Neryth has a plan.
ZETT HUNCHED HIS shoulders. “Am I not allowed to defend myself?” he asked the princess, wondering why he was the one being blamed when he did nothing to start these fights. Except to live as true to himself as he could.
His head shot up, staring at his princess in astonishment.
“Not when the price is so high.”
He couldn’t restrain a sneer. “I’ll be sure to tell my father how little my life weighs in the balance of your politics, Highness.” Because for all that Zett’s family title might be low on the ranks of Havia’s list of aristocratic bloodlines, being only two generations old, his father wielded political clout that far outweighed their rank.
Neryth shook her head impatiently. “I’m not worried about them, you twit, I’m worried about you and what slaughtering a bunch of your peers – fools or otherwise – would do to you and your father. How would you enjoy standing trial for murder, Zettlen? Because that is how it would be seen by their families. Self-defence or not, their deaths will lie at your hands, and while you might escape a hanging, you won’t escape your conscience. How will it feel when you think back to your childhood and have all your happy memories tainted by the reminder that you killed your former-best friend? What will it do to you to one day sit with your brother in the chamber of lords and feel the hatred of the upper families because you took their sons from them? Would you leave Havia? Would you flee from what you had done, even if they had made you do it?”
“I might not win!” Zett argued, jumping to his feet and wishing he hadn’t. His head reeled with dizziness and his ribs protested from where Edreth had kicked him. He sat back down with a thump. “I might be the one to die.”
“You might,” Neryth agreed, shifting over to crouch beside him. “What do you think that would do to your family? To your father, who is so very proud of the son you have become. To your mother, who loves all of her children so fiercely. What would it do to them to lose you?”
“I won’t change,” Zett whispered, pain welling up inside that had little to do with his fight with Edreth. “I can’t. You can’t ask me that, Highness, please.” He gripped her sword-callused hand and stared into her dark eyes.
“I can’t,” she agreed. “I won’t. How could I” – she waved a hand at herself and her clothes, every bit as controversial as his own – “ask you to hide who you are, while I continue to flout convention? Just because a princess can get away with these things, doesn’t mean I should stop you from doing the same. I won’t ask that of you, Zettlen, but things cannot go on like this.”
“I don’t want to change,” he said again, unable to see how else he could escape the fate she’d laid out for him.
“I don’t want you to change either,” she agreed. “Not because of them and their stupid fears. If you chose to be different that would be up to you, but neither I nor anyone else has the right to force you. What you wear or choose to put on your face, nails and skin is no business of theirs. You aren’t hurting anyone. You aren’t being lewd or crass. You are being yourself, and if they are too scared to act likewise that is their loss. Everyone wants to be special, Zettlen, but not everyone is brave enough to try. I won’t stifle your courage. I would be as stupid as them to even attempt it, but I will not let them ruin you either.”
“Then what am I to do?” he begged, feeling the sting of tears behind his eyes and hating himself for it. He’d promised himself years ago that he wouldn’t let the bigots win, that he wouldn’t let them make him cry, yet here he was on the verge of tears because of what other people’s fear and hatred was driving him to. “If I won’t change and they can’t, what choice do I have?”
Princess Neryth rocked back on her heels, chewed her lip for a moment, then stood. “What are your plans for the future, Zettlen? Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten?”
The change of subject baffled him and Zett felt like he’d tried to stand up too fast again, head spinning as he tried to catch up. “I… don’t know, Highness.” He was a second son, with a brother and two older sisters all far more capable of assuming his father’s title and running their family estates. He was sixteen years old and still nominally in school, although he mostly had tutors these days. When he looked into the future he saw… nothing. He hadn’t really thought about it. All he wanted was to dance with his sword and live life on his terms. “I haven’t made any plans yet.” He was young; he had time.
“Hm.” Neryth tucked her hands behind her back and paced to the window, looking out over the tiny garden behind his family’s townhouse. “Have you ever considered a life away from Havia? Something more than this?” She waved a vague hand, and Zett frowned.
“Are you sending me away?” The thought filled him with equal parts curiosity and panic. He’d never thought about leaving Havia; he’d rarely even considered leaving Misthome.
“No,” the princess answered slowly, thoughtfully. “Although it might do you good. Have you never thought about it? Never considered doing something different with your life? Something more than following in your father’s political footsteps? Assisting in your family’s estates?”
No, he never had. He’d never had to. The Lovoste family looked after its own. If Zett didn’t find a particular calling to take him away, a place would be found for him with his family. He didn’t have to think about more or different or anything else other than what he already was. Wearing dresses and face paint was different enough.
Or so he’d thought.
Princess Neryth eyed him for a long moment, head tilted to one side. She smiled. “Tell me, Zettlen, if there was some place you could go, something you could do, that would ensure you could dress however you liked, dance whenever you liked and be whatever you wanted, able to come home without the slightest worry that your peers and former friends would dare to cross you again, would you do it?”
Zett nodded without a moment’s hesitation. “Of course. But there is nothing I could do, except change.”
“A change, yes,” the princess agreed. “But not the way they might expect. A change not towards normal, but towards more. Would you consider that?”
His nod was slower this time. “Yes, I would. At least, I hope I would.”
Princess Neryth smiled again, slow and satisfied. “I hope so too. In fact, I hope I have found the perfect solution for you.”
When Zett stared at her, utterly uncomprehending, Princess Neryth rubbed her hands together with excitement. “I sense a quick trip coming on. Best get on and pack, Zettlen, Etheria’s a moon’s flight away, and you’ll be away far longer than that.”
“Etheria!” He gaped as she strode across the room, all brisk business once more. “I can’t go to Etheria!”
Opening the door, she paused to look at him. “How else are you to join the Riders?” she asked. “I might have friends in convenient places, my lad, but even I might struggle to get you in if we waste time travelling to Nimbys first. We’ll be pushing the bounds of enrolment as it is.” Winking, she swept out of the door, leaving him bloodied, bruised and stunned.
“Etheria,” he whispered, staring at the bowl on the table, where his reflection wavered in the red water. “The Rift Riders.” He’d never imagined such a future, never dreamed of such a thing.
He imagined it now and saw the bitter envy on Edreth’s face, a boy who had dreamed of such a thing and been denied by the king’s ban on Havians joining up.
But the king could hardly protest when his own daughter was the one to put Zett there.
His reflection smiled, opening up the split in his lip once more. Relishing the sting, Zett dabbed at the blood and laughed. Then he finished applying his salves and got up to pack.
~ Next Chapter ~
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