Aeris Delaya is a woman living, literally, in a man’s world. The words mother, daughter and sister are considered obscenities in Alyria, where women are forced to wear concealing cloaks called follyblankets to keep them from the sight of men. Aeris isn’t the only girlchild being raised as male, but when she catches the attention of Prince Regent Daelyn Avigdor, the game she’s been playing her entire life suddenly becomes that much more dangerous. Brought to the White Palace to serve as the Prince Regent’s fetchencarry, Aeris finds herself caught in a world of luxury and intrigue — companion to a prince yet constantly afraid of being discovered as female. When rumblings of revolt against those who insist on keeping women subjugated begin to rock Alyria, Aeris’s loyalty to her prince is tested. Soon enough, the entire country is at war — and Aeris learns she’s not the only one with secrets.
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War is not a woman’s game. And yet, to save their children and those they love, they will play it. Men might plan and scheme and strategize, but those are skills they must learn. In women they are instinctive, inherent…and inexorable.
I wasn’t thinking of war the day I became Daelyn Avigdor’s fetchencarry. I was thinking of my cramping belly and aching head. I passed off the illness as too much green joba melon for dinner the night before, but when my symptoms grew worse instead of better, I knew my gut wasn’t protesting my overindulgence. Before the sun had climbed halfway across the sky I felt sick enough to face my uncle’s wrath and close the joba stand early.
I’d just put my hand to the ropes that would lower the stand’s curtains when Prince Regent Daelyn Avigdor and his friends entered the marketplace. I froze, staring. They stole my breath with their fine-cut silks and feathers and lace, their gleaming swords and flowing, unbound hair.
I’d seen them before, the fine young lords. They came often to the marketplace to buy luxuries I couldn’t afford. They were everything I dreamed of being. They were rich, they were beautiful, they were strong and privileged and joyful…but most importantly, they were men.
At the age of ten and eight, my hair flowed to my waist just like a man’s. My arms and legs were muscled like a man’s from lifting and sorting the dense joba melon and carrying crates and packages. I pissed standing up like a man, I worked like a man, I wore a man’s clothes. But I wasn’t a man, merely a girlchild playing a dangerous game I hadn’t chosen for myself.
My mother wasn’t the first desperate woman to raise a daughter as a son. She’d taught me to bind my breasts and take care of my monthly flow, but she’d also dressed me in boy’s clothes, given me a lad’s name, and kept my hair long. I’d seen enough public floggings to know the price we’d both pay if I were discovered.
I would never be a man, but if I could be, I wanted to be one like Prince Daelyn. Slight, but with a height created by vast, platformed shoes rather than length of leg, he carried himself without faltering even when a toe encountered a rolling pebble or an uneven patch of ground. His circlet, engraved but without other ornamentation, held tightly bound braids the color of sunset, orange and amber and shimmering gold, on the sides of his head while the rest of his hair fell in loose waves to brush his upper thighs. He wore a doublet of brilliant blue, with a loose white undershirt beneath creating the effect of a summer sky strewn with clouds. His wore breeches of tight sateen in the same blue, gartered at the knee and extravagantly padded in the codpiece, sheer white stockings with a seam down the back of his calf, and shoes to match. He carried a pair of simple white gloves in one hand, and in the other, a carved wooden walking stick topped with a glittering globe the size of my fist.
I was heartsick with adoration.
As he passed, laughing, I cast my eyes down at the lines of joba melon piled on the counter. I tidied the smooth purple globes with shaking hands, suddenly aware the pain in my gut had grown much worse. I pressed my fingers against my stomach, uncertain if I was going to vomit or faint. My head spun. The place between my legs, the place I tried to ignore as best I could, ached so sharply I shifted my legs to try and relieve it.
“Here, lad. How much for one of those jobas?”
The man speaking to me had been standing by Prince Daelyn’s side only moments before. Now he stared at me with narrowed dark eyes. His ebony hair had been braided tightly back from his head into a thick cable that fell over one shoulder. His tunic of deep midnight blue carried the Prince Regent’s crest, but I didn’t need to see the gold-embroidered emblem to know him.
Lord Lir Akean.The Prince Regent’s Fight Master. I’d watched him many times when he visited the marketplace, envying him his skill and his closeness to our beautiful prince. He cocked his head to stare at me, and I looked away.
“An arro apiece, my lord. Unless of course, the prince would like his friends to enjoy them for free.”
“No, lad, I’ll take three and pay the price. Are they ripe?”
My throat convulsed at the thought of last night’s meal. “These are, aye.”
He bent closer, and the breeze carried the scent of him to me. “You look a mite pale. Are you all right?”
“Fine. Take your pick.” I waved a hand at the pile.
“Those things again? Don’t you ever tire of that fruit?” Prince Daelyn had left his group watching a man make a monki dance on the end of a rope.
Even with his high shoes on, he only came to Akean’s chin. The prince put a possessive hand on Akean’s shoulder and nudged him with his hip. “Two more for me, laddie.”
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. As I passed the fruit to the prince, his fingers brushed mine. I looked up involuntarily, and his gaze snared me like a rabbit in a trap.
“Well, well.” His lush mouth curved into a grin as he tilted his head to stare me up and down. “I see why you stopped here, Lir.”
Heat burned my cheeks, and I couldn’t meet his gaze. They laughed, and the sound sent another rush of fire to my face. I waited miserably until they’d left my stand before I dared look up to stare after them.
A movement from the corner of my eye caught my attention. A hand slipped under the stand’s side wall and grabbed at the box of cash I’d taken in that day.
Fruit I could stand to lose, but not the coin. “Stop, thief!”
The hand, clutching its clinking prize, withdrew and a figure took off into the crowd. Without thinking, I jumped over the counter and ran after it. I’d been distracted by the prince and his handsome friend, but that excuse would earn me a pair of boxed ears and worse unless I could catch the culprit and get the money back.
I jumped a pile of baskets heaped with cloth and ribbon, darted around the man with the monki, and grabbed at the back of the thief’s cloak. It tore in my fingers, the material ragged and full of holes. I grabbed again, determined, and yanked the thief backward.
The man turned, fist full of coins. His pale eyes darted back and forth, set deep in purpled sockets above pink-spotted cheeks. I recognized his lank hair, his chalky complexion. An addict, stealing to pay for the oblivion his body could no longer live without.
For a moment, pity nearly made me let him go. Then I thought of my uncle’s fists, and how he’d not hesitate to use them on me if he discovered I hadn’t tried to get back his profits. Worse, how he’d take out his rage on my mother. I jumped toward the man.
His lip curled, revealing stained and rotting teeth and assumed a fighting stance. My heart sank, just a little. Addict he might be, but clearly a trained fighter. I wasn’t.
I gave it my best effort, anyway, and managed to get in the first hit. The man, more than a head taller than I and much heavier, didn’t even rock with the blow. With a quick jab, a one-two punch, he got my gut and my chin. I fell backward but was able to keep my feet.
A crowd had gathered to watch us, but I couldn’t care. That he’d stolen but a few arros only didn’t matter. My uncle would have my hide for the loss of a single coin, much less three or four. We came together again, but he fought without rules and with an addict’s lack of concern for pain. His foot caught my side, and I stumbled again. I forced myself upright and swung. I missed.
“Sinder’s Balls,” the thief muttered, his gaze caught by something over my shoulder. He took off running. Without bothering to see what had spooked him, I followed.
Most of the crowd had scattered out of our way, but now one figure loomed ahead of us. Stooped and covered in the dark full-length veil called the kedalya, the folly turned to face us just as the thief put on an extra burst of speed.
“Look out!” I cried in warning, but the old woman couldn’t move out of the way fast enough.
The thief ran right over her. I heard the snap of bones breaking and her agonized cry. She fell, kedalya flying upward to expose her bare ankles and shins to the sound of a horrified gasp from the watching crowd.
I bent over her. Behind the small mesh slit in her veil, her eyes darted back and forth, wet with tears. A low keen came from her throat. I helped her to sit. She cradled her left arm with her right and winced when I tried to touch it.
“Someone find a medicus.” When nobody seemed to be obeying, Prince Daelyn snapped the order again, and added a disgusted glare. “Now!”
The crowd broke. A man, his tunic shabby and out of fashion but clean, pushed his way through and knelt next to the folly in my arms. “What happened to her?”
“Is she yours?” the prince asked.
The man nodded, face working. He pulled her from my grasp and cradled her against him. “Who did this to her? Did you do this? I demand restitution!”
His glare caught me off guard. Before I could answer, Akean spoke for me.
“It was an older man. A thief. This lad could’ve caught him, but he stopped to help your woman instead. You should be thanking him.”
In Alyria, the words mother, daughter and sister were considered obscene. The word woman was almost as bad, not fit for polite company. A curse. Many in the crowd muttered and cast him odd glances, but Lord Akean didn’t appear to notice.
He pulled a few coins from his waistpurse and tossed them at the man. “Here. Use this to pay the healer’s bill.”
The other man caught the coins and got to his feet with his folly. “Thank you, my lord!”
“See you use it for her, not to line your pockets,” snapped Akean.
The prince laughed. “Calm yourself, Lir. You’re making a scene.”
Akean looked around, perhaps just then noticing the curious looks his outburst had earned him. He shrugged and offered me a hand up. As I got to my feet, the pains in my stomach leaped to life again. Suddenly, I no longer wondered if I were going to puke or faint; I knew I was.
Without another word, I turned and fled toward the back of my stand so as not to insult the prince and his consort with my illness. The awning provided some shade, but not much privacy. I bent over a bucket, heaving, while my guts ripped inside me.
“Lir, what did you do to the boy?”
“Here, lad. Have a drink of this.”
A smooth, cool hand touched my cheek. Prince Daelyn knelt next to me in the dirt, heedless of the damage being done to his clothes. Akean handed me a flask of something I tried in vain to refuse, but he poured a draught into my open mouth. I sputtered and choked, then pitched onto my hands and knees. My arm struck the prince’s leg and made him topple.
We sprawled together in the marketplace refuse. I took the brunt of the fall. The prince landed with his hands on my chest. He pulled away and gave me his hand to help me sit. I hung my head, waiting for the blow to fall. It never came.
“You fight well,” said Akean from the prince’s side. “For someone with no training.”
Prince Daelyn looked up at him, then thoughtfully at me. His smooth hand reached out to touch my cheek, swelling from one of the thief’s blows. “Was it worth the cost of a few melons?”
I got to my feet. “My uncle would’ve beat me worse than this if he found out I’d been robbed and didn’t try to get it back.”
“Would he?” Prince Daelyn got to his feet as well. Though I wore flat-heeled boots in contrast to his high heels, he only met me eye to eye. “How barbaric.”
I thought of my uncle Akadar, in whose house I’d been raised but whose son I’d never been. “He has the right, my lord.”
He snorted. “Having the right doesn’t make it right.”
Though the rest of the vendors had gone back to their stands with no more than a few curious looks toward us, the others in Prince Daelyn’s party gathered around. I brushed at the dirt off my clothes, self-conscious of my worn tunic and trousers compared to their finery.
“I was just telling Penryn I plan to host a gaming luncheon,” spoke up one young lord. “My prince, will you join us?”
The prince glanced over at his companion. “Not today, Vermonte. You and the others go on ahead.” His attention swiveled back to me. “I’ll be along later.”
Vermonte made a sweeping bow, one leg extended in front of him. His eyes found me, and in his gaze I saw everything I lacked. He raised one elegant brow, but made no negative comment on the prince’s decision. “As you wish. Will I see you anon, then?”
Daelyn waved his hand without looking at Vermonte. “Perhaps.”
That answer didn’t seem to please the young lord, but he gathered his comrades and left anyway. The Prince Regent and his Fight Master stayed. Akean leaned against my stand and ate a joba melon while the juice ran down his chin, but the prince studied me so carefully I thought I might melt with embarrassment and anxiety.
“You’d have caught that thief, if you hadn’t stopped to help that folly,” Prince Daelyn said.
“Yes, my lord.”
“Why did you stop to help? Most men would’ve passed her by and allowed the man of her house to help her.”
I stammered a vague answer that didn’t suit him, for the prince bent closer to me and took my chin into his hand. He turned my face until my eyes were forced to meet his, and he stared at me so long I lost myself in the vivid blue depths of his glare.
“I’m in need of a new fetchencarry,” he said. “A lad who’s strong and not afraid of hard work. And brave. And I’m in particular need of one who is…. different. I’d like you.”