In the palace of the emperor lives an honored group of maidens, known for their beauty and prodigious skill. Families of every background can send their daughters to court in hopes of joining them and eventually finding a husband. Men of the court took pride in affording the many services these women offer, among them singing, dancing, and magic, but their true worth was in their knowledge. Called the Dala, their most important skill is the trading of secrets and advising those wise enough to ask. It is for this reason that Prince Nerin sought to choose his bride form among their ranks.
Prince Nerin knew his duties well, and sought to use his rule to bring about an age of great prosperity for his father’s empire. He was well studied, and believed it more important to stabilize his territory rather than expand it, as his predecessors had chosen. In this vein, he had announced that he would not choose a foreign queen, and instead wed one of the Dala.
Many of the Dala threw themselves into their craft and wardrobes in their effort to catch the Prince’s attention. The least subtle among them would find themselves taking strolls along a path that would lead them past his highness. From the time of the announcement, the dining hall of the Dala buzzed with excitement as they shared their strategies for catching the eye of the prince.
Dala Mavka, however, made only a passive effort. She had heard firsthand the stories surrounding the previous consorts, and had decided that no amount of power or wealth could convince her to live under such scrutiny. She did not confide this opinion to the other Dala, or in fact any other living soul, and merely tried to pass her lack of effort as humility or shyness. When her friend Sema, a guard assigned to the Dala quarters, asked why she wasn’t trying as much as the others, she merely told him, “There are far more worthy women to receive the title of consort than I. Why waste my effort?”
Prince Nerin met with each of the Dala in turn, and when Mavka’s turn came, she resolved to be as plainly polite as she could. Surely the other Dala had already told him all the information he could want, and she was not so proud as to think that her talents were outstanding enough to need to downplay them. She entered his chamber carrying a hand woven robe she had beaded with hundreds of tiny gray pearls. Keeping her head down, she presented the garment to the prince, who politely complimented her workmanship.
“If it pleases your highness,” she said, “I have been asked to perform for you.”
He motioned for her to begin with disinterest, but she was pleased to note that by the end of the dance the prince was enraptured. She kept her motions light and elegant as she served their meal and waited for him to speak.
“You are a gifted dancer.” he admitted as she sat. “But what can you tell me of the empire?”
“Many things, your highness, though perhaps few of them of use to you.” she replied simply. “I could recite many moments in history that your highness has certainly heard before. I could sing the poems written of your father’s bravery in battle. And I could inform you of every scrap of gossip that is whispered throughout this palace. But none of these things would make you a better ruler.”
She felt his gaze on her as he studied her and asked, “Then what could you tell me that would make me a better ruler?”
“Nothing, your highness.” she said.
“Nothing?” he repeated. “Are you so quick to admit your own uselessness?”
“Yes, your highness.” she stated, wondering if this was some sort of test she was failing. She pressed on. “There is nothing I could possibly say that would change the type of ruler you will become. I can only give you my own knowledge and opinion. What you do with such knowledge is entirely your own choice.” she waited to see his reaction, wondering if she had offended him.
His posture seemed thoughtful, though, and when she lifted her gaze to his face, she found her vision clouded. She could not even determine what he looked like, much less gauge his expression. She wondered why he had chosen to put on such a spell.
Finally he spoke. “You are wise, Dala Mavka, and honest. I thank you for your insight.” There was a hint of amusement in his voice.
Hesitantly she asked, “Are you mocking me, your highness?”
“Not at all. Merely reflecting on your efforts to disinterest me.” he said.
A hint of panic lodged in her throat. “I am doing no such thing!” she insisted. “Every Dala has put in much effort to impress your highness. It would be arrogant and ungrateful of me to hide my talents.”
He seemed to be smiling. “I do not mean to insult your abilities, Dala. Your craftmanship is exquisite. But I refer to your conversation, and lack of flattery. You wish to disinterest me and offend me just enough that I will look elsewhere for my consort. Why?”
She stumbled for words, trying to understand how he had seen through her so clearly. “The others are far more deserving of your attention, your highness.” she stuttered. “Your consort must be one who will support you in all things-“
He raised a hand to stop her rambling. “Do you think so? Should I not have a wife who is willing to challenge me in the event that I might make a mistake? Should I surround myself with those who merely echo my own thoughts back at me?” he pressed.
“I meant no offense, your highness.” she blurted.
“Of course not.” he said. “And I am not offended. I merely wish for you to understand. May I be frank with you?”
She felt like she was floundering, stumbling through the conversation with the grace of a newborn pup. “Of course, your highness.”
“The Dala that I have met previously have done nothing but flatter and preen. Even the most intelligent and impressive among them fell over themselves in their attempts to impress me. I desire a bride who can be honest without being rude, wise without being proud. You are the only one thus far to meet these expectations.” he explained.
She stared at him outright now. “Surely my lord does not think so highly of me after a single meeting?”
He laughed, and the sound was one that was inexplicably familiar. “Do you not recognize me, Mavka? Perhaps I should remove the spell.”
At his words he passed his hand over his face, and his features came into clear relief. She looked at his crooked nose and solid chin, the glint of glee in his bright green eyes. As if to confirm what she was seeing, he removed his elegant outer robe to reveal a guard’s uniform. She had never before met the prince, but this man was familiar.
“Sema?” she asked, bewildered. “Is this a trick?”
“Of a sort.” he said, his voice changed to the one she recognized. “More like the reveal of one. I do apologize for lying to you, all this time.”
She leaned back, unable to comprehend what this meant. She had spoken to Sema that morning. He had helped to calm her nerves about this meeting. He had been her first friend to make upon her arrival at the palace mere months ago. The guard whom she had confided in the most was the heir to the throne and future ruler of the empire. Her first instinct was to shove him, as she had so often done when Sema had played a trick on her. Her second was to kneel down and beg forgiveness for all the times she’d shoved the prince.
“You… Pretended to be a guard in your own court.” she said numbly.
“I did.” he admitted. “It was the best way to stop all the preening.”
“You told me the prince was an arrogant prick.” she added.
“Something I have been told on many occasions.” he agreed.
“You told me this morning that I had nothing to worry about!” she accused.
He stifled a laugh as she glared at him. “You didn’t though, did you? You were afraid of meeting a stuffy, vain stranger.”
“And instead I have the privilege of meeting a stuffy, vain acquaintance.” she said before she had the chance to regret it. She clapped her hands over her mouth in horror, but the prince was laughing again. “This isn’t funny!” she said. “Do you know what people would say if they heard me speak to you like that?”
“They already have.” he noted. “There were many times you did so quite loudly.”
She thought back to all the times she had scolded him in front of the other Dala and their guards. “Those soldiers…?” she asked.
“Knew my true identity and were tasked with protecting me. My father’s idea, really. It would have been better if they hadn’t known, either.”
Mavka was mortified. That meant that half the palace guards knew how she had spoken to the prince. “And the others?” she asked. “Have you revealed your trickery to them?”
“The others took no notice of Sema.” he replied. “I didn’t even have to enchant my features for them.”
She sighed. “So I was the only fool among them.”
The prince’s manner softened. “No, Mavka. You were the only one to take notice of the people around you. None of the others could call a single guard by name. They are too busy gossiping about the noblemen. You’re not a fool.” he assured her.
“And how shall I address you now? Sema? My lord?” she asked.
“Nerin, if you don’t mind.” he said.
“I couldn’t possibly!” she argued. “You are far too highly ranked above me.”
“It is no more ridiculous a request as when you called me Sema. That was, after all, my childhood nickname.”
Mavka left the meal furious at her friend, but comforted by the thought that with all she had said and done with Sema, there was no chance of Prince Nerin choosing her as his bride. He had simply been teasing her when he had called her wise. The other Dala were not so vain as all that, after all.
Unfortunately, this train of thinking was interrupted as she entered the Dala’s quarters to find them all sitting before their mirrors, discussing how best to attract his highness’ attention.