Crown Princess Janet, Duchess of Morrberry-by-the-Sea and heir to the Golden Eagle Throne of Avanna, sat in the library of the royal castle and paged through a richly appointed book of arcana. She was a slight, tiny young woman with gold-dust skin and long dark hair that fell about her slim shoulders like a waterfall. Her amethyst-hued eyes flicked back and forth from the pages of the book to the parchment beside her as she made notes on this spell or that one.
The strange color of her irises was no mere birth defect. Instead, it was a rare manifestation called the Eyes of Fate, and those who bore it wielded significant magical ability. Though, in Janet’s case, she had spent much of her young life struggling to manage her power. Each day, she secluded herself in some corner of the castle to study and attempt to work on her magic. Attempt being the operative word.
“So,” another young woman—taller and curvier, with a long blonde braid that hung over her left shoulder like a trailing scarf—dropped into the chair beside Janet, “what was wrong with Lord Sturmhalten?”
Janet sighed. Of late, besides controlling her magic, Janet sought refuge in order to not have to discuss the seemingly unending line of suitors seeking to claim her hand with her sisters.
Except for the blonde beside her—nineteen-year-old Rebecca—none of her sisters were yet of age to receive suitors of their own. As a result, the bevy of men plying for the attention and affection of their twenty-one-year-old eldest sister was a fascination to them. They did not yet realize just how frustrating it was to be only a prize, and she had a hard time imparting that fact to them.
Preparing herself for yet another irritating discussion about how the most recent suitor had not been all that bad, she closed the book. And discovered Rebecca had not come alone.
Arrayed around the table like a jury, silently judging the accused, were three of her other four sisters. Fifteen-year-old Sonya, a slip of a girl born pale of skin, eye, and hair, was curled on a settee, nimble hands clasped around her agile legs. The studious seventeen-year-old twins, olive-skinned Jasmine and fair-complected Monica, studied her as if she were one of the many scholarly lessons they took entirely too seriously. Only the twelve-year-old knight hopeful Alexis was absent, which was hardly a surprise as she alone considered the obsessions with Janet’s dilemma to be foolish.
“I see,” she said, folding her hands on the table. “So, this is to be a formal interrogation. Very well. The reason I turned down Lord Sturmhalten is the man is a giant pig who paid entirely too much attention to the bosom of Lady Cornwell.”
“Well,” Rebecca said with a shrug, “the woman shows a truly scandalous amount of cleavage.”
Janet gave her a look. “I am not interested in a husband I shall have to keep away from the servant girls.”
“I hardly think—”
“He was also,” Janet continued, interrupting Rebecca’s protest, “inordinately interested in the way you were moving around the chamber hall. More particularly, in the way your backside moved.”
“Oh.” Suddenly appalled, Rebecca drew inward. However, when she did, the twins took up the fight.
“Sister,” Jasmine began, leaning on the table to look her in the eyes, “you are nearing your twenty-second birthday.”
“My how time flies,” Janet replied dryly.
“Do not make light of this,” Monica, always the more hot-tempered one, banged her fist on the table. “It has been nearly four years since you became of age! In that time, you have turned away no less than twenty-five suitors! How much longer do you intend to leave this kingdom without an heir?”
“I am the heir,” Janet said with just a hint of a bite to her voice. All around them, a light breeze weaved through the room, the first signs of her unconsciously using her magic, something that always signaled she was losing her temper. “Whoever I marry will only become king through that marriage. He will not be of royal blood and will only be the means of continuing our family line.”
She gestured to Rebecca beside her. “And should something happen to me before I produce a child, Rebecca will be next in line not whoever I have chosen as my husband. Therefore, rushing into marriage only serves to remove all of you from the line of succession. I will not subject Avanna to an unworthy king because you fear I am taking too long choosing.”
“You can hardly blame her, Monica,” Sonya said in her smoke-like voice as she smiled wickedly. “It is not as if any of the suitors wore a long-saber at their waist.”
“So,” the breeze blew harder, the papers and books and tapestries rustling as Janet curled her hands into fists on the surface of the table, “That is what this is truly about. Malcolm of Bonaparte.”
“It has been five years,” Rebecca said, her voice soft, sympathetic.
“I am well aware of that,” Janet snapped back. “He and I share a birthday, and it was on that day he left for the wars.”
“You cannot—” Rebecca began, only to for a gust of wind to slap her hard in the face.
“I have told you all repeatedly,” Janet snapped out as the surrounding air whipped and whirled and her sisters’ eyes went wide, “Malcolm is my friend. Whether or not he returns to the castle, I have no desire to take him as a husband.”
“Janet—” Monica began, eyeing a large tapestry that was dangerously close to tearing loose from the wall just behind her now-furious eldest sister.
“That is enough!” Shooting to her feet, the crown princess took in her four sisters with blazing eyes as the wind whipped through the library like a maelstrom. “A thousand and one times you have brought this notion to me, and a thousand and one times I have called it silly, yet still you go on and on about Malcolm of Bonaparte and these feelings you have decided I have for him with no evidence of your idiotic beliefs! None of you have any true concept of what you speak, so until you have achieved that, open your ears and hold your tongues!”
On the last word, the violent zephyrs reached their peak, exploding outward in a thunderous detonation. It threw Rebecca and the twins to the floor, tossed furniture many times heavier than any of the five young women in the room like children’s toys, sent books cascading to the floors in untidy heaps, and ripped priceless tapestries from the walls.
Janet stood speechless, stunned mute as she stared around in horror at the devastated library. Then, covering her face with her hands, she rushed from the room.
* * *
Growing up, Janet’s response to the embarrassing unintentional release of her magic had often been to retreat to her rooms in the Eastern Tower of the castle. There she stayed, wallowing in her misery until Malcolm would come and talk her back out. It was that which had developed their close friendship and likely fueled her sisters’ suspicions there was more between them.
For that very reason, since Malcolm had left, she had found other methods of getting away from her embarrassment. And so, donning a light summer cloak, she slipped from the castle and out into the capital city to walk among the people.
She knew that some members of the nobility and even some of her own relations believe in keeping a distance from commoners, but she found it soothing to mix with them, perhaps because of her long friendship with Malcolm himself. And to her mind, a future queen needed to know her subjects as more than the people.
It was market day, one of her favorite times to walk the capitol as the streets filled with the citizenry, come to peruse the stalls and the wares and to meet and talk with each other. The stall keepers, who at the least recognized her as nobility if not royalty, greeted her warmly when she stopped to look over an assortment of fruits or a collection of leather goods. Ever a warm and friendly woman, she greeted them back, chatting about the weather or the merchandise or even the shopkeeper’s family if she knew them well.
Though she carried no money with her, the recognition she was nobility held weight for the king’s own orders placed harsh penalties on any noble who would dare shortchange or steal from a merchant, and so she could order items sent to her and leave a marker that guaranteed payment upon delivery and the merchant would make no complaint.
She was deciding between a pair of bracelets—a silver one set with small diamonds and a scrolling gold one with a large amethyst that matched her eyes—when she heard a man say, “I often wonder if you spend more when you are still upset or after you calm down.”
She glanced over her shoulder with a smile. “Cedric.”
He was a tall man, taller than she remembered Malcolm being, and nearly as tall as her father and with shoulders broad enough to carry the world. Blue eyes laughed at her out of a roguishly handsome face topped with wavy hair, the golden blond of ripe wheat. There were many young women in the court—and a few who were not so young—who sighed behind their fans when he walked by.
To be true, she had been a little uncertain when he had become her personal guard, afraid people might make assumptions. But she had relaxed upon learning he was not only betrothed but madly in love with his fiancé and the two had become fast friends.
She made her selection—really, she had such a fondness for amethysts the dilemma had been more for the fun of it than anything else—and he fell into step beside her with a smile. “I, um, got a look at the library. Had another outburst, did we?”
She sighed, her anger and mortification having long since faded over the hour and more she had been shopping, leaving only a dim headache. “My sisters were giving me their usual going-over.”
“Ah, yes. Lord Sturmhalten. Honestly, for the king’s top diplomat the man can be decidedly undiplomatic when it comes to women.” He chuckled. “It would, I think, be quite entertaining to see him try his more lecherous ways on my Rowena.”
An answering smile spread across her lips. “Yes, from your descriptions of her, she sounds like quite the forward woman. I think I would like her.”
He coughed delicately. “You, um, are aware the Loxellys are not fans of the royal family?”
“Yes.” Her smile widened. “But I do so enjoy working for things rather than being handed them.”
He chuckled again. “There are times you remind me so much of Malcolm.”
She stopped dead in her tracks, her heart thumping in her chest. “Who told you about him?” she demanded. “Was it Rebecca? Sonya?”
“Whoa, whoa. Told me about who?”
“Malcolm. Malcolm of Bonaparte.”
Now he was the one who looked surprised. “How do you know the captain?”
“His father is Martin of Avalon, the Order’s blacksmith. He is my oldest friend. You called him captain. You served with him?”
“Rowena and I both. He was our commander. Well now, this is quite the surprise. We shall await them together.”
“Await?” Her eyes lit with excitement. “He is returning?”
“I received a letter from Rowena not four days ago. They have been discharged and will be here within the next few days.”
“That is wonderful news, Cedric.” Happy for him, she laid a hand upon his arm. “Would you and she like to marry here? In the castle? Father would be more than happy to—”
“I fear Rowena would not be amenable,” he said, cutting off her exuberance. “She truly does not like your family. To be honest, she may attempt to harm Malcolm when she finds out he is a friend of yours.”
“This is true.” But she continued to beam excitedly. “Oh, tell me of my friend, of the three of you on the battlefield. I want to hear all the stories you have.”
“I will,” he agreed, “but I believe I deserve some stories in trade, of my captain and his friend as children.”
“That is a fine trade,” she told him as they turned to head down the street leading toward the city gates.
* * *
They walked and spoke for over an hour. She told him of the golden-hearted boy who had been like a brother to her and her sisters. Of him skulking through unused hallways with Sonya, delighting Monica and Jasmine with pop quizzes on their lessons. Trading barbs with sharp-tongued Rebecca, or showing Alexis how to hold her sword.
And how whenever her lessons or attempts at spell craft had gone particularly wrong, and she had retreated into her rooms, it had always been he who came to find her. When she had been young, he had drawn her back out to try again or to play with her sisters. Then, as they had grown older, he had sat in her rooms with her and talked for hours on end.
Cedric’s tales showed her the boy she had known had grown into a skilled warrior and an innovative tactician. It thrilled Janet to hear of her friend slaying five mountain trolls on his own or leading an operation to flush out and annihilate a tribe of goblins tormenting a town. The creatures were an ever-present and never-ending menace that constantly popped up in the northern regions of the kingdom.
“How did you come to know him?” she asked, eyes bright and eager.
“They assigned me to a new mobile tactical unit that was being formed. He was to be the commanding officer. There were only the three of us on the team: Malcolm, Me, and Rowena.”
“So, that is where the two of you met.” She grinned. “You have been amazingly scarce on the details about your relationship with her.”
His brilliant blue eyes took on a dreamy quality as his own smile spread. “She is an amazing woman, fiery and headstrong. And beautiful, so beautiful that some say she is her own ancestor, Lady Marian, reborn in the world.” He laughed ruefully. “And she disliked me at first sight. I was just what she did not want to see and nothing I did was ever correct or without an ulterior motive.”
“This story sounds familiar.”
He laughed again and stopped to inspect some high summer apples. “I suppose it does.”
He gestured silently to the merchant that he would take two and handed over a silver piece to pay for them. It was always his habit to overpay for such things and let the merchant keep the rest. He handed her the second apple and bit into his as they resumed walking.
“When a man is faced on a daily—even hourly—basis with a woman who is determined to find fault with his every action, it takes little time before he is as angered by the sight of her as she is of him.”
“So, you fought often.”
“Over everything from battle strategy to who would do the night’s cooking.”
Janet's eyes twinkled. “I suppose that last was one you could hardly leave up to Malcolm. He is a terrible cook.”
“Oh, most assuredly,” he agreed. “And he was always the one who would force us to decide by offering to do it. It always seemed to amuse Malcolm, the way we could fight at the drop of a hat. I suppose it is always more evident to those on the outside looking in.”
“Malcolm has always been rather observant.”
“You would know, I suppose. In any matter, Rowena and I went on that way for months, until one night an argument went farther than we ever had before.” His hands clenched and unclenched at his sides, the muscles in his jaw tightening as his eyes unfocused for a moment, as if he were reviewing the moment again. “Never, in all my life, have I ever struck a woman, save for that night.”
Janet laid a comforting hand on his arm. “It must have been quite the fight to drive a man like you to such extremes.”
He gave a short bark of laughter. “Aye, that it was. She struck me back. Rowena is not one to take and not return. But before she fled the campsite, I saw the tears in her eyes. The tears of a strong woman can cut a man to ribbons, regardless of how he feels about her. Or thinks he does.
“I moped about the camp for more than an hour, alternately wishing she would never return and wanting her to come back so we could finally have out what was so poisonous between us. Then, finally, Malcolm spoke, just three words. Go after her. It was all he said, for we both knew he needed nothing more.
“Her tracks were not hard to follow, as she was far too upset to take any care. But when we found her, she was in the middle of an entire band of monsters. Malcolm says I laid in, riding like a demon and destroying the entire force. I do not recall it, only that they were indeed all dead when I came to my senses.”
The ghost of another smile played across his lips. “She came to my tent a few hours before morning. And until they discharged me and sent me home, it was our tent from that night on.”
Janet stopped walking, turned to look back at the castle. “They are pushing me to take a husband, Cedric. Worse, my sisters believe Malcolm is why I have not chosen one. He is only my friend, but they will not leave it alone.”
“Then you shall have to prove it to them, Princess. But remember, we rarely know what we truly need until we already have it.”
Janet would likely have said something nasty to that, as it appeared even he was not truly listening to her. But, at that moment, there came a commotion from the far end of the market back towards the castle. When a girl’s voice cried out, “Stop, thief!” the princess rolled her eyes skyward.
Cedric sighed in agreement. “Shall we intervene before the city guard gets involved?”
* * *
Under normal circumstances, a boy and girl chasing each other amid a town center would have been nothing more than a young mating ritual. This instance, however, was distinctly unusual.
The boy, a slim, almost gangly lad with chestnut hair and wild eyes, vaulted and dodged obstacles in a dash too mad to be a playful chase. The girl who pursued him did so with hate in her blue eyes and a short sword clutched in one gauntleted fist. The pair raced towards the gates of the city, the boy obviously seeking escape and the girl clearly intent on stopping him before he did.
Cedric moved quickly, angling to intercept both before harm could be done. As the boy did, the knight leaped agilely over stalls and barrels and hay bales, weaving around people without slowing down. But as fast as he ran, it became clear he would not reach the boy before the girl did.
In truth, she took her quarry with a flying tackle that slammed them both up against the side of a stall of goats. “I have you!” she spat out. “Blasted thief! You shall pay for your misdeeds!”
She rolled him over onto his back when a pair of hands grabbed her by the shoulders and hauled her off the boy. She never hesitated, spinning to slash out at her assailant with her weapon. But her blade met another, a long, thin and yet strong one that flicked like the tongue of a viper and spun like a baton. The sword flew from her grip and buried itself in a nearby hay bale.
“Really, Alexis,” the stranger said, “will you ever learn patience?”
Alexis, youngest princess of Avanna, blinked at him in surprise. He was tall, nearly as tall as Cedric, though slimmer than the broad-shouldered knight. His body was lean and tough, his limbs long and somehow graceful even with their muscle. But it was his eyes, those tawny, golden eyes like a lion’s hide that told her who he was.
“Malcolm!” Her enmity with the young man still lying on the ground absolutely forgotten, she eagerly leaped to hug him. “Welcome home!”
He pretended to gag, slapped playfully at the arms she had thrown around his neck until she released him. “Strong as ever,” he said with a small smile as he checked to make certain the hug had not done permanent damage, which they both knew was far from likely.
“Oh, the others will be so excited to see you.” Her joy fled and her eyes went cold as she rounded on the boy who had tried to get up and away. “Move from that spot,” she snapped out. “And I will be forced to break your legs.”
“I did nothing,” he said, but settled back down.
“Oh, certainly.” She leaned down and scooped up the gleaming silver bracelet that had spilled onto the ground when she had tackled him. “And I suppose you were doing nothing with this?”
“My lord had me take it to a silversmith,” he protested. “The clasp is broken.”
“Alexis.” With a sigh, Malcolm neatly nipped the item from her hand and kneeled to return it to the boy. “Be off with you.”
“Malcolm!” she whined as the boy scampered off like a demon was on his heels. “He was a thief!”
“Unless you saw him snatch that bracelet himself,” he cautioned her, “you have no proof of your claims.”
“You had your sword out and were yelling at him.” He pulled the weapon in question from where it had landed and handed it back to her. “Most people when faced with someone in armor coming at them waving a blade are going to panic.”
“As I have told her numerous times over the last year.” Janet, having caught up both to Cedric and her sister, stepped forward. Her amethyst eyes flicked over Malcolm before latching onto Alexis. “What has father said about chasing thieves in the marketplace?”
Alexis sighed and rolled her eyes. “That I am a princess not a city guard.”
Janet folded her arms, tapped her foot. Waited. “And?”
Another sigh, another eye roll. “To leave matters such as this to the professionals. Sister—”
Janet held up her hand, cutting off any protest. “Let us all be thankful Malcolm is as fast as he ever was and stopped you from making what could have been a very dear mistake.”
She shifted, looking to the muscular blond knight. “Cedric, would you be a dear and escort my sister back to the castle? I believe Master Jeeves has a few lessons for her.”
“Um,” Cedric looked briefly to Malcolm, then nodded. “As you wish.”
“Cedric.” As his former subordinate took hold of the arm of the youngest princess, Malcolm turned and took a parcel from one of his saddlebags. “Rowena returned to Raven’s Rock. She awaits you there once your duties are discharged.”
With his free hand, Cedric took the parcel, and a brief flicker of disappointment passed through his eyes. “Much obliged. It is good to see you again, Captain.”
Janet waited until Alexis was out of sight before turning back to him. The cold distance in her expression and demeanor was replaced with the warmth he remembered. “I appear to have dismissed my escort,” she said with a small smile. “Would you walk with me?”