“Once upon a time, in a land called Ever After, there was a small kingdom known as Altoria. Though it was neither as large nor as prosperous as its neighbors, its people were happy, for their king was everything a king should be. He was wise and kind, but most importantly, he cared for each and every one of his subjects, from the noble humans who made up his court all the way to the lowly wood sprites that flitted through the Enchanted Forest on Altoria’s southern border.
“During his long reign, the king had brought peace and plenty to his kingdom, but he was no longer a young man, and after a particularly harsh winter, a wheezing cough settled into his lungs that not even the most skilled magician could fully heal. The king knew that his time on the throne would soon come to an end, and he feared what would happen when news of his passing spread. His country’s silver mines and verdant pasturelands would make a lucrative addition to any kingdom, and his son would be new to the throne and untested in war; a perfect target for their nation’s enemies.
“Rather than allow the greed of others to plunge his realm into chaos, the king sought to align Altoria with one of its more powerful neighbors through marriage and trade. He turned to his heir to accomplish this, Crowned Prince Alexander, who had inherited both his father’s intellect and his charm. The prince readily agreed to marry for the sake of the kingdom, but only on the condition that he might choose his own bride. He proposed the idea of holding a ball and inviting all the eligible princesses in Ever After, so that he might discover which of them suited him best.
“Though his son’s proposal was unorthodox, the king agreed to it, for he was wont to deny the prince a future full of the same love and happiness he had enjoyed with the late queen.
“A bevy of young women attended the ball, but the prince had eyes only for one: Princess Genevieve of Lanimar. Lanimar was the largest and most powerful of Altoria’s neighbors, and their king was a greedy man who cared more for his coffers than he did for human life. If the prince was going to save Altoria, Lanimar was chief among the nations he should align himself with.
“But that wasn’t the reason he courted Genevieve. He courted her because she was as beautiful as he was handsome, with lustrous brown hair and skin as pure as the driven snow. And where her father was selfish and cruel, she had a kind word for everyone and a smile that lit up the ballroom.
“When the pair joined together in dance, the other young ladies in attendance sighed to themselves in resignation, for none could mistake the love already blossoming in the couples’ eyes.
“A fortnight later, the prince and princess wed, and from that day forward, they lived peacefully and happily in Ever After.”
The fairy reciting the tale paused in her pacing, her diaphanous wings flashing an angry red as she turned to glare at me across her desk. I slid down in my chair, hoping to make myself into a smaller target. I had royally screwed up this time.
“Or at least that’s how the story should have gone if you hadn’t flubbed your assignment!” she snapped. “You had one job, Priscera. One job! On the night of the ball, you were to ensure that the prince and princess met, and then keep away any interlopers. Lust and duty would have taken care of the rest. Explain to me exactly how you managed to make such an utter mess of things.”
“I’d really rather not, Morghanna” I muttered. I knew I was being petulant, but damn it, this wasn’t my fault! The last time I had bungled an assignment, sure, I was enough of a fairy to admit that was my own doing, but this time? No way. This was nothing more than rotten luck.
Morghanna placed her knuckles on her desk and leaned over it toward me, menace sparking in her green eyes. I slid even further down my chair, wrapping my wings around me like a shield. She’d taken my wand – again – and I had almost no way of defending myself if words finally failed her and she started firing off spells in my direction. I might still have my innate magic, but our wands acted as focusing rods, amplifying our powers, and without mine I would be like a butterfly battling a rampaging bull.
Morghanna’s upper lip curled in menace. When she spoke, her words were barely more than a growl. “Funny, I don’t remember giving you a choice in the matter.”
“For goodness sake, Priscera. Answer her,” my mother said from beside me, prodding me upright with the tip of her wand.
Unable to look at my poor, harried mother or my furious boss, I stared instead at my feet as I began recounting the sequence of events that had led to the disaster we now found ourselves in.
“Prior to the night of the ball, it hadn’t rained in Altoria in weeks. I was traveling to the royal palace as a bird, and with all the carriages on the roads, there was a lot of dust in the air. There was a charming little manor house along the route, with a well in the courtyard. I didn’t see any humans about, so I landed beside the well and transformed myself into an old crone, thinking to soothe my parched throat with a draught of water. A young serving woman came out from the house just as I began pulling up the bucket. She didn’t look very friendly, coated as she was in soot and grime. I thought she intended to shoo me away, but to my surprise she offered me wine instead of water, as well as a few slices of bread and cheese to go along with it.”
Morghanna yanked her chair out from behind her desk and took her seat, resting her elbows on her desktop as she clasped her hands together in front of her – likely to keep from strangling me. “And because of this kindness you decided to completely disregard your orders?”
I tramped down my rising indignation. I was in enough trouble as it was; my temper would only make matters worse. “I didn’t disregard them,” I told her. “I had planned to go immediately to the palace afterward. I just thought, for once, it would be nice to grant a wish to someone who actually deserved it. Someone without even a drop of royal blood coursing through their body.”
She waved a hand in dismissal. “Don’t be ridiculous. We grant wishes to commoners all the time. The bards just don’t see fit to sing about it.”
My eyes widened in surprise. This was news to me. Though I had only been a certified Godmother for a few short months, I had yet to be assigned to a commoner. Just an endless supply of spoiled young nobles, with more good looks than sense. I glanced to my right to see my mother frowning in thought, as if she too questioned the Head Godmother’s words.
“Continue,” Morghanna said.
I took a deep, steadying breath. “Well, Ella – that’s the young woman’s name, by the way – even went so far as to offer me a place by the fire to warm my weary bones, for the family she served was at the royal palace to watch the prince select a bride. I thought such kindness on her part deserved a boon, so I dropped my glamour and revealed myself for what I am.”
Morghanna harrumphed, crossing her arms over her chest as she leaned back in her chair.
I waited a few heartbeats, but when it was clear that she wouldn’t interrupt me any further, I continued on. “I asked Ella what she wanted more than anything in the world, and she replied that she wanted to attend the ball, so that she might see the palace and the king and all the beautiful women in their finery. She asked to be turned into a mouse and then transported to the ballroom, where she could watch the proceedings from the rafters. I told her that would never do, because if she was seen, someone might try to harm her. What better way for her to attend than as a guest, with a beautiful gown and a carriage of her own?”
Morghanna’s eyes shot daggers at me. “A better option would be for her to have not attended at all!”
It was impossible not to squirm beneath that glare. “Yes, well, I see that now. But how was I to know how beautiful she was beneath all that soot? Or that she could mimic a noble accent and manners? And I think it should be noted that I could never have predicted that her late arrival to the ball would draw everyone’s gaze, including the prince’s. They didn’t even announce her! That addlepated young man just assumed she was a princess, and we all know what happens when we make assumptions.”
Only after the words were out of my mouth did I realize how laden they were with irony. One of these days I would learn to think before I spoke.
Morghanna rose to her feet and started pacing again. Never a good sign. “Oh, I am well aware of what happens when assumptions are made,” she said, shooting me a pointed look. Apparently the irony hadn’t been lost on her either. “What happens is that we now find ourselves with a land on the brink of war. Instead of securing Altoria’s future, Prince Alexander and Princess Ella,” she spat, “have all but doomed it. I’ve had to reassign over twenty Godmothers to the royal households of Altoria’s neighbors just to distract their kings away from drafting battle plans. It will be a miracle if we can keep Altoria from being completely annihilated.”
“I’m sorry, Morghanna, I truly am,” I said, and I was. I felt terrible that my actions might lead to so much destruction. “What can I do to fix this?”
She barked a humorless laugh. “Nothing. As if I would trust you to fix it. With your track record, you’d likely plunge the entire realm into chaos within a fortnight. You’re going far, far away. The Crowned Princess of Mareille is in need of a husband, and I know just the prince for her.”
I shot up in my seat. “Mareille? But that’s the stronghold of the Evil Queen. You can’t be serious!”
“Hush, Priscera,” my mother cautioned. “You’re lucky she isn’t putting you on probation.”
“Oh, she’s on probation,” Morghanna replied. “This is your final chance, Priscera. If this assignment doesn’t end in a H.E.A. for the queen’s daughter, I’m taking your wings.”
She didn’t mean my actual wings – we’re fairies, not barbarians – but the set of delicately wrought silver ones currently pinned above my heart; my rank insignia declaring me a member of the Fairy Godmother Association.
I opened my mouth to argue with her, but the glare she gave me caused the words to die on my lips. She looked mad enough to turn me into a toad if I put up a fight, so I dropped my head and assumed what I hoped was a penitent expression.
“As you command, Morghanna,” I forced myself to say.
“Good,” she said, and then proceeded to rattle off instructions in the clipped tones of a woman used to issuing orders.
I kept my mouth shut through it all, nodding at the appropriate moments to convey my understanding. Speaking seemed like a bad idea, for I couldn’t trust myself not to argue with this foolishness. Mareille, really! I’d be lucky just to survive my mission. Everyone knew that Queen Tisaine’s lands were filled with all sorts of sinister creatures, not to mention the Dark Forest; a wood so twisted with corruption that few who dared to enter it escaped with their lives, let alone their sanity.
When Morghanna was done delivering my assignment, she handed my wand back to me and dismissed us. My mother, likely fearing another outburst from her wayward daughter, wrapped her hand around my elbow and dragged me from the office. It was housed in the burl of a tree, high up in the canopy of the Enchanted Forest, where our headquarters were located.
I paced to the edge of the narrow walkway just outside the door and gripped the railing. Night had fallen while I had been reprimanded, and the forest was filled with the sounds of buzzing insects and the soft whispers of a gentle summer breeze. I closed my eyes and turned to face it, breathing deeply as I tried to cool my temper.
My mother stepped up beside me and placed a hand on my shoulder. “She wanted to fire you outright, but I convinced her to give you one last chance.”
Unable to voice my thanks, I placed my hand atop hers and squeezed. My mother was one of the highest ranking fairies in the FGA. As a child, I had lived for the days when she returned from her latest assignment. After she tucked me safely into bed, she would sit at my side and regale me with her latest adventures. I spent my entire youth falling asleep with my head filled with tales of beautiful princesses, wicked witches, dashing princes, and fire-breathing dragons.
I had grown up wanting nothing more than to follow in my mother’s footsteps, but so far my career had been filled with one setback after another. I was beginning to think that I wasn’t cut out for this line of work. Pity, since I’d spent my entire life chasing this dream.
I might have cried if I wasn’t so pissed.
The sound of tinkling laughter reached my ears, and I turned to gaze at the village that spread out around us. Our homes were tucked into the forest as unobtrusively as possible. Some sat in the junctures of tree limbs, while others dangled from branches by a latticework of woven vines. Soft yellow light poured from the windows of each, making them look like a field of enchanted lanterns that some wandering wizard had strung throughout the woods.
My fellow Godmothers flitted back and forth through the darkness, visiting friends and family or running last minute errands before settling in for the night. Their wings caught and reflected the light as they buzzed by us, moving so fast that they looked like a field of shooting stars.
If only I might wish upon one and undo the mess I had made.
“Morghanna’s choice of assignment concerns me,” my mother said. “In the past, only the most senior fairies have been sent into Mareille.”
I turned to look at her. Her mouth was set in a grim line, and her flaxen hair, usually so perfectly quaffed, had slipped from its pins to frame her face in loose waves. The pale blue eyes that met mine were pinched and red-rimmed with exhaustion. It had been a long day for both of us.
“Great. So instead of firing me, she decided to hand me a death sentence,” I said.
My mother frowned. “She would never do that. No matter how angry. I think, perhaps, she merely wants you out of the way, and has made a rash decision.”
“She wants me gone, Mom. I couldn’t even manage to get an idiot prince to pick the right princess. How will I ever manage to prod the deathspawn of an evil queen into doing what Morghanna wants?”
She turned me to face her. “First, I think it’s unfair to assume that the princess is as evil as we believe her mother to be, and second, I’ve been to Mareille a handful of times, and I think the tales of its corruption have been greatly exaggerated. Let’s go home. We’ll have dinner, and I’ll tell you all I know of that land. If we put our minds together, I’m sure we’ll come up with a viable plan.”
It was a long moment before I found my voice. “Thank you. I love you.”
“I love you too,” she said, pulling me into a hard hug.