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by Michelle Levigne
Description: What can a princess do when Prince Charming isn't? Vevina started out like any fairy tale princess, with a christening and a magical gift and betrothed to a handsome prince from a neighboring country. The only thing she had to worry about was the typical witch or evil enchanter appearing when she turned eighteen. Then Fallon, her Prince Charming, revealed he was anything but charming. His plots stole nearly everything and everyone Vevina loved, and he tried to make the rest of the world think it was her fault. There was only one thing to do, and that was to beat Fallon at his own game and reveal his lies to the whole world. With the aid of a friendly spirit and the magical healer, Ambrose, Vevina disguised herself and headed into Fallon's country. But as her teacher warned her, using the enemy's tactics led to complications that even magic might not be able to cure.
eBook Publisher: Mundania Press LLC/Mundania Press LLC, 2005 2005
eBookwise Release Date: October 2007
17 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [344 KB]
Reading time: 228-319 min.
"A heartwarming, magical journey."--bestselling author Erin McCarthy
"A truly magical story, of a courageous and very human heroine, honorable heroes, despicable villains, the power of love and the triumph of good over evil. Not to be missed."--bestselling author Rosemary Laurey
That fall in Westerland, everyone attributed the lush harvest and perfect weather to the birth of Vevina, daughter of King Ailfrid and Queen Ailisa. The stories surrounding the little princess' birth spread like the firegrass that sprouted rainbows of tiny flowers after the fields had been harvested and plowed under for winter's rest. The peasants of the farming kingdom said the sun shone when the princess laughed and rain only fell when she cried--and there were few reports of rain all that harvest, until long after the last sheaves had been brought into the barns.
The people thought it only fitting when good King Ailfrid proclaimed a festival for Vevina's christening. They thought it only proper that King Maher of Stonemount, Westerland's nearest neighbor to the east, attended and brought his only child, Prince Fallon. The people paused in their simple celebrations to acknowledge that it made perfect sense for the eight-year-old to make the journey. After all, Prince Conroy, Ailfrid and Ailisa's son, was seven and the two boys would be allies when they grew up, just like their fathers. The people cheered as the tall, white-haired, red-faced king rode down the cobblestone streets of Port'ham with his strapping, golden-haired boy by his side. Those who cared about such things remarked on how alert young Prince Fallon was, watching everything with those sharp gray eyes, constantly turning to his father's two advisers to ask them questions. A boy like that, who cared about the world around him at such a young age, would make a large mark on the world. Or so said the old gaffers who sat in the doorways and smoked their clay pipes and passed judgment on the world.
When rumors spilled out of the palace that King Maher wanted to betroth Fallon to little Vevina, most of Westerland approved. What better way to cement the alliance between their farms and the merchants and artisans of Stonemount, but through a royal marriage?
When plantwise Glynna heard it, as she made her slow way down from the northern orchards of Westerland to the river delta capital of Port'ham, she shuddered.
Glynna felt Vevina's birth when the roots of the trees all through Westerland twitched in their loamy beds. She felt it in the unripe grain when the milk of the kernel turned to rich ripeness in a flicker of thought. She tasted it on the harvest wind, warm and sweet and full of the sudden new abundance that flowed over the land. Vevina was the one she had waited for, so many long, weary years. Glynna would Gift the baby princess with her plantwise magic. It was the only choice, the best choice for Westerland.
Yet if Vevina married Fallon and went to live in Stonemount, what would happen to Westerland? Her plantwise Gift would benefit Stonemount, not the land of her birth. It would be shared as her husband asked--or permitted.
Glynna didn't like Fallon. The birds stopped their singing when she dug her bare feet into the sun-warmed soil and thought hard about the young prince. That was enough warning for her that even at such a young age, the boy had a spot of rot in his core.
She didn't let herself hope she could prevent the betrothal, though she hurried her journey through the sleeping fields of Westerland and rejoiced with the people in the richness of this year's harvest. Glynna didn't let herself think beyond gathering up inside herself the essence of what it meant to be plantwise, to pass on to the baby princess. Vevina was the one, and that was all that mattered.
Perhaps she could influence her husband toward good. But perhaps she could not.
That problem was far in the future. As the trees and fields had taught her, Glynna knew that when it came to magic and the foggy future, the wisest course was to do what one could, do the best possible, and trust to fate for justice.
But that didn't mean she couldn't take a hand in things when opportunity presented itself. * * * *
"I've seen country estates larger than this so-called palace," Eth, aide to the First Counselor of Stonemount grumbled through a mouthful of spice cake. He washed it down with sweet cider and wiped the overflow off his chin with his velvet sleeve. "It's a crying shame--"
"That you never learned table manners to go with your clothes," First Counselor Daithi whispered in that voice that could turn a hot spring into a skating pond. "Consider what you just put into your mouth."
"Spice cake and cider. So what?" Eth snatched up a napkin from the groaning banquet table that stretched out to span the palace gardens. He wiped at his slack pudding face and would have dropped the napkin on the lush, green lawn, but a slight curling of Daithi's thin lip caused him to tuck it into his gold-dyed leather belt instead.
"It's very good, isn't it?"
"Everything in Westerland is good."
"Exactly. And where does most of the food in Stonemount originate?" Daithi nodded to an aged couple meandering down the other side of the table. Their faces were like rosy, ancient apples, gleaming with scrubbing above the pristine white and rainbow-hued embroidery of their festival clothes. In contrast to the abundance around him, Daithi wore his habitual, gleaming black, which accented the silver streaks in his thinning hair and short-trimmed beard. He was a tall, emaciated crow towering over Eth's slouching, once-muscular form.
"Here, of course. Maher wants Fallon to marry the princess to keep the food coming."
"Oh, he believes he has far more noble reasons. I'm content to let him think that's why I support his plan." Daithi rolled his eyes a moment, his only outward expression of frustration toward his intractable king.
"So what does that have to do with the King of Westerland living in a house Baron Kapron wouldn't go near?" Eth reached for his goblet of cider and chugged two more mouthfuls to wash the last few crumbs of cake down his throat.
"This is a nation of farmers, my dense young friend. To a farmer, this ... cottage is a rich palace. Ailfrid is one who believes he shouldn't hold himself too high above his own people. Don't mock those with limited sense. Feel sorry for them. They don't see the real world. They think they are happy."
"But we're going to show them what they're missing, right?" He grinned, revealing sharp teeth just starting to turn yellow.
"When Fallon marries little Vevina ... ah, but we have many years of training to lavish on our young prince before he is the man Stonemount needs." Daithi sipped at apple wine from the heavy silver chalice he took with him everywhere, and turned to look for the boy in question.
Near the center of the bustle of happy activity in the palace gardens, Fallon and Conroy raced each other in circles around their chatting fathers and the wide table that held the topic of their conversation. Conroy was definitely his father's son with ruddy cheeks, hazel eyes, and thick black curls. At seven, he showed signs of the wide shoulders and thickly muscled arms of a man who worked hard no matter how exalted his station in life. From a distance, they were just two boys, blond and brunette, playing with that curious mixture of rivalry and friendship that could tip either way and waited for a turning point in their relationship. The betrothal ceremony that followed Vevina's christening meant nothing to either boy; nothing but more speeches and having to stand perfectly still and not make faces at each other from across the wide aisle of the chapel.
Up close, the differences grew clear. Fallon wore velvet and silk, and the ceremonial knife in his belt had emeralds in the sheath. When he wasn't laughing and running and gasping for breath, his narrow mouth fell into pouting lines. Conroy wore a fine broadcloth shirt, richly embroidered, with a leather vest. His knife had a plain grip of carved wood bound with leather. The sheath was scarred and stained, but he cherished it because it was a gift from his dearest friend, Aralt, son of the Captain of the Guard. Conroy smiled and didn't shrug away as Fallon did when grown-ups patted him on the head or tousled his hair.
King Ailfrid and King Maher stood to one side of a table that held a newly made map of their kingdoms and the two kingdoms that were their closest neighbors. Westerland and Stonemount fit together like two kidney beans from the same pod and were close enough in size the differences didn't matter. Above them, touching both their borders was North Ambron, roughly a fifth larger than either of them. Curving around to touch North Ambron on its eastern border, Stonemount on its eastern and southern borders and part of Westerland, was Oerrbann. It was nearly the size of the other three kingdoms combined. On this pleasant day of festivities and sunshine and laughter, neither king paid much attention to the other two countries that dominated their part of the world. All that mattered was the newly strengthened bond between their kingdoms.
"If Vevina is half the beauty her mother is now," King Maher said, smiling as he lifted his gaze to watch Ailisa and her daughter, "my son will be most blessed. Our fathers were allies, and their fathers. I am very happy to know your grandchild will rule Stonemount someday."
"Oh, my friend, such talk makes me dizzy!" King Ailfrid said with a chuckle, and pressed a hand over his heart in mocking shock. "Let my Vevina stay a baby a little while, please!"
King Ailfrid's gaze settled on his golden-haired wife, sitting among a circle of chattering, laughing noble women and their daughters. He had always believed Ailisa was a rare beauty, but today with their daughter in her arms he believed her the most beautiful woman in the entire world. She glowed, she sparkled, with no ornaments but her smile and her long, waist-length braids decked with flowers. Ailisa had recovered easily from giving birth and the roses were back in her golden cheeks. Her green eyes sparkled as she looked up from the tiny bundle in her lap and saw her husband watching her. For a moment, there was no one and nothing in the world but the two of them.
Comyn, Ailfrid's most trusted advisor, stepped up to the queen with a bow and interrupted the communion of their hearts. His dusty brown hair had gone purest white in the space of time between Conroy's birth and now, but he still moved with strength and assurance. Ailfrid hoped the man would still be there, reliable and wise for Conroy to lean on when he began his rule.
"Something wrong, my friend?" Maher asked
"Hmm?" Ailfrid chuckled as he realized he had been staring, silent just a few seconds too long. "No. Everything is far too right today. On days like this, I wonder what I ever did to deserve such happiness. It's like a nursery fable."
"I hope it remains so, long after our children are grown. I hesitated asking for this betrothal. Politics and marriages of state have always worried me. You and I both want our children to be happy, but the duty of royalty overrules that, eh?" Maher nodded toward their sons, who had stopped their games to talk with Daithi and Eth just far enough out of earshot not to hear or be heard. "Sometimes we have to sacrifice our hearts' desires for the good of the country. I hope that by doing what is right, Fallon and Vevina will be rewarded with great happiness together."
"I know any son of yours will make my daughter a good husband. That is enough for me." Ailfrid reached for the wineskin sitting on one corner of the map and gestured at their half-empty cups. "Come, let me refill our drinks to toast the future." * * * *
Glynna entered Port'ham at the River Gate, her rarely used sandals crunching on the gravel that lined the donkey path along the side of the river. She walked slowly, so near to her goal she could feel the little princess' presence drawing her. Though this was the day she had dreamed of with eager weariness, she felt a twinge of reluctance--and, she was wise enough to admit, some fear. She only knew stories of what would happen when she Gifted the baby princess with her magical abilities. She had never met anyone who was Gifted, so she couldn't know if the stories were true.
The people of Westerland knew they were more than welcome to visit the palace gardens and catch a glimpse of the little princess on her christening day, to take a cup of cider, and a share of the roasted boars and geese the king had provided for the celebration. Most kept their visits to just that, a glimpse, a taste, and a word of congratulations to the parents. Then they went back out through the palace gates to their own celebrations, and those who could left little gifts for the child: sweets, knitted stockings and little shoes, quilts with blessings stitched into the soft fabric, preserves and little wooden toys. Glynna walked among the festivities that spilled out of every tavern and inn, with dancing at every street corner where someone would play a fiddle or harp or beat a drum loud enough to provide a rhythm. She smiled, knowing Vevina would love these simple, generous, happy folk as she had come to love them in the many decades of her service.
From time to time, someone turned long enough from the merrymaking to really look at Glynna and see her and recognize her. Then she would hear her name called and someone would smile and someone would call out thanks to her. Someone else would offer a bit of good news, another would run up to her with a cup of cider or sometimes wine. Someone else would give her a bit of fancy cake or a tiny meat pie small enough to hold three in her hand. The constant halts to talk, nibble, or sip slowed Glynna's journey, but she didn't mind. She was glad for one last chance to see the people she loved and to make her farewells--though no one but she knew this was her farewell journey.
Then, only a few streets from the palace, she felt a tingle of magic in her fingertips. Green-gold sparkles danced along her arms for a moment as Glynna turned to look, as she knew someone else not far away was turning to look for her.
"Ambrose!" She felt tears touch her eyes even as laughter rang in her voice. Glynna hurried through the press of people, arms stretched wide.
The man who strode across the square and around the well with its garland-hung roof was taller than everyone there by nearly a head. His silver hair gleamed as if polished and the momentary golden sparkles of magic dancing on his fingertips had a slight tinge of bluish purple. He was clean-shaven and had let his hair grow long, though that small attempt at disguise did little to hide the resemblance between himself and King Maher--who wore his hair short and his beard full. Ambrose was uncle to the king of Stonemount. He should have been king, but because of his magical Gift of healing, he renounced the throne and handed it to his younger brother, Maher's father. Ambrose believed, as did all those born with Gifts, his abilities were meant to benefit the entire world, not just his family or kingdom.
"My dear, it has been too long!" Ambrose cried, and flung his arms tight around the woman. She was two heads shorter than him, thin and weathered and topped with snowy hair, but for a moment as they embraced they were two raw children, meeting on their first forays into the wild world to test and share their Gifts. He laughed as he released her and twisted the vine leaves back into her hair where they had come loose. "Another good harvest, I hear. Thanks to you."
"When the people have good in their hearts and love for the land, there really is little need for me. Except to remind them, of course," Glynna added with a chuckle.
Then she noticed the quiet, thin, dark boy who stood like the old man's second shadow. It took but a moment to note the hawk's nose, the gray eyes, the air of gentle thoughtfulness about the boy, and the caring way Ambrose rested a hand on his shoulder. They were dressed much alike: sturdy, earth-colored roughspun and traveling leathers with large belt pouches at their waists, worn packs on their backs and walking sticks in their hands.
"This can't be Quinn, so grown up already, can it?" she said, smiling down at the boy. "So, how do you like apprenticing with your grandfather already, young sir?"
"I like it very well, Lady," Quinn responded with a bow. He touched his brow with two fingers, since he had no hat to remove. Glynna liked him immediately.
Don't be silly, her inner voice scolded, laughing. With Ambrose as his grandfather, how else could he turn out but good? If only he were the prince, you wouldn't have to worry about Vevina and the Gifting at all, would you?
She scolded her inner voice to shut up and turned back to Ambrose's words.
"He knows the basic healing herbs by sight already," the man said with fond pride in his voice. He smiled down at the boy, who grinned back up at him. "And only ten years old."
"I can see you're going to live up to all your grandfather's dreams."
"Thank you, Lady Glynna," Quinn said, bowing again. "I hope so."
"Oh, dear, so formal already?" She chuckled and bent enough so they were eye-to-eye. "I'd much rather you called me Auntie Glynna, lad. Would you do me that kindness?"
"Gladly, Lady--Auntie Glynna," the boy said, blushing a little.
"Thank you." She and Ambrose shared a smile of muffled amusement. "Oh, isn't it glorious at this time of year? I do so enjoy the harvest festivals, watching the people bring in all the crops. It feels wonderful to sit back and watch. Like how you feel when a patient is on the mend."
"Ah, now that's a wonderful feeling," Ambrose said, nodding. "But why are you here? I thought you'd be further north, preparing for winter."
"Princess Vevina. I felt her birth in the wind. She's the one I've been waiting for." She didn't miss the tiny stiffness in him, the momentary parting of his lips as if he would protest her decision--and then the understanding that dimmed his eyes. Ambrose was just as old as she; just as tired; perhaps just as eager to find the one to Gift with his healing talent so he too could rest.
"I'll miss you, dearheart," he finally said.
"You're not going to argue?"
"I grow weary, too. Will you let us walk with you?" When she nodded, Ambrose gave her a sweeping, courtly bow and offered her his arm.
She laughed, remembering the few times she had let him talk her into visiting the Court in Stonemount; the fancy dresses his brother's wife laced her into; the silly times they spent on dances and fancy food and double-talk in Court. It had been a game; one she tired of quickly. Westerland was her home and it called her back, and she had felt only a twinge of regret when she heard Ambrose had married an herb mistress. They remained friends, though years sometimes passed before they saw each other again.
Quinn took a cue from his grandfather and bowed before offering his hand to Glynna. She smiled and laughed and the three set off again, strolling through the crowds. If as they neared the palace Ambrose's hand rested a little more heavily over hers in the crook of his arm, Glynna didn't mind or react. Time was short, and she preferred to spend these last few moments with her dearest friend in the world. * * * *
Sunset wore bright fall colors as it spilled across the fading festivities in the royal gardens. Prince Fallon fidgeted as Comyn regaled him and Prince Conroy with a story of a hunt for a ten-point buck on a snowy evening. Ordinarily, he would have found the story fascinating, but he had heard Lord Daithi say Lord Comyn was a weak-willed, overly cautious man who only held his post as King Ailfrid's advisor because the king felt he owed him a huge debt. How could Fallon respect such a man? The young prince felt a little regret, knowing through the pounding of his heart and the tight excitement in his chest that the story had to be a nest of lies. It was probably a yearling doe Lord Comyn chased through the mud, rather than a magnificent beast that turned and faced its pursuers before dying with ten arrows in its chest.
Prince Conroy leaned against the old man's knee, mouth slightly open as he took shallow, panting breaths, as if he rode with the hunting party. He never blinked and his body twitched a little from side to side as if he followed the wild ride of Comyn's story. Fallon envied his enjoyment. But it was the enjoyment of a little boy, and Fallon had it impressed on him quite often that it was high time he grew up and put aside childish toys and games. His father was an old man and could die without warning, leaving Fallon in charge of the entire country. The young prince was grateful for Lord Daithi's advice and constant stories of how a future king should think and act. * * * *
Comyn sat with the two princes on the step of the chapel in the palace gardens. He could see, but the boys could not, that the festivities were starting to come to an end. Even the city-bound folk were farmers at heart, living their lives in tune with the rising and setting of the sun.
Queen Ailisa sat in a sheltered spot, holding her sleeping daughter and smiling that serene smile that made Comyn half fall in love with her every time he saw it. He quite agreed with the common people that a great blessing had fallen on Westerland at Vevina's birth. It was proper that her parents named her 'Sweetness,' and the little princess seemed to live up to her name already. A few noble ladies were making their farewells to the queen, talking quietly so as not to disturb the sleeping baby. Vevina's nurse hovered at the queen's elbow, ready to take the child whenever her mother's arms grew weary. Comyn smiled even as he neared the end of the story. He knew Ailisa would never give up her child until she absolutely had to.
The mayor of Port'ham stood with King Ailfrid and King Maher at the map table, saying a last few words of congratulations to the two monarchs. His plump wife and five children waited on fidgeting legs for him to say in twenty words what most men could say in five. Still, the people loved their mayor and Comyn valued the man's wisdom--once it was sifted out from his many words.
"Who's that?" Fallon asked, not two seconds after Comyn finished his story. At this point, most listeners would still be in a respectful silence for the grand animal that had fought so hard to live, but the boy just pointed at the main garden gate.
"Yes, who is that?" Daithi asked, stepping from the shadows to join them. Eth appeared at his side a moment later, holding a half-gnawed goose leg in one hand.
"Oh, my..." Comyn breathed. He stared as Glynna paused in the gate to look around the gardens. How many years had it been since plantwise Glynna had come through the gates of Port'ham? As much as eight, or even ten, he thought. The woman hadn't changed, still with her gleaming white hair and weathered face, her brilliant green eyes, and the vine leaves twined into her hair. She held sandals in one hand, treading the grass barefoot to feel the life in the soil.
Ambrose and Quinn waited in the shadow of the gate's arch, slow to release Glynna as she stepped away from them. The woman looked back once after the third step into the gardens. Ambrose smiled sadly, bowed, and spread his arms wide, as if bestowing the gardens on her to wander through at her pleasure.
The servants flitting through the garden, starting to clean up the debris of festivities, paused and looked around. One by one, they saw Glynna and recognized her. Then the muted conversations dotted through the garden died away as the little knots of people felt the still anticipation and looked up. Ailfrid and Maher saw her and turned.
Ailisa saw the woman and stood, her smile slowly fading into something that hovered between pleasant surprise and half-knowing what would happen--and not quite believing it. She took a few steps to meet the late-coming guest, then couldn't seem to move any further.
"Who is that old woman?" Daithi asked, his voice pitched a little lower as if affected by the ripples of silence and expectation washing across the garden.
"That is Auntie Glynna," Comyn said. He nearly laughed at the pride in his voice. Truth to tell, plantwise Glynna was something of a national treasure, and proud all the people of Westerland were that she chose to make her home among them.
"Surely not Queen Ailisa's aunt. The woman should be better dressed."
"Auntie to everyone grateful for her talents," Comyn said, resisting the urge to snap. "She's plantwise. It is a great honor for her to come. She should be resting now that it's harvest."
"Another farmer," Eth said, punctuated by a soft belch. "The smell around here must be terrible in the spring." He smiled woozily when Comyn glared at him.
"Lord Daithi?" Fallon asked, moving over to stand closer to the nobleman--and conveniently getting a better view of events near the center of the gardens.
"Hush and listen, lad. You might learn from this," was all Daithi would say. He frowned, watching the weathered woman in peasant garb reach out her arms for the baby in Ailisa's embrace. He flinched when green-gold sparkles flared from her fingertips and danced up and down her arms.
The two kings started across the gardens toward Ailisa and Vevina and Glynna, and in passing the little chapel brought the two princes and the other three men with them in their wake. They stopped short as a soft, green-gold glow flowed out of Glynna, enveloping her and the baby in her arms, hiding them both from sight for the space of a few heartbeats. Ailfrid let out a little gasp and his legs wobbled. Conroy hurried to his father's side and the king clasped the boy's shoulder. He smiled down at his son, but his lips trembled and momentary tears touched his eyes.
"Father," Conroy whispered, "is she Gifting Vevina?"
"Indeed she is." Ailfrid took a deep breath and some trembling left his limbs. "Your baby sister will be plantwise when she is grown."
"Oh, wonderful," Daithi muttered.
"What's wrong, Lord Daithi?" Fallon asked, startling the man, as if he had not expected to be overheard.
"Perhaps nothing, my prince." He bared his teeth in a strained smile. "You will marry Princess Vevina when you are grown up."
"I know. Girls are stupid, but father says I have to do it for the good of our country."
"Yes, but the last thing we need in Stonemount is a farmer princess."
"But we can't eat without farmers." The boy looked up at his trusted advisor with no small confusion wrinkling his young brow.
"There are some things more valuable than food, my prince," Eth offered. "Nobility should not grub in the dirt."
"The betrothal is only a few hours old, Lord Daithi," Comyn said, his smile a little too bright, his voice brittle. He seemed not to notice that his entrance into the conversation startled all three. "I'm sure it will be easy to break with no one insulted. I'm sure our princess would be grateful not to be sacrificed for politics when she is grown."
"What's wrong, Uncle Comyn?" Conroy asked, stepping over to join them. His dark eyes narrowed, as if sensing trouble brewing despite his lack of Court experience.
"Your baby sister has a stupid Gift," Fallon said, his lip curling back as he spoke.
"You take that back!"
Fallon laughed--and Conroy punched him, square on the jaw. Both boys stumbled backwards from the impact, but before either one could do more than touch his jaw or shake the ache from his hand, they leaped at each other and tumbled to the ground. They kicked and punched and rolled across the already-trampled grass, making the three men leap aside to keep from being bowled over.
Ailfrid and Maher exchanged identical expressions of chagrin: wide grins and eyes rolled heavenward. Then they turned as one and leaped into the miniature tornado to separate their boys. Despite his years, Maher lifted his son by his velvet shoulders and shook him, nearly at eye level for a moment.
"Fallon, behave yourself!" He set the boy down with a thud.
"I want a Gifting, Father. I want magic." Fallon pointed at the fading green-gold glow, revealing Glynna and baby Vevina seemingly untouched.
"When you've earned it." Maher exchanged another grin with Ailfrid, meaning: 'He will never earn it if he keeps this up.'
"Vevina got a Gifting, and she's just a stupid baby."
"My sister isn't a stupid baby!" Conroy roared and flung himself out of his father's grasp. Ailfrid lunged forward, catching his son by the belt of his leather vest. Maher swung Fallon out of the way before the boy did more than stick his tongue out again.
A soft sigh swirled around the gardens as Glynna handed the infant back to Ailisa. The moment her fingers left the silken quilt swaddling the baby, translucence washed over her. Her hair grew brighter--then her feet seemed to vanish into the grass. The tips of her fingers grew transparent. The edges of her skirt seemed to unravel, but there was nothing underneath them as they grew shorter. Glynna turned toward the gate and pressed her ghostly hands to her lips to waft a kiss to Ambrose. For a moment she remained, a figure of softly shining glass. Then she faded like mist touched by a fresh morning breeze.
Ambrose stepped into the gardens and bowed deeply, one hand pressed to his heart. He straightened slowly and tears made his face shine. He was aware of all the people who noticed him simply because they looked to where Glynna had been looking before she vanished. He didn't care what they saw or thought.
"Farewell, old friend," he whispered, voice breaking. He knuckled away a few tears, and as he blinked back more that tried to escape, his gaze locked with Maher's. He nodded to his nephew, who smiled with sympathy and bowed back.
"Maher?" Ailfrid murmured, loathe to turn back to his wife and daughter because he half-feared something had drastically changed in the few seconds he looked away. "Who is that?"
"My uncle, Ambrose the healer. If not for him ... we would not be here today. He gave the throne to my father for the sake of sharing his healing Gift with all the world."
"Ah. A wise and generous man." Ailfrid bowed deeply to the healer as the man turned to rejoin the dark-haired boy standing in the gates. He contemplated asking them to come be his guests, but something about the exchange between Ambrose and Glynna told him the man would not want strangers intruding into his thoughts.
"Very generous." Maher watched his uncle walk away and lines of weariness settled onto his own face. "And I am only now learning how wise he truly was."
"The duties of nobility, old friend," Ailfrid murmured, and they shared yet another smile of understanding.
"Uncle Ambrose will give me his Gifting," Fallon declared. "I'll be the greatest healer in the whole world!"
"That would be a great gift and responsibility indeed, Prince Fallon," Comyn said. He rested a hand on Conroy's shoulder, squeezing to draw the boy's attention to his words. "Be sure you use your gifts for good. A magical gift used for evil turns to poison and harms the entire land." He tipped his head with a questioning look to King Ailfrid, who nodded and led Conroy away. Better to head off another argument before it had a chance to sprout.
"Don't listen to that old fool," Daithi murmured, as he mirrored the tactic and drew Fallon away in the opposite direction. He kept his voice smooth as cream, just the slightest sneering smile in one corner of his mouth. "If you have magic, my wise young prince, you must use it only for your own people. There are limits to even the most wonderful gift. If you spend it foolishly on everyone who asks, you'll run out sooner or later."
"Prince Ambrose shouldn't be allowed to wander as he does," Eth chimed in as he followed them. "If he dies far from home, his magic will go to someone outside Stonemount."
"Why doesn't my father keep him at home, then?" Fallon piped up, on cue.
Daithi and Eth shared triumphant glances over the boy's head.
"I don't know, your Highness," Daithi said with that particular long-suffering sigh he had perfected when speaking with the prince about his father. "I hope you will do better when you are king." * * * *
Midnight in the palace nursery. Candles scented like springtime gardens glimmered behind shields of glass tinted green and blue, keeping away the utter blackness. Vevina's nighttime nurse worked on her knitting, going by feel alone. She smiled as she thought back over the gladness that had flowed through the city that day, all in honor of her darling little princess.
She didn't see the faint shimmer of green-gold that swirled through the air just above the princess's cradle. She didn't hear the soft sound like the murmuring of an old woman crooning nonsense lullabies to a sleeping child.
Vevina woke from a happy dream, a baby giggle soft in her throat. Before she could do more than take a breath, she saw the shimmering just a few inches above her cradle and reached little hands to clasp it.
"Oh, I'm sorry, sweetheart," Glynna said as the shimmering coalesced into her features. She shook her head, smiling down at the wide, blue-green eyes staring up at her. "You can't touch me. Only my spirit is here. And only you can see or hear me. But we'll have a jolly time together, won't we?" She smiled and clapped her transparent hands silently as the little princess let out a bell-like giggle. "Everything I have is yours, my darling little princess, all my knowledge, all my experience. I will be with you forever, just like the old tales promised. And together ... such wonderful things we will do