I step out of the carriage.
Every girl has that dream of walking down the stairs and making the jaws drop and the music stop. Her skin glows, and her hair is a shining mass of gorgeousness and the dress—oh, honey. The dress. The dress is the icing on the cake, and who eats the cake, right? Everyone I know just licks off the icing. Which presents many interesting possibilities in this given simile, but I digress.
I’ve had that dream of being that girl. Let’s be honest—that’s why most girls want a big wedding. They want that door to open and for everyone to fall over in awe.
Spoiler alert, it doesn’t happen for me in the pink dress.
Sure, jaws drop. I get a whistle from a few of the minstrels, and then Torvold gallops over on Thunder and says, “That dress is entirely inappropriate.”
He dismounts, grabs my arm, turns me around, and starts pushing me back up the steps of the cart.
“You will find something else to wear, or you will spend the rest of our time in the city inside the cart,” he says. Then he shoves me inside and shuts the door.
I hear Rancor knicker outside, like he’s laughing at me.
I stand there staring at Tudie, Dex, and Gertie for a moment.
Gertie waves a hand at her face, like she got overheated. “Oh, he loves you,” she says.
I know I’m supposed to storm out of the carriage and tell Torvold that it’s my body and I will display it as I see fit, but to be honest, I’m relieved. I am not comfortable walking around worrying that one of my boobs is going to come flying out of my dress if I take too deep of a breath. I also like to be able to take deep breaths, which the pink dress does not allow me to do.
“I think it best we find something else,” I suggest.
“Well, there’s this green velvet one,” Tudie suggests. She holds it up, and it’s perfect.
Simple, elegant, old-fashioned maybe, but well cut and made of high-quality material.
I put it on and it fits, although in keeping with the style of the minstrels, it is a little snug around the bosom. I’m high and tight, but I’m not tumbling out of anything. The delicately puffed cap sleeves drape over the outermost portion of my shoulders, leaving a lot of skin. But it’s only neck, shoulder, and upper-chest skin, and not flagrant cleavage or side-boob.
The dress isn’t perfect. I don’t like that I don’t have sleeves for my blades, and that the bodice is too tight for anything sharp. I’ll have to get by with just two daggers in my garters. Luckily, this skirt is easy to pull up. I’m not going to spend too much time thinking about why.
I decide to put my hair half up. I make a braid with a single golden strand woven through it and twist the braid around my head. I can’t wear my maiden’s circlet, but I’ll wear something like it.
This time, when I step out of the carriage, I get the response I’m looking for. Not from the minstrels. They turn away bored, probably because they know there will be no nip-slip on the agenda this evening. But I get the reaction I’ve always dreamed of from Torvold.
His frowning face lifts and catches light. I see him draw in a breath that he holds as if it might be his last. He steps forward and offers me his hand. I place my fingertips on his and he draws them to his heart, pressing the backs of my fingers against the place where my maiden’s circlet hides.
“You look beautiful prin—,” Torvold stops and laughs. “I almost called you princess, which I must not do. What shall I call you while we are in Market Town?” Torvold asks quietly.
I almost give him my real name because I want to hear him say it, but I reconsider at the last moment. This dress is making me feel a little sassy.
“I think, Sir Torvold, that you would be too high above my station as a simple minstrel to call me anything but girl,” I say tartly. Might as well get into the part.
I pull my hand from his and go to where Gertie, Tudie, and Dex are watching from the steps of the cart. Torvold marks me with a slit-eyed smile, his lips cocked to one side.
“My girl,” he corrects, loudly enough for everyone to hear.
Thunder must have read the script, because at this exact moment he rears up, wheels, and trots past Torvold at just the right pace for his master to swing up into the saddle, turn again, and churn up an impressive amount of sod as he gallops to the front of the caravan. Basically, Torvold just did the Camelot equivalent of burning a donut in my driveway.
Rancor whickers at me, like he’s laughing.
“Well, how am I supposed to best something like that if you won’t help?” I ask him. “Did you see what Thunder did?”
Rancor nibbles one of my cap sleeves.
“Oh, now you’re sorry.” I rub his soft nose. “Come on. I’ll find you some fresh tears to drink.”
Rancor blows air out of his nose, but he doesn’t sneeze like he normally would, which strikes me as odd. He sounds congested. I wonder if unicorns can catch colds.
We enter Market Town a good hour before sunset. I’m about ten steps in, when I realize this is my market—the one I’ve been going to for the past nine months. Although now, before the Battle of Knob Knoll, it is a different place altogether.
The people are healthier and better fed, the produce is fresher, the illusions aren’t there to cover up dereliction, but to add splendor to what is already scrubbed and tidy. The performers are genuinely merry, the hawkers are humorous rather than ominous, and even the foot and ass smells are dialed way down. I hardly get a whiff of them at all in between the scent of candy apples and grilled sausage.
But the thing that make the most difference is the children. Children are everywhere. There are babies, even. My feet slow as I wonder where they all went. Rancor gives me a shove from behind to keep me moving. Not that anyone trailing us is going to complain with him taking snaps at everyone who gets too close to him. He’s such a jerk.
“I don’t know if bringing the unicorn was wise,” Dex says, looking at him warily.
“I don’t bring Rancor anywhere,” I reply, grimacing. “He goes where he pleases.”
Up ahead of us, Torvold is getting a hero’s welcome. Flowers are being thrown in front of him, people are cheering his name, and lots of young women have suddenly materialized out of the crowd to bat their eyes at him. He’s a rock star.
“Don’t let it get to you, dearie,” Tudie says. She links arms with me and pats the back of my hand. “Sir Torvold is not the kind to get his head turned.”
As she’s saying that, Torvold’s head turns. He’s looking down from Thunder at a buxom girl in a striped dress that would make the pink one I wore turn red with embarrassment.
“Go bite her, “ I tell Rancor. I look over my shoulder at him and see that he’s chewing on a candy apple. “Where did you get that?” I ask him. He finishes it and sniffs. Then he shakes his head. He still can’t sneeze.
The town elders surround Sir Torvold as he dismounts.
“A feast!” one of the elders cries. “A feast tonight in honor of Sir Torvold the Bold!”
A cheer goes up. Before Torvold can be ushered away, he turns and looks over the crowd, as if searching. Lot of girls lift their chins hopefully, but he keeps looking until he finds me. He smiles as if sheepish about all the attention he’s being given. I roll my eyes at his humblebrag, and his smile opens into a laugh as he goes.
The good news is that the minstrels have been hired to entertain at the feast. The bad news is I’m pretending to be a minstrel, so I have to perform.
Dex has done some moonlighting as a contortionist, and has a whole routine already worked out. Tudie has asked for a chance to address the crowd directly in order to give them a rousing speech about having courage in these uncertain times. I have no doubt her “Saint Crispin’s Day” monologue will be huge success.
“What can you do?” Gertie asks me with a squint.
“She’s handy with knives,” Jackanet says as he passes.
“Oh,” Gertie coos eagerly. “Could you hit a bunch of targets? Maybe get one through an apple resting on someone’s head?”
I look around, suddenly seized with panic. “On-on stage?” I stammer. “I thought I was supposed to be in hiding.”
“No place better than in plain sight. We’ll put a wig on you,” Gertie replies, a little too happy about this. “‘Ere! We’ve got a knife thrower!” she yells to Bashan.
Bashan looks me over. “Alright then,” he says. “Show me what you’ve got.”
“I never said I—”
“Go on, then!” Jackanet says, giving me an encouraging nudge. Rancor paws the ground in warning, and Jackanet takes a step away from me. “She’s a veritable terror with a blade,” he continues, still eyeing the unicorn.
The whole troupe of minstrels is staring at me expectantly. I sigh and reach under my skirt.
“This is getting interesting,” Tanil says, waggling his eyebrows.
I give him a look and throw my blade right from the sheath. It goes through his hat and sticks it into the wood of the cart behind him.
The minstrels share a look.
“You two can go on after Dex,” Faith says with a nod. Faith it seems, is the stage manager. Makes perfect sense.
“Hang on,” Tanil says, feeling the top of his head. “My hat,” he laments, as he pulls the knife out of it and sticks his finger through the hole. “What do you mean we?”
Faith shrugs. “She needs someone to throw her knives at, doesn’t she? I think you could give her a good reason. The crowd will love it. Write some banter.”
Tanil thinks over Faith’s suggestion with a “not bad” look on his face.
“Alright, but she’s got to get me a new hat,” he says, pointing a finger at me. Rancor paws the ground and throws his head in warning. “And that bloody unicorn can’t come onstage.”
I look at Rancor. “Do you think you could wait backstage with Faith? Just for the show?”
He nibbles on my sleeve. I take that as a yes.
Tanil and I barely have enough time to hammer out some banter for our knife act before the show starts.
The carts are pulled up in a line and backed against each other. The canvas tops are taken off first, then metal bracers are unlatched. One long wall on each cart remains upright, but the other long wall and the two end walls hinge down to the ground, making a long, raised stage with ramps on either end and a background behind it. Curtains are strung up to hide the props and the performers, torches are lit, and in moments, the minstrels are ready to perform.
They each take an instrument and fan out from the stage. Though they are down a lute since the run-in with the bandits, even those without instruments do a fine bit of singing to gather the crowd.
I can’t sing a note to save my life, so I follow Faith’s example and start skipping up to people, taking them by the hand and pulling them to the open area in front of our carts. Rancor trots happily behind me. He still won’t let anyone touch him, but everyone wants to. The adults he snaps at, but for the children he tosses his pretty head and plays coy.
The children scream and chase after him with sticky fingers. Rancor leads them to the front of the audience. When they sit he licks all of the children who are either salty from crying or sweet with candy—so, all of them. The little ones squeal with delight.
“He’s not as heinous as I thought he was,” Torvold says in my ear.
He’s standing right behind me. He’s not touching me, but he’s so close that I feel him in the halo personal space around me.
“Yes, he is,” I say. I turn my head to the side and glance up at Torvold. “Rancor is just tasting each child to decide which sauce to pair with them.”
Torvold’s head tips towards mine as he laughs. “And what does it say about you that you are so fond of him?”
I turn back to watch my devil-spawn licking his future chew toys. “What does it say about you that you are so fond of me?” I ask in return.
I feel his hands encircling my bare arms. “That you are as rare, as magical, and as hard to impress as a unicorn,” he whispers.
That was a good answer.
I feel Torvold’s hands drop from my arms to my hips. He draws me back against him, his lips brushing against my temple. Rancor trots up to us, throwing his head angrily. He takes a snap at Torvold.
“Alright, you silly thing, I’m coming,” I say, breaking away from Torvold’s hold.
I chase after Rancor, following him behind the minstrel carts. I don’t look back at Torvold or I know I will run straight to him and do things to him that young ladies are not supposed to do in public.