Cecilia stared at the painting above the hearth in her father’s den. The estate was filled with her late mother’s art, but Rosalee Reznik painted only one self-portrait.
When Cecilia was a child, she sneaked into the den often, trying and failing to find herself in her mother’s face. They had the same smattering of freckles over their noses, and the same curls, though Rosalee’s were blonde and always styled neatly. Still, Cecilia returned daily, hoping one day a glance at the portrait would confirm that her beauty came close to her mother’s.
The door creaked closed behind her, footsteps crossing the room, before a chair scraped along the wooden floorboard.
“You have your mother’s mannerisms,” her father said.
Cecilia turned and stared at her father. “Nonsense. She was considerably more elegant.”
Her father laughed, leaning his elbows on his desk. “Her grace was earned, but you have quite a bit of her. The way you twirl a curl when you’re thinking, your disdain for the performance of afternoon teas, and the way you stick your tongue out when you’re restringing your bow—”
“She restrung bows?”
Her father nodded. “She was a great shot.”
Cecilia’s jaw dropped. “My mother knew how to shoot a bow? I never saw her—”
“It was before your time.” His gaze grew distant like he was staring into another time.
Cecilia crossed the room, sinking into the chair on the other side of her father’s desk. The longing on his face was almost enough to make her forget he was angry with him. Almost.
“So did you call me here to talk about my mother or to gloat over sticking it to me after I won your contest?”
“I know you think I don’t understand you, but the solstice hunt games prize was never meant to be a punishment,” her father said. “It was meant to remind the hunters in my army, and the guardians alike of who you are and that I’m always watching. You’re a grown woman now and that brings its own trouble.” He unlocked a desk drawer and handed her a linen-wrapped parcel.
She unwrapped the twine and parted the linen, revealing a sheathed dagger.
“It’s beautiful,” Cecilia breathed.
Most women probably would have preferred a beautiful dress to a beautiful weapon, but most girls did not have fathers who valued their fighting spirit as much as their beauty.
Running her fingers over the silvery vines and leaves on the hilt, she slid the blade from the sheath. When she held it up to the light, the same vines and leaves were engraved in the blade. Goosebumps rose on her skin at the familiar pulse of magic in the dagger.
“It’s magic,” her father said.
Magical objects gave off a steady pulse of magic. When she’d held spelled objects in training, her teachers told her that the magical caves of the Gauntlet would give off a similar but stronger ethereal pulse, like a magical heartbeat. Maps of the Gauntlet were spelled so that they lead to the area of a cave, but not its exact locations. The magical pulse of Gauntlet magic was supposed to help guardian and witch pairings find the actual cave entrances.
“What does the spell on it do?” Cecilia asked.
Her father looked suddenly apprehensive. “I’m not sure exactly, but it was created by a powerful witch.”
His guilt broke over Cecilia like a wave, the sharpness of the emotion stealing her breath. He was lying.
She stared at him, trying to understand why he would give her a spelled object and not explain how it worked.
“I want you to keep this dagger on you at all times,” the huntmaster continued. “Boys will be boys, and when they are, stab first, ask questions later. You can always heal them if you’re wrong.”
Cecilia laughed, but her father’s face grew serious.
“I mean it. You’re a beautiful young woman and I’m sure you’ll have plenty of men vying for your hand over the next few years, but few are as honorable as Rainer.”
Warmth rose on Cecilia’s cheeks and she looked away.
“No matter how much you might wish to get into the same harmless trouble as the other ladies of the court, there will always be more eyes on you,” he said. “There will always be hunters who want the conquest of the huntmaster’s daughter, and guardians who want your wealth and access to power. There may even be those who seek you out for your magic. That’s why you must keep this on you. Especially now that you’ll be out in the field.”
He cleared his throat. “You’ll be more of a target out there. As you’ve always been here. There are people who would use you to get to me and if you’re caught, I’m not confident that I could make the choice the kingdom requires. Not to mention that Argaria is allied with two living gods, and while we have not seen them in Olney for centuries, I’m sure they will stop at nothing to make sure our witches don’t complete the Gauntlet and release the power of the Lost God. It’s the only thing that could truly challenge them.”
Her father rounded his desk and knelt in front of her, taking her hands in his. He’d always seemed larger than life—a mountain of a man, over six feet tall and muscled like he still sparred daily. Even now, with his hair turning silver at his temples and the lines on his face slightly more pronounced, he was as imposing as any of the men in his army.
He squeezed her hands. “I could not sacrifice you for the good of the kingdom, my Little Storm. So please don’t get caught.”
“I promise I won’t.”
Cecilia hugged her father tightly and hoped it was a promise she’d never break.
© Sheila Masterson 2023 All Rights Reserved