FROM THE FIRST SECTION: TWENTY YEARS BEFORE
Deep ruts crested at the side of the road, hardening into long ridges, stony underneath but slick on the top. A drizzle had persisted until afternoon, when the sky broke open to the blue beyond, washing a glistening world in golden sunlight.
Cecily stood in the mud. She shuffled her leather clogs without noticing she was doing so. Her long dress hung spattered and stained with old offenses at the bottom. In the crowd, she hugged her grocery basket tightly to her breast. Cecily strained her head out on her neck. Was it coming? Would she be able to see? Was it possible the sky always turned blue and reflected heaven ahead of The Queen?
Tales of The Queen flourished in the streets of Northwyth. Old wives tittered them up and down the alleyways. The puppet shows were peppered with spectacularly ugly Demonis and told grandiose tales of The Queen, of King Jaden, and of a time before peace, even back to the times of The Sage. Mothers leaned over beds in flickering lamplight to whisper to their children, shadows cast up from their chins, about The Angel, hinting at the affair and the missing love child.
But Cecily could no longer allow herself to believe those tales, because you outgrew those things, didn’t you? If she believed, the other girls would laugh at her. No man would want her. She would become part of a story herself, part of the gossip like Berenice the Healer, the odd Triplets, Conwen the Storykeeper, and the others who were spoken of with pity. The profound touch of magic could live among you, but only if reduced to nothing more than words and laughter.
It is a right of passage for each generation, perhaps: to deny the legends of the fathers, failing to notice that magic is still happening all around. There is a time of slumber between every bright day. There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun, or deep in the night, or even woven, nearly lost, in our sleep.
Cecily let her mind wander from stories to her dreams of a well-built man, a warm house, and a couple of clean-faced children. Then the crowd around her grew louder and more agitated. She was forced to clutch the grocery basket tighter as pedestrians jostled her from all sides. Someone called out, “What is it?” And someone else, “It’s The Queen!”
All eyes scanned the road to the west—where it crested a hill and then was absorbed in the Branderby Woods. The hill was gradual, cheerful, and rounded, flashing grasses on its shoulders before the wooly darkness of woods. The road stretched up, a ribbon of salmony brown. Cecily noticed movement at the hill’s apex: a rhythmic bobbing twinkle of reflected light. Almost imperceptibly it grew bigger and higher. The reflection shone from the top of a staff, glinting silver in the sun. The flag rose slowly, followed by the standard of the House of Northwyth. Then, quickly, up from the top of the hill other glints, other shapes and colors multplied, and soon there mounted a procession of horses and riders, attendants, and an open carriage adorned with brilliant fabrics that floated listlessly on the breeze.
The sound of the procession had not yet reached the villagers, who crowded into the flatland to watch. Some of the children broke free from the crowd and ran up the gentle slope along the road to meet the train. Other townspeople were already joining the procession and paraded from the forest clinging to its sides and straggling behind.
Cecily heard a horn piercing through the shouts. Its song rose intermittently on the shifting breezes. It did not play a melody but blasts meant to call attention to the procession, to announce its coming. The crowd around Cecily quieted, and she could also hear the brusque chanting of the soldiers marching fore and aft of the carriage. What they chanted, Cecily could not discern. Something to keep them uniform, to keep the pace, which sounded like “Up! Pah! Oh! Ah!” and “Up! Pah! Oh! Ah!”
In a mob, the crowd lurched first one way and then the other, and Cecily moved to her tip-toes in welcome excitement. She was a tall girl, anyhow, but was not yet fully grown. Her auburn hair she wore up loosely on her head and hid it under a lace-trimmed cap, except where a few wavy locks had worked free. They tickled at her neck and chin and grazed her white shoulders. Her skin was white, pale, smudged with dirt and soot, and callused only on the hands and feet. She was slim and shapely, her loosely fitted dress and wrap-around apron somehow making her feel naked in her new body. She averted her almond, brown eyes whenever she encountered men.
But now, her eyes were fixed on the road from the far hill, watching the spectacular show descend into the farmland and approach her. It was a sight. And the front horse and horseman were almost there! Was someone riding Son of Quicklander in the procession?
The soldiers grew close enough that Cecily could hear a horse snort in a rattling gust. She suddenly remembered that she had picked flowers and placed them on top of her groceries. She looked down, frowned at a few cracked eggs, and snatched up the flowers. She worked her arm out in the jostling crowd, found a moment when the way parted before her, and flung the flowers into the road just before the wheels of the carriage churned over them.
Cecily yelled, “Life and prosperity to The Queen!” and saw The Queen. The Queen’s carriage was open, meant for tours such as this when The Queen wanted to be seen and to see her kingdom. It was gold and white on the outside, lined inside with midnight-blue velvet, and The Queen sat alone atop it. She waved to her people, slow and practiced. The Queen commanded awe. She was tall and handsome, with long red hair that shone coppery in the sunlight. Her skin flashed clean and beautified. She was indisputably strong and imposing, meant for warfare as much as any banquet room. Her red lips parted over the whitest of teeth; her green eyes looked steadily at all the uproar as she swayed gently, high over the road.
Cecily could not help herself. The Queen’s presence was heavy, like storm rain, and was searing, like a cattle brand. Cecily did believe the stories, every one of them. She was a child again, was telling herself she would always be a child in her heart because the stories were real, were instructive, enjoyable, important. Would she have to hide her belief away, then? In the presence of The Queen she could have yelled it out. But then, when she went back into town tomorrow to barter, what would people think? Would she become Cecily the Woman-Child? Cecily the Soft Head? Unworthy of progeny, unworthy of love? Perhaps she could seek the protection of the Head Saint, live chaste as a servant to the apothecaries. But as soon as the complicated thoughts arose, they blew away again with the pomp and excitement happening all around her, and Cecily lifted an arm to hail The Queen.
As The Queen turned her face to the opposite side of the road, her hand also moved in that direction, and a beam of sunlight caught one of her adornments. The light refracted a ruby-colored gleam, and it caught the crowd unawares, caught Cecily right in the eye. She could not look away and followed the beam back to its source: an enormous, red stone fixed in an intricate ring on The Queen’s elegant hand.
It was not like the little reflections one saw on a sunny day everywhere around town, on the small crests of the river water, and off the tin-maker’s cart. Cecily had seen with her own eyes that the ring had shot out a ray of red light amplified in brightness and intensity. It had transfixed her, had mesmerized her, had magicked her, and they—the elect standing on the right side of Gretl’s Way—had all seen it, had all felt it, like an arrow to the chest.