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.


It could have been worse.

As I stare at the shredded fabric, the strewn furniture, and the utterly destroyed balcony, I force myself to remember that. I'm not sure I want to know what spell or spells Silva used.

Tried to use, rather. She's been unconscious for the past two hours. Faed Nirmoh doesn't look too worried, though, so I'm pretty sure Silva's ignorant attempt to 'free' me from Aidan hasn't cost her sanity.

I stoop to right one upended stool, but Aidan's slight headshake catches my eye. I stop and straighten slowly into my now-customary anxious slouch. Keeping myself cold helps with the acting, though it also makes my cut feet and hands hurt more.

I notice William's glare at Aidan and flinch away. It shouldn't have surprised me, with the lax attitude of Salles' rulers, that others show their fury at and contempt of the Crown Prince for his presumed abuse of me.

They shouldn't, though. Showing your ruler you hate him… it's not right.

The other servants help me a lot, now. My work's usually done by the time I find it. When I do find it. They apparently relish sending me on lengthy searches throughout the castle, to keep me away from Aidan.

Then there are their pitying looks. I avoid them.

Ironically, the nobles have taken Aidan's violence as proof of my prior innocence. A few avoid me from embarrassment, but others—most—treat me civilly.

And a few of the noblewomen treat me with even the tad of friendliness some think due concubines. With the noble families' common marriages of convenience, not a few prefer their spouses' use of alternative sources of, ah, comfort.

Not that I'm even a concubine—if my situation were true, I'd at best be an unwilling mistress. Concubines have contracts, and their families are reimbursed for their daughters' infamy. And a concubine's children by her lover receive some financial support, even after the contract ends.

Upper middle-class women and lower nobility are concubines. Poorer girls are mistresses and prostitutes—rarely courtesans. Most courtesans are girls like me, baseborn children of the court who decide to take the only high-class position available to our type of girl.

And in all this mess, there's Lallie, who now works thrice weekly around the castle and gives me a little secretive smile or wink when I see her. Geddis avoids me from discomfort, but I sometimes catch a glimpse of her confusion as she sneaks a studying look at Aidan.

That at least those two have realized that something very different must be happening for the prince to be alive gives me as much concern as it does comfort. Surely it will occur to Silva, too. I'm surprised it hasn't already.

Or has it, and might she have intentionally attacked in such a way that it would be as ineffective as much as it seemed legitimate? The prophetess has enough intellect in her to be devious, when necessity dictates it. Anyone who doubts it need only watch how she manages the nobility who scorn her.

Not that their scorn of her makes much sense. Even if her father were exiled, Silva's status as Prophetess of the King should be unaffected by her family line. Something else must make them hate her so, but what? She is no baseborn waif, but some now treat me, the Crown Prince's presumed mistress, better than the King's own Prophetess. It makes no sense.

Sometimes I wonder how much I don't know about the people around me, but I try not to think about it much. If I haven't learned it by now, I doubt I will before Drake or Carling kills me.

Or I kill myself. I don't consider that possibility much. It's frighteningly tempting. I don't want to face Drake's abuse, but if that somehow ends up freeing Grandmother's people…

What right do I have to rid Aleyi of me without fulfilling the prophecy, and without doing what I can to make sure Aidan's own life isn't cut short by a treacherous wife?

And I suspect, as poorly as Aidan is certain to take my pending death, my death at my own hand… would not be good for him.

I feel awkward as I stand in the room, servants milling around to pick things up, but I, the cause of the mess, am banned from helping as sure as if Aidan had slapped me for trying. Not that he's ever actually hit me. I'm disinclined to give him opportunity.


I jerk back and trip at his unexpected sharp statement by my ear. William catches me and glares at Prince Aidan. I squirm a little, but he still holds me fast, moving me away when Aidan reaches for me.

The prince's angry expression makes me flinch, again, when I notice it. William feels it and pulls me behind him. "Haven't you done enough to her?!" the Runner angrily demands. "You've betrayed her trust, hurt her in a way no woman should have to endure, destroyed her prospects—"

My laugh interrupts William's irreverent and foolhardy tongue-lashing of his prince, my overloud, hysterical laugh. I never had prospects, and I know the tone of my laughter reveals it.

Others' confusion ensuing from my laughter's revelation quickly sobers me. Servants aren't stupid. They've known there's something odd about me, just not what. My laugh, my revelation that I never expected to marry, has likely already confirmed to the faster-witted ones that I'm a royal bastard. Any less of a father, and I would not have needed to flee my native kingdom.

Properly, I'm what nobles mean when they say "child of the court." Probably. I'll find out at Marigold's next sewing lesson after she hears the gossip. I'm sure she and her father won't mind the chance to deride me.

I hiccup once, still fighting the urge not to laugh again at people thinking that I, a baseborn whelp with a death sentence as surely as if I stood on the executioner's platform, had actually hoped to marry someday. Sure, I've known they expected me to marry, but that they'd thought that I would want to marry had never occurred to me.

"William." Aidan's voice is stern despite the low tone. "Step aside."

"You two-faced—"

I yank myself from William's grip before he can hang himself and shuffle to the side, away from William, but not towards Aidan, either. Of all I learned from Mother, I never would've thought that this would be of use. That's one place where my background has prepped me well. I know how a stolen woman can be.

"Will—" That's too secure. I swallow and make my voice waver. "Will Silva be okay?"

"Ah, let's use our minds, shall we?" Most people think of this particular tone of Aidan's as condescending. Very, very few realize it's his tone for when he longs to knock some sense into the pompous idiots of his social stratus so the social rules can be sensible but realizes there's nothing to be done for it.

Then again, very, very few have seen him actually slap a girl.

His forced calm makes a stroll of what would otherwise be pacing. "Silva's beau, Faed Nirmoh, has been attending her. Faed Nirmoh's job is analyzing and containing insane mages. Silva has an unfortunate appointment with insanity at some point in her future, but as her beau has not declared her in need of containment, I am certain she is well. Enough."

A sigh escapes more lips than mine, but I think I'm more reassured than anyone else is by Aidan's statement. Another reminder that I'm the only one present who knows he is—that we are—acting.

I'm exhausted, which helps me not notice Aidan's approach and therefore wince when he grips my arm. Everyone watches me; I shake my head with the determined awkwardness of someone who'd rather be hurt than get others hurt, and duck behind Aidan. They'd intervene, help me, if I asked.

Not that I can. I can't ask it of them. Though the gossips now probably wag their tongues, declaring me a masochist.

Would it be wicked for me to ask the Creator to speed me to my impending death? I weary of living.

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