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.


The next morning, a warm bed welcomes me when I wake up. It's a pleasant change from rocks and mud and cold tree bark. I yawn.

"'Morning, girl!"

I scream. Then break out coughing from my lungs.

His Highness laughs. "You should've seen the look on your face!"

I quickly hide my scowl and wrestle my coughing fit under control. Letting a royal see your anger is stupid.

I pat my hair to make sure it covers my ears. The cotton shift I pulled from Lallie's stack to use as a nightdress is decent enough. I climb out of bed, rubbing my eyes.

"Where do you think you're getting yourself to?"

"Up, Highness." Is he stupid or playing?

Two brown eyebrows rise. Prince Aidan glances out the window at the predawn view. "Why?"

"I have work to do, Highness." As I speak, I make the bed. I'm to start helping Cook, today. I heard enough gossip yesterday to expect her to dislike me; she has little tolerance for oafs.


"I must prepare for work, Highness." After fluffing the green pillow, I'm done. I turn to the small stool nearby and relieve it of my green blouse and brown pinafore from yesterday. I pull them on over my shift.

His Highness snorts. "Are you ever going to wash that?"

"Yes, High—"

"Would you stop that?"

I pause to figure out that he doesn't want me to use his title. My stomach lurches, and I pray to the Power that I misunderstood everything yesterday and he isn't the one who's newly taken Silva to bed. He's perhaps a few years younger than she is. "If you'd prefer."

He rolls his eyes. "Of course I 'prefer' it. How would you like to have the people you actually want to know groveling at your feet all the time?"

Smoothing my pinafore spares me from having to meet his gaze. I suppose it sounds annoying, but he's the first royal I've known to not enjoy it.

Prince Aidan eyes me with stark curiosity. "Well, then. Enjoy your tea." He nods at a steaming mug that I didn't notice by my bed. Who brought that? Surely not the prince. "I'll leave you to your… work." He grins and starts for the door. "See you at the ovens!"

"Your Highness?" I automatically ask before catching myself.

He gives me a pointed look but doesn't scold me otherwise. "I help Cook on Praisedays." At my blank response, he clarifies: "The last day of the week—today."

"You cook?" I ask in my shock. Maybe he did bring the tea.

"Fortunes can change in life. A prince can be exiled, a noble lose his title." His frank acceptance that he may someday lose his title makes me blink. "My grandfather conquered the emperor here not all that long ago. Grandfather would still be around if he hadn't taken the emperor's daughter to wife. Grandmother assassinated him when I was about your age.

"Besides, men eat. And women aren't always in a condition to cook. You think Cook works so hard on her moontime?"

Heat floods my face. I remember Melrin—whether on moontime or heavy with child, she must attend Father's pots. She's lost more of her brood than have survived. Most of them didn't fall into the cooking fires.

I shudder and wince. Carling likes her experiments.

"So see you shortly. Have a good morning." With a smile and nod, Prince Aidan leaves. Before I can reach the door, he shuts it behind himself.

I sip the tea, and it's the bitter one to help my lungs. I relish the ability to breathe more easily.

Someone also left a jug of water by my door. I pour it in the washbasin and scrub my face, ears, hands, fingernails. My bad muscles ache something awful. I move carefully so I don't trigger any of the spasms.

The mirror reflects my dark eyes back at me. My cheekbones jut out the most from my malnutrition. I'm small-framed but don't lose flesh easily due to Grandmother's blood; I'm bony, not emaciated. Small, angular, underfed. Too thin, really, for a human to find me pretty, but I'm glad for that. I know where a nice face gets girls like me.

Breathe. I have to remember to breathe. No matter what they say or do, just breathe and stay calm. Don't freeze, don't cry, don't panic, and don't break anything.

If only that last one were as easy.

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