VIII

June 28th

368 AFA

Despite being ordered by Leona to let the past alone, Mira began spending more and more time outside the palace walls. Most of that time was devoted to reading up on the names inscribed in the Hall of Heroes. She had her own table in Taelaes-Talang's massive library, and she covered it with books of history. She spent her time scouring every page, looking for a name that sounded familiar. There had to be a connection somewhere.

Why do I care? She asked herself that question a lot. Why do I care? My parents are dead. I shouldn't care about finding them. But it wasn't about just knowing who her parents had been. It was knowing where she came from. She might have other family, aunts and uncles, who wanted to meet her, who thought that she was dead, as well.

Despite all her research, she knew her efforts wouldn't amount to anything. The key to the secrets of the first four years of her life lay under her gloves—the gloves she couldn't remove without Leona's permission. If she had been a mage, perhaps she could have found a way to break the enchantment. As it was, she knew that her task was futile. She would never know the truth unless Leona told her.

Mira slammed a volume shut and shoved it away from her in disgust. She knew that she should stop looking; she was never going to find any answers. But Leona had been right. Now that she had started on her quest, it had turned into an obsession that gnawed at her for her every waking moment. With a great deal of effort, she managed to make herself leave the table, and then the library entirely.

On the wide marble steps that led up the building, she tilted her head back, drinking in the fresh air. The sun was just setting, painting the sky a rainbow of colors, and the cool breezes that swept the city at night were just starting to blow. Mira spread her arms, embracing the city that had been her home for fourteen years, and spun in a circle, laughing.

"Well. You're certainly happy about something."

Mira spun to a stop, waited for the world to stop spinning around her, and then looked at her new companion. "Lance," she said in surprise. "What are you doing here?"

"Well, I was going to try and find something to entertain myself with during this long business stay," he said. His teeth flashed as a smile cut his face. "But it seems that I found something better. You're much more interesting than a book."

Mira smiled and bowed her head, hiding a blush. "Why, thank you," she said. "I like to think that I am, but other opinions seem to vary."

Lance shook his head. "I'm sure that they're just jealous." He held out his arm. "Walk with me."

Mira hesitated. "I should really be getting back to the palace," she said. "It's almost suppertime, and I always eat with Leona and Celestial. It's…it's sort of a tradition."

"Surely they won't miss you for just one night," Lance said. Mira thought she heard a hopeful tone in his voice.

"Well…" She knew better than to go with him. She really did. It had been drilled into her head over the years that she was a member of the royal family, that she wasn't to go anywhere with anyone unless she had an armed escort with her. But she was eighteen, an adult, and she knew how to take care of herself. "As long as it's not very long," she acquiesced, taking Lance's arm. "I can be late for dinner, but I can't miss it entirely."

xXxXxXx

Lance was now cursing his luck. He'd been stalking Mira for days, as she went to and from the library. He knew exactly when she went there, and exactly when she left. It had been easy to conveniently place himself in her path as she left for the day. He'd been hoping that she'd agree to a walk, a dinner. If he could get her away from the crowded streets, he easily would have been able to kill her.

Now, however, she had agreed to let him walk her, as long as it was on the crowded thoroughfares that led back to the palace. And now that they'd been in public sight for more than a few moments, they had picked up tails.

Lance was a fighter. He wasn't a mage, and he wasn't a spy, and he certainly wasn't an assassin. His method was brute force above all else, followed by charm. He didn't have the skills necessary to slip armed guards, especially not armed guards trained to care for the royal family. He knew that he could kill, if he had to, but that didn't mean he liked doing so, and Mira was probably a fighter herself; combat skills were prized in Korane, and Lance knew that Queen Leona employed teachers for herself and for Celestial. No doubt those same teachers would have taken on Mira.

Lance scowled at the thought of the guards that followed behind them in the crowd, and paced along the rooftops that lined the street. He put his hand over Mira's, making sure she stayed at his side.

"What, afraid I'm going to leave you?" she asked, smiling. "I'm going to have to, you know. We're not far from the palace, and I'm already late."

"Ah, I'm aware of that. I was just thinking of the work that keeps me from spending all of my time with beauties like yourself."

"You flatter me." Mira carefully removed her hand from Lance's grasp and arm as they came to a stop in front of the palace gates. "Thank you for escorting me, but I'm afraid we must part here. I can't spare any more time away from my family."

"Your family?" Lance raised an eyebrow. "But I thought you didn't know who they are."

"I—I don't," Mira stammered. "Not my blood family. But Leona and Celeste have been my family for as long as I can remember. They are my family, in every way that matters." She inclined her head to Lance in a stiff mockery of a bow. "Thank you for escorting me," she repeated, and turned away from him.

Two guards appeared out of the crowd and opened the gates for Mira. She walked through, back straight and head held high, looking every inch like the princess she was…by adoption, at least.

xXxXxXx

July 1st

368 AFA

Mira was sweltering in the ball gown she was wearing. Leona held a ball once a month and invited everyone of importance, and quite a few commoners, just to make sure that they felt included. She cared what her people thought about her, and the guest list to her functions was always changing. As princesses of the realm, Mira and Celestial were required to attend.

Mira fluttered her fan, trying to bring cool air to her face and neck. Her dress looked splendid on her, the ocean blue emphasizing the aqua undertones in her eyes and the froth of lace at the neckline hid her overly-prominent clavicles; waterfalls of lace at her wrists made her hands seem longer and more slender, despite the gloves she couldn't remove. It was a gorgeous dress, carefully designed to hide the features that came from her common blood.

Across the room, Celestial was a focal point of activity. She was dressed in gold to complement her silver eyes and hair, which had been threaded through with her normal golden beads and silver feathers. Her musical laugh split the air, and every eye in the world turned to look at her. She was the true belle of the ball here. She was the true princess.

Mira had her own crowd around her, but she wasn't paying attention to their constant chatter. She was more focused on how hot she was and how she was going to get out of the room. In winter, she loved the grand parties Leona threw. Now, however, they were days past the summer solstice, and the weather was sweltering. In the city, it wasn't so bad; there was a bit of a breeze, even during the day, and especially on the rooftops. In the ballroom of the palace, however, the air was still, even with all of the floor-to-ceiling glass doors open.

"What a lovely party. You, however, don't seem thrilled to be here."

Mira turned, fan still working, to look at Lance. "Lance," she said, only vaguely surprised. "How did you get onto the guest list?"

"I'm a visiting businessman," he said, shrugging. "I'm very important to the economy here in Korane. You're primarily—"

"A merchant nation," Mira cut in. "I know."

One of the courtiers, a fixture at all of Leona's parties, reached out and put a light hand on Lance's arm. "Excuse me, sir," he said, speaking as most nobles did to commoners, "but you haven't greeted the Princess properly."

"Ah. Excuse me, Your Highness," Lance said, taking a step back and bowing deeply. "Lance Moralle, at your service."

"It is a pleasure to have you here," Mira replied. She snapped her fan closed and curtsied, extending her hand.

Lance took it and brushed a kiss over her fingers before he straightened. "It's a pleasure to be here," he said.

There was a long silence, as every eye in the room focused on the strange man who had just been so friendly with the younger princess.

Finally, Mira withdrew her hand from his grasp and snapped her fan open, using it to veil her face. "Well," she said sharply, "enjoy the party." She turned and, skirts rustling, swept away from the crowd that had surrounded her, making her way around the edge of the dance floor to where Celestial stood.

The two sisters greeted each other with false cheer, and turned to a myriad of conversations with those that surrounded them.

The party soon turned to dancing, and the dance floor widened as the few couples who had moved with the music were replaced with many, all engaged in a sweeping waltz that carried them in circles around the room. Mira loved to dance, but she feared she would faint if she exerted herself in the heat. Breathing heavily, she escaped to one of the balconies that the floor-to-ceiling glass doors led out onto.

"You know," said Lance from beside her, "they say that the first Elven princess, Kariana Talang, built this palace out of—"

"Moonbeams," Mira said, turning to face Lance. She wasn't surprised that he had followed her. "I know."

"You seem to know a lot about this place of elves, in which you are a foreigner."

"I'm not a foreigner," Mira said softly. "This is my home. They are my people. They accept me, because Leona accepts me. There isn't anything more to it."

Lance was silent for a long moment. "Your mother," he started, "you adopted mother, Leona. The Queen. Her surname is…different from the others of the royal line. The regular surname is Talang, is it not? Princess Kariana bore it before Korane was even a true nation, and Princess Celestial bears it today. Is it different for Her Majesty because she is Queen, and not a princess?"

"No," Mira said softly. "She bears the name Talangdem because she did something horrible, once, and she pays retribution to this day. 'Dem' is a curse, a mark of shame. It means 'death' in the tongue of old." She lowered her head and looked away from Lance. "She is still Queen, and will be until she gives up the post or she is killed, but the people will never forgive her. Not entirely. The youth, they don't feel the pain of their parents, but elves are long-lived, and—Well. They will never truly forget."

"What did she do?"

"I am not at liberty to say that," Mira said. She looked directly at Lance. "You of all people should know that family secrets are meant to stay within the family, Lance Shaeras." She spat his last name, turning it into a curse. "Though this is not truly a secret at all, I will not disgrace my mother by telling the story of her fall under her own roof. Should you wish to know it, I suggest you brush up on your history. But you shall not do it in this city."

Lance stared at her. How had she figured out his last name? Did she know what he was here to do?

"You think that simply anyone can interact with a Princess?" Mira asked, seeing the question on his face. "I knew who you were the moment Jareth came to speak with me, the day we first met. He didn't let me go with you, not because my mother requested my presence, but because you're dangerous." Mira turned her back on Lance and began to walk back inside. "If you're gone by dawn," she called over her shoulder, "I'll forget that you were ever here, and Jareth will neglect to tell my mother that you were here to kill me." She stopped, half-turned, and smiled. "Not that you would have, anyway."

"How do you know that?" Lance demanded. "How do you know I wouldn't have killed you? That's what I was sent here to do!"

Mira actually laughed. "Oh, Lance," she said. "You may be many things: a warrior, a Keeper—yes, I know about that, too, though you never removed your gloves in my presence—the son of a rebel. You're all those things, and more, no doubt, but you are not an assassin." She shook her head, turned her back on him again, and entered the ball room. Within an instant, she was lost in the sea of bodies, and Lance had no idea where she was bound.

Now all he had to do was get out of the city, and fast. Leona's parties were not known for being short, and dawn was already approaching.