The sprawl of Petronia covers nine hills and valleys. It was once the second seat of power in Imperial Valanthia. In seasons of trade and plenty perhaps two hundred thousand might inhabit this city of Nine Hills, but this number is misleading. At the height of its flux Petronia is still home to more of memory than man. The buildings and the byways stood that would accommodate a million men. If the aqueducts were all repaired, two million would not be unthinkable. And emptiest of all there is the royal palace, whose grounds manage to encompass three of those grand and softly rounded hills, and whose massive walls loom mostly unmanned. Ten thousand standards fly on tall stanchions, or hang from thick posts over the battlements, languid in the gustless air.

A green tiger with a red serpent in its mouth wrestle upon a white shield in a field of black. This is the Petronian standard, the sign of their king and his city, and the insignia upon his seals. Seventy-three has been the number of their kings, some reigning for less than a day, and some for over one hundred years. Each wore a diadem of red Tallo, and all the jewels of state. Their greatest burden is the Shield.

The Shield of Nine rests above the ivory throne, at the far end of the Longest Hall, which stretches three runs from door to shield, and could easily stand thousands.

The Shield of Nine is embossed with the image of a tiger wrestling a serpent equal to itself in size. Their struggle is upon a field of blue rimmed in white. The shield was given to Petronus the First after the breaking of Valanthia. It had been held in turn by the seventy-two kings to follow, and never once lost. It was as bright and unmarked as upon the morning of its creation.

Ursula the Unbeloved sat on a stool ten paces from the throne, and gazed up at the shield. On her lap was a pale wood square she used as a pad for her sketching. Her hands were stained with charcoal, and the thick parchment was half filled with a neat rendering of the Shield.

Ursula’s mind was full of legends. It had been three generations since the shield was taken from its perch and lifted by a mortal arm. So there was nothing but tales to tell of this Shield. Was it true that nothing could break it? That any blow to strike it would rebound upon the striker? What about a ballista’s bolt, or a catapult’s boulder, Ursula wondered. Would it hold, and if so, what were the limits?

There was nothing she loved more than knowing, than peering into mysteries and seeing out the other side. Magic was only one of the many mysteries of the world, or, depending on your philosophy, the source of all mysteries in the world. The source of the world itself. But it was also impenetrable to her. The palace libraries, though extensive, held nothing of magic in them aside from what small mentions appeared in the histories, mentions such as those of the Shield. When an army of Grotesques had ravaged the countryside, Gowry the Third had challenged their leader to single combat. Those creatures could crush stone in one hand, or so it was said, and the strongest among them had broken his fist against the Shield of Nine.

It would return any blow.

“Ursula, your father will be returning soon.” The princess’ maid, Daya, was standing a few paces back from her mistress, hands held demurely at her waist. She was two years the princess’ senior, and would have been married and with child already if not for the relatively protected position of palace staff. She was of average height, blonde, and possessed of a neat, spare figure that Ursula envied. In many ways Daya was everything the princess wasn't; chatty, warm, pretty-- the ideal woman who knew her place.

Ursula hummed to herself and brushed strands of dark hair from her face, smudging her cheeks with charcoal. At fifteen her face was too wide, and the plumpness of childhood had begun to thicken into fat.

“Lady…” Daya spoke a second time.

“Yes, yes. The hunt is finished and they’ll want me in ribbons.”

Daya suppressed a smile. “We do what we must, Lady.”

“Why is it that what men must do mostly involves killing stags and drinking?” Ursula hopped down and proceeded toward one of the servant's side doors. Daya picked up the stool and followed three paces behind her.

* * *

The stags pelt was only a shade darker than snow, though it never snowed in Petronia, and its antlers were frost rimed branches reaching out of the drifts. A true hart stag, hounded to exhaustion and felled by the kings own spear; this was the prize of the royal hunt.

King Magal Stronghand Petronus rode at the fore of his hunting party. His riding leathers were well worn, contrasting the rich caparisoning of his mount. The sorrel-gray steed was proud as its rider, and as over-sized. Its neck was two hands higher than the horses that paced him to either side, slightly back. Magal glanced behind him and smiled broadly at the sight of his price raised up on spears like a banner. Petronian flags sputtered along the length of the column.

“It was well won, my lord.” The rider on the king's left risked drawing a hair closer, nearly abreast of him. Magal beamed at the compliment. “Did you see it, Hamal? Did you see how I killed him?”

“I saw, Lord. You were as a flame upon kindling.” Hamal did not smile as he flattered. Instead he congratulated himself for managing not to sneer. The king was a child who needed petting. At the moment, the favors Hamal could win by doing so were worth his distaste.

There is only one king in Petronia, but there are many lords and lordly knights. The diadem commands the power to tithe and tax, to issue edict and distribute land, but most of the standing armies of the realm were under the direct leadership of lords major and minor. Dark of face and manner, broad shouldered and thick limbed, Hamal was one of these. He alone commanded as many knights as did the palace guard and the watch combined, near unto a thousand.

“Have you ever seen such a magnificent beast?” The king gestured toward the pelt. “I am of half a mind to mount it in the longest hall. I could have those antlers set into the throne. Imagine it.”

Hamal bit his cheek until it stung him. “I see it, my lord. It would be quite… arresting.”

“Ha!” Magal laughed at nothing, drunk on himself, and the lord beside him decided that this was as good an opportunity as any. “I think this is a sign.”

Magal blinked. “A sign. What are you talking about, man?”

“The sigil of my uncle is a white heart.” For a time he said nothing more. The hart was not native to Petronia. The fauns had had to be brought up from the far south, from below even the Keepholds, where they were rare. Once seated in the royal fame lands, however, they had thrived. Hamal’s uncle’s family had come from the south as well, generations ago. No other heraldry in the three kingdoms made use of the white hart or claimed the stag as their own.

“It is not your sign,” Magal said.

“True, my lord. It was only an observation.”

The king’s brow creased. “I’ll have to think on it. Your proposal. The Lord knows I cannot imagine anything else of use for her.”

Hamal allowed himself a slight smile, self-effacing. “You have Betai’s wisdom, my lord.”

“And Bemoi’s luck,” the king muttered. “Do you know, it was nearly a seventh son? The midwives swore to me as much. How could it not be, after all.” He punched his own stomach. “There’s enough in me for ten more!”

“Oh,” Hamal said brightly, “has Henai conceived then?”

The king growled into his beard. “No. Do not remind me. It may be that I’ll have to put her aside.” He thought for a moment. “Or maybe it’s only Bemoi’s luck again. The woman’s to my liking.”

“You have been blessed enough with children. It could be a blessing of its own to be without them.”

Magal laughed. “You have the right of it.” His mood eased again as he adjusted his straps, his girth swamping his saddle. "I wouldn't be remiss to be rid of the least of them.”

“She is old enough now.”

“She’s been old enough for years, but somehow no one has wanted her. Not that I’m surprised. Ugly, stupid thing. Stubborn as well. Are you certain you’re still interested?”

Hamal shrugged, his leathers creaking, his chain shirt rustling over top. “I am sure I will make of her what I need. Women are to be molded, and it is the honor of my house that matters. You do me immense honor by allowing me to take her from you.”

Magal waved a hand dismissively. “Less honor than you think. I will seat her beside you at tonight’s feast. Then you can withdraw your suit without any loss of face when you realize your mistake.”

That bare smile flashed over Hamal’s face again. This had been easier than he’d hoped. When the matter was first voiced he’d thought he was lost, the way the king had reacted. Perhaps it had only been surprise. As often as not the royal daughters went unmarried, for no land or titles came with them, and only a token dowry. Their children, the first sons in any case, had some claim on the succession, but hardly a strong one. Indeed, the whole royal family would have to perish for such a son to be even second in line behind the secret heir, if the king had even bothered to name one.

The entire royal family. Six princes and one king. They would all have to die. It was the only way the Petronus line could be unseated after more than three thousand years. Perhaps it had never happened before only because it was unthinkable.

He would need to get a son upon the girl. But what is a year, one way or the next? What is a year?

* * *

The princess sat in a wide backed chair beside her polished Tallo mirror. Daya stood over her, running an exquisitely carved comb through her hair. It was pale fyrn wood, which had to be worked when freshly felled, before it petrified. The handle was a nest of flowers.

“You are lovely in your dress, lady.”

Ursula glanced at herself, and said nothing.

“Your lord father will be pleased to see you.”

“He hasn’t ever been before,” Ursula muttered, “and it doesn’t do us any good for you to say so.”

Daya sighed.

They awaited the king’s procession in the innermost courtyard, where a road of granite slabs led from the gates to the doors of the longest hall. The surrounding walls were twenty paces high and cornered with towers. The stone blocks were latticed with cracks in places, and vines burst out of the hard packed soil in ophidian profusion, writhing up to grapple with the ramparts, tendrils threading in every direction.

Ursula traced the vines with her eyes, here and there picking out the motion of the leaves caused by the tiny birds that made their homes there. She was dreadfully bored, and could only thank the gods that she did not have to suffer this wait in armor, as did the guardsmen who lined the way and held the flags.

It seemed that hours passed, though it was only half a turn before they could hear the calls and laughter that accompanied the hunting party’s arrival. Ursula turned her attention to the huge gates standing open. They were still a few hundred yards away, and she could only mistily make out the outline of the beast they had slain. White and the glint of something like crystal. A white hart stag? Something caught in her throat. She had never seen one. They were not native to Petronia, after all, but how she had wanted to. She had read the accounts, both anatomical and lyrical, every scrap their libraries possessed, and dreamed a hundred of her own. It was from these creatures that the legends of the Unicorn had sprung, and Ursula had envisioned them as something more beautiful than mere mythos could be.

Now she saw its skin stretched on poles, the remnants of its face hanging loose, dragged down by the weight of jouncing antlers, two immense racks that glittered in the light of evening.

The men were singing now, and she could see her father towering atop his massive destrier. He was red-faced with gleaming eyes, pouring wine into his mouth from a full skin. Around him were his retainers, and further back were Lord Hamal and his own men, flying their three dagger banner on its yellow field.

Two of her brothers were also among the press, First Prince Magal and Besh Markwell, the fourth prince, with his yew longbow. They were not as boisterous as their sire, but easily as drunk.

Fires were lit in the hearths of the longest hall, and some of the chill left the benches and the stones. It was unseasonably cold this year, though the sunflower was no more distant than was usual, as the philosophers, with all their instruments, had confirmed. The hunting dogs bullied the castle mongrels out of their bones and scraps. Ursula watched with pity as one of her favorites, a sweet brown waddling thing, was denied the morsel she had tossed to it. She knew better than to interfere. One of her brothers laughed outrageously as a hunting gray snarled and seized the smaller dog by its neck, shaking it until it yelped and slunk away.

She found herself nearer the head of the table than she was accustomed to being. No explanation was given. The king’s first lady sat at his left hand at the head of the rectangular high table. First Prince Magal was allowed the seat to his right. There were three such tables in the hall. The high table was simply the farthest into the hall, with the two low tables offset to either side.

Ursula was only three places down from her father, seated beside Lord Hamal. The man frightened her, though he had said nothing, and had hardly flickered his gaze in her direction since they had taken their places. Still, he was terribly stern, and his eyes were colder by far than the season, making her think of the permafrost earth to the south that she had only read about.

“It was Fierceman who brought it to heel.” The king was saying, using the First Princes myth name, the cognomen that was his right as a royal person. “He loosed an arrow nearly blind, but it struck true, it stuck true. By the Lord and Lady it should have been this one we named Markwell!”

The first lady laughed appreciatively even as Besh grimaced. Henai was the kings fourth consort, officially, though there were any number of bastard-bearing lovers who were never honored with the title. At nineteen, she was a stunning girl. Sloe-eyed and wan, there was Nihonese blood in her, though all denied it. There would be talk of ill luck and witch work otherwise. She covered her mirth with a delicate hand.

“There is nothing on land," Magal continued, “fleeter of hoof than the white heart stag. I was sure that it would escape us, hounds and all, when it darted into that gully. Our horses,” he said for the benefit of Henai, “could not follow apace through the thickets there, and the stag had all but disappeared.”

There was a pause then, as hard crusted trenchers piled high with roast beef were placed before the lords and ladies, followed by their retainers. For the space of a quarter turn all words were lost to the kings as he stuffed handfuls of meat into his mouth, and quaffed goblet after goblet after goblet of wine. Then came the roasted quail, and the clay baked wrens with their crackling skins.

“Markwell fired quick as any,” Magal said finally, “and he missed his mark. Didn't you? Didn't you, boy?”

The fourth prince, who was fair and twenty years of age, reddened and said nothing.

Magal laughed, though the rest of the table was restrained in their response. The other princes looked uneasily from brother to brother, for the king spoke loud enough that the whole hall could hear.

“It was Fierceman who took his aim, though the stag was already beyond our sight, and his arrow sang true. It drew blood, and hobbled him. The dogs gave chase into the gully and we charged around, gods!” He laughed. “I nearly lost my head when Stamper lost his footing on the stones. I’m lucky he didn't lame himself at least. We went around, but the dogs had harried him up against a redwood, and it was fighting! Hah! It was fighting. Two hounds down, another limping. Those tines are like daggers.

We had to climb down. Markwell wanted another shot, and I forbid it. I was there, feet planted with my spear ahead. And it met my eyes.” There was an appropriate gasp from Henai, who made a point of hanging on the king’s every word. He swelled in his seat at the head of the table, below the shield, before the throne. “There’s nothing like what I saw in that beast’s eyes, but when it charged, I stood firm, and it took the spear in its chest.”

Knights cheered, and their retainers pounded on the tables. Hamal’s mouth stretched in a line that was not a smile, but rather the expression someone would make who had only heard of smiles, but nevertheless chose to produce one for form's sake. Ursula shivered beside him and wished that Daya had been near her instead of off helping the servants. Seeing how the knights and men-at-arms treated the other girls, though, she could understand why her maid would have seized on any excuse to be away from the hall. The blood of the men was up, and with drink pouring, it was only wariness of disrespecting the King and his lady that saved the prettier girls from being laid before the hearths and taken in the open. At least this way they had a hope of avoiding a knights full attentions, and possibly ending the night with no more to regret than a few tender bruises. Why do I have to be here? Ursula silently moaned. She could have taken her meal in her room, as was her custom. It’s not as if her father actually cared whether she was present. He hadn't acknowledged her once--not that she particularly wanted him to notice her.

There was chattering and congratulations and praise heaped upon praise. The various personages of import grew increasingly inebriated. All but Hamal, who cleared his throat, and the sound carried unnaturally through the longest hall.

Focus arrived slowly in the bleary pools that were King Magal’s eyes. He blinked, and regarded Lord Hamal wordlessly for a dozen heartbeats. Ursula’s throat tightened and she suffered an inexplicable chill.

“Yes.” Magal stood unsteadily, and raised his goblet, using his other hand to ground himself with the table. “Yes. I have an announcement. I have an announcement!” There was silence in the hall.

“I am pleased to say that Lord Hamal shall soon be numbered as a man of our most honorable house.”

There was scattered applause.

“Tonight, I formally give my consent to his offer of Troth. Let all who hear know, and all, ah, honorable things...” there was a pause, and Magal began to speak again, then lost track of what it was he had meant to say. His lips smacked loudly.

“Bah! He’s going to marry my daughter, Ursula the Unbeloved. Good luck to him. Drink to it!

At the command of the King of Petronia, greatest lord in the three kingdoms, they did.


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About the author


Bio: Okay, so I'm just going to go into the whole thing.

I dropped out of high school, and a couple of years later I was in prison for robbing banks. It wasn't until I was in my twenties that I was diagnosed as bipolar and started seeking and participating in treatment and taking medication. After nearly 13 years in prison, I was granted a conditional pardon by the Governor of Virginia, and my sentence was reduced to time served.

While I was incarcerated, I was published by REED Magazine, CURA, and the Carolinian. My work appeared in several PEN Anthologies, and I was awarded seven different prizes in various categories by the PEN Prison Writing and Justice Program.

I'm currently working with Shadow Alley Press to publish my Gamelit novels, and I one day hope to be able to support myself through my writing. Until then, I work at Subway.

Eat Fresh.

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