A/N - This story apparently, absolutely, just had to be written. I was half done with it within two months of starting it. It may have taken me six rewrites in the first weeks to figure out the right way for the story to go but it finally worked itself out. I hope you will all enjoy this story, I know I have. If you do enjoy it, I hope you'll leave me a review. :)

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As always - This story is a work of fiction. Any similarities to real persons (living or deceased), real events (past, present, or future), or real places (on Earth or some other world or plane of existence) are merely coincidental.

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Chapter #1 – The Abandoned Wing

The summer heat was stifling and Safondra knew she was going to need to bathe before she dressed for dinner due to the amount of sweat she was producing. She was so very grateful the protective "bubble" around her kept out all the dust and mold and decay of the old wing so she wasn't sweaty and dirty. But that really didn't matter, because this was the one place in the entire palace she could get away from everyone because no one else ever came here – not even looters or bored teenaged boys.

She, however, had adored this wing from the time she was barely more than a toddler. Her earliest memory was asking about the rooms behind the wall in the garden, which was all overgrown with ivy. She had been told the wing was cursed and abandoned, filled with aggressive ghosts that didn't go away, and other dangerous things. It had only piqued her interest and she had declared, even then, that she wanted to go see it.

Though she wasn't allowed then, she never gave up, periodically asking her parents if she could go. When she was eleven and started being allowed "unsupervised" free time (though her personal guard, Nalfrin, always accompanied her), she had gone looking for the entrance. Her failure did not stop her desire. She knew there had to be some way to enter it – even if she had to do her most desperate plan and steal a gardener's ladder and climb the damn wall.

Thankfully, that plan didn't need to happen – but it was a near thing, honestly. She had been planning the forbidden mission when she finally happened by the open door of a linen storage room. The steward and a team of workers, with the chief maid worrying her hands nearby, were dealing with damage apparently caused by a hidden, rotting door at the back. From where it was positioned on the ground floor of the wing they were in, she knew it had to lead to the abandoned wing.

It had taken about fourteen years – she had been closing in on her eighteenth birthday at the time – but she had finally found the way in.

Her father had humored her. Had commanded the key be found to open the door (for the spell-lock was still somehow active and they couldn't open it without the key), just so she could look in – nothing more. But that one look had only made her want to go in, to explore. But it had also shown her that the wing was not "just like the disused rooms" as her father claimed. It was not just dusty and forgotten. She had seen those rooms, explored them out of boredom and curiosity. No, the abandoned wing was crumbling and there were patches of moss and mushrooms and even a few ferns growing in the decay.

She knew the wing would be unsafe so she had known she'd need magic to ensure her safety. She had spent every moment she could for the next several months studying restorations spells and learning about architecture and engineering. She then presented her project to her father, practically begging him to let her go. She showed him her skills, the magic she had learned, the artifacts she had made to help ensure her safety. He reluctantly gave her permission to use one of her two free afternoons a week to explore the old wing. She had been ecstatic.

Granted, there had been no shortage of people trying to convince her not to go, usually citing one of the two main theories about why the wing had been abandoned so thoroughly more than two hundred years ago – aggressive ghosts and noxious gas. So far, in just more than six months of coming here once each week, she had encountered neither of those things. She knew there had to have been something significant that happened to make everyone leave and never return – not even for their possessions – but time had muddied the real reason and all there was now were rumor and conjecture.

She had never feared the ghosts or the gas, though. Ghosts couldn't hurt people without significant effort – unless they were tainted by dark magic – and she had found magic for making an invisible barrier around her to keep out any dangerous gases, as well as the all the dust and mold spores. Far more dangerous, she had discovered, was the damage that had been caused by time and weather.

Despite all the issues and danger the wing presented, she was still grateful for her time here each week. It was her refuge, where she could forget all her worries for a few short hours and focus on her passion project. She was going to save this wing and she put everything she had into ensuring the damage it currently suffered from didn't get worse. But, to do that, she needed to finally get up to the roof, to the conservatory.

The conservatory was visible from the garden and from the royal wing that sat higher on the granite monolith that served as the northwestern part of the palace grounds and part of its defense. It was overgrown. Time, weather, and a tree that grew within the confines of it had broken a number of windows. That had allowed in rain for decades at least. All that rain had slowly seeped through whatever was the floor of the conservatory and straight into the rest of the wing. A small area of the roof had already fallen in, too, and there were many more that were threatening to.

Finding those stairs to get up to the roof was her current task. The moment she got to the third floor a few weeks ago, her first priority was getting to the central double doors that had once led to Prince Ajerrin's room. This entire wing had been his, housing his chief servants and advisors and with rooms for his personal guests. There was a chance the conservatory had been a private retreat for him and his wife. Sadly, she had not found the stairs there and she had no idea what door it was behind, as they were all otherwise evenly spaced for symmetry and aesthetics, so it was now a process of elimination.

She had covered nearly two-thirds of the floor in the time since.

Sighing, wiping her sweating face with her skirt, she took a moment after the first room she had checked today – another bedroom, which had clearly been used by one of the prince's children from the moldering toys strewn across one area of the room. She glanced up at the ceiling, eyeing a slightly sagging, water-stained section almost directly above her. Gently, she touched her enchanted staff to it and determined the reinforcing spell she had already placed on it, probably two weeks ago, needed to be strengthened. She shuddered once it was done, praying she could get up to the conservatory soon to figure out what could be done from there.

"Don't you fall, sweetie. I'm going to save you. I promise. But you need to stay standing for me so I can do that."

The arcade alone was worth saving this place for. The wing was built, literally, against the granite monolith, making up the entire northern wall of it. Part of the stone of the monolith was carved with intricate designs that went from the floor of the ground floor to the ceiling, three stories up. Those carvings were unlike anything else in the entire palace. They were echoed in the woodwork of pillars that held up the walkways and in the molding on the room ceilings, as well as the floor-to-ceiling stained glass window that dominated the open part of the arcade. She had often wondered if, somehow, those carvings had been there before the wing since they were so different…but that was surely impossible.

With a deep breath, she turned to the next room and slowly made her way to the door, checking the floor with her staff to see if any spots needed magical support. She had been careful with every step she took and had not yet caused any damage as she explored and she had no intention of doing so in the future, but the care she took ate up the paltry few hours she got each week.

If she had been lucky enough to have the blueprints of the wing, she would have already been up to and fixed what she could of the conservatory and roof. Those blueprints, however, had not been in the palace library with those of the other wings. She had found them on her second trip in here, displayed on a table in a small library in this wing. But it was crumbling and mostly illegible when she found it, as nearly three-hundred-year-old paper was liable to be without preservation magic.

Upon reaching the next door, she tested to see if it was locked first and foremost. She had nearly destroyed two doors on the ground floor by trying to force them open while they were locked. Then she tried to actually open it, but the wood, like most of the other doors, was warped and swollen from water damage. When it didn't budge from firm pushes, she swore vehemently, knowing from experience she could damage it and the wall it was attached to if she wasn't careful.

But a noise made her freeze, a chill going down her spine. She had heard that noise before a few other times in recent weeks – a chuckle from somewhere. It was the only indication that there might be more to the stories, but she knew it couldn't be a ghost. Ghosts only lingered for a few years at most after the death of the person and there was no dark magic around to fuel the creation of the other types of spirits. She usually put it off as hearing something from outside, no matter it usually only happened when she swore or tripped or something else chuckle-worthy.

Shaking herself, she ignored it as she always did and went back to getting the door opened. Once she did, she was disappointed, finding yet another bedroom and not the stairs she sought.

With a sigh, she went around the room and stabilized what needed to be stabilized and frowned at the ivy vines that had somehow wormed their way through a window. She had seen it before, particularly on the ground floor, and yet still marveled at the tenacity of the plant. Far more frequent, however, was the moss that grew everywhere, especially on the monolith side, where water had leaked from the roof and run down the rock face.

When she was done, she headed back out to the walkway and pulled out her pocket watch. As she expected, she had already used more than half of the four hours she had. She would only have time for one more room today. If this door did not reveal the stairs to the conservatory, she would surely find it next week. The week after that she would go up there and do her best to ensure it would stay stable.

The door to the final room of the day was not as hard to open as the previous one and also did not reveal the stairs, but she did widen her eyes at the sight of the wallpaper bulging in one spot like a root was growing down behind it. She went to investigate that first, quite certain it was from the tree in the conservatory, which was the likely culprit for the majority of the damage in the wing. That damage was impossible to see from the outside, though, which was why her father didn't seem as concerned as she thought he should be about what she had explained to him of the wing's condition.

Not that an old, empty wing of the palace was his biggest concern right now. Even if it all collapsed tomorrow, it still wouldn't to be his biggest concern. Granted, what she believed should be his biggest concern wasn't, even though it was her biggest concern and had the potential to tear apart the kingdom.

And that train of thought just led her right to thinking about the thing that she came here to forget – Marquis Daenbin Losh of Kaivay and his son, Lord Geldron.

The marquis was a thorn in her father's side that he somehow ignored to the point of saying there wasn't any "thorn" at all. She truly didn't understand it. Daenbin had been doing underhanded deals with Galst, the nation his southern march bordered. It was mostly abundant illegal trade but there were rumors of human trafficking, too. He had been asked to stop multiple times, but the man had continued and continued…and her father had done fuck-all about it other than chiding him.

Now, with her father's obvious "weakness" known to all, Daenbin had support from nearly half the nobles in the kingdom and a good number of businessmen. There was worry of civil war or a coup d'état. It was no secret that that was what the marquis wanted – and her father not putting it down was causing more problems. It was also not a secret the marquis wanted his son on the throne as king. Geldron was a pompous, selfish, philandering idiot who thought the sun shined out his father's ass…and, to prevent any violence, they were talking about having her marry him! Some people already considered them engaged, even if the agreement had not yet been struck. And, it didn't matter that, by extrapolating the fact the idiot's mistress – who could not keep her mouth shut – expected to be queen in the future, that meant Safondra was supposed to die at some point after the wedding and Geldron would take the throne, possibly acting as their child's regent, once she birthed one.

She shuddered and felt nauseous at the thought of having to bed him for just their consummation, let alone do it enough to have a child with him.

But, sadly, she didn't see any way out of the likely marriage with the bastard. They would push and her father would cave because his spine was slowly growing weaker by the week.

She hated the entire situation. Sometimes she hated her father, too, for having put her in the situation, for not having the balls to stand up to those who thought he was a piss-poor king. But, mostly, she hated Daenbin and Geldron and their apparent belief she wouldn't fight anymore than her father did. That just was not going to happen. She would fight tooth and nail…

Growling, wrenching her thoughts back to the wing, she finished up the room she was on and then started back to the stairs to go down. She pondered the hiding stairs and the doors, knowing only one of three options remained – either someone had a much larger than normal room, the stairs were in one of the rooms she had yet to be in, or they were so well-concealed in a room she had been in already that she hadn't found them.

If she didn't find them next week, she would need to research magic to reveal hidden things. It would be a delicate search, as there were many ways to hide things, even without magic to help. That search and learning the spell could take longer than she would like. While summer rains weren't that bad here, winter often brought intense days-long showers and she was worried that much rain might be the last straw for parts of the roof.

At least on the way down she didn't have to check the floor with every step she took since she had done that work on the way upstairs. She wished she could make those stability spells last longer than they did. She needed to refresh the spells at least monthly on the ground and second floors, but at least all she needed to do was follow the lines of magic she had already lain and not check over everything again, else she would have never gotten to the top floor. Granted, once she got to the conservatory and fixed what she could there, she would take another trip through and ensure there were no other problems that were starting.

Soon she had reached the open arms stairs that led up from the ground floor to the second. She looked up at the carvings in the face of the monolith and marveled again. Every time she looked at them, she got a sense of enormous age, but as far as she knew, nothing had been here before the palace, the first wing of which had been built around five hundred years ago.

Smiling, she turned to head to the single door that led to the rest of the palace. A bath and dinner sounded so lovely right now, but she would be happy to just get back to the magically cooled halls.

But then something seemed to move where nothing should be moving and she nearly tripped over her own feet as she stopped to stare at it.

Right in front of the doors to the prince's parlor, framed beautifully in the opening between the stairs, was a shadow. Logically, there shouldn't be a shadow there, not with the angle of the sun coming through the big window at the end of the arcade, which was the only source of light beyond the door she had accidentally torn off the hinges on the second floor and a small crack in the ceiling high above that was a significant concern for her. She tilted her head at the shadow, trying to make sense of it.

Wait… It seemed to be freestanding, not against the doors to the parlor.

So, either someone had finally braved this place solely to mess with her or she had finally encountered the rumored ghost of the wing…or she was hallucinating. Honestly, she was going to go with the first option. Geldron and his friends could have easily masterminded this. So, fearing the shadow was just a distraction, she quickly looked around the ground floor.

There was no one else there.

She turned back to the shadow. "I see you, whoever you are, and I'm not scared of you."

The response she got was not the one she expected, because it was the chuckle she had heard that day and a few other times. "I'm quite pleased you're not afraid of me, pretty mage."