King Soltran stared at the old healer, weariness etched into his features. "You can't be serious."
"I assure you, your majesty, I could never invent such a story. I have examined the slave boy myself, and…" the old man blushed to the roots of his silver hair. "Majesty, it's not a boy. The person lying in that room downstairs is unquestionably female."
The king rubbed his temples. "I'm sorry, my old friend. Of course I believe you. It's just been…" His sigh was heavy, and slightly choked. "It's been a very hard few days."
Sympathy shone from the old healer's eyes. "Of course, your majesty. The thoughts of the entire kingdom are with you and your family right now." He squeezed the king's shoulder with a withered hand.
News of the young Prince Daric's death had rocked Lysteria within hours of the chaotic events at the celebration banquet. Yet Soltran had not had a moment of rest or privacy in which to grieve; the assassin had disappeared without a trace, despite the best efforts of the general of the royal guard himself to track him down. It was as if the mysterious cloaked man had been absorbed right into the stone of the castle walls. The hunt continued, but they had precious little information to go on.
What they were certain of was that the assassin had two targets, both the crown prince and his twin sister. Daric had been killed, but the heroic and unexpected intervention of a young slave performer had saved the Princess Shasta's life. Now, the court was in general disarray, with rumors flying at every turn. Who was the assassin? Who sent him? What was his motive? And the slave who had saved the princess had become, instantly, a national hero, and a national curiosity.
But Soltran had more pressing issues. His chief focus now was Shasta, his one surviving child. He could not allow his grief over Daric's death to endanger his only remaining heir. With Daric gone, and the assassin's identity and whereabouts unknown, it was vital that the king remain vigilant and self-controlled. It was unknown whether another attempt on Shasta's life would be taken, or when. And on a more personal level, Soltran worried for his daughter's emotional state. Daric and Shasta had always been inseparable. It was as if they had shared the same soul at times. Shasta hadn't spoken a word since the banquet, isolating herself in her chambers. Nurse reported that the princess refused to eat. Soltran longed to go to her, to offer his daughter some consolation. Were they like any other family in the kingdom, at least they would have been able to support one another and grieve together through their loss. But they were not like any other family.
"Who else knows of this?" the king asked.
The healer shook his head. "Only my assistant, majesty. And I have given him orders to keep the matter perfectly secret. Apparently, the slave's own master believes her to be male. I wanted you to be the first to know."
The king nodded. Already, bards across the kingdom were composing anthems of tribute to the slave boy who had, through a spectacular feat of acrobatics, taken the dagger that was meant for the princess of Lysteria. Overnight Talon's name had become legend. Soltran could only imagine what a sensation it would cause when word got out that the princess' savior was, in fact, a girl disguised as a boy.
"This creates an entirely new set of problems, you realize." King Soltran rubbed his beard absentmindedly. "To dress against one's own sex is a crime in Lysteria for good reason; it clearly flies in the face of the gods. Now I must decide whether to have this slave put to death for her crime, or have her nationally honored for saving my daughter's life." His lips tightened. "What is her… condition, as of this moment?"
"She is stable, your majesty. We were able to remove the assassin's knife with little internal damage. The loss of blood was considerable, but she is still young and strong. I expect her to make a full recovery."
Soltran nodded. "Have her brought to me as soon as you feel she is able to endure an audience. Before I decide what to do with her, I want to speak with her myself." As the healer turned to leave, the king thought of something else. "And healer… do not tell anyone else what you have told me today. Until I have made up my mind, I want this whole matter to remain carefully guarded."
It was only a few weeks after the events at the celebration banquet that Talon was brought before King Soltran. She entered the king's private study, guided by the healer and a member of the royal guard. Her wound throbbed painfully, but she forced herself to stand upright, without meeting the king's eyes.
"Please, sit down." The king indicated a chair across from his large oak table. Talon obeyed. "Leave us," Soltran ordered, and the healer and guard both made low bows before exiting the room. Talon heard the heavy door close behind her, but kept her eyes fastened on the floor.
"Let me make just one thing very clear," Soltran began. "When I ask you a question, I expect that you will give me the utter truth, in its entirety. I have a very difficult decision to make, and I cannot do it without your help. Do you understand?"
Talon nodded, but kept her head down. Her mind was racing. She had no doubt that the healers had discovered the secret she'd hidden so carefully for so many years; when she'd awakened after the banquet, she'd been dressed in a fresh tunic and her wound had been cleaned. If the king did not order her put to death, it was certain that the showmaster would, once he found out… that is, if he didn't decide to sell her away to a pleasure house or worse. Talon rather hoped the king would decide to execute her. But then what would happen to Aleria and Brie?
The king was silent for a moment. "Tell me how long you have been a slave."
"Nearly seven winters, your majesty." Talon's voice was surprisingly low, ostensibly from years of masquerading as a male. She did not look up.
"So for seven winters, you have lived and dressed contrary to your gender, in complete defiance not only of your master, but of the laws of your kingdom, and against the will of the Goddess herself." Talon did not reply. "You will answer when I ask you a question."
Talon looked up then, her dark eyes unfathomable. "Yes."
Her cool reply was unexpected, and King Soltran's eyes narrowed. Either this girl was extremely brave, extremely arrogant or extremely foolish, to respond to him in such a way. "Are you aware that the penalty for such a crime against the Goddess is death?"
"Can you give me any good reason why I should not order your execution?"
"No." Something flickered in her eyes. "But I did save your daughter, didn't I?" The king inclined his head slightly. "So perhaps I have earned the right to request a favor."
There was something about the strength of the slave's gaze that Soltran could appreciate. "Issuing a decree of mercy to a criminal is quite a favor."
"I don't care about that." For the first time her voice contained a note of anxiety. "Execute me if you'd like, it makes no difference. But… my sisters, majesty. I'm all they have."
King Soltran stroked his beard thoughtfully. "So that's it." A smile played at the corner of his mouth. "Tell me honestly, girl, why did you throw yourself in the way of the assassin's blade?"
Talon's head dropped. "I thought it was going to hit Aleria."
"Your sister?" The slave girl nodded, and Soltran stood up from the table. For several long minutes he stood at the window, gazing down into the courtyard below.
Finally Talon could not stand the silence any longer. "Your majesty, it may not have been intentional, but it's still true that without me, your daughter would have been killed. I may be a slave and a criminal, but I took a knife in the stomach and that should count for something. Do whatever you want with me, but make sure Aleria and Brie are kept safe. That's all I'm asking."
It was all King Soltran could do to keep from laughing, and he kept his back to the girl so she would not see him struggling to maintain his composure. There were members of his own cabinet that did not have the brass to speak to him in such a way. By all rights he ought to have the girl beaten for her impudence, but he could not help admiring her courage; and an idea was beginning to form in his mind. "Tell me. How important are your sisters to you?"
"They're everything, majesty. I would die for them."
"Would you give up your life for them?" He turned back to face her, and Talon blinked in confusion. "No, I'm not being redundant, girl. It's not quite the same thing." Soltran returned to his seat, and leveled his gaze with her. "It's my turn to be truthful with you. The responsibilities of a king are heavy ones. Right now I have a hundred different problems hanging over my head, each one a top priority, each one with the potential to affect hundreds of lives. And yet all of them have been pushed aside, the past few weeks, because of recent events. My son is dead." His face flinched as he said the words, but he continued after only a slight pause. "However, thanks to you, my daughter remains alive. The Princess Shasta is the only hope, now, for Lysteria; she is the only heir to my throne. If I were to die without leaving an heir, the kingdom would fall into chaos. The provinces would never be able to agree on a successor, even if I were to declare one myself. Lysteria would fall into civil war not a moment after my death."
Talon watched the king's face closely. He seemed so tired, suddenly, and so old. But she didn't understand what any of this had to do with her.
"With Daric gone, protecting Shasta has become my primary concern. Whoever the assassin is, he obviously wanted to eliminate both of them. And it is very likely that he will try again. He must not be allowed to succeed. For the sake of Lysteria. And…" Soltran's voice shook, only slightly. "And on a more personal note… I have lost my wife, and my son. I will not lose my daughter as well. Like you, I would be willing to die for the ones I love. But I am king. I cannot abandon my duty to my country in order to stay by my daughter's side, protecting her. And I do not trust anyone, not even the greatest general in my armies, to protect her with the same passion that I would." He lifted an eyebrow, and Talon nodded to show that she understood.
"Here is the problem, then," the king continued. "I want to protect Shasta. You want to protect your sisters. But both of us are in positions that make it difficult. As king I cannot be with my daughter to watch over her. As slaves, you and your sisters are subject to the whims of your master. And as a criminal, well…" He did not need to finish the thought.
"So I have a proposal for you. I can arrange for you and your sisters to be released from your slavery. Your sisters will live here, in the palace, as companions to my daughter. I will see to it that they receive proper education and lessons in etiquette that befit ladies-in-waiting. Their every need will be cared for, as if they were my own daughters. And you will never need to worry for their safety again." Talon's eyes lit, but Soltran held up one hand.
"But there is a condition. I asked if you would be willing to give up your life for your sisters' safety, and that is exactly what I intend. In exchange for allowing your sisters to live here, and providing them with such luxury and education as I have described, you will agree to dedicate the rest of your life to my service… or more specifically, to the service of the princess. You will stand guard over Shasta as if she were also your sister. You will protect her life with your own. I will see to it that you are trained with the skills you will need to provide her adequate protection. You will learn the sword, the staff, the methods of hand-to-hand combat. And if you fail-if Shasta receives so much as a scratch while under your protection-it will be your sisters who will pay the price." The slave's dark eyes widened, and Soltran sighed. "I am not a cruel man, I hope you understand that. But I must ensure that Shasta is safe. Therefore, if the princess is wounded, your sisters will also suffer. And if Shasta is killed, it will cost your sisters' lives as well. I want you to think of Shasta's safety as equivalent to theirs. Do you understand?"
Talon nodded slowly.
"And one other thing. I may be King of Lysteria, but I am not so far removed from the realities of human nature that I do not understand the reasons for your-disguise." He gave a wry smile. "I know perfectly well how slavers treat their slave girls. Nasty business, slavery." Soltran grimaced. "Abomination or not, your appearance has undoubtedly saved your sisters' virtue, and even their lives. Now I wish you to extend that same protection to my daughter. Only those who have the need to know will be privy to your true gender. Everyone else must continue to believe that you are male. You may not marry, or bear children. You are not to have relations with men under any circumstances. It is vital to my daughter's safety. If I find that you have defied my orders, I will have no choice but to order your execution, and your sisters will be turned out of the palace in disgrace. You must be completely dedicated to the princess, for the rest of your life… or until she chooses to release you from your service."
Talon finally spoke, her tone determined. "If you keep your word, and Aleria and Brie are given all that you have said, I will gladly obey any command you give."
King Soltran nodded with satisfaction. "Very well. Guard!" The big door behind Talon opened immediately, and Soltran addressed the uniformed guard standing in the entrance. "Summon this slave's two sisters, and their master, at once. And send Nurse with an escort of guards to fetch Princess Shasta from her chambers, and tell Captain Vaughn his presence is required. We will all convene in the great hall." The man at the door saluted.
The showmaster was less than pleased to hear that his two star performers were to be taken from him, but no amount of protesting on his part could change Soltran's mind. One of the royal footmen handed the greedy man a small bag of coins, which the showmaster inspected immediately. His face darkened. "But your majesty, the girls are worth twice this much, and the boy… he's a national hero!"
"Which is why I am rewarding his bravery with a position among my household," Soltran replied coolly. "And out of gratitude to you for bringing the boy here in the first place, I am not removing all three from your possession without compensation. You will find that the amount you have received is fair market price for slaves of their age and experience." His dark eyes dared the showmaster to contradict him; Soltran knew full well that the young girls were probably still virgins thanks to Talon's close supervision, and that undoubtedly the showmaster had been expecting to make a huge profit from the eventual sale of their virtue. Slavery had always been a disgusting practice, one he'd been hoping to abolish from his kingdom during his reign. Though he had so far been unable to accomplish that goal, he took some small pleasure in rescuing innocent lives from such a man.
The showmaster's face was flushed with anger, but he did not argue with the king. Soltran dismissed him with a wave of the hand, and the disgruntled man was escorted out of the hall. Talon watched him go with elation in her heart, and tightened her arms around her sisters. They were free of him. Finally, they were free. The newly-formed scar above her hip throbbed, and she had to grin to herself. Pain had never been more worth the reward; she would gladly take a hundred more such dagger wounds for this moment of victory.
Soltran turned his eyes to the princess, who was standing silently with Nurse. Shasta's head was down, her face obscured by a dark veil. She was standing too quietly, too still, not at all like her usual self, and the sight tugged painfully at his heart. He looked over at the three slaves he'd just freed, the two smaller girls clinging uncertainly to their androgynous older sister. The fire in Talon's eyes as she'd watched her former master leave the room was unmistakable, and Soltran knew that if she applied that protective instinct to his daughter, Shasta wouldn't be safer with anyone in the kingdom. Soltran raised his hands and addressed the room.
"Before I make this announcement to the general assembly, I want all of you to know my intentions for these three." He indicated Talon and her sisters with a wave of his hand. "As you all know, the slave known as Talon risked his life to save the life of the Princess Shasta. As a reward I have released him and his sisters from their slavery; and I have offered Talon a special place among my royal guard. Beginning today, Talon will assume the training and duties necessary to serve as the Princess Shasta's personal bodyguard. Captain Vaughn." The uniformed man saluted and bowed, the rows of gold medals pinned to his chest glittering with every movement. "As the captain of the Lysterian royal guard, I am entrusting the boy's training to you personally."
"Yes, your Majesty." The man straightened and shot a look over at the wiry acrobat. The kid didn't look like much. Vaughn could think of a hundred soldiers in the guard who would make better bodyguards for the Princess, and couldn't imagine what the king might be thinking. What could this skinny kid have that a fully grown and battle trained soldier didn't? But Soltran was no fool, and he had to have his reasons.
"The girls." King Soltran blinked for a moment. "What were their names, again?"
Neither of them looked up from the floor, so Talon replied. "Aleria and Brie, your Majesty."
Soltran nodded. "Yes, Aleria and Brie. Step forward, please."
Talon shook them off gently, nudging them towards the king, and though they let go of their sister, Aleria instinctively reached out and clung to Brie's hand. The king smiled down kindly at them, but they would not look up to meet his eyes.
"I intend for you two girls to also attend the princess, though in a different way. You shall receive the education and grooming befitting of young ladies-in-waiting, and become Princess Shasta's companions. I expect that you will learn to conduct yourselves as ladies of the court; and if you work diligently I am sure you will both have very happy lives here, and opportunities beyond anything you might have imagined for yourselves. I am assigning your care over to Nurse." Soltran nodded in the direction of the elderly white-robed woman standing next to the princess. "You are to obey her in everything, and listen well to what she teaches. She's often boasted that she could turn a slave wench into a duchess with the proper training, and I am giving her the opportunity to make good on that boast." There was a mischievous twinkle in the king's eye as he said this, and he glanced at his daughter. Normally Shasta never passed up the chance to tease Nurse, but she remained still under her heavy veil, and Soltran's amusement faded. He sighed, inwardly promising himself that the next available moment would be dedicated to spending some quality time alone with his grieving daughter.
"Guards, escort Princess Shasta to her chambers for now. There is something important I must discuss with Nurse and the Captain."
The veiled princess gave a slight bow and left the room without protest, a uniformed guard flanking her on either side. Soltran watched her go for a moment before turning back to his remaining audience. "What I am about to say is not to leave this room. My daughter's safety may depend on it." He paused to allow the words to sink in before continuing. "Nurse, Captain Vaughn, the two of you will be working closely with Talon and so it is necessary to entrust this secret with you." Soltran scratched his beard bemusedly and chuckled. "To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure exactly how to say it…"
"I'm a girl." Talon's interruption was almost more shocking than the statement itself. Even her sisters stared at her in disbelief.
Brie's mouth dropped open. "Talon, what are you doing? You said to never-"
The older girl squeezed her shoulder. "It's okay, the king already knows."
Nurse was eyeing Talon up and down with distaste, clucking her tongue. "A girl? Sorriest excuse for a girl I've ever seen," she quipped dryly. "And dreadful manners, to boot."
"Your Majesty, with all due respect…" Captain Vaughn began, but King Soltran held up a hand and grinned.
"You want to know what in Irythria's name I'm thinking?" Soltran waggled his eyebrows and clapped Vaughn on the shoulder. "I haven't lost my mind, old friend. Talon here has already demonstrated an ability to think fast, move quickly and risk everything for the princess' sake." Talon's eyes widened and she stared at the king. He knew full well that she hadn't been thinking of the princess at all when she threw herself in the way of the assassin's knife. Soltran met her surprised gaze. "And I have every confidence that Talon will protect my daughter as if Shasta were her own sister." Talon swallowed, and then nodded in understanding. Soltran gave a nearly imperceptible wink before continuing. "But there is another reason why I have chosen her, specifically. The rest of the kingdom, and indeed everyone else in the castle, must continue to believe that Talon is a young man. But I want Shasta to have a guard who can follow her everywhere, be by her side literally every moment of the day. I would never trust a man with my daughter in such a way, but Talon-Talon will share Shasta's room, sleep at her bedside, ensure her safety at all times. "
Nurse coughed, and her eyes nearly bulged out of her head. "Your Majesty, that's entirely unacceptable. Surely an adjacent room-"
"It's not enough." Soltran shook his head. "My son was murdered in front of the entire court, and yet his assassin disappeared without a trace. Such a man frightens me. It's not enough to post guards outside the princess' doors, or even to have a bodyguard sleeping in an adjacent room. If that were sufficient I would have chosen members of the royal guard for this task. But it's not enough." The king's tone was determined. "I need someone to protect Shasta all the time, not just when she emerges from her chambers. Whoever this assassin is, he's familiar enough with the castle to slip in and out undetected and unseen. I want someone at Shasta's bedside. And I do not trust any soldier, no matter how honorable, with such a delicate position."
Nurse shook her head. "Majesty, even if Talon is a young woman, you said yourself you want the rest of the castle to believe otherwise. What will the court think? It would be scandalous!"
King Soltran lifted an eyebrow. "Anyone who so much as whispers a word against my daughter will have me to deal with."
Now the old woman's eyes narrowed and took on a fire that Soltran was all too familiar with. "Soltran of Lysteria, be reasonable and think of the Princess' feelings in this. Her chambers are her private space, where she dresses, bathes, and…" she lifted an eyebrow, "attends to personal and feminine matters." Soltran's cheeks reddened a bit, and so did Talon's. "Even if this… person you've picked out…" Nurse eyed Talon suspiciously, "is a young woman, the princess doesn't know that. She would be humiliated. To deny her privacy violates simple human decency. And no matter how you try, there will be gossip. Wagging tongues are not easily stilled."
Soltran cleared his throat a bit awkwardly, and Talon thought with amusement that the king suddenly looked like a guilty little boy being scolded by his mother. Still, it didn't seem likely that the king was going to change his mind. "Yes, well… I suppose Shasta should have some space to herself." He rubbed his beard. "Very well. I shall have a small room built in her chambers. No windows. Only one door. Talon will inspect the room before each time Shasta enters it, and stand guard at the door so long as she remains inside. She may use the room for any… private matters she needs to attend to. For that matter, Talon will also make use of the room when necessary, to protect her own secret." Soltran nodded slowly. "Yes. That should quiet some of the gossip as well."
Nurse was still shaking her head in disapproval, but she knew that this small compromise was the most she would be able to get from the king once he had set his mind to something. "Well, Majesty, if your mind is made up, then you may inform Shasta of your decision yourself. I wash my hands of it."
Soltran chuckled. "Never fear, Nurse, I will handle Princess Shasta in this matter."
"Majesty, don't you think someone ought to tell the princess?"
Everyone in the room turned to look at Talon, and Captain Vaughn grunted in disapproval. "The first thing you're going to learn, boy," he emphasized the last word with deliberate irony, "is that you do not speak in the king's presence unless spoken to."
Talon met the king's eyes as Soltran arched an eyebrow at her. She dropped her head, and nodded. "My apologies, Majesty."
Soltran cleared his throat to disguise a chuckle. "Yes, well… I will answer your question regardless. No, I do not wish Shasta to know anything more than what is absolutely necessary. It might make her a bit uncomfortable, but… Well, my daughter still has much to learn about the art of keeping secrets."
Talon nodded again, keeping her eyes on the floor.
"Well, now that this is all settled…" King Soltran rubbed his hands together. "Nurse, have Shasta brought to my study. I will speak with her privately. Have chambers prepared for Lady Aleria and Lady Brie. See to it that they are…" He eyed the slave girls' ragged dresses with distaste, "cleaned up and properly attired. Captain Vaughn, take Talon here down to the barracks. Have her outfitted like one of the guard. Her training begins today… this very minute, in fact. And send for my groundskeeper. I wish construction of the princess' privy chamber to begin at once." The king raised his hand, and the room was dismissed.
As Talon followed the captain out of the hall and through the corridors, she pinched herself hard on the inside of her elbow. This was real. It wasn't a dream. Her life was truly about to change, entirely. And no matter what the future had to bring, Talon was certain that this was her chance; she promised herself at that moment to work harder than she'd ever worked in her life, to learn everything that they could teach her, and to fulfill her new duties beyond anyone's expectations. She was in the palace of Lysteria. Her sisters were to be brought up and educated like noblewomen. Three slaves from a tiny outlander village had suddenly been given positions of honor in the household of a king. Talon had never dared to dream of such an opportunity, and she was determined not to squander it. With the training and connections she was sure to establish here, it would only be a matter of time. She would build strength, gather intelligence, form alliances wherever she could; and one day she would be ready. On that day, the slavers who had taken her village seven winters ago would rue the day they were born. Everyone who had ever caused pain to herself or her sisters, those who had murdered her parents, those who had beaten and starved them and treated them like dogs in the street… one day they would all pay for their crimes. Talon would make sure of it. A slow, smug grin spread across her features as she followed the captain across the empty courtyard towards the guard barracks.
Return to the Academy