As so many before them had gone, so walked the Princess Aileen and the Lord Nayr. Long after the other guests at Grare’s castle had retreated to their territories, Nayr lingered, asking Aileen for turns about the castle’s gardens, horse-rides in the fields, excursions into the city. Unfortunately for Nayr, wherever Aileen went, her Shadow would follow, gleaming eyes glued to him, watching his every move. Any attempt to touch the princess, even to help her down from her horse, was accompanied by a swat to his hand and a growl from the hooded thing that Aileen called her best friend. Whatever gentlemanly assistance needed to be offered was administered by the Beast.
Most of their time was spent within the high walls of the castle’s gardens; walking under the trees in their crackling colors, sitting on the stone benches and talking of things only they could understand. He’d whisper, she’d giggle brightly, and as far as Aileen was concerned all was well with the world.
Ameryn was not so sure.
She moved when they moved, keeping her distance but always keeping the pair in view. When they went walking, she’d follow behind, but not so close as to be noticeable. Earlier in the days immediately after the masquerade Ameryn would follow right behind them, but after a few days of this Aileen had cautiously mentioned her annoyance over breakfast.
“Ammy,” she had said softly, her eyes peering wide and doe-like over her cup of tea, “is there…I mean, must you follow so close behind Nayr and me when we go walking?”
Ameryn had looked up from her book in mild surprise. Aileen had never objected to her protection before.
“Does it bother you?”
“Well, maybe…” Aileen had trailed off, nibbling her lip nervously.
“Could you…could you walk a little further back?”
“Oh, not so far that you can’t see us! Not that far at all. Just so far that…that you can’t…hear us?”
Ameryn had stared blankly down at her half-eaten pastry. What could they possibly say that Ameryn shouldn’t know? How attached had she become to Nayr that he had replaced the guardian as confidant and friend? Would she have to step aside so soon and let a stranger take her place?
She had sighed, closing her eyes and pushing the fears aside and remembering her duty. She had known for years this day would come. If only it hadn’t come so soon. She looked up at Aileen and smiled, her jagged teeth protruding in a crooked smile. It was a look only Aileen could have interpreted as being a happy one.
“Of course, dear. If you wish it.”
Stay out of earshot. A seemingly simple command. Ameryn hated that she had to sit idly by and watch as her best friend fell for the Sprite lord. But orders were orders. She vowed to do her best not to hover during that day’s walk.
Instead of walking behind them, she now sat on a cold bench by an old ugly tree in the castle garden, keeping the two of them in her sights. She occupied her hands with her knitting, feverishly churning out tight, angrily stitched scarves that no one but a desperate blind man would wear. Aileen had no idea that the only thing that stood between her lady-in-waiting and her lover was a pair of sticks and some yarn. Ameryn had to vent somehow. Better it be constructive than destructive.
As autumn deepened, the winds grew more chill and stiff. The loving couple added a layer every day, the princess swathed in colorful scarves and layer upon layer of wool and leather. Ameryn didn’t wear much more than her maroon gown over her simple white shift. She was impervious to the cold. And her foul temper kept her plenty warm.
One clear day, Ameryn sat on her usual bench watching the happy couple in simmering resignation. Her nightmares had been particularly vivid the night before, and she had gotten very little rest. She was too tired to be angry. But she was tired enough to be irritated.
Naturally the appearance of Nacjar at her elbow did little to brighten her mood.
Ameryn glanced up at the skinny Sprite boy. She was a little puzzled by his willingness to approach her since she wasn’t wearing her mask, not even a veil. But yet there he stood, looking down at her without a trace of fear in his black eyes.
“How can I help you?” Ameryn kept her voice flat, emotionless. Maybe he’d get the hint that she was in no mood for idle chatter.
“You can hear me out,” he said, taking a seat beside her. Ameryn arched an eyebrow and regarded him steadily with her one working eye. Taking a deep breath, Nacjar continued. “I just wanted to say that…well…I’m awful sorry for what happened at the ball. I had no idea you were so…that is to say, I…well, I thought you were the princess, so…” He was folding and unfolding his hands, licking his lips nervously. Ameryn pitied him. Two years older than she, yet still so inarticulate. But as she watched him try to swallow enough of his pride to spit out an apology, she couldn’t help but be a little amused. It was an unusual gesture for a Sprite to willingly offer an apology. She thought that perhaps, just maybe, there was a little hope for this one.
“Apology accepted, Squire Nacjar,” she said, cutting him off midsentence with a wave of her hand. “Please stop before you end up saying something too nice to me.” And she smiled her crooked smile.
“Oh…alright,” he mumbled, looking relieved. Then he straightened up and tugged at his tunic, sniffing imperially. The gesture reminded Ameryn of a cat that had fallen off a windowsill trying to convince the viewer that it meant to do that. “So what exactly do you do out here all day? You look bored out of your skull.”
“I’m doing my job.” Ameryn wasn’t really interested in further conversation. She turned her attention back to Nayr and Aileen, who by now had drifted over to the garden’s large fountain and were watching the leaves move in the water. She didn’t watch her knitting—she let her fingers do all the thinking for her.
“And you play with string,” Nacjar added.
The needles stopped clicking. “What?”
“Well, if that’s not playing with string I don’t know what is.” He was pointing a finger at her scarf-in-progress, a look of mild disgust on his freckled face.
“This is knitting,” Ameryn replied flatly. “You’re a boy, I don’t expect you to appreciate it.”
“Huh. Your hobby, eh?” He stood and whisked out his sword, giving it a few expert swings and grinning proudly. “This is my hobby.”
“So I gather,” said Ameryn, still watching her charge.
“You’re not looking.”
“I don’t have to. I know what a boy playing with a sword looks like. I live in a castle, you know. Swords everywhere. Tons of pointy objects. Plenty of lunkheads wanting to swing them around.”
“Yeah, but you’ve never seen a sword wielded properly until you see a Sprite do it,” Nacjar asserted. Then he snorted scornfully. “Huh! You’re a girl, I don’t expect you to appreciate it.” He turned to walk away.
There was a hiss of metal on metal. Nacjar turned around to see the Guardian examining a sword of her own. His eyes widened. Ameryn held back a smile.
“Know how to use that thing?” Nacjar asked, gesturing nonchalantly at the long blade Ameryn was holding.
“Sure. I use it all the time to open my letters.” Ameryn swung it once, twice, hearing it hum through the air and feeling its weight. She regarded Nacjar with half-closed eyes, wondering if he’d take the bait. She hadn’t had a good opponent for a long time.
The Guardian was just standing there, one hand on her hip, the other hand holding the sword as carelessly as if it were an umbrella, daring him to impress her. She knew the Sprite boy couldn’t resist a chance to show off. Finally he squared his shoulders and raised the hilt of his sword to his forehead in a formal salute. The Guardian responded in kind.
“First one to drop their blade loses,” he barked.
“Agreed,” replied the Guardian.
Even now Nacjar waited for her to take the first move. But she simply stood there, her feet spread apart, her body as still as a statue. He made a quick jab: her blade flicked out in defense. Nacjar began to circle her, looking for a sign, a glance, any hint of movement that would suggest his opponent’s next move. He received no such clue. She only pivoted to match his pacing, her unblinking eyes fixed maddeningly on him.
Ameryn watched him, every muscle at the ready. She knew well of the Sprites’ reputation in swordplay. They said that each Sprite infant sleeps with a sword in its cradle. Each one was born to fight, and each one was a brutal fighter, no matter how aristocratic they pretended to be. But Ameryn remained calm—she could see the impatience radiating from Nacjar’s eyes, and knew his youth and ample arrogance would lead him to impulsive attacks with little strategy. So she bided her time, putting up a front of indifference, hoping that her coolness would be enough to make him boil over.
At last Nacjar could bear it no longer. He lashed out, pattern after pattern, thrust after thrust, coming down at every angle. But he could make no headway. Ameryn barely moved from her spot on the grass, skillfully blocking every thrust. The faster Nacjar attacked, the faster she defended, never missing a beat, anticipating every move. Yet she never went on the offensive. She was toying with him, wearing him out. It was working.
A tiny bead of sweat trickled down Ameryn’s brow. She took a step back. Nacjar lunged, jumping at this first sign of weakness.
He backed her into a clearing among the trees, his face glowing red, his eyes ablaze. For all his effort, he couldn’t disarm her. She merely walked back and back, her face a mask of infuriating calm. Their blades flickered in the autumn sun, their metallic clanging echoing from the high garden walls. This feverish rhythm lasted a good quarter of an hour, yet the Guardian made no move to disarm her opponent. Frustrated that he was doing all the fighting and none of the winning, Nacjar landed in even harder, grunting with exertion.
Finally Ameryn’s blade slipped from her hand. Nacjar stood back, grinning as he watched it fall, anticipating the thud of metal against earth…
When Ameryn lashed her tail forward, wrapping it tightly around its hilt, then spun rapidly, knocking the flat of her blade hard against Nacjar’s legs. Surprised, he slipped on the grass, crying out as he landed, his sword flying from his hand and clattering to the ground.
He lay there, panting and fuming, as Ameryn sheathed her sword with a flick of her long golden tail. Sword and sheath disappeared in the folds of her dress, and she stood there, regarding Nacjar calmly.
“Not bad,” he gasped. “For a beginner.”
Ameryn smiled. He was radiating so much anger she felt like she needed to shield her eyes. But for allof his indignant wrath, there was a change in him. For the first time in her brief acquaintance with the Sprite Squire, she caught a glimmer of respect.
“Thank you,” she replied, extending her hand. He took it, and she pulled him to his feet. Then she walked away without another word. But she was smiling.