Decoy Princess

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Decoy Princess
ISBN 0-441-01355-4

 

 

Decoy Princess is the first book in the Princess series. It was originally published in 2005 through Ace Fantasy. It has been translated into German, and is doing quite well.

Foreign and reissue covers:

Decoy Princess German Edition

Excerpt from

Decoy Princess
by
Dawn Cook

Copyrighted Material

One

            It might have been chance that kept my attention tight across the street and upon the mud-splattered gypsy van, but I doubted it.  Nebulous coincidences like chance aren’t allowed sway in my life, everything being planned to the moment if I didn’t arrange for spontaneity.  No . . .  It was probably my thirst for something outside my ken, my wish to see what lay around the corner just outside my sight and understanding.  Either that, or I was bored out of my mind.
            “Look, Kavenlow,” I said, squinting in the sun at the gaily painted gypsy van.  “A palmist.  Here.”  I dumped my latest purchase of fabric into his arms.  “I want my fortune told.”
            “Tess.”  The man lurched to keep up with me as I started forwards.  “We should get back.  It’s not safe for you to be out this long.”
            “Oh, may God save you,” I complained.  “It’s not even noon yet.  I’m safer here than in my own rooms.”  Whether fortunate or unfortunate, it was true, and I confidently made my way across the busy street, a way parting itself for me as I cut across the narrow avenue for the wood-slatted, horse-drawn van parked in the shade of the closely packed buildings.
            There was a huff of exasperation as Chancellor Kavenlow hastened to catch up, and I slowed.  I gave the thickset man a surreptitious look to gauge his irritation as he came even.  His lightly wrinkled face was taut, his cheeks red from the sun’s heat.  The fingers gripping my packages were strong from reining in unruly horses, their tips stained from the ink I had spilled during my history lesson yesterday.  His neatly trimmed black beard and hair were grizzled with white, as were his thick eyebrows.  But his jaw yet carried the firm sensibility I relied upon.  He was still my dear Kavenlow, the one to whom I went first with my questions and last with my complaints.
            Right now, his brow was creased in bother.  I winced, thinking I’d reached the balance where my parents’ anger at him for letting me stay out this long outweighed the scene I would make if he bodily dragged me shrieking back behind stone walls.  It hadn’t happened since I was thirteen, but the remembered humiliation still brought a warmth to my cheeks.
            It had been cold when we started out, and he looked uncomfortable under his cloak; he had been carrying mine most of the morning.  His boots were dusty, as was the bottom half of my dress, the street having turned the lace-strewn white cloth a begrimed yellow from my knees down.  Seeing him so irate, I resolved to stop at a winery on the way home to bribe him into a better mood.  If the truth be told, the black leather jerkin and dagger on his belt made him look more like a master horseman than a keeper of books and armed attendant.
            “Tess,” he said, his blue gray eyes pinched as he eased into the slower pace.  “I strongly suggest we go back.  Your suitor has arrived early.”  He glanced behind us as he shifted my packages to his other arm, squinting from the sun despite his leather cap.  “And he’s brought so many soldiers.  Twice as many as he needs.  They’re thick in our streets.”
            I forced my expression into a carefree smile.  I’d noticed that as well, but as there was nothing I could do but watch and wait, I hadn’t said anything.  And I knew Kavenlow was more aware of the situation than he was of the fly currently trying to land on his nose.  “He probably heard what happened to Prince Rupert,” I said, thinking I could be safely married by now if the dunderhead hadn’t gotten himself killed a day’s ride inside our borders last year.  Just as well.  The man had a nose like a potato.  “I don’t think we’ll ever live that one down,” I added, pulling up short to allow a wagon whose driver didn’t recognize me in time to rattle past.
            Kavenlow looked pained as he took my elbow.  “The point I’m making is that it’s a mistake to risk meeting him prematurely in the streets.”
            “Of course I want to meet him prematurely,” I said.  “I won’t see him for three weeks if my parents get their way.”  Eyebrow cocked in a rather saucy expression, I pulled out of his grip and made my sedate way to the gypsy van.  “I won’t be long,” I said over my shoulder.  “While I’m with the madam, you can get a drink from the tavern across the street.  And I need a rest,” I lied.  “This heat is doing terrible things to my hair.”
            I fussed with the pile atop my head that I’d made of my waist-length curls.  Apart from a few strands artfully pulled for effect, the neat topknot was held together by not only hairpins but also needle-like darts.  They were made from the bone of a bird and were hollow to hold a drop of venom.  The short blowtube to launch them bisected the arrangement like a decoration.  Kavenlow insisted I have them when out of the palace, though I’d never had to use them.
            Kavenlow watched me check the position of my darts, his craggy face carefully neutral.  I had been wearing them for the last seven years.  Assassins plagued my mother’s house.  My first few years had been fraught with near misses, prompting my parents to give in to Kavenlow’s insistence that he be allowed to teach me how to defend myself should I ever become separated from my guards.  Hence the bullwhip I wore as a belt under a silk wrap and the throwing knife strapped to my thigh.  Heaven help me if I ever needed it—I’d have to lift my skirts to reach it.  The darts, though, were Kavenlow’s and my secret.  One sent a person either comatose or into convulsions; two brought death.  The weaponry was very unprincess-like, but then, I was supposed to shatter the world if that damned prophecy could be believed.
            The attempts on my life had slackened off after my tenth year when my parents began searching for suitors, but now that I was in danger of actually marrying someone, they had started up again.  This time the assassins had switched from me to anyone I had shown a liking to.  It made for very nervous suitors.  I couldn’t blame Prince Garrett for bringing so many men.
            My eyes rose to search out the unfamiliar black and gold uniforms of the Misdev prince as I rose up onto the first step of the van.  I wondered if Garrett was as young and handsome as his portraits made him.  If they were anywhere truthful, I wouldn’t complain.  “Besides,” I added, my gaze dropping to Kavenlow’s as a thrill of anticipation flashed through me, “I want to know what Prince Garrett is like.”
            “Then let’s go back to the palace and you can ask the maids.”  Kavenlow’s sea gray eyes were weary with a repressed exasperation.  But the tiny scar above his eyebrow wasn’t red yet, so I knew I had some leeway.
            “The maids!  They won’t know anything except what color his stockings are.”  Giving him a wicked smile to dare him to stop me, I climbed the last two steps and knocked dead center of the red circle on the door.  A flash of expectancy struck through me and settled to a steady burn as a tremulous greeting came from inside.
            I’d been waiting what seemed like half my life for a husband.  And by all that was holy, it wasn’t fair to procrastinate into my third decade, shaky political situation or not.  Papers had been signed, and now that I was mere days from meeting my intended, I was nervous.  Gypsies were well-traveled.  The madam might be able to tell me things about Prince Garrett my parents couldn’t—or wouldn’t.
            I reached for the simple latch, hesitating when Kavenlow grasped my sleeve.  I looked down, astonished not that he had touched me but at his troubled expression.  The gypsy van had to be safe; he wouldn’t have let me come down this street if he hadn’t investigated it already.  “I’m coming in with you,” he said, worry tightening the corners of his eyes.
            My lips parted in surprise.  Kavenlow hated gypsies almost as much as he hated the ocean, always turning overly protective when I invited them to the palace to entertain.  “It’s just a foolish woman’s fancy,” I said, mystified that my harmless entertainment had him concerned.  “Go have a drink.  I’ll be fine.  Perhaps you could get me one as well?”
            He made a small sigh of surrender.  “Very well, little Miss,” he said, and I smiled.  He hadn’t called me that in years.  He hesitated before leaving, looking up as if fixing me into his memory.  His thick, salt-and-pepper eyebrows bunched, but it was the glint of apprehension in his solemn eyes that made my stomach clench.  Something was wrong.
            “What is it?” I asked, my gaze roving over the noisy crowd as I came down the stair, my instincts flashing into a wary caution at the tension he was trying to hide.
            “It’s nothing.  Go on.  I’ll wait across the street.”
            Still unsure, I watched as he turned away and, with slow steps, crossed the street to sit at an outside table in the sun.  I slowly mounted the stairs again, taking a long, appraising look at the street.  I wasn’t convinced all was as it should be anymore.
            A puff of exasperation escaped me as I spotted the blue and gold of my father’s soldiers tucked into the shadows.  They were like rats; see one, know a dozen more were out of sight.  Upon seeing my attention on him, the guard waved merrily.  My nose wrinkled in bother, and I gave him a sour, pinky-wave back.  They knew I hated them shadowing me when I was out of the palace, but I could ignore them if they remained hidden.
            Kavenlow had settled himself, watching everything with his hands free and his eyes roving.  Still not sure everything was as it should be, I accepted the call through the door to come in.  A chill enveloped me as I opened the door and stepped into the van’s darkness.  Immediately I moved from the opening to let my eyes adjust to the light of two candles.  It was quieter than it ought to be, the noise from the surrounding market dulled.  A forest bird fluttered against the bars of its cage.  Vermillion curtains and drapes hung from the ceiling to insulate against the heat and noise.  A red rug spread dusty and worn, the tassels tattered.
            “Close the door,” the madam whispered, and my attention jerked to a corner.  She was in red, the gaudy color and her chains of jewelry blending into the blood red background draped around her.  There was a fox on her lap, and her swollen fingers gentling the animal and the tips of her stringy gray hair swinging were her only motion.  I eased the door shut to seal myself in the ash-scented dark.
            “Sit, girl,” the heavy woman said, her ugly voice rasping.
            My eyebrow rose, but I accepted the slur in the spirit of the moment, feeling her magic gave her more latitude than most.  A small table was between us upon which sat a lit candle, an empty dish, a jagged rock, and a feather.  I eased myself onto the folding stool across from her.  “You wish your fortune?” she said, her harsh accent pulling my eyes to hers.
            I nodded, pausing at the creased leathery look of her face.  “Yes.  I’m soon to be—”
            “Be still,” she muttered, shocking me.  The fox flowed from her, and I watched, my anger dulling as it sniffed my foot.  I wondered what live fur felt like but was too respectful of its teeth to reach.  The old woman grunted as it curled up under the table between us.  A wisp of its tail brushed my street-dirtied boots, and I froze, unwilling to move and make it leave.
            Metal charms jingling, the madam stretched out a flaccid-muscled arm to light a stick of wood jammed between the slats of the wall.  She blew the stick out, but it continued to smolder, sending the smell of wormwood to thicken the air.  “Show me your hands,” she said.
            Not liking her tone, I nevertheless set them onto the knee-high table between us.  She glanced at my left—mumbling derisively that love leads to peril—then took my right, gripping it with an uncomfortable firmness.  Her paper-thin skin was cool and dry, showing none of the heat coming off the bay.  She was from the forest and seemed to have captured its essence in her van.
            “What are you called?” she said, gumming her teeth as she leaned over my hand and pulled her candle close.  Her wrinkles folded in on themselves in a vision of ugly wisdom.
            “Tess,” I said, then gave her my proper name, trying not to sneeze at the fragrant smoke, “Princess Contessa of Costenopolie.”
            Her bird-bright eyes flicked to mine.  “Oooh, a princess are we,” she mocked, leaning to shift a curtain with a red-knuckled finger.  A shaft of light fell over her worn face as she looked out across the street.  The curtain dropped.  “You aren’t a princess.  A princess wouldn’t have one tired man looking out for her, she would have five young men with whips and swords.  She would not be on foot, but have a coach to carry her.  And her guardian would not be swilling ale while his charge allowed herself to be trapped in a van with a horse harnessed to it.”
            I stiffened.  “I told Kavenlow to sit over there,” I snapped, my ire rising.  “And he’s not swilling ale; he’s drinking water.  If your horse moves, it will die.  If you threaten me, you will die as well.  I’m Princess Contessa,” I said, surprised to find her grip tightening until I couldn’t pull away.  “I walk alone because an entourage makes me a target.”
            She leaned forward, her bosom pressing up to look flabby and soft with age.  “Oh-h-h,” she mocked.  “You’re that Red Moon Princess, eh?”
            I fought to keep a pleasant expression.  The Red Moon Prophecy was not mentioned in polite company, having dogged my existence like a hungry cur since the month I’d been born.
            “Yes,” she murmured, eying me as if it was a grand jest.  “A child of the coast destined to rule and conceived in the month of the eaten red moon will make an alliance of the heart to set the mighty as pawns and drive out the tainted blood rising in the south.”
            “So I’m told,” I said, trying not to clench my jaw.  And if I ever found out who painted that in blood upon the doors of every royal family the year of my birth, I’ll have them flogged, keelhauled, and spitted.  Not necessarily in that order.
            She all but snickered at my bothered look, but I didn’t find anything amusing about it.  Many ruling families, especially those in the southern reaches, took that to mean I was going to grow up to war on them and decided to kill me as a child.  Others were willing to chance that I would marry their son and bring them glory.  All I knew is the burning-hell flight of fancy had made my life burning-hell difficult.  Just try finding someone nice to dance with you with that hanging over your head.
            “Bah,” she said shortly, pulling my hand closer to her face and sending her cool breath against my palm.  “You’re going on a journey.  Quite soon.  You’d best prepare for it.”
            My anger dulled as she fell into the expected patter.  Convinced she was going to say something worth hearing, I eased the tension in my arm and she brought it closer.  “A betrothal excursion?” I prompted, wondering if there might be something other than wood ash in that smoke.  And why did she have a rock and a feather on her table?  “My suitor has arrived early,” I prompted.
            “Do tell?” she said sourly.  “Here.”  She trailed a begrimed nail down a crease in my palm.  “Changes not of your doing.  You’ll be traveling by horse, then ship, then horse again.”
            I touched my throat as I took a pleased breath.  “We will be going to the islands?  Oh, how splendid!”  I couldn’t help my smile.  I’d never been on the water as Kavenlow had an unreasonable fear of it.  I thought it dreadfully unfair.  It would be wonderful to see more of the land I would eventually be responsible for, especially if my future husband were with me.
            My smile turned sly, quirking the corners of my mouth.  Being out of the palace would make for far more opportunities to get to know Prince Garrett better, fewer eyes to catch us “talking,” and a much better chance to make foolish, daring choices that we could laugh about when we were old and gray.
            The woman had started to mumble incoherently, and thinking the performance was wonderful, I resolved to pay her extra.  “What of my husband?” I asked slowly, frowning as my tongue seemed thicker than it ought to be.
            “Husband?” she murmured, gazing at the rock as if it meant something.
            “The man I’ll be traveling with,” I encouraged.
            She looked at me, then back down, appearing to be confused.  “He’s dark like you.  Brown eyes, like you.  Brown hair, like you as well, though he has the decency to keep it short.”
            I stifled a surge of annoyance.  I was a princess.  I was supposed to have long hair.
            “Good hands,” she was mumbling.  “Skillful hands.  Tell him to watch what he does with them, or they will be the death of him.”
            I blinked.  What kind of a fortune was that?
            “He’s closed, too,” she said.  “Hard to see.  Here.  Take this.”
            She released my hand, and I shivered.  Picking up the rock, she dropped it into my grip.  My fingers curled about it, holding it gently as I felt it’s smoothness against my skin.  “Mmmm,” she said, her fingers brushing my palm as she took it back.  “You won’t be able to understand his pride.  But he will understand yours.  Best hope he’s patient.”
            “Pride?” I questioned.  This was the oddest fortune I had ever been told.
            She grasped my hand again, and I started at her quickness.  “I see—stone,” she murmured, slumping as she fell into a deeper trance.  “Marble and hay.  Silk and red ribbons—”
            “Gifts!”  I jerked my hand from her, alarm jolting me out of the smoke-derived fog in my head.  The fox at my feet yawned and settled itself further.  “Saints’ bells and incense.  I forgot,” I exclaimed.  “I have to find a betrothal gift.  Forgive me, madam,” I said hurriedly as I stood and swung my coin bag from my wrist to my hand.  “I have to go.”
            The stool I had been sitting on almost fell, and I scrabbled to catch it, flustered.  She sat blinking at me, clearly struggling to shake off her interrupted magic.  “Please accept this as a show of my gratitude,” I said as I set a coin clattering into the empty bowl.  She was quite good.  “I’d ask that you come to the palace,” I said impulsively.  “I need another entertainer for my betrothal festival, and the women would enjoy speaking with you.”
            The folds in the old woman’s face deepened.  She took a sharp breath.  Gathering her black shawl tight about her shoulders, she gave me a patronizing smile.  “No.”
            I froze in surprise.  No one had ever refused me outright before.  I was too shocked to say anything, and just stood blinking in the thicker smoke at the ceiling.  I felt my breathing slow and found myself unwilling to speak or move.  A tap at the door echoed in my head.
            “Princess Contessa?”  Kavenlow’s voice filtered through the thick wood.  “I have your water.”  He opened the door, the heat and noise seeming to pool in with the light.  The bird in the cage fluttered to be free.  The fresh air revived me, and I took a cleansing breath.  Kavenlow’s shadow eclipsed the light from the street.  “I brought you a drink, Tess,” he said, the van shifting as he entered and handed it to me.
            Taking it, I gave him a bewildered smile as I tried to shake the fuzziness from my thoughts.  My search for the perfect gift would have to wait.  Kavenlow’s brow was furrowed worse than the time I broke the guards’ practice scaffold, swinging on it.  I knew without asking he wouldn’t let me stop anywhere on the way home.
            “If you want a token of love,” the old woman said, “I have it.”
            Kavenlow’s face went slack and empty.  He gave the gypsy a curiously anxious look from behind his beard, then slowly—reluctantly—shut the door behind him.
            “You don’t understand,” I said, glancing into my cup of water.  “It has to be something unique, something my suitor has never seen.”
            “Something from far away,” the old woman said, waving at the still-glowing stick of incense.  “Something of value.  Something small.  Something you like as well?”
            My eyes teared, and I tried not to breathe that foul smoke.  “Yes.  Exactly.”
            She chuckled, lumbering to her feet and reaching for a pouch hanging from the ceiling.  “I know what pretty women like,” she said, taking it down and untying the binding to show the bag was really a square of fabric as she opened it up on the table.
            I leaned close: a bundle of silk woven with the likeness of seaweed, a bone knife, a pointed rod of black metal the length of my forearm, a metallic cross inlaid with red wood, a flat black stone that seemed to draw in the candlelight, a plain ring of gold, a string of tiny bells, and a palm-sized puzzle box of colorful wood.  But it was the knife my eyes lingered on.
            “Not money,” she said.  “Give me something of yours.”
            A frown pulled my brow tight.  All I had with me of value was the ring Kavenlow gave me last summer and my favorite necklace with blue stones and rubies—and she wasn’t getting Kavenlow’s ring.  Bothered, I set the cup down and reached for the clasp of the necklace.  But the old woman shook her head, her gaze upon the circlet atop my head.  My eyebrows rose.  She wanted my circlet?
            I glanced at Kavenlow to gauge how this particular trade was going to go over with my parents.  He was staring at the wall most helpfully, already trying to divorce himself from the coming furor when it was found I’d “lost” my crown again.  But burning chu pits, I wanted that knife.
            Knowing I’d pay for it later in spades, I took my circlet off and set it on the table.  It was only a bit of twisted metal, worthless in my eyes.  She nodded her acceptance, and I eagerly reached for the knife, pleased to no end.  “Tell me about this,” I demanded, knowing the story behind it was probably more valuable than the knife itself.
            Immediately she bunched the fabric up, retied the binding, and hung it from the ceiling.  My circlet was inside the impromptu bag, and I felt oddly naked without it.  She sighed heavily as she settled her bulk back into her chair, and it creaked in protest.  “It’s from the east,” she said, apparently not minding the smoke she had stirred up.  “It belonged to a young man searching for unfailing love.  He became a sultan; that’s a king of the desert.  He found a good use for the ring I gave him in return.  The knife of a king makes a fitting gift, don’t you think?”
            My fingers seemed slow as I turned it over in my hands, and I wondered if I ought to ask Kavenlow to open the door.  But it seemed like too much effort.  Engraved upon the knife were large beasts with noses as long as their legs and ears as big as their backs.  Fanciful.  It was perfect, especially with the story that went along with it.  I blinked lethargically, trying to decide something.  But I couldn’t remember what my last thought was. . . .
            Her hand darted out, grabbing me.  I gasped, jerking away as she pricked my finger on the blade.  Shocked, I lurched to my feet.  My stool crashed to the floor.
            “Tess!” Kavenlow shouted.  The van dipped as he put himself between the woman and me.  The fox darted under the dresser.  The table hit the wall as he flung it aside.
            My heart pounded like the beating of the bird’s frantic wings as it tried to escape.  Instinct backed me to a corner.  My face went cold, and my grip tightened on the knife still in my hand.  The smoke swirled through me, numbing me.  I should do something; I couldn’t remember what.
            “Get back, Kavenlow!” the gypsy cried shrilly as she rose.  Her rough accent was gone.  “If you dart me, I swear I’ll pull your insides out through your nose!”
            I clasped my throbbing finger to my chest.  She knew him? I thought, forcing the concept through my muzzy head.  She knew Kavenlow?
            “How am I going to explain a cut on her?” Kavenlow exclaimed.  Red-faced, he stood stiffly between the gypsy and me with his hands clenched at his sides.
            The large raggedy woman sneered at him, her stubby fingers sending the jewelry about her neck clattering.  “That’s your problem, not mine.  And you’ve made a mistake.  She has no defensive reactions at all.  Her thoughts revolve around men and buying things.”
            Kavenlow’s shoulders were tense with anger.  The smoke seemed to fill my bones.  I couldn’t move.  I heard my pulse slow, and I forced my eyes to remain open.  “Just recognize her so we can leave,” he said tightly.
            My lassitude deepened with every breath, and I wondered how I could still be standing.  Concentrating fiercely, I shifted my head to see my finger and the drop of blood there.  My knees felt shaky.  The gray smoke pooled in my head.  “Kavenlow?” I whispered, hearing nothing.
            “Pick my table up,” the gypsy woman commanded, and Kavenlow obediently right it, replacing the candle and the shawl covering it.  The rock and feather were sullenly placed in the center along with the bowl.
            Grumbling in complaint, the gypsy settled herself in her chair and relit
the candle from another.  “Do you dream, woman-child?” she said, fixing a sharp gaze on me.
            I blinked, dizzy.  “How dare you address me like . . . that. . . .” I whispered, my voice trailing off to nothing.
            “Answer her, Tess,” Kavenlow said as he pulled me from my corner.
            “You want a fortune, dearie?” the gypsy woman said in a mocking falsetto.  “I can give you a fortune to make your hair turn white.”  She leaned forward, running her eyes over my dusty clothes.  “Tell me if you dream.”
            I swallowed hard.  “Yes, of course,” I said, hearing my voice as if it came from across the room.  The smoke was turning my head, making my mouth work when my mind said to be quiet.
            “Any of them come true?” she asked.
            “No,” I said, then hesitated.  “No, of course not.”  What an odd thing to ask.
            “Animals,” the old woman said.  “Do they do what you want?”
            My brow furrowed, and a distant part of me wondered at the absurdity of the question.  “I can ride a horse.”  I took a deep breath to dispel the fog in my head, but it only made it worse.
            The gypsy shook her head in disgust.  “Can you walk unnoticed?”
            “I’m a princess.  Walking unnoticed is pretty much . . .”  I took a breath, willing myself out of the fog.  “. . . imposable.”  My finger throbbed as I gripped the bone knife.  I wondered if the fox had run away, and my attention wandered until I found a pair of black unblinking eyes watching me from under the dresser.  It was panting, afraid.  My water had spilled, and I wished I could find enough stamina to coax it out to drink from the puddle.
            The gypsy followed my eyes to the fox.  She made a rude sound and leaned forward.  I made no protest as she reached out and plucked a loose hair from the shoulder of my dress.  Holding it over the candle, she made a show of smelling the smoke as it flashed into light and was gone.  “She can do little for the amount of venom you’ve subjected her to,” she said sourly.  “She’ll hate you if you haven’t told her the cost, which I’d wager six horses you haven’t.  What is she, eighteen?”
            “She’s twenty, and I chose that risk.”
            The woman harrumphed.  “Breach the confidence, and you’ll be ripped to shreds.  The Costenopolie playing field will be destroyed to keep any disturbing ideas from taking root.”
            “I’m aware of that.”  His stance was stiff with no show of repentance.  A part of me wondered who this woman was who thought she could treat Kavenlow as a drudge.
            “She’s weak-minded.  I pulled her here easier than if she were a
starveling child.”
            Kavenlow gritted his teeth.  “She would have come without your summons.  She likes gypsies.”
            “So do I,” the woman said sharply.  “But I don’t go traipsing into their vans with no thought to my safety.”
            A spark of anger finally broke through my fog.  “Kavenlow sees to my safety,” I said hotly.  “I don’t need to think about it.  And you will not address him in such a tone.”
            The woman’s brow rose as if surprised I had broken my silence.  “This is what you taught her?” she said as she fanned that mind-numbing smoke at me.  My anger died, all my efforts to pull from my haze gone in a breath.  “Reliance on others?  A smart mouth that runs without thought?  You wanted a princess, Kavenlow?  You have a princess.  What you plan on making from this is beyond me.”  She leaned back with a shrewd gleam.  “Either you are a moonstruck idiot or more cunning than even my master.”  Her eyes narrowed in threat.  “He’s dead.”
            I could almost hear the words, “I killed him,” hanging unsaid between them.  Kavenlow stiffened, his feet planted firmly and unmoving.  “How I play my game is my business,” he said through his gritted teeth.  “Do you recognize her or not?”
            A sigh escaped the woman.  Her fingers played with the jewelry about her neck.  I watched, unable to look away until the fox poured itself from behind the curtain and slunk to the puddle by my feet.  For a moment, only the small sound of its lapping could be heard, and then it slunk back into hiding.  I smiled, pleased it had trusted me.
            “Aye,” the gypsy said grudgingly, eyeing the fox’s nose peeping from under the dresser.  “I’ll recognize her.  There’s something there—though the package it comes in is worthless.  You should burn your plans and start over.  This woman is only fit for dressing in finery and resting on another’s arm.”
            A flush of anger cut through my benumbed state, then died.
            “Thank you,” Kavenlow said, an irate relief in his voice.
            “Thank you?” the gypsy questioned mockingly.  “Whatever for?  Go on.  Get out.  I want to leave before the crush.”
            Kavenlow hesitated.  “Something is coming?  Tell me?”
            A shaft of light stabbed into the smothering darkness as she shifted the
curtain and peered into the street.  “If you can’t see it, you’ll have to wait until it happens.  I’m not your nursemaid.”
            Plucking her smoldering stick from the wall, she wafted it under my nose.  “You won’t remember any of this,” she said to me, and I lost sight of everything but her eyes sharp with an old bitterness.  They were blue.  What gypsy has blue eyes?
            “When I cut you,” the woman said, “Kavenlow beat me with the flat of his sword, burned my van, and slaughtered my horse.  Oh, it was a sight to remember,” she said dryly.
            “Burned your van?” I said, my eyes tearing and my words slurring at the sudden smoke.
            The gypsy smirked at my loose speech, the folds of her face falling into each other.  “Yes.  Burned my van down to its wheels.  It’s what he wants to do.  Can’t you tell?”
            Kavenlow pried the knife from my fingers.  “That won’t work with her,” he said as he tucked it into the coin purse dangling from my wrist.  “She will eventually remember.  She’s stronger than she seems.  I’ve never been able to cloud her memory.”
            “It’s a good thing I’m not you, then, isn’t it?”
            His lips pressed into a thin line behind his graying beard.  Taking my arm, he moved me to the door.  The rush of light and heat as he opened it was so sudden and shocking, it was almost a pain.  I balked, unable to leave the cool rest of the van.  With a smooth motion, Kavenlow hoisted me into his arms.
            “Come see me again when you find unfailing love, dearest,” she said sarcastically as he carried me down the steps, “and I’ll tell you your children’s fortunes.”

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Revised: 02/08/2010      Copyright © 2003 by Dawn Cook. All rights reserved.