It was the sneeze that killed her. Well, technically, it was the perfume of the next girl in line that tickled her nose, which in turn caused her to sneeze, and let loose the Light from her fingertips. But it was much simpler to say she was dead because of the sneeze.
In the split second between knowing that she was going to sneeze and sneezing, Maren managed to draw her handkerchief out of her left pocket and bring it to her nose. (Her former governess would have been pleased that she managed to maintain at least some aspects of her ladylike visage.) But it was her right hand, mostly hidden in her skirts, that gave her away.
As she sneezed, her concentration slipped and the Light that had been so carefully contained within her surged. For just half a heartbeat, she felt the telltale warmth in her fingertips and though she could not see it, she knew they glowed.
In the next moment, she restored her concentration and hid the Light once more, but she knew it was too late; she was dead.
She had imagined this moment many times before. They would arrest her immediately, of course. If she were very lucky, they would execute her quickly. More likely she would be tortured and then executed, probably slowly. The only thing she could still hope for was that they would not harm her parents.
The younger prince had been surveying one of the women at the other end of the line. Just after Maren sneezed, Prince Kieran froze and cocked his head like a wolf who had caught the scent of his prey in the air.
Maren’s heart seemed to stop. The Prince knew; he had sensed her.
She closed her eyes as the younger prince turned and began to move towards her end of the line. She focused on not hyperventilating and hoping against hope that she was mistaken about the Prince's intentions.
“Her!” A voice boomed from the front of the hall.
Maren looked up to see the older prince, Prince Donavan, striding towards her end of the line. She was surprised; she had heard that Prince Donovan did not participate in the Selection. But perhaps it would distract his younger brother just enough to forget about her.
“I want her,” Prince Donovan declared, pointing—Maren realized, bewildered—at herself.
Prince Kieran narrowed his eyes at his older brother, clearly annoyed at his choice. However, he remained silent.
“My lady,” Prince Donovan said, bowing his head slightly to Maren. “Would you do me the honor of joining my household?”
Maren was frozen. For a fraction of a moment, she imagined what would happen if she said ‘no,’ but knew that the Prince’s question was only rhetorical.
Her hands trembling, she curtsied, her eyes on the floor. Quietly, her voice hardly louder than a whisper, she said the words she had been instructed to say, “The honor would be mine, Your Highness.”
The Prince nodded at her again and then motioned to a servant standing at the edge of the hall. She came forward to Maren.
“My lady, please come with me,” she said quietly.
Trembling, Maren followed her out of the hall.
It was her first Selection, even though at twenty-five, it would have been her final year of eligibility. Every year prior, her parents had paid the tax instead. This year, however, the tax had increased and Maren convinced them not to pay. After all, it was the last year they would have to worry about it—and at her age, what was the chance of getting chosen?
She knew that some women would be dripping with jewels and wearing revealing gowns, hoping to be Selected. After all, it was a fantastic opportunity to build a relationship with the royal family.
Maren, on the other hand, worked carefully to ensure that she looked appropriate for the occasion but unremarkable—not too pretty and not too plain. She had dressed simply, in a light blue dress with full skirts that brushed the floor as she walked. The bodice was fitted with elbow-length sleeves and a fashionable, but not too revealing, décolletage. She wore the gold necklace that used to belong to her grandmother and the pearl earrings that her mother insisted she wear “for luck” but no other jewels. Her dark hair was in a simple braid. She was confident she would avoid notice.
The Selection had been happening for nearly as long as the Kingdom of Malen had existed. Each year, the nobility of the kingdom sent their unmarried daughters of “appropriate age” to the Capital to appear before the adult male members of the royal family. If the king or prince or other royal chose, he could invite one of the young women to join his household for up to a year. “Joining the household,” of course, being a polite euphemism for “becoming his mistress.”
Although it had long been customary, the Selection had been mandated by law for less than a hundred years. King Tynan III, the present king’s grandfather, issued an edict codifying the Selection. Although custom had long held that a young woman would only be obligated to be a member of the royal “household” for one year, Tynan had become particularly fond of his mistress and decided to keep her. This might not have been a significant issue, except that he was already married. Her father and his allies protested, refusing to send their taxes unless the king gave up the woman. In the subsequent negotiations, the rules of the Selection were codified. The “appropriate age” was between eighteen and twenty-five and the young woman was to be married to a “suitable gentleman” following no more than one year in the royal household. Noble families were also given the option of paying a tax instead of sending their daughters to appear at Court.
Although there was occasionally some grumbling about doing away with the Selection, most noblemen benefited too much from having the system to be overly bothered by it. Their daughters might be chosen, but then the family would curry some favor with the king and perhaps get better lands or an increase in the title. At the end of the year, the daughter would have a better match than they would have been able to make thanks to the Crown’s supplemental dowry. If the noblemen had sons instead of daughters, those sons might get to marry the former members of the royal household, which of course came with that dowry and usually more royal favor.
Maren had to admit, her parents probably would have sent her to the Selection had it not been so dangerous for her to even set foot in the Capital. The tax was high, and the family estate was relatively modest. But that year, when she was twenty-five, they had risked it. Paying the tax would have meant cutting wages for the staff, and Maren could not in good conscience let that happen. Her father thought about refusing to pay the tax or send her to the Capital, but Maren had argued that that would draw too much attention to the family. Better to go quietly and avoid notice.
Unfortunately, she had completely failed at the “avoiding notice” part of the plan.
The servant led her from the hall where the Selection had been held through the maze-like palace in silence. Maren knew that the servant would only speak to her, a noble lady, if she spoke first. Maren was normally always careful to exchange pleasantries with any household staff she encountered, but in this instance, she preferred silence. She was trying very hard not to think about where she was.
They crossed a large and airy courtyard and entered what Maren knew had to be the residential wing of the palace. After walking through yet another long and plushly carpeted corridor, they reached a set of wooden double doors. The servant opened the doors and Maren followed her.
The room was lavish by any definition. Plush carpets covered the glossy marble floor. The walls were lined with rich—and expensive—wood paneling. Ornate velvet couches and sofas were arranged around a smaller and equally ornate, low wooden table.
“Please, have a seat, my lady,” the maid said, and then bustled out of the room.
Maren silently sat on the nearest sofa. As a distraction, she studied it intensely. It was expensive, with deep red velvet upholstery and an elaborately engraved and gilded frame. But it was actually rather tacky and not terribly comfortable.
“Who in the name of the gods are you?”
An older woman had entered the room. She was dressed in a crisp and clean servant’s uniform. Her grey hair was pulled into a neat bun, and her eyes were sharp behind wire-rimmed glasses. She raised her eyebrow as she surveyed Maren.
“Oh, there you are, ma’am.”
The first servant who had escorted her from the Great Hall had returned.
“This is, Lady—ah -“ she turned to Maren, “I am terribly sorry, my lady, I don’t believe I got your name.”
Falling back on the comfortable cloak of courtly manners, Maren rose and nodded to the women. “Lady Maren Casteris.”
The other two women curtsied to her.
“My apologies, my lady, but I suppose a better question would be, why are you here?” the older woman asked.
“Ah, I brought her here, ma’am, from the hall…” the younger maid said. “He choseher,” she added when it was clear the older woman still did not understand.
“He what?” the older woman asked incredulously. “I had no idea he-“
“Oh, my lady, my apologies,” she said, suddenly remembering Maren was there.
Maren didn’t mind. She had sat back down on the sofa and had resumed studying it while the other women talked.
“I am Mrs. Whitley, and I am Prince Donovan's chief housekeeper. And this,” she said gesturing at the younger maid, “is Lucy, one of my assistants.”
Maren, barely remembering her manners, looked up only to nod in silent acknowledgment.
Ms. Whitley continued, “Ah, this is the Prince’s apartment, of course. He has private rooms just through that hall and…ah…we have guest quarters over here, and you shall have your own suite, of course. Oh Lucy, do see that the Green Suite is prepared for the lady, please.”
Lucy nodded and ran off, presumably to assess the status of the “Green Suite.”
Maren remained sitting, now staring at her hands in her lap. Her emotions felt dangerously close to the surface, and she worried if she tried to speak or move she would lose control entirely. The last thing she needed was to set the Prince’s quarters on fire.
Mrs. Whitley had continued talking to her, “- and your suite will have its own washroom and sitting room. Oh, did you bring your own maid, my lady?”
“What….oh, no, but I’m sure I’ll manage fine without one,” Maren answered absentmindedly. Her own maid? How ridiculous. Her mother, the countess, had a maid who would help Maren on the very rare occasion she required assistance dressing. But someone just to help her? Why did she need that?
“Hmmmmm,” Mrs. Whitley said. “I shall assign Lucy to you, she can assist you with anything you need in the way of attire or hairdressing.”
“But I don’t need -“ Maren protested.
“My lady, you are at Court now,” Mrs. Whitley said firmly, obviously certain that that was all the argument she needed.
Maren nodded, too distraught to argue. She felt rather like a rabbit trapped in a snare, knowing that the hunter was not far off.
Mrs. Whitley seemed to recognize that Maren was in no mood for conversation.
“Well, I’ll go fetch some tea, shall I?” Mrs. Whitley said and swept out of the room.
Maren was grateful for the momentary solitude. She had never been in so much danger in her entire life, and that was saying something. Not only that, but her fear threatened to be her undoing. Somehow it appeared she had escaped immediate arrest, but if she let the Light slip again, she’d be dead for sure.
"Nice choice, brother."
The Selection had just ended. The two girls who were chosen had been ushered away, and the rest of them were filing out of the hall in various states of relief and disappointment. Donovan and Kieran were both standing in the hall apart from the crowd, watching the various nobles flock to the thrones for the chance of a word with the King.
Donovan glanced side-long at his brother, but ignored him. Kieran was trying to bait him.
"But I thought you didn't approve of the Selection. It's been, what, five years since you last participated?" Kieran continued.
It had actually been seven, but Donovan could not be bothered to correct him.
"The notion struck me this year," Donovan said, consciously maintaining an air of nonchalance.
"Did it now?" Kieran asked, his eyes narrowing slightly. "Just happened to see something you wanted?"
"Indeed," Donovan said. "Well, if you'll excuse me." He nodded at his brother and turned away.
"I do hope she keeps your bed warm!" Kieran called as he was leaving the hall.
Donovan stalked off to his apartment, feeling extremely irritable. Kieran was suspicious about his motives for choosing the girl. And his reference to a “warm” bed did not seem coincidental.
To be fair, he had chosen the girl only to keep Kieran from having her. Donovan had no interest in "adding to his household" but he could not let Kieran get his hands on that particular girl.
Donovan growled to himself. Now he was in the extremely delicate position of trying to protect a witch from his brother. This was precisely the sort of scheming he loathed.
And just what was he supposed to do with the girl? As imperative as it was that Kieran not have the girl, Donovan certainly did not want her. She was far too dangerous; it was like bringing a rabid dog into his house. He was supposed to keep that monster sleeping in his apartment for a year? Donovan would have to find a way to get rid of her sooner.
He paced back and forth in the empty courtyard, not ready to go to his apartment until he had formulated something like a plan. The visiting noble families would be preparing for the banquet, where the fathers of the girls who had been selected would have a place of honor with the King and Queen. Fortunately, by tradition, the princes and the newest members of their households were not expected to attend.
Donovan turned to find his clerk crossing the courtyard towards him.
“Mr. Morano,” he said in greeting.
“I thought you would want her file, sir,” the clerk said, handing him a sheaf of paper.
Donovan took it. It had a photograph of the girl and information about her upbringing. He could only tell so much from the black and white photograph, but she was reasonably pleasant looking. It gave no indication of what she actually was, though.
“Count Casteris? Do you know him?”
“No, Your Highness. His estate is far from the Capital, and he hasn’t been to Court in more than a decade or so. I think I heard his daughter was unwell?”
Donovan scoffed. Unwell indeed.
“I suppose he paid the tax before now?”
“Yes, sir. This is her first Selection and the last year of her eligibility.”
Donovan sighed irritably, extremely displeased that he had to deal with this problem.
“Thank you,” he said, handing the papers back to his clerk. Mr. Morano nodded curtly and left. Donovan continued his agitated pacing.
Perhaps he could send the girl back to her parents? Maybe the Count could be convinced to quietly take her back. Perhaps he could spread some sort of rumor about her being displeasing?
No, that would only solve half of the problem. Getting her away from the Capital would also leave her available for Kieran and the Trackers to find. That would not do at all.
Donovan sighed. He supposed he would have to keep her, at least for a while. While she was part of his household, Kieran would not be able to touch her. With any luck, he would be able to find someone suitable to marry her in a few months. Ideally, someone who never came to Court.
Now that he had the rough outlines of a plan, Donovan went to his apartment to deal with her.
Donavan had assumed that Ms. Whitley would have seen the girl established in one of the guest suites, but she was sitting in his receiving room. When he entered, she rose from the couch.
"Your Highness," she murmured as she curtsied.
He surveyed the young woman before him. Truth be told, he had barely looked at her before claiming her. She was plainly dressed, obviously not one of the girls aiming to be chosen. Her dark brown hair was pulled back into a neat but simple braid. Had he not sensed the Light, he probably would not have noticed her at all. She kept her eyes down, not looking at him. She was very pale and looked terrified.
Well, as she should be, he thought.
"Mrs. Whitley!" he called.
His longtime housekeeper appeared from the door at the back of the room with a tray of tea and biscuits.
"Yes, Your Highness, what can I do for you?" she asked.
"Why isn't she in guest quarters?" he asked irritably.
"Well, because we didn't have any quarters prepared for guests because we weren't expecting any, sir,” she responded, somewhat tartly. Few people would have spoken to him that way, but it was one of the reasons he liked her so much.
"Ah," he responded, somewhat abashed.
"The staff is preparing the Green Suite, unless you would prefer otherwise?" Mrs. Whitley asked, with her eyebrow raised slightly.
"The Green Suite will do, thank you, Mrs. Whitley," he said coolly. He was feeling on edge, annoyed that things in his apartment were disrupted.
"Please leave us, Mrs. Whitley. You can return to show the lady to her quarters when they are ready. I will need to speak with you privately later this evening," Donovan instructed.
Ms. Whitley put the tray down on the small table between the two sofas in the front of the room. She silently nodded to Donovan and left the room.
The girl was still standing before him, staring at the floor.
"Lady Maren?" he asked.
"Yes, Your Highness," she said quietly, not looking up.
"Witch," he growled, walking to her and staring down his nose at her with his eyes narrowed. He was a few inches taller than her, so that helped the effect.
"What, by gods, do you think you're doing here?"
She kept her eyes downcast and did not respond.
"You should have known better than to come here," he rumbled. "How daresomeone like you appear at Court? Do you have any idea how lucky you are that I did not turn you over to the Trackers to put you in prison where you belong?"
The girl was still silent with her eyes on the floor. He could see she was trembling.
Good, he thought, she should be frightened.
"This is what is going to happen. You are going to go to the quarters assigned to you, and you are going to stay there. You are not to leave. You are not to speak to me or anyone else. Is that very clear?" he spoke quietly, but let his building rage show in his voice.
The girl nodded ever so slightly.
He went on, furious, "And if I so much as get a hint—and believe me I will get that hint—that you are using that…that thing, I swear by the gods that I won't turn you in, I'll destroy you myself!”
And as he stood there towering over the terrified young woman, he knew he could do it. He could almost feel his fingers beckoning Darkness to him, and knew he could summon the shadows to put out her Light permanently. It would certainly be for the best.
But, even though he could, he did not want to kill her, at least partially because it would surely make things more difficult for him.
Scowling, he went on, "When enough time has passed, you will marry whoever I find for you to marry, and you will stay there for the rest of your life. If you are very, very lucky, no one else will find out that you are an abomination."
He stalked off to his private rooms, slamming the door behind him.