In Drake’s life, he had been in a number of truly terrible situations that were far more uncomfortable than the current turn of events. This, however, was a unique kind of wanting to crawl into a hole and disappear. How could Cliff not have realized he had a king standing in front of him? Short of a crown and a scepter, his position was obvious. Commoners did not stand so straight, have teeth quite so perfect, or own boots they could trade for three good horses.

But Cliff was clueless, so Drake was scuttling along after the king of Crystal Palace like an idiot, carrying overstuffed bags full of the questionable objects Cliff felt would aid him in a diplomatic negotiation. Occasionally oblivious, Cliff meant well. He just happened to be more out of his depth than a minnow in deep water.

“I'm sorry for Cliff,” Drake stumbled over an apology, immediately wondering whether he was supposed to speak first. Should he wait to be addressed? Drat. He was going to strangle Cliff later if the man didn’t manage to get himself thrown out of here first.

“It doesn't speak well for his skills as a leader to walk into a negotiation unprepared,” Alexander of Crystal Palace pointed out, gliding around the next corner and sweeping down a short stairway of gleaming marble. The man moved like he owned time itself. Or at least the stairway.

If the weight of his bags were any indication, Cliff seemed prepared to build a brick wall. “He's actually—” Drake started to argue in Cliff's defense before cutting himself off. Talking back to royalty was never a good idea.

Alexander took in this awkward beginning and smiled instead of taking offense. “Go ahead,” he prodded.

“Umm...” Drake stumbled over his words. “Despite…that—” He jerked his head in the distant direction of the palace’s vaulted entryway. “He's a good person.”

Alexander's eyebrows rose. He even had perfectly balanced eyebrows.

“No, really,” Drake insisted. “He led a rally against the subversive tax gouging practices feeding the thriving black market and accidentally became something of a figurehead for the safe trade movement.”

He sounded like a protest banner come to life. Something must have sunk in from all the time he spent painting them.

“Ah…” Unfortunately, Alexander sounded interested in a way that implied he was doing to dig further into this topic. “I heard about that. Sounds like you believe in the cause.”

Drake tried to reply with a simple nod, even though the statement was only marginally true. Mostly, Cliff was embarrassing when he begged, and Drake was plagued by a feeling of responsibility for the man.

Alexander mulled over the situation, slowing as he took a sharp corner into a hallway lit by a stunning bank of windows stretching across the entire outer wall. Impossibly thoughtful ivy was growing in between the windows so as not to block the sunlight or the view of the Naxturaen Glade outside. “So your figurehead has no idea what he's doing, but he feels responsible to a plethora of people to represent their interests.”

“Exactly, although you didn't hear that 'no idea what he's doing' part from me.”

Alexander nodded, and Drake relaxed a bit. He had managed to have a successful conversation with a king where he represented the cause he was here to support. Maybe this whole encounter was not such a disaster.

And then Alexander hit him with, “How do you recognize me when your friend doesn't?”

“It's obvious,” Drake replied automatically. The man had gold embroidery adorning the stitching of his jacket.

“It's only obvious if you know what you're looking for,” Alexander pressed, stopping in the hallway to pierce Drake with an investigatory gaze. “Why do you?”

Great, now he needed a story. He had no idea he would need a story. He had not bothered to prepare a story. He was just going to tag along with Cliff for a few days—make him look official. In moments like this, Drake felt like what he was was surely emblazoned across his forehead as clearly as the royal standing of the overly curious man across from him. But as long as he kept his rising panic off his face and said as little as possible, he would pass for an ordinary Baysellian traveler. He did take a moment to think a few dark thoughts in Cliff’s direction for talking him into this mess before deciding to stick to the truth.

“I've worked for groups with...connections to nobility.”

Alexander responded with a muffled chuckle. “What an interesting and purposefully cryptic answer!”

Drake opened his mouth to say something to divert the conversation.

“You look familiar,” Alexander considered, green eyes boring into Drake’s face. “Do I know you?”

“Of course not,” said Drake too quickly. Was that a lie? Was he lying now? “Know” was such an intimate, subjective word. Was it hot in this hallway?

Alexander studied him. The resemblance was there, but he would not spot it, not without more evidence. Since Drake intended to be quickly forgotten, there should be no further worry on that front. If he could just fake calm a little better, he would be fine.

“I’m nobody,” Drake promised. “Just here to look after Cliff and the delegation.”

“Mmmhmm,” Alexander hummed, not even half convinced. “Nobody’s nobody. Everybody has a story.” Drake could not even tell the truth without seeming suspicious now. Great.

“Why were you opening the door to begin with?” Drake asked. In this case, he was willing to be impertinent to shift the focus of the conversation off him.

“I was there,” Alexander mused. “Any resident of Crystal Palace is expected to do what needs to be done if he notices it needs doing.”

Bayselle’s monarchs might have outlasted the citizen revolts and trade takeovers if they had such a policy. Drake decided not to say that out loud.

“You must have a unique ruler,” he said instead.

A smile flickered on Alexander’s lips. “I’d say phenomenal, but I’m biased.”

He started moving again, and Drake breathed an internal sigh of relief.

Alexander nodded at the sword in Drake's belt. “Are you any good?”

“Not really, Your Highness.” Swords were not his weapon of choice, but they were intimidating on bandit-infested trading routes.

“Oh no,” chuckled Alexander. “No titles for me.”

They rounded a corner to a bright hallway lined with trees bursting with tiny white, glowing blossoms. Now Drake was speechless for a different reason.

“Someone with more official guest-catering ability than I have will do a better job sorting you out and pointing you to the resources you need,” Alexander told him, “but anything on the east side of the hallway is free for you and your coalition to use. The west side will be housing the remnant of the nobility, whatever they're calling themselves now.” He waved an apathetic hand in that direction. “The hallway jutting into this one will be shared by the alliance of the border towns and the Ingobernables.

“Pirates are coming?” Did his voice just break?

“Why, yes,” mused Alexander. “In the spirit of open dialogue, of course we invited pirates. Luckily for all of us, just the one group accepted the invitation. I'm sure they'll behave themselves for a few days. No need to worry.”

Drake swallowed, telling the churning whirlpool in his stomach to calm down. “Of course not,” he tried to say. The Ingobernables considered themselves gentleman pirates, whatever that meant. Drake guessed even pirates got visions of grandeur after squatting in a palace for nearly a decade. He could handle himself against a few pirates, anyway. He was more worried about who had come. Was Esmona here? Esmona loved causing scenes.

Alexander took in his panic with quizzical interest. “Unfortunately, I need to head off a mischievous child before she brings down the palace. If you would be so kind as to not ruin my fun with Cliffinzo, I'd appreciate it.” His green eyes danced with the humor of the situation.

“Oh, he deserves it,” Drake agreed.

Alexander turned on the heels of his crafted boots, but paused. Drake’s heart nearly burst. What now?

“Warn your friend that the queen will see right through him, and he'd make a better impression being himself,” Alexander advised.

“I will, Your—”

Alexander smirked. “If you can’t handle ‘Alexander,’ ‘Sir’ will suffice.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

With a nod of his head, Alexander was off. Drake chose the first door in the foliage-lined hallway and dropped his traveling bag, cloak, and sword inside. The choice of the first room was practically subconscious. The location allowed him to enter and exit without alerting the rest of the hallway, and he would be able to hear the comings and goings of everyone else. This side of the hall was windowless, so that was one less thing to worry about.

He picked up Cliff's bursting bags and carted them next door. If he was here to protect Cliff from himself—a task he was already failing—he'd best keep the man close. Drake dumped the bags on the floor and left them. He had agreed to watch out for Cliff, but there was no way he was going to unpack the man's luggage. His ridiculous friend must have packed up everything he owned in an attempt to look influential.

Alone for the first time, his thoughts were a clamoring mish-mash. The Ingobernables. The name squirmed its way into his thoughts as he tried to ignore it. His past had followed him all the way to Crystal Palace. It was stupid to think he could hide from it.

The presence of the woman at the doorway registered immediately, and he fought the urge to draw his knife even though she was the least threatening person that could have been at his doorway. Sure, those were just the sort of people one had to watch out for, but this lady exuded wholesomeness. She was young, well-dressed in shades of soft blue, and too busy to here, based on the bits of orange goo clinging to her rumpled Kianne-gold ponytail.

“Greetings,” she said cheerfully, pretending not to be frazzled. “Finding everything?”

“Yes, thank you.” He answered back politely. She was the woman with Alexander earlier, so he added, “I’m sorry about Cliff.”

“Somebody should be,” she said in an easy, amused tone. “I'm Sorceress Rosaliy.”

A Sorceress. He knew nothing about magic other than the cost of a few rare ingredients. He wondered if magic explained the bits of pumpkin, but not enough to ask. “Drake,” he simply replied. “From the Lansilia Coalition.”
She nodded, already knowing this information from just a few minutes ago.

He turned over one of Cliff’s ridiculously heavy upended bags and stacked them next to each other to look busy, hoping she would use the opportunity to leave. Instead, she looked like someone scrambling for a reason to stay. Still unwilling to unpack Cliff’s luggage, Drake was out of tasks to complete, so the introduction shifted into an awkward, idle pause.

“How was your journey?” she asked with faked friendly enthusiasm.

His stomach fell. “He sent you to check up on me.”

She winced. He appreciated her transparency. “Well, yes,” she admitted, “but only because he finds you interesting.”

He smiled a wry smile. “I was hoping to be a little less interesting for a few days.”
She took in his honest statement with more humor than intended. “I promise under no circumstances to find you interesting,” she teased.

He sighed. “I would appreciate that.”

“Don’t worry,” she chuckled, “unless you have something to worry about, I guess.”

“Of course not,” he said automatically. “I’m not used to being grilled by kings.”

“We don’t use the K-word around here,” she warned him. “Especially at night.” Her eyes drifted to the ceiling. “It makes certain beings uneasy.” She smiled a friendly, disarming smile in his direction. “But I get the nervous part. It’s been ten years, and I still think of him as Prince Alexander in my head.”

He wondered about “beings” that seemed to live on the roof, but asking questions to sate his curiosity led to conversation, and conversation led to accidentally talking too much. He decided to play it safe and keep any conversing focused on her.

“You’re from Kianne,” he guessed.

She bobbed her head. “I grew up there. And you? Lived in Bayselle your whole life?”

“Whole life,” he answered, resigning himself to her cheerful inquisition. If he had to choose to be interrogated by Alexander or Rosaliy, the choice was an easy one. “So what are you supposed to find out?”

“Your relation to the pirates.”

“Easy. No relation.”

She narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips. “Would you answer honestly if I asked the right question?”
Her tone forced him to smile. “Depends on the question. Did you know you have something orange on your neck?”

“Of all the days,” she muttered to herself, dragging a cloth through a nearby water basin and scrubbing the dried, orange coating from her neck.

He was not going to mention the goo on her bodice, but he did point out the seeds in her hair.

“Thanks,” she grumbled.

“You’re far too busy to be here,” he pointed out.

“That’s true,” she agreed, picking out the last of the seeds. “Are you up for a tour?”

“Are you meeting anymore guests?” he asked carefully.

“Thankfully, no. I’m just due to explain a gourd explosion to some visiting families.”

He readily agreed to the chance to stay away from Cliff’s manic preparations and any potential run-ins with the Ingobernables while allowing her to keep an eye on his deviant behavior.

Relieved, she led him to a sunny courtyard where a group of girls were drawing pictures in ribbon-bound journals to chronicle all they had learned from their introduction to magical training. Most of them seemed to have learned about orange blobs.

Parents arrived after a time to collect their daughters, accompanied by an older Sorceress. She explained to them the time commitment and heavy responsibility of magical training while Rosaliy wandered over to Drake, leaning against the wall next to him, exhausted.

“This seems like quite the system,” he noted.

“There will be even more chaos tomorrow when the older girls return from their big trip. Thank goodness for Athena to keep it all straight. But all this is probably boring you to tears,” she apologized.

“Not at all,” he said honestly. He appreciated any setting with plenty of exits where everyone was too busy to notice him.

“I don’t know a thing about magic training.” Also, the more she talked, the more she was not asking him questions. There was really no drawback.

“Once, I’m told, there were hundreds of students of all ages at Crystal Palace,” Rosaliy continued. “The Naxturae would identify them and take them to train here at Crystal Palace. We’re just starting to build up again. It’s slow going, because Queen Kat would never hear of taking children away from their families.”

“She’s a nice person,” he agreed. “She sounds like a nice person,” he corrected quickly.

Rosaliy jumped like the wall bit her hand. “I haven’t offered you food or water, and you’ve been traveling all day,” she exclaimed. “Sorceress Athena has this handled. Let’s go hunt down some lunch, and I’ll find out whatever it is I’m supposed to find out.”

One of those things was likely to happen. He was ready to abandon ship the second he caught sight of Esmona, but until then, he was hungry.


About the author


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