By Mikel Andrews
FLIP WAS COMING. Fast. Maria’s options were limited. Instinctively, she sought a weapon, but the room was like any other room in the palace—safe-guarded. Just glistening white bricks and jewel-covered trunks. Nothing that could be picked up, slashed with, or thrown about in an emergency.
Maria listened. No sound from the hallway. None at all. No swish of tapestries, no crackle of lamps. It was a wizard’s trick. They couldn’t be silent—but they could steal all the sound from a space.
Old Flip was close. Very close.
Sucking air through her teeth, Maria repositioned herself three times; she tried putting her wavy dark hair over one shoulder, then the other, then decided to let it fall straight down her back, but with her chest puffed out. She glanced down at her bust and decided that there was too much of showing from the lacy, plunging collar. Back to slouching, she decided.
The heavy, ornate door flung open. It was a wizard’s entrance. No need for strength and elbow grease. Just a little flick of the air and a gale opened the door long before they approached. Maria found it less than charming.
Commanding the presence of a sudden apparition, Flip filled in the doorway with his billowing black robes, streaked with silver, like lightning in the night. Those shiny slashes gave the illusion that his wiry, sterling beard had whipped around his cloak. His hair—what could be seen beneath his sunken hat—was of the same silver as his beard, except that it was smooth and silky, only bristling at the ends, near his shoulders. A pair of tiny spectacles pinched the bridge of his nose. The lenses were tinted gold; polarized.
Maria disguised a frown. Wizards always had tinted glasses. People said they needed to see things that others couldn’t. And every wizard preferred a different tint.
“Princess Maria,” he boomed, barely creasing the crows feet around his eyes. It was a greeting, believe it or not.
Maria gave a long blink. “Master Flippant,” she returned politely.
Flip raised his arm and his long, baggy sleeve peeled back from his hand, revealing his grip on a fat book. Maria cringed. The fatter the book, the longer the lesson.
Maria wasn’t magic. She couldn’t feel it, taste it, touch it, or tap into it. But she was a princess. The daughter of a queen needed to dabble in all walks of life. Thus she needed to have a grasp of wizardry. And nothing was more boring than a lesson with no practical application. For Maria, it was like being born blind and then asked to paint a meadow.
The fat book slapped down on a heavy oak desk, giving her a start. Flip stared at her; Maria thought she could see the start of a smirk beneath the froth of a beard around his lips.
“Do you know what this is, Princess?” Flip asked.
Maria gave him a flat gaze. “A book.”
Flip scowled. “Very astute, Your Highness. As usual.”
Maria rolled her eyes. “Do not keep me in such suspense, Master, please. What book is it?”
“Which,” he corrected. “And it is Alavert’s The Sanctimonious Triangles.”
Maria’s voice caught in her throat, snagged by a hot lump and transformed into nothing more than a barely audible eep. Though she hadn’t covered it yet, even Maria knew that Triangles was the worst of all textbooks. Everyone knew it. Nothing but philosophical questions, discussions, and debates that the author had with himself.
No diagrams, no pictures. Just solid walls of words. Tall, and inescapable. Maria sighed as Flip began thumbing through the brittle yellow pages of the tome.
“Is that to be our new lesson then?” she whimpered.
“Yes,” Master Flippant confirmed, then clapped the book shut with a puff of dust. “Tomorrow.”
Maria’s large brown eyes shot up at her teacher, scanning his face for some sort of tell. Was he joking? Was this a test? Was he feeling okay?
“T-tomorrow, Master?” Maria managed.
“Indeed,” Master Flippant continued. “Today would be best served…out.”
“Out?” Maria echoed.
“Yes, out,” Flippant went on. “A field trip of sorts.”
Maria tightened her grip on the beams below her desk. She was afraid if she didn’t she might faint, tumble from her seat, and die of acute shock. A field trip? Surely Old Flip was yanking her chain.
“Master, is this—or rather—is—” Maria tried, tasting each word. “Are you serious?”
Flippant scowled. “Have you ever known me to be anything but?”
Maria’s look of confusion softened. He had a point there. “But where are we going?”
With a twiddle of his fingers, Old Flip sent Triangles soaring straight for a bookshelf built into the brick. A pair of books slid apart, mashing against their neighbors to create a space that seemed impossible before. Alavert’s magnum opus sandwiched itself into its spot, making the whole wall groan.
Satisfied by his display, the old master again turned his attention to Maria. “We’re going to town.”
“Town?” Maria questioned, her heart pounding in her chest. “You mean Ralafus?”
“Correct,” Flippant said. “Now, Princess Maria, this is strictly an errand of knowledge. While in Ralafus, you will be expected to mind your decorum. Act like you are still within this classroom. In fact, act better.”
The last word rolled obnoxiously off his tongue, vibrating like thunder off the walls. Maria shivered. Give her nails on a chalkboard over that pompous drawl any day. Still, she couldn’t argue with Flip’s logic. As much as she liked to ruffle her old instructor’s feathers, she could hardly forget that she was the daughter of royalty. If she ever acted up in front of common folk, her father, King Elias, wouldn’t even look at her for a week. And her mother—well, Maria could only pray that she wouldn’t.
Maria sucked in a clandestine breath and rose from her chair, mustering all the majesty she could and using it to inflate her chest. She shot Old Flip a scowl.
“Master Flippant,” she scolded, trying her hardest to mimic the scathing tone of Queen Arga. “While I respect that you are my elder and my instructor, I must remind you that I am a lady of the royal family. I do not need to be reminded of my place by you.”
This time she could definitely tell that Old Flip was grinning.
“Good,” he said, beaming. “Very good.”
* * *
IN THE CAVERNOUS HALLWAY of the palace, bulbous lamps glowed a subtle blue but left none on the walls. In fact, dark as it was without windows, the hall seemed to be lit by the sun. Maria stared up at the lamps; they looked like a string of bright bubbles passing overhead. Magic bubbles. Alchemical, to be exact. Truthfully, that was the extent of her knowledge on how the lamps worked, but they lit every room and route in the castle.
She wore the same flouncy dress as before, indigo and scarlet that roiled into violet at her waist—but beneath the bell she wore canvas leggings and a pair of reddish leather boots that rose to her knees. As a lady of the royal court she was never to be out of a dress in view of the public—but what the public didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. And if she came upon a need to ride a horse or even to run at great speed, the dress tore away easily enough.
She never had the need before, but whenever she left the palace walls there was always a chance.
Following Old Flip from the false sun of the halls to the real sun of the courtyard, Maria let the rays kiss her caramel skin, closing her eyes as she drank the sun through her pores. Yet another beautiful summer day in the kingdom of Estham. A fine day to be free of the palace for a spell.
To no surprise, Flippant wore the same stuffy cloak he usually wore, except that his oversized cowl was pulled up around his head and hat, bathing his face in shade. He never appeared so ghastly pale as he did now. Maria wondered if he was allergic to sunlight. What kind of mythical creature was her instructor that he couldn’t enjoy the sun on a day such as this?
“Hurry along, Princess,” he commanded, picking up his pace. “The path turns to forest soon enough.”
My point exactly, Maria thought suspiciously. She let it go, though, and focused on the palace gates closing behind her. True enough, the path would be lined with thick trees soon—she remembered that much. Though she’d been to the town of Ralafus only a handful of times, and mostly when she was very young, Maria was surprised that her mental map remained intact. Fuzzy in a few spots, she could still imagine most of the twists and turns of the hidden trail. The hard right at the boulder. The meandering curve around Teller Falls.
Maria struggled to remember more details. Shortly, she gave up—it wasn’t like someone was asking her to draw a map.
Flip’s pace slowed as soon as they crossed the threshold of the forest. His shoulders relaxed as if the weight of sunlight had been a physical burden and the cowl sagged down his back.
“Princess, do you know what kind of trees these are?” he asked, barely giving Maria more than a glance over his shoulder. With a squint, she scrutinized the broad, waxy leaves that paddled in the shade.
“Wayfeather ulms?” she guessed.
“Close,” Flip answered, raising a single bony finger. “They’re Piperscorn ulms. They look like Wayfeathers, but their berries are poisonous. And their leaves—”
The rest of his ghost-white arm emerged from his sleeve and rose toward the canopy. When his index finger got close to a leaf, it lashed out and suckled to his hand like a wet rag.
“Well,” Flip chuckled, pulling free his hand. “Their leaves are…hungry.”
Maria stared in awe as his hand came away scuffed and splotched red, and the leaf that grabbed him curled back up into the tangle like the head of a snake. Her mouth hung slack.
Nursing his hand, Flip let go a loud sigh of relief. “Shortly before you were born, your father ordered that the trail be lined with Piperscorn.”
“Why?” Maria asked. “Seems like an awfully dangerous choice for something that looks exactly like Wayfeathers.”
“Exactly,” Flip said. “It’s a great deterrent of townsfolk. Stray peasants from Ralafus think twice before taking the king’s trail.”
Maria scoffed. “I do wish you wouldn’t use that word, Master.”
“Which word?” Flip asked, although he knew exactly the word in question.
“Nothing wrong with being specific, Your Majesty.”
“I think people is plenty specific, Master Flippant.”
Flippant just grunted and shook his head. That was the extent of their conversation for a long time. Enjoying the silence, Maria took in the whisper of the trees, listening for the occasional bird call. Once in awhile, large yellow-flecked spiders would bounce onto the trail between her and Old Flip. They would spin about for a few moments before bounding back into the forest. She wasn’t sure what kind of spider they were exactly, but she wondered if they were poisonous. And if they were, did that make them another creature here by decree of her father?
Another spider leaped into the woods, catching Maria’s eye, but something else held her gaze. It was only a silhouette—a shadow in a thicket of shade—but it had contours and depth, enough to stand out among the tree trunks.
And it moved. As if commanded by her gaze, the shadow slipped behind an ulm. Maria watched the spot—until the shadow flared up again in another spot. Further from where she’d seen it, but closer to her.
And the shadow had eyes.
“Master?” Maria breathed, panic tightening her windpipe.
“I think there’s something in the woods,” she told Flippant. “I think we’re being followed.”
Old Flip’s eyes scoured the woods, his neck craning to bring his lenses into sharper focus. Maria looked too. It didn’t take long for her to spot the shadow again. It was even closer! Surely, even Old Flip could see it!
Maria heard the old wizard give a hushed gasp and then a grumble. With a tiny shake of his head, he turned his eyes back to the trail and quickened his pace. Maria did the same.
“Did you see it?” she asked after a moment.
“Pay it no mind, child!” he snapped quickly and quietly. “Just hurry along.”
This frightened Maria. It wasn’t like Old Flip to ignore something. Even the softest scratching in the darkest corner of the castle usually warranted his investigation. Now this dark mass was bobbing about and watching them with interest, outside the palace, in the middle of nowhere, alone—and he said to pay it no mind?
Nevertheless, Maria tried to ignore the shadowy apparition. She kept her eyes on Flippant’s cloak, counting the silver slashes to keep her busy. It worked for awhile, but then they came to the curve around Teller Falls. The little clearing was just as Maria remembered it, with clear waters trickling down reddish-brown rocks and three large stones that made a natural fence around the pond.
Yes, all familiar—save for the young man that had suddenly jumped from the forest like one of those spiders. Maria gasped and took a step behind Flip, taking up a handful of his robes and all but clenching her teeth around them.
The boy—Maria’s age, perhaps a bit younger—wore fine clothes. Or rather, they would be fine, except that they were tattered and scuffed. Though at some point, Maria could tell, they had been tailor-made for him. A sash of leather ran across his chest diagonally, and a strange sword hilt rose from his left shoulder. His hair was dark with a raven’s sheen, and it was cut evenly to stay just above his shoulders. A silver chain ran from his pocket to his belt and some mysterious metal tools that Maria had never seen before hung from his hip. Tight fists rested on slight hips and his chest plumed outward in the most absurdly heroic pose Maria had ever seen outside of a storybook.
The final—and most unsettling—of his features was a devilish grin that beamed bright beneath the hood formed by his smooth, straight hair.
Maria waited for Master Flippant to hurl a spell at this footpad—this ne’er-do-well! This pirate! This thief!—but he did nothing. No purple lightning, no blinding flashes, and no cackling maelstrom of archaic language.
In fact, Master Flippant only uttered one word at the boy: “You!”
You? Maria wondered. That was it?
The boy kept beaming. “Lord Flippant! Long time, no see!”
“Not long enough, I’m afraid,” Flippant said, grabbing Maria’s wrist tightly. “Come along, Princess.”
“Princess?” the boy said wistfully, peeking around Old Flip’s robes. “My liege, surely you will not so discourteously deny me a proper introduction!”
Liege? These were titles reserved for Maria’s father. Not the royal wizard! Her blood ignited, but still she remained hidden in Flippant’s wake.
“Oh, I most certainly will!” Flippant hissed, tugging her hotly. “Come along, Maria. Quickly.”
“But, Your Excellency—”
The fragile globe of Maria’s temper dropped and shattered. This boy was not going to address a mere servant of her father—the king!—with such elegance! Decorum be damned!
Her fear was gone. This boy was no longer a thief, a kidnapper, or any other sort of threat to Maria—his crime was insolence!
She swung around Flippant like a tree-dwelling Feral on a vine. The knife of her hand was up in a heartbeat, her palm hot and ready to strike one of the young man’s smooth, rosy cheeks. By the right of her royal blood, she’d smack that sly grin right off his baby face!
Her hand cut through the air, slicing swiftly—
—and was caught, abruptly, and cradled. Cradled! This madman had her hand in his! Of all the vile treacheries!
Maria’s battle cry became barely a squeak as she found her face inches from the young man’s. His grin was still blazing, although less diabolically. His eyes took on a new hue—they were an icy blue that glistened kindly. That crimson in his cheeks had brightened.
“Milady,” he said, taken aback. “Would you please do me the honor of receiving my most humble of introductions?”
“Alright,” Maria stammered quickly.
“Your Highness, I really must protest!” Flippant cried. But even that didn’t stop the boy. In fact, Old Flip’s voice was barely a breeze compared to what the young man was about to say to Maria.
“They call me Cutter, Your Majesty,” he said. “I am a wizard-in-training and the apprentice of Master Archibald Demitrius Flippant—and you, my dear, are the most astonishingly beautiful creature I have ever laid eyes upon.
“Tell me,” the boy—Cutter—went on, “How do you feel about adventure? And are you any good with a wrench?”