Tales of loathsome tyrants and prophesied saviors aren't nearly so appealing when you are a royal bastard with a prophecy hanging over your head.


I cough despite Hind's smooth gait. Prince Aidan stops often to hold me steady through the coughing fits, and Silver Embroidery and Kitra loiter behind with him.

After one fit, while I'm still blinking back tears, I look at Silver Embroidery. "Are you a bodyguard?" My voice rasps in my throat.


Nobody elaborates. I swallow another cough with a wince. "Don't the prince and princess need guards?"

Kitra replies first. "Not a princess."


"Yes, I'm really a prince," Prince Aidan says before I can ask anything.

Kitra fingers the dagger hilts on her thighs. "Plainsfolk don't have princesses, not the way you easterners do."

I nod as if I know what Plainsfolk even are. Silver Embroidery's wry smile calls my bluff. I flinch. Prince Aidan's grip tightens so I don't fall.

"Plainsfolk rulers aren't necessarily hereditary, but if you're the child of a Warmaster, you're a lot more likely to become one, yourself."

I frown and eye Kitra sidelong. "But you're a girl."

She shrugs, loose-limbed. "Warmistress."

"You fight and you're a girl?" A look passes among the three of them. I must've just offended her. I swallow. "Aren't women vulnerable in ways men aren't?"

Prince Aidan shifts behind me. "Er…"

"Women shouldn't learn to fight because they're more likely to be attacked?" Silver Embroidery asks, tone polite despite his sarcastic words. "That makes sense."

I bite my lip and duck my head so my hair hides my face. I hadn't thought of it that way. If Mother had learned to fight, might she have killed Father instead of conceiving me?

—But Father's a fire mage. Mother was an air. Fighting wouldn't have done her much good, anyway.

As we travel, the woodlands of the hunting grounds shift into hilly farmland, with a long stone wall in the distance. The sunset behind us gives everything a rosy glow. The prince's gelding prances with His Highness's excitement as we approach his home.

I stare. It's long, the wall for this castle, far larger than Father's, and so tall! "That isn't a castle." Never mind the two towers inside, the ramparts, or its strategic position with a river looping around from the east, and the mountain-bounded hunting grounds to the west.

I feel Prince Aidan shrug behind me. "So it's a palace. Over that hill to the south is the main river, and there's a bridge over the fork there to enter Saf. Our capital."

So the river bounds the palace on the east and south. I look to the north, the slightly hilly lands holding much less farm and grazeland than I expect to see. The prince follows my gaze and shifts in his saddle. "Don't let the sheep fool you," he says quietly. "That way's the most dangerous of them all."

The others have waited for us at the gate. We pass within the walls, which don't quite contain a mansion. The palace itself is huge, certainly—larger than the castles for Father and Queen Yuoleen combined—and it's surrounded by gardens and barns.

The foreign not-princess Kitra helps me dismount Hind. We leave the horses in the care of stablehands outside a large stable on the southwest of the grounds. Dogs bark just a bit north of the stable, and Prince Aidan rejoins us after leaving the hunting dogs in that pen.

The nobles disperse. Kitra takes my arm to keep me with the royals. Silver Embroidery stays behind me as I slowly follow His Majesty and his son.

A wide stone staircase leads up into the castle's main entrance, and gardens stretch to either side. The queen plods down the steps at our approach. "What's this?!" Her nod indicates me.

"Someone's runaway baseborn get," Kitra says cheerily. King Aldrik shoves her arm in admonishment. I shy away from the king's demonstrated familiarity with a woman other than his wife. Her Majesty even looks to be expecting.

"A girl, Mother! Plun found her!" Prince Aidan runs up the stone steps to hug his mother. Tightness grips my chest. I wish I could run to my mother.

I slowly approach and curtsy to the queen. Her Majesty studies me with narrowed dark eyes, her rosy face stern. Her rich navy gown drapes about her mildly-bulging form like a velvet curtain, edged with golden embroidery. Her caramel hair piles on her head in upswept coils.

Prince Aidan leaves us with a spindly grey-haired man who looks like he spends all his time in libraries. The prince's tutor? Silver Embroidery trails after them with enough nonchalance that he's probably following them on purpose.

Her Majesty takes my narrow chin in her palm and examines my face. She nods and releases me, but keeps hold of one of my curls, the color of bitter chocolate.

"Proctor, fetch a cord for the girl. Waiting until she came here to bathe her I understand, but to leave her hair down completely—"

"Please no, Majesty!" I say quickly, hoping I don't sound too urgent. Carling forced me to wear my hair up after she knew it upset me. "Mother always told me to wear my hair loose." I'll take any lashings owed for my impertinence. The tips of my ears burn as embarrassment heats me.

"Your mother? Where is she?" Her Majesty's voice drips contempt. I don't know if it's over my loose hair or over her husband finding me and bringing me home.

But my throat sticks as embarrassment's heat shifts into fear's ice, and I force the tears back. They'll use any weakness to hurt me more. Father and my half-siblings did.

"Dead," I manage, having to swallow before I can add, "Majesty." I don't want to aggravate this queen. The often-mocked proverb 'Never cross an expecting she-dwarf' can apply to humans, too.

The king moves closer to me. I try to hide my discomfort. Her Majesty glances at him with a scowl. "Your mother insisted you wear it loose? Are you certain?"

I flinch. "Yes, Majesty," I whisper. What does loose hair mean in this kingdom?

"Well, then!" The queen briskly claps her hands. "Never mind, Proctor. We will respect the dead." I doubt she would have given me the same favor had I told her Father still lives.

"Shouldn't you be resting?" His Majesty tucks his arm under Her Majesty's as we go up the steps.

She shoots him a sour look. "Yes, walking is absolutely fatiguing." She, a queen, speaks… wryly?

Her Majesty glances at me. "Fetch that." She waves at a nearby teacup perched at the top of the stone staircase, as if she'd been prepared to sit there all evening, awaiting the return of her husband and son. I stare at it. Mother would have sooner been whipped than wait for Father.

King Aldrik sighs. "Mataine, she needs a bath."

"She might as well do something useful on her way. Fetch it, girl." I flinch, take the ornate porcelain thing carefully, and follow her. Her expression says she's displeased—but that might have more to do with Kitra loitering with one of the guards by a pear tree in the courtyard below. We can hear their coy laughter from here.

"What of your father?"

I jump, and some of the lukewarm tea sloshes from the cup. I gulp. Father would lash me for such a thing. My back stings in memory.

"Maitane!" The king grips my arm to steady my hand. "Don't frighten the girl so!"

"Frighten? How is asking about her father 'frightening'?"

"I don't know him, Majesty," I lie quickly. Both monarchs freeze. I study the ground.

"You are fatherless, then?"

I nod without looking up. "A forced child, Majesties."

The queen's gasp startles me. My back spasms; my hands slip. I try to save the cup before it lands, but there's a reason my back's so bad.

Her Majesty gasps again when her cup shatters. I stare at my feet.

As of the approaching solstice, I will have spent ten years on Aleyi; only the past weeks have been in the cold and wet, surviving on what little I've scavenged from kind hermits and the like.

I need very little to survive. Too little. As small and weak as I am compared to Father's scions, I can handle deprivation far better than Carling or Drake ever could.

Still, I flinch when the queen yells at me. I'd rather have food and shelter than be cold, wet, hungry, and waiting for one of Carling's experiments to find and eat me.

"Maitane!" the king interrupts his wife's tirade and takes my arm. "Let her be. She hardly meant to break it." He leads me away with a narrow-eyed glance at Queen Maitane. "Come, child. You must be hungry."

Why does he care?

"I'm surprised you know of the… peculiarities of your parentage. Were you ever schooled?"

"No, Majesty." Mother and others taught me when and what they could, and I taught myself some from what I saw and heard, but schooled? No.

His Majesty nods, as if I've confirmed something he already suspected. Why did he expect my answer?

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