The False Princess (The False Princess #1)

He told me, when I felt guilty, that lying to Philantha had been necessary for the good of the country. (I had told her that Aunt Varil had come down with a sudden, potentially dangerous illness, and that I felt it was my duty to go to her, as her only living relative. Since Philantha had been in the middle of an experiment when I told her, she had only waved her hand and told me to be back when Aunt Varil was well or dead.)

He watches you, Sinda. Like you're his best treasure, only he can't think of a way to slip you into is pocket. Hasn't he-of-the-throwing-daggers been brave enough to mention it?

He wouldn’t have forgotten. It might be too much the fear of losing me so much that he had withdrawn his heart to protect it.

How can you be nervous? Don't you see? We're in a library.

How could he say this? How could he think that I could just walk away from this? “It matters! If we don’t find her, if then all of it--my life--” My voice broke. I could hardly breathe; my lungs felt too small to draw the air I needed.
But Kiernan had curled his lips up and closed his eyes. “That’s what it really comes down to, doesn’t it? That’s why we can’t tell. This isn’t about having enough proof, or even about Philantha getting hurt. You have to find her yourself. This isn’t just about the country, or the throne. This is about you proving that you’re not nobody. If you can’t be the princess, you’ll be the savior of the princess.”
Another feeling of being kicked, but this one hit harder, right in a place I had been trying to shield. “No,” I whispered, but it came out low.
“You can’t be just a scribe, or a wizard. Nameless God,” he cried, raking a hand through his hair. “I wish they had never found you, never made you think you were the princess. Nothing else will ever be good enough, not now. You’ll never be happy. You’ll throw yourself into danger, take it all on yourself, just to prove that they were all wrong about you. And I just--I just--”
And without warning, he stepped in front of me, grabbed my shoulders to stop my pacing, and kissed me.

I can’t get to Melaina--she doesn’t keep regular rooms at the college. But you could…watch her, follow her maybe. And maybe we should go to the college, follow Neomar or break into his rooms or something.”
“Breaking and entering,” Kiernan said wryly. He had been watching me rub my head with a worried expression on his face. “I’m not sure those are the kind of wild oats my parents want me to get rid of, but they’ll do in a pinch.”
I laughed, which I think was what he wanted, but as the laughter subsided, he said, “But you’re sure we can’t go to the king and queen? They’ll be able to…do it properly. Haul people in and question them, search Neomar’s and Melaina’s rooms openly.”
“We can’t. They’ll think that I’m mad, or bent on revenge, and that I’ve--I don’t know--used my wiles on you to make you believe me.”
Kiernan raised an eyebrow. “Your wiles?”
I flushed, but pushed on. “The point is, they won’t believe us. It sounds crazy.

If I thought being kissed by Tyr had been what kissing was all about, I had been wrong. This kiss trampled Tyr's kiss, threw it to the ground, and danced on its grave.

I had worried that he might think of me differently, once he learned about my new powers. That the thought of being accidentally roasted alive if I got angry with him might send him running back to the palace.
I shouldn’t have bothered. Kiernan’s tongue was poking between his lips. I had seen that look a hundred times, usually just before a stunt that would have him, or both of us, in trouble. “Magic,” he murmured. “You, a wizard. A dangerous one.” His eyes swept over me, then landed on my face. “Do you have any idea how much fun this could be?

I just want to be me—I just want to be useful and … content. I want to stop
wondering if I’ll ever feel whole and just be whole. I want to have a purpose one that I can look at without feeling like I’m less than I was.

I saw a small square of paper, folded over on itself and sealed with a blob of wax from the candle by my bed. Cracking it open, I recognized Kiernan’s hand.
Don’t you dare get up until you’re rested! When you are, send one of those message lights and I’ll come. In the meantime, I’ll talk to O., see if she remembers anything about last night. And I’ll find out if anyone saw M. or N. wandering the palace last night. Don’t frown like that! I’ll be sly.
I was frowning, I realized, which made me let out an irritated huff of breath. He knew me too well.

It had been different when I was the princess. Then I had looked at his flirtations with other girls and at least told myself that his heart lay there. It had been easy to think that, even though he always returned to me after every infatuation, he wanted only my friendship. And he must have held it in, kept his true feelings to himself, knowing that I would never have been allowed to marry a minor lord of Rithia, no matter what his parents might hope. I would marry for political reasons; we had both known that. There had been no reason to acknowledge that we could ever be anything more than friends. But still, it had been a thin façade, one that I could have seen through, if I had wanted to.
And when I was no longer the princess? Had I known? If I really looked, had I known? Yes, I had to admit, I had. But it was like knowing that you need air to breathe or water when you’re thirsty. Something I knew, but without ever thinking about it, without even really considering it. I had held Kiernan’s heart for so long that I had forgotten I had it, tucked away beneath my own.
So, yes, I had known. Hadn’t his face inserted itself between Tyr and me, no matter how I tried to forget it? Hadn’t I felt somehow guilty when I’d kissed Tyr, as if I were betraying Kiernan? And hadn’t he come looking for me in Treb, hadn’t he been with me every day he could since I returned to the city? I had told Philantha otherwise, but hadn’t I felt strange with him for weeks, awkward, knowing somewhere inside me that things between us were changing?
Or maybe they weren’t changing. Maybe they were just now becoming what they had always wanted to be.
What I wanted them to be.
Because I did. I had felt it in that one kiss, how things could be. And I wanted it. Oh, how I wanted it.
But I had thrown it all away, by putting that spell on Kiernan against his will, by keeping him from doing what he thought he must do to protect me. I had seen the look of shock on his face when I used my magic on him. I didn’t know how he would be able to forgive me, after that.
I had destroyed my chance at happiness with the one person who had always understood me.
All to save the kingdom that had abandoned me, or maybe just to prove to myself that I was worth something.

I turned the page, but there was no more about the princess. Instead, it went on to an account of a merchant’s wife and her petition. I sat back, letting the book fall closed, my hand between the pages.
“But we knew all that,” Kiernan said angrily from over my shoulder. “Couldn’t she have written a little more? Something helpful? Nameless God, it was about the princess!”
“The God doesn’t care who sits on the throne. That’s what the oracle said, remember? I guess it wasn’t any more important to her than any other prophecy.” I realized that I was fighting back tears. I had been right. Coming here hadn’t helped at all.
“Let me see that,” Kiernan demanded, and I handed the book over to him without a word. I could see his eyes moving as he read, but then he sighed, laying it facedown on the table with a shrug. “Someone needs to teach them to be a bit more thorough.

Little cat's paws of trepidation frolicked up my spine.

Nothing's really changed since then, except that now any children we have might be wizards themselves, and I'll be hopelessly outnumbered.

Please ” I whispered. “Please come back.”
There was no one there to hear me.

So I really think that your parents should let you marry me. Not right now--I have so much to do, with Mika and Philantha and the magic--but someday. Someday not too far away. I did save Thorvaldor, after all, and I expect that Mika will pay me well in exchange for my years of knowledge. She even threatened to title me--it would be just like her to want to rub everyone’s noses in my commonness. And I think that, if they have any objections, you should just--”
“Break with them?” he asked. He was trying to be serious, but one corner of his mouth kept twitching.
“Well, yes,” I admitted.
“I already did,” he said, and my mouth fell open. “Or at least, I threatened to, if they wouldn’t give me their blessing.” A thin line worked its way between his eyebrows, and his smile dimmed a little. “I think they knew it was coming, but it didn’t make my father happy. He stormed around shouting about duty, and for a while I thought I might really have to go through with it.”
The line deepened, and he glanced away from me. “That was frightening. It was my choice--is my choice--but practically it would have been…difficult. You aren’t the only person who was trained for just one thing. I don’t know if I know how to be anything but the future Earl of Rithia. I kept telling myself I could do it, become someone else if they disinherited me, but I didn’t want to break with them. I would have, but I didn’t want to.”
My heart clenched a little, seeing the glimmer of tension around his eyes.
Suddenly, the tiny grin flickered at his mouth again. “But then my father started thinking about the advantages of my marrying someone who had done the future queen such a service. After that, he was happy to give his blessing.”
I shook my head as if to clear it. I had come here asking him to do just that, but hearing it out loud seemed like something from a dream. “You really told them you wanted to marry me?” I asked.
The smile had taken over his whole face now. “I told you before: I fell under your spell before you even knew you had magic, before you saved a kingdom, back when there was no chance you would be allowed to marry me. Nothing’s really changed since then, except that now any children we have might be wizards themselves, and I’ll be hopelessly outnumbered.
“So, yes, I want to marry you. Someday. If you’ll have me,” he said modestly.
“Of course I will, you idiot,” I said with a shriek, and threw myself into his arms.

So, yes, I will marry you. Someday. If you'll have me," he said modestly.
"Of course I will, you idiot," I said with a shriek, and threw myself into his arms.

The day they came to tell me, I was in one of the gardens with Kiernan, trying to decipher a three-hundred-year-old map of the palace grounds.

There aren’t any pretty women to kiss here, Kiernan, or games to play or pranks to set. No plays to see, no music halls to go to. There aren’t even any libraries for you to run away from.” I laughed, and it was a high, shrill sound, one I didn’t recognize. “Oh, don’t worry. It’s not just you. Look around. There’s nothing here anyone sane would want anything to do with.”
“There’s you,” he said quietly. “I came here to find you. I would have gone anywhere,” he added more stridently. “To Two Copper district in Vivaskari or the boggy reaches of Mossfeld or the Nameless God’s frozen hell. You’re my friend. I came to find you.

There’s you,” he said quietly. “I came here to find you. I would have gone anywhere,” he added more stridently. “To Two Copper district in Vivaskari or the boggy reaches of Mossfeld or the Nameless God’s frozen hell. You’re my friend. I came to find you.

This was what I had now. Just this.
I had to make it enough.

We’ll keep you safe--I’ll keep you safe.” Kiernan pushed himself up off the bed and came to sit next to me. “Come on,” he said, reaching out a tentative arm and putting it around my shoulders. “I just got you back. I’m not going to let you die.

We’ll keep you safe--I’ll keep you safe.” Kiernan pushed himself up off the bed and came to sit next to me. “Come on,” he said, reaching out a tentative arm and putting it around my shoulders. “I just got you back. I’m not going to let you die.”
Closing my eyes, I let myself lean against him. He smelled nice, even after days of travel on horseback. And he was warm and solid, and my friend.
We stayed like that long enough that I felt a little of the numbness leave, melted away by Kiernan’s warmth. “Sorry,” I said finally. My voice sounded a little choked, which made me pull away from him in embarrassment. “It’s a strange thing to hear, that’s all.”
Kiernan had let his arm drop from my shoulders, but his fingers now brushed my arm nearest to him. “I’m sure it is,” he said. He was gazing into my eyes as he said it, though more deeply than seemed necessary.
My heart was suddenly hammering in my ears, and I was overly aware of how close we were.

What are you doing here, Kiernan?” I asked dully.
His eyes crinkled up for a second in surprise at my tone. “I came to see you. I know it’s been too long, that I took too long, but…” Two spots of color blossomed on his cheeks, like he didn’t want to go on, but then he forged ahead. “But there were all sorts of ceremonies and things, to welcome her. Everyone was called to court. They even made sure that the Baroness of Mossfeld came,” he added with a puff of laughter and a hopeful glance at me. The holdings of Mossfeld were in the most northern reaches of Thorvaldor and the woman who held them was so eccentric that she had not been seen in court since the crowning of the king. Kiernan and I had spent many hours lying on the grass of the palace gardens, wondering exactly what she was like and what she did with herself stuck out on the boggy, sodden land that was Mossfeld.
But I didn’t smile, and I saw Kiernan swallow before he continued. “Anyway, I couldn’t leave. My father, he said that it would be an insult to--to Nalia--if I left to find you while they were still welcoming her. He finally gave me permission yesterday, and I started out this morning.”
“I see that. But why?” I asked. There was a tone in my voice I didn’t recognize, as two-edged and keen as a sword blade. It would cut Kiernan, yes, but it would also cut me where I held it.
I didn’t care.
“This,” I said, throwing my arm out to indicate the cottage and the tub of dye, “isn’t exactly what you’re used to.” He glanced to where I had gestured, blinking and off balance. I shook my head. “No. You’re all fun, all froth and silliness and jokes.” He blanched, hurt, and I almost did myself. It wasn’t true; there was more to Kiernan than that, and we both knew it. Still, I didn’t stop.
“There aren’t any pretty women to kiss here, Kiernan, or games to play or pranks to set. No plays to see, no music halls to go to. There aren’t even any libraries for you to run away from.” I laughed, and it was a high, shrill sound, one I didn’t recognize. “Oh, don’t worry. It’s not just you. Look around. There’s nothing here anyone sane would want anything to do with.”
“There’s you,” he said quietly. “I came here to find you. I would have gone anywhere,” he added more stridently. “To Two Copper district in Vivaskari or the boggy reaches of Mossfeld or the Nameless God’s frozen hell. You’re my friend. I came to find you.

What did he do?”
I whipped around, startled. I had been so immersed in my own thoughts that I hadn’t even noticed Philantha standing into the doorway to one of the sitting rooms.
“Pardon?”
“Well, in my experience, it’s usually the man who bumbles about causing most of the problems in relationships of romance,” she said. “So, naturally, I assumed that your young man has done or said or thought something that caused you to come bursting in like a hurricane. Am I correct?”
I shook my head so violently the braid coiled around my head threatened to come loose. “We’re not in a…relationship of romance. He’s just my friend.”
Philantha made a sound surprisingly like a snicker. “Truly?” she asked. “I suppose that’s why he’s been with you most evenings.”
“Like I said, we’re friends. And we haven’t seen each other in a long time.”
She raised an eyebrow. “I may not care about it--or at least I didn’t, until recently--but I do hear some of the court gossip when I visit the college. The noble students, they bring it with them, you know. And one of the stories is how the Earl of Rithia and his wife are scrambling to find eligible matches for their son.”
I felt suddenly dizzy for no reason, and a hot flush--disturbingly like the jealous feeling I had experienced at the inn--rushed through me. “Matches?” I repeated.
“Girls, young women, marriageable prospects. Strange, how suddenly they started. Right after the princess came back, it’s been noted. As if they had had hope for another match before, and it was ruined.”
“Me?” I asked. “People think Kiernan’s parents wanted him to marry me? That’s…ridiculous. Princesses don’t marry earls--a duke, maybe, but not an earl, not unless he’s foreign and brings some grand alliance. And besides, we’re just--”
“Friends,” Philantha finished. “I know. That’s what you keep saying.” She eyed me, before saying, “They haven’t had much luck, though, from the gossip. He’s polite to everyone they trot out, but nothing more. But that’s neither here nor there, since you don’t love him.”
I glared at her, my face and chest still filled with that rush of heat.
“In fact, he’s made you angry, hasn’t he?”
“He did. Well, I said…Yes, we fought. He says that Na--the princess--wants to see me. And I told him that he couldn’t bring her to me, that I didn’t want to see her. He said that if she asked, he would have to. But he’s wormed his way out of stickier situations than that. He could find a way to avoid it, if he wanted to.”
“Then perhaps he doesn’t want to,” Philantha answered before gliding away up the stairs and out of sight.
I had plenty of time to mull over Philantha’s words, because I didn’t see Kiernan for the next three days. It was the longest we had been parted since I returned to the city, and even through my anger at him it drove me to distraction. I mangled my spells even worse than usual, spilled ink, and tripped so frequently that Philantha threatened to call Kiernan to the house herself and turn him into a sparrow if we didn’t make up. Her eyes glinted dangerously when she said it, and only that was enough to force away a bit of my muddleheadedness.

You aren’t going to die,” Kiernan whispered through the darkness.
We sat in one of the bedchambers for pilgrims, me on the cot and Kiernan on the floor. He was sitting with his knees bent, elbows resting on them. If I looked at him, I knew I would see his eyes flash even in the dark. So I leaned my head back against the stone wall and said nothing.
“She might not have meant you,” he continued. “It could be Orianne, or even the real Nalia.”
That did make me look at him. “Great,” I said sarcastically. “So we find the real Nalia and then somehow get her killed. That would certainly be doing the kingdom a favor.

You aren’t going to die,” Kiernan whispered through the darkness.
We sat in one of the bedchambers for pilgrims, me on the cot and Kiernan on the floor. He was sitting with his knees bent, elbows resting on them. If I looked at him, I knew I would see his eyes flash even in the dark. So I leaned my head back against the stone wall and said nothing.
“She might not have meant you,” he continued. “It could be Orianne, or even the real Nalia.”
That did make me look at him. “Great,” I said sarcastically. “So we find the real Nalia and then somehow get her killed. That would certainly be doing the kingdom a favor.”
Kiernan huffed in irritation, then took a breath. “I didn’t mean it that way. And besides, not all of those visions come true. The one that started this whole mess didn’t.”
I didn’t answer. I felt numb, had felt that way since stumbling out of the temple. Even the key hidden inside my fist hadn’t been enough to bring me back to myself. I had allowed Kiernan to lead me to the pilgrims’ quarters, overheard him tell Brother Paxson that I was too weary with study to leave that night. I had eaten the food brought to us, nodding mechanically in thanks, then sat down on the cot and let my mind wander.
A triangle. One side crumbled away, leaving only two. Try as I might, I could think of nothing else it could mean. Only that if I found the real princess, one of us--Nalia, Orianne, or me--would die.
“And even if it was a true prophecy, we can fight it. We know about it now, so we can be…alert, careful. We can keep them safe. We’ll keep you safe--I’ll keep you safe.” Kiernan pushed himself up off the bed and came to sit next to me. “Come on,” he said, reaching out a tentative arm and putting it around my shoulders. “I just got you back. I’m not going to let you die.”
Closing my eyes, I let myself lean against him. He smelled nice, even after days of travel on horseback. And he was warm and solid, and my friend.
We stayed like that long enough that I felt a little of the numbness leave, melted away by Kiernan’s warmth. “Sorry,” I said finally. My voice sounded a little choked, which made me pull away from him in embarrassment. “It’s a strange thing to hear, that’s all.”
Kiernan had let his arm drop from my shoulders, but his fingers now brushed my arm nearest to him. “I’m sure it is,” he said. He was gazing into my eyes as he said it, though more deeply than seemed necessary.
My heart was suddenly hammering in my ears, and I was overly aware of how close we were. “It must be near midnight,” I stuttered. “We should…We should probably try the, uh, library.”
Kiernan blinked, then pushed himself up, one corner of his mouth pulled in. “Of course,” he said. Then a mischievous grin broke across his face. “Now, this should be fun.

You can’t be just a scribe, or a wizard. Nameless God,” he cried, raking a hand through his hair. “I wish they had never found you, never made you think you were the princess. Nothing else will ever be good enough, not now. You’ll never be happy. You’ll throw yourself into danger, take it all on yourself, just to prove that they were all wrong about you. And I just--I just--”
And without warning, he stepped in front of me, grabbed my shoulders to stop my pacing, and kissed me.
If I thought being kissed by Tyr had been what kissing was all about, I had been wrong. This kiss trampled Tyr’s kiss, threw it to the ground, and danced on its grave. It was like being kissed by sunlight, or joy. Kiernan’s arms wrapped around me, holding me so tight that I thought his hands might leave impressions on my back. But his lips were gentle, moving with mine as if they had done it for years, warm and soft. Little tingles of pleasure licked through my body, from my lips to my toes. I felt my own arms snake up around Kiernan’s neck, and I thought I might drown in sensation.
And then there was coldness as air swept between our bodies. Kiernan gave me one last graze of a kiss, and pulled away. I gasped, like a drowning woman who has just had the air snatched away from her by the waves.
“I love you, Sinda,” he said, not shakily but with certainty. “I have for--oh, years--before I even knew that I did. I loved you when you were the princess, and I love you now. I just want you to be happy. And I want you to be safe. I don’t care if you’re the Queen of Thorvaldor or a pig keeper in Mossfeld.” He brushed a hand down the side of my face, his thumb running over my lips.

You can't be just a scribe, or a wizard. Nameless God," he cried, raking a hand through his hair. "I wish they had never found you, never made you think you were the princess. Nothing else, will ever be good enough, not now. You'll never be happy. You'll throw yourself into danger, take it all on yourself, just to prove that they were all wrong about you. And I just-I just-"
And without warning, he stepped on front of me, grabbed my shoulders to stop my pacing, and kissed me.

You really told them you wanted to marry me?” I asked.
The smile had taken over his whole face now. “I told you before: I fell under your spell before you even knew you had magic, before you saved a kingdom, back when there was no chance you would be allowed to marry me. Nothing’s really changed since then, except that now any children we have might be wizards themselves, and I’ll be hopelessly outnumbered.
“So, yes, I want to marry you. Someday. If you’ll have me,” he said modestly.
“Of course I will, you idiot,” I said with a shriek, and threw myself into his arms.