“This is bullshit,” said Lord Anise to no one in particular as she glared out her bedroom window at the weather. It was a particularly gray day. A Lakhsrumistan spring was supposed to be cool, dry, and pleasant, but it was now three weeks into the lord regent’s current situation and on top of everything else the clouds of icy rain churning overhead refused to leave. If things kept up it was going to affect planting season. Dicking around with the harvest cycle was not a luxury anyone had up in mountain country.
An ice-edged breeze ruffled the collar of the cloak she wore over her ceremonial armor. The rest of her entourage had quietly agreed that it was ceremonial, and therefore acceptable to wear at official functions, because the alternative was telling Lord Anise that she couldn’t dress in her ostentatious old questing kit whenever the whim struck her, and there were some things one simply didn’t do when retired heroes were concerned. Lord Anise had started off her rule by stating how she was not a “lady” anything, but neither was she a man, so after a while her attendants had learned when it was best to just roll with things.
Not even a mug of mulled wine and a nap by the fire had helped how vicious she’d felt since she awoke that morning. Dozing in her armor had left what felt like a very weird imprint on the side of her cheek, but taking it off first would have gone against every instinct she’d honed throughout her career, and old habits died hardest. The recent stories of monstrous shadows in the woods that kept circulating through the castle’s rumor mill had done nothing to discourage it. It felt like a direct insult: here she was, a decorated champion of her adopted homeland, once a member of the Fiery Tree Company itself, and now there was some great fuck-off animal galumphing about outside the castle that four separate hunting trips had failed to catch. What if it ate someone? Unacceptable!
Someone knocked and her sour mood followed after her as she stomped across the room. She hauled open the door with more force than was necessary and was greeted by the youngest of her chambermaids, a slip of a girl they’d taken on from the village a mere two months ago, Hannah or Anna or Annabelle or Hannibal or something. Her uniform didn’t fit very well.
“What?” Lord Anise said.
“A lady, milord! A lady came down from the sky, milord!” cried maybe-Anna. She kept her hands pressed against her apron and kept bowing every few words. “She has a fancy hat and very large bosoms, milord! She’s in the courtyard, milord! Ma’am said I was to fetch you, milord!” The majordomo was known simply as “Ma’am” to what felt like half the staff, since “majordomo” was a lot of syllables and they were unwilling to use her given name. You could hear them pronounce the capital M.
At least this visitor’s identity was less of a question, as Lord Anise knew exactly one person with a fancy hat, sorceries of the air, and a very large bosom—just the one, though you could never be too specific; as they’d all seen some interesting things back during her questing days. “That’s Lady Naveesha. I invited her. She’s a friend of mine from the old days and very wise. If she offers you a sweet you can have one.”
Lord Anise stepped back from looming over the help. She stretched, ignoring the bulk of her heavy armor, and groaned as her joints crackled. “Tell them that I’ll be down once I wind my hair back up. Thanks for letting me know.”
“Right away, milord! You’re welcome, milord!” With that, Lord Anise was left alone again.
The lord’s hair, unbound, was long enough that she could sit on it, but this was so awkward to deal with if left loose that she made a habit of wearing it up in a bun. She didn’t bother removing her cuirass as she brushed out her tresses, nor did she think to set aside her gauntlets as she plaited it with practiced swiftness. Once braided and coiled, she secured her hair in place with a knife; it had taken her a lot of tries before she had trained herself to need nothing more than that, and she suspected that if she were to be shaved bald there would be a few fine scars left over from the less glamorous parts of the learning process. It was perfect for wearing under a helmet, even with the knife handle sticking out at the top, but as company was visiting she chose to tuck an ornament above one ear instead.
She stepped out under a sky so bright despite its grayness that it made her squint for a few seconds as her eyes adjusted from the castle’s gloomier indoors. When her vision cleared again Lord Anise was met with a striking sight: a tall, handsome woman dressed in gold and dark blue stood talking to the castle’s majordomo, a bejeweled scepter tucked into the former’s belt. Her hat was certainly big enough to warrant the chambermaid’s mention. So were her breasts. Heroes of any stripe tended to stand out in a crowd.
Lord Anise grinned and lengthened her step. “Naveesha! Hey! Bothered any godchildren lately?”
“How can I when you’re too lazy to make me any?” said Naveesha, and they laughed at the old joke. It was the first time Lord Anise had laughed in days; she tried not to think too much about how relieved her majordomo looked at that.
A few strides more brought them face-to-face, where they embraced and shared an open-mouthed kiss. Naveesha tasted like one of the cinnamon sweets she was always sucking on. Lord Anise licked her lips in approval; she’d had plenty of time, to say nothing of opportunities, to grow fond of that secondhand flavor. “Looks like my letter made it to you after all. How was your trip?”
“Mostly easy, save for a storm over the sea. I would’ve been here half a day earlier if I hadn’t had to hitch a ride in an albatross eye to keep out of the worst of it. You know how seabirds get.” She leaned up to steal another, shorter kiss. “So what did you mean in your letter when you said things were getting out of hand?”
Lord Anise grunted. “Well, you know how it’s supposed to be sunny and full of blooming trees this time of year?” She waved her hand in the direction of the castle grove, the trees that grew there pointedly bereft of blossoms. “The weather’s all shitty, and in my years here it has never done this, but that’s not the weird part: I sent riders to the neighboring principalities and they’re all doing just fine. Soft rain, warm breezes, fresh green grass, everything. Pair that with whatever keeps ghosting around in the forest and scaring my woodcutters and I’m pretty sure something is trying to mess with me and only me. I was hoping you could help me fix this.”
Naveesha pursed her lips in thought. How her shimmering gold lip color didn’t get all over the people she kissed was a mystery for the ages, right up there with how her tops stayed on. Naveesha could be traversing an ice field on foot and she’d probably still wear necklines that touched her navel. “Did the mirror I gave you show anything?” she asked.
“Nothing I could understand,” said Lord Anise. “I saw a line of white birds all sitting in a row and their shadows grew out long, and I think that means there’s something going on with the servants, but that’s all I could get from my amateur soothsaying. I was never good at riddles. Before you ask, no, none of them have been acting funny.”
“Damn,” said Naveesha as she rubbed her chin. “Well, you’ve been busy keeping this place running, so it can’t hurt to get a second opinion. Madeline, darling, have you noticed anything out of the ordinary?”
The majordomo snapped to attention and pushed her brass-framed spectacles a little further up the bridge of her nose. “I check in with each of the staff weekly, my lady, and none of them have behaved the slightest bit suspiciously, though they’re all quite worried. I haven’t found any milk gone curdled or missing before its time and none of the iron fittings have gone missing, so we don’t think it’s Fair Folk. No matter how often my lord combs the lands she has yet to find the beast that’s been sighted there. We’re quite afraid it’s going to hurt one of the shepherds that live far from the walls, or perhaps injure one of my lord’s hunting companions.”
“No concern for your lord regent herself, though?” asked Lord Anise with a smirk.
“My Lord Anise,” said the majordomo, not missing a beat, “we all were working under the assumption that, were something to make the mistake of approaching you discourteously, you would be more than capable of handling it.” It wasn’t an unreasonable thought: two seasons ago Lord Anise had single-handedly repelled an attempted ambush in the castle gardens while dressed in little but a nightgown, then went on to compete in a tourney the next day as if nothing had happened at all. People seemed to forget that stepping back from a life of derring-do didn’t mean she’d forgotten a few decades’ worth of being the biggest badass in the room.
The majordomo adjusted her coats against the wind as it turned a shade icier. “We have endured long winters before, and we have endured strange visitors before, but the Lakhsrumistani people can only handle so much for so long. It would upset me greatly if this unfortunate state of affairs were to cause my countryfolk to view our lord unfavorably after all she has done.” She sighed. “I do hope you can help us, Lady Naveesha.”
“I’ll do my best, Maddy. You know I’d give my left hand for this lummox.” She elbowed Lord Anise playfully in the side. Lord Anise laughed again and gave her a peck on the cheek.
“Very good, my lady,” said the majordomo, no stranger to Lord Anise’s many affectionate friends nor how publicly they showed the depths of said friendship. “I trust you have brought your things in the usual manner?”
Naveesha thumped her knuckles against the crown of her magnificent headgear, which itself was encircled by a bejeweled coronet. “All magicked up in the hat.”
This earned a nod as the majordomo quietly dismissed two of the attendants who up until then had been standing behind her. “Your room awaits. I shall ensure Cook prepares something special to celebrate your visit, and that some pomegranate brandy is sent up after supper with someone who knows to knock before entering.”
“You’re a madeline, Madeline.” Naveesha blew her a kiss. “Tonight’s for relaxing and indulging, but I promise you that first thing tomorrow I’ll see what I can do about untangling this ice-and-monsters problem that’s been causing so much trouble.”
“Of course, my lady. I am ever your humble servant.” The majordomo bowed deeply, collected the remaining servants, and returned to the bustle of the keep, leaving the two retired champions in nobody’s company but their own.
Foul as the weather was, it was still a clear enough day that they spent it walking the grounds as they caught up on one another’s lives and otherwise; going from being active champions of the people to more passive roles hadn’t made their days any less eventful. It was hard to keep the conversation from veering back towards the matter that had called Naveesha out from her tower in the first place, though, and soon they stopped pretending to not be talking about it.
“You don’t think it’s Madeline, do you, Anise?”
“Maddy? God, I hope not. She’s the reason I can keep this mess running. The castle, not the country, but that second one would be a lot harder without the first.”
“What about the new girl, the one whose name you can’t remember? Details you can’t think of the same way twice are often a sign there’s something suspicious going on. I learned that the hard way. Means there’s a sloppy glamour involved.”
“I’d consider that if I wasn’t so shit with names, Vee. It took me forever to just learn yours, remember?”
“Tell you what, I’ll keep my eyes open during dinner if you do the same, and after we’ve eaten and had ourselves a little reunion time we can compare notes, maybe talk more about the thing your mirror showed me.”
“It’s a deal. By reunion time you mean fucking, right?”
“You know it.”
“I suppose I can put aside my duties for a little while. Or two little whiles. Or however many whiles it takes for one of us to get bored.”
“And this is why I like having you as a guest.”
The hours vanished like water on a griddle until the sun was low and the dining hall awaited them. They ate well, but not heavily, and after an uneventful dinner Naveesha accompanied Lord Anise back to the lord’s quarters, much to the scandal of the help that hadn’t been around for the last time one of the lord’s old friends stopped by. Anna-or-something blushed fiercely as she adjusted the bedsheets one last time before skittering out to the safety of the halls.
Naveesha had managed to palm another cinnamon sweet between leaving dinner and arriving at Lord Anise’s bedchamber, so the kiss she left when Lord Anise pressed her against the door had a bit of extra burn to it. Her hat was tossed unceremoniously to one side. An armored knee nudged against Naveesha’s silken skirts and parted her legs with little resistance, followed shortly by a thigh—also armored—pushing up against her cleft with the inevitability of a glacier. Fingers trained to coax wonders from nothingness were not necessarily fingers trained at getting someone else’s buckles unfastened, however, and what had first been a fun, passionate scrabbling at the sides of Lord Anise’s cuirass was replaced with a firm knock when Naveesha failed to get the thing open for the sixth time in a row.
“You’re going to have to help me get you out of this,” said Naveesha once their lips parted.
Lord Anise nibbled on Naveesha’s ear. “Sure you don’t want me to keep it on? You know you like how it makes me look bigger.”
“And you know I’m not about to let you finger me in gauntlets. Not even a little bit. It’s a better idea in concept than in practice.” She turned the sweet in her mouth over with her tongue and clicked it against her teeth playfully. “Now help me get you naked so there’s nothing between me and that nice ass of yours.”
While Lord Anise had learned how to suit up in the dark and on her own, armor really was meant to be put on—and more importantly, taken off again—with outside assistance; an extra set of hands, once they weren’t busy being pinned to something, came in very useful for shucking multiple layers of plate, chain, and padding. A spiked gauntlet became a woman’s hand and the featureless convexity of Lord Anise’s breastplate gave way to a pair of actual breasts as she shed her armor. Her skin glowed in the firelight once she pulled the last of it over her head and away. In spite of everything her hair was still immaculate.
A smile played across Naveesha’s elegant features. Her fingers traced the side of Lord Anise’s bull-thick neck and down her collarbone to rest against her sternum; Naveesha made no attempt to hide her admiration. “You still take very good care of yourself,” she said, her voice like smoke.
“Have to. Not all of us are magic,” replied Lord Anise, giving Naveesha’s behind a squeeze. “Not all of us are naked, either. You going to do something about that, or did you have plans…?”
Lord Anise mock-grumbled but otherwise didn’t protest at this. She sat down on one of the cushion-laden couch frames she’d picked up during her travels, her legs splayed lewdly while her muscles (which she’d kept toned for literal decades by then) rippled with the slightest movement. She was easily the size of two of Naveesha put together; one didn’t take point in the kinds of fights the Fiery Tree Company had gotten into without being built like a wall. A pat on the thigh was enough to encourage Naveesha to relocate to her lap, though the nudity problem had yet to be addressed. Lord Anise consoled herself by snaking a hand down Naveesha’s absurdly low neckline to see what she could find.
Some people claimed that witchcraft and sorceries—not the same thing, Naveesha had often told Lord Anise, and as Naveesha was skilled in both she seemed like someone who would know—caused a woman’s intimate places to turn strange or malformed, or that those who sought to know a witch in a sensual way would find themselves cursed, or any number of lewdly unsettling things. Lord Anise, on the other hand, had been sleeping with magicians of varying ability since shortly after she had learned what other people’s breasts were like, and so it was no great surprise when the only thing waiting for her between Naveesha’s knees was warm, moist, and exactly the shape it was supposed to be. She brushed the pad of her middle finger against Naveesha’s clit, coaxing a hum of pleasure with each touch, and as Lord Anise toyed with just how far she could press a digit against her friend without anything actually slipping inside those hums of pleasure became outright moans. Lord Anise pulled her hand free and gave her now-slick fingers a lick. Naveesha tasted rich and horny, with just the faintest tang of saltiness, and sampling her failed to turn Lord Anise into a frog or anything else.
Lord Anise brushed the back of her dry hand against the beading of Naveesha’s gown. “You’re really going to leave your sorcerer’s garb on while I fuck you, then?”
“Might be fun,” purred Naveesha. “Is that a problem?”
“Not so long as I get to see your tits later,” said Lord Anise. She shifted her weight a bit and flexed her fingers. “And no complaining if I rip anything.”
Her hand dipped again and found where it needed to go, one callused finger sliding against and then inside Naveesha, soon followed by a second. They fit together as naturally as pieces of a jigsaw. In the old days she would have been in up to her wrist by now, but in the old days they fucked like this all the time, and those bygone nights were years ago and miles away. This didn’t mean Lord Anise had to treat Naveesha delicately—she was, to be exact, already sinking in up to her knuckles with every thrust— but she took her time before folding a third finger in with the first two. It felt as natural as breathing. There was a lot to be said for having long-term friendships with long-term benefits.
When Naveesha came it was with her fingers clawed against Lord Anise’s back and a shout of pleasure muffled only by Lord Anise’s mouth. Throughout it all she’d managed not to pop out of her clothing. Sorcery was incredible.
Once Naveesha caught her breath again she cuddled up against Lord Anise’s scar-dusted front, the lord’s leathery tan skin so much lighter than Naveesha’s own. Lord Anise petted the top of her head. “Still dressed, huh?”
Naveesha scoffed. “Hush, you. I’ll strip down in this freezing castle when I feel like it.”
“All the more reason we need to find the cause of the wild weather as soon as we can!”
“Yes, very true.” Naveesha wrapped herself in Lord Anise’s discarded cloak and shivered, prompting the lord to pull her closer. “Speaking of the weather, I was watching the servants at dinner tonight. So far everyone I’ve seen has looked healthy and free of curses, but tell me this, Anise: how many attendants do you usually have for a meal when there’s guests?”
“Twenty-six. Sometimes twenty-seven if I need someone to be running messages around the table.”
“And how many were there giving service this evening?”
“Twenty-sixven.” She paused, then mouthed the impossible number again. “Wait, the fuck?”
Naveesha’s dark eyes were bright with purpose. “Exactly. There’s an extra here, but they’ve slunk in in such a way that it’s hard to notice them. There’s room in everyone’s heads for the idea of a twenty-seventh servant, so your eyes don’t think it’s overly strange if there’s more people than there should be, but they’re not really here.”
“So you’re saying it’s glamour bullshit?”
“Definitely glamour bullshit.”
Lord Anise leaned back and groaned. “Perfect. None of the iron or salt is out of place but we’ve still got glamour bullshit. Any ideas what it is?”
Naveesha shrugged. The motion made the furred collar of the borrowed cloak rise above her ears. “Not yet. Your vision of lining things up makes a little more sense, though. Have Maddy get everyone in the courtyard tomorrow morning just after sunrise and we’ll look them over together. I don’t think it’ll be dangerous to let things go another day, but you should bring your spear, just in case.”
“Of course. Never was a sunrise that saw me not ready to wreck some monster ass.” She propped her cheek up on her hand, her elbow against the couch’s carved armrest. “Does this mean the mood’s ruined?”
“We’ve fucked in far more dire situations,” said Naveesha with a sly smile. She did something with her shoulder and suddenly she wasn’t wearing the left half of her gown. Her breasts defied age and gravity alike, and while half of her was still some facsimile of decent her exposed nipple was painted with the same bright gold pigment as her lips. Lord Anise’s hand itched to cup around it. “Remember the time I ate you out two hours before we were put on trial before the God-King of Malvoloss?”
“Huh huh, yeah. And the prosecutor was a werewolf or something so he spent the whole damn thing smelling us on each other. Pretty sure he would’ve lost the case anyway even without the daring rescue in the middle of one of his cross-examinations. I’d almost feel sorry for him if he wasn’t a total asshole.” Lord Anise leaned back and stretched out the leg Naveesha wasn’t using as a seat. “You feel like reminding me what all we got up to back then?”
Another curious shoulder movement sent the right half of Naveesha’s gown peeling away, and then with a hop to her feet and a shimmy of her hips she was standing in a puddle of fabric. This quickly became her kneeling in the same fabric puddle, one gem-nailed hand resting on either of Lord Anise’s thighs. The outsized cloak framed her like a cloud bank. She ran the tip of her tongue along the gilded curve of her upper lip. “Suppose I could try,” she said, and in the space of another breath she had her face buried between Lord Anise’s legs.
The morning sun rose on a fresh-faced Lord Anise—who had enjoyed some enormously restful sleep despite not getting very much of it—prowling back and forth in the castle keep’s courtyard as the staff assembled in a long and worried-looking line. The castle hounds patrolled alertly as ever along the walls. Naveesha, now clad in red velvet, waited off to the side, a smoking censer in her hand. The majordomo conferred with both of them in turn before addressing the flustered collective of servants.
“Lord Anise has called us here because she believes she and the Lady Naveesha have acquired a lead on whatever wickedness has befallen our land,” she said. Her voice carried quite a ways in the clear morning air. “She assures me that none of us shall have any ill fall upon us, or our loved ones, or any such thing, so long as we do as is asked of us, which is to stand still while some magics are worked. The Lady Naveesha has promised me that it is entirely safe, and I know her as a woman of her word.” The servants glanced at each other but said nothing, though whether it was out of respect or fear was unclear. With a nod, the majordomo stepped back and allowed Naveesha to take the fore.
Naveesha glanced at Lord Anise and shared an unspoken moment before palming a taper from her sleeve, lighting it with her own will, then igniting the censer’s contents with the taper’s burning end. She swung it slowly and chanted under her breath as it left a trail of smoke that eddied behind her only to tumble heavily along the ground. A breeze carried the smoke to where it could touch the shadow of the first servant in line, who yelped in surprise and shivered like she’d been doused in cold water; nothing else happened, and so the strange incense curled its way down the line, leaving a trail of magical goosings in its wake. This yielded nothing but unhappy squawks until it reached the handmaidens’ part of the line; might-have-been-Anna reacted the same as the others had, but the unassuming young woman next to her didn’t seem to notice as the smoke oozed its icy tendrils into her shadow. Naveesha glanced up at Lord Anise and nodded. She walked the rest of the line before doubling back, and by then the forgettable-faced handmaid’s shadow was wavering like a fern in a storm.
Lord Anise, spear in hand, came up behind Naveesha, though she strained to keep her expression as neutral as possible. You didn’t get to be a hero without hearing about shapeshifter mischief, and you didn’t get to be an old hero without being constantly ready for things to never be what they seemed. When things got weird and mystical you brought in someone who was weird and mystical to evaluate them, and that was what Lord Anise had done. The fewer witches she pissed off in the process, the better.
It was difficult to describe what all the wavy-shadowed woman looked like. She was person-shaped, with a face, and hair, and probably some eyes that were a color; the most distinctive thing about her was the handmaid’s uniform that fit much better than those of the servants standing next to her. Lord Anise squinted. She couldn’t even determine what the unfamiliar woman’s expression was like, save for a vague sense of wonderment. The lord’s hand tightened around her spear. Even if this was an entirely unrelated affair, how long had there been a hanger-on in her castle without anyone really noticing? There were supposed to be safeguards against this sort of thing!
“Glamour bullshit,” muttered Naveesha, and she blew out the ember keeping her censer smoking. The hard-to-remember woman’s shadow puffed away like dandelion fluff, leaving something decidedly more memorable behind.
She was shorter than Lord Anise was, though so were most people, and willowy as a snake, save for her outsized breasts and hips. Instead of her uniform a dress of blue wool with modest embroidery along the hems clung tightly to every curve; it and the shift she wore beneath it looked a little worse for wear, as though she’d worn nothing but while traveling from afar. She was so pale she looked bloodless. Her hair was the color of the honey harvested high in the mountain meadows, which was to say, greenish, and it cascaded like plumes of moss down her back with only a single ribbon to hold it in place. Her eyes were just a little too big for her sharp-featured face. Everything was exaggeratedly idealized with the exception for her mattock of a nose, and even that seemed just a little more comely than it should have been. It was like someone had taken parts from half a dozen different people and combined them into a single body, but without knowledge of what most humans looked like or any attempt to make the bits match up properly. The effect was rather eerie.
And then, of course, there was the matter of the tail.
It was about as long as one of her legs and mostly the same fishbelly color as her skin, save for the tuft of green at the tip. It looked a bit like a lion’s. A bow that matched the one in her hair was tied just beneath the tuft. Lord Anise had met people of all manner of hues in her travels, from the ordinary to the fanciful, but this was the first time she’d encountered someone with a tail like that who wasn’t already charging towards her and bellowing. Her hand reached for her good-luck nail out of habit, but the woman with the tail didn’t disappear when Lord Anise’s fingers brushed the iron. That was something, maybe.
“Oh,” said Naveesha. “Looks like you’ve got jotunbrood.”
“That we do,” said Lord Anise. She beckoned, blank-faced, to the majordomo. “Excuse us for a moment,” she said, never once taking her eyes off of the woman with the tail as she half-guided, half-dragged her frazzled head of house behind a decorative fountain.
“Madeline, you’re a talented woman, easily one of the cleverest and most skilled that I know. You run a very tight ship and never allow so much as a mouse fart to go below my notice. I trust you with all of my affairs and, to no small extent, my very life, that is the extent of my confidence in you. So. Please. Please explain to me why we’ve had a troll in the house for the past however-the-fuck-long it’s been, and I didn’t? Know? About? It?” She had to fight to keep her voice from raising on its own. A troll on the doorstep was the absolute last thing she needed at the tail end of a nasty winter. Trolls were unpredictable, nearly as bad as fey-folk, and they didn’t have the decency to bug out if you waved the usual banishment ingredients at them. Would her spear be enough if there was stone hiding beneath that pale, pale flesh?
The majordomo looked terribly embarrassed. “I, I was aware that I was having trouble remembering one of the new workers’ names, milord, but I assumed that your troubles with young Annabelle from the village were just rubbing off on me. Our headcounts were always perfect. I’m so very sorry to have failed you this way, milord….”
Lord Anise pressed her hand against her forehead and slowly ran it down her face, as if to wipe away her frustration. “Aren’t we supposed to have hounds for this? Your records showed they sniffed out everyone a week and a half ago with no problems.”
“The hounds don’t mind her, milord. She gave one a pat on the head and it left her be. We assumed she was merely a touch eccentric.”
“Eccentric? She has a fucking tail!”
“Milord, we did not notice it at the time. If you will pardon my frankness, you willingly keep company with much stranger folk, so if the hounds do not mind her, I highly doubt she is anything you need to worry about.”
That couldn’t be argued. The Fiery Tree Company had been composed of a handful of different heroes, some with whom Lord Anise still regularly corresponded. and the more heroic types you got in the same place the weirder they tended to be. One of her twice-a-year visitors was a demigod. Lord Anise’s staff had acclimated to guests who flew down from the sky and to the hounds themselves—”hound” was only accurate in that they had four legs, guarded the castle grounds, and bayed when they smelled something off, which apparently didn’t include troll princesses—so someone with a little extra spine sticking out the back wasn’t the oddest visitor they’d seen by a long shot, especially if said extremity was bundled up beneath a thick layer of illusion.
“Fine. Fine, I’ll accept that. Just know that if those hounds are wrong about her they’re going to go without belly rubs for a month, easily.” She sighed. The majordomo had done her job to the best of her ability, so that wasn’t anything that could be helped; it’d be like punishing a fisherman for a sea monster rampaging through. Hopefully the hounds were right, too, as going without petting them for a month would be as hard on her as it would be on them. Damn those not-quite-animals for being so cute! “How do I know she’s not been sent here to kill me? Could be from one of our rival principalities, could be here seeking revenge for some warlord or monster I took down back when I was a spring chicken, could be all sorts of things. You really think I should be in the same place as someone who might very well start breathing fire if I get too close?”
The majordomo adjusted her glasses again. “Milord, to my knowledge jotuns that speak in human tongues will answer honestly if posed questions in the right manner. You might get a riddle in return, but have you considered asking her why she is here? I’m sure the Lady Naveesha would be happy to help you puzzle out some truth.”
“Couldn’t hurt. Get everyone else inside while Vee and I talk to our guest, alright? I don’t want anyone in danger if things get ugly.”
“It shall be done, milord.”
Lord Anise waited a few minutes for the actual servants to start filing back into the keep, then strode out from behind the fountain to stand, defiantly, in front of the spacey-looking troll-woman. Naveesha made a little hand signal behind her censer: no activity yet. So this particular unwanted guest was behaving so far? That made some things easier but some things much worse. She checked to be sure that the majordomo had returned with writing materials, then cleared her throat loudly, which itself caught the attention of the woman with the tail; those too-large eyes swung around independently like a lizard’s until they focused on the lord’s face, at which the strange woman broke out into a smile. She had human-looking teeth, at least, though there were almost certainly too many of them and they might not have been in the right order.
However many teeth she had, Lord Anise refused to be cowed by strange trolls skittering in from the weeds; she straightened her back to tower over the woman with the tail even more than she already had been. “I have been informed by my very capable chief aide that you are not exactly a recognized member of the staff,” she said. The woman with the tail clapped her hands with delight and nodded. Lord Anise cut her off before she could say anything. “I assume this is because you wished a personal audience with me. Usually this sort of thing involves making an appointment. I trust there’s a very good reason you’ve ignored the proper channels?”
The woman with the tail affected a strange expression somewhere between a pout and a simper and looked up at Lord Anise with her awful dewy eyes. Raising a dainty hand to her chest, she said, “You are Anise of Lakhsrumistan, of the Fiery Tree Company, hero of the Battle of Blue Hill and defender of Rasva, yes?”
“That’s me.” Most people didn’t bring up the Rasva incident unless they were historians or naturalists. Lord Anise kept company with stranger scholars, though, one of whom she’d been having a great deal of sex with the night before, so she saw no reason to assume her unwanted guest wasn’t an academic of some sort herself. It still didn’t explain why she’d shown up out of nowhere without so much as a bread roll to her name and disguised herself as one of the help.
“My lady,” began the woman, but Lord Anise cut her off with a raise of her gloved hand.
“Lord. It’s Lord Anise. I’m nobody’s lady.”
“My lord,” corrected the woman with the tail, and to her credit she scarcely missed a beat, “I regret so rudely arriving, but I feared that were I to make myself known in a more traditional method it might risk misrepresenting myself. My people’s reputation precedes us in a most unfortunate way. I have faith that a great lord such as yourself will see through such falsehoods, however, and present myself humbly and with the utmost respect for you and your deeds and your temperament, that you may judge me in a fair and true manner, as befitting a hero.”
If this was how trolls spoke normally, what were their riddles like? Lord Anise put the thought from her mind and went for the clearest, most difficult to misinterpret question she could think of. “Who the fuck are you, anyway? You haven’t introduced yourself. At all. To anyone.”
The unnamed woman fretted with her entire frame, her face scrunched up while she wrung her hands and swished her tail. Her body language looked as though it was meant to be endearing. It was not. “Oh! Oh dear, I am so very sorry, your lordship. I am called Ylvhilde Svartsdottr, aged twenty and three summers old, get of Old Long-Tooth and princess of the Aisentrees, and I have journeyed far and wide to—”
“Yes, very good,” said Lord Anise. She calmly, but firmly, took hold of the majordomo’s coat sleeve again. “Excuse us a moment.”
The space behind the fountain continued to be a very useful place to fume as quietly as Lord Anise was able. “She’s a princess!?” she hissed between gritted teeth. “Trolls aren’t like bees, are they? No hives stuffed full of queens somewhere out beyond the trees, are there? This is potentially an incident! A huge, messy, foreign-royalty incident!”
“Milord, she came here of her own volition. You can swear on the noonday sun that it is so if anyone asks. We just hear her out, then give her a meal and send her on her way.”
Lord Anise snorted. “That’s too damn easy and we both know it, but it’s not like we have any better ideas. I’d much rather get her out of here as soon as possible.” She furrowed her brow and added, “Am I supposed to know where the Aisentrees are?”
“It’s one of the far reaches, at least as far as we are aware. To my knowledge we’ve had no dealings with them before. No maps will show the way but you could walk there from here, provided you headed east of the sun and west of the moon.”
“Oh. One of those.”
The majordomo nodded sympathetically. “Yes, milord, one of those. They haven’t actively feuded against anyone for centuries, jotun or otherwise, if it’s any consolation.”
“Not really. Guess I’d better go back out and see what she wants, huh?”
“It would be most prudent, milord.”
Lord Anise adjusted her coat of armor, took another deep, cleansing breath, and returned to the courtyard proper. Ylvhilde’s face lit up like a votive altar the moment she saw her again.. Naveesha rolled her eyes and shrugged. A well-behaved troll princess was better than the alternative, but the lord still cringed at how much of Naveesha’s good graces she was burning through in the space of a morning. She’d have to find a really good way to make it up to her once the jotun business got itself sorted out.
“Excuse that,” said Lord Anise, “but I remembered something I needed to attend to. Now then, would you mind telling me the reason for your visit?”
“Oh yes, of course, my lord!” trilled Ylvhilde. Her tail flicked like a happy cat’s. Who knew what that meant with trolls, though? “I have come to seek acceptance into your court however you might have me. I need no special treatment for my birth station, no! No princessly things for me, not here! Merely a scullion would suffice, or a stable girl, or a charcoal burner, so long as I may be of service to you.” She curtseyed deeply and held it, her too-big eyes downcast. “My life is yours utterly, Lord Anise of Lakhsrumistan.”
“That’s… nice? I have plenty of servants, though. And you might remember the part where you tried to disguise yourself as one of my own without so much as introducing yourself to me first. That’s got me worried, princess. Why would you come all this way just to dust tall shelves when you’re royalty back where you come from?”
Ylvhilde looked up with wonder in her owl-wide eyes. “Why, my lord, is it not obvious? I have come so far because… because I am deeply, madly in love with you!” She beamed.
“I see,” said Lord Anise in as neutral a voice as she could manage, and she saw the majordomo tense up in anticipation out of the corner of her eye. That was enough to fuel her contrarian streak; she didn’t drag anyone out behind the fountain this time. Instead she crossed her arms over her chest, eyed Ylvhilde with the same polite dispassion she afforded a farmer talking about land disputes, and said, “That’s very flattering, Princess Ylvhilde, but I’m afraid I don’t feel the same way. I’ll make sure my servants get you some food and lodging for the night and we’ll see you off in the morning.”
“Oh, but please, my lord, I have come so very far indeed! I have lived and breathed thoughts of your deeds, and for three fortnights I’ve had scarce to eat but knowledge of my love for you, yet it nourished me as finely as any feast! Oh, glory! Who with wits about them can keep their pulse from quickening at the thought of you leading the charge against the western wildlings, and who with a beating heart between their ribs can forget the tales of your bravery at Rasva?”
Lord Anise and Naveesha exchanged looks. Rasva had been a bloody battle that had seen a horrifying human death toll and an even higher number of dead jotun-kind. Neither of them liked to talk about it. “I remember killing a shit-ton of your kinsmen at Rasva. Idolizing me for that is a little fucked up, your highness.”
Ylvhilde was either too twitterpated or too bloodthirsty to notice the unease in Lord Anise’s voice. She swayed back and forth, wiggling her shoulders in time with her movements as she continued in an increasingly sing-song tone. “Oh yes, my lord, it was a vicious battle, indeed, and my betters were fair wroth over your victory, but while we all called for your heart it was I who sought to win it, rather than devour it, and as such we fell to fierce argument. I knew that you were the one for me, and so I swore on my crown and on the ice of my foremothers and on my very own tail that I would find you once more and declare my eternal allegiance. And here I am! It’s so wonderful, like a dream! Surely I can stay on in a corner, a cupboard, someplace out of the way, where I may be quiet as the tiniest mouse and bask in your lovely radiance from afar.”
Lord Anise could feel the first twinges of a tension headache flickering through her skull. She’d turned away plenty of lovesick admirers before, but none of them had been so…Ylvhilde. “The problem is not whether or not there’s room for you here, princess. The problem is that you’re weird and I don’t like you very much. My overnight hospitality is still yours for the claiming, but you really ought to be heading on back to the Aisentrees in the morning. We can pack you a bindle with some lunch.”
Ylvhilde wailed and hopped from foot to bare foot. She hadn’t stopped swaying. “But the crown! And the ice! And my tail! There’s heavy curses in store for those who swear by such things lightly. I’ll be all a-geased if I break so much as a letter of my word, my lord!”
The majordomo shrugged helplessly at Lord Anise as Ylvhilde’s words grew increasingly frantic. “Jotunbrood swear by a lot of things, milord, but those are three powerfully grand things to invoke. I’m no seer, but I’d bet a week’s pay that her oath is so strong it’s got you tied up in it.”
“She’s right,” said Naveesha, whose censer was smoking again. Lord Anise didn’t remember seeing her relight it. “I’ll need a bit to get a diagnosis, but you’re tied up in whatever Princess Doofus here has sworn, and I suggest we keep her on hand until I can figure out how to cut you out and send the nasty weather back where it came from.”
The twinges tweaking the inside of the lord’s skull threatened to bloom into a full migraine at any moment. She rubbed her temples and said, “Fine. Put her in a side room and make sure she doesn’t cause any trouble. And I am not” –and here she turned to look Ylvhilde right in the outsized eye– “interested in becoming anything more than tolerated acquaintances, so I hope you’re really good with your hands or it’s going to be a really frustrating vacation for you. Understand?”
“So I may stay?”
Ylvhilde clasped her hands to her chest and twirled in place. “Oh, rapture! You shan’t regret this day, my lord, as from this point on I am your Ylvhilde to serve and your Ylvhinle to command!”
Lord Anise groaned. “Fantastic. Madeline, please relocate her somewhere that isn’t anywhere near me. Give her a job or something, I don’t care, just keep her busy while Naveesha waves frog eyes at her or whatever it is it’s going to take to un-oath us. This place doesn’t run itself and I have reports to read on the trade value of all that tin we dig up from the mountains.”
The majordomo clicked her heels smartly and beckoned to Ylvhilde. “This way, please. I’m sure Cook would like some help washing pots….” She shot Lord Anise and Naveesha both a final look of weary camaraderie before shepherding Ylvhilde, who would not stop giggling, towards the kitchen entrance.
“That went differently than expected,” said Naveesha once the sound of jotun merriment faded into the distance.
“That was stupid,” said Lord Anise.
“Well, yes.” Naveesha tucked a stray tendril of tightly-curled hair back up into her pagoda of a hat. “But now at least we can keep an eye on Ylvhilde. She’s absolutely over the moon for you, too. Trolls aren’t kidding when they say they’ll go to the ends of the earth for something! We could use that. Imagine what an ally she’d be if you could trade kisses for favors.”
Lord Anise grimaced. “She’s not really my type.”
“It’s the eye thing. You saw her do the eye thing, right? That was gross.”
Naveesha rested a finger against her cheek. “But imagine how it’d look if you had her on her back, tonguing her clit until she goes cross-eyed. Eyes like that mean it’d be twice as intense. Imagine if they rolled back so far they turned inside out!”
Lord Anise imagined it and immediately regretted her decision. “I’d really rather not, Vee.”
“I’m just saying, maybe there’s a sexual panther bottled up in that fishbelly body of hers, and it’s waiting to pounce. You could be missing out on something astounding.”
“What I’m missing out on is the bureaucracy shit I’m supposed to be keeping up with so the cute little peasants who look up to me don’t go hungry.” Her grip tightened around her spear again. What would her subjects think if she ended up getting them all tangled in trollish affairs? More importantly, what would they do if the winter just kept on wintering all year long? “Ugh, what a mess. You need me for any magic stuff, I’ll be in my study, but otherwise I need to spend some very exciting hours comparing yearly records. See you at dinner?”
“See you at dinner, Anise.”
Seconds became minutes became hours. The mining records thing was dull but reasonably simple to take care of; Lord Anise finished right before she was due to break for a midday meal, and one of her handmaids—not the kind with a tail or an easily forgotten name, at that—informed her that Cook would need a quarter-hour or so to finish preparing everything, so she decided to see how Ylvhilde was getting on with other members of the staff now that she wasn’t hiding in the corner of people’s thoughts.
The castle’s keep had been built by someone with more money than sense, which meant it had an abundance of rooms with lovely views and utterly terrible defensive measures, and it was one such room that the majordomo declared would house their unexpected guest until they thought of anything better. Lord Anise had to turn sideways to fit through its just-this-side-of-too-narrow doorway; whoever had commissioned the castle’s masons had apparently never thought to accommodate people of the same approximate dimensions as a highland bull. Lack of forethought seemed to be a running theme with the architecture and previous government alike. No wonder the principality had been looking for someone to watch after the place.
Ylvhilde hadn’t brought anything with her aside from her clothes, which someone had washed for her between that morning and then, and she was presumably busy getting underfoot in the kitchens while properly kitted out in attire fitting of a handmaid, but this was not to say that she hadn’t left her mark on the breezy little room: the bed linens had been wound up into a sort of bird’s nest with pillows in it, the chairs were stacked in strange but clearly intentional patterns, and the portrait of Lord Anise they’d hung above the hearth back when she’d first taken her title was covered in what could only be kiss prints. Part of the frame showed some very deep chew marks. It was unnerving.
“Dropping by for a noonday tryst with your new beau?” asked Naveesha’s voice behind her.
Lord Anise turned and scoffed. “No, and there’s more evidence that it’d be a bad idea, anyway. Check out what she did to one of those paintings I got copied,” she said, cocking her thumb over her shoulder for emphasis.
Naveesha’s serene features briefly distorted into a grimace. “Ouch. There’s too much bite in those love bites.”
“Right? Even if I changed my mind about the, the eye thing, I’m worried I could lose a hand.” She glanced around a final time before sidling back out into the hallway. “I was hoping I could figure her out some by seeing her lair for myself, but right now all I know is that she needs to stay far away from me and my clit.” She shuddered. “I think they should be done cooking by now. Let’s get something to eat and find something else to talk about.”
The pair kept side-by-side as they leisurely made their way towards the dining room. Comparing notes about their respective days’ work was a lot more pleasant than thinking about the eye thing or the brand new tooth thing, and hearing that Naveesha was making slow, but definite progress was heartening. At least now they knew the storms were definitely troll-called! Lord Anise spied Ylvhilde out of the corner of her eye a few times, but Ylvhilde was either too busy or too polite to say anything; save for hovering uncomfortably close with the wine pitcher, she behaved herself all throughout lunch. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if they just kept her room stocked with chew toys and made sure she had plates to wash? That wouldn’t do a damn thing about the crop-throttling weather, though, and stewing over that made her mood grow steadily worse no matter how nicely Cook had prepared the day’s squab.
When a brief flurry of snow whistled in through an open window Lord Anise took it as a personal affront. The goblets rattled as she brought her fist down against the table. “Vee!” she boomed, and the rest of the servants jumped. Lord Anise was usually much better with the concept of an “inside voice.”
“Hm?” said Naveesha. She didn’t look up from the hunk of rye bread she was meticulously tearing apart, dunking in her cup, and eating.
“If you coax out the wonders of the earth, and talk to all the little baby seeds, and diddle with the spirits of time or whatever, what is the absolute latest date we can start planting and not have the principality fucking starve to death next winter?”
Naveesha winced. “That’s a tall order, Anise. If I really busted my ass and cashed in as many favors as I’ve got, you have a month and a half, two months at the very most. Realistically, though? Three weeks. That’s one where I’m not left a husk at the end of it.”
“And when a jotun swears on the ice of her foremothers, does said ice tend to follow?”
“I guess?” They both looked over at the majordomo, who had spent the meal leafing through a tome as thick as a flooring brick. She shrugged helplessly.
“Fuck it,” said Lord Anise. “Madeline, I’m taking dinner in my chambers this evening. After tonight’s cleanup’s all done I want you to send Ylvhilde up to see me. Naveesha, you’re welcome to attend, too. We are going to have ourselves a talk.” The rest of the staff tried to look inconspicuous as they snuck looks at Ylvhilde, who herself was still busy holding the wine pitcher and affecting a doe-eyed, innocent demeanor. It was almost possible to forget her more inhuman quirks that way. Almost.
The majordomo nodded and flicked to a new page. “Will you want the usual pomegranate wine delivered halfway through, milord?” she asked, matter-of-factly.
“No! Yes. Maybe? Shit, I don’t know.” Lord Anise pinched the bridge of her nose and growled. “No for now, I’ll send a runner if I change my mind.”
“Very good, milord.”
She tried to focus on appeals from assorted foreign brassmakers and pewtersmiths, but her seething bad mood made it difficult to concentrate on what was a fair asking price and what was practically stealing the blood from the mountain people’s veins. When she ultimately gave up on matters of state and switched over to the lorebooks in the castle library, she ended up frustrated in an entirely different manner: There was so much recorded information on trolls, and so much of it directly contradictory, that she felt like she was sinking into quicksand that was intent on convincing her it was actually boggy loam. Naveesha kept to her own studies throughout the rest of the day. It was probably for the best; Lord Anise was keenly aware of how difficult she was to be around when something got stuck in her craw.
You could tie a knot in a troll’s tail to make them do your bidding, except when you couldn’t. You could expose them to sunlight and turn them to stone, except when that didn’t work, and Ylvhilde had looked perfectly happy out in the gray morning sun. You could steal a troll’s gold, but Lord Anise had accrued more wealth than she knew what to do with during her glory days and said wealth had led to her ending up in charge of a bunch of hungry peasants in the first place. You could speak a troll’s true name to make them bow to your every whim, but Ylvhilde did that on her own, save for any command that involved her going the fuck away. There was plenty in the library about how jotuns were creatures of ice and snow. There was blessed little about what to do when they brought extra with them when their royalty went on vacation.
The sky blazed and then darkened, and it was shortly after Lord Anise’s usual attendants got the fire going at a good roar that there was a questioning knock at the door. It was so faint that she thought it was the castle settling at first, but then she heard Naveesha’s muffled voice on the other side, followed by a far more forceful rapping. She stared into the fire to gather her thoughts. It was time to get things done.
“Come in. Shove her if you have to, Vee.”
Ylvhilde bounced in on her own, Naveesha trailing after her, and the door shut behind them with a thud. Ylvhilde was back in her embroidered dress again; Lord Anise was grateful for that, as she had a strict policy of neither terrorizing nor canoodling with anyone in a staff uniform, and it was possible the evening was going to require both. She beckoned from her seat by the fire. Naveesha once again proved herself invaluable by herding the wayward princess towards where she needed to be.
“So, your highness,” said Lord Anise, “I have a question for you.”
“My lord, my love, ask and I shall answer,” said Ylvhilde, who didn’t so much smile as effervesce. Lord Anise already dreaded how long she’d need to endure such an exhausting personality. “Is it for how long I’ve loved you? There’s a good answer for that one! Oh, oh, or perhaps you want to know the terribly dramatic things I said as I cast aside my crown for the sake of pursuing a common-born warrior? There’s a lot about the value of looking outside one’s immediate peerage in it! It’s very inspiring!”
Lord Anise briefly considered the pros and cons of sticking her head outside to rest it in the snow. “No, princess, I’m not going to be asking either of those,” she said. “This is a very important matter, because if I can’t solve my current problem, a lot of people are going to die, and it’s going to be my fault. They don’t want that and neither do I. I think you’re going to be the key to fixing this whole fuck-up. Are you listening?” Ylvhilde nodded. “What I need to know is whether or not you’ve slept with a woman before. Yes or no, please.”
This reduced Ylvhilde to a stammering mess as Naveesha rolled her eyes. “Why, my lord, I am but a simple maiden, pure as the driven snow—”
“Stuff it,” snapped Lord Anise. “The driven snow is what’s keeping my people from getting out in the fields and filling them full of future grain! Now answer my question: Do you know how to fuck a woman or not?”
“Ye-es…?” said Ylvhilde, uncertainly. “I’ve been with some of the shieldmaidens of my mother’s court before, and a fellow princess of the ash wastes, and a night-hag who brought me flowers, and maybe some others besides that I forgot.” She twisted her tail between her hands like she’d been caught stealing a roll from the baker’s tray. It was probably supposed to be charming. Much like her earlier attempts at being endearing, she failed utterly at it. “You’re not mad that I didn’t save myself all for you, are you, my lord…?”
Lord Anise groaned. “I don’t care! I had no idea who you even were until this morning! Yesterday she and I” —she pointed at Naveesha, who gave a little wave— “had so much goddamned sex my jaw was sore when I woke up! I really do! Not! Care! What I care about is whether or not fucking you is going to be miserable while I try to break this curse and make the shitty weather go away!”
A frog-like frown split Ylvhilde’s face in two. “My lord, why would it do that?”
“I don’t know! I really don’t!” Lord Anise threw up her hands and flopped backwards in the couch, which thankfully had been built for just such heavy use; she’d learned the hard way that lesser furniture didn’t expect to be manhandled by huge, meaty women with unreliable tempers. “I’m assuming it followed you. I’m assuming it has something to do with your oaths. I’m assuming that it, like certain other enchantments I could name, is okay with a quickie to seal the deal so it can fucking back off.” She whined through her nose like a cranky puppy. “I just want this problem to go away. I retired from the adventuring life to get as far from this kind of thing as possible, and now it’s back and it’s weird and I hate it.”
Ylvhilde crept closer, her tail still clasped in her hands. “Oh. Is that why you’re so upset, my lord? The storms?”
“Those aren’t mine, though,” she said. “Maybe they’re someone else’s, my lord, but they’re not mine. I tried to come in nice and quiet so I wouldn’t make a fuss. No storms.” She screwed up her mouth and glanced askance.
“You probably should’ve asked about that first, Anise,” said Naveesha. She had her scepter in one hand; the crystal at the end sloshed like it was full of shimmering liquid every time she tossed it in the air and caught it. Her bejeweled nails sparkled. Between her hands and her sorcerous implement she was casting a lot of interesting reflections across the wall. “Now you’ve gone and gotten her hopes up.” Ylvhilde shuffled in place. Was that a blush playing across her cheeks, or did trolls just look like that anyway?
Lord Anise groaned again. “Ugh. Sorry, your highness. We learned that the shit outside is troll-called and I jumped on the first right-looking answer I saw. That was shitty of me. It won’t happen again.”
Ylvhilde released her tail in favor of twisting the tips of her index fingers together. “Oh…well, if you still wanted to lie with me, I wouldn’t mind at all, my lord. It would be a great honor, actually! And, ah, maybe if there’s any other curses lying around, it might break those, instead?” Her mercurial expression shifted once again, this time settling on something hopeful.
That face full of hope refused to leave. She looked down at herself and twirled. “But I remembered to bring my finest dress! This is what humans like, yes?”
It was hard for Lord Anise to muster up more of an opinion. “Eh.”
Ylvhilde twirled again. “Am I not the vision of loveliness?” she asked. Her hair didn’t flow quite right when she moved: it was both too heavy and too flowing, like strands of seaweed or the tresses of an underwater corpse. Her dress did not share this property.
“Is it the fact that I’m born of jotunkind, my love?”
Had Lord Anise been asked that question a few hours ago she would have given a very different answer than the one she found she had just then. “It’s not the troll thing,” she said, truthfully. “I am more than fine with the troll thing. Monsters in general, even. I ate out a dragon once and was fine with it.” Granted, “once” was an understatement and said dragon had also been wearing a more-or-less human-sized and human-shaped disguise, but the most memorable time had been after Lord Anise had ridden on her back across a mountain range ringed with black-burning ice, and like many dragons who were so inclined old Gananthal had left the horns and some of the scales on when she compressed herself down. Maybe if Ylvhilde had gone for something more like that instead of a blob-eyed nightmare…. “It’s more like an uncanniness thing. You’re wearing a shape that’s too human in some places and not human enough in others. It’s kind of weird. I’ve got broad taste in broads, but you’re pushing it, Princess Ylvhilde.”
“But are you sure, my lord? I gladly will do whatever you ask of me!”
“Anise, darling, this is getting sad,” said Naveesha. “Either take her highness up on her offer or send her off to bed. I’ve got a storm to be studying and I can’t babysit you two all night.” Naveesha always had been the voice of reason whenever Lord Anise had ended up tangled in her own conflicting thoughts. It was one of the many reasons they’d remained friends for so long.
Lord Anise closed her eyes and tried to think of what Gananthal would say. Probably something about seeking the wisdom within, though she told everyone that because it made her sound very clever without having to exert much effort on her part. You didn’t get to be as old as she was without learning a few sneaky tricks along the way, to say nothing of the right time to use them. Gananthal was cunning like that.
Gananthal had also taken in an unexpected guest who’d tumbled into her hoard wounded and alone, and been very accommodating to said guest’s needs while the latter’s broken leg healed, including those needs of a more carnal nature, and hadn’t that all worked out for the best? Lord Anise still got a little parcel of rare coins every Wintertide and kept a spare room open for a certain black-haired woman with topaz-studded skin who happened to walk down from the mountains every summer. Maybe what worked for a dragon would work for a troll, except this time Lord Anise was the one humoring her visitor. Maybe if everyone kept their eyes closed the eye thing wouldn’t be a problem, either.
Maybe it would all go spectacularly wrong, too, but you couldn’t be a proper hero without a bit of a reckless streak.
“Fine. Ylvhilde, I’m going to take a bath and touch myself until I’m not quite so irritable anymore, and if you still want to fool around after that, well, I won’t be quite so irritable. We’ll figure it out from there. That work for you?”
Ylvhilde made a weird bugling noise like an elk in rut. It was hopefully a happy sound, given how she threw her arms around Lord Anise’s tree trunk of a bicep and squeaked in an unfamiliar language. The lord, already having second thoughts, sighed. She’d developed a taste for pillow talk in foreign tongues, but none of the ones she knew sounded like an army of spring peepers having rocks thrown at them. Maybe it was a good idea and maybe she was going to make an ass out of herself again.
“I’m sure you’ll make beautiful music together,” said Naveesha. She pushed herself off of the pillar she’d been leaning against and brushed down her robes. “I’m going back to my quarters. Please don’t eat my best friend, your highness.”
“I promise I won’t! By my ears and tail I swear it!”
“And don’t be mean to the goofy kid, Anise.”
“Goodnight, you two.” The door latch clacked in place behind her.
Lord Anise stood up and, failing to peel Ylvhilde off of her arm, dragged the squeaking princess along with her to the bathing corner of her room where she prepared a kettle and worked the bath pump she’d insisted they install shortly after she took charge of the castle. Ylvhilde seemed happy to cling in place. Lord Anise didn’t bother shaking her off until it came time to add the hot water to the cold; she took advantage of her new freedom to strip down to little but the knife in her hair. She emptied a little packet of crystals one of the alchemists she knew had sent her into the water, turning it a brilliant teal. The show was enough to keep the princess quiet as Lord Anise lowered herself into the tub to soak.
A hot bath had long been one of Lord Anise’s favorite ways to unwind, and the warmth seeped into her aging bones like an old friend. For a little while she could forget about vicious weather and weird jotunbrood she might or might not be fingering within the evening and just let her mind drift. The scent of the bath crystals tingled her nostrils pleasantly. It had been like this when she’d stayed with Gananthal to let her leg heal up, maybe not just like it but very similar, with plenty of heated pools to relax in, and once they’d come to an understanding her soaks had often had Gananthal in them, too. How many people could say they’d fucked a dragon? Probably several, given the average dragon’s lifespan and libido, but those who had done so multiple times couldn’t have numbered that many. Lord Anise’s life was interesting enough to fill an entire volume of one of the huge tomes they kept downstairs.
She had already forgotten Ylvhilde by the time her hand first went between her legs, and if she heard a squeaking gasp of delight from somewhere outside the bath, well, what was outside the bath was an outside-the-bath kind of problem, and outside-the-bath kinds of problems could wait for Lord Anise to finish getting herself off. She pushed and tweaked, rubbed and thrusted. When she came it was to the thought of someone who looked like Naveesha wearing Gananthal’s topaz-chip scales. Sure enough, some of the day’s irritability was finally gone. Lord Anise slid backwards and let her head hang upside down out of the tub.
Opening her eyes to what seemed like approximately five hundred thousand of Ylvhilde’s teeth was not how she expected to come down from her little thought vacation. She blinked and Ylvhilde smiled wider, somehow, and that was that: Lord Anise was very much back in the here-and-now. Agreeing to this meant potentially waking up to that, too. Could someone get used to it if the sex was hot enough?
“You seemed to be having a very nice time, my lord,” said the princess. “You were so lovely, stretching out all your scars like that for me. The one on your leg is very big! Does it trouble you, my love?”
“Nah. I got that fixed up years ago. Doesn’t even hurt when the weather changes.”
They were able to make small talk until the water finally went all the way cold, and while the teeth thing was awful and the way Ylvhilde looked at Lord Anise’s face and her scars with two different eyes was also awful the conversation wasn’t the worst.
“So is the tail a weak spot or what, your highness? Or do you just have them?”
“Well, it is much like how you might have a nose, in that they come in different lengths. Except they’re not for smelling with. And you really ought not to go tweaking someone else’s tail in public unless you’re trying to make quite the scene.”
“So you mean it’s like going up and honking someone on the tit?”
Ylvhilde laughed and blushed behind her hands. “Oh! My Lord Anise, that’s such a rude thought! Imagine!” She peeked shyly through her fingers. This time that ghastly toothy smile was almost in the same ocean as fetching. “…But you may give mine a little tug now and then, if it pleases you, my love. I might like it.”
Conversation turned to flirting, which Lord Anise wasn’t as good at as Naveesha but which she still enjoyed quite a bit. From there she reached down into her wellspring of the human spirit and dredged up whatever she could find to help her appreciate her current company—and maybe Ylvhilde couldn’t help looking that way, glamour or no, and even if her anatomy did grotesque things more or less all the time was that really a good reason to turn away someone so sweet and eager?—to start herself trotting down the short road leading to fucking someone new.
Her thoughts returned to the chewed-on frame in the guest room. “I don’t know what it’s like where you come from, but even a big tough human like me is made up of soft meat. So you can kiss but don’t bite, right?”
The princess nodded furiously. “I will be so gentle, my love.”
They briefly discussed the simplest of things, such as how Ylvhilde really did want to be told what to do and how Lord Anise was fine with this, but no sooner had Lord Anise gotten the princess’s dress off than she found a small-fingered hand pressed against her heart. She looked down into Ylvhilde’s face, if not necessarily her eyes. “Problem?”
Ylvhilde fretted. “I must tell you, my lord…when I spoke of those I’ve been with before, they were not, ah, human-shaped at the time. Nor was I. You will be the first and only one to touch me as your handmaiden, my lord.” She bit her knuckle. “What if I don’t know where all the parts go and I’m dreadful? What if I’m so dreadful you don’t wish to speak to me anymore, and you really do send me away with lunch in a bindle?” Now there was a reasonable fear. It explained some of her other quirks, too, like the bizarre bounding gait she adopted even when taking dirty dishes away.
“Hey, don’t worry about it, princess,” said Lord Anise. “What’s important is that we have fun, eh?”
“Fun! Yes! So long as we have fun it’s good.” Ylvhilde’s tail wagged with happiness. Lord Anise wet her lips and made sure not to look at the eye thing too long. She’d distract herself from the weird parts, they’d learn a little from each other, and even if it wasn’t the best lay she’d ever had she’d at least gotten Ylvhilde talking. Maybe if things went well she’d consider looking into hiring a castle troll to patrol the grounds when not helping Cook. What could possibly go wrong?
It turned out the answer was “quite a lot.”
The sex was bad. Very, very bad. It was so bad Lord Anise wondered if it was possible to somehow have an un-orgasm that would dive back into the pages of history and undo nice sex had in the past. Ylvhilde was as coordinated as a broken windmill and about half as erotically skilled. They wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if Lord Anise hadn’t hauled on Ylvhilde’s tail to get her attention then licked at the princess’s clit like their lives depended on it. She wasn’t sure what she had expected a troll to taste like, but it was good, almost as good as the fucking was bad, and she allowed herself a moment of remorse that a vag as sweet as Ylvhilde’s had the misfortune of being attached to the walking disaster that was Princess Ylvhilde herself. Lord Anise lapped at Ylvhilde until she came (and promptly fell asleep), then gracelessly untangled herself from the mess of bedsheets before .
She tried to think of something nice to say and settled on something vague enough to mean anything. “I hope you got what you came here for, your highness.” When this didn’t get much of an answer aside from breathless crooning, Lord Anise took it as permission to start getting dressed again.
Surely no one existed who couldn’t be taught to improve, but there were only so many hours in a day and Lord Anise was already spending too many of them stretched thin. Even if they never slept together again she felt like she owed whomever the princess might fancy in the future the decency of leaving things a little bit nicer than she’d first found them. How did you politely tell someone you wanted to help them learn some new tricks because they weren’t satisfying? Then again, it could be that trolls fucked in a way that humans, or at least Lord Anise, found unexciting at best, and that was the real source of the problem. Maybe there was a book in the library Ylvhilde could borrow?
Lord Anise had meant to step out to pace the hallways a bit to keep from waking Ylvhilde, but when she opened the door she was greeted by Naveesha with a wine bottle in one hand and the other raised to knock. Naveesha eyed her disheveled hair and grinned like a cat.
“So-ho-ho, how did your rendezvous with the princess go?”
Lord Anise to see if Ylvhilde was still asleep before answering. “Awful!” she whispered, forcefully.
Naveesha frowned and said, “I thought you liked a woman who can take orders.”
“Yeah, I like it when a woman does that, not a dish towel. She’s the floppiest mess I’ve ever bedded and that’s counting me back when I didn’t yet know how fuckin’ worked.” Lord Anise leaned against the doorframe, her face painted with defeat. “I’m telling myself it’s nothing personal, and I don’t want to insult her or anything to her face, but whoof, I was drifting off and thinking about alloys in the middle of it.”
“Bless her heart.” Naveesha tucked the bottle under one arm. “I’m not here solely to ask you to kiss and tell, though. I’ve found out more about the storm. It’s tied to a jotun, just not that jotun. And it’s the kind of wacky weather magic that doesn’t exactly go out ahead of its owner, if you get my meaning. Something nasty’s on the way.”
That was as far as she got before the night’s stillness was shattered by the eerie baying of the hounds in the yard.
Lord Anise clapped her hands over her ears until she acclimated to the keening. “That it now?” she mouthed. Naveesha nodded. “Help me suit up, then. Seems we’re due for an old-fashioned monster mash.”
Ylvhilde slept through the lot of it, even the part where one of Lord Anise’s faulds fell off the armor rack with a crash, and the more frantic the hounds became the more impressive it was that she either didn’t hear it or didn’t want to. As for Naveesha, she had helped Lord Anise get into her gear nearly as often as she’d helped get the lord out of it, so there was no question about which buckle attached where or what cords needed tying off before another layer went on.
Hurried footsteps padded down the hallway leading to Lord Anise’s chambers. There were no knocks at the door or even coded tapping before the majordomo burst in, still in her nightclothes and quite out of breath. Her glasses weren’t on straight.
“A great beast has been sighted in the forest, milord!” she said. Those assembled paused a moment to look at Ylvhilde, who was very much present and very much still asleep in a cocoon of borrowed bedsheets. The majordomo swore. “I am dismayed to say that it appears to be something other than the Princess Ylvhilde!” she continued, as a woman of her station was responsible for delivering the most accurate of news, no matter how obvious.
“Report,” said Lord Anise as she fastened another strap.
“Milord, in these past two hours a hunter came across the trail of a large creature with a gait and prints unlike any known in these parts. While concerning, it is not unknown for fell beasts to find their way into the woods this time of year. The original plan was for a party to retrace its steps in the morning to ensure it hadn’t broken any fences or gotten into someone’s cistern.”
Lord Anise nodded. So far everything sounded according to protocol.
“Plans changed when two cattle carcasses with a single bite taken from each showed up on this same trail. The hunter came to the night watch outside the bailey first, and they alerted me immediately. I checked on the hounds myself as soon as I heard them start. I wanted to be sure there would be something to tell you, milord, and so that we would not have a repeat of a certain earlier incident.” Said incident had been one where the hounds were being teased by a wall guard who kept dangling a piece of cheese on a string. It hadn’t ended well. “I regret not having little else to tell you, milord, but events are unfolding as we speak. The only other thing we know is that it mostly walks on two legs, long tail, has a mouth big enough to chomp out the better part of a whole cow?”
“That sounds a lot like what my research said we’d find,” said Naveesha as she tugged on the last piece of plating to check its seating. “Me and Anise will go take care of it. Try to keep the princess out of harm’s way if you can, too.”
“Of course, my lady. I’ll get some cider heating for when you return.”
With minimal fanfare Lord Anise hurried to the castle stables, saddled her best and fiercest warhorse, and charged into the snow. She didn’t bother waiting for Naveesha; a sorcerer never did anything as mundane as riding if it wasn’t for pleasure, and if the two of them were to confront the thing head-on then it was for the best that they use their own methods.
The hounds that walked the outer walls yelped and whined as she rode past without beckoning them to her side. On a normal day she’d stop to play with them or even permit them to follow her, but this was not a normal day, and if the thing in the trees had any friends she’d need something just as nasty standing guard. Lord Anise had to think very hard about responsibility (and not, say, bright little eyes and wagging stump tails) as the hounds’ cries turned plaintive, then faded away until her horse’s hoofbeats were enough to drown them out. She promised herself she’d make it up to them later.
There was enough fresh snow on the ground to easily see the thing’s trail but not so much new snowfall that said trail was completely covered up. At least this way tracking it would be easy. Lord Anise checked her grip on her spear and shield as she spurred her horse forward. Battle plans ran through her head. If it was large and usually kept its weight hunched forward, like a boar, she could charge past and strike a deep, bleeding wound in the side; if it stood up straighter then she could use her spear’s sharpened edge to hobble the thing as she rode past; if it was neither of those things, like a giant snake with tiny arms or something, she’d figure it out. Not even blinding it was a sure option since who knew how many heads it had? She’d seen about as many types of trolls as she’d seen trolls, period, and you never quite knew what you were going to get with them.
The more she rode the worse the weather became.
Red flecked the blue-tinged moonlit snow. Lord Anise narrowed her eyes and hoped it was leftovers from the cows the thing had eaten, or perhaps a deer that had crossed its path. The trail swerved drunkenly towards the briar-choked part of the trees, and she was soon forced to dismount. Her horse snorted a cloud of steam and stamped its hooves when she stepped away from it.
“Easy, girl,” she said, her voice low. “I can’t ride you in there. Vee’s coming to help me, so don’t worry.” The horse, which was a common warhorse and therefore did not understand language at all, whickered again. Lord Anise sighed and hooked a feedbag into its bridle, then gave it a comforting thump on the flank. “Try not to end up dinner yourself,” she whispered.
Her boots crunched through ice-slick twigs as she followed the trail into the thicket. Her shield helped when it came to trailblazing, since a large hunk of wood and metal did a fine job of pushing away wayward thorns, but within a few dozen paces she regretted wearing her cloak in with her, no matter how warm it was. The damn thing felt like it was catching on every single briar in the countryside. Taking it off would mean dealing with the cold. Leaving it on meant having to unstick herself. Was any solution the right one, here? She wished she’d thought to bring a machete.
A rustle behind her caused Lord Anise to freeze in place. Something was rushing towards her, and by the cadence of its steps it was coming on all fours. It sounded too small to match the trail. It wasn’t headed from the same direction as the trail, either; while Lord Anise’s prey might well have feet that were stuck on backwards, since who even knew with jotuns, the dragging patterns of the thing’s tail and what might have been knuckles on a set of massive hands were definitely heading deeper into the thorns. She peered into the darkness. Something white, green, and blue bounded towards her with speed not seen in even the swiftest deer. She could almost make out a familiar pointed nose when the shape pounced at her; it grabbed on to her waist and it was sheer self-discipline that kept her from spearing the unexpected dead weight.
“My life for yours!” cried the increasingly familiar shape in Ylvhilde’s voice, and Lord Anise groaned.
“Oh my God, go away, your highness.”
Ylvhilde looked up at the lord with her runny-egg eyes. They were even more uncanny by the light of the moon. “But, my lord, my love, a dreadful foe approaches,” she said, lip quivering. “If you don’t flee, you’ll surely be eaten—”
“I am the motherfucking hero of Rasva,” said Lord Anise, “and there’s not a beast in this world I’m afraid of.” Right on cue the snow got worse, the fat flakes now swirling in a howling wind. Hissing sheets of ice crystals tumbled from the boughs overhead while icicles chimed against each other as the trees themselves shook. Lord Anise set her feet and tilted her visor to block the worst of it. She knew what to expect from bewitched storms: Rasva had been like this, too. Any minute now something with fangs the size of her arm would burst through the brambles from a hiding space it had no business fitting into. There would be blood. It needed to not be her own.
The princess clung to Lord Anise and whimpered. “But it is not any mere beast that draws near, my love! I know this ice, I know this snow! My mother herself has come here to reclaim me!”
Calling a troll a princess might have simply been a formality, the kind of vestigial nobility the Fair Folk liked to wear when playing at being people, and maybe in some cases that was so. In some cases Ylvhilde would have been just a terribly silly creature who had wandered away from her birth warren to play at being human, too. This was not one of those cases: Here, where one had a troll princess, one also had a troll queen. A troll queen whose daughter had taken a mighty piss on generations of tradition and run away, no less, and who had come to take said daughter back to the Aisentrees. A troll queen presumably named Old Long-Tooth, and if other jotunbrood thought your teeth were long then it was a wonder your mouth could close at all.
Lord Anise’s stomach felt like it was made of lead. “Oh. Well, shit.”
A roar shook another rain of icicles from the branches and Old Queen Long-Tooth made herself known.
She must have been the size of a house. There was a definite family resemblance involved, as the queen’s hide was fish-belly white where it showed between the locks of greenish hair that covered her back; it fell over her eyes, as well, though they shone wet and black as she tossed her head and they looked to do the same dreadful independently-moving eye thing that her daughter’s did. A long tail, like a rat’s but far larger, dragged behind her, tufted with that same green. Her nose was the length of Lord Anise’s calf. Her claws tore through the underbrush as neatly as a harvester’s scythe. There were other details that were harder to notice given the sheer size and number of teeth involved in her ink-dark pit of a mouth. Lord Anise had seen worse, but she usually hadn’t fucked their daughters beforehand.
Fighting something that big was supposed to take place out in the open, like a nice field or a canyon where you could actually maneuver around and not simply stand there with nothing between you and the big scary thing; Lord Anise cursed herself for getting sloppy and wandering into the middle of a natural corridor with nowhere to go but forward and back. She should have prepared more. She should have brought hounds with her. She should have done anything other than bumble along into an apex predator’s line of sight without so much as a back-up plan, but the time for regrets was over. She pushed Ylvhilde behind her and raised her spear. If she was going to die, it wasn’t going to be without a fight, and that fight would be glorious.
A snow goose caught up in the sudden changing winds honked plaintively and flopped down by Lord Anise’s feet. The moon caught one of its bird-mad eyes, making it gleam, and that reflection was suddenly shaped like a woman’s face, and in another instant Naveesha had stepped from her shelter inside the goose’s eye to raise a ring of bright fire around herself, Lord Anise, and Ylvhilde. The gems affixed to her nails glowed with power as she drew down the moon into herself to ready another spell. Sorcery and witchcraft played very well together when one bothered to learn how.
“About fucking time, Vee!”
“Cut me some slack, you know I’m bad with storms.”
The queen slammed her palm down through the fire ring and sent the three scattering. Naveesha wove webs of searing light that the queen slashed in half before they could entangle her, Lord Anise jabbed at the queen’s thigh but might as well have been stabbing at a cliff face, and Ylvhilde ran around in circles yammering about how everything was just a terrible accident and how “her love” (as in Lord Anise) had nothing to do with it and “her love” (as in the emotion) was busy trying to triumph over all and how Old Queen Long-Tooth would understand if she’d only stop being so mean. None of their approaches had much of an effect.
Naveesha rose into the sky with her scepter. Once there, she conjured forth meteors and tongues of fire one after the other. These melted the ice that clung to the queen’s fur, their intense heat boiling the snow before it struck the ground, but the queen may as well have been touched by falling leaves for all the attention she paid them. A stray caster’s comet nearly roasted Lord Anise when the queen batted it to the side, and were it not for her shield she might have lost the fight right there. If nothing else there was going to be a very large dent and a lot of scorch marks to fix if she ever made it back to the castle. It was an uncharacteristically defeatist thought for her, but the longer they tangled uselessly with the queen the truer it felt.
A gust of wind caught under Lord Anise’s shield and knocked her off-balance. She fell to one knee, but instead of a crushing trollish foot bearing down on her she looked up to see the princess standing between herself and the queen, arms outstretched as the gale whipped at the hem of her dress.
“No, mother!” shouted Ylvhilde over the storm. “I will not let you do this!” Lord Anise gritted her teeth. That was the sort of thing people said shortly before doing something foolish.
Ylvhilde undid the ribbon in her hair. There was a ripping sound and a small, muffled boom as the air rushed away from her, and in place of her oddly-proportioned humanoid guise stood a more traditional-looking troll who, while smaller, still looked very much like her mother. That had definitely been one of the things lurking in the mist back at Rasva. Lord Anise tried to focus on avoiding the queen’s raking talons and not studying what the princess looked like now, but focusing was harder than it sounded when those tits and that ass were back on a frame that was built for them. Now was not the time to evaluate the effective pulchritude of a monster who wasn’t trying to pass as human anymore. Now was a matter of life or death!
She rolled out of the way of another fist as it slammed into the ground next to her. Her spear struck a dozen times and a dozen times she felt stone-hard flesh turn it aside, but Lord Anise had yet to meet a monster of the queen’s stature without a weak spot. If she could just keep dodging and keep trying, she was sure to find one eventually. A sweep of the queen’s tail caught her in the chest, sending her rolling, and for a moment she couldn’t realize why Old Queen Long-Tooth hadn’t finished the job while Lord Anise was still breathless and reeling. Maybe old heroes weren’t the only ones who got sloppy in a giant monster fight.
A shout from Naveesha snapped her back to reality. “Anise! Problem!”
Lord Anise turned and felt her nerves flare hot: The queen had Ylvhilde by the hair, and while the princess was putting up a decent fight it was clear that the queen’s size and experience had already won the struggle. She snarled something in what might have been a jotun language and Ylvhilde shrieked in her now much deeper voice. This only angered the queen further, who seized Ylvhilde’s beribboned tail and yanked on it hard. The princess wailed and went limp. Lord Anice winced in sympathy. If that was really as sore a spot as she’d been led to believe then Ylvhilde’s mother had effectively punched her daughter right in the junk. Was this normal for jotun royalty? Then again, if a tail-tug was enough to incapacitate a little firecracker like Ylvhilde, and there was already a family resemblance….
An old tree leaned at an angle from where the queen had pushed past it. It looked solid and heavy, and felt like a hardwood when she tested her spear against it; there was scarcely an ounce of rotted-out punk to the entire trunk. Its half-exposed roots corkscrewed uselessly in the storm-wracked air. It wouldn’t take much for it to fall over, and there was just enough room to get a running start. Lord Anise’s plan fell into place like the click of a crossbow lock.
Lord Anise made a series of frantic hand signals at Naveesha: lead target near me. Naveesha signed back an affirmative and redoubled her spells. The queen’s steps were heavy as she tried to get a bead on the airborne witch, the hand not holding Ylvhilde swiping at the air with the brutal efficiency of a war machine, but Naveesha was seasoned in the art of fighting foes on the queen’s scale. Her dancing lights dazzled the queen every time a swing drew too close for comfort. Bit by bit she lured the queen towards where Lord Anise waited, and bit by bit the second part of the plan came into focus. At the pivotal moment Naveesha threw a cloud of glittering dust into the queen’s face to stun her as Lord Anise charged, shoulder-first, into the tree, which came crashing down across the queen’s bloated tail.
The sound that came out of Old Queen Long-Tooth was like a seal rolling down a hill, just several times louder than any seal alive. She dropped Ylvhilde and fell to the ground like a bag of old cabbage, and the once blinding storm was nothing more than a few flurries by the time the queen finished bleating. She tried to pull herself free to no avail: her vulnerable spot had been well and truly struck.
Lord Anise sauntered up to squat next to the queen’s mossy-tressed head. “So, ah, let’s make this short, right?” she said. “Your kid’s a guest here. That means I’m obligated as her host to keep bad shit from happening to her. Lakhsrumistan is my territory, got it?” The queen bugled and rolled her eyes. That probably meant she was listening. “I’m not keeping her here against her will. Whenever she gets bored of washing pots and pans she’s free to walk right out the door and back to whatever weird-ass place you come from. Give her some time. Right now she’d be a shitty monarch, anyway, if she cares so little about the place that she’d just run away one day because she got a boner for a human she saw once.”
“Hey!” said Ylvhilde, who was able to sit up again and still very large. She pouted around her fangs.
“Princess, I don’t think you know a good goddamn about running a country, and if I had a tail of my own I’d be willing to swear an oath on it.” Ylvhilde huffed petulantly. Lord Anise returned her attention to the helpless queen. “Consider it a learning experience for her. She sees how humans rule their subjects, maybe she won’t be quite so clueless when she finally goes back to the Aisentrees.” She straightened up and nudged the queen in the nose with her boot. “So how about we leave you alone to recover, you take all this shitty snow that’s making my people sad and fuck on off, and I won’t cut your tail off to hang over my throne. Deal?”
“She’d do it, too,” added Naveesha. “Trust me on this one.”
Old Queen Long-Tooth growled reluctantly, then nodded. “I swear it,” she lisped in a gravelly voice. As the last syllable left her lips the remaining flurries stopped, soon to be replaced by a gentle breeze tinged with a hint of springtime warmth.
Lord Anise clapped her hands together. “Well, great! That’s taken care of. Ladies, let’s clean up and go back home.” She smiled down at the queen. “Remember, if you go back on your word, I’m writing to all my old war buddies. Just a little thought for you in case you were thinking of trying to weasel out of your oath.”
The tree crushing the queen’s tail was too heavy for Lord Anise and Naveesha to move on their own, but Ylvhilde was able to pick it up like a piece of dried kindling. They left the queen in the clearing; nothing natural in those woods would dare to approach something that smelled of troll and given the late hour nobody was eager to wait around until she had recovered enough to limp back home. Lord Anise’s horse was right where she’d left it, Naveesha could fly for hours in clear weather, and Ylvhilde had the benefit of a naturally long stride; between the three of them they made good time on their return to the castle.
“Um. My love?” asked Ylvhilde as the keep’s spires appeared on the horizon.
“It’s going to be a while before I can put together a new human disguise again. I’m going to be, um, stuck like this. For a bit. Until it’s fixed again. Are you mad at me?”
“Nah, I’m not mad. ” Lord Anise pushed back her visor to get a better view of the inner Ylvhilde. The proportions made so much more sense now, as did the plethora of teeth, and while Gananthal had been a tall drink of water when human-shaped, Lord Anise had entertained the occasional thought of what it’d be like if she’d stayed more dragon-sized now and again, just for a change of pace. Besides, they could use someone with claws like that to get the fields plowed in double-time. It could be fun having a troll around the castle. Given how much more confidently Ylvhilde loped alongside her there was even hope for the awful floppy bad sex thing. Lord Anise could do something with this.
“Tonight I’m exhausted. Tomorrow we’ll get you some new clothes and find a new job for you. Day after that I’m holding court, so you’ll get some first-hand experience in handling the most unbelievably petty bullshit you ever heard, then bending over backwards to make sure those petty little assholes go to bed with full stomachs and peace of mind. It’s a learned skill just like anything else. Whenever you go back, I’m sending you back flawless.”
“I hope you’re still good at taking advice, your highness,” said Naveesha.
“I hope you’ve got a high tolerance for boredom,” agreed Lord Anise.
“I hope the puppies let me pet them again!” said Ylvhilde as the call of a hound sounded in the distance. Lord Anise snapped her visor down and told herself that everyone was a work in progress at some point. It was going to be a long few months, or maybe years if Ylvhilde didn’t wander off somewhere. They’d cover future planning later. For now, they’d rescued themselves an honest-to-honor princess, and if said princess wanted to pet the hounds, she could pet the hounds. There were worse ways to restart a professional relationship.
Lord Anise’s long nights caught up with her all at once and she fell asleep in the saddle. In the morning she’d no doubt get an earful from the majordomo about dozing on horseback while in full field kit, but until then she would dream of tilled fields, gold-painted smiles, and overlarge eyes that wandered off in different directions, and it would be worth it.