“The fire crackled, our sole guard against what horrors might lurk in the surrounding blackness. That flat, open plane left us lost and exposed beneath the starless, windy sky. Far off to the north, the call of a wolf. An answering cry was heard from the east. My skin crawled at the stark, melancholy sound...”
As though it were listening, a wolf howled out in the darkness. The four girls huddled around the library fireplace shrieked in terror and delight and then giggled at each other.
“Shh.” Justine put a finger to her smiling lips, her eyes darting to the mezzanine above.
Taking her warning, the others cut their laughter short and Gertrude returned to deliberate recitation of the novel she’d hidden behind a sober history text, her voice low and full of drama.
“Morgenstern’s leg continued to fester, causing him great pain. His moans were carried into the ceaseless night by that frozen, demon wind, sharp as glass and just as cutting. Its constant scream bore into our minds like a trepanning drill.”
Aside from a small lamp on the hardwood table nearby, the only illumination came from the crackling fire, which made their shadows dance on the shelves. Princess Ashe shifted her gaze from the burning logs to the thick glass windows in their black iron frames. The reflection staring back was caught between that of a woman and a child, with large eyes and gawky chin, too big for its face. Mousy brown braids sat pinned on top of its head, with tiny strands sticking out, despite best efforts. It yawned, but hid the yawn with a sigh. Fat snowflakes piled against the casement, clinging to the panes before melting away. The firelight turned them an enchanting golden color, like honey.
“What is trepanning?” asked Cadence, looking up from her needlepoint.
“A medical procedure.” Justine eyed her sister. “I doubt you would much like the details.”
“Oh. All right.” Cadence went back to her sewing, happily spared the knowledge.
Ashe smirked to herself. Her cousin’s innocent naivety would survive another day.
Gertrude ignored the interruption.
“Sleep became an ever-present and frightening enemy, calling to us from the depths of that endless arctic night. To close our eyes, to rest meant to die, though this was becoming a welcome prospect to a few of our party.
“One morning I awoke to discover Morgenstern, slumped in the snow, his face finally peaceful with never-ending sleep. His leg was black with infection, his hands and feet riddled with frostbite. I did not pity him, but in my cold-ravaged mind, envied my fallen companion. To my undying distaste, my stomach growled at the sight of the flesh left on his emaciated frame...”
“I can see where this one is going.” Justine was frowning now. “I thought you said this story didn’t have cannibalism.”
Cousin Gertrude smiled sheepishly. “I’d forgotten.”
Yawning again, Ashe stretched. “Don’t they all involve cannibalism?”
“It seems that way,” said Cadence, finishing a tiny, perfect daisy.
“I’m so tired of hearing about men devouring each other,” sighed Justine.
“If you would like something else, suggest a new title,” said Gertrude.
“No,” said Princess Ashe, yawning again. “Go on. Might as well finish what you’ve started.”
As Gertrude continued reading the illicit novel aloud in her soft voice, Ashe imagined what it would be like to be stranded, lost among the frozen wastes further north. The broad, flat tundra stretching out beneath the uncaring stars, the wind, threatening to rip any warmth away from her body. Shivering, she huddled in her knitted shawl and edged her chair closer to the fireplace. Her mind drifted out past the snow-covered casement to the forest beyond, to the wolves, driven out of the mountains by hunger. Beyond the palace walls, the winter nights were long and full of ice and terror.
Gertrude, read on, trying to keep her voice down, though it rose with the excitement, despite her efforts. Justine rolled her eyes as the graphic descriptions of the horrors committed by the narrator spilled forth from her cousin’s lips. The old yarn seemed to serve better to turn stomachs than chill blood. Seemingly unbothered by Gertrude’s words, Cadence continued to sew flowers and flourishes into scraps of fabric as the characters in the book were first driven to starvation and then, madness.
The young lady was about to reach the cannibalistic climax of the story when a sparrow flitted through the air above their heads, alighting on an antler of the massive stag’s head, hanging above the mantle piece. The girls looked up at it, already knowing they’d been caught. It chirped at them, the sweet tone piercing a tense silence.
“Now, we’re in for it.”
Sure enough, a second later, they heard footsteps approaching from the mezzanine. Too late, Gertrude tried to slide the novel from under the thick history book and into her lap.
Lady Heartshire descended the stairs behind them. A thin, pale woman, her black clothes only setting off the pallor of her skin. Dark eyes and hair accentuated her stern face, giving her a cold beauty that the girls both admired and reviled.
Their governess’ tone was crisp and pointed. “I don’t believe that was the history I assigned. What have you been reading?”
Gertrude’s round, rosy cheeks flushed. “Ice in Our Veins: A Romantic Account of Voyages to the North.”
Lady Heartshire shook her head and held out a slim hand for the novel. Gertrude surrendered it, her expression a portrait of guilt. “This is not what your parents had in mind when they entrusted your education to me.” The governess leafed through the volume, making a face. “Stories like these only serve to give young girls nightmares.”
“It’s literature.” Ashe turned her gaze on her teacher, daring her to disagree.
“I beg to differ, Your Highness.” Lady Heartshire met her eye, accepting the challenge. “Just because a book is old, that does not make it worthy.”
“But history books are so dull,” moaned Gertrude, taking the assigned text back up. “All Kings and decrees and laws. They even make the wars boring.”
“It does not become a lady to be so blood thirsty. History, and the proper literature have much to offer, and I’m afraid it is not my duty to entertain you young ladies, but to prepare you for life as adults, so you might converse with your husbands and avoid embarrassment at court.”
Her pupils sighed at this. Except Cadence, caught up in a difficult part of her pattern and oblivious to what was being said at that moment.
Ashe watched the governess as she put the book on the little table beside the lamp, certain of a letter on its way to her aunt, Lady Kinhold, as soon as the next morning. She narrowed her eyes and hoped Lady Heartshire saw the expression. If she did, the thin young woman made no sign.
“How do you always know?” Justine folded her arms and fixed their teacher with a curious gaze.
The princess had discovered the secret to this trick. She’d figured it out months ago. “That’s because he always knows,” she said, gesturing to the tiny sparrow who flitted from point to point.
Found out, Lady Heartshire awarded them with a small smile, her coldness evaporating for a moment. “Correct.”
“But, how can he know?” asked Gertrude, sulking. “Surely, a sparrow cannot tell the difference between a novel and a history book?”
“A normal sparrow? No. But, Garnet is $not$ a normal sparrow. Our bond makes him special. I assume you’ve read about such bonds?”
Ashe looked up at the little bird with envy. Her childhood had been full of fairy tales concerning such things. She had dreamed of when she would have enough knowledge to make a bond like that. And she remembered the day her mother had crushed that cherished dream.
The Queen had been standing in her dressing room, her maids flitting around her like humming birds, alighting here and there, one for her hair, one for her jewelry, her dress, another to apply a light rouge to her cheeks and lips. Ashe lingered beside the mirror, watching them work. She admired the way their hands moved so deftly, adjusting a sash or sewing a few hidden stitches. Her own hands, a child’s, were better suited for climbing or ordering her toy soldiers into battle, or, to her annoyance, copying down passages from boring old books.
“What are you thinking about, Daughter?” The Queen turned her gaze from the mirror to her child, the shade of her eyes set off by the candlelight.
Put on the spot, Ashe averted her eyes to the vaulted ceiling with cherubs holding up the corners. “A bird,” she said, her hands working their way over each other as her mind raced.
“What type of bird?”
“A beautiful bird. A swan.”
The Queen frowned. “I don’t like swans very much,” she admitted, her long thin fingers adjusting one of the auburn curls that spilled over her shoulders. “For all their beauty, they seem terribly mean. Have you ever met a swan?”
“No. But I have read how fierce they are. If I met one, maybe it and I could make a bond and...”
“Only a few days ago you were talking of making a similar bond with... a rabbit, was it?”
“I had read a story about a princess and her rabbit, but now I think a swan would be better. Don’t you think a swan would be better?”
The Queen sighed at her own reflection. “Your father and I have discussed it with our advisers, and we feel it would not be in the family’s best interests for you to...”
In the mirror, Ashe’s heartbreak was plain on her face. “But, Mother, you said—”
“It’s too dangerous, Ashelle,” said Isabelle, pursing her perfect lips. “A relationship of that nature, well, it might be used against you. Against us. It’s an unnecessary risk.”
“It’s not, it’s—!”
“It isn’t something that can be done. Not in this political climate. Do you understand?”
“Do you understand?”
Ashe opened her mouth to argue, but saw her mother’s expression. Her calm exterior had crumbled, revealing turmoil beneath. Her face was flushed, though not from rouge.
The princess’ own anger rising, she said nothing, but stormed from the room and spent the rest of the evening hiding, ruining her sister’s plans of spying on the dances from their regular secret place above the ballroom.
“It’s a magical bond, isn’t it?” asked Cadence, glancing up at the little bird hopping from perch to perch. “Did you study long?”
Lady Heartshire arched a dark eyebrow. “It took over a decade to prepare for the ceremony, and longer than that for the subject. My family has been breeding sparrows for generations specifically for this purpose. Garnet is the product of only the most intelligent and loyal birds.”
“Is it very hard?” Justine rarely showed interest in anything, but now she stared at the governess. “My mother says I may start my studies next year.”
Ashe felt a wave of envy for her cousin and hid a glare with a halfhearted yawn.
“It is difficult.” Corrected Lady Heartshire. “You must prepare your mind and spirit carefully, or things could go horribly array.”
“What sorts of things?” Gertrude always had an appetite for the horrible.
“Well, there is the possibility of creating a bond which is too tight.” The governess sat in a nearby chair and smoothed her skirts. “There are traditions and even laws that dictate what we may trade.”
“Traded?” It was becoming obvious Cadence had done no reading on the topic and contented herself with asking the most basic questions. Justine, who read everything she could about magic, didn’t call her sister out on this. She appeared to enjoy listening to Lady Heartshire’s explanations.
“Well, for instance, the lifespan of a sparrow is significantly shorter than a human’s, but, because of the bargain we made, he shall live as long as I, if we remain within the limits of the magic. It did not take me considerable time to convince him to accept.
“Of course, if you trade too much away, physical separation could be detrimental to both parties. Some have gone blind, or mad when separated from their animal companion.”
Ashe sighed. It was a dangerous business. $Too+ dangerous for a princess, though she’d had her heart set on it. It was just another romantic childhood dream, something she must put away now that adulthood neared.
The thought of childhood’s end brought her to her sister. Guilt and sadness replaced her envy and she rose from the table. “I need to speak with Bea,” she said, waiting only a second before taking her leave.
The other women bid her goodnight, though Justine seemed ready to delay her. No one enjoyed talking magic as much as those two, but Ashe would not be held up. She lifted her skirts and took the stairs up to the mezzanine, disappearing into the shadows beyond the firelight.