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“Oh, hooray! It’s you!”
The airy voice burbled like the brook, but there were no women in Peregrine’s traveling party save the one he currently pursued, the bright-eyed temptress who haunted his every thought. Peregrine scanned the streambed and the tree line, squinting into the twilight.
“Hello?” Was it a naiad? a sylph? A fairy collecting milkweed and thistledown? It might have been the wind rustling the colorful autumn leaves, or his own mind tricking him, as his dearly departed father’s had for so long. “Hello?”
“Please tell me it’s you,” she said. “The Earl of Starburn?
Son of George and Marcella?”
Peregrine’s fresh grief turned his confusion to wariness. No one could be so specific as to his identity unless she’d been following him since the funeral. Like a thief. Slowly, the newly orphaned Earl of Starburn backed against a tree and unsheathed the dagger at his waist. It was an ornamental piece, but Peregrine figured it had at least one good jab in it before he’d need to find a sturdier weapon, like the sizeable fallen branch on his left.
“I am Peregrine of Starburn,” he announced loudly to the creek, in case any of his servants stood within earshot. “Show yourself.”
She manifested out of fog wisps, falling leaves, and leftover fireflies. Her hair was long, longer than his, and dark as the night but for a streak that bisected her ebon locks with a flash of silver-blue. Her eyes were black as well, sprinkled with starlight, and the sparse leaves of the grove brought out an olive hue in her slightly dusky complexion.The air around them suddenly filled with the stench of burned cinnamon.
Like every other child raised in Arilland, Peregrine knew what happened when one encountered a fairy. In the next few minutes, his life would change for the better or worse, and drastically so. Strangely enough, he was not afraid. He thought this new development rather wonderful. Whatever challenge she saw fit to give him, he was up to it.
“I am Leila,” she said. “I am late. And I am so, so sorry.” Peregrine recalled no fairy story that started this way.
“I . . . accept your apology?”
“You are too kind. I will now grant you one wish.” She raised her hands in the air and flapped them about like drunken butterflies. Peregrine clumsily caught them and stopped her.
“Thank you,” he said, “I think. But I’m very confused.” Leila covered her smiling mouth with long, slender fingers.
Her giggle popped like bubbles in the stream. “Your father did not tell you about me?”
“Ah,” said Peregrine. “No. He didn’t.”
In truth, it was very possible that his father had spoken about this Leila, but any mention of fairies, real or otherwise, would have been dismissed as the earl’s further mental deterioration. Peregrine placed a hand over his chest, felt the lump of his father’s wedding ring beneath his tunic, and silently asked a ghost’s forgiveness.
The fairy got a faraway look in her eyes, and straightened. For all her affected daintiness, Peregrine noted that she was almost as tall as he was. “Your father was a wonderful man,” she whispered.
“I tend to agree,” said Peregrine.
“But of course you would. You’re a smart boy.” Her tone slipped into condescension, but quickly righted back into dreaminess. “He came to my defense once, when I was helpless.”
“He did that quite a lot.” Peregrine hoped one day to be half the man his father was, before his father had become half a man. “He was an honorable man, and for his good deeds I promised a boon.”
Peregrine frowned. A fairy wish might have helped his father’s debilitating state. Why had this idiot vanished before keeping her word?
“But I was captured by an evil witch,” she said before he could ask. “I was forced to be her slave in a cave so high in the White Mountains that time itself did not reach the summit. Only now am I free from her spell, and so I came immediately to repay my debt.”
“My father is dead.”
“Which is why I sought your forgiveness.”
“Once again, your apology is accepted.”
“And once again, I offer you the wish that should have been his.”
The cinnamon in the air dried Peregrine’s throat and made him yearn for a brimming cupful of that cool, clear stream.
The fairy sensed his discomfort. “Let me fetch you some water.” His golden cup appeared in her olive hands, though he didn’t remember giving it to her. She bent down to the brook to fill it. Her dark hair and the folds of her cloak eddied about her. Every man has one true wish in his heart. Peregrine paid Leila the courtesy of waiting for her to stand and offer him the goblet of water before saying: “I want to live a long and fruitful life. But in the event that I begin to lose my mind, or any other vital organ”—men often perished of less specific lingering ailments—“I wish to die swiftly and in peace.”
The statement could possibly be seen as two separate wishes. Peregrine hoped this particular fairy wasn’t one to argue semantics.
The sky was dark now. Distant thunder warned of an approaching storm. “Drink,” she said, “and your wish will be granted.”
Peregrine gulped down every bit of the water. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and smiled at the fairy. She smiled back. She was still smiling when the water began to freeze him from the inside out. The hand that held the golden goblet shook, slowly graying from frost. A pressure burst like icicles in his brain again and again, bringing him to his knees. He grabbed at his head and tore his neatly coiffed hair out of its queue, screaming for the pain to stop with a throat that could no longer speak.
She picked up the goblet from where he’d dropped it, and he watched as the silver-blue streak vanished from her dark hair . . . and reappeared in his own long locks. “Thank you, my dear,” she said as she removed her cloak. “Do enjoy your long and fruitful life.”
She tossed the cloak over his head, and the icy darkness consumed him.
Swords and Sisters
Saturday died for the fifth time that morning. Her shallow breath gently stirred the dust of the practice yard. She got to her feet, shook back the strands of hair that had come loose from her braid, and pushed a larger chunk back behind her ear, mixing the sweat and soil there into mud. The one clean thing on her person was the thin band of blue-green fabric wrapped around the wrist of her sword arm, a remnant of the only dress Saturday had ever worn. No matter how disgusting she got, it seemed this magic bracelet was as immune to filth as Saturday was immune to injury.
Shoulders squared, feet apart, and tailbone centered, Sat- urday lifted the wooden practice sword before her. “Again.”
Velius laughed at her.
Saturday scowled. There wasn’t a speck of dirt on her instructor, either; no dirt would be brave enough to mar his perfect fey beauty. Nor did he seem fatigued. She hated him a little more for that.
“Let’s take a break,” he said. “I don’t need a break.”
Lies. He was calling her weak. The insult only made her angrier. “No, you don’t.”
Velius lifted his head to the sky and prayed to yet another god. Temperance, maybe, or Patience. Was there a god of arguments You’ve Lost twenty times Before and Were about to Have again? If so, Saturday bet on that one.
“If you don’t stop, you’re going to hurt yourself.”
“You can’t hurt me,” she reminded him. Humans with preordained destinies tended to be impervious to danger. She’d demonstrated this quality in the spring, when she’d miraculously recovered from an ax blade to the leg. Half a year later, Saturday was beyond ready to stop playing with toy swords and get on with her fate, whatever that may be.
“I can hurt you, though you might heal more quickly than the average human. Exhaustion will still lay you low.”
“If that’s what it takes, then.” Could he please just shut up and come at her already?
“You’re just mad I won’t let you use that damned sword.” “Not just that, but yes.” Her eyes stung with sweat, her tongue was dry with dust, and her stomach growled more from anger than hunger.
“You need to learn,” said Velius. “You may have chopped down a hundred trees, but you don’t know the first thing about sword fighting.”
“I do when I have ‘that damned sword.’”
“Do you hear yourself? It’s a crutch. That sword is like an addiction with you.”
“It’s not an addiction; it’s a gift,” she shot back. She would have her fight, whether he wanted one or not. “What do you know? You can’t turn your power off, or leave it behind.”
“There are times when I wish I could.” His shoulders fell a little, and Saturday knew she had defeated him. “Fine. Get the sword.”
Her legs took off running at the first word, launching her over the fence and outside the practice area before he’d finished his sentence. She threw open the door to the armory, tossed the silly practice sword back into place, and buckled on her sword-belt with a triumphant grin.
Erik entered the armory after her and made his way to the shelves of daggers and throwing knives. The king’s personal guardsman scratched his bushy red beard, as if he were taking inventory. He noticed Saturday’s presence out of the corner of his eye.
As soon as the belt buckle was flat into place, Saturday could feel her muscles singing. Her breath came easier.The pain of her bruises lessened. a happy energy flooded her body from head to toe and she felt . . . awake.
“I wore him down again,” she boasted to Erik.
“Yep.” He picked up a dagger, tested its balance, and then selected another one.
Suddenly Saturday didn’t feel so victorious. Velius may have been the oldest and most talented of her teachers, but Erik was the one she loathed to disappoint. He’d been the childhood friend of her eldest brother, Jack; they’d been sword brothers in the royal guard, before Jack had been cursed into the body of a dog and never seen again.
Since her little sister’s recent marriage to the now-King of Arilland, Erik had become very much a surrogate eldest brother to Saturday. Of all her siblings, he was the most like Saturday: normal.
Saturday had come to hate that word.
All of her other, fey-blessed siblings had been given name-day gifts that complemented their magical powers, which they’d inherited from a grandfather who’d been the Fairy Queen’s consort for a time. Sunday’s journal was a vessel for writing things that came true. Peter’s carving knife could breathe life into his whittlings. Friday’s needle could sew any material known to man. Thursday’s spyglass let her see into the past, present, and future from wherever in the world she happened to be.
But Saturday’s gift from Fairy Godmother Joy? An ax.
A ridiculous present for a baby, Saturday’s gift was nothing
More than a plain old ax, a boring tool that lightened Papa’s load in the Wood. And yet, that same ax had chopped down a monstrous, giant-bearing beanstalk and turned into “that damned sword” Velius despised so much.
He might as well have despised Saturday outright.Without her gift, Saturday was just an overly tall girl with overly large hands and an overly loud mouth. She wasn’t even as useful anymore. Since Friday’s needle had healed a goose that laid golden eggs, Papa didn’t have to go into the Wood as often, which meant Saturday and Peter now had days off.Who had ever heard of days off? Saturday used this idle time to come to the royal guards’ training ground to be yelled at and told how lazy she was. It’s not like she had anything else to do.
Blessedly, Erik said nothing more, so Saturday hurried back to the practice area, where Velius stood waiting for her. His dark, lithe form leaned against the fence as he chatted to someone in a very large hat and pile of white skirts who had no business muddying herself in the red clay and muck of the training grounds.
Monday. Of course.
Saturday’s estranged eldest sister had visited the palace in arilland for the series of balls held by the royal family and then stayed to witness the marriage of their youngest sister, Sunday, to Prince rumbold. But instead of returning to some faraway castle in some faraway land the moment the bouquet was thrown, Monday had chosen to stay in residence with Sunday.
Personally, Saturday felt that Arilland had lately suffered from an abundance of royalty. (As Saturday suffered from an abundance of sisters, she knew what that was like.) Queens turning into geese, giant kings falling from the sky, frog princes, and princess-sisters. Saturday’s goal was swordsmanship decent enough to get her hired on the first caravan out of this magic-drenched insanity.
“Good afternoon, sister.” Monday’s voice was butter and honey on warm bread.
“What are you doing here?” asked Saturday. Monday held one of the wooden practice swords, more as a walking stick than a weapon.
“I’ve come to see my sister’s infamous sparring,” Monday answered politely.
“Verbal sparring or physical sparring?” asked Velius.
The corner of Monday’s lips turned up, revealing a slight dimple. “Whichever upsets you more, cousin.”
Saturday was suddenly very pleased to see her sister. “Gentlemen, might I have a word with my sister in private?”
Velius bowed to Monday, as did Erik, who had magically appeared in the practice arena to bask in Monday’s glow. He wasn’t the only one. Saturday looked around the field. Every guard, to a man, was staring at the princess.
Monday tilted the brim of her hat up and slowly let her gaze drift across the field. As if released from a spell, each pair of eyes she met reluctantly turned away. Velius and erik wandered in the direction of the well. Monday indicated a bench at the edge of the practice area and moved to sit. Saturday leapt over the fence and plopped down beside her sister in a cloud of dust.
“How are you faring?” asked Monday. “Get to the point,” said Saturday.
“As you wish.”
Saturday wondered if anything ruffled her sister’s feathers. She shuddered a little, remembering the brief time their sister Wednesday actually had had feathers.
“They tell me you rely too heavily on your gift.”
It didn’t matter if “they” were Erik, or Velius, or both. “They” were a big rat. Saturday rolled her eyes.
“I’m not here to chide you,” said Monday. “I’m here to tell you a story.”
“Like Papa.” Saturday missed being in the Wood with Papa and Peter, telling stories, playing games, and being useful. Stupid, gold-laying goose.
Monday smiled and Saturday beamed back at her, though she had no idea why. “Yes, like Papa.” Monday’s face turned thoughtful. “Saturday, who am I?”
“You’re beautiful,” Saturday answered immediately. “That’s what I look like.Who am I?”
Saturday wrinkled her nose.What type of person was Monday? She’d gone off and married a prince after surviving a hailstorm and sleeping on a pea. Saturday knew nothing of Monday’s life beyond that tale. For the most part, she had grown up without her eldest sister. What had Monday accomplished? What was she like? Saturday had no idea. This was already the longest conversation the two of them had ever had.
“You’re a storyteller?” she guessed.
“Sunday’s the storyteller,” said Monday. “What about me?” “I don’t know.” Saturday felt bad, and not just because she couldn’t answer the question.
“Neither do I.” Monday removed a tiny, ornate mirror from her skirt pocket. “This was my nameday gift from Fairy Godmother Joy.”
Saturday snorted. “A mirror?” Surely Aunt Joy could have done better. As gifts went, a mirror was pretty useless, even if you were the most beautiful girl in the land.
“A looking glass,” Monday corrected. “It’s for looking.” “To see what?” asked Saturday.
“Rght now, I see the most beautiful face in all of Arilland.” “That’s got to count for something.” Not to her, of course, but Saturday felt sure that beauty was very important to some people.
“Perhaps. But behind that face, inside the woman, all I see is nothing,” said Monday. “The beauty has only ever brought me pain.”
Saturday wasn’t very good at polite conversation, but she was very good at arguing. “That beauty won you all sorts of prizes when you were younger. It got you a prince. It got us a house.” The tower that supported the ramshackle cottage in which Saturday and her parents currently lived had been given to Monday by her royal in-laws as a bride gift.
“What help was beauty the day my twin sister danced herself to death? It snared me a prince who never loved me and then cast me aside for another woman, a witch who killed my daughter.”
“What?” Saturday’s grip on her sword’s hilt tingled. Monday had said it all so casually, as if it was a story that had happened to someone else. Saturday hated all their horrid family secrets. She felt bad that she was not closer to Monday, that she had not been her eldest sister in her time of need. She wanted to kill the woman who’d hurt Monday and dared harm a niece she’d never known.
“I’m sorry.” The words were useless, but Papa had taught Saturday to say them anyway.
Monday cupped her soft, alabaster hand around Saturday’s dirty cheek. “Don’t worry,” she said brightly.
“You’re not sad,” Saturday realized. “Why?”
Monday held up the mirror again, turning it so that Satur- day might see herself in the glass as well. “Look deeper,” Monday said. And then with her honeyed voice, she rhymed:
“Mirror, Mirror, true and clearest, Please show us our mother dearest.”
Inside the small oval surrounded by jewels, Saturday watched the image of her dusty hair blur before resolving into that of her mother. Mama was in the kitchen, as ever, kneading dough as if she were scolding it for keeping supper waiting. Saturday could almost smell the smoke from the oven fires, almost feel their heat as Mama mopped her brow with a sleeve.
“Thank you, Mirror,” said Monday, and the vision vanished.
“Huh,” Saturday snorted again. “Not so useless after all.” “It is the reason I do not believe my daughter is dead.”
“You’ve seen her?”
“Bits and pieces, yes. She’s not using the name I gave her at birth, so she’s been difficult to find, but I have the sense that she is there.The mirror has shown me the world from a young girl’s eyes. I believe my daughter is that girl. I believe she still lives. Saturday.” Heedless of her iridescent white overskirt, Monday took her sister’s mud-covered hand in hers. “When you leave this place, if you ever find my daughter, please tell her that I love her. And that i’ve never stopped looking for her.”
Saturday nodded, interested that Monday had said “when” and not “if.” “What does she look like?”
“Hair as black as night, skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood,” said Monday, as if reading from a recipe book. “She is the fairest of us all.”
Every mother thought her daughter the fairest of all, but coming from Monday, this was undoubtedly more truth than compliment. “Okay. I mean, I will.”
“Thank you.” Monday released Saturday’s hands. “It may not tell me who I am, but at least it’s given me hope.”
A thought occurred to Saturday, so she blurted it out, as she did with most of her thoughts. “You are a butterfly,” she said. “You are beautiful and light and airy, and you make people happy just by being present.”
“Ever at the whim of the wind and fated to die young?”
Monday laughed, and a murmuration of starlings flocked to the fence posts to listen. “I may be beautiful, but I don’t think I’ve blossomed yet. I feel more like a caterpillar: atop a leaf, admiring the view.” She stood to receive Erik and Velius, who had returned from the well. But before she greeted them she turned back to Saturday and asked, “But tell me sister, who are you?”
It was a good question. Without swords and sisters, who was Saturday Woodcutter? Besides a clumsy giantess with a big mouth and a never-ending supply of energy?
The mirror exploded with bright colors as the earth cracked and spewed forth geysers of water. Storms raged and towns flooded. Families were swept away from each other, their cries out-howled by the wind and their bodies drowned in the rain.The mirror flashed one horrible scene after another at them, and then went still. even Monday’s lovely reflection couldn’t allay Saturday’s sense of dread after what she’d just witnessed.
“What was that?” asked Velius.
“I don’t know,” said Monday. “It doesn’t normally do that.” She graciously accepted the cup of water Velius had brought her as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Erik likewise thrust a mug into Saturday’s hands. His eyes never left Monday. “Velius, would you mind escorting me back to my rooms?”
Velius gave a small bow. “Of course, milady.” He turned and bent his elbow so that Monday could rest her hand upon his arm.
“Good day, Erik,” Monday said to the guard.
“Good day, Highness.” Erik might have been blushing under his beard, but as both blush and beard covered his cheeks in red, it was hard to tell.
“Good day, sister,” Monday said to Saturday.
“See ya, Monday.” Saturday let Erik watch them walk away for a while before punching him in the arm. “You’re in love with my sister,” she teased.
“Have been my whole life,” said the guard. “So have the rest of these men. In fact, the only bachelor in Arilland not in love with your sister is the one whose arm she’s on.” Erik swung the wooden swordVelius had handed him in wide circles, stretching out his muscles and warming up to spar. “So, what did you ladies talk about? Girl secrets?”
Saturday didn’t know the first thing about girls, or their secrets. “She asked me who I was.”
“What did you tell her?”
“Nothing.” She thought about it again briefly, but those thoughts were instantly swept under storm winds and rains and the cries of the doomed from the magical glass of Monday’s mirror. Saturday shook it off.Who was she? She knew who she wanted to be: an adventurer. Someone about whom stories were told, like her brother Jack. But right now, she was none of those things. “Yeah, I got nothing.”
Erik settled into an attack position. “I beg to differ.You got a sword and a destiny.that’s more than most people get.”
“I guess so.” That damned sword again. It was time to find out who she was without it, before she was Monday’s age and still had no idea. Saturday unbuckled the swordbelt with difficulty and tossed it in the dust by the fence. The vigor she’d been feeling immediately left her limbs, and her muscles began to ache. She picked up the wooden sword that Monday had left behind and prepared to die once more.
“Let’s go,” she said.