I was not born common. You see, my mother was of Dacien lineage, and my father was of the Asraelans, who were of the last seven continents. That was, of course, before the Skeltine Wars ripped those lands apart. My mother, I recall, was of delicate make, unlike the sturdy dark wives of the other travelers. She didn't live long in the aftermath of chaos—her home was gone, her land divided—what had she left to live for? You might say for my sake, but I was not always a good child. My father had given me an Asraelan name: Violante.
My mother deemed it an omen – a curse. It was a leftover memory, a whisper from a land fallen and dead.
My father, who might have cared for me, was ill met in battle, and acquired gangrene of the leg. He died during surgery. I was then left to the Bonnoir, a quarter of Minean City, rife with citizens suspicious and superstitious. They spat at keeping me, for they feared my name just as much as my mother had.
And so I was cast to fortune's wheel. Yes, fate is a fickle patron; what choice had I at mere six? I found my lady Fate in good faith, for a time at least. I did not succumb to hunger or dirt; I didn't catch melancholia, dilateria, or any other disease rampant in Bonnoir's cobbles and alleyways. I was not killed in the occasional gang wars that broke out. I lived as such for nine months, and four days.
It was then that Fate spun her wheel, and it happened that my ill-omened name finally caught up with me. The Guard caught me, picking scraps from beneath the tavern window. I knew I had fallen to the bottom of Fate's wheel.
I was obviously no jaundiced beggar, nor a leper, and it was obvious the Guard saw this as well. I think that's why they didn't gut me in the street; they'd been known to act as such before. But the half city was diseased and lay dying; madness had even reached the Pallazio. They needed servants: maids, cook's aids, stable hands. I was available, and moderately healthy. And they were not as brutal as some guards I'd seen before. Once, I'd had to hide for days, because I was afraid they'd come for me as they'd taken Jason. He'd never come back.
The Guard all wore the royal black insignia of the panther, and helmets with the ebon dark ozarck plumes. They resembled shadow riders of the nightmare stories I'd once heard from a face so vague and distant I can no longer recall.
That's how I came to live in the home of the Prince, Rain. Leurett came to me when the Guards brought me in with orders to bathe me, and then take me in for training. She was a quiet girl, one of fifteen to twenty years, with a small pale face and low brows. I did not know what the training entailed, or I'd have run. Probably, the men'd have also speared me to death, yet I stood still and let Leurett led me through the gleaming building. It was one of great splendor, but beneath the very marble surfaces and cornices, I sensed a keen malice, one not fully concealed with coating and disguise of the white sepulcher in which it was entombed. I knew it was not to be a place of great welcome.
As a child, and a street urchin no less, I was unaware of the subtle politics of the time. All I knew was that the old king had died, and there was some sort of conflict with his choice of successor. But I'd gleaned that information from drunkards and gamblers in the tavern, so hadn't paid it much heed while I tried to survive the Minean street. And I had not understood any of its ramifications.
And one day, while I was sent to scrub the left hall, I caught my first glimpse of the Prince. He was not at all what I'd pictured. I'd seen a somewhat handsome man, strong and fierce, perhaps with battle scars, a solemn age, and a regal persona. No. He could have been a girl; he was that pretty. He had the swooping ebony lashes of a courtesan maid, and a lush mouth that bespoke sensual roses. But he carried a curious aura, a vicious set to his mouth. It was a chilling combination, and for me, an exhilarating one. I, being of small nature and having a history rife with the need to stay hid, vanished beneath a table as he passed, and managed to attract no notice. I deemed it wise to stay far from the gaze of royals, as the stories I'd heard did not paint them as benevolent figures.
I kept out of sight, and as such, out of trouble, for two years that way. But, as I've told you, lady Fate is sometimes forgetful, and spins her wheel with misfortune for young girls of no importance. And that was how I met the Prince, when he chanced to see me before I knew who he was.
In the common gardens, there is a tree, which grows big and gnarled and dark, like an old crone's liver-spotted hands reaching, pleading with heaven to let her in. It is my tree. I hid things I found in the palace in the knots and holes and roots, and climbed in it when I didn't want to be found. The tree whispered things to me, things of the court and things that it learned from the wind. I found that natural, and listened with unchecked pleasure as it spoke of faraway lands and the glories of ages past and future; I laughed, and that was my downfall, for a laugh attracts attention.
When the man called to me, I expected a rebuke from one of the stable lads, or a cook, and a punishment. I didn't want to climb down. But he called to me again, and his voice was laughing, kind. I chanced a look at him; the bluest eyes I had ever seen stared up at me, bright and wondering.
"What are you doing up there, girl? Or are you a sprite come to plague me?" I started to climb down; I was not going to stand idle and see myself accused of some witchery. As I neared the bottom, I jumped as I always did, expecting to find dirt and bramble beneath my feet. Instead, my feet were still well above the ground, and I was caught in a net of strong arms.
"Let go. I am no sprite." I turned to look into the man's bluebell eyes, and gasped. Immediately I bowed my head. I knew him well, or at least I knew well his looks. Rain.
"Sprite child, look again. I am not to accuse you, or punish. Merely tell me what you were doing in the trees. Or perhaps you are a fairy child?" I couldn't tell if he was teasing, remember, his eyes were kind, his mouth cruel. But it was curved into a smile, and did not look cruel at the moment. I dared to look again.
"I am not a fairy. I am not even a girl. I'm a servant. And I climb the trees to hear stories."
The bluebell eyes widened. "To hear stories?"
"Yes, stories. From the wind, and sometimes the rain. I was a fish this morning you see, until a man wished on me and I turned into a magical hairpin. But then you came and turned me back into a servant."
"I didn't mean to."
The prince shook his head, shaking blue-black hair into his eyes, and blowing it out again; his hair shone with the sheen of the darkest midnights, where no moon and no stars shine.
"I could catch stars in your hair if you wanted." I forgot whom I was speaking to when gazing into the night sky upon his head. But instead of a smack, he threw his head back and laughed, long and loud and clear.
"I believe you are a fairy child. Fairy come to keep our eyes and ears full of pixy dust and stars."
"I told you. I am not a fairy. I'm a servant."
"Oh, yes, I forgot. Well, it won't do to have a fairy scrubbing the floors. Fairies sometimes melt." He leaned closer and whispered in my ear, "Would you like to meet a princess?" I looked to his eyes again, startled, but they were not mocking, just expectant.
"I would like to. But I don't think I should." Princesses sometimes were kind and lovely, but some princesses were spiteful and would curse any who irritated them. This also the rain had whispered in my ears.
"I command you to do what you'd like then, and never what you should. What is your name, fairy child?" I hesitated before answering, because of my cursed name, you understand. But I harbored some strange desire to tell this prince my name, and see if he recoiled. Because if he did, I would be inexplicably disappointed.
"Violante." I shivered as I spoke my name, as if some strange power coursed through me, and left me feeling light in the head. The prince did not curse, or jump back, he merely nodded.
"Come, Violante, fairy-child, and I will show to you a princess true." He set me down; the ground was cold upon my bare feet. I had worn my old dress for the tree, it was torn at the hem and ragged, the color washed out long ago, leaving it the dulled hue of old leaves. But it seemed the Prince noticed neither the dress nor the dirt, for he was still taking me into the palace. And there was dirt on his cream over shirt from where he had held me. That seemed not to bother him either.
"Violante, come. Aren't fairies light on their feet?" He was teasing, but still, I ran after him, and then walked close behind him for the remainder of the way to the Princess.
Her doors were enormous, from the shining marble floor, all the way up to the ceiling, painted red and gilded in designs that I sometimes dreamed of—horses and war, ladies upon mountains, lakes swirling into seas and ships sailing upon those waters. The prince seemed not to see them; he knocked hard upon them, and then pulled one open without waiting for a response. He stalked in, fairly dragging me along with him, not unkindly, but obviously excited.
"Cecily!" At his voice, a stout, short matron of unremarkable features and gray hair scurried out of an adjoining room. I held in my gasp this time, but I couldn't keep my eyes from widening. This was a Princess? The rain was certainly mistaken about some things; she'd said that the women the Kings choose to announce as their princesses high were beautiful, and regal.
"Your Highness," the woman panted, "you shouldn't just, I mean, tis not proper for you…"
"To come bursting into the room of the High Princess any time I want, seeing especially we are only half-sibs. I know," the prince helpfully supplied. "Now, where is Cecily?"
"She is here," came a docile voice, high and fluted, from the doorway. "And why do you need me this time, darling brother?"
The Prince turned with a grin; I turned in awe. The rain was not wrong. This princess was young and beautiful. More beautiful than any woman I had ever seen; her hair fell down her back in the same hue as the Prince's, but in waves. Her eyes were almond shaped like all nobility, cat tipped like royalty, like mine were. But hers were a sparkling, vibrant honey colored hue, like sweet waves of summer amber. Tall, commanding, fair, and regal, she was what rain had whispered to me, and what I had imagined.
"Your hair would be ever so much easier to net the stars in," I breathed; sometimes my tongue runs away with me. It happened in the streets, which was why Jason had taken me over, and allowed me only the silent jobs. I clapped my hands over my mouth, and stared at my feet, unsure of what to do.
"You see, Cecily, this is why I've come. I've brought you a fairy to serve in your ladies court." The Princess's eyes narrowed; I felt her look me up and down.
"She's filthy, Rain, and looks perfectly human to me, albeit a bit small. And she's too pretty. She won't do." I felt something hot lodge itself in my throat, but I refused to be cowed. I stood completely still, and kept my head down.
"Cecily, vain? It can't be. Besides, you'll command all the interesting courtiers with fairy luck in your court. Look at her. Violante, look up." Teasing was back in his voice again; I looked up. Princess Cecily had moved closer, her bright eyes looked up and down the length of my body again. She stopped when she reached my eyes, and looked into them for what seemed an eternity. Her dark hair was so close; I could reach out and use it for my net. The wind claimed it would carry some of the eastern desert sands to me as soon as I had something to hold them in.
"She has the tricksy look about her, tis true." Cecily kept me in her gaze; I held my breath. "Very well, brother. I shall do as you advise and keep me a bit of fairy luck." The prince grinned broadly, so prettily, I saw he knew that he had won.
"Good luck, Violante. You see, I may have turned you back into a servant for a moment, but I've made you a lady for life. And you must agree, tis better than a hairpin." He patted my head, bowed to Cecily, and withdrew from the room.
"Go draw a bath." Cecily spoke to the matron who I had mistaken for her, but I didn't share that. Somehow, I didn't believe that she would appreciate my mistake. "This child is filthy. She stinks like the outdoors something desperate. And when you're done, bring her to the clothier. He'll see to something to suit her." She turned to me. "You had better heed, fairy-child, and drop your tricksy ways with me, or I shall change my mind, and throw you to the plague."
The cold iron within her voice made me heed special. Sensing my acquiescence, Cecily had obviously dismissed me, for she turned from her and walked into another set of rooms. The matron took my shoulder, and shooed me into a gleaming bathroom of marble and gold, and red candles gleamed their light upon the water the matron poured into the bathing tub. She stripped my dress without a word, and shoved me into the water, mumbling about outdoors and odd little children. I did not mind over much, for now I new and interesting things to see. And I was to serve luck for a Princess.
The only trouble that weighed my mind was the fear that the bluebell-eyed prince would forget me.