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.


Aidan is right. I do end up with pneumonia. I embroider my commissions while sitting on a stool in the stable because it's almost as warm as the kitchens and doesn't have Geddis trying to knock me over. "How did you know I'd get pneumonia?"

He glances at me from where he grooms Teivel. "You had fluid in your lungs."

…Listening for such signs of illness is the job of healers, not princes, and certainly not crown princes. With his work of managing Saf and hobby of breeding hunting dogs like Plun, it's a wonder he has time to work with his horses, much less associate with me or learn things that are unnecessary for his station.

"Would you like some more tea?"

He is not playing servant for me, nor is he ordering one of the others to fetch something for me.

He smirks at the look I give him and puts up the brush he's used to groom Teivel. "More tea, then." He heads out.

"Wait!" I call, triggering a coughing fit. Aidan waits until I've gotten control of it and can say hoarsely, "Don't fetch anything for me, please. You know what people think already."

"You aren't even a woman yet," Aidan points out, and it's a detail I'm well aware of and that I thank the Creator for every time I catch him studying me. "Anyone who thinks that thinks of me as a deviant more than they think of you as defiled, and most believe I'm making you comfortable with my presence so you won't think anything of me making you my mistress when you reach your majority—assuming you're a woman at that point. And we both know you will be."

On that birthday, yes. Unfortunately. Elfin girls become women on their sixteenth birthday. It looks like it's painful, but admittedly the women who I saw experience it were doubly worried about Father or Drake finding them old enough to play with. That alone might've been what made them wail.

Aidan sighs and draws up a bucket to sit near me. "Should you be working on those while sick?"

"I'll wash them before delivery," I say primly. "Shouldn't you be judging between irate property holders from Saf or something?"

He flinches and leans back. "No, I've taken the week off. Hopefully the wait will make at least a few of the petitioners rethink how much they really want what they're harrassing me for."

"That bad, huh?"

He rolls his eyes. "Okay, you have a reasonably wealthy old man die who was a noble's younger son, so he had to build his own fortune as a businessman. He did well enough, though not better than an essere might gain from his lands.

His three sons are all Daddy's boys and are doing well for themselves with their own money. So the man leaves his entail to his daughter, to give her a dowry, since she can't work without losing prospects."

"And the sons are contesting it?" I guess.

"Precisely! Because how could she possibly know how to handle all that money… Never mind that the poorest of the three sons has perhaps double his late father's assets. Their sister is a woman and can't possibly manage her own estate by herself, because everyone knows that women have no business doing figures."

"Can she do math?"

"She can cook. I certainly hope she can do the math for that herself and didn't need to ask for help with it." He realizes how his words sound and grimaces before explaining, "She brought a pie to the first hearing in apology for wasting my time."

"Not a bribe to encourage you to rule in her favor or anything."

"No. Well, maybe." Aidan shrugs. "She's engaged to a stablemaster, I think."

"The stablemaster?" I frown. I thought our stablemaster called himself a bachelor and proud of it.

"A stablemaster," he repeats, and I realize he doesn't necessarily mean the one in his own employ. "He works for an inn. One of those enormous ones that's popular with visiting merchants." He stretches his shoulders. "I haven't verified it, but I think it's actually an inn her eldest brother owns."

Oh, that will go over well with her brother. I wince. "Does he know of her engagement?"

He shrugs again. "Not really my business either way, is it?"

"It could influence the way you handle the ruling, though, couldn't it?"

Aidan snorts. "If I were inclined to meddle, but I'm not. Who she wants to marry and how she wants to convey it to her brothers is her business. Who inherits their father's estate is mine."

"…And her marrying down doesn't influence your preference to give her the inheritance at all."

The cross look he gives me says that he recognizes my reference to his disdain for women who primp themselves to marry up. "Her father willed it to her, Evonalé. It's hers. I just have to set it in stone before her brothers will accept that."

"And if there hadn't been a will?"

"I would've split the estate traditionally. That's what would've been wanted—it's the traditionalists who can't imagine that anyone would possibly want to do things any other way."

I eye him, wondering if he's trying to tell me something else by telling me things that are really only the business of the governer of Saf—him. But he eyes me back, brows raised in a silent 'What?' "Why are you telling me this?" I ask directly.

He frowns, studies me, and shrugs. "Making conversation with a friend?"

My laugh doesn't sound right. "Friend. I'm not a friend."

"Yes, you are."

"I shouldn't be. Crown prince and baseborn castle maid? No, no, that's not—"

"Who else would I be friends with, Evonalé?" he interrupts quietly. "One of the noble children whose families will be seeking reasons to dethrone me as soon as I get it?" At my look, he rolls his eyes. "My grandfather conquered Salles. My father had to prove himself to keep his crown, and he was known to be an expert swordsman. Whereas I'm generally deemed an unfortunate impediment, too politically and militarily inept to get away with continuing my father's evenhanded enforcement of the law."

"Why let them think that? Why not—"

"Reveal just how capable I might be as a ruler and give enemies reason to seek my assassination before I can get the crown and the protective wards inherent therein? I think not."

Salles doesn't have protective wards for the heirs? I eye him. "Your father has to die for that, too."

"…No. I marry, then I get Father's job and he gets mine, per the agreement with that new constitution Saf ratified three years ago."

"…Then someone assassinates your dad?"

Aidan's snort is probably intended as an incredulous laugh. "I doubt it. You've obviously never seen my father in action."

True. I remember something I heard years ago. "Lallie told me… you had a brother."

He dons the polite mask he wears when holding nonsensical conversations with his fellow aristocracy. "Forgive me; what did you say?"

"Never mind." My swallow sticks in my throat, and I feel an itching as my peppermint tea wears off. I pack up my work into my basket. "Pray excuse me, Your Highness."

"Wait—I can call Geddis to fetch you more tea," he says quickly, but I don't heed him. I leave to fetch it for myself.

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