A Wintertide Spell

wintertide spell by jody wallaceTitle: A Wintertide Spell
Series: Middle Kingdoms #1
Published by: Meankitty Publishing
Release Date: November 2011
Contributors: Jody Wallace
Pages: 32
ASIN: B0068OMOJW
Buy the Book: Books2Read; Amazon
Genre: , ,

 

ABOUT THE BOOK

If the King is fated to love thirteen women before he turns fifty, is he still husband material? One cold, snowy Wintertide Eve, Queen Geneva of Foresta tracks her straying spouse in an attempt to discover where exactly he goes at night. Has he met his next great love already? Will he put her and their three children aside?


Also in this series:

A Spell for Susannah

the cover for a spell for susannah by jody wallace, a fantasy romanceTitle: A Spell for Susannah
Series: Middle Kingdoms #2
Published by: Meankitty Publishing
Release Date: November 2015
Contributors: Jody Wallace
Pages: 355
ISBN13: 9798201322144
ASIN: B017V92BUY
Buy the Book: Books2Read; Amazon; Kobo; Apple; Barnes & Noble
Genre: , ,

 

ABOUT THE BOOK

A not-so-Grimm tale about a not-so-obedient princess and the kingdom she’s determined to save

NO BOYS ALLOWED...
Twelve bored royal daughters in a kingdom where the nobility has been cursed to bear no male children. One sly detective who's been tasked to find out where the ladies disappear to at night. What's a princess to do?

FORBIDDEN MAGIC...
If you're Princess Susannah, the eldest of the twelve princesses, you research inheritance laws and curse-breaking magic until you develop the ability to work fairy magic yourself—which is completely forbidden. You might use that magic to discover an enchanted land beneath your palace where hundreds of amnesiac princes dance and cavort all night long.

DESPERATION LEADS TO DESPERATE MEASURES...
If you’re the King and Queen, you hire a professional to find out how your daughters are ruining their dancing shoes on a regular basis, despite all the measures you’ve taken to keep them secure. For that delicate job, you choose the handsome detective who instantly gets under your eldest daughter’s skin.

But enchantments and dancing won't modernize the patriarchal laws in time to prevent the Middle Kingdoms from falling into anarchy. Can Susannah outwit the detective, the patriarchy, the curse, and the fairies in time to save her kingdom—and herself?

Author’s Note to Readers: This 105,000 word novel was originally published by Samhain Publishing in 2008. This edition has been reedited, reformatted, and updated with a new cover but has not been substantially altered.


Also in this series:

FIRST SECTION FREE!

Prologue

 

The final sovereign of the Middle Kingdoms signed the petition with a flourish and then fanned the ink to dry it before handing it to the footman. The youngest of the thirteen kings, he was a handsome man with dark brown hair and a neat beard.

“Well done!” The Emperor accepted the completed document and unrolled it to its full length, nodding his head in approval. The charmed parchment, when signed by all thirteen human kings and their Emperor and witnessed by three representatives from the Fairy Alliance for Ethics, would bind the fairy Malady from the human lands, in particular from attending any more christenings with her nasty little gifts.

“It was your child upon whom Malady bestowed her final curse, so it is fitting you be the one to summon the Fairy Alliance to hear our judgment.” The Emperor handed the pearl and ruby conch shell to the youngest king.

“Thank you, Your Splendor.” The man raised the device to his lips and blew several short, eerie blasts. Almost immediately, three fairies materialized in the center of the golden throne room. The breeze of their arrival ruffled the heavy crimson hangings along the long walls and set the tiered chandelier tinkling.

“We’ve been expecting your summons,” Pleasentia said, swishing her gauze dress and smiling at the men gathered in the darkened room.

“Hurry and get this over with.” The fairy Budbud snapped her wizened fingers, and in them appeared a large gold seal. “Recite the document, sprinkle on the fairy dust and let us ratify it. We’ve better things to be doing during the blue moon’s night.”

The third fairy held a crumpet dripping with jam. “Is this about Mali?” Gary asked, licking his fingers. “You know, her gifts really don’t—”

“We don’t want to hear any more of your excuses!” thundered the Emperor. “We have the right to bar specific fairies from our midst if we so choose. In fact we have the right to bar all fairies from the human lands, and then where would you get your precious gold?”

“Oh, do shut up, Hubert, and get on with it,” Budbud said. “We all know you aren’t going to ban all the fairies. You want our spells as much as we want your gold.”

The Emperor flushed and cleared his throat. He began to recite the document, which cast the first threads of the spell that would prohibit Malady from entering human lands until the parchment was burned three times with the feather of a red gold phoenix.

“We the people…”

“They always start their documents that way. Why do they do that?” whispered Pleasentia.

“Hush, dear.” Gary patted her hand. “Let them have their fun.”

“We the people, in order to maintain a more solid union, to provide for the common defense of ourselves and our posterity, do hereby declare the fairy Malady banned and barred from the Middle Kingdoms forthwith. She is forbidden from attending the christenings of any human children, be they noble or common, even if those christenings take place outside the Middle Kingdoms, and should she seek to harm, injure or otherwise take revenge upon any human, let her—”

In a blast of light followed by a billow of reeking smoke, the fairy in question exploded into the vaulted throne room, her wiry hair standing on end. She stamped her feet upon the crimson carpet and the walls trembled.

“What charade is this?” she cried. “Banning me, the great Malady, from your puny human lands?”

The Emperor stared at the wicked sprite in dismay, his mouth hanging open, as the other occupants of the room coughed and waved tendrils of smoke from their faces.

“Keep reading, Your Splendor!” insisted the youngest king. “We shall not traffic with her. Let her see how she likes bargaining with the Sun Demons for her precious gold.” But the Emperor let the parchment droop in his grasp.

“Better not make that face, Hubert.” Malady cackled, raised a hand and an icy globule of magic appeared in it. She hurled it at the Emperor, striking him in the head and immobilizing him. “It might freeze that way!”

Budbud harrumphed. “Always butting in where you aren’t invited. You leave these humans be!”

“I will not!” screeched the black-haired fairy. “I curse these humans! I curse them and the horses they rode in on!”

“Can’t we leave the horses out of it?” asked Gary. “What did they ever do to you?”

“Okay, scratch the part about the horses.” Malady sketched some glowing runes in the air before she wiped them out with a quick hand. “But as for these foolish humans, these so-called nobles who reject my gifts, let them be forever cursed!”

Since the other kings were too intimidated to move, the young king beside the Emperor snatched the document from his limp hands. “We the people, yes, yes,” he said, racing through the text.

“Let them never bear another male child—” shrieked Malady.

“If she should seek revenge, blah blah, let her be banished by the representatives of the Fairy Alliance who stand here—” shouted the king.

“Let them bear only female children from this day forward—”

“Banished to east of the sun and west of the moon for a thousand years and a day!”

“Only girl babies for every king, every duke, every single noble in your stupid, pitiful lands!”

“So be it rote!” The young king snatched the philter of fairy dust from a gaping footman and doused the parchment.

“So be it rote,” echoed the twelve kings.

“Mmmfh!” rasped the Emperor.

“So be it rote,” agreed the three fairies, who’d observed the chant-off with great interest. Budbud hopped onto the Emperor’s dais and stamped the document with the golden seal. A ripple of pale light bloomed outward from the paper, dissipating as quickly as it appeared.

Upon the completion of the banishment, Malady doubled over with hateful laughter. Still chortling, she exploded out of the throne room in much the same way she entered, leaving a burned patch on the crimson rug.

With a gasp, the Emperor tore the icy skein from his face. “Surely that curse won’t stick,” he panted. “Will it?”

 

Chapter One

 

And so it came to pass that the noble inhabitants of the Middle Kingdoms bore no more male children. Ten, twenty, thirty years, and still no male children were delivered to swell their ranks and inherit their lands. The aristocracy tried, how they tried, but daughters alone did they have. Daughters who had fewer and fewer men to marry each year. Daughters trapped by the Kingdom Laws, which decreed women could hold no property nor titles independent of men. Daughters who must remain at home until married. Daughters who grew restless.

Susannah groaned when the Queen slammed open the closely guarded door to her bedchamber and punched the button that made the wrought-iron oil lamps pop on. Their penetrating light joined with the bang of the door and squeak of the hinges to wake her from some much-needed slumber.

“Mother,” Susannah said, “do you have to be so loud?” All twelve sisters, from oldest to youngest, shared a room so they could be guarded more efficiently.

The Queen clanged her toad-headed cane on the closest iron footboard in the two rows of beds. “Yes, I do.” The cane bounced off the footboard and into Susannah’s toes.

Susannah curled her legs up and sighed. Tendrils of a pleasant dream about waltzing with the enchanted princes in the secret land below the castle unraveled before her tightly closed eyes.

As usual on the mornings when the twelve princesses lay abed, Susannah’s mother was not pleased. “I don’t suppose any of you ladies will tell me why you’re so tired this morning?”

Several of her sisters stuck their pillows over their heads. Eyes gummy from lack of sleep, Susannah rolled out of bed, but none of the rest moved.

The Queen whacked her cane on the next footboard in the row. “Get your royal bottoms out of bed!” She rapped out their responsibilities for the day. “Calypso, Peter, Hortense—shopkeeper visits. Esme, Lilly—library. Annabelle, Nina, Temple—castle accounts. Fay, Ella, Rosa—herb gardens.”

No one budged.

The Queen stalked to the middle of the long room. The square stones and wooden beams of the ceiling echoed her words with chill precision. “If you persist with this disobedience, I’m going to start giving you away to the first men who ask for you, commoners or no.”

At that, Hortense sat up. “Kingdom Law Number 333 states that those of noble blood cannot be wedded to those of common blood unless that individual performs some quest or feat which earns him or her elevation to the ranks of nobility.”

“Besides, Papa won’t let you,” Susannah reminded her mother. “You’ve been trying that for years.”

“You devious girls haven’t been sneaking off in the middle of the night to exhaust yourselves into a stupor until recently. Your dear Papa is getting extremely frustrated.”

“It’s not our fault Malady cast the Female Curse,” Ella said. Susannah cast the teenage troublemaker a “shut up” glance behind her mother’s back, but Ella ignored her. “You and the other kings and queens brought it on yourselves when you banished her from attending any more christenings.”

While Susannah agreed with her sister, she did so in silence. Antagonizing their mother in the morning was unwise. Antagonizing her at other times was foolish, as well, but not so much as after one of their prolonged snoozes.

The Queen shook her cane at Ella. “Curse or no curse, you are going to put your lazy selves to work doing something constructive. Idleness will turn you even more wicked than you already are.”

Susannah took her corset off the hook on the tall cedar armoire beside her bed and began snapping it over her night rail that doubled as a chemise. The Queen hadn’t yet assigned her a task, which struck her as ominous. “Mother, what am I to do today?”

The Queen, ignoring her comment, bent down to the cool, gray floor and snatched up a pair of ruined silk slippers. “Look at this rag. Do you girls think shoes grow on trees?”

Susannah gave her mother a mild look. “We keep the shoemaking elves in business. Otherwise, they’d be haunting the unemployment office.”

“That doesn’t stop you from putting many guards out of a job. You know good and well your father fires everyone who lets you wicked girls keep doing…whatever it is you’re doing. I should have you all put in the stocks in the public square.”

Hortense, voice muffled through her workaday dress as she slid it over her head, cleared her throat. “Kingdom Law Number 432 states that no one of noble blood shall be stocked, hided, whipped, tortured or imprisoned in the lesser dungeons at any time. They also cannot be disowned, denounced or otherwise demoralized without indisputable proof of treason, immorality or misallocation of kingdom funds.”

“Shut up, Hortense.” The Queen turned to Susannah. “Today, Miss, you’ll be helping me select the next batch of sentries. The guards shall know it is you personally, Susannah, who causes them to be thrown from the castle in disgrace. Your father has agreed when more guards lose their jobs, you’ll be responsible for apologizing to their families and finding them employment outside the castle.”

Temple, one of Susannah’s youngest sisters, lay down on the floor and scrabbled under her bed. A pair of tattered silk dancing slippers skidded into the middle of the room, then another, and then a red croquet ball. Her head under the dust ruffle, she asked, “Couldn’t Father just quit firing the guards? None of them succeed. It’s not fair to make them suffer.”

At Temple’s naive comment, Susannah froze in the middle of her hasty ablutions. So did her sisters. Their shoulders hunched as they prepared for an onslaught from their aggrieved mother.

Temple leapt up and knocked her shins into her bed frame. “I mean, there’s nothing for them to be guarding us from, after all, so how could they succeed?”

More frightening to Susannah than the harangues, more painful than the whacks and smacks, was the calculating expression that crossed the Queen’s face. Her bright blue eyes narrowed and her thin lips curled up in a sneer.

“I wasn’t going to tell you this, but your father has decided enough is enough.”

The Queen had such a look about her today that an ill-omened pressure built in Susannah’s stomach. She and her siblings had always thwarted their mother’s attempts to catch them when they crept off at night to dance with the enchanted princes. She knew how dreadful it would be if the King and Queen discovered what their daughters had been doing at night, and how they managed to get there. So far, they’d been lucky. But luck always ran out.

The Queen strode down the bed-lined, narrow chamber and tested the iron bars on the sunny windows at the end of the room. She stamped the iron heating vents, covered for the warm season the past fortnight, while Susannah and her sisters stood in silence. Despite the fact she never found anything, the Queen often turned the room upside down in a search for secret doors or magic items. She used her cane to flick aside the brightly colored velvet tapestries adorning the outer walls, sniffed and stalked back to the middle of the room. Her skirts brushed against the pale stones of the floor with a faint shushing.

“Too many pairs of ruined slippers. Too many torn chemises and spilled bottles of cosmetics.” She struck her cane against a footboard to emphasize each point, the sharp clang making Susannah flinch. “Too many guards dismissed for failure to perform and too many mornings twelve perfectly healthy young women slumber abed. Most especially, there have been too many episodes of disregard for the commands of your parents!”

Tendrils of the Queen’s smooth blonde hair escaped its careful twist as she paced. “Your father and I are not monsters, my dears. We realize your position entitles you to certain luxuries. We realize that, unwed as you are, cloistered as you are, as old as some of you are, it was inevitable you get up to mischief. In fact, we consider ourselves lucky we had thirty-five years of relative harmony, unlike some of our neighbors.

“But this ends now. Whatever it is you’re doing, we’re going to find out, put a stop to it and punish you accordingly.”

The Queen stopped pacing in front of her eldest daughter. “Susannah, be in my office in fifteen minutes. I have breakfast waiting, so no dawdling in the kitchen.” With that, the Queen swept majestically out of the room, reminding Susannah her mother was, indeed, a force to be reckoned with. She tended to forget that fact in her obsession with the enchanted princes.

Chapter Two

 

With more speed than finesse, Susannah shoved her mass of hair into a knot at the nape of her neck. From her carved wooden armoire, she grabbed a white blouse and a dark, sensible overdress in hope of convincing her mother that she could be a prudent woman. A quick trip to the nearby bathing chamber, where she splashed face and hands in cold water, and she raced to the Queen’s office.

She closed the door softly behind her. “Hello, Mother.”

The Queen grunted. She sat in a brown leather chair at the plain sturdy table she preferred to the massive desk shoved into a far corner of the room. To an outsider, the room was a cheerful, tapestried chamber with lush blue carpets and elegant shelves of books and curiosities, but Susannah knew it as the place she and her sisters were frequently brought to task. Susannah nibbled on ham, rolls and currant jelly, and sipped peach nectar and water. Her mother’s large quill pen scratched across a stack of parchment.

“Now, Susannah,” the Queen began, setting aside her quill, “you can put a stop to all this if you just speak with me, woman to woman, about what you do every night.”

Susannah swallowed a lump of bread. “You know what we do, Mother. You spent the night with us only a week ago.”

Susannah hated lying and wished she could confide in her parents. But she knew how much trouble she’d be in if the King and Queen discovered their precious daughters cavorting with ensorcelled men several nights of the week, entirely unchaperoned.

More importantly, she knew what kind of an uproar it would cause if anyone found out how she’d discovered the princes in the first place—she, mortal woman, had learned to use fairy magic. The fairies bequeathed christening gifts, warded the Middle Kingdoms’ borders and bespelled many devices for humans in return for the coveted gold they were unable to mine or work, but mortals weren’t capable of the magical arts. It was an unspoken law of nature nobody questioned. Yet Susannah had found a way to do it. That knowledge could destroy far more than her relationship with her parents.

The Queen sighed. “You sleep, indeed, but what else do you do? What wears out brand-new slippers in one night and sprinkles fairy dust all over your skin?” Susannah glanced at her chest, where her modest blouse revealed a few tiny glints on her neck from last night’s revelries. There was probably more on her bosom, for she’d worn a low-cut chemise. Her partner for the evening, one Prince Agravar, had been covered in the insidious stuff.

She tried for nonchalance. “Someone threw a powder puff at me.”

The Queen raised an eyebrow. “I’ve heard that one before. Do you know what I think? I think there are men involved.”

“You must be joking. How could there possibly be men involved? No way in and no way out? All locked up from dusk till dawn in the most secure room in the castle?”

“Hardly dawn,” the Queen said with a snort. “I can smell men on you. I can see certain looks growing in your eyes, looks no unpromised maid should have.”

Susannah rolled her eyes. “I’m hardly a maid. I’m thirty-five, even if I’ve never been anywhere or done anything my whole life. What man would you promise me to in this accursed land? The butler? The baker?”

“It doesn’t take a titled male to spark a gleam in a lady’s eye. What do you do, seduce the guards? Do they all deserve to be turned out?”

If only her mother knew! “No, Mama, of course not. We know our place.”

“Then what do you do?” The Queen picked up her pen and stabbed it into the inkwell. “Susannah, I’m your mother. You can tell me anything and I’ll still love you, you know that.”

The Queen helped their father run a tidy little kingdom. Susannah figured her mother could forgive their dancing with hundreds of adoring men, but if she knew Susannah had learned to defy nature’s laws, how far would that love extend?

She never wanted to find out. “We sleep. We stay up late talking, but eventually we sleep. We discuss how unfair it is there are no men for us to marry. We talk of how we think the Middle Kingdoms should solve their inheritance troubles. I’m of the opinion the Kingdom Laws—”

The Queen laughed, breaking the tension. “I’m aware of your opinions. Don’t get sidetracked bashing all the hidebound old men in charge of things.”

“I should think you would be able to influence Papa,” Susannah began, but her mother interrupted her again.

“It won’t do, Susannah.” The Queen tapped a tapered finger against her chin. “I’ve switched your bedchamber, I’ve separated you, I’ve spied on you through the night. I’ve stationed a maid on a cot in the center of your room. I don’t suppose an appeal to your love for your distraught parents would do the trick?”

“Mama, there’s no cause for distress. I promise you, your concerns are groundless.” Susannah stared at her mother’s finger as it tapped against that elegant, determined chin. She sincerely hoped her mother didn’t separate them again. That had certainly been a challenge.

“But you’re doing something, aren’t you?”

Sometimes Susannah opted for a half-truth when the lump in her deceitful craw grew too large. “We aren’t doing anything to disgrace you or ourselves.”

In truth, the princes were no threat to the princesses’ chastity, considering the effects of the enchantment—or curse, as it were. Something kept the princes impotent as well as amnesiac. Despite the best efforts of certain siblings, not much was even possible. Perhaps that was a kindness to the men. They were trapped in a timeless place with nothing to do but dance and play games. No women, except the princesses, and no telling how long their curse would last.

Unless Susannah could break it.

“One might actually believe you were telling the truth, for you’ve never been able to keep secrets from me. There is always someone willing to tattle on the others.”

“There’s nothing to tattle.” A trickle of sweat slid between Susannah’s breasts. “We practice our dance steps quite a bit, and the flagstones in this palace are not exactly smooth. Not to mention you have us running enough errands to spoil hundreds of slippers.”

“Susannah, Susannah.” The Queen shook her head. “I don’t believe that for a minute. You don’t wear dancing slippers for everyday errands. If I forbid the elves to deliver any more, no doubt you’d ruin your everyday slippers instead.” She picked up an uneaten roll from the serving plate and eyed it as if it contained answers. Susannah held her breath.

The Queen replaced the roll and dusted her fingers. “I don’t know how you’ve managed to cow all the other girls, but I’m going to find out, starting today. Half a year of this nonsense is more than enough.”

“Whatever you say, Mama. Now let’s choose some guards.” Susannah always cramped with guilt when their guards were fired. Finding them new jobs was hardly a punishment, even if most of them would have preferred to remain employed by her father.

The Queen signaled a maid to clear the breakfast remains from the table. Sunlight filtered through the clear glass windows, and the office hummed with authority and power. While the King spent his days settling his subjects’ disputes in the Justice Chambers or traveling to other kingdoms on missions of diplomacy, the Queen ran the kingdom from her office. She functioned as a chatelaine for the entire land. Her room wasn’t positioned behind the throne, but it might as well have been.

“Today we’ll interview guard applicants from outside the castle.” The Queen eyed Susannah as she waited for a footman to place her chair beside her mother’s. “Your father employed a talent scout to find these candidates. I plan to hire as many as I deem necessary.”

“You mean a headhunter?” Susannah’s eyes widened as she settled into her seat. “Mama, royals don’t use headhunters.”

“They do now.” The triumphant grin on her mother’s face unsettled her.

The first man to interview was a bearded giant. “Aye, I’ll see to it the little missies don’t go scampering out of their room at night.” The giant grinned, showing several gaps between his large teeth. He crouched on the ground in front of the table instead of sitting on, and crushing, the chair positioned for the candidates’ use.

“How tall are you, sir?” Susannah asked. Giants rarely came to the Middle Kingdoms, and even crouched upon the rug he was as tall as she or her mother.

“Tall enough to see whatever it is you’re up to.” The giant let out an unmanly titter. He dug his fingers into his wiry beard and scraped his chin with a sound like a carpenter’s sander.

“Where have you worked before?” The Queen scratched down notes with her pen, the feather dancing this way and that.

“I did siege work with the late King Nobbyknees, more siege work with King Torrance and some gate bashing with King Phillip, who hired me right out from under King Torrance’s nose during the siege, he did.”

“Are you an employee who cares most about gold?” the Queen asked. “If, say, my daughters offered you a great deal of money to look the other way, would you take it?”

The giant again scratched his chin. “It would depend on if His Highness offered me more.”

“He’ll do quite well,” Susannah whispered to the Queen. “Considering we have never bribed anyone, his loyalty will never be tested.”

The Queen pursed her lips. “You might not be the right giant for this assignment, but you may talk to the steward to see what other positions are open.”

The giant rose to his full height and nearly crashed into the ceiling. His huge navel, eye level with the seated ladies, looked exactly like a bathtub drain. “Thank ye, Your Highness.” A footman flung open both doors so they were wide enough for him to exit.

The second man was a tiny brownie whose head was level with the top of the table. If brownies weren’t reputed to be so sharp-witted, Susannah would have welcomed the chipper man onto the castle staff. They hadn’t employed a brownie in years.

In a surprisingly deep voice for such a small fellow, the brownie said, “Greetings, Your Highness! Greetings, Princess!” He hopped into the chair and swung his legs. “I’ve come about the job. The princesses can’t possibly pull one over on me.”

The Queen inclined her head. “That’s what we hope. You do realize the punishment for failure is dismissal from castle service with no letter of recommendation?”

“Aye, everyone knows that. The guards hoodwinked by the princesses are talking about forming a union. But I shall not fail.”

“There has been no hood to wink.” Susannah sniffed. “What jobs have you held?”

“I guarded a sheep farm for many a year before setting off to seek my fortune. Besides, I was tired of the smell of sheep.”

This wasn’t going to be as bad as she thought. Susannah whispered to her mother, “If I’m the ringleader and the other girls my flock, you should indeed hire him.”

The Queen sighed. “Guarding sheep isn’t like guarding twelve girls too clever for their pantaloons. If you’d like to visit our steward, he may have other positions open.”

The next to interview was a haughty young man with golden hair. He reminded Susannah of Agravar from the enchanted palace.

“Mr. Finder,” the Queen said. “What skills can you offer for our special project?”

“I always choose the correct door,” the man claimed. “It’s my christening gift. If the princesses evade my watch I’ll always know what door they hide behind.”

Susannah wondered if the man could detect what magical door they hid behind, but the door didn’t exist. She used her powers to create it each time. In fact, she could do it from anywhere in the castle, though it was easiest through Calypso’s armoire. Hers had the fewest clothes in it.

“Where have you worked before?” Susannah asked him.

“I worked with Pete & Benjamin’s Animal Circus in the funhouse,” he admitted, shamefaced. “I helped children find their way out of the mirror maze. But I did a little sideshow work—lady and tiger stuff.”

With a spare quill, Susannah scribbled her mother a message.

Choose him! He will know at all times we’re behind the door of our bedchamber.

The Queen drew an “X” through Susannah’s note. “Mr. Finder, your skill might be better put to use in our Lost and Found department. If you will go into the hall and turn to the left…well, I’m sure you’ll know what door to open.”

As the day progressed, Susannah and her mother interviewed a seamstress with a directional needle, a cook who never burned the broth, a soldier who could talk to fish, a man with seven-league boots and a minstrel whose lute playing would soothe the princesses into deep slumber. They interviewed a centaur, a giant badger and a coachman who was down on his luck and just looking for a job. Susannah grew more light of heart and the Queen more surly.

“Come, Mother,” she said during their teatime break. “I have never known a talking badger before.”

“I’m leaning toward the minstrel. He can sleep all day and play his lute all night.”

“Shall I call him back?” Susannah suspected she could dig up a counterspell to lute-induced slumber in one of the tomes in the castle library’s archives. She could create the door to the enchanted land, see and hear through walls, cast illusions, light candles, defeat truth spells, inspire slumber, make beds and heal aches and pains, and her powers were expanding daily.

She wished she could also read minds, although she doubted that would be on the safe list of ethical uses for magic Hortense and several of her sisters had worked out with her when her powers first surfaced. The Queen shook her head. “The headhunter inventory says we have one more candidate. I’ll interview him and then make my decision.”

Susannah straightened the skirt of her somber brocade overdress and brushed a few crumbs onto the carpet. Her hair tickled her neck and face, escaping from her hasty knot, and she shoved it behind her ears. “What is his name?” she asked her mother.

“Jon Tom.”

“Jon Tom what?”

The Queen frowned. “It just says Jon Tom.”

“But that is two first names and no last. What does he do?”

“It says he is a…detective.”

Clapping her hands, Susannah laughed. “A detective! What does he detect, stolen sheep? Burning broth? Anyone who needed something detected would come to the King’s Lost and Found department.”

The Queen shot her a sour look and rang the silver bell. The tall double doors swung open and Jon Tom the detective walked through. Susannah examined him, as she had the other applicants, for potential threats. He had a swarthy face, dark hair and white teeth, which gleamed brightly in the afternoon sun streaming through the tall, thin windows.

“My Queen, my Princess,” he said, executing a low and graceful bow.

“Greetings, Jon Tom,” the Queen said. “Please, make yourself comfortable. I understand you’re a detective?”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

“What exactly is a detective? What is it you detect?”

“I detect solutions, Your Highness. Solutions, answers, reasons and culprits.”

“Solutions to what?” Susannah wanted to know. The man had a wily look she didn’t like. His dark eyes glanced about the room, assessed everything and everyone in it.

The man regarded her coolly, almost insolently, as if he knew her secrets. “Solutions to who killed Cock Robin. Solutions to what happened to the Queen’s tarts. Solutions to where twelve naughty ladies go every night when the sun is down and the night is full.”

The Queen stopped scratching her quill on her notepaper and leaned back in her chair. “Do you indeed?” A smile spread across her face.

“Not every city has a Lost and Found department as assiduous as yours,” Jon Tom complimented the Queen. “Not every kingdom has a king who puts his own daughters to work solving the citizens’ problems and caring for the community.”

“Have you been detecting solutions for long?” the Queen asked.

“Many years, Your Highness. I hail from Pavilion, where the late ruler’s failure to produce a male heir has resulted in near anarchy. The kingship has gone to a baronial cousin who isn’t bearing the burden particularly well.”

“We would like to avoid Pavilion’s troubles, but first we must control our daughters.”

Susannah pressed her lips together. As if she wanted this strange man thinking of her as out of control!

“You seem to know quite a bit about our situation already.” The Queen steepled her fingertips near her chin. “Perhaps you would like to share your theories at this point?”

“Oh, no doubt there is a man involved.” Jon Tom winked at Susannah.

Had her mother noticed this bourgeois man, this detective, wink at a royal princess? Susannah turned to her mother to protest.

But the Queen’s face was lit with pleasure. “That’s exactly what I said.”

“And I told you, Mother, there isn’t a man involved,” Susannah snapped.

Jon Tom smiled, seemingly pleased by the outburst. Her eyes drifted away from that face, from that hawk-like nose and strong chin, to his broad chest, two strong arms crossed over it as he lounged in his chair. Down to tan trousers encasing a fine pair of legs. The man was as attractive as any of the enchanted princes in the land beneath, but he had such an air about him, such a dangerous air, as if he’d sooner snatch her up and eat her than dance a reel.

“So tell me, Your Highness, about your daughters. The more information I have, the more easily I can solve the case.”

“Well, you have met Susannah. At five and thirty, she is the eldest and I fully believe she is the ringleader of whatever is going on.”

“I make no mistake about that,” the man agreed. “Princess Susannah.” He rolled her name around in his mouth like a toffee. “I am charmed to make your acquaintance.”

Susannah sniffed and turned her head to one side. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the man smiling a strange, slow smile.

“My second eldest is Calypso,” continued the Queen. “She is a tomboyish gel who loves horses and polo. She hasn’t the sort of trickery about her to instigate this matter, but she’s game for any adventure. My third daughter is Peter.”

“Peter? That’s an odd name for a princess.”

The Queen inclined her head regally. “His Highness was convinced an amulet he acquired on the black market could defeat the Female Curse and named her Peter before the doctor could say, ‘It’s a girl.’ It wouldn’t do to tease Peter about her name, though. She’s very sensitive about certain things.”

“She’s as sensitive as your wooden cane,” Susannah muttered.

“Hortense is next. She’s a law-abiding woman who isn’t the type to go along with escapades.”

“Never be surprised the lengths to which a lady will go when there is a man involved,” the detective assured the Queen. “Even a proper girl can have her head turned by a handsome man…or a very determined sister.”

Susannah focused an intent glare upon Jon Tom. It would be nice if she could use that pincher spell and needle him in the…but she didn’t dare. Her hostile regard didn’t discomfit him. He gazed back at her knowingly until she looked away first.

Why did her mother not notice the things this man was saying to her with his eyes? “Mother,” she whispered, “I don’t think this man will suit. He’s disrespectful.”

The Queen ignored her and continued to catalog her daughters.

“Do you mind if I write this down?” The detective took some tiny paper and a black crow’s feather out of a small pocket on his tunic.

“Do you need ink for your quill?” The Queen gestured to her inkpot.

“Oh, this is an enchanted quill—never runs out of ink. A fairy gave it to me when I aided her on a confidential matter. Please continue. I’m learning a great deal.”

Susannah rested her chin on her hands as her mother described Susannah’s sister Lilly. “She would make a lovely bride,” the Queen said. “Not that there are any men for her to meet and marry.”

“No men you know of,” Jon Tom commented. “I’m willing to bet Princess Susannah knows differently.” He wrote another note in his book and tapped his mouth with the dark quill.

Susannah twisted about in her chair. “Mother, do we have to hear any more? This man is clearly a fraud.”

“You seem anxious to get me out of here, Princess.”

“I’m anxious that my father not waste his gold hiring a charlatan. Who has ever heard of a detective, anyway?”

“Susannah!” exclaimed the Queen. “That was very rag-mannered.”

The strength of her annoyance surprised Susannah, but she didn’t back down or apologize. There was something about this man that activated her hackles.

Jon Tom held up a strong brown hand. “Don’t worry about my feelings, Your Highness. The Princess’s discomfort is natural when the end of her clandestine revelry is so near.”

“You don’t know anything about it. Or about me.” Susannah crossed her arms over her chest, echoing his posture. “Mother, you shouldn’t allow a commoner to speak to one of royal blood in such a way. Father would be most displeased.”

“I think your father will be delighted.”

“What do you mean, ‘Father will be delighted’?”

The Queen twitched a single finger in a silencing gesture but didn’t otherwise acknowledge Susannah’s interruption. First her mother said she was out of control. Now she shushed her like a child. When Susannah peeked at the detective, he twitched his own finger in a similar fashion, and it was all she could do not to jump up from the table and pull his stupid, shining hair out by the roots.

“My twelfth child,” the Queen said, finishing her litany, “is Rosa, my baby. She was twelve this past Snow Faire.”

“I’ll enjoy meeting all your children, Your Highness.”

His assumption he’d meet all her sisters was overconfident. Susannah’s ire rose. “This man shouldn’t be introduced to my sisters, much less Papa.”

“Your father is going to enjoy meeting Mr. Tom and discussing possible theories with him. Tonight.”

“Tonight? You’re hiring this man?”

“I am.”

“Mother, please. I don’t like the look of him. He will probably be gone in the morning with half the crown jewels.”

“I’m wealthy already, Princess. I have the luxury to choose my cases based on which ones interest me. This one interests me very much.”

Susannah clutched her mother’s arm and lowered her voice. “He winked at me. He keeps intimating things that aren’t proper.”

“Don’t be silly, Susannah. I intended to hire the candidate to whom you most objected. By the strength of your objection, Jon Tom will do a wonderful job. You have outsmarted yourself, my darling.”

Susannah’s mouth opened and closed like a fish, and at that moment a flicker of fear scampered across her skin. Could Jon Tom truly use these detective skills to discover her use of fairy magic and the enchanted realm beneath? Just what were these skills? Had he some magic mirror which answered questions? Had he some djinn in a bottle bound to obey its master’s commands?

“Your Highness,” Jon Tom said, “I’m flattered by your quick decision, but you’ve yet to hear my terms.”

That seized the Queen’s attention. “You would barter with the Queen?” The regal lady’s eyebrows flew up toward her hairline.

“I would, Your Highness. I have certain requirements for proper detective work. One, that I not be dismissed until the princesses evade me at least three times, as according to the common rule of three. Two, that royal chaperonage customs be relaxed so I can spend time with the ladies alone. And three, when I succeed, I wish a house and fertile lands instead of gold.”

It was the Queen’s turn to gape like a landed fish. “We’ll talk to the King,” she finally said. “You may discuss your terms with him. And you, Susannah, may repair to the library for the rest of the day.”

Susannah rose and stalked as far away from Jon Tom’s chair as she could get without being too obvious. Not that obvious mattered at this point, for she’d expressed her disapproval of the man clearly enough.

“Princess Susannah,” Jon Tom said, just as she gained the safety of the door. Reluctantly she turned. Jon Tom had risen from his chair and stood facing her, a glint in his coal-dark eyes.

“It was a pleasure to meet you,” he said. “I look forward to discovering your secrets, no matter how you hide them.”

“My only secret is I wish the headhunter had never found you.”

“The headhunter didn’t find me, Princess, I found him. I found him, and soon I’ll find out about you.”

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