King Soltran stared at the old healer, weariness etched into his features. “You can’t be serious.”
“I assure you, Your Majesty, I could never invent such a story. I have examined the indentured acrobat myself, and…” The old man blushed to the roots of his silver hair. “Majesty, it’s not a boy. The person in my infirmary is unquestionably female.”
The king rubbed his temples. “I’m sorry, my old friend. Of course I believe you.” His sigh was heavy, and slightly choked. “It’s just been very hard these past few days.”
Sympathy shone from the old healer’s eyes. “The thoughts of the entire kingdom are with you and your family right now.”
News of Prince Daric’s death had rocked Ithyria within hours of the chaotic events at the birthday banquet. Yet Soltran had not had a moment of rest or privacy in which to grieve. The assassin had disappeared without a trace, despite the best efforts of the royal guard to track him down. It was as if the mysterious cloaked man had been absorbed right into the stone of the castle walls. The hunt continued, but they had precious little information to go on.
What they were certain of was that the assassin had two targets, both the crown prince and his twin sister. Daric had been killed, but the heroic intervention of a young performer at the banquet had saved Princess Shasta’s life. Now, the court was in disarray, with rumors flying at every turn. Who was the assassin? Who sent him? What was his motive? And the youth who had saved the Princess had become, instantly, a national hero, and a national curiosity.
But Soltran had more pressing issues. His priority now was Shasta. He could not allow his grief over Daric’s death to endanger the only remaining heir to the throne. With the assassin’s identity and whereabouts unknown, it was vital that he remain vigilant and self-controlled. It was unknown whether another attempt on Shasta’s life would be taken, or when. And Soltran worried for his daughter’s emotional state. Daric and Shasta had been inseparable. At times, it was as if they had shared the same soul. Shasta hadn’t spoken a word since that night, isolating herself in her chambers, and Nurse reported that she refused to eat.
Soltran longed to go to her, to offer his daughter some consolation. Were they like any other family in the kingdom, at least they would have been able to spend quiet time in mourning together. But they were not like any other family.
“Who else knows of this?” Soltran asked.
The healer shook his head. “I have told no one else, Majesty. Even the acrobat’s showmaster believes her to be male, so evidently this is a secret she has kept for quite some time..”
“This creates an entirely new set of problems, you realize.” Already, bards across the kingdom were composing anthems of tribute to the Outlander boy who had, through a spectacular feat of acrobatics, taken the dagger that was meant for the Princess of Ithyria. Overnight, Talon’s name had become legend. Soltran could only imagine what a sensation it would cause when word got out that the Princess’ savior was, in fact, a girl. “To dress against one’s sex clearly flies in the face of the Goddess. Now I must decide whether to have this youngster put to death for her perversion, or have her nationally honored for saving my daughter’s life. What is her condition, as of this moment?”
“We were able to remove the assassin’s knife with little internal damage.The loss of blood was considerable, but she is still young and strong. I expect her to make a full recovery.”
Soltran nodded. “Have her brought to me as soon as you feel she is able to endure an audience. Before I decide what to do with her, I want to speak with her myself.” As the healer turned to leave, he thought of something else. “And healer… do not tell anyone else what you have told me today. Until I have made up my mind, I want this matter to remain confidential.”
A few weeks later, Talon was brought before King Soltran. She entered the King’s private study, guided by the palace healer and one of the royal guard. Her wound was still painful, but she forced herself to stand upright while Soltran looked her over.
“Please, sit down.” The King indicated a chair across from his large oak table. Talon obeyed.
“Leave us,” Soltran ordered, and the healer and guard both bowed before exiting the room. Talon heard the heavy door close behind her.
“Let me make one thing very clear,” Soltran began. “When I ask a question, I expect you will give me the utter truth, in its entirety. I have a difficult decision to make, and I cannot do it without your help. Do you understand?”
Talon nodded, but kept her head down. There was no doubt that the healer had discovered the secret she’d guarded for so many winters; when she’d awakened in the infirmary, she’d been dressed in a fresh tunic and her wound had been cleaned. If the King did not order her put to death, it was certain that the showmaster would, once he found out. That is, if he didn’t sell her away to a pleasure house or worse. Talon rather hoped the king would execute her. But then what would happen to Lyris and Bria?
The king was silent for a moment. “Tell me how long you have been indentured.”
“Nearly ten winters, Your Majesty.”
“So for ten winters you have lived and dressed contrary to your gender, in complete defiance not only of your master, but in blasphemy against the Goddess who gave you female form at birth.”
It sounded like a statement, not an inquiry. But after a moment, the King tapped his fingers on his desk. “You will answer when I ask you a question.”
Talon looked up then. “Yes.” The King did not appear pleased, but what other reply could she make? He had asked for the truth.
“Are you aware that the penalty for heresy is death?”
“Can you give me any good reason why I should not order your execution?”
“No. But I did save your daughter, didn’t I?” The King’s brows lifted, but he inclined his head in acknowledgement. “So perhaps I have earned the right to request a favor.”
“You want to be pardoned,” he said, in a tone that said he had expected as much.
“I don’t care about that. Execute me if you like, it makes no difference. But…my sisters, Your Majesty. I’m all they have. In return for saving the Princess, I ask for their protection.”
A corner of his mouth twitched, and he raised a hand to stroke his beard. “So that’s it. Tell me honestly, girl, why did you throw yourself in the way of the assassin’s blade?”
“I thought it was going to hit Lyris.”
Talon nodded, and Soltran stood up from the table. For several long minutes he stood at the window, gazing down into the courtyard. She could not tell what he was thinking, but her abdomen was aching and a cold fear had begun to settle around her heart. If he refused, what would happen to Lyris and Bria once Showmaster Naurin finally had them all to himself? It was unthinkable. Talon’s leg started bouncing against the floor, and she spoke up again. “Your Majesty, it’s still true that without me, your daughter would have been killed. I may be indentured, an Outlander and a heretic, but I took a knife in the stomach and that should count for something. Do whatever you want with me, but make sure Lyris and Bria are kept safe. That’s all I’m asking.”
“You speak very boldly for someone who faces execution.” He was still staring out the window, and she could see him only in profile. “Tell me. How important are your sisters to you?”
“They’re everything, Majesty,” she said without hesitation. “I would die for them.”
“Would you give up your life for them?” He turned back to face her, and Talon blinked in confusion. “No, I’m not being redundant, girl. It’s not quite the same thing.” Soltran returned to his seat, and leveled his chin on his hands. “It’s my turn to be truthful with you. The responsibilities of a King are heavy ones. Right now I have a hundred different problems hanging over my head, each one a top priority, each one with the potential to affect hundreds of thousands of lives. And yet all of them have been pushed aside, the past few weeks, because of recent events. My son is dead.” His face flinched as he said the words. “However, thanks to you, my daughter remains alive. Princess Shasta is the only hope, now, for Ithyria; she is Queen Talia’s only remaining heir. If something were to happen to her now, the kingdom would fall into the hands of her cousin, Kumire. Many of the provincial governments would never accept him as their King. Ithyria would fall into civil war not a moment after my death.”
He seemed so tired, suddenly, and so old. But she didn’t understand what any of this had to do with her.
“With Daric gone, protecting Shasta has become my primary concern. Whoever the assassin is, he wanted to eliminate both of them. And it is very likely he will try again. He must not be allowed to succeed. For the sake of Ithyria. And…” Soltran closed his eyes, and something worked in his throat. “And on a more personal note, I have lost my wife, and my son. I will not lose my daughter as well. Like you, I would be willing to die for the ones I love. But I am King. I cannot abandon my duty to my people in order to stay by my daughter’s side. And I do not trust anyone, not even the greatest general in my armies, to protect her with the same commitment that I would.”
Talon nodded to show that she understood.
“We share similar problems, then, don’t we? I want to protect Shasta. You want to protect your sisters. But both of us are in positions that make it difficult. As King I cannot be with my daughter to watch over her. As indentured servants, you and your sisters are subject to the whims of your master. And as a heretic, well…” He did not need to finish the thought. “So I have a proposal for you. I can arrange for you and your sisters to be released from your indenture. Your sisters will live here, in the palace, as companions to my daughter. I will see to it that they receive proper education and lessons in etiquette that befit ladies-in-waiting. Their every need will be cared for, as if they were my own daughters. And you will never need to worry for their safety again.”
Talon’s mouth dropped open, but Soltran held up one hand. “But there is a condition. I asked if you would be willing to give up your life for your sisters’ safety, and that is exactly what I intend. In exchange for allowing your sisters to live here, and providing them with such luxury and education as I have described, you will agree to dedicate the rest of your life to my service… or more specifically, to the service of the Princess. You will guard Shasta as if she were also your sister. You will protect her life with your own. I will see to it that you are trained with the skills you will need to provide her adequate protection. You will learn the sword, the staff, the various methods of hand-to-hand combat. And if you fail—if Shasta receives so much as a scratch while under your protection—it will be your sisters who will pay the price.”
Talon clamped her mouth shut again. Condition, indeed. The King’s offer was more like a threat. Yet it was still the greatest opportunity that she and her sisters had ever been presented with, and she’d be a fool not to accept. But in the performing troupe, her sisters were rarely punished alongside her when she made mistakes. Here, her failure would bring them harm. Which was exactly the level of caution the King wanted of her, she realized.
Soltran sighed. “I am not a cruel man, I hope you understand that. But I must ensure that Shasta is safe. Therefore, if she is wounded, your sisters will also suffer. And if she is killed, it will cost your sisters’ lives as well. I want you to think of Shasta’s safety as equivalent to theirs. Do you understand?”
She did. She didn’t like it, but in his place she might have done the same.
“And one other thing. I may be King, but I am not so far removed from the realities of human nature that I do not understand the reasons for your—disguise.” He gave a wry smile. “I know perfectly well how many owners treat their indentured girls. Nasty business. Heresy or not, your appearance has undoubtedly saved your sisters’ virtue, perhaps even their lives. Now I wish you to extend that same protection to my daughter. Only those who have the need to know will be privy to your true gender. Everyone else must continue to believe that you are male. You may not marry, or bear children. You are not to have relations with men under any circumstances. It is vital to my daughter’s safety. If I find that you have defied my orders, I will have no choice but to order your execution, and your sisters will be turned out of the palace in disgrace. You must be completely dedicated to the Princess, for the rest of your life…or until she chooses to release you from your service.”
Talon finally answered him. “If you keep your word, and Lyris and Bria are given all that you have promised, I will gladly obey any condition you set.”
“Very well. Guard!” The study doors opened, and Soltran addressed the uniformed man at the entrance. “Summon this boy’s two sisters, and their master, at once. Send Nurse with an escort of guards to fetch Princess Shasta from her chambers, and tell Captain Vaughn his presence is required. We will convene in the great hall.” The man at the door saluted.
Naurin was less than pleased to hear that his two star performers were to be taken from him, but no amount of protesting on his part could change Soltran’s mind. One of the royal footmen handed the greedy man a small bag of coins, which he weighed in his hand with a frown. “Your Majesty, the girls are worth twice this much, and the boy… he’s a national hero!”
“Which is why I am rewarding his bravery with a position among my household,” Soltran replied coolly. “And out of gratitude to you for bringing the boy here in the first place, I am not removing all three from your possession without compensation. You will find that the amount you have received is fair market price for servants of their age and experience.” His calm blue eyes dared Naurin to contradict him.
The showmaster’s face was flushed with anger, but he did not argue. Soltran dismissed him with a wave of the hand, and the disgruntled man was escorted out of the hall. Talon watched him go with elation in her heart, and tightened her arms around her sisters. They were free of him. Finally, they were free. The newly-formed scar above her hip throbbed, and she had to grin. Pain had never been more worth the reward; she would gladly take a hundred more such wounds for this moment of victory.
Soltran turned his eyes to the Princess, who was standing silently with Nurse. Shasta’s head was down, her face obscured by a dark veil. She was standing too quietly, too still, not at all like her usual self, and the sight tugged at his heart. He looked over at the Outlander siblings, the two smaller girls clinging to their androgynous older sister. The fire in Talon’s eyes as she’d watched her former master leave the room was unmistakable. If she applied that protective instinct to his daughter, Shasta wouldn’t be safer with anyone in the kingdom.
Soltran raised his hands and addressed the room. “Before I make this announcement to the general assembly, I want all of you to know my intentions for these three.” He indicated Talon and her sisters with a wave of his hand. “As you all know, the boy known as Talon risked his life to save the life of Princess Shasta. As a reward I have released him and his sisters from their indentureship; and I have offered Talon a special place among my royal guard. Beginning today, Talon will assume the training and duties necessary to serve as Princess Shasta’s personal bodyguard. Captain Vaughn.” The uniformed man saluted and bowed, rows of gold medals glittering along the breast of his uniform. “As the captain of the royal guard, I am entrusting the boy’s training to you personally.”
“Yes, your Majesty.” The man shot a dubious look at Talon. He obviously didn’t think she looked like much of a soldier. She tried to stand a little taller as he looked her over.
“The girls.” Soltran blinked for a moment. “What were their names, again?”
Neither of them looked up, so Talon replied. “Lyris and Bria, Your Majesty.”
Soltran nodded. “Yes, Lyris and Bria. Step forward, please.”
Talon had to shake them off gently, nudging them towards the King, and though they let go of Talon, Lyris reached out and clung to Bria’s hand as they approached. The King smiled down at them, but neither would meet his eyes.
“I intend for you two girls to also attend the Princess, though in a different way. You shall receive the education and grooming befitting of young ladies-in-waiting, and become Princess Shasta’s companions. I expect that you will learn to conduct yourselves as ladies of the court; and if you work diligently I am sure you will both have very happy lives here, and opportunities beyond anything you might have imagined for yourselves. I am assigning your care to Nurse.” Soltran nodded in the direction of the elderly woman, dressed in heavy brocade, standing next to the Princess. “You are to obey her in everything, and listen well to what she teaches. She’s often boasted that she could turn a slave wench into a duchess with the proper training, and I am giving her the opportunity to make good on that boast.” There was a mischievous twinkle in the King’s eye as he said this, and he glanced at his daughter. Normally Shasta never passed up the chance to tease Nurse, but she remained still under her heavy veil. He sighed, inwardly promising himself that to carve out some measure of time in his schedule to spend time alone with his grieving daughter.
“Guards, escort Princess Shasta to her chambers for now. There is something important I must discuss with Nurse and the Captain.”
The veiled princess gave a slight bow and left the room without protest, a uniformed guard flanking her on either side. Soltran watched her go for a moment before turning back to his remaining audience. “What I am about to say is not to leave this room. My daughter’s safety may depend on it.”
He paused to allow the words to sink in. “Nurse, Captain Vaughn, the two of you will be working closely with Talon and so it is necessary to entrust this secret with you.” He paused again, looking somewhat undecided, and then chuckled. “To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure exactly how to say it.”
“I’m a woman.” Talon’s interruption was almost more shocking than the statement itself. Even her sisters stared at her in disbelief.
Bria’s mouth dropped open. “Talon, what are you doing? You said to never—”
“It’s okay, the King already knows.”
Nurse was eyeing Talon up and down with distaste, clucking her tongue. “Sorriest excuse for a woman I’ve ever seen,” she said dryly. “And dreadful manners, to boot.”
“Your Majesty, with all due respect…” Captain Vaughn began, but King Soltran held up a hand.
“You want to know what in the Goddess’s name I’m thinking?” Soltran waggled his eyebrows and clapped Vaughn on the shoulder. “I haven’t lost my mind, old friend. Talon has already demonstrated an ability to think fast, move quickly and risk everything for the Princess’ sake.”
He knew full well that she hadn’t been thinking of the Princess when she threw herself in the way of that knife. Soltran met Talon’s surprised gaze. “And I have every confidence that she will protect my daughter as if Shasta were her own sister.” He gave a wink, so tiny that she was probably the only one who noticed. “But there is another reason why I have chosen her. The rest of the kingdom, and indeed everyone else in the palace, must continue to believe that Talon is a young man. I want Shasta to have a guard who can follow her everywhere, be by her side literally every moment of the day. I would never trust a man with my daughter in such a way, but Talon—Talon will share Shasta’s room, sleep at her bedside, ensure her safety at all times. ”
Nurse coughed, and her eyes nearly bulged out of her head. “Your Majesty, that’s entirely unacceptable. Surely an adjacent room—”
“It’s not enough.” Soltran shook his head. “My son was murdered in front of the entire court, and yet his assassin disappeared without a trace. Such a man frightens me. It’s not enough to post guards outside the Princess’ doors, or even to have a bodyguard sleeping in an adjacent room. If that were sufficient I would have chosen members of the royal guard for this task. But it’s not enough. I need someone to protect Shasta all the time, not just when she emerges from her chambers. Whoever this assassin is, he’s familiar enough with the castle to slip in and out undetected and unseen. I want someone at Shasta’s bedside. And I do not trust any soldier, no matter how honorable, with such a delicate position.”
Nurse shook her head. “Majesty, even if Talon is a young woman, you said yourself you want the rest of the palace to believe otherwise. What will the court think? It would be scandalous!”
King Soltran snorted. “I don’t care. Let the wagging tongues wag all they like. Let them call me a fool, or driven mad by grief, or whatever they will. Shasta’s virtue is safe, and when it comes time for her to marry we will bring her betrothed in on the secret. But as for the rest of the court and the kingdom, there are far greater matters to be concerned with than who has been assigned to keep their Crown Princess from being murdered in her bed.”
Now the old woman’s eyes narrowed and took on an indignant light that Soltran was all too familiar with. “Your Majesty, be reasonable and think of the Princess’ feelings. Her chambers are her private space, where she dresses, bathes, and…” she lifted an eyebrow, “attends to personal and feminine matters.” Soltran’s cheeks reddened a bit, and so did Talon’s. “Even if this person…” Nurse eyed Talon with distaste, “is a young woman, the Princess doesn’t know that. She would be humiliated. To deny her privacy violates simple human decency.”
Soltran cleared his throat, his expression resembling a guilty little boy being scolded by his mother. Still, it didn’t seem likely that he was going to change his mind. “Yes, well… I suppose Shasta should have some space to herself.” He rubbed his beard. “Very well. I shall have a small room built in her chambers. No windows. Only one door. Talon will inspect the room before each time Shasta enters it, and stand guard so long as she remains inside. She may use the room for any… private matters she needs to attend to. For that matter, Talon will also make use of the room when necessary, to protect her own secret.” Soltran nodded slowly. “Yes. That should quiet some of the gossip as well.”
Nurse was still shaking her head. “Well, Majesty, if your mind is made up, then you may inform Princess Shasta of your decision yourself. I wash my hands of it.”
Soltran chuckled. “Never fear, Nurse, I will handle Shasta in this matter.”
“Majesty, don’t you think the Princess ought to know?”
Everyone in the room turned to look at Talon, and Captain Vaughn grunted in disapproval. “The first thing you’re going to learn, boy,” he emphasized the last word with deliberate irony, “is not to question His Majesty’s commands.”
Soltran arched an eyebrow at her, and she dropped her head. “My apologies, Your Majesty.”
“Yes, well… I will answer regardless. No, I do not wish Shasta to know. It might make her a bit uncomfortable, but…well, my daughter still has much to learn about the art of keeping secrets, and this is one that we cannot afford to have exposed.”
“Well, now that this is all settled…” King Soltran rubbed his hands together. “Nurse, have Shasta brought to my study. I will speak with her privately. Have chambers prepared for Lady Lyris and Lady Bria. See to it that they are,” he eyed the girls’ ragged dresses with distaste, “cleaned up and properly attired. Captain Vaughn, take Talon here down to the barracks. Have her outfitted as one of the guard. Her training begins today–this very minute, in fact. And send for my groundskeeper. I wish construction of the Princess’ privy chamber to begin at once.” The King raised his hand, and the room was dismissed.
As Talon followed the captain out of the hall and through the corridors, she pinched herself, hard, on the inside of her elbow. This wasn’t a dream. Her life was truly about to change. And no matter what the future had to bring, Talon was certain that this was her chance. She would work harder at this than she’d ever worked at anything in her life. She would learn everything that they could teach her, and would fulfill her new duties beyond anyone’s expectations. Three Outlander orphans had somehow won positions of honor in the household of a King. Talon had never dared to dream of such an opportunity, and she was determined not to squander it.
With the training and connections she could establish here, it would only be a matter of time. She would build strength, gather intelligence, form alliances, and one day she would be ready. When that time came, the barbarians who had destroyed her family ten winters ago would rue the day they were born. Everyone who had ever caused pain to herself or her sisters, those who had murdered their parents, those who had beaten and starved them, forced them to dance and sing on command, treated them like animals…one day they would all pay for their cruelty. She would make sure of it.
A slow, smug grin spread across her features as she followed the captain toward the guard barracks.