Excerpt: Ripples of Smoke and Water
Once upon a time, a handsome and noble prince was to marry a beautiful and kind princess.
It was a destined match, like something out of an old bard’s tale. The princess hailed from a small but prosperous kingdom, kidnapped as a young girl to sing and dance for the amusement of a terrible dragon. Her voice charmed birds from trees, and flowers stayed uncrushed beneath under her dainty feet. The prince had seen her from a distance, under the veil of a willow tree’s long branches; he had heard her, singing about the bright warmth of the sun, and he had fallen in love.
Guided by his heart, the noble prince drew his sword, forged from the metal leached out of the bones of other dragons, and he slew the dragon that kept the kind princess captive. Under that willow tree they pledged their devotion to one another, and the prince brought his princess home to great rejoicing.
She will be a fine bride, his father said, his dark eyes warm and his smile broad.
She will be a good wife, his mother said, with one hand to her breast and a flush to her cheeks.
With their blessing, it was decided that the prince and princess would marry on the middle day of spring. Rather than adorn herself with jewels, the princess chose flowers for her hair and her dress. The bones of the dragon were taken and melted down to form her crown, and that was ornament enough.
A wide placid lake stretched itself out alongside the prince’s castle that shimmered sapphire-blue in the sun, and it would be there that the two would exchange their vows. The entire kingdom would be invited to celebrate. Anticipation of the feast ran high and sharp. Bards were already composing breathless songs of praise. White banners hung from every wall of the castle.
And during all of this, the prince and the princess smiled at those who wished them well and at each other, and if they did not smile as warmly at each other as they did the adoring citizens, surely that was to be expected. In addition to being wise and beautiful, they were both modest people. Demure. It was not their way to revel in the adoration of the people, as much as they might deserve it. That was simply the way things were.
“I think I might go a little mad,” said the princess, whose name was Adara and who, until very recently, had not actually been a princess at all. “They won’t stop staring.”
“They’ll get over it soon enough,” said the prince, whose name was Rafael. They were strolling together along the castle grounds as they were expected to do. It was important, he had explained, to be visible. Especially as the date of the wedding drew close, people wanted to be able to see the royal couple and to imagine that they shared some of the success and the happiness of that day.
To Adara, it sounded ridiculous, but more than one group of servants had stopped to watch them go, smiling. Their gazes swept over her whole body, and her skin prickled in goosebumps as her stomach churned in sour, restless waves. Every corner they turned brought a different group of gawkers; wherever she turned, there were eyes, staring. Though the sun beat down, unveiled by clouds, her fingers ached with cold.
Today was not a unique occurrence. No matter what she did, it seemed, there was always a crowd of people staring, minutely studying her every move. For now, she was a novelty: the prince’s won bride, beautiful and unique and exciting—and, far more importantly, new. If she slept odd hours when left to her own devices, or if she did not need more than the occasional meal due to the dragon’s magic still in her veins, then it was considered an endearing quirk. With time, that would surely wear off, and Adara bristled against the hungry expectation in their eyes.
They turned another corner. A new handful of people were there, turning to watch them approach. Had they been waiting all this time?
“It is not every year that a prince gets married,” Rafael said, “but someone will cause a small scandal soon enough, and they’ll leave us alone. You just need patience until then.”
“Hm,” Adara said. She watched a pair of valets staring at them from the corner of one eye. When they caught her looking back, they both finally hurried off. She did not bring it up again.
The day of the wedding itself dawned bright and gloriously clear. The sun was warm, but not unbearably so, tempered by an occasional cooling breeze from the lake. Flowers of all sorts festooned the site, including upon the shimmering surface of the water; banners streamed in the breeze, adding bright splashes of color to the deep-blue cloudless sky. The crowd thronged together as closely as possible, but a clear path remained open for the Prince Rafael to approach the Princess Adara. No one said a word as he drew his sword and knelt to lay it at her feet. He put his hand over his heart and bowed his head.
“My honored princess,” he said, in a deep and ringing voice, which echoed clear and true, so that the whole of the gathered audience could hear him, “I bring you this as a token of my devotion to you. I will be your sword. I will protect you from all harm. I will be yours.”
These were the words of a speech that had been labored over for months. The first draft had been written the day Rafael brought Adara to his kingdom.
“I promise,” he said, and then the lake moved.
The movement started as a tiny ripple first, in the dead center of the lake, and then the water began to swell upwards, like the slow rise of a giant. It swirled together into a tall spire, leaving the edges of the lakebed exposed. Fish thrashed impotently in amongst the mud and glistening stones as the waters rose up, higher and higher.
Then it sluiced back to its proper resting place. It splashed high at the edges of the lakebed, but they did not overflow.
Left behind, floating in the air above the lake, was a woman.
Her long wet hair was the same deep blue as the lake waters, though the color faded to pale green at the tips. It undulated around her body like the dancing sway of aquatic plants despite the lack of a breeze. Her skin was blue-white, almost glowing in the sun. She wore no apparent clothes, but though her body was woman-shaped, with heavy breasts and wide hips, her nudity remained anonymous, undetailed. From her back sprouted two long thin pairs of wings, transparent gossamer rainbows, like the wings of a dragonfly.
Someone in the crowd gasped. Prince Rafael’s mother put her hand to her mouth.