“I always feel sorry for the horses.” Rosalind of Lovana leaned upon the warm stone balustrade that marked the boundary of her father’s upper gardens. Below, bodies both human and equine crowded the grand duke’s extensive stable yards. Nobles in their finery circled the animals, while their masters-of-horses checked teeth and hooves. Liveried servants darted from station to station, so many variations of color in their uniforms that the yard seemed full of jumbled rainbows.
“Any horse purchased here is about to enter its finest stage of life,” said the woman beside her. “No one spends a fortune only to treat their prize poorly.”
A grunted laugh escaped Rosalind. She angled her head to observe her companion, her stepmother, Cassandra. “You don’t truly believe that, do you? The auction is a show of power and wealth. What these men do when they return home where none of their peers can see them is anyone’s guess.”
The annual event brought people from all over Lycadia and many countries beyond. As the largest horse show and auction on the continent, it boasted the finest breeders and the most demanding clientele.
“Tosh,” said Cassandra. “These men love horses. Only look how they fawn.” She gestured to the nearest enclosure, where no fewer than five titled gentlemen surveyed a dark bay stallion. True, the nobles in question appeared besotted, but the horse swished its tail and tossed its head beyond reach of servants’ grasping hands.
“Are they besotted with the horse or with outbidding each other for it?” Rosalind asked. “Perhaps it’s the prestige of owning such a creature rather than love for the creature itself. And that particular horse obviously has no interest in them.”
“You’re overthinking again,” said Cassandra, and she turned her back upon the crowd below.
A short sigh escaped her stepdaughter. She pushed from the balustrade, reorienting toward the manor house. “Maybe I am. I often do.”
Cassandra laughed, a tinkling sound. “I’ve told you thinking’s not necessary with a face as pretty as yours. You’ll understand soon enough.”
The remark, said in lightheartedness, chafed nonetheless. Rosalind tucked a lock of black hair behind her ear, training her gaze upon the gravel pathway so that perhaps her stepmother might not notice the instinctive flattening of her mouth. The blonde, only seven years older than her, always donned frivolity as she would a fine silk mantua. She loved anything that entertained, and avoided everything else.
Luckily, Rosalind, despite the chronic overthinking, amused her.
“Did you decide what you’re wearing to my party tonight?”
“Oh, was I invited?” Cassandra archly asked, but she followed this with another giggle and a swat to her stepdaughter’s arm. “It doesn’t matter what anyone wears tonight. We’ll all fade in comparison to you. Your father spent a small fortune on your gown. You’re lucky your birthday falls on the same week as the auction: so many people from all over the country can witness how beautiful you are.”
Behind them, the dull roar in the stable yards diminished against their crunching footsteps. Rosalind allowed a wry smile at the imagery her stepmother’s words conjured. “Ah, yes. Truly I’m blessed to share my special day with the horses.”
Her father had been less than enthused, so the house staff always whispered, when his first wife went into early labor eighteen years ago. That Rosalind had been a girl only added insult to injury. To be dragged away from his beloved ancestral event and not even receive a proper heir? The grand duke had considered it the worst luck on earth.
Thankfully, her mother provided the desired son before two years had passed, with a delivery that fell nowhere near the auction. Cassandra, too, had produced boys and avoided any inconvenient timing in the service. Thus, the intervening years and three accommodating sons had mollified the grand duke to his first child’s ill-timed entrance into the world.
Even so, Rosalind had nearly fallen off her chair the night he announced she would have a birthday celebration this year. Usually he acknowledged her birthday with some impersonal, exquisite gift and a note written in his steward’s hand, and she never more than glimpsed him in the days before or after, until the last auction guest had departed.
Not that she saw much of him anyway. Whether it was auction week or not, he still preferred his horses and his lands to the company of his children.
“You should head up to your room soon,” Cassandra said. “Tonight’s a special night, and you want to look perfect.”
Rosalind fought a rising blush. She’d spent weeks in dancing instruction and etiquette lessons. With so many visitors in this part of Lycadia, there might be hundreds of guests in attendance, and she was determined to make the House of Lovana proud.
Even as she turned toward the staircase that led inside, though, a voice called across the garden. “Roro!” Her head snapped that direction, and a smile broke upon her face.
From the direction of their father’s private stables, her brother bounded toward her, leaping over low-cut hedges and shrubs as he waved to catch her attention. Rosalind glanced toward Cassandra, barely registering the woman’s faint, confused frown before she picked up her skirts and ran. She could not cut a path straight through the flowerbeds like Martin could. They met on a stretch of gravel near the central fountain, the older sister pausing to take stock of her long-legged brother.
“You came,” she breathlessly said.
He puffed his chest, grinning. “Of course. I always come for your birthday.”
“But—” She caught the protest on the tip of her tongue and dismissed it. Her father had said that Martin, living away at Lycadia’s premier college since he was twelve, had written that he was too busy at school this year. So, he’d either completed his extra schoolwork or else abandoned it, and either way it would do her no good to fuss. Instead, she threw her arms around him in a joyous hug.
Footsteps crunched on the gravel toward them, from both directions.
“We weren’t expecting you,” Cassandra said as she joined the siblings. “Do your professors know you’re here?”
Martin released Rosalind but looped his arm around her shoulder. “Of course. They never let us off-campus without permission. How are the little boys?”
His stepmother raised her palms. “Psh, I don’t know. You’ll have to ask their nursemaids. Oh, but they’ll be excited to see you.”
He fought a trembling laugh, inured to her indifference toward her own children, and shifted his attention back to his sister. “Did Cook make your favorite orange cake for tonight, like always? I promised Phil a piece to bribe him here.”
“No, she…” Distractedly, Rosalind registered the second set of approaching footsteps, coupled with Martin’s casual name-drop. She glanced over her shoulder as a friendly young man joined their small group. Her gaze connected with his and her heart slammed an odd thud against her ribcage. Wide-eyed, she looked to her brother.
Martin was grinning from ear to ear. “You remember Phil, don’t you?”
Rosalind thrust her elbow into his ribcage and ducked from beneath his arm, twisting to greet the newcomer. “Your Highness—your Majesty, I mean—welcome back to Lovana.”
Laughter twinkled in his eyes. “Oh, don’t use titles, Roro. We’ve known each other long enough.”
Her brother’s childish nickname for her left the newcomer’s tongue with such ease. She fought a rising flood of flustered nerves to say, “I can’t very well call the King of Mallinae ‘Phil.’” Quietly, she added, “I was so sorry to hear of your father’s passing.”
His good humor tempered into gravity. “Thank you. He left us far too soon.” In the solemnity that followed this remark, he rocked back on his heels and kicked up his smile again. “If ‘Phil’ won’t do, we’ll have to settle for ‘Philip,’ like old times.”
As Rosalind floundered over an appropriate response, Martin draped his arm around her shoulder again. “Yeah, Phil’s had enough of titles this year. All the boys at school have been calling him ‘King Thrushbeard’ for the past semester.”
A scowl flashed across Philip’s face. Rosalind’s gaze lingered on his clean-shaven jaw, and on a faint, thin scar that marked its center. “That makes no sense,” she said.
Martin harrumphed. “School taunts don’t have to make sense.”
“It’s because of how pointed my chin is.” Philip pinched that spot. “I made the mistake of growing a beard, and they said it looked like a throstle’s beak.”
“I think you’d look nice with a beard,” said Cassandra, joining the conversation.
The young king tipped her a wry glance. “I’m afraid it’ll be some few years before I attempt that again. How lovely to see you again, Your Grace.”
“Oh, are titles back in play, Your Majesty?” A charming smile curved along her lips as she dropped a teasing curtsey. “I’m terribly sorry to have to break up this reunion, but our lovely birthday girl has a party to prepare for.”
“Party?” said Martin with a sharp look to his sister.
Confusion tumbled over Rosalind. “Y-yes. Isn’t that why you’ve come?”
“You never prepare for our little parties. Are we doing something special this year? Surely we’re still having the cake!”
“Rosalind’s having a proper celebration this year,” said Cassandra. “Your father promised he would spare no expense. Didn’t he write you?”
Martin backed away a step, the better to survey both women. “He didn’t say a word. Roro, why didn’t you write to tell me yourself?”
Her confusion magnified. “But I… did…?”
“Oh dear.” Their stepmother wrung her hands. “You weren’t too busy with school, were you. Your father probably thought you were too young. It’s on account of Rosalind turning eighteen. I didn’t think the age of the guests mattered, but I haven’t seen the guest list, either.”
Betrayal flashed across his face. “So because I’m underaged, I can’t come to my own sister’s birthday party?”
Philip clapped him on the shoulder. “I’m sure your father won’t mind us inviting ourselves. And even if you can’t go, I’m of age and can keep an eye on her for you.” He favored Rosalind with a wink.
“We can have our usual party afterwards,” Rosalind said before the scowl descending on her brother’s face could manifest into choice words.
“When, at dawn tomorrow when your exclusive festivities break up?”
“Martin, be a good sport,” said Philip. “We traveled all this way to honor your sister, not to burden her. Ladies, we’ll leave you to your party preparation while we go beg an invitation from its host.” He started to lead Martin away but paused. “By the way, I have a surprise for you later, Roro.”
Before she could cobble together a response, he pushed her brother onward, toward the manor house.
“It seems you have King Philip of Mallinae as snug in your pocket as ever,” said Cassandra once the pair was beyond earshot.
Rosalind’s blush flared anew. “It’s no such thing. We’ve known each other for years now, that’s all.”
Her stepmother hummed, as though considering. “Didn’t Martin lure him to visit that first summer by claiming his sister was the most beautiful girl in all of Greater Lycadia?”
“That was a joke. Philip came because of the horses, just like everyone else. He’s probably here now for the auction, at least in part.”
“It certainly would be wise of him to take advantage, but even if he’s a king, I’d be surprised if he kept that much money on him at school. You can’t get even a long-toothed nag for under a thousand gold here.”
Rosalind said nothing to this, half-hope that the auction played no part in Philip’s advent, and half-dread that it was his true aim. His father’s death the previous school year had delayed his graduation from Lycadia’s college, but no one had expected him to return when he could finish his education in his own country with an army of private tutors. When Martin had mentioned the young king’s arrival, Rosalind had secretly wished she might see him at least once more.
She’d never presumed it would happen, though. Mallinae had treaties with Lycadia, but not with its allied duchies. Lovana, the smallest of these, had only horses to offer, and though famed for their yearly auction, they were hardly the only vendor in the world.
This novella is based on “King Thrushbeard,” a lesser-known fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm. If you’ve read the original, you can probably guess where this chapter is pointing. If not, hopefully you’re interested anyway.
As always, this excerpt is a draft, subject to change between now and publication.