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Königsspiel

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“ONCE UPON A TIME” was always a phrase I had hated. 

It seemed unfair, it was just a few hand-picked words strung together for the sake of sounding inspired. 

Whimsical.

But over and over again, it was the choice phrase of one too many writers. Once upon a time clogged the starts of many tales, but not this one. It implies that the time is whenever the reader wants it to be, long ago, perhaps by centuries, or just last week.

But this is my story, and it happens not once upon a time ago, but a month after I was born. 

 

THERE WAS A YOUNG princess, who fell in love with a poor man, she begged her father, the King, to let them be married. She was in love, and no other man, no other Prince or King, no amount of money or silver tongue could convince her otherwise. 

And the King, who had married a woman he had not loved, who was betrothed to him since birth, let his daughter choose her husband, he wished her happiness in all things, and even if it took the rest of his life, he would take the poor man under his wing and teach him to be a great king.

They were wed in the middle of a war, and the King begged their battle ready neighbors for peace, at least for one day, for his daughter to be wed. 

Their day of peace was granted, but the King, untrusting of their neighbors, kept his guard up, his sword at his side, and his eyes looked everywhere, for any strange thing that would give him any hint that something gruesome was to happen. 

But, the day was happy and without bloodshed, the King, in his heart, felt that one day this war could be over. 

One day. 

The Princess was happy, overjoyed that she would be able to marry the man she loved, and that the man she loved was so happy to be marrying her. She danced around the room, her feet flying, barely touching the floor, as the band played and her people clapped in rhythmic unison. Her husband never let go of her, his hands always touching her, unable to part from her. 

“They look happy.” A man said. 

The King looked to the man, the groom’s father, a smart man, he recalled, and a scholar. 

The King agreed, he never thought he’d ever seen his daughter happier. 

“A day with peace, with every man home,” The man took a deep breath. “Refreshing, is it not?”

The King agreed. He saw in attendance every knight and every soldier he had sent out into battle, home enjoying the wedding banquet. 

“Wouldn’t it be nice if it could last? I have studied the art of war, but also the art of ending wars, allow me to give you advice. Perhaps a fresh pair of eyes is what this war needs.”

Perhaps it was. The King agreed, he was a tired man, tired of fighting, and he wanted his daughter to live as happy as she was now; free from the burden of war and battle.  

In the weeks to come, the groom’s father, a man named Drosselmeyer, became the King’s Advisor, and a dear friend to the King. Any thought the King had did not go spoken until it was whispered into Drosselmeyer’s ear. 

And that was how Drosselmeyer liked it. 

Drosselmeyer was a power hungry man, he wished and desired for the crown, planting his son in the footsteps of the King’s daughter, in hopes that they would fall in love, and it worked. Oh how marvelously it worked! And now he was the King’s Right Hand man, nothing was approved, nothing was permitted without his allowance, but it wasn’t enough. 

The King was still King, and Drosselmeyer was still nothing, he still had no real power, he had only taken a sip from the pool and it made his thirst deepen.

He made plans for the King, plans that would leave him in power. 

Drosselmeyer had a secret weapon, a gift granted to him by the spirits of the Forest, by the Great Oak Tree. With just his hand- no, with just the tips of his fingers, he could control reality. The people, the Princess, his son, the King. 

The gift, however, was not easily used, it could not be reversed, it left others in a daze, and if he used it on them for too long, they become lifeless, like a puppet in his hand. Able to do anything he wished, but without any soul, without any heart, and thus he had to be careful. The King had a great personality, he was loud and boisterous, he easily laughed, and lost his temper too frequently. If Drosselmeyer was to use him, it would be too obvious. A loud storm, suddenly silenced. 

No, instead, Drosselmeyer’s target was his daughter-in-law. 

The Princess was headstrong and too much like her father, but only behind closed doors, only to the people she knew well, and to others, she appeared the perfect young lady, silent and always listening. 

It was not the King he controlled, but his daughter. 

With a pen, Drosselmeyer put his attentions to the Princess, and with each passing day, the Princess lost her fire. 

His plan came to fruition when the King himself went to the neighboring kingdom, to talk of peace, and with a smile, Drosselmeyer sat down at his writing desk, and saw what the King did, his actions, his words, his pen scribing the scenes, and he would let his hand write, until it was time to intervene. 

When the two Kings sat down, they bowed to one another in greeting, they gave sad smiles, and began to speak, Drosselmeyer moved his attentions to the guard that stood on the North wall. 

He strode forward, and drew the dagger from his belt, his eyes locked on the King, and with the dagger in the knight’s hand, Drosselmeyer slit the throat of his friend. 

In a day, word came back that the King had been murdered, the sorrow was enough to break the Princess free from Drosselmeyer’s hold, but he would allow it. 

In a week, the Kingdom wept as he was lowered into the ground. 

His daughter and Drosselmeyer’s son were crowned King and Queen. 

And the Queen grew pregnant. 

The King, Drosselmeyer’s son, had been a good student, but he feared that he was ill prepared to sit on the throne, to lead his people out of battle and into days and times of peace, even though it was he who won the Königsspiel.

Drosselmeyer thought it was all going just as he had planned it, until he went to the Forest once more. 

He stood in front of the Great Oak Tree, singing his praises, when a voice came from it’s bark. 

“I wouldn’t be so proud if I were you.”

Drosselmeyer stopped, the voice of the Oak Tree and the voice of this woman were very different indeed. “Who goes there?”

A pale woman stepped out from behind the tree. “It is I, the child of the Oak Tree.”

“Child of the Oak Tree?”

“Her guardian, her protector. I am her eyes, and she is mine. And with what she has shown me, I wouldn’t get so excited if I were you.” 

“Tell me then, what she has shown you.”

“And ruin the surprise?”

Drosselmeyer narrowed his eyes at her. “Tell me. Now.”

“The wildfire burns down the trees and the plants, and gives the earth new life, but the fire started by man burns him down and the people with him.”

“An insane thing to say, now speak frankly.”

“What will happen, Drosselmeyer, when that fire reaches your bed?”

“How do you know my name?”

She caressed the oak tree. “I told you, the Oak Tree told me.”

“Enough of this. I came to praise the Oak Tree and her works, and now that I have, I shall be on my way.”

“But wait, don’t you want to know the future of the future King?”

“My son is already Ki-”

“No, the little prince Helima has growing inside of her.” The woman pressed her hands to her lower abdomen, her thumbs creating a heart. “His future will be your undoing”

“Tell me.”

“The acorn fell upon your head, but you were greedy and didn’t pass it to your son, but from your hand it fell to his future son. It is already planted in his heart, the seed of knowledge was given to you and you had to grow it by hand, but it is already in him, and it will grow strong, the roots of him will grow deeper, the leaves upon his branches will touch the sky, leaving you in shadow.” 

“Your words fall upon dead ears, madam.”

“Then perhaps you should awaken them.”

“They will not be woken only to listen to jiberish.”

The woman smiled. “Jiberish now, it may be, but in time you will see. What little has been handed to you, it will be born with him, and your evil deeds will not go unnoticed by him. He will see you, and he will know of your corruption, and he will chop you down.”

Drosselmeyer was angered by her, and her implications. “And the Oak Tree told you this?”

The woman nodded. “She tells me everything.”

Drosselmeyer glared to the tree, and thought, “No one will take from me what is mine.”

He left the woman behind, the Oak Tree nothing now but a nuisance.

When he returned, his son approached him and told him that he himself would be going to the front lines, in an effort to speak with the King, in hopes to talk of peace, and bring an end to the war. 

The acorn fell upon your head, but you were greedy and didn’t pass it to your son, but in his blood, the acorn is there nonetheless.

His son was in love with the Queen, there was no doubt that they would have more than one child. 

An army with his gift, all aimed at him, it would be his downfall, his destruction.

No.

No, he could not let this first child live, much less let there be more. 

The night his son left, Drosselmeyer sat down at his writing desk, he didn’t care how his son died, so long as it was done, but so busy was he, that he did not hear the screams of his daughter-in-law going into labor. 

The pen scratched against paper, and as the King perished, the future King was born. 

Drosselmeyer stood over the infant’s crib, how easy it would be, to suffocate the child, to strangle him in his quilts, he screamed and wailed, the disgusting creature, and surrounding him was always his mother and her maids. 

When her husband died, Drosselmeyer did not allow her to grieve. Taking control of her and not giving her a second to be herself, so much so, that even without his pen, he could whisper into her ear a command and she would obey. 

He would have to wait until there was a moment they were alone, without the maid’s eyes, and with a replacement in his hands. 

It was fortunate that the highest ranking nobles had a son only a fortnight prior to the Queen, with similar enough eyes, and dark enough hair that no one would know the difference. 

It was a small matter, he placed a cover over the Duke and Duchess’ eyes, their poor baby boy was sick, doomed to die, and a loyal servant of Drosselmeyer’s plucked the baby from his crib, and his parents mourned their loss. 

“Isn’t this an unbearable child?”

The Queen looked down at her son. Yes, yes he was. 

“Oh, how ugly is he. His skin marred by that birthmark, it takes up most of his chest. That is not the chest of a King.”

His daughter-in-law picked up her child. No, no it wasn’t.

“Take this child instead.” Drosselmeyer placed the baby in her arms, and took her son from her. His loyal servant took the baby from him. 

Much better. 

“Look at your son. Look at your future king.” 

The Queen smiled, wide and glossy. The baby squrimed in her grasp. It was not the warm smile of his mother, it was not the loved hands of his mother, and he knew it. 

The loyal servant looked down at the baby, stripped him to his diaper, and opened the window, below the ground was white and covered with frost. He held out his arms and dropped the baby in the snow, to freeze to death. 

Drosselmeyer grinned. “The future king looks happy, to be held in his mothers arms.”

The Queen nodded, holding him close to her, even as he wiggled and kicked, screaming out loudly, his face red.

“Close the window, the poor Prince will catch his death.” 

 

THE BLACK SMITH LOOKED at the small Prince, crying out in pain and discomfort. He scooped up the child immediately, wondering why had he been thrown out a window, why would anyone try to kill him, he looked up at the window, at the Queen, smiling and holding a baby.

Something was wrong with the Queen, he knew, he knew since the day she was married something had overtaken her, but it was not his place to speak, not his place to say anything against the Royal Family, even if it was in their best interest. He knew that whatever had happened, was not of her own doing, for she would never behave this way.

She was too much like her father. 

He looked down at the Prince, warmer now that he was wrapped in the black smith’s jacket. 

“I’ll take care of you.” He said. “I’ll take care of you, Fakir.”

Charon knew that that was what would Helmia would want, for her son to be safe, and he knew that it was Drosselmeyer that had done this, he just didn’t know how. 

But, Charon couldn’t just take Fakir, he had to make it look like the Prince had died. 

He took one of his chickens and killed it, pouring it’s blood into the snow, and making a dripping trail, leading to the forest. “There, now it will look like an animal got him.” 

He left some of the carcass, and prayed it would be convincing enough. 

He lit a fire for the little Prince, holding him close, “I don’t understand it, but I know that Helmia loves you with all of her heart. I will take care of you, and when she is well again, you will know your mother.” Charon kissed Fakir’s forehead, not as cold as it had been, and he hoped the child wouldn’t grow sick due to the few moments he spent on the frozen ground. “I promise, you will be King.”

 

THE LIGHT OF THE sun, shining through the leaves, flittered over her closed eyes as the sound of the train lulled her to sleep, it’s gentle motion enough to make her lethargic. 

There was a small chuckle. “Awaken, for we are nearly there, Princess.”

“Mm?” Ahiru opened her eyes and stretched her arms over her head. “I’m not-” She yawned. “Oh, right. Sorry.”

“Do not apologize, it is not the job of the Princess to apologize, but whoever wronged her.”

“Apologize then, Miss. Edel, for stirring me out of my revive.” 

Miss. Edel grinned and bowed her head. “I do ask for the mercy of the Princess.” 

Ahiru giggled. “Of course! Why would I say no?”

Miss. Edel smiled, “Look out your window,”

Ahiru did as she was told, and was greeted to the site of the walls ofNordlingen, but it was still quite far away. “It’s beautiful.”

“And the Kingdom itself is beautiful, also.” Miss. Edel sat up straighter. “We will be entering from the most northern gate, and the Princess Kraehe Rue of Baden Wurttemberg will come into the Southwest.”

“There are five gates, right?”

“Yes. North, East, South, Southwest, and Northwest.” 

Ahiru nodded. “And it’s beautiful?”

“Not as beautiful as Arnis, but quite.”

“Okay.”

Miss. Edel placed her hand on Ahiru’s. “Do not be afraid of the path that lies before you, the Prince Siegfried Mytho of Bavaria is said to be a kind man.”

“Unlike his brother.”

“Don’t let the rumors become fact in your mind. You have not met him.”

“Neither have I met Prince Siegfried! What if those rumors aren’t true either? What if he’s just quiet and well-mannered when there are people around?”

 “Then you will just have to be the judge of him. Your bethorthed will become a kind man just from admiring your smile.” Miss. Edel grinned, and Ahiru smiled too. 

“What if he finds out I’m not a Princess?”

Miss. Edel pursed her lips. “The trade we have created with them will not matter, they get their fish and their blubber, and your kingdom-”

“Won’t go into financial ruin” Ahiru nodded. “I’m not good at keeping secrets.”

“A Princess is good at keeping many secrets. They keep diaries. And if you can’t stop yourself from blurting out-” Miss Edel started to laugh, and Ahiru joined her. 

“Write it down.” 

“That is why I bought you this.” Edel reached into her skirts and pulled out a leather book from her pocket. It was the size of her hand, it came locked, and as she handed it to Ahiru, she touched it with her hands, it was made with soft suede, it was pale tan, and a sun was carefully etched onto it’s cover. 

Ahiru closed her eyes and she stood on the docks, she felt the sun, warm on her face, reflecting off the cold water below her. Often it was cold, and wet, but on days like these, she would come out to the docks, and let the sun warm her skin. 

“Thank you, Miss Edel.” Ahiru held it to her chest. “I’ll treasure it forever.”

“And take the key.” Miss. Edel held in her hand a pendant, large and red, and much to round to ever be a key.

“Uh, Miss. Edel?”

She smiled, “It is a locket.” She pinched the side, the locket opened, and the key fell out. She caught it in her hand. 

Ahiru slipped the locket over her head, smiling at the gift. “Thank you.” 

 

AHIRU STEPPED OFF THE train, her eyes wide as she stared up at the castle. 

Unlike the castle in her kingdom, the Castle of Nordlingen was large, built to be seen by all. Built from large stone, tall enough that the turrets touched the sky. Strategically placed, at every corner and measured perfectly between, were emerald flags that fluttered in the wind. 

She was escorted to the castle in a private carriage, her hand clasped to Miss. Edel’s, as Miss Edel’s daughter, Uzura, bounced up and down in the seat across from them. 

“Are we almost there, zura? Are we almost home, zura?”

“Shh, little one, we will be there soon.” Miss Edel smiled. 

“When we get there, will there be lots of food, zura?”

“Yes, the first banquet is tonight.”

“With dancing and music and cake and mashed potatoes and-”

“Yes, Uzura!” Miss. Edel chuckled. “You will have your fun.”

The carriage jolted to a stop, and if possible, Ahiru’s hand latched onto Edel’s tighter. 

“Announcing the arrival of the Princess Odette Ahiru of Schleswig-Holstein.” The carriage door was thrown open, sunlight blinding her. Ahiru let go of Edel’s hand and took the one offered as she stepped out of the carriage. 

Poise, grace, tranquility, elegance-

But as she placed her foot on the step, the trailing skirts of her gown nestled themselves under her satin shoe and she slipped, falling into the arms of the servant who was to escort her. 

“Oh! I am so sorry, I didn’t mean to fall on you! I’m-”

Miss. Edel cleared her throat as she stepped down beside her. “Her Grace is tired from a long journey, and tired from staying seated for too long.”

“Yes! Yes, of course.” Ahiru cleared her throat.

Ahiru looked up, and at the top of the steps that lead up to the palace doors where five people. 

From left to right they stood, a smiling man, with pale hair and a golden crown. A young man with a similar crown but dark hair that shined violet in the sun, and on his face was the absence of a smile. There was a young woman, she had dark hair that curled around her face, a tiara, but her face carried no happiness. Then, a woman with her hair wrapped up carefully, her crown shining in the sun, she stood oddly as if she was frozen, the only movement Ahiru could she was the wind in her hair, she was older than the rest, but older still was who stood to her left-

Ahiru stopped her observances as she was met with the steps of the palace, she lifted her skirts, careful not to trip on them again.  

The servant let her go, and grabbed the hand of the older woman. “Introducing to the Princess Odette Ahiru of Schleswig Holstein, the Queen of Bavaria.” 

The Queen’s eyes were empty. Ahiru curtsied and smiled up at the Queen, but she offered no such pleasantries in return. 

The older man stood next to her, his hair was long and white, his skin wrinkled and old, he gave her a grin, but she could tell it was not one that grew from the joy of making her acquaintance. The man scared her. 

“I am Herr Drosselmeyer, Advisor to the Queen, and previous father-in-law.” 

She swallowed and nodded. “A pleasure to meet you, sir.”

“The pleasure is all mine.” His eyes flashed to Miss. Edel and for a moment, his grin disappeared, but only for a moment. 

“Introducing to the Princess Odette Ahiru of Schleswig Holstein, the Princess Kraehe Rue of Baden Wurttemberg.” 

The Princess gave Ahiru a small curtsy, and Ahiru returned the favor. She was beautiful. 

She was elegant, and graceful, she stood tall and serene, her face was pale like porcelain, and smoother than silk. Her eyes a deep red, and her hair, a dark brown, created such a contrast, Ahiru couldn’t think of another word that suited the Princess other than perfect. 

She was what a Princess ought to be. 

“Introducing to Princess-”

“Enough of that!” Next to Princess Kreahe, a young man glared at the servant. “We know who she is, and I am sure she has not forgotten who she is.”

The servant bowed his head. “My- my deepest apologies. Introducing to- The Crowned Prince Lohengrin Autor of Bavaria.” 

Ahiru curtsied to him. 

“Hello.” The young man next to the Crowned Prince beamed at her. “I am Prince Siegfried.” He took her hand in his own and bowed over it, he placed a gentle kiss on her knuckles. “It is an honor to meet the woman who is to be my wife.”

Ahiru grew red. So, the rumors were true, the eldest was rude and unseemly, while the younger was-

“May I take you inside? I’m sure you are tired from such a long train ride. I can barely handle an hour in those cars, I can’t imagine a whole day in one.”

She smiled. “Yes. It was quite long.” 

He took her hand and placed it at his elbow as he lead her into the rest of her life. 

 

AHIRU SAT IN THE fields just outside the northern gate. She sat in the sun, letting it warm her skin. 

Mytho - he had asked her to call him Mytho! - had taken her around the palace, showing her where everything was and introducing her to everyone who crossed their path, before leading her to her own quarters to prepare for tonight's banquet. 

But, she knew she had a bit of time, and taking Uzura with her, they went out of the north gate, stationed just beside the castle, and went to sit in the fields. 

Uzura had begged to go outside, to make flower crowns, and who was Ahiru to stop her? 

Ahiru sat down in the tall grass, rolling up her sleeves to let the sun touch her arms. 

She could hear Uzura, just to her right, running around and catching bugs. 

“Just a little longer, then we have to go back, okay?” 

“Yes, zura!” 

Ahiru smiled, she loved Uzura, and loved watching her, even though, as a Princess, it wasn’t her job to. 

But after a while, she didn’t hear Uzura anymore, and when she opened her eyes, she looked out over the grassy field and saw her head running towards a dark and looming forest. 

“Uzura! Wait! No!” Ahiru jumped to her feet and chased after the little girl, how had she gotten so far? Oh, she was going to get in so much trouble for this! 

But, before Uzura could reach the forest’s edge, and before Ahiru could claim her, a horse galloped past her. 

Ahiru let out a cry of shock, where had he come from! 

A young man swooped down and pulled Uzura onto his horse, then he turned around and trotted back to Ahiru.

“Oh, thank you so much! I never would have been able to-”

“You should keep a better eye on your child.”

“What? Oh, no, she’s not mine.”

“She’s not yours? I hope her mother doesn’t whip you for not keeping a better eye on her child.”

Ahiru’s eyebrows furrowed together. “Are you implying I wasn’t watching her?”

“She was halfway to the forest before you even noticed. I’m starting to think you wanted her to die.”

“What? Die! I don’t want her to die, I was listening and once I couldn’t hear her, I went after her!” 

“The forest is a dangerous place, not even the bravest men enter it. If you let this child run in there, she would have perished.”

“Not me, zura!” 

“May I please have her back?”

“I’m starting to think I should keep her and return her to her mother myself. I don’t particularly trust you.” 

Ahiru scoffed. “I have been watching her for a long time! This is just the first time she’s run off like that.” 

He scowled down at her, he’s eyes rolling over her body. Her clothes. Before he scoffed himself. “I should have known.”

“Known what?”

“You’re the Princess, come to marry Prince Siegfried.”

“How- how did you-”

“I know all of the Nobles, and no one else could afford such nice clothing. Why don’t you do everyone a favor, and get back to what you’re good at.”

“Which is?” 

He sneered. “Sitting around all day on a throne, looking pretty, and never lifting a finger.”

Ahiru opened her mouth, she wanted to protest, she wanted to tell him about all of the hard work she had done, but she couldn’t. She was supposed to be a Princess, and Princess’ didn’t lift a finger. 

“Princess!”

“Your keeper is calling.” He let Uzura down before he left, galloping away on his horse. 

“Princess!” The servant huffed and puffed. “It’s time to get ready for-”

“The banquet. I know.” 

“Come.”

 

SHE STOOD IN HER room as many servants came in and changed her attire. 

“Grass stains.” Edel tsked. “This will be a pain to get out.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“Next time, take a blanket.”

Ahiru smiled, but when Edel left with Uzura, she had nothing to distract her from her thoughts. 

The words of the young man on the horse.

He saved Uzura, but he was so cruel to her. 

Why did he dislike her so much? Just because she looked like a Princess? Who did that guy think he was. 

She crossed her arms in a fit. 

“Your Grace, I cannot change you if-”

“I’m sorry.” Ahiru stuck her arms back out as a dress was slipped onto her shoulders.

Did he hate royalty or something? Was he a rebel?

She had heard about people like that, people who despised the crown and plotted to have them taken down, beheaded. She touched her throat.

She was lead to her vanity, and hands touched her hair, added makeup to her face. 

Did he think she was incapable of watching Uzura? She had been watching Uzura for months now! It wasn’t her fault she ran off! She had never done that before!

“Ooh, that guy really ticks me off!” She muttered under her breath.

“Who does, Your Grace?”

“Oh! No one, sor-”

“There.”

Ahiru looked at herself in the mirror, a small tiara was placed on her head. 

If only he could see how ridiculous she looked.

 

AHIRU WAS LEAD TO the grand dining hall, Mytho had shown it to her earlier, but now it was filled with guests, the chandeliers and candles were lit and cast a warm, champagne glow over the room, flowers filtered the air, and she smiled brightly at it all. 

“Oh, wow!”

“Yes, indeed. Is it just as wonderful as I promised?”

Ahiru jumped a little, but looked over at Mytho, who now stood beside her. “Yes! Yes, it’s all so amazing.” 

“It’s all for you, well, you and the Princess Kraehe, but it is for our marriage.”

She smiled softly. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Not even in your own kingdom?”

“No, our kingdom is small, not even our palace is like this.”

Mytho smiled. “Not as grand in Arnis, is it? Our wealth can be attributed to our trade, and we trade everything. We are quite a valuable asset to all of Europe.”

“Except for fish.”

“Pardon?”

Ahiru giggled. “Fish. The agreement, Arnis trades fish with you, and we get all of your goods.”

“An unfair trade. A woman as beautiful as you, nothing in the world is enough.”

She blushed, and looked away. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“That you have to marry me. That you don’t get to marry the one you love.”

“I love everyone, my heart is open and wide, but I have never fallen in love. Have you?”

She was quiet, was this a secret to share? Or one for her diary. “Yes.”

“I should be the one apologzing to you.”

“It never would have happened. He is-” She paused, how to word it in a way that wouldn’t give her away? She would just have to switch their roles. “He is the son of a fisherman. Not even a noblemen. I never would have been allowed to marry him.” 

“It is a tragedy, then.”

She gave him a sad smile. “Right.”

“Did he love you?”

“No, he didn’t.”

“I will do my best to give you a happy marriage, and maybe one day, you’ll think to yourself, how silly I was, to have fallen in love with a fisherman’s son, when a handsome prince was on the way.”

She laughed. “I hope so. Mytho?”

“Yes?”

“If I don’t fall in love with you, will you be mad?”

“Ahiru, if you don’t fall in love with me, I will have failed in my duties as a prince; as a husband.”

She smiled. 

“Your Grace! You’re late!” 

Mytho smiled at the servant, “Thank you.” He held Ahiru’s hand up in the air, and lead her to the banquet. 

“Presenting, Prince Siegfried Mytho, the second son of Queen Myrtha Helmia, and his betrothed, Princess Odette Ahiru of Schleswig-Holstein.” 

Mytho smiled, the guests all seated and waiting for them. “My apologies for being late.” His voice carried across the room, so all could hear. “It is impossible to keep track of time when conversing with a Princess as enchanting as the one who stands next to me.”

She blushed again and they walked down the steps, Mytho lead her to her chair.

She sat down, expecting him to sit next to her, but she sat on the Queen’s right, and he sat at her left hand. 

Ahiru looked over at the Crowned Prince, he sat next to her and she worried that this night wouldn’t go as well as she had hoped it would. 

The Princess Kraehe Rue sat next to Mytho. 

Wives weren’t allowed to sit next to their husbands. She remembered. It was improper. 

All plates were filled, every glass of wine untouched, but they all waited for the Queen to take the first bite before they themselves indulged. 

As lifeless as Ahiru remembered the Queen to be, she picked up her golden fork and chewed quietly on her food. 

In a second, everyone continued their conversations, food was eaten and wine was swallowed. And as Ahiru ate the food before her, she had no idea how the Queen could be so lifeless. She couldn’t stop the moan that came from her throat at the mere taste of the food, she had never tasted anything better. 

She looked across the table, half of her vision blocked by the candelabras, but watched as Mytho and the Princess talked, laughing and smiling at each other.

Ahiru pouted. 

“So, you are the Princess who will marry my little brother?”

She jolted, she had not expected the Crowned Prince to talk. “Yes, Your Grace.”

“I prefer Your Majesty.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine, just make sure to correct yourself in the future.”

“Yes, Your- Your Majesty.”

“And you come from Arnis? The little fishing town?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

He was silent and when Ahiru looked over she saw the slightest movement of his jaw. Was he chewing? How much food did he put in there? Obviously not enough if it took such little movement to chew. 

She looked across the table, the Princess Kraehe’s fork flashed in the candlelight and Ahiru saw the smallest piece of meat carved out on her fork. 

She looked down at her plate, her food half gone, had she been eating too much? 

Oh no, then everyone was going to see she wasn’t really a princess and-

“Obviously they don’t have manners, if they teach their Princess’ to scarf down their food as soon as they sit down.”

She reddened. At least she was still a Princess, just an ill-mannered one. 

“I beg your pardon.”

“Perhaps it is better that you are marrying my little brother, it would be embarrassing to have you sit beside me on the throne.”

Her hand tightened on her fork, and she bit her tongue, but now her face reddened in anger. 

“Even the common woman should have better control over herself at the table. How barbaric is Anus?”

She gritted her teeth. “It’s. Arnis.”

“Is it now? I couldn’t tell the difference.” 

“Perhaps, so tell me why then, you came to us looking for aide? Looking for a bride? If we are what you say, you should have gone somewhere else.” 

“Perhaps we should have.”

But before she could say anything else, Drosselmeyer stood and grabbed the attention of the room.

“Ladies and Lords, peasants and commoners, I welcome you all to the first of Fünf Festivals. Eat, be merry, the night is yours to do with as you wish, but may I invite the Crowned Prince Lohengrin Autor and his betrothed the Princess Kraehe Rue of Baden-Württemberg,” The Crowned Prince rose and stepped around the table to Princess Kraehe, she pushed out her chair, and he gave her his hand. “And the Prince Siegfried Mytho and the Princess Odette Ahiru to give us the first dance.” 

Mytho was beside her, and the guests applauded for them. She pushed out her chair, but the clapping covered it as it screeched along the floor. She grimaced, and Mytho offered her a smile and his hand. 

“Don’t worry about it. No one heard.”

“You did!”

He laughed. 

A small four piece orchestra played the first of many songs as the three members of royalty and Ahiru danced the first dance of the night. 

“You’re a splendid dancer!”

“Hardly, I’m stepping on your toes.”

“I can barely feel a thing.”

She giggled and he lead her through an easy waltz, but it was nothing compared to the one the Princess and Crown Prince danced. It was elegant and beautiful, unlike the dances Ahiru would dance, the jig she and her friends would perform at their improper parties. 

She blushed. 

“You are a beautiful dancer, I promise.” He smiled. 

“Thank you.” 

The song ended, and many clapped for the players while others rose from their chairs to join them on the dancing floor.

“Before you sit down, I have a friend I want you to meet.” Mytho smiled. “He’s been my best friend since I was young. Wait here.”

She smiled and nodded, suddenly standing alone amongst the dancers, their skirts swirling around their partners, they all seemed to know the same dance and it was mesmerizing to watch. 

“Ahiru. I would like you to meet Fakir.”

Ahiru turned around, her smile ready, but it dropped as soon as she saw who Mytho’s best friend was. 

It was the man from earlier, the man who saved Uzura; the man who insulted her. 

“It is an honor to meet you, Your Grace.” He bowed, but his head never dipped below hers. 

“Prince Siegfried!”

Mytho smiled. “I’ll be a moment, dance with her, get to know my future wife.”

“Of course.” But once Mytho turned away, he scowled down at her. His hand rested on her waist, one took her hand and he lead her in the dance that everyone else partook in. “So, I was right in my earlier observation.”

“About what?”

“You are the Princess that will marry Prince Siegfried.”

She pursed her lips. “And?”

He ignored her pulling her around the ballroom floor, he was a wonderful dancer, she noticed, his movements were well practiced, and he moved with a fluidity she could not master. 

She could only think of Edel, trying to show her even the most simple waltz. 

Fakir didn’t even look at her. 

“I don’t know who you think you are, but you shouldn’t talk to anyone like that! That’s very rude.”

He scoffed. “And why should I treat you with civility?”

“If you are Mytho’s best friend, maybe-”

“That’s rather informal of you. Perhaps you should refer to him by his proper title.”

“He asked me to call him by his name. But as I was saying! Maybe you should treat me a bit nicer!”

“I will treat you nicely when I think you deserve to be treated as such, but until then, I will do what I think is in mine and Mytho’s best interest.”

“You don’t think I want what’s best for my husband?”

“Betrothed. You’re not married to him yet.”

“In two weeks time, I will be.”

“Two weeks. In two weeks you will know your place.”

“I will- I think in two weeks you will know your place! You can’t talk to me like this!” 

“You’re nothing but a silly little girl from a small village, only here to marry Mytho to seal a deal, he deserves better than you.”

“I think he deserves better friends than you!”

“I am his best friend for a reason, I look out for his best interest, I take care of him, and I make sure that no one will hurt him. Consider this a warning.” He leaned down, their dancing stopped, and he whispered in her ear. “If you hurt Mytho in any capacity, I will not hesitate to hurt you back.”

Fakir pulled back and walked away, leaving her alone once more. He walked past the dancers, and she couldn’t stop herself from following him. She clenched her fists as she pushed past the crowd, she wasn’t able to catch up however, when he pushed open the door and walked out into the night. 

She bristled and moved faster, she stood in the threshold of the door that lead out into the castle gardens. She didn’t see him and all that illuminated the night was the full moon. 

“Ahiru!” 

Ahiru didn’t look over her shoulder, still upset about Fakir, about what he said to her, now and the hours before. 

“Ahiru, are you alright?” Mytho asked her. 

But she didn’t respond, her heart raced, and she could only think about how much she hated his guts.

Chapter Text

SAYING I LOVE YOU was not what it’s cracked up to be. 

When I told him I loved him, I thought my life would change, and perhaps it did, just not in the way I expected. 

I said I love you, and he said…

Well, he didn’t say what I expected him to say, but then…

They needed me, they had no daughters, only sons, and I would be a great asset to the kingdom. Didn’t I want to be an asset to the crown? 

I said yes because I loved him and he begged me to go. 

I wonder if I’ll ever see him again. 

 

THE FAIR LASTED THREE days, and she was excited to visit a fair as grand and noble as the one Mytho promised. 

The few fairs Arnis had were small, lasting only a few hours, the smell of fish strong in the air, and she would always go. It was the only time the royal family came down from their ivory tower, and she would give anything to spend time with him. 

With…

“Ahiru, look!” Mytho rested his hand on her arm and pointed to the tents, being hoisted up, the people milling around, chatting and laughing as they set up their booths, children ran between their mother’s legs, picking up sticks and swinging them like swords. “It’s starting, we should go now.” 

“Now? No one else is ready?” Ahiru laughed at his excitement. 

“I am.”

Ahiru looked over at Princess Kraehe. She pulled a white glove down her wrist, securing it in place. 

“Princess Kraehe.” Ahiru curtised. 

“Princess Odette.” She curtsied back.

“You-you can just call me Ahiru.” She gave the Princess a crooked smile. She only gave the offering because she knew she’d never respond if someone called her by that name. 

Princess Kraehe offered a small smile. “Ahiru. You may call me Rue, as I have instructed Mytho to call me. No sense in calling a future sister-in-law something so formal.” 

Ahiru relaxed, she had been worried that Pr- Rue would be like Autor, a little more cold, a little less polite, but Ahiru thought her to be kind, and sweet. 

Someone she could call friend. 

Ahiru heard the sounds of footsteps echoing behind her, and turned to the grand staircase. 

“Good morning, Miss. Edel!” 

Miss. Edel smiled, she held Uzura’s hand in her own as she made careful steps down the stairs. “Good morning, my dear.”

“We were just leaving for the fair, will you join us?” Mytho asked. 

“I was asked to attend with Herr Drosselmeyer and the Queen, but Uzura cannot be kept still.”

Ahiru smiled. “Of course we’ll take her with us.”

“How kind of you, Princess.” Edel said, and she curtsied. “Go, Uzura.”

“Yes, zura!” She shouted, she let go of her mother's hand and ran to Ahiru, colliding into her satin covered legs. “Let’s go, zura!” 

“Ready?” Mytho asked, and the doors opened, the sun filtered into the room and Ahiru closed her eyes, breathing in the fresh air.

She and Rue nodded, and Mytho escorted them down the palace steps to the fair. 

Mytho was more than excited, “It’s been a long time since we’ve had a fair. The last one, it must have been five years ago, I was only fifteen then.”

“How young.” Rue remarked. She stood straight, she held her hands pinned to her sides and kept her chin level with the ground. 

It was good she was to be queen, Ahiru thought, a queen ought to be graceful and the picture of elegance. 

Ahiru let herself be distracted by Uzura, who pulled at her hand every time they passed a booth so she had a chance to look inside and see what was there. 

Ahiru tried to restrain Uzura, telling her she couldn’t buy everything there, that she had to save it for what she really wanted. 

It was half way through the day when Uzura stopped and pulled at Ahiru’s hand.

“I want to go back there, zura!”

“Why? We already went that way.” Ahiru said. 

“But, I want a ribbon, zura! For my hair!” Uzura patted her head. 

Ahiru smiled, she turned to Mytho and Rue, how kindly they stopped and waited for Uzura whenever her curiosity got the better of her. “You go on ahead, we’ll catch up.”

“Are you sure?” Mytho asked. 

“Yeah, I'm sure!” Ahiru smiled, her hand was being tugged roughly by Uzura, but she didn’t move just yet. “I’ll see you around!” She waved and let Uzura lead her astray. 

Rue and Mytho waved, they fell back easily into their conversation. 

“It’s back here, zura!” 

“I remember.” Ahiru smiled. “Across from the blacksmith’s tent.” She squinted her eyes and looked out over the tents to find the only one that had an open roof and smoke billowing up from it. 

“Here we are, zura!” Uzura bounced up and down as she ran back through the tent, letting her hand pass over each and every ribbon that hung in the air. 

Ahiru smiled as she watched, but she also saw the little girls that touched the ribbons with the tips of their fingers, as if they were afraid they would ruin it. She could tell they wanted the ribbons just as much as Uzura did. 

Ahiru squatted down in front of the little girls, of which there were five in total, and said. “What’s your name?”

“Cordelia.” 

“Would you like a ribbon?”

Cordelia nodded. “Yeah, but Mama says we can’t afford it.” She pouted, sticking out her bottom lip. 

Ahiru smiled, she toyed with the one Cordelia pet earlier. “Do you know who can afford it?”

Cordelia thought for a second, but then shook her head.

“I can. Why don’t all of you pick your favorite ribbons and I’ll purchase it for you. I’ll even braid them into your hair.”

“Really?” 

“Yes, really.” 

The little girls squealed in pure joy and picked from the kaleidoscope of ribbons. 

“I want this one!” 

“Is this one too much?”

“No, nothing is too much.” Ahiru said. 

“Look at this one! Look at this one!” 

“Can I get this one?” 

“Of course.” Ahiru nodded, beaming at the little girl.

“‘Nd, can you braid it into my hair?” The little girl tugged at her hair. 

“I will. If you want me to.”

She grinned brightly. 

Ahiru went to the booth’s owner and smiled. “Sorry, I caused quite a bit of havoc.”

“It’s quite alright! Those little girls with their sad eyes, I was about to just give them my ribbons, you saved me a pretty penny.”

“Ahiru.” Uzura came up beside her, tugging her dress. “I’d like this one, please, zura.”

Ahiru held out her hand and took the ribbon, and soon all of the ribbons were in her hand and she was placing a fair amount of money into the shopkeepers hand. 

Ahiru sat out front of the booth on a crate, she placed Uzura in front of her and picked out her ribbon from the bunch.

“Now, how would you like it to be tied in your hair?” 

Ahiru spent a long time with those young girls, she braided the ribbons carefully into their hair, or used the ribbon to tie it all up, but in the end, each girl had a pretty ribbon to showcase. 

“You’re really pretty, miss.” 

“Thank you.”

“How come I’ve never seen you before?” 

“Well, I came here from Arnis to marry My-  Prince Siegfried.”

The girls gasped, even Uzura. “You’re a princess?” 

Ahiru gave them a half grin and a nod, and that excited them so much more, they gave clumsy bows and asked her questions. 

What was it like to be a princess? 

What was the prince like?

Do you love the prince? 

Ahiru listened to them patiently, allowing them to ask their questions, she had fallen in love with these little girls.

She learned their names, the first and eldest was Cordelia, she had black hair and chose a sea blue ribbon that perfectly contrasted the dark shade of her tresses. There was Tilda, with pale blonde hair and green eyes, and her little sister Lottie. Chiara, who had red hair, that curled like corkscrews, and proved a challenge to braid, and Luise, who favored pale pink, her hair a dark brown, her eyes the same color.

Uzura was fast friends with all of them and Ahiru knew that her next few days would be spent in the presence of these little girls. 

“Do you want one, Princess?” Lottie asked, she had her hands pressed into Ahiru’s knee, leaning into her as she talked of Arnis and her people. 

Ahiru looked over at the booth, she did see one that she liked. It was simple, a plain yellow ribbon, it shone in the sunlight and it made her feel warm.

“I have plenty of ribbons, oh but look.” Ahiru touched the ribbon that had loosened, the braid slowly coming undone. “Sit down and let me fix it.”

Ahiru set to work, but didn’t notice the eyes that watched her from across the way. 

She had to know he was right there, she had to have seen him, but as Fakir looked out at her, it was obvious that her intentions were not to show off her wealth, but they were genuine. 

He scowled and crossed his arms. 

What game was she playing? 

“Fakir, you’re going to scare customers.” Charon clapped Fakir’s shoulder roughly. 

“Do you know who that girl is?”

“Which one?” Charon looked around, every girl from the kingdom was here, Charon couldn’t tell which girl he referred to. 

“Over there, at Elif’s ribbon booth, she’s braiding the ribbons into-”

“Oh! Yes I see her.” Charon nodded his head and scratched his chin. “She’s very pretty.” 

“What? That doesn’t matter. Ugh, never mind.” 

Charon rolled his eyes, but smiled nonetheless. His attention was then drawn to a young couple who admired a metal broach he made, and Fakir was left to mope.

She had to know. 

She had to know he was right there. 

She didn’t know.

She didn’t know he was right there.

She had no clue! 

Fakir growled under his breath and left his booth. 

He made his way across the crowd until he stood beside her and even then she didn’t notice.

“Hey. Didn’t I tell you yesterday you couldn’t be trusted to watch children? Why do you have five more?”

“Fakir!” Lottie cried, going to him and tugging at his hand. “Have you met the Princess?”

“She bought us ribbons!” Chiara smiled, pulling at the green bow that held up half of her hair. 

“I can see.”

Louise whispered into Ahiru’s ear, and she laughed. 

Ahiru beamed at Louise, before turning her brilliant smile on him, “She says that I should buy you a ribbon and braid it into your hair.” 

The young girls became a clamor at the thought, and one hand became five all pulling him down until he knelt beside Ahiru. 

He gazed up at her and was dazzled by the sun, resting just behind her head, nearly blinding him, but making her look- 

He cleared his throat. “I have to go.”

The girls whined as he stood again. 

“Will you be here tomorrow too, Fakir?” Cordelia asked. 

“I will be in Charon’s booth, yes.” He said.

“You should make us hair pins! And then we can have even more ways for the Princess to play with our hair.”

“Ahiru.” She said. 

“What?”

“I told them to call me Ahiru.”

“But you’re a princess!” Tilda cried. “We have to address you formally!” 

The five girls gave her wobbled curtsies and she laughed. 

“Don’t worry about addressing me formally. Fakir, is there anything else you would like to say?” She turned to him, her smile vanquished and she gave him the coldest glare she could manage.

He pursed his lips, but was unable to come up with a mild enough retort to say to her in front of the girls. He bowed instead. “No, nothing at all.” 

“Good.”

“I bid you goodbye, Your Highness.”

Ahiru bristled as he left. She knew it was an insult, that no one called royalty by such a title. 

“It’s okay.” Tilda patted Ahiru’s arm. “We’ll braid his hair tomorrow.” 

Ahiru smiled at Tilda, but in her heart she hoped she didn’t have to see him tomorrow, she hoped she never saw him again. 

 

AHIRU FELT AWKWARD AS she sat in the Queen’s box, she smoothed out the wrinkles of her dress and could only think of how miserable she was going to be. 

She hated watching the games, she didn’t like seeing men attack each other for no reason other than a test of strength. 

She also sat in an awkward position. 

She sat in the leftmost chair, and as a result, could only hear half of what was being spoken between the Queen and her two sons, not well enough for her to add anything to the conversation, not well enough to at least enjoy what was being said. 

She felt a pull at her gown, Ahiru opened her eyes and looked down to find Uzura. 

“Uzura? What are you doing here?” 

“I want to sit in the box, zura! Mama said I couldn’t, but I want to, zura.” 

“Alright.” Ahiru looked over at those in the box, but if they noticed the little girl who had stumbled in, they had nothing to say about it. “You’ll have to sit on the ground, you can’t sit on my lap.”

“Okay, zura!” She stood by Ahiru’s chair, bouncing on her toes as the Queen stood and with a loud voice announced that the games would begin.

Everyone cheered and shouted, and Uzura covered her ears. 

The first few games were small and inconsequential, sword brawls, falconry, and archery, no, the main problem started when the first steed came out. 

Ahiru tried not to watch, instead she looked out over the stadium, and noticed the various sections the people sat in. The only separation were the small flags people held to show which house they cheered for. There was a multitude of color, but when Ahiru looked at the knights that danced in the arena and could see their alignment. 

She looked above her, the same green flag that hung on the palace walls, she didn’t see any knights that belonged to the royal family. 

Uzura gasped lightly as a knight mounted on a horse, both covered in magenta and shining gold, came out of the gate with a lance and galloped his horse to a bar hung high embellished with hoops for him to catch with his lance. 

He only missed once, but when he finished, Uzura watched where his horse went and decided that she wanted to see the horses for herself. 

She stepped out of the box. 

Ahiru looked down, noticing too late that Uzura was gone. Her hands grasped the chair as she looked around for the small child.

“What’s wrong?” Mytho asked, leaning over in his chair. 

“Nothing!” She answered, far too shrilly. “But, um, I’ll be right back!” 

Ahiru stood and left the Queen’s box, trying her best to find Uzura in the crowds. 

“Ooh, Uzura!” She whispered to herself. “When I find you…” 

For a moment, the sea of people parted and Ahiru got a clear glimpse of Uzura walking towards the gate.

“Of course she wanted to see the horses.” Ahiru rubbed her temple, but picked up her skirts and made her way to the gate. 

“Excuse me, pardon me, I’m sorry I just need to squeeze through!” Ahiru panted as she finally made her way into the gate. 

“I’m sorry, but you’re not allowed back here.”

“I’m sorry, my charge wandered in I need to-”

“No entree.”

She pouted. “I just need to retrieve her!” 

He was silent. 

She groaned. “She’s right there, look!” 

“Sorry, ma’am.”

“Didn’t I tell you to keep a better eye on her?”

Ahiru screwed her eyes closed. Maybe if she just pretended he wasn’t there he would go away. 

“Look, zura, It’s Fakir, zura!” 

Ahiru gave Fakir a wide grin, he held Uzura’s hand, making sure she wasn’t trampled by the horses.

“You can let her in,” He told the guard. “She’s the Princess Odette Ahiru of Arnis.”

The guard turned pale and stumbled as he tried to go into a low bow. “My- my apologies! I had no idea-!”

“It’s alright.” Ahiru said, she placed her hand on his shoulder. “You were just obeying orders.” 

She picked up her skirts once more and went to where Fakir stood. 

“Thank you, but I can take her back now.”

“I don’t think you should, I think you’re incapable.” Fakir turned and lead Uzura away. She twisted back around and waved goodbye to Ahiru.

She scoffed. “So, you’re just going to kidnap her now?” 

“I think the term rescuing applies here a bit better.” He bent down and picked up Uzura, placing her on the saddle. “Don’t you?”

Uzura giggled and smiled. She leaned forward and pet the horse’s mane. 

“Careful.” Fakir said, placing his hand on her back. “You don't want to fall off.”

“I won’t, zura.” 

Ahiru watched in silent wonder, he was so gentle with Uzura, with his horse, and it was obvious why those little girls adored him. 

Why was he such a jerk to her? 

“I want to thank you.” He said. 

“Pardon?” What had he said? Were her ears deceiving her? 

“Yesterday. Coredila, Tilda, the girls. Their parents aren’t well off, and their fathers are off at war. They aren’t used to being shown kindness.” 

Ahiru blushed and looked at the ground. “I- I didn’t know that. It's just the way they looked at the ribbons and they reminded me-” of myself. “I didn’t want them to go home from the fair without something to remember it by. Mytho said it had been a long time since there was a fair.” 

“And for good reason.” 

“So, you’re still at war with-”

“Baden Wurttemberg? Yes. But with the agreement that Rue and Autor will marry, and combine our states, the war will end.” 

“Is- Or rather, are men still out there? Still at battle?”

Fakir shook his head. “No, a ceasefire has been called. It was issued a few months prior when their arrangement was first brought into play.”

“Oh. That’s good then, right? For the girls?”

“In some ways, it is. But in others-”

“Fakir, is my steed ready?” 

Ahiru looked over at a knight dressed in full armor. He strode up to them, his cape a firey red, pinned to his chest with a metal broach. Fakir peeled Uzura away, holding her in his arms. 

“Yes, Berinhard.” 

The knight took the horses reins, but before he left he placed a heavy hand on Fakir’s shoulder. “Good luck.” The Knight smirked and winked  she lead the horse away.

“Those men will forever be scarred by war.” Fakir continued as if he had never been interrupted.

Ahiru averted her eyes and nodded. 

“They’re a lost cause, but it doesn’t mean that their daughters should suffer.” 

Fakir passed Uzura into her arms. 

“You should go back, they’ll be looking for you.” 

Ahiru nodded, taken aback by how soft his voice became. 

Ahiru and Uzura made their way back to the Queen’s box and she felt uneasy as she sat down. 

“Oh good, you’re back, you’re just in time for the Black Knight.” Mytho whispered into her ear with excitement. 

“Who’s the Black Knight?”

“The Black Knight is a mystery, no one knows who he is, he doesn’t claim any house, and walks under no flag, only nobles are allowed to participate, Lords and such, but he is the best knight anyone has ever seen. I’m sure everyone is here to see him.” 

In the audience, during the earlier games, some held up different colored flags to represent their preferred knight, navy and silver, white and gold popped above the crowd, but as Ahiru looked out over them all, almost all carried a black piece of cloth, waving it in the air as a knight in dirty, black armor rode out on a horse. 

“I’m not allowed to cheer for anyone but the Queen’s knight.” Mytho pointed down to the knight in shining armor and red cape. “Berinhard, the Earl Of Stäke House.

“But, if I had a choice, I would be carrying the biggest black flag anyone had ever seen.”

Ahiru gave him a smile, and watched as the shining knight on his horse, and the knight in dirty armor jousted. 

Not even one round and the Queen’s knight had been unseated.

The crowd erupted into cheers calling out praises for the Black Knight, even Berinhard, who pumped his first in the air.

 

AHIRU HELD UZURA’S HAND as she lead her through the fair one last time before everything would be taken down. 

“Alright, what do you want to do, Uzura?” 

“I want to find Coredila, zura! And Tilda!” 

“I bet they’re at the ribbon booth again.” Ahiru smiled and laughed as Uzura tugged her towards Elif’s booth. 

“Princess!” Was the chorus as she drew near. 

The little girls gave her their wobbly curtsies, and Ahiru gave them a curtsy back. 

They pulled Uzura away from her and they sat, they chatted and braided each others hair, trading ribbons and giggling. 

But, their laughter seemed to be interrupted by a band of marauders dressed in dark attire. 

“Make way!” One called. “The famous black smith of Rothenburg has come to challenge the so called black smith of Nordlingen! Make way!” 

“Who's that?” Lottie asked, her arms were wrapped around Ahiru’s neck as she told her secrets. 

“I don’t know. But they’re being very disruptive.” 

Ahiru looked over at Fakir, currently the only black smith at the fair.

He seemed bored. 

The band came to the small tent and entered without approval.

“And who might you be?” One of the men asked. 

“Fakir. The black smith you so wish to challenge.” 

He guffawed. “Look at his face! You are but an inexperienced child.”

“I haven’t been called a child in years, and I am hardly inexperienced.” 

“Quick witted too, what ever shall we-”

But he was cut off when a man raised his hand.

“You are the black smith of Nordlingen?”

“I am.”

The man removed his cloak and passed it to the heckler. 

“I challenge you then, to a battle of craftsmanship.”

“I accept.”

The people around Ahiru began to gossip, but she was too low to the ground to hear any of it. 

She stood, distangling Lottie’s arms and made her way through the crowd until she stood in front, able to watch it all. 

“And what shall our challenge be.”

“A sword.” Fakir said. 

The man’s lips curled into a smile. “Don’t you know what I am famous for making?”

“I believe the broadsword comes to mind.” Fakir answered. 

“And this is still what you chose?”

Fakir nodded. 

“It is your death then.” 

And they began. 

It was hard to see, as everyone pushed and tried to see who would win. 

She knew it would take a while, and when others started to see that this would not be a competition won like the tournaments the other day, they slowly trickled away. 

Ahiru stayed, rooted to her spot as she watched the two men create two swords, and by the time Fakir had finished, it was nightfall. 

He threw water onto the metal and it hissed and sizzled, but he wrapped a leather strap around it’s handle and held it aloft. 

“I think we’re done here.”

The black smith looked at him in disbelief, his sword not even out of the fire. 

“How?” The blacksmith abandoned his sword and swiped Fakir’s from his hand. “How have you done this? Look!” He turned back to his entourage. “He even added two swans to its hilt!”

“You may finish yours, if you’d like and we can test the quality.” 

The black smith shook his head and handed Fakir back the sword. “No, my good sir, you have proven yourself to me.” He held out his hand, and Fakir shook it.

“Come.” He snapped his fingers and he and his followers left. 

“Wow, Fakir, that was amazing. How did you do that?” Ahiru stepped up to the booth, vacant besides the two of them now that the action was over.

He looked over at her and shrugged. “I’ve been making swords since I was eleven, I probably should have challenged him in making arrowheads, I’m terrible at those.”

Ahiru laughed. “You bamboozled him.”

He gave her the ghost of a smile and shook his head. “Here, give this to Mytho for me, will you?”

She took the sword in her hand, and it was light. “I thought swords were supposed to be heavy?”

“Not the way I make them.” 

She held the sword out. “Would this even do damage?” 

“Yes, here, let me show you.” He came out from his tent and took the sword back. There was tree between his booth and the one beside him with a low hanging branch thicker than Ahiru’s wrist. He took a wide stance and brought the sword down on the unexpecting tree, but it was sharp and strong and took down the branch without causing the wood to so much as chip. 

“Wow! You’re amazing!” Ahiru picked up the branch and ran her finger around it’s edge. “Poor tree, though.” 

“The tree will live.” Fakir said, patting the tree’s trunk. “You should get back, he’ll be expecting you.”

“Who will?”

He gave her a funny look. “Your betrothed?”

“Oh! Right, of course.” 

He passed her the sword, and she took it, allowing her fingers to pass over his. 

“The next event, the- the”

“The Baursspiel?”

“Yes! Will you be there?”

He nodded. “I will be.”

“Good.” 

She turned around, unable to stop the blush that overcame her cheeks.

Fakir only looked at his hand, he couldn’t help but think that her hands were rather rough to be the hands of a princess. 

 

“ARE YOU SURE YOU don’t want to go?” Ahiru asked Mytho, who sat at the breakfast table. 

“Of course, the Baursspiel is an event for peasants, we don’t have to watch.”

“Right, of course.” Ahiru nodded. “Well, I’m going, so, I’ll see you in the afternoon.”

“I’m sure you’ll be back sooner, it’s an awfully boring event.”

Ahiru smiled and gave a curtsy to all who were at the breakfast table. 

“Ahiru.” Edel called. “Uzura will be staying with me today, so don’t worry about her.”

“Oh, thank you.” 

 

“SO WHAT IS THE Baursspiel?” Ahiru asked Fakir, she picked up her skirts as she tread over the grassy field resting outside the Kingdom’s walls. 

“It's a Königsspiel for us commoners.” He rolled his eyes, they followed in the procession that lead to the edge of the forest. 

“Alright. What’s the Königsspiel?”

“You mean you don’t know anything about the history of the people you’re marrying into?”

“Uh-” Ahiru thought back to hours she spent with Edel, learning about how to be a proper princess. “I didn’t have the time to learn.” 

“The Königsspiel is centuries old, as old as Bavaria herself. When Bavaria first became a state separate from the Prussian Empire, they had no idea who to make king. The strongest man, who could lead them in any war? The smartest man, who could solve any problem? The man with the most heart, whose kindness would help all? The answer was not easily found, until one day, the people decided they would have a game.”

“A game?”

“Yes, a game. They learned that the forest was filled with enchanted creatures.”

“Like fairies?”

“No one knows for sure. But, the first game was won, and the man who succeeded was pronounced king. And that’s how it was played for a long time, but in recent generations, the Königsspiel is a test for the future king to prove himself worthy to his people. Anyone can challenge the Crown Prince, but most fail, not realizing the stakes the Königsspiel presents.”

“It sounds dangerous.” 

Fakir offered her a small smile. “It is. But, the Baursspiel is a small chance to see what it’s like, we’re not allowed to go any farther than a mile in.”

“Oh? How far will Autor have to go?”

Fakir grimaced, he clenched his fist but it went entirely unnoticed by Ahiru, her eyes locked on the forest. “The length of a marathon. Twenty-six miles.”

“Wow! Really? 

“A round trip, so he’ll travel thirteen miles in, and then thirteen miles out.” 

They reached the edge of the forest, and many stopped to pull out blankets and quilts, laying them on the floor as others, mostly young men and boys, traveled into the forest.

“Are you going in?” 

Fakir produced a small blanket and threw it out over the grass. “No.”

“Oh.” Ahiru sat down on the blanket as she watched the young men disappear into the forest. “It’s so thick, I can’t see anything!”

Fakir nodded. “That’s why most don’t go to watch.”

“But you watch?”

He nodded. “If something happens, I can go in and help.” 

“Oh. That’s very noble of you.”

“I care for my people.”

Ahiru studied him, there was a look in his eye, a fierce determination that she couldn’t explain. 

“Uzura’s not with you today.”

“No, her mother, Miss Edel kept her. She wants to keep some of their old learning schedule intact.” 

“Good, now I don’t have to worry about you losing her.”

“Hey! I-” Ahiru looked over and her anger vanished when she saw his teasing smile. Her anger mostly vanished. “You’re a jerk.”

“Oh, ouch.”

“So, can you tell me why you were a jerk before?” She asked shyly, she pulled her legs to her chest, and rested her chin on her knees. 

“I thought you were like them.” He whispered, so quietly she almost didn’t hear. “So many of the nobles outside of Bavaria care very little for the people they govern.”

“So you just assumed I was like that?”

“I did. It was unfair of me. But, I also care very much for Mytho,” He smirked. “He’s like a brother to me.” 

“I don’t want to hurt him. I like him. A lot.”

“But he deserves someone who will love him.” 

Ahiru nodded. “I know. What’s he like?”

“Haven’t you been spending every waking hour with him?”
Ahiru shook her head. “No, but he and Rue talk a lot. I’ve mostly been taking care of Uzura.”

“I’m happy he’s not engaged to her. I would have to protest greatly to that match.”

“Why? Rue’s really pretty. And nice.”

“She’s the daughter of the king who killed my- who killed Autor’s father. Her marriage to Autor is only to bring peace, but I don’t trust her blood.”

“You really don’t think she could be different from her father?” 

“She was born and raised in a war ridden country, obsessed with expanding its borders. There’s no doubt in my mind that they have been teaching her to be the very same.”

“You don’t think that a person can be more than what they were born to be?”

He gave her a sideways glance. “Perhaps a person can, but I find that if a boy is born into a family of shepherds, he’ll grow to be a shepherd.”

Ahiru thought of her father. Who was she born to be? She should be thanking her stars that she was here, in clothes smoother than satin rather than the cotton dress she used to wear. She rose above her station, but she was also lying, and was that any better than being a fisherman’s wife? 

There was a sharp cry and Fakir stood up, his hand on the sword at his belt. 

A mother stood from her blanket and opened her arms to her son, who wandered out of the forest with a scrape on his knee. 

Ahiru smiled, and Fakir sat down. 

“Just a booboo.” she said. “What do you know about Autor?”

“Autor.” He said, he sat back down and picked up a blade of grass, rolling it between his fingers before letting it flutter away in the wind. “He had to witness the death of two fathers, he watched his younger brother grow with popularity, he prefers to spend his days inside, studying, rather than being outside, being with people. For a king, it’s not a good image.”

“He’s very rude.”

“He can be. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him hold his tongue to anyone. He’s become entitled with the knowledge that in a month’s time he will be king. It’s poisoned him.” 

“He doesn’t sound very nice.” Ahiru pouted, she was fortunate that she wasn’t marrying him, but she felt pity for Rue, who was. 

“He can be. Just not often, and not in ways that are obvious to others.”

Ahiru furrowed her eyebrows together, her mind toiling over what he said about the Crown Prince. “You don’t want him to be king, do you?” 

Fakir let out a small breath of air, and Ahiru liked to think it was a chuckle. “No, I don’t, but talk like that will lead to my execution.”

“Who would you think would be a better king? Mytho?”

“Shh.”

Ahiru smiled. “Sorry. Hey, in a few days, at the parade, I’m supposed to have someone lead my horse, can you do it?”

“You want me to take up the position of a servant and guide your horse from the palace, around the kingdom back to the palace?”

“Yep.”

He turned to look at her, breaking his stare contest with the forest. “Why?”

Ahiru fiddled with her fingers. “You’re… different.”

“Different how?” Fakir turned his face back to the forest, but his attention was on her.

But in truth, she didn’t know how.

In Arnis, her friends called her silly and clumsy, the man she thought loved her sent her away, and used her love for his own selfish gain. No one acknowledged her, and no one paid her any kindness. 

Here, as a Princess, she was treated with an undeserving amount of respect. The girls bowed to her, the fake name she used was announced for all to hear, Autor treated her with hostility, Rue treated her with kindness, and Mytho treated her with hospitality. 

But Fakir…

From the first moment she had meet Fakir, no one had treated her like that. She watched as he rescued a child, and then scolded her, she watched the little girls’ fondness for him, she watched how gently he treated Uzura, and when given the chance, how he treated her in much the same way. 

He treated her like a person. 

Not the daughter of a fisherman. 

Not a Princess. 

But, a person. 

She smiled at him. “You just are.”

He rolled his eyes. “How did I know you would say that.” He gave a heavy sigh. “I will lead your horse.” 

She clapped her hands. “Thank you!” 

“Don’t get too excited, I’ll complain the whole time.” 

“No you won’t.” 

There was another cry, and he was back on his feet, he went to the edge of the forest, looking for who cried out. 

The viewers were quiet, they watched him, wondering what he would do next. 

There was another shout and Fakir raced into the forest, and in a second everyone rose to their feet. 

“What happened?”

“Do you think he’ll be alright?”

“It’s Fakir, of course he’ll be alright. And he’ll save that poor boy too.”

Ahiru was slower to stand, she was confused by the commotion. Was it really so serious? But now she was worried too. 

The other boys flooded out of the forest, faces of fear and panic broadcasting to everyone the danger that was in the forest. There was a strange sound that echoed from the branches, the leaves shook and birds took flight.

Ahiru started walking towards the forest, why did he do that? Why did he risk his life? What if he didn’t save that boy? What was Ahiru to do? 

“Hey wait!” 

“Stop!” 

“Don’t go into the forest!”

Voices called out to her, but she didn’t hear them, her feet kept marching to the forest’s edge. 

Hands grabbed at her and pulled her back.

“Don’t worry, it’s Fakir, he’ll save that kid. He always does.”

“What if he doesn’t?” Were the quick, harrowed words that came from her lips and she wormed her way out of the man's grasp and ran to the tree line. “Fakir!” 

She saw shadows, the slow movements of two people limping out of the forest. Ahiru fisted the fabric of her dress and ran inside.

“Fakir!” She shouted. “Oh thank goodness you’re alright.” 

Fakir offered himself as a crutch to the young boy whose leg appeared to be broken. The pant of his leg appeared to have ripped off, and his skin was covered in scrapes. 

“Did you really just run into the forest I just told you was dangerous?” Fakir raised an eyebrow at her.

“I wanted to make sure you’d be alright.”

He blinked at her. “I’m fine. Get out of here.”

Ahiru walked towards him and placed herself under the other arm of the young man. 

Fakir let out a heavy sigh. “Idiot.”

Her mouth fell open. “Jerk!”

“You should have stayed out of the forest, it’s dangerous!” 

“I wasn’t sure if you’d be okay!” 

“Obviously I am! Let’s get moving.” 

Ahiru scowled but nodded, she placed her arm on the young man’s lower back, bumping into Fakir’s, and they started to walk the young man out of the forest.

The young man mumbled something under his breath. 

“What was that?” Ahiru asked, turning her ear closer to him. 

“He’s been mumbled this whole time.” Fakir said, he shook his head. “I can’t make out a word of it.” 

Ahiru looked up at Fakir before she returned her attentions to the young man. 

“The-” He said, still breathing heavily. “The forest.” 

“What about the forest?” She prompted, her voice low. 

The young man groaned in pain. “The- the forest, its-”

“Look, here they come!” 

Ahiru and Fakir stepped out of the forest, there was a scream and the mother of the young man came to him. 

“Oh my sweet boy! I told you you would get hurt.”

“Not now, mom.” He said, his voice starting to sound stronger.

“Oh Fakir, thank you, thank you so much.” The mother cried, a tear rolled down her face and she patted Fakir’s cheek. She turned to Ahiru and smiled at her. “Princess.” 

Ahiru smiled back.

The crowd gave a weak cheer for Fakir and his bravery, but he waved it away. 

“You should go home.” He said. “Get some rest.”

She nodded. “Right.”

“I’ll walk you back.”

She gave a shy smile, but looked back at the forest, unable to shake the feeling that a thousand eyes had been watching her.

 

AHIRU STEPPED INTO THE palace and waved Fakir good bye. 

“Finally, you’re back.” Mytho strode forward and smiled. “I was worried you passed out from the boredom.”

“It was fun. I talked to Fakir mostly.”

Mytho perked up. “Really? I thought he botched it when he abandoned you on the ballroom floor at the banquet.” 

“He did, but he made up for himself.” 

Mytho hummed. “What do you think of him?”

“He’s-” Ahiru pursed her lips, there was really no other word to describe him. “He’s a jerk.”

He groaned. “Oh no, I knew it. You hate him. I promise he’s a good person underneath, he just has a protective layer.”

“I know.”

“And- What do you mean you know?”

Ahiru give him a tiny smile. “He’s very good with Uzura.”

She started walking down the halls and Mytho was quick to follow her. 

“I’m glad to hear it. My wife and my best friend should be on good terms.”

“I was worried, that first night, if he really was such a brutish man that I couldn’t spend much time in the same room as him. But, I wouldn’t want you to have to pick between your best friend and your wife.”

“That's very kind of you.”

“He thinks of you as a brother.” Ahiru said. “I think it’s sweet.”

Mytho’s smile faded. “It is.” 

“Oh, did I say something wrong?”

“No, no you didn’t. You just reminded me of a conversation I had with him a few weeks prior.”

“Should I change the subject?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know the girls Coredila, Lottie, Luise, Chiara, and Tilda?” 

Mytho raised an eyebrow. “Who?”

“Oh! They’re these girls I met at the fair, they’re very sweet, but their fathers have been away at war.” 

“It’s nice to see you getting to know your future kingdom, but I’ll admit, you’re doing better than me.”

Ahiru stood before her door, and turned to him. “Well, I bid you goodnight.” 

“Good night.” 

She smiled, opened the door and shutting it behind her, Ahiru leaned against it and smiled to herself. He had a way of making her feel breathless. 

Even with just a few words, a few simple words strung together to make a compliment. 

She was beginning to feel that she could give him her heart. 

 

MISS EDEL PLACED HER hand on Ahiru’s leg. “Don’t be nervous, you’ve been riding horses for years.” 

Ahiru wanted to disagree, in fact this was her first time riding a horse. 

She hoped it didn’t show.

“It’s just a short trip around town, you won’t even notice it.” Miss Edel assured her. 

Ahiru shook her head. “What if I fall?”

“You won’t. It’s just around the town and then to the final Festival. The ball.” 

Ahiru nodded. “Right. And everyone will be watching me.”

“I have faith in you.” 

Ahiru smiled. 

“Ready?” Fakir asked, walking up to her and stretching out her hand for the reins. 

She nodded. “Yes.” 

The parade consisted of many things, there were stilt walkers, jugglers, fire breathers, a small percussion line, and rows of nobility, first from her Kingdom, the three Lords her kingdom had to offer, and a single duke. They would leave after her marriage to Mytho, and they knew to keep their lips tight about who she was. 

Then there were the nobles from Baden Württemberg, but most notably, from Rothensburg. There were Lords and Ladies, Barons and Baronesses, Earls and Countesses; Dukes and Duchesses. 

Ahiru counted thirty in total, but she knew she missed a few. 

She suddenly felt small, she felt like a small little girl riding a horse for the first time, she felt like a small town girl, her kingdom the smallest in all of Germany, she couldn’t even bring herself to count the nobles of Bavaria, all present to partake in the marriage of their King and Prince. 

Perhaps that is the real reason they chose her to go, not because the King and Queen had no daughters, but because they didn’t want to really give up any of their royal blood. 

“Ahiru. Are you alright?”

Ahiru broke out of her thoughts and looked to Fakir, his head was forward, and he walked at a steady pace, and it took a minute to realize that her horse was moving, and had been for a while. 

“Yes! I’m fine! I’m sorry.” 

“Don’t be, just start smiling and waving.” 

Ahiru nodded, she painted on a smile and waved to every onlooker, but her heart was troubled. 

She didn’t belong here. 

The parade was short, blissfully so, she noticed a few familiar faces in the crowd, Miss. Elif, the boy who broke his leg, her cloud of canaries, waving their ribbons around in the air as she passed.

And soon she was back in the palace stable, her legs sore, and begging to come down off the saddle. 

“Careful, I’ll help you down.”

Fakir offered his hand, but it was already too late, her foot stuck in the stirrup as she swung her leg over the other side, she was unable to stop herself from falling. 

“Woah!” She let out a gasp of surprise, but didn’t hit the ground. 

Fakir had caught her. 

“I told you to be careful, you’re not good at listening, are you?” 

“Well, I-!”

“Hold still, I’ll get your foot.” Still holding her, he reached forward and plucked her foot from its trap. “There.” 

With two feet planted on the floor, and two hands still holding onto his arms, her two eyes looked up into his. 

“Thank you.” 

She pulled away, suddenly embarrassed. “Well! I have to get ready! For the ball. It’s tonight!” 

Ahiru was quick to walk away, her face red as red could be and was surrounded by a gaggle of maids all trying to get her ready for the ball. 

 

AHIRU LAUGHED AS MYTHO threw her around the ballroom in a sloppy waltz that neither of them knew the steps to. 

“You’re an amazing dancer!”

“Truly the best. All others should be ashamed.” He held her hand in his, his other creeping across her waist as he pulled her close. 

Someone cleared their throat.

Mytho and Ahiru stopped and turned to Fakir. 

“May I cut in?”

Mytho grinned, trading Ahiru’s hand into Fakir’s. “She is yours.” 

Ahiru smiled as she watched Mytho go, he found Rue immediately and offered her his hand. She had been seated at the table, her dancing partner had abandoned her long ago.

“You did well today.” He said.

“Oh, thank you?” 

He placed his hand lightly on her waist, just barely touching her, and moving her into a simple waltz.

“On the horse, I mean.”

“Why- why wouldn’t I have? I’ve ridden horses all my life.”

“You seemed nervous.” His steps took a turn, starting a more complicated dance.

“I don’t normally ride in parades. I’m surprised you wanted to dance with me, considering last time.”

“I owe you a dance, do I not?” 

She smiled. “Yes, you do.” 

His steps grew more complicated, but she didn’t notice, even when she herself didn’t know the dance. 

It was a grand thing, he lead her around in wide circles, spinning her around and out, she smiled and laughed at it all, and didn’t mind when the rebound resulted in her crashing into his chest. 

The song ended, and those around them applauded the musicians and their set.

“May I have the next dance?”

Ahiru and Fakir turned around to see Herr Drosselmeyer, a man who had never spoken to her before. 

Fakir’s hand instinctively tightened around hers. 

“Of course.” He said. He lifted her hand and deposited it into Drosselmeyer’s. 

Ahiru looked back to Fakir, begging for help, for him to come back, but he was already gone, covered by the veil of party goers. 

“I believe we have not met face to face. My name is Herr Drosselmeyer.”

“I am Princess Odette Ahiru.” She said, and he began a waltz.

“You must excuse the behavior of that young man, he is only a black smith’s son.” 

“Fakir? He’s my friend, he’s a little bit of a jerk but-”

“What did you say his name was?”

“Fakir.”

Drosselmeyer’s face paled. “I believe you are mistaken. That young man is named Fritz.” 

Ahiru shook her head, “He’s never told me to call him that.” 

Drosselmeyer’s hand tightened, and his grin widened. “Ah, a miscommunication, how tragic, perhaps in the future it would be wise to refer to him by his proper name!”

“Right. Fakir.”

“There is no man here named Fakir.” 

Ahiru gave him a strange look. She didn’t think her Majesty’s advisor was doing too well. “Al- alright, I’ll take your word for it.” 

“You would do well to keep your companionship inside the castle walls. If you veer out of it, people may suspect you prefer lying in the mud with common folk, over dining with kings.”

“All the riches of the world are but mud without true friendship.” She argued back, unsure as to where this came from. 

“Keep your wits about you, you don’t want to be caught on the wrong side of history.”

He left her, the musicians only halfway done with their song, and she was left in the middle of the ballroom all over again. 

All she could do was watch as he walked away, her eyes glued on the salamander embroidered on the back of his coat.

“How rude of my grandfather.”

Ahiru jumped and looked over at Autor.

Where had he come from?

“Let me finish his dance.” Autor took his place, taking her hand, placing his other on her waist. “He is an old fool, you must forgive him.”

“Right.”

“A woman of few words, or perhaps you just aren’t quick enough to form a proper sentence?”

Ahiru looked around the room, trying to find Mytho, to flag him down and have him rescue her, but she saw him across the dance floor dancing with Rue. They smiled at each other and they were so absorbed in one another, she was sure he’d never notice her.

“Perhaps you should look in your partner’s eye.”

Ahiru looked up at him and glared. “Maybe I should get a partner that doesn’t talk down to me.”

“I am just trying to teach you basic etiquette. Who was your tutor back in Arnis? They did a very poor job of it.” 

“They did well enough to teach me when to know I’m being talked down to.” She pulled out of Autor’s thorny embrace and made her way to the grand staircase that would lead her to her room.  

The corridor was dark, no one was supposed to leave the ballroom for several more hours, but she couldn’t stop the tears that rolled down her cheeks.

Chapter Text

I ALWAYS LOOKED UP to my brother. 

He was someone I trusted, someone I could put my hope in. 

But, growing up, I had a friend, a best friend, and he had dedicated himself to me, and I dedicated myself to him.

I would give my life for his, and there’s never a doubt in my heart that he would do the same. 

My brother was hard to grow up with, and even now as a man, he is hard to get along with.

The friend… 

He would tell me things, things I didn’t believe. 

But now, looking back… 

I’m starting to believe.

 

AHIRU STUMBLED INTO THE breakfast nook, a little late, teetering on the edges of her gown, tripping over her tongue explaining why she was late. 

Four pairs of eyes watched her. 

She cleared her throat, and took her spot next to Rue, where she sat every morning, although they never spoke. Rue rarely opened her mouth, and when she did, it was only when she was spoken to. 

There was a thunderous clap and it made Ahiru jump. 

She looked to the door and there stood Drosselmeyer, grinning and rubbing his hands together, he strode in with his chin held high. 

“Today is the day! The start of your Prüfung, Your Majesty! And art thou ready to perform?”

Autor sighed, “Yes, I am.” 

Ahiru was starting to wonder if learning how to walk like a Princess was really worth all the time it took when she could have been learning about what was going on in this castle. 

She’d find Fakir and he would explain it to her. 

She looked over to Mytho, and then to Rue, both with very different looks on their faces. 

Mytho, as princely as he was, was not an actor, he tried to smile, but his smile was too wide, his eyebrows furrowed together and while he tried to look supportive, the doubt on his features was far too clear. 

Rue, on the other hand, never lifted her eyes from her food, but Ahiru, being her neighbor at the breakfast table, was close enough to see her features, the corner of her lip curled in undisguised disgust. 

Disgust for who? Ahiru wondered. 

“Now, this is what you have been studying your whole life for! You will not fail.” 

Ahiru shuffled nervously in her seat, it felt like all this pomp and circumstance was just a cover, a way to push off Autor and Rue’s wedding. 

Just run the Kӧnigsspiel and be done with it. She thought. 

Abruptly, breakfast ended by the knock of a Bookman. 

Strange men, Ahiru thought, like a council of sorts, or an order of monks, all they did was run around in brown cloaks, obeying any order Drosselmeyer gave them, watching, always watching. They gave her the creeps. 

“Master Drosselmeyer, it is ready.” 

“Excellent! Uh, have someone-” He made a lazy circle with his finger. “Clean this up.” the Queen stood with him, following him like a ghost. 

Autor and Mytho stood and came behind the backs of Rue and Ahiru’s chairs, pulling them from the table before offering their hands, as they did at the end of every breakfast. 

Ahiru laid her hand lightly on Mytho’s arm, and she didn’t miss Rue’s backwards glance. 

As soon as they stepped out of the breakfast nook, Ahiru could hear the crowds. 

“All the nobles of every house have been invited.” Mytho whispered to her. “It is custom that they watch and sign off in agreement.”

“Agreement to what?”

“Agreement that they want Autor to be king, that they won’t start a rebellion, that they will remain loyal.” 

Ahiru nodded. “So, is that the purpose of all this? So that the Nobles won’t uprise?”

“Hmm? Oh, hardly, it’s all show most days, but the Prüfung is important nonetheless.” Mytho’s easy going smile faded, and he turned serious, it almost frightened her. “It shows what kind of a King he will be.” 

She was lead to the ballroom, used twice previously for dancing, now it almost looked like a theatre. 

Sunshine drowned the room in light and it wasn’t until now that Ahiru saw that the room was made of brilliant, white marble; amazing what the sun did, shining down on everything and showing the truth of it all. 

A balcony wrapped around the walls, creating a second story, like a ring. In the ring, she could see many faces that she knew, commoners, she saw the farmer’s daughters, they sat with their legs sticking through the railing, she saw the young man that had broken his leg and surrounding him was his mother and what must have been four siblings. All sisters. 

Ahiru looked around for Fakir, and she would have missed him had she not been heading for the seats that were right below him. He stood between windows, swathed in shadow.

She smiled, but focused her attention back to the floor she was on. 

She had never been to any theater, the only thing that came close was the amphitheater in Arnis, only used twice a year, the two days that it didn’t rain. 

It looked like that, seats in rows, but raised slightly after the other, it was pressed against the wall, and it didn’t curve like she supposed was normal, it looked much more like a box. It was cut into six sections, marked by the various colors that represented the five house and the royal family, she recognized Berinhard, who stood next to a short woman who seemed to be chastising him, but he smirked and shook it off.

She looked around at the other nobles from the other houses and almost broke her neck when her eyes darted across a man only for her to throw her head to get a good look at the man. 

He stood, conversing with an old man who leaned heavily on his wooden cane, and for a moment she thought it was Autor, but the grey in his hair, and the wrinkles at his brow told her that this could not possibly be Autor. He wore a dark blue, with silver threaded throughout, and he noticed her staring. She looked down with a blush.

Ahiru lifted her skirt as she was led up to the top row, the center, lifted above all the other sections by a few feet, where sat three thrones and two additional seats made from velvet.  

The Queen sat on her throne, her hands resting on each side of her, she sat back-breakingly straight, and if Ahiru looked for long enough, she could see the Queen blink. 

Drosselmeyer sat to her right, Mytho to her left and Rue and Ahiru were left to the extra chairs, and, given that Rue had a higher ranking, she sat closest to the Queen, living Ahiru to teeter on the edge. 

Autor, however, stood in the center of the room, by himself, standing like he was ready to fight the storm. 

Five Bookmen walked in, and as soon as they did, a hush fell over the nobles and commoners. 

It was starting.

One unrolled a scroll, and cleared his throat. “The Prüfung begins!” 

Ahiru raised her hands to clap them together, but was instead met by silence, everyone in the room oddly silent. 

She pressed her hands to her thighs and suppressed a bad blush. 

“Intelligence!” A second bookman bellowed. “The Test of Intelligence will now begin!” 

The third and fourth carried a table to Autor, the fifth a chair. 

The second set a stack of books and scrolls on the desk and Autor took his seat. 

“A great and terrible storm has caused great damage to the kingdom!” The first read from his scroll, “It lasts for seven days! And seven nights. The kingdom takes shelter, but when the people emerge, they see what has happened! Their crops have been ripped from the ground! Barns have burned down, and any surplus has disappeared!

“Autor, Crown Prince of Bavaria, what do you do?” With a flourish, he closed his scroll and offered a low bow, the other four offered the same. The first stayed by the door, and the others took position in the four corners of the room, and whenever they grew tired, they would turn in a circle, switching spots, but they never took their eyes away from Autor.

“What is left?” Autor asked. His voice even and steady. He wasn't nervous, and Ahiru didn’t understand how he could be, just watching made her heart pound. 

“Only food that has been stored in individual kitchens. Most livestock have perished.” 

“Besides that.”

“Why, whatever do you mean?”

“Obviously, we are a trading kingdom, we deal with more than just farming.”

It was too easy, even Ahiru could see that. She looked over at those around her, did they see it too? Did they catch on? 

It was like he had the answers already. 

The Bookman smiled, even the shadows of his hood couldn’t hide it. “Most of our trade is not stored outside, so it is all safe.”

“It is simple then.” Autor took hold of one of the books, and flipped it open. “We can use goods to buy any food we need until the farmers can clean up their fields and start a new crop.”

“And, what of the farmers?”

“What of them?”

“While the artisans and merchants will do well, the farmers will have to wait at least another year before they can turn a profit.”  

Autor didn’t have to consider it for long, “That’s what taxes are for, they shall be compensated for their loses and until they can make a proper living on their on, they will be provided for by the Crown.”

“Very good, My Prince.” The Bookmen bowed, and the four others with him. 

The nobles bowed their heads and knees, and Ahiru looked to Rue and Mytho to see their responses, but then the Queen caught her eye. 

Surely, a mother would be proud of her son for passing the first test, surely there would be an ounce of happiness in her eye, an upturn of the corner of her lip, but there was nothing, nothing but the glassy eyed expression that never changed. 

They all rose and left, Ahiru rose a second late, but before Mytho came to offer her his arm, she was already off, determined to get to the ring and find Fakir.

She was tired of being lost. 

Ahiru came to the stairs and waited as the commoners left, they smiled excitedly and talked about it. 

“I wish a storm would come, we’d make more money being compensated by the Crown than what we make now!” 

“I think he’ll make a great king, don’t you? No? Do tell me why.”

“He’ll make a handsome king!” A young girl said. 

Ahiru stuck out her tongue in disgust but lifted up her skirts, there was finally an opening. 

She raced up the steps, hoping he hadn’t already left and was relieved to find him in the same shadowy spot he had been in before. 

“Hey, Fakir!” She called, waving at him.

He didn’t provide her with a smile the way she did, but she could see his lip twitching, and she knew he was repressing one. 

“Can I ask you something?”

“Of course.” 

“What was that?” 

Fakir gave her a strange look. “You really didn’t study up on Bavaria, did you? The Kingdom that you will someday be the Princess of?”

She grinned and shrugged. “I was busy.”

“Right.” 

She leaned against the window sill, her back being warmed by the sun. “So, what is this Prüfung?”

“It’s the first of five tests.” Fakir said. “It will last until the end of the week, and if he succeeds, he’ll be crowned King.” 

“Wow, really? What about the Queen, doesn’t she have to- you know? I mean-”

“Not here. She has only been Queen by herself for so long because Autor wasn’t old enough to take the crown.”

“But now he is.”

Fakir nodded. 

“Why can’t she remarry?”

“She did.” Fakir looked down at the floor. “That’s why Mytho and Autor look nothing alike, they both take after their fathers.” 

“Oh, so then, what happened to him?”

There was a dark look that came onto Fakir’s face. “No one knows. He was in perfect health one day, and the next the Queen woke up with a dead man next to her.”

A chill went down Ahiru’s spine and she shivered. “That’s scary!” 

“It could have been worse. He could have lived.”

Ahiru furrowed her eyebrows together, “What do you mean-?”

“Ahiru!”

Ahiru gasped, she walked over to the railing and looked over. “I’m sorry, Miss. Edel, I’ll be right there!” 

She looked at Fakir, who now stood next to her. “Sorry, I have lessons, tomorrow, there’ll be another one of these things?”

Fakir nodded. “Yes, tomorrow is Strategy.”

“And you’ll be there?”

“I plan on attending all five.” 

Ahiru couldn’t help herself as she smiled. “Good. I’ll see you tomorrow?”

He rolled his eyes, “Let me walk you downstairs, then you can say goodbye.”

“Oh! Of course!” 

He held out his arm and she took it. 

“So, Saturday, if all goes well, Autor and Rue will get married, and then, next Saturday…”

“It will be your turn.” 

“You only spend a month with someone, and that’s enough time to know if your compatible? You hardly know someone after a month.”

“Hey, don't worry about it.”

“I can’t! It’s my life!” She looked up at him, pleadingly. 

“From what I know of Mytho, and what I have seen in you, you’ll be happy.” 

She paused at the bottom of the staircase, taking her eyes off her feet, she looked up at him. 

“You really think so?”

“You’re like him, kind and sweet, he won’t hurt you.”

“I thought you were worried about me hurting him.” 

She took a moment to study his eyes, they didn’t match the rest of him, his skin was tanned, his hair was dark like the sea at midnight, and even his personality wasn't sunshine and fields of daisies. But, the irises of his eyes were a pale green-like sage.

Once, she sat on the beach in Arnis, the sky was clear of any clouds, and she felt warm under the sun, even as chilly wind blew against her cheeks, but she remembered watching the waves rise and fall, the way the sunlight caught the wave, turning it into the color of seaglass, so light compared to the deep, dark blue of the ocean. 

His eyes made her think of the sea rising. 

“Princess.” 

Ahiru jumped, her attentions planted on Miss Edel, who now stood in front of her on the staircase, looking more than smug. 

“Sorry!” Ahiru lifted her skirt and let go of Fakir’s arm, taking Edel’s instead. 

 

“WHICH FORK DO YOU use for the third course?”

Ahiru looked out the window, birds flew in the air, puffs of clouds floated lazily across the expanse of the sky, it hadn’t been a long time since she had seen the ocean, but now she missed it. She missed swimming out as far as she could before she made her father worry, she missed the sea breeze as she waited for him on the docks, she missed the shells, and the pebbles; she missed it all.

“Ahiru.” Edel slammed her book shut.

“Yes!” Ahiru jolted in her seat.

“My dear, I’m afraid you aren’t paying attention.”

“I’m sorry, Miss. Edel.” ahiru paused and looked down at her fiddling hands. “I miss the ocean.”

“Ah, a staple of Arnis, we are too far inland to have a proper ocean, but we do have a lake.”

“A lake?”

Edel nodded. “Unfortunately, it’s in the middle of the forest, and no one dares enter the forest.” 

“Except for the Königsspiel.”

“Yes, except, of course, for that.” 

Ahiru sighed. “Miss Edel, I know I need to know how to be a Princess, but shouldn’t I know a little bit of history about Bavaria?”

“In due time.” Miss. Edel placed her book on Ahiru’s head. “Now, let’s practice your walk.”

 

AHIRU’S BREAKFAST WAS INTERRUPTED once again by the arrival of the Bookmen. 

She was lead away and back to the ballroom, and sat in the same chair as she had done yesterday. 

She noticed that the balcony was less full today, but Fakir was still there.

“Strategy!” 

And, it began. 

Ahiru heaved a great sigh, already bored. So, it would be the same as yesterday, than.

 

FAKIR STOOD MUCH IN the same place as he had done yesterday, it was perhaps the perfect vantage point. 

He knew Drosselmeyer wouldn’t see him, the old fool refused to believe that his age was catching up with him, in the shadows and far away, Fakir knew he wouldn’t be spotted. 

Most of the commoners crowded the railings, trying to peer down at it all, but as they grew tired of standing, they would sit, or take up a space on the wall and lean, much like he had done, leaving him a clear view of Autor, and of those walking in. 

He heard her, first. Her heels clicking against the tile, the wobbled, unsure steps she took, he saw her unusually bright hair, burning in the sun, and her dress, green today, blue yesterday, was perhaps the most extravagant of all, although maybe he only thought so, not because of the dress itself, but because of the girl who wore it. 

He was embarrassed to say that he was only able to take his eyes off her when she disappeared below the ring, out of his sight.

“Strategy!” 

Fakir’s gaze snapped to the Bookman that read the scroll. 

Fakir took a steadying breath, unlike Autor, he hadn’t been fed the answers, but he was sure that his were better. 

Like yesterday, in his mind, he created a system, all of the farmers, wrecked by the storm, could be given jobs to help clean up the damage of the storm, which included cleaning up the debris, fixing anything that needed to be fixed, and restarting the crops.  

He wouldn’t just give them money, he would give them jobs, and his kingdom would be restored. 

Autor failed to mention how he would restore order, only that he would give them money, like how a master throws scrapes to his dogs. 

Fakir felt his teeth grind, his fists clenched, and his blood boil, no, it wasn’t time to be angry, not yet. 

He would save that anger for the last test. 

 

AHIRU DIDN’T EVEN HEAR what the Bookman said, she was busy trying not to fall asleep, and more importantly, not fall out of her chair. 

There was something about a war, about what to do when an enemy attacks, something like that. 

It was hard to focus when all she wanted was the half eaten breakfast left on the table.

She started eating the way Rue did, taking her food and cutting off pieces smaller than buttons, and chewing them slowly, it felt like a great waste of time, and she was almost always pulled away from a half finished plate.

She would give anything to eat. 

She would give her right eye to eat something. 

She would chop off all of her hair.

What could a leg get her? A whole leg had to be worth something. 

There was a gentle hand laid over top of hers and she looked over at the pale, slim hand of Rue.

“Sit up straight.” She warned. “The Nobles are watching.”

Ahiru looked around her, and sure enough, the Nobles’ eyes were not on Autor, but on her, slouching in her chair.

She cleared her throat and sat up straight. 

“- we have to take into account the cost of war-”

“Oh, no.” Ahiru groaned as quietly as she could. It was still boring. “I’ll be right back.”

“What? No, don’t-!” But Rue couldn’t stop Ahiru as she stood from her seat and made her way to the staircase. 

Only a few Nobles watched her, but she could feel the scorching eyes of the Bookmen burning into her back as she climbed the stairs. 

Think they noticed?

She stayed close to the wall once she stepped foot into the ring, walking, for the most part, behind the viewers, and made her way to Fakir. 

He whispered under his breath, almost like he was answering the question posed by the Bookmen.

“Hey, do you know what’s going on?” She whispered, leaning in close to him so that only he heard. 

“Of course I do, were you not paying attention?”

“No, this is boring.” 

He shook his head, but she saw his smile. “A neighboring kingdom has threatened war, Autor has been going into detail on how to get ready for battle, but it’s not the true answer.”

“What is, then?”

“Peace, but it’s not what Drosselmeyer wants, so it's not the answer the Bookmen want, so it’s not the answer Autor will give.”

“What do you mean?”

“By what?”

“The Bookmen, aren’t they councilors of the Queen?” 

Fakir scoffed. “They haven’t been loyal to the crown for decades now. No, their loyalty lies with Drosselmeyer, they’d follow him to the ends of the earth, jump off it’s edge if he said so. Drosselmeyer wants war, so the Bookmen want war, so war is what Autor will give them.”

“And you said that the correct answer is peace.”

“Yes. The grievance the kingdom has with us, if you listened is nothing but a misunderstanding. All the king would have to do is go and talk, straighten things out and make sure the blunder doesn’t happen again. The strategy to war isn’t how to fight it, it’s how to end it.” 

Ahiru looked over the railing, to Autor.

“-every citizen would have to be trained to fight, to protect the kingdom at any cost, and once we’ve won, no other kingdom will contend with us.” 

“You would make a great king.”

Fakir closed his eyes, and Ahiru looked up at him, wondering what it would take to form an uprising and get him on the throne. 

“I hope I will.”

“What?”

“Very good, my Prince!” The Bookman bowed, and everyone around her bowed, except Fakir, he stood straight, didn’t even push himself off the wall. 

But, she wasn’t the only one who saw.

 

AHIRU SAT AT HER desk and heaved a great sigh, she opened her locket and out fell a key into her hand, she used it to open her diary, and with a pen, wrote the days events. 

Normally, she wrote about what happened, her conflicting feelings, how she hated lying, and how much she wished she could be back home. 

But, there was nothing back at home for her. 

No, today she wrote down the questions that flooded her mind. 

Did the Bookmen see her standing by Fakir the whole time? Or just when he refused to bow? 

What did he mean when he said he hoped he’d make a great King? 

Maybe he’s going to start the rebellion!

Maybe not… Probably not. 

I want to go home, but I can’t. If I go home, I’ll be all alone, I won’t be able to talk to-

“Ahiru?”

“Yes?” Ahiru shut her diary and turned to the door.

Uzura stood in her shift, a candle in one hand, and a stuffed bear in the other. 

“Mama is gone, and I had a bad dream, zura. Can I sleep with you, zura?”

Ahiru smiled, she locked her diary and blew out the candles surrounding her desk. “Yes, of course.”

Uzura blew out her candle with a big intake of air, she left the candle stick on the bedside table, and threw the covers off before situating herself in bed and throwing them back over herself, and in a moment, she was fast asleep. 

Ahiru smiled, she sat on her side of the bed, her knees gently bent, and she leaned over them, questions still flooded her mind, and she knew if she left the bed, it would awaken Uzura, and she’d have to come back anyway.

No, Ahiru laid down, she would have to deal with the endless frenzy of questions that flooded her mind. 

Her eyes began to close, she looked out the window and saw the moon, so bright, a mirror in the black sky. 

 

THE NEXT DAY, SHE didn’t even go to her seat. 

They stepped into the ballroom, and she leaned to Mytho and whispered in his ear, “I’ll be right back.” before hurrying up stairs. 

Fakir didn’t look at her, but said. “Good morning.”

Her eyes flashed to him, and she grinned. “Good morning. What is it today?” 

“So long as the Bookmen keep in order, and they always do, it will be Mediation.”

Ahiru furrowed her eyebrows together, try as she might, she couldn’t recall what the word meant. “Mediation?”

“It’s always something simple, trivial, but it’s less about what the problem is.”

“What is it then?” She cut him off. 

“How he gets them to stop fighting.”

“Oh.” She gave a firm nod. “But, if anything its collective anger, right?”

“Yes, a feud built up for years, and years, and years. The issue isn’t the timber, but the straw.” 

“Have you had to deal with that before?”

Fakir nodded, much to her surprise. “Yes. Most people do, when they realize the Queen’s catatonic and Drosselmeyer is the real man they’ll be presenting their problem to.”

“But why you? Why not the next ranking noble?”

“It’s starting.”

“Mediation!” The scroll unraveled. 

Ahiru leaned against the windowsill, it wasn’t as bright as it had been, in fact, in her time here, this was the first day clouds covered the sky. She felt cold. 

Today was different, the Bookmen didn’t present the problem, instead two actors came forward. 

“That’s Garnele and Tilly, two actors from the local theater.” Fakir whispered into his ear. 

They were both dressed as two farmers, and even carried farming tools, they bowed before Autor and started. 

“Your Majesty, this serpent has been robbing me for two fortnights!” 

“Isn’t that just a month?” Autor asked, the tone of unhidden snark giving his words bite.

“I have been doing no such thing! This bottomfeeder-”

A sharp gasp. 

“Has allowed his produce to overgrow onto my property!” 

“They’re both… girls.” Ahiru tilted her head. “Why are they pretending to be men?”

“We didn’t have any male actors this season.” Fakir explained. “But, for the sake of the skit, they’re playing men. Traditionally, a woman cannot present her problems to the King.”

“Why not?”

“The man of the household is the one-”

“I know that, but why can’t women present their problems?”

Fakir shook his head. “It’s just how it works.”

“That should change.” Ahiru crossed her arms. “What if a girl is on her own? She can’t present her problems to the King.” 

“Mm.” He hummed. “I’ll make a note of that.”

She grinned, “Can you present my problem to the King?”

“I’ll get it straightened out.” 

“Quiet!” Autor bellowed, making Ahiru flinch. He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose just under his glasses. “You.” He pointed to the woman on the left. “State your grievance.”

“Uh-oh.” Fakir said.

“Your Majesty, for a month now, my neighbor, who I share a property line with, has been stealing apples from my apple tree. It’s vital that those are sold so I can provide for my children, and my poor wife!” 

“Of course.” Autor drawled lazily. “And you.”

“Your Royal Majesty, my neighbor has not pruned his apple tree, it hangs over into my property and doesn’t allow my produce to get the proper amount of sun it needs. I have simply taken the liberty of collecting the apples as reimbursement for impeding my farming.”

Autor smirked, “It’s simple, just-”

“Don’t get me started on your petunias!” The one on the left shouted. “You don’t grow them for sale! But I grow my apple tree to provide for my family! Tell me, Your Grace, what is more important? My wares, or his enjoyment of nature!” 

“Well, I-”

“What matters is that that branch is on my property! Therefore, it is mine to do with as I please!” 

“If you walked onto my property, would you be mine to do whatever I pleased with!” 

“No! But I certainly don’t block your apples from getting the proper amount of sun whenever I’m on your land!” 

“You wish you could block the sun from my apples!” 

“Yes! Because then they’d perish and my petunia’s would have a chance!” 

“ENOUGH!” 

“He blew it.” Fakir shook his head, but something grabbed his hand, and when he looked down, he saw how pale Ahiru grew, her eyes wide in fear, her chest heaving as her breath quickened. He looked down at his hand, and allowed his fingers to intertwine with hers. “It’s okay.” 

Ahiru blinked tears from her eyes, Fakir spoke softly to her, and it broke her out of her panic. Her gaze traveled down her arm to their joined hands. 

She let go. 

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” Already, his attention was back on the Prüfung. “He let his temper get the better of him.”

Ahiru swallowed, she nodded in agreement. “So, did he fail?” 

Ahiru watched with deaf ears as Autor wagged his finger at the two actors. 

“This test, yes, but the Prüfung? It will depend on the next two tests. Morale, and Strength.”

She flinched when Autor grew to be too loud. 

“How much longer?”

Fakir shook his head. “I don’t know, it depends on when he’ll wear himself out.”

She wrapped her arms around herself, “I feel bad for Rue.” 

“Why?”

“In three days, she’ll have to marry that.” 

 

WORD SPREAD QUICKLY AROUND the palace about Autor’s failed test. 

“How will he handle the Königsspiel? The fae don’t deal well with a bad temper.”

“The fae aren’t real. He’ll do fine when it comes down to him and a bear.” 

“We’ll see if he can pass Strength, he never did well in his swordsmanship classes.” 

“What would you know about his swordsmanship classes?”

“I have ears everywhere!” 

“You’re a gossip, that’s what you are.”

As their voices faded, a woman stepped out of the shadow, having listened to their conversation, she smiled to herself. 

No matter what Drosselmeyer did, he couldn’t change what was to be true. He couldn’t change fate, no, it didn’t matter what he had done, or what he would struggle to do in the future, it was all set. 

And, in a little over two months, the true King would be on the throne. 

“Ooh, Miss. Edel!” Ahiru called out.

The woman smiled, and waved to her young charge. “Good afternoon, Ahiru.” 

“How are you today?”

“Well.” Edel smiled. “The sun rules the sky, and the moon reflects the sun’s glorious rays. But be warned, with the wind comes the storm, and the clouds block the sun, killing her with efficiency.”

“That’s pretty, Miss. Edel, is that a poem?”

Edel smiled, “Perhaps it could be. But, it is for you, Ahiru, and for you only.” 

Ahiru beamed. “Wow, thank you!”

“Run along now, there are no lessons today.”

“Are you sure?”

“There is very little left for me to teach you.” 

Ahiru hugged her, one of the benefits of the girl being just a girl, she didn’t have restraints. 

 

AHIRU CHOSE TO SIT on the floor, Lottie sat in front of her and Ahiru braided her hair. 

Fakir, also, sat with his back against the wall, and from time to time, would whisper altercations into her ear.

“He’s trying to torture the prisoner for information. I’m not sure where his head went. There’s no way he was taught this, no Noble will sign for him.”

“Won’t they? I thought it was all show?”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a choice. He’s fed all the answers, he’s been raised to know how to answer these questions, but he’s failing.” 

Ahiru shrugged, Lottie had nice hair, it was soft and shiny, much more the hair of a Princess than a farmer’s daughter. Ahiru plucked a flower from Lottie’s basket and made sure it was woven in.

“Maybe he’s doing it on purpose.”

Fakir quirked an eyebrow. “How so?”

“Well, maybe he thinks he needs to outsmart the questions. Come up with an answer that’s his.” 

“He wouldn’t- that’s stupid! He wouldn’t risk it like that.” Fakir sucked his teeth, Autor wouldn’t be so stupid would he? 

No, not stupid. 

Cocky. 

“Oh, God. He is trying to outsmart the question.” 

He was sure Drosselmeyer wouldn’t like that.

And he didn’t.

For the past two days straight, Drosselmeyer sat rigidly in his chair, his fingernails carving deeper into the wood each day. He thought he raised that boy better! Running ink filled his mind, but no, not yet, there was still time to fix this. He had time to straighten up. 

“What would you do?” Ahiru asked, leaning closer to Fakir.

“Let him go.”

“Really? Aren’t you supposed to keep war prisoners?”

“You can, but I never understood it. You’re already at war. No man who fights is a man that's free.” 

Ahiru smiled, she couldn’t stop the thought from coming again, Fakir would make a great King. 

“So then, if the Nobles don’t sign, what happens?”

“The Bookmen will meet to discuss, and of course, he still has the Kӧnigsspiel to run. For most, a win is enough. Some Nobles won’t even sign until the Kӧnigsspiel is ran and won.” 

“What happens if he loses that too?”

Fakir took a deep breath, he eyes trained on Autor, he watched as Autor went on and on about ways to get the prisoner to talk, about how this could be the way to win the war. “If he loses, it means he died in the forest.”

Ahiru stopped her hands, and looked at Fakir. “Really?”

He nodded.

“So, this is serious.”

“It is.”

“What’s in the forest?”

“No one knows for sure. Only Kings have gone deep into the forest, and Kings never speak of the horrors that awaited them.” 

Ahiru took a deep breath, she felt concerned for Autor, as much as she disliked him, it didn’t mean she wanted him to die! 

“Would you protect him?”

“What?”

“Like you did at the Bauersspiel? You watched, and made sure that if there was any problems, you would help them.” 

“Yes, I will be there.”

Ahiru smiled. “There, all done.” She tied a strap of leather around the tail of the braid.

Lottie stood and ran away, leaving her basket beside Ahiru. 

“He’s a fool.”

Ahiru looked back, Fakir had returned to watching Autor, or perhaps it was just listening, since their seated positions didn’t allow them to see the bottom floor.

“He wants to use the prisoner as blackmail.” Fakir rolled his eyes. “C’mon, we should return that basket to Lottie.”

He stood and offered her his hand. 

Ahiru smiled, she picked up the basket in one hand, and placed the other in Fakir’s. He pulled her up easily, and soon they were walking away.

“Take off your shoes.”

“Hmm?”

“Your heels. They’re too loud.”

“Oh!” Ahiru bent over and lifted one foot, to grab the back of one heel and peel it off her foot, but the action didn’t give her much balance, and she started to fall. 

And she would have, if Fakir didn’t take her arm and hold her in place. “Thank you.”

She switched legs, and dropped both shoes into Lottie’s basket, Fakir kept his hold on her, and they tiptoed away, but not to the stairs. 

“Where are we going?” 

“This way, they won’t see us leave.” 

Fakir took her the long way around the ring until they reached the grand staircase, the place she had entered with Mytho on the night of the first ball, before they left the room through a servants entrance.

“Oh, wait, let me put my shoes back on.” 

Fakir paused, and she dropped the shoes onto the floor, flipping them over with her toes before stepping back into them. 

“Thank you.” She smiled at him as she used his arm for balance once more.

“It’s nothing. C’mon, we should go.”

They made their way out of the palace, and as they did, they passed Edel again.

She bowed to both of them. “And where are you two going?”

“Lottie left her basket.” Ahiru smiled sweetly as she held the basket aloft. 

“A noble quest.” Edel gave Ahiru a gentle smile before turning her gaze to Fakir. “I don’t think we’ve had the pleasure of meeting. My name is Edel, I am a governess of Ahiru’s.”

Fakir nodded, and he gave her his name.

“An odd name, for a black smith’s son.”

He furrowed his brows. “How did you-?”

“I saw the competition at the fair. It was quite a sword, you have deft hands, a gift. Gentle hands that guide instead of push, care instead of force, love instead of hate.” 

“Um, thank you.” 

Ahiru leaned over to his ear. “She talks like that all the time, it’s okay, you get used to it.” 

“Well, I shall not impede your quest.” She stepped aside and with a broad stroke of her arm, let them walk past her. 

“She’s a strange woman.” Fakir said, after they had walked away and he was certain Edel wouldn’t hear. 

“She’s the best kind of a woman.”

Fakir agreed, and soon they left the palace.

“Aw, it’s still cloudy.” Ahiru pouted, she held out her hand, expecting rain. 

“Are you cold? We can go back and get your cloak.”

“No, it’s fine. I just miss the sun.” 

He glared up at the sky, suddenly wishing he had the ability to wipe it clean. 

They walked slowly through town, until they reached the Southern wall. 

“Her family farm is just outside this gate.” 

Ahiru nodded. “Good, my feet are starting to hurt.”

“Sorry. I suppose we should have gotten different shoes.”

Ahiru lifted up her skirt, hissing when she saw the satin shoes covered in mud and grass. “I’ll live.”

They passed through the gate, just as Lottie was running back.

“Princess! I forgot my basket!” 

Ahiru giggled and held it up.

“You brought it! Yay!” 

Ahiru handed the basket to Lottie, and watched as she turned on her heel and bounded back home, she couldn’t stop her lips from spreading into a grin. 

She looked up at Fakir, who was already looking at her, and said. “Let’s go back.” 

They were even slower going back to the palace, taking their time, and resting whenever her feet hurt too much, but soon they were back at the steps of the palace. 

She took a few steps, stopping only after she realized that Fakir let go of her, taking her hand off his arm. Ahriu turned back, it was the first time that she had the chance to look down at Fakir, his chin raised to look up at her, instead of the other way around. 

“I’ll see you tomorrow?” 

Fakir gave her a half smile, and nodded, before it faded. “But, don’t sit with me.”

“What? Why?” 

“You’ll see. Tomorrow is Strength. That’s the point of the jousting.”

Then she remembered, the Black Knight, the knight who wasn’t a noble, who remained unnamed. 

“That was you?”

He nodded once.

“So, what will tomorrow be? Another joust?”

“You’ll see. Until then.” He bowed at the waist, lower, she thought, than he had ever bowed to anyone.

She didn’t know how long she stood there, she watched him walk away, watched until his figure disappeared behind buildings. 

Had he ever bowed to her like that before?

“Ahiru!” 

Ahiru flinched, she turned to the castle doors. 

“There you are.” Mytho smiled at her, he traversed down the steps and offered her his hand. “You missed lunch.”

“Sorry. I was walking.”

“Come along.” 

Ahiru smiled at him, and took his hand. She was grateful she was marrying him, and not Autor, Autor scared her, her life as his wife would have been long and miserable.

Mytho was someone she could picture marrying, someone she could picture herself being happy with. 

 

AHIRU FELT AWKWARD SITTING in her chair again after spending the last few days up in the ring with Fakir. 

“Strength! The final test of the Prüfung!”

Some of the Nobles clapped, but not many, most, Ahiru could see, were tired. They wanted this to be done with.

“As custom, the winning Knight of the Joust is to fight the Crown Prince in a test of strength!”

That’s when the whispering started. 

The Black Knight, no one knew who he was.

Ahiru sat up straighter, suddenly nervous. 

“The Black Knight!” The Bookman made a broad gesture, and the doors at the top of the grand staircase opened.  

“It’s Fakir.” 

“The black smith?”

“What is he doing?”

“So he thinks the rumors are true.” 

Her breath quickened, what rumors? What were they talking about? 

The jeers and gossip continued as Fakir made his way down the steps. 

He wasn’t dressed like a knight, he only wore a pair of pants and a white shirt, no armor, no chainmail. 

No sword.

Strength. 

They were fighting.

Actually fighting. 

Ahiru stood to her feet. 

And, so did the rest of the Nobles, keen on getting as close to the fight as possible. 

The five Bookmen had placed, in the middle of the ballroom, a ring, made with five fences, that Autor already stood in, and when Fakir came to it’s edge, he launched himself inside, and once he did, the Nobles crowded around them. 

Ahiru had to push her way through until she was standing beside Fakir. 

“Fakir, what are you doing!” 

“I told you, we’re fighting.”

She shook her head. “I didn’t think you meant like this!” 

He gave her a gentle smile, “Than what did you think?”

“Fencing! Or something!” 

“Where we’re heavily padded and there’s no real danger of either of us getting hurt?”

“Yes!” 

“I’m sorry to disappoint you.” 

“Crown Prince Autor!” The Bookman shouted. “Are you ready?” 

Autor handed his glasses to Rue and removed his shirt. “Yes.”

Ahiru looked across the ring, beside Autor was his betrothed and his brother. She looked into Mytho’s eyes, begging him to stop it all, but he shrugged and shook his head. 

There was nothing he could do.

“Fakir, don’t.”

“I won’t get hurt, I promise.”

“The Black Knight Fakir! Are you ready?”

“Fakir?”

Fakir’s eyes flashed to Ahiru, but he nodded. 

Ahiru screwed her eyes shut, and when the first hit landed, she covered her ears. 

Everything was loud, the Nobles cheered the two on, and they jostled her, she felt her stomach being bruised by how often she was pushed and hit the fence. She gasped, and opened her eyes when she felt them fly past her. 

They weren’t equally matched. 

Autor had nothing on Fakir, he stumbled back as he was hit again, and Fakir didn’t look like he had a scratch on him. 

“Kill him, Autor!”

“You’re the true king!” 

“Don’t give up!” 

Fakir delivered a swift kick, and Autor fell. 

“No.” Ahiru said so softly, she wasn’t sure herself if she said it.

Autor rolled onto his side, he groaned and spat out blood. 

Fakir offered Autor his hand, but Autor slapped it away, choosing to stand on his own, and Fakir wasn’t so horrible as to kick him while he was down. 

“No.” She said again, when Fakir punched Autor’s gut as soon as he stood back up. “Wait, stop!”

Fakir’s head span around to face her, and it was clear, he enjoyed the fight as much as she did. 

“I have to.” He mouthed, but as he was distracted, Autor was able to land a solid punch on Fakir’s jaw.

“Ha!” 

Fakir rubbed his chin, his eyes still locked on Ahiru. 

“Stop.” She mouthed again.

He nodded, and closed his eyes, and the next punch that came, no matter how weak, sent him to the floor, and he stayed there, his eyes closed. 

Knocked out. 

The Nobles cheered, and Autor raised his fists in glory. 

The Bookmen smiled, they nodded. It was agreed. The test was won. 

Ahiru waited for everyone to leave. 

Two men came and offered themselves to Autor as crutches, and as he yelled out, all followed, still celebrating his victory. 

Once she could, she jumped into the ring, and went to Fakir, but before she could, Mytho knelt before him.

“Are you okay?”

Ahiru came to kneel at his head, and Fakir opened his eyes. 

“He got in two punches, weaker than a hummingbird's wing.” 

“Actually, a hummingbird probably has very strong wings, it has to fly everywhere, and it’s wings go so fast.” 

Fakir glared up at Mytho. “But imagine being punched by one.”

Mytho nodded, “Yes, I imagine it wouldn’t hurt.”

Fakir patted his arm. “Go tend to your brother. Stand with him in his victory.”

Mytho stood, only looking back once, but soon Ahiru was alone with Fakir.

“Are you really okay?”

Fakir sat up and wiped his mouth with his arm. “Yeah, I’ve been beaten up worse before.”  

“It still looked like a good punch.” Ahiru grabbed his chin and turned his head, before poking where he had been hit.

“Ow!”

“Sorry. Should we ice it?”

“With what ice?”

“Oh. Right. Sorry. We normally just have… ice laying around.”

He scoffed. “It’s too warm for ice, but I’ll be okay.”

“Was that really necessary?”

“What?”

“The fight! Why did have to be so… barbaric?”

“At least we had our clothes on.”

Her face turned red. “What?”

“The Romans. They would wrestle, with olive oil on their bodies, completely naked. But- uh. Ahem.” Fakir looked away from her, his face redder than it was before. 

“So. Did he win?”

“Technically, the goal is to knock out your opponent.”

“But, he didn’t.”  

Fakir nodded. “No one else knows, however.”

“Why did you do that? Let him win?”

“If he lost this, he would have failed three of the five tests, and I need to him to run the Kӧnigsspiel.” There was a fire in his eyes, a determination, and Ahiru couldn’t figure out why.

“Will you challenge him?”

Fakir remained quiet.

“Hey, what did some of the Nobles mean?”

Fakir heaved a great sigh and laid back onto the floor. “Mean by what?”

“They kept saying stuff about the rumors, and for Autor not to worry, that he was the true king.”

“An old rumor from years ago that some of the Nobles believed. That some of the townspeople believe.” 

“What was it?”

“That the Queen tried to kill her son. That she threw him out into the snow and stole a baby to raise as her own. That that baby survived.”

Ahiru scrunched her eyebrows together. “That sounds like a Grimm’s tale.”

He scoffed. “Yeah, it does, doesn’t it?”

“Do you believe it?”

“Why would I? I wasn’t even a month old when it happened.” 

Ahiru hummed, she repositioned herself and laid down next to Fakir. “Oh, wow!”

“Hmm? What?”

Ahiru pointed up at the ceiling, she had never looked up, or even thought to, but the ceiling of the ballroom was painted. 

Light fluffy clouds, little angels playing harps, the sky, in hues of sunset, seven swans flew through the air, and little stars were just starting to shine, but in the center of it all, was the sun, cradled by the crescent moon. 

“I’ve never seen it before.” 

The sun was full, a pale gold, dull due to the cloud cover, and the moon was silver, but together they were truly the center of it all. All the angels faced the sun, the swans, with their white wings, encircled the sun and her companion. Even the hanging chandeliers didn’t block her.  

“It was painted as a gift for the first queen.” Fakir spoke. “The first king won the Kӧnigsspiel, and when he and his wife were crowned King and Queen, he scoured the land for an artist with enough talent to capture his love for her. The artist was found not far from here, and she spent a year on it, and even after centuries, it’s still a sight to behold.” 

“It is. Was she the sun?”

“Yes. He hadn’t made that request, but the artist herself saw how much the king worshiped his queen, it was obvious that the king only reflected her gloriousness in his ways. He was kinder because of her, happier, a better king. Most say that he would not have won if he didn’t have someone to fight for.” 

Ahiru closed her eyes, she could imagine the sun shining on her face and she smiled, “C’mon, I want to look at your jaw and make sure it doesn’t bruise.”

She stood, and so did he, she craned her neck to look back up at the sun and the moon, the first King and the first Queen, immortalized forever, overlooking all who stepped under them. 

They stepped out of the ballroom, and the world was pandemonium. 

Fakir grabbed the arm of a maid that ran by. 

“What’s going on?”

“The Bookmen are going into mediation!” She answered, wide-eyed, and unable to stay still. 

“Mediation? What does that mean?” Ahiru raised an eyebrow. “Fakir?”

“It means they don’t think Autor passed.”

Chapter Text

GROWING UP I ALLOWED my heart to harden.

I got used to the idea that I wasn’t allowed to love anyone, that I would never fall in love.

It was not my fate. 

Perhaps for others, but not for me. 

I knew I’d be married off. Sent off far away as soon as I was of age, married to some prince or another. 

But instead, I got matched to a King.

Some would call that luck. I would be a Queen.

But, that didn’t matter to me, what did was the fact that my heart had softened.

 

“HE FAILED.”

“The Nobles don’t think so.” 

“It doesn’t matter what the Nobles think! How will he survive the forest?”

“He- argh! What does it matter!”

“The creatures of the forest are in agreement with us. We leave the forest alone, and we use it for our Königsspiel. They want to make sure the next King will obey these standards, that their forest is protected.”

“And what will the fae do if he’s given extra help?”

“You think they have no standards? No respect for the old ways? Most are from the beginning! From the first Königsspiel! They will not so easily forget.”

There was a murmur among them, it was true, as much as they tried to bend Autor to their ways, no matter how they rigged the tests, the F would not be so forgiving. 

“So then… what are we to do?”

“Two of the five he passed.”

“He passed Strength.”

“Only because the black smith’s son let him.”

“He became distracted! He was looking away! And that’s what Autor was waiting for!”

“Was he truly waiting? Or did he throw a desperate strike when he saw an opening?”  

“He is able to strategize! Of course he was waiting.” 

“Do you want to question Drosselmeyer’s authority?”

“What? No! But I want what is best, and perhaps it isn’t Autor.”

“Then who! His brother? He hasn’t been taught the things Autor has been taught. He will fail every test on every account.”

“Maybe, it is time to run a true Konigsspiel.”

“Have the Nobles run? See if they’ll make it? You are a fool. These Nobles don’t know what hardship is. They are soft and weak.”

“Not all. The knights are strong.”

“And even the strongest could not win against a peasant!”

“And it is obvious from the Bauersspiel that any peasant who tries will surely perish.” 

“Perhaps, we should reconsider Autor's results.”

“He failed.”

“Yes, and who will pass?”

“This generation is lost on all accounts, the modern technologies don’t give way to the pure strength the First King was exposed to.”

“Strength is only a part of it.”

“Exactly! Only a part! Autor should be fine.”

“But what about Morale?” 

“The mediation went poorly as well.” 

“But where do we land on strength? He knocked out his opponent!”

“But did he?”

“For the sake of the argument. Let us say yes.” There was a great clatter. “And later! We shall argue the no.”

“Ideally, the King would pass all. Failing two, does not look good, not to us, not to the Nobles, or even the peasants.” 

“A stupid King cannot lead. A King with no plan is doomed to let his kingdom down. A King with no heart will become a tyrant. An angry King will be able to solve nothing. And a King with no strength cannot carry his kingdom.”

“Thank you for the reminder. As if we did not know.”

“He is smart. I made sure of that.”

“But arrogant! You didn’t fix that!”

“He’s an arrogant, pigheaded fool, is what you meant to say.”

“A weak King, if I’ve ever heard one.” 

“Only one weak link can break the chain, one broken leg will bring down the table. The people deserve a king-”

“What? With strong legs? He is not alone, he has us. One of Germany’s largest councils. He will not stumble.”

“He is a man that believes the world is against him. He will not fall on us if he stumbles.”

“And if he falls, so will the rest of us.”

“Well then, if two missed is marked as shear failure, then what is three?”

“Death.”

“Drosselmeyer will not be happy with this outcome.”

“He will ignore it.”

“Drosselmeyer is the reason we have power! We are nothing without our Lord.”

“So, to whom do we remain loyal? Our King or our Lord?”

“No matter what happens, we cannot let the Black Smith’s son challenge him.”

The room grew silent. 

“And just who do you think the Black Smith’s son is?”

The Bookman who spoke up was quiet, over fifty pairs of eyes on him, questioning his loyalty. 

“Did I not kill him myself?”

“What was found? Blood and a heart? With the claim that an animal took him? And then the Black Smith has a son! A month old! That is not a coincidence!” 

“The Black Smith’s son will not run the Königsspiel. I will make sure of it.”

“What will you do? Kill him? The death of an infant is easier to cover. The death of a man?”

“Intelligence, strategy, morale, mediation, strength. I have been watching him, as far as I can see, he has succeeded on all accounts.”

“We shall not relay any of this to Drosselmeyer. Our decision is this: we will do whatever Drosselmeyer commands. If he wishes Autor to be King, then so it shall be.”

 

AUTOR KEPT HIS EYES closed as a wet towel passed over his face. 

He hissed. “Ow, that hurts!” 

“Then hold still!” Rue patted it with a gentle hand, she knew no else, it was Autor who was the baby, but she would keep that thought to herself. “I still don’t understand why I have to do this.”

“It is a tradition that the queen tends to her husbands wounds.” 

“I am neither. Queen nor wife. Perhaps your mother should be doing this.” 

“It is not my- ow! Would you stop that!” 

“I’m cleaning the blood off of you!” She threw the towel into the water basin, splashing both him and herself in water. “Maybe if you had actually-”

“Actually what? Choose your words wisely.” 

Rue huffed. “Maybe if you didn't just stand there the whole time! You let yourself get beat up.”

“I am not a fighter.”

“Evident. From that pitiful display.”

Autor peeled his eyes open just to glare at her. “You know, I believed that I could be happy with you by my side. As my queen. I will not let you berate me.”

Rue averted her eyes. Instead she picked up the towel and, as softly as she could, cleaned away the dried blood. “You’ll bruise.” She said. “There’s nothing I can do about that.”

“You’ll be in pain for several days.”

“Tomorrow we are to be married. Tomorrow I will feel no pain.” He took her hand in his, and kissed her knuckles. “For you.”

There was a knock at the door.

A maid scuttled in.

She gave a hasty bow and pulled at Rue’s arm. 

“I’m not finished.”

“You may finish later. Drosselmeyer wishes to have a word with his grandson.”

“Wait, maybe it’s best if she stays.” Autor stood, looking nervously at Rue, begging her to come back to him.

“Of course.” Rue said to the maid instead. “Whatever his grace wishes.” 

Rue was led away, and Autor was left with his grandfather. For a word. 

Drosselmeyer closed the door behind him, and it was perhaps the first time Autor had witnessed Drosselmeyer without his manic grin, his sadistic smile, any trace of humor had disappeared from his face. 

“My dearest grandson, my direct heir, one I hold so highly. Oh, how you have failed me.”

Autor knelt down before him, hanging his head. “I have done everything you taught me.”

“And you did! Oh, how you succeeded!”

“What?” Autor raised his head. “You said that I-?”

His grin had returned, and he laughed. “You were perfect! Everything I instructed you, if only you had won the Strength.”

Autor averted his eyes, he did not do just as Drosselmeyer instructed, but had gone above and beyond… he must have made Drosselmeyer proud.

Drosselmeyer tsked and shook his head. “Two of the softest blows I have ever seen! He fell back like a man falling to rest.”

“What are you saying?”

“You are weak. You will not survive the forest.”

Autor furrowed his eyebrows, he glared up at Drosselmeyer, “Have I not trained everyday for the Königsspiel? Have I not trained everyday for this? For the rest of my life? To be King?”

“Yes, you have. But, I have been to the forest-”

“You have? But, you said that no one’s been into the forest except-”

“Kings. And do you not think of me as your King?”

Autor bowed his head. 

“I have traveled into the forest, and for a time, it was my home, until...”

“Until?”

“A woman will drive a man to anger. She can drive a man mad.” Drosselmeyer crossed the room until he reached the window, with flacid fingers he drew back the drapes and looked past the walls that surrounded the city, to the forest. “She will drive him to do unbelievable tasks!”

“They say that the First King won because of his-”

“That is what they want you to believe! But, that is just a love story, told to children so they find some semblance of hope - bah! How horrible! That woman, who you will call wife tomorrow, don’t let her get to you, don’t let her worm your way under your skin, into your heart.”

“She is to be Queen, she’ll have power, surely, it is better that we work together than-”

Drosselmeyer gasped loudly, and cupped his own face. “She has tricked you! With her wily ways!”

“No, I just… I don’t want to be a King alone.”

“And you won’t. You will have me. You will have the Bookmen.” 

“And, the Königsspiel?”

“What of it?”

“You said not to worry about it.”

“Oh, I don’t want you to worry about it. I will take care of it. In the only way I know how.”

“Grandfather, I don’t want to die. I don’t want to fail- I don’t want to fail you. My people.”

Autor felt the weathered hands of an old man rest on his naked shoulders. 

Soft. 

Delicate. 

Not as strong as they once had been.

“Oh, and you won’t. I promise you that much.” 

Autor swallowed hard. “Yes.”

“Now, it is up to the Bookmen, if they think you’ve passed, or failed.”

“I only failed strength, didn’t I? And I can make up for that in the Königsspiel.” 

“Yes, you did well, but the Bookmen will always look for a King who has passed all five.”

“Is there reason to worry?”

“None. None at all.”

Drosselmeyer removed his hands, and with Autor’s eyes still obediently on the ground, he took out a pocket book.

And a pen.

 

“HE WILL RUN THE Königsspiel.” An older Bookman sighed, he wobbled to a chair and sat.

He was perhaps the most loyal to Drosselmeyer, for they shared a long history. 

Like brothers, they were, and when Drosselmeyer’s son became King, he made Drosselmeyer promise he would put him in a place of power as well. 

These younger Bookmen, they knew not of Drosselmeyer’s plans, or his intentions, only followed him blindly. 

But, he knew. 

He knew, and he would not let Drosselmeyer fall. 

Because then he would fall with him.

“He will win. Seeing him win, a champion of the Königsspiel, is still a victor in the eyes of most.”

 

“MEDIATION? WHAT DOES THAT mean?” Ahiru raised an eyebrow. “Fakir?”

“It means they don’t think Autor passed.” 

Fakir turned to Ahiru and grabbed her shoulders. “Stay out of sight.”

“Fakir, why? What's going on?” 

“Do as I say. Stay out of sight, I’ll explain later.” 

Ahiru shook her head. “I’m confused, why? Why are they going into mediation? Why do I have to stay out of sight?”

“I’m-” His gaze shifted over her face, taking her in, as if he was trying to commit her to memory. “I’m going to start something, the Bookmen, they know where you stand. They may not like you if you choose me over him.”

She shook her head. “I still don’t understand.” 

“You will. Just don’t get involved in what’s happening. Don’t talk to any Bookman, don’t talk to Autor, and don’t even look Drosselmeyer in the eye.” 

“Why do I have to choose?”

He opened his mouth to explain, but not even he could justify it. 

“Why do I have to choose you or Autor?”

“I can’t tell you here. Not now.”

“Later then.”

He shook his head. “I may not have time, but maybe you’ll understand by yourself. Go. Go now.” He pushed her away from him.

She paused in her steps, she looked back to him, confused about it all, when she was asked to come here, to marry a prince, she didn’t think it’d be so complicated. 

“I choose you.” Ahiru picked up her skirt and ran off, down the corridor. 

 

DROSSELMEYER PUT THE BOOK back into his pocket, he stepped around Autor, and walked away.

“Drosselmeyer. Look at you.”

Drosselmeyer ground his teeth. “Ah, the woman.”

“I do have a name, you never learned it.”

“And I choose not to.”

She smiled. “What a shame, although, the Oak Tree told me you would address me by name one day.”

“The Oak Tree? She still speaks?”

“Not as clearly, but I can still hear her, and I still protect her.” She smirked. “You're failing.”

“Ha! Everything is going just as I plotted!”

“Is it? Did you intend for Autor to fail three of the tests? Was it your ‘plot’ that you would have to take over?”

“Take over what?”

“Him. Your Crown Prince. You have left him alone until this day. You have never touched his mind, or infected his heart, but now you do. Why? Are you afraid?”

“I fear nothing.”

“You walked through the forest under the grace of the Oak Tree, and now she has taken that honor from you, tell me. When was the last time you waltzed through the forest? Before or after you took an axe to her neck?” 

Drosselmeyer looked down his nose at her. “I choose where I walk.”

“Then walk into the forest, see what they do to you. If they will love you as they once did, or if they will bleed you dry.” She stepped closer to him. 

“Don’t tempt me, I still have the power of the Oak Tree, I have the power to control your steps, and you could walk into a fire.”

“She would have told me if you were going to do so. But I’ll ask her, just to check.”

“You’re bluffing. She is not alive.” 

The woman shrugged. “Then how would I know?”

“Know what?”

“Why it was Princess Odette chosen to marry Prince Siegfried.” She strode away, the hallway was clear, she made sure it would be, but she had to be careful, the walls were hollow, and ears were always listening. 

“A simple trade. It was logic, nothing else.” 

“No, it was fate.” 

“What do you mean?”

She smiled. She had him. “This is the start of your fall. Oh, how the treetops sway at the sight of the storm, but when the storm knocks the trees down, and the sun rises, who has won?”

Drosselmeyer hit the wall. “You speak in riddles!”

“The tree grows due to the sun’s rays, but on hot days, the fire starts, and the wind howls, and soon the tree is no more.

And the moon will rise on a land free of beasts and salamanders.”

“You will leave my sight, and I will never see you again, or you will meet your end.”

“I’m dying to meet my maker.” 

She smiled again, she turned and walked away. 

 

AHIRU DIDN’T KNOW WHERE  to go, but soon a maid found her and brought her to small study located inside of the palace walls, meaning there was no light. No sun. 

The door was shut behind her and she was alone, but not entirely.

“Ahiru.” Rue inclined her head. “Do you know what’s going on?”

Ahiru shook her head mutely. 

“Oh. I was hoping you could shed some light on the situation.” Rue moved to the Northern side of the room, where a large fireplace grew hot. “I grew cold. I hope you don’t mind.”

Ahiru shook her head, and looked around the room.

It appeared to be a small study, the three other walls were covered in short bookshelves, there must have been a hundred books, maybe more, but it was more than she had ever laid her eyes on. 

She stepped forward and ran the tips of her fingers over the spines. 

On the Southern wall, was a desk with a cushioned chair, it looked comfortable, but Ahiru felt wary about sitting on it. It wasn’t hers, and perhaps that was where her agitation lied. 

There was a few feet of space, but then there was a small sitting area with two couches and a wing-backed chair. 

Rue sat in the wing-backed chair, she leaned over and tended the fire, the gentle glow making her face appear softer. 

And perhaps it was the first time that Ahiru truly looked at her. 

Ahiru plopped down on the sofa across from Rue, she sat her chin in her hands.

Rue had smooth skin, there wasn’t a blemish, her lips were plump, a perfect pink, and her cheeks were a matching shade. Her eyebrows arched evenly over her eyes, and it was her eyes that Ahiru wanted to study the most, she had never seen eyes the color of Rue’s.

“Excuse me, what are you doing?”

“Oh, sorry. I just realized, we’ve never sat face to face before.” Ahiru smiled, as if that was a good enough reason to justify her staring. 

Rue scoffed, she turned her face to the side and looked into the fire. 

“We’ve never really talked before, either.”

Rue was silent for a moment, before she said, “We don’t have much to talk about, do we?”

“Well-” Ahiru searched, but came up blank, “I suppose not, no. But, we’ll be sisters soon, we should at least learn to get along.” Ahiru gave her neighbor a small smile. 

“Sisters-in-law.” Rue corrected. “Where are you from?”

Ahiru sat up straighter. “Arnis. It’s this little sea town. But, we’re apart of Schleswig-Holstein, so… um, it’s the Northernmost state.”

“Arnis.” Rue furrowed her eyebrows. “I don’t remember Arnis having a Princess.”

“Um-”

“It has been a great deal of my education to memorise the faces of Royalty. But, the Princess Odette Ahiru of Schleswig-Holstein.” Rue shook her head. “That is a name I have never heard. I know that the King and Queen of Arnis have four sons, the eldest being twenty-seven and married for six years, the second eldest being twenty-six, married for five, the third child twenty-three and married for two, and the youngest-”

“They wanted to keep me a secret.”

“Why?”

“They knew that I would be married off, that I would have to go live with my husband. They didn’t want just anyone coming. The Prince of Bavaria, and the promise of great trade was good enough for my mother and my father.”

Ahiru swallowed hard, she fisted her hands into the fabric, she hated lying, but she didn’t know who Rue was, if she was a gossip, if she would tell anyone her secrets. It was best to keep it locked down for now, but not forever.

Ahiru was bound to burst, to tell someone, it was just a matter of who and when. 

She remembered the words the Queen shared with her. 

They were falling into poverty. 

This deal was not offered to every Kingdom in Germany, but they were the only kingdom without a princess. 

The Queen couldn’t let this pass, she couldn’t let her people go hungry. 

And, it would mean a job for her father… people like her father. 

“Hmm, were they ashamed of you?”

“No. I don’t think they were. They just knew-” Edel had told her the best way to lie was stay as close to the truth as possible. “They knew I’d be a valuable piece.” 

“Ah.” Rue smiled, for the majority of their conversation, she stared into the fire, as if the fire was the one she was speaking with, but now she turned to Ahiru. “So did my father.”

“Really?”

“Do you know what the name ‘Rue’ means?”

Ahiru opened her mouth to respond, but shut it tight and shook her head.

“Regret. Or at least, it is one of the meanings. In French it means street. But, I figured my father meant the former.”

“Why would you say that?”

“My sister’s name is Kritanta. Meaning death.”

“Oh.”

“Being born female in a kingdom that has been at war for decades, it’s not what a King hopes for. He wants a male heir, that he can mold and bend into the perfect tyrant. But, instead we are to marry into other families.”

“Oh.”

“In Rothenburg, it is said that whatever name you are given at birth, and whatever it’s meaning is, is what your family, your parents, wish for your life. Kritanta was born and my father wished for her death. And as for my name… whether he regrets me, or wishes for my life to be full of-“ Rue rested her chin on one hand and took to gazing into the fire again. “My marriage to Autor will combine our borders. We’re neighbors, after all. And we’ve been at war for as long as I’ve been alive. As far as my father’s concerned, he’s won the war.”

Ahiru didn’t understand. 

Rue spoke clearly, resigned to her fate, but her eyes spoke endlessly of sorrow and regret. 

“You don’t want to marry him.”

“Why would anyone want to marry him!” Rue whipped her head back to Ahiru, and there was a spark in them. As if being so close to the fire finally lit the tinder. “Did you see him during the tests? His anger is unmatched! How could one person be so cruel?” She was on her feet in a moment, pacing back and forth in front of the couches. 

Ahiru pushed herself back into the sofa, the Princess was so refined and elegant, and now she was… 

Now she was just a girl. 

Complaining about her lot in life.

“My sister- argh! Let me tell you about my sister! She was supposed to marry Autor, it had been planned since her birth! But she had to go and fall in love with this commoner!” Rue tugged at her hair. “And since she’s my father’s favorite, he just lets her do whatever she wants and makes me marry this arrogant, know-it-all, ass of a prince when I-” Rue stopped herself short, she covered her lips with her fingers. “I’m sorry.”

“No!” Ahiru was on her feet in a second. “Don’t be, I can’t imagine what it must be like, being stuck in a place where you have no one to talk about these feelings with.”

She at least had Edel, and Fakir was becoming a quick friend as well. 

Rue’s eyes softened, from the raging fire to the gentle lick of a candle flame, and she glowed. “Oh, but I have someone.”

“Who?”

Rue flashed a glance to Ahiru and simply shook her head. “I don’t want you to hate me. Let me keep complaining about my sister. Yes, that is a good idea.” 

Ahiru pouted. “Rue? Are you alright?”

Rue sighed. “Perhaps I am, perhaps I am not. But, since the day I was born I was taught that life is unfair, and no matter what happens, you have to tough it out.”

It sounded very unlike her, the words she used were not her own. Ahiru tilted her head. “I fell in love with someone I wasn’t supposed to, and it’s only because of that that I’m here.”

Rue turned to her. “What? I thought you said your parents used you for trade?” 

“The King and Queen did, my mother has been dead for some time… and my father is a fisherman.” 

Rue’s eyes went wide. “Ahiru, what are you saying?”

Ahiru licked her lips. She smiled. “I’m telling you the truth. It’s been quite hard for me, too, lying to everyone about who I am.”

“Who are you?”

“My name is Ahiru Adler. I’m nobody.” 

Rue placed her hand on the sofa arm. “You trust me with that? One word to anyone and you’d be-”

“I know.” Ahiru gave her a brighter smile. “We’re going to be sisters, remember? I want to be honest with you.”

“Can I be honest with you then?”

There was a desperation on her face, something that wasn’t there before, and a hint of fear. 

Ahiru had taken a risk, but it was worth it, now to have trust between her and Rue. 

She thought Rue was the ideal, the Princess she should strive to impersonate, but now she could only think of how much of a charade it all was. 

She was trying to be perfect with every step, but so was Rue.

“You can tell me anything.”

“I’m in love with Mytho.”

Ahiru’s smile fell. “Oh.”

“I don’t want to steal him from you. I didn’t mean to fall in love. I never allowed myself to love anything, and when I came here I told myself that this wasn’t love, and it never would be, it would be an agreement between us. But,” Rue smiled, it was so gentle and sweet, and Ahiru recognized the look of love, it was once the look that rested on her face. “He talked to me, he talked to me like I was me, not the Princess Kreahe, not his brother’s wife, but me, and I couldn’t stay away from him.”

“I don’t blame you.” Ahiru smiled. “He’s so nice.”

“Isn’t he?” Rue laughed lightly, “Oh, I’m so sorry, how horrible it will be, your sister-in-law in love with your husband. I’m so sorry.”

“Doesn’t he love you?”

Rue paused. “What do you mean?”

Ahiru tilted her head. “The way he looks at you. In hindsight, I can see it.” His eyes moved to find her whenever he stepped into a room, he looked happier, lighter, and he floated. “No, I’m sorry, I'm keeping you apart.”

A look of worry consumed Rue’s features. “And tomorrow I will be bound forever to Autor.”

“Does he know?”

“Who?”

“Mytho. Does he know that you love him back? Maybe he can object.”

Rue shook her head. “It doesn’t work like that. This is a legal marriage, it’s not just an agreement between Autor and I, but my Father, his kingdom, with the Queen Helmia, and Bavaria. It’s not just something as easy as an objection.”

“But, can’t it be?”

“What would happen to you? And Autor? There would be no Queen crowned with him after the Königsspiel.” 

Ahiru swallowed, she had already signed her life away when she agreed to come here, she gave up love, her family. What was a little more? “I’ll marry Autor.”

“What? No, you can’t. I won’t let you.”

“And I won’t let you live your life in an unloving marriage when the man you love is ten feet away from you. I want you to be happy.”

“We just met.” Rue crossed her arms and turned away. “You can’t want anything for me.”

“But, I do. It sounds like you've lived a hard life. You deserve a happy ending.”

“And so do you.” 

Ahiru smiled. “I wasn’t born into a position where I can marry who I love.”

Rue sighed, “It seems that no one is allowed to marry who they choose. No matter their path in life.”

“I’ll tell Mytho. And then the decision will be up to him.”

“Wait, no.” Rue sighed. “I’ll tell him.”

Ahiru smiled. “I’m glad.”

“Ahiru, I want you to promise me something.”

“Anything.” 

“You must tell this to no one. And if tomorrow, if Mytho decides not to do anything, don’t tell anyone. Not even Mytho.” Rue had her back turned, her eyes trained on the southern wall, her hand curled into the fabric of the sofa’s arm. 

“I promise. So long as you don’t tell anyone I’m not really a Princess.”

Rue turned back, she had a small grin. “Of course.” She walked towards Ahiru and wrapped her into a hug.

Ahiru grinned from ear and ear and squeezed the life out of Rue.

“Oh! You’re a hugger!” 

Ahiru giggled. “Oh, Fakir might threaten you, if you do marry Mytho.”

“The Black Knight?” Rue pulled away with a quirked eyebrow. “The one who beat the shit out of Autor today?”

“Rue!” Ahiru scolded her. “Yes, him.”

“You spend a lot of time with him, now that I think about it.” Rue tapped a finger to her chin. 

“He’s a good friend.”

“Ah, I’m sure.” But there was a small smile on her features. “I’ll keep your warning in mind.” 

“Do you think everything will be okay?”

Rue shrugged. “Who knows. I don’t even know what’s going on right now.”

“What happened to your sister?”

Rue hummed in consideration, she took long strides to the couch and floated down onto the soft cushion, she took to gazing in the fire again. “She was a pretty little thing. Nobles pitted us against each other since we were children. Who would be more beautiful? The youngest or the oldest?”

“That’s awful!” Ahiru followed Rue’s lead, falling into the feathered cushion, bouncing slightly at the action. “Why would they do that?”

“Clearly, you haven’t been to Rothenburg. But, she was my father’s favorite, a little more ruthless, a little less forgiving. I was soft in my father’s eyes.”

Ahiru leaned forward on her hands, “That just means you're a good person.”

Rue smiled slightly, “Yes, some would say. Just not my father. Although, perhaps I should be grateful my sister was the one to stay.”

“What? Why?”

“One of the Nobles tried for my hand. The Duke Raven, he was twenty when I was born. He’s a widower.”

Ahiru scrunched up her nose. “Ew!”

“My thoughts exactly. If my sister hadn't fallen in love, she would be the one with you now, betrothed to Autor and I would be preparing for my wedding to Raven. But, how did you end up here? You’re not even a noble, why would the Queen choose you?”

Ahiru sat up, “Um- I. It’s a long story. But, I’ve known her all my life. She was like a second mother to me.”

“Did your father work for her?”

Ahiru nodded. “He did, although that’s not how they knew each other.”

“Then how?”

“It was through my mother.” Ahiru’s voice softened, it’s not as if she had to the chance to know her mother, but she still loved her, still wished she had gotten to see her face at least once. “The Queen used to be just a noble, barely above a commoner, but she married into royalty. She was friends with my mother, and even after her death, she took care of us. But, it wasn’t really her who asked me to go.”

“Who?”

“It was… it was…”

There was a knock at the door. 

“Come in.” Rue shouted. She stood and brushed at her skirt, and she forced herself into the mold of Princess Kraehe.

A maid opened the door and curtsied to each. “The mediation is over. Master Femio would like you to report to him as soon as possible to finish the last touches on your wedding gown.”

Rue gave her a curt nod, before turning to Ahiru. “Thank you for keeping me company.”

“You’re welcome.”

Rue and the maid left and Ahiru was abandoned in the small study.

She would have to tell Miss. Edel that Rue knew now.

 

FAKIR COULD FEEL HIS heart pounding in his chest. This was his chance. 

“Raetsel!” He shouted as he came near the black smith shop. “Raetsel! Charon!” 

The front door open and Raetsel was there. “Fakir slow down, what happened?”

Fakir panted, he caught his breath and gestured back to the castle. “Autor failed the five tests. It’s time.”

Raetsel’s look of confusion became one of understanding. “So soon?”

Fakir nodded.

“I’ll tell Charon, you go to Lysander.”

“Right.” Fakir turned on his heel and headed to Lysander, an artisan who would get the knowledge spread. 

He pushed past several people he knew and recognized, he would pause and say. “It’s time. Tonight. At Rossville’s.” 

They grew serious, and they would nod, their Oak Tree brooches glinting in the sunlight, telling whoever they were walking with that it was nothing to be concerned about. 

But it was everything to be concerned about. 

Fakir knocked on Lysander’s door. No, he didn’t knock, that was too civil a word, Fakir practiaclly rammed himself against the wooden door, yelling out Lysander’s name. 

“Who’s there?”

“The Black Knight.”

There was a moment of silence, and then the sounds of mechanisms unlocking.

The servant tipped his head to Fakir. “Your Majesty.”

“Not here.” Fakir said. “Tell Lysander it’s time. Rossville’s.”

The servant nodded. “Anyone in particular?”

“No, tell as many as you can.” 

Fakir tried to calm his racing heart, and when he thought he at least looked calm, he started walking back to the palace.

Anyone he passed, he would tell. 

Rossville’s. Tonight.

After the moonrise, but he didn’t have to specify, that’s when all the meetings were. 

When he approached the palace steps, he took a sharp left, heading not for the entrance, but for the kitchen. 

He knocked thrice and the door opened immediately. 

“Fakir! About time!” Pique grabbed his arm and pulled him inside before slamming the door shut. 

“Pique, is it him?”

“Yes, Ebine!” Pique shouted. 

“Tell him he’s late!”

“What do you think I’m doing?”

“Where’s Ahiru?”

Pique blinked up at him. “That princess? Autor’s time out room.”

“She’s safe?”

“What does that matter?”

Fakir grasped both of her arms. “Is she safe?”

“Yes! Yes, she’s safe. Geeze, what was that for?”

Fakir ran a hand through his hair in agitation. “Is it done?”

“Spion isn’t back, so no. Not yet.”

Fakir growled. “I don’t have time for this!” 

“Calm down, you big baby, I’m sure they’ll be done soon.”

“They’re finished!” Another girl ran into the kitchen, bumping into Pique as she did. “They finished! Spion is on his way!” 

Pique smiled at Lillie, then back at Fakir. “See? What did I tell ya?”

“Not to be a big baby.”

“Nice day out for a nip of bread!” 

“Oh, god, he’s going to tell us everything in code again.” Pique moaned. “Come in, Spion!”

Spion stepped inside the kitchen and removed his hood. “Afternoon, all.”

Fakir remained quiet, it would be best that he wasn’t heard if someone was listening.

“So?”

They crowded around him, even Ebine stepped away from the stove. 

Spion cleared his throat. “Of the five, he technically failed three.”

Pique and Lillie gasped. 

“But?” Ebine pushed.

“But, he will still run the Königsspiel.” 

Sighs of relief surrounded him, but he didn’t feel at all relieved.

Autor would fail.

Was that the point? His death?

His death wouldn’t make Drosselmeyer King, it would place Mytho on the throne and that was just another obstacle for him to overcome.

Fakir’s hand throbbed. 

He had his suspicions about Drosselmeyer, how he was able to get the Bookmen to do whatever he asked of them, how he had so much authority, why- 

Why the Queen wasn’t human anymore.

He had the ability, too. 

Fakir looked down at his hand. 

Drosselmeyer will have the advantage, but he would just have to plan around that. 

“It doesn’t matter.” He said. “What matters is that he will still run the Königsspiel. Thank you, Spion.”

Spion was the youngest of the Bookmen by far, he was only thirty-seven, and unlike the others, he wasn’t as adamant about obeying Drosselmeyer’s every wish and command.

“One more thing.” Spion held up one finger, his eyes traveling to each pair that was in the room until he landed on Fakir’s. “The Bookmen have decided that you shall not challenge Autor to the crown in the Königsspiel. And they will stop you at any means necessary.” 

Fakir nodded. He didn’t see the Bookmen as a threat, but he knew that they were not a group to cross. 

Drosselmeyer was his real enemy.

“Thank you for the bread, Ebine!” Spion shouted loudly. “It really is some of your best!” 

“Get out.” Fakir hissed.

Spion bowed his head and left, but not before snatching up a small loaf of bread. Perhaps to keep up the charade. But more than likely, not.

“Okay, so what’s the plan Fakir?” Pique asked, turning towards him.

“Not here. Later, at Rossvilles.” 

 

HIS FIRST MISSION WAS to make sure Mytho was alright. 

He wasn’t sure why, but it felt like this was the end, and he needed Mytho on his side. 

Fakir just didn’t count on Mytho being so hard to find. 

He placed his hand on the shoulder of a passing maid and asked, “Where is Prince Siegfried?”

The maid blushed, “The second garden.”

Ah, he should have figured. 

The second garden was built as a wedding gift for the Queen and Mytho’s father, it was smaller than the official, royal garden, and even the King’s Garden, but it was still where Mytho went when he needed to clear his head. 

It was an awkward installment, almost tacked on, a small wooden door carved out of the already established wall, and it gave the palace grounds an odd, lopsided look.

“Mytho?” Fakir called when he pushed the door open. 

It was a lush garden, well taken care of, several bushes, a large maple tree overlooking a pond, a short stone path wound it’s way around. Fakir had spent many days of his childhood in this place, and he knew every nook and cranny, the best places to hide, the best places to look up at the sky. 

The sky had lost its beauty. 

Since the start of the Prüfung, the sky had been overcast, the clouds blocking out the sun.

He closed his eyes, trying to imagine what it would feel like on his skin, but his mind conjured up a picture of her instead. 

“Fakir?”

He opened his eyes, Mytho sat on the bench at the edge of the pond, looking into its waters. “Did you hear?” Fakir shut the door behind him and walked to the bench, he didn’t sit down next to Mytho, but knelt beside him instead.

Mytho nodded. “He’ll still run.”

“Yes. And I need to run.”

Mytho sighed, “Fakir, how can you be so sure?”

“Would Charon lie?”

“No.”

“And if he did, would he let me take it so far?”

Mytho clenched his jaw. “No.”

“You know it’s true.” Fakir placed his hand on Mytho’s wrist. “Look at me.”

Mytho shut his eyes.

“You can’t do that anymore, we’re not children.”

“Fakir, as much as I want to believe it, I can’t. It goes against everything I was raised to believe.”

Fakir took a deep breath. He had tried to convince Mytho for years.

When they were children, Fakir had a penchant for telling stories, of knights and dragons, dueling princes, and monstrous creatures, Mytho always took part in the tale, playing the valiant knight. Fakir always told him when he was starting a story, to distinguish pretend from reality. 

Mytho had always believed it was one of their games. 

“Look at her, look at Autor, and look at me.”

Mytho let his eyes fall open, but he kept his eyes on his lap.

“Tell me, who looks more like-” He cut himself off. No, not here. Who knew who was listening. “Tonight. At Rossville‘s.”

“After moonrise.” Mytho nodded. 

Fakir stood, and there was a second knock at the door. 

“Mytho?”

Mytho stood instantly, “Rue.”

Fakir looked between them, an eyebrow quirked. 

Rue walked into the garden, but she kept her eyes on Fakir. “Excuse me, sir, I would like a moment to speak to Mytho alone.” 

“Of course, Your Highness.” Fakir bowed his head, it was as much as she would get, he turned to leave, but stopped. “Mytho?”

“Yes?”

“Leave your betrothed out of this. Whatever your decision is.” Fakir didn’t look back as he walked away, he still had planning to do.

 

MYTHO ARRIVED AT ROSSVILLE just as the moon peeked over the city walls, and he could see he wasn’t alone. He pulled his hood closer to his face, there were many he recognized, who knew how many could recognize him. 

The single tavern Nordlingen had was crowded, mostly commoners, Mytho recognized farmers that had come to the palace, but there were many, like him, hiding behind a cloak. Those, he was sure, were Nobles, like him, hiding their identities from all.

Mytho scanned the crowded room, looking for Fakir, Raetsel or Charon, someone who he could tell his plan to.

It was archaic, he knew it, but tomorrow Rue wasn’t going to marry Autor, and tomorrow no one would be running the Königsspiel.

He pushed his way past. “Excuse me.”

But that was the wrong move. 

“Prince Siegfried.” someone muttered, recognizing him just by his voice.

Someone grabbed his arm. “Mytho?”

Mytho’s heart leapt, but when he looked down it was one of the castle maids, Pique was her name.

“Come with me.”

Pique lead him through an invisible path, cutting through the crowd with ease.

She lead him to the bar, and they were let by and into a back room. “Fakir, he came.”

Fakir stood, surrounded by his allies, he came to greet Mytho.

Mytho let his hood fall from his head. “Fakir, I’ve come to tell you, tomorrow I’m going to object to Rue and Autor’s wedding.”

“What?”

All eyes were on him. He was changing their plans.

“I have fallen in love with Rue, and her with me.”

Fakir was quiet, evident that he was thinking hard about what Mytho was saying. “So, what will happen?”

“We looked at the agreement. The laws of Bavaria have always been that I can challenge him to a duel for her hand. The duel will postpone the Königsspiel.”

“But they’ll still want a bride for Autor.”

Mytho nodded. “I feel ashamed for putting this on her, but-”

“No.”

“Rue said she offered.”

Fakir closed his eyes, he fisted his hands, and Mytho watched him grind his jaw.

“It’s just marriage, she’s not sacrificing herself.”

“Fakir, who is he talking about?” Raetsel stood, her eyes jumping between Fakir and Mytho.

“The Princess Odette Ahiru. Betrothed to Prince Siegfried Mytho.” Fakir turned and stalked back to the table. “Damnit.”

The room was quiet, Mytho looked to Raetsel, but she shook her head, she didn’t understand it either.

“How much time would that give us?”

Mytho shook his head, “I don’t know. Maybe a week, maybe a month. But, it gives you more time.”

“No matter how much time we have, we can’t give the secret away.”

“Wait. What secret?” Mytho looked around the room, hoping someone would tell him what he didn’t know.

“Fakir, you mean you’ve never told Mytho?” Charon asked. He tsked. 

“It’s too much to explain right now.” Fakir said. “It will have to wait.” 

“What will?” 

“It’s time.” Lysander said, he poked his head into the room. “Are you ready?”

Fakir took a deep breath, but he nodded. “Did you make sure no Bookmen got in?”

“Yes, not even Spion.” 

“Good.” Fakir turned back to the table he picked up a book and a pen and left the small room, and those left behind were quick to follow.

The tavern was noisy, but when Fakir entered the room, a hush fell over the crowd. 

“Thank you for coming.” He started. “Some of you may be here in support of me, others may have just come to see if the rumors are true. And they are.” 

Mytho came to stand beside Fakir, but his hood had returned to its place atop his head, and he was careful to let no one see his face. 

Charon stepped forward. “Twenty one years ago, I was the royal Black Smith. I was a personal friend to Queen Helmia. As I walked the palace grounds, I watched as Drosselmeyer opened the window, and with a blank gaze, the Queen took her son and threw him out the window into the snow, to die. They didn’t see me, but I saved him, and I raised him to the best of my ability, I trained him and taught him how to be a good King. And, when he runs the Königsspiel you will all see the truth behind the tale.

“The man who lives in the palace, pretends to be the Queen’s son, but he was robbed from his crib, and placed in her arms. You’ve seen his greed and mistreatment at the Prüfung, you’ve seen his weakness.” 

There came shouts of agreement.

“In the end, who do you wish to see in the throne? The rightful heir, born to take his role? Or a slob, sloppily pushed into a role that wasn’t made for him!”

More shouts flooded Mytho’s ears, and he looked to Fakir. 

He had his mother’s nose.

Mytho shook his head. No, no it couldn’t be true. It couldn’t be. 

Fakir stepped forward. “For how many of you have I shown aide? How many arguments have I settled? And when faced with slight bickering, he loses his temper.

I promise you this, I am the son thrown from the window, I was born to rule over you, not as a King, but as a man who has seen starvation, who has worked everyday of his life, who fights for his neighbor, who will protect you from the horrors of war while He sits in the palace.”

“That’s right!”

“He doesn’t know his people, he doesn’t know the pain of loss, and he is under Drosselmeyer’s control, and like a puppet, whatever string Drosselmeyer pulls, he will obey.” 

Mytho felt nervous, it was Autor he was talking about… Autor he was chastising.

Fakir was right.

He would have to choose.

Between blood and love. 

“When the time comes for the Königsspiel, I will challenge His Royal Highness, and I will come out victorious, but the Bookmen will do anything to stop me.”

The crowd booed, apparently it wasn’t just Mytho that hated the Bookmen, but everyone. 

“I need all of you to stand behind me. By ancient laws, I can challenge him, whether he accepts or not, but I can be silenced, I can be killed. So long as we outnumber the Bookmen and Drosselmeyer, we stand a chance. Drosselmeyer has been in power for too long. He controls the Queen, he controls the Bookmen, and he controls the Crown Prince, he listens to no one but his own selfish desires. As your King, I will never place my own needs before yours. So, who's with me?”

The crowd didn’t even hesitate, roars filled the small tavern, and Mytho realized that this wasn’t just a small rumor, but a truth that would fuel a revolution. 

He had his mother’s eyes.

Fakir looked to Mytho, and in his eyes he begged his friend to join him.

Mytho swallowed hard, Fakir created a lot of stories.

 

IT WAS NEARLY DAWN by the time his rally was complete, and he knew that the palace was alive with the preparations for the wedding that would happen in just a few hours. 

He couldn’t stop his feet from walking towards the palace, nor could he stop when he came to her window, where she stood, gazing out over the kingdom.

But he knew she wasn’t looking anywhere, he knew she couldn’t see anything.

Not anymore.

He stopped a few yards away, he knew Drosselmeyer wouldn’t be far off, no, he never left her alone. Not for long.

She sat at her window, she didn’t wear her crown, and her long, dark hair flowed in the wind of the open window. 

One day, she would wake up, and when she did she would recognize him. Recognize him as her son.

For a long time, he was angry with her, angry that she didn’t fight Drosselmeyer, that she was unable to stop herself from trying to murder her only child.

He didn’t understand.

He didn’t understand that she had no control over herself. That she had lost her free will years before. 

Now he did.

He clenched his right hand, he remembered what it was like the first time he took control of something else.

It was just a duck, a stupid, useless duck, but he had forced her to command to his will, and it was a horrible sensation. 

He couldn’t imagine controlling a person. Much less for years.

The Queen Helmia didn’t even shiver as a strong wind blew into her room. 

Fakir looked out to the horizon, a storm was coming in, he knew. 

“I swear to you,” he said softly, so lowly he himself wasn’t sure he was truly speaking. “I will sit on the throne.” 

The sky lightened, and it was dawn, Fakir turned away but the image of his mother sitting at the window haunted him. 

Chapter Text

I SPENT MY LIFE living in darkness, swallowed by the night.

And the first day I spent in the sun, letting it warm my face, letting my eyes adjust to the light, it was too much. 

Like a sickness, the sun sinks into my skin and for the first time in my life, my heart knows what love is.

Now, as I stand in the night again, far away from the sun and her glory, I crave the light, and I miss her. My very soul calls out to her, I yearn for her, I want to call her mine. 

The night is long, but I have lived out my sentence, and now I am free to live in the sunlight. 

 

EGGS AND SAUSAGES DIDN’T look appealing, and as Ahiru poked at her plate, she looked over at Rue, who also didn’t touch her food.

Rue woke at sunrise, and she invited Ahiru to an early breakfast; her last as a Princess, as an unmarried woman. 

That meant, however, that Ahiru had to get ready for it. 

Waking up wasn’t the problem, growing up as a fisherman’s daughter, she was used to waking up at dawn to help her father get ready for a daily catch, but here, she was used to her mornings being her own. She would read, write, even try to learn any information she could about the kingdom she abided in.

So, when a maid knocked on her door inviting her to breakfast, she was caught off guard.

Ahiru laid on her stomach in the middle of the floor with a book open in front of her, and when the maid came in Ahiru jumped up and started a jumbled explanation. 

“I’ll go get your handmaids.” The maid left with a shake of her head. 

Now, she sat at the breakfast table set up in one of the rooms of Rue’s apartment, and pushed the food around her plate.

She wasn’t just upset for Rue, oh no.

Today contained a thousand possibilities. 

Either, Rue and Autor would get married, Ahiru would marry Mytho and she'd know that her husband was in love with another woman. She wasn’t sure she could deal with that. 

Or, Mytho would stand up, for himself, for Rue, and he would challenge Autor to a duel for Rue’s hand. 

He could lose, either disgraced, or by death, Rue would have to marry Autor and Ahiru would be sent back home, to be nothing more than someone’s wife. 

He could win, and Rue would marry the man she loves, but where would that leave Ahiru?

Would Autor take her? Or would he demand someone else. 

If he did take her, then she would be married to a man who obviously hates her. 

And, if she was left by herself, if she had no one to marry where would she go?

Back home? There was nothing there for her.

Would she stay? To be forever known as the girl who was once betrothed to the Prince? 

It was too much to think about.

So, she shuffled her eggs and sausage. 

“I know.” Rue sighed. “I can’t eat either. Tell me about Arnis. What is it like?”

“Oh.” Ahiru set down her fork and wiped her mouth, even if she hadn’t eaten anything. “It’s small, it’s easy to get to know everyone there.”

“Why do the King and Queen live there? Why not a larger city? Or the capital?”

“It was the Queen’s choice. Paulamoni’s choice. She loved the ocean and the sea, and she wanted to live in the town where she grew up. Fortunately, there was a summer palace there, and they stayed. Though, now their oldest son, Rudlof lives with his wife in the capital.”

“Hmm. And you grew up with them?”

“Kind of. I couldn’t go with my father on his fishing boat, so I would stay with the maids in the castle, and I would just play with them, being the only other kids in the palace. It was Rudlof, Ivan, Peter, and…” She couldn’t say his name. She just couldn’t bare it.

Rue seemed to see it as well. “And?”

“It’s funny. I can’t say his name.”

“Why not?”

Ahiru blinked her eyes, “I don’t know. I- I always knew that, we could never be. But, I always let myself hope.”

“Paulamoni was a peasant, wasn’t she?”

“She might as well have been. The daughter of an artisan, no higher than a lady,” Ahiru tucked a piece of hair behind her ear. “They used me, instead.”

Rue was silent, letting her eyes rest on the table. “You said it was by the sea?”

“Yes.”

“What is the ocean like?”

Ahiru tilted her head to the side. “You mean you’ve never been?”

“My kingdom has been at war for all my life. I never really had time for holidays.”

Ahiru blushed. “Oh, right, I’m sorry.” 

“Tell me about it.”

“It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s a thousand colors, the sand, the deep blue, the pale green. The way it moves, never stopping.” Ahiru closed her eyes, conjuring it in her head. “Sometimes I would go out to the dock and sit at the end, and I could pretend I was out in the middle of the ocean, floating in the middle of the air.” She scrunched her eyebrows together. “Once, my father was out, and there was a storm, I wasn’t supposed to, but I ran out to the edge of the dock, and I had to hold on to the wooden pillars because the waves were so high that they hit my legs, and out in the distance, I could see it. The white sails of papa’s ship. I was so scared, but there was nothing I could do. I was so scared for him.” She opened her eyes and looked at Rue. “Sorry, that’s not what you meant.”

“No, no it’s fine.”

Ahiru nodded. “But I love the beach, it’s one of the only things I miss.”

“Your father?”

Ahiru smiled. “Yes, I miss my father as well. Normally, it’s cloudy, but there are days when the sun was out, it felt warm, and the sun would light up the waves, and you could see the sand rolling inside.”

“It sounds nice.”

“We can go. Together. I’m sure we’d be able to, the war would be over, and now there’s a trading deal between us, surely, we have to go check on that.”

“That’s true.” Rue smiled, she shifted in her seat, leaning closer to Ahiru. “We could go in the summer, so there’s more chances of sunny days.”

Ahiru grinned brighty, sitting up in her chair. “Yeah! And we can go sit at the edge of the dock.”

“Thank you, Ahiru. I didn’t think I would smile at all today.” Rue patted her cheek. “My face hurts.”

Ahiru giggled, but there was a knock at the door.

“Mademoiselle?”

Their smiles faded, and Rue stood, clearing her throat. “Come in.” 

The doors were thrown open and a man stepped in. “Look at you! Mwah!”

Ahiru stood as she came face to face with the French Dressmaker called to make Rue’s wedding dress. 

He took both Rue’s hands in his and kissed them, making loud, unnecessary noises. 

“And who is this?”

“My sister.”

Ahiru smiled, he held out his hand for hers, and when she gave it to him, he offered her a low bow and kissed the top of her hand. “I am Lord Femio Gustavo of Paris. You, I understand, are next in line for marriage, the young Prince Siegfried.”

“Y-yes!” 

“It is an honor to meet you.” He snapped back up and clapped his hands twice. “Ma fille, entrer.”

Two young women came into the room holding trunks. 

“You don’t have to stay, Ahiru, they’ll just be stuffing me in that silly dress.” Rue placed her hand on Ahiru’s shoulder and rolled her eyes. 

“Oh, I wanted to see it.”

Rue smiled, and the preparations began.

Mostly, Ahiru stepped back, watching as Rue was placed on a stool and was disrobed and dressed up again. 

It was a fashionable thing, the dress Femio made, completely white, and covered in jewels that would have sparkled in the sun, if the sun had been out. Her feet were tucked into white slippers, and she was pulled into a chair, her hair pushed out and pinned to her head. A veil was attached, flowing over her shoulders, and the maids were adding make up to her cheeks when she started to worry. 

The whole time they had been talking, an easy distraction, but as Rue watched herself in the mirror getting ready for a wedding she didn’t want to attend, her pale skin grew paler. 

“Ahiru?”

“Hmm?”

“Would you go find Mytho. Please.” 

They made eye contact in the mirror, and in the depths of Rue’s eyes, Ahiru saw fear and panic, infinite worry, and she knew Rue was on the verge of falling. 

Ahiru nodded, she stood and left, closing the door behind her, but before she did, she took one last glance at Rue, she looked like she was going to be sick. 

Out in the hallway, Ahiru didn’t really know where to go.

So far, she had been lead to every room she needed to go to, and besides her room, the ballroom, and the breakfast nook, she hadn’t really explored the castle. 

She took a deep breath.

It was going to be fine. It was all going to be fine. 

She didn’t even know what room was his. 

Ahiru looked down the hallway, all she had to do was choose which way to go, left or right. 

Well, she was right handed, so it made sense to go right, and Mytho was always to the right of the Queen and Autor.

Although, maybe that was cause to go left. If the Queen rested in the middle, then Autor would be on the right, and Mytho would be to the left. Or maybe he was right to Autor.

But, that would just be more right, or righter than Autor was. 

Left made sense, too. Mytho wasn’t on the right hand of the Queen, and if there are only so many apartments, they wouldn’t have two on the right, and if he was on the right, he and Autor would just get crowded.

So then Mytho would be on the left.

Or maybe he wasn’t, because being by himself on the opposite side of the palace would get lonely, and maybe he would miss his brother so he asked to be moved closer.

But surely he would want more space as an adult, so then he moved back, so obviously he was to the left.

That is, if he was even in his room. 

Oh, this was harder than she thought. 

“Eenie, meenie, miney, moe, catch, a, tiger, by, the, toe.” Right. 

Ahiru released a deep breath and picked up the front of her skirts as she made her way to the right. 

She would stop at every door and knock, sometimes there was an answer, and sometimes not, and she opened them so long as they weren’t locked, which lead to a few embarrassing encounters. 

“Close the door!”

“Sorry!” 

Ahiru moaned and rubbed her face with her hands, she heard the clock tower toll ten and she knew she only had an hour left, the wedding was to be at eleven, and then the Königsspiel at noon.

She was about to make her way downstairs, when two maids walking by stopped to have a conversation, and a key name caught her ear.

“-stop yawning, you’re going to make me start yawning!” 

“Sorry!” She yawned. “I was up all night last night!”

The first scoffed. “So was I, you don’t see me yawning like crazy. I told you you should have just gone to bed.”

“And missed his speech? I would never!”

“Yeah, he has such a way with words. I think I’d stay up all night just listening to him talk, too.” She sighed contently. “Hey, once he’s King, he’ll need a Queen, think I fit the bill?”

“Oh Queen Pique, how shall you take your tea?”

“Hmm, however my husband takes his!”

They both burst into a fit of giggles, and Ahiru was confused as to why Autor would need a queen, he was already betrothed. 

“Fakir would have your head if he heard you.”

Fakir? Why were they talking about Fakir?

Pique giggled. “I know, it’s just fun to think about! I mean, c’mon, you can’t tell me now to get my head straight when you were talking about him in the same way last night.”

“I never expressed my desire to marry him, just to warm his bed.”

They broke out into hysterics once more, but their conversation made Ahiru blush.

Why- why were they talking about him like that! 

“I think it’ll be great if he marries someone, we can become great friends with her, and make Fakir horribly embarrassed.”

“Oh, he’s so cute when he gets flustered!”

Cute? That wasn’t a word she would use to describe him. 

“If he likes anyone that is. I don’t think he likes anyone here, and he knows everyone.”

“Maybe that’s the problem, he doesn’t view us as women, just people he needs to help and rule over.”

“Hmm, I’d let him rule over me anyday.”

They laughed again. 

Perhaps, it wasn’t too unreasonable to see why they talked about him in such a way. 

When she thought about it, he was handsome, his strong jaw, and the way his hair fell, framing his features. His pale eyes, so contrasted with the rest of him, he was lovely. 

That thought made her blush again. 

He was her friend, she couldn’t think about him like that! 

Although, what was wrong with noticing someone’s features? Especially if they complimented one another. 

But, she heard their footsteps grow louder, and in an effort to seem like she hadn’t been listening, she started walking again. 

“Oh! Your Grace.” They curtsied to her. “Forgive us, for gossiping.”

Ahiru nodded. “It’s fine, I didn’t hear you say anything, anyhow.” 

They stood and looked at her, but before she could walk past, one seemed to recognize her.

“Wait a second, aren’t you the one Fakir’s been with all week?” It sounded like Pique.

“Oh! Um! Yes, he’s my friend.”

“We’re friends of his, too!” Lillie said, bounding up to Ahiru and taking her hand. “We’ve known him all our lives!”

“Really?”

“Yeah.” Pique said, her eyes roved up and down Ahiru’s body. “You know, now that I think about, I can’t recall a time Fakir has ever spent so much time with someone.”

“Hmm?”

“Oh! Pique, I think you’re right!” Lillie beamed, and cupped Ahiru’s face with her hands. “My, my, my.”

“What’s he like?”

“Huh?” Ahiru looked between them, letting a confused expression rest on her face. “I thought you were friends?”

“Of course we are! We just don’t spend much time with him, not anything longer, say, an hour.” Pique said.

“A week!”

“Oh, wow. Really?” Ahiru tried to tilt her head, but was still held captive by Lillie’s hand.

“Yes.” They both said. 

“But he spends so much time with you.” Pique said.

“And he talks about you.” Lillie added.

“He does?”

“Not in so many words.” Pique said, peering down at her nails. “But, we can tell. It’s always the Princess Odette, or Mytho’s Betrothed.” She rolled her eyes. “Like he can’t say your name, or something. Why is that?” 

“Yeah, why is that?”

“Um.” Ahiru looked around the hallway, to see if there was some means of escape. “I don’t know. He’s my friend.”

“Just your friend?”

“What? Yeah, what else would he be?” 

“Well, there are rumors.” Lillie stepped back, she held her hands behind her back. “About Kings and Queens who don’t play by the rules.” 

“What do you mean by that?”

Pique smirked. “C’mon, you know.”

“That, Fakir and me, that me and Fakir, would -?”

They nodded, expecting her to finish the sentence, but she couldn’t.

“No! That’s- that’s wrong.”

Pique shrugged. “It wouldn’t be the first time. And most arranged marriages only last so long because they have outside help.”

“I’m sorry, but we’re just friends. I swear.”

They shared a glance before bursting out into laughter. 

“You should see your face!” Pique wiped at a fake tear. “Listen, we know.”

“We just like messing with people!” Lillie gave a pretty giggle, her hands finally left her cheeks.

“Oh, um- good. I think?”

“Hey, do me a favor?” Pique put her hand on Ahiru’s shoulder. “Don’t tell Fakir, he hates it when we talk about him like that.”

“Yeah, he’d have our skin if he knew.” 

Ahiru smiled. “Well, so long as you’re joking.”

“We were! The day I see that grumpy, stuffy old man get married is the day I die.” Pique shook her head. “He’s never loved anybody.”

“He hasn’t?”

“Nope. He’s pretty easy to read once you’ve known him for a while, I would have been able to tell if he was in love with anyone.” 

Ahiru nodded. “Say, do you know where Mytho is? Or, Prince Siegfried. My betrothed?”

They laughed. “Um, no, not this morning. Why?”

She shrugged. “I just wanted to talk to him before the wedding starts.”

“Try the second garden.” Pique said, with a curt nod. “Yep, that’s where I think he would be.”

“But, where is that-?”

“Gotta go! Bye!”

“Good bye!” Lillie blew her a kiss and Pique gave her an eccentric little wave.

“Okay. Second garden. That would have to be outside. On the ground.”

Ahiru nodded to herself and went to find a little staircase that would take her downstairs.

Maybe she could find another maid who could give her directions. 

Actual directions. 

Ahiru couldn’t stop thinking about their words, the way they talked so frankly, and about Fakir too.

It wasn’t that she never talked like that, she would laugh when her old friends made off colored jokes and suggestive comments, normally about her and the prince. 

She put up with it, but she never partook in it. 

And the subtle winks and not so gentle nudges never bothered her, and it was always directed at her, specifically for her, and her unrequited love. 

Now, she had simply overhead a silly conversation between friends, a conversation that would most likely remain hypothetical, and it bothered her. 

It bothered her a lot! 

She didn’t want to think about anyone else being with Fakir in that way, it was just wrong!

Fakir wasn’t like that. He wasn’t the type of man who just slept around with women, he wasn’t the type to use innocent girls and leave them behind in the dust. 

She just knew he wasn’t. He couldn’t be. 

He wasn’t like Rudlof.

Ahiru halted when she was assaulted with a memory.

She leaned against the wall, and she remembered. 

As a young girl, going to the palace during the day, being ‘watched’ by the maids, but mostly playing with the two youngest princes. They were playing hide and seek, and running through the palace halls. 

She had found a perfect hiding place, there was a table with a cloth covering it’s legs until the tips of the fabric touched the floor, and she was trying to find that table again but grew lost instead.

The palace wasn’t large, no, she could run from one end to the other, but as she went along, she learned that she had never been to this part of the castle. 

That’s when she heard him, Rudlof, the oldest son, ten years older than her.

She didn’t remember what he said, but she knew that he wasn’t alone. She didn’t pay that any mind, she went to him, knowing he would show her back to a part of the palace she was familiar with. 

When she found him, he had a girl with him, one of the younger maids, she was new, and Ahiru knew because she had never met the maid before. 

They were laughing, and talked in hushed whispers, she peeked around the corner and watched as he pushed her against the wall and pressed his lips to her neck.

She remembered she made a noise, mostly one of disgust, but she ran away before he saw her. 

That was only the first incident. 

That was were he took girls, and Ahiru was curious, she wanted to see the maid again, to try and place her within the palace, but when she went back, another girl was in his arms, and she was a noble woman, her clothes richer and finer than the previous. 

Ahiru put a hand to her forehead, no, Fakir wasn’t like that, pushing girls against walls to steal a kiss only to trade her out for someone else. 

Fakir wasn’t the kind. 

Perhaps that’s why their words bothered her, because he was a loyal man. 

Ahiru closed her eyes and shook her head. She hated that memory of Rudolf, until then, he had been her big brother, someone who would protect her.

Not anymore. 

Ahiru took a deep breath, trying to calm herself, letting go of the memory, letting go of the uncalled for anger, and that’s when she heard footsteps coming her way.

She could only think of her memory, of playing hide and seek, and even though there was nothing wrong with standing in the hall, she panicked, looking for a place to hide and only found a long, hanging drape. 

It only stopped rustling when the two men rounded the corner. 

“-You are sure that no one suspects you?”

A cackle. “No! Not one person, especially not Fakir. He trusts me.” 

Why was Fakir always the topic of conversation? 

Ahiru was half tempted with jumping out from her hiding place and telling them to stop gossiping, but what he said next stopped her cold. 

“No matter what happens today, if Mytho objects or doesn’t, we cannot let Fakir run.”

How did they know about that?

Perhaps they overheard Mytho and Rue speaking with each other, but there was the creeping fear that they overheard her and Rue. 

And if that was the case, did they know?

Did they know that she wasn’t supposed to be here?

Ahiru placed a hand over her chest, she wondered how good their hearing was.

“Of course not, but I know he’s planning something. Something big. He called the whole town to a meeting at Rossville’s. I tired to go and see, but they wouldn’t let me in.”

“How strange. I thought you said he trusted you?”

They were coming closer to her. 

Ahiru looked down at her feet, and realized that, while the drapes where long, they didn’t touch the floor. 

Her feet were visible in the light. 

She was visible.

She would be seen.

“He-he does! I swear it! I’m sure they just weren’t letting in Bookmen and he didn’t tell them that I was his informant.”

“Hmm, and what did you tell him?”

“Everything. That Autor would run, but we would try to stop him.”

There was a pregnant pause.

“And just why did you say that?”

“Wh- what do you mean?”

They stopped, but Ahiru could hear them crystal clear.

They were right in front of her. 

“Why tell the truth? You gave him time to plan. If you had told him we failed Autor, that he would not become King and that we would wait for Mytho to come of age to run the Königsspiel he would not even think about running today! He would have no rally behind him, he would have nothing prepared for his great run.”

“Who's to say he will even win?”

“Don’t you see, boy! He is prepared! He has prepared every day of his life! If he runs, he will win.” 

Ahiru flinched at the Bookman’s rising tone, but she was careful not to move her body lest the curtain flutter and reveal her hiding place. 

“You have no faith in Autor?”

“Autor was not born to run, Autor was born for a life of luxury, he wasn’t born to be a king, you fool.”

“What are you saying?”

“What do you think Drosselmeyer has been doing all these years? Personally teaching Autor, going over and over what the Prüfung will contain?”

The second man was quiet. 

“Do you know why only the true King can run?”

“No.” He said, his voice barely above a whisper. 

“Because in the forest, it is not just a competition, to see if one can survive, but a trial. His every move is watched, every action he takes, it is more than just a game. After generations, we learned. That no matter who went in, it was only those of the same bloodline who came out.”

“B-but the First King- ”

“A man of honor, but of the six, they chose him, and when his son ran, they saw the same qualities in him. They learned, and they picked favorites, don’t you know?”

“Know what?”

“There are five noble families. The house of Stärke.”

“Oh, it was the house of Stärke that made it to the final round of jousting.”

“And who beat him?”

Silence met her ears.

“The House of Vermittlung, the House of Taktik, the House of Stimmung, and the House of Verstand. All descendants of the five who first ran. They all share the same traits as their forefathers.

“Where did Autor fail?”

“Strength, mediation, and morale.”

“There is some overlap, but Autor was stolen from the House of Verstand. Don’t you remember? The mysterious death that befell their baby boy?”

Ahiru put a hand to her mouth. 

Why were they saying this? Surely it couldn’t be true.

“I- I remember.”

“But, that was before you were a Bookman, before you knew any better.”

“How-?”

“Drosselmeyer. Simply a matter of making them see what he wanted them to see.”

“A dead baby?”

“Precisely. It was I who took him. It was I who held the future King in my hands.” He took a deep breath. “And put him in the Queen’s.”

“But what about King Ecke? He came from-”

“Simple, Drosselmeyer was able to control the outcome.”

“And if Drosselmeyer can make anything happen, then why isn’t Fakir dead?”

Ahiru shut her eyes, why were they saying all of this? Out in the open? It was so stupid!

But, when she closed her eyes, she could only see Fakir lying on the floor, cold and pale. 

Her feet were starting to ache, she wasn’t used to standing in one place for so long, so still, and in the stupid heels she had to wear. 

“An infant was thrown out a window into the snow, most children wouldn’t survive.”

“Just-! Kill him now!”

“Ha! You think it’s that easy! It’s not so simple. Especially with what he’s done.”

What had he done? 

“The next time Fakir asks you for information. Lie.”

Silence.

“Spion? What will you do?”

“Lie.”

“Good. We have work to do, let us keep moving.”

She waited until she could no longer hear their footsteps before she fell to the ground. 

Half hidden by the curtain, she planted her palms onto the stone floor, trying to steady herself. 

“I’m going to start something, the Bookmen, they know where you stand. They may not like you if you choose me over him.” He had told her. 

He was going to start something.

If…

If Autor wasn’t meant to be King, did that mean Fakir was? 

They tried to kill a baby. They tried to kill Fakir. 

What did they say? About Drosselmeyer? 

It was all him. 

He called Fakir “Fritz” at the ball, he thought that Fakir was dead.

She had to tell Fakir. 

She had to- 

And tell him what? That she knew? And knew what? It was something she didn’t want to believe.

Ahiru moved so she sat down, her back pressing to the window. 

She wondered, would she choose him? 

He was going to challenge Autor to the Königsspiel, and when it came down to it, the Bookmen would support Autor, but the people... 

Lottie, Cordelia, Tilda, Luise, Chiara those little girls loved him, he walked all the way to the Southern wall just to give Lottie back her basket. 

The crowd cheering on the Black Knight over all of the Nobles; cheering on the Black Smith’s son when he was challenged. 

The people expected him to protect them and their sons and their husbands during the Bauersspiel. 

The people would choose him. 

Who did she stand with?

She had no loyalty to Autor and Mytho, to the Queen, and Bavaria. She was only here because Paulamoni wanted to get her out of the picture.

Mytho didn’t choose her; he chose Rue. 

Autor didn’t choose her. 

Even her prince didn’t choose her. 

So then, who did she choose?

But, it couldn’t be true, it couldn’t be….

Suddenly, there was a face in front of hers. 

“Princess? Are you alright?”

Ahiru gasped. “What?”

“Shouldn’t you be at the Chapel? It’s almost time for the wedding?”

“I was looking for someone. What time is it?”

“Half past ten. Who are you looking for?”

Half an hour, she only had half an hour!

Poor Rue, she must have been so nervous. 

She had only been looking for Mytho’s reassurance. 

“What’s your name?”

“Pardon?”

“Sorry, I-I-” Ahiru shook her head, which was everywhere. She never had to think this much before. 

“Raetsel, my name is Raetsel.” She gave Ahiru a pretty smile. “Who are you looking for? Perhaps I could help.”

“My- My fiance. He’s in the second garden.” 

“Ah.” Raetsel nodded. “Let’s see. We’re in the east hall, and the second garden is in the west. The best way to look for it is to stick to the inside halls. It’s behind a wooden door with wrought iron hinges.”

“Thank you.” Ahiru snapped up to her feet, and was off. 

“Oh- oh. You’re welcome.” Raetsel gave a small wave, but soon Ahiru was rounding the corner. “What a strange girl.”

Ahiru felt her heart racing, there was too much happening, there was too much information swirling around in her mind. And she still had to find Mytho. 

Then she heard voices again. 

She cursed under her breath and stopped herself from coming around the corner, pressing herself against the wall instead. 

“Are you my escort to the wedding?” It was Miss. Edel.

Ahiru let out a breath and was about to step around the corner when the second voice cut her off cold. 

“My Dear, I only trust myself to keep an eye on you.” 

Drosselmeyer.

“How lucky.”

“Luck has nothing to do with it. Nor chance, or fate.”

“The Oak Tree would say otherwise.”

The Oak Tree? Trees can’t talk.

“The Oak Tree is dead. Gone.”

“Is she?”

“I chopped her down myself, I think I would know.”

Great, not only is he a terrible person, but he’s cutting down trees now too. 

“Perhaps you did, but that does not mean she is dead.”

“Stumps can’t talk. And no branches have sprouted from the base in twenty years. Dead, I believe, is the correct form of diction.”

“True, stumps can’t talk, but you did not succeed. You cannot kill what is not meant to be killed.”

He humphed. “I control the very lives of every breathing thing on this earth.”

“You are asking the wrong questions.”

“I have not asked any questions.”

“Oh? So instead of getting information out of me, you are bragging about something you didn’t do?” 

“What then, oh Protector of the Dead Tree, should I be asking?”

“Even if she was dead, would I have abandoned her? Wouldn’t I have done everything to bring her back?”

“Ha! You wish you could.”

“Ah, but I have. So, why didn’t I stay here? Keep my eye on you, make sure you don’t go killing anymore royalty?”

“I assumed you ran away when I killed her. But why didn’t you stay?”

They were coming closer, or perhaps they had just started walking, and Ahiru knew that they would pass her. 

She tried to back away, keeping her back to the wall, her lower back was stabbed.

“Ow.” She whispered, and when she looked behind her, there was a door knob. 

“The Oak Tree knew that one day Bavaria would be lacking in a certain area of trade, she knew that a deal would be made, and a trade established. She told me-” And then they stopped, only a few feet away from Ahiru. “The Golden Sun sets over the sea, she sets behind a girl who stands by the waves, and with the last of her great beams, she crowns the Meerjungfrau, she will rise into the sky, and over all will she rule.

“Do you understand?”

“You think that stupid girl will be Queen? Ha! I’ve never heard such a preposterous thing.”

“No matter what you think you have done, she will be crowned Queen.”

“She’s nothing more than a lowly Princess.”

Ahiru opened the door and escaped inside. 

No, outside. 

Ahiru looked around her and found herself in a small garden, quiet, quaint. 

It reminded her of the garden at home. 

Queen Paulamoni had always loved gardening, and she kept a small garden in the palace. 

It had only been so small because not much liked to grow in the cold, wet, cloudy climate, but what she was able to grow was always beautiful. 

It was a place she always visited whenever she was at the palace, and she could see now why Mytho was here. 

The main difference was that there were roses here. 

Rose bushes of every color. 

Ahiru didn’t see many roses at the palace in Arnis, mostly in vases, imported from somewhere warmer, and they never lasted long without the sun’s light. 

But here, where it seemed to be sunny every day, they were thriving. 

Ahiru lifted her skirt and followed the small stone path past the roses, the tall, soaring branches, reaching for the sky, until she saw Mytho, kneeling before a small pond.

In his hands was a sword, but a sword she recognized. 

It was the sword Fakir had made when he was challenged by Rothenburg’s black smith. 

The tip of the sword was embedded in the ground, just touching the edge of the water, and his hands hung from the grip.

His head was bowed and it was like he was praying.

Ahiru tried to give him his space, not wishing to interrupt his meditation, but then, the clock tolled eleven, and she knew she was out of time. 

“You have come to retrieve me?”

Ahiru jumped. “Ah!”

Mytho stood slowly, pulling the sword from the dirt and water. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“No. No it’s fine.”

He turned to face her, and gave her an apologetic smile. “I was told of your sacrifice, and I thank you.”

“Which one?”

“What?”

Ahiru shook her head. “I mean-”

He pulled his eyebrows together, his countenance becoming concerned. “I realize that Autor isn’t an agreeable man, and based on how he’s treated you, I imagine it would be hard for you to give me up, and take him instead. Not that I am a better option.”

“You were.” Ahiru offered him her own small smile. “It’s fine. I just want Rue to be happy.”

Mytho nodded. “I want her to be happy as well.”

“And she will be, if she marries you.” 

“You think so?” A lopsided smile overcame his features, and as much as Ahiru wished someone would smile like that when they thought of her, she knew that no one ever would. Not now.

“We should go. We don’t have much time left.”

Mytho nodded, sheathing his sword.

“The way our weddings run, she’ll be walking down the aisle in fifteen mintues, then I can object and challenge Autor to a duel. We should hurry. This way.” 

Mytho turned on his heel and ran out of the garden.

Ahiru smiled, she liked running. 

 She bunched up her skirts into her arms and kicked off her heels before chasing after Mytho. 

She was quick to catch up.

“So long as he accepts, I know I can win.”

“Can he decline it?”

“No. By our laws, when a challenge is issued, especially in the case of marriage, it has to be accepted.” There was something in his eyes, Ahiru couldn’t place it, it was like a fire, but different from the spark that was in Rue’s eyes the night before.

No, in his eyes, he contained a storm. 

Like the sea, in the middle of winter, caught in a wild storm. 

The waves large and threatening to kill you if you stood too close, the wind and rain blinding you, and when you were knocked under, there was no hope of telling which way was up, and which was down, it was too dark, too deep; there was no light.

That was what was in his eyes. 

When they arrived at the chapel, they stopped, people were still coming in, which meant Rue was still waiting. 

“What should we do?”

“Well, it’ll be more dramatic if I threw open the doors when I challenged him, what do you think?” He turned to her, offering her a wild smirk. 

She smiled back. “You’re going to be a formidable brother-in-law.” Ahiru turned back, and her smile disappeared. “Fakir.”

“What?”

Fakir walked in with the last remaining dregs of people trying to grab a seat, he walked with serenity, but at his belt, she saw a sword. 

She needed to talk to him. About everything. 

There was no way she could keep all that she heard to herself.

Well, maybe what Pique and Lillie said she could keep to herself. 

“Where are you going?” Mytho grabbed her arm as she started walking forward.

“I’m-” She looked between Mytho and the chapel doors, Fakir had already entered. “I should be in there already, so when you come in, it’ll just be you.”

“I shouldn’t drag you any further into this. You’re right. Go, I’ll wait until after she walks in.” Mytho dropped his hand from her arm to her hand and gave it a small squeeze. “You’ll be a wondrous sister-in-law.”

 She gave him a beaming grin before running the rest of the way to the chapel.

Her eyes scanned the crowd for him, hoping that even though she was short, he was tall enough to stand above the rest of the crowd.

“Ahiru.”

Ahiru looked to see Miss. Edel. 

“Come with me, you should have been seated a long time ago.”

Miss. Edel dragged her through the crowd until they reached the front two rows. 

“Sit.”

Ahiru plopped down in her seat, but she didn’t sit still. Instantly, she twisted around and looked into the crowd trying to spot him. 

There were too many people crowding around the back, and she knew he would press himself against the wall, looking as inconspicuous as possible. 

Several servants pushed through the crowd and made a hallway with their bodies until the door was actually visible again. 

She still couldn’t find him. 

A silence fell as an organ began to play, loud, filling the entirety of the chapel until it echoed around in her head, too. 

She didn’t even hear the creak of the door. 

Around her, everyone stood, and she did too. 

Rue was coming now. 

Ahiru took a deep breath, she was nervous, she didn’t even want to think about what Mytho and Rue were feeling.

A priest walked through the hallway of servants and stopped at the front of the chapel, then following him was Autor, he walked slowly, seeming unconcerned with what was going on, what was happening today. 

Every aspect of his life would change today. 

In his mind, he was to get married and he would be a husband, he would run the Königsspiel and either come out as victor, as King, or he would die. 

But as he walked down to stand with the priest he almost seemed bored. 

Next came the Queen. Everyone bowed low as she passed, but like her son- 

No, not her son. 

Like Autor, her face was without emotion. 

She sat down in the first pew, and watched Autor with an unnerving eye. 

Then…

Then it was Rue’s turn. 

As she passed, no one looked into her eyes, they kept their gaze on the floor, only submitting a small bow.

But, as she passed Ahiru, she understood why.

There was a deep sadness in her eyes, unlike the detached looks the Queen and the Crown Prince shared. She didn’t cry, no she held her tears back, but only a small push would break the dam, her face contorted from trying to take control of all she felt. 

There was no fire in her gaze, and perhaps that was what made Ahiru know that her heart had broken. 

Only the cracked logs remained in her eyes, like a deep pit that never experienced warmth or light. 

Ahiru hadn’t been quick enough, Rue had sent her out for two hours to find Mytho, to gain reassurance that his love was true, and Ahiru never returned. 

What did Rue think? 

That Mytho had abandoned her? 

That he had lied? 

Rue didn’t doubt him, did she?

Ahiru didn’t want Rue to fall into despair, but perhaps it was too late. 

The wooden pews creaked around her, and she was the last standing. 

The organ stopped, and she stuck out like a sore thumb. 

“Oh!” She dropped down, and a sharp pain shot up her tail bone. 

The priest looked out over all in attendance, and opened a Bible in his hands. “Marriage, marriage is what brings us together today. Holy matrimony. Between the future King and future Queen. To end a decades old war, and combine our borders-”

“Stop!” 

Ahiru stood as the doors were thrown open, and there, framed by the threshold, was Mytho.

“I have fallen in love with the Princess Kraehe Rue of Baden Wüttermberg, and I challenge-” He drew his sword. “The Crown Prince Lohengrin Autor of Bavaria to a duel for her hand.” 

There were soft murmurs, but no one said a word. 

Ahiru looked to Autor. He stared blankly back at Mytho.

Ahiru heard the light scraping of a pen against paper and looked to the right of her. 

To Drosselmeyer. 

Drosselmeyer had, in his hand, a small book, and he wrote furiously on it’s pages. 

Autor drew his sword, his face turned to one of anger and outrage. “I accept your challenge.”

Ahiru ran to Rue’s side, and once she was there, Rue grabbed hold of her arm, she shook wildly, her knees knocking together. 

Tears flooded over her lashes and she pushed her face into Ahiru’s neck. “I didn’t think he would come. I didn’t think he would come!”

Ahiru held Rue closer to her. Trying to block her eyes as Mytho and Autor dealt the first blows. 

“Wait!” The priest shouted, holding out his hands. “I refuse to have any bloodshed on this holy ground! You will take this outside. And at the very best, make this an official duel!”

Mytho blinked wide eyed at the priest. “What?”

“Young man, don’t you know? You can’t just call a duel willy nilly!”

“Yes.” A bookman stood. The one Ahiru had overhead in the hallway, the elder. “A duel is called in anger, but fought with a level head. The duel will commence tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?”

“What about the Königsspiel!”

“When will the Königsspiel be!” 

The crowd grew louder in protest, until the Bookman held up his hands. 

“Quiet! The winner of the duel will change what happens. Mytho, by taking Autor‘s bride, who do you suggest to take her place? Surely, you would not leave us without a Queen.”

“Of course not. The Princess Odette Ahiru of Schleswig Holstein has offered to take the place of Rue- the Princess Kreahe Rue of Ba-”

“Yes, yes. This will all be discussed at a later date, but until then. The wedding of the Crown Prince Autor and Princess Rue is therefore postponed or canceled.” 

Rue fell to her knees and Ahiru went with her.

The Bookmen made quick work of forcing everyone to leave, and when Ahiru looked back to where she sat she saw that Drosselmeyer had already disappeared. 

She looked out over the crowd again, looking for Fakir. 

He leaned against the back wall, and he was the only one who didn’t move.

Ahiru begged with her eyes for him to stay, she needed so much to talk to him.

“Ahiru! What happened, zura!” 

Ahiru looked down next to her to see Uzura pulling at her dress. 

“Are you marrying Autor now?”

“I don’t know.”

Ahiru looked back to find Fakir, but he was gone. 

“Are you okay, Miss Rue, zura?”

Rue sniffled as Uzura pressed her forehead to Rue’s to peer into her downcast eyes. “Yes, yes I am now.” 

Mytho approached them and knelt before them, but upon seeing them, Rue burst into sobs again and fell into his arms. 

“I thought you wouldn’t come.” 

“Why would you ever think that?” He smiled as her head pressed into his chest, he kissed the top of her crown and held her head in his hand. He looked to Ahiru and smiled. “Thank you.” He mouthed.

Ahiru nodded shakily, and stood to her feet, taking Uzura’s hand in her own. 

She walked outside of the chapel, only to feel a chilling drop of rain fell on her uncovered head. 

“C’mon.” She said to Uzura and was about to run instead when she saw him. “Fakir.”

She ran to him, letting go of Uzura’s hand, stopping herself before she barreled into his chest, but he caught her anyway.

“Fakir! I have to tell you so much!”

“Are you alright?”

“What? I’m fine?”

He nodded. “I didn’t realize-” He swallowed hard. “Autor, I didn’t think.”

“Fakir it’s okay. I don’t mind being married to him, but, but I have to tell you, there were things I heard.” She shook her head. “There’s so much I have to tell you.”

“You should go inside, you’ll catch your death.” He lifted his hand, the tips of his fingers brushing against her bangs. 

“What? No, Fakir you don’t understand.” Her hands, already on his chest, gripped his shirt. “The Bookmen, an-and Drosselmeyer-”

“What about them?” 

Looking up at him, she couldn’t imagine coming here without him being here too. She would never feel as comfortable as she did. She couldn’t imagine her life if the Bookmen had succeeded. 

“They- they tried to-” She felt her eyes started to water.

Someone was calling her name. 

“Fakir, they- Drosselmeyer.” How was she going to tell him everything? Did he know already? Would he even understand what she was rambling about? “And and Autor!”

His eyes flashed past her before returning. “What? What about them?”

“They’re horrible.”

“Ahiru!”

Fakir pulled away from her and she shivered, she didn’t realize how warm he was.

“Come quickly now.” Miss Edel held out her hand. “We don’t have much time.”

Ahiru looked back, but Fakir had already walked away.

 

EDEL HAD PLAYED HER cards wrong, she pushed Drosselmeyer’s buttons in an effort to set him off, but now that she had succeeded she was worried she had pushed him too far. 

She knew that Autor didn’t care about who he married, and if Drosselmeyer didn’t start writing in that damned book, there would be no duel. 

But Autor and Mytho were equals, now that Drosselmeyer controlled Autor’s every move. 

Perhaps it was the last prophecy she shared, if she had just held her tongue - but how could she? Drosselmeyer was just too easy to mess with - Ahiru wouldn’t be in danger. 

She had flown under his radar until this point. 

Now Edel had messed up, and as she looked around for the young girl, seeing her wrapped up in Fakir’s arms, she wondered if Drosselmeyer saw the same. 

No matter what, the Oak Tree’s words were true, they were the future, as far as Edel could see, their love was written in the rings of the Oak Tree years ago. 

If Mytho won the duel, and Ahiru was traded to marry Autor, either way, she would become Queen. 

Then, her prophecy would be true, and that would mean all of her other prophecies would be true. 

And she knew Drosselmeyer would do anything to stop her from being right.

Chapter Text

THE NIGHT IS LONG, it’s cold, and unforgiving, you can’t see your own fingers, but in the presence of the fire, you’re warm, you can look around you and know you’re safe. 

I thought that that was what love was. 

A fire that dimly lit the world around me, and kept the chill away. 

But behind me, in the tall trees, were eyes always watching, and my back was left cold. 

 

FAKIR HAD ALREADY WALKED away when Edel called Ahiru. 

While he was worried about Mytho, Fakir was sure Mytho would win the duel, even if it was an unfair fight. 

But, he couldn’t just sit back and watch, that wasn’t what needed to be done.

No.

He would have to get his hands dirty. 

Fakir made his way back to the castle, back to the room he was told was given to Rue to reside in until she moved into Autor’s chambers, and prayed she was alone. 

He knocked politely, not wanting to scare her just yet. 

She would be a wreck, he was sure. 

“Come in.” 

Her voice, thick as smoke, as it had always been, but laced with tears. 

Opening the door, he was not surprised to see her hunched in on herself, with tears falling from her pale cheeks, but what did surprise him was Ahiru on her knees in front of Rue, trying to give her comfort. 

“Fakir.” His name fell from her tongue all too sweetly. 

He tried not to look at Ahiru, he had not come here for her, and his task would be harder with her present. 

Clearing his throat, he took a step in and locked the door behind him. “I have no doubt that Mytho will win.” He took a few measured strides forward. “He has never lost a duel to Autor, and with his heart on the line, he will not be playing games.” 

Rue closed her eyes and took a staggering breath. “I’ve been forbidden from talking to either of them.”

“It’s the custom.” He agreed.

“But I need to tell them both something vital.” She opened her eyes and looked up at him and he was taken aback by the overwhelming determination that filled them. Rue wasn’t worried about Mytho losing, oh no, she was grieving her loss of voice. 

His eyes flashed to Ahiru on compulson, and there was a lost expression on her face, on her lips. She did not understand the laws of a duel, nor why it upset Rue so much. 

“Please,” Rue looked to Ahiru and took the hands that rested on her knees, before looking back to Fakir. “Could you give them my message?”

“No one can know.” He lightly shook his head. 

“I know.”

“Very well. I will deliver your message to Autor.”

“What? Why?” Ahiru looked up at him, her head tilted, an eyebrow raised. 

“You are losing your fiance, it will look more believable for you to be going to him. A last goodbye.”

She blinked and pouted. “But it doesn’t make sense for you to be going to Autor.”

“I am the man who fought Autor in the Prüfung, it will look as if I am trying to give him advice for the coming fight.”

She thought about it for a moment longer before agreeing. 

Rue told them the message she had for each and Ahiru was quick to deliver her message to Mytho, but Fakir stayed behind. 

Ahiru looked to him before she walked out the door, with her eyes she asked if he was coming too, but he lightly shook his head and held up a loose hand, in a moment. Nodding, she left. 

The door closed, and alone now with the Princess Kreahe, the only thought he had was how solemn Ahiru had become, how unlike her it was, and how much it made him long to reach out to her, and make she was-

“I assume you’ve come to threaten me.” 

Fakir stood alert. “Yes.”

He turned around and no longer was she a sniveling Princess sat at her vanity, but every ounce the daughter of a warmonger, raised to carry the yoke.

“I am afraid to tell you that your little threats will do nothing to dissuade me. I love Mytho with all my heart and I-”

“Yes, I realize that.”

She gave him a cold glare, her eyebrows just dipping into her pretty eyes. “I wasn’t finished speaking.”

“But I was finished listening. I have not come to threaten you the way I threatened Princess Odette. I came to warn you.”

She didn’t seemed phazed, but he could tell that she hadn’t been expecting that. “I misunderstand your intentions then.”

“Clearly. This is a dangerous kingdom, perhaps more dangerous than the one you grew up in.”

“I grew up in the midst of a battlefield, there is no place more dangerous.”

“But, there is. I’m sure before you came here, you read up on our history, our customs, our rituals.”

“Yes, I did. It is the proper thing to do. To understand your husband’s land before you come into it.”

“So, you know of the Königsspiel.”

“Yes, the little jaunt through the forest to decide who’s king. That aspect I found more boring. It’s all you ever talk about here.” She crossed her arms. “Königsspiel, Königsspiel, Königsspiel! The First King this, the Run that. It was all too tedious.”

“It can be. But you must remember, the Königsspiel was done for a reason.”

“Oh do tell.”

“A peace treaty needed to be forged, a people needed a home, needed protection.”

She rolled her eyes, but before she could open her mouth he continued. 

“Do you know what is inside the forest? Or why we have built our walls?”

“Aesthetic?” 

Fakir walked to her window, facing the south, in the direction of the forest that was slowly coming to surround Nordlingen. One day, the Kingdom would be lost to the forest, forever.

As tall as the walls where, scraping against the clouds, the climbing trees were still taller, piercing the sky with their great height. 

“The war was never been brought to our threshold for one reason and one reason only. The forest.”

She was quiet for a moment, taking in what he had said, turning to the window herself. “The forest?”

“It is not filled with bears and deer, but death herself.” He turned back to her and he knew that she didn’t believe him. But that was fine. “A warning to you. Many years ago, the forest leaked into the walls of the kingdom, and death is here.”

She scoffed and rolled her eyes, she turned her back to him. “Go away. Go to Autor and convey him my message.”

“Of course, Your Highness.”

As he walked out the door, he could feel her glare on his back, but he did not mind it, it was not like he hadn’t been hated before. 

He strolled through the castle walls, he dared not glance at the people who associated themselves with him, and only inclined his head to an elderly maid who had seen him as a boy playing with Mytho. 

“Not a good day, Fritz.” She shook her head, always believing that to have been his name. “You should come back Monday.” 

Inclining his head, he politely ignored her and went to knock at Autor’s door.  

There was no word of permission from him, but Fakir opened the door anyway. 

It was dark, and when Fakir let the door behind him close, not even the light from the hallway remained. 

“Autor.” He called. “I know you’re in here.”

There was a scratch and Autor’s face, lit by a match, appeared in the darkness. “Have you come to laugh at me?”

“No, to deliver a message.”

Autor looked away from him and down to his match twirling it in his fingers, he said. “I thought she could learn to love me.” 

Autor had always been good at putting on a mask, hiding his emotions, but it was always done in a way that made him appear to be looking down his nose at you. Now, sitting in the dark, captivated by a burning match, he let his tears collect in the corners of his eyes. 

He wasn’t under Drosselmeyer’s spell, however, was the only thought Fakir had. 

“I thought that I had already loved her.” He blew out the match only to light another. “Her hair in the sunlight, her eyes in the moonlight, her gentle laughter like a summer breeze.”

Fakir took a step forward, but his foot caught the edge of a book, and he stomped on the pages before he could stop himself. 

Autor looked down lazily. “A first edition of the memoirs of the Third King, King Hammond. And you’ve destroyed it. But, I suppose that is what you are best at. Ruining my life.”

“Ruining your life?”

“Yes.”

“You think I ruined your life?”

“I do.”

“Perhaps it is time to share Rue’s message.” Fakir took a planned step, allowing his muddy shoe to take purchase on the book, allowing it to further ravage the delicate, old pages. 

“Perhaps it is.” The match went out, but quickly another took its place. 

“She told me this: don’t get yourself killed.” He stepped off the book, kicking it back until he was sure it was face open on the ground, cracking it’s spine. “Perhaps she did love you, she doesn’t want you to die.”

“Perhaps she does, although, now what do I have? That little, ignorant, brat?” He laughed cruelly. “How does one man go from the finest of all women to what is no better than a-”

“Choose your next few words wisely.”

In the light of the match, he offered Fakir a wicked grin, but he spoke his words as the match went out. “A fickfehler. She is nothing but the dirt beneath my heel, no better than a rose trampled by steed, a branch overhanging from my neighbor’s property, destined to be abused until I cut it off.” 

He waited until Autor lit another match, but when he did, he was no longer in the chair where he sat, but across the room, smartly out of Fakir’s reach. 

“Oh, there’s that look in your eye. The eyes of a King, please tell me, how will you go about explaining my death, hmm? You need me to run, do you not? How do you plan on challenging a dead man?”

“When I walk out of the forest alive, while you are wandering around stupid and blind, the people will now who was meant to be King.” 

He smirked and blew out the match. This time, Fakir listened for the shuffle of his feet, and when the sudden spark of light came from the left, he wasn’t surprised. 

“You don’t seem to understand, only the true king can win, you won’t make it out alive. You let your father’s stories get into your head.”

“My father died before I was born, and my mother is all alone.” 

“No.” He dropped the match, and stomped it with his foot. The scratching of the match lighting behind him, his neck arm, and the gentle breath on the top ridge of his spine dared him to turn around. “You are but a black smith’s son, your mother a common whore who didn’t have time to deal with a bairn. And that is the truth.”

He blew out the light, and Fakir turned, trying to grab him but he was too late. “One day, you will see the truth.”

“No, one day you will!” In the very corner of the room, a small patch of light struck. “One day you will run into the forest on blind hope and as you lay, dying on your back, you will not receive help from me. No, I will walk out of the forest alone.” 

“No matter who walks out of the forest, who lives and who dies, it will be me the people choose.”

“And the Bookmen will not allow it! You think you have so much power, you have the people rallied behind you, but it is I who wields true power.”

“You have done nothing but hide behind Drosselmeyer and his pack of dogs.” 

“And it is those pack of dogs that will allow me to take the throne.” The match went out, this time on it’s own, having burnt too far down past it’s red head. 

“There is one thing you forget.”

“And what is that?”

“A pack of dogs are loyal to whoever has the biggest bone, and one day the bone they’ve been chewing on will diminish and when they beg for more, Drosselmeyer won’t have any to give.”

“I will give them-”

“No, I will. I will give them back their purpose. Of being the counsel that once proudly aided the King, not the cult they’ve become. One day, I will have your head on a platter for what you have said about her, but until then, I would be careful.” 

“Are you trying to help me?”

Fakir turned to leave, and as his hand rested on the door, he couldn’t help but let the unfairness of it all nag at the corner of his mind, and in a strange act of kindness, he said. “Soon, your body will not be your own and you will not even have control over your own thoughts. Until that time comes, learn to make your own decisions, for they may be your last.” 

He blinked back the light, letting his eyes be awakened and walking out of the room. 

He was tired of darkness. 

 

WHEN HE RETURNED TO Rue’s room, Ahiru was once again comforting Rue, he only stepped in to give Rue a single nod, that his job was done. 

Ahiru stood, as if to go to him, but he shut the door before she could, he couldn’t look at her, not without knowing that after tomorrow, she would be engaged to Autor.

He could stomach the idea of her marrying Mytho, he was sure to bring her happiness, but tied to Autor, she would surely wither. 

Autor was like the winter, cold and bitter, unforgiving. All throughout summer, she was safe, but now she would have to deal with the unrelenting death that came with the snowstorm. 

And it didn’t seem like Autor intended to keep her as his bride. 

Calling her nothing more than an error, it was a mistake. Fakir grew up hating Autor, the boy that had stolen his crown, his mother, his brother; he looked to him as an obstacle to overcome, something that was in his way, the monster that had stolen his life away. 

It wasn’t fair, that Autor had grown up to believe he would be King, and it wasn’t fair to Fakir either. Autor didn’t have a choice, he was only a child, less than a child. 

But now he was a man, a smart man that knew how to choose his words carefully. 

There was a reason Autor called her as such, to get a rise out of Fakir, but he also knew Autor didn't speak his words falsely, he believed what he said, and perhaps he was right, from what Fakir himself had seen, he had his guesses that she wasn’t a real Princess, either some noble or lower, it didn’t matter. 

Autor had opened his big mouth and insulted Ahiru. Balantaly, without apology or remorse.

And he would pay for that. 

Fakir stopped, he clenched his fist and jaw, his heart burned with an indescribable rage, he wanted to walk back and do something unspeakable to Autor, but his time would come. 

He knew. 

They both knew. 

The forest was always watching. Evaluating.

He couldn’t be vengeful, he would have to wait for the match to fall, for the flame to catch fire on the edge of his clothes and eat him alive.

It would take time, he knew, but he was patient. 

He had been patient for twenty-one years. 

He wouldn’t ruin his chances simply because he grew hot with anger. 

A bolt of lightning and the crash of thunder woke him. 

Autor would get the punishment he deserved, but so would Fakir. 

 

AHIRU WOKE TO THE sound of thunder. She sat up in bed and looked out over the sky, black with clouds, the rain pounding against her window. 

The sun wasn’t even up yet, it was too dark, no light shone through the clouds, but the castle was alive and buzzing.

She stepped onto the cold floor and went to open her door, watching as everyone ran around in a fury. 

“What’s going on?” She asked. 

“We have to get ready for the duel.” 

“Oh. It will still happen? Even like this?”

The maid smiled. “It’ll make it even better!” 

Ahiru paled, she had never been worried about either of them, but as another flash of lightning lit up her darkened room, her heart pounded in fear, surely they would both die.

The maid was gone when she turned back, but soon Miss. Edel as at her door.

“Hurry, you must get dressed.” 

“What do you mean? It’s not even dawn.”

Miss. Edel blinked at her. “It’s nearly eight o’clock.” 

“Oh.”

“You must get dressed, soon the duel will commence.” 

Ahiru looked out her window at the clouds that looked more like smoke than a storm and suddenly she was back at the edge of the dock, clinging to the post as her legs were being swept out from under her. 

She nearly fell, but Miss. Edel held out her hand. “It will be alright.”

“At the end of the day.” She spoke to herself, but Edel turned a sharp ear. “I will be engaged to a man that hates me.”

“The sun will rise again.” Edel patted her hand.

“But shrouded in clouds.” Ahiru said, remembering an old poem once spoken to her. “The sun will surely drown.” 

Edel was quick to dress her, and a small meal was brought to her. 

“This is fancier than normal.” Ahiru observed, touching the edges of her dress, blue like the sky, edged in a fine golden thread, a pattern of flowers and suns and ribbons covering her. 

“Everyone knows the outcome of the match, and tonight you will be given to Autor as the future queen.”

Ahiru looked down at her hands. “I didn’t agree to this.”

Edel looked at her in pity, and in the vanity mirror, her gaze was too easy to see, but Ahiru didn’t look in the mirror, and missed it completely. 

“No, you didn’t, but Rue came to be Queen, and now has to step down.” 

Ahiru nodded. “It must be hard on her too then.”

“But, she never wanted to be Queen. Did you want to be Queen, Ahiru?” Edel was careful to watch her, to see the reaction her eyes would give her, if she was hiding or being honest. 

“I wanted to marry the Prince.” Her fingers deftly picked at the edge of her gown, did she know what it was made of? “But, even he was the youngest son. I never would have been Queen.”

“Yes, but, did you want to?”

She scrunched her nose. “If it means I’d have to marry Rudolf, no.”

“If then, it was someone else who would take the throne, someone more desirable than Rudolf and Autor.”

“Like who?” She asked. 

Edel pulled back a measured strand of hair, adding it into what was the most complicated hairstyle Ahiru had worn yet. “Who was that one boy? I saw you yesterday, you ran to him and he embraced you.”

She blushed, “It-it’s not like that! I ran into him and he caught me. He- he didn’t embrace me or anything like that!”

“What was his name?”

She stopped her babbling. “Fakir.”

“Fakir.” Edel nodded. “And what if he was the one you would be engaged to tonight?” 

“Oh, well, I guess it wouldn’t be that bad. But he’s just my friend so it would be weird, but I guess it’s better to be friends with your husband than to bitterly hate them.”

“With him by your side, would you want to be Queen?”

Ahiru had to think, if she wanted to be Queen, she would want to be a fair Queen, and of the two examples she had, she didn’t know if either were fair. 

Like a mother to her, Queen Paulamoni was sweet, but lived life like it was a dream, and treated Ahiru like nothing more than a nightmarish pest when she fell in love with the Queen’s son. 

Now that Ahiru was gone, she was sure Queen Paulamoni was back to dreaming blissfully. 

Queen Helmia was someone she wasn’t sure about, was she a fair Queen? She sat at her throne without an expression ever crossing her face. Was that disciplined into her? That she had to place her own feelings behind her in order to rule justly, but Ahiru was unsure that she could do that. 

What kind of Queen would she make? 

Maybe, if she was by herself she would run the kingdom into the ground, but with someone by her side, someone to rule with her. 

Someone like Fakir. 

It wouldn’t be hard. 

“I think, I think it’s not just about being Queen, but about partnership. I would need a good man by my side.”

Edel smiled, she finished Ahiru’s hair and took a step back. “Done.”

Ahiru’s eyes shot up to the mirror to look at her hair. “Oh!”

Her hair was wrapped up on the crown of her head, beaded with pearls and golden chains. 

“You did this?”

Miss. Edel gave a humble smile and bowed her head. “Let us go and attend the match.”

 

FOR A MOMENT HIS heart beat a little faster. 

Was it fear? Or adrenaline? Maybe both. 

But he held the sword in his hands and lifted it over his head, only for it to come down too fast, falling instead of diving. 

It was too heavy for him to manage. 

“C’mon, you have to try better than that!” Autor rolled his eyes, but there was still a smile behind them, it was hard to see, but Mytho got good at finding it. 

“It’s too heavy.” He dropped the sword to the floor and starting pouting. 

It worked on the maids, he would pout and they would coo and they would get whatever he wanted, but it never worked with Autor.

Autor gave a heavy sigh, “You have to be better! Who's gonna protect me when I get crowned king?”

“The knights, that’s their job, stupid.”

“Oh, like I’m just gonna trust some know-it-all knight to protect me?”

“You’re the know-it-all!” 

Autor laughed and knocked on Mytho’s head. “Just because I know everything doesn’t mean I’m a know-it-all.”

Mytho was quick to fix his hair. “Are too!” He stuck out his tongue. “Besides, I’m never gonna beat you, you’re too good.”

Autor nodded. “Yeah, you’re right.”

Mytho kicked his sword. “So what’s the point?” 

“Hey.” Autor set down his sword and picked up Mytho’s. “You just have to practice, if every snot-nosed kid decided they’d never be good at anything, everyone would be dead.”

“That’s a frank way to look at it.”

“It’s true. People try all the time. Look at the House of Verstand, they’re always studying and looking for answers, they’re becoming doctors, writers! They try every day and they succeed. Half the books we have in our library are thanks to them.”

“Yeah, but who cares about reading? That won’t help me sword fight.” Mytho sat down before falling on his back, looking up at the blue sky, dotted with cotton clouds. 

Autor leaned over him, blocking the sun. “The point is, you can’t give up. The nobles of the House of Verstand don’t write those books purely based on their own intelligence, they go out into the world, collecting knowledge and data to make our kingdom stronger.” 

“So I have to go out into the world to be stronger?” 

“No, but you can’t just stay where you are.” Autor stuck out his hand. “You have to get up and fight.” 

Rain collected in Mytho’s eyes, last night he could barely sleep, but the desires of his body overcame his own will and he fell, it was the pounding of the rain that woke him the next day, and as he stood, waiting in the jousting pit, he could barely see ten feet in front of him. 

He should have waited, he knew, for everyone else to get there first, he should have waited for his servants to come and collect him, for the Bookmen to brief him, but he couldn’t.

He was soaked to the bone by the time they let the commoners into the seating. It was all covered, they would have a perfect view of his fight. 

And Rue would be dry. 

She would be there, waiting for him, counting on him to win, for their love.

It didn’t matter that it was Autor he was fighting, if he lost, what would happen to him? 

But if he won, what would happen to Autor?

Autor would be the laughingstock of the kingdom, lost to his little brother. 

How embarrassing. 

Mytho wanted nothing more in this world than his brother’s happiness, but what of his own?

What of Rue’s?

If he lost just so Autor would have honor, how would he live?

How could he live, day to day, seeing Rue in the arms of his brother? 

She would have to produce an heir, and the thought of Autor touching her in that way poisoned his heart. 

Mytho was a prince, through and through, he was kind, patient, charming, everything a prince was supposed to be, he wasn’t supposed to feel rage and anger, jealousy and envy, his heart beat quicker, he could hear it in his ears, louder than the rain and thunder, and each passing second he stood alone in the pit, he allowed his emotions to take over. 

He would not take pity on his brother, as he stood, a rabid dog foaming at the mouth, waiting for the hand that fed him, that loved him, he knew he would take a bite and he wouldn't let go until he had three hands and Autor had one.

 

THERE WAS A QUIET air that surrounded the people as they milled into their seats, mostly wet, but willing to take it if it meant they could see the duel. 

Not in a thousand years had a duel like this commenced. 

Sc Sure, a few thousand over the hand of a lady, but never had it been two princes. No, there was nothing like it, and all wanted to see it. 

Some felt pity as they looked down at the man standing in the pit, shaking and wet but still as a statue, he was waiting, and because of the intensity in his eyes, some thought he was death himself, come to take their souls with his sword, forgetting that someone was soon to come and bear the full weight of that glare. 

It didn’t come as a surprise when Fakir stepped into the stadium, not taking a seat but standing at the railing.

Oh, he’s the Prince’s friend, isn’t he? Of course he would be here. 

There was a tear, who to watch, the prince or the black smith? 

All knew the rumors, some believed, some didn’t, some sat on a fence, not believing but not saying it was an utter lie, but all thought: he’s come to watch his brother. 

But, Fakir stood, used to the stares, and put his focus on Mytho.

“C’mon.” He said, under his breath. “You can win this.”

 

FAKIR LAID IN THE field with a sword next to him, it was one he made, so it wasn’t very good, but he was still proud of it. 

He knitted his fingers behind his head and looked up at the sky, it was getting dark and the moon was on the rise. 

“You’re doing it wrong again.” He said.

“I know.” Mytho said, panting just slightly, he had been practicing all afternoon, and while Fakir had shown him the perfect technique, Mytho kept falling back into the handhold his tutors taught him. “Are you sure this is right?”

Fakir sighed, he stood, taking his own sword with him, he took a defensive stance, holding the sword with two hands. “Try it their way.”

Mytho nodded, he attacked, holding the sword like he was told and went to strike Fakir’s sword.

“See? I didn’t even move. Now, try the way I told you.” 

He switched his hands, and when he attacked, the sword fell from Fakir’s grasp. 

Fakir stood, and sent him a smirk.

“That doesn’t mean anything, you could have let go of the sword.”

“Oh? I’ll try it on you then.”

Mytho took the sword and went into a low stance, one not easily knocked over and waited for Fakir. 

Two hits, the second working far superiorly to the first. 

Mytho stood, his mouth agape. “Woah! How did you do that!”

“It’s all about the grip. How you hold the sword is just as important as how you swing it.”

Mytho smiled, picked up his own and started the drills again. “How did you learn all of this?”

Fakir shrugged, taking his place down in the grass. “I read about it.”

Mytho’s actions slowed. “You read about it, huh?”

“Yeah, what's that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing, it’s just. Autor is always going on and on about his books, like they’re the greatest thing in the world. It gets annoying sometimes.”

Fakir rolled his eyes. “He’s annoying sometimes.” 

Mytho laughed, “Yeah, but you don’t have to live with him. Did you really get this stuff from reading?”

“Some of it. Charon can’t show me the moves the way a real trainer should, but he corrects me. You know, he used to help my dad train.”

“I thought he was your dad?”

“Uh- No, no, he’s not. He’s my uncle! Yes, that’s what he is.” 

Mytho looked up, the sun finally set, the sky became lightly dusted in starlight, his mother would-

No, someone would be worried, not his mother. 

Mytho gave a sigh and fell down to the floor. “Did you know your mother?”

“I do.”

“Really?” Mytho rolled onto his stomach, and sat his chin on his hand. “Why don’t you live with her then?”

“She can’t take care of me right now. But,” Fakir sat up, “When I’m older,” He hugged his knees to his chest. “She’ll be able to.”

“Where is she right now?” 

Fakir looked away from Mytho, as the Queen walked in, taking her seat high above everybody else, her unseeing eyes looking down on her son, ready to fight his brother. 

She didn’t even care, she didn’t even care that one or both of her sons might die on this day, she just sat there, waiting for this trivial event to be over.  

Next to her, sat Rue, even from here, he could see her tears, but he didn’t see Ahiru. 

The chair on the right side of the Queen was empty, and he could not see her hair bright in the grey dour. 

“Who’s that?” 

“I don’t know, I’ve never seen her before.”

Fakir started to crane his neck, he was starting to look ridiculous, he knew it, but he couldn’t stop himself either. 

“Fakir.”

He nearly jumped out of his own skin, she was right in front of him. 

A maid held a parasol for her so she was dry. 

She was like a ray of sunshine, a sunspot in the mist, even her dress was like a glimpse of summer, too far away now. 

“Ahiru.” 

“I wanted to tell you that-” She bit her lip, fiddling with her thumb, her eyes cast out to Mytho where he stood. “No matter how today goes, everything is going to be okay.”

Why was she telling him his? 

She didn’t need to, she didn’t know that Mytho had changed his plans, putting off the Königsspiel for who knows how long. 

And yet, there she stood, smiling up at him, giving him reassurances as if he was the one to die today. 

“What are you doing here? You should be in the Queen’s box right now.”
Her smile faded and she started to worry, pulling at the sleeves of her gown. “I-I…”

“Go, don’t worry about me, in fact.” Fakir looked away from her, out into the pit where Mytho still stood. “It’ll probably be best if you stay away from me for a while.”

“O- oh.” Her brows knitted together, and it obviously wasn’t the response she was looking for. 

Comfort. That’s what she wanted, on a dreary, rainy day, she was about to sign her life away for the happiness of others, she was just looking for a friend to hold on to.

He sighed, he took her hand in his, softer this time than last. “I’m a dangerous person to be around, there’s not a lot of people who like me. For your best interest, for your safety, stay away.”

She looked down at their joined hands, the tip of her thumb running over his knuckles, and he was quick to pull away. “Everything will be okay.” She said, softer, more to herself this time than last.

The maid beside her ushered her away, and Ahiru couldn’t stop herself from looking over her shoulder one last time before she was escorted to her box. 

For the first time in her life, she sat next to the Queen.

“Good morning, Your Majesty.” She said, but the Queen stayed silent. 

Ahiru looked out over the arena, noticing all the people that had come, come to watch a stupid fight. Even Fakir.

Even her.

There was a loud trumpet sound and everyone was quiet. 

A Bookman marched into the middle of the field with a soggy scroll.

“I hope we are not too late.”

Ahiru looked over to Miss. Edel, sat down next to her, and pulled Uzura into her lap, she had a toy drum in her lap, tapping it lightly but determined not to be too loud, but the gentle tapping of the snare gave the surroundings an eerie atmosphere.

Ahiru offered a sad smile, but it was quick to fall.

The Bookman spoke in a loud voice, but it was nothing to challenge the rain. 

Ahiru didn’t pay attention, she looked for Autor, Mytho stood below her, below his mother and below Rue, meaning Autor stood on the other side, standing beneath two different Houses, their flags flew in the sharp, icy breeze, but she could not see their designs, and could not tell who they were. 

Perhaps it was the House of Verstand, the House the Bookman said… 

There was a roar in the crowd and Mytho ran forward, Ahiru and Rue leapt from their seats. 

So this was it then. 

 

AUTOR STOOD IN AN awkward way, he did not stand under the flag of his family, but he faced them, and perhaps that was worse. 

He could barely see with the rain, and every drop that splashed on his glasses only made matters worse, but he could see them. 

Rue in a dark gown, as if she was mourning, though who she was mourning, he couldn’t tell.

His mother, dressed in a color that matched the sky, she was hard to spot, blending into the wood behind her. 

But Ahiru, that clumsy little brat, dared to wear a blue that even the sky would envy. It was a brave choice on a day like this and he hated her all the more for it. What if one of us was to die? Then you would be wearing something egregious. 

Finally, he let his eyes fall on Mytho.

The stupid fool. 

He had been standing out in the rain since dawn, Autor was sure, what with his white shirt soaked through, dripping its own rain droplets. 

He put his hand on the leather guard of his sword, it was already wet, slippery, he would have to be careful. 

This couldn’t be a battle of strength, or of wills, but a battle of the mind. 

Autor had to think, what moves would his baby brother favor? A downward strike first? And then a stabbing? Or would he start with a stabbing, try to get it over with as soon as possible? 

But then again no, this was Mytho, he couldn’t harm a fly, much less kill someone. 

No. 

No, Mytho would try to make him surrender. 

So then, it wasn’t a battle of strength or the mind, but of endurance. 

Autor would have to take the defensive, never be the one to strike, and keep a strong stance, so long as he didn’t break, Mytho would wipe himself out and Autor would win. 

Like a fool, his eyes traveled up to where Rue sat. 

And behind her, was his grandfather. 

The horns blew and the Bookman stepped in. 

His heart beat faster, why? He wasn’t nervous before. 

His eyes shot up again, to Rue- 

No, not to Rue.

To Him, to Drosselmeyer. 

Even from a distance, Autor could see the gleam of his teeth. 

The quivering of his quill. 

And as if the words themselves were being written into his back, as if his flesh was being clawed open with the silver pen, he started to lose control. 

He felt faint, black dots filled his vision, and his hand on the sword changed position. 

He let out a battle cry but Autor swore he never uttered a word. 

It was like a dream, like his soul had been cast out of his body and he only watched. 

Quick feet that met Mytho in the middle, strong shoulders that lifted his sword above his head. 

No, this is my fight! 

He stumbled back, the tips of his fingers touching his temple. 

“Autor.”

He was free. 

But not for long. 

Soon, he was cast out again.

Thrown from the throne of his own mind. 

“Are you alright?”

Like an animal, he roared, slashing with his sword with abandon. 

It was not fair.

It was not fair! 

If he was to win, it would be of his own freewill, goddamnit!

He gritted his teeth, an action all his own, he stumbled, but lifted his sword in the defense and waited for Mytho to strike. 

It would work, he just had to stay determined. 

Mytho took initiative, light steel beating against light steel, and he was starting to tire. 

This will do, this will have to do, he would see, he will see that I can last, that I can win, and he’ll let me be. 

And suddenly, his hands leapt out.

Mytho’s sword fell to the ground and he looked surprised, but before he could kneel to grab it, he kicked the legs out from under Autor.

He fell hard, the breath knocked out of him, and for a moment, he closed his eyes and imagined that he wasn’t fighting his brother, but instead, he was just in training, and Mytho was kicking his ass like always. 

 The dust settled, and he thought he was free, but when he opened his eyes he saw nothing but darkness. 

And in darkness he stayed. 

He panicked. 

“Wait. Wait I don’t want to fight you!” But no words left his mouth. “Stop this! I can’t fight!” 

He felt his heart quicken, his steps light, and he attacked with diligence. Suddenly an expert in the craft. 

He felt the drops of rain, cold on his skin, so close to becoming ice and snow, and a hard wind blew it into his face. It didn’t fall, it flew, flying south like a bird. 

Each time his sword hit Mytho’s, it was deafening, ringing in his ear, always too close to his ear. He would jump to the side, jolting in fear, too close, it was going to pierce him, but he didn’t move, he couldn’t move, not stuck in one place, but moving as if pulled by strings. 

The mud soaked into his boots, through the seams of the leather and it squished between his toes and he tried to focus on that feeling, hoping that the discomfort will draw him away from his impending death. 

It worked, but not for long. 

“Kneel!” Mytho cried out, and Autor wanted to. 

Yes, he had intended to fight for Rue, to prove to her that he loved her, that she could grow to love him. If it was a husband with strength she wanted, he would be it, but he wanted this to be over. 

He wanted his back to be left alone, he wanted his eyes to see, he wanted to plan his movements and have his body move accordingly. 

He wanted to kneel, begged himself to kneel, tears poured down his cheeks with the effort to kneel. 

“I will not kneel.” He spoke, and even to his own ears, did his words sound forced. 

He was not his own. 

 

WITH DISTANT EYES, THE Queen watched through the downpour, and her heart cried. 

“Please.” She said. “Kneel. It is better for you to appear weak than for you to die.”

She didn’t know which son she talked to.

Her own, or the son of Felix Verstand. 

It didn’t matter now, she loved them both, and their loss would kill her. 

She wasn’t sure how much more she could take, everyday she felt the burden of knowing she was not her own, but she took strength in the three young men she held dear to her heart.

She felt a tear slip past her lashes, and she knew that no one would ever see it, that it was not a tear she shed, only one she felt. 

She could sob, she could yell out in pain, she could fall to the floor, but no one would see. 

No, no one would see. 

She would remain seated in her chair, her back straight, her head held high, she could grieve all while looking to be the perfect Queen.

It was a secret, she learned, not to resist the writing on her spine, the ripping of her skin, that if she kept still, and didn’t fight, she could have some will. 

She could still see. 

She could choose what she ate, what she wore, how fast she walked, the blink of her eyes, her breathing, her thoughts, so long as she didn’t fight. 

Some days, it was worth it, and some days not. 

Today, it was. 

She couldn’t fight it, not today, not when she may lose a son, and if she did, she had the freedom to close her eyes. 

 

AHIRU COULDN’T STOP THE tracks of tears that ran down her face, she couldn’t, no matter what she tried, it was impossible. 

She hated fighting, and now she had to sit pretty and watch them duel. 

It wasn’t fair, in her opinion, why couldn’t Autor just give in? 

It never occurred to her that Autor might love Rue as much as Mytho did, she thought it was pettiness, or maybe it was just that Autor hated her that much he was unwilling to trade. 

She didn’t mind that so much, in fact she could understand it. 

Who would want to give up someone as wonderful and perfect as Rue, for her? 

She started crying when the first blood was shed, they were hurting each other, killing one another, and she couldn’t figure out a good enough reason why. 

She decided, then, that she didn’t want to see anyone fight ever again, she didn’t want to see anyone ever have to draw their swords, there was nothing worth so much violence. 

There was a tug at her arm.

“Why are you crying, zura?”

Ahiru looked down to Uzura, and wiped at her own cheeks. “It’s horrible. That’s all. It’s horrible.”

“What is?”

Ahiru looked out to the two men, and shook her head. “This. This is. It’s not fair, and what will it do? Only hurt all that are involved.” 

For a moment, Uzura was silent, her mouth opening slowly, her eyes trained on Ahiru, and then she spoke. 

“A scar, zura. A scar will cover the sun, and all will be lost, there will be no light except what is offered by the moon, zura. A scar, zura.”

“What?”

“What was that? What did she say?” Miss Edel kneeled beside Uzura in a second, her hands on Uzura’s little shoulders, and looking desperate she asked Uzura to repeat herself.

Uzura smiled and shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t remember, zura!” 

Miss. Edel sighed, but kissed Uzura’s forehead. “Do you remember, Ahiru?”

“A- a scar, will cover the sun? And, something about the moon?”

Miss. Edel simply nodded. “So it will be, then. A silly little poem from yesterday's reading. I’m trying to sharpen her memory.” 

“Ah.” Ahiru said, nodding. But it had been a good distraction, her face dried of tears, she wondered how much longer either could last. “Miss. Edel?”

“Hmm? Yes dear.”

“That poem, have we gone over it before? It sounded familiar.” 

“We have studied the poet, it’s her style you must recognize.” Miss. Edel rose. “Watch over her, I will return as soon as I can.” 

Ahiru nodded, she was confused, but perhaps Miss. Edel could hardly stand the duel, like Ahiru could hardly stand it, and needed a break. 

Ahiru looked over at Rue, the poor woman, but when she did she noticed that Rue didn’t look half as sorrowful as she thought she ought to be. 

She leaned forward, engaged in the fight, her eyes following their rapid movements, mouthing something to them, perhaps encouragement. 

Ahiru was intrigued by her, but perhaps she had pushed past the inherent sadness of it all and instead focused on the winning. 

So long as he won, she would be happy. 

She could love. 

It was different for her.

For Ahiru, she worried about them and their well-being, the relationship they would have after, but for Rue, her concern lied in Mytho being victorious, her heart wasn’t consumed in tears, but a heat, she cheered him on, waiting for the win she was sure he would have. 

But, as Ahiru watched, she saw an evenly played match.

She couldn’t predict the winner. 

There was a creak, and the little pitter-patter of feet, and Ahiru turned in her chair, but too late, Uzura had already ran off. 

“Oh, no!” She whispered to herself. 

Ahiru rose as calmly as she could.

Should she give an excuse or leave calmly? Give an excuse or leave? 

Excuse or leave?

Excuse or leave? 

Excuse or- 

“Ahiru, where are you going?” 

Ahiru flinched, and looked to Rue, a look of concern on her face, she expected Ahiru to stay, as a companion, as a source of strength. 

But, now, all eyes were on her, including that of Drosselmeyer’s, and she hadn’t noticed until he stopped, but since the battle started, the constant scratching of a pen had filled her ears, and now with its absence, it was abnormally quiet.

“Um- I-I- I think it’s too much for me.” She laughed weakly. “I just need a moment to- to recompose! Yes, that’s it.”

“Oh.” Rue nodded. “Be quick.”

Ahiru bowed her head. “As quick as I can.”

She moved around her chair and went as quickly as she could out of the booth, and not by fault of her own, for her eyes were cast down, she bumped into Drosselmeyer and the little board that held his ink and papers. 

With a soft clatter, and a sharp break, everything was ruined. 

The paper stained black, but more importantly, the black ink spilled onto the edge of her skirt.

“Oh, no!” She cried. Lifting her skirt for further inspection. “It’s ruined!”

“Ruined?” Drosselmeyer spoke softly, he fell to his knees, his fingers brushing against the papers, trembling. “You know nothing of ruined.”

“Oh! Mr. Drosselmeyer, I’m so sorry, where you scribing the duel?”

“It matters not what I was writing, but you have forcibly ripped my hand away! And now, now it will all be lost.” His eyes turned on her and with an anger like no other, he rose to tower over her. “If you cause me any more trouble, I will punish you in the only way I know how, and then some. But for now.” He raised his hand above his head, and she closed her eyes, but never felt the smack. 

She opened her eyes, and before her stood the Queen, without a word, she held Drosselmeyer’s wrist in her hand, and challenged him with nothing but the look in her eye that told him to try again. 

He seemed surprised, but so did all who stood in her box. 

She let go of his hand and wordlessly took her seat. Her eyes trained once more on the two young men. 

Ahiru swallowed hard, but while Drosselomeyer gaped at the Queen, she picked up her skirts and ran from the box. 

She still had to find Uzura. 

Down the wet steps - she slipped several times - and out into the dirt fields that surrounded the jousting pit, she looked around for any sign of the little girl. 

She thought she heard drumming, perhaps the toy drum the little girl carried around her waist, but Ahiru ran after it like her life depended on it. 

But perhaps she was wrong, because as she ran, the drumming grew louder, but then it stopped, only to start up again, far away, in the other direction. 

She felt her hair start to fall, it wasn’t meant for activity, only for sitting and watching. 

But Ahiru whipped her head around trying to find any clue of the little girl in the rain. 

“Uzura!” She called, running when she had a lead, stopping when that lead faded. “Uzura, please! You’ll get sick out here!” 

There was the crack of a whip and Ahiru jumped six feet in the air at it’s sound. 

She had only heard that sound once before in her life. 

A servant had stolen from the King, and with a whip he was punished. 

“Look, Ahiru.” Someone had said, but she didn’t remember who. “That’s what happens when you lie to the King.”

“Uzura!” She called again, turning frantic.

There was another crack and she screamed.

And still the rattle of swords. 

A clap of thunder. 

She heard a carriage now, the squeaking wheels, and the hooves of the horses beating against the muddy road.

A man yelled, another cried out in anguish. 

There was drumming. 

“Uzura!” She called out again. 

“Here, zura!” 

Ahiru nearly cried in relief, she could see the silhouette of Uzura in the rain, but also, she could see the carriage coming. 

“No. No! Uzura!”

She sprinted.

She picked up her skirts and traveled as fast as she could to the little girl. 

Her hair slapped wetly against her back, her toes tripped over loose fabric. 

A symphony of thunder as rods of lightning filled the sky. 

The horses running. 

Another harsh crack of the whip. 

Uzura smiled, and waved. 

Ahiru held out her arms to catch her, but she was too late. 

She could not push Uzura out of the way of the carriage.

It was right there.

Ahiru guarded Uzura with her body, waited for the hooves to break her spine, but nothing happened. 

She pulled away and looked up at the horseman. 

“What is it!” A voice croaked from the inside. 

“A girl, My Lord.” 

The carriage door creaked open and a man stepped out. 

He was a dark haired man, his eyebrows mean, casting shadows into his eyes, his black attire didn’t stop him from looming like death himself. He did not smile, but his mouth was wide. 

Ahiru stood slowly, cautiously, she took Uzura’s hand and hid the girl behind her. 

“And who are you?” His voice was deep, and he spoke his words slowly, not drawing them out, but at a pace that spoke of luxury. When he spoke, people listened, he didn’t have to fight to be heard, he didn’t have to squeeze his words together. No, he strung them out to dry. 

“Princess Ode-”

“A Princess!” He guffawed, but his mouth never moved. “A Princess would hold herself more highly than to throw herself in the way of a moving carriage to save such a wretched creature.”

“A child?” Ahiru asked. 

“That is what I said.” His eyes roamed over her languidly. “A servant’s job, to go running out to fetch a child.”

“She’s my responsibility.” Ahiru spoke, she felt insulted, although she wasn’t sure why. He hadn’t insulted her yet. 

“Is she yours?”

“N- no. No she’s not.”

“Then she is not your responsibility.”

“My Lord, who is it?” Another voice called from the carriage, and the man rolled his eyes, with the same speed at which he spoke his words. 

Slowly, carefully. 

“A silly girl.”

The second man stepped out, produced a paracel, and went over to the two of them. “Oh my. Young lady, can you tell us where the castle is?”

“She is a Princess! Show some respect!” The first man laughed. 

The second let his eyes grow wide. “A Princess?” And he bowed immediately. “The Princess Odette Ahiru of-”

“Yes, it’s alright.” She spoke, not wanting to hear the full title. “Before I tell you where the castle is, may I ask who you are.” 

“Of course. I am Sir Katzenlehrer, but you may call me Mr. Cat.” 

“Mr… Cat?” She tilted her head. 

He smiled. “It is easier for my younger students, and for the older, the name simply stuck. I was the ballet teacher of Princess Kreahe Rue. I understand that she is going through a difficult time, I came to console her.” 

Ahiru nodded, before turning back to the man in black. “And you, sir?”

“I am Duke Raven. I have come on behalf of the King. He is not happy with the trade.”

“Oh.” Ahiru let her eyes grow wide, so this was… 

This was the man that tried to marry Rue. 

Ahiru wondered if it was really the King who was upset, or if it was the Duke himself who came to complain. 

Mr. Cat came up beside Ahiru to offer some cover and she gave him a smile of thanks. 

“Perhaps a trade? We will offer you a dry ride back to the palace if you can lead us there.” 

Ahiru nodded, she looked down at Uzura and pulled her along.

Mr. Cat offered his hand and pulled them into the carriage. 

Ahiru sat awkwardly next to the Duke, and Mr. Cat sat across her with Uzura as she showed him her drum. 

Shyly, she showed them the correct way to the palace, and she was quick to escape the carriage once the door opened, shooting up the palace steps in an effort to get away from the man. 

“Ahiru!” A voice called, and she sighed in relief. 

At the top of the stairs, Fakir stood, looking troubled and mad. 

“Where did you go?”

Ahiru panted slightly, pointing back at Uzura. “She ran off again! Is it over?” She turned back to him. 

He opened his mouth to speak, but the doors of the palace opened. 

“Ahiru!” 

Ahiru smiled, it was Rue. “Oh, Rue, what happened?”

Rue gave her a great smile. “He won, he won Ahiru.”

Ahiru wrapped her arms around Rue. “Oh thank goodness!” She peeled herself away and all Rue could do was wipe at happy tears and grin from ear to ear. 

“He got hurt, but he won. He won.”

Beside her, the Duke cleared his throat, and Rue cowered, her eyes meeting his, she clung to Ahiru. 

“Your Majesty.”

“My Lord.” She said, her voice shaking. 

“I am afraid it is not so easy.” He turned away from the Princess, he held his arms behind his back and walked into the castle doors.

And Ahiru’s heart became heavy with burden.

Chapter Text

THE BOTTOM OF A well is wet and covered in moss, some lead to flowing underground rivers, some are like small ponds, collected over time, a small stream as its provider, but above all, it’s dark. 

It’s dark and damp and when you look up, you only see a speck of light, a small speck of hope.

It wasn’t until she came that I felt I was pulled out of the well, out of that place and pulled into warmth, her warmth. 

She saved me, and I was never going to let her go. 

 

THE NEXT DAY WAS brighter, clouds still cloaked the sky, but the light of the sun broke through. 

They let her sleep in, she was up and alone, waiting for them to come in, knowing she couldn’t dress herself, but she watched from her window as the dark sky grew paler. 

It reminded her of home, but she wasn’t sure if that was a good thing any longer. 

There was a knock at the door and a sing-song voice that came in. “Hello! Princess? Art thou waketh?”

“Shut up, Lillie. Oh good, you’re up.”

Ahiru looked back at the two maids, the ones she had met in the hall. 

The two talking about Fakir. 

“Good morning. Um- you’re not my normal maids?” 

“Nope.” Pique said, coming into the room fully, throwing open the wardrobe that contained all her dresses. “We’re the maids assigned to the Crowned Princess.”

Lillie giggled behind her hand. “We’ve been pestering Rue for the past few weeks.”

“So it’s official than?” Ahiru asked, sitting at her vanity. “Rue and Mytho are-?”

The two shared a look. “Sort of. As far as Nordy’s concerned, it is.”

“But that handsome Duke that came the other day is throwing a fit!”

Handsome? Ahiru hoped Lillie wasn’t talking about that Duke that nearly ran her over. 

The Duke that tried to marry Rue. 

Pique sighed, almost in agreement. “Tall, dark, and handsome, think he’d ever notice a simple maid like me?”

“No, he’s here for Rue, too.” 

Ahiru shook her head. “Wait, he came to stop Rue and Mytho’s wedding?” 

“Sort of.” Pique said, laying out a dress of a darker color, a pretty plum she was sure wouldn’t suit her, the sleeves long, the neckline wide and too deep. Ahiru stood to get dressed, and it felt like she let herself fall into a pack of dogs the way Lillie and Pique’s quick hands pinched and pulled to get her into position. “The thing is, is that they wanted her to marry the King, to combine with Nordlingen and expand their borders.” 

“But they can’t do that if she’s only marrying a Prince.” Lillie said, pulling tightly on the corset lacings.

“Oh.” Ahiru pouted, why couldn’t they expand borders anyway? She lifted her hands as they pulled the outer plum skin over her head. 

“It’s all politics.” Pique shook her head. “Never let love get in the way.”

There was a sadness in her eyes, something Ahiru couldn’t exact place, something that made her empathise with Pique. 

“So, how did Mytho win?” Ahiru asked. “I missed the last part.” 

“You did?” Pique’s eyes went wide in unbelief. “It was amazing! I was sitting on the Stärke side so I had a decent view.”

“Stärke?” She asked. 

“Hm? Oh yeah, my house.” 

House of what? Ahiru blinked her eyes innocently at Pique. 

“The House of Stärke? One of the five houses of nobility in Nordy?” 

“Oh, you’re a noble?” 

Pique laughed, and so did Lilllie. “Not exactly. It’s more like Stärke house is my extended family. It’s kind of a way everyone belongs here.”

“Oh, what about you Lillie?” 

Lillie smirked, looking proud of her house, “Taktik. The best house.”

“Yeah right!” Pique punched Lillie’s arm. “Stärke is definitely the best!” 

Ahiru smiled, half dressed, but enjoying the spirit they had; the pride they carried. “What are the houses?”

“Let’s see; Stärke,” Pique said, listing them on her finger. “Taktik, Vermittlung, Stimmung,” At the last house, they both stuck out their tongues, “And Verstand.” 

Then, out of simple curiosity, Ahiru asked: “What house is Fakir in?”

They shared a look. “Uh- no one knows, not really anyway. Charon is the son of a Takik Lady and a Starke Sir, so most put him in one of those houses.” 

Ahiru nodded, she’d have to ask him, he’d probably know better than these two. “What’s the purpose of the houses, anyway?”

“Well, other than making up the different families of the Nobles, the houses represent five of the original runners.” 

Ahiru searched her memories, “Of the Königsspiel?” 

“Yeah!”

“The first Königsspiel had six runners.” Lillie said. “Lord Taktik, Sir Stärke, Lady Vermittlung, The Noble Stimmung, Duke Verstand, and Lohengrin.”

“Lohengrin? Isn’t that Autor’s name?” Ahiru asked, remembering the first day she came; the lengthy introductions. 

“His King name, yes.” Pique said. She sat Ahiru down on the stool. “Sit still.”

“Lohengrin was a nobody,” Lillie continued. “Just some peasant who knew how to use a sword, but he was good friends with all five of the runners. He gained qualities from all of them that allowed him to be a good and fair King.” 

“First the House of Stärke.” Pique said, combing out Ahiru’s hair. “Sir Stärke was a knight and one of the best from his kingdom, when he left, lots of people left with him, wanting to follow, and he wanted to prove himself, too. He was strong and courageous, but a bit of a knucklehead. Always ready for a fight, to defend his honor or someone else’s. When he entered the forest, he was able to fight off the creatures, but was stumped at some of the riddles.” 

“The riddles?” Ahiru gave her a confused look though the mirror. 

Pique nodded. “In the forest. It’s no ordinary forest.” 

“Oh.”

Ahiru furrowed her eyes, she didn’t exactly like that description, it was cryptic and creepy, and she could tell Pique would give her nothing more if she asked. It made her more concerned about Uzura, whose one goal seemed to be to run into the forest, what if she got hurt? 

“The House of Stäre tries it’s best to keep up the morals and beliefs that Sir Stärke kept. To be strong and courageous, ready for battle but also ready lose and still be grateful. It’s these principles that keep Stäke strong.” 

“Yes,” Lillie agreed. “Full of happy-go-lucky knuckleheads.”

“Hey!”

“But it is true!” 

Pique opened her mouth to strike back, but shut it when she couldn’t.

“What about Taktik?” Ahiru asked, turning her eyes to Lillie. 

“Oh Taktik! A noble house indeed!”

“They’re all crazy.” Pique said simply. “Everything is a mess, you can’t find anything!” 

“I can! I can find anything! Everything has its place, just because you can’t find it doesn’t mean it’s missing!” 

“The House of Taktik carry one similarity, no matter how pure their blood is.” Pique claimed. “Scatterbrained. But Lord Taktik was a very intelligent man, he was able to come up with strategies on the fly. But he was messy, too.”

“But that’s why we came here.” Lillie smiled. “It’s much cleaner here.” 

Pique pursed her lips. “The way it should be. That being said, Taktik could come up with a viable battle plan in less than ten minutes, and it’s a valuable trait that his direct line still carries.” 

“We’re not only war minded. We’re inventors! Thinkers! We can think up a storm!” 

“But that’s so boring, besides you’re not in his direct line, there’s no way you’re a thinker.” Pique said, pinning a loop of hair to Ahiru’s head. “‘Just sitting around all the time.”

“Thinking!” 

Pique rolled her eyes. “But they are, they’re the best thinkers in the kingdom, maybe the world.”

“Thank you.”

“Not you, the Nobles.” 

“What were the others?” Ahiru asked, looking between Lillie and Pique in the mirror. 

“Vermittlung. The Lady slow to anger, the rational one.” Pique rolled her eyes. “Rather unempathetic and most people went to her with their problems if they didn’t think it was important enough to bother the royal family with. The family studies now to become great counselors. They’re a bit nose-in-the-air, but not as bad as Verstand.”

“But Stimmung is the worst house.” Lillie interjected. 

“What’s wrong with Stimmung?” Ahiru asked. 

“Stimmung was a big baby and he passed it down to all his descendants!” Pique said. 

“They don’t eat animals because they think it’s mean.” Lillie said. 

“All they do is talk about ethics and then it makes them sad when they get too deep into it. I don’t understand it, but some people like them.” Pique shook her head. “Well, they’re not all like that, but they try to follow the example Stimmung left behind in his diaries to best of their abilities.”

Ahiru smiled. “I don’t think they sound that bad.” 

Pique sighed, “Just wait until you meet one. There, all done. Would you like breakfast up here or in the nook?”

“Hmm. Well, we can continue our talk if I stay up here, right?”

Pique smirked, “Exactly! Rue always wanted to go down to breakfast. I’ll go fetch it, Lillie tell her about Verstand.”

Lillie smiled and nodded. “The Duke Verstand was known as the Duke of Knowledge, and he liked to only be referred by that title. Being born into that house, no matter how intelligent one is, gives them a superiority complex, and no one likes them except themselves. They care about one thing, the one thing Verstand cared about: knowledge. Although I think some of them only care about looking smart. Know-it-alls, the lot of them, and they’ll rub it in your face. If you don’t know one little thing, it’s all they talk about, it’s to make you feel dumb, but if you ask them they’re simply educating you.” 

Ahiru nodded. 

“The past few years they’ve been rather resigned, however.”

“Why?”

Lillie looked up at her, the expression she had on her face, once light and teasing, turned dark. “Twenty-one years ago, the Duke of Verstand, Mendelsshon Felix, had a son about a month old, but it grew sick. And at two months, the baby died. The Duchess died of heartbreak, and the Duke has never been the same. The house mourned for an appropriate time, but the death of a baby is still the death of a baby.” Lillie looked around, “But, some people think the real reason the Duke is upset is because of a certain rumor.”

Ahiru tilted her head, she looked around the room too, as if she’d catch a Bookman standing in the corner, “What rumor?”

“That his son never died, but was stolen away.” She leaned in closer. “That he was only tricked to believe his son passed.”

Lillie pulled away and Ahiru could only look at her in shock. So Lillie knew to? “Who- who would do such a thing?”

“Someone who wants more than what they have.” And suddenly, as if someone had turned on a switch, Lillie grinned from ear to ear. “But isn’t that a wild tale? Like a Grimm’s story.” 

“O-oh, right. Yes. Just a Grimm’s Tale.” She said, but she was shaken nonetheless. She couldn’t help but remembered what the Bookmen said in the hall...

Pique came back then and they ate, Pique went on about the house of Stimmung, how boring they were, a bunch of babies that made flower crowns for each other and then cried when they got the gift. 

Ahiru thought it would be nice, to belong to a house, and she thought she would belong to a house like Stimmung.

They gossiped some more, Pique telling the two of them that the Duke Raven had set up a meeting with the Bookmen, probably to get them to disband the wedding of Mytho and Rue. 

It made her sad, thinking about all that wasted effort, the fight Mytho and Autor had to endure. 

There was a knock at the door and Pique and Lillie were lightly chided for talking with the Princess instead of doing their chores and the chief maid apologized profusely to Ahiru. 

She tried to excuse them, saying they were keeping her company but she was dismissed. 

Once they left, there was a quiet, an uneasiness that filled the air. 

She almost wished for them back. 

This was the first day that was completely up to her. 

There were no festivities or tests or weddings or duels, and her day’s activities were up to her, whatever she chose to do. 

She decided to wander around the palace.

It was strange that she never did, although the past few weeks had been packed with activity and any free time she had was given to Miss. Edel to further her studies, but now she was free to walk the halls.

She had noted before that the palace here was much larger than the castle in Arnis, a small manor by the sea. 

Four stories in total, she had counted, with the first floor having a ceiling that was twice as tall as it needed to be to accommodate the large, stately portraits of each King and Queen, and the ballroom with its arching glass windows and balcony that wrapped around the room and the painting of the Sun and Moon. 

Not to mention the library. 

It wasn’t a place she visited much, and she decided she would today. It was as large as the ballroom, just as wide, just as tall, with its own balcony to reach the higher shelves. She had never seen so many books in her life, and while she only read a couple, it felt right to be here. 

The first shelf she reach was held fast to the wall, the books cast in strong wood that would keep them safe. 

“There’s a larger one in the Verstand estate.” 

Ahiru flinched, and when she turned around to see Autor, she wasn’t really sure what to do or say. So far, the conversations they carried were rude ones filled with biting remarks, mostly aimed at her. 

She nodded, so as not to seem rude. 

He came to stand beside her, running the tips of his fingers over the spine of the book that she had previously admired.

“Do you read at all?” He tilted his head, not even looking at her, but at the book he cradled in his hand. “Can you read?”

She clenched her fist, but bit her tongue. “The library in Arnis is not as vast as this, but I have read quite a few books in my time.”

He hummed, slipping the book out of its place, the one next to it toppling over without the support. “Reading is one of the only activities I enjoy. Outside of playing the piano.”

“You play the piano?” She winced, she hadn’t meant to carry the conversation, but here she was, getting to know him better.

“Yes. I do. The Duke of Verstand taught me when I was young. But he also let me read the books in his library.” 

She nodded. “What was your favorite?”

He smirked. “I’ve never had a favorite.”

“What?”

“How can I? There are too many to choose from. And how do I choose? Based on story? Style, diction, fiction or nonfiction, history or present? Based on the characters? How clever they are, or how beautiful, if they can use their mind or if it’s their mind from which they have to escape? No.” He said, returning the book to it’s slot, fixing the fallen. “I have too many favorites.”

“I always liked the Little Mermaid.”

“Of course you do. Coming from a town as small as yours, I’d expect nothing less.”

She resisted the urge to shrug, and smiled at him instead. “Forgive me, then, for not coming from a place of grandeur.”

His eyes landed on her for a moment, but were gone the next, and instead he walked down the aisle of books, following the wall, and like a fool, she followed after him.

“You cannot help where you’re born, who you’re born to.”

He was strange, talking to her so frankly all of a sudden. 

“No, you can’t.” She agreed.

“Given the chance, I’d-” but he cut himself short, he gave a sigh and shook his head. “But I don’t have the chance.”

“The chance to what?” She asked, genuinely intrigued by him. He was still harsh, but she couldn’t help but wonder if that rudeness he showed her was just a part of his character, not to single her out. 

She could almost forgive him for his character.

“What do you know about the house of Verastand?”

She shook her head. “Not much.”

“Well, the house of Verstand is a noble house, filled with people smarter than anyone I have ever met.” His eyes grew distant, there was a great admiration there, and she couldn’t help but wonder… why? “They’re explorers, scientists, writers, so often they go out into the world in the pursuit of knowledge, and they always come back filled to the brim with insight. Given the chance…”

“You would like to go?” She ventured, “Out into a world you don’t understand and learn something completely new? And bring it back here? For us to learn?”

He looked to her, he turned his body and met her eyes full on with a stare of such intensity, she felt like she was hit with a bolt of lightning. 

“Yes.”

She continued to follow him around the library, he didn’t speak, and she didn’t dare cut the silence, instead, she watched the expressions on his face change.

Autor was an interesting person in that she couldn’t tell who he truly was. 

At first glance, he appeared rude and snobbish, but now he seemed… 

Broken.

The shell of a man forced to turn away from his passions, but a man willing, nonetheless.

He stood tall, taking careful steps, lightly perusing the spines, and Ahiru had the aching suspicion that he knew what was written on the pages of all of them.

She tried to follow his example, a straight back, arms held still, measured steps, the toe of her shoe pushing at the edge of the dress so as not to trip herself.

“If you are to be my wife,” He said, breaking the silence, but he paused, as if the words got caught in his throat. Like a fish caught in the netting, half free, half dead, not resigned to his fate.

“If I am to be your wife.” She said softly, and even as the words fell past her own lips, they felt strange, and forgein. 

He nodded. “I expect you to have an extensive knowledge of literature. A good reading history, and a talent for weeding through what is good and what is bad.”

“Isn’t what is good and what is bad a matter of opinion?” She was trapped, caught in the thin twine of the net, half free, half- 

“Not what you like or dislike, but what is good, well written, and what is bad, poorly stated. I don’t like every good book I read, but I still cherish them. They still carve the path.”

Ahiru smiled, there was passion in his eyes, like a storm brewing, “What books are good then? If I am to be your wife, I should read them.” 

He turned to look at her, his eyes rolling up and down her body, as if he had forgotten it was her who stood there, and not someone else. Half caught. “I’ll have a list compiled for you. You won’t be able to read them all before we’re wed, you may not be able to finish one.” 

She gritted her teeth, “I can read, I’m not a foolish little-”

“A foolish little what?” He asked, leaning in, suffocating her, taking her air. “Peasant?” He stood straight, away from her and starting his pace again, and she followed, picking up her skirts to keep up with him. “No, you’re a Princess, born and raised, surrounded by luxury, spending her time reading and dancing, her hands have never worked, have never strained.”

“Right.”

“A Princess who’s studied Shakespeare, the great works, art and all it’s prestige. Not a peasant who spent her childhood out in the sun, burning her skin, working her hands, getting dirty and sweaty. No.” He paused and turned on her, the motion so quick that she almost fell, almost bumped into his chest. “I don’t know what kind of family you came from, but perhaps your kingdom should hold higher standards for their royalty.”

Her heart was pounding, but all she could do was give him a hearty glare. “And? So what if I sat out in the sun? So what if I didn’t just idly sit by while others did work, just because I was born a Princess doesn’t mean I’ll abuse my position. Maybe Bavaria should get higher standards for how their royalty treats their people.” She lifted her skirts and left the library, running as soon as the doors closed behind her.     

She was getting better, she thought, at being a Princess although nothing was as ingrained in her as it had been in Rue.

She slowed to walk along the palace halls with her shoulders back and her neck long and she felt like a Princess, even if she wasn’t truly one.

Crown Princess now, she reminded herself. 

Even worse. 

One day…

She would be Queen.

That made her pause. At the start, she was okay with being just a Prince’s bride, with no real power, no authority, just to show up every once in a while, stand silently by her husband’s side and smile. 

She wasn’t sure she could handle being a Queen. 

She leaned against the windowsill her back pressed against the pane, and it was freezing against her shoulders, but it calmed the racing of her heart.

Not his Queen.

What did it matter? What books were good or bad, if she wasn’t pale, if her hands were worn. 

But it depended, it depended on the verdict the Bookman and the Duke Raven came to, and that she wouldn’t know until the end of the day. 

Her heart slowed, finally, and as she looked back down the hall from which she came, she wondered. 

Half free, half caught. 

Did she have time to get out? 

She closed her eyes and felt the tears start to sting her eyes, which wasn’t fair, she didn’t plan on crying today. She wiped at her eyes with her arm, sliding down the wall until she sat. It was for the best, she thought, for Rue and Mytho, so that they could be happy, but what about Autor?

Would she make him happy?

He didn’t think she was a proper Princess, he would always look down on her. 

It was a quiet day, wherever she was, no one else occupied the same space, the wind blew outside and she heard every leaf that swayed, every branch that bent, so it frightened her when she heard the faint sound of music. 

It was mechanical sounding, not an instrument, pure and sweet, but almost like the twinge of metal. It was beautiful, and lulling. 

She stood slowly, wanting more than anything to see what was making that sound and chased after it. 

Louder and louder it became, leading her down hallways she had never traversed, past doors she had never entered and windows she had never looked out of, and just as she was sure she had found it, it stopped. 

“Oh.” She said, rather disappointed. She stood in front of a tall tapestry, brushing the ceiling, spreading out farther than she could spread her arms, it was a deep green, like the pine needles in the forest, there was a thousand details, made of shades of green and blue, lavender and peach, soft reds and deep oranges. There were goblins and beasts, white deer and salamanders, rivers that parted the trees, and sunlight that bled into the meadows and greens. At the very top, there was a castle, and it shined, the thread golden and bronze, and surrounding it was a silver wall. 

And then, above all that was the sun and moon, a brighter gold, somehow, than the castle. She smiled upon the castle and forest, as if it was all hers to love and care for, the moon next to her, made with a thread of pure white, he cradled the sun, holding her up and guarding her, protecting her from all that lurked in the forest, even if her love touched all edges of the tapestry. 

As Ahiru admired the careful work, the soft sound of music picked up again, coming from behind the tapestry. 

“But, how-?” She tilted her head and raised her hand to press against the wall that was behind the tapestry, but when she did she almost fell, for the tapestry did not cover a stone wall, but a hallway. 

She rushed to the edge of the hung masterpiece and pulled at it’s side and walked behind it until she came to the empty hallway. It was cold, colder than anywhere else in the palace, but not dark. Ahiru looked at her feet, a small lantern sat by her feet, waiting to be picked up and used. 

It was already lit, ready for her to take.

She licked her lips and swallowed, the music drawing her down the pathway, and so focused on the music was she, that she did not hear the tapestry move behind her, or the careful steps that followed her. 

Ahiru walked until the music stopped, but even so, she was not left in silence, there was the sound of muffled voices bickering. 

“-we cannot move forward with this!”

“It is our law! If we do not follow our own laws, the people will have us thrown out.”

“There is no way the people will follow him now, not when he has lost to his younger brother!” 

“Why would you say that? Everyone knows the Prince is a master of the sword, very few can beat him.”

“What does that matter? The King needs to be the best! If he is not the best, who will follow him? Not when there is someone stronger!”

Someone pounded a table with their fist, and it made Ahiru jump. “Strength is not all there is to being King!”

“But a kingdom needs the protection of a strong King, only he who is strong enough can rule! Who will the forest choose? A strong man, or one who is weak?” 

“He returns.”

The room was quiet and a large door opened, careful clicks reached her ears, the clicks of boots hitting the tilted floor, the door shut. It was too quiet again.

“Has a verdict been reached?”

A chill ran up her spine. The Duke Raven. 

She inched closer, her hand pressed to the wall in front of her.

“No, no verdict has been-”

“Let me make this clear, gentlemen. The Princess Kreahe is not some woman you can marry off to whomever you choose. She is the heir to the throne, she was sent here to enter a prestigious marriage. Now, I understand that there are some rumors.” He paused, and the air grew colder. “About a tragedy that passed a few decades ago. A sick infant. A child thrown out into the snow. Can anyone confirm that these rumors are true?” 

No one spoke, and she wondered what they were scared of. Fifty men against one? But when he spoke again, she was put back in her place. 

“Well then, where is he?”

“Dead.” One said with a vicious snarl. 

“The rumors are this!” The Raven hissed, and Ahiru flinched away, as if it was her who was face to face with the Duke. “That he survived! That he is out there, planning to overthrow your silly little monarchy. If that is true, tell me now.”

There was silence again and she leaned against the wall, hoping to catch a murmur. 

“And what is your plan to deal with him.”

Her ears tuned in, but there was nothing to be heard. 

The Raven laughed, “Nothing? How long have you had to plot? To prepare for this? Twenty years? Pitiful. Kill him.”

“We cannot.”

“Oh, and what will happen?” In the silence, she could hear his footsteps fall, turning on whoever spoke out of turn. “You can kill a baby but not a grown man?”

“Half the kingdom and Nobility support him, doing so would spark a rebellion!”

“And you don’t think he will?” 

“No, he’s smarter than that.” The bookman said, begrudgingly. “He’s waiting for the Königsspiel.”

“Oh right, you’re silly game. And do you actually think he can win?”

Ahiru swallowed.

The Raven laughed cruelly. “Autor doesn’t stand a chance! How pitiful.”

“You will address our royalty with his correct title!” 

“Oh? And what title is that? Duke Autor? Or even lower?  Marques Autor? Earl? Viscount? Stop me when I’ve reached it! Baron?”

“Stop this mockery!”

“You are a mockery to me. At least in my kingdom I can safely say that the Princess Kraehe is her mother’s daughter, and not robbed from the crib.” 

“Your presence here today, is to decide if the marriage between the Prince and Princess is within reason.”

“I say it is not. A Queen sent to marry a Prince? You mock me.”

“Your borders will still widen, your war will not have been for naught.”

“Who is the true King? I don’t think I will even allow her marriage to Baron Autor at this point.”

“The Crown Prince Autor is the true-”

“Will he be? You’ve said it yourself countless times, only the King can win the Königsspiel. Who is he to hold the honor?” 

“Anyone can run and win the title, even someone as lowly as a farmer.” 

“Ah, but will the farmer? No. No, two will run the Königsspiel and Princess Kreahe will marry the winner.” 

There was a knock at the door.

“The Princess Kreahe wishes for a private audience with the Duke Raven.” 

The door opened and Ahiru heard the high heeled steps of a Princess enter the room.

“Well? Get out.” The Raven dismissed them coldly. 

Their march was slow, but steady, and it wasn’t until the door closed again, that Rue spoke. 

“Raven.”

“My Princess.”

“The fuss you make over my marriage will not resolve itself with your petty bickering.”

“Ah, but Princess you are to marry the finest.”

“And the finest here is Mytho, you cannot stop me, and I will not go away until you agree.” There was a wooden creak, Rue had sat down.

“But, think of the-”

“I am thinking of my kingdom. My Kingdom. Not yours, you have always put yourself first. My marriage will end the war, it will open up our borders and give us every advantage.” 

“But our borders will not have grown.”

“You think I care how large my kingdom is? No, you are mistaken. When my father dies, and it will be soon, it will not matter the size of our borders, the war will end and I will have to make amends to all we have tortured. My marriage to the Prince of Bavaria is the first step to asking for forgiveness, think of it. Bavaria, the trading gate to all of our country, and I have the key to it. Every state will come to terms with our settling down, and there will be peace again. We can even become a mining state again instead of hoarding it all for ourselves.” 

“Very noble of you, but-”

“Did my father even send you here?” Her chair creaked and she stood. “Or did you hear and come running as fast as you could?”

“I only obey commands from your-”

“My father, as I last remember, is lying sick in bed, swathed in sheets like a child, he barely has the energy to lift a finger. Tell me, Raven why have you come.”

“Abandon this place! Come with me, accept my hand in marriage and you and I can rule just as your father intended.” 

“I just told you my plan was to stop his war! Why would I marry you just so you can continue the death? The chaos? No, no as soon as I am crowned Queen, with Mytho by my side as King, you will lose your title and be nothing more than a-”

There was a sharp crack.

“Ru-” Ahiru slapped a hand over her mouth. 

“Use your words, Your Grace.” Rue said coldly. “Or have you forgotten how to?”

“You will not talk to me in such a way!” 

“I will speak to you however I wish to speak to you! You have no right to lay a hand on me! To tell me to do anything! My sister gave up her crown when she married Ansell, leaving me to take the responsibility of the throne! My father wasted away his life on a bloody battle field in filthy greed, and now lies dying. I am responsible for the Kingdom, I will marry Mytho, and I will be crowned Queen, but I already am one.”

“Go Rue!” Ahiru whispered to herself. 

“You are abandoning your father’s dream-”

“I am setting everyone free, I am abandoning my father’s dream, and it is a good thing, my father was a tyrant and a wicked man and I pray he rots! I pray for your downfall, and I will see it happen, better yet, I will be the one to push you.”

“I have been nothing-”

“But a pain? Yes, I agree.”

“An aid to your father! His acolyte! And you would dismiss me like that?”

“My father was evil, I’m sure his acolyte is not any better. The duel is valid, even in Rothenburg, such a duel would be respected. Do not disrespect this place with your foul temper and greed.”

Rue walked away, towards the door, and they swung open. 

“Gentlemen,” She said. “You are welcome to come back in to go over the final details of my wedding.” 

“So it’s final?” Someone asked, someone young.

“I will marry the second Prince, and I will return to Rothenburg-”

“After the Königsspiel?” 

“Yes. And when will that be?” 

There was a murmur, but no one was close enough to where Ahiru stood for her to over hear. 

“Let us give Autor one month to recover from this… Loss. December Twenty-fifth, he and the Princess Odette will be wed and in the afternoon he will run.”

“Raven,” Rue said coldly, “Will you stay even after my wedding? To watch the Königsspiel?” 

“No, I will leave after your marriage, I will watch over the Kingdom until your return.”

“Very well, any action you take will be reported to me and if I find it reprehensible, I will be returning, with or without my husband.” 

“I will be on my best behavior.” Raven said, and Ahiru could see it in her mind, the corners of his mouth twisting into a wicked grin. 

“You shall, or it will be your last course of action.”

Raven walked out the doors slammed shut behind him and Rue was left alone with the Bookmen. 

“So, my wedding shall be the second, correct?”

“Yes.” 

“What needs to be done?”

A Bookmen started listing menial tasks, but she cut him off.

“Then get them done. Are you listening? Go!” 

They were dismissed, but a few stayed behind. 

“Your Majesty.”

“Yes?” Rue said. 

“You must understand how sudden this all is? Surely, most won’t believe you and the Prince are truly in love.”

“What does that matter? Mytho won the duel-”

“Mytho didn’t win. Autor kneeled.”

“And what is the difference?” There was a slow clacking on the floor, Rue taking circles around the old man. 

“It means, that some may not trust your word.” 

“My word? And what is my word?”

He cleared his throat. “The word of a Rottenburg.”

She gave a sharp laugh. “Stooping so low as to throw schoolyard taunts?” 

“It is what the people have called you.”

“If they despise me so much, it will be a relief that I am not their Queen. It is better that Ahir- I mean, Princess Odette is Queen, she is kind and has a good heart. She will balance Autor’s… coarser side.” 

“True, however some may think that you are taking that sweet young boy away from his home.”

“Mytho is hardly a sweet young boy, sir. Young to you, perhaps, but hardly a child.”

“One day he will see your rough language and-” 

“My rough language?”

“How you threatened the Duke.” 

She was quiet. “There is a harshness one needs to develop when dealing with scavengers. For my kingdom, Mytho will be necessary, a kindness, a light, hope in the midst of battle. He will help put an end to the tragedy that has surrounded my state since I can remember.”

“So, is that what he is for? Not love, but a way to end the travesty?” 

“My, you are critical. My marriage is one for politics, after all, I have resigned myself to that fact.” She paused, a moment of interreflection. “No, I love Mytho, he- he is the only person that has treated me as more than just the Princess of a warring people, as a person used for political advantage, but as a person.” Her words were dripping with joy, the smile in her voice almost too loud. “He is the only person I think I could ever truly love. You are wrong to think I’m using him, when I love him. I love him without a second thought, without thinking.” She gave a shaky laugh. “It is more than I can expect you to understand.”

“I have a wife.”

“I know! And where is she! Where is her smile? Do you care for her joy?”

“Our marriage was-”

“Not one of love. What Mytho and I have; he owns my heart.”

“Hmm. Well, then, I will not stop your happiness.” He spit out his words, as if he did not believe them, as if they were poison that he caught just in time before he swallowed. “Come, let us resign for lunch.”

“Of course.”

The doors closed, and that was it.

So, she would have to marry Autor, she would be a Queen. 

Ahiru leaned her head against the cool wall, and her shoulders shook, the lantern slipped from her fingers, the glass broke and the light went out. 

She turned to lean against the wall before allowing her back to crawl down the stones to the floor.

She hit the floor harder than she wanted to.

“Ow.” She said, sniffling, she hit her head against the wall. 

Why did it hurt so bad? 

She wasn’t in love with Autor.

And she didn’t… 

“He owns my heart.” Rue had said. 

No, he had never owned Ahiru’s heart, he never even held it, never even came near it, all it had ever been was a dull aching in his hand. 

She loved him, she knew that for sure, but not as truly as Rue loved Mytho, and now she’d never have a chance.

Autor would be her husband, forever and always, he would call her names, and diminish her worth, and would never get along with her, much less like her.

It had all been so easy to do when the future was for Mytho and Rue, but now looking at her own, she had ruined everything. 

It was what they deserved, she thought, to be happy, to have each other, but now she would be chained to Autor’s side until she died. 

She would be miserable. 

Her jaw shook, and her shoulders wouldn’t hold still. 

She let them fall, if only for a moment, in this dark hallway, blind to everything and nothing all at once, where no one would see her, she gave herself this moment to let her heart be bare and open.

But she couldn’t stay like this, it wasn’t fair, how could she wallow in self pity? 

She had an entire kingdom to think about. The people, the Nobles, Pique and Lillie, Edel, Rue and Mytho, and… 

She’d have to tell Fakir she was marrying Autor.

He would know what to do, he would tell her to stop being stupid. She let a wet laugh escape from her lips. He would tell her it was an honor to be the Queen, that she just had to look at it in a different light, she wasn’t giving her life away, she was giving her life to serve the people. 

It was noble, when she thought about it like that. 

But, still…

Why did it have to be Autor?

She heaved a sigh of remorse and stood slowly. 

“Now, how to get out of here?” She nudged next to her, where the lantern fell, careful to make sure she didn’t step into it. 

She was alone. 

She should have been alone. 

The entire floor before she walked behind the tapestry had been absent of people.

No one had seen her, and yet. 

She made to step around the lantern, but before she even put her foot down, there was the sound of breaking glass. 

“Shit.”

“Who's there!” 

 There was a hand at her elbow, and a second placed over her mouth. 

“Shh!”

She screamed behind the hand and bit down as hard as she could. 

Whoever held her screamed but didn’t move, and started leading her away from where she came from.

This was it, the end for her, she had been found by a Bookman spying on the other Bookman and she’d be exiled or executed for her impertinence and that would be the end for her.  She hoped her tears landed in his hand, so whoever it was knew how scared and hurt she was. 

There was a creak, and suddenly light filled her vision and she was blinded. 

She was pushed away from her captor and she caught herself on the railing of a balcony. 

She spun around to see how it was, so she could at least look her captor in the eye, but instead only found-

“Ahiru, you didn’t have to bite me.” 

Tears welled in her eyes. “Fakir.” She threw her arms around him, burying her head into his chest, her heart still pounding. “Fakir, I was so scared.”

“I- I’m sorry.” He said, his arms slowly, and uncertainly encircling her. “I didn’t mean to.”

She pulled away just as he put his hand on her head. “I bit you! I’m so sorry.” She took a step back and took his hand in her own. “Oh, we should get this cleaned and wrapped up.” Ahiru began to walk away, but found herself trapped on the balcony. “Oh.”

“We have to go back inside the tunnel.” He said.

Her eyes looked back at the door, which now that it was closed, looked only like a section of the wall.   

He pushed on the brick and it opened. 

“What is it?” She asked, looking inside warily. 

Fakir offered her his hand, they didn’t have a light, they would have to stick together. “It’s a system of secret tunnels that run through the castle.” Once inside, he shut the door behind them, and her grip on his unbiten hand grew tighter. “This way.”

She was pulled along behind him, following his every twist and turn, bumping into him on occasion. 

“So they’re all over the castle?”

“Yes, one in every room, although some are harder to get to than others.”

“What do you mean?”

“The one here, that you spied on the Bookmen with-”

“You were spying too!” 

She couldn’t see it in the dark, but he smiled, as if he had been caught. “We spied on them, it’s larger, the hallway allows multiple people to be audience. But other rooms, take the King’s bedroom for example, the hallway gets increasingly smaller until it is just a crawlspace. Not even I can fit in there any longer.” 

“What’s it all for?”

“The King, anyone he chooses to show it to. It’s a way so that no one can keep secrets from him.”

“Like that meeting?”

“Yes, the Bookmen’s meetings are not for my- the King’s ears, but, if the King thinks someone is untrustworthy, he can listen, and later have a private discussion with him.”

“Do the Bookmen know about it?”

“They know about the hallways, but not where they are, or how to get into them.”

Ahiru tilted her head. “How do you know.” 

“My guardian, Charon, when he was younger, he was friends with the King and Queen, they told him about all the castle secrets, and he shared them with me. My question is,” He stopped, his hand batting in front of himself, fabric moved and light spilled onto the floor, he pulled her out of the darkness and into the light. “How did you find it?”

Ahiru smiled, her hand running against the delicate tapestry again. “I heard this music, and I followed it.”

“It lead you here?”

“Yes, but it stopped when I was by that meeting room. I didn’t see anyone, did you?”

He shook his head. “No, I didn’t.”

“So, you heard everything?” 

“Yes.”

Her eyes traveled to the floor, she lifted her arm and rubbed the other. “So you know then.” 

“Yes, I’m sorry.” He lifted his hand, placing it on her shoulder. 

“Don’t be.” She rubbed her eyes, she was crying again. “I chose this. Besides, I need to fix your hand.”

She looked up at him, expecting him to agree, or say something. Anything. But he didn’t, he gazed down at her with sorrow in his eyes. 

“C’mon.” She lead him back to her room, she was quiet on the way back, contemplative, but Fakir didn’t seem to be in the talking mood either.

“Here.” She said once they entered. “Pique? Lillie?” She called. “Edel?” 

But there was no reply, her room was empty.

“Okay good, sit down at my vanity.” She said, pointing to the stool. 

She went to her bed and knelt down, pushing at what she brought with her until she pulled out a plain, blue box. 

She came to Fakir, and sat on a chair next to him. 

“May I have your hand?” She asked, her own outstretched, ready to receive his. Gently, he placed his bitten hand in her palm. She winced. “I’m sorry.”

“At least I can rest easy knowing that you’re not completely defenseless.” 

She put the box on her lap and opened the lid, revealing medical supplies she had made sure to take with her. 

“Why do you have this?” 

She shrugged. “I get hurt a lot. My da- I mean, yeah my dad, he put this together for me after I scraped my knee for the fifth time in a week. I make sure it gets refilled. Here.” 

She started cleaning and dressing his wound, his hand large in her own, their were calluses on his palm, just before his fingers jutted out, and she didn’t stop herself from flitting over them.

“From sword fighting.” He spoke softly, “Blacksmithing and work.” She looked up at him, and somehow his face was closer to hers than she remembered. “They’re not the hands of a prince, nor a king.”

“But they’re your hands.” Her eyes shot back down to his hand, sitting on her lap, with only her own hand and the layers of her dress separating his hand from her- she blushed. There was no business thinking like that. “It’s silly, isn’t it? That a King’s hands should be soft? A King’s hands should be weathered and well-worked, he shouldn’t just spend his days sitting on his throne, but helping others. His people.” 

“What else do you think? About what a King should be?” 

She snuck a glance at him but found it impossible to do so when his very own eyes were transfixed on hers. “I-I don’t know, but I think a King shouldn’t be sitting away in a marble tower-” 

“Ivory.”

“Right.” She looked up at him. “Ivory. An ivory tower.”

“And a Queen? What should she be doing?”

Her hands were careful in the wrapping of his, the tips of her fingers brushing against his fingers, his thumb, carefully holding his wrist. 

“A Queen should-”

His knuckles, rather boldly, brushed against the satin of her skirt. 

“She should stand by her husband, but more than that she should be-”

“Be what?”

She tied a quick, messy knot on the white wrapping and looked up into his eyes, her hands never letting go of his. “She should be kind, she should be there for her people, and put them first, always.” 

“Even when she’s in pain? Or filled with sorrow?”

“If it’s necessary.” Ahiru nodded. 

“So a Queen should burn herself alive if to keep the freezing people alive for a few more hours while the King simply dirties his hands?”

His other hand came, the tips of his fingers brushing the hair that fell into her face behind her ear, the one in her lap growing braver, and she could feel his hand against her thigh. 

“That hardly seems fair.”

“What would you have her do, then?” Her own hands traveling up his wrist. “Sit on her throne, looking pretty?”

“You don’t have to sit on a throne to look pretty.”

“Oh.” She tilted her head, her eyes closing and there was a knock at the door. 

“Ahiru?” 

Ahiru let out a strangled scream and stood, knocking her chair behind her.

Fakir stood beside her, blushing a bright red. 

The door opened and Miss. Edel stepped in, she gave them a small glare. 

Fakir bowed to Ahiru. “Thank you, my Princess. I will take my leave.” 

He marched out of the room, only giving Edel a small, acknowledging nod. 

Ahiru put her hand on her heart, what had she been doing? 

Flashes of his eyes, the phantom touches of his hand on hers, on her thigh, in her hair, consumed her and she sat on her vanity chair.

Miss. Edel closed the door behind her, “Well, I'm sure you’ve heard the news by now.”

Ahiru nodded, she swallowed but her mouth was dry. 

“Then we must prepare you to become Queen.”

 

FAKIR CLOSED THE DOOR behind him and leaned against the wall just outside of her room. 

He fell to the floor, clutching his head, what was he thinking? 

She’s betrothed, he can’t just- 

The memory of her hand touching his, her fingers gentle and soft as they brushed over his, the feeling of her knee pressed to his, the satin under his fingers, her hair soft. 

He groaned and felt his face burn. 

The freckles on her nose, her lips a soft pink, her cheeks rosey and her eyes bluer than a clear sky. How would he survive? 

“Fakir, you okay?” 

He wasn’t sure who it was, but he told them to go away in a gruff voice, probably gruffer than he meant it to be. 

This wouldn’t stop him. 

The color of her eyes didn’t mean he had to stop pursuing the crown, it didn’t mean he couldn’t run the race, he would just have to be more careful. 

On the day of her wedding to Autor, he would run the Königsspiel and he would win, whatever happened to her after was no concern of his. 

Fakir stood, and made to walk away, but looked down at his hand, the careful wrapping, delicately placed; small hands, with slim fingers, covered in freckles. 

No, no concern of his at all.

Chapter Text

THE END IS THE beginning, and the beginning is the end. 

I came here for one purpose and one purpose alone: to sign my life away. 

It was merely chance that I found love, and mere chance that he would love me back. 

If it’s true what they say, that the fire that burns down the forest brings forth new life, carving a path, then I look out from the flames. 

And I am new. 

 

IT WAS A LONG week.

For Rue’s wedding, all was prepared, for Mytho’s nearly nothing, and they had torn down everything from Autor’s wedding. Tuesday a rough ball was thrown together to announce the new engagements. Wednesday saw a hurried tailor try to finish Mytho’s wedding suit as quickly as possible. Thursday, every gardner was called in hopes that they would have some fresh flowers available for the use of the Prince and Princess. Friday saw the panic of the kitchens, a feast for the entire kingdom. Again. Saturday brought trouble when the Duke Raven tried to talk Princess Kreahe out of her chosen betrothal, and Sunday saw the wedding jitters of both man and wife. 

Then, finally, it was Monday and Ahiru sat next to Rue, excitement clear on both their faces as Rue was laced into her wedding gown for a second time.  

“It’s perfect.” Ahiru said, the tips of her fingers gliding over the pearls and beads, carefully threaded into painstaking patterns. It was befit for a Queen, and it fit Rue all too well. 

Rue shook her head, her grin wider than a princess should have been allowed. “My cheeks are burning, but I can’t stop smiling.” Rue reached out for Ahiru’s hand. “Thank you.”

“It really does-”

“No, no not the compliment, but thank you.” Rue took a deep breath and for the first time that morning her smile fell. “If you hadn’t been okay with any of this, I never would have told Mytho I loved him, it’s because of you that I get to be happy.” 

“You deserve to be happy.” Ahiru placed her other hand on top of Rue’s.

“You do too. I’m so sorry. Autor isn’t-” Rue let out a heavy breath. “He isn’t an easy man to get along with.” 

Ahiru let the corners of her mouth twitch. “I’ll make do. He’s not so bad to talk to if you get him going on something he likes to talk about.” 

Rue look dumbfounded, “Only you would be able to see the best in him. Listen.”

“Mmhmm.”

“I’ll be a kingdom away in a month, but if he starts bothering you, I’ll come and kick his ass.”

“Rue!”

Rue laughed. “You say that like I said something bad.”

“No, just surprising.” 

There was a knock at the door and Rue tightened her grip. 

“I guess it’s time to go.” 

Ahiru smiled, “Are you ready?”

Rue took a deep breath, and nodded. 

 

IT WASN’T THE FIRST time Ahiru had been late to her own engagement ball.

Somehow, even with Edel, Pique, Lillie and a whole host of servants, she was still running behind. 

“There you are.” Autor snarled. “Hurry up.” 

Ahiru picked up her skirts and ran towards him, accepting his arm before the doors were thrust open. 

She took a deep breath and marched inside the ballroom, stopping at the top of the grand staircase as she and her betrothed were announced. 

They walked slowly down the stairs, Autor in his effort to look ethereal; Ahiru in her effort to not trip on the edge of her dress. 

It was a beautiful thing, made of velvet, and it should never have touched her skin. Like green moss, it fell heavily to the floor, and it’s train dragged behind her on the steps. The color was deep, and all it reminded her of was the tapestry that hung from the ceiling, concealing the secret passageway to the Bookmen's meeting room. 

Finally, at the bottom step, all who were raised bowed and curtsied to the pair, but all stood still, not allowed to move an inch until the first dance was danced. 

Autor took her hand and led her to the center of the ballroom floor, a space left clear for dancing. 

“I will do a simple waltz if you promise not to trip over your own two feet.” Autor warned.

Ahiru pursed her lips but nodded, picking up the train of her dress to be held, unless she felt like tripping.

A simple melody was played, and a waltz danced, but she felt horrible the entire time. 

He held her hand, pressed his palm flat into her back, her chest brushed up against his, she could barely stand to look in his eyes as he lead her through a slow and sloppy dance, in which she must have kicked his shins seven times. 

At the last note, he held her out at arm’s length and bowed to her, and with the next, they were surrounded by dancers and she felt suffocated. Colors whirled around her, and she couldn’t recognize anyone’s faces.

Autor had abandoned her on the dance floor.

She looked around at everyone, trying to spot someone she knew, someone who she could talk to, then she at least wouldn’t feel so alone, but she didn’t have to. 

Suddenly, there was a hand slipping over her waist, and a hand lifting hers in the air. 

She gasped, her chest pressed up against her captors until she looked into his eyes. 

“Fakir.” She chuckled. “Oh, I thought I would just stand there forever.”

“I saw. You looked frightened.” Fakir said softly. 

“I was.” She was lead in a gentle waltz, but soon the steps became more complex, but it didn’t matter, all she could do was look up to Fakir, her attention stolen away by him. 

“I want to tell you something.” 

“Okay.” 

“Not here. Not where someone can hear.” 

Ahiru looked around the room to find the Bookmen lurking in the shadows, just around the edges. Was it about them? It had to be. 

He lead her out of the middle of the hurricane to a glass door disguised as one of the tall windows and out into the garden. 

The doors shut firmly behind them, he offered her his arm and they walked around the garden, until the lights, the music, the noise were all dull. 

“What is it?” She asked, she tilted her head to peer at him, the moonlight spilling out over his skin. 

“I- I don’t know how to approach it. I suppose I already have.” 

They walked on a stone path, their footsteps loud in the relative quiet, and every so often a soft breeze would float by, causing the bushes to rustle, and when it did, Ahiru would have to tuck the loose strands of hair back behind her ear. 

He paused in his steps and he peered down at her. “The Königsspiel has been postponed, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t-” He groaned, he didn’t understand why he was struggling to tell her. She must have guessed it by now, as well. There was no need for delay. 

He had told hundreds, he told Mytho, he had told every passing ear. The word had spread out from beyond the city walls and had reached all of Bavaria. 

He was sure even Drosselmeyer knew he was still alive. 

Drosselmeyer, with the power to take control of anyone he so chooses, Fakir’s very life on the line. The lives of everyone he loves, could be destroyed in a second. So what did he have to lose?

She herself had told him that she chose him. 

It should have been simple, no doubt that telling her was the right thing to do.

But, perhaps it was telling her everything. 

Who he was born to be, that was easy, but the gift, if one could even call it that, he had been born with, that was another matter altogether. He hadn’t even told Mytho.

Fakir sighed.

Ahiru looked up at him, searching his eyes, but all she saw was something she had never expected to find there.  

He was afraid. 

Ahiru let go of his arm and sat on the lip of the fountain before patting the seat next to her. 

Fakir shook his head, but she saw him smile. He sat next to her. “Do you know when my birthday is? Or how old I am?”

She shook her head. “No.” 

“It’s the eleventh, the day you arrived. I was born twenty-one years ago.”

“Oh! You’re the same age as Autor, how weird.” 

“No- that’s.” He sighed, “Ahiru-”

“Ahiru!” 

Ahiru looked back at the door they came out of, a dark figure stood, the warm light of the party doing nothing to tell her who it was. 

“Ahiru! You must come back!” 

“Miss. Edel.” Ahiru stood. She looked back at Fakir, her hand clutched at her chest. “I have to go, can you tell me later?” 

Fakir clenched his jaw but nodded. “Yes.” 

Ahiru smiled before picking up her skirts and running back to Miss. Edel. 

Fakir stood, watching Ahiru run away, she met Miss. Edel, and her hand was a comfort on Ahiru’s shoulder. Edel looked back at Fakir but he couldn’t read her eyes, he only watched as she dragged Ahiru away from him. 

 

AHIRU WALKED WITH RUE down the hall until they made it outside, the Duke Raven stood, ready to give her away, and Ahiru smiled, waved her good-bye before going to take her seat in the chapel. She paused at the door, watching uncertainly from the threshold as the Duke lowered himself to whisper in Rue’s ear, his finger gliding over her cheek. 

Rue’s face contorted into a scowl as she grabbed his wrist. 

Ahiru closed the door and walked down the aisle to her seat, wedged between Autor and Drosselmeyer. 

 

AHIRU WENT TO SLEEP still wondering what Fakir had wanted to say, but woke up wondering who on earth was in her room. 

In the midst of a dream, dancing with a Prince on the surface of a pond, her hand stolen away by a dark knight, his eyes green and-

“Haut Haut haut! L'heure de se lever!” The doors of her room were thrown open and a parade of people came marching into her room.

She sat up, rubbing her eye. “Wh- what?”

“Bonjour! Je m'appelle Femio, the man who will make your dreams come true!” He knelt before her bed and took her hand, kissing each of her knuckles and the top of her hand. “Although, I was sure it was a Prince I was working with today.”

“Oh!” Ahiru giggled. “You’re the tailor. You’re looking for My- I mean, the Prince Siegfried.” 

“Oui, mademoiselle, and who are you?”

Ahiru sat up straighter. “I am the Princess Odette Ahiru.” 

“Ah the Princess to marry Autor. It is humbling to meet you.”

“You know Autor?” Ahiru tilted her head. She didn’t think he had friends. 

“We used to be great friends.” Femio looked wistfully out the window, to the rising sun, breaking through the clouds for once. “He has become overwhelmed with duties. I hear he is doing greatly.” 

She wondered where he heard that. Doing greatly at what? Being a brat?

Rude and arrogant and ill tempered. 

“Ah well, I pray to meet your acquaintance again, but I must find a handsome Prince and make him a groom.” He stood and gave her a deep bow, before turning back to his attendants. “Viens! Partons!”

His army of workers left her room in a similar matter to that of how they came in, only this time, the hallway was their stage to burst out onto, and she wondered if Femio had brought with him fellow tailors or performers. 

Femio gave her a great bow for a second time as he pulled her doors to a close. 

She smiled nonetheless and rose from her bed, and gave Pique and Lillie a pleasant surprise when she was up and waiting for them.

 

AHIRU SAT STRAIGHT BETWEEN Drosselmeyer and Autor, both men made her uncomfortable, but she chose to put her attention on Autor.

She expected some amount of disgust, anger, annoyance, or even jealousy towards his brother, but his face was a blank slate. 

Like the Queen’s. 

In a horrible moment, Ahiru was brought back to the docks, she was with her friends, fellow children of the fishermen, and they ran around, as they were bound to do, with no adults to look after them, but their attention was caught. 

A man pushed a cart down the cobbled path, a tiny theater he brought with him everywhere, made of wood, and the stage covered in a fading, red curtain. 

The words “The Marvelous Mister Maxumillium’s Marinette Parade” hung just overhead. 

They chased after him until he felt he had gathered a large enough crowd before pulling his cart to a stop and drawing the curtain. 

The others cheered, and so did she until she saw the marinettes. 

Gruesome, was the word she was looking for, a word she wouldn’t even know until she was seventeen. 

They were painted to look like people, gentlemen and ladies of the court, queens and kings, peasants, but to her they were monsters. 

They mouths never moved, their eyes never blinked, and while their bodies moved when their strings were pulled, their faces were never rearranged. 

Ahiru’s lip trembled as she looked at Autor, he wasn’t a man, but merely a puppet, his eyes glossy, rising when the march started, but his movements were not his own, someone was pulling his strings. 

Suddenly, she felt desperate, if she didn’t run, he would reach out for her, his lifeless eyes never leaving hers until she was just as lifeless as him. Ahiru searched the room, trying to find Fakir, in hopes that, like the ball, he would come and whisk her away. 

He stood in the shadows, like the first wedding, careful not to be with the crowd, but not sticking out. As soon as she found him, his eyes moved to cover her. 

 

 RUE GAVE A TERRIBLE groan, falling back on the sofa and throwing her hand over her eyes. 

Ahiru knelt by her on the floor, patting her shoulder. “It will be okay, Rue.”

“No! It won’t be! We used all the stupid flowers at my wedding! Now there’s none left.”

“Don’t say that, there has to be flowers somewhere.” Ahir said, and as she did her mind flashed to an image of the fields just outside of the walls, the entire field covered in wildflowers. 

“I’ll be back.” 

Ahiru stood and was determined to fix this for Rue.

“I’ll be here.” Rue said. Her hands moving to rub against her eyes. 

Ahiru smiled, pausing only for second to wonder how she would find the gate when the answer came to her. 

Fakir.

He would be able to lead her to the gate, and finding him was easy. After some well laced questions, of course.

She had never been to the blacksmith's shop before, she never had to go to it, but now she stood just outside the open room, not a glass window pane in sight, but that was better than letting all the smoke stay inside. 

Ahiru knocked on the wooden pillar to grab the attention of the man pounding a staff of iron. 

“Excuse me, sir? I’m looking for Fakir, is he here?” 

The man put the hammer next to him, but when his eyes met hers, he bowed to her. “Your Majesty, to what do I have the honor?”

“Oh! I- I was looking for Fakir.”

The blacksmith chuckled. “And what trouble has my son gotten into this time?”

“No trouble at all! I just need his help.”

“Ah.” The Blacksmith lifted his hammer and hit the iron before blowing on it. “He’s right there.”

Ahiru turned around and Fakir walked toward her, the reins of his horse in his hand, he gave Ahiru a small glance before glaring at the blacksmith.

“Charon, what have you been saying to her.”

“Nothing, she came to me.” 

Ahiru smiled. “Fakir, can you help me?” 

Fakir gave one last strudy glare to Charon before it fell from his face and he turned to her with a gentler expression. “Of course.”

“Come back anytime you wish, Princess.” Charon waved, and Ahiru returned the favor. 

“I will.” 

Fakir tied the reins to the fencing that lined the smithery and gave Charon a simple nod.

Ahiru walked with Fakir away from the heat and smoke of the Blacksmith shop and she told him Rue’s dilemma and her solution.  

“So I just need to get all those wildflowers.”

“What do you need me for?”

“Oh, well, I don’t really know how to get there.” Ahiru held her hands in front of her, folding them together. “Please? Please help me?” 

“I will, but I think we should go to the east wall.”

Ahiru tilted her head. “What’s at the east wall?” 

Fakir smirked and took her hand, leading her away further out of town to the eastern gate. 

“Her name is Freya, she’s taken it upon herself to take care of the flowers that are here.”

He opened the man sized door that stood next to the gate and they walked out into the fields.

Ahiru picked up her skirt as they started walking through the grass and she saw a woman dancing amongst the flowers, a watering can in her hand. 

“Grow prettily!” She prayed. 

“Wow.” Ahiru smiled and ran to meet Freya. “Look at them! They’re beautiful.”

Freya covered her chuckle. “Thank you. Who are you?”

“Oh! I am the Princess Odette Ahiru. You can just call me Ahiru.”

“And you’re friends with Fakir?” Freya gave Fakir a pleasant smile. “You must be something.” 

“Miss. Freya, I have a problem-”

“The wedding?” Freya nodded. “Yes, I heard, there are no flowers left.” She shook her head.

“I would hate to destroy yours.” Ahiru pouted, suddenly this felt like a bad idea. 

“It is no worry!” Freya planted her hand on Ahiru’s shoulder. “If a flower can’t be admired, has it truly lived its purpose? I just wanted to wait and see who they would send; someone demanding, or someone with a good heart. Take as many as you need.” 

Ahiru grinned, wrapping her arms around Freya. “Thank you.” 

Ahiru and Fakir spent the better half of the morning picking carefully the stems of the flowers and placing them in a basket. It wasn’t long until they were joined by Lottie, Cordelia, Chiara, Tilda, and Luise, the little flock out on a morning walk, and when they saw the Princess they squealed and ran to her, smothering her in kisses and hugs, saying how much they missed her, and she returned in kind.

They asked her what she was doing and once she told them she and Fakir were gathering flowers for the Prince and Princess’s wedding, they were all too eager to lend her a helping hand.

“Is this one good enough?” Tilda asked.

“It’s perfect.” Ahiru smiled. 

“This one has a brown leaf.” Luise pouted, holding an otherwise perfect flower.

Ahiru took the flower and plucked the brown leaf off. 

“I like this one.” Chiara said, before whispering. “Can I keep it?”

Ahiru laughed, but nodded. 

“I got a bunch!” Cordelia said, Lottie holding it all in her tiny hands. 

“Thank you.” Ahiru said. “I think we have enough.”

“Can we help you take it back?” Lottie cried. 

“Oh please!” The others said. 

“Of course, and we’ll have to present them to Princess Kreahe, too, to make sure she likes them and approves of them.”

They grew excited at the prospect of meeting another Princess and hurried along, their bundles of flowers in hand as they raced through the city, and as they ascended the palace steps, Rue and several maids were called out. 

Rue came to the door and grinned at the flowers. “You did it! You really did it!” She threw her arms around Ahiru. 

“We helped!” Tilda proclaimed. 

Rue dropped to her knees. “Of course, and you did a marvelous job.”

Tilda beamed and Rue kissed her forehead. 

“Look what I got!” Chiara pushed Tilda out of the way. Rue chuckled and thanked her, kissed her forehead, as well. 

Soon, all five girls had a kiss pressed to their foreheads and their flowers had been gathered to be given water. 

“Here, I’ll take them home.” Fakir offered, the girls already pulling at his hands. 

Ahiru giggled. “I don’t think you have choice. Goodbye, Fakir. Thank you.” He was already down a few steps, and she decided to follow Rue’s lead, she learned forward, pressing her lips to his forehead. She pulled away and turned to walk into the palace too quickly to see the starstruck look on his face, but it was just as well, her cheeks burned and she didn’t want anyone to look at her. 

 

RUE WALKS DOWN THE aisle as if she was walking on air, her steps light, and her eyes centered on just one thing: Mytho. It was enough to pull Ahiru away from her woes and she smiled, happy that her friends were happy. 

All were seated and Mytho grabbed Rue’s hands, pulling her towards him. 

“We are all gathered here today to join together two kingdoms, two states. The Princess Kreahe and the Prince Seigfried. If anyone objects to this union speak now or forever hold your peace.” 

The room held its breath as the Priest let his eyes pass over each and every attendant, waiting for someone to stand up and object, possibly challenge Mytho to a duel while he was at it. 

“No? Then we shall continue.” 

Ahiru let her eyes wander to Autor’s but nothing had changed. 

He looked like his mother.

 

THE KITCHEN WAS STIFLINGLY hot, even with the windows open, and the chilling December wind coming in, there was still little one could do besides tie up their hair and roll up their sleeves. 

It was so hot, Ebine called in a maid to wipe her face so that no sweat would drip into the food she was preparing.

But Pique groaned and brought a soiled towel to her neck in hopes that it would at least relieve the awful, sticky sensation. 

“Here.” She paused, putting the towel into a bucket. “I’ll go to the well and rinse out these towels for everyone.” 

“That’s so sweet!” Lillie said. “Unless you have an ulterior motive?”

Pique rolled her eyes, because only Lillie would accuse her of such. “The water in the well is cool, it’ll give everyone some relief.” 

She stole Lillie’s towel and threw it into the bucket before collecting the towels from everyone else as well, adding them to her collection and taking it outside. 

She sighed in relief when a chilling breeze passed over her and she made her way to the well. 

She placed her spoils on the ground before unhooking the well bucket from its place and casting it down into the well, hoping it hadn’t frozen over yet. 

She pulled it up and dumped the water in the towels before squatting by the bucket and one by one taking out the towels and ringing the excess moisture away. 

That’s when she heard him. 

It wasn’t too often she heard him laughing, if the light airy chuckle that passed over his lips could even be called that. 

Pique smiled all too brightly and stood, “Fa-!” But she clamped a hand over her mouth and bit her tongue.

She dropped back down to her knees and peaked over the well. 

Ahiru giggles brightly as she tugged at Fakir’s hand and he looked at her with a soft expression that Pique…

Well, an expression Pique had never seen before. 

She spied on them until they were out of sight, and Pique continued the task she had given herself. All the while, trying to convince herself that the look he gave Ahiru meant nothing. 

 

AHIRU SMILED, SHE COULDN’T help herself as she watched Rue and Mytho standing with barely contained joy. It was all she could wish for, and when she snuck a glance over her shoulder, to where she knew Fakir would be standing, she couldn’t help a modest blush when she caught him staring. 

 

RUE WAS SURROUNDED BY wildflowers as servants milled around her in the chapel, arranging the flowers as best they could. 

Ahiru sat on one of the pews, spinning a flower between her fingers. “I think it’s perfect. It suits you.”

“I always imagined roses, or peonies.” Rue grinned as she brought a bouquet up to her nose. “But I will admit, this is stunning. What about you, Ahiru. What did you plan for your wedding?”

Ahiru’s smile turned nostalgic. When she was a little girl, and her crush on the prince was just blossoming she imagined a wedding, but a simple one, a white dress, in the springtime, maybe she held a bouquet of white roses. When she grew up, and she knew her love would have to remain a secret, she knew she’d never be married, at least, not to the man she loved. Now she stood, a month away from her wedding to a man she knew she could never love, what flowers would be in season then?

“Oh, nothing grand, nothing like this.” She made a vague gesture to the room. “Maybe… Maybe lavender, some silver nettle. Dandelions.” 

“Dandelions?” Rue quirked a brow. “Aren’t those weeds?”

“People think they are, but they’re not.” Ahiru smiled. “They have a lot of value, and they’re a pretty shade of yellow. People just don’t always have the ability to see past the exterior.” 

“Yes, I suppose prejudice can blind some to reality.” Rue sat beside Ahiru in the pew. She took her hand. “I judged you harshly, at first. I thought, well, I probably thought the same thing Autor did.”

Ahiru picked at her dress. Was she really so easy to read? 

“But now I see, you’re so kind, and you have so much joy, and hope.” Rue smiled, squeezed Ahiru’s hand. “When you live in a place like Rothenburg, you forget such things exist.” 

“It can’t be that bad-”

The doors of the chapel were thrown open, banging against the wall. The servants jolted, and Ahiru and Rue turned around in their seats to see who caused the commotion. 

The Duke Raven held his hands behind his back as he slowly marched down between the pews. “I would like to have a word with the Princess.” His eyes switched from servant to servant. “Alone.” 

There was a small mutter amongst them, but they dropped their baskets of flowers and left the chapel, closing the doors behind.

“Princess Odette.” He said.

“Yes!” Ahiru jumped to her feet. 

“Alone.”

Ahiru’s eyes went wide, she looked back to Rue, but she nodded, so Ahiru left. She went to the door and shut it behind her but she didn’t stop there.

Lightly, she pressed her hands against the wall, hoping that a secret door would pop open, and when one did she made sure no one was watching as she stepped inside the chapel walls.

“-Raven nothing you can do or say will dissuade me.” Rue said. “I made it perfectly clear last Sunday. Lest you forgot.”

“You made it perfectly clear.”

Ahiru moved along the wall, looking for a way to watch when her fingers bumped against a metal grate. She pulled it and peeked inside the chapel.

The Duke of Raven was awfully close to Rue. 

He stood behind her, his hands traveling up her arms, resting on her shoulders. 

“But let me make it perfectly clear, I’m sure compared to him I would make a much better partner in the bedroom, I have years of experience, whereas that little boy is, well, a little boy.” Raven chuckled. 

“You’ll find that I am not driven by sexual desires alone!” She threw her hand back, colliding with his groin. She wretched herself from his grasp, backing away. “What you do and I do in the bedroom has always been, and will remain, separate.”

“It doesn’t have to be, you know the rumors about me are true, don’t you?” 

“I’m unimpressed. If all I really wanted out of my marriage was sex I wouldn’t have let Mytho risk his life in the duel.”

Raven ran his hand over her cheek, but Rue slapped it away. 

“I will have you hanged for such an insult. And a Prince is still a better marriage than a Duke.”

Raven put his hand at his side, and taking short strides, started circling her. “In the end, it will be my name that you’ll cry out in the night.”

“No. I think it’s my name that you’ve been crying out since your last wife died. You’re the one desperate for me, but I will not have you. Maybe you should look elsewhere for your nightly pleasures, you won’t find it here.” 

She turned to leave, but he grabbed her arm. 

“You will let go of me. You will let go and you will never speak to me again, and if I hear so much as a sound coming from your lips I will cut off your tongue. Leave.”

Raven opened his mouth to object, but walked out of the chapel instead and as soon as Rue was alone, she fell to her knees. 

Ahiru brought a hand to her lips, before she fisted her skirts into her hand and ran back into the chapel, she wrapped her arms around Rue, and she burrowed her face into Ahiru’s shoulder. 

“Oh he’s so awful.” Rue sobbed. “He’s horrible.” 

Ahiru pet Rue’s hair, looking back every now and then to the chapel doors, waiting for Raven to return. She thought the man was vengeful, and yet he seemed to fall apart at every lash of Rue’s tongue. 

He was pathetic. 

 

THE DUKE RAVEN SAT behind Ahiru as Rue and Mytho where married and she couldn’t help but feel his glare, not only on her neck, but on Rue. 

She watched them exchange vows. 

She watched as Mytho slipped a golden band onto Rue’s finger, and as Rue slipped a golden band onto his. 

She watched them kiss, and stood with the congregation in applause as they left the chapel as man and wife. 

 

“DID YOU KNOW THERE was a secret passage in the chapel?” Ahiru asked. 

She walked with Fakir in the Palace garden, stopping every once in awhile to admire the short stem roses that lined the garden path in tall bushes, providing shade for her as they walked. 

“I did.” Fakir stood beside her, his eyes flashing between the smile she wore as the soft petals of the roses tickled her nose and the way her eyes lit up, squinting as her smile pushed up her cheeks.

“And I watched the whole thing. You know, that Raven guy is a real creep, coming on to Rue like that.” She started walking again, and he trailed behind her, watching the fabric of her skirt billow behind her. “I thought he was just a bad guy, but now he’s- he’s.”

“Vile?”

“Hey, that’s a good word.” Ahiru smiled up at him before stopping again, her attention captured this time by a pink rose. “He’s vile, I think it’d be better off if he left Rue alone.” 

“I’m sure it would.” Fakir blinked and felt his heart quicken. 

Ahiru lifted a hand, brushing her lose hair behind her ear. It wasn’t everyday that her hair was let free like this, and even with some pinned back, a gentle breeze would pass by, and her hair would toss in the wind. 

“I’m worried though.” She said, her attention still on the flower, watching as the velvet petals bounced with each touch. 

“What for?”

“Well.” Ahiru looked over at Fakir, “She’ll still have to live with him once this is all over, sure she’ll be married to Mytho, but Raven with still be there.”

Fakir nodded. “From what I’ve seen, Rue can handle herself, and so long as she and Mytho are together, I’m sure there’s nothing they can’t face.” 

Ahiru smiled and sighed in relief. “Oh thank goodness, I suppose you’re right. Mytho and Rue together don’t have anything to fear.” 

“And, if it really is the desire of Rue’s heart, to end the war and bring peace back to Baden Württemberg, she’ll have to go out and make peace.”

Ahiru’s face brightened and she beamed at Fakir, “Meaning that she won’t even be in Rothenburg!” She resisted the urge to pounce on him in gratitude, instead she clasped her hands behind her back and smiled at him. “That will be wonderful. Maybe when she goes to Arnis, I could go with her.” 

“Has Baden-Württemberg laid siege on Schleswig-Holstein?”

“Technically, no.” She shook her head and took up walking, onto the next bush along the path, simply running her hand across the leaves. “But it would still be good to go and make peace, maybe even start more trade.” 

“You just want to go back home.” He smiled, and he couldn’t hide it when she looked back at him, her own widening.

“One day, it would be nice.” She turned away, her feet stopping, her hand resting on a singular bush, an orange rose was graced with her touch. “Once everything is settled, and I’m…”

Her hand flinched away from the rose, as if it stung her, or perhaps she felt like she endangered the rose, but nonetheless, her hand fell to her side.

“What if…” 

Ahiru raised her head and turned her head over her shoulder to glance at him. 

“What if the day you are to be married, the day of the Königsspiel, I was able to stop it?”

“What do you mean? Would you challenge Autor to a duel?”

“No… to the Königsspiel.”

Ahiru turned to face him. “I thought the Konigsspiel was ran by future kings, why… Why would you run?”

Fakir swallowed, he looked around them, and when he saw nothing, he said, “Do you remember what I was telling you? About the rumors, a child thrown out of the window to be killed by his mother, the Queen?”

She remembered, nodding slowly as he continued.

“She didn’t succeed in killing the child, he was saved by the blacksmith, twenty-one years ago.”

“But! That’s just a story!”

Fakir shook his head, he reached out his hand to grab hers, but she stepped back. “It’s true.”

She fiddled with her fingers. “Fakir? What are you saying?”

He stepped forward and reached for her hand once more, but let his arm fall to his side. “I’m saying that Autor isn’t the Crown Prince Lohengrin of Bavaria, but the Duke Felix Author Mendelssohn from the house of Verstand.”

“That’s what the Bookmen said, too.” Ahiru said, her voice soft. “That they stole Autor, that they don’t want you to run-” She looked up at him, her eyes wide, and a sharp breeze passed. “You’re-”

Fakir nodded. “The Crown Prince Lohengrin Fakir of Bavaria.”

Ahiru put a hand on her chest, griping at her heart as she pieced it all together. “Why did she…”

“Throw me out a window?” 

Ahiru nodded.

Fakir looked back at the castle walls, made hundreds of years ago, out of brick and stone, what should have been his home. “There’s a dark power that resides here.” Fakir looked down at his own hand. “Or at least, a power granted for good, used for dark intentions. A power that I-”

“Fakir!”

Fakir groaned, “Now what?”

Running down the path was a slightly servant, small in stature, and probably shouldn’t have been running. He stopped before them, grasping his knocking knees and taking heaving breaths. “His grace, the Prince Siegfried requires your presence!” 

Fakir rolled his eyes. “Dylan, what did I tell you about running?”

“Not-” A pant, “To do it.”

Fakir looked back at Ahiru, her face stricken with contemplation, she knew that Autor wasn’t the prince, but she had pushed the truth away, the truth of who Fakir really was and who he was meant to be. 

“If it’s what I think it is, you should go see Rue.” 

Ahiru stood a little straighter, filled with the sense of duty that she was needed. 

“Thank you, Dylan.”

Dylan swallowed hard before he bowed to Fakir, whispering “Your majesty.”

It was meant to be only heard by Fakir, his King, carried away by the wind, but Ahiru heard.

Dylan ran away, huffing and puffing again.

Fakir groaned, “What did I just tell him… we should go.”

Ahiru gave a firm nod, picking up the edges of her skirt as she quickly walked away.

“Ahiru, wait.” Fakir chased after her, grabbing her arm. “Are you okay?”

“What will happen? After the Königsspiel? To Autor, to you? To…”

“After I run, I’ll take the throne, and Autor will go back home, back to the house of Verstand.”

“He would like that.” Ahiru said, she started walking again, and Fakir could do nothing but follow her. “He was telling me, in the library, how much he admired the house. I think… he’d be better there than on the throne.”

She stopped again, before the steps that lead back up to the castle, she bowed her head. “And… me?”

“You can go home, back to Arnis.” Fakir watched her shoulders tense, the slight shake of her head. “I’ll make sure that a trade is still made between us and Arnis. And then, you can be free to live your life.”

“There’s nothing there for me anymore.” She whispered, but he heard nonetheless. 

Ahiru walked up the steps to the palace doors, and Fakir looked to his side, a bush that looked like it was chopped down, it’s roses stolen for the first wedding, except for one, it was small, barely budding. He took out his dagger, hidden by his waist, and cut the stem.

Ahiru was already inside when he put his dagger away, and halfway up the stairs.

“Ahiru.” He called, and she paused. He climbed up the steps, and looking up at her, he felt silly, and he felt his cheeks grow hotter. “I won’t force you to leave, you could stay here, this...this could be your home.” He offered her the rose.

“I’m not-“

“I know.” He said. He didn’t, not really, he had only guessed that she wasn’t a princess, that this wasn’t where she belonged, in her fine gowns, the gems she wore on her neck, the adornments on her head, but that didn’t matter to him, and perhaps it was selfish, asking her to stay when she had a family to go home to, a life of her own where she didn’t have to pretend to be something else. Someone else.

Her eyes traveled to the rose, and she lifted her hand, the tips of her fingers brushing over his, and taking the rose from him. 

He came to stand next to her on the step, gazing down at her again. “I won’t make you suffer, I won’t force you to marry someone you don’t love.” 

Ahiru sighed, the hand that held the rose fell to her side. “You should go. Mytho needs you.”

“And Rue needs you.”

They climbed up the stairs slowly, they stole a glance before leaving each other’s sides, Fakir going left, and Ahiru turning right.

Fakir picked up his pace as he made his way to Mytho’s room, where two guards stood at the door.

“Did he try to see her?” Fakir asked, and the guards, tired, nodded. “Leave, I’ll make sure he follows tradition.”

The guards slumped away, and Fakir didn’t bother knocking as he opened the door and stepped inside. “Mytho, just what do you think you’re doing?”

Mytho was sitting up on his bed, his legs pulled up lightly, his blanket pulled around his torso and over his head. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Fakir sighed. “You know you can’t see her.”

“What am I supposed to do? Just wait for tomorrow to come?” 

“That’s tradition.”

“Since when did you care about tradition, Fakir?”

Fakir stood by the bed, his arms crossed. “I care when it comes to you. What did you try?”

“Well.” Mytho lifted a hand, tapping his fingers as if they were a list, “I tried climbing out the window, I tried calling the guards in and running out and locking the door while they were inside, I tried telling them I was going to the kitchen for a snack, but so far nothing has worked.” He sighed, flopping over on himself. “They either catch on or catch me before I get far.”

Fakir sat down on the bed. “So, how do you feel about becoming a King?”

“I’m not a King yet, Fakir, but, I was never supposed to be a king. I don’t want to mess up.”

Fakir nodded, “My father wasn’t even a prince when he married my mother, but while he was King-“ 

“Fakir, you can’t talk about it like it's a fact.” 

Fakir sighed, “What will make you believe me? Believe Charon?” 

Mytho shook his head. “I don’t know, but every time I try to think about it, about you being my brother, and Autor as someone else’s son… I can’t.”

“Do you really want to see her?” 

“More than anything.” 

Fakir stood. “Alright, I’ll take you.” 

“You will?” Mytho stood on the bed, the blanket falling off him.

Fakir rolled his eyes, but gave Mytho a half smile. “Yes, I will.” Fakir walked to the headboard. “Although, I don’t remember exactly where this room’s entrance is.”

Fakir pressed against the wall, as Mytho pointed to the door. 

The wall opened and Mytho hopped down from his bed. “What is this?”

“The tunnels, they run through the castles.” 

“How do you know about them?”

Fakir looked over his shoulder at Mytho, he took a candle in its holder off Mytho’s desk. “Do you have a match?”

Mytho nodded, going to his nightstand and pulled out a silver box, and he lit the candle.

They made their way into the tunnel. 

“Charon, he taught me everything I know, so when I’m King, I’ll be ready.” 

Mytho was quiet and when Fakir looked back, he couldn’t decipher Mytho’s expression, his countenance covered in shadows. 

It wasn’t a quick path, twisting and taking longer than the hallways, but Fakir knew where he was going and was able to find the viewing vent quickly. 

They were talking.

“Wait.” Fakir whispered, his arm thrown out to block Mytho’s steps.

“We shouldn’t eavesdrop, Fakir.”

“I- I know.”

But neither of them moved.

“But I can’t stay here, that would be dishonest.” It was Ahiru, and Fakir felt his heart quicken.

Rue clicked her tongue. “You wouldn’t be Queen, you would just live in the palace, that’s better than being a fisherman’s daughter.”

A fisherman's daughter? They didn’t even send a noble? She wasn’t even a lady! 

“But it would be a lie.” Ahiru sighed. “I’m not a Princess.”

“Why don’t you just tell him? I don’t think he would care.” Rue reasoned, and she was right, he didn’t. She could have been anything and he would still- “Besides, you don’t want to go back.”

“I don’t. I don’t have anything to go back to.” 

Fakir grit his teeth, he couldn’t take it any longer, he knocked on the wall and opened the viewing vent. 

“Fakir?” Ahiru was quick to catch on, and she was quick to find him in the wall. “What are you doing here?”

“Mytho wanted to see Rue.” 

Fakir pushed on the wall, opening the door, watching as Mytho rushed in, Fakir looked through the viewing vent as he wrapped his arms around Rue, peppering her cheeks with kisses. 

Ahiru smiled at them, but turned back to the vent, and surrounded by dim lit, she could barely make out his features. She bit her lip and stood by the wall, her hand pressing against it. “I choose you.”

 

AHIRU GRINNED AS SHE watched Rue and Mytho run out of the chapel, hand in hand, as rice rained around them. 

Everything was worth it, all of it, just to see the way they lit up as they got their happily ever after. 

Almost everything…

Ahiru looked back inside, to Autor, sitting still in the pew, his back straight, unmoving. Something was wrong with him, she just had to figure out what. 

“Princess Odette.” 

Ahiru tore her attention away from Autor and to the servant that held out his arm. “To the reception?”

“Yes, Your Grace, I was sent to escort-”

“I’ll escort her.” 

Ahiru smiled up at Fakir, almost placing himself between her and the servant, he held out his arm and she took it, giving the servant an apologetic smile. 

“It was wonderful, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, it was.” 

“Now they’ll be starting the preparations for my wedding.” Ahiru said solemnly. “I-”

“You don’t have to do anything.” He told her, his voice soft and low, he leaned his head towards her. “You don’t have to marry him.”

“He doesn’t want to marry me, either.” She looked back over her shoulder, just as Autor emerged from the chapel, even from a distance she could see his eyes; dark and cloudy, as if a great storm lay just underneath. “But, in the end, you’ll still be here, and I’ll-”

Ahiru stopped just before the door, and Fakir was gracious enough to stop with her. 

“I don’t want to go back.”

“You don’t have to.” 

Ahiru took a deep breath and started walking again, the ballroom was in chaos, the celebration was large. Mytho, the favorite, the Prince of the people, was happily married, it was a great reason for a smile to grace the faces of all in attendance. Even Ahiru couldn’t stop her smile from growing as she stepped into the room. 

Rue and Mytho had already started dancing, and many joined them, some ate, some drank, and it was perhaps the least formal ball that had occurred under the eyes of the First King and his Queen, but as Ahiru looked up to the sky, their smiles were still present and she knew that they were happy for their descendants just as everyone else was. 

Fakir walked her to the center of the room, and Ahiru never let go of him, but when they stepped out onto the dance floor there was great clap of thunder and everything came to a screeching halt. 

The day had been clear, the sky blue, only a few clouds passed over the sun, but now it poured heavily, and the room was dark, save for the mere seconds where flashes of lightning filled the sky. 

“A bad omen.” Raven said, loud enough to be heard over the storm. “An ill omen, a curse on this day.” His eyes rested on Rue, and soon others followed, until their attention was drawn elsewhere. 

With a crash of thunder, and a bolt of lightning, the doors to the ballroom where thrown open, and with heavy, mechanical steps, Autor walked into the midst of the party. 

Ahiru’s grip on Fakir’s arm tightened, and his other arm came around her, but she couldn’t deny that as the sea of guests parted, of nobles, servants, and peasants, and Autor stalked forward, that his eyes, now filled with horrible emotion, was aimed for her. 

Ahiru could barely breathe, but her grip lessened, and when Autor wordlessly asked for her hand, she let him take it.  

She looked back uncertainly at Fakir, who seemed just as lost, just as confused. 

They stepped onto the floor, suddenly empty, all pushing back and out of his way, even Rue and Mytho, and it pained Ahiru’s heart to think she was stealing from what should have been their day. 

Once he reached the middle, just under the gaze of the sun and moon, Autor pulled her roughly to him, entrapping her hand in a vice grip, he wrapped his fingers around her waist and she couldn’t stop herself from squirming away from his touch. 

He didn’t even have to give the command as a deadly march was started up by the band, and he lead her in a dance that felt much more like war than it ought to.

Everytime she peered up at him through her lashes, she saw his eyes pinned to her, dark and turbulent, and his expression scared her, as if he could barely disguise his hate; his disgust. 

Ahiru turned her head out to the crowd, looking for Fakir among them, and with every twist and turn, she found him again, and when Autor caught on, keeping his body between them, Fakir stalked the inside rim of guests, making sure that he was always able to see Ahiru. 

“Look at me.” 

Ahiru gasped, she didn’t think he would say anything, and as she did, obeying his command, she saw the pure malice there. 

“You will not suffer me a fool, if you are to be my wife, I won’t have you looking at another man.”

“I wasn’t-”

“Don’t lie!” His grip tightened, her hand in agony, and her waist surely couldn’t take much more of it. 

Ahiru shook her head. “I would never do that to you.” 

“Don’t think that I don’t know, don’t think that I don’t know how you feel about me, how the world feels about me.” 

Ahiru started breathing heavily, his steps started going faster, but it was less of a dance now, and more of a chance to stand above her; to keep her trapped at his side. 

“The way you’ve looked at me, even how you look at me now, it is the way everyone has looked at me. But you’re wrong. I have a chance to prove myself, at the Königsspiel, to prove to all that I will be a great King.”

“No.” Ahiru set her eyes, and squeezed his hand as hard as he squeezed hers. “That’s not the real you. That’s not what you want.”

“And what do you know of what I want?”

“I saw you, the real you, in the library, what do you really want? To be King, or to go out into the world and percure knowledge?” 

Ahiru could feel her ankles starting to wobble. She couldn’t keep this up, this harsh dance, it was too much for her. 

“I was born to be King, and King I will be; either with you by my side as my Queen, or your stay here will end. Promise me, then, that you will marry me.”

Ahiru’s eyes widened, there was no way she could promise that, if she did, she wouldn’t be able to break her promise. 

She tried to find Fakir again, but she was starting to get dizzy. 

“Promise me.” 

“I- I can’t-”

“You will.” He tugged her arm into the air, forcing her to spin in small, tight circles, the room turning round and round until there was nothing but splotches of color. He stopped, suddenly, he snaked his arm around he waist and threw her into a dip, her head crashing to the floor.  

She let out a cry of pain, “I promise! I promise.” Autor pulled her up, his hand growing lighter. “I promise I’ll marry the King of Bavaria.” 

He let go of her and stepped back, he bowed before walking away, parting the crowd before it swallowed him. 

Her head couldn’t stop spinning, and when she tried to step away, her foot caught the trailing edge of her skirt and she fell. 

“Ahiru!” Someone shouted, and she swore it was Fakir. 

There was a crack of thunder, but it was duller, and the flash was dimmer, the storm had passed, but her head ached. 

She felt a hand on her cheek and looked up, she smiled. “Fakir.” She said. 

“Are you alright?”

She tried to nod, but it made everything hurt. “No.” She said.

“Of course not, idiot, can you stand?” There was a look of deep concern in his eyes.  

“Maybe. Am I standing?” 

“No.”

Suddenly, she felt arms around her, lifting her off the floor.

“Ahiru!”

Ahiru opened her eyes and saw Rue coming to her side. 

“What happened? Why did he-?”

“I don’t know.” Ahiru smiled and shook her head, her eyes were growing heavy, her head still throbbing. 

“I’ll take her to her room, if anything happens I’ll tell you.” 

Rue started shaking her head, but Ahiru reached out for her. 

“Rue? I’m sorry I ruined your day.”

“What? Oh, no!” Rue took her hand. “You did no such thing, it was that nasty Autor. Go upstairs, go get some rest, we can talk tomorrow and I’ll tell you everything you missed.”

“Will you save me a slice of cake?” 

“Of course.” Rue smiled, brushing back the bangs that covered Ahiru’s eyes. “What did you think breakfast was going to be?” 

Ahiru smiled, she closed her eyes and leaned against Fakir’s chest. 

Fakir made his way through the crowd, they didn’t part for him like they did Autor, all wanted to get out of his way, but nearly everyone wanted to see the Princess, to see what had really happened to her, but no one asked. 

No, no one dared, not when Fakir turned his sharp eyes on anyone who go too close, who tried to touch her, the only one it didn’t work on was Edel.

Edel followed him out of the reception, up the stairs of the ballroom and tried her best to bargain for the princess cradled in his arms.

“She is my ward.” Edel reasoned, her arms held aloft.

Fakir didn’t say a word, only walking past her, holding Ahiru tighter. 

Edel chased after him. “You don’t understand, you can’t just take her.” 

“Watch me.”

Edel paused, perhaps she was too late, she had hoped to keep them apart, at least until the Königsspiel was ran, and Fakir won, then they could fall sweetly, and there would be nothing to keep them apart, not betrothals, or Drosselmeyer, or even her. Now she could see, she had failed, she never should have allowed them to even meet, to even speak to each other. 

All she could do now was keep them safe. 

“Fakir wait. There’s danger here.”

Fakir stopped, he didn’t even look back as he said: “Yes, I know.” 

“The powers Drosselmeyer possesses, the powers that you possess.” 

“How do you know-?” 

“A long time ago, before the Oak Tree was cut down, I was her keeper.” Edel stepped forward, she had his attention now. “Every generation, she releases a power, a power to control reality, to control the very souls of people. Someone catches it, or asks for it, and some use it for good, and some for their own selfish purposes. Sometimes a King, sometimes a poor man. However, she… foresaw it coming to this, and she swears that the ending will be happy, but… Never before has someone held their hand over another as long as Drosselmeyer has kept his hand over the Queen. Never before has it been passed down.” 

Fakir’s right hand flinched. 

“I tried to protect her, but I can see that it is not up to me anymore. It is up to you.” Edel placed her hand on Ahiru’s shoulder, asleep. “I know what you’re capable of, Fakir. Don’t fail me.”

Fakir nodded, he didn’t say a word as he walked past Edel, and he missed the way she sighed in relief. 

Ahiru was placed in something soft, softer than the floor she had fallen to, and it felt like she was flying amongst the clouds, and perhaps she was, perhaps she had wings and could soar to the greatest height, but she came back down when a hand touched the back of her head, causing a shock of pain. 

“Ow!” 

“Sorry.” 

Ahiru blinked and looked at Fakir, sitting next to her on her bed. She looked out the window, the storm had lessened, but the rain was still there, soft and gentle, but no matter how gentle it was, it reminded her, nonetheless, of the sea, of the summer before, of the great storm. 

“Hey. Are you feeling better?”

Ahiru nodded, but that tugged at the knot in the back of her skull and she flinched. 

“You should drink something.” 

Fakir stood, walking away, but she fell back, closing her eyes and letting herself fall. 

She opened her eyes to sun, and when she looked around her room, Fakir was nowhere to be found. 

Ahiru lifted her hand and found it to be bruised, she didn’t want to know what became of her waist. 

She looked out the window, blue and clear, but not for long. 

This was just the eye of the storm, and soon, it would come back full force. 

Then she remembered. 

She sat up in her bed, her face flush and her eyes wide. 

She promised Autor she would marry the future King of Bavaria. 

She didn’t break her promises. 

And if Autor won, she would have to marry him. 

But…

If Fakir won, then she-

“No, no, no! It’s not like that!” She shouted to no one in particular.

Her hands cupped her face, burning under her fingertips, she couldn’t help but think…

Would that really be so bad?

Chapter Text

THERE WAS A STORY told about the forest, about the first King, that he won not because of his skill, his strength, his sheer intelligence; but the respect he carried for the creatures of the forest.  

Indeed, he needed everything to make it through: to answer the riddles, and beat the monsters that guarded the forest. But when he reached the center, he stood in a clearing, with the sun beating down on his face, and when he looked forward, he saw the beginnings of a sapling, just sprouting from the earth. 

The birth of a story. 

 

AHIRU STOOD AT THE top of the palace steps, her grin all too wide as she watched the black carriage that had brought the Duke Raven to their doorstep being loaded with the luggage he and Mr. Cat had brought with them. 

Uzura tugged at Ahiru’s hand, and she bent down so Uzura could whisper in her ear. 

“Is the bad man leaving now, zura?”

Ahiru nodded and gave a reassuring squeeze to Uzura’s hand. “Yes, and he won’t ever bother us again.”

“Ahem.”

Ahiru stood straight and was face to face with Raven himself. 

“Your… grace.” He said, as if he could barely say the word. He gave her a stifled bow, a heavy glare that never left her face. 

And when she peeled her hand away from Uzura’s to take up her skirt and offer him a proper curtsy, she gave him a sweet smile, her eyes never leaving his face, either. 

He straightened, and cleared his throat, moving away until he stood in front of Rue. 

Ahiru’s nose crinkled when he bent down to whisper something in Rue’s ear. 

“It was a pleasure to meet you, your Grace.” Mr Cat said, he gave her a low bow. 

Ahiru picked up her skirts again, her standing leg only wobbling a little, and she gave him an awkward smile. “It- it was nice to meet you as well!” 

Ahiru’s hands returned to her side, but when she reached out to take Uzura’s hand again, she found something strange. 

Uzura was gone. 

Ahiru took a sharp breath, her head jutting to the side to find that the small girl was nowhere to be seen. 

“Oh no.” She whispered under her breath, and looked back to where the Duke and Mr. Cat where still making their good-byes, it would be rude to leave. 

Ahiru would have to stay put until the two men were tucked into the carriage, rolling away from the castle. 

Ahiru bit her lip and let out a low whimper, she bounced on her feet and wondered if it was ruder to run off or to appear so impatient. 

Fortunately it was Rue who stood next to her and not someone… Meaner.

“Ahiru, what’s the matter?” Rue asked, leaning slightly towards her. 

“Nothing!” Ahiru gave a trifling laugh, her eyes flashing to where Uzura once stood, and the only direction she could have run off without anyone noticing. Ahiru let her eyes travel up until they met the city walls, and then-

“Oh.” Ahiru whined, her face contorted into a grimace. 

The forest. 

Ahiru continued making faces as the Duke drew out his goodbyes, and Mr. Cat slowly travesered down the stairs. 

“Are you alright?” Rue tried again, the tips of her fingers reaching out for Ahiru’s.

“I just forgot something! And I can’t leave until-” Ahiru let out a baleful moan.

“Of course.” Rue gave Ahiru’s hand a squeeze. “Raven!” She shouted, earning the attention of everyone that stood around her, she stepped out from beside Mytho. “I will see you in one month’s time, in Rothenberg.”

Raven snapped his mouth shut and sent her a barely concealed glare, before he bowed lowly, and descended down the stairs. 

Ahiru was hopping on her toes, oh how far had Uzura gotten? She was quick, and even when she didn’t have such a large head start, she was able to get leagues ahead. 

Uzura was probably in the forest by now. 

Ahiru jumped when she heard the sound of the carriage doors shut, and with the crack of the whip she hoisted up her skirts and turned toward the western gates, hoping that Uzura hadn’t gotten eaten by some forest dwelling monster creature. 

“Oh geez, oh geez, oh geez,” She chanted under her breath. “Oh geez, oh geez, oh geez, oh geez. Oh geez, oh geez, oh geez!” 

Ahiru looked around her, finding only the faces of adults, of farmers and sellers, but not her little Uzura. She started running again, and almost didn’t hear someone calling her name.

“Ahiru!” 

Someone grabbed her elbow, and she stumbled, tripping over the edge of her dress, but whoever grabbed her didn’t let her go, took hold of her other arm as well, bringing her closer.

“Ahiru.”

Ahiru gasped, and looked up, unable to stop the sigh of relief that passed her lips. “Oh Fakir, you have to help me. It’s Uzura, she-”

“Ran off?”

Ahiru smiled, still panting from her dash. “Yeah, how’d you know?”

There was a small smile on his lips and he shook his head. “I still don’t trust you with children.”

She pouted, but despite her best efforts she couldn’t stop the grin that pushed at her lips. “I think she’s going to the forest, we have to stop her.”

Any trace of amusement left Fakir’s features and looked over to the wall. “Go back to the palace, I’ll make sure she’s safe.” Fakir let her go and made his way to the forest, his hand checking his belt, his hidden dagger still tucked in place.

Ahiru pouted again, and stuck her hands on her hips before she chased after him. “No! I can’t just-”

“Ahiru, the forest is dangerous, you can’t just-”

“I don’t care how dangerous everyone claims the forest to be!” Ahiru pushed past Fakir, her long legs breaking out into a sprint. “I’m not letting Uzura go in there by herself!” 

Fakir groaned, but she heard his heavy footsteps. 

Ahiru pursed her lips when she saw the door that let out to the fields and behind that the forest swinging, as if someone didn’t close it properly. 

The mistake only a child could make.

“Ahiru, please.” Fakir tried one last time as they closed the door behind them. “Go back, I’ll make sure Uzura is safe.”

Ahiru shook her head, her feet trodding over the fields. “I’ll only go back when I have Uzura.” 

Ahiru kept her eyes on the treeline, where the wildflowers disappeared and gave way to the towering trees, their branches casting shadows on the floor below them, it sent a shiver down her spine. But…

There was something inside of the forest, something that called to her, pulling at her to come closer, to come inside, to lay down on the warm earth and stay for a while. 

Ahiru stopped, her toes edging the last bit of grass. 

“I won’t tell you to go, but-” Fakir turned his face away, a bright blush covering his cheeks as he offered her his outstretched hand. “Don’t get lost.”

Ahiru looked at the hand, her eyes traveled up his arm, his shoulder, his neck and she tried to meet his eyes, but they were turned away. He blinked, as if he could feel her gaze on him, and turned. 

She smiled gently, and lifted her hand, her fingers sliding over his palm until she slipped into his grasp, fingers interlocking. 

A sharp breeze made her shiver, blew the loose strands of hair into her eyes, and made her wish she wore something warmer, but soon she was stepping inside the forest and she hoped the trees were dense enough to block the wind. 

One of the things that Ahiru would never get used to was how tall the trees were. 

They reached the sky, she was sure their tops scraped the clouds, and their branches where never ending, it was hard to tell which belonged to which tree. They overlapped and wove into each other, almost blocking the sun entirely. 

That was another thing, with every step, she felt warmer, as if the sharp winds that rattled the castle were warded off by the thick trees, and as if the treetops parted the clouds so that there was only sun. 

She closed her eyes and sighed, the sunlight pouring down through the canopy.

It was nothing like the ocean. 

“Ahiru, I see her.” 

Ahiru jolted away from her musings, from her sunbathing and set her eyes on the well worn path they traveled. 

He was right, their path lead right to a clearing where Uzura ran around and played with something that slithered around in the grass. 

Strange, she thought, that there would be such a well worn path in the forest where no one ever walked. Completely bare of rocks and branches, of tree roots or fallen leaves. The path was smooth, and the thin sole of her slipper, made for leisure, not for walking, could feel every pebble that poked and prodded at her feet, but here, it felt like she was walking on the paved paths of the palace garden. 

She looked behind her. Her eyes widened, and she gasped sharply when she only saw a wall of trees and branches, the well trodden path gone, and replaced with wildness. 

She swallowed hard, wondering if Fakir realized it too. 

Her grip on his hand tightened. 

But when they stepped into the clearing, Ahiru blinked as her eyes adjusted to the sun, unburdened by clouds and shining so brightly down on her. She smiled, and hummed contendly. 

“Uzura!” She called out. 

Uzura paused, out of breath and laughing hard, and what appeared to by a giant salamander rose up on its hind legs. Uzura laughed as she ran towards Ahiru and Fakir, she grabbed their hands and pulled them into the clearing.

“You’re here, zura!” She cried out, clapping her little hands together. 

Fakir sighed, but Ahiru saw the twitch of his lip, he bent down and placed his hand on Uzura’s shoulder. “You should know better than to run off like that.”

Uzura pouted, she bowed her head and stuck out her bottom lip. “I’m sorry, zura.”

Ahiru knelt down beside Fakir. “What were you thinking? Going off on your own?”

“I’m not alone, zura!” 

Ahiru hoped she didn’t mean the salamander, which had gained some bravery and waddled over to her sniffing at her silk covered thigh, and climbing up on her. She giggled, and placed her hand on it’s head. “Is this your friend, Uzura?”

“Careful.” Fakir warned, his watchful eyes on the creature.

“Yes, zura! He’s been lonely, so I had to come and cheer him up, zura!” Uzura smiled proudly, before wrapping her arms around the salamander’s neck and pulling him close. 

“We should go, Uzura.” Fakir said. “Before-” He was stumped, even though he knew what was really in the forest, he couldn’t see the danger. “Before something happens.”

“Wait!” Uzura cried, “We can’t leave, zura!”

Fakir sighed and tilted his head. “Uzura, we can’t stay here.”

She crossed her arms. “Why not, zura?”

“It’s dangerous.”

“How, zura!” 

Yes, how? Ahiru wondered, she looked at the green grass of this perfect little meadow, only marred by a clean tree stump, the sun warm on her skin like it hadn’t been for weeks.

Uzura reached for Fakir’s hand and started to pull at it.

“Use your words.” He said patiently. 

“Come here, zura!” She demanded. “I want to show you something, zura.” 

Fakir shook his head, a soft expression taking over his countenance. 

He stood and let Uzura pull him to the tree stump. 

Ahiru stood too, sending a look to the salamander before she followed them.

Uzura put her hands on the stump, and drummed it, before resting her cheek on it. 

“Careful, you’ll get a splinter.” Fakir warned, but his voice was still soft. 

Ahiru knelt down and leaned on the stump, she laid her arm across it, the tips of her fingers only reaching the center of the rings, she rested her cheek on her arm. 

Fakir was wary, and Ahiru watched his face become too serious as he stared at the tree, as if he was being entranced by it. 

He reached out, his hand landing on the center, at the very first ring.

“Okay.” Uzura said, peeling herself away from the stump. “We can go now, zura.” 

Uzura turned on the heel of her foot and marched away.

Ahiru looked up at Fakir, and he met her gaze. 

There was something about this place, and Ahiru just couldn’t put her finger on it. 

 

AHIRU STRETCHED HER ARMS above her head as she finished writing in her diary, closing the latch and locking it before returning the key to her locket. 

There was something different about the forest, and she couldn’t figure it out. 

Compared to the sea, the constant breeze and the sun reflecting off the water, the sound of the waves hitting the shore, the gulls that flew in the air, she could close her eyes and it was like she was there, the chilling water lapping at her feet. 

The forest… In the forest there was a calm, everything was still, as if it was sleeping. 

She was comforted when she thought about the sea, no matter what it had done to her, she still loved it with every ounce of her heart, and as she retired, laying down in bed, her body rocked as if she were floating on the waves. 

The forest was like that, too. 

She could feel the warm sun on her cheeks, even though it was nearing winter, and she felt a welcomed peace that surrounded her, as if the forest had accepted her and took her in when the sea had cast her out. 

Ahiru yawned and turned to her side, she would have to figure out what it was about the forest that made her feel so safe, so…

Wanted. 

 

A WEEK HAD PASSED since she and Fakir had saved Uzura from the forest, and she sat at her window sill, an untouched bowl of birdseed sat on the edge, and she almost didn’t care. 

As much as she missed the birds, her eyes turned to the forest and she sighed, it was calling to her again, pulling at her heart and beckoning her to come back. 

She wondered if that was the danger of the forest, so welcoming it tricks you to stay forever, until whatever lurked inside decided it was hungry enough to eat you. 

Pique and Lillie came in everyday to her staring out the window. 

Pique shuddered and let out a loud groan. “It’s freezing in here!”

“Ahiru! You’ll catch your death!” Lillie cried, although it sounded as if she did want Ahiru to catch her death. 

“Pique.” Ahiru asked as she changed her, pulling today’s dress over her head. “Do you know what’s in the forest?”

Pique scoffed. “No one knows what’s in the forest, what everyone does know is that if you go in too deep, you don’t come back out.”

“She’s right! That’s why Rodrick came back with a broken leg.”

“Who?” Ahiru’s eyebrows knit together.

“The boy from the Baursspiel.” Pique said. “Wasn’t it so brave of Fakir to go in and save him?”

“Yes! And our little Ahiru went in too! How stupid of you!” 

“Yeah why’d you do that?”

Ahiru pursed her lips. “I was worried.”

Ahiru thought back to the Baursspiel, about the boy she and Fakir saved, his broken leg, was it because he had gone too deep? 

Then why was she still alive? 

Pique and Lillie didn’t stay long, they had a lot of duties this month, preparing for a wedding and another ball. 

Ahiru sighed, alone and cold in her room, even with the window shut securely. 

Everyone else seemed… busy. 

Pique and Lillie had their maidly duties, and Mytho and Rue, well, Ahiru didn’t really want to think about what they were up to lately. 

Even Autor stayed crammed up in the library, some book in his hand, a last ditch effort to cram as much knowledge into his skull before he had to run.

Ahiru knew she should have been doing something like that, studying or whatever, but that didn't stop her from wandering around the castle, still trying to learn all she could about it, where things were and the best ways to get to them.

That is, if she was allowed to stay in the palace. 

She wanted to stay here, by Fakir’s side, and show him her support.

Rue and Mytho would be gone, not too far, not so far that it would take months for them to get her letters, and she had no idea what would happen to Autor, if he would stay here, or if he would go out into the world in the pursuit of knowledge. 

Fakir would be King, and she would be…

Ahiru pouted, it wasn’t too often that she had to think about her future, about her place in life. 

For a long time, it was so certain what she would be, who she would be. 

It changed, it all changed in one night, because the next morning she was betrothed to a Prince. Now she was betrothed to a different Prince, and he wasn’t even really the Prince, and the real Prince was a Blacksmith, and he promised her that she could stay here. 

Ahiru looked up, she had stopped paying attention to where she was walking and found herself walking down a great hallway, tall and wide and covered in larger than life portraits. 

Except for the first. 

She looked at it, and it was so old, painted hundreds of years ago, it was cracked and ruined, but not from abuse. It was hard to make out, but she saw two people. 

A man and a woman. 

“The first King and Queen.”

Ahiru gasped, she turned on her heel and smiled up at Fakir. “What are you doing here?”

Fakir looked away from her, “I like to come look at the paintings sometimes.”

“His name was Lohengrin, right?” Ahiru looked back at the painting, if she squinted, she swore the King’s eyes were green. “Like yours-”

“Shh!” Fakir shook his head, an airy chuckle escaping him. “Yes, that was his name.”

“What was her’s?” Ahiru looked to the Queen, the only certain feature Ahiru could pick out was the length of her hair, reaching past her waist. 

“No one knows. It was lost to time.”

Ahiru pouted. “No one wrote it down?” 

Fakir shrugged. “Something like that.” He came up beside her and offered her his elbow. “I can tell you about the rest, if you’d like.”

Ahiru took his arm, “I’d love to.”

Fakir showed her each and every portrait, he gave her their names, what they did, who was the bloodline and who had married in and from where, who had run the Königsspiel, and how long they reigned. 

“And this.” Fakir came to a stop in front of the most recent painting. “This is Queen Mythra Helmia and King Thomas Ecke Drosselmeyer. The Poor King.” He held his tongue on the title his mother had earned. 

The Dead Queen. 

Fakir looked out the side of his eye as Ahiru tilted her head, her eyes examining the King and Queen, their golden crowns and rich attire. 

“I’m sorry.” She whispered. 

Fakir shook his head. 

“It must be horrible, knowing that your parents didn’t just die, but were killed. And!- And I know your mother is- is still alive, but…”

Fakir placed his hand on hers, resting comfortably on the crook of his elbow. “I know.”

Ahiru smiled up at him, before standing up on her tip toes and pulling his arm until she could whisper in his ear. “You look so much like them, so much like your father.” Her nose pressed to his cheek. “Do- do you want to go back to the forest?” 

He laughed quietly, a short huff of air out his nose that was barely perceptible as he turned his head to her ear. “Yes.” 

She broke out into a grin and they went back into the forest together. 

Their feet finding the same, trodden path as before that lead them to the meadow with the same tree stump sticking out of the ground. 

“Did you notice something… off about this place?” Ahiru asked, she closed her eyes and spread out her arms, wishing that her sleeves were gone so that her arms could experience the same warmth the skin of her cheeks and neck did. 

Fakir took her hand. “Yes.” He said, not surprised when she started to run around him, he smiled and started to spin, until he stopped, until he pulled her closer and she rammed into his chest. He wrapped his arms around her and she giggled.

“I feel like… like I could stay here for forever.” She lifted a hand, fingering the fabric of his shirt, pulling at the spot just above his heart. “Do you think that’s what they mean? When they say the forest is dangerous?”

Fakir shook his head. “I’m sure it’s not.” 

Ahiru hummed, she leaned her head against his shoulder and under her ear she could hear his heartbeat.

“We should go back.” He said softly, his voice barely above a whisper.

Ahiru groaned, she was getting used to the feeling of his hands on her back, holding her closer, she didn’t want to leave. “If we go back I have to talk to Autor.”

His grip tightened around her briefly before it lessened and he pulled away. “Is that really so bad?” 

Ahiru pouted. “It is when I don’t want to talk to him.” 

“Who do you want to talk to, instead?” 

Ahiru closed her eyes, but there was only one face she could conjure in her mind’s eye. “You.”

“Ahiru-” He paused and cleared his throat, he stepped away from her until she was completely out of his reach, out of his warmth. “We should go back.”

She didn’t argue this time. 

 

IT WASN’T HARD TO  convince Fakir to go back to the forest, she asked him nearly every day to take her there, so often that just the touch of her hand on his, and the look in her eyes told him what she wanted. 

It was obvious that she enjoyed the forest, and he wasn’t entirely sure why, what drew her here, what made her come back everyday, but maybe it was similar to what he felt. 

The feeling of belonging somewhere.

It was also nice, that in those moments they were able to escape to the forest, they weren’t bothered. 

Not by Edel.

Not by Autor.

The Bookmen, or even Drosselmeyer.

He was able to sit by her side, and stare. 

Stare as she leaned back on her hands, her face turned to the sun, uncaring if it marred her skin, the concern of a Lady, but not of Ahiru. 

He knew her, and yet there was still so much he didn’t know about her. 

He wondered if she felt the same. 

“Although I don’t think it’s a good idea to send an inexperienced sailor out on a three month fishing trip, a week or two out at sea to give them an idea of what it’s like should be fine, and then slowly build up.” She laughed. “I remember, my father hired this young boy from town who had no idea how to fish at all and his first trip was two and a half months, the poor boy came back greener than a-”

He liked listening to her talk, he would lay down beside her, and close his eyes; he would reach out his hand to touch her, his knuckles brushing her hand, her arm, her thigh, her back, or, on the days where her hair hung around her like a waterfall, he would twirl his fingers into it.

It was a relief, as if after weeks of keeping his hands to himself, the smallest touch would ignite his skin, and give him life. 

“What was your father’s name again?” He would ask, and she would give her answer, barely above a whisper and it made him wonder what had happened to her father, or if she just missed him after being away for so long with no promise that she would see him again. 

He tried not to get jealous that she grew up with her father, that she knew him so well. It wasn’t fair to her. 

Sometimes Ahiru would get tired of sitting, she would stand and reach for his hand, and when he opened his eyes, looking up at her beaming face, her outstretched hand, he was breathless. 

“Where are we going?”

“I don’t know!” Ahiru would laugh and shrug, and he was able to forget his pressing future.

The heavy weight that rested on his shoulders was taken away, and he was free.

Fakir forgot that he was young, he felt old, the responsibilities of an entire state on his shoulders, he had people he needed to take care of, he had a race to run, his life was on the line.

Ahiru tugged him along, no matter where they went, the forest parted for them, taking them to someplace new, a new wonder, something he didn’t think was possible. What was worse was that he couldn’t remember a single one, only the way Ahiru smiled when they came across it, her entire face lit up and it made his heart beat too fast. 

Today, she held his hand, leading him down a new road, and they came out in a strange place. 

The others where grand, a crystal lake that stretched for miles, a deep cavern filled with crystals that glowed in the dark, a wide meadow filled with white deer, but today they were taken down a slim path. 

That lead out to a pond. 

Fakir wasn’t very impressed, but Ahiru gasped in delight and she fell to her knees, the tips of her fingers dipping into the water that glistened in the sunlight. 

Her shoulders jumped and she pulled her hands back.

“What?” He asked, taking her hands into his to look at them, to see if the water was toxic or something worse. 

But her fingers were perfect, soft and slim, he didn’t understand her reaction. 

“It’s cold.” She said, her voice a whisper. 

Fakir smiled, and shook his head, he dipped his own hand in, and she was right, it felt like he had stuck his hand in an ice bath. 

He looked at his hand, the oddest sensation overtaking his skin, it tingled and he could have sworn he had a burn on his pinkie. 

“Hang on.” He said, and Ahiru turned her head to look at him. Fakir stuck his entire hand in the water, and when he pulled back it was like his hand was new. The callouses that covered his palm were gone. 

Ahiru took his hand in hers, she traced the lines of his palm, running up his fingers and thumb. 

Fakir took out his dagger.

“What are you doing?” Ahriu asked, and gasped when he made a small cut on his palm. “Fakir-” 

It was cold, and his palm tingled, mostly where the fresh cut was, but when he pulled away there wasn’t even a scar.

“It’s magic.” She said, bringing his palm close to her face so as to further examine it. She leaned her head against his shoulder. “This is my favorite, I think.”

“Favorite what?” He asked, trying in vain to push down the scarlet blush that rushed to his cheeks. 

“My favorite spot the forest has shown us.”

He scoffed, leaning back on his hands and she scooted closer to him, her knees pressing against his legs, her shoulder jabbing his ribs, her forehead resting in the crook of his neck. “Yesterday we saw a cavern with rocks that glowed, underground streams and rivers, and this is your favorite.”

She nodded, humming her affirment. “It's quiet here.” 

He turned his head slightly, so that her head was tucked under his jaw. “I like to think the other places were, as well.” 

“They were, but there was just so much to take in.” Her eyelashes fluttered against the exposed skin of his neck. “There’s something nice about the simplicity of here.” 

She was right, he knew, there was something simple about this place, about the pond that lived in solitude, about the water that trickled in from a seemly creek. There wasn’t much to it, and when you came from a place where with every lie came ten more to cover it up, it was relaxing.

It was plain.

It was something they needed.

“Ahiru?” He asked, the only sound that surrounded them was the water falling over rocks into the pool.

“Hmm?” She responded, he could feel it against his shoulder. 

“Why don’t you want to go back?”

He felt her stiffen, before she let out a sigh and softened. 

“There’s nothing left for me.”

Fakir thought of her father, surely…

“Why did you do this?” He asked.

“Do what?”

Fakir reached for her hand, resting on her thigh, tapping at her fingers until she moved, and let him intertwine their fingers. “Why did you come here? Why would you pretend to be a princess? Do you know how dangerous that was?”

She curled in on herself, and consequently, on him. Her knees resting on his thigh, and she brought his hand to her stomach, but only because it was caught with hers. She started to fiddle with his fingers. 

“If I didn’t go, they would fall into financial ruin.” She reasoned, but her voice was small. 

“It’s more than that.” He said, pulling his hand away from hers, he placed it under her chin and lifted her head from its place on his shoulder so he could look into her eyes. He kept forgetting how blue they were. “That wasn’t your responsibility. You know that.” 

Her eyes avoided his, and they landed on the crystalline water. 

He ran his thumb over her cheek bone. “You can tell me.”

Ahiru shook her head and smiled at him instead. “I know I can. I can tell you anything.”

“But you won’t tell me everything.”

She pouted, and he wanted to run his thumb over her lips, to wipe it away. 

“I- I can’t.” She shook her head, and put her head back in his neck. “Not yet.”

He wrapped his arms around her, drawing her close, she almost sat in his lap, he nodded. “Okay.”

“But I don’t have to go back?”

He let out an unsteady breath. “No, you don’t, unless… You want to.” 

“No.” She said, her hands fisting into his shirt. “No, I- I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to live there - or have to live there- ever again.” 

There was a pain in her heart that she was still grieving about, something he had yet to figure out. But he would in time. 

Even if it took all her life to be ready to tell him, he would wait for her. 

 

AHIRU HAD YET TO get in trouble for spending her afternoons in the forest with Fakir, although she was sure she would burst if she didn’t tell someone soon, she wasn’t good at keeping secrets. 

Every morning Pique and Lillie came into her room and she would almost tell them, but they still thought she was a princess, and running around in the forest with the son of the local blacksmith wasn’t a very princess-like thing to do. 

She smiled politely instead while they gossiped. 

She wanted to tell Rue, but everytime she saw her friend, she was with Mytho, her hand latched to his arm as they walked around the palace halls. Ahiru didn’t want to interrupt them, but it didn’t stop Rue and Mytho from noticing her, smiling and waving, inviting her on a walk. 

Ahiru knew better, however, than to be a third wheel for a newly wed couple.

Miss. Edel came to her mind as well, Ahiru trusted her and saw her as a… 

Well, Ahiru decided she wouldn’t let herself grow attached to a mother figure, and as much as she loved Miss. Edel, she didn’t feel like getting scorned again. 

Ahiru penned it into her diary, instead.

Her diary was filled with everything, every emotion she had ever felt, every story she could remember about living in Arnis, all her heart breaks, all the happiness it had given her… and all the happiness it had taken away. 

She appreciated that the diary came with a lock, she hides it well, but she was still filled with fear that someone would find it, that she would be found out. She put the key back in its place around her neck, in the red locket. 

Ahiru looked out her window, it was an impossibly dreary day. 

But not in the forest. 

No, in the forest it would be bright and sunny and-

“Ahiru?” there was a knock at her door and she sighed. 

She put the diary in the vanity drawer, she would store it more properly later. 

She smiled politely at Edel when she opened the door, but it faded when she noticed the expression Edel wore. 

“What’s wrong?”

Miss. Edel sighed, she strode into the room and shut the door behind her. “You are, my dear.”

“What?” Ahiru felt her heart quicken, she looked back at her vanity. Did someone find it? Would she have to leave? 

Fakir said-

“The Bookmen are… concerned about how often you disappear.” 

“Oh.” Ahiru sighed, she felt relieved, but there was something else. 

“They don’t…” Edel cleared her throat. “Based on how well Mytho and Rue get along, they’re concerned about the happiness of their future King.”

“Oh.”

“So, starting tomorrow you’ll have your lunches with Autor in private and-”

“What?”

Edel pushed on. “And then you will have a daily walk with him, around the gardens when the weather permits, and around the halls when it doesn’t.” 

Ahiru swallowed hard and started shaking her head. 

“Ahiru, I know-” Edel’s eyebrows drew together, there was a look of sorrow that fell upon her face. “I know that you don’t love him, but please, just for a little longer, and then-” Edel raised a hand and pet Ahiru’s cheek. 

“Miss. Edel, I don’t want to lie anymore.” 

“I know.” Edel nodded. “Just two weeks, and then the Königsspiel-”

“Will be run, I know.” Ahiru closed her eyes and shook her head. 

 

“CAN’T YOU RUN IT faster?” 

She felt his chest rumble beneath her, she still didn’t know how they had gotten here.

“No, unfortunately we can’t.” 

Ahiru closed her eyes, her ear listening to his heart, his soothing breathing, his arm around her back, keeping her there, his hand twisting in her hair.

“So I have to have lunch with Autor?” She whined, she wondered if it was a good idea, to bring that blanket and then lay down next to him like she did. 

“I thought you were starting to like him.” He said, his breathe ruffling her hair, and she climbed higher until her head was under his chin. 

Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to turn onto her side to talk to him, letting him thread his arm around her waist, or placing her hand on his torso and picking at his shirt. 

She sighed. Her lips twisting, “He’s still not nice. I mean, every once in a while he’s okay, but most of the time he has a stick up his butt.” 

Fakir’s chest rumbled again, and his hand moved, pulling the hair out of her face and tucking it behind her ear, although she liked to think it was because he wanted to touch her skin.

“It’ll be two hours a day, at most.” He reasoned, and it was sound reasoning, it was such a short amount of time, practically nothing, but she knew it would drag on.

“Can’t we stay here?” She moaned, her hand clawing at his chest. 

He raised his hand and covered hers. “If we stay here, people will get mad. Or they’ll think we’re dead.” 

“Would that be so bad?” 

He sighed. “It is when you have responsibility.” 

“Sorry about that.” She said, she took a deep breath and closed her eyes, she didn’t care what he said, she would stay there for as long as she wanted. 

“About what?”

“You have to be King one day, and run everything.”

“Don’t be sorry about that, idiot, I chose it.” 

Ahiru was starting to think it was a good idea that she brought her blanket to spread out in the tree stump meadow, the sun was bright, but it was setting, the trees casting shadows over their closed eyes. 

“Ahiru.”

“Hmm.”

He shook her shoulders and she sat up, rubbing her eyes and yawning. “We fell asleep.”

“Mmhmm.” She held her chin in her hand before she realized what he said. She gasped sharply and jumped up to her feet, but her toe caught the edge of her skirt and she fell, landing on his lap.

He grunted, but caught her nonetheless. “Idiot, be careful.”

“What time is it?” She slapped a hand to her forehead and gave him a worried look. 

Fakir looked up at the sky, a few scattered stars. “I can’t see the moon, and it’s not too dark so it’s probably not that late.” 

Ahiru moaned and ran her hands over her face, but gasped again when she realized she was still sitting on Fakir. 

She jumped off of him, and covered her mouth, almost unable to look at him, but she did, out of the corner of her eye, she watched him stand and pick up the blanket, folding it over his arm before he offered her his hand. 

“Come on.” he said softly, “We have to get you back.”

Ahiru nodded, and she didn’t let go of his hand when they stepped out of the forest, she didn’t let go when they entered the city, she didn’t even let go when they stepped past the palace wall. 

“Ahiru!” Her name was shouted and she saw too many people running towards her. “Someone go get Edel!” 

Fakir was pushed away from her, and she was ushered towards the castle, and she couldn’t help but look over her shoulder, look back at him as he stood there watching her disappear in the cloud of servants and guards that surrounded her. 

She was in trouble now, but…

She would get in trouble a hundred times over if it meant she could spend even just a second more with Fakir. 

 

SHE SAT AWKWARDLY AT the table, it was such a small room, some kind of sun room, and it would have been lovely if the clouds didn’t block the sun. 

She blinked at the display in front of her, it was a modest lunch, one she had before, it was one of her favorites, and the glass of wine in front of her was one she favored, and not the kind she wrinkled her nose at.

Not to mention the freshly baked bread that was sitting in front of her, butter just waiting to be spread over it. 

Her eyes slowly rolled up, past the simple florals that sat in a crystal vase in the center of the table, past his plate of food and his goblet to wine, to his eyes, which, likewise, was kept on his food rather than her. 

Her eyes shot back down to her plate, she held her hands under the table and started twiddling her thumbs. 

Ahiru heard the near silent clatter as he picked up his fork and she let her gaze slip back up the table and watched him take the first bite.

She sighed in relief and started to eat as well, she was getting better at taking smaller bites, at chewing slowly, at not talking with her mouth full. 

It was easier to be polite when someone was judging your every movement. 

She wondered just how many people were watching. 

Ahiru chewed on her lip, did they know? 

Did the Bookmen really want her to spend time with Autor, in hopes that they would fall in love? 

Or did they know where she went…

And who she went with. 

“Don’t chew your lip.” Autor scolded, before sighing. “I know you don’t want to do this either, but it doesn’t have to be horrible.”

Ahiru did her best to keep her jaw from falling into her plate. Was Autor suggesting they be civil? 

He cleared his throat, shifted in his seat before taking a sip of the wine. “I just mean, this is going to take a lot of time from both of our schedules. There’s no reason we can’t gain something from it. After all… This may be what our afternoons look like for the rest of our lives.”

Ahiru swallowed, and nodded. “Well, I- I think that would be a good idea.” 

“Good.” Autor straightened before he gave her a curt nod, he picked up his fork and started eating again. “So what do you like best about Bavaria?”

Ahiru stopped her fork, hovering an inch from her mouth. “Oh, um.” She placed her fork on her plate. There was a lot she liked about Bavaria, it was just a matter of what was safe to say. “The people.” Ahiru smiled, yes that was a good answer the future Queen could give. “I think the people are wonderful here.”

“Hmm, I haven’t really…”

“It’s okay, Autor.” Ahiru sent him a placeted smile, she stretched out her hand on the table, but stopped herself, it was stupid. Besides, the table was too long. She curled her fingers against her palm and set it back in her lap. “Some people just don’t like other people.”

“Why would you say it like that?”

Ahiru blinked owlishly. “How else would I say it?”

Autor groaned and muttered something under his breath. “Nevermind. You know I prefer books over the company of others.”

“Oh what about-?” Ahiru screwed her eyes shut, and stuck out her tongue trying to remember that young man’s name. “Femio! What about Femio?” 

Autor cast his eyes back to his plate. “Femio is… a friend.”

Ahiru giggled. “It’s okay to have friends.”

“I know that!” 

Ahiru shrugged, she picked up her abandoned fork. 

Autor went on about Femio, what their relationship was exactly. Apparently they had met a few years ago, a young French man with the most exquisite designs for suits and dresses. 

“I think Drosselmeyer wanted him for himself, but,” Autor shrugged. “I became friends with him instead.

“And you wouldn’t expect it, Femio being so boisterous and I being so-”

“Boring?”

He glared at her, and she giggled behind her hand. 

“Fine, I being so ‘boring’.” He rolled his eyes. “He’s exciting.”

Ahiru nodded. “He is, I’ve only met him once, but he said he was making my wedding dress so I hope I’ll get to meet him again.”

“And your dress for the ball.”

“The ball?” 

Autor sighed. “Yes, the Mask?”

Ahiru gave him a look as if to say she was clueless. 

“We have a masquerade ball every year for the Winter Solstice.”

Ahiru gasped and clapped her hands together. “I’ve never been to a masquerade ball before! What’s it like?”

Autor shrugged. “It’s like a ball except you wear a mask on your face.” 

The plates were cleared, even if Ahiru would have preferred to finish, and they were whisked away to a walk in the garden, it was overcast, but the ground was dry, enough to walk on it safely. 

Ahiru held her hand in the bend of his elbow and they walked at a steady pace, and it would have been fine, almost peaceful, if they were allowed to walk by themselves.

Ahiru kept looking over her shoulder at Miss. Edel, Uzura’s hand tucked in hers, at the handful of Bookmen that shuffled along, the hoods of their cloaks casting shadows over their faces, the pack of servants, including Pique and Lillie all followed them a few yards away. 

But Ahiru could feel their breath on her neck, and her grasp on his arm became tighter, only when she went to whisper in her ear, she blushed when she found Autor instead of Fakir. 

She had forgotten.

Ahiru could hear Autor talking to her, talking about a book he had picked up, and she nodded, whispering words of agreement every once in a while, but her eyes scanned the palace grounds, the gates and the walls, looking for Fakir, wondering if he was waiting for her. 

Just a little longer, and then they could go to the forest, then she could tell him about their awkward conversation and laugh it away. 

Somehow, they were lead back to the castle, and once they entered, the Bookmen, the servants, and Edel had disappeared. 

Apparently, they were done for the day. 

“That… wasn’t so bad.” Autor said. 

“No, I guess it wasn’t.” Ahiru slipped her hand out from around his arm and held her hands behind her back. “I suppose you want to get back to your book?”

Autor nodded. “Yes, I suppose I do. I’ll see you at dinner.”

Ahiru smiled and waved, before sighing in relief. 

She looked down both hallways, she looked behind her, outside in the gardens, and once the coast was clear, she picked up her skirt and ran. 

She couldn’t stop the giggling that toppled over her lips, she could feel the carefully pinned hair starting to fall loose, but she didn’t care. 

She only cared about returning to the forest with Fakir.

He was easy to find, working at the Blacksmith’s shop, and he smirked at her. “Can I help you with anything, your Grace?”

Ahiru giggled. “Yes, you can.” She held out her hand for him to take. “I lost something, can you help me find it?”

He placed his hand in hers, and the laughter bubbled over as she pulled him away from his work, forcing him to run and chase after her as she lead him to the forest. 

Almost there, she thought to herself, the trees becoming more detailed, the green blobs becoming needles and fronds, the brown becoming trunks, their bark rougher. Her feet parting the grass, now only padded on dirt ground. 

She only stopped running when they deep enough in the woods that no matter which way she turned she only saw forest. 

She panted, it stifled her giggles, and she felt her heart racing. She reached back behind her, until her fingers brushed against bark, and took advantage of nature; she leaned against it. 

Fakir shook his head, stepping closer to her. “You didn’t have to run here, it wasn’t going to disappear.” 

“If I run-” She took a deep breath. “I get places faster.”

“Were you so desperate then? To be alone.”

“To be alone with you.” 

Ahiru closed her eyes, a gentle breeze cooling her, she heard him step forward, and could feel his warmth.

“Was Autor so bad?”

She shook her head. “No, it was everyone else.”

“Everyone else?” She felt a hand on her temple, he brushed her hair behind her ear. 

“Mmhmm.” She pressed into his touch, wanting him to touch more of her. “They walked right behind us and I’m sure someone was listening at lunch. The whole time I just…”

“Just what?” He asked, his hand finally traveling down over her cheek.

“I just wanted it to be you.” She leaned into his touch, forcing his hand to flatten and cup her cheek. “To be having lunch with you, to be walking with you. There was a moment…” Ahiru lifted her hand and rested it on his wrist. “I forgot who I was with, and I went to whisper in your ear, but it wasn’t you.” She pouted, and she felt his thumb on her lip, as if he was trying to wipe it away. 

“I’m sorry.” 

She felt his other hand on her neck, the tips of his fingers skimming over where her shoulder and neck met.

“Why?”

“There’s nothing I can do to stop it.” 

Ahiru stopped holding her head, trusting that Fakir would take her weight for her, and nuzzled into his hand. “It’s only a few more weeks. I can survive.”

Ahiru started moving her hand up and down his forearm, tensed now that he was holding up her head. He was strong. 

“You shouldn’t have to.” His voice had lowered to a whisper, and he was closer now, she could tell, one more step and she would be flush against him. Her hand was on his shoulder now, and she shivered when her fingers no longer touched fabric, but his skin, smooth and warm under her. 

“I can do it.” 

“I know you can.” 

She felt him shake his head, her fingers ghosting over his jaw and up his cheek.

The hand at her neck slipped down her arm, to her elbow, and he was gentle as he held her there, his hands soft, they caressed her. 

“I wish Autor didn’t have to put up with this either.” Ahiru smiled. “He just wants to read books.”

“He will.”

Ahiru sighed, her eyes fluttered open and she looked up at Fakir, he was much closer than she thought, she could barely see anything but his eyes. 

Ahiru thought she knew what Fakir looked like, but she had never been this close to him before. 

His eyes were pale green, like before, surrounded in stubby lashes, under thick eyebrows. Her hand shot up to his eyebrows and she brushed them with her thumb. 

“You have a freckle, too.”

“What?”

Ahiru smiled. “Right here.” She swiped her thumb against the sole freckle he possessed on his cheek. “Look, I have one right there too.” 

His hand left her face and he grabbed her wrist, crushing her hand to his face, his cheek, but not for long. 

She watched him press his lips against her palm, she could feel his lips press against her palm, the gentle fingers he had wrapped around her wrist, she felt his gentle breathing on her thumb. He moved his head back so her hand only touched his cheek.

Ahiru could feel the heat rising, the blood just under her skin, making her cheeks redder than apples, but she couldn't resist as she lifted her other hand and pressed it to his face, sliding it down until her palm was on his lips. 

His hand left her elbow to hold on to her wrist and he kissed her other palm. 

It was when he opened his eyes, to look at her, a heated, meaningful gaze, and forced her to pull away, that sent her heart racing.

She pressed her hands to the bark behind her and did her best to hide her blush. 

“I-I-” She stuttered, although she wasn’t sure what she wanted to say. 

“Ahiru, I-” Fakir cut himself off, the back of his hand brushing against her jaw nonetheless. “You should know that I-” Fakir cleared his throat and she watched in wonderment as he started to blush, too. 

She began to giggle, covering her mouth with her hands, suddenly unable to stop.

“What?”

“No-!” She took a deep breath but it didn’t stop. “You’re-” 

A smirk rose on his lips. “What?” 

She shook her head, struggling to push down her snickers. “I can’t!”

His hands were at her waist and she simply wasn’t prepared when his fingers started to move against her sides. 

“Fakir!” She gasped, but now she was truly breathless. 

“Tell me.” He said, but his hands didn’t stop. 

She pushed at his chest, “Stop! Stop it!” Laughing uncontrollably.

Ahiru gave him a great heave and was able to escape from his grasp and started running, but when she looked over her shoulder, she squealed when she realized he was chasing after her. 

Ahiru ran as fast as she could, for as long as she could, but she had already ran to the forest, and her laughing was stealing half her breath. 

She stopped and turned to tell Fakir she gave up, but he crashed into her instead and they toppled to the ground. 

“Ahiru, are you alright?” His hands went behind her head, checking for bumps of any kind, but stopped when her hand touched his face. 

Her chest heaved, and her laughing had subsided into a beaming grin. “You’re like me.” She said. 

His smile faded and he studied her face. “How so?” 

She moved her hand to the back of his neck, twisting her fingers into his hair, loosening the tie that kept it all together. She sat up, and he sat back, still staring at her. 

“Flustered.” She said over pants. “And red.” She grinned. “Really red.”

He chuckled. “You got really red.”

She touched her cheek. “Am I still red?” 

Fakir nodded, he knocked his forehead to hers and kept it there. “You’re a bit pink now.” 

Ahiru brushed the tip of her nose to his. “Normally I’m pink, aren’t I?”

“No, normally… Normally you’re like cream, the apples of your cheeks red, and your lips are pink.”

Ahiru shook her head. “It’s make-up. Powder and paint.”

“You touch your face too often.” He put a hand on her cheek. “It all gets rubbed away. I know what you look like.”

“Even my freckles?” 

Fakir chuckled again, he nodded. “Especially your freckles.” 

She didn’t know how long they stayed like that, or when they had lied down, or when he took her hand in his. 

 

Ahiru giggled and pressed her face into her hands, shaking her head. 

She couldn’t sleep. She simply couldn’t. 

No matter how hard she tried, she could only think about Fakir. 

About the forest, about his hand in hers, or on her cheek, or her hand on his lips. 

She sat at her vanity, wearing only her nightgown, her hair down and long, she ran a brush through, using it as an excuse for why she was up so late.

She sighed contentedly, but when she rested her elbow on the tabletop, and then her chin in her hand, closing her eyes there was a rush of guilt. 

She wasn’t here to…

To run off into the forest with Fakir, she was here because…

Because of a lot of things. 

Ahiru put her hairbrush down, it was late, and she could feel her eyelids trying to close. 

She tried to tell herself it wasn’t her fault, it wasn’t her fault that she got hurt, or that she couldn’t control the weather. 

It wasn’t her fault that her state was becoming poorer and poorer. 

It wasn’t her fault that her father was a fisherman. 

It wasn’t her fault that she came here expecting to marry someone, only to be passed off to his brother, and now she was supposed to be Queen, only she…

Ahiru pulled the blanket over herself, pulling it up until only her eyes were left uncovered. She squeezed her pillow to her chest.

It wasn’t her fault. 

Ahiru closed her eyes, it wasn’t her fault, and tomorrow she would go to the forest and Fakir would tell her it wasn’t her fault, and he would tell her…

She wasn’t sure what he would tell her, but maybe that was a good thing, it was a surprise, and Fakir would continue to surprise her.

He would continue to give her the right answer, and make her feel better.

Ahiru screwed her eyes shut, she pushed away the past, and tried to think of what tomorrow would bring. Of the forced lunches and walks, but also of sunny meadows, and secret touches. 

She could feel herself falling.  

Chapter Text

Ahiru was starting to get used to her daily lunches. 

So long as she was able to escape to the forest right after. 

In truth, she was learning a lot about Autor that she never thought possible, and it felt good, as if they were becoming real friends. 

She would sit with him in the sun room—she still felt the eyes watching them, making sure that they were really getting along, that they were talking and not just eating in silence, but the entourage that followed them on their walks slowly gave them more and more space. Enough that she felt she could have a proper conversation with him. 

Her hand wrapped around his elbow. 

They walked too slowly, and she wondered if it was the pace a prince and princess were supposed to walk at. 

He liked to talk, and she liked to just listen, better to smile and nod than interject and witness his scoff, his eye roll, and then an explanation of how wrong she was. 

But, at some point that subsided too. 

Some days he would even ask for her opinion, which baffled her. 

Then one day, he even apologized to her. 

It was just like any other, their slow march under an overcast sky, her bobbing along, her eyes roving over the slowly growing flowers, most still barely budding from their cut from the wedding. 

Autor was talking about… someone. 

An author, she thinks, based on how judgemental he was of the man… or woman. 

“Ahiru, I know that-” Autor paused in his steps, and cleared his throat. “I know that you don’t want to be here-”

“Oh, I don’t mind being in the garden with you.” 

“No, I mean here. In Nordlingen. In Bavaria.” He avoided her eyes. “I know you would rather be in Arnis.”

Ahiru felt her smile fading, and she blinked up at him. Did she? 

Yes, she missed the ocean, she missed her father, and sometimes she even missed the people she left behind. 

But she never belonged there. 

She started walking again, and he could do nothing but keep up with her, a surprised expression on his face. 

“I’ll be honest, Autor, when I was first… given the option of coming here, I said no. I didn’t want to leave my life behind, but now...” 

Ahiru couldn’t help the smile that overtook her countenance. 

Everything had changed. 

She thought of Mytho and Rue, how happy they were now that they were together, and one day they would leave, but she still loved them, and she knew that they loved her, too. That they wouldn’t forget about her. 

Mytho, who was so kind and brave, who fought for love, with his pure heart and dazzling smile. He fit so well with Rue, and he would make a good King. And even though she wasn’t married to him, she was grateful that they had met, and that they had once been engaged. She wouldn’t trade the dances they shared for the world. 

Rue, who was so beautiful and smart, she would make a great Queen, she would stand up for herself, for her people, for the injustices her father committed before her. She would bring about peace to war ladden states and put an end to the war started before her birth. Ahiru smiled as she thought about Rue, her only hope was that they would never stop being friends. 

She thought of Pique and Lillie, who made her smile every morning, who didn’t care that she was a princess and treated her as an equal. 

Miss Edel and Uzura, who she never would have met unless she had refused the request, who taught her everything she knew now. 

Mostly, however, she thought about Fakir. 

He was perhaps her greatest and closest friend, and she knew that he held her in a special place in his heart. 

Once he was King, whether or not she would still be regarded as a princess, she knew that he would still stay by her side, that he wouldn’t abandon her.

Fakir, who was so strong, so loyal, so protective, so kind and good; he was so smart, he was…tender, and when he touched her hand, her shoulder, her cheek, his touch was so gentle, and she knew he would never hurt her, he was like no one else, she knew him so well and yet she knew there was still so much more to learn about him. 

If she had to do it all again, if she went through life a second time, she would do anything just so that they could meet. 

If the ocean had to become a distant memory, and Arnis a far off dream, if it meant she could stay with Fakir, she would let it. 

She had so many reasons to be grateful that she was no longer in Arnis. 

That she was here, instead. 

Ahiru smiled up at Autor, and shook her head. “How could I possibly regret coming here?”

He seemed baffled, but she only laughed it off.

After that, everything was a bit easier. 

Femio was becoming a constant in her life as well. 

He was a dressmaker, in charge of making two gowns for her in two weeks.

“Two weeks! And you’re just starting!” She let her jaw drop, she didn’t think that was enough time to make two entire dresses. 

“I have been working on them for a long time, I swear it.” He promised. “Now, I just need your measurements, to trim off the excess fabric and make it perfect.” 

Ahiru liked Femio—he was extravagant, every word was spoken with flourish and every action carried out as if it would be his last. 

Ahiru would spend her mornings with Femio, standing on a stool as the dress was pulled over her head and he made adjustments. 

As far as she could tell it was a wonderful dress, but he made her promise she wouldn’t look at it until it was finished. 

“It is a most original creation,” he stated, standing a few feet away as two of his workers made their adjustments.

Ahiru nodded. “It is! How did you come up with it?”

Femio flipped his hair back. “It came to me in a dream! I saw you standing like an angel amongst the clouds, the sun setting behind you, but as I looked at you more, I realized that the sun was not behind you but that you were the sun!” He chuckled and kissed the tips of his fingers. “When I woke I drew it as quickly as I could, and in the next three days I perfected it.” 

Ahiru tilted her head. “When did you have the dream?”

“After the first time I met you.”

“When did we meet?” Ahiru asked, thinking back to when he burst into her room, thinking it was Mytho’s instead. 

“Well, I saw you at your very first ball, you danced with Mytho in a dress colored like the sky, and while we did not murmur a word to each other, I knew that our paths would cross again. And so, I was right.”

Ahiru smiled.

But then came the wedding dress. 

The wedding dress was different from her ball gown in that it was much more fashionable. 

Its long sleeves, the train falling behind her, the slim skirt.

When she first put it on, it made her stomach tighten, and all she could do was stare at Femio.

She swallowed hard and tried to push her emotions down, it was just a dress, after all. Nothing more than a white dress. 

But it wasn’t, and all she could think of was Autor. Of taking his hand in marriage and of-

She took a deep breath, pressing her hand to her abdomen. 

“Are you alright?” Femio asked, taking hold of her forearms to steady her. “You look pale.”

Ahiru shook her head, determined to tell him that she was fine, that she only missed breakfast, but it wasn’t the truth. 

The truth was, she didn’t want to marry Autor.

Femio snapped his fingers and pointed to the ground next to him. “A chair. S'il vous plaît.”

She heard the scrape of a chair being pushed toward them and held fast to Femio as he lead her to the chair and had her sit.

“The dress-” She said, suddenly worried about ruining it. 

“Shh, you’re alright.” Femio sat on the stool, he rested his elbows on his knees and held his chin in his hands. “Leave us.”

His workers nodded and left the room until it was only Femio and Ahiru. 

“You are scared.” 

Ahiru felt her jaw start to tremble, and she did her best to stop it. 

“I am scared too.” 

Ahiru looked over at him. He was, too? 

Femio smiled. “You are young, but so ready to help others around you. It’s an admirable trait, but you must take time and think of what you want.”

“Of what I want?”

“Oui. I know that when you gave up Mytho to be with Rue, it was a sacrifice.”

Ahiru swallowed, she nodded. “But-”

“No, no but’s.” He wagged his finger at her. “Mytho is the kind of man that you could come to love, but Autor.” Femio sighed, but she didn’t miss the smile on his face. “Autor is harder to love, he’s challenging, and his goals and motives aren’t always for the best of the people, only what he thinks is best.” 

Ahiru could feel the knot in her stomach coming undone. 

Femio scooted towards her and nudged her knee. “Do you know why I wear this?” His finger tapped on a broach he wore on his left collar.

Ahiru tilted her head, it wasn’t something she had noticed before. 

It was wrought iron, twisted into the likeness of a tree. 

“No.” She said. “I-I’ve never seen it before.” 

Femio chuckled, before he unpinned it from his chest. “I wear this for what it represents to me. The future that I want to see.”

“And what future is that?”

“A future where Autor is free.”

Ahiru was puzzled, but only for a moment, her eyebrows furrowed together. “What future do you want?”

“A future.” Femio said, his voice turned to a low whisper. “Where the True King sits on the throne.” 

Ahiru’s eyes widened. “You don’t want-?”

“I want what is best for Autor. And what is best for Autor, is for him to be free, not tied to an earthly throne.” 

Ahiru took a deep breath, and felt something in her hand. 

“An Oak Tree.” Femio said. “For the True King.” 

 

AHIRU WORE THE PIN on every dress she owned, every morning, after Pique and Lillie left, she would open her jewelry box and pull it out just to pin it above her heart. 

The first day she wore it, and Fakir saw, she watched the confusion in his eye, she felt her breath hitch when he reached out and touched it, and she was sure he could feel her heart thundering away in her breast. 

He seemed to like it, the corners of his lips twitching, before he took her hand and lead them into the forest. 

She noticed that others wore them as well, Pique and Lillie, the cook Ebine, Femio and all his workers had an Oak Tree somewhere. 

She learned that it wasn’t just the wrought iron broaches, but clothes embroidered with the mark, a patch or an overwhelming pattern, hanging from jewelry, and carved into places, sometimes fences or the sides of buildings, sometimes even another tree.  

She hadn’t even noticed, but it must have all been there before, waiting for her to discover it. 

All the support the people showed to the True King. 

She called him that once, just tease him. 

“And what will they call you? The Fish Queen?”

She laughed and shook her head. “I won’t be Queen.” She said. “So long as you interrupt the wedding before I say I do.” 

Ahiru leaned back against the tree stump, and closed her eyes, but she could feel Fakir looking at her. When she opened her eyes, looking back up at him, she felt her heart stop. 

There was a look in his eye that she couldn’t name, not quite pity and not quite consideration, he reached forward and put his hand on her cheek.

He wanted to say something, she knew it, but she couldn’t figure out just what. 

She closed her eyes and leaned into his touch instead. 

 

THERE WASN’T MUCH TIME left. 

Only a week before the Masquerade ball and then—

Ahiru didn’t want to dwell on it, she didn’t want to think about. 

She wouldn’t have to go through with it, she wouldn’t have to marry someone she didn’t love. She was at least certain of that.

Ahiru however, was becoming increasingly worried about Autor.

Everyday, no matter what she did or said, or what he did, he became more lifeless.

It scared her, because she had grown accustomed to his shrewdness, to his condescending tone, and lack of kindness, but now it was gone. 

“Just one more week.” She said, and what she wanted was for him to roll his eyes and tell her that there were eight days until their wedding, that one week wasn’t the proper term and if she continued in such a manner he would have to send her back to her governess and have her be taught how to properly count. 

But he didn’t.

He only walked, his eyes set on the path before them, and it started to rain. 

Ahiru’s grip on his arm tightened, and she bit the inside of her cheek, she looked down at her feet, carefully pushing at the edge of her dress so she wouldn’t trip, the fabric flowing with every step, but it was slowly getting wet. 

They’d have to go back inside soon, but Autor only strode forward, and she was afraid to let go.

She hated it when he got like this, and she didn’t understand it. She didn’t understand how his character could go dormant, how it could be stuffed down until there was nothing but polished wood on top. 

Like a marionette.

“Autor, it’s raining.” She said. “We should go inside.”

Autor didn’t utter a word, but he stopped, and it started to rain harder. 

“Autor-” 

“Why do you wear that pin?” He asked, his words stiff. Unfeeling. 

Ahiru’s hand lifted to the broach, cold to her touch, wet from the drops of rain that pelted it. “It was a gift.” She said. Her voice softer than she meant it to be. 

“A gift, you say?” His eyes turned to her and there was an inkling of emotion there. His eyebrow raised, a look of judgement. “Given to you by surprise? Or were you made aware that it was coming? Of its meaning?”

“A-a gift is supposed to be a surprise.” She avoided his eyes. She was a terrible liar. 

 “And a gift from who?” Autor turned himself towards her. 

Ahiru stole her hand back, her hands clenching at her side. “Femio.” She said, relieved that she could speak some truth. 

“You know, I’ve seen Femio wearing a pin like this before.” Autor's hand rose and the tips of his fingers brushed against the pin. “And I know the meaning behind it.”

Ahiru froze, there was something about his voice, it wasn’t just his words, but the tone of his voice…

It was… off…

And somehow she knew, those words didn’t belong to Autor, but someone else. 

She could feel her heart pounding in her chest, and she wondered if he could feel it, he was so close.

His hand fell to his side. 

“You are lucky you are useful, but once that ends...” Autor returned to her side, there was a crack of thunder and a flash of lightning, the smell of electricity in the air. “And it will end...” He took her hand and forced it back into the crook of his elbow. “...that luck will run out.”

Ahiru dug her fingers into his arm, she should have been scared, but she wasn’t. 

She was filled with anger instead. 

She was tired of being a scared little girl, doing only what she was told. She was tired of listening, and only listening, to threats, to offers that didn’t belong to her; of being pushed around like she was nothing. Like she was a pawn on a chess board. 

And she refused to be anyone’s pawn. 

Ahiru stopped and pulled her hand from his elbow. “It is raining and I am going inside.” She told him, her eyebrows set hard above her eyes, and her lips a firm line. 

She hoisted up her wet skirts, until her feet were able to walk freely and walked back inside. 

As soon as she stepped inside, she dropped her gown, and it flopped to the floor, splashing her legs and the space around her. 

“Princess!” Someone scolded. 

She tucked a wet piece of hair behind her ear, and continued down the hallway, her plan to change and go find Fakir. Go to the forest. Where it didn’t rain, where Autor was bound to leave her alone, and where she didn’t have to listen to anyone else. 

Ahiru could hear them running after her, and she wasn’t entirely sure if she wanted to run away from them, or if she wanted to face them. There was no obvious Princess-answer. 

She was in no mood to talk politely. 

“Ahiru!” Edel called. 

And that made Ahiru sigh, she pursed her lips and screwed her eyes shut, Miss. Edel was probably disappointed in her. 

Miss. Edel stood in front of her. “You’re soaking wet, here, lets go get you changed.”

“Miss. Edel, would you control your charge. They’ve only been on their walk for ten minutes.”

Ahiru watched as Edel cast a glare to whoever spoke, her hands landed on Ahiru’s shoulder’s.  

“They should have come inside at the first sign of rain, and I will take care of her before she catches her death.”

Edel started to push Ahiru along, careful not to step behind her and the dripping trail she left. 

“A hot bath, a change of clothes, and then Femio will see you.”

That halted Ahiru in her tracks. “What?”

“For your final fitting. He is to come at the end of your walk. It will be the last one before the ball and your wedding.”

“Hasn’t he seen me enough?”

“Watch your tone.” Miss. Edel scolded. “Just one more. To make sure it fits. It’s a complicated process, you know.”

“I never had to go through this with any of my other dresses.”

Miss. Edel cleared her throat. “Your other dressmakers made the dresses only using your measurements. Master Femio, prefers making sure that every inch of the gown is fitted to you perfectly.”

“It was perfect last time, I’m sure it’s perfect this time.” She mumbled. 

Miss. Edel sighed. “I’m sure it is. At most you’ll just have to try it on.”

“Each dress will-”

“Ahiu, I don’t know where this-this attitude came from, but it must stop.” 

Ahiru looked up at Miss. Edel for the first time and noticed the expression on her face. 

Edel had always done her best to remain calm, cool, and collected, to remain a distance, and arms length away, and she had succeeded. For all Ahiru knew, the relationship they had was simply the cold, unfeeling connection between a student and a teacher. 

But now tears collected in the corners of her eyes, and her lips struggled to form words. 

Ahiru was worried she had angered Miss. Edel with her sudden sourness. 

Ahiru looked away, suddenly filled with shame, but Edel cupped her cheek and pulled her attention towards her.

“I know, that…right now, things aren’t what you want them to be, but soon… Soon, I promise it will be better.” Edel patted her cheek, and smiled at her with affection. 

Ahiru nodded. “I’m sorry.” 

“You’ve done so much, not just for your friends, but for your people. I should have seen it sooner.” Edel tucked the wet strands of hair behind her ear. “I should have-” Edel sighed and smiled. “I should have let you take a moment to breathe.” 

Ahiru thought about her moments in the forest, the moments where she could breathe. Had they not been enough? 

They walked back to Ahiru’s room together, Ahriu drew her bath as Miss. Edel made quick work of pulling at the ties that bound her dress together. 

“I’ll be back, I left Uzura with Ebine, and should get her before she’s there for the whole afternoon.”

Ahiru nodded, part of her face already submerged in bathwater. She wasn’t sure what she did, she didn’t quite remember, only the repetitive task of pouring soap into her hands, lathing it into her hair, on her face, on her skin, and then pouring water over herself. She was finished by the time Edel and Uzura returned, although Uzura became distracted by the bubbles in the water and started splashing her arms. 

Ahiru was wrapped warmly in a towel and she sat beside the fire as Edel ran a brush through her hair. 

“The tips are already dry.” Edel said, the tint of a smile in her voice.

Ahiru nodded. Her hair dried fast, it always had, especially on warmer days, or when she sat by a fire, being that her hair wasn’t especially thick. 

Peace filled her, and she didn’t understand, but the only thought that filled her mind was that it was the calm before the storm. 

Edel did her best to replicate the intricate style her hair had been in before, and dressed her in a simple shift, it settled just as the door opened and Femio stepped in. 

He gave his grand greeting, only two workers with him that day, but a few palace servants hoisted the trunks that held her two dresses inside.

Ahiru thought she was ready, she was at least prepared for the golden dress, a gown she prefered and could feel herself smiling as she wore it. 

Even on a dreary day like this, it shone like the sun, and it filled her room with light. 

Femio seemed too pleased with himself, most of his words were in French, and at times she could catch what he was saying, with a few scattered words in her tongue. 

“A goddess.” He called her. “Radiant.”

It made her blush, and when she looked at herself in the mirror, she could almost call herself those things, too.

But soon it was pulled off, and she felt cold and naked as she was changed into the simpler silk dress that…

That she would marry Autor in. 

It was tight, and it was a beautiful dress, as well. It was even prettier than Rue’s wedding dress, and she was sure it was more expensive than all the clothes she had ever owned. 

It sparkled, it was smooth; she didn’t feel like she deserved to wear it. 

She couldn’t even look at herself in the mirror. 

She was upset and Femio knew it. 

Everyone in the room knew it, even Uzura, who ran around and played with the scrapes of fabric, trying on the ballgown. 

Femio came towards her, he took her hands in his and ran his thumb over her knuckles. “Do not be sad, you are too pretty to be sad.”

Ahiru offered him a watery chuckle. “No, I’m not pretty. I’m-”

“Beautiful? I have never met anyone more deserving of the word. If that is not the right word, I said radiant earlier. Lovely? You are too enchanting to be sad.”

“I’m incandescent. I don’t know about lovely, or beautiful. I can’t help but feel-” Ahiru didn’t know what she felt. 

Everything from what Autor said, even the very air that surrounded her, there was a horrid feeling creeping into her heart. 

“I can’t help but feel my wedding will mark the end.” 

“The end of what, mon cher?”

Ahiru furrowed her eyebrows. She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. Can you take this off now?”

Femio nodded. “The next time I see you, will be a week from now. Oh how we will have changed! Will we even recognize each other?”

Ahiru giggled and he tapped the bottom of her chin. 

“There’s that smile.” 

Ahiru was stripped of her wedding gown and was placed in one that was dry, a pretty thing, although all of her dresses were pretty. 

Femio’s two workers set up too forms, and placed her two gowns over them, like two ghouls that stood in the corner of her chambers. The gold one stood before the white, but it looked as if the white was lurking. 

The room emptied save for Edel, who stood before Ahiru. “I’ve told the Bookmen and the servants that the rest of your evening will be spent in here, and they’ll bring up your dinner.” 

“Thank you, Miss. Edel.”

Miss. Edel smiled and kissed Ahiru’s temple, before she and Uzura left her room. 

Ahiru let out a sigh, she hoped it wasn’t too late. Maybe she could just leave a note to leave her food on the desk, that she went to the library to grab a book. That would work, besides, who knew when they were coming in.

Ahiru left the corners of her mouth turning up into a smile. She couldn’t help it, she waited all day for this moment. 

Ahiru wrote her note, and stole a look out the window, the rain had ceased, and at least they could get to the forest without getting soaked again. 

She left her note on the desk, when there was a knock at her door, it was early, but maybe they already bought dinner and she wouldn’t have to leave her note at all. 

“Come in.” She said, holding the note behind her back. 

The door opened a sliver, and Pique walked in before shutting it quietly behind her. 

Ahiru smiled. “Oh, Pique, it’s just you.”

But Pique stayed silent, her hand stayed on the door handle, and her gaze was glued to it. 

“Pique?”

“Ahiru. Are you alright?”

Ahiru tilted her head. “Huh? What do you mean, Pique?”

Pique fisted her hand and turned towards Ahiru, her fists at her hips. “You’re going to get yourself killed if you keep doing this!”

“What? Pique, I don’t-”

“Don’t play dumb!” Pique shifted uncomfortably, almost avoiding Ahiru’s gaze. “I know where you go everyday…who you go with.”

Ahiru was confused, but she remembered. 

She remembered Pique’s words, though light and teasing at the time, held some seriousness. 

Ahiru forgot the feelings Pique carried for Fakir. 

She bit her lip, it wasn’t very fair to Pique, that she was stealing Fakir from her. 

“You wear that pin so proudly on your chest, and I know you’re being watched. They know, Ahiru. You have to stop.”

“It’s too late, isn’t it? If they already know?” 

Pique gave her an odd look. “Yes, but you can still try to practice some self conservation. Before something bad happens!”

“I’m not doing anything wrong.” Ahiru walked forward, towards the door, intending to leave. 

Pique groaned. “It doesn’t matter, you can’t just do what you want!”

“So what? I should just sit inside my room and do nothing instead?”

Pique leveled a glare. “It’s not like what you’re doing is helping anyone. Maybe you should start thinking about other people.”

“I have been thinking about others. I’m thinking about  myself, too.” Ahiru told her, and she tried to light the fire that had been there before, with Autor, but she couldn’t help but feel pity for Pique. “You should, too.”

“I’m thinking of the greater good.” Pique pouted. “About the future of my home! I know this place isn’t yours, but it is mine, and I plan to protect it.”

“You should put your faith in Fakir.” Ahiru smiled. “I have.”

“All my faith is in Fakir!”

Ahiru put her hand on Pique’s shoulder, but she shrugged it off, “You don’t have to worry about-”

“Don’t tell me what to worry about! What I’m worried about is what will happen to Fakir if they find out about you two!”

“I thought they knew.” Ahiru tilted her head. 

“They know you leave, but they don’t follow you.”

Ahiru furrowed her eyebrows. “Have you followed me?”

“I just happened to be out in town when I saw the two of you run into the forest.” Pique pouted. “What are you doing in there? Everyone knows how dangerous it is.”

“It’s actually really nice.”

“What?” Pique squeaked. “No. It’s not. It’s filled with- with monsters! And beasts!” 

Ahiru shrugged. “It might be, I haven’t met them yet.”

“It doesn’t matter! What you’re doing is wrong, and dragging Fakir into each and everyday, too? He should be preparing.”

“He is prepared. I have no doubts in whether or not he will win the Königsspiel.” Ahiru shook her head. “Why do you?”

“I-” Pique was taken aback. “I don’t! I don’t have doubts!”

“It sounds like the problem you have is with me.” Ahiru took a deep breath. There wasn’t much she could do, if Fakir loved Pique, he would have chosen her a long time ago. “Pique, I want to be your friend, but I don’t want to fight you about this.” 

Ahiru put her hand on the doorknob and pushed it open. 

“I know who you are.” She said, giving Ahiru pause. “I know that you’re not a Princess, that you’re just a fisherman's daughter.”

Ahiru stayed silent, she wondered if her diary wasn’t so well hidden after all. 

“You’ll have no purpose here once everyone knows.”

“Fakir said I was allowed to stay.” 

Pique was slowly falling apart, every strong argument she had brought to the table, Ahiru brought one that was stronger. “Maybe, but after a while he’ll get tired of you, and then what?”

Ahiru stepped out into the hallway, even as Pique grabbed at her to stay, she took a few long, sure strides before she paused and looked back. “Maybe that will be true. Maybe one day he will get tired of me. But, this is my home now, and I’m not leaving.”

Ahiru turned and walked away, she didn’t like the words that she was saying, in the short time she had known Pique, and the small friendship they had formed she was sure had been ripped to shreds. 

Ahiru blindly made her way about the castle, her only sure destination was a door. 

A door, and whatever that smell was. 

She found herself at the kitchen door, the scent of cinnamon and vanilla just wafting from behind. 

She raised her fist to knock on the door, but hesitated. It wasn’t her place to beg for bread, even if she had been in such a position before, she wasn’t now. Even if that position was just pretend. 

But the door opened anyway, and a tall woman stood in the doorway. 

“Oh, your Grace, I’m so sorry. My deepest apologizes.” The cook offered a bow. 

“No, it’s okay. What are you making?”

She smiled. “Ah, so your nose lead you here? Come inside, come in.” 

Ahiru was ushered in and she was placed right in front of the freshly baked buns, presumably made for tomorrow's breakfast. They smelled sweet and they looked fluffy.

“Why don’t you try one for me?” 

“Oh, I don’t know if I-”

She rolled her eyes. “Well, someone has to try them. I’ve been messing around with an old recipe, and look.” Ebine went forward and picked up a bowl of butter. “I made cinnamon butter to go along with it, with a dash of sugar.”

It was good, the butter melted on the fresh bread, and all she could taste was soft, spiced bread. 

“It’s for Autor, you know.” Ebine gave a sad smile. “He always liked cinnamon, and I would make these for him. Well, a different version, but I think I prefer these.”

Ahiru swallowed. “Do you know Autor well?” 

“Oh yes, I like to think so. He used to come in here all the time with his books and I would let him try the cookies I made before balls, and the sweets I crafted for holidays.” Ebine’s smile grew more forlorn. “He would bake sometimes too, although he wasn’t very good at it. He, instead, would read out the instructions for the recipe between pages of his books. It’s been a while since he’s been in my kitchen.” 

“He’s been strange lately.”

Ebine’s expression hardened, “That rotten old man.” She cursed under her breath, but then, as if remembering who she was with, lifted a hand to cover her gasp. “I’m so sorry.”

“No, it’s alright. What do you mean by that?”

“I said too much, just ignore me.” Ebine shook her head, she wiped her hands on her apron and walked around the kitchen. 

 “Ebine, please? I’m worried about him, too.”

Ebine stopped, she gave a sigh and turned around, putting down the bowl she was collecting. Her eyes scanned Ahiru head to toe and they landed on the pin on her chest. Ebine stepped forward, reaching out as if to touch it, but then realizing how rude that was, stole her hand back. 

“Ask Fakir, he will… He can tell you.” Ebine nodded gravely, “hurry, the sun hasn’t set yet.”

Ahiru gave a curt nod, she left through the kitchen door, leading out into the gardens and gave Ebine one last parting smile. 

“Thank you.”

Ebine waved, she smiled, but there was something lingering just behind it. 

The clouds were starting to part, enough that she saw bits of sky, and rays of sunlight broke through, but it was growing dark, painted orange and pink, the colors of the sunset. 

It wasn’t as if she had come back at night before, she was sure they would be fine. 

But with each step, she felt her heart grow heavy with burden. 

Maybe Pique was right, and she needed to think about others first, was this really the best idea? These stolen moments? When Fakir could be doing something important? 

There was so much wrong with everything, what if she was distracting him? 

He had to fix Autor, and the Kingdom, he had to handle Drosselmeyer and the Bookmen, and he had to run, and-

Ahiru paused, she looked up and saw him coming towards her, a soft look in his eyes. 

A look he only shared with her. 

There was momentary relief, he had come to find her just as she had gone out in search of him, but it all flooded back. 

She took an unsteady breath and lifted up her skirts, she ran to him, she threw herself into his arms and he caught her. He steadied them, his hand tight around her back, the other cradling the back of her head. 

“I’m sorry I couldn’t get away.” 

He scoffed. “Don’t apologize, idiot.”

“Were you waiting long?”

There was a pause before he said. “No.”

Ahiru pulled away and smiled at him. “You were, weren’t you?”

Fakir gave her a glare, one with no heat. 

She laughed. “It’s okay, I was waiting too.”

He shook his head and let go of her. “I may have just been walking back home.”

“Did you see me?” She asked shyly, peeking out him from out the side of her eye.

“I did, which was why I turned back.”

They walked to the gate, to the end of the field, along the well trodden path, and when he sat down in the stump meadow, she wrapped her arms around his neck, falling into him.

“Are you alright?”

“I am now.”

He ran his fingers through her hair. “What happened?” 

Ahiru huffed, and she told him about her day, about Autor and his strange voice, how even his touch was different, and she just knew it wasn’t him, Femio, trying on the dresses, and the horrible sickness that wreaked havoc on her stomach when she wore it, she talked about Pique—although not everything that Pique had said, even if Pique hated her now, she didn’t want to betray Pique’s trust—and the conversation she had with Ebine. 

“What did she mean? Can you tell me? Please?”

Fakir looked up at her, sympathy clear in his eyes. Her hand was in his, his fingers tracing the lines on her palms. “She was talking about Drosselmeyer.”

Ahiru knit her eyebrows together in thought. “What does Drosselmeyer have to do with Autor acting weird?”

Fakir avoided her gaze. “It’s… it’s not easy to explain. Drosselmeyer has… abilities. Abilities that allow him to control people with writing.”

“Oh.” Ahiru’s eyebrows pulled closer together. “Wait, what?”

“I guess you could call it magic.”

Ahiru blinked. Magic. “Are you sure?”

“Positive.” Fakir ran the tips of his fingers up hers. “It sounds like you had a bad day.”

“Well.” Ahiru shrugged. “It wasn’t a fun day.”

“Can I show you something?”

Ahiru nodded. Fakir stood, he took her hands and helped her up. 

“I want to tell you a story.”

Ahiru tilted her head but nodded, ready to listen as they walked out of the forest.

“The story goes that, when Drosselemyer was a little boy, he wandered into the forest, like you and I do. He wasn’t hurt, and instead was welcomed, and he came back many times, but he never went as deep, he stayed close to the edge, so if he was called, it would be easy to come back, but he knew the forest like the back of his hand, and the forest knew him. 

“When he got older, he himself heard a story, in the center of the forest there was a tree that, every few years, offered people some of her power. Some, she gave to unexpectedly, others she gave when asked. She was careful not to give out too much, if any of these people had too much of her power, it would lead to terrible consequences.

“He had heard that the power was great and terrible, and it was something he wanted for himself. A gift. From the forest he loved so much. 

“Drosselmeyer walked deep into the forest, and when he came out, the Oak Tree had given him some of her power. But-” Fakir clicked his tongue.

“What?” Ahiru asked as they stepped out of the forest, her feet pushing against blades of grass, slowly dying from the frost. 

“There’s something odd about the story, it’s blurry, like I can’t see all of it.”

“What do you mean, see?”

“Drosselmeyer inherited the power, and- wait.” Fakir grabbed her arm and pushed her against the city wall, flattening himself against it as well. 

“What?”

Fakir quirked a brow. “There are guards posted.”

“Guards?” Ahiru looked up at the wall, but she couldn’t see their walkways. 

“They never have-” Fakir took her hand. “We have to be careful tonight.”

Ahiru nodded, they slinked along the wall until they reached the door, but it was locked. 

“Damn.”

“Fakir?”

“Hang on.” Fakir knelt down and took out his hidden dagger, and started picking the lock. “Stupid bastards used Charon’s lock.” 

The lock opened and he pushed the door until it swung open. 

“Hurry.”

Ahiru nodded, she took his hand and they went into the city, her eyes shifted to the walls, watching the fire flicker in the night and shadows of the knights as they walked along and looked out for…

For them.

Fakir led her back to the palace, his hand prodding the bricks until they opened and he took her inside the dark tunnel, there was no light to guide them this time, but he held her close to him as one hand pressed against the wall.

“Why… why are they patrolling like that?” Her hand squeezed his, as if to gain his attention. 

“Believe it or not, but most people know about my intentions to run. Including Drosselmeyer.”

“They’ve never done that before.”

Fakir nodded. “I know.”

“Fakir-” She said, but he squeezed her hand, as if to silence her. 

She heard the grinding of stone and moonlight filled the tunnel. 

“Ahiru, this,” Fakir pulled her out until her feet landed on the soft stone that formed paths. “This is the King’s Garden.”

Ahiru walked past him, in disbelief that she had never seen this place before. 

It was so grand, too grand to be hidden away. 

Like a secret garden, walls rose around it, stretching up to be three stories high, like the city wall, each story had a walkway, they looped around the garden so one could go up and admire the garden from above, from a bird’s eye view, the walls were covered in ivy, glassless windows the only thing uncovered, bouncing arches that gave just enough shade from the sun without blocking the view. 

It was small, it had to be, to be a secret garden, but it was filled with life, untamed and wild, as if no one had taken care of it in years, as if someone decided to let nature be the gardener. 

“You can come here whenever you feel sad.” He told her. “Upset or angry. I do.”

Ahiru whipped her head to look at him, a beaming grin pulling at her lips. “I can?”

Fakir nodded. “If there’s a day where we can’t escape to the forest, or even day where you can’t see me at all, come here.”

“I will.” She smiled and stepped forward, she snatched his hand and dragged him along, trudging her way over every forgotten path, and asking him what everything was, only for him to laugh and tell her he had no idea. 

“I want to stay here.” She said. 

“You can.”

“No, I mean.” Ahiru let out a deep breath, she took his other hand, and looked down at his in hers. “I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to go back out there, where there’s Autor, and betrothals, and Bookmen, and Drosselmeyer, and magic. I don’t want to have lunch with him if he’s not going to talk to me, and I don’t want to have to look Pique in the eye if she hates me.” 

“Come here. I want to show you my favorite place to go, a place I never want to leave either.”

Ahiru sniffled. “Even more than all of this?”

“Yes.” Fakir lead her to a place that was different from the rest of the garden.

Yes, it was still wild and untamed, left to Mother Nature to tend to, but this was unlike any other space because of the large weeping willow tree that hung over a large pond, the tips of her branches dipping into the water’s edge, creating ripples with every passing breeze. It was alive here, she could hear the frogs croaking on their lilypads, bobbing with every ripple, she could hear the water gently lapping at the shore and she could see the moon shining on the water. 

The sky, still covered in leftover cloud wisps, was clear enough that the full moon was able to glow gently around them, making everything appear softer, and filtered everything through a blue lense. 

Fakir stopped when they creaked into an old, white gazebo, built just at the water’s edge, Ahiru pressed herself to the railing, catching herself on her hands to look over at the water, coated green even in the blue moonlight, she was sure every rock and surface that was submerged was covered in algae. 

She turned around, leaning against the railing and on her hands. “Fakir, this is wonderful.” 

Fakir stepped forward, he leaned against a column that held the gazebo’s roof. “It is, isn’t it?”

“Thank you, I promise I won’t abuse it, and I’ll only come here when I really need to.”

Fakir’s eyes flashed somewhere behind them before they returned to hers. “You could live here and you wouldn’t be abusing it.” Fakir lifted his hand and placed it on her cheek. 

“I feel a lot better, thank you.” She smiled at him, leaning into his hand. 

“Ahiru.”

“Yes?”

“In a week’s time, you’ll be in the chapel-”

“Don’t.” She pouted. “Don’t talk about it, please?”

Fakir shook his head. “I’ll challenge Autor to the run.”

Ahiru nodded. 

“And I’ll win.”

Ahiru nodded again, her hand raising to cover Fakir’s. “I know you will.”

“You have to promise me something.”

“Anything.”

Fakir looked down at her chest, he lifted his other hand and touched her broach, he started to fiddle with it. “Promise me you won’t marry that prick.” 

Ahiru opened her lips to make such a promise, but he surprised her. 

He pressed his lips to hers, the hand on her cheek went into her hair to tilt her head, he tilted his own head, so as to kiss her more soundly, and she melted into him. 

He pulled away too quickly, and she heard something drop to the floor.

Then the shooting started. 

“Step away from the Princess!”

Ahiru jumped in surprise, but Fakir didn’t, it was like he knew they were coming, he pushed her behind him instead, and all she could do was cling to him. 

She watched as guards raced down the different walkways, down the stairs that connected the levels, she looked above, at the ones that lined the top, their crossbows aimed at them.

At Fakir. 

She clung to him tighter, unwilling to let him go, but the guards had other ideas. 

They pulled them apart, and two had to hold her back. She stepped on the guards foot and tried to run back to Fakir, but two more came and grabbed her arms. 

Ahiru watched as Fakir willingly let the guards tie his hands together. 

“Fakir-”

“Fritz Schmidt, you are hereby arrested for conspiring against the crown.”

“What?” Ahiru struggled against the two guards. “You can’t do that!”

There was a taunting laugh, and when Ahiru looked, she saw three silhouettes standing in the moonlight. Recognizable by the cloak and the feathers and the glint. 

“Bring the Princess Odette here. She has no need to be next to a criminal.”

The two guards that held her dragged her away, and despite her best efforts, they were much stronger than her.

“Fakir.” She called again, searching for his eyes, and when they met she let out a sigh of relief. 

“Go with them, don’t struggle.” He said. “I’ll be alright. Find Charon. Ask-” Fakir sighed. “Ask about the leaves.” 

Ahiru had stopped and was jostled by one of the guards, but she raised her brows at him.

The leaves.

She would have to remember that.  

She would have to find Cahron and ask him. 

She watched as they lead him out of the garden and all she could do was grit her teeth from crying out to him. 

They took her up the three flights of stairs until she stood on the highest walkway, with a view of the whole garden, but also the palace, and she could see the palace gardens from there, too.

The two guards let her go when they reached the three men. 

Drosselmeyer. 

The Bookmen. 

And Autor.

Ahiru looked at Autor, but he didn’t seem any different, he didn’t even turn to look at her.

But Drosselmeyer did. 

“Well, my dear, didn’t I warn you to stay away from the blacksmith’s son?”

Ahiru glared at him. “That’s not his name.”

Drosselmeyer had a grin, he always had a grin, but as he watched Ahiru shake with rage, that grin faded. 

“And he’s not the blacksmith’s son.”

“Oh?” Drosselmeyer’s eyes narrowed. “Then who is he, your Highness?”

“He’s the son of Queen Helmia and King Ecke, his name is Prince Lohengrin Fakir-” Ahiru let out a sharp gasp, her cheek started to sting. 

Drosselmeyer lowered his hand and glared at her. “Do not speak such lies to me, child. Autor, take your betrothed to her room, and if she gives you trouble just call for a guard.” 

An iron grip latched onto her elbow, and Ahriu looked to Autor, who lifelessly obeyed Drosselmeyer’s every command. 

She looked back over her shoulder, at Drosselmeyer, and his manic grin was back in place. 

Her eye was caught again by the full moon, still hung high in the night sky, as banks of clouds covered its face once more.

 

FAKIR WATCHED AS THE two guards took her away, but he felt the rope rub against his wrists when they pulled at them, forcing him along. 

They lead him to hole in the wall, brick by brick had been ripped apart and he wondered if Drosselmeyer was able to find out about the secret garden—how had he not figured out the way to get inside? 

He turned his attention back to where they were walking and cursed, they were going in a strange direction, a route he was sure was plotted to gain the most attention. 

It didn’t help that every room they passed, the guards shouted: 

“Transportation of a wanted criminal! Clear the hallways!” 

Over and over, every door they passed opened the servants that were working in their came out. 

“Fakir?”

Great.

Fakir looked over his shoulder at the faces he recognized, the glint of their iron Oak Trees too bright in the dimly lit hallways.

“Fakir what’s happening?”

“Where are they taking you?”

“Why are they doing this?”

“Fakir are you going to be okay?”

Each tried to get close, to lay a hand on his arm, but the guards that surrounded him pushed them back. 

“I’ll be okay.” He shouted a general promise. “Go back inside. Stay safe.”

“Fakir?”

Fakir swallowed a sigh, again he looked over his shoulder at a face he recognized. 

Pique followed after him and the guards, a painful look of concern on her features.

“Don’t follow, go home.”

“Fakir, where are they taking you?”

Fakir grit his teeth. “I don’t know, but I’ll be alright.”

A look of guilt passed over her face. “Where did you come from?”

He was silent, not sure what she wanted to know. Or why she was asking. 

“Who were you with?”

“Pique, go, I promise I’ll be okay. Just go.”

Pique sniffled, but nodded, her feet slowed and she fell back. 

Fakir continued his trek, avoiding some of the eyes of the people he knew, shouting his promises again. 

Everything would be fine.

He was going to be fine.

Stay safe. 

Go back inside. 

Don’t worry about me. 

He started to wonder if it was truly a promise to them, or himself. 

Then he wondered what had happened to Ahiru, if she was alright herself. 

They had brought her to Drosselmeyer, and for all he knew she would be charged for the same crimes. 

But she wouldn’t, she couldn’t. 

They had no proof. 

He knew they had proof for him, his countless rallies, his constant studying, preparing for the day when he would rightfully claim what was his, gaining followers and support, from Nobles, from farmers, from artisans. 

He was sure he wasn’t always careful. 

But he was careful with Ahiru. 

He was careful that there was no trail that led back to her. 

He even threw away her broach, the one piece of evidence that linked her to him. 

She would be safe.

She had to be.

As for him.

Fakir looked up to see they had reached their destination. 

The dungeon. 

The cells were empty, the hallways light with fire torches, but as they lead him deeper he knew they wouldn’t be putting him in a cell that had open bars. 

The guards opened a door that was made of iron, a slim window in the door his only way of looking out, and when they opened the door and shoved him in, he saw there was no windows either. 

Fakir looked back at the guards, he recognized the dead expressions in their eyes. 

 If they removed their helmets, he was sure that he would recognize one or two as one of his followers. 

One came into the cells with him, patted his sleeves and toros, his legs. 

He didn’t pull anything away, and Fakir didn’t allow himself to smirk until the door closed, they missed his dagger in their puppet-like state. 

He closed his eyes. 

In a week he would be King. 

He would get out of here, he swore it. 

His people depended on him, but now Ahiru did too. 

Fakir would make sure his people were happy, that they lived life freely, out from under the Bookman's eye and the tyranny that Drosselmeyer surely put them under.

He would be sure that he would do the same for Ahiru; he’d make damn sure that she got her happy ending.

Chapter Text

AS A LITTLE GIRL, I believed in happy endings, in love, true love…

I wanted to believe that anything was possible, so long as you had enough hope, everything would turn out okay. 

At birth, I lost my mother. 

At sixteen I lost my family.

At seventeen I was spirited away to a place so alien to me. 

In the weeks to come, I let hope get the better of me, and I let reality steal my breath. 

 

AHIRU WAS ESCORTED BACK to her room, where she was left alone. 

Her cheek ached, and her fists clenched in rage, she shook and more than anything she wanted to scream.

Instead, she walked to her vanity, sat heavily down on the stool and looked at her face. 

She was no longer a person she recognized. 

“Argh!” 

She ripped the circlet from her head, the earrings from her ears, the chains from her throat, she cast them aside and in the silence she heard the metal scraping the floor. 

Whatever pins kept her hair off her face, she pulled out letting them go as soon as they were free from their entanglement in her hair. 

With quick hands, she wrapped three strands around the other and wrapped the end with an old leather cord. 

She wiped at her face, wiping away the powder and the paint, and when it only smeared, she rose, knocking down her stool, and poured water into a basin, cleaning her face of the impurities. 

Water dripped, dripped, dripped down onto her silk gown, she growled under her breath and ripped away the useless thread that tied it to her back; she could hear the seams straining. 

Ahiru tore the gown away from her skin, stumbling away from it as if it was a snake, and when she looked in the mirror, she finally recognized her reflection. 

The Princess Odette Ahiru of Schleswig-Holstein was gone, and who she saw was Ahiru Alder. 

The daughter of a fisherman. 

There was a knock at her door. 

“Go away.” She rasped. 

“Ahiru? Ahiru, are you alright?” It was Rue.

Ahiru’s lip trembled, oh how could she show such callousness to Rue? She fell to her knees, her braid falling over her shoulder, she touched her finger tips to her temple, she felt the dry riverbeds moistened at the return of tears. 

“Come in.” She called so softly she wasn’t sure if Rue heard her. 

She didn’t hear the door, but the swish of fabric as Rue knelt down beside her. “Oh, my dear, I heard. I heard what happened.” Her arms carefully folded around Ahiru’s shoulders, her hand guiding Ahiru to her soft shoulder. 

Ahiru sniffled, her hands clinging to Rue’s back, grabbing at fabric. “He’s gone.” She moaned. “They took him.” 

Rue sighed. “Yes, I know. Shh, it’ll be alright. I’m here.” 

 

AHIRU STOOD AT THE end of the dock, she leaned against the mast and smiled wistly, if she squinted hard enough she could just see the white sails of her father’s ship. 

“What are you doing out here, stupid!” 

Ahiru turned on her heel, her fisted hands landed on her hips and she stuck her tongue out at him. “I’m watching for papa! Don’t call me stupid!” 

“He’s not due back for three more weeks. And I can call you stupid all I want!”

“Takes one to know one!” 

“Hey!” The little boy marched forward. “You can’t call me stupid!” 

Ahiru pouted her lips, but soon her knit eyebrows pulled apart and she laughed at him, shoving his shoulder. “We should get back.”

He smiled. “Yeah, you shouldn’t worry so much, your dad’s the best sailor there is.”

“I’m not worried.” Ahiru said, she started walking back down the dock, past familiar faces, other fishermen, their wives, their children. They would all leave soon, too. “I just miss him! No offense, but living at the palace is the worst!”

He giggled. “You’re right, it is the worst! I should run away and live with you when your dad gets back.”

“No, I don’t think that’d be a good idea.” Ahiru shook her head, clambering down from the side of the dock onto the rocky shore. 

“Why not?” He whined, following her as a wave came and rose above the rocks, getting their feet wet. 

Ahiru squealed in delight. “Because papa doesn’t like you!”

He gasped. “Your father loves me! I think he loves me more than you sometimes!” 

Ahiru looked back and stuck out her tongue at him, she cut across the stones until she was on sturdy ground and made a run for it.

“Hey!” He called, but they both knew he wouldn’t catch up.

Ahiru giggled. “You have to keep up, Gero!”

 

AHIRU PULLED AWAY, A hand raised to dry her tears. 

“Are you better now?” Rue asked. 

Ahiru nodded, she sniffled. “I don’t know what to do.” 

“Well, perhaps the charges will clear. Do they even have proof about this?” Rue humphed. “‘Conspiring against the crown’, how idiotic when they claim that anyone can run the Koningsspiel.” 

Ahiru stood, she walked to her nightstand and pulled open the drawer where her leatherbound diary lay. She pulled the ruby locket off her neck and clicked it open until the key fell out. 

She handed both to Rue. 

 

“RUDOLF, IVAN, PETER, AND-” The head of the house sighed, “Where’s Gero?” 

The three princes refused to look in her eye, and only the sound of the great door scraping open, the pounding of feet, and the loud giggling gave them their answer. 

The head of house turned to the door where she knew Gero and that little brat would enter, the door opened and banged against the wall, and their laughter died as their eyes met the expression on her face. 

“Gero, how wonderful of you to join us.” The head of house strode forward, her tongue clicking as she observed his muddy feet, his wet pant legs, the grass stains that covered his shirt. She sent a sideways glance at the girl, but she wasn’t looking much better. 

In fact, she looked worse. 

“I’m sorry, it’s my fault-”

“I don’t care.” She cut off the little girl with little concern before clapping both her hands, and two maids came to attention. “Clean up Gero and have him ready for tonight’s ball, and please escort… Ahiru home.”

Ahiru and Gero shared a guilty glance, the corners of their lips twisting upward. 

 

AHIRU WENT TO BED, as Rue instructed, and she felt utterly useless, but her hand gripped the pillow, and her brows furrowed in determination. 

Once the dawn broke she was going to find Charon.

 

AHIRU WANDERED THE HALLS of the small palace by the sea, she was expecting her father home any minute, and she wanted to bother Gero one last time before she went home. 

She heard him before she saw him. 

The older he got, the more intrigued by swordplay he became. 

Ahiru walked into the practice room, watching the four princes - so easily identifiable by their matching curls, dark brown, just like their mothers - Rudolf and Ivan battled each other, while Peter and Gero were swatting each others swords, passing witty banter with every strike. 

“En guard!” Peter called. 

“En guard? Where are we? France? I’d much rather stay right here, thank you.” Gero grunted, doing his best to keep up with his older brother. 

“Right there? Right where you’re standing, that would get rather dull, don’t you think?”

“On the contrary, here I can plant roots, grow strong and sturdy.”

“Only to be chopped down by a much more cultured man.”

Ahiru smiled, watching their physical and verbal battle.

In truth, there was another purpose to her visit, she had something to give Gero, an early birthday gift. 

She hadn’t been spotted before, but now Gero’s eyes flashed to the side of the room, and when he caught her eye, a lopsided grin overtook his features.   

Peter took the chance and stabbed his brother with the nonfatal tip of his fencing sword. “Haha! Victory is mine.”

Gero pushed the sword away and punched Peter in the shoulder.

“Boys!” 

Every action that took place in the room came to a grinding halt. 

Many clapped his fists over their heart and gave a bow, bent at the waist. 

The boys gave their mother a guilty smile. “Sorry, mom.” They said. 

Her Majesty the Queen, Paulamoni of the sea shook her head at them, but couldn’t stop the smile that grabbed her features. 

“Hurry up and get clean, we have a visitor that wishes to discuss your future.” 

Gero pushed Peter out of the way and the two raced out of the room. 

“Do I have to, ma?” Rudolf asked, “I thought my future was all set?”

“Yes, your attendance would just be polite.” 

Rudolf and Ivan groaned, following Gero and Peter to wash and get changed. 

Paulamoni stood beside Ahiru and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Ahiru, dear, why don’t we talk?”

Ahiru gave her a smile, still holding the present behind her back. “S-sure.” 

They walked out of the practice room and Paulamoni took her to an open hall that looked out over the sea. 

“Ahiru, I’m very sorry but I’m afraid I have to ask something of you.” 

Ahiru swallowed hard. “You can ask me anything.” She gave a shaky smile. 

“Dear, you know that our state isn’t doing as well as others. Others like Bavaria.” She began.

“I know, but I thought we were doing okay?”

“Oh, we are, however…” Paulamoni cleared her throat. “One can always strive to do better, and if some form of help came along… wouldn’t you want to help your country?” 

The wind blew and tugged at her braid, the loose bangs and baby hair jabbed her eye. “I would.”

“Today, an ambassador has come from Bavaria to offer such help, but I think there is only one way to get it.” 

 

AHIRU ROSE BEFORE DAWN, her hair she brushed for herself for the first time in months, she left her face bare, and the only bit of jewelry that touched her skin was the red locket. 

She pulled on a wool dress, a pale green, with ties in the front, before clasping a brown colored cloak over her head, leaving the castle before the first rays of the sun touched even the tips of the roof. 

 

AHIRU SAT AT THE end of the dock, unable to stop the bitter tears from rolling down her face. 

“It’s… not that bad.” Gero said. 

She locked her jaw, she couldn’t talk to him. 

“Ahiru, please? Isn’t it your duty to-”

“My duty?” She looked up at him, sending him a scathing look. “My duty to my people? I’m not a princess! My duty is to my father! To take care of his business once he passes! To make sure his ship has a good captain and that people get fed!” 

“But this will be just like that! Your father will get more business and he can choose and train a successor. It won’t be on your shoulders.”

“I wanted it to be... You didn’t stop them either.” 

Gero was silent, and when she thought he wasn’t going to defend himself he said: “What was I supposed to say? Call my mother a liar, or say I was in love with my sister?”

She couldn’t stop the burning of her eyes. 

“Ahiru, this is for the best. You’ll get to marry a prince, be a real princess.”

“What about us?” She slammed her fist against the dock. “What about you and me?”

He was silent again, and she was sure he wouldn’t answer again when he said. “There never was an ‘us’. There never was a you and me, Ahiru, because I never loved you!” 

His words were harsh, and she felt her heart ripping in two, but somehow she wasn’t sad, or upset, but she was angry.

She was horribly and terribly angry at him. 

Ahiru popped up from the dock and turned on him, her finger jutting out at his chest. “You promised me that I would get to be happy!”

He glared at her, too. “And so what? I don’t get to be happy either? You’d rather force me into a loveless marriage with you? You’d rather force me to spend the rest of my life making sure that you were happy?” 

“We would have made each other happy! We’re best friends and I-”

“Don’t.”

She glared at him, her teeth clenched, her heart in torment. “I love you.”

“And I never did.”

 

SHE WENT TO THE blacksmith’s house and knocked at his door, but perhaps she had come too early. 

Perhaps he was still asleep only to be rudely awoken by her, coming and demanding he tell her what Fakir meant when they took him away from her. 

She was about to run away when the door pulled open. 

Charon looked around fearfully before his eyes landed on her and he sighed in relief. “Your grace.”

Ahiru shook her head. “Please, don’t call me that.”

“Of course, my apologies.” He held the door open for her. 

She stepped inside and pushed her hood back. 

He lead her to a kitchen where two women were seated at the table, their hands held tightly to each other. 

“Ahiru.” 

“Pique?”

Ahiru put a hand to her chest when Pique stood, her hair was down from it’s bun, and her eyes were red. 

“Is he alright? Do you know anything?”

The other woman looked to Ahiru, and she felt Charon’s eyes on her as well. 

She shook her head, ashamed that she couldn’t give them hope. “No. I know nothing. I- Fakir, he said…” Ahiru wrapped her arms around herself. These were people who loved him, who had known him all his life and she thought that she could just waltz in there and demand they tell her about Fakir? 

“Ahiru.” Charon laid a large, comforting hand on her shoulder. “Why don’t you sit down?” 

Ahiru swallowed hard, and nodded, sitting beside the familiar woman. 

“Raetsel, why don’t you make her a cup of tea?” 

The woman smiled and nodded. 

Raetsel was the woman who had helped her to her feet before. 

A cup of tea was placed in front of her and she whispered a thank you. 

“So,” Charon cleared his throat, taking the last seat at the table. “Why have you come?”

Ahiru ran a finger over the rim of her cup, every passing minute she felt ruder and ruder. “Fakir told me to come and ask about the leaves?” Ahiru sighed and shook her head. “I don’t know.” 

Ahiru planted her elbows on the table and held her head with her hands. 

“Ah, why don’t you come with me?” 

Ahiru turned her head to Charon, he had a warm pleasant face, smiling softly, he held out his hand. 

Ahiru nodded. 

 

SHE REFUSED TO MARRY that prince, that stupid, horrible, no good Prince Seigfried or whatever his name was! 

Perhaps it was in spite of Gero or Paulamoni, or even herself, but she refused and she wouldn’t let herself get pushed around. 

Rudolf came to her, it was an odd choice, at one time she looked up to him, but now…

She wondered how loyal of a man he was. 

“Come on, Ahiru, don’t be a brat, you think I wanted to marry Princess Anna?” He nudged her shoulder. 

Ahiru pouted. “No.”

“I love her now, don’t you know?” He smiled softly, “We’re expecting another baby come winter.” 

“It isn’t about that.”

“No? Then what is it? Huh?” 

“I want to stay here, with my father. I’m all he has.”

Rudolf rolled his eyes, but didn’t let her see. “Don’t you think if he knew what your future might hold, he would want you to stay here? Or to go to Bavaria and marry that prince?”

“I’m sure he would, but then he’d get lonely.” Ahiru let a bittersweet smile overtake her features. “You know, whenever he comes back home, and he can see me waiting at the dock, even from far away, he waves and starts calling out my name until I can hear and call back to him.” She let her smile fade. “Who will call back to him if I’m gone?” 

“Well, what was your plan? You marry Gero and you two become fish people?”

“Fishermen.”

Rudolf shook his head. “Gero is a Prince, it never would have happened.”

“He’s the fourth Prince, and why does that matter? You want me to marry some other Prince now.”

“Yes, but here, everyone knows you’re not a Princess, over there...” He made some vague gestures with his head. “No one knows. Besides, this will make our state richer, stronger, isn’t that what you want?”

“I want to be with my father.” She paused. “Perhaps at one time I wanted to marry Gero, and... I even thought it was possible for me to do so. But I don’t care about that anymore, I don’t want to be used in your political game!”

“My political game—?”

“And I don’t want to be alone.” 

Ahiru left the palace, determined never to go back, even if tonight was Gero’s sixteenth birthday ball. 

She was sure he didn’t want her there. 

Instead she went down to the docks, to wait for her father to come home, so he could wrap her up in his arms and tell her that they would figure this out.

Together. 

All day she waited, even when the sky grew dark, she waited, even when the wind started to rise, she waited, even when the rain grew heavy and painful, she waited, even when the waves grew wild and crashed onto the dock… 

She waited. 

 

CHARON LEAD HER TO a room upstairs; neat. A writing desk. A bed.

“This is Fakir’s room.” Charon walked forward, to the writing desk, and pulled from the drawer a thick journal. “This is what he meant by leaves.” 

Charon handed her the book and walked over to the door, “I’ll- uh, give you a minute.” He gave her a timid smile, he left the room, shutting the door behind him.

She ran her hand over the cover of the book, soft leather like her own, but a crescent moon was embossed in the calf skin. 

Inside, she found stories like no other. 

Stories of the past, of the present. Some clearer than the others, in a passage about a farmer, he wrote about clear skies, but the heat, sweat running down his back, his tired hands getting swollen, the deep brown dirt, the smell that rose from the toiled earth. 

He wrote stories about the first King, Lohengrin, racing through the forest, but shadows lurked in the corners of his description, she could hear trampling feet over crunching leaves, and feel her heartbeat rising, and she saw the path before her, but she was blind to what lay in the forest, he would draw his sword, he would fight. A blurry vision of the past.

In a similar manner, she read the story of Drosselmeyer gaining his haunting talent. But when? How? The tips of his fingers graced the rough bark of a tree, and lightning filled his bones. But what did that mean? If it meant anything at all? 

Then, there was a story that wasn’t like the rest. 

Fakir himself played the leading role. A normal day at some pond or another, but the wooden seat and cover gave her the hint that it was somewhere secret.

He spotted a duck on the water, minding her business, occasionally dipping her head under the water and letting the droplets run down her waterproof back. 

And then the duck put her head and water.

It was blatant and forward, so unlike the rest of his writing, and he made a note.

Did she listen to me? Or was it merely coincidence?

Ahiru sat up straighter, there was an odd sensation that filled her, a chill that ran down her spine.

He tried something more complex, something less likely to be an accident.

The duck flew around the pond. 

Strange… she obeys my command. But to what extent? 

The duck would fly, she would dive down deep, and stay down until Fakir let her back up, she would waddle around the bank, she would even come close enough for Fakir to touch her. 

Perhaps there is a little more of my grandfather in me than I had thought, and I can’t help but wonder...? 

Ahiru almost couldn’t read the next part of the story.

Fakir nearly killed the duck to see how far she would go, if she was able to break free, or if she would do as he commanded. Forever.

She’s different now. I know ducks aren’t human, but anything that made her special is gone, she sits on the water like a pawn, waiting for me to move her, to tell her what to do next. If I never wrote her free would she stay there? Would she die? What am I to make of this? Is this the fate of my mother? Of anyone Drosselmeyer chooses to control? 

Can she break free?

When he came back the next day, the duck had not moved, other than with the idle ripples that traversed across the pond. 

Ahiru could feel herself shaking. How could he leave the duck for a whole day? She must have been so hungry! 

He added later: 

I will never use this power again. I will never use it to control anyone or anything.

May I be damned if I do. 

 

“PAPA!” SHE CRIED, CLINGING to the mast, her hair, her cheeks, her eyes, her dress, soaked. 

She could see, just out in the distance, his boat fighting against the waves. 

He would hear her, if she was just a little louder. 

Lightning filled the sky and lit up the sea and she watched as a great wave rose up behind her father’s ship. 

“Papa!” She cried, her hand reaching out for him, the tips of her fingers scraping against the distant boat as it was eaten by the wave. 

Then, as if the ocean was satisfied, the wind calmed, the waves calmed, the rain calmed. 

“Papa!” She screamed. “Papa!” Over and over until her voice was hoarse, until the waves returned to the ocean, and the dock was safe again. “Papa!” 

Her eyes scanned uselessly over the dark ocean, she couldn’t see anything, not under this moonless sky, not when everything was consumed by darkness. 

She stayed until a scrap of wood floated to the dock, and it was stupid, but she fell to her hands and reached into the water, but she was too high up. She gritted her teeth and jumped into the water, swimming to the wooden board and holding it with her hands. 

It was a piece of wood from her father’s ship, a piece that she had carved the shape of a heart into when she was a little girl, when the ship was still being made. A crude carving, but a damning one. 

She clung to the dock as the water rocked against her.

She let the waves push her to shore, clambering over the smooth, slippery rocks, she made her way to the muddy ground and carved her path to the castle. 

She no longer cried, it simply wasn’t in her heart to, there was no use. Her tears feed the rain that stirred the sea into turmoil. 

She could see the golden light of the palace by the sea, and with every step the music grew louder over the still drizzling rain. At the steps of the palace, the guards tried to stop her, thinking her some lowly peasant, but stopped when they met her eyes. 

The little brat that roamed the halls with the princes.

They opened the doors for her, her feet, her dress her hair dripping on every square tile she stepped on until she walked into the ballroom, and she looked at the splendour of it all. 

The myriad of dresses the women wore, the feathers sprouted from hair pieces and hats, the clacking of dry heels on dry tile as her wet feet slopped over the floor. 

Every person she passed stopped to gawk, and when she had drawn enough attention, the music paused, the chitter chatter halted, she looked to Paulamoni, in her pale blue gown, an honor to the sea and all it gave them.

But Ahiru wore the sea, and she represented all it took away. 

“I’ll do it.” She spoke clearly, enough for Paulamoni to hear. 

Paulamoni and Paulo stepped forward, Paulo took the plank in her hand and Paulamoni drew her close to her breast. 

“Oh thank you, Ahiru.” She praised. 

Paulamoni was quick to usher her away, and Paulo gave some excuse for her presence, she didn’t hear what it was but it made their guests laugh and as she departed the jaunty music started again.

 

AHIRU SAT DOWN ON Fakir’s bed, the book in her hand, and she understood.

He had been granted the same power as his grandfather before him. 

He could control others. 

He promised that he wouldn’t. 

That he would never use his gift again and she struggled to think what had happened to that duck that made him take such an oath. 

It would be a lie to say that this didn’t frighten her, the blank faces she had seen in the Queen, in Autor, in the guards…

Fakir could do the same.

“No, no Fakir’s not like that!” She laid down on the bed and brought her legs to her chest. 

There was a reason that he wanted her to know, maybe he was laying all his cards out on the table, she would know everything about him, there would be no secrets. 

She took the edge of the blanket and wrapped it around herself, lost in it’s warmth, in his scent.

He had a plan, she was certain.

Even as he was being escorted away to the dungeon, he wasn’t afraid. 

He would use this gift, he could free himself and win the Köningsspiel and be crowned King.

Fakir told her that she could stay here, that she didn’t have to go back to Arnis. 

Truth be told, she didn’t want to leave here, not when she had made so many friends, like Rue and Mytho, not when she had…

She buried herself deeper into the blankets, a red blush spreading across her face like wildfire.

He had kissed her. 

In the intensity of the moment, she hadn’t let herself get embarrassed. 

Or let herself enjoy it.

 

“HELLO, MY NAME IS Edel.” A woman, with pale skin, and pale eyes and a warmer smile held out her hand for Ahiru to take. “I am a governess, here to make you a princess.”

“When do I leave?” Ahiru asked, no one had told her and she was finding she wanted to know.

It had been almost a year since she promised Paulamoni she would take the Prince’s hand in marriage to create a trade bond. 

In that year, they had tried to teach her, the head of house, an awful woman - Ahiru knew that woman disliked her - but had failed because every time Ahiru got something wrong she yelled and scolded and lost her mind! It was hardly a good place for her to grow.

She supposed now, at a year in, they were finally getting desperate. 

“We will leave in five months, in November.” 

Ahiru nodded.

“Alright, first I will show you how to hold a spoon.”

“What?”

She had five months to learn how to be a princess. 

 

FAKIR DIDN’T GET MUCH time to himself, soon a guard stepped into his cell and cracked his knuckles.

“I hardly call this a fair fight.”

The guard said nothing and Fakir scrambled to his feet. 

Damn, this really wasn’t going to be a fair fight. 

 

PULLED AWAY FROM THE warmth of Fakir’s bed, she went back to the palace.

She had one last fitting before the ball. 

Before her wedding. 

She waited in her room, and when Femio came in he flinched at her appearance. 

But, she couldn’t even muster a smile in greeting.

“Oh.” He sighed, he bowed his head, almost in apology, before clapping his hands together. 

She was pulled from her bed, out of her wool dress, and was tucked and pulled into the dress that rested on a mannequin in her room, so it wouldn’t get wrinkles, Femio had said. 

She didn’t want this, being poked and prodded, her cheek still stinging as Fakir was still down in the dungeon. 

The thing was on when Femio started making his final adjustments, walking around her, snipping at loose thread, or telling someone to fix an unfinished seam. 

“Come.” He commanded, holding out his hands. “Dance with me.”

“I’d rather not.” 

“How will we know how well you can move in it if you don’t dance now?” 

Ahiru shrugged. 

She put her hands in Femio’s and he lead her in a lazy waltz, and dipped her, spun her around, made her curtsy.

And when he approved it, it was removed from her skin and she was placed inside of her wedding dress.

It fit like a glove, the stark white nearly blinding.

“Magnifique.” Femio whispered. He grabbed a small veil and placed it over her head, blocking her vision. “Oh, mon petit cheri, you are the perfect bride.”

Ahiru looked at the full length mirror, brought in for these fittings, she pulled the veil from her eyes and thought, yes, but I’m not marrying the right groom.

 

FAKIR WAS RUDELY AWOKEN by someone pulling his head off the floor by grabbing the base of his ponytail.

“Bastard.” He swore.

“Oh Fakir, that’s no way to talk to a friend.”

Fakir’s eyes went wide and he looked up at the cloaked bookmen, his hood fell back to reveal his face. 

“Spion. I knew I never should have trusted you.”

“But you did, didn’t you?” Spion’s grin fell to an uncaring frown. “Drosselmeyer only wants one thing from you. And if you give it to him, he’ll let you go.”

Fakir licked his lips, he rose to his knees to get a better look at the youngest Bookman.

Fakir spit at his shoes. “Fuck you.” 

Spion raised his hand and struck Fakir on the cheek, sending him to the ground, but it was nothing he hadn’t felt before. He spit blood at Spion’s shoes this time. 

“I already know about Ebine, Lillie and Pique but that’s not what Drosselmeyer wants.” Spion snapped his fingers and two guards came in, they grabbed Fakir under his arms and hoisted him up, and a third guard came in. 

“Drosselmeyer wants the names of the Nobles that show you support.” 

The third guard drew back his hand, his fist colliding with Fakir’s stomach. 

“Now.”

Fakir swallowed a groan, he lowered an angry scowl at Spion. “You’ll kill me before I tell you.”

Spion narrowed his eyes at Fakir. “Do you know why I told you our secrets?”

Fakir was silent, but that was enough for Spion to continue.

“Because I believed that you could come to power, but now I see.” Spion’s eyes lazily rolled over Fakir. “You are weak.”

The guard hit him again, the blow landing on his rib. 

Fakir took a staggered breath, unsure if that rib broke or not. 

Suddenly, the guards dropped him and the cage was empty.

 

AHIRU HELD HER HAND on Author’s elbow, they continued their walks, but Autor spoke not.

Not when he was under Drosselmeyer’s control. 

She didn’t even try to speak to him, she let him wander around the palace grounds. 

 

EVERYDAY, THE GUARDS CAME, some days Spion with them, some days someone else, but Fakir didn’t pay attention to them. 

He kept his thoughts on Ahiru.

So long as he thought of her, he would be okay. 

He would get out soon, and he would see her again. 

Every punch, every kick, every whip, every cut, every hair pull, every word that was uttered to him was nothing, all the pain he endured, he endured not only for his kingdom, for his people, for all of Bavaria, but for Ahiru.

They wouldn’t kill him, no—when Drosselmeyer wanted him dead, he would do that himself. 

He was dropped to the floor once more, but Spion lifted him by his hair and whispered a threat in his ear. 

He didn’t even register the threat, he was just sick and tired of them using his hair like a leash.

There was a myth he heard once, about the Kings of old Germany, a tradition they held. 

Taking his hands out of the ropes was too easy. 

It was said that a King that lived in peace, that never saw war, never cut his hair, letting it grow to show his civility. 

He was glad those bastards didn’t do a proper check, that he still had possession of the dagger, hidden just at his hip.

There were two Kings, one with hair that dragged on the floor behind him, and one with hair that never grew more than an inch. 

The wise king and the foolish they were called. 

The foolish threatened the wise over and over and over again, and each time, the wise king refused. 

Until, finally, the wise king became foolish and gave in to the foolish king’s childish pestering. 

With the sharp blade of a sword, the wise king cut his hair as a sign of war.

With a great army, the wise man killed the foolish. 

Fakir held tight to the base of his ponytail and angled the blade of the dagger, and with a quick swipe, his long hair was gone. 

If it was war Drosselmeyer wanted, it was war he would get. 

 

FAKIR WAS SURPRISED WHEN the next day he wasn’t assaulted and was instead met with a familiar face.

“Mytho.” He felt relief wash over him. 

“Fakir.” Mytho knelt beside him, taking his hand. “What have they done to you?” 

Mytho raised his hand to Fakir’s swollen face. 

“I’ve had worse.” 

Mytho’s eyes darted over Fakir’s features, finally landing on his eyes. “Your eyes aren’t like Charon’s.” He said. “Everyone told me that Charon was your father, and you his bastard son.” 

Fakir started to shake his head. 

“But your eyes. You look so much like her. More than I ever have.” 

Fakir’s lips parted, for a moment he felt an ounce of hope.

“So it’s true, isn’t it? That awful story.” Mytho shook his head. “What Drosselmeyer did to you…”

“What he did to us. He robbed us of each other.” 

Mytho stifled a laugh, “You know I always saw you as a brother.”

“He robbed Autor of his family as well.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Mytho, I am the true King.” Fakir swallowed hard. “I’m going to take what’s rightfully mine.” 

Mytho pressed his forehead to Fakir’s, he wrapped his hand around the back of Fakir’s neck. “Then I bow to the true King.” His thumb started making circles. “Fakir, your hair is gone.”

Fakir gave an airy chuckle. “Yes, it is.”

Mytho stood. “You will make a great King.”

Mytho placed his hand over his heart and bowed at the waist. 

 

THE DAY DROSSELMEYER ARRIVED came as no surprise. 

Fakir leaned against the opposing wall, his arms resting on his knees. “I was wondering when you’d make your appearance.” 

Drosselmeyer shut the door behind him, leaving himself alone with Fakir.

“I’ve heard that you’ve been a nuisance. But, I fear that comes as no surprise.” 

“So you think you can do better than anyone else?” Fakir sneered. “You can’t hurt me more than they already have.”

“No.” Drosselmeyer gave him a wicked, beaming smile. “But I can hurt her.”

Fakir’s eyes went wide. “No, no don’t you dare touch her.” 

He laughed. “I won’t touch a hair on her head, but I do have something wonderful in store for her.”

Fakir rose to his feet and staggered toward Drosselmeyer. 

“Do you know what day it is?” Drosselmeyer gave him a twisted grin. “Today is the twenty-fourth, you’re out of time.”

“No, I’ll get out of here and I’ll put at end to this, to you.” Fakir panted, after days of endless abuse, of little food, little water, he was weak.

Drosselmeyer threw back his head. “Like this? You couldn’t hurt a fly! No, you couldn’t hurt Autor!”

Drosselmeyer strode up to him and pushed his shoulder, it was enough to send him staggering back, he hit his head against the stone floor. 

“No, I like my odds with you like this.” Drosselmeyer leisurely walked around Fakir and stepped on his chest. “But, before I send you out into the forest like a wounded lamb, I want to tell you what will happen to your precious Ahiru.” 

Fakir grabbed Drosselmeyer’s ankle with the intention of throwing him off, but he couldn’t. 

“Tomorrow, she will marry Autor and while you and Autor run around in the forest like blind animals, I will make sure that you die.”

“Then what, you’ll run? I don’t think your chances are any better than mine.” 

Drosselmeyer chuckled, he dug his heel into Fakir’s sternum. “No, when Autor wins, he will return and be crowned King, and with him Ahiru will be crowned Queen.

“Did you know, Fakir, that so long as someone is under the pen, they can’t die unless the writer brings their death upon them? Do you know how old I am? Do you know how long I have been waiting for my opportunity?”

Fakir grew uncomfortable, the wooden heel only a slight pressure, but Fakir knew very little of what he and Drosselmeyer could do. He never used the power himself and he sure as hell didn’t have anyone to teach him how to use the horrid gift. 

Drosselmeyer was an old man, he was Fakir’s grandfather, but by the wrinkles that covered his forehead, and the hair that grew grey, Fakir had put the man at sixty. 

“I was given my gift fifty years ago, but I wasn’t the ten year old boy that everyone believes me to have been.”

Fakir leveled him a glare, he didn’t care how old the bastard was. 

“I have been sixty-two for the last fifty years.”

“What?”

Drosselmeyer smiled. “My dear boy, I have put myself under the pen, I control myself and I have had yet to die, to grow old.”

“What about my mother? She grows older.” 

“Aw, a keen eye.” Drosslemeyer released his foot from Fakir’s chest. But nonetheless, Fakir couldn’t find the strength to rise. “At night, when she sleeps, I give her freedom, and it is then when she ages. But soon I won’t need her. Soon, she won’t matter. What was I saying? Ah, yes, Ahiru.”

Fakir grit his teeth, his gaze became murderous, and he was sure it only fueled Drosselmeyer, but he didn’t care, he simply couldn’t control the absolute hatred he felt for the man. 

Drosselmeyer came back and swiftly kicked his side.

Fakir groaned in pain, he heard the crack more than felt it, the favorite target of the third guard, he was sure that was just the last straw.

“The plan is complicated, more than it needs to be, but I like that!”

“You’re ridiculous, you’re a fool.” Fakir rolled to his side, holding onto it as he rose onto his elbow. 

“Helmia will die in her sleep.” Drosselmeyer laughed. “It will be fitting, the instant she’s free, is the instant she dies.”

“If you kill my mother I will rip your throat out.”

“What will it matter, you’ll be dead by then!

“And in despair, Autor will take his own life, leaving his young Queen left all by herself.”

“Shut up.” 

“I will take it upon myself to make sure that she is no longer alone, and by marriage I will be crowned King!”

“Shut up!” Fakir struggled to rise to his feet, he let go of his side and placed both hands on the floor.

“And then, with my own hands, I will kill her.”

“Shut up!” With a vicious roar, Fakir rose to his feet, he raised his hand and socked Drosselmeyer’s jaw, a weak punch, but still one that hurt the old man.

“You will pay dearly for tha- no! No. She will pay dearly for that.” Drosselmeyer pushed Fakir again, laughing with mirth as he fell to the floor, his laughter echoing in Fakir’s head even after he left. 

Fakir took a deep breath, he had to get to the forest.

He took the dagger out from its hidden spot.

He didn’t have ink or a quill, so he would just have make his own.

Fakir slashed the blade across his palm and began writing on the floor.

The door opened and he looked up at the guard, free from Drosselmeyer’s control, but now under his own.

He shook his head, tears welled in the corner of his eye. “I’m so sorry.”

The guard didn’t seem to hear, he came in and pulled Fakir from the earth and he was taken out of the cell. 

He was lead out of the castle, out of the city, and deposited at the forest, and as soon as he was let go, the guard groaned. 

He was no longer under anyone’s control. 

Fakir reached out to him, but knew it was best to leave him be, who knew what Drosselmeyer could pull from him if the guard realized what he had just done, how much of a traitor he could be labeled as.

The forest was different at night, there was no easy path to follow. He wouldn’t be hurt, he knew he couldn’t be, but that still didn’t quell his fears.

He could feel the eyes of thousands of creatures following him, their breath on his neck. 

He had seen the run of Lohengrin, with his pen he could look through the eyes of others, see their path, even if they had long since passed. 

He knew that with very little effort, Lohengrin moved through the forest like Fakir had when he held Ahiru’s hand, but he knew that he was still tested. 

Five tests. 

Intelligence. 

Strategy. 

Mediation.

Morale.

Strength.

He knew that when he ran, he would face the same, ancient tests, and he knew he could win. 

But tonight wasn’t the Königsspiel. 

Tonight was just a night, it was up to fate if he would be killed here.

He heard a familiar rustle, and when he looked to the side of him he saw the giant salamander. 

He sighed in relief as the creature led him through the forest, but the damn thing was fast, and it blended into the world around it.

“Wait!” He called, picking up the pace even with his bruised knees, the broken rib bringing him pain with each breath. 

The thing stopped, only enough time for Fakir to catch up to it before it moved again, but that didn’t matter.

He could hear their destination. 

He could hear the water pour down over the rocks into the healing pool.

Past one last tree branch, he came to the pool and staggered into it before his foot caught on a rock and he fell in, but when he rose from the water, his head cleared. 

The swelling that consumed his face was gone, the bruises that covered his stomach were gone, and his rib was healed.

The slash on his palm, vanished. 

He stepped out of the pond and he was new.

 

FAKIR LEFT THE FOREST quickly, going to the last place he expected to go. 

He knocked heavily at the door and when it opened he was surprised to find the master of the house rather than a servant. 

“Oh! Mon roi, tu es arrivé!”

Femio wrapped his arms around Fakir, but not for long as Fakir pushed him away.

“I was worried you would never arrive but look at you! Mwuah, as handsome as ever.”

“I’m going to the ball, is the costume ready?”

“Yes, but.” Femio tsked, he reached out and touched the choppy ends of Fakir’s hair. “Let me clean this up.” 

Fakir only gave him a glare.

“Don’t you want to look your best! Think! You descend the stairs, you catch her eye, and after weeks of being apart she sees-” Femio pulled at a strand of hair. “This.” 

“Fine, but make it quick.”

Femio smiled, he clapped his hands and Fakir was pulled inside, his hair was trimmed, the bottom half of his scalp was shaven, and it was brushed into something that looked like a passable hairstyle.

He supposed a thank you would have been in order, but he didn’t have time-

Fakir stopped, the image of Ahiru coming to mind, how quick she was to show her gratitude…

She would want him to do the same.

“Thank you.” 

Femio smiled, and bowed. “For you, moi roi, anything.” 

“I- I need you to do something for me.” Fakir said, grabbing Femio’s arm. “Tomorrow, when I’m in the forest, you need to keep an eye on Ahiru, please.”

“I won’t let her leave my sight.” 

Fakir swallowed hard, he nodded.

“Now.” Femio lead Fakir into the largest room his home housed. Two stories tall, shelves holding bolts of fabric. “This is a costume I am quite proud of.” He showcased a simple outfit, one that Fakir would probably actually choose to wear. 

“A blue coat, like the night sky.” Femio wiggled his fingers before he pulled the jacket off.

Underneath was a billowing white shirt, tucked into high waisted pants, black in color, made with a thicker material, made for travel, not parties. 

“And this, will be what you wear to run the Königsspiel. Made with the sturdiest materials I have, it will last you on your trek through the wilderness.”

Fakir reached forward and touched the collar. 

Again, she popped into his head, her bright smile and kind eyes.

“Thank you.” 

Fakir cleared his throat and Femio gave him a slight smile. 

“And the mask?”

“Ah.” Femio frowned. “It is… simple, like you asked. But, are you sure you don’t want me to add more detail? Just some paint, like craters, a bit of blue to bring out what you are.”

“No.”

Femio slapped the back of his hand to his forehead. “Oh, how it pains me to send you out in something so plain.” 

Fakir walked around the mannequin, his hand rising to run over the coat, he hadn’t noticed before, but thousands of tiny, silver stars had been embroidered, making it appear like the night sky. 

Ahiru would like it. 

He was sure of that. 

Femio cleared his throat and Fakir looked over at him.

He held up a plain mask, made of metal, oval in shape, that would keep his face hidden, and two thin slots for his eyes to see.

“Hurry!” Femio called and clapped his hands, and Fakir was surrounded by Femio’s personal servants. “We don’t have much time!”

Fakir was stripped of his clothes, his arms and legs threaded through the new, the mask tied around his face. 

He felt foolish.

“Wait ten mintues.” Femio said, adjusting his own, feather filled mask. “And then leave.”

Fakir nodded. 

He watched Femio leave and stood… Awkwardly. 

He wasn’t sure if this was worth it, he was sure that Drosselmeyer knew by now that he had gotten away, and going back to the palace, it felt like a trap. 

But Drosselmeyer wanted him to run the Königsspiel, at least as a free man, he had the choice to stand up and say something, that he would run, that he would challenge Autor.

Of course, now running the Königsspiel was dangerous, he could die if he wasn’t careful, if his plan went awry. 

He thought of his mother, or Autor if he failed, what their fates would be.

But mostly, he thought of Ahiru, who would be used, more than anyone for Drosselmeyer’s plans.

If he failed, it wouldn’t just be him who died, but everyone he loved. 

He waited ten minutes, kicked away from the door and went outside to find a saddled horse waiting to be ridden. 

He stirred the horse into a full gallop in his desperation to reach the palace.

Over the houses and trees he could see the lights that flooded from the castle’s windows, like champagne that flooded the night with warmth.

He could hear the music, and as he snuck over the garden wall, looking through the large glass windows, he could see everyone in attendance, every Noble that had a right to call themselves Nobles were there, he saw Mytho and Rue, he even saw Drosselmeyer.

But he didn’t see her.

He snuck to the castle wall and pushed on it until it opened just on the other side. 

He would need to get to the second story, to walk into the ballroom’s grand entrance.

Fakir was quiet, sneaking on tiptoe, but every once in a while, he stopped when he heard murmuring. 

It might have even been about him, half the servants wore an oak tree on their person, and the other half would have loved the gossip. 

The prisoner escaped.

He stopped before the door, he could almost feel the warmth radiating from inside. 

Fakir took a deep breath and pushed at the doors until they parted, flinching when they rebounded against the wall. 

The music stopped, no one was expecting such a late guest. 

Fakir held his shoulders back, held his chin high, and walked down the stairs, his eyes darting all over the room, looking for her. 

It wasn’t that hard. 

The fashion this year, Fakir observed as he watched the other ladies brush their hands against their skirts, empire lined, or simple column, skirts with much fabric but ultimately stayed close to their body. 

He had to stop when he saw her, her dress unlike any other, and when he looked down at her, catching her eyes through the mask, he saw her wonder, her disbelief.

Her fear. 

At the bottom of the staircase he offered her his hand, and no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t take his eyes off her.

She looked like the sun.

Chapter Text

IN TIMES OF WAR, you had to choose who your allies were, and who you allied yourself to.

People you knew would always be loyal, and people you would always be loyal too.

And sometimes, it’s not always the people you think it will be. 

When pushed and pulled to the limit, you see how raw, animalistic, and desperate a person can become. 

He had been tortured, I knew that much, just looking at his swollen face, I wondered why he didn’t just tell them, why did he go through so much? 

He smirked at me, the same smirk he showed me since childhood, and then I knew why.

It was never a lie, if anything I had lied to myself and let others lie to me. 

So long as he was here, and so long as he loved, not only me, but his people, he would endure death.

 

PALE LIGHT BROKE THROUGH her window, the full force of the sun blocked by the overcast sky.

She was alone, and she would be for just a few seconds more, before her entourage came in to dress her, feed her, comb her like a pet. 

Ahiru stood and walked to her window, she pushed the pane open and put out a bowl of birdseed, but no birds came. 

She understood why, it was unbearably cold, and she knew it would start to snow soon.

There was a knock at her door, but they didn’t wait for her to answer, Lillie and Miss. Edel walked in, her hand wrapped firmly around Uzura's, and another woman came in, but not Pique.

Every since that night Pique had stayed away from the castle.

She was dressed quickly, something beautiful, she was sure, that made her skin glow, but she didn’t care.

Her hair was brushed and arranged into something stylish, wrapped in a bun, with tiny little braids to add accents. It was a simple style, but that was because Pique wasn’t there to fix her hair. 

The new maid powdered her face, covering her freckles and making her tan skin appear paler. 

Her ears were jabbed, and cold metal was shackled to her neck, she felt the fancy pins that held down a circlet and when she looked in the mirror she looked like a Princess, but hardly herself.

She felt like she was ready and expected to be escorted to breakfast next. 

“Today many people will arrive and you are expected to meet them.” Miss. Edel began, a no nonsense tone in her voice, Uzura still in her grasp, pushing uselessly at her mother’s hand. “The Nobles of Bavaria have come for this ball and your wedding, not just the nobles from Nordlingen. They have come from all over the state. An ambassador from each state has been invited. And I do believe, from Schleswig-Holstein, they have sent a friend.”

Ahiru nodded, keeping her hands folded in her lap as she listened. 

“You will have lunch, only, with the royal family, and your walk with Autor. After you will have some time to rest before the ball.

“You are expected back here at four o’clock so you may get started, Master Femio has asked us to give him three hours to prepare you.”

Ahiru nodded, she felt her stomach tighten. 

Miss. Edel left, her hand never releasing Uzura even as she started to whine, and the other maid went with her.

“Here.”

Ahiru looked up at Lillie, she held a small cookie in her hand. “They’re not giving you breakfast today.”

“What? Why not?” Ahiru took the cookie and nibbed at it, if it was her only meal until noon she didn’t want to gobble it down. 

“Something about your figure.” Lillie shrugged, but there was something off, missing was her flamboyant and passionate speech, she seemed somber.

“Lillie.” Ahiru reached out and held her hand. 

Ahiru’s hands had been rough, they had always been rough, whenever her father came to port, she helped bring the ship in, tying it down so it wouldn’t float away and helped him cast off, she hoisted things onto the deck, as much as she could carry. She took care of the garden they had at home, tending to her mother’s horse, she took care of the house, and it was a habit she had been unable to drop until she came here, where everything was done for her, every chore, every meal, her hands were not needed. 

Her hands, throughout the years, had become work weary, she was used to callouses, and dryness. After a month of being a Princess, of only letting her hands touch silk and lotion, it was like all her work had been erased. There was no evidence that she was the proud daughter of a fisherman.

Lillie’s hands were like what hers once were. 

They were rough, calloused, they were dry and weary. 

It made Ahiru feel even more like a fake. 

“Lillie, are you okay?” 

Lillie gave her a smile, but after a shaky breath, it fell and she shook her head. 

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Lillie nodded and Ahiru stood, giving Lillie the vanity stool. Ahiru sat with her legs bent under her, giving Lillie a small reassuring smile.

“It’s Pique.” She started. 

Her green eyes, always filled with laughter, grew wet with unshed tears. 

“She can’t face you, so she refuses to come here.”

Ahiru tilted her head. “Why can’t she- Oh.”

Ahiru thought back, when she had gone to Charon’s house, and Pique was there, looking distraught and troubled. 

She wore the look Lillie wore now. 

“She’s been in love with Fakir since she was a little girl. But now he’s in love with you.”

“Lillie he’s not-” Ahiru paused, her hand lifting to her lips. When she closed her eyes, she could still feel his lips pressing to hers. “He’s not in love with me.”

“We watch you run off into the forest together.” Lillie confessed. “We watch as you abandon Autor to take his hand.”

Ahiru felt ashamed of herself. “I’m- I’m sorry, I’m not trying to hurt anyone-”

“Pique knows that he doesn’t love her, but she still can’t bring herself to let him go.” Lillie cut her off. “But I just want to tell her to move on!” Lillie let out a flash of anger, but deflated again. “Can I tell you something? And you promise not to be mad?”

Ahiru nodded. How could she ever be mad at them? 

“Pique told the Bookmen where you and Fakir were going every afternoon, that you ran out past the gate. And I think-” Lillie sniffled. “I think that’s why Fakir got arrested.”

“What?”

“I think they started watching you two, watching when you left and when you came back.That night… There was a sound like someone scraping bricks against bricks, and when we came out to see, they were dragging Fakir away.” Lillie fiddled with her apron. “Pique chased after him, but I went to see where they came from and I saw that garden.” There was a look of awe in her eye. “I had never seen it before. I went back the other day and they covered the hole with a tapestry.”

“Lillie.” Ahiru lifted herself up, she ran her thumb on Lillie’s cheek, wiping at the tears. “I’m not mad, not at you or Pique.” 

Lillie smiled. 

“You should go and tell her. How you feel.” 

“I don’t know what you-”

“You care for her, for Pique, a lot. It’s okay. But you should be honest with how you feel.” Ahiru offered her a smile. 

Lillie nodded, she stood, taking Ahiru with her, and they parted, leaving Ahiru alone. 

Was it wrong? 

She had only been here for seven weeks, but Pique had loved Fakir for years.

Was it wrong that she stole his afternoons? 

That they ran away to the forest?

Was she hurting Pique so terribly that Pique couldn’t even look her in the eye? 

She didn’t want to believe that she could cause so much damage, not when she was so happy when she was with Fakir…

But she was. 

She had hurt Pique and it simply wasn’t fair. 

And what did Fakir feel in all this? 

What if she had stolen him away from Pique.

Worse, what if she was only seeing what she wanted to see, that she was projecting her own emotions on him.

But it was her he kissed. 

Ahiru bit her lip, he had kissed her, and made her promise she wouldn’t marry Autor.

There was a knock at her door and Edel returned. 

“There is a room full of very important people that would like to meet you, Princess.” 

Ahiru nodded, she smoothed out the wrinkles in her dress and met Miss. Edel at the door. 

Ahiru walked down the halls of the castle, hiding her chills when her eyes met the window and she saw that the sky was just as dark as it was when she woke despite that by now the sun would be high in the sky given any other day.

She was thrown into a room milling with Nobles, she saw that Mytho and Rue were already there, and Autor was standing silently next to the Queen, both offering a bow at any who came close to them.

Rue came to her immediately, stealing her from Edel, “Ah, there you are, I was wondering when you’d come.” Rue pressed a light kiss to Ahiru’s cheek, just barely, not enough to leave a tinted stain on her porcelain skin. 

Rue was determined to take her around the room to introduce her to all who had come, but they seemed rather interested in Ahiru and came to greet her. 

“Mr. Cat.” Rue said, giving him a friendly bow, which he returned. “I believe you have already met my sister-in-law.” 

“Yes, but what a pleasure to meet again.” He took Ahiru’s hand and rested a kiss on her knuckles. 

He moved away only for a couple to take his place, the two bowed deeply to her. 

“This is the Lord and Lady of Stimmung.” Rue gave them a gracious smile. “Benek and Adaline.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you.”

Adaline laughed and smiled, “Your Majesty, you have! I have been at every ball, every festival, we were never properly introduced is all.”

Benek smiled brightly. “One day, you will have to come to our manor for a cup of tea, we have been to Arnis before but would love to hear about her culture from her Princess.” 

Ahiru smiled awkwardly. “Right, of course. Perhaps in spring? When it’s not so cold.”

“It sounds splendid.” Lady Adaline praised. “I’ll write you a letter when the birds return.”

A proper smile pulled at Ahiru’s lips. “That would be a perfect time.”

The four bowed and the Lord and Lady walked away. 

“The Marquess of Vermittlung, Reginald, and his granddaughter Heidi.” 

An old man, balancing on his cane, gave her a bow, his entire body shaking. His other hand held his granddaughter’s, she couldn’t have been more than nine, but Ahiru offered her a smile anyway.  “It is an honor to finally meet our future Queen, I have heard much about you.”

Ahiru blushed. “I hope I live up to your expectations.” 

“Anyone can, so long as they take their time with what they’re doing.” He tilted his head closer to hers, as if he had a secret to share. “The downfall of a King is caused when he doesn’t take his time to solve his problems.”

“It’s best not to be rash.” She nodded in agreement, but after a moment's consideration, she added. “But, sometimes a King needs to be swift, lest his problem only gets worse the more a solution is delayed.”

He seemed satisfied with such an answer and bowed again, his cane pounding against the floor with each step he took. His granddaughter twisting around to give Ahiru a parting wave. 

“The Earl and Countess of Stärke. Berinhard and Valerie.” 

A young lady and her companion gave her a bow, it was obvious they were siblings with their matching eyes and similar dark hair. 

Ahiru smiled at them, before she could utter a hello, the young man said:

“Hey you’re the girl that went past the gate at the jousting tournament! I’m the guy that went against the black knight and lost. Oh, I guess everyone knows who he is now.” 

Valerie rolled her eyes and dug her elbow into his side. “Forgive Bernie, he doesn’t know when to shut up.”

Berinhard reached behind her and pulled her hair.

She gasped. “You are being so rude!”

“What are you gonna do? Tell mom?”

“I might.” She gasped sharply and turned to Ahiru, to apologize.

But Ahiru was laughing, how could she not when they reminded her so much of her own brothers? 

Well…

The boys she thought of as brothers. 

“You remind me of my family.” She told them.

“Do you miss them?” Valerie asked, the teasing smile she gave her brother turned gentle for Ahiru.

She nodded. “Sometimes.” She turned to look to Rue. “But I prefer my new family.” 

“Ha, I knew it.” Valerie turned on her brother. “I knew I wouldn’t miss you. C’mon, we’ve taken enough of her time.” 

Valerie offered Ahiru another bow before dragging Bernhard away. 

“The Baroness of Taktik, Mildred.” 

A woman in her forties, with glasses hanging on the bridge of her nose, gave an exaggerated bow. “How are you faring, your Majesty?”

“Well, I think.” Ahiru spoke before she processed her words. 

She laughed. “Good, there should always be a bit of uncertainty, it gives you room to grow. Ah! Felix! Come over and meet the next Queen!” Mildred turned back to Ahiru and whispered in her ear. “This is the Duke of Verstand.”

Ahiru looked over at a stern man who leisurely made his way towards her. 

Ahiru felt her eyes widen, she had to pick her jaw off the floor because the man that stood before her, tall and lean, with hair combed back without a stray hair, spektacles pushed up to the bridge of his nose, was a carbon copy of Autor. The man she saw at the Prüfung who she thought was Autor. She had never seen him this close before.

Covered in a few wrinkles, the sides of his temples turning grey, but they looked so much alike, there was no doubt that this man was Autor’s father. 

“Your Majesty, I understand that you are to wed the Crowned Prince tomorrow.”

Ahiru nodded. 

“He’s a good man, just a little impatient, so be patient with him.” Felix looked over at Autor, a concealed sadness in his eyes. 

But as he turned back, the candlelight beamed down and there was a sparkle of light that caught Ahiru’s eye, she looked and pinned to his chest was a bronze oak tree. 

Ahiru gasped, but covered her mouth with her hand, her eyes went to Mildred and searched her attire, at her collar there was a small tree made out of hard leather, the details carved in. 

Ahiru looked around at the other Nobles who had just introduced themselves. 

Reginald had the tree carved into his cane. 

Valerie wore hers in her hair, and her brother had his sewn to his shirt.

Adaline and Benek had matching pendants that hung from their necks. 

Ahiru stood and met the ambassador of each state, and even there she found that they wore oak trees. 

Some made of leather, some made of wrought iron like hers had been, some silver, some gold, one Lady had pears growing from the branches. 

All around her she saw the same symbol. 

The same symbol of hope.

“Ahiru?”

Ahiru’s head snapped to her side, where she saw-

“Rudolf. What are you doing here?”

Rudolf smiled. “I’m here as the ambassador of Schleswig-Holstein.” He leaned in to whisper. “Mother wanted to check if you were alright.”

Ahiru glared at him, something she had never done before, and it must have been a good one, seeing as he leaned back in fear. “She sent me away so her son wouldn’t try and marry me.”

His expression turned stoney. “Ahiru, he didn’t love you, and this was- is - for the best.”

Ahiru lifted her chin. “I know it is. Tomorrow I’ll be Queen, and what will he be?”

“Ahiru, wait!”

Ahiru turned away from him, tore her arm from Rue and left the room, the party, the silly little meet and greet, until she found herself going North, toward the King’s quarters.

 She found the tapestry easily, the hall she stood in so much colder than any other, what with the outside leaking in.

Ahiru pushed the tapestry back and she was in the garden again. 

It was different this time. Different without Fakir.

Everything looked dead. 

The plants gone into hibernation, their leaves frosted over, or simply browning. 

She found the path easily, back to the gazebo, where Fakir had robbed her of her pin. 

“Where did he throw it?” She asked herself, trying to find the piece of metal in the dirt. 

 She lifted her skirts and got down on her hands and knees, pushing past dirt and leaves until her hand hit something smooth and hard. 

Hidden under the foliage of a bush, she found her broach.

She would be damned if she let anyone think her heart belonged to anyone other than Fakir.

 

SHE WASHED HER HANDS before she joined the others at lunch. 

She was glad they didn’t have to entertain the other nobles and ambassadors, she wasn’t sure if she could any longer. 

She sat next to Mytho, and across from Rue, but her eyes stayed glued on Autor.

Just like Helmia, he ate without talking, without thinking, just a blank slate, his strings being pulled by someone else.

The door opened and all halted as they looked at the late comer. 

“Apologies.” Drosselmeyer smirked. “I had some business to attend to, now, what were you all talking about?”

“Nothing.” Ahiru said blatantly. She picked up her spoon and blew on the soup. 

“Well, may I fill the air?”

“No, you may not.” 

“Ahiru.” Mytho warned under his breath giving her a slight shake of his head. 

“The day has been busy, a moment of peace and quiet, is that too much too ask?” Ahiru squirmed in her seat, she was doing her best to be rude, she had two great examples sitting across from her. But both Rue and Autor remained politely quiet. 

Apparently Ahiru was going to have to be the one to stand up to him.

Drosselmeyer grit his teeth, his eyes narrowing at her. “A moment of peace, soon peace will be all you know.” But Drosslemeyer remained quiet throughout the rest of lunch.

Ahiru kept her back straight, she wouldn’t let Drosselmeyer’s words sink into her, not when she knew Fakir would protect her. 

He would get out soon, he would get out soon and he would run the Königsspiel.

She had to put her faith in him. 

She felt a heated gaze bore into her flesh, and when she looked over at Drosselmeyer she noticed that his seething look was aimed at her breast. 

She sat straighter, pushing her chest out, proudly showcasing the oak tree.

Lunch was over sooner than later and Ahiru left the dining hall with Autor.

She let out a sigh of relief. “That was awful.” She exclaimed. “That evil Drosselmeyer just coming in and thinking he can do whatever he wants. He should learn how to read the atmosphere of the room!” 

But her complaining landed on deaf ears. 

Autor walked without purpose, with a straight spine, a level chin. 

She wondered if he could hear her at all. 

“Does it hurt? Being under his control?” Ahiru pouted, she knew Autor wouldn't speak. Not unless he was told. “You know, Fakir wrote a story once, about a duck. To test his powers, he didn’t write about how it ended, but I’d imagine… it didn’t end well for the duck.”

She looked up at Autor again, he didn’t roll his eyes at her, or call her names, he didn’t offer his critic, asked or not.

He was still mean, and he was still rude, but she had learned to look past that. 

She had learned something about Autor that she was sure his father knew too: that he was a good man. 

He was smart, she would say something and he would give her an answer, something science and fact based. 

He was filled with junk like that, and while he could work on his phrasing, she knew that he was excited when he could impart upon her his knowledge. 

With a roll of his eye, he would call her stupid for not knowing, but she could still see, the light in his eyes as he spoke.

She had come to think of him as a friend, and if not for Fakir, she would have been fine marrying him. 

“I’m sure you know about Drosselmeyer, or at least heard rumors about him, and the power he has. It scares me… It scares me that Fakir has the same gift.” Ahiru tucked a loose hair behind her ear. “But I’m glad that he’s sworn not to use it!” she pouted again. “But I also know that, he has to. To win against Drosselmeyer, it’s not a battle of strength, like the fight he had with you, but of who has the most power.”

Autor didn’t speak, but paused in his steps.

“When he wins, will you go out into the world?” 

He took deep and even breaths. 

“You could go out and learn new things, I know you want to do that.” 

He started walking again. 

“And when you come back, you can tell me about all you learned.” 

“You sound sure that Fakir will win.”

Ahiru squeaked, she hadn’t expected him to speak, but she knew it wasn’t Autor speaking…

But Drosselmeyer. 

“Fakir is the true King, the forest accepted him, and tomorrow, when he runs, he’ll win. I only hope that he won’t leave you to die.” Ahiru felt her brows pull down over her eyes. “I’d miss you. You know, you remind me of Ivan.”

“Who is that?”

“He’s my brother, the second born son. He’s like you, too, analytical, but he was always quiet, he never liked to dance at balls or parties, and at dinner he’d keep to himself, or speak softly to Rudolf or Peter, he never talked to me or Gero much, but if he did it would be to tell us to stop running up and down the halls! Or to settle down when we were being too loud.” She allowed herself to giggle. 

Ahiru looked over at Autor, his features blank and he didn’t respond. 

At least Drosselmeyer had left them alone once more.

Good. 

Their walk finished, the afternoon was hers, at least until four, then Femio would come and get her ready for the mask.

She went to her room, she would be by herself for the next few hours, but she didn’t mind, in fact she had something to pass the time.

Ahiru pulled out the journal from its hidden place under her pillow.

Fakir has written so many stories, and each one captivated her. 

 

FOUR O’CLOCK CAME SOONER than she would have liked, but she smiled politely at Femio and placed the journal back under her pillow. 

He handed her a plate filled with dried meats and fruit. “I know they try to keep food from you on days like these.” 

“Thank you.” 

He clapped his hands. “First! Your hair.”

Femio ushered her to her vanity and began pulling her hair out of its haphazard bun and started untwisting the braids. 

“Now, I know that the style this year has been up, up, up! But I want you to stand out!” He picked up a brush and ran it through her hair.

“You’re doing my hair, Femio? Not one of your attendants?”

“My dear, if you are not perfect for tonight, it will be because I have failed you and no one else.”

Ahiru smiled, she reached back and grabbed his hand; giving it a squeeze. “Thank you.”

The corner of his lips twitched. “Now, I have seen your hair in it’s full glory, and I believe that this is the best way to fully utilize your natural beauty.”

He took to brushing her hair out, getting rid of the tangles and kinks. 

“Will you be there, Femio?” She looked at him in the mirror.

“How do you expect me to avoid a party as grand as this?”

“Promise me, then, that you’ll dance with me?”

Femio gave her a sad smile. “Of course I will, but may I ask, why? Surely your night with be filled with wonderful dances lead by your betrothed.”

“No, Autor isn’t one to dance, and I ask because I want at least one good dance for tonight.”

“Princess, it would be an honor to dance with you. There, all done.”

Femio had done little more than take a few pieces from the front and pin them to the back, the rest he let frame her face, cascading down her back. It was different from the current style.

But she preferred it. 

Femio was right, she was bound to stand out, and Ahiru had made the decision that if she was going to stand out, she was going to shine while she was at it.

“I have one last piece that I will add after you are situated in your gown, but I want your opinion of the mask I designed for you.” 

Femio walked over to an assistant who held a mahogany box, and when it was opened, Ahiru could see the red velvet that lined the interior and cushioned whatever was inside.

Femio lifted a golden mask from the box and placed it in her hands. 

“Oh, Femio.” 

An eye mask, one that wouldn’t cover the entirety of her face, golden ribbon threaded through the side that she was sure would be easily hidden by her hair. In the center, at her forehead was a little golden sun, and from that sun carvings and detail erupted, like drops of sun and rays of light curved down the right side of the mask, but the left was bare. 

“An asymmetric mask, when all others will be symmetrical.”

“You really want me to just stick out like a sore thumb, don’t you.” She smiled and shook her head. “I love it.” 

Femio smiled. “Really?”

“Really.” She placed the mask on her vanity, spreading out the ribbon until it poured over the sides. 

It reminded her, just for a moment, of the fair, of sitting at the booth with the ribbons, and that whole time, Fakir was only moments away. 

Femio had started her make up, washing her face clean, first, of the day’s sweat and dirt until her face was a canvas.

“What lovely skin.” He remarked, taking her chin between two fingers and pushing her face side to side. “And they hide it under all that paint.” Femio tsked. “You have been kissed by the sun and they stick out their tongues in disgust.” 

He made the decision to leave her face bare of the powder and she was eternally grateful.  

Femio took goldleaf and painted it on her face, making her cheekbones light up and glow brightly, he took a pale pink rose and applied it to her lips and declared her ready.

It was so… simple. 

Her hair, her face, all of it. 

It wasn’t the extravagance she expected. 

Femio extended his hand and led her away from the vanity. 

“And now, for mon chef-d'œuvre.” 

The dress. 

It was unlike any other she had seen, and mostly because of it’s strange design. 

In short it was very circular.

With a stiff, transparent tulle, and layers and layers of fabric he had created a skirt that flared out at the waist, it was voluminous and with the golden fabric he used, spoke of wealth, but he promised that wasn't what the dress was. 

“You come into the ballroom, the light shines off the satin of your skirt, you float down the stairs like the setting sun, because you are the sun! And for once the sun and the moon are together.” 

It was a pretty image, and when Ahiru saw it as a golden sun and not a golden coin, it became something much more magical. 

She was tied into a bodice, she dove into the peti-skirts, and when she stepped into her shoes - golden, just like the rest of her - she felt ready to leave, the clock struck seven, and she knew that guests would be arriving.

“Wait! Your mask.” Femio came around her and tied it into place, one side feeling heavier than the other. She touched her fingers to it and smiled at him and was about to speak of her gratitude when he placed something on her head. 

He held up a mirror and on her head, like the rays of the sun, he placed a headband, a spiked halo. 

“Now, you are ready.” 

 

FEMIO HAD TO LEAVE to prepare for the ball himself, and was unsurprised when there was a knock at her door to escort her to the ball. 

“Remember, Ahiru.” Femio raise his hands and placed them over her heart. “The moon cannot shine without the sun.”

He bowed and kissed her hand, and left her. 

Ahiru lifted a hand to her chest, and felt a familiar piece of jewelry. The oak tree broach. 

Situated proudly over her heart. 

She watched as Femio left, he turned sorrowful eyes on Autor as he left, but said nothing, for what could he say to a Prince? 

Ahiru wrapped her hand around his elbow and was whisked away. 

“We’re late.” Autor said.

And Ahiru smiled, because that sounded like the true Autor. “I’ve never been on time.” 

He scoffed. “Why am I not surprised?”

She giggled, that was definitely the real Autor. “So will this be like the other balls?”

He heaved a heavy sigh. “Of sorts, however, since there are so many ambassadors from other states, we will be expected to meet with each of them.”

“Ah man, didn’t we do that earlier?” 

Autor smirked. “That was to get familiar, this is a bit different, it won’t be bad.”

They came to a halt at the open doors, waiting their turn to be introduced. 

The shouter inclined his head, before shouting, “Announcing the Crown Prince Lohengrin Autor of Bavaria, and his betrothed, the Crowned Princess Odette Ahiru of Schleswig-Holstein.” 

All in attendance, and it did appear that all were in attendance, applauded their entrance, and together they offered a deep bow and curtsy. 

She smiled, but when she looked to her left, she almost expected someone else to be beside her. 

They took their time coming down the staircase, and it appeared that that was where they would have to greet all those who had come. 

It wasn’t so bad, and Ahiru was able to recall the names that were told to her. 

Mytho and Rue came up to her, and Ahiru delighted in the obvious contrast in their costumes. 

Rue wore a dress that appeared like flames, bright reds and oranges, fading into a deep charcoal at her bodice, her mask black and the feathers sprouting from her hair growing into the sky like smoke. 

While Mytho stood beside her, clad in pale blue, his mask like the ripples in a pond.

They came up to Autor and Ahiru and bowed to them and Ahiru almost couldn’t hold in her laughter. 

“What?” Rue asked, she smiled too, her lips a pretty red. “What’s so funny?”

“I’ll tell you tomorrow.” Ahiru promised. 

How could she explain to Rue that she thought it was ironic that two born of noble blood just bowed to two fakes? 

Rue and Mytho left and the light music grew louder, even over the conversations that took place, and everyone knew that it was time to dance. 

“How am I supposed to dance with you when you’re wearing something so ridiculous?” Autor complained, his arms reaching out awkwardly to hold her hand and waist. 

Ahiru giggled. “It’s clothing, it’s moldable.”

Autor scoffed and rolled his eyes and as he held her through the first dance, she finally realized what he was supposed to represent. 

His coat had been a strange one, made with multiple colors, greys and dark blues, violets, his mask was a pale gold. He was a lightning storm. 

It was something only Femio could think of. 

“Did he make your costume?”

Autor sighed. “Who?”

Ahiru rolled her eyes at him. “You know who. Femio.” 

“Yes, he did.” He said, and the slightest smile overtook his features. “He said that I had a stormy expression one day and it hit him, what my costume would be.” The smile faded as soon as it came. “But there’s a reason for that stormy expression, Ahiru, and you know what it is.”

Ahiru suddenly became fearful, in the grandeur of it all she had forgotten where she was, that she was not safe at home, but in a forgein place, where she had an enemy, where she had made herself a target with the pin she wore over her heart. 

She remembered that there was a slim chance of hope; that tomorrow might not even give Bavaria a King, but two dead men. 

That Fakir wasn’t safe.

That he wasn’t here, dancing with her, but in a dark place that one was never meant to leave.

She stopped, and Autor kicked her shins. 

“Hey, what’d you stop for?”

“I’m sorry.” 

There was a tap on Autor’s shoulder, and a “May I cut in?”

Autor peeled away without so much of a fight and Rudolf took his place, taking Ahiru’s hand, placing his on her waist. 

 “You seemed to be in trouble with your future husband.”

Ahiru pouted, but didn’t look up at him, she simply carried on with the dance. “There is no trouble, only a miscommunication.”

Rudolf nodded. “How do you like it here? Miss Arnis?”

“I miss my father, if that’s what you mean.” She said, perhaps too coldly. 

She was spending too much time with Autor.

“We all miss your father, Ahiru, I meant do you miss the sea? I already do and I’ve only been here two days.”

“I miss a lot of things, the water, the ships and sailing, the fish and the seals, but Rudolf, I’ve found a home here.”

Rudlof furrowed his eyebrows. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying I don’t miss Arnis, that it’s not my home anymore.”

Rudolf stopped. “Mom wanted to make you an offer.” 

Ahiru listened, but she still never looked him in the eye. 

“She feels bad, Gero feels bad. She’s offering you Gero’s hand in marriage, if you accept it, she’ll send down another-”

“No thank you.”

“What?”

Ahiru turned her gaze to him. It was funny, she had lived her whole life looking to him like the family she never had, but when she thought of Rue, when she thought of Mytho, when she thought of Fakir, she had created her own family, and she chose to love them. 

“I don’t love Gero any longer, and frankly, Prince Rudolf, I don’t love you anymore, either.”

Rudolf narrowed his eyes down at her. “You’re making a mistake, accept the offer.”

“No!” Ahiru pulled her hands from his grip. “Tomorrow, I’ll have more authority than you’ve ever had in your life!”

A hand stole hers with ease and she was whisked away into another dance, only her partner was twice as undesirable as Rudolf. 

Drosselmeyer. 

“What would you want?” She asked, sick and tired of being pushed and prodded. 

Drosselmeyer wore nothing out of the ordinary except his mask, that of a plague doctor’s, the circular eyes and drooping beak. 

“Just this dance.” He told her. “Although, I think it is only fair to warn you that a storm is coming.” 

Ahiru went along with the dance. “I think the one who is about to get caught out in a storm is you, Herr Drosselmeyer.”

“You think you can stop me? You think he can stop me? That insufferable brat is on the brink of death.”

“What did you do to him?” Ahiru felt her stomach tie into knots, she didn’t let herself think about what happened in the dungeon, it would only bring pain. 

“We tried our best to convince him to tell us the names, but there is only so much a man is willing to take before he breaks.”

Ahiru gulped. “What did you do?”

“I didn’t do anything.” Drosselmeyer grinned, but from where she stood it looked much more like a grimace. 

“What did you write?”

“Ah! Now you’re asking the right questions.” He laughed, and his steps lead her into a more complicated waltz. “I have the entire guard under my strings, and with each pull, I hurt him more and more. A punch to the throat, a kick to the ribs, it's all in good manners, all's fair in love and war, wouldn’t you say, Princess?” 

Ahiru grit her teeth, in her ears echoed the sounds of Fakir getting beaten, his rasping throat crying out in agony. When she shut her eyes, she could only see it, Fakir doubled over in horrible, heart wrenching pain.

“I only do what I believe to be best for my kingdom.” 

“It’s not your kingdom, and it never will be.”

Even with the mask covering his face, she could see how angry he had become, his expression turned dark, his grin curled into a snarl. 

“We will see.”

He left her there, in the middle of the ballroom.

Ahiru pouted, and walked to the edge of the ballroom, searching for something or someone to cling onto. 

Where was Femio? He had promised her a dance.

She picked up a flute of champagne and started drinking it, letting the bubbles pop over her tongue, let it burn her insides and give her indescribable warmth. 

Ahiru glued herself to the wall, she wanted nothing to do with the ball any longer. 

But, as if her prayers had been answered, the shouter cried. “The Master Femio! Dress designer, hailing from the House of Stimmung!”

At the top of the stairs, looking too much like a peacock, Femio bowed to his audience and descended the stairs like he was floating on air, and it made Ahiru smile, he was born to do this, to be a show-off.

She went to meet him and he offered her his hand. 

“My darling how have you been in my absence?”

“Terrible!” Ahiru shook her head and could barely hold back tears as Femio lead her in a simple box step. She went over the course her night took her when he left her and before he arrived. “I just want to leave.” 

Femio smiled. “Just wait, just wait and it will all have been worth it.”

Ahiru sighed and shook her head. “No, none of this is worth it, and worst of all I’m up here while Fakir is suffering.” 

“Oh, mon petit coeur, not for long.” 

“What?” 

Then, the grand doors of the ballroom crashed open, Ahiru gasped and turned her head to stare, so did many others, and even the music fell silent as a man dressed in blue stood in the open doorway.

Compared to the world around him, the hall washed in gold from the candle light, his dark blue coat became striking, more striking, she was sure, than it was against a blue backdrop and she couldn’t help but be drawn to him. 

She let go of Femio’s hands and walked to the staircase as he made his way down. 

Surely it couldn’t have been Fakir, he was imprisoned, being tortured. The man that stood on the steps had short, cropped hair, whereas Fakir’s was long and pulled back with a leather cord. It could have been anyone under that mask, covering his entire face leaving only slits for the eyes.

His steps down the staircase were slow and calculated, his head turning slightly from side to side, looking for something, or someone.

Seemingly, everyone else knew that she was coming, because they cleared the way for her, and when she finally stood in clear view of the man, he became starstruck. He stumbled, almost falling down the last three steps, but he had found what he was looking for. 

Ahiru walked until her toes hit the bottom step and she looked up at him, and him down at her, and past the silver mask, she recognized those green eyes. 

Her lips trembled and she could feel her eyes watering. 

“Fa-”

He offered her his hand, and she took it, as they walked, the dance floor was cleared of all who stood there previously, and she almost didn’t notice, she was too distracted by the fact that he was here.

Holding her hand.

Fakir sent a glance to the band and with a silent command, the miniature orchestra began a beautiful ballad.

His hand warm on her waist, the other lifting her hand high in the air, he began to dance. 

“What are you doing here?” She asked. 

“Dancing.”

“You’ll get caught, they’ll take you away! You have to leave!” She begged. 

“Drosselmeyer wants me to run.”

Her eyes scanned over him, the way Drosselmeyer talked had sounded like Fakir was broken, like his entire body would have been black and blue. 

“You’re not hurt?”

“No,” He shook his head. “I went to the forest, to the healing spring.” 

His dance had been simple and slow, matching the music that was played, but now it was becoming more complex, hurried and desperate, and he matched the tone with his steps. 

“So, you’ll run? Tomorrow?”

“I have to.”

Ahiru shook her head. “Drosselmeyer will try and hurt you again.”

“Drosselmeyer has no power over me.” Fakir spoke with so much certainty, that for a moment her doubts were cleared away. 

“He scares me. Fakir, I’m scared.” She spoke plainly, she knew she could, she knew that she could rest all her worries on Fakir and that he would take care of them for her, that all her fears she could trust to place in his hands. 

For a moment, Fakir didn’t speak, he pulled her closer to him, and although it was inappropriate, she placed her face in the crook of his neck. 

“You don’t have to worry, not when we have each other.” He whispered into her ear. 

Ahiru felt weak, but when she stood with Fakir he made her stronger. 

Ahiru lifted her head away from his shoulder, he had removed one hand to push the mask off his face, and he smiled at her. 

It was such a rare sight, his eyes soft, and a comfort in all the confusion, his lips curved into the barest smile, but it was the most beautiful feature she had ever seen on anyone’s face.

He pulled the mask down and she felt mirth bubble in her chest. 

Fakir took her hand and danced with her, making her laugh and smile and she knew that under the mask he smiled too, that he couldn’t control his joy. 

Everything melted away, she wasn’t in a crowded ballroom, being watched by hundreds of eyes. 

She wasn’t in Nordlingen, where her future was set for her, where everything was decided, where she would marry Autor and be Queen, where her face was covered in the make up paint, where she did nothing more than walk around in silk dresses. 

She wasn’t in Arnis, where the people she thought loved like her family, had only pushed her away, where she was all alone. 

No, she was nowhere and everywhere all at once, and the only certainty her heart knew to be true was that tomorrow she would be with Fakir. 

As she was now. 

Her eyes were never able to leave him, his face, his eyes, the hand on his shoulder clinging, her other relishing in the warmth and feel of his skin.

It didn’t matter who she was, who she was born to be, who she pretended to be, she was only a girl. 

And Fakir was the only thing that mattered. 

She didn’t know how long she danced with him, in complete abandon, but soon they had to come to a stop. 

In the middle of the dance floor, in the middle of a crowd of people who had started dancing again with them, the bell struck twelve and Fakir pulled away. 

He bowed to her and started to walk away.

“Wait!” She cried, she chased after him, her wide skirt catching on other dancers, and she couldn’t just sneak past them. 

She looked around her, remembering all that she was supposed to be, she saw the Bookmen, the hooded figures standing in the ring, casting judgement upon her. 

She gritted her teeth and glared at as many as she could, she fisted her skirts and ran after Fakir. 

Ahiru pushed through the crowd until she made her way to the door that lead out into the garden and she stood out on the patio, watching him run away. 

“Fakir!” She shouted, she picked up her skirts and kicked off her shoes. 

He stopped, and turned to look at her. “Go back, go back to the party.”

Ahiru caught up to him and grabbed his hands. “Wait, please?” She reached around her head and pulled at the bow that kept her mask on, not caring for the thing as it fell to the floor. 

“It was selfish of me to come here.” He said. 

“Then why did you come?” Ahiru reached for his face, pulling at the mask, freeing his features; dropping it to the floor to join hers. 

What she expected was not what she saw.

She expected an angry expression, angry at her for stopping his escape, she expected his soft expression to be gone, replaced with the hard countenance he usually showcased. 

His eyebrows furrowed, but not in frustration, rather in confliction, his hands rose and fell, rose and fell, and she wished he would just decide to touch her. 

His eyes searched her face, as if she could give him the answer.

Ahiru took his hand and set it on her cheek and her eyes fluttered closed. She didn’t realize how cold her cheeks had been until his warm hand touched her. 

He couldn’t stop himself then. 

He lifted his hand and planted it on the other side of her cheek and pressed his forehead to hers. 

“I came because I couldn’t resist the chance to see you.”

He tilted his head, and she kissed him, crushing her lips to his in utter desperation. 

Ahiru’s hands lifted to hold onto the edges of his coat, pulling him closer to her, while he tilted his head, deepening the kiss.

He pulled away too quickly, his forehead returning to its place against hers. 

Ahiru lifted her hands to touch his face, the soft planes of his face, and he turned his head to kiss her palm.

“Tomorrow, I’ll see you again?”

“Tomorrow I’ll be King.” He kissed her palm again. “Please, stay. Rule by my side. Be my Queen.”

She felt her heart thundering, because there was nothing more she could have ever wanted. Her lips trembled and she felt tears well up in her eyes. 

“I will.”

He grinned, wider than she had ever seen him smile, his hands wrapped around her waist and she was hoisted into the air and he spun her round and around before placing her on the ground again, the back of his hand raised to caress her face. 

He kissed her again, this time so sweetly she was sure she would melt.

“Ahiru!” 

Ahiru gasped sharply, she looked back at the windows, the gislenting lights and watched a figure, dark against the bright panes, call out for her. 

“Go back.” Fakir told her. “Don’t tell anyone you found me.” 

Ahiru nodded, her hands reaching to touch his face one last time. 

His eyes looked down at her lips, and he tilted his head again but her name was called and he pulled away. 

Ahiru watched him run off into the distance, she looked down at the two masks that lay on the floor. 

Gold and Silver. 

Sun and Moon. 

“Ahiru!” 

She knelt down to pick them up, holding one closer to her heart than the other. 

There was a gentle hand on her shoulder. 

“Ahiru, come back inside, quickly.” Mytho told her, grabbing her arm and pulling her up. “It’s the Bookmen.”

Ahiru spared a glance at Mytho before she looked back at the ballroom. 

She started running, before it turned into a full sprint, leaving Mytho behind her. 

Her muddy hem dragged across the floor, her bare feet slapped against the tile as she looked at the grand staircase where the Bookmen stood. 

One held a scroll and read from it. “- a dangerous criminal has escaped from our dungeon. A young man who claims that he is the rightful heir to the throne. These lies have been spread throughout the Kingdom and some have chosen to believe these lies.”

Ahiru reached back and took Mytho’s hand. 

“Our rules, our customs, our traditions have not changed, anyone can challenge the Crowned Prince to the Königsspiel, and we have decided that when this traitor to the crown raises his sword in rebellion, we will give him his chance, he will run the race against our Prince Autor. But a warning to all who follow this liar, anyone who stands with him, and believes him to be King, will be pressed with the charges: conspiring against the crown.”

A murmur ran through the crowd, and Ahiru, like so many others, touched the oak tree she had pinned above her heart. 

“Quiet!” He shouted. He cleared his throat and began reading once more. “It is a reminder that the forest chooses her King!”

“And she’ll choose who will best serve us!” Someone shouted. 

There was some agreement, others shouting their own protests, and others who didn’t know what was going on. 

Mostly people like Rudolf. 

Rudolf found his way to Ahiru’s side. “Ahiru, what’s going on?” He asked over the yelling as the Bookman at the staircase tried to silence all who spoke. 

She looked over at him, there was a look of worry on his face. She shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“The True King will take the throne!” Someone close to her shouted. 

“What do they mean the True King?” Rudolf asked.

“Quiet!” The Bookman demanded, his voice echoing out over all in attendance, and it was enough. 

Ahiru opened her mouth to tell Rudolf to go away but when she looked, he stood with a blank expression. 

Her heart pounded, she looked at everyone and they stood at attention, there was nothing in their eyes. 

“It is advised that you go home, tell your neighbor this news, sleep well, and tomorrow come to support your King.”

Ahiru pulled her hand from Mytho’s grip, his eyes glassy. 

“Mytho, no.” She whispered, reaching out to him, but stopping, there was nothing she could do. 

She started moving away, pushing past the mindless guests until she reached a door, a way out, but when she looked over her shoulder, all eyes were on her, including the Bookmen who stood on the steps. 

 

AHIRU RAN FROM THE ballroom until she was safe in her room, she locked the door and started moving furniture in front of it, but it did nothing to make her feel any safer. 

She took labored breaths before she collapsed to the floor. 

They couldn’t do that! They couldn’t just arrest everyone!

Drosselmeyer couldn’t just take control of everyone like that. 

She had to warn Fakir. 

She stood, as to go after him, but she had no idea where he was. 

She groaned and rubbed her face. 

There was a knock at her door and she gasped in fright, but covered her mouth with her hand.

“Ahiru?”

Ahiru sighed in relief. It was Pique. 

“Hang on!” She called, she went to move the furniture back - really it was just her nightstand - and opened the door just enough for her to get a good look outside. 

Pique smiled before winking. 

Ahiru opened the door the rest of the way, sighing in relief. “Come in.”

“Thank you.”

As soon as Ahiru shut the door, she rounded on Pique. “Did you see what he did?” 

Pique nodded.

“We have to tell Fakir.”

“Why?”

Ahiru gave her an odd look, one eyebrow raised in confusion. “Because he’ll know how to fix it.”

Pique shrugged, and Ahiru began to doubt if it was wise to bring her in. 

She would have to be careful with what she said. 

“We’ll have to prepare you for your wedding tomorrow.” Pique plucked the crown from Ahiru’s head and placed in on the vanity. “To start a bath, and set your hair, we don’t want it to dry funnily.”

“Pique?” Ahiru asked, looking into her eyes, looking for something that was like the old Pique. 

“You’ll have to rise early to start the preparations, the ceremony is at ten.”

Ahiru nodded. She let Pique undress her and fill the tub in the adjacent room with water. 

She was pulled into a cotton shift, and her hair was set to curl, but she stayed silent, no matter how much Pique poked and prodded.

“So who were you dancing with?”

Nothing. 

“He must have been someone, you danced with him for three hours.”

Ahiru didn’t speak, but she blushed. Did she really dance for so long?

“Where did he go after? Did you follow him.”

“By the time I reached the garden he was already gone.” … she could supply one answer.

She was put in bed, but Pique didn’t leave, she sat on the vanity stool and watched Ahiru as she slept, her eyes never moving, barely blinking, and it set Ahiru into a fretful sleep.

Her heart, more than anything, ached for Fakir, to tell him what Drosselmeyer was doing, but also for his touch. 

She blushed wildly, her thoughts consumed with desire.

That he would kiss her again.

That he would kiss her tomorrow.

That he would kiss her.

Chapter Text

THERE WAS A TIME I was certain I knew all things.

I had learnt everything there was to know, everything worth knowing, everything about Princes and Princesses, Kings and Queens. 

I was taught that that was what mattered, that was what made me intelligent. 

But then I met him, and then I met her.

He wasn’t born to be King, the charismatic Prince.

And she wasn’t born to be a Princess, much less a queen, the girl from the sea. 

But I’m starting to learn new things. 

And sometimes a Title means so little when you look into a person’s heart.

 

WHEN EDEL WAS A young girl, she lived in the kind of place young girls didn’t belong in. 

The kind of place that is dark even in the middle of the afternoon. 

Edel had hope that her life would one day see sunshine, but every candle, when placed in the wind, gets snuffed out.

One night, when the moon was full and the sky was clear, and her lip was busted, she made her way to the forest. 

She had heard from the farmers, her brothers, her friends, her father, and passersby, that the forest was a dangerous place, and she hoped they were right. 

She prayed she would take one step into the forest and then she would get to see her mother again. 

She prayed that she would never have to face her father again, or his swift hand. 

She prayed her brothers wouldn’t miss her… 

she prayed they would notice she was gone. 

But as soon as she stepped into the forest, it was as if all were asleep, and she feared that the wrong step would awaken all of the forest’s horrors.

But isn’t that what she wanted? 

Edel moved as silently as she could, moving over fallen tree limbs, careful not to step on any sharp rocks with her bare feet. She had no idea where she was going, but the feeling that she was being led somewhere never escaped her. 

Past the willows and the firs, she made her way to the heart of the forest. 

Her feet no longer padded in fallen leaves and tiny rocks, but soft grass and wildflowers, when she looked up she saw an enormous tree, the top of which she couldn’t see, the branches spread so far out that they could reach the ends of the earth.

There was a rustle of wind, and then a voice.

It was soothing, the calming voice of a mother, the kind one could sit and listen to for hours and never grow tired of the intricacies. 

“What are you doing in my forest, child?” 

Edel saw no one, not even the silhouette of a lady hidden in shadow, but somehow she knew the voice came from the tree that stood so proudly before her. 

There was a pounding in her heart, the feeling of gently growing guilt as if she had been caught doing something she wasn’t supposed to. 

“I- I thought the forest was supposed to be a dangerous place.” Edel said.

The night was silent again, and she wondered if there had been a voice at all, maybe she fell harder than she first thought, but then.

“We do not like strangers stepping on our toes typically.”

“Oh! I’m sorry, I didn’t realize.”

“Most don’t.”

Edel had enough heart to blush and look down at her feet, as if she could avoid the eye of a tree.

“So then…” Edel bit her lip, grimacing when her teeth met the gash, but a sudden stroke of courage filled her. “Why am I not dead?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Well, everyone says that anyone who dares enter the forest will surely perish.”

“Is the King dead?”

Edel paused, because no the King wasn’t dead. Far from it.

“Then that is a lie, not all who step into the forest die.”

“So, why-”

“My dear, we have looked into your heart, we have looked at your desires, the desire to see your mother again, but your deepest desire… Do you know what it is?”

Edel’s only goal tonight was to wake up the next morning in heaven. She shook her head.

“There’s so much hope in your heart, even if you don’t think it’s there.”

Something appeared at her feet, nudging her forward and she walked until she was face to face with the trunk of the tree. 

“I do not want you to die, just as much as you don’t want to. I know that you want a better tomorrow, a place where you can be happy, and I will give it to you, but it will take time.”

Edel’s lips parted to speak, but she stopped herself. 

“Stay here. Stay with me, be my guardian and I will make sure that you meet happiness face to face.”

Edel put her hand on the bark of the tree and inside of it she felt… movement.

 She felt life. 

As if she could feel the heartbeat she knew trees didn’t have.

She lifted her other hand, slow to join the one next to it, the bark was rough to touch, but warm. 

“I cannot speak to many, although many seek my wisdom. Soon, an old man will come, and he will either cause great prosperity, or bring about my downfall.” 

Edel had pressed her cheek against the bark, with her ear to the trunk, she could feel the vibrations of her voice. “What will you do?”

“I cannot see clearly, only that one day a great King will sit on the throne, unlike any before him, but there will be pain if I give the old man what he wants.” 

“Is it worth the risk?”

“To see the sun? Isn’t that worth everything?” 

Edel nodded. 

“So, will you stay, little one?”

Edel closed her eyes. “I think I’d like to.” She paused, opened her eyes and peeled herself away from her embrace of the tree. “What shall I call you?”

“I am only known as the Oak Tree.”

 

AHIRU WOKE UP AFTER a dreamless sleep, and looked around to find that she was no longer watched by just Pique. 

Like pieces of chess, positioned around her, waiting for a hand to make their next move. 

As she sat up, they began to move, chattering like normal, Femio flounced around the room, pulling her dress from the trunk, his workers a flurry around him, Lillie and Pique laughed and gossiped as they pulled out the pins for her hair and the powder for her face. 

They all moved, except for one. 

Miss. Edel stood, a stone pillar, unmoving like the rest, her eyes pinned to Ahiru. 

Ahiru swallowed hard, she was pulled out of bed, as much as the others gave her discomfort - moving like themselves while still moving like puppets being pulled on the string - Miss. Edel’s stare was unnerving, and it made her stomach turn. 

The maids admired her hair as it was pulled from its setting and corkscrew curls bounced around her until Pique ran her brush carefully over Ahiru’s hair, until it was assembled as a gentle wave. 

She was disrobed and robed again, she didn’t get a chance to see her dress, but she felt the smooth silk against her skin and it made her shiver. 

She was pulled and prodded at the vanity until she was perfect.

She watched it all happen to her blindly, in the corner of her eye, the only thing she could focus on was Miss. Edel, her eyes flickering and darting to her at any given chance. 

Ahiru hadn’t even noticed Uzura, tucked away in her mother’s skirts, who struggled to break free from Miss. Edel’s iron grip. 

Ahiru looked down at her hands, they were softer now, the callouses she used to have covering her palms were finally gone after more than a year of lotion and tonics, the beds of her nails, which at one time had been ridden with cuticles and hangnails, were nothing but smooth skin. 

She didn’t have a scratch on her hand, a blister, a wart, dead, dry skin, nothing but her freckles remained, and she hated it. 

She hated the lies, pretending that she was someone when in reality she was nothing, nothing but a silly girl in a white dress marrying the wrong man. 

She missed the hands she had, and it wasn’t that the hands she saw weren’t pretty, but she knew who she was, who she was meant to be. She wasn’t meant for sitting on a throne, she was meant for working in the sun, in the overcast sky. 

The life she had was far from perfect, but at least she could run to get where she wanted to go, at least she could help others, at least she could use her hands. 

Ahiru finally looked at herself in the mirror as they placed the veil over her head. 

She had never looked more perfect.

Her skin pale, her complexion perfect. Her hair tied into complex knots that sat on her head and framed her face. Her neck exposed, the soft skin of her chest out in the open, the neck of her dress cut low. The dress itself shining in the light like a pearl, the intricate beading that she knew took too long to do in the short amount of time given. 

Femio was right, she did look more fashionable today than she did the night prior. 

“The wedding starts in an hour.” Someone said above her, and while she recognized the voice she didn’t know who spoke.

She had promised…

She had promised she wouldn’t marry Autor, but it seemed that this posse wouldn’t let her out of their sight. 

He would come.

He had to come. 

He wouldn’t just leave her to fend for herself. 

There was nothing she could do, and even if she tried…

Surely she would become like the people that stood around her. 

Someone lifted her foot and placed it inside of a silk shoe and she heard it click against the tile. 

She closed her eyes, suddenly thankful that her veil hid her face from view as she struggled not to cry, to not mess up the work they had done.

They would just start over if she did. 

With shaking hands, she reached out to the vanity and helped herself up, the talking around her didn’t cease, but she could feel their eyes watching her. 

She stumbled around the room, searching for the spot where Pique undressed her and when she found the gold fabric, shining like sunlight, she reached down, pushing past the layers and layers of material until she found the bodice. 

She lifted it out of it’s golden tomb and held it under her veil, her fingers groping at the broach that still laid pinned to it.

She sniffled as she unpinned it and stuck it onto her new dress, in the same place, over her heart.

Then, she held the dress to her, closing her eyes and she only saw him, his blue coat with silver stars, his short hair. She laughed despite herself, she couldn’t believe he had cut it, and she would make him tell her why as soon as…

As soon as this day was over. 

She didn’t know how long she sat there, curled up in the memory of him, but soon a hand pressed to her shoulder.

“It’s time.”

She blinked away tears and let the fabric fall to the floor. 

She spared a glance at Miss. Edel, at the child that was starting to cry in her efforts to get away, before she was escorted out the door.

An elbow was offered to her and she took it, she was sure she would wobble and teetere and fall if no one had offered.

She peered out the window, where a monstrous storm raged. 

 

EDEL SPENT FOUR YEARS in the forest, she learned the names of all the trees, of all the animals and creatures that resided in the woods, she learned about the lake, which had a trench that scraped the roof of hell, and the healing pools, five in total, the first and largest was closest to the Oak Tree. She learned that it was always summer there, for the trees liked to keep their leaves. 

“What? How would you like to lose your hair for half the year?” The Oak Tree had asked, causing Edel to laugh. 

Above all, Edel learned about the Oak Tree and her majesty.

The gifts she possessed. 

“Many ask for a sliver of it, but that is unsurprising, humans are greedy. Little Edel, how come you have never asked for my gift? Surely you could take your revenge on all those who wronged you.” 

Edel shook her head, she didn’t want revenge, and she didn’t like the idea of taking control of someone the way the Oak Tree was suggesting. 

“My enemies will get what’s coming to them.” Edel gave a curt nod and she felt the warm laugh of the Oak Tree surround her. 

Edel liked to think that these were the days promised to her. Her days of happiness. Her days in the sun. 

The Oak Tree was kind, and more to her than anyone else had ever been. A greater mother, a greater friend. 

Edel would sit down and listen to the Oak Tree for hours. Listen to her gossip about the hearsay of the forest, listen to her prophecies.

That always confused Edel.

Edel climbed the branches of the Oak Tree, getting higher and higher each day before she grew too scared. 

Her bare feet fought to find balance when she said. “If your gift is to control reality, how come you can see the future?” 

The Oak Tree hummed in consideration. “How am I to control reality if I don’t know the future? How will I know what I’m changing? If it will be for the best, or for the worst.” 

Edel nodded. “I suppose that’s true. What about people who borrow your gift? Do they see the future?”

“Oh no, I don’t give them that much power. I’ve never given anyone more than a leaf’s worth.”

Edel smiled, she liked that answer, she liked that no one else was as powerful as the Oak Tree, she was good and kind, that kind of power in the wrong hands. Edel frowned, she didn’t think she would want that to happen. 

“Shh!” The Oak Tree said, her leaves rustling. “Something comes, don’t come down.” 

Edel nodded, she squatted down until she was seated and her legs hung over the branch.

She heard the footsteps before she saw the man. 

He was ugly.

At least, that’s what Edel thought, her nose scrunching as she watched his deft bow.

The man spoke the way a scholar spoke, with big words, a clear throat, and for too long.

Edel had lost interest after the first few minutes, and apparently so had the Oak Tree. 

Her leaves rustled and her branches shook, a wordless warning to the man, who now seemed to pale. 

“I have traversed through this dangerous place to find you, there are rumors that you can grant people certain… abilities.”

The Oak Tree was silent, her eyes cast down at the man. 

“I simply ask for these abilities, however much you wish to give me.”

Edel glared at the man, confused as to why he was still breathing. He seemed like the kind of man the Walnut Tree would have liked to kill. 

But… it was evident that the Oak Tree wanted him here, standing in front of her.

“My name is Herr Drosselmeyer.” He said. 

Edel turned to the Oak Tree and whispered to her, “What are you going to do.”

“Just watch, child.” Was her response, but a response only Edel could hear. 

Drosselmeyer took a step forward, and reached out his hand until the palm of his hand was pressed to the bark of the Oak Tree’s trunk. 

Edel gasped, as if it was her he had touched. 

Her eyes widened as lightning shot out behind him, nearly blinding her until she looked away. Her heart pounded, and as her eyes adjusted to the light of day, she looked down at Drosselmeyer who, instead of being electrocuted, stared at his hand in wonder. 

“This…” He began, and Edel had to lean forward to hear. “This is a stupendous gift.” 

He bowed his head one last time before he turned and walked away. 

Edel pouted as she climbed down from her perch, until she was facing the Oak Tree. “What was that?”

“An old man who will bring about much pain and loss, but also happiness.” 

“How can he do both? That’s impossible.”

The Oak Tree said nothing, and Edel crossed her arms and huffed. 

“My child, put your hands on my trunk.”

Edel looked up at her with a curious eye. Unsure, but never afraid. 

Edel stepped forward until both her hands were were flat against the Oak Tree.

Warmth passed through her fingers, and flashes of light surrounded her. 

Edel gasped sharply and fell to the floor. “What was that?” 

She looked down at her hands, expecting them to be burnt. 

“I have given you a bit of my power.”

“But I don’t-”

“Edel, listen.”

Edel pushed herself up to her knees, she swallowed slowly and nodded. 

“There is only a small power resting within me now-”

“You- how much power did you give-?” Edel asked, her arm thrown out behind her.

“Half.” 

Edel paled, her mouth fell open. “Half?”

“I have not given him the ability to see the future, for he would try to change it, but I have given you what remains of my reality controlling magic.”

“Why? I don’t want it.”

“One day you may need it.” 

Edel shook her head. “I don’t ever want to use it.”

“There is more to this gift than controlling reality. With it you can look through the eyes of another. You can look into the past, you can see any present. Please, I know that you are too kind to possess someone.”

Edel blinked, and nodded. 

“Good. All that’s left of me now is my ability to see what lies ahead.” 

“Why would you do that?”

“One day, I will get it all back, and all will be right.”

 

AHIRU HAD TO STOP every few steps, not to delay the wedding, but simply because her knees would start to buckle. 

Everything about this day seized her with fear, the people that walked beside her, the uncertainty that the future held. 

Her jaw clattered and her heart pounded and she wondered if it was nerves or just how cold it had become. 

Outside was as dark as night, the only source of light was the occasional flash of lightning, but with it came a clap of thunder, and it made her bite her lip to keep her from crying out. 

She wished the storm didn’t frighten her, she wished she would have been able to enjoy it like she once had as a little girl.

A storm like this meant her father had to stay home, it would delay his trip and she would get to see him one last time before he was seabound for months at a time. 

She wished her memories of the Arnis storms weren’t tainted with death as they were now. 

“We have to keep moving, Princess.” Someone said to her, their voice soft and soothing. 

She sniffled and nodded, wanting nothing more than to stay where she was rooted, or better yet, to run back to her room, to lock everyone away and pretend this day hadn’t come. 

Someone came by her side and grabbed her hand, pulling her up and suddenly she was caged in on both sides. Her hand still tucked into someone’s elbow. 

The words that almost escaped her lips were “I want to go home.”

But she knew the complaint would fall on deaf ears, and more importantly, she didn’t have a home anymore.

Arnis was no longer her home, as much as she craved the sea, and she was never home here, not in this place where she couldn’t be free. 

Perhaps in the forest, her days in the sun, on a blanket with Fakir at her side, a book in her lap, or her face towards the sky, the gentle breeze. 

She didn’t have to be anything there, she was only ever herself.

Ahiru grew colder as she was lead to a door that would take her outside. She carefully took her dress in her hands, not wanting the silk to get ruined by the mud, even with her feet walking along the stone path, and she felt someone raise the train. 

Her poor slippers, they would no longer be white. 

An umbrella was opened above her head and they continued their march to the chapel, but even with it, the sideways rain touched her torso, her sleeves, and her skirt. 

She felt pity for the dress that Femio and his workers slaved over, she didn’t know much about silk, but it seemed like the kind of thing that got ruined in such conditions.

But the dress was just a distraction. 

Something to take her mind off what lay before her. 

The poor silk, she thought as the chapel loomed above her like a menacing demon, the doors opened like the jaw of a beast, ready to eat her. 

The organ played a song that sounded like a death march, and Ahiru watched as all in attendance eerily rose together and turned to face her. 

The hand that held her hand, and the elbow that had led her here disappeared and instead was replaced by Rudolf’s. 

He gave her a brilliant smile and told her that he had been honored when they had asked him to walk her down the aisle. 

What would have been a greater honor was if she had asked him herself. 

What would have been a brilliant smile if it was his own.

She walked down the aisle, her eyes flashing to the blank faces of the people who she knew. 

The farmer’s daughters, the Bauersspiel runners, the Nobles. 

Rue and Mytho, they had been unable to resist, and their glassy eyes made her heart wrench, the organ notes covered her violent sob. 

Until she looked up at Autor and the whole world stopped. 

Autor looked at her with the same amount of contempt and hatred as he had shown her her first day here, he glared at her, the heat of his eyes unrelenting, and it made her recoil. 

She wanted to run.

She wanted so badly to run away.

To the forest, to where she was sure it was sunny, were she was sure Fakir would be able to find her, to take her in his arms and promise that she would be alright, that she would never have to look into such hateful eyes again. 

But fantasies were broken, especially as Rudolf’s hand placed her’s in Autor’s. 

His hand shackled her and dragged her up the steps until she stood face to face, only a body’s width away from him. 

She closed her eyes and felt the tears trickle down her chin. 

 

“WHAT HAS HE DONE?” The Oak Tree asked. 

It had been four years since Drosselmeyer came and asked for a gift from the Oak Tree. 

“He’s so funny.” Edel said, her pen writing furiously on the paper as she spied on Drosselmeyer. “Every morning he wakes and writes what his day will be like. Even how well he will sleep until the next morning were he writes everything again. What does it mean?” 

“He’s a smart little man, I’ll give him that.” The Oak Tree said. “But he is still a fool.”

Edel stopped, she dipped her pen into the inkwell. “Why is he a fool?” 

“He is a fool because he cannot even stop himself from letting this gift infect his mind.”

Edel pursed her lips. “Okay, why is he smart.” She stuck out her tongue, she didn’t care what the Oak Tree said, she thought Drosselmeyer was an idiot.

An idiot and a fool.

“He has figured out what I have never told him.” 

“And what is that?”

“Under the pen, as he so affectionately calls it, he does not age.”

Edel’s eyebrows furrowed together. “Why does he not age?”

“Within the realms of a story, the body only does as it’s commanded, if it is commanded to eat, it will eat, if to speak, to speak. But only those things.”

“So,” Edel’s eyebrows knit closer together. “If he doesn’t write himself aging he won’t?”

“Yes.”

“Well that’s stupid.” Edel pouted. “If you write that the body has to eat, then the body isn’t just eating, everything that’s inside is at work as well.”

“Yes, that is true, but you forget, Little Edel, that magic is different.”

Edel sighed, she let her face relax and shrugged. 

“The King runs today, Little Edel, don’t you want to watch.”

Edel pulled her legs to her chest and shook her head. “No, not really. What difference does it make to me?”

“Oh, it makes the world.” 

Edel smiled but looked down at her paper again, Drosselmeyer was a strange man, but so far all he had done was attempt to make himself immortal. Was he really going to prove to be such a problem? 

Another year had passed and Edel watched as Drosselmeyer’s young wife gave birth to a baby boy.

It gave her the creeps that Drosselmeyer had done so, but it hadn’t worried her until she saw what Drosselmeyer wrote. 

What he decided would become of his wife after she delivered a healthy baby boy. 

That she would die before she was even able to look at the child she had crafted, before she was even able to hold him in her arms. 

It made Edel very upset, almost to the verge of tears and the Oak Tree asked her what was wrong, but Edel only shook her head.

She shivered as a cold breeze blew over her bare arms.

Another two years passed and the King’s wife gave birth to a beautiful little girl. She watched as Drosselmeyer scribed her birth, as he made sure that she was perfect and healthy. 

She watched as twenty years passed and the two fell in love. 

It made her smile, that their love was genuine, that it was untouched by Drosselmeyer’s pen, and that when he ran, he had won fairly. The trees of the forest singing his praises. 

“He will make a great King.” 

But the Oak Tree was silent, she said nothing on how she thought the young man now King had done. 

The Oak Tree had something the others did not, she saw what lies ahead, and just from the stale air that surrounded her when Edel asked what would become of this King, Edel knew that it wasn’t good. 

“Edel, one day everything is going to change, and on that day you will have to rise up in my absence.”

“Absence? But where are you going?” Edel laughed. “You are a tree.”

The Oak Tree laughed. “As if I had forgotten. No, Edel I will tell you now, one day you will see the sea.”

“The sea?” Edel wrapped her hands around herself. “Why?”

“It is where we will have to go, but not for long.”

Edel worried about the Oak Tree’s words, she did not want to leave, much less go to the sea with the Oak Tree when she was meant to stay rooted in one spot.

She did not worry until the day he came back. 

He came to worship the Oak Tree, but she glared at him, the stupid man who had killed the King, and the same foolish man who was desperatly grabbing at power, as if he didn’t have enough. 

The Oak Tree had told Edel about Helmia, about her pregnancy, but also that the Oak Tree’s power was growing with the baby. The Oak Tree almost seemed excited about it, the power had always been returned upon the person’s death, normally their children having already been born, or simply that their actions caused a sudden death before they could even consider having children. 

“He will be the most powerful spinner the world has ever seen.” The Oak Tree said, the excitement in her voice evident. 

Edel taunted Drosselmeyer with her knowledge, the future he had unknowingly written for himself. 

He left and even Edel could feel his anger festering and boiling just beneath her skin. 

“Well done.” The Oak Tree praised. “Soon, he will come back.”

 

THE MUSIC STOPPED AND the pews creaked as all sat down in sync. It was quiet, as if everyone had forgotten to breathe, and the only sounds were the rain beating against the roof and the clap of thunder, which made her flinch. 

Autor’s hands tightened on hers. “Stop that.” He ground out through gritted teeth. 

Ahiru wanted so badly to pull away from him, to stomp on his foot and escape to the world outside, because even if the world outside was chaos, it was better than this enchanted calm. 

The Priest spoke, thanking those who came, telling them why they were here, as if they had forgotten, and asked if anyone would object that they please do it now or forever hold their peace. 

At that moment, she looked to the door, she dreamed it would open, banging against the walls, and there he would stand. 

But the doors didn’t open, and no one challenged Autor to a duel for her hand. 

Slowly she closed her eyes, and she looked back at Autor.

Unsure now of what to do, but almost positive that by the end of today she would be married to someone. 

The Priest cleared his voice, “Autor and Ahiru, you come here voluntarily with hearts prepared to receive each other in marriage?”

“Yes.” Autor said.

Ahiru could only think of the hands that dragged her to where she stood now, that the hands that held hers felt more like manacles than the loving embrace of a husband, or even a friend.

She wanted to say no, to rip her hands free, but Autor had other plans, he glared at her and squeezed her hands. 

She gasped in surprise. “Yes!” She shouted, her voice echoing on the high chapel ceiling, and once she did Autor loosened his hold. 

“Will you love each other, respect, and be loyal to one another until death separates you?”

“Yes.”

Ahiru held her tongue, she knew what her answer was, and to lie would be a heinous crime, but Autor’s hands constricted like a python's and she cried out again. “Yes! Yes.” If only to get him to stop.

“Are you ready to fulfill your obligation and raise your children as you should.”

“Yes.”

Ahiru started shaking her head, “Yes.” 

“Since your will is determined to go to life together, hand each other the right hand and close the marriage before God and His church.”

Autor let go of her hands so that his right took hers. 

He opened his mouth, but moaned in pain instead. 

There was a sound, the sound of breaking glass. 

Autor took his hands away from her and placed them on his head, nearly falling to the floor, and when Ahiru looked out to the crowd, she saw that everyone was sitting in the same position.

They groaned and cried out in agony, holding onto their heads. 

Ahiru backed away from Autor, she removed her veil from her face so she could see better what was happening. 

Rue clutched her head and leaned into Mytho, she shook her head before standing and looking to Ahiru. 

She looked to Miss. Edel, her arms wrapped around Uzura, petting her hair, and sobbing into the little girl’s shoulder. 

Ahiru scanned the crowd until she found Drosselmeyer. 

He didn’t cry out in pain like all who surrounded him, he stood, fuming, a vicious snarl leveled at Ahiru. 

Ahiru swallowed hard, frozen under that cruel gaze. 

Autor reached out to her and grabbed her arm. “Run, Ahiru.” He said.

And she wanted to, but she knew she had to stay put.

She had to stay strong, as much as she wanted to cower away before, she couldn’t now.

Fakir was coming.

She had to stand and be by his side when he came. 

She ripped the veil from her head, letting the small tiara that held it there fall to the floor, barely able to hear the clatter over the moaning. 

She could hear it, even over the rain and the thunder. 

Even over the hundreds of voices trying to figure out what had happened to them. 

Even as the Priest begged everyone to stay calm. 

She smiled.

Past the door, she could hear the hoofbeats of a horse coming this way, it’s horseshoes colliding with the cobblestone. 

She lifted her skirts and made her way down the stairs as a horse cried out before it beat the door open. 

 

EDEL STOOD WITH HER arms wrapped around the Oak Tree, unable to stop the tears from falling down her cheeks. 

“I never would have said it had I known.” 

“Hush, child. I know.” 

Edel shook her head, her cheeks scratching against the bark. “You should have told me.”

“If I warned you, you would not have said it, and he would never have come back.”

“But, you promised me!” Edel pulled away from the Oak Tree and wiped at her eyes. “You promised me.”

“Yes, yes I did, but I told you it would take time.” 

Edel took a deep breath and wiped at her eyes. “I just don’t understand, what do you gain from doing this?”

“He will think he has the upper hand, when he is simply a fool.”

Edel chuckled, but it faded quickly. 

“Quick, he comes.”

Edel stiffened, before she took refuge behind a tree deeper in the forest. 

She watched as Drosselmeyer came, carrying an axe in his hands. 

“You think that will solve anything?” She couldn’t help but call out. 

Drosselmeyer’s grip on the axe tightened. “Yes, with the Oak Tree dead, no one can control my fate but me.” 

“And what will you do with your new found freedom?” 

“I will write my way to power.” 

He took the axe in his hand and drew it back, whacking it against the tree. 

Edel let out a scream, she didn’t feel it herself, but it was almost too much to watch.

“To the crown!” He cried out, whacking against the tree. “To all of Germany!” 

Edel closed her eyes, she covered her face, and she fell to the forest floor but even with her greatest efforts, she still could hear Drosselmeyer as he murdered the Oak Tree. 

He chopped and chopped and chopped, hacking away the Tree’s once great trunk.

He laughed before crying. “Timber!” 

She heard the creak of the Oak Tree, heard her fall, the panic of the birds as they flew from the scene of the crime.

Drosselmeyer slammed his axe into the stump and left. 

Edel whimpered and cried until she was sure he was gone, and only then did her eyes open, and she let go of her ears. 

“Edel.”

Edel let out a sigh of relief, one that was filled with panic still. 

Edel stood and ran to the fallen tree, she knelt and put her hands on the Oak Tree, she pressed her cheek to her.

“With the last of my magic, I can save myself or-”

“Or what?”

“Or I can ensure that you have happiness tomorrow.”

Edel shook her head. “How can I be happy without you?”

“I can take away the memories you made in the forest, you can go back to the kingdom, and live a life of happiness.”

“No!” Edel shook her head. “No, you promised me happiness, but I won’t take it if it means I lose you.”

“Then you won’t find happiness for another twenty-one years.” 

“But I’ll have you?”

“Yes.”

Edel sniffed. “Save yourself, please.”

The Oak Tree let out a breath and a soft light covered her, like the light of a firefly, soft and pale; like the light of a star, bright and twinkling.

Edel watched as the light grew smaller and smaller until there was nothing left but three feet, if that. 

The light shone in the shape of a body and as it settled, Edel saw the body of a little girl form.

Like a puppet, at first, her joints too obvious, but Edel sat in wonder as the wood grain in her cheeks grew soft, turning into the fresh skin of a toddler. 

The girl gasped and sat up. “Where am I, zura!” 

Edel blinked her eyes at the little girl. Was this the Oak Tree now? “You’re- you’re in the forest.”

“Oh! And who are you, zura?” 

Edel swallowed hard, she didn’t think that the Oak Tree would have forgotten her…

Would she ever remember? 

“My name is Edel, I have been your guardian for, well, for a long time.”

“Oh.” 

Edel took a moment to look at the small child, who looked so much like her. Edel lifted her hand to touch the child’s cheek, their skin the same milky pale, her eyes the same grey that Edel’s eyes had always been, the same hair that should have been straight, but wouldn’t lay right. 

“Let’s go, zura!” The little girl stood and held out her hand for Edel to take.

“Go where.” Edel asked, standing on her own but still taking her hand.

“Hmm, to the beach, zura!” The little girl smiled, and pointed north. “That way, zura.” 

“Wait, do you know who the Oak Tree was?” 

The little girl blinked and shook her head, a great smile painted on her features. “But I know who I am, zura!” 

“And who are you, little one?”

“My name is Uzura, zura!” She shouted proudly. 

“Uzura.” Edel repeated, before giving her a gentle smile, “Alright little Uzura, how do we get to the beach?”

“Hmm.” Uzura put her finger on her chin in contemplation. “I don’t know, zura! All I know is that it’s that way. Someone’s waiting for us, zura.”

Uzura started to pull Edel’s hand, and as they exited the forest, she heard the voices of the other trees call out to her.

“Protect her, child of the Oak Tree.”

“Watch over her, and bring her back to us one day.”

“Keep her safe, she’s a rowdy one.”

“Your journey will be long, and you will suffer much, but happier days will shine upon you.” 

“You have the future in your grasp.” 

Edel stepped out of the forest for the first time in thirty three years, she looked at the walls of her old kingdom, and for the first time wondered what had become of her family. 

“Once we get there, zura, there’s a pretty lady that we have to take care of.” Uzura told Edel. “But we have time.”

“Do we?” Edel asked, she watched as the sun set. 

It felt like her time was coming to an end. 

 

SHE COULDN’T STOP THE smile that overtook her features when her eyes met Fakir’s, and she didn’t miss the gentle look he cast her way before he set his face into hard determination as he faced down his enemy. 

Drosselmeyer tilted his chin at Fakir, casting an evil glare, he said, “And may I ask why you’ve come and disturbed this joyous occasion?”

“I think you already know.” Fakir swept his leg over the back of the horse and dismounted. He left the horse to stand by Ahiru’s side. “Unless you forgot the horrendous crimes you have committed.” 

“I presume you speak about the old rumors, Fritz.” Drosselmeyer kept his hands held behind his back as he stepped out from the pews to stand at the mouth of the aisle. “Rumors that simply aren’t true.”

Fakir grit his teeth, “I think you know what’s true, and it isn’t the falsehoods you’ve been feeding the people!” 

Drosslemeyer put a hand over his heart. “Are you calling me a liar?”

“Lying isn’t even the worst of your crimes.” 

Ahiru stepped closer to Fakir until her arm pressed against his, her knuckles brushing against his hand. Gazing up at him, she saw all the hatred he held, all the anger, manifested in a scowl that was directed at Drosselmeyer, if only the fool knew when to quit.

“My dear boy, I have been a loyal advisor to the crown for well over twenty years, whereas you are just the illegitimate son of a blacksmith.” Drosselmeyer guffawed. “Who would choose to believe you?” 

“It doesn’t matter what others believe, if they believe the truth or the lies you’ve fed them, but nonetheless I, Prince Lohengrin Fakir of Bavaria, challenge Autor from the house of Verstand, to the Königsspiel.”

Drosselmeyer threw back his head in a vicious, braying laugh. 

“Not even you can stop me from running.” 

Fakir wrapped his hand around Ahiru’s, and she intertwined their fingers, grabbing onto his arm with her other hand to pull herself closer. 

Drosselmeyer’s mocking stopped, his wide mouth closed into a firm line and his eyes cast a dim glare at the two, and then their joined hands.

“I believe that the Königsspiel, in order to keep participants safe, may only be won if they are supported by a high ranking Noble, or higher.” 

“That is a lie!”

Ahiru gasped, her attention drawn to the man that stood, his glasses shining in the light. 

“And even if that were true,” The Duke of Verstand said. “I support his race.” 

Ahiru watched as the other Nobles stood, the Lord and Lady of Stimmung, the Marquess of Vermittlung, the Earl and Countess of Stärke, the Baroness of Taktik, and even their surrounding family stood with them. 

Even, Ahiru watched from where she stood, as the Queen rose from her position, climbed the chapel steps to stand behind Drosselmeyer. 

“I support his race.” 

Fakir’s hand tightened around Ahiru’s, and she watched the anger fade as he looked up at his mother. 

“For Twenty-Four years you have possessed my body, Herr Drosselmeyer.” She spat out his name like venom on her tongue, her eyebrows furrowed in an unrivaled fury. “I have watched your horrors first hand and from me you have taken my father, my husbands, and my son. I watched as you placed a forgein child in my arms and forced me to claim him as my own, but the man called Autor is not the true Prince of Bavaria!”

Helmia’s voice grew louder and louder until her sorrow rebounded off the high ceilings, and when she finished, she breathed heavily, her chest heaving. 

Helmia looked out to those before her and she cast them a look of pity. “He has taken possession of your bodies for the past twelve hours as he has taken possession of me for the past two decades.” 

“I have done no such thing!” 

Fakir grit his teeth, his anger reset. “You would try to lie to those you have enslaved?”

“You listen here, boy, I have done nothing but be-”

“Oh save it, Drosselmeyer!” Helmia cried out. “I never trusted you, but Father did, and by doing so lead to his downfall, I will not let my people make the same mistake!” 

“Autor.” The Duke of Verstand called out, gaining the attention of all around him. “Do you wish to run the Königsspiel for the chance to be King?” 

Autor licked his lips, but before he could say a word, Drosselmeyer spoke again. 

“There is no proof that what her Majesty says is true! Therefore Autor still must run.”

“I have proof!” Helmia cried out, casting her glare down at Drosselmeyer. 

“Then give it.” 

Helmia took a deep breath and looked out over the sea of people, stopping only when her eyes met Fakir’s. “Twenty-one years ago, I had a son, a child with hair like midnight and eyes like the forest, but upon his chest was a gruesome birthmark, it was this birthmark, Herr Drosselmeyer, that you used to trick me. Ugly, you called it.

My child has a birthmark across his chest, like the scars of battle, from his right shoulder it stretches to his left hip. Believe me when I say it is no minor thing. Whoever bears this mark, be it Autor or Fakir, is my true son.” 

Drosselmeyer leveled a glare at Fakir, before he raised his hand, as if allowing such a thing to be showcased. 

Fakir’s hand slipped out of Ahiru’s as he made to undress himself, and Ahiru watched as Autor ripped away his wedding attire to reveal his bare chest. 

There were shocked gasps, and when Ahiru finally put her attention back to the man who stood next to her she gasped too. 

The birthmark Helmia described didn’t look like a birthmark at all, but instead a terrible, and jagged tear, as if someone had sliced him in half and messily stitched him back together. Ahiru had to remind herself that Fakir had not actually been hurt. 

“That proves nothing! You simply could know that Fakir has that birthmark and Autor doesn’t and made it all up!” Drosselmeyer cried out in a desperate whine. 

“Then there is only one way to settle this.” Helmia said. “Both Autor and Fakir will run, the winner, as decreed by the forest itself, will be crowned King. And we pray that neither shall perish.”  

Drosselmeyer’s eyes shifted over from Noble to Noble, and even those who stood with the Nobles now, and saw that he could not refuse, that he had lost. 

“Wait, zura!” 

“Uzura, no!” 

Miss. Edel tried to grab Uzura, but she escaped, running to stand beside Drosselmeyer. 

“How will we know who wins, zura, when the Oak Tree no longer stands, zura?”

Miss. Edel rushed forward, she took Uzura’s hand and hid the child behind her. 

“Child, it is the forest who declares the winner.” Helmia said, giving Uzura a confused glance. “Who ever can complete the challenges and survive.” 

“But-”

“Hush!” Miss. Edel warned, turning to show Uzura a finger placed to her lips. 

Drosselmeyer watched the exchange with a careful eye, and Ahiru watched him. 

Ahiru didn’t know what he was thinking, if he considered Uzura rude for speaking out, or if he was devising a new plot to use Uzura to his advantage. 

“When the clock strikes twelve.” Fakir spoke. “The Königsspiel shall be run.”

Ahiru looked at the clock tower through the window, but it wasn’t close enough to get a good look at the hands, nor was it facing her direction. 

“There shall be no weapons.” The Duke of Verstand said, stepping out into the aisle. “And you must go alone, there may be no outside interference.” His eyes flashed between Fakir and Autor.

Ahiru watched as Fakir nodded, it didn’t seem fair to her. He was just to go alone, with nothing to protect him? 

Although, she supposed that was the point. 

If he could not withstand the might of the forest, how could he ever hope to be King? 

Ahiru wondered if it would be easy for Fakir, if he would be able to walk down the well worn path as they always did, or if the forest would contort itself to present itself as how it truly was? 

Then what of Autor? 

Ahiru looked to him as he pushed the bridge of his glasses. 

If Autor wasn’t the King, what would the forest do to him? 

Break his leg like that poor boy? Or worse? 

Would it kill him? 

She was sure that no one had the answer, that no one knew the outcome of this race, this game they played, throwing down their lives just to be King. 

But for Fakir, it was about more than just being King, it wasn’t the riches and divine power he craved. Something had been stolen from him, and he wanted it back. More importantly however, was his love for his people. 

To Drosselmeyer, they were but pawns, his to use however he wished, but to Fakir, they were friends and loved ones, they were people he knew and cared for. 

Fakir didn’t want the crown for his own selfish gain, but to lead the people - his people - down a path of happiness and peace, of joy and prosperity. 

In the end, it’s what she wanted as well, she didn’t want anyone to suffer the way they suffered under Drosselmeyer, under the way she suffered. All she wanted now was to lead these people to better days. 

She was sure she could do it, with Fakir by her side. 

Ahiru looked around her, late to notice that the chapel had emptied, now all that stood were the seven Nobles, Mytho and Rue, Miss. Edel and Uzura, Helmia, and Drosselmeyer. 

As if time were frozen, none moved, until Drosselmeyer took a step forward. 

“Best of luck, Fritz.” 

Drosselmeyer walked out of the chapel, but Ahiru remained on alert, he was up to something she was sure. 

And she had to make sure that Uzura wasn’t going to be hurt by him. 

She had cast a glare at Drosselmeyer as he left, but felt her features soften when Fakir took a gentle hold of both her elbows. 

“Fakir.” She reached her hands up until she touched the back of his head. 

“It’ll be over soon, I promise.” He pulled her close to his chest and encased her in a loving embrace, his hands splayed on her back to hold her close, as if she would pull away. 

“But what’s in there, Fakir? How can you say that when-”

“How many times have we entered the forest together?” 

Ahiru shook her head, she felt her eyes misting and her hands crawled up his chest to grip on the loose shirt. “It’s different this time, Fakir. What if I- what if I lose you?”

“Shh, there will be no talk of that.” He lifted a hand and rested it on the nape of her neck, his thumb rubbing up and down. “We will be together before the sun fades.”

“What sun? There is no sun today?” 

“Ahiru.” He spoke her name sweetly, and he pulled her closer. “You have to have hope, you have to have strength, without it I have nothing. I only know the outcome with certainty because your light guides me. You give me courage, Ahiru, none like I have ever had.”

Ahiru closed her eyes tight, unable to stop the tears as they cascaded down her face. “I’m weak, but you make me strong.” 

Her arms tied themselves behind his back as she molded herself to his body, to feel his breathing, to feel his heartbeat.

She lifted her face away from his chest and looked up at him as his hands found purchase on her face. He kissed her, but it was all too short, his lips pressed to hers for only a second before he pulled away from her. 

Then Ahiru understood why, beside them now stood the Queen. 

Fakir bowed to her, and Ahiru followed his lead with a curtsy, but she raised her hand. 

“Please, don’t.” Helmia looked between them, but her eyes rested on Fakir, she lifted her hands to touch his face, and she laughed. “I have waited everyday for you to return.”

She hugged him tightly, and kissed his temple.

“Mother.” He said so softly and sweetly, but his voice bubbled with barely constrained emotions. 

“You saved me, didn’t you?”

“I did, but I couldn’t do it for a long time; I wasn’t strong enough.” 

“What has become of Drosselmeyer?” Helmia pulled back, “Why do you let him walk freely?”

“I-” Fakir blushed and cleared his throat. “I broke his ink pot, and hid any others. I was able to break his hold on you.” 

Helmia grinned. “You hid them? Really?”

Fakir nodded. 

She laughed, an airy chuckle and it sounded so much like Fakir’s. “It’s what that rotten bastard deserves, I pray her never finds one again.” She sighed and her smile faded. “It is almost time, be quick, for me please? I want to see you soon.”

Fakir nodded and she hugged him one last time. 

Helmia turned to Ahiru and touched her chin. “Hello, dear, I’ve heard that you have fallen in love with my son.” 

Ahiru blushed but nodded. 

“Good, I don’t want him to marry anyone else except the person he loves.” 

Ahiru looked down and her blush brightened, but she nodded again. 

“Mother?”

The three who stood looked over to Mytho, who waited patiently a few steps away. 

“Oh, Mytho.” Helmia’s expression into one of pity as she came over to Mytho and touched his face as well, wiping at his tears until he wrapped her up in his arms. 

“I’m so glad Fakir was right.” Mytho smiled. 

Helmia pulled away but took Mytho’s hand before reaching out for Fakir’s. She smiled as she looked between them, before she turned her head to Autor. “Come here, Autor.”

Autor stood straight as he came down the steps towards her, but he seemed worried. 

Helmia let go of her son’s hands and took Autor’s. “You are not the son I gave birth to, but I have watched you everyday, I have watched you grow and learn, I watched as you played out in the fields and learned to read, and while I am not your mother, for you were stolen from her, I will always love you as my own.”

Autor let out a loud sigh of relief and fell into her embrace. 

“Well, isn’t this touching?”

Ahiru’s head shot to the door, where Drosselmeyer stood at the chapel entrance, he grinned, as if he hadn’t been defeated, and walked inside, his heels clacking against the tile floor. 

“You’ve run out of time.” Drosselmeyer said, and as he did, the first chime struck. “Make your way to the forest.” He swept out his arm, a grand gesture to the west. 

Fakir looked to Autor, and Autor looked to Fakir.

They seemed determined. 

There was a set outcome and both knew what it was. 

Ahiru prayed they would tell her, she felt left in the dark by her ignorance, and why were they privy to the future? It seemed unfair. 

They left Helmia’s side, and Fakir did not pass Ahiru without giving her a parting glance, walking out the door together. 

Ahiru thought that Drosselmeyer would leave with them, but instead he shut the door behind them. 

And perhaps if he hadn’t, Ahiru wouldn’t have missed the faded storm, that the rain had calmed to a dull patter, that the sun almost broke through the clouds. 

 “As for the rest of you.” Drosselmeyer began. “I think it is wise that you don’t leave this place, lest you try to aid the two runners in some way.” 

Helmia strode forward and took Ahiru’s hand, pulling her back, Helmia had noticed what Ahiru didn’t.

That Drosselmeyer’s deadly glare had rested on Ahiru. 

“You can no longer do anything to us.” Helmia said, pulling Ahiru back until they stood in line with everyone else. “Fakir made sure you couldn’t.” 

“Do you even understand what that means, Helmia?” 

“It means you can’t have me anymore!” 

“And why would I want you? You who have tainted everything I have worked so hard to achieve. No, it is not you who I want. Far from it.” 

Drosselmeyer stalked towards them, as if he could take them all on. 

“There is… unfinished business. It seems that I was not successful the first time.” Drosselmeyer’s eyes left Ahiru’s and landed on Uzura. “Apparently an axe isn’t a worthy murder weapon.” 

“You’re a bad man, zura!” She called out, she escaped from her unsuspecting mother to Drosselmeyer’s side, and kicked his shin before she ran away.

Drosselmeyer howled in pain. “Why you little!” Before he turned to chase after Uzura. 

“No!” Ahiru rushed forward and grabbed Drosselmeyer’s arm. “I won’t let you hurt her!”

“Let go of me at once!”

“No!” Ahiru cried.

“Then I have a gift for you.”

“I don’t want-” Ahiru gasped sharply, she had held onto him for dear life until there was a sharp pain in her stomach. 

Ahiru stumbled back, and when she lifted her hand, her finger brushing against the hilt, she had no doubts about what Drosselmeyer’s gift had been. 

Hands pulled at her, but she shook her head. “Uzura.” She said, “He’s going after her, I can’t!” 

Ahiru groaned, but she soon grew used to the odd sensation of the dagger pressing against her skin, but when she tried to walk, the dagger shifted and moved inside of her. 

“Ahiru, sit down!” Someone called out, but she didn’t listen. 

She took a deep breath, and placed her fingers on her stomach, the warm blood seeping into her gown. 

So long as she didn’t take out the dagger she wouldn’t bleed to death. 

Ahiru looked at Fakir’s horse and whistled for it to come. 

She met it halfway, and climbed up onto it’s saddle. 

“Ahiru, get down!” Rue called out, running to her side and pulling at her hand. 

Ahiru shook her head. “I have to go to Uzura, he’ll hurt her.”

“Mytho will go, I’ll go!”

“No.” Ahiru shook her head. “No one knows the forest as I do.”

“Ahiru?”

Ahiru looked out the doors, she could see the clouds becoming paler and paler, the blue sky peeking through, and with it sunshine. 

She kicked the horse’s side and sent it into a gallop, she cried out in pain, as the horse’s rapid movements jostled the dagger, but she grit her teeth and headed for the forest.

Chapter Text

THE KÖNIGSSPIEL IS A game played, a race ran between two, three, ten, or thousands, any who think they are worthy to wear the crown and rule the people. 

Into the forest, faced with riddles and challenges, no sword to raise above their heads, no library to turn to, no moral compass to guide them but their own hearts. 

No one truly knows what lies in the forest. 

Trolls.

Dragons.

Goblins.

The Devil himself. 

The forest is mysterious, it is more than a force of nature, but a force of magic. Not for the weak of soul, or one full of fears and doubts. It isn’t for the greedy, or those looking for power. 

It is a place not made for any person, and he who sets foot inside is lucky if they step out of it alive. 

The one thing I knew, was that the forest was alive. Alive in a way I didn’t expect.

The forest was to be respected, not played with. 

I had walked into the forest many times, but now…

Now I march into trial, with my entire life on the line. 

 

“IS NO ONE GOING to stop her?” Queen Helmia asked, staring dumbfounded at the chapel doors that swung wildly. 

“Wait.” Edel held onto the Queen’s arm.

“For what? She’s going to die!”

“She will not die, the forest will protect her.”

Helmia took Edel in, her eyes flashing up this strange woman’s body, looking for truth. 

“We can watch.”

“We can?” Mytho stood from where he held Rue’s hand, giving her comfort, and she rose with him, doing her best to hide her swollen eyes.

Edel nodded. She pulled out a small book, leatherbound, from her pocket and with it a small jar of ink and a pen. 

Soon all crowded around her. 

“There can be no outside help.” The Duke of Verstand reminded her. 

Edel nodded. “Yes, I know. I will only look through their eyes, I will not control their reactions. I swear it.” 

Edel looked around her, searching for those who would disagree, but when she found none, she knelt down to the floor, and opened the book. 

 

AHIRU COULD JUST SEE them, the scarlet of Drosselmeyer’s cape billowing behind him, she heard the beating of Uzura’s drum echoing in her ear, but she felt the burning sensation that worsened with each gallop and pulled the horse to a stop. 

She groaned and placed her hand on her stomach, the tips of her fingers just brushing against the steel of the dagger, her hand wet with warm blood. When her eyes returned to their racing figures she watched as they disappeared into the forest.

Ahiru grit her teeth, she took a gulp of air before kicking the horse and racing to the forest. Each step the beast took jostled the blade, and she could feel the skin it touched tearing and ripping, could feel the blood dripping down her stomach. 

But Drosselmeyer had done too much. He had robbed and killed and beaten, he ripped apart the lives of so many and Ahiru refused to allow him the satisfaction of murdering an innocent child.

 

THE FIRST STEPS INTO the forest were not unlike the ones he had taken hundreds of times before, cautious, alert. 

But unlike the times he had taken Ahiru’s hand and lead her into the forest, to that glade, the trees did not part for him, and his path was unclear. 

When he had first entered, he was only a breath away from Autor, but now he was utterly alone. 

Already, he was warmer, the sweet summer sun shining down on him in a clear blue sky. Like her eyes. 

He shook his head. He had to focus!

But focus on what? 

As he stepped over fallen branches and rocks, there was nothing. 

Even the birds of the trees were silent. 

Suddenly, the crunch of fallen leaves and tiny sticks had turned to smooth tile.

“What the-?” 

Fakir looked at the ground, all around him. And found himself in the palace library. 

“How did I-?”

“You are asking the wrong questions.”

Fakir’s head snapped to where the voice came from, and he saw the Duke of Verstand, standing only feet away with a book in his hands. 

Somewhere, a piano began to play. 

“Where am I?”

The Duke looked up from his book. “The forest, of course. And in case you forgot, you are running the Königsspiel.”

“But how did I-”

“Get here? Simple.” The Duke snapped his book shut and Fakir was face to face with a great tree. “What did you think was in the forest, Fakir? Hm?”

Fakir shook his head. “I don’t know.”

“Monsters? Foul things that run amok, attacking and eating whoever dares enter here?”

“Possibly.” 

“What do you know, Fakir? You think you can be King?”

There was a sound like scraping, and Fakir felt the lip of a chair hit the back of his knees and as he fell into the seat he was back in the library. He was tucked into a desk with a pen and a paper in front of him. 

“I know that Drosselmeyer attempted to murder me, that he kept my mother as his slave. A puppet.”

“Good, and do you know how?”

Fakir fisted his hands. “A terrible power.”

The Duke nodded. “Terrible indeed, but what is the use of a sword?”

“A sword?” Fakir asked, turning his head to look at the man that now circled him. 

“Yes, like the ones you smith. A weapon, or a tool?”

Fakir blinked his eyes and stared down at his hands. “A sword can kill.”

“But it can also defend.”

Fakir swallowed. “So, the power that Drosselmeyer has, the power I have, can be used for good or bad.”

The Duke waved his hand. “A simple way to put it, yes.

“Fakir, a storm has devastated the kingdom, what do you do? Wait for nature to find it’s way or-?”

Fakir looked down at the pen, he plucked it from the desk before putting it back down and shaking his head. “I don’t want to control people. They don’t deserve that.” 

“Ah.” The Duke nodded. “Have you tried controlling other things? Besides that pathetic duck, I mean.” 

“I don’t know what you mean by that.” 

“Reality. With the flick of that pen, you can control reality. More than just people.” The Duke tutted and shook his head. “Drosselmeyer was so closed-minded to all the possibilities.” 

Fakir stared down at the pen, at the stark white paper. 

“There is more power in your finger tip than Drosselmeyer possesses in his entire body.” 

Fakir looked back at the Duke but instead fell to the forest floor, the desk, the paper, the inkwell and the pen all gone. 

“You are afraid.” The voice of the Duke carried through the forest, although as far as Fakir could tell the Duke was no longer there. “Why?”

Fakir trained his eyes on the ground, where the roots of the tree disappeared into the dirt, where moss trailed up the trunk and bark, to the branches that spread out beneath the sky, the leaves forever green. 

“If you are to be King, you can’t be afraid of yourself.”

Fakir stood, his mouth agape as he realized where the voice was coming from. 

He strode forward and touched his hand to the bark, rough on his skin, but warm, as if he was touching someone’s hand. 

He remembered the Baursspiel, the young boy who had broken his leg, there had been no evidence of an animal or beast, all he had done was point with a shaken hand at the tree that loomed over him.

“The power I have, the ability to write and control-” Fakir stopped himself short, he was about to say people, but he remembered what the Duke had said. “All things.”

“It is up to you how to use it, if you use it wisely or if you use it foolishly.”

“The answer to the question, then. The storm that has left the kingdom in ruins. Is the answer to use my gift?”

The tree was silent, a gentle breeze rustling it’s leaves. “There is no answer. Every King, every Queen, when presented with that question have all given me a different solution, I simply ask: what is yours?”

“How many Kings have had this power?” Fakir asked instead, and he was back in the library. 

The Duke smiled. “Only the first King has been given the power of the Oak Tree, and she only gave him that gift after he had won.” 

Fakir knew the stories, his history, that the First King, Lohengrin, was the most prosperous,the greatest leader, building his Kingdom, the walls that surrounded and protected his people, he had set up the trade system that kept their state thriving even now. 

He had done it all with the power blessed to him by the Oak Tree. 

“So then…” Fakir furrowed his brow. “I can write a story for my people, to save them from the wreckage, to place everything back into order, as if a storm had never come.”

“You could, that is the obvious answer.” 

Fakir furrowed his brow again. “But not the right answer.”

“What was your answer before?” The Duke asked, he waltzed over to the shelves and picked out a book. “To set the people to work, wasn’t it? Give them jobs, to clean up the mess the storm made, provide them with enough funds to keep them out of the slums? It’s a good answer. But what about you? What will you do?”

“I- “ Fakir looked back to the desk, to the paper and pen. He stepped towards it and ran his fingertips over the white sheet. “From here, I can supervise, make sure everyone is safe.”

“Yes, good.”

“I can keep account of all that’s been done and what needs to be done.”

“Think harder. What does Drosselmeyer do?”

Fakir glared at the paper. “He does horrendous things.” 

“He stains the paper, he takes full control, under which that person has no power.” The Duke snapped the book shut and placed it back before reaching for the next one. 

“Is- is there a way to control a person without-” Fakir shook his head. “I don’t want to take control of anyone, no matter how little it is.” 

“You can place hope in their hearts. Hope that the next day will be better. Determination, that this is all for a better future, that this isn’t the end.”

“I can?”

“It’s more than Drosselmeyer can do.”

“But-” Fakir swallowed his words. Drosselmeyer worked himself to death making sure the Queen was always under his control, that whoever he wrote about was obeying his commands perfectly. Even the smallest drop of hope, just a drop, would be enough. “It’s not about full control, but inspiration.”

Fakir looked to the Duke for confirmation, to see if he was right, but he was alone in the forest. 

Fakir turned to the tree. 

The branch hang low to the forest floor moved and came towards Fakir, but somehow he was not afraid.

At the end of the branch was a small bird, a yellow canary, and it hopped up and down and fluttered its wings in excitement and in its mouth was a long, thin twig.

“Take this with you, and when you have five, present them to the Oak Tree, for she is your final judge.” 

Fakir held out his hand and the canary dropped the twig into his hand. He nodded and placed it in his pocket where he hoped it wouldn’t break. 

“An old friend has come to lead you to your next challenge.” 

The branch swung back into place, and it was as if the tree had never moved at all. 

Fakir nodded, finally recognizing the maple leaves. He bowed low at the waist. “Thank you, Maple Tree.” 

He was filled with warmth as he heard a four-limbed creature scuttle across the floor.

Fakir turned his head and saw the giant black salamander. He smiled, kneeling before it and pet it’s head. 

“What secrets do you hold?”

The salamander blinked blindly at him, before turning and making it’s way deeper into the forest. 

Fakir followed, but couldn’t resist one last look over his shoulder at the great Maple Tree, and the canary that flew about in its branches. 

 

“SO IT IS NOT filled with banshees and monsters?” The Countess of Stärke asked, leaning over her brother’s shoulder at the woman who wrote in her book as the Prince Seigfried read aloud what her words said. 

“Apparently not.” The Marquess of Vermittlung shook his head, he took a seat on the chapel pew, grasping tightly his cane and rubbing his eyes. “Who could have guessed that what lied in the forest was forest.”

“It’s more than that, Reginald.” The Baroness of Täktik reasoned. “They’re…alive.”

The Earl of Stärke leaned close to his sister’s ear and whispered loudly. “Do you think I could fight a tree?”

“Ber-  I swear.” She slapped his arm, but as much as he annoyed her, and as much as the Nobles sat in shock, they still sat in rapture. 

Edel kept her hand steady, the temptation to check on Uzura and Ahiru too great for her to keep her focus on Fakir. The Oak Tree had told her, long ago, that the future was glorious for the state of Bavaria, for the city Nordlingen; that the King and Queen would be the brightest and greatest since the first. She had to trust that Ahiru would survive. 

Mytho stood beside her, reading aloud so all could hear, and he was relieved that Fakir was doing so well, but he wasn’t alone in the forest, and his heart pounded and prayed for the safety of Autor and his dear sweet Ahiru, for Uzura, and as Rue held fast to his hand, her eyes glued to the pages, he couldn’t help but worry that their future was uncertain.

Helmia however, stood away from it all. She did not want to hear what lie in the forest for her sons, she didn’t want to know if the girl that loved her son so much would bleed out for so foolishly chasing after that little girl and that madman. She did not want to hear about how her son succeeded when faced with so many fearsome challenges, or how her other failed. 

She looked out into the grey sky, the rain fading to a drizzle, and wondered how much longer this would last. 

 

AHIRU PULLED THE HORSE to a trot as she entered the forest, her path clear, but she could hear the beating drum, and it was somewhere to her left, in the thick trees and bushes, and not along her clear path. 

Ahiru breathed deeply and dismounted, “Can I trust you to be smart enough to go home?” She asked. 

Only a whinney was given in return. 

She sighed, she grimaced, she let go of the horses reins and started trekking through the forest, but when she looked back, she saw the horse trying to follow her. “Go back, please, Fakir will be out soon, he’ll be finished and you can see him then.”

The horse huffed and pressed his nose to her face, his breath ruffling her hair. 

She looked to the forest, a new path had been carved, slowly clearing itself of debris and enough space for her and her horse to walk in comfort. 

“Come on.” She said, grabbing the horses reins and placing her other hand on the dagger, hoping to keep it steady. 

She walked slowly, her feet pushing at the edge of her dress, and she hissed. “Sorry, Femio.” 

However slowly she walked, she could still hear the drum and the rustling of trees and branches. She wouldn’t lose them, and her only hope was that she got to Drosselmeyer before he got to Uzura. 

 

FAKIR WAS LEAD TO a tall fir tree, and he expected to walk into another illusion, but instead he stayed where he was, his feet planted on the forest floor. 

“My dear boy, I am so glad you’re here.” A voice sounded from the tree, a voice familiar but not one he could place.

“Are you my next challenge?” He asked. 

“I am!” The needles that covered her branches fluttered. “First, I want you to climb to the top of my branches and to look into the forest and tell me what you see!”

“I’m sorry?” Fakir shook his head and looked at her with a confounded expression. He took an awkward step forward and took into consideration her branches. “If I tried, I would fall.”

“Oh? Why?”

Fakir took hold of a branch and bent it, before letting it go. “It isn’t strong enough, it would break under my weight.”

“So you’re just going to give up that easily?” 

“What do you expect me to do? I can’t climb up there.” Fakir gestured angrily to the top of her branches, shortened and pointed towards the clouds.

“That’s no way to talk to a lady, and that is no way to go about this challenge, you can’t give up!”

Fakir huffed. “Well, I can’t-I...” Fakir blinked his eyes and looked up at the tree. “I can’t, can I?”

A tree couldn’t shrug, but when her needles suddenly moved up and then down, it was all Fakir could call it. 

Fakir pulled the twig out of his pocket, he looked at it, and then to the dirt, and then the tree. 

“I can’t.” He said.

“Who's to say.” She replied. 

Fakir knelt down, brushing the fir needles away until there was only dirt beneath his hand. He swallowed hard and set the tip of the branch into the ground. 

“I can climb this fir tree.” He wrote into the dirt, and whispered out loud to himself. “I can find the sturdiest branches and get to the top.”

“Can you?”

Fakir looked up at the tree, then down at his writing in the soil, he stood and brushed the dirt off his knees. 

“Do I, uh- have permission to climb you?” He asked awkwardly, a red tint overcoming his cheeks.

“Of course you do!” She answered cheerily.

He placed his foot on a low branch, tested it and lifted himself off the ground, he placed his hands on the flimsy branches, but somehow the least flimsy ones, and slowly started his incline. 

“So when you get back how will you undo what Drosselmeyer has done?”

“What?” Fakir asked, his foot slipping from its place. He gasped and held fast to the branches in his hands until he corrected his footing. 

“Drosselmeyer, your grandfather? Even if you win, he has done years of damage, how will you pull apart the tangle he has left and fix the thread?”

“I don’t know.” Fakir lifted himself higher up the tree than he thought possible, even as the branches got shorter and shorter. “I have to disband the Bookmen.” 

“Good, I never liked them.” The Fir Tree said. “And who will make up your council? Every King needs a good council.” 

“The Nobles.”

“The Nobles?” The Fir Tree gauffed. “You know, they’ve only shown you support recently, some still don’t believe you to be the True King.” 

Fakir nodded. “I know, but I can’t place this burden on the shoulders of the people, they all work hard, it shouldn’t be their responsibility to be my council. They should rely on me and my council instead.” 

Fakir reached the top of the tree, and he looked out over the forest, he could even see the walls that surrounded his kingdom. 

“You’ve reached the top. What do you see?” 

“Everything.” Fakir closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. He could feel the tree top sway in the wind, but he knew he wouldn’t fall. “There is much that Drosselmeyer has done, and it will take time righting his wrongs, but I will not be alone when I do so.” 

“It is good,” The Fir Tree said, as Fakir started his descent. “To carry the weight of a Kingdom with many, and not just your own shoulders.” 

Fakir’s foot was placed on the forest’s floor and he looked up at the tree, a wonder that he had been able to climb it at all. He looked back, at the writing in the dirt. Fakir ran his foot over it until it was only dirt, and he picked up the maple twig. 

“Fakir, I give you this gift, present it to the Oak Tree, for me, please?” 

A red squirrel scampered down the trunk of the tree, and in it’s little fist was a branch from the fir tree, still covered in needles. 

“Thank you.” He told the squirrel, he bowed to the Fir Tree, just as lowly and respectfully as he had for the Maple, and the salamander was at his side once again. 

 

DROSSELMEYER CURSED, PUSHING, CUTTING branches out of his way as he chased after the remnants of the Oak Tree, her drum banging loudly in his ears, mocking him. 

“I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive!” Was the chant that came with every pound, both the voice of the Oak Tree and Edel whispering it in his ear. 

He could just see her, through the leaves, her brightly colored clothes a beacon in the deep green, but how would he kill her? He had wasted his knife on the girl. 

Drosselmeyer grit his teeth at that thought. 

That stupid girl, a thorn in his side. 

She ruined his plans, she was supposed to be nothing more than a prize for Mytho, nothing more than a pretty little thing to hang on his arm, but now look at what she had done!

He moaned out into the sky in his grief. 

He should have known what trouble she would cause as soon as she stepped out of that carriage with Edel behind her. 

The stupid woman having not aged a day since before he cut down the Oak Tree. 

Taunting him with her prophecies.

But they would see who the true seer was, when the Oak Tree was finally laid to rest, and that stupid girl bled to death. 

 

AUTOR WANDERED IN THE woods, lost and confused. “Hello?” He called out. He was sure that something had to be in this godforsaken forest. 

It wouldn’t be so feared if it wasn’t.

“Hello!” He called out again, more in frustration than anything. He mumbled a light threat under his breath, and kicked the dirt. 

No harpies? 

No sphinx? 

Was Fakir going through the same thing? 

Maybe that was the challenge, maybe it wasn’t fighting against monsters and solving riddles like everyone was raised to believe, but just solving the labyrinth. 

He didn’t have a compass, and when he looked to the sky, however cloudless it was, he couldn’t find the sun. 

“This isn’t fair!” He yelled out. “What am I supposed to do?!” 

“What you want to do.”

Autor cried out, but when he looked around, there was no one present, not a single soul. 

“You don’t want to be King, do you?”

Autor looked around, trying to find who owned that voice. 

“You won’t get far if you don’t answer.”

“Who are you?”

The voice tsked. “Answering a question with a question?”

“S-sorry.” He stumbled. “No. Now answer me!” 

“I am the Maple Tree. Here to guide you home.”

Autor avoided… avoided something and cast his eyes to the floor. “I have no home.”

“Why? Because you are not the Queen’s son? What does that matter? In her heart you are hers.”

Autor shook his head. “It’s not that. Who am I?”

“Who are you? Who you were raised to be, or who you were born to be?”

“Born.”

The voice paused and Autor wondered if he had imagined it in his loneliness. “You are Felix Autor, Duke of the House of Verstand.” 

Autor sighed in relief, but it was unexpected. “I mean-”

The Maple Tree chuckled. “It is what you want. So I will ask again, what do you want?”

“I want-” Autor shook his head, he had never been asked this before- well, not never. There was one annoying little girl who had asked him. The corner of his lip turned up. “I want to go out into the world. In search of knowledge. Of answers. Anything.” 

“I see. This is why we do not test you the way Fakir is being tested. You see, why should we when that would be of no advantage to you?” 

“Why not just kill me then?”

The Maple Tree was silent. “Because it would make Ahiru sad.”

Autor knit his eyebrows together. “Why does she matter?” 

“Perhaps I should restate this.” He cleared his throat. “We care only for the wishes and desires of the King and the Queen, whoever they may be. Killing you would hurt her heart.”

“Do you want to kill me?” 

The Maple was silent. “I’ve wanted to remove nuisances from my forest before, yes. But you, you don’t bother me so much. Perhaps it is because you are more knowledgeable than others before you. Stay with me, until his run is complete, and then you may go home.”

Autor smiled and nodded, he sat on the forest floor, his gaze set on admiring the Great Maple Tree.

 

THE SALAMANDER LEAD HIM to a clearing, clear of even grass and wildflowers, and he heard it, the sound of two swords clashing against each other. 

Fakir stepped out onto the forest floor and saw two knights in the midst of a battle. 

“I’m glad you’re here.” A voice said, an old one. 

“Why?”

“You can break them apart.”

“What?” Fakir looked around, trying to find whatever tree was talking to him.

“They have been at it for hours. A simple misunderstanding, but will they listen to me? No! Of course not.” 

Fakir looked out to the two warriors. It didn’t seem like they would listen to reason. 

“What are they fighting about?”

“Huh? Oh, nothing new.” 

Fakir’s eyes roved over the forest, trying to decipher which tree stood out, the one that spoke out. “Should we stop them?”

“What do you think I’ve been doing? Sometimes there is nothing you can do but wait out the aggression.” 

The aggression, however, appeared to be great, every strike of the sword was slashed with abandon, with strength and malice, grunts and shouts filled their makeshift arena. 

“If we do nothing they’ll kill each other.” Fakir reasoned, but even he was hesitant to step out into the fray.

“Ah, that’s true, but then there will be no more fighting. What would you do, young man? Would you pick up a sword and try to beat them? Two against one is hardly fair.”

“But I can’t just-” Fakir groaned, stop talking to the tree and figure out what needs to be done. His eyes traveled to the floor and he sat down in the dirt. “Alright.” He said. “I think I get it.”

“Do you?” 

Fakir looked around him, still unable to see the great tree that spoke. 

Fakir brushed away the leaves until his pallet was cleared and took out the maple twig. 

Two warriors. 

It was easier to see when he knew their names, or at least had their face in his mind. 

He started by recording their actions, the strikes and parries, their steps forward and then back, his mind focused on their weapons, but when they parted his hand stayed with one hand, the knight closest to him. 

The hand squeezed the hilt of the sword, numb from holding it for so long, and sore from never letting it slip from his grasp. Forearms aching from using muscles that seldom got used, biceps curling and uncurling, shoulders stiff, neck a dull throb, his face, no. 

Her face. 

Covered in sweat, pieces of hair falling and getting stuck to her cheeks, covering her eyes, but there was no way to fix it without removing her helmet. 

Then he felt it. 

Her rage.

Her passion. 

Her determination to knock her brother on his ass. 

At the sight of the enemy sword, and as metal clashed with metal, Fakir jumped to the hands of her brother. 

His back about to give out, his teeth gritted, his lips mangled into a grimace, his brows furrowed, then Fakir saw it too. 

The unfairness of it all. 

The irritation. 

The blind anger. 

Fakir pulled himself from the earth, staggering to his feet. 

“Stop!” He called out to them, but would they listen? 

“Are you ready?” The voice returned. 

Fakir looked around him, his eyes scanning the treetops, but felt something against his hand. 

He looked down at the sword that tapped his hand. 

Fakir took the hilt and pulled it from the earth and raced towards the brother and sister. 

Their focus was on each other, and that gave him the advantage. 

With a cry, they backed away from one another, catching their breath but still ready to pounce, but before they could, Fakir stepped in and challenged the brother. 

“Don’t turn your back to me!” The sister called out. 

“You’ll get your turn.” Fakir told her as he cast a heavy glare at her brother. “You’re a fool.” 

“And who are you to call me a fool?” The brother panted, raising his sword high above his head and charging. “When you’ve challenged me?” 

The brother let out a battlecry and all Fakir had to do was wait. 

Wait. 

Wait. 

When he saw the white’s of his eyes through the slots of his helmet, he stepped aside.

Fakir watched as the brother crashed into his sister, awkwardly aiming his sword away from her heart. 

Fakir watched as they fell to the floor. He knocked their swords from their hands, before offering his. 

“You think your anger is worth fighting for, but not death?” 

The sister pulled the helmet from her head, her long hair falling over her shoulders, and she threw it to the floor before she turned on her brother, who still sat on the forest floor.

“You almost killed me!”

“Yeah, but I didn’t!” He pulled his helmet from his head, tossing it to the side, he groaned and fell onto his back. 

“Just admit it!” She crossed her arms. 

“No! Never!” He sat up on his elbows. “I didn’t do it!” 

Fakir recognized their voices, and their features after the flush from exertion calmed. The siblings from the house of Stärke, Valerie and Berinhard. They were a few years older than him, but still acted like children. 

“What happened?” He asked, but this time when he posed his question, they both turned to him and started gabbing, their stories and words overlapping. “One at a time, who's the oldest?”  

Valerie raised her hand. 

“Berinhard,” Fakir said. “What happened?”

Berinhard stuck his tongue out at Valerie who gaped at Fakir. “Well, sir, she thinks that I lost the joust on purpose, so that the Black Knight could win.”

“And did you?”

“No!” Berinhard glared at Valerie. 

“You so did! You just couldn’t give up the chance to let the Black Knight win.” Valerie rolled her eyes. 

“And why does that matter?” Fakir asked, trying to ignore that once he was the Black Knight. 

Valerie huffed and crossed her arms. “It brings dishonor to our family.”

“Is that all?” 

Berinhard raised his brows at Valerie, and she glared at him. 

“Ugh, no!” Valerie pouted before letting out a deep groan. “I made a bet that Berinhard would win.” She turned on her brother. “And you just wanted to see me lose money, didn’t you!”

“Valerie that’s stupid! I make you buy me stuff all the time, as far as I’m concerned, that’s my money too.” 

Fakir watched the two disagree, and as stupid as it was, it still caused strife. They bickered as Fakir thought. It wasn’t as simple as giving her her lost bet back, it was about her wounded pride. She lost, and as much as Berinhard was a graceful loser, she was a sore one. 

“Valerie.” Fakir called out her name and gained her attention. “If he admits that he lost on purpose, would you be able to put this behind you?”

Valerie pursed her lips, and gave an unconcealed glare to Berinhard. “Perhaps.” 

Fakir sighed, and turned to Berinhard. “Can you accept that?”

Berinhard sighed. “I guess, but I didn’t lose on purpose! I was truly bested.”

“You’re the Queen’s Knight!” Valarie bemoaned, “How could you lose?” 

“There’s always someone better, Val.” He said, a slight bitterness to his tone. 

Valerie sighed, she rubbed her eyes, and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Can you promise that you didn’t lose on purpose just to spite me?”

“Val, I promise that I lost because, and only because, the Black Knight was truly the better warrior.” 

Valerie turned to her brother and stuck out her hand, and she raised him to his feet. 

The two turned to Fakir, they placed a closed fist over their hearts and bowed lowly at the waist before disappearing. 

And Fakir found himself face to face with a great elm.

“Well done!” The Elm Tree praised. “I am quite impressed with you, dear boy. Take this for me, will you?” 

A small fox made its way out from its burrow under the Elm Tree’s roots and held in its mouth a stick. 

“I shall present this to the Oak Tree for you.” Fakir took it and offered his own bow. 

“Ah, catching on! Good, good. You will need it.”

Fakir nodded, taking the warning to heart, and followed after the salamander. 

“Where to next?” He asked gently, watching the creature crawl over fallen leaves and messing the dirt. He was led away from the Elm Tree and a soft breeze blew past, and was surprised when his feet wandered past the salamander, as if he knew where he was going. 

He did, somehow. 

It was almost as if he was being beckoned, and he found himself by the great lake, reflecting the blue sky and covered in the gentle ripples caused by the wind and waterfowl. 

It was vast, and it was relieving to see something besides the green forest, as if there was more to this place than just talking trees. 

“Fakir.” 

Fakir stiffened, and slowly he turned towards who called out for him. 

“Fakir, come here.” She called again, and his eyes widened when he saw the drooping branches of a weeping willow. 

He followed the voice, parting the branches like a curtain. 

“I’m so glad you’ve come.”

 

EDEL’S PEN STOPPED, AND she let out a short gasp, the sudden sensation, the rapid pulling, as if her very soul was being dragged into the forest.

“Why did you stop?” Rue asked. “You can’t stop!” 

Edel stood, obeying the call of the Oak Tree. “Do not worry, Rue, there is nothing more to be scared of.”

“What? Miss Edel, I’m very sorry but Ahiru is lost in that- that forest! With a dagger in her-”

“I’m very aware of the situation.” Edel called over her shoulder. “Ahiru will be alright.”

Mytho wrapped his arms around Rue, and she curled into his side. “Miss. Edel.” He said.

“Yes?” Edel paused in her steps, but like the retreating waves, she could not stand completely still. 

“You promise that Ahiru will be safe?”

“Yes.”

“Autor?” He asked. 

Edel nodded, taking a hurried step. “Yes.” 

“And,” Mytho paused. “And Fakir?”

Edel turned to look at him. “Most of all. Yes, he will be safe.” 

Mytho let out a sigh of relief, he placed his lips on Rue’s temple. “We will wait for your return.” 

Edel smiled and nodded, but she wouldn’t return. She would have no need.

As she passed the Queen, Helmia reached out and grasped Edel’s hand. 

Edel gave her hand a soft squeeze. “They will all be safe and alive by the end of the day.” 

Helmia let go, but her eyes bore into Edel’s back as she made her way out to the forest. 

 

“THIS… THIS CAN’T BE real.” Fakir said, shaking his head as his mother placed a gentle hand on his cheek.

“I’m sorry, but it isn’t.” She took his hand nonetheless and pulled him deeper into the blanketing branches of the willow tree. “This is real, however.” She placed her hand on the trunk of the tree, and then placed Fakir’s there. 

“Why are you showing me this?” Fakir asked the tree directly, but they did not speak back.

“Are you tired?” She asked him instead. “Sit down, won’t you?”

Helmia gestured to a root that curved up and created the smallest bench.

Fakir swallowed, failing to see the challenge and took the seat. 

“Would you like something to eat? I know you skipped lunch.” 

His stomach grumbled and she pulled from the tree a plate and put it in his hands.

“Is this real?” He asked. 

Helmia kneeled beside him, and nodded. “It is.”

He picked up the loaf of bread, poked at the piece of meat, and brought a blackberry to his nose, to smell it. He put it in his mouth, and it tasted sweet, staining his finger tips. 

It was real. 

He devoured the plate.

“What time is it?” 

He had to finish soon, he couldn’t stay here long. He promised he would finish before the sun set. 

He was tired of being by himself, he missed Mytho, and he wanted to be in the presence of his mother. 

He took an unsteady breath when he inevitably thought of Ahiru. 

She was waiting for him too. 

It was selfish of him to stop and eat. 

He sighed, and placed the plate on the floor, and stood.

“You’re going?” Helmia stood and took his hand. 

“I have to finish.” 

Helmia shook her head. “No, you don’t.” There was a sadness in her eyes. “There is great danger ahead, I don’t want you to go.” 

“There is nothing in this forest that I am not ready for.” 

“Stay. Please?”

Fakir shook his head and stole his hand from her. “You’re not my real mother.”

“I know.”

“And I’ve already wasted enough time here.”

Fakir started walking away, wondering why he had wandered off from the salamander. 

“Fakir wait, please? Rest, you’re so tired.”

And as she said it, his steps faltered, as if he truly was tired after all.  

“No, there are still two more challenges. I’m losing sunlight.” 

“What you’re losing is strength, come here. Sit down. Tell me a story.” She asked. 

Fakir shook his head, his eyes blinking as they grew heavy.

She pushed at his shoulders until he fell, and she leaned him back against the trunk of the willow. “We can make up for all that lost time, isn’t that what you want?”

Fakir gave her a bleary look. “What I want is to be home.”

Helmia nodded. “I know, and you are. Look all around you. The clear blue sky, the sun shining through the leaves.” She leaned towards his ear. “Look out at the lake, you can just see it.”

As if on command, a sudden breeze parted the branches and Fakir got a clear view of the lake. 

He leaned into her as she wrapped her arm around his shoulder, as she brushed his bangs from his eyes. 

“Tell me a story.” 

Fakir closed his eyes, the feeling of warmth still present on his skin. “A long time ago, there was a mother, and she had a son. He was taken from her, and while she could do nothing, her heart mourned her loss. She watched lifelessly as palace maids and bookmen raised her two sons, one by blood, one by love. All the while her real son watched from the shadows. He watched her walking around corners, he watched her steady stride, and the day he met her, the day he was introduced, not as her son, but as Fritz, as Mytho’s friend. 

“He watched her stare at him blankly.”

Helmia said nothing, but he felt her tears fall onto his face. 

Fakir pulled away from her cradling embrace and placed a hand on her cheek. 

“I may not be your mother.” She said, his thumb wiping uselessly at her cheeks. “But in my heart I feel her pain. Oh Fakir, she loves you. There wasn’t a day that went by where she didn’t mourn you.” 

Fakir looked away from her. 

“Fakir.” She said, her hands grabbing at his face until he met her eyes. “Fakir, you cannot ever let your love fail, because love will never fail you.”

“I never gave up on you.”

Helmia smiled. “Yes, I know, and you saved me.” She pressed her forehead to his. “You can save your people.” 

Fakir nodded, but watched as her smile faded. 

“Fakir, your next challenge is not something to be taken lightly, it is not like the others, and you have to be careful.”

Fakir nodded again.

“Promise me?”

“I promise.” 

“Then take this.” Helmis produce a long whip. A branch from the willow tree. “And show it to the Oak Tree.”

“I don’t understand.” Fakir shook his head but took the branch. “What was the challenge?” 

“The challenge was to put others before yourself.” Helmia placed her hand on the back of his neck, and rubbed her thumb over the shaved hair. “To put your people first.” 

Fakir looked down at the branch. “But I gave in, to your temptations of food and rest.” 

“Oh, my dear, there is no temptation in food or rest. It’s a silly thing all humans need. But your heart.” Helmia moved her hand and placed it on his chest. “Your heart knew what needed to be done, even if it meant sacrificing yourself.” 

Fakir nodded, and watched her hand slip away. “I-” He cut himself off, he raised his head, to look for her only to find himself alone.

He slipped the whip into his pocket with the others and stood. 

Fakir took one last look at the trunk of the willow tree. He pressed his hand to her bark and pressed his forehead there. 

He walked out from under the willow’s blanket and found himself face to face with the salamander. 

“Sorry. I walked off.” 

Salamander nodded and waddled away, expecting Fakir to follow, and follow he did. 

He looked up at the sky. He was running out of time, the sun slowly falling to the west. 

Fakir continued walking, but turned his face back to the path set out before him, but found that he was alone. 

“Salamander?” He called out, there was a sharp wind. He was alone. “Salamander!”

There was a crack, like the branch of a tree breaking under pressure, it was cold, as if the summer sky suddenly turned to autumn and then chilled into a winter blow.

There was the scratch of pen against paper. 

Fakir gasped loudly and fell to his knees. 

Like a monster was at his back, digging its claws and shredding his skin, he could almost make out the letters that spelled out words on his back. 

One word, over and over again, but still casting a spell on him nonetheless. 

The sharp K that covered his entire back. 

The unforgiving I that ran down his spine. 

The swift N flying up before falling, only to fly up again. 

The curving G that claimed him.

Over and over the word was carved into his back, pushing him deeper and deeper into darkness. 

He fought against it, he did his best, but perhaps that wasn’t enough.

He stood on unsteady feet, his vision blurred and failing, but he could make out the path before him, he had one thought, to run away from whoever held the pen, that if he could just get out of sight, that would be enough.

But he fell again, and he heard the wailing of a baby, he felt snow blowing coldly against his face and arms, as if he was out, caught in the snow storm. He rose and stumbled to the baby, perhaps if he could save it despite his own pain, he would win. 

He grit his teeth, and stumbled against a tree. 

KING, KING, KING, KING, KING, KING, KING, KING, KING, KING, KING, KING, KING. 

He could feel the pen break past layers of skin, reaching past muscle until it etched his bones, but now the sound of the wailing child was clearer, he saw a mound of snow, strange in the summer forest, and he raced towards it, falling to his knees when he reached it, the cold melting through, and his hands unfeeling as his fingers brushed the chest of the infant, with barely any hair, and no teeth at all, its balled up fists and kicking feet, Fakir could only look at the birthmark that stretched down the baby’s shoulder to his hip. 

Suddenly the wailing stopped, or at least was replaced with a different kind of wailing. 

On his back, drops of rain pounded into his skin, drenching his shirt and seeping into the wounds that only existed in his mind. 

He looked to his left, to the west, and the bank of snow was replaced with rocks that he clung to as waves crashed at his legs. There was a shape in the distance, a blue dress, long red hair. 

Ahiru.

Even through the pain, he let out a sigh of relief, and tried to call out to her, but he watched her sluggishly drag herself down the dock, something in her hands, her wailing had stopped but her face was still stained with tears. 

She walked past him and all he could do was reach out his hand, stretching out the skin of his back trying to reach her. 

His fingertips just grazed the hem of her dripping dress and she disappeared. 

He saw Autor sitting under the Maple Tree, some debate being spoken over the rustling of the wind blowing through the leaves.

He stood in the doorway of the chapel where his mother, where his family and the Nobles who supported him stood with their gazes cast out to the forest, waiting for the outcome.

He was back in the forest, and when he rose to his feet, his head span, he did his best not to fall.

Fakir watched as Uzura ran into the glade, to the tree stump, where she scrambled up and sat on the rings. 

He stumbled towards her, but nearly fell back when Drosselmeyer burst out of the forest.

“At last.” He said, breathing heavily, his face red with anger and exhaustion. “At last I have you.”

Uzura turned her head to look at him, she stuck out her tongue. “I want Ahiru, zura!” 

“Ahiru is dead.” He snarled.

“Dead?” Fakir reeled, nearly falling to the forest floor. 

“You can’t kill what isn’t meant to be killed, zura!” She shouted. She stood and jumped on the tree stump. “I want Ahiru, zura! I want Fakir, zura!”

Drosselmeyer heaved out a final breath as he stalked towards the child. “You will get no final wishes. You will only receive death.” 

“Don’t you dare touch her!” 

Fakir’s mouth fell open when out from the forest came Ahiru, her hands holding on to the reins of his horse and he sighed in relief. 

Drosselmeyer had only lied.

Of course it was only a lie.

Ahiru let go of the reins and took uncertain steps towards Drosselmeyer. 

K

“You.” Drosselmeyer snarled. “You have evaded my hands for far too long.”

I

“I don’t know what you mean.” Ahiru shook her head, her eyes flashing to Uzura, to make sure she was safe. 

“I don’t know what you have done.” Drosselmeyer shook his head. “But I cannot control you.”

N

“For a while I thought you, too, possessed some inkling of the Oak Tree’s powers. But what does that matter? When I can kill you now?”

G

Drosselmeyer stepped forward, faster than he should have been able to, his hand flashing to Ahiru’s stomach.

“Don’t touch her!” Fakir longed to say, but his teeth were clamped tight in pain.

Fakir watched Ahiru’s eyes widen, he watched the arch of blood that trailed out from her, he watched the dagger being pulled from her side. 

“No!” He cried out and the scraping stopped. There was a pain like no other that gripped his heart, an overwhelming grief as he refused to believe his eyes. 

He caved in on himself, free from the pen, but he grasped his stomach, unable to stop the gut wrenching realization that he had just watched Ahiru die. 

Fakir opened his eyes and looked to the ground, placed in front of him was a slim branch, a walnut and it’s leaves still clinging on. 

He gripped the branch and shoved it into his pocket, his heart pounded in his chest.

The Königsspiel wasn’t over yet.

 

AHIRU CRIED OUT AS she felt the edges of the dagger rip at her skin one last time.

“No, zura!”

Ahiru’s knees buckled, and she knew she didn’t fall gracefully, that she would wake up with a bruise the next morning. 

She placed a shaking hand on her stomach, and looked up at Drosselmeyer who turned on Uzura, the knife raised above his head. 

“Oak Tree, it was a mistake to try and survive.” Drosselmeyer taunted. “In the end, it is I who knew how to use your gift best. It is foolish to disagree.”

“I’m not foolish, zura!” She shouted, “You’re stupid, zura!” 

“And in the end, who stands tall?”

Uzura took a deep breath, “I do, zura!” 

Drosselmeyer laughed, and when she tried to scramble down from her perch, he grabbed her arm. 

Ahiru watched as he dropped the dagger. She watched as a white light covered both him and Uzura, soaking her eyes in blinding light. 

Ahiru brought up a hand to block it, and when she put it down, both Drosselmeyer and Uzura were gone, replaced only by a towering Oak Tree.

 

FAKIR CALLED FOR THE salamander and whistled for his horse. 

The horse came first, galloping to him and brushing his nose against him, he put his foot in the stirrup when he heard the shuffle of the salamander. 

He looked down at the creature. “Lead me to Ahiru.”

The salamander looked over its shoulder, peering down a clear path. 

“Thank you.” Fakir nodded to the salamander before giving his horse a sharp kick. 

He leaned forward, his gaze set on the path before him, and as he neared it, he saw a blinding light. 

He cried out and pulled his horse to a stop, turning it away before it was blinded. “What-?”

He waited until the light lessened and when he looked back, he saw a tree that towered over the rest, and when his eyes fell to the ground, he saw white. 

Fakir kicked the horse again, whipping it’s reins and only stopping when he was in the clearing. 

Fakir jumped down from the horse’s back and ran to her side. 

“Ahiru.”

She blinked her eyes and gazed up at him, giving him a smile. “Fakir.” She said, “did you win?”

“I don’t know.”

“How did you find me?” She asked. 

Fakir placed his hand under her head, he had been too scared to touch her before, but his eyes traveled down her white dress to where her hand rested and where the white was slowly stained red. 

He placed his hand over hers and peeled it away. 

She whimpered.

“Shh. Shh, I’m sorry.” He pulled her into his lap, cradling her head in the crook of his elbow.

“You didn’t stab me.” She said, smiling, she closed her eyes. “It’s okay.”

“It’s not. Don’t close your eyes, idiot.” He rested his hand on her cheek, pushing at the corner of her eye with his thumb until she blinked them open. He felt a tugging at his pocket.

“I’m glad you’re- you’re here, Fakir. I- I don’t want to be alone anymore.”

He shook his head. “You’re not alone.”

“Fakir, did I tell you who I was?”

Fakir shook his head, his thumb passing shakily over her cheeks, the corner of her lip. “Yes, many times.”

“My- my dad was a fisherman.” She sniffled. “I was su- supposed to…” She drew off, her words growing softer.

“Keep pressure on your stomach, I’ll get us out of here.”

“Fakir, wait.” She said. She lifted her hand and ran it up his jaw to his cheek. “I don’t want to move.”

“We have to.”

“I want- I want to stay here.” Her eyes fluttered closed and she swallowed hard. “I want to stay here with you. Stay here with you holding me.”

“I’ll hold you back in the castle.”

She moaned, her face contorting in pain. Her face losing pallor, the pink of her lips growing pale. 

He felt something land on his head, and Edel burst through the forest, but he paid her no attention.

“Fakir.” A voice called, but one unfamiliar to him. “You have succeeded.”

Fakir’s eyes rose away from Ahiru’s paling face and looked up at the Oak Tree that shaded them, the setting sun casting him in her shadow. “What does that matter?” He asked, his voice gruff.

“Is this not what you wanted?”

Fakir looked away from the Oak and to Ahiru, she smiled at him, and mouthed her congratulations, too weak to give her words volume.

Fakir ignored the Oak Tree, whatever words she spoke next, he ignored the hands that touched his shoulders. 

He only looked at Ahiru, the golden light highlighting the pale color of her hair, making the blue of her eyes shine, casting half her face in shadows. 

He had wanted to win, he had wanted to set things in order, where his mother was his mother, where the crown sat on his head, not for glory or for power, but love. 

His fingers curled into her shoulder and he pressed his forehead to hers, he felt something slip off his head, and looked at the six branches that had been twisted and cobbled to form a crown. 

“Fakir.” He heard her call out to him, and he pressed his lips to hers. 

And in the light of the dying sun, he won.

Chapter Text

HAVE YOU HEARD THE rumors about Bavaria? 

About the True King and the Peasant Queen? 

Some say they walked into the forest hand in hand, others say she chased after him.

But all knew who had won, and who would be crowned King, I think they knew from the start who would win, just not who would become his wife. 

 

AS A YOUNG GIRL, Ahiru was used to chilling water. 

She could remember swimming out further than she was supposed to and diving deep down under the waves, only to look up and see the sun,  still guiding her actions, still shining down on her, before her body floated to the surface. 

It was a risk going into the water, of not drying off and getting warm fast enough, of getting sick, of death. 

But she took the risk. 

It was one of the only brave things she could say she had done. 

She remembered, it wasn’t too bad in the water, once one became accustomed to it, it was when she broke the surface, and the brisk wind froze the water droplets that streaked down her face, down her shoulders. She would swim out past where the waves broke, where it rocked her. It was calm in the water, and quiet, and she promised she wouldn’t stay under too long, promises to her father, to Gero; to herself. 

The one thing that Ahiru wasn’t used to was the amount of clothing she still had on her body. 

It weighed her down, it flowed around her, and she wondered which dress she ruined now, who would yell at her for this? Paulamonie? The head of the house? Miss. Edel? 

There was something else, as well. 

As a young girl, she remembered being the only one to dive into the ocean’s deep, completely unafraid. 

Not even Gero would join her in the water, nor her father. 

But, someone was with her now. 

As if she was being carried. 

A strong arm wrapped around her lower back, a large hand keeping her from floating away, and another under her knees, maybe he had kept her from drowning. 

She was sure she would have, the dress was heavy, and it wrapped around her legs, she was sure she wouldn’t be able to swim properly, to save herself. 

Water lapped at her face, pulling at her hair, but it wasn’t the strong pull of the ocean, and perhaps it wasn’t, perhaps she wasn’t in the ocean, but a lake of some kind, or a pond. 

There was no way she could be in the ocean, however, she wasn’t in Arnis, she was in Nordlingen. 

Something pulled at her side, it almost hurt, and she almost cried out in pain, but the longer she was in the water, the more the pain subsided. 

Someone said her name. 

She felt tears falling on her face. 

“Please… please don’t let me be too late.” 

Ahiru blinked her eyes open, and her world was cast in the shadows of the setting sun, the sky in hues of pink and orange, she turned her head to the side, she gasped. 

“Fakir!” She lifted herself out of the water, her legs kicking furiously and she wrapped her arms around his neck, but he wasn’t prepared for that, and he stumbled, doing his best to hold on to her, too. 

She buried her face into the crook of his neck, her arms clinging to him, her hands crawling up his back. 

She felt his arms there too, uncertain but pressing her to him, and she knew that he didn’t want to let go, either. 

“Ahiru.” He whispered her name into her ear, as if he couldn’t believe that she was there, and she only held him tighter. 

“Did you win?” She asked.

“You’re alive.” 

“Why wouldn’t I be?” She said, laughing a bit. 

“You-” He swallowed hard. “You don’t remember?” 

Ahiru stiffened, one hand went down to her side, where her wedding dress was slit, she felt her skin, cold now that it was exposed to the air, but there wasn’t even a scar. She gasped and pulled away. “Uzura!”

Fakir’s lips moved, but then pursed, as if he didn’t know what happened to her. 

Ahiru felt her heart starting to calm, it’s wild beating slowing in rhythm. Her hand traveled back to his neck, her thumb caressing the nape of his neck, brushing against the short hair. “Did you cut it for the mask?”

“I didn’t really have a choice in the matter.” His hand encased her wrist, his own thumb rubbing circles against the back of her hand. “Do you like it?”

She narrowed her eyes in scrutiny, considering his face, and how it suited his features. She smiled and nodded. “I like it.” 

Fakir hung his head and his shoulders started to shake. She was worried she had made him upset, but he looked up at her, and he was laughing. 

His smile was… bright. 

One that was full of happiness, and joy, and adoration, but above all, it was filled with love. 

His hands come up to either side of her face, running over her cheeks, and her lips as they turned upward to a grin to join him. 

One hand cupped the back of her head, as he pressed his lips to hers, and she closed her eyes, unable to stop smiling and giggling.

He pulled away and pressed his forehead to hers. “I won.” 

Ahiru let out a breath, she had no doubts, but it didn’t mean she wasn’t allowed to worry. She tilted her head and pressed a quick kiss to his lips before she pulled away and grabbed his hands. 

She looked them over. 

“What are you doing?” 

“Making sure you didn’t lose anything.” Her eyes shot up to meet his. “You didn’t lose any fingers, that’s good.” 

He smirked at her, he shook his head, and laid a hand on her neck, his thumb touching her jaw. “I didn’t lose anything, the only thing I thought I was going to lose was you.” 

Her smile faded and she held his hand to her chest. “I’m sorry.”

“What for?”

“I made you worry when you had the Königsspiel to worry about.” 

He scoffed. “Idiot.”

“Hey-” But he cut her off as he pulled her to his chest. He fell back, half his body still in the water, the other on the banks of the pond. 

She laid her head against his chest, her hand over his heart. 

His hand went to her waist, his thumb poking the inside of her dress, rubbing over the fresh skin that was there. 

Someone cleared their throat above them. 

Ahiru blushed. 

Fakir groaned.

Ahiru looked up at Miss. Edel, who stood a few feet away from them, struggling to fight down a grin. 

“The Oak Tree would like to have a word with you.” She said, “The both of you.” 

She walked away and Ahiru put her head back on his chest. 

“C’mon.” He said, he sat up, bringing her with him. “We can’t stay like this.”

Fakir hooked his arm under her knee again and carried her out of the water. 

“Who's the Oak Tree?” Ahiru asked when he put her down, his hand immediately going to hold hers.

“The Queen of the Forest.” He said, leading her away from the healing pool. “The one who decides if I am to be King.”

Ahiru moved to intertwine their fingers, in her mind she could only see the brilliant flash of light, the moment Drosselmeyer grasped Uzura’s shoulder, and the tree that took their place the next.

That tree?

It was proved to be true when Miss Edel lead them to the stump tree meadow, although it couldn’t be called that now. 

Not now that there was a hundred year-old Oak Tree in its midst. 

It was like coming home, as soon as she stepped underneath the branches of the Oak Tree, warm and inviting, as all of the Forest had been.

Ahiru’s eyes flashed from trunk, to tree branch, to root, and even without a face, she could tell the Oak Tree was smiling down upon them. 

“Well done.”

Ahiru jostled, her hand tightening on Fakir’s and she stopped. She never expected her to…

But Fakir seemed unsurprised. 

He bowed his head, and knelt on his knee, and Ahiru wasn’t stupid enough to not follow suit. 

“That is unnecessary, you have just proven to me that you are worthy of being my equal. Both of you.”

Ahiru raised her head, her lips parted in confusion, because surely she had done nothing to prove herself. 

Edel strode passed them and bent down, when she rose up, she held a crown in her hands, made from twisted branches and she placed it on Fakir’s head.  

“Six branches.” The Oak Tree said. “To prove that you succeeded. And for you, my dear, I can only offer you the branches of my tree and the flowers of my field.”

Something rustled the grass and Ahiru watched as the salamander poked its head out from the grass, a crown in it’s mouth as well. 

“I don’t understand.” Ahiru took it from the salamander, like Fakir’s it was a crown of branches twisted together, but flowers had been woven through. Edel stepped forward, and taking it from her, crowned Ahiru. “I didn’t run… the…”

“No, not a true Königsspiel, but you protected me, you ran into the forest with a dagger in your stomach, risking your life to protect me. And I know you would do the same for your people.”

“My people.” She whispered, her eyes flashing to Fakir, who watched her.

“Rise.” The Oak Tree said. “The King and Queen of Bavaria, my chosen victors, Forest Walkers, Winners of the Königsspiel.”

Together, they stood from their knelt positions. 

“Uzura?” Ahiru asked, she let go of Fakir’s hand and walked towards the Oak Tree. 

“Oh, oh Ahiru, yes. I was Uzura, but now I am returned to my former glory.”

Ahiru blinked away a tear, the thought of never seeing the little girl again… 

“Do not worry, Uzura is not gone, she is still here, in me for she is me. A small piece of me.”

“And Drosselmeyer?” Fakir asked, coming to stand by Ahiru’s side.   

“I took back the power I gave him, and I used him to give myself enough strength to return to this state of being.” 

“He will not corrupt you?” 

The Oak Tree chuckled. “He is as good as dead, do not worry, Your Majesty, he cannot hurt any of us anymore.

“Hessia will lead you where Autor is, and then home.”

“Hessia?” Fakir asked, but Ahiru bent down and ran her hand over the salamanders head. 

Hessia poked out its fat tongue, before it waddled off through the grass, waiting for Fakir and Ahiru to follow. 

And they did, they left the meadow hand in hand, but Ahiru paused before they walked back into the forest, a look past her shoulder aimed at the Oak Tree lived in the meadow, standing tall and proudly, the last light of the sun fading as stars peaked through the sky, and the light of the moon shining of the leaves of the Tree. 

Edel smiled at them, the reins of Fakir’s horse in her hand. 

“Miss. Edel, will you come too?”

Edel shook her head. “This is my home, I belong with and to the Oak Tree.” 

“But I can come and see you, right?”

Edel reached out and patted her cheek. “Always.”

Ahiru wrapped her arms around Edel. “I’ll miss you.”

Edel smiled and pet Ahiru’s head. “And I, you.”

Ahiru pulled away, a tearful smile on her face. “Thank you, for everything.”

Ahiru reached out for Fakir’s hand, who lifted her onto the horse and they were led through the wood.

Fakir told Ahiru about the tests, about how the trees were alive, how they were the ones to hand out the trials, and there were no ogres and beasts like foretold.  

They found Autor talking to himself, but they both knew better. 

Ahiru dismounted and called out his name, and he seemed upset the illusion was broken.

“So you won?”

“Yes.”

“Congratulations.” 

Autor gave Fakir an uncertain bow and Fakir immediately shook his head. 

“It’s alright, you don’t have to.” 

Hessia lead them to the treeline, and summer was gone, Ahiru shivered as biting winter winds greeted them as they stepped out of the forest, into the field outside the western wall.

The moon was high in the sky and the wall was lit by fire, a bell was rung, and there was shouting, and the large gates opened. 

It was as if the entire kingdom rushed out to them, some holding lanterns, others torches, but they all rushed out to meet the victor.

“Fakir!” 

Fakir turned his head to Mytho, who held Rue’s hand, as they pushed through the crowds.

“Who won?”

Never before had two walked out of the forest, much less three. 

One hundred men could walk in to challenge one another in the Königsspiel, and only one would survive. It was the way.

The crowd started to gossip, and soon the clammer was overwhelming, it would be impossible to judge the outcome, if they both claimed to be victors, how would they decide who sat on the throne? Or perhaps they could have two Kings.  

Fakir looked down at his subjects, he stood above them on the hill that lead up to the forest, his mind racing, he knew that Autor did not want to sit on the throne, but in a moment of power hungry greed, he could claim his victory. He looked down at his subjects, and they looked up to him.  

He opened his mouth to speak, but what could he say that would convince them? 

The entire kingdom could see him, but they could see Autor too. 

He sighed heavily and rolled his eyes, as he knelt beside Fakir, bowing to him.

Fakir was surprised, he never thought that Autor would ever bow his waist to anyone. Or that he could. 

Ahiru knelt as well, bowing her head, and he wanted to tell her not to, to rise back up, but his attention was pulled to Mytho and Rue, and even his mother who walked halfway up the hill to stand before them; kneeling and bowing their heads as well. 

He watched the Nobles, the Farmers, the Artisans, the Actors, he saw Charon and Raetsel, he saw the servants of the palace, all who wore his pin and all who didn’t. Even the godforsaken Bookmen bent their knees.

Fakir looked back to Ahiru, he squatted beside her, lifting her head to look at him and he brought her up, and together they looked out over the sea of people that bowed to the King and Queen of Bavaria, the winners of the Königsspiel. 

 

FAKIR WOKE UP TO sunlight pouring into the room.

The door was open.

He pushed himself up on his elbows, smirking lightly before sighing and throwing the blankets off his body. 

Fakir leaned against the door frame, warm summer air greeted him, and a cool breeze caressed him.

He watched his wife and Queen sitting at the edge of the pond, her legs folded under her, her hair pulled over her shoulder as she ran a hair brush through it. 

He sat behind her and he could hear her humming. She squeaked when his arms wrapped around her stomach and pulled her to his chest, planting his lips to her neck, he started kissing her. 

“Hey, Fakir! You finally woke up.”

“Finally? What’s that supposed to mean?”

She giggled, and he could feel it against his chest. “I watched the sunrise, and the ducks wake up, and I fed the birds. All while you were sleeping.” She wiggled around until she faced him, then she kissed his jaw. “You sleep a lot.”

“I work a lot. You go to bed early.”

“I go to bed at a reasonable time!” She turned back around sharply and burrowed into his chest, she placed her hand on the skin of his thigh. “Do you have to work today, too?”

“Of course, I don’t get days off.”

Her thumb ran in circles around and around and around, until the spot was numb. 

“Well, if you had me all to yourself for the whole day, what would you do,” He whispered in her ear. “Your Majesty.”

She giggled. “Don’t call me that.”

He shook his head, his nose nuzzling against the flesh of her neck. “What would you prefer? Your eminence? My Queen?”

“Fakir! Stop it, I’m not really a Queen.”

Fakir furrowed his eyebrows and tucked her head under his chin. “Oh? So am I a King with a wife but no Queen?”

Ahiru pulled her legs up to her chest and pushed away from him, wrapping her arms around her shins. 

“What happened?” He asked, his voice softened.

“Do you know what they call me? The Peasant Queen?”

He had heard that title in passing, servants whispering the name, old friends and followers. He was still debating whether he should tolerate it or put an end to it. It wasn’t as if being a peasant was anything to be ashamed of, she was one and he had lived as one for twenty-one years. 

But if it bothered her, it bothered him.

“I’ve heard it being said. What- what about it upsets you?”

“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “It just doesn’t sound nice. It’s mean.”

“No, it’s more than that.” He leaned forward, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Tell me.”

She looked back at his hand, then at him. 

They were interrupted by a knock at the garden door. “Your Majesty?”

Fakir groaned. “What?” He said rather sharply and threw a glare over his shoulder. 

The poor servant that had been sent to fetch him squawked and straightened. “The- the meeting!”

Fakir sighed. “Right.”

He stood before offering Ahiru his hand, and she stood too, but she clung to him, her other hand iron clad around his elbow, her chest pressed to his. 

Fakir glanced at the servant. “Leave.” 

He let go of her hand and wrapped his arm around her instead. He didn’t watch the servant escape, but could hear his shuffling feet as he fled.

“You should be nicer, Fakir. You never know when they might rebel against you.”

The grip on his elbow lessened, and wandered to his chest, clutching his nightshirt.

“Peasant Queen? It’s a direct contradiction. Like dirty soap, or a dull sword. It sounds like teasing, like they’re mocking me.”

“I promise, they’re not.”

“What if they don’t want me to be Queen? I don’t know any of the things Rue knows, like how to rule or economics. All I know how to do is sit on a throne. Which fork to use. How to cast a fishing net.”

“What did you do yesterday? That I had to go out and find you and drag you home so you could have dinner with me?”

“I was just out with the children.”

He brushed her hair behind her ear, his fingers trailing down her jaw before reaching her chin and tilting her gaze until she met his eyes. “You were working, dirtying your hands and helping Cordelia’s mother.”

“Her husband’s dead and she has no sons! It’s almost fall and she still needed to plough half the field!” 

“You still have dirt under your nails. And the day before that?”

“Fakir, I-”

“The day before that?”

She bit her lip. “I was in the kitchen helping Ebine make a traditional Arnis dish.”

“With enough surplus for the entire castle and you did dishes after. Ahiru, you already are a great Queen, how many other Queens would dirty their hands to make sure that a widow and single mother would have enough time to plant before the harvest? How many others spend their warm afternoons in a hot kitchen, deboning fish and scrubbing at plates? You serve the people in a way no other Queen would dare to think of, perhaps they aren’t calling you the Peasant Queen, but the Peasant’s Queen. Given the choice, I am sure they would choose no other.”

“You think so?” She wiped at her eye with a balled up fist. 

“Oh, I know so.” 

She sniffled and threw her arms around his neck, her fingers digging into the strands of hair at the nape of his neck, slowly growing back.

 

IT TOOK ANOTHER KNOCK at their chamber doors to pull them away from their embrace, for Fakir to rise and prepare for the meeting he was supposed to be at half an hour ago.

So of course when he walked in it was all chaos. 

It was typical of the nobles to be at each other's throats when Fakir wasn’t there to keep them from ripping out jugulars. 

“Fakir! We thought you had already left for Arnis.” Berinhard came up behind Fakir and clapped him on the shoulder. Berinhard was a giant of a man, broad chest, broad shoulders, a head taller than Fakir, to this day Fakir wondered how he knocked Bernie off his horse. “Val and His Grace the Duke Felix are fighting again.”

“We are not!” Came the viscous response from halfway across the room.  

“Your Majesty,” Adaline wrapped her hand around Fakir’s elbow and lead him to his chair at the head of the table. “Tell me, how are Queen and King of Baden-Württenberg’s peace campaign?”

“As well as to be expected when battle laden states are offered chances of peace after generations of war. Rue has her work cut out for her.”

“True, but she’s already a more promising ruler than her father before her.” Adaline nodded, stroking her chin in thought. “Although, having Mytho on her arm must make everything better.”

It was easier, with Mytho by her side. The new King of Baden-Württemberg was beloved by all, and soon he was able to wipe away all the bad blood. 

They had met with every state her father laid siege on, and had moved on to other states, reaching out a hand of friendship. 

And Fakir had to admit, they were making better progress than he originally thought they would. 

He smiled at Adaline. “It does, but this may be Baden’s most challenging battle yet.”

Fakir stood just behind his chair, readying himself for whatever mayhem lay before him. 

“-I’m not saying that! I’m saying that maybe we should think not only of Nordy but of all of Bavaria!” Valarie shouted. 

“And so you’re saying I’m not?” The Duke of Verstand, Felix, raised a brow. It wasn’t uncommon that Fakir would find them bickering, and still bickering, even after he had entered and made his presence known. 

“What now?” He muttered under his breath.

“Nothing of importance, Your Majesty.” Reginold told him. He cleared his throat. “Now that his Royal Majesty is here, we can start the meeting.”

Valarie and Felix paused in their fighting and looked over at Fakir. 

They came to meet at the table, their hands rested on the backs of their chairs until Fakir sat, and once he did, chairs scraped against the stone floor and he was joined by his council. 

The new Bookmen. 

Benek and Adaline sat to his left, and Felix took his spot on the right. 

The meeting room of the Bookmen had been monumentous, accommodated to fit fifty men, was now too large for seven members. A table had been put into the space, long and oval in shape, with Fakir at it’s head, his back to the Forest. 

“We won’t be gone for long, I trust that the safety of my kingdom and state is in good hands?”

“Of course, Your Majesty.” Benek said, “My only concern is that Valarie and Felix will start a Civil War.”

Valerie and Felix both glared at him, but the others laughed, even Fakir smirked. 

Berinhard patted his sister’s head. “Val only likes to argue with Felix; she only punches me.”

“Besides, I doubt if Felix could fight at all.” Mildred muttered under her breath to Reginald. 

“Good.” Fakir nodded. “We still have war torn areas of the state that need aid and-”

“Fakir.” Adaline smiled, she reached across the table and put her hand on his forearm. “We have been discussing these issues for over a year, you have worn yourself to the bone, go find your wife and take leave. We will be fine.” 

Adaline let go and Fakir sighed. “It’s the first time that I left-”

“Not to worry, Fakir, not to worry!” Reginald tutted, his hands draped over his cane. “We have trusted in your decision and followed you thus far. We will not break all this hard work.”

Reginald stood, he placed his right hand over his heart and bowed. “The House of Vermittlung stands with you.”

Mildred gave Fakir a warm smile, standing next to Reginald. “The House of Taktik stands with you, Your Majesty.”

Valerie and Berinhard stood. “The House of Stärke stands with you.” 

Benek and Adaline stood, “The House of Stimmung stands with you.”

Felix stood, giving Fakir a slight bow. “The House of Verstand stands with you.”

Fakir rose from his chair and inclined his head. 

They walked out of the council room, but Fakir remained. It was like they didn’t even need him.

“I have to say, I prefer this generation of Bookmen than the old one.” Helmia walked into the room and smiled at Fakir. “You’re doing very well, love.”

“Thank you. I said it before, you are welcome to come with us.” 

Helmia rolled her eyes and shook her head. “And leave those guys by themselves? I think not. Someone has to take care of your kingdom.” 

“They’ll do fine.”

“Fakir, they haven’t been raised to take care of a Kingdom, it’s been a long time since the Nobles were Bookmen.”

Fakir nodded, he offered Helmia his arm and they walked out of the room. “Yes, but it’s what the First King did.”

Helmia patted his arm. “I know, besides, I think it’s great seeing them have something to do. Felix getting out of the house is a sight to behold, that little bookworm.”

“If only he and Valerie would stop bickering.”

“She’s a hotheaded girl.” Helmia smirked. “I like her. She’ll do well.”

Fakir couldn’t help but agree, and it saved him from having to bicker, he was able to watch from the sidelines and weigh out both options before he came to a decision. 

“Although, what doesn’t help is Berinhard riling her up.” 

“That’s just siblings.” Helmia smiled. “I remember, watching Autor and Mytho grow up together, and you and Mytho. There wasn’t a day that went by where something came up.”

Fakir furrowed his brow. “Mytho and I didn’t fight.”

“Are you kidding me?” Helmia put a hand on her hip. “You didn’t complain to me, you would complain to the head of house, or whoever was taking care of you that day, but I still overheard you! I could give you examples if you want me to refresh your memory.”

“Mother-”

“‘Mytho broke my sword!’ ‘Fakir punched me!’”

“That was an accident!” 

Helmia chuckled. “See? You weren’t so perfect.”

“I never said I was.” Fakir muttered under his breath.  

“You’ll understand soon, I’m sure.”

Fakir blushed. “I don’t know what you mean by that.”

“Really? You don’t know? You’ve been married for over a year and you don’t know-”

“Alright! Alright.” Fakir glared at her but all she did was laugh.

“She’s a little young, but nineteen isn’t the youngest a woman has been when she started having children.”

“We still have a war torn state to worry over, adding children to the mix wouldn’t be the wisest decision.”

“We are less wartorn now that you are on the throne.”

Fakir smiled. “Thank you, mom.”

“Ah, there’s that smile.” Helmia patted his cheek. “Do you know how handsome you are when you smile?”

“Mother.”

“I mean it! No wonder Ahiru fell for you so quickly.”

Mother.

“What? I’m teasing.” 

They heard the hurried steps of someone running, and paused, looking down the hallway as Dylan rounded the corner and sighed in relief when he found them. 

“Your Majesty!” He cried out. 

Fakir made worried eye contact with his mother before he let go and raced to meet the servant. “What is it?” Fakir asked, not even bothering to scold him for running, as if he would ever listen. 

“No one-” A pant. “Can find the Queen.”

“Oh.”

“Oh? That’s all you have to say?”

Helmia came up beside him. “What is it?”

“Ahiru’s missing.” Fakir told her.

“Oh.”

Dylan looked between the two, dumbfounded that they weren’t as panicked as he was that the Queen was missing. 

“Mother, why don’t you talk to Dylan about his running problem.” 

Helmia blinked. “What running problem?”

Fakir gave Dylan a quirked brow and a small smirk. “The fact that every time he runs he starts wheezing, and that he runs everywhere.”

Helmia gasped. “Dylan.” She said, in a way that expressed motherly disappointment. 

“Your- your Majesty.” He raised his hands, but it was too late for him, Helmia had already planted her hands on her hips and started wagging her finger. 

“You have to be more careful!”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“What will happen if you’re running-”

Fakir strolled away, he almost felt bad for unleashing his mother on the poor creature, but someone had to teach him a lesson. 

Finding his wife was almost too easy, and maybe if she wasn’t here he would have been concerned, but there she was, sitting in the middle of the meadow braiding flower crowns with Edel and little Uzura.

“You have Dylan worried sick, Your Majesty.” He called out, stepping away from the shade of the trees and into the sunlight.

Ahiru placed her finished crown on Uzura’s little head. “I never told him to worry about me.” 

“Our train leaves soon, they probably thought you were backing out.”

Ahiru held her hand out to him and he pulled her up from her grassy seat. 

“Leaving me so soon?” Came the voice of the Oak Tree. 

“Just for a week. A courtesy visit to Arnis.” Fakir told the Oak Tree. 

Uzura had disappeared, but her flower crown hung from a branch. 

Warm laughter filled the meadow. “Then you must be on your way.”

Ahiru kissed Edel good bye, and touched the palm of her hand to the bark of the Oak Tree. 

He took her hand and they left the thick woods. 

 

“INTRODUCING, THEIR ROYAL MAJESTIES, The King Fakir Lohengrin of Bavaria, and the Queen Ahiru of Bavaria.” 

Fakir kept his jaw level as he and Ahiru walked into the ballroom, he didn’t offer smiles and he only looked into the eyes of Mytho and Rue. 

But his eyes flashed to Ahiru, and he saw her nervous smile, her hand on his arm tightened, he watched her chest as it started to heave. 

“It is an honor to have you.” Queen Paulamoni stated, bowing low but never taking her eyes from them. “The King and Queen of the most powerful state in all of Germany.”

“You flatter me.” Fakir said. 

“Let me introduce my sons and their wives.” 

Fakir didn’t take in their names, he kept his eyes on Ahiru, watching her pained reaction as she was introduced to people she once considered family. 

“And my youngest, Prince Gero and his betrothed, the Duchess Mila Aadya.”

Gero couldn’t even look Ahiru in the eye, but Fakir glared down at him and when Gero met the King’s scathing eyes, he shriveled. 

“A lovely family, your majesty.” Fakir told her highness. 

She smiled, a little too tightly, but her husband, King Paulo called the attention to the members of his party, thanking them for being here and asking them to enjoy the music, the food, and any other accomadies their castle could supply. 

“Let’s get out of here.” Ahiru whispered in his ear.

“One dance.” Fakir whispered back. “That was the deal.”

“My stomach is in knots, Fakir, I thought I could face him, but-”

“Ahiru,” Fakir placed his hand on her cheek, guiding her to look at him rather than her old love. “You stand before him as a Queen, you have power he will never taste.”

“But he will always see me as the fisherman’s daughter.” She shook her head. 

“And?” Fakir smirked. “He’ll never do better in life.”

“One dance?”

Fakir nodded, pulling her to him too closely. “One dance.” And he waltzed her across the floor.

 

IT WAS DARK WHEN they left, the moon high in the sky, and they both felt devious. 

She lead him across the cobblestone streets of Arnis, her feet heading north. 

They left after their one dance, and they should have stayed for the rest of the night, but they left instead, heading out to sea. 

She lead him to a secret place, a cove, guarded by cliffs they had to climb down until they stood on the sandy shore looking at the moon rise above the dark blue sea. 

“Isn’t it beautiful?” She grinned, she turned around to look back at him and kicked off her shoes. 

She was glad the current style of dress wasn’t layers and layers of clothing.

And it wasn’t hard to convince Fakir to follow her lead. 

She stripped down to her chemise and ran out into the icy water, meeting the waves with force, and she giggled as the ocean splashed around her. 

It would have been easy to swim out until her feet no longer touched the ocean floor, but Fakir didn’t let her, he took her hand and kept her in the shallows. 

He tried to kiss her, he pet her cheek and gave her that look that made her knees go weak, but a strong wave crashed into them, sending them under. 

Ahiru laughed, whipping her hair out behind her, she rose to her knees, but Fakir was a sputtering mess. 

The waves turned more gentle and she shuffled over to him, helping him rise up and brushing the salty sea hair from his eyes. 

“We should come back in the morning when it's warmer! Then we can go all the way out.”

 “I don’t think it gets warm out here.” He told her, his lips turning purple.

“Well, it gets less cold.” She smiled at his frown, screeching when he sloshed a hand full of water at her. 

Ahiru ran out of the water, but he followed after her, she only had a head start because she had walked in the ocean before and knew when to stand still. 

Fakir was knocked down twice more, but once he reached dry sand he knew she was a goner. 

He caught up to her, his arms wrapping around her waist sending them tumbling to the ground. 

She rolled under him onto her back, shaking with laughter and all he could do was admire her. 

He brushed a strand of hair from her face and took the chance to kiss her, her lips still cold from the water, but maybe he could make her warmer. 

 

IT WAS WARMER IN the morning, when they went on a walk to her old house, it was practically falling in on itself, but it was a building with respect, treated with respect; it had earned respect.  

She held his hand as she lead him through the wobbling door, across creaky floorboards and out the back into a garden that was overrun with weeds. 

Ahiru knelt between two gravestones, covered in moss, one much more than the other. 

She reached forward and wiped it away with her thumb, just enough to reveal their names. 

“Papa, mama, I want you to meet Fakir. My husband.” Her voice shook and the corners of her eyes filled with tears. 

Fakir greeted both of the gravestones. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

She seemed surprised, as if she didn’t expect him to say anything to the two gravestones as she did.

“He’s going to take care of me.”

“I will.”

“And I- I’m sorry I can’t continue the business, papa.” Her bottom lip quivered. “Noah took over, he’s doing a good job, he keeps your morals, he keeps Arnis fed.”

“You’ll be happy to hear what she’s doing instead.” Fakir said, addressing the stone with less moss. “She is now the Queen of Bavaria. You were right to trust her with your business, if she had taken over she only would have prospered.”

Ahiru took his hand. 

They stayed by the graves not much longer, just long enough for Ahiru to leave her two gifts, and then they left, they left her parents, they left her cottage, they left the palace and Arnis, and they went home. 

They went to Bavaria. 

 

AHIRU WAS ALWAYS EXCITED when Dylan personally delivered her the letters sent across oceans and from distant lands, sometimes written on fine, crisp paper, and other times written on the backs of torn out pages from books. Books, she was assured, that were silly and unimportant. 

She would drag Fakir into reading them with her even when he claimed he didn’t care about what they were doing. 

She would receive two papers, one from Femio and the other from Autor. 

Femio sent her drawings, little patterns to embroider to the trim of dress hems or along the borders of sleeves. Sometimes she would open up the folded page to see a gown inspired by the world around him, and her heart would race with excitement when she recognized the patterns he used.

Autor would send her his findings. 

Anything and everything he learned he tried to cram onto the pages and he would ramble about his discoveries. He assured her that he was keeping a more detailed journal, and one day hoped to publish his newly acquired knowledge for the world. 

She kept them all safely tucked away, and waited for the days they would come back.

Sometimes they stayed for a week, sometimes a whole month, before they would go back. Out into the world to discover something new and never before seen. 

Autor and Ahiru would take walks in the garden after lunch, and he would tell her in more detail about his adventures, the people he had met - and offended - and all his studies. 

But despite the language barrier, the Chinese have been very kind to us, and the old man who has let us stay with him has been showing me some ancient herbal medicine techniques that I think could have healed any ailment caused by the Bubonic Pl-

“Ahiru, put it down.” Fakir brushed her hair over her shoulder. “You’ve been reading it for the past hour.”

Ahiru sighed and placed it on her nightstand, she blew out the candle. “I miss them.”

“They’ll be back for our anniversary, I’m sure. They never miss it.”

Ahiru leaned back into him as he ran his hand through her hair. “And they always bring the best gifts!”

“Oh, so that’s what you care about.”

Ahiru giggled, and started to argue, and he argued back, but soon enough she yawned, and that made him yawn, and he leaned over to kiss her goodnight.

 

A WOMAN STOOD WITH her eyes undetermined, picking between a deeper red and a brighter red, which one would match the Queen’s pendant more?

“How much longer?” 

“Hold still.”

“Fakir.” She whined his name. “My back is starting to hurt.”

“And? My feet have been hurting for the past hour.”

“What! You should have said something!” Ahiru stood. “Take the chair.”

“Ahiru sit down.”

“No! Your feet hurt! You should sit down!.”

“That’s not the portrait.”

“You didn’t even want to do it, why do you care now?”

“Because now the painter needs us to sit still.”

“But I feel bad! Sit.”

“No.”

“Sit!”

“I will not.”

The painter raised her head, finally deciding in a deeper red, like the coursing blood as it raced through a heart, when she saw Her Majesty the Queen pulling at the King’s arm in a poor attempt to get him to move.

 

IT WASN’T OFTEN THAT Ahiru wore a crown, during a ball, at a parade, but lately she had taken to wearing her crown more often.

Fakir sat in a chair, a book in his hand, and he couldn’t help but smile and watch them.

She wore her crown for her son. 

Held tightly to her chest, he would stretch out his hand to pull it off her head and hold it in his tiny grasp. 

She wore softer fabrics for him as well, she braided her hair down her back, and she wore her crown, so he could take it.

Fakir watched her smile and laugh, until their son wiggled out of her grasp and ran around with the crown in his hands, giggling as she chased after him. 

Fakir was never able to stop the corner of his lip from twitching.

Ahiru knelt before Lohengrin, the tiny prince, and he put the crown on her head. 

The Queen of Bavaria with her son, and the King watching somewhere not too far away. 

The Oak Tree smiled, as well as a tree could smile, as the King and Queen left the forest. Their crowns of twigs and flowers awkwardly placed on their heads. They would get used to it, she had foreseen it.

Edel raised a hand and placed it on the trunk of the Oak Tree. “And now?”

“And now we watch them grow. Together, they truly will be the greatest King and Queen the world has seen.”

Edel looked back to them, nothing but retreating shadows now. 

“What will they accomplish?” 

“Love.”