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Rated: 13+ · Book · Fantasy · #1849806
Ah, to be proven worthy of their love! (LGBT themes.)
#760136 added March 21, 2022 at 4:40pm
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Part 1. My Heart is Torn
The wind played in the fields of wheat as the dashing young noble, Drensen, took my hand and led me along the wrought-iron fence outside the Duke's enchanted orchard.

As the envious wheat bowed before us, I could not stop smirking. How our fathers would rage! Drensen's father would not grant us this time away from the schooling, and Raphael would carve his wrath deep into my proud flesh. Yet how eagerly I snatched this pinch of time from these greedy men to share with my beautiful companion. After looking over the waves of gold for signs of Raphael's spies, I looked up into the sky-blue eyes of my golden-haired dukeling.

His locks waved about his shoulders, and his dizzying eyes smiled down.

At each glimpse, I weaved with the grain. Did he feel the same, swooning heat between us? Hoping to stabilize myself before my knees buckled, I shifted my gaze between the eyes.

"I have a quest even you can't complete." He nudged my chin up.

"Oh, indeed?" I hadn't gotten any relief. Hoping it would come off as confidence, I, like a bell-wearing fool, grinned and gazed at the ground. As I slipped my fingers through my hair, I told myself that I was playing my part correctly. "What can it be?"

He pointed through the fence where trees stood in perfect rows, twenty feet apart. Their branches brushed over smooth, black soil. Each bore fruit that no deity had intended for trees. They had the crystal strawberries, some gigantic blackberries, and my favorite, the red-glowing fireberries. He indicated the blueberry tree, the Duke's personal pride. It stood tall—twenty feet—and sprouted fruit the size of my fist. "See that tree there? The higher you go, the better the fruit."

I noted one berry above the others, with a deeper hue and a clearer skin.

"At the peak, where the branches couldn't hold a bird?"

"I see it."

"A berry worth ten. I dare you, fetch it for me."

My eyes traced his jawline as I mentally cased the scene: a ten foot iron fence, with blunt points, and a convenient crossbar near the top--designed to stop clumsy old men. I considered the duke's single guard, and the magical 'beast', Gildren, a family dog with an enchanted bark. Neither should cause concern. This phase took an instant; I could have pulled this heist before my seventh summer. "With my eyes closed, milord?" I bowed like the men in court.

He gently taunted, "Don't know. That fence is high."

"Crawled over higher fences before I could walk."

"The palace dog? Gildren's teeth are sharp, and he has magical power."

I tested the rails. The 'Lovable Rogue:' time-honored fun, and a fantastic ruse—unless you mean it. I straddled the edge of believing my own story, but figured, what's the harm? I can handle Gildren. "The beast that could catch this girl has yet to be enchanted."

"And the penalty for stealing?"

I winked. "What stealing? What berry?"

Still smiling, he winced and looked away. "Wouldn't try that in court."

I leaped up the wrought-iron ladder and vaulted over the spines.

He clapped, twice. "Bravo!"

Blushing with pride, I grabbed and leaped into the leafy tangle. As I tugged, the prize berry's limb bent my way.

When I came a leaf-breadth away from my target, a stone knocked the fruit loose.

Rascal! I lunged and caught the berry, gripping tight.

As one branch slipped through my fingers, another shifted under my feet. I pulled the berry away from the earth as the black, moist soil rose up and pounded the wind from me.

I gave Drensen a rueful smile. and beheld my prize. The berry had not even bruised. As I rose, the soil stayed down, peeled the dust from my leather plates.

Drensen shrugged. "Not so hard as I thought."

The mocking tone in his voice caught my attention. With his golden hair and silver-etched armor, more painstaking than the costumes of my Father's assassins, my boy would look innocent no matter what he said. The power and the beauty of his display awed me as I stood and admired him.

Gildren's bark punched my shoulders and drove me face down in the dirt.

I had no more time to admire the boy's aristocratic charm; the hound would move fast. I rolled to my feet and leaped onto the fence. Raphael's voice rang in my head: "Don't be a nicer. Drop it through the fence."

I gritted my teeth and climbed, one handed.

At the second-to-last step, Gildren's bark slammed me against the fence.

A leaf-drop later, the dog's magical bark would have pushed me over the top. Instead, my feet slipped. I fell into reach of his teeth.

He bit through the leather of the boot, into my ankle.

Raphael's sinister whisper echoed in my thoughts: "A good girl gets caught only when the ruse demands." I wondered who I feared more, my father or Drensen's. I yelped under my breath and —as I should have done first—threw the berry into the grass.

Drensen prodded Gildren with his dagger. "Down!"

The painfully sharp dagger hurt my eyes; the thought of him stabbing his own dog with it made me wince.

Yet even as the dog whined, Drensen he prodded with such precision he never drew a drop of blood.

After seven pokes, the dog groaned and released me.

I vaulted over the fence and rolled in the grass as the guard yelled, "Halt! Whoever you are!"

I grabbed the fruit and rolled up to one knee. Drensen swept me off my feet. With arms like the back of a warhorse, he lifted me and ran.

A moment ago, I played the romantic hero; now, the damsel in distress. Looking up at him, the reversal pleased me. When he had taken me far enough for plausible deniability—to where we could not be proved guilty—I smacked him on the shoulder. "Unhand me, you knave!"

Before he could comply, I giggled and squirmed. "Is this some foolish plan you had to get a girl in your arms?"

"Girl? Oh, yes! You are a girl. I had quite forgotten. How rude of me. It's the skirt." He set me down. "Perhaps you should wear a skirt, if you want people to remember."

How dare you? I punched him in the shoulder. "I'll remember that."

He tilted his head back and looked down at me.

I bowed, switching back into our game. "Milord, I have achieved your quest."

He took it, making a show of looking it over, raising it to the side of my face and looking down his nose at it. "Are you sure 'tis the one? It doesn't look so very good, next to you."

I savored the flattery as my cheeks burned. Such silly fun, talking like a mad actor. "Oh, Sire, 'tis the greatest berry in all the duchy. 'Tis only that milord likes to give sweet voice to my hopes."

He looked away from me, and held the apple-sized fruit up for inspection. "Yes, you have the right. It pales only in comparison to the fair thief in my court."

When he winked at me my knees shuddered and tried to fold. I bowed again, and the teeth-marks in my ankle bit down to my bone.

"With your permission?" He returned the berry to me, reached to pick me up. "I think it's time to visit Carolie."

Even as he took the weight from my wound, I whined, "Do we have to? You know how she gets."

"I outrank you." He carried me like a little girl. "And, I know what's best."

What was best? The sweet pain of having the two most lovely creatures in the world together, looking upon me in my distress? I bit my lip.

He continued on, as though all had been decided.

What else could I do? Even lesser nobles run wilder than thieves. Nothing can turn them once an idea lands in their head. Drensen spoke the truth, of course: Carolie would mend my wounds—those she didn't inflict. I laid back to enjoy the ride, and stroked his hair.

*Starw* *Starw* *Starw*

The sight of Carolie, the healer in the blue dress, sent waves of relief all through me. The green ripples of her eyes held my gaze. I stared, looking away only to return.

Waist-high, white barrels, each brimming with greenery and flowers, surrounded the marble picnic table.

"Oh, my." Carolie sighed in irritation as Drensen placed me on the white stone. "What have you gotten her into this time?"

He roughed up my hair. "Nothing that won't heal, I assure you."

I tried to sit up on the table as I stammered, "We were, ah, training. With the dogs? That's all."

"If that is all, then, perhaps, training to be more careful might cross your mind." She pressed down on my chest and brushed the hair from my eyes, tickling me with her fingernails. "You know how I worry."

Stop blushing, Kissla. Everybody can see. I looked at the ivy climbing the stone walls and considered trying to hide behind them. "I know. I do. It's not that simple a caper."

"Nobody else gets hurt as much as you two." She laid her hand on my cheek

Warmth poured into my core and down, soothing and stirring me as she moved. I swallowed and blushed harder. In that moment, I wanted her more than anything else I had ever seen. Hoping to hide all that, I turned my face. "Not like that. Nobody else has the heritage. 'Cept the Duke."

Carolie shook her head, and frowned. "I get that he thinks he's 'trueborn,' whatever that means." She glared at him for a moment.

He held firm against her gaze.

Then her sweet, sad eyes fell to mine. "What does that have to do with you?"

I am one of you, I am! So many things she didn't understand. I flashed a look at Drensen. Would Kid Carolie ever understand the demands of noble hearts? -the need to challenge fate, to make the rules or shatter them? -or any of the secrets that burned in me. I ached to put my lips against hers, to swallow her words, but couldn't—not in front of Drensen. I groaned with frustration.

"You will consider it." Her inviting lips lingered too close for comfort. "Promise."

I offered a pained look.

"Humor me."

"Listen, Kid. Um, Carolie? You know I can't...." I trailed off. She never let go. Her eyes drowned me, and I hoped I would never be brought back.

"Lie to me, then." She backed off a few inches.

Her smile could have soothed a wildfire. It made everything easy. "No fair, picking on a wounded girl, but okay. I promise. I will think of it."

She shook my ankle: good as new. "First of all, you're fine. And second, I'm holding you to that."

Drensen laughed and shook his head. "Some days, Care, I think you're going to be the death of us all."

"If I have my way," she said, brushing his jaw, "that day will be long in coming."

Drensen handed her the berry. "We brought a gift for the hero of the hour."

I fought down a twinge in my stomach. I gave that to you, you nicer.

"Training the dogs, indeed." Carolie cocked an eyebrow at me.

"We were!" I protested, with too much force. "The dog in the orchard."

Drensen winked.

Always stand on stable ground—wisdom from both our fathers.

Carolie got a knife out and cut us each a slice, then restoring the berry and placing it in one of the barrels. Again, Drensen spoke the truth: that berry outdid the best in the orchard, though I counted my two friends' company a king's ransom sweeter.

*Starw* *Starw* *Starw*

In his lantern-lit room, hunched over a rough table with a quill, dear Verdenten scratched at the parchment like a crazed cat.

Cozy shadows and worn furnishings of this wizard's chamber, compared to the rich bright wealth of the rest of the castle, comforted me. I breathed a sigh of relief at escaping the glare of Drensen's world. Verdenten stood and rolled up his scroll. "Kissla, do sit down." He waved at a chair.

I stared at him.

"I can see you need to talk."

When the chair did not move at his gesture, I pulled it out and turned it around, coughing at the dust. "I don't know what I am going to do."

Frowning, he looked into my eyes for a long moment. "Step out into the light of truth, however painful, and decide."

My sigh ended in a groan. "Can't imagine life without either of them."

"No, nothing like that." He wrapped his two fingers together, and then traced knots in the air. "I mean, we're here to stay. The moment demands another, more basic, decision."

His words, like scampering orphans, vanished in the back alleys of my mind. "I want them both so bad that I can't think straight. Is that normal?"

He chuckled. "Yes, very. Though usually, love interests have more in common. Still, if we hesitate, things slip away."

"What are you saying?"

"Make your decision or someone will make it for you."

I shivered, as though what he meant escaped me. Raphael urged me to flip a coin or just grab one of them. Yet if, after all, I had no chance with either, why choose? I needed a different tactic. "Have you any idea where I can find my grandfather's ring?"

He scratched his beard, and nodded. "An inkling."

The oldest of our party, Verdenten had very little beard, yet the pointed hat and glasses lent him an air of wisdom. "The spirits have been quiet, so I have done some reading. Before the rebels seized the treasury, Count Aldredge and his men scoured the imperial palace."

"What does that mean?"

He pushed his glasses up on his nose. "The rebels never found your signet."

I stood up, putting my hands down on the table. "Aldredge stole it?"

He nodded and winked.

I slapped his table in eagerness. "Then I can reclaim my status!"

His chin dropped, his eyes got wide. "Oh, no, I didn't mean—" He waved his hands to tamp me down.

I scoffed at his excuses. The man had let the wrong secret slip. "What are you talking about?"

"We are, most certainly, not ready." He shrugged, and shook his head. "In a few years, perhaps. But, now?"

I waved my finger like a dagger, then tapped out the words. "How can the village scoundrel ask for her hand?"

He stared me down, unimpressed.

"No matter how tarnished, I need my real heritage."

Verdenten scowled, then leaned forward and whispered. "Your friends know you. The real you."

He paused, to let that sink in.

"Stealing your family crown will not make you a queen anymore than leaving it will make you less a princess."

"I am no princess." I slammed my fist on his table "Not yet, not unless you and Drensen help me."

Verdenten rushed around the table to grab my upper arm. "I advise we wait, but if you must, I will help."

Satisfied, I nodded.

"Not because it will make you a princess; because you already are."

I scoffed.

"A royal heart deserves the royal seal. So, say it." A violet cloud sparkled about my shoulders, binding me in his grip.

"Say what?" I tried to pull away.

"Affirm your power! The words, 'I am trueborn. I deserve this victory."

I pulled back, turning away. "You are mad."

"No!" His eyes wrestled with mine. "Educated. The insight denied you in the shadows."

"You don't make things true by saying them." I frowned. "Unless maybe if you are a wizard."

"How else did the king rise above the other beggars?"

Intending to speak, I raised my hand. How, indeed? I dropped my hand.

Verdenten leaned forward, "If you cannot say the words, nothing will come from them."

I sighed. Shaking my head, I muttered, "I am trueborn. I deserve this victory."

Verdenten grunted, shook me. "Like you mean it."

He intended to press the matter, so I took a cue from the swindling arts. No way could these words come out sincere, but any decent con could do better. I straightened my spine, standing like an aristocrat, ignoring the ragged leather of my armor. "I am trueborn. The ring is mine. Now, and for all time." This time, my hair stood on end.

"More like it." He released me, smoothed over his robe, and nodded approval. "Your chances improve as you wait, but now, at least, you will seize your chance."

"Nonsense!" I sneered and shook my head. "Are you sure you're not a charlatan?"

He nodded. "I assure you, I am quite correct. To a wizard's mind, the common story proves mad."

I had no energy to wonder what he might mean. "So, when do we go?"

Verdenten checked his charts. "Your best portents fall on the night of the new moon. The count and his best men will be away on business. A few summonings, the week before, will call the men further into the night."

He intended to conjure monsters to lead the Aldredge thugs on a wild goose chase. An effective, if somewhat soft, tactic; he usually bid the monsters vanish when confronted.

"If luck favors us, Aldredge will take his garrison on the road with him."

The adventure took shape in my imaginings. "By then, I can have the costume I need to slip in undetected."

"As I surmised." He paused to meet my eyes. "Better yet, by then, you can convince yourself to wait. Practice your craft; allow me to prepare."

"Need to strike while the iron is hot, do I not?"

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath before answering. "It's no better to strike before the hammer hardens."

"Then let's quench my hammer before the moon goes out." Before he could say anything to sober my will, and dull my appetite for the heist, I rushed out of the room.

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