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The magic in that country was so thick and tenacious that it settled over the land like chalk-dust and over floors and shelves like slightly sticky plaster-dust. (Housecleaners in that country earned unusually good wages.) If you lived in that country, you had to de-scale your kettle of its encrustation of magic at least once a week, because if you didn’t, you might find yourself pouring hissing snakes or pond slime into your teapot instead of water. (It didn’t have to be anything scary or unpleasant, like snakes or slime, especially in a cheerful household—magic tended to reflect the atmosphere of the place in which it found itself—but if you want a cup of tea, a cup of lavender-and-gold pansies or ivory thimbles is unsatisfactory. And while the pansies—put dry in a vase—would probably last a day, looking like ordinary pansies, before they went greyish-dun and collapsed into magic dust, something like an ivory thimble would begin to smudge and crumble as soon as you picked it up.)
The best way to do it was to have a fairy as a member of your household, because she (it was usually a she) could lay a finger on the kettle just as it came to a boil (absentminded fairies could often be recognised by a pad of scar-tissue on the finger they favoured for kettle-cleaning) and murmur a few counter-magical words. There would be a tiny inaudible thock, like a seed-pod bursting, and the water would stay water for another week or (maybe) ten days.
De-magicking a kettle was much too little and fussy and frequent a job for any professional fairy to be willing to be hired to do it, so if you weren’t related to one you had to dig up a root of the dja vine, and dry it, and grate it, producing a white powder rather like plaster dust or magic, and add a pinch of that to your kettle once a week. More often than that would give everyone in the household cramp. You could tell the households that didn’t have a fairy by the dja vines growing over them. Possibly because they were always having their roots disturbed, djas developed a reputation for being tricky to grow, and prone to sudden collapse; fortunately they rerooted easily from cuttings. “She’d give me her last dja root” was a common saying about a good friend.
People either loved that country and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, or hated it, left it as soon as they could, and never came back. If you loved it, you loved coming over the last hill before your village one day in early autumn and hearing the corn-field singing madrigals, and that day became a story you told your grandchildren, the way in other countries other grandparents told the story of the day they won the betting pool at the pub, or their applecake won first place at the local fete. If you lived there, you learned what you had to do, like putting a pinch of dried dja vine in your kettle once a week, like asking your loaf of bread to remain a loaf of bread before you struck it with a knife. (The people of this country had developed a reputation among outsiders for being unusually pious, because of the number of things they appeared to mutter a blessing over before they did them; but in most cases this was merely the asking of things it was safer to ask to remain nonmagical first, while work or play or food preparation or whatever was being got on with. Nobody had ever heard of a loaf of bread turning into a flock of starlings for anyone they knew, but the nursery tale was well known, and in that country it didn’t pay to take chances. The muttered words were usually only some phrase such as “Bread, stay bread” or, in upper-class households, “Bread, please oblige me,” which was a less wise form, since an especially impish gust of magic could choose to translate “oblige” just as it chose.)
Births were very closely attended, because the request that things stay what they were had to be got in quickly, birth being a very great magic, and, in that country, likely to be teased into mischief. It was so common an occurrence as to occasion no remark when a new-sown field began coming up quit obviously as something other than what was planted, and by a week later to have reverted to what the farmer had put in. But while, like the pansies and the thimbles, this kind of magic was only a temporary aberration, it could be very embarrassing and onerous while it lasted. Farmers in that country worried more about falling asleep during the birthing times of their stock than they worried about the weather; the destruction a litter of baby taralians caused remained, even after it had revered to piglets. No one knew how the wild birds and beasts negotiated this, but human parents-to-be would go to extreme lengths to ensure a fairy was on hand to say the birth-words over their new little one.
Generally speaking the more mobile and water-dependent something was, the more likely magic was to get at it. This meant animals—and, of course, humans—were the most vulnerable. Rocks were pretty reliably rocks, except of course when they were something else that had been turned into rocks. But rocks themselves sort of slept through magic attacks, and even if some especially wild and erratic bit of magic decided to deck out a drystone wall as a marble fountain, you could still feel the drystone wall if you closed your eyes and touched the fountain, and the water would not make you wet. The lichen that grew on the rock, however, could be turned into daisies quite convincing enough to make you sneeze if real daisies did so; and the insects and small creatures that crept over the lichen were more susceptible yet.
(There was an idea much beloved and written about by this country’s philosophers that magic had to do with negotiating the balance between earth and air and water; which is to say that things with legs or wings were out of balance with their earth element by walking around on feet or, worse, flying above the earth in the thin substance of air, obviously entirely unsuitable for the support of solid flesh. The momentum all this inappropriate motion set up in their liquid element unbalanced them further. Spirit, in this system, was equated with the fourth element, fire. All this was generally felt to be a load of rubbish among the people who had to work in the ordinary world for a living, unlike philosophers living in academies. But it was true that a favourite magical trick at fetes was for theatrically-minded fairies to throw bits of chaff or seed-pods or conkers in the air and turn them into things before they struck the ground, and that the trick worked better if the bits of chaff or seed-pods or conkers were wet.)
Slower creatures were less susceptible to the whims of wild magic than faster creatures, and creatures that flew were the most susceptible of all. Every sparrow had a delicious memory of having once been a hawk, and while magic didn’t take much interest in caterpillars, butterflies spent so much time being magicked that it was a rare event to see ordinary butterflies without at least an extra set of wings or a few extra frills and iridescences, or bodies like tiny human beings dressed in flower petals. (Fish, which flew through that most dangerous element, water, were believed not to exist. Fishy-looking beings in pools and streams were either hallucinations or other things under some kind of spell, and interfering with, catching, or—most especially—eating fish was strictly forbidden. All swimming was considered magical. Animals seen doing it were assumed to be favourites of a local water-sprite or dangerously insane; humans never tried.)
There did seem to be one positive effect to living involuntarily steeped in magic; everyone lived longer. More humans made their century than didn’t; birds and animals often lived to thirty, and fifty was not unheard of. The breeders of domestic animals in that country were unusually sober and responsible individuals, since any mistakes they made might be around to haunt them for a long time.
Although magic was ubiquitous and magic-workers crucially necessary, the attitude of the ordinary people toward magic and its manipulators was that it and they were more than a bit chancy and not to be relied on, however fond you were of your aunt or your next-door neighbour. No one had ever seen a fairy turn into an eagle and fly up above the trees, but there were nursery tales about that, too, and it was difficult not to believe that it or something even more unnerving was somehow likely. Didn’t farmers grow more stolid and earthy over a lifetime of farming? Wasn’t it likely that a lifetime of handling magic made you wilder and more capricious?
It was a fact much noticed but rarely discussed (and never in any fairy’s hearing) that while fairies rarely married or (married or not) had children, there never seemed to be any fewer fairies around, generation after generation. So presumably magic ran in the blood of the people the way it ran in all other watery liquids, and sometimes there was enough of it to make someone a fairy, and sometimes there was not. (One of the things ordinary people did not like to contemplate was how many people there might be who were, or could have been, fairies, and were masquerading as ordinary people by the simple process of never doing any magic when anyone was around to notice.) But there was a very strong tradition that the rulers of this country must be utterly without magic, for rulers must be reliable, they must be the earth and the rock underfoot for their people. And if any children of that country’s rulers had ever been born fairies, there was not only no official history of it; there were not even any stories about it.
This did mean that when the eldest child of each generation of the ruling family came to the age to be married (and, just to be safe, his or her next-younger and perhaps next-younger-after-that siblings) there was a great search and examination of possible candidates in terms of their magiclessness first, and their honesty, integrity, intelligence, and so on, second. (The likelihood of their getting along comfortably with their potential future spouses barely rated a mention on the councillors’ list.) So far—so far as the country’s histories extended, where was a little over a thousand years at the time of this story—the system had worked; and while there were stories of the thick net of anti-magic that the court magicians set up for even the cleanest, most magic-antipathetic betrothed to go through, well, it worked, didn’t it, and that was all that mattered.
The present king was not only an only child, but had had a very difficult time indeed—or his councillors had—finding a suitable wife. She was not even a princess, finally, but a mere countess, of some obscure little backwater country which, so far as it was known for anything, was known for the fleethounds its king and queen bred; but she was quiet, dutiful, and, so far as any of the cleverest magicians in the land could tell, entirely without magic. Everyone breathed a deep sigh of relief when the wedding was over; it had been a wait of nearly a decade since the king came of marriageable age.
But the years passed and she bore no children.
Certain of the king’s cousins began to hang around court more than they used to—his generation was particularly rich in cousins—and one or two of these quietly divorced spouses who were insufficiently nonmagical. There had not been a break in the line from parent to child in the ruling of this country for over five hundred years, and the rules about how the crown was passed sideways or diagonally were not clear. Neither the king nor the queen noticed any of this, for they so badly wanted a child, they could not bear to think about the results if they did not; but the councillors noticed, and the king’s cousins who divorced their spouses did themselves no good thereby.
Nearly fifteen years after the king’s marriage the queen was seen to become suddenly rather pale and sickly. Her husband’s people, who had become very fond of her, because she was always willing to appear at fairs and festivals and smile during boring speeches and to kiss the babies, even grubby and unattractive ones, which were thrust at her, were torn between hoping that whatever she had would kill her off while the king was young enough to remarry (and there was a whole new crop of princesses grown up to marriageable age outside the borders as well as a few within), and hoping that she would get well and come to more fairs and festivals and kiss more babies. The givers of boring speeches especially wished this; she was the best audience they had ever had.
The truth never occurred to anyone—not even when she began to wear loose gowns and to walk more heavily than she used to—because there had been no announcement.
The king knew, and her chief waiting-woman knew, and the fairy who disguised the queen’s belly knew. But the fairy had warned the king and queen that the disguise would go so far and no further: the baby must be allowed to grow unmolested by tight laces and the queen’s balance not be deranged by high-heeled shoes. “A magician might make you a proper disguise,” said the fairy, whose name was Sigil, “and let you dance all night in a sheath of silk no bigger around than your waist used to be; but I wouldn’t advise it. Magicians know everything about magic and nothing about babies. I don’t know nearly as much about magic as they do—but I know a lot about babies.”
Sigil had been with the king’s family since the king’s mother had been queen, and the king loved her dearly, and his queen had found in her her first friend when she came to her husband’s court, when she badly needed a friend. And so it was to Sigil the queen went, as soon as she knew for sure that she was pregnant, and begged for the disguise, saying that she had longed for a child for so many years she thought she could not bear the weight of the watchfulness of her husband’s people, who had longed for this child all these years, too, if her pregnancy were announced. The king, who had wanted to declare a public holiday, was disappointed; but Sigil sided with the queen.
The poor queen could not quite bring herself, after all the long childless years, to believe it when her friend told her that the baby was fine and healthy and would be born without trouble—“Well, my dear, without any more trouble than the birth of babies does cause, and which you, poor thing, will find quite troublesome enough.” And so the birth of an heir was not announced until the queen went into labour. The queen would have waited even then till the baby was born, but Sigil said no, that the baby must be born freely into the world, and freely, in an heir to a realm, meant with its people waiting to welcome it.
The country, that day, went into convulsions not unlike those the poor queen was suffering. An heir! An heir at last! And no one knew! The courtiers and councillors were offended, and the highest-ranking magicians furious, but their voices were drowned out in the tumult of jubilation from the people. The news travelled more quickly than any mere human messenger could take it, for the horses neighed it and the trees sang it and the kettles boiled it and the dust whispered it—an heir! The king’s child is born! We have an heir at last!
It was a girl, and the names chosen to be given her on her name-day were: Casta Albinia Allegra Dove Minerva Fidelia Aletta Blythe Domina Delicia Aurelia Grace Isabel Griselda Gwyneth Pearl Ruby Coral Lily Iris Briar-Rose. She was healthy—just as Sigil had said she would be—and she was born without any more trouble than the birth of babies does cause, which is to say the queen was aching and exhausted, but not too exhausted to weep for joy when the baby was laid in her arms.
The eldest child of the reigning monarch was always next in line for the throne, be it boy or girl; but it was usually a boy. There was a deeply entrenched folk myth that a queen held this country together better than a king because there is a clear-eyed pragmatic common sense about an unmagical woman that even the most powerful—or rather, especially the most powerful—magic found difficult to disturb; it was thought that a man was more easily dazzled by pyrotechnics. Whether this was true or not, everyone believed it, including the bad fairies, who therefore spent a lot of their time making up charms to ensure the birth of male first children to the royal family. The royal magicians dismantled these charms as quickly as they could, but never quite as quickly as the bad fairies made them up. (As it was difficult to get any kind of charm through the heavy guard laid round the royal family, these charms had to be highly specific, with the knock-on effect that third children to a reigning monarch were almost always girls.) But the folk myth (plus the tangential effect that first-born princesses were rare enough to be interesting for no reason other than their rarity) guaranteed that the birth of a future queen was greeted with even greater enthusiasm than the birth of a mere future king; and so it was in this case. No one seemed to remember, perhaps because their last queen had been nearly four hundred years ago, that the queen had left some unfinished business with a wicked fairy named Pernicia, who had sworn revenge.
Reprinted from Spindle's End by Robin McKinley by permission of Ace Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright 2001 by Robin McKinley. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.