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Promises, Promises  Chapter 1    

Sandy straightened the bottles of the Amazingly Miraculous Manticore's Youthifying Tonic on the shelf, but her thoughts were of creamy skin, large blue eyes, and moist red lips. Ah, the fair Julie...

The door bell's tinny tinkle cut through Sandy's sighs. A customer! Sandy straightened her tunic as she limped back to the counter. She saw a dark-haired young woman in a plain brown dress. Sandy sagged. Her cousin Ruth smiled.

"I've brought lunch for you." Ruth set a basket on the counter. "Your mother said to tell you not to eat the apples until you'd finished your sandwiches. I mended your breeches for you. Your mother won't know they were ever torn."

"Oh," Sandy said. "Thanks."

Ruth bustled behind the counter to fetch a broom. Sandy peeled one of the sandwiches apart to discover cheese and onion filling. It was her favourite, but hardly the sort of lunch you'd catch someone rich and successful eating. The onions were a dead giveaway that she didn't have a hot date tonight after work.

"Did you hurt yourself when you tore your breeches?" Ruth asked.

"Life is never as you expect, is it? Look at me. I have a respectable profession. I have my own shop. I'm not that repellent a person, am I? I have all my limbs. I don't pick my nose in public. But no girlfriend. My mother sends me lunch every day and still darns my socks for me."

"You could darn them yourself if it bothers you that much."

Sandy stared at her. Ruth looked up from watching where her broom swished across the wooden floor and smiled. Her dimples showed.

"Hey!" Sandy belatedly grabbed the broom handle. "What do you think you're doing?"

"Sweeping. There's a lot of dust in here. It can't be good for--"

Sandy tugged the broom from Ruth's fingers. "Do you know how hard I've had to work to collect this dust? If you go and sweep it away, I'll never sell these."

Sandy pointed to the bucket of Mysterious Sneeze Stones, two groats each or three for five groats.

Ruth peered at one of the shiny pebbles. "It looks like an ordinary stone from the river bank. What do they do?"

"Do you feel a tingle in your nose? A tickle in the back of your throat? Eyes a bit scratchy and watery? Well, when you walk out of here with a Mysterious Sneeze Stone in your pocket, your symptoms will disappear."

"That's not magic. It's dishonest."

"It's business." Sandy took the pebble from Ruth's hand and dropped it back into the bucket. "Not much of a business, I know. But I will succeed. He doesn't think I can. But I'll show him."

"Him?" Ruth said. "Who?"

"I'm going to be the richest person in the kingdom. Apart from the king, of course. And I'll do it before my twenty-fifth birthday."

"You have a busy fifteen months ahead of you."

"Then Burghermeister Smelt will rue--" Sandy stopped as Ruth's mild comment sank in. "Are you taking the piss?"

"Of course not. I have every faith in you. Oh, dear. Miss Julie Smelt, was it? Well, she is very beautiful, isn't she? That fair hair. Blue eyes. Perfect skin. Poor Sandy."

Sandy slumped on the stool behind the counter. "What am I going to do? The world is full of gorgeous women. But none for me. Do you know how long it's been since I had a kiss?"

"Perhaps you'd be better picking a woman whose father doesn't own such large dogs."

"And I paid half a silver crown for that bloody lute! If only--"

The door bell tinkled. A thin woman in a rumpled dark tunic and patched britches sidled in. She shut the door and flattened herself against the wall.

"Hello, Drusilla," Ruth said. "What--"

"Ssh!" Drusilla put a finger to her mouth and cracked the door open to peer outside.

"Who is trying to kill you this time?" Sandy said. "Trolls? Ogres? Dragons? No, it was dragons yesterday. A giant killer hedgehog with a sword in each paw?"

"Assassins," Drusilla whispered. "Eight of them. No, ten!"

"And yet you miraculously escaped to bring me the string I sent you to fetch," Sandy said.

"It's safe now." Drusilla left the door and dug a ball of twine from a pocket. "It was a close-run thing. Brotherhood of the Stabbing Blade. Hello, Ruth. You need not fear for me, dear girl. I am bred from a long line of princely warriors."

Ruth smiled. "Of course you are."

"Don't encourage her," Sandy said.

"I am accustomed to doubt," Drusilla said. "The long years of my exile have taught me patience. I, Drusilla, dispossessed princess of an oppressed people, am ever vigilant for the wiles of evil. That is why I always keep my paring knife sharp. Look. Don't worry, I wiped the blood off it. The first assassin went to a slash. Like this. A disembowelling stroke, thus! A kick to the groin. Stab in the heart. The fifth one I shoved off the bridge. Splash! The weight of all those knives concealed under his clothes sank him like a stone. His face screwed up like this. He couldn't breathe. Blurble. Blurble. Aaarrgh. "

"Goodness," Ruth said. "How upsetting for you."

Drusilla leaned against the counter and scratched a pimple on her neck. "Daily brushes with death are an occupational hazard for we princesses. I'll have to live with them until a passing band of ill-assorted heroes recognises my royalty beneath my cunning disguise as a shop-assistant and wants to start an uprising to restore me to my father's stolen throne."

Sandy rolled her eyes. "Don't forget the Oracle."

"Of course!" Drusilla struck a queenly pose. "I am to remain here, in this humble establishment, because the infallible Oracle of Ring has foretold that the days of exile will end when the noblest scion of my royal house shall travel the known world with the Great Obtuse Mage and perform many valorous deeds."

Ruth's lips quivered as if she struggled to suppress a giggle. "I take it that Sandy Blunt is the Great Obtuse Mage?"

"Don't you two have errands to run for my mother?" Sandy said.

Ruth retrieved her basket from the counter. "Perhaps we'd better leave Sandy to plan how she's going to get rich. Will you escort me to Aunt Betty's house? To make sure I arrive safely."

Sandy shot Ruth a 'don't encourage her' look.

Drusilla offered Ruth a stiff bow. "I and my lethally sharp paring knife are always at your service, dear girl. I, Drusilla, am prepared to spill my secret royal blood for the sake of your safety."

Sandy shook her head and cast a glance up at the ceiling. Ruth smiled, showing her dimples again, and left with Drusilla.

Sandy listlessly toyed with a Mysterious Sneeze Stone on the counter and conceded the appeal of living in a world where you could make things up to suit yourself. (Perhaps that was why so many people tried their hand at writing books.) Although, Drusilla's inhabiting her own warped fairy-tale reality hadn't given her noticeably more luck with women than Sandy had. That might be because of the acne. Wouldn't it be hard to convince yourself that you were kissing an imaginary woman?

Sandy scowled at the door and tried to picture the most beautiful woman in the world walking into her shop. Creamy breasts, rounded hips, smooth hands, neatly trimmed fingernails, cascades of soft, shiny hair.

Sandy sighed. No. It was never going to happen. Perhaps women might find her more attractive when she was rich. After all, it worked a treat for old men. Which only left her with the problem of how to earn a lot of money.

Sandy dropped the Mysterious Sneeze Stone back in the bucket. She needed to think big. Very big. But big what? Surely she had one skill that she was good at.

#

Sandy glanced around the empty shop and grabbed another two bottles of the Prodigiously Incredible Empericus's Cough Balm. She carried them to the tiny table at the back of the shop and passed one to Drusilla. Drusilla shuffled the tarot cards. Sandy took a long drink. The cough balm burned its way down her insides.

"This is the sort of thing I need to do," Sandy said. "It's pure genius to make cough balm out of brandy. The medicine that everyone wants to take. And puts your sick kids to sleep fast."

Drusilla dealt them five cards each. "Haven't you drunk enough of that already?"

Sandy might have pointed out that it was nearly closing time on another slow, dispiriting day that had not earned her fortune. She took another swig and picked up her last card. The nine of pentacles. She had a full-house in the minor arcana. Sandy smiled. She added two copper groats to the kitty.

"With these cards, I can read your future," Sandy said. "You're going to lose all--"

"No!" Drusilla lunged across the table to clamp a hand on Sandy's mouth. "Ssh! Prophesying the future for one of royal blood is punishable by death!"

Sandy pulled Drusilla's hand from her face. "Uh huh. It has nothing to do with the fact that you're lousy at poker and I'm going to win every last groat you have. Are you in or--"

The door bell tinkled.

Sandy jerked her head around. A tall woman in a hooded cloak pushed the door open and surveyed the interior of the shop. The warmth of the spring afternoon made the choice of a cloak unusual, but a customer was a customer. Sandy leaped to her feet.

"Welcome to Blunt's Spell Emporium," Sandy said. "How may I help you today, madam?"

Enough of the woman's face showed to reveal doubt and distaste on her finely chiselled features. She looked about forty. Handsome. With a couple of gold rings on her pale hands. Long, manicured fingernails. She was straight, then.

"Do these...premises," the woman said, "belong to a fully accredited member of the Most Ancient and Venerable Guild of Magicians, Sorcerers, Witches, and Enchanters, But Not Theatrical Conjurers or Elderly Midwives?"

Sandy bowed unsteadily and regretted those last two bottles of cough balm. "I am the owner of this emporium, ma'am. Sandra Blunt. Witch. I would be honoured to be of service. Perhaps you seek a tonic? A cure? I offer the most discreet--"

A second cloaked woman pushed the first aside and strode into the shop. "You're a witch? But you're so young. Where are your hairy warts?"

Before Sandy's alcohol-soggy brain could think of a flippant reply, the newcomer shoved back her hood. Sandy's breath lodged in her throat. Her eyes bulged. She stared at a tumble of shiny blonde hair, flawless creamy complexion, large hazel eyes, and the most kissable of lips.

"This is a funny place." The beauty wrinkled her adorable little nose. "It's disgustingly dusty. And it smells. You ought to get your servants to clean it better. I want my fortune told. I want to know how long my horrid father is going to keep me rotting away as a spinster in that draughty old pal--Ow!" She glared at her companion. "You pinched me! I've had Daddy flog servants for--Ow!"

"Lady Beryl, is your medicine wearing off?" The older woman looking meaningfully and menacingly at the beauty.

Sandy's attention dropped to be enveloped in a perfect, curvaceous bosom swelling with indignation. Beryl. Not the prettiest of names, but any woman who looked like that could get away with worse. What rhymed with Beryl? Smeryl? Teryl? Peril. Hmm. Not exactly romantic.

Drusilla touched Sandy's elbow and whispered in her ear. "I think you ought to be very careful. I suspect--"

"Of course!" Beryl's pout vanished to be replaced by a dazzling smile. "My Daddy isn't the king. He's just some common sort of lord."

"Perhaps," the older woman said, "the witch will be able to tell you what lies in your future."

"Oh, yes, you must!" Beryl smiled at Sandy.

Sandy smiled back. Beryl filled her whole world. Beautiful, perfect, lovable Beryl. The room spun. The older woman had to shake her chinking purse in Sandy's face to get her attention.

"Or are you the witch?" Beryl eyed Drusilla. "You have an elusive air of mystery. Shame about the pimples."

Sandy elbowed Drusilla aside. "Lady Beryl, I am the witch. If you will take this seat, I shall work my magic for you."

Sandy hurriedly shoved the cards and copper coins into a pile, thrust the empty bottles of cough balm at Drusilla, and drew a chair out for Beryl. The beauty did not sit until the older woman had wiped the seat with her cloak.

Sandy smiled across the small table. Her knees gently touched Beryl's knees. Beryl did not shift away. She stared at the tarot cards as Sandy gathered them and shuffled. Sandy threw in a showy riffle that owed more to tavern gambling tables than magic school. Beryl's eyes widened. She was impressed. Sandy's insides warmed to more than the brandy swilling around her stomach.

"Now, clear your thoughts," Sandy said, "and concentrate on the questions that you wish answered."

Beryl squeezed her eyes shut and looked so adorable that Sandy went weak with wanting to kiss her.

Drusilla gripped Sandy's shoulder. "I think you should be careful. She--"

Sandy brushed her off.

Beryl even looked pretty when she cut the tarot deck. Sandy received a whiff of a delicate floral perfume. Sandy's imagination drifted off to a grassy bank covered with wild flowers. She and Beryl ran across it, hand in sweaty hand. They tumbled onto the springy grass. Together. Pressing against each other. Warm, soft flesh. Kissing.

"Am I going to get married soon?" Beryl said.

"Oh, yes." Sandy imagined kissing Beryl after being pronounced wife and wife.

"Whoopee!" Beryl clapped her hands and beamed up at her companion. "This was a good idea of yours, Rochelle! She's not wrinkled and warty like those crones who come to the palace, but she does smell of brandy just like a real witch. And she can tell my future without even looking at the cards! Oh! I'm getting married soon. To be free of my disagreeable old father! And all his stuffy fogies."

Drusilla dug a finger into Sandy's back. Sandy shifted out of reach. The older woman fixed a hard, suspicious stare down on Sandy. Sandy remembered what she was supposed to be doing, shook her head to try to jolt her thoughts free of the alcoholic fog, and picked the first three cards off the deck. Beryl stared greedily at them.

"What do they mean?" Beryl pointed to King of Cups. "Is that my prince?"

"Erm. Prince?" Sandy frowned. "You want to marry a prince?"

"Or is that card the princess who will come for me?" Beryl pointed to The Empress. "When will she come? When? I must know."

Sandy grinned. "You have already met your True Love."

Beryl's gaze snapped up. "Really? Who--Oh! You don't mean that ugly Prince Ribbit from that stupid kingdom no one has ever heard of? He smells of ponds and eats flies when he thinks no one is watching."

"Not him," Sandy said. "The one who loves you is female."

Beryl's mouth tightened as she considered this. "There was that rather handsome princess who kissed me in the counting house. But I heard she pricked herself, fell asleep, and isn't due to be woken for ninety-five more years. Just goes to show that you can't be too careful around sharp metaphors and phallic symbols."

"Your True Love is unmarried and willing to lay everything she owns--her whole kingdom at your feet," Sandy said.

"I should jolly well hope so," Beryl said. "But how can I ask her if I don't know who she is?"

Sandy reached across to gently clasp a soft warm hand. Beryl jerked free.

"What do you think you're doing, you working class person?" Beryl said. "You can't touch me!"

"Oh," Sandy said. "I--The cards are confused. I need to examine your palm."

"That's all right, then." Beryl thrust her hand across the table. "You have my permission to touch me. Now, about this princess."

Drusilla tugged Sandy's hair. "I really need to speak with you. There's something you should know about--"

Sandy twisted around to whisper vehemently: "Go away!"

Sandy captured Beryl's hand. A tingling warmth raced under Sandy's skin and went straight to her drunken head.

"In a year and a day," Sandy said, "you and I will be happily married, most beautiful lady."

Beryl frowned. "A year and a day? That's longer than I'd like, but I suppose I can live with it. But I wish you'd concentrate. This is about me. Not you. What do I care if you're married? Tell me more about me. What else do you see? I want lots of good things to happen to me to help while away this year until my princess comes. And some presents would be good."

Sandy turned Beryl's hand palm up. She gently stroked it with a finger. Her blood felt as though it were full of tingly bubbles. Love. It must be. She had fallen in love at first sight.

"Well?" Beryl said. "Tell me something nice."

"Your skin...Your skin is so soft and perfect," Sandy said. "It is paler and purer than the mane of the unicorn that roams free in the lands of the frost giants."

"Oh," Beryl said. "A unicorn? I've not seen a unicorn before. So, someone is going to bring this unicorn to me so that I can make the comparison? For everyone to see and marvel at. Yes, I like that a lot. What else are people going to give me?"

Sandy gazed adoringly at Beryl. "People without number could lay gems and trinkets at your feet, but the only jewel worthy of your beauty is the legendary talking pearl earring of the Queen Under the Waves. It would tell you that you are fairer than its previous owner."

Beryl's eyes widened. "Ooh! I like the sound of that. Tell me more, witch."

Drusilla bent, grabbed Sandy's earlobe, and whispered: "You're in grave danger. She's Princess Maybelle! Don't say another--"

"Shut up!" Sandy shoved Drusilla aside. "Go and count the bottles of--of hair tonic we have in the store room."

Drusilla chewed her lip and frowned between Sandy and Beryl.

Sandy turned back to Beryl and resumed softly stroking her palm. "My apologies, glorious lady. My assistant has only been in the job a few weeks. Now..."

"You were telling me about all these fabulous things that people are going to bring to me," Beryl said. "I've always rather liked the idea of a magical mirror. Without the wicked stepmother, of course. I don't suppose I'm going to get one?"

"A mirror?" Sandy said. "There is no mirror crafted by man or magic that could accurately reflect such perfection as your beauty. Only the polished scale from the neck of a mature dragon would be clear enough to hold the image of your dazzling self."

Beryl frowned. Sandy had seen no woman frown more beautifully. Oh, yes, this was love. Sandy wanted to dance and recite poetry, but a speck of her brain was just sober enough to realise that she risked falling flat on her face if she tried that. She settled for a longing sigh and a loving smile.

"A dragon scale?" Beryl said. "I'm not sure about that. Still, it would be very valuable, wouldn't it? All right. What else? I was thinking about getting my hair cut and re-styled. What do the cards say about that?"

"Your hair..." Sandy stared at the flaxen waves. She would like to stroke them and press them to her face. "Your hair is more golden and lovely than the locks of an elven princess, as everyone would acclaim were you to stand side-by-side."

Beryl twisted a lock of her hair around a finger. "Elves wear their hair long, don't they? I suppose, then, that means I shouldn't get it cut. Fine. I wasn't that set on the idea. What else? Daddy wants me to continue singing lessons with that slimy creep of a bard. I was hoping he'd drop dead over his lute. Will he?"

"Your voice is so sweet and harmonious, lady," Sandy said, "that an ogre from the Wildlands would lay a flower at your feet when he heard you speak."

"An ogre?" Beryl's nose wrinkled. "Aren't they hairy and horrible? And have bad breath? Couldn't he just send the flower?"

"Even the Green Hermit himself would emerge from his remote hiding place to lie prostrate at the feet of the most gorgeous woman created," Sandy said.

"Oh," the older woman said.

"Green Hermit?" Beryl screwed her beauty into a scowl. "That doesn't sound very complimentary."

"Highness," the older woman said, "the Green Hermit is a notorious misogynist."

"A what?" Beryl asked.

"A man riddled with psychological insecurities about sex and who is afraid of women and blames them for his own failings," the older woman said. "The Green Hermit refused to leave his cave to obey the summons of the High King himself. Because the king was married and the Hermit might come into contact with the queen. Quite what he thought her majesty would do with him, I'm not sure. He's a bent, nasty, unwashed old man who lives in a cave and has earned himself a reputation for deep thinking by spending the last fifty years meditating on grass. But if he would leave his cave for you, and lie at your feet, that is something special indeed."

"But he doesn't sound like the sort of man I would like lying at my feet," Beryl said.

"You could have a point," the older woman said.

"You would not need to concern yourself with him, most beautiful lady," Sandy said. "He would be but one of the adoring legions."

Beryl smiled. "Yes. Of course. Adoring legions! If this hermit person was too unpleasant lying on the floor, the adoring legions could use him as a door mat. You know, I had no idea that getting my future read could tell me such wonderful things. You've quite put my mind at rest about my hair. Now, what else nice is going to happen to me? What sort of wedding dress is Daddy going to buy me?"

"Your wedding veil will be finer than the finest lace," Sandy said. "It will be a gossamer cobweb spun by the giant spider of--"

"Aaarrgh!" Drusilla staggered out of the store room door. She clutched her throat. "Danger! Assassins! Flee for your lives!"

Drusilla whipped out her paring knife and flashed it threateningly into the storeroom. Beryl shot to her feet. The older woman protectively tugged Beryl behind her.

"There's nothing to be alarmed about," Sandy said. "Drusilla--"

"Back fiend!" Drusilla shouted. "You shall not pass me! You shall harm no one while there is breath in Drusilla's body!"

The older woman dropped her purse on the table and turned to bustle Beryl to the door.

"No!" Sandy shot to her feet. "Wait! There's not really anyone there! She makes all this stuff up."

The women hurried out the door. Sandy darted around the table. A body slammed into her and knocked her sprawling on the floor. Drusilla sat on her back.

"Get off me!" Sandy flailed at Drusilla. "They're getting away. I have to follow her. Find out where she lives. Let me go!"

"This is for your own good," Drusilla said. "Though I fear I acted too late. I am not as drunk as you, but that cough balm did slow my royal wits."

"Get off!"

"I should have stopped you saying anything. Still, it's not as though you really read her fortune. That might be what saves you from the horrible tortures and gruesome death that await you in the king's dungeon."

"Will you stop that nonsense?" Sandy writhed in vain to dislodge Drusilla. "The woman I love is getting away. I might never find her again."

"I, too, have fallen in love at first sight with her. And, though it pains me to disappoint you, I might have to marry her."

"You?" Sandy tried wrenching Drusilla's leg. "You're madder than I thought. You have acne!"

"I'll invite you to the wedding, of course. If you've not been executed for prophesying for one of royal blood. I did warn you about that."

"Get off me! She's getting away. I'll kill you myself for this!"

The door bell tinkled. Ruth entered. Her dark eyebrows lifted.

"I'm terribly sorry," Ruth said, "am I interrupting?"

"Can you get her off me?" Sandy said.

"It was for her own good." Drusilla stood and nodded at Ruth. "Good afternoon, dear girl."

Sandy scrambled to her feet and darted to the door. She ran out into the street and frantically looked up and down. She saw no sign of the two cloaked women, but ran down the street anyway.

When Sandy staggered back to the shop, sweating and unhappy, she found the 'closed' sign on the door and Ruth and Drusilla chatting cosily over a cup of tea.

"If you've been drinking, you'd better take some tea before you go home to your mother." Ruth poured Sandy a cup of tea. "Did you run all the way to the palace?"

"Palace?" Sandy clenched a fist and shook it at Drusilla. "I'll never forgive you for this."

"Isn't the palace where Princess Maybelle lives?" Ruth said.

"Yes, dear girl," Drusilla said. "I hope the princess and her companion in disguise did not get waylaid by any of those assassins who lurk in wait for my royal self. I ought to have escorted them back to the palace, with my paring knife at the ready, but my loyalties were torn. Did I do wrong to protect Sandy instead?"

"Sandy didn't need your protection." Sandy slumped against the counter. "Oh, gods! She was gorgeous. Her hands so soft and warm."

"Well, most princesses don't do a lot of work, do they?" Ruth said. "You'd expect them to keep their hands nice."

Sandy scowled at her. "Princess? Not you, too. She was Lady Beryl. Oh, if only I'd asked her surname! Although, it'd just be my luck that her father would be as disagreeable as old Burghermeister Smelt. A lord isn't likely to let his daughter marry someone who isn't rich, is he?"

"Despair not," Drusilla said. "Remember the Oracle of Ring. We are to travel to far-flung places and perform many valorous deeds. That should make us rich. And if not, then I shall reward you from my royal coffers when I regain my family's usurped throne."

"That's very generous of you." Ruth smiled, showing her dimples. "You see, Sandy, it's right what they say about friends being a person's true treasure."

Sandy put a hand across her eyes and groaned. Wasn't there also a saying that went: with friends like Drusilla, who needed enemies?

"Take heart!" Drusilla rose and clapped a hand on Sandy's shoulder. "I have been sorely concerned about your future. But it has just occurred to me that the Oracle means that you are not in imminent danger of arrest by the royal guard. If we are to have adventures together, you won't be languishing in irons in the king's deepest, darkest, rattiest dungeon cell for telling the future of the princess. The Oracle is infallible."

"That is heartening, isn't it?" Ruth said.

Sandy lowered her hand to cast Ruth a filthy look.

"You know, dear girl," Drusilla said, "if I were not a princess, and had I not just fallen madly in love with a princess, I would seriously consider marrying you."

Ruth blushed. "That's very sweet of you, Drusilla."

"Well, I would," Drusilla said, "if you weren't already in love with someone else."

Ruth's blush deepened and spread down her neck and up to the tips of her ears. "I'd better be getting back to Aunt Betty."

Ruth bustled out. Sandy frowned at the closing door. She had no idea that Ruth was interested in anyone. Ruth hadn't brought anyone home to dinner. Sandy's mother would love to meet whoever it was. Now that she thought about it, Sandy was curious to meet this mysterious person herself.

Drusilla grabbed the basket that Ruth had forgotten in her hasty departure. "We had best all be getting home to Mrs Blunt. The good woman does like us to be washed and punctual for dinner."

"Yeah. I'll be there soon."

After Drusilla left, Sandy slumped at the table and idly shuffled the tarot deck. Beautiful Beryl had sat just there. In less than an hour, Sandy had found and lost love at first sight. Even quiet, dependable, easily-overlooked Ruth was able to hold onto someone longer than that, apparently.

Sandy listlessly turned over the top tarot card. Death. Sandy quickly stuck it in the middle of the deck and picked another. The Hanged-Man. She had to try eleven times before getting The Lovers.