My name is Arianna Goldbest, or possibly FitzMichael. I’m a stain on the family, a dishonour to the name, for I had the temerity to be born out of wedlock. One might presume my parents should be the ones to shoulder this terrible burden but they’re not here. Mother, devoted parent that she is, retired to a convent the moment I was weaned. For, yes, her father insisted she feed me herself, part of her punishment for being beguiled.

And my father? His identity has never been confirmed. Mother claimed it was the king, and the household does receive a monthly stipend from the Royal Treasury for my education and upkeep – it’s the only reason I’m not sleeping in the stables and am able to read and write. It seems the Treasury likes to check occasionally that its funds are being used as intended.

Grandfather learned that the hard way, I’m told. I was around five and relegated to the kitchens when a man with a long nose and an expression like a bad smell demanded I be brought forth to demonstrate my progress in reading, writing, deportment, drawing, and two other languages.

After that day, I’ve had tutors aplenty, my legitimate cousins are receiving a wonderful education on my coin, and I have one nice dress for being presented to the official at dinner. If they insist on more meetings than one, I borrow gowns from my cousin Johanna and she’s given new ones to atone for the indignity.

And so it has gone on, year after year. I found some measure of escape and reward in my lessons and the approval of my tutors, although they fast learned to show their approval of me in ways that didn’t highlight my cousins’ lack of interest, application, and basic intelligence.

I hoped, once I was old enough to be considered for a marriage alliance, to be summoned to court, for even a bastard daughter of the king is something of a catch. But nothing. And so here I am, in my twenty-second summer, still unwed, promised to no one, when even Johanna, with her long nose, long teeth and perpetual sneer is affianced. Not that I’d have her fiancé mind, he’s as old as Uncle Gerald and she’s to be stepmother to three utterly revolting children, the oldest of whom is a mere six months younger than her.

But he’s rich, and she’s been promised fine dresses and rooms at court, so she’s happy.

I would like to add that I am not without my admirers. None of the local gentry of course, they take their cue from my uncle and barely tolerate me, although a few of the sons have tried to get a little friendlier than I liked over the years. Such a pity my lessons included some very pointed and painful ones from the head of our castle guard.

After Sir Barnaby’s chinless twerp of a youngest son pinched my bottom in the middle of the Great Hall, and I stabbed him with the nearest candle spike, they’ve all kept their hands to themselves.

So I’m free to study, Uncle daren’t refuse my requests for further tutors, or books, for fear of the Treasury stipend being reduced, and spend my time as I wish.

Much of the time, I wish to be at the bottom of the orchard, in the occasional hope that Zarn will be there. There’s no pattern to his visits but they’re the bright light of my life and I hope one day I’ll be able to convince him to take me along too when he leaves one day. For now, he winks, and kisses me, and tells me to be patient, that matters will unfold in their own good time.

And so, I wait, for what I don’t know, but there was a Royal Messenger admitted to Uncle’s study not ten minutes ago, and I can’t help but feel the subject of the loud conversation now underway is me.

And I was right, I’ve been summoned to court, finally. Johanna is sulking as Uncle has given me quite half her wardrobe, so I don’t disgrace the family any further by my appearance during the journey and when I arrive. Of course, I’ll need a fully new set of gowns once I’m there, especially should I be summoned to meet my purported father, but I think Uncle is hoping that will be expensed differently, and not lessen the amount of my stipend next month. Is it dreadful to say I’m hoping he never receives another payment for my ‘upkeep’? I snooped into the stewards office a year or two ago, I know what the Treasury sends. I could set up my own household in a nice little town by the sea for that amount.

A day later, the story behind my summons reached our walls, carried on the winds of gossip and rumour, told in hissing, gleeful whispers, behind hiding hands. Our Crown Prince Samain was no longer our crown prince. He was no longer a prince at all. As is our custom, on the night of the full moon following his fifteenth birthday, he had drunk from the waters of the scared spring to activate his ruler-mark. No mark had emerged. He was not the child of our king.

His Majesty was furious and summoned his four other children immediately. Every one of them, even seven-year-old Rosa had drunk from the spring, and not one of them had echoed the moon with the yellow-gold glow of our royal family. The Queen is now accused of adultery and treason. She, brave snake that she is, has counter-accused the King of being infertile.

So, I am to arrive at court in time for the next full moon and prove my purported father’s fertility by drinking from the spring and glowing with the divine light of our rulers. He seems confident enough that I am his get.

I have scant time to spend in the orchard these days, so full of alterations and packing, and Johanna screaming in fury as even her jewellery is handed over for my use. She is only appeased when Uncle decides she is to accompany me to court and assemble her wedding wardrobe in the royal city. No doubt he hopes to use some measure of the funds allocated to my adornment to do so.

The calm lasts only as long as it takes for Johanna to realise she will be subordinate to me. As the screeches start up again, I slip away and find I have a visitor lurking in the glade we call ours.

I near-fell him with my enthusiastic embrace, in truth I’ve been desperate to talk to him, to share my excitement, my adventure, and watch his surprise.

Of course he spoils it. He smiles down at me, that deliciously naughty half smile that promises everything and nothing. “I hear you’re off to the palace to become a princess. Will you remember me when you’re dripping in gold and velvet?”

I glare at him, more to cover up my own, sudden, worry than any real ire. If I’m to remain in the palace, how will I meet with him. He anticipates me again, pulling a key on a chain from some hidden pocket or pouch. “For you.”

I take it but look at him in question.

“For when you need to get away from the palace and find peace. By the city-side entrance to the Garden of the Sacred Spring, there’s a small stone house with a blue wooden door. It’s mine, now it’s ours.”

I kissed him, how could I not? What a perfect, wonderful, special, thrilling, comforting gift. He responded with his usual enthusiasm, and it was some time before I made my way back through the orchard; a trifle dishevelled but not enough to warrant suspicion beyond a disapproving comment or two about my wild ways and affinity for climbing trees. I’m lucky I’m a little more cynical, and Zarn is a little more careful, than my parents, else I’m sure I’d be adding to the family’s dishonour. Although I’d be a clear sight better as a mother than my own. I’d contact the Treasury and negotiate new payment terms, buy a worn golden ring, and move to that seaside town as a heartsore widow, for I’m not sure Zarn would be interested in fatherhood.

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