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Pricking Thorns

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"Patience," Bibwit Harte began, with a heavy pause, "is a virtue, my young Highness."

Currently, Bibwit was instructing his young protege in the imaginative arts; specifically in the growing of flora. Her sole task was to make a score of white roses sprout from the assigned patch of earth. The seeds were there, for certain - he had double- and triple-checked the pot at her lack of success - so it seemed to simply be, well, a failure of imagination.

Now, this was not something he had ever seen in young Princess Rose before. She wasn't the most obedient sort - she preferred chaos and spontaneity over the level structure of her tutor's lesson plans (which, mind you, had served three generations of royalty properly, he was quick to point out) - and her lack of respect often meant that she was imagining objects of the sort entirely different than what he asked of her - but she had never simply failed altogether.

The tutor could see that her lack of success annoyed her. Not because she thought the assignment was important - Bibwit had no illusions in that regard - but because she had never been simply blocked before.

It was curious, he admitted to himself.

Eight-year-old Rose put her nose in the air and sniffed. "I'm not interested," she announced to the room at large, copying his intonation, "in being patient."

Bibwit's small, reddish eyes narrowed behind his glasses. "I'm afraid, Princess, that your disinterest is irrelevant to the task at hand. So far you have not succeeded at the task I set you to."

Rose had the sneaking suspicion that when Bibwit called her Princess so dryly he didn't mean it in quite the same way she usually did. But to Rose, "Princess" was a promise of the future: it meant one day she would be "Queen."

As Queen she would never, ever have to endure a stupid lesson with her Imagination tutor again.

Rose tossed aside the planter; Bibwit winced at the sight of dirt spilling over the sides onto the carpet. "Why should I bother with it, anyway?" she asked, sounding aggravated. She glanced down at the planter, kicked it with one small foot. Soil scattered in a wide arc.

He had no idea whether his next move would go over well; it was difficult to predict the reactions of someone so ... enthusiastically unpredictable. "You have never had any problems with your imaginative skills before," he said mildly. Perhaps it would provoke a positive reaction - anger inspiring her to succeed.

Her hands balled at her side. "It's not my fault!" she yelled up at him. "It's you. You're stupid, and your stupid lessons are stupid. It's not me!"

Bibwit tapped his weak chin. "Of course not," he said in a patently adult way - the kind of tone that implied that it actually was her fault.

Her face drained of all color. "It's not it's NOT it's NOT!" With her imagination she lifted the planter into the air and spilled its contents out into the air, where they hung, suspended like stars. "My imagination works fine, see it!"

Rose might have been strong - perhaps in possession of the strongest raw imaginative powers Bibwit had ever encountered, if he was honest with himself - but the tutor was infinitely more practiced. At his mere thought, the hanging seeds suddenly sprouted into full bloom, lush and white, and floated slowly around the short princess, spinning gently.

She gave an incoherent scream of rage, and at the sound, darkness rippled through each white petal until every flower was black as the night sky.

Wordlessly Bibwit watched as she stormed out of the room. A single petal swirled past his vision; with his mind he arrested it. Stricken through the middle was a clear red line, like a bolt of lightning.

----

Like they did whenever he was nervous, Bibwit's ears twitched forward.

"Tell me," Queen Theodora repeated. "You can trust me, old friend."

This, at least, was true. Some monarchs (or those who fancied themselves nearly so; the House of Diamonds was notoriously royal-ish in that regard) would never listen to any counsel they didn't wish to hear, reacting only with fear and anger; Theodora was of the sort who would hear anything but never take it seriously, always trusting her own wits above anything else.

Some days Bibwit wasn't sure which was more frustrating.

"I encountered some resistance from her today."

The Queen pursed her lips and leaned against the balcony rail, looking over the royal gardens. A few gardeners milled about, trimming bushes to floral perfection. "Not unusual," she pointed out.

"No," Bibwit agreed reluctantly, "although rather of a different sort. It was not that she disobeyed; she just failed. She could not make seeds sprout into roses."

The Queen gave a thoughtful hmm, frown lines deepening.

"I found it rather interesting, given her extensive talents," he added.

She straightened up, waving a dismissive hand. The enormous Heart Stone on her finger glinted blood-red in the sunlight. "A momentary lapse, I am sure. A blip. She is but a child yet, after all."

Bibwit thought back to Rose's display of imagination - just not the right kind of imagination - and thought rather differently of the matter. "I will admit, this issue has been bothering me for most of the day. It seems so odd, to only be blocked on this one particular task - and some of her imaginative exercises are, if you will excuse the term, rather dark in nature--"

"She's a child!" the Queen protested immediately.

"Of course, of course--" said Bibwit hurriedly, wishing there was a way to imagine away his words.

She straightened her collar, looking slightly mollified. "Goodness, given how much I hated my parents at that age, you must have thought I would turn to the Black, did you?"

He hastened to assure her of the opposite. "Of course not, Your Highness. Even at a young age I could recognize your potential."

"Give her time. She will grow out of this - rebellious phase," she pronounced, as if royal decree was enough to make it true. "Let her have some time to herself, too. Perhaps there is too much pressure on her to perform."

Bibwit resolved not to bring up the matter again.

----

Her mother's punishment for running off on her imagination lesson was to wash all the dirty dishes in the palace kitchen - by hand. The head cook - of course - had a powerful imagination himself, which restricted her ... fun. Instead of imagining up new and creative ways to trap and torture the occasional castle dormouse, she was stuck inside this dirty, sopping wet hole.

"Oh ho!" boomed the voice of the head cook, Marcel. "Don't think you can get away with shoddy scrubbing, Princess." Making her latest plate float in mid-air, tantalizingly out-of-reach, he smirked at her. "Missed a spot, didn't you?"

Rose seethed. "I didn't miss anything, you lump of fat--"

"The Princess has a temper on her!" Marcel laughed.

"You're just a stupid cook!" she snapped. "I'm the Princess, you should listen to me!"

He merely looked amused, rather than impressed, as he should have been. "Oh should I, then?" Rose felt the ends of her twin black braids jerk her backwards and then - with a sudden flash of fear - she was lifted off her feet.

"Let me down!" she shrieked, imperialism and fear mingled.

The other chefs in the kitchen laughed uneasily, turning their shoulders to her. She heard murmurs among them, but no one said anything.

Her anger began to overtake her again, tossing aside the fear of consequences. He couldn't do anything to her, she reassured herself. She was the Princess.

Every porcelain dinner dish in the kitchen rose into the air, some dripping dishwater, some shiny and dry. There was the welcome sound of silence in the kitchen, a collective holding of breath. Marcel himself grew quiet, curious about what she would do.

Abruptly every dish exploded into fine dust.

As the dust coated every surface - lodging in every nostril and burning every eye - and the staff began to cough violently and grumble - Rose's small form darted out the back door.

It took a few moments for her to realize she was outdoors, in the fading sunshine. Blinking and scrubbing at her eyes, the princess looked around her.

She was not crying, she told herself fiercely, even as another tear slipped down her face.

Out of the corner of her eye she spied movement.

"Come out," she said boldly, her voice trembling slightly.

A small form emerged from the shadows of a royal bush. It was a cat - or more accurately, a kitty. A stray, probably, she thought contemptuously.

"I'm the Princess," she told it. "One day I'll be the Queen here. You should bow before me!"

For a long moment the cat did nothing. Then, without warning, it stretched out its front paws and - there was no mistaking the gesture - inclined its head.

The display of fealty cheered Rose. A subject deserved a name. "Hello, Cat."