Chapter Twenty-Four
In a Closet

Damar was trying very hard not to be a burden. The Stable Master had already made it clear that his presence in the stables, even if only to sleep, was unwelcome; he wasn't a stable-boy, and he was therefore nothing more than an extra body to trip over and waste perfectly good hay for bedding on. Worse still was that he hadn't even begun his duties yet at all, so it made him appear as a complete freeloader. His superiors had told him that he couldn't go out on a run until, firstly, he had lived in the castle long enough for them to decide if he was trustworthy and for the scribes to work with him a little.

He had told them that he was a very good runner, though. They had laughed and told him that he had better be.

In any case, that had meant that it might be a month or two before he would officially begin his duties as a messenger boy. In a way, he was excited—he would finally be using everything he had learned, and he would be able to leave Niall. He had always wondered what it was like outside

For the time being, however, he felt useless. All he did was eat, sleep, and meet with the castle scholars and scribes on occasion, and so he made an effort to volunteer himself for as many extra chores as he could manage. In the morning, he helped the stable-boys sweep the stables, and a few of them were even beginning to be friendly to him. After lunch, he helped the kitchen servants, scouring pots and the like, and he would often help haul water from the pumps to the castle.

On a far less regular basis, Damar would offer himself to run an odd errand or two—which was what he was doing presently. The Stable Master needed some salve for a wound a young colt had gotten on his leg, and Damar had eagerly volunteered. He had hoped that maybe the man might like him better, but it seemed that the man still seemed to hate him no matter how hard he tried.

He was an intimidating man, the Stable Master; he was not large, nor was he tall, but he was certainly tall to Damar, although the blonde was an average height for an eight year old boy. The Stable Master had a frightening air about him and a sharp tongue, and he would often scowl at Damar and mutter about useless words and numbers pushing out all the common sense and courtesy from his brain. Really, though, Damar tried his best to be polite and hardworking. He wished he could do better.

Damar had been told by the Stable Master, who, characteristically, had scowled when the blonde boy had accepted the errand, to go to third floor of the castle and find the healer, who would give him the salve. No one had stopped and questioned him, even though he was a relatively new face around the castle, which would have delayed his task. No one bothered you if you looked like you were running an errand, he had learned. If you looked like you were lost, however, it would cause suspicion and people would stop you left and right.

Therefore, he tried his best not to look lost, which he very much was. This was partly because he didn't want to give the Stable Master another reason to dislike him and mostly because he was too embarrassed and shy to ask for help. He was just a lowly servant, after all, and a child as well.

Damar had never been to the third floor of the castle, so, while he had found his way onto it fine, he had no idea where the healer's quarters might be. He walked deliberately, if a bit quickly, and tried to inspect each door for clues before passing. It would be bad to have to go back the same way twice to be sure he hadn't missed it.

A couple of maids walked down the hall toward him, arms embracing baskets filled with sheets, and they laughed and talked and generally seemed not to notice him. He tried his best to be inconspicuous anyway, a servant boy beneath even a maid's notice, and he seemed to succeed. As they passed, one woman turned to the other and giggled, "The brat's stuck ag'in, throwin' a fit, I think."

"Serves 'im right!" the second maid replied, snorting, "Someone oughta teach the brat a less'n, and if not his brother, then …"

They passed on. Damar turned the corner into an empty hallway, his bare feet making quiet sounds on the cool stone floor. Glancing around quickly once to make sure he was alone, he stopped and risked a more thorough look around. The doors were all identical, unassuming, and wooden, and he rather thought that he was looking for something that stood out a little more. He frowned to himself, worrying at the ends of his too-long sleeves out of nervous habit, and then set off again.

A sound made him stop. It was really a very quiet sound, like several sharp catches of breath, but it still made him stop and turn wide eyed to stare at the door it had come from. It sounded like ….

The sound came again.

It sounded like someone was crying.

Damar stared at the door, listening to the quiet sobbing and feeling just a little frightened. What was in there? A ghost? A monster? Nevertheless, childish curiosity somewhat stronger than the fear made him reach for the door handle. A piece of wood had been wedged into the loop-like handle, effectively preventing the door from being opened … at least from the inside.

Before he could change his mind, the blonde boy grabbed the piece of wood, yanked it out, and pulled the door open. The wood clattered to the stone floor as his hand let go of it in surprise. It took him a moment to realize what he was looking at. It was a closet, nothing more, crowded with various things, and among those things was a child.

A pretty child, to be more accurate, with cute baby fat still apparent. No older than five, Damar guessed, and then he wondered if it was a girl child or a boy child. His first thought had been that it was a girl, but then he noticed that the child was wearing boy's clothing, nice trousers and a tunic, so he probably was a boy. After all, people often said Damar was a pretty child, and he was no girl. Still, he knew he wasn't as pretty as this child—and he was glad he wasn't. If he had been, he knew he wouldn't have been sold as a castle servant. No, there were other jobs for children this pretty, even if Damar wasn't exactly sure what they were.

The child looked up at him, reciprocating Damar's surprise with wide, teary golden eyes. He had red hair, messy, matted, and streaked with yellows and oranges, and he sat on the floor with his knees hugged to his chest. The boy sniffled loudly. His eyes were wet and his nose was running, and both were reddened—and he looked like the cutest, most pitiable thing Damar had seen in his whole life. He felt a surge of protectiveness toward the boy.

Something must have shown in his expression—some hint of that caring—because the child suddenly gave a sob and launched himself at Damar. Unprepared and hardly bigger than the redhead himself, Damar lost his balance, and he ended up padding the younger boy's landing as they both crashed to the stone floor. The redhead was crying again, but now he had his skinny arms wrapped around Damar's torso and was clinging as if for his life.

They lay for some time sprawled out in a hallway of the third floor of the castle, unspeaking. After a while, Damar found himself hesitantly patting at the pretty child's hair. He was completely at a loss for what to do. He had never been in a situation like this and in fact was unused to being touched at all. Being hugged so tightly, so trustingly, so needfully made him feel … something. Something warm, he thought.

Damar couldn't say how much time had passed, but finally the child raised his head and turned his pretty eyes to look at the older boy. The redhead's face was splotchy from crying, ruining his otherwise fair complexion, and he had managed to thoroughly soak part of Damar's shirt with tears and his running nose.

"Who're you?" the boy said at last, his voice sweet and childish but stuffy from all of his crying.

Damar stared at him a moment, feeling a stab of panic that he would be unable to speak as sometimes happened when people talked directly to him, but then he heard his own voice reply, "Damar."

"Dama?" the child asked, and the blonde blinked faintly at him. He'd never been called that before.

"Uh, yes."

"Dama," the boy repeated contemplatively as he sat up, straddling the older boy and weighing him down. "My name's Edan. Call me Edan." He said this in a childishly petulant voice and as if he were used to being called something else. The name sounded vaguely familiar, but Damar couldn't place why.

"Dama, my face is wet," Edan added, and then he looked down at Damar expectantly. The blonde stared back, puzzled at what he was supposed to do, until he slowly offered his sleeve to the child. Edan accepted the offer immediately, proving that it had apparently been the right action, and wiped messily at his eyes and nose. When the child dropped his hand, he now had a damp sleeve to match his damp shoulder.

With a final, great sniffle, the redheaded child rolled clumsily off Damar and pushed himself to his feet. He didn't offer to help Damar up, but instead brushed off his clothes with a pout and watched as the blonde hesitantly stood. He glanced down the hall, which was still abandoned, and then back to the older boy. Then he squinted his eyes and asked, "Where did you come from?"

It took Damar a moment to realize that the child didn't mean where he had been born but rather where he had come from in the castle. "I sleep in the stables," he answered slowly, unsure if that was the right response, even if it was true. He tried very hard to enunciate the syllables as he had been taught, but his street accent still showed very faintly, twisting some words and not others.

The small boy didn't show much of a reaction aside from shrugging and saying, "I went there a few times."

They fell silent. Damar shifted his weight from foot to foot and worried at the hem of his tunic without noticing. He felt as though the child was waiting for him to ask something in return, and so he said, "Are you one of the ladies' child'rn?"

After all, this pretty child certainly could not be a servant. His clothing was too fine, if dirty, and he carried himself with a certain air of arrogance that suggested he was used to being treated as above others. It would make sense that he was a child of the court nobility or at least of someone of medium standing in the castle. Still, the broods that many of the ladies of the court had trailing after them were hardly considered above the higher-level maids.

"Guess so. But mother's no lady. She's scary."

"Oh." Edan was still staring at him, and Damar, unnerved, rushed on with, "Why were you in that closet?"

This, at least, produced a reaction. The child suddenly scowled, stamping a foot on the stone floor and crossing his arms across his thin chest in a display of comically cute anger. "My stupid brother! He locked me in, like always. Stupid Gavrin, always thinking he's so smart just 'cuz he's older. I hate him! The bastard!"

Damar's eyes widened at the curse uttered in such a sweet voice, and he spoke without thinking, "You shouldn't say things li' that. You'll get in trouble."

Edan froze, tipping his head slightly. Then, abruptly, he gave a small laugh, and he stepped forward to latch onto a surprised Damar. "You're funny, Dama," he giggled, and the blonde stood frozen while the child cuddled his arm. "I like you."

At that, Damar's face suddenly felt very warm. His normally pale face was tinted red by a bright blush. No one had ever said they liked him before ….

The boy suddenly tugged on his arm, and Damar became aware of the sounds of approaching footsteps and quiet voices. He blinked rapidly, still feeling a bit dazed and warm.

"I have to go now," Edan said, "I'll come see you tomorrow." His grasp on the blonde boy loosened, and he began to move away. His steps quickened, and, just before he dashed around the corner, he glanced over his shoulder, gave a blindingly beautiful smile, and laughed, "Bye-bye, Dama!"

Later, he would be surprised and mortified to learn that the pretty child was the youngest prince of Niall, that he had wiped the nose of a royal with his dirty, scratchy tunic, and that he had spoken to his prince as an equal. But, at the time, all Damar saw was a peculiar little boy who had said he liked him and who was smiling just for him.

It was at that moment that Damar fell in love for the first time.

Damar stared blankly at the door, which hadn't closed with finality but which had instead remained open, neglected.

What had he done? It had seemed right at the time. He had known, just before kissing him, that it was necessary to do in order to protect Prince Edan. It had seemed like a very rational course of action, and he had formulated it after seeing the Shavaran Crown Prince kissing his ward. His resolve had been solidified when Prince Edan tried to tell him about what had happened; Damar had promised to take care of the situation. He told himself that all the signs said Prince Edan was not a willing participant in his relationship with the Crown Prince. The Crown Prince must have tricked him.

Any number of things were dangerous about the situation: Prince Edan's gender could be discovered, the situation could damage the relationship between their countries, and, worst of all, the Crown Prince could hurt Edan. That was unacceptable, but Damar had no authority to forbid a foreign prince whose country they were guests in from seeing his ward. Therefore, the only solution was to make the Crown Prince lose interest. If he believed that Prince Edan was already committed to a relationship, then he would leave Prince Edan alone.

But Damar hadn't planned for what had really happened. He hadn't planned for that shocked, afraid look Edan gave him. He hadn't planned for Zephyr seeing the scene.


Damar pressed his nails into his palms, willing the terrible word away—but it was the truth. Had it really all been for Prince Edan's sake, or had there been something else to it? He wasn't sure anymore if he had merely been rationalizing his behavior. It had all been an excuse, a convenient method by which to … to do what?

He had been jealous.

The thought struck him hard. Despite worrying about the danger such a relationship between Prince Edan and the Crown Prince would bring about, some deep part of him had been purely jealous.

His legs seemed to give out beneath him, and he sunk to the floor, letting out a breath, "Shit." Immediately, a hand shot up and covered his lips as if to stuff the curse word back into his mouth. He would have laughed at himself if he weren't feeling so terrible; Prince Edan was beginning to affect him.

Then again, when hadn't Prince Edan affected him? He had been in love with the rambunctious redhead since he had first found him, a sniveling, pretty child locked in a closet by his eldest brother. It had been his first love, and he had carried it, tucked deep down inside him, for all of these years. He had never had any intention of doing anything about it. It had been enough to care for Edan, to know that Edan cared about him in his own backwards way. So why had he messed everything up now?


No, that hadn't been all. He had wanted to protect Edan, but that motive hadn't been entirely pure, that was all.

The results were unexpected in more than one way. It hadn't felt right. It might have, he thought, if Edan hadn't looked at him that way afterward. It had hurt. He had expected that, somewhere deep inside; he had known there could never be anything like that between them. What he hadn't expected was the sharper, more panic-driven stab of pain he felt upon seeing Zephyr. It was confusing, but Zephyr's rejection almost seemed to hurt more. No, it hadn't hurt more—it had merely hurt in a different way.

Damar hadn't meant to hurt anyone, least of all himself. He could never do anything right.

Under the merciless, unrelenting tutelage of Artemis, I had become a veritable bitch-slapping machine by the end of the evening. Her dance/etiquette lessons were child's play in comparison. I had been frightened of her bubbliness and hyperness before, but I mostly thought of her as kind and stupid. Who knew she was the reincarnation of an army drill sergeant when she chose? I swear she could decapitate a grown man with one of her bitch-slaps.

Despite the trauma the experience inflicted on me, I admit she taught me well. I was sworn to secrecy over what happened in those hours, but I emerged with the actions so well learned that I could execute them while simultaneously writing my name with my toes, eating an apple, and juggling a gopher. I was prepared, and I was going to make that bastard Crown Prince cry like a three-year old girl whose dolly's head just got eaten by a goat.

That night, I slept in the chambers between Artemis' room and Apollo's room. It was the lavender-carpeted room full of cushions in which I had first met the twins, and, while the colors disturbed me, I was so exhausted I fell asleep immediately. I had dreams about decapitating squirrels with my palm.

I awoke the next morning in a rather strange situation. Disoriented, my mind went through a series of wondering why I wasn't where I expected to be. First I expected to be in my room in Niall, then in my room in Shavara, then in Artemis and Apollo's room—but I wasn't in any of those places. Instead, I was lying on a wide bed—a real bed, not a pile of pillows—with my hands bound to the headboard by a silk handkerchief. Oh, okay, of course I was just in that sadomasochistic scenario Damar booked for me last week—


I jerked fully awake, staring first at the sandy-colored ceiling and then trying to sit up. The cloth around my wrists jerked me back, and I began to thrash wildly, righteously panicking.

"You will injure yourself."

The voice, even and disinterested, stopped me. I awkwardly looked down the length of the bed and sighted the speaker, who sat in a chair at the foot of the bed. Her features leant to no particular gender, but I finally decided on female for the sake of my sanity. She had a face like a bird, composed of sharp planes and hard eyes. Her skin was reddish—it reminded me of that time I thought my mother's rouge was camouflage war-paint. I had never seen someone with skin like hers, though, and I wondered where she was from. The thought struck me suddenly that I might not be in Shavara anymore, but I spotted a small slit of a window and saw the familiar Shavaran landscape outside it. The woman stood curtly, and I eyed her leather armor and the weapons secured at her waist. I swallowed hard.

"What's going on?" I said, tugging at my bonds. "Who are you? Where am I? Where are all the wombats?"

She didn't answer, leaving the room and closing the door behind her. I frowned. Hey, lady, you kidnapped me; you're not allowed to ignore me. "Hey! Come back! Untie me!" I began to kick, bouncing myself on the bed and making the mattress squeak. A small part of me decided it missed the age-old pastime of jumping on beds. Shavara's lack of proper beds was annoying in more ways than one. "I'll scream! Come back!"

Why wasn't I in Artemis and Apollo's quarters? Who was that woman? I had so many questions, and yet I strangely didn't have the feeling that I was in danger. I was confused, though, and angry that I was tied up—by a girly silk handkerchief which, to add insult to injury, was pink. Now that was just sick.

The door opened and closed.

"Good morning, little flower."

I nearly ripped my arms off trying to sit up. (Try it some time; it's loads of fun.) "Cyrus?" I squawked.

I stared at him, disoriented at his appearance and unsure what to make of it. I hadn't seen the guy since … well, just yesterday morning, when Royce had made him run away crying. Had everything really just happened yesterday?

Cyrus looked much the same as I had last seen him and, yet, very different at the same time. The curls of his hair fell perfectly around his face, and he had that perpetual smirk on his lips. He wore a simple, red silk robe instead of the many layers of different colors that he usually wore, and it was loose over his chest. I noticed with a spark of surprise that the stars on his cheeks—which I had decided were tattoos—were gone. His face looked strangely bare without them, like he had removed a mask.

"What the hell is going on, Cyrus?" I demanded, in no mood to deal with his stupid sense of humor.

"Mm, I always thought you'd look delectable laid out on my bed," Cyrus purred, stepping forward into the room. He moved with a slinky gait punctuated by the jingle of bells, and I tried to scoot back on the bed. I didn't like the look in his eyes. It looked too much like that time in the storehouse when he had almost kissed me, but instead had warned me not to hurt Royce.

"Untie me this instant, screwboy," I scowled.

"I could." He looked thoughtful, then shrugged. "But I'm not going to."

"Don't make me bitch-slap you, 'cuz I will, and I'm level three already."

Cyrus didn't look impressed. "Honey, I invented the technique. That makes me level ten."

Holy shit. I looked at his hands suspiciously. His nails were perfectly manicured, painted with a single, vertical stripe on each today. Who would have guessed he could take out a small country with a flick of a wrist? (Maybe he'd wipe out Niall if I asked nicely?)

Well, that route of persuasion wasn't working. Time to switch tactics.

"This isn't funny. I'll scream. I'll bring all the guards in this place down on your ass."

He laughed. "Well, that sounds like fun. Unfortunately, today's party is just for you and I, pretty boy. And, if you want to scream so badly, I'll just have to gag you—with something frilly, hot pink, and flower-scented."

I twitched in horror.

He took my silence for complacency and nodded approvingly. "That's it. Now, we've some business to attend to." The boy stepped lightly around the bed and seated himself on its edge. I flinched when he reached out and touched at my hair.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" I hissed and jerked my head away. I liked Cyrus—really, I did—but waking up to find out he'd tied me up in a bed certainly did not put him on my good side. He had better have a good explanation for all of this, or I was going to shove those stupid bells of his down his throat and dance on his face.

"I just wanted to talk," he said. He wanted to talk? Oh, I would give him talking.

"About what? Where are we? Who was that lady? Why do you always tilt your head when you smile? Why is the sky blue? I once had a pet mouse named Francisco, and he lived in the castle kitchen and I fed him tomatoes and my mother's diamonds, hoping he would get big enough so he could eat my stupid brother Gavrin. But then I stepped on him. Francisco, not Gavrin, sadly. Did you know mouses go squeaksquish? Where is your monkey-thing? I wanted to be a funambulist when I was little; what's a funambulist? Do you like yaffles? Are we there yet? Can I mhnnnnffm?"

Cyrus sighed, hand pressed tightly over my mouth, and said, "Maybe I really should gag you after all."

I wisely bit my tongue. But not before I bit his hand. To my surprise, his wrist snapped up and he pressed his fingers into my cheeks. I glared at him, though I doubted I looked particularly intimidating, forced into making a fish-face as I was.

Cyrus matched stares with me, squishing my cheeks a few times before letting go. "Be careful, pretty girl." My gaze hardened more at the taunt. "I will answer your questions, not that they matter, if it means that you remain quiet and listen to what I have to say."

I nodded curtly. On one hand, I had achieved my goal of getting someone to tell me what was going on, but, on the other, Cyrus … well, I wasn't sure I didn't feel like I wasn't in danger anymore.

"The woman is Nadja, my bodyguard. She arrived late last night with the rest of my caravan, and I had her, mm, extend an invitation to you to come visit me in my guest room." I was about to snap about how I didn't recall being given a chance to reject this invitation, but he waved a hand sharply. "Which is where we currently are, my guest room in the Shavaran palace. Content, flower?"

"Do you have to call me that?"

"No; that's why it's fun. Now, I'm afraid I missed your other questions," I opened my mouth to repeat them, but he interrupted me, "so we'll just have to move on to more pressing matters. I know what happened yesterday."

"Gee, that's real specific. Let's see—the sun rose because I commanded it to, I woke up, the bastard was trying to grope me in his sleep—"

"You kissed your guardian, and Roe saw you."

If I had been asked just then what topic of conversation would incite me to such anger that I would desire to rip out someone's trachea and poke out his eyes with it, the topic of yesterday's incident would certainly have been my answer.

(That or undersized melons.)

Good thing I was currently tied up and thus unable to remove Cyrus' trachea, otherwise I might have had a minute political disaster on my hands—along with the pervert's blood, which was probably diseased and radioactive.

"Godsdammit! What is with everyone and their llama blaming ME for all of this? I DID NOTHING WRONG!" I was practically foaming at the mouth. I had decided what I was going to do about the situation, but that didn't mean it wasn't still a (very) sore spot. "Damar kissed me. Royce decided what had happened without even asking me. And I'm gonna slap up both those bitches."

"It doesn't really matter if it's your fault," Cyrus said with a roll of his shoulders. I frowned at him.

"What the—"

"All that matters is that you hurt Roe," Cyrus interrupted me. I watched with wide eyes as he began to thoughtfully trace my neck with a finger. I pulled back, but he hooked his fingers under my collarbone painfully, and I froze. "It's not fair, I know, but I don't care about fair. All I care about is Roe."

He let go of me, and I seethed. "You know what, Cyrus? Fuck you. This is none of your business. So butt out—and untie me, dammit."

The other boy laughed. He couldn't just have normal reactions, could he?

"I had a Damar once, too, you know," he said. "His name was Perrin, and he was my whipping boy. Do you know what that is? Oh, well, probably not."

"I don't care about your life history, you stupid wal—"

"When I decided—"


"—I didn't want—"

"—kissing pervert—"

"—to inherit my father's—"

"Aarggh! Stop interrupting me!" I exploded.

"A thousand pardons, flower. As I was saying, I decided I didn't want to inherit my father's business at the exalted age of seven," Cyrus continued. I heaved a sigh. Fine! It would be over faster if I just let him talk. "My father had Perrin beaten to punish me. Perrin never really recovered, and he fell ill that winter. He died before spring came." Cyrus stopped, fingers coming up to catch at the bells around his neck. "This was a gift from him, for my naming day that previous spring. He did extra errands to buy the bells and twine to make it. I thought it was ugly, and I wouldn't wear it." He shrugged. "After Perrin died, nothing my father did could control me. He sent me here, to Shavara, fostered to one of the nobles to continue my lessons. I met Roe then. He was nothing like Perrin—we didn't get along at first. Perrin was my best friend, and I failed to protect him. But Roe is my second chance. I will not let anyone or anything hurt him, not even you. So, yes, this is very much my business. Therefore, I want you to leave this place."

"I would leave, dumbass, but you sort of have me tied to your bed," I snapped.

Cyrus shook his head. "No, you misunderstand. I want you to leave. I want you out of the palace, out of Shavara if you can help it."

I stared for a moment, somewhat shocked, and then I said firmly, "No."

His lips curled in what would have been a smile if his eyes hadn't been so sharp. The sound of something snapping open in his hand made me jump, and he casually raised the open blade to his face as if to inspect it. "It wasn't a request. You will leave. Take your things, take your servant, so long as you leave Roe alone. If you will not, I'm afraid, pretty flower, that I will take offence. It's sad, really. I did like you. So, please, leave, or I'll show you what I bad person I really am."

"No." He moved slightly, and my voice raised all by itself, "No, I don't care if you take offence, you blue monkey-freak, because you're wrong. Royce doesn't need your protection. You're—you're spoiling him."

Cyrus raised a brow. "You do realize the remarkable irony of that statement, don't you?"

"Shut up. You'll ruin him. He's enough of a bastard already." I was gritting my teeth so hard my head was starting to hurt.

"Oh, then what does he need?"

"He needs to be hurt," I said impulsively, and I saw a flicker of surprise show on Cyrus' face. The surprise was gone in an instant, smoothed over by that haughty, relaxed expression of his. I had been wrong before: he hadn't taken off a mask—he had just put another on. I wondered how many he had. "He's not a—not a glass ornament; he's a person. This isn't life or death. He needs to be hurt once in a while, or he'll never grow. And he needs to know when he's wrong, like now, and he needs someone to tell him he's being an ass. He doesn't need your protec—"

The knife in Cyrus' hand snapped shut, and I jumped.

"All right," Cyrus said, his expression strangely neutral.


"I said all right. Prove to me he doesn't need me."

"You—I was going—that's what I was going to do before you got in the way! I'm going to go find that arrogant bastard and introduce his face to my—my level three bitch-slapping skills."

"Will you? If I give you one more chance to apologize to Roe?"

I glared. "I won't be doing the apologizing. He will."

"And then you're going to drag him into a dark corner and make-out, yes?"

"Yeah, of co—NO! What the hell! Let me go already, you pervert!"

Cyrus was laughing as he untied my wrists. It was insulting how easily he undid the knot the handkerchief was in, and I threw the slip of silk at him when he tucked it into my shirt. I made a mental note that handkerchiefs made pathetic airborne projectiles.

"You're really screwed up," I said as I jumped off the bed and stomped toward the door.

"Oh, yes," he agreed cheerfully. "But not as much as you'll be if this plan of yours fails." I shot him a dark look. Did he have to threaten me in such a happy tone? "You'll find Roe in the training building. I'll send a guide with you."

I would have yelled at him again, since I was still in a very not-happy mood, but I knew I would get lost without his stupid guide.

As I opened the door, Cyrus whistled—and suddenly there was a white hellbeast attached to my chest, sucking out my soul. I screamed and began to run around in blind panic.

Ohmygodsgetitoff, ohmygodsgetitoff—I don't wanna lose my soooouuulllll!

I ran headfirst into Cyrus, who calmly plucked the hellbeast from my person and placed it on his shoulder. I would have kissed the scary merchant out of gratitude had Cyrus not subtly shoved me off him. (Only later would I wonder why he hadn't taken the chance to jump me. Further evidence that the man was insane, I supposed.)

"Bad, Nabib," Cyrus said to the soul-sucking monster, "What have I told you about molesting pretty boys?"

I blinked, looked up, and felt stupid rather quickly. The monkey-thing blinked his red eyes down at me and made a little squeak.

I've been … I've been molested by a monkey?

"Now, Nabib will show you the way," Cyrus was saying as he straightened my clothes and then took me by the arm and led me from the room. I wasn't listening to him, though.

My life was over. I'd been molested by a monkey—and not just any monkey, but a monkey in a pink tutu.

The monkey chirped and landed in front of me, and I snapped to attention. We were in another room, one with a bookshelf and a desk (both occupied by many books and papers) and a table with chairs. The woman from earlier was seated in one chair reading something, and she glanced up at me briefly. Cyrus opened the door and made a gesture for me to leave before throwing himself down in the chair next to the woman. The monkey scampered out into the hallway then stopped, waiting for me. "Good bye, flower!" Cyrus waved and blew me a kiss.

Somewhat disoriented by the abrupt and … well, far too normal departure, considering how I had arrived here, I managed a faint, "Um, bye," and followed the monkey out.

Nabib tilted his head at me as we began to walk. I watched the little beast suspiciously; I wasn't about to let my guard down around him again. I should have known the monkey would be as perverted as his keeper. Behind me, I heard Cyrus' voice drawl, "Now, Nadja love, is there any way I can apologize for drugging you the other night? You understand I was simply worried about my dearest Roe, and I couldn't afford to wait with the caravan, and I just knew you wouldn't want me to leave it. I'm sure, mm, we could work out a suitable 'punishment' for my bad behavior …."

"Master Cyrus, you will remove your hand from my chest before I am forced to decide which I desire more, my pay or your hand severed from your arm," the woman's voice answered evenly.

There was a pause, and then: "What if I give you a raise?"

The double doors to the training building loomed before me, looking more intimidating than wood had any right to.

"Well, my furry, frilly associate," I said faintly, "after you."

Nabib gave me a look that translated easily from monkey as, "Yeah right, you pansy."

Like hell I was going to take flack from a monkey.

"Hey, I'm not the one wearing a tutu! … What? So what if I'm wearing a skirt! At least it's not pink and frilly. Well, yeah, the shirt is a little frilly—I mean, no! No it's not! It's just wrinkled. I slept on it. It's wrinkled manlily—masculinely—in a manlike, er, fashion. You got a problem with that, you furry cookie-stealing—"


I spun around and leveled a burning glare at the poor, unfortunate young man dressed in a guard's uniform who was trying to get around me. "Yes, I am arguing about fashion with a monkey!" I snarled. "Got a problem with that?"

The guard stared at me, glancing vainly at the door I was blocking.

"I said, do you have a problem with that?!"

"Uh, er, no. That is, can I—"

"Good! Now I'm mad enough; I'm all ready to go. I'm gonna make him cry. Open the door for me, peon."

When the guard obeyed me after a moment of perplexed consideration, I brushed past him and stomped into the building with my head held high. I forgot about Nabib immediately, my attention focusing instead on a familiar scene: two figures sparring on the mats at the far end of the long building. It took me a second to realize where I had seen this all before. It had been, of course, the only other time I had been in this building, when I had first met Zephyr. This time, there were no guard recruits watching the match, and Damar wasn't with me. There was something else, too, that made this time very different.

One of the sparrers was Royce.

You would think that I would first recognize him by the tufts of silver hair sticking out beneath his light helm or by the way he moved or the sound of his voice, but no.

I recognized his ass—which was, I determined immediately, entirely unhealthy and definitely something Royce would never know about. My gods, the man had warped by mind already.

But he did have a very nice ass, considering it was practically nonexistent.


Royce was the smaller of the two sparrers, and it soon became apparent that he was getting his nice ass very nicely kicked. The other sparrer, a larger Shavaran man, was familiar, and it took me a moment to place him as the instructor who had been sparring with Zephyr that last time. He looked as scary as ever, especially when he shot out a foot and swept Royce's legs out from under him. I winced reflexively at the sound of his body impacting the mat, but Royce was back up on his feet and circling the bigger man before I had the chance to wonder if he had broken anything. The two faced one another, weapons in hand. They wielded not swords or daggers but instead what appeared to be—I kid you not—short, thick sticks.

I would have laughed at how ridiculous the idea of fighting each other with small sticks seemed, but, considering what a loud sound they made when they cracked across Royce's knuckles, I withheld my amusement. I had, momentarily, forgotten my errand. I felt the stone wall behind me, cold, as I stood and watched Royce get pummeled by sticks and then slammed back onto the mat again. He seemed ready to spring up again, but the bigger man stopped him with a foot placed on the Crown Prince's chest.

"Let's stop this," the man said, his voice gruff and muffled by his helm.

Royce's hands pushed at the foot, and he made no reply.

"My prince," the man sighed, and then he reached up and slipped off his helm and dropped it to the mat.

"Machen," Royce said finally, and I was surprised at the flat and icy tone to his voice.

"No. You graduated long ago from a whelp being thrown to the mats every time someone takes a swing at him. Prince or no, I will not allow such a shameful performance in my hall."

"I understand. I will try harder."

It was strange—I had never seen Royce like this before. He didn't seem like the same mocking, infuriating, invincible bastard I knew.

Somehow, it made me angry.


I blinked, startled from my reddening tunnel vision. The poor guard from before swallowed heavily, looking at though he wanted to pry my hand away from the front of his shirt but was too afraid to. I didn't remember grabbing him, but, hey, why waste a perfectly good chance to vent a little? I tightened my fist, bunching the fabric at his neck uncomfortably.

"Uh. I was only trying to, uh, g-get by," he stuttered breathily.

"Your shirt offends me."

"It's, that is, it's," he coughed, his face turning redder by the moment, and squeaked, "it's uniform regulation!"

"I don't want to hear excuses!"
"Princess Niall." I nearly ripped the guard's shirt off in surprise, which would have been awkward. The larger sparrer looked at me from a few feet away, his face solemn and aged. I remembered rather quickly that he had frightened me immensely when I first met him, and the effect was no less upon a second meeting.

I let go of the guard, who immediately snapped to attention with a rather pathetic, "Captain!"

The Captain regarded me, and, despite being scared out of my mind, I puffed up defensively. At last, he said, "You would make an intimidating trainer. Too bad you're a woman." My jaw dropped, and I had to stop myself from screaming, 'So what if I were a woman, bitch?! Not that I am, 'cuz I'm not, but it wouldn't matter if I were!' "Private Lhevs!"

"Yes, sir!"

"Back to the barracks immediately."

"Yes, sir!"

The Captain walked away, the squeaky guard trailing after him like a puppy and babbling, "Captain! I think I'm in love." The guard looked back at me with a sickening expression, and I shot him a death glare.

The Captain only pushed the guard private ahead of him, gestured toward me, and said, "Your highness, I would appreciate if you take your troubles outside of my hall."

As soon as Royce's eyes met mine, I remembered a multitude of reasons to be angry with him, first and foremost being the way he was looking at me without really looking at me. I frowned, and he merely faced toward me with a blank expression, as if I weren't worthy of consideration. The door closed behind the Captain and his idiotic subordinate. I took a breath and crossed the hall toward Royce, who watched me approach with disinterest.

"I need to talk to you," I said, by which I really meant, 'I am going to bitch-slap you in five seconds. Try not to have your tongue between your teeth or you'll bite it off, which would serve you right but sort of ruin the prospect of kissing.' I prepared myself for execution of the bitch-slap; I took a breath and tried to focus my energy and purpose.

Focus. Focus. Extend arm, flatten hand. Yes. Good. It's in the wrist—all in the wrist. Be the slap. Be the bitch.
Oblivious to the danger, Royce shifted the light helm under his arm, glanced back at the empty mats, and said, "My apologies, but I am busy, Niall." I felt my anger flare, blurring my focus. Niall? What happened to 'Edana' or 'my lady'? But no—focus! My arm tensed as I prepared to strike. "I'll just leave you to your guardian—nh!"

Royce was staring at me, wide-eyed and cupping his bleeding lip, seemingly unable to comprehend what had just happened.

I could hardly believe it either. Despite all the hard training, the preparation and the stress, I had failed in the moment of need. Instincts were hard to conquer. I had punched him. My hand was in proper bitch-slapping position, ready for the cool but proud attack, when he just had to put in that snide little comment and—bam! my fist launched right into his mouth.

He deserved it. And I wasn't through yet.

"Listen to me, you stupid, self-centered bastard. Just because I'm wearing a dress—skirt—thing! doesn't mean my opinion on the situation doesn't matter, so you listen to me!" He nodded slightly, still stunned. "You completely misunderstood the situation—stupid—you—wrong. Damar and I do not have that type of relationship; it was a mistake. I did not kiss him. He kissed me. There is nothing between us. He's my family, dammit. I did not break your trust; you are being an ass. UNDERSTAND DO YOU?"

Royce wiped carefully at his lip, perhaps trying to act occupied while he formulated an answer. "You're saying you did not kiss your guardian, but that he kissed you instead, and that you hold no romantic feelings for him?"

I nodded tightly. Did I need to draw him a picture or something?

"What about him? What if he has romantic feelings for you?"

"That's none of your business. It's between me and him, and all you need to know is that I didn't—didn't betray you or some bullshit like that."

"You could be lying."

I brandished my fist menacingly. "Don't make me break you."

He raised his hands in a submissive gesture, strangely breaking out in a smile. Then he seemed to realize that smiling hurt and stopped. Apparently the cure to his incessant smirking was a split lip; I filed this away for future use. "All right, all right. Fair enough. But ... you have to admit that the situation was incriminating."

"You assumed. You never let me explain."

"Yes, but—"

"You were so ready to believe that I had lied to you. Did you want me to have lied to you?" I said suddenly and sharply. Perhaps I shouldn't have; Royce immediately looked morose.

"I guess I thought it was all working out so nicely that something had to go wrong," he said at last, quietly.

"Something did go wrong," I snarled. "You decided to be an ass."

Mercy? What's that?

"It was partially your fault as well."

"No, it was partially Dama's fault. And I'll beat him up later. But don't change the topic. It's your turn right now. Take it like a man, bitch."

This time, Royce couldn't seem to stop himself from smiling, despite the pain it obviously caused. "I'm glad you deem me worthy enough to beat up." I glared at him, and he touched at his lip again. It was beginning to swell. "Although, you could have done it a bit more gently," he added.

"Of course I'll beat you up; I hate you, after all."

"So you hate your guardian as well?" Royce looked abruptly serious again, and I knew he was asking something different than what his words were asking.

I debated how much I should say. I didn't want to give him an inflated ego. I still wasn't even sure what we had between us. "I ... no, of course not. But this ... thing," I gestured lamely with one hand, as if a demented figure eight defined everything between Royce and I, " ... between us is different from what Dama and I have."

"What exactly is this thing?"

Damn. Going right for the jugular, isn't he? Vicious bastard. Only I was allowed to do that.

"I think it's time we be more honest about what our relationship entails," Royce added while I was mentally gaping, spurring me into a spluttering denial.

"Rela...re ... we have no relationship!"

Royce raised an eyebrow, which he somehow made look dignified even while his chin was streaked with blood most unattractively. "What is it, then?"

Uh ... unrel .. no ... anti, no .. non—pseudo—faux—dammit, why don't any of these work? Royce gave me a pointed look, and, under such pressure, I blurted out, "A pseudononantiunfauxship!"

"A what?"

I wasn't sure I could say it again.

"It means I get to kiss you and hate you, and you have to feed me yummy things and be my slave and not be an assbutIdon'treallylikeyouexceptmaybealittle."

He was grinning now. "I can deal with that. As long as you only have it with me."

I glared. "And it means I get to hit you when you're being stupid. Like now."

He pretended to cower. It was not amusing. Royce laughed and pointed to his lip. "Kiss it and make it better?"

"Ew. No. Blood is gross."

That got me a dramatic sigh in response. Royce carefully set down his helm and held out an arm to me. "Then do I at least get a hug, Edana?"

"Old rules still apply," I said quickly. The last thing I needed was an unexpected grope and a whole new kind of argument to break out.

"Of course."

I hesitated a moment longer, then stepped in and gingerly put my arms around his neck—unfortunately, in an entirely non-homicidal manner. His arms slips around my waist and tugged me close abruptly. It was awkward at first, and then I began to relax. He was warm and fit well against me; he smelled like nothing really, except maybe sweat and sand. Yes, sand smells, dammit. I hardly noticed that he began to pet my hair gently and that my eyes slipped closed. I never even considered what the scene would look like should anyone walk into the sparring area.

"I'm sorry," he murmured quietly into my hair. His breath was warm, too. "You were right. I was being stupid."

"Damn right."

"Although, Edana," he said faintly, "I must admit you're beautiful when you're angry. Like the goddess of war—except not nude. Can we fix that?"

He was away from me, laughing, and running out the main doors before I even processed his words. I made a minor detour to grab a sword off the wall before following, fire in my eyes.

I'd show him war goddess, oh yes I would.

I was one step out the double doors when a warm body tackled me to the ground, and I nearly impaled us both with the sword—which would have been quite the interesting situation to explain to Damar. As it was, I hit the sand on my side, partially tucked up against Royce's chest. I felt some kind of perverse pleasure in seeing the way his hair was completely tangled and dashed with sand from the fall.

"I nearly speared your FACE!" I exclaimed and punched his chest, but I froze when he leaned in close and his breath tickled my ear.

"My lady," he said, his hand folding over the sword I had tucked against my body. I could hear the smirk in his voice. "The sword is still sheathed."


He laughed, and I shoved clumsily at his face with one hand. "Stop that, that tickles!"

Royce ducked his face into my hair.

"Can I really have you, Edana?"

"Uh, no? I never said—"

You know what the one annoying thing about kissing was? You can't talk. And you don't care.

Royce pulled away, and I opened my eyes, though I was unaware of closing them. He was smiling—not smirking, smiling. My stomach tightened, and so did my grip on the sword.

"You're so beautiful," he said, and when I opened my mouth to snap back a reply he sealed my words again by sealing my lips to his, more insistently than the first time. After a few seconds, he made to pull away again, no doubt to insert another unnecessary comment, but I grabbed the back of his head with my free hand and deepened the kiss.

Hah, how do you like a taste of your own medicine, you bastard?
Strangely, nothing else seemed to matter aside from Royce's body pressed against me and his tongue and lips moving against mine. Not the sand rubbing at my skin, not the hard ground, not the heat, not the taste of blood—

Wait. Taste of—

"Mnnggewwww! Ewww! Ewwwewwweww!" I spat on the ground, shoving Royce away with a hand and a foot against his face and chest respectively. He didn't grab me back, perhaps wise enough to know that I would find a way to stab him with a scabbard if need be, and so I rolled away and pushed myself to my feet. He stood shortly after, brushing himself off and then reaching over to help me do the same. The effort, though brave, was aborted halfway when I bared my teeth at him, daring him to touch me again.

"Well," he said finally. "At least I know life will always be full of surprises with you by my side."

"I told you I didn't want to kiss you while you were bleeding."

"You didn't kiss me; I kissed you."

"I," I said, took a breath to slow the curl of anger, "just made up—"

"And out."

I glared at him, and he just smiled innocently. "—with you, and I don't have time to start another fight." I passed a hand over my face, partially to calm my anger and partially to calm my desire to slam Royce against the nearby door and have my wicked way with him. I had to get away, I decided, before I lost my composure entirely—and it just so happened that I still had something left to do. "I have to go find Damar."

"Oh." Royce's expression fell instantly. The sun glaring in my eyes wasn't helping me to be patient, and it was reflecting off Royce's hair like his head was plated with mirrors. It had the effect of making you want to look at it because it was so damn shiny, but it blinded you painfully once you did.

"Stop with that stupid jealousy thing," I snapped. "He's important to me, so deal with it. It's his turn to apologize now."

"I understand, Edana. Oh, all right, I mean I accept it. I'll try to understand."

"Fine. I'm going now, then."

His hand caught my arm as I tried to pass him. The flexing of fingers on my bicep was more interesting of a feeling than it should have been, and I purposely didn't speak for a few seconds just to let the touch last longer.


"Will I see you tonight?" he asked, and the question was not spoken in the teasing, bastard prince tone he so often used but instead in the voice of a boy who really wanted something and had finally figured out that the best way to get it was to ask nicely.

It was most strange.

"Maybe," I told him, not quite able to deny him outright. I had to deal with Damar first, though, and I didn't even really know how I was going to get past that obstacle. Royce's hand slipped from my arm, his fingertips tracing down the length of my arm—purposefully, no doubt—and I stepped onto the path.

"Um, my lady?"

I froze and frowned. Damn. I wanted someone to kiss, not a clingy puppy dog. I glanced over my shoulder at him. "What."

"The sword," he said in his best Damar-voice, beckoning to me.

Oh. Haha. Heh.

I clung to the weapon. "But I might need it."

"Give it."
I swear. Give the guy a little time as my replacement Damar and he thinks he's my fulltime guardian.

"Do I have to?"

His voice was stern, but the swollen lip sort of ruined the image he was going for. "Yes."

"Oh. I see," I said carefully.

He held out his hand, and I turned and ran as fast as I could. I could practically hear Royce heave a sigh as he watched me leap down the path and dart around a building, heading toward the palace with the sword swinging wildly at my side. My slippers slapped heavily on the path, and my feet ached with each step. I knew Royce wouldn't follow me, but that didn't stop me from running like an idiot.

A minute and a half later, I was struck with the distinctive feeling that I had forgotten something.

… wait, where did my monkey go?

Well, I was sure someone would find the little guy eventually; how hard could it be to find an albino primate in a tutu? The bigger problem, rather, was that my guide had disappeared. It was a little late to worry about where I was heading, though, so I continued along the path at full throttle, sure that I would run into something eventually.

I found my way back to the palace with surprising ease, sneering at the guard at the entrance who dared tip his cap at me in greeting. Inside, the air was still hot and stiff, but at least the sun was no longer beating down on me. (I didn't doubt I would have red skin again. Stupid sun.) I began walking, choosing the left-hand path purely because I liked the word left better. I was rather pleased to note that I was sweating in a very unladylike manner. The smell from my shirt alone could probably have been used as a lethal weapon—which, of course, begged the question of how Royce could stand being so close to my odorous self. I decided his nose was probably just for decorative purposes and didn't actually function.

I looked down at my hand. At least I hadn't broken Royce's nose like I had broken Gavrin's. I had been right; all the situation needed was the proper application of ass-kicking, and everything was fixed. Really, that had been easier than I had expected.

You could be lying.

I frowned. Wasn't I, though? I was lying about who I really was; he thought I was a woman. He thought I was a princess, someone eligible for courting and marriage and child-bearing.

Perhaps—perhaps it hadn't been so easy after all. Perhaps I had only solved part of the problem. Sure, he had apologized and moved on (or at least began to), but some of the words Royce had said were making me think about things I didn't want to think about. Was there really anything between Royce and me? Why had it been so important that I make him understand what had really happened? And why, of all the people that I needed to explain things to, did I need to find him first? Why did the idea of him finding out I was a guy scare me so much? I didn't care about him, not really; I just wanted him around. I liked kissing. I liked fun. I didn't like him. Right?

I wouldn't see him tonight, I decided. There were more important things than him, like sleeping and plotting the extermination of the castle chickens and wondering if the plural of mongoose was mongeese and counting my eyelashes and trying to turn my bellybutton inside out and—

"Damar," I said, surprised. My guardian stared back at me with a quintessential shock/fear expression, and his fingers went white around the stack of books in his arms. His mouth moved slightly, but he didn't say anything.

How could I have forgotten? I didn't have time to worry about every little problem with Royce and I; everything was not well yet. Things hadn't been fixed with Damar yet, and wasn't that more important than anything else? First he had been kidnapped by Zephyr, then this happened—it wasn't fair. I wanted my Dama back, dammit.

"I—I have to go," Damar said faintly and turned to flee.

"Halt!" I grabbed at the sword with two hands, pulling to remove the scabbard and dramatically draw the sword—but it stuck. "Uh. Stop—just a second—uh," I pulled harder, making a face, but it wouldn't budge. Gods, what was this thing, child proof? "Hold it—urrrgghhcomeoffcomeoff—uh, I mean," I shoved the end of the weapon in Damar's face and spoke as threateningly as possible. "Don't move or I'll stab you."

"With, um, a sheath?"

"In the eyes."

He stared at me, then sighed and looked at the ground. "I'm sorry," he murmured. "Please forgive me."

"Not good enough." He flinched at my harsh tone, and I almost smacked him with the sword out of frustration. This was not my Damar. My Dama was supposed to order me around, pet me, and take care of me; he wasn't supposed to act towards me like he did around everyone else. "We need to talk about this. I don't run away from my problems—oh, fine, I don't run away once I acknowledge them. Now take me back to my room."



Clutching the books to his chest, Damar turned and began to lead the way. I followed, occasionally jabbing him between the shoulder blades with my scabbard, but he didn't react. The walk was tense, and I spent the time figuring out what the hell I was going to say. Words were certainly not my strong suit, but I wasn't so stupid as to think that this problem could be solved so simply as slapping the offending party up and yelling at him for being stupid. Damar was not Royce, after all, which, I was beginning to realize, was rather more complicated than it sounded.

When we stepped into my room and I closed the door after me, I felt like I was trapping us in. I took a deep breath and waited for Damar to set down his books on a table. "Okay," I said, waiting until his eyes met mine. He looked unsure and, strangely, resigned, like he, too, had come to a conclusion while we were walking. "Listen carefully, because I'm only gonna say this once. Ever. Even when you're old and wrinkly and smell like stale bread that you feed to duckies—"


"—I won't say it again, okay?" He looked away, and I frowned. "You … you're my most important person. But not like that. Not … not kissing. You're my family. You're like my …" I was going to say brother, but I had enough of those, and Damar certainly wasn't like them, not even like Brelen. And he wasn't like a father to me either, because that would be creepy. "… my …. You're just my Dama, okay?"

He was silent, and then he mumbled, "What's Prince Royce, then?"

I sat down with a huff. "Annoying."


"And I think I might kind of like him, and that's annoying, too, all right? I don't know. I like being around him. Except when I wanna bash his face in, which is about half the time."

"Would you rather he be your most important person?"

"Who says I can only have one most important person? I can have as many as I want."

"… Prince Edan, that's like having more than one best friend."

I held up my scabbard menacingly, "In the eyes."

Silence met my threat. Good.

"All right. That's all I have to say." The pillow pile shifted and threatened to topple over when I threw myself down on it. I picked around, removed an offendingly pink pillow and threw it to the ground, and then leaned back expectantly. "Now it's your turn. Why did you kiss me?"

Damar looked like he wanted to sit down, too, but couldn't quite give in to the urge. He also looked like he wanted to throw himself off a cliff. Luckily, we seemed to have a shortage of cliffs at the moment. He pressed a hand to his forehead instead, and I waited for him to work out a response. "I was wrong," was what he eventually said.

"Not what I asked."

"I was wrong. I'm sorry."


He waved a hand, shushing me. His face was red. "I was … I forgot my place. I just wanted—" He glanced up at me, and his voice caught. I blinked when he emitted a tiny laugh. Uh, maybe I had pushed him too far? "You're right, Prince Edan. You are my f-family. And that's … it's enough, right? It's got to be."

"Damar? Your crazy is showing."

"I wanted to protect you. I k-kissed you—I'm so sorry, I can't believe I—I kissed you because I thought Prince Royce would leave you alone if I did. I saw him kissing you."

Oh. Well, that was awkward. "Which time?"

Damar's eyes widened. "There were multiple times?"

And more awkward, lovely. "I—yes. It was my choice. I told you I maybe sorta like him, and I like kissing, so that's—"

"Dangerous. I still think that. And I thought or wanted to think that you were being forced. You even asked me for help, so I told you I would take care of everything."

"What—when?" I shifted and sat forward. Damar moved to stand next to the window, and I noted with a frown that he looked exhausted. I wondered if he had slept at all last night. It didn't look like it.

"On the path outside, before building the sandcastle," he said quietly.

No matter how I thought about yesterday, I didn't remember telling Damar about the situation with Royce. I certainly didn't remember asking for help. Maybe he was trying to trick me. "I did not."

"You said it wasn't your fault."

"I did not—oh." The scene replayed in my mind quickly, rewinding from Damar kneeling before me and apologizing and stopping with an apparently omniscient Damar assuring me that he would fix everything. "Oh," I repeated dumbly. Well, this was going to be even more awkward, and there really was no easy way to say it, so I spoke quickly, "Um, that time, I wasn't talking about Royce; I was trying to tell you about how Cyrus knows I'm a boy."


I resisted the sharp desire to throw myself under the pillow pile for cover. It took Damar several moments to compose himself enough to ask in a somewhat frightening voice, "Who is Cyrus?"

"You don't know? Don't look at me like that! He's Royce's friend. Foreigner, really weird."

Somehow, I felt that mentioning Cyrus had tied me to his bed this morning and threatened me would not be a good idea.

"And he knows." I nodded. Damar did not look happy. Strangely, I felt a tiny pinprick of satisfaction. This was more like my Damar. I certainly wasn't happy that he was about to scold me, but it was a thousand times better than Damar looking like he thought I was going to hit him. Then again— "Prince Edan, you know how important this is. How could you—"

"I didn't do it on purpose!" I snapped. I knew we hadn't finished resolving our other argument, but I couldn't stop myself from reacting defensively. "I tried really hard! You're the one who left me all by myself."

My anger seemed to take Damar by surprise, but apparently my words hit some kind of sore spot, because his expression fell and he mumbled, "You're right. I'm sorry. But—"

"And none of this makes sense, anyway! This was a stupid plan, dressing me up as a girl—"

"I know," Damar said dejectedly. "It had seemed like a good idea at the time."

"To throw anyone pursuing me off my trail for a bit," I parroted and rolled my eyes.

"Yes, that, too," Damar said slowly, not quite meeting my eyes.

"…what do you mean, 'that, too'? There was another reason?"

"Well …." He looked up briefly, saw me glaring, and quickly finished with, "That was most important, of course, but I also thought it might make you less noticeable to … certain other individuals."

"Such as," I deadpanned.

"Um. The Crown Prince?" It was practically a squeak. "There was a rumor that he preferred … well, it doesn't matter anymore, since it's obviously not true." He looked me up and down briefly, then sighed. I blinked at him, annoyed and not understanding.

"Wait, so let me get this straight: you wanted me to go unnoticed to both my uncle's henchmen and anyone else, so you decided to put me in a dress?"

"There wasn't much time for planning. It was the best I could do on such short notice!" He was blushing.

"Damar, have you heard of the art of bitch-slap?" I asked calmly.


"Here, let me show you."