The Master and the Queen
It is natural to doubt your true love when you do not know if he is young or old.
He certainly looks young, Sophie thought, peering at the lean, shirtless boy as he gazed out the tower window, bathed in faded sunlight. Sophie studied his hairless white skin and snug black breeches, his thick spiked hair the color of snow, his tight-veined arms, his glacier-blue eyes. . . . He didn’t look a day more than sixteen. And yet somewhere within this beautiful stranger was a soul older than sixteen—much, much older than sixteen. For the last three weeks, then, Sophie had refused his ring. How could she bond herself to a boy with the School Master inside of him?
And yet the more Sophie looked at him, the more she couldn’t see the School Master. All Sophie could see was a fresh, ethereal youth asking for her hand, with sharp cheekbones and full lips—more handsome than a prince, more powerful than a prince, and unlike Prince You-Know-Who, this boy was hers.
Sophie reddened, remembering she was all alone in this world. Everyone else had abandoned her. Every desperate effort to be Good had been punished with betrayal. She had no family, no friends, no future. And now, this ravishing boy in front of her was her last hope for love. Panic burned through her muscles and dried out her throat. There was no choice anymore. Sophie swallowed and slowly stepped towards him.
Look at him. He’s no older than you, she soothed herself. The boy of your dreams. She reached shaking fingers for his bare shoulder . . . until she suddenly froze in her tracks. It was only magic that had brought this boy to life, she thought, pulling her hand back into her sleeve. But how long does magic last?
“You’re asking yourself the wrong questions,” came the smooth voice. “Magic thinks nothing of time.”
Sophie lifted her eyes. The boy didn’t look at her, his focus on the sallow sun, barely a force through the morning fog.
“Since when can you hear my thoughts?” Sophie said, unnerved.
“I don’t need to hear thoughts to know how a Reader’s mind thinks,” he replied.
Sophie took her place beside him in her black cloak, feeling the chill off his marble-colored skin. She thought of Tedros’ skin, always sweaty and tan, with the warmth of a bear’s. A hot flash bolted through her body—rage or regret or something in between. She forced herself closer to the boy, her arm brushing his pale chest.
He still didn’t look at her.
“What is it?” Sophie asked.
“The sun,” he said, watching it flicker through the mist. “Every day it rises weaker than the one before.”
“If only you had power to make the sun shine too,” Sophie murmured. “Every day could be a tea party.”
The boy shot her a sour glare. Sophie stiffened, reminded that unlike her once Good best friend, her new suitor was neither Good nor friendly. She quickly looked back out the window, shivering at an icy breeze. “Oh for heaven’s sake, suns weaken in the winter. Don’t need a sorcerer to know that.”
“Perhaps it takes a Reader to explain this too,” he replied, sweeping to the white stone table in the corner, where a long, knife-sharp pen, shaped like a knitting needle, hovered over an open storybook. Sophie turned to the book, glimpsing the colors of the last page: her painted self kissing the School Master back to youth as her best friend vanished home with a prince.
“Three weeks since the Storian wrote our Never After,” said the boy. “Within days, it should have begun a new story with love on Evil’s side now. Love that will destroy Good, one fairy tale at a time. Love that turns the pen into Evil’s weapon instead of its curse.” His eyes narrowed to slits. “Instead it reopens the book it just closed and stays there, hanging over The End like a play whose curtain won’t shut.”
Sophie couldn’t look away from Agatha and Tedros on the page, embracing lovingly as they disappeared. Sophie’s gut twisted, her face searing hot— “Here,” she croaked, slamming the cover down on them, and shoving the cherry-red storybook next to The Frog Prince, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and the rest of the Storian’s finished tales. Her heartbeat calmed. “Curtain shut.”
Instantly the book ricocheted off the shelf and smashed into her face, knocking her against the wall, before it flew onto the stone table, swinging open to the last page once more. The Storian glimmered defiantly above it.
“This is no accident,” spoke the boy, stalking towards Sophie as she rubbed her stinging cheek. “The Storian keeps our world alive by writing new stories, and at the moment, it has no intention of moving on from your story. And as long as the pen does not move on to a new story, the sun dies, day by day, until the Woods go dark and it is The End for us all.”
Sophie looked up at him, silhouetted by the weak light. “But—but what is it waiting for?”
He leaned in and touched her neck, his fingers frigid on her peach-cream skin. Sophie recoiled, jamming into the bookshelf. The boy smiled and drew closer, blocking out the sun. “I’m afraid it has doubts whether I’m your true love,” he cooed. “It has doubts whether you’ve committed to Evil. It has doubts whether your friend and her prince should be gone forever.”
Sophie slowly gazed up at the black shadow.
“It meaning you,” said the School Master, holding out his hand.
Sophie looked down to see the ring of gold in his cold, young palm and her terrified face in its reflection.
Three weeks before, Sophie had kissed the School Master into a boy and banished her best friend home. For a moment, she’d felt the relief of victory as Agatha silently disappeared with Tedros. Her best friend may have chosen a prince over her, but there was no such thing as a prince in Gavaldon. Agatha would die an ordinary girl, with an ordinary boy, while she basked in Ever After, far, far away. Wrapped in the arms of her true love, soaring towards his silver tower in the sky, Sophie waited to feel happy. She’d won her fairy tale and winning was supposed to mean happiness.