"What am I going to do?"

"Marry a princess, of course."

Charles shot Allie and exasperated look, and plopped down on the garden wall.

"Oh, watch ou-"

"Ouch!" Charles jumped up, clutching his backside. "What in bloody hell?"

Allie grimaced and gave him a look of pity.

"You sat on my trowel, dear. Now, if you'll just let me…"

"Allie, you're only trying to distract me. We have to fix this!"

"What is there to do? From the start, we knew it would have to end. I loved you since the moment you picked me out of that well, but I knew I'd have to let you go. You're a Prince, darling, and I'm a farmer."

"But, Allie…"

She shook her head sadly, and was about to say something else when they heard another voice coming from the front of the cottage. Around the white walls and thick ivy growth came an angel smeared with dirt.

"All-oh." Charles saw her china-blue eyes widen in dismay when she realized Allie wasn't alone.

"Hello." The girl gave him a tight smile at his greeting. She looked at Allie with a question in her eyes. Charles waited for the familiar smile and nod that said 'He's mine, he's safe. Don't worry, speak. Trust him.' But it never came. Allie shook her head. He stared at her while she said,

"Let's go inside, Ells. Charles, you should get back to the castle, shouldn't you? You don't want anyone missing you. I mean… Ells, go on in. I'll meet you in a minute." Allie wouldn't look at him.

"Is it really that easy to give me up? It's killing me to even think of losing you, and you don't seem to care at all."

"Oh, Charles, you know that's not it." He heard the hurt in her voice, and was immediately sorry for what he'd said. "I just don't want to hold you back. I can't marry you, and you deserve a wife to be queen by your side."


"Just go on. I can't think about this any more, I just can't. Come tomorrow for good-bye." Allie ran inside the cottage, leaving a stunned Charles alone. He went around for his horse, a distinct feeling of horror lodged deep within his chest. He would be back tomorrow all right, but it wouldn't be for good-bye.


"Cadis de Byrnion, duchess of Milroe. 7th province on the Azhra. Also rules the Island of Dyltrid…the de Byrnion palace is located there."

"Fine. Next?"

"Mzlisse L'Interyn, countess of Tewe. 9th Province, on the Syrian Sea-"

"Fine, fine Doric. Why can't you just invite all the guests? I don't have time to deal with this."

"I just though your majesty would like to approve of his son's guests," the steward sniffed, sounding slightly offended. The king sighed, Doric was so touchy. It was just his luck to have a steward stuffier than his monarchs.

"Where is the prince? Let him deal with this. It's his mothers idea after all."

The sun sparkled on the waves and the gulls cried overhead. All was calm, except for a long rider galloping along the beach. Crown prince Ander Summerrn was finally alone. He was enjoying his escape from hunting partners, servants, and guards. And he was enjoying the day, relaxing at the soothing sound of the ocean, at least until he saw the boat. A small wooden rowboat sat very far out in the small bay, where it met with the wild waters of the Azhra. Wave by wave rocked the small vessel, and he thought it simply a cast off wreck until he caught sight of a head, which seemed to be continually bobbing up and down around the boat.

Brought up with every idea of chivalry and honor, Ander swung off his horse and raced for the water, pulling off boots and coat as he ran and throwing them onto the sand. He waved at the figure and cried out, "Hold on!" before he dived into the waves. Racing to reach the figure, he couldn't see anything but the lapping of salt water into his eyes. Finally reaching the vessel, he caught sight of the body, and without another thought, snatched them up. Carrying the youth back through the surf, he could feel them hitting his back, putting up a furious struggle. Grimacing, for it was a hard hitter, Ander was glad he'd almost reached shore. He'd heard of drowners who'd drowned their rescuers, because, still imagining themselves in the throws of death, they fought so violently. Ander thanked his brother in advance for his good swimming lessons. Whoever he'd rescued was a very good fighter; perhaps the youth would be interested in joining the corps. Panting, he felt the sand beneath his feet and threw himself and his rescuee onto the beach. Turning over, expecting to find a very weak, grateful boy, he smiled-

And his entire left cheek exploded in pain.

"What do you think you're doing?" shouted an outraged voice; almost quivering it was so indignant. "Stay back!"

Eyes watering, the crown prince grabbed his jaw and looked up into a pair of very angry, very blue, eyes. Turquoise, they could be, and furious. Lovely and smoldering.

"Well? What in the world were you doing? Planning to ransom me? I can assure you, you wouldn't get much. Well!" The question was posed in a dangerous tone.

"I…"Surprisingly for him, momentarily Ander felt very stupid. "I thought you were drowning."

"Obviously, I was not." She sounded slightly calmer. Slightly.

Ander realized she was wearing a shift, a thin one, and colored. He averted his eyes, but not before it registered she had a very nice figure. In fact…

"How am I supposed to get my boat now?"

The crown prince smiled and said,

"Swim?" He didn't see why she was so upset. He was still staring-the Ladies at court always wore their hair pinned up in elaborate styles-hers was loose and drying into loose waves of burnished copper. That was why he missed the second fist.


"Swim! Swim? Why you—insufferable…" she trailed off for a moment, muttering, no doubt, worse curses under her breath, until resuming, "I think you need to go get it now!" She was practically snarling.

Ander was feeling slightly better, now he realized it was only an old dingy.

"Me? And after I went to all that trouble and got my feet wet to save fair maiden?" he asked nonchalantly as he pulled back on his boots. "Hm…I don't think so."

Still glaring, the girl said, "Get off my land! Get off!" She flourished that statement with a stamp of her foot. At that, the prince laughed. Some village girl was telling him to get off 'her land?'

He didn't reply, just sat there. Bad choice; she kicked him. Suddenly not smiling anymore, yelping instead, he realized he'd better go. First, because his guards would find him soon enough, and second, because he was over his bruising quota for the day. Way over if the way his back felt counted at all.

"Good luck with your boat, milady mermaid," he said mockingly, for she had made him feel very stupid, and swung himself back on his horse. He was sure she could swim to retrieve the boat if she'd been swimming in the Azhra all right.

"Good riddance!" she yelled after him, and turned. He could see her lips moving, muttering more curses on him, no doubt. Only after she'd dived back into the water did Ander realize he'd never gotten her name. He knew she didn't know him, but after every maiden he met swooned at the sight of him-a bit of a snark was appreciated. Something in his back twinged. Well, maybe not that much. But, he could never see a peasant girl, not only his family, but the kingdom as well, would never allow it. Thinking for the first time that perhaps that was too bad, he rode off, still smiling. When his back and jaws weren't aching.


Islana had only one friend. A strange friend. Eiran was a knight, and she a simple farmgirl. She didn't even have a family; she was an orphaned peasant. She was also considered an outcast in the village. They didn't care for strange people, or ideas, and Islana could certainly be counted as strange. With her dark red hair, like a dusky flame, and millky complexion, fair as an orchid, she should have been a great beauty. But with one eye of sea green and the other the rich brown of the earth, and long, slim bones, she would not be any village boy's sweetheart.

That morning, Islana watched the walls of the manor for sight of Eiran as she washed the walls of the dressmaker's cottage. It was cold that morning; a chill lingered in the air, stayed in the wind, and sunk into the soil. It was freezing beneath Islana's barefeet. She hadn't been able to buy shoes that year, that money had gone to another younger orphaned boy, just as the year before her money had gone to an old woman blinded in a blacksmithing accident. She looked up, shading her eyes, and smiled as she saw Eiran riding down the moors. She wondered what she'd done to deserve such a friend. He pulled up beside her, and smiled back.

"You're all dirty," he teased good-naturedly.

"And you're just too clean. Who are you again? "

He laughed and swung off his horse.

" My mother is coming today. She wants to take my sister home, but I don't think it's the best idea. "

" I thought she wanted your sister to attend the ball… "