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.


I'm reminded of Dwaline-Het while I eat this meal, served beside Prince Aidan just like Drake's current mistress is served beside her master. She's a lovely veil-less redhead with hands rough enough that she may have been peasant-born. Her name, Jenna, suggests origins on the higher end of low middle class, but low is low. I wonder how Drake found her.

Father, Carling, and Prince Aidan chat, with the occasional additions from Silva or Jenna. Jenna's ability to make intelligent observations on the court gossip conversation surprises me. Drake had always boasted that he'd only take a woman without much brain in her head, admittedly with a pointed stare at his sister. Carling's attempts to kill him, the elder of the two, haven't precisely been few.

I say nothing. Drake doesn't, either, but his bleary blinking and grimaces at loud noises suggest his silence is due mostly to a hangover.

Carling eyes Silva curiously. "I am surprised you look so well-dressed after such a long journey."

The prophetess nods politely. "Thank you. It is Nallé's doing."

"She must have the gift of beauty, then." Carling looks at me. "And you must also be beautiful to have your position. Are you elfin?"

Yie! Hardly am I here for an hour before that question arises! I draw a deep breath, struggling against my freezing. I cannot afford to let myself take fright. The ivy growing everywhere helps. "I cannot say, Princess." My voice comes out as a murmur as I misleadingly phrase that truth.

"A simple test can determine that." Father waves at one of the elf-maid 'servants', who immediately leaves and promptly returns with a glass of steaming clear liquid. I stare at her, wondering if she's anyone I should recognize. She looks half-familiar, but so do most of the slaves here, even some of the small children who I know I never met.

Father holds up the glass. My blood chills.

"We have discovered that elfin blood sinks in hot water. Do you mind, Aidan?"

Aidan hesitates before shaking his head. Ice creeps over my body. I stare at him. How can he? I may only be a quarter elf, but if my blood sinks—

Abruptly, I strangle the fear, thawing myself so I don't panic. I must trust in my father's blood to save me—the very one who now seeks to enslave me. How ironic.

The slave lass reluctantly brings the demanded needle. She hates this. I swallow.

Aidan himself takes the sharp object. His other hand takes mine. He holds it well, then pokes—

His own hand?

Clenching his hand in a fist over mine, he hands Carling the glass. She lifts it gracefully to study its contents. The blood floats, as is normal.

Even though it's been years since I last saw Carling, I recognize the flicker of disappointment in her eyes as she dramatically returns the glass to Aidan. "An even rarer catch, then." Her lips curve into a self-assured smile. "She must please you well."

Despite my veil, I cannot bring myself to watch her directly. My face burns. After all this time of worrying about Drake, I'd forgotten her poor taste, too.

She could hardly be expected to lack it, given our family history and her preference for a great deal of free time to work her magic in peace. Encouraging the men she knows to take their pleasure would only further her goal of out-studying Father.

Aidan hides his discomfort, but I see his knuckles whiten on the hand gripping the napkin in his lap. "Very well," he returns with a mimickry of her smile. He moves my unpricked hand under the table to his lap. "I only take the best."

Only his pressure on my hand reminds me that I must play along. I fight the bile rising in my throat.

Carling primly slices a thin bit of fine cake and takes a bite. "I would think the noble women of Salles castle would fight over who would get her aid for affairs, with her gift of beauty."

Aidan has to think before he responds to that. "We don't exactly publicize it."

"Ah." Carling smiles. "I understand. Perhaps I could borrow her beautifying services for the wedding, or would that impose on your time with her overmuch?"

I shiver at the idea. Drake may be brutal like Father, but Carling is devious and cruel. She wouldn't mind seeing what I look like to know how Aidan's tastes run, and she's smart enough that she could guess my identity if she saw me. She knows I was in Salles, and she's already tried to kill me once while she knew I was there.

That I suspect she'd be willing to find another of Aidan's presumed tastes to replace me after she disposed of me keeps me embarrassed enough to not freeze.

Aidan glances at me, hesitates, then carefully responds, "I'd rather have her company."

Carling nods graciously. She has no jealousy, only a greedy interest. The she-mage likes this rake of a betrothed she thinks she has. The less he desires to bother her, the more time she will have for herself.

I cannot finish my meal. I've lost my appetite.

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