By John C. Tremblay
Crystal Meadows was frills deep in a bog of hungry mud.
Had she willingly departed from Oldport to ride with the Lord whose disposition was as sour as his stench, she would’ve swallowed her pride and sent for help. But since she’d been kidnapped, all she could do was pray to Annūté she escaped—without shaming the guild in the process.
“It’s already the tenth of Summersend, and my son is still wavering,” Lord John Thomas Lousen II growled, “You must speak with him; make him see the error of his ways.”
Crystal pretended she was dealing with a rational patron. “Your Lordship, we have a number of mothers better suited for such tasks. As I tried to explain before you…”
Took? Forced? Threatened? No, he was combative enough.
“… enlisted my services; I’m only an apprentice.”
Lord Lousen’s nostrils flared and his pungent odor filled the rumbling coach. He reached into an ermine trimmed bag. Crystal flinched, expecting a dagger; he drew out instead a thin piece of willow wood.
He handed it to her and said, “You’ve got the tools now, so you have no excuses. As soon as we arrive at my manor house, I expect you to get to work.”
Crystal feigned a smile and tried to stave off panic.
All she knew how to do with a wand was enchant brooches with messages. If she didn’t figure something out by the time they reached Leeksenborough, she wouldn’t be carrying wood back to the guild house—it would be carrying her.
“Let me go!” Edwyn Bryce Lousen screeched. “I’ll drown myself before I let that tyrant dictate the pathways of my future.”
Crystal lost her grip on his tunic. Edwyn bolted into the nymph-adorned fountain in the center of the patio.
“Eeeeeeeeewww, it’s cold,” he wailed.
Crystal raised an eyebrow; surely he wasn’t serious.
“Edwyn, can’t we discuss this?”
“No!” he snapped. “With the sugar roses as my witness, I submit to my watery demise.”
He took a deep breath and thrust his face into the knee-deep water. Crystal smoothed her puffy pink uniform.
If she wanted them to chat, this tantrum had to end.
She walked towards him and pretended to trip, thereby pushing him over. He shrieked and flailed wildly before springing up out of the fountain and sitting on the sandstone surround to sulk.
“You should be more careful,” he grumbled as he looked down at his drenched clothing. “I could’ve been killed.”
Good. He valued his life again. That was a start.
“Sorry; walking in these boots is murder. But since you’re all right, can you at least tell me why you won’t marry Mirabella? You’re not cousins, so you won’t violate the Queen’s decree concerning relationships between family members that aren’t at least three generations removed. And from what I hear, she’s kind, has a great personality, and makes one hell of a mincemeat pie. There are worse things to look for in a wife.”
“I don’t care,” he huffed. “And if you force my hand, I’ll do something drastic . . . I’ll plunge to my death.”
He stood up on the ledge. “I’ll do it. I’ll jump.”
Well, Godmother Gloria always said if people speak only in drama, then drama is how you have to speak to them.
“Oh the tragedy! It must be a cruel bleak world for you. Living the lie. Indulging in the forbidden fruit. Loving only that which you cannot have: The embrace . . . of a strong . . . man.”
Edwyn froze, his eyes wide.
“Don’t worry. I figured it out on my own. It’s the magic,” Crystal said quickly.
Magic indeed. More like the love struck way he stared at his manservant as they walked out to the gardens.
“You’ve got to help me,” Edwyn begged, jumping down from his pedestal and dropping to his knees. “If my father finds out, he’ll kill me! And if I don’t marry and bear him an heir by my eighteenth birthday, he’ll lose his lands and the Queen will execute us in one of her games. But I can’t endure this pain any longer. I need to be with my beloved.”
Edwyn clutched the hem of her dress and sobbed. Crystal rubbed his shoulder reassuringly. Apparently godmothering Edwyn wouldn’t involve just arranging a happy ending, but also preventing a foul one too.
Crystal stood in Lord Lousen’s study, waiting for his answer, and trying to hide her discomfort.
If it was only his stench or his temper, she would’ve had an easier time, since she was trained to save face in a multitude of stressful situations. But in this case it was self-doubt eating at her. She couldn’t imagine how she would even survive this forced assignment, much less succeed in it.
“That’s your plan?” Lord Lousen snapped. “Hold a ball? Can’t you think of anything less gimmicky?”
Crystal forced a smile, her cheeks aching from the effort.
“But, your Lordship, imagine it. Mirabella walks in. Edwyn stops, swoons, and proposes in front of everyone. Surely even the Queen would deem it a painting-perfect moment worthy of your noble house.”
The man scratched his silver-streaked beard. Crystal looked around to avoid meeting his gaze. Rosewood shelves, gilded fireplace, fixie-dusted great bear—they would’ve been more awe-inspiring if most of the guild’s well-to-do patrons didn’t use the same items to impress visitors.
“And what if he doesn’t pick Mirabella?”
Drat. She was afraid he might ask that.
“Oh, I’m sure such a thing would never come to pass,” Crystal said nonchalantly. “But we could invite others of noble birth, as a precaution. Then if things didn’t work out quite as planned, Edwyn’s choice would still meet the Queen’s requirements.”
“But I want him to marry Mirabella!” Lord Lousen roared, slamming his fist on the arm of his chair. “I promised her mother I would arrange things,” he continued, with a softer voice. “I don’t want to let Eglantine—err—Lady Silversmith down.”
“Yes, of course. But if you want Edwyn to feel confident about this idea, you have to let him believe it’s his decision.”
Lord Lousen puffed up his chest. “Fine. Edwyn can have his ball. But on one condition. Mirabella hasn’t worn her corset for the past week, spouting some nonsense about a sensitive stomach. I want you to magic her into the most beautiful woman there. I don’t care how. Turn the others into trolls if you have to.”
Crystal forced another smile. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.
“Godmother,” Crystal interrupted.
“With that outfit? Keep dreaming,” Butch countered. “Point is, just because I give a whole new meaning to manservant, doesn’t mean I’d don a dress and heels. And suggesting otherwise is insulting.”
Edwyn’s eyes welled and he buried his head in a pile of rose-scented silk pillows to stifle his sobs. Butch hmphed, crossed his arms, and leaned against the rosewood bedpost.
The only way her plan would work was if Crystal had Butch’s help; and if the emotional tug of watching Edwyn have a breakdown wouldn’t sway him, then perhaps reason would.
“Butch, I know it’s asking a lot of you, but think for a moment,” she said, hoping her authoritative tone would compensate for how closely her ruffles matched those on the bedspread. “You’re from a noble Elven family; and the Queen will honor same-sex marriages performed on The Blessed Isle, even if she won’t allow such unions to be performed in Ratrilpot.”
Butch put his hands on his hips.
“And what of Mirabella?”
“No offense to her, Hon, but no one would blame me for picking you instead,” Edwyn said with a sniffle.
“And the heir I’m supposed to bear you?”
“Magic? Adopting a babe from the Boot House orphanage? We’ll figure it out.”
Butch rolled his eyes.
Crystal took a deep breath.
A rational argument wasn’t going to win him over either. That left her little choice. Crystal aimed the wand at him, ignoring the fact that a bow-wearing bunny looked more threatening than she did.
“I could force you.”
Butch turned as pale as the nude marble statues flanking the door.
“Fine. I’ll do it,” he grumbled. “But I won’t be happy about it; and Edwyn better make it up to me later.”
Edwyn bounced up and threw his arms around the manservant. Butch stuck his tongue out and tickled Edwyn mercilessly.
Two visits down. One to go.
Crystal looked Mirabella over again and formulated her strategy. It wasn’t that Lady Silversmith’s daughter was ugly; more like uncommonly plain. If Crystal wanted to make Lord Lousen happy, Mirabella had to look like a goddess.
“Are you sure about this?” Mirabella asked, turning the color of the potted fig in the corner of her guest suite. “Couldn’t you slap a wig on me and paint my face instead?”
Crystal bit her lip.
It was normal for folks to be a little apprehensive before getting enchanted, but it was usually nervous excitement rather than quiver-inducing fear.
Did Crystal seem that unsure of herself?
She placed her hand on Mirabella’s shoulder.
“It’ll be fine, she said. “The spell is only temporary.”
(Then Crystal took a step back, steeled her nerves, and aimed the wand, knowing the magic would work only if she believed in the story wanted to tell.)
No more ugly duckling.
No more ugly duckling.
Taffy scented snowflakes wisped out of the wand’s tip and surrounded Mirabella. Her pale skin glowed; her purple dress twinkled; her braids came alive and chirped a jaunty tune.
Mirabella’s neck elongated, improving her lackluster shape. But then it continued growing…
“What’s happening?” she called out.
“It’s nothing,” Crystal lied, trying to sound confident, “just part of the spell.”
But considering how Mirabella was changing, Crystal needed more than confidence to fix this mess.
She needed a miracle.
“Where’s Mirabella?” Lord Lousen asked, looking over the crowds from the dais on the far end of the ballroom.
“I’m not sure,” Crystal replied. “Perhaps she’s waiting to make a grand entrance.”
. . . or an exit from the room I locked her in.
His Lordship scowled, wriggled in his chair, and squeezed Lady Silversmith’s hand. Despite his grumblings and Crystal’s guilty conscience, the ball was going well.
Ratrilpot’s enchanted road system had enabled ladies from as far away as Oldport and Seascape to attend the last-minute event; and Edwyn took turns dancing with everyone, so as not to seem to be playing favorites. It was only at ten minutes to midnight that a new lady entered the mix and kept him all to herself.
Of course, Butch’s Elven heritage made him a perfect choice for the disguise. Add make-up, an exquisite dress and accessories, and you had the loveliest lady at the ball. All he had to do to remain convincing was keep silent; he’d acquired his nickname from his baritone.
“No,” Lord Lousen mumbled. “Something’s wrong.”
Lady Silversmith put her hand on his to calm him. “Don’t fret, Snugglemuffin. It takes time for a girl to ready herself.”
“Well, you didn’t take that long,” he replied, bringing her hand up to kiss it. “And look how radiant you are. Why, I had to tell everyone you were unavailable to keep the suitors away.”
Crystal turned away to avoid forcing another smile. Lady Silversmith was a gangly stick figure with a unibrow, a sour disposition, and a silver coif that resembled a dead squirrel. Sadly, mud was more radiant.
His Lordship’s chair fell backward with him stuck inside. After letting him wriggle like an upturned pill bug for a moment, three of his stewards righted it again.
“The ball’s almost over; where is Mirabella?” Lady Silversmith snapped.
“Yes, Crystal, where is she?”
The doors burst open and a purple swan scrambled into the room, chased by four bearish guards.
Crystal looked over to Edwyn. Butch gave him a quick kiss and then pushed through the crowd towards the exit.
“Maybe she got cold feet,” Crystal said, watching as the swan bounced from powdered wig to powdered wig. “But does it matter? Edwyn seems to be smitten.”
“It’s a trick!” His Lordship hollered. “Guards, block the exits!”
Butch slipped out just before they closed the doors. Edwyn screamed and held up a red ruby-encrusted slipper. Everyone stopped, including the angry swan.
“I shall only marry the one whose foot fits this shoe,” he said solemnly. “And if you try to make me do otherwise,” he continued, holding up a spoon in his other hand, “I shall cut my throat.”
The swan honked a horrible wailing cry and attacked Crystal. She caught it by the neck before it gouged out her eyes, but she was barely able to control the bird.
The guards pulled the swan away. Crystal turned towards Lord Lousen, whose face looked like a giant pimple about to explode.
Lady Silversmith stood up first and grabbed Crystal by the wrists. “For the last time, you impudent witch, where is my daughter?”
Crystal sighed and motioned towards the swan.
Light sparkled around the swan. Feathers blasted off its body in a whirlwind. The guards panicked and bolted. Lady Silversmith wet herself. His Lordship’s chair fell backwards again. The honking became sobbing. The beak became a nose. The wings became arms. The skin turned pale.
The spell was broken.
Mirabella was human once more.
Lady Silversmith burst into tears and threw her arms around her daughter. Lord Lousen’s stewards yanked him upright and held him back.
“My son isn’t the only one whose throat will be cut tonight,” he growled.
An hour later, Crystal tugged against the shackles in the dark musty broom closet that served as her cell.
“I should’ve known I couldn’t pull this off,” she muttered.
As if to confirm her statement, footsteps echoed in the hallway. There was a pause, some rustling, and then the door handle turned.
To Crystal’s surprise, it wasn’t Lord Lousen, returned to carry out his death threat. It was a candle-wielding Mirabella, and there were tears in her eyes.
“You have to help me,” she whispered, squeezing inside and closing the door.
“Help you? Mirabella, I almost killed you!”
“I’m not mad at you for what you did. I was just worried it would cause harm to . . .”
She looked down and touched her stomach gently. Crystal paused before answering.
“How long has it been?” she asked.
“Long enough that if I do not marry soon, there will be no saving us. You know what they do to a woman who taints a noble bloodline.”
Ratrilpot’s Queen had made the last poor offender a participant in Faux Wife and the Seven Forks. Messy didn’t even begin to describe the aftermath.
“I’ll do anything to help you convince Edwyn,” Mirabella continued, tears leaking down her freckled cheeks. “I don’t care if our marriage is all for show. I don’t care if we have separate lovers and lives. I just want my little one to be safe.”
Crystal took a deep breath.
She wished she had never been introduced to Lord of Leeksenborough, never been kidnapped, and never been forced into this impossible situation.
But even if she’d been freed this instant, she wouldn’t have abandoned Mirabella or Edwyn. Godmothers helped people; and regardless of whether or not Crystal would ever be one, she knew helping these poor unfortunate souls was the only way she could be true to the part of her that wanted to be a godmother in the first place.
“I’ll convince Edwyn and Butch,” she whispered, “but you have to convince your mother to free me and go through with the ceremony. It’s the only way Lord Lousen will agree to it. Deal?”
Mirabella nodded. “Deal.”
A day later, Crystal fidgeted in her seat next to Lord Lousen in the Great Hall, while Edwyn repeated his wedding vows. He hadn’t needed much convincing; the boy loved big events as much as he loved deceiving his father.
Yet despite that success, Lord Lousen was staring at Crystal as though his gaze could flay her. He didn’t want her alive; didn’t want her released; and most definitely didn’t want to follow her suggestion about the old customs. But thanks to Mirabella’s persuasive efforts, Lady Silversmith didn’t relent.
Mirabella would wear the opaque veil as her mother had done on her wedding day; and Edwyn would remove it in the anteroom, where they’d consummate their marriage. Only when that was done would the couple rejoin their guests.
“I don’t trust you,” Lord Lousen whispered to Crystal, “That’s not Mirabella.”
The Elven minister finished a short monologue. The veiled bride nodded.
“It’s tradition,” Crystal whispered back. “It’s not my fault the nobility has problems marrying off their daughters, so they’ve made it ‘romantic’ to wed someone you can’t see until afterward.”
“Let us pray for Annūté to bless this couple,” the minister continued.
The congregation recited the Prayer of Loving Harmony. Lord Lousen grabbed Crystal’s arm and squeezed. Crystal stifled a scream.
“Tradition, indeed. You just know once the ceremony ends, there’s no way to annul the wedding unless Death claims one of the participants.”
The prayer concluded and the minister wove two lightlilies together. When the buds touched, a bright light bathed the couple in an almost mystical glow, and a scent like a cross between a flower and an impending thunderstorm almost overtook Lord Lousen’s musk.
Edwyn winked at Crystal. Lord Lousen hmphd.
“We are trying to conduct a wedding,” the minister chided. “Surely this can wait.”
“No. It’s time to stop this.”Lord Lousen heaved himself up.
Lady Silversmith flushed. “Darling, sit down!”
“This was a mistake,” Lord Lousen continued, advancing towards the couple. “I warned you the godmother would betray us, but you insisted we let her have her way. Now they’re making fools of us! And I will not let my sissy son defile the family name in this sham ceremony.”
“Father, please!” Edwyn pleaded. “You wanted me to marry. Don’t take that away from me.”
Lord Lousen smacked him, knocking him down. The bride backed away. Crystal threw herself in front of him.
“Let them be!” she snapped.
His Lordship grabbed her, tossed her to the floor, and charged at the bride. She struggled, but Lord Lousen snatched the veil before she could get away.
Lady Silversmith shrieked and fainted. Mirabella grabbed the veil back and slapped him.
“Sit your fat ass down, Daddy Dearest, and apologize to my husband!”
Lord Lousen froze. The guests murmured amongst themselves. Crystal smirked.
So far, so good.
A week later, Crystal and company stood in the foyer, waiting for the Royal Magus to finish his assessment of Mirabella.
“She is with child,” Drendyn said, “but something is amiss.”
Crystal held her breath. Lord Lousen scowled.
“I knew there was treachery in my house! It’s all her fault,” he bellowed, pointing at Crystal. “Ever since I hired her, she’s been scheming to have my lands revoked.”
“Father, that’s nonsense!”
“Hold your tongue!”
“Is this true?” Drendyn asked in a silencing tone.
Crystal swallowed hard.
Although he looked grandfatherly and smelled of bergamot and peppermint; Drendyn was not the type of man you’d hug. His sparkling blue eyes pierced through her, as if he could see her every blunder.
“No, Your Grace. The wedding was conducted according to Ratrilpot law. All I have to gain is my freedom.”
“Lies! Lies! Lies! Knowing that vixen, she cast a spell to make it seem like Mirabella was pregnant.”
Drendyn asked Mirabella to show her stomach. Wedged in her belly button was a small crystal orb.
“There! You see! Enchantments!”
“It’s a blessing,” Crystal countered. “And I’d be honored if you’d inspect it to judge how I fared.”
Drendyn lifted his hand, and the jewel plopped out of Mirabella’s belly button and rose into the air. He studied it for a moment and nodded.
“No worries; all is as it should be. My hesitation is only that your son, his bride, and their servants do not yet have their own manor house. Surely, you haven’t forsaken the custom allowing a new couple to raise their family without parental interference.”
Lord Lousen turned as red as Lady Silversmith’s garishly rouged cheeks.
“Of course not. What was I thinking? I’ll have a suitable dwelling built at once. In the mean time, I’ll stay elsewhere, so my son may enjoy his privacy.”
“Good. Now pay the Godmother the standard fee for her troubles, plus overtime for having stayed past the wedding, and I’ll officially recognize the union.”
Lord Lousen turned pale. Edwyn and Mirabella snickered. Drendyn smirked.
“Is there some problem, John Thomas?”
“No. No. Of course not,” he squeaked.” I’ll see to it at once.”
“You did very well for an apprentice Godmother,” Drendyn said as the manor house door slammed behind them.
“I wasn’t sure if you could read the message, given I was only trained to enchant brooches. Or even if you could that you wouldn’t arrest us.”
“It’s not my place to pass judgment on how adults carry on in their private lives. The Queen’s decree requires only that noble couples be married by the male’s eighteenth birthday and the wife be with child. Edwyn and Mirabella meet those criteria.”
He paused for a moment as the steward opened the carriage door. Crystal climbed in and sat down.
“However,” he continued, “it does make it easier for me to deal with situations justly when I have all the facts, and for that I thank you.”
“I’m just glad Edwyn, Butch, and Mirabella all wound up happy; and I get to return to the guild house to continue my training.”
“So this experience hasn’t soured you on becoming a Godmother?”
“It almost did,” she said softly, “But this week I helped three people who had no one else to turn to. With more training, I could help a lot more; and hopefully make sure folks like Lord Lousen and Lady Silversmith get more of what they deserve too.”
Drendyn smirked, while giggling outside the coach indicated the aforementioned couple had left the manor.
“I’m glad to hear as much; but don’t think you failed on that last account. Since the decree about three generations of inter-family relations doesn’t go into specifics, I couldn’t be faulted for deeming John Thomas and Eglantine to be relatives and therefore ensure they’re forbidden passion be more explosive in its consequences than they realized.”
Crystal looked out the carriage window to see Lord Lousen rolling across the courtyard with a trail of smoke billowing behind. Lady Silversmith raced over to help him up; but when she took his hand, there was another Boom! and he tumbled further away.
Drendyn smirked again and settled into his cushion for the trip home.
Crystal did the same.
Though the road ahead might be bumpy, with obstacles and encounters not of her choosing, there was no reason Crystal couldn’t, shouldn’t, and wouldn’t make the best of the ride.