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 248 of the Bynding

The Kingdom of Salles

at Solstice

It was the wars' fault. When men fight, women often pay for it as subjects of the violence. Our mages soon learned to protect girls by magically accelerating or delaying their shifts into womanhood.

This ultimately cost us womanhood's variability. For every she-elf, it comes swiftly on the sixteenth birthday. No magic can change that, now.


Finally, I finish the edgework on the last dress in my pile and put it aside. My fingertips ache from all the needlework. Solstice—and the human New Year celebrations that accompany it—overloads seamstresses with orders.

Last-minute demands for alterations and adjustments for the festive attire have meant that not only am I helping Miss Trelanna while my castle duties wait, but Lallie, Geddis, and even Silva work with me.

Silva winks my way while she pulls her own needle through her fabric swiftly, without magical aids. She seems oblivious to the detail that her aunt made sure to give her tasks easy enough that even she can't mess them up. "The pile's nearly done, at least."

"Good, good," Miss Trelanna declares. "Everything will be done by morning for clients to pick…" —her eyes narrow at one of the pieces in Geddis's pile, which she takes and examines— "…up." She scowls at her niece. "What did you do to this seam?!"

I glance at it and flinch; Geddis forgot to turn the fabric wrong side out before she sewed. The sixteen-year-old woman blinks back tears. Her fingers are more red and raw than mine; she's also been working on her household samplers for prospective husbands.

Without commenting I take the trousers from Miss Trelanna and commence removal of the seam Geddis had put in, carefully keeping its alignment with pins and chalk. Trelanna's been having me do embroidery and repair for decorative parts of garments, not actual alteration work. My fingers aren't nearly as raw as Geddis's.

I recognize the size and cut of the trousers with a practiced glance. They look like… "Are these Prince Aidan's?"

Silva quickly hides a wry smile and shakes her head at Geddis's startled expression. Her aunt isn't so polite. "What, you in the habit of seeing them off his body?!" she snaps.

I jerk, the trousers falling from my hands as I flush and heat from embarrassment. "No—I mean—not—"

"Prince Aidan's clothing is often in need of mending, Aunt," Silva interrupts wryly, calmly continuing her stitchery, though the muscles by her eyes tighten, and she twists the ring on her left little finger with the same hand's thumb. "I've told you not to heed gossip."

Miss Trelanna huffs. "Hard not to, when everyone's chattering about His Highness's not-so-new mistress."

My temperature soars further. I feel sweat start to form on my back.

"He doesn't have a mistress, Aunt." Silva's tone is studiously bored. I recognize it as the one she uses when nobles insist on believing certain 'expert' predictions over Silva's prophecies. "Assuming he did, it would be Nallé, and he hasn't misused Nallé—"

"So certain," Trelanna scoffs.

Lallie snickers, startling everyone but Silva who probably foresaw it. "He's alive, isn't he?"

Trelanna frowns. "What does that have to do with—"

"Fael Honovi?" Lallie asks.

Geddis begins laughing hysterically, Silva rolls her eyes, and Miss Trelanna actually has the grace to look embarrassed. "Oh, my!"

I slowly pick the trousers back up, pretending that I'm not considering their reactions. "You know her?"

"Please. She's barely sane enough to not be—"

"Geddis." Silva's soft interruption nonetheless sounds a bit tart. I remember the prophetess's unavoidable future date with insanity. "Our father is good friends with Fael Honovi. She… protects certain individuals."

Queen Yuoleen and her line. …At least, the illicit lineage that ended up being her line. As far as Fael Honovi protects anyone. Fortunately, people gossip enough about Fael Honovi's homicidal tendencies that they tend to forget who she's homicidal for.

"Faed Nirmoh—" Silva's beau, I remember "—keeps an eye on her." Silva finishes the seam she's sewing, knots her thread, hides the end, and snips it. "How's that seam coming, Nallé?"

I return to the work, my fingers managing the familiar task with innate ease. But they're slick with sweat, and that makes it more difficult than usual. I concentrate on lowering my temperature back to normal, despite my embarrassment. Despite the shame that gossip has placed on me.

Miss Trelanna clears her throat. "I… apologize for my prior rudeness," she states. That doesn't change what the gossips say. And that she herself so easily believed them even though she knows me.

"Let me kiss it and make it all better," Lallie mocks, shaking her head at the looks Miss Trelanna and I give her. I'm not sure that I like this side of Lallie. "Of course, Nallé must positively forgive your indiscretion since you had no idea what you were doing…" She snips some stray threads and rethreads her needle.

"That's not what I—"

"How many gossips did you contradict, Trelanna, when they stood in your store primly shredding an innocent girl's reputation?"

"I—" Miss Trelanna sighs. "I suppose I should've done more than ask them to keep their tongues on what they know and not assume."

Quiet resumes as we continue working, Geddis even more slowly than before to make sure she stitches properly. The shameful gossip has probably destroyed any marriageable reputation I had, true, but that isn't what bothers me. I never had any real prospects to begin with. Not with my parentage.

Miss Trelanna's admission that she shouldn't have believed so readily is probably as much of an apology as I'll get from anyone. "Thanks," I say. And I mean it, as much as Miss Trelanna meant her apology.

Lallie's comments make me wonder… "Do you really think…" I remember the night I fled Aidan, and I force myself to finish my question. "Do you really think that Fael Honovi would… kill… His Highness if he…"

"If your godmother didn't, his father would," Silva says briskly.

I flinch. And then Aidan would be yet another person to die because of me. Because of the prophecy that makes others protect me.

So many people have already died because of me. Gaylen. Mother. Queen Maitane. Mister Woad, Princess Claiborne, and the other victims of the Shadow, like Lallie's husband. I owe it to them to die, to disallow others to be killed due to who and what I am.

But not too soon. Too soon, and I won't be able to destroy Father's control over Marsdenfel. That's what I have to do; that's how I'll die. Gaylen foresaw that I have to be the one to recover the Bynd—the necklace-held spell that keeps the elf Crystal tied to Queen Yuoleen's relations—to restore the Crystal to the elves, to free the kingdom specially linked to our Crystal.

Unfortunately, in all the visions he had of it, Gaylen never thought to write an instruction manual.

I finish the trousers and take a few more items from Geddis's pile. Her fingers look awful.

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