Aza's singing is the fairest in all the land, and the most unusual. She can "throw" her voice so it seems to come from anywhere. But singing is only one of the two qualities prized in the Kingdom of Ayortha. Aza doesn't possess the other: beauty. Not even close. She's hidden in the shadows in her parents' inn, but when she becomes lady-in-waiting to the new queen, she has to step into the light—especially when the queen demands a dangerous favor. A magic mirror, a charming prince, a jealous queen, palace intrigue, and an injured king twine into a maze that Aza must penetrate to save herself and her beloved kingdom.
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I was born singing. Most babies cry. I sang an aria.
Or so I believe. I have no one to tell me the truth of it. I was abandoned when I was a month old, left at the Featherbed Inn in the Ayorthaian village of Amonta. It was January 12th of the year of Thunder Songs.
The wench who brought me to the inn paid for our chamber in advance and smuggled me in unseen. The next morning she smuggled herself out, leaving me behind.
I know what happened next. Father and Mother—the innkeeper and his wife—have retold the tale on the anniversary of my arrival since I grew old enough to understand the words.
"You were left in the Lark chamber," Mother would say. "It was the right room for you, my songbird."
"It was a chill morning," Father would chime in. "Soon you were howling." His shoulders would shake with laughter. "I thought you were Imilli."
We would all smile—my younger sister Areida, my two older brothers, Mother, and I. Imilli was our cat—kitten then.
Mother would burst in. "I knew straight off you were a babe. I knew you were a singer, too." She'd sing, "It was all in your lovely howl."
We'd laugh at that.
She'd shake her head. "No. Truly. It was lovely."
My favorite part would come next. Mother would throw back her head and imitate my howl, a high pure note.
Ayortha is a kingdom of singers. In our family and in Amonta, my voice is the finest. Mother often said that if I tried, I could sing the sun down from the sky.
"I opened the chamber door," Father would say, continuing the tale, "and there youwere."
I was in the center of the bed, crying and kicking the air.
"I picked you up," Mother would say, "and you gurgled such a musical gurgle."
My brother Ollo would break in with his favorite part. "Your bottom was wet."
Areida would giggle.
Father and Mother would never mention that the blanket I had arrived in was velvet, edged with gold thread.
The story would go on. Mother carried me into the Sparrow room, where my brothers slept. Father headed for the attic to find Ollo's old cradle. When he came down, I was lying on Ollo's small bed while Ollo, who was two years old then, gently poked my cheek.
No one has told me what happened next, but I know. I can imagine the sight I was. Yarry, who was five, would have spoken his mind, as he does to this day. He would have said, in a tone of wonder, "She's so ugly."
Then—they have told me this—he said, "Can we keep her, Father?"
Father and Mother did, and named me Aza, which means lark in Ayorthaian. They treated me no differently from their own children, and taught me to read music and songs from our treasured leather songbook, kept on its own high table in the entry parlor.
I was an unsightly child. My skin was the weak blue-white of skimmed milk, which wouldn't have been so bad if my hair had been blond and my lips pale pink. But my lips were as red as a dragon's tongue and my hair as black as an old frying pan.
Mother always denied that I was ugly. She said that looking different wasn't the same as looking amiss, and she called me her one-of-a-kind girl. Still, she promised I'd grow prettier as I grew older. I remember asking her a dozen times a day if I was prettier yet. She would stop whatever she was doing—cleaning a guest's chamber or bathing Areida—and consider me. Then she'd sing, "I think so."
But soon after, one of the inn's guests would stare, and I'd know the transformation hadn't really taken place.
If anything, I became uglier. I grew large boned and awkward. My chubby cheeks were fine for a babe, but not for an older child. I resembled a snow maid, with a big sphere of a face and round button eyes.
I ached to be pretty. I wished my fairy godmother would come and make me so. Mother said we all have fairy godmothers, but they rarely reveal themselves. I wished I could see mine. I was sure fairies were supremely beautiful and glorious in every way.
Mother said fairy godmothers only watch from afar and sympathize. I didn't see the good of a hand-wringing fairy godmother. I needed one who'd fly in and help.
With no hope for fairy intervention, I wished for a magic spell to make me pretty. At night I'd sing nonsense words to myself after Areida had fallen asleep. I thought I might stumble on the right combination of syllables and notes, but I never did.
I attempted to make myself more presentable by pinning my hair up this way or that, or by tying a ribbon around my neck. Once, I sneaked into Father's workshop and smeared wood stain on my face and arms.
The results were streaky brown skin and a rash that lasted a month.
The inn's guests were sometimes friendly, but more often they were rude. As bad as the ones who stared were the ones who looked away in embarrassment. Some guests didn't want me to serve their food, and some didn't want me to clean their rooms.
We Ayorthaians are sensitive to beauty, more sensitive than the subjects in other kingdoms, I think. We love a fine voice especially, but we also admire a rosy sunset, a sweet scent, a fetching face. And when we're not pleased, we're displeased.
I developed the habit of holding my hand in front of my face when guests arrived, a foolish practice, because it raised curiosity and concealed little.
Mother and Father mostly gave me chores that kept me out of sight, helping the laundress or washing dishes. They did so to protect me. But it was common sense, too. I was bad for business.Fairest. Copyright © by Gail Levine. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.