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 sit outside in the courtyard maze this clear cold day, letting the plants block the wind that would make the winter day frigid. I use my fire to keep my fingers limber as I work on some embroidery orders I have due by New Year's.

Silva scowled when I expressed my intentions to work outside, but she's too busy to protest, since the kingdom's recovery from the Shadow has brought back the trade and visitors. Many visiting dignitaries demand to meet the Hearer who escaped a bout with ambrosia with her sanity intact.

All the tall bushes used to make the maze are very much alive, so they comfort me as I work. I brought water and some jerky and bread with me. Sometimes I shiver before I remember to heat myself up again, but it's an otherwise comfortable arrangement.

Comfortable, that is, until after noon passes and Prince Aidan enters the little courtyard. I glance at him; he starts at finding me here. He sees the basket at my feet, the box of needles and threads, and the pile of completed projects folded neatly beside me on the bench.

Prince Aidan hesitates, but he sheathes the sword he bears and decides to join me despite the lack of chaperone. "The bushes are good for breaking the wind."

I shrug and finish a white bullions along the yellow collar of Marigold's dress. I mentioned to her that yellow was not an advisable color to wear with her golden hair, but she glared and accused me of trying to make her look terrible when I suggested she wear red. She'll just blame me when the yellow gets her laughed at and say I never should have done it if I knew how horrible it would look. She's done that, before.

Marigold's mother makes sure I'm paid well for my trouble. I think she's sorry that King Aldrik still has me give Marigold embroidery lessons once a week after four years of the girl refusing to learn from them.

When I look up, Prince Aidan has come around and stands in front of me, studying what I'm sewing. "Do you ever prick yourself?"

"All the time," I reply lightly, lifting the dress by the shoulders to check my work. It's as even and neat as I could wish. I fold it and add it to the completed pile. "Do you often let other nobles win when they spar with you?"

Aidan's friendly expression blanks. "I beg your pardon?"

I give him a pointed look as I pull out the next order, shiver, and heat myself back up. I coax my inner fire to spread to Aidan, too, to heat him—but it touches his magic and goes out. I blink, startled as much by that evidence that he's actively using his magic as by the sharp look he gives me.

Oh. Guess he's keeping his magic under wraps, then, like his actual level of skill with a sword. "What's your element?" It isn't fire, whatever it is. His magic doused mine—earth, maybe?

Aidan keeps his polite expression as he pulls his sword from its sheath and twirls it in a maneuver I know he does to keep his wrists limber.

"I was just going to warm you up," I tell him. "I wasn't going to burn you."

He doesn't respond to that, just watches me before turning and going through his sword exercises. I watch him for a few seconds before returning to my work. "Do those trousers have hems, or are they already at full length?"

He stops midmove and looks at me. "What?"

"Your trousers are too short," I comment, cutting a length of dark green thread to embellish a crimson bodice. "If there's no hem to be let out, you need a new pair."

Aidan looks down at his pants, studying how the leg falls. "These are too short? They hit my ankle."

I nod. "They need to cover it."

He sighs, sheathes his sword, and plops on a nearby bench. "Where did you learn to be so observant?"

Neither of us say anything when I start the diamond eyelets Marigold's mother wants on the bust of her own red satin gown. "Carling's most polite right after she fails to kill someone. Father tilts his chin when studying you if he's a hair's breadth from beating you. Drake…" I decide I don't wish to describe my half-brother and shudder. Drake and Carling practice their killing spells on Drake's baseborn get.

Aidan's eyes close. He draws a slow breath. "You learned it first to survive your family, then."

I shrug. His sympathetic tone makes me uncomfortable.

"Some families are discontented with my family's foreign line. I'm my father's only heir. I'm a lot safer from assassins if I'm presumed to be hapless and therefore easy to dethrone."

I blink at his abrupt forthrightness. I hadn't actually expected an answer. "Your family's foreign?" Wait. I knew that.

"Grandfather was a foreign conquerer, and my mother was from the Pardys islands. The only Salles blood in me is from my grandmother." His lips quirk with wry humor. "Emperor Vance's daughter. She killed him."

Him being? "…Her father?"

Aidan snorts. "My grandfather. She wasn't happy about marrying him. Father's first action as king was to preside over his mother's trial." He smiles at my blankfaced shock. "And you thought your family was messed up."

"My family is messed up," I retort. It even has the murder, though Father was the one to murder his parents because they wouldn't let him have Mother. And then Father killed Mother after all, and Carling wants me dead. Well, better that Carling gets what she wants than Drake get what he wants. I shiver.

Aidan's eyes scan me, and he scowls. He abruptly lands perched on his knees beside me. I jerk and bury my needle well into my hand. I yelp and blink back tears from the pain.

I flinch when Aidan takes my hand and smoothes out the skin to see where the needle is. He grimaces. "Sorry." He tugs the needle out and applies pressure to the puncture in my palm with his thumb. "That has to hurt."

I glare at him through the tears. "You think?" I manage to squeak. My attempt to yank my hand away fails. "Do you mind?"

He smiles a little and raises his thumb away from the puncture before dropping my hand. I study it and the wound that's not bleeding. I frown. "What…?"

Aidan smirks and flexes his hands, and I suspiciously reach into my magic and poke at the wound. Something's already there, and it doesn't want to move so I can cauterize it. I frown at my hand.

He covers it with his. "Don't. Let it heal from its own scab. Burning it will only make it scar more. There's no reason to mar yourself like that."

He must read the suspicion in my stare, because he scowls and leans back. "Look, I'm sick of pretending I'm stupid, okay? We both know you're King Darnell's bastard and will draw men's attention when you finally grow up. Yes, you're a servant now, but you won't always be."

"And what will I be?" I snap. "Your mistress?"

Aidan flinches and pales. "Heaven help me, I hope not."

"You hope—"

"So I don't think I'd mind marrying you," he snaps back. "Is that a crime? William's open to the possibility, too. I suppose you snap and scold and flee him, too?"

I can't make myself move from my seat. "Yes," I admit.

Aidan raises his eyes to the sky. "Creator, help me," he prays in exasperation. "What is wrong with you, Evonalé? Do you have any idea how many noble bastards would give their maidenheads to be where you are?"

"That's what worries me," I mutter.

"Oh, holy Creator." Aidan doesn't even try to follow me as I manage to shove myself up and flee. At least, I don't think he does.

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