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    Volume 15, Issue 2, May 31, 2020
    Message from the Editors
 Gabriel Vane's Carnival Extraordinaire by Kate Everett
 Where Once There Was Wind by Clint Foster
 Under Our Skin by Owen Leddy
 All the Way Home by Gail Ann Gibbs
 Rona of the Els by Desmond White
 Editor's Corner: Barbara Barnett Interview by Candi Cooper-Towler


         

Rona of the Els

Desmond White


       
       "What did you do?" the Mistress shrieked, and she slapped me again. I stuttered, staring at the chasm I'd just opened in her cabin. Purple smoke curled at the edges of blackened boards.
       "I thought 'eyes of newt' was just in plays," I told her.
       "You tossed in a lizard," the Mistress said. She looked at the cabin ceiling, at the vegetables hanging on string, the rabbits and lizards on rusted hooks. She said it again--this time, I'm sure, to her mother. "She tossed in a lizard, and you didn't warn me."
       The Mistress always did odd things like this, though her mother was sixty paces in the woods and four hops below.
       "It was a prank," I said. "I didn't mean to blow a hole in the wall."
       "They're in plays for a reason, Rona," the Mistress replied, her eyes as cold as shadows beneath stones. But she must have felt some pity because she explained my mistake. "These are the elements: fire, water, air, and stone. A created being takes all four in a careful mixture. Therefore, created beings are more dangerous ingredients."
       "Can a human be an ingredient?" I asked.
       She looked at me slyly. "A human being is a careful, dangerous, and delightful ingredient--if you know what you're doing."
       In those days, I was young and old. I'd seen ten killings and ten hangings. Most were good hangings, but one was long, legs kicking like a grasshopper. I was eight when Mother found me work with the Mistress Apothecary. The woman was not evil, just unkind, with a pleasant face ruined by snow-white eyes. I didn't spend much time there, preferring to hunt rats than pick weeds for the Mistress.
       Nor was the Mistress happy to get a girl for choring. As she put it, boys could move lumber, fix the leaks in roofs, and carry her to bed. But men worked the fields. Women worked the homes. The village could only spare a girl--and only a girl without any particular skill.
       Or realistic ambition. For I would speak to anyone who'd listen, typically my broom, about joining the King's Men. Of flying his lizards and fighting in faraway wars.
       The days were consumed by the marsh, one hand holding the kind of truffle I was to find, the other peeling back leaves in search of its wild siblings. Some mushrooms only grew on the bones of deer, or the bottoms of puddles. I was often searching and rarely finding and always catching the Mistress's cold words when I came back dirty-but-empty handed.
       The nights were full of learning. The Mistress taught me letters in books dry as kindling, recipes for detecting dead bodies or spells for peering through walls. Maybe if these spells worked regular, I would have taken interest. But most were so unreliable as to be useless.
       "You will fix the wall," the Mistress said. She was smoking rilly by her bed and scribing. Probably recording the instructions for my disaster. "Then, you will clean your face, arms." She looked me distastefully. "Your everything. The Tour has arrived."
       I repaired the wall--I could cut lumber and fix leaks as good as any boy. But now I was forbidden near the hearth. Fine. Who but a crazy witch would want to hover over pots of guts and vegetable rot?
       The Mistress left me the tub, dirty somewhat from her turn, but I ignored it and skipped down mud-wet trails to the village. Even from the marsh, I could see the Tour arriving from the kingsroad--forty horsemen carrying the lances of the capitol, shields covered in curling dragons. At the head were two barons, faces purple as hernias. Between the lords and knights rode the King's Daughter.
       My village has never been on a map. Where my village lies is green ink, meaning swamp, covered by black cursive that reads the Els. If the name of our stinking forest is printed elsewhere, then we are frilly dragons or boars with wings--monsters invented to warn of dangers. Monsters that do not exist in our woods.
       There are, of course, creatures that muck, and I would have described them faithfully to a map man. There is a bear with a beak--I have tangled with it--fat as a church, with eyes like the stones you find in rivers. There are wolves darker than shadows and things like women in the lake. The bog gets to the elk sometimes. Dead things stir. But rural talk doesn't interest map men.
       Our village has no name except the Village and no royals except Hedge, a bald, red-nosed man. I never pitied Hedge, even though his lordship was small. A tower, a village, and the borders of a bog. A worthless realm where marsh roots turned crops to rot, and the farms could barely feed the farmers. I never pitied Hedge because he was a mean one: an unhappy drunk, a spiteful master. Hedge had two knights, equally loose-toothed and rusted. Their heraldry was the bear. The icon, poorly painted, looked like droppings.
       We were not worth a palmful of pennies, yet there she was. The King's Daughter. Power and wealth beyond imagining. Gracing our home on a silver horse with a mane tied with bells. There she was, trying to look bored, eyes darting over our clothes. She was pale as the sky before it rains. I had never seen a person with skin so much like teeth.
       "Looks rather plump," the Mistress muttered to me. She'd found me--somehow--in the dirty crowd. Her eyes squinted at the train, then fell on me--scanning the dirt on my cheeks, the ragged shirt tossed over skinny shoulders. "Boys like fat on the bone. You might try eating more rats."
       I blushed.
       There was no reason for the Tour to sweep through the village except to show us their horses and armor, and for the Daughter to see our misery. For that was the purpose of their march. They called it the Great Unspoiling. The King's Demand was that our commonness, our rudeness, might increase his children's appreciation for their better life, to endow them with a nervousness about the People.
       Each tour lasted as long as the King desired. Then, the Daughter would return to the black mountains to train in the arts of the aristocracy: poetry, diplomacy, tactics, magic, and marriage.
       It was an effective campaign. No Daughter ever left the capitol again.
       I returned to the apothecary's hut. The Mistress boiled something foul and spoke grumpily to her mother. I couldn't tell if the potion was entrails of frog or bat, but the slimy heat gave my head the impression I'd been battered with a club.
       "What are you making now?" I said, dropping a rat into the basket where I keep Apos, my snake. The Mistress tasted from a ladle.
       "Soldiers are here. And with soldiers comes country diseases, mostly of the genital sort."
       "Are we going to meet the King's Daughter?" I asked.
       "I will meet the King's Daughter," the Mistress said. "And you will accompany me as a servant."
       It was painstaking work, and I burnt my fingers a few times, but soon I'd emptied her pot into forty black-stained vials. The Mistress also collected the poultices she'd pouched and buried yesterday. The Tour offered a rare opportunity for the Mistress to make a decent wage.
       Then the Mistress caught me and pressed me into the tub--the water cold from the absence of fire. She'd kept a sponge beneath her sleeve in secret. In a heartbeat, my face was red and scoured, and she was forcing me to change into one of her childhood dresses. A faded blue fabric in the shape of a bell, with far too much lace than was healthy for a human being.
       The King's Men had built their tents around the Tower. The color of deep water, the tents gave Hedge Landing the appearance of an island castle, like those that house wizards and wyverns. I should also say it looked like a ruin, but the Tower never needed an ocean for that.
       A man brought us through camp, and I should say the Mistress enamored the soldiers standing by their tents. She had scrubbed her skin to pale, in competition with the Daughter, and hid a slim, wonderful body with a dress. Hers was blue, too, but fresher. Like the color of eyes. The final piece was a perfectly distant scowl. I was enamored myself. It was not merely her beauty. I'd seen the Mistress remove an arrow from a wolf, the other hand pressing the creature's head to the floor. Without fear. Without complaint. Letting me voice derision at the wolf's ungratefulness as it bounded into the woods.
       It was this distance from reality--from pain, fear, threat--that she embodied now, walking beside the ironclad.
       We waited by a fire, encircled by soldiers. These men were cleaner than expected, their armor unreal for just having been polished. Still, they smelled from riding.
       "You look like someone I know," a soldier said, stroking his red beard.
       "Probably someone unpaid for her trouble," the Mistress replied.
       The men laughed. "You would be well compensated," said another.
       "I prefer a man with rank, not one who smells rank."
       The men laughed again. They seemed kind, boastful, but I think they were cruel, too, and I never forgot the swords in their belts. Many of these blades had run through the guts of unweaponed folk. Maybe girls like me.
       We met the barons in their tent. Beneath blue canvas stood the true lords of the black mountains. Gout-heavy, the purple of their cloaks matching the purple of bloated faces. Hedge was there, anxious and quiet. The Daughter was nowhere to be seen.
       I had hoped another glimpse of her--to see black hair curling around an unhappy face, even if she were to look me up and down, hand on her chin, practicing courteous disdain.
       Unlike our village, the capitol is easy to find on a map. It is always center: Eydis, the valley city. There, every roof is topped with grass, the walls black as the mountains. The only place where anything of interest happens. Except maybe the wars in the east.
       The Mistress sold pouches of dog leather, each poultice plump with her knowledge of genital diseases. The barons paid her with coin, actual money, not venison illegally shot or fish heads or empty words. She thanked them and turned to leave, when one broke the silence:
       "Your accent." This was the Baron Quintes. "You are from Eydis, I can tell. What are you doing here on the fringe of civilization?"
       "This is my home, my lord," the Mistress replied. "I was born to farmers."
       "Magic and a learned tongue," said the other. "But you must be a Citizen."
       "Everything I know I learned from books. I have long hoped to elevate my status, but have only met misfortune."
       Disinterest was creeping over their faces. It was easy to see these were men unaccustomed to caring about the lives of others. "Well, it is a misfortunate world."
       When we left, I could see her taking her breath back. She had been wearing something. Not a disguise exactly, but a way-of-being. She had been afraid they would see something in her that she didn't wish to be found.
       Away from the camp, I asked her questions. "Why wasn't the Daughter with the barons?"
       "Commerce bores her," said the Mistress.
       "How many Daughters are there?"
       "Four hundred and fifty-three."
       "And how many Mothers?"
       The Mistress laughed. "You think they're his actual daughters?"
       I said nothing.
       "Sure, there are realms where rulers keep concubines, or count wives like Hedge counts his sheep. But the King has only the Queen. She wouldn't have it any other way. The Daughters are not his flesh."
       "The Queen is barren?" I asked.
       "The Queen is barren," she replied.
       Before I could ask more, the Mistress demanded hollow stalks from the river, and I was off to the woods to dirty the dress she loved so much.
       The Mistress smoked rilly and turned to bed, and I crept into mine, trying to sleep. But phantasms of armor and painted dragons crept through my thoughts--and that one thing I had always wanted--to join the King's Men, to fly with the drakes above his blackstone keep.
       The Tour would be gone by daybreak.
       I had only this chance.
       I slipped out of the Mistress's dress and snuck on trousers and my cloth shirt. I would be myself before anyone else--the gentry be damned. On the wall was the Mistress's rusted sword. A relic of her lost age--of those years to which she never spoke. If the Mistress's mother saw me steal the sword, the spirit said nothing.
       Then I slipped into the night, to the ocean of tents. There were several fires bordered by huddled soldiers, the darkness between crisscrossed with ropes painted a handsome silver--a thousand tripwires keeping the tents from collapse.
       I don't know why I needed to see the Daughter. I think it was because she was a traveler from another world--a kingdom of wealth, celebrity, and incredible pleasure. And there was her beautiful face, too--an intoxicating reality, potent as rilly smoke.
       I could see a light in the Tower. Candle flicker. The Daughter was awake.
       I spied through a crack in the door, spotting the red potato of Hedge's face at a table with the barons, recounting some war story he never witnessed. No way to the stair unless I wanted a train of swords at my rear. Instead, I stuck my sword in the dirt, felt along the stone wall for a grip, found it, and climbed.
       Somewhere by a window, I stopped, and watched the tents for a moment, mesmerized by their flapping sea. I felt like a hero climbing a castle overlooking the ocean. Above me, some kidnapped royal. Below, those marauders that rupture the hallowed ground of story.
       I crawled further, the wall eternally against me. Long-dead builders were my enemy. They had secured the rocks as evenly as possible.
       Then I was slithering through a window, blessing the gods for keeping Hedge poor. I hadn't thought of glass and was glad to see it wasn't there. The shutters were open. The Daughter must not have believed the peasant's tale about the night being poisonous.
       There was an orange glow from the table where a candle sat, lowered to a splash of wax, and there was a bed with curtains, burdensome things like bear shag. The curtains were another noble defense, as if the night air couldn't go right over it. Something was emitting snores as deep as a dog with a cold. I navigated shadows and peered at the bed, but the sheets were made. Nothing slept there. The snores stopped.
       "What are you doing here?"
       A head lifted from the desk, glittering in the glow. Why hadn't I seen her? The Daughter had been sleeping with her head on a book, dark hair absorbing the light.
       "I thought you might be bored," I said.
       She was breathtaking. Even now, with hair mussed.
       "Bored of sleep?" she said.
       Unheeded, the light now flung over her book. Wet with drool, I could see diagrams of winged lizards and lines of writing. The light crawled over me as I approached, letting her see my hands, weaponless.
       "You are reading about dragons."
       She scoffed. "What do you care for books?"
       "I can read."
       I stood by her now. If she suspected I was an assassin, I gave her no moment to protest.
       I read quickly:
       
       Dyolith, the Longhead of Eomma, was the first dragon conscripted by the Contract. The Empire put her in charge of the lizardfly, and she was victorious in several hundred campaigns. Some believe she bore twin wyrms, the Spawn of Teirsunth.
       
       "This is very dry," I added.
       The Daughter gifted me a new appraisal, more forgiving than the first. She had taken me for worthless folk. She was right, but she didn't need to know that.
       "Someday, I will be dragonsworn," I said, thinking to impress her. "I will be Lady Rona, my heart linked eternal to a King's drake."
       "Unlikely," she replied.
       "I will ride the cloud trails, a lance in my hand, a shield in the other. I will defend the realm from things that lurk in the sky."
       My fingers touched the candlestick, a winding of fronds wrought in silver, then the jewelry scattered on the desk. I took nothing--her eyes were on me--but each ornament would have paid a lifetime's wages.
       "Sounds miserably cold," she said. "So, your plan to break my boredom was to bore me?"
       "I want to take you down there--to the blackwood," I said, gesturing at the window. The upper tier was blue with stars, the lower exposed hills cloaked in trees.
       "Not as pretty as the sky."
       "But more exciting. Down in the marshes are bears and beasts and the Old Wall--or what's left of it."
       "Wouldn't you rather ride the cloud trails?"
       "But the Old Wall isn't up there."
       She seemed about to say something, then laughed.
       "You're not real," the Daughter said. "You're a character from a fable. The plucky farmer girl who climbs the castle and woos some nobleman's daughter."
       I felt hopelessness strike my face, as real and familiar as the Mistress's hand.
        "Well, then," the Daughter said, "let's go see the wall."
       With elation like fire beneath my skin, I watched the Daughter stand and close her book. I struggled to keep my voice cool and casual. "You won't need a coat."
       "You mean I should go like this?" The Daughter spread her arms, presenting a nightgown as pale as her skin. "Someone's going to mistake me for a moon spirit."
       "It's lovely," I said, breathless.
       "Then I'll bring it."
       The Daughter rebuffed the climb, nor did she want to form a rope from bed sheets, arguing it'd be obvious to the guard who saw the snaking white rope that the royal child had snuck out. Better to be discrete and take the stairs. We crept down to the foyer, where guards muttered over Hedge's fallen head.
       I had prepared for the night, thieving some of the Mistress's components, and a living meal meant for Apos. Now I snuck a rat from my pocket, ignoring his sharp teeth on my thumb. Then I tossed the rat into the room.
       Immediately the creature scampered beneath the feet of the men, headed for wine barrels. They stomped, more for game than fear, and we used the commotion to run across the flagstones.
       Outside, I explained, "He's for my snake. I'll have to find another in the marsh."
       "I can help."
       "You ever catch a rat before?"
       "Not really," she said. "We keep cats for that sort of thing."
       I retrieved the Mistress's sword, and we trudged away from camp. There was no reason to enter the village. We cut through broken farmland, through fields of high grass, until we neared the trees. Even in the night, we could sense the true darkness--shadows well-trained in expelling light. But I was so intoxicated by her presence--floating almost dreamlike across the mudded floor--that I didn't feel any threat from the trees.
       Besides, I had walked the marsh so many times.
       We reached the knees of the wood. I felt a hand on my arm, skin surprisingly rough.
       "Is it dangerous?" the Daughter asked.
       "Always," I said. "There are spirits and snakemen, and there's me. A small thing, sure, but I carry a blade and a pocket full of poison."
       "You smell nice," she said. "I thought peasants would stink."
       "I bathe every day," I replied. A complete lie. "We're not royals. We don't get acne and rashes from powdered wigs. Of course, the men smell worse than horses when they're in the field. But I work for a witch." Witch sounded better than apothecary. "And she showed me this."
       I plucked green blades from the forest floor and brought them to her face.
       The Daughter sniffed. "Minty. Is it edible?"
       "It's for your head," I said, and I squeezed water onto my palm, placed drops behind her ears. Our faces were uncomfortably close, and I caught her breath. Uglier than I imagined. She had feasted on venison. The red meat kept to her breath like a snake's.
       "It's not exactly perfume," the Daughter said.
       We stepped into the woods, trailed by a sweet, peppery aroma. The moon cut through the branches into random places. Lucent beams, like those I imagine encircle relics, lit up tangles and brown puddles. We were silent now, keeping close, and I kept thinking, what do you say to a creature like this? I had nearly run out of topics. Rats, mint grass, and the village. All that was left was the Mistress, but did I really wish to ruin our intimacy with stories about someone else?
       We walked the marsh, and then the ruins. The moon heaped her light on the gray bricks as if relieved to breach the canopy at last. The Daughter surprised me. She grabbed ahold of a stone, pulled herself up. In a moment, she was atop the wall. I stuck the sword in the mud. In another moment, I was beside her.
       "Seems foolish," I said, "building a wall in a swamp."
       "When they built this wall," the Daughter replied, "the swamp wasn't here."
       Beyond the lives of our grandfathers, the land was shadows to me, a mystery like the broken teeth of a skull. But she could see the world beyond, old times, remembered by scholars.
       "I'll be honest, I'm glad to be out of the swamp," the Daughter said. "Did you notice how the grooves of your steps fill up with brown water?"
       "And the smell," I said. "I've never really liked the smell."
       And there we were, both of our faces pale as bone beneath the moon. Her eyes--like the stones you find in rivers. Her skin--I touched it--not smooth but rough as scales.
       Tough, like my own.
       I felt the heat in her hands. Wanted more than heat.
       "My name is Rona," I told her.
       "I know," she said. I could smell her breath again, that meat decay. "You told me."
       "And yours?"
       A rattling, unhealthy breath filled our ears. There was something in the darkness from where we'd come--something pushing past the trees.
       Heat was replaced by a chilling fear.
       "Down," I said, and we dropped to our chests.
       The creature emerged, turning gray in the light. Musky. Fat-bodied, its beak clacking. A giant bear with the snout of a bird, a creature that wouldn't fit in a church.
       I was an idiot. Why had I stuck my sword in the mud? In the moment, it'd looked cool, as well as being an inconvenience while climbing the rampart. I peered down at the weapon, brown in the moonlight. I could drop down--but then I'd be trapped between beast and barricade.
       The bear was sniffing the floor, lathering its nose with mud. Rooting. Snorting. Hunting, I realized, by the smell of our shoes. Soon it would find the wall, and its head would rise with the smell of our climb, and--
       "This way," I hissed, and we slid down the other side. The muck was thicker here, less punctuated by trees. I knelt and fumbled with the pouch at my belt, pulled a leather glove over my hand.
       "We need to run," she said.
       "Trust me."
       Into my palm, I mixed salt, ash, guano, mole's tooth, and garlic, struck the concoction with a match. Above us, a black beak slipped over the edge, then turned downward. The bear stared at us like an owl, slid down toward us.
       "My Mistress will not let me in the kitchen," I said. I tossed into the poultice the tail of a lizard, then spit. "Because of this."
       I pushed the Daughter into the mud and thrust my hand at the bear. There was a crack like thunder. The creature shrieked like a fox. Its shadow lifted away.
       "Hurry," I said, tossing the smoking glove aside. We tramped down the length of the wall. Any moment I expected to be plucked into the air.
       "Here," said the Daughter, and we ducked into the wall. Time and some pawing creature had tossed out stones, made a cave within the wall. Better--a corridor--back to the village side of the swamp.
       "If we go out there, it will only track us into the woods," I said. "If that happens--"
       "I too have a little trick," she replied.
       The Daughter took my hand and led me out from the wall. Behind us, the creature stuck its beak into the cave and snapped at our heels.
       The woods were no longer pleasant. We tramped through lake water, falling into pits hidden beneath the mud. My only consolation was the lack of snakes. They never skulked at night, finding their holes to wait for sunrise. Otherwise, we might have been struck by a poison that didn't need to sniff our soles to find us.
       I heard the bear's lumbering step behind us, and I knew from walking these trails that we would not escape the wood in time. On firmer ground, I stopped her.
       "It will catch us now," I said, searching for a sharp root in the muck.
       "Get behind me," the Daughter said.
       "I will not. I will die to protect you, Lady--"
       "Aeradia," she said. "That is my name. Get behind me, Rona."
       I complied. We could see its shadow pass the trees, cloaking those pillars of moonlight. The creature was snorting, stamping forward with hot breaths.
       The Daughter gave the dark a bored look. I didn't see a single tremble across her skin. She stood as if before court--composed as glass. And then she sucked in her breath.
       Her skin, already pale, began to glow.
       The bear loomed over us, rushing with terrible intensity. Its beak open, its pink throat exposed in the Daughter's glow.
       Her skin was translucent now. Beneath white flesh, I saw scales like red leaves.
       Then she spat fire.
       Black fire, thick and hot as boiling water, flew from her mouth and splashed across its face. No, stabbed, through its head. The bear toppled away, smoke billowing from its neck.
       Magic. I was witnessing magic. And while I knew magic could be made by the discards of trees and lizards, I had never seen magic indwelled before, existing with control and poise inside a living creature.
       The Daughter lowered her head, her flaming breath pulverizing its body, leaving nothing but singed paws.
       She closed her mouth, and the fire went out. Aeradia wobbled, then fell into my arms. Her skin returned to lackluster pale. Only an exhale of smoke hinted her body contained anything but ordinary bones and organs.
       By the time we reached the village, Aeradia could walk without help. Back at the Tower, she paused, and looked up to the lightless window of her bedroom.
       "You climbed that?" she said, impressed.
       I said nothing. What could I say? All of my bravery had amounted to nothing. I might climb towers and ruin potions, but she could breathe fire.
       Aeradia looked at me in the moonlight, and I saw sadness in her eyes.
       "Better if you leave," she said. And then she entered the Tower. Walked in, splattered with mud, to a screeching of chairs.
       The Mistress was awake. She lay on her bed, reading a book of cures. She shut the book when she saw me--bloody, cloth-ripped, the slime on my face stained with tears. Trembling, I sat at the table and stared at a cold cup of tea. So, I'd been found out.
       I was trembling for the punishment I expected, the monster I encountered. And the realization that I would never see Aeradia again.
       With that last thought came shame, the humiliation of my poverty--of torn clothes and a spotty education, of a rural life far from the important things.
       Just beasts and broken walls.
       The Mistress lit a candle and sat nearby. Her face, often carved into a sneer, was emotionless. Tonight, she lacked the sympathy of a mother and the arrogance of a witch. She just was, sitting there, surveying my sniffling.
       Finally, she spoke. "Tell me."
       "It's nothing," I said. "I got lost in the swamp."
       "Tell me about her."
       In splintered sentences, I recounted the night: the Daughter, the bear with a bird's beak, the fire that came and went as simply as a shout.
       "Yes, the Daughters have magic," the Mistress said.
       "You never worry here," I said, "about the monsters in the marsh."
       "The bears and owls and everything between can smell my scent very well," she said. "That's why they keep away."
       Now she was being enigmatic. Other townsfolk were plainspoken, their secrets as easy to discover as turning over a log. But the Mistress was vast as the night.
       In the morning, there were thuds on the door. The Mistress shook me violently from my bedroll. I was allowed back at the hearth to boil tea for our guests. I was trusted again. The Mistress opened the door, tossing her hair behind her shoulders.
       It was one of the knights of the bear droppings, wearing scratched armor and a scratchier beard. We had been ordered by Decree of Baron Hellswyr to visit with the Lord of the Tour.
       Aeradia had not kept my secret.
       But the Mistress was with me, which gave me confidence I wouldn't be directly beheaded. No one, I was sure, could cheat or hurt the Mistress, or cause her any discomfort. She had a way with words, and magic, and a powerful slap.
       We walked with the knight, his hand on the brown hilt of his sword (indistinguishable from the brown of his scabbard, armor, or beard). Our destination was the same blue tent where we'd sold our poultices.
       Inside, the King's Daughter sat on a chair, flanked by purple-faced barons and attendants. The air smelled like fur and fire.
       "This is her?" said one of the barons, curiously.
       "Yes," the Daughter replied. Her hand was on her chin. Courteous disdain.
       "You may leave," said the other baron.
       I felt a rush of excitement and envy fill my breast, churning so quickly that it hurt. But I followed the command and turned to go. A soldier blocked my way.
       The Mistress stood still. "Why have we come all this way, if your only intention was to excuse us?"
       "You may leave," the Baron said. "Not the girl."
       "What is this?" the Mistress flared. "What do you intend for my ward?"
       "Go," the Baron growled. Four soldiers stepped from their posts, gauntlets ready to draw.
       The Mistress carried a scowl as fierce as a torch, then bent to me. "I will be outside," she whispered.
       Then she was gone. I had put my faith in the Mistress's protection, and she was gone. Whatever courage I still possessed wilted into an unrecognizable clump of despair.
       "On your knees," said one of the barons.
       I knelt. The Baron Quintes pulled a sword from a decorated sheath. He swung the blade through the air in a flourish. Of course. I had endangered one of the Daughters of the Capitol, snuck her into danger. What else was destined for a peasant child who did not know her place?
       As if to confirm my thoughts, the Baron began to recite a list of my crimes: "Marshling, you abducted the Emperor's Daughter and brought her into a dangerous realm. She was nearly killed by a beast."
       While the Baron spoke, he approached me, his footsteps slow and measured. Both of his hands clung to the hilt, the blade raised in the air.
       I glared at her now, this creature of privilege and wealth who lived beyond mountains, an uncaring spirit with magic and law. Her eyes, trained on me, were as fixated as a bear.
       "I am not sure this is right," the Baron said, "but I have been Instructed."
        The sword came down.
       Touched my shoulder. Thumped my head. Touched my other shoulder.
       "Rise, Lady Rona of the Els."
       I stayed on my knees, shaking.
       "Rise, Knight, and greet the Dragon Aeradia."
       I stood, not fully comprehending. I looked to Aeradia on her chair.
       "Rise, Daughter, and greet your new rider."
       Now Aeradia was rushing to me, her face failing to remain solemn, a smile forming against her will. She pulled me roughly to my feet--her arms carrying a power that did not match her gentle frame.
       "I would say I chose you," she said, "but you chose me first."
       Then, she anointed the space behind my ear with the peppery smell of mint.
       




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