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.


King Aldrik leaves his wife at her rooms with a kiss more passionate than I expected. She accepts and returns it, which startles me. Even Father's wife tolerated his attentions, at best, before he killed her.

His Majesty takes me directly to what must be a secondary kitchen, from the small size. "Silva."

A tall broad-boned young woman, old enough to be married but young enough that she's probably only engaged, turns towards us while tossing her ginger-colored pleated hair out of the way. She glances at me for all of a second. "Yes, Your Majesty?"

A shorter brunette of about Silva's age in a formless grey smock openly stares at me. Her cherrywood gaze flickers to the king and Silva, and she sets aside the pot she's washing. "I'll fetch her a dress. Tweak some ears for more."

Silva gives her a sharp look.

His Majesty nods at the girl. "Thank you, Lallie." Lallie curtsies and leaves. "Mind your jealousy, Silva. Lallie's better at pulling teeth for charity."

I'm careful not to stare at the king outright. He talks too informally to this Silva for her to be a servant, unless…

She might be like me. Silva is definitely older than Prince Aidan. I wonder if she ever had any brothers. I did, for a few hours, before Father found and killed him.

Silva sighs. "Sorry." She pops her neck and glances at me. "New girl?"

"Bathe her, feed her, and show her around so she can be situated before your mother gets back." King Aldrik doesn't wait for her curtsy or acknowledgement before leaving.

Silva pries a hunk of bread off a loaf and slaps honey on it. She hands me the result. "Eat. You need it. I'm Silva. You?"

I accept the food and flinch. "Evonalé." Why couldn't Mother have named me something human?

But Silva doesn't comment on my elvish name. She quickly tidies up this kitchen. "We call this the washroom. Doesn't get used for much else than washing the dishes, except by some of us younger folk when we cook on our own time."

"You like cooking?"

She grins, a dimple pinching her right cheek. "Runs in the family. Not my favorite thing, but I'm not half bad. I'm a better…" She frowns and shakes her head sharply. "You like to cook?"

I shrug and cringe from my bad back.

Silva's frown deepens. "What?"

"Nothing." Didn't His Majesty ask her to show me around?

"Finish your bread," she says, and as I do, she whirls about, making sure everything's picked up. Only a large bucket of suds remains out of place. When I swallow the last of my bit of bread, she studies me sidelong for a moment, then dumps the bucket over my head.

She waits until I'm past sputtering and into wringing out the wrap Princess Kitra stuck on me before she looks at me directly. "Well," Silva says with a wide smile that holds traces of forced cheer. "The head cook's out today, but she'll be back tomorrow…"

Her chatter continues while she takes me to one of the buildings outside the palace but within the walls, this one on the southeast side, closest to the nearby river between this palace and the nearby city. I glimpse a canal to the south as we approach the building's west entrance.

"Separate genders, don't worry." She swipes a towel off a shelf beside the entrance and hands it to me. I clutch it tightly as I follow. "Notice the curtain above the door. Red confirms women, blue men. Don't go near it when it's black unless you're wanting…" Silva shakes herself as if she remembering who or what she's talking to. "West side of the building's for women; east side's men. That's true for pretty much everything, here—courtyards, stables, bridal suites…

"Oh, and purple means the royal family is currently reserving it. Ten lashings for putting that one up without cause."

I stop in the doorway, seeing the fair soft skin and elaborate hair of the women in the humid room. "I shouldn't be here."

"Nonsense!" Silva snaps. She tugs me by the arm towards the gaggle of highborn girls who pointedly ignore our intrusion.

One girl of about my age glares, her golden curls plastered to her sharp-featured face like a wet cat's fur.

Ignoring the highborn with a self-assurance that further evidences whose daughter she likely is, Silva lets her own rough overdress fall to the floor and strips my wrap and rags from me before I can protest.

I squeak and dive in the washing pool by our feet to hide myself. Carling made sure to keep the skin intact when she messed up my muscles, so my scars aren't visible, but I still don't like displaying my body. Someone might realize what I am, for Father to find me.

"Who died and made you princess?" snipes the cat girl.

"Don't start, Goldilocks." Silva has her back to the girl, so she must recognize the voice.

"Marigold!" a woman snaps, as blond and willowy as the offending girl. "Mind your tongue!" She quickly gets between cat girl and Silva. She gives Silva a worried look. "Pray forgive my daughter, my—"

"You don't have to apologize to her! She's just—"

"Lord Elwyn's replacement!" Marigold's mother snaps back.

My stomach lurches, and the ice of terror and flame of embarrassment war to overwhelm me. I do not want to know which member of the royal family takes both a grown man and a young woman to bed.

Well, at least Silva isn't the king's baseborn daughter. I hope.

It's now, after Marigold's gaping at her mother's rebuke, that Silva turns to face the room. "I'm allowed here anyway, Goldilocks."

I gulp. Okay, so maybe she is His Majesty's bastard.

The rest of the washing up doesn't take too long. Silva's earlier bucket of suds loosened the filth, and the baths are designed to let the water flow through them.

The water's a fair temperature, though not warm enough to help my aching lungs, but the room has a bite to it from winter's cold. I'm shivering in my towel and coughing by the time Silva's friend Lallie finds us.

Lallie's shoulders are taut from the stack draped over her arm. She drops the clothing on a bench and quickly fingers through to a walnut green blouse and oak brown pinafore.

I bite my lip while I look at them. "Um…"

Silva doesn't hear me, but Lallie notices my concern and doffs her grey smock. I blink at the blueberry blue panel centered in her charcoal-colored overdress. "Color's fine, just watch the extras." She nods at the dresses the noble girls are donning, evidently refusing to let a waif exit the baths ahead of them.

I note that the beads stitched on the sleeves of Marigold's dress handle the light like they're glass. "An essere 's daughter?" I ask quietly.

Lallie quickly hides her grin and nod behind a cough. Her brown eyes shine when she smiles. "You embroider?"

I shiver and turn away. Elves embroider. It's said that elven embroidery, depending on its picture, can ward off illness, monsters, famine, and such. I don't pretend to have that ability, but I mimicked the felven style while Mother lived. It shows in my technique.

Lallie doesn't press the question, doesn't even comment on my silence when Silva returns from fetching another towel for her hair. I don the blouse and pinafore. They're a tad big, but I'll grow into them.

Lallie scoops up the pile of dresses that remains—my shoulder twinges in sympathy—and nods at Silva. "These'll fit her close enough," she says. "I'll go leave the others in her room." She doesn't wait for Silva's acknowledgement before leaving.

Silva sees that I'm ready and takes me to the main kitchen, showing me the fires, the wood, the pots—all that I'll need to know to work tomorrow. Other girls and ladies eye me, some warily. Others twitter and give me food. Someone hands me a bitter tea that soothes my lungs.

Silva nods and continues my tour. A cloud of flour greets us in the dessert kitchen. She sneezes. "You aren't supposed to be in here."

A girl of about my age but half again my size sticks out her tongue at Silva as she slaps some sticky dough. "Shut up."

"Geddis." Silva scowls. "You know Mother—"

"I'm making her sweetbread." Geddis shapes the dough on the tray and sticks it in the large oven that dominates this kitchen. She grabs a few logs off the stack for more fuel. "She needs something to cheer her up."

A blank look crosses Silva's face—blank in the self-controlled way, not blank as in daft. "That doesn't mean you can disobey her. You aren't allowed to cook in here by yourself."

Geddis worries a loose molar with her tongue. "I'm not alone; you're here."

Silva lets out a sharp breath. "Geddis," she says. Her right thumb fiddles with the little finger of that same hand. "Quit playing semantics. You're not allowed to cook by yourself because it's dangerous."

The girl sticks out her tongue at the older girl. "And reading probabilities isn't?"

"That's different!" Silva snaps. "I don't choose that." Her glare at Geddis is more upset than angry.


"Ask Ferrel!"

I wonder what happened to him.

Geddis looks like she's about to say something mean when Lallie pokes her head in. "Geddis Feyim, what is this mess?" Lallie glides in with a self-assured presence that would befit a noblewoman. She clicks her tongue. "Did your mother say you could cook in here unattended, young lady?"

"I'm making a surprise for her."

"Oh." It's an acknowledgement of Geddis's words rather than an indicator of comprehension. "And your mum wouldn't whip you if you had a good reason for disobeying her, would she?"

Geddis bites her lip at Lallie's sarcasm. "She likes sweetbread."

"And you couldn't ask one of us to help you with it?"

The girl's hands shake as she seals up the jar of flour. "It's stupid. You just pretend that there's nothing wrong about this, about Father leaving so—" She hiccups and gulps down tears.

Lallie clicks her tongue. "Geddis," she warns quietly. "Mind your tongue."

Geddis shoves Lallie, who steps back. "Geddis!" Silva snaps. "Behave—oh!" She stumbles, holding her head and cringing. She clutches the table as if about to fall.

"Silva?" Lallie hovers nearby, but she doesn't touch her friend.

Silva shakes her head. "Just… just a spell." Silva lets herself fall on the stool Lallie pulls up for her. She shakes her head in attempt to clear it. "I'm okay."

"Ay, no. You sit right there until you stop seeing auras. Geddis, stay with her, and make sure she don't fall and break her neck." Geddis flinches. "I'll show the girl her room."

Silva looks like she might protest, but then another grimace interrupts and she lets her head fall forward on her arms. She groans.

Goosebumps form on my arms. Queen Yuoleen's prophet Gaylen looked like that, on his bad days. "…Should we fetch a healer?"

Geddis snorts. Lallie gives me a slight smile, brow furrowed. "Wouldn't do no good. Sil gets like this, sometimes. Nice thought, though." Lallie lightly touches my arm to guide me out.

I follow her lead, but I swallow and duck behind her when His Majesty approaches us. Why is he in the servants' passages?

"Where's Silva?"

"Dessert kitchen, she's…" Lallie smiles thinly and shrugs.

King Aldrik nods comprehension and sighs. "If she were just a smidgen less sensitive…"

"Then the Council wouldn't accept anything she says as valid, and you know it."

"Idiots," His Majesty mutters, shaking his head, then gives Lallie a sharp glance. "Don't go repeating that, mind you."

"Repeating what?"

He smiles. "There's a good girl." He pats her on the head and continues down the hall.

"Is he…" I gulp. On second thought, perhaps it wouldn't be wise to ask if she and Silva share a father.

"Is he…?" Lallie studies me for a few seconds, then breaks into a grin and a laugh. "What?! Oh, no. Despite what some nobles like gossiping over their tea, King Aldrik has no baseborn get."

I'm not sure how she figured out what I was thinking, but even so… "Um, Silva?" I heat from embarrassment.

"His Majesty's best friend's daughter." She doesn't sound surprised or appalled by my assumption, though, so it must be common. "And with her, well… What you see is not what you get, exactly." Her smile is wry. "But I guess that's true for most of us."

"What do I get with you?" I flinch when I realize I asked that aloud.

Lallie bites back a tired laugh with a grin. "Clever girl." My arm twinges beneath her pat. She frowns and probes the bad spot with her thumb. "Holy Creator," she whispers.

But she removes her hand. We exchange a long look.

She doesn't ask who tortured me with magic, and I don't ask how she can tell.

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