They say I’m a curse on my father’s kingdom.
Worse than a blight on their crops, worse than a great storm or siege: I am a lesson, a child born with the twisted tint of magic in my soul. I was sent to my father to show him that he had not done enough in ridding the kingdom of the old traditions from before his people took over. I was sent to show him he had failed.
I am the worst disgrace a parent could imagine, but not because of anything I have done; rather, because of what I am. Immutable, unstoppable, from the moment of my birth to the day I die, I will always be a monster. Never just Princess Cecily, never a ruler or lover or parent of my own. Just this. This thing that I am.
Princess Cecily hurried through the village streets, pulling her shawl tightly around her shoulders. There was no point in hiding her face. The other villagers knew her only as one of them—a commoner, dressed in a peasant’s clothing, with only a small rock attached to her finger to show her ‘common’ status. The world had never heard of a princess named Cecily because her very existence was a well-kept secret from all but a chosen few. The only real danger, then, was running into one of those chosen few on the street.
Which had, in fact, happened before. She grimaced and pulled the shawl up over her head like a cloak. Better safe than sorry.
You’re cutting it kind of close, said Ben in the back of her head.
“I know, I know,” she muttered. “I’m sorry—I just got so caught up in the performance!”
As long as you make it in time, he replied. I think even the kindest of villagers would question running into their prince in commoners’ clothing and a woman’s shawl in the middle of the street.
She scowled. “Ben, I’m going to make it, okay? Just… relax.”
Cecily could already feel the fizzing under her skin that signified it was almost time. She glanced up again at the tall castle, layered with glass and amethyst and gold filigree—so beautiful, were it not for the clashing red banner flying above the main gate, a constant reminder of how things had changed since the time of her ancestors. She was too far away at present to see past it to the wide plains of glass beyond, the timeless beaches of Aethier that sloped all the way down to the sea. At least she was getting closer. The fizzing was practically a constant pressure in her head, now, pounding through her skull.
At last, she drew close to the nearest servants’ door, took out her key, and slipped into the castle, glancing around to make sure there was nobody else there. Then it was up the corridor, down the stairs, around the bend, up three flights more, and into her tiny bedchamber, where she sat down heavily on the floor. Leaning back against the bed, she threw her shawl to the side and gazed up at the ceiling, waiting.
“Alloran,” she whispered, “I don’t want to go.” But her father’s advisor wasn’t there to hold her. Even her bodyguard, Rachel, was nowhere to be seen.
It didn’t matter. What was happening now could not be made to wait for anyone or anything, however long and hard Cecily had tried. And she needed to conserve her energy, to focus on what really mattered: relaxing as best as she could so that this time, maybe, the pain would not be too great.
And then, with a small moan, Cecily felt her cheekbones begin to grate under her skin.
It was time. The change had begun.
Rachel entered the room to find her charge on the bed, wrapped pitifully around a pillow.
“It’s all right,” the Terese girl said. Then, she coaxed, “Let me have a look?”
Cecily shook her head without lifting it. “Don’t want to.”
She didn’t tend to be terrifically verbal at this stage. “You must,” said Rachel, and Cecily threw a fist into the scant covers on the bed. Rachel was unperturbed. She had seen much worse from the young princess.
“Please, Rachel, make it stop!” she sobbed, but already it had started, and even in Cecily’s arms and legs Rachel could see the slight bubbling of her flesh.
Rachel could still remember the first few times they had been through the change together. How horrified she had been, at such a young age; how much pain Cecily had been in, five years younger even than Rachel. But by now she had seen it thousands of times, and while she never did get accustomed to the suffering of the girl she loved more than anyone in the world, she had, eventually, gotten to a point where she could bear it.
“Relax into it,” she told her charge. “It will be all right. It will hurt less if you relax.”
Finally, Cecily leaned back on the bed and closed her eyes, giving Rachel a prime view as her face began to change. First her intricate black braids receded into fuzzy black coils, and then her cheekbones moved down and out. Her dark brown skin shifted shades to a brown even darker, and her legs swelled out as her height increased. Her nose shrank ever so slightly, and her ears became that much bigger. Soon enough there was a boy on the bed, eyes closed, similar to Cecily but also utterly different in some unquantifiable way.
Ben opened his eyes.
“Hey, Ben,” said Rachel, feeling a stab of disappointment that her best friend was once again gone, and would be gone for the whole of the next day. But such was the price she paid for her position.
Ben’s eyes understood perhaps more of her disappointment than she would have wanted to share. “I’ll leave you alone,” he said, standing up. She stayed on the other side of the room. Even after all these years, being allowed to interact only for these bare few minutes around each change, they were in many ways still strangers.
“I think Alloran wanted to see you,” she told him.
He nodded at her, and then he was out the door, leaving Rachel alone. Alone until the next day. Alone until the change brought Cecily back again.