“Bostwick,” Emmaline began tentatively, “do you think, maybe, you could take me out of your pocket?”
“Well, It's just… a little too much jostling for my tastes.”
In reality, the repeated swaying and bumping that came with riding in the magician's side coat pocket had given her a combination of nausea and headache, but she had been raised to put things delicately, and moreover, the magician had done enough complaining for both of them that day.
“You want me to carry you again?” Bostwick asked in a resigned tone.
“I can try hopping beside you for a while.”
“Okay.” He gently pulled her out of his pocket, still a little unsure of how exactly to hold a rabbit that was actually a person, and set her on the rocky path beside him. “But try to keep up.”
They set off again up the trail, with dark clouds and looming peaks above and reddish black dirt below. Emmaline could tell that Bostwick had slowed down to allow her to keep pace with him. She was very small, even for a rabbit, and her gait, if that's what her little hops could be called, felt like a completely inadequate way to climb the mountain path. Still, she wanted to practice using her new rabbit feet, to get used to them… just not too used to them.
She looked back down the six switchbacks they had already climbed to try and see the carriage that had taken them across the Styxian Wastes, but they had already departed back toward the Empire, disappearing among the red earth and piles of garbage that they had driven through that morning. Emmaline remembered looking over an old, yellowing map of Ataxia that Mr. Charles had unearthed before they set out on their journey. The Rodomontade Mountains had looked so small and unimposing when they were just a series of small, inked-in points, but as she and Bostwick turned onto the seventh switchback, she thought they might never make it to the top.
“It's too bad we have to go by foot now,” Emmaline remarked offhandedly.
“It's not like the carriage could come up this path. It's too narrow.”
“I meant it's too bad we couldn't have taken a horse.”
“I can't ride.”
Emmaline opened her mouth to say something else, but couldn't quite think of what to say to Bostwick's remark. She had been trying to make conversation, since they had been traveling in silence for over an hour, but the magician's tone was that of someone defending himself, as if she were blaming him for his lack of horse-riding ability.
“Um, so, how far do you think we'll have to go before we reach Ramshackle?”
“The map showed a town somewhere in the mountains, but I would think it would have to be further in than this. Even goblins wouldn't build right on the slope of…”
They had just turned around a large boulder and saw that Bostwick had underestimated goblins' lack of constructional discretion. The path split in two; one way led further up the mountains, and one led to a small town that was built right on and into the slope of the mountain. The brick buildings had a sooty, factory look to them, and smoke escaped from dozens of pipes and chimneys that slithered and jutted from each structure.
“It looks like we're here,” Emmaline said cheerfully.
“And not a moment too soon,” the magician said, watching as white flecks of snow started to drift down and mingle with the soot in the air.
Emmaline hopped back into Bostwick's arms—which were much warmer than the chilly ground—and pointed her paw toward rusty metal sign that read Comewright Inn.
“That looks like a good—”
Bostwick put a hand over her head and muttered a soft shh. A crowd of tall, wooly goblins had bustled onto the street and were conversing loudly, but Emmaline remained silent until they passed. She couldn't let anyone know that she could talk. That was of the utmost importance.
Bostwick edged around the goblins, several of whom cast a curious glance at his top-hatted head, and made his way into the Comewright Inn. The interior was pleasantly warm and tastefully decorated, not all that different from a human inn, save for the innkeeper behind the reception desk. He was a pointy-nosed fellow with a bowl haircut and a covering of short beige fur on the rest of his face. He was actually very cute for a goblin, Emmaline thought, in a ferrety sort of way.
“Whooo!” he said as Bostwick approached the counter. “You're an odd-looking one. Styxian, eh? I have a second-cousin down in Styx.”
“Oh! We don't get many humans through here…” He trailed off, looked up at Bostwick's hat, and made an impressed sort of noise. “A magician, eh? What are you doing in Bombast of all places?”
Emmaline nudged him with her nose. They'd been over what they would tell people, but Bostwick seemed to have forgotten. Emmaline couldn't blame him; this was the first goblin he'd ever spoken to.
“I'm… I'm doing research. For the Academy,” he finally said.
The goblin nodded, then seemed to have nothing else to say. Bostwick switched Emmaline to his other arm, nervously petting her ears back. She didn't know whether to object to this taking of liberties or not. It actually felt kind of nice, like having someone brush her hair.
“You'll be wanting a room then?” the goblin asked, breaking the awkward silence.
Bostwick gave a sharp jerk of his head that was probably supposed to be a nod, and the goblin led them up a narrow flight of wooden stairs and down a door-lined hallway. He unlocked one of the doors and held it open for Bostwick to look in. Their room was just that: a six by ten space with four walls, a window, and no furniture.
“You asked for a room, didn't you?”
“I assumed that would include a bed… and maybe a bathroom, or at least a tub.”
“Bed and bath cost extra, and there aren't any vacancies for such rooms at the moment.”
“Well, could we—could I reserve a room like that for tomorrow night?”
“I'll see what I can do,” said the goblin, and left.
“Well, at least it has a window,” Emmaline said, hopping from Bostwick's arms as he knelt down.
“Great.” He pulled off his coat and dropped it petulantly on the floor. With a deep and resentful sigh, he grabbed his top hat off his head and pulled several blankets out of it, followed by a squashy pillow.
“I figured we’d have to camp out at some point,” he said, spreading the bedding out on the floor, “I just didn't think it would be while staying in an inn.”
“Yeah… Well, you know goblins.”
“No, nor do I have any desire to.”
Emmaline was tempted to retort that that was exactly what he was going to have to do, but held her tongue. Bostwick didn't have to be here, in Ataxia, sleeping on the floor. He was here for her sake, though she still wondered why. Why had he volunteered to come?
Maybe now is the time to ask him, she thought, but noticed that he had unwound his long scarf from his neck and was arranging it rather meticulously on the floor beside his make-shift bed.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I thought maybe you'd want your own bed. It's more of a nest, I guess, but you can probably fix it if it's…”
She hopped over to what indeed looked like a woolen nest. It was a little lumpy, she noticed as she climbed into it, but still fairly comfortable. She pulled the loose end of the scarf over herself like a blanket and looked up at Bostwick, who seemed to be bracing himself for a rebuke.
“Thank you, Bostwick. It's nice and warm.”
With that, he turned down the gas lamp on the wall, got into his own bed—carefully placing his top hat beside his pillow—and shut his eyes.
Emmaline could still see perfectly well, improved night vision being one of the only perks of being a rabbit, and looked around their room, letting her eyes and her mind wander. Both eventually settled on Bostwick, who for once looked almost happy. It was a rare sight. He had been her family's court magician for over a month, but she couldn't actually remember seeing him smile. Some people were just like that, her oldest sister had said when Emmaline asked about it. Some people were just serious. Of course, Bostwick skipped right over serious and decided to go straight for morose, her youngest brother had added.
Emmaline sniffed, hoping Bostwick was sleeping and didn't hear her. She had always been surrounded by people—her parents, five sisters, six brothers, and of course Mr. Charles, the Camellian Tea Inspector who acted as her personal tutor—but now she was all alone, in the dark, with no one but Bostwick for company. They had left the Empire just this morning, and she already wanted to go home. Had it really been only last week when they decided to go on this journey?
It had all been decided so quickly. Bostwick had barged into the meeting that Mr. Charles, her parents, and several foreign clients were having about whether or not to add extra bergamot to the new batches Earl Grey, (a measure that Mr. Charles vehemently railed against). All in attendance stared in shock as Bostwick, holding a pile of Emmaline's clothing and a small, shivering white rabbit, explained the situation as well as he could. He had found her in the garden. She—Emmaline—the rabbit. Yes, the rabbit was Emmaline. And at that point her mother seized her from Bostwick's arms, her father canceled the meeting, and the rest of the family was called in to sit around the large, teapot-covered table where the Camellian royal family typically conducted business.
Emmaline huddled against her mother's chest and explained what had happened properly. There had been a goblin in the garden. He had snapped his fingers, and then… The whole situation still felt surreal to her, but the shock and terror on her siblings faces brought it all home. She had been cursed, turned into a rabbit. It had really happened.
“Well…” Her oldest brother had said. “Well… should we go out looking for that goblin?”
“And get someone else cursed?” her father said. “Of course, our guards might have a chance if they're on the offensive. That cowardly little dastard might not fare as easily against a soldier as he does sneaking up on a thirteen year old girl.”
“Probably not,” Mr. Charles said. He and Bostwick—who was standing silently against one wall—had been asked to stay. “If he's not long gone anyway, he would prove to be nothing but trouble for anyone who encountered him. From what Emmaline described, he must be an imp, and imps aren't known for their repentant behavior.”
“Then… then what can we do? Surely human magic can't break a curse like this.”
“No.” Mr. Charles poured himself a cup of tea, sipped it for a moment, thinking, then said, “But goblin magic might be able to. Mind you, the only sure-fire way to break the curse would be for that imp or someone from his family to reverse it, but like I said, you'd have a fine time convincing them. Your best bet would be to find some other way of turning Emmaline permanently human again. There are a number of magical items I've heard of: lamps containing genies, wishing stones, magic wands. Ataxia has many such items, but it won't be easy finding them, and it will be even more difficult obtaining what you've found.”
As this statement settled over them, Mr. Charles began pouring tea for everyone in attendance. They passed the cups around the table, with one for Bostwick, but no one but Mr. Charles actually drank anything.
“So I'll have to go to Ataxia,” Emmaline finally said.
“It looks like it,” her mother said, hugging her close. “But you won't have to go alone. Surely… surely someone…”
They looked around the table. Though Camellia was the smallest of the countries in the Empire, everyone in the family had important jobs to do. Emmaline's parents and her two eldest siblings ran the affairs of state within the country itself, while her second and third oldest sisters and her twin brothers (who were the second oldest brothers) oversaw the many tea plantations that covered the hills of Camellia and provided the country's wealth and stability. The rest of her siblings acted as ambassadors to the countries around them, some traveling as far abroad as the Nopali Desert in the South or the Opal Islands in the East. Even now, three of her siblings were out somewhere in the Empire, negotiating tea deals with other countries, and would not find out that their youngest sister had been cursed into a rabbit until she had already left for the goblin-run continent of Ataxia in the north. They couldn't spare anyone for a quest like that.
“I recommend against a large troop of guards,” said Mr. Charles. “Or a group of humans of any kind. It would attract far too much attention. Attention invites curiosity, and curiosity… Well, it might not be a very good idea to let anyone know you're a princess.”
“True,” her youngest brother said. “They're liable to kidnap you for ransom.”
“But I'll need some sort of… bodyguard,” Emmaline said, unsure if that was the right word. Companion? Comrade? Someone to saddle the burden of journeying through unknown territory with her, while fending off any hostile goblin activity they might encounter along the way. “Maybe… maybe a magician could come with me. They expelled the goblins from the Empire in the first place, so surely…
“I can't see any goblins giving a magician too much trouble, at least,” Mr. Charles agreed. “Magicians have been known to journey into Ataxia to conduct research for the Academy from time to time. That might actually prove to be a good cover story. You can go disguised as the rabbit they use for hat tricks.”
After a moment of thinking it over, Emmaline's father said, “Very well. If that's decided, we'll need to contact the Academy as soon as possible to find a suitable—”
“I'll go,” Bostwick said, stepping out from the wall.
Everyone in the room stared at him, some open-mouthed. Though he was the most logical choice, none of them had even considered asking him, for they all assumed that he would refuse to go, or that he might even leave for another country if they pressed the matter; with his skill, he could have his pick of any royal court in the Empire. Yet he had said it. The disagreeable and standoffish Bostwick von Dogsbody, who prided his prestigious position as court magician to one of the Empire's royal families, and who had worked very hard in school to get there, was volunteering to accompany the last princess in line for the Camellia throne through an unwelcoming continent full of humanity's ancient enemies, on a quest for something that might not even exist. It was the second most shocking thing that had happened that day.
“A-all right,” Emmaline squeaked out. “Bostwick and I will go. We'll go to Ataxia.”
A week later, they took the train from Camellia to Borderton, a town just to the south of Styx, where they hired a carriage company to take them as far into Ataxia as possible, which proved to be a straight, one day ride through the Wastes of Styx to the border of a country called Bombast, where they would start their search for a cure.
“Why 'permanently',” Bostwick asked, as Emmaline reminded him of Mr. Charles specifications for what they might be looking for before they set out from their spartan Bombastic lodgings the next day.
“I certainly don't want to change back and forth into a rabbit at random times.”
“Obviously. I meant why bother stating that. Why wouldn't anything we find change you back permanently?”
“Well… I don't know. Maybe Mr. Charles meant beware of quick fixes. There are probably potions that only let you stay human when you've drunk a certain dose or spells that wear off after a while.”
“That would still be better than nothing.” Bostwick donned his coat and picked Emmaline up in his arms once more.
“Try asking the innkeeper first,” Emmaline said. “See if he knows about any magical items.”
Bostwick held his finger to his lips and Emmaline ducked her head into his hand. She was going to have to get used to pretending to be a dumb animal.
“So…” Bostwick began, leaning on the counter of the reception desk. “I'm researching curses.”
“Ooh, I'm not sure I would want to teach humans how to do those,” the innkeeper said.
“I don't want to cast them, I want to lift them… or know how to lift them… for research purposes.”
“Hmm. Well, I don't think you'll find anyone with curse knowledge around here. Not many Bombastic goblins can cast curses.”
“I thought all goblins could.”
“No, no, no. Some goblins can set things on fire, or conjure large blades of metal from nowhere, but that 's hardly what you might call a curse, now is it. Imps and some Stuffian goblins are quite adept at curses, and I suppose certain royal families have acquired the ability over the years. I myself can only imbue ink with magic in such a way as to make it change color, but that's my lot in life, I suppose.”
“Wait, you mean that different kinds of goblins have different sorts of magic?”
“You really do need to do your research. That's basic knowledge.”
“I'd just assumed that since humans can do all kinds of spells…”
“Yeah, I'd heard that, too, but you all need to practice magic, right? Imagine that. Practicing magic like a child practicing tying their shoes.”
“It's a little more complicated than that,” Bostwick began, but Emmaline pawed at his sleeve. They were getting off track, and though Bostwick might find the conversation interesting, it didn't seem to be leading them any closer to an idea of how to break her curse.
“Anyway,” the magician said, picking her up in one hand and pulling her away from his sleeve, “I have to get going. There wouldn't be any magical items nearby, or…”
“Hmm, well, there's the mayor's house. I heard his wife is an avid collector of magical items from near and far. That would be your best bet, as far as Ramshackle is concerned.”
Bostwick made his way out the door and up the street. It was not hard to find their way around, as the town had been built vertically up the hillside, with a single street zig-zagging back and forth through it. The mayor's house, the innkeeper had explained, was of course built at the very highest point in town because “being high up is better than being low down”, which was apparently some sort of goblin proverb.
Though belonging to the mayor, the house was just as blackened as the rest of the town, which sent its smoke up to curl around the mayor's walls. Bostwick covered his mouth with his scarf and wrapped Emmaline's head in the other end, which actually made it harder to breath, but she was so muffled that she could hardly say so. Bostwick knocked, and a short, round, thoroughly cow-like goblin opened the door.
“Oh, my! A Styxian! What a surprise! Come in, come in!”
“Actually I'm a human.” Bostwick said, stepping in and removing the scarf from Emmaline's face. “Do Styxians look human? That's the second time I've been mistaken for one.”
“Oh, you're the spitting image. But a human, dear dear, I can't think of the last time one came through here. Must have been seventy years ago. I was just a girl.”
The goblin certainly didn't look or sound older than seventy, but then again, Emmaline thought, they might age differently than humans, or live longer.
“Right… Anyway, I'm doing research for Melieh's Academy of Magic, and I was told the mayor's wife had a collection of magical items.”
“Ooh, indeed I do, dear. I never knew they were world famous, but I suppose it is quite a large collection…” She was clearly flattered that even a human had heard of her, and waved Bostwick down the hall into a room that was filled, wall to wall, floor to ceiling, with glass cases holding velvet covered shelves, upon which sat thousands of small, gleaming silver and gold objects.
Bostwick and Emmaline gaped at the sheer number of objects, then approached one of the cases to see what exactly they were.
“Thimbles?” Bostwick asked.
“Thimbles!” The bovine goblin said. “Largest collection this side of Pandemonium.”
“And they are magic thimbles, right?”
“Oh, of course, dear. When you wear these thimbles, not only will you never prick your finger, you'll also be able to thread any needle, no matter how small the eye or how large the thread.”
“In that case…” Bostwick said, making to leave, but Emmaline scrambled against his chest, trying to climb up to whisper in his ear. He opted to place her on his shoulder instead and leaned toward one of the cases on the premise of examining the thimbles.
“What?” he whispered from the corner of his mouth.
“You can't just leave, Bostwick. That's rude!”
“There's no point in staying.”
“Just make small talk. See if she knows about any other magical artifacts around town. She is the mayor's wife after all.”
“ 'Other magical artifacts' implies that these are also magical artifacts…” he muttered,” which I hardly think—”
“Who are you talking too, dear?” the goblin asked.
“Oh, um, just my rabbit.”
Emmaline scratched him hard on the neck, trying to remind him to remember their cover story, and he whipped her down off his shoulder.
“I often talk to dumb animals,” he said, glaring at her and rubbing his neck with his other hand. “It's just a habit some of us magicians get into.”
So he hadn't forgotten… Well, how was she to know? Still, he didn't have to squeeze her so hard. She wiggled around into a more comfortable position while Bostwick started a conversation about whether or not all the thimbles did the same thing.
“Oh, yes, it's a common enchantment, really.”
“And do you use all of them? Or… any of them?”
“No, no, don't be silly.” She waved a hoof-like hand with stubby, hard looking fingers on it. “I collect them because they have little pictures on them.”
“Hmm. And none of them have any curses on them, right?”
“Oh, no… at least, I don't think so. Hmm, I wonder, though…”
“If, hypothetically, they did, how might you go about removing it?”
The bovine goblin seemed exceedingly disturbed by this line of inquiry, and Emmaline looked pleadingly up at Bostwick. He was being too obvious.
“I only ask because I have a cursed… spoon.”
“A cursed spoon? Oh dear, whatever does it do?”
“It… Well, it turns into a fork whenever I put it into soup.”
“You poor thing!” the goblin said with sympathy. “Oh, but… why not just use a different spoon?”
“It's a good spoon… aside from its being cursed,” he said, clearly at his limit for hastily cobbled-together explanations.
The goblin brought her hoof-hand thoughtfully to her chin, contemplating Bostwick's predicament for a moment, then clapped her hands with a slight clicking sound.
“I know! There's a shop at the bottom of town that might have just what you're looking for. Just take the road all the way downhill and it will be the last shop on the right. You can't miss it!”
Bostwick thanked the goblin and followed her back down the hall, only to stop in mid-step on his way out the door.
“What was it you said they sold there?”
“All kinds of kitchen utensils. Everything under the sun. You're bound to find a nice new spoon there.”
“Ah. Right.” With that, he continued out as the goblin waved cheerily after him.
“How did you know she had spoons in mind rather than curses?” Emmaline asked once they were out of earshot.
“I think having Clarence as a roommate gave me a sixth sense for detecting inanity about to happen. Not that it helped much. With nothing else to go on, we might as well make our way down through the town and see if there's anyone who has the vaguest idea about curses. Unless you have a better idea.”
Emmaline didn't, so they proceeded through town, talking to any goblin who met their eye and visiting every shop that was open. Although Emmaline was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the goblins were friendly, if not as chipper as the mayor's wife, she also noticed some downright angry stares from some of the goblins they walked past, and one or two huffed away before Bostwick could ask them anything. Bostwick's mood went downhill with every passing encounter, and she could tell that the complete lack of information on curses was getting to him. For once, she shared his depressed mood. Not being able to ask her own questions was frustrating enough, but Bostwick also kept switching her from hand to hand, or up to his shoulder, or back into his pocket. Even now, as they made their way back to the inn with nothing to show for a whole day of inquiries but a supply of hopefully-edible goblin food, he wedged her into the crook of his elbow while trying to get a better hold of the sack of foodstuffs they'd purchased.
“Ow! Be more careful, Bostwick!”
“That's twice today you've squeezed me. Rabbits are a lot more fragile than humans.”
“Sorry,” he repeated, though he didn't sound like it this time, “but you're sort of inconvenient, you know?”
“Tactful as always,” she muttered, hopping to the ground. In a way, he was right—this entire situation was far from convenient—but she was just as dirty and tired and discouraged as he was. It wasn't her fault she was difficult to carry; she didn't want to have to be carried at all.
As they entered the inn, Bostwick scooped her back up—carefully, she noticed—and started up the stairs, only to be stopped by the innkeeper, who delivered the first good news of the day.
“Ah, Human, I was waiting for you to show up. There's a bed and bath vacancy open if you still want it. You certainly look sooty enough to warrant it, at least.”
He led the way to their new room, which was the exact same size as the last one, only with a bed and bathtub squeezed inside, only inches apart from each other.
“Why…?” Bostwick began.
“You asked for a bed and a bath, right?”
“Please tell me the tub is at least hooked up to the plumbing system.”
“Of course it is. What kind of lunatics do you think we are?” the goblin said with a chuckle, leaving them to their room.
Bostwick once again dropped his coat to the floor; a small cloud of black dust flew up from it. Ramshackle really was filthy, Emmaline thought, examining her own gray paws. She couldn't wait for a proper bath, but she was also bothered by the large, ground floor window above the tub.
“It doesn't have much privacy, does it?”
“That shouldn't be a problem.”
With a swipe of his hand, Bostwick conjured a long, purple curtain in mid air right in front of the window, then conjured two more to block the view of the tub from the rest of the room.
“Whoa…” Emmaline said.
“What, that?” he glanced up at his handiwork as he removed his shoes and socks. “It's just conjuration and levitation. You've seen me do those spells before.”
“Yes, but never with anything so large, and conjuring all three at once…”
Bostwick shrugged, as if pulling objects from nowhere and defying the laws of gravity were nothing special, though Emmaline knew that even for a magician, what he just did was no easy feat.
Bostwick climbed onto the bed and pulled one of the curtains aside. He turned the hot water faucet on full blast, with the hopeful and expectant look of one who had not had a proper bath for days, but then jumped back as if something had suddenly occurred to him. Emmaline had thought of it already. They both stared at the tub, with a glance or two at each other.
Of course it was fine for Bostwick, Emmaline thought. He could take a bath while she did something else—study the map of Ataxia, perhaps—but how was she supposed to bathe? Rabbits might be able to swim, but she couldn't, and she didn't know how slippery her paws and claws would be on the porcelain, even if the tub wasn't filled all the way. Before they had left Camellia, her second oldest sister had helped her take a bath in the sink, but now? What if Bostwick had to help her? She was mortified at the thought; even if she was a rabbit, she was still a girl!
“Ah,” Bostwick said, snatching his top hat off of his head. “This might work.”
He pulled a long saw out of the hat—Emmaline had heard of tricks where people were cut in half, but never seen one—grabbed the blade in one hand, gave the whole thing a wobble, and turned it into a cooking pot.
“Clarence taught me that one. He took a lot of classes in the door-to-door magician track, where you're expected to travel and make do for yourself in the wilderness. I thought they were pretty useful spells, even if I never thought I'd actually end up needing them,” he finished bitterly.
Emmaline felt a hollow, guilty feeling in her stomach. She was no expert on magic, but she knew that court magicians studied hard to be able to perform the sort of spells Bostwick did, and here he was, for all intents and purposes a traveling, door-to-door magician, a job usually reserved for those whose magic was sub-par at best. He had stood by her, no matter how “inconvenient” her situation was.
Now, he had rolled up his sleeves and was filling the pot with water, then clambered off the bed and placed the pot on the floor. Conjuring a knife, he cut a sliver from a large bar of soap.
“It looks like there's only one set of towels, but you can use this washcloth,” he said, draping the cloth over the handle of the pot, with the little piece of soap on top of it.
Emmaline hopped over to what had become a perfect, rabbit-sized bath tub, in awe of Bostwick's ingenuity.
“Could you, um, help me into it?” she asked. Bostwick obliged, plopping her into the steamy water that half filled the pot. She reached for the soap, but ended up knocking it to the floor; Bostwick picked it up for her and placed it in her paws.
“You're on your own from there,” he said, and disappeared behind the curtains of the bathtub.
They left town early the next day and took the path further up the mountain, where it eventually leveled out and meandered between two slopes. The sky above was still cloudy and seemed to be threatening snow, but the innkeeper said there would be a settlement about a day’s walk away that they could get to before the weather became too bad. Bostwick had made a comment about the high likelihood of them catching their death in a blizzard instead, but took the innkeeper's advice to head out anyway. Though the road was covered in sharp pebbles and bits of briars, Emmaline hopped along beside Bostwick. She wanted to be as little of a burden as possible, which seemed like a good idea for the first hour or so of walking, until she cried out in pain.
“I stepped on a thorn or something.”
Without asking, Bostwick picked her up and examined her front paw, from which protruded a small but very thick and spiky black thorn.
“It must have been from one of these bushes. Can you pull it out?”
He extracted it easily, and Emmaline jumped down, wincing as she hit the ground, then hopped a few paces.
“You're limping,” Bostwick said.
“Oh, well, it just hurts a little.”
“Here.” He whisked her up once more and started walking again.
“Sorry about this,” she mumbled.
“You always having to carry me around. I know it's probably annoying…”
“It's not your fault. At least now I can walk at a decent pace.”
Even when he's being conciliatory, he somehow manages to complain, Emmaline thought. Of course, he had been the same way in Camellia, but now, spending twenty-four hours a day with him, it was almost too much. Still, at least she wasn't alone on her journey…
“Bostwick, do you mind if I ask you something… personal.”
He looked down sideways at her, then said, “Suuure.”
“Why did you volunteer to come with me?”
“You know we could have asked another magician.”
“You could have, but none of them would have agreed to come. Magicians are generally pretty snooty. You couldn't expect someone who's used to the life of a stage or court magician to want to wander around the boonies with a rabbit.”
Anyone else might have added “no offense”, Emmaline thought, but instead said, “But surely a door-to-door magician would have jumped at the chance to travel like this.”
“Not through Ataxia they wouldn't—well, maybe Clarence would, but he's still in school—and anyway, when push comes to shove, you're going to need someone more skilled than a door-to-door magician.”
“So that's why you volunteered? You knew you had what it took to be able to protect me, and you were willing to give up the life of a court magician to do it.”
She was impressed. Bostwick might not look it, or act like it, or say anything to even hint at it, but he was a genuinely good person. Yet here he was, frowning again as usual.
“I thought I could protect you, if need be, but I'm starting to have my doubts about whether or not human magic really is a match against goblins. You heard what that innkeeper said about them conjuring blades and fire, and if a goblin could curse you just by snapping his fingers…”
“But magicians drove them out of the Empire.”
“That may be so, but none of the spells I know could do that. I can put on an entertaining show, but that's pretty much it.”
“I don't think so. Your spells have already been really useful. Like how you put all our supplies in your hat, or turning a saw into a pot… It's more than I can do, like this at least.”
“There's not much you could do as a human, either, to be honest.”
Bostwick had never struck her as the most tactful person, but this was going too far. She had been trying to cheer him up, and really was thankful for his magical abilities, and here he was insulting her to her face. She could take a few complaints about the problems of her being a rabbit, but to scorn the abilities she had as a human was the last straw. She bit him hard on the hand and leapt to the ground, favoring her hurt paw as she did so.
“I'll have you know that I could do plenty as a human! I've been preparing to accept my royal duties my whole life. I've learned all about history and geography, diplomacy, biology as it relates to tea, politics…”
“I only meant you wouldn't be good in a fight against goblins,” Bostwick said, sucking on his hand, which had a nasty red mark where Emmaline had bitten it.
“I guess… I suppose not… but neither would you!”
He sighed, or growled, or something in between, then said through clenched teeth, “That's my point!”
This statement echoed softly through the still air around them. So they were both a lost cause, that's what he was saying. Should she feel depressed about this, or perhaps take their mutual uselessness as a form of camaraderie? Either way, Bostwick's constant pessimism was maddening. One the one hand, she probably ought to say sorry for biting him, since he apparently hadn't meant to insult her, but that would no doubt lead to some new line of negative commentary from him. Instead, she opted for hopping a few feet in front of him as they continued on in uncomfortable silence.
It had started to snow again, and the ground was incredibly cold on her paws. Looking back, she saw that Bostwick had donned a pair of gloves and pulled his scarf up around his chin. Oh well, she thought, rabbits survive in the cold. She had a fur coat of her own.
The path began to wind back and forth around the mountain slopes, so that they couldn't see too far in any direction, but the light behind the clouds grew steadily darker, so they must have been nearing the settlement. Emmaline hoped they were, at least, as the wind was picking up and the flakes of snow were gathering together in thicker, wetter bunches.
“Hold on,” Bostwick said from behind her, “you’re getting hard to see.”
Bracing herself for being picked up again, Emmaline was surprised to see everything go black for a moment, then to feel the ground get swept out from under her as the magician scooped her into his top hat. She looked up at him, wondering why the sudden change in transport, but he wouldn't meet her eye. He probably doesn't want to get bit again, she thought.
“Look,” he said, “if I put you on my head, you won't scratch me, will you?”
“On your head?”
“It's getting too snowy out here, and I don't have any other way of sheltering you… I definitely don't want to use the blankets, in case we have to camp out again. If you ride on my head, with the hat over you, that'll keep all the snow off, but you have to promise not to scratch if you can help it.”
Emmaline wanted to think it over—she was more concerned with whether or not Bostwick could actually keep her on his head without her falling—but the hat was filling with snow as they spoke.
“I promise I won't scratch you.”
With a nod, Bostwick flipped her onto his head. There was one tumbling, disorienting moment, and then she felt her feet come down on his hair, and was again surrounded by darkness.
“Ready?” he asked.
“I think so.”
They were off. Though Emmaline had to work a little to stay balanced, Bostwick had a remarkable steady rhythm to his steps, which was odd, considering how jerky her ride in his pocket had been.
“Where did you learn to hold your head so steady, Bostwick?”
For a moment the only sound was the wail of the wind and the pat-pat of footsteps, then Bostwick said, “I used to walk with books on my head sometimes.”
Emmaline had heard of this practice used by some young nobles to improve posture, but had assumed those stories were made up. Besides, Bostwick's family were shop owners, from what she had heard.
“Why did you carry books on your head.”
Again, there was silence. It seemed to stretch out so long that Emmaline didn't know if Bostwick had heard her, but finally, quietly, he said, “I thought it would help me walk more like an aristocrat, like everyone else at the Academy.”
He offered no other explanation, but none was needed. He was from a merchant family; most students at the Academy were fairly wealthy, if not actually nobility. Emmaline had always assumed that because Bostwick was so good at magic—the best in his class, according to her father—that he'd been revered by his fellow magicians, but maybe that wasn't the case. Maybe Bostwick had spent his whole time at the Academy trying to prove himself. He certainly had, in her opinion, and Camellia had been fortunate enough to be one of the only countries in current need of a new court magician at the time of his graduation. His hard work had all paid off while he served as their magician, living the kind of life that any aristocrat might lead, but now, because of her curse… If she had been human-sized, she would have hugged him, even if he probably wouldn't appreciate it. As it was, she settled for snuggling down onto his head.
They continued walking for about half an hour, occasionally taking a turn here or there from what Emmaline could feel. Eventually they seemed to slow down, and finally stopped.
“Great,” Bostwick said, his voice the definition of sarcasm.
“What is it? What's wrong?”
He lifted up the front of his hat for her to peak under. They had reached a settlement of sorts, for there were a few wooden buildings lining the mountain path. All of them, however, had boarded-up windows, and several had caved in from some prior disaster. As unwelcoming a sight as this might be, the storm really had become a blizzard, so Bostwick pulled the boards from one of the doors and hurried inside.
The interior, Emmaline saw as Bostwick removed her from the hat and put her on the ground, was drier than outside, but just as cold. The magician snapped his fingers, conjuring a small flame into his hands so they could get a better view of their surroundings. It might have been a barn or a bar at one time—it was difficult to tell which—but the floor was now covered in a thin layer of straw and a few broken chairs and a table had been pushed to the side of the room. Emmaline hopped over to these, seeing if there might be anything of interest left by the previous occupants, while Bostwick busied himself with shoving the straw into a pile and lighting a fire. It was crackling in no time, aided by some of the chairs' legs. They were at least warm enough to pass the night. Emmaline sat in her neck-scarf nest and looked across the fire to her companion, who had removed his snow-dampened coat in favor of the blankets he'd been carrying in his hat. They were both exhausted—emotionally, on Emmaline's part—and neither made any move to start a conversation. Bostwick poked the fire from time to time, then finally fished in his hat for some of the food they had bought in Ramshackle. He unwrapped a small potato pie and slid it on its paper wrapper over to her, then started on his own.
The soft snap of fire and the muted wind outside were the only sound for a while, until Emmaline sat back on her haunches and asked Bostwick if he could wrap up her half-finished portion. He did so without a word and stowed it back in his hat. Dinner was over, and without anything else to do, they might as well try to sleep, but Emmaline didn't want to leave things as they were.
“Um, Bostwick, about earlier… I'm sorry for biting you.”
He looked at the mark on his hand. “It's okay.”
“No, it really isn't. You were just being realistic, and I… I suppose I took it personally. I already feel like I can't do anything, physically, as a rabbit. I hop too slowly, and I can't hold things. I can't even talk to the goblins we meet, and getting information from people is something I know I'd be good at, since I've been taught about negotiations and diplomacy. I'm still a princess, even if I am a rabbit… Anyway, there was no excuse for me hurting you like that.”
Bostwick at first showed no reaction, but poked the fire a little more and added one of the chair backs for fuel.
“Well,” he said, “I guess I wasn't much good at getting information from those goblins.”
Don't take it that way! she wanted to scream. Instead, she hopped out of her nest and over to where he was sitting, putting her paws up on his leg.
“I didn't mean it like that. I just wish I could help you out more, since it's my fault you're here. I'm not blaming you for us not finding anything in Ramshackle. There was nothing to find.”
For a moment, Bostwick raised his eyebrows in surprise before bringing them down into a concerned scowl.
“I'm not blaming you either.”
“It's not 'your fault' we're here, Emmaline. You didn't ask that goblin to turn you into a rabbit; he just did.”
“I know that, I just meant, well… You don't have to be here, but you came anyway. I know how much you loved being a court magician, and now you're basically working as a door-to-door.”
It was such a blunt, bitter reply that Emmaline didn't know how to respond. Anything she said was sure to be met with more pessimism, but, she reminded herself, some people were just like that. In which case, there was no point being diplomatic or delicate; she could say whatever she wanted.
“Thank you.” She leaned her head and paws on his leg, which was as much of a hug-like gesture as she could manage. Surprisingly, an moment later, he pet her ears back.
“Just doing my job.”
They slept through the night curled up on their respective beds, as close to the fire as they could manage without getting burned. It had died out by the time they woke up, but fortunately, so had the blizzard. Sunlight and snow dust poured in through the doorway, and beyond that, a blanket of snow, two feet deep, covered everything in sight.
“Great,” Bostwick said, donning his coat once more.
“It doesn't look too bad.”
“You don't have to walk in it. Speaking of which, I think I have a way of keeping you warm.”
He had crammed his scarf part way into his hat and let Emmaline climb into it, then wrapped the two ends tightly around her. She imagined this was how it felt to wear swaddling clothes, or maybe a straight jacket, but she was at least warm. Holding her in his arms, he set out into the snow.
The clear, clean white under the blue sky gave the mountains a beauty that had been hard to see before. Each ridge appeared in more detail, and the pine trees they found themselves walking through glistened and sparkled with frost. Even the ever-present rocks and boulders had taken on the appearance of soft, smooth lumps under the snow.
“I hope we don't get lost,” Bostwick said.
“Always looking for that cloud behind the silver lining, aren't you?”
“I'm just being realistic. Things like that always happen to me. During one of the festivals in the Capital, when I was a kid, a dog tried to bite me and I had to climb a lamp post to escape. And then when I was offered a place at the Academy, a bunch of people looked down on me for being a von Dogsbody. Then I couldn't pull a rabbit out of my hat…”
“Well, at least that has changed, in a way,” she offered, but Bostwick either ignored or didn't hear her.
“And then there was that time I won third place in the poetry contest…”
“That doesn't sound bad at all.”
He stared off into the distance for a moment, then shuddered, as if recalling some terrible event, leaving Emmaline to speculate about what sort of white elephant prize he must have received.
The path they hoped they were on led gradually uphill and the trees around them grew thicker all the while, until the path crested. They saw before them a clearing with dozens of houses, each with multiple chimneys issuing smoke into the air.
“This must have been the settlement the innkeeper meant!” Emmaline exclaimed. “We just had to keep walking a little longer.”
“If we'd done that, the blizzard would have—”
Emmaline never found out what the blizzard would have done—though it was something awful, no doubt—because one of the trees had chosen that moment to dump the melting snow off its branches and onto Bostwick's head.
“What did I tell you?” he said, wiping the snow off of his hair. “The worst possible things always happen to me.”
“Really?” Emmaline said, taking his attitude in stride. “Have you been cursed by a goblin and turned into a rabbit? Because I think that might be the worst possible thing.”
Bostwick glanced away, apparently realizing that he couldn't say much to this, but then muttered, “Well, the way things go for me, I probably will be before long.”
Emmaline burst out laughing. He really was maddening, but whether it was their talk last night or the prospect of a warm, dry room before them, she couldn't hold it against him.
“I'm glad my misery amuses you,” he said.
“Well, isn't that what you're supposed to do? You are still my court magician, right?”
“Sure,” Bostwick said, with a grudging smile, and walked on toward the town.