A Fistful of Earth (Chronicles of Marsdenfel: Book 2) - Misti Wolanski - ebook
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• She has the magic to save her friends—but it’ll cost their trust to use it, if not her life… •Lallie Nonsire Cobbleson is no stranger to prejudice. Between her heritage and her childhood spent in an orphanage, she knows full well how most folks like people they find strange. So when her friend, the illegitimate Evonalé Yunan, gets a crown and a husband, it doesn’t surprise Lallie that assassins soon follow.Assassins that Lallie can herself kill…if she dares admit what she’s become.But folks fear and hate what she is with good reason. Folks who use magic commonly go insane, and Lallie’s magic is stronger than most. Strong enough that it’s taken control of her before, and done things she never would.Protecting her friend the queen will force Lallie to stop playing human and to admit what she is, abandoning the only life she’s known. And that’s only if she survives the friends whose trust she’ll shatter by admitting her lies—and the magic she’ll have to use in doing it.— • — • — • —Sequel to “A Fistful of Fire” Followed by ”A Fistful of Water“

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A FISTFUL OF EARTH

CHRONICLESOF MARSDENFEL: BOOK 2

MISTI WOLANSKI

http://mistiwolanski.com

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Copyright 2012

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She has the magic to save her friends—but it’ll cost their trust to use it, if not her life…

Lallie Nonsire Cobbleson is no stranger to prejudice. From the orphanage that kicked her out for not quite being human, to those who spurn and shun her because she’s different, she knows full well how most folk like people they find strange. So when her friend, the illegitimate Evonalé Yunan, gets a crown and a husband, it doesn’t surprise Lallie that assassins soon follow.

Assassins that Lallie can kill in return, if she wants to. If she dares admit what she’s become.

But folk fear and hate what Lallie is with good reason. Protecting her friend the queen will force her to stop playing human and to admit what she is, abandoning the only life she’s ever known. And that’s only if she survives those friends whose trust she’ll shred by admitting her lies—and the magic she’ll have to use in doing it.

Sometimes, knowing what you are isn’t such a good thing.

This is a work of fiction. People, places, and events are made up; any that aren’t made up have all been processed through the shredder of the author’s imagination and therefore at best bear only superficial resemblance to their originals. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or resemblance to actual events is purely coincidental.

This work is licensed in its original format for your personal enjoyment. It is not licensed for resale or sharing by e-mail, torrent, or other file-sharing method. You may quote or share up to 7,000 words of this book without requesting written permission from the author, as long as you give proper attribution and don’t plagiarize. If you have some reason to wish to quote or share more than 7,000 words, please seek written permission from the author; otherwise you could end up in violation of copyright law.

Cover Designed by Misti Wolanski

photo © Elnur on Kozzi.com

Author’s Note

This is the second book of the Chronicles of Marsdenfel. It can be read on its own, but I suggest you go back and start with book one.

The narrator of this book is Lallie, who you may remember from book one. Her grammar is…flexible, and there are reasons behind why she sometimes screws it up and sometimes is perfectly fine. If you’re a grammar lover, you might have fun puzzling out the rhyme and reason behind her speech patterns.

I hope you enjoy the story!

—Misti Wolanski

Year 514, New Calendar

THE KINGDOM OF SALLES

Winter, before Solstice

My kind of elf, the felves, are called many things by our telfin cousins: rare, royal, rich—

We are also called freaks, for due to our unique tie to the Crystal that binds the elves as a race, any change in what an elf is appears in the felves first—and any change to the felves will affect the following generations of telves, as well.

As a result, the felves cannot afford to mind someone who is odd, while the telves cannot afford not to mind such a person.

—Endellion Yunan, former Queen of Marsdenfel

Her Majesty looks more the battered woman than the enslaved queen she is, though her captor hasn’t touched her in months. The violet-tinged light from the street’s faelanterns don’t do the dark circles and gullies in her features any favors, though she’s not nearly as haggard and worn-out as she was.

Still too thin, though. Always too thin.

She lets the curtain fall from her slender fingers, and the dark fabric blocks the street from view. Her hair loses its auburn tint in the dim firelight. The darkness don’t bother her sight much, thanks to her elfin mother.

Her Majesty waddles to her chair, her unborn child low in her womb. Even I know that means she’s soon to birth.

“Most think it best to be born something, someone special,” she comments, a wry smile tugging her lips. Enslaved by her father—whose his legitimate son then murdered him to be free to get a child on her, his half-sister, and keep her realm enslaved—and Queen Endellion Yunan can still smile.

I don’t think I’d be the same, in her position.

She takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, with a wince that says her back be hurting her again. Her Majesty waves me off before I can try to fix it for her. She don’t want to lose all the pain, she’s said; she can’t afford to, not with it only a matter of time before her half-brother finds and tortures her, again.

Her Majesty keeps her gaze averted from me when she says quietly, “Whereas those of us who are special often wish the Creator had gifted someone else.”

Queen Endellion’s dark eyes shimmer in the low firelight as she studies me. “We felves would have welcomed you in Marsdenfel, Nonsire—but don’t expect that of our telfin cousins. We have more differences than just our magic.”

She’s the only person I’ve ever trusted with what I am, and she’s the only one who’s never terrified me with her knowledge. “Want some tea?”

Her Majesty shakes her head, brow furrowed, and draws a quick breath. Something shifts within me, warning me of foreign magic that be trying to enter the room.

I quickly shut the windows and toss a handful of seaweed on the fire to refuel the wards, which were set up by the building’s owner, a water elemental.

The sensation dissipates, and I somehow hear the rough caw of a frustrated gryphon looking for this queen. Or maybe that be the something in me that hears it. My magic don’t always listen to me.

Her Majesty’s eyelids droop. She hasn’t been sleeping well, as the nearly black crescents under her eyes admit. Felves need more sleep in winter, she’s said, and her mostly human child keeps her from getting it. “Thank you.”

I don’t acknowledge her thanks and return to my seat at her feet. The fire is loud tonight, in the small room. The below tavern is closed—presumably for ‘renovations’, to match the specifications of the new owner, but Barun be smart like that.

He doubtless wishes he were here, guarding against a human mage’s servants instead of having to protect Wight from his fellow ondine. Wight and I aren’t sure which of us be older, but she’s the only one of us that’s human.

“I first met my father when I was about your age. Eleven?”

Close enough.

She absently rubs her full womb. “I hope to be among the dead, by the time my daughter is your age. Is that wicked of me?”

The headmistress of my old orphanage would’ve said yes, but I’m not Headmistress Darra. “No, Your Majesty.” I bite my lip and stare at the floor. “If I had a brother, an’ he tried to hurt me like that, I’d kill him or die trying.”

Queen Endellion don’t take offense. “Your kind is harder to kill than mine—and you’re better at fighting.” She swallows and continues, voice hoarse: “Humans are stronger than elves.”

And despite being a girl of not quite eleven, I be stronger than most humans.

Year 532, New Calendar

THE KINGDOM OF SALLES

Late Summer

Every culture has its particular superstitions, things that are universally disliked, and Creator help anyone that differs.

Unfortunately, some types of people aren’t much liked by anyone.

—Endellion Yunan, former Queen of Marsdenfel

My second month as a foreign queen’s lady-in-waiting and her first morning as a married woman, I approach her chambers in the northwest spire and smell smoke.

The ash-darkened door stands ajar. I frown, adjust the basket of laundry on my hip, and touch the stone wall with my free hand. The stone pulls the ache out of my shoulders and tells me the door’s still sound. Tells my magic, anyway. It’s ultimately the same thing, even when your magic’s apt to argue with you.

I nudge the door open with the basket.

Crown Prince Aidan of Salles, new husband to the queen I now serve, sits in the charred remains of their marriage bed. His face rests in his hands. “How could she not know I’m a water?” mage.

“Same way anyone can not know something that be staring them in the face, I reckon.” Soggy ashes don’t make good clothing. I rummage in my basket and toss him the first thing large enough to cover him. His wife’s tan smock smacks him upside the head. “I could’ve gone on not knowing what the Creator endowed you with, myself.”

He blinks blankly before flushing and arranging the dress over his lap. “My apologies, Lady Nonsire.”

Cobbleson, not Nonsire. I give him a bland look and set the basket on the table. “Evonalé forgot she was married?” I straighten my leather belt and smooth my linen overdress. The charcoal color’s getting lighter than I like. But it’s not yet season for walnut husks, and oak galls cost too much, so re-dying will have to wait.

He sighs. “She promptly remembered I’m her husband and would’ve killed the fire, but I pulled my own magic about the same time, and she…”

“Panicked again and ran.” You can take the royal bastard away from the abuse, but you can’t take the fear out of the royal bastard. Evonalé’s paranoia did develop for a reason. It’s still annoying. “Want me to fetch her?”

His Highness sighs again. “I’ll do it.” He turns away from me to get up so I see no more than his bare backside. He goes and rummages through his wardrobe. “Ever wish for a street urchin’s garb, so you could move about in peace?”

Spoken by someone who’s never been a street urchin. “I’m harassed by the guardsmen enough, thank you.”

And—leaving the laundry for him to put away—I promptly remove myself from the prince’s nude presence before he can pry.

Mayhaps I should look for Evonalé, anyway. She has a way of ending up sorely injured even when she’s where she’s supposed to be.

Hmm, but she’s doubtless outside, wrapped up in a bush, and therefore as safe as the clumsy quarter-elf girl can be. I can afford a detour before I find her.

I meander away from the northwest spire to check on yesterday’s other bride before I track down my queen. I enter the highborn halls, which have the usual flurry of servants, so I have to dodge the misbehaving items and limbs that their bearers ‘accidentally’ shove my way.

I meet the housemaid Geddis Feyim at the entrance to her sister’s suite as Prophetess for the King. We share a wry look. My queen and Geddis’s sister had a double wedding yesterday, so I slip between Geddis and the door, relieving her of the heavy breakfast tray as I knock. Twenty-eight-year-old widows have far less innocence to lose than teenage maidens.

Silva opens her door, spots me, and slams it shut. The wooden door muffles the voices of my friend and her new husband enough that I can avoid eavesdropping.

Geddis sighs loudly behind me. “What’d you do?”

“I dinnit do anything.”

She scowls disbelief as she fixes her hair, which she’s lately taken to tying up in braids, per giant custom.

“By the Creator, I dinnit.” And Sil wouldn’t be so calm if she found the spider I didn’t kill when cleaning out her wardrobe.

My oath makes Geddis pause and believe me. I don’t let her take the breakfast tray back. Part giant or not, she’s still weaker than I am.

But though I didn’t do anything myself, I do know who did. “It was Trelanna.”

Geddis snorts. “What did Aunt do?”

Silva opens her door again and tosses something at my face. I drop to my knees as the kitten hisses and spits and flies over my head to land in the hallway. The breakfast tray’s still straight in my arms, but the milk has made a mess of the tray, floor, and me.

More than a decade of friendship means neither of us say anything. Geddis blinks at her elder sister’s scowl and the milk dripping off me, then takes off after the kitten.

Sil and I study each other.

“I don’t like cats,” she says first.

That bites. “But they make such sweet stew.”

Sil shuts the door firmly in my face. Someone’s in a mood.

Before I can call a question about why the groom be letting his bride get so crabby, Faed Nirmoh opens the door, himself. He sees me and rubs his temples. Even after his wedding night, his blue-black hair is impeccable like his rumpled clothing isn’t. “By the Creator, Nonsire, harass someone else.”

My grin vanishes as he shuts the door. Nobody remembers that my Peyton was a Cobbleson. “It weren’t me.”

But they don’t want to hear that, right now.

I turn away and stop, face-to-face with His Majesty Liathen II of Marsdenfel, the kingdom of felves—which are the elfin nobility, sort of. They’re the rare elf variant, with magic that focuses on plants instead of animals, with some special magical-political things tied in.

King Liathen II is my queen’s legitimate half-brother by their mother, and the reason Evonalé didn’t become queen of two realms when the rest of her family…died. (My friend Silva and my queen’s new husband, Prince Aidan, helped with that.)

His Majesty smiles slightly as the milk still drips from my clothes and face. I’m not tall for a woman, and he’s only slightly above my height. He has the strong tea-brown curls of Evonalé and the bright green eyes of his human cousin, Evonalé’s half-sister by her father.

Evonalé can pass as a petite human. Liathen II has a svelte frailty that can’t be anything but elfin, since he isn’t starving to death.

“May I assist?” King Liathen II asks me, lady-in-waiting to his bastard half-sister.

I raise my eyebrows. He has more felf in his blood than anything else, though there’s also a bit of human and faery in there. I scan the hallway. “Don’t see any plants in here.” Not sure what felven magic could do for this mess, anyway.

His slight smile gains a dimple on the cheek and a twinkle in the eye, but both restrained enough to make a body sorry for the poor boy. Evonalé found him chained up in a cell that could only be reached by blood relatives. Considering how little socialization he’s had heretofore in his twenty years, he be coping remarkably well. I lost my Peyton and the baby by his age.

His Majesty hesitates, studying me as if he caught that thought. I curtsy. “My apologies, Your Majesty. Your father left you the gift of Hearing?” It’s a faery magic, less a gift of being able to read others’ thoughts at certain times of month and more a curse to eventually go insane. Sil has that one.

“No. My father left me little.” He still studies me with that odd smile.

His stare’s unnerving, but I’m hardly one to protest a little discomfort when I so often inflict it on others. My milk-sodden dress sticks to my skin. “You offered to assist me?” I remind him. “Have you some water, for me to rinse myself off?”

He assesses me with a swift glance that leaves no doubt to his familiarity with what a woman looks like, but quick enough that I suspect he means the leer as a compliment.

I try not to think about what woman he would’ve had opportunity to bed, since he’s spent his life magically imprisoned, relatives his only company.

“Better than water, my lady.”

Crisp fresh magic surrounds me with a brisk breeze that pulls all the milk off my skin and out of my clothing. The milk floats in the air before my eyes before flowing into a nearby rubbish bucket.

“You’re an air.” That be human magic, and he’s only a quarter.

“It’s one of a few gifts I received from my mother.”

A few? I raise my own thin eyebrows, but it isn’t my business. I curtsy. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”

“I trust I’ll see you often.”

I don’t stiffen. “Pardon, Majesty, but I didn’t become your half-sister’s lady because I bandy my favors about.”

Something flickers through his expression fast enough that I can’t identify it, other than it being some form of downcast. He steps back with a minimum of movement, reminiscent of the chains that have bound his motions for much of his life. “I’m relieved to hear it.”

I study him with a direct furrowed-brow stare. “Have you met the prophetess’s new husband?”

He frowns, glancing around the hallway. “Faed Nirmoh?”

“You may want to. He’s a verifier.” Recommending a sanity test to a foreign king is foolish, but I’ve done stupider things. Though I can’t think of any examples at the moment.

At my offensiveness, an outright smile brightens King Liathen II’s expression, making him look almost handsome, if he would gain some weight. Evonalé says elves can add enough flesh to their bones to pass as humans, but theyn’t hungry enough to naturally do so. “I’ll do that. Thank you, Lady…?”

I curtsy and head out to find my queen. If he honestly wants my name, he can easily ask someone else for it.

Evonalé’s predictable in her panic, so I meander toward the maze courtyard on the west of the palace grounds. It’s her favorite.

I quickly sniff the air, and sure enough, I catch her scent: a unique mix of fresh moss and smoldering hay.

But Essere Carraway stands at the maze’s main entrance, speaking quietly to someone in the shadows, someone who smells…odd.

The back of my neck prickles. Essere Carraway don’t like my queen for the usual reasons—and because even when Evonalé was a mere servant, Prince Aidan used her as an example to humiliate Essere Carraway’s foolish daughter.

Essere Carraway runs hands through his hair, worsening the usual grey tufts, and his tailor cheated him on the fitting, again. I hide my smile as I call, “Essere Carraway! Fine morn to you!”

He shuffles to block the maze entrance so I can’t enter to see to whom he were speaking. “Housemaid Nonsire?”

“Cobbleson. I am widowed.” My tone—polite, brisk—hides my annoyance.

He stares at me in appalled shock that a lowborn foundling would dare correct a highborn essere. “I beg your pardon?!”

My smile don’t reach my eyes. I suspect I like him about as much as he likes me. “I’m Cobbleson, not Nonsire. My husband may be dead, but he still left me his name. And my title as Queen Evonalé’s lady-in-waiting is ‘lady’, not ‘housemaid’.”

Essere Carraway’s expression twists up like someone sucking vinegar. “Lady. I apologize.”

I study him coolly. “No, you don’t.” And his astonishment that I dare call him on his insincerity lets me slip past him and enter the maze.

He recovers in time to grab my arm. “No! You can’t go in there!”

I look directly at his hand. “Essere Carraway, I am lady-in-waiting to Queen Evonalé of Grehafen, the rightful wife of your own crown prince. You have no right to dictate my actions. Release me. Now.”

His brown eyes are wide and white-rimmed, so my feral side must be acting up. I soften my tone with a sour smile. “I’m a widow, Essere Carraway, not a maiden. I doubt your shadow-fond friend can be engaged in any activity that I’m not already familiar with.”

I yank my arm from his grip and hurry off while Essere Carraway sputters at my assumption that his ‘friend’ was a prosti.

Once I’m out of his line of sight, I crouch and stick a finger in the dirt between the cobblestones. What walks nearby? I ask the earth, and it tells me.

My Peyton dinnit mind my quirks, even when I picked up habits from the ‘-san’ Plains heiress, Kitra. He made Plains boots for me special, soft-soled and silent, and taught me how to replace worn-out soles, myself.

Those boots are sure nice now, quieter than anything hard-soled would be. I follow the maze’s turns to follow after the unknown person nearby.

I turn a corner to find a notched arrow pointed at me. I freeze, like any normal woman would.

I’m harder to kill than this.

The wire-haired man scowls at me, pointed ears sticking out of his greasy grey hair, and he’s dressed in unrelieved black. He asks me something. I can’t understand a word of elvish, much less recognize which dialect he’s using.

I bite the tip of my tongue. Nobody can see us, and I’d have to scream mighty loud for anyone other than Essere Carraway to hear us. I could manage it.

But then folk would come running and find me shot with that arrow, which would make for some mighty uncomfortable questions. I slowly spread my hands, palm-up in surrender. “I be sorry. I don’t speak elvish. Do you speak mountaineer?”

He continues in elvish, so evidently not.

“Do you at least understand mountaineer?” Mayhaps he merely be lost in the maze and not some assassin after Her Majesty.

Or not.

He looses his arrow in my arm.

I stumble and land hard. “Holy Creator!”

My magic lurches to use the earth I touch to heal me—I forbid it, which brings more pain than the arrow.

He has another arrow notched at me before I can try to stand back up. I’m sitting, he’s standing with an arrow aimed at me, and traditional combat would call him the definite victor.

We study each other through slitted eyes. I use the pause to force the arrow through my arm, breaking off the head and pulling the shaft back out, muttering “Ow” all the while.

I hiss from the pain. My magic don’t let me faint.

I press hard on the wound, to ostensibly staunch the bleeding that my magic has already clotted. “That hurt,” I tell him unnecessarily, since he can’t understand me.

His expression darkens, and he twitches. I feint to one side and roll to the other to dodge this arrow. “Clancestors and earth!” I shove myself to slide through the cobblestones towards him, ignoring the scrapes. I lash out with a soft-soled boot and strike him in the ankle with my heel.

The elfin archer doesn’t dodge and falls beside me with a cry, gaping. “Useni!”

I take a moment to realize that ‘useni’ wasn’t meant as any form of elvish.

I grab his bow and rap him on the head hard enough to cause a bit of amnesia, if it don’t kill him. I’m not letting someone loose who guesses me to be seni—a clanless montai woman—and may or may not be wanting to kill my queen. I’m odd, not stupid. The montai were all but exterminated for a reason.

Once he’s unconscious, I touch the dirt and let my magic heal my arm and scrapes. My magic makes the injuries hurt worse for a few seconds in payment for stopping it earlier. I breathe through the pain.

That done, I use the bow to help me stand.

I drag the elf into one of the maze’s less popular dead ends—too many briars. I filch a thin rope out of the pocketed Plains-style belt most folk scoff at me for wearing and tie the assassin up in the bushes—after relieving him of all his arrows and knives, of course. The briars hide those well enough.

Then I resume my search for my queen.

I follow Evonalé’s scent to find her curled up between a bench and a bush in the courtyard at the maze’s center. “You okay there, Pickle?”

She shudders. “I hurt him” she repeats, peppered with mutters of “He’s a water?!”

I shake my head and lightly slap her face—which leaves a red mark, what with me being earth-strong and she elf-frail. Her skin’s frigid from fear.

“Enough! Your Aidan’s fine, and of course he’s a water. His father, uncle, and cousins all are, too.” Though his baseborn uncle Elwyn and his oldest cousin Silva are more apt to use their faery side than human. They’re both official Prophets of King Aldrik, much to the chagrin of the king’s council. Silva usually decides to find their horror amusing.

My little queen looks more than a quarter elfin, shivering and staring up at me with wide eyes that are dark brown even in the summer sun. Water has plastered her tea-brown curls to her head. She’s clad in a form of magic that feels like a strict abuse of a shielding spell.

Hm. Pickle’s certainly creative with her magic, but that seems a bit much for her. Heiress to a strong mage bloodline or no, she hasn’t been applying her magic lessons for that long.

“Prince Whimsy must be worried sick. You’re in no condition to go running on the best of days,” —she winces, though her coordination is more laughable than anything— “your half-brother tried to kill you just a few months ago, and don’t try to tell me you aren’t sore from last night. That’ll only worsen, the way you be chilling yourself.”

Sure enough, her shivering lessens as embarrassment heats her body, and she’s soon flushed and overheated. “Lallie—”

“Come now—feels better down there, don’t it?”

“Lallie!” She looks wildly around, fearing witnesses to my impropriety. Nice young ladies don’t talk about things like wedding nights.

I grin unrepentantly. “I’m a widow, and you’re newly married. I’m allowed to give advice.”

Pickle cringes. I swear, that girl has a guilt complex. My Peyton didn’t have to die. He chose to, to save me from the Shadow. And her half-sister Carling’s inane attempt to kill her by sending a magic-bound parasite through the kingdom of Salles was “Not your forsook fault.”

She starts. I know far worse vulgarities than that, but I wouldn’t want to taint my young queen. Elves don’t become women until their sixteenth birthdays, and she’s only a year past that. She’s impressionable yet.

And paranoid; mustn’t forget the paranoia. And the guilt complex.

“…Lallie? Did you cut your arm?”

I shrug. “Spilled some milk, this morning, and dinnit have any other blouses clean.”

She frowns. “But that blood’s…” fresh, she don’t say, paling as she realizes I was telling her not to pry. She notices more than she lets herself realize.

Fatigue strikes me, making me rock on my feet. I rub my face. “Time for a bath, Pickle.”

Pickle accepts my help to stand with hot hands. “Okay,” she acquiesces meekly, then flushes anew. She looks down at her body and stares.

Ah. I suspected as much. “Welcome to the world of mages, where the weakest have suggestions whispered in their minds, now and again. The strongest get to fight with their magic to accomplish anything” or to stop the magic from doing things they don’t want done, but she worries enough about me, already.

Evonalé’s less oblivious than she wishes; but then, I did give myself away in her presence. Only hers, thank the Creator. Silva was too ambrosia-sick to realize I was immune to it.

“Um…” Evonalé’s wide-eyed stare confesses that she dinnit wittingly cover herself with her magic. “How would I take this off?”

Oh. She don’t know how to produce magic shields to begin with. …That is creepy. Sounds like something my magic would try.

She’d better not be an elemental. Her Aidan isn’t one, and queens need heirs.

“Firmly telling your magic what you want done should work.” If it don’t—well, no use worrying about something that might not even be a problem.

She nods, following me out of the maze. I detour a bit to avoid the dead end with the archer I tied up.

As we leave the maze, Essere Carraway stares at us from by the kennels. Prince Aidan’s favorite bitch, a mottled old girl named Plun, bares her teeth at him, ears laid back. Plun has good taste.

Evonalé trips; I catch her by the arm. “Thanks.”

I shrug and release her, pretending her skin didn’t just burn my hand. Elves heat with embarrassment—and fury, I think—and chill with fear. Most learn early how to control their emotions, so they don’t accidentally overheat themselves in midsummer or freeze themselves in the middle of winter. Evonalé’s still working on that.

We reach the bathhouse. Morgana, head matron for the castle servants, stands by the women’s entrance, checking the stock in the cabinet. “Nallé, fetch some towels.”

My back stiffens, hair prickling on back of my neck. Oh no, she don’t.

Evonalé swallows and hunches her shoulders, obviously reminding herself that she’s now a queen and not a servant under the head matron’s authority. “I—” She frowns and restarts. “Fetch them yourself, Morgana. And one of my day gowns. Immediately.”

Morgana turns to glare at both of us—Evonalé mimicking her dead half-sister’s regal pose, and me staring coldly. As ‘Nallé’, Evonalé was a servant of this castle until a season ago. Morgana’s excuse of ‘forgetting’ our new stations is butter-thin, and she knows it.

“Her Majesty has spoken,” I quietly prod her, keeping my teeth visible.

Morgana narrows her eyes on me, and Evonalé’s fortunately too smart to relax with her relief. “Your Majesty, perhaps. Not mine.”

My fingers itch with the urge to slap her. Prince Aidan certainly would. “Don’t be a fool, Morgana. You think King Aldrik will let you mistreat his daughter-in-law?”

With his council likewise contesting Evonalé’s right to rule thanks to her illegitimacy, he can’t afford to be as lenient as he’d prefer—but he’d execute Morgana in a heartbeat, if need be. He’d regret its necessity, mayhaps, but he wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.

King Aldrik’s pragmatic and scary like that.

Morgana sniffs and flounces away. Evonalé sighs in relief. I give her a hard look. “Even if Morgana sends someone with a towel and gown for you, you still need to report her.”

Evonalé ducks around me to enter the bathhouse and to go to one inset bathing pool. She sticks her toe in, and her magic wells up. It feels warm and welcoming, like a steady hearth fire. Steam rises from the water when she lowers herself in, and the glimpse I catch of her collarbone means she was able to drop the shield.

“Would you like me to heat a bath for you?” she asks.

Most folk don’t dare use magic, and most of them that do come nowhere near Evonalé’s strength, never mind mine. In her case, it’s a benefit of a perverse family tree that has the same mage as grandfather on both parents’ sides.

I was raised a Nonsire, a presumably orphaned ward of the state, but my isa’s let slip enough that I think my father’s something that isn’t supposed to be able to have kids. Which explains why I’ve always been far stronger than a woman my size has any right to be.

At any rate, my magic’s tied to earth. I can’t change something’s natural temperature if I tried. Evonalé’s a fire mage. Heat naturally draws to her.

And she still somehow manages to catch pneumonia. In midsummer.

I shake my head to decline her offer, hand her soap, then go double-check the labels for this section of bath house. Make sure they are set to red—for women—and purple—for royal family.

We’re the only ones here at this hour. Revelries went far into the night for everyone, in celebration of yesterday’s double wedding, though only Silva Feyim, Prophetess for the King (and Prince Aidan’s cousin), and her husband stuck around for the party after. Evonalé had to be carried to her marriage chamber, after she was hauled up the marriage dais, leaving a trail of dead plants behind her.

Silva’s married. I rub my face. It’s about time. I do wish she’d not assume that I’m the only person in her life who would dare pull pranks like that kitten, though.

I doff my own overdress so I can rinse the blood out of my blouse. My magic and feral side both lurch in protest at my nearing the water, but I squelch them firmly to wash my blouse. The blood’s fresh enough to come out easily.

Evonalé wouldn’t thank me if I tried to help her bathe. She only lets me help her dress when it’s something she can’t manage by herself, and she avoids those kinds of gowns.

And with her paranoia, she isn’t the easiest girl to tease. Still, she needs to lighten up. “You realize Morgana will probably send the red silk?”

Evonalé’s brow furrows. “What?”

Ah, well. It was worth a try. “You’ve not seen your wedding gifts yet?”

She shakes her head.

“Kitra-san sent you a pretty red thing, Plains style.”

She blinks, then blushes. “Not…”

“Bare midriff and all.”

She swallows. “Well, at least Aidan will like it.”

I close my eyes. I did not need that image of your husband licking your stomach, Your Majesty.

My Peyton liked the soft insides of joints—elbow, neck, knee…

“Lallie?”

I shake off the memories of my own dead husband and approach her pool. “Pickle?”

She smiles fleetingly at the nickname I dubbed her with when I met her as a terrified little ten-year-old runaway royal bastard. I like pickles. “Is Aidan…?”

I shrug and don’t force her to clarify the question. “He be fine. Frustrated, yes; angry or injured, not a whit. He’s bewildered that his magic specialty surprised you.”

Evonalé scowls. “Did you know he was a water?”

“Yes. All his family are waters,” though I’ve never felt his cousin Geddis call more than a thimbleful of water or magic. But then, faery magic runs stronger on that side of the family.

Her scowl morphs into a frown. “Royal families’ magic breeds true, doesn’t it?”

“Yes.” Healers—most of them apothecaries—and sages—who study magic but refuse to actually use it—argue over how magic affinities inherit, but both agree that royals breed too true to their lines for it to be coincidental.

She dunks her head to rinse her hair. “Mother was an air.”

As is Evonalé’s half-brother, King Liathen II. I keep myself still so I don’t spook her. Evonalé don’t like speaking of her family, and not exactly because they’re dead.

“Marsdenfel’s tied to felven magic, not human,” I point out. Evonalé’s mother Endellion was queen of Marsdenfel for far less time than she should’ve been—due to the actions of her own mother that had produced Endellion out of wedlock.

Evonalé winces, but she nods. “And Grehafen’s fire.” Like she is.

“Yes.”

“Drake was an air, too. But he still used it to carry fire, somehow.” She reclines in her pool, hips turned away from me and chest hidden by her hair. Considering she had every reason to expect to end up raped and murdered by her half-brother—Drake—until a few moons ago, she be doing well.

Footsteps approach from the men’s side of the bath house. Evonalé flushes and curls up. “Occupied!” she calls. “Come back later!”

“I will if my wife insists,” Prince Aidan replies, leaning against the entrance that connects the two sides, his eyes averted from both of us.

She turns bright red. “Oh!”

Silence follows. I pull my blouse and overdress back on, the blood thankfully rinsed out.

He still don’t look our way. “May I stay?”

I snort and shake my head. He be too considerate. Evonalé’s first choice is to run. I figured that out years ago. I point at Prince Aidan and shoo him towards Evonalé. “Holy Creator, enjoy yourselves. You’re newlyweds.”

Evonalé gulps. “Th—this is the bath house—”

“Perk of being royalty. Enjoy it.” I excuse myself. Morgana should’ve returned or sent someone by now.

As I leave the bath house, I change the door signs to ‘Do NOT Enter’, and I meet King Aldrik just outside. “It’s a chamber for your newlywed son and daughter-in-law, at the moment.”

“Ah.” He don’t quite hide his smile. “Thank you.” He pauses, then offers me his arm.

I raise my eyebrows at the offer to escort me. “You may not remember that I have been a scullery maid in your employ.”

He don’t flinch, don’t comment, just stands there with his arm held out. His expression don’t change, neither, the lack of reaction itself an admission that he remembers.

I shrug and take the offered arm as if I’m highborn enough to rate it. “Might as well give the gossips something to chatter about beyond their prince’s bastard bride.”

He smiles agreement.

“Well, other than the eager-fingered elfin archer who seems to have hit his head in the maze courtyard after chatting with Essere Carraway.”

His Majesty immediately stops walking towards the castle, smile gone. He stares at me a moment, then pulls me towards the maze courtyard. “Show me.”

I lead him to where I left the archer. King Aldrik actually blinks at the sight of the tied-up archer before resuming his usual impassively polite mien. “What happened?”

“I suppose he must’ve gotten tangled up in a bit of rope when he fell,” I murmur.

King Aldrik gives me a long look. His hazel gaze fixates on my torn wet sleeve. “I see.”

Sees more than I wish he would, I expect. But that’s a risk of rulers who have their power mostly because they’re intelligent enough to keep it, not due to any respectable longstanding bloodline.

And then there’s how we met, to begin with.

I glance about the dead end where I hid the would-have-been assassin. “You realize members of your court enjoy this courtyard for their trysts?”

Neither of us be the type to take a lover, but that wouldn’t stop the gossips from spreading their assumptions around. A woman like me don’t need to marry, but a king with only one living heir might end up needing to, and some women put stock in rumor.

His Majesty inclines his head, drops my arm, and takes two steps towards the fallen archer. He checks the man’s pulse and such. “Where are his weapons?”

“In the briars.” I nod at one thick vibrant rosebush, far enough away that the archer won’t find it if he flails about, but close enough that he won’t look there if he happens to free himself and still has his wits about him.

King Aldrik stares at me.

I raise my chin. “Besides, that bow was dangerous. He hit his head on it when he fell.”

“Into the ropes.” He looks unsure if he should be amused at my obvious involvement in that matter or concerned that I know enough about combat to take out an assassin.

“Yes, Majesty.”

His hazel eyes scan me in an assessment similar to what King Liathen II gave me earlier, except this king evaluates my muscles and not my womanly assets. “You can carry Silva.”

Who’s part giant and likely double my weight. “Yes.”

“What are—” But he stops himself before finishing the question, smiles slightly, and nods towards the center of the maze. “Go on ahead. I’ll meet you in a moment.”

I obey. He detours to another point in the maze, then catches up to me shortly after I enter the center. “Lady Nonsire.”

Cobbleson. I turn and absentmindedly catch the oak staff he tossed my way.

Clancestors and earth.

I let the staff slide and fall from my grip when I realize what I’ve done, but it’s too late. I caught it too comfortably for my momentary grip to be a fluke.

King Aldrik smiles sadly. “Spar with me, Lady.”

The staff accuses me of being montai—of knowing that I’m montai—but he’s king of Salles. I pick it back up and obey.

Well weighted, balanced. Not bad craftsmanship, but my isa makes them better.

He tests left guard, right guard, left guard—I swap lead foot and pivot my balance, all defense, no offense. I’m not foolhardy enough to assume I can temper my strength so I don’t accidentally harm him.

As much as some of the nobles hate King Aldrik, none dare attempt to assassinate him—because he’s the conqueror’s son and known as his father’s match with a sword. He’s executed his own kin with his magic: his mother, for murdering his father, and his firstborn son, for attempting to rape a chambermaid.

His Majesty moves fast, balances well, coordinates his body skillfully despite the weapon—an unusual one, for him. He be n’t bad, for a water.

I don’t practice much, these days, and he don’t fight like my isa. He balances differently than I expect in one strike. My block pulls his staff into my leg with a crack. I fall hard and roll away and back to my feet on instinct.

King Aldrik steps back and pauses. Likely wondering who taught me to take a hit. “How’s your leg?”

“Fine.” I tense but don’t let myself check the injury that my magic automatically healed for me while I was against the ground. My magic and I will have words, later. It knows to not do that.

His Majesty’s frowning. “Let me see.”

“I be fine.” Though I shouldn’t be.

“Lallie, that sounded like bone. You don’t need to put on a brave front.”

I don’t need to spell it out for him. I’m not favoring the leg.

His politely blank court face reappears as he realizes he’s right, that I’m montai. With far stronger magic than any mere maid should have.

“I won’t ask why the montai sent their princess to one of my orphanages, if you won’t lie to me and insist that you’re human.”

As if elementals aren’t human.

I don’t flinch. “I’m not a princess.” The staff slides in my hands until one end rests on the ground.

He raises his eyebrows. “Montai are ruled by whoever has the most magic. You call your magic normal?”

“Montai don’t have princesses.” Yes, I’m dodging the question. I test his guard to distract him.

He frowns, studying me as he blocks my tap. “Women can rule, if they have enough magic.”

I snort, and he strains to block this strike, shoulders and arms flexing. I withdraw and adjust my strength. “They’d like for you to think that. Keeps them from being persecuted quite so much.”

“‘Them’? Not ‘us’?”

I back off to let him recover and spread my hands. “I still be Lallie Nonsire Cobbleson, Your Majesty.”

“Who taught you of the montai? How long have you known what you are?”

But admitting that would likely break all trust he has in me, so I don’t answer beyond giving a slight smile and tossing my staff aside. I don’t move for it when he approaches again.

He accepts my wordless request to stop, fetching my discarded staff, himself. “Put your affairs in order. You’ll accompany Aidan and Evonalé when they go to Grehafen.”

I blink. Highborn newlyweds don’t travel in the first month after the wedding. He wouldn’t be telling me to prepare now if those two were planning to keep tradition. “Be it usual for a queen to take her lady-in-waiting with her when she flees assassins?”

His hazel eyes glint as he smiles. “Not particularly. But nobody will expect the maid to be anything more than my son’s mistress, at worst. You don’t care enough about what others think of you to mind that. And Evonalé trusts you.”

“That be pushing it.” But Evonalé is more likely to be forthright with me than she is about anyone else. And who expects the serving maid to be able to defend her queen, if necessary? —That is, who expects such a thing this side of the Dwaline Mountains?

“Take the staff. For your leg.”

I pause, about to step into the literal maze of bushes surrounding the courtyard. Our gazes lock. I don’t need it for my leg.

But others like Essere Carraway don’t need to know that, and it would be odd for a servant to carry a staff, otherwise. I nod, take the oak staff from him, and hobble away to find Morgana and prepare to leave.

I encounter Geddis packing rucksacks. The girl is certainly industrious, if not always the most skilled at her labor. “What are you doing?”

Geddis shakes her head. “Ask King Liathen.”

“He told you to pack for Evonalé?” Because nobody else would carry that much water to that little food. Elves don’t eat as much as humans, and air mage King Liathen II wouldn’t need as much water as his fire mage half-sister.

Geddis shrugs.

“Have you seen Morgana?”

“She’s in the Green Room,” Geddis says absently, then freezes like a skittish cat. So she doesn’t know where Morgana is for any reason as innocent as having seen or heard where the head matron was.

Guess the faery blood didn’t skip Geddis, after all. I nod and casually say, “Thank you,” as if she didn’t just betray herself as a probable Finder.

I head for the Green Room.

Another wave of fatigue hits me when I’m halfway there. I shake off the urge to lean against the wall, to let my magic send my weariness into the stone, a close relative of earth. It’s false fatigue, intended to make me think I be too tired to fight the urge.

My magic petulantly accepts that I’ve caught it red-handed. It’s the child I’ll never have, almost.

Gossips sniff as they pass me, still muttering about Evonalé’s hectic wedding yesterday. My fatigue recedes, then I lean against the wall.

I close my eyes and rehash my agreement with my magic. It lurches, but it don’t break free of my control. It’s my magic; I’m not its avatar. I suspect that sometimes nebulous distinction is why mages are commonly insane.

I push away from the stone wall and open my eyes to King Liathen II’s audacious stare. “My face is above my neck, Your Majesty.”

He blinks. “Liathen, please.”

I raise my eyebrows. “King Aldrik executed his own firstborn son for forcing a maid to lift her skirts.”

His expression blanks like a prisoner’s under interrogation, and I try not to remember why I can make the comparison. I’m fond of my isa. That don’t mean I particularly like him.

“Carling?” I ask, while he’s startled enough that he might actually admit what woman he’s known. I don’t envy him if I’m right, that he bedded Evonalé’s half-sister, his cousin.

King Liathen II flinches and glances at the hallway. He almost replies, but he don’t need to.

I touch his arm before he can figure out a lie. “Carling was beautiful,” I say, softly so the nearby gossips can’t overhear. “And she was canny enough to know that. It weren’t your fault that she took advantage of you.” Seducing the lonely prisoner to gain access to his family’s magic.

Something downcast again flickers through his face. “Wasn’t it?” His voice is as quiet as mine was. He takes my hand in his. “I knew what she wanted, that she’d kill our child and try to kill my half-sister. I allowed her to have me, anyway. I am not guiltless for that.”

He speaks far too familiarly to a woman he’s barely met, even supposing he trusts me as his half-sister’s friend. “I don’t believe I be the one you need to tell this.”

His smile’s small, but it warms his grass-green eyes. “But I believe you are, lulni.”

The hair prickles on the back of my neck. Montai call their ruler lulna, ‘first’, and women mayn’t be ‘first’s. I withdraw my hand from his and touch the wall, ready to call up my magic in case…

Just in case.

“I am Lady Lallie Nonsire Cobbleson, Your Majesty.” Not that any of the other servants or ladies would help me if I needed it.

He nods politely, still smiling. “You are.”

I edge back, with a new appreciation for some folks’ instinct to step away from me when I’m in a mood. But I don’t go around blurting others’ secrets. I have too many of my own. “If you’ll excuse me, Your Majesty, I must attend my queen.”

I move quickly, but he follows. “I’ll escort you.”

I politely wait until we reach a break in passersby before I admit, “I’d rather you not” escort me.

“My lady…” His fingers touch my arm thanks to the hole in my sleeve.

I keep my gaze on his wayward hand. I could break him, if he persists. That don’t mean I particularly want to, him being a king and me being a foundling maid and all.

“You’ll make a wonderful lulni.”