“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?”
By Mikel Andrews
MARIA’S JAW REMAINED SLACK, stunned. She allowed Cutter to continue cradling her hand as she tried to stop it from quaking. His eyes were mesmerizing, and warm for being the color of ice. Finally the sinews and tendons around her mouth began to thaw and she was able to not only locate her voice but form words with it.
“A wrench?” she managed.
Cutter quirked an eyebrow. “You do know what a wrench is, don’t you, milady?”
No, she didn’t. The word struck Maria as familiar—something she should know—but she couldn’t quite place it. Was it some kind of material? An insult, perhaps? Was she being insulted? Yes, of course. Something she’d overheard one of the royal chefs saying about a housemaid.
Maria pulled her hand away and shot Cutter a burning glare. “You have a lot of nerve insulting the Princess of Estham—if my father were here, he—”
“Insulting?” Cutter tried out the word. He seemed revolted by it, giving a distasteful shake of his head that shook the obsidian curtains of his hair. “My dear lady, not in a thousand years would I think of insulting you!”
“Well. Then.” Maria tried again to scale back her temper. “Why don’t you tell me what a wrench is?”
“I have one right here, if you’d like to see it?” Cutter said, going for his belt.
“I’m afraid that’s quite enough!” Flip protested, stepping once again between Maria and the young man. She had almost forgotten the old wizard was there. The birch-white branches of his arms shot out from his droopy charcoal sleeves and grasped Cutter’s shoulders. He all but picked the boy up and set him aside. “I’m sure the princess is far too busy to see any of your tools, boy. Now run along!”
Cutter seemed hurt, glancing at Maria as if begging her permission to stay in her sights. Surprisingly, she could not keep her voice from bubbling up.
“Master Flippant,” she addressed her instructor. “I was unaware you had another student—”
“Apprentice,” Cutter corrected.
“Right. Apprentice,” Maria went on. “If you have another lesson to teach, perhaps we can reschedule?”
Flip gave her an angry stare. The look, she called it.
“Your Highness,” he sighed. “I assure you, this boy is not my apprentice. I doubt very much that he is a wizard-in-training—or that he has had any training, of any kind—especially in the way of manners!”
“Not your apprentice?” Maria repeated. She looked to Cutter for an answer.
Cutter gave a little shrug, turning a pleading look on Old Flip. Straightening his well-worn vest, he cleared his throat.
“I thought in our last conversation, Master Wizard, that you had agreed to take me under your wing? Teach me the subtleties of metaphysics and the like?”
A titch of fire erupted in the old man’s ghostly cheeks. “I believe the last time we spoke, Master Cutter, I used a spot of Ivory Thunder to knock you on your ass!”
Grinning wildly with hungry eyes, Cutter patted down all the slits in his vest until he found a tiny stick of graphite. Then he tugged what Maria had thought was a pocket square, but was actually a tuft of wrinkled parchment.
“Ivory Thunder?” Cutter asked, jotting notes on the paper. “Is that what that was? And how did you conjure it?”
Old Flip looked like he might erupt like a volcano. “Perhaps another lesson is in order!” He raised his hands and the air around Maria seemed to crackle with invisible energy. Her chocolate hair frizzled and rose, and the water of the pond around Teller Falls rippled. “A more permanent one!”
Cutter cringed, taking a step back while shielding his face. Maria had to think fast. Scanning for something—anything—her eyes darted around the clearing, finding nothing but discarded leaves and twigs. The static sizzle in the air grew audible and, for lack of a better idea, Maria jumped up and clutched Flip’s wiry arm, hanging from it. His skin felt like stone and had about as much give.
“Don’t!” she screamed. Shrill and unexpected, her voice broke the charged atmosphere and Flip’s concentration in the same instant. His tinted spectacles caught the noonday sun and frosted with light as he stared down at her, as if Maria was no more than a kitten clinging to a bedskirt.
The air cleared and Flip’s skin gave up its statuesque texture. The sudden change from stone to flesh gave Maria a start and she dropped from his arm, quickly plopping to the ground with a poompf of her dress.
Cutter was at her side, gently cradling her arm. “Are you okay, Princess?”
“I’m fine,” Maria replied, brushing away at her dress and trying not to tremble. “No harm done.”
“That was incredibly brave,” Cutter said reverently.
“It was incredibly foolish,” Flip hissed at her. “Do you have any idea what could have happened to you if I’d have gone through with the spell?”
“No,” Cutter answered, his curiosity returning along with his pencil and paper. “What?”
Flippant’s arms began to rise again, but this time Maria caught them at his sides. “That’s quite enough, Master Wizard.”
Bristling like a wild horse that had just been saddled, Flip gritted his teeth and relaxed his arms. Maria squeezed his forearm, glaring with the promise that her father would hear about this if there was anymore trouble.
The look, Flippant called it.
He tugged free of Maria’s grip and turned his attention on Cutter. With a stern gaze, Flippant forced the boy backwards until Cutter very elegantly tripped over one of the small boulders around the pond, having to sit upon it like a stool. The tools clipped to his waist clanked against the stone.
Maria leaned in to hear Flip’s hushed words.
“Now you listen to me, you wayward demon hoof,” he told the boy. “For the last time, I am not—nor will I ever be—your instructor. From now on, if you even give me so much as a ‘how do you do’ in passing, I’m going to bring a storm upon your head that will leave you buried under the street!”
“Oh, come now, Flip,” Cutter replied much louder. “All I want is your help. Your guidance.”
For a moment, Old Flip looked almost amused, then his face turned grave. “I know what you dabble in, Cutter, and I know what you think you’ve discovered—and you’re wrong. I told you thrice to leave it alone. My next warning won’t be as pleasant.
“And,” Flip said louder, stealing a glance at Maria, “you are not to come this near to the royal palace again, do I make myself clear?”
Cutter sighed painfully, averting his eyes from Flip’s. “Yes, Master Wizard.”
Master Flippant let go of the young man’s shoulders and reared up to his full imposing height. He stared at the boy for a few more seconds; Maria wondered if this might have been some kind of spell, a binding or a freezing, because Cutter did not move. When Flip was finally assured that the boy wasn’t going to continue pleading his case, he beckoned for Maria.
“Let’s go, Princess,” he said flatly, letting the words sear the air. He continued along the trail to Ralafus, not waiting for her. Pinching the sides of her dress, Maria picked the ruffles up from the forest floor and followed after him. Her feet hesitated only once where the trail passed near the stone that Cutter sat upon. Should she tap him to see if he was still alive? Should she give him as wide a berth as possible? After all, Old Flip had painted him to be quite the scoundrel—dangerous even. Although he hadn’t seemed all that dangerous to Maria, Cutter had been following them in the woods, stalking them—and lied about his relation to Flippant! Not to mention the matter of that strange, looping sword handle that sprung from his back. She’d never seen a weapon like that, though it was a weapon all the same.
After a brief debate, Maria decided to give him just enough clearance so she could still get a peek at the rest of that mysterious blade. Was that the wrench he was talking about?
Just as she began to peer around the hunch of his back, the frozen boy sat upright and swiveled to face her.
“Princess,” he said, clutching her arm.
“Oh!” Maria squealed. Then, remembering Flip up ahead, stifled her voice. “You shouldn’t give me such a fright!”
Cutter couldn’t help but grin. “My apologies, Your Highness—for the start as well as the, um…disagreement.”
“It’s no bother, really,” Maria replied. “Well, I suppose I better be off.”
“Before you go,” he said, bringing Maria to a halt. “May I have your name?”
Maria tried to think twice before giving up her name to him, but she barely thought once. “Maria.”
“Maria,” he repeated. Her name seemed to unfreeze the rest of him as he tested it on his tongue. The crescent-moon smile returned to his face. “Princess Maria.”
She was torn about how he said her name. On the one hand, it sounded like a scrap of song when he said it. On the other, there was a desire in that song that made her uncomfortable. Trying not to blush, she continued along the narrow trail.
“Good day,” she said, giving him one last glance.
“Good day, Princess,” Cutter replied. Then, lowering his voice, he added, “Find me in Ralafus. There’s something I have to show you!”
* * *
RALAFUS WAS LIKE MOST of the towns that peppered Estham; piles of pole sheds that passed for buildings and businesses. A shantytown bustling with lean, weathered people, tan from days spent in the field. Though it was small, the town was teeming with purpose and possibility.
On every corner—and most of the space in between—Maria found quaint little stands with vendors pedaling all sorts of wares. From fruits, both familiar and strange, to metals that resonated and floated, it seemed like every thing possible to sell was being sold.
Occasionally she stopped to take in a specific item longer, but Flip would always hurry her along. That was to be their banter, apparently. At least it had been since the forest.
Maria tried not to think about him, but it was hard not to look for him down every alley, around every bend. She expected him to pop out of every doorway, like those mechanical figures on autonomous clocks.
Find me in Ralafus.
Why wouldn’t Old Flip let her stop and explore the town just a bit? This was supposed to be a field trip, not a race! At this rate, the only thing they were going to have time to study was the city limits. Maria bolted ahead, latching a hand onto Flip’s cloak.
“Master Flippant, please,” she pleaded. “Is it possible for you to slow down? All I’ve learned so far is what a pnak root looks like at full gallop!”
At first, Flip’s face looked angry as a carved cliff side, but then his features softened. “Apologies, Princess, but I have an appointment I can’t miss.”
Maria squinted at the old wizard. “Appointment?”
Flip let go a little sigh. “Yes, yes. Truth be told, this field trip was my attempt at slaying two dragons with one sword. I must have a quick meeting with an old friend.”
Scrunching her nose, Maria gave a quick pout. “I should have known. May I ask who you are here to see?”
Flip looked up as if trying to look to his brain for an answer. “Oh, just an old colleague of mine, Sir Roan Byrd.”
“Sir?” Maria pushed. “Is he a knight?”
Flip gave her a thin smile. “You ask less questions during your sessions. It’s just a quick stop at Roan’s shoppe, Your Majesty, and then we will be on our way to the edge of town for a lesson in fungus.”
Maria stopped in her tracks. Had she heard right? Fungus?
Before she could protest, Flip brought up a knobby, white finger to shush her. “We can get back to Sanctimonious Triangles if you’d rather?”
Maria fought the hot mass of bile at the back of her throat. “No, Master. Fungus will do just fine, I’m sure.”
With another tight-lipped smile, Flip whirled around, billowing his robes dramatically and continuing on his way, quick as ever. Maria hurried to keep up, although her steam had run out. Fungus will do that to a person.
Before long, she and Master Flippant stood outside the finest shoppe she’d seen so far in Ralafus. A hand-carved sign above the door, with letters painted in moonbeam white, read Byrd’s Books and Whistles.
An odd combination, Maria thought.
Gently, Flip put his hands on Maria’s bare shoulders. He opened his mouth to speak, stopped, and glanced up and down the dusty gravel street nervously.
“Perhaps you should wait just inside the door,” Flip suggested. “But you mustn’t touch anything, understand?”
Byrd’s Books and Whistles turned out to be a grand library of old tomes—but light on the whistles. In fact, Maria could see nothing but books on both levels from where she stood near the entrance.
“We’re closed,” a papery voice said from the back of the store. “How did you—”
The voice cut out as soon as an older, sinewy man appeared and noticed the wizard standing by the rickety staircase.
“Roan,” Flip said warmly. “Good to see you, old friend.”
Byrd grinned and ran a hand over his scalp, nearly shorn completely of his silver hair. “I should’ve known—it’d take a wizard to pick that lock, no lie.”
Maria watched as the two men shared an awkward embrace; Flip so tall that he had to hunch, and Byrd so small that he had to fight his way around the wizard’s robes.
“And who have we here then?” Byrd said, eying Maria suspiciously.
“Maria,” she answered.
“Princess Maria Elena Arezza,” Flippant said. “Daughter of King Elias and Queen Arga.”
Byrd’s face changed and he quickly—as quickly as he could anyway—took to one knee. “Apologies, Princess. I had no idea I was hosting royalty this afternoon.”
Maria glared at Flippant and cleared her throat. “It’s quite alright, Sir Byrd.” When he remained kneeling, she added, “Uh, arise.”
Flip helped the man to his feet and the two began talking while Maria took in more of the store. Before she realized it, she’d taken a few steps toward one of the giant bookshelves.
“Princess, don’t wander too far,” Flip scolded. “Sir Roan and I will return shortly.”
“Alright, Master,” Maria replied then, under her breath, she muttered, “Do take your time.”
Her eyes scanned row after row of old books, taking in letters and words, but never full titles. Just the fun ones caught her attention: Traversing. Myriad. Intangibility. In her mind, Maria matched up each word with a sing-song tune she remembered from her childhood, hummed by her father, or sung by her mother before bed. She kept finding more and more; the words circled around her like hummingbirds.
So many wonderful words! Maria kept roping them together, note after note, humming to herself as she shut her eyes. Spinning slowly, rhythmically.
When she opened her eyes, Maria found a cold word that cut the tune in her heard short: Demosynthetic. The word made her shiver, yet she tilted her head to read it right-side-up along the book’s green spine. She pulled the book from the shelf and flipped it open. The pages held strange prints and woodcarvings of nightmare creatures and full moons. None of the human faces were ever smiling. Some of the pages were hand-written in calligraphic ink whorls.
There was a rap at the window behind her. Maria jumped and discovered she was rather sick of being startled. She spun around to face the tall window panes of Sir Roan’s shoppe.
Outside the window was a familiar cloak-headed boy with a big grin.
“Cutter!” Maria exclaimed. She was surprised how pleased she was to see him. “How did you find me?”
“Are you teasing me, Princess?” he answered, voice barely muffled by the thin, grimy window. “Nobody in this whole town glows as brightly as you.”
She felt her cheeks flush. “Enough of that. What are you doing here?”
“Rescuing you,” he replied, as though it were incredibly obvious. “More or less.”
Maria glanced down the shelves where her master had disappeared with Sir Roan Byrd mere moments ago. Or had it been longer? It seemed darker outside.
Afraid she might be punished just for considering going with Cutter, Maria shook her head. “I’m not supposed to go anywhere with you, Cutter. You better be on your way before Old Flip returns.”
“Old Flip?” Cutter laughed. “I like that! Look, I’m sorry I made up those things about he and I, but I did really want his help. But now I think I’d rather have yours.”
“Yes! Princess, I—”
“Look,” she cut him off. “When nobody’s watching, you can just call me Maria. Sometimes I miss the sound of my name, what with all the titles.”
Cutter nodded. “Alright. Maria then. As I was saying, I have something I want to show you. It’s not far, and I know you’ll find it absolutely grand!”
“You’re mad!” she laughed, pressing her hands to the window. “Old Flip will level the town to stardust looking for me! I can’t go with you! Not today—not ever!”
Cutter looked down at the ground for a second, steadying himself. When he looked up, he found Maria’s eyes instantly. They seemed to melt right through the glass between them.
“You never answered my question before.”
“About adventure. And you how you feel about it.”
“Oh,” Maria said, remembering. “I suppose I didn’t.”
Cutter sniffled and looked as solemn as he could, his eyes were as big as eggs. He leaned in closer, and that strange sword hilt wrapped against the glass between them. “Can I tell you something? I can read people’s eyes. Like books. And yours are telling quite the story.
“You love adventure. You crave it, because you have exactly no idea what it is. You’ve read about it, sure, maybe even seen it from your high castle walls. But you’ve never experienced it.”
Maria felt hot tears boiling up from under her eyelids. She blinked them away, trying not to let them escape down her cheeks. Too late.
“What do you have in mind?” she asked slyly.
Cutter’s grin exploded across his face, slitting him from ear to ear. “Let me rescue you.”
It was a spell, a sweet and mysterious one that picked her up and carried her out of the shoppe before she even knew her feet were moving. Outside, Maria took Cutter’s hand cautiously and he began leading her down the street, away from Byrd’s Books and Whistles. Away from Flippant. Away from her life.
She didn’t even realize she was still carrying the emerald-coated book from Sir Roan’s shoppe. She’d stolen a book. She’d never stolen anything in her life.
“Wait,” she told Cutter. “We have to go back. I didn’t pay for this book.”
Cutter gave a half frown. “What book is it?”
Maria flipped it over, reading the whole title. “The Demosynthetic Principle and Other Abominations?”
She read the title a few more times in her head, trying out the words new to her vocabulary. When she looked up to Cutter, he was staring at her queerly, one eyebrow quirked. Something about the way he set his jaw made her nervous.
“What? What is it?”
“Actually,” he told her. “I think you’re going to want to hang onto that one.”