“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 troubling cough settled into his lungs that not even the most skilled magicians could 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. Alexander proposed the idea of holding a ball and inviting all of 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 only had eyes 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 Alexander courted Genevieve. He courted her because she was as beautiful as he was handsome, with lustrous brown hair and skin as pale 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 a smaller target. I had royally screwed up this time. Literally.
“Or at least that’s how the story should have gone if you hadn’t flubbed your assignment!” she snapped. “You had one job, Cera. 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 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 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 toward me, menace sparking in her green eyes. I slid even further into 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’d 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.”
My mother, who, up until this point, had sat quietly beside me while I received my dressing down, prodded me upright with the tip of her wand. “For goodness sake, Cera. Answer her.”
Unable to look at my poor, harried mother or my furious boss, I stared at my feet and began recounting the sequence of events that landed me in this office. “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, the air was choked with dust. There was a charming little manor 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 tamped 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 planned to go to the palace immediately after my stop. 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.”
Morghanna 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 flashed wide in surprise. That was news to me. Though I’d only been a certified Godmother for less than a year, 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 and saw 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 was the servant’s name – even went so far as to offer me a place by the fire to warm my weary bones. 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 she wouldn’t interrupt me again, 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 have been for her to not attend at all!”
It was impossible to keep from squirming 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 never could 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 shot 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 divvied up amongst its more powerful neighbors and turned into fiefdoms.”
“I’m sorry, Morghanna. I truly am,” I said, and I was. I felt terrible that my actions might lead to so much turmoil. “What can I do to fix this?”
She barked an ugly 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, Cera,” my mother cautioned. “You’re lucky she isn’t putting you on probation.”
“Oh, she’s on probation,” Morghanna said, turning to face me. “This is your final chance, Cera. If this assignment doesn’t end in an HEA 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. It was my rank insignia declaring me a member of the Fairy Godmother Association.
I opened my mouth to argue with her, but the glare she sent me made the words 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.”
“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; 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 Lucinda’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’d been reprimanded, and the forest was alive 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 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 lived for the days when she returned home from her latest assignment. She would tuck me in at night and sit at my side, and instead of bedtime stories, she told me all about her latest adventures. I spent my youth falling asleep to tales filled with beautiful princesses, wicked witches, dashing princes, and fire-breathing dragons. I’d 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, and 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 could have cried if I wasn’t so angry and afraid.
The sound of tinkling laughter reached my ears. I opened my eyes and turned my gaze toward the village 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 fairy light poured from the windows of each, making them look like a field of enchanted lanterns that a wandering magician 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 past, moving so fast that they looked like a field of shooting stars.
If only I could wish upon one and undo the mess I’ve made, I thought.
“Morghanna’s choice of assignment concerns me,” my mother said. “In the past, only the most senior fairies have been sent to Mareille.”
I turned toward 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,” I said. “So instead of firing me, Morghanna decided to hand me a death sentence.”
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 gripped my shoulders and 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 exaggerated.”
“But that was ages ago,” I said. “Can you think of the last time a Godmother was assigned to Mareille? I can’t. Who knows how twisted the queen has become since then?”
Mom squeezed my shoulders, a smile playing about her lips. “Since when do you run from danger?”
I felt an answering grin tug at my mouth.
Mom gave me a last squeeze and released me. “Let’s go home. We’ll have dinner, and I’ll tell you all I know of Mareille. 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.
Copyright © 2021 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.