When I arrive at Castle Allowyn, I am exhausted, not to mention drenched from the soaking rain we had during the night. A servant leads me to a small room with a bed about as cozy as a rock, where I crash until morning. The king doesn’t send for me, however, until I had paced around my room for a few hours. By then, my stomach is twisting with hunger. I’m so famished, I could eat a tofu dog. (In case you’ve never tried a tofu dog, well, don’t. Seriously. I’d say they taste like playdough, but playdough tastes better).
King Frederick the Sad is seated in the dining hall, waiting for me. Luckily, there are no tofu dogs on the table. Instead, there’s an enormous spread of meat pies, soups, sausages, and desserts.
“Please, help yourself,” says the king, nodding toward the food.
The part of Shadowhood who is conscious remembers to sweep into a bow before sitting at the table and pigging out. I wish I could say it was a great meal, but it was surprisingly bland, like something you’d get at Hometown Buffet. I guess they didn’t have a lot of spices on hand back in…whatever century this is. Still, it’s food, so I shovel it in until I’m stuffed.
Of course, nothing is free. And as soon as I’ve cleared my plate, His Majesty names his price. “I want you to give my daughter a voice,” he says.
I raise my eyebrows in mock-surprise. “What makes you think I can give your daughter a voice?”
The king presses his fingertips against the table and leans toward me. “I know of everything that goes on in my kingdom, Shadowhood.”
So, he’s heard of me, of what I can do. I nod. “My work does not come cheap, Your Majesty.”
A wry smile crosses his face. “Of course, there is nice purse in this for you. But if you do not succeed, then the usual laws for sorcery will apply.”
I gulp. Even though I know that the real Shadowhood is a talented sorcerer, I am worried that I, in my mostly-conscious state of being Al Becerra, might screw it up and get us both burned at the stake in the town hall. “I accept your terms, sire,” I say. “Your precious pearl shall have a voice by sundown tomorrow.”
“I certainly hope you are right,” says the king.
I hope that I am right, too.
I don’t delay. I set out at once into the village, in search of a voice for the princess. Shadowhood is confident within me, guiding my every step. But I feel queasy, thinking about what I must do in order to complete my quest.
There are many women in the village; some shopping at the marketplace, some hanging up their wash outside of small stone houses, others rocking fat infants on their porches. I scour the town until at last I find a woman who is alone, and apparently idle. I have seen her before. She is the village beggar, clad in rags, a stench like a piggery emanating from her as I approach. She does acknowledge my presence, continuing to pace back and forth, wringing her hands and muttering to herself in a deep voice as dry and husky as straw.
I take a deep breath, then lift my wand, point it at the beggar woman, and mutter an incantation. The woman’s grimy face registers shock as the glowing rays shoot from the tip of my wand and strike her. “Noooo—” Her screams are cut short as, to my dismay, she freezes into a block of ice.
Darn it. I hate when that happens.
My wand vibrates, and I know that I have successfully captured the beggar woman’s voice. I take one last, rueful glance at the statue of ice before mounting Styx and galloping back toward the castle.
The guards let me in and march me toward the throne room, where the king and queen await with their daughter.
“Your highness.” I swoop down low before Princess Lalia. Her beauty is even more breathtaking up close – her hair is long waves of brown sugar, her mouth like a plump pink rose. “If you are ready, I have your new voice.”
The princess glances at her parents, then nods at me. As I lift my wand, she squeezes her eyes shut, steeling herself. I recite the spell, waving my wand through the air, then aiming it at her. The impact of the magic beams knock her off balance, and she tumbles to the floor.
“Lalia!” Her father rushes forward and reaches down to help her to her feet. “How do you feel? Can you speak?”
Lalia’s face is very pale. She focuses on the king and opens her mouth. “Hello, father,” she says.
The king drops his daughter’s hands and steps away, his face a mask of horror.