Excerpt: Fairytales Slashed Vol. 1

From Main Gauche

Sweat streamed down his forehead and Dagger irritably wiped it away on his already damp and grimy sleeve. He gave the sword he was working on another look, then went back to pounding.

Another hard hour of labor later and he set the blade aside, then took care of his tools. Striding to the bucket in the corner of the smithy, he took several deep swallows and then dumped the rest of the water over his head.

It was hot. Summer at its peak and being stuck inside the smithy was not his preferred method of dealing with the heat.

Untying his hair, he raked it back into some semblance of order and retied the thong. Thick and black, it only added to his misery. He really should cut it and accept his lot, but gentlemen wore their hair long.

Sighing, determined not to ruin his day further by dwelling on the stupid facts of his sorry life, Dagger looked over the work waiting for him and pondered what to do next.

He didn’t want to do any of it, not really, but he would. Maybe some of the tools next, so he could finish his day working on the swords. Nodding, decided, he headed back into the work area of the shop—

Only to be stopped by a cacophony of shouting and cheering, the sharp tolling of the bells in the village square. A duel already? It was only mid-morning. Rolling his eyes, suspecting he knew exactly who he would see in the dueling circle, Dagger snatched up a cleaning cloth and scrubbed at his hands and face as best he could as he walked down the street to the village square.

As he had expected, Epee stood in the far right corner, the morning sunlight bringing out the threads of red in brown hair. Opposite him was Lord Sharp. Dagger rolled his eyes again. Honestly, these two never seemed to tire of trying to kill each other.

He narrowed his eyes as they fought, shaking his head slightly at Epee’s slipping defense, but Lord Sharp was too hasty, as always. Their fights were becoming predictable. He would have to tell Epee so.

The bruise just below his left eye throbbed, a reminder of the last time he’d voiced such an opinion within range of his stepfather’s hearing, and Dagger made a mental note to tell Epee about his slipping defense before they returned to the house.

Yesterday Lord Sharp had won. Today, Epee took it. Dagger clapped for his stepbrother, smiling faintly when Epee finally noticed him. Before he could motion Epee forward, to speak about his defense, his stepbrother was called away by another.

Oh, it was his stranger, Tan, he’d always called himself. Dagger knew nothing about him, save he was a noble and knew how to use the sword slung so casually at his left hip. Very fine hips, those, on a very fine body. Light brown hair, just long enough to be fashionable. Handsome features; if not for the smile he’d be rather stern looking. Simple, elegant clothes.

He conversed avidly with Epee, who clapped the man on his shoulder and motioned. Dagger blinked. Epee knew the man? Surely not, but they conversed lightly, easily. He watched, frowning now, as Epee motioned to the board where notices and such were hung. The frown deepened as Tan tore away a notice Dagger didn’t recognize, though he’d looked at the board just this morning. Epee snatched it back, holding it laughingly out of reach, and Dagger could see he was taunting Tan. Were they friends? How had he never known Tan and Epee knew each other?

But why should he have known, Dagger acknowledged bitterly. They hardly moved in the same circles. He grimaced at himself and looked back at the two men and realized they were walking toward him. Dagger suddenly felt every last bit of the grime plastered to his body with sweat. His clothes were damp beneath the hot weight of his work apron; he looked nothing like Epee in his careless prettiness, or Tan’s simple elegance.

Well, of course he didn’t. Dagger scowled at himself. He wasn’t one them, of course he didn’t look like them. He’d been reduced to peasant status since his mother’s death, when her will had left every last thing to her husband ‘in good faith he would take excellent care of his stepson.’

He loved his mother, but she had always been an idiot.

“Dagger,” Epee greeted. “I could see from the look on your face that I was doing something wrong.” He motioned before Dagger could speak. “Reprimand me later. I believe for now you have a customer.”

Sketching a bow, Dagger quietly recited all the niceties and accepted the sword Tan held out. “Greetings, my lord. I see you’ve been putting it quite thoroughly to use. When would you be wanting it back?”

“The sooner the better, of course,” Tan said with an easy smile. “However, there is no special rush.”

Dagger nodded. “I can probably have it finished by tomorrow afternoon.”

“Excellent. Thank you. It is always worth it to come out here to have my sword tended.”

Dagger looked at his stepbrother, who had looked as though he were struggling not to laugh the entire conversation. Suppressing an urge to roll his eyes again, Dagger ignored his stepbrother and returned his attention to Tan, drinking in the sight of his hopeless crush to have new images with which to torture himself.

“Thank you,” Tan said. “It’s truly most appreciated. This should cover it, I think.” He pressed a small bag of coins into Dagger’s free hand, then clapped Epee on the shoulder and bid him farewell before turning and vanishing into the crowd.

Epee burst out laughing.

“What’s so funny?” Dagger asked.

“You—how long has he been bringing his sword to you, Dagger?”

Dagger shrugged. “At least as long as I’ve been working the smithy, I guess.” Like he’d admit he knew exactly, to the day, how long Tan had been coming. Epee obviously had enough to be amused about.

Epee slowly got his laughter under control. “Never mind. Take a look at this.”

Frowning, thoroughly vexed with his confounding stepbrother, Dagger nevertheless accepted the notice he held out. His eyes widened as he read it. “A tournament? Really?” His breath caught as he read the prize. Oh, he wished— Dagger shoved the frivolous thought aside. He was a peasant. Entering the tournament was impossible; dwelling on the idea for even a moment was stupid. “Are you planning on entering?”

“Of course I am,” Epee said dismissively. “Why were you glaring at me after the duel?”

“Because your defense is abhorrent,” Dagger retorted. “You’re getting lazy and sloppy; it’s little wonder to me that Sharp took you so easily yesterday.”

Epee grinned; it was more a baring of teeth. “I’m sure he’d like to take me, the bastard, but father will give his estate over to you before that happens.”

“You’re an idiot,” Dagger replied. “Go provoke Sabre; fighting him will force you to improve your defense. I have to get back to work.”

“As you command. Father went to speak with his solicitor today, so if I were you I’d sleep in the smithy. Ta ta, little brother.” Waving absently, Epee turned and began to walk back home.

Heaving a sigh, Dagger made his way back to the smithy.

“Was beginning to think you ran away, lad.” The man who spoke was as rough and weathered as the smithy itself, and as messy as Dagger. He was just past fifty but didn’t act like it; Dagger had seen him throw around more than one man like a sack of feathers when tavern brawls got out of hand.

Dagger snorted. “Where would I go?” He carried Tan’s sword to the front counter and logged the new job in the ledger. “I went to see a duel. Epee and Sharp again, naturally. They should just kill each other and get it over with.”

“Something like that,” Hammer said, joining him at the counter. Though he could still toss men like they were nothing, the same didn’t go for horses. Helping a farmer shoe his horse the other day, Hammer had taken a nasty blow to his arm when a child managed to spook the horse in question.

Which meant all the work fell to Dagger, not that he really minded in the end. Anything was better than going home. “Do you mind if I sleep here tonight, Hammer?”

“Rapier on a tirade again?” Hammer asked, tone idle rather than pitying or sympathetic, something Dagger deeply appreciated.

Dagger shrugged. “Epee’s suggestion.”

“You should just leave for good, lad,” Hammer said. “Certainly you’re welcome here, always. Hell, you run the shop more than me these days, even before that nag tried to finish me off.”

“I know,” Dagger said quietly. He should. He probably could. His stepfather and Sabre wouldn’t miss him. Epee always knew where to find him. But it was his house damn it. He wasn’t going to let the bastard drive him entirely out of it.

Hammer eyed the sword on the counter. “Encountered Tan, did you?”

Dagger nodded. “Yes. After the duel. He gave me the sword and asked us to touch it up.” He grimaced, recalling how friendly Epee had been with Tan. Just once, he wished he could be that easy and familiar. But wishes were a waste of time, and Tan was completely out of reach.

“You could stop mooning and do something about it, lad,” Hammer said, looking at him in exasperation and amusement.

“Oh, yes. That would go over well. Look at me, Hammer. That any noble would take my interest seriously is laughable.” He stomped away to put Tan’s sword with the others.

Hammer shook his head. “You don’t know until you try, lad. But suit yourself. Get on with your work so you can have this ready when he comes to retrieve it.”

“Yes, Master,” Dagger said, and threw himself into his work, determined to drive out all other thoughts.

It was well past dark when Hammer finally called a halt. Dagger groaned, every last bit of him tired and sore. Without a word he cleaned his tools and put them away, then tidied the shop and closed it up.

He strode into the back yard and worked the pump, muscles protesting, until he’d filled a bucket. Dumping it over his head, he promptly filled another and repeated the process until he had rinsed away the worst of the grime.

Not too far away he could hear the sounds of revelry as people played in the tavern or stumbled their way home. Talking, laughing …

It shouldn’t hurt anymore, not with his mother nearly five years in the grave, but it did. Until he was fourteen he’d been part of that world. Now he wasn’t really part of anything. His old friends didn’t miss him, only Epee was kind to him, and keeping his hair long didn’t mean he was in any way a gentleman.

So many times he’d spoken of his plans with his mother, to study, to travel, to duel every master who would honor him with a match. It was the swordsmanship he missed the most, the only thing that tied him to his father. But peasants weren’t permitted to carry swords, and were heavily punished should they be caught doing so.

He missed it, so very much. Repairing swords in no way replaced using them. But he missed the companionship too. Before his parents had died, he’d had all manner of lessons, trips to other villages and dueling practice.

Now he did not even have the energy to drag himself to the tavern after work ceased. It wasn’t as though he’d have anyone to drink with anyway. He always seemed stuck between two worlds.

Sighing at himself, Dagger trudged across the yard to Hammer’s house.

“Come and eat, lad,” Hammer said. “You work yourself to death; I tried to slow you down half a dozen times.”

Dagger shrugged and sat down heavily, yawning as he reached for his plate. He paused as a piece of paper caught his eyes, the royal notice announcing the tournament. “What are you doing with this?” he asked, giving Hammer a suspicious look.

“You could enter it,” Hammer said calmly. “The winner can request any prize within the king’s power to give.”

Dagger nodded, mind straying helplessly to what he could ask for. He could get his home back, everything his stepfather had taken from him, then kick Rapier and Sabre out. Then he’d have money enough to resume his schooling, everything.

“Aye. Everyone is saying the king wants to show his son off to the kingdom, let everyone see the crown prince, get him more familiar and comfortable with his people.” Hammer grinned. “I’m sure he’s also hoping the prince will come out the winner, but we’ll see. You probably stand a fair chance at the prize yourself, lad.”

Dagger grimaced. “Hardly. It’s not as though I practice anymore.”

“Well, that’s not true,” Hammer said, old gray eyes intent. “I know very well you practice in the yard every morning.”

“Oh,” Dagger said guiltily.

Hammer tapped the decree. “Enter the tournament, I say. You’re good enough, I’ve seen you. If you lose, no harm. If you win—well, don’t forget old Hammer, eh?”

“You’re my family, Hammer,” Dagger said. “I’d never forget you.” He shrugged. “Anyway, it’s not like I’d win. Even Epee could probably defeat me these days.”

“Worth trying, at least.”

Dagger frowned, thinking. “I have neither the clothing nor the blades.” He didn’t have the manners or the looks, either, but there was nothing he could do about those. “What I have now would mark me a peasant straight away. That aside, I’d have to find a way to do it right beneath my stepfather’s nose.”

Hammer smiled. “I think we can solve those problems easily enough. The important part is you wanting to do it. Do you?”

“It’s not a good idea,” Dagger forced himself to say. Because it wasn’t. Even assuming he won, once it was revealed he was a peasant they could quite easily simply refuse to acknowledge his win. Hell, they could arrest him if they really felt so inclined.

But to actually duel again, it was so very tempting.

“I don’t doubt Tan will be there,” Hammer said idly, as if stating something mildly interesting or amusing. “The way he uses his sword, I am sure he’d be there.”

Dagger swore and shot him a nasty glare. “That is cheating. My entering this tournament is a bad idea. We’re not even certain I could manage it, and the idea I could win is nigh on laughable.”

“But you’d get to fight, would very likely get to fight Tan at some point. And if by some chance you should win, well, there you have it.”

Groaning, Dagger gave up. “Fine. I’ll do it. If I can find the proper clothing, and of course I need a sword.”

Hammer’s smile turned into a grin. “I’ve got just the thing.” He stood up and ambled over to a chest tucked into a corner of the room. Hammer’s smithy was actually quite large. The smithy itself took up the entire front, then there was a small yard with a small house at the opposite end. It wasn’t a lot, just one large room and two slightly smaller, but they were warm and comfortable.

Throwing the chest open, he came back carrying a long bundle in his good arm and set it down in front of Dagger.

Dagger unwound the long length of fabric and cast it aside, eyes only for the blades. “Hammer, where …” The sword was a fencing saber, the hilt wound with gold filigree shaped like ivy. The elaborate cage guard continued the ivy theme. Beautiful, breathtaking even. Better still, beside the sword was a matching dagger. Perfect. Too perfect. “Where did you get these?”

Hammer smiled and said only, “So I guess now all we need is to find you some proper clothing.”

“Hmm,” Dagger murmured thoughtfully. If he asked, Epee would probably be willing to help. But he didn’t want to drag anyone into this that he didn’t have to, in case something went wrong. “Oh. I know. My mother kept all of my father’s clothes. She stored them in the attic; I doubt Rapier knows or cares that any of it is there. It’s all old of course, but,” he stood up, carefully setting the blades aside. “If I go now, he’ll be buried in his study; Epee and Sabre are likely still out.” He moved quickly to get dressed, barely noticing Hammer’s amused chuckles.

From Rumors:

Prince Galen, we are honored to have you here.”

Galen bowed low, his long white-blonde hair tumbling over one shoulder, barely restrained by an ice-blue ribbon. “My apologies for arriving without proper notice, Majesty. I am afraid the weather proved too much for us.”

The king waved the words away with a ring-bedecked hand. “Think nothing of it, please. It is an honor to have a son of the High King with us. You are just in time for our winter celebrations, your grace. Please do stay and enjoy them.”

“I would be most honored.” He stood patiently as the king continued to ramble on, barely resisting the urge to simply turn and leave. It was aggravating that he was stuck here, when he had wanted to be well out of the country before the heavy snows fell. So close to the border, yet now so far away. He chafed.

Nor did it help the situation that from the moment he had entered the castle a sense of unease had settled over him. He would have put it to his own inner turmoil, if not for the faces of his men, which said they felt the same unhappy weight. There was a pall cast over the place that all the bright colors and jewels could not hide.

A careful examination of the king revealed a ruler much like any other; besides his apparent love of jewelry there was nothing noteworthy about him. But a closer examination revealed that all was not quite as it seemed. There was something in his eyes, something not quite right. Meeting them made him feel vaguely ill, and he at last turned his gaze away.

His eyes landed upon a figure who was more intriguing still.

Just to the right of the king’s feet, seated on the steps leading up to the throne, was the court jester. His hair was a dark brown, worn to his shoulders and decked with beads and small bells. White paint covered his face, and each cheek was decorated with a small heart right beneath the eye, one black and one red. His lips were colored a rich, deep red, and he watched the prince with an expression that was strangely somber, out of place on his clownish face.

As with the king, it was his eyes that unsettled Galen most. The jester’s eyes were black, or at least so dark in color they appeared black. Galen found it hard to look away.

“But you must be weary, my prince,” the king said at length. “Please do let one of my men escort you to your room.”

Galen nodded, relieved to both be distracted from the jester and to hear he could finally rest. “A bed would be most appreciated, Majesty.”

“I will take him,” the jester said, and his voice made Galen shiver in a way he hadn’t for a long time. That darkly painted mouth curved in a faint smile as the jester turned to the king. “If you would be so kind as to permit me the honor, Majesty?”

The king nodded slowly. “As you like. He’s been given the suite in the west wing.”

“Yes, Majesty.” The jester rose slowly to his feet, smoothing his shimmering red and black tunic before sweeping Galen an elegant bow. “Your Highness, please do follow me.”

Galen bid the king good night, then turned to follow the jester out.

Outside in the hallway, the jester turned and gave him a deep bow. “I am Rune, Your Highness. Entertainer to the king, as I am sure you noticed.” He looked up, a slow smile curving his lips. Galen saw now that his eyes weren’t black, but a very dark green. “This way, Your Highness.”

He pulled his cloak more tightly around him, the winter chill more than the castle could completely conquer. They walked in silence through the torch-lit hallways, the number of people gradually dwindling away. No one else was around when the jester spoke again. “There are rumors of you, Your Highness.” His voice was soft, sly.

Galen didn’t like the tone. “Excuse me?” he demanded coldly.

“Rumors, Highness. They say the High King rejected his eldest son as heir. They say that instead of taking the throne the former crown prince wanders from kingdom to kingdom, doing the work usually left to underlings.”

“You are impertinent, Jester.”

Rune gave a careless shrug. “I speak only of what I hear, Highness. They interest me, rumors.” He looked over his shoulder, that slow smile still on his handsome face. “I intended no offense. Do accept my apologies.”

“Just be silent.”

The jester halted before a set of double doors carved with moons and stars, shoving them open and giving a deep bow. “Your room, Highness. I am sure you are too weary to dine with us this evening,” he looked up through his long lashes, “but tomorrow is the first night of our three day winter celebration. Do join us then. I promise it will be quite a treat. Our winter balls are quite famous.”

Galen only nodded, and vanished into his room, closing the door in the jester’s face.

From More Precious Than Gold:

Mama, please. You must stop crying.” Aurelius hugged his mother close, her tiny frame almost weightless in his arms. “You’ll make yourself sick, Mama. There’s no reason for you to cry like this. Please, mama—stop crying.” His pleading turned into soundless words of comfort and reassurance as his mother only continued to sob in his arms. He stroked her back and arms comfortingly, doing all he could to soothe her. “Come, Mama. It’s not like you’re being made to do something you’ve never done before. And when you have put Uncle in his place, we will have him banished, or put in the ground beside Father that he can take his wretched brother to task for upsetting you so.”

Rather than comfort, the words seemed to upset her further. Aurelius scrambled to figure out what he’d said to upset her. “Mama! Please, you must calm down. You’re going to make yourself ill, and that will make it impossible for you to complete your task. Come now, Mama. I’ve said all will be well, don’t you believe me?”

His mother only continued to cry for what seemed like ages, until she grew too exhausted to continue. Worn out, she permitted Aurelius to lead her across the dungeon to a pile of straw and situate her as comfortably as possible. He muttered quietly as he worked, “Should’ve at least brought you a bed or a blanket … Don’t know what they’re thinking … Mama, are you all right now?”

“No, I am not.” Though only just a few years past her fifth decade, the queen looked at least twice that at the moment. Her normally neat hair had come loose of its tidy bun, and in the chaos that had ensued at the regent’s announcement she had not had time to change out of her simple morning gown. No doubt the regent had intended that. Her hazel eyes, normally so bright with laughter and wit, had dulled with misery. “There are things you must know, that I do not want to tell. Things that have to do with the situation in which I have once again found myself.” She looked at her hands, clasped tightly in her lap. “Only this time, there will be no way out.” Looking up at her ever-adoring and attentive son, she smiled sadly. “But so long as you are all right, my precious son, it does not matter.”

“Mama, you’re speaking in riddles. Come now, what has you so upset? Surely this debacle is nothing more than a few days of discomfort for you. If it upsets you that badly, I will simply summon my knights and force Uncle from the throne.”

The queen frowned. “You will do no such thing. I should not have to remind you that a good king uses force only when necessary.”

“Uncle had locked you in the dungeon!” Aurelius replied, outraged. “How does that not qualify as necessary?” He sighed as his mother continued to frown in disapproval. “Fine. You are correct. I still don’t understand why you’re so upset. Three days of spinning and you’ll have proven yourself.”

For a moment the queen looked as if she might start crying again, but closing her eyes and breathing deeply for a few moments, she gathered herself together and slowly reopened her eyes. “I must tell you a story, Auri.”

“I already know the story, Mama.”

“No, you do not,” his mother replied in a tone that brooked no argument. “You will listen to me.” She looked forlorn. “I only hope that you do not hate me, in the end.”

“I could never hate you, Mama.”

“That remains to be seen.”

Aurelius, kneeling on the floor beside the straw on which she sat, rose up on his knees to embrace her. “Tell your story, Mama.”

Taking a deep breath, the queen looked at him for a moment, then stared at her hands as she began. “My name is Oriana, a fine, elegant name, fit for a queen. But it was not the name I was born with. I was born Hayley, to a poor farmer and his wife. My mother died when I was very young.” She sighed softly. “My father was poor, but it didn’t sit well with him. He was also disappointed to be stuck with a daughter and not a son. But I was decently pretty, and had a hand for spinning, so he made the best of things.”

“Over time, however, it just wasn’t good enough. Life on the farm grew steadily worse. To put it simply, one small lie led to another, on and on until the king himself summoned us to his throne because he had heard that I could spin straw into gold.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “He threatened to have my father and I put to death, if it turned out we were lying. I had never been so frightened in my life. Panicked, not able to admit my father had merely gotten carried away, I told him I could indeed spin straw to gold. He bid me prove it.”

She chuckled, a self-mocking tone to it. “He permitted me to work my magic in private, and locked me in this very dungeon with the order that every last piece of straw locked inside with me was to be gold by the end of three days time. After I was locked in, I fell into the nearest pile of straw and cried until I could not cry anymore. Then I begged and begged for help, until my voice was hoarse. I had finally given up hope.” she drifted off, looking at her soon but not seeing him, lost to whatever memory flickered behind her eyes. “I had finally given up hope when I saw him. Beneath that window, smiling as though he’d just heard the most amusing story.”

“Who, Mama?” Aurelius asked softly.

Oriana shook her head. “A magician, the like of which I’ve never seen. He was tall, and so very dark, and I will never forget that smile. I just stared at him, completely stunned. That seemed to make him smile more.” She laughed ruefully at herself. “Finally, he asked me if he could be of assistance. When I was finally able to speak, I told him what I needed. He said ‘I could spin it, for a price.’ I didn’t have much, being nothing but a poor farmer’s daughter, but I agreed to give him what I could.” She stared at her hands. “The king had stipulated I had three nights to turn all of the straw to gold,” tears streamed quietly down her face, “The magician agreed, and named his price.” She shuddered, holding her hands to her face and sobbing quietly. “You have to understand, Auri, I never thought, never imagined, I …”

“Shh, Mama. It’s all right.” Aurelius soothed his mother and wiped the tears from her face. “It’s all right,” he said again, smiling.

She managed to smile weakly back, stroking his gold hair fondly and tucking a stray curl behind his ear. “You have your father’s eyes. To think that the first time I saw them I nearly fainted. He was so frightening that first time, sitting on his throne and glaring at me so fiercely.”

“You can be rather fearsome yourself, Mama, when you want to be.” Aurelius’ bright gold eyes sparkled as he teased his mother, glad to see she was not too upset to reminisce about his father. “Now come, finish your story. Clearly it was not too awful a price to pay.”

Her momentary happiness faded. “On the contrary.” Another slow, deep breath as she braced herself. “The magician asked that in return for three nights of spinning straw into gold, I give him my first born child some time in the future. I … I never thought I would have children. There were no prospects back home, and after spinning straw to gold I had no idea what future might be in front of me. So I agreed, expecting never to have to fulfill my half of the bargain, which makes me even more horrid a person.”

“No, Mama.” Aurelius took her hands in his own, and smiled at her. “Anyone would do what you did, and more, in such a situation. Why have you never told me this all before?”

“I did not want you to hate me, Auri, for agreeing to barter you away for my own sorry life.”

Auri leaned up to kiss her cheek, “Well, I am glad you did.” He frowned as a thought occurred to him. “But I am still here, what happened?”

“That is where I become even more of a coward,” the queen said quietly, sadly.

“After I spun the straw to gold, your father stunned everyone by commanding that I become his wife.” She shook her head, smiling briefly. “Never was I more astonished in my life. I guess it makes sense to marry someone who can create gold from simple straw, but after the wedding he decreed that never again would I be forced to touch a spinning wheel.”

The prince did not seem surprised, and only laughed. “Father always had a great soft spot for you, Mama. Everyone knows he loved you more than anything.”

“I grew to love him as well, which is why when I finally found myself with child, I panicked. When the magician appeared to take you away, I refused and begged and pleaded with him to ask for something, anything else. He finally relented, and said he would give me a chance to free myself of the bargain. If, the magician said, I could tell him his name, he would leave without the child and never return. He gave me three nights to learn it.” Her momentary good humor vanished, replaced by shame and misery. “More than anything, I did not want your father to know of the terrible deal I had made with the mysterious magician. Instead I went to your Uncle. He always seemed so steady, down-to-earth. I told him everything, and he vowed to see to the matter. And he did, though I don’t know how, to this day. He did it, however, and at the end of the third day I was able to tell the magician I knew his name. He was infuriated, but he left. I never saw him again.”

Aurelius was silent as she finished her story, lost in thought. When at last he spoke, his question startled her. “So Uncle put you in here knowing full well that you cannot spin the straw to gold?”

“Yes. It is only just, I suppose. I was never fit to be queen.”

“That’s ludicrous. Father chose you, that makes you fit. So what if you lied?” Aurelius jumped to his feet. “Anyone would have done the same if put in your position. The only reprehensible person here is Uncle, for taking advantage of you like this.” He turned and stalked toward the dungeon door, lifting a hand to knock so that the guards would let him out.

He paused. “What was the magician’s name, Mama?”

The queen fumbled briefly with the name, awkward on her tongue as she had not spoken it for years. “Rumpelstiltskin.”

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