Chapter 23

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Once, during a local tournament, Maelyn watched as a galloping knight struck his opponent with a blunt lance, catching him squarely in the chest. The opponent was punched straight off his horse and landed solidly on his back, legs in the air.

She now understood what he felt.

“It’s where you belong,” said Uncle Jarrod. “You are not a real princess.”

Maelyn gazed at him, too numb for tears.

Uncle Jarrod grimaced and dabbed his temples with a handkerchief. “When my brother revealed that he intended to raise nine orphans as his ‘daughters’, I was outraged. This meant any ragamuffin could walk into a castle and think himself royalty. It weakens the class structure our world stands upon. I ordered my brother to return the runts to their respective kingdoms. He refused.”

Uncle Jarrod paused to rub his eyes irritably. “I could have forced him. Or sent my assassins to take care of the little imposters. I considered it.” He chuckled at Maelyn’s horrified expression. “But I possessed a weakness in those days. Runa.”

Maelyn flinched. “Mother?”

“When I met Runa she was already promised to my brother. And I had a wife of my own. There was nothing I could do. But she became the only person in the world whose happiness mattered more than my own. And she, regretfully, was happy to raise nine foundlings as her own children.”

Maelyn folded her arms. “But she’s gone now. And Father too. So you plan to reverse the… mistake… they made.”

“At first you may find it difficult,” said Uncle Jarrod. “Perhaps it was good practice, these months you’ve lived without servants. It prepared you for the… humbler life you’ll live in the village. But don’t worry. I’ll see that you have a comfortable cottage. And decent employment.”

“Will I still be a princess?” Maelyn asked.

Uncle Jarrod closed his eyes as though praying for patience. “You never were a princess, my dear.” His eyes remained shut and he rubbed them with his fingers.

Maelyn’s numbness was slowly hardening into rage, cold as steel. “What about my sisters? Will they be returned to their birth kingdoms as well?”

Uncle Jarrod merely smiled and sipped his wine.

“We’ll come back.” Maelyn raised her brow rebelliously. “All it takes is a carriage ride.”

“No, I wouldn’t recommend that,” said Uncle Jarrod. “I highly suspect that the practice of fraudulent royalty will be outlawed by the new king.”

“The new king!” Maelyn gasped. “Who?”

“Gah, what’s wrong with my eyes!” Uncle Jarrod clenched his teeth and rubbed furiously. His forehead shimmered with sweat.

Maelyn’s eyes widened. “Uncle Jarrod… your face is turning red. Very red.”

“Tell that wastrel to stop the carriage!” Uncle Jarrod roared. “I can’t breathe in this heat!”

Maelyn yelled out the window and the carriage halted on the open meadow. Uncle Jarrod staggered out and collapsed on the grass, leaning against the carriage wheel. He panted hard and his eyes had swollen into slits.

The servant jumped down from the driver’s seat and gaped at Uncle Jarrod’s russet complexion. “Holy Ankles!” the servant shrieked. “It’s – it’s Red Fever!”

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