A Fistful of Water (Chronicles of Marsdenfel: Book 3) - Misti Wolanski - ebook
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• She can regain what her father gave up, but it’ll cost all she has to get it… •Geddis Feyim is tired of others complaining because they have all she ever wanted. Her father and sister serve as prophets for the king, her uncle, but that doesn’t help the rest of the family. Her mother’s dead, her brother’s insane, and she’s working herself sick to keep her uncle’s castle clean despite other servants’ incompetence.Something has to change.She can’t become nobility or earn a title, but she’s a reasonably educated young woman, with Finding magic and blood ties to a few of the more powerful realms in the area. She has options. More than she wants to consider.Whatever she chooses, it’ll shape the rest of her life.— • — • — • —Sequel to ”A Fistful of Earth“To Be Followed by ”A Fistful of Deception“

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A FISTFUL OF WATER

CHRONICLESOF MARSDENFEL: BOOK 3

MISTI WOLANSKI

http://mistiwolanski.com

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Copyright 2014

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She can regain what her father gave up, but it’ll cost all she has to get it…

Geddis Feyim is tired of others complaining because they have all she ever wanted. Her father and elder sister serve as prophets for the king, their father’s half-brother, but that doesn’t help the rest of the family. Her mother’s dead, her brother’s insane, and she’s working herself sick to keep her uncle’s castle clean despite other servants’ incompetence.

Something has to change.

She can’t become nobility or earn a title, but she’s a reasonably educated young woman, with Finding magic and blood ties to a few of the more powerful realms in the area. She has options. More than she wants to consider.

Whatever she chooses, it’ll shape the rest of her life.

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 © Houchi on DeviantArt

Author’s Note

This is the third book of the Chronicles of Marsdenfel. If you’re just coming to the series now, please go back and find A Fistful of Fire. Otherwise, come in and discover what Geddis does after the events of A Fistful of Earth.

The narrator differs for each book in this series, so it’s entirely possible that you might like one narrator and not another, or that you might find Geddis infuriating enough that you aren’t sure if you want to finish the series. Rest assured that she doesn’t stay the same forever.

I hope you enjoy the story!

—Misti Wolanski

Year 523, New Calendar

THE HUMAN KINGDOM OF SALLES

Winter, before Solstice

After I answer yet another question incorrectly, a classmate beside me snipes, “You would’ve known that, if you actually came to class.”

My face burns, but it’s not my fault that family emergencies often keep me out of school. I’m the only child of the Prophet of the King who doesn’t take after our father. Father is the king’s illegitimate older brother, and my brother has already been taken to the faery insane asylum, so sometimes there are also political reasons I can’t leave home.

My uncle on my mother’s side runs the charity school I attend, so at least I don’t get in trouble for the lessons I miss, but… Faery magic deals with probabilities and the manipulation of reality, and as a result, faeries are far more likely than most people to go insane. Prophets are people who have enough faery ancestry to prophesy sometimes, which gives them a lower likelihood of insanity than a full faery…while leaving them more likely to go crazy than the average whatever-else-they-are.

Usually, mixing faery with some other race results in prophets with some measure of control over their gift, or at least they don’t suffer from it regularly. Human prophets are usually quite stable. But thanks to a spell done badly, my sister, Silva, will go insane someday, either from her magic or from being twin to our magic-insane brother.

Magic gets funny with twins.

That leaves Mother and me as the only two who are entirely sane…which puts a lot of life’s the day-to-day work on the two of us. Thus why it isn’t unusual for me to leave school early or to miss class entirely. Between that and some other things—my family used to be noble, but we lost that before I was old enough to remember the governess—I’m the least-educated in the family.

The worst about it is that people assume I’m stupid because I don’t know things that nobody ever taught me. The only part of my family that pays me any mind are Mother and her siblings, but they all work and have little time to bother with me.

Today I notice Aunt Trelanna—Mother’s sister—in the doorway. I start packing up, even before she catches the attention of the headmaster, who’s her brother and one of my uncles. Uncle likes to teach.

Uncle glances at me and addresses Aunt in a low tone, in another language, but the inflection reveals it as a question. She answers in the same tongue, and soon she and I are outside the building and on our way toward her shop—or toward the city gate near her shop, which opens to the bridge that leads to the castle.

As I keep up with my aunt’s waddle down the late afternoon street, I scuff my boots against the cobblestones. “Mother’s working?”

Mother is the king’s head cook, though I’m unclear on if that started before or after Father lost his noble title. So even though she’s busy a lot, particularly when preparing for holiday season, she has lackeys she can leave at work while she picks me up. Aunt Trelanna, who’s the personal seamstress and tailor for the royal family, doesn’t really have anyone she can leave to mind her shop when she isn’t there. She’s usually who I help, when the family needs me to work, even though I’m old enough to help Mother in the kitchens.

I do know how to cook, but Mother usually prefers to have me help her sister…maybe because the head matron of the castle, Morgana, loathes my family. I’m not sure why, but she and a lot of the other maids are brutal. Silva has to put up with it, because she’s a prophet and therefore works directly for the king, Uncle Aldrik, but since I don’t have to, maybe Mother would rather I not do so.

Aunt Trelanna wheezes a bit. “When is that woman not working?”

I shrug. Mother gets so sick on her moontime that she can’t work, so she has to make up the missed hours sometime, but I’m not about to say that outright. “When she’s sleeping?”

Aunt snorts, and we continue on in silence that’s at least partially due to her difficulty breathing while she waddles so quickly. As much as I hate being so much bigger than all the other girls my age, at least it’s only from the giant in my ancestry. I’m not fat, like her.

The guards at the city gate know us by sight, and they let us pass without comment. We step onto the bridge that separates the city from the castle grounds. I strain to feel something, anything, from the water below, but nothing changes.

My magic will be solidifying any month, now, leaving me able to use it. Water magic runs in the family because of Uncle Aldrik’s royal magic, which ties to this river. Grandfather was a fire mage, for example, and I think the aunt who died before the takeover was an air. Part of me hopes that I’ll have faery magic, like my brother and sister, but most of me prays to the Creator that I won’t be a prophet. I don’t want to go insane.

I’m not so terrified of the risks that I’ll avoid using magic, though. Even my brother would’ve been fine if he’d only bothered to spend a little more time setting up the spell that drove him insane. Magic’s perfectly usable, as long as you’re careful.

And as long as you don’t have one of the dangerous forms of it.

We reach the gate to the castle entrance. The castle is a village of its own, really, with walls and gates to keep out the city. These guards likewise ignore us as we pass through.

By the time we reach the servant halls, I realize we’re headed for the family’s suite, and I outpace my aunt and enter my family’s main room several steps ahead of her. I find one of the Runners—castle messengers—standing at the window, staring out. William’s my age, and I know him because he’s who my royal uncle usually sends with messages for my family. He’s proof that Uncle Aldrik isn’t above breaking the labor laws, himself, if he wants to see even a too-young child cared for.

“What are you doing here?” I ask.

He pivots on his heel and glances at me with sad eyes. As Aunt Trelanna enters the doorway, he meets her gaze and shakes his head. Aunt deflates and looks away.

All Runners know proper court decorum and are necessarily hard to rattle, so William’s expression makes my mouth go dry. “What? What’s wrong?” My voice quivers. “Is it Silva?”

William looks to the floor for a long moment, then glances pointedly at the side table by the fireplace, where Father keeps his chess set.

A chess set that’s no longer there.

I draw a sharp breath. “Father’s leaving?”

“Appears that way,” he says quietly. “Some of the hunting party’s returned, and they found…”

I flinch. I know what they found—or rather, whom. I was an infant when the family made the arrangements that mean I see my father rarely enough as it is, and once she gets here…

My eyes burn, and a sob catches in my throat. “Don’t I get to say good-bye?”

William and my aunt exchange another meaningful look. Even this boy knows more about what’s going on with my family than I do and he’s just a castle hireling. I try not to think about it, but my stomach sours.

“He isn’t back yet,” William replies, “but your mother’s prepping everything for him to leave as soon as possible. We’ll try to get him to stay a day or so, to make a proper fare-thee-well, but Elwyn’s a stubborn one.”

“We?” Since when was my father on a first-name basis with the Runners?

He pauses, glancing again at my aunt. “His Majesty has tasked me to help delay your father’s departure.”

“You?” I ask stupidly, not comprehending why Uncle Aldrik would task a boy my age with that job. “Not Head Matron Morgana?”

“It’s best she be left out of this.” William’s expression softens. “People ignore Runners, for the most part, so we can be good for certain…quiet jobs.”

“Just be careful,” Aunt Trelanna says. “That woman is vicious.”

If she’s so problematic, why doesn’t Uncle Aldrik fire her?

William smiles, though it doesn’t reach his eyes. “Yes.”

My aunt grimaces and flushes. “Well. Thank you for alerting me so I could fetch Geddis,” she manages to say. “Need anything else before I go back to my shop?”

“No, thank you.” William answers politely.

Aunt nods and gives me a weak smile before scurrying out, away from the Runner…who bothered to see me alerted about what was going on, even though my mother and sister have not. Had it been up to them, would I have even gotten to say good-bye to Father, before he left?

I take a deep breath. Mother’s probably been too busy to find one of the Runners who’ll actually deign take messages for her. I’m sure she could use some help, and while I’m here…I might as well.

And though I can’t say what gives me the idea and she never goes there, somehow I know I’ll find her in the second travel pantry.

Year 533, New Calendar - I

THE TELVEN REALM OF BREIDENTEL

Late Autumn

Sometimes, I hate myself.

Eating at a king’s table is not one of those times, even though the king’s wife is insane and began life as a charity case that my uncle, King Aldrik of Salles, took pity on, after she saved my sister’s life.

That charity case-turned-queen consort, Lallie Nonsire, is drenched in blood, as if she bathed in it. She killed this realm’s previous king and has probably finished off all the guards who owned more loyalty than prudence. Her husband, King Liathen II of Marsdenfel, now rules this realm, Breidentel, in addition to his own, Marsdenfel.

I guess Lallie’s a good choice for him, if he wants to make a habit of this sort of thing. As a Shifter freak who can change into a wildcat at will and heal almost instantly from injury, she can wipe out a platoon of soldiers and likely survive. Magic-insane people don’t handle threats well, and this realm’s previous king tried to kill her friends a time too many. Or maybe Lallie just snapped when the king decided to use her cousin Tuelzi for target practice.

Beside me, Tuelzi—who’s a freak like Lallie but takes longer to heal and isn’t nearly as crazy—hands me some butter for my bread.

“Thank you.” I was young when Father lost his estate to others’ political scheming, but Father and my sister, Silva, both still have ranks of their own, thanks to their abilities to prophesy. That means they practice the etiquette I don’t get to use. Kitchen maids don’t sit and eat with their betters.

I’m a guest right now, though, because my uncle King Aldrik of Salles needed me to Find—magically track down—Lallie. Today’s a glimpse at what I should have been.

And today reminds me why, when one of my royal relatives or their spouses start pitching fits about being highborn, I want to slap them silly. Don’t they understand what they have?

A queen won’t go hungry if she’s sick and can’t afford to work or buy food. A queen doesn’t have to work her hands raw, scrubbing the pots by her lonesome because the scullery maids have decided to go dally with their men. People don’t spot a queen in the hallways and snicker, gossiping about what a shame it is that the faery blood skipped that one, because she certainly won’t fetch a husband for her looks.

Lallie eats readily, most of it meat, and the rest of it bread and butter. Blood from her hands and clothes contaminates her food, but she doesn’t seem to notice.

She’s a Shifter; she can smell and see the blood far better than I can. I’m only human, with a bit of giant and a little more faery in me. The human gives me the family water magic, and the fae gives me the finding magic. The giant, the blood I have least of, just makes me big. I’m as broad as Silva and a good head shorter.

Might have been better if I were more like Aunt Trelanna and outright fat. At least then I’d be interesting to look at, rather than disproportionate.

“Is there a problem, Housemaid Feyim?” King Liathen asks, tone calm.

I grit my teeth at the question, one that calls me a servant even as it mentions my surname, which stems from my prophetess of a grandmother, who got my family in a mess where only a few of her descendants would benefit from her faery blood. What idiot decides to give an unmarried king an illegitimate son? “Your Majesty?”

The elfin king looks through me as he gestures at my platter of…whatever we were served. “You aren’t eating.”

“Some of us don’t eat as much as your wife,” I answer.

Uncle Aldrik—my king because I’m a native of Salles, a human realm—raises an eyebrow at me. The aforementioned wife ignores me, but Lallie’s like that. She’ll ignore your insults up until she decides she’s had enough. Then she kills you.

“Geddis,” Silva says sharply. “Mind your manners.”

I look pointedly over the blood-soaked Lallie. “Where are hers?”

“She the queen,” replies Tuelzi, Lallie’s much-bruised cousin. The dead king that Lallie murdered this morning was Tuelzi’s father, and I think Lallie offed her brother and mother in the aftermath. I know she killed a lot of Tuelzi’s half-siblings last year, since the old king had a lot of baseborn children, and he used the lot of them as soldiers and pawns.

Tuelzi doesn’t seem bothered by the deaths of her parents and siblings, though, as she grins at Lallie and says something in a language I don’t speak. Probably the language of those healing freaks, since Lallie replies.

King Liathen’s mild manner reminds me of Uncle Aldrik’s, so I doubt he’s as oblivious as he seems. “Would you prefer something else to eat?”

I look at my plate. “No, thank you.” I take another bite of fruit—fruit! for supper?—and vegetables I mostly recognize from the few stories my father’s told me about the years he lived here.

Years in which my mother died, my sister got engaged, and I grew up.

King Liathen’s half-sister, Evonalé, is the reason my father missed so much of my life. I could call King Liathen the fault, too, if I squint, since his own safety was tied up in hers. But I’m not that petty.

I pick at the beets. Not my favorite, but my stomach’s getting upset, and there’s no lemon balm available. Have to take the remedies where I can get them. With the butter and…cassia, I think that is, these are pretty good. For beets, at least.

A neatly dressed elf in the uniform of maids everywhere—clean, plain, and rough quality fabric—approaches me and fumbles through a curtsy. She says something, her gaze darting toward Lallie. I can only assume she’s using telvish, the native language of this realm.

“Dessert?” Tuelzi asks matter-of-factly in her accented mountaineer.

“Thank you.” Most wouldn’t bother to translate for a maid, but as the former king’s baseborn daughter by one of his mistresses, Tuelzi’s as outside the proper structure as I am, at the moment. At least my current displacement is temporary. “What is it?”

Tuelzi addresses the maid in a quick, clipped cadence that seems more her than the language in general from what little I’ve heard of it. The local dialect, telvish, sounds…different than the felvish I hear more often, though I can’t quite identify how. She turns to me with a frown. “Saltbread pie?”

I blink. Hard to forget she’s elfin—seriously, she’s like a taller, curvier version of King Liathen’s half-sister…who married my cousin, Prince Aidan, last year. And that girl, Evonalé, speaks far better mountaineer than Tuelzi does. “What?”

She shrugs helplessly and calls over to Lallie, again—switching languages, by the sound of it—and gestures as she explains something.

Lallie wrinkles her nose, then turns to me, mirroring her cousin Tuelzi’s frown. “Sounds like a fruit-and-cream pie variant that uses crunchy rope bread for the crust.”

My father perks up and says a word.

The maid nods as she curtsies to him.

My father smiles broadly at my uncle. “It’s delicious. You’ll like it.”

Uncle Aldrik nods acknowledgement and gestures lightly with his fingers to tell the maid that he’ll take some. “What fruit is it?”

My father asks, the maid answers, and he turns to Uncle Aldrik and says, “Apple.”

Apple? Of all the options available in autumn, apple is the best that the royal cook for this realm can come up with?

The dessert sounds interesting, though. “I’ll try some.”

Tuelzi briskly translates for me.

The maid sweeps out and quickly returns with the three-layered dessert. She serves High King Liathen first and offering some to Lallie—who flatly refuses by shaking her head—and then Uncle Aldrik. After that, she gives some Father, Silva, and the little honey-skinned woman sitting with Uncle Aldrik.

I’m next. I poke at my serving with my fork. Whipped cream tops the concoction, and the fruit’s been gelled together, somehow, atop the crunchy crust that looks browned by sugar. “Odd.”

Tuelzi accepts her own dessert. “Enjoy.”

I shrug. Not a huge fan of apple, but…

I take a bite. There’s salt in the crust, so that part’s salty and sweet. The cream has vanilla and cane sugar, and the apple… Hmm…

Definitely not the sour pie apples, but it isn’t the soft sweet ones, either. These have a bit of crisp to them, with sugar and a touch of nutmeg and allspice in the gel.

I like this—salty and sweet, smooth and crisp. “What kind of apples are these?”

Tuelzi blinks at me blankly. The maid shrugs helplessly.

Nobody else seems to hear my question, all focused on enjoying their own desserts.

Except for Lallie. She isn’t eating dessert, and she definitely heard me, but she’s still stuffing her face. She came late to dinner, but that woman eats more than a full-blooded giant. And most of it meat.

I focus on my dessert, picking off a little of the apple to eat that separately. I’m not sure I’ve ever had that particular variety, before.

The maid taps my shoulder. I look up at her. She curtsies and offers me a fresh apple—the kind used in the dessert, I presume.

Not even my family notice my interests like that. “Thank you.”

She curtsies again—I guess communication methods are limited, since we don’t share a language—and scans the table. She leaves and returns with a pitcher of water, and she refills my half-empty glass before proceeding to everyone else.

Treating me, housemaid to King Aldrik, as if I, too, am a highborn guest. As if I’m nobility. Which I was born.

Which I was born, because my grandfather gave his illegitimate son—my father—a title before he died. A title that other nobles of Salles forced my father to give up, so Uncle Aldrik could pass another law he needed.

So just like that, I was born nobility and downgraded to commoner, all before subadulthood.

My father’s never told me what law Uncle needed so badly, but I can guess: Something to protect Evonalé or her mother. Uncle Aldrik and my father gave up a lot to protect that paranoid klutz. Uncle Aldrik lost his wife and daughter to Evonalé’s half-sister.

I lost my mother to death, and my father to distance, as he spent years negotiating with other elven realms to mitigate the damage done by the enslavement of their high realm. Evonalé—and my cousin Aidan—broke the slavery, letting Liathen be crowned as high king, but… His mother was illegitimate, just as my father was, which caused problems in its own and led to Lallie killing this realm’s ruler to protect her husband.

Noblemen have no problem with enticing a maid to lift her skirts. But Creator forbid that the woman has a child by it, especially when the man beds the woman regularly and keeps her.

And Creator forbid that a baseborn child—like my father, or the mother of Evonalé and High King Liathen both—actually marry and have legitimate children of his or her own.

I’m legitimate, daughter of a prophet, but my surname, Feyim, still tracks back to that mistress of Jarvis, the man who developed an army and conquered Salles.

I don’t remember my grandfather. I was five when he died. I never hear my father or Uncle Aldrik talk about missing him, though, so I guess that means something.

The maid sweeps back in and briskly refills my water before the glass is empty, and she gives me another dish of dessert.

I blink, startled by her attention. “Thank you.” I could get used to being pampered like this.

Could, but won’t. Because soon we’ll be headed home, for me to return to my duties of being the maid serving everyone else and picking up the slack when other maids decide to treat themselves to a holiday, because my uncle shouldn’t have to worry about things like the laundry, even if the soap does tear up my hands.

Evonalé’s sensitive skin got her exempted from laundry duty, when she was in hiding and living as one of Uncle Aldrik’s castle maids—not that maids are usually tutored with the crown prince, nor given their choice of the jobs.

My sensitive skin results in Morgana, the head matron for Uncle Aldrik’s castle, assigning me to laundry duty more often. I don’t know why she hates me so much, even more than she does Evonalé.

Morgana’s hatred of Evonalé is understandable. The girl’s a nuisance—paranoid, clumsy, and hapless—and then her bloodline is illegitimate and incestuous. Evonalé sews better than I do, but all she did was sew, knit, and embroider.

I have to cook, clean, and launder, too. I’m far better at housework than she is. I’m even legitimate.

Or maybe Morgana doesn’t hate me more than she hates Evonalé. She just knows that others would interfere if she gave the girl a hard time. My cousin, Crown Prince Aidan of Salles, perhaps. Or even my sister or Lallie.

Me? Years ago, a magic-loving parasite attacked Salles and killed my aunt and cousin. It targeted me, too. I was dying. And nobody bothered to notice. Or care.

I gulp my water, knocking back the memories, and start on my third plate of dessert.

I wonder if it would be ill-mannered of me to leave the maid a few cesses for her efforts. Likely so.

The next morning, I wake before dawn, as I always do, but guests don’t have to work or make breakfast for their kings, so I stay in bed awhile. The mattress is softer than mine back home, with better sheets and a prettier room, though I’m nothing more than a contractor a foreign king brought with him to visit.

As much as I’d like to—who knows when I’ll get another chance to laze about?—I can’t fall back asleep.

I sigh and get up as dawn turns the sky orange outside my window. I have to go up on tiptoe to get a good peek, but this high up in the Dwaline Mountains, even that glimpse is breathtaking.

The chance to watch a sunrise over beautiful landscape—yet another opportunity I might never get again. Maids have to work to feed themselves and their families. They don’t get to go on vacations and tour the countryside. They don’t get to visit other realms.

I haul the one chair over to the window—when I move furniture is the one time I thank the Creator that I’m part giant—and stand on the seat. I watch the sun rise, painting the sky and trees in shades of orange and gold and yellow and red…

It’s gorgeous.

I don’t want to go back to Salles, back to working myself to the point of pain—daily—while everyone mocks me when they can pretend I can’t hear them. Everyone—nobility and middle class alike—sniggers about me to my face, doing worse behind my back. I’m big, mannish, and all my immediate family is dead, absent, or going insane. Girls like me don’t have marriage prospects.

No marriage prospects and scorned by all. Sounds like a courtesan. A mistress. A leman.

As the sun clears the rock face below, a thought strikes me: If I’m going to be hated anyway—if I’m going to be denied a husband—why not take advantage of that?

Why not?

I can read, write, do sums. I know some of the upper-class etiquette—enough to know when a book is feeding me a bunch of bullycock. I can read, educate myself so a man might seek my company for my conversation, since I can’t attract anyone with my body.

One man, that’s all I’d need—one patron willing to give me the veil in exchange for things his wife won’t give him.

Lords are out of the question—they lack titles, won’t inherit, and would leave me needing more than one lover in order to support myself. Esseres or other lesser nobility would have a similar problem. Greater nobility like attares might work, but…

Lemans at those levels still have to prove themselves for every new patron. Their previous patronage doesn’t transfer as a reference—they have to start from scratch, unless a nobleman happens to boast about his woman to another, to care to see that the woman has continued support isn’t likely to happen.

And finding one man will be difficult enough, for me. Especially since I want children. Lemans who bear children lose their jobs, if not their heads.

…Royals’ lemans can have children.

And if the royal gives her the veil—calling her his woman, for as long as the veil remains—if she bears his child while wearing the veil, she’ll be his concubine, set for life.

Or as long as the realm’s current dynasty lasts. But I have enough faery blood in me that I probably only have forty more years, maybe forty-five. Faeries don’t often live past sixty. Humans often live to eighty or ninety. But as human as I look, my magic says my faery side dominates.

So forty years—that’s short enough time. I don’t want to spend it working my days away, despised when I’m not ignored. At least a leman gets her patron’s attention, when he wants use of her.

But my king is my uncle, his heir my cousin—and neither of them are the type to give a girl a veil, anyway. This realm’s king is dead, recently killed by Lallie.

Who could I target, to seek for him to give me the veil?

Who might even be willing? I’m a maid, one with more exposure than most to other realms, but still a commoner. I have to know of a realm’s ruler to know if he’d be worth propositioning.

My father wouldn’t approve. Despite the little foreign woman Uncle Aldrik has clinging to his side, he wouldn’t, either. My cousin, Aidan, definitely wouldn’t.

So who would I even ask for help with this, to better myself? I can’t ask family, and the others I know who would share that information would be tremendous gossips, and I’d have all the rakes pounding at my door, banking on my faery blood, youth, and inexperience making me gullible.

If I’m going to bed a man, I at least want to be able to have children by him. And if I’m going to give up good job prospects, he’d better see me cared for, even after he tires of me.

So it has to be concubinage.

I’ve heard rumor that Evonalé installed her dead half-brother’s leman as her seneschal. Maybe I could finagle a visit to Grehafen—to check on cousin Aidan, since nobody would believe me if I said I was worried about Evonalé—and ask that former leman. She should know enough to give me some advice, at least, since she’s worn the veil, herself.

Surely there’s someone closer to home that I can ask.

A sharp rap at the door interrupts my musings.

My chemise covers enough to be proper for family or fellow servants, and they’re the only ones that would deign visit me. And if I’m going to do this, I’d better get over any hang-ups I have about modesty. I answer the door as I am.

Lallie stands there.

She doesn’t even have the grace to look uneasy or self-conscious about the oddity of a king’s consort visiting a maid. She just gives me that look she used when we were both maids and she caught me doing something my mother or sister would’ve forbade, had they known I was doing it.

She’s little more than a decade older than me, but she acts as if she’s my mother.

I scowl at her. “What do you want?”

“You need to apologize.”

To her? Hardly. I haven’t done anything to make her cat side want to gut me.

Her expression turns to an outright frown. “Geddis. You were downright rude to Liathen. The boy did his part, and you walked all over him.”

“I wasn’t hungry.”

Lallie gives me a flat look. She doesn’t tap her nose or ear or eye, to remind me that her senses far surpass any human’s, but she doesn’t need to. “He get enough of that from his fellow elves. He don’t need it from you.”

What business is it of hers, how I act? “You aren’t my keeper.”

Her eyes are a pretty cherrywood color, but she’s so strange and crazy that their normalcy looks all the more frightening when her insanity adds a glint to them. “No, I be the boy’s keeper, and I won’t suffer none who bring him harm.”

I snort. “As you made obvious when you killed this realm’s king, yesterday morning. Any of that blood yours, that you were—I’m sorry, are—wearing?”

She frowns and follows my gaze to her right hand’s smallest fingernail, which still has a bit of blood under the edge. She shrugs and chews on it to work the blood out with her teeth and tongue.

I wrinkle my nose. “You’re disgusting.”

“And you’re a boor,” she replies, her tone as matter-of-fact as usual—I once would’ve said ‘as always’, but that was before I’d witnessed what happens when she isn’t together, when the insanity takes over.

I still suck in a breath. That insult’s rich, coming from her. “I am not a peasant.”

Whereas she was born a barbaric nomad, grew up in a city orphanage, and somehow met my sister Silva enough to be friends with her. And Uncle Aldrik seems to like her, too, even while he’s leery of her.

Lallie watches me blandly. “You will apologize?”

“Will it get me breakfast?”

Once, she would’ve sighed or teased me in return. Now, she just scowls, something wild entering her gaze. “I can arrange that.” A growl colors her words.

My skin prickles on the back of my neck. Doing as she says would be good for my health.

I take a deep breath and nod my agreement. “All right,” I croak.

Her hearing’s good enough that she doesn’t so much as incline her head to catch what I say. “I’ll send breakfast.”

It’s blackmail, so I don’t thank her—not that she waits for me to, before she leaves.

I shut the door and get dressed.

Breakfast—delivered by a girl child who looks too young to be a maid, but it’s hard to tell with elves, because they’re all so inhumanly slender—is vodka and some mashed yam, with butter, allspice, molasses, and what might be a dash of goat’s milk.

I’d prefer water to alcohol in the morning, but I don’t know elvish, to be able to ask for it, and I don’t think any of the servants speak mountaineer. The alcohol burns my throat, and my back soon doesn’t hurt nearly as much as it usually does.

Another brisk knock interrupts my morning when I’m finishing up.

I gather my skirts as I stand, so they don’t catch on the carvings on the edges of the chair. The rap was different, so I don’t think it’s Lallie, but it’s best to be careful—

“Open the door, Geddis.” The voice belongs to Silva, my sister, who’s one of the royal prophets for Uncle Aldrik and who got to marry a faery.

Far be it from her to open a door for herself. I sigh and let her in. “What do you—”

She shuts the door behind me and stumbles toward the chairs, her hazel eyes wide and wild. “Don’t drop it all,” she jabbers.

Blackfires. She’s on her time of month to during which she magically hears things people might’ve said under other circumstances, and she’s Hearing something bad. “Silva?”

“You’ll rue it if you do.”

She loses her footing, and I step back so she doesn’t brush against me as she falls. I can’t afford to touch her, not when she’s like this. She could drive me insane, too.

Take deep breaths; stay calm. Two of the most important things to do when faced with a faery—whether fully faery or a part-faery prophet—who isn’t exactly together, at the moment. “Silva?”

Only person I know who can touch her when she’s like this is Lallie, but that Tuelzi is a healing freak, too, so she should be good with it.

Silva flails for me. I dodge before she catches my bodice.

Her wide-eyed gaze somehow stares both at and through me at the selfsame time. “Seek what you have, else rue what you gain!”

Blackfires, I hope she’s still together under whatever her magic’s doing to her, right now. She’s young to be lost to the insanity already, and while I don’t like her husband, I don’t dislike him, either.

“Careful. I’ll be right back.” I slip out and slam the door shut behind me.

Silva tries to follow me, but I keep her from opening the door with my weight. Once she gives up rattling the door—hopefully because she’s gotten enough of a handle on her magic to sit in a chair, not because she’s slumped on the floor with a knot on her head from falling—I head down the hall for the closest servants’ workroom. I learned the patterning on those doors while the maid escorted me to my room, last night.

I catch someone carrying a basin of water. The sight of the reed-thin person carrying a basin thrice as wide as he is makes me flinch, but not so much that I forget to ask, “Tuelzi?”

The man shifts the basin aside enough so he can blink at me. “Tuelzi?” The tone admits he knows who she is; he’s just startled that I’d ask for her.

I nod widely, quickly—enough for him to know yes, I’m serious, but not so much that I get folks panicked and rushing to check on Silva. That’s the worst thing that could be done for her, when her magic’s giving her trouble. “Tuelzi.”

He shows me the way, still carrying that basin. Its weight doesn’t seem to bother him much, even though elves are downright corn stalks compared to humans.

I knock on the doorjamb. Tuelzi opens the door promptly—so promptly that she isn’t even dressed. And she evidently sleeps nude.

Her curly hair is actually pretty nice for having just woken up. Wonder if that long braid’s the secret, because I’ve never seen her wear that in the daytime. Her bruises are almost all gone, too, evidence of her freakish healing abilities, and her flesh has both the wiry muscle common to elves and the softer curves common to humans.

She blinks blearily at the servant and says something in one of the languages I don’t speak. The man replies with a nod at me, so it was likely the local form of elvish, which is called telvish.

Tuelzi looks at me, not bothering to angle her limbs to shield her body from view. “Problem.” She rubs her eyes and heads back in her room.

Before I can say anything, she returns with gauzy muddy green clothing draped over her shoulder, and tall soft-soled leather boots in her hands. The undyed boots look useful, but that blouse doesn’t look like enough to cover her.

Then again, unless her personal definition of ‘modest’ has changed in the past year, all she cares about is covering her bust and privies. Stomach, shoulders, cleavage—all’s fair game to display, to her. From how casually she’s walking around nude, maybe modesty is a foreign concept to the healing freaks in general. I’d thought that Lallie’s lack of it was a cat thing.

Tuelzi gestures with her hand while in the middle of hopping to put one boot on without sitting down or dropping any of her clothing. “Lead.”

I head back toward my room—I’d paid attention on my way there. Tuelzi jumps about, stumbles into things, and curses in ways and languages I’ve never heard before, as she gets dressed while following.

She keeps up with me, though. Somehow.

We turn the hall before my door, and Uncle Aldrik stands there with a scowl, the little foreign woman from last night at his side. The woman—who I’d never seen in my life, before the past day or so—notices us at the same moment Uncle does, and her reaction’s similar to his: poised to fight or flee, as necessary.

“How do you two know each other?” I don’t expect them to answer, but maybe he’ll bother to introduce her.

“Silva?” Uncle asks, ignoring my question, because of course he wouldn’t come looking for me if not seeking my sister, one of his prophets.

I sigh. “In my room. She’s having a bad spell. I figured that Tuelzi’s enough like Lallie to be able to help with her.”

“Tuelzi?” Uncle Aldrik’s hazel gaze goes to the woman behind me—and the woman with him is already smiling at Tuelzi, as if she knows her.

“Sylvair!” Tuelzi passes me and bends nearly in half to give the little foreign woman a hug. Their conversation bounces into another language—maybe more than one, because I think I recognize a little seafarthen in there.

So her name’s Sylvair. Now, how does she know my uncle?

Something flutters to the floor. I pick it up.

It’s Tuelzi’s blouse.

Walking around topless in front of my uncle, one of the most powerful kings in the region. Thank the Creator he isn’t the type to take that the wrong way. “Tuelzi?”

Sylvair snatches the gauzy fabric from my hands and helps Tuelzi put it on—and Sylvair’s wearing the same style, from the lace-up leather boots to the wide loose single-layer skirt to the hardly-there blouse that stays put thanks to a knot between the breasts. Except Sylvair’s boots look to be rougher leather, more for hard walking; and her blouse and skirt are white; and the style looks far less…inappropriate, on her.

Whatever Sylvair and Tuelzi say to each other, Tuelzi straightens her posture and lets herself into my room, taking care not to hit anything as she opens the door. I don’t understand what she says, either.

“Uncle?” Silva says weakly.

As if that was what he was waiting for, Uncle Aldrik doesn’t even look at me when he barges in my assigned rooms without my permission. I bet he wouldn’t have done that to Evonalé.

“Silva,” Uncle says. “You remember Tuelzi? You met—”

“Yesterday. I remember.” My sister still sounds weak. I stay in the hall and grip my own elbows. Silva’s never a pretty sight, after one of her spells.

And I have just enough faery magic in me that I’m too likely to go insane to be worth marrying. Not enough magic to be of use, but plenty to be avoided. Faeries tend to end up insane. And some types, like my sister, always do, eventually.

“Is my aunt going to come in?”

Uncle Aldrik is married? Since when?

Sylvair sighs heavily and shakes her head as she takes the hint and enters my room to say hello.

Sylvair Jarvim, then. Queen Consort Sylvair Jarvim.

When did Uncle remarry? Aunt Mataine died around the same time as my mother, though the killer differed between the two of them. The cause was the same, though: Evonalé.

Just about all the bad things of my life stem from her. Hiding her. Protecting her from her family. Killing her sadistic family. And my cousin Aidan, the crown prince of Salles, even married her, so I’m expected to like the girl.

Evonalé’s a paranoid, clumsy nuisance who’s ended up with everything she ever wanted at the cost of everything I ever had. So she had to watch when her father murdered her mother. That didn’t give her the right to be the death of mine. Her godmother never troubled us before Evonalé came around.

“Geddis,” Silva says wearily. “Do you mind?”

She’s said before that I’m not the best person to be around when she’s at the time of month to Hear.

I take a slow, deep breath, squeeze my elbows, and let go so I can take up my skirts. “I’ll fetch you some breakfast. Have fun in my rooms.”

Petty of me to say that, but how are they so observant when it comes to Evonalé or Lallie, while they’re completely oblivious about me? I’m her sister. I’m his niece.

Tears sting my eyes, but I raise my chin and don’t let them fall. I can’t keep putting up with this. I can’t spend the rest of my forty years hoping one of them notices I’m fond of green, or that I like dates, or that I have a touchy stomach.

I can’t.

I’ve tried the ‘proper’ way. I’ve tried prospecting for husbands. I’ve tried conversation. I’ve tried being a good little worker, getting everything done I’m asked to, and doing it sooner than expected. Blackfires, I’ve told them how, thanks to their negligence, I nearly died from the same thing that killed Aunt Mataine and her daughter.

The proper ways aren’t working.

I’m stuck in this body, too big and broad to be anything but ugly, these rough hands, this poor means of livelihood. Ignored by those who should care, and despised by everyone else.

At least a courtesan or concubine gets noticed by her patron, whenever he wants her to warm his bed.

Makish can take ‘proper’ down with him to the Netherwold.

I find food by miming eating to a servant. That servant takes me past at least one other kitchen before leading me to a small one that must be reserved for either royalty or guests, because Liathen and Lallie are there.

Lallie perches on the counter in the center of this kitchen, watching over her husband’s shoulder as he briskly whisks what must be two dozen eggs in a large skillet that sits over a cookfire.

There’s something downright strange to see High King Liathen of both Marsdenfel and this realm cooking while his lowborn former-servant wife watches.

“I need breakfast for Silva.” I haven’t seen the maid from dinner last night, nor the one who brought me my yams this morning.

King Liathen’s less human than Evonalé, but for some reason, he isn’t nearly as thin. He’s slender without being petite, and his muscles have good definition—something I can see because he evidently decided that trousers were plenty modest for venturing out in public.

He turns to me, his arms and chest flexing with the motion. “Would eggs do?”

My face warms, but from when I’ve checked it in mirrors, I know that the heat rarely means a blush shows. “Why wouldn’t they?”

He puts out a hand, and Lallie hands him a dish of something that he dumps in the eggs. She hops off the counter and grabs a large knife from behind her husband. I skitter back to make sure I’m out of her way.

“Allergies, perhaps,” Lallie grabs something red and starts dicing it into bits as small as a newborn’s pinky. Smells like tomato.

He nods to her. “Thank you.”

“You’re cooking?” I ask, surprised. My cousin Aidan cooks sometimes, but that’s because Uncle Aldrik made my cousin help Mother out in the kitchens on Praisedays, so he’d at least know how to cook, if a coup ever cost him his station.

He grabs a seasoning from a nearby drawer and sprinkles some in. Nutmeg? “Telves don’t break their fast for several more hours.”

That doesn’t make sense. I was served breakfast. “Aren’t you their king, now?” Since Lallie, his wife, killed the previous one.