Aevlin followed the clothcrafter’s apprentice to the crafters’ quarters, yawning sleepily. “What could be so important to wake me so early? Mirelle had me try on the dress just last night and it was fine.”
“It is a disaster!” the apprentice pulled open the door and stepped aside for the princess to pass through.
Aevlin looked around at the dresses in various stages of creation and the apprentices running around trying to be helpful while the more skilled craftsmen worked busily. “I don’t see anything unusual,” she observed, crossing to Mirelle’s private workspace.
“Aevie!” A half-dressed set of limbs attacked her in an enthusiastic hug. “Is it true you became queen?”
Aevlin patted her little sister’s head affectionately. “No. Did you grow? You’re almost as tall as me.”
The younger girl beamed up, oblivious to the handspan that still separated them. “I did! Mother says I will be the tallest.”
“Does she?” Aevlin looked around. “Is she—here?”
“No. Look, they are making me a dress! Only I have to pick a color and I just cannot. They are all so pretty! Which is better? I like the red and the blue and the purple and the green and…”
"I cannot decide if I am relieved or disappointed. How would we face her? What would we say?"
Aevlin took a deep breath and focused on her little sister. “I always pictured you wearing a rich green, like the green of the trees in the rain, deep and majestic.”
“Really? Then I will wear the green one.” Teigen was looking at Aevlin and did not see Mirelle behind her pointing emphatically to the green dress and then smiling with relief and gratitude at Aevlin as the younger girl allowed herself to be pinned into the chosen gown.
“I will come see you after,” Aevlin told Teigen, who looked prepared to protest. “Right now you must be made ready for your new life as a royal princess. There’s the dresses, the shoes… Your hair will be done up beautifully with pretty pins, and the jewelry. And you will be hungry, there will be cakes and fruits and… I’ll be here when you are free.” Aevlin slipped out quickly, leaving the ten-year-old lost in a pretty dream.
“Thank you so much, Avery,” Mirelle followed her to the door. “I was near pulling my hair out—she needs to wear the Saliz Green, or it will not look proper for the ceremony, but she would not agree for anything. Fortunately we had the dress made, but the size is all wrong—” Mirelle took a deep breath. “We did not even think she would be coming. The dress was mostly for show, to say that we thought she might be here. But of course she would have grown since Thorne last saw her, and she is taller than he said—” Mirelle took another deep breath. “I will need a holiday after this.”
Aevlin smothered a smile. “I am sorry my family is so troublesome.”
“And this is nothing to Kivalya—ah, that is—” Mirelle blushed crimson. “I am sorry, I did not—”
“Mirelle,” Aevlin chided with a smile, “Please, are we not friends?”
Mirelle smiled self-consciously. “It is difficult to adjust.” Smiling a little wickidly, she added, “Your Highness-almost-Majesty.”
Aevlin laughed, “Stop, that is horrifying. Can you imagine? I would rather become a fisher.”
“You are certain you are related to them? Even Prince Jaiden was all vanity when he saw his reflection in his new suit.”
Aevlin linked her arm through the older woman’s. “I really do not know. Perhaps I was a foundling.”
“You hide it better.”
“Have you lost weight?”
“I have,” the clothcrafter agreed mournfully. “There has been no time to visit the kitchens. I have not had a proper dessert in phases.” She sighed, stopping outside the Captain’s office. “I really must return. There is—no, I won’t even tell you. It is shocking, the amount of preparations we must do. Even your captain would blink.”
Captain Eliot Winter sat unblinking at his desk, shuffling through various reports from people in far off places.
“Anything worth knowing?” Aevlin plopped into her customary chair and picked up the nearest paper. It was a dissertation on forest fires in Daerany.
“The world holds its breath and watches us, waiting.”
“So no crime, that’s good.”
“You’re welcome.” Aevlin's bright shadow perched on the edge of the desk, devilishly uncaring of the captain's papers and personal space. Neither noticed the intrusion.
“None but yours.”
“I am sorry?” Aevlin offered, without looking or sounding sincere. “You could take a holiday.”
“You say that as if you have a destination in mind,” Eliot sounded truly curious.
“That’s a trap,” The ghost observed, leaning forward to examine his keen eyes.
Aevlin thought hard, wishing to avoid it, whatever it was. “You could go to Thalin? I hear it is very pretty.”
“Your friend Skippy visited there. I imagine he would like it. It is a haven for criminals.”
“Why, yes, Countess Fulvor, I did give your cousin a black eye and jail time.”
“Did you really?” Aevlin's twin leaned forward, delighted.
The captain leaned back, indifferent. “You are out of ideas.”
“It is corrupt. I would feel obliged to correct it.”
“You could leave the country. Kel Island?”
“Monsoon season is lovely there.”
“Or you could visit Daerany. I read that it is very scenic, for a desert.”
“We are at war.”
“Am I to blame for your implacability?” Aevlin did not take his casual speech seriously.
“No, I suppose you are not.” Eliot stacked his papers.
“You failed.” The shadow slipped from the desk.
“If everything is prepared—”
“I hope so,” Aevlin began to pout and stopped herself at the sight of her mirror image in her twin sister’s face. “I am exhausted from running around and being poked and prodded. Must it be done this minute?”
“As you have time,” the captain pulled a large book from nowhere and let it fall to the table with a heavy, audible thump, “read about our foreign affair policies. I understand you failed to complete that task, when last I assigned it.”
“You fell in.”
“I’m so sorry I was preoccupied with not being kidnapped or otherwise harmed in the Fulvor Family power play,” Aevlin muttered, taking the tome.
“You are going the wrong way.”
“I am going to the library.”
“Ooh, I love the library!” Her shadow jumped up to follow.
“You might not be—welcome there.”
But Aevlin had already left, missing the warning.
The captain’s expression hardened as he returned his attention to the letter he had been reading.
CIVIL UNREST SPARKS WILDFIRES
After almost ten years of civil turmoil, Daerany is finally united under the flag of General Ackhart. The general, a man of 35 years experience in battle and no defeats to date, has declared war on magic, citing it as the number two cause of disputes, right after religion. He intends to eradicate both from his nation.
General Ackhart was born 52 years ago in a small hamlet in the north of Daerany, near the border with Niare. At the ripe age of 17 he joined the resistance to fight against the corrupt King Faron, who held all the power and wealth in Daerany until quite recently. He was a natural leader and rose quickly in the ranks, becoming Sergeant by 22 and Sergeant Major by 26. He became General at 33 and Major General at 37, being then promoted to leader of the resistance. Under his guidance the movement spread like wildfire, catching in the hears and minds of all Daeranians.
Captain Winter compared the press report with that of his associate in Daerany.
Dear Miss Snow,
As you might imagine, I was quite surprised at your letter. I had no idea your lover would run off like that, and with your own sister! I tell you, men truly are the worst.
As for your maid, I recommend that you keep her. Good help is never easy to find, and your record is positively bleak. There will always be something to complain of, but her faults sound quite correctable. Were I you, I might even offer her a raise and a short holiday somewhere scenic.
For my part, there is nothing much of interest to say. The job that I tried for was given to a taller gel, and my beau turned out even more unfaithful than yours. Yours gave warning; mine gave notice.
I may not write again for some time—I am quite blue, and as it is I cannot afford paper.
After some deliberation, he took out a blank sheet of paper and wrote a quick note.
Your fool sister is stubborn and will not listen to me. Tell her to come home before it snows.
On a second sheet, he began a report for the king.
General Ackhart has successfully subdued the factions and promises an enforced peace. To that end, he intends to purge magic and religion, as he considers these to be anathema to his ideals. He also suffers a childhood grudge against Niare.
As our two countries never signed a peace agreement after our previous difficulties, some 50 or more years ago, we stand in a difficult position. We support religion, our king is a mage, and our country is called Niare. He could not be expected to honour a peace treaty if we had signed one.
At present, it is possible that he is unaware of our current situation—his representative has not yet left the country. That representative will eventually tire of being refused admittance alongside the rest of Avery’s lovesick swain, all mooning at the gates
The captain entered the king’s apartment and sat at his table without ceremony.
“What brings my general to my apartment?” The king moved a pawn and thought carefully before releasing the piece to its fate.
“I came to report on Daerany.”
“Oh?” he killed the pawn with a knight. “Check. Leave it on my desk.” The knight lost its life to a priest.
“I thought I would give it in person to save you the trouble of not reading yet another report.”
The captain studied the board, looked at the king, and glanced around the room. “You appear to be playing both sides.”
“I am playing with my mage, as I always do.”
Eliot Winter checked the room a second time, despite knowing Zaphar’s Blood magic did not extend to manipulating distant chess pieces, and seeing that the King’s hand moved them all.
“He has been put in solitary confinement,” the king continued, moving a mage. “You see, my general locked up half my advisers, one of whom is a close friend of mine, because of some plot they half-heartedly witnessed.” One of the queens went on a rampage.
“The matter is being thoroughly investigated. If it is any comfort, Zaphar’s only crime seems to have been withholding information. As doubtful as it is, there is nothing to prove that he knew of her identity, or his cousin’s plan, prior to the ball.”
“Not unlike yourself and our thorny friend. I do not see either of you in my dungeons.”
“Zaphar’s tower is hardly a dungeon. He is doubtless enjoying himself immensely. And Thorne’s role in the affair was much less…significant.”
“And what of the Pretender?”
“Legally, that is you.” Eliot watched several pawns lose their lives. “The King’s Heir is under close surveillance.”
“’Too dangerous to approach’, ‘More Charming than even you, Sire’, ‘Unsafe’. Yet she sleeps in your quarters.” The king shook his head, looking sadly at his dead pawns. “When I think of what Anna would say,” he shuddered.
“She is your fiance, I hardly see—”
“I am honest,” the king looked as his general accusingly.
“You could visit him.”
“My general told me not to.”
“I did not expect you to listen.”
Proving himself false, the king set a sheet of heavily creased paper full of his confined mage’s handwriting on top of his dead army. “How is it he wins even when he is not here to see the board?” The king smiled. “That is what I like about Zaphar—I can always count on him to win. He is very consistent.” He looked at Eliot just long enough to be discomforting. “What has happened this time?”
“Daerany has unified.”
“That is unlucky. Who won?”
“He is the one who hates us, is he not?” The king made a face. “Dreadful. Any chance he might,” he made a dying expression, “not make it?”
“But we can afford to give that girl crown jewels?”
“The expense is hardly comparable,” Eliot either ignored or did not notice that his king’s eyes were dancing with good humor. “And she will not be keeping them.”
“I spoke in jest—no need to be defensive.” More seriously, the young king said, “I know the cost. Grandfather saw to that.”
“Which brings us neatly back to Daerany. Their new leader dislikes that which he deems disorderly—primarily religion, magic, and Niare, in that order. He has already begun his war on the first two. Possibly he has not attacked us yet because of all the foreigners currently here, including an uncomfortable number of his own. More likely he is preoccupied with his first two goals.”
“Where is his representative?”
“Somewhere here,” Eliot gestured vaguely.
“The Chaos Queen strikes again,” the king laughed heartily.
“Have you seen them? You are lucky you were standing behind her.”
“It was not luck, it was our prickly friend Thorne.”
Captain Winter’s eyebrows raised.
“He warned me that if anything should happen, I should stay behind your little Captinette and keep my eyes averted.”
“How could he not? He taught her a craft for, what was it, seven years?” The king swept clean his chess board, dropping all the pieces into a drawer in the table. “Is that all from our nearest, dearest neighbors?”
“That, and our flower might have been smelled.”
“What was it? A Daffodil? An Azalea? Iris? Ah, not Iris.”
“One of Thorne’s.”
“They are all Thorne’s.”
“Speaking of, now that he is returned—”
“Why is he not confined?”
“He did warn you.”
The king frowned. “At the ball, moments before the outbreak of chaotic energy that turned my whole kingdom into lovesick swain.”
Eliot considered that. “You could appoint someone new.”
“And risk them being untrustworthy, or worse, incompetent?” The king shook his head. “Now is no time to be shaking the trees.”
“I am incompetent.”
“You are competent, you just do not like it. It is your penance. Until I decide I trust Thorne again, continue watering the flowers.”
The captain bowed and turned to leave. “If that is all.”
He was halfway to the door when the king asked, “Rose, was it? Best send a gardener.”
The captain looked back at his king. “We do not have a Daffodil or an Iris.”
“Azalea seems quite promising,” the king smiled as his captain walked away. “Your written reports are far better, Captain. Best stick to writing them.”
“You never read them.”
“I do,” the king’s smile broadened, “when I am failing to fall asleep in a timely manner.”
Contessa Annalize found Aevlin hiding in the cook’s domain using a large book as a crumb-catcher.
“Then he told me that I was the most beautiful flower he’d ever seen…” the cook was telling Aevlin of one of her many beaux.
Aevlin was an excellent listener, oohing and gasping at all the right moments. “Then what?” she prompted.
“Then Contessa Annalize came in to drag you away.”
Aevlin frowned. “That does not soun—Anna! What brings you here?”
“I expected there to be books.” She looked at temporary plate. “Is that all?”
Aevlin looked at the book blankly.
“This is not the library.”
“Oh,” Aevlin nodded. “The library is closed for some reason. I am not certain why, as the assistant mimed at me through the door until the bookkeeper—Loremaster—called him away.”
“Which led you to come here? It is not yet lunchtime.”
“Is it not? I have not been worrying much about times. If I am hungry, then it is time.”
“Worried about Vior?” Anna looked sympathetically at her friend even as she took her food away.
“I slept a full phase. I need sustenance to recover,” Aevlin attempted to reclaim a scone. “Does everyone know?”
“I know not. I had to hear about it from Master Thorne,” the contessa gave the princess a pointed look, passing the book of pastries to the cook.
“Is that so? I intended to tell you, only I was uncertain whether it was supposed to be a secret, or if there would be an official announcement. But honestly, I am hungry. Is there not time—”
“There is not. We need to visit the jeweler’s.”
“Yes. Everything will be perfect.” The contessa was determined.
“I do not see why…”
The cook watched them go, setting the book aside, and when their voices had faded she tapped on her cellar door.
The man that came into her kitchen would not have been recognized by either woman, had they stayed to see him. “What were you telling me just before?” He was eating an orange, skin, seeds, and all.
“You could peel that at least.”
“I would lose nearly half the fruit.”
“Callily is expected to arrive today.”
“Does she know?”
“Neither the little one nor the captain spoke of it.”
“Hm. If Teigen arrived first alone, I suppose she must be visiting our the wild man in the woods. Perhaps I can catch her first.”
“Best hurry. They’re sending the boats at midnight tonight.”
“What, tonight? Not a phase from now? Do you mean to say he lied to me? Where did you hear?”
“Even seamen must eat.”
“Is Azalea ready?”
“Not by half! But she will do.”
“I believe she will. Thank you, Iris. I did say you were the prettiest of all the flowers.”
The cook curtsied and returned to her pots, smiling slightly when she noticed that Aevlin’s book had been cleaned.
Aevlin collapsed into her chair, dropping the book she had collected from the kitchens as she did. “I do not like balls,” she announced, “and I would like to renounce my princess-ship.”
“You cannot. Report what you have learned of—”
“If you say value, I learned about shoes and jewels and dresses. I am sure they were extremely valuable.”
“You cannot say learned unless you also remember what was said.”
“If you mean unusual, I learned it is very usual to know that lilac cannot be warn in the first two phases of any moon and a girl should never braid her hair on the left side in the middle of the moon. There are rules regarding colour, cut, and size, and every stone carries important meaning. I remember it all, I wish I did not.” She glared at a particular set of books on the captain’s bookshelf. “And then I talked to three potential companions, each worse than the one before. And what have you been doing?” she asked the books.
“I know what that is like.”
“Ha ha.” Aevlin sighed. “Will you be teaching a new apprentice?”
“I expect you to continue studying.”
“Am I not done with that?”
“Not in the least. Your story made very clear the extent of the gaps in your education.”
“Can I attend school there? Sebastien made their education sound very interesting.”
The captain set his reports aside and focused on his assistant. “Consider what problems might arise if you were to attend school in Vior.”
Aevlin considered before answering. “I do not like to study.”
“Sebastien de Vior speaks Niarese. Not everyone in Vior does.”
“And that is but one complication.”
Aevlin tried not to panic. “Will I be able to talk to anyone?”
“Some. There is also a substantial culture difference.”
“Sebastien already explained the differences in schooling. It doesn’t seem very different.”
“Not at its foundation, no. That is also a comparatively small problem.”
“My age,” Aevlin realized. “I am older than most students.”
“All, yes. And the extent of your ignorance is astounding and would reflect poorly on your country, your teacher, and your family.”
Aevlin tilted her head, confused. “Then why send me?”
“You will travel with a tutor from home.”
“Won’t that be just as bad?”
“No. You said you did not like any of the companions.”
“Not a bit.”
“Perfect. Your tutor will go in the guise of a companion.”
“That’s clever. No doubt he thought of it ages before now.”
“Did you just think of that?”
“Of course not.” Eliot Winter’s eyes twinkled. “I have selected the perfect candidate.”
Aevlin laughed weakly, unsurprised. “Is there anything else?”
“A few small matters. There is the Saliz jewels—”
“I told Anna ‘no’! I won’t take them. If I find any in my bag, I’m throwing them into the sea.” Aevlin glared at the captain, daring him to doubt her.
“You would not.”
“Noted. Then there is only one small matter,” the captain hesitated and lost his chance as the door opened.