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CAPTAIN TYLER GRAYLEN ESCORTED King Kelwyn’s only daughter, her Highness, the Princess Athaya Chandice Theia Trelane, from her private apartments to the royal audience chamber at Delfar Castle, keeping a firm grasp on her arm to keep her from stumbling on the uneven stone staircase. Although Athaya’s head was somewhat clearer now, she still felt woozy and tired and, if not for her father’s summons, would have gladly stayed in her rooms and hidden under a mound of bedcovers for the next twelve hours. Her stomach felt as if it had been turned inside out—and it had, she supposed, since she had been sick again just outside the main gates. The mere thought of food made the color drain from her face. This was not the first time she had ventured out into the town’s taverns—she could occasionally be found there of late—but never did she remember having returned from her nocturnal adventures feeling so completely and utterly awful.

Although the cathedral was on the opposite side of town, Athaya could faintly hear the church bells somberly tolling the second hour of the morning as she and Tyler crept through the dark and empty halls. They entered the anteroom to the king’s audience chamber through a carved oak door, embellished at its peak by an ornately gilded plaque proudly displaying the Trelane coat of arms. The crest was a simple one. Per pale gules and or, two lions passant guardant sable. But Athaya thought the pair of black lions seemed more ominous tonight and once she imagined that the lower lion turned to her, baring its sharp teeth as if ready to devour her alive.

Athaya expected that the rest of her family, with the exception of her father and herself, would have long since retired for the night. She was unpleasantly surprised to see that this was not so. Out of all the people I’d choose to avoid at this moment, Athaya thought miserably, it would be her. She cursed under her breath, halting her footsteps momentarily until Tyler gave her a gentle nudge of encouragement.

In addition to the usual pair of guards standing at their posts on either side of the double doors that led to the inner chamber was a plump woman in an overly snug gown of deep green silk. Her shrill voice threatened to splinter the timber ceiling beams above her as she spoke in an unnecessarily loud, imperious tone to a bored-looking young man, roughly a year older than Athaya, who was clearly trying not to listen to a word she said. A lightweight satin robe was flung casually over his dressing gown, and he leaned against the mantel over the fireplace, tapping his fingers restlessly on the smooth sandstone. When the young man saw the captain and Athaya enter the room he strolled away from the woman with pointed indifference, making her cheeks flush crimson with anger. She wheeled around, ready to scold him bitterly, but when she saw Athaya resting listlessly on Tyler’s arm, her expression quickly shifted from petulant fury to malicious satisfaction.

“Ah! So there you are.” Queen Dagara, Kelwyn’s third wife, set her thick hands on her hips and regarded her stepdaughter with unbridled disgust. “Look at you! You look like you’ve been sleeping in those clothes.” Dagara clicked her tongue noisily. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were a common chambermaid parading around in her mistress’s cast-off gown. I can only imagine what a sight you made before you cleaned yourself up.”

Athaya stared down at a patch of frayed carpet on the floor and absently smoothed out another wrinkle from her blue velvet skirts. Considering the amount of damage that needed to be repaired, Athaya thought she looked passable enough, but she was too exhausted and drained to bother arguing.

The man in the dressing gown sighed deeply and ran his slender fingers through a fluffy crop of sandy-brown hair. “Can’t you leave her alone just this once—”

“Stay out of this, young man,” Dagara said, flapping her hand at him as if he were an annoying insect buzzing around her ears. “This is none of your affair.”

“I was only trying to say that if you’re going to yell at her, you can at least do it tomorrow when she feels better. You can see for yourself that Athaya’s not well.”

“Not well,” Dagara mimicked. “I’ll say she’s not well. But it’s no fever she’s got, Nicolas, it’s a damned hangover and you know it. Hmph! You think she feels bad now, just wait until her father gets ahold of her.”

Nicolas opened his mouth to say something else, but the queen cut him off abruptly.

“That’ll be enough out of you. Now either stay here and be quiet or get out altogether. Honestly, Nicolas, you have to stop acting as a champion for your sister when she does nothing but act in a reprehensible fashion. It reflects poorly on you and tempts me to think you’re as much of a wastrel as she is.”

Nicolas waited until Dagara turned away before he rolled his eyes and sauntered back toward the fireplace. He picked up a brass rod and began poking at the burning logs, glancing back only once to see the look of bitter understanding on his sister’s face. Of her two older brothers, Nicolas was the only one she was close to, and if they had one thing in common above all the others, it was that neither one of them could possibly understand why their father had taken this graceless, shrewish woman as his wife. She was certainly nothing like Chandice, the mother of Kelwyn’s three children, or Eviene, the soft-spoken, indulgent, but not overly intelligent stepmother Athaya remembered from her childhood. No, Dagara was hard and rough as an old oak tree and had been ever since she had married Kelwyn Trelane fourteen years ago.

Satisfied that Nicolas would cause no further trouble, Dagara turned her attentions back to Athaya and flashed a jeweled finger in the princess’s downcast face. “These humiliating incidents have to stop. You’re making a laughingstock out of your father, your brothers, and of me. I will not have it!”

Tyler stepped in front of Athaya, as if shielding her from the queen’s biting words. “Your Majesty—” “Silence, Captain,” Dagara snapped. “You aren’t entirely without fault in this matter, you know. If the men under your command were half as observant as they’re supposed to be, they wouldn’t have let Athaya sneak out of the castle unescorted.” The queen shook her head in disbelief, waving her arms in front of her as if shooing away a flock of pigeons. “It is totally beyond my capacity to understand how an entire squadron of reasonably well-trained soldiers could allow her to walk right through the gates under their noses without noticing a thing!”

Tyler flinched at the insult. Reasonably well trained! He knew, as did anyone at Delfar Castle, that the men in the King’s Guard were among the best soldiers in all of Caithe. Athaya had known Tyler long enough to be able to recognize the simmering anger and resentment under his seemingly nonplussed exterior. It was subtle, but it was there—the slight thrusting out of his chin, and the tiny lines around his mouth growing more pronounced. Athaya admired the way he could restrain his temper. That was something she just couldn’t manage to accomplish, especially where her father and stepmother were concerned.

“Your Majesty, I questioned the men myself, and they all swore upon their honor that the princess did not pass through the gates.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Captain, of course that’s what they’d tell you. They’re simply covering up for each other, that’s all. Upon their honor! Honor among thieves, more like it.”

Tyler held back a sigh of frustration. “Your Majesty,” he said, his voice smooth and even, “I deeply regret this inexcusable incident and promise you that steps will be taken to ensure that it will not happen again.”

He bowed low to her, and Dagara seemed slightly mollified, perhaps more by Tyler‘s eloquent deference to her than by his actual apology. She paced the floor in a tight little circle, casting an occasional glare at Athaya, who kept her eyes focused on the floor and looked as if she were trying to burn a hole in the carpet by concentration alone. Athaya was still quite pale, but her cheeks showed two red streaks of color. The captain fidgeted nervously, wondering how long it would take Kelwyn to call for his daughter, and hoping he would do it quickly, before Athaya broke down and said something unspeakably offensive to the queen in a fit of temper.

“Is his Majesty ready to see the princess now?” he asked.

The queen cast an exasperated glance toward the door to the audience chamber. “He’s inside with Durek at the moment. Once again, Durek is trying to make him see reason about this absurd proposal he’s making to the Curia. Honestly, I’ll never understand why your father persists in badgering his bishops about the Lorngeld. They’re not going to change their minds. But don’t worry, Athaya,” she said, careful not to stray off the subject for long, “he will deal with you shortly. He’s absolutely livid, you know. He received a message from Osfonin of Reyka earlier today, and it did not please him in the least.”

The queen circled her with slow, deliberate steps. She shook her head from side to side, paying no mind to the way Athaya gripped her hands into white fists, trying to keep a tight rein on her emotions. “You had to do it, didn’t you? You had to openly insult Osfonin’s son Felgin and send him back home completely determined never to marry you. Hmph! Or any other Caithan for that matter. I’m ashamed that Kelwyn must call you ‘daughter,’ ” Dagara added with dark calm. “You are an insult to the Trelane name.”

Athaya looked up from the floor for the first time, and her eyes glittered menacingly in the dim firelight. She could see Tyler turning away, his eyes closed tight in hopeless resignation, but she did not care. Dagara had finally pushed her too far.

“At least that name is mine by birth,” Athaya said slowly, calculating each word to inflict as much pain as possible, “I did not sell myself in marriage to the king of Caithe, purchasing influence at court with my dowry and insinuating my way into the ranks of the nobility through petty intrigues instead of honorable merit. I was born of royal blood, Dagara. Unlike you.”

“Athaya!” The deep baritone voice split the air with its harshness, and even Dagara, utterly paralyzed with anger at Athaya’s bitter words, was startled. Durek, the eldest of Kelwyn’s three children and heir to the crown of Caithe, left the doorway to the audience chamber and stormed across the anteroom, his crimson cloak billowing out behind him. He gave his young sister a withering glare—one she was sure he’d learned from Kelwyn, but didn’t do half so well—and then embraced Dagara’s trembling hands and kissed her lightly on her powdered cheek. He avoided looking at Nicolas completely, as if unaware his younger brother was in the room at all.

“Did you hear what she said to me, Durek?” Dagara said, clinging to him with despair, her lower lip trembling in an unconvincing display of injured pride. Athaya almost laughed aloud. The queen had no pride to injure.

Durek released his stepmother’s hands, patted her gently on the shoulder, and faced his sister with complete disgust. He was neither as handsome nor as slender as Nicolas, and his dark brown hair was already growing sparse despite his having just turned twenty-eight. He habitually dressed more plainly than his younger brother as well, and his solemn ash-gray doublet—a silver girdle its only adornment—made him look well past thirty. Athaya was self-conscious of his condemning gaze, but would have been more so had it not been for his eyelids, which drooped down on either end, giving the constant impression that he had been awake too late the night before. He and Athaya had never been close, and in her darker moods, Athaya would openly claim that the only things she liked about her oldest brother were his young wife, Cecile, and their two-year-old son, Mailen.

“How dare you speak to the queen like that,” Durek said to her in a cool, level voice—the voice that would issue royal commands one day, when he eventually inherited Kelwyn’s crown. Athaya sighed inwardly. He would be even more intolerable then.

Athaya folded her arms across her chest in defiance. “Just because you profess undying devotion to her doesn’t mean I have to,” she said petulantly.

Dagara turned away, dabbing at her eye with the corner of her sleeve. “What did I tell you, Durek? She hates me!”

“There’s no time to go into that now, Dagara,” Durek explained softly, his eyes filled with sympathy. Then, with a violent change in expression, he turned back toward Athaya and gestured sharply toward the double doors behind him.

“Go on in, Father’s waiting for you. And be careful, little sister,” he added with a spiteful gleam in his eye. “Rhodri’s in there with him. Badger him the way you do Dagara and perhaps that plague-ridden wizard will turn you into a toad.”

Athaya scowled as she pushed past him and headed toward the audience chamber, trying to ignore the flutter of apprehension that always came over her when Rhodri’s name was mentioned. While Durek flatly despised the wizard and all the rest of his kind, Athaya feared him. She did not know exactly why, since he had never done anything to harm her. In fact, it was more logical to expect that she, like the king himself, would be grateful to him for his past service to Caithe, even though he was one of the cursed Lorngeld—the Devil’s Children—those born with the powers of magic, and thus, the plague of madness. But in spite of his heritage, Rhodri had served Caithe well. If the wizard had not bestowed magic on the young Kelwyn when he inherited his throne and instructed him in its use, then Caithe would not be the growing power that it was today and its provinces would have remained disjointed and at war, as they had been since the Time of Madness.

Athaya opened the door to Kelwyn’s audience chamber, bracing herself for the onslaught to come. Despite the late hour, a fire burned brightly in the spacious, wood-paneled room. The king was hunched over a large mahogany table, scribbling notes with a quill on a piece of parchment, while the wizard Rhodri, elegantly intimidating in his deep blue robe lined with silver, lingered by the window and gazed through the latticed glass at the moon glowing brightly over the Sea of Wedane. He had a look of cool pride in his eyes, as if he had just conjured the beautiful sight before him into existence and was now quietly admiring his handiwork.

The wizard pulled the window open to catch a whiff of the salty sea air, and a gust of wind whisked through the chamber, snuffing out the candle by whose light the king was writing.

“Damn it all, Rhodri,” he growled. Kelwyn absently traced a design in the air, whispering a word that Athaya did not know, and suddenly the candle flared up again with a soft crackle.

Athaya felt a shudder ripple through her. It always discomfited her when she witnessed her father using the magic that Rhodri had given to him. Kelwyn was not of the Lorngeld—none of the Trelanes had ever been. Logically, then, he should not be able to work magic. And why would he want to, knowing that the powers came from the Devil? Did not the priests say that all magicians were either doomed to madness or doomed to hell? But it was not only her father’s magic that disturbed her. She felt ill at ease whenever Rhodri worked his spells, also. Athaya had always been taught to be wary of the Lorngeld, and it was difficult to put her prejudices aside, even though Rhodri was a close advisor of the king.

Kelwyn set down his quill, sprinkled fine sand on the parchment, and gently shook it off as the black ink dried. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed his daughter standing in the shadows near the door.

“Athaya,” he said, expelling the word from his mouth like a rotten piece of meat. “Come here.” He folded the document twice and dripped hot, yellow wax over the fold. Then, taking off his signet ring, he pressed it into the wax, setting his royal seal on the message.

“Good evening, your Highness,” Rhodri said, inclining his head toward her as she approached the king. She returned the wizard’s greeting with a hesitant nod.

Kelwyn rose from his chair and clasped his hands behind his back, stepping around the table to face his reckless daughter. He moved without haste, carefully planning every motion before he made it. He rarely spoke in haste, either, knowing that such a habit was dangerous in kings. Thus, Athaya always knew that when he was angry with her, it was not like a quick, petulant storm that would soon blow over, but a thoughtful, more decisive anger that would linger for quite some time. Much as she hated to admit it, Athaya was intimidated by him. Kelwyn was not just her father, but also a powerful ruler, and he looked every inch the monarch he was. A jewel-encrusted gold collar was set on his strong, broad shoulders—Kelwyn had always prided himself on his ability to retain the firm, muscular build of a much younger man—and only the slightest trace of silver could be found in his well-trimmed brown hair, brushed into a crisp curl beneath his chin. His gold coronet glittered in the candlelight as he fixed his disapproving royal gaze on her.

He’s acting awfully calm, Athaya thought anxiously. Tyler was right. I’m really in for it.

“I sent for you nearly four hours ago. Apparently the captain and his men had a rather difficult time finding you, as you had decided to sample the vintages for sale at a few of Delfarham’s more disreputable taverns without telling anyone. Is that correct?”

“Yes, my Lord,” she answered quietly.

“I also understand that you were located in a highly questionable tavern, engaged in a brawl with two known criminals who claimed you cheated their friend at cards. Is that correct?”

Known criminals? She certainly hadn’t been aware of that. It was a good thing Tyler found her when he had, or there was no telling where she would be right now. Dead in a ditch somewhere, most likely. A fitting end, she thought with bitter amusement. I never lived the way I was expected to, why should I die conventionally?

“Yes, my Lord.”

“I also understand that upon leaving this tavern, you suffered from the aftereffects of too much wine and looca-smoke.”

Athaya’s stomach churned at the mere memory. “Yes, my Lord.”

“I see,” he said, drumming the tips of his fingers on the polished mahogany. “Well, I suppose I should be glad that you have not decided to add lying to your list of accomplishments for the evening.”

Athaya averted her eyes from her father’s condemning glare and caught sight of Rhodri calmly viewing the proceedings from the windowseat, his face wrapped in aloofness. Athaya almost wished the wizard would look smug or maliciously happy as he watched Kelwyn scold her. At least then she could have a reason for being irritated by his presence. But he remained passive, his slender hands folded in his lap and his shoulders slouched down, looking like a bored priest listening to the last confessions of a dying man out of duty and not out of any genuine sympathy.

“I will not waste my time by berating you for your deplorable behavior tonight,” Kelwyn continued. “Even through these thick walls, I could clearly hear Dagara taking care of that task quite well. Suffice it to say that you are never to leave this fortress without an armed escort under any circumstances.”

Why not? Athaya cried inwardly. What does it possibly matter to you what I do? If anything happened to me, you’d only be losing a daughter you never cared about in the first place. Why can’t you just admit that? Rationally, she knew that she had no right to bemoan the fact that Kelwyn displayed little feeling for her. Heaven only knew how much of his disapproval she brought upon herself by continuing to be spiteful and argumentative. The only thing he had ever expected of her was to grow up to be a delicate peach of a princess, fragile as a glass goblet, who could be admired for her beauty and grace, and who had few other thoughts in her head beyond how to please a husband.

The king had been miserably disappointed.

Kelwyn’s soft leather boots made no sound on the carpeted floor as he returned to his seat. He shuffled through the scrolls piled up on the table and drew out a document, holding it up for Athaya to see. The parchment was rumpled and torn, as if it had been angrily crushed into a ball and smoothed out again.

“Do you know what this is?”

“No, my Lord.”

“Ah. Then I will tell you.” He unfurled the paper, and Athaya could see the regal green ribbons streaming from the bottom. “It is a letter from Osfonin of Reyka. Would you like me to read it?”

Athaya shifted her weight to her other foot. Kelwyn didn’t have to read the letter; she already knew what it was going to say. And she also knew he was going to read it to her whether she wanted him to or not.

“I’ll skip over the polite platitudes and get right to the heart of it.” He ran his finger down the page until he found the part he sought. “Here it is. ‘And offering my regrets that both our hopes cannot be realized, my son Felgin professes his inability to discuss marriage with your noble daughter at this or any time, due to differences between them which he feels could not be reconciled.’ There’s more, but I think you get the general idea. It’s all worded very graciously, but I have no doubt that Osfonin is furious.” Kelwyn carelessly tossed the paper aside. “Well? What do you have to say for yourself?”

Athaya knew that nothing she could say was going to help matters. She struggled to find words which would simply not make the situation any worse, but none would come. Kelwyn stared at her, tight-lipped, as he shook his head from side to side.

“You knew how important this marriage could have been to reestablishing relations with the Reykan government and yet you deliberately set out to ruin everything by being outwardly rude and antagonistic toward the prince. You countered his every word with an argument—more than once shaming him into revealing that he isn’t quite the scholar he professes to be—and then had the gall to challenge him to a chess match when you knew full well that he wasn’t as good at it as you are. And I thought it had to be a joke when I heard you’d actually suggested playing the match for money!” Kelwyn let out an exasperated sigh. “I won’t even bother mentioning the rest of it. I’m just lucky Osfonin is merely offended, and not on the verge of invading us for the insult you’ve dealt to him.”

Athaya dropped her eyes. Can I help it if Felgin was a puffed-up, egotistical snob? No wonder he’s almost twenty-seven and still hasn’t gotten a wife.

She took a deep, steadying breath. “I spoke the truth to you about the, uh—events of this evening, so I will not lie to you now. Candidly, Father, I think that a marriage between myself and Felgin would have been a terrible mistake and I cannot profess to be unhappy that the arrangements did not work out.”

“I see,” he said, narrowing his eyes slightly. “And why, in your infinite wisdom—which apparently your king does not have—would this match have been such an error?”

Athaya nervously picked at a piece of embroidery on her skirts. Her cheeks grew hot under her father’s gaze, and she felt like a child of four. “I… we just didn’t like each other,” she said, cursing the weak-sounding words the moment they left her lips.

Kelwyn’s eyebrows shot up. “You didn’t like each other? Good Lord, girl, that was more than obvious. But since when has liking someone ever had anything to do with a proper marriage?”

I’m told it mattered to you. At least the first time. She choked back the cruel words, knowing that to voice them would be an unforgivable impertinence.

“There is something more,” she continued, trying desperately to dig herself out of the hole in which she found herself. “Father, I agree that it is only right that Caithe and Reyka be allies. But the differences between Felgin and I on certain subjects…” She looked uncomfortably at Rhodri before going on. “… might cause more problems between our respective countries than it would solve.”

“What do you mean?” he asked curtly. “Explain yourself.”

Athaya swallowed hard. She could tell from the cold look in his eye that he already knew what she was about to say, and rightly so, in light of the number of long-winded speeches he had endured from Durek on this subject. Athaya hadn’t wanted to bring it up, especially in Rhodri’s presence, but now she had little choice.

“Prince Felgin is of the Lorngeld, Father. You knew that before you ever invited him here. Putting it plainly, I do not wish to marry a man of his race, nor do I want to risk having my children—your grandchildren—doomed to either insanity or damnation.”

She glanced aside at Rhodri, still sitting in the windowseat with his hands folded in his lap, motionless as a marble statue. She would have expected him to show at least a shade of annoyance at her words, but if he was offended by her remarks he did not show it. In fact, he looked slightly bored, as if he’d heard this argument so often that it had ceased to surprise him.

Kelwyn, on the other hand, was visibly angry. “Must you assume that what the priests say is right, simply because they are priests?” he cried, banging his fist on the table. “You’re starting to sound just like Durek!”

Then, like a horse checked by its reins, he paused to collect his thoughts and continued in a much calmer tone. “I do not mean to insult the men of the Church. Right or wrong, their teachings have helped Caithe through some very dark times and prevented a great deal of misery and destruction. But I disagree with their views on the damnation of the Lorngeld, and I know they are wary of me because I am the first king in a great while to stand up and say so. I may not be a natural-born Lorngeld, but I understand them and their ways and I think the priests will listen to me because of that.”

Although Kelwyn had already begun work on this latest project, Athaya knew as well as anyone that it was not getting off to an auspicious beginning. Her father had summoned the highest-ranking members of the clergy to Delfarham for the purpose of presenting his arguments, and while none had been so bold as to refuse it, they had come reluctantly, knowing they would only be forced to argue against their king and risk incurring his wrath. It was becoming clear that his battle on behalf of the Lorngeld would not be an easy one, especially since Kelwyn had vastly underestimated the clergy’s violent reaction to what they called his unspeakable plan to marry his own daughter to the Devil himself.

“They have to change their minds,” Kelwyn went on, full of passion. “I simply refuse to believe that what they say about the Lorngeld is true. Just look at Rhodri! Why, without the power he gave me, and his own efforts in teaching me how to use it, I never would have been able to put an end to the civil war as quickly as I did. Rhodri may be a fully trained wizard, but in light of what he’s done for Caithe, I certainly don’t think he’s damned to hell for it, do you?”

Athaya focused her eyes on Osfonin’s letter, unwilling to look either at her father or at Rhodri. She certainly hoped the wizard was not destined for hell. She supposed herself already headed in that direction and could think of any number of people with whom she would rather spend eternity.

“Might I say something, your Majesty?” came the rich, tenor voice from across the room. Rhodri rose fluidly, the silvery threads in his robe glittering like ice in the moonlight. Though several years Kelwyn’s junior, the wizard looked much older due to his unusually pale skin and snowy white hair, and the moonlight only served to make his features more colorless. He stepped soundlessly across the carpet to join the king and his daughter.

“Princess Athaya, I understand your feelings about me, and those like me. I cannot take offense. You have the right to believe what you will, whether I agree with you or not.” Rhodri smiled thinly, but the look in his eye—which Kelwyn could not see-plainly told her that the reason he was not offended by her beliefs was simply because he found them too ignorant and contemptible to bother with.

“But as for Prince Felgin, I do not think your marriage to him would bring about the calamities you anticipate. Not that such a marriage is likely to come about now,” he added regretfully, glancing at the green-ribboned letter.

“Are you trying to tell me that if I had married him, our children wouldn’t be born with the curse?”

“No. That is a possibility, of course, but one never knows who will be given the gift. But I lived in Reyka for many years and know that in that land, the Lorngeld are honored and respected. And to be a royal Lorngeld is an even greater distinction. As Felgin’s wife, you would have been the most revered woman in the land. I think you knew all of this, and even though I disagree with your reasons, I find it admirable that you would refuse such a match on the strength of your principles.”

“That’ll do, Rhodri,” Kelwyn interjected, unexpectedly annoyed that the wizard seemed to be taking Athaya’s side in this. Rhodri bowed and returned to his seat, reclining in the luxurious cushions with catlike grace. Athaya gazed at him in mild surprise. Apparently the wizard didn’t think a marital alliance with Reyka was as crucial to Caithe’s future as Kelwyn did. Or maybe, despite all his pretty words, he simply doesn’t care, Athaya thought.

“Whether you acted out of spiteful or ‘noble’ reasons,” Kelwyn said, with a cursory glance at the wizard, “the situation has not changed. I must still send a reply to Osfonin. I finished writing that reply earlier this evening.” He reached for the sealed letter on his desk—the one Athaya had seen him writing when she entered the room.

“What does it say?” she asked, more from courtesy than from any desire to know the answer.

“I have simply informed Osfonin that because his son has no further intentions of pressing his suit with you, I can only assume that this unwillingness is a sign of hostility toward the Caithan people. I admit that your behavior was far from ideal, but if that alone can destroy such an important alliance, then obviously Osfonin wasn’t as serious as he claimed when he suggested that his son might be a good husband for you. He has insulted Caithe—an insult which we are prepared to answer if need be.”

Athaya’s eyes grew wide. “But you can’t say that!” she sputtered. “You’re practically declaring war on them!”

“Not quite. I merely want Osfonin to reconsider his situation. I was most serious when I approached him about a possible alliance between our two countries. Caithe has grown powerful over the last few years, and the Reykans would be well advised to realize that. We are no longer their poor, inferior western neighbor, but a powerful peer, which could be an enemy to them just as easily as an ally. I think it would be in Osfonin’s best interests for his son to take another look at you and reconsider his feelings about this marriage.”

Athaya felt her stomach tighten. “You mean Felgin’s coming back?”

“Not exactly,” Kelwyn said, tapping the end of the letter on the table. “You see, Athaya, I didn’t just summon you to scold you for your behavior tonight, which, I’m sure you’re aware by now, was inexcusable. Your solitary jaunts through the countryside are not only unseemly, but they are extremely dangerous. The civil war is over, yes, but that does not mean that everyone in my realm is unswervingly loyal to me, or has your own personal welfare at heart.”

Kelwyn stood up slowly and laid his hands flat on the table. “But since you seem to have an uncontrollable desire to leave the confines of this castle, I’ve called you here tonight to give you a commission.” A smile lingered on his lips as he motioned toward the sealed letter. “You, Athaya, are to deliver this message to Osfonin personally.”

Athaya reeled as if she’d been struck.

“What?” she cried. Her jaw hung open stupidly. There had to be some mistake…

“You heard me. I’ll have Captain Graylen and a dozen of his men escort you there. You will depart for Reyka at dawn, the day after tomorrow.”

Athaya couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “But, Father, you have no idea… how could you do this to me? Osfonin will toss me out of his court before I can open my mouth to say a single word!”

“Perhaps that is just what you need to quell your desire for midnight ramblings through the streets of Delfarham,” Kelwyn said mirthlessly. “It is your own fault that this letter had to be written at all. You humiliated me, as well as all of Caithe. Your punishment is fitting.”

Athaya hung her head in complete misery. She could see it now. Osfonin would furiously order her out of his presence while Felgin sat by laughing himself into convulsions. But what could she say? Deep down, she knew Kelwyn was right. It was a fitting punishment. Suddenly her head began to pound, and the queasy feeling in her stomach began to return. Would this wretched night never end?

Kelwyn gathered up his letters from the table. “It’s very late, and I, for one, am going to bed. And I urge you to do likewise, Athaya. You look as if you’re in dire need of some rest.” With one last glare at his daughter, he turned on his heel and stalked out of the chamber.

Athaya heard a soft rustle from the windowseat and jumped—she had completely forgotten that Rhodri was there. He closed the wooden shutters and drifted across the room toward her, blowing out the candle on the mahogany table with one gentle breath.

“Don’t worry overmuch, your Highness,” he said to her. “Osfonin is not a temperamental man. I think you will find him most genial, in spite of the unfortunate circumstances of your visit.”

“You’ve met him?”

Rhodri shrugged with undeceiving modesty. “Only once, a long time ago. But I was quite impressed.”

As if the king of Reyka has to worry about impressing you, she thought, quietly amused.

“I was introduced to him many years ago by an old teacher of mine.” Rhodri paused. For a moment, Athaya saw a shadow pass over his face, but it was quickly gone. “I don’t think your audience with Osfonin will be as unpleasant as you expect.”

Athaya nodded imperceptibly. “I hope you’re right.”

“I bid you good night, then,” he said. Rhodri bowed to her and left the room, closing the heavy door noiselessly behind him.

Now alone in the chamber, Athaya slumped down on a woven straw mat in front of the fireplace and gazed at the hypnotic flickering of the flames.

Why do I keep doing this? she thought glumly. Why do I always back myself into corners and then complain when I can’t get out? She thought back to Durek’s warning and cupped her chin dejectedly in her palms, wondering if it wouldn’t be best for everyone if she simply asked Rhodri to turn her into a toad after all.

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