A disenchanted princess follows her rescuer back to his own world, hoping for safety and a happily ever after. Instead she discovers the modern North American high school of her 17-year-old savior, and learns the magician who trapped her in the form of a swan is posing as their guidance counselor.
Sharizalli kicked the bolt into the floor, locking the door. She ignored Gy’s tentitive tapping, and it quit before she was ready for the silence. Walking to the bed she began to braid back her long hair. There on her pillow she saw a piece of paper. The marks on it were unfamiliar but as she stared at them they seemed to speak to her.
She was wanted in a place on the other side of the island. It would take half the night to get there. She must hurry if she was to reach it in time, especially with those pathetically human legs and on foot. Sharizalli felt ashamed of her slowness for the first time in her life. She wished for wings, and felt a desperate fear and need to escape.
Finishing her braid, she tied it off and pulled a cloak from a hook beside her door. She would prove legs were not a burden or a shame. She felt the echo of her door slamming on the inside of her chamber and began a steady run she knew she could maintain as long as necessary.
Before an hour had passed she found herself at the ruins she saw on the note. She felt a savage delight. It had not taken her half the night. She was here already.
Something like a horse’s scream exploded on the other side of the broken-down wall, and a cloud passed over the moon. Sharizalli shivered and turned left along the wall to seek an entry point. She found one before long, a deep archway that curved at least once, so she could not see if there was light at the other end.
She held her breath and stepped in, keeping one hand on the wall so she could guide herself through the darkness.
The sound of rats was all around her. Sharizalli guessed the temple must not have been long abandoned, despite the state of the walls, if so many rats still could find food enough to flourish here.
The tunnel wall curved sharply to the right, and she followed it to the lighter patch of grey before her. Something made her stop, just out of the tunnel, and she crouched, putting her hand out to steady herself. She held her breath as the faintest wisp of air behind her indicated movement in the tunnel, certainly bigger than the rats. As she waited, a muffled figure moved past her, close enough for its long cloak to skim her fingers as it descended the shallow steps before her.
Steps she had not seen and that might have forced her to reveal herself through involuntary clumsines
Sharizalli closed her eyes and waited for the frantic pounding of her heart to steady, having been spared the actual danger her body was too violently reacting to.
A breath of air on her neck forced her to open her eyes again. Turning her head to look over her shoulder she leaped away with a repressed cry.
It was Govar’s breath. He stood slowly, smiling as he stepped toward her.
“Get away from me Govar.” Sharizalli backed toward the tunnel, keeping her face toward the magician. “You don’t have power over me anymore.”
“Whatever gave you that idea my dear?” Just his voice made her feel dirty.
“I know the rules of your magic.” He didn’t have to know how. “Once your spell is broken it cannot claim me again.”
“Who said anything about controlling you through magic, child? There are certainly other ways to influence your behavior.”
Sharizalli felt her hands go cold. It would take very little effort on his part to overwhelm her. He was the type of man who collected power- and not every kind was magical. She held her breath as he withdrew a knife from his shirt. It was fiercely beautiful. It called to her.
It seemed both a baby she needed to rescue from his filthy hands, and a snake ready to bite him if only she could persuade him to hold it long enough. Her legs began to shake, and wondered which alternative was worse.
“You found as a bird how frustrating it was to be controlled by something unwelcome inside you.”
Sharizalli nodded guardedly. It was soon after becoming a bird she learned that reality.
“But you also discovered freedom for the first time, didn’t you?”
Sharizalli didn’t move. She felt she was being played. Being worked into some unrecognized corner by agreeing with these seemingly straightforward assertions.
In less time than it takes to tell, Govar had closed the distance between them and gripped her arm. “You want this, girl, trust me.”
Sharizalli screamed, jerked away, and found herself suddenly released and on her back– the breath knocked from her.
Next moment Govar’s foot was on her neck. “I’m not trying to hurt you girl.” The scorn in his voice made her pride ache. Somehow she’d overreacted again. Everything was an overreaction. Breathing before she was faint was an overreaction. “I mean to tell you about a marvelous opportunity and you will listen.”
He held the knife before her eyes. The handle was the almost-white of fresh ivory, and the blade was a blue-black edge of merquile: a stone that took a great temperature both to shape and to break.
“It is beautiful,” she said at last, and was rewarded by a release of the pressure on her neck. “What’s it for?” she asked next, guessing the only reason this was happening was to make her learn something. If only he would make it easy to find out, rather than punishing her for what she didn’t know.
“This, Princess, is the way for you to control your destiny. By sliding this into your leg, you will affect the magical transformation from the ordinary form of womanhood you are currently limited to, into the form you so recently experienced.
“You must think me mad,” whispered Sharizalli, wondering if it were safe yet to sit up. “I don’t need a wounded leg to be unable to escape you.”
The dark man’s icy blue eyes lifted with his long-suffering sigh. “Surely a magical knife won’t damage your flesh?” said Govar.
Sharazalli made as if to rise and Govar slamed her back down with a palm to the chest. She hated how fast she breathed, but could do nothing to change it.
Govar raised the knife, and Sharazalli’s mind cleared, emptying of all but the question of what life might have been like. She watched the knife descend impossibly slowly and gasped when she heard the scream of a rat by her ear, impaled by the falling stroke. The magician stood, inverting the knife with the still-living rat.
As Sharazalli scrambled backward and climbed to her feet, she found herself unable to pull her eyes away from the angry little legs scrabbling at air.
When she felt her back against uneven stone, Sharizalli looked to the archway, cursing herself for obeying the strange marks on the paper.
Govar flipped the knife and began walking toward her. The rat screamed its rage again as it slid down the unfamiliar straightness of blade. Its legs were engaged before it hit the ground and it disappeared into the high-arched darkness before she could breathe twice. She didn’t realize she’d stared after it until she felt her head wrenched back and hair pulled from her head.
“Take the cursed thing,” hissed Govar in her ear. “And may you never have a day’s luck with it.”
He pushed her down and ran down the steps to follow the first visitor. She touched her fingers to the burning pain on her scalp, and in the moonlight recognized the darkness of blood on her fingertips. She jerked her hand to her face when Govar and the other man—much younger by the sound— began shouting at each other. As if in a dream she lifted the blue-black blade to her scalp and touched the coolness of the merquile stone to the burning ache. She nearly cut herself in surprise at the pulling departure of pain.
She grabbed her head, feeling for the pain, but it was gone.
The fight in the courtyard below suddenly exploded in a flurry of foreign words. Turning the blade to point behind, she dove for the rat-squeaking tunnel. Barely under the archway she felt the ground rumble under her feet and the cold air shift around her. Without thinking she drove the knife into her leg.
The change was instant.
Her legs pulled up under her, short and useless. Her neck stretched toward her goal as her arms feathered and spread, increasing the force and speed of her forward momentum. Though she was no longer touching the floor the thundering tumult of falling stone chased her as she banked for the sharp curve left and she flew up and free of the crushing danger.
Banking back sharply, Sharizalli turned and flew over the rubble.
With their hoods thrown off, Sharizalli recognized the dark-haired magician and his golden-curled apprentice. They wrestled arm to arm, the strength of youth versus the power of experience. When she returned to pass back over again, she saw they’d separated and Govar now pointed all his fingers at the golden youth. Sparks the colors of the rainbow leaped from his fingertips and struck the apprentice.
Raquile tumbled backward from the force of the hit and lay in a crumpled pile.
Sharizalli circled higher, not eager to attract the attention of the last man standing. Govar walked to the cloak-covered bundle on the ground and kicked it. To Sharizalli’s surprise he yanked away the cloak and revealed a mule-shaped object, blotchy in the moonlight. Another rumble carved out the wall nearest them, and the hoofed creature bolted for the chance at escape. Vaulting over the broken down wall he galloped away and Sharizalli tilted her trajectory to follow him.