“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.”
By Mikel Andrews
WHEN HE HAD FINISHED SCRUTINIZING the perforated metal disc, not much bigger than a skipping stone, Flippant tucked it back into the leathery, oiled cloth. Clearing his throat, he gave a mostly friendly grin to his old acquaintance, Sir Roan Byrd. The two were hidden by a private office within the walls of Sir Roan’s shoppe, Byrd’s Books and Whistles.
“Fine work,” the old wizard told Sir Roan. “Maybe your finest.”
Roan returned the grin graciously. “Thank you, Master Wizard.”
Flippant sighed. “Although, I wish I hadn’t need for it.”
“I wish I hadn’t need to make it,” Roan replied. Exhaustion sloughed from his shoulders, but still he appeared troubled. “I’m almost afraid to ask, Flippant, but I must. Is it really time?”
“So it would appear,” Flippant answered coldly.
Flippant juggled his head between his shoulder blades. “Judging by restlessness of the Piperscorn in the courtyard, I would guess a matter of days. A week at most.”
Roan gasped at this. Then a wave acceptance crossed his face and he nodded solemnly. “The Eve of Crickets.”
A breeze seemed to ripple through the office, ruffling parchment diagrams that clung to the walls and causing wood shelves to groan. A few of the books shuddered as if their pages were being thumbed through rapidly. Flippant tried not to overreact, but when talking of such ominous things it was difficult not to expect omens. Seeing the fear on his old friend’s face, the wizard dropped his billowing sleeves to his sides and tried to appear relaxed.
It was not a look Flippant was familiar with.
“I’ve been wrong before, Roan,” Flippant reassured, forcing his warmest grin.
Sir Roan nodded, trying to rub warmth into his muscular arms. “Well, you know what they say: once a knight, always a knight. If you ever need me to take up arms for the Arezza family again—you need only ask it.”
Flippant cupped a porcelain hand on Sir Roan’s broad shoulder. “A finer knight and metallurgist the Kingdom has never seen.”
“Those are nice titles,” Sir Roan said with a wink. “For starters.”
The office was still save for the subtlest of wavering of the heavy ulmwood door. But it might as well have been a thunderous striking of a gong to the two older men. Their heads twisted in unison, trouble painting their faces grim.
“Something’s…” Roan trailed.
“Wrong,” Flippant finished sternly.
The two took to the hallway in a flurry. Flippant waggled his fingers and stole the sound from the hall, including their footfalls, entangling it around his fingers until it was almost viscous. Preparing for the worst, he waited only a moment before bursting into the front of the shoppe. His skin hardened and the air crackled menacingly.
But there was nobody there. Nothing but the familiar floor-to-ceiling shelves of Sir Roan’s shoppe.
And that was the problem. Flippant hadn’t come alone.
“Maria,” he hissed under his breath.
Sir Roan appeared from behind the towering wizard’s robes. “The princess? She’s—”
“Gone,” Flippant said hotly. The tinted lenses he’d propped above his brow while appraising Sir Roan’s handiwork returned to their place pinching the bridge of his nose. Instantly, the violet ribbons that traced Princess Maria’s wake appeared. The smoky amethyst fog swirled near one of the tall stained glass windows then meandered back to the front door.
And disappeared down the cobblestone street of Ralafus.
The princess was gone.
“Talons and hooks!” Flippant cursed. A combination of blood-red rage and cold fear coiled in the pit of his stomach. He knew he wasn’t the princess’s favorite person, but he never thought she’d actually leave his stead.
Composing himself with a deep breath, Flippant took another look through his special lenses, squinting for details. There must be something there. A clue or—
Flippant’s lip curled into a snarl. There absolutely was a clue. In fact, if he’d been thinking clearly, the only clue he really needed had jumped out of the forest earlier that morning.
In the street, a vivid blue trail of fog ran down the street and mingled with Maria’s aura at the entrance to Byrd’s Books and Whistles. He recognized that trail too, although he wished he didn’t. The dam holding his anger in check splintered and burst. Blood gushed into his cheeks setting them ablaze. He could barely stop the tremble in his fists.
“Cutter,” Flippant spat through gritted teeth.
Just then, Sir Roan gave a breathy groan that caught Flippant’s attention. The old knight closed his eyes and raised his hands, fingers twitching intermittently.
Flippant knew better than to break his concentration, but after a few moments he grew impatient. “What is it, Roan?”
Sir Roan’s eyes flickered open, revealing nothing but milky white pearls. He blinked rapidly as his dark pupils grew back into place. “There’s a book missing.”
Flippant’s jaw clenched. “Which one?”
Roan’s lower lip trembled, stalling. “You’re not going to like it.”
* * *
WHAT ARE YOU DOING MARIA? she asked herself. Have you gone absolutely mad?
The Princess of Estham—and a few outlying townships that she could never remember—could hardly believe she was in her current position. Following the strange boy Cutter out into the streets of Ralafus against the wishes of her instructor. Where were they going even? Flippant was going to have kittens!
As if she didn’t feel bad enough, the green, leather-bound book under her arm seemed to grow heavier, reminding her of her betrayal. The Demosynthetic Process and Other Abominations. She’d stolen it from Byrd’s shoppe. Well, stolen was a harsh word. She had forgotten she was holding the book entirely when she left to follow Cutter. Kept with intent to return? That sounded less criminal, didn’t it?
Awkwardly, she readjusted her grip on the tome, tightening it to her torso and shedding a couple opalescent buttons from her dress in the process. She stifled a groan as she watched the expensive buttons drop to the earthen path—the cobblestone had ended with Ralafus’ city limits—and get left behind.
Why didn’t she just turn around right now? Run back to Old Flip, with his Sanctimonious Triangles and fungus lessons?
That answer was in her left hand. Or rather, her left hand was being held by the answer.
Mere paces ahead, the mysterious Cutter led her onward with his mysterious blade hanging diagonally across his back. Although, now that she saw it up close, the mysterious blade wasn’t much of a blade at all. After the odd hilt—something like a fencer’s sword—was a spiraling metal cone. The tip reminded her of a key, and the whole thing struck her as an abstract sculptor’s holiday tree. Maria had never seen anything like it.
The only thing more distracting than the blade’s contours was the methodical swish of Cutter’s shiny, black hair. She’d never seen a mane so sleek and straight—it hardly seemed real.
Cutter seemed to notice Maria’s stare and turned, shooting her that stunning, almost comical grin of his.
“Everything alright, Princess?” he asked.
“Maria,” she corrected, although at this point it seemed a lost cause. “And yes. I’m just getting a bit tired. Is it much further?”
Cutter’s face grew hurt and he quickly spun to face her. He scanned her over and, for a moment, Maria blushed conscientiously. But then Cutter found what he was looking for: the book. The source of her discomfort.
“Dear me,” he said, “Where are my manners? Allow me, Your Highness.”
Maria gladly let him take the weighty book from her grasp. Even though Cutter looked more spindly than Maria, he was able to heft the book one-handed without so much as a grimace.
“Better?” he asked.
“Much,” Maria answered gratefully. “But can you tell me how much further it is?”
“Not very,” Cutter answered, then frowned. His grin returned with a snap of his fingers. “I could carry you!”
Maria’s lip curled. “That…won’t be necessary.”
“Nonsense!” he said. “What kind of man rescues a princess and then makes her walk? But I don’t have a horse, you see. Usually one invests in a horse before any kind of princess-rescuing.”
Maria had to laugh. “Cutter, you are not carrying me. End of story.”
“Why don’t you tell me about that unique sword of yours,” Maria said, cutting him off. Anything to get him off the subject of carrying her.
Cutter looked confused. “Sword, Your Highness?”
“Well, yes,” Maria replied. “The one you carry on your back.”
Cutter mouthed the word sword silently, then it dawned on him. He exploded with laughter. “Oh! You mean my whipdrill!”
“Your what?” Maria asked.
Cutter, who had been walking backwards agilely to keep up conversation with Maria, spun back to a normal gait and gestured to the strange sword with a thumb. “It’s a whipdrill. I invented it.”
“Invented?” Maria questioned. “So it’s not a weapon?”
“Well…no,” Cutter answered. “Not technically.”
“What does it do?” Maria pressed, genuinely curious now.
“Oh, a little bit of everything,” Cutter replied with a grin. “Sort of a catch-all mechanic’s tool. Pretty handy.”
“You’re a mechanic?” Maria said, scrunching her face. “I thought you were a wizard.”
Cutter cleared his throat and straightened his tattered vest nervously. “Again…not technically.”
“Your Highness, with all due respect, you’ve been locked in a tower for most of your life. There’s a lot you’re not going to understand about Ralafus, about Estham. About the world.”
Maria felt flush. She couldn’t decide on any one retort; so many were erupting in her mind like a pond of bullfrogs, it was hard to pick out a single croak. Locked in a tower? What was that supposed to mean? Her father’s palace didn’t even have a tower!
Oh, right. The South Lookout. Okay—her father’s palace didn’t have two towers!
“So you don’t think a princess would understand, is that it?” Maria said, folding her dark-skinned arms across her chest. “Try me.”
“Try you?” Cutter repeated.
“Well go on, Master Mechanic,” she sneered. “Explain the world to me.”
Maria was hellbent on holding her ground. She wasn’t going to so much bat an eyelash until he either explained himself or apologized. Preferably both. After all, she’d gone out on quite a limb following a total stranger who had yet to show her anything—let alone the thing he’d promised—and now he was insulting her? This boy? This—
Maria’s inner voice caught itself. She made herself finish the word in her head so she’d never repeat it again.
With a shudder, she gladly let Cutter’s grin disarm her yet again. “I could explain it to you, Princess, but I’d much rather show you.”
With practiced theatrics, Cutter stepped aside aside grandly and gestured outwards to the countryside. Maria let go a small gasp at the sight. She had been so consumed with the weight of the book and how mad she’d gone, she’d completely forgotten to notice her surroundings. For the first time, she had realized the forest had come and gone and the sun was starting to dip towards the horizon.
Cutter had brought her to the edge of a valley; a vista that she’d never taken in before. Below her were glowing, shimmering streams and verdant hills, pockets of heavy forest, lakes, and even another town in the distance. Further towards the horizon, was an even bigger town—a city! These things were barely blurry spots from the castle! This was Estham as she’d never seen it.
Cutter took her hand again. “Princess Maria—meet your Kingdom.”
His touch hardly interrupted her gaze. Slowly, Maria drank in the sights and sounds of the world she’d never seen. The whole countryside was alive, from the calls of creatures she couldn’t place to smoke from chimneys she could barely make out. If she could just have this moment forever, she would freeze time indefinitely. Part of her thought she could step forward and walk on the air right across the valley.
But that idea, that hope, was shattered by one quiet word from Cutter’s lips.
Cross, Maria looked to meet his face—and found it aimed somewhere behind them. She followed his gaze to what looked like a miniature set of mountains with some kind of metal construct jutting from it, all covered in moss and lichen. Was it a cage? Or a statue?
But Cutter wasn’t reacting to the strange landform, Maria knew. It was the three men rooting around the base of it.
These weren’t townsfolk. They were fit and leathery, and though their clothing was as well-worn as Cutter’s, they were adorned with gold chains, pins, and broaches. They carried themselves with a certain pride as they searched around the rock formation.
“Come with me,” Cutter said suddenly, pulling her behind a thicket of tall shrubs. He handed her the book, his face serious. From a pouch at his waist, he withdrew a tiny, metal object with a hinge and pinched it with his thumb and forefinger again and again. A clicking sound bubbled into Maria’s ears. It seemed all around her like a hard-to-place gnat.
“What is that?” Maria asked him.
Cutter pocketed the device. “Never mind. Maria, do you swear you have no idea what that book is about? About demosynthetics?”
Maria shook her head, confused. “No…no, I—”
“Blast,” Cutter sighed. His icy blue eyes seemed impossibly close to hers, like those nights the moons seemed too close. “Look, I need you to stay near me. No matter what happens.”
“Cutter, who are those men?” Maria asked. “What is that thing? A statue or something?”
“It’s my workshop,” he answered quickly, then pursed his lips. “More or less.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Just stay behind me, but close. There might be more of them keeping watch,” he explained to her. “And try not to let them see that book.”
“We’ll be fine,” he said, managing a thin grin. “This is a rescue, remember?”
That clicking filled the air again, only slightly different. Almost out of thin air, two rabbit-sized yellow spiders appeared, landing on lithe, fuzzy legs. Their many sets of eyes took her in with a spooky intelligence.
Maria gave a quick shriek. “Those things? I remember them from the forest.”
Cutter nodded. “Yeah, they’re bounders. My tracking spiders.”
“Yours?” Maria whispered. Those spiders she kept seeing on her way to Ralafus with Flippant…were Cutter’s? She glared at them queerly as they clicked and hissed in quick bursts.
“Am I glad to see you two,” Cutter said, addressing the bounders. “You ready for a little action?”
The raven-haired boy gave an ultra-shrill whistle, quick and piercing, and the bounders leapt to his shoulders, nestling in like living shoulder pads. Maria felt dizzy—what was happening?
“Come on,” Cutter told her. They rose from behind the thicket. Cutter went first with Maria in tow. She glanced around behind her as she followed, remembering Cutter’s warnings.
There might be more of them keeping watch.
Cutter strode up to them quietly. None of the men even knew he was there until he was ready to reveal himself.
“Excuse me, gents,” he said simply. “May I ask what you’re looking for exactly?”
Startled, the burly men spun on Cutter while Maria watched frozen. They took in the spindly boy for a second then traded grins and snorts.
“As a matter of fact, mate, you may,” said the man closest to them. He brushed away at his jacket, clinking all the trinkets. Was that some kind of uniform? Maria wondered.
The man—their leader, presumably—smoothed back his long, greasy, red hair into a ponytail. He broadened his grin, revealing dirty teeth and dark gums. He pointed at Maria. “Truth be told, we was lookin’ for her.”
“She’s not for you to look at,” Cutter replied. Maria felt a hot quiver behind her breastbone. She blushed.
The redhead laughed. “Ah, that ain’t true, now is it…Princess?”
He was talking to Maria. She froze, every limb went numb. Did they know who she was? Impossible! Maria clutched the book she’d stolen—it appeared it was going to be her only weapon.
The other men cackled in agreement. A bird Maria hadn’t noticed before took flight from one of their shoulders, flapping away back towards Ralafus.
The gaps between the men closed; they suddenly seemed bigger than Maria originally thought. A wall of punishment. Punishment for Maria running away. All this, just for craving adventure. Suddenly the valley behind her didn’t seem so beautiful.
Cutter gave a quick laugh of his own. All heads turned to him. While the men had been taking in Maria, the young man had drawn his sword—the whipdrill, he’d called it—and latched the base of the hilt to a brass ring on his belt.
From his hip, Cutter gave the thing a mighty tug. There was a crack and a ratcheting whoosh, and the whipdrill was in the air, a long, slack cord trailing back to Cutter’s belt. The metal cone that comprised the blade was whirling so fast, Maria could only tell it was doing so by the way the sunlight glittered off of it.
Eyes bulged. Jaws dropped. Mouths cursed.
Cutter took up one of his famous stances between the men and Maria. The bounders bristled from his shoulders. He smiled before he spoke.
“You three have no idea who I am.”
* * *
FLIPPANT APPROACHED King Elias’ private chambers feeling defeated. He was exhausted from spending the rest of the day searching Ralafus for the princess. More than that, his heart hurt. He had always been too hard on her, pushing her to learn so much, so fast. No wonder she ran away.
Forget Cutter. This was nobody’s fault but his own.
He clutched the metal disc he’d received from Sir Roan, whittling away at it with his thumb like a worry stone. At least he had succeeded in getting it. He would have to hand it over to King Elias and explain what it was before Elias inevitably ordered Flippant’s head lobbed off.
Hesitantly, he rapped the gold knocker of the king’s elegantly carved door.
“Enter,” came the king’s voice meekly. Flippant frowned. That was unusual. Elias was a bellower, not a whisperer—especially when he was in his chambers.
Flippant pushed open the door, worry eating his stomach. Surprisingly, the king was already entertaining a guest. A very smug looking guest, dressed in a gaudy, ornate uniform of sun-bleached crimson. A clean uniform, despite the smears of grease on the man’s high cheekbones.
The man smirked from behind one of the king’s finest teacups, wiping flecks of tea from his patchy goatee. “Afternoon, Master Wizard.”
Flippant eyed him suspiciously. Then his eyes flicked to King Elias. The man’s usually bronze face seemed pale; his eyes wavered wetly.
“Your Majesty,” Flippant managed nervously, “is this a bad time?”
“Oh, I think that’s a matter of opinion,” the king’s guest answered cheerfully. With a juvenile hop, the man in red took his rear off the king’s priceless desk made of hand-carved nelmoor bone.
Flippant began to peel back his sleeves, the white, craggy skin of his arms already hardening. “I’m sorry, young man…have we met before?”
“Flippant, stop,” the king ordered in a hushed tone.
The man in red strode forward. “I highly doubt it. My name is Marz Alven. Captain of the Airhammer Guild.”
Flippant’s thoughts grew panicked. Captain? Guild? This man is a pirate!
“Well, Captain,” Flippant asked nervously. “What can we do for you?”
This man—Marz—just laughed. “A great deal, I imagine.”
Flippant looked again to Elias. “Sire?”
There was a heavy thud from behind Flippant. He cautiously stole a glance. Two men had entered from a side door and deposited Sir Roan Byrd onto the floor. The former knight looked rather bruised and bloodied as he groaned.
“Roan,” Flippant whispered painfully. His eyes shot back to Marz. “What is the meaning of this?”
Marz sniffed. “A little bird told me you were missing a princess, Master Wizard. You should really be more careful with such fragile things.
“Fortunately, my men are scouring the countryside for dear Princess Maria—in fact, as soon as my messenger hawk returns, I imagine we’ll have good news!”
Marz clapped his hands together. “And then, to answer your question: Yes. There are a few very specific things you can do for me.”