Thief Liar Lady
I never thought the tale of my daring escape from servitude into the glittering world of the royal palace could be boring, but after the hundredth telling it had begun to lose its shine. I was seriously considering stabbing myself in the leg with a fork as an excuse to leave the dinner party early. The only problem was that I really liked the gown I was wearing, and I knew from experience that removing bloodstains from silk was a pain in the ass.
Instead I had to school my expression while Lord Hollish to my left expounded on the story that the poets were already calling the Romance of the Century. The embellishments being woven into my adventure with every new iteration were reaching the realm of the ludicrous. I couldn’t think of a bigger waste of magic than turning a pumpkin into a carriage, although mice into horses was a close second. And apparently my shoes had been made of glass. How impractical.
I curved my lips with a fetchingly sweet smile and cast a glance toward the star-crossed lover of my magical tale, Prince Everett of Solis. He was grinning broadly when he met my eyes, somehow not yet bored by our epic love story. With his charming dimples and warm, open countenance, he was much more dashing than his elder brother, and kinder too, which I’d never stopped being grateful for. As for me, I’d been told by my stepmother on numerous occasions that my genuine smile made me appear less genuine than my fake one did. “Devious” was the exact term that Seraphina had used. Ah well. I was practiced enough at my fake smile that it didn’t matter much.
The noblewoman across the table from Lord Hollish clapped her hands together in glee.
“How magical,” she said, with too much vim to be entirely sober. She was a regular in the queen’s sewing circle, but her name escaped me. Tasia or Tansy or something. “Lady Aislinn, you must tell us how your shoes did not break.”
“I’m very light on my feet,” I said, my eyes demurely downcast.
“I can attest to that,” said Everett, jumping to my rescue. He knew how much I disliked the attention, though the reason was much different than he imagined. “She is grace itself when she dances, like the fey of old.”
I didn’t have to fake modest embarrassment at his praise; a flush rose in my cheeks. Everett certainly had a way with words. He was thirty-three and a fine statesman. His brother the king was already making good use of him as an ambassador. All the more reason for me to embed myself in these people’s hearts as a symbol of everything bright and beautiful, which meant letting the ridiculous tale of my and Everett’s whirlwind courtship continue to grow from a starry-eyed story into a legendary romance.
Maybe that’s wishful thinking. It’s equally possible that I was merely a novelty. A fine topic of gossip until Everett came to his senses and realized that—second-born or not—the royal prince of Solis marrying a nobody was simply untenable. Even if I was technically a blueblood on my father’s side.
A burst of laughter at the end of the table caught my attention. Queen Mariana was radiant with a smile as everyone around her laughed uproariously. Her wheat-brown hair was woven with strands of tiny pearls tonight, and her forest-green dress, trimmed with creamy lace appliqué, draped elegantly off her lily-white shoulders. She lifted her wineglass for a sip, and I saw that she’d laid her right hand, gently and unobtrusively, onto her husband’s. Whatever the joke had been, King Ryland didn’t seem amused, but that was to be expected. The king wasn’t known for his levity.
I stared for a moment too long. Ryland’s glare locked onto me, and his frown deepened. I dropped my gaze quickly. Out of everyone of consequence in the palace, the king was the only one who had yet to warm to me. I poked at my vegetables with my fork, calculating how much lustre I had left. Only three vials. Possibly enough to soothe Ryland’s suspicions of me for a few days, but that was hardly worth it. I would have to meet with Seraphina soon and see about replenishing my stock. My stepmother wouldn’t be happy about it, but at this point losing control of the delicate balance I’d created would prove fatal.
“Lady Aislinn, what do you think?” asked Lord Hollish.
I set down my fork and looked up. Everyone at our end of the table was watching me expectantly. Damn it. I needed to get better at scheming and conversing at the same time.
“I beg your pardon.” I dabbed my napkin at the corner of my mouth. “I’m afraid I wasn’t paying attention.”
“That’s all right,” said Lady Ta-something (what was her name?). “It wasn’t terribly interesting.”
A good-natured laugh rippled through the guests, but I just took a sip of wine. Hollish owned one of the largest lustre factories in the city, and it was safer not to risk antagonizing him if I could help it. Wealth and power were two things I always tried to keep on my side.
Judging from the venom-laced smile that Lord Hollish was currently leveling at the drunk Lady . . . Tallia, he was the sort of man who kept a precise tally of enemies and allies. Not that she noticed. She had already launched into some rambling anecdote about her own experience at the ball. Seeing as it didn’t involve any magic pumpkins or royal proposals, no one else was terribly interested.
“I must say, Aislinn.” Lord Hollish turned to me with a tone that was much too familiar. “It’s refreshing to have new blood around here, and you’re such a lovely girl, I’m sure you’ll do quite well in the palace.”
A tad condescending, especially considering who I was about to marry. Hollish reached over and patted my thigh in an intimate gesture he could claim was fatherly if I were to raise a fuss. I’m sure it was only coincidence that he’d timed it while Everett was distracted by conversation with someone else. I didn’t raise a fuss. Lady Aislinn never did.
“That’s so kind of you, my lord,” I said, clasping his hand between both of mine in gratitude—and so that I could move it discreetly but firmly away from my lap. Before I released him, I flicked open his diamond cuff link and palmed it. “I’m lucky to have made so many wonderful friends here.”
Lord Hollish beamed at me. I smiled prettily back and thought about how satisfying it would be to plunge my fork into his beady eye. An even more effective way to end the dinner party. I rolled his cuff link between my fingers. I didn’t have a way to pawn it right now, but it never hurt to stay sharp. I waited until Hollish’s attention was claimed by the lady on his other side, then surreptitiously flicked the cuff link into his gravy. Maybe he would choke on it.
Lady Tallia was still meandering through her story, which I was beginning to fear didn’t have a point. Even so, it was vastly preferable to Lord Hollish’s conversation. I nodded and made affirming noises in all the right places, and even managed to get a word in edgewise to compliment the gown she’d worn on the third night of the ball. I didn’t have any idea what she’d worn, but she was too drunk to consider that and only launched into a new story about her seamstress.
To call those royal dinner parties exhausting would be a comical understatement, but I had no choice but to partake. I had to give everyone the dazzling, perfect Lady Aislinn that they had created with their stories of magic and romance. I took another sip of my wine—I never let myself have more than a single glass during a meal—and noticed that Everett was watching me from across the table. He mouthed something when he caught my eye. I love you.
Despite myself, I blushed again. He was too charming for his own good. The sort of charisma that was bred from a lifetime free of uncertainty and self-doubt, from the unwavering assurance given to him ever since he was in his cradle that he was inestimably precious. But it was more than that. He was generous with his confidence, gifting it to others as easily as a handshake. If I wasn’t careful, I sometimes caught myself falling prey to his benevolent trap.
You’re nobody. Seraphina’s words were a refrain in my head, drowning out the blissful promises that Everett gave with every gentle smile, every enamored glance. Only a nobody can be anything they want.
And everything depended on me being a princess.