It is a hot summer morning in the kingdom of Wildwick. In the distance, the sun hovers over the cloud-covered mountain. Sunlight shimmers in the hazy air, kisses the sleepy earth, and sparkles on the surface of the castle moat. Even the stony walls of the stronghold grow warm in the sultry dawn. Yet despite the glowing sun and pastoral setting, the years have not been kind to the little kingdom. The village outside the castle walls has grown shabby. The villagers themselves wearily tend the fields; the crops are plentiful, but there is not much to eat. The village baker has barely enough flour to make his bread.
Why should this be, one wonders, when their crops are so abundant? It is because of this: every year at harvest time, for many years now, a greedy giant has come stomping down from the cloud-covered mountain, demanding gold and cattle and most of their crops. Then, with one blow of his mighty cudgel, he knocks a hole in the castle wall just to show that he can. What can King Warrick do? His counselors compel him to go forth and negotiate with the great bully. So he tries, with his voice as steady as he can make it, to remind the giant that if the villagers all starve, there will be no one to raise the crops. But the giant is immune to logic, and the king always ends by giving up more of his kingdom’s wealth and harvests, looking on as the giant stomps away with his plunder, back to the cloud-topped mountain. When it is over, the people are left destitute, some injured, even some dead. The castle, really a fortress, is left defenseless, its wall ruptured. By order of the king, all the able-bodied men gather at the broken wall and painstakingly rebuild it while the king levies the Giant Tax to replenish the treasury. Then he sells off more land to the filthy goblins, who pay him in gold from their underground lairs. This is a terrible choice, as goblins despoil any land they inhabit as well as everything for miles around. But despite the kingdom’s poverty, the king makes sure that he and his nobles still have the best of everything for themselves, and he keeps his own secret cache of food and treasure. The poor peasants, ignorant of the king’s thievery, simply sigh and make do with what is left to them.
In the light of this summer morning, however, the repaired wall looks strong and solid, almost indistinguishable from the older parts of the structure. Within the wall, the castle keep rises up, towering over the courtyard, and the early morning sun tints the masonry a ruddy gold. It filters through the window of an attic room high in the keep, where two girls lie sleeping, one dark head and one light. Lady Briar, the dark-haired one, opens her drowsy eyes, still emerging from her dreams. She rolls over into Princess Rose and gives her a poke on the shoulder. “Wake up, lazybones!” she says, and Rose’s eyes flutter open. They proceed to greet the dawn with all the buoyancy and optimism natural to healthy young humans. The morning routine becomes a giggling competition to see who can get dressed and downstairs first. They perform their minimal ablutions—?a few ill-aimed splashes from the water basin—?and dress quickly in their linen shifts and full-length tunics, tying long belts below their waists and attaching small leather pouches for carrying odds and ends.
Briar is first out the door, but they race down the stairs to the castle chapel as the bell rings Prime. Rose skips to a halt as she sees Bishop Simon standing in the doorway of the chapel, looking accusatory and grim. His large belly takes up so much space that they must pass single file through the doorway. Rose hastily folds her hands in front of her, straightening her spine and lifting her chin in a practiced imitation of her mother’s royal bearing, while Briar, who fears the clergyman’s sharp tongue, does her best to remain invisible in Rose’s shadow. “I win!” whispers Rose over her shoulder to Briar.
The girls enter the chapel for morning mass soberly, for they have known it all their lives as a place of power and mysteries. As the family gathers, the girls take in the carved altar, the rich paintings, and the statuary. They listen to the service silently, but their solemnity does not last. Rose signals Briar with a set of complex hand gestures, subtle nods, and eye rolls that serve as a private language between them, especially during daily services. She draws Briar’s attention to young Bosley, the altar boy, whose voice cracks and changes whenever he sings the responses in the service. The bishop gives the lad a scathing look, as if the boy is deliberately ruining what is supposed to be a perfect ritual. Bosley turns crimson with shame. Rose affects a cough to hide her smirk, but Briar blushes in sympathy with him and circumspectly casts down her eyes, pretending not to have witnessed his embarrassment.
Their attention next turns to Bishop Simon. Pompous and aloof, he holds himself exempt from the most basic tenet of his religion. That is, he fails to love others as he loves himself. Indeed, his hatred of others’ imperfections makes him look down on every imperfect being around him. Even the king and queen are not exempt from his judgments, though he takes care that they don’t know it. The girls make fine sport of him in their private language. They look haughtily down their noses at each other while sticking their stomachs out and stifling their giggles.
They are halfway through the doxology when, standing directly behind them, Lord Henry, the king’s twelve-year-old nephew, yanks Briar’s hair to get her attention. She turns to find him making a gruesome face, pulling down one eyelid in imitation of her sagging eye. Briar instantly responds with an even more grotesque face, pulling both her eyes down and sticking out her tongue. The nearest adult cuffs her for her trouble, and her only satisfaction is in seeing Henry receive the same treatment. She is comforted by Rose, who links an arm with hers and turns to give Henry a look poisonous enough to wither him into oblivion. The liturgy goes on, Briar measuring the passing time by the candles on the altar burning slowly down. Yet despite the bishop’s boring monotone as he reads the long scripture lesson, a few moments of curiosity, confusion, and even wonder flicker over Briar’s thoughtful face as she listens to the ancient words of wisdom. She goes leaping after meanings like a young otter, pondering the imponderables. This lasts until her stomach starts growling for breakfast, and then her thoughts become more earthbound. In due time, the service is over, and only then does the family sit down for a breakfast of white bread sopped in wine.
After the morning meal, the girls report to the anteroom, which serves as the schoolroom for the small gathering of nobles’ children who are being educated at great expense. At Hilde’s inducement, Queen Merewyn has insisted that Princess Rose and Lady Briar be educated as well, though this is unusual for girls. Along with the handful of nobles’ and knights’ sons and altar boys, the queen has decreed that three other girls should be included in the class, so that Princess Rose and Lady Briar will not be the only females in the group.
Lady Arabella, the oldest of the three girls, is a distant relative of the princess’s, and the assumed leader of the three. Quite conscious of her dignity, she strives for correctness and insists on being addressed as Lady Arabella at all times. Eliz...