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.


Year 247 of the Bynding

The Kingdom of Salles

before Solstice

Of all the kinds' arts, the ancient elven is the most elaborate. Once, our best artists were mages, casting spells to discover stories and art in their dreams.

But such use of magic always costs, and it cost us our ability to create in our dreams. We dream what happens around us as we sleep. What is not true, what has not happened, we cannot dream.


"Your stitches are too loose," I say with as much calm politeness as I can muster, to the spoiled noble-born girl who's barely learned the basics of embroidery over the past few years.

Rather, Marigold's learned them well enough, only so she can intentionally do them wrongly. She's still convinced that she doesn't need to learn embroidery and that someday King Aldrik will come to his senses and relieve her of my presence. And this despite she and other noble girls hiring me to pretty up their outdoor garb since I reached subadulthood.

She sniffs. "Mend it. That's your job."

"You don't mend embroidery." I struggle not to snap at her in my irritation. "Mending is for seams and hems, to keep clothing wearable. Embroidery either works or it doesn't."

"If that's beyond your skill, you can just say so. Or wait—maybe you can't admit it, since mending is all you're good for, after all."

"At least I'm good for something," I retort. "You can't even embroider a simple pattern."

"My lordship won't have me do such things."

I laugh outright. "You're not worth an essere, never mind an attare!"

Marigold shrieks indignation and rushes me, wielding her needle. I stare at her. "Marigold, mage."

She doesn't react to those words—I grab her wrist so she doesn't stab me in the eye. But I'm an elfin-small girl, and Marigold's blossomed into her womanhood; this isn't going to last for long. Doesn't leave me much choice, really. I could mutter some rather distasteful things about this.

The fire comes easily, heating the needle 'til Marigold yelps and drops it, her fingers singed.

William abruptly shoves the noble girl away from me. "Better hope His Highness doesn't hear about that," he says sourly. I stumble; he grabs my arm to steady me. Once I'm secure on my own feet, he releases me and bows slightly per Runner protocol before delivering a message. "His Highness would like his favorite jerkin now, if you're done mending it. He's in the courtyard."

Prince Aidan wants me to take him his jerkin now? A subadult girl taking an adult man his clothing in public? I rub my cheekbone. Well, at least it's overgarb. "Men's?"

William nods and winces, obviously aware of the impropriety of His Highness's demand. "A word of advice? Take your sewing basket with you. It'll keep most from getting the… from thinking you…"

From thinking that I'm there to proposition for a lover. Which is precisely why I've never entered the inner courtyards in the four years that I've been here and therefore have no idea how I'm going to find Prince Aidan now. "Thanks."

"I'm on a Run to His Majesty, too."

So he can't help me by showing me the way. My avoidance of the inner courtyards means I don't know which one I'm going to have to enter, now. "East or west?"

There's a pause, revealing William's surprise that I'd know that little of the courtyard setup. "East."

I nod and pick up the embroidery from another failed lesson.

"Oh, Nallé." I wait for what he wants to say. "Watch out for stray weapons."

I flinch, knowing full well that he's only telling me that for fear of my natural clumsiness. "Thanks." But I think he means it nicely, so I soften my sarcasm with a nervous smile.

I quickly return my embroidery things to the sewing room and grab Prince Aidan's jerkin from the pile of completed mending. I pick up my knitting bag from near the door; it's easier to take with me than sewing.

Thus armed, I head for the men's courtyard. I wonder if King Aldrik would let Prince Aidan's command stand if he knew of it.

Well, that's a moot point, now.

Near the entrance to the men's west courtyard are a few young women of poor repute. I keep my knitting bag and the prince's requested jerkin over my arm and walk quickly, even as I search for His Highness. I sidestep the young noblemen as I search, unlike the hussies.

The hussies pause, flirt, curtsy with skirts raised far too high and chests dipped far too low, and try to catch the eyes of men they, uh, like. I don't. You would think that particular detail would make it obvious that I don't want what those girls do.

"Sweetheart," one particularly false-looking man croons. To me.

"No, m'lordship."

"I'm sorry?" he asks.

"I am not 'Sweetheart', m'lordship. You must have me confused with someone else." Before the laughter can grow beyond its faint beginnings, I quickly ask, "Where is the prince? I am told he is in this courtyard."

"Well!" The man feigns offense to hide the actual offense he feels and struts around his circle of friends; they laugh. "Perhaps we are told that he has no wish to see you, my dear… What did you say your name was?"

They think I'm here to proposition the prince?! Enough of this. "I didn't. Prince Aidan sent for his jerkin, and you will tell me where he is, that I may deliver it to him."

"I will tell you? Else what, fair 'maiden'?"

I don't respond to that insult other than to raise my chin and intensify my glare. "Guess," I say coldly, easily—too easily—drawing life from a nearby flower patch to form purple magic-fueled fire behind the leech. His friends gasp and draw back before he turns to see it, and when he does, he takes a few quick steps away while cursing more harshly than he ought in front of a subadult girl.

"Who are you?" the man demands.

A mage, obviously. I let myself smile faintly, swallowing back the disquiet that this must be how Father feels, how Grandfather and Father and Carling all seek power by the strength of their magic. It's easy to make others heed you when you terrify them.

"Prince Aidan?" I ask again. If this nobleman doesn't already know of me, then my identity is none of his business.

"'Kory!" comes the voice of Prince Aidan himself. I immediately release the fire; it vanishes. "It's your turn! Come, now; you're not afraid of a little spar—" He enters the ring, sees me, and stops, shifting his grip on the sword he carries. "Hickory, Attare of Richden," he says in a low, warning tone. "What's this?"

"This wench is threatening me with—" He turns to point at the fire, notices that it's gone, and turns back to His Highness. "I was doing nothing that she didn't ask for by coming here, and there was a fire, right here—"

The prince wearies of Attare Hickory's defensive and indignant tone before the sleazy nobleman runs out of words. "Nallé?!" he asks sharply.

I curtsy—properly, mind you—and stand erect. "I brought your jerkin, as requested, Your Highness. The young lordship persisted in offering unwelcome attentions."

"Really?" Prince Aidan approaches Attare Hickory, circling him, the still-lanky eighteen-year-old prince sizing up the filled-out nobleman some years older.

"No harm done," Attare Hickory insists with some worry. From the way he glances between the prince and me, I daresay he thinks the prince wants me to himself. I'm not certain Attare Hickory isn't right.

"Would you agree to that?" Prince Aidan asks me. "No harm done?"

The crown prince defending the honor of a baseborn castle maid. Despite my discomfort, I can't help but be amused. "Well, I don't think the flowers would agree with that assessment."

"The flow…" He follows my gaze to the patch I killed, and he gives a surprised laugh that quickly dies. "'Kory," he says, voice still tainted by surprise. When the attare looks at him, the prince strikes him in the face.

"Come," the prince tells me as he promptly leaves the circle.

I glance at Attare Hickory as I do so, not exactly displeased that his nose is broken to mess up his perfectly groomed appearance, but still. "Was that necessary?"

"The players shouldn't bother you for the rest of your years here," he says with a smile and a wink. "Believe me, you're not the first."

Not the first maid he's defended from the other noblemen? Who else would need… "Geddis?"

He nods. His hand on my arm directs me to stop outside this other ring. He puts his sword on a bench and takes his jerkin from me, pulling it on. He then retrieves his sword and nods at the bench. "Have a seat. Knit."

I do so, and he steps into the ring for a sparring round against someone I half recognize, in that I know I've seen him around but I couldn't name him if I tried.

As they lift their—dulled, I hope—swords to a starting position, I focus intently on my knitting. I've actually never seen swordplay. Father doesn't value it, preferring to use magic for his battles. The only ones that use physical violence are Father's gryphons, and they…

They have claws. Which they use. Which I've seen enough of that I don't want to watch this.

Some of the young men watch me, their eyes expressing their curiosity over what I'm doing here. So I try not to flinch too much as the distinct sound of metal striking metal begins—tentative at first, then stronger, with bursts of speed.

Prince Aidan's grunt makes me look up despite myself, in time to see the swift ending of the spar. I stare and blink, certain I missed something; none of the men have noticed anything odd. Prince Aidan good-naturedly lets the other young man who had just had a sword at his throat pull him up.

He comes to me, stretching his shoulders as he does. "Refreshing! What do you say, Nallé, would you like an escort back inside, now?"

"Why did you…" His quick look is of surprise more than command, but I know that's only because he didn't expect me to notice.

I'm a mage; I've been spending years teaching myself to mentally multitask so I won't drive myself mad by using magic. Does that make me more observant than most people, too?

As I pack up my bag and head out after His Highness, I think about the little bit I saw. Prince Aidan isn't a fool. He has reasons, presumably good ones, for why he acts as he does.

But he released his hilt, let himself be disarmed. Why would he let the other man win?


  1. Quick correction:
    "I don't want what those girls girl."
    should probably be:
    "I don't want what those girls want."

  2. Thank you. Ah, lovely errors that occur in editing.


This web novel is listed in Web Fiction Guide and Muse's Success. (Both are directories of online novels, stories, etc.)