She woke to a brown velvet gown trimmed in white rabbit fur hanging from one of the bed posters, a plate of buttered toast, and a message from the Chief Sorceress. The magical lady in question appeared at Eleanor’s door promptly at nine o’clock, as promised, just as Eleanor’s Svelyan maid finished her hair. Eleanor joined the tiny witch at the wooden table with a cup of tea.
“How are you finding your space?” Agnes’s high, wispy voice clashed with her harsh Svelyan accent, but at least Eleanor understood her. She felt a pang of nostalgia, as Agnes’s idiosyncratic tweaking of Carthean grammar replicated her old friend Christopher Roffi’s take on the language.
“Very nice,” said Eleanor. “Although, the maid and I did have a time. Our language barrier is as steep and thick as the mountains between your country and mine. I think I frightened her, poor woman.”
Agnes laughed, and her tiny nose crinkled. A pretty thing, she was. If she were not a witch, she’d have attracted many male admirers. “I’m sure she has been hearing of your story for years. Poor, pretty girl becomes a princess with the help of a magic spell. We are all knowing of the glass slippers in these days.”
“Ah, well.” It always surprised Eleanor when people spoke of her story with such reverence. Surely, she was not the first person of lean means to find herself unexpectedly elevated. Perhaps Rosemary’s magical intervention made for a particularly interesting tale. “That happened a long time ago.” She took Agnes’s hand. “I’m so thrilled to meet you. A Chief Sorceress.”
Agnes colored, but Eleanor sensed her admiration pleased the witch. “My king honors me with his faith.”
“Pardon, but I did not think Svelyans were so forward-thinking.”
“As a group, we are far from it,” said Agnes. “But the former Chief Magician was an unusual man. He formed a deep friendship with the Abbottess of C’adda. The Abbottess, bless her, was seeing some measure of talent in me. She asked him to take me on as his apprentice. So he did.”
“And your talent blossomed under the nose of the king.”
She nodded. “The old magician passed on five years ago, HighGod’s blessings on him as well, and he recommended me to take his place.”
“Amazing. King Peter agreed with his choice?”
“Surprisingly, yes. The king is a surprising man—in many ways.” Agnes’s delicate features darkened for a moment. “The lords were not so keen on my elevation. I fight for my position every day.”
Eleanor shook her head. “Why are men so frightened of powerful women, magical or common?”
“What will they do with themselves if women no longer need rescuing?” This time Agnes squeezed Eleanor’s hand. “I am so pleased to have you here, Your Highness. I am hearing you are a woman of learning and strong opinions. It can be lonely here at court. The lords might dislike me, but their wives and daughters—what is the word?—they detest me.”
“I have known many such women. I probably don’t hide my contempt as well as I think I do. I’m afraid my persona has never leant itself to popularity at court.”
“Then we shall be detested together.” Agnes waved her hands, and two green birds shot from her fingers. They circled Eleanor’s head and disappeared in a puff of verdant smoke.
Chou raised his head from under his wing. He stretched and left his perch for the table. “Have we some feathered company?” he said with a yawn.
“None so handsome as you, sir,” said Agnes. “Nor so exquisitely plumaged.”
Chou went all puffy at the compliment.
“Agnes,” said Eleanor, sensing an opening. “Speaking of handsome, what can you tell me about Prince Samuel? He seems a likely lad.”
Agnes abruptly retreated into formality, her face bland, and her hands folded on the table before her. “He is a blessed young man, our esteemed prince.”
“Yes, but what is he like? You know he’s to marry my daughter. Is he kind? How does he pass the time? Riding, or hunting, or maybe—”
“I must be going. Surely you’ll have time to get to know His Highness yourself during your visit.”
“Of course. I’m sorry—”
“I shall be seeing you at the dancing tonight.” The witch smiled. “Promise me we will talk of literature and history? I am having a strong desire to drive the Lord High Chancellor mad with academia.”
“Certainly!” Eleanor hadn’t had such an appealing invitation in years.
Agnes took her leave, and Eleanor and Chou flopped in a comfortable heap on the huge bed.
“What a fascinating woman,” said Eleanor. “I shall enjoy getting to know her better.”
“Indeed,” said Chou. “But for one so frank about her own tribulations, she certainly wasn’t eager to discuss her prince.”
“Perhaps they value the privacy of the royal family.”
“Or perhaps Prince Samuel has some corpses in his cupboard.”
“Chou, that’s morbid.” She rolled onto her back. “He’s not even a grown man yet. How many secrets could he be hiding?”
“This is a palace, Eleanor. Everyone here has a secret, knows a secret, or is looking for a secret.” Chou stretched his wings. “Which reminds me, we’ve been here an entire day. It’s high time I take a turn about the castle and—”
“See what you can see.”
He whistled and took off. Eleanor stared at the thick beams crisscrossing the ceiling above her. She pictured Samuel’s pleasant face and the gentle way he’d kissed her hand. Of course, Agnes was simply showing respect, and Chou simply sought gossip to take back to Eclatant. She sat up and reached for the handwritten schedule beside her bed. She perused a list of the day’s events. Surely some function would put her in the same place as Dorian. Ah, an afternoon strike stick league. It sounded terribly boring, but Dorian was a celebrated strike stick player. She could stomach an hour of pipe smoke, clacking balls, and whiskey drunk courtiers. To look upon that loving smile she so longed for, she’d tolerate almost anything.
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