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Briarheart
Author: Mercedes Lackey

 


PROLOGUE

 

 

THIS IS A KIND OF FAE TALE. SO I’LL BEGIN IT THE WAY ALL good Fae tales should.

Once upon a time…

Once upon a time, there was a handsome, strong, gentle knight, the King’s Champion, Sir Geniver. He was married to a beautiful lady, Alethia, and they had a daughter they loved very much who loved them with all her heart.

(That would be me.)

Because he was the King’s Champion, Sir Geniver could have had whatever he wanted, but his wants were modest, so the family lived in a small but comfortable manor on the edge of the Veridian Forest, thanks to the stipend the King provided.

They had everything they needed. A staff of eight, exactly enough to make life pleasant and easy even though one of those eight was Lady Alethia’s old governess, who simply could not grasp that the daughter would never be the sort of lady she was expected to be. They were near enough to the palace to be called on at need but far enough that neither Lady Alethia nor their daughter, Miriam, needed to be troubled by the pomp and politics of the Court. As the King’s Champion, Geniver was not involved with the Court itself since he didn’t rank high enough—by his own choice—to get tangled up in politics and policy. There was no Queen, so Lady Alethia did not need to join the other married ladies at the Court as one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting. This is how courts work. The King’s Court handles the “business of the realm,” the Queen’s Court handles the “business of the palace,” and if there is a Crown Prince or Princess with a court of their own, they handle the “business of learning to rule.” And not being part of the Court meant Miriam didn’t have to navigate the potentially dangerous waters of a palace full of other daughters.

Sir Geniver understood his daughter even if her governess did not. So he taught her to climb trees (and not to do it in her good gowns) and took her on breakneck rides, first tucked before him on his gigantic black warhorse and later following after him on her own little pony. He gave her books her governess would never have approved of, books on battles and swordsmanship. And he taught her how to defend herself with the dagger he gave her that never left her side.

This is not to say that her mother didn’t understand Miriam too—her mother also knew her daughter very well. And though sometimes she might have sighed because Miriam did not revel in pretty things, she was proud of her daughter’s intelligence and willingness to learn almost anything, and said so, much to the exasperation of the governess.

Sir Geniver was the King’s best friend. He and the King were together nearly every day since the manor was close enough to the palace to ride there in an hour, and sometimes the King came to visit—quietly. When he did, it was without his crown, and he would stand on no ceremony, even descending to play silly games that had everyone laughing hysterically (except Belinda the governess, who was scandalized). “You have a treasure in your keeping, and that is your family, Gen,” he’d say as he slipped back to the palace. “Never lose it.”

And everything was wonderful until the terrible day when war came to Tirendell, and the King’s Champion rode off to command the army in the King’s name and never came home again.

With his death, Sir Geniver brought victory, but that wasn’t much consolation for Lady Alethia even though the King made her a Court Princess and did his best to make sure she and her daughter would never want for anything.

In retrospect, I think Mama and I were too caught up in our grief to notice for a long time just how very attentive the King was—but it certainly didn’t escape the notice of most of the Court. People began paying a lot more attention to us, and people who wouldn’t have paid much heed to the widow of a mere knight with only the land of the manor garden—even if her former husband had been the King’s Champion—started hanging about, maneuvering to get themselves into an advantageous position with us.

I’ll admit I thought it was because of Mama’s new title; I was only thirteen, and I had no idea that a Court Princess had no real position and that all the title did was confer nobility on her line. For a while, Mama was oblivious too. I stayed oblivious, to the fact that she seemed to be feeling better and that I didn’t have to work so hard at keeping her spirits up every time something reminded her of Father. So that meant I didn’t have to keep bottling things myself, though I’d never let Mama or Belinda see it.

Of course, conferring nobility on Mama was the whole point of making her something other than a simple knight’s daughter and knight’s widow. Because exactly a year and a day later, during the anniversary of our victory, King Karlson proposed to Mama.

On the State Balcony.

In front of everyone.

It was ridiculously romantic.

It was also carefully staged so not a single one of his councilors got a chance to object or suggest someone that would bring Tirendell political advantage. In fact, by the time they all realized what he was about to do, it was too late to do anything about it.

There was a very long speech about how he had loved Mama for years, but she had chosen his best friend, and he was determined not to destroy their happiness by being selfish, but now that she was free, would she consider him? And he knew he could never replace Geniver, but would she—

Well, he never got a chance to finish the speech, because Mama got this expression of wonder on her face and maybe a little relief and just a flash of grief, and then all that turned into the most radiant joy I’ve ever seen anyone display, and she fell into his arms, and it was all like the ending of a Fae tale.

Except, of course, it wasn’t the end. It was the beginning.

And where my story properly begins.

 

 

CHAPTER ONE


I HAD JUST STOLEN A MOMENT AWAY FROM THE DRESSMAKERS and my fitting to check on my sister. With sun streaming in through the window of the Royal Nursery, I stared down into the cradle at the face of my baby sister and fell in love all over again. It happened every single time I saw her, just as it had the moment she was born. Little Aurora was the most beautiful, perfect rosebud of a baby princess ever.

Of course, I might have been just a little bit prejudiced because we’re sisters, but on the other hand, most babies seem to be—how do I put this nicely?—creatures only a mother could love. Some of them look like disagreeable old men even when they’re little girls. Some of them look like unbaked bread loaves. Or wizened little Goblin changelings. Most of them are blotchy, red-faced things that emit noise at one end and terrible substances at the other.

But Aurora wasn’t like any of those babies. She stared up at me with enormous blue eyes under a head full of delicate golden curls exactly like her papa’s; her skin was identical in color and texture to a pink rose petal, her little flower bud of a mouth pursed in an O of surprise. And then, without any warning, her eyes got bigger, and she gurgled with laughter and held up two miniature chubby hands to me, begging to be picked up. She’d just started recognizing people a few days before, and having her realize the big person looming over her cradle was me made me warm all over every time.

I wasn’t supposed to do anything to muss my christening dress, but what choice did I have? Her Highness commanded, and I must obey. I reached down past the dawn-colored silk curtains into the nest of creamy lambswool-and-linen bedding and took her into my arms.

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