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.


"Had any more declarations from your faery godmother, My Lady…?"

"Of the Sea," Prince Aidan answers for me to Drake's question, his voice full of court amusement that I wouldn't have guessed false if I hadn't known it had to be. "Surely you can see that much, oh Master of the Comic Theater?"

I can't help but snicker at the realization that Drake's costume is of a jester. I wonder whose idea that was; it strikes me as something that he'd find distasteful. He probably lost a bet with Carling. He usually does lose to her.

"Well, better a costume as a jester than no costume at all."

"I have a costume." Prince Aidan keeps one hand at my elbow, blocking Drake from sweeping me onto the dance floor unless he wants to utterly affront his host. I nonetheless keep myself prepped to snatch my magic. It makes it hard to focus on what's going on around me, but the comfort of its security is well worth the distraction.

"Back in your rooms doesn't count, Your Highness—"

"I am wearing it."

I sip my punch—I decided against trying the wine, again, since it stains and I can't handle much alcohol, anyway—and eye him sidelong. The realization of what his costume is makes me choke from my surprise both at his choice and at my failure to notice it earlier.

Prince Aidan doesn't wear a royal tunic but a sturdy travel one, small sections of magical embroidery on the lapels combining to provide an overall protection against the elements.

But the clincher for his costume is the symbol etched above his heart, the one that calls him 'Elf-friend'—or, at least, that would call him that if it weren't done improperly. Considering what an insult it would be to the elf kingdoms for him to wear the full symbol without having earned it, I think the mistake was intentional.

"Ah!" says Prince Aidan. "My Lady of the Sea has named me in her mind; will she do so aloud, as well?"

"Elwyn elv'shutor" Elf-friend, I reply in fluent elvish, knowing it will help my role as an anonymous noblewoman with an obnoxious faery godmother. The goddaughter of a wacky faery can be expected to speak a little of the four major languages, and can be excused for having a felvish accent. "Father of Silva bau Faed Nirmoh." Silva, Faed Nirmoh's fiancée.

Drake doesn't look the slightest suspicious or surprised by my elvish. I feel myself smile. I've missed speaking that.

"Your pronunciation is astounding," Drake compliments me, and my smile vanishes.

"Faery godmothers," Aidan says for me with a wry grin. "And hers is quite the gossip."

"That so? Which one is she?"

"Lady…" I know Aidan knows this answer, but he pretends to think. "I can't remember at present. Would your sister mind if I…?" He nods at me.

A chill spikes me as Drake laughs. No, Carling wouldn't mind if Aidan prefers another. She'd relish it—encourage it, even. An absent husband would leave her more free to pursue her other interests, namely magery, figuring out how to rob her elder brother of his kingdom without her father blocking her, that sort of thing.

"Oh, no! I can say most definitively that she will not take affront whatsoever you choose to do with your lady of the sea." His impish grin says he means that entirely.

And I know he's right. Unfortunately.

As Drake's eyes scan the crowd for another pretty lady, some negative emotion flashes over Aidan's features before he resumes his court politeness. "Shall we dance?" he asks me.

"I can't dance."

Aidan glances at my gown. "I suppose you can't, with that skirt." As if I could dance in any skirt.

He notices someone across the room and tucks my arm under his, relieving me of my cup of punch and handing it off to a passing servant.

"I was drinking that."

He ignores my protest. "At least pretend to be enjoying yourself, please," he mutters at me as we head that way.

"What's to say I'm not?"

"Because I know you," he insists, intentionally touching my arm. He promptly removes it and briskly brushes his fingers with his thumb. "And your chill suggests that you really, really dislike being here."

I scowl at him, not that he can see it with my mask. "You know why." He told me at Rowan's birth that he met Mother.

He sighs, freeing his arm from under mine for a moment as he rearranges his jacket to provide more of a barrier between his skin and mine. "Of course I do, you silly girl. You make it so obvious, with your, shall we say, bodily effects…"

Heat overtakes me when I realize what he's doing. "Please stop."

He frowns. "Stop…?"

I swallow. "Flirting, Highness."

He waits a few seconds as if expecting me to continue, then a bitter smile replaces his frown. "I'm a young, forcibly-betrothed prince. I'm expected to flirt with whatever lady is on my arm. To do otherwise would announce…" Now he looks vaguely uncomfortable. "…Undue interest. Surely you know that much of court protocol."

I flinch. His flippant references to my birth burn more than idle gossip. "How would I?!" My words sound unduly sharp even to my own ears.

We reach Aidan's goal, Silva and the man beside her. It takes me a long moment to recognize Faed Nirmoh. I yank my arm away from Prince Aidan. "F—faed," I stammer and curtsy before the faery.

He bows graciously, just as he did a few years ago when he rescue—er, recovered me from that locked closet. "Your Highness."

I'm not imagining the smirk I glimpse sidelong on Aidan's lips before he quickly drops it. I stammer my protest. "I—I'm not…"

Faed Nirmoh nods at his fiancée, kisses her hand, and turns and takes my arm to guide me towards the refreshments. Whereas most people actually dance at a ball, I seem to be eternally guided to the refreshments. A hint that I need to eat more, maybe? "I'd hoped I'd get a chance to talk to you."

A faery wanting to talk to a quarter-elf royal bastard with a prophecy looming over her head that she'll somehow instigate the destruction of three fire mages with a regiment of gryphons at their disposal, while all involved attend the selfsame ball. Somehow, I doubt his desire is to pay a social call on Queen Yuoleen's granddaughter.

I swallow back the acrid taste coming up my throat before I shame Prince Aidan any more than I already have at this Scoreyear ball of his.

"Silva says you do unusually well with magic for someone your age."

Yes, I can work with magic a lot more easily than is normal for a sixteen-year-old girl. I blame my father who-was-also-my-uncle for that. Sweat drips down my face.

He hands me a glass of chilled water, not looking at me. "You know you can't stay here when the Crown Prince's betrothed becomes his wife."

I shudder. Of course I know!

"Where will you go?"

"Where can I go?" escapes my lips.

Faed Nirmoh pauses and looks at me. His greyish brown eyes steadily remain on my face. "Salles has many resources, allies. You expect to be able to hide once Carling has them at her disposal?"

I shrug. I don't like this conversation.

"You know you are the redeemer of Marsdenfel."

"How?! What am I supposed to do? I can't even make biscuits without turning the kitchen into a battlefield!"

His smile is amused. "Well, if we knew the answer to that, we wouldn't need you, now would we?"

I want to slap him; he isn't the one with an impossible prophecy looming over his head. "I—"

He takes my cup from me and sets it down, then takes my hands in his, ignoring their heat. "Trust the Creator," he says gently. "He's decreed this; He'll make it work. Maybe a battlefield kitchen will be precisely the opening one of the old guardians—" protectors of the court, the elfin knights "—will need to strike. The Creator has a reason for all this."

"Easy for you to say," I mutter. "You're not stuck between two princes who want you as mistress and their sister-fiancée who wants you dead." Remembering that he is a faery stops my wonder at my free tongue with him. He's probably magically encouraging it.

Faed Nirmoh draws a sharp breath. "Aidan doesn't want you as his mistress." I just look at him. He frowns. "He wouldn't do that to you."

"That would be difficult after I'm dead."

The honey-skinned faery hides a smile. "That may be the Creator's will." He watches me thoughtfully. "You'd prefer that, wouldn't you? It would make it… easier. No future, no beau to worry about…"

I laugh before I can contain it. "Beau?!" I can't stop it; it's too funny, this faery talking as if I might actually have an opportunity for a legitimate husband, children.

Me. Child by incest with an illegitimately-born mother. Have a legitimate family. Right.

I gasp sharply, aghast hiccups entering my laughter as I realize that a faery is the one saying these things. A faery. A prophet. Oh, may the Creator help me! "I—I'm not…" Silva approaches and takes her fiancé's arm away from me.

"Aidan would wed you, were he free," Faed Nirmoh says quietly.

That bites, the fear and ice grabbing hold of me as I'm again reminded that Prince Aidan likes me more than is proper for a prince to like his servant. "Don't flatter me!" I snap. Even if Aidan were so inclined to wed a bastard whelp as myself, his father would never allow such a union that would harm Salles—and if his father didn't block it, I know the council would. I would.

I look around the ballroom. Aidan stands near Carling, again, and I can see from his posture that he really doesn't want to be there. I bite my lip. It would be strange for me to avoid her, the betrothed of the prince who hosts this ball.

As I force myself towards them, I overhear Faed Nirmoh tell Silva, "I should not have told her that."

And Silva answers with a smile in her voice, "Yes. Yes, you should've."

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