Adelphie played with her food, pushing bits of potato around her plate with her fork. “I know his mother is the best Healer in the palace. That doesn’t mean I should marry him.” A particularly fat pigeon alighted on her wrist and rubbed his head on her thumb in support.
Her mother sighed. “Del, I told you to keep that thing off the table.”
“Leave Rumble alone.” Rumble’s coo of agreement echoed in Adelphie’s head—he didn’t want to get off the table either. Adelphie ruffled the feathers on his brown and white head absentmindedly. “He’s not gross. He’s just as clean as any of your horses.”
Adelphie’s mother crossed her arms. “But you’ll notice than even though I’m a Horse-speaker, I manage to keep them out of the house. Send it back to the coup. We’re trying to have a discussion.”
“Fine.” Adelphie rolled her eyes and churred slightly at Rumble, who peered up at her with annoyance in his eyes. “I know, I know. Later.” Rumble flew up and through the window, leaving Adelphie to wish that she could also fly away from this conversation.
“Now, what’s really wrong with Gomes? I thought you were friends with him.”
“Yeah, exactly. We were friends. Then Remi goes and marries the princess and now everything is awkward all the time.”
“You have to stop seeing your sister’s existence as a curse, Del. She’s done nothing to wrong you.”
“Ever since she became the duchess, everything is different. This is my fourth proposal this week. I want to get married because someone loves me and wants to live with me and… I don’t know, help me raise my birds or something. Not because it’ll give some random people a connection with the royal family. I don’t feel like that’s too much to ask.”
“You’re far too old to have such romantic ideas about marriage. It’s not like you’re going to get swept off your feet by the perfect man. At least you’re friends with Gomes.” Her mother changed tactics. “Look, you like Gomes, right? The best marriages are between friends. Look at your father and me.”
“I know, I know.” Adelphie took a bite of potatoes.
“And if you want to move out, it would be a lot easier if—”
“I know, Mom!” Adelphie looked out the window. There was a dove out there that wanted her attention. “Look, can I go?”
“It’s not very polite to leave in the middle of family dinner.”
“Family dinner? It’s just the two of us here. And it’s lunch time.”
“Are we not family?”
Adelphie rolled her eyes. “Where is Bolin anyway?”
“Your brother… actually, I don’t know where he is.”
“He’s not married either,” Adelphie muttered.
Her mother took a deep breath. “Adelphie, please. You can’t live here with us forever. Getting married isn’t the end of the world. You should feel lucky that you’re so… desired, by men in the kingdom.”
“And I’d feel even more lucky if they even wanted me to begin with instead of just my connection to the king.”
“What? It’s true.”
“You know we can’t force you to marry anyone you don’t want to. But please, just think about it? You like Gomes. At least give him a chance. A courtship moon or two? That’s all I ask.”
Adelphie bit the inside of her lip. “Fine. Can I go now?”
“You may be excused.”
Adelphie kicked at the dirt roads as she walked along the dirt road of the main street. One of Rumble’s daughters, a coquettish and stupid red-bar, strutted next to her feet, complaining about the presence of a crow that lived in the woods next to Adelphie’s house. Despite that, Adelphie could still feel the stares of the shopkeepers, hear their muttering, and she adjusted her skirt and straightened her back as best she could.
Out of the corner of her eye, Adelphie saw the town cooper nudge his son, who stumbled forward into the street.
Stifling a sigh, she turned to face him with the biggest smile she could muster. “Enoc! Hi. We haven’t spoken since the coronation last year,” she said pointedly. Her pigeon cooed her farewells and fluttered off, leaving Adelphie alone.
The poor blond man turned pink and Adelphie caught the glance he tried to sneak to his father, who was trying to hide his portly body behind one of his barrels. “Yes, well, um, I, I just wanted you to know you looked really n—nice today. And maybe you’d, uh, want to come over after temple on Friday? For dinner?”
“Sorry, I, uh—” At least he hadn’t proposed immediately, Adelphie thought. “I always have dinner with my family then.”
“Oh.” Enoc glanced back at his father again and Adelphie felt bad. She didn’t want him to get yelled at.
“Maybe next weekend though?”
“Yeah, maybe.” Enoc shuffled his feet.
“So…” Adelphie fought the urge to check her pocket watch. “I gotta go. I’ll see you later.”
“Sure, sure. See you.”
Adelphie walked away quickly, careful not to look back towards him. It would be different if they actually seemed to enjoy her presence, different still if she was beautiful, like her sister. The moon’s light just barely seemed to poke out, although the sun had only just begun to set. The crow Rumble’s daughter had been afraid of flew overhead, cawing out how happy he was that his chicks would soon hatch.
Adelphie sighed. It was probably time to go back home, but she really didn’t want to have that conversation with her mother again. If her mother would only stop beating around the bush and admit that they couldn’t pay for their house now that Eremiel was out of the house and not contributing income, maybe Adelphie would be more okay with it. It still hurt that they wanted her out and not her twin. Her brother’s Gift was rarer than hers, more impressive, more lucrative. Adelphie was just a drain. Unspecial, in comparison to her remarkable siblings. No matter her parents wanted her to leave.
The woods were coming up, Adelphie noted, but her feet kept walking anyway. It wasn’t particularly dangerous for her; the birds would warn her if a bobcat was coming. A tawny owl hooted in the distance and Adelphie tried to understand her, only barely catching the word “rabbit”. A real Bird-speaker would be able to understand all birds, even the carnivorous ones. Adelphie clenched her fists. She really was weak and worthless, just like her parents thought.
The first burning hints of tears started to creep into Adelphie’s nose, but before she could cry, she was startled by a flurry of wings and the call of a frightened sparrow.
“Hello?” Adelphie winced. Her sparrow accent was terrible because of how much time she’d spent with pigeons.
The sparrow chirped again, frantically.
“Just hang on.” Adelphie picked through the forest, trying to keep the hem of her skirt from tearing. “I’m coming.” The bird’s shrieks came from further and further away. Adelphie began to run, hurtling over hedges and tripping over roots.
Suddenly, the sparrow stopped calling.
“Hello? Are you okay?” Adelphie peered into the underbrush—it was getting too dark to see. The sparrow didn’t respond, which wasn’t typical of sparrows.
Adelphie stopped. To the right and left, nothing looked familiar, and she wasn’t really sure if she could backtrack because she’d been thinking so much about what a sparrow would do. She pushed back through the brush from where she’d came. She trilled a call—most of her songbirds and Columbiformes would be asleep, but surely some of them would hear her and help her find her way home. She trilled again, louder this time, but still, no response came. Adelphie looked around at the receding light. This was not good.
Adelphie tried again, more frantically. Either the birds could hear her and were ignoring her, or there were no living birds in this clearing. The latter was a lot more troubling—as much as Adelphie hated it, she had to hope they were just ignoring the poor, lousy Bird-speaker with no true talents.
A snap behind her squeezed her lungs. It was bigger than a sparrow, whatever it was. Surely it wasn’t a bobcat—could they be so silent? They were cats, she supposed. Was it the reason there were no birds? Would a bobcat try to kill her? Adelphie screwed her eyes shut. If it was coming for her, should she run or should she stand her ground? How big were bobcats again?
“What are you doing?”
Adelphie’s knees went weak. “Oh, thank the lord.” She turned, finding herself face to face with a tall man about her age with sideswept black hair—definitely not a bobcat.
“Were you making bird noises?”
“Yes,” she admitted. “I, uh, I thought you might be a bobcat.”
“So… you made bird noises?”
“I’m a Bird-speaker. I was trying to get them to help me get home. I lost my way in the woods,” she said, remembering right after she’d said it that she probably shouldn’t tell a strange forest man she was completely lost.
The man nodded. “I suppose that makes a little bit more sense. I thought you were just randomly making bird noises in the middle of the night in the woods. Seemed a bit weird.”
“Well, you’re one to talk. What are you doing in the middle of the woods?” Adelphie sized him up. He was tall, sure, but bone thin, and his clothes were more worn than her own hand-me-downs. His right hand shined with blood. She could beat him in a fight, she decided, and she shifted from suspicious to concerned. “Did you cut yourself? Are you alright?”
“What?” He looked down at his hand. “Oh, yeah, I’m alright. What are you doing in the middle of the woods?”
“I asked first.”
“Yeah, but it’s weirder that you’re here. I’m in the woods all the time.”
“Why should I believe you?”
“I’m covered in dirt,” he pointed out.
Adelphie hadn’t been able to see that in the dim lights. “That doesn’t mean you’re in the woods all the time. That just means you’ve been in the woods for a long time as of right now.”
He sighed. “Look, this argument will go nowhere. Let’s cut a deal. You tell me what you’re doing in the woods and I’ll tell you how to get back to town.”
“Oh! You can do that?”
“Yeah, of course. I’m in the woods all the time.”
Adelphie still wasn’t sure she could trust him, but as her choices were run around the woods aimlessly or briefly trust this stranger, she bit her lip and nodded. “Alright. I accept your terms.”
“Great!” He paused. “So, uh, why are you in the woods?”
“Well, I didn’t mean to be. I was walking through town, but I ran into some people I didn’t particularly want to talk to, so I… kept walking, and I wound up in the woods. And then I was chasing this sparrow I heard calling for help, and I got all turned around.”
He cocked his head. “You have enemies?”
“Well, I wouldn’t really call them enemies. They’re actually… suitors? I guess? They all want to marry me.”
“Why would you run from someone who wants to marry you?”
“I mean, they don’t actually want to marry me. Not really.” Adelphie looked around for a place to sit. If she was going to pour her guts to a stranger in the woods, it’d be more comfortable at least if she could sit down.
“What are you looking for?”
“I want to sit down. My legs are tired.”
“Oh.” His nose twitched twice. “Um. Okay. How about we go to my campfire then? It’s not super far away.”
Adelphie internally hemmed and hawed, but in the end, her calves were burning and the air was growing chilly. “Alright. Thank you. Lead the way.”
The way to the campfire was a lot smoother than the hedges and brush Adelphie had torn her skirt on earlier. “What’s your name, by the way?”
“I don’t know if I should tell you that. You’re a stranger.”
He rolled his eyes and stomped over a barely visible sapling. “You’re okay with telling me your woes about marriage but you’re not okay with telling me your name?”
“Fine. It’s Adelphie.”
“Adelphie. What a weird name. Watch that hole.”
“Thanks. And you?”
“Thanks, but I’ve already stepped over it.”
“No, I mean, what’s your name?”
If the light hadn’t been so low, Adelphie would have sworn that he turned red. “Gwydion,” he muttered.
“I was just checking! It’s not… It’s not a bad name.”
Neither of them acknowledged that it was.
The campfire was small but nice, with a smooth bolder acting as a bench and a firepit with the remains of a few logs and branches.
Adelphie smoothed down her skirt as she settled onto the boulder. “I take it you’re here quite a lot.”
“Mmhmm.” Gwydion seemed distracted. He held up his bloody right hand towards the fire and muttered something before blowing into it.
Adelphie sprung back as a fire ignited. “So, you’re a Fire-starter?”
Gwydion ignored the question. “So, you don’t want to get married?”
“It’s not… it’s not that.” Adelphie pursed her lips. “It’s just… they don’t want… me. They’re not in love with me. They’re not even close friends with me. They just—well I gotta back up. So, my sister became the duchess.”
Gwydion raised his eyebrows.
“Now everyone wants to marry me to get close to the crown, not because they actually want me. And since my sister left the house, my parents don’t have enough income so they want me to get married so I’ll leave the house and they can downsize, but they don’t want my brother to leave, just me. And it’s just me because I’m a Bird-speaker and there’s hundreds of me and I’m not even a very strong Bird-speaker and I’m…” Adelphie huffed out her last bit of breath. “I’m just a drain. I’m a weak drain on my parents. They don’t want me. I’m not… I’m not special, like my siblings. I’m just a weak drain of resources.”
Gwydion faced her. “Wow, that… that sucks.” He smiled sympathetically.
“Yeah, it, uh, it kinda does.”
“Couldn’t you live alone?”
Adelphie shrugged. “No. I don’t think so, anyway. I’d have to move to the outskirts of town and it’d be hard to get to the castle every day.”
Gwydion’s smile dropped and he leaned away from Adelphie. “You work in the castle?”
“Yeah, like as junior Message Collector. The birds tell me which ones are urgent and I pass them along to people who bring them where they need to go.”
“So you don’t like…” Gwydion bit his lip. “You don’t report to anyone? Like the King or the militia or anything?”
“Uh, no. I report to the senior message collector.”
Gwydion relaxed. “Thank goodness.”
“Why were you worried about me reporting to the militia?”
“That’s not very convincing.”
Gwydion looked down, biting his cheek, clearly deliberating. A long, pregnant pause settled around his little campfire before he finally looked up. “If you had the choice, would you want to be stronger?”
“What? Yeah, of course. If I was stronger, my parents would actually… want me.” Adelphie cast her gaze sideways, into the fire.
“Can you keep a secret?”
“Yes.” Was there any other answer?
“I’m not a Fire-starter.”
“But I just—”
“I have the gift of Unbreakable Bones—not so useful. I also wanted to be stronger, like you. So I learned to do this.”
Scooching closer to Adelphie, he tentatively showed her his right hand, on which a rune was printed in old, black ink, barely visible under the red blood. Adelphie gasped. “Blood Magic!”
“We prefer to call it Soul Magic,” Gwydion explained, before holding up his hand and muttering into it, causing the flame to spire higher. When he pulled his palm back, it was clean.
“But I always thought it was… evil.”
“It’s not evil. It’s just… a way to give us with lousy Gifts a little boost, that’s all.” Gwydion smiled. “You want to try? It could… even the playing field, so to speak.”
Adelphie bit her lip. The old saying all insisted Blood Magic was cruel and evil, but Gwydion didn’t seem so bad. “Maybe.”
“Here.” Gwydion took her right hand and with a pen he produced from his back pocket. “This’ll be permanent,” he warned, and when Adelphie nodded, he skillfully drew a small symbol that looked rather like a ladybug on Adelphie’s thumb. “This is a Sparking Charm. It’ll produce a little jolt. I’d rather you point it away from me.”
He pulled a vial of blood out of his pocket and Adelphie cringed. “Is that… Human blood?”
“What? No, I got it from a sp— from an animal I caught earlier. Now repeat after me: Dita Karpa.”
“Dita Karpa,” Adelphie repeated, and the affect was instantaneous. Sparks crackled from her fingertips, and Adelphie instantly felt an upheaval of her spirit, as if it was stirring inside of her and something that had been painful, something that had been weighing her down had been removed. When she reopened her eyes, everything felt a little bit different, as if all the guilty parts of her soul had been exorcized. “Woah.”
Gwydion smiled. “I thought you’d like it. You seemed the type.”
“That feeling! I’m so much—I feel lighter, I feel—” Adelphie caught her breath. “It was… it was amazing. My heart—my soul feels so much lighter, like I’m not… I’m not such a drain, I’m not such a failure.”
“I know exactly what you mean. And it only gets better.”
“Can you show me more?” Adelphie said, holding her hand out towards him again. “I think I’m in love.”