“MARGARET, HOLD STİLL.” I struggled to do as Mother asked. The lace on my cuffs was making my arm itch. She wound a thick strand of my dark hair up to the top of my head and pinned it in place. In the mirror, I stared at my reflection. Mother was almost done. “Are there any biscuits left?” I asked. “You’ll be covered in crumbs.” “An apple then?” “There will be food later.” “Food that I can hold but not eat for fear of a speck marring my perfection.” My pleasant tone didn’t soften the disapproval in my words. Mother gave me a cross look as she pinned the last strand into place. “You act as if we are cruel to you, when we only ask what all parents ask. Marriage will ensure you have a home and a family to call your own.” “This is not my home? You are not my family?” She tsked.
“Go eat your apple, willful child. Remember my graciousness when you consider mischief tonight. And keep yourself clean.” “Yes, Mother.” I gave her a quick curtsy and exited the room, keeping the mischievous smile from my lips. I wasn’t hungry for an apple, only an excuse to escape. Keeping my steps measured, I maintained the picture of poise and beauty as I made my way down the staircase. Father’s study doors were closed. Stepping softly, I swiftly passed them and went to the kitchen. “You look lovely, Miss Margaret,” Judith said a bit too loudly.
The cook ignored us both, her focus on the spices in the cabinet. “Mother said I could have an apple. Are there any?” “No apples. Only pears.” “That will have to do.” Judith smirked and, with an obedient bob of her head, went to the cold storage. She was the closest thing I had to a friend. She knew I wasn’t like the rest. Whatever wealth or title my family possessed, it did not change how I viewed my position in life. It did not give me the right to look down upon or mistreat others.
However, I was not yet free to make my own rules and openly befriend Judith. Doing so would cause her dismissal. No matter how I thought of myself, it was how my parents thought of me that mattered. And they thought me above mingling with the servants. She returned with the pear. I accepted it from her with a smile. “Thank you, Judith.” She nodded and glanced at the cook. I waited until she smiled to bite into the pear and wandered toward the door. I grabbed her cloak and eased it over my shoulders.
I knew she wouldn’t mind me borrowing it, and the cover would hopefully hide the majority of my cream skirt. As soon as I had it on, I called to the Cook. “Please inform my parents that I will meet them at the House of Greylin.” I opened the door and slipped outside before the cook could react. Lifting my skirts, I ran. My passage startled several of the stable hands. I raced through the yard and out onto the cobbled streets where horse-drawn carriages moved slowly through the light foot traffic. The nearest startled at my sudden appearance. I chuckled as the well-dressed man struggled for control. It took several minutes before I reached the smaller homes further away from the castle.
Ducking onto a dirt path between two houses, I pulled up my hood. A running servant wouldn’t be noticed here, but a well-bred young woman might. I continued walking at a brisk pace, competing with the darkening sky. A curl of purple-grey smoke rising from the chimney of a thatched roof house heralded the end of my journey. I knocked on the wide-planked door and waited. It swung open only a moment later. The scents of herbs and the tingle of magic greeted me. Elspeth grinned when I lifted my head to peer at her from under the hood of the cloak. “Well, come in, imp. What trouble do you have in mind this time?” “Trouble?” I asked innocently.
“If it’s about the beauty spell again—” I waved my hand as she closed the door behind me. “As much as I would love the world to see the true Aleese, I understand why you cannot sell a bad spell. Your magic is your livelihood because you’re the best at what you do. Which is why I’m here. I want you to make me ugly.” I removed my cloak and hung it on a peg beside her door. “Not hideously. Just unattractive yet recognizable to someone not blinded by their own self-worth.” “Child, I question your purpose. I thought you despised those who changed their appearance.
” “I don’t mean to make myself homely permanently. Only for tonight.” Her face swept over me, lingering on my dress and coiffed hair. “The house of Cresstoll?” “No. Lord Greylin’s this time. All the girls are ever so hopeful to win the attention of strapping Brendal.” “I thought his interest lay with Feshell and your mother was determined to see you with the Cresstoll boy.” “She was until she discovered I was stuffing my waistline and never lifting my head enough for him to see my face. Now, I believe she’s determined to prance me in front of Brendal. She’s given me strict orders not to stuff my waistline this time.
” Elspeth shook her head at me. “Being beautiful isn’t a tragedy, Margaret.” “It is if it means you must marry a shallow sop.” “Your parents will know it was me. There will be repercussions.” “Please, Elspeth. Mother doesn’t care if Brendal is a decent man, only that he will inherit the title of Lord. I just need to separate the chaff from the grain. This spell is the only way.” “And if there is only chaff?” “That would suit me well.
” “You know you need to choose soon. Your seventeenth year isn’t far away.” I snorted and moved to the chair beside the fire, already knowing that I’d won. “You’re starting to sound like my mother,” I commented. Elspeth grinned. “I have saved you from your own foolishness more times than I can count. While I find the antics that vex your parents amusing, sounding like your mother might not be amiss. You need to think of your future, Margaret.” She paused and gave me a hard look that hid the affection I knew she felt for me. “I most definitely am thinking of my future.
” “So be it. Payment is required.” “Of course.” I withdrew a blunt silver from my pocket. “Is this enough?” “Barely.” We both knew it was plenty for the simple spell. Just as we knew she would use the money to buy food to help those less fortunate on the outskirts of town. She tucked away the coin and went to her herbs and potions. “Temporary glamours I have in plenty. But all for enhanced beauty.
Margaret, you are the first to ask to be made ugly.” “I wish you weren’t opposed to making someone else ugly.” “As much as I would enjoy seeing a bit of retribution on a few of those twits, it is not worth the risk. Never forget—” “All magic done with malicious intent on another has a high cost,” I said with her. “I know. It doesn’t stop me from wishing, though.” I remained quiet as she mixed a potion and spoke quietly while holding it over a bowl of clear water to prove our intent and the potion pure. When she finished, she handed me the vial. “It will last three hours from when you drink it.” I tipped it back, and she groaned.
“It will not last the whole evening now.” A tingle ran through me, tickling my nose and chin as the magic took effect. “Precisely,” I said. “I want them all to see how shallow they are.” She shook her head. “Go, then, imp. Play your tricks.” “I will.” I hugged her and whisked the cloak around my shoulders once more. “I will see you again soon, Mother Elspeth.
” She swatted my backside as I fled out the door. The sky had darkened considerably during my brief visit. I quickened my steps knowing my Father would only grow angrier the longer I delayed my arrival. Not that I meant to approach him while I looked like this. I paused by a storefront and studied my reflection in the window. Elspeth’s spell had given me a small hairy mole on my chin, added hair between my brows, and made my teeth and nose crooked. My brown eyes were still my own. I didn’t look hideous, only plain and unnoticeable. I hoped it would be enough. A scuff of noise and a soft chuckle had me whirling around.
Two men stood on the opposite side of the narrow dirt path that this district called a road. “Aren’t you a pretty one?” I groaned. “Pretty? Please, sir. Plain is deserved at most.” His smile widened. “Plain you might be, but you’re a sight in that fancy dress with your haughty expression.” My jaw dropped. “Haughty? You wound me twice.” “Bet you’re worth a gold or two.” I snapped my mouth closed as I realized the precariousness of my situation.
Father would not be pleased if these two attempted to ransom me. Not with my current appearance. “Is that all men ever wonder? A woman’s worth to them?” I asked as my mind raced for a solution. The other man spoke up. “No. I often wonder when I’ll steal enough for a good drink and meal.” His companion laughed. “Or when we’ll find our next filly to fu—” “Do you need assistance, miss?” I turned my head toward the new voice on my right and watched a young man approach. He was dressed in clean clothes and well-groomed. While his appearance didn’t state wealth, it certainly didn’t shout questionable morals like the other two.
“She don’t need nothing from the likes of you,” one of my would-be abductors said. The young man watched me, his light blue gaze holding mine as he waited for my response. “I could use an escort if you please.” “Oh, we have that handled, love. We’ll get ‘ya where you need to be.” I took a step toward the young man, and the two men rushed toward me and grabbed my arms. The rank scent of stale beer and unwashed male assaulted my nose. The back of one man’s hand brushed the side of my breast through my cloak and dress. I hoped he hadn’t felt it. Yet, very real threads of panic wove through me, piercing my heart, lungs, and mind when it happened again.
I struggled to think and breathe as my pulse hammered loudly in my ears. “She’s ours to escort, and the reward for her return ours to collect.” The young man exhaled heavily and began to remove his overcoat. “If your intentions were true and fair, I would happily walk away. But we know they are not.” He set the jacket aside on a swept doorstep. “As they are not, we’ll settle this with fists then.” While I appreciated the overture, two against one wasn’t promising odds. Think, Margaret. Think.
“You want to fight us?” One of my captors laughed. “Afraid you might not win?” the young man taunted as he started to roll up his sleeves. I glanced at the buildings. Weak glimmers of light shown through a few dirty glass panes. Calling for help might bring the residents forth, but in this area, would they be inclined to assist in freeing me or keeping me captive for coin? Unsure, I kept my mouth closed and fisted my hands. Every lesson in sewing, etiquette, and dancing seemed useless in that moment. What I wouldn’t have given for just one lesson in how to throw a decent punch. I settled for stomping the wooden heel of my slipper onto the top of the man’s foot to my right. He grunted and loosened his hold on me. The young man launched himself across the space separating us, his fist connecting with the jaw of the miscreant to my left.
The hold on my arms loosened, and I wrenched myself free. Grunts and sounds of flesh meeting flesh echoed behind me as I lifted my skirts and ran. I didn’t go far. My gaze landed on a heavy metal pot that sat on someone’s step. Hefting the weight, I gagged at the smell of feces and turned toward the fight once again. The pair were working together, landing blow after blow on the young man’s torso and arms. However, my rescuer was dispensing his own fists with determined precision. One of the men staggered back after a ringing jab to his head. I lifted the metal container high as I rushed forward. The metal pot met the scoundrel’s head with a resounding gong.
The man crumbled to the ground with a slosh of dark liquid from the container I still gripped in my hands. Turning to the second rogue, I lifted my weapon, ready to assist, when the young man knocked the remaining man out with a square punch to his nose. Without pause, my rescuer reached out and plucked the pot from my hands. He stared at me for a long moment. In the dim light, while we both panted from our exertions, I noted the color of his blue eyes and the intensity of his regard. Something warm spread in my belly, and a blush ignited in my cheeks. “I’ve never met a woman who used one of these as a bludgeon.” “I would have preferred not to as well,” I said, averting my gaze and checking my hands. I’d avoided the slosh, unlike the unfortunate man at my feet, but still felt extremely dirty. “There’s a well not far from here if you would like to wash.
” I looked up once more. Lingering wouldn’t be prudent, yet I didn’t want to leave. “Please.” He set the pot aside and picked up his jacket. With the men no longer a threat, some of my reason returned. Enough to note the color of the young man’s hair and the breadth of his shoulders. “Thank you for your timely arrival,” I said. “I don’t know what I would have done without your assistance.” He smiled, a flash of white teeth. “I have the feeling you would have managed something.
” I returned his smile. “My name is Margaret.” I purposely omitted my last name, not wanting to influence his impression of me. He didn’t even blink at my lack of formality. “I’m Atwell,” he said with a small bow. Together, we walked down the darkened street. “I apologize that you witnessed that,” he said. I glanced sideways at him. “Apology not accepted. There’s nothing to apologize for.
That was the most excitement I’ve had in a long while.” I paused. “That sounds horrible of me when you were the one being hit. Were you hurt?” “A few bruises. Good reminders to move faster next time.” We arrived at the well, and he used the bucket to fetch me some water. While he poured it over my hands, I used a sliver of lye soap to scrub myself clean. “I think that’s everything,” I said, looking down at myself. When I met his gaze, I found him studying the bit of dress peeking from my cloak. “You’re far from home, aren’t you?” he asked.
“A bit further than usual,” I admitted. “I’ve been here before, though. However, never so late.” I dried my hands on the inside of my cloak, and when I was done, he offered his arm. “Allow me to escort you home.” I accepted his arm. “Not home. I’m expected somewhere else.”