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A FISTFUL OF FIRE
CHRONICLESOF MARSDENFEL: BOOK 1
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Tales of loathsome kings and prophesied saviors aren't so appealing when you are a royal bastard of prophecy…
Evonalé Yunan is supposed to somehow free her grandmother’s enslaved queendom, but she’s merely a child, and her father is the powerful fire mage who subjugates the realm. She has therefore fled home, her half-siblings, and the father who really should’ve been her uncle.
Unfortunately, it’s the middle of winter. Fortunately, following her mother’s directions has put her in another king’s hunting grounds. To Evonalé’s bewilderment, that king picks her up and gives her a place in his castle. The prince seeks her out to tease and befriend.
Then one of Cook’s daughters starts teaching her magic, and a scullery maid proves herself immune to poison.
Evonalé isn’t the only one with secrets.
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
Fire photo © Alex France on MorgueFile.com
Hand photo © Chelsea Turner on Stock.xchng
Year 222 of the Bynding
Excerpt taken from the diary
of the late Princess Endellion Yunan,
Crown Heiress of Marsdenfel
and Illegitimate Daughter
of Queen Yuoleen of Marsdenfel
and King Barnett of Grehafen
[A s]light noise can be so loud. The royal amulet slipped from my mother’s neck to the floor, today, and that faint sound echoed through the marble throne room. All present stared, aghast at that rejection by the Bynd, the avatar for the magic that grants command of the Crystal that binds the elves together as a race.
Eyes turned to me, heiress to the Bynd and the throne it binds the elves’ Crystal to. I didn’t take the Bynd and assume my place as Queen. My mother d[id]n’t deserve that.
I could tell its magic wasn’t seeking me as the heiress, either. It didn’t seek anyone.
Murmurs started as my mother, barely score-and-seven years old herself, descended the royal dais and recovered the Bynd. She met my gaze. “That was not a passing,” my mother declared, loudly enough to be heard by the assembly.
With the Bynd’s chain entwined in her fingers, she held the charm up for all to view. It had glowed with a vibrant green light until the moment it had released itself from my mother’s neck, evidence that Mother’s magic would follow the felven way, if she ever dared work magic. “Where is the light?” she asked.
The older members of the assembly murmured amongst themselves, remembering how the Bynd had acted when it had chosen to proceed to my mother. It had glowed brighter, then, before resettling in the standard vivid green. Now, its dull metal looked like a cheap trinket against my mother’s w[hite] palm.
“It’s rejected the whelp,” someone muttered. Herdalin, one of the older women. I flinched.
“What else do you suggest, Your Majesty?” the woman snapped, defending her due critique of me. “For the Bynd to reject you and not choose another—”
Gaylen rushed in. His slight bow demonstrated that he respects the queen, even if few others do. Many find his regard for the woman he should have married more inexplicable than his willingness to marry me when I come of age. The room quieted out of deference to the prophet. “King Barnett approaches.”
I flinched at the glances that then darted to my mother and me. Even if my mother had never told me of the circumstances surrounding my birth, I suspect I would’ve been able to guess who my father was from how everyone reacted to that announcement.
My mother curtsied slightly to Royal Prophet Gaylen in thanks, then patiently ascended the dais to return to her throne, Bynd still in hand. “Let the crown princess take her own seat,” she ordered.
I obeyed and ascended to my chair to the side and a bit in front of hers, cautious with my impractical but requisite many-layered gown. The court started demanding it, and constant chaperoning of the crown heiress, after my mother’s foolhardy decision and actions that produced me.
The cumbersome garments serve their purpose well, making it impossible to outrun guards and chaperones. My mother wears such garments herself by her own consent, as undue payment for her youthful actions that will likely bring the fall of Marsdenfel by my day.
In my day, now that the Bynd has rejected her. By right of custom, I am now ruler, my lack of even ten meager years on Aleyi notwithstanding. But I refuse to heed that; I know I’m not ready to rule.
My mother and I had barely seated ourselves when King Barnett of Grehafen entered. My father.
He glanced over me with a slight, confused frown, and I glanced over him and noticed that he is why I am large for my age, why my eyes are so dark, why I like grey, and why I don’t tan well.
When my father spoke, his tone held more haste than politeness. “I would speak to the queen alone.”
If anything, the silence grew with that demand. Those like Herdalin sent wary, distrustful glances my mother’s way before leaving. Others politely obeyed the request in my mother’s nod without nonverbal comment.
But even after my mother nodded, Gaylen remained, watching my mother carefully to be certain that she meant it, and my mother herself told me with her eyes to stay.
“Prophet Gaylen,” my mother said quietly. “Please ensure that no doors have ears.”
He bowed before leaving to obey. The stern look he gave King Barnett while passing made even me flinch, and I wasn’t the one who had earned it.
The stone door, made light enough to move by magic infused in the naril metal etched into the rock, still caused an echo when it closed. Mother, father, and ill[egitimate] daughter remained solitary in that hall.
My mother raised her hand from the arm of her throne, releasing the Bynd from where she’d hid it in her palm. I gasped at its glow—orange, muted and grayed, but definitely orange. Reminiscent of a fire, if you knew which type of magic my father naturally used.
“This isn’t yours yet,” my mother said, her tone bitterly wry. “The light should be brighter.”
He came forward, stepping up on the dais. I cringed.
“Force it now, and you’ll die!”
My mother’s harsh warning startled me. I stared at her. She still punishes herself for her folly; she forsook her engagement to Gaylen, refused to marry at all to have a legitimate child and thereby disinherit me. I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me that my mother still cared for the one she’d fallen for, even when he was making good on his betrayal.
But King Barnett stopped abruptly, expression stricken. “No, Yuoleen!” I wanted to believe his aghast tone, but the Bynd glowed its orange, betraying that he was wresting my mother’s royal magic from her, abusing what power he’d been given in the Bynd’s magic by siring a child with my mother and thereby becoming part of the family.
He continued speaking, dropping to his knees on the step before her throne and touching her free hand, the one without the Bynd. “Karnelcia is dead, we can wed—”
My mother’s quick intake of breath was too loud in the marble hall. He fell silent. Seconds ticked by.
It was quiet, her response, and it took my father completely by surprise. Whether they liked her or despised her, the members of my mother’s court were discreet. Word that my mother had refused to marry for my sake had not reached his ears.
“No?” He stared at her, at me. “No?”
“No.” My mother smiled ruefully. “I will not give your son my throne, Barnett.”
“I wouldn’t want you to! Darnell is Karnelcia’s child; he has already wed and will have Grehafen. We could have a child, could raise an heir for yours—”
“We have a child, Barnett.” My mother’s firm court voice returned. She gestured towards me with her fingers—a faint motion, barely noticeable. “And she is my scion.”
King Barnett recovered quickly from this unexpected news. It is remarkably good fortune for a baseborn child, to be intentionally left a throne. From how he stared, I suspect he didn’t know of my existence. “She could still be.”
“I’m not marrying you, Barnett.” My mother sounded tired.
He swallowed. “Yuoleen—”
“Answer me this, Barnett.” She held up the orange-glowing Bynd in accusation all by itself. “If not for this, if not for the myth, would you even care to make an honest woman of me?”
The pause probably seemed longer than it was. I couldn’t say if he were honestly considering that question or considering what answer my mother sought to hear. I do not know the man. “I would,” he finally declared, firmly.
“You would?” my mother asked, quietly. “Or you would like to think you would?”
She pulled the Bynd back up into her palm, to hide its accusing light. “I can’t give this to you, Barnett. You know that.”
Silence, again. Then: “You know I need it.”
“You think you need it,” my mother corrected him. “It’s a legend, Barnett. You humans’ Crystal has been lost to time; leave our Crystal be.”
“Lost to time? After two hundred years? Someone knows what happened to it.”
“Someone, perhaps. Not us.”
My father’s eyes actually glimmered with tears. “I wish I could believe that.” He stood, bowed respectfully, and headed down the dais, down the hall.
My mother stared at her hand that held the Bynd. “You’ll be forcing this magic from me, then?”
“You leave me little choice, Yuoleen.”
I stiffened and looked at my mother. She nodded, resigned. “It won’t have quite the effect you intend,” she warned, wearily.
He didn’t know, I realized with more shock than fury. He didn’t comprehend what the magic he was manipulating could and would [do].
My father ignored her warning. The stone door shut behind him, sealing my mother and I alone in the stone chamber that was as cool and silent as the royal tombs that my mother would occupy as soon as my father succeeded in his goal. I failed to not cry.
Excerpt Discovered by Evonalé Yunan,
Queen of Grehafen and Princess Consort of Salles,
Prophesied Savior of Marsdenfel
and Illicit Daughter of the late Princess Endellion Yunan
Missing, mistaken, and denfelvish words were interpreted into mountaineer by the same.
Year 242 of the Bynding
THE KINGDOM OF SALLES
Winter, before Solstice
There is but one kind, my daughter. One kind, altered by magic. Magic created us, Evonalé, just as magic now binds us. Over time, depending on what spells they work, your father and his scions could even become us.
Cold sears my body, except for my numb feet. Those sank into the mud a while ago. The dirt pastes my tattered dress to my scraped skin. Hunger shreds my insides.
Yowling dogs draw closer. Maybe they’ll find me; maybe they won’t. I shiver and lean into the rough bark of the tree propping me up. Nobody likes finding whelps like me.
The howling draws nearer. A doe darts through the underbrush past me. I jerk away, to get out of the dogs’ path, but my numb feet can’t support me. I tumble into the mud. My lungs burn with coughing.
The dogs follow the doe’s path, but they stop when they spot me. Yips, whines, and whimpers enter their noise. My arms tremble as I prop myself up.
The lead dog crawls closer to me, sniffing inquiry. He’d be bigger than me even without the thick fur that stands on edge, his ears flat against his head.
“Pups! Fall off!” comes a lad’s clear voice. “That’s a girl, not the doe!” The dark-haired boy’s chestnut steed—a neutered he, I can tell from my angle—shies away from me. He croons to it.
The boy’s mahogany hunting tunic is dirty but not filthy, and the fine fabric marks him as highborn. He’s a few years older than me, perhaps even thirteen and a subadult.
He dismounts easily and tsks to the dogs. “Hush, Plun,” he tells the leading dog, rubbing his fur. I’ve never seen that messy a hodgepodge of colors in someone’s lead dog.
I cough. The bad muscle in my back pulls. I bite back a whimper.
The boy’s attention snaps to me at the sound. He studies me with brown eyes that are more bright than dark. Mine can pass for black in poor light. His can’t.
He moves cautiously, slowly, approaching me sidelong while keeping far enough away that he doesn’t threaten me. “Plun’s short for Plunder,” he offers as if I’m some shy filly to be coaxed into a bridle. “Grandfather gave her to me shortly before he died.” The dog’s a she, then; not he. “I was eight.”
How old am I, that story asks. I close my eyes. The ground vibrates as other horses near us.
The vibrations’ smooth cadence roughens as the horses near me. My godmother’s here, then. That’s not reassuring. She’s the only faery that might help me, and she won’t even save me from pneumonia.
“Aidan, stop riding off without your guards!” The man’s voice is firmly commanding without being agitated. “What if an assassin were here?”
The lad’s clothes rustle as he turns. “It’s just a girl, Father.”
“And little girls can’t kill anyone?” If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought his tone amused. Somebody snorts.
I sense a horse’s movement through the ground; feel that it reluctantly sidles forward to stop in front of me. I open my eyes to see a nobleman’s frown, the man himself in a mahogany hunting tunic, his brown hair just long enough that he ties it back. He studies me with hazel eyes, and his strong jaw and nose match the boy’s.
The golden circlet on the man’s brow reveals that he isn’t merely nobility, but he’s a king. The highborn boy is then a prince, undoubtedly intrigued by the novelty of finding a waif in the middle of nowhere.
Highborn folk don’t dirty their hands with waifs. I let my eyes close again. The numbness is climbing up my legs and will take me, soon enough. Maybe that’ll fulfill the prophecy, somehow: me freezing to death, although Father’s a fire mage who could save me.
Some of the people here murmur, and one voice sounds female. Something brushes my arm. I flinch, triggering another coughing fit, but I don’t open my eyes.
“Kitra, the poor girl’s frozen through,” says the king. “Do you have something to wrap her in?”
I hear someone fumble with saddlebags. “Mayhaps a shawl or chemise.” Definitely a woman’s voice.
Someone else touches me. I recoil away, shuddering and coughing and whimpering with the pain spearing me with every gasp. Tears burn my eyes, forcing me to open them.
“Shh,” the woman, Kitra, soothes. She smiles, her white teeth a harsh contrast to her dark golden skin. Her attire announces her foreign origins as much as her deep tan does. The short sheaths on her thighs look well worn with use. I stare at them. A woman fighter? Joining a king on a hunt?
Her black hair, hacked at her chin, could suit either male or female, and her tall slim body could pass for a man’s if she tried. But she’s indisputably female, as revealed by her current bland ensemble of a leather jerkin—no undershirt—and belted trousers, livened by her bracelet and necklace, a matching set made from something’s teeth or claws.
Kitra offers me the chemise she evidently forgot to wear under her jerkin so the lacings wouldn’t reveal her navel and the crease between her breasts. “Here, kitten. Wrap yourself up.”
I shake my head and scoot back. I’m not stupid. I’m not giving them fodder to call me a thief.
His Majesty eyes me thoughtfully as he remounts his own dappled mare. He moves over beside another hunter, one whose worn green tunic is a coarser weave, though silver embroidery cuffs it. It’s unusual, but interesting: a demonstration of wealth added the sturdy garb of someone who actually works for his living.
Silver Embroidery studies me with enough interest that he must be a good friend of the king, so His Majesty doesn’t mind him having opinions of his own. “Do you have a shawl, Your Highness?”
I recoil with the realization that this woman offering me her chemise is a princess, albeit a foreign one.
Princess Kitra frowns and steps over to her palomino mare. She checks her saddlebag. “Scarf…?” And evidently scarf means something else where she’s from, because what she holds up looks more like a courtesan’s veil.
Prince Aidan takes it from her and grabs my shoulder to yank me forward and deposit the ‘scarf’ around me before I can dodge him. I cough hard, but he holds me up and doesn’t let me fall.
Fear makes sand of my muscles. He’s old enough to be picking women he wants to give the veil.
“Oh, my,” Silver Embroidery says quietly, expression pained. “Aldrik.” He gives a small nod my way. Ice crawls beneath my skin. His Majesty nods in return, acknowledgement that he noticed the gesture.
I’m swung in the air and set on a steed. Princess Kitra’s careful, though, and ensures that I stay where she puts me. Prince Aidan murmurs something about Hind being such a good gelding. I cling to the chestnut gelding’s white mane with my fingers, struggling not to fall off.
“Mount Hind and keep her astride,” the king directs his juvenile son, a miniature version of himself though darker of eye and hair. He lowers his tone to speak to Silver Embroidery, but I hear him. “I might’ve thought her an elf-child, but for her clumsiness.”
‘…an elf-child…’ I stare at the king with widened eyes. Do I really look elfin?
I cough despite Hind’s smooth gait. Prince Aidan stops often to hold me steady through the coughing fits, and Silver Embroidery and Kitra loiter behind with him.
After one fit, while I’m still blinking back tears, I look at Silver Embroidery. “Are you a bodyguard?” My voice rasps in my throat.
Nobody elaborates. I swallow another cough with a wince. “Don’t the prince and princess need guards?”
Kitra replies first. “Not a princess.”
…I don’t understand.
“Yes, I’m really a prince,” Prince Aidan says before I can ask.
Kitra fingers the dagger hilts on her thighs. “Plainsfolk don’t have princesses, not the way you easterners do.”
I nod as if I know what Plainsfolk even are. Silver Embroidery’s wry smile calls my bluff. I flinch. Prince Aidan’s grip tightens so I don’t fall.
“Plainsfolk rulers aren’t necessarily hereditary, but if you’re the child of a Warmaster, you’re a lot more likely to become one, yourself,” she explains.
I frown and eye Kitra sidelong. “But you’re a girl.”
She shrugs, loose-limbed. “Warmistress.”
“You fight and you’re a girl?” A look passes among the three of them. I must’ve just offended her. I swallow. “Aren’t women vulnerable in ways men aren’t?”
Prince Aidan shifts behind me. “Er…”
“Women shouldn’t learn to fight because they’re more likely to be attacked?” Silver Embroidery asks, tone polite despite his sarcastic words. “That makes sense.”
I bite my lip and duck my head so my hair hides my face. I hadn’t thought of it that way. If Mother had learned to fight, might she have killed Father instead of conceiving me?
—But Father’s a fire mage. Mother was an air. Fighting wouldn’t have done her much good, anyway.
As we travel, the woodlands of the hunting grounds shift into hilly farmland, with a long stone wall in the distance. The sunset behind us gives everything a rosy glow. The prince’s gelding prances with His Highness’s excitement as we approach his home.
I stare. It’s long, the wall for this castle, far larger than Father’s, and so tall! “That isn’t a castle.” Never mind the two towers inside, the ramparts, or its strategic position with a river looping around from the east, and the mountain-bounded hunting grounds to the west.
I feel Prince Aidan shrug behind me. “So it’s a palace. Over that hill to the south is the main river, and there’s a bridge over the fork there to enter Saf. Our capital.”
So the river bounds the palace on the east and south. I look to the north, the slightly hilly lands holding much less farm and grazeland than I expect to see. The prince follows my gaze and shifts in his saddle. “Don’t let the sheep fool you,” he says quietly. “That way’s the most dangerous of them all.”
The others have waited for us at the gate. We pass within the walls, which don’t quite contain a mansion. The palace itself is huge, certainly—larger than the castles for Father and Queen Yuoleen combined—and it’s surrounded by gardens and barns.
The foreign not-princess Kitra helps me dismount Hind. We leave the horses in the care of stablehands outside a large stable on the southwest of the grounds. Dogs bark just a bit north of the stable, and Prince Aidan rejoins us after leaving the hunting dogs in that pen.
The nobles disperse. Kitra takes my arm to keep me with the royals. Silver Embroidery stays behind me as I slowly follow His Majesty and his son.
A wide stone staircase leads up into the castle’s main entrance, and gardens stretch to either side. The queen plods down the steps at our approach. “What’s this?!” Her nod indicates me.
“Someone’s runaway baseborn get,” Kitra says cheerily. King Aldrik shoves her arm in admonishment. I shy away from the king’s demonstrated familiarity with a woman other than his wife. Her Majesty even looks to be expecting.
“A girl, Mother! Plun found her!” Prince Aidan runs up the stone steps to hug his mother. Tightness grips my chest. I wish I could run to my mother.
I slowly approach and curtsy to the queen. Her Majesty studies me with narrowed dark eyes, her rosy face stern. Her rich navy gown drapes about her mildly-bulging form like a velvet curtain, edged with golden embroidery. Her caramel hair piles on her head in upswept coils.
Prince Aidan leaves us with a spindly grey-haired man who looks like he spends all his time in libraries. The prince’s tutor? Silver Embroidery trails after them with enough nonchalance that he’s probably following them on purpose.
Her Majesty takes my narrow chin in her palm and examines my face. She nods and releases me, but she keeps hold of one of my curls, the color of bitter chocolate.
“Proctor, fetch a cord for the girl. Waiting until she got here to bathe her, I understand, but to leave her hair down completely—”
“Please no, Majesty!” I say quickly, hoping I don’t sound too urgent. Carling forced me to wear my hair up after she knew it upset me. “Mother always told me to wear my hair loose.” I’ll take any lashings owed for my impertinence. The tips of my ears burn as embarrassment heats me.
“Your mother? Where is she?” Her Majesty’s voice drips contempt. I don’t know if it’s over my loose hair or over her husband finding me and bringing me home.
But my throat sticks as embarrassment’s heat shifts into fear’s ice, and I force the tears back. They’ll use any weakness to hurt me more. Father and my half-siblings did.
“Dead,” I manage, having to swallow before I can add, “Majesty.” I don’t want to aggravate this queen. The oft-mocked proverb ‘Never cross an expecting she-dwarf’ can apply to humans, too.
The king moves closer to me. I try to hide my discomfort. Her Majesty glances at him with a scowl. “Your mother insisted you wear it loose? Are you certain?”
I flinch. “Yes, Majesty,” I whisper. What does loose hair mean in this realm?
“Well, then!” The queen briskly claps her hands. “Never mind, Proctor. We will respect the dead.” I doubt she would have given me the same favor had I told her that Father still lives.
“Shouldn’t you be resting?” His Majesty tucks his arm under Her Majesty’s as we go up the steps.
She shoots him a sour look. “Yes, walking is absolutely fatiguing.” She, a queen, speaks…wryly?
Her Majesty glances at me. “Fetch that.” She waves at a nearby teacup perched at the top of the stone staircase, as if she’d been prepared to sit there all evening, awaiting the return of her husband and son. I stare at it. Mother would have sooner been whipped than wait for Father.
King Aldrik sighs. “Maitane, she needs a bath.”
“She might as well do something useful on her way. Fetch it, girl.”
I flinch, take the ornate porcelain thing carefully, and follow her. Her expression says she’s displeased—but that might have more to do with Kitra loitering with one of the guards by a pear tree in the courtyard below. We can hear their coy laughter from here.
“What of your father?”
I jump, and some of the lukewarm tea sloshes from the cup. I gulp. Father would lash me for such a thing. My back stings in memory.
“Maitane!” The king grips my arm to steady my hand. “Don’t frighten the girl so!”
“Frighten? How is asking about her father ‘frightening’?”
“I don’t know him, Majesty,” I lie quickly. Both monarchs freeze. I study the ground.
“You are fatherless, then?”
I nod without looking up. “A forced child, Majesties.”
The queen’s gasp startles me. My back spasms; my hands slip. I try to save the cup before it lands, but there’s a reason my back’s so bad.
Her Majesty gasps again when her cup shatters. I stare at my feet.
As of the approaching solstice, I will have spent ten years on Aleyi; only the past weeks have been in the cold and wet, surviving on what little I’ve been able to scavenge and beg.
I need very little to survive. Too little. As small and weak as I am compared to Father’s scions, I can handle deprivation far better than Carling or Drake ever could.
Still, I flinch when the queen yells at me. I’d rather have food and shelter than be cold, wet, hungry, and waiting for one of Carling’s experiments to find and eat me.
“Maitane!” the king interrupts his wife’s tirade and takes my arm. “Let her be. She hardly meant to break it.” He leads me down the hall with a narrow-eyed glance at Queen Maitane. “Come, child. You must be hungry.”
Why does he care?
“I’m surprised you know of the…peculiarities of your parentage. Were you ever schooled?”
“No, Majesty.” Mother and others taught me when and what they could, and I taught myself some from what I saw and heard, but schooled? No.
His Majesty nods, as if I’ve confirmed something he already suspected. Why did he expect my answer?
King Aldrik leaves his wife at her rooms with a kiss more passionate than I expected. She accepts and returns it, which startles me. Even Father’s wife tolerated his attentions, at best, before he killed her.
His Majesty takes me directly to what must be a secondary kitchen, from the size. “Silva.”
A tall broad-boned young woman, old enough to be married but young enough that she’s probably only engaged, turns towards us while tossing her ginger-colored pleated hair out of the way. She glances at me for all of a second. “Yes, Your Majesty?”
A shorter light-haired brunette of about Silva’s age in a formless grey smock openly stares at me. Her cherrywood gaze flickers to the king and Silva, and she sets aside the pot she’s washing. “I’ll fetch a dress. Tweak some ears for more.”
Silva gives her a sharp look.
His Majesty nods at the girl. “Thank you, Lallie.” Lallie curtsies and leaves. “Mind your jealousy, Silva. Lallie’s better at pulling teeth for charity.”
I’m careful not to stare at the king outright. He talks too informally to this Silva for her to be a servant, unless…
She might be like me. Silva is definitely older than Prince Aidan. I wonder if she ever had any brothers. I did, for a few hours, before Father found and killed him.
Silva sighs. “Sorry.” She pops her neck and glances at me. “New girl?”
“Bathe her, feed her, and show her around so she can be situated before your mother gets back.” King Aldrik doesn’t wait for her curtsy or acknowledgement before leaving.
Silva pries a hunk of bread off a loaf and slaps honey on it. She hands me the result. “Eat. You need it. I’m Silva. You?”
I accept the food and flinch. “Evonalé.” Why couldn’t Mother have named me something human?
But Silva doesn’t comment on my elvish name. She quickly tidies up this kitchen. “We call this the washroom. Doesn’t get used for much else than washing the dishes, except by some of us younger folk when we cook on our own time.”
“You like cooking?”
She grins, a dimple pinching her right cheek. “Runs in the family. Not my favorite thing, but I’m not half bad. I’m a better…” She frowns and shakes her head sharply. “You like to cook?”
I shrug and cringe from my bad back.
Silva’s frown deepens. “What?”
“Nothing.” Didn’t His Majesty tell her to show me around?
“Finish your bread,” she says, and as I do, she whirls about, making sure everything’s picked up. Only a large bucket of suds remains out of place. When I swallow the last of my bit of bread, she studies me sidelong for a moment, then dumps the bucket over my head.
She waits until I’m past sputtering and into wringing out the wrap Princess Kitra stuck on me before she looks at me directly. “Well,” Silva says with a wide smile that holds traces of forced cheer. “The head cook’s out today, but she’ll be back tomorrow…”
Her chatter continues while she takes me to one of the buildings outside the palace but within the walls, this one on the southeast side, closest to the nearby river between this palace and the nearby city. I glimpse a canal to the south as we approach the building’s west entrance.
“Separate genders, don’t worry.” She swipes a towel off a shelf beside the entrance and hands it to me. I clutch it tightly as I follow. “Notice the curtain above the door. Red confirms women; blue, men. Don’t go near it when it’s black unless you’re wanting…” Silva shakes herself as if remembering who or what she’s talking to. “West side of the building’s for women; east side’s men. That’s true for pretty much everything, here—courtyards, stables, bridal suites…
“Oh, and purple means the royal family is currently reserving it. Ten lashings for putting that one up without cause.”
I stop in the doorway, seeing the fair soft skin and elaborate hair of the women in the humid room. “I shouldn’t be here.”
“Nonsense!” Silva snaps. She tugs me by the arm towards the gaggle of highborn girls who pointedly ignore our intrusion.
One girl of about my age glares, her golden curls plastered to her sharp-featured face like a wet cat’s fur.
Ignoring the highborn with a self-assurance that further evidences whose daughter she likely is, Silva lets her own rough overdress fall to the floor and strips my wrap and rags from me before I can protest.
I squeak and dive in the washing pool by our feet to hide myself. Carling made sure to keep the skin intact when she messed up my muscles, so my scars aren’t visible, but I still don’t like displaying my body. Someone might realize what I am.
“Who died and made you princess?” snipes the cat girl.
“Don’t start, Goldilocks.” Silva has her back to the girl, so she must recognize the voice.
“Marigold!” a woman snaps, as blonde and willowy as the offending girl. “Mind your tongue!” She quickly gets between cat girl and Silva. She gives Silva a worried look. “Pray forgive my daughter, my—”
“You don’t have to apologize to her! She’s just—”
“Lord Elwyn’s replacement!” Marigold’s mother snaps back.
My stomach lurches, and the ice of terror and flame of embarrassment war to overwhelm me. I do not want to know which member of the royal family takes both a grown man and a young woman to bed.
Well, at least Silva isn’t the king’s baseborn daughter. I hope.
It’s now, after Marigold’s gaping at her mother’s rebuke, that Silva turns to face the room. “I’m allowed here anyway, Goldilocks.”
I gulp. Okay, so maybe she is His Majesty’s bastard.
The rest of the washing up doesn’t take too long. Silva’s earlier bucket of suds loosened the filth, and the baths are designed to let the water flow through them.
The water’s a fair temperature, though not warm enough to help my aching lungs, but the room has a bite to it from winter’s cold. I’m shivering in my towel and coughing by the time Silva’s friend Lallie finds us.
Lallie’s shoulders are taut from the stack draped over her arm. She drops the clothing on a bench and quickly fingers through to a walnut green blouse and oak brown pinafore.
I bite my lip while I look at them. “Um…”
Silva doesn’t hear me, but Lallie notices my concern and doffs her grey smock. I blink at the blueberry blue panel centered in her charcoal-colored overdress. “Color’s fine; just watch the extras.” She nods at the dresses the noble girls are donning, evidently refusing to let a waif exit the baths ahead of them.
The beads stitched on the sleeves of Marigold’s dress handle the light like they’re glass. “An essere’s daughter?” I ask quietly.
Lallie quickly hides her grin and nod behind a cough. Her brown eyes shine when she smiles. “You embroider?”
I shiver and turn away. Elves embroider. It’s said that elven embroidery, depending on its picture, can ward off illness, monsters, famine, and such. I don’t pretend to have that ability, but I mimicked the felven style while Mother lived. It shows in my technique.
Lallie doesn’t press the question, doesn’t even comment on my silence when Silva returns from fetching another towel for her hair. I don the blouse and pinafore. They’re a tad big, but I’ll grow into them.
Lallie scoops up the pile of dresses that remains—my shoulder twinges in sympathy—and nods at Silva. “These’ll fit her right enough,” she says. “I’ll leave the rest in her room.” She doesn’t wait for Silva’s acknowledgement before leaving.
Silva sees that I’m ready and takes me to the main kitchen, showing me the fires, the wood, the pots—all that I’ll need to know to work tomorrow. Other girls and ladies eye me, some warily. Others twitter and give me food. Someone hands me a bitter tea that soothes my lungs.
Silva nods and continues my tour. A cloud of flour greets us in the dessert kitchen. She sneezes. “You aren’t supposed to be in here.”
A girl of about my age but half again my size sticks out her tongue at Silva as she slaps some sticky dough. “Shut up.”
“Geddis.” Silva scowls. “You know Mother—”
“I’m making her sweetbread.” Geddis shapes the dough on the tray and sticks it in the large oven that dominates this kitchen. She grabs a few logs off the stack for more fuel. “She needs something to cheer her up.”
A blank look crosses Silva’s face—blank in the self-controlled way, not blank as in daft. “That doesn’t mean you can disobey her. You aren’t allowed to cook in here by yourself.”