II - The damsel in distress

Werewolf territory suffers from a distinct lack of werewolves. Not that I‘m complaining, mind you, but it raises an important question: why the hell did they leave? I’m not an overly suspicious person. I’m a reasonable level of suspicious. So I am merely reasonably wondering if something scared them away. Because I do not want to stumble upon that something.

Of course, there is a simpler explanation to the conspicuous absence of entire tribes of monsters trapped on human territory: genocide. Oh, or I guess they could have moved deeper into the forest.

It’s probably genocide.

“Sniffing anything to eat around here, Scout?” I ask my “loyal steed”, who has proved to be a good substitute for a horse, except around butterflies.

He whines.

While the forest is full of berries and edible roots, it lacks… well, entire cows, really. Hellhounds sure can eat. So far, we traveled close to rivers, and filled our bellies with some fish and copious amounts of duck and goose (ducks are so, so stupid). In the woods, however, it’s much harder to throw birdseed around and catch everything that is dumb enough to eat it.

I pat Scout’s shoulder.

“Let‘s head back. We’ll camp by the pond we saw earlier.”

Training a two-headed dog with razor-sharp teeth to wear reins would have been a “fruitless endeavor”, as they say, so we’ve been using a mix of shoulder taps, whistles and verbal commands. So, when I give three little smacks to the sides of his necks, towards his front tail, he knows to turn around and trot away. I lean down, as close to his spine as I can, because he has not yet mastered the whole “avoiding branches” skill.

I sigh against his back. Yet another retreat. We have a significant part of the forest mapped out, I think. It’s harder to estimate distances once swallowed by the ancestral trees, under a canopy so high and thick the sun and stars have all but vanished. I added the landmarks I spotted to my map, but I feel like I might have their position wrong, that we have circled the same spots for days without noticing.

If I got my notes halfway right, we are done combing through most of the forest. What‘s left to crisscross is the heart of it. If the werewolves are still in the forest, that’s where we’ll find them. It would also be prime real estate for your average evil witch.

We’ll see.

But first, we’ll sleep.

Scout doesn‘t stop running until we reach the muddy pond we walked past on our way in. It’s deep enough to host some small fishes, from the shadows dancing under the surface. There was a heron this morning, but Scout is digesting it.

I drop from his back and let him hop around in the mud. Neither of us can get dirtier than we are. It takes him ten seconds to find himself a frog, which I have to tear out of his mouth to make sure it is edible. Once reassured, I hand it back to him, and it vanishes from my hand in one quick, slobbery lick.

Frogs end up being most of his dinner: one hour and a half of fishing earned me six fishes and a frog, all of them sacrificed to the gods of Golden Retriever hunger. The rest of his meal, Scout collected himself on the edges of the pond. He’s satisfied, though, and curled up near our camp fire to sleep. I joined him after dark, using his fluffy belly as a pillow.

I wake to a low growl in his throat.

He hasn’t moved but is tense as a bowstring. I get my knife from my belt and lie still. I smothered the fire before going to sleep, so there is no light around to ruin what little night vision my very human eyes have. I spot a shadow between two trees – I think I do, at least – and I hear a dead branch snap behind me.

Slowly, silently, I reattach Scout’s saddlebags to his harness, and grab my glaive from the ground. There are more noises, now: cracking, shuffling, the sound of muffled footsteps on the forest floor.

I jump over Scout’s back and grab his harness.

“Run, boy!”

He bolts, barreling through the trees and clobbering two armed men who were crouching a mere three feet away from us. Four more, all clad in dark cloaks and clothes, jump out from their hiding places and give chase.

“Catch them!” one of them yells. “SHOOT!”

I pat Scout on the shoulder and he swerves to the left right as an arrow brushes past my arm. There‘s no way for me to return fire, so I cling to him, letting him zigzag out of harm’s way. Dogs have good night vision, and hellhounds‘ eyes can rival a cat’s.

“Aim at the hound!” a man screams.

Hell no.

I lift my glaive to tear through the low hanging branches. Hopefully, a light rain of leaves will make Scout harder to target until we are out of range. His pale fur stands out too much in the dead of night. But he is fast, and our enemies are on foot, so it shouldn‘t take long. Their voices are fading already, and Scout’s is no longer growling. He does not slow down, nor do I make him: we would be too easily tracked down, with the trail of upturned earth and broken branches we left behind us. It‘s better for us to put as much distance as we can between us and our pursuers. We’ll figure our way out of the forest once morning comes.

“I jinxed it, didn’t I?” I tell him once he relaxes under me. “I swear I will never whine about not finding the werewolves again.”

My tone is calm enough for him to decide running is overrated. He switches to a leisurely trot, with one nose up in the air to investigate our surroundings. I pat his head.

“Let‘s continue for a little while. You’re up for it, right?”

He tries to flip his head all the way back to lick me. Yep. Perfectly fine.

The moonlight catches his eye, which makes me realize that I haven’t seen that much moonlight in this forest before. I look up. The trees are more spaced out here. There is a slope in the distance, where the tree-tops do not reach quite as high. I wonder for a moment if we circled back to the edge of the woods in our hurry, but the land would be flat. The entire forest so far seemed to be.

I steer Scout that way. If the trees are thinning, we might just find a clearing, which might just allow us to change directions without leaving quite as much devastation in our wake.

It takes us ten minutes to make it out of the forest. We don’t find a clearing: we find a valley.

The first thing we do is locate a safe hiding spot.

You can‘t exactly shove your hellhound behind a bush and hope nobody notices. You can, however, bury your golden retriever under half a ton of dead leaves. He’ll love it. It won’t be perfect – what with the wagging tail – but it will be something.

Then you can climb the densest tree around, ready your crossbow, and prepare to murder any marauder that comes after you.

The sun is rising when they catch up. There’s eight of them: four are archers, the others only carry swords and hatchets, as far as I can tell from a distance. Their coaks are not merely dark, but patterned in brown and dull green for camouflage.

They are following Scout‘s tracks, which vanish on a rocky patch of land. The men look around, never coming quite close enough to my perch to notice me (nor get shot in the face). I can’t take four archers at the same time, so I hope they will fall for one of the false trails I set up. I had Scout run back into the forest in two spots, and made sure he left tufts of yellow fur caught in branches along the way. What we did, once the red herring were in place, was tiptoe back to the valley dry on and rocky ground.

I wonder if they’re werewolves, I muse, squinting at the men.

The cloaks are inconvenient. I can‘t check for tails and wolf ears. But who else would venture so far into the woods? Bandits? Deserters, maybe? We’re close to the frontlines.

They argue with each other. A swordman gestures at the trail I set up. An archer shakes his head and points at the rocky ground. This one has some smarts. I straighten up, ready to attack if he leads the others my way, but he directs them away instead. He seems to believe we moved farther into the valley, since the terrain would have allowed for it: stone and gravel patches all around, enough for us to make an escape without leaving paw prints.

But nope. We stayed right here. I feel like the safest way to go at the moment would be “back the way we came”. Those guys are not likely to expect that. So now, if they could kindly go on their merry way so we can bail…

The archer insists. He marches down in the direction he picked, trying to convince the others to follow. It gets interesting: they step back. A swordman catches up with him and holds him back, yelling something I can’t hear, but making a gesture universally translatable as “are you nuts?”.

What’s over there?

They end up following the second false trail. I climb down to Scout and lead him back into the forest, so we can move farther down the valley behind the cover of trees.

I’m no tactical genius but I always thought towers were best built on vantage points. Hilltops. Cliffs. Elevated areas. If, by some stroke of bad luck, elevated areas were nowhere to be found, I would at least try to find some flat ground. You know, so I can still benefit from the biggest perk of having a tower: seeing stuff from afar.

Some people would rather locate the deepest possible hole in the ground – like a bloody canyon – and build their towers in it. Well, I have to admit, if you want to hide a tower, it‘s pretty effective. Can’t see it on the horizon, nor from a moderate distance. You kind of have to nearly plummet down a ravine before you can find it.


I’ll be damned. I mapped out every square inch of this forsaken forest, dragged myself through mud and rain, fought a goddamn basilisk, and I end up stumbling upon my goal by sheer luck.

It is my goal. At the very least, it‘s a magical tower. I can tell this not thanks to the invaluable experience I acquired at “Shale’s esoteric paraphernalia‘s boutique”, nor because of the presence of arcanic crystals and runes (there are none), but because the tower has no doors. I’ll check for some secret tunnel leading to a basement, just in case, but my money is on “magic”.

“So, boy, what do you think?”



Time to devise a plan. It would not do to rush into this. Not that I could, because there are no doors.

I already checked for ballistas and archers. It would be all too easy for guards to rain arrows from above, both from the cliffs and from the tower itself. But there isn‘t a soul around. Normally, I’d stalk the place for a few days, get familiar with the routine of the eventual residents and visitors, but I’m afraid the caped guys might track us down. So, I gave myself two hours to circle the area and think.

The tower is about fifty feet tall. Smooth stone, no cracks, no mortar joints, no footholds whatsoever. Two windows, at the very top. Not a single arrowslit.

I have a rope, but it‘s only thirty feet long. That was the most I could fit in Scout’s saddlebags. I could have brought a longer one, just thinner, but I don’t enjoy ropes snapping while I scale walls.

Thick metal spikes have been planted around the foot of the tower, in any case, and it looks like they‘re stuck deep into the ground. I’ll have to deal with them one way or another. My first idea would be to bury them, at least just under a window. It would take time, however, and it would be noticeable.

That’s it for the basics.

There could also be magical wards.

Shale wouldn‘t let me borrow magic detectors, so I’m going to have to test for spells the old fashioned way: by throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks (or rather “survives”).

I start with pebbles. They get Scout‘s attention, but that’s about it. Next comes metal, with a coin, which does not melt and does not get zapped. So far so good.

Next up is a dung beetle. Should he perish, I will recommend his soul to the three Gods and everything. Scout sits next to me and watches me perch the bug on the blade of my glaive, and tilt the blade against the tower’s wall until the beetle climbs on the stone. It survives.

And now I have to find a hot-blooded creature, and some breakfast while I am at it.

The singing makes me jump out of my bones.

It‘s not bad singing, per se. It’s just that here I am, at the center of the most terrifying forest in all of Thandyr, the land of werewolves, basilisks, and armed bandits-or-possibly-deserters, sitting atop a fifty feet ravine and eating roasted pit vipers in the company of my hellhound, so singing is the last thing I expect to hear.

But, of course, where there are magical towers, there are princesses.

I had set up camp behind cover, between bushes and large rocks, so I slip out of that hiding place and crawl closer to the edge of the ravine.

The tower‘s windows are open, but I can’t see anyone. The song itself comes from so far that I can’t make out the words. Even the melody is half-silenced by the wind, and what is left of it distorted by echoes.

A shadow darts in front of the window and disappears. I wish I had my spyglass. It‘s somewhere in the saddlebags. I knew I’d need it, I should have gotten it while the meat was cooking.

The song is soft and wispy, with lots of vowels but no rhyme nor reason, like it’s being made up on the spot by a distracted siren. As for the siren… she throws herself out of the window.

“NO!” I shriek.

She freezes mid-fall.


She‘s holding a rope of some sort, so this was not so much a suicide than an enthusiastic session of rappelling. I squint to get a better look at her. She is wearing some kind of petticoat. On her head. I’m not sure that headgear has a name, but it’s easily as large as she is.

She looks around in confusion, but can’t spot me where I am. She shrugs, and climbs back to the window, holding on to her rope with the ease of someone well accustomed to the exercise. Then, parts of her strange hat float up and wrap themselves around the ramparts.

That’s new.

I try to visualize the ‘missing princess’ posters that have been plastered all over the city since I was a small child. As far as descriptions go, theirs were pretty short: “Female. White skin. Long enchanted hair”. She was stolen before the age of one, there’s not much to work with. But, well, “enchanted hair”, that checks out.

She clambers up to the roof, hauling herself there with her hair.

Her neck muscles must be made of steel.

Her hair comes loose as she rolls over the ramparts. She lets it hang limply from the walls as she sits on the edge of the roof. Each strand is of it wearing skirts too, every inch of them wrapped in colorful fabric. The “rope”, too, is part of it.

She stretches. She cups her hands around her mouth.

“Waaaaaah-ah!” she shouts.

Her voice echoes around the canyon, which sends her into peels of laughter, for a moment at least. Then her shoulders hunch over. She twists her feet in and out. She wraps one in a strand of cloth-covered hair, she twirls it free. She slouches until her forehead rests on her knees, and stays like that.

I move into a sitting position. Maybe I should let her notice me. But I‘d rather not show myself until I have rescued her. This life is all she ever knew. She’ll probably think I am a kidnapper. What if she calls her jailor for help?

She‘s motionless, now. Her arms are dangling in the void, her hair and ribbons swaying in the wind. Strong as that hair is, it’s a shame it’s not longer. Had the tower been smaller, she could have lowered herself to the ground and escaped.

Maybe she tried. Maybe that’s what the spikes are for.

Anyway, that hair is twelve feet long at most. Maybe if she never cuts it, with half an inch added every month, she might manage to escape by the age of forty.

Better get to work.

I go hunting.

We‘re going to be camping out here until we’re ready for the climb, and Scout will need a full stomach. Besides, I am still in need of hot-blooded creatures to test the tower for wards. I lay a few snares by rabbit burrows in the forest itself, find a spring for fresh water, shoot down some birds feasting under fruit bushes. Enough for the evening, at least. Scout is doing his own hunting and gathering, gobbling every berry and lizard in sight.

The cloaked men have not reappeared – no doubt they think the tower is bad news – so they’re a problem for Future Me.

The “food and water” thing has been dealt with, so Current Me’s problem is “the spikes”. It should be possible to pad the space between them with wood and stones, then build a primitive ramp over that. Anything sturdy enough not to let me crash into stabby things if I fall.

I have a whole day to collect materials and pile them up around camp. Scout and I can take them to the canyon at nightfall. Which means that point is basically done.

The next problem for Current Me is “attaching my rope to the tower‘s ramparts”, which will require my entire collection of “little things that might come in handy”. Namely: glue, a rope, a spyglass, a roll of three-hundred feet of twine, four yellowed pages of a book on naval knots, a squirrel and a pendant attached to a label from Shale’s esoteric paraphernalia boutique. What does the label say? “Allows male squirrels to understand human language while the amulet is attached to its body”. If you think that can’t be useful, you clearly never tried to keep squirrels away from your bird feeders.

“It‘s not complicated,” I tell my new furry friend as I bribe him with nuts and berries. “And once you’re done, I’ll let you go.”

He shrieks at me.

I get that he is angry. I abducted him, caged him in a cooking pot, and glued a piece of jewelry to his back. I‘d be pretty pissed if I were in his shoes. But I’m offering quite a lot in compensation: thrice his weight in fruits and nuts, for a start. Summer barely started, and he’d already be all stocked up for the snowy months. On top of that, I have promised to remove the amulet glued to his fur.

I feed him a blackberry, which he does take.

“What if I find more?” I ask, opening the bag of food I prepared for him, to remind him of what is on the line.

This time, his answer is a mix of chirps and barks. I grab a handful of food and drop it into the cooking pot. The squirrel recoils, then sniffs the offering and nibbles on a sunflower seed. Nuts are hard to come by in early summer, so I threw in all of the bird seed I had brought to use as a lure for waterfowl. There‘s some fresh corn, too – I “stocked up” in the fields closest to the forest a week ago – and I bet it’s a delicacy around those parts.

The chirping sounds friendlier all of a sudden. I hand him a whole ear of corn.

Now we’re talking.

The rope is up!

It took several attempts, some dumb luck and a roll of twine, but it is done. My squirrel partner climbed all the way to the top of the tower to wrap twine around the ramparts and back to me, and then I used the twine to hoist the rope to the ramparts. And then I spent three hours and my sanity trying to get one end of the rope into the noose I prepared at the other end, this from thirty feet of distance and in the dark.

I’m never doing it again.

The spikes directly underneath the rope and window are buried under debris, and Scout helped me haul a few young trees to add to the pile. I’ll still break both legs if I fall, but I will get to starve to death over a few days rather than die instantly from multiple stab wounds.

“Well. You did good,” I tell the squirrel as I softly unglue him from the magical pendant (and trim some of his fur in the process). “Off you go.”

His reward is waiting for him under the tree he designated. He runs off as far as his legs can carry him, circling away from Scout, who is napping and doesn’t even raise an eyelid.

All I have left to do now is reach the rope.

“Here we go.”

I‘m gonna have to ruin my best dagger, but there’s no helping it. If there are no handholds, then I must make some. I climb on the ramp built over the covered spikes, and start my ascension.

Being a thief-taker involves a lot of climbing. Not for every thief-taker, I guess, but for those like me who favor both stalking and having the element of surprise, it’s a mandatory skill. But city walls are much more favorable to being scaled.

It takes me much longer to reach the rope hanging fifteen feet from me than to get from the bottom of the rope to the ramparts. Once up there, I lie down to catch my breath and rest for a while. I listen, too. If the Princess managed to sleep through the ruckus I made, I’ll ask her which sleeping aids she uses.

After ten minutes of hearing no noises whatsoever, I take a deep breath and get back to work. I secure the rope with a proper knot, then lower myself to the window.

Much to my relief, it’s ajar, which allows me to get a leg into the room and on solid ground. Floor. Whatever.

I’ve never been afraid of heights but this is testing me.

I push the window open and peek inside the room. There‘s quite a bit of moonlight. I can make out the shape of various pieces of furniture: a desk, a chair, a circular table in the middle of the room, which seems to take only a quarter of the floor. It is not connected to the second window. The wall facing me is dark – I think there might be a bookshelf there – but I still spot a door on it. There’s another one on my right. No beds, however (not that the room is large enough for one), and not a soul in sight. I’ll have to explo–

Some movement above me, outside, catches my eye. I look up and find myself face to face with a face.

I shriek and tumble into the room.

Persia, what the hell?

I stop flailing like an idiot, roll and point my dagger at the window. The ‘face’ slides down, along with enough dangling ribbons and lace to clothe a whole wedding party. The princess is hanging upside down from the ramparts.

“Sikeo de illa?” she asks.

That… was not what I was expecting. Not that I was expecting a young woman to float down from the sky like some sort of poltergeist.

She wiggles and reaches inside to grab the wall, then drags herself through the window and flops on the floor. She’s not much more elegant getting back to her feet.

Sikeo de illa?” she repeats.

I stare. The words ring a bell but I can’t quite place them. Then it clicks.

That‘s Pyrean, just not the Pyrean I’m familiar with. She‘s using the formal form, which I knew existed but had never heard before. Of course, she’s speaking Pyrean. She was abducted as a baby by a Pyrean witch. Why did I think she would speak Thandin?

So. “Sikeo de illa”. Subtract the verb, remove the honorifics… “Sik‘ la”. She’s asking me if I’m hurt.

I shake my head.

“Sik nen,” I say. “I’m not hurt.”

She gasps and starts babbling in quick Pyrean, so the language barrier can suckerpunch me a little more. She runs to the table and lights a match, then a candle, and then she turns to me as if she expects an answer to the hailstorm of random syllables she just unleashed on me.

“Uh… I, uh, don’t understand,” I wince. “My Pyrean is bad.”

She nods with a grimace, and blurts out a few more words, but this time I recognize the most formal of all formal apologies.

We’re in for a lot of fun…

I point at her.


The name does not seem to mean anything to her. She tilts her head to the side, perplexed. Behind her, her long, fabric-strangled hair braids itself. It‘s quite intricate from up close. You can’t actually see the hair itself: it‘s split in thick braids, which have been wrapped – each of them – in intertwined ribbons. The tips of the braids are decorated with bows and looped fabric embroidered with gold and silver. There’s lace thrown into the mix, and more ribbons, and little gold chains in places. Now, this would give any tailor a stroke, but it’s clear hard work went into it.

She’s quite pretty in the candlelight, despite that.

“Val…Eria… Illa?” she enunciates, her brow knitted in concentration.

She thinks I‘m mangling Pyrean. She doesn’t even know Valerianella is a name.

I change tactics.

I point I’m myself.

“I‘m Persia,” I tell her. “Nim a Persia e.” Wait, no, that’s not formal form. “De.”

She smiles.

“Persia,” she repeats with a little bow.

And then she adds something I suspect means “nice to meet you”.

See, the Pyrean I know is, at this point, basically a whole new language in itself: it’s spoken by beastling immigrants who have been cut from their land for generations. Sometimes, we get a little fresh blood from the other side of the border, and we learn a few new words, but not enough to reconcile the dialect of Thandin cities with the true Pyrean. Also, the main trait of our form of Pyrean is that we took a knife to all of the words that were not strictly necessary to the understanding. Formal Pyrean kept all of these, as well as their kids, grandkids and extended family.

Hopefully, the princess will be able to work with my twenty words of vocabulary of Thandin Pyrean.

“Nim’la?” I try. “Nimeo de illa?”

She brightens up and gestures at herself.

“Mikha de.”

That can’t be right.

“Mikha?” I repeat, in case I heard wrong.

She nods. Her expression darkens when she notices mine. She looks worried, and must be wondering if she said something wrong, but I don’t have the words to explain.

Mikha is not a name. It‘s a word. It means “girl”. It’s what you call a child you don’t know when you try to get their attention. Maybe, if you threw some honorifics at it, it could be translated as “young lady”.

She was never told her own name.

I wonder for a second if bringing back the witch’s head on a pike would earn me a larger reward but, honestly, I would do it for free.

There‘s no way for me to break the news to the princess. Even if I had the vocabulary, I couldn’t find the proper words. My reaction is distressing her, too. I force a smile on my face and mimic her little bow.

“Mikha. Nice to meet you.”

She seems pleased. She pulls a chair back and gestures for me to sit, then grabs the matchbox and speeds through the room, lighting all of the other candles. I sit down awkwardly. Once satisfied with the light, the princess vanishes into another room. She comes back with a pitch of water and two gobelets.

She serves me first, inviting me to drink with an elegant hand wave, then sits on the other side of the table. And looks at me.

“Ah, um,” I mumble, raising my gobelet to my lips. “Thanks. Adank de.”

“Danks,” she whispers to herself. “Adank, danks…”

“Thanks,” I correct her.

“D– Thanks?”

I grin and nod.

Maybe we’ll make do, after all.

“Thanks,” she repeats, beaming.

She is so very pretty. She has pale eyes and pale skin and a thin face with delicate features, yet she doesn‘t have the polish you’d expect from a noblewoman. Her nose and cheeks are sunburned, even peeling. There is an old scar on her cheekbone: not a cut, but the remnants of a deep scratch. Her hands are lithe like a pianist‘s, but her nails bitten bloody. She’s lanky, too, probably too thin, with cheeks too hollow, but that doesn‘t matter: it’s not her looks that make her beautiful (exquisite as her features are), but her vivid, eager expression and her brilliant smile.

She‘s the kind of woman princes would brave a forest of thorns for (which would make sense, for Queen Dawn’s daughter).

I take a sip of water, and then drain the rest of it: I climbed a damn tower and I am thirsty as hell.

But that only takes me about thirty seconds. The silence that follows lasts much longer than that.

I clear my throat.

“Do you live alone?” I ask, which only makes her wince in frustration. “Um.”

The best I can do is list every Pyrean term I can remember, and see if I get a reaction. “Mother”, “where”, “house”. “Family”, “grandma”, “people”. Valerianella gives me her full attention, then bolts. She enters the other room and I hear her rummage through drawers and cupboards.

She comes back carrying a blackboard and a box of multicolored chalk sticks.

She drops it all on the table, babbling in Pyrean.

Then she sits and draws the moon phases. This… is not the concept I was trying to communicate. I wait to see where she is going with it.

She circles the waxing gibbous moon. She doodles an arrow from the circle to nothing. Then she draws a woman in a dress, in the simplest way possible: a triangle, a circle for the head, sticks for the arms. Then she refines it: some hair, with bangs parted in the middle and a high bun. Eyeglasses. A cloak. A mage’s staff. An extremely intricate blue pentagram surrounded with detailed glyphs.

The witch comes once a month.

I nod and take the chalk. I draw two faces: a smiling one and a sad one. Then I add an arrow between the witch and the faces, and point at each other in turn.

The princess erases the happy face and embellishes the other with frowning eyebrows and glasses. She surrounds the witch with books, scrolls and mathematical symbols.

Teacher?” I ask in Pyrean.



“Alright,” I mutter.

I draw an apple, a loaf of bread (or an egg, it’s unclear) and a chicken drumstick with the bone sticking out, then arrows from the witch to the food, and the food to the gibbous moon.

Valerianella shakes her head. She grabs a candlestick, then my hand and pulls me towards the room she got the water from. Unsurprisingly, it‘s a kitchen, as well as the room the second window connects to. The fireplace – still filled with glowing embers – is connected to a chimney that leads to nowhere (I would have noticed the smoke from outside). Valerianella collects a jar from a cupboard and opens it, shoving it under my nose so that I can see that it is empty. She closes it, taps a glyph engraved into its lid, and opens it again. This time, it’s filled with flour. She dips her finger in the flour then licks it clean, to demonstrate the food is safe, then puts the jar away.

I don’t know how this works, but I want one.

I reach for the jar. She lets me take it, not without some puzzlement. I empty the flour into a cooking pot, close the jar, tap the glyph, and feel the jar turn heavier in my hands. So I empty it into the pot, close it, tap the glyph, and do it all over again until the princess yells at me.

She gestures at the cloud of flour floating above the pot, and asks me why the hell I am making such a mess. I don’t need a Pyrean dictionary for that.

I apologise and hand her the jar, which she slams down on a countertop before ushering me out of the kitchen. She sits me back down on my chair like I’m an unruly five year old. Meanwhile, I try my best not to laugh, lest I vex her more.

She sits down facing me. I scratch my neck and give her my meekest smile.

She crosses her arms and glowers at me. I answer with a praying gesture and an apologetic look. That gets her to relax.

I pull the blackboard to me and wipe it off. I’ll need a lot of space for what I have to explain.

First, I draw a girl, with a mane of multicolor strings trailing behind her like a peacock’s train. Valerianella points at herself. I nod. Then I draw a cage around the stick figure, which earns me a look of wary confusion. It fades when I add the outline of a tower around the cage.

Now her expression is hesitant, even afraid. She bites her lower lip. She won’t meet my eyes.

So I draw the canyon and the cliffs, and the grass and trees on the top of the cliffs, and a stick figure with pink hair (there is no red chalk). And then I erase the girl with the colorful braids from the cage, and I place her atop the cliff, next to the pink-haired girl.

Valerianella tenses and moves back in her chair, removing her hands from the table as if it were burning.



Leaving must be a terrifying prospect. What could convince her to follow me?

I draw trees, and trees, and more trees over the two stick figures, then an arrow through that forest. Above the forest, I add houses. The princess is shaking her head and withdrawing more and more.

“What about…” I mutter.


I draw people next to the houses: small people, tall people, people in dresses, people in pants. Children. Dogs. Cats that look like dogs. It’s not much, just basic shapes and lines, but it gets the point across.

If even bandits are afraid to come all the way out here. Has she ever met anyone but the witch?

Sometimes, I wish I could be totally alone, blissfully alone, away from the bustle of the city, from relatives and neighbors and strangers and everything, really. But I would go crazy if it lasted more than a day. Even on my way here, I had Scout.

Valerianella tears up, ever so slightly. The tears well up at the corner of her eyes but don’t quite drop. And, before that can happen, she storms into another room and slams the door.

While I‘m unwelcome, there is no way I am leaving this tower without the princess. Mostly because of the fifty feet climb. Had there been stairs, I would have given Valerianella more space to think. In the current circumstances, I’d rather stay put.

I leave her alone, however. There is no point banging on her door. She’ll need some time to process my offer.

It doesn‘t mean that I cannot plan for our departure. The kitchen, in particular, intrigues me. The endless supply of flour magicked into that jar would prove damn useful on a trip. Not that I am stupid enough to take it with us. The food has to come from somewhere, and the enchanted jar could be used to track us. The flour couldn’t.

There are a few more pots. I test all of them, and put two of them aside: a pot of beans and one of nuts. I hoped there would be some salted meat to be found, but that didn’t pan out. Still, beans and nuts are nutritious.

I explore some more and find a lower floor filled with dusty art supplies. Valerianella did not strike me as the most accomplished artist, so the state of abandonment of her atelier does not surprise me. Discarded musical instruments have been thrown in a messy pile over an old piano. The only part of the room that seems clean is a storage area with trunks filled with bolts of fabric.

Considering her hairdo, I knew she liked to sew, but the materials she has to work with are incredible. Silk brocade of that quality is worth a fortune, and she has several bolts of it. On top of that, there is gold thread, plain silk, and buttons made of mother of pearl and silver.

I snatch everything gold and silver small enough to fit in a purse. Should we be separated on the way to the capital, Valerianella will need money.

Twenty minutes of searching later, I find what I was looking for: thick jute bags that I am going to fill to the brim with food. If the princess can haul her own body weight to a roof with just her hair, she can handle some luggage. Between the two of us and Scout, we should be able to carry enough supplies with us to make it to the closest village.

The sun is rising when Valerianella finally exits her room. She finds me sitting on the floor of her kitchen, stealing her food. I put a bag full of beans next to the window. I’m halfway done filling the bag of hazelnuts.

She joins me, her hair dragging behind her. Half of it remains in the other room.

Hello,” I say in Pyrean.

There’s no answer. She curls up next to me, burying her face in her knees.

Then she speaks, or rather murmurs, sad and tired words I cannot understand. She knows it, but goes on all the same, pouring her heart out. There are a few questions – I catch the intonation, the “illa” ending some sentences – but no pause for me to answer. She doesn’t even look at me.

I reach for her hand and squeeze it.

“Thanks,” she says, lifting her head with a weary smile.

We stay like this for a while.

There’s enough light to take a good look at her, now. In the sunlight, her eyes are blue, with a touch of green at the center. They are also puffy from crying. The tears made her nose even redder than her sunburn.

She pulls her hair back into the room and onto her legs, the whole ten feet of braids and ribbons. There is so much of it that she could roll it around herself and vanish. It moves on its own like silk tentacles and settles more comfortably on her lap.

I wonder if all of that trussing up is meant to make it more solid. Surely, loose, it must be too slick and too thin to serve as extra appendages. The fabric would serve as the chitin on a spider‘s legs. Still, wouldn’t silk be too smooth to get a secure hold on things?

I reach for one of Valerianella’s braids, but she smacks my hand away in horror. Her braids hide themselves behind her back.

“Nen!” she exclaims, in a panic. She goes on in Pyrean, pointing at me, pointing at her hair, and wagging her finger as an interdiction.

I catch one word out of twelve: “magic”, “fire” (burn?), and “ever after”, or at the very least that term used at the end of Pyrean fairy tales. I suppose it translates as “forever” in this case.


I lift my hands and theatrically pull them away from her, to show that I understand.

She relaxes.

One of her thicker braids springs up and grabs a beam above us, then tugs her back to her feet. This is so casual to her and so weird to me. Her neck is something else, just like I thought: it‘s much more muscular than mine, despite all my years of training. Then again, I haven’t spent my entire life carrying fifty pounds on my head. A strict regimen of climbing to the roof would have made her fit, too. Her loose dress hides her frame, and she has feminine curves, but I’m willing to bet that most of her weight is in muscle. Hair excluded.

“Persia,” she calls, returning to the living room. She stops at the door and waits for me to follow.

We return to the blackboard, which she wipes, leaving only the city I drew. At the very bottom of the board, she doodles the two of us. She circles us, and draws an arrow to the city.

I nod.

She doodles us again, this time near to the houses. I grab a chalk stick and add a large house next to the stick figures, and a road from its door to us.

Valerianella hesitates. She runs off to the shelves and comes back with a book. The title is (of course) in Pyrean, which tells me nothing, but it is heavily illustrated, and I realize soon enough that it depicts the capitals of several kingdoms. Valerianella flips through the pages until she finds a picture of a city with the distinctive architectural style of the northern lands. I shake my head and turn the page until I find Millinthe, the capital of Thandyr. I push the book towards Valerianella.

“Dandyr?” she mutters. Her eyes go wide and she points at the ground, the window and the walls. “Dandyreo de illa?”

Yes,” I answer in her language. “Now it is Thandyr.

I go back a few pages in the book, knowing there ought to be a map of the country close by. I find it. Unsurprisingly, it shows the borders as they were twenty years ago. I add a square in chalk for the tower, then cross out the border between Pyreas and Thandyr and redraw in its new location.

“Oh,” she gasps.

She flips back to the illustrations of the city and studies it carefully. Her eyes dart from the page to the blackboard.

Is this it?” she asks, pointing to an image of a temple and the big house I drew.


I move her finger to a regular house in a city street. The gist of it is that she is going home. Explanations about the palace can wait for us to grow a vocabulary.

She drums her fingers on the table. After considering things, she takes the chalk and draws the witch next to the house.

Oh no, that’s not happening.

I erase the witch and draw her on the tower instead.

Valerianella circles herself on the blackboard, then points an arrow from the circle to the tower.

No,” I say.

And I cross the line out.


I wipe the arrow off and draw another one pointing at the house.

Ever after,” I explain, remembering the term from earlier.

There will be no turning back.

She brings her thumb to her lips and chews on her nail.

Ever after.”

She takes a deep breath, composes herself, and looks at me with a determined expression.