A/N: See? It hasn't been forgotten! I'm finally updating . . . You've probably read this already, but I'm updating everything this week. Already updated ATSMtPS and Across Time and Oceans . . . Of Humans and Fairies tomorrow on fanfiction, and lastly Court Spy on Wednesday.
I stared at the youth, completely taken aback. He just stood there, arms crossed, eyes watching, waiting. Teach him how to skip rocks? A bubble of hysterical laughter rose in my chest. This was insane. I could not really be outside in the middle of the night, dressed as a servant, teaching a foreign monarch how to skip rocks.
"Um," I said hesitantly, picking up the rock he had tossed towards me. "You - uh . . ."
"What, am I intimidating you?" he asked when I didn't go on.
"Um . . . well, uh . . ." I felt my cheeks redden. I sounded like a fool. Intimidating? Not precisely. Embarrassing me? Definitely. I wondered if there was any way for me to back out of this gracefully, without him realizing who I was. "I ought to leave," I muttered. Ten minutes ago I had been feeling adventurous and daring. Now I was wishing I could sneak back up to my room.
He made a sound of disgust; either at himself or at me, I couldn't tell. "I am scaring you. This is ridiculous." He waved a hand at the manor behind us. "Go on. I won't keep you."
I was tempted to do just that, but for some reason didn't want to leave the youth all by himself with such an . . . alone . . . look. If he was anyone else, I'd say he almost seemed lost. "Er, majesty?" I said, bobbing a curtsy again. "Shouldn't you be inside as well?"
"Concern? How touching." He looked into the pool, watching the wavering, silver reflection of the moon. "The moon's full here. In my country, it's only half full."
"Oh." Perhaps not the wittiest thing to say, but I wasn't feeling exactly brilliant at the moment. I stepped closer to him, and emboldened when he did not reprimand me, and the fact that he could have no idea who I was, I spoke plainly. "You're lonely, aren't you? So far away from your home." I sighed, thinking of Oren, Kayli, Ela, and Sonir, even my stepsiblings that I didn't get along with. "Me too. This place is completely foreign."
He gave me an odd look. "But you grew up here," he said, puzzled.
I blushed, embarrassed at having let that slip. "Um, not really. I just came here recently. . . It's a new job. And I'm not used to all the glamour."
"Glamour," he repeated dryly, cocking his head.
"Erm. The - the - everything all fancy-and-such," I said quickly. "Where I grew up, it's much plainer."
He nodded, the corners of his mouth turning up. "Of course it is," he murmured politely. He looked up towards the moon again, and it seemed to disappoint him, somehow, for that was the emotion on his face when he looked back at me. "I'm not really lonely," he said strongly, as if he felt the need to assert that.
"Aren't you?" I said lightly, then picked up a flat rock and skipped it across the water. One, two three . . . It sank, and we changed our gazes from the rock to each other's eyes.
"Chance," he said, then smirked. "Or Fate trying to show me up." He examined another flat rock. "I could never be lonely. I have my advisors, my servants, and every noble household on the way to Court along with Court itself. Loneliness is a myth created by romantic-minded ladies when their knights in shining armor rode off."
"I'm lonely," I said baldly, almost glad to be able to admit it. "I miss my - everyone I left behind in my old village."
~I'm sorry you're lonely.~
I almost started as a wolf's voice responded in my mind, rather then a human's aloud. ~I can howl for you,~ Saikki said helpfully, which from the image that went along with it, I gathered meant he would howl my grief and loneliness for the world to hear, as my poor body was not properly equipped to howl.
~Thank you,~ I thought with a smile. ~But I don't think I'll need a howl yet.~
~The human-youth does,~ Saikki projected. ~He smells unhappy.~
~I think he is,~ I thought back.
I started for the second time at hearing an unfamiliar voice. For a wild instant I thought he had overheard our thoughts, then realized he was referring to my previous statement. "I do miss them," I said truthfully, for after all, misery loves company. "It can be absolutely wretched, especially when everyone you love is gone."
He looked at me if I was an odd puzzle piece, then he lifted his head triumphantly as if he'd found where I fit. "You're an orphan," he said.
"Yes. I - I live with my stepmother now." I hoped I'd never run into the royal dressed as a servant again, because I would never be able to remember the mix of lies and truth I told. "You're also an orphan?" I asked him.
He looked at me strangely. "I am the king," he said. "I am much to old to be an orphan."
This time I looked at him strangely. "You can't be older then sixteen summers."
"Seventeen," he said, and looked as if he was trying hard not to laugh. "And though my father is gone, my mother is still alive. As you knew," he added, as if he couldn't believe I didn't know his history.
"I barely know my own royals, majesty. It has never occurred to me to learn the royalty of another."
He smirked. "Of course," he said, in that annoyingly knowing manner. Staring at the pool, he threw the rock. One, two . . .
"Slightly better," I told him in a superior, mocking voice.
"Only slightly?" he asked, and with a bobbing curtsy I skipped a rock five times.
"Practice makes perfect," I informed him, tossing him a rock.
He caught it reflexively, then smiled. "But a king has no room for mistakes or practice. It must be perfect the first time, or a failure."
"I'm sorry," I told him sincerely, but he waved it off. He stared back up at the moon, and watching it, addressed me:
"Do you ever want to spend some time simply, like in a small village where no one knows your importance and the most important thing is making sure the livestock is taken care of, and where there are no court intrigues at all?" he wondered idly.
"But I have," I said in surprise. "And it's not as wonderful as you make it sound at all. It's dreary, compared to this." I wasn't sure this was actually preferable, but so far it was more exciting, with the fabulous clothes and elegant people.
"Of course," he replied, sounding slightly disgusted. "Why wouldn't you have lived in a small village? And why would you want to now?" He looked down and met my eyes. "You don't have to lie just because I'm King," he said, angrily, and tossed his stone into the water. One, two . . .
. . . Eight, nine - without a noise, it sunk into the small, round reflection of the moon.
When I looked up, he was walking into the shadows. "Majesty!" I called, and when he glanced over his shoulder I executed the best curtsy I could. He turned and bowed elaborately, and then was gone.
~He's a lone wolf,~ Saikki said, padding over to my side. He sounded peeved.
~He doesn't have anyone,~ I said, not sure if I was protesting or agreeing.
Saikki looked up at me with perfect liquid gold eyes. ~We don't need lone wolves. We're a pack. We'll take care of each other.~
With a choked back sob, I knelt and buried my face in Saikki's gray fur, overwhelmed with a wave of homesickness for my tiny village where the only lies were transparent an spiteful, not convoluted and political.
~Girls,~ Saikki muttered. He gave a long-suffering wolf-sigh. ~But, since it's you, I'll put up with it,~ he projected loyalty. I felt the strangest bond of love for my Companion, and sent that to him in a series of images and feelings. He sent it back, and with smiles on our faces and my hand on his neck, we went back to the house, and my rooms.
I yawned, stretched, and froze. My three personal maids were leaning over me. "My lady," one of them said briskly, "hurry. The Duke has summoned you to his presence in his study in an hour."
"Oh," I said, then was carefully prodded out of bed and gently led like a blind puppy over to my bathing room, easily stripped, and dumped in the bath. I was scrubbed, perfumed, dried and dressed before I was awake in the least, and only once they had set me down in a fluffy armchair did I feel the need to scream at all of them to get out of my personal space. Instead I dutifully ate the breakfast they set in front of me, unable to enjoy the heavenly food as all three of them were staring down at me. As soon as I finished, they tugged and braided my hair into an elegant pile at the top of my head, then threw me out the door into the arms of my cousin.
I grasped his arm unsteadily. "Take me away from them!" I pleaded, eyes wide. "They're terrifying!"
He looked at me in alarm. "Who's terrifying?" he asked, puzzled. "Who's in your rooms?"
"The maids," I said, and shuddered. "I thought the multitude of cousins was disturbing, but the maids were far worse. They were like - like - I don't know, but whatever it was, it was scary."
My cousin, insultingly, laughed. "It's not funny!" I said indignantly. "I didn't even know what they were doing to me before it was too late. Before I knew it, I was dressed in a gown and eating breakfast when a second before I was lying in bed with Saikki under my feet." I looked around wildly. "Where is Saikki?" ~Saikki?~
~I am hiding underneath your bed. Where are you? Why did the humans take you away? One of them tried to take me, but I snapped at her.~
~I'm outside my room. They wanted to get me ready for the day.~
I opened my door, and a second later my Companion rushed out, twining himself around my legs then staring at Lor's Companion, who seemed to materialize out of the shadows.
Lon tucked my arm into his, and trailing a pair of wolves he led the way to his father's study. "Good luck," he said as we reached the heavy oak door.
I looked at him suspiciously. "What? Why? Am I in trouble?" My mind wildly flew to visions of the duke yelling at me about my behavior during the night.
Lon laughed. "I didn't mean it that way. People always just seem a little shaky after talking to him, that's all." He smiled and rapped on the door, then he and his Companion were gone.
I was getting used to seeing wolves all over the place, I thought wryly as the door swung open and the duke's older wolf looked at me knowingly. The a footman caught me attention with a cough and announced, "Your niece, the lady Anirelle Laelcorei."
Interesting. With relatives, my name seemed to shrink. With anyone else, it grew impressively. "Your grace," I said, performing a slightly off-kilter curtsy. He waved a hand at me, then, when I stood there blankly, nodded at a chair. Oh. I sat down quickly, forgetting to smooth the expensive fabric out before I sat on it. Too late.
Duke Edloron nodded graciously. "Good morning, Anirelle. I hope you slept well."
I swallowed. "Um, yes. Very well, thank you."
He shook his head, and my heart thumped against my chest. What was the punishment for pretending to be a servant? Was there one?
"No "ums" Anirelle. Always be certain of what you want to say."
I nodded, relived.
"You have met most of the family, this afternoon, more will be coming."
Great. I could hardly recognize what people were related to me, let alone what their names were. Now there were more?
My uncle's thought's seemed to echo my own, and to my greatest surprise, he winked at me and handed me a list. "I hope this will be helpful, my dear." He smiled Lor's smile. "Also," he said in a less conspiring tone, handing me a second page of paper, "I have arranged for a series of tutors for you. Take this sheet to Sarelia. She'll explain it for you, and tomorrow and the next day she will introduce the tutors to you. After that, your time is your own - but I would suggest you speak with Tariha. She seems the most like you of your cousins."
Tariha - I frowned thinking. Oh, yes - she was one of the cousins, black hair like mine but two years older or so, and she hadn't prattled as much as the other three cousins last night, though her two maids were talkative. When she spoke, it had been slightly more earthward then the others, rather then commenting on ribbon styles.
Dismissed, I found a window nook lined with a velvet couch. Sitting upon it, I buried my face in the sheet the duke and given me - a description of my entire family.
I was only interested in one of them at the moment; my cousin Tariha.
Lady Tariha Daviida Laelcorei, heir of Constee. She is the daughter of your father's brother, Baron Sevot and Baroness Niatanne. Tariha is sixteen years old and was presented at court last year. She is well read and enjoys riding.
All right, I thought, scanning the descriptions of some of my other cousins, she sounds like the best bet for a friend. I decided to try to find her before lunch, but at the moment I was supposed to find Lady Sarelia.
I ended up asking a servant boy where my stepmother's room was, and he seemed stunned to have such an exalted job as showing me where her suite was. It actually made me slightly uncomfortable.
"Lady Anirelle," a servant announced as he opened the door. Lady Sarelia looked up from where she was sitting at a writing disk and smiled. Her room was just like her; soft lavenders and warm, light yellows and greens. Several paintings hung on the walls, and she motioned me to a large purple armchair.
"Hello, Anirelle," she said as I sunk into it, feeling as if I would never be able to stand again. I felt like curling up in the huge chair and falling asleep, even though I wasn't the least bit tired.
"Lady Sarelia," I greeted, feeling that I should curtsy but unwilling to leave the comfort of the chair.
She waved her title aside. "Just Sarelia." Her gray eyes caught mine. "Your uncle said you would be stopping by."
I handed her the sheet with a list of names of people and lessons and times I had barely glanced at. "Let me ring for tea," she said, and a moment later a maid came in, carrying two cups and biscuits. "Ah, lessons," she said, smiling as she skimmed the page. I worriedly remembered all the ones she had described for me last night. "There's no escaping them," she said wryly, and I wondered if she had tried. "You won't have all of these every day," she continued, "except for your main Court etiquette classes. You'll begin a regular schedule in two days, starting with picking piano, violin, flute, or harp, then dancing, then history, and writing. After lunch you'll have riding and Companion lessons, and the next three hours will be etiquette. Everything except the last will change daily."
"I'm doomed," I said, and Sarelia laughed, sipping her tea.
"Hardly; though it will be hard at first. And I nearly forgot that we'll have a magic-tester here tomorrow; with any luck you'll have a fair amount."
"I still think I'm doomed," I mumbled, but obligingly took a sip of tea.
Sarelia opened her mouth then shut it quickly, but when I looked at her she began to speak. "I don't know if your interested," she said very quickly, "but I have some things that belonged to your parents, and some sketches. If you'd like to see them some time, I'd be happy to show you."
My chest contracted. "Yes," I said softly, staring into my cup and holding it so tightly I was afraid it would break, "I would like that." When our eyes met, I was surprised to see that my stepmother wanted me to like her as much as I wanted her to like me.
"Um, Lady Sarelia?" I ventured. "Last night, there was a maid in my rooms who I think took my necklace. "I was wondering if there was a way to get it back?"
Apparently there was, by the way Lady Sarelia's eyes suddenly blazed and she nodded. "I will look into it immediately," she said. "What did the necklace look like?"
I was a little taken aback by this fierce side of my stepmother, but I was glad to see it. "A gold disk with - oh let's see - a ruby, diamond, emerald, opal, and sapphire. There was some sort of design etched into the gold."
"It was your mother's," Sarelia said, obviously recognizing my description.
I nodded. "Duke Edloron gave it to me."
"And the girl?"
I winced. "This feels like tattling. . ."
She gave me a look so like the one my mother had given me that I wondered if Sarelia had learned it from her when they were younger. "Anirelle, it is not tattling. She is a thief - not only will you be restoring your own goods, you will be protecting others from the possibility of being robbed."
Well, when put like that . . . "Nineteen or twenty - or twenty one, but about there. She had brown hair - long and straight, and she had pale skin. She was pretty."
Sarelia nodded briskly. "Good. I'll find her immediately. You would be able to recognize her if you saw her again?" I nodded.
"Good," she said again. She smiled kindly at me. "Don't worry, we'll find it."
I thanked her and said good bye, forcing myself to leave the wonderful chair (No! my body shouted, "no! no! no!") and heading for the door. Once there, I paused and turned around. "Lady Sarelia?" I asked, "do you know where I'd find my cousin Tariha?"
Sarelia smiled. "Oh, I do think you'll like her. Let's see . . . the child will probably be in the library, poor thing. Spends most of her time there." She leaned forward, the edges of her mouth twitching and her eyes sparkling. "Actually," she confessed, "I believe it's to avoid your mutual cousins."
I was startled into laughing, which made my stepmother look delighted. She gave me careful instructions, then I was traveling through the huge house again, determined not to lose myself. Following her directions to the word, I found myself on the first floor facing two impressive mahogany doors. A servant swung the door open before I reached it, unnerving me. "Thank you," I said, which seemed to unnerve him, but he bowed low and closed the door behind me.
I walked forward hesitantly, then stopped in awe. The walls of the huge room were covered in shelves, and the shelves were lined with dark, leather-bound books. The interior of the room was filled with bookshelves as well, and small rolling stepstools were conveniently placed. There was a staircase along the wall, which led to a balcony that encircled the room. Bookcases and chairs lined this level as well. Looking up, I could see a huge golden chandelier. I wondered idly if wax from the candles ever dripped onto the books below. Looking down, I could see the whole of the library. Along with books, there were tables, desks and armchairs. The room was decorated in the Laelcorei's colors - a vermilion carpet probably meant to muffle sound, and the walls and balcony railings were a silver looking stone.
I scanned the room, taken aback by the wealth of knowledge. I hadn't even known there were so many things to write about. In fact, most of the people I knew couldn't read or write. I smiled. Wouldn't that have shocked the duke, if I had been illiterate? My mother had taught me my letters, and my stepbrothers and stepsister as well. My smile faded. I had never wondered why my mother knew how to read. Maybe my father taught her, I thought a little sadly, wishing I had known him and that my mother hadn't died when I was only six. Or maybe she lived in a nice enough family to be taught.
My eyes were caught by a raven-haired girl at one of the window seats, head buried in a thick tomb, another two stacked beside her. Tariha. I gathered up my courage and made my way down to her.
She didn't notice me as I stood in front of her, forcing me to speak first. "Hello," I said shyly, feeling like a fool. She looked up, startled. "I'm Anirelle." Not that she didn't know that, I thought, embarrassed. Not only had she been there when I was first introduced to the family, but we were again introduced when all the ladies gathered and embroidered last night.
She, thank all the gods, smiled back. Like Lor and me, she had black hair and large blue-green eyes. We looked enough alike that we could easily pass for sisters.
"I'm Tariha," she introduced, and moved over on the window seat. I sat down beside her, then realized I had no idea what to say.
"I'm going to assumed you aren't quite as comfortable with all our other cousins?" she guessed with uncanny accuracy. My startled look was enough confirmation for her, and she grinned widely. "Or, more to the point, they bore you to tears?"
"It's very strange," I admitted, "when all they seem to talk about are clothes and gossip. I feel as if I've been plunged into a pool of trivialities. When I was little and used to pretend to be a princess, most of the time there was less embroidering and more fighting evil usurpers."
She laughed. "I wish. The cousins are a little overwhelming, though. When they're the only three here I feel like I'm going insane."
"How are the rest?" I asked curiously.
"Better," she said heartfeltly. "But not all of us are here at the same time."
"Who actually lives here?"
"Uncle Edloron and his family, of course, and all his brothers' families. The Manor house used to be several until buildings were built connecting them, so there are enough wings for even the relatives that don't live here. All the earldoms and so on have land that begin within a days ride, considering how they're all part of the duchy. The point of which is the cousins who live here. Lor, of course, and me, and our siblings -" she looked up at me, and when I shook my head, she continued, "I have twin brothers, ten months old, Nachen and Seftyn, and Lor had a ten year old sister, Eliette, and Tiosir is seven. Then there's Idova, whose eighteen and engaged, and Donelle at thirteen, but neither of them are here right now. They're representing us at court at the moment. We have an aunt on our fathers' sides as well, but she lives in another duchy with her husband. The other cousins are constantly either being sent here to stay for a while, or the entire family is visiting. Now, of course, there's you as well."
"It was a lot to take in, wasn't it?" She said, laughing. "Sorry. I'm just feeling little starved for talk after having no one sane to talk to for several weeks my age."
"Understandable," I said, smiling. "You have no idea how I've been a longing for a girl my own age to talk to, who knows what's going on." I hesitated. "Lor seems nice, though."
"He is," Tariha assured me. She was silent for a moment, then grinned. "All right," she announced as if she were giving something up, "I've lasted as long as I can. What's it like, living like a peasant? I want to know everything."
"Let's see," I thought, smiling. "Well, my mother died when I was only six, and after that I was trapped with my cruel stepfather Geor the Blacksmith, along with five children, four of whom detested me. I was treated like a servant after my mother died, and I only had for friends . . ." Somehow, I was able to slip into a telling of my life as if it was a story, almost a fairy tale, ending with me being rescued from the drudgery by the Duke of Laelcorei.
And then she wanted to know more. Tariha wanted to know everything; what we wore, what we ate, how we lived. I was more then happy to tell her, and in return she answered any question about nobility that I asked.
"The foreign king," I asked several hours later, then sun no longer shining in through the window, "where's he from?"
"Secenie. It's as big as Lyraine. They touch, but only for about a mile."
I frowned. The moon's full here. In my country, it's only half full. "For some reason, I thought he was from much further away."
"Oh, he is. That mile is on the opposite side of the country, and most of it is far away from there. It's the very edge of his country, up in the mountains. His capital is on the edge of the continent."
We were interrupted by a maid, who curtsied. "Excuse me, my ladies, but supper will be served in one hour. Your uncle wished you to be reminded."
"Supper?" I repeated mindlessly. "What happened to lunch?"
Tariha started giggling. "I think," she managed finally, "we talked through lunch." She waved a hand of dismissal, and the maid left.
"Oh," I said, then started to smile. "Oops," I said, and we started laughing again.
My three personal maids were waiting to attack me when I returned to my rooms. (Only five wrong turns this time.) This time, with an hour rather then twenty minutes, they acted much more humane. It turned out that the youngest one even had a sense of humor. Her name was Caima, and she was Tariha's age. The other two were in their early twenties; Kishla and Velli. They helped me prepare for dinner, which took just as long as it had the day before. I argued for staying in the gown I was already wearing, but it didn't work. I couldn't help but admire their handiwork when they were done, however. I couldn't take any credit for my appearance, but I certainly would have liked to. When it was just me getting ready I didn't look half as nice.
Then again, I didn't have silk and velvet and whatnot either.
Tariha and I were seated next to each other - on Sarelia's request, I think, and I was grateful. I tried to keep my gaze from the monarch, in the unlikely chance of him recognizing me. There was no way, I assured myself. I was wearing a white gown edged in green at the square neck, high waistline, and split and hem on the overskirt. It was a far cry from the maid's uniform of last night, not to mention my hair contained by a silk-and-pearl net and the my face painted like a dolls. I was confident I could stare King Favrenkier in the face and he wouldn't recognize me.
I didn't. Fate would probably make him recognize me, just for fun. Instead, I sent little ignore me, ignore me thoughts.
After a delicious dinner of unpronounceable foods that I wasn't even close to used to, not to mention the regular use of wine, we settled in the main parlor. Several members of the family left, while others stayed and played the piano or drank more wine. The cousins - that is, the three girls that drove both Tariha and I insane - spent most of the time smiling at the king. Constantly. He didn't appear to notice; far from it. An hour after dinner had ended he walked up to me.
"Lady Taylin," King Favrenkier said, inclining his head to me. I sat up straight, feeling like a rabbit caught by the fox. Apparently my little ignore me, ignore me vibes hadn't gotten through. I forced myself to smile, praying yet again that he wouldn't recognize me, and even more that he would go away. Go bother one of the cousins.
"I was hoping you would honor me by showing me the gardens?" he continued. I could almost feel every member of my extended family tensing. The king was only looking at me, however, and there was no way he could know what was running through all of their minds; that I hadn't the slightest idea of acting like a lady, and that I was liable to embarrass the family if I walked with him. Oddly enough, I didn't want to embarrass the family. I liked them, and though it doesn't say much for the rebellious personality I should have had after being torn from my life, I wanted to make them happy. It wasn't just that I wanted to fit in; I felt like I was fitting in and with a little more time I could be part of this family - my family - completely.
So I really shouldn't have accepted his invitation, but while I was trying to think of a way to politely turn him down, I caught the duchess giving me a slight nod. It suddenly occurred to me that it could insult the family just as much if I rejected his offer.
Or, maybe no one would be offended either way and it was all in my head.
For whatever reason, I smiled and said, "It would be an honor, Your Majesty." He put his arm out and I looked at it in alarm. What was I supposed to do? Grab hold of it? Tentatively, I laid mine on top of his, mimicking my aunt and uncle when they had entered. I could literally feel everyone's eyes on us as we exited. I had thought that young ladies were always supposed to have a chaperone, but I figured Kings were above reproach. Besides, he was betrothed.
"Lovely night, is it not, Lady Taylin?" he said lightly. I was still unused to the title - I hadn't even seen Taylin yet.
"Very," I choked out as we walked towards the gardens, lit by illuminated fountains and lanterns swinging slightly in the breeze. I frowned. Were swinging lanterns actually safe?
"Nights at home are not at all like this," he continued, as if he couldn't feel the tension that seemed very obvious to me. I was glad I was beside him, not in front, so he couldn't see my face. "My castle is by the ocean, so the sea is always present. You can smell it, see it, hear it, feel the winds coming off it . . ." He shook his head slightly, as if to get rid of a memory. "I find it very disconcerting to be surrounded by land."
Exactly what was I supposed to say to that? That I missed the ocean, too? I didn't even know what it looked like. I could only picture a very big lake. I couldn't really imagine water that went on as far as you could see. "I've never been there," I finally offered.
"To Ziasen?" he said, sounding slightly amused. "I did not think you had been."
Where was Ziasen? I wondered, slightly panicky. The capital of his country? His castle? I had enough trouble remembering the name of his country. "No," I corrected, then became flustered. "I mean, yes, I haven't been there, but no, that's not what I was referring. I meant I've never been to the ocean."
He looked at me in disbelief, then laughed. "Of course not," he said, his tone slightly mocking, "just as you've lived in a small village."
"Excuse me?" I said, eyes widening. I noticed for the first time that we had already entered the expansive gardens, and now we reached a circular space built into the side of a hill. Inside was a pattern of violet and blue flowers, and two stone chairs that looked like they were meant for pure decoration and would dig painfully into your back if you were foolish enough to sit in them. Around the circle was a stone wall, doubling as a waterfall, and at the top of it was the hillside. I wondered vaguely if any of the Laelcorei children had spent time jumping the ten feet or so down into this circle.
"It's as likely that you've never been to the ocean or that you've lived in a small village like a peasant or that you couldn't recite the history of royals for the life of you as it is that the sun will rise at night and the moon during the day." He dropped my arm and turned so he stood right in front of me, looking at me scornfully. "Why is it that such an exalted noble was dressed as a servant in the dead of night?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," I said faintly.
He sighed. "A rendezvous with an inappropriate lover? Perhaps you and your cousins were sneaking out to ride in the woods? You'd better have a reason, Lady Taylin."
I was still back on the fact that he knew the servant girl last night was me. "How did you know?"
He raked back his hair - silver-gold in the moonlight - in exasperation. "How many maids walk around with wolves at their heels?"
"You noticed Saikki?" I asked, appalled.
"I actually thought I was about to be eaten for a moment before I remembered tales of the Laelcorei Companions." Mockingly, he added, "I suppose he went unnoticed in that small village of yours?"
"I didn't have him them. Besides, maybe he was just - out for a walk. Or something. That's hardly enough evidence."
His smile was devoid of humor. "But I was right anyways, wasn't I? And you weren't always in the darkness." He gave me an odd look. "After all, you do have the Laelcorei hair and eyes. They're hard to miss."
"Did you know the entire time?" I asked, beginning to turn a little red. I had acted like what I was - a country bumpkin - in front of the king, who apparently thought I had faked all of it.
"I believe it was at the moment you said you were lonely and how foreign' this place was," he said dryly. I shuddered. He probably thought every other word I said was a ridiculous lie.
I don't like outright deceit, but far worst then that, in my opinion, is being accused of something when I'm not guilty. I had always found it far more bearable to be punished by my stepfather after I broke a vase if I had done it then if I was punished and my stepbrother had done it. Not a very strong argument for why I explained to the king why I had said what I did, but the truth.
"I didn't lie," I told him. "Only about the maid part. But I never have seen the ocean, and I don't know anywhere else's royalty, and I have lived in a small village until less then a week ago. I grew up as a peasant, Your Majesty, not a lady. The only thing I know about ladies," I said scathingly, "is that they're not supposed to contradict those who rank them." My smile was fake. "I suppose I'm not very good at it."
"A peasant," he said, frowning at me. "Really. Lady Taylin Laelcorei. Ah, I see. You were raised a peasant. How perfectly obvious."
I glared at him. "I'm not lying. I'm the illegitimate daughter of the Earl of Taylin, and I lived with my mother in a tiny village far from here until I was six and she died. I continued to live with my stepfather - who mistreated me - until my father died and my uncle set out to find my mother and tell her, because not only did they love each other, they were told by my mother's friend that a child might exist, so there would be a lord or lady for Taylin, considering how my father had no other children. Happy?" I crossed my arms and determinedly stared at the stone wall, watching as water cascaded over it.
The king was looking at me as if he wanted to believe me, but didn't. "You must admit that is completely far fetched. Even considering for a moment that it may be true . . . Surely they could have given the title to another child, preferably a boy and not a bastard, especially to a child who not only is a girl and illegitimate but doesn't know the first thing about life outside her village as well."
I glared at him. "What's wrong with your country? Would you just ignore a child because their parents were not married? There's very little stigmatism with being born out of wedlock, your majesty," I said, rather snottily.
He snorted. (Are kings allowed to snort?) "There's some," he said, still looking at me strangely.
"Family loyalty is very strong is Lyraine," I said, daring him to disagree.
"I certainly prefer if your story was true," he muttered grimly, though I couldn't imagine why. "But on the off chance it is. . . still, why were you outside last night?"
"It's not any of your business," I told him, beginning to like this. Being able to fight
with someone I was angry with without fearing a beating in return was almost fun.
"You will tell me if you don't want me to interpret the wrong thing," he said in a voice that should have been menacing if it didn't come from a golden haired boy barely older then me. Besides, what did interpret the wrong thing' mean? "And doing so may cause a war,' he continued grimly.
Oh. Apparently I couldn't fight without recuperations.
"All right," I grumbled, for though I didn't necessarily believe him, I wasn't willing to take chances. "If you must know, I had swapped clothes with a maid so that I could explore the grounds, because I was becoming a little too cramped up as a lady and I'm used to freedom. I was just looking around."
"That's a little too convenient to be believable, my lady."
"But it's the truth!" I burst out, bewildered. Why did he even care?
He looked as though he wanted to punch something - not me, thankfully, but something else. "Don't you have anything more believable?" he asked.
He groaned. "So you just happened to be prowling around at night, the same night I was out, with no reason. And it's even rather convenient about this whole peasant girl theory you fed me - excuses you from having to know about the feud, doesn't it?"
"Then," he continued angrily, "there's this." From the pocket of his pants, he pulled a long, gold chain with a golden disk covered with jewels. "Left in my room. Imagine that."
I stared at my necklace in disbelief. Why would a maid steal my necklace and leave it in the king's room? Did it drop out of her pocket when she was cleaning or something?
"Can I have my necklace?" I asked as politely as I could.
His eyes narrowed. "So you'll just straight out admit that you were prowling in my room?"
"Nooo," I said slowly. "That was stolen from me by a maid."
"Maids are really convenient, aren't they?" he sneered.
"I'm telling the truth! You can ask my stepmother if you don't believe me. I told her about it."
"Ask your stepmother? What kind of fool do you take me for? Of course she'll back you up. Everyone will back you up!"
I looked at him warily. "I don't suppose you mind telling me what's going on?"
"Oh, give it up," he said in disgust. "You can drop the ignorant peasant girl act already."
"All right," I said slowly. "We can take it one step at a time, here. Exactly what feud is it?"
"Just maybe the one that's been going on for the past three hundred years and the reason you've been following me around?"
I looked at him like he was crazy. "You think I'm involved in some feud? What's next, you'll suspect me of trying to kill you?"
His silence was answer enough.