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I sat silently in the Captain’s dark office, taking it all in. Was there anything I had missed? Anything more I could do?

“This is it,” I told Avery. She nodded. By the end of the day, all would be exposed.

The Captain burst in from outside, looking like he had been awake since the night before. Or possibly days. “She is gone,” he paced, agitated.

“Yes, I know.”

“You know,” he looked at me coldly.

Avery had checked on Kivalya while I tried to nap. “She will return,” I said peacefully. “It is hardly a surprise. Keeping her close was unwise.” I was too deeply focused to worry about the Captain’s reaction.

The Captain was too distracted to notice my mood. “I did not put her anywhere obvious, like the dungeons or a guest quarter. She was in the kitchens, quietly. He should not have been able to find her.”

He’s checking us, lying about where she was.

“I would ask Zaphar, King’s Mage,” I said thoughtfully.

“Zaphar? That is ridiculous.”

“It might be, if he weren’t a member of House Fulvor. I met him once, as a little girl.” And again, as a less little girl. And a third time, in that very office.

The Captain said some words that need not be repeated, though I wholeheartedly agreed. But then, Zaphar had not betrayed me yet. The Captain returned to pacing. “I must find her.”

“I expect you will find her at the ball.”

The Captain stared at me, finally noticing my strange, careless attitude. He sat down slowly and tried to analyze my face for clues. “Explain to me how that is a good thing.”

“I will, just as soon as you eat something.”

He barely spared the tray of food a glance. “Miss Avery.”

“At least some bread, or a bite of fruit. A captain can do nothing without strength of mind and body.” I learned that from him.

The Captain compromised by taking the cup of tea, just as I had predicted to the cook earlier that morning.

I waited until I was sure he had swallowed some. “As you know, the name on the marriage certificate was Avery. This was the name that Callily used to refer to all her children to protect them.” I kept to Thorne’s story, though it was incredible and inaccurate. She never referred to any of us by name, wherever we were. “As you correctly guessed, the real bride was the mage."

His weariness showing through, Eliot only nodded rather than gloating and writing Master Thorne a note. Had that rivalry begun as a boyish fight between two Family Heirs for Contessa Annalize’s affections? I was unlikely to ever find out.

“Mother loved her less, or...” I pushed my nose to stop it running, "Or maybe she trusted her more. Either way, she let her go instead of the prettier, older Kivalya. The mage married the Count, and she ran away."

"And came here."

"And came here. But, you see, Callily was hiding a deeper secret. She never needed to protect her little mage daughter, not from the Count or anyone else. She made sure that name was on the marriage papers. The name of the one that would never be safe in any case. That child was the safest of all because she could never be used in grand schemes or manipulated by those who hunger for power.”

"Avery," his eyes closed.

I stood slowly and Avery stretched. “Time to go.”

I walked around the desk. “There never was an Avery.” I caught the tea cup before it fell from the slumbering Captain. “She was never going to become a queen, or anything else. She was never born. It was Aevlin who married the Count. And now I am going to end his game.”

I brushed the Captain’s hair out of his face and added, “You can’t be angry with me. The cook approved, and she made the tea. She said you’ll be awake and refreshed in time for the ball. Apparently poppy tea is perfect for sleeping.” I sighed. “If it weren’t, Mother never would have wanted it while she was pregnant. And Avery would be—”

“We can be sad later,” Avery pulled on my arm. “The hall is clear, let’s go.”

“It’s easy for you! I’m facing danger and certain death. I need time to mourn!”

Don’t be melodramatic. If you die, I cease to exist. We both have everything to lose.

“And everything to gain.” No more assassinations. No more forced marriages. No more living in hiding. They could all be safe. They could be free.

SO LET’S GO.

 

I changed into my stableboy outfit, double-checked that the Captain was sleeping peacefully, and Charmed the door to stick in its frame.

Leaving the palace required more creativity than usual. Despite every Family owning a house in Saliz far more comfortable than the palace’s overcrowded guest wing, there they all were. Whether it was for convenience or more nefarious motivations, it meant there were servants and guards everywhere. Worse, there were demanding Family Members.

In spite of my best efforts, I ended up as a page boy running errands for various counts and countesses too self-absorbed to notice that neither was I a boy, nor was I illiterate. As I passed notes, I learned of a number of interesting connections between the different Families.

It was halfway to lunchtime, and I no longer believed in the simultaneous existence of goodness and money when I got what I needed: a request that took me out of the palace. Ironically, the request came from a young Fulvor contessa.

She had forgotten some important clothing, left in the care of her least favourite maid. Without her name, apart from Fulvor, or the maid’s name, I was expected to find it.

It did not matter. The note she gave me worked like a free pass to leave the palace. On my theoretical way to the Fulvor House, I detoured in the opposite direction to the woods, note in one hand and a lumpy brown sack in the other.

I knocked, or nearly, and the Holy Man opened the door. Unsurprisingly, his table was set for two.

I took a seat before a hearty bowl of stew and Avery sat next to me. “Where is mine?”

“Do not touch that.”

Like the Captain, the Holy Man had a knack for predicting people’s actions when his back was turned. My hand stopped inches away from the curious blue root on the table. I said, “I wasn’t going to,” and Avery said, “She was about to.”

“What is it?”

“It is puiroot. Are there two in here?” He was peering into my bag like the contents might bite him.

“Anna said that if you do not promise to come, she will tell everyone where you are. What is puiroot?”

“What is this?” he held up a string of beads that I had brought. I was wearing some of them already, for safety and to habituate myself to not having as much chaos. It had felt weird, at first, pushing it out.

I explained my plan with the beads and returned to studying the strange plant.

“It is a very potent and incurably poisonous plant.”

“Eesh!” I leaned back and put my hands in my lap. “What does it do?”

Avery leaned forward. “Do you feel suddenly inclined to touch it? I wanna touch it.”

Reuben scooped up the herb with a towel and moved it to his counter.

“But..what does it do?” we continued to look at the herb curiously.

“It poisons, fatally.” He watched Avery’s approach with concern. “Aevlin, tell your spirit to stay away from it.”

“I’m already dead. What will it do, poison me to my second death?”

“Don’t touch it, he says.” I instructed her. “Wait, she’s a ghost. She can’t touch it.”

“Later ask me to tell you about ghosts and spirits.” He returned to the table. “She still has energy, and her energy is linked to you.”

“Wait, you mean she could touch something poisonous and I could die? Can she kill me other ways?” We looked at each other in alarm.

Reuben looked tempted to laugh. “No, certainly not. As a spirit, she can only interact with the physical world through your chaos. In this case, it is the plant that would be damaged.”

“I was kidding.”

“She was serious, I could tell.”

He looked between us thoughtfully. “I have never seen a bond quite like yours, so I do not know what is possible for you. It is possible that anything that affects her would affect you as well.”

“You heard him. Don’t do anything stupid.”

“He doesn’t know for certain. How can you even tell what’s mine and what’s hers?”

“Some by logic—the chaos can only be yours, for example,” Reuben explained to me. “From that, if you have another type of magic, it would have to be hers. Charms and Talents are harder to distinguish because it is possible to have more than one, although that is uncommon. However, a proper mage never has any--they are magic potential that did not grow into magic. Any Charms or Talents you appear to have would have to be hers as well.”

“Oh,” I nodded. “What are you doing with this?”

“Making a cure, or trying. A good friend of mine died by this poison, a long time ago. I have been trying ever since.”

The wording reminded me of his previous confession. “Father?” I asked.

He nodded heavily. “It happened during the battle. As soon as King Horatio died, everyone surrendered and was…pardoned. Because of Horatio’s magic, we did not know who was not trustworthy. He came to me, but I was unable to undo the damage. I could only grant him a few extra days to go home and see his family one last time.”

“He..he was already poisoned when he came?” Had he not said, ‘we are poisoned’? “He knew he was dying?”

The Holy Man smiled sadly.

“Did my father have any ability?”

He nodded. “He had a Talent for making plants grow. His father despised him for not having a full magic, but he also underestimated him because of it. He never saw the potential of a man lacking magical power.”

Like Kivalya. “Did he know about me?”

Avery looked at me quizzically for asking a question that I knew the answer to, but I wanted to know if Grandfather had ever told anyone.

“Prince Alaric never spoke of his family, although a few of us were aware that he had married Callily. But as he did not have the Sight, he would not have known. Most mages can see the energy, but they cannot distinguish between the types.” The Holy Man attempted to focus on his food.

Then perhaps worrying about the chaos magic was unnecessary. Hopefully, I asked, “What about the king’s mage?” Before he could answer, I remembered Sebastien. “Someone recently told me that I flicker, instead of glowing. Does that mean he has the Sight?”

He looked up sharply. “Who said that?”

“The one who called it Myth Magic.”

“Who?” Seeing my hesitation, he said, “Aevlin, this is very important. The success of this plan is dependent on your identity and your power not being known. If this person is someone who might tell anyone else…”

“That will not happen.” Else it would have already.

"What is your friend's magic?"

I focused on my food, unwilling to discuss the matter further. I trusted Sebastien, and it felt wrong to discuss our garden gatherings.

“What about you, Holy Man? What’s your potential?” Avery leaned towards him across the table.

He sighed. “Let me tell you a story of a pair of mages. They were twins, two boys that grew into men, inseparable. Their parents neglected them in favor of parties and lavish vacations, and they were left with all the world as their playground. They built cities and burned them down. Created monsters and let them loose."

"I have heard these stories."

"Then you know what it takes to make chaos fire real."

"I have never met another chaos mage."

The Holy Man relaxed. "Would you like another bowl of stew?”

“No, thank you.”

“I’ll have some meat.”

“Then, besides him…”

“I think it would be best to keep to your plan with the beads. That should help you to avoid detection.”

“What of the soldiers? Can anything be done?”

“They are preparing to leave. Many have gone already. But then, the forest is a dark place. It should not surprise me if some of these campers were to get lost.”

“But you said they already found the secrets of the forest. They know where to go.”

“Ways can be unfound and paths unmade.”

“Would it matter?” The Count did not need his soldiers, only me. Only his papers.

“Not nearly enough,” he looked at me sadly, “and not for long. But a short delay might do some good.” He looked out his little window. “So many trees in the forest… Tea?”

 

The trees in the Forgotten Woods were not friendly. There were Laurels and Hollies, disinterested in conversing. Others, like the Lily of the Valley trees, were dangerous to disturb. The Lindera shrubs and some of the other smaller trees were friendly enough, but unhelpful. The forest belonged to the Laurel.

I asked the Lindera shrubs where I could find the oldest of the forest. They directed me to a particularly tall, stuffy specimen.

“Do we have time for this?”

Laurels enjoy their superiority, so I dropped down to my hands and knees before it. The forest queen paid me no mind.

Avery, however, said, “You’re embarrassing,” and moved farther away.

“Oh great and majestic Laurel, Queen of the Forgotten Forest of Laurels,” I began, knowing it was not enough. “Please allow a humble and lowly walker the honor of your innumerable time.”

“Those aren’t even good adjectives.”

“This lowly walker has urgent need of your wisdom.”

“Don’t forget to tell it you’re not worthy.” Avery had moved to stand on the far side of a Lily of the Valley, half hidden behind its branches.

That tree dropped a flowering branch onto Avery’s ghostly head. “Ouch!” Avery picked it up, confused.

“WIND WALKER IS LIKE LILY.”

“How come I can touch it?”

I tried not to be distracted. Laurels are, fortunately, unaccustomed to listening beyond themselves. “The Laurel will hear the lowly leaf.”

“Hah!” Avery laughed. “Hear that? You’re just a leaf!”

I took a moment to be annoyed. Being called a leaf was not a tree’s worst insult, but it did convey a certain degree of expendability. “Thank you, mighty Laurel Queen.” If my tone was less complimentary, the tree did not notice. “In the woods—er, your Laurel Land—many leaves abound, full of rot and pestilence.”

“Yeah, yeah, you tell her.”

“They are not my leaves.”

“Oooh, did you see that coming? Because I did.”

“I LIKE PESTILENCE.”

Infected leaves were best treated by losing them. How could I convince the forest to keep them? “They make good fertilizer.”

“Weak.”

“I LIKE FERTILIZER.”

The Laurel’s response was not worth hearing.

I stood and brushed myself off, ready to be out of the forest. The Lindera pointed the way and I walked quickly, feeling unproductive, dirty, and out of time.

“WALK SOFT, WIND WALKER!”

“I told you we should take a horse.” Avery walked beside me, twisting Lilies of the Valley into a crown.

“We have time. What—how many did she give you?”

“Four. How come I can touch them?”

Real as the branches looked, when I reached out, my hand passed through the pretty, poisonous flowers. “She killed them for you,” I was amazed.

“That’s so cool! I didn’t know they could do that. Do you think we could find a fruit tree? Maybe I could get a dead orange.”

I had not known, either. “We don’t have time.”

“A horse would help with that.”

 

The Vior gardens were like a healing salve after the misery of the dark forest. The little shrubs laughed and called to each other, and the flowers danced and sang. My heart lightened as I neared the center of the park.

Sebastien was sitting on the bench, but he was not alone. I slowed to a halt, but the tall, imposing man had already seen me.

“So this is the girl who comes to play with my son.” Somehow, I did not think he meant well, nor did he look like a gardener. His long nose, sharp jaw, and piercing blue eyes were very like his son’s, but looked intimidating on him. “I am Marius de Vior. And who might you be?” he spoke with all the refined arrogance of a Family member, which Sebastien lacked.

Sebastien look miserable.

The name ‘de Vior’ finally clicked. All that time I had been gadding about with a Royal of Vior. I curtsied, “Lord Marius, please allow me the honor of formally welcoming you to Niare, and to Saliz.”

It was unfortunate that I had tried so hard for the laurel tree. My clothing was muddy and rumpled, my hair was a mess, and I was standing before royalty. I smiled lightly and said, “Please forgive my inability to introduce myself at this time, and please accept my assurance that I will do so properly this night at the royal palace.”

Although not Royal, or even Family, by birth, Callily had taught us to speak and behave properly. She said once, to Kivalya, that attitude was everything, and confidence the best weapon.

I offered the Vior Lord my hand so smoothly that he assisted me in rising. It a small gesture, but it showed that he was impressed.
Turning to his son, I said, “Sebastien, please accept my most sincere apology. Due to unforeseen complications, I am unable to lunch with you today.” I had missed lunch by several hours, for one.

“I hope it is nothing serious?” Marius de Vior’s manner suggested that he knew something of the palace’s troubles, but I could not guess how much.

I smiled serenely. “Do not worry for it. The matter is well in hand. It only means that I am rather more occupied than I had anticipated to be.” I curtsied again, “Please excuse me.”

Avery clapped from where she hid in the bushes. “You look like a princess. They are staring in shock.” She had kept out of sight in case Sebastien could see her.

I had intended to warn Sebastien away from the ball, but his being a noble of another country changed that. I could not help but smile as they watched me walk away.

“Do you think it will help?”

“What good are fireworks without an audience?” Vior and Niare were not precisely allies, and if they were present, then there were likely to be representatives from all the foreign countries. With so many important witnesses, my plan had a greater chance of succeeding. The neighbors, surely, would not want a Chaos Queen any more than Niare wanted a repeat of recent history.

I would use the Count’s confidence against him.

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About the author

Moonweave

Bio: I dream, I travel, I read, I write, and then I start over again.

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