I sat on my bed and stared at my reflection in an ornate glided mirror, which I was holding close to my face. With my fingertips, I traced the outline of my rose-hued lips on the glass, repeating the same movement over the subtle slope of my nose and the smooth youthful brow above my sapphire coloured eyes.
I was not the kind of girl to be vain. But in three days, the simple act of checking to see if a chestnut-coloured tendril had fallen loose from one of my hair combs would not be too simple. Truth be told, it wouldn’t even be possible, for my reflection would be a vague memory.
“Keep your chin up, my lady,” said a voice from behind me, “God knows it will improve your posture.”
I felt my breath catch in my throat, surprised to hear that someone else was in my chambers. I set the mirror down on my lap and turned towards the door, where my beloved nursemaid stood, dressed in a white smock and holding a wooden brush in her hand.
I sighed. My nurse was here to help me prepare for a lavish ball that my parents were hosting this evening. However, I would rather hide in my chambers for the night then play the role of dutiful daughter in a room full of posh royals and strangers-especially since I was in such a sombre mood.
“I have more important things to be concerned about then my posture,” I said as I rose from my bed, still clutching the ivory handle of my mirror. I walked over to the leaded terrace window and gazed at the snowcapped mountains that lined the far reaches of Camelot. As a child, I had dreamed of leaving the castle and disappearing into the hills, where I’d befriend all the wild animals and live off berries. How foolish I had been.
“I suppose you are referring to your birthday.” The nurse strode across the room, her short, meaty legs pounding the marble floor. She stood behind me and removed my robe, quickly pulling it off both my arms. “Most girls look forward to turning sixteen. Or am I mistaken?”
I closed my eyes, feeling the last ray of the setting sun tickle my skin through my thin cotton slip. “Most girls do not have to run a kingdom and give up their entire freedom,” I said.
My nurse circled in front of me and glowered at me. “Well, there’s no sense in wishing for what is unattainable. Now sit back down so I can untangle that nest of hair before Lady Tragor comes to call. We cannot have her seeing you so unkempt.”
I nodded and then shuffled over to my bed, heeding the nurse’s command. She knew better than anyone how easy it was to be scared of Lady Tragor.
But there was one thing more frightening than the matriarch of the Tragor family: a surprise raid on the castle by the magic-slaying Pendragons. There had been three security breaches-knights attacking our kingdom in retaliation for the brutal murders the Tragors had carried out at the hands of Sir Lancelot.
In those dire hours, I had always been fiercely protected, mostly by my older cousin Merlin. But now I couldn’t help but wonder if I would’ve been better off as a casualty. Of course, being dead would free me from my troubles, but dying at the hands of a Pendragon would only cause more destruction in Camelot. The Tragors hated the Pendragons with every fibre of their beating hearts, and would certainly seek vengeance at any cost. I couldn’t bear the thought of being responsible for anyone’s death, regardless of who they were.
I let out a deep breath and tried to force these disconcerting thoughts from my mind. As the hair brush’s soft bristles massaged my scalp, I recalled a more carefree time, when I used to love counting the brushstrokes and listening to my nurse sing happy folk songs while she worked. When the nurse’s own child died many years ago, she practically adopted me, and I felt I could trust my nurse with anything.
“Don’t you take any pity on me, Nurse?” I asked, my voice despondent and desperate for sympathy. “Or my soon to be damned soul?”
I heard no response as the brush kept moving through my hair. But then there was a pause, and I felt my nurse’s lips press down on the crown of my head.
“I do, child,” the nurse replied tenderly. “When you have doubts, remember that I’ve been preparing my heart for this since you were born. It’s been a wretched task.”
A tear trickled down my cheek, which I quickly wiped away. “Thank you, I will.”
The nurse wrapped her arms around me and squeezed. “Is there anything I can do to cheer you up?”
“Yes, switch lives with me,” I said with a small grin. The nurse laughed into my ear. “That is quite a favour to ask.”
“I know, but you cannot blame me for trying,” I replied, my eyes smiling just a little.
Suddenly there was a knock at the chamber door and the nurse snapped to attention.
“I wasn’t expecting her ladyship for another hour or so,” she gasped. The nurse handed me the brush, then raced over to the closet and opened it.
I managed a girlish giggle. Unlike the other queens who rarely get up, Lady Tragor’s eyes always popped open the moment the sun rised.
“Well, my mother does love to keep her underlings on their toes.”
The nurse fetched my robe, shaking her head with disapproval. “Nobody likes a young maid with a sharp tongue.”
“I suppose it will go better with my new sharp crown.”
Another knock sounded at the door-loud and demanding.
“Just mind yourself, please,” the nurse advised me.
“Why should I? I have only a few days left of being free. I might as well enjoy myself,” I replied.
“Good heavens. Maybe you should keep your mouth shut altogether,” the nurse said as she smoothed back my hair and tied it at the nape of her neck with a black satin ribbon. Then she took a deep breath, walked hastily towards the door, and opened it.
At the sight of Lady Tragor, I shuddered as though a gust of wind had blown by. The nurse bowed her head respectfully and said, “My Lady.”
Without a word or acknowledgment of her daughter’s servant, Lady Tragor floated into the bedchamber, her dainty feet hovering a good six inches off the ground. She was dressed in a long ebony gown, and folded her hands delicately in front of her chest as she gracefully levitated across the room. Her pale yellow skin was utterly flawless and her raven-coloured hair was pulled back tightly in an ornate bun so that her glowing blue eyes were impossible to ignore.
There were no sorcerer’s more beautiful, nor imposing, than Lady Tragor. I could barely blink in my mother’s presence-she was that captivating-and until today I hadn’t noticed our resemblance.
“Nurse, leave us. I must speak with my daughter in private,” Lady Tragor said firmly.
My heart fluttered with dismay. I did not want to lose the support of my most precious ally.
“As you wish,” my nurse replied, bowing her head again and closing the door behind her.
I swallowed hard, hoping that something cheerful, like a chirping bird outside my window, would break the uncomfortable silence.
Lady Tragor glided over to the nightstand near my bed and held her hand over the top of a copper oil lamp. A flickering flame suddenly appeared, showering my face with a light golden sheen. While all female sorcerer’s had some degree of conjuring powers, Lady Tragor’s skills were far above the rest.
“Come, let me see you,” Lady Tragor said, staring deep into my eyes and running a long, sharp fingernail down my cheek.
I willed myself not to shed any more tears. Lady Tragor did not tolerate babyish behaviour.
“Your colour is already beginning to change,” Lady Tragor said with a proud expression on her face. “Can you tell?”
“I haven’t thought to look, Mother,” I lied, and glanced away.
The first sign of transformation had begun last night-my deep blue eyes were gradually turning lighter. Soon my eyes would have altered altogether into an ice blue-and my fingertips would tingle from the feeling of power. The ability to levitate and cast charms would follow. In a few days my birthday would arrive and my future as a sorcerer will begin. I would rule an empire and lose my entire life. The only way to stop the transformation would be to refuse initiation, which I desperately wanted to do. The ritual was the final step to becoming a full sorcerer. I would have to hunt down a human and kill him- all by myself, and without the help of any accomplice. I had to kill the victim with my magic. But as abhorrent as the initiation ritual was to me, resisting it would lead to disownment and death. I wasn’t sure I had the stomach for that kind of intense suffering.
Lady Tragor quickly became stern, dropping her hand over the lamp’s flame and extinguishing it. “Are you still trying to pretend that your destiny as a sorcerer does not await you? That will not do you any good.”
“And what should I do?” The anger in my voice was unmistakeable. “Embrace a fate that will rid me of my humanity and freedom? A fate that will force me to murder a man, or else dig myself an early grave?”
“Scarlett, your theatrics are both tiring and tedious,” said Lady Tragor. “I transitioned on my eighteenth birthday without an ounce of reluctance. And so did your father, and his father before him. All your hand wringing is a great disrespect to your lineage.”
I lay down on my bed, turning so that my back was to my mother. “At least we can agree on this-we are both ashamed of each other.”
The room went eerily quiet and my stomach churned. I knew what I had said was horrible, but I was so eager to convince my mother that our family’s lifestyle was, in a word, depraved. At this point, I would say anything to make my mother realize that forcing a child into a life of misery was wrong-even if that meant provoking her.
“Shame?” My mother’s voice was loud enough to rattle all the glass in the room. I covered my ears with my hands. “Are we not here, living in this splendid castle? Are we not the most powerful force in Camelot, despite the cruel acts of lowly poachers like the Pendragons?”
I could feel myself coming undone, so I steeled myself away and pretended my nurse was by my side.
“My aim is not to be ungrateful, Mother. It is to be truthful,” I said. “And the truth is that some see the Pendragons as vigilantes, and think their actions are justified.”
“Do you share the same sentiment?” My mother’s stare practically took my breath away.
“I do not know how you can live with the blood of thousands on your hands,” I replied after a moment of awkward silence.
“It is easy when the death is an act of revenge,” Lady Tragor said, smoothing a few stray hairs back with her palms.
“I don’t think I can go through with the initiation. I am sorry to let you down, Mother,” I said.
Lady Tragor floated around my covered four-poster bed, then settled in a high-backed armchair so she could look into my eyes.
“Even in death, my child, you will be a member of the Tragor family.” My mother extended her hand into the air and a brown paper envelope materialized above it. “So before you decide, why don’t you carefully consider the alternatives?”
I sat up slowly, reached above my head, and took the envelope in my hand. After loosening the wax seal on the back of it with my thumb, I began to read the wrinkled parchment what was enclosed as Lady Tragor floated out of the room and closed the door behind her.
Your lord and ladyship have shared with me that soon you will become a full member of the sorcerer’s race. I would like to extend my heartfelt congratulations to you. All the speciel powers you have yet to possess will serve you well and you will take great joy in them. And though you feel conflicted about your initation right, I know you will eventually come to understand that being queen is a treasure worth killing for.
It must seem odd receiving such an intimate letter from a stranger, but I am pleased to inform you that I will be attending the Tragor ball. Some find my nature to be plain, but my reputation in our ranks is highly esteemed. In any case, I am very anxious to meet you.
With noble intensions,
I crumpled up the letter and held it tightly in both hands. I knew other maidens my age had received notes like this before and wound up married to strangers their parents had picked out for them. My skin prickled with nervous chills just thinking of it, so I pulled the covers up to my chin, gripping the fabric tightly with my fingers. If my mother thought that a romance-especially one that was prearranged-would ride me of my depression, she was sorely mistaken.