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 month after Solstice and my birthday passes quietly enough, though I can't stop myself from keeping an eye out for gryphons.

My nerves are no better now that Prince Aidan's Scoreyear ball is at hand.

"A ball!" Geddis squeals, rushing and screeching and dancing around me, depending on what she wants to do each particular moment. "Can you believe we're to attend a ball?!"

"In your case, most certainly not," I comment, brushing some flour off my sleeve. The castle kitchen was so overwhelmed when preparing for this affair that even I was drafted to help.

"I'm an oh, so-elegant faery," sing-songs Geddis as she pretends to drift gracefully around this small courtyard area, narrowly escaping a run-in with a bush. "I'm a…" Her voice trails off as she eyes me. "Don't you have something to wear?"

"I wasn't going to wear it to the ovens. Would you wait while I get it on?" I direct her to a bench. "And do avoid screaming anyone deaf, please." Don't ask me who thought it was a good idea to have the same girl taste test all the desserts. We're both sixteen, and therefore adults, but you wouldn't think it of Geddis to see her, right now.

I go to a nearby room where I left my gown. I pull it on, still unused to my newly mature body. I chose to make the colors opposite of the faery gown, mimicking the design, too. I made it a poorer version, since I cannot—at least, dare not—claim any connection to special blood. Cotton fabric instead of magical; thread knots instead of sapphires. Though I've omitted the high neck and train.

When I return, Geddis sits as I left her, her erratically swinging feet the only sign that she's had far too much sugar, taste-testing frostings. I let out my breath and guide her towards the ballroom. I'd feared Prince Aidan might have been waiting for me, instead of Geddis. I haven't seen him since my birthday a month ago, though I'm sure he's the one who returned me to my room.

And now I am sixteen.

The prince is twenty. Next year, he will wed his betrothed and bring her back to the castle. I hope she isn't as cruel as my half-sister, Carling.

I walk in as gracefully as I can. From the corner of my eye, I can tell that I do better than Geddis, who trips on her way in and gapes at the wealth surrounding her. I burn with embarrassment for Silva's sake. Surely Geddis knows better!

Silva stands near Prince Aidan, likely discussing royal matters since she is the Prophetess of the King—and then Geddis runs their way, attracting their attention. I almost back out through the doorway.

Silva accepts her sister's ecstatic attentions with little sign of her irritation besides the one-handed toying with the ring on her left little finger. She and Prince Aidan exchange a respectful nod, and he leaves her with her sister.

And he comes towards me.

I quicken my step after Geddis. Prince Aidan catches me around the waist, turning me around and guiding me towards the refreshments. "Silva can manage her. Come along."

I obey, avoiding the glances many of the guests send our way. If even I know what the gossips say of me, surely Prince Aidan does. And here he further feeds the rumors. The guests give me a wide berth and knowing looks, not even considering the possibility that their presumed knowledge is false.

The prince does not release me until we reach the wine table. He pours half a goblet for each of us. "Here. Drink."

I raise mine and take a tiny sip. The alcohol nips my mouth, but I know it'll help me relax a bit, avoid doing anything stupid like freezing in fright. I take some more—

And sputter it back in, for in the silver goblet's reflection I see a face I have only seen in my nightmares for the past six years.

"Drake!" Prince Aidan guides him my way. "Meet my late sister's former handmaiden, Nallé—"

I drop my goblet, red wine splashing and staining only my gown, since Prince Aidan is far enough away and other nobility avoid me. The prince comes to my aid, but I'm more concerned about Drake. "I beg your pardon, most honored sir!" I hastily say, head down as if I'm worried only about the mess I am mopping up with my skirt.

I look so much like Mother—surely even he could recognize me from my face!

From the corner of my I, I can tell that Prince Aidan looks from me to Drake a moment, then back again. "Nallé, you know I've told you to be more careful."

"Forgive me, Highness. I—I… I'm doing better!"

His hand cups my shoulder—the same one he stroked two years back. I suppress a shiver. "I'll get some rags. Will you walk with me, Drake?"

Drake pauses before replying, giving me a suspicious glance that I pretend not to see. "Of course." I listen for more. "My sister had a serving girl clumsy like that, once. The girl couldn't appreciate a good home and abandoned my sister to the slaves' care. I can't imagine the whelp was taken in anywhere else…"

I stop listening and keep cleaning. Drake used to relish telling tales twisted to somehow make me to blame—particularly during those rare moments when Father was amiable towards me. Those times never lasted long.

Prince Aidan, of all people, gets on his knees beside me and mops up the last of it. He helps me up in my wine-soaked gown. He eyes me critically and shakes his head. "This will never do. Come."

I have little choice but to obey. "I—I'd rather retire to my chambers, Aidan. I cannot stay in this."

"I suspected something like this would happen." He opens one of the servants' concealed doors and leads me down the small hallway. "So I took the liberty of—"

His arm lashes out and grabs me before I can run. "Oh, don't be silly." I struggle, but he holds me tighter and manhandles me into a little room, locking the door behind him. "If you insist on being troublesome, I'll change your clothes for you, myself."

"Yie—no!" I cry, wrapping my arms around my bodice. "Please!"

He sighs and turns so his back is to me. "Just put that on." He sounds tired as he points to something behind us. I whirl about and gasp.

"Put it on, housemaid."

Glancing fearfully over my shoulder at him, I hastily strip myself of the soaked sapphire blue gown and pull on the silvery one he demands. He remains with his back turned.

My new gown is of elven fabric. Authentic, by the feel of it. The mermaid skirt billows out to the floor at the bottom, allowing me to walk barefoot.

The simple style does not betray the fabric's makers, though the shimmering almost scale-looking quality of the skirt might. The sleeves end at my wrists, and the neckline droops between my shoulders, the bodice designed to resemble seashells. Made by elves who are friendly with the undine, then? Probably telves.

"And, of course, you cannot be a lady if you do not play the games." He hands me a mask, designed to complete the masquerade. It's of good quality. I look at Aidan. He must've planned this all along, for me to attend his ball as if a lady.

"I won't wear this."

"You will if I order it. Must I?"

I shiver and blink back tears, the tears of fear turning to tears of pain as my temperature freezes them in my eyes and I have to pry them out. "Please," I make myself ask. "Don't give me to them."

"Shh." He smoothes my hair and sets the mask in place. "Of course I won't. That's what all this is for." I could almost think him friendly like his father at that, but then he lifts my chin with one hand. "Don't you see?" he asks quietly, smiling slightly. "They would never expect us to hide you under their noses."

'Us.' Is His Majesty also behind this plan, then?

"I—I can't!" I gasp. He gently takes me by the shoulders. "I can't do this!"

"Evonalé." His expression is sympathetic but firm. "You don't have a choice. You know they'll be sending the gryphons through the castle shortly to look for 'Nallé.' Silva can't block them, not without attracting too much attention. And Fael Honovi—well, that would give your location away if she got involved, now wouldn't it?"

He knows everything. Tears still form. "I can't," I whisper, my skin crawling from his touch. Is this what I must chose, Drake or Aidan, my half-brother or my… prince? Am I doomed to prove the gossips right?

Better to prove the gossips right than to be in Mother's place. I flinch at the thought. But I can't do this, can't go consciously nearer to them!

"Yes, yes, you can come out. You must." Aidan goes and unlocks the door. "I always thought you reminded me of someone," he says lightly. "Come out when you're ready."

And he leaves me alone in this dress.

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