Vesper was steaming, a bad sign considering she had not started to run yet. She peaked out of the tiny slit in front of her and frowned. Two women sat at the kitchen table eating and gossiping. It was hard to tell which they were doing more of. They had been at it for nearly an hour now, and Vesper lost track.
Are those two old bats ever going to shut their mouths?
She was fairly certain the answer was 'no.'
Vesper had come through the kitchens to avoid being seen. She had not stopped to replace her headscarf, and her clothes were dirty and rumpled. Both were considered improper, especially within the castle walls. And neither would be tolerated by the queen of Sutherland, who was sure to have a fit if she saw her.
"Always dressed like a beggar," her shrill voice sounded in Vesper's head.
Even if she managed to avoid crossing paths with the queen, the servants at the castle's front entrance would notice her passing. They were too good at keeping the queen informed about the comings and goings of the castle for her to attempt it.
The next logical course was to take a longer route down to the kitchens and out the back entrance. It almost worked. Vesper had stopped for only a moment to swipe a piece of bread before she slipped out. It was long enough, it turned out, to be ambushed. Vesper had just enough time to pull herself into a nearby broom closet before the two women entered. And stayed. And stayed.
Vesper closed her eyes and clamped her mouth shut tightly. She was a hair's breath away from running them out of the kitchen with the broom that was wedged uncomfortably between her knapsack and the small of her back.
"She leaves tomorrow, you know," one whispered.
Vesper's eyes fluttered open. The first interesting bit of conversation. As far as she knew, there was only one person leaving the castle tomorrow. Her.
"Oh, I know," the other replied fiercely. "I have been counting down the days. That's one I won't be sorry to see go. I've cleaned up enough of her messes for one lifetime."
"Agatha!" the first squeaked.
"It's true, Constance, and you know it. She's been nothing but trouble. I hope she gets mauled by an Edreax."
Vesper gasped and then clamped a hand over her mouth quickly. Thankfully, Constance inhaled at the same time and covered her slip.
"The High One grant you His mercy and grace!" Constance hissed at Agatha.
Vesper peered out from her hiding place to see Constance crossing herself and mumbling words softly. No doubt the prayer of protection. It came unbidden to Vesper's mind.
O, High One, defend us in battle. Be our safeguard against wickedness. Free us from the snares of your enemy. Protect us always, Hashem, High One, Father of the world.
Vesper blinked slowly.
Will a simple prayer of protection be enough to protect me when I'm standing face-to-face with a beast whose jaw can cut through bone in a single pass?
She tried to shake the thought from her mind, but it refused to budge.
Mauled by an Edreax.
There were few insults worse than that, and very few who were bold enough to use them. Vesper watched the woman as she picked at the crumbs on her plate. Who would say such a thing, and why? Was Vesper really as awful as the servant claimed?
At that moment, the reality of joining the Hamsa hit Vesper squarely in the chest. She was actually leaving. Tomorrow. To be a soldier. What in the world did she know about being a soldier?
Nothing. Nothing at all.
She would be food for Deofel's nasty creatures in no time. Vesper was shaking. Whether it was from anger or fear, she could not tell.
She should do something, anything. Put snakes in Agatha's bed. Loose the pigs in the castle and assign Agatha to clean it. Vesper's temper surged. She should burst out of the closet and beat the shrew over the head with the broom or drag her before the king and demand that she be dismissed from her post. That was the reaction most people would expect from Vesper Sutherland.
Despite her desire for action, Vesper remained frozen in place. It comforted her slightly to see that Agatha's comments had unsettled Constance as well. Constance busied herself around the kitchen but remained quiet. After a few tense minutes, she finally excused herself from the kitchen. Agatha harrumphed but soon followed.
The kitchen was finally empty, but Vesper could not bring herself to move. Had it not been for the scampering of small furry feet over her own, she might have stayed locked away in the broom closet for the rest of her life. Released from her stupor, Vesper swung open the kitchen door and dashed outside. She hated rodents. She secretly hoped the Edreax looked nothing like a mouse. If it did, she was in serious trouble.
"Well, this is no fun," Vesper muttered aloud.
No one stopped her as she climbed a tree near the castle's wall and dropped over it. She was just as invisible in Sutherland village. The streets were practically empty at this hour, and the few people she did see paid no attention to her. She supposed she gave them no reason to be suspicious. In the dim light of the streetlamps, Vesper would look like a boy of 12 years or so and not the young woman of 18 that she was. Although she made sure to keep to the shadows of the sleepy stone houses and shops in the village center, she almost wished someone would notice her, recognize her, and shout an alarm. A chase would have been nice for her last night out.
The wide cobbled street Vesper slinked along led directly to the bridge that crossed the River Prespa and into The Fringe. It was the only paved road in the entire kingdom, an expense the king had taken on gladly. It was the route merchants used when they went to The Fringe to buy and sell goods in the marketplace, a portion of which always went back into the king's coffers.
From this distance, Vesper caught only glittering bits of the river in the moonlight. Most of her view was blocked by shrubs, tree limbs, and the low rock wall separating Sutherland Kingdom from the rest of the valley. Abruptly, Vesper left the well-traveled path, ducking into the forest and turning upstream of the bridge. It was a longer and more difficult route, but she would bypass the troublesome soldiers guarding the bridge.
Hope this detour is less trouble than the last, she thought sullenly.
The River Prespa coursed swiftly and deeply through the Sutherland side of the Anarra Valley. Normally it was only safe to ford late in the year after the spring rains had slackened and the cold in the mountains froze much of the water before it fell into the valley below. Few actually did ford it, however. What needed to cross River Prespa crossed by way of the bridge.
Most people believed the river was impassable at any other place, but Vesper knew better. She had explored all of Sutherland Kingdom in great detail as a child, which was why she could confidently jump the low wall before her and follow a thin dirt trail leading to the water's edge using only the light of the moon. Before her, the River Prespa bent and narrowed in just the right way to make crossing possible—not easy but possible.
Vesper bent to roll up the legs of her pants. She slid off her slipper-like shoes and tucked them into her pack. No sense in getting anything wet if there was no need. The grass stung the bottoms of her feet as she walked to the water's edge. Harvest time was upon them. It would not be long before winter snows blanketed the valley. As usual, Vesper paused to confirm that the large flat stones she used to cross were still in place. She had forgotten to check once before and had no desire to relive the outcome. Just the thought of it made her shiver.
"M-m-mercy and grace!" she whispered fiercely into the darkness.
Vesper's teeth were chattering before she managed to make it to the middle of the river. The water was already as cold as ice, and it lashed viciously at her ankles. She forced herself only to focus on the slippery rock ahead of her and then the next until she was standing safely on the other side.
Hurriedly, she pulled on her shoes, trying as she did to massage warmth back into her toes.
She was close now. Close enough to see candlelight coming from the windows of the nearest houses. Vesper smirked. At least from the houses at the fringe of The Fringe. And there was only one more detour to make before she could find herself tucked comfortably inside of one.
Just ahead was an outcropping of trees. Quickly, she made her way toward her favorite one among them and knelt at its base. She brushed fallen leaves and scattered twigs aside to reveal a small hollow only she and one other soul knew about. Vesper reached into her pack and found Pup. She placed him gently on the hollow's floor and covered him with a cloth that was already inside. She read the note from her pocket once more to be sure she was satisfied with it.
To ease the tears.
The note was signed with her mark, a single star. It was gloriously mysterious, just the way she liked it. If the note was discovered by someone other than the intended recipient, few people would know the toy was meant for the youngest prince of the House of Averill who, she heard, had been crying himself to sleep at night over his loss. And fewer still—only one—would know it was being returned by her.
"That'll do just fine," she said smugly.
She hesitated before reburying the hiding spot. The autumn breeze suddenly whipped through the small hole and lifted a small scrap of paper she had not seen. She caught the floating note with a bit of surprise. She hadn't been expecting anything.
I'm late, but I brought you a present anyhow. You're late, so I had to leave it behind, it read.
In place of a signature, there was a small sketch of an open book with its pages fluttering under the force of an invisible breeze. Lore's mark. She poked her head into their secret spot again. Empty except for Pup. He must have left the present with Rolf and Dottie. It was just as well. That was where she was headed.
Vesper covered the hole and stood to leave. Try as she might, she could not pull herself away. Instead, she lingered beneath the familiar branches of the tree. She knew their twists and bends as well as she knew her own hands. A sudden wave of guilt washed over her. If Lore left his present behind, the meeting was already over. There would be no saying good bye to him. She reached for their tree and rubbed the smooth silvery bark.
"Take care of him," she whispered.
It was silly to ask a tree for protection, but desperate people often do desperate things. Without a backward glance, Vesper hurried toward the cheery cottage at the other end of the fringe of The Fringe.
Beautiful as ever, Vesper marveled as she picked her way across The Fringe.
No matter how many times she laid eyes on the unassuming village, it amazed her. Even at this time of night, something magical seemed to float on the wind.
The Fringe was called Lemnes in the old way though few used that name for it. According to legend, Lemnes was shaped by the sons and daughters of First Man and First Woman. If that were true, it was the oldest place made by human hands in the Anarran Valley. Sutherland Kingdom was built later when the rolling plains south of River Prespa called to the shepherds and farmers. Averill Kingdom was founded even later still.
It was safe to say that Vesper was not among the strongest believers of Hashem in Sutherland Kingdom. Their relationship was complicated, and it had everything to do with hourglass that hung around her neck. When she was in The Fringe though, in the land between two warring kingdoms, strange feelings bubbled up inside of her. It was nothing she could name. She just felt… different. Despite her own thorny relationship with Hashem, The Fringe was a place where the High One seemed to really care about His children and would make good on His promises. She could almost believe in the miracles, signs, and wonders that were spoken of in the Book of Truth.
Sometimes Vesper wondered if she imagined her feelings. No one else talked about The Fringe the way she did. If they felt something when they walked through the old city, they must have brushed it aside. Her own father talked of Lemnes, The Fringe, as if the village were an old hunting dog. No longer useful but cherished nonetheless because of the memories it held and the services it rendered. To some, it was nothing more than a place where fashionable young couples could be married or defiant youths could wander in search of the fragments of Malcolm Averill's rebellion, the one that had split the kingdom in two so many centuries ago.
Perhaps that was unfair. People from both kingdoms, including her father, did value The Fringe but only because it was the sole place for trade between the kingdoms. Sutherlanders and Averillians refused to trade directly, so merchants from The Fringe acted as middle men. Violence was strictly forbidden within the village. It made it a safe place to exchange goods and services.
"Home, sweet home," she whispered as Rolf and Dottie's stone-walled cottage came into view.
It was tucked behind a low picketed fence and filled with tenderly cared plants. Although she couldn't see it from where she stood, Vesper knew Rolf's garden in the back must look the same. Rolf was a trader by day, but his heart was tied to the depths of the earth.
"Evening, star," Rolf called warmly as he opened the door for her.
Vesper rolled her eyes in response. She had been named after the time of prayer marking the day's end, the time the stars of the evening began to dot the sky.
"Seems the pie will be better than the entertainment. That joke has been old since the first time you used it, Rolf."
He smiled broadly beneath a beard that was more gray than brown. Not even the creases around his blue eyes could stop them from twinkling. Rolf gathered Vesper up in a warm hug.
"Well, I hope you don't mind my jokes. There's no pie left."
Vesper pulled away.
"No pie?" she croaked. It was a horrible thought.
"Rolf!" Dottie fussed as she came to the door. "Leave the poor girl alone. You know I wouldn't let her go without. I baked an extra one especially for you two to share."
Vesper exhaled in relief. Dottie kissed her on the cheek, and Vesper caught a whiff of lemon and rosemary, Dottie's signature scent.
"Apple, of course," Dottie said. "Still warm from the oven."
Dottie wiped her hands on her apron and smiled. Vesper smiled too and rubbed at a smudge of flour on Dottie's cheek.
"New fashion trend?"
Dottie's smile turned into a soft laugh.
"I'm ahead of the rest of the ladies for once."
Which Vesper knew mattered little to Dottie. Her body had softened over the years. She was rounder and more wrinkled, but it didn't seem to faze her. Somehow that made Dottie more beautiful than the courtly ladies Vesper was used to seeing.
"Well, I like it," Rolf mused as he moved around Vesper to sweep his wife into his arms. "You look good enough to eat."
Both Dottie and Vesper groaned.
"Come in, dear, and I'll cut you both a slice of pie." She cocked her head toward Rolf. "Maybe if his mouth is full, we won't have to listen to more food-related humor."
"Was it… in bad taste?"
Rolf wore a solemn look on his face, but his eyes gave him away. They gleamed with mischief.
Vesper laughed in spite of herself. If The Fringe was her favorite place to be in the world, Rolf and Dottie were her favorite people in it. She had known them for years now—five, almost six. She met them the day she joined the Emissaries at Lore's urging. They were its founders although the small group they started to spread peace between the kingdoms had long been a thing of the past. Now there were near two dozen members from all walks of life who carried out the stealth diplomacy for which they were known. Retrieving lost toys was only a tiny part of their job description.
"The crew left not long ago," Dottie was saying as Vesper pulled herself into the present. "They wanted to wish you well but were afraid to stay out too late."
Secrecy was always of the utmost importance to the Emissaries. If anyone found out who belonged or why they "dabbled" in world affairs as the King of Averill put it, they could be tried for treason in their respective kingdoms—and sentenced to death. It was a great risk the pair took week after week. If Vesper had not witnessed their involvement firsthand, she would find it hard to believe the softhearted people in front of her were at the helm of a secret organization illegal outside of The Fringe.
Vesper watched as Dottie settled them all into thick slices of apple pie with fresh whipped cream, which had probably come from May the cow out back. She looked at her plate. They were Dottie's finest—delicate dishes rimmed with yellow and orange flowers—and Vesper's favorite.
"What did I miss at the meeting?" Vesper asked.
"Not much," Rolf answered. "Averill Kingdom's threatening to stop selling milk from their herds if Sutherland does not bring more grain to market. It's been a dry year, and Averill needs winter feed for the animals."
"What's being done about it?"
Rolf shoveled another large bite into his mouth. He chewed it thoughtfully for several moments before answering.
"Malcolm and Lord Symond are working their connections to speed up the negotiations. Needless to say, our business has picked up from merchants on both sides anxious to get rid of their wares before they rot at home."
Dottie and Rolf ran a respectable business, but they were well-known in the right circles for having access to hard-to-get items in tough times. Not really a black market per se; it was simply the natural outcome for people as well connected as the duo before her.
"What can I do to help?"
Vesper was about to add 'before I leave tomorrow' but had the good sense to shut her mouth.
"Nothing, star. We've got it covered. You've got more important things to think about," Rolf said gently.
Vesper swallowed her mouthful of pie with difficulty. Not even the sweetness of cinnamon and honey could cover the bitterness that had crept into the back of her throat.
"I just thought maybe—"
"Don't worry about us," Dottie said soothingly. "We'll make it somehow."
Vesper was not worried about how they would make it. She was worried about how she would. She cleared her throat roughly.
"Lore mentioned he left something for me."
"I almost forgot!" Dottie's sweet voice sang. "A belated birthday present. Thoughtful, isn't he?"
Vesper looked up at Dottie. Her face was so full of sunshine that Vesper couldn't help but smile back.
"He's never sent me a birthday present before," Vesper said.
"Rolf, be a dear and fetch it for her."
"But I haven't finished my pie yet!" he protested—almost too forcefully. Vesper had seen this act before and had no doubt where it would lead. She was sure Dottie knew too, but his wife said nothing and played along.
"I'll cut you another piece if you'll go," Dottie said with a good-natured sigh.
Rolf winked at Vesper at the success of his trickery.
"Anything for you, darling."
He pulled his large, solid frame from the simple wooden chair and disappeared out of the kitchen into their bedroom.
"Close your eyes, Vesper," he called.
"Why do I have to—"
She stopped when she saw Dottie nodding encouragingly, which sent the graying curls that had come loose from her pinned hair flying.
"Any guesses?" Rolf asked.
"As to what it is? I haven't got a clue," Vesper answered honestly.
A minute or two passed. Rolf did not reappear.
"Come on, Rolf. Don't torture me," Vesper shouted.
He chuckled. She heard his heavy booted footsteps on the stone floor. Then she felt him beside her, and he pushed something close to her nose.
"Any guesses now?"
Vesper inhaled deeply and almost choked. Flowers. And not just any flowers. That scent was from a prized flower that grew in King Geoffrey of Averill's cave garden and nowhere else. Lore's father's garden as it happened. Their rarity was enough to make them a wonderful gift, but it was the significance behind them that brought tears to the corners of her eyes. He'd sent flowers—these flowers—only once before. She had gotten one shortly after the first time they met.
She opened her eyes and blinked several times to be sure the sight in front of her was true. It was a bouquet overflowing with pink blossoms as soft and full as the skirts of her sisters' ball gowns.
"They're beautiful," she whispered. She fingered a blossom delicately and willed the memories attached to them to stay buried until she could be alone.
Rolf whistled, and Vesper jumped slightly.
"Young Prince Lore is getting rather bold with age. He must have stripped a whole bush to get that many flowers."
"It won't cause any trouble, will it?" Vesper asked as she jerked her head toward him.
Rolf made a good point. Getting caught with these flowers could very well start the war they were trying to avoid. It was not like she could—or would—ever tell King Ronan that an Averill prince had given them to her. Fraternization with the enemy was an absolute no-no. If the flowers weren't freely given, the obvious conclusion would be that they were stolen. King Geoffrey Averill would accuse King Ronan Sutherland of entering his kingdom unannounced. Troops from both kingdoms would march to defend the honor of their king. Blood would be shed. Over flowers.
Rolf hesitated, but Dottie quickly scooped up her hand.
"'Course not, dear. King Geoffrey has so many plants in his garden that he probably won't even notice the blooms are gone."
Dottie shot Rolf a look Vesper did not understand. Vesper frowned, unsure whether Dottie's optimism about the situation was how it would play out in truth. She couldn't worry about it now. What was done was done. Vesper could only hope for the best and trust Lore to handle the situation without her.
"The pie was delicious as usual, Dottie," Vesper said. "Let me help with the dishes."
After some fussing, Dottie finally relented. Vesper supposed it must be a little awkward for Dottie. Few princesses dined with folk outside of their castles and even fewer offered to do dishes, but with Rolf and Dottie, she only wanted to be Vesper. If that meant the occasional washing of dishes or weeding the garden, she was happy to oblige. Most of the time, Dottie and Rolf relented. They had no children of their own and loved visits from her, Lore, and the rest of the Emissaries.
Vesper breathed in deeply as she scrubbed a particularly stubborn dish. Well, she would not be able to visit any longer, but she hoped Lore and the others would. She had to make it a point to write Lore and tell him so.
A dark mood was settling over Vesper like a heavy cloak. She was losing too much too fast for her to shake off the sadness easily. She needed to run, run to think about her problems or perhaps just run to get away from them. Instead of ruining her final moments with Rolf and Dottie, she readied herself to leave.
Dottie kissed her on both cheeks softly, and Rolf walked her to the door.
"What's in here? Rocks?"
He was carrying her knapsack of thieved books as well as the bouquet of flowers.
"Books," she murmured as she kicked the dust at her feet.
Rolf watched her but said nothing. He simply helped her into the pack and saw her to the gate before giving her the flowers.
"Prince Lore left something else for you."
He reached into the pocket of his shirt and handed her a note. Jubilee looked at it in surprise. This was a true letter, complete with creamy envelope and her full name—not the mark of the star—written in flowery script on the front. It had been years since she had received more than a scrap of paper from him.
"This is from Lore?" she asked.
"Took it from him myself and promised to deliver it."
Vesper shrugged her shoulders more casually than she felt and shoved it unopened into her own pocket. There would be time for it later.
Rolf cleared his throat and squinted up at the sky.
"We weren't sure if you'd come tonight, Vesper. I'm glad you did," he finally said. There was a sadness in his voice that Vesper hated to hear.
"Don't mention it. I'll try to come again in the morning. You know, before—"
There was that word again. Before. Before her whole world changed.
Rolf smiled, but his eyes lacked their typical sparkle. Rolf pulled her into his arms. Strong arms from years working his gardens. Safe arms. He ran a large hand over her dark hair.
"Return the books, Vesper," he whispered and kissed her forehead. "It's not Master Hutton's fault."
She swallowed hard and left before she came completely undone.