Once Upon A Time - Merry Shannon



Chapter One

Daric shook his head, the thin band of gold that circled his forehead glinting in the dim light of the stable. "You'd better hope Nurse never catches you at this," he warned, amusement tingeing his voice.

"Oh, stop being such a worrywart, Daric," Shasta retorted, yanking the yards of fine silk over her head and dropping it into the hay at her feet. "Come help me with these hoops, will you?"

Daric shook his head again, but still moved forward to help his sister with the knots at her waist. "One of these days you're going to get caught and we'll both get in trouble."

Shasta gave a most unladylike snort. "What are they going to do, haul out the whipping boy? They won't lay a hand on us and you know it." Impatiently she struggled with the cord under her fingers. "And besides, it's not fair. We're the same age, but you don't see them sticking hoopskirts and corsets on YOU."

Daric had succeeded in untying the knot on one side and now moved around to help her with the other. The heavy steel hoopskirt dropped to the ground, revealing the pair of woolen breeches that she'd slipped on underneath. His eyebrow shot up. "You've been raiding my wardrobe again, eh, sis?"

Shasta shrugged. "We're twins, we're the same size, and they fit." She stepped out of the hoopskirts and smoothed the front of her brocade corset bodice down over the top of the breeches. "Much better." There was a time when she would have gladly removed the corset as well, but in the past few months she was having difficulty deciding whether she was more uncomfortable with it on than she was without it. It seemed like her body had decided to sprout breasts almost overnight, much to her dismay, and the resulting tenderness made it painful to go for long without some sort of support. As stiff and unforgiving as corsets were, they did provide that much-needed support. Fortunately, Daric hadn't seemed to notice the changes in her body yet, or if he had, he was too polite to mention it.

Her brother grinned at her and tossed her one of their practice fencing swords. "Ready?"

She caught it and grinned back, flicking the blunted sword tip through the air experimentally and then lunging into an opening stance. The sound of metal on metal filled the stable as the twins parried and thrust, advanced and retreated, and circled one another. This was one of their favorite games, something they'd been doing since Daric first started taking regular swordplay and fencing lessons. Shasta had begged their father to let her take the lessons too, but he'd adamantly refused, insisting it was no place for a girl, much less a princess of the royal line. Undaunted, Shasta and Daric decided to hold their own practice sessions in the servants' stables, where none in the royal court might accidentally find them out, and they'd been lucky; it had been nearly six years and so far they'd managed to keep their secret relatively undiscovered. Each time Daric learned something new in lessons he taught it to his sister, and they would practice until she couldn't lift her sword any longer.

Shasta blocked her brother's blade from the right, and spun to unwind her arm while still holding him off. She swung low, and he jumped into the air, avoiding the steel that passed where his ankles had been a moment before.

"Hey, watch it," he grunted. "I have lessons tomorrow, you know. I don't want to have to try and explain a bunch of scratches and bruises to the commander."

Shasta stuck her tongue out at him, avoiding the tip of his sword as it narrowly missed her ear. She jumped up onto a nearby crate, seeking higher ground, and held onto the rope pulley with one hand to steady herself as the crate rocked under her weight. The sword never stopped flashing in her hand. "Oh, don't be such a baby."

"Baby, huh?" Daric grinned and used one foot to kick the crate under her feet, causing the splintery wood to buckle.

Shasta took a firmer hold on the rope pulley just in time, and swung herself across the open area of the stable to the other side. The other end of the pulley was holding a sack of feed that weighed only slightly less than the girl herself, so as she flew across the pulley slowly lowered her to the ground. She let go, causing the sack to crash back down with a thud and a cloud of dust, and gave her brother a cocky little bow. "Nice try."

Daric only snickered and sped up his assault. She really was good. Faster than he was, even, and with quicker reflexes and a seemingly endless supply of creativity. Their practice sessions did more for his skills than the lessons with his fencing master, because Shasta didn't like to play by the book. She had a competitive streak a mile wide, and was of the opinion that rules were meant to be broken, which made for very interesting sparring. It certainly kept him on his toes.

Their combat lasted a few more minutes before Daric broke it off. "Okay, that's enough. You need to rest."

A thin sheen of sweat coated her face and arms, and the flush in her cheeks had begun to deepen, but she shook her head petulantly. "Aw, come on, Daric, just a little more." Her breath came in sharp pants.

"Nope. You've had enough." He lowered his sword, and guided her to the haystack where she'd left her skirts.

Reluctantly Shasta sank down into the hay, closing her eyes and trying to regain control over her breathing. "Damn it," she hissed between her teeth. Daric cocked an eyebrow. "You should watch your language, your highness." He lowered himself next to her and stretched his legs.

His twin opened one eye and squinted at him. "It's not fair," she complained.

"I know, sis, but it's not your fault. The healers say your blood is weak. You were born with it, there's nothing you can do." He winked at her. "Anyway, I think it's nature's way of leveling the playing field-- you got the intelligence and speed, and I got the endurance… and the good looks." He dodged out of the way before she could punch him in the arm, and she glowered at him.

"Oh, shut up. You're just lucky I tire so easily, otherwise I'd beat the stuffing out of you."

His reply was cut short by a creaking of the stable doors as they swung open, and the twins jumped nervously and spun towards the sound. Daric rose to his feet.

"Prince Daric? Princess Shasta?"

"Kallin." Shasta was relieved. The aged stable hand was one of the few people on the castle grounds who was aware of the twins' sparring sessions, and he'd kept their secret for years. "Don't scare us like that." She took her brother's offered hand and allowed him to help her stand. "Nearly stopped my heart."

The aged stable hand eyed her odd attire, a blue brocade corset over the gray wool of her brother's breeches. "For good reason, too," he muttered under his breath, but not without a twinge of amusement. She was irrepressible, that one; did whatever came into her head, and the gods help the one who tried to get in her way. He bowed respectfully. "My apologies, highness. Nurse has servants scouring the castle grounds for you two. You're late for your fittings."

Shasta groaned. "Can't we just hide out here? Just pretend like you couldn't find us."

"Sis, you know we can't do that. The celebration is at the end of the week."

"Ugh. I don't see why we have to get entirely new garments made for it, though… I can't take all this standing around, holding still, being measured and poked for hours on end just for some stupid celebration gown."

"It's not fun for me either, but what choice do we have?" He bent and picked up her hoopskirts, indicating with a jerk of his head that she should step into them.

Shasta gave a frustrated growl, but resignedly stepped into the hoops so they could be brought back up to her waist and retied. "I don't see why it's such a big deal, anyway. So we're nearly thirteen. Who cares?"

"You know as well as I do. Thirteen winters means we've come of age. We're not kids anymore, Shasta, we've grown up."

"You don't have to sound so happy about it." She lifted her arms over her head so he could pull the skirt down onto the hoops, and when the fabric had passed her face she continued. "The older we get, the more they're going to tighten the rope around our necks. Pretty soon we won't be able to scratch our noses without the entire country knowing about it, and debating how it will impact trade relations with the Thelessian provinces…"

Daric snickered as he waited for her to fasten the skirt waist and tuck it under the edge of her bodice. "Aw, it's not going to be that bad, Shasta."

"At least you'll have more of the spotlight than me, being the heir to the throne and all." She smoothed the skirt with her hands. With the hoops on, her hips were nearly as wide as three men, which provided a vast expanse of skirt to be decorated with various bows and beads and laces. Completely impractical, but her father insisted she dress like royalty; ladies of the court apparently wanted to prove to everyone that they did not have to work by dressing themselves so that it was nearly impossible to move.

"You'd better do something about that hair." Daric's eyes twinkled at her.

"Ugh." She pulled a piece of straw from her long golden brown hair. "Yeah, I guess. If Nurse sees this she'll have a conniption." Her gaze fell on a round bristle grooming brush lying abandoned on a nearby stool, and she picked it up and began running it through her waist-length mane in quick, impatient strokes.

Kallin made a face. "Really, highness, we use that brush for the horses, it's hardly-"

She cut him off with a wave of her arm. "If it's good enough for them it's just fine for me." Her fingers quickly plaited the thick hair into a neat braid over one shoulder, and she licked her fingertips to smooth her bangs back behind her ears. "How's that?" she asked her brother.

"Better," he conceded. "We'd better hurry before any of Nurse's minions catch us out here."

With a heavy sigh she nodded, and he quickly stashed their practice swords beneath the hay. The twins turned and reluctantly followed Kallin from the stables.

"When will this be over," Shasta muttered to her brother through gritted teeth, cheeks aching with the effort to maintain a brightly plastered smile. Her hand waved back and forth, almost of its own accord. It had gone numb over an hour ago and now was just moving mechanically.

"We're almost there," Daric replied with the same smile, his lips barely moving. "Just keep waving."

The royal court had insisted on a parade for the twins' coming-of-age celebration, a parade that had started from the castle walls and wound through what had to be every major street of the city before returning to the castle for the actual ceremony and celebratory banquet. Ardrenn was the capital of their small kingdom, but nonetheless it was a large city, and the parade had taken all morning. The full royal guard lined the streets along the entire route. They'd been decked out in their most elaborate uniforms, with scarlet jackets, glittering white sashes, and golden helmets topped with red plumes. Several divisions of the regular army had also been assigned to march in the parade, their uniforms as crisp and formal (though not as spectacular) as the guard. There were various and sundry jugglers, acrobats, singers, dancers, and marching musicians, each group engrossed in their own performance. The mingled sounds of a dozen different songs filled the air at any one time, resulting in a cacophony of noise that was nearly unbearable. Scantily clad girls twirling long ribbons skipped along to the beat of the drummers marching behind them, followed by someone on stilts in a costume with an enormous, grotesque false head and hands, and behind him came a group of Irythrian priestesses, swinging fragrant incense burners from long poles and chanting prayers… and so it went. The royal twins were the grand finale, followed only by the royal guard as they passed. They'd been seated in the royal carriage, a gleaming white contraption with an open top drawn by six of the finest pure-white horses in the royal stables, to allow the public a full view of their prince and princess. And of course, their wardrobe would not disappoint; each of them was swathed head to toe in red silk. Shasta's skirts were even larger than usual, covered in strands of pearls and fine white lace, and Daric wore a jacket encrusted with gold embroidery and crystal beads; they both wore sashes of white across their chests and two thin bands of gold circled their foreheads. They were the perfect display of royalty, opulence and fine breeding.

"I'm going to be sick."

"No you won't. Just keep smiling." Daric squeezed his sister's shoulder with his free hand.

The ceremony itself was worse than the parade. The crowds followed them to the castle grounds, filling the courtyard and surrounding the palace. Shasta couldn't believe that so many people would want to spend an entire afternoon standing in the hot sun, so far away from the ceremonial proceedings that they surely couldn't see or hear any of what was going on. She hadn't realized until this moment just how big a deal the whole coming-of-age thing was.

The kingdom of Lysteria had twelve provinces, and each of the provincial governors was present to make speeches of praise and well-wishing for the young royals. Since it would have been considered a grave insult to leave any of them out, or to allow one more time than another, there was nothing to do but give all twelve the chance to make a speech. And make speeches they did, each trying to outdo one another with the subtle language of court intrigue. Shasta had spent enough time around such men to understand completely the cloaked insults, diatribes and self-serving flattery that constituted the majority of their speeches, though she did not care to try and determine the cause or speculate the motives of each man. Politics bored her thoroughly.

She and Daric had been presented to the public eye from a balcony atop the palace wall, overlooking the courtyard. As the speeches were all being made in their honor, they were expected to stand and listen with rapt and grateful attention; but the sun was particularly hot, and the heavy silks of her dress and the iron grip of her corset made it very difficult not to feel lightheaded after a while. She was actually grateful for Nurse, who stood at her elbow and revived her with an imperceptible but very sharp pinch every time her balance began to waver. She didn't dare faint.

Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime of speechmaking, the king himself appeared on the balcony. He caught a glimpse of Shasta's pale, exhausted face, and offered an encouraging smile to his daughter before turning to the crowds. Shasta couldn't help but smile back, and straightened herself slightly, studying her father as he held up his hands to silence the crowd.

King Soltran of Lysteria was a handsome man, despite the deep lines creasing his face. Nurse had told her that once, her father had been considered one of the most attractive men in the kingdom. Athletic, intelligent and wickedly charming, he could have his pick of any queen, princess, duchess or countess as a bride. Instead, he'd chosen a soldier's daughter. Talia was common, uneducated, nothing at all like the wife of a prince, and the entire court was horrified that he would bring such a creature into their midst… and worse, in favor of their own well-bred daughters. Yet Soltran had defied them all for the sake of the woman he'd loved, and when Talia had been among them for only a few months she'd succeeded in winning nearly all of them over with her pretty face, genuine caring, and earnest love and devotion to their beloved crown prince. She'd been a gentle and compassionate queen, when Soltran had ascended to the throne. But only a few years after the twins' birth, Talia took sick with a terrible fever that not even the best healers in the kingdom could break, and died.

Shasta knew what a heavy toll her mother's death had taken on her father. He'd devoted his entire life to Daric and herself afterwards, refusing to remarry, and there was a look of heavy sadness that weighed on him now. But he was a good ruler, and a good father.

Once the crowds below had quieted, Soltran spoke, his authoritative tones resonating through the courtyard. "People of Lysteria, it is with great joy that I welcome you here today. I have been blessed many times throughout my life, but the greatest of these blessings have been my children. Today we celebrate that moment in their lives when they cross over from childhood to adulthood. No father could be more proud, and I am grateful that all of you came today to celebrate their coming of age with us." The crowd cheered and clapped, and Soltran waited for the sound to die down before continuing. "May I present to you His Highness, the Crown Prince Daric of Lysteria."

Daric stepped forward to their father's side as the crowd cheered, and waved with a grin on his face. A footman approached with a large red pillow in his hands. A large golden crown was resting on the pillow, and he presented it to the king with a bow. Shasta watched as her father took the crown, holding it up where the crowd could see it.

"Prince Daric, today we celebrate your thirteenth winter. You have become a man, worthy of the responsibility of your title. Henceforth you will wear the crown of a prince. You must always continue in your efforts to become the strongest and wisest ruler you can be, and never forget your duty to your country and family." He placed the crown on his son's head, face impassive, but Shasta could see the pride shining in his eyes, and at that moment her brother had never looked more like a prince. Daric bowed to the king, then turned and waved to the crowds.

When the applause had quieted, Shasta knew it was her turn, and she took a deep breath. Just a few more minutes. She could do this.

"My people, may I present to you Her Highness, Princess Shasta of Lysteria."

She stepped forward to her father's other side. "Princess Shasta, today we celebrate your thirteenth winter. You have become a woman, worthy of the responsibility of your title. Henceforth, you will wear the crown of a princess." Her father already had the crown in his hands, smaller and more delicately wrought than her brother's. "You must always continue in your efforts to become the gentlest and wisest ruler you can be, and never forget your duty to your country and family." Shasta closed her eyes as the crown was placed on her head, the weight greater than she'd expected. She opened them and saw her father gazing at her with a mixture of pride and concern, and she offered him a smile to let him know she was all right and curtsied before turning to wave to the crowds.

A fanfare started to play and the royal family withdrew into the palace. The moment she was out of sight, Shasta let out a deep breath that it seemed she'd been holding for hours, and her knees gave way. Daric caught her before she could hit the ground, and in an instant the king, Nurse, and about five or six household servants were buzzing around her like flies, fanning her face and offering water. Shasta blushed to the roots of her hair, struggling to regain control of her weak muscles, and fighting back the dizziness that swirled in her head. "Damnit," she hissed before she could stop herself, and her blush deepened when her father shot her a warning look only slightly tinged with amusement. "I'm sorry, majesty. I just hate this."

Soltran lifted one eyebrow. "A princess should accept her weaknesses, Shasta, like a true lady. You do the best you can, and that is all anyone could ask." He took a cup of water from one of the serving girls and held it to her lips.

After a moment or two Shasta could feel some strength returning, and with assistance from her father and Daric she was able to stand. "I feel better now, thank you," she insisted, though the truth was her muscles were still quivering rebelliously.

Daric eyed her suspiciously. "Majesty, perhaps the princess should not be required to attend the banquet tonight."

Shasta glared at him. "If you're going, so am I." She turned to Soltran with a pleading look.

The king chuckled. "Don't want to miss all the food and fun, eh?" He winked at his daughter. "But perhaps Daric is right. You don't look well."

"I want to go. Besides, the court will expect me there. It's bad enough that everyone knows I have the strength of a baby mouse… I don't want them talking about how I'm too pathetic to attend my own celebration." Her eyes flashed, and Soltran felt a twinge. She looked so much like her mother at times.

"Very well. If you wish to go I will not prevent you. However, I expect that until the banquet begins you will spend the time resting in your chambers." He beckoned to Nurse, who took Shasta's arm and led her slowly away.

Daric and the king watched her go. "Think she'll be all right?" Daric asked.

Soltran snorted with amusement. "She wouldn't have it any other way."

Talon leaned up against the wall of the great hall, and absentmindedly scratched the back of her neck where the collar of her brightly colored costume was rubbing unpleasantly against her skin. Her dark eyes never left the forms of her two sisters seated on the floor close by. Aleria and Brie didn't seem to share her distaste for these events, but then, it was by far the best part of their duties; and they both had such skill that for them there was no fear of failure.

Talon was not so lucky. As slave performers, they were expected to wow and please every crowd they entertained. Failure to delight the crowd meant less profits for the showmaster, and inevitably resulted in harsh punishment. The showmaster hadn't even wanted Talon at first; his only interest was in Aleria and Brie, who were young enough to be taught properly and pretty enough to please an audience. Thanks to Talon's constant drilling, the sisters had developed incredible skill; Aleria was one of the most gifted harpists the troupe had ever seen, and Brie could make the most hardened soldier weep with her beautiful voice. The showmaster grudgingly decided not to sell Talon away as he'd originally planned, as the slave boy seemed to be the driving force behind his sisters' talent; but as Talon had no musical ability, he had to think of something else to teach him that would be profitable.

There was a sharp elbow in her spine and a warning glare from the showmaster. Talon sprang forward, mentally cursing herself for nearly missing her cue, and leapt to the center of the room. This banquet was no different than others she'd performed for; long tables were set up along the sides of the room, leaving the center free for the entertainers and servers to do their work. At the head of the room was another long table, this one elevated on a stone dais, where the important people were seated. Kings, dukes, high priests, it really didn't matter, but this was the primary audience she was expected to entertain.

She launched right into her routine, executing two cartwheels and a front flip, bending backwards and then kicking into a handstand, lifting one hand off the ground and holding the position while one of the smaller slave performers placed delicate cups of steaming tea on the tips of her toes and in her open hand. Her mind closed out thoughts of everything except the tea, knowing full well that if she spilled so much as a drop she would pay dearly for it later. She bent one leg carefully, using her free hand to take the cup from that foot so that now there were two in her hand and her foot was free; the free foot then touched the ground and she pulled herself up into a standing position, never letting the cup on her other foot waver for a moment, so that she was balancing on one foot and both hands were free. She passed one of the cups from her hand to her head, and used her free hand to grasp the ankle of the foot holding the tea and slowly stretch her leg up and over her head behind her in a graceful arabesque.

In the back of her mind she registered that the audience was clapping, though she did not allow herself to focus too much on that fact. Her hand released the ankle and took the tea from her foot, so that now she had a cup in each hand and one on her head. She lowered her leg and held it straight out in front of her, then set one of the teacups on her thigh and slid it down the length of her leg, aided by the silkiness of the tights that she wore. It came to a stop right where she wanted it to, on her toes, and she breathed a sigh of relief. That was one of the most difficult parts in this routine, to only give the cup enough force to slide, in a straight line, without falling off to the side or sliding right off the end of her foot.

Talon continued the teacup routine through several more manipulations, and then each cup was replaced by a lit candle, and she carried those through another set of poses, tying her body into various knots and unwinding it again, narrowly avoiding catching her hair or parts of her costume on fire with every movement.

Acrobatics did not come as naturally to her as music did to her sisters, and she'd suffered for it. Every failure meant a beating, or extra backbreaking chores, or a meal that was withheld… often a combination of all of the above. Talon knew her real value to the showmaster was her ability to coach Aleria and Brie, and if it were not for that he would have gotten rid of her long ago. So she worked and practiced and pushed herself to the point of breaking, not because she cared about the performances or even fear of punishment, but because she could not allow herself to be separated from her sisters. They were her responsibility, and they needed her.

When the teacup and candle routines were complete, she had only a moment to catch her breath and gauge the audience's reaction. Audience interest was vital, and another of the difficulties with acrobatics was that her routines were so intense and often dangerous that she could not focus on anything other than the movement of each muscle of her body. Unlike singers or musicians or even dancers, she did not have as great an ability to pay attention and adjust her performance when necessary to maintain interest, and as a result sometimes she could deliver a flawless routine and still be punished for losing her audience. Acrobats had by far the most risky and difficult roles in the slave troupe, as many of their routines depended at least as much on pure luck as they did on skill; they had to work harder than any of the other performers, practice harder, and inevitably fail more often. One of Talon's only advantages was that she seemed to have a lucky streak a mile wide.

She was able, for the first time, to catch a glimpse of the people seated at the head of the room. They were obviously royalty, as they all wore crowns; there was a big bearded man in the center, and on either side of him sat a boy and a girl, about her sisters' age, she would guess. By the way they were both dressed and the way everyone seemed to be focusing attention on them Talon assumed that the kids were probably the center of whatever this banquet was about, and were probably the prince and princess of whatever kingdom this was. The prince appeared interested enough, grinning and clapping, but the princess' face was very pale and she seemed distracted. Talon frowned slightly, but there was no time for further contemplation. The troupe musicians had begun to play her next piece, and her partner was already in position.

Her next routine was a duet performance with Boleyn, one of the other young acrobat slaves. She spun quickly and did a back flip towards him, and he dropped to the ground, planting his feet into her chest as she approached and lifting her into the air with his legs. She arched her back and posed, gritting her teeth. This move was particularly painful. She'd been lucky that the years of constant abuse and strain on her body stunted the development of her more feminine features; she'd never developed noticeable breasts, but the area was still quite sensitive. Moves like this one, where her entire body weight rested on Boleyn's feet pressed into her chest, were extremely uncomfortable. She held the pose for as short a time as she dared before giving a guttural "Ha!" that signaled Boleyn to kick his legs and roll forward. At the same time she contracted her abdomen muscles, flipping her legs over her head and flying through the air to land on her feet in the precise spot where Boleyn's head had been a moment before.

The audience clapped and a few even cheered, but Talon's attention was focused on the princess at the head table, who only looked down into her goblet as though she found its contents more interesting than the entertainment. That wasn't good, not at all, and she knew without seeing his face that the showmaster would also notice. She quickly sprang back into position, dropping into a handstand back-to-back with Boleyn and bending her legs and body so that the tips of her fingers and her toes touched the tips of her partner's fingers and toes, forming a heart shape with their two inverted bodies. She risked a glance at the girl at the table, who had looked up and lifted her eyebrows. Improvement, at least.

With another "Ha!" she and Boleyn kicked against one another's feet, returning their bodies upright, and Talon decided it was time to try something different. It was dangerous, and not a move they typically performed in an enclosed space like this, but if she didn't at least attempt it they were sure to face punishment tonight whether she succeeded or not. She waved her hand in front of her face in a swirling motion and caught Boleyn's eye to be sure he understood. His eyes widened but he nodded slightly, and instead of moving into the next pose of the routine he did a standing flip and dropped to one knee, hunching his shoulders forward. Talon executed a series of back flips until she'd nearly reached the hall's doors, putting as much distance between herself and Boleyn as she could. It would be hard, as the hall wasn't as big as the outdoor arenas they usually reserved this move for. Talon paused at the door, arms extended, carefully calculating the distance between herself and Boleyn, and between Boleyn and the head table. One wrong move and she could land on someone in the audience, or on the princess herself, and that would be an unforgivable offense. The showmaster would probably kill her if the king didn't.

She swallowed hard. There was no turning back, they'd already set it up. She could feel the eyes of the showmaster burning into the back of her head. Talon closed her eyes, clearing her mind of everything but the sensation of blood pounding through her veins, the tension in each muscle, the contraction of her back and abdomen, the strength of her legs. She opened her eyes and ran forward, lightly, picking up speed until she reached Boleyn's back. Launching herself into the air she sprang onto Boleyn's shoulders. He jerked upwards, tossing her off and providing the momentum she needed to soar very high above the floor. She crossed her arms in front of her chest, holding her body in a straight line, and flipped and twisted at the same time in a half circle before curling into a ball and using her abdominals to swing her legs up and over her head. That gave her the last bit of inertia she would need for landing, and as she came down she envisioned where her feet should land, there and there on the table, right in front of the princess, without disturbing her plate or goblet. Time stood still in those split seconds before she landed, knowing that this could very well be her last performance if she failed.

Her lucky streak held out, though she landed on the table a little heavier than she would have liked. The plates and goblets shook a bit at the impact, but none of them fell over. The audience was delighted and erupted in a cacophony of applause and cheers. The princess looked up at her with astonishment that faded quickly into awe, and for the first time Talon noticed the color of her eyes, an unusual pale golden shade that almost exactly matched her golden brown hair. She was a pretty kid, about Aleria's age. Talon was hit with sudden inspiration, and she sank to one knee on the table, tugging a little red silk flower out of a hidden pocket in her sleeve and presenting it to the girl with a flourish and rakish wink. As she hoped, the princess' face reddened, and she accepted the flower with a giggle.

The court cheered again with this little exchange, and Talon grinned. She'd learned long ago that a little flirting went a long way with an audience, and if she couldn't wow them with her talent sometimes she could charm them instead. Either way, the showmaster would be happy, the profits would roll in, and she'd spend one more night with a full belly and unbruised back. Talon was well aware that her androgynous, elfin features and dark coloring made her quite attractive to most of her female audience (and some of the men, as well, though she preferred not to dwell on that too much) and she used that knowledge to her full advantage every chance she got. It was one of the few benefits to maintaining her constant disguise as a boy.

She somersaulted lightly off the table and bowed deeply to the royal family amid renewed applause, and resumed her position against the wall with the other performers. The showmaster caught her eye as she fell back into line, disapproval and greed warring on his face. She knew she'd probably get an earful for the risk she'd taken tonight, but it would be worth it. He couldn't deny that she'd just delivered a powerful performance, possibly the best of the night. The golden coins showering the stone floor proved that beyond all argument.

There was a delay in the next act as the littlest slaves in the troupe scampered about collecting the coins on the ground and delivering them to the showmaster. He bowed to the audience in an exaggerated display of gratitude and deposited the coins safely into a leather pouch hanging from his belt. Talon could scarcely suppress a smug smile.

Aleria and Brie were next to perform, and Talon was finally able to let her body relax. Her part in the show was over, and better yet, had been a great success. She watched as Aleria's harp was positioned in the center of the floor, and Aleria settled herself on the small stool before it, stretching her fingers experimentally over the strings. Brie stood near her shoulder. A respectful hush fell over the audience when Aleria began to play, and after a few notes Brie's sweet crystalline soprano rose above the delicate tinkling of the harp, filling the entire hall with a sound so achingly beautiful that all eyes were drawn to the sisters in the center of the room.

Talon's heart swelled with pride. No one would know, from just looking at her sisters, that they were slave girls in a troupe of near-penniless vagrant performers. When they made music together, they were just as elegant and refined as the wealthiest of empresses. They could have become real ladies one day, with their lovely faces and sweet dispositions they certainly would have married well. If only the slavers had never come to their village…

Her face burned at the memory and she quickly stifled those thoughts. It had been nearly seven winters ago that she and her sisters had been captured as slaves, and sold at auction. The hell of that first year was something Talon did not wish to remember. But when they'd all ended up together in the performing slave troupe, it was the first time Talon had seen a light of hope. Work as an entertainer was certainly not the worst duties a slave could have. In fact, in a profession where looks and health were important to a good performance, the chances of being beaten to death, receiving noticeable scars, branding, starvation, or injury to vital body parts like hands and legs were greatly reduced. That's not to say that they didn't receive beatings, or that they received adequate nutrition, but at least the showmaster valued his slaves' money-making potential enough to ensure that none of them were indisposed for long periods of time due to harsh whippings or so thin that the audience could not stand to look at them. It could have been far, far worse. That was why Talon pushed Aleria and Brie so hard. She understood, even at a very young age, that to survive they would have to make themselves indispensable, profitable and irreplaceable to the showmaster.

Listening to them perform now, Talon knew that was exactly what they had done. Aleria and Brie were like magic, no matter what audience they were performing for; the moment they began their music it was as if they cast a spell over their listeners. They always pulled in the greatest profits, and were very obviously the showmaster's favorites among the slaves. This made Talon's job a bit easier. Aleria and Brie had managed to retain an optimism and innocence that was unheard of among slave girls. Aleria had reached thirteen winters this year, and Brie twelve, yet due to their high value to the troupe and Talon's close watch both remained untouched by the hands of men.

Talon herself had been saved only by her disguise, and even then she'd occasionally run into awkward situations where only her quick thinking and incredible luck had rescued her. It was not uncommon for members of the audience to offer the showmaster money for the chance to spend private time with a slave who had caught their eye; in fact, it was well known that the troupe dancing girls in particular were expected not just to perform well but to try and catch the attention of some wealthy patron who would be willing to pay for their favors after the performance. Every now and then, one of these requests would be something unusual; once Talon knew of a wealthy female client who'd purchased an entire evening with one of the girls, and on occasion one of the male patrons would specifically request a slave boy's company. Talon herself had been inquired after on several occasions, but she was usually able to come up with some excuse once she and the client were alone; either she would pretend to have a mysterious itch in an intimate area that the client was not anxious to acquire himself, or else she would slip a bit of sleeping powder into his wine and encourage him to drink several glasses. He'd usually get drunk and fall asleep before he'd even remembered why he'd paid for her time in the first place.

Talon watched Brie work the room slowly as she sang, fluttering her eyelashes in the direction of men sitting on either side of her, and paying special attention to those seated at the head table. The prince in particular seemed to have caught her eye, and Brie began directing several of her graceful arm movements towards him. Talon's eyes narrowed. It was one thing for herself, as a boy, to flirt with the ladies and girls in the crowds. Few of their "special" clients were women. But Brie hadn't seemed to realize yet that what happened to the other slave girls could easily happen to her, and the possibility became more and more real the older she grew. So far the showmaster had turned down every offer he'd received for either of the sisters, convinced that part of their charm for the crowds was their purity and innocence. But that could change any day, the first time someone made an offer that the showmaster's greed could not refuse. And with Brie constantly flirting with the men in every audience, the risk was even higher. Talon wasn't sure what she'd do if the showmaster ever accepted an offer for one of her sisters. She didn't want to think about it.

However, the young prince hardly seemed like the type to inquire after such a thing, and Talon kept her eyes on the other men in the room, trying to evaluate any potential dangers to her sister. Everyone was watching both girls, of course, only a few with undisguised lust on their faces, but after assessing their various wardrobes and positions relative to the head table Talon was satisfied that none of them could afford to make the kind of offer the showmaster would require for either of her sisters' favors. Her gaze returned to Brie, who suddenly struck a high note of such clarity that the walls of the hall itself seemed to strain to contain it. Aleria's hands ceased to move on the strings, allowing only the sound of her sister's voice to carry above everything and everyone else in the room. She stood up from her seat at the harp. Together the sisters approached the head table, Brie still holding that one glorious note.

Brie held her hands out to the prince, while Aleria did the same for the princess, beckoning them to step out from behind the table and join them. Talon held her breath for a moment; the prince took Brie's hands willingly, but the princess seemed a bit more uncertain. When she finally did reach out and take the offered hand, Brie let go of the note she had been holding, and Talon was able to breathe easy again. The audience was caught in a moment of raptured silence as the sisters led the two guests of honor out into the center of the floor.

In a split second they were surrounded by dancers, and group of musicians at the back picked up where the music had left off, beginning with the sweet sounds of a flute. The tempo increased slowly, and both Brie and Aleria began to sing, Aleria's warmer, fuller tones supporting Brie's airy soprano. The two girls whirled the prince and princess into the center of the dancers, and the music became more lively with each step.

Talon was grinning now. Another flawless performance for her sisters this evening. She turned to peek at the showmaster's face, and a flash of movement caught her eye.

A hooded figure in a dark cloak was moving from his position by the door, slowly stepping in front of other onlookers. Talon's nostrils flared. Her instincts were telling her this person was dangerous. She hadn't seen him in her first scan of the room, and indeed he moved more like a shadow than a man, slipping right in front of the lords and ladies of the hall without eliciting so much as a glance. She followed him with her dark eyes as he slid along the side of the room. His face remained hidden beneath the hood of his cloak. Suddenly there was a flash of silver from beneath his robe.

What happened next took only a split second, yet it seemed like an eternity for Talon. The cloaked man had thrown a knife into the party of dancers, with an aim so swift and deadly that it had to be expert. It flew over Brie's shoulder, missing her by a hairsbreadth, and embedded itself into the chest of the young prince. She screamed, and the hall erupted in chaos.

Brie's scream wiped out every other thought for Talon, whose eyes had never left the dark figure along the wall. There was a second flash, and with the quickness born of years of brutal training, she knew where the next knife was headed… towards the two girls who had been dancing at the far side of the room. Aleria.

With a cry, Talon leapt from her spot at the wall, planting her feet on a nearby bench and catapulting herself into the air towards her sister. She managed to shove Aleria in the small of her back, pushing the smaller girl to the ground, and landed hard in front of her. Talon's knees buckled at the impact and she fell, and suddenly she was aware of an explosion of pain in her abdomen. Her hand came up instinctively. She looked down, confused, and when she pulled her hand away it was slick with blood. That didn't make sense, she thought. She knew she'd landed hard but not on anything that could have cut her.

She heard more screaming, this time Aleria's voice, and she jerked to her feet. "Aleria…" The pain in her abdomen, increased and she found herself feeling strangely dizzy. She looked down, and it was then that she realized that the hilt of the assassin's knife was sprouting unnaturally from her stomach, above the left hipbone. She must have caught it with her own body in her attempt to save her sister. Her head came up, and her bewildered dark eyes met a pair of warm golden ones. There was an expression of complete disbelief on the young princess' face. It was the last thing she saw before her vision clouded, and she lost consciousness.

Part 2

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