“Because so long divided from the sphere. / Restless it rolls and unsecure,” – Andrew Marvell, “On a Drop of Dew”
Just a drop. She would have just one more drop of the clear liquid in the magician’s bag. Surely he would not miss a single drop from the dragon-shaped vial he kept in the little side pouch of the red leather bag.
Merrialle waited until he was asleep and then she crept into his room, slipping close to the bed. Her mistress, the innkeeper, had forbidden her to go near guests, except to bring their meals and to take away the empty trenchers after they were finished. But she had copied the master key from Tamna’s apron pocket many weeks ago, when she had first arrived here, anticipating an opportunity such as this one. A drop more of the magician’s elixir would do it.
And didn’t she deserve it? At the show he put on last night before all the inn’s guests and most of the townspeople, the old man had persuaded her to come forward, and then he had made a fool of her with his words about her plainness and about the burden it was for any to set eyes on her. Yes, she was no beauty. But did that give him the right to humiliate her in front of everyone? He was a magician, not a common housegirl like she. But even a common housegirl deserved a bit of dignity, a bit of happiness.
With that one drop of the clear elixir she had changed. She had become . . . if not beautiful, exceedingly more attractive. She had seen it in the little mirror shard in her attic room last night, after the show was over and after Tamna had made her do all the kitchen dishes as usual. Beauty now or no, you’ll still be doing those pots and pans before you turn in tonight, my girl, the innkeeper had said, laughing at her own joke.
One more drop would do it. To drink more than a drop was dangerous, and she knew it. But if last night’s single drop improved her looks a little, then with another drop she would become a true beauty, and then, she might marry whom she chose, and if he were wealthy, even the better.
The magician’s bag was under the bed. Quietly she ducked down and noiselessly felt for the side pouch from which she would lift the dragon vial.
Her fingers closed around the dragon shape of the vial, the pewter surface cool to the touch. She only had to withdraw the vial from the pouch.
At the touch of the dragon, though, something in her brain changed. Wait. Steal from a magician? This was not like her. Something told her she was a person who did not steal, a person completely different from the housegirl she seemed to be.
At the touch of the dragon it all came back to her. All in a rush.
She had been a beauty, once. She had worn fine garments and she had read books. She had been learned, once. She had governed a vast realm of her own.
She released the vial and drew her hand back quickly. What was this? She was now nothing but a scullery maid. But once she had been much more.
And this magician had something to do with it all.
Slowly Marialle backed away from the sleeping magician. She drew her knife, the knife she had used just this afternoon to dress Tamna’s chickens for the evening meal. She stole close again, and, lifting the knife to the sleeping man’s throat, she said, “Wake up, old man. It’s time for some answers. Lie to me, and your throat will be cut in an instant.”
“You wouldn’t want to kill your rescuer,” came the magician’s voice.
“Rescuer?” she growled. “Do not deceive me!”
“Twas I pulled you out of the crowd, twas I who gave you that drop from the vial,” he pointed out. “All to get you here out of the way so I could -”
“So that you could do away with me before the truth is known! Hah!” She tightened the blade against his throat.
“No, your majesty,” the magician said, in a dark whisper. “To effect your rescue. You have been missing these past five months.”
“Missing?” Her mind whirled. Should she trust him? Should she believe his words?
“What choice do you have, majesty,” he asked, as if reading her mind. “Yes, you have no reason to trust me. But I think you will not wish to stay here, a scullery maid?”
She knew he was right. “No.”
“Put the knife away. I will not harm you.”
She hesitated. “If you are lying-”
“I am not. I swear it.”
Huh. A magician with scruples. Will there be another such wonder in the world?
She released him, but, wary still, went to the door and watched him carefully. Still, she did not see the signs he made with his hands, and before she knew it, she was a small mouse, scurrying around on the filthy wooden floor of the magician’s room.
“Now then,” the magician said, scooping her up, “that’s better.” His voice took on a cajoling tone as he held her firmly in his palm, level with his face, speaking to her. “Please calm yourself, majesty. This mouse form I have given you is only for ease of transport. I would never be able to secret you from this place without a bit of subterfuge.” He seemed to read the message in her mouse eyes, as he continued, “You are perfectly safe in this form. There is a compartment in my bag specially designed for a form like yours. And soon you will be . . . back in the palace.”
She tried to speak, but only mouse squeaks came from her mouth. It was humiliating, a double humiliation, to be in the form of a mouse and to be unable to communicate in human language.
Still, there was nothing to be done. And as he tucked her into the small compartment he had spoken of, in the base of his magician’s bag, along with some grain to eat, a small mouse-sized pouch of water and a mouse-bed of straw, she saw that she had no choice but to go along with him. She could only hope that he would turn her back into her human form – her proper human form – at the end of their journey.
And in the meantime she would never have to wash dishes or prepare meals for Tamna and the inn’s guests again.