Wandering the grounds aimlessly, I stumbled into the palace gardens. I followed the shallow stream all the way to the pond and knelt down to look for fish. “I was wrong.” I sat back with a sigh.
“I believe the king had them all fried one day. Was it last moon?”
My heart stopped and started again, and I peered back over my shoulder at the speaker.
He was lying on a bench with one hand shielding his face from the sun. Only the still silence of the garden convinced me that he was not asleep. There was no one else there to speak.
I looked down at the water. It was clean, but not as fresh as a real spring. “Were they edible?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t eat any.”
I straightened and brushed off my dress, intending to leave the man in peace.
“It is not exclusive to me, this garden. There is no reason we cannot share this cool spot.”
Where I stood, in the shade of the trees and enjoying a slight breeze, it was refreshing. But his bench was in full sunshine.
“I truly do not mind company.”
I did not want to be alone, but Mother's many speeches on the dangers of strangers gave me pause. “I would not wish to disturb your rest.”
“I am not resting.” He did not look dangerous.
“You are—as you like.”
“Or you can return to General Winter’s office and assist him in destroying the fun of other people. I believe he has a goal to put away all disorderly citizens before the new year.”
I stepped closer. His features were unremarkable; neither dark nor fair, neither tall nor small. I might have seen him everywhere or nowhere and never noticed. “Who are you?”
The man sat up and stared at me as though I had sworn. Then he laughed, but it was a sad sound.
Perhaps we had met. “I am sorry. I don’t know many people here.”
“But how can you not know me? I know you. You are the Captain’s assistant Avery, who entered the palace last winter. Do you never come to dinner?”
“Never.” I joined him on the bench. “Who are you?”
He looked up at the bright sun as long as he could. Closing his eyes, he said, “It’s not who I am, it’s what I do.”
“What do you do?”
“I speak and no one listens, and dance and no one watches. I perform, and no one cares.”
“Oh! You’re the court jester.”
“I’m the king’s fool,” he said bitterly. “Here to make things better and brighter, and everyone’s hearts a little lighter.”
I clapped politely. “That was a good rhyme.”
“I hate rhyming. I want to leave here, live quietly on an island somewhere, and never have to smile unless I have a smile.” He reached for a close-growing flower and changed his mind.
“But who would take your place?” The palace only had one jester.
He offered me the flower with a flourish. “You could, Captinette.”
I shook my head. “No…I can’t rhyme at all, or dance, or make people happy.”
"Too wise to become a fool. Pity." He kept the flower a moment before letting it drift with the wind. It tumbled petals over stem until it landed on the water, sending out ripples that quickly settled.
We sat in comfortable silence. A bird flew by the water, but there were no fish to catch.
“I wish I were like my father,” the soft voice brought me back to the garden.
I blinked. What had I been thinking about? Where was I? Not in Willow Falls. Not by my stream, not with my birds and butterflies, and the willows that softly, mournfully described all that passed them by.
The young man did not speak again, but after a moment I remembered his words. “What was he, your father?”
“A water mage.” He waved his arms uselessly at the uncaring pond. Letting them fall, he said, “I take after my grandfather.”
“What did he do?”
“Nothing. And then he died. He was twenty-five, and now I am twenty-five. I can’t believe I’m still alive.”
He looked younger than twenty-five, but it might have been the fluffiness of his hair or the brightness of the sun on his face. “You look healthy.”
He nodded dismally. “So did he.”
“How did he die?”
“A giant rat ate him in his cellar.”
I choked and held my breath, eyes welling with tears. It wasn’t funny, but he said it so factually.
“Who do you resemble?”
The urge to laugh was replaced with a sigh, and the water in my eyes threatened to spill out. “My grandfather. He was worthless, too.”
“Did he live long?”
“Long enough that people started wishing he would die.” I pressed my fingers under my eyes to remove the extra moisture. “I think I’m close,” I confessed. “No, I was there even before.”
His gaze never left the pond. A cloud passed and the sun danced across the surface, blinding us both. In the same breath, we shared a sigh.
“I don’t know why I’m still here.”
He nodded. “I don’t even know how I got here. I never intended to be here. I never wanted to be the palace’s fool.”
The heat, or the build-up of discomforting thoughts, was turning into a headache. I pressed my hands into my forehead and let out a long breath. “I should go back.”
He nodded. “You should.”
“I don’t want to. I have nothing to do.”
“You could be the fool.” He sat up energetically. “No one would mind. No one would notice. They’re all so blind, they would call you Otis.”
“Having fun? That’s not a real name.”
“Don’t waste time doubting me. I spend all my time in the library.”
“Yours is a sad existence.”
“I live it with persistence.”
I had to laugh, although there were sighs between each breath and I fought the temptation to cry.
The king’s fool smiled sadly. “Your color is improved.”
“I suppose I must return. I think I can feel the Captain’s impatience.”
“How do you live with him? Is it not suffocating? I always find it hard to breathe near him.” He shook his head and shuddered.
“It isn’t that bad. Or maybe I learned not to breathe?” I stood and walked to the path.
“Good luck, Avery.”
I turned back. “What’s your name, King’s Fool?”
“Meeting you has been the highlight of my moon, Keagan.”
“My offer stands,” he called cheerfully.
When I returned to the Captain’s office, I found him sitting calmly at his desk like any other day. “I hope you have been out learning something worthwhile.”
“You are not sitting.”
As usual, it felt like a physical battle to ignore his wishes. I stayed by the door. The king’s fool was right, it was suffocating.
Avery appeared behind me. “Not going in?” She looked over my shoulder at the papers on his desk. “No wonder.”
“You appear to have a question,” the Captain observed without looking at me.
I thought carefully, then settled on the very basic, “She really didn’t have a truth Talent at all? Not even a little Truth Sight or anything?”
For all his careless attitude, he knew immediately to whom I referred. “She did.” The Captain’s expression was unreadable. “She said that you gave no sign, neither lies nor truth.”
“Oh.” So I could have lied.
“You would have gotten caught.” Avery scoffed. “She was just confused that your ridiculous story was actually true.”
The Captain leaned back in his chair. “I met your mother once, many years ago. You look just as she did at your age.”
“Do I?” I could not help feeling hopeful. I could barely remember her looking anything but cross, but there was a beautiful miniature of her that Father had always carried close to his heart.
“He knew all along.”
“Then…from the first moment you saw me…”
“Your arrival in the city was noted, and your actions were carefully observed.” He frowned.
He had known even before I had arrived at the palace that I was of the Royal Family.
“Had Thorne been honest, I would have realized that you were his student.” His irritation with Thorne for having fooled him showed through before his face smoothed. “Your reluctance to go near the Guild of Mages was a clever misdirection, and a severe inconvenience.”
I felt tears pricking again and tried to get rid of them. “How did you know our names?”
“It is in the records. You were all properly registered.”
“What does that mean, properly?” But I knew. I remembered Father's loud determination, Mother's quiet anger.
“In the city of our Family? House Saliz, city Saliz, the Royal Family book. We already knew that.”
“Families are registered in official books with blood, and in the Family’s city. Though other citizens do not bother with such formalities.”
I tried to ignore my squeamishness. “Then, my blood is in the records?”
“The Royal Family must have some way to prove identity. There are mages that can do it, with a drop of blood. Zaphar, King’s Mage, could easily identify any member of the Saliz Family from the Saliz House book. Though, he is unlikely to stab random people and test their blood, so you are safe enough to meet him.”
“Safe as a house on fire.”
“Had Thorne been forthright in his report,” the Captain had produced the runaway bride petition and scowled, “I would have recognized this for what it was. Instead I was caught up in trusting Thorne that your family lived near Atelis, not Essel.”
“You said Essel.”
“I said Essel.”
His expression reminded me of our first meeting, and I regretted mentioning it. “As if my occupation is not trying enough.”
“He isn’t asking about the names.”
“If the name on the marriage certificate matches the Saliz House records…”
“The name is not important,” his gaze softened. “So long as his marriage certificate is not stamped by royal blood, it is meaningless.”
I stopped breathing, stopped moving.
Just one drop, and you’re mine…
One little prick, one little stamp on the page, officially married.
How easy it would have been to claim that the girl he had married was the one who had died! Especially with us being identical. Zaphar King’s Mage would see Avery’s ghost and voila! Plot foiled. I had started to hope.
I had forgotten about the blood. I was going to be sick. I was doomed because of a stupid piece of paper.
“Breathe!” Avery caught my shoulders, tried to meet my eyes. But all I saw was the fateful paper, stamped with a drop of blood from my finger.
“If Count Tergin is the plotter, this marriage would be his first choice, but any of the Royal Family could still be used for an uprising.” He looked at me very seriously. “The danger remains the same.” He was thinking of me as ‘not the bride’, but still someone who could be used against the King.
“I need air,” I might have said, before fleeing the office.
I ran blindly all the way to the de Vior gardens. Collapsing at the little pond, I stared at my face in the water.
“Avery? What is wrong?” Sebastien knelt beside me, reaching out to brush my hair out of my face.
“I feel like everything I’ve ever known was a lie.” Of course, that was dramatic and untrue, so I said, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Sebastien looked confused, but I knew something he could understand. “I think my mother might have wanted me to come here, wanted to protect me.” Saying it aloud felt freeing. “I always believed she hated me, that she let me be taken away because she didn’t care.” But I was the only one she could count on to run away.
Sebastien did understand. “When I was sent here, I pleaded with my father. I did not want to come, I did not see the—meaning of coming.”
“Did it get easier?”
He would not lie to me. “I begin to understand.”
I nodded and looked back at the water, back at my face. Did I look like her?
Sebastien sat beside me and spoke softly of other things: fun times with his siblings, the first time he used magic, his journey from Vior to Niare, anything.
Listening to his musical way of speaking eased my fears. “Was it hard to learn the language of Niare?”
“Did I speak wrong?” he looked concerned.
“I only wondered. I have never even heard another language. To speak two! It’s amazing.” I smiled at him.
Relaxing, he smiled back and said, “Shor schold yeth.”
“What?” Belatedly, I added, “Does that mean?”
“It is not hard, but I am still learning.”
“Wait, all that?”
He smiled at my incredulity. “Vior words are more expressive than yours. It is hard remember all the words to say. Che..for demonstrate, ‘Thadyeveita dres’ is ‘It’s nice see you, how are you?’ This is how greet friends.”
“Wow! That’s just like the trees! They have really long, meaningful greetings and goodbyes.”
“You speak to trees?” Sebastien was amazed.
I blinked. Had I really said that? In seventeen years I had never told a soul apart from Master Thorne, and here I was blurting out my secrets without even realizing it.
He looked thoughtful. “I wonder if that is…”
“What?” I felt weak. 'A sign of madness,' Master Thorne had called it. 'Probably hereditary.'
“You…Most people I see, their magic is constant. But yours shimmers. Is like a fire, instead of a light. It grows and shrinks, like a living force.” He held out his hand and the water moved. His glow was steady.
“Isn’t it because I am a fire mage?”
He looked at me strangely. “You are not fire mage.”
“But I make fire.” I held out my hand and made a small ball before quickly trapping it in my hands to make it disappear.
“That is fire,” he agreed, but his face still appeared confused.
“What is it? Something bad?”
“No. Only…Speaking to trees, to nature, to animals, it is Myth, a lost Gift. Many do not even believe it exists.”
“Oh.” Then, it was not my grandfather's madness? It was not a sign that the end was near?
He leaned close, face lit with something more than magic. “It is amazing. What do trees talk about?”
I felt a small smile slip into my heart. “It depends on the tree.”
When I left the gardens, I walked slowly, staring at my feet.
Step, swing, step, swing.
I stopped at the foot of the Rosewood Tree.
“Walker is blowing away. Walker needs roots.”
“OH, that is exactly it.” I sank into the dirt and leaned on one of the Rosewood’s exposed roots. “If I had these, how much more comfortable I might be!”
“Walker has rot? Walker has pests?”
“Pests and rot, both. Loads of both. And fire and wind, and not enough rain, and not enough sun. Everything is all wrong.”
“Walker rain is no good,” the Rosewood shed leaves on me, to be comforting. I stayed there awhile, just resting. Everything had ended, or perhaps just begun, and I was unsure what I would be going back to.
With my identity half revealed, was I still the Captain’s apprentice? Or was that part of the lies?