“One spun for three nights, so one will give it three nights to guess one’s name.” The creature was all business now, sitting up straight and attentive, ears swiveled towards me. “Have we a bargain? A firstborn for a true name? A failure for all the children?”
“My firstborn for a true name,” I said warily. The creature grinned.
“It’s firstborn for one’s name,” it countered. “And all it’s children, should it fail.”
“I swear it,” I said, and felt the magic ripple across my skin again. This time, however, I could almost see part of it fall on my daughter, like a fine mist. I resisted the urge to wipe her face, knowing I could not erase what had been done.
“Shall we begin?” the creature asked, settling itself down into a lounging position.
“I think not,” I said sharply. “You said three nights. This night is halfway gone. Return tomorrow at sunset, and the game will begin in earnest.” I hoped it could not hear the way my heart thundered at my own audacity, but the creature only chuckled.
“Yes yes, clever clever. One shall return when the too-bright sun is gone again.” It rolled onto its back, showing me its belly much as a cat would, then flipped over and slithered off the bed and into the shadows, leaving nothing behind but the smell of burning clove.
I allowed myself three deep breaths to feel my fear, my despair, my panic. And then with the final exhale I banished it. Time to be clever. Time to be wise. I pulled the cord that would summon my serving girl.
“Yes, your majesty?” she appeared, fresh as a daisy, and I wondered briefly if she ever slept.
“I need you to fetch me the castle steward,” I said.
“Please, dear. And be quick about it.”
She scampered off, and I thought furiously. I felt certain that the creature’s name wouldn’t be in any of the kingdom’s censuses- none of the helpful spirits or sprites I’d ever met had human names, so it seemed unlikely that this creature would, either, but it was a place to start. I could also call for the castle scholars, and alchemists. They would have truck with more archane names. And the wise women of the area! I would not be so foolish as to overlook the knowledge base of my own gender.
I pulled the cord again.