Here is a sneak peak of part of the first chapter. Please bear in mind that this is a largely unedited chunk of the book and is intended only to give a taste. Please don’t send me a million grammar critiques. I have an editor who will shortly be hard at work fixing my grammatical short-comings.
Also, please do not copy any of this or repost it anywhere without my expressed written permission. This is my work and I own all rights to it.
Penelope pulled her scarf up before peeking around the corner. The scarf served two purposes: one, it hid her very well-known face and two, it kept her nose from freezing off. Thick, woolen scarves are an absolute must for royal persons attempting to do something outrageous in the dead of winter. It was only a pity that such things were not as useful in the summer months.
The coast was clear. With a final tug to make sure her hood hid her hair, Penelope stepped around the corner into the busy street. With her well-made but nondescript cloak and scarf the princess quickly blended into the crowd of nobles and wealthy merchant class people that thronged Old Saleria’s Market District. Less wealthy shoppers hustled through the snow while the more wealthy’s drivers jockeyed to keep the distance from carriage door to shop entrance as short as possible. Even in the dead of winter, the Market District was a busy, bustling place.
Penelope passed all of the shops without sparing them a glance. She’d been to several of them on many occasions, always with great fuss and fanfare. For Saleria’s princess there was no such thing as a quiet shopping trip, which was one of the reasons for today’s little excursion. No dressmakers, jewelry makers, hat makers or the like today. Penelope walked right past them all, making not-quite a beeline for the eastern of the two gates that separated the older, upper portion of Saleria from the newer, poorer districts. What she was after could be found in the Market District, of course, with less risk to her person, but news of her purchases would get back to her father and that was absolutely the last thing Penelope wanted.
The gates were monstrous creations of iron set in the thick, stone wall between the halves of the city. Once this wall had represented the end of Saleria with the gate being the only thing that separated the city from the wild. Now the gates mostly stood open during the day, closing only at night to keep the riffraff out of the wealthy neighborhoods. In the event of Saleria’s lower walls being breached, they could close the gates and protect the core of the city. It was good, sound military strategy not to remove the gates, according to her father’s military advisors. And perhaps that was true, but to Penelope they represented a deep and disturbing divide in her beloved city.
Once she passed under the gate, the change in the atmosphere was immediate and incredibly jarring. Walking into Lower Saleria from Upper was almost like walking into a completely different city. Unlike the gleaming, orderly shops of the Market District, the buildings in the Lower Market were a jumble. Many of them appeared to be cobbled together from whatever the owners had on hand. Others were heavy, two story brick affairs that sat along a vague grid. These had been built during her grandfather’s reign in an attempt to bring some order and prosperity to the district. Further south many of these were actually tenements her grandfather had designed to get the poor out of the terrible hovels they used to build against Upper Saleria’s walls. Most of those buildings had been taken over by landlords of ill-repute. The poor were once again building hovels, this time outside Lower Saleria’s walls. Her grandfather’s attempts to help the poor, while noble, had backfired miserably.
Penelope shook the thoughts from her head, forcing herself to concentrate instead of where she was going. She carefully navigated her way down a set of stairs roughly chopped into the hillside. While most of the city’s incline was gentle enough not to warrant stairs in the streets it was unavoidable in a few places. The area Saleria was built on sloped up to the spot where the palace was built before dropping away in a breathtaking cliff. Another sound military choice, apparently.
The shop Penelope was looking for was small, its sign worn to the point of being nearly illegible. While most signs in this district were merely pictures for the uneducated, this one was all words carved into a board. Dingy, dirty windows faced the street, but gave no real view to the interior. Unperturbed, Penelope pushed the door open, causing a little bell above to tinkle.
If the outside of the shop was uninviting the inside was the most hospitable place imaginable. A fire crackled merrily in the old pot-bellied iron stove, warming the entire small space. Immediately Penelope felt all the cold and damp melt away, leaving her warm and slightly flushed. Even her toes, frozen in her boots mere moments before, were toasty. Magic and cinnamon spice filled the very air of the shop. Things filled everything else. Shelves and tables were crammed into the shop, leaving only very narrow aisles between them. Interspersed with these were comfy chairs for curling up and reading or sipping steaming mugs of tea. These chairs were faded, frayed and patched, but that only seemed to add to their charm. Then there were the things on the shelves! Books of every kind, jars of powders, amulets, rings, scrolls, feathers, all sorts of wonderful, interesting things. Just being in the shop made Penelope giddy, her eyes bright and wide and curious as a small child in a toy shop.
To the right of the door, in the very front of the chaos, was a neat little counter. Behind it sat a very old, wizened man with wispy white hair. When the door opened the old man looked up from a book he had lying open on the counter. Pulling his reading glasses down his nose a bit he peered over them at Penelope.
“Good to see you, your Highness. It’s been a while.”
And with that he closed the book and stood, making his way around the counter. Pushing back her hood and pulling down her scarf, Penelope moved to meet him. She hugged him carefully, mindful of his frail body.
“It’s good to see you, too. It’s been harder and harder to sneak away these days. I swear, father must have them watching me in my sleep.”
The old shopkeeper frowned.
“You shouldn’t be sneaking around, your highness. It’s not safe for a pretty young girl to be wandering around the Lower Markets by herself.”
“I’m fine, Master Goodleaf, I promise. Father doesn’t understand my desire to learn; he never has. He would be put out if he knew I was still studying magic. Dabbling, as he calls it.”
Master Goodleaf sighed, running one bony hand through the faint wisps of white that still clung faithfully to his mottled old scalp.
“I suppose there’s nothing for it, then. Would you like a cup of tea?”
“I’m afraid I can’t stay long. They’re bound to notice I’m gone. I just need a few things and then I’ll sneak right back the way I came.” She gave the old wizard what she hoped was a reassuring smile. “Hopefully if I reappear quick enough there won’t be too many questions.”
The old man nodded his understanding and waved vaguely at the shelves and tables, indicating that she was free to help herself. That was one of her favorite things about Master Goodleaf; he let her do things for herself. There was no bowing and scraping with him. Respect, yes. And affection. He was like a wonderful, eccentric grandfather, and Penelope had grown to love him dearly. She could only pray her father never found out. While he was generally a good and fair man, Penelope harbored a secret fear that he would retaliate against Master Goodleaf if he found out the old man had been tutoring her in the arcane during her brief visits.
Moving as quickly as she could among the shelves, Penelope found what she needed among the chaos with surprising ease. It was almost as if as soon as she thought about an item it drew her to itself. It was more magic of the shop, she suspected. She found herself standing before a chipped old vase filled with eagle feathers. Selecting two perfect feathers, Penelope smiled. Exactly right, as always.
Setting her intended purchase on the counter, Penelope fished around in her pocket for the few coins she had brought with her. Carrying a purse would have made her a target, especially in the
Lower Markets, so she had settled for carrying just a few coins in a hidden pocket that she’d sewn discretely into her dress.
“Ah, trying some air magic,” Master Goodleaf said, picking up one of the feathers. He ran one crooked finger across the edge of it. “A fine choice of a feather, I must say.” He then took the other feather up and as well, wrapping both together in a package of brown paper held together with just a bit of string. He slide it across the counter to her as she slid a heavy gold coin his way.
“Oh, Princess, I don’t have change for that.” He always said this.
“No change needed.” She always said that, too, a big smile on her face.
Master Goodleaf would shake his head, but he always kept the coin. Once Penelope could have sworn she saw moisture in his eyes. Not this time. This time he was studying her intently.
“It’s you who keeps this shop going, you know.”
“I would have closed up ages ago if it weren’t for you, Highness. You’re the only thing that keeps this place going.”
“But what about all your wonderful things? Your cures? What would people do without the shop?”
“Most don’t even know I’m here. Traveling wizards never find me; most of what they need is available in the Market District. Most of my loyal local customers are dead and gone, or stopped coming since I had to move down here. These last few months I’ve been able to take my cures around to those who need them most, and that’s thanks to you, my dear. I just wanted you to know what it means to this old man.”
“Master Goodleaf, you’ve become like a dear grandfather to me…”
The old shopkeeper put up a hand, forestalling any more words.
“And that is why it pains me greatly to say this, Highness. You must not come here anymore. It is too dangerous. Please, highness, I beg you. You’re safe enough when you’re here in the shop, but there’s a good bit of road between here and gate. It would break my heart if something were to happen to you.”
Penelope reached across the counter and took the old man’s gnarled hand in hers.
“If it means that much to you, I will see about getting an escort.”
Feeling much more subdued, Penelope left the shop after one more goodbye, her hood and scarf once again pulled up to hide her features. She walked back towards the Market District in a haze of preoccupation, her mind running in circles. Who could she trust to escort her down to the Lower Markets? Her new maid, Tiffany, seemed trustworthy enough, but would hardly be the sort of protection Master Goodleaf was hoping for. The palace guard were generally obsessively loyal to her father; the likelihood that one of them would go along with her quietly was essentially nil. Her brother was out, too. As the crown prince his safety was more important than hers. Worse, he’d always been a stool-pigeon. It was as these thoughts swirled around her in and endless game of catch-the-tail that Penelope didn’t noticed the broad back in chainmail just steps in front of her.
“Excuse me,” she gasped, though it was barely intelligible around her thick scarf, when she collided with the solid form. The man’s thick winter cloak and surcoat did little to pad the encounter. Penelope found herself staring up with wide blue eyes at a young city guard who was scowling right back.
“M-my apologies,” Penelope stammered, moving around the guard quickly, but not quickly enough. His gloved hand shot out and grabbed hold of her arm through her cloak, stopping her dead in her tracks.
“What have we got here? Lower Saleria riffraff trying to sneak into the decent folks’ city?” He studied her for a moment, his keen brown eyes taking in the quality of her cloak and the fabric of her dress where it peaked out towards her feet. She could practically feel him counting the petticoats.
“No, I think not,” he said at last, releasing her arm. “What is a well-bred young miss doing in the Lower Markets?”
“Please, sir, I am just a maid for a very well off family. I was sent down here to get something for my mistress.” The lies came quickly to her tongue. After all, this dress was just like the ones she’d had made for Tiffany. It was plausible clothing for a servant of an exceptionally wealthy family. “I’m on my way back and my mistress is expecting me. Please, sir, if I don’t hurry I’ll be in big trouble.”
The man just kept scowling.
“I can’t understand a word you’re saying around that scarf. Speak up girl.”
Before Penelope could react that guard struck out, quick as a flash, and snatched the scarf down from her face. A moment, as thick and tense as any Penelope could remember, followed as the guard stared at her. It only took a second for his eyes to widen.
“Princess,” he whispered.