The sound of horns playing the King’s fanfare cut through the babble of conversation in the theater, sending a thrill through Prince Connor Shaltar’s nerves as he stood up with everyone else and turned toward the royal box.
The King and Queen entered the flag-draped box, and everyone bowed, including Connor. Behind the royal pair, two other figures entered: Princess Teressa and her friend Wren. They were quite a contrast—the short, round magic prentice, her wild, thick mat of yellow-striped brown hair tamed into two braids that Connor knew would be bristling by the end of the play, even if Wren sat quite still. Next to her the princess was tall, her chin strong like her father’s, but its line softened with her mother’s fine features, her dark brown hair shining and neat.
The girls were whispering, but Connor saw Wren’s eager eyes taking in every detail of the theater. Her wide blue gaze found him and she gave him a happy grin and quick, surreptitious wave.
Then she nudged the Princess and whispered something more. Teressa looked up and smiled. It was a quiet smile—polite, Connor thought. Reserved. Quite proper for a princess to give a troublesome distant relative who had no land and no future.
He smiled back, then turned his eyes away so she wouldn’t think he was staring.
Nor did he want to be caught staring by his relatives. He braced for some kind of caustic comment as he gave his family a quick scan. With a sense of relief, he saw that as soon as the royal bow had been made, the King and Queen had been forgotten.
Aunt Carlas was busy gossiping with Aunt Corenna about somebody’s clothes. Uncle Fortian conversed in a low whisper with Uncle Matten, while bending his cold and haughty gaze on a couple of young aristocrats in the opposite box. Cousin Mirlee was glaring at a plump, overdressed daughter of a popular baron—no doubt, thought Connor, Mirlee was counting up just how many nasty things she could say about the girl later. And Cousin Garian with his chief toady, a second cousin named Nyl, were busy staring down at the young people gathered in the first rows of the pit.
Garian glanced furtively around before pulling a handful of dried peas from his tunic. He handed some to Nyl, and they began pelting the audience below. Both boys were soon red-faced with smothered laughter.
That does it, Connor thought, rising silently from his chair at the back of the box. If I tell my uncle I’ll catch it hot from Garian—and if I don’t, I’ll catch it from my uncle. Since I’m doomed either way, I may as well get into trouble on my own account.
He lifted aside the dusty velvet curtain at the back of the box, edged back one step, two, and then he was free.
Laughing to himself, he raced down the narrow hall. But instead of taking the tiled stairs that led to the lobby for wealthy patrons, he pushed open a narrow door almost hidden in the wall carvings, and a few steps carried him backstage.
Here the noise was different. Rather than the idle buzz of bored aristocrats, Connor heard the sharper, laugh-punctuated jollity of actors getting ready for a performance, a sound he knew well.
“Ho! Where’s that wig, Piar?” a tall actress called, bustling by. “For my life, find that wig!”
“Pssst,” came a far-off hiss. “It’s here, right where it should be.”
“Better you’d lost your head, that’s easier to replace,” an older actor cracked, and the tall actress took a swipe at him with her fan.
“Is my shirt torn? How could I have tripped over that wretched box . . . “ a short, balding actor demanded, hands in the air.
Nearby, the stage magician stood, studying a new play. She was young, new at her job, and Connor felt a familiar pang of regret when she waved her fingers and an illusory tree appeared. She squinted at it, then snapped her fingers, and the illusion was gone. Supposedly the easiest kind of magic, and I can’t even do that much, Connor thought, turning away.
He wandered farther backstage. No one seemed to notice him in the increasing pandemonium, but he saw someone else looking panic-stricken, and Connor edged through the crowd toward him.
“Please, Master Salek. The last verse of my poem—I’ve forgotten it.” That was the new player, Jeth, a fellow not much older than Connor. He threw a quick, distracted smile Connor’s way and sketched a brief bow.
Connor spotted the black-gowned playwright conversing in an urgent undertone with the leading lady. Clearly he would be no help to poor Jeth, so Connor cued him obligingly: “And lo, the price of greatness—”
“—is the closing of the Gate,” Jeth quoted in relief. “Yes, now the rest is coming back. Thank you, thank you, Prince Connor. This is horrible—I’m already wringing wet, and I haven’t even been out before the lamps yet. Those shark-toothed toffs’ll take one look and laugh me off the stage.” Jeth seemed to remember that Connor was one of the toffs, and flushed with embarrassment. “Begging your pardon, of course—”
“Shark-toothed they are, or at least some of them,” Connor said. He couldn’t help a laugh at Jeth’s goggling dismay, but it was not a mean laugh, and Jeth seemed to sense it. “Cheer up,” Connor said. “You sounded fine yesterday, and you will again today.”
Jeth continued to mutter nervously, and because he seemed to be glad to have someone to mutter to, Connor stood by and tried to be encouraging.
“Places,” Master Salek lifted his voice as he pointed at the colored candle his assistant carried.
Connor joined the rush of movement offstage, and with a last wave at Jeth, he took his place along the wall in back.
The new prentices smoothly pulled the curtain open, the stage magician muttered softly, and illusory snow began to fall. Out beyond the gleam of the lamps along the stage’s edge, a murmur swept the audience, not quite extinguishing the giggles from one side of the gallery. Connor recognized Garian’s laugh, though it was abruptly cut short. Garian’s father had finally caught him. They would both notice Connor’s absence shortly.
He made a face at the darkness beyond the stage. Uncle Fortian would guess immediately where he was, and he would be furious. Only yesterday, when Connor had returned late from the last rehearsal, his uncle had given him the benefit of a lecture about how unseemly it was for the son of one queen and brother of another (even if only a half-brother) to be consorting with players, and it had to be his Dareneth blood causing him to follow after commoners, as no royal Shaltar ever would gobble-gabble, yakkety-yak, blabbity blab . . . The thought of more of those lectures made Connor turn away with a sigh.
Voices from the stage caught his attention then. He cast a quick glance at Master Salek, who was whispering soundlessly to himself, mouthing the words as the actors out front spoke them. The familiar chasm opened inside Connor, a tremendous yearning to be sitting on that stool, wearing a black gown, murmuring his own words as voices spoke them before an audience . . .
It will never happen.
He forced the thought from his mind and gladly let his present surroundings fade from his attention. His mind sank into the magic of the play world as the familiar story unfolded.
The last notes of the horn signaling the play’s end echoed into silence, and then came a roar of applause. Wren smacked her hands together until they stung. “Oh, that was wonderful,” she exclaimed, trying to shake off the tingly sense of longing. She loved her life—now. She woke up every single day, happy to be a magic student, her best friend safe again.
But oh . . . to travel . . . And out it came: “How I wish I could travel to another world!”
Princess Teressa nodded, but Wren saw more politeness than eagerness in those blue-gray eyes. “Will the Magic School teach you the sorcery for passing through those world-gates?”
Wren shook her head. “I wish,” she said fervently. “But that kind of magic is supposed to be hardest of all. Imagine doing it wrong and being caught forever between worlds!”
Teressa shivered. “Horrible thought. Just as well I am not learning sorcery, then. I think I’d be too frightened to try.”
“You’ve got enough scary mishmash to learn,” Wren said as they followed the King and Queen out of the royal box. The vast room of aristocrats bowing low, their satins and velvets rustling like trees in a wind, never failed to remind her that she was only an orphan of no importance. She lowered her voice and continued, “All those tables of taxes and tariffs to remember, not to mention trade laws. Foo!”
Teressa walked smoothly, smiling this way and that at the bowing people, looking as assured as if she had been doing it all her life, instead of for just a year. “I actually enjoy those things,” she said. “It’s like a window—you can see exactly what is coming in and going out.”
Wren shook her heavy braids back, laughing inwardly. They were already messy, and she hadn’t done a thing! “And to think I once wanted to be a princess.”
Both girls laughed. Ahead, Queen Astren turned to look at them. “We are invited to join Carlas and Fortian for supper, girls. There might be some dancing afterward.”
The queen said ‘girls’ but as always, her gaze strayed to Teressa—who was Wren’s old friend Tess back in their orphanage days. Wren sometimes thought that the queen was still afraid that Teressa would vanish again, captured by that horrible Andreas of Senna Lirwan.
Wren rubbed her hands together. “Dancing!” After the Queen turned back to King Verne, Wren added in a low voice, “We ought to get some reward if we’re to be stuck staring at that sourpickle Mirlee over our food.”
Teressa smiled her agreement behind her hand.
They arrived at the wing of the royal palace where Teressa’s uncle Duke Fortian Rhismordith lived with his family when they were in Cantirmoor. In the long, decorated dining room a magnificent feast awaited them. Good smells pervaded the crowded room: braised meats, spiced pies, and hot wine and cider.
As soon as the King and Queen entered, knots of adults broke off their conversations and gave polite cries of welcome. Wren noted some of the ladies waving feathered fans with quick movements that seemed almost nervous. Hmm. What was going on? Well, one thing for sure: court politics had nothing to do with her. Another thing to be grateful for!
With great ceremony tall, hawk-nosed Duke Fortian conducted King Verne and Queen Astren to the seats of honor at a long table, leaving the girls to make their way to the table for the young people. Servants paraded in, bearing great trays of food.
Wren sighed as she took her place next to Teressa, who was at their table’s place of honor. Wren knew what was coming next, now that they were away from the adults. It would almost be worth it to have to listen to court gabble, she thought as Mirlee Rhismordith appeared, with several followers in tow.
Gowned in gold-trimmed scarlet, Mirlee looked about with her high-bridged nose elevated, her sallow face haughty. She surveyed the gathering boys and girls with a dramatic air, and when she saw Wren she paused, making certain that Wren knew that she’d been seen.
Then Mirlee deliberately transferred her gaze to Teressa as she sat across from her. “Did you enjoy the play, cousin?” she asked in a stickily sweet voice.
“I did,” Teressa answered. “And you?”
Mirlee patted her mouth, affecting a yawn. “Oh . . . it was . . . nice,” she said in a bored voice. “Of course, you haven’t seen many plays, have you?” The sympathy in her voice was as false as her smile.
Neatly reminding everyone within earshot that Teressa spent most of her thirteen years not as a princess should, but in the guise of an ordinary girl in a lowly orphanage, Wren thought indignantly.
Teressa’s feelings did not show on her calm face. Her eyes were serious as she answered, “Not yet. But ‘tis something I look forward to doing more of.”
“Well, I liked the fights,” Mirlee’s brother, Garian, put in. “That fellow with the yellow beard knows his way around a sword.”
“Yes,” Nyl piped up, as usual agreeing with whatever Garian said. “Pretty nacky!”
Everyone started talking at once.
Under cover of the voices, Wren leaned toward Teressa.
‘‘You know something? I’ve decided I’m glad that Mirlee thinks I’m too lowborn to notice. If she tries talking to me the way she talks to you, I’ll come right back at her with some choice words about snootnoses. Not to mention just how terribly sallow skin goes with scarlet satin. “
Teressa laughed softly. “She’s just angry with you.” “Angry?” Wren asked in disbelief, looking down at herself. No, she hadn’t slopped, and she was always careful with her manners if she came to the palace. “She looks down on me, yes, but angry with me? I didn’t do anything to her—in fact, she’s ignored me so thoroughly we’ve never exchanged a single word. Good,” Wren added. “Any word she sends my way is sure to be a stinker.”
Teressa smiled ruefully. “She can make all the fuss she wants about your background, but everyone in Cantirmoor knows who you are just the same.”
“Oh yes. Princess rescuer.” Wren buffed her nails pompously across the front of her one good dress. “Don’t tell me that prissy cousin of yours wishes she’d gone into Senna Lirwan with us to get you out? If so, she could have come with my goodwill—we could have used extra help.”
“Oh, it’s not that,” Teressa said, serious again. “She’s angry because you and Connor and Tyron did rescue me. I think she was hoping that I’d never return and her brother would be declared the heir to the throne in my place.”
Wren choked on a sip of cider. “That’s—that’s—I can’t think of a word nasty enough,” she whispered furiously.
“I figured it out a few days ago. It explains just why I’m so unpopular with her and her friends,” Teressa said. “Not that I really care about them,” she added.
“Who needs them?” Wren agreed. “And . . . speaking of friends, where is Connor?”
Teressa gave her head a slow shake. “He hasn’t come in yet. And I know he is supposed to be here.” She nodded toward an empty chair near Garian.
Wren turned to look at the rowdy boys, some of whom were shooting bread pills across the table at the girls. Great examples of noble manners! She especially watched Garian, who didn’t look any better than his sister in bright scarlet satin. He was at the opposite end of the table, whispering with his four closest cronies. Wren recognized three of them: scrawny Nyl, always willing to do anything to gain Garian’s approval, barrel-shaped Perd, and curly-haired Marit. The last of their group was new. Wren would have remembered that tall, sharp- faced boy with the long black hair if she’d seen him before.
“Who’s that?” she whispered to Teressa. “Along with Garian’s shadow pals.”
“His name is Hawk,” Teressa whispered back. “A nobleman’s son from some foreign land.”
“He’s certainly picked the worst boys in court to make friends with.”
“Oh, Aunt Carlas thinks they’re the best,” Teressa re-turned. “She never stops telling me how brave and smart Garian is.”
Wren put her spoon down in disgust. “What? She’s still trying that matchmaking poofery?”
Teressa nodded. “Awful, isn’t it? I have to bite my tongue lest I tell her I’d rather marry a toad.”
Wren was about to protest how awful it was to be talking about marriage at their age, but then she remembered reading in the histories that some princesses were betrothed at ages even younger than Teressa was now. Stealing a glance at her, Wren was startled to realize that Teressa’s round face had started changing, showing contours that reminded her very much of Queen Astren. When Teressa gestured, pushing a lock of her long hair behind her, Wren saw that she was beginning to show a graceful figure as well. Teressa would be fourteen on her next birthday, and she was beginning to look fourteen.
And how old will I be? Wren thought, feeling distinctly queasy. When she’d been found, the orphanage had decided she was two, and that had been that. Supposedly, she was nearly thirteen—though she might in fact be any age. One thing for sure, whatever age I am, I don’t care at all for this talk of betrothals.
Thinking about Teressa had kept her mind off what awaited her at noon the next day—the Basics Test, the most important test for a beginning magic student, and there was nothing one could do to study for it now.
But her mind had returned to it, with a nasty jolt inside.
She turned her attention back to Teressa, who was looking around. “Connor is still not here,” Teressa murmured. “And I’m afraid that Uncle Fortian has noticed.”
Wren had forgotten all about the adults. Wondering how Teressa managed to keep her eye on everyone in the room, Wren sneaked a peek. The tall, haughty Duke at the King’s right hand frowning over in their direction. “I’ll wager Connor’s backstage with the players,” Wren whispered. “And has forgotten all about the time.”
Teressa sighed. “If I go to find him, then everyone will notice.”
“But I can go,” Wren said, rising. “And no one will think a thing about it. I have a question or two to put to him anyway.” She swallowed. “About tomorrow.”
As Wren slid from her seat, Teressa gave her a smile of gratitude. Sure enough, when Wren got to the door, she glanced back. Not one of the young aristocrats were paying her the least heed.
Ignoring a look from a supercilious servant at the door, Wren walked sedately to the end of the corridor, and as soon as she was out of sight, she started running. Pausing only once, to trip the latch of an old secret passageway that Teressa had shown her recently, she dashed down the narrow stairs, then skidded around a corner, through an archway, and out into the night air. Then, putting down her head, she ran her fastest toward the other end of the palace.
“Wren!” Connor exclaimed, staring in surprise at the small, round figure with the messy braids and the rumpled blue dress. “What are you doing here?”
“Came for you,” Wren said breathlessly. Wiping a hand over her shiny forehead, she cast an admiring look around, adding, “So this is what it’s like behind the stage? I’ve got to get back here soon. I love this!”
“What’s wrong?” But Connor knew as soon as the words were out. “My uncle?”
Wren nodded. “He noticed you weren’t at the dinner.”
She pruned her mouth and stuck her nose in the air, mimicking the haughty Duke.
Connor laughed, though inside he did not feel like laughing. For a time he had escaped to the world of the play and the players—but now the real world, and all its problems, was closing around him again.
“Tess sent me.”
The name ‘Tess’ caused a chilly feeling to grip Connor’s neck. “I suppose she was angry?”
Wren blinked. “Who?”
“Teressa,” Connor said. In actuality Teressa was his half-niece, but he didn’t feel like any kind of an uncle. He was not sure, in fact, that she really wanted an extra uncle—at least not a fifteen-year-old one who was always in trouble.
“Of course not,” Wren said—But then she would say that, Connor thought. Wren liked all her friends to get along.
“I’ll go back with you,” she added. “There’s going to be dancing. It will keep my mind off . . . things.”
Connor made his farewells to the players, and Wren watched, her light blue eyes taking in every detail of the costumes and props. Connor remembered his own excitement the first time he’d been permitted backstage. He wondered if Wren felt the same.
They went out into the cool night air, Wren twisting around backward to take one last view of the stage area. Then she batted her wide skirts straight and said briskly, “That’s another thing I’ll want to look into if I—if I, well, fail.”
“Fail?” Connor asked.
Wren grimaced. “Tomorrow is my Basics Test.” Connor had spent several years studying at Cantirmoor’s Magic School, so he knew what she faced. “Basics already?” he exclaimed. “You have learned fast. Most people take a couple of years just to reach that level. Took me four years to flunk it.”
Wren opened her mouth, then closed it again, giving him an uncertain look.
Connor could see her very plainly in the light of the torches on the high wall. “What were you going to ask?”
“Well,” she began, “when Tyron first told me about your Basics Test last year, it seemed really funny. He said you’d, uh—”
“Turned Master Sholl into a turtle.” Connor nodded. “You heard right.”
“But now that I know something about magic, that seems strange. For one thing, they only ask you to do illusions and demonstrate focus and control in the Basics Test. None of us are supposed to know how to really change anything, much less a person. And Tyron said it wasn’t just an illusion, but a real shape-change,” Wren asked. “How did you manage that?”
Connor shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “No one does. That’s why they finally threw me out—in the nicest way possible, you understand. And I don’t feel bad about it. Truth to tell, it was a relief. I was tired of being the oldest in any class and not being able to do anything right, tolerated only because of my birth. No matter how careful I was, the spells either did not work, or they went . . . sideways.”
“Well, after Master Sholl tested me on rules and basic spells, he asked for illusions. I was supposed to cast one over a stone. I decided to make it look like a turtle. So I did the spell, concentrated my hardest-and the stone disappeared.” Connor snapped his fingers. “And Master Sholl was crawling around on the sand, looking about as shocked as a turtle can look. Luckily Mistress Pellam had come along to observe, and she was able to restore him to his proper form. After she finished laughing,” Connor added wryly. “Anyway, I don’t think I could have restored him. And then I was too scared to try. Haven’t tried anything since, in fact.”
“So it really was a shape-change.” Wren gave a low whistle. “I sure don’t know what to make of that.”
“Well, neither did the teachers,” Connor said. “So a week later, I found myself a former student of magic. That was when I rode down to join you and Tyron on your quest to rescue Teressa from that rotter Andreus.”
“Glad you did, too,” Wren said, then looked around quickly. She lowered her voice. “Do you think your problems with magic are related somehow to your—talent?”
Connor shrugged, feeling uncomfortable as always when his ability to understand and communicate with birds and animals was mentioned. He, too, stole a look about, but there was no one in sight. “I don’t know,” he said. “Since I never told any of the teachers, I couldn’t ask them. I did ask about other people having the ability, though, and no one had heard of it.”
“But we don’t have many people descended from the Iyon Daiyin in this part of our world. That much I’ve found out in my own studies,” Wren said. “Those odd magical talents are supposedly more common in other lands. But you’d think a knack for learning magic would go along with such a magical talent.”
Connor shook his head. “It doesn’t. Not with me, anyway.”
“Tyron says—” She stopped.
Connor never did discover what it was that Tyron had told Wren. He looked up and was startled to see a tall figure silhouetted in the yellow light spilling from the doorway. “Uncle Fortian.”
Wren stayed silent, studying the Duke with an expression midway between fearful and wary.
“The Princess awaits you in the ballroom, Young Mistress,” Connor’s uncle said formally to Wren, ignoring Connor altogether.
“You don’t know how lucky you are to be an orphan,” Connor said under his breath.
Wren sketched a curtsy, then shot Connor a sympathetic look before moving past them.
“Come inside,” the Duke said shortly once Wren was gone. He turned around and led the way not toward the ballroom but up to the Rhismordiths’ splendid private apartments.
At least this jaw-down won’t be in public, Connor thought, following his uncle’s broad back up the stairs. The thought didn’t help much.
“Connor!” Aunt Carlas exclaimed as soon as they entered the parlor. She clapped one hand to her head and fell back on a couch in relief. “Thank goodness we will not have to send out a search party.”
Cannot bit his lip. He knew that his aunt’s worry was false, that she was more interested in creating a grand scene than in anything that might have happened to him, but he couldn’t say so.
His uncle turned a cold look on him. “I suppose you were dallying in the theater again?” His tone made it sound worse than throwing mud on the Queen’s favorite tapestry.
His aunt sighed, shading her eyes.
“There was always a hope,” his uncle drawled, “that you had disrupted our party and worried your aunt for a reason. The King might have sent you on an urgent errand, or perhaps you had fallen ill and could not move. But to disappear all evening without telling anyone, after what happened to the Princess last year . . . “ He spread his hands.
Annoyed, Connor burst out, “Andreus of Senna Lirwan is not about to kidnap me!” He promptly wished that he had not spoken.
His uncle lifted one of his brows and said with even heavier sarcasm, “You’ve received a message of assurance from the Sorcerer-King?”
An angry flush burned from Connor’s throat to the tips of his ears.
“It amazes me that you can be so certain of anything,” his uncle went on, taking a turn about the room. “You did not get along with your siblings in Siradayel, so you came here. Four years studying at the Magic School, and you failed at that, too. Your mother placed you here with me so that you could learn something of the duties and responsibilities facing someone of royal birth—but you cannot seem to manage that, either. Instead, you run off at every opportunity to tarry at the heels of ragtag actors and charlatans, who probably tolerate you only because of your exalted position in society.”
Connor clenched his jaw. At first, he knew, the players had allowed him in because of his “exalted” birth. But after a while he’d earned his own right to be there. Not that his uncle and aunt would look on being allowed to visit the players as any privilege. In their eyes, privilege went with money and power, not with art and craft.
“It doesn’t seem to me that he has learned anything,” his aunt said in a failing voice.
“I should hate to have to send you back to your mother in disgrace,” Uncle Fortian added.
Connor said nothing. He knew that anything he ventured would only make things worse; his uncle was capable of turning any words against him. He just had to wait until the Duke’s temper had abated, and until then try to stay out of his way.
Looking down at the beautiful carpet, he tried to study its pattern of leaves rather than listen to the biting voice list all the defects in his character. It was especially hard to have Garian held up as a good example after the business with the pea throwing at the theater—but Connor knew that Uncle Fortian could not see anything wrong with his own children.
“ . . . we’ll try again, for the last time,” the Duke said. Connor lifted his head, hearing the end of the lecture in his uncle’s voice. He wasn’t ready for what came next.
“For your own good, I must now forbid you ever to go near the theater or the actors again. The closest you may come is sitting with us to watch the performances—and I have misgivings even about that.”
Connor gasped. His uncle smiled thinly, obviously pleased with his reaction.
“You had better employ your time in the proper pursuits of a young gentleman,” the Duke said smoothly. “I do not know what your mother intends for you to do with your life, but when Queen Nerith does send for you, you will be prepared.” He made a gesture of dismissal.
Connor walked out, fighting against the sting in his eyes.
Wren whirled around the circle and skipped on to her last partner, breathless with laughter. She loved fast dances, especially the brannel, which allowed the dancers to add extra spins and steps.
As the dance finished, she looked across the circle at Teressa. The Princess moved with unhurried grace through the final steps, her auburn hair swinging smoothly against the back of her skirts. How does Teressa manage to stay so neat? Wren wondered, tucking another escaped lock of blond-and-brown-streaked hair behind her own ear. She’d always been that way, even when they were in Three Groves Orphanage.
Wren’s partner turned away, chattering with another girl, and Wren crossed the disintegrating circle toward Teressa.
“My uncle is back, but Connor isn’t,” Teressa whispered urgently as soon as Wren was near.
“Uh-oh,” Wren said. “Trouble, right?”
A faint frown creased Teressa’s brow, but she did not say anything. As the girls walked toward the refreshment table a knot of ladies broke off their conversation. With smiles and elegant bows to Teressa, they moved away. The Princess looked after them with a slightly troubled air.
“Why does Connor have to live with the Duke anyway?” Wren asked. “Why can’t he stay with Mistress Leila? She’s his sister. Well, half-sister. But that Duke Fortian is less related, right?”
Teressa gave her head a shake. “When Aunt Leila gave up being a princess of Siradayel in order to become a magician, supposedly she gave up her family, too. At least that’s the way the rest of the family sees it.”
Wren sighed, watching the tall Duke in close conversation with two other men on the other side of the ballroom. His long face wore an expression of disdain. It would be horrible to have him as a relative—not to mention Mirlee and Garian, she thought.
“Families . . . “ she said, feeling a kind of swooping inside.
She remembered her Basics Test the next day. After her test—pass or fail—she had important plans.
Teressa looked at her in concern as she sat down on a bench. “Have you really decided to try to find your family?”
Sinking down beside the Princess, Wren shook her head. “I know it’s useless and impossible, and it won’t matter a bit to who I am now, but still . . . every time people have birthdays, or mention their families . . . I feel something missing here.” She pressed her fist against her heart. “I can’t say why, but it matters. Everyone who says it doesn’t has a family already! So I’ve pretty much decided that after my Basics test, I’ll use my free time to make a trip to the border castle where I was first brought and see if there’s any trail to follow from there.”
Teressa smiled wistfully. “I wish I could go with you.”
“I wish you could, too,” Wren said, giving an emphatic nod. “Well, if I fail the Basics Test I’ll join a group of traveling players and seek adventure. Want to come with me?”
Teressa laughed. “After what happened last year, I think I’d just as soon hear about your adventures when you come back.”
“Well,” Wren said, stretching, “maybe adventure will come here and find us.”
Wren had meant her comment as a joke, but to her surprise Teressa seemed to have taken it seri0ksly. Almost on cue, her eyes searched the room again, and she looked—Wren thought—quite worried.
by Sherwood Smith
$1.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-104-7