wouldn’t have been sent here if it wouldn’t have led you to love.”
Annabeth sighs and sits down on her bed. “I guess I should probably trust you, huh?”
Piper sits down across from her and grabs her hand. “I don’t have to like what I do to be good at it.”
Annabeth chews her lip before working up the courage to say, “Piper, will you –”
“You want me to tell you why I’m working for my mother.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Five years ago, I fell in love with a girl.”
Annabeth expects to feel surprised, but the first feeling that washes over her is quite the opposite – it’s a strange feeling of reassurance.
“The place where I lived was very closed-minded, and when we were found out, we were arrested. The penalty was death.”
Annabeth’s eyes widen.
“But I had connections, whether I liked it or not. So I got off with a wrist slap and a strong warning, but she didn’t. She was sentenced to death, and to ensure I never did it again, I was to be forced to watch her.”
Piper’s voice is barely audible, a whisper filled with pain. Annabeth wants to touch her, but she can’t move; she can’t do anything but watch the pain in Piper’s eyes as Annabeth forces her to remember.
“I never knew my mother, but I had heard rumours. People said she was a witch, or some sort of devil. A demon. So I prayed. I prayed to every deity that might have existed, I prayed to a mother I never knew, I prayed to any sort of power that could help. And my mother answered. She appeared to me, and she told me who she was, and I had no other choice but to believe her. She gave me a deal – she would save my girlfriend, and I would serve her for ten years.”
“But that’s not fair,” Annabeth interjects. “Why should you have to pay when you didn’t do anything wrong?”
Piper smiles at her. “Love isn’t fair. That’s one of the first lessons you learn as a child of it. Love is the most powerful element in the world and it will bowl you over if you don’t get out of the way. Love is cruel and unkind and ruthless and it doesn’t care about you.”
There is so much pain and bitterness in her words that Annabeth is surprised she’s not choking on it. She wants to reach out, wants to comfort her, but she has nothing to offer her, and besides, Annabeth was the reason for it. Annabeth was why she was telling this story.
“But my mother was kind, Annabeth, really. Ten years is nothing to a god. She could have requested my service for the rest of my life and I would have given it. But she didn’t. She brought my girlfriend to a new place and I have five more years to give her.”
“Do you still see her? The girl, I mean.”
It isn’t until Piper shakes her head no that Annabeth realizes this is the answer she had hoped for.
“What if I don’t want to marry the prince?”
Piper shrugs. “Then don’t marry him.”
The simplicity of this answer makes her want to scream. “But what about this?” At Piper’s questioning glance, she continues. “You came to help me find ‘true love’ or whatever. What will it mean if I don’t marry the prince?”
“It’s not that straightforward. You’re thinking in straight lines, Annabeth. This isn’t logic, it’s emotion. Love might not involve the prince. And even if it does, you always have the option not to follow.”
“None of this makes sense.”
Piper laughs. “Welcome to my world. This isn’t something you can understand. I don’t even understand. Just let it happen. When it happens you can decide yes or no.”
Annabeth hears voices downstairs. Damn.
“That’s my cue,” Piper says, standing to leave.
“You could stay. You don’t have to leave.”
Piper looks at her, and Annabeth thinks she might see longing in her gaze, but she doesn’t know for what.
Piper shakes her head. “Never again,” she says, so quietly Annabeth suspects she wasn’t supposed to hear.
And then she leaves, the breeze from her wings ruffling Annabeth’s hair. She hears her step-mother calling her name and sighs. Grabbing the pad of paper off her bed, she takes a look at what Piper was drawing.
It is rough and unfinished, but Annabeth is almost certain it’s her.
She rips it out and folds it, tucking it into her pocket, before going downstairs to her step-mother.
Once again Annabeth watches her step-mother and brothers ride away. Mrs. Chase had been testy all day – it’s the last night of the ball and Matthew and Bobby have not come close to impressing some kind of noblewoman. She had been snapping at everyone all day long.
When she turns around, Piper is there. Her gaze is far away, watching the carriage.
“That woman has not been happy in years.”
“What do you mean?”
“She married for love, the first time. But he died, leaving her alone and penniless with twins. So she married for money the next time, but she grew to love your father very much. And then it happened again, this time leaving her with a step-daughter she was horrendously jealous of.”
“She was always third in your father’s heart, no matter how much she loved him. It might have been all right if it was just behind you, but he still loved your mother, too. You are beautiful and smart and young, everything your step-mother used to be.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
Piper shrugs. “Everyone has a story. I’m not saying it’s justification for the way she treats you, gods no. But I just thought you might like to know that there’s more to her than just hating you.”
Annabeth considers this momentarily before deciding she has enough things to worry about, and turns away from the road. “I suppose it’s time for my dress, then?”
Piper smiles. “You don’t have to sound so happy about it.”
Annabeth looks at her apologetically. “Well, it’s just – they’re not the most comfortable.”
Piper’s eyebrows furrow. “You should have told me. I could have fixed it.”
Annabeth feels bad that she seems to have upset her. “It’s not that bad, really,” she tries to say, but Piper waves this off.
“Don’t worry. Close your eyes.”
Annabeth does as she’s told. This time the warmth brings to mind lips, pressing kisses all over her skin. She tries to pretend they are Percy’s, but all she can focus on is Piper standing so close to her, smelling like cinnamon.
Piper signifies that she can open her eyes by running her fingers lightly through Annabeth’s hair. “Here. How’s this?”
Annabeth opens her eyes. It doesn’t feel like she’s even wearing a dress. It is light, flowing off her body, breezy and billowy, a pretty lilac colour. She had been all too aware of her other dresses; they had been, despite their beauty, rather heavy and bulky. Her hair had been heavy with product, her shoes high-heeled, and she is now the opposite. Her hair is naturally wavy, and she is wearing flats. Annabeth never thought you could be beautiful and comfortable, but viewing her reflection she can see that she is still stunning – not necessarily more so than before, but in a different way. In a way that reminds her of…
“I look like you,” she says quietly.
“How do you mean?”
“Roll out of bed beautiful.”
She feels fingers on her back. “You always look like that, Annabeth.” She kisses her lightly on the cheek. “This is your future, you know. You can say no. You don’t owe anyone anything. Not me, not the prince, not my mother.” She helps her into the carriage and Annabeth turns around to watch her as she drives away. She keeps looking until she can’t see her anymore.
It takes her a few minutes to catch sight of the prince, but when he sees her, he comes straight over.
“Wow,” he says. “You look beautiful.”
And comfortable, more importantly, she thinks, but she just smiles and thanks him before letting him lead her to the center of the dance floor.
“I have a plan for today,” he says.
“We are going to have one dance, and then I am going to fulfill my end of the bargain and bring you to the library so you can geek out over books in peace.”
“Are you calling me a geek?”
“If the shoe fits,” he says teasingly.
At least the shoes are comfortable.
The library takes her breath away.
Bookshelves line the walls from floor to ceiling and more are centered around the room. “This is absolutely beautiful, your majesty.”
“Please don’t call me that. Call me Percy.”
She risks a glance at him. “Percy,” she says. The name seems strange in her mouth. Like it doesn’t quite belong.
She wanders through the room, fingers trailing along the spines. This whole thing fills her with such an intense feeling of homesickness that it is painful.
“Annabeth… there’s something I would like to ask you.”
This is it, she knows. Her chance. What she needs in order to escape a family that didn’t love her and a house haunted by her father’s ghost.
Percy moves closer, one hand coming up to hold her cheek. “I’ve met a lot of women in the past three days. Like – a lot. And many of them were very nice. But you – I can’t stop thinking about you. So I wanted to know if – well, if you would – will you marry me?”
A lot of thoughts are running through her brain. The most prevalent one is no.
“Kiss me.” Because maybe that’s what this needs. Maybe that’s the romantic boost necessary. The aha! moment necessary for a lifetime of royalty.
So Percy kisses her gently, lips soft, hands soft, and this should be everything she wants, this is what she has fought for these past few days.
But there is nothing.
“Percy –” How does she say this? How does she tell him? That for three days she has smiled and flirted and now she is walking away?
Suddenly she heard Bobby’s voice in her head – if the rumours are true, Annabeth would have a better chance of seducing Princess Reyna. She remembers Piper’s words – five years ago I fell in love with a girl. Then she remembers her dream of gold.
“I can’t marry you.”
He leans back. “Oh. Um. Okay. I wasn’t really – okay. I mean – why?”
“I think I love someone else.” That is the simple answer, although the truth is far more complicated. There is a beautiful girl with wings and she is waiting in my bedroom and I think about her every time I see the colour gold.
He looks disappointed, but he just nods. “Okay. I mean, there isn’t really anything I can do about it. It's your choice. I want you to be happy."
He smiles at her, and a part of her hates herself for not loving him.
“He’s a lucky guy,” he says, and she doesn’t bother to correct him. I am in love with a messenger of love. She kisses his cheek and then runs out of the room, so fast one of the shoes falls off her foot.
“Annabeth!” Percy calls. “Your shoe!”
She kicks the other one off and leaves them both behind.
“I said no.”
“To Prince Percy.”
Piper’s features are carefully blank. “I see.”
“Before, you told me that you wouldn’t have been sent here if it wouldn’t have led me to love. And I assumed that meant the prince. But it never meant Percy. It couldn’t have.”
“Because I don’t like Percy. I don’t like – I don’t like men.”
Piper’s careful façade drops just for a moment. “Oh.”
“So that means you couldn’t have been sent to lead me to Percy, because there was never a chance of that, even if it took me a while to realize that. And I know you said that there’s no logic in love, but logically there is only one woman in my life right now that you could have led me to, and that’s… you.”
Piper’s wings have unfurled seemingly without her knowledge and are now beating nervously. She opens her mouth as if to say something, but she can’t seem to think of anything, so they look at each other for a few long moments until Piper finally has something to say.
“That’s not possible.”
“Because… because this is my punishment. There must be someone else. Something we missed.”
“The prince kissed me and all I could think about was you.”
Piper’s eyes flutter closed, as if she can’t bring herself to look at the scene unfolding in front of her anymore.
Annabeth takes a step closer. “You’re a messenger of love. You have to recognize the signs.” She brings out the picture Piper had sketched; it had transferred pockets when Piper had given her the new dress. When she places it in Piper’s hand, the other girl blushes.
“I meant to take this with me.”
“You said that your job was to bring me the opportunity of love, and it was my responsibility to take it from there. I thought the opportunity was Percy. But if anything, it was Percy that provided the opportunity.”
Piper is staring at the unfinished drawing in her hands. “There are still five years left in my sentence.”
“I can wait.”
She finally looks up at Annabeth. She looks disbelieving. “I can’t give you what he could.”
“I don’t want what he could give me.”
“What do you want?”
She reaches out and runs her fingers lightly over Piper’s wings. They are as soft as she had imagined, and her eyes are every colour of the rainbow.
“Whatever you can give.”
Piper leans her forehead forward so it is resting against Annabeth’s. “How can you be certain?”
The only answer she can think to give is to kiss her. Piper’s wings wrap around her just like in her dreams, although she doesn’t know if this is done consciously or not, and it is as warm and comforting as Annabeth had imagined.
“Will find someone else.”
“And your family?”
She thinks about this. She is tempted to say that they are not her family, but Matthew and Bobby, at least, had never been cruel to her.
“I’ll leave the house to them. They can do what they want with it.” Her memories of her father, and of her life before, are tied to her, not to a place. They will follow her wherever she goes.
“You seem to have everything figured out.” Piper is smiling at her, and Annabeth thinks about a future spent in the warmth of that smile. She thinks about what a good team logic and emotion really make. Then she kisses her again.