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Esther Friesner
Talona the Terrible folded her sinewy arms across her mighty armor-plated bosom and
glared at her opponent. "Just what do you mean by coming to class at this hour, young lady?"
Amaryllis pressed her lips together, forcing back the same words which had gotten her into
trouble a good twenty-eight times since her arrival at the school. Every single one of those
times she had been reproved before all her fellow students and made to slop the school pigs.
Therefore, instead of the angry retort "I am Princess Amaryllis, you muscle-bound crone!" she
meekly replied, "I'm sorry, Swordmistress, but on the way to class I thought I heard a cry for
help coming from Rushy Glen, so I went to investigate, for extra credit."
"Ah!" said Talona, uncrossing her arms and leaning forward on the podium which creaked
and cracked at the joints in protest "And did you think, child, that I am unaware that the only
presence in Rushy Glen at the moment is one Hamid, a travelling merchant and master of
Hamid's Caravan of Discounts?"
Amaryllis cringed and blushed, mortified, while her classmates sniggered. "I-I was only
looking at the daggers. He has a fine selection of the new models for distant Goristan, and at
prices that just can't be beat!"
Talona sighed. "Shopping. I might have known. You can take the princess out of the castle,
but you can't take the urge to shop out of the princess. Well, shopping is not the proper
occupation for any serious swordswoman, let me assure you."
"But I'm not a serious-"
"Hush!" All the instincts of a seasoned fighter snapped into action as Talona leaped the
length of the classroom to clap a sword-calloused hand over Amaryllis's mouth. Darting her
eyes to left and right as if seeking skulkers in the shadows, the veteran hissed, "Do you want
the surviving minces to hear you? Their agents are everywhere. These are cutthroat times."
"Mo mah miff may mid?" Amaryllis said as well as she was able.
"So what if they did?" Talona echoed. "Mark my words well, lass: If they did, I promise
you that you would face the deepest doom, the saddest fate, the most dreadful curse that ever
can befall a woman." She lowered her voice so that it sounded even more portentous: "You
would have to stay single forever!"
A gasp of involuntary horror shook the assembled student body, causing chainmail-clad
bosoms to heave until the jingling sounded like the charge of a bellringers' choir, out for blood.
As for Amaryllis, at the very mention of possible spinsterhood she collapsed in a dead faint.
 She awoke to the sounds of a heated argument between Talona and one of her fellow
students, a lady named Gethina.
"-Sovereign Essence is the best remedy for swoons available without a wizard's
prescription, that's why!" Gethina was saying, waving a small yellow bottle dangerously near
the Swordmistress's lace.
"Vorn's Sovereign Essence can bring back the dead for all I care," Talona shot back,
smacking the unlucky bottle out of Gethina's hand. "I still would never have it under my roof. It
is manufactured solely by the Witches' Auxiliary of the Council Sorcerous as a fund-raising
item. One of the principal ingredients, as any ninny Knows, is consomme of frogskin. Out of
simple good taste and sensitivity I refuse to stock it in the school infirmary, and I am surprised
that you-a princess born!-would be in possession or such filthy brew, let alone suggest using
"Oh, don't be surprised. Teacher." Santorma's nasty, insinuating voice came scraping at the
edges of Amaryllis's returning consciousness. "Gethina never had a hope of finding a decent
husband before the great disaster, so why should she care a fig for the rest of us now; or for
good taste?"
"That's a lie!" Gethina flashed a scathing look on Santorma. "Before the disaster I was
engaged to be married to Prince Reston of Beverlita."
Santorma's scornful laugh was every bit as nasty and insinuating as her voice. "More like
Princess Beverlita of Reston, if you set my drift, and don't you just. I hear tell that he looked so
much tike a frog to start with that the witches didn't need to cast more than half the frog spell
over him before boiling him down for consomme."
Gethina let loose a bloodcurdling shriek and threw herself on Santorma. Swords flashed
and met in midair. The classroom rang with the alarm of steel biting steel, and the grunts and
curses of the combatants.
Talona clapped her hands rapidly to get the attention of the other girls. "All right, ladies,
you know the drill: Papers out, pencils flying; I'll be collecting your observers' notes on this
skirmish afterwards."
Pucina, lately princess of Treb, raised her hand. "Will we be getting graded on this?"
"Only if both of them survive," Talona replied. "If one or both dies, you will write a
five-page essay on the winning strategy, due tomorrow."
Pucina's eyes widened. "For the love of all the gods, you two, don't die!" she shouted.
 By the time Amaryllis had managed to pick herself up off the floor and borrow a pencil, the
set-to was over. Both combatants had survived, though both were also bleeding from a number
of superficial wounds, besides which Santorma sported a shiner. Their teacher observed them
with an expert's eye and pronounced, "Not bad. Neither one of you would nave lasted five
minutes against one of the girls from my old regiment, but you fight well enough to deceive a
prince who wants to have a swordmaiden for a wife."
Santorma did not accept her teacher's praise graciously. She spat a gob of blood studded
with a couple of her smaller teeth and decreed: "I quit." She touched her blooming black eye
and added, "If our remaining princes have gotten so cursed finicky about having to wed a
swordmaiden, then I say to the netherpit with them! I'm going home. First I'm going to have a
nice, hot bath, then I'm going to marry my father's swineherd, and then I'm going to bribe as
many minstrels as it takes to spread some cockamamie fairy tale about how he was really a
prince in disguise. And I will personally slice the head off anyone who says anything
different!" She unbuckled her sword-belt, let it fall to the floor, and gave it a savage kick
before stalking out.
A short silence followed this scene. At last Talona remarked, "Well! I suppose the rest of
you are going to follow that pathetic example." Her eyes swept her remaining students,
including Gethina, who was still standing in the middle of the floor, breathing hard.
"Not bloody likely," Amaryllis muttered.
"What was that?" Once more Talona sprang-this time in the purely figurative sense. "Speak
up, young lady! If you nave something to say, say it so that the whole class can hear."
For an instant, Amaryllis toyed with the idea of making up another lie. Then she dropped it.
The one about Rushy Glen hadn't worked worth spit. She knew she was a poor liar, and
besides, she was angry. Why shouldn't she. be able to come late to class because she'd stopped
to browse at Hamid's? Why couldn't she indulge in her favorite occupation anymore, simply
because it wasn't proper for a sword-maiden? She opened her mouth to speak and what came
out of it was as honest as her heart could make it:
"I said not bloody likely! And you know why it's not bloody likely as well as we all do.
Santorma's father is the richest king for leagues around and she's his only child! If any one of
our fathers had half his money and if any of us were our kingdom's only heir, we'd be out of this
place so fast it would melt your buckler! But we're not rich and we're not sole heirs, so we
can't marry swineherds and turn them into princes. That would be a picnic. But, oh no, we've
got to marry princes, only there are hardly enough of them to go around since the Witches'
Auxiliary turned so cursed many of them into frogs!"
"It wouldn't be so bad if they'd just left it at turning them into frogs," Pucina sighed. "Then
we could kiss them, break the spell, and they'd have to marry us. But as soon as they become
frogs, those odious witches nab them for the brewing of their triply-damned Vorn's Sovereign
 Essence! You can't kiss a cup of frog consommé."
"You can," Amaryllis corrected her. "But you don't get bang-all for your trouble."
"I blame the government," said Princess Rika of Yellowcrag. "If the Interkingdom Alliance
hadn't cut off all funding for the black arts, the Council Sorcerous wouldn't have slashed the
budget for the Witches' Auxiliary and they never would have needed to start such an aggressive
fund-raising project in the first place."
Talona held up a chiding finger. "No politics in class," she said. Then she returned her
attention to Amaryllis. "Whining never helps, whether you're princess or swordswoman. In a
free market economy, the laws of supply and demand become the facts of life. Our remaining
princes know they can afford to be picky; you can not. Not if you want to become a bride. At
the moment, it strikes their fancy to marry only swordmaidens. It's become a bit of a status
symbol with the boys, realty. We ought to be pleased that they're no longer afraid of strong
women. Now as I see it, you have three choices: Wait for princess brides to come back into
style-" (Amaryllis looked dubious) "-leave this school and accept a life of single cursed-ness-"
(Amaryllis looked aghast) "-or sit down, shut up, and do your work!"
Amaryllis sat down and shut up, but that was as far as she was going to go. While the other
ladies scribbled their evaluations of the recent combat and Gethina helped herself to the
contents of the first aid kit, Amaryllis sat idly in her place until Talona noticed her lack of
"Why aren't you writing?"
"I can't. I didn't get to see the fight. I was still pretty groggy for most of it."
Talona snook her head. "Tsk-tsk. What did I say about whining?"
The veteran swordswoman's condescending tone was just too much for Amaryllis to bear.
She leaped to her feet and shouted, "I quit too!"
"Fine." Talona was unperturbed. "No refunds on the remainder of this semester's tuition and
good luck to you." Without further ado she turned her back on the simmering student
swordmaiden and told the rest of the class to hurry up and finish their reports.
"I'll show you!" The princess' cheeks were flushed with anger, her dainty hands were fists.
"I'll find a prince and I'll convince him that I'm a real swordmaiden without any more of your
stupid schooling and I'll marry him! So there! Nyah! What do you think of that?"
Talona's head slowly came around. "Fine," she said quietly. "You try that. May I suggest the
kingdom of Egrel as the best place to start? Its most conveniently located Their prince Destino
is reputed to be handsome enough, and he's an only child, so you can be fairly well assured of
 becoming queen in time."
Amaryllis frowned. "Why are you telling me all this? Why do you want to help me?"
"Because no matter how much information I give you, you won't succeed. You'll be found
out first, and the news will echo throughout every civilized land. In that way, you shall serve as
an object lesson for the rest of your classmates and I shall never be troubled to maintain
discipline again. I ought to thank you for services rendered."
The princess' lily brow creased even more. "What if I'm not found out?"
"Not found out? You?" Talona's laugh was like the carking of a gore-crow. "Dear child,
even the most pudding-brained of princes can tell when a sword-maiden is faking it."
Amaryllis stalked out of Talona's School for Swords-women while her erstwhile teacher
passed down the rows of benches and trestle tables, collecting papers. She was so furious that
she went about a mile past Rushy Glen before she realized that she now had all the time in the
world for shopping.
"Damn," she muttered. "Now what? I can't go back home. Daddy will be a bear when he
hears about the tuition, and my soppy half-sister Villanella will start yapping again about now
she should've been the one sent to school. As if she'd ever land a prince, sword-maiden or not!
With the face that old camel's got, she'd better pray I do marry Prince Destino, because the only
way she'll ever get a man is if I'm queen of somewhere-or-other and I can order some poor
soul to wed her on pain of death. And even then I'll have to persuade him!"
With these and similarly charitable observations falling constantly from her lips, Amaryllis
walked some five miles before reaching a major road, flagging down a passing haywain, and
hitching a ride. As she jounced along on the seat beside a driver who smelled marginally fouler
than the school pigs, Amaryllis had time enough to reflect upon her situation, as well as to get
the hang of sitting so that her sword did not smack her thigh black and blue. She gave thanks
when she learned from the lout that it was as Talona had said: The kingdom of Egrel was not
too far away. In fact, they would reach the royal castle-town by sunset.
"What business ye got there, arh?" the fellow inquired.
Amaryllis decided that if she were going to impersonate a woman warrior, there was no
time like the present to begin the charade. She put on Talona's grimmest face and replied
frostily, 'My business is mine own, and doom perhaps to he who pries into it too closely,
"To him," said the driver.
"I beg your pardon?" Amaryllis' mask of cold pride not only dropped, it shattered, and she
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